Meeting my real dad for the first time – part two

Read part one first

We decided to meet in the station pub. I'd got his number a few days before to arrange it. He'd told me he'd never stopped thinking about my sister and I, and what we were up to. It seemed like a generic thing to say, but it'd probably taken him a while to text, and it was touching.

I had a few other things going on in my life (worthy of other blog posts one day, maybe) in the days and hours leading up to Saturday, at 4pm, when we would meet. For so long I still didn't believe it would happen, but as I text him what I was wearing (we wouldn't recognise each other after nearly 30 years apart) those weeds of doubt wilted and blew away. Then the magnitude of the situation hit me. This was actually happening. I was about to meet my real dad. Why was I doing this? Was it really necessary? My heart was racing and I felt sick.

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But I knew I shouldn't shy away from it – just because, at the very least, it would teach me something. Having massive, once-in-a-lifetime things like this happen to you is good. How else would you grow as a person? And how would you be able to cope with the unexpected challenges life throws at you, if you can't handle the expected ones? Life's all about having experiences that make you stronger, yada yada.

So I walked right into the pub, and took a good look around. There were a fair few candidates sat around the bar. A roll-call, in fact, of 50-odd-year-old men, sat alone, watching the world go by. All potentially my real dad. One or two of them looked up curiously, but none of them said hi. I walked around the bar, which was empty, and turned back and... yep, that's probably him, walking slowly towards me, in shades, a misshapen jacket, with a cautious, disbelieving smile, I thought.

"Steven," he said. "Hey, you alright?" I said. "It's been a long time..." he said. "Yeah, ha," I said. A few moments passed. Then the nerves lifted a little. "Fancy a drink?"

We sat down and chatted about what we'd been up to in the past three decades. I told him about my childhood, my career, my friends, and he told me about his stepdaughter, his alcoholism, and the boat where he lives with his wife.

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We also caught up on what happened between him and my mum, back in the day. He'd really struggled with the booze – somehow drinking a bottle of whiskey and a box of wine, every day. "I loved you all but I couldn't kick it. I wasn't good enough," he said. "Your mum made a great decision in taking you away from me. I knew you were in good hands."

After losing his house, his job, and his family, he was determined to kick the habit – and decided it wasn't fair to be in our lives until he had. But he struggled, and the mornings that started with a Stella and nights that ended in the shakes continued for the next few weeks, months, and years. By the time he was sober, I was 16. I'd grown up without him. So that explained the not getting in touch.

As all this was coming out, I couldn't help but notice our physical resemblances – or the lack or them. Our eyes were the same, but that was about it. Different nose, jawline, general build... and I'm still wondering where I get my curly hair from. Our mannerisms and personalities were very different too – but then they would be, wouldn't they?

In the end, it wasn't weird or awkward, at all. It was a pleasant encounter that ended, as it started, with a handshake. Until he came back and gave me a hug. And that was that. A massive thing crossed off my life to-do list, some big lessons learned, and a valuable bit of perspective gained.


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The whisky bottles story

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“Go on Rennie, tell the story,” said Carl. He’d heard it a thousand times, but it was one of his favourites. “Tell it!”

Rennie told Carl to give him a minute by holding up his index finger. The three other people in the room waited patiently, and things became uncomfortable as Rennie took a while to respond. Thick smoke drifted slowly around the upper third of the room.

With his other hand Rennie lit another joint. He must have taken three long drags before he leaned forward in the armchair and mumbled his first words in about an hour.

“I think it was a Tuesday night… right?” said Rennie eventually. His voice was croaky and unconvincing, his eyes half-closed. Carl thought about telling the story himself.

“Come on dude, tell it quick, everyone’s wanting to go out,” said Carl.

“I wouldn’t mind heading out soon man,” said a guy who neither Carl nor Rennie recognised. He’d come over the night before last, when there was a bit of a party, and slept there the next day. No one had asked him any questions. The guy fiddled with the sofa’s torn canvas arms. “I said I’d be out by 10,” he said.

“Rennie…? Rennie!” said Carl. “Come on.”

Rennie blinked a couple of times before he remembered where he was in the story. Right at the start.

“This is seriously worth hearing, guys,” said Carl.

“So yeah, it was a Tuesday night,” said Rennie. “I think.”

Then he went quiet again.


