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Donna’s Men

by Michael E. Lloyd

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Book III: At Home With Robert

Chapter 8: Which Way? Which Way?

I don’t have the will or the energy to transcribe today’s recording yet. And I’ve got far too much on my mind anyway. I’ll do it properly another day.

And I probably rushed away too soon this morning, because of all the emotion that was welling up inside me. Because I still don’t know how Robert managed to seek me out. Or why he decided he had to. And we never talked about what Peter thinks of it all — or if he still knows nothing. And then there’s Ian. I completely forgot about him when I heard the news of Cathy-Jane’s death ...

I need a few more answers before I can decide what to do next. And especially what to say to Graham — if anything. I certainly can’t raise the subject with him tonight, in this state of half-knowledge. No, I’ll be going to bed very early with a nasty headache. And a big box of tissues.

And I must be brave and go straight back to see Robert again tomorrow.

* * *

‘Firstly, Robert — Grandad — oh, this is already so hard ... OK, how did you find out I was a Visitor here? And how did you track me down in the first place? No, wait a minute — I think I can guess ...’

‘Yes, it was through Catherine, of course. And it was actually very easy.

‘She told me that as soon as Wendy and Ian took on the responsibility of bringing you up, she and her whole family honoured their final agreement to remain completely out of your lives. So none of them ever met up again. I do know that Cathy-Jane later got very fair A-level results, and went on to have a happy, uneventful single life — until 2012. But that’s another story ...

‘And while Catherine did indeed break off all further personal contact with the three of you, that did not prevent her Highness from keeping a close continued watch on everything and everybody. And that proved to be a very simple task. Wendy lived in that little terraced house for the rest of her life, until she died — yes, I know all about it now, of course — in 2008. So Catherine was easily able to follow your development — from baby, to schoolgirl, to university student, to research assistant, and then to wife and mother — from a discreet distance, and never “lose sight” of either of you. And after Wendy’s death, she only needed to keep her beady eye on you in your Southgate digs ... with a certain Mrs Yarrow, I understand.’

‘Oh, I don’t believe it! And I thought I’d only ever had one stalker while I was living there!’

‘I won’t pursue that with you right now, Donna. But “Oh!” indeed.

‘So when she phoned me out of the blue, twelve months ago, Catherine was fully aware that you’d been coming here, as a treasured Visitor, on and off for nearly eight years. She said she thinks you had some sort of epiphany in your life in 2009, and began to do a lot of part-time voluntary work. You dropped it after Philip was born, but you started again in earnest when he went off to school. Knowing her, I’m sure that’s all largely correct.’

‘It’s spot on, and it’s very spooky, Robert.’

‘Hmmm. Well, for me the information was perfect. Ian, Catherine and I had quickly decided the only way I was going to be able to break this whole thing to you very gently was first to become your friend, and then play it by ear. And when I discovered you had often taken dictation for other residents at Primrose Garden, I knew it would be easy. I put my name down for a room here, and one came up a few months later, and that was when you and I met at last!’

‘But did you ever wonder whether you should make contact with me at all? Whether you should perhaps just let sleeping dogs lie — as you did with Peter’s diary?’

‘Of course I did, Donna! Over and over again, for many weeks while I waited for this room to become available. But the more I thought about it, the more I decided you had a right to know, and had always had that right. Catherine and the others — with my pathetic acquiescence — had prevented it before. Now I had the chance to enable it. I had to plump one way or the other. Rightly or wrongly, I plumped for telling you.’

‘All right. But why did you make no effort to try and contact me yourself for nearly forty years?’

‘I’ve already indicated why, Donna — at considerable length. Firstly, I’d made a firm promise to Catherine to remain outside the whole affair. Secondly, after hearing all those sorry stories from Walter when I was a lad, I’d never been keen to become a father or a family man. And thirdly ... well, I suspect, in addition to all of that, I was a bit of a coward. But I have to admit that Ian’s phone call changed my heart and my mind at a stroke. Everything changes, Donna. And we men are generally a rather weak and easily influenced breed ...’

‘And what about Catherine? Why did her views on everything change so dramatically?’

‘I think it was a combination of softening and surprise, as I suggested yesterday. Ian was probably quite persuasive in his courageous first phone call to her last year. But she had obviously relaxed her tenacious grip on everything in her domain, and maybe she even felt a small ray of humanity warming her heart. I don’t know. As I’ve said before, my dear, I’m no expert on the opposite sex. Quite the reverse, I’m sure ...’

‘OK, Robert. That all makes sense, even if I don’t like what I’m hearing very much. So let’s move on to Peter. What have you told him about it? Does he already know my name? Did “Jane” tell him her full name when they met in his hotel room? Did he ever discover that you and Catherine were her parents? Had she found out about you? And did ...?’

