It was 1968 and we sat in the car outside my grandparents’ house in West Norwood, London. My father and his mistress in front, my mother and I in the back. We were there to pick up or drop something off. My father turned to me, aged seven, and said forcefully, “If your nan or grandpa ask, Alison is your teacher and she is staying with us while she finds somewhere to live.” He’d told me, when she had come to live with us earlier in the year, that she was the housekeeper. She was 19 – 13 years younger than my father – and I’d never seen her do any housework. And I knew she wasn’t my teacher.
I looked to my mother for explanation but she was turned away from me, gazing out of the window as if this were all perfectly normal, ignoring what was going on around her.
My parents had not been happy for as long as I could remember. I was an only child, born in south London in 1961. By the mid-60s, we lived in Croydon and my father was a bank clerk, ambitious to escape his working-class roots. My mother worked part-time in a local factory, my grandparents helping out with me as and when needed.
It was not a peaceful home. My father was quick to raise his voice if he came in from work and his tea was late or everything wasn’t just so. There was always tension in the air, with both my mother and I tiptoeing around him. He never struck me, and possibly not my mother, but he was always full of suppressed anger, with the sense that he could blow at any moment.
Towards the end of 1969, my mother left. At eight years old, I did not understand, but she was bullied into submission
Alison appeared, staying weekends at first, from some time in 1967. They’d met at work. I didn’t realise what was happening, the only difference for me being that I had to move out of my bedroom so she could sleep there. I lay wedged between my mother and father in their double bed on Friday and Saturday nights. My parents sleeping in the same bed at this time must have been for appearances’ sake. I vividly remember my mother going to kiss my father goodbye on the cheek one morning as she left for work. He pulled away so violently that I thought he was going to hit her.
He was big on appearances, my father. He was always smart, with slicked hair and a collar and tie. He expected us to be perfect, polite and respectful to him, and well turned out so we didn’t let him down. He worked for the Midland Bank and was going to be a manager some time soon – an important role in the community in those days.
By late 1968, we had moved across Surrey from Croydon to leafy Woodham – my father, Alison, my mother and I – as if we were one big happy family. He became an assistant bank manager in nearby Weybridge. My mother and Alison both had jobs and I spent my time after school and during holidays with a local family, paid to look after me.
The year that followed was disturbing. My mother slept in a double bed in one bedroom. My father and I had twin beds in another. Alison was in the third bedroom. Appearances’ sake again – I never recall my father coming to bed or being there when I woke. Our family, such as it was, had never known love, words of affection or hugs, and it became a horror show as the months went by.
My father and Alison were on one side, my mother and I on the other. No one seemed to speak, other than my father shouting at my mother over something or nothing, whenever she irritated or annoyed him, which was most of the time. I recall my mother and I playing a board game on the floor in the hall, the living room door shut so we could not “make a mess” in there. My mother and Alison never spoke – messages about washing and other humdrum matters were passed through me on little slips of paper.
Starved of affection, I developed a mix of tics and facial grimaces and a need to be loved by someone, anyone. At school, there were two dinner ladies who watched over the children in the playground at break times. One would allow smaller children to walk either side of her underneath her large cloak. I was so desperate to do that, to have her arm around me, to be inside that cloak. One day, I plucked up the courage to ask if I could join in. “No, you’re too big.”
Towards the end of 1969, my mother left. At eight years old, I did not understand how she could, but she was bullied into submission by my father. The only visible emotion I saw was when she came back to visit me. This was before a court ruled I was to spend weekdays with my father and weekends with my mother. I do not recall what happened during the visit, but I do remember walking with her afterwards to see her off on the bus at the top of the road. We waited silently, next to two chatty girls who were there to meet someone. As the bus came into sight, my mother started crying, saying to the girls that I was not old enough to cross back over the road on my own. They saw my tearful mother on to the bus – she barely turned and looked at me – before taking me across the road. At the time, I was indignant: “I can cross the road on my own!” Now I see more meaning in those tears as my mother watched me walk to my father’s and Alison’s house.
As we moved into the 1970s, with my parents now divorced, I spent weekdays with my father and Alison in their big detached house in Woodham and weekends with my mother in her rundown flat, eight miles away. In those days, divorce laws favoured men and my mother left the marriage with little more than the clothes she was wearing.
My father’s home was a cold place. I was expected to be quiet and polite to Alison. I had to kiss her goodnight, but only on her hand, which she held out imperiously night after night. They never had children and I was clearly not wanted there. They had married by this time, too – though I was not invited to the wedding or told about it. I only found out years later when I saw Alison’s cheque book with the name “Maitland” in it.
I much preferred being with my mother, never knowing until much later how she went without food and heating in the week to look after me at the weekend. These were happier times and we would go the park, walk along the river and sometimes stay at my grandparents’. She would buy cream soda and sweets, and we sat eating and drinking and watching Doctor Who.
My mother met Alf at work and they moved in together, a relationship that seemed to enrage my father. One night, coming back with my mother and Alf, I found all my belongings in black bin bags on the doorstep, dumped by my father, who wanted me out. But Alf didn’t want me, either, and sent me back.
Years later, Alf died of cancer, and I moved in with my mother; I never saw my father or Alison again. I’m told my father died of pancreatic cancer, a legacy of smoking 40 cigarettes a day, aged 64 in 2000. I don’t know if he had a happy life; I suspect not. If I’m honest, I hope he didn’t. He made ours a misery for many years. I have no idea what happened to Alison.
My mother found happiness, marrying Alf’s best friend Tony and helping him raise two sons before they retired to the Sussex coast. She saw me find love, too, before she died. I have been married for 36 years, and have three children – the happy family life that my mother and I never had all those years ago.
- Iain Maitland is the author of two memoirs, Dear Michael, Love Dad (Hodder) and Out Of the Madhouse (JKP). His debut novel, Sweet William (Contraband) is out now. He is an ambassador for the teen mental health charity .
Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email email@example.com, including your name and address (not for publication).