My mother died the way she had lived, angrily. She had been in a heated argument, after church, with the new and young vicar. He had preached a sermon about showing compassion on society's outcasts, especially drug users, single mothers and homosexuals. My mother had violently disagreed with him and told him so. As everyone else chatted away in the church hall, drinking their cups of tea, she had cornered him and loudly told him were he'd gone wrong and why it wasn't a Christian sermon. As she poured out her storm of anger she burst a blood vessel in her brain and collapsed with a massive stroke.
She lay in a coma, in hospital, for four days before she died. She just stopped breathing on the afternoon of the fourth day. I wasn't at her bedside. I had visited the hospital each morning, on my way into work, and visited her again in the evening on my way home. She was fifty-six when she died.
As I walked onto the hospital ward, that fourth evening, one of the nurses intercepted me before I got anyway near my mother's bed. She quietly told me my mother had died a few hours before but they couldn't contact me because they didn't have my work telephone number, which I'd forgotten to give them. The nurse was very gentle and kind as she told me, explaining that my mother died very peacefully. When she'd finished she offered for me to see my mother in the hospital's Chapel of Rest. I quietly turned her down. I just didn't want to see my mother ever again. When the nurse told me my mother was dead, all I felt was relief.
At my mother's funeral, the church was full. Friends from her church and the Christian Women's Fellowship she helped run. People from the different charity committees she sat on. Some people from the local school for whom she was a governor. Even many of her customers and neighbours. I was the only person there who could have been called her family, her only son, and so I seemed to be the Chief Mourner. The trouble was I seemed to be the one least affected by her death. As we sang her favourite hymns, listened to several very positive Elegies about her, sat through up lifting prayers and reflected, through rose tinted lenses, on my mother all I kept thinking was when would it all be over. I wanted to walk out of the church and into the bright sunshine, feel the warm sunlight on my face and loosen the tie at my neck. My leg had already begun to ache. After the service, when I escaped the church, almost everyone seemed to want to shake my hand, commiserate me on my loss and tell me how well I seemed to be coping. I just agreed with them.
When I finally slipped away, after declining several invitations to the funeral tea, some people from her church had organised it, I went back to my mother's house, on my own. Slowly I wondered around the house, going from room to room looking around myself, resting my leg when I needed to. I told myself that when all the paperwork was sorted out the house was mine, as she had always told me it would be, I would finally clear it out. Clear everything of hers out of my life and hopefully her with it.
From as early as I can remember I was told my father was dead, but no more. My mother said he died when I was five but wouldn't say anymore. She kept no pictures of him and told me nothing about him. All through my childhood, I yearned for a father figure, an adult man in my life that would care about me and I could in turn look up to. My mother never remarried, keeping all men at arm’s length.
My mother ran a florist's shop, taking pride in her business skills but her social connects probably helped more. People, who knew her through her church and charity involvements, would always come to her when they needed flowers for weddings, funerals and everything in-between. She also prided herself on her social standing. In her suburban community, she commanded a lot of respect, people looked up to her and she knew it and gloried in it.
I was her only child, her son, and all through my childhood she made it clear me that I was also a failure in her eyes. I was not a handsome, clean cut, sporting hero she felt she should have had as a son. I was a quiet, solitary, bookish child. I preferred to spend my time in my bedroom reading my books then be out on the sporting field in all weathers. I worked hard and pushed myself almost constantly at school but at no time did she say she was proud of me, or even pleased with my grades. I worked at what I was good at but all she seemed to do was complain about the things I was failed at. She wanted me winning sports trophies and charming her friends and their children, not hidden away reading my books.
From as early as I can remember she took me to church, every Sunday. She believed in God and her unquestionable Christian Standards, which she maintained were always right. My mother only had two views, something was either right or wrong, there was no questioning allowed. Her belief in the family was the strongest. She scorned anyone who tried to live outside of a nuclear family as immoral and a social evil (She seemed to ignore the fact that she was a single mother, well she was a widow and that was acceptable). She was almost Victorian in her views, cold and stern, and it pushed me further away as each day past.
