Most of you have a father who has always been a part of your life. Your father has never been a shadowy figure who one moment was a handsome prince in your imagination, and the next a degenerate loser. No.
I only met my father once or twice when I was a tiny little girl. Not enough to know him. He had a red convertible sports car and he and my Mother took me to a Wimpy Bar in Tottenham. I remember that clearly. I just could never remember what he looked like. I didn’t realise that I would have to, spending most of my life without even a photograph of him.
There was one other time that I almost saw him but I was out with my foster mother and the car had broken down. Whilst we sat in a service station waiting to be rescued, he had visited our home and left a package of sweets for me. Clearly he was a busy man and couldn’t wait around until we got back an hour later. Clearly my foster brother was a hungry child as he ate every last morsel in that package before we got back. They were the only things my father had ever given me. The only proof that he existed. Gone but not forgotten.
It was clear that talking about my father to my Mother was not ever going to be received well. She was furious with him and I always knew to keep well away from the subject matter. I remember as a very little girl being led by the hand along a very busy Archway Road underneath suicide bridge to a court, where my Mother (I was later to discover) sued him for maintenance money. He gave none. In fact, when I moved into her home last year I discovered paperwork from the court where he said he couldn’t afford to give her £2 a week for my care and upbringing.
No wonder he was a sore subject for her.
So, as I have said, I had no idea what he looked like or even what his last name was. I knew he was ‘Nick the Greek,” because I heard that often enough but no one ever said his last name. Unless it was: the Greek?
When I say that I didn’t know what he looked like, I was given clues. Anyone who knew him would always say when they saw me: “Oh, you are the spitting image of your father.” Yes, I am sure they were right – he looked like a cute little girl with plaits.
Then when I was around 12, my grandmother whispered as if confiding the world’s biggest conspiracy, telling me that she had a photograph of my father and asked if I would like it. My Mother had successfully destroyed all evidence of his existence – except for me – and so all of our photo albums had pictures with bits cut out. Rather disconcerting in many ways.
Of course, I excitedly said yes and whilst my grandmother rummaged around in her piles of hoarded treasures I wondered what face I would see on that photograph. Would I recognise myself in his face? Did we share features? Would I feel like, “Of course! I’d know that face anywhere? That’s my dad!”
The answer is no.
I would have passed the man in the photograph on the street and wouldn’t have had a clue we were related let alone related so closely. He looked to me like a Greek Errol Flynn. Thin moustache, great cheekbones and a sharp suit. I took the photograph and hid it in a book and when I got home I put it in amongst my many books on my shelf and knew that whenever I wanted proof that somewhere out there in the big wide world there was a man related to me, I could take that book out and look at him.
Until that was, the day I went to look at that photo and immediately realised that it was no longer there. I did what people do when the blindingly obvious just seems to blind them and pulled out and shook every book on that book case. I leafed through every page of the particular book I knew I had hidden the photograph in but it was nowhere to be found. It was gone.
My Mother didn’t know I had the photo (as far as I was aware) so I couldn’t ask her if she had seen it. If she had……taken it. So I didn’t. I kept believing that it would somehow turn up one day because I had misplaced it and had forgotten that I had done so.
I tried so hard to remember that face so that if I was ever walking around town and saw it I would immediately know it was my dad. The fact that in my mind that face had totally morphed into Errol Flynn’s wasn’t helpful. I kept looking at pictures of the Hollywood actor to try to remind myself of my dad’s face and soon they become one and the same.
Years later, when I was sixteen, we were on holiday in Cyprus. It was a boring and extremely hot six week summer holiday and I was tuned out from the heat and from the horror of spending time trapped with the ‘stepmonster’ and my mother, who by this point I could barely speak to.
At one point during that trip we were in a taxi that pulled up at a junction in the town of Paphos. They got out and started talking with a group of men outside a cafe and then eventually I got out of the taxi and stood on the pavement watching all the gesticulating and listening to the loud voices. It wasn’t difficult, they weren’t hard to ignore.
For some reason, that moment always stayed with me and I had no idea why. If I had been given prior warning, I would have been able to prepare my memory and to know why: one of those men in that group was my father. He knew it was me but my Mother hadn’t seen fit to let me know that the most significant man in the world was standing right there in front of me.
