The door is thrown open and I’m met by a smile of pure sunshine – a greeting which instantly banishes the tempest whipping through Portsmouth with its accompanying sheets of torrential rain.
Sherry-Ann Kelly Parsons has just got home. She’s been soaked a couple of times that day on trips between North End and Cosham and returning to her Hilsea home.
And her married quarters naval home is exactly that – home. As is Portsmouth.
No longer is it the sun-kissed St Vincent and the Grenadines, the island chain nestling in the sky-blue waters of the Caribbean Sea (pictured). ‘Really?’ I ask. ‘You prefer a sodden winter in Portsmouth to life in the West Indies?’
‘Absolutely,’ she says without hesitation. ‘Yes, I know there’s all that sun, sea and sand in the Caribbean, but there’s only so much sand you can stand looking at. It never changes.
‘But here, it’s so naturally beautiful and it changes all the time. I love the New Forest, the Isle of Wight, the countryside and especially Hayling Island. You can go back to all these places time and again and never see the same thing twice. Of course, the weather’s rubbish, but I really don’t mind.’
Sherry is exuberant. She’s just celebrated her 37th birthday and possesses the same zest for life she says she had as a party-loving 18-year-old back in the Caribbean.
The front door swings open again and her six-year-old daughter Jevonne returns from school – Cliffdale Primary Academy at North End, a special school for children with a wide range of learning needs. Jevonne has cerebral palsy.
Sherry possesses the stoical, just-get-on-with-life personality so common among military wives – women used to coping for long periods without their husbands, holding down a job, running the home and bringing up the kids.
But there aren’t many in Portsmouth who quit their home, travelled half-way around the world, nearly died in childbirth, have a daughter with acute special needs and... are black.
Sherry, a Vincentian, roars with laughter when she remembers her early life in the Caribbean. She and husband Juma have known each other since they were six months old. Their parents were neighbours.
‘We couldn’t stand each other,’ she says. ‘He thought I was spoiled and stubborn. I thought he was a bit of a geek. We just didn’t get on.’
She got a job as a librarian on the nearby privately-owned island of Mustique and spotted Juma who had gone to work there as part of the security services.
‘I had no idea he was there, but I didn’t think it could be him because he had become gorgeous. To keep the peace between the two sets of parents, I reluctantly agreed to show him around and took him to lunch. He really wasn’t my type. He was so full of himself. I was stubborn, hot-headed and loved to party – all the things he didn’t want in a girlfriend.
‘I was 21 when we finally got together and we still want to kill each other! Ooooh, I’m such a bad wife aren’t I?’ she giggles.
‘We talked about wanting much more from life. We were both ambitious. Neither of us wanted to marry or settle down. We both wanted to travel. We wanted to raise the bar a bit.’
Juma signed on with the Royal Navy when it was short of personnel and turned up in the Caribbean on a recruitment drive.
Sherry goes on: ‘He’d been in Hampshire for about a year and he kept asking me to come and see what England was like. I said no. I was scared, had a good job and friends. I was happy. I wanted him to come back to me.’
But Sherry finally gave in, took six months’ leave from her job and joined Juma who was then living at Marchwood near Southampton.
‘I feel in love straight away with Southampton and Hampshire in general. It became home immediately and I knew then I would never go back to the Caribbean to live.’
She got a degree in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wales and worked in the central library in Southampton. And, yes, she did experience racism.
‘When I was working in the library in Southampton there was a man who refused to be served by me. At university I had the chair pulled from under me when I sat down and horrible notes slipped under my door, but there’s never been anything like that in Portsmouth.’
The couple moved to naval accommodation at Northern Parade, Hilsea, in 2006, before moving to their current address in 2009 two years after Jevonne was born at St Mary’s Hospital, Milton.
Sherry continues: ‘We hadn’t long been in Portsmouth when I discovered I was pregnant. It came as a total shock. We weren’t planning on having kids, which in the black community is a bit of a no-no. I love children but I just didn’t want to have a baby. I didn’t think it was for me.
‘Yes, I considered an abortion, even though my faith doesn’t believe in it. Juma was incredibly supportive and said he would be happy with whatever decision I made.
‘Then the pregnancy went bad. Jevonne was born three months early by emergency caesarean because of pre-eclampsia and it was touch and go which one of us would survive. Juma had to be flown back from the Falkland Islands. Jevonne was born in July and didn’t leave St Mary’s until October.
‘We nearly lost her three times, but I can’t praise the staff there too highly. They were brilliant – one in a million, not just for what they did for Jevonne, but for me too.’
The cerebral palsy diagnosis finally came when Jevonne was two, but Sherry had suspected for a while what it was. ‘When the doctor told us, it didn’t come as a shock to me, but it did to my husband when he realised it was something from which she would never recover.’
The bubbly, extrovert Sherry had now disappeared. With her husband away much of the time she had to build a new everyday life for her and her baby daughter.
‘I was weak, vulnerable and frightened,’ she admits. ‘And, of course, it put a strain on my relationship with Juma. Something as big as that means that you tend to lose all sense of being a couple.’
She had been working in the Carnegie and North End libraries and started taking Jevonne to baby groups. She made lots of friends and then rediscovered her faith by joining the Family Church Portsmouth at North End. ‘I rediscovered my love of other people so I knew I was getting stronger.
‘Everyone here was fantastic towards me. I’ve never been a big one for mixing with people solely from the Caribbean community. I don’t have a lot of black friends and I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. Instead, I’ve got lots of friends of all faiths and colours.
‘People are people. You shouldn’t differentiate should you?
‘And thanks to my friends and the support I was given, my heart is now here in Portsmouth not the Caribbean... even if the weather is rubbish.’
Boogie Mites memories
Last summer Sherry-Ann Kelly Parsons was made redundant from her job with Portsmouth’s library service as part of the spending cuts.
With daughter Jevonne at school she knew she had to carry on working.
‘But what on earth could I do?’ she wondered.
She remembered taking her daughter to Boogie Mites’ sessions at Landport Community Centre. They’re groups for babies and toddlers which use music and movement as a way of encouraging development both physical and emotional - and they’ve now led to her starting her own business.
‘We went to the Landport centre every week and it was such fun and the only thing that Jevonne would respond to,’ says Sherry.
The music sessions, which have their own specially-composed songs, cater for children from all backgrounds, ages and abilities.
Sherry adds: ‘Jevonne knew instantly when we were going and by the third session she knew which songs were coming by the kind of props which were coming out. It helped her enormously with her co-ordination and social skills. She started giving other children a cuddle if they were upset. And I felt so relaxed with the other mums.’
So when Sherry discovered last September that Boogie Mites was offering licences for people to set up their own groups, she became the first in Portsmouth to take up the new offer.
In term-time she runs sessions on Wednesdays at the Empower Centre, Kingston Road, at 10am for babies and 11am for one to three-year-olds.
On Wednesday afternoons she’s at Cosham library with a class for babies from 1.15pm-2pm.
And on Friday mornings at the Willows Centre for Children in Battenburg Avenue, North End, it’s 9.15am for babies and 10.15am for the one to three-year-olds.
For more information go to boogiemites.co.uk or find Sherry-Ann Kelly Parsons on Facebook.