"Mummy, where's my daddy?" Ryan was four years old and knew that other children had a daddy as well as a mummy.
"You don't have one."
At the time he accepted this, just as he accepted everything his mother told him, and in any case she immediately distracted him with the offer of some ice cream.
While his mother was at work she left him with Mrs Garner, who lived nearby and whose son, Barry, was the same age as Ryan. By the time the boys had started attending the same school they'd been best friends for as long as they could remember. Although Barry was just a couple of months older than Ryan, he appeared to know so much more about everything, possibly because he had two older brothers.
Barry was accustomed to his brothers scoffing at his ignorance of worldly things, so he enjoyed the feeling of superiority he got whenever he had the opportunity to share his superior knowledge with a very naive Ryan. One such opportunity came along when they were five years old. Barry wanted to know where Ryan's daddy was, and Ryan said that he didn't have one.
"Oh, you must have a daddy somewhere," Barry said confidently.
"Duh! You're stupid! You need a daddy to make a baby."
This was by no means the first time that Barry had accused him of being stupid, and Ryan knew his friend didn't really mean it as an insult. He didn't respond but instead silently considered this piece of information. Nothing Barry had told him so far had proved to be false, so he accepted this particular statement at face value.
"Maybe you're divorced," Barry suggested helpfully.
"Yeah. It means your daddy's gone away. Fat David's daddy went away last year, and Glen says he's divorced. "
Glen was Barry's nine-year-old brother, and the boy referred to as Fat David was in their school but a year older than Ryan, who knew of him only because the name was often cruelly shouted across the playground.
"But my daddy never went away. He was never here," Ryan said with a puzzled frown. Barry just shrugged and, becoming bored with the topic, went back to watching cartoons on TV. That night Ryan brought up the subject with his mother while she was getting him ready for bed.
"Mummy, are we divorced?"
"Whatever do you mean?" she said, shocked that her baby would know such a word.
"Barry says it means my daddy's run away."
"You shouldn't take any notice of what he says. He's just a silly child. Didn't I tell you that you don't have a daddy?"
"But Barry says I have to have a daddy because you need a daddy to make a baby."
As soon as the words left his mouth he knew he'd said something bad because he recognised the signs of his mother's anger. She frowned and glared at him, her nostrils flaring and her lips tightening. He didn't know what he'd done wrong but he cringed slightly, wondering if he'd been bad enough to deserve a slap. He relaxed a little when, after a couple of seconds of silence, she didn't raise a hand.
"What else did he say about making babies?"
Her tone was threatening and ominous, so he blurted out a rapid reply. "N-nothing. Honest!"
"Good," she said a little less harshly. Ryan relaxed a little more, but his tentative smile faded when she spoke again, this time holding his arms to his sides tightly and speaking sternly. "Making babies is a very serious thing that mummies and daddies do. Little children should never even talk about it."
"No, Mummy. Sorry, Mummy."
"Good. Now get into bed."
For a long time after that Ryan never discussed the subject of daddies with anyone, especially not his mother, and his friends just assumed that his parents were indeed divorced.
When Ryan was ten years old his class was given a series of lessons in Human Reproduction and Personal Relationships, which all the children just referred to simply as 'Sex Ed'. Barry appeared to pay especially close attention to the illustrations, even though he'd previously made it clear to Ryan that he already knew everything about the subject. Ryan instinctively knew that it would be better if he never mentioned these lessons to his mother. However, a few months later, his mother overheard him talking on the phone.
"Who told you that? How would your brother know? But she's too young to have a baby..."
At that point she snatched the phone out of his hands and spoke into it. "Ryan has to go now. He has to do his homework."
"Mum!" he protested as she hung up. "I've already done all my homework."
"Who were you talking to?" she demanded.
"Just Barry," he mumbled, wondering what he'd done to get into trouble this time.
"And who is this girl who's going to have a baby?" Her voice was superficially calm but he recognised all too well the ominous undertones.
"The girl you mentioned."
"Oh, Glen says it's a girl in his class, but he often tells Barry stuff that's not true."
"Well, it had better not be true. And if it's not true then you and Barry shouldn't be discussing such disgusting rumours."
"Don't 'but' me, young man! And don't interrupt. If you interrupt me again you'll feel the back of my hand," she growled. She paused for a few seconds, frowning in thought, before speaking again. "When a man and a woman love one another a lot they do, er, private things so that out of their love a child can be brought into the world."
"Oh, no!" Ryan thought. "I hope she's not going to start on about the birds and bees!" So great was his desire to avoid any such embarrassment that without any thought he muttered, "We already did that stuff at school."
"Stuff? What stuff?" she sputtered, taken by surprise.
"Ya know, the, er, the making babies stuff. In Sex Ed." He blushed and looked down at the floor.
"What? I thought they had to ask my permission to do that!" she said, temporarily too shocked to be angry. Ryan just shrugged and continued studying the specks of fluff on the carpet, so she continued, "Anyway, I'll look into that later."
She paused again and took a deep breath before returning to her original topic. "As I was saying, and as I hope the school made clear, when a man and woman love one another they can do things to make a baby. This turns something bestial into an act of love..."
"Ryan, I swear if you interrupt me once more I'll slap you into the middle of next week! Surely you know what bestial means? I means being or acting like a beast."
"Of course I knew that!" he thought, biting his lip and realising that it would be extremely unwise to speak. "But they never said it was bestial in Sex Ed."
"So for children who are too young to know about love and too young to care for a baby," she continued, "being intimate is just bestial. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Mum. Sorry, Mum." he said, still looking down at the floor.
Suddenly, his mother had a thought that horrified her. She didn't want to mention it, but she had to know. "In those classes, did, erm, did they mention, erm, men doing things with men?"
Ryan knew her well enough to realise that the truth would be a very bad idea, so, without looking up, he lied. "No, Mum."
"Good," she replied, breathing a sigh of relief. "Because a man being intimate, doing things with another man, is even more bestial and totally disgusting."
"Yes, Mum," he mumbled.
Having dealt with the matter in what she thought was an appropriate manner, she turned away from him and began considering what she was going to do about the school exposing her son to 'Sex Ed' without her permission. Ryan, whose mind had started racing while he was still apologising, decided to take a huge risk and use this opportunity to raise a question that had been in his mind for a long time.
"Mum, erm, if I don't have a dad somewhere, how did I get here? Am I adopted?" He looked up at her, and as he awaited her response he trembled a little but held his ground.
She turned to face him, and her face initially clouded with anger, but for a few seconds she remained silent, as if trying to decide how to respond. Ryan, who'd rarely seen her looking so uncertain, began to feel even more nervous.
"No, you're not adopted," she said gently, though her voice rasped a little. She forced her lips into a smile.
"So what about my..." he began.
"Enough!" his mother interrupted. She knew what he was about to ask, and her smiling mask suddenly vanished. Then in a carefully controlled voice that showed no emotion, as if it were a matter of absolutely no consequence, she added, "You're father's dead."
"Wh-what happened to him?" he asked, shocked as much by the way she'd made the announcement as by the information it conveyed.
