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.
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.
Clive, Colin & Olive are the only Snow White dwarves worth caring about, Michael Pillow is the best broadcaster about train journeys, my head looks like a giant sugar cube, scrambled eggs and toffee will keep you going till 100 and Piers Morgan is the best James Bond ever. According to Mum, these facts are all true and everything else is fanciful thinking on my behalf. She’ll often berate me for ‘getting above myself with the intellect’ and corrects me by giving me ‘proper’ stories to relate … and when you think about it, they all make sense – Mum sense. A load of old Mumsense and I love it.
We’ve all had those moments when someone says something hysterical in front of a crowd and when that person is completely unaware of what they’ve said it makes us laugh even more, even though we know we shouldn’t – but it’s fun isn’t it? It’s panto season coming up and Tony and I are the panto band again – this year it’s Bluebeard, not Snow White, but Mum won’t be convinced that there won’t be dwarves in it. She won’t be able to come and see it this year and that’s probably just as well. The last theatre experience I took her to was to see Tommy Steele in Scrooge and we had seats at the back of the gallery – always a sensible place for Mum as she can’t resist joining in and causing a few shhhhhh’s and menacing looks over the shoulder for those too scared to do a shhhhhh. Back of the gallery? Yes, good thinking as she was so far away from the stage, she couldn’t possibly shout out to the performers . Wrong. Shout she did. Loudly, waving arms, mentioning me in every sentence. “Whoooo-ooooo Tommy Steele ! My daughter here wants to marry you” and a little later “Whhooo-ooooo Tommy Steele ! Do you have a dog? My daughter wants a puppy.” Where did THAT come from? Neither of these heckles were true of course and even though I’ve told myself a million times that people will only be reacting to Mum’s antics and not associating me with the mayhem, I was wrong. They did and told ME to shut up and stop encouraging my Mum. Tommy Steele did eventually respond with a “Hello up in the Gods – I’m the star of this show”. It didn’t stop her and how we weren’t ejected I’ll never know. Scrooge was similar to panto with its jokes and crafty asides to the audience, so we managed to stay till the end. She went to the loo after the curtain call and then I lost her. She’d gone. Nowhere to be seen. It was about twenty minutes until one of the ushers asked me if I was THE Sonia? Oh dear, here we go, straight back to childhood horrors of being rounded up by policemen as Mum was unexpectedly taken into care. “Yes – is everything ok?” Yes, Mum says that she’ll only be 10 minutes or so as she’s hoping to get to see Tommy after the show. Luckily (for me) she’d not got past Stage Door and came back into the main foyer on the arm of a very camp, red-faced young usher who kept patting her arm. She’d loved every minute of Scrooge of course and said she’d felt part of the show. I think I shrunk at least 2 inches by compressing my spine and trying to be invisible.
When my brother was born, Mum had severe post-natal depression which was, as far as I can ascertain, undiagnosed and written off as eccentricity. She’s never liked her red hair and when my brother arrived with his gorgeous shock of ginger hair she associated him with herself and didn’t connect. She was a ballerina who’d been asked to dance with Nuryev, so she couldn’t possibly look after a new baby. She broke toes going up on pointe in the hospital ward and cut the hem of her hospital gown to look more like a tutu. I’d heard the stories from Dad and Pop as they were always brought up as funny anecdotes, but underneath I knew that things weren’t right with her at the time and although they were funny antics they were, as I started to realise as I got older, the result of severe mental health problems. The gap between my parents was 13 years – she was the older one – so it had its challenges as a marriage in the 60s when that age gap was more unusual than now. She was always very astute though in her own way and in between her muddled thinking and outrageous behaviour, there lurked a philosopher and deep thinker. I can remember going to the ballet and asking Mum who all the dancer characters were. I must have been talking out loud as there was lots of shhhhhhh’s dotted throughout this memory. “Sonia darling, what you have to remember in ballet is that dancing has to be very clear on who is a man and who is a woman otherwise people get confused. That’s why the men have their willies on show and the ladies wear short skirts. These were the actual words she said. Yes, willies on show. I was confused and asked her afterwards if it was ok for men to show their willies on stage? Yes she said, as long as they are in a ballet. I wasn’t convinced but went along with it. I asked her later if it HAD to be men and women getting married, or could men marry men and women marry women. Only in America she told me. Ah, only in America, ok that made sense to my 5-year old brain. Soon afterwards I remember meeting one of Dad’s friends at a concert he was playing in and this man had a funny voice. I asked him why he had a funny voice and he told me he was American. Ah – are you sleeping with a man? I asked. Dad spat out his Guinness and his colleague walked away after smiling at me in that I’m-smiling-but-I’m-not-happy way. Mum had told me that men marry men in America, so surely that made sense? Why were grown-ups so confusing?
Mum told me yesterday that the care home has a box of James Bond films and she’s going to watch the Piers Morgan one. Try telling her that it’s Pierce Brosnan … she berated me again with a friendly chide … Pierce? What kind of a man’s name is that? OK Mum, which film is it? Tomorrow Never Dies? The World is Not Enough? Die Another Day? “Oh do be quiet Sonia darling, you’re so depressing at times you know”. We’re having a couple of excerpts of the James Bond theme in panto – when the baddies gets chased by the goodies, so I’ll be thinking of Mum and her box sets at the next rehearsal, fantasising about Tommy Steele in the main role maybe, wondering if any of the flash, bangs or wallops will happen in the right places. It’s going to be fun – oh yes it is.
As for scrambled eggs and toffee … Mum woofed down a whole jar of Potter’s malt extract and cod liver oil when the carers weren’t looking and had the inevitable digestive ‘alterations’ to her normal routine and she’s on a protest … only accepting scrambled eggs or toffees to eat … to teach her carers a lesson. A lesson in what, I’m not sure, but with every day we speak I continue to learn from this extraordinary woman. Dum diddle-um dum, dum-dum-dum-dum, Dum diddle-um dum, dum-dum-dum-dum, Daaaaa Dum, Da dum dum .