Five-minute memoir: Christobel Kent recalls a hellish car journey that went from bad to worse

'I looked at the headlines. My world, already teetering, totally caved in'

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

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living