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.
“I’m Gracie Fields and my favourite person is Toni Blair.” Mum noted these things down when we were writing and drawing together recently. Her picture of a chicken would have had Picasso scratching his head, but it all made sense to her. Toni with an “i”, not Tony with a “y”, because she’d heard recently about the concept of non-binary and thought it meant that everyone was male and female whenever they want to be. She thought the “i” looked a bit more feminine. “And if that’s what he wants who were we to argue with him, Sonia darling?” She took on the persona of Gracie Fields as we’d been playing some of her favourite music and Gracie’s “Sally Down our Alley” is her number one favourite – mainly because she can have a lot of fun with the “Sallee-Salleeeeeee” bit in her screechy voice while laughing at everyone covering their ears. She also reverted temporarily to her native northern accent, which only comes out every so often, normally when she’s throwing a tantrum. It turns out that all the residents in the home love it when you draw them pictures and play them songs. Yvonne wanted a cat drinking milk, Jenny wanted pictures of her children playing in the garden, and I noticed a huge difference in Mum when we challenged her to a written quiz on her life. Things like “My favourite cake is … because it is …” (ginger, boingy) or “I love it when … as it makes me feel …” (I get toffees, loved) and my favourite, “My carers are … and they …” (beautiful, always talk to me like a human). She lit up with the new challenge and looked focused for a while, pen in hand, wrinkly brow, eyes concentrating on the paper.
I think it took her back to when she used to write plays and send them off to the biggest players in the West End theatre world. I’ve still got the letter from the manager at the Palladium. She was sensationally brave and unhindered in her thinking and some of it’s rubbed off on me, much to the exasperation of those around me on occasion. Well, sometimes you just need to cut to the chase and go straight to the top to see what happens, don’t you? We wanted a royal family member to present a music prize at Radio 2 many years ago, so I wrote to the queen (with the reluctant help of the royal liaison person at the BBC). Her Majesty had to decline, but we were offered a prince instead, so a RESULT as far as I was concerned. Mum did make it past the main gates to Buckingham Palace once. She was determined that I was going to dance for the queen as I’d got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dance Summer School and the very fact that it had Royal in the name meant the queen was going to come, obviously. She had a letter with a suggested outfit for HRH and a speech that she’d like her to give me. As far as I can remember, she told me that the letter was delivered and she was politely shown out. I never went to the summer school as we could never have afforded the fares or costumes, let alone the lodging fees, but hey, that was life with Mum. You never quite knew if any of the plans were ever going to materialise, which is most likely the reason that I still feel a visceral angst if well-laid plans go tits-up at short notice. It’s short-lived, but it’s still there. Strange, isn’t it, how those early experiences can end up becoming the cogs to your life? Having gone through my own coaching and therapy I’m now able to help other people unpick those moments and recalibrate memories into a more positive spin as it’s all too easy to let those barriers build up and stop you doing stuff. Mum, on the other hand, has no barriers and has never worried about what she says in front of anyone. It also meant that you had to be very careful what you said in front of her, in case she acted on it.
My brother and I were out with Mum on an access day after Mum and Dad divorced. We had been to Speakers’ Corner and wanted to walk around Hyde Park with the hope of being allowed to go boating on the Serpentine. It was hot and on spotting the cafe we both said that we were thirsty and wanted a drink. We hadn’t learned the art of direct messaging and thought the subtle dropping of a hint might make Mum see the cafe, make the connection and get us a fizzy pop. Did we start walking towards the cafe? No, of course not. We were marched in the opposite direction towards the park gate. We then dodged the traffic to cross the road and found ourselves being ushered through the very posh doors of the De Vere Hotel. Mum accosted one of the waiting staff, pushed me and my brother forward and said, “My children are so very, very thirsty and said that they liked the look of your hotel and asked if they could have some water.” Cue little brother and sister looking at each other and miming the 70s, junior equivalent of WTF? “Please take a seat, Madam. Let me see what I can do.” Off he went, and we were both rendered silent in case anything else we said ended up in a situation halfway as embarrassing. Mum tidied our hair and rubbed our faces with Mum-spit tissues, and back he came – complete with a huge silver tray, a silver bucket of ice, tongs, cut-glass tumblers, doilies and slices of lemon. He flamboyantly put them down in front of us and smiled, asking if we’d like ice and lemon. Back then I just wanted to roll up into a ball and hide in the corner as the man wanted to thoroughly humiliate us with his over-the-top display of upper-class snobbery. Everyone was staring and smirking as the hotel manager came over and asked us if we wanted any biscuits. Oh no! Not more people showing us up in public – I would have felt more at ease on a podium at Speakers’ Corner talking about parental divorce. No biscuits, no biscuits!! Mum didn’t think anything of it and wrapped them all up in a linen napkin, and off we went. All I wanted to do was go home to my dad and gentle stepmum to listen to the radio and feel normal again. If anyone has ever heard that story from the perspective of the butler at the De Vere Hotel, I would love to meet him, shake his hand and say thank you, because I can see now that he wanted to give us a lovely experience and leave us with a lasting impression of how kind the people at the De Vere Hotel were. And although it felt like a random Mum act from nowhere, perhaps she knew exactly what would happen and hoped we’d love the whole thing; after all, it’s a hundred times nicer than a lukewarm can of coke from an overpriced cafe, isn’t it? I’m proud of my mum – what she’s achieved, who she’s met, her sheer exuberance for trying new things and venturing into this confusing world with an open mind, endless energy and no constraining social niceties to hold her back. If she wants to be Gracie Fields this week, who are we to argue? They were born in the same area, both loved and played in the Peak District and could bring the house down with their singing. Gracie ended up in Capri, Mum in Bognor – both by the sea and surrounded by colourful people. I’m going to frame the chicken along with the donkey and “Toni” Blair portrait. That will always make me chuckle, as I was once describing my then-partner Tony (now my husband) to some clients and one said, “Tony with a Y or Tony with an I?” The knowing wink on the Y was obviously code for acknowledging between them that I was straight. What would they make of Mum’s take on our ex-prime minister, I wonder?
