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.
Scrambled eggs and malt extract with cod liver oil are Mum’s current favourites. After a couple of years of refusing to eat anything apart from white bread & butter, the occasional spoonful of peas or half a sausage, she has picked up her appetite at last. Good luck to anyone trying to tell her that 5 sudden spoonfuls of malt extract on the trot may not be good for her digestion. Energised and super alert she quizzed me about the people I’m working with. Time for a mind exercise I thought. Mum – try and think of one of the biggest black male singers the world has ever known. “Yes, ok Sonia darling. Shirley Bassey?” Male, mum. “Shirley Williams?”. I think you’re thinking about Iris Williams. No Mum, think male singers. “Andy Williams?” He’s white Mum. Think younger, part of a group called The Jacksons. “Jack Jones?”. I can almost hear us all shouting out at the screen as I write this, but bear with it … she gets to her answer in the end. Mum, he did songs like Thriller, Heal The World, I Want You Back. “Star Wars??? Your father was in that wasn’t he, Sonia darling?” Where are you going with this, Mum? “Your father was in Star Wars” He played on the soundtrack, Mum. But which black, male singer was in Star Wars Mum? “Chewbacca !!!”. What? She’s realised that she’s made a joke and feeling very happy with herself. Joyful to see. I Want You Back – Chewbacca. Yes, I can see in mum’s mind why that makes perfect sense. She’s completely lost interest in the original question and is now hurling biscuits at Chris, her favourite resident in the home. Her boyfriend. “Oh I love him Sonia darling, I really do. Maybe I’ll marry him one day”. She insists on calling him Keith, which is the name of the mini-bus driver who was the previous object of Mum’s affection. “He’s left now, Sonia darling” (He hasn’t and still drives the mini-bus, it’s just that Mum’s a little too fragile these days to take the bone-rattling bumps of a long journey). Chris is a very sweet, docile chap who is obviously fond of Mum and is constantly picking bits of food off his clothes as Mum can’t take anything over to him, so hurling will have to do.
Back in 1997 food, hurling and games took a very different turn. She was independent, mobile and self-medicating with whiskey as she was going through the first stages of painful hip degeneration and aware that her mental capacity was waning. It was always upsetting to hear her wondering out loud why her brain wasn’t doing what she wanted it to do, despite me telling her all the time that she was my Mum and I loved her whatever her brain did. Looking back of course she needed proper medical help and support with mental illness, but her phobia of doctors and hospitals made it impossible to get her to see anyone and she was functioning in the real world – in a way that always alarmed me, but seemed to suit her. She was a mother in the 60s and 70s when mental illness was something that people swept away and her bad behaviour was treated as a conscious decision on her part to misbehave and do ‘crazy’ things. People would smile, throw their hands up in the ‘who knows?’ gesture and hope she’d stop doing it. These days her illness would have been seen for what it is and she’d be supported, not dismissed. Anyway, this particular day she’d drunk what appeared to be half a bottle of whiskey as she turned up to my first wedding in a beautiful shocking pink two-piece with a straw hat and posh shoes. She looked lovely and my heart sank when I clocked that she’d been drinking, despite promises of staying sober. Oh dear … this was going to be a challenging day anyway with all factions of different families meeting for the first time and Mum … drunk … I told myself to let go, try not to focus on it and enjoy the day. Yes. Right.
