Sorry Seems to be the Easiest Word
Sorry – for walking in front of you. Sorry – for you letting me go first. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Why do we Brits say it all the time and rarely mean it? It’s a bit like ‘fine’ when we probably mean the opposite. Funny old thing, language. Tony & I have come to Spain for a couple of weeks and when I told Mum she said “Sorry you’re having to go all that way”. I smiled to myself and probed her a little more, trying hard not to ask direct questions or contradict her. “Yes, it’s a long way so it’s great that Easyjet go there from Gatwick. “Don’t go on holiday to Gatwick, it’s far too noisy with all those planes coming and going”. “We’re going to Spain, Mum – up in the mountains with clean air, the distant sound of cow bells and the coast a ten minute drive away”. “I love it when you get all poetic Sonia darling, did I teach you that?” “Yes, Mum. You did.” She’s always had such a way with words, even though she rarely picks up a pen these days. Mum has defaced every book she’s ever owned, even an ancient, once-very-valuable leather bound biblical encyclopedia with exquisite colour plates and hand-decorated capital letters to start each chapter. The man in the antiquarian book shop in Charing Cross shook his head, took off his circular gold-rimmed glasses and handed it back to me with a sad little smile and a sigh of disappointment when I enquired if it could be worth anything. “Yes, it would have been, but have you seen the scribbles?” Scribbles? What scribbles? There they were – Mum’s distinctive hand-written notes in various margins, page headers and on various gilt-rimmed blank pages. Most undecipherable, but one simply said “Sorry, I can’t” under a picture of Christ on the cross. I read the text to see if it referred to anything obvious, but I couldn’t find a connection. Mum was probably reading it when the thought popped into her head and if there was ever paper around, she’d write on it, jotting her feelings down. I know I’ve mentioned this before, so forgive the repetition. I’m about to visit a tiny church in Casares that, if I was religious, would be my own little Mecca and every time I see a figure of Jesus my mind always runs back to that precious book with Mum’s jottings. Sorry for what? What couldn’t she do?
I’ll be thinking of her later today when we go into the tiny, cool chapel that I first visited over ten years ago when my life was in meltdown and I had to escape to silence and beauty. A wonderful friend who I see far too little of (thank you Brendan if you’re reading this), recommended that I went away to somewhere peaceful to reflect and recover. The man I was seeing at the time had crippling depression, no matter what I tried to do or say to support him. Mum was drinking and driving me crackers, I’d lost my job and it felt like my brain had been replaced with cotton wool. I can remember apologising to everyone for everything all the time; Sorry to be so miserable, sorry I haven’t called you, sorry I’m such a rubbish friend, so it was a turning point when I could say thank you to my precious friend David for lending me his beautiful little Spanish house as a retreat. While there I ventured to different villages and stumbled upon Casares on a Sunday. There in my shorts, trainers and casual t-shirt I didn’t dare enter the church for fear of insulting the locals. But it was quiet and a little man beckoned me in, gesturing for me to sit down and wait. Unsure of why I was agreeing to sit alone in a church pew I did as he said and rested there, looking at the statues and crosses, thinking about the comfort they bring to people who genuinely believe. About five minutes later the door opened and the little man ushered a little lady into the church and she spoke a few words of English. “My friend, he told me you need peace. This … this … (she gestured around the church) … this … your sanctuary. Welcome. Stay. She handed me a glass of water and as I drank I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I said sorry; sorry for the tears, sorry for interrupting your day, sorry for running away Mum, sorry for being a nuisance. I don’t think she understood, but they smiled at me, gestured around the church and shook their heads. “No sorry, no sorry. Sanctuary”. Such kindness and such a life-changing moment when I felt that I should stop saying sorry all the time. I didn’t need to beg these people to forgive me for anything. They were tender, caring people who saw a sad person and offered her a place to be at peace.
The last time Tony and I visited Casares, we sat in a café overlooking the tiny village square with the church on one corner and I told him about the reason I loved the place so much. An old green Rover car pulled up outside the church and Tony noticed that the last three letters of the number plate were BBC. Amazing, as it’s the place that Tony and I had met each other. How lovely was that? What he hadn’t noticed was that the preceding four numbers of the plate were our home telephone number. I was about to go and talk to the driver when the car disappeared, so who knows, maybe we’ll see it again today and find out who it belongs to. I told Mum about that number plate and she looked at us both and simply said “of course”. I’ll never know what was going through her head when she wrote in all those books, but I do know that she doesn’t have to be sorry for any of it. Not even the hat she drew on the Pope.
