Rebecca is lost. Her love life is a mess, her career’s going nowhere and, to top it all off, the one stable thing in her life is about to disappear. Coping with grief is hard enough, but for Rebecca and her sister Alex, it’s all compounded by the mysterious circumstances in which their father abandoned them twenty-five years ago. And by an unexplained woman’s name on a scrap of paper in an old box.
I’m very aware of what a horrendous cliché this sounds, but it’s true that you do remember exactly where you were when you heard a piece of bad news. I certainly remember where I was when I got that phone call, because, as it happened, I had literally just been dumped by the man I’d thought of, up until about a fortnight after this, as the love of my life. With hindsight, it seems foolish, but you’ve been in love: you know how blind you can be to certain things, how you overlook the obvious. And, you know, in some weird way, maybe finding out a truly horrible, world-changing piece of news is the perfect antidote to a horrible break up. It certainly put things in perspective.
Let me tell you how it went. I was sitting alone in a restaurant. Alone, because I guess Anthony thought it would have been a little churlish to hang around for dessert after telling me he didn’t see much of a future in our relationship and, you know, he’d actually been talking to an old school friend of his – Jenny, you know? The blonde one? The doctor? Uh huh, her – and actually maybe there was something there and actually he’d maybe like the opportunity to pursue that and actually actually actually…fuck off, Anthony. Again, this is with the benefit of hindsight. Right then, I was a total mess. An actual sodden mess of genuine fucking grief that the life I had in my head had just evaporated over a caesar salad and it was all such horrible bullshit. The waiters didn’t know what to do. I mean, this must happen all the time, right? People always get dumped in restaurants. I still had half a bottle of wine left. Anthony, at least, had picked up the bill. I could take it home. I was about to put that bottle right in my handbag and walk home and get blackout drunk, when my phone started buzzing.
What went through my head at that moment? I remember it all vividly, like it follows the beats of a pop song. Every single emotion that went through me. Hope, pathetically. Hope that it was Anthony, changing his mind, calling to tell me he was running back to the restaurant to beg my forgiveness and ask me to move in with him. In the seconds it took me to fumble the phone out of my bag, I’d constructed this elaborate fantasy that involved him bursting through the door and hurling himself across tables towards me, batting aside the maître d’ contemptuously, his smouldering eyes fixed solely on me. This was absolutely something Anthony would never, ever do, of course – I guess the fact that I was still fantasising about him being that sort of guy was one of the many reasons it was destined to never work – but, hey, a girl can dream. I looked at my phone, and it said ‘Mum’. New fantasy: Mum somehow guessed, or was informed via a strange maternal psychic bond, that I was in trouble. She’d phoned to comfort me. To ask me what was wrong. To invite me back home for the weekend to drink tea and help her with a jigsaw puzzle. I could regress to an earlier state of being, a childlike utopia, and maybe I could just put all this uncertainty aside. It could be a new beginning. I could leave this horrible city that contained Anthony and start fresh somewhere new. Mum could reboot my life for me.
I didn’t even mind her using that name for me, not right now. “Mum?”
“I’m sorry to do this like this, but there’s no use beating about the bush. The doctor says I have cancer. I’m dying.”
And then I don’t really remember anything after that.
My mother. Mum. Ivy, is her name. Like everyone else’s, my memories of childhood are a little fuzzy, all mixed up with adolescent neuroses and half-forgotten smells and confused recollections that turn out to be from movies or telly programmes. The first few years are especially confusing, because that’s when Dad was around. I was only very small when he went away. For me, the notion of fatherhood is a tall pair of trousers, walking about the place now and then. When I think back, there is this sensation of warmth and affection, a bone-deep memory of being sheltered and safe in this virtual stranger’s arms, but nothing more specific than that. I know what you’re thinking, because I’ve thought it too: the reason I’m thirty and bouncing from failed relationship to failed relationship, of which Actually Anthony was just the latest example, was because my dad abandoned me when I was a child and I’ve been carrying this with me my whole life, looking for that elusive father figure to fill that obvious gap. And I’d agree with you if it wasn’t for my sister, Alex. Eight years older, married with kids. She should be even worse, because she remembers Dad, properly. She should be even more fucked up than me. But she isn’t – or maybe she is, but she’s better at dealing with it. I don’t know. We’re really not that close.
