We’ve all done it haven’t we? Made up our own words to misheard lyrics and sung them at top volume much to the amusement of our fellow singers – or is that just me? Mum did it all the time, although I suspect she knew exactly what she was doing and enjoyed the surrounding harrumphs and gasps of exasperation. One of her favourite festive tricks was to join a choir, flirt with the vicar (they were always church choirs), befriend the baritones and sock the sopranos between the eyes with her mad, falsetto singing. Imagine Hyacinth Bouquet on helium and you’ve got the picture. I was always somewhere in the background, half-listening, half-wincing at Mum’s singing and trying to distance myself. She was having fun though and didn’t give a hoot about the stuffy people around her getting upset. She never lasted long in the choirs as I recall and I do remember going on holiday to a vicarage in Swanage one year where my brother and I had bunk beds in one room and Mum apparently slept on the sofa, although we never saw any bed clothes on it when we got up early in the hope of surprising her with a cup of tea. So the flirting must have paid off.
In the early eighties I started work at the BBC and moved in to the top floor of a wonderful, tumble-down house which Mum had inherited. It really was a very old, unloved house with rattling windows, three freezing floors, no heating, no hot water and a ghost. Mum lived on the bottom floor, so it was often a case of sneaking past her rooms to get upstairs and into my flat without her shouting out or accosting my friends on the way up. Most of the time it was she who opened the door as we only had an old iron knocker which was next door to her bedroom. On various occasions she’d jump out and shout something inappropriate when I intercepted friends on the way up, thus ending the friendship or stopping any new romance in its tracks before it had the time to blossom. She meant well of course and thought that offers of tea in bed or an extra feather eiderdown might encourage things. Errr … well, they didn’t. And then I had a wonderful idea. Why didn’t I get a doorbell that only rang in my flat? I installed it in secret, running the wires along door frames, along skirting boards and well out of sight. She didn’t notice and everything appeared to be going according to plan. And then the trouble started. The doorbell went one evening at about 11.30pm, so I trotted downstairs to see which of my friends had decided to make a midnight visit. I opened the door to a middle-aged man, sweating and tugging at his jacket. “Sonia?” Yes, said I, slowly closing the door to a half-inch slit. “Do you have a maid?” Goodbye, said I closing the door and dashing back upstairs to the warm. Weird man – obviously drunk. Similar things started happening and I was now getting very freaked out and pissed off at the late night knockers. It was only when my grandpa Pop came to visit that things became clearer. He had “asides” with Dad when I opened the door to them both. Dad was a bit embarrassed and neither of them would tell me what they were whispering about. It was always at these points that the penny dropped and I had the sinking “Mum !!!!!!” feeling. What had she said, done or tried this time? They finally came out with it. “It’s your doorbell, Sonia. It’s a bit Soho, don’t you think?” What about my fantastic, clever idea doorbell? It turned out that Mum had found out about it (after all, it was quite obvious when you actually arrived at the front door) and in order to help people differentiate between the main front door and my flat she’d attached a hand-written label. “Sonia. Top flat only. Ring for pleasure.” Whether it was the outrage of the sheer ignorance from her point of view, or the fact that Dad and Pop both had insight into what these labels meant when visiting Soho, I can’t quite remember. I was furious and removed the bell completely and by “completely”, I mean ripping the wires out of every crevice, smashing the button to tiny pieces and crushing the electronic bell device to smithereens. Things that Mum did were always based on love, however at the time her actions felt to me like a crushing mix of anger, confusion and the conviction that she didn’t know me one little bit. How lucky am I that in later life I grew to see her behaviour for what it really was and not what I thought it to be.
Bells have always featured heavily (or should that be Heavenly?) in my world. Church bells with Mum dragging me unwillingly to strangers’ weddings or interminable church services. Jingle Bells with altered lyrics. THAT Hendon door bell and now a talking bus bell, Thinkerbell, who features in my children’s book series, Granny Franny’s Big Red Bus. I’ve started using DING DING as a strap line when I sign the books. And there’s another bell reference that always makes my friends laugh; two very annoying boys at junior school used to sing “Ding, dong, bell DOM – your head’s gone wrong. Two screws are loose, your head’s no use.” to the tune of a nursery rhyme. So that got shortened to “Ding dong” and became my nickname. I didn’t mind, it was better than “Hercule”. Hercule Poirot – Belgium – Beldom. VERY funny. NOT.
