How a dumped, demoralised mother turned her trauma into triumph
Being dumped by the father of her two small children felt like the end for Caroline Oulton. Instead, it proved the beginning of a new life as a writer, as Bridget Galton discovered THEMES of infidelity and the insecure lives of folk in the big city do
Being dumped by the father of her two small children felt like the end for Caroline Oulton. Instead, it proved the beginning of a new life as a writer, as Bridget Galton discovered
THEMES of infidelity and the insecure lives of folk in the big city dominate Caroline Oulton's first collection of short stories.
Unsafe Attachments (Hutchinson £15.99) is a sad, funny, closely observed set of tales about the seemingly differing lives of people living in a London neighbourhood.
Yet they are all connected by love and hope - reaching out to make connections - even while they experience the tensions of living in relationships and the cheating and lies that can result.
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It is something the single mother is ably equipped to write about.
Oulton's long and committed relationship fell apart when her sons were two and four after her partner got together with a work colleague.
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The former BBC drama producer was devastated but, a decade later, she turned the experience into a successful 2006 memoir Dumped; a single mother shoots from the hip.
"It sprang from a personal crisis about being left with two small children which had not been part of my life plan," says Oulton, who now has a third child and lives in Mill Lane, West Hampstead.
"When the book came out I went on the Vanessa Feltz show and a taxi driver rang in to say it was disgusting parading my life for people to see. I said I could see that it might seem tacky to onlookers but I was left having to provide for two young children, I wanted to be at home with them and writing this was one way of doing it."
She adds: "I also did it for me. It was a very good process and I couldn't have written these short stories until I had done that. It was like a plug coming out."
Oulton says writing the book felt like the right thing to do once she had gained some perspective on her personal crisis.
"When it was happening to me I got fed up that everyone would say 'put the children first, bite your lip and keep your dignity' but there was no consolation for me. The etiquette is weird, you are vilified for being vindictive almost more than the person who did the dumping.
"The new relationship so quickly becomes the norm. A few weeks later friends are happily entertaining the new couple as though it were a blip when for you it is an earthquake."
The hardest thing she found was that her two young sons desperately wanted their father.
"I couldn't fix it and as a parent that was hideous."
At the time of her relationship break-up, Oulton's partner was a successful writer. But as a script editor and producer of TV drama including Casualty, Bugs and Silent Witness, she was the family breadwinner. She comments wryly that had her relationship not collapsed, she would probably have continued to enable his writing at her own expense.
"TV producing is an exciting, demanding job but it is a young person's game and difficult to juggle with being a single mum to three children.
"It may seem irresponsible with three dependants to decide to become a writer but I so much prefer this. It has been so pleasurable writing these short stories."
By necessity, and, it seems by preference, Oulton writes at the family table "among the homework and kid's debris with children's TV in the background and pasta boiling on the stove."
"Being so broke you are motivated by fear and grab every moment of peace to write but it's not enough time and you have to write between the distractions."
This feeling of fragmented lives, of juggling modern motherhood and commitments is reflected in Unsafe Attachments.
Roger's partner is smugly satisfied that her life is on course even as he is enjoying a fumbling grope with a stranger at a party. Tina's desperate longing for a child jeopardises her loving relationship. A lonely cafe owner spots his married shrink kissing another woman in the park, and Alex reflects on his urge to settle down as he accompanies his ex-girlfriend to an abortion clinic.
"Even while working as a TV producer I wrote fragments of stories that ended up in this collection. There is a theme of fragmented, insecure lives that comes through - even a happily married friend of mine commented that the nature of modern living, people doing jobs in this big city you never know what your partner is doing. You have to accept it.
"Everything from relationships to gendering are so fluid now. I look at my 17-year-old son, whose social life is very different from what mine was, and I don't necessarily think he is going to be better at forming lasting relationships than me.