But, when tragedy strikes a family like this, I guess you’re supposed to come together and be there for each other. Well, we did come together, at least in a physical sense. We went back home, me on my own with a rucksack full of not enough pants, she with her entire brood in tow, like quacking little ducks. James and Molly and Zach. No seriously: Zach. I don’t even…yeah… And all the equipment that this logistical nightmare entails. Again, a cliché, but transporting kids across a hundred miles of British countryside is like a military operation. Her husband, Jeremy (never Jez – a distaste for diminutives is literally the one thing he and I have in common), was too busy with work. I don’t know what he does exactly. It involves going abroad sometimes. I want to say something in oil or energy? Not important. Anyway, we all came together, us women and sullen little James and too-young-to-talk Zach and tried to be there for Mum.
Despite everything, there’s really not a lot of etiquette for these situations. You’re not supposed to talk about death and dying. You’re not supposed to ask the questions you really want to. It feels rude. But what else was I supposed to say? We were sitting at the dining table – the same dining table we had all through my childhood, even though the kitchen had been redone years ago – drinking big mugs of tea, with Mum and me and Alex all just staring into space, not knowing what to do, kids playing in the other room, and I had to come out with it. I had to just ask.
“How long have…how long did they say that…you know…?”
“Oh. Oh okay.”
“We’re all here for you, Mum,” Alex said, squeezing her hand.
“I know, dear. I know.”
She was tough, my mum. Of course she was. She’d had to be, because she’d raised the two of us alone, more or less. Okay, the job was halfway done with Alex, but a daughter just beginning adolescence is tough enough without her father just up and leaving like that. We should have been a tight-knit family, more like three sisters than a mother and her daughters, that’s what films and books taught me, but really it wasn’t like that. Mum and Alex were close. I was the outsider. See, they shared something I didn’t. They had that shared grief of abandonment, the raw, physical pain of it. That had created a bond between them. I was too small to understand. I never missed Dad, because I never really knew him. So I was the odd girl out here. And I wanted to be there, I wanted to be supportive and have that easy familial affection, but I just didn’t feel it. Maybe I was numb from the shock of everything, and maybe seeing my sister there with all her fucking snotty kids reminded me of what I didn’t have – what I’d never even seemed to have a shot of having – and what made her the golden child. Mum loved those kids. She’d be sadder about leaving them behind than us, I was certain. And that was fine. But, there and then, my mind wiped clean by shock and uncertainty and, yeah, that aching grief still, I could only feel resentment about what I didn’t have. I couldn’t even find it in myself to feel sympathy for Mum. I was just scared for myself.
Well, wouldn’t you be? Once she was gone, I was alone.
Mum was always punctual. Three months to the day after that brief conversation, we were standing in a churchyard on an obscenely sunny Autumn day. There were quite a lot of people there. Mum had had a lot of jobs while we were growing up, and it wasn’t until much later that I realised how hard it must’ve been to make ends meet. Sombre children were arrayed around Alex and Jeremy, and I was just sort of off to one side, feeling like a spare part. Someone I didn’t know gave a reading. It was fine. I mean, it was a funeral. They’re always shit. But Mum had had time to prepare and get everything organised the way she wanted it. It was hard to be moved by it, oddly. She hadn’t done great things in her life, at least not the way these things are usually measured. She’d been winding down to retirement for a while now anyway, and I suppose there’s not a lot you can say about someone who’d led a relatively banal, boring life. I thought that I, at least, would be able to summon up something to say, or even to think, but no. Just that cold numbness again. We put her in the ground and we went back to her house.
“Are you okay, Rebecca?” it was Jeremy who asked me as he inexpertly made the tea. Alex was looking after the kids.
“Um…yeah…I think so. I don’t know.”
