Elner is a lonely child, raised in a remote valley in postwar North East England, mainly by paternal grandparents. Her mother, a young Italian woman, finds living in with the paternal grandparents difficult. Her father, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, seeks his lost adolescence with a motorcycle gang. The parents start divorce proceedings as Elner starts school, aged four.Just as Elner begins to feel accepted and befriended, problems over family finances cause her grandparents to move, with her grandmother taking work as a cook-caretaker in a tied cottage home. Elner is made to change schools, wasting a year's progress and having problems making new friends. Her father finds work away from home, returning to his girlfriend at weekends.When Elner is eleven, her father and stepmother marry and move away. Elner passes her eleven-plus exam and enters a large highly competitive school of a thousand students aged eleven to eighteen. Her grandfather dies, and in a role reversal, she becomes her grandmother's carer.