It’s tennis season and memories of being turned away at the Wimbledon turnstiles still haunt me. Not even a frilly white frock, pretend tennis racquet and packet of strawberries was going to convince the security guards to let us in. I was probably 8 or 9 and Mum normally managed to blag her way in anywhere. Not this time, despite the flirting, protests and pushing me forward and ordering me to smile nicely. I knew at the time that my outfit was ridiculous. Tennis players wore short, simple tunics and not frilly bridal dresses. Nobody was going to be convinced by a pink plastic toy tennis racquet and as for the strawberries … mushy and inedible. Years later I was able to sneak in with my BBC ID pass and watch from the commentary boxes, As always, looking back, this was Mum at her most creative; trying to make a dream come true and cementing future memories. Cemented they were, but maybe not for the right reasons.
Barnet Council has brought back a Summer Festival and is putting on outdoor cinema events for us all to enjoy for free. Walking past the giant screen earlier with my little dog I heard the familiar plock, plock of the match and no doubt all eyes will be glued to Emma Raducanu as she slams her way into tennis history later today. I did start tennis lessons (in protest) at senior school, but was soon excused after messing around and not taking it seriously. Our tennis coach, the formidable Miss Harris, taught us how to serve … “ball UP, look UP, racquet back, watch ball and THROW the racquet over”. Yes, of course I knew that what she meant was to keep hold of the racquet while making a throwing motion to contact the ball and send it over the net. My first attempt was a disaster as I missed the ball. “You’re supposed to hit the ball, Sonia, not watch it drop to the ground.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Second attempt. Right – up, look, racquet back, watch and throw. Clatter, clatter, clatter. “You’re not supposed to actually throw the racquet across the court, Sonia.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was much happier running around the square, making faces at the tennis students who probably wished they’d had the balls to risk the wrath of Harris. The only competitive sport she ever convinced me to take part in was hockey which I also loathed. All that knocking of sticks, whacking shins and getting up at dawn for hockey matches. I made myself very good at defending the goal which meant that not only did I have shin pads, I didn’t have to do all that running up and down the pitch. Netball was OK as I was tall and was often made goalie. Again, lots of knocking the ball back and not having to run around too much.
So now we’re approaching a life after lockdown with more time to actually go to things I’m going to apply for tickets for Wimbledon next year – and in my precious mum’s honour I’m going to try and find a white frilly frock to wear. Looking back, I’m pleased we didn’t get in because she would have been heckling the players no doubt, gate-crashing VIP areas, digging up bits of grass for me to take home as a souvenir (I’ll tell you that story another time) and hoovering up the spare strawberries left by the posh people who bought them inside the club grounds. She came to the Finchley Festival once – the yearly event with dozens of highly decorated floats, Carnival Queens, displays, events and a huge fairground. There was so much noise around that nobody really noticed her loud singing and she even managed to get herself a ride on a police horse by flirting with the mounted policeman who wasn’t laughing at first when she stood on a chair and tried to mount his horse to sit behind him. Advantage Margaret.
Here’s to Summer freedom. Here’s to my marvellous mum. Love all.
We’ve all done it haven’t we? Made up our own words to misheard lyrics and sung them at top volume much to the amusement of our fellow singers – or is that just me? Mum did it all the time, although I suspect she knew exactly what she was doing and enjoyed the surrounding harrumphs and gasps of exasperation. One of her favourite festive tricks was to join a choir, flirt with the vicar (they were always church choirs), befriend the baritones and sock the sopranos between the eyes with her mad, falsetto singing. Imagine Hyacinth Bouquet on helium and you’ve got the picture. I was always somewhere in the background, half-listening, half-wincing at Mum’s singing and trying to distance myself. She was having fun though and didn’t give a hoot about the stuffy people around her getting upset. She never lasted long in the choirs as I recall and I do remember going on holiday to a vicarage in Swanage one year where my brother and I had bunk beds in one room and Mum apparently slept on the sofa, although we never saw any bed clothes on it when we got up early in the hope of surprising her with a cup of tea. So the flirting must have paid off.
