On Location: The Secret Mother (in the City)

The Move to Manchester

I came to the city as an undergraduate in 1997, relocating from a small village on the edge of the North York Moors. I had always lived there, my family were all within a five-mile radius. Beyond my bedroom window were sheep, a muddy lane, miles of fields and the occasional passing tractor. The norm was to be alone, small inside a landscape. Imagination was my source of entertainment – unless, of course, you count the village pub!

To a country lass, Manchester felt overwhelming and scary. The week before I arrived a young man was stabbed to death in the park near my halls of residence. My parents’ blood ran cold. In town, I clutched my rucksack tightly to my side rather than wear it on my back. I would be mugged in broad daylight if I didn’t. Now I was small inside a cityscape, alone amidst a hundred thousand students and the roaring swell of blue ‘Magic’ buses down the Oxford Road. That first winter was tough. After lectures finished at six, I raced home in the dark to my halls and switched on my TV to stop myself shaking. Sometimes my future husband, then just a friend, would walk me home.

Some of this I have built into Mai Ling’s story. We are both outsiders to Manchester. She ponders the Mancunian accent, strangers on buses, the A-Z of unknown streets.

May’s Part of Town

I don’t name May’s part of town, but there is an ASDA nearby, an Asian grocery store on the corner. In my head it’s the place my husband rented in his second year at uni. The terrace row I visited most weekends while we dated.

Love in the City

The twins’ Manchester is mine too. St Ann’s Square is where Jen and Stuart meet, it’s also where my husband and I chose my engagement ring. The Royal Exchange Theatre is a favourite place for nights out – Little VoiceGreat ExpectationsKes, A Street Car Named Desire… each production marking a birthday, an anniversary, even the celebration of my first publishing contract! 

The Taste of Something New

Ricki’s spiritual home is Affleck’s Palace. This is where my older brother Mike and I hung out and drank coffee whenever he visited me in Manchester. He was in a rock band at the time and lived in York. We felt cool together, amidst the grunge at Afflecks. There, we re-adjusted to the idea of me growing up and ate carrot cake. Carrot cake!

A few years later it was ostrich. I tried the 7-course taster menu with my brother-in-law, Steve. He had spent the weekend decorating our first house and we took him into China Town as a thank you. Real Chinese food was a revelation! Until then, I’d only ever tried sweet and sour chicken! This is the restaurant where Jen works on a weekend.

A Walk Through Town

Cities change fast. Memories are slippery. A lot of what I believed to be fact – street names and layouts, buildings, landmarks – I had to physically re-visit in order to write the novel. Only now, do I see that the Manchester of the novel is my Manchester, filtered through the lens of personal memory.