A note from Emma: I’m listening to Katy Tur’s biography at the moment and recording for the Women’s Rights Network, so my head is filled with the complex reactions we have to our father’s revelation. It’s difficult to think back to me at 11, looking at my father for the first time in his new clothing and make-up (Edwardian blouse to cover the Adam’s apple, as parodied years later in Little Britain). A moment where I must have realised that something had shifted and could not be restored to what it was. This piece by Olwen about her own experience really resonates for that reason. Our fathers may feel that nothing has really changed – they are still there, just in different clothing – but really everything has, in ways that are not immediately apparent.
More of Olwen’s writing is at http://omo-ohmy.blogspot.com/?m=1
It was memorably unusual to be invited to lunch by their father, who was in London from Cardiff for something, she can’t remember what. They met outside a restaurant in Islington near where she was working, her brother had travelled further across town.
She can’t remember what they eat, she can’t remember the conversation, even though the occasion was extraordinary. She does remember that she noticed during this lunch that her father had lost weight, his hair was not cut short.
But what she remembers most, was that he had the faintest trace of peach nail varnish at the edges of his cuticles, where nail meets skin.
Her brother didn’t notice, or at least they didn’t speak of it at the time as they said goodbye and went their separate ways. Come to think of it, they never spoke of it, not even when the significance was clear, they didn’t have that kind of relationship. And now it is too late.
She found out later, that on that day, their father had a letter each for them in his pocket. Undelivered and subsequently torn-up, she can now imagine the contents.
She can even visualise the rhythmic italicised architect’s handwriting. He would have said that he had reached a point in his life where he felt compelled to act on a deeply submerged, long held desire, to explore the feeling that he was in fact a woman.
He might have said that having discharged his responsibility in ensuring that they were gainfully employed and financially independent, he can no longer bear the strain and pressure of living a lie. He might even have mentioned their mother.
But then again, almost certainly not.
It would have been in a phone call, held in the hall of the shared, run down Brixton house where she lived, that her mother falteringly explained, unprompted, that there was something going on.
It was framed as a ‘wearing women’s clothes’ thing, which her naïve, but open-minded brain dismissed as a bedroom fetish that she really did not want to know or think about.
Hard to reconcile this new information with the very masculine, controlling father figure she had known, and who her brother had dealt with by absenting himself whenever possible. The father who had tutted and railed, every single time “Top of the Pops” was on, with “is that man or a woman?!” and scoffed “that man is wearing make-up!!”, and hardly spoke to her for days when, at 17, she got her ears pierced at the local hairdressers and had ‘mutilated’ herself.
She doesn’t remember exactly when this all unfolded. She remembers this time as grey and drizzly, like November. She does remember enrolling on a counselling course, having always been interested in human relationships. Probably, she learnt, from unknowingly taking on the role of mediator in the war that raged unnoticed in her parent’s marriage. An act of self-protection, but armed only with an undefended heart.
A slow realisation dawned that she was not the well-rounded, happy-go-lucky grown-up at 23 that she thought she was. That was firmly laid to rest when, during this interminably dark, grey, wet, miserable period, she presented herself for interview as a Samaritan. Just look how accepting and open-minded and empathetic she was. It very quickly turned into a paper-box hanky session, with her leaving the kindly place, with her dignity in soggy tear-stained tatters.
As the months rolled on, the phone calls dealt, bit by bit, the cushioned blows of realisation that this had gone further than something private she could ignore. She can’t remember each step of the way, whether there were visits home, when it was that she and a friend joined her parents on a Scottish sailing holiday, which included a ‘dressing up’ visit to a secluded country hotel, near enough to walk to from the anchorage. No one turned a hair, as her and her mother’s stomachs turned somersaults, her father sick with excitement of the danger and lonely romance of it. Her friend was, as always, wonderful.
She can’t remember when she finally decided to confide in the love of her life, now the father of her children. She does remember the conversation. “I need to tell you something,” she said. “I want you to imagine the worst possible thing you can think of about my dad.” Richard had been on sailing holidays too and seen her dad, a year or so previously, in full Captain Bligh mode. This was an exercise in heightening the alarm in order to sweeten the truth. “It’s not cancer, it’s not murder, it has nothing to do with children.”
A year or two later, six or seven months pregnant with her first child, she can remember standing by her father’s hospital bedside, with her mother and with Richard. She can’t remember much about the conversation. She does remember her confusion and maybe the first inklings of a battle between head and heart, something that she now recognises as a sense of loss, and maybe even a little glimpse of broken-hearted, unexpressed, anger.