In the early eighties I started work at the BBC and moved in to the top floor of a wonderful, tumble-down house which Mum had inherited. It really was a very old, unloved house with rattling windows, three freezing floors, no heating, no hot water and a ghost. Mum lived on the bottom floor, so it was often a case of sneaking past her rooms to get upstairs and into my flat without her shouting out or accosting my friends on the way up. Most of the time it was she who opened the door as we only had an old iron knocker which was next door to her bedroom. On various occasions she’d jump out and shout something inappropriate when I intercepted friends on the way up, thus ending the friendship or stopping any new romance in its tracks before it had the time to blossom. She meant well of course and thought that offers of tea in bed or an extra feather eiderdown might encourage things. Errr … well, they didn’t. And then I had a wonderful idea. Why didn’t I get a doorbell that only rang in my flat? I installed it in secret, running the wires along door frames, along skirting boards and well out of sight. She didn’t notice and everything appeared to be going according to plan. And then the trouble started. The doorbell went one evening at about 11.30pm, so I trotted downstairs to see which of my friends had decided to make a midnight visit. I opened the door to a middle-aged man, sweating and tugging at his jacket. “Sonia?” Yes, said I, slowly closing the door to a half-inch slit. “Do you have a maid?” Goodbye, said I closing the door and dashing back upstairs to the warm. Weird man – obviously drunk. Similar things started happening and I was now getting very freaked out and pissed off at the late night knockers. It was only when my grandpa Pop came to visit that things became clearer. He had “asides” with Dad when I opened the door to them both. Dad was a bit embarrassed and neither of them would tell me what they were whispering about. It was always at these points that the penny dropped and I had the sinking “Mum !!!!!!” feeling. What had she said, done or tried this time? They finally came out with it. “It’s your doorbell, Sonia. It’s a bit Soho, don’t you think?” What about my fantastic, clever idea doorbell? It turned out that Mum had found out about it (after all, it was quite obvious when you actually arrived at the front door) and in order to help people differentiate between the main front door and my flat she’d attached a hand-written label. “Sonia. Top flat only. Ring for pleasure.” Whether it was the outrage of the sheer ignorance from her point of view, or the fact that Dad and Pop both had insight into what these labels meant when visiting Soho, I can’t quite remember. I was furious and removed the bell completely and by “completely”, I mean ripping the wires out of every crevice, smashing the button to tiny pieces and crushing the electronic bell device to smithereens. Things that Mum did were always based on love, however at the time her actions felt to me like a crushing mix of anger, confusion and the conviction that she didn’t know me one little bit. How lucky am I that in later life I grew to see her behaviour for what it really was and not what I thought it to be.
Bells have always featured heavily (or should that be Heavenly?) in my world. Church bells with Mum dragging me unwillingly to strangers’ weddings or interminable church services. Jingle Bells with altered lyrics. THAT Hendon door bell and now a talking bus bell, Thinkerbell, who features in my children’s book series, Granny Franny’s Big Red Bus. I’ve started using DING DING as a strap line when I sign the books. And there’s another bell reference that always makes my friends laugh; two very annoying boys at junior school used to sing “Ding, dong, bell DOM – your head’s gone wrong. Two screws are loose, your head’s no use.” to the tune of a nursery rhyme. So that got shortened to “Ding dong” and became my nickname. I didn’t mind, it was better than “Hercule”. Hercule Poirot – Belgium – Beldom. VERY funny. NOT.
As there are no big carol concerts this year, our little neighbourhood group is staging a Christmas sing-along in the park for the children of the local nursey. Luckily I’ve got a very powerful bluetooth speaker from which I can play a few backing tracks for us all to sing along to. And guess what the first track that Lydia, my much loved neighbour sent me this afternoon? You’ve guessed it – Jingle Bells! I promise not to embed the wrong lyrics into the heads of the children, as my mother did to me. It went like this; “Jingle Bells, diamonds and pearls, twinkle all the way. Oh what fun for Santa’s bum as he twinkles in his sleigh – OH … etc. etc.
