Mum’s carers have put her to bed early tonight. The clocks have gone back in the UK and now that the evenings are drawing in, they’re going to try and get her to sleep a little sooner. She rarely sleeps for long – two hours at the most in any one block – but it doesn’t seem to do her any harm. A couple of weeks ago I asked her if she was all cosy for bed and she replied “Don’t be silly, Sonia darling, why would I wear a coat to bed?” No, Mum, cosy for bed. “Four beds? Did they finally arrive then?” Yes, I grant you this is a slightly confusing conversation and it has a very touching origin.
A great friend of mine, Ian, is a wonderful jazz singer and a star presenter on Jazz FM, one of Mum’s favourite stations. Mum adores the voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt and Cleo Laine, but when she sings herself she sounds more like Dame Evadne Hinge with her showy-offy voice – on the whole to attract attention and make people laugh. It works. I was telling Mum all about Ian’s amazingly selfless work with the refugees who were living in the Calais camps before they were dismantled. The refugee crisis was across every news bulletin at the time and some of the world leaders were asked if they would ever consider opening their homes to a refugee. Some replied, somewhat unbelievably that of course they would open their homes to migrants. Mum was having a conscious day and was totally engaged in the subject, remembering the words of Angela Merkel (dubbed Angela Murk by Mum) and wondering how my friend was able to give up so much of his precious time. Then the tea trolley arrived and it broke Mum’s concentration. She took off from the subject of refugees and the dangers of hiding under trucks to insist that she had 3 cups of tea as I always wanted 2 (I don’t, but I went along with it) and 3 slices of cake as I always ate two (I don’t, but again…) She then turned to me and cupped my face in her gentle hands … “Sonia darling, my room’s big and I’m sure we could get another three beds in here. Can you ask them if any of them would like to stay here – I’m sure the home won’t mind”? I’m not sure it’s that easy Mum; maybe it would be simpler to send Ian a bit of money as he’s trying to provide shelters for people over in Calais. “Yes I suppose so, but honestly, there’s so much extra space here, it seems a shame. They all look like nice people and I don’t think they’d do me any harm. Can you buy me three beds – the charity shop ones will be fine”.
Such a generous soul and it’s been a lifetime of careful management of her pension to make sure that she didn’t give it all away the moment she got it and not have enough left for food and heating. When I was little, there was always a new child having toast or cereal in our flat. They were usually the latchkey kids from school who had to fend for themselves till their parents came home. Mum would scoop them up, rarely leaving a note for their folks and then bring them home to us for a bit of food and to play a game. As mentioned before, we didn’t have a television, so there were always things to play with, paper and pens and our imaginations. Those evenings normally ended in some kind of drama as the parents of the latchkey kids finally found out where they were after hours of worry and searching. Again, Mum thinking about the children’s’ welfare without really thinking through the consequences.
Her question about the new beds was obviously linked to her earlier conversations about sharing her room with the refugees – she remembers little snippets, sneaks them into the conversation and sometimes the relevance only occurs to me hours later once I’ve tried piece it all together. I used to clear her house up when I visited her – feathers here, old orange peel there, boot polish next to the sugar, ant powder in front of every chair. Out with the hoover and into the bin. Until one day I asked her what each item was for to see if there was a reason she kept repeating the chaos, The feather was to remind her to pick up her milk (a pigeon once landed on her arm outside the corner shop), the orange peel was to remember to ring me (she knows I love oranges and she’s always remembered that I once put 50 oranges in an old fire place as a Christmas decoration) and the ant powder was to stop woodlice crawling into her slippers as she didn’t like squashing them. It all made total sense and I was sorry to have ridden all over it with my own lens whilst ignoring hers. It’s very easy for apparently ‘normal’ people, whatever that means, to see eccentric behaviour as something that needs clearing up. Most of the time it makes much more sense than ours and in Mum’s case every rescued child, offer of a bed, fragment of orange peel and pile of powder had love at its heart. Something that I appreciate now every time I see her or call her at the home.
I’ve never quite got my head round the relevance of the boot polish and sugar, but it’s bound to have a deep meaning to her. She may still be asleep now, however it’s two hours since she was tucked up so no doubt she’s up again, music on full volume, encouraging her neighbours to join in. Her favourite piece of music is “Danny Boy” which she learnt to play on the piano when she was about 40. Her version is the melody with her right hand, accompanied by the same chord in the left hand all the way through. Unlikely to ever get airplay on Jazz FM, but it’ll always be her tune – as it was 2 Christmas’s ago when Tony and I woke up at 4am to it being bashed out on the piano … soft pedal disengaged, windows open, loving every joyful second. Night Night Mum.
