© Stuart Martin
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Hedon Road Maternity Hospital, Hull, 1994
Selina Walters stroked hairs away from her face and dabbed her eyes with a tissue. She reached out and feathered her fingers down the clear plastic. The baby looking out from the enclosure was tiny. His skin formed fleshy wrinkles, and he wore a determined expression. She smiled, nodding as she spoke, "Hello, Daniel. I'm your mummy...Yes I am." A small, pink arm jerked up. A moment later his eyes scrunched shut, and the limb drifted down.
There was the rustle of a uniform stretched over a full figure. The ward sister rested a hand on her shoulder. "The police are here. You can talk to them in my office."
Selina had reported her husband missing two days ago, it must be about that. She gripped the lapels of her fluffy dressing gown at the neck. "Have they found him?"
The sister winced. "I don’t know, love. They'll only talk to you."
In the office the police officer indicated a chair with her cap. "Take a seat, Mrs Walters."
Selina drew in a long breath and turned to the sister. "Will you stay?"
"Of course," said the sister with a sympathetic smile.
Selina perched on the edge of the chair. "Have you found him, is he alright?"
The officer slid her cap onto the desk as she sat down. "We know where he is, and he's fine."
Selina's eyes widened. "If he's fine why isn’t he here?"
The officer rotated the cap with her fingertips. "We traced him to a hotel in Manchester. He said he needs some space, time to get things in perspective. He said there is something he has to do...He also said you knew there were issues."
"Issues - what issues?"
"Apparently that's all he would say. The only other thing I can tell you is that your husband went to the bank before he left for Manchester." The officer stood and put on her cap.
Selina cupped a shaking hand over her mouth and nose, her voice wavering, “I thought we were soulmates.”
The sister stepped in front of the officer. “What kind of man deserts his wife on the day she gives birth?” She prodded a finger on the desk. "You get him back here - issues indeed." She flung an arm in the direction of the corridor. "He has a son in there, a son who needs a father."
The officer took a deep breath and exhaled through her nose. "There's no law against being a complete bast..." She cleared her throat and looked at Selina. "I'm sorry, Mrs Walters, there’s nothing we can do. Your husband hasn't broken any laws."
The sister raised her voice, "Laws - what about his responsibility to that little -"
Selina took hold of the sister’s forearm. "It's alright, really. We don't need him." She straightened her posture. "I'm Selina Wood.” Her eyes focused on a distant point. “My son is Daniel Wood…If Kevin Walters doesn’t want to be part of us, we don’t want any part of him."
18 ½ years later
Daniel Wood slowed to a stop under the branches of a lone beech tree, the halfway point of his morning run. Hands on hips, he took some deep breaths then paced in a circle. Exercise usually helped him think clearly, not today. He took a dog-eared sheet of A4 out of his pocket. The name at the bottom of the handwritten letter - K Walters - further stirred the whirl of thought and emotion in his mind. He scrunched the paper back into the pocket, set his stopwatch, and started to run back towards the estate.
He glanced at the stopwatch on his wrist as he ran along the path opposite the shopping centre. A wag amongst a group of youths loitering in a bus shelter shouted after him, “Run, Forrest, run.”
Without looking back, Daniel gave a thumbs up gesture and received a derisory cheer. He swung right and sprinted past blocks of terraced houses, pressing a button on the watch as he pulled up outside number 16.
A young woman wrapped in a silky negligée, taking long draws on a suspicious looking cigarette, stood in the open doorway of number 18. When the sound of bickering children inside the house increased in volume she shouted into the hallway, “Cut it out. You lot are doing my friggin’ head in.”
Her eyes moved up and down Daniel’s athletic frame like an MRI scanner as he went through a stretching routine. “Morning, Woody.” She slid her tongue out far enough to reveal a gold stud. “Bet I could give you wood…Woody...”
Daniel smiled as he opened the door. “Morning, Chantelle. Like the new piercing.” She touched the stud on the tip of her cigarette and gave a pout.
Selina Wood craned her neck to look out of the front window of the open-plan room. “What was that tart saying?”
“Just being friendly, that’s all.”
