What do you say to someone you love but have never known? And how is it possible that you love him anyway? How? He is a faceless presence that’s haunted my life since… well, since the day I was born if we’re going that far back.
God, he made me angry.
But he also made me scared.
I wind my way through the tunnel of Tooting Broadway tube station, clutching my rucksack strap. I’ve heard about pickpockets loitering around London. Let them try and nick anything off me. Just let them try it. I’d give them a sharp right hook and show them who’s boss!
A smirk tugs at my lips. I did it once to Tyler Fisher after he called me a ‘pathetic orphan.’ The poor kid spent the night with his head shoved between his knees and a tissue clamped over his nose, all the while uttering muffled threats in my direction.
I climb out of the station, finally emerging from the hot, muggy darkness. I hate those confined spaces. They reinforce too many memories of hiding in cupboards, under beds, behind sheds. Places that weren’t mine.
I take a gulp of fresh air, clearing away the cobwebs of memories.
My confidence shrinks.
How am I going to do this? I’m a fourteen-year-old girl who’s never set foot outside Brighton. I try to summon my hidden courage, stored within the depths of myself. It’s helped me countless of times in the past, I know it will help me now.
Darkness spreads across the sky, bringing a chill in its wake. I’m no closer to finding him. And what’s going to happen once the care workers realize I’m gone? Would they send the police out for me? Or will I become just like the others? Just a nameless face on a piece of paper, stuck half-heartedly inside the gritty wall of an abandoned telephone box?
A black taxi splashes above a speed bump, careering down the road.
So this is Tooting. It bustles with an array of colour, traffic and people. I peer along the parallel streets. It doesn’t look grubby, but—well, in my mind, I imagined him living in a place slightly more refined.
I’m not a snob!
Far from it.
But when I saw the word ‘London’ in his address column, I immediately pictured him living in a huge mansion on Hyde Park or South Kensington, perhaps next to the river.
I glimpse my reflection in the window of a William Hill bookie. Men are cloistered around small television sets, yelling at their slips of paper. They don’t notice me.
I wish I’d made a bit more of an effort. I’m wearing my usual, tatty leather jacket over a grey hoodie and jeans. My reflection seems to mirror my inner thoughts.
I turn to my own slip of paper, clutched in my trembling fingers.
My mum had left me a letter for my fourteenth birthday. In it, she writes her story. Hers and my dad’s. I’ve waited fourteen years for this and now I finally have his name. Thank God for the Internet, otherwise I’d never have found this address, never have snuck away from the home; never have hopped on the first train to London.
My heart kicks with every step I take. The building is identical to the picture I printed off Google maps. A sugar brown, Victorian townhouse stretching across the street, separated in sections by black gates and multi-coloured doors.
The numbers tick off in my head. Forty, forty-two… forty-four.
That’s it. That’s where he lives.
I stand on the pavement, under the ochre glow of the streetlamp. Just staring at the black door, illuminated by a single, white light. My eyes flick to the windows. The lights are on in all of them.
My mouth runs dry. He’s home.
I count the steps leading to the door.
Five. Five steps and a door is all that separates us now.
I suck in a deep breath. I can do this. I practically brought myself up; I have nothing to be afraid of.
I climb the steps.
Now all that separates us is a door.
What if he doesn’t like the way I look?
Well, if you don’t find him, you’ll never know—the other voice prods. Voices in my head. Arguing with each other. Am I a schizophrenic as well as an orphan?
I press my finger to the bell, holding it there. Listening to the tinkling ring.
A bark of laughter echoes on the other side of the door.
I lift my finger off the bell, and a surge of fear jabs at a thought niggling my mind. What if he isn’t alone? What if he’s moved on and started another family? He’s thirty-three, thirty-four?
It’s entirely possible.
I’ve buried these thoughts in the back of my mind but—now I’m here, standing on his doorstep, so close to him.
Footsteps pad closer to the door. My fingers curl onto the railing; it seems to be my iron of support.
The door flings open.
I can barely stop the sigh escaping from my lips.
He’s exactly as I imagined him. He towers above me, his frame almost blocking the warm light radiating from inside. His hair’s a chestnut brown, just like mine. He has a light beard that runs across his chin.
I stare at him, right in the eyes. Green eyes that are identical to mine. There’s no mistaking it. I feel relief bubbling up inside me at having finally made this connection.
He dons a light blue shirt and black jeans. His hair’s slickly combed. Oh God. He looks neat. Normal.
I look pathetic in comparison.
He gives me a kind smile, “Hiya.” Dimples pinch into his cheeks when he smiles.
My jaw locks. I can’t reply. There’s music blaring from behind him, something by Suede. ‘Beautiful Ones,’ I think it’s called. One of the care workers used to listen to it.
I fidget with my jacket sleeve.
He shoves a hand into the pocket of his jeans, his eyes sidling up and down the street. Probably checking for my parents.
Oh, the irony.
This forces my jaw to unlock. “Er, are you Daniel Fairchild?”
He nods, surprise flickering across his face. “I am. And how can I help you?”
Here comes the moment.
“I have something I need to tell you and it might sound weird.”
I’ve been rehearsing this phrase in my head all day.
Daniel’s eyes crease with hidden mirth. His dimples deepen. “Trust me, around these parts, there’s nothing that sounds weird to me.” He leans against the doorframe, waiting.
I summon the courage from my heart. It’s the only place I can find it. I decide to start from the beginning. “Do you know… did you know a woman named Katy Adams?”
His cheeks drain of colour. Those eyes that, three seconds ago, held a cheeky glimmer, grow cold with fear.
An unpleasant knot tightens in my stomach. This was the exact reaction I’d been dreading.
