|Heather on The Today Show #878|
‘A Single Step’ - THE TODAY SHOW
Heather Mills McCartney was known in Britain as a model who turned a terrible accident into a crusade to help amputees because she herself has lost a limb. Her relationship with one very well known musician, Paul McCartney, brought her to worldwide attention. It also put her cause center stage. She tells her life story in her book, “A Single Step.” Read an excerpt from her book below:
MY VERY FIRST childhood memory is of wandering through the meadow at the back of our house in Wales one hot summer’s day when I was about four years old. I was so small I could hardly see above the long grass: I remember the buzz of insects all around my head and shiny buttercups brushing my face as I pushed my way through the field. But it wasn’t the countryside that held my interest that day. I had another destination in mind.
Beatle wife Heather Mills on her new book October 28, 2002
Former model Heather Mills McCartney, tells “Today” host Matt Lauer about the turmoil in her early life, living as an amputee and the publicity surrounding her marraige to Beatle Paul McCartney.
My grandparents were staying at our house in Libanus for their summer holidays. If I shut my eyes I can still hear Grandma calling out from the back garden, “Where are you going, Heather?” Me yelling, “I’m going out to play!” Grandad’s voice coming faintly back through the privet hedge saying, “Well, don’t go far.”
My memory gets hazy then, but Grandma often used to tell me the rest of the story. Apparently, two hours later when I hadn’t come home everyone got worried and Mum, Grandma, and Grandad ran up and down the road knocking on doors asking if anyone had seen me. Libanus wasn’t much bigger than a village and it didn’t take long for them to check every house and work themselves into a state of panic. Mum went back to our house to ring the police while Grandma knocked a second time on people’s doors asking them to check their garden sheds.
Then, at five o’clock, when Grandma was trudging back up the main street wondering what she was going to wear to my funeral, she suddenly saw one of the dummies in the Libanus dress-shop window move. Stopping to take a closer look she realized that the “dummy” was a small blond girl striking a statuesque pose and pretending to be a model.
Years afterward Grandma used to love to embarrass me by telling that story. “Heather always knew she wanted to be a model when she grew up,” she’d say to my friends. “She started practicing for it when she was four.”
But of course it wasn’t true. At that age I didn’t have any idea what my future held. Maybe it was just as well, because the rest of my childhood was hardly an ideal preparation for the world of the catwalk.
In this life there are some people who should never get married. There are also people who should never have children. My mum and dad belonged in both of these categories.
They had fallen in love at university when they were both eighteen, though which university and studying what subjects I never discovered. Communication with their kids was never one of my parents’ strong points; in fact for a long time Mum and Dad’s backgrounds were an almost total mystery to me. It was only years later, when I started to spend time with Grandma, that she told me about their childhoods and helped me understand why they became the sort of people they were.
Grandma wasn’t actually my grandmother at all. She and Grandad had adopted my father when he was seven after finding they couldn’t have children of their own. Dad’s real mother was an unmarried girl of eighteen who’d died when he was small. By the time he went to live with my grandparents, Dad had been in and out of several foster homes.
“He was a bit unsettled by all that chopping and changing,” Grandma told me once. “I don’t think he ever believed he was with us to stay.” Dad grew up in Brighton where Grandma and Grandad had a grocery shop. Grandad was a mechanic for one of the Grand Prix teams but he’d bought the shop as a sort of insurance for their old age. While Dad was young, Grandma had to look after the shop on her own, which was hard work and probably explained why they didn’t ever adopt a brother or sister for Dad.
“It took him a long time to come out of himself,” Grandma told me. “He was a very quiet little boy when he was small.” Though he can’t really have been that “little” because he grew up to be six foot.
From very early on Dad was good at school, but what impressed the neighbors more was his extreme politeness. Apparently, as a young boy he’d always say, “Hello. How are you?” and shake hands solemnly when he was introduced.
For some reason, one story Grandma told me about Dad really stuck in my mind. It happened when he was about ten. Grandma had caught him one day setting fire to a spider in the cellar of their house: At the same moment as she yelled at him, it had exploded.
He’d been so disgusted and frightened that he’d burst into tears and nothing Grandma said could console him.
“From that day on your father was always very kind to animals,” she told me.
That was an understatement. He wasn’t just kind to animals — he was crazy about them. When we were small, wherever we lived, there was always a dog or a cat around; at one time we even had a pet goose and a white nanny goat that used to run about the house and wake me up in the morning by licking my face. For a while when I was five or six, Dad worked for the RSPCA. I remember him once stopping the car by the side of the road to pick up an injured deer. He put it in the back of our Volvo estate car and brought it home to nurse it, and he was really upset when it died a few days later.
That childhood prank must have made a lifelong impact because Dad always kept a special place in his heart for spiders. When we were growing up he would never let us kill a spider but would always pick it up gently and put it out of the window.