He smiled reassuringly. He was a good-looking guy, but a real alpha-type, not at all like Anthony or any of my other exes. It was probably the first pot of tea he’d made since he’d gotten married. My sister didn’t work, and sometimes I thought of that as a kind of betrayal. I mean, Mum had worked. She’d taught us that a woman didn’t need a man to feel whole, but maybe I’d just imagined she’d taught us that. That’s what I’d got from her, but Alex was different. And anyway, it was her choice, wasn’t it?
“It’s normal to feel a bit spaced out after a something like that,” Jeremy said. He put the mug in front of me and the tea swimming inside looked grey and unappetising. Suddenly, I missed Mum fiercely.
“I just…don’t know what to do,” I said, “I don’t…I don’t have anyone…”
He nodded, but I don’t think he quite understood. It wasn’t like I was pining for Anthony, or any other man, it was just that I didn’t have anyone to turn to right then. Alex had her own family, and my friends were a long way away. Mum had always just been there. And now she wasn’t.
Here’s a thing they don’t really tell you about what happens after a parent dies: it’s a pain in the fucking arse. Because, up till that point, you had them to provide a kind of base level of organisational competence in your life, but now you have to sort out their shit, and you don’t have them to help you. And god knows, Mum made it as easy as she could. She’d sorted out as much as she could in three months, but it was quite a big house and she didn’t have the time to put it on the market – besides, what if she’d miraculously pulled through? Stranger things have happened. So it was down to us to try and make sense of a life left dangling. I got time off work, Alex finally offloaded the kids onto Jeremy for a few days – something he inexplicably referred to as “babysitting” – and we set to, clearing out all the junk, picking out anything we wanted to keep, dumping the rest in a skip on the drive. It was a pretty depressing experience.
“Is this all we leave behind?” I asked aloud as I opened yet another cupboard and started to remove shoe boxes full of various things no one had looked at it years. When did Mum imagine she’d need these things again? Old photos, bits and pieces of long-obsolete electrical equipment, old fridge magnets, unfashionable handbags, souvenirs. There were things I recognised from mantelpieces prior to redecoration efforts a decade or more ago. Maybe they were supposed to have been put back? Maybe this was always where they’d been destined to end up. I looked into the eyes of a chintzy china dog, a familiar character from my childhood I hadn’t thought about in years. I remembered where he used to sit, just in a little niche by the fireplace. I didn’t even notice he’d gone; barely noticed him when he was there. Just a bit of background detail from a long ago place and time. It was suddenly all unbearably sad. I put him back in the box and added it to the growing pile of crap outside the cupboard door.
“What was that?” Alex called up from downstairs.
I had to think about what I’d said. “Oh…nothing…”
She came stomping up anyway, just to check on me like she always did. We did love each other, but she was so much older than me that she thought of herself as a backup parent, and now we’d lost the real thing, she was embracing that role. I think she felt a sense of responsibility to me now, the wayward child. Or maybe it was just guilt. “How are you getting on?” she asked as she peered over my shoulder.
I held up my hands. “I don’t know. It’s like fucking Narnia or something back here.”
“You shouldn’t swear,” she said absently. Mum didn’t like swearing. Of course, it didn’t matter now, but neither of us wanted to point that out, although Alex realised it the same moment I did.
I just said, “She had a lot of stuff.”
“We should have helped out more. You know, before.”
“She wouldn’t let us.” It was true. She’d been stubborn living and she was ten times worse dying. I leant down and picked up another box which I passed back to Alex. “How’s the garden?”
“Fine. I think she spent most of the last three months out there.”
“That’s nice.” She’d always loved that garden.
“It’ll make it easier to sell.”
I nodded. At first, the idea of selling the place had horrified me. I thought maybe I could live here, at least for a bit, but then I thought about it for more than three seconds and realised that was a terrible idea. First, it was too big for me. Second, this was Mum’s house, not mine. I hadn’t lived here for over ten years. The third reason was depressingly practical. The house had been left to both of us, to be split down the middle and, as amusing as the idea of drawing a chalk line through all the rooms and having Alex and I play out some sort of hilarious mismatched roommates comedy was, the money would be more useful to both of us. In fact, it was a guilty silver lining on the whole thing for me. I, like a lot of graduates without much of a career, was still stuck in the wilderness of the renting market. The windfall from selling the house would be enough to help me get a place of my own. Ironically, after all this, this situation actually could be the reboot I was waiting for.