No matter how hard I wracked my brain, I just could not picture anyone in that group who looked like Errol Flynn. Even an aged Errol Flynn. Nope. Not one of those men was familiar to me and that tore my heart in two. I was standing only inches away from my dad and I didn’t know him.
My torn heart didn’t heal. The desperation to ‘know’ who my father was and to be able to recognise him became a very heavy cross to bear. Everywhere I went I was always looking. The fact that I wasn’t told that my dad was in this group for years afterwards really upset me. Perhaps if I had been told sooner I would have still known him?
When I was twenty-two, I went travelling around Europe with my boyfriend. Somehow, unplanned we ended up in Paphos, Cyprus. I was on the look out. I even recognised the corner in which the taxi had pulled up and wondered whether, if we hung around long enough, the same group of middle-aged men would appear. But no. They didn’t.
We stayed with family of the ‘stepmonster.’ They ran a haberdashery shop in the town and after we had spent our days wandering, we would go there to meet them and be driven home. On one of these days a dapper man came into the shop just before we were leaving and the atmosphere changed. I noticed the change but didn’t think anything of it. Why would I?
A few evenings later, my ‘auntie’ asked if I wanted to go out for a drive with her (in her broken English) as she was delivering some food to her son. I said I did. Within moments of setting off the woman asked me if I remembered the man who came into the shop. I said I did. “Well,” she said. “He is a tailor. He came in to buy fabric to make a suit for your father. I didn’t think about it at first but then it was obvious – you and your father have the same face.”
Rather like with the group of men standing on the pavement, here was another moment when I tried to magic a memory of my father onto the recollection of the tailor’s face. There must have been a clue in the way he walked, the way he looked, the fabric he chose that would lead me to my father.
No need to worry about it. My ‘auntie’ then surprised me by saying that if I wanted, she would introduce me to my father. Whaaaaat?! I was suddenly filled with so many feelings that I can’t even name and before they had even settled, she followed up with, “Of course, you mustn’t tell anyone, promise me that you won’t even tell your boyfriend about this conversation.”
“Your father married recently. They have a small child. A son. Let me know if you want to meet your father and I will let him know that you are here.”
We got back and I didn’t know what to do with myself. Suddenly after all these years of wondering who my father was and where he was, I was given some of the answers. He was the man who had a tailor currently making him a suit and he was here, nearby, with a wife and a son. A boy who had a father. My father. Whilst I had all of this to metabolise and had made a promise not to talk about it with anyone.
All night I lay awake. Not a single moment of sleep. The shock of ‘discovering’ my father’s whereabouts turned into a growing fury that he was playing happy families with his new wife and child. A child, who through no fault of his own, was growing up with two parents – his own biological parents and as far as I was aware, no paedophiles.
“What would be the point of meeting this man?” I started to wonder. “What could he possibly give me that could make up for abandoning me. For handing my mother £20 and telling her to abort me.”
The only answer I could come up with that was remotely useful was that he could give me all those year’s worth of maintenance payments that he hadn’t bothered to pay.
By the morning I was in a complete state. I was emotionally and physically exhausted and had to say something to my boyfriend. I told him what had happened and explained that although I did want to meet my father through curiosity, I didn’t want to meet him after all of the damage his absence had caused. I could not play nice. This man could not meet me now I was fully grown and get the reward of knowing me without having been a part of that.
I told my ‘auntie’ that the answer was no. Right now I didn’t want to meet him. Possibly ever.
Somewhere in my psyche, I made a promise to myself that I would possibly meet this man when I no longer needed anything from him, emotionally or otherwise. He would be my Nanny McPhee.
Fast forward to my thirties. Ten years had passed and I at some point in that time I had heard from my Mother that my father had been sick. ‘Sick’ with a capital C.
Knowing that my dad had had cancer made me rethink my views on meeting him. I still wasn’t ready but remembering the wise words of one of my counsellors, I realised that if I met him and didn’t really want to that was fine. But if I didn’t and he died and then I couldn’t, would I want to live with that regret for the rest of my life?