"It's not something I want to talk about. Not only does it hurt me to think about him, but it's not appropriate to discuss such morbid things with a young boy. Now, go to your room and give me some peace and quiet."
Realising that he's already taken more than enough risks for one day, he knew better than to protest, and without a word he obeyed her instructions.
Ryan was eleven years old and had just started attending secondary school when he discovered that he loved rugby. Having started a growth spurt that provided him with an excellent physique for the sport, he was invited to try out for the school's under-thirteens team. Bursting with pride, he passed on this news to his mother, only to be disappointed by her less than enthusiastic response.
"But rugby's a dangerous sport," she said. "Suppose you get hurt? I don't want my baby to end up with a broken neck and paralysed."
"I'm not a baby! I'll be twelve soon. And I'm really good at it. And you only get hurt if you don't know what you're doing." He stood stiffly, his fingernails digging into his palms and his eyes conveying both challenge and pleading.
She stood, frowning in thought for a while, then the shadow of a smile curved her lips. "Alright, then. I suppose you're not really a baby any more, and at least getting involved in sports may keep you too busy to get involved in other things."
He didn't really understand what 'other things' she was talking about and he didn't care. As far as he was concerned he'd got what he wanted despite her apparent reluctance, and that was a rare victory.
By the time he was thirteen he was taller and more muscular than many boys who were a couple of years older, and he'd made it onto the school's under-fifteens rugby team. As part of that illustrious and successful team, he was expected to join them on their annual two-week trip to France, and for that he needed to get a passport. His mother was proud of his achievements, though she didn't show it, and she agreed to take care of his passport application.
For reasons that Ryan didn't understand at the time, she insisted that he wasn't around when she gathered together the necessary documentation and filled in the forms. The only thing Ryan had to do was to get the requisite photographs on his way home from school one day. He was now old enough not to require the services of Mrs Garner, so when he got home with the photos he was alone in the house.
It occurred to him that the safest thing to do with the photos would be to put them in the large envelope that he knew contained the rest of the application documents. Despite the fact that he wasn't allowed to go into his mother's room without specific permission, he thought that the importance of the task would justify a brief incursion. As he picked up the envelope from her dressing table, he couldn't resist the urge to look inside, and that's when he saw his birth certificate.
"Did you remember the photographs?" his mother asked as soon as she came home.
"I hope you made sure they're the proper size and format," she said as she took off her coat. "I don't want to have to pay for another set to be done. Where are they? Let me see."
She held out her hand expectantly. Ryan, whose thoughts up until then had been absorbed in the mystery of his birth certificate, suddenly realised that he'd made a mistake and would be in deep trouble.
"Erm, I put them in the envelope with rest of the stuff," he said hesitantly. Then, feeling that his excuse was weaker than he'd initially thought, he added feebly, "Just to be safe."
"You went into my room without permission?" she asked, aghast. Then, as anger began to bubble through her shock, she slapped his left cheek, and on the return swing the back of her hand collided with his right ear.
He ran out of their tiny flat, not because he was afraid of receiving more blows but because he just needed to get away from her. However, he knew any escape would be temporary, because without her he'd be totally alone in the world. He had no aunts or uncles, and she'd told him that her parents had both died before he was born. So no matter how angry and frustrated she made him feel, he had to accept it .
After he reached the street, he continued running, enjoying his speed, the feel of the cold air brushing against his exposed skin, and the sheer joy of physical activity. When he'd set off he had no conscious destination, but he soon found himself heading toward Barry's house. He often went to see his best friend when he needed to get away from his mother, and Barry always provided a sympathetic ear.
"Oh, hello, Ryan. I wasn't expecting you," Mrs Garner said when she opened the door. "What on earth are you doing outside in this weather without a coat?"
"Is Barry in?"
"Yes, he's in his room." She stood aside to let him in, and as he passed her she added, "We've just finished eating, but there are some leftovers if you're hungry."
He politely declined her offer and made his way up to Barry's room, where he let himself in without knocking. Barry, who was sitting on his bed playing one of his computer games, was startled by this sudden entrance and blinked at him in surprise.
"I had to get away," Ryan said, and his friend understood exactly what he meant.
"What is it this time?" Barry asked, smiling wryly and patting the bed as an invitation for Ryan to sit next to him.
Without answering the question, Ryan merely sighed, shrugged, and flopped down beside Barry, who'd not yet experienced a growth spurt and was considerably smaller.
"I just saw my birth certificate," Ryan said eventually.
"The bit for my father's name is just blank. Nothing. Is that even allowed?"
"I guess it must be."
"But why? What's it mean?"
Barry shrugged and frowned in thought. "I s'pose it means no one knows who your dad is."
"How can Mum not know, Stupid."
Indignant that Ryan should use that particular insult on him, Barry took a little time to think up what he considered to be an appropriately insulting and witty response. "Maybe your dad was a turkey baster."
"Ya know, like lesbians get hold of some spunk and use a turkey baster to squirt it inside," Barry replied, irritated that he had to explain his joke. "Glen says that's how they make babies without having to have sex with a man."
"Your brother's sick," Ryan declared with a sneer. "Anyway, she can't be a lesbian cos she hates queers."
"Maybe she just hates gay men, not gay women."
"Nah," Ryan replied dismissively. "Man or woman, queer is queer, and they all make her sick."
Barry was now feeling quite annoyed. Despite the fact that Ryan had barged into his room uninvited, he'd offered him sanctuary and tried to cheer him up with a joke. However, all Ryan had done in return was to insult both him and his brother. He retaliated.
"Of course, there could be another reason your mum might not know who your dad was," he said snidely. "Maybe she had so many men that she couldn't keep track."
This shocked Ryan to the core, even though he realised that the suggestion was intended as a joke. As shock turned to anger, he stood up, turned to face his friend, and punched him full in the face. As soon as he recovered from the surprise of this sudden assault, Barry, who knew better than to get into a physical fight with the much bigger Ryan, just crouched down defensively and covered his face with his forearms. For some reason, this incensed Ryan even more, and he leaned over and began to pummel the other boy, who yelped and begged him to stop.
The door flew open and Glen, whose bedroom was just the other side of the thin plasterboard wall, came rushing in.
"What the fuck is going on here?" he demanded. He quickly assessed the situation, charged across the room, grabbed Ryan's shoulders, and pulled him away from his brother. Then he twisted Ryan round, pushed him back against the wall, and snarled into his face. "Why not try hitting someone your own size, you big bully?"
Squirming free, Ryan tried to lash out at Glen, but by this time he was beginning to regain control of his emotions, and the attempt to hit the older boy was half-hearted. Glen's return punch, however, was not at all half-hearted, and it landed hard just on the side of Ryan's nose. A second punch hit Ryan's cheek, making him feel dizzy, and then Glen, realising that he's already won, turned away from him and went to see to his brother.
Barry, sickened by all the violence, just stayed where he was, his hand in front of his face as he tried to prevent the blood from his nose dripping onto the bed. Glen grabbed a handful of tissues from the bedside table and handed them to his brother, who held them to his nose. By this time, Ryan's anger was fading and was being replaced by embarrassment and shame. He fled downstairs and out of the house.