“Really?” She frowned as she adjusted the blinds. “That kind of friendly is how she ended up with three kids.” Daniel rolled his eyes as he took a carton of apple juice out of the fridge. Selina pointed at the wall. “Not one of those kids have ever seen their dads you know.”
He pointedly raised an eyebrow.
“That’s completely different – as you well know. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know where your dad is. But we were married, it wasn’t a one night lay.” She put her keys and bag at the end of the counter. “I got you a couple of shirts I saw in a sale, they’re in your drawer.”
“Thanks, but you didn’t have to do that, Mum. I’ve got my part time job now, and my loan money.”
Selina bustled around the room, straightening cushions and moving items into place as she spoke, “Nonsense, you’ll need all your money for books and things.” She tutted as she moved a pair of trainers into a cupboard.
“I was going to move those.”
“Mmm - sometime never.” Her eyes systematically checked the room. “I’ll be late tonight. The girls are going on a night out and I’m covering a shift.”
Daniel compressed the empty juice carton. “How come you’re not going? You haven’t been out for ages.”
Selina wrinkled her nose as she opened the fridge. “They’ll all be on the pull and bitching about each other’s outfits, it’s not my thing.” She pointed at a low shelf. “There’s ham and chicken there, and some new potatoes and carrots in here.” She held up a plastic container. “They’re cooked, so you can warm them up or eat them cold.”
Daniel flickered between a smile and a grimace. “You don’t have to do all that, Mum. I can always get something at uni.”
“I like to know you’ve had one good meal, and it’s no trouble.” She looked in the mirror and tucked hairs into her tight bun. “Right, I’m off or I’ll miss my bus. Have a good day.” There was a snap from the letterbox. Selina called out as she opened the door, “Letter for you. Bye, see you tonight.”
“Bye...” Daniel picked up the envelope from the hall stand: the address was handwritten. A tingle ran up the back of his neck.
The south aspect from the top floor of Hull University Library, the original buildings framed by grass and treetops, was inspirational. Until ten weeks ago Daniel hadn’t realised his home town had such a vista. He turned a pen over in his hand, tapping each end on a writing pad as he took in the view.
A low voice and a tap on the arm interrupted his thoughts, “Woody, Woody, you getting these analysis questions?” His friend, Richard Cavanaugh - Cav, waved a worksheet in front of him.
Mark Ormskirk – Marko, one of the students on the next table, a young man whose shoulder development suggested chemically assisted bodybuilding, leaned across. “Got a clue?”
Cav shrugged and they both stared at Daniel. He glanced at his pad. A patch of dots apart, it was blank. “Still working on it.” Marko sighed and re-joined his group.
Cav dropped the papers on the table. “What happened to ‘blast out of the blocks, get in front and cruise home’, and all those other running analogies you keep laying on me?”
Daniel laid his pad aside. “Sorry, my head’s not in the game.” Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees and interlocked his fingers. “I’m starting to think it was a mistake to stay at home - mum can be a bit claustrophobic.”
“Claustrophobic?” Cav caressed his gelled hair and flitted his eyes toward Marko’s table. “Try sharing with professional slobs before you knock it.”
Daniel rested his forehead on his fingertips, drew them down his face and exhaled. “I know, I know - she’s a diamond. I just worry she has nothing else in her life.”
Cav held out his hands, fingers spread, in a questioning gesture. “And you realised all this today?”
Daniel edged closer to his friend. “Remember that letter from my old man?” Cav nodded. “I wrote back a few days ago, and he wrote straight back. Now we’ve exchanged texts, and he’s coming up here, wants to arrange a meet.”
“Letters! Texts! What is this the dark ages?”
“I tried looking him up after the first letter, couldn’t find anything. And he wants it to be face to face when we talk.”
Cav furrowed his brow. “Whoa, sounds well dodgy.” He put an index finger to the corner of his mouth then pointed. “Insist on meeting in a public place, you can’t trust anyone without a social media profile.”
“Does seem a bit odd,” Daniel circled a finger on each temple, “couldn’t even find a landline number for him.”
Cav crossed his legs and brushed a speck off his skinny jeans. “So, apart from the fact that it could be a psycho-groomer, what’s the problem? I thought you wanted the chance to look him in the eye.”