Mum is enthralled with watching a repeat of the the royal wedding, but thinks the venue is rather odd.
“It’s a bit of a knockdown place don’t you think?” sniffs my Mum. A knockdown place Mum? I’m not sure what you mean. “Knockdown, you know!” She’s sounding fractious, so I don’t pursue it.
“Do you like her dress Mum?”
“It needs more pearls and frilly stuff, but it’s pretty enough and I like her necklace”
“Ah Mum – I think you mean neckline. I don’t think she’s wearing a necklace”
“Harry looks sweet though. You met him didn’t you?”
“I met Prince Edward Mum”.
“Did you wear a necklace at your wedding?”.
“It was a very old mother-of-pearl necklace, Mum”
“Did I like it?”
“Yes Mum, you did”
“You’ve met Prince Harry haven’t you?”
“Prince Edward, Mum, but it was many years ago”
Actually, the Prince Edward story is quite funny in itself. All she did was to write to him afterwards, but we never had an answer and this is probably why. Way, way back when I was a trainee producer for BBC Radio Light Entertainment, we produced a huge celebration of radio by staging a special concert at Earl’s Court with one Prince Edward as the guest of honour at the supper prior to the LIVE concert which went out on Radio 2, 3 and 4. My role was to engage the acts and organise all the visuals. What actually happened was that the Executive Producer asked if there was anything I thought we should add and I piped up that there was a huge video wall on either side of the screen, so why didn’t we use it? I should have kept my mouth shut. After all this was radio. Still, the guests were going to watch a spectacular concert, so they needed to be entertained in the best possible way – what with there being a royal prince there and everything. So, my life was all about sourcing high def pictures to accompany the music numbers and cabaret, old stock photos of the BBC through history and a few shots of BBC special events. Come the day of the rehearsal I realised that to operate the audio visual screens, I had to climb a vertical ladder about 30 foot high behind the audience section and walk along a metal gantry. OK, that’s going to be fine, as I don’t mind heights. Our guests on the night were Frankie Howard, the BBC Concert Orchestra, a tap dancing troupe (don’t ask, yes I know … RADIO !!!) and various posh singers. What I’d failed to remember was that I would be in full evening dress, but I managed the climb up the gantry to be in position well before the guests started assembling. Frankie Howard, of course, over-ran by 10 minutes, so it was all a bit of a scramble to get everything in. Luckily the networks allowed the over-run and broadcast the whole thing. Phew! We’d made it and everyone was cheering. It was my time to come back down and join the party, so I started the perilous descent. Not so easy in a long frock as you can imagine, so there was nothing more for it than to lift up the long velvet skirt to make sure nothing tripped me up. I looked down to check where I was and saw the Executive producer frantically waving UP, UP signs. What did he mean, UP, UP? I was on my way down. I tried one more step down to then see him making a dramatic CUT, CUT mime across his neck. He obviously wanted me to stop, so I did. Hung mid air, on a vertical ladder, skirt in hand, trembling on a thin rung. I looked down again to see the whole audience looking up in horror. You know that scene in The Producers when the audience first clock “Spring Time for Hitler”? It was a bit like that. I know that I was in a dangerous position, but they didn’t need to be so worried about me! It was then I realised that I was descending the ladder that was positioned right behind Prince Edward’s seat. He hadn’t moved yet, so that whole audience was waiting for his signal so get up from the concert. And what did they see? Me, legs showing, balanced like a tragic trapeze act about 10 feet above his head. Hmmmm … what to do? Luckily, Prince Edward moved quite quickly, clocking me and the audience. I was introduced to him at the after show party and I think I tried a curtsy, I can’t quite remember, but he said, with a huge grin, “Ah yes, I’ve seen you before haven’t I? You obviously don’t have a fear of heights.” I told Mum that story and she laughed a lot. Then she told me that she was going to write to Prince Edward to see if he was single and wanted to marry me. No amount of protesting on any level would have got through to her.
Back to the royal wedding viewing.
“It’s a very happy occasion isn’t it, Mum?”