Once outside, he discovered that blood was dripping slowly from his own nostrils, but he had no tissues or handkerchief with him, so he just pinched his nose in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Doing that, however, caused him to wince with pain and increased the flow of tears from his eyes. He wandered the dark and almost deserted streets for a while until the cold forced him to go home.
Meanwhile, his mother had been sitting in her armchair, watching TV, her eyes frequently glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece. As soon as she heard the front door open and close, and before he came into sight, she stood up.
"Where have you been?" she called out, making sure she sounded firm and stern as she tried to keep the worry out of her voice. "You've missed dinner, so you'll just have to..."
At that point, she was made temporarily speechless as her son appeared in the living room doorway, shivering and with blood on his face and shirt.
"What happened to you?" she asked, trying unsuccessfully to maintain her tone of righteous anger. "Oh, Ryan, have you been fighting?"
He remained silent, and as their eyes met he managed to inject a hint of defiance into his expression of guilt and embarrassment.
"You look as if you're half frozen. Go and have hot bath and get cleaned up."
"I saw my birth certificate," he said, ignoring her instructions. "My dad's not on it, but you must know who he is."
"Of course I know!"
"So I'm not prepared to hold any sort of conversation with you while you stand there covered in blood. And in any case, your recent behaviour makes me doubt that you're mature enough yet to have a conversation about your father. Now go!"
"But..." he began. However, he was silenced by her expression, which he knew from experience meant that she was just a hair's breadth away from losing control of her temper.
"And when you've finished wait for me in your room," she added as he turned away.
Dressed in clean tee shirt and shorts, he sat on his bed, absent-mindedly flicking through a rugby magazine while he nervously waited for his mother. His stomach rumbled and he felt the pangs of hunger, but he didn't dare go downstairs to find something to eat. He knew that what had happened that evening had already made it likely that he'd be receiving some sort of punishment, and he was afraid that if he antagonised his mother any further she might not allow him to go on the trip to France.
When she eventually appeared, she was carrying a plate of sandwiches and a glass of milk, and her frown seemed to be more pensive than angry.
"I think that perhaps you'll cause fewer problems in future if I tell you now about your father," she said as she put the plate and glass on the bedside table. "The reason I didn't tell you before is that I wanted to wait until you were old enough and mature enough to understand." She paused and sighed before adding, "And quite frankly, I'm still not sure that you're mature enough, now."
He was about to protest that of course he was old enough, but he didn't want to risk giving her an excuse to divert the conversation into a debate about his degree of maturity. In fact, he was so anxious to hear what she had to say about his father that his hunger had been pushed to the back of his mind and was now barely noticeable. She sat at the foot of the bed and twisted her body around so she could face him.
"As I hope you will understand by now," she continued solemnly, "when a man and a woman love one another they get married and, well, do the things that show their love so that they can make a baby."
"Yes," he said, nodding impatiently. "So you loved my dad. And didn't you get married? And..."
"Ryan! If you're going to interrupt me with questions then it just proves you're not mature enough to be told these things yet. Just one more interruption and I'll leave."
"Okay, Mum. Sorry, Mum," he agreed quickly, sensing that she would grasp at any excuse to end the conversation.
"Very well, then," his mother said, nodding her acceptance of his apology. "Now, when I was a student at university I fell in love with a young man. I thought that he was good, kind, and very clever. Most of all, I thought that he loved me as much as I loved him. But I didn't realise that I was just deceived by his good looks and charm."
For a very brief moment he thought he saw sadness in her eyes, but perhaps he was mistaken because they quickly flashed with anger, and her expression hardened. He desperately wanted to ask so many things about his father, but he didn't dare to do so.
"Never let appearances deceive you. Evil can hide behind beauty and charm," she continued. "Anyway, one night I went out with this young man. He got me very drunk and, well, then he showed his true nature and took advantage of me. The effects of the alcohol meant that I couldn't resist when he gave in to his bestial urges."
She paused and looked him in the eye. "I'm sure you're old enough to know what I mean." Ryan, horrified by this revelation, just nodded.
"Of course, there was no point in reporting him because it would just be my word against his, but I'm sure that I don't need to tell you that after that night I refused to have any more to do with him, even when I found out I was pregnant."
Ryan was speechless with shock. In all of the many fantasies he'd had about his unknown father, the man had always been good, kind, and even sometimes a tragic hero. Now that his mother had told him the sort of person his father had been, he wondered how she could have been so deceived and how she could ever have actually loved such a man. His mother, who was carefully studying his face, was satisfied and relieved by his reaction.
"So, as I had no family to help, I had to leave university and get a job so that I could look after you and support us both."
"But you said he was dead." Ryan dared to say something now that she's apparently finished.
"And I hope now you understand why I said that," she said with a rare softness. "You were too young until now for the full story. And in a way he is dead to us. He's gone forever and we never need to mention the subject again. Now eat your sandwiches, brush your teeth, and go to sleep."
She stood up, clearly signaling that the conversation was over, and Ryan, who already had enough to think about, didn't risk asking any of the myriad questions that swirled around in his mind.
At school the next morning he was tired from lack of sleep and preoccupied by thoughts about what his mother had told him. His nose was sore and swollen, there were bruises under his eyes, and the side of his head was tender. During their shared morning classes, he avoided getting within speaking distance of Barry, whose swollen nose and bruised eyes were even worse than his own. Barry kept casting questioning looks in his direction, but when their eyes happened to meet, Ryan quickly looked away.
He certainly didn't bear any ill feeling toward Barry, but he felt embarrassed by his loss of temper and ashamed of attacking his best friend. Ryan desperately wanted to mend things between them, not least because Barry was the only person he could really confide in. However, he didn't know how to fix things and was afraid of the response he might receive. So it was Barry who made the first move as they were leaving the classroom to take their lunch break.
"You look like a giant panda," he said with an uncertain, lopsided grin.
"So do you," Ryan replied warily. The tide of boys and girls passed them by, leaving them almost alone and facing one another uncomfortably in the corridor. "I'm sorry for hitting you."
"I thought you'd know I was only joking and just trying to cheer you up," Barry rebuked gently.
"It's not the sort of thing to joke about."
"Yeah, I know that now!" Barry laughed, and then he winced with the resultant pain from his cut lip.
"I shouldn't have hit you, though," Ryan admitted. Then with a smile he added, "At least not quite so hard. Sorry."
"Maybe Glen shouldn't have hit you so hard, either."
"It's okay." Ryan shrugged. Then, a little wistfully, he added, "You're lucky to have such a protective big brother."
"Yeah. So, anyway, we're all quits now, then?"
"Yeah!" Ryan responded, greatly relieved.
"Did you find out anything more about the, er, certificate?" Barry asked quietly. Although he couldn't see anyone who might be close enough to overhear, he realised that discretion was essential.
"Mum talked to me about it last night," Ryan said, nodding.
