When I was ten years old, I found out that my dad was not my dad. My real dad was some guy I’d never met, a bricklayer from Mull who’d met my mum in a nightclub in town one Easter weekend. That was enough, the dad thing, but it turned out that he also had another kid. Rosabeth. Born two years before me. She lived with her dad, who was also my dad, because her mum had run off.
I know what people will be thinking – she’s the reason my real dad didn’t stay with my mum. He already had a child and didn’t want another, or he already had enough responsibility, or he was scared my mum would run off and leave him a double-single dad. I’m going to stop everyone before they start, because that’s not what this is about.
I get it. Stories need sense. Connection, logic, motivation. ‘He did this later because this happened to him earlier.’ But not here. I want to say right now, up front, that this isn’t a nice and neat and psychologically satisfying story. Because it’s not a story. It’s my life. These things happened, and none of them explains any of the other. Sometimes things just happen.
The thing about Rosabeth was, even though she was born two years before me, she wasn’t two years older than me. I was ten, and she was eight, and she would always be eight because she was dead. By the time I found out that I was a brother, I wasn’t one any more.
I didn’t meet up with my dad then. The only reason I found out about him was that I’d been nosing through Mum’s Boring Folder, trying to find something with her signature to copy it on a teacher’s letter. There was a birth certificate, okay, and it wasn’t my dad’s name under ‘Father’. Well, he was my dad, but – you know what I mean. When my mum got home I threw the birth certificate at her and had a proper tantrum. I was such a brat when I was a kid. Then she told me the whole story, which is partly how I know that stories are all bullshit. The story was neat and logical and I hated it. She should have told me her true life instead.
Anyway, then she showed me the letters, where she’d hidden them in the airing cupboard under the spare duvet. She’d had a letter from him every year since I was born. Then for the past four years it had doubled: one on my birthday and one on Rosabeth’s deathday. He never talked about Rosabeth in the letters, except once to say that she’d died. He never talked about anything in particular. But I liked them – the jags of his Ts and Js, the way the lines of words slanted up to the right more and more so that by the end of the letter they were diagonal. I put the letters back in the airing cupboard, because that’s where they belonged. I didn’t need them in my room or under my pillow or anything.
That was it, really. I found out that my dad wasn’t my dad, and for a while I hated him and my mum, and then I went back to school and to my karate class and to my best mate’s house. I got on with things, like you do. Later, I know that people are going to think that Rosabeth being dead, or my dad not being my dad, was the reason that other things happened. But remember what I said. Sometimes things just happen.
There’s a film called Lolita and it’s really sad and creepy. Things happen to her, and it’s extra sad and creepy because she can’t do anything about it. Well, it’s not like that for boys. Things don’t happen to boys because boys make things happen. Poor wee Lolita: only thirteen and she gets used and abused by an old perv. But with boys, when they’re thirteen, it’s exciting because it’s an older woman and not a man.
Older women can teach a boy things, sexual and emotional and life-type things. It’s an important experience for any boy. Most boys make it happen when they’re about fifteen, and that’s what makes them men. Most of them don’t talk about it, though, because it would be disrespectful to the woman and she might get in trouble if people misunderstood. I made it happen a bit earlier than most boys because I’m more mature and I could handle it. I was definitely ready at twelve, but Mrs— my lover, I mean, she wanted to wait for me to come to her. That’s how it works: the woman looks seductive and the man seduces her. Which is what I did.
At first we actually did the tutoring, properly and not just pretending. She’d set me geography questions, true/false and multiple choice and essays. Her perfume wasn’t like the girls at school – they smell like vanilla and chocolate, sweet things. She smelled low and rich. Musky, but good. She’d get me a Coke and watch while I drank it. She’d let the strap of her dress slip off her shoulder, so the curve of her breast showed. I didn’t notice at first because I was doing the questions.
And then one day— See, no. I’m not doing this. I’m making it seem like a story, beginning–middle–end, and it wasn’t like that. It’s true that Mrs— that she was my tutor, and that at first she wasn’t my lover and then later she was. Then even later a few people found out, and she had to leave the school so there wouldn’t be a scandal and a court case, which was really unfair because I wanted it. That whole thing about me being groomed, and her taking advantage, and me being too traumatised to tell the truth – that was a stupid story that my mum and dad had to tell themselves. I’ve read that shit in the papers too, about other people. Beautiful nymphet boys with their tousled blond hair and their little red mouths. Poor, poor boys. I believed it then. Now I see it was all probably made up. Those were old photos in the papers, and by the time it happened they were men, and they wanted it.