“Yes, but very knock-down.” I can’t get to the bottom of what she means, but the only thing I can think is that the commentators were saying how well British royal weddings do Pomp and A-list guests, maybe she thought they were talking about Pompeii – one of the places she’s always wanted to visit. Knockdown is Mum’s words for ruins.
I could tell you stories about all the letters she’s written to the royal family, but the blog would last forever. One that got a lovely response was that Her Majesty The Queen was very touched by the gift that Mum left at Buckingham Palace and that the she would share the chocolates with her family at Christmas. And I bet you something – Mum would have worked an extra week’s late shifts to buy super posh chocolates for The Queen. She’s like that.
A little pile of plain digestive biscuits, a cheeky smile and my mum’s soft hand encasing mine – these are the presents I love. In the old days she used to buy the most extraordinary array of gifts from extravagant to plain loopy. Everything had a reason somewhere deep down, although I’ll never fathom the significance of five giant sweet jars recycled from a sweet shop with a single barley sugar sweet and a feather in each one. The yearly supply of Strepsils was useful I guess, but medicine for Christmas was always a bit weird.
As birthdays approach she’ll be gearing up for our annual conversation. “I can’t get out to buy you anything, but what do you want?” Mum, please don’t worry, just seeing you is enough. “What did I buy you last year?” It was lovely Mum. She hasn’t been out to buy anything for eight years, because she’s not allowed out on her own. She occasionally orders her carers to pop down to the local Tesco for toffees when I’m not due to visit for a few days. I had a panic phone call once from the care home to say that Margaret was insistent that they bought her a pair of extra large, tan support tights, despite the fact that she’s a ‘small’ and doesn’t wear tights. She eventually confessed that they were for me, so they were checking if I really did want them or not. I didn’t and as I would have had to pay for them anyway and tan? Tan tights? I don’t think so. There was no need to tell Mum that I’d refused them as she would have forgotten about her order five minutes after she’d placed it.
Some of my mum’s gifts adorn my home; an overbearing, detailed Armani owl figurine (birdarine?), a delicate art deco lady in a flowing green dress pointing balletically to the ceiling and Hamble the doll from Play School, an old children’s television programme. If you’ve never seen Play School it was a British series with various dolls and characters who got up to adventures with the hosts. Hamble was eventually cast aside because she couldn’t sit up straight and was tricky to cuddle, unlike Big Ted, Little Ted, Jemima the rag doll and the huge green velvet Humpty with a huge round white nose. Everybody knew that round noses were supposed to be red though, surely? I didn’t like Humpty, he was creepy. Hamble, or Susan Mendy as I called her, was wonderful. She had a face like a real girl, tippy up eyes, soft limbs and extra chewy toes. She sits above my writing desk these days, staring down at me with her now rigid blue eyes and a little white frock that Mum always told me was mine when I was a baby. I think that’s probably one of her fantasies though as it’s more likely that she saw it in a charity shop and bought the dress because it looked a bit like a bridal gown. Even though I’d heard Mum saying over and over that she loved me and her dream was to see me as a bride one day when I married my Prince Charming, the joy of a happy marriage escaped me completely until I was 48. My first marriage was an utter, unmitigated, depressing disaster as I married midst a debilitating depression that I never admitted to anyone, not even my precious, precious friend who jokingly asked me if I was “doing the right thing in marrying him” the night before. I should have been honest and backed out, but I simply didn’t have the strength and everyone was making plans for the day. Nobody was showing any signs of this being the wrong thing to do, so I thought I was obviously mad in my own thoughts of breaking it off. How could I let everyone down? I believed that everyone else’s feelings were so much more important than mine. I was in a mess and I didn’t really know it. I can remember seeing my future husband on his mobile phone, strutting across the green in his tail-coat, laughing loudly into the mouthpiece with not a care in the world. I should have backed out then, but my crucifying belief was that he was all I deserved. Which sane, intelligent, desirable man would ever want to be with a crumbling mess like me with a crazy mother interfering at every point? The only thing to have come out of that short-lived marriage was the wonderful story of Mum trying to set fire to my mother-in-law at the wedding, but I’ve covered that story in another blog, “Burn Joan of Arc, Burn” (Nov 4th, 2017). Mum bought us a huge figurine of a joking fisherman up on