My mother, so I’m led to believe, met my father on the rebound. Unfortunately, I am unable to replace this belief with certainty because my mother refuses to talk about that time, other than scatter a few crumbs of information in front of my sisters and I as if she were feeding the birds. I haven’t seen my father in years, since my twenties in fact, when I reconnected with him out of curiosity. My mother left my father when I was four, my last conversation with him at that time consisting of forcing me to choose between him and her. Of course, I chose her. At four years of age, what did I know? Didn’t one always choose one’s mother, as a biological default? How could I know that that choice, at that time, would ricochet around my life, impacting me well into adulthood? More about that later.
From what I can scrape together, unsubstantiated of course, is that my mother was having an affair with a man named Charles before she met my father. Charles had almost urban legend status in my family, a cross between the Abominable Snowman and Roswell. The breadcrumbs of information had my mother pregnant to him, giving birth to a son – my brother – and then adopting him out not long after he was born. My sisters and I always worried that perhaps we’d meet him, go out with him and horror of horrors, sleep with him and marry him, not finding out he was our brother until some routine blood test to do with a pregnancy was taken. There was also talk of a cousin who gave birth to a son at a young age, only to have him adopted out, and we weren’t quite sure whether mothers and sons were being confused in our family mythology.
My mother had met Charles at the Norwood Football Club – also the same football club where she would meet my father – but Charles was seeing another girl. He slept with my mother anyway; I have no doubt that she would have pursued him, hoping that Charles would fall for her and ditch his girlfriend. What my mother did fall was pregnant. And Charles did ditch his girlfriend to see my mother through her pregnancy. After my brother was born and given away, Charles and my mother were together for a short time before my mother called it quits, although I have been unable to find out why, other than the timing being off. They tried a number of times to make the relationship work, and were even engaged for a while before it eventually fizzled out, with Charles moving interstate and my mother moving onto my father.
In an unguarded afternoon of nostalgia, my mother took me to meet him once, although I didn’t know that the Charles I met was Charles until afterwards. My mother was probably fifty-five at the time, only a few years older than I am now. I was twenty-five and at university, a late starter. He lived in a large bungalow a couple of suburbs over from me, which I found weirdly coincidental. He might have been handsome once, but he was old now and quite frail, rugged up in a camel-brown jumper, hand knitted and much too large for him, bony wrists etched with thin purple veins escaping from sleeves. We sat in his front room in the wintry afternoon sun, surrounded by pictures of people I assumed to be his children and grandchildren, my mother gushing and giggling and girlie, while he served us Earl Grey tea in daffodil-yellow china cups, edged in thin gold. We stayed an hour or so, me uncomfortable, my mother not, before we left and my mother closed the book on that chapter.
‘So that was Charles,’ she said we drove off. ‘I’ve told you a bit about him.’
‘Charles?’ I countered, my knuckles clenched white on the steering wheel. ‘The Charles?’
‘Odd that he lives near you,’ she said.
I nodded. ‘Why did you take me to meet him?’
‘If things had worked out, Anne, Charles might have been your father. We could never get the timing right, though. He was seeing someone, then I was. Then I met your father. And that was that.’
I wondered whether my life would have better or worse with Charles as my father. Of course, this is pure speculation. One can never know for sure one way or another.
My mother never did see Charles again. He died not long after our visit. And she didn’t talk about our ghost-brother again, either. That secret, which could be confirmed neither true nor false, was buried along with Charles.
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