Mum used to watch the television with sunglasses on because she confused the brightness button for the volume control. “I’m not enjoying this show, but I’m watching because you used to work with these boys”. Which boys, Mum? “These boys, these two, you know”. Any clues? “The suity booty boys” Errrr … who might she be watching I wondered? “They give people money”. Can you describe them, Mum? What do they look like? “Oh you know, Sonia darling, you’ve worked with them … CHAS AND DEN! Tell them to turn the light off.” Now there’s a tribute act if ever I’ve heard one. Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis in braces and flat caps singing “Gertcha” or in their case “Gertchacashflowsorted aaaht !” Mum told me not to be so silly and respect the people I’d worked with – after all, they’d helped to pay for my Donald Duck obsession. There are bits of this conversation from a couple of years ago that make sense, in their own way. It’s one of my favourite Mum mix-ups, the small parts contributing to the beauty of the whole.
Television and Mum has always been a tricky combo. As a very small child my father insisted that we didn’t have a telly as it would stifle our creativity and turn us into lazy kids. This meant, of course, that we had lots of lazy kid friends whose houses we used to find any excuse to go to. The haven of Nan and Pop’s flat always had the telly on quietly in the background until one of the big entertainment shows was on and the volume went up. It was there that I learned to love Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black, The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise, Chas and Dave and anyone who threw their talent out for the world to enjoy. Mum would only stop talking over everything when Val Doonican came on as she liked his rocking chair and always wanted one. We did buy one, but I remember rocking so hard that it nearly tipped over and once rocked over Mum’s new shoe – with her foot in it – so it went out to the rag and bone man. There’s a point to all this as the rag and bone man used to fancy Mum and once gave her a tortoise which she called Dave after Chas & Dave. She couldn’t call it Chas as that was Dad’s name and that would have been too confusing. So Dave it was – slow old Dave, escaping at every opportunity and digging himself into the mud when Summer started to wane.
Our flat was actually small, but I remember it being huge. Dad would have been practicing his violin in the main bed-sitting room while my brother and I would be in our room at the back, quietly pretending to be superstars in case Dad heard us; and that might have meant having to confess to watching these entertainers on someone else’s telly. So imagine my joy many years later at Radio 2 when Frances Line, our wonderful channel Controller, asked me to meet Chas & Dave’s manager to discuss a special programme featuring the boys. I thought … “think BIG Sonia, think BRAVE like Mum does.” So I suggested to Frances that we should do something huge, book in a proper band to back Chas & Dave, invite superstar guests on and record in a huge cabaret venue in North London. Worrying that she’d tell me go away and stop being silly, she said “Great idea – off you go”. So I did and 6 specials later Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock became firm friends. And through them I met my lovely husband Tony – it’s great when life aligns isn’t it? So Mum’s always known that Chas & Dave have always felt part of the family, even though she was never given any actual dates or details just in case she decided to pay them a visit.
I was about 7 when I first really understood that Mum had mental health issues. The full extent of her illness had been kept from me for years and all credit to my selfless step mother Donna who took on two young children and an unstable, unpredictable ex-wife when she married the love of her life, my Dad Charles (or Chas as often referred to by his folks; my Nan and Pop). My brother and I were once waiting for her to pick us up for one of our regular Sunday visit days out, but she didn’t appear for a while. So we ventured into the Golders Green Station cafe to wait as it was cold. About an hour later the cafe owner came up and said, cautiously … “Are you Sonia & David?” Yes we said, wondering why we were suddenly being addressed by our names. “Are you waiting for your Mum?” Yes … we were. At full blast he then leant out of the cafe window and yelled at two policemen outside … “They’re in here!” We were then escorted out by two young male coppers who refused to tell us anything until we got to the station. Terrified, puzzled and suddenly realising that we really couldn’t go to the station with them or “how would Mum know where to meet us?”, we were told that our family knew what was going on and that we shouldn’t worry. Huh ! Grown-ups … even the official ones spoken nonsense and we decided that we couldn’t even trust the police. We sat in a cold, bare room until a lovely lady came in, followed by a very anxious Dad and Donna. Mum had apparently been taken into care to protect herself and a couple of people she’d accosted and had eventually told the authorities that her children were running around at Golders Green. The search party had been up and down the High Street, missing children alert, the works. I found all this out years later, but at the time I just retreated into my safe little world to sing songs and remember lyrics of the great standards. Mum was trouble and she’s made the police arrest us. We knew she wasn’t like other Mums, but she always did lovely things in her own way, despite being the MOST embarrassing mum on the planet. It was all so confusing.
