When I was six, my parents got divorced. Before this surprise fissure appeared in my short life, things were very normal. A family of four — Dad a businessman, Mum staying home to look after my brother and me. I chugged along, happily feeling just the same as all my friends. Not different at all.
And then the crack came. There was only one other pupil with divorced parents at my all-girls private school. It wasn’t very prevalent in my area in the 1970s, and almost a thing to be whispered about: her parents are divorced, as if it would explain any oddities I had. Although, what ultimately set me apart wasn’t the divorce itself but rather the extreme situation it led to.
During the week, I lived with my mum. She was an artist, of the archetypal starving and bohemian kind, but had left art college to marry my dad and have kids. After the divorce, she went back to painting, but making a living was really tough. The family home had been sold, and the little cottage my mum bought was very basic and tumble-down, although she had grand plans to renovate it when she made some money. But despite her best efforts, the money never came. For the rest of my childhood we lived with a leaky roof, concrete floors, no heating, and we sometimes struggled to afford food.
Mum did her best but was too proud to ask my dad for help. She rummaged through charity shops to buy us clothes, and we often sat in the dark, me doing my homework by the light of the fire when there wasn’t a coin for the electricity meter. Hot water for a bath was limited to once a week, which we all shared.
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In the summer, we’d load up her rusty old van with a tent, sleeping bags, dogs, and the cat, and my brother and I would bump about in the back on the long drive to Cornwall. It wasn’t at all unusual to forage for mussels on the beach because there was no money for food, or for my mum to paint pictures on smooth pebbles to sell to the tourists. I remember her sitting on the harbor wall charging a pound for a pencil portrait, a crowd of onlookers gathered around her. She earned enough to scrape by. I made hopeless kites from paper and twigs because we couldn’t afford toys, delved into deep rock-pools, and ran the length of the beach, falling exhausted and sandy into my camp bed at night.
At the weekends, I went to stay with my dad. There was no animosity, and our parents respected each other’s rights to see us. But when Friday night came, I prepared myself for the massive mental gear-shift required. Packing my bag with a few scant belongings brought great excitement—I loved my dad dearly—but it always felt as though I was stepping through a magical portal. Making the leap over the initial fissure that was now a chasm, I fretted that one day the gap would become too huge and prevent me from crossing back and forth.
After the divorce, Dad’s business became very successful. Over the years, he lived in a series of beautiful and vast homes, the last being an impressive historical mansion set in acres of manicured gardens. On Saturday mornings, Dad picked us up in his Rolls-Royce, or sometimes it would be the Ferrari with my brother and I squeezing in, enjoying the thrill of speed. He employed a housekeeper and a cook, and we had a butler serving our food at a long dining table, looking after our every need.
Every Saturday we’d eat out at a restaurant (me feeling self-conscious in my secondhand clothes), or sometimes Dad would whisk us off to European cities in his private plane. One particularly memorable weekend, we flew to Paris, staying in a grand hotel on the Champs-Élysées, where I had my own room with a four-poster bed and an exotic fruit bowl I daren’t touch. Many wonderful holidays were spent on his luxury yacht, with the live-aboard crew sailing us around the Caribbean, the New England coast, and the Greek Islands.
And then came the switch back on Sunday evening. I was delighted to see Mum again, of course, but the mental shift grew tougher as the years went by. It was difficult knowing who to be—was I a rich kid or a poor kid? While I was never consistently picked on or bullied, I was certainly a ‟very different” kid, and often given a wide berth by my peers. If I didn’t know who I was, they certainly didn’t.
The result was that I went inside myself, reflecting on my odd childhood of extremes. I believe this has often led me to write about characters who don’t fit in, either, who struggle with their place in the world. But I think that these are characters who, ultimately, learn that it isn’t actually a bad thing to feel different, who finally come to realize that not fitting in is just fine.
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