Burn Joan of Arc, Burn
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 !