[Scintilla Day 03] Where’s your mama gone?

The Orthopaedic Hospital, Gobowen.

Where’s your mama gone? (Where’s your mama gone?)
Little baby Don (Little Baby Don)
Where’s your mama gone? (Where’s your mama gone?)
Far, far away

It’s 1971.

British Leyland have launched the Morris Marina, Margaret Thatcher schemes to abolish free milk for school children, and in a hospital in the middle of the countryside on the border between England and Wales, I’m in hospital. Despite being a mere eighteen months old, I’ve spent a large part of my life in hospital having corrective surgery on my left hip, which was congenitally dislocated but not spotted initially because they didn’t do a postnatal check for ‘clicky hips’ in those days.

In addition to surgery, they’ve put me in traction, hung me upside down on a special bed made by the young apprentices at the local Rolls Royce factory and tried all sorts of experimental remedies, all without any degree of success. One of the latest things they’ve tried is ‘frog plaster’, where my legs are forced out at unnatural angles and plastered into place. For months at a time – and it’s going to need regular replacements because in addition to growing, children of my age need nappies and well, I think it’s safe to say that things down there must get pretty ripe.

Luckily – for me at least, I don’t remember any of it. The sole memory I have of the whole ghastly process is of a tall, dark man coming towards me with what I’m guessing must have been a tool they used to cut off the plaster. In my head it’s whirring with all the high-pitched and anxiety-inducing sound of a dentist’s drill. My mum says that for years afterwards I would scream and hide if I heard a vacuüm cleaner.

My mum, though – she hasn’t forgotten. She doesn’t talk about it much. She told me – just the once – about how she felt when she discovered I had to go into hospital aged what? four or five months, maybe? She told me how the sight of the empty nursery had distressed her so much she had to give the baby equipment away. She told me how she used to drive to the hospital, a fifty mile or so round trip, to visit me in the afternoon. If your baby was in hospital in those days you didn’t get the option to sleep over on a camp bed at the foot of their cot. There were no Ronald McDonald houses or twenty-four hour vending machines. The wards were ruled by old-school nurses, the kind that wore starched cuffs and intricately folded caps. On one occasion my mum turned up and someone had cut off all my baby curls; apparently the hours spent lying on my back had caused them to become matted. Another time she arrived to find the all other babies wearing my clothes – and I know she bought me beautiful things back then: velour all-in-ones in scarlet and navy stripes bought mail-order from Sweden where people dressed their children in bright and stimulating things, a world away from dreary seventies polyester.

I don’t know how she coped with all that. The photograph above is shocking for all kinds of reasons, but what makes me saddest is how harrowed my poor mum looks. She’s always been slim but I’ve never seen her as gaunt as she is in that picture, and that smile… is it a smile? It’s hard to tell. She used to leave late in the afternoon, always telling me that she had to go now, to buy some potatoes for Daddy’s tea. Apparently when I started talking, one of my first sentences was, ‘Daddy eats lots potatoes.’

I don’t know where I heard the song first. Did they play the radio on the children’s ward, I wonder, or did my family or one of the nurses sing it to me? I guess a cheesy yet catchy song like Middle of the Road’s Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep was always going to be popular with a child, and I know that singing it became one of my party pieces when I was a little older.When I listen to it now, the song horrifies me. All I can think of is my poor mum hearing it on the radio, driving all those miles in the dark in a knackered old car, and leaving her baby behind, day after day after day.


This post is in response to a prompt from The Scintilla Project: Talk about a memory triggered by a particular song.
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