I'm not actually his father, just his step-father. His real Dad, Gordon, lives in Belgium and he hasn't seen very much of him for years. I've got to know Gordon quite well over the years and he's a nice enough guy – I took the photos for his second wedding. But he was obviously absolutely hopeless as a father to Tim. He used to bully him to toughen him up because he reckoned he was a wimp and I think that's at least partly why Tim grew up with a constant need to prove, to himself and to everyone else, how tough he was. He's a voracious reader, which is good, but I used to worry that he spent as much time as he does reading about the horrors of war and other violence. It became quite an obsession for a time. I thought maybe he was training himself to deal with suffering without flinching.
When I married his mother, Tim was a young adult, living at home and attending college. For the first few years he and I had an awkward relationship. I didn't know quite how to pitch it and I guess neither did he. I'm younger than his mother, roughly halfway between her age and his. Eventually I think the relationship settled into elder brother mode which seemed to work relatively well but even then it wasn't always smooth, especially when Amanda and I had a few early-years hiccups in our relationship – and Tim didn't like it that I was making his mother unhappy. Well, I couldn't complain about that – I didn't like it that I was making her unhappy either. We've been married twenty years now and we, and Tim, have got over that problem.
After he finished his college course – he passed all his exams with flying colours – he went on to a further course, which involved moving into digs. Once he was not living here, our relationship gradually improved. We're not close friends, like buddies, because our worlds are rather different, but we do share some interests in common and it's nice to spend some time together talking photography, or computers, or whatever.
Of course when you grow up you stop being a child, but you never stop being a parent. So Amanda worries about Tim all the time, especially when we don't hear from him, or when we do hear from him and he seems to be on a bender. I worry about him too.
He moved through the education system, gaining one certificate after another. When he finally completed his certificate collection, he started climbing the ladder towards a high income. He's now extremely well qualified and he changes job easily. He has a great interview technique, a glowing CV (that's a résumé to you foreigners...) and winning charm. He took jobs for a year or two, gaining experience, and then selling that experience to the next employer who paid him much more than the last one. He now earns maybe five times what I do.
One of the jobs he took put him in Oxford running the IT department for the big hospital there. He got me some work doing some software training for the admin staff, so I got to know some of his colleagues, including his personal assistant, a girl called Susan.
One day we got a call from him announcing out of the blue that he was going to marry this Susan. It turned out that she'd told him a sob story about how she was in financial difficulties and couldn't keep up the payments on her house since her husband had left her with their infant son, and that now her house was going to be repossessed and she'd be out on the streets soon. Our Tim, (who is really not a tough-nut at all when you get to know him, he's a real sweet kindly soul but he doesn't want anyone to know that) immediately invitied her to move into his house for a while until she got herself sorted out.
She jumped at the offer and moved, not so much into his house as into his bed. After which Tim felt obligated to marry her. He's kindly and old-fashioned. Don't tell anyone I told you that, though.
We talked to him and established that he wasn't actually in love with her or anything, so we tried to dissuade him from marrying her. He wouldn't throw her out of his house, so we suggested he should leave instead – it would have been better than committing himself so drastically. But he wouldn't listen and the wedding went ahead.
Well, to cut that long story short, their marriage was awful and he put up with it for the little boy Daniel's sake, and then also for the sake of his younger brother Jacob Adrian, born a year later. Jake is named after me, which is the nicest honour anyone has ever done me (my name is Adrian). Eventually Tim couldn't stand it any more and left, and got a flat – and another new better-paying job, in London. He spent every other weekend with the boys, either at his flat or here. So we got to see quite a lot of them during that period.
Time went on and we found out by chance that he'd shared a hotel room in Scotland with a married woman. Tim certainly prevents our life from ever becoming boring. Straight away we were on the phone to him, trying to stop him making another big mistake, and it turned out that at least part of the rumour we'd heard was wrong. She wasn't married. And Claire the Australian became part of our lives. She was a lovely girl and Tim was clearly in love. They were good together and it was great for us to see Tim happy at last. The boys loved Claire too.