I confessed to my Mother that the ‘auntie’ who had informed her of my father’s cancer had secretly offered to arrange for me to meet him years earlier. I asked my Mother (with fear and trepidation, knowing her views about my dad), whether she could speak with this woman and let him know that I would like to get in touch.
Give my Mother her due, however much the idea was distasteful to her and it was, I know, she agreed to help. She called the ‘auntie’ and as I am unable to speak Greek, I have no real idea of the exact conversation but the bottom line was, “No. You should have said yes back then. His wife is a Rottweiler and I don’t want to get involved.”
So, there we have it. The one route that I knew to my dad had collapsed in a landslide.
I spent the best part of a year wondering what to do and occasionally asking my mother if she had any good ideas of how to find him and we came up with nothing. I still didn’t know his last name or any other details about him, other than he had once run a floristry shop in the town (apparently) and so there was very little I could do without also learning to speak Greek.
Then I had a brainwave.
Years earlier my Mother had gone on holiday to Greece when there had been a massive earthquake in Athens, where I thought she was. No amount of calling – me to her – resulted in a response and there was definitely no call from her to me, so I had eventually called the Greek Embassy in the hopes of hearing whether she had been hurt or killed in the quake. 24 hours passed and then I got a call from them telling me that she had travelled out of Athens to spend time with her brother and was fine. You would have thought that it would have occurred to her to let me know that. But no.
The Cypriot Embassy, therefore seemed like a good place to start. I called them and they asked me to put my request in writing. I explained that the amount I knew about my father wouldn’t even fill half a Post-It Note even if I wrote it large. I sent a letter requesting help to find my dad. I gave his first name, the name of the large town in which he lived, the fact that he may or may not have run a floristry shop (on a corner) and that he had also in the 60’s lived in London.
Exactly one year later, when I had totally forgotten about my request, I got a call from my Mother saying that the ‘auntie’ had been in touch and that my father knew I was looking for him. He had said that it was okay for her to give me his ‘phone number.
I was in shock. Just think how you feel when watching ‘Surprise, Surprise,’ or ‘Long Lost Families’ and you get all emotional, well – this was my reality.
I didn’t know whether my father spoke English or not and as I have an issue with the ‘phone, I asked my Mother whether she could ask her friend to call my dad and get his address so that I could write to him. Obviously, I didn’t ask her to – that would be going one step too far.
She said no but a week later I was given his address.
I immediately wrote a jolly letter and put together an album of images of me from childhood.
Three days later the ‘phone rang and it was my father’s cousin-in-law calling to say that they had received the letter. She then put my father on the line and he sounded like every Greek man you have ever heard. Think Harry Enfield.
He was very happy to talk with me and thanked me for my letter and photographs, He very proudly started telling me about my brother (then a strapping 17 year old) and his wife and saying that they would all love to see me.
After that call I sat down and wrote another letter. A real letter. One explaining what my life had really been like – not like the one full of achievements and make believe. If I was ever going to meet this man, he needed to know what his absence had caused. I wasn’t going to pretend that everything was okay. It wasn’t and it was about time he knew.
I sent the letter and counted the three days that the last letter had taken to arrive. Nothing.
Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine.
And on the tenth day I was awoken at 6am by my father calling me.
He said it was the first time that he had been alone in the house since he had received the letter. He apologised for the life I had had but told me that he never wanted me to speak of it again. He said that if people knew that I had been sexually abused for fifteen years since the age of five, it would reflect badly on me. He went on to tell me many truths about him and why he had disappeared. He told me his version of the relationship he had had with my Mother (the only version I have ever heard) most of which did not put him in a good light and he took responsibility for it all.
I could not have been happier to have had this conversation. He had said sorry and he had behaved like a grown up.
During this conversation I agreed to visit but I did not agree to meet the waiter he thought would make a good husband for me.
“Wait until you meet me, I’m not a typical Greek girl,” I said.
A few days later I was sent off on a business trip to LA, producing a short segment for the BBC with the actor Tim Roth. Mr Roth obviously had no idea what important things I had lined up and changed the filming dates which delayed me. My arranged trip to meet my dad got moved by four days. Thank God that was all.
Finally, I arrived back home late at night and by 6am the following morning I was at Stansted Airport awaiting to board a ‘plane. I couldn’t help but wonder if any one else was on their way to meet a father they had never met before. No sign of Cilla or Davina, so I guess not.
