We were parked up at a service station somewhere outside Bristol on an overcast August day in 1977 when it all came together, an epiphany of sorts, the kind of confluence of bad vibrations that makes even a cheerfully cynical 15 year-old sit back on her heels and decide there's someone up there. Someone horrible.
It already seemed as though we had been driving for a lifetime or two: we were headed from Essex to Cornwall to stay with a friend of my father's, an old friend apparently, although we didn't remember having met her before. The 'we' involved was the problem: until 29 March of that same year, our 'we' had been my mother, father, two brothers, sister and me, and we had always been to our grandmother's house in Frinton for the holidays.
Only then my mother died, unspeakably quickly, of cancer: the first we knew of her illness was when she stopped being able to talk one Sunday morning. She died in hospital three weeks later, never having formed another coherent sentence.
If the car had only contained we mourning five, the vibrations would have been low-grade unhappy, but manageable: we would also have been legal. As it was, my father had done what any Victorian widower with young children would have done a hundred years before, and the 10-year-old Citroën with sagging suspension also held a woman called Mary, 17 years his junior. And her four children.
It was never clear when exactly they got together, but it can't have been long after my mother died. My brothers, sister and I had met her only weeks before the holiday, and our response had immediately been defined along clear gender lines. My sister and I were relieved, if wary: I had already cried over enough burnt suppers to find the thought of a real woman in the kitchen a hopeful one, and my sister, not much more than a baby still, needed a mother. My brothers, on the other hand, hated Mary with admirable, unflagging stamina. And here we were, disgorging miserably from a stuffy car, two adults in the early stages of an uneasy sexual relationship and eight children, each unhappy in his or her separate way, an object lesson, with hindsight, in how stupidly irresponsible grown-ups can be.
My hopes for the reassertion of home comforts with Mary's arrival didn't last long. If I'd still harboured any on 17 August 1977, they'd have been dashed when she lifted out of the boot a catering-sized pork pie and laid it on the service-station picnic table as the first rain began to spit. Mary lived in a girl-pad in Bayswater paid for by her children's father and she couldn't cook. Am I a snob? All I know is, my sad, thin mother could make stew with wine and fried her own chicken and baked a cake every night and never opened a tin, and I missed her. The sight of that pie said: this woman is not and will never be your mother.
Idon't remember why I went inside the service station: perhaps to get away from Mary, from the other children, from the prospect of a holiday in a place and with people unknown, and from the terrible pork pie. And I probably needed the lavatory (as my mother taught me to call it). Either on the way there or on the way back I walked through the newsagent's, I contemplated the comics I had only recently grown out of, I loitered by the chewing gum (which my mother never allowed) and I looked down at the headlines. And the world, already teetering, caved in completely.
He was the first man I ever loved; the BBC had run a series of his movies a year or so earlier and my mother had stopped me watching them when she caught me kissing the screen. My passion had already lasted half a lifetime, because I had certainly loved him at the age of eight, when I joined the fanclub. By 11 or so, I had hatched plans to run away to Las Vegas and marry him as soon as I was old enough, I played his records in my bedroom on a loop while my brothers battered on the door, I knew every word of "Suspicious Minds". The headline that day in August read, 'KING ELVIS DEAD'. And my mother would never come back.
I walked back to the car thinking, does it get worse than this?
It didn't get any worse. True, Mary became my stepmother, later that year. The woman we had been on our way to see in Cornwall had – she spat in a drunken rage some years down the line – once been our father's mistress. We were served pork pie and salad every Thursday until Mary left, and took her children with her, four years later.
But it didn't get any worse than 'KING ELVIS DEAD'.
Christobel Kent's novel, 'A Darkness Descending' is published by Corvus
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