one leg, dangling a massive fish for our first anniversary. It was the sort of present you’d have bought an obsessive amateur angler for their 60th birthday. What did I want with something like that? It was so big that it dominated any space and led to some very confused looks from friends and family. It made me a bit cross to be honest. How could Mum have mis-judged me so? My ex-husband didn’t go fishing either, so it made no sense. I tried putting it next to the little pond in the garden, but it looked ridiculous. I eventually tracked down the man who made it to ask if he’d like it back, but he said it wasn’t one of his favourites, so I was stuck with it. I couldn’t take it to the charity shop, could I? Or could I? No, it would have broken her heart if she’d seen it in the shop window. But then again, maybe not. When I moved into my house there were a couple of truly awful light fittings that looked like old colonial ceiling fans interspersed with mock-flame effect glass light fittings. They had to go, so I took one to the local charity shop. They didn’t think it would sell, but put it in the window as a piece of set design. Two days later I had one of Mum’s surprise visits .. “ooooh, oooooh Sonia?” shouted through the letterbox. Lovely to see her of course, but it was always when I was in the middle of something important (why did she never, ever, ring first?). I could see through the glass that she was struggling with something heavy. There she was, proud as punch with the light fitting. What the … ? Mum, I … “I’m thrilled, Sonia darling, you’ve only got one of these and I saw this and thought it would match.” How much did they charge you for it, Mum? “It was only £50”. Fifty quid? Seriously? Grabbing ******rds! I was furious. Not only because I’d got the blooming thing back again, but because Mum had wasted so much of her money on another thing I didn’t really want. I’m ashamed to admit that I was probably quite cruel in telling her that I didn’t like it and could we get the money back for something I DID want. Mum didn’t flinch at that at all and said that we could both carry it back as it was a bit tricky getting it to my house, despite a kind man helping her some of the way. Off we marched, but the little volunteer lady in the charity shop was having none of it. “This is a CHARITY shop you know – we’re here to make money for charitable causes by selling things that kind people bring in”. Yes, I’m aware of what a charity shop is and does, because I’m the “kind lady” who brought it in a few days ago. Mum got it wrong, thinking it would match the other one, but I was donating it because it doesn’t go. Please could you see your way clear to at least exchanging it for something else? “No Madam, I can’t. This is a charity shop …” etc. etc. Mum was now off snuffling out second hand shoes and jumpers so I tried a different approach on the lady. I explained that Mum had mental health problems and often had manic episodes where she spent money un-necessarily. SILENCE. The lady drew in a very long breath, pinched her mouth together, looked very slowly up to my eyes, lowered her chin so that she was now eyeballing me through her rotten eyebrows and repeated … “Madam, this is a charity shop … we make our money”. OK, OK, OK! I wasn’t going to win this one. Where was Mum? In horror, I saw her making her way out of the door with a pile of clothes, a few ornaments and a brass vase. Mum! What are you doing? “Stupid woman – she can keep her stupid light fitting and her money. Come along, these clothes will fit you beautifully and your lounge will look lovely with this vase. LADY BEHIND THAT TILL – you jolly well stay there and call the police if you have to. Come along, Sonia darling, don’t waste your time on the mealy mouthed bitch!” Panic struck and I blurted out apologies to the lady, mumbling about how she was only doing her job and don’t call the police. My day was quite calm to start off with and now I was back in the maelstrom of chaos that most of Mum’s visits led to. I felt deflated, stupid, embarrassed and four years old, trying to mop up the effects of one of Mum’s tsunamis.
These days it’s Mum who loves getting presents – chocolate biscuits that she distributes to her fellow residents, toffees that she scoffs in one sitting and fluffy fleecy blankets that she wraps around herself to remind her of me when I’m not there. I spoke to her yesterday and as we were finishing up she called one of her carer ladies over so that she could give her a hug. I could hear it all on the end of the phone … “Yes, we love you too Margaret. Let me go now, Margaret.” The phone call was topped off with Mum telling me that she was cuddling one of her friends, pretending it was me and could I feel her arms around me? I love her so much and the best present she can ever give me is that she keeps going, continues to live a peaceful, calm life and has enough strength to throw a mild wobbly every now and then to remind us that’s she’s still got that energy and passion for a life she’s always thrown herself into head-first.
When did your mum tell you the REAL story about the birds and the bees? in front of the school? In the middle of a film screening? No? You do surprise me. Forget trying to watch a film or a TV show with Mum around. Anything on screen only serves as a trigger for her – often linking a random thought or bringing a new one into her mind that she wants to share. A friend of mine sent me this link to an old video on YouTube and it brought back all sorts of memories as I think it’s the film we were all shown to explain human reproduction, but can somebody explain this to me? Why do respectable people use the phrase “the birds and the bees”? Birds don’t use rubber tubes on their willies (condoms) and bees don’t sit on poles (like naughty ladies did), surely? These are both things that Mum used to explain sexual things to me when I was little. I don’t remember exactly when or whether I ever asked her any questions about it. Here’s the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJzEdCej0dk
Many years ago parents and children were all gathered to watch a new public information film about human reproduction and Mum, somehow, found out about it and crashed the screening. I was there with my Dad and new step mum and all appeared to be calm, although I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about as I knew all about babies. Mum’s version was that daddies gave the mummies milk and then they had babies (see “When Mums Pick Your Boyfriends, 2nd Feb 2018), so I was waiting for that bit. The lights went down as the manic murmur of confused children started to dwindle with the rattle of the Super 8 projector. Films had authority, films had posh men telling you important stories and films were never, ever, ever to be interrupted by talking.
VOICE OVER: “The boy has a little tube – which is very useful for relieving himself if he needs to and he also has a sack containing Heaven knows what … “ I can imagine Mum heckling at this point. “Heaven knows what? Well, if they don’t know …” This is what she actually said when the film explained what testicles are. “It’s the milk, Sonia darling, do you remember me telling you about the milk?” Oh no! Mum was here, at the back, but not for long. She marched down to the front of the hall and stood in front of the screen, amidst tuts and gasps of embarrassment from parents and teachers. I can’t remember much else, just the feeling that I wanted to disappear and console my step mum for the public exposure. Mum proceeded to explain to me (and the rest of the school) that Daddy didn’t want to ‘do all this nonsense’ with her and that’s why Daddy’s new girlfriend was living with us. Of course Mum thought she was doing the right thing by explaining something important and I don’t believe that she did this to embarrass Dad, my step mum or me. She did, though, especially when she started explaining again what condoms were in front of the whole school. I think I left the hall – or maybe she did – there was too much laughter to remember.
Isn’t if funny? Sometimes it takes the process of writing about something to remind you about a completely different memory. Through sharing this Mum anecdote about a film show, I’m now aware that it’s not my train of thought that’s broken if people talk through a film or TV programme, it’s an inbuilt fear that somehow I’ll be exposed or noticed in a negative way. I settle into a film or a TV show with the hope that I’ll get through it without any interruptions, but deep down I’m bracing myself for the inevitable, although that’s not been a conscious thought. Now I’m beginning to see that it started as that. Friends could never understand my love of going to films on my own. “Surely you’d enjoy it more if you could share it with other people?” Nope. “But going to the movies is a social thing while watching a film.” No it’s not – it’s about watching every second of cinematography from the moment the film starts, appreciating every nuance of drama, especially in the silent moments which aren’t the time to text your mates, dig into the sweet bag or chat amongst yourselves. Yes, it’s a social bit before and after, but not during, so why don’t we just go out and have something to eat together instead? Aha – I’ve identified my obsessional please-be-quiet-there’s-a-film-on trigger, so I’ll try looking through a different lens now. If anyone talks through something I’ll just remember how brilliant my Mum is and it’s a lovely reminder of her way of wanting to explain the world to her little girl. Or maybe I’ll just blame Gogglebox! Much though I love that show, it’s encouraged everyone to be ok with talking and sharing through everything and anything they watch. Talking through dramas, reacting loudly to every bump, accident or love scene is positively encouraged. Maybe the inventor of that series went to the same school as I did and Mum’s improvised sex education lecture was his inspiration! We’re about the same age – wouldn’t that be interesting? I asked Mum once if she liked Gogglebox as I wondered if she’d identify with it. Her answer? “No, but I like Prime Ministers Question Time”. Really? Politics? But you hate politics, Mum. “I like it when he tells people off for interrupting – he’s funny with his loud voice”. Okaaaaay.
Flower arranging – such a lovely sounding activity. Peaceful, colourful, relaxing unless you grew up with my flame-haired volcano of a mother. Spring is here and the daffodils are nodding, the snowdrops are peeping, blossoms are warming up for their big entrance. And all I can think about at this point of regeneration is an old lady with one leg.
