I met up with my best, best friend from junior school last week, thirty five years after we last saw each other. We’d lost touch and after decades of trying to find him via social media, his old home address and Friends Reunited, up popped his photo on Facebook a couple of years ago. Bronzed and cool, now living in LA. The years flew past and he recalled a story that he’s often told people about my crazy mum. She’d turned up unexpectedly at my new school where things were pretty fantastic compared to the other schools I’d had to join mid-term along with the taunts, jibes and non-acceptance from other kids. Nobody, it seemed, liked a newcomer, apart from my last junior school where my lovely friend waved frantically at me shouting out “Sit here. Sit next to me!” Whereupon the other kids tried to get me next to them, smiled at me and offered me sweets in the break. I don’t think I really believed it, as it was likely I’d be yanked out of school again when one, both or all parents disappeared and moved – again! There was my mum at the end of the school path, in the street yelling out “ooh, ooh, Sonia darling, ooh ooh”. I whispered to my friend “Put your head down as we go past and maybe she won’t spot us amongst all the other kids”. It worked and off we scampered, seeking out ice cream and making sure we were home at least an hour after our annoying parents had told us to be back. My poor Mum. She would have been desperate to see me, having only limited access rights after the divorce. She shouldn’t have turned up un-announced, but “shouldn’t” wasn’t really in her vocabulary. Typical Mum. She would have decided she wanted to see me, got herself to the school and done what she always did – draw attention to herself and in turn to me. Although Andrew and I were laughing about it, I was holding back invisible tears to think how upset and confused she must have been to see her precious daughter for a snatched moment and then lose sight of her again.
She’s had a habit of turning up unexpectedly and one that sticks in my mind was when she took me and my brother to a holiday camp when we were 13 and 11 years old. I was just beginning to understand the power that a smile, a busty frame and long blonde hair had over teenage boys. I hung out with Philip, the first boy who called himself my boyfriend, smelled of mouthwash, bought me flowers (carnations) and chocolates (Black Magic). His mate tried it on with Dairy Milk, but that wasn’t cutting it when I had Mr. Listerine. We decided to go to the fancy dress party one evening and I made him a bow tie out of a black bin liner so that he could be James Bond and I was his Bond girl with a borrowed long frock and my hair piled up high on my head. While we were all parading around the stage there came on stage a little figure with what looked like an oversized grey bishop’s mitre resting on their shoulders with rows of points drawn on one side and a big pair of eyes on the other. Walking very slowly and with hands outstretched in front it was obvious that the thing they’d forgotten to include in this bizarre head costume was a pair of eyeholes. The Redcoat saw this as an opportunity to test out his comedy skills as he slid over and smiled at the audience before making a joke of some sort. For those not familiar with the pantomime of British holiday camps, imagine Summer Camp with people in red blazers organising “Miss Lovely Legs”, “Mr. Knobby Knees” competitions and embarrassing themselves once a week with their own talent show. Well this guy was classic. “So WHO do we have here then?” he said, winking at the audience and knocking on the cardboard headpiece. Sounding like it was coming from inside a sock, a shrill voice shouted out “JJJJJWWWAAAAARRFFFZZZZ”. “Pardon?” said the Redcoat, dancing around the character and mugging to the audience. Again, “I’m sorry – WHO or WHAT are you?”. Now he was doing that annoying pretend laugh where people who really aren’t very funny at all double over and hold their bellies in mock hysterics. “MMMMM JJJJJWWWAAAAARRFFFZZZZ !!!”, louder this time and starting to sound cross. “I’m sorry, love you’re gonna have to do better than that, isn’t she, or he, ladies and gentlemen?” Now the crowd was laughing, as was I, in the way you see a braying audience shouting OFF OFF OFF when a hopeless hopeful tries to belt out a Whitney Houston number on Britain’s Got Talent. Exasperated by not being understood the character tore off the grey cardboard hood thing and shouted “I’m Jaws, you stupid man!” “JAWS? Did you say JAWS?” “Yes, JAWS you stupid idiot, fatty fat boy!”. Silence fell and a few feet shuffled awkwardly as people started sniggering or walking off in embarrassment. The figure had flowing red hair, pink cheeks from being inside the home-made Jaws head and I hid behind Philip in case she saw me. Mum had tried very hard to be original and funny in her inimitable way, but I was crucified with embarrassment and wanted to deny I knew her in that moment. Aren’t we cruel when we’re kids? Of course, we laughed about it a few years later and I’ve never been able to see the film without thinking of my little mum marching around with a cardboard Jaws head on. It was rubbish, truth be told and didn’t look anything like a shark, but it was the creative thought I admire when I look back. Other mums were pirates, fairies, cats or ghosts. Mum was a shark. Of course she was.