So what went wrong? It wasn't Claire that held back, she wanted to get married. They holidayed in Australia together and he met her family and they all got on well together. But he was afraid of commitment. And he recognised that he'd become a bit of a control freak, and couldn't cope with the fact that Claire was hopeless with money. She let it run through her fingers – she earned a good wage but was always short. And Tim couldn't handle the idea that, once married, she would do the same with his money. So years went by and he would never agree to marry. Eventually they started arguing and she moved out. Then, and only then, he realised how much he loved her and that he needed to get his priorities sorted. Better poor and happy than wealthy and alone... and he tried to get her back, and asked her to marry him. But it was too late and they parted.
Of course Tim was inconsolable and we really worried for his mental stability. Amanda went up and stayed with him for a while to help him through the worst of it.
He switched jobs again, taking a job outside London for the first time in years. And almost as soon as he started his new job he discovered an interesting fact about the company – they had an office in Sydney, Australia, and were having difficulty providing IT support for the Sydney office. He made a snap decision and offered to go to Australia as the local IT guy. After some negotiations they agreed to his proposal and he announced it to us as a done deal. Of course we were against it – his boys would be devastated – but there was nothing we could do to dissuade him. One point that struck me was that he was taking a big drop in salary to go to Sydney. For the first time in ages he was acting on a motivation that wasn't money. I wondered what that motivation might be. I knew he'd liked Australia when he visited with Claire, and we understood he might need a complete change after the trauma of breaking up with her, so maybe that was it. We hoped it would make him happier. Of course all we ever wanted was for him to be happy.
So off he went to Australia in November last year. He wouldn't commit himself on how long he planned to stay, but he didn't have an indefinite visa so he'd have to return at some time. He indicated it might be a year or eighteen months.
At Easter time this year he came over for a week to see the boys. We'd been having them over for holidays, trying to fill in for Tim's absence, but of course nothing replaces your father. It was probably as bad for Daniel who's sixteen, and has now been abandoned by two fathers, as it was for Jake who's eleven, because he's younger and needs his Dad.
When he came over we were shocked to find he didn't bring the boys anything as a gift, not a souvenir, not a cool sweatshirt, nothing. In our family when we've been somewhere we always bring little things back for the family members left behind. It seemed so selfish and thoughtless of Tim to act that way. We worried (don't we always?) that his bachelor life in Oz was making him self-centred. Of course the boys were just glad to see their Dad again and they had a nice week together, staying at our house so we got to see a fair bit of them. Lots of tears, of course, when they had to say goodbye.
Tim announced about three months ago that he was planning another trip over to see the boys at Christmas time. At about the same time he announced he loves Australia so much he's planning to stay permanently. More anguish on our part over that. As far as we knew he hadn't told the boys.
We can tell when he's fine – we can't get in touch with him. We phone and leave messages, send texts, e-mails, letters, whatever, and he never replies. So we assume he's okay and it seems he is. We don't hear from him until we get an incoherent phone call at some odd time and he's rolled out of a bar somewhere, blind drunk, and decided to phone. But he can't string a sentence together. So Amanda gets panicky about him again, assuming the worst.
When he phones us, it's often because he's got something he needs help with. Sometimes practical help because he's got some paperwork, to do with his UK affairs, that needs attention, sometimes because he's miserable about something – usually he says he's lonely. This one time a couple of months ago he dropped another bombshell. He'd met a girl in Indonesia on the stop-over on the way back after his Easter visit and they're going to get married.