She’d brought a whicker basket on wheels and insisted on taking it into the ceremony room. I wrestled it from her and put it safely in a corner of the registrar’s office before ushering her and her friend upstairs where the wedding guests were waiting. There was some kind of altercation as she entered, but I ignored it and went back downstairs to carry on the registration process. She’d heckled me throughout the ceremony of course and had apparently gone up to my friend Nigel in a loud voice saying … ” She should be marrying YOU”. Eventually, we all got into cars to the Orange Tree Pub for our wedding lunch. At the main table Mum was sitting next to my new mother-in-law who was sitting next to me. My friend across the table kept gesturing to me with that jerk-the-head-to-one-side-to-indicate-something-was-happening-in-that-direction way. Obviously jerking her head towards where Mum was sitting. No, I wasn’t going to take any notice. Mum always did weird things in public and this was my day, not to be spoiled by her drunken antics. More jerking and pleading with the eyes to take notice. Then I heard it …”I don’t like you! You and your horrid, stupid hair. You look like Joan of Arc”. Mum didn’t like my new mother-in-law as you have probably gathered. Well, that was rude, but what could I do about that? I didn’t like her much either. Then I saw my friend’s eyes go wide and panic streak across her face as she went to get up from her chair. Leaning forward to see what was going on I heard the flint of a Clipper lighter … one, two, three strokes … then a small flame. “Burn Joan of Arc, burn …” as the lighter’s flame connected with the side of said mother-in-law’s head. Her name was Pat and pat she did … patting out the flame that had taken hold of the small amount of crew cut hair she had. Oh dear, oh dear. I should have seen the portents that this marriage wasn’t destined for success. Thankfully, Mum’s friend took her home soon after that and we all continued the party and I tried very hard not to laugh out loud when I saw that Pat’s hair was salt & pepper grey on one side and singe-orange on the other. I really did try. I did. I think there was a tissue that I managed to stuff into my mouth, disguised as a sneeze and a runny nose. It was never mentioned again.
A couple of weeks later I suddenly remembered the whicker basket. Did anyone pick it up? I know that Mum didn’t have it with her when she went home, so I called the registry office and they said it was still there. On picking it up, an apologetic, gentle lady put a hand on my shoulder and said “Im sorry, but we had to get rid of the contents. I hope you don’t mind”. Contents? What was in there? “A few things from Selfridge’s Food Hall – a cooked turkey crown, half a stilton, a large fruit cake and a side of salmon – we didn’t realise until the room started to smell”. I then realised what Mum had done. From the bottom of her heart she’d wanted me to have a good day, so had scrimped and saved every penny from her pension to buy food for the reception. She’d not checked of course if we had it covered and was going on what used to happen in her family when people got married. Everyone in the family got together to supply the food for the wedding party as they were a mining family from Sheffield with very little spare cash. My heart broke into twenty tiny pieces. All that effort, all that money, the complication of going to Selfridge’s on a bus and picking it all up, getting to the registry office and having it taken away; no wonder she was keen to keep it with her. I had put it in a corner and written it off as yet another one of Mum’s silly things she does … a whicker basket at a wedding ceremony … I ask you! In a calm moment a couple of weeks later I told her that we’d found the food – just that. I didn’t explain about the smelly room or the time frame. She simply said “I’m glad you got it … was it nice?” At the time I though Yes, Mum it was nice. It was the kind of the gesture, kindness and pure love that’s always going to be ten thousand times better than ‘nice’.
I love that Joan of Arc was probably a flaming red head – like Mum. And that she had a short fuse – like Mum. And she didn’t give a damn about what people thought about her – like Mum. But unlike Joan of Arc, Mum hasn’t made the history books … yet !
Mum’s new leggings have arrived. She’s cross that there are no pockets and she’s not keen on black. “So depressing, I don’t want depressing legs, even though they don’t work so well these days. How are your legs?” Mine are fine, Mum. They hold me up. “Like the tube strikers – there’s a lady driver being interviewed. Bit like you, but prettier”. Like me in looks? Or what, Mum? “Like you, driving big things – I don’t know where you get it from. Did your dad ever drive?” No, Mum and neither did you, so that’s probably why I wanted to do it so much. “It’s no fun being mental you know” then she lets out a huge laugh as I’m imagining her friend at the care home, Pat, giving her a toothless, cheeky smile and grimacing quickly afterwards. The sad thing is that my Mum knows that she has mental issues, but is always confused and angry about them, as if they’re not really part of her. More like a niggling, mouse snuffling through her head and nibbling away. I suppose that I always knew that she wasn’t like other mums as I spent most of my toddling years thinking that everyone always looked puzzled and only people on the television (my grandparents’ television) were happy and smiley. Those people sang, they laughed, they did normal things unlike every