Andrew and I compared notes about our mums, early careers, loves, losses and what makes us tick. He lives in LA now and it’s my turn to go and visit him next time. I knew I’d be friends with him forever when we first met. He was warm, welcoming, smiley and kind. He apparently thought I was sweet, quiet and shy. Well, that was the coping strategy in a new school. Keep a low profile and perhaps they’ll ignore you and stick horrible notes on someone else’s back. It’s so life affirming to hear a friend saying “Wow – what a lot you’ve packed in to your life” and “How did you EVER get over that?”. Channelling my mum, that’s how. She was brave, creative and confident in her Jaws moment – all qualities she’s passed on to me whenever I try something new and plunge feet first into a new adventure. She still nags me when I see her. “You’re not getting enough sleep” is her current favourite one as she tries to convince the care home staff to make up a bedroom for me so that I can stay the night.
So when I rock up to Los Angeles International Airport should I wear a Jaws costume and shout “Ooh,ooh Andrew, ooh ooh?” He’d laugh, but I’m not sure about the LAPD … safe journey back across the Atlantic my precious friend and I’ll tell Mum all about our wonderful afternoon when I see her at the weekend on the South Coast where, thankfully, great whites are few and far between.
I called Mum earlier to wish her a happy 88th birthday for tomorrow.
“I’m NOT going to bingo – I hate it!” she yelled at me.
“OK, OK what’s the problem with bingo, Mum?”
“I HATE bingo and I WON’T go. And I’m NOT fat”.
A little bit of mental back-tracking and I realised that she was getting bingo and birthdays mixed up. Tomorrow she’ll be 88 and, of course, 88 is “two fat ladies” in bingo talk. She’s never been a bingo fan, but this number has obviously stayed with her, buried deep somewhere in her memory bank. She took me to bingo a lot when I was a little girl and I was hooked from the moment I won a beach ball at my very first bingo game on a seaside pier somewhere in the South Coast. It was magical; they shouted out numbers and strange phrases, people ticked off their numbers and you won a prize. It happened at the next game too. Double beach ball joy. I made up a poem that I’m sure must have driven her to distraction, but she never protested. It went something like this:
Bingo, bingo, bingo, a game with silly lingo, two fat ladies, legs eleven, win a beach ball and go to Heaven. Wordsworth would have been proud of me as I sang it all holiday.
The concept of age is obviously confusing Mum today. She told me that she thinks I’m 35 and Tony’s 38, so we’ll keep it there if it makes her feel better. I asked her how old she’d like to be and she said 33. It was the age she was when I was born. Aah, that’s nice, Mum. That’s such a sweet thing to say. “You were much easier to deal with before you learned to talk!”, then she collapses into peels of laughter as her carers jokingly admonish her in the background. “Don’t be mean, Margaret”, “Oh Margaret, that’ not a nice thing to say to your daughter”.
“Oh she doesn’t mind. She’s been around a long time. Fancy having an 88 year-old daughter! Who’d have believed it?”
Who indeed? All the fives, that’s who.
Happy Birthday, darling Mum xx
Mum wrote me poem about a rainbow when I was little. “Coloured bands of light are bending in the sky, beneath the world’s revolving as time and space go by, Shine my little angel in everything you do. When I dream …” and then the poem stops. No doubt Mum’s mind was distracted by whatever was happening around her or another thought hijacked the poetry space in her head. She rarely wrote verse and I treasure this little snippet.
There are rainbows everywhere at the moment; metaphorical, physical, edible.
We had rainbows over Bognor last week when the smattering of rain teased the tinder grass of the South Downs. Mum told me that everyone was wearing rainbows on the sea front. I probed a little further .
“Everyone’s WEARING rainbows, Mum? Maybe you mean SEEING”.
“No, Sonia darling, wearing. It’s like the sky has come down to Earth.”
Of course, it was Brighton Pride and the coast was full of colourful people in colourful clothes, sporting coloured bands and glitter faces. Mum recalled that she’d once written a poem about a rainbow, but had no idea where it was. I told her that I had found it amongst her things when I collected up all the precious jottings, ramblings and scraps of paper she’d stored up over the years. She’d moved on to a cheese-on-toast conversation pretty immediately, so the news of the archive preservation didn’t hit home. Then a week or so ago my wonderful youngest nephew brought the audience to silence before rapturous applause when he played “Over the Rainbow” at his end of school concert. I missed it, but could hear the notes when my family described how beautifully he’d played his trombone. He, of course, was nonchalant and dismissive – as children often are who have immense talent and no real understanding of their artistic power.
