Grow up, she said in her letter. Her words cut deep and upset me. I thought she was my best, my one and only friend. I thought she was the person I could turn to when I needed someone.
There was nobody at work I could talk to or even wanted to talk to. Granny, Auntie, Uncle and Cousin Bob who I was living with at the time were not the conversational type and so I could not turn to them either.
I felt lost and alone.
I wrote to Daphne and told her I felt like a bird with a broken wing. In my mind, I imagined a Blackbird with one wing dangling limply by its side. That's how I felt.
When I was younger, Dad often came home with a bird that had fallen out of its nest or that had hit the windscreen of his Jeep and we would hand rear the birds and then send them on their way. If a bird had a broken wing, then it could not fly and invariably it died no matter how hard we tried to save it.
This is exactly how I was feeling—lifeless and forlorn, somehow, as if a bit of me was missing, helpless too.
I was sixteen working at my first job and living with my Granny and I’d just heard that my dad had left my mum.
It was a shock.
The thing is, now I think about it, Granny had been acting a bit odd lately. She came into my bedroom and began making my bed. I like to make my own bed and even if someone else makes it, then I strip it and do it again myself. Don’t ask me why.
I told Granny I could make my own bed. I even had to pull the covers out of her hands. She said nothing and went back downstairs. The following day she said we should send some flowers to Mum. I thought it was an odd thing to do as it was not Mum’s birthday, but went along with the idea and sent the flowers via Interflora. I asked Granny what I should put in the note with the flowers, and she said to just put, From Hastings. Hastings was Mum’s place of birth, and she loved it. I went along with this idea as well.
I found out later that when Mum saw the flowers and read the note; she burst into tears because she thought the flowers were from Dad and that he wasn’t leaving her after all, and he was saying sorry. Well, that news upset me even more—sending flowers to Mum and then Mum crying over them. They were meant to make her happy.
Then a few days after that, Granny was reading a letter, and she turned to me and told me Dad had left Mum. I was just about to go to work and that is all Granny said and as I could not think of anything to say back; I went to my office job at the huge departmental store on the seafront.
People in the office asked me if I was all right and I said yes, I was just tired, that’s all, and maybe going down with a cold. I made excuses for how I thought I looked and never told anyone anything. I didn’t think anyone would be interested. People at work only ever spoke about—work.
I did not know how to put what had happened to my parents and how I felt into words. The only words I could think of were those I used when writing to my friend Daphne. My dad has left my mum and I feel like a bird with a broken wing.
Grow up. She replied in her letter. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. I never wrote back and Daphne never wrote to me again.
I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself at all. I was wondering what on earth I could do to help Mum? Should I stay with Granny at Hastings and continue with my job? Should I go back to Bedford and move back in with Mum and then have to find work? The reason I had moved to Hastings in the first place was because I was able to get a job there after leaving school. I applied for many jobs back at Bedford, but nothing materialised.
I felt terribly disorientated. I didn’t know how Mum was feeling. No-one told me where Dad was.
I learned later that Dad had moved in with his secretary and her three children. One of whom had the same name as my brother—David. So now I had two brothers, and they were both called David. That was even more confusing. Was David my stepbrother, or did that only happen if Maria and Dad married? More muddling stuff to clutter up my already scrambled mind. I developed a permanent headache and often felt sick and dizzy.
I also learned almost by chance that Dad and Maria and her three children were planning on moving to South Africa. They did eventually move there, and it would be thirty years before I saw Dad again.
Soon after moving to South Africa, my brother heard that Dad and Maria had got divorced. Maria went off to Australia with her lover, leaving her three children behind in South Africa. Then Dad moved to Botswana and married a Motswana woman, who he later divorced and married another Motswana woman.
I lost track, and I only heard about all this via third parties.
Each year, Dad would send me a birthday card. It would arrive several weeks after my birthday and be signed, Dad. No love or kisses and no address or phone number either, so that I could write to him or telephone him. But at least it was some kind of communication and at least I knew, each year Dad was still alive.
About five years after my parents broke up, I was travelling back to Bedford by train. I was at the railway station waiting for my connection when I noticed Daphne. I hardly recognised her. She was with a man of a similar age, and I assumed it was her boyfriend as by now I too had a boyfriend, but he was not travelling with me that day.
I went over to her, and we spoke, though coldly. I asked her what she was doing at the station. Was she going on holiday? It was a lovely warm sunny day.
Daphne told me she was going to London to see her newborn baby. The little girl had arrived early with all its organs in the wrong place and some on the outside of its body, and she was very sick. I told her how sorry I was at her sad news.
Daphne looked and spoke like a little lost child that day. But she also spoke as if without feeling, as if she had steeled herself and was taking everything in her stride.
I didn’t tell her to grow up. I didn’t tell her to stop feeling sorry for herself. In fact, I think she did not feel sorry for herself at all. I got the impression that she had no feelings whatsoever—numb.
We didn’t hug. I don’t think either of us smiled at each other. Then her train came in, and we lifted our hands to wave a small goodbye.
I think over those five years between receiving her condescending letter and seeing her at the railway station I had grown up and now Daphne, with her sick baby, was having to grow up fast as well.