Part 1. A Discovery At Christmas
In the first of a series of three short memoirs, I reveal the contents of a locked box that my father carried his whole life and tell the story it contained, which I discovered after his death.
You deceive yourself into thinking that you know yourself and that you have made your own choices in life, until another hidden reality is revealed to you which explains how you came to be who you are. Such was the nature of my discovery, uncovering events that happened decades before my birth, and the existence of someone whose fate defined the direction of my father’s life and coloured my own.
In October 2001, I got an unexpected phone call on a Sunday evening in London to say that Peter, my father, had collapsed and been taken into hospital. “Is he conscious?” I asked, fearing the worst. “No,” came the reply. “Is he breathing?” I asked in surprise, growing suspicious. “No,” came the reply. “Is he dead?” I asked, seeking confirmation even though I already knew the answer. Each autumn, my father cut the privet hedge which surrounded the small house and orchard in Exeter where I grew up, and – after completing the task that year – he took a nap on the sofa and never woke up again. Aside from recurring feelings of weakness on his part, there had been little warning and, in retrospect, I think he was blessed to take his leave in the way that he did.
I am an only child, so it was just Valerie, my mother, and me for Christmas that year. We went for carols on Christmas Eve in the cathedral and I cooked a meal on Christmas Day. My fear that it would all become a painful empty ritual was unfounded, as we discovered consolation in repeating the usual activities in the familiar surroundings. Already, I had cleared out most of my father’s things and undertaken a few minor home improvements to inspire hope in my mother that life could go on there. After dark, while she dozed in front of the television downstairs, I sat upstairs in my childhood bedroom, following the pattern of my adolescent years when I spent my evenings in study.
As long as I could remember, my father had a padlocked document box, of homemade wooden construction and painted black. It was stored in the chest of drawers in the bedroom, among his folded shirts, socks and sweaters. He had a desk downstairs where he kept his bills and football pool coupons and my school reports – and this black box was used to store other papers, I understood. Yet it was both so peripheral and so familiar in my consciousness, I never gave it a second thought until after he died.
One night between Christmas and New Year, I decided to open it. Alone in my room, I took my father’s hammer and chisel and prised the box open. Inside, I discovered around a dozen letters on faded notepaper that my father had kept hidden through the years.
All but one were written by Gwladys Brown, a young housemaid working for a Mrs Dimond, who became pregnant and was compelled to give up my father as a baby in 1924. Immediately, I realised that the old couple who brought him up had died before he met my mother and I was born. He adopted their surname which in turn became mine. Thus, circumstances permitted him to bury the truth of his origin, which was such a source of shame that he had carried it as a lonely secret his whole life long.
The letters spoke eloquently across time. Touched by Gwladys’ pain and emotional distress, I was thrown into an intimate relationship with a relative whom I could never meet. I was filled with a strange sense of helplessness. Ironically, it was in 2001 that more babies were born to unmarried parents than to wedded couples in Britain and I was shocked to confront the meaning of this social change personally, recognising that for my father’s generation the stigma was sufficient to blight an entire life.
Yet even as I began to decipher the letters, tracing the unfurling of events and constructing the fragmentary story they revealed, questions proliferated. Who was my grandfather? What became of my grandmother? How much of my father’s life, behaviour and desires could be explained by the drama of his origin? And, as I became aware of my mother sitting downstairs, I asked myself if I should tell her or if – perhaps – she already knew?
Dear Mrs – , Just a line to say that have written to [the] deaconess telling her about you, [that] you have been to see me about Peter & that you are going to have him altogether, which is more than kind of you. Mrs Dimond thinks there will be a written paper for me to sign for Peter, so now we shall hear something or perhaps they will send up to you. She will get her letter tomorrow morning. Mrs Dimond will sign it for me, dear Mrs – , a thousand thanks I give to you and Mr – for having my dear Peter which I cannot thank you enough for I am broken hearted over it & I will do my best for you when I am out & well again. Mrs Dimond is putting in a note as well, she is a dear woman & one in a thousand to me which I shall never forget her & you & Mr -. Shall be so thankful when it is over and I am back with my dear Mistress again. Will not forget to write while I am there. Love to you all, from G xxx xxxxxx for sweet Peter
This is to certify [I] do hereby give full charge to Mrs – of 55 Victoria Street, St James, Exeter, Devon of my child named Peter Stanley Brown
Dear Mr & Mrs -,
Just a few lines to enclose with Gladys’ letter to you, I do think it is so kind of you both to take dear little Peter. It will be good to know the little soul will be in good keeping & looked after & I sincerely hope he will turn out to be a blessing to you. Gladys will be coming to me after the affair is over & she promises she will be a very different girl in future if I will have her here again. So I feel I must give her a chance. She has been a very faithful girl to me in every way, so I must hope for the best.
I am sorry I could not see you this afternoon. I had such a worrying week last week with the affair, my nerves would not permit me to see anyone. I am so grieved over her, I cannot express how I feel it is so terrible.
I will try to go out tomorrow morning to get the little shoes for Peter & some socks, so your daughter can take them back with her tomorrow evening.
My best wishes to you
A M Dimond
My Dearest Ma, I am sending dear Peter’s vest. So sorry I could not send it before, but have been so bad, but glad to say I am feeling so much better. Well dear I must tell you, I am broken hearted, I only wish I was up with you. My Mrs is like a devil to me. It is hard as I have no-one to go to & no home. It makes me cry bitter. You are the only best friend I have & I can tell you all my troubles. I do wish I was with you. She is a devil & the work I do for her, I am heart broken dear. She makes me cry bitter. Will make Peter some socks now. Do burn this dear when you have read it dear. Don’t write dear in case she gets hold of it. I will come up to see you, don’t send any letters. Have finish with him. Well dear I must hurry up as it is nearly dinner time only I thought I must tell you what she is like to me ( it is hard for me, eh dear ) My love to all & dear Peter. My best love & xxx to you dear ma who has been the best friend in the world to me & will always be a good friend. God bless you dear from broken hearted Gwladys. I am so miserable dear.
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