"Want to come round after school and tell me about it?" Barry asked, hoping that his curiosity didn't make him sound too eager. However, Ryan didn't respond and appeared to be uncertain, so he added, "Unless it's a secret or too private."
"It's not that. I was just worried about your mum and dad. I guess I won't be very popular in your house after they saw what I did to you."
"Oh, I already took care of that. They don't blame it all on you."
"You didn't tell them what you said, did you? Or what I'd told you?" Ryan felt rising panic.
"No, of course not!" Barry reassured him. "I got Glen to say that you and me had been fighting and that he'd broke us up."
"How did you get him to do that?"
"Ya mean, erm, because of brotherly love and stuff?" Ryan asked doubtfully. Not only had he no personal experience of brotherly love but also he didn't recall seeing very much of it in the Garner household.
"No, of course not!" Barry laughed as if his friend had said something extremely funny. "I mean when you have two older brothers you need to collect a lot of bargaining chips, and last night I cashed in a few of them."
"Bargaining chips?" Ryan asked, still confused.
"I'll tell you more tonight. Now, let's get some food. I'm bloody starving!"
After school, in the privacy of Barry's room, Ryan told his friend what his mother had said the previous night.
"Wow!" Barry couldn't think what else to say.
"So, it seems like my dad isn't the sort of person I really want to know about."
"At least you have an idea what he might look like."
"What d'ya mean?"
"Haven't you heard of genetics?" Barry teased. "Your mum is thin with goldy-blond hair and blue eyes. You're, well, chunky, and you've got very dark hair and brown eyes. If you don't look like your mum, you probably look like your dad."
By the time he was fourteen, Ryan had become one of the stars of the under sixteen rugby team, and everyone fully expected that within a year he would be promoted to the Second Fifteen or maybe even the First Fifteen. He was still particularly tall and well built for his age, and he was considered to be quite handsome. Because of his appearance and his sporting skills, he was very popular with the other students.
Many of the girls at the school had crushes on him, and in the course of just one year he'd had three girlfriends, but they were not at all serious. They never got beyond the stage of holding hands and occasionally kissing. However, soon after he was fifteen he had his first real romantic relationship, but even that lasted only a few months. He never, ever, mentioned his girlfriends to his mother, and when she occasionally asked him directly about such things, he just told her he was too busy with school and rugby to have time for girls. She always seemed satisfied with that answer.
The altercation following the discovery of the birth certificate had resulted in an even stronger friendship between Ryan and Barry. No matter how busy they might be with other things, they still spent most of their spare time together. Ryan had several times confided that he wished he had more family than just his mother, and he'd even confessed his ambivalent attitude toward the idea of trying to find his father.
One Sunday morning, just a few weeks before his sixteenth birthday, Ryan went round to see Barry and found his friend to be much more subdued than usual.
"So, what's the matter?" he asked as soon as they got into Barry's room.
"Nothing. Well, I'm not sure," Barry replied hesitantly.
"C'mon, spit it out," Ryan said, flopping onto the bed and giving a grin of encouragement.
Barry frowned and sat on the chair by his computer desk. "Well, with your birthday coming up, I was thinking of something nice to get you that wouldn't cost too much..."
"Aw, well, thanks. But you know you don't need to bother."
"Then I had an idea that seemed brilliant," Barry continued, ignoring the interruption. "But maybe it turned out not to be. And, well, I was awake all night just trying to decide if I should even tell you about it."
"But now you've obviously decided to tell me whatever it is, otherwise you'd be leaving me so curious that I'd have to force it out of you, anyway."
"Yeah, well, I think so, but I'm still not really sure."
Ryan sighed in frustration. "C'mon, then. Out with it."
"Okay," Barry said. He took a deep breath before continuing, "Ya know mum's been interested in genealogy for a while, and I've been helping her with some internet stuff? Well, it seemed like it might be nice to try and do a family tree for you, at least for your mother's side of the family."
"And?" Ryan prompted when Barry seemed reluctant to continue.
"So, knowing your mum's full name, birthday and where she's from, it wasn't too hard to find out who her parents were and other information about them, like when they were born."
"So what did you find out?" Ryan asked, not even trying to suppress his eagerness.
"Okay," Barry said, then took another deep breath before continuing. "The first thing is that your grandparents weren't dead when you were born. Your grandfather didn't die until a couple of years after that, and, well, your grandmother is still alive."
"You're sure? Absolutely sure?" Ryan asked, hardly able to believe what he'd just heard.
Barry nodded, and for several seconds Ryan was unable to speak. Then, with a voice cracking with emotion, he asked, "So you mean my mum lied to me? I do have a family?"
"At least you have a grandmother and an uncle. And, judging from his birth date, he must be your mum's twin."
Again Ryan remained silent for a while as he processed this information. He was angry with his mother for deceiving him, but he was also curious about why she'd done so, and he was excited about the possibilities that the news implied.
"So if my grandma and uncle knew Mum's friends, maybe they could have some idea who my dad is," he suggested.
"Well, I found your grandmother on the electoral register, and even in the phone book. She lives near Manchester. But I thought it would be best to see how you reacted to that before trying to look up your uncle."
"And you're really sure about all this?" Ryan asked. Although he trusted his friend, he still found it difficult to believe.
"I wouldn't have mentioned it to you without double-checking." Barry sat down again in front of his computer, switched on the display and gestured toward it. "You can check it yourself."
"Okay, show me.""
A few minutes later, Ryan was convinced that all the evidence supported his friend's conclusions, but he was still struggling to absorb the implications.
"Sorry to drop all this on you. I know it must be a big shock," Barry said sympathetically. "I'll go and get us some tea and give you time to think."
Without waiting for an answer, he stood up and left the room, giving Ryan privacy to contemplate the possibilities. Barry deliberately took his time, so almost twenty minutes had gone by before he returned with the tea, and he was considerably relieved to find that Ryan appeared to be quite calm.
"So, Mum's been lying to me all this time," Ryan said as Barry handed him the mug. "Every time I saw through one lie, she told me another. Why would she lie about all that? How can I tell if anything she ever told me was the truth?"
Barry knew that the questions were rhetorical, but even if they hadn't been, he wouldn't have had any answers. He just shrugged and sat on the bed next to his friend.
"I have a grandmother," Ryan said, the word feeling strange and unfamiliar. "It's a pity she lives so far away. Maybe she knows who my dad is. Maybe he's not such a bad person. Maybe she'd tell me the truth."
He turned his head to look directly into Barry's eyes and continued, "What should I do? Should I get in touch with her?"
"Perhaps. But before you do anything, before you decide what to do, you should take time to think things through," Barry replied thoughtfully. "You still depend on your mum. You still have to live with her. Whatever the reasons for the lies, she must think that they're good reasons. How would she react if you told her what you'd just found out? What would she do if she found out your were even considering contacting her mother?"
"What a mess!" Ryan muttered miserably as he began to contemplate his friend's words.
