Meeting a stranger

He would meet me at Zurich Airport, he wrote. He would be smoking a pipe.

There must be, I felt, a more personal way to identify your own father – some instinctive recognition, family resemblance, something to distinguish him from the next stranger waiting at Arrivals.

I booked my flight then lost my nerve. I was 36 and married for 15 years. Surely you should have a father before a husband, not the other way round?

The nightmares started. This was not just a father who had divorced his wife but a man considered violent, with court injunctions barring him from his children.

But this child was grown up now and I had prayed all my life to meet him. How can you know who you are, if one parent is a blank face? It’s like missing half of yourself.

There was the possibility, in meeting this stranger/father, of rejection, disappointment, even danger. But there was also the possibility of being understood, and understanding.

Clinging to the baggage trolley, walking out into Zurich Airport, I saw a man with a pipe. My first irrational thought was that the raincoat made him look like Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther. My second was that he was smiling and he had my sister’s mouth.

He was delighted to see me but awkward, trying to make conversation. He suggested a coffee at the airport bar then a taxi home. I would meet his wife. We would go out to dinner tonight. He asked if I liked fish. I answered in monosyllables, tongue-tied.

In the taxi, he mentioned a safari holiday to Kenya last year. I felt indignant. He had left us penniless and he was swanning around on expensive holidays?

Then he said he had learned Swahili before the trip and my heart responded. A bookshelf of Teach Yourself guides bears witness to my tendency to learn a smattering of any language before visiting, or meeting anyone from, another country. Maybe that love for language was inherited.

There were other resemblances. He chatted to strangers at bus-stops, had a vivid imagination, loved gardening, woke early – but my mother had the same traits. Perhaps they weren’t as incompatible as they had thought?

His second wife welcomed me, with imperfect English and a warm smile.

Only when I was leaving and we were at the airport again, while my father went off to check the departure gate, did she say, ‘Believe what your mother tells you. He is a violent man.’

‘Are you all right?’ I asked quickly.

She shrugged. ‘Sometimes yes, sometimes not so.’

My sister and I, and his grandchildren and some of our cousins, met him again a number of times and sometimes, as his wife had said – yes, it was all right and then at the end … not so. I missed him again then but with no regrets about meeting him. You can only really miss someone you know.

Meeting my father not only affected those few years that followed but somehow changed the past as well. The gap where a father should always have been was no longer a blank but a real person with a life that had always been going on at the same time as mine, just hidden.

He died several years later as a father, no longer a stranger: known, appreciated, mourned, understood, and occasionally despaired of. And loved.