Tonight I’m celebrating this wonderful summer by creating a rainbow on the plate; my way of ensuring that we get the full range of nutrients and foods in one sitting. Mum tried to teach me this when she used every trick in the book to get me to eat. She made colourful bands of tomato ketchup, cheesy sauce, beetroot (yuck), peas (ok, peas were just about edible) and baked beans, telling me that as rainbows were the most beautiful thing on Earth, this was the most beautiful and tasty dinner ever, ever, ever. I wasn’t convinced and saw right through it. It was my way of protesting at her crazy antics – refusing to eat a mouthful, hiding food, stuffing it in boxes and squishing it into her old wellington boots. I appreciated the imagery of the rainbow, but after a few distracted prods and mixing it all up, the rainbow always looked like a pile of old mush. Poor Mum. She worked so hard to pay for food and I rejected it. It was a pretty effective protest though, as Mum always seemed at her most calm when giving in to my food refusals to cook bubbly cheesy toasts or crumpets with butter and strawberry jam. Writing this, I’ve just realised something. One of my signature “wow” dishes is rainbow mash; flavoured potato layers that burst with colour and flavour; bottom layer beetroot & horseradish, then a blue cheese layer, topped by pesto, then lemon, Cheddar cheese and a final sun-dried tomato layer on top. Thanks Mum – I’ve never made the connection until now. It’s too fiddly to make tonight and also a bit too hot as we’re still sweltering here in the UK. Maybe next week, after our weekend trip down to see her on the coast. The weather prediction? Sunny, cloudy, with light showers, so no prizes for what we’ll be looking out for.
Maybe Mum was dreaming about rainbows all those years ago. She would have been 9 years old when “The Wizard of Oz” came out and I know that she snuck out of her foster home to see it. “If happy little blue birds fly …” Hang on, wait … didn’t the Muppets say “somewhere you’ll find it, the rainbow connection”. I’ve just found it. Night night my precious Mum. See you at the weekend.
“Come along Simon.” This is Leila Mum, she’s a girl dog. “Hello Simon. You’re lovely aren’t you?” Leila, Mum, her name’s Leila. Mum and Leila (Simon) are now super buddies. The intuition thing in dogs is astounding isn’t it? When I took Leila to meet Mum she instinctively went right up to her wheelchair and sat by her side looking up. Bearing in mind that she was on the end of a long lead, she could have approached any of the dozen residents, but no, she made a beeline for Mum who was completely enchanted by this golden little animal staring up at her. Mum was a little confused to see me on the other end of the lead though. “Oh Sonia darling, have you seen this gorgeous little dog?” Yes, Mum she’s my dog and I wanted you to meet her. “But you don’t have a dog”. I do now, Mum. This is Leila. “Did you borrow her from someone?” No, Mum she’s mine and she lives with us in London. “Ah – hello Simon” – and so it went on. They’re both totally besotted with each other, but I think some of it was down to Mum giving her all the cheese sandwiches on her own plate and borrowing sandwiches from some of the other residents – some happy to relinquish them and some definitely not. It was a little, well … let’s say, “fragrant” on the car journey home as Leila probably had one cheddar cheesie too many, but she was a happy little soul with her paws on the window frame staring out at all the passing traffic on the M25 home, farting like a trouper every time we hit a bump.
This first meeting with Mum and Leila made me think back to all the times I’ve walked dogs in the past. We never officially owned one before and I can remember being told that Nan and Pop’s dog jumped on a bus in Gray’s Inn Road never to be seen until weeks later when he appeared on their doorstep. Amazing thing, dog instinct, isn’t it? Mum used to run up to owners in parks, grab their dogs’ leads and run back to me with the dog to walk. She’d call them by any name she fancied back then too, despite the owners correcting her and looking a bit scared by this crazy lady who’d hijacked their prize pooch. I can remember always handing the lead back to grateful owners and mumbling things about Mum not meaning to upset them and how lovely their dog was. She always gave them sweets too, which I’m sure wasn’t good for them. One tiny dog got all stuck up with sticky toffee, dribbling profusely and whimpering with a muffled bark as his little jaws couldn’t dislodge the stuff. The owner said something about it rotting her dog’s teeth, but Mum told her to shut up and buy him some false dogteeth or put a muzzle on him. I can remember thinking that was a bit unfair as the dog was happily going along with his owner until Mum turned up and changed everything.