Have a good run-up to Christmas in these peculiar times. DING DING.
Take it easy (take it easy), better slow down girl … I swear my Mum was Abba’s secret lyricist. From the age I started toddling she was always telling me to get more sleep, to slow down, to stop doing so much. I was only toddling and trying to hide all the horrible food she kept trying to get me to eat. Cheese sandwiches with tough old crusts? REALLY? I wanted crisps. Home-made beef burgers the size of a frying pan with no salt or onion? NO WAY! I wanted chocolate mice thank you very much. And don’t even get me started on chopped raw liver in lumpy mash … yes, yes, I know … she was desperately trying to get me to eat healthy food, but I was a toddler. I toddled. I saw other kids eating rubbish and I was desperate to be a teeny weeny bit like other kids. To fit in by eating similar food. To look the same and wear proper school uniform – not red hot-pants or ballet tunics. Of course I’d applaud any mum going against the system now and encouraging their children not to conform to the norm and lose their identity, but I don’t have kids, so what do I know?
To this day Mum still thinks I do too much and is often discouraging me from driving from London to Bognor Regis to see her. As if that’s going to stop me. When I rang ahead a couple of months ago, one of the wonderful carers said “Oh – we didn’t think you’d be coming, Margaret says that you’re resting and that you don’t like driving in the rain”. I chuckled to think that they’ve obviously got me down as a sensitive, insomniac soul who’s afraid of the world and doesn’t sleep properly. Decades ago when we shared a house for a while I was greeted by a very angry Jamaican lady brandishing a bible in my face the minute I walked through the front door. YOU’S A SINNER ! YES, YOU’S A SINNER! I beg your pardon? YOU SIN – YOUR MOTHER TOLD ME. Sorry, who are you and what are you doing in my living room? YOUR MOTHER INVITED ME TO TALK TO YOU. Yes, she was shouting, hence the capital letters. It was like some nightmare scene where everything goes into soft focus and all you can see in front of you is a mouth shaping words you can’t quite comprehend. OK, OK, please calm down. My ears were hurting. Where is my Mum? SHE TOLD ME TO WAI… ok, quieter please … She told me to wait for you and help you mend your ways. And what ways are they exactly? YOU DON’T COME HOME AT NIGHT. Yes I do. YOUR MUM SAYS YOU DON’T SLEEP IN YOUR BED. No, that’s true. Sometimes I am up late and I have trouble sleeping, but what the hell has that got to do with you (with respect?). YOU DON’T COME HOME AT NIGHT. Yes I do come home at night, you’re getting confused … is it that Mum told you I don’t sleep properly in bed, not that I don’t use it perhaps? OH !!!!! The penny dropped, then at top pelt THERE MUST BE OTHER SINS. WHAT ARE THEY? So now she was asking me what I should be telling her to bollock me about ! I politely asked her to come back another time when Mum was in so that they could confuse each other and leave me out of it.
And … breathe … take it nice and slow.
