You would’ve been sixty.
As of Wednesday the 9th of February, my mum would’ve been sixty years old. I found out on the phone to my dad, asking if he could post me my passport so I could spontaneously go to Budapest. He didn’t think he could, and part of me was relieved, going on holiday on her birthday seemed distasteful. Instead, I went to a boat party. She was an alcoholic most of my life, so my memories of her involve rehab centres and the smell of red wine, which provided an irony of going somewhere with an open bar. I used to pretend to drink when I went to parties, tipping it down drains or passing it to friends. I decided that drinking wasn’t for me — that was until I was 18 at my sixth form leavers due. I remember the exact moment that I understood why she did what she did. Why she drank. How it was numbing and freeing at the same time. The entire world seemed restricted to only those around me, within the confines of the dingiest club in Bournemouth. It was only when you sobered up you realised the insignificance of the night you just had, and how large the world really is.
I really do believe that I’ve never had an issue with alcohol. It’s never taken over my life or driven me down a path in a way it did my mum. If anything, it helped me understand her.
I have good memories too. Amazing ones. I remember going to Disneyland Paris, being way too scared to go on the rides. I remember her being the librarian at my first primary school, watching her draw Willy Wonka for some display. I remember sitting in awe watching her do it, I believe she could’ve been an artist. The irony of the boat party was that when we were there, they couldn’t sail it because they didn’t have enough crew members for the people onboard.
I remember how I found out she died. My dad picked me up from school, and we sat in the car. I could tell something was wrong, by his change in demeanour. So, I started to list names. Granny. Alice. And then my mum. Back where we were living at my grans, we cried. Me, my sister and my dad. But for whatever reason, I decided I wanted to go to school the next day. I went in like nothing had happened, with each teacher looking at me completely unsure what to say. I just worked. And I still haven’t really stopped working, 11 years later.
The boat party was fun, despite the boat part becoming now incredibly irrelevant. I started with the ales and concluded with various rums and cokes. I was also dressed up for a Disney theme as Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. I believe I grew up fast, maybe I subconsciously dressed up as him out of jealousy. Or I found a green t-shirt at a charity shop in Beeston.
I remember her funeral being planned and making a fuss that it was the same day as sports day. I remember my dad and the funeral director talking and me crying to get the date changed. I even asked if I could skip some of it to make it back for the team relay. I knew that if I went to the funeral, it would in a way confirm it. Finalise what I already knew. I don’t think I stopped crying throughout the service, yet I didn’t listen to a word of it. Her life just played through my mind to the sound of a man preaching about a god she never believed in.
In the morning, pre boat, I volunteered at a community garden where I’ve been going with a friend for a couple weeks. This is where I should tie in some anecdotes about my mum gardening, but honestly, I don’t have any. Gardening always seemed more my dad’s thing. My dad and mum split after the alcohol was getting more severe.
There was an article about my mum dying. The reason being, they believed that her partner at the time had murdered her. They arrested him and released him on bail 36 hours later. There was never any substantial evidence that she was killed, so it was determined to be alcohol poisoning. Her partner, Keith, was quoted saying she would drink up to 5 litres of cider a day. He saw her fall, and decided to watch Shawshank redemption instead of helping her. Must’ve been a good movie. Google “Sally Tilley dead” if you want the full scoop. Maybe there’s a hope that this could replace those articles with the right SEO.
The boat party ended at a club in the centre of Nottingham, called Rock city. They served the worst house lager I’ve ever tasted. But I finished it, because why not. As I danced, that feeling came back from when I was 18, nothing mattered outside of the walls of this club in Nottingham. When I left, I was angry, and took it out on a friend who didn’t deserve it. On the uber ride home, the world started to feel bigger again, and the night we just had, insignificant.
I can’t imagine I’ll stop drinking. I’ve never really used it to cope or distract myself from the realities of life. And I genuinely do enjoy it, making dumb memories with friends. Like screaming about how yummy pickle juice is, doing karaoke “Don’t’ go breaking my heart” or dancing on poles at what was once propaganda.
When she died, she had a pet, Bill. A grey lop eared rabbit, which was too kind for its own good. It would be attacked by my other rabbit Bugs, just for trying to be his friend. Bill was needy yet calm and couldn’t stamp nearly as loud as bugs because of the extra fluff on his feet. We looked after Bill until he too died.
Grieve is a weird thing. For over a decade I’ve struggled to talk about her, and I don’t believe its going to get any easier. But putting it in writing is perhaps the most therapeutic thing I’ve ever done. For years I thought she chose alcohol over us. But I don’t think she did. I think she was navigating the world, with issues that I will never truly know about. At her funeral, they played “I’ll never let you go (Little darlin)” by Elvis Presley. I remember hearing how the tempo (if that’s the right word) changed halfway through and thinking how fitting it was. I knew her as two people: The librarian who went on to run a pre-school and the alcoholic who bought a rabbit.
Despite everything, she was my mum. She took hundreds of photos and videos of me and Alice, because she wanted us to feel loved when we were older. I remember when I was sick at school, I would spend the day at the pre-school she worked at, watching her truly care for every child. At Christmas she would get large boots and make snowy footprints in the living room to show Father Christmas had come. Her life was complicated, but I hope mine will make her proud.
I just wonder what you would’ve been like at sixty.