He was tall. More than that I couldn't say, as his face was shielded by his hat and the collar of his raincoat. I took the envelope from his hand. He walked away.
“Wait,” I said, “ We need to talk.”
“It's all right Carol. Everything you need to know is there.” I recognised his voice from the call he'd made; a well-bred voice, resonant and masculine, with a slight accent.
I didn't open the envelope until I was in my home, the cosy bungalow Jack and I had shared for thirty years, until his death last year. The place seemed empty without him. There were many memories, mainly happy, though we'd had our ups and downs like anyone else.
The first months following my loss I was numb with grief, emotions swinging from despair and loneliness through anger at him for leaving me and guilt that I hadn't been able to prevent his death. Jack and I had never had children to help now. Friends rallied round, but nothing had prepared me for the devastating pain I suffered each bedtime, switching on one bed-side lamp, making one bed-time drink, the things we'd shared.
When I'd started to come out of the worst times, I decided to take up something new ― researching my family tree. I began with my mother as I knew it would be easier. My father had died young, shortly after I'd left school, and I'd known little about his family. My mother, though, came from a family who mostly lived into their nineties, she being no exception as she'd only passed away the year before my Jack. I'd known her siblings and my cousins. There was an aunt though, with whom I'd lost touch. I remembered Aunt Mary slightly from when I was a child of perhaps four years; she and her two sons had for a brief period shared our home. What happened to cause them to move I didn't know. There had been tears on mother's part, and when I'd asked where they were, I was told they had gone to South Africa and I wasn't to ask questions.
When mother died I'd found an address for one of the boys in South Africa. I sent a note telling of her demise and received a condolence card, signed from Michael – the elder of the two cousins I'd known – and family.
However, as I began the absorbing task of researching the family tree, I wrote again, asking for news of them all. I didn't even know if Aunt Mary was still alive. No letter arrived, but one evening in January, as I sat warming my toes by the fire, my phone rang.
The man's voice was unknown; truth to tell I almost put the phone down. I was cautious about strangers. However, what he said startled me.
“Is that Mrs Carol Toms?” When I confirmed it he continued. “I understand you're looking into your family background, and I have some news which you'd find interesting. It's too lengthy to discuss over the phone, but I'm in your neighbourhood and it's all written down.”
“What's it about? Can't you tell me over the phone?”
“I'd rather not, and you'll understand when you see the documents. Would we be able to meet in the next couple of days?”
“Well, I'm not in the habit of meeting strangers. I don't even know your name.”
“My name's Mark. You can choose the time and place.”
I thought rapidly. No time like the present, I thought, and my dog Beth needed a walk before bedtime. “Could we meet at 8.30 by the police station? Is that too soon?” Nobody would cause trouble there, I thought.
“That would be ideal. I'll be there with the paperwork.”
That's how I came to be sitting with a bulky envelope on my knee and curiosity getting the better of me.
Inside the big envelope there were other envelopes, labelled 'one' to 'four'. I slit the top of the first. The letter inside was in shaky handwriting.
'Dear Margaret,' it read. That was my mother's name. 'It's many years since we spoke. We don't want to end our days with bitterness between us.
I cannot tell you how sorry I've been every single day for the pain I caused. It was never my intention. There is no excuse; only that with my husband incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp I was lonely, sad, needing comfort. Unfortunately your Ted (I gave a start here at my father's name) was the man to whom I turned.
Can you find it in your heart to forgive me? I do hope so and maybe our families can be reconciled.
Your loving sister, Mary.'
Tears came unbidden. I read the date at the head of the page. It had been written a month before my mother's death. There was a postscript in a less shaky hand.
'We found this letter in mother's effects when she died. Obviously she had intended to send it, but by the time we'd discussed it, your own mother had passed on. Michael.'
I was stunned. Mother had never let on about this relationship between my father and my aunt.
My emotions confused, I wondered whether I could deal with this. If only Jack were here to help. I realised that I would have no peace until I discovered all there was to know, so I opened the envelope marked two.
This envelope contained a letter to me from Michael, written after mum passed away. He told me about their move to South Africa. He was only young at the time, with a younger brother, William. Another bombshell followed. Soon after they arrived in their new country, Aunt Mary
had a third child, another boy, called Mark! No, I thought, could that be my cousin who'd brought me the package? Then another realisation – when Aunt Mary had left us, her husband was still in the POW camp.
After I'd finished reading Michael's letter, I opened number three. This contained Mark's birth certificate. I scanned it and there before my eyes was the proof, my own father's details. Tears were pouring down my face. My cousin Mark was, it seemed, also my half brother. Anger was in my mixed emotions – anger at my father for betraying us, and at Aunt Mary of course, but also at my mother for taking the secret to the grave. Had she not thought I had a right to know?
I opened the last envelope. There were two letters inside, one from William who barely remembered me, but wanting to meet and let the past go. As he pointed out, we were the next generation, and could not be blamed for the sins of our parents. The other letter was from Mark. It started in a slightly embarrassed fashion, but told me more about their lives, their work, wives and families. They still lived in South Africa, but Mark's work brought him frequently to England. Also inside that last letter was a voucher for airline tickets, for myself and companion, and a request that I book flights out to stay with Mark whenever I felt ready to face them.
Exhausted now, I knew I could not think straight until morning. After taking a soak in the bath I made myself a comforting mug of cocoa. Even so, I didn't sleep too well.
Beth woke me the next morning as I drifted into restless sleep. She whimpered, so I dragged myself out of bed to let her out. A watery sun was filtering through the leafless branches but at least it was enough to brighten my mood.
I reflected on the situation. William was right about us being innocent. Mark had not asked to be born. Not his fault. Times had changed too, and I had no right to condemn my father. That generation had lived in difficult times. I would phone Mark and meet up with him, I decided, before
he returned to South Africa. Maybe I would visit. Couldn't take Beth of course, but I had friends who would care for her.
We met at a tea shop in town on a dark February afternoon; it was like looking into the face of my father. I struggled with my emotions, but Mark took my hand. Warm brown eyes smiled at me and I knew I'd made the right decision. The time passed quickly, and before we realised, the afternoon greyness began to turn into the dark of evening and the café was preparing to close.
“We'd better go before they throw us out,” said Mark. “But you will come and visit, won't you?”
“Yes, I will Mark, I'll be delighted to do so.” We were outside by now and I watched him walk away. Tall, with the same raincoat collar turned up and the same hat as when we'd met first. As he turned and waved, he just disappeared into the shadows.