“I do.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “But I don’t know how mum will react when I tell her. The odd time he gets mentioned she makes her feelings about him very clear.”
“She’ll be sweet with it.” Cav picked up the work sheet. “He’s your father, and you have a bunch of questions - she’ll understand that.”
“Nailed-on…Now,” he brandished the pamphlet, “analysis.”
Daniel’s teeth clenched tighter as another saucepan crashed into its storage drawer.
Selina held tissues to her nose and sniffed as he walked up and rested a hand on her back. “You sure you’re ok with this?”
She snatched up a cloth, wiping the worktops with unnecessary vigour, the pitch of her voice higher than normal, “Fine. Of course you want to meet your father, to hear ‘his’ side of the story.”
He took hold of her by the shoulders and eased her round. “I can see this has upset you, and that’s the last thing I want to do. But yes, I do want to know why. Wouldn’t you…like to know why?”
“I…It’s just easier to block him out altogether.” She sniffed again. “I understand. It’s just…”
“Just what?” He dipped his head, making eye contact.
She plucked more tissues from the box and dabbed her eyes. “You might think I’m a loopy old bat, but I’ve seen it happen.”
“Seen what happen?”
“That repenting sinner bollocks.” She sniffed. “It happened to Mary who I used to work with. She brought up her two boys single handed, never saw hide nor hair of their father for 17 years. Then he turned up, with his silver tongue. Within a month it was nights out with Dad, what a fun guy Dad is, Dad’s the life and soul. And Mary, she was stuck at home doing the cooking and washing their underwear.” She shook her head. “I’m not looking for thanks, but I couldn’t bear that.”
Daniel cupped his mother’s face in his hands. Her eyes were watery and reddened, her lips pursed and twitching with emotion. “That won’t happen.” He stroked hair off her face. “I will never stop appreciating you. Look,” he pointed at a space on the floor, “I’ve even put my trainers away.” They exchanged weak smiles.
“Sorry, I’m just being silly.”
Daniel nodded. “Yes, you are. I’ll go along with the loopy bat, but forty isn’t old.”
An open hand slapped into his arm. “Go along with ‘loopy bat’ indeed – cheeky devil.”
He backed away a little. “Seriously, Mum. I won’t need looking after forever. You need to think about your own life, get out, meet people. You never know, you might meet someone you like.”
Daniel pressed the switch on the kettle down. “Let me make you a brew.”
Selina sank onto a chair at the kitchen table. “That would be nice.” She scrutinised her hands, rubbing one with the other. “Your father was my first, my only boyfriend, partner – you know what I mean.”
With a splutter the kettle clicked off. “I get the picture.” He filled two mugs.
“There was something about him, he was different. He made me feel…Well, I’ve never got that feeling from anyone else.”
Daniel slid the mugs onto the table and sat opposite. “You still have feelings for him?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I despise him for deserting us.” Her hands slipped around the mug. “But sometimes I crave that feeling.” She cradled the mug, staring into it. “When is this big meeting?”
“Thursday night, in Smilers on Newland Av.” He hesitated with the mug an inch from his lips. “Why, would you like to be there?”
Her head sprang up. “No, I wouldn’t – the thought!” She gave a little shiver.
The large cup Daniel cosseted to his chest had been empty for 15 minutes. There were only three other customers, but the waitress, a woman in her forties, gave him a lingering stare as she cleared a vacated table. Not sure if it was admonishing or a leer he returned a pressed smile.
With a theatrical sigh, Cav flopped onto the seat opposite. “That’s another set of toxic images I have to thank Marko for. He insisted on giving me a blow-by-blow account of last night’s antics with his ‘red hot MILF’ – his description not mine. And when I say ‘blow’.” He shivered. “It all happened in the kitchen apparently, so they didn’t wake the kids…I mean,” he swept a hand down himself, “why would he think I’m interested?”
“Don’t know.” said Daniel, glancing at ‘Smilers Bar’ across the street.
Cav snatched up a menu. “Let me know if I’m boring you.”
Daniel slid his mug onto the table and leaned forward. “Sorry, what’s up?”
“My ‘roommates’, they take uncouth to unbearable levels.” A wave caught the waitress’s attention. “A triple espresso please – thank you.” He flashed her a smile. “Anyway, I’ve had enough, I’m looking for a new place.”