"Anyway, you don't need to make any quick decisions and you don't need to do anything right away. You've been trying to find out the truth about your dad for years, so what difference will it make to wait a bit longer?" Barry said. "And have you ever considered that you might not like the truth? What if your mum wasn't lying about your dad? Maybe sometimes there are things you're better off not knowing"
"It's always better to know the truth," Ryan asserted.
"Is it?" Barry said doubtfully, more to himself than to his companion.
Following his friend's advice, Ryan didn't take allow his new knowledge and renewed questions to push him into any immediate action. He realised that he daren't alienate his mother. He still depended on his mother for shelter, food, clothing, and all the other necessities of life. Apart from the lies and occasional violent outbursts, she'd always taken good care of him. She'd been the only family he'd ever known, and the grandmother and uncle were complete strangers who might not even want to communicate with him.
A few months later, the two friends received the results of their GCSE exams. As expected, Barry's grades were excellent, and he got a place in a nearby Sixth Form College. However, Ryan's grades were mediocre, and he was lucky to get an apprenticeship in local engineering firm. He was glad to be leaving school, and the only things he'd miss would be the rugby and seeing Barry every day.
A couple of days after the apprenticeship was confirmed, Barry suggested that they should celebrate and maybe have a few drinks. Of course they both knew the attitude of Ryan's mother toward alcohol, so it went without saying that any celebrating should be done in Barry's house. There the privacy of the children's rooms was respected, and an occasional beer at home was deemed to be acceptable for a sixteen year old.
Now that both of Barry's older brothers had left home, the Garners had a couple of spare beds, so Ryan made plans to stay overnight with them. That way, his mother wouldn't wait up for him and wouldn't smell alcohol on his breath.
"So, this is it then," Barry said as they opened their third bottle of beer. Although this was supposed to be a celebration, he didn't sound particularly happy.
"I'm starting work next week, not going to the gallows!" Ryan laughed.
"Yeah, you're right. It's really a chance for you to get a new start and get away from school. A new life."
"As soon as I can afford my own place, it will be a chance to get away from my mum!" Ryan grinned.
"In a couple of years I'll probably be going away to uni. I think I'll miss my mum." Barry admitted.
"I think I'd miss your mum, too!"
They both laughed and continued sipping beer for a while as they sat side by side on Barry's bed, listening to the sort of music that should have made them feel more cheerful.
"I've been thinking," Ryan said. "Maybe now would be a good time to try to get in touch with my mum's mum."
"You mean your grandma. Saying your mum's mum sounds a but clumsy."
"But saying grandma just feels strange when I've never even met the woman." Ryan took a drink from his bottle and added, "Anyway, what do you think? Should I try to get in touch now? How should I do it? Should I phone her?"
"Well, if it was me, I'd wait until I'd got my own place to live. But if you really have to get in touch now, I'd definitely not do it by phone."
"Well, think how you'd react if some total stranger phoned you out of the blue and said they were the son of a daughter you've not seen for years. It would be a bit of a shock, and you couldn't expect her to hold an intelligent conversation, even if she believed you. Maybe she thinks your mum's dead. Maybe she hates your mum. You don't know why your mum said her parents are dead."
"So, what would you do, then?"
"Mmm. Not sure," Barry said. He paused to consider things for a few seconds before
adding, "Maybe I'd write a little note, say who you're mum is and that you think your mum is her daughter. Then say you'd like to get in touch. Maybe you could enclose a photo of you and your mum so she knows it's not just a scam."
Ryan considered that for a few seconds and then grinned. "Yeah. That's a great idea. I'll probably do that."
"Another thing," Barry added. "If you use a return address, you should use mine. Your mum will get suspicious if any reply arrives at your house. In fact, maybe you should ask your grandma to reply by email."
"Good thinking," Ryan said, grinning. "Sometimes I think you're not as daft as you look."
They sat quietly and listened to the music until their bottles were empty. Ryan grinned and asked, "D'ya think your mum and dad will be okay with us having another beer?"
"I'll go and get a couple out of the fridge. They're bound to see me, and I'm sure they'll let me know if they don't approve."
A couple of minutes later, he returned with a bottle in each hand, handed one to Ryan, then sat next to him on the bed.
"A new start," Barry said, as if the phrase had some hidden meaning or significance.
Ryan looked at his friend and raised a questioning eyebrow. Barry frowned and nibbled on his lower lip, as if trying to make a difficult decision, then he spoke again.
"When I go to uni it will be a new start. A new life of freedom to be whatever I want."
"I'll drink to that!" Ryan grinned, clinked their bottles together, drank some beer, then added, "But I don't know why you're making such a big deal about it. You've always had much more freedom here than my mum's ever let me have."
"But at least you've been free to be who you are." Again, Barry's words seemed to imply a hidden meaning.
"I've never thought of you as a philosophical drunk," Ryan teased.
"Maybe you don't really know me as well as you think you do." Barry paused, and then added, "You mentioned you and Megan officially split up last night?"
Ryan, attributing the sudden apparent shift of topic to his friend's state of inebriation, replied, "Yeah, well, I'm leaving school and she's going to college, then probably she'll be going on to uni. And, like you said, it's a chance for a new start."
"I'm going to college and then probably to uni."
Immediately understanding what his friend meant, Ryan quickly reassured him. "Yeah, but me and you are different. You're as much my family as any blood-relative. We'll always be best mates, wherever we are."
The dominant emotions shown on Barry's face were happiness and relief, but Ryan thought there was also a hint of something else. However, he didn't have time to consider the matter further because Barry spoke again.
"So, last night was a long, tearful farewell?" he teased.
"Actually, it was a brilliant farewell fuck!"
"Now why doesn't that surprise me?" Barry grinned ruefully. "Wasn't Megan your third girlfriend since Karen?"
"Mmm," Ryan frowned pensively. "Fourth if you count Suzie."
"But she didn't even last a month. I'm not sure she counts."
"Well, it was a fun month!" Ryan licked his lips lasciviously.
"And your mum never knew about any of them?" It was partly a question and partly an expression of wonderment.
"Of course not. I'm good at keeping secrets." Ryan grinned, leaned back against the wall, took a sip from his beer bottle, and closed his eyes.
"So am I," Barry muttered quietly.
This utterance wasn't heard by Ryan, who was too busy remembering some of his more adventurous experiences with Suzie. He also didn't notice Barry frowning and chewing on his lower lip as he tried to decide how to move the conversation along in the desired direction.
"Haven't you ever wondered why I've never had a girlfriend?" he said eventually.
Ryan half opened his eyes and smiled lazily. "I don't think I ever really thought about it. Maybe it's because you're so ugly that no girl could possibly find you attractive," he suggested. Then, noticing the expression of hurt on his friend's face, he sat up. "Just joking! I suppose you were always just too busy being a swot."
Barry took a deep breath before he spoke. "Actually, it's because I'm gay." The look of determination in his eyes contradicted the uncertainty in his voice.
"Eh?" Barry was taken aback by his friend's totally unexpected reaction to the revelation.
"Okay, you got me. You got your revenge for my joke about you being ugly." Ryan grinned, then he frowned and added more seriously, "But even for you, that joke's in very bad taste."
