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!