Interview: Gaynor Salisbury, owner of Loopy Lorna’s tea room
SHE named her tea room after the mother she lost to cancer. Now battling the illness herself, Gaynor Salisbury tells Judy Vickers how the ‘wonderful’ people she’s met during treatment have helped keep her business alive
Gaynor Salisbury stood sipping her tea from a china cup and saucer at her mother’s bedside. Her mother, she knew, would approve. Tea – even in the days when the family lived on a tough council estate, scraping by on meagre benefits after her father had walked out on his wife and three children – was always poured from a china teapot which had properly warmed through first, and was made with leaves rather than teabags.
But now, dying from lung cancer, Lorna Salisbury was in no position to give her blessing, or even to notice. The 67-year-old slipped away a few hours later, with the three children she’d fought so hard to raise by her bedside in Strathcarron Hospice. And despite being married with a family of her own, Gaynor, her younger daughter, was left bereft – and wracked with guilt.
Sixteen years on, and in the midst of her own cancer battle – she was diagnosed with secondary liver cancer just weeks ago – Gaynor is taking part in Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s campaign, One Day. The significant date she has chosen to talk about in the film, which asks people to fundraise to support just one day of the cancer charity’s work, is her mother’s birthday, 22 September. This will honour the woman she named her business after – Loopy Lorna’s tea room in Edinburgh’s Morningside. Gaynor believes she never properly appreciated her mother while she was alive.
“She had such financial hardship and she never went out with another man after my dad left – she literally dedicated her life to her three children and tried to make us realise how important education and independence are,” says Gaynor, sitting in the Alice in Wonderland-style surroundings of Loopy Lorna’s, now based in the Church Hill Theatre in Morningside, and where a picture of Lorna adorns the wall.
“We were always close, but I don’t think I ever appreciated just how much she did for us.” After Gaynor, older sister Denise and late brother Russell left home, Lorna ended up in a high-rise flat in her native Liverpool. “And there were Christmases when I was out at parties and didn’t go home – I don’t even know if my brother and sister were there or if she was alone. I just feel I should have done a lot more.” The guilt is etched on her normally cheery face – even though when Lorna was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 1996, Gaynor nursed her for the last six months of her life. Gaynor’s own children were aged just four and one when Lorna moved to Tillicoultry to live with them as her condition deteriorated. But Gaynor says the pair were lucky to be given the chance to talk as never before.
“We were always close but we became even closer. She told me a lot about her childhood which I never knew, although most was depressing and it was so sad to find out what an unhappy life she had had. She had been abused as a child and suffered from clinical depression all of her adult life. My mum was never a cuddly mum and I don’t remember her saying that she loved me when I was growing up, although I certainly felt loved.”
Lorna had left school at 14 to work in the Scotch Wool Shop, before meeting Gaynor’s father, a man she describes as a “party animal” who couldn’t cope with the responsibilities of married life and fatherhood, walking out when Gaynor was six months old. She barely saw him after that and he died of a brain haemorrhage brought on by alcoholism and smoking when she was 17.
The family moved to a rough council estate in Walton, Liverpool, to live with Lorna’s parents, where Gaynor‘s brother, who stammered, was picked on, once being held at knifepoint by a gang. Lorna received no maintenance from her former husband. “I have strong childhood memories of being in dirty social security offices with people smoking and drinking,” Gaynor says.
Despite their poverty, Lorna was always immaculately turned out, and had a spotless front step, the result of hours of scrubbing. She was desperate for her children to better themselves, trying to get them into a good school – only to be turned away by the nuns who ran it because “they told her they wouldn’t have a single parent family in the school”.
Gaynor may not have become the doctor her mother wanted, though she was the first in her family to go to university. But it was 12 years after Lorna’s death, in 2008, that she paid the biggest tribute – opening the tea room that bears her name and, Gaynor hopes, echoes her spirit, with its mismatching delicate china, fairytale cakes and carefully chosen tea menu. Gaynor was in the middle of an acrimonious divorce at the time, but worse news was to come – on Christmas Eve, just two months after Loopy’s opened, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She and her children moved out of the matrimonial home just days before she went into hospital for a mastectomy. And while Loopy’s gave her something other than cancer to focus on – and friends stepped in to help manage – the business was spiralling out of control.
“The restaurant was full but we were losing money,” the 51-year-old says. “The turnover was close to half a million but the profit was next to nothing. The wages bill was out of control. It was because it was named after my mum, so it was all very emotional. I wanted good reviews, I wanted people to love it. I wanted it to be a really loved place. So I had ridiculous numbers of staff on. I was living on credit cards and the settlement from my divorce.”
Despite her precarious financial position, she managed to expand into the Church Hill Theatre. But now her problems were compounded by the fact that, with two tearooms in Morningside, she was in competition with herself. Her attempts to sell the original Loopy’s ran into legal wrangles over the lease and by the time she had extricated herself and the new Loopy’s was thriving, she had an unpaid VAT bill which threatened to sink her. “I thought I was going to lose everything, that it had all been for nothing. It was the week before Christmas and I was at a support group at Maggie’s. I was just sobbing. And one of the other women just said: ‘How much do you need?’ I told her and she said: ‘I will lend it to you.’ It was like someone had waved a magic wand. She just said: ‘I know you wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for the cancer’.” Since then, the business has gone from strength to strength. The woman at Maggie’s was just one of a series of people who managed to step forward at the right moment with cash, help or advice, and Gaynor refuses to be downhearted about the blows she’s taken.
“Because of the cancer, I have found some really wonderful people. Without those wonderful people, Loopy’s wouldn’t have survived. There are lots of miserable bits, but there are also lots of good luck bits, so it’s not a tale of woe and doom.”
Luck wasn’t with Gaynor earlier this year, though. After returning from holiday feeling “revitalised and better than I had done in years,” a routine scan revealed secondary cancer in the liver. “I had about six weeks of feeling fantastic,” she says wryly. “Then it was like I had the rug pulled from beneath me.”
Now she’s in the middle of 24 weeks of chemotherapy, and while she’s hopeful for the future, Gaynor knows, thanks to the example of her mother, that she should make her time special – especially that spent with her children, daughter Hanneke, 21, and son Rowan, 18.
Lorna told her three children that she loved them for the first time when she was dying, a memory Gaynor holds very precious: “If you are going to die from something, die from cancer,” she says. “It gives you time to talk to people.”
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