It began the day after my 50th birthday. I was nursing a mild hangover when a young woman phoned, told me her name was Tara and that she was my daughter.
“I had your name from a friend of my mother,” she said. “I Googled and found your business website and phone number on the internet. Going by the photo you must be the right age.”
“Sorry,” I replied. “I’m struggling to follow.”
“My mum’s name was Sarah. She was on holiday in Corfu in September 1988.”
A memory lit up. Sarah had been years older than me and eager for a bit of holiday nookie. Suddenly I was taking this young woman seriously.
“How is she?”
“She died eighteen months ago. Cancer.”
“I’m sorry. But what did she tell you about me?”
“It was Jackie told me.”
I remembered Jackie, the friend who had put up with my mate Terry while Sarah and I had our fun.
“Mum wanted a baby, didn’t have a man in her life, and thought the holiday was the right place to try. She always planned to raise me alone.”
“So I’m your dad?”
“I believe so.”
She wanted to meet me. I agreed. She was able to come to London the weekend after next and stay with a friend, so we made a plan for lunch.
The enormity of it sank in. I had two broken marriages, no children from either, and the idea of a family had faded away years before. I didn’t have many friends – there had been three, along with one of my sisters and her husband, at my birthday dinner – and was resolved to life in my one bedroom flat until I went to a care home or a coffin. Now I had a grown up daughter. It made me feel more … significant.
We met by Green Park station and said hullo with a squeeze of hands and awkward smiles. Tara looked like her mother – a prominent, straight nose, dark eyebrows and curly hair – not conventionally pretty but striking. I suggested a nearby Pizza Express and ten minutes later we were at a table sharing each other’s lives. She had grown up in Exeter, happy with a single parent and satisfied with the explanation that her unnamed father had responsibilities to another family. She had gone to Bristol as a student and stayed after graduating, found a decent job and a nice flat in a nice street. She had plenty of friends, went home to her mum once a month while she was alive, and never felt inclined to ask the question that Sarah didn’t want to answer. It was only after her mother died that she wanted to know about her father. A conversation with Jackie led to the revelation that a 38 year-old Sarah had gone to Corfu looking for a young man to make her pregnant. Jackie also remembered my Christian and surnames, both rare enough to make it pretty easy to find me on the internet. For the first time in my life I was glad to have those names.
I told her about myself: parents who had passed away, two sisters, the divorces, the period when I drank too much, the business that survived without exactly thriving, living in a part of the city that was safe but dull. I liked her, and was already resolved to making her like me by being honest about myself. After the meal we took a long walk through Green Park then into Hyde Park, talking about what we did and things we liked. I was impressed that she was into classical music and spoke very good Spanish. She seemed impressed that I can play the guitar and like French movies. We bought coffees in paper cups at a stand near the Serpentine and sat on a bench, talking more and comfortable with each other.
It was late afternoon when we had finished the drinks and she told me she was due to meet a friend. I would have liked to stay with her for longer, but knew this had been a very good start.
“Here,” she said. “I’ll put these in that bin.”
She took my empty cup. I watched a couple of ducks amble along the path then glanced aside to see Tara by the bin, closing her handbag. She smiled at me, returned to the bench and said: “It’s true, we can’t leave our handbags alone.” We walked back to the station together, agreed to speak on the phone soon, and parted with a kiss and a big hug.
“I’m glad you found me,” I said.
“So am I.”
I spent the next few days containing my elation. I began to imagine our next meeting, reckoning I should offer to go to Bristol, or that I could introduce her to her aunts. Then I realised that we hadn’t actually spoken about meeting family, and that maybe I should raise it with her before telling anyone. I decided it was a subject for the next phone call. It came on the following Friday evening.
“I have to apologise,” she said.
“You’re not my dad.”
“Sorry, this was a bit sneaky, but I took your paper cup for a DNA test. It doesn’t match mine.”
“But, what about the time with your mum in Corfu?”
“Jackie told me that you went home at the end of their first week. Then another guy came along. I had his name as well, and our DNA does match.”
“You’re having me on.”
“I’m not. Sorry, you’re a nice man, and I enjoyed last Saturday, but now I know for sure it’s not fair to string you along.”
I managed a goodbye then stood by the phone for half an hour, staring at the wall. I was back to being a lone divorcee with no kids. Except now it hurt.