“Me and Carl were, what, about 14?” he continued. “And we wanted to get drunk for the first time,” he said, looking across at Carl. “Right? 14?”

Carl nodded. The guy on the sofa shared a joke with the girl next to him. He peeled the sticker off his beer bottle, and Rennie let his falsetto laughter ring out before continuing the story.

“We didn’t have any money,” said Rennie. “Because, well, because we were 14,” he said.

He took another long drag from the joint and passed it to the guy on the sofa.

“Cheers,” the guy said. He knocked his beer over the coffee table as he went to reach for it, but no one made a fuss. Rennie kept talking.

“So we knew we were going to have to steal some booze, and the best place to do that was O’Reillys at the bottom of the street,” he said.

“You remember O’Reillys?” Carl asked the other three. The guy on the sofa nodded and inhaled. The two girls had only just zoned into the conversation so didn’t really respond.

“We went down to O’Reilly’s at about seven, when we thought it’d be busy and we’d get away with it,” said Rennie. “But when we got there it was totally dead. O’Reilly saw us come in and just stood there watching us.”

“Like he’d been warned about us or something,” Carl said.

“There might have been someone else there, round the corner. I can’t remember, it was a weird layout for a shop,” said Rennie. “Anyway, we knew that all the spirits were close to the counter, where O’Reilly was.”

“He was sort of hunched over the counter, wasn’t he dude? I remember he was wearing that dirty white polo shirt,” Carl said.

“Yeah he looked like a darts player,” said Rennie. “Actually, I think he was a darts player.”

Carl sniggered and took the joint from the guy on the sofa. The guy didn’t look like he was ready to pass it on but he did anyway.

“So yeah, we were gathered over by the milk fridge, where O’Reilly couldn’t see us, but he knew there was something going on,” said Rennie. “And then I remember thinking that it was probably a good thing it was quiet in the shop, because there’d be less chance someone would chase us.”

“We were like, here, by the fridge, and O’Reilly was stood, like, right there,” said Carl. He demonstrated with his hands, and bits of burnt cigarette paper floated down from the end of the joint he was holding, onto the carpet among the different coloured crumbs and the hairy clumps of dust.

“It was so quiet in there. We were whispering about how we were going to do it, but O’Reilly could totally hear us,” said Rennie. “In the end we decided that I was going to talk to O’Reilly and then Carl was going to take a couple of bottles of whisky and leg it out of the shop, and then I’d follow him and we’d both just run away as fast as we could.”

“We’d never touched a drop of whisky in our lives, we had no idea how strong it was. We just wanted to get a little drunk so to me it just felt logical to get two of something,” said Carl.

He offered the joint to the girls on the sofa, but they didn’t want any, so he passed it back to Rennie. The guy on the sofa watched as it changed hands.

“So we went over to the counter, and O’Reilly was watching us every step of the way,” said Rennie. “He knew what we were up to, and to make it even worse I then forgot what I’d planned to talk to him about. I just completely froze up and couldn’t think of anything to say.”

“How things have changed, eh,” said Carl with a smile.

“Well I was scared, really scared. I’d never stood that close to him before. He was just this grumpy old fat guy before, but at that point he looked really big and mean,” said Rennie.

“The next thing I knew the door was open and Carl was gone. And O’Reilly was coming to get me.”

“I was helping you out dude, I could see you weren’t going to say anything to him so I brought everything forward,” said Carl.

“So I turned to run like hell and O’Reilly put his hand on my shoulder and grabbed my jumper really tight. He pulled me towards him so I could see his face up close. I’d never seen anyone so angry, and hairy, and mean-looking. So I panicked. I poked him in the eye and ran out. And when I got outside there was Carl, with two huge bottles of whisky, and he was like ‘come on, run!’”

“Hey dude, you got any more beer?” said the guy on the sofa.

Carl rolled his eyes and said: “Yeah, sure, in the fridge downstairs. Get me one. Rennie, you want one?”

Rennie shook his head.


The girls didn’t respond.

“You know where you’re going, don’t you?” Carl asked the guy, annoyed that this whole thing had interrupted his favourite part of the story.

The guy nodded as he left the room. Carl heard him turn the wrong way immediately but didn’t do anything because he figured the guy was getting another free beer out of it.

“Carry on man,” Carl said to Rennie.

“So we started running away, thinking we’d got away with it,” said Rennie. “But then O’Reilly’s door flings open and he just starts sprinting towards us. He was so fast!”