“Spiders kill flies. They’re our friends, Heather,” he’d say. “You mustn’t hurt them.” Which, considering the way he behaved toward human beings, I always found a bit bizarre.
There was one other odd thing Grandma revealed about Dad. I grew up believing that Dad’s name was Mark. It was what Mum called him and how all his post was addressed. But Grandma told me his real Christian name — the one his mother had given him — was John. She said he’d changed it when he was fifteen after a school trip. Grandma had been waiting for him at the train station and she’d got them to put a message out over the loudspeaker. “Will John Mills please go to the station entrance.”
When he got to the entrance there was a crowd of people with autograph books all expecting to see John Mills the actor. Dad didn’t think it was funny. “He came downstairs that night and told us that from now on we had to call him Mark,” Grandma said. “When I asked him why, he said it was because he wanted a name that was his so that when he made his mark in the world people wouldn’t confuse him with anyone else.” She smiled. “That’s why he chose the name Mark I think.”
Grandma always said that it was the first time she realized how ambitious her son was.
Dad was an achiever in everything he tried, and he tried most things: music (the banjo and guitar); photography (for which he won an Evening Standard award); and, of course, sport. Over the years he mastered jujitsu (a black belt); swimming (various medals); tennis, squash, mountaineering, and the pentathlon. In fact, you name it, he’d tried it. Whatever he took up, he had to be the best. You could forget all that nonsense about playing the game. For him the only thing that counted was winning.
Dad only ever mentioned his courting days to me once, when he told me that he’d met Mum during a mixed hockey match at their university. He was the captain of his team and she was the captain of hers and her team had beaten his. I remember thinking when he told me that, how getting beaten by a crowd of women wouldn’t have gone down too well with Dad.
My mother Beatrice was also an only child but came from a very different social background from Dad’s. Her father was a highranking army officer and she’d been born in India during the war and educated first in India, then at posh English boarding schools.
Judging from the pictures in her photo album she was a stunning-looking girl with very long legs, fine blond hair, and the most incredible green eyes. By the time Mum went to university her father had retired from the army and the Finlay family was living in luxury in a big house in Scotland. As Grandma told it they weren’t at all impressed when Beatrice came home from college with a cocky grammar school boy who called her Bea and whose parents ran a grocer’s shop. Colonel Finlay thought Mark Mills was a most unsuitable match for his daughter and ordered her to break it off at once. But for the first time in her life Mum rebelled at being treated like one of her father’s squaddies and there were tremendous rows. It must have been hard for Mum. It must have been even harder when her mother got cancer and her father blamed it on her, saying it was because of all the heartache she’d caused them. Mum went back to Scotland to nurse her mother, but after she died Mum dug her toes in and announced she was still marrying Dad. Her father never forgave her. He refused to go to the wedding and cut her off completely; in fact she only saw him once more in her life. So you couldn’t exactly say Mum and Dad had the most promising start to their marriage.
After that it was downhill all the way. That’s how it seemed to us anyway, stuck in the middle of it. I haven’t much idea what happened in the years before Shane, Fiona, and I came along, except that Dad was in the army for a while, the Paras I think, which was where he took up rock climbing and doing the pentathlon. Perhaps he was still in the army when I was born on January 12, 1968 because on my birth certificate, under place of birth, it says Aldershot. But by the time I was old enough to take in my surroundings, Mum, Dad, and I, together with my older brother Shane and younger sister Fiona, were living near Brecon in mid-Wales. To this day I don’t know why we were living in an isolated place like Libanus, though it’s near a big mountaineering center so perhaps Dad had something to do with that. But if he did he kept it to himself.
In fact the whole time we were growing up we rarely knew what Dad’s job was. Whenever people at school, whose fathers were miners or farmers or salesmen, used to talk about what their fathers did for a living we were always at a loss to know what to say.
Sometimes I used to tell people my father was a vet. I must have thought of the idea because of all the animals he used to bring home. It was while we were living in Libanus that we had the white nanny goat that used to wake me up in the mornings. We also had Tigga, the huge striped cat, and, later, Ben, our lovely Old English sheepdog puppy who learned the Green Cross Code and used to see us safely to school each day. Ben was the only animal I ever saw my father mistreat, when he threw him in a river to teach him to swim.
It wasn’t a little stream, but a deep fast-flowing torrent. Ben’s shaggy coat weighed him down and his head kept going under. I was so scared that I rushed at Dad and pounded him with my fists, screaming that Ben would drown, but Dad just laughed hysterically until I realized he was actually enjoying Ben’s distress. He pinned my arms to my sides and made me watch until eventually Ben struggled to the shore, clambered out, and shook water all over us. “See?” Dad said, grinning. “That’s the way to learn. In at the deep end!”
Maybe he was right because, after that, Ben often jumped in the river on his own. But I never forgot the way Dad’s famous compassion for animals once switched itself off.
I do have lots of happy memories of those years with the animals in Wales. I remember my first day at the little village school and looking out of the windows at the long-tailed Welsh sheep grazing just a few yards away. I remember sneaking at night into my mother’s bedroom and dabbing her Nulon hand cream onto my podgy fingers in the hope that it would make them long and elegant like hers. I remember the sound of the wind howling around the Brecon Beacons while I was tucked up safe and warm in my bunk bed. Best of all I remember my grandparents coming up on the coach from Brighton to visit.
Grandma and Grandad were the kindest people I knew and always had time for kids. Grandad would play dominoes with us and bounce us on his knee and sing songs from Mary Poppins. On Saturday afternoon he would always sit down with me to watch the wrestling on TV. He used to get really carried away and would scream and shout at the television.
“You can’t do that that wasn’t a proper throw,” he’d bellow. I’d shake my head at him feeling very grown up. “Grandad, he can’t hear you.”
“Those bloomin’ referees,” he’d say, ignoring me. “They’re useless. I could do a better job myself.”
I’d laugh till it hurt. Dad had told me that wrestling wasn’t a real sport like boxing, but Grandad used to take it so seriously.
Sometimes, after the wrestling, Grandma and Grandad would take us for a walk up on the hills where I’d play hide and seek with Ben behind the stone walls. After my adventure in the shop window, though, Grandma never used to let me out of her sight for long and our walks stopped being so much fun. With us three kids and Dad to look after, being a housewife took up most of Mum’s time while we were living in Wales. I don’t think she was what you’d call a natural mother. Perhaps because of her own upbringing, she was never one for a lot of cuddling and hugging.
But she was a good mother. I don’t remember her ever hitting me, not even a slap, and our kitchen was always a lovely place to be in, full of the smell of home-baked bread and cakes. Mum always looked good in those days too, slim and pretty even after having three babies. With Dad’s smooth good looks and our mops of blond hair we must have seemed an ideal family to outsiders. They could have used us for advertising shampoo or breakfast cereals.
But the reality was far from ideal. The reason was Dad. The trouble was you never knew where you were with him. One minute he’d be all sweetness and light, the perfect TV father, the next he’d be behaving like Attila the Hun. It only took the slightest thing to switch him from one personality to the other. Mum did her best to cater to his every whim, but it was never enough. Nearly every day Dad managed to find something to criticize and another excuse to explode.
Often it was the state of the house that set him off. He never did any housework himself but he insisted everything was kept spick and span, which wasn’t easy with three small kids around. When a goat and an Old English sheepdog were allowed the run of the house as well, it was just about impossible. We got used to seeing Mum run around in circles when Dad was expected home, sweeping the floor, dusting the blinds, and fluffing up the cushions, but she needn’t have bothered. He nearly always found something to pick on.
As well as being house-proud, Dad was a great one for routine. He couldn’t cope with the slightest hitch or alteration to his daily timetable. Little things, like his supper not being ready when he came in from work, would send him off at the deep end. His temper when he was in his Attila the Hun mode used to absolutely terrify us. He’d yell, throw things, and belt Mum around the head — it didn’t matter if we were there or not. Sometimes I really believed he was going to murder her. Once or twice I thought he was going to murder us too.
Shane came closest to being badly hurt. One day, when he was six, Dad caught him making a mess on the carpet with some crayons and he lost his temper and threw him against a window. It broke and Shane went straight through and cut himself quite badly. There was blood everywhere and Mum and Dad had to take him to the hospital to be stitched up. Dad got away with it, though. Shane told us that when the doctor asked how it happened, Dad said he’d fallen onto some glass in the garden.
Another incident I remember was when we were driving back home from Brecon one night and Fiona was carsick. Dad was always obsessive about his cars and kept them immaculate. He was so furious that Fiona threw up that he screeched to a halt and made all of us, Mum included, get out. Then he drove off, tires squealing, and we all had to walk home in the dark.
Mum used to cope with Dad’s rages by going very quiet. I never remember her protesting or arguing with him. I suppose she thought it would just fan the flames. In some ways maybe her method was the best way to deal with him, because usually after a few minutes his anger would blow itself out and when he couldn’t think of any more horrible names to call her he’d sit down and eat his supper. By the time Mum put his cup of tea in front of him he’d often forgotten what had sparked the row off and he’d be all bright and cheerful again so we could relax. Living with Dad was a bit like living on the edge of the volcano.
I must have been nearly six when Dad announced that he’d taken a job with the RSPCA and we moved up north to Alnwick on the Scottish borders. It was nice there, quite like Wales, but we didn’t stay long. One day a furniture van turned up outside the house and without warning or explanation we were piled into Dad’s new silver Volvo Estate and informed that we were moving to Cockshott Farm, Rothbury.
And it was at Cockshott Farm, six months later, that our lives were turned upside down when, setting off late for a show at the Newcastle Theatre Royal, and driving that same silver Volvo, my father overtook on a blind bend, crashed head-on into a lorry, and put himself and Mum into the intensive care unit of Newcastle General Hospital.
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