When we finally calmed down enough to think rationally about this news, we realised there were things that needed saying about this. So Amanda and I discussed it as calmly as we could, and decided that I would write a carefully-worded e-mail to him. He'd gone back to not answering the telephone so this seemed the best way. This is what I wrote:
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Hi Tim, Hope you're okay and you've got the mail I forwarded to you recently. Is it right you're thinking of getting married again? We want nothing more than for you to be happy and we really hope you can achieve that. Forgive me for speaking bluntly but your past partner choices haven't always been your greatest triumphs... so the commonly-given advice that you should be sure you know your intended REALLY well before committing yourselves to each other seems appropriate. Similarities, in upbringing, culture, opinions, age, and other areas, are a benefit when forging a long-term relationship, while differences in these are a hindrance. There are a LOT of horror stories doing the rounds in the UK of western men who have got themselves in trouble when they've found that they got more, or less, than they bargained for when they've married a girl from south-east Asia. Stories about finding themselves expected to support a large extended family back home, or of finding that once the girl has got residence rights in the UK or another prosperous country she wants nothing more to do with her husband. Please don't be offended, of course we don't know the girl you're interested in and have absolutely no reason to think she is anything other than perfect. But it's exactly because we don't know her that we're worried for you. Maybe we don't need to be offering you advice, you're a wise and experienced adult (!) but we can't help our love for you and that's what you do when you love someone. If you do go ahead and marry, I'm sure it will be because you have got to know her really well and taken the trouble to learn the differences between her culture and yours and are happy to accommodate those differences. Of course in the 21st century global culture many people from different parts of the world find they have few cultural differences. Perhaps that's the case with you. We don't know. I promise I will be happy for you and will love her for your sake and will be keen to meet her and welcome her into the family. Your mother says you won't re-read this e-mail. So re-read it to prove her wrong. Please. Unconditional love from Mum and Adrian.
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I couldn't think of anything else to do – he wouldn't talk to us on the phone so putting our concerns for him in writing might work. And to our surprise a few days later I got a reply:
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LOL Everything you say is absolutely spot on Adrian. You don't marry an Indonesian girl, you get the girl when you marry the family, its a cultural thing, and be absolutely prepared to have the in-laws living with you too! Dowrys are mandatory - it's all very different. The bit about just getting a visa is obviously a worry, but tends to apply more to poor people from the country rather than urban Indonesians I believe. To be honest I think it is practically impossible for me to get her a visa to Oz at the moment anyway, so nothing is imminent. I'll be going back to visit on the way back from UK in January, and we are planning to visit her mother (the father is dead) who lives an 8 hour drive from the city - which should be interesting. I guess the sad thing is, I was so terrified of losing out financially with Claire (after Susan) that ultimately, I held back on total commitment until it was too late. In all honesty I trust absolutely no-one, but its not a very helpful way to be when you want to develop trusting intimate relationships with people. The Indonesian girl is a bit off the wall for me, "owns own property" is usually a mandatory requirement for me these days - that way both partners are unlikely to be in a position to take or gain financial advantage when splitting. Anyway thanks for the advice Adrian. It's always nice to know somebody cares. See You Soon Tim
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I suffered a real roller-coaster of emotions reading this. Tim had rarely opened up to me as much as this, which gave me a warm feeling inside. And he seemed to be fully aware of the potential pitfalls that he was heading towards – but at the same time still seemed intent on that course.
Parts of his e-mail just didn't read right. For instance, 'the Indonesian girl is a bit off the wall for me'. What did that mean? It was almost as though he was using 'the Indonesian girl' as her name. Odd.
So we awaited his arrival for his Christmas visit with a number of unanswered questions.
On the day Tim arrived, we travelled across the country to meet him off the plane, picking up his younger son Jake on the way. He was his usual bubbly self when we met him at the airport, and chatted with us and with Jake non-stop on the journey home. We stopped at a motorway services for coffee and croissants, and Tim told us a little about the girl he's interested in, referring to her consistently as 'the Indonesian girl'. He's been over there several times to see her since he first met her – she works in the laundry around the corner from the hotel he stayed in – eight months ago. Then he dropped another bombshell. There's also another girl he's interested in. She lives in Sydney and she's Hong Kong Chinese. And he refers to her as 'the Hong Kong girl'. And there's a third girl too but he told us even less about her.
I asked, quite naturally I thought, if these girls had names. Tim looked a little cagey as he told us the girl in Indonesia is called Kath and the one in Australia is Julie. It almost seemed that he was making the names up as he spoke. I had a bad feeling about it.