“It was terrifying,” said Carl.

“He was running like the wind after us, and he wasn’t slow, he was actually gaining on us. This 50-odd-year-old guy who coughed, like, all the time, was gaining on us, a couple of 14-year-olds.”

“And I had both bottles to carry,” said Carl. “You had both hands free to run better. Those bottles were so heavy, man.”

“I think I was running ahead of you, wasn’t I, when he followed us round the corner and towards the park,” said Rennie.

Carl nodded.

“I remember being surprised that he’d actually followed us that far,” said Rennie. “He must have known that place like the back of his hand. It was so dark but he knew exactly where he was going.”

“Well, he lived down there, didn’t he,” said Carl.

“I guess that explains it. I remember trying to run towards the darker bits so he’d lose us, but he just kept gaining on us,” said Rennie.

“And I’d never heard swearing like it. My dad used to swear and shout a lot, but that nothing compared to what O’Reilly was coming out with that night. Do you remember?”

“Not really,” said Carl. “I just remember being really fucking terrified.”

“It was all about what he was going to do to us when he caught us,” said Rennie, frowning as he recalled. “And what he was going to do to our mothers, as well... it was really weird.”

“I think that was the most scared I’ve ever been,” said Carl.

“So O’Reilly started off about a street away from us, but then suddenly he was so close to us I could feel his breath on the back of my neck,” said Rennie. “And we’re getting cut to bits by the hedges, you know, near the park by the factory.”

The girls on the sofa didn’t respond. One of them looked like she was sleeping.

“O’Reilly was getting cut up too, I guess, but he was probably too angry to notice. He just wanted to get his hands on us. I realised I couldn’t keep running so I turned to Carl and said: ‘dude, just drop the bottles’ so he did, straight away,” said Rennie.

He took the last few sharp drags from the joint and dropped it into an empty beer can. The guy came back into the room with couple of beers. “And then we got away,” said Rennie.

“Ah, you got away in the end?” said the guy. “Did he chase you?”

Rennie said: “Yeah, dude, he did.”

“I was buzzing after that night, man,” said Carl. “I don’t think I slept for about a week afterwards. I was worried about O’Reilly coming to my door. Then, when I could sleep, I started having nightmares about him.”

“Me too,” said Rennie.

“Hey,” said the guy, taking his seat on the sofa. “Who fancies some poker?”

They all got more drunk and stoned, and talked about other things for a while.

“OK I’m ready to go out somewhere,” said Carl. “It’s 11.”

Everyone was quick to get their coats and make tracks towards the door. Carl rolled a cigarette and looked up at Rennie, who was deep in thought.

“Rennie come on, let’s go. Just tonight, man, come on. Come out just for tonight,” said Carl.

He started smiling. “Dude,” he said, scratching his head. “Do you think those whisky bottles are still there?”

“Whisky bottles? What whisky bottles?” said Carl. “What, from all those years ago? I don’t know man,” he said, zipping up his jacket.

“Shall we go see?” said Rennie. “It’s not too far away.”

Carl smiled and said: “No, it’s not like we’ve come that far in 15 years… sure, let’s go.”

Carl turned to the others. “Don’t suppose any of you guys fancy heading off the beaten track, do you?” he said. “Nah, didn’t think so.”

Pretty soon after they’d arranging which bar they’d meet the others in, Carl and Rennie were near the park, climbing through row after row of spiky hedges and thorn bushes. The pale moonlight sprinkled through the trees onto the ground, which was reasonably dry.

Carl could still picture exactly where O’Reilly’s bloated figure had stood, with the spotlights of the factory car park shining off his body, pulsating with anger, with fists clenched and arms hanging off his body like he was carrying invisible rolls of carpet.

“There could be all sorts of shit down here, dude,” I said. “I don’t know if this is a good idea.”

“They’ll be around here somewhere. Who else would even come out here?” said Rennie.

“I suppose so,” said Carl. “Dogs, maybe?”

“Dude!” said Rennie. He kicked at something in the dirt.

Carl heard clinking. “I don’t believe it.”

Rennie pulled his phone from his pocket and pointed its screen at the ground.

“No way!” said Carl. “No way.”

The labels had rotted off, and the whisky looked a little darker than it should. Sediment floated towards the necks of the bottles and the glass was covered in soil and bugs.

