The Garden of England
Kent whizzed by in a blur of green and gold as I sipped a taupe-coloured British Rail hot chocolate. Accompanied by our ever dutiful social worker Sandra, Mum and I were on the way to Ashford to see my dad’s parents. Long estranged, they had sent me a letter to request a meeting:
“We would very much like to meet you after so long without seeing you or hearing what you’ve been doing. We would also like to tell you our part of the story. Love Roy and Ivy (Gregory’s mum and dad)”
Little more than a thinly veiled guilt-trip, the accompanying black and white headshot of my father had piqued my interest, and despite my mum’s largely ambiguous feelings towards my dad and his kin, she was willing to acquiesce this time. Special permission was sought from the upper echelons of our halfway home and the powers that be were satisfied enough with mum’s rehabilitation for our furlough to be duly granted.
On the train, I sat next to mum while to Sandra dozed opposite, her bible sitting open on the table. I scanned the letter once more for clues and stared hard at my dad’s picture trying to glean some sort of resemblance. The dark curly hair and the large, square top row of teeth were a bit of a give-away but apart from that, I was looking into the eyes of a stranger. I turned to mum and held up the photo next to my head and smiled the same smile as my father.
‘Well?’ I enquired. ‘Do we look the same?’ Mum indulged me and looked from my face to the photo and back again.
‘He looks different without his afro,’ she said ambiguously, ‘but he was a nice-looking boy your dad.’
‘Well, he was only 18 when we met. I was almost ten years older than him.’ She glanced at the picture again. ‘The smile is the same but I’m afraid you’ve got my higgledy-piggledy bottom row.’ I touched the sharp contours of my crooked incisors. ‘But your dentist can sort that out I’m sure – you’re still growing.’ I frowned at growing. I was almost thirteen years old after all. I studied the photo some more.
‘What did he look like when you met him?’
Mum smiled gently and put down the PD James novel she was reading. She turned to face me. I studied her for signs of my parentage and found very little to compare.
‘Well, first of all he had this enormous bush of curly hair. It was all the rage back then. I used to have to iron it for him sometimes.’
‘Iron it! How did you do that?!’
‘With difficulty. You had to use brown paper.’ Puzzled, I pictured the scene – a kitchen with garish flowery wallpaper, my teenage dad’s head placed sacrificially on an ironing board, the noxious smell of singed hair drifting through the house.
‘Was he tall, fat, thin?’ I asked.
‘I’d call him wiry. Yes, that’s the word. He wasn’t exactly skinny but he was tall and just a bit muscular – I’ve never liked muscle men. Let’s just say this, between me and your dad, I doubt you’ll ever be fat, love!’ I looked at my skinny arms, which were fully exposed by the sleeveless t-shirt mum had bought me especially for this journey. I thought I needed more meat on me personally.
‘Did you get married?’
‘Oh no.’ Mum leaned forward and lowered her voice. ‘It’s quite funny actually because I was already married when I met your dad!’ This didn’t surprise me. ‘In the late 60s I knew this lovely Polish guy called Domek. He needed to get married to stay in the country and offered me what was quite a lot of money at the time.’ She paused, deep in thought. ‘Thing is, I’m not sure we ever got divorced.’
‘So you and dad never loved each other?’
‘Oh, we were in love for a while. When you came along it was a complete surprise – but a very lovely one. You were conceived in the attic room of his mum and dad’s house on Valentine’s Day – I remember it well.’
‘Mum! Yuck!’ I glanced over to see if Sandra had stirred but she remained sleeping.
‘Well it’s true. The problem was that your dad was still a boy really. When you were born we moved out of his parents place and rented a little flat — which was fun for a while. We used to drop acid and sit there for hours just watching you, it was fascinating!” Her wistful smile quickly evaporated. “Anyway, a year or so after you came along I could tell he wasn’t happy.’
I frowned. ‘He wasn’t happy with me?’
‘No, it wasn’t like that, darling. He loved you but he was still a teenager. He wasn’t ready for a family. I came home early from work one afternoon and caught him in bed with one of our friends. I was upset but looking back on it now, who hasn’t got their head up arse when they’re nineteen?’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied, misunderstanding the nature of a rhetorical question. Mum laughed and mussed up my hair playfully.
‘Well, maybe you won’t darling,’ she guessed incorrectly. ‘Anyway, it was then and there that I decided to scoop you up and take us both back to London.’
‘And what did Dad do when you said you were taking me to London?’
‘It sounds awful now but didn’t tell him.’ She looked at me and winced. ‘Well, I was angry!’ she protested. ‘His mum and dad kicked up a fuss when they heard I’d gone but what could they do? They argued their case but they knew your dad didn’t have a leg to stand on. In fact, I bet that’s what they’re referring to in their letter – the bit about telling you “their side of the story”. They probably want me to feel guilty about taking you away.’
‘Do you still hate him?’
‘Oh God no,’ she exclaimed. ‘I never hated your father. Like I said, he was too young to settle down. I can’t blame him. I know that Ivy’s convinced I hoodwinked him into having a kid for my own selfish reasons.’
