There came a time when I dreaded those weekly counselling sessions as you would old-fashioned dental extractions without the laughing gas, but that was many months down the line. Throughout that autumn I anticipated them with the bounce of a child going to a birthday party. Even though already – ever since our counsellors had recognised my voice from the radio or my face from my byline mugshot – my bright balloons were being savagely and systematically deflated.
I was not brought up to be particularly intimate with my siblings. I love them, of course: almost certainly appreciate them more than I did as a child. But as an adolescent, for instance, I never whispered secrets to my sister about boys I fancied. Confidences were for friends.
Even before Serena was born, I calculated that our children’s relationships with one another would almost certainly last longer, so their sibling friendship was arguably even more important, than the more intense love they might receive from us.
So this was how we brought them up. Others – nannies, more often than parents, in Fulham – invited Serena or Bink to play-dates because their charges couldn’t possibly enjoy an afternoon with their own sisters.
But ours were Team Atkins, the four of them barefoot together, tearing through the Vicarage or ragging in our generous Church of England London garden. (Shaun’s secretary called them the Free-Range Children.)
I was proud that they had continued this carefully-fostered closeness as they entered adolescence.
“Our children are best friends,” we offered our counsellors this precious boast with quiet delight. We might be going through a tough time, but there was still much to be grateful for.
They processed this as they processed everything (we were soon to learn). Negatively.
“That’s because,” was their analysis, “they are so worried about what’s going on in the family that they don’t dare step outside it.”
Bang. Another balloon.
“Tell us about your parents,” was an early question.
Shaun complied perfectly, as he did fairly consistently in those sessions. His parents were exactly what the counsellor ordered: his father having stepped out of every Irish novel you’ve ever read. Absent, alcoholic, boozily affectionate and utterly unreliable. Shaun’s stoic and dependable mother left him when he hit her once too often.
“I couldn’t really fault my parents,” I said. “They’re wonderful.”
Did this stump them? Not a bit. He (it was mainly he, my adversary) didn’t miss a beat. “I’d like to hear what Shaun has to say about that.”
Nine times out of ten this ploy would work: if you want to drive a wedge between daughter and parents, wheel on son-in-law. As a bonus, you knock an extra wedge between husband and wife.
“I agree, actually,” Shaun said. “Anne’s parents are pretty amazing.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think if I were asked to help a couple whose lives were beginning to look challenging because their daughter was desperately ill, and I was presented with something so uncomplicatedly positive, I might be tempted to say, “Wow. That’s a great gift life has given you, there. Let’s see how we can build on such privilege and support.”
Was our doughty counsellor daunted? He was not. “Has it ever occurred to you,” he turned to me, “how difficult it is to go through life with perfect parents?”
We relayed this comment, still marvelling, in the kitchen when we got home.
“Not nearly as difficult,” Bink quipped, sparklingly spirited, “as having crap parents, is it?”
Well, she would know.
It was during those early weeks that our counsellors told us Bink's troubles were because of us. All we needed was to sort out our own problems. I am reminded of the belief, a couple of generations ago, that a man's homosexuality was his mothers' 'fault.'
We were not sure what these 'problems' were supposed to be – I don't think we ever discovered; though they were so serious that when I said I hoped for another child, we were told, unequivocally, that such an idea was out of the question – but when we'd solved whatever it was between us, they assured us, Bink would be well.
Presumably this was supposed to be encouraging.
We repeated this comment, too, when we got home. I was taken aback by the vehemence of Bink's response.
"Is that all they believe it is? Some issue between my parents?"
She was incensed.
"Everything I'm going through? And they think it's nothing but a parental tiff!"