From Prim to Improper(8)

By: Cathy Williams


ELIZABETH had grown up knowing precious little about her father. In fact, practically zero, and she had worked out from an early age that questions on the subject were a no-go area. The ‘do not trespass’ sign would go up faster than the speed of light. As she had got older, when the other kids at school pressed her for details, asked her whether her parents were divorced, she had shrugged and changed the subject. Divorced parents would have been easy to deal with. Most of her friends had come from divorced backgrounds. Some had had so many marriages and remarriages within the family, and had collected so many half-siblings and step-siblings on the way, that you would have needed a degree in advanced calculus to work it all out.

The only thing she knew for certain about him was that she must have inherited his colouring because her mother had been very blond. Her auburn hair must have come from somewhere.

Then Phyllis had died and every question Elizabeth had mentally asked herself over the years had been answered, thanks to a cardboard box which she had discovered in the attic of her mother’s house under the piles of stuff, largely rubbish, which she had had to wade through. There had been letters, some faded pictures and, significantly, a name.

With the help of the Internet, it had taken her under half an hour to learn that her father was alive and kicking and living in Somerset, a widower whose wife had died many years previously.

Putting two and two together, Elizabeth had worked out that Phyllis, at the age of thirty-two, had become the most ordinary of statistics—namely someone who had dated a man and discovered she was pregnant with his child. Had she become the butt of her friends’ jokes? Had she had to endure the whispers and sniggers of people who might have been happy to see the blond bombshell brought back down to earth with a bump? People who had gossiped about the woman from the wrong side of the tracks reaching above her station? At any rate, her father had been exorcised from both their lives for ever.

Which didn’t mean that Elizabeth still hadn’t been curious. Which didn’t mean that she didn’t want to slot together some of the jigsaw pieces for herself. Armed with concrete information, she had thought long and hard, taken a few deep breaths and made the momentous decision to meet the man she had never known.

She hadn’t been entirely sure how exactly she would handle this all-important meeting, but just getting away from west London had seemed a good idea. The time spent caring for her ill parent, whilst working flat out in a frantic effort to keep a rein on the household finances, had drained her of all energy. When Phyllis had eventually passed away, Elizabeth had been a walking zombie. The thought of leaving London and the bedsit into which she had been obliged to move had dangled in front of her like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The one thing she had known for sure was that she wouldn’t barge into her father’s house and announce herself as his daughter. Being in the situation in which she now found herself, that had become even more of a certainty for Elizabeth. Her father was a sick man. The shock of discovering who she was could have untold, dire consequences.

The little batch of incriminating letters lay like an unexploded bomb beneath her underwear in the ornate chest-of-drawers in her bedroom.

* * *

The past few weeks had been an exercise in getting to know her father. Despite their wildly different temperaments, they had bonded on a level that was proving to be deeply rewarding. His irascible personality was soothed by her much more even-tempered one, and years of caring for her mother had inured her to the cantankerous demands of the invalid who doesn’t want to be the invalid, the only difference being that James was recovering well, whilst her mother had become progressively worse.

It also helped that she was avid in her curiosity about his life, which thrilled him no end, and super-human in her ability to overlook all his faults, so great was her desire to get to know him. Which, likewise, thrilled him to bits.

When to tell him who she really was? No time seemed like a good time. How would he react? Would the shock kill him? She had tried to talk to his consultant about what could happen should something unexpected happen to James, but the conversation had been so convoluted, and the poor man had looked so bemused that she had given up in the end.

If the shock didn’t kill him, then would he still want her around? Would he still like her? She was tormented by the notion that he might feel as though she had somehow deceived him, and when she tried to think of how she could explain her decision to him her brain became scrambled and she felt sick.

So Elizabeth dealt with the whole sorry situation by largely pretending that it didn’t exist. One day, she vaguely decided, the time would be right, and when that day came she would recognise it and find the courage to do what she was resolutely putting off doing.