The nights are drawing in and Mum wants to go to bed around 6pm, even though that’s when Barbara Windsor serves dinner. She’s started a whole new game … and a great idea for a new television reality show … Celebrity Carers … could that work? A couple of weeks ago Donald trump had gone to work there (he of the rotten soggy toast) and now it’s Barbara Windsor who’s given up life as a superstar and has dedicated herself to caring for my mum and her friends. She’s probably getting a bit mixed up with snippets of another conversation that we had a few months ago … take a deep breath … here goes. “Barbara Windsor … I love her but she chose some very strange men, didn’t she?” Well, her lovely husband now is Scott and he is the love of her life, Mum. Maybe you’re thinking of the old days when she was involved with Sid James from the Carry Ons and Ronn … Mum, interrupts with a hilarious aside “Oh yes, Sid! He was your grandfather, Sonia darling” (He wasn’t of course, but my Pop did look a bit like him with his twinkling eyes, razor-sharp humour and tight, curly hair). Are you thinking back to Barbara’s links to the London crime scene, Mum? “Well, wasn’t she married to one of the Two Ronnie’s? Was it Ronnie Corbett?” No, Ronnie Knight mum – he was the gangster, Ronnie Corbett was the comedian. “He was short too. She’s short isn’t she? Little Barbara Windsor?” I think you’re getting your Ronnies mixed up, Mum. “Ronnie Barker! Yes, she was married to Ronnie Barker – no wait – Ronnie Barker??? Ronnie Barker was a gangster? He never struck me as a violent type. Barbara Windsor – she’s quite short too – that’s probably why she liked him. Did she marry both of them?” I tried to interrupt her and steer her in the right direction, but tea has a nasty habit of catching in your throat when trying to stifle a laugh, making you cough and staining your new white blouse.
Luckily the tea stain came out. It’s fascinating how the memory can re-arrange life into brand new scenarios. Mum is very happy in her world – whenever she re-invents people, times, situations or whole periods of her life, it’s as though she’s suddenly remembered a whole new memory that had buried itself. She genuinely believes that Barbara Windsor works in the care home and it’s not my job to deny it or change that – if that’s what makes her happy, that’s fine isn’t it? I’ve spent a lifetime trying to re-configure her thinking as I thought that was the responsible thing to do, but looking back on it, that was purely my way of re-aligning my world to cope with her odd views. As a very little girl I’d apparently passed an audition to go to stage school. Mum had always wanted to see me on the big stage – saving every penny she had to put on Cinderella, starring me when I was 7. I remember a huge cut-out carriage stuck to the side of a big hooded pram, little boys dressed in white horse costumes and Prince Charming with his deep red velvet coat and white stockings. I think we had a piano player and sang songs from the Disney film, but it’s all a bit of a haze as it was in-between Mum depositing me with various friends overnight when she was either working extra hours or having to take time out with her depression. Each time she did this, my father would return from work as a classical musician to find an empty flat. It must have been terribly stressful for him of course, but nothing I ever actually saw, apart from one night that sticks in my memory. Mum had told me to go and get changed into my new stage school uniform and show Daddy. I was so excited, but it was another one of Mum’s manic episodes … she’d bought the uniform, despite Dad saying that although I’d passed the audition, I couldn’t possibly go to the drama school as they didn’t have the money for it. Back in those days I don’t think there were scholarships. So I had to take the uniform off, put it back in the bag and Dad marched off with it – probably to take it back for a refund … all very confusing. Hey ho.
People have often said that I’d be a good actress and I guess it comes from being able to put on a whole new skin with “normal” people from a very young age when Mum was behaving in strange ways. And you get very skilled in finding three very different ways of telling the same story to 3 parents – unpredictable Mum, sensible Dad who was exasperated by unpredictable Mum and step Mum, the wonderful new breath of fresh air and apparently normal influence in the family.
It’s all been a bit of a drama; with Mum now centre stage as the character that people are really coming to love. And Ronnie is now figuring in a very different way – as my beloved step grandson and brand new member of the family. I hope that one day he may get to meet Mum – I wonder what he’ll think of her with his brand new eyes – one thing I do know is that Mum will adore him and will tenderly stroke his chin, as she does to me every time she sees me. Love you Mum. Enjoy your early nights.
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.