“What’s this?” I asked absently as I picked up a box from the floor. It was a yellowed, dusty thing, and had probably been sitting at the bottom of the pile for years. I didn’t recall ever having seen it before, although that wasn’t particularly strange. I opened it up and frowned at what was inside.
“What is it?” Alex asked, leaning over me as I crouched down on the floor.
“It’s…um…” I sifted through it. Torn up pieces of paper. Faded, yellowed, like the box, but there was writing on there. “They’re bits of letters, I think.” Old letters, torn up and then left in this box. I rummaged deeper. More fragments, this time of a photograph, glossy but with oddly muted colours, like the fist shaky colour prints from the 70s and 80s. The pieces were too small for me to make out any image, but it looked like the portrait of a woman. Here was a corner of an 80s Keegan perm, and here a smiling, lipsticked mouth.
“Who the hell is this?” I asked Alex. “Mum?”
“Doesn’t look like her. What’s on the letters?”
I picked up one of the pieces and turned it around to read the faded ink. Just a meaningless cursive scrawl, in a feminine hand. “Let’s get this out into the light.”
“I don’t know if we should pry, Rebecca,” Alex said as I shouldered past her into the hall.
“What? Why not?”
“Because it might be something personal!”
“Well…” Mum’s dead, Alex, was what I wanted to say, but it was far too blunt, and she was taking all this much worse than I was. “It might be important,” was all I could think of instead. We trooped back down to the kitchen and I dumped the contents of the box out onto the top. I sorted through it. It was like one of Mum’s jigsaws, but I didn’t think there was much hope of us solving this one. My hands moved through the pieces, and I’m not sure what I was hoping to find. Alex suddenly let out a very uncharacteristic yelp and I nearly jumped back from the table in surprise.
“That picture!” she squeaked. Her hand was over her mouth.
I picked up the piece of photograph nearest my hand. A man’s eyes looking out at me, but I couldn’t see anything of the face, just a grey, steady, gaze. It was familiar, but I didn’t know from where. “What? Who is it?”
“Don’t you recognise him?”
“It’s just eyes and a bit of nose…”
“It’s Dad, Rebecca!”
“Oh.” I looked down at it. I had no image in my head of my father, except for the legs, but those eyes did tickle something in the back of my head. “Why would Mum still have a picture of Dad?”
“We should throw this away.”
I held my hand up to her. “No, hold on, let’s just see what…”
“Rebecca!” She was already reaching for the pile of torn up paper and photographs.
I had to physically bat her away. “Let me look for fuck’s sake! This could be a letter from him or something.”
“She must have torn it up for a reason though.”
“Yeah, and then kept the pieces after…” I leant close to the bits of letter and moved them around a bit, trying to fit them back together. One had a space, then part of a signature. I could make out an M, but not much more. I searched frantically for another matching piece and then found one whose ragged edge matched the other. I read the name aloud. “Mary. Huh. Who the hell is Mary?”
“I don’t know.” Alex had the box and was starting to scoop up all the bits.
“Hey, come on! Aren’t you curious?”
“It’s none of our business.”
“That’s a picture of Dad! And some woman called Mary.”
“So…I don’t know…maybe she knows Dad…maybe…”
“Maybe what?” Alex fixed me with a very hard stare, and I knew why those grey eyes from the photo were so familiar – we both had them too. No doubt about their owner then.
“Did Mum ever tell you why he left?” I asked quietly.
“No. And I don’t care. He left, and that’s all that matters.”
“But haven’t you ever wondered…”
“No. And neither should you. He abandoned us. Who gives a fuck why?” I was actually shocked to hear her swear. She grabbed all the pieces from the box and tossed them straight back in. Then she shoved the lid on firmly and marched right out of the door. I watched her through the window, throwing it onto the skip. The lid came off and paper fluttered everywhere. So that was the end of it.