As there are no big carol concerts this year, our little neighbourhood group is staging a Christmas sing-along in the park for the children of the local nursey. Luckily I’ve got a very powerful bluetooth speaker from which I can play a few backing tracks for us all to sing along to. And guess what the first track that Lydia, my much loved neighbour sent me this afternoon? You’ve guessed it – Jingle Bells! I promise not to embed the wrong lyrics into the heads of the children, as my mother did to me. It went like this; “Jingle Bells, diamonds and pearls, twinkle all the way. Oh what fun for Santa’s bum as he twinkles in his sleigh – OH … etc. etc.
Have a good run-up to Christmas in these peculiar times. DING DING.
A robin has been visiting our home for the past month. Every day she gets bolder, braver and cheekier. I’ve even managed to get her to eat out of my hand by dangling old bits of spaghetti to make them look like worms. Having posted a few pictures of the robin eating from our table, balancing on my computer screen and looking intently at the new illustrations for my children’s book, many people have commented that maybe, just maybe it’s the spirit of my precious mum coming to keep an eye on me. I love the concept as this little robin is very much like her; brave, fearless, exploring rooms that she probably shouldn’t be in and tweeting at full pelt if she isn’t being let in (she sits on the garden chair and tweets at full volume until we open the back door. She then flies in.)
My mum used to shout through the letterbox whenever she dropped in. There was a door knocker and bell, but no – far too obvious and simple. Shouting “Ooooooh-oooooooh SONIA-darling” was much more fun and personal. She’d often make the trip up from the South Coast with something she’d thought of that morning; a present of a warm vest, two matching brass-etched vases or a strawberry and cream cake for a friend’s birthday. Mum’s way of living was the very epitome of being “present” as she never lived in the past or worried about the future. She thought of something, acted on it and did whatever she thought was appropriate in the moment. Quite often of course, her moments didn’t quite match other people’s, but it never bothered her. She wanted to drop off a strawberry cream cake, so she did. On this occasion when I wasn’t at home, she left the aforementioned cake at the dry cleaners on the corner and had left a note about it with a neighbour whom I’d never met before. All I had was a scrawled scrap of paper with a number on it. I took it to mean that I had to visit this house (it was never very clear what Mum really wanted me to do, so it was an educated guess), so off I trotted down to the neighbour’s house, hoping I’d got it right. The door was opened on the chain by a nervous-looking man who slipped a note through the narrow gap who then disappeared back inside with a loud click. I tried shouting a “thank you”, but it fell on deaf ears as I heard another loud clunk inside the house while he tried barricading himself back in. “Tell my daughter to go to the dry cleaner’s” was all it said. “PWfffff” thought I, whistling exasperated breath out off the side of my mouth. What is it this time? Of course it was now 7pm and the dry cleaner’s was shut. The following morning I dropped in and picked up the cake which was now warm, curdling slightly and a bit droopy. I have no memory of who it was meant for, but sadly it never got eaten. It ended up in the garden as bird food which, looking back, probably wasn’t very good for them as it was full of double cream and sugary jam.
Three of my lovely friends – Jan, Sharon and Alison have all suggested that this cheeky little free spirit might be Mum coming to visit as a lot of people believe that robins are the worldly embodiment of people who’ve passed away and want to keep an eye on us. As all three of them are incredibly musical … and we’re all locked in without the chance of seeing each other … all together now … “When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbing along – along. There’ll be no more sobbing when he starts singing his own sweet song. Wake up, wake up you sleepy head. Get up, get up, get out of bed. Cheer up, cheer up the sun is red. Live, love, laugh and be happy.” It’s coming up for two years since my beloved Mum passed away and I hear her voice every day. And now, maybe, just maybe, she’s checking in to say hello.
My beloved mum used to put on silly voices and invent preposterous names to get on LBC radio. She especially loved Brian Hayes and I was also an avid listener to his show prior to working with him on BBC Radio 2 many years later. I could spot her a mile off. One day she started with a super-posh voice, calling herself Myrtle. “Air, hair lair Brahn. MARvellous to spick choo.” (say out loud and it’ll make sense). “Hello Margaret” sighed Brian Hayes, realising once again that he and his researchers had been duped. Brian Hayes was famed for his ascerbic wit, often brusque manner and no-nonsense attitude to some of his callers. Whenever Mum rang in, he was flummoxed and often silenced (which was when I realised it was Mum on the end of the line). She once called in to talk about how cleaners should be allowed to wear trousers rather than skirts. Her reason, I thought was a practical one and for modesty. No, Mum’s reason for the tirade was because she’d seen the Queen wearing trousers, had written to Buckingham palace to tell her to wear trousers to the next Royal occasion and was trying to start a trend. No amount of Brian trying to explain that Her Majesty always wears gowns was going to convince her. Sadly, years later I could never tell Mum that I was producing Brian’s Radio 2 show in case she turned up and caused havoc. I nearly cracked once when she mentioned him and sighed whistfully … ” I wonder where’s he ended up … I did love him so.”