“I don’t know about Christmas plans, Sonia darling, but I think I AM Christmas crackers. My brain just isn’t working properly” She said it with that cheeky smile in her voice and was giggling under her breath as no doubt she had an audience listening in. It’s normally a very peaceful place, Mum’s care home, disrupted no doubt when she gets on the phone to me. We always sign off our conversations with “Huggles …”, Mum’s combination of hug and cuddles and she always says “see you tomorrow” as she puts the phone down. My hope is that she forgets that the moment she says it, like most things, because the thought of her looking out of the window all day, waiting for me to arrive, always tears a little bit of my heart away.
She tried setting me up with a sailor one year. Determined not to go through the mayhem of Mum cooking a complicated meal (if you’ve seen Ratatouille, you’ll know what I mean), I suggested that we had our Christmas lunch at the local pub in Littlehampton, where she used to live. I asked them to give us a table that was as far away as possible from the main part of the restaurant, ideally with only one table close by. Mum – four tables on each side – and Christmas lunch – not a great combination. She was mobile then too, so she kept popping up to accost various men with a Christmas hug (sometimes gracefully received, others not) and dragging them over to our table with a “come and meet my daughter”. One chap was protesting so much at her forceful marching that he was nearly in tears. Seeing his missus on her way back from the loo made his misery totally understandable. She glowered at Mum and then almost spat at me as I held both hands up, simpering with the “it’s nothing to do with me” look. And this was all before the main course. Turkey and trimmings – nice. Roast potatoes – nice. Vegetables – a bit of over-cooked for my liking, but great for Mum as she’d recently hurled her false teeth at her doctor in a fit of anger, smashed them to pieces and has had to rely on non-chewy food ever since. I was desperately trying to get her to eat everything so that she was full up, because I didn’t want a repeat of her old trick that used to make me want to hide under tables in public places. Mum would see food left on someone else’s table, march over, shout over to me and then wrap it up in THEIR napkins to bring over to me with a “Here you are, Sonia darling, they didn’t want this anyway”.
Looking back on it all I wonder if Mum was going through what we’d call high-functioning Asperger’s today – she could never really interpret social cues or see how her behaviour could be embarrassing or inappropriate. She’s always just been her – warts and all – no facade, no subtext, no games. Have you ever heard yourself saying out loud …”can’t you SEE how embarrassing that is?”. Frankly, if you have to say it, the person you’re saying it to obviously can’t see it, or they wouldn’t do it. Mum could never see it, because she never wanted anything to hurt or upset us. All her actions were to get us something we needed or were her way of showing love.
Back to the sailor. We’d finally finished lunch and she’d only encroached on two tables of people who were all very charming and looked over to me with a “Aaaah, bless her” look which was much more preferable than the “You poor thing, you must want to hide under a table” expression. At the bar was a rugged, sandy-haired chap with tattoos, cropped hair and a gleaming white shirt. He’d popped in for a pint as he knew the barman and I’d heard “Yes, back onboard on the 26th” which made me think he was off duty for the holidays. Mum made a beeline for him. For some inexplicable reason she started tugging his ears and then kept stroking the sleeve on his shirt. “Sonia !!!!” full volume. “Sonia !!!! Here’s a man who can do his own ironing. Come and meet my daughter”. Oh no, please no, not another dragging. Dragged he was – across the restaurant – in between waitresses trying to serve cheese and biscuits – and sat down. “This is my daughter – isn’t she beautiful – she’s single you know and wanted you to come over and talk to her”. I didn’t of course. I mumbled an apology for interrupting his Christmas drink and then Mum, who’d never done this before, got up and sat on his lap. He was smiling now, then looked at me and winked. Looked at Mum, winked at her and winked back at me again. Time to go. I never like talking down to Mum in public, after all it’s her doing all the behaviour, not me, but in this case I had to. “Come on Mum, we need to get you home – sorry about this … she’s had a few too many Babychams”. He continued smiling and winking then offered to give us a lift. “A lift – oh yes, Sonia darling – you get a lift. I’ll just stay here.” It’s all a bit of a blur, but suffice to say, when I explained calmly to the sailor that it was just my eccentric Mum being inappropriate, he was embarrassed as he’d obviously been picking up on the wrong cues that a flame-haired petite woman and her dressed up daughter were up for it. Major back-tracking, spluttering, squaring of shoulders and he went back to the bar. I offered to buy him a drink to say sorry, but that wasn’t going to happen.
She’s put in a request for Christmas dinner this year. Boiled eggs with cucumber soldiers. She used to try and get me to eat that when I was little, but I refused. Everyone knows that egg slips off cucumber sticks and you HAVE to have toast as TOAST IS NORMAL. Thank the Universe for not being normal, that’s what I say. We need to be less worried about what other people think and love the person underneath it all and if they want cucumber soldiers with boiled eggs, that’s fine. Luckily there were no soldiers in the pub that Christmas or she would no doubt have had them lined up and saluting her wide-eyed, crumpled heap of a daughter in the corner.
Mum – you’re not Christmas crackers – you’re a Christmas Angel.