Gambian toy boy shock
Linda Sharpe’s daughter found her happiness far away from their home in Pevensey, East Sussex. And, the 70-year-old explains, she lost her heart there, too...
After 4 days with Jombo, Sonia’s heart gave out
My darling Sonia,
My mind often goes back to the days when me and you were running our family cafe in Hastings. You were in your 20s by then, and I can almost hear you calling out, ‘Two bacon butties, one egg roll.’ But most of all, it’s the sound of your laughter that rings in my ears.
I was 21 when I had you, the second of my four children. We were birds of a feather, weren’t we? When you started at my old school, the teacher’s face fell, because she remembered me and, years on, you were just as naughty, bunking off to do more exciting things.
We could both be hot-headed, too, stomping out of the cafe in a strop, but 10 minutes later, we’d be back, bantering and giggling again. When your husband, Martin, came in for a fry-up, we’d joke that he ate half our profits – not that it stopped him.
I always admired you for putting on a brave face, because life had already dealt you some terrible cards. When your baby daughter, Christy, was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a serious heart condition, you discovered Martin had it, too. It explained why Christy’s little brother, Charlie, only lived 24 hours.
You had been born with a hole in your heart yourself, but doctors has always assured us it wouldn’t cause problems. And it didn’t seem to. Your other two kids, Chelsea and Damion, were completely healthy.
Christy had a heart transplant when she was five, and it was wonderful to see the relief and pride on your face. But tragedy just seemed to follow you.
Her new heart only gave her seven extra years, and I watched your own one break when she died aged 12.
Your marriage collapsed under the strain.
After the divorce, you picked up the pieces of your life.
‘You’ve always been a fighter,’ I’d tell you.
And you’d smile and reply, ‘Stubborn, you mean.’
Then, when you were 36, you and Martin, 51, got back together.
You started to plan a second wedding and, in the meantime, booked a holiday to The Gambia.
‘I’ve always wanted to know what Africa’s like,’ you told me, excitedly.
But the shadow was ready to fall again. Martin, a supermarket worker who suffered from chronic back pain, took an accidental overdose of painkillers. You called me from the hospital, your voice shaking as you told me, ‘He’s in a coma, Mum. He may never wake up.’
By the time the holiday came round, there was no change.
Knowing there was nothing you could do for him, and that you desperately needed a break, I urged you to go. You took Damion,
13, with you.
You both came back raving about the place.
‘It’s a paradise, Mum,’ you babbled. ‘The colours are beautiful and the people are so warm and welcoming. I can’t wait to go back.’
But poor Martin never regained consciousness, and he died the following year.
Like any mum, I felt your pain as if it were my own, and I was anxious about your health, too.
You were having breathing difficulties. Doctors diagnosed COPD, a lung disease, as well as problems with your heart, though they didn’t seem to have solutions.
I hated to see you confined to a wheelchair, wheezy and grey.
‘There must be someone in the world who can do something to help,’ I fretted.
Researching online, we tracked down a specialist heart surgeon in Turkey who said he could help, but it would cost £11,000.
‘We have to find the money,’ I declared, and everyone agreed. Family and friends raided their savings, me and your stepdad, Keith, sold our caravan, and Damion, bless him, handed over his first year’s wages as a farmhand.
In Turkey, once they had you on the table, the medics found two holes in your heart. They also found a blood clot, which could have been fatal at any time.
You had a replacement valve and pacemaker fitted, and bounced back quickly. Back home, you were soon running up and down the stairs like a teenager.
‘I can’t thank you all enough,’ you kept saying to us.
You’d been given your life back, and you were determined to make the most of it.
That meant The Gambia. You really had lost your heart to the country, and you spent every spare penny on going back there two or three times a year.
‘My breathing’s so much better in the heat,’ you would say.
You’d always stay at The Mansea Beach Hotel in Kololi, and the staff there became like a second family.