But of course, it wasn’t. I slept back in my old bed that night. My room had been redecorated years ago. There was nothing of mine left in here, except the walls were still the same shape and, in the dark, they enfolded me in the same way. With the curtains drawn, it was like being a child again, lying in bed, listening to the wind whistle through the trees down the lane. In a way, Alex was right. What gave me the right to go through Mum’s private things like that? But, on the other hand, half of that box was mine now, wasn’t it? Who was she to keep it from me? She was my big sister, that’s who and, for better or worse, her memories of our lives together were different to mine. She was older. She’d known Dad, and seen what him leaving had done to Mum. She might have good reasons to want to throw that box away. Did she know who Mary was? Was she hiding some terrible family secret?
I wasn’t getting any sleep either way and, racked with indecision though I was, I pretty much knew exactly what I was going to do. I got up as quietly as I could and, in my pyjamas, crept softly down the stairs. I had to walk right past Alex’s room and I smiled when I heard the loud snoring drifting out. Alex hadn’t changed a bit, and it certainly explained why Jeremy spent so much time away from home.
Outside it was a cold, blustery night. There was just a touch of drizzle in the air and I thought about going back to get a dressing gown. Except the only one in the house was Mum’s, and that would have just been weird. I crossed the front lawn, toes wriggling in the damp grass and hovered over the skip. We weren’t overlooked, but it still felt like a strangely illicit thing to be doing and I was wary of being found digging through what would appear to be a stranger’s rubbish in the middle of the night. The box was still on the top, turned over, with its contents now spilt haphazardly around. It was being blown away by the wind and all I could do was scoop up a few handfuls and shove them in my pockets. I stole back into the house with my prize, trailing forbidden confetti behind me.
Upstairs, I turned the bedside lamp on and spread the bits of paper and photograph on the duvet, sitting cross-legged over them. The light wasn’t very good, and it was hard to make out any of the writing, but I squinted at it. Eventually I found one with part of an address on it, and another. A house number, a street, a town not too far away. I put them to one side. The photograph was harder to figure out. There were more bits of Dad – a balding pate, a longish nose, a slight twist of a smile. All faintly, achingly familiar. And then the bits of this woman (Mary?) – curly hair, red lipstick, a flowery blouse, not very flattering. Not a patch on Mum, anyway. But of course it made no sense. Why would she have letters from this woman? Why a photograph of her and Dad? They could be love letters, sent to Dad, that she’d found years later. Then another possibility occurred – maybe this Mary had written to Mum herself. Why? To mock her? To apologise for stealing her husband? It seemed an odd thing to do, but my hand settled on one piece of paper in the middle of it all, on which I could just make out the word ‘Sorry’ in the same hand as the signature. So, if that’s what this was, I could understand why she’d have ripped it up, but why keep it afterwards?
I looked up with a start. There was the suggestion of a shadow beneath the door. “Uh…hold on…”
“Are you still awake?” Alex asked from the other side of the door. I could see the handle moving.
I scrabbled desperately on the bed. “Wait, don’t come in!”
“What? Why not? What are you…oh…”
“No! I’m not doing anything! Just…don’t come in.”
“Oh god, Rebecca. What do you even need the light on for?”
I could feel my face turning bright red. How lonely did she think I was anyway? “It’s nothing like that, Alex.”
“Whatever. Just turn the light off.” I heard her go back to her room and slam the door shut. Still embarrassed, I swept the bits of paper into my handbag and turned off the light. What kind of animal did she think I was anyway? Still, it was better than the truth, I decided. She’d have been really mad at me if she found out what I’d actually done.
It was a grey, drizzly morning the next day. Alex was up and dressed, of course, as I padded down the stairs, bleary-eyed in my pyjamas still. God knows what time she had to get up to wash, dress and feed her brood normally. I accepted the cup of tea she handed me wordlessly and we both stood in the kitchen, sipping in silence. “We’ve only got a couple of rooms left to do,” Alex said after a little while.