‘Hoodwink? What’s a hoodwink?’
‘Sorry darling. Hoodwink’s a funny word isn’t it? It just means your gran thinks I fooled your dad into having a baby.’
‘Oh. Why would she think that?’
‘Well, it was probably because I was that much older than him. Maybe she thought I was using your dad just to have a baby with. Perhaps there was some truth in that. She knew I’d already had one child taken away from me – that’s why there was no way I was letting you go.’
‘Was that my half-sister?’
‘Yes darling.’ Mum smiled and picked up PD James again.
I took a sip of tepid, watery hot chocolate and tried to picture my sibling. I’d always known I had a half-sister but she was never much more than an abstract concept to me. Approaching my teenage years, I felt as if I could understand the situation a little better – and this journey seemed like the right time to find out more.
‘Mum?’ I tried to sound casual. ‘What happened with my sister again?’ She gave an amused little sigh, as if she’d been expecting the question. She put her book down again, then took off her glasses and set them on the table.
‘Well,’ she said, turning towards me, ‘you know that I began seeing an older man when I first worked as a secretary in London don’t you?’
‘Was that the man with the curvy car I liked to draw?!’ I asked ardently.
Ever since I’d heard the story of Peter with the Jensen, I would spend hours sketching elegant, colourful sports cars like the one mum had described to me. In my head, the legend of Peter had grown to mythical proportions – surely this was the father I had never had, not some teenage musician whose profession is listed as ‘labourer’ on my birth certificate
‘Yes, that’s right love, the Jensen – well remembered! Peter swept me off my feet, introduced me to the finer things in life. He once took me to eat on the revolving restaurant at the top of the Post Office Tower, which was very exclusive at the time. The whole floor moved as you had dinner!’
‘Really?’ I pictured the poor waiters struggling to keep their balance. ‘Didn’t you get sick?’
‘It moved very slowly, darling. You didn’t notice it revolving but every time you looked out the window you’d see a different part of London.’
‘Wow!’ I exclaimed. ‘Did you love him, Mum?’
‘I was in love with him at the time yes. It was exciting – he was sophisticated and I enjoyed that lifestyle. Anyway, after a couple of months gallivanting around town I found out I was pregnant and suddenly he started talking about his wife and kids. I knew he was married but he swore they were separated.’
‘So, he didn’t want to have a baby?’
‘His exact words were, “I’ll gladly pay for an abortion but if you decide to have this child you’ll never see me again.” Charming, huh? Just sweep the mess under the carpet. The problem was that I really wanted that baby, even if Peter wasn’t going to be around.’ Mum stood up and looked down the largely empty carriage. ‘I could murder a fag. Do you think they’d mind if I lit up here? Why did Sandra book us non-smoking seats?’
‘Smoking takes ten years off your life,’ I said triumphantly. I was always looking for ways to shock my mother into quitting.
‘Yeah, well, they’re the worst years. The ones at the end. You can take those years, I don’t want them!’
‘Mum! Don’t say that,’ I protested, annoyed that she had a smart comeback for what I thought was a clever argument.
‘Sorry, love, just ignore me.” She rummaged around her handbag and fished out a sad-looking rollie and lit it up. Leaning over me, she slid open the small top window and blew out a thick plume of smoke. She sat down. ‘It’s funny but talking about it now makes me realise something. I think it was the fact that everyone wanted me to get rid of the baby that made me even more determined to have it.’
A sudden rush of air through the train carriage stirred Sandra. She stretched a little, scratched her nose and turned away from the window. She nuzzled into the seat, snoring gently.
‘So, through sheer bloody-mindedness I was alone with a newborn baby – no help from anyone. I tried my best to make it work but there was no way I could have brought that little girl up on my own. I was too young and had no support at all.’
‘Is that when you adopted her?’
‘Well, I had her adopted, yes. I had little choice, Robin. It was over very quickly but you can’t understand how much of a wrench that was to let her go. I was heartbroken.’
I leaned my head on my mum’s shoulder. ‘Sorry,” I whispered.
‘Lucky you came along then, hey?’ She gave my hand a squeeze. ‘Anyway, I’m thinking of putting my name down on the adoption register. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to trace her.’
‘Where does she live? Do you even know her name?’
‘I don’t know anything about her. I called her Ella but I’ve no idea if the new parents re-named her.’
‘I’d like to meet her.’
‘Maybe one day you will.’
The train began to slow down as we reached the outskirts of Ashford. Mum leaned across the table and gently shook Sandra’s shoulder. She awoke with a start, her eyes wide as if in shock. She took a few seconds to familiarise herself with the surroundings and then stretched out her long limbs.
‘Ooh, sorry about that,’ Sandra smiled apologetically. ‘Must’ve drifted off. Did I miss anything?’
In a previous life, Robin was a musician and actor but is now a copywriter. In 2013 he wrote an article for the Guardian about his unusual childhood, which convinced him to start writing a book about his life. He contributes regularly to The Guardian and The Huffington Post. More of his writing can be found here: robinsherwood.wordpress.com.