Never one to do things by halves, you threw yourself into life out there. You’d
I can’t describe my heartache
get invited into people’s homes and they’d cook a chicken in your honour. You’d sit on the ground and drink green tea with your friends, take trips on a fishing boat to nearby islands… Your stories would make my hair stand on end. ‘My friend took me round the president’s private zoo,’ you grinned. ‘The crocodiles were only a feet away from us.’ ‘I’m glad you only tell me these things when you’re safely home,’ I said.
I loved looking at your photos, because you were always at the centre of a crowd of smiling faces. ‘You look so happy,’ I told you. ‘I know,’ you’d say, eyes shining. ‘I really love it there, Mum.’
You learnt a lot about the culture, how hard it was for people in the rainy season when the tourism dried up and there was little or no work. Determined to make a difference, you set up The Gambian Luncheon Club to provide a daily meal for people in need.
I bloomed with pride, hearing how you’d donate a sack of rice, help your friend Mariama prepare the vegetables and fish, and serve it up yourself.
Back home between your Gambia visits, you would live on a shoestring while you raised money for the Luncheon Club.
Two years ago, I noticed one name kept cropping up in your tales – Jombo, a Kololi barman.
‘He’s 15 years younger than me, but we’re good friends,’ you said, showing me a picture of a goodlooking man with a kind smile.
Then, in February this year, on a wet Monday, you rang from The Gambia with news. ‘Me and Jombo are a couple,’ you said, fizzing with joy. ‘We’re engaged!’
You told me you had a silver ring and your future planned.
Jombo didn’t want to leave his family in The Gambia, so you would continue to visit several times a year, and once his passport was sorted out, he would come to the UK in the rainy season.
‘That’s my girl,’ I thought. ‘She knows what she wants and how to get it.’
I didn’t worry about the age gap – what was the point when you were a grown woman, having a great time with your handsome toy boy?
You put Jombo on the phone, so I could congratulate him.
‘Hello, Auntie,’ he said shyly. I had no idea where he got that from, but I could hear you chuckling in the background.
The next day, you posted pictures of your engagement party on Facebook. The hotel had made a cake with your names on, and I could almost touch your happiness on the screen.
Next day, though, you called again to say you were on oxygen in the local clinic, having collapsed in the street after running to the shop to buy milk.
‘Must have been further than I thought,’ you joked. But I didn’t like the sound of your breathing, which sounded laboured and tight.
The clinic felt it would be better for you to fly home, but even we couldn’t raise £75,000 for a private plane and medical assistance.
Worry growing, Damion, 23, booked a flight to get to your side.
On the Friday morning, just as his plane to The Gambia was taking off, I got a call from your friend Sue. ‘Linda, I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘Sonia has died.’
I can’t describe my heartache, the aching sense of loss. You were only 48. You’d pulled through so much to find happiness, yet you’d only been engaged four days before your future was yanked from under your feet.
Sue had to break the news to Damion, who visited you in the mortuary to say goodbye.
Brave boy. He gets his courage from you.
When he went to Kololi, 100 people flocked round him to shake his hand and tell him what a lovely lady you were.
Your brother, Steven, paid for your body to be flown home and, after playing your favourite Bob Marley at your funeral, we buried you beside Christy, Charlie and Martin, as you wanted.
Your dear Jombo was distraught but, now six months on, he still calls me most days and he is running the Gambian Luncheon Club in your honour. It costs about £2,000 a year to feed at least 30 people a day, so even small donations go a long way.
We’re doing everything we can to support the Club, because it feels like the perfect legacy. Your brother, Simon, is working hard to raise funds, and Keith has lost a lot of weight, so we’re selling off his old clothes.
I will miss you for ever, my Sonia, but I can feel glad that your last days were full of love, in the place, and with the man, you adored.
All my love, Mum x
To find out more about The Gambian Luncheon Club, visit facebook.com/ gambian.lunch
Us working in the cafe Besotted at a young age, you adored Martin You with the Gambian Luncheon Club you set up
You with your kids Chelsea and Christy You and your new love, Jombo You and Jombo celebrating your engagement My grandson, Damion, is a trooper