"It's not a joke."
For several seconds Ryan stared at his friend in silence as he wondered if he'd really heard and understood those words correctly. He decided that it was best to assume this was just an annoying extension of an already bad joke, but he also wanted to remove any hint of doubt.
"If that's really true, how come I never suspected?" he challenged. "And why did you never tell me?"
"You know why."
The realisation that this wasn't a joke hit Ryan like a punch in the stomach. He stood up, carefully placed his half-full bottle on the small bedside table, and slowly turned to look down at Barry.
"So why tell me now?"
"Like we said. A new life, a new start, and freedom to be ourselves." Barry sounded weary, but an edge of defiance entered his voice as he continued, "No matter what happens I'm tired of pretending. "
Ryan's feeling of nausea was only partly washed away by a wave of cleansing anger, and he realised that he should leave. Deep inside he knew it would be a pity to end their friendship with either vomit or violence.
"I've got to go," he said with a gentleness that surprised both of them. "Lots of stuff to do."
"Okay," Barry said sadly, recognising the lie. "Phone me when you know what you're doing this weekend. Maybe we can have another couple of beers."
"Yeah," Ryan replied without conviction. Then, carefully avoiding meeting Barry's gaze, he grabbed his coat from the back of the chair and went to the door. Just before he disappeared from view, and without turning around, he added very quietly, "I wish you hadn't told me."
As he left the room and went downstairs, it occurred to him that maybe Barry had been right. Perhaps there were some things that were better left unknown.
Having told his mum that he would be staying at the Garners' house that night, Ryan wanted to make sure she was in bed and asleep before he went home. The last thing he needed was for his mum to yell at him and probably ground him if she smelled beer. Even if she didn't detect alcohol, there would be an inquisition about his change of plans. So he wandered around for a couple of hours, until he was absolutely sure she wouldn't be awake when he got home.
While he was walking, he had time to calm down and to think about what had just happened with Barry. Although he was academically only mediocre, Ryan wasn't stupid. In fact, the interviewers for the apprenticeship had been impressed by how bright and intelligent he was. He also had a good memory, and he noted that Barry's face that night had shown even more hurt and surprise than it had when Ryan had physically attacked him three years before.
Ryan realised that, just as on that previous occasion, his reactions had been purely emotional and without thought. He felt angry and betrayed. It was bad enough that the best friend he'd ever had turned out to be queer, but it was even worse to have had that knowledge forced upon him. Yet he also felt shame. Minutes after telling Barry that they'd be best mates forever, he'd hurt him and turned his back on him.
His mother always referred to gay people as queers, and when she mentioned them it was with disgust and hatred. Ryan sometimes wondered if there was something more personal involved than just a general disapproval on a matter of principle. On an intellectual level, Ryan knew that his mother's negative view was much more extreme than would be acceptable to most of society. However, his emotional response to homosexuals had been coloured by sixteen years of exposure to her attitudes.
Reason told him that he shouldn't have reacted so badly to Barry's announcement, and friendship told him that he should go back to Barry and apologise. On the other hand, his emotions told him that Barry should have kept the information to himself, and his pride told him that it was up to Barry to make the first move. By the time that he'd decided it was safe to go home, he still hadn't decided what to do.
Fortunately, his mother didn't hear him arrive home, and she went to work the next morning without even realising that he was in his bedroom. As he'd finished school and didn't start the apprenticeship until the following week, Ryan didn't have anything that he particularly needed to do. He no longer had a girlfriend, so couldn't use up his time with flirty texts or chats.
In such a situation, he would usually have met up with Barry, but he was too embarrassed to go to see him or even to phone him. In an ideal world, Barry would phone him and say the whole thing had been a joke that had got out of hand. However, he knew that the world wasn't ideal and that it hadn't been a joke.
Ryan remembered the only other time their friendship had been so strained. It had been Barry who'd made the first move to fix things. So he went for a run and spent the day moping about the house, thinking about when and what to write to his presumed grandmother, and hoping that his best friend would phone.
Meanwhile, Barry was also moping around his own house, spending most of his time brooding in his bedroom. He was hurt, and he felt betrayed by Ryan's reaction. Barry was tired of pretending and tired of hiding who he really was. He'd been screwing up his courage for months, trying to find the right time to come out to his best friend. Ryan had said that it was always better to know the truth, and then when he'd also said that Barry was family and that they'd always be mates, he'd thought the right time had eventually arrived.
After partially recovering from the shock of Ryan's reaction, Barry realised that it clearly hadn't been the right time. Then, with considerable bitterness, he thought that there probably never would have been a right time. He remembered all the occasions that he'd been there for Ryan, offering him a sympathetic ear and comfort when he had to get away from his mother. Despite that, when Barry had been at his most vulnerable, Ryan had rejected him.
Even as he wondered if Ryan would even talk to him again, however, he didn't regret revealing his sexuality, though he admitted that it might have been done in a better way at a better time. At least now he was free to be himself. Barry's thoughts were interrupted by a tapping on his open bedroom door.
"I've brought you some tea," his mum said gently.
"Thanks," he said, sitting up on his bed and smiling wanly. He didn't really feel like tea, but he welcomed the break from his own bitter thoughts.
"You still haven't heard from him, then?" she asked sympathetically as she handed him the mug.
"No. And you don't need to say 'I told you so'."
"I'd never say that, dear. I never even said that you shouldn't tell him. All I said was that you should think very carefully first."
"I did think carefully," he replied bitterly, "but it didn't do any good."
She sat down in the chair next to her son's bed, her heart aching at the sight of his unhappiness. "He's a bit wild, but a nice lad, really. His mum has some strange ideas, and he can't help being affected by them. Imagine if she was your mum."
"I'd have run away or killed myself by now," he said, grimacing.
"Anyway, he's strong willed and can think for himself, though he may need a bit of time to get used to the idea that you're not exactly as he thought you were. He'll probably get in touch when things have had time to sink in."
"What if he doesn't?"
"Then you should get in touch with him. You've been friends almost all of your lives, and you shouldn't give that up without a fight."
"But I've not done anything wrong, so why should it be me that makes the first move?"
"Because you're the stronger one."
She stood up, squeezed his shoulder, and left the room. His untouched tea was no longer warm enough to be drinkable, so he put it on the bedside table and lay back down.
As things turned out, it was indeed Barry who made the first move, and the following day, with more than a little trepidation, he phoned Ryan.
"Hi!" Ryan said happily. "I'm glad you called. I wanted to talk to you."
Pleased at this reception, Barry didn't point out that his friend could have called him at any time. "You, erm, wanted to talk about what I told you?"
"Yeah. You're idea about the letter was great, and I wanted to go over what I wanted to put in it." Ryan knew very well what Barry was referring to, but he didn't want to discuss it yet, if ever.
Barry's disappointment at that response was tempered by a hint of relief. He guessed that Ryan was still getting used to the idea of having a gay best friend and that it might take some time. He wasn't going to hide his sexuality from Ryan anymore, but if Ryan wanted to ignore it for the time being, then he'd accept that. The important thing was that they were still friends. He'd be ready to discuss his sexuality whenever Ryan was ready.
