May, 1971. We're having a party. I’m six years old, and my parents still speak to one another. To celebrate, the five of us sit at the kitchen table around a shop-bought cake with six lit candles at its centre. My mother, Val, takes up the bread knife and cuts the sponge into six rough slices. We three kids watch her work, our mouths stained joker-red with the residue of sticky, sweet Ribena.
'Come on, Gerry, get that bloody bottle open.'
My father stands at the head of the table fumbling with a corkscrew, its chrome arms flap like a distressed swimmer, before him an unopened bottle of Mateus Rosé.
'For God's sake, give it 'ere.' She drops the knife, takes the bottle, the opener, and with practised skill removes the cork in one, fluid motion, pours him a nip, then glugs a good half bottle into the tall tumbler she's half filled with ice. We eat our cake; my mother takes a deep, jangling gulp.
The 1960s are a busy decade. My parents survive 'the midnight flit', produce three kids and buy their first house from the proceeds of a car repair business my father started with a few spanners, a bottle-jack, and a butcher's bike. But the butcher's bike's already gone by 1971. It belongs to 'the early years', just after they moved to Devon, before any of us kids were born, back when they had no money and when no one knew where they were.
'Your father thought they'd try to get him back,' my mother says, 'especially his dad. And he was afraid of his dad, your father was.'
Gerry and Val grew up in 'The Potteries', Stoke-on-Trent, where, in 1961, he worked as an apprentice mechanic; Val was still at school. As a kid I remember a small black-and-white photo. Written on the back in faded pencil, Stoke, December 1960. It showed a slightly built, nineteen-year-old with a Brylcreemed pompadour and a nose my mother disparagingly describes as 'Roman'. He's leaning against an old car ('his pride and bloody joy'), a bottle-green, 1946 Austin 7, an arm draped over the passenger door, framing the vehicle's single occupant– my mother. Her dark, mascaraed eyes and Sassoon-esque bob belie her young age– just fifteen. Both are squinting into the lens, neither is smiling.
Back then, Val was in her final year of school. She would leave with no qualifications, although her aunt had lined her up for a job at the Royal Doulton ceramics factory in Burlsem. She liked to draw, and it was supposed she'd do well as an apprentice illustrator. But Val had her eye on the money. With a job she could rent a room up town, away from the cramped terrace she shared with her mother, uncle Harold, half sister, and two half brothers.
Then one morning she's leaving the house and a car pulls up. 'Does Harold Hodgekiss live here?'
A clean-shaven youth with sharp sideburns gets out of the car. Val stands on the step blocking the front door, suddenly awkward in her school uniform.
'Who wants to know?'
The youth produces a scrap of paper from the top pocket of his overalls and holds it up like a friendly bailiff. 'I've fixed his car,' he says. 'I'm Gerry– Gerry Leese. Mr Hodgekiss asked me to drop it off outside number 26. Is this number 26?'
'Well, what does it say on the door?'
'I don't know. You're in the way.'
'I'd better move then, hadn’t I?'
That morning, he offers Val a lift to the gates of her secondary modern in uncle Harold's Ford Consul. Soon after, they're 'an item'. But seeing each other is fraught, because Gerry's married...with kids. He tells her on their first date at a pub in the next town, 'where we won't be spotted'. But rather than cause a fuss, she's flattered.
'I didn't give his kids a thought, or his wife. All I thought was...Look at me– I'm fifteen and I've got a married man.
It's six decades later. My mother and I are sat on a threadbare, two-seat sofa sipping beer in Exmouth, in the one-up-one-down cottage she's lived in, alone, for fifteen years. She's seventy-six and it's only the second time I've been here. In the mid 1980s, when she and my father were still together, they had a big house on the outskirts of town. 'The mansion', my school mates used to call it, a mock Tudor stack, with orchards and stables, and tennis-court-sized lawns overlooking fields dotted with oaks and hazels, among which rogue deer sheltered in plain view of our back kitchen window. She'd hated it there. All the accoutrements of my father's success my mother received not as gifts, but as bribes: the sports cars, the jewellery, the designer clothes, the ludicrously expensive (and questionably named) pedigree lapdogs― Tufty, Suki and Soso.
On the face of it, my father's mandate for a solid relationship seemed eminently reasonable– be faithful, be loyal. My mother's aspirations, however, lay elsewhere. So, when she met a college student half her age, her role as a respectable country housewife abruptly ended. She packed a bag, and, with the mindfulness of a stick of TNT, drove her lime-green MG through the gates of the big house for the last time. Ever since, in one way or another, she's been downsizing.
There's a tight wad of old-school Kodak photos on the table, a mishmash of black-and-white toddler shots mixed in with later, colour stuff. In one, my sister, Adele, a tiny baby, but hair already thick and black, almost wig-like, is sat on my mother's lap. Next, my brother, Julian, about six years old, buck toothed from 'sucking his thumb', grinning. He's holding up an Action Man, the blonde one, bearded, scar faced with 'real life' gripping hands. It's Christmastime, and in me a bell rings. I can see the artificial Christmas tree still upright in the corner of our living room, lit and fully dressed, bent at the top. By lunchtime it'll be torn down. Family get-togethers were often explosive events in our house. In the months to follow, a hundred passes of the hoover won't completely clear away the flecks of tinsel and shards of chrome and gold bauble caught deep in the loop of our tangerine shag-pile.
'Who's that?,' I say, handing her one of the photos. It's a beach scene. A small child is peering behind a canvas windbreak, looking away from the camera, knitted swim trunks sagging at the arse, one foot on the sand, ready to take flight. My mother's there too, hopelessly young looking, wearing a bikini and sunglasses, her hair unusually long and swept back, her skin tanned.
