REALLY I WISH I'D CALLED HER FLORENCE
I nearly did. Not for her first name- that'd already been chosen by her mum. I was planning on a second name as my gift from me to her. I rang up my mother and said I was thinking of Florence. She said, 'really?' So I didn't. By really I really thought she meant, 'Do you really want me to avoid ever even mentioning her name, even in passing conversation?'
When my cousin called his mother bursting over with the proud news that his wife had just given birth to their son his mother gushed appropriately and then asked what they'd chosen to call the baby. 'Caspar,' my cousin announced proudly. He said that there was a sigh longer than it takes for the air to leave a tyre, and then on a downward glissando of resignation, his mother simply said "Oh, really darling, do you have to?" He said he might as well have been announcing that he fancied trying on women's clothes or voting for the Monster Raving Loony party. To be honest, though, I was secretly on his mother's side a tiny bit. Names can be divisive like that.
My father had a mad aunt called Florence. This was my inspiration. Aunt Florence wore short socks- that's what made her look really mad to us as children. But there was also some supporting evidence of a slightly tenuous grip on reality: talking to a tea towel of Arkle the racehorse as if it was a person was one thing, addressing empty dog kennels as if they were full of dogs was another; oh, then there were the rooms filled to the brim with newspapers from yester-year.
Aunt Florence lived in a wooden chalet on the rocks in between Sennen Cove and Lands End. The route to her front door was also used by the Royal Marines to get cliff climbing practice. She had no running water and no electricity and in winter the waves reached her doorstep. When we holidayed nearby my mother used to send us children off to visit her alone. Now I can see that this was because my mother was as scared of her as we were. We thought Aunt Florence was a witch. Every year Aunt Florence gave us a Mr Kipling cake, soggy with sea air and goodness knows what else, to eat in the car on the way home from our summer holiday. We always threw it away before we even got to Taunton. We thought she'd put a spell in it.
I took my mother's 'really' about the name Florence to mean: 'do you really want your new baby who is blissfully clear of any genetic link to your mad Aunt Florence to be inflicted by association to the weakest part of your heritage?' I silently disagreed with my mother about this. Aunt Florence read maths at Cambridge when practically no women went to university. She married a card shark gambling playboy. She was a concert pianist. And she went gloriously mad in a totally independent, batty, positive way. I felt there was lots there for my daughter to find freedom and inspiration from in Aunt Florence.
There are other Florences that also sprung to mind - Florence Nightingale, that Florence who saved a whole load of sailors in a storm, and of course the city of Florence- the city my mother took me to on her hard earned savings when I was sixteen, where I painted prostitutes from the window of our hotel after a hard days trudging around the Uffizi.
And then there was the best Florence of all- Flo from The Magic Roundabout. I didn't much like tv when I was little but I loved the Magic Roundabout and X, with her big hair, big feet, fluffy hair, round face and tippy- up nose could be her younger sister.
But it was not to be. I allowed myself to be knocked off course by a slightly doubtful, 'really?'
And guess what? The other day my mother told me there was a piece on the radio about Eric Thompson, the writer of the UK Magic Roundabout who'd just died. My mother gave a downward little sigh of disappointment,' I was really sorry you know , that you didn't go with Florence as your name for X- she looks so much like Florence from the Magic Roundabout, you know...'
'Really?' I said- with a little sigh of disappointment, a little downwards glissando.
My story's nothing new. Apparently,-according to Bounty magazine who have just done a survery- 1:5 parents regret their baby's name. At least I wasn't giving a first name. And I still have a lot of heart for her second name too. It was the one that her foster family wanted for her.
It's just not Florence.