It didn’t happen to me. I made it happen. So how could I be a victim, if I wanted it?
I ran away with my dad when I was fifteen. My real dad, I mean. I’d met him by this point – didn’t I mention that? See, if this was a story I’d have to have mentioned that before.
He was meant to have me for the weekend. We were going to Alton Towers. But on the Wednesday before, there he was at the school gates. He looked uncomfortable, a bit shifty, as if— No. I’m doing it again. I didn’t even notice how he looked because I was so happy to see him. He might have been yodelling the national anthem and doing a jig for all I can remember.
We got in his car and drove to the border as if we were going to Alton Towers. I don’t think I even asked him where we were going. I didn’t care. He’d brought me a change of clothes – jeans and a hoodie, cool brands, new ones with the tags still on. The radio was up loud and he was smoking out of the window. We stopped for lunch at a Little Chef. My chips were soggy.
Look – none of this matters. I’m trying to make it a story for everyone who’ll hear it and I shouldn’t do that, it’s a bad habit I’m trying to break. What matters is that I was never missing. I always knew where I was. My dad always knew where I was. We were right there in the car together. So how could I be missing, if two people knew my exact whereabouts at all times? My mum and my other dad didn’t know, and that’s where the fuss came from. It might be nice for them to think that usually they always know where I am – for them to have a picture, a neat mental photograph, at any time of the day or night. But it’s made up. They never know exactly where I am.
Say my timetable is maths, so they close their eyes and imagine me at a middle desk, chewing my pen, frowning at fractions. Ahhh, look at the wee boy, doing his maths. Then they can open their eyes and get on with sending emails or sneakily playing games on their phones or nodding off in meetings or whatever they do. But maybe I’m not there at all. Maybe I’ve gone to the loo, or the teacher’s off sick so we’re in a different classroom. Maybe my timetable was suddenly changed so I’m not in maths at all, I’m in German. Or I’ve got a free period now and I’ve gone into town to look at the shops. What I mean is, they don’t know where I am. They never really know. They like to pretend that they do.
It was only when we’d passed the Alton Towers signs that I said to Dad. I thought he’d just missed the sign because he was too busy driving or flicking ash out of the window. He just mumbled something back. I wasn’t worried or anything – why would I be? He’s my dad. I noticed then that he had a little picture of a girl tacked up on the dashboard, over the speedometer. I knew it was Rosabeth because she looked a bit like me. She was cute. She was halfway through saying something, her mouth in a wonky smile, trying to stick out her tongue. She was wearing a sundress and holding an ice cream that was melting down the cone and onto her hand in merging pink lines. It must have been taken somewhere hot.
I know what people will be doing. They’ll be trying to make this into a story. They’ll be thinking that my dad stole me because he’d lost his daughter. One child lost, one child taken. Well, I’ll say this: he’d decided that we’d all be together years ago, long before Rosabeth died. So everyone should stop making this a story. He’d planned to take both of us to a better life, he told me, so we could all live happily ever after. Down to Dover, then across to Calais, and then the whole of Europe was our oyster. That’s a good story, right? But that’s why it was bullshit.
And then – I don’t know. My dad changed his mind. It was dark by then, and if I’d thought about it I’d have known that my mum and other dad had reported me missing. Except that I hadn’t thought about them at all. I never really thought about them when they weren’t there.
So we were at the Dover port, lights glinting off the inky sea, the thunder-boom of the ferries shifting. We were almost at the front of the queue and it was our turn to drive onto the ferry. Instead of going forward my dad swung the car around, slipping fast and messy between the lines of cars all tooting their horns. He turned away from the port and took me home. I don’t remember us speaking for the rest of the drive back to Scotland. It would be neat to say that I never saw him for the rest of my life after that night, wouldn’t it? But I’m not dead yet, so I can’t say what will happen for the rest of my life.
I know everyone will want to know why he did it. Why he did all of it. They’ll want logic and character motivation. Well, tough.
