I drove my first RML bus yesterday – the classic red London bus from the 50s – and thought about my lovely Mum. She knows I’m somehow connected with buses, but can’t recall the whole picture. I’m still elated from the drive and a bit sad at the same time as I can’t really share it with her and remind her that it’s all down to her and that can-do spirit she’s always had. A spirit that has often got her into trouble, but more often than not into incredible places and life-changing experiences. Driving down a busy high street with nearly every modern bus driver giving you a “respect” salute is something I’m going to have to get used to. As the old red bus drives up, people smile, children wave and one old man today took his hat off and gave me a little bow, followed by a huge, toothless smile. “Good on you, girl!” he shouted as I drove past.
Writing all this down I’m reminded of a couple of bus stories from many years ago. Mum has always been a very flirtatious woman and once she and my dad divorced, there was always some hopeful chap hanging on to her coat tails. One such chap was Keith – a bus driver on the 102 bus route that ran outside our house in London. If Keith were driving, he’d always give my mum a toot and a wave, often stopping to have a brief chat and a wink with her. Mum could tap on the glass if she was on the bus and he’d pull up wherever she wanted to get off. It was illegal of course and he shouldn’t have done it, but he did because Mum was so insistent and had that promise-I’ll-make-it-worth-your-while smile when she hopped off the bus. And did I ever tell you the story about the fat lady on the bus? I might have done, but it’s worth re-telling now, as it’s appropriate to the theme. I was always worried about the damage that really big people did to their mummies when they were born. I had no concept of growth or ageing, so I’m guessing I was about four years old when I asked my mum about how big people were born. She told me that they were little when they were born because they had to go through a small tube. It terrified me – huge people being made tiny to go through a tube? How did THAT happen? Then I started wondering about how they got big in the first place. Mum’s answer was that they were either expecting a baby or they ate lots of chips. It made sense at the time and grown-ups are supposed to tell you things that are right aren’t they? We were on a bus to the Swiss Cottage swimming pool when a huge woman got on and stood next to our seat. She smiled down at me, so I thought I’d ask her – “Excuse me, are you expecting a baby?” She was furious. “NO I’M NOT!” “Well, you must eat lots of chips then!” I thought that was just the truth, so it was confusing as to why my mum jumped out of her seat and started berating the fat lady for being rude to a child. The fat lady started yelling and everyone around us was tutting and huffing before we were politely asked to leave the bus. Now THAT wasn’t fare I thought, so I trod on the fat lady’s foot when I got off. I remember my mum telling to wave when the bus drove off. I did as I was told and mum was laughing at the fat lady who was shaking her fists at us and wobbling her big arms. I was just embarrassed at the waving bit, but mum was always ordering me to wave at people; brides, policemen, anyone in uniform and butchers. She had a thing for butchers, don’t ask me why and I can remember once rendering a Sunday School teacher speechless when she asked us to draw what we thought God looked like and I drew a fat butcher with a striped apron, holding a string of sausages like they had in Punch and Judy shows. What was wrong with THAT? Grown-ups! Silly people.
So buses are really in my blood. I’ve always loved them and they’ve been a punctuation point to various episodes with mum. My granddad was a GPO driver and an encyclopaedic knowledge of London landmarks, so whenever we went to his house I begged him to go out in his car and see all the London sights. He allowed me to change gears sometimes and once he let me sit on a cushion and steer the car in a car park. One day I thought – one day I might get to drive a bus! A lifelong ambition to drive a red routemaster bus has finally come true. To be honest, I was thinking that I’d have a go at it on a bus driving experience day somewhere, but the more I thought about it the more I fancied the idea of doing it for real. Just imagine being paid to drive an iconic London bus around this wonderful city I’m proud to call home? And for me to have the power to throw people off if I need to. What would my lovely psychiatrist friend make of that one?
My darling husband is getting used to the idea that many weekends could be taken up ferrying bridal parties to receptions, business people to London landmarks or tourists on sight-seeing tours where there will be many more smiles and one ecstatic blonde woman grinning from ear to ear behind the wheel and thanking her mum for instilling bravery into her world. She once dreamed about Sweden, so she bought herself a plane ticket and relied upon strangers to put her up, show her the sights and take her to museums. She had another dream about cycling the length of Britain and so decided to clock off work for a month and try it herself. She got as far as Sheffield – with the help of a benevolent train guard, various truckers and a lot of padding. Her bike has only recently been donated to a charity shop; heavy, three gears, cumbersome and very old-fashioned. Hardly the vehicle to cope with various terrains and an amateur cyclist without so much as a repair kit. My heart broke when I came home from work on one of her adventure days and played back my messages. Mum, in tears, begging me to go to a train station and pay her excess fare for the bike so that she could get off the train and continue her journey. In the background I could hear a man saying something like “we’ll have to confiscate your bike and call the police”. Of course, Mum being Mum, hadn’t left a message about which station she was at, who needed to be contacted etc. so I had to wait three agonising days until she called me. I’d been panicking and checking with every rail and local police station and I could think of in the Sheffield area to no avail. Bearing in mind this is going back to the early 80s when we didn’t all have mobile phones, waiting for the phone to ring was a real “thing”. She did call me three days later, happy as ever, telling me how she was staying with a lovely family who kept rabbits. They had rescued her from the station, paid her excess fare (£3) and taken her in. I warned her about taking care of herself, not to be a burden on them, to keep her room tidy etc and do the washing up – yes, we were officially in the parent-child-parent loop.
Mum’s favourite weekly trip is out on the mini-bus where the volunteer driver (another Keith), with whom she’s in love, takes the residents of the care home to the West Sussex sights. She adores her fish and chips and has often been caught hiding them and then feeding them to the donkeys. She’s not supposed to of course, but she just doesn’t care. When they need extra drivers I’ll now be able to take them all out and see that twinkle in her eye when she realises that I really CAN drive a bus and I’m not making it all up.
She’ll probably call me Keith, because in Mum’s world that’s what all bus drivers are called. Sadly she’ll never be able to ride on the routemasters because she can’t get up to London these days, but I’ll show her a picture of the cockpit I will be driving in to see if it evokes any memories. I’m sure it will; good times, Keith, not the fat lady, but who knows?
Ding, ding – any more fares please?
“I’m Gracie Fields and my favourite person is Toni Blair”. Mum noted these things down when we were writing and drawing together recently. Her picture of a chicken would have had Picasso scratching his head, but it all made sense to her. Toni with an “i”, not Tony with a ‘y’ because she’d heard recently about the concept of non-binary and thought it meant that everyone was male and female whenever they want to be. She thought the “i” looked a bit more feminine. “And if that’s what he wants who were we to argue with him, Sonia Darling?” She took on the persona of Gracie Fields as we’d been playing some of her favourite music and Gracie’s “Sally Down our Alley” is her number one favourite – mainly because she can have a lot of fun with the Sallee-Salleeeeeee bit in her screechy voice while laughing at everyone covering their ears. She also reverted temporarily to her native Northern accent which only comes out every so often, normally when she’s throwing a tantrum. It turns out that all the residents in the home love it when you draw them pictures and play them songs. Yvonne wanted a cat drinking milk, Jenny wanted pictures of her children playing in the garden and I noticed a huge difference in Mum when we challenged her to a written quiz on her life. Things like “My favourite cake is … because it … (ginger, boingy) or “I love it when … as it makes me feel … (I get toffees, loved) and my favourite “My carers are … and they … (beautiful, always talk to me like a human). She lit up with the new challenge and looked focussed for a while, pen in hand, wrinkly brow, eyes concentrating on the paper.
I think it took her back to when she used to write plays and send them off to the biggest players in the West End theatre world. I’ve still got the letter from the Manager at the Palladium. She was sensationally brave and unhindered in her thinking and some of it’s rubbed off on me, much to the exasperation of those around me on occasion. Well, sometimes you just need to cut to the chase and go straight to the top to see what happens, don’t you? We wanted a royal family member to present a music prize at Radio 2 many years ago, so I wrote to the Queen (with the reluctant help of the Royal Liaison person at the BBC). Her Majesty had to decline, but we were offered a Prince instead, so a RESULT as far as I was concerned. Mum did make it past the main gates to Buckingham Palace once. She was determined that I was going to dance for the Queen as I’d got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dance Summer School and the very fact that it had Royal in the name meant the Queen was going to come, obviously. She had a letter with a suggested outfit for HRH and a speech that she’d like her to give me. As far as I can remember, she told me that the letter was delivered and she was politely shown out. I never went to the Summer School as we could never have afforded the fares or costumes, let alone lodging fees etc, but hey, that was life with Mum. You never quite knew if any of the plans were ever going to materialise, which is most likely the reason that I still feel a visceral angst if well-laid plans go tits-up at short notice. It’s short-lived, but it’s still there. Strange, isn’t it, how those early experiences can end up becoming the cogs to your life? Having gone through my own coaching and therapy I’m now able to help other people un-pick those moments and re-calibrate memories into a more positive spin as it’s all too easy to let those barriers build up and stop you doing stuff. Mum, on the other hand, has no barriers has never worried about what she says in front of anyone. It also meant that you had to be very careful what you said in front of her, in case she acted on it.