“Is this shit still safe to drink?” said Rennie.

He looked at Carl and started laughing. Pretty soon they were both hysterical because they knew they were going to sit there and get absolutely wasted in the most ridiculous way they ever had.


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The ducks are going crazy. Jennifer comes at them full stride, the cords of her hoody swinging in a rhythm with her feet springing up and falling down, and her breath passing in and out. The ducks flutter their wings and quack, spinning indecisively as they wonder which way to back off. They eventually scatter themselves more or less evenly either side of the winding path that Jennifer follows towards the bridge. The wind stings her ears, and her ankles ache, but she knows it’ll pass. She picks up the pace as she runs over the bridge. Her trainers make a different crunching sound when they hit the ground, which has changed from tarmac to pebbles.

Two hours earlier she was cleaning her room. She picked the photo frame off the bedside table and wiped its front and edges. With the image now in HD, she thought to herself: you knew this would happen. And then she thought: I know. She knew the smile on her face in the picture was a half-smile. A half-smile on the happiest day of her life. Jordi’s beaming grin didn’t look right, either. Not next to his half-closed eyes. It was as if he was halfway through blinking when the shot was taken, but that’s just how he looked that day. She remembered the smell of whisky on his breath when his uncle Victor twisted the lens of his camera and told them to “say cheese!” You knew this would happen. I know. She shared this conversation with herself for a moment, before she returned the photo frame to the bedside table and moved the dusting cloth to the skirting boards.

Jennifer gets stung and scraped by the tall weeds hanging over the path. She feels sweat on forehead and temples, and her heart’s beating faster, making her dizzy. But she carries on at the same speed, making clouds of yellow dust rise in her wake. On her right is the park, and snapshots of its cricket pavilion and dog walkers are presented to her through the windows of space between the trees that she passes one by one, with every sharp intake of breath. To her left are the locked doors and closed curtains of the backs of people’s houses, and up ahead there’s a gate that’s slightly ajar. It creaks further open in the breeze. The hinges scream over the clinking of tools and the vague sounds of human stirring. When Jennifer passes the gate she turns her head and catches the eye of a man who’s building a birdhouse. He nods and winks at her. She’s seen him before, and it means she’s around 15 minutes into her route. Or maybe more like 13 – this feels like one of her quick days.

She sat there on the sofa with Jordi after dinner the previous night. Their plates on the coffee table were smeared in the crusting leftovers of a meal she’d made sure took a long time to prepare. She was always looking for distractions in the house. A warm yellow glow from the hallway beamed under the door. It fought with the flicker of the TV screen on the wall. They’d been sleeping in separate beds for a while, but now this too was becoming difficult. She looked across at him – at his feet pointed towards each other, his hand positioned limply over his crotch, his head stuck forward as he squinted at the TV – and realised she found even the way he sat repulsive.

Everything’s now running completely in sync. Her legs feel strong, her heart rate has normalised, her breathing is so steady that she could probably hold a conversation if she wanted to. She’s not even really sweating much anymore. Air passes smoothly in and out of her lungs as waves of euphoria crash up and down her back and around her shoulders. She knows she’s been out a long time, but she can go further. Much further. She crosses the road at the traffic lights, and now she’s on the home straight – towards her street, her house, Jordi, the usual. No, not this time, she tells herself. Come on, not yet.

Two weeks ago Jennifer was crying in her bed. It was two in the morning and she wanted to sleep. When she’d started crying, five hours before, she was relieved, because she knew it was possible for someone to cry themself to sleep. But she couldn’t. She just stayed up crying, and awake, like a baby. She’d tried to talk to Jordi, but whenever she brought up a problem that wasn’t a short-term practical one, he’d tend to stare off into the middle distance and then shuffle out of her way at the earliest opportunity. Hearing his footsteps coming up the stairs, she decided to try one more time to summon something caring in him. She couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever looked after her, but she figured he must have done at some point. Maybe if only at the very beginning, when it was all about good first impressions.

“Jordi?” she said.

She heard him climb the final few steps then stop at the top of the landing, outside her room. He pushed open the door and swayed a little.

“What’s up?” he said.

“I need help,” she said. “Can you help me, Jordi?”

He didn’t ask what the problem was, he just rubbed his eyes and nodded.

