Mum – “Hello Handsome Station Master, my precious angel just wants a breath of fresh air before getting back on the train.”
Me – (in my head) “No I don’t”. Then (smiling at station master to stop the inevitable Mum meltdown) “Just for a little while.”
Station Master (ruffling my hair and winking at Mum) – “OK, up you go. See you in a minute and I’ll let you through.”
We never did go back of course, because this was exactly where we wanted to get out and Mum had managed yet again to get us a free Underground trip. We were probably off to see Nan & Pop or to slip in to London Zoo by the secret back gate she’d found where we didn’t need to pay unless someone caught us.
Flying back from a lovely break in Cyprus to see old mates and meet new friends brought all those travel stories back to me. My overwhelming memory is being dragged along by the arm with my eyes shut whenever she was on a mission to get somewhere – inevitably last-minute and in a rush. If I couldn’t see what she was up to, it didn’t count, right? Bless her heart. She always wanted us to have new experiences and knew that she could never afford them, so she found alternative ways of making them happen. I can’t remember how often she was asked for a travel ticket and couldn’t find it. We were never thrown off anything and in those days we seemed to get away with it by Mum leaving her name and address and shoving me forward to smile at whoever was collecting fares. I was a right little actress in the making. Oh yes, I could turn it on. I’d learned that skill very early to get us out of scrapes. I also knew that it was folly to protest about not living in Swiss Cottage or Notting Hill or anywhere else that seemed to pop into her head. I can distinctly remember her telling me that one day I’d be able to come and see Nan and Pop on my own. I panicked at that thought until I worked out that all I needed to do was pretend I needed air, give a false address and get out at every stop to see if I recognised the streets. I wasn’t able to read the station signs at that time and Dad tells me that I was a quick reader, so I must have been three of four.
Like Mum, I’m a pretty fearless traveller and the flight home brought to mind a hysterical flight that I’ll never forget. If I say light aircraft, Mum, English Channel, newly qualified pilot, and bladder control – get the picture? An ex-friend had just qualified for his private pilot’s licence and offered to take us all over to Ostend for a day trip. Dad’s reaction was “Not bloody likely”, my step mum’s “I don’t think so, darling, I’m with your father on this”, mine “Maybe, but is it all a bit too soon since qualifying?” and Mum’s was “When? Today?” She was totally up for it with no sense of trepidation or personal safety.
“Mum – when we’re in the plane, we’ll all have soundproof headsets, so we won’t be able to hear you and you won’t be able to talk to us.”
“Ok Sonia Darling, that’s fine.” Too normal, far too normal an answer.
On with the headsets, everyone strapped in, flight plan logged, passports ready, Ostend here we come. As we started the take off I felt an urgent tapping on my shoulder from behind. There she was, chatting away at the top of her voice although nobody could hear her. She was pointing to the trees below and marvelling at the ground disappearing beneath us. Eventually the tapping stopped, only to be replaced by what sounded like a lamb bleating at the top of its voice two miles away. Mum, shouting louder and louder, hoping to be heard. Eventually I wrote out a note that said “Can’t hear you – headsets!” which calmed her down a bit. The pilot was getting very nervous at one point and gestured to me that he needed a wee. What? Up here? He pointed to a bottle thing and started to unzip his trousers as I passed the in-flight portaloo over. He then gestured to me to take the controls and keep the plane level and follow the coastline. You know I said I was a pretty fearless traveller? Replace fearless with terrified in that moment. I’d never seen the horizon bend before and when the nose started dipping I was trying to remember all those scenes in movies when punters fly planes out of disasters. Mum was loving it, chuckling away and rubbing my hair in her “good girl, good girl” way she used to do when I was little. Our pilot was now panicking with an incompetent co-pilot and a zipper that wouldn’t undo. I shrieked out “Oh, just GO – GO anywhere, it doesn’t matter. You need to take back the controls”. We landed safely. So what that there was a little puddle in the cockpit? Mum wanted to get down to the coast to sample the seafood stalls. Sadly for the pilot he was wearing pale trousers which gave away the huge damp patch created when he’d relieved himself in his seat. Mum saw this, tapped me on the arm, shrieked with laughter and shouted out “Young man! Was that a scary flight for you?” Mum! Don’t! “Welllllllll, Sonia darling, let’s get someone else to take us back. I don’t want to fly again with Captain Pisspants”.
We did fly back with him of course and Mum insisted on paying for our splendid lunch of a mixed seafood platter, Belgian beer and toffee ice cream. I told my Dad all about it and he just shook his head and said “How did I ever bring up such a brave traveller – did your mother behave herself in the plane?” The smile back to him told him everything.
I missed Mum terribly while I was away. I pictured her cutting out pictures of the places I’ve been to and mounting them in a scrapbook with her own captions. I missed being able to ring her to tell her where I was and hearing her say “What can you see right now?”. She never visited Cyprus as far as I know, but she did take herself off to Israel once to find the birthplace of Jesus. Apparently an old man had a heart attack near some holy birthplace or another and she’d pushed the medics away, telling them that this was God’s will. She also told me that she’d taken great exception to the fact that she had to put back the bits of paper she found in the wailing wall (how she got to it remains a mystery).
As we passed through customs on the way back I’m pretty sure a pilot clocked my amused face as he came out of the gents. Luckily they have proper loos on Airbus 320s.