As a child, I believed in God, but not with the strength and anger my mother did. By the time I was fifteen, though, I didn't believe anymore. Everyone around me maintained that God was strong and did everything for a reason that was good but slowly I had grown to question that. When I was thirteen my best friend at school, my only friend at school, Robert, died from Leukaemia. He was the same age as me and I couldn't believe it when my mother said it was God's will. When I was fourteen the then vicar of our church was quietly but forcefully removed from his post. He had been caught having an affair with one of the women in the congregation. This only came to light, though, when one Friday night he beat up his wife so badly that he put her into hospital. It came out that he had been giving her regular beatings but this was the first time she needed hospital treatment. After he was gone everyone at church started saying how he'd been the wrong choice from the start, but at the time of his appointment everyone said it was God's will for him to be our vicar. Then at fifteen, I sat through a sermon on how evil and sinful homosexuality was, and as I did the last of my belief in God slipped away and I stopped believing all together. It was the last blow my tiny belief could take; being told homosexuality was against God's will. Increasingly I had been begun to realise I was gay; this was the way I was. I decided I no longer wanted anything to do with this cruel and uncaring God that seemed to be all around me so I stopped believing. I didn't stop going to church because I didn't have the courage to tell any of this to my mother. So I kept my head down and my mouth closed, as I'd always done. When I left home, at eighteen, for university, I left God, the church and my mother behind.
At University I met my first boyfriend, Simon, and we began an almost whirlwind romance. It was because of my relationship with Simon, because it was so important to me, that at the end of my first year I told my mother that I'm gay. Simon and I spent two weeks together in Greece, straight after our first year exams, and it was the happiest holiday of my life. Boosted by this I came home to my mother and one evening, over dinner, I told her about Simon. She exploded with anger, telling me that I was lying. We argued over the whole meal, ending with a cold silence, which lasted the rest of the evening. The next day she carried on as if I had never told her, as if we had never had that conversation. I tried to bring the subject up again but was sharply silenced. That was how my mother dealt with my sexuality, she ignored it and I felt like she cut off another part of my life. If I ever mentioned Simon she would cut me off and change the subject with a sharp "him". With relief, I returned to University for the start of me second year. (My relationship with Simon didn't last out that year. His old boyfriend from home, whom he'd still been seeing and sleeping with during the holidays but not telling me about, moved near to the university. I was quickly dumped in favour of this old boyfriend. I buried deep inside myself the hurt and pain I felt. I told the few people who know about us that I was fine.)
After university, much to my mother's annoyance, I moved to London were I had found a job. The next four years I changed jobs twice and moved from a bed-sit to a disorganised flat share, then into a small but brightly lit studio flat on my own. I also passed through many one night stands and a few attempts at a relationship, which seemed to end before they even started, but it didn't stop me hoping to find a lover. I wanted love, I had acquired a taste of it with Simon and I needed it again. So I searched throughout London for it. I believed a lover would chase away all the insecurities, painful memories and loneliness I felt. So I kept on searching, even after I failed and kept failing.
I would probably be still living in London today, always looking for a lover, except for one afternoon, shortly after my twenty-fifth birthday, that changed everything. I was cycling home from work when I was knocked off my bicycle. I didn't see the lorry overtaking me until it was next to me and then too close to me. I woke up in hospital, the next day, with concussion, several broken ribs, my right arm broken and my right leg smashed. I had to have three operations before I was considered safe to be discharged, weeks later. My leg was so badly broken, the bone was smashed beyond repairing, that I had to have a metal cage fixed around it, struts from it actually went into the bone, until the bone finally grow together. I was unable to look after myself, living on my own with the cage on my leg, so I had no choice but to return to my mother's home. She didn't welcome me back with open arms but she did seem to have an aptitude of being proved right. She made it clear that the things she had to do for me she only did because I was her son. Trapped in her house, I was only able to hobble short distances before the pain stopped me; I counted the days until the metal cage was removed off my leg, three months later. When it came off it was found that the bones in my leg hadn't healed, many were still broken and the new bone that had formed was deformed.
It took months of operations, many different plaster casts and even another metal cage on my leg before I was able to walk on it again. I now have a dragging limp to my right leg, horrible scars all over it, a stiff knee that can lock and a nagging pain that comes and goes or can turn into a burning one without any notice. During the months waiting for it to heal I lost my job and then my tiny flat, forcing me to move back permanently with my mother. She saw it as her duty to look after me, though she made it clear it was my fault. Depression crept over me as I felt resigned to my fate; I wasn't going to escape her influence.
My mother's friends saw me as her poor, crippled son who everyone should feel sorry for. Their pity didn't stretch to helping me find some independence from my mother. No one offered to take me out or even just give me a lift anywhere. I soon began to resent them in the way I hated my mother.
It was over a year and a half after my accident when I was finally told that my leg was as healed as it ever going to be. I knew I had to find a job, even with a crippled leg I had to escape my mother again. It took me another year to find one though. Even with my qualifications and experience no one wanted to employ me, they didn't seem to want a cripple on their work force. I only managed to find one after my mother pulled a few strings and I began to work in the office of a nearby charity. I swallowed my pride and resentment, my mother was still controlling my life, she even had to find me a job.
My sex life stopped with the accident and I only began to seek it again ages after I had finally started my new job. I'm not very attractive but as I hobbled into the few gay bars in the centre of town, I felt them staring at me and seeing a cripple. The occasional men who did take me to bed tried to ignore the ugly scars on my leg, but they failed. Once, as I stood at the one bar, a man came up to me and asked if I had an artificial leg. When I said no his face dropped with disappointment and he walked away. I left as soon as I'd finished my drink.
Two years ago, only after I was able to find a different job that actually paid a living wage, I was finally able to move out of my mother's house and into a small, rented flat of my own. My mother cast her negative opinions at every point. She regularly called in on me, in my new home, mostly unannounced, as if checking up on me. Every Sunday she would collect me in her car and take me back to her house for lunch. She never asked me how my life was, never took an interest in what I did, just criticised me and found fault in me. I never argued back because there never was a point in doing so.
I was thirty-one when my mother died. It was only as I waited for her estate to be sorted out by the solicitors that I began to feel guilty because I hadn't mourned her death.
Her will didn't have any surprises. My mother left her house and contents to me, plus a half share in her business, the other half went to her faithful shop manger, Ruthie. I became a sleeping partner in a florist's shop, with a surprisingly good income, and turned my attentions to sorting through my mother's house.
I intended to sell the house and with the money buy myself a town house, somewhere near to the heart of the city. First, I had to clear the house. I could have got a House Clearance firm to do it but that idea felt unpleasant. I didn't want someone else but me doing it. It wasn't that I wanted to protect her memory but that house was also so tied up with my own life. I didn't want strangers stumbling across anything of me in there.
I took a week off work and on the Monday morning started the task.
At first, I found it a relief. I finally knew she was gone. I also took a perverse pleasure in tearing apart the home she'd taken so much pride in over all those years. I sent all her clothes to a Women's Refugee's charity shop, one that supported single mothers. I sold her large collection of ornaments and old pictures to different antique shops in the area, being careful to split up her carefully acquired collections. Her collection of religious books I just dumped in a local paper re-cycling bin. I arranged for the council to collect all the junk hoarded in the attic. I even considered clearing her garden but rejected that as petty.
By the Wednesday afternoon I had almost finished, there was only her bureau left. My mother had kept all her papers locked away in her polished wood bureau. Once I had opened it I started to sort through the mountain of paperwork I found in there. She seemed to have kept recites, used chequebooks, paperwork and every letter she ever received from the moment she moved into that house, other thirty years ago. I even found my old school reports, with her comments written on them. The surprise was hidden in the bottom drawer.
This drawer continued nothing but letters, all in the same neat handwriting. They had all been opened, read and replaced in their envelopes. The earliest letters were dated twenty-six years ago; the most recent were from only a few months ago. The first letters were to my mother, about three years later they started to be addressed to me. All the letters after this, nearly a hundred of them, were addressed to me. I had not read any of them; my mother had read them all and kept them from me. I opened one at random, it was dated ten years ago, and read it. It began "Dear Son", and was signed by my father. I hurriedly opened others and found them were all from my father.
I don't know how long I sat there just staring at the letters, still in the draw; my brain seemed to have gone numb with it all. Shock was preventing my mind from making the obvious connections. I had been told for as long, as I can remember, that my father was dead but here was letter after letter from him, from a living man. None of it made any sense.
I only moved, my leg had become uncomfortably stiff, when the telephone started ringing. I answered it to find one of my mother's friends on the line. She was offering to help me sort through my mother's house. Obviously, word had got around about what I was doing. I quickly turned her down, with a sharp edge in my voice, and put the phone down before she could say anything else.
As I walked back into the lounge, a sudden wave of anger hit me, as if I had walked into a strong wind. My mother had lied to me all those years. She'd always told me that my father was dead when she was really keeping me from him. She had robbed me of having a father. As a child I'd longed for a father. I envied other children who had theirs; especially the ones who had fathers who took an interest in them. I would regularly fantasise about having a father and how it would make everything "perfect", my mother would stop disapproving of me, I'd find friends and everything would be happy. Of course, it never happened but the fantasy stayed until I was a late teenager. It was only replaced by the fantasy of finding a lover who would make my life "perfect". Now I'd found out I'd had a father all along, only my mother had lied and kept us apart. I was so angry with her that I wanted to hurt her, make her suffer. For a moment, I even considered setting fire to her house as vengeance. I couldn't hurt her, though, she was dead and beyond my anger. I couldn't even ask her why she did it. The mixture of anger and frustration made me pace around the room like an animal in a cage. I only stopped when the discomfort in my leg forced me to sit down. As I rested, I began to read my father's letter, starting with the ones to my mother and then mine.
