I was six when my mum told me that my dad was not my real dad.
Linford, the person I thought was my dad, was actually just her boyfriend. I didn’t mind the new information. Linford was moody and ill-tempered at times, and used to bring the house down with his snoring. Apparently my real father was a university lecturer all the way in Nigeria. An intelligent, faraway, beautiful man who I would definitely meet one day. When it was appropriate. My real father was already married with children, my mum would say, starry-eyed, looking off into the distance. But there will be a huge reunion soon, in Africa. She spoke the name of the continent with a breathy, wistful voice.
I was eight and a half when my little brother and I saw Linford in the street one day and, because he was in one of his bad moods, speaking sharply to us about one thing or another, decided to take it upon ourselves to tell him that we didn’t belong to him. Of course he knew that he wasn’t my biological dad but did he know he wasn’t my brother's? We weren’t sure. Mum had told us in the car a month or so earlier that my brother’s real dad was actually a DJ who worked in a club in the next town.
"You’re not my real dad anyway," said my brother, to Linford.
"It’s true," I nodded. "It’s true. Mum said."
Hahaha, we thought. Don’t tell us what to do.
The news stopped him in his tracks. I don’t know if it was the first he heard of it or if it was the fact that it was coming out of his little boy’s mouth, but there it was. He froze, and eventually turned and walked away. We felt terrible. Had we gone too far?
Mum and Linford didn’t split up right away. It was a long, drawn-out thing. (I’m sure there were millions of other tiny secrets and details alongside this that we’ll never know.)
I, on the other hand, was moved to immediate action. Who was my dad, then? What was he like? I probed Mum for more detail and was shown (from an envelope under the bed marked TAXES) an array of photographs of a round-faced, smiling man in a graduation cap and gown. I at once decided to write a letter to The Amazing Nigerian, telling him I knew all about him and couldn’t wait to meet him. Maybe he could adopt my brother too?
'You can’t miss what you never had,' said my granddad, over soup.
That same week, as fate would have it, he died, suddenly.
"You can’t miss what you never had," said my granddad, over soup.
But I did. I missed him. I missed his presence – who or what he could have been in my life. I would fantasise about what I thought was a 'regular household' with a mother and father in it. My friends at school, all of whom were white and mostly had more money than us, belonged to family units that I envied. They didn’t have to live with their grandparents because their (mostly) single mother had to work nights. They didn’t, as far as I knew, wonder about their paternity.
I idolised my granddad, a tough, staunchly religious Jamaican. And my grandma could cook better than anyone you know. But I was tired of the strict, strict household and all-day church at the weekends and having to pray all the time and be meek and quiet and orderly.
I had an older brother, too, who I placed on a pedestal with only Jesus, God, and Martin Luther King, but he had been away in the army for as long as I could remember.
All of a sudden I arrived at an age when things began to shift a little, and for the first time men started to behave differently. Whistled in the street. Smiled at me in the supermarket. I was no longer invisible, growing into something very different – still a child at 13, only I didn’t look like one. I took attention and desire for love, and would go on to confuse them for a good many years. At 15 going on 16, perhaps I smiled when my friend’s father said something strange to me in the back of the car. Perhaps I told my mum I was sleeping at a friend’s and went out drinking underage. Perhaps I kissed the 40-year-old chef in the restaurant I was working in after my shift one night, because he’d been aggressively flirting with me for months and I didn’t know what else to do.
I was attention-hungry, love-thirsty but completely commitment-phobic.
Like me, my mother searched hard for what she thought was love. Hopeful and hardworking, she would try and try and would find different versions of it, all of them incomplete. Where we differed was this; I was attention-hungry, love-thirsty but completely commitment-phobic.
And then I met a married man who was a friend of the family; I was 16 and he 33.
After I ended that, I became engaged to someone lovely, only to break it off.
And once I settled into my 20s, my mum passed away.
There is never a good age to lose your parents, but then they are never really lost.
Perhaps they are never really ours.
People are who they are and they belong to themselves. Maybe we just rent them for a little while, for as long as we can, and we try to occupy whichever parts of them they offer. Wherever we find space.
One day I looked in the mirror and saw my quite feminine, quite masculine, capable self and realised that I had this covered.
That the search for anything outside of that had to be over. That I can absolutely rely on myself for the love that I need; for the attention, for the care. That everything else is a dazzling bonus.
Yrsa’s UK tour runs from 26th May – 6th June and includes events in Dublin, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Bath, Hay Festival and London. The event schedule is online here