The message came through to me in August, 2018. It said, simply:
Hello Simon — it might surprise you to learn that I already know of you — and yes, we are related. In fact, we are half-brothers. Welcome!
I spent some time trying to contact you a few years ago — but no luck. Your aunt was vague on the contact details.
We should talk.
People always look at me askance when they ask if I knew I had an older brother and I say that I am not sure. Adrian did so himself. Didn’t I tell him I knew of him at one point?
Our misunderstanding of the nebulous came via one of our many conversations, the first of which occurred 30 minutes after we met online that first day, which didn’t feel too surreal, surprisingly.
I have a vague recollection that my mother thought Joe may have been married before and had another child. Of course, what I couldn’t have known back then was that my father would have seven children with five women and be dead — exhausted presumably — at 53.
And here was the first, discovered after a languorous look on a genealogy website. I had been desultory at best in my attempts to find my father or any of his offspring. The smear campaign against him had been so efficient and widespread, guilt long induced by mother and stepfather, that I had for most of my life only scratched the surface of the many skeletons pulling on me to dig up their bones.
But I had, at 40, discovered the tally was probably seven kids, five women. That was nearly 17 years ago. I had even met Sally, the half-sister whose mother Joe left mine for, but she had been so disturbed by the confusing feelings our meeting raked up, she soon disappeared from view. I have neither seen nor heard from her since despite several attempts.
I later connected with Becky (thanks to Adrian’s research), my other half-sister, and heard that another brother had died from alcoholism while her own full brother was drinking heavily in Spain. I contacted him, but he seemed angry and wary, not wishing to share memories of our old man with anyone else.
That just left my own full brother from the second of the five relationships. The last time I saw him he grabbed me by the throat and pushed me against a wall for suggesting that we did have a father apart from the one who raised us. This time it was my turn to disappear from view.
When you are used to loss you learn to live with such comings and goings.
Adrian, six years older than I and a successful academic and artist in Australia, had been more committed in his endeavours in finding his roots, was well versed in DNA and haplogroups, tracking our paternal ancestors for thousands of years into the Caucasus, then via Italy, France and finally to Ireland.
But what of Joe, the film star father with the easy Irish charm, the barroom crooner — Sinatra-style — and (some say reluctant) collector of women’s knickers as they flew through the air toward his beating heart, pulsing cock and black shined shoes? For he was always immaculate, insisted on pressing his own shirts, and looked like he was covered in Hollywood gloss. But where the fuck was he? In fact, who the fuck was he? No one who came out of Limerick, via Dublin looked like that. There was talk at one point that he was the son of the poet WB Yeats.
He possessed a keen intellect, could talk on any subject and found himself the centre of any room he wandered into.
No-one knew anything about him. It was one of the prime worries for my maternal grandparents. a vicar and his wife who remained oblivious to any failings of their own regarding their tender but wilful daughter. Older man, probably been married before and also a catholic!
We English can’t have that! Still, their concerns were not without foundation.
It is ironic that upon only minor investigation it would seem my protestant family also seemed to hail from Ireland and may be less protestant than they think.
Long after Joe’s death there were few scant stories, the truest being that his mother had to leave her village in disgrace, had him in Dublin and gave him away to a childless English couple who would visit The Gresham Hotel, where she worked as a chambermaid, and kept her newborn in a wardrobe drawer.
Dispossessed himself, he would become one of the great marching army of post-divorce fathers who disappeared, putting his head in the lion’s mouth for bitter badmouthing if not a complete chewing off.
Life had fucked him; he had fucked a lot of others; and eventually he had fucked off. But in 1950s’ London, all of this remained in an unimagined future as he charmed the vicar’s teenaged daughter, the woman who would soon be his second wife, bearing him two sons.
Years later, as he wasn’t there to defend himself, I took the job upon myself, picking up the baton held out by my father’s invisible hand, drinking and carousing as I got older, confused by the hateful, hurt words, saved only by pointers that arose from my unconscious and a deep knowing that for all his faults, my father was not a bad man. A lost one, certainly. But not a bad one.
How did I know? How did I know that Joe was not the devil painted by my choir-singing grandparents and their daughter?
Quite simply, I felt it, I knew it in bones and soul and after my father left us very nearly died of grief. My godfather knew him too and brokered some balance. I had also, of course, known him during my first few years.
But I had also made the worst of mistakes — I looked just like him and was, unwittingly, a thorny reminder of things best forgotten and finally a handy scapegoat.
Amid the crushing confusion and pain, the shame of having to lie about my parentage at school, holding up the stepfather as father, my little body nearly burst with sadness and fury. Fights erupted in playgrounds, bullies were vanquished and — on the few occasions I dared whisper the truth to a trusted friend — I was engulfed by a crippling fear that would often bear its dark fruit when I was found out.
For this was a dictatorship and like Pol Pot’s Cambodia, there was a year zero. All that went before it was erased from history along with its cast of characters, namely Irish Joe who had been told his boys were headed for a new life in Australia and so, ‘in everyone’s best interests’ he had better sign the adoption papers.
An adoptee himself, his own roots ripped out long ago, Joe’s choice was clear. He spent a month behind closed curtains weeping and drinking, drinking and weeping while his badness was extolled like a lucky escape for his sons and an ever-spreading band of listeners.
His destruction was complete. Almost. Laid low by his own excesses and a deadly diabetes, he would have children with five women in his desperate search for the love that never found him and a final escape from the adoration that tempted then finished him.
He died at 53 (I am repeating it as I am still surprised), just a mile from where I was working — although neither of us ever knew it or saw one another again. The doctors had amputated his feet, which may have gone some way to explaining why he was only six stone.
It would have been great to say he died with his boots on. Instead, he died with his feet in a bucket. Final and most fitting emblem of an ungrounded man.
One of his many women, Sally’s mother, helped nurse him until the end although had sensibly and perhaps tragically stayed with the dull husband whom — she said perhaps rightly — deserved better.
But all of this was still to come. None of this was known to me back then, although I did know my Irish catholic father – who was adopted and raised in England — and my mother, born in India to missionaries who later fled to England after Gandhi was killed, shared a birthday with each other and with the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Could it have been any more perfect? Twin souls within a holy alliance blessed by the mother of God. You couldn’t make it up.
For Venus, it was one of her greater achievements. Like Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Adam and Eve and a whole pantheon of other lovers, they belonged either on the pages of literature or high in the heavens where soul love could prosper.
Where they did not seem to belong was on Earth.
It was a truth about doomed romance that, like my father, I would have to find out the hard way.
In Australia, meanwhile, my brother has been busy tracking down our paternal grandfather back in Ireland.
Finally, he has a name and finally the skeletons may stop turning in their graves and rest in peace.
Perhaps it is about time I went over to Ireland. This story isn’t over yet.
copyright Simon Heathcote