Peter Shadwick pulled over, stopped the car and just sat, gazing at the view up the valley. It seemed so perfect, so far away in his memory, yet so vivid in reality.
He had been borne in 1940, in Cumbria, soon after the start of WW2. He could just remember their little cottage and the small village where he had started school. He remembered the new children that came to stay in the village, evacuated from London and the South. They spoke differently and they got regular letters from their parents. Well, their mothers usually.
When he had asked, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ Elizabeth, his mother always told him he was away, overseas, keeping them safe. She always promised he would be back to look after them when the war was over. She did cleaning and took in washing for the people in the big house. Sometimes he went with her and was allowed by the old groom to pet the horