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.
“I’m Gracie Fields and my favourite person is Toni Blair.” Mum noted these things down when we were writing and drawing together recently. Her picture of a chicken would have had Picasso scratching his head, but it all made sense to her. Toni with an “i”, not Tony with a “y”, because she’d heard recently about the concept of non-binary and thought it meant that everyone was male and female whenever they want to be. She thought the “i” looked a bit more feminine. “And if that’s what he wants who were we to argue with him, Sonia darling?” She took on the persona of Gracie Fields as we’d been playing some of her favourite music and Gracie’s “Sally Down our Alley” is her number one favourite – mainly because she can have a lot of fun with the “Sallee-Salleeeeeee” bit in her screechy voice while laughing at everyone covering their ears. She also reverted temporarily to her native northern accent, which only comes out every so often, normally when she’s throwing a tantrum. It turns out that all the residents in the home love it when you draw them pictures and play them songs. Yvonne wanted a cat drinking milk, Jenny wanted pictures of her children playing in the garden, and I noticed a huge difference in Mum when we challenged her to a written quiz on her life. Things like “My favourite cake is … because it is …” (ginger, boingy) or “I love it when … as it makes me feel …” (I get toffees, loved) and my favourite, “My carers are … and they …” (beautiful, always talk to me like a human). She lit up with the new challenge and looked focused for a while, pen in hand, wrinkly brow, eyes concentrating on the paper.
I think it took her back to when she used to write plays and send them off to the biggest players in the West End theatre world. I’ve still got the letter from the manager at the Palladium. She was sensationally brave and unhindered in her thinking and some of it’s rubbed off on me, much to the exasperation of those around me on occasion. Well, sometimes you just need to cut to the chase and go straight to the top to see what happens, don’t you? We wanted a royal family member to present a music prize at Radio 2 many years ago, so I wrote to the queen (with the reluctant help of the royal liaison person at the BBC). Her Majesty had to decline, but we were offered a prince instead, so a RESULT as far as I was concerned. Mum did make it past the main gates to Buckingham Palace once. She was determined that I was going to dance for the queen as I’d got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dance Summer School and the very fact that it had Royal in the name meant the queen was going to come, obviously. She had a letter with a suggested outfit for HRH and a speech that she’d like her to give me. As far as I can remember, she told me that the letter was delivered and she was politely shown out. I never went to the summer school as we could never have afforded the fares or costumes, let alone the lodging fees, but hey, that was life with Mum. You never quite knew if any of the plans were ever going to materialise, which is most likely the reason that I still feel a visceral angst if well-laid plans go tits-up at short notice. It’s short-lived, but it’s still there. Strange, isn’t it, how those early experiences can end up becoming the cogs to your life? Having gone through my own coaching and therapy I’m now able to help other people unpick those moments and recalibrate memories into a more positive spin as it’s all too easy to let those barriers build up and stop you doing stuff. Mum, on the other hand, has no barriers and has never worried about what she says in front of anyone. It also meant that you had to be very careful what you said in front of her, in case she acted on it.
My brother and I were out with Mum on an access day after Mum and Dad divorced. We had been to Speakers’ Corner and wanted to walk around Hyde Park with the hope of being allowed to go boating on the Serpentine. It was hot and on spotting the cafe we both said that we were thirsty and wanted a drink. We hadn’t learned the art of direct messaging and thought the subtle dropping of a hint might make Mum see the cafe, make the connection and get us a fizzy pop. Did we start walking towards the cafe? No, of course not. We were marched in the opposite direction towards the park gate. We then dodged the traffic to cross the road and found ourselves being ushered through the very posh doors of the De Vere Hotel. Mum accosted one of the waiting staff, pushed me and my brother forward and said, “My children are so very, very thirsty and said that they liked the look of your hotel and asked if they could have some water.” Cue little brother and sister looking at each other and miming the 70s, junior equivalent of WTF? “Please take a seat, Madam. Let me see what I can do.” Off he went, and we were both rendered silent in case anything else we said ended up in a situation halfway as embarrassing. Mum tidied our hair and rubbed our faces with Mum-spit tissues, and back he came – complete with a huge silver tray, a silver bucket of ice, tongs, cut-glass tumblers, doilies and slices of lemon. He flamboyantly put them down in front of us and smiled, asking if we’d like ice and lemon. Back then I just wanted to roll up into a ball and hide in the corner as the man wanted to thoroughly humiliate us with his over-the-top display of upper-class snobbery. Everyone was staring and smirking as the hotel manager came over and asked us if we wanted any biscuits. Oh no! Not more people showing us up in public – I would have felt more at ease on a podium at Speakers’ Corner talking about parental divorce. No biscuits, no biscuits!! Mum didn’t think anything of it and wrapped them all up in a linen napkin, and off we went. All I wanted to do was go home to my dad and gentle stepmum to listen to the radio and feel normal again. If anyone has ever heard that story from the perspective of the butler at the De Vere Hotel, I would love to meet him, shake his hand and say thank you, because I can see now that he wanted to give us a lovely experience and leave us with a lasting impression of how kind the people at the De Vere Hotel were. And although it felt like a random Mum act from nowhere, perhaps she knew exactly what would happen and hoped we’d love the whole thing; after all, it’s a hundred times nicer than a lukewarm can of coke from an overpriced cafe, isn’t it? I’m proud of my mum – what she’s achieved, who she’s met, her sheer exuberance for trying new things and venturing into this confusing world with an open mind, endless energy and no constraining social niceties to hold her back. If she wants to be Gracie Fields this week, who are we to argue? They were born in the same area, both loved and played in the Peak District and could bring the house down with their singing. Gracie ended up in Capri, Mum in Bognor – both by the sea and surrounded by colourful people. I’m going to frame the chicken along with the donkey and “Toni” Blair portrait. That will always make me chuckle, as I was once describing my then-partner Tony (now my husband) to some clients and one said, “Tony with a Y or Tony with an I?” The knowing wink on the Y was obviously code for acknowledging between them that I was straight. What would they make of Mum’s take on our ex-prime minister, I wonder?
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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