I had no idea who I was going to meet at arrivals in Paphos Airport. I walked out into a large crowd and hoped to see a sign being held up with my name. There was no way I would recognise a man I had never seen before.
I looked around and no one seemed remotely familiar so I hoped that perhaps if I made my way to the front of the crowd, he would see me.
Time went on and the area emptied and almost an hour later I was the only person standing there, as a cleaner swept around me.
I hadn’t contemplated the fact that perhaps he wouldn’t show and so was unprepared with what I might do if left alone in the airport.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry as moments later two middle-aged Greek men and an embarrassed teenaged boy wielding a bunch of flowers came running though the airport.
I would never in a million years have known this man was my father. Not at first sight. As I got to know him over the next few days I would have recognised many elements of his personality as my own.
My brother on the other hand, was my twin. We had the same face. The same smile.
We were driven back to his home and I was introduced to my step-mother. She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Greek but her kindness and love was so clear. What an incredible woman. He did well. No Rottweiler in sight, just a beautiful and loving pussy cat.
I planned to stay for two weeks.
The first day after my arrival, my father proudly took me around and introduced me as his daughter to a million different people: uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbours and so on. We all smiled at each other politely and when appropriate my father would translate. The one thing everyone said after taking a sharp in take of breath was that I looked exactly like my late grandmother. His mother.
The following day my father complained of not feeling too well. He was looking a bit yellow and the cousin-in-law who had made the first call to me weeks earlier, a nurse, suggested that he go to the local hospital for a blood test.
The results came back that he had severe jaundice. His bile reading was off the scale.
As he had suffered with cancer and had a specialist in the capital city of Nicosia, an appointment was made and I suggested that I hire a car and drive him there. There were lots of arguments to-ing and fro-ing about me driving him anywhere. I was a girl.
I explained that I had been driving for a hundred years and it would be fine. We set off the following day and got to the hospital. My father was taken off for tests and my brother and I hung around and waited in silence.
We were then called into a room with the Consultant and my father, in English, proudly asked the doctor to tell him in English what the results of the tests were so that I, his daughter, would understand.
Without any preamble, the doctor said in English that my father had about three weeks to live. The cancer had returned and a tumour was blocking the tubes from his liver. They could try to put a stent in there to let the toxins drain but if they were unsuccessful he would be poisoned to death.
Alrighty then. Great.
So, with that happy news we set off back to Paphos.
If I ever wondered where I got my strength of character from it was clear in that hour and a half as we drove back. My father took the news on the chin. Here was a man who had just been given a death sentence and there wasn’t a flicker of fear. I have no idea what he thinking on the inside but on the outside he was practical and strong. I suspect on the inside he was practical and strong. What more could he do?
Nature not nurture?
We got back to the house and the news spread like wildfire. We all sat in the living room as the millions of people I had been introduced to two days earlier came by to express their shock….and to express their sorrow for my brother. “Poor Andrew,” they all said.
Don’t mind me sitting here trying to get my head around this news. Don’t worry that I have only had a father for four days and now he is being taken away from me. Don’t worry that I have never had this man to protect me, to care for me, to love me and never will – just worry about my brother who has had everything in life that I never had because this man, this dying man, chose to hang around here rather than runaway.
During those four days I learned that until I was eleven, my dad had lived only a mile or so away from me. During those four days my father started every sentence with ‘I.’
I did this, I did that….
He even told me that there was at least one more brother who had been born eight months before me and asked would I try to find him.
I politely declined the offer and told him to do it himself.
I also asked why he didn’t ask me anything about me. “I don’t want to,’ he said. “I will feel guilty.”
The next day I changed my travel plans and headed home.
I did see my father again, two weeks and six days later. He was flown to London for emergency surgery. The doctors had been unable to insert a stent into his liver and instead had given him an infection. With only one day before his life was supposed to end, a Cypriot doctor at St. Thomas’s successfully and ironically gave my father back his life. For now.
The following day I drove him and his brother in law to Heathrow and knew that I was saying goodbye for the last time.
He died six months later.
*For all the posts in this series, please click here: