This is one of my occasional forays into prose that isn’t security-related, and was previously published at the Lost & Found Exhibition. You could see this as a companion piece to the song How To Say Goodbye. Well, I do…
This letter is more than a decade too early. You are a bright child and an advanced reader, but not so unnaturally mature that you’ll really understand what your parents are about to do to you.
You were always a Daddy’s girl. Even when you were still tiny, your mother and I agreed that she’d get first crack at getting up to see to you when you cried in the night: I think she was worried that you already thought I was your mum. It was still me who took you out on a Sunday so she could get on with some work in peace, in that tiny flat where the only bedroom was yours, while she and I slept on the sofa-bed in the lounge. It was me who applauded your first steps across the living room. It was me who took you to nursery and hung my head like a criminal on the second day when you wept, betrayed and abandoned, because instead of staying with you (as I had the first day), I went on to work.
When your mother had to take short term contracts in various parts of the country, it was me who, thanks to a job that lent itself to flexible working and the first of several considerate employers, built my working day round the need to ferry you to and from nursery, then school. Your mother and I grew apart and both took guilty consolation elsewhere. When I said that I didn’t think Mummy and Daddy could go on living together, and asked who you’d rather live with, you pointed to me with a woebegone expression, but no hesitation. Would you have hesitated if I’d been able to tell you what lies ahead?
Yes, there will be happy times. Soon, we’ll move into our own flat. You’ll have a room that will be all your own, rather than a bed in a lumber room, and you’ll get the cat you’ve long wished for. Sadly, he’ll turn out to be a one-person moggie, not good company for a child, and after a particularly vicious bite, you won’t be too sad when I give him away. We’ll survive the custody arguments with your mother, when she begins to regret that she gave you up so easily. We’ll live in (mostly) happy chaos, despite my deficiencies as a housekeeper and mother substitute. Because money is tight, most of our holidays together will be with relatives, but sometimes I’m invited to speak at conferences. You spend a lot of time sitting at the back of lecture halls reading and drawing, but we also get to see lots of European cities, and even Disneyland.
We’ll get to know lots of single parent families. Every other weekend, you’ll stay with your mother, and occasionally I’ll spend some of that time with someone who’s more than a friend (once in every second blue moon, I might even get a babysitter). However, I’ll turn my back on romantic liaisons when they threaten too many changes in the way we live. Is that because I’m frightened of upsetting you, or because I’m happier being someone’s Dad than someone’s lover or husband?
When I’m offered a job in another part of the country, though, things will start to change. Because my new employer is less indulgent about my duties as a parent, my mother will come to live with us and look after you when I’m not there. You’ll resent having to share me, and give her a hard time because she’s not your mother. Alternate weekends are a pain because of the distance we have to travel to your mother’s.
Then, out of the blue, I meet someone I can’t turn my back on. Suddenly, you’re thirteen years old, living with me and someone you think of as a wicked stepmother. I betray you time and again, taking her side instead of yours, or getting into arguments about you that make you feel like the victim and the villain. In the end, you’re back to living in a one-bedroom flat with just one of your parents, but this time it isn’t me.
Then you’re sixteen, and your GCSEs are nearly behind you. You’re happier than you’ve been for a while, but in between you spent over a year on anti-depressants, you would only meet me for a few hours at a time on neutral ground, and even tried suicide: mercifully, you didn’t try too hard. When my new wife and I separate for a while, you say you’d come and live with me again, but only if I moved closer. You’re a young adult now, with a life and relationships that neither your mother nor I know much about. Your life is full of uncertainty, but there are possibilities you’ve barely started to explore. Your texts and emails tell me you love me lots and lots, but I know you need me less and less. Perhaps your mother feels the same, but she and I way beyond talking about anything so personal. I know it’s a parent’s job to foster a child’s independence, but did it have to be so soon?
I don’t know how well your 16-year-old self understands what’s happened to us. I’m not sure I understand it myself. It breaks my heart to know that for me, you’ve already left home.
This letter is decades too late, for both of us. And sometimes I miss us both so very badly.