Many years ago our landlady had to have her left leg removed and I knew that the right thing to do was take flowers when visiting people in hospital. I was around five and struggling with Mum’s logic which wasn’t always, well … let’s just say, normal. “We need to get her some flowers, don’t we Mummy?” “Why?”, “Because that’s what people do for people in hospital – they take them flowers”. I’d picked this gem of information up after watching Carry on Doctor. I loved those films as I was convinced that Sid James was actually my granddad, Pop. My Nan and Pop’s flat had a television in it, which made it one of the best flats in the world. Films were my normality, because life with Mum was such a muddle. I could escape into them and dream of Hattie Jacques being my sensible mum. Flowers it was going to have to be. That was all there was to it. A nice bunch so that Mrs. Healey knew how much we loved her. Mum wasn’t having any of it, so on the way to the bus I did the usual trick of standing stiff still, refusing to budge, full pout, pinched lips. “Flowers! We should take flowers. I’ve got pocket money. We can buy daffodils”. The next minute we were marching up the path of a big house with a colourful garden. “Mummy! We can’t steal them, that isn’t nice”. “Wait a moment, Sonia darling.” She banged on the door, and then banged again until a confused lady opening the door, drying her hands on her apron. “Yes? Can I help you?” Mum pushed me forward, laid her hands on my shoulders and put on this ridiculous little girl voice as I turned round to question her with my what-are-you-doing? face. She turned me back round and continued. “Good morning. We are going to visit an old lady friend of ours in hospital and my little daughter here said – Oh Mummy, those flowers are so beautiful …” WHAT? I did NOT say that! She turned me round again and continued. “Do you think Mrs Healey would like some of those beautiful flowers to help her get better?” The daughter was not for turning any more as it didn’t make any difference now. The lady continued to look a bit confused, but was suddenly catching on. Then, horror of horrors, her own daughter poked her head round the door to see what the fuss was about. SHARON! My arch nemesis at school. Sharon who used to mimic a super posh voice to tease me whenever I answered a question in class. Sharon who was the ringleader in acting out crazy Mum antics. Sharon who was now smirking with uncontrollable glee. Mum continued, “Do you think we could pick just a couple of your flowers to take to Mrs. Healey? Sonia would be SO thrilled!” No she wouldn’t. Sonia would be mortified and dreading Monday morning – again. Picked they were, put in a huge bunch and we were sent off with a cheery wave and a demonic low-down wave from Sharon who was already hatching a plan. Mrs. Healey was thrilled of course and hugged me so hard I thought my arms would be squeezed off. It had the desired effect, but it definitely wasn’t the desired method.
I can see it now of course. The want to please me and let me have what I needed. We wouldn’t have had the money to buy flowers and Mum would have spent a lot on travel to get to Mrs. Healey’s hospital. I do remember people smiling at me as I clutched my huge bunch of flowers and now I’ve re-remembered those looks as displays of affectionate empathy and not the smirk of derision that plagued my imagination for the following 48 hours. We do make so many assumptions when we’re little, don’t we? Set these rules for ourselves that run our lives. Nobody was EVER going to speak for me again and I NEVER wanted flowers as a present, ever, ever, ever, even as a bride. Brides were silly, why did you need to be in their photos anyway? And WHY did strange brides you walked past have to get me to kiss their cheek? It didn’t make sense.
Sharon was in class. Even though I’d managed to get to school early by sneaking into Mum & Dad’s room to put their clock forward by ten minutes. I hated that walk from the door to back of the classroom (my favourite place to be so nobody would ping stuff at the back of my head). Sharon was going to be singing some rotten song about flowers and stealing, I was sure of it. But she didn’t. Eh? Oh no, what did this mean? Instead, she came and sat next to me and shared her fairy cake. First reaction? It was poisoned or she’d dropped it on the floor. But she ate her half first, so that was ok. Eventually we became huge friends and she was the one muscling the other kids away from me. I’ll never really know where the change came from, as I didn’t ask. Perhaps, as a ‘normal’ girl, she’d seen my pain and embarrassment and decided not to pick on me any more. Or perhaps her mum had told her to be kind to me. Or maybe, the thing I’d never really have understood, she simply liked me. We’ve lost touch now and I wonder if she’ll ever make herself known again as I’d love to track her down again to say a massive thank you. You changed things Sharon and I’ll always love you for that.