Daniel sucked air in through his teeth. “That’ll be tricky, unless you’ve won the lottery.”
“I know. But it’s not hot air, I have a plan. First I need another job. This place is always after staff, and she won’t last.” The waitress was subjected to an analytical stare. “Far too much makeup.”
“That still wouldn’t be enough.”
“I know, I know.” He moved to the edge of his chair. “I need at least one other person to share - maybe someone who fancies breaking their parental ties.”
“Me!” Daniel stiffened in his seat.
“Don’t worry, it’s not a proposition. It would simply be a mutually beneficial arrangement. What do you think?”
“I…I know I.” Daniel put a hand to his forehead, stroking it back through his short hair as he exhaled. “Look, I’m meeting my old man in an hour. Let me get through that then I’ll give it some thought.”
Cav did a seated jig and gave a delicate clap. “Good - not a no then.”
‘Smilers Bar’ bristled with a mixture of students and locals eager to be part of the energetic scene. Sitting in the agreed corner of the room, Daniel sipped from a bottle of Desperados and scrutinised a 19 year old photo of his father, trying to age the face in his mind’s eye.
Someone sat down to his right. A moment later they edged closer: the waitress from the coffee house. She had obviously just applied another layer of makeup. “Hello again. I saw you in the…” She pointed in the direction of the café.
“I remember.” He decided the look she gave him earlier must have been a leer and looked away, but was aware she’d shuffled even nearer.
“I’m Kelly.” She persisted, holding out a hand.
“Look, I’m sorry, but I’m waiting to meet someone.” Turning away, he noticed Marko approaching.
Kelly leaned closer still. “I know.” Daniel turned, his mouth falling open. The proffered hand was large, the fingers twitching. “I’m Kelly Walters. K Walters.”
Before Daniel could structure thoughts a hand landed heavily on his shoulder. “Woody - chance of a lifetime.” Marko pointed across the room. Chantelle tugged down on the hem of her Lycra micro dress, tapped the tongue stud on her glass, and pulsed up an eyebrow. “I believe you know my ‘lady friend’. She’d like you to join us.” He bent down and spoke in a low voice, “She wants her trig function double-differentiating.” He gave a slow wink.
Daniel lifted a finger towards Kelly and tried to speak. “I – we – she...”
Marko looked at Kelly and recoiled slightly. “Whoa - didn’t twig you two were together.” He cupped a hand to Daniel’s ear. “Bet your browsing history really rocks.” He backed away, eyes lingering on Kelly.
Kelly’s face, framed by shoulder-length hair and a low fringe, flitted in and out of a smile while tears scoured channels in the makeup. Daniel squinted as he scrutinised the visage. The adornments masked a broad, angular face. Dad - the question, sprung into his mind. ‘D’ was on his lips when Selina emerged from the crowd. Kelly erupted out of her seat and barrelled her way to the door.
Daniel followed, slaloming through the clientele until Selina stepped in front of him. “Mum!” His eyes followed Kelly out. “I need to go.”
“Who was that?” Selina gestured towards the door. “I thought you were meeting your father.”
She was eased aside as he answered, “Dad. I think.” Leaving Selina, mouth agape, he continued in pursuit.
Once outside, he saw Kelly hurrying along the street and spontaneously called out, “Dad.”
Conversations between the al fresco drinkers were put on hold when Kelly stopped and looked back. Expectant faces waited for a conclusion to the impromptu cliffhanger.
Selina appeared at Daniel’s shoulder. “That’s Kevin?” Kelly set off again. A disappointed sigh rippled through the onlookers.
Within seconds Daniel caught her up and walked alongside. “I thought we were going to talk. Stop - we’ll go somewhere and talk.” She did not react. He slowed and raised his voice, “That’s the least you can do.”
She stopped and turned. “I’m sorry. You’re right. It’s just, I wasn’t expecting to see Selina - I panicked.”
“Kevin, is that really you?” Selina steadied herself by holding a fence as she approached.
Kelly looked down. “Yes, I used to be Kevin Walters. I was your husband.”
Daniel took hold of Selina’s hand. “I know somewhere that’ll be quiet where we can talk, all three of us.”