The story took a long time to register in my mind, when it did it through up another storm of emotions.
My parents had married when they were both twenty and I was born the next year, but I was their only child. My parents separated when I was four after my father confessed a one nightstand to my mother and she exploded with anger. My father had ended up in bed with a male work colleague. His first letters to my mother were pleas for her to let him come back to her and he trying to explain what had happened. He had married her, believing he loved her, partly as a way of "overcoming" the homosexual feelings that had been "plaguing" him since puberty. Then suddenly his letters changed. His last letter to her was a request that they meet to discuss "the future". He told her he'd meet another man, Patrick, and finally realised he was gay all along. He wanted to make a life with Patrick but also wanted to involve us, my mother and me. That's when he stopped writing to her and started writing to me. He wrote four or five times a year. His first letter had been an explanation of what had happened but after that his letters were full of news and stories of his life. He talked about his life in London with Patrick; the different jobs he'd done and the different places where they had lived. He also talked about films and plays he'd seen, their names were things of nostalgia. Then ten years ago, shortly before I left University and moved to London, he left London and moved to Newquay, in Cornwell, were he and Patrick opened up a pub and guest house together. Again his letters contained the same mixture of news and events but there were also stories about the guests they had. His letters seemed to overflow with a genuine happiness, he seemed a man so happy with his life. Nowhere in his letters did he question me for not writing to him, he seemed to ignore the total silence from me, and he just kept on writing.
My father's letters were the only things I kept from my mother's house. After I'd finished reading them I packed them all away in my bag and left the house, ignoring what sorting out I still had left to do. The next day I rang a firm of house cleaners and arranged for them to finish off emptying the house.
As I waited for my mother's house to be sold, the estate agent had promised me a good price, I wondered what to do about my father's letters. I wanted to write to him, to contact him in some way but I was afraid to. I didn't know how to explain everything. Not knowing he was alive was easy to explain, hadn't he been married to my mother, but explaining about the rest of my life felt too complicated, it also felt too much like retelling a list of failures. I kept putting it off and putting it off. Soon days were slipping into weeks and then weeks were slipping by. Then the estate agents found a buyer for my mother's house and I was caught up in all of that.
With part of the money from the sale I bought myself a flat next to the city centre. It was in an old town house that had been converted into flats and mine was the whole of the first floor. It was within easy reach of the city centre, near to shops, cinemas, the city's two theatres and the handful of gay bars. I told myself once I had my flat sorted out, furnished, decorated and feeling like a home, I'd start again going out to bars and start exploring my sexuality. I told myself this because I believed I could find some self-confidence from finally having a place to myself that felt like home.
I had only been moved in three weeks, the place was half finished, when a letter came for me. The estate agents had forwarded it from my mother's old house. It was from my father. It was like his other recent ones; all full of stories about him and Patrick and their business, but it touched off a nerve somewhere inside of me. I couldn't finish reading because I started crying. The tears soon turned into sobs that raked my whole body. In terror at the naked emotion I had suddenly poured out I took myself to bed, it was only early afternoon, were I sobbed myself to sleep. I woke up several hours later from a sleep troubled by strange dreams, and knew I had to contact my father. Without giving myself time to reconsider I got up and wrote to him. My doubts and second thoughts only really began to swim around in my mind after I'd posted the letter.
My letter told him about my mother's death, how I found out his address and a little about my life. I didn't tell him about my crippled leg, my sexuality and certainly not my mother telling me he was dead. I didn't want to because I didn't want to have to explain everything, I felt it would have taken too much and I didn't know him, didn't know how he'd react.
He must have written back to me as soon as he received my letter because his letter only three days later. He commiserated me on my loss, my mother's death, but the rest of his letter bubbled with excitement. It was his first contact with me in over twenty-five years and it showed in his writing. He didn't ask any questions about why I'd never answered any of his letters, even if I ever received any of them. It was full of news about him and Patrick and how happy he was to hear from me. This letter did contain questions about my life and me, but gentle questions.