I met Mum at work once. She was working for a hospital trust as a cleaner and kitchen assistant. I found the office and said that I was Margaret’s daughter and could I wait there to meet her. “So, you’re the one with the dinners?” Sorry? “The dinners, on plates, you’re the one that needs the dinners”. You’ll have to explain as I’m not sure what you mean. The woman sniffed, did that really annoying super slow blink and looked back down to her desk. I asked her if she could explain as I was pretty sure that I didn’t need hospital dinners on plates. Apparently, Mum had been forcing the kitchen staff to put whole dinners on plates, cover them in clingfilm and then she’d brought them home and left them in my fridge. They’d all protested of course, saying that the food was for patients, not even staff and certainly not lazy daughters of staff who couldn’t be bothered to make their own dinners. It didn’t help that Mum has always been 5’1″ and a size 10 and I’m 5’7″ and NOT a size 10. You could almost feel the ‘lazy cow’ vibes. When Mum finally arrived she pushed me towards the blinky woman saying “Here she is – my ballerina daughter”. The woman choked on her sweet, literally. Hacking great coughs, streaming eyes, thumping her desk with her fist. “You wanted to be a nurse, didn’t you Sonia darling – you can help her with her cough”. The woman held up a weak hand, miming “STOP. STOP!” as she recovered her breath just in time before I thumped her on the back. She rasped “Nice to meet you” and limped out of her office. No doubt on her way to the kitchen to order them to stop putting any more dinners on plates. Mum , bless her heart, has always remembered the naughty toddler who didn’t eat proper food and had made it her life time’s ambition to bring me nice food and the hospital dinners felt like a safe bet I’m sure. The mystery was finally solved as I’d often asked how these plates had arrived in my fridge and she’d denied all knowledge ! But she knew … she knew … does your mother know? Yes, she does. She’s just fibbing.
Two examples of Mum getting my wellbeing slightly topsy turvy, but there have also been confusing times when she’s obviously been going through darker times and in “destruct” mode – for herself and also for the family.
I used to belong to a fantastic amateur drama group – and we were a gang. I could never really tell Mum too much about them all as it was always dangerous for her to get hold of real names and God forbid, phone numbers. There was one chap with whom I got on extremely well. We were super buddies and then one day it stopped. He avoided my eyes, would walk to the other side of the room whenever I approached and avoided any social situation where I might be present. It was very confusing. I tried calling him to see if I’d inadvertently upset him, but he never responded. When talking it through with another group member I could hear my words and worries out loud in the real world and that rattly old penny went clanging it’s way down a deep, dark, spooky well. THUMP. Mum ! It must be Mum. I suddenly realised that I’d probably not actually lost my address book – she’d nicked it. I cornered the distressed man in the kitchen and asked him if he’d by any chance heard from Mum. A grumpy “hmm – as if you don’t know”. Well no, I don’t know, that’s way I’m asking you. All I got then was a nasal exhale and flared nostrils. Please tell me. I know she’s been in touch as I’ve lost my address book and am now terrified that she’s phoned everyone in it. PLEASE. “Does your mother know that we’re good friends?” No, I don’t really tell her anything like that – I’ve told you that. “And is it true? IS IT? Is THAT what you really want?” Oh blimey, this was serious anger, not confusion, proper anger. Please tell me. Mum had phoned him, told him that for his own sake he should back off, because I was seeing 4 men and only had him in my sights to father my future children. She’d then berated him about showing off his meat and two veg in public and and told to keep his flies buttoned up. And the final pay-off to make sure he backed off well and truly .. “All that girl wants in life is money, money, money and 4 children.” SILENCE. Deafening silence. So even if it might have been on the cards that we would go out together, that certainly wasn’t happening. He did laugh about it weeks later. As for the 4 men … I’ve no idea who she was thinking about as I was firmly single and had been hoping for a date with aforementioned bewildered, angry man.
Mum told me to take it easy over Christmas, to slow down in life. And with all this panto piano playing, work and running a business – that’s no way to go Sonia Darling. See? Abba Lyrics. Does your mother know? They say mothers know best … so in some crazy way, she probably did if you dig deeper into the origin of the sentiments behind the stories. But there’s one thing that she’ll never know … it was ME, the apple-hating toddler, who hid all those horrid apples in her wellington boot. It was ME, the junior ballerina who’d let them rot for months in the hope they’d never be discovered and it was ME, the liver-hating, chocolate mice wanting, confused child who was responsible for the mouse problem in our flat – after all, what’s a toddler to do with all that nasty old cheese apart from to throw it under the bed to make it disappear? She pretended not to know, but she did … oh yes she did.
Sonia’s Mum is a transformational love story between a mentally complex mother and the daughter who adored her. I want to share these deeply personal and funny stories so that we can raise awareness for how challenging it is for many people who’ve had mentally ill parents and have struggled to come to terms with their own issues.
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