I heard her laugh. Then she was hugging me. She wasn't late. It was five to twelve. I laughed then. I wasn't sure she knew. Four hundred people or thereabouts had shown up on a Sunday morning to see my film. Many were cast and crew, family, friends old and new, agents, producers, commissioning editors and the like from the BBC. But on that day only one opinion really mattered, hers.
There is nothing new about a son wanting the approval of his mother. The little touch or a couple of words that let him know that what he has done or the man he is is alright by her. The difference here is that she isn't my mother. Pam is not mine. Not by blood. Not by marriage, not by any legal paper in the country. I didn't meet her until I was nearly 16 and I only lived with her for about three years. But, today she mothers me as if she always has, her children are my other brother and sister and she is Nana Pam to my kids.
To explain is to be more open than I feel comfortable with but... My real mother was Phyllis Mary James. There was just her, my brother Kester and me. There was no father. My real mother was a church-going woman. Give or take the school friends who lived around our way, our lives revolved around the church. Our church was a Pentacostal church. That meant gospel music, speaking in tongues and the laying on of hands. Tuesday evenings, Thursday evenings and twice on Sundays. We played, prayed and partied around the church and its fellowship. If you believe the saying, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you a man", these were my seven years. These were the years I had with my mum and brother, God and Muhammad Ali.
I remember that there were three main times when our two bed flat was full of people: at birthdays/Christmas, etc; at prayer meetings or Bible classes; or when Ali was fighting. My mum loved Ali in a way that was definitely outside the church. She would be like a little girl beside me and my brother as we prepared for the crowd that would gather and the noise we would make when Ali did what only he could do so well. To this day the only real hero or role model I have ever aspired to is Ali. I got him from my mum. I never fell out with Ali, he never let me down. Not like God did. This is how I felt as a boy. A boy growing up in a house where God was real. My mum was always chatting to him and went to his house three, sometimes four times a week. When I fell out with him it was for good and it was over my mum.
I remember there was something my mum always said, words to the effect of, "Learn this now, because I might not be there to teach you again." For as long as I can remember as a kid mum was dying. I knew as much as a seven-year-old could know about that. I know my mum put every ounce of herself into making us all right for when she wasn't around. She taught us to cook, to clean, to sew. She taught us about girls and clean underwear. She taught us right from wrong until it hurt and put a bond between me and my brother that at times had no room for anyone else. And at any given moment she, my mother, Phyllis, would pray the same prayer. "Dear Lord, don't take me till my children are grown," ... and me and Kester would giggle. We thought she was getting all West Indian and over the top. And anyway, I thought at the time, it wasn't very much to ask. I don't know if this is what I thought or if it's me looking back on it wanting it to be interesting to read, but I know I hated God worse than spit. I wanted to know what good my mum was next to him rather than with me and Kester. He took her on 22 October 1977. It was the same year that Elvis died; I was ten and Kester was 12 and a half.
My uncle wanted to take us to the States but we couldn't go. Our mum was in the ground here and we wanted to stay close. So eventually myself and my brother went to live in a kids' home. Our time in the kids' home was a good time in the main. The people were good people who stuck around.
I was 15, nearly 16, when the local council adopted a scheme to encourage people to foster teenagers out of kids' home. The council's focus had turned towards foster care as a more viable means of caring for wards. That, and the fact that in the case of my home they could sell the buildings for millions and lower the poll tax. Or maybe that was just my take on events. Whatever the history the reality was I was close to the age when I would be leaving the kids' home. With things the way they were, no one knew how long the home would be there should I not make it on my own. Maybe there would be nowhere to go back to. So it was with this in mind that I asked to be fostered.
I first saw Pam in a photograph. My social worker handed it to me in her office. I was told her name, that she had two kids, older than me, a boy and a girl. That she lived in Streatham and was a social worker. What can you tell from a photo? I would like to say that I knew then, straight away, but I didn't. All I thought was how badly the picture was taken. I don't remember how much longer it was before we met. It was in the same office. I was sat next to my social worker in a chair that was an armchair with no arms. I had been made to feel that the choice to live with Pam was as much mine as hers, and anyway she arrived before I had time to settle any apprehension. She was in her work suit, which back in the Eighties was power, carrying a bag stuffed with files and another brimming with shopping. And for full on three, maybe five minutes, I left her there standing. She had this inane smile and so did I. My social worker introduced us and we laughed. That is what I remember about our first meeting, us laughing and me excusing myself too many times to go to the toilet.
I stayed a couple of weekends to meet Tony my foster brother, and Yvarine my foster sister, before I moved in for real. I think the hardest part of those years were down to me. I was at an age when most kids are growing away from their families, and I was being forced towards one.
I had kind of looked after myself for five odd years and now there was someone else trying to do it. And I fought Pam toe-to-toe whenever I felt she was trying to take the place of my mum.
I called her mum once and only once in those years. Someone was on the phone for her and I called up the stairs. When she asked me what I had called her I couldn't say it again. To this day, I call her mum in front of everyone except her. But she knows about that. She knows too that what I really needed was to be reminded of where I came from.
Pam's house smelt like my mum's house. The rules were the same and Pam is a church-going woman. Pam comes from a West Indian way with children. There is a way in the islands where anybody's child is everybody's child. I don't know how she did it, but Pam never replaced anyone, she just brought me up for my mum. A woman she had never met except through me. It is a rare skill and a gift that I desperately needed at that time.
I never knew my real mum as a grown up. I love her and remember her with the heart of a boy. The man I am has Pam. Our relationship could've been over on my 18th birthday. That's when the money stopped. But it is still going strong. I think Phyllis would have liked Pam. They have a lot in common and I thank them both.
`Storm Damage' will be shown later this year.Reuse content