“Yeah I knew her,” he replies, folding his arms across his chest.
I try not to let the relief show on my face. At least he didn’t deny her.
“She was my mother,” I say, my voice so quiet, it could be part of the wind. I dig into my pocket, drawing out her letter. “Fourteen years ago, she ran away from home, to London, and met boy. According to this, she fell in love with him.” I keep my eyes locked onto him, watching his rugged face twitch with every word that fell out of my mouth. “But apparently he had to leave. And he didn’t know she was pregnant.”
Daniel’s rapid breathing is starting to match mine now. He looks as if he’s going to pass out.
“The thing is, Katy had the baby and then died four years later,” I continue, my heart racing.
“What are you trying to say?” he challenges. His voice sounds strange, tighter. Like he’s choking back tears.
“I’m that baby. And I know you were that boy, Daniel. My name is Sophie. I’m your daughter.”
The words just roll off my tongue. It’s quick. Easy.
Daniel stares at me. He doesn’t say a word but his eyes are glistening, his jaw is starting to tick.
“Where did you come from?” His voice carries a hostility that makes me flinch.
“A care home in Brighton!” I snap, anger fuelling my courage. “First opportunity I got, I jumped on the first train to London, to find you!”
“Great, so you’re a runaway!” Daniel hisses, raking his hand through his neat hair. “Jesus, this is such a mess. I–I don’t have a daughter, I can’t!”
He might as well have slapped me across the face. It would’ve hurt a lot less.
His eyes widen, no doubt realizing how the words must’ve twisted themselves in my ears.
Spinning on my heel, I run. My legs propel me down the street.
Skirting the corner, I lean against the wall to catch my breath, resting my clammy palms on my knees.
What do I do now? Where do I go from here?
I stuff my hands into my pockets and find the loose coins. My eyes rove over a tiny café nestled at the corner of the street. It doesn’t look like it belongs on this street.
I lower my eyes.
I don’t belong on this street either. Maybe we’ll fit. I zip my jacket up a little higher and trudge toward the café.
Inside, it’s exactly as I’d expected it to be. What is it they call them? A greasy spoon? That’s a funny name, but it’s true.
A gust of warm of air hits me, once I step over the threshold. The stench of bacon is wafting around.
I order a cheese sandwich and a can of coke, using up the last of my change. I slink into a corner by the window, where I know I won’t be disturbed.
I bite into the sandwich with relish. The bread is dry and the cheese tastes off, but I’m not complaining. I’ve had worse.
The door bursts open. He skids into the café. Catching sight of me, his entire body deflates with relief.
I turn back to my food, pretending I don’t care.
Daniel saunters to my table, still panting slightly. He drops into the seat opposite me.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, taking a slug of coke. “Don’t you have a family to get back to?”
Daniel shakes his head. “Nope. I’m not married, never came close. And as for kids…” He just waves his hand at me.
I can’t contain the pinprick of hope dancing in the pit of my stomach. He came after me. He followed me here. And acknowledged me as his kid—albeit with a wave of his hand, but it’s a start.
“What about those people in your house?” I ask cautiously.
“They’re my friends, they’re supposed to be throwing me a surprise party. It’s my birthday today.” Daniel gives a sardonic chuckle. “And I must say, this definitely counts as a surprise.”
“Oh. Happy birthday,” I say quietly. I didn’t know it was his birthday today. He has a nice house full of friends, who must care enough about him to throw a party for his birthday. Which means he must be loved.
And yet he’s left them all, to sit here in this greasy café with me.
Daniel leans forward, clasping his hands together in a silent prayer, no doubt. “Look, I’m sorry if I upset you earlier. But come on, Sophie, you have to understand that it’s a bit of a shock! A fourteen-year-old kid I never knew about suddenly turns up unannounced on my doorstep!”
“So sorry, I should’ve called first,” I counter, my temper starting to prick. “Hi, Daniel, you don’t know me but I’m your long lost daughter. Mind if I swing by for a chat!” I take another swig of coke. “Give me a break.”
Daniel’s cheek twitches into a smirk. “God, you’re just like her,” he sighs. “You both sure do know how to make an entrance.”
I purse my lips. My mum. My heart feels warmer with this reference to her. He knew her. He can tell me about her. This feels too surreal. She was my mum and he is my dad. The missing pieces of my puzzle are finally starting to slot into place.
“Can you tell me your side of the story?” I ask, daring to hope. “About you and my Mum?”
He flicks his eyes to me; they gleam with a newfound rawness. “I’ll tell you my story if you tell me yours.”
I nod, in a daze. “I can talk all night. But don’t you have a surprise birthday party to get back to?”
Daniel plucks the laminated menu from the metal clip, shaking his head. “They can party without me,” he says, his voice laced with so much tenderness that my lip starts to tremble. “I’m going to spend the rest of my birthday with my real surprise. My long lost daughter.”
A tear slips down my cheek. “You sure you won’t be missed?” I ask, keeping my voice even.
Daniel rips a napkin out of the cheap dispenser and hands it to me, whispering, “I think I already have been.”
I just stare at him. I could stare at him forever. Then, very slowly, I nod, dabbing my eyes with the rough tissue.
He grabs my hand, squeezing it in reassurance. Telling me he isn’t going anywhere. I squeeze back—ditto.
I won’t be alone anymore. I’m not an orphan.
I never was.
Christina Alagaratnam was born and grew up in South London. In 2014, she graduated from the University of Westminster with a BA in English Literature with Creative Writing. She’s been writing all her life. Currently she writes stories and poetry centring on family dynamics and mental health issues. In the future, she hopes to write some ground-breaking television—but for now she’s studying an MA in Creative Writing and working on a novel.