My father’s social re-alignment within the village was mirrored by the nature of his two marriages. With my mother, he had forged a propitious match, marrying a good couple of notches above his status. (Let us not forget how important these distinctions were in middle class English life of that period.) Ill-prepared for the comparative coarseness of life “up north”, my mother kept an inscrutable distance from most of the village, only integrating herself to the extent that was deemed necessary and proper. When she left her husband, her children and the village behind in order to re-marry (a local re-match, which caused something of a scandal at the time), it was generally felt that no-one had ever been permitted to get to know her properly.
In stark contrast – and this must surely have been one of the many causes of tension between them – my father was almost voraciously gregarious, in a way which cut through all class boundaries. Snobbery was never one of his flaws; instead, he would befriend whoever he happened to come into contact with, deploying a disarmingly effective equal-opportunities charm that was never based on social positioning. He would think nothing of walking into a strange pub on his own, and striking up conversation with the people next to him at the bar. Indeed, it was one of his great skills and pleasures, to the extent that he would visibly bridle if forced to sit at a far-flung table, away from the action.
However, this complete lack of discrimination on my father’s part was not without its drawbacks, as he was also a hopelessly bad judge of character. A complex and in many ways immature man, something in him constantly craved approval, and he would go to great lengths in order to generate it. Many, if not most, of the people with whom he associated were not used to enjoying the company, hospitality and generosity of a man such as this, with his law degree from Cambridge and his army officer’s background, his large house and his privately educated children. Not surprisingly, his popularity was immense. Equally unsurprisingly, his kind-heartedness was often exploited.
My future stepmother burst onto the scene in the fabled long hot summer of 1976, in a flurry of back-combed hair, rattling jewellery, plunging cleavage, earthy language, and thick, choking cigar smoke. The village had never seen anything like her, and many felt distrustful, even threatened. Accompanying my father on her first visit to the nearest pub, one of the local matriarchs bent over and hissed in her ear: “So, are you his screw for the weekend?”
Her riposte – as she delighted in reminding us for the rest of her days – was to smile sweetly, flutter her thickly mascaraed eyelashes in a parody of the wide-eyed ingénue, and breathily reply: “No darling, I’m just here for the night.”
Shortly after their engagement a few months later, and on their way to the same pub one Sunday lunchtime, the two of them approached the vicar walking in the other direction. My father, a faithful church-going man during his first marriage but now somewhat lapsed, seized the opportunity.
“Vicar, can I introduce you to S? We’re looking forward to getting married in the near future.”
Without breaking his stride, the vicar replied, in the iciest of tones: “Ah, that would explain why you’ve left your car headlights on” – and carried on walking straight past them.
At around the same time, a deputation of concerned friends paid my father an unannounced evening visit, with the express intention of talking him out of what they saw – correctly, as it turned out – as an over-hasty, ill-matched and dangerous union. It didn’t make a scrap of difference.
As it turned out, my louche, theatrical, outrageous step-mother carved out more of a niche for herself in village life than my impeccably well-bred mother ever did. But then, times were changing, and the people who ended up standing next to my father at any one of the village’s four pubs were beginning to emerge from altogether different stock.
People like Cliff and Olga.
Of whom more tomorrow…