“Uh huh.” I looked out of the window. The garden looked drab in the miserable weather, and I got another of those periodic pangs of grief when I thought about someone else using it instead of Mum. It was a strange thing about leaving home, growing up, that you just lose your connection to a place, and even to a person. Things that meant so much to you just become window dressing from childhood, part of a meaningless smear of old memories. “I want to talk about Dad,” I said.
Alex looked at me, then put her cup down on the kitchen counter. “Why?”
“Is this about those letters?”
“Kind of. Look, we’ve never talked about Dad.”
“There’s a reason for that.”
“I know, I know. He abandoned us. It’s shit, Alex, I get that. But that was, like, twenty-five years ago.”
“So…so he’s our Dad. For better or worse.” I gestured around the cold, empty kitchen. “And, you know, don’t you think someone should tell him his ex-wife just died? Don’t you think he’ll care about that?”
“If he cared, where’s he been all these years?” Alex’s tone brooked no argument. She could get like that sometimes. Probably another reason for Jeremy’s sojourns across the globe.
“Look, Rebecca, I get it. I do. This is hard, for all of us. But you don’t…I mean…you haven’t got…”
“A husband. Kids.”
She rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean. A support network, like I have.”
“I have friends,” I told her defensively.
“Right. Well, maybe you should spend some time with them. It might do you good to get away from this place.”
“We still have some work to do.”
“Jeremy and I can finish off. You haven’t found a single thing you wanted to keep yet.”
Except that box of torn up letters, I thought, but she was right otherwise. It was all just Mum stuff, no good to anyone now, really. I wasn’t a student, leaving half my worldly possessions with my parents. This wasn’t my home, and it hadn’t been for a good long while. “All right,” I said, rubbing my forehead, “maybe you’re right. Just…e-mail me or whatever when everything’s sorted out. I want to be here when they value it.”
“Sure. It’s fine.”
“All right. I’ll go and pack.” I stopped at the kitchen door though. “Just…answer me this one thing, totally honestly, Alex. Have you ever heard of a Mary before? Was she some other woman? Is that why he left?”
She looked me in the eye and shook her head sadly. “Rebecca, honey, I know as much about why he did what he did as you do. And that’s the honest truth.”
She was right, which was the frustrating thing. Dad had left us, and maybe I was trying to fill some hole in my life with the hope that I might be able to find him again or figure out what had happened all those years ago. I should just go home, spend time with my friends, move on. My Mum had died. That’s all that had happened. And it sucked, it absolutely sucked, but I needed to find my peace with it somehow. I got in my car, waved goodbye to Alex who was standing at the door, still with her mug of tea in her hands, looking for all the world like Mum right then, and drove off down the lane. At the end it curved out of sight of the house and the junction was sheltered by trees. The golden burst of Autumn had come and gone and now they were drab and brown, the last stalwart leaves holding on against the breeze whistling across the fields on the other side of the house. One way led home, back to Manchester, and the other… I reached for my handbag and dumped the shreds of paper and photo on the seat next to me. It didn’t take me more than a minute or two to find what I was looking for: that address. I held the two pieces up in front of me, joining them together like bits of a pirate’s treasure map. It would be a crazy thing to do, go chasing after this decades-old rumour of my father. There was no evidence this was an address he’d lived at, or even that this Mary had any sort of connection to him. All I had was the torn up bits of him in amongst that pile of detritus. It was the only lead I had, the only hard evidence besides me and my sister that he’d ever even existed. Again, I already knew exactly what I was going to do, and it was just taking my brain a few seconds to catch up. I swung the car around to the other side of the lane, and turned down the road in the opposite direction to home.
The address was in a town about half an hour away. I didn’t really have a plan as such; just a vague idea to go there and see what happened. Kind of the story of my life, really. Just floating along, waiting for things to happen. That’s how I’d wound up with Anthony; I’d been chasing his best friend, not him. Ancient history now anyway. The last three months hadn’t exactly been conducive to finding a new boyfriend, not that I’d been trying, but if I never saw another man again I’d probably be content. How that squared with trying to find Dad, well, let’s not get into psychoanalysis again. Look at Alex: a totally different brand of crazy to me. So where does that leave your theories of paternal abandonment, huh?
