It was incredible to me, the way that being responsible for another human being before I was even an adult myself gave me such instant, pin-sharp focus. I had been drifting in a lazy way about the task of learning to drive; no longer. Within 3 months of my pregnancy being confirmed I had booked and passed my test.
I did crafts. Through the World Cup matches of 1998 I sweated on sofas next to my boyfriend and ignored the TV screen, painstakingly knitting misshappen squares for a tiny blue and yellow blanket I made to fit the fifth-hand Moses basket I was given. I went back to school in September and I moved out of the room I’d had since I was eleven and into a house with my boyfriend.
I nested. I hung curtains. I painted walls and read Thomas Hardy and ate countless Penguin biscuits. I ambled, cow-like and serene, between the various buildings of my school and I studied, studied, studied. My grades did not suffer. My A-level results, when I opened the envelope the next summer, were excellent.
My baby was born in the winter – my only winter baby – through the squalling miasma of medically induced pain, pink and enormous and feisty and loud. I learned painfully and slowly to breastfeed, because I believed its suffering and sacrifice proved my worth as a mother. No formula milk for my precious girl – and that mattered so much. It mattered so much to me. Why did it matter so much?
I sat a French oral exam and watched curiously as the front of my T-shirt become dark with the breastmilk of the feed I had delayed to be there. I collected my A-level grades, but I couldn’t go for a celebratory drink with my classmates, because the pubs were smoky and babies can’t sit in smoke. My school friends peeled away one by one, fascination and pity in their eyes. It did not matter. I was in a bubble.
I did not leave my baby, ever, with even her father – she was by my side, constantly, until she was 9 months old and I started to attend university an hour’s drive away. At university, too, my grades soared. I was so busy and I looked so happy.
I worked like a demon on that degree, transcribing each day’s notes in the evenings while the baby snuffled and snored. Life happened around us. She turned one year old, and then two, and it was round about her second birthday that her father stopped just shouting at me and began to hit me, and then to hit me ever more frequently.
I knew what to do, though. I’d read the articles, I’d listened to Radio 4 and I knew I was a victim of domestic violence. I knew I had to not think, but to be noble and brave. I made plans. I got a summer job, let the months roll by, saved some money, secretly, squirrelling it away. I called a women’s refuge and took their advice. I got a bank loan.
I gathered up my toddler and all of my books and found a dangerously unsuitable flat on the third floor of a Victorian mansion block, close to the offices where I worked and close to a new nursery for my little girl.
I was on fire. There was certainly no need to think. No time to think, for a start, and honestly, what did I need to think about? I was all right. I was sorted. My baby turned three and it was just the two of us against the world. I was twenty-one years old.