This morning I was being interviewed by Ben Jackson on BBC Radio Leciester about my new book, “Granny Franny’as Big Red Bus” and it reminded me just how wonderful radio is. I didn’t put on a silly voice, but I was channeling Mum in some ways, because it was her sheer exuberance for new things that partly inspired me to do what all my friends thought was total madness – to learn how to drive a bus. With lots of my friends bemoaning the lack of new material with which to inspire their children to read and the fact that so many bus drivers have faced such difficulties throughout the COVD-19 crisis, I thought that the time was right to re-create the sense of fun and adventure of driving a bus – through the eyes of an old lady who is constantly surprising her grand children. And yes, she buys and learns how to drive an old London bus and gets herself into all sorts of scrapes trying to get back in time. Luckily the book has piqued a lot of interest and is getting some lovely reviews. Ben Jackson on BBC Leicester asked me how I’d approached writing and illustrating the book myself and after half a second to think about it I realised that I’ve done what I always do and jumped straight in and learned along the way. One of my professional artist friends remarked on how clever it was to create illustrations that look childish and rough, like a child would draw. Errr … yes, of course (splutter), that’s exactly the feeling I was going for. Nothing to do with the fact that I’ve never really drawn in my life and the pictures do look child-like because I’ve never had any artistic training. Thank goodness for my beloved husband who’s eye for detail is incredible. He helped me with perspective, authentic bus features and continuity. Without him my scene where Granny Franny rocks up to a wonky, out-of-proportion Buckingham Palace would have haunted me.
I’ll let you into a secret and if you’re reading this Jenny, I apologise. I got completely lost once while driving a party of very posh “air hair lair” wedding guests from the Guard’s Chapel in Birdcage Walk to Piccadilly Circus. You’re not allowed to drive buses in the Royal Parks without a licence and I don’t think I had one. The day was a driving nightmare as the Extinction Rebellion marches had closed Parliament Square and most roads suitable for buses. There was only one thing for it, so I took a deep breath, warned the conductor and drove past the front of Buckingham Palace and through the Park, hoping that the width restriction I saw coming up wouldn’t force me to do a U-turn. We made it and that little scene might just have inspired one of the scenes in the book which always amuses the children who’ve read it.
It’s been so lovely to be on the other side of the radio microphone for a change and even lovelier to have seen that a few grannies are now buying the book for their bus-loving grand children. I think what’s intriguing people is that a step-nanny like me realised a lifelong ambition to drive a bus, had fun doing it and is now using the whole process to help put back. Mum would have been so proud of hearing me on the radio and I know she would have jammed the switchboard trying to ring in to tell me to get more sleep.
Ding, ding, ding – Granny Franny’s Big Red Bus is available via www.grannyfrannysbigredbus.com and on Amazon.
Have you ever used the bottom of a glass as a magnifying device? Mum did. She worked out that she could spy on her carers and see what numbers they were pressing into the security locks. And then, when nobody was watching, she escaped. I still feel bad for that poor locksmith who started his day thinking he was just installing a new front door lock and ended up the victim of a furious, flame-haired harridan accusing him of burglary and kicking his shins. Mum had been in her new care home for about a month and she’d had enough. Tony and I were decorating her pretty 1-bed retirement home as she’d left it in a pretty poor state before being committed. I was out buying net curtains when I had a nervous husband whispering down the phone … “Err .. your mum’s here.” WHAT? “Yes, she’s here and has been giving the locksmith hell.” Can you imagine the pain of driving her back that evening? I tried putting myself in her position at being under lock and key in a vast care home, surrounded by strange people and came to the conclusion that I too would have done anything to escape and go home.