'That's you, that is,' she says, and smiles. 'You never could keep bloody still, you couldn't.'
My father appears in none of these shots, although he once did. Long ago Val scraped, tore, cut or otherwise castrated him out of the pictorial family record. Just the odd headless torso remains, a bit of leg, an errant arm, each snapshot incomplete, like mini jigsaws, all with the same missing piece.
I haven't seen Dad, or his likeness, in thirty-odd years. There was no real beef between us, just father/son dynamics that no one felt the need to address. A year passed; now it's been three decades. According to my mother, he's still in town. She passed him on the path at St John's in the Field last year. His high pompadour has turned to a low, white widow's peak. His nose, still Roman, but capsule-red with age, is angry looking, 'like Mr. Punch'. She noticed the leather of his left shoe had been cut away, 'so me big toe can breath,' he'd said to her (bunions apparently). She thought he looked like a tramp. 'Tramp or no tramp, he still drove off in a brand new bloody Range Rover – flash git.'
Tomorrow I'm taking her back to St John's in the Field, a pretty Gothic chapel on the edge of the green belt. It's the reason I'm in Exmouth, to look in on my brother and sister. They both suffered from genetic illnesses and passed in their thirties. They share a plot in the chapel's small graveyard with, according to my mother, just enough room on the headstone for her. It'll be my first visit.
She mutters something about gold-leaf inlay: 'it's starting to fade – you can't see their names – it's disgusting, it is'.
As she speaks, she takes a joss-stick from a half-opened packet and threads the sharpened end into the ski-shaped holder, then lights the tip. The flame catches, fades, smoke rises, coil-like. 'It's for the damp, ' she says, and points out dark stains on the walls. The eggshell paint is soot-grey from years of performing this votive ritual. The room smells like a church.
When my parents arrived in Exmouth in the spring of 1961, my father knew what to expect. As a boy he'd spent his summer holidays here and remembered the neat town, bustling with tourists and never raining. The pristine sandy beach, humpbacked with steep, reedy dunes, offered strategic cover under which a kid could play, belly-down, commando-style. His parents, Molly and Jake, rented deckchairs and brought their own sandwiches and slices of Battenberg; they drank stewed tea and read 'the funnies', while my father and his younger sister, Marlene, dug moats and ferried in buckets of seawater, the damp, glassy sand clinging to their limbs like sheets of fine sandpaper.
For my mother, on the other hand, who'd never been out of Stoke, this tucked-away seaside town felt foreign. Not just the topography, but the people, their West-Country brogue as out of place as her own Potteries drawl. Hers was also the only brown face in town then.
'At least in Stoke I blended in. Down here it was different. No one said anything, but I could feel it, I could see it on their faces.'
My mother inherited her brown skin from her father, Taj. Her Mother, Carol, a white, working class Midlander, had married him after she fell pregnant. But weeks after their wedding at the registry office in Stoke an official letter arrived in which a formal request was made for evidence of the 'denouement of Mr Mohamed's former nuptials', or words to that effect.
'I think mum knew all along,' Val says. 'She must have. Why else would you stay with someone after that? It was bloody bigamy for Christ's sake.'
Taj arrived in the country from North West India with his wife in the mid-1930s. Unable to fit in, she'd returned home. As far as he was concerned, or maybe hoped, that was the end of the matter. The British authorities took a different view. He might be Muslim and culturally encouraged to have multiple, concurrent wives back in India, but this was the UK. The bedrock of British society rested on the union between man and wife...in the singular. Polygamy was not only illegal, it was sinful, a smite against decent, Christian values. As such, Taj and Carol's marriage was annulled. They lived together for a while, but the stigma was too great, the neighbours too scandalised.
Then one day Taj vanished but for Val, who didn’t look anything like her mother, it wasn't so straightforward. Her dad's genes dominated, and growing up a brown kid to a white mother in 1950s Britain did not go unnoticed.
'I got called kutcha-butcha, I did, and half caste. It's why I wore so much make-up as a girl. You know, to try and hide it...'.
Years later, in the 1970s, when deep tans were in vogue, my mother's dusky colouring suddenly became a source of pride. The pale face powders of yesteryear were eschewed for bottles of oily Amber Solaire, and bikinied walks along the promenade, an area of town she'd once despised ('Full of peasants, it is!'), became a routine destination during the summer months, much to the delight of the local fisherman.
I have an early memory of one such seaside saunter in which my mother became an unlikely lifesaver. I am around four years old. The beach is packed with families, rowdy youths, couples. Holding my mother's hand, we make our way along the water's edge when an out-of-control speedboat breaches the shoreline, belly flops onto the shale and ploughs up over the sand. Its outboard motor screams as the propeller bites into the grit, firing out pebbles and shells like sparks from an errant Catherine wheel. In an instant my mother drops my hand and at full pelt runs towards two toddlers sat in the path of the marauding vessel. She dashes in low and eagle like and snatches one under each arm as the boat barrels past to thud bow first into the storm-wall. A close call.
A woman appears out of the crowd, claims her kids and weeps, cognisant of the disaster narrowly averted. People clap and cheer. Mum's a hero. She takes my hand. We carry on. It's the only time I ever saw her run.
Charles Hara spent twelve years managing Guide Magazines in New Zealand. Then a holiday in the South of France opened up an opportunity to roast speciality coffee in Provence, which proved too tempting to pass. Now he lives in Oxford, England, receives his magazines by subscription, and buys his coffee, one cup at a time.
You can read his other excellent piece for Memoirist here