I stopped writing letters then, my second contact with him was an email. In it I told him that I'm gay, but that's all. I didn't tell him about the disaster that my sexuality had been and the non-event it was now. Still, he emailed back about how happy he was to hear it and glad I'd told him.
We emailed each other back and forth for nearly two months. Not once did I give him my telephone number, even though his emails always had his full contact details at the bottom of them. I didn't want him telephoning me out of the blue, I wanted to keep control of the situation, and I didn't want him not to like me.
From his fourth email onwards he had wanted me to come and visit him, to stay with him and Patrick. From the first invitation I had been very tempted but I needed time in which to build up my courage. I wanted to see what my father looked like, see what Patrick looked like, to see what their life was like together. What stopped me at first was nerves, I didn't want him not to like me. In my emails, I had created a careful image of myself. I didn't lie, lies are easily spotted and exposed and that would turned him away me, but I did leave out certain details. The main two things I left out were my crippled leg and the relationship I'd had with my mother. His emails were full of news and the happiness he felt at finding me again.
When the income from my share of the florist business started coming in I realised, with a since of relief, that I could afford to work part-time. I was able to job-share with a colleague coming back from maternity leave. It gave me more time to spend on my flat that had become the sudden pleasure of my life. Shortly after this, heading towards the end of the financial year, I was told I had to take some of the large amount of annual leave owed me and found myself with three weeks off work in front of me. When my father's next email arrived, again asking when was I coming to visit him and Patrick, I replied back with the dates of my annual leave asking when during them would be convent. Three hours letter I received an email telling me to come for all three weeks because we had twenty odd years of catching up to do.
I had felt a rush of confidence because I had been getting to know him and his emails always seemed so happy to hear from me, even if I was late in replying to him. His emails were always so positive and happy that they carried me along with them. A small part of me thought the positive nature of his emails was just a front for my benefit, but I ignored it because his emails seemed so sincere and I wanted to believe them.
As it came closer to my holiday my nerves increased but I couldn't back out of it. I had promised my father and I couldn't go back on that, not even with a feeble excuse.
The train journey to Newquay took over five hours and, even with one change of trains, sitting down that long caused my leg to seize up with stiffness. When I changed trains I swallowed two painkillers but all they did was dull the constant ache in my leg, not take it away. When I reached Newquay I was so tired and my leg now ached with extreme discomfort. I limped out of the station and caught a taxi to my father's pub. Sitting in the back of the taxi, I kept rehearsing how I'd introduce myself and what I'd say.
As the taxi dropped me off outside the pub all my courage and good intentions fled from me. I forgot everything I was going to say, as I entered the building. My leg was so stiff that I almost hobbled into the doorway, pulling my suitcase behind me. To my relief, there was only a woman behind the bar. I quickly bought a drink and found a table to sit at in the furthest corner of the lounge. I nursed my drink for the rest of the evening. I was too afraid of approaching my father at the bar and I was afraid of everyone in the bar, especially my father, watching me hobble across the floor. So I hid away.
I was able to watch my father and Patrick behind the bar for such a long time. I knew who my father was because he was just an older version of me; his fringe even fell across his forehead the same way as mine does. I certainly took after my father. Patrick was a man about the same age as him, but thin, the way some people seem naturally all skin and bone, with his head of neatly cut blonde hair beginning to thin out. As a younger man he must have been very handsome because now he only seemed to have lost a few degrees of it. I could see what my father saw in him. As I watched the two of them together, I could see how much they meant to each other. They were always exchanging little looks and glances together, whispering comments to one another, and lightly touching each other on the arm or shoulder as they passed the other behind the bar. Without having to say anything, I could see they were a couple.
As it got nearer to closing time I worried what I was going to do. I couldn't just limp out of the bar, they knew I was coming that evening, but it certainly looked strange me not introducing myself as soon as I'd walked in. I didn't know how I was going to explain it.
When Patrick called Time, I found myself pulling back towards the wall, trying to hide in the shadows. The bar emptied quickly, most people wishing my father and Patrick goodnight, some even joking with them. Soon there was only me left in the bar. I felt so nervous that I wanted the ground to quickly swallow me up and take me anywhere else.
My father walked around from behind the bar first, followed my Patrick, and towards me. My father smiled openly at me but Patrick's face showed more concern, which he tried to hide behind a smile.
My father sat down at my table and spoke to me; his voice still had a soft Lancashire accent.
"Jack, isn't it?"
I just nodded my head in reply.
"We thought it was you. I said you were nervous," he said.
"Hello... Hello dad," I said.