I was just about to give up the trumpet when my precious mum bought me one. It was dusted aluminium with shiny slides and inner bell. I loved it, but sadly it didn’t love me. Having had tonsil and adenoid surgery I couldn’t maintain the air pressure needed to get a decent note out of it, so the noise of air escaping down my nose was louder than any note I could muster. I decided to take up the trombone which was altogether easier to play and didn’t sound like a balloon about to burst. It was also great for creating sound effects in the school plays and making resonant farty noises to make my granddad guffaw with laughter and my Nan waft her hand in front of her nose (making Pop laugh even more). Mum, bless her heart, would have taken on a new job to pay for the trumpet, so I didn’t tell her for ages that I’d moved on to another instrument. She would have understood, because one of her phrases was “move on, move on” which she did, often.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week so I’ve dusted off my old trumpet from its case under the sofa and just tried to play it. Thinking about my wonderful mum I’ve tried a chromatic octave scale in her honour and now need to lie down. Another reason for not persevering with the trumpet was that my dad was never keen. I couldn’t really understand why not as he’d played the trumpet himself in the past. I finally got it out of him that he was worried I’d end up in the brass section of an orchestra and as a professional violinist he knew how raucous and misbehaved brass players could be; a bit harsh I thought, however it cemented my love for jazz and the sound of a big band which will never leave me – another thing that Mum did, often.
Having grown up with my mum’s unpredictable, hilarious, embarrassing antics I realise now that I never sought her out for comfort or re-assurance and never really confided in her about anything. God forbid I ever spoke badly about friends or teachers – Mum would be there firing on all cylinders, mis-quoting me (always the worst bit), screaming and probably throwing things. So I kept it all in. My lovely dad was always working showbiz hours, so I didn’t see an awful lot of him. All in all, the only person to really rely upon was myself when I was little. Looking back I can remember being quite happy prancing around in ballet dresses, singing songs and pretending to be a famous performer. I even managed to crow-bar a little dance into the nativity play when I was the Virgin Mary. I don’t think she did pirouettes and arabesques, but who really knows? In my world she did with her skirts hitched up high, a big grin on her face and proper pointy toes.
I must have been about 6 or 7 when I was told that I was going to be adopted. The family who were going to give me a new home lived in a huge house in Swiss Cottage with instruments everywhere, a massive garden with dozens of balletic fuchsia bushes and a very loud daughter who thought it was funny to boss me around and remind me that she was the rich one and that I was the poor one. That bit didn’t resonate really, because I don’t think you’re really aware of income snobbery at such a young age – well, I wasn’t. The bit that did resonate was the hope that this might be the end of all the abandoning. Mum was always leaving me with different people, some of whom I knew, some not. My teachers were nice enough, however I didn’t really trust them as they insisted that you can’t get a sun and moon in the same sky or that ALL leaves are green, not red – wrong. It felt as if my dad wasn’t there much and it has only been in later life that I’ve realised that he just didn’t know where I was. He had no real control over Mum’s spontaneous off-loadings and tried to make things seem as normal as possible when I came home again and carried on as normal. it was a bit confusing as I often wondered if he cared that one family used to send me out to the allotment grounds (now Brent Cross Shopping Centre) to dig up earth for their garden with a tiny spade and a whicker shopping trolley. It didn’t matter – I quite enjoyed it really as it gave me time to practice my dance moves and sing songs to myself. I didn’t get adopted of course, because it turned out that the adoption was one of Mum’s stories that made a lot of sense to her as they would have had the money, status and opportunities for me that she didn’t think she could offer. How wrong she was on that count – all I wanted from her was to be there, no matter now crazily she was behaving. OK, maybe without the mis-quotes such as “Sonia tells me that you don’t wash your bottom.” WHAT??? Or ” Sonia won’t be writing an essay about birds because she hasn’t stopped crying about the one you cooked and brought to school.” No amount of protesting would ever convince “that” teacher that I had no idea she ate chicken sandwiches and no, I didn’t expect her to go veggie.
The reason for mentioning all this is that I feel pretty much like the same me as I did back then. I still love joking with people, pulling silly pranks, putting Mum’s antics into anecdotal stories and seeking out the good in most situations. Children make up their minds about what life means when they’re little – I know I did. Mum loved me, but not enough to stick around, so I was probably doing something wrong or had something about me that people didn’t like. Ring any bells? I see it a lot with coaching clients; those old rules we made up for ourselves when we were far too young to make them. I’ve been very lucky to have been able to re-programme my relationship with my mother and see her for who she was – quite simply a woman who wanted everything, but was mentally unable to cope with anything for very long. Her heart was the size of a planet, her voice as shrill as a whistle. She enchanted and infuriated in equal measure and is about to be immortalised in a children’s book which aims to help adults laugh along and explain mental health issues with their kids, classes, grandchildren and friends. It’ll also be a way of children seeing that other mums do silly things too and that talking about it is better than hiding food, breaking things in secret or retreating into your own little world.