We arrived home and settled Tim and Jake into the guest bedrooms. When they came down to the living room, Tim brought his laptop and showed us a lot of photos he's taken, helping us to picture his new home city and friends. He showed us photos of his apartment and its view over Sydney and the harbour, and photos of various flatmates he's had. He showed us his office and the team he works with. He showed us the group of exercise enthusiasts he works out with on the beach, and the men he sails with in and out of the harbour, as well as shots of the boat and they places they sail to. He showed us lots of pictures of him partying in pubs and clubs with a bewildering array of people, mostly girls, all looking the worse for wear. He showed us pictures of the Hong Kong girl and of the Indonesian girl (back to being nameless), and of Indonesia and more partying in clubs there. He unashamedly explained that the bars he visited were full of prostitutes. In one group of photos he pointed out an Indonesian man with an unusual hairstyle. Long, dead straight black hair hanging right across one side of his face so that he was peeping out from behind curtains. In the picture he looks effeminate and that apparently was the desired effect. Tim told us he was gay and had taken a fancy to him and spent the whole time pursuing him and announcing to everyone how attractive Tim is. Tim thought it was very funny. In another group of pictures were an American couple he'd met up with. She was heavily pregnant and not drinking, he on the other hand was drinking a lot and, in Tim's words, getting wasted. The more he drank the more camp he was getting and before long was attempting to kiss other men. Again, Tim thought it very funny when he kissed him, but some of the other men didn't think it so funny. There's a picture of Tim looking straight at the camera and beaming all over his face, with the girl kissing one cheek and her boyfriend kissing his other cheek, and holding him in a big from-the-side bear hug.
Seeing these pictures and Tim's commentary was a rather disturbing experience. Of course they wouldn't represent a rounded documentary of his life in Oz, but they told a story nevertheless. Clearly he works through the day and parties through the night. And alcohol features far too heavily in his life. He's forty years old now, and I would have hoped he'd have a more grown-up attitude to life. It seems he's spending a lot of his leisure time hiding from the reality of life behind a drink.
Incredibly Tim again had failed to bring his boys any kind of present from Australia even though it was Christmas time. What kind of Dad could behave that way?
The second day of Tim's stay we didn't see much of him because he took Jake out for the day. I was trying to come to terms with what he'd told us and shown us. I couldn't concentrate on anything else all day and by the end of the day I'd decided I needed to have a serious chat with him. Which I knew was a risk – our relationship is fragile and I could destroy it by saying the wrong thing, and we'd be back to square one. Amanda reckons Tim thinks the world of me but if so he hides it well. Having said that, he wouldn't reveal his emotions to me – it's not macho to do that. Certainly she's right when she points out that it's always me that Tim runs to when he gets into trouble. I like that – it's nice to be relied upon in those circumstances and I always try my best to prove reliable, to be there for him.
So I screwed my courage to the sticking place. And I tapped on the door of his bedroom the next morning when I knew he'd gone in there for some reason.
“Have you got a minute?” I asked.
Tim looked at me with some surprise but he nodded.
I closed the door behind me as I came in, sat on his bed and added: “Actually it might need an hour. Can we talk?”
Naturally he looked a little wary, but he said “Okay, What about?”
“Do you remember the e-mail I send you a couple of months ago?”
“Yes. The one with parental advice?”
I thought I detected a touch of sarcasm in that, but ignored it. “That's the one. Your reply affected me strongly. I wanted to thank you for being so open with me. Even so it didn't really answer all the questions and I had to guess what was going on in your head. I couldn't see why you would brave all the complications and disadvantages of marriage to a girl from Indonesia, when Australia is full of likely candidates. So I was forced to conclude that you must have fallen head over heels in love.”
I'd got Tim's attention, but he made no comment. I paused for a moment and then continued:
“But now you're here and I find I've got it all wrong, haven't I? You're not actually in love with either of these girls, or with anyone else you've told us about. Isn't that the truth of the matter?”
“No, of course not. I do love her, otherwise I wouldn't be planning to marry her! How can you suggest I don't?”
“Don't try to bullshit me! When you're in love you carry the image of your lover in your head. You feel their touch, you sense their smell and you miss them each moment you're apart. You say their name to yourself when you're alone in your bed and you will defend them against any attack or slur against their honour. That's what it's like being in love. But you've told us about these girls with no real evidence of affection, and haven't even referred to them by name. You've been discussing them like cattle to be chosen between in a market. Tell me this: if either or both of these girls had been here in the room with us as you told us about them yesterday, wouldn't they have felt insulted, and with good cause? You couldn't even name them to your family until I asked for their names, and even after you'd told us, you went back to calling them the Indonesian girl and the Hong Kong girl. That's just not the way you treat someone you're truly in love with!”