Eden never said I was her boyfriend. We were seventeen, fuck – we were adults. Why would we bother with stupid words like that? It didn’t even matter. We were so in love, and everyone could see it. It didn’t matter what we called it.
We’d get burgers in town or see a film or skive classes and walk through the park. We’d talk about our futures. Eden was good at futures. She told me about how we were going to get married – none of that conformist shit with diamond rings and seating plans, obviously. We’d elope to Hawaii and write our own vows and get married barefoot on the beach. She’d wear a white bikini and I’d carve her a wedding ring out of the bones of a fish I’d caught. It would be perfect.
There were other futures too. We’d live in a cottage with roses around the door. We’d have two kids: twins, a boy and a girl, called River and Rain. We’d make shitloads of money in finance and then cash it all in and live on a boat. We’d rescue puppies. We’d never get sick or old. We’d be together for ever.
And then – well. The future is a story we tell ourselves, and ‘perfect’ is the biggest story of all. I was never her boyfriend so I never had to be her ex-boyfriend, and worry about all the shitty baggage that went with that. I don’t need that. I’m a lone wolf, an easy rider. That’s the true story— Oh, fuck it, I’m doing it again. There’s no story. She never called me her boyfriend and that’s all.
Why didn’t we work out? We just didn’t. We loved each other more than anyone has ever loved. Then one day she didn’t love me any more.
I wanted to know why, like everyone will want to know why. Eden told her friends that she was bored of me. She told her parents that I wasn’t serious enough about my future. She told her sister that I didn’t appreciate her. She told me that we were better as friends – that I knew her better than anyone – that I was her Best Friend and always would be – that our future was friends, going out for dinner at weekends and sharing love advice and maybe one day adopting brother-and-sister puppies.
People always have to make things into stories so they’re easier. So they can tell them to other people, to get sympathy or a laugh, to try to explain themselves. ‘I only did this because this happened to me.’ But life isn’t like that.
The thing about Eden is that she was really close with her mum and her sister, so she didn’t need me to go with her to get the operation. She didn’t even tell me about it until after. The stomach cramps had mostly gone by then, but she had to wear this big padded nappy thing, like incontinence pants for old people. That’s why she didn’t want me to come round, so I wouldn’t see the nappy thing bulking out her skinny jeans. It looked funny, she said, and she didn’t want me to see. She said it was funny but she was crying a bit too, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry either.
And honestly, this is the one where I stumble a bit. She didn’t do it because we’d broken up, but maybe if we hadn’t … and she didn’t break up with me because she already knew, but maybe if she did know … and it wasn’t the reason why, she didn’t get this baby-fear and suddenly think, Fuck, I don’t want to have kids with this guy, I’d better … And it wasn’t even a baby, she said, just some cells and redness.
By the time I found out I was a dad— No. I’m not going to say that. If I say that, everyone will remember the other bit I said at the beginning, and they’ll think they’re connected. They’re not. They’re fucking not. I was never going to call that girl-baby Rosabeth. That would be stupid and sick. I didn’t even know her. Not Rosabeth, and not the ball of cells, and not really Eden if I’m honest. But she didn’t know me either. If she did, she wouldn’t have been able to walk away like that. If she knew me, she’d love me. Everyone does. My dad loved me so much he went to prison for stealing me. Mrs— My lover, she lost her job for loving me. Not that those things are connected. They’re just other things that happened.
I know everyone hearing this will still want answers. But look at your life. You probably think it’s pretty logical. You do things that make sense, right? You might be a mystery wrapped in an enigma, but still, you don’t do things for no reason. Given the specifics of your life, everything you do is what any sane, intelligent person would do in the same situation.
You vote right because this country is going to shit. You vote left because this country is going to shit. You’re a nurse because your granny was a nurse. You have trust issues because your mum left you on a doorstep. You want lots of kids because you were an only child. You want lots of kids because you had a big family. You hate dogs because a dog once bit you. You became a painter because you had night terrors. You failed your exams because your parents were divorcing.
Because, because, because. I hate that fucking word.
It’s only after the fact that we trace the lines, join dots between things, skip over anything that doesn’t fit. We make stories to account for everything that’s happened. It’s nice to think the world makes sense. It’s nice to think that you make sense. But sometimes things just happen.