Aside from the attendant behind the counter, a man with a ginger beard wearing a Greenpeace T-shirt, the Organic Café was deserted. Selina sat at an alcove table, Daniel ordered coffee, and Kelly headed for the toilet.
Daniel reached for his mother’s hand as he sat down. “I knew you wanted answers as much as me, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t.” He squeezed her hand then released it. “Thought I knew how this would play out. I’d blow off his excuses, look him in the eye, and tell him to do one.” He stroked his chin. “But now – Kelly – surreal. You had no clue?”
Selina’s eyes focussed on a distant point. “He liked to wear my knickers when we, you know - did it.” Daniel grimaced. “And he was so good with his ton-”
“Enough...” He held up a hand. “Wish I’d never asked.”
Her makeup mask restored, Kelly slid onto the seat opposite as three mugs of coffee were delivered to the table. She waited until the waiter was out of ear shot before speaking, “I know I must have hurt you terribly,” her eyes started to water up again as she looked at Selina, “and there is no way to make that right.”
“When you left the way you did, it changed me. I couldn’t trust anymore. I turned into a person I don’t like very much. But I had a child to raise, and I never flinched from that. I never let him down.” Selina folded her arms, her face set.
Kelly took a deep breath, held it for a moment then exhaled. “I let you both down.”
Daniel leaned forward. “I’d like you to tell us why you left. Stating the obvious, but it seems like there’s a story.” He indicated her face.
“I’ve been hoping for this chance for 18 years, but I’m so frightened right now. I’m afraid that after this even hope will be gone, you’ll cut me out of your lives forever.” She shook her head. “I know I have no right to ask for anything. All I can do is tell you why I did what I did.”
Daniel slipped an arm round his mother’s shoulders and pulled her close. “We’re listening.”
“I was a boy, a man, but I always felt that was wrong. By the time I met you I knew I was a woman inside. I wasn’t trying to put on a show, I was attracted to women, to you – still am.” Selina frowned and Daniel wrinkled his nose. “I kept thinking I’d confront it. Maybe I was gutless, but it never seemed like the right time. Things changed when you told me you were pregnant, it brought things into sharp focus. I was looking at long term commitment, there would be no end to the turmoil inside me, to living the lie. One night I sat looking at a tumbler of brandy and a pile of sleeping tablets for over an hour, seriously considering taking the easy way out.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Selina’s voice was trill. Sensing her emotion, Daniel gave her a squeeze.
“I tried. But when it came to it, when I looked you in the face, I couldn’t say it, couldn’t let you down. So I went back to hiding my turmoil behind a mask.” Her head sank. “The day your child is born should be the happiest of your life.”
“It was, you should have been there.” Selina’s voice trailed into a sob.
“My mind was twisted in knots. All I could feel was a trap closing on me, locking me into an act I couldn’t keep up. So I was back to contemplating ending it all.” She looked into Daniel’s eyes. “At the moment you were born I was standing in the middle of the Humber Bridge looking down. That dark grey water looked so inviting, the ultimate painkiller.” She clasped her hands together. “Then I had a moment. I like to think it was the instant you arrived in the world. I had to try something that would let me be part of your lives, but as the real me. I’d looked things up, so I knew I could have the operation in Thailand, and there was enough money in our bank account. My plan was to have the operation, come back in six months, and hope you would allow me to contribute to your lives as Kelly, allow me to make amends in some way.”
Daniel made pointed eye contact. “So how come it took you 18 years to pitch up?”
Kelly rested a flatted hand on her stomach. “I contracted an infection during the operation. I died several times I’m told. By the time I recovered I owed money to the sort of people who don’t negotiate terms. I had to work to pay off the debt, existing on the hope that one day I would be sitting here telling you why.”
Daniel grimaced and dipped his eyes. “So you are actually a woman now, tackle removed and everything?”
“Yes, as far as it’s medically possible I’m the woman I always should have been.” Hands palm down on the table she took a deep breath. “I’ve never thought past this day.” A hand edged towards Selina. “But I still love you, I always have.”