Now we’re all in lockdown the world around us is changing. I walk my little dog every night when it’s deathly quiet outside and the wildlife are wandering the streets freely. Last night there was five or six foxes having a foxy conference in the middle of the road, owls were hooting and the air smelled of blossom and plants. I saw two empty buses and three cars pass me throughout the half-hour I was out on my once-a-day permitted exercise trip. Our Prime Minister is in intensive care due to the Covid-19 pandemic, almost all my friends, colleagues and relatives have lost all foreseeable work and we’re all avoiding each other like the … well, actually yes … like the plague. Our homes have become our offices, our maps, our sanctuary and our prison.
Back when Mum lived a few miles away from me, she used to pop in whenever she felt the urge. No amount of begging her for a little notice ever worked. Sometimes she’d shout through the letterbox – “Ooo – ooo – Sonia”, but most of the time she just appeared. And she’d always have something for me, from a plated meal that she’d obviously ordered someone to assemble and cover in clingfilm to an expensive statue that she’d carted all the way from Selfridge’s on the bus. The other way round for the popping in thing? Forget it. Her house was like Fort Knox and she was continually having the locks changed, because she was convinced that all her neighbours were spies and out to steal everything from her. When she moved to her little retirement home (now miles away on the West Sussex coast), we agreed that her selfless neighbour Heather could have her front door key just in case she ever needed help or I wanted her to check in on her. That lasted about a week as Mum had put together a spy story where Heather was passing information to all her children who would, whenever they felt like it, appear and nick her stuff. Exasperating though that was at the time, I can understand her need for feeling secure and safe and doing what she needed to do to make herself feel empowered.
I know what Mum would have said if I’d explained the lockdown to her. “So now you know how I feel, Sonia darling. Bring toffees when you come to see me, won’t you?”
My mum was arrested in 2010 for threatening a violent teenage gang with her antique WW1 tin gun. Yes, really. It frightened them off for a bit, until they realised that she was about to stagger through a wooded pathway on her way to the off licence to pick up another half bottle of whiskey. A neighbour saw the incident and called the police, because he thought Mum was about to get beaten up. The police officers intercepted her at the end of the path, the teenagers scattered and then she was put in handcuffs in the back of the police car after a round of fisticuffs that she claimed she’d win. Even in this distressing situation she made me laugh – “Sonia darling, come and get me, they’ve had me in cufflinks all night.” Cufflinks, Mum? “Yes, ****ing cufflinks! Can you believe it?” I was banned from seeing her as the authorities needed to section and assess her on their own and although I hated them for it at the time, it was exactly the right thing for her – aged 80. Out of danger came safety and after 80 years of pandemonium came peace.
I’ve been rummaging through our photos today, seeking out the pictures that will go into the book I’m currently planning. I’ve worked out that there were at least 50 incidents within which Mum’s antics have played an awkward, embarrassing and downright hilarious part. They’re all universal life events that I think everyone can relate to; birthday parties, trips to the zoo, first dates, big school, holidays, cinema visits etc. The hilarious insights have come to me in later life as some (OK, all) of them were excruciating at the time, as those of you who’ve been reading this blog will have gathered. She was sensationally naughty, my Mum. Rules, protocols or social norms just didn’t apply to her and I thank her every day for that gift of breaking rules, exploring explanations and questioning the world around me. The picture I’ve chosen for this blog is Mum at 85 holding up her homework. She loved words and as her memory started to fail, I spent a lot of time trying to stimulate her back into a bit of creative writing, This exercise makes me laugh so much – just in case you can’t read it, here’s the transcript. The bits in brackets are Mum’s fill-ins between the main structure.
Once upon a time there was a (DAY) who (NO OTHER) lived in (CAMBRIDGE). One day two (TAXIS) arrived and took the (LAVATORY) away. Oh dear, said (MRS. EARDLEY), that’s (DENNIS’S FOOTBALL-POST). So they (RAMPAGED) on their (STADIUM) and (SALUTED THE FC MANAGERS – LANDSLIP) Thank you. Margaret.
All her answers were things that she’d been thinking about that day – and all of them related to her previous job as an Arsenal Football Ground telephonist, her first husband, Dennis and thoughts that only she could fathom. Her dementia meant that she had trouble accessing memories when asked about them directly, so I learned to find other ways to help her dig them out. Somehow she wove those memories into a little story which made perfect sense to her. We both laughed about it, because she could see the humour in her thought process when it was written down. “Oh dear, Sonia darling, am I THAT crazy? Really?” No, Mum I told her – you’re not crazy, you just get your thoughts out in a slightly different way to most people. She seemed happy with that answer and ordered us all chicken salads and custard cream biscuits, even though the care home was closing the kitchen. Bless them, they made us all chicken salads and broke out the biscuits, because Mum was their favourite resident. We played the story game a lot more with her and some of the the other residents until Mum’s memory and interest started to diminish.
