WRITTEN BY DELLA GALTON
The first time I met Marcus, my brother, he brought me a sunflower. It danced in its blue pot.
Marcus swayed a little, too, in the sunshine – he was very tall, and I was to learn that he could never stand completely still. It was as if he wasn’t quite comfortable with his height.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, indicating the sunflower. “I was going to get you a bouquet but I like flowers that breathe.”
He smiled at me and I was smitten. As we stood there, face to face, for the first time in our lives, even though we were both in our mid-twenties, I thought how vulnerable he was.
Even though he was a grown-up – we were both grown-ups – we were also children meeting for the first time. And I ached for our lost childhood.
The moment I first met Marcus was full of regret as well as hope. I’d wanted a big brother my whole life. I used to fantasise about having one when I was a kid. He would teach me how to swear and rescue me from bullies at school. I was a bit of a loner when I was small.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like it is in books.
I didn’t grow up thinking there was always something missing, although I did sometimes wish I would find out I was adopted. That really I came from some large family – preferably one that lived in the country and had loads of horses – and that one day they would come and find me and whisk me off to my rightful home.
“Camilla, darling,” my real mum would say. “Whatever are you doing here? Hop in the Rover,” and in I would hop and the Rover would be full of riding hats and dogs and it would smell of horses and it would have a red rosette dangling from the rear view mirror, and back we would go to our forty-acre estate.
This was only fantasy, because really Mum and I lived in a two-up two-down council house in the middle of East Howe – the kind of estate where people are more likely to have a rusted-out car in their front garden than flowers.
Now here was Marcus holding out this crazy swaying sunflower, and it was as if the whole world rejigged itself and when it fell back into place it was in a different order.
Yet I could feel the ache of tears in my throat. I knew what Marcus wanted – I could see it in his eyes, even then.
I guess it was what I’d wanted too when I’d gone in search of our father. I’d wanted the TV moment, like when the mum who gave up her kids at birth says she’s never stopped thinking about them… or that she’s bought them a birthday card on every birthday even though she’d nowhere to post them to. And she kept them all in a drawer by her bed.
I wanted the hugs and the high drama and the recognition, and I knew Marcus wanted that too. I knew he wasn’t going to get it. I guess I couldn’t bear it on his behalf.
Still, all I said as I took the sunflower from him and stuck it on the floor beside my chair – we were in the Slug and Lettuce – was, “Thanks. It’s, um, great.”
Yeah – I know – a really profound thing to say when you’ve just met your brother for the first time.
We sat down and Marcus twiddled with the salt pot. I wished I’d bought him a present, but all I had was a dog- eared photo of our father.
I pushed it across the table.
He stared at it eagerly and I knew he was doing what I’d done when I’d first seen our father: looking for a resemblance, looking for something that filled in the blanks of the past.
That’s what it’s like if you’ve never known your father. There’s a blank space where his face should be.
There’s a faded snapshot in your mind, a couple arm-in-arm and you can see your mum’s face but not your dad’s. It’s a rootless, aimless, empty sort of feeling.
Marcus stopped looking at the photo. He had a small frown on his face.
“Do you think we have the same nose?” he asked.
I didn’t want to give him false hope. Our father’s genetics weren’t all that apparent in either of us; it was as if we’d both sprung from nowhere.
I didn’t want to tell Marcus that actually he might come to find that a relief. At least, I didn’t want to tell him that then. Not when he had all that hope in his eyes.
“So how much did the tracing agent tell you?” I said, wondering if they’d been as incompetent as the one I’d used when I’d tracked down our father.
“Only basic stuff.”
Marcus had a low, gravelly voice. I wanted to ask him if he’d ever thought of being a rock singer, but I didn’t know him well enough. Wasn’t that an odd thing? Not knowing your big brother.
Mum would have said it was a conundrum. Mum was big on words, even though we did live in a crummy place. Mum said words could set you free and in a different life she’d have been a famous writer.
That’s if she hadn’t had to work in Tesco, what with bringing me up alone and needing the cash. Maybe I get my imagination from Mum.
Marcus stopped fiddling with the salt pot and gave me a blast of his dark gaze.
“The tracing bloke said Dad had been living in this area until two years ago. But when he spoke to you, well – that sort of bypassed the rest. I stopped looking because you said you could tell me all the stuff I wanted to know.”
“I can,” I said, “but it’s not that pretty.”
“It’s OK, Kelly.”
I jumped. For a moment there I’d still been Camilla in the back of a Land Rover. Why was he calling me Kelly?
“It’s really OK,” Marcus was saying. “I wasn’t expecting the happy ever after.”