It’s been a year hasn’t it? We’ve all lost people we love, been scared into avoiding each other and missing those we’ve been unable to hug. Soon we’ll be able to start venturing out again, enjoying the world around us, seeing loved ones and making lots of noise. And what’s really making me laugh right now is the idea that if my neighbours start up with their 4am loud parties again, I can always get the trumpet out and start practicing in the garden. Now, where did I put that mute?
It is five months since my precious mum passed away and I realised this morning that there are so many life-changing things happening at the moment, some of which I’ve seen and some of which other people have helped me see. Although I think I’ve been seeing life with my eyes wide open, have I been trotting along with my blinkers on?
Yesterday I met up with best friends, old friends, work friends and made a new friend. And as I’ve got a head full of drama ideas, screenplay developments and time management issues, I put my listening ears on so that I could soak up other people’s lives and see life through their eyes. I recommend it if, like me, you’re a chatterbox. I think it’s rare to find best friends working successfully together. Everyone tells you that a) you need to have distance and neutrality in the work environment, b) familiarity can often breed work contempt and c) you should never hire your friends. Not true in my case with one of my besties. Sure, we’ve had a couple of creative wrinkles at some point in the past, but nothing that wasn’t ironed out immediately we listened to each other. Now we’re collaborating on big drama ideas and I have to pinch myself to think that a mad idea from a few years ago might actually be making its way toward the screen. It made me think back to the plays and panto scripts that mum used to write and send off to the biggest West End players she could think of. Fearless and confident in her efforts, even though she had no training and no experience of writing. I’ve still got the letters from some and one in particular sticks in my mind.
“Dear Margaret, Thank you for sending in your amusing script which we’ve all enjoyed reading. Whilst we have had a lot of fun trying to engage with your storylines we don’t feel that ‘Sonia and the dancing angels’ is quite right for us and are you sure that your 6-year old daughter actually wants to be an actress and ballerina? We wish you all success with the idea and encourage you to attend writing classes or a dramatic writing course to help you focus your creative thoughts. Yours (name left out for obvious reasons), Theatre Manager, The London Palladium”
Re-reading it recently I marvelled at the passive aggressive tone and could almost see the room full of creatives laughing hysterically at Mum’s script. Fair play as it’s not very good and her diagrams for lighting cues and ideas for special effects leave a lot to the imagination. But then I wondered if that letter left a deep impression on me as a child as she was in tears when she showed it to me and apologised to me for getting my hopes up. I took on her sadness and added a tinge of guilt even though I had nothing to be guilty about. I had so many stories and ideas floating around my head when I was little, but I didn’t write them down for fear of getting a similar letter and it could upset Mum again. Later in life I had dreams of writing books, plays and films, but stuck instead to radio production and factual television as I wouldn’t get a letter about them when people sat around laughing hysterically at my silly stories. Often I’d talk about an idea and people did indeed laugh at me, but in a nice way which didn’t make me feel guilty or stupid, just brave and creative. But drama? The idea of having your personal, imaginative story laughed at was unthinkable.
Next up, I saw someone I haven’t seen since his wedding nine years ago and his subsequent move to America. The cliche of ‘it only seems like yesterday’ made us laugh as we recalled our experiences of live radio shows that went wrong, that one extra bottle of red wine, just missing being arrested in Cairo and that we’re both at a place where new ideas and new career breaks are coming at us. Our trio was made up with a man who is now my new work friend. A fascinating, bright and creative man who is a drama producer and used to manage one of the UK’s biggest stars. Another person at that place where the world is beckoning us in a different direction. If we’d all been working on conventional paths we wouldn’t have had the time to meet for a mid-afternoon drink – thank you, Universe. Lots of listening and quite a bit of talking at this point focussed my mind with one of those BANG! moments. Heartbeat in the ears, clarity of vision and the sound of a giant penny clattering its way to the floor. How didn’t I clock this until I articulated it out loud? My New Yorker buddy and his mate (new friend) were waxing lyrical about my adventures in bus driving. It was great regaling them with the stories of my first lessons and subsequent run-ins with youths who wanted to board my training bus (never mime an “L” from the driver seat when you’re trying to show them that you’re a learner driver and they can’t board your bus). The inevitable “WHY DRIVING A BUS?!!!” question came up and I found myself answering it with a philosophical thread that was only emerging as I spoke, although it was obviously deep in my psyche. Flashback to ten years ago when things were going so horribly wrong in Mum’s life and I was in pieces trying to manage work, trips to the police station in Littlehampton, mental health workers and doctors. I broke down a bit with my step mum and dad as it was all getting on top of me. My step mum offered to come down to the coast if that would help and my dad leant back, closed his eyes and drifted back to a painful past, saying “Sometimes I don’t why you bother with her, I’ve often wished her under a bus.” He didn’t mean it literally, of course; he was using the bus as a metaphor for trying to forget. I think back now to any times I’ve left hand-over notes or travel plans. What have I pre-empted it with? “Just in case I’m knocked over by a bus or something… ” So now I realise exactly WHY I decided to drive the bus. I have turned that upsetting, negative thought into something positive that I could own and enjoy, rather than keeping the bus as a trigger to memories of plate smashing, yelling in street and being plonked on other families while things calmed down. Yes, that’s exactly why I did it and until I listened to new voices and really heard their question, I hadn’t realised it.