I’m just wondering about how to get a taxi full of toilets and a salute to the FC managers into one of the chapters of the new book. Maybe I’ll just include a chapter on “homework” and include this and the incident where she tried to imitate my 5-year old hand-writing for a homework project on birds. “Sonia Beldom – come to the front of the class!” shouted my teacher. Oh Gawd, what have I or my mum done NOW? I thought to myself. “The song thrush poos all night long and sings Christmas carols to all who want to listen???? Hmmmm – did YOU write this?” No Miss, I know that poo has an “h” at the end. That classroom corner was a nice quiet relief to stand in for half an hour I can tell you. I learned in that moment what “behind someone’s back” really meant and yes, Algnernon Road junior school class of 196…whatever, I COULD hear you and I’ll have you know that she was the best mum a daughter could ever have, so there!
There are 100 anecdotes to tell, however “MUMCONTROLLABLE – 50 Ways to Embarrass Your Daughter” does have a ring to it, doesn’t it? I’ve wondered about biffing the chapter on nuns, although it was funny in hindsight when she used to make me hold their hands before she ran away. It was Mum doing what she thought was best for her little girl whenever she could feel the clouds descending. I think I’ll extend the chapter to include other holy teachers, all of whom have had the metaphorical gun held to their heads for rituals and actions that Mum considered daft – I’ll tell you about the prayer mat hiding incident another time.
Someone? In these days of complex technology, digital life soundtracks and connectivity, we’ve started listening in our millions to simple voices telling simple stories again. Podcasting and radio in its purest form. Real people and their real lives, be that sharing the embarrassment of their Dad’s porno story or simple tips on 100 things you can do with an avocado. My precious mum loved radio and her pin-ups were the DJs and presenters who spoke to her one-to-one. She had signed photos of all of them and a couple of letters politely telling her that no, the listeners probably wouldn’t want to hear her little daughter coming on to sing “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from Cinderella. When all my friends were listening to 70s pop, I hid my transistor under my pillow, listening to phone-ins and lush, orchestral arrangements on Radio 2 into the wee small hours. I was in my own world full of interesting people discussing interesting things from their worlds. Nobody arguing, no parents pulling you from pillar to post about where you were going to live post-divorce. Just pure, gorgeous voices talking.
Inspired by Mum, I’m starting a podcast this year along with a fantastic friend whose mother was also called Margaret and had an equally charismatic stamp on the world and people around her. The podcast feels like the most logical next step after writing this blog. Inspired by Mum’s mischievousness and unfettered exuberance for life, we are lifting off from the written word to the spoken word. I can’t wait and it’ll take me right back to my professional roots when I worked as a radio producer for BBC Light Entertainment and then BBC Radio 2. Yes, I fulfilled that childhood dream to be in the studio when the lush orchestra reached its climax and I got on the talkback to say “Thank you everybody, that’s a take.” I worked with the voices I’d grown to love and found out about the real people. Some of them are no longer with us, but their voices are always there to be pulled out of the memory filing system if I close my eyes and travel back in time.
I’m attaching a file here which I haven’t been brave enough to listen to until today. I thought long and hard about sharing it and decided that she’d have loved the music and our voices talking together, so here it is. How she managed it, I’ll never know, but Mum must have accidentally stumbled upon the voice recorder app on my iphone when I stayed with her a month before she died. She was very weak, in and out of lucidity and it was clear that her memory and body was failing dramatically, except for sudden bursts of activity inspired by the music we had playing in the background. The overwhelming thing for me is that it captures at around 5 minutes in, an intimate conversation forever and one I will never tire of hearing over and over from now on. It’s the conversation I hope might inspire others to have with their own mothers before it’s too late. You’ll hear a scrabbling at the end which is me realising that the phone had been recording something. She certainly didn’t know anything about iphones, but somehow, magically, her busy fingers pressed all the right buttons.
It IS going to be a happy new year – I can feel it in my bones.
Sonia’s Mum is a transformational love story between a mentally complex mother and the daughter who adored her. I want to share these deeply personal and funny stories so that we can raise awareness for how challenging it is for many people who’ve had mentally ill parents and have struggled to come to terms with their own issues.
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