grown-up around me who was always confused, bewildered and saying boring things like “not in front of your children” or “yes, ok, calm down”. The number of times I heard those phrases is beyond counting. No wonder I started saying them to my dolls and, apparently, to nursery school teachers. After all, grown-ups couldn’t really be trusted and rarely knew anything. Mum used to tell me things and of course I believed them until I slowly worked out that they might not necessarily be right and that set a peculiar wheel in motion. Grown-ups are big people who tell you things, but you really couldn’t trust them, because they made you do things you didn’t want to do and said things that weren’t true. I was probably about 5 when I refused to run up to a bride coming out of the church and give her a kiss. Or when I asked a very large lady on the bus … “Are you expecting a baby?” She looked aghast and spluttered … No? with that twisty-up end of the word thing. “Ah – ok, then you must eat lots of chips then”. She was on the verge of tears and my five year old brain said “There you go, talk to a grown-up and then they go all silly as usual”. I should have known better really, because it was what mum had told me about fat ladies when I was curious about how people grew to be the size they were. Somewhere deep down I thought everyone was born at the size you knew them, so really fat people bothered me as I knew that their mummies would have had a hard time letting them out. Imagine the confusion in my little brain when people spoke about letting the dog out or letting the cat out of the bag. I digress … and it’s time to share an incident that will have every parent gasping and anyone who’s ever worked for a living putting their hands over their eyes. It’s hilarious looking back and when telling a couple of my friends who are West End agents, I’ve heard that almost silent, whispering, slow … noooooooooooooo
Mum’s always been a huge fan of a certain sixties iconic singer who used to sing with a cockney accent and had huge white teeth – and that’s all I’m saying, work it out for yourself. I had just started a new job as a trainee producer for BBC Radio Light Entertainment, so was incredibly excited by all the amazing people I’d be working with and for being part of a BBC department I’d always adored, not having a telly and everything. In a rare off-guard moment Mum asked where I was working and what I was doing. I would normally say something vague like … “Oh, doing a few nice things for the radio” … non-specific, mentioning no actual jobs, buildings, people or departments just in case. However, on this day I said that I was trying to fix people for a quiz and one of the people was her favourite singer. She was thrilled and wished me luck, saying all the normal things that an encouraging parent would. I forgot all about it. Three weeks ticked by and so I followed up all the requests I’d put in, including a call to his agent who sighed, went silent and said in a low, crisp, breathy tone “How many times do you have to be told, he DOES NOT WANT TO DO YOUR SHOW”. Click … brrrrrrrr. I’d never really dealt with agents before, so was going through the process of wondering why they were so rude when the penny dropped. CLANG. Mum ! I phoned straight back, managed to get the receptionist to keep the line open and blurted out that I needed to pop in. The inevitable, oh no, it’s not necessary, for God’s sake don’t actually COME in protestations followed, but I did. They were grown-ups after all. They did look a bit shocked when I showed them my BBC ID card of 23 year-old me and briefly explained about my meddlesome mother. Had she got anything to do with this annoyance they were obviously feeling? It was then that they offered me a seat, a cup of coffee and all checked each other before explaining that she’d been going to their office every day, refusing to leave until they gave her an answer about doing the quiz and pretending to be me. I’ll let that sink in for a moment … pretending to be me.
Looking back I know it was a loving mother trying to get a result for her beloved daughter, but all I could think of was the embarrassment, the label, the total and utter loss of professional reputation. Luckily, said agents and I are incredible friends now and are doing some pretty interesting projects together, but it could have gone very, very wrong.
I had the realisation the moment after the smiles and speak-soons, that I would never, ever be able to reveal anything about my job, who I work with, what I’m actually doing or who my friends are to mum. Although it has had its benefits when I needed a Rottweiler to sort something out … tip her off and off she goes and more on that in following posts. In one way it’s been sad, but in another, it makes you brave. I’ve always lived with the mantra that nothing that happens professionally will ever be as awkward as that. I laugh about it now and sometimes have people requesting a re-run of the story, especially people in the broadcast and theatre world.
I’d love to hear other stories … your stories … the boy on the bus who’s mum jumps on to give him his flask and wrap his scarf round his neck – good, but nowhere near as embarrassing as the hospital flower story. The friend who’s mother set her up on a blind date by sending in her own glam picture? Nope, nowhere close. Oh, I do love a dramatic after-dinner-with-friends-story about Mum’s antics and good luck to anyone who tells Sonia’s mum stories without adding in the reason behind them and laughing about the situation, rather than at her.