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The Accidental Detective

Searching for my father

Illustration by Fran Pulido of a person wearing glasses with lenses that look like written pieces of paper.

I never knew my father. The only thing my late mother, a glamorous Hollywood publicist, told me about him is that he killed someone in a hit-and-run accident. But was she telling the truth or using her PR skills to spin a wicked yarn and poison me against the alcoholic philanderer who broke her heart?

My pandemic project was writing an 85,000-word memoir, The Accidental Detective, in which I assume the mantle of amateur sleuth and do my best to get to the truth. The key players in this saga are long dead — not least the poor, hapless victim of the hit-and-run, assuming it happened, which I believe it did. Whatever my mother’s faults, she was no liar. She died in 2010, my father in 1987. There’s no one to ask about the accident, no possibility of a corroborating witness for the prosecution, no chance of a mitigation plea by the defence. Besides, it would have occurred well over half a century ago, during my parents’ 1950s marriage, and, by definition, the person responsible for a hit-and-run seems unlikely ever to have been apprehended. But that doesn’t mean there were no consequences for the driver, my father. Was he alone when the disaster happened or was my mother in the car too? I’ve no idea because, having dropped the bombshell one evening over dinner, when I was forty, she refused to elaborate and never spoke of it again. Either way, it’s easy to imagine how such a traumatic event would have a toxic effect on an already turbulent marriage; perhaps sharing this burdensome secret dealt the final blow.

The guilt. The shame. Intolerable.

Any squeamishness over writing about my family’s darkest secret was alleviated by Anne Lamott’s bracing words in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. (If you haven’t read it — do! It’s chicken soup in book form.) Anne says, ‘You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.’

Preach, as the young people might say.

And so, as the first lockdown hit, I set to work, enlisting the support of a psychotherapist, Mark, to help me navigate and process this long-overdue psychological excavation. Our weekly Zoom sessions soon assumed an amiably adversarial dynamic: Mark often acted as advocate for my father, a man he saw as unfairly maligned, whilst I clung stubbornly to my lifelong defence of the single mother who had raised me with no help, financial or otherwise, from the man she married.

I told Mark about the only contact I’d had from my father — a card on my twenty-first birthday, with an address in Weston-Super-Mare and a message: If you ever feel like getting in touch

I hadn’t. But that was a lifetime ago. Now, things felt different. I had just a couple of tattered old photos of the man without whom I wouldn’t exist (the resemblance was remarkable) but that was all. Time to put some flesh on the bones of this phantom. I began to do some research. Combing through my mother’s address book, I found the name of one of her oldest friends, Sally. Childhood memories began to stir. But day after day, I put off picking up the phone and dialling Sally’s number.

‘Why?’ asked Mark.
‘She’s probably dead.’
‘Only one way to find out.’
But the days of procrastination turned into weeks.

‘Is it possible you don’t want to risk discovering that your father wasn’t the bad guy you’ve always believed him to be?’ asked Mark, six months after our sessions began.
‘Maybe.’
‘Perhaps the hit-and-run accident never happened. Maybe your mother made it up.’
‘Hmm.’
Sensing my reluctance to entertain this notion, Mark changed tack.
‘It might be easier for you to write to Sally, rather than phone. Do you have her address?’
‘Um. Yes. It’s in my mother’s address book. I’m looking at it now.’ Pause. ‘I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before.’

Mark’s silence spoke volumes. I might not have believed that I could overlook a less confrontational way to contact the woman who, if alive, might be able to give me some of the crucial information I needed, but my psychotherapist could believe it all too easily.

I wrote to Sally. She replied two days later. She was ninety-four and sharp as ever. We spoke on the phone, twice — lengthy conversations about my mother and my father, both of whom she had known well.

‘Your father wasn’t a bad man,’ Sally told me. ‘But he was a terrible womaniser. Very good-looking, a real charmer. And yes, he was an alcoholic.’
I broached the topic of the hit-and-run. Had Sally had any inkling about such a catastrophic event blighting her friends’ marriage — and their lives?
‘No. But I did have a feeling that something-or-other must have come to a head, and that’s why your mother left your father, taking you with her.’

Something-or-other must have come to a head

It wasn’t much to go on (it wasn’t anything to go on) but at least there was now a sense of something

I did more digging, searching ancestry websites. As a young man, the father in whom I had taken zero interest had served in the Second World War and been posted to France shortly after D-Day. Before, he had been no more than a philandering drunk, a handsome face in a tattered black-and-white snapshot. Now, he was a soldier, too.

More research.

I discovered a long-lost cousin, daughter of my father’s sister. When I say discovered, I mean re-discovered, because so powerful had been my state of denial, and for so many years, that I’d managed to forget three letters this cousin had written to me, as a schoolgirl, over forty years earlier, pleading with me to get in touch with my father, her uncle, who had been eager to establish contact with me, his only child. I’d also somehow managed to forget a heartfelt letter from my paternal grandfather, making the same sad plea.

I met my cousin for lunch. She gave me a gift — a plate on which my father had painted a picture of a Warwickshire canal. To touch something my father had created – an object still holding his DNA – felt powerful, verging on magical. At last, a physical connection.

Immediately, the plate became a prized possession. It has pride of place in my office. I’m looking at it now, as I write these words.

And now Sally had something else to add to the mix.

‘Your father tried to get in touch with you, on at least one occasion, maybe more, but your mother wouldn’t hear of it.’

She wasn’t just talking about the card on my twenty-first birthday, she was talking about another overture by my father, using Sally’s husband as an intermediary, but to no avail. My mother had blocked my father’s bid for contact.

So…
An alcoholic, yes.
A philanderer, yes.
But also, a soldier.
And he had tried to contact me. Maybe only once, maybe more.

Why hadn’t my mother allowed him to do so? Why had she prevented him from having any kind of relationship with her son? Was she protecting me? Or was she protecting herself?

Whatever the truth behind her motivation, writing The Accidental Detective has allowed me to delve into unexplored corners of my psyche and develop a more nuanced view of the mother I loved, along with a more forgiving opinion of the father I never knew.

As the pandemic wore on, I continued my research, along with the psychotherapy sessions. I completed the book and am now engaged in the next part of the process: finding a publisher.

Uncovering the truth about the hit-and-run has become of secondary importance. What matters more is the catharsis triggered by the process of investigation. At last, I have found a way to connect with – even empathise with – the father I’d written off, no more than a biological necessity to my existence. Sometimes a journey is a destination of its own.

Simon Booker was a novelist and screenwriter, with many primetime TV credits including BBC1’s The Inspector Lynley Mysteries and The Mrs Bradley Mysteries starring Diana Rigg. His novels include Three’s a Crowd, a romantic comedy published by Simon & Schuster.

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