We saw her the following weekend and as usual she crouched down and held her arms out as we ran towards her. And we probably went to the zoo where she always managed to get us into bits of the zoo that other kids never got to see. Through sheer exuberance, charm and never taking no for an answer.
Mum – have you tried turning the brightness down on your telly? And the volume up? You might enjoy it more. “No thank you, I’m fine. They’ve just given a girl £50,000 – amazing. Did they ever give you money?” She was obviously convinced that two of the Dragons were Chas & Dave in disguise. When Tony and I told Chas & Dave that we were going to get married, they dedicated their hit “I Wish I Could Write A Love Song” to us when on stage at the Albert Hall. Mum would have loved that, but she would probably have heckled them with “stop singing in that silly voice” or “Tell my daughter to get more sleep”. And if that scared, young policeman had been in the audience I’d have asked the boys to dedicate the Sideboard Song to him … “ I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care if he comes round here, I’ve got my beer in the sideboard here, let mother sort it out if he comes round here”. She always did in her own way and I try to continue doing it when she needs it (sorting out, not beer – she’s not allowed).
A quick post as Sunday supper approaches. Mum’s convinced that Trump is one of the carers in the home, poor man. He has blond hair, but that’s about it. “His toast is soggy rubbish”, ok mum, I’m sure he can make you some fresh toast. “Not on your life! I’ll just have a sausage” A sausage? At tea time? “Yes, at tea time, although don’t forget about the liver”. Well and truly trumped by that one. I know that there are no sausages and I can only imagine that she’s recalling some of her gastronomic wonders from yesteryear. I’ve told you about the porridge already, so here are a few more recipes: mashed potato with chopped raw liver mixed in (it takes too long to cook both things), boiled egg with cucumber soldiers (so what if the yolk falls off) and eggy milk; yolks, milk and sugar mixed around twice (boxers have it and they’re strong, so it’ll make you strong too Sonia darling). However, mum’s cakes were the best things in the world … light, fluffy, bursting with flavour, jammy and perfect. She told me that her mum had taught her only one thing in her life and that was how to make a Victoria sandwich. Thanks Nanny Ellis – for mum, her cakes, her ‘alternative” cuisine and view on the world.
Mum thinks my Sunday supper of chicken roasted in garlic, honey, lemon and sage is a bit above myself. And as for having salad with it … “keep food simple like I do. I love toast”. Night, Mum.
“Am I coming to your house for Christmas, Sonia darling?” Mum, it breaks my heart, but don’t forget the bathroom’s upstairs and it’s not very comfortable for you downstairs. “I don’t like Upstairs Downstairs, no, no, no” Ah, ok.
I love Mum’s fantastic tangential thinking. It catches me off guard and makes me chuckle which in turn makes her laugh, although she very rarely knows why she’s doing it. “Will Kate Mistletoe be at the hospital?” Click, rewind, Kate? Who? Oh yes, Mum’s name for the Duchess of Cambridge. No Mum, I don’t think so. The baby’s not due till Spring. “Can you tell her to hurry up this time. Christmas Day maybe?”
Much though I’d love to fulfil all my mum’s dreams and wishes, conjuring a royal birth for Christmas Day might be a tricky one to organise. This was our conversation earlier today which has prompted me to recall a couple of Royal Mumbelievable truths.
I was a stick thin, ballet-minded child who spent a lot of time in the wings of theatres when my father was playing in the orchestra pit for the Royal Ballet. My impression of ballerinas was that they were pointy, sweaty, swearing, clod-hopping beauties who bashed their shoes on stage door steps to break them in before wearing them on stage. Those beautiful satin, perfect, ribboned shoes being smashed always upset me, but they were grown-ups of course and grown-ups always did daft things. Mum was convinced that I would be a ballerina, so had told me that one day I would dance for the Queen and I would sing for Cilla Black. She also told me that Margot Fonteyn was my Fairy Godmother, something I knew was real because I’d spent time in her dressing room and she always had sparkly things on. Once I rubbed her cheeks and eyes because I thought she had dirt on her face. She was very graceful in re-applying her make-up and telling me that fairies like me needed to go and see the show from the wings as that was a very special place. Ah – I’d worked out for myself that was why they called them the wings. Margot Fonteyne? Fairy Godmother? Well, that was all obviously true.
