A haunting Cotswolds memoir of growing up in a ménage à trois in the 1950s

Blanche, Victor and Connie

Blanche, Victor and Connie - Credit: Diane Harding

Diane Harding shares her very personal story of a family shrouded in secrets 

To escape war-torn England, my parents Blanche and Victor had emigrated to South Africa; the warm Mediterranean climate and idyllic lifestyle everything they had dreamed of. My arrival ten months later added to their euphoria and, with my father’s only-the-best-will-do attitude, on a sunny Palm Sunday my christening took place in Cape Town Cathedral, blissfully unaware what lay ahead during my formative years.   

But, four years down the line, with my mother suffering severe bouts of homesickness, my father booked a trip for us to England; she to see her family, me to meet the relatives. But it was on our return that my mother discovered a visitor had arrived for a holiday.  

‘This is Connie, sweetheart,’ my father said. I rushed over and sniffed her delicious perfume. ‘I’ve heard all about you,’ she whispered as she bent down to my level. My mother did not acknowledge her but barged past and stomped to her bedroom. 

Always in the Dark, by Diane Harding

Always in the Dark, by Diane Harding - Credit: blkdogpublishing.com

With my mother’s loud protests falling on deaf ears, as the weeks rolled by it seemed Connie had no intention of packing her bags; with full-time employment she became ensconced in every aspect of our everyday lives. With weekend excursions to beaches where uninterrupted expanses of smooth, ivory sand and glinting seashores lapped at our toes, to me everything appeared normal.

With an infectious smile and bubbly personality, Connie was the opposite in every way to my demure and long-suffering mother who, along with the help of our maid, ran the home; our visitor despised domesticity but instead preferred to sunbathe in our back garden sprawled out amongst the lemon and kumquat trees, sipping her favourite tipple of ice-cold beer. 

For me life was fun until one day I heard an argument between my parents that sent me rushing to my bed for comfort. It was the beginning of a childhood that became peppered with interludes of anxiety, with my mother’s mental breakdown when I was eight adding to my confusion. 

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My father worked for Cadbury’s – it was a household name – and after securing a transfer with the company, my family moved back to England when I was 14. I revelled in the thought of a two-week voyage on board ship, alone with my parents (I prayed for their mutual love for me and not as individuals) only to discover that Connie had decided she too would return to England. Dignified as ever, it seemed there was no escape for my mother. 

Diane with Bunty

Diane with Bunty - Credit: Diane Harding

As a young adolescent arriving in an alien country, I struggled to come to terms with my new life, settling first in Birmingham before moving south to Surrey with my father’s work. With further uprooting to the West Country and Connie still suctioned to my home, my rollercoaster existence, and the intrigue as to her identity followed us around.  

It was during our move to Bristol that the situation at home imploded. Constricted by the regime and blighted by anxiety, my mother was no match for my father’s domineering ways and, knowing that I would soon be marrying, she took the decision to finally escape. After a fiery divorce, the announcement that my father was to marry Connie caused hurt and anger, but I took comfort knowing my mother had also remarried, clocking up 25 years of much-deserved happiness.  

Diane with her mother

Diane with her mother - Credit: Diane Harding

It was obvious my home life was a weird one, something I could never understand until I rummaged through my mother’s secret box after her death decades later, and unearthed a wealth of staggering information. But I was a young child when it all began, and the fact I had lived my life to the point of naivety was beyond baffling. To read in the solicitor’s correspondence that I had been brought up in a ménage à trois was a seismic moment; my mother’s unimaginable humiliation eating away at me.  Her emotional resilience was unquestionable; for remaining by my side deserved a medal, a motherly sacrifice I could never repay. 

Armed with letters my mother had sent over from South Africa, it was my now 96-year-old Cheltenham aunt who had disclosed to me much of the scandal and the reason for my being an only child because my father said, ‘it would not be fair on Connie’.  

Although I bottled my dirty secret from my husband for years, my strong determination that Connie would be offering me an apology for a ruined childhood became my goal. 

The room was empty. It was just me and Connie. Our eyes locked and she thanked me for coming. My adrenalin was pumping at an alarming rate. I was unsure how she was going to explain herself, but I was here for the listening. As if on ceremony I stood next to her bed, as though the floor had put out tentacles and suctioned me to it. Her hand tried to reach out to mine but I could not allow myself to grasp it. She was on the brink of admission. Like a vice the silence pressed in on me; the only sound was the rapid thud of my heart against my chest. 

Diane Harding outside The Oldfield Park Bookshop, Bath

Diane Harding outside The Oldfield Park Bookshop, Bath - Credit: Diane Harding

Writing my story has been life-changing and liberating and at a time when coercive control and domestic abuse is taking centre stage, I hope it will prove that however traumatic a situation, there is a way through to happiness. 

Always in the Dark by Diane Harding is published by BLKDOG Publishing; paperback £10; Kindle £3.99.