Samantha King was a child when her father disappeared from her life. Then, nearly three decades on, came the chance to be reunited…
I was about ten when I realised my parents weren’t getting along. My bedroom was next to theirs and, lying in bed each night, I could hear the heated conversation going back and forth. I couldn’t help listening and mentally refereeing between them: ‘Daddy has a point there, Mummy.’ ‘You’re wrong about that, Daddy.’ ‘Both of you, stop shouting and listen to each other!’
This was back in the 1970s, in a seaside town in Somerset, when being ten brought with it a lot of freedom. Summers meant long days at the beach with my two brothers, sneaking home after dark to raid the kitchen for food. The seemingly endless summer of 1976 made us believe nothing would ever change. But that year everything changed when I was confronted by the word I’d heard whispered at school but always in relation to some other child: divorce.
I remember Mum asking how I’d feel ‘if Daddy went to work away for a while’. Dad was an engineer; Mum stayed at home to look after us. I remember saying I didn’t think I’d notice the difference because he worked night shifts and wasn’t around much during the day. I steeled myself to think only of the times when he was grumpy while he was trying to sleep after his shift.
I tried not to think of when Dad took us for walks in the woods, interpreting the calls of birds. The high-pitched song of the yellowhammer was my favourite: ‘A little bit of bread and no cheese.’ I begged him to say it again – and to play another tune on the guitar.
Dad was affectionate with my brothers and me but he left Mum to do the ‘woman’s work’ of looking after us. In my head, she had the rougher deal and when answering her question about Dad leaving I remember lying so as not to upset her: ‘It’s fine; we’ll be better off without Daddy.’
Inside I felt scared, but I worried that if I cried, or admitted I didn’t like how empty the house suddenly felt, I’d be blamed for making a fuss. My big brother might call me a baby – and I didn’t want to upset my younger brother, who was only six at the time.
On the day Dad left, he gave me 10p to spend in the sweet shop, then walked down our street looking over his shoulder, smiling at me. I’ve never forgotten the intense blue of his eyes as I watched Dad disappear into the distance. My brothers and I didn’t talk about it. There was simply an empty space at the breakfast table.
I felt lonely, even though nothing much changed: it was still Mum waiting for us at home after school. But I could see she was unhappy, and so was I. Books offered an escape and I stockpiled as many as I could get my hands on. I hated being alone at night. Sometimes I slept with Mum in what was now her bed: it felt sad, like this was where a daddy should be.
Gradually, Dad turned into a stranger. Mum had sole custody and when I saw Dad at ‘scheduled meetings’, it was never at our home. He lodged in different places locally, and I remember visiting him and feeling uncomfortable: he made us lunch in someone else’s kitchen and my brothers and I had to sleep on camp beds in someone else’s back bedroom.
I remember Dad’s new landlord telling me off when we were watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on TV. I’d seen the film before and called out in excitement just as the car was about to fly. I didn’t understand why a grown man was so cross that I’d given away the story; I felt confused seeing my father not being the one in charge.
I told Mum I didn’t want to go again, and felt I was showing loyalty to her and that I would make her happy. In my mind, Dad became the person who had left us to struggle and the more Mum struggled, the more I stopped myself missing Dad. Then I heard that he had moved abroad to work; I waited for letters from him but they never came.
We lost contact with his sister and her family; and his mum – my grandmother – passed away without me knowing. That side of our family evaporated. I resigned myself to the fact that my brothers and I had been forgotten; I told myself I didn’t care.
After a while, a new man started coming to our house. He brought me and my brothers lemonade, which I’d never tasted before. He drove a nice car and took Mum out to dinner and made her smile again. We moved into his much bigger house and had new toys. He was a teacher and helped me with my homework; he was the first person to mention university to me.
I was 11 by now, and I understood that Mum was happy again. They got married that year, and Mum’s new husband introduced more rules and boundaries into the family home. My brothers and I had always had the run of the place – playing records or turning on the TV when we wanted – and I didn’t like having to ask permission from a new father.
I also worried about being different from all my friends. Back in the 70s, divorce wasn’t common and I was self-conscious about its stigma. I recall cringing as the teacher put white stickers over my name on each exercise book and wrote my new surname on them.
I remember Mum asking me how I felt about my new stepdad, and whether I felt happy to call him Dad. I was writing a birthday card for him at the time, addressing it to his first name, which until that point I’d always used. I altered it so it would read ‘Dad’; I said it was all fine. Inside I felt a pang of disloyalty to the dad who had left, and who I now accepted I’d never see again. In hindsight, a deep anxiety about my identity was taking root.
I had to reinvent myself. We moved to Yorkshire, a place I’d never heard of, and where everyone spoke differently. With a child’s horror of standing out, I changed the way I spoke to fit in. Mum worked hard to gain a degree and train as a teacher. We became middle-class. We had our own bedrooms, bikes and TVs; we had a different surname. My new identity was complete.
It was supposed to be a fresh start, and I never told anyone that I used to be someone else. The divorce felt like a family secret and I’m pretty sure that instilled a lifelong habit of privacy in me.
During my teenage years, I spent more time thinking about the future than the past. My brothers and I occasionally talked about our birth father, and I remember feeling glad when Mum told us that he hadn’t remarried or had any more children. There was no suggestion we might see him – or that he wanted to see us – and I never raised it. By this point, our new family was solidified; I felt it would be disloyal to my stepdad to say that I was curious to know what my ‘other dad’ was like. The subject felt taboo.