Mum was obsessed with flowers and gardens, even though she used to call flowers by any old name – the same way she called other people’s dogs by different names. Tutu flowers were fuchsias, yellow tubas were daffodils and daisies were chain links. I was always puzzled as to how a real daisy fence could ever survive. How would it keep growing and stay pretty if all the daisies were picked for a chain link fence?
When she was around 60 she called me to tell me that she’d had a wonderful dream about someone called Linney. OK, another one of your colourful dreams, Mum, although I’m not sure who this Linney is. She told me about the swathes of flower meadows and mountains she’d seen in the few hours she ever slept at night. Somewhere in the dream someone had mentioned Sweden so she wanted to know if I’d ever been there. Nope, sorry Mum. A couple of days later I went into her flat and saw a note. Gone to Sweden – Linney is waiting. Oh God, what was this all about? No way of contacting her and she’d not told me where she was staying, how long she would be going for. All my childhood insecurities came sprinting into my mind. Yet again, she’d upped sticks and buggered off with no explanation. But this time, she’d at least given me a clue and I was a grown-up, whatever that means. Sweden. Two weeks later she showed me her photo album, full of pictures of kindly people with large dogs, huge cars, snowy log cabins and cheery waves. One family, who’d housed her for two days, drove her to the Stockholm Public Library and she was shown all the books by Carl Linnaeus, the famous botanist who was, of course, Swedish. The irony of it all is that Linnaeus invented the flora classification system, naming different species. What would he have made of Mum’s alternative names? Do you know what, I think he’d have thought hard and thought that they were as valid as any. After all, they’re prescriptive, colourful and out there – like Mum, adore her soul.
Even though it’s a bit overcast today in London, Kenwood will be buttered up by the yellow tubas so I’m going to have a look and see how many plants and trees I can name. I think that tulips should be called wineglasses and how about “frog song” for the beautiful crocus? Happy Spring!
“The Hurling” is my and Mum’s code for a situation where you get so frustrated, angry and irrational, the only thing to do is hurl things. “I had a hurling last week, Sonia darling” Mum told me once with a mischievous giggle in her voice. She’d hurled two cups of coffee over the care home fence as it had got too cold – no doubt losing essential temperature while she was throwing biscuits into the laps of her fellow residents. She referred to another hurling recently, but couldn’t quite remember why she’d done it; something to do with clothes. Knowing not to directly question or contradict her I told her that I felt like having one myself last Friday. She went quiet for a while, breathing hard into the telephone, took a sharp breath and asked “But you didn’t though, did you? Promise me you didn’t”. No Mum, I just took lots of deep breaths, listened to the sound of traffic around me, focussed on the road ahead and tried to ignore the rasping brake pads that Tony insisted were about to make our car into a death trap. All this on a day when the wireless hub decided to re-name itself to become invisible in the list of available networks, the printer packed up, the vacuum cleaner decided that my face was a far more efficient place to deposit its contents than the DUSTBIN! And I had one day to practice the route before taking the heritage Routemaster bus out on its inaugural 60s trip around some of London’s busiest roads with the words of the bus company’s boss saying, jovially, “Have fun, don’t f*ck it up”. Pistons on the Flying Scotsman? Nowhere near the same build up of pressure. Niagara Falls? A dribble by comparison. I asked Mum what I might feel like if I had a proper hurling and she told me that it was like a huge cloud of red all around you and the only way to puncture it was to throw something so hard that it broke its wall. Wow. A pretty major mental image isn’t it? I asked her why she didn’t want me to have a hurling – breaking my own no direct, difficult question rule – and she said that she’d be horrified if she’d passed her mental genes down to me. Reassurance, reassurance, reassurance and she was fine, breaking out from our serious chat with a “HELLO KEITH!” to her favourite friend there called Chris. He doesn’t appear to worry about reminding her every time “My name’s Chris, Margaret, Chris” to which she always responds “Oh, OK Keith”.