I'd been speaking a little harshly and with more force than usual, and Tim was cowering under the onslaught. He didn't say anything when I paused for breath, so I waited a little longer to give him time, and then continued:
“The only explanation I'd been able to arrive at for you to be considering marrying the girl in Indonesia was that you were irretrievably in love with her. But you're not, so why? Why are you heading down that road? You've been married to someone you're not in love with before and with her you didn't even have all the cultural differences to contend with. You're not stupid, Tim. Don't ruin your life again.”
Tim was still sat silently on the bed beside me. His eyes were beginning to look a little watery. I'd never seen him cry before.
I ploughed on, hoping I was doing the right thing.
“I just do not know what's driving you, but I've got a couple of ideas about it. Look Tim, I'm guessing here and I might have it all wrong but this is what I think.”
I stopped, unsure if I had the courage to continue. I looked across at Tim, into his bleary eyes, and in them I read fear. My heart went out to him and I felt cruel but I knew I had to keep going.
“You've turned forty this year. I know it's only a year older than you were last year, but I remember when I turned forty, it brought me up short and I found myself assessing my life so far and regretting missed opportunities and all sorts of things. I had Amanda to help me through it, but you've hit forty as a single man and I wonder if you've found you're afraid of being alone in the coming years. If you don't want to be left on the shelf? Among all the young girls you party with you haven't found one you could love and who would love you? Why is that? Are there just not enough pretty girls in Australia? Somehow I doubt that. So is it that you haven't tried, because you feel none of them would want you, because you've been married, because you're older, because you've got children? In fact, are you suffering from low self-esteem? Is that why you've gone for these girls who, maybe, you think will be prepared to settle for second best – you? Because, Tim, if that's it, then you need help.”
I was shaking and close to tears myself. I thought, if I was Tim, I'd have hit me by now. But he was still sat on the bed beside me, tears now pouring unchecked down his cheeks and his hands together in his lap nervously fiddling with his fingernails. Poor Tim. Still he wasn't saying anything. I took a deep breath, tried to calm myself and started again:
“I think that may be part of the answer. Tim, you have to know that you of all people have no reason to feel low self-esteem. Perhaps it goes back to what your Dad did to you all those years ago, and if so, you should go for counselling. I did when I got into a mess and it was a really good experience. I'd recommend it, truly.
But it's not the whole answer, is it? You were with Claire all those years and although she wanted to, you wouldn't marry her. But now you hardly know these girls you've been talking about but you're planning to marry one of them, and you talk as though either one of them would do. You need a wife – any wife. I think you are looking for a wife to hide behind. That's the truth of the matter, isn't it, Tim?”
I was nearly there. I looked at Tim and he couldn't return my stare. His face contorted, his shoulders dropped, his knees came up and he dropped his head on his knees and started shaking with grief, quiet sobs escaping him. I swung round and put my arms around him and kissed the top of his head. I held him tight until the sobs stopped and his shoulders stopped shaking. And then I shot for goal.
“You are in love, aren't you, Tim? You're in love with someone you haven't told us about yet?”
There was no reaction from the ball that was Tim on the bed beside me, except that his head turned away slightly so that I couldn't see even part of his face.
“Tim, I'm right aren't I?”
It was almost imperceptible, but there was a definite nod. A little of the tension went out of me then. Now I was sure I'd been right, that I wasn't committing suicide here.
I took a deep breath and breathed it out again before continuing. “Okay. Okay. Tell me about him, Tim. Who is he? Are there any pictures of him?”
That got a reaction. His head shot up and he looked directly into my eyes, his blotchy, tear-stained face registering shock and terror. He read my expression and relaxed a little, just enough to whisper: “Geoff. Geoff Tilsley. We work together. He's in the team photo you saw. On the left.”
That was as far as he got before he dissolved into paroxysms of tears again and I held him close until he recovered. I was crying with him and by the time we could either of us look up and breathe steadily we were both wrecked.
“Are you going to tell Mum?” he whispered.
“Do you want me to tell her?”
“No. No I don't. I couldn't bear that.”