As the hand came near Selina got up and walked away. Kelly started to follow but Daniel made a stop gesture and went to his mother. She stood near the door leaning on a table for support. “Come on, let’s go home,” he said, shooting Kelly a glance. “There might have been reasons, but he deserted us, plain and simple.” Selina’s head turned to meet Kelly’s pleading gaze as Daniel helped her through the door.
Two cardboard boxes stood on the kitchen counter. Opening the flap on one of them, Selina lifted out a folded shirt. “These are the last of your clothes I found dotted about.” She pointed at the other box. “And that’s the junk from the bottom of your wardrobe.” She put one box on top of the other. “Now, are you eating proper meals, would you like me to knock a pie up for you to take with you?”
Daniel moved the boxes. “Nice of you to offer, but–”
“Ooo - that would be lovely, Mrs W.” Cav gave an exaggerated grin as he breezed through.
“No it wouldn’t…Well it would be lovely, but you don’t need to.”
Mixing bowls were already out of the cupboard. “It’s no trouble. I’ll do a steak and mushroom, and an apple.”
Daniel rolled his eyes. He sighed then kissed his mother on the back of the head. “Thank you.” Cav was in the back garden with Kelly, and was looking in through the window. Daniel shot him a glare then slid it across to Kelly.
Selina mixed flour and butter as she spoke, “I know you’re not happy about me and Kelly getting back together, but I’m asking you to make an effort, find some time to get to know her.”
“He deserted you, and his tragic little tale doesn’t add up,” said Daniel, still glaring.
A ball of pastry slapped down on the worktop. “He’s a she, Kelly. And there’s probably more to tell, she’s been gone 18 years.” Her eyes lifted, a smile creeping onto her lips. “But I’m not bothered. Like I told you, even as Kelly she still gives me that feeling…I don’t know what sexual orientation box that puts me in, and I don’t care what anyone thinks.” She sprinkled flour on the worktop. “Except you, I care what you think - won’t you try?”
“Hmm,” He winced, “I’m really busy right now.”
The pastry was spun and rolled. “Find some time - please.” She inverted her smile comically, flour whitening the end of her nose.
Daniel gave a muted smile. “I’ll see what I can do.” He brushed flour from her nose. “I’m glad you’re happy.”
In the garden, Kelly watched Selina and Daniel as she spoke, “How did you recognise me, that day in the café?”
“I’m a student of looks. But the way you stared at Daniel, I’d never seen that look before.” Cav formed a square in front of his face using thumbs and index fingers. “And I can usually see through a façade.” He rested a hand on a hip and pressed a finger into Kelly’s chest. “And yours needs work girl. Didn’t take a genius to join the dots.”
“I suppose, as everything seems to have worked out, I should thank you for the advice.” She glanced inside the house again. “I’m still not comfortable about not telling the whole truth.”
Cav gave her an intense look. “You haven’t lied, you just missed some parts out. And believe me, the drug mule years, your handlers being shot by the police, and you being wanted for questioning – best forgotten.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right. I didn’t spend the whole of my two years doing psychology in the Red Lion.”
Standing in the front garden, Daniel holding the boxes and Cav the two pies, the four exchanged smiles. “Thanks for these, Mrs W.” Cav lifted the pies.
“My pleasure.” Selina narrowed one eye. “I hope you boys are doing your uni work, and not off chasing girls every night.”
Daniel’s lips parted as he stared at Selina. Cav continued without reaction, “Wouldn’t dream of it, Mrs W.” He flicked a hair into place. “And what are you crazy kids getting up to tonight?”
“Actually,” said Selina, reaching for Kelly’s hand, “we’re babysitting for Chantelle.”
Daniel’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Well, you shouldn’t judge, should you.” Kelly and Selina gazed into each other’s eyes.
“Time to catch the bus.” Daniel hugged Selina. After some awkward manoeuvring, with his mouth close to Kelly’s ear, he smiled as he whispered in a rasp, “Hurt her again and being a woman won’t save you.”
As they parted, Kelly reached for Selina’s hand again, clasping it and giving a nod.
“Bye, Mrs W’s,” said Cav as they headed off. He gave Daniel a sideways glance. “I suppose you’ll be out again tonight.”
“Don’t be giving it all that, acting like my mother.” He looked back. Still holding hands, Selina and Kelly waved. “I’m all covered on the mother front.”