For the last few years of her life, my mother had a boyfriend. Leonine and intense and poised – a David Attenborough type, deeply involved in human rights. He opened my old Harrovian eyes to a new way of thinking about ethics. Teenage Al both hated him for not being my father, and suspected him for appearing to be a compulsive liar, but respected him for incontrovertibly good work in the world. He set up a functioning human rights charity, and they successfully lobbied for changes in the law which have helped untold thousands. He had a genuine claim in his own life for redress. He’d been tortured and he was always on the verge of some big payout. He and his charity helped land compensation for a great many people while his big claim never came in – and still hasn’t.
I didn’t mind that it never landed – none of us did. His financial status was irrelevant to me, but as my mother’s boyfriend he wanted me to know: “When my payout comes through…” X Y Z. There was a thing in his mind where money was really important. He kept his notional worth high to counteract how his actual wealth didn’t marry with his value system.
Mum looked at houses in the country with him. She hated living in the city full time. When the compensation came they could move away.
Meantime he lived with mum. He pretended to know bands that my teenage friends and I invented in order to bait him. Teenage boys can be buggers. My friend Cameron used to deliberately and creatively improvise band names in order to elicit “oh yes I know their manager.” He was a delight, and constantly full of stories.
He helped make my mother happy. A teenage boy is always going to resent a man that isn’t his father but lives with his mother. After I moved out he moved in with her.
She went a few years later and I lost touch with him, and with many of my mother’s friends, for decades. I was processing it. So arbitrary. Preventable, I told myself. I was leaving drama school. Filming Bright Young Things. Busy. Maybe he could’ve helped her, I thought, or given her something concrete to help anchor her.
Recently I’ve started shyly engaging with him again. He lives in the sheltered housing opposite me. I see him pottering around the streets I live on. I see him smoking outside Tesco. Occasionally, in one of my many vehicles, I wave as I drive by. “That’s my mother’s ex boyfriend” I tell people.
We went for dinner this evening. “I need a ghost writer,” he put in randomly to the conversation. My head went to considering it: “He must know my work… I could use a first major project, and he’s almost family. Maybe he appreciates how 500 words minimum per day uncut and unedited has taught me how to hone ideas into words. I know his story, plus I’ve worked closely with human rights over the years. I know the laws a little.” Thinking he’s fishing. I bite. “Talk to me.”
He doesn’t take it how I expected. He’s not fishing at all. “No no I need a proper writer,” he tells me, unblinking. “Someone with … precedent.”
To be a ghost writer? My pride is engaged now.
“I write a blog,” I tell him, thinking it might lend weight. The idea lands on him like blancmange. Dismissively: “I need more than a blog writer.”
I’m livid. This honest and unedited content is by nature invalid because … because it hasn’t been externally validated by … something or someone that you attribute value to…? Gahh.
Pride is a funny thing, both ways. The rest of our conversation was just mutual confirmation bias, both wanting to dismiss the other, back to teenage boy and unwelcome boyfriend.
We passive aggressively insisted on splitting the bill.
When someone does what mum did, they do it despite the people they love. Even if you live with them there’s nothing you can do. I know that. But I need to stay alert to that truth when I’m with him. Even post Camino there’s some remnants of the old wounds. A little bit of teenage Al came into the conversation getting baity and announcing “You’re not my dad.”
Whether or not he’s my dad, he’s family, and dinner was proof of that. It’s always tricky seeing family. There’s so much more at play than what can be seen. Old ghosts. Old words. Skeletons.