The final meeting was with two fabulous women who are loud, proud, role models and go-getters. One of whom is helping me build up my public speaking career and the other with whom I’m starting a new venture, based on the idea of sharing experiences and stories with other people who’ve had “alternative” parenting. Both of our mothers were called Margaret and both of them were crazy, but wise in their own way. Watch this space.
What a day – what fantastic people – and my ear drums need a rest. The best part of the day was coming home to my beloved husband who has given me the confidence, peace of mind and support to be able to pursue things I never dreamed I could do.
Blinkers off – ears open – I’m grabbing today firmly with both hands. What discoveries will today bring I wonder?
What does your name say about you? I’ve had the polite “could you spell that please?” and the insulting “Blimey – did you ever think of changing it?” Today I found the true meaning of “it’s got your name on it” when I saw my mum’s name on a brick in a wall. Not graffiti, you understand; engraved on a brass plaque attached to one of a hundred bricks to help raise money to maintain the beautiful grounds of a local park. “Margaret Beldom” – just that. Simple, uncomplicated, peaceful amongst other names and bathed in sunlight. When I spotted it I stopped and said out (very) loud, “Aaaah – here you are” and a huge beam spread across my face. Here you are, Mum. Part of me, part of this wall, a name that hundreds of people are going to see and wonder about. The lyrics to Pink Floyd’s song, Another Brick in the Wall, took on totally new meanings. “We don’t need no education.” Mum had very little and ran away from school all the time, but it didn’t stop her being incredibly creative, resourceful, anti-establishment (applause please) and helping other people live meaningful lives. “We don’t need no thought control.” Are you kidding? Mum, having her thinking repressed? I don’t think so. “No dark sarcasm in the classroom.” Well, SHE might not have done, but I did when Mum turned up with jumpers for me to put on despite it being summer, porridge to eat or her version of my homework. “Teachers, leave those kids alone.” Hmmm, yes. Having to stand on the desk while being told that ‘You kids from broken homes with crazy parents are all alike’ didn’t do much for my confidence. It made me an independent thinker though, where creating poems, stories and pictures was far more satisfying than learning my 6 times table or hearing silly nonsense about all-powerful deities forcing fathers to kill their sons or eat their own babies.
One brick above my mum’s was another surprise – one I had engraved for my wonderful step-grandmother and professional pianist, Audrey who used to live in Finchley. Weird, or is it, that they were engraved months apart and end up next to each other? Audrey’s first encounter with my mum was when a flame-haired, screaming banshee turned up on her doorstep with two little children saying “If she wants him, she can have his children.” This was after mum saw a random name on a birthday card, put 6 and 6 together to make 99 and thumbed a lift across London to wreak havoc. I don’t remember it, but it’s etched in my step mum’s brain as you can imagine. Such a dramatic event actually pulled her and my dad together to hatch a survival plan now that there was a real life vigilante on the loose, likely to turn up anywhere, dragging bewildered children along. They were colleagues, nothing had occurred between them, but mum, with her uncanny gift of foresight had predicted the future. With those wonderful hindsight glasses on I can see that this was Mum off-loading her kids onto people she thought had more space, money and sanity than she did. I remember there being an awful lot of arguing, plate throwing and door slamming at the time. Same old, same old. She used to tell me that our (future) step mum liked cuddles and being naked with my father, whereas she didn’t. Talk about a recipe for promiscuity and a deep-rooted confusion between love and sex in a young girl. That’s another story.
Funny that thirty years later I ended up buying a home that was on the same road where Audrey was married and round the corner to the house she was born. Not so random after all, maybe. What do you think? My sister thinks that it would amuse Mum and Audrey and she’s right. They both had a wicked sense of humour, disobeyed convention and made people laugh.
All in all you’re not just another brick in the wall, Mum. You’re my brick and it’s not just any old wall, it’s Grade II listed. Shine on you crazy diamond.