"Okay. I know your mum's at work, but it might still be best to do it here. Do you want to come over?"
"Yes, thanks. Is now okay?"
When he arrived at Barry's house, Mrs Garner opened the door and gave him a much warmer welcome than he'd been expecting. While he and Barry sat side by side working on drafts of the proposed letter, Ryan was a little less relaxed than usual. It wasn't that he was uncomfortable with the closeness they'd always shared, it was just that now he noticed it.
Eventually, they decided that short and simple would be best.
Dear Mrs Kennedy,
My name is Ryan Kennedy, and I'm the son of Helen Kennedy.
My mum told me her parents are dead, but I think she could be your daughter. Enclosed is a photo of mum and me taken last summer. If you recognise her, then I'd be very grateful if you'd contact me at the above address, or preferably at the email address below. Please don't try to contact my mum.
If I'm wrong about her being your daughter, please ignore this and accept my apologies.
"Well, that's it." Ryan said. "Let's print it off."
"Okay," Barry agreed. "When do you think you might send it?"
"If you can let me have a stamp, I was going to send it right away. I brought the photo with me"
"Are you sure?" Barry asked doubtfully. "Once you do that it can't be undone."
"Sometimes you just have to take a risk. Sometimes you have to do things that can't be undone," Ryan replied with determination. Then, averting his gaze, he added more quietly, "And sometimes you have to say things that can't be unsaid."
Barry understood the significance of what Ryan had just said, and he was pleased by what the words implied. However, he decided that it wouldn't be the right time to pursue the matter further.
"As you're in such a hurry," he said, "I'd better let you have a first class stamp, and with any luck she should get the letter tomorrow. As that's a Saturday it will give her the weekend to get over the shock."
"Shock?" Ryan echoed. "Don't you think she'll be pleased to know she has a grandson."
"Take my word for it. Pleased or not, she'll be shocked."
Shocked or not, Mrs Kennedy apparently didn't need the weekend to recover. The following afternoon, Ryan received an email. The email address that he'd put in the letter had been one of the private ones he'd set up for corresponding with girlfriends, and, at least as far as he knew, his mother didn't know it existed. However, as she was downstairs and didn't have much respect for his privacy, he decided not to read it straight away. Instead, he forwarded it to Barry, then immediately went to visit his friend.
"Did you get the email?" he asked Barry as soon as he got into to his room.
"You sent an email? When?"
"About ten minutes ago."
"Oh. It's been almost an hour since I checked. As you're here now, anyway, what's so urgent about the email?"
"It's from Mrs Kennedy."
Without bothering to ask why the email had been forwarded to him, Barry went to check for new messages.
"Here it is," he said, then he paused before opening it. "Do you want to read it in private?"
"Private? Do you and me do private anymore?" Ryan asked in mock amazement. "Now, hurry up and bloody well open it."
Ryan pulled up the spare chair, and the two of them read the message together.
It was wonderful to hear from you. So wonderful that I don't have words to express it. In fact, I'm so happy that I'm crying and having to take care not to drip onto the keyboard.
Yes, Helen, your mum, is my daughter. That makes you the grandson I thought I never had.
There's so much to say. I don't know where or how to begin. An email isn't the right place for what needs to be said, but I did want to reply as soon as I could. So here it is.
From your letter, I assume that Helen is well. I'm glad of that, though she caused us a lot of worry and pain. The fact that you exist proves she's not as bad as we'd thought. Don't worry, though, I know her well enough not to try to contact her or let her know you've been in touch. That's something we can deal with eventually.
As soon as I got your letter, I phoned Martin. Possibly you don't know you have an uncle or that he's Helen's twin. He's as happy as I am, and was even more so when I told him about the photo you sent. He was so excited that he interrupted our call to phone his partner, Dave. Of course, Dave was the happiest of us all.
Anyway, as soon as Dave gets back from work, he and Martin will drive over here and we'll all send you another email.
Bye for now.
Lots of love,
PS - I know I'm your grandmother, but it may take me a while to get used to thinking of myself as 'Gran'.
As they read through it, Ryan muttered the words "Bloody Hell!" several times, and when he finished reading, he said it again, but this time much more loudly.
"Well it seems like a lovely reply to me, even if some bits do seem a bit, erm, cryptic. Surely, it's at least as good as anything you expected."
"Yes, but." Ryan was lost for words. "Bloody Hell!"
"So now you have a family. And I get the feeling that 'partner' doesn't just mean a business partner," Barry said, not without a hint of smugness."
"Is it really that bad if you have a gay uncle as well as a gay friend?" Barry asked with a hint of sadness.
"Erm, no. It's not that. I just can't think of anything else to say. And, well, I was wondering if that might be something to do with why mum hates qu... gay people."
"I was beginning to think that maybe the shock of it all had given you a sort of temporary Tourette's," Barry said, smiling and feeling a little happier.
They read through the email again carefully, this time in silence.
"Can I stay here tonight?" Ryan asked when he'd finished studying it.
"Of course. Any particular reason?"
"Duh! I thought you're supposed to be the clever one. If they send an email tonight I want to download it and read it here. I can't risk mum seeing it."
"Oh right," Barry said, a little embarrassed that all the excitement had made him miss the obvious.
After Ryan had phoned his mum to say he was staying with Barry, they had a cup of tea.
"Does your mum know?" Ryan asked suddenly and for no apparent reason.
"About your gran? Of course not. I'd never tell anyone without your permission."
"No, erm, I meant, well, about you?"
"When did you tell her?"
"When I was fourteen. But she said she'd guessed when I was about twelve."
"I never guessed."
"You're not my mum," Barry said and grinned.
"Thank God!" Ryan laughed. Then, after a few seconds silence, he added, "What about the rest of your family?"
"I told Dad, with Mum there, a few weeks after I told Mum. My brothers don't know yet."
Barry thought that might have been the start of a proper conversation on the subject, but Ryan didn't pursue the matter. Instead, he asked if he could use Barry's computer to check his email.
"Of course you can," Barry said, "but from what the email said, Martin won't have got to your gran's yet."
"Well, there's no harm in checking," Ryan said, sitting at the computer desk.
Against all expectation, there was another email from Jean, saying simply that in all the excitement she'd forgotten to send an attachment, a photo of her and Martin. With Barry looking over his shoulder, he eagerly opened the attachment.
"Well, they certainly look like they could be your mum's mother and brother," Barry commented. "There's definitely a family resemblance."
Neither of them mentioned the fact that Ryan didn't look anything like either his uncle or his grandmother.
Both before and after they had dinner with Barry's parents, Ryan insisted on checking his email every fifteen minutes or so. Eventually, the expected email arrived, though not from Jean's address but from Martin's. Ryan sat at the computer desk and Barry stood behind him so that they could read it together.
This is Martin.
Dave, Mum and I are so happy that you got in touch. Especially Dave.