All this shit was what was going through my grief-addled brain as I pulled up outside the house I was looking for. It seemed a nice enough kind of place. Suburban, semi-detached. Nice enough car in the drive. Better than my shitty little Peugeot anyway. I peered out of the window, suddenly nervous, trying to see any evidence of…what? I’d never met the man, even if he did live here with some other woman. Mary. That was all I had. A name and an address. This was mental. I could just about see into the back garden from where I was parked by the kerb. A kid’s climbing frame. It made my blood run cold, seeing that. I mean, should I have been surprised? He left Mum for someone else, why shouldn’t he have had kids with her too? I might have a half-sister or –brother. Jesus. Just what I needed. Or, worse, even more horrible little nieces and nephews. After all, he left twenty-five years ago. Those couldn’t be toys in the garden for his kids now, could they?
I was about to drive away. I genuinely was. This had gone far enough. But, what stopped me was the realisation that if I left now, just went back to Manchester and forgot about all this, that would make Alex right. I mean, she was right. But I’d never admitted that to her once in my entire life. I thought back to our last conversation in the kitchen, less than two hours ago. No, I was still in the clear – I’d qualified it with a maybe.
I got out of the car, pushed open the gate and walked up the path to the front door. I tried to think of what I’d say. What if this Mary opened the door? What if Dad did? I rang the doorbell and waited. Again, I almost bottled it. I was just starting to turn on my heel, the concrete path grinding under my shoe, when the door opened. A man was standing there, looking at me expectantly. He was not my dad. “Yes? Can I help?”
“Um…” I bit my lip, tried to keep the panic at bay for a second. I wasn’t good in these sorts of encounters. Just going up to random strangers, introducing myself. And I sure as shit couldn’t just explain the whole situation now, could I?
The man was still looking at me. “I’m going to close this door in a second, love.”
“Mary,” I blurted out.
“Uh…sorry…yes…I’m looking for Mary.”
“Mary?” He frowned at me. “You mean Mary Potter?”
My heart skipped a beat. That was our surname. Well, mine and Mum’s. Not Alex’s. Not even the wherewithal to go double-barrelled, the doormat. Not the point right now though. He married her then. Well, why not? He divorced Mum. Why shouldn’t he have remarried? “Y…yes…her.”
“She moved out five years ago.”
Relief now. No little brothers or sisters. Well, they could still technically exist. But I had no direct evidence of their existence. It was something small to hang onto. I pulled myself together. “I’m an old friend of hers. Um…an old friend of her family actually. I…I knew her husband.”
He gave me an odd look. “You must go way back then.”
“You must’ve been a kid when he died.”
And now we were back to cold panic again. Dead? It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen him in twenty-five years. It didn’t matter that he could have been alive or dead or anything for all I knew. I’d only just buried Mum, and now my dad was dead too? I was an orphan.
The guy at the door must’ve seen my face curdle, because he suddenly looked panicked. “Didn’t you know Derek was dead? I think Mary lost him years ago. A long time before we bought this place anyway.”
Derek? My dad’s name was Harry. Yes, like the wizard. Don’t start. I was trying to piece everything back together in my head, like those bits of letters from the box. Dad and Mary, Mary and Derek. So she remarried too? So where did that leave my Dad? I was more lost than ever.
“Are you okay?” the man asked me.
“I…you wouldn’t have…uh…a number for Mary, would you?”
“I’ll check.” He ducked back around his door, still keeping half an eye on me – I don’t know whether he expected me to collapse in tears or rob him – and called out to someone inside. “Sharon? Could you get me the phone book?”
“What?” a woman screeched from somewhere near the back of the house.
“The phone book!”
It took a bit more shouting and a few more numb explanations from me, blagging my credentials as someone who knew this Mary person, but I finally got a number. I bade farewell to the Halliwells, as they turned out to be, and staggered back to my car, number clutched furtively to my chest. They watched me from the door, so I started the engine and tried to drive away. I backed into a wheelie bin by accident and sent grass clippings spilling across the road. Cringing apologetically, I picked the right gear and wheelspun my way out into the road, in search of a layby to park up in and sort my head out.