My brother and I were out with Mum on an access day after Mum & Dad divorced. We had been to Speakers’ Corner and wanted to walk around Hyde Park with the hope of being allowed to go boating on the Serpentine. It was hot and on spotting the cafe we both said that we were thirsty and wanted a drink. We hadn’t learned the art of direct messaging and thought the subtle dropping of a hint might make Mum see the cafe, make the connection and get us a fizzy pop. Did we start walking towards the cafe? No, of course not. We were marched in the opposite direction towards the park gate. We then dodged the traffic to cross the road and found ourselves being ushered through the very posh doors of the De Vere Hotel. Mum accosted one of the waiting staff, pushed me and my brother forward and said “My children are so very, very thirsty and said that they liked the look of your hotel and asked if they could have some water” Cue little brother and sister looking at each other and miming the 70s, junior equivalent of WTF? “Please take a seat Madam, let me see what I can do”. Off he went and we were both rendered silent in case anything else we said ended up in a situation halfway as embarrassing. Mum tidied our hair, rubbed our faces with Mum-spit tissues and back he came – complete with a huge silver tray, a silver bucket of ice, tongs, cut-glass tumblers, doilies and slices of lemon. He flamboyantly put them down in front of us and smiled, asking if we’d like ice and lemon. Back then I just wanted to roll up into a ball and hide in the corner as the man wanted to thoroughly humiliate us with his over-the-top display of upper-class snobbery. Everyone was staring and smirking as the hotel manager came over and asked us if we wanted any biscuits. Oh no! Not more people showing us up in public – I would have felt more at ease on a podium at Speakers’ Corner talking about parental divorce. No biscuits, no biscuits !! Mum didn’t think anything of it, wrapped them all up in a linen napkin and off we went. All I wanted to do was to go home to my Dad and gentle step-mum to listen to the radio and feel normal again. If anyone has ever heard that story from the perspective of the butler at the De Vere Hotel, I would love to meet him, shake his hand and say thank you, because I can see now that he wanted to give us a lovely experience and leave us with a lasting impression of how kind the people at the De Vere Hotel were. And although it felt like a random Mum act from nowhere, perhaps she knew exactly what would happen and hoped we’d love the whole thing; after all it’s a hundred times nicer than a lukewarm can of coke from an over-priced cafe isn’t it? I’m proud of my mum – what she’s achieved, who she’s met, her sheer exuberance for trying new things and venturing into this confusing world with an open mind, endless energy and no constraining social niceties to hold her back. If she wants to be Gracie Fields this week, who are we to argue? They were born in the same area, both loved and played in the Peak District and could bring the house down with their singing. Gracie ended up in Capri – Mum in Bognor – both by the sea and surrounded by colourful people. I’m going to frame the chicken along with the donkey and ‘Toni’ Blair portrait. That will always make me chuckle as I was once describing my then partner Tony (now my husband) to some clients and one said “Tony with a Y or Tony with an I?” The knowing wink on the Y was obviously code for acknowledging between them that I was straight. What would they make of Mum’s take on our ex-Prime Minister I wonder?
Knock, knock. Who’s there? “My name’s Matthew – are you Sar-nee-arr? Your mum told me to come round to your house for afternoon tea.” My Dad was pretty relaxed about it – I, on the other hand wasn’t. I was 13, hugely embarrassed and a strange, enthusiastic, energetic American was expecting cucumber sandwiches and strawberry scones; as promised by Mum without our knowledge. In he bounded, stayed for an hour and was dispatched with a packet of Rich Tea biscuits and a tangerine when an equally enthusiastic, energetic American Mom turned up to collect him. “See you in church” were his last words. “Can you phone your mother and ask her what all that was about please?”. “Dad – do you think it will make any more sense if I do? Can’t we just leave it?” Dad conceded and to give him his due, he didn’t say anything bad about Mum or put me in the hideous position of having to defend or pacify opposing parents. Matthew was gone – another weird moment orchestrated by my well-meaning and inappropriately meddlesome mother wanting me to have a boyfriend on one hand while warning me off boys with the other.
She’s never really stopped doing it even though she adores Tony, my beloved, precious husband. It’s in her DNA. Sometimes she hands the phone to a random resident in the home when I call her or shouts at someone when I’m there, to “come and sit with my lovely daughter – she might marry You one day” while winking at Tony. The old boys at the home don’t seem phased or angry and none of it matters. That’s the great thing about her living with people with dementia, Alzheimer’s, borderline personality disorders and learning difficulties – nobody minds, nobody is upset, it’s normal and life just carries on. We, on the other hand, take everything out of proportion, argue with our families, bear grudges, vow never to speak to them again and spend days, weeks or months being right, looking good and covering our backsides. For what? So exhausting.
