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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on