“I know I’m something, physically at least, but then nothing really,” said Jennifer. She didn’t feel like she was making much sense. But then she couldn’t remember the last time she’d spoken to anyone.

“I feel like I’m someone else’s vague memory,” she said.

“Did you read that somewhere?” he said.

“No, I made it up,” she said.

“Sweet dreams,” he said.

They weren’t.

Jennifer sits on the bank of a river, catching her breath. She’s miles from home. Her feet, ankles and legs – her whole body – have refused to move another muscle. She watches strands of freshly mowed grass float in the water, and thinks about jumping in, as the lonely leaves on the birch trees rattle against damp bark, hissing at her.

About a year before, Jordi came home early from work. He flicked his loafers off at the door and walked into the kitchen, where Jennifer was stood by the fridge. She looked at him and knew instantly what had happened.

“What?” said Jordi. “What is it?”

She sat herself down and closed her eyes. Drumming her fingers on the table, she tried to strangle the rush of impending trouble that fluttered around her body. After a few moments she opened her eyes and saw him reading a letter. It was short, and he quickly returned it to his pocket.

“I’m so sorry, honey. We’ll be OK,” he said.

“How?” she said.

“I promise we will. You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll see.”


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Meeting my real dad for the first time – part one

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I don’t know my real dad. Really, I don’t have a clue who he is. I’ve not met him, not spoken to him – I’ve not even seen a photograph of him for the best part of three decades. Honestly though, it’s fine. Yes it’s unusual, but you might be surprised how little it’s mattered to me over the years. I’m already feeling self-indulgent for having mentioned it, because it often provokes needless pity. However, I’m told that this story is worth sharing, so stay with me here…

Here’s the background. My mum and my real dad got married and had me and my sister. Then, when I was two years old, and my sister six months, his violence and drinking got too much for my mum to handle. One day she took us and fled our home in Moss Side, Manchester, to be closer to her parents in leafy North Yorkshire. Really close, as it happened – we moved into a house right across the street from grandma and grandad. Soon my mum met another guy, who my sister and I have called “dad” since our conscious memories began. He adopted us when we were about six and seven, and that was that. (They’re now divorced too, but that’s another story.)

My mum has never hidden anything about our real dad, and she’s always been happy to answer any questions we’ve asked about him. For example, when I briefly returned to Manchester for work a few years ago, I asked her for our former Moss Side address so I could pay my old stomping ground a visit. On Letchworth Street, near Manchester City’s old Maine Road ground, I spent a rainy afternoon standing outside a two-up, two-down mid-terrace, with cast-iron bars over its door and windows, thinking about what could have been.

Moss Side, Manchester. Image copyright www.snipview.com

But any curiosity about how I was brought into this world never inspired me to get in touch with my real dad. I’ve always thought the burden is on him to make the first move. Surely it wouldn’t be too difficult for him to do so. He knows where my grandparents live, so he could start there – but he hasn’t. Besides, any contact we make would risk confusing all sorts of relationships that have been built in his absence – notably with the man I have always called “dad”.

Then something amazing happened in a pub. I was having a drink with one of my best friends, and ended up talking about everything I’ve just said here. I was sure he’d heard it all before. After all, we’ve known each other since we were 10 years old. But somehow he’d never once been told the story about my real dad – with whom he shares a surname. Yes, I think you know where this is going…

So it turned out we’re second cousins. Totally bonkers, totally one of the weirdest things I’ve known to happen to anyone. Imagine how surreal it would feel to find out your friend’s dad’s cousin’s brother is your dad? We went to scouts together, had to be separated in all of our secondary school classes because we messed about so much, interrailed around Europe, visited each other at university… and we’d been relatives the whole time without knowing it.

After this revelation, I knew that, if I wanted to, it would be easier than ever to get in touch with my real dad. My friend is very much part of the family that my I was (understandably) taken from as a two-year-old, so there have never been so few degrees of separation between my real dad and I. And that’s even more the case now that my friend and I have become flatmates. Living under the same roof for the first time, the subject has cropped up more regularly than ever before.

At a family gathering over Christmas, my friend bumped into my real dad’s brother, who was keen to know what I was up to and what I looked like. Apparently my real dad and I look very similar – not a great surprise perhaps, considering my mum has straight ginger hair, and I… don’t. Crucially, though, he said that my real dad really wants to meet me and my sister.

So that’s it, the first move has been made.

Click here to read part two 


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