It’s 6pm on a freezing December evening, just before Christmas, and I’m standing outside in the rain. It trickles down my glasses, mocking the tears I’ve been trying to hold back for half an hour. My body is shaking, from the effort and the cold, a smile plastered across my face. My mind is racing, desperately trying to work out how it has come to this.
I did everything they told me to, I tell myself. Studied hard and got all As for my GCSEs and A levels, and a degree from one of the best universities in the world. I married an ambitious, intelligent man, waited until my 30s to have kids. And yet, here I am: everything I was warned I would become if I was reckless and did not follow the rules: a single mum, reliant on benefits, working 3 jobs and standing outside in the freezing rain to keep a roof over my head. How did I get here?
‘Here’ is the RHS Wisley garden, where I am employed to steward the annual Glow event. The gardens are lit with a kaleidoscope of uplighters and flower shaped lanterns, transforming the skeletal trees and bare borders into a gleaming wonderland. It is undeniably stunning – there are far worse places to work, so my indignation is tinged with guilt. At the start of my shift I am given a torch, glow stick, high vis jacket, radio and a rota – each steward mans an area for half an hour before moving round to the next position. It helps keep it interesting and means we get to go inside and warm up every now and then.
To rub salt into my wounded pride, I am directing scores of happy, wealthy families round the garden, who have everything I wanted. Handsome dads and their beautiful wives stroll past in his ‘n’ hers Canada Goose jackets, mulled wine in hand, their little darlings splashing through puddles in Joules wellies. I see their hands entwined and ache to feel that squeeze in mine. I play a recurring movie in my head in which Omid and I are here with Ava – I can see the beautiful pictures he would have taken of her, the light dancing in her eyes.
I am signed up for 9, 4-hour shifts over Christmas – equivalent to a full-time working week. And as I stand here on the second night, I wonder if I’ll be able to make it through them all. 6:30 roles around – I check my rota and head to my next posting, relieved to be moving on from this stationary position to one where I can roam up and down the path to keep warm.
My whole body feels tense. I am recovering from my office Christmas party the night before, and I have already spent an entire day teaching. As if this wasn’t enough, I have for some unfathomable reason decided to begin a home aromatherapy candle-making business in an effort to save up a few more pennies for my upcoming campervan trip, so every spare evening until this point has been spent melting and pouring wax, mixing essential oils and designing labels. Add to this the never-ending housework, relatives visiting every weekend, a trip to Holland, the financial and logistical pressure of Christmas and single-handedly raising a child, and I am close to breaking point. I am grabbing 5 or 6 hours sleep a night to enable all this – much more than I had as a new mum, but not enough to sustain this current level of stress. At home, Ava and I are short tempered with one another – she is also tired, routine all over the place, and furious I do not have more time to devote to her, and I am upset that the precious little time I do have is spent containing one meltdown after another. Reasons for recent meltdowns include me breathing (“STOP BREATHING MUMMY!!”), putting her clothes on, and putting my own jumper on – what a beast of a Mummy I am.
Still, this is the last day I will have to work another job before coming to steward as the school term comes to an end and my office has closed for Christmas. And, as the shifts tick by, they become easier. I perfect my Steward Uniform to (mostly) stave off the cold, the weather clears and I start to notice the subtle changes to the display that each night brings. Some cold and bright, with a full moon rivalling the trees for splendour, the lanterns pressing their colours onto the lake in mirror-perfect reflections. Some nights are misty and wild, the rain rippling the lake, blurring the colours to an iridescent shimmer. As the days become longer they hold back the night’s descent, and I enjoy my first sunset in the garden (previously my shifts have begun in darkness). The sky is ablaze: a flaming cyclorama, silhouetting the trees as if they are being engulfed by wildfire. One evening two ducks take up residence in the rock garden pond, photobombing the photographers’ attempts at capturing the perfect reflection.
I’ve heard rumours of a robin in the glasshouse. Each shift I search for a model robin hidden in the display, but I can never locate it. Then one night, as I am leaving the comfort and warmth of the glasshouse en route to my next position, I spot him. Not a model, but a living, chirping robin, fat from feasting on insects in his own private restaurant, and so tame that he perches proudly upon the antlers of a wicker reindeer, just a foot away from the camera-wielding punters. He is so perfectly round, and so beautifully lyrical, that the adults tell their children he is an animatronic. He is truly magical.
There is not a huge amount to do on these shifts, other than to ponder. I begin to treat each evening as a counselling session with myself. Unwinding problems, making plans for the future, reflecting on the past. I consider my position and begin to feel proud that I am here. That I am doing whatever necessary to support my daughter and give her the best life I can. One quiet night I get chatting to another steward. She has six years of higher education and a career as a television editor under her belt, but after having the second of three children she was unable to sustain her career. She has been a stay at home mum for 10 years, and is now venturing back into the workplace earning minimum wage on reception, and topping it up with evening shifts at Glow. I am not alone, I realise. And it’s not my fault.
I begin to look forward to my shifts. The exercise and fresh air is doing me good, and my mind is clearing. When else does a mum get 4 hours of solitude and contemplation? I am becoming more physically resilient – anyone who knows me will tell you I have a phobia of the cold. If I am not warm enough I cannot think about or take enjoyment in anything else. I will mummify myself in layers until I can barely bend my arms rather than feel that icy pinch. But, after a few shifts, my tolerance increases and I believe I am conquering that fear.
I realise that I need to put down a few plates before they fall and smash, and I ditch the candle-making idea, deciding instead to give those I have already made as gifts – two birds killed with one stone! The relief I feel when this decision is made highlights how much unnecessary pressure I have been putting on myself.
Having work in my diary most afternoons means that I have avoided making plans in the two weeks over Christmas. Ava and I spend long, lazy mornings in bed, eat our breakfast in front of a movie, build towers and bath her babies, and we are both much happier for it. I set about ticking things off a mammoth to do list – I never get close to completing it but I am closER and that feels good. I vow to keep my diary clearer in future to allow me similar space to breathe.
More than anything, I am trying to accept my new situation. As desperately as I want to revive her, I am not the old me, and I cannot expect the same life. But that does not make my new life any less worthy or meaningful. It may feel shrouded in darkness some days, but, if I look for them, there will always be lanterns glowing and fairy lights dotting the path ahead.