At 16, Kate Fox left home and never went back, cutting all ties and living with estrangement as a background hum to her life.
I hadn’t stepped inside my parents house for 23 years. When I do, it smells of smoke and my mother’s perfume. It isn’t the childhood home I left at 16 and never went back to, but there are familiar things everywhere. It’s like one of those scenes in the Back to The Future films where Marty McFly travels forward in time and sees everything has suddenly aged or decayed. When I last saw the drawing of the Pendragon Castle it was in a shiny, wooden frame on the wall. Now it’s out of the frame and in the basement covered in damp spot. Marty gives Doc a letter in 1955. In the next scene, it’s 1985 and the letter is faded and stuck together with sellotape.
I remember Mum bringing that blue and pink picture of the geese with the cutesy motto “Mother is always right” back from an American holiday just before I left. Now it’s yellowed, from years of the cigarette smoke that has just killed her.
I am a stranger here, but I know that dark brown crockery with the beige and green circles on it better than any cups and plates I’ve owned as an adult. My sister is wrapping it in newspaper to take home. She says she and my mum had a running joke about her taking the Denby Arabesque set when she died. That my mum had said she was going to start using it before she got poorly. What was the point of having such nice crockery shut up in a dresser? My brother passes me a pair of unevenly carved wooden salt and pepper pots with plastic tops I made in CDT when I was 14. They were in the bookcase behind the old Enid Blyton books he’s taking for his son.
I have been “estranged” from my mum and sister and brother for years. I am discovering that is the perfect word. It comes from the old French for “like a stranger”. When I was a teenager, all my family became like strangers to each other. I was doing GCSEs, my mum running a business, my brother off playing football and my adoptive father took my sister to live in France, hoping we’d all move there. Many families go through phases like that. Ours carried on. I found out my father was actually not my biological father and he liked my mum to sleep with other men. I left home with an older man. None of us got to know or trust each other again.
It’s more common than I’d thought, even though I’ve always thought my situation sounded like a particularly odd Jeremy Kyle episode. A recent Ipsos Mori poll, commissioned by the charity Stand Alone, says that one in five Britons will be estranged from a family member at some point. Eight per cent – about five million people in the UK – will have cut a family relationship themselves.
I used to try to explain about my family when I was asked why I didn’t see them. “You only have one mother,” people would say. “Nothing’s worth falling out with family”.
So it’s been heartening to hear Stand Alone founder Becca Bland, who set up the charity after experiencing estrangement herself, confirm that: “Estrangement isn’t talked about because there is a stigma. Blood’s thicker than water. A bias that reconciliation is best, even if that isn’t necessarily best for the mental health of either party.”
As we continue clearing the house, I find a printout of an email my mum wrote to my sister a few years ago in which she said my adoptive father had threatened to kill himself if she met up with me. It felt like a sort of vindication, as generally it was easier for people to believe a young woman had carried on a teenage tantrum than that a parental figure would go to extremes to stop people finding out difficult truths about him. I tuck it in my pocket along with unopened packets of my mother’s nail files, and a grey china dog from her dressing room that used to sit on my bedroom windowsill.
After passing four A levels with A grades (I celebrated by buying myself Billy Joel’s River of Dreams cassette and playing it in my bedsit because that’s the rebellious teen I was), I started the paperwork to get a university grant. Your parents had to confirm that you were estranged from them in order for you to receive it in your own right. I sent a polite letter with the request. My adoptive father helpfully replied saying that he would only send such a letter, “When my attitude changed”. Luckily, after an appeal, my local council conceded that his reply looked like estrangement. Stand Alone has presented to government agencies to try to make such situations easier for students now. They also run groups and meet ups for people, including forced marriage escapees, who often end up back with abusive families if they don’t have support outside of them.
After university, I got into a long-term habit of finding families elsewhere. Audiences at my poetry and comedy shows know more about me after an hour than my birth family.
I know several people who have estrangement as a constant background hum to their life. One friend’s daughter has gradually withdrawn over three years, not sending a forwarding address and changing her name. My friend told me:
“She is the first thing I think of when I wake each morning and the last thing at night. I don’t sleep so well now and my thoughts in the night always start with her. When I have felt particularly stressed, I have had bizarre dreams about being rejected, isolated and abandoned. The experience is almost like a bereavement – but perhaps more difficult because I haven’t found a way yet to have closure. There is always the hope that someday the estrangement will end, but as the years go on it is harder to see exactly how.”
Becca Bland of Stand Alone says that in many situations there is a generational history of family feuds not being settled and sudden cut offs. I think that’s the case in my family. My mum and her older sister also stopped speaking to their middle sibling, my Auntie Anne, for reasons she can’t put her finger on, about 20 years ago. My mum didn’t want to see either of us, or my brother, in the few days she knew she was dying.
Auntie Anne looks like my mother, and like me. Familiar, but a stranger. She insists on us all going out for dinner after the funeral and is open about being overjoyed to be in touch with us again. Knives and forks on new plates, new cutlery. I enjoy my siblings company as adults. The absolute normality of my brother getting up to check the footie scores halfway through the meal; my sister’s dry quips about our parents. I can feel their wariness of me though. The one who upped and left them at 16. I didn’t get the filmic death bed reconciliation with my mum I’d always secretly hoped for; the one where we’d look at each other with our similar eyes and know each other again. But maybe, just maybe, it’s not too late for the rest of us.
Standup poet who's been poet in residence for Radio 4's Saturday Live, Glastonbury Festival and the Great North Run.