Have you ever wanted anything so badly that it hurts? I don’t mean like when you were nine and the Care Bears were on sale and your parents wouldn’t buy you one for Christmas and you felt your life was over, I mean actual gut-wrenching sad; the kind of thing you cry every night for weeks, just trying to get over.
I knew I was different from the other kids in some way, when I was at school, but I didn’t know how. Then when I was nine, somebody said that I was adopted. That my parents weren’t who they said they were. That someone else had me and gave me away.
That’s what started me off. Who? Why? Why did they do that?
And it wasn’t particularly that I had any reason for this. I knew I was adopted and my parents – okay, my adoptive parents, but my parents nonetheless – they were good to me. They are good to me. They’re good people. Great people, actually. They love me, I love them, there’s not really a lot more to say on that. My father’s seventy something and he took up jogging last year, if you can believe that. Nobody thought it was going to last, but it has. But that’s beside the point.
When you turn eighteen, you can get this sort of information. And I did. It took some time, some working out. But I had to know. I had to.
Weirdly, my parents obliged in this.
“It’s your right,” Mum said.
“You need to know it, I guess,” Dad said. “If only because you feel that nothing can be worse than the not knowing.”
The letter arrived, and Dad wrote letters back – this sounds archaic, doesn’t it, no emails, no phones? This was the eighties. Things change. He told me we’d have to go get a pass to see her. I didn’t understand why.
He drove me there. Mum sat in the back, reading , I was in the front. The privilege was wasted on me; I slept most of the way.
“Wake up, son, we’re here,” Dad said, poking me in the ribs.
Bleary, I rubbed at my eyes, looked around. The grey edifice outside the car looked austere, brutalist in its architectural vision. Razor wire at the top of the high walls.
“What is that place?”
“It’s the prison.” Dad didn’t look at me, just reached into the pocket of the door, drew out his pipe and started filling it.
“Come on lad.” Mum got out of the back of the car, opened the door, took my hand and led me to the gate.
I remember the feeling going across the gravel. The crisp sharp noise of the gravel contrasting with the dull, grinding ache building in my stomach.
“Mum?” I turned and looked at her. She looked back at me.
“What have I done?”
I don’t know if she understood the question. To this day, I’m not sure that I did, either.
She shook her head, and knocked on the door.
The door was built into a big pair of gates. You could open those gates and drive a truck in, I guess. Then there was a door. Then inside that door was a small flap you could look through. It was the flap that opened.
“Hello,” Mum said. “I’ve got my son, Robert White, here. He’s come to see his birth mother, Florence Cannon.”
The head behind the flap nodded, and the flap closed. The door opened.
We were on CCTV the whole time, I noticed, walking in. There were cameras everywhere. The small sterile reception room smelled of bleach. Cold walls were painted white, with a brown stripe and a green bottom. The grey vinyl floor tiles added a touch of blandness and hopelessness to the whole affair.
“Identity please,” the guard said. Mum handed over the letter and my passport. He spent a few moments checking it over, and looking at me, then grunted. “You’ll need to leave coins, shoelaces, belts, watches and any jewellery here before you go in.”
“What?” I asked. “What do you think I’m going to do with them?”
“Nothing, really.” Dispassionately, he handed me a tray. “But if it’s the same for everyone, it makes it much easier for us when the troublemakers do turn up.”
I turned and looked at Mum. She shook her and I realised she wasn’t going to be allowed to come with me.
“I don’t know if I wanna do this any more,” I said.
“if you don’t do it now, you may not get another chance.” She shook her head. “Just remember what your dad always says – make sure you’re making the best decision you can today, so you don’t regret it tomorrow.”
I stood there for a moment, thinking. Then I undid my watch and took the coins out of my pocket and put them on the tray.
“Shoelaces?” the guard asked. “Belt?”
“Velcro,” I replied. “And I’m not wearing one.”
“Came prepared,” he said. “Very wise.”
I walked through a metal detector, and he asked me to sit down on one side.
“Do you do this for every prisoner?” I asked.
“We don’t, no,” he replied.
He ushered me to a chair and I sat there for a few minutes. Another guard arrived and took me down a corridor to another room. There were six or seven tables with chairs at either side. There were five guards around one table, where a small, frail looking woman sat.
As I walked in, the woman looked up. Her brown eyes followed me to the table. She looked normal, ordinary even. If I hadn’t met her here, in this place, in these surroundings, I’d never have thought of her as anything than just an ordinary person. I wouldn’t have given her a second glance.
I sat down in the chair opposite her. It wasn’t a comfortable chair – cheap garden furniture at best.
“Hello,” she said. She smiled a little – hopefully, perhaps. She was clutching her hands together. They were small, birdlike things. Like the rest of her, they looked frail.
“Hi,” I replied.
“You…” she started, and stopped. “You look taller. Than I imagined.”
We sat there a moment, not sure of what to say.
“I’m nineteen now.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“Your parents?” she asked. “Are they here?”
“Oh.” She looked disappointed.
“They wouldn’t let them come in,” I said.
“I see.” She nodded. “I’m sorry for that. I wanted to thank them. You know, for what they’ve done.”
“I’ll tell them,” I said.
We paused, for a while.
“Why did you give me up?” I asked.
“It’s obvious, really,” she sighed. “Not the place, here. Not for you.”
She unclasped her hands, raised a finger to her nose and scratched. He fingers were bony, arthritic looking.
“Are you busy?” I asked. “Do they keep you busy here?”
“I work in the clothing bit. I make the uniforms.” She reached down and fingered the denim dungarees she was wearing, admired the orange stitching, pride showing through. “I made this one.”
“That’s good,” I said. “It’s useful work.”
She looked up at me and smiled, a little.
“Thank you. For coming, I mean.” She paused. “I don’t get many visitors.”
“How many visitors have you had?” I asked.
“You’re the first, actually.”
I didn’t know if I dared ask, but I did.
“How long have you been here?”
“Here?” she thought for a moment. “Twelve years, this one. I mean, they’re all totally different and yet exactly the same, all these places.”
“Twenty-five years, maybe?” She looked over at one of the guards, who shrugged.
We looked at each other. I felt sorry for her, really. Here she was, she’d given birth to me and after nineteen years, this was all she was getting. Just a few minutes, surrounded by guards.
“Time’s up, lad.”
I stood up, and waited to go.
“Goodbye,” she said.
“Goodbye,” I repeated. Formal. Not what I’d usually say.
I started walking and behind me, she coughed, loudly. The way you do to get someone’s attention. I turned.
“Are you happy?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I suppose I am.”
“That’s important then,” she said. “That’s the main thing.”
I guess that moment was the first time I really understood something about actual love, rather than lust.
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