I’ve got two mums – Mum (Margaret – in the home, flinging biscuits at people) and my stepmum who took on our family when Mum and Dad divorced in the late 60s. She was the angel from the clouds who didn’t force me to eat weird food, made sense when she spoke, didn’t borrow and re-name other people’s dogs, was there every morning, played the violin like my Dad and sang like a film star. Compared to my real Mum she was the essence of normality and smelled nice. We do love each other, but we fight a lot. With Mum it’s never worth picking an argument because she simply doesn’t “see what that looks like” or “understand how embarrassing it is” because she can’t. I’m getting better at dealing with the passive aggressive nature of my stepmum, but it still rattles me. I didn’t feel jealousy when she came. Quite the opposite. I was pleased to see Mum out of the picture with all the angst and confusion she brought, but now looking back with different eyes I wish we could have all been a bit better joined up. Mum, weirdly, adored my stepmum, always telling me how beautiful she was, how she loved my dad and wanted to have cuddles all the time whereas Mum didn’t. A psychologist one winced when I told her that as she believed that could have set up a confusion in my young mind between sex and love. Huh ! That wasn’t half of it.
Looking back I do remember that Mum’s versions of what sex was had a few holes in it. “Sonia darling, when a boy wants to put his hand between your legs you must jam your legs together”. I was so confused when ballet dancers lifted beautiful ballerinas in the air as they always held onto their legs and the dancers didn’t appear to jam their legs together. And the dancers on “Come Dancing” were always doing it when they jived around. Hmmmm … maybe Mum wasn’t telling the truth. I asked her once why some mummies I knew didn’t sleep in the same bed as the daddies. She told me it was because the mummies had itchy bottoms. What did THAT mean? I don’t ever remember being told the facts of life, because I always seemed to know all about lady passages and man funnels (her words, not mine). But I do remember Mum telling me that when a man loves a lady and they want to have a baby, the man gives the lady some milk. I was terrified of milk, ran away from the milkman (for obvious reasons) and once told a lady in a cafe that the man who brought her tea wanted to have a baby with her, because he’d brought her a jug of milk. The cafe owner told us to leave the cafe and I don’t think I’ve seen that shade of facial puce to this day. Silly man, what was he fussing about? EVERYONE knows that giving a lady milk means that she’ll have a baby !!! And I’ll swear blind that she told me that my genital region was my “revolver.” She did ! I remember thinking that it sounded like a gun and asked her to repeat it. Yes, “revolver”. Next day at school I fact-checked it with my teacher – do you remember her? She was the one who broke into tears when Mum marched in with a bowl of porridge and demanded I ate it before I went home? She coughed a lot and had to go and get something to drink. The only thing were those little bottles of milk that we used to have in school. I shouted at her – NO ! Don’t drink that or you’ll have a baby ! She cried – AGAIN – and and ran out of the classroom. Mrs. Segal, our American Head Teacher was very sweet when I went to see her and told me that milk wasn’t something to be scared of, because she drank it every day. I asked her if she had children. “Yes, dear, I have three sons and four daughters.” Confirmed – milk gave you babies.
I was fascinated by Americans from a very young age as I liked the way they spoke, so Matthew was quite a nice person to talk to when he turned up on our doorstep. He was into cowboy movies and was cross when I kept smirking whenever he mentioned how the tough guys would reach for their revolvers and pull the trigger, And as for John Wayne – “Get off your horse and drink your milk” – as a 13 year-old that was too snigger-worthy to ignore. He consoled himself with that fact that I was enjoying his conversation because of his accent. He said my name out loud a few times. “Sar-nee-arr, Sar-nee-arr – I’m going to call you LE Sar-nee-arr” Very funny. NOT. What’s he on about? Le Sonia? I’m not French. Years later I realised it was a joke about lasagne, but as it hadn’t really landed in the UK it didn’t make much sense, rather like the rest of my younger life. But thank goodness there wasn’t too much sense around – having a different perspective and seeing things through different people’s eyes has given me a healthy sense of humour and on the whole I don’t take things that people say too seriously.
I’m rarely rendered speechless, even by Mum, but I’ll leave you with one scenario which sums up my apparently selfless stepmum and I’d love your opinion (once you’ve winced and drawn in breath). Tony & I built a large cabin in our garden as a studio/Summer house when we amalgamated homes. Having kept stepmum away from it whilst it was being built, we invited her round to have a look when it was finished and curtained. “Oh darling – aren’t you LUCKY!” Oooh, she liked it, followed swiftly by “to have such tolerant neighbours”. Saucer of milk, dear? Mum, on the other hand thought it would be a great place to breed cats, drink tea and play the drums all day. Don’t you just love a different perspective?