Speakers’ Corner – If They Could See Me Now

Last week on Speakers’ Corner, I quoted the lyrics of the song Pick Yourself Up to illustrate how defeat and failure must be met with stoicism and optimism.  This week, I’m again using the lyrics of Dorothy Fields from the musical Sweet Charity. This week’s sentiment is taken from the song If They Could See Me Now by Shirley MacLaine in the movie.  The song’s title speaks to how I’m feeling now, not in the braggartly sense but with a wistfulness.  It’s tinged with sadness at what I never appreciated or took for granted about my mother.  And how proud I would be today to show her my new life and know how thrilled she would have been. She left us over six years ago, and it is fair to say that we didn’t always see eye to eye.  The causes and reasons seem irrelevant with the passage of time.

            When my mum left my dad in the 1970s, she hadn’t worked as a nurse for many years. She set up a home for us in a top-floor council flat in Westerhailles, a rough estate west of Edinburgh, where we lived for two years. We waited for her divorce settlement to be finalised.  She worked night shifts looking after the old and frail in wealthy Edinburgh.  But she had the disability of deafness that worsened with age.  There were no sophisticated hearing aids in those days; using the phone was an ordeal for her, and my sisters and I were often put on the phone to convey a message.  It made it impossible for her to work on the wards in a hospital. 

She was faced with a dilemma. Where could she work where her deafness would not be an encumbrance?  She decided to buy a house in Portobello, the Victorian sea resort east of Edinburgh, and open a guest house.  It was inspired because it used all her organisational and legendary home cooking skills.  The house was full of tourists in summer, and the rest of the year was full of university students.  At times, we could have as many as eight guests.  It was a frantic and busy abode, but always full of the laughter of young people.  

My mum’s business was the template I used when ill health forced me to change my career.  The irony was that Mum never lived to witness that transformation.

Sue and I gave up our executive careers five years ago.  It was a momentous decision, although at least it was easy for me.  I was in my late fifties, no longer with the energy or health to sell my wares as a troubleshooter in the food industry.  In truth, there weren’t as many opportunities coming my way.  It’s the cycle of life; fitter, stronger and more dynamic beasts were my competition.  Sue was fed up with her role in the university sector, so we both talked about how we would reinvent ourselves.  Perhaps reinvent is the wrong word; more like how we were going to create an income to take us through to retirement.

            We decided to open a B&B in the west of Scotland and bought Powdermills, Furnace, near Inveraray in Argyll.  I cringe at our innocence and naivete.  We were businesspeople, and we thought our skills would be transferrable and success guaranteed.  But it was far from easy, and we suffered many setbacks.  Of course, we had skills, just not the right ones to provide instant achievement.  It wasn’t as straightforward as we imagined.         However, it was simple things, which seem so obvious now, that had us floundering.  We didn’t have enough linen for the turnover of beds, and for the first year, the B&B felt more like an industrial laundry, including me pressing pillows and duvets on a machine every day.  In truth, we hadn’t considered the logistics of operating a Bed & Breakfast and how it had to be organised.  Finally, we never anticipated the hard work.  Both of us were used to hard graft, but that was managerial, and this was physical work.  Changing beds and preparing rooms daily was exhausting, and we had to contract our laundry out quickly.

            These experiences have made us marvel at my Mum.  She had five rooms, with only herself to do the cleaning, laundry, and administration.  In addition, she had to make a cooked breakfast daily and prepare a three-course evening meal.  But her meals were always sumptuous and varied.  After dinner, she would have to clean all the dishes and prep for breakfast.  I say she, although I was living there, to my shame, I can hardly ever remember giving her a hand or doing the dishes while I was at school.  I took it all for granted.  Only now can I truly appreciate her work ethic and skill at providing a home and an income. And I never took the opportunity to say thanks.

            Powdermills B&B has only three double rooms, but the business needs both of us.  We’re into our second full season because of Covid, but it’s still tiring.  We’ve become more efficient and divided our roles within the business.  Sue is the housekeeper and the boss.  She has the arduous task of getting the bedrooms ready every day.  It makes perfect sense; she is a stickler for cleanliness and attention to detail.  My involvement is to strip the beds and help her make the beds for the next day.  She doesn’t trust me on anything more, as my hoovering and cleaning skills are not good enough.  I often catch her checking my work with an inspectorial glare.

            Nonetheless, I morphed into the breakfast chef, in part because Sue couldn’t do everything and because it kept me out of the way behind the cooker.  Five years ago, I could barely boil an egg.  And it took me a long while to learn to crack an egg without breaking the yolk.  But slowly, my skills and competence increased. Now, I can produce a full Scottish breakfast to order, and dare I say to a high standard.  I enjoy cooking and ensuring a generous quality meal for our guests.  I started baking our bread during Covid, and out of necessity, I’m sometimes called upon to bake scones and Victoria sponges for the guests for their welcoming high tea.  However, as ever, under the watchful eye of Sue.

And all the while, I’m thinking ‘if mum could see me now’.  She’d laugh and be proud.  Similarly, she was a voracious reader and completed an Open University degree in Art History in her late forties.  The parallels with my life are scary, and I know she would have enjoyed discussing the many books I’ve read in the last few years.

But mum wasn’t finished reinventing herself; she sold her house in Edinburgh, moved to London to be close to her first grandchildren, and retrained to be a specialised intensive care nurse with improved hearing aids.  Remarkable. 

She retired to Peebles, where she lived for twenty years, enjoying the quiet life, well apart from her poetry club, her volunteering for the Stroke Association, I could go on and on.  As I said, hard work never bothered my mum. 

But she never witnessed all these changes in my life, which fills me with regret.  If only mum could see me now.