These days, divorce is the norm. Certain agony aunts even encourage it—because, you know, it's all about your happiness, you see. Your happiness is paramount. If you're not happy, you should do everything in your power to be happy, no matter the collateral damage. As long as you can have a nice lie-in or go to the pub for an extra hour, who cares if your children are staring at the wall every night trying not to wake the house up with their choking tears?
Sure, it doesn't always pan out that way. But it's undoubtedly a formative moment in many young people's lives. Perhaps the first real moment you see fallibility. Maybe it was a shock. Maybe you saw it coming. Either way, we got a load of our friends to describe the time their folks called the clock on their shitty marriages, how it felt and what happened next.
My parents have never tried to be my friends. This isn't Gilmore Girls; it's a standard middle-class, four-person nuclear family. Mum and Dad are such shining examples of the kinds of traditional adults who keep children out of their personal affairs that I genuinely didn't see their divorce coming. I mean, my mum may have had her own room for a bit, but that didn't seem weird. Neither did the fact that Mum, my sister, and I left the country when Mum got a new job, kissing Dad goodbye at the airport on the way to our all-girl adventure.
Over the summer holidays when I was eight, we went back to our house where Dad now lived on his own, and our parents sat my sister and I down in the front room. They told us they weren't in love anymore but that they loved us both the same, and that nothing would change that. I cried for about a minute, we all had a cuddle and spoke about it, and then it was done. There was no custody battle, we kept living with Mum and now my dad can make divorce jokes at Christmas when both sides of the family get together and it's cool. Plus, having divorced parents is really helpful when you need to have a teary chat with someone after a break-up. Perspective.
These failures, which were my failures, burned brightest behind my 11-year-old countenance that day. I should have known it was coming—the lesion of growing up among long-term parental conflict scratches deep—and yet, when it did, the guilt of shock confirmed that it must have been me who had made a mess of it all.
Months of pre-emptive peace work, which culminated in me blasting Tina Turner's "Let's Stay Together" from my bedroom, had all proved hollow. You may not be able to kid a kidder, but, as I had discovered in that moment, you can a kid. Faced with my dad cradling his shame beneath soft eyes, and Mum, hard-faced in her desperate survival, I was exposed as a fool, self-made by childish faith.
"Me and your mum are breaking up, Books. It's my fault. Don't blame your mum and please don't tell your sister."
I didn't cry. It wasn't that way. I just looked out of the window, watching my sister play in the garden, waiting for them to leave. And then they did, through different doors.
I remember Mum carrying me up the path towards him, and wildly screaming: "WHAT IS THIS? WHAT IS… YOU PILLOCK! YOU FUCKING PILLOCK!"
The very moment my parents told me they were getting divorced was pretty unimpressive in itself. I was seven and it was a bit like being told there had been an earthquake somewhere deep in the Atlantic; not realising it had direct implications on you until a 60-metre tsunami arrives six hours later and destroys everything you know.
The proper laughs were in witnessing their breakdown. My dad only ever found himself in my birthplace of the North East because his one way ticket from Tehran to Texas had an overnight stop in Newcastle, so there was always an element of accident to their entire marriage.
Though he would grow up to be a pretty practical fella, he was thoroughly useless in his 30s, much to Mum's disgust. I vividly remember the day a leg broke on their bed. Dad had been laid off recently from the factory, and Mum worked full time as a nurse, so she told him to get it fixed before she got home, so the bed would stop rocking. When she returned that night, he'd sawn the other three off.
A few months later, he disappeared with our family car, a five-door Ford Escort, for the day. He appeared again that evening: he had traded it in for a two-seater, 1979 mustard yellow Mercedes SL 350. His dream ride. He pulled up outside honking the horn, pure joy aflame in his eyes. I remember Mum carrying me up the path towards him and wildly screaming: "WHAT IS THIS? WHAT IS… YOU PILLOCK! YOU FUCKING PILLOCK!" My face was nestled in her jumper and I remember it stank of the chicken Kievs we'd had for dinner.
When the divorce announcement came a few months later, it was via Dad, delivered solemnly in the yellow Mercedes, my sister and I both strapped uncomfortably in the one remaining passenger seat, parked in the alley outside the nursing home where Mum worked. "Your mother and I are getting separated," he said with a moisture in his eyes. I remember asking, "Does this mean I'm not half Iranian any more?" And he said, "No, obviously not."
Like most things in my life, my parents divorce happened after a great delay, but which time I was too old to care. I was 20 when they told me. I got a phone call from my mum one afternoon, saying she was "done," or something along those lines. I wasn't really that fussed about it, and it didn't really seem like a big deal. I had other, seemingly bigger things on my mind at the time, like all freshly post-adolescents do. It was only later on that I became aware of the impact of it, as the jealousy brewed into chaos around petty things like which child spends the most time with who and shit like that. Parents always say, "It's not your fault!" when they split up, but maybe it was my fault—maybe I was just too cool and they wanted me to themselves. Damn.
Growing up, my parents didn't spend a lot of time together, but they were never at each other's throats—just the odd shouty argument sparked by stuff like my dad not cleaning his face hair out of the sink. Everything seemed fine to me, a 17-year-old with no real understanding of long-term relationships beyond "you don't have sex very often." I figured they were fine, her absolutely loving being by herself all the time, him having a great time working himself into an early grave.
Anyway, we used to have a shed that my brother and I would go and smoke weed in, before coating ourselves in Lynx and actually fully believing our mum had no idea what we were up to. We'd been out there one evening and stumbled in, expecting to sit in front of Road Wars with a chocolate milkshake. But when we got inside our mum was sat at the kitchen table and asked us to come to her room, which she told us—pretty much immediately, as far as I can remember – that her and my dad were getting divorced.
Maybe it's because I was stoned and slightly numbed to what was happening, but I wasn't that cut up about it at first. Also, I instantly rationalised it out loud to try and make my mum feel better, because I could see she was feeling awful about it; "It's sad, but at least we're older – at least we spent most of our childhood together as a family," I said, hoping that might help. In retrospect, it probably only made her feel worse.