I was thinking about this last night. It is a true story, and – since almost everyone involved in it is dead – none of it really matters now. It’s a little bleak, but it is not particularly intended to be sad. There must be many stories like this – you probably have some of your own. I have never written it down or talked much about it, so the main point of setting it down here is to scratch at it a little and see how I feel about it. To maintain the appropriate measure of delicacy, of course, names and places are amended slightly.
I never had a brother. The nearest approximation to a brother I had was a boy named Norman I grew up with. We used to see a lot of each other from a very early age, since my mother used to look after him often when his own mother was at work. So Norman and I were close friends for many years.
Norman’s mum had been in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) towards the end of WW2, and she was posted to an admin job in the South of England, where she met – and became friendly with – a very handsome young GI named Charles, who was involved in the supply arrangements for D-Day.
Almost immediately after VE Day, the couple married (I’ve seen the wedding photograph) and the young bride soon returned to live with her mother in a rather dismal industrial town in Lancashire, while Charles (who was required to remain for a while at his posting in the South) visited them when he could get leave. It seems it didn’t go very well. There are sad descriptions of Charles (who was from Missouri) sitting on the step of the little back yard to watch the sun setting, terminally homesick, and by the time Norman was born the next year, after one of the hardest winters on record, Charles had already gone back to the States.
Norman grew up without a father, and he and I never mentioned the fact. Elsewhere I heard disapproving mention of this terrible disappearing act, but it was not the sort of thing that got talked about in front of children, so Norman’s lack of a dad just became one more tiny human tragedy in the vast human awfulness which is the legacy of war. In adult life, prompted by greater self-assurance and beer, I once asked him if he had ever made contact with his father, and got a good-humoured but dismissive reference to “Vanishing Charlie”, so I never approached the subject again. Charles was a bad person, a loser and a betrayer, and was not talked about.
Many years passed, and Norman – who never had an awful lot of luck, come to think of it – died in very early middle age of cancer. His mother survived him by a number of years, for most of which she was in a state of dementia. When she, too, passed away, Norman’s widow went to help the Executors to sort out the mother’s estate and go through her papers.
There was a mass of stuff – mostly rubbish – but there was a sealed parcel of letters from America. It seems that for a couple of years after 1946 Charles wrote frequently to his wife of his wish to see his new son, pleading with her to come to join him in Missouri – as they “had agreed” – so that they could be a “real family”. Included in the letters were the immigration papers appropriate to a GI’s family, and forms which could be exchanged for boat tickets.
So appears The Alternative Plot, dear reader. Norman and his mum were not deserted by his father after all. The truth is that Norman’s mother had unilaterally decided not to go to join him. Maybe her decision was the correct one – who knows? – but it means that Norman lived his entire life without ever knowing the truth. In Ending B of the theoretical movie, Norman would have gone to meet his father in the New World, and they would have rushed into each other’s arms while the sun shone on the golden wheat fields and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang the big theme. Well, no – the reality is not like that. Norman never knew any of this. Perhaps it’s just as well he didn’t, but sometimes – mostly at 2am when I can’t sleep – it plays on my mind a bit.
But, eventually, none of it matters now.