Shadow puppets

Do you remember The Land Before Time? I first watched it one wet lunchtime at Primary School, when a teacher stuck on a VHS to stop us getting fractious. Until this week, I remembered only that it had dinosaurs and was Very Sad, but nothing more specific. Mark and I thought it would be fun to watch it one evening.

Do not repeat our mistake.

As it turns out, TLBT contains the saddest scene in cinematic history. Little Foot is alone; his mother died in the earthquake and he’s lost his way. He has no hope, no energy, no direction. He’s completely desolate. But then –

He sees her! Dark and distant but it’s her oh it’s her oh it’s her. She’s cheated death; she’s there.

He runs towards her – mother oh it’s mother – and his heart is full. But the closer he gets, the smaller she is. The faster he runs, the quicker she disappears. He shouts her name but she doesn’t hear. But it‘s her oh it’s her oh it’s her. He gets to her, his heart bursting, and –

She’s not there. She never was. He’s been chasing his own shadow.

I see shadows of my mum everywhere I go.

Our relationship was not straightforward. She was very, very ill for a very, very long time – and while with hindsight and compassion and adult eyes I can rationalise things little bit more, as a child it was impossible to understand that it wasn’t an active choice she was making. There are things that you need as a child that an alcoholic cannot give you. That’s not their fault. Nor is it yours.

Let me tell you some stories about my mum.

When I was little, every Christmas our house was full of siblings and aunts and uncles and old ladies and their epileptic dogs and Chinese students and anyone else who might not have had somewhere else to be. My mum would serve up a three course meal with six types of veg, basically single handedly (because she was completely stubborn and would throw us out of the kitchen if we tried to help). It was joyous. Years later, I understood that one of those aunts was in fact an ex-wife of my dad’s. And that other people don’t have quite so many complete randoms in their house on Christmas Day.

When I was 15, I’d go into town at the weekend and spend my money on Burger King bean burgers and Miss Selfridge clothes. When I came home, I’d put on whatever striped or spotted or inappropriately-sloganed top I’d bought, and go into the kitchen to show her. (She was always, always in the kitchen, with a fag and a Sudoku on the go). She would, without fail, get a bit teary and tell me that I looked “very grown up”.

When I was 17, my mum read an article in the local newspaper about a man who had been in an accident which had severely hurt his leg. He’d moved to Jersey to earn better money than he could at home (in, I want to say, Poland – but I am embarrassingly hazy on the facts) and to send it back to his wife and child. Now he couldn’t work, and couldn’t claim benefits, and was struggling to survive. Sad, right? Literally everyone else who read that article thought, “sad” – and then went on with their lives. My mum found out his contact details, and rang him, and invited him to come and live with us. Which he did, for several months, until he was fully recuperated.

When I was 18, we went on the only shopping trip I can ever remember us going on, to get me ready for university. We bought everything. She talked me into getting the pink polka dot crockery rather than the plain white, and then the pink towels to match. I still have those towels; they’re the best.

When I was 20, I had the worst argument of my life with my then-boyfriend. It ran the gamut from passive-aggressive to aggressive-aggressive and went on through the night, leaving me drained, exhausted and completely bereft. As someone who runs from conflict of any sort, I could. not. deal. For the first time in my life, I picked up the phone because I wanted to cry to my mum. She listened, she cried with me – and then she got on a plane and arrived at my door the next day.

When I was 22, and living on a just-above-minimum-wage salary, she put a cheque in my birthday card with strict instructions that it must only be spent on something frivolous. I used it to pay the council tax, but I appreciated the gesture.

When I was 24, she died.

I’d thought she was invincible. That she’d be one of those women who smokes and drinks and eats the wrong things and lives to 103. I couldn’t fathom that it had caught up with her after all. She went into hospital on Christmas Day and she never went home again.

Oh, she was so far from perfect. We were so far from friends. Maybe we would have got there, given time, but there wasn’t time and we never did – and maybe we never would have at all. For all of these good memories there are plenty of the other kind, and I was harder on her than I was on anyone.

But despite everything she made me feel so very, very loved. She made me feel invincible. And then she was gone, and so was I.

I see her shadow everywhere.

It’s not her it’s not her it’s not her.


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