My mother loved moving so we had many houses and I went to many schools, which wasn't good for my education - I was always bottom of the class. When I was 14, I went to a school outside Gloucester, and had to travel on three buses from the Forest of Dean, where we lived, to get there.

A pretty young woman also travelled on these buses. She must have been 18 or 19 and had one leg shorter than the other, so she wore a big surgical boot. I began giving her my seat on the long journey, and we became friends. Her name was Mary Pollard, and I got to know her family, who were very nice and straightforward.

At home, I lived in fear of my father. He was a violent man who drank a great deal, hurled objects at my mother, and would rip her clothes off.

He was a commercial traveller dealing in ladies' gowns, so he was away quite a lot, but he'd come home every Friday afternoon blind drunk, and that was always a time of terror.

One Friday night, when I was seven, my mother and I saw him coming down the street, drunk out of his mind, and we were so frightened that we hid in a wardrobe and shut the door: it was pure Oedipal complex. My father came in shouting, 'Primrose, Primrose . . .' and making threats and swearing. Finally, he made himself a meal, fell fast asleep, and when we could hear him snoring, we crept out.

In a sense, I was married to my mother, because I became her confidant, friend and protector; I became the husband she didn't have.

For years I lived in fear of my father although he was never violent to me (he was never affectionate or helpful either). I couldn't talk to him about anything, he had problems communicating, and yet in his business, women thought he was the most charming man alive. They knew nothing about what went on privately.

Eventually, my mother decided to leave him, and one evening, when he was away on business, she packed up all the furniture, and a local farmer who was soft on her brought a wagon on a tractor and we loaded everything on to it. We left a note for my father to say we had gone.

At midnight, under the stark light of a full moon, we drove through the silent village to the farmer's house. It was a rather curious evening, because many of the rooms were shrouded with dustsheets, and he ground coffee beans, which seemed extraordinarily sophisticated at that time. He made pots of coffee as we talked through the night, and his three-legged white cat walked up and down the kitchen table. It was decided that I was to stay with Mary Pollard's parents.

At about seven in the morning, my mother and I walked across the wet fields and caught the first bus into Gloucester. She wanted to give me breakfast before we said goodbye, but Lyons wasn't open yet, so she said, 'We'll go into the cathedral and sit in the warm.' There was a service on, and we both fell asleep; we were woken by a kindly canon who was very concerned. By now Lyons had opened, so we went and had breakfast. Then my mother waved me off to school, and disappeared for months.

That afternoon I went back on the bus with Mary, and for the next two years I lived with her elderly parents. They taught me to garden, cook, chop wood and do all sorts of manual tasks, and they made me work at my studies. It was the first sane, emotionally secure family I had been with, and I rose to be top of the form and eventually won a scholarship to Oxford.

From time to time, my mother and I met in Gloucester to have tea. She gradually became aware that I never stopped talking about the Pollards, how much I owed them and how happy I was, and she became jealous of Mrs Pollard, who had become a kind of mother to me.

Eventually my mother came back to Gloucestershire and found a cottage. With the authority of a parent, she just said, 'You're coming back with me now.' From the garden of this new house, which was high in the hills, I could see the Pollards' home, and I used to sit in the apple tree, sobbing my heart out, because I had been taken from paradise. And that was a very bad time for me indeed.

When I went up to Oxford my parents got back together and bought a house in Golders Green, north London. But within a year, my mother decided she was going to leave my father once and for all, and every evening she packed cases in the attic ready to move. Unknown to my father, she then sold the house and vanished with the money.

My father went off to America, which was a liberation for me, while my mother would send occasional cards from different parts of England, until she finally bought a cottage in Suffolk. She never told my father where she was.

I still saw the Pollards regularly. The break with them came when I was 21, and Mrs Pollard and Mary came up to London to meet my mother. I can remember them standing in the street, my mother attacking Mrs Pollard verbally, and Mrs Pollard being rather shocked and indignant. There was a terrible scene, and my mother said I was never to see Mrs Pollard again. Mrs Pollard, scrupulous, honourable woman that she was, said, 'If your mother doesn't want you to see me, you must honour that.'

I felt I was being torn apart by two mothers, and that led to a nervous breakdown and years of analysis. Fortunately I went to the right analyst.

James Roose-Evans is a theatre director. His book, 'Passages of the Soul', is published by Element

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