A couple of years later when my parents started splitting up it was a bit turbulent, let’s put it that way. Didn’t most parents shout and throw plates? I thought that was normal. And didn’t all Mummies take you to friends’ houses and leave you there for a few days? Horrid, the basis of life-long abandonment issues, but didn’t everyone’s parents do that? Mum would often succumb to depression and “getaways” she called them. She had to take time away from the world and putting me in the home of a safe, normal family who could take proper care of me was her way of ensuring I was ok. Of course I wasn’t. Why would my Mum who told me all the time how much she loved me, abandon me at Sharon’s house when I lived four doors away? Poor old Sharon – sharing her bedroom with a snivelling neighbour and long, silent dinner times. No wonder she ganged up on me at school with the other kids who nick-named me “Ding Dong”. I let them do it, because I knew that it was less hurtful than having my hair pulled. “Ding Dong, Bell Dong, Your head’s gone wrong. Two screws are loose. Your head’s no use”. Quite funny looking back on it and I appreciated the clever play on words even then. In a period of adjustment at home, Dad’s only option was to bring family members or close friends over to look after us when he went out to work. Mum would always phone us, so it felt like she was there, but one evening she decided that it wasn’t ok for us to have Auntie Georgie over twice in one week. Dad told me years later that it was probably the most embarrassing moment of his life when at a Royal Ballet performance at The Royal Opera House that night, Mum wanted to “have a word”. Refused entry via the Stage Door she got round the doorman, claiming to be a late comer. This was in the days when everyone mistook her for Nancy in the film, Oliver, so she could always get round people. What did she do? Quietly slip in and wait for the interval? No. Did she take her place in the foyer and hope to catch Dad coming out at the end? No, of course not. She marched down the central aisle in the middle of act one, looked into the pit and threw her handbag at my Dad in the violin section shouting “I want a word with you”. There would have been crashing of instruments and stunned silence from the audience, orchestra and dancers no doubt. Dad’s only option was to leave the pit and deal with my meddlesome mum in the band room. Of course, he thought his career as a classical violinist was over, but quite the opposite. He probably got more work and compassionate bookings as everybody realised what he was coping with as a 25 year old husband of a 38 year old fiery redhead with two young children to support.
I’ve asked her about that incident in the past and her best answer was “Well, sometimes you’ve just got to do the thing that gets you noticed.” But didn’t it worry you that people would be upset, let alone the performance spoiled? “Well, they do the same dance every night, so what harm is one bit of interruption?”. That’s mum’s logic. She’s fearless. She doesn’t see how her actions impact on those around her. You know you’re losing the argument when you shout out in desperation “Can’t you SEE how embarassing that is?”. I did that a lot. Quite simply, she couldn’t, can’t, doesn’t. ‘A lack of social conscience’ it was once described to me as. ‘Borderline personality disorder’ at another more recent assessment. Nobody really knows, do they? Or maybe they do. Do you know?
Mum’s never actually met the queen, but she’s been interviewed about her. There was a Royal visit in the 80’s that Mum made a big effort to get to. She’d bought an old hat from the charity shop, stuck a union jack flag on the side, cut out a Fleur de Lis for the other side and painted HRH in red nail varnish on the front. She thought the Fleur de Lis looked similar enough to the Prince of Wales Feathers. Local TV were stopping people to talk about it and apparently she was featured – at the end of the item – the “and finally” slot. It must have been funny to watch her and I’ve seen the hat. It’s not a great design. Unlikely to pass muster at Ascot. Striking, but … no Vivienne Westwood. If I ever find the footage or find out which royal reporter picked my quirky mum and hat out of the crowd I’ll “have a word” myself as she was upset that they asked her a silly question about getting ahead of the crowd. She knew, deep down, that they were poking fun no doubt and that always makes me sad whilst smiling about the reactions she would have got.