“He got done,” I said. “For aggravated burglary. He got four years because it wasn’t a first offence.”
“Right,” Marcus said. Now he was nodding and I really did wish I hadn’t had to tell him all that because it doesn’t matter how much you think you’ve prepared yourself. No one wants to track down their father and find out the only way of seeing him in a hurry is to get a visiting order.
Prisons are odd places. Before I ever went in one, I imagined them as grey stone buildings with long corridors and draughty barred cells.
They’re not like that at all. Well, I suppose the cells might be draughty and barred, I never got to go in one, but the meeting room where you saw who you were visiting was really quite nice.
It was well lit and bright, it even had a few pictures on the walls (they looked like kids had done them, but they were cheerful enough) and the tables where you sat were modern and they’d spaced them out so you could get a bit of privacy, which I thought was a nice touch.
I mean, who wants to talk to their dad when the whole world’s listening?
Especially when it’s only the third time they’ve ever met him – well, third time in my case. It was Marcus’s first time, of course.
I turned my chair round the other way, once I’d introduced them, so Marcus could have a private chat. I’d offered to stay outside, but he said he’d wanted me there.
So I fiddled with my bag which had hardly anything in – I’d tidied it out because of the search on the way in – and I drifted off on another little fantasy.
In my fantasy our dad was saying, “You do know this is all a stupid mix-up. I shouldn’t really be here. My solicitor’s sorting it. I’ll be out by the weekend. And the first thing I’m going to do is take you kids for a slap up meal.”
In my fantasy Marcus replied, “It’s so great to meet you and Kelly. Did she tell you I’m going to move up here just as soon as I’ve rented out my flat in Torquay? I think we’re going to be seeing quite a bit of each other from now on.”
I’m not sure where Mum was in my fantasy – I couldn’t see her going out for cosy dinners with me, Marcus and Dad.
After all, Dad had left her when I was still a babe in arms and never paid a penny’s maintenance, which was, Marcus had told me, pretty much what he’d done to his mother too.
Marcus was eighteen months older than me. Dad had left his first little family in Torquay and legged it to Milton Keynes, soon after Marcus was born.
I looked back at Marcus and Dad. They didn’t have the same nose. They didn’t have the same colour hair either, though I suppose they might have done once. Marcus had brown hair and Dad’s was grey and going thin on top. They could have been two strangers.
It must have been disappointing for Marcus.
It must be harder for a boy to find out he doesn’t look like his dad than it is for a girl.
I’d imagined Marcus saying as we walked away afterwards, “Well, I’m glad I only inherited his looks and not his jailbait personality.” But he couldn’t even do that now, could he?
With a little start I realised Marcus was getting up – surely it wasn’t the end of visiting already. But yes, it was, I saw, as I glanced at my watch.
“Right, then,” Marcus was saying. “Better get off…”
“Yeah,” Dad was saying. “Well, cheers for coming and that…”
There was goodbye stuff going on all around the room. Some people were hugging.
Dad was walking away. Then he stopped.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” he said, looking back. “I’d have made things different if I could. I really would.”
It was then it struck me. His height had triggered the memory of a sunflower dancing in the breeze. I’d only ever seen him sitting down. So he and Marcus did have something in common.
Marcus had noticed it too. I could see my brother looking after him, a sad look on his face.
“We can come again if you like,” I said, when we were outside and the guard had locked up behind us.
“It’s a long way, Kelly,” he said, and he shrugged his coat tighter around him.
“He’s not worth it, probably.” I said, staring at the Tarmac car park, not wanting to see his disappointment.
“No, but you’re worth it. Hey, don’t look so sad, little sis. I’d do the two hundred miles for you in a heartbeat.”
“Really?” I couldn’t manage more than one word, I was so choked.
I loved it that he said “little sis”. He’d said it once before.
It put me in mind of Land Rovers and riding hats, for some reason, and it made me feel protected and safe – not just from bullies, but from the disappointment of finding out you have a less than ideal father. But I guess that could happen to anyone.
“Maybe I could drive down and see you too,” I managed at last.
“That’d be cool.”
He’d said he hadn’t been expecting a happy-ever-after and he hadn’t got one.
Yet I was still smiling as we walked out of those prison gates into a sky that was streaked pink and sunflower-yellow – because real life sunsets are like that, aren’t they? Not quite what you are expecting.
Not quite like the fantasy sunsets – but still sunsets, nonetheless.
I thought, yeah – we’ll be OK.
Marcus and me. Finding Dad might not have been all it should have been, but finding each other had its own kind of happy ever after.