I think this little picture says it all – after the cheese sandwiches, a walk on the beach and half an hour away from the care home, Leila made a bee-line again for Mum when we got back and jumped up onto the chair beside her. Mum leant over to pet her and Leila rested her furry little face in Mum’s palm for well over a minute. Both calm. Both peaceful. Both connected. Bearing in mind that Mum’s attention span is limited and she doesn’t really hold a conversation for longer than a minute or so, she told Leila all about the recent bus trip she’d made (she told me they haven’t been out on a bus for months), recalled her breakfast (as far as I knew, she’d not had anything) and told Leila all about the time when I was about five and I got my fingers nibbled by a horse who lived in the fields that are now Brent Cross Shopping Centre. “Yes, Simon, Sonia howled the house down and I felt awful because I’d told her to hold some grass out for the horsey and he bit her fingers when getting the grass. Yes, he did. And she’s always been scared of horses ever since. She’s a scardie cat isn’t she? Do you like cats?” I was amazed as this story suddenly brought back a distant memory that I’ve completely forgotten about. Mum – that’s amazing, I’ve completely forgotten that story. “What story?” The story about the horse and me getting my fingers nibbled. “Sonia darling, I think you’re losing your marbles – what horse?”
I’m pretty sure that Leila will now be my conduit to other stories. Leila will just sit there and listen, whilst Mum’s memory unlocks stories that only a dog can understand.
Leila has arrived and it’s like we’ve had her forever. She’s a Pomeranian/Chihuahua mix and we adore her, more than we ever thought we’d love an animal. Mum’s doggie dream has finally come true as she has always wanted me to have one for some reason. She wasn’t that interested in whether or not I had children, but a dog? Yes. She’s been borrowing dogs ever since I can remember. I’m suddenly re-living all the times when owners “lent” me their precious pooches rather than risk upsetting this crazy lady who’d appeared from nowhere and snatched the lead out of their hands. We had a dog in our flat once and I’m sure Mum only picked him up and took him home, because he didn’t have a collar and looked lost. A few hours later a lady knocked on the door and created merry Hell as she’d found out where the crazy redhead lady lived who’d nicked her beloved pet. I didn’t like the way she was yelling at Mum, so I started yelling at her to shut up because my Mum was kind and looked after animals and people who were lonely. Then she started yelling at me and the dog started howling like a mini wolf. He didn’t want to come out from under the bed and I don’t blame him. All those humans screaming like banshees! Our next pet was a tortoise called JOEY and I believe that Mum got him from the rag and bone man who’d found him wandering in the middle of the road. He was pretty boring though and kept trying to escape from our back garden – Joey, not the rag and bone man. I’d make him the perfect house, feed him, talk to him, but as soon as my back was turned he was off! I asked Mum why he kept running away, despite all the love and care I lavished on him and she said “he’s probably a boy tortoise, that’s what boys do”. No neurosis started there then! Then I asked if we could have our own dog, not a borrowed one and she admitted that she’d never really wanted one full-time as two children was quite enough poo for her, thank you very much.
It’s odd, because since then she’s always had a combative relationship with animals in my life, especially when she saw me lavishing affection on them. I inherited a wonderful old black and white moggie from a friend of the family who’d passed away and Mum hated her – the cat, not the family friend. They used to have boxing matches. Minnie would lash out at Mum, Mum would pat her back and on it would go until I had to intervene as referee. It once ended up with the cat spitting, weeing on the sofa and me telling Mum not to be so childish. Mum then patted me and told me to get a dog instead as dogs didn’t scratch. I tried reasoning with her that if she STROKED the cat, it wouldn’t scratch, but it fell on deaf ears. Our following chat went something like this:
“Oh get a dog, Sonia darling. You’d love to have a dog, wouldn’t you?” But what about the poo, Mum? You’ve always worried about the poo aspect. “Oh yes, the poo. Can’t you get a dog that poos in the loo? I saw that on “That’s Life”. I think you’d need to train a dog for a long time to do that Mum and besides, my work is far too unpredictable to have a dog anyway. “At least you’d have something to chase off burglars – stupid cats can’t do that”.
Mum’s heard about Leila and wants her to come and visit everyone at her care home. She thinks that Leila will calm some of the other residents down and Mum says she always has too many sausages, so Leila could have them. Bless her wonderful heart – always thinking of others.
“I’ll have to ask the staff if it’s ok to bring a dog to the care home.”
“It’s MY home and I want to meet her. Can I?”
Well that’s sorted then! I’ll tell you how we get on with the residents – fingers crossed there are no poos in strange places – and I’m talking about the dog, not the residents.
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.