My mother, her lovers, my sister, and me

After Jessica Blake's mother walked out on her husband, she had one lover after another. How did Jessica and her little sister cope with the new men in Mummy's life? Or more to the point, how did the admirers cope with two little girls and their secret sibling codes of behaviour?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
My mother always had one on the go as far as I can remember and last year she had three. I couldn't believe it - 57 and still raring to go. Now at least she is married again, so I guess we won't hear extraordinary tales for a while.

Looking back, I wonder how we all coped. It seems strange that she was only 32 when she dumped my dad and took full responsibility for three young children. I think my elder brother buried himself in books: having been the man of the house from the age of eight, he wasn't about to put up with any competition. My little sister and I, on the other hand, had no means of escape. We were swept up in the rollercoaster ride of my mother's various dramas. Every lover that came through the door was a potential father-figure to us. I must have had at least 10 dads before I hit my teens.

Her lovers seemed to come in different shapes and sizes. I didn't meet all of them, but her descriptions of the others were always so vivid that it didn't really matter. There was the short and rather stumpy doctor, who had a beard and drove a beige Ford Cortina. My mother used to say she felt her bottom was being dragged along the ground it was so low. Somehow I never pictured her going out with someone with furry dice swinging from the window, but she did.

I even remember her conducting this extraordinary ritual for him before a date. She teased her nipples with a tooth-brush to make them more erect. I was fascinated. At the age of nine I didn't really know what she was up to.

Then there was Irish Jack, who I considered a real sweetie. He gave my younger sister and me pounds 5 each as we left Euston station in the sleeper bound for a school holiday in Scotland. My mother had only met him when he came to borrow a corkscrew - at least that was her story. He seemed much younger than her, had Heathcliff-type hair and wore jeans. I could see why she chose him. He had a twinkle in his eye and a roguish smile which both my sister and I fell for.

I'm not sure what happened to him, but it seemed to stop after Scotland. I remember my mother being particularly gloomy. I think she had finally found someone she thought we would accept. There is always that extra element when mothers date which makes it much more difficult - how will my lover and loved ones get on? Looking back, she was right about us. Certainly my brother wasn't so elusive, and my sister and I had a bit of a crush. But he just can't have wanted the burden of taking on so much, so young.

My two other favourites were James and Nigel: James, because he bought us our first colour television and bought me one of those giant sets of art felt-tip pens; Nigel, for taking us out to Italian restaurants and giving us all flippers and snorkels when we went on our first holiday abroad when I was 11.

Looking back, it does appear that presents featured highly as a mark of acceptance. It can't only have been that, though; and unlike the time with Jack, appearance had briefly ceased to matter. Perhaps that was when I realised looks weren't all. They certainly haven't been top of my list in my own somewhat chequered dating game

There were a few of her lovers I really couldn't bear, and I know I used to cause trouble. When they picked her up I would yell from the top of the stairs, desperate to drag her away from their clutches. Now I realise it was plain jealousy, but at the time I felt pure venom.

Neddy the Greek was far too amorous, and looked to me like he was serious. My younger sister adored him too, which made it even harder. Gone was my ally with whom to bitch and dissuade. Perhaps he really would become our new father. But he didn't.

Tristan was another. All wizened like a dessicated bird, and what looked like no penis to match. He wore bizarre knickerbockers on occasion, and we knew full well he dyed his hair. He was always over-affectionate and used to creep up to me and my sister and plant a wet, squidgy kiss on our cheeks. Now I realise he must have had a penchant for young girls. He used to positively beam when we had friends for tea and rush around offering refreshments. To this day, he still makes my skin crawl as I remember how he ogled over holiday snaps of my sister. Thank God he was despatched quickly.

The muffin man was different, though. At least we thought he was. Before we had even met him we fantasised about him being our next father. He was shrouded in mystery. Large boxes of Belgian chocolates began to appear in the fridge, and strange foods from Marks & Spencer. My sister and I were only used to the staples from Sainsbury's, so we thought he must be exotic. He would send postcards signed "the muffin man" and bouquets signed "S from M". We quizzed my mother relentlessly, but she would never give in.

Finally, after much wingeing and whining, we met him. Our illusions were shattered for ever. It wasn't that he wasn't kind or charming, asking us about school and our friends. It was more his appearance that let us down. Over the weeks and months we had built him up to be some sort of cross between Starsky and Roger Moore, two of our favourites of the moment. As he opened the door to his house we couldn't believe our eyes. Both my sister and I had pitched our view at least seven feet up, but had to adjust immediately to about five foot four. He was wincey, grey-haired and strangely tanned. We ate cakes in his garden while our mother looked anxious. She knew our views before even asking. Another one bites the dust!

At least he didn't have children. These lovers were the worse. Top of the bill was Archie. All hair and teeth, as far as I can remember, and a weird crusty skin condition that made us gag. He had two daughters who lived with their mother in Dorking. They looked awful and spoke as if they had been put through a mangle.

My sister and I looked at each other. The secret sibling code had kicked in. How could she, we both thought - and Dorking, I ask you. We crossed every appendage and begged the Lord that we would never see them again. Thankfully, He answered our prayers and Archie hit the high jump.

My mother never let any of these men stay the night. I sometimes wondered where she did it. She just used to go out a lot. Once she came back early. It can't have been a success. I was thrilled. I actually saw her before I went to bed and wasn't packed off by a babysitter who couldn't wait to have some peace. On reflection, I don't think she can have been that happy with the staying-out arrangement. The day after the night before, she would always seem a little crabby and mumble expletives under her breath about the trouble with men, the cat and having children.

I always wondered what possessed my mother and where she found this odd assortment. She did have a drama school background, looked groovy and liked to flirt. But most of all she liked to be attached.

I think her own father's absence must have played a part. Mine certainly has: history does seem to be repeating itself as I move from one relationship to another in search of a permanent father-figure.

The irony of all this is that now that I am the same age as she was then, I wouldn't dream of putting my love life on hold, even knowing the effects as well as I do. "They fuck you up your mum and dad," according to Philip Larkin. I sometimes think we were far worse.

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