University followed, then a career in publishing – moving to London, buying my first flat, meeting my husband-to-be. I loved my job for 15 years but something was pulling me towards training as a psychotherapist. Having become engaged, I felt secure enough to study full-time for a counselling diploma. My fiancé and I talked about having a family and I started to reflect on the past.
Training as a psychotherapist involved a huge amount of self-development work. As a volunteer counsellor, I chose to work with young people. I wanted to help encourage children to speak honestly in a way I hadn’t felt brave enough to do. I’d grown up feeling unable to talk about my feelings. For years, I rarely revealed that I’d come from a ‘broken home’ – an old-fashioned term but so accurate.
It was my partner who helped me believe in myself – he is my ideal of how a man should be: kind, caring and treats me as an equal. When I realised that I didn’t like being criticised – or praised – by the male tutor on my course, it hit me that I’d repressed resentment about male authority figures.
I’d been caught between two fathers and it felt as if men were always the ones to call the shots. I wasn’t close to my stepdad; I was curious about whether things would feel different with my biological dad.
Six months before our wedding, a phone call out of the blue crystallised these thoughts. My birth dad had traced my elder brother who had decided to meet him. Dad was going to be at his house the next day. It felt like the missing piece of a puzzle: I had 12 hours to decide whether to pick it up, or let it go.
It had been 28 years since I’d seen Dad. Then, I’d been a child; now I was an independent woman. I was nervous that seeing him again would upset Mum. All of that childhood guilt came flooding back; I felt I was being forced to choose between my parents again. However, despite my conflicting emotions I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.
The next day, a sunny afternoon in the summer of 2005, I found Dad sitting in my brother’s garden. My aunt was with him and I later discovered that she had been the one to painstakingly trace her niece and nephews through Friends Reunited and the Red Cross.
The first thing I noticed were Dad’s blue eyes, as intense as ever. He made the first move: he came towards me and gave me the biggest bear hug, before shaking my fiancé’s hand. Although he looked different I remembered his voice, his animated mannerisms. While it didn’t feel like meeting a stranger, it didn’t quite feel like I was hugging my dad.
It hit me that I was now the same age as Dad had been when he’d left. I was a grown-up but part of me reverted to feeling like the ten-year-old girl who had missed her dad and become the quiet one in the corner. He told us anecdotes about the places he’d lived and worked, and I felt sad as I realised that he’d thought and talked about his ‘long-lost children’ every day during the years we’d been apart.
Our reunion was joyful but strange. Everything we had in common was in the past, and we were locked into talking about our early years together, as if we were frozen in time. Dad’s love of golf was one of my most enduring memories and we joked about the waterproof clothes he used to wear. He reflected on my love of gymnastics, and his eyes filled with tears as he told me how happy he was to see his little girl again.
There was undoubtedly a gap of time and emotion that was hard to bridge – the closeness that comes from sharing growing-up years. To begin with, we didn’t know how to rekindle our relationship. Early emails from him were signed not only from Dad but also with his first name, reflecting this uncertainty.
The first time he visited our home, he went out and bought a power tool to fix the bathroom light. I think, for both of us, that felt like the sort of thing dads should do. But, while I didn’t need a dad to help with DIY, I wasn’t sure how a father was supposed to fit into my life.
My birth dad came to our wedding, though I asked my big brother to give me away: he’d been a constant in my life and acknowledging that was more important to me than tradition. My mum, stepdad and younger brother weren’t there – which was devastating for all.
My choice to reunite with Dad pulled my family in different directions, dividing loyalties, and the emotional repercussions were deep and long-lasting. As a child, my biggest fear was to upset Mum. I’m still sad about how hurt she felt when I started seeing my father. It was painful to hear her reveal how unhappy she’d been towards the end of her first marriage. It took us a while to work through the hurt and become close again.
These days, Dad and I see each other a couple of times a year, and we’ve reestablished a rapport as adults – we talk, laugh, share news about our lives. I recognise that, subconsciously, I shut down the need for a father figure as a child, and I’m probably more self-sufficient as a result.
That isn’t a bad thing, but I do also feel a wistful pang of nostalgia when I see films or read books about fathers and daughters.
I suppose I’ve gained a kind of ‘closure’. Over the years I painted a picture of my ‘dad’ in my head, and it has helped to be able to compare fantasy to reality. I’m also in touch with my aunt and her family, and through them I’ve learnt more about our family tree. I value being able to pass on that sense of connection to my children.
My daughter is now the age that I was when Dad left. When I look at my children, laughing at Granddaddy’s stories, I’m happy we’ve had the chance to get to know him again. I am also determined that my children will never have to choose between their parents.
Divorce was my parents’ decision; seeing Dad again was mine. It was one I was entitled to make, but it hasn’t been without complications. ‘How would you feel if Mummy and Daddy weren’t together any more?’ Is there a child alive who has ever answered that question with complete honesty – without trying to work out what their parent wants them to say? I strive to encourage my children to express themselves freely and I hope I’m a better parent as a result of my experience.
Life is about choices and there are no right or wrong answers but there are always consequences. The question of ‘What if?’ continues to preoccupy me. Luckily, in my writing, I get the chance to play out dramatic scenarios for my characters and explore how they would feel, what choices they would make. Ultimately, I believe that, no matter what hand we’re dealt in life, it’s up to each of us to choose our own path. Sometimes we need someone to hold our hand along the way, and a parent’s instinct is to do just that. But it’s not always that simple – and therein lies many a story.
- Samantha’s debut novel The Choice is published by Piatkus Books, price £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99 (a 20 per cent discount) until 21 May, visit you-bookshop.co.uk, or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15