For TOAST Portraits, journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick meet the people whose treasured TOAST pieces – some archive, some new – have stood the test of time. This month, Mina spoke to oncology nurse Boo Darlison. Elena photographed Boo at a social distance in her local park and outside of her home in South East London. Below is her story.
Boo Darlison is describing a visit from the midwife, five days after her son, Rex, was born. “When I answered the door, she said, almost pointedly, ‘Oh, I was looking for someone who’s just had a baby.’ ‘I have just had a baby!’ I said. I was wearing a dress, some lipstick and a headband – but that’s just me, dressing up makes me feel better.”
It is a winter’s morning in Crofton Park, south-east London and I have joined Boo on her regular walk from home to a coffee shop in Brockley, a ritual she has come to value amidst the doldrums of national lockdown. In the last 12 months, which have seen the arrival of a global pandemic and Boo’s second child, Prunella, it’s been the little things – these local walks, good meals, nice clothes – that have given her some much-needed routine – peace, even. “Clothes lift me. They help when you’re surviving on caffeine and a prayer.”
I get the impression that the likes of colour, pattern and accessories not only play a soothing role for Boo, but help identify her, too. “I’m still the child that dresses up,” she says, “and, having spent most of my adult life in a uniform, wearing my own clothes always feels like a treat.”
Boo tells me about the jumper she bought from TOAST while pregnant last year, mustard-coloured Scottish wool with a Fair Isle pattern of cooler hues: sky blue, mossy green, teal blue, cream. She wears it now with a pair of denim culottes (also from TOAST) and, as she herself points out, the teal in the pattern dances with baby Nella’s brilliant eyes. “When you get pregnant, you’re prepared for a bump, but not for the post-baby shape. Having had two babies in 18 months, my body has been a sliding scale of sizes; both times, clothes have been a starting point to reshape who I am.” Boo preempted this the second time around, and bought the jumper to look forward to. She stashed it in a drawer to wear this winter, six months after Nella’s birth. “Without sounding too mawkish, it told a happy story before I even owned it... I could see myself wearing it with wine beside a fire, with dungarees on country walks, or with a denim skirt to work.”
Boo is a specialist oncology nurse at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS trust. Nowadays, her role is both patient-facing and managerial, meaning that some days she is not in uniform (“It took me a while to find my style at work – I used to go to meetings and look like I was going to a wedding! I’m on a permanent wear-what-you-like day.”). She leads a project that follows up on cancer patients once their treatment has finished, a more personalised approach to aftercare prioritising psychological support, health and holistic wellbeing. I imagine Boo’s combination of qualities – supportive and strategic – to be at a particular premium these days. Myself having just recovered from a week-long hospital stay with COVID-19, I’m aware of the virus presenting many more questions than medics have answers for; more than ever, the nation looks to clinicians for both nuanced care and strong leadership.But, as a nurse, the pandemic has been an exceptional time for Boo in another way. She’s been pregnant or on maternity leave for all of it, and so spared the redeployment and ICU stint that many of her counterparts have faced. From home, she covered for colleagues who were redeployed to critical care, and set up clinics for newly-diagnosed patients of head and neck cancers, often supporting them with the double-edged anxiety of coronavirus and cancer. “Covid didn’t stop cancer, and we needed to support patients in the safest way, acting very quickly on few resources.”
It’s been surreal, she says, to know of the unprecedented pressures her colleagues are under and not to be on the frontline herself. “As a public sector worker, one of your motivations is to make a positive difference,” she goes on, “and I haven’t been there during one of the worst times. But I’ve never felt prouder to be a nurse, or of the NHS as an institution.”
Caring, like many who do it professionally, is ingrained in Boo. For her, it seems less a day job than a gene, one that is acted on in spite of whatever might be happening for her personally. She often refers to cooking – to a stage she once did at Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons, to the supper clubs she used to run, to “DeliverBoo”, her nickname for the food parcels she makes for friends when they might need some help. “It’s how I show my love for people. I like the practical aspect of cooking for people when something has happened.”It emerges that cooking – and life with toddlers – is the reason for Boo’s preference for darker colours, “I’m never far away from a tin of tomatoes,” she says. She shapeshifts between guises – kitchen Boo, mum Boo, nurse Boo; with different names for different contexts (Boo is the childhood pet name that stuck; she’s Cathay – “like Cathay Pacific” – to her school friends, and Cate at work); and different looks depending on her mood, “You can be whoever you want to be in your clothes. I wouldn’t say I have one style. One day it’ll be a dress with a woolly jumper, the next a boiler suit with red lipstick.”
She shops with an eye for vintage, a head for thrift, and a mind for the stories that a garment might carry. “Land girls are my style icons,” she says, “they embody strength, practicality and beauty together.” This is why she loves TOAST clothes, “they’re comfortable things you can do stuff in, and they take on the life of the wearer.”
Interview by Mina Holland.
Images by Elena Heatherwick.
Boo wears a TOAST Fair Isle sweater from the archive. Shop our current collection of knitwear including the Fair Isle Yoke Sweater.