Yes, Mum used to break a lot of things. Plates, boxes of eggs, library books she hadn’t defaced yet, furniture, photo frames. All deliberately when she was in hurling mood. I grew up knowing that every time there were raised voices, something in the flat would be destroyed, so we shut down and created our own little dream worlds whenever that happened. It’s a good self-coping mechanism; but it does tend to drive everyone else berserk when you’re a grown up. One of my closest friends told me once that I “don’t do angry – or when I do, it’s a bit crap”. That made me want to hurl something, but I pinched my lips together, breathed out and thought about Waitrose Food Magazine. Then it made me really laugh as she collapsed into fits of giggles. I had a proper hurling once when struggling to understand an ex-partner’s mindset. I found one of the mugs a couple of weeks later, up against the tumbledown greenhouse about 70 feet down the garden. It felt good at the time, but it’s not a happy place. Good idea for a film maybe, where you can only enter another world if you puncture the red cloud of the one you’re already in. Mister Spielberg? I’ve got an idea I’d like to pitch to you.
Shall I tell you about the egg thing? For years and years I’d watched Mum go out and buy half a dozen eggs in a cardboard box and carry them carefully home. At first I was in a buggy and in later years I was walking with her. To me this was a significant and happy action as it always ended up with omelettes and Mum’s were the best as she used to add flour to make them all puffy. On the days I wasn’t eating she’d try and whisk them up into a glass of milk with sugar and pass it off as a delicious Nesquik drink, but I wasn’t fooled because egg is always gloopy and there’s the rotten little white bit in it that never dissolves … eeeuuughhhh. However, omelette days were more frequent. We had people coming round so Mum went to buy a whole dozen eggs. I insisted on carrying one box home, despite her protestations, after all I could be trusted. It was grown-ups who couldn’t. Along we went, accosting people to borrow their dogs, calling out to old ladies to mind the traffic, kissing nuns on the cheek, throwing apple cores into front gardens (don’t worry Sonia darling, apple cores are GOOD for gardens, they’re not litter) – I wasn’t convinced. And we got to our street corner and yes; you’ve guessed it, BANG. Down went the box of eggs as I hopped off a low wall. Mum didn’t say anything, just went silent and hurled the other box against our neighbour’s wall, took my hand and she left me with Dad while she went out to buy more eggs with a confused husband wondering what all the fuss was about. At that point I realised that I couldn’t be trusted and I’d caused a hurling, so I stopped eating altogether. They thought I was eating, but I’d hide the food anywhere I could. Cheese went inside my brother’s toy cars, apples in my mum’s wellington boots, bread down the toilet and real food on Daddy’s plate as he often didn’t notice the extra peas, lumpy mash or shoe leather liver. It’s no surprise, looking back, that the chubby little girl staring out of the school photographs aged 9 was now living with a step mum who made her feel safer, who could cook sweet & sour pork from scratch and didn’t insist I ate every single mouthful on the plate.
That image of a red cloud with impenetrable walls is quite something isn’t it? No wonder there were often holes in Mum’s clothes when she couldn’t have a full-on hurling, so took to cutting holes into things with scissors. She’s not officially allowed to have scissors these days, but has that stopped her? Not a bit of it. She’s so cheeky and loves it when the chiropodist comes as she’s always managed to snuffle away some piece of equipment that they’ve brought along. Normally trying to press it up on me when I go, as she can’t get out to buy me presents. Don’t get me wrong, curled blade toenail scissors are very useful and I always tell her what a brilliant present things like that are. She’s no fool though, often laughing at me and saying, “Don’t be daft Sonia darling, I only stole them from that silly foot man. Serves him right. He should be more alert – who knows what damage someone could do with scissors around here”. So now you know, wonderful care home workers – keep an eye out.
Oh Mum, you’re such a source of strength and happiness, despite all the crazy stuff you still manage to cram into your life. I’ll bring some balls of wool next time, so we can have fun hurling them together – I know it’ll make you laugh and who knows? It might replace the scary red cloud with the softer mohair version.
Now I need to find another name for my Wi-Fi – I liked the old name “New Direction” – run the D into the end of New and you’ll see what I mean. I guarantee that from now on, every time anyone says ‘I’ve got a new direction”, you’ll be inwardly chortling. Well, some of us will. Could I re-name it “The Hurling” maybe? No, too publicly confrontational. “Living Next Door to Finchley’s Noisiest Neighbours”? That’ll just have me wanting to hurl things at our adjoining walls every time I log on. So I’ll stick to “Huggles”, Mum’s word that is half cuddle and half hug that she finishes every conversation with. Huggles, Mum. See you at Easter.