You like Kate Mistletoe then, do you mum? “Who?” Kate Mistletoe. “Sonia darling, don’t eat mistletoe will you? It’a parasite” Splutter … cough … tea down white jumper. “Are you choking, Sonia darling?” No mum, I’m ok. I love you. See you at the weekend. “You’re not a parasite darling, you don’t think that do you?”. Err … no of course I don’t Mum. “I gave birth to you, you know” Yes mum, thank the world for that.
Cue … Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy … with Frank Muir’s ambiguous, non-PC words that nobody’s allowed to say any more.
Mum’s got a pressure mat under her bed so that her carers can tell if she’s getting up or has fallen over – she thinks it’s more fun to do a sitting dance routine on her bed, feet touching the mat, until they come running to see what’s happening in Room 8. I asked her in August if she’d like a lower bed … “No thank you, but I love David Bowie – his hair, not his music”. Ah ok Mum, he was as bit of a trend setter wasn’t he? Did you like his spiky hair or his smooth styles? “Spiky with that sun thing on his forehead. Is it tin foil? You won’t do that will you?” No mum, but about this new mattress … ” Oh yes, ok. You’re getting very boring Sonia, I’m trying to lighten things up a bit”. We tried a little more conversation about David Bowie, but she’d already forgotten who he is and reminded me that she hates ginger hair. Her own hair colour. She’s 87 and no white hairs, just silky, soft auburn ginger hair now down to her shoulders. My lovely Mum has never liked herself much. I once tried to get to the bottom of why she hated ginger hair so violently and I think I got close. When she was little, kids were teasing her in her school in Sheffield. Shouting out the usual taunts – carrot top, gingernut, red robin. She fought back so hard with the chief bully girl and pushed her against a wall which gave her a bruise. It was covered by a plaster for a few days and was a daily reminder to my mum that she’d hurt someone and from that moment she associated red hair with trouble – and trouble with herself. It hasn’t stopped her causing it or getting into it since then of course. When she eventually told me about the bullying I understood why she often cuts herself out of photographs and more recently when she sees herself in a picture she play fights with the image and shouts “BOING!” when trying to rub herself out. She loves the pictures of my wedding day to my beloved Tony – a small affair with my two best friends as witnesses . So far, she’s kept herself in all of those pictures. Photos have always been a bit of theme with us – from when she always insisted that I stood next to brides in their new family portrait – any bride, any wedding, any church, anywhere we were. Up I was marched – stood next to bride and told to stop looking so serious. I’d love to find one of the photographs one day – a confused bride and groom next to a grumpy little girl staring angrily at someone facing the group. As I’ve mentioned before, grown-ups always looked confused – and no wonder. And in those days I would have looked a bit scruffy as mum always swaddled me up in layer upon layer of clothes ‘so that I didn’t catch a chill’. No pretty fluffy pink lacy number in keeping with a wedding picture, no. More like thick tights, socks over the top, a skirt, cardigan, wind-cheater (I think it was called) – with peacock feather coloured material that shone different tones in different light and diamond stitching on it, coat and hat. And that was Summer – Winter weddings always had an extra layer. I always got an elaborate bride doll at every birthday which I normally discarded as it reminded me too much of the wedding portrait sagas. She’d probably worked extra hours to earn enough money to pay for them which only occurred to me once I started work myself. Tony & I got married 2 years ago so that Mum could be there while she was still mobile … she was chatting away to her carer when we walked in. She then fell back in tears when she saw me in a wedding frock and Tony is a fantastic blue suit … “Oh Sonia darling, you look beautiful, my darling daughter and her Prince Blue Charming”. From then on she was joining in at every point, but who cared? That was the reason we married in an old pub and had our big party the following day in Covent Garden. More on that at another point. It’s 3.30pm and Mum’s still asleep – her carers normally wake her up to say hello or pass the phone over, but not today as I don’t want to disturb her dreams. She rarely sleeps for more than 2 hours at a time, so I’m hoping that she’s getting some proper rest – long, luscious red hair coating the pillow, face peaceful, brain calm. I bought her a pair of red velvet slippers recently, which she loves. I’m now thinking that Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” is about as perfect a song as I could get if I needed a soundtrack for the movie of her life … “Let’s dance, put on your red shoes and dance the blues …” Her dancing feet will no doubt alert her carers that she’s trying to get up and about later, demanding scrambled egg with butter and no cold bits.