I felt like I needed a diagram to make sense of all this, but I didn’t have a pen. I never had a pen. I was not the sort of girl who had a pen to hand most of the time. I doodled in the dust on the dashboard with my finger instead. Dad leaves Mum. That’s back in the 80s. Dad hooks up with Mary. Obviously there could be some overlap there, which would explain why Mum was so pissed off with him all these years. So, Dad and Mary. And Mary writes Mum a letter? To apologise, to make peace. Or maybe for Dad. Maybe he tried to get back in touch with us. Mum tears up the letters in a fit of rage, but thinks better of throwing them away altogether. Why send a photo of them together though? That would be rubbing her face in it a bit. Anyway, Dad and Mary get married, then divorced? Or he dies. That possibility was still lurking. Then Mary marries this Derek (he was represented by a squiggled question mark – although frankly everyone involved in this little soap opera was a mystery to me, even Dad). Then Derek dies too. Poor Mary, twice a widow, possibly. Mary sells up, the Halliwells move in.
I looked at the crumpled phone number in my hand. Mary was the one link I had in this chain. But what was I supposed to say? “Hi, I’m your ex-husbands long-lost daughter who he abandoned. Wondered if you knew where he might be now. No, I’m not talking about Derek. I meant Harry. Remember? Your first husband. The one you stole from Ivy a quarter of a century ago. Yes, I will hold while you call the police.” I rested my head against the steering wheel. There had to be a way to make this work. I couldn’t just walk away from this now.
All right, so let me tell you how it went. I blagged it again. I’d been blagging my whole life and this was no different. I dialled the number, I spoke to a woman called Mary, and I told her what can only be described as a version of the truth. I asked her if she knew a woman called Ivy. She got a bit quiet at that. I told her Ivy was dead and she went quiet again. Very quiet. I told her it was important that we met. I mean, I couldn’t just ask her about Dad over the phone like that, could I? I wanted to have the conversation face-to-face. Because, either way, she was at least one husband removed from him. She wouldn’t know where he was. And, you know, I kind of wanted answers from her too. What she’d done had affected my entire life. She was the reason I was who I was. This stranger made me. How fucked up is that?
So here I was, waiting alone in another restaurant, more nervous than ever. I was about to meet the woman who’d broken up my parents’ marriage. At least, that was my assumption. In my head, the whole sketchy narrative had become set in stone somehow, so Mary was this tart who’d wrecked everything. She was the architect of this whole fucking shambles of a life that I had. That we had. All Alex’s problems with her shitty marriage, all mine with my complete lack of stability, bouncing from man to man, no career to speak of. It was all rooted in these childhood anxieties, the absent father, the traumatised mother. Mary was the root of all evil in my imagination. I sat there, fiddling with the napkin, seething inside, but also buzzing with nerves. I’d almost left three times already. This was a weird thing to be doing, wasn’t it? Confronting this stranger, hurling over two decades of pent up rage at her. She didn’t deserve that. It was ancient history. She wasn’t responsible. My Dad was the villain here. But I didn’t have him: I just had Mary. I didn’t know what I’d say to her.
Then she walked through the door. I recognised her right away. Not because I’d told her to dress a certain way or anything like that, but because as she looked around from under a surprisingly fashionable blonde bob, I met those steady grey eyes that were so instantly familiar and I understood exactly where Dad had been all this time, and why he – she – had had to leave us. Why Mum wouldn’t let her back into our lives. Why she’d sent the letter and the photo. It was for us. So we’d understand who our Dad really was.
And I burst into tears, right there at the table, overwhelmed by it all. It was Actually Anthony all over again, except this time it wasn’t grief. After losing so much over the last few months, I had my Dad back, and now I had an opportunity not many daughters get: the chance to get to know a parent on their own terms. On her own terms. It was late coming – she must have sent those letters at least twenty years ago – but I couldn’t wait to get started.