As soon as Dave finished work we came straight to Mum's so we could see the photo you sent. Until we actually saw it, we found it hard to believe you were real.
We'd love to meet you and catch up with what, for us, now seems like so many lost years. There's a lot of catching up to do, and I'm sure you'll have lots of questions.
I know that because of your mum it may be difficult to arrange a meeting. I won't say anything bad about her, but I grew up with her and know what she can be like. We've talked about her a lot over the years. We know she's not a bad person, but being hurt can make people do bad things.
Anyway, we'd love to at least hear your voice, so maybe you could phone me anytime you can manage it (my number is below). Tonight would be great. We're staying over at Mum's tonight.
Attached is a photo of me and Dave in Mum's garden. Maybe when you see it you'll guess why Dave is so excited.
The two friends were so eager to open the attachment that they both tried to grab the mouse at the same time, knocking it off the desk. As Ryan was sitting down, he picked up the mouse first and opened the file. The photo showed two men in their mid-thirties standing on a lawn and holding glasses of what appeared to be red wine. The shorter man had an arm wrapped around the waist of the bigger man.
"Bloody Hell!" both boys said, almost in unison.
"Now I know why Martin kept going on about that Dave guy being so happy to seeing your photo," Barry said.
The smaller man in the photo was obviously Martin, and the other looked like an older version of Ryan.
"Looks like finding your dad wasn't too hard, after all," Barry added.
"Surely it can't be, can it? Not if they really are a gay couple," Ryan said, finding it hard to believe the evidence of his own eyes.
"If it's not, then it's an amazing coincidence. And you can't argue with genetics. And you've got to admit that having a gay uncle whose gay partner is your dad is pretty amazing."
"Maybe my real dad is Dave's brother," Ryan suggested, though he didn't find the idea at all convincing.
"There's only one way to find out," Barry said.
"Phone the bloody number he gave you!"
"No, I can't. What could I say?"
"You could start with 'hello', just to be polite. Then ask to speak with Dave, and then ask him if he's your dad," Barry suggested patiently.
"That's a bit, erm, blunt, isn't it?"
"Is there any other way? It's not the sort of thing you can casually drop into a conversation about something else. Anyway, isn't it obvious that was exactly the question he expected you to ask when he sent the photo?"
"Yeah. I s'pose," Ryan replied, knowing that his friend was right but reluctant to actually make the call.
"D'ya want me to do it for you?"
"Of course not! Just give me a minute."
In fact, despite a lot of encouragement from Barry, it took almost twenty minutes before Ryan found the courage to make the call. He was mildly relieved when he discovered that at least he didn't need to ask for Dave.
"Hello, this is Dave speaking." The deep voice was gentle and had a Northern accent.
"Erm. Hi. This is Ryan."
"I was hoping it was you, and I'm really glad you called."
"I thought this was, erm, Martin's number," Ryan said nervously, deliberately delaying the question that lay behind the call. He ignored the fact that Barry was whispering 'go on, ask him' into his other ear.
"It is, but we sometimes answer one another's phones, especially if an important call is expected. If you like, I can hand the phone to Martin, but we just thought you might have something to ask me."
"Erm, well," Ryan said. He was still very nervous, despite all the encouragement he'd received in both ears. He took a deep breath and asked, "Are you my dad?"
"Yes, I believe so. In fact I'm pretty certain, but I'd be happy to have a DNA test if you like."
"But I thought you're, erm, gay."
"Actually, I'm bi..."
"But Mum said..." Ryan interrupted. Then he stopped speaking as he realised that, based just on the word of someone who'd lied to him several times, he would be accusing a complete stranger of something terrible.
"What did she say?" Dave asked gently. "Don't be afraid to tell me. We should start off being open with one another if we're going to be friends."
"She said, well, she said that my dad got her drunk and took advantage of her." Ryan's words accelerated as they approached the end of the sentence. Much to his surprise, the accusation was greeted with genuine laughter.
"Truth be told," Dave said, still sounding amused, "we got one another drunk and took advantage of one another. Several times."
"But, but I don't understand."
"I know it seems confusing. It confused me a lot at the time, and still does a bit, even now. Let me give you a short version of the story, then you can ask anything you like. And when we meet, as I hope we will, I can give you a longer version. How does that sound?"
"I met your mum when we were at university together, and we had a fling. For me, it was just fun with a friend, someone I liked a lot. But for her, well, maybe I was deliberately blind, but I didn't realise she believed she was in love. Anyway, then she introduced me to her brother, and I fell in love with him."
Dave paused to let what he'd already said sink in, then continued, "Martin and I fell in love, and of course I ended the relationship with Helen. From her point of view, I'd dumped her and started a relationship with her brother. That sounds cruel, but what else could Martin and I do? Should we have given up our love so that I could have a loveless relationship with her?
"She did everything she could to split us up, and even tried to get Jean involved. Then she said she was pregnant and I should marry her. Because we'd supposedly both been taking precautions, I wasn't sure that I believed her, but I did say that I'd take responsibility for the baby, though I couldn't marry someone I didn't love.
"She went crazy and said that if I wouldn't have her then no one would have her baby. She stormed out, saying she was going to get an abortion. And that was the last that anyone here saw or heard from her. Thankfully, she obviously didn't have an abortion, so maybe you can understand why we're all so happy to hear from you."
Ryan's mind was so occupied with trying to absorb all that information that he couldn't say anything, and as the silence grew uncomfortably long, Dave almost panicked. "Ryan? Ryan, are you still there? I know all this might be hard to believe, but you can ask Martin and Jean."
"Erm, okay," Ryan said eventually. "I think believe you. Probably I'll talk to them about it sometime, but not now."
"Sometime?" Dave said, sounding a little disappointed. "We were hoping you could come and visit soon. Or we could come down there if you prefer, though that may make things complicated with your mum."
"I don't know," Ryan replied, confused and not certain what he wanted to do. Now that he'd found his father, after all the years of questions and imaginings, the success seemed anticlimactic. "I've got a lot to think about, and before I could travel all that way, I'd have to find an excuse to give to mum. I'll email and maybe phone tomorrow."
"Wouldn't you like to speak with Martin and Jean tonight?"
"Sometime. Not tonight. I'm really tired now," Ryan said, genuinely weary. "Maybe tomorrow."
"Goodnight, then," Dave said, clearly disappointed.
"Goodnight," Ryan replied.
He hung up and looked at Barry. "Did you get any of that?"
"I heard some of it. You don't seem as happy as I would've expected."
Rather wearily, Ryan relayed the whole story to his friend. He finished off by saying how keen his newly discovered relatives were for him to go up and visit.
"You are going to meet them, aren't you?" Barry asked.
Thinking about that question, Ryan was surprised to realise that the idea of meeting his newly found family wasn't as important to him as it once might have been. They were still strangers, and they'd never been there for him when he needed emotional support. There had only ever been one person who could always be relied upon to provide him with refuge, comfort, and companionship.
"I might go to visit, but only if you go with me," Ryan said, smiling at his friend. "You would go with me, wouldn't you?"
"Of course I would," Barry replied.
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