‘Whoa, whoa ... slow down, Donna! Peter still knows absolutely nothing. I spent a long time, after Ian’s call, wondering whether I should tell him myself. I even consulted Dad about it, and he independently agreed with my view — that we should give you the full picture first, and leave you to decide if Peter should be rescued from his ignorance, or left in happy languor.’

‘All right. That’s clear enough too — and I suppose I should be grateful for your consideration. Now, I have one more big question. Why, after all those shenanigans, did Ian walk out on Wendy and me in early 1982, when I was still only ten months old?’

‘You’ve probably worked that out for yourself by now. He’d never been happy with any of it, as you know. His conscience got the better of him that very first Christmas. So in the new year he told Wendy his decision, put his new plans in place, transferred the joint ownership of the house to her alone, set up a standing order for the mortgage interest and insurance plus a weekly contribution to her household expenses, rented a poky flat that took the last remaining pennies of his income each month, and left her to it, promising he would never discuss you with anybody inside his small family or beyond.

‘He knew Wendy would not attempt to pursue him in the courts, or the whole awful secret would come out. And he really didn’t like the idea of leaving you as he did, but his morality finally told him he had to. Men make strange decisions, Donna. Sometimes they prove to be the right ones. Often they don’t ...

‘And apparently Wendy — who was another only child, remember, and desperate to keep her new life with you intact — then descended into a state of inhibitions and insecurity that was probably only paralleled by my own mother’s. And her pride no doubt prevented her from breaking her vow of secrecy, until those very last moments with you. But I never knew her, of course, so I really can’t say ...’

‘That’s a pretty good assessment, all the same, Robert.’

‘OK. Now, if you decide to accept Ian’s proposals, Donna, and he carries them out, he’ll be at serious risk of prosecution, of course. But he’s willing to take the chance. He’s fairly confident he won’t end up in jail, at the age of seventy or more, and he’s not concerned about any damage to his personal reputation — he reckons that’s a cross he deserves to bear, if necessary.’

‘But those would probably be the least of the complications, Robert! I mean Grandad. Or ... whatever. Surely there would be huge problems for me and Graham, if we had to start the process of getting my birth re-registered, and making sure our marriage was still valid and that Philip’s own identity was not at all prejudiced, and so on? The bureaucracy would be bad enough, but what if some grey presence in the authorities decided to make real difficulties for us?’

‘Yes, we’re all acutely aware of those risks, Donna. And of course there can be no guarantees, and nothing can ever be tested unless it’s tried. For better or worse, I made the decision that you should be given the information and the chance to make your own choices about what to do with it. We know the ball is firmly in your court now.’

‘Who else knows the truth about me?’

‘Nobody still living. Just Catherine, Ian, myself and my father. And he doesn’t even know your name, remember. We’re all sworn to carry the secret to our graves if you don’t wish to take it any further. And our manuscript can go on the bonfire with my full blessing.’

‘OK. I think it’s time-out time again ... Grandad. There’s nothing more I really need to know about you or any of the others, right now. And I have no idea how long I’ll be away, so don’t hold your breath. But when I’ve decided what I’m going to do, I’ll came back and see you again.’

‘That’s all any of us can expect, Donna. But can I ask you one tiny question?’

‘Well, I’m really not sure I need any more of this right now. But ... oh, I suppose so. What is it?’

‘May I just have a little kiss?’

‘Oh, Grandad! Of course you may .......’

‘Thank you. But please don’t cry, Donna.’

‘I’m not crying for myself. I’m crying because you should not have had to ask ...’

‘Well, I’m happy now. But try not to be too hard on me, as you think it all through. I’ve never done this sort of thing particularly well, as you know, and I hope you’ll eventually forgive me for my rather unheroic part in it.’

‘I’m working on it, Grandad. I’m working on it. And I’ll see you again — sometime. Meanwhile, can I have a kiss from you now?’

‘Oh, Donna ...’

* * *

I’ve been thinking about this all day, of course. Philip’s fast asleep at last, and Graham’s watching the football on the TV. Hah! I’m not usually grateful for that ...

I still haven’t said a word to him. Because I just don’t know what to do.

If Catherine had not made that “10% risk decision” and had chosen instead to reveal Peter as my father, I would probably not even be here. Any number of agencies might have demanded an abortion. Or there might have been no possibility of a formal adoption, and who knows where I’d then have ended up? So if my grandfather and my father both owe their existence to Hitler’s evil deeds, I owe mine, in addition, to Catherine’s and Cathy-Jane’s exquisitely twisted moral codes ...

Robert’s a good man. He’s been weak at the moments when he should have been strongest, but he’s a well intentioned grandfather and uncle. I can’t undo my recent, absurd relationship with him. But I could choose to forget it ...

But everything else is much, much looser.

What good might come of letting Ian open this whole thing up? Try and be positive for a moment, Donna!

Well, I’d get to know the other senior members of my real family, and a lot of the younger ones too, over time. But how badly do I really want any of that?

There’s my (great-)grandfather Walter: one hundred years old now, and a fine salt-of-the-earth father and tradesman, it seems — even if he had little idea of how to handle his relationship with Peter after baby Jane’s death. He sounds very keen to meet me and my own family. I think I’d enjoy meeting him. And he surely can’t have much time left to realise that new dream ...

What about Peter? Living in bliss in Antigua, and still completely ignorant of any of this. For him, I simply do not exist. And he’s now sixty-eight years old! Would he care at all about me? Would he want to see me? Only out there, if I was willing to travel? How could I afford that? But perhaps he would be willing to pay. Or might he want to come back here to meet me, provided he was at liberty to return? Would the poor man get terribly screwed up with the stunning news, and feel he somehow had to “apologise” and make recompense for something and nothing? That would be quite awful, because everybody’s right — he’s completely innocent. And even worse, could there potentially be huge legal complications for him if it was all revealed? But above all, do I want to have a father of my own, after all this time? And do I really want that man? Robert told me a lot of rather unattractive things about him, especially his lack of interest in family affairs. But he did make that big provision for his father’s healthcare, so he certainly isn’t all bad ...

And then there’s Ian. Even older than Peter, living a quiet life in London but plagued by his guilt, which I suppose is admirable. But do I need an adoptive father who’s basically just trying to make up for his own original sin? Do I even want to meet him, after all? And does he really need to open everything up to public view, now that he’s purged his soul to Robert ... and indirectly to me?

Yes, there could be great joy in meeting each of those men. But at the same time ...

And I mustn’t forget dear, kind Sally. I’d certainly love to get to know her! And if we did let the whole thing come out, there’d be no women left for me to turn to, apart from her. But I’m sure she would actually be the perfect person to help me through it all ...

Yes, no women except Sally. Because I’m certain there’s one character I really never want to meet, despite her recent change of heart. I’d only believe in that if and when I saw it for real, and long-term, and I’m not minded to conduct that particular experiment! As far as I’m concerned, Catherine can simply waste away, whichever path I choose to follow.

But that’s just ridiculous, of course. I can’t expect to control her actions any more successfully than I can manage my own judgment of people! If I allow Ian to take this thing forward, I’ll have to buy into Catherine’s “estate” as much as everything else that comes with the new family. And I suspect she’ll turn out to be a very long-lived old bird.

But what about the real downsides? What about my Graham? He’s such a caring and considerate husband and father. He’s completely undeserving of such a shock to his system. But on the other hand, he’s strong enough to take the strain and help me make it through.

And that leaves our little Philip. What should he eventually be told? If anything? And when? Well, it would all have to follow naturally from the due processes, wouldn’t it? And that could do him as much harm as good. Or the other way round. Whichever, he’s the most innocent of us all.

And as for how we’d actually handle any revelations ... could we conceivably tell just a few, carefully selected people about all of this, and keep the secret from the rest, for ever? That feels quite impossible. How would we decide? Would the authorities go on the Yes list or the No list? If we didn’t tell them, we’d be limited to a few, probably unmanageable little confidences that would soon blow up in our faces after a careless word or three, and then there really would be trouble for everyone. But if we did make it official, how on earth could we then keep two stories alive, in parallel?

No, that answer’s perfectly clear to me now. At last I can make one basic decision. It will have to be all or nothing. We either tell everybody what I’ve just discovered, and we all take the pleasure and the pain ... or I resolve, like so many others before me, to say nothing and just move silently and secretly on ...

All or nothing, Donna.

So what does Robert really expect me to do now? Wave my own magic wand, land on both feet, and live happily ever after like David or Oliver or Elizabeth or Fanny? This isn’t Dickenstown or Austenville, dammit! It’s closer to Dostoevskyburg!

And what’s my own name, dammit? Donna Wilkins? Donna Burgess? Donna Kerr? Or even Donna Kerr-Horten??

What would you do, Albert? Or your self-effacing Meursault?

How about you, J-P? Or your sell-out Roquentin?

And you, Molière? And our famous Alceste?? Do I run away from this, and prolong the conspiracy? Or do I turn and fight, and give the world my trust again?

And what did I do to deserve this dilemma, anyway? Answer: nothing!

Why did you have to tell me, Robert? WHY DID YOU HAVE TO TELL ME?

Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. Lloyd

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