It was dreadful for both of us. I couldn’t watch him, so I fiddled with the things on the table and then just stared out of the window. He wiped at his face with a big white handkerchief. Of course, the waitress chose just that moment to bring my tea and a couple of lunch menus. She hovered uncertainly for a little while and then with a muttered “I’ll come back in a while.” She made a getaway.
He collected himself and managed a smile. He held up a hand. “I am so sorry. I didn’t expect that.”
Of course, the only response open to me was to tell him it was fine, and I understood. I didn’t. I didn’t understand at all. Anyway, I slipped into my ‘make him feel better’ mode. I asked him about where he’d been. Far East, Middle East. I asked him what he did. Something in oil. I asked him what had brought him back.
“It was time to come home. I just wanted to get back to where I belong.”
I didn’t know whether I wanted to ask him about Mum or not. I mean, I know that would seem to be the reason that I’d met up with him. Yes, I see that. But right then I just didn’t want to talk with this stranger about my life and my mother. In the event, he took it out of my hands. With a sort of clearing of his throat, he began to speak. Quite low so I had to listen carefully.
His explanation of events was so different from what I had understood to be the truth all my life that, to be honest, I almost stood up and walked out. My first reaction was that he was an out and out liar.
As he wove this story about how he had asked mum to marry him when he found out she was pregnant. How she had refused because she thought they were both too young and had told him she didn’t want to see him anymore. And then, how the house had burned down, killing my grandparents and she, he referred to her as Mary, had been spirited away and he had never been able to find where she had gone. There were other things we touched upon, how long he had known Mum. Not that long before they got together, he said. Just at the end of college. I wanted to ask him about other women, but I didn’t. The story bore no relation to my mother’s truth and so how could I refer to it, ask him if he had been married, had other women on the side and all of that. I think his age played into it as well. It seemed to me that he would have been far too young to have had that sort of background before I had come along. In my mind, my father had always been an older man, someone with experience. John was nearer to my mother’s age. I didn’t ask but that was how he seemed anyway.
I could have called him out for a liar. But he was convincing and sincere and he knew about her. He knew little things about my mum that he could only have known if he truly had been very close to her. As he spoke I didn’t doubt at least part of what he was saying was true. At no point that day did I think of him as my father. I didn’t know how to have a father anyway and this bloke had appeared out of the blue. I did believe though that he had known Mum. Then I thought, well if he knew so much, then he would have known her family. And that swayed me. I saw a way to learn about the bits of my life that had been hidden in the grief surrounding the loss of her parents. I asked him if he had any pictures of her when she was young. He did and he pulled one out of his wallet.
It showed two young people with their arms around each other. One I knew immediately was my mum and I could see the other was probably him. He had changed in the years since then, aged a lot from the fresh-faced young man, but there was enough to make me believe. There was a smart house in the background. Large, detached and surrounded by trees and lawns. A big black car stood in front of the door.
“Is that your house?” That wasn’t what I wanted to say but the real question got lost somewhere between my brain and my mouth. He understood though.
“No, that’s your mum’s place. Well, her parent’s place. That’s Homewood. That’s the place that burned down. Up in Yorkshire.
I couldn’t see the image then because of the tears. This place that had been a mystery and the root of all my mother’s pain, there in front of me. I found it overwhelming. He reached across the table and touched my hand.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what version you had of events but I didn’t mean to upset you. Have you never been?”
I think that question was powerful, looking back. I think the fact his idea of everything that had happened was so much more ‘normal’ than the reality had been that it swayed my thinking. If he believed I had visited then he could have no idea of the trauma mum had gone through, surely.
“Look, I’m confused and a bit overwhelmed by all this, to be honest,” I said. “I need some time to process things.”
“Of course you do. I don’t want to upset you. Really I don’t. Oh yes and that brings me to the other thing. I am so sorry about the flowers. I went in to order more and the shop told me that you’d sent some of them back and I realised then what a stupid mistake that had been. I don’t know what possessed me. I wanted to send you something, but I see now I went about it all the wrong way.”
All I could do was say that it was okay. It wasn’t, of course not. I thought he’d been stupid, thoughtless, and really a bit weird. But, back then I didn’t say things like that, so I just told him not to worry about it. I told him that the last ones, the ones at work had been lovely and I had them on my desk and they brightened the place.
“There is just one other thing. If I haven’t upset you too much already.” He smiled as he spoke, and I shook my head.
He removed a small package from his pocket and laid it on the table. He placed an envelope alongside.
“I’m not a fool,” he said. “At least, not all the time.” He smiled again. He had a nice smile. “This is a DNA test. If you want to and honestly, I fully understand if you don’t. Well, if you take the test and send it off, it’s paid for. It will confirm that I am who I say I am.”
Well, what could I do?