“Well we won't then. It's okay. It's your story and it's up to you who you tell it to. I will never break your trust.”
Tim's shoulders visibly relaxed and we sat together for some time, me holding him in a bear hug from the side, and he with his face buried in my shoulder soaking my shirt with his tears. This was a world apart from the relationship we'd ever had before, and gradually as I recovered from the trauma of the situation I felt a new emotion taking over – an outpouring of protective warmth and affection for this man for whom I've long felt all the love that any father feels for his son, but to whom I've rarely been able to express it. I hugged him a little tighter.
Gradually the fierce anguish and the crying died down. Once he was a little calmer and had blown his nose and wiped his face with half a dozen tissues from the bedside box he spoke quietly:
“What am I going to do?”
“You've done the most difficult thing. I think it should get easier now. I think you need to talk to Geoff when you get home. And forget all this talk of marrying. If you've led any of these girls to believe they have expectations of you, you'll have to put that right and maybe that'll be hard. And then think hard and long about what you really want. Don't rush anything, I don't know how long you've been with Geoff but if you are sure you really love him and he loves you too, then for once in your life, make a commitment! If you get into difficulty talk to me. I'll always be there for you, you know that.”
“Thank you Adrian. For everything.” He kissed me on the cheek, then he got up and walked next door to the bathroom and I heard him at the sink washing his face and making himself presentable, leaving me to try to repair my face with more tissues.
When I walked into the living room Amanda could see something was wrong straight away.
“Whatever happened to you?” she asked.
“I just had a long chat with Tim. I've dissuaded him from marrying any of these girls he's been talking about.” I didn't tell her anything more and she didn't ask. But the relief she felt was obvious to see and the rest of the week passed happily and easily. Tim took the boys out some days and we all went out together other days. It was a good time. I watched Tim and I could see he was less tense, more relaxed, and the selfishness that we had seen developing in him seemed to have gone altogether. Perhaps it was all part of the shield he had been putting up to hide his true feelings from us.
We all went to the airport to see him leave and went through the painful routine of goodbyes. Usually Tim hugs the boys, then shakes my hand, then gives his Mum the last hug because she always bursts into tears and he wants to delay that as long as possible, especially since he usually comes out of the hug with red eyes himself. This time he did it differently. He hugged and kissed his Mum first and set her off, then, still smiling, he wrapped the two boys together into a big bear hug and told them how much he loved them, that he'd be back again soon, and that they must be good for their mother. Last of all he came and hugged me. He gave me a peck on the cheek and then, still hugging tightly, he spoke in my ear quite clearly:
“I love you Dad. I always have and I always will. Thanks for everything.” - which set me off. He's never called me Dad before, and I never expected him to. But it meant so much to me to hear it.
He let go of me and picked up his hand luggage. He swept us all with a big smile, which faltered a little when it got to his mother, now crying freely, and he turned and walked briskly through the barrier into departures and out of our lives again. I picked up Jacob and sat him on my hip so that he could see his Dad until he disappeared around a corner. Jake looked at my face and said:
“Soppy Grandad – you're crying!”
He was right – I was.
Just three weeks later I got an e-mail from Tim.
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I need your help. Don't panic, I haven't got myself in trouble again and no, I'm not planning to marry yet another unsuitable girl or three. I'm really sorry I put you through all that – I was trapped and couldn't see any way out so I was lying to everyone including myself. Never again.
I need your help with some plans. I need you to rent me a flat in Brighton. Geoff and I have been talking (and talking, and talking) and we've decided to move back to Blighty. I've been offered a job in Hastings but we'd rather live in Brighton – it won't be a long commute from there, and Brighton will be easier for us, we won't stand out so much. We've got used to Sydney and don't want to lose that comfortable lifestyle and Brighton seems like the nearest to it you've got over there.
Don't get me wrong, Geoff and I love it here and would like to come back one day. But we're going to live in England at least until both the boys are grown up. Then we'll see.
There's something else I'm going to need your help with – telling Mum. We've got to tell her somehow because Geoff and I are going to be living as a couple. Do you think it can be done?
I know I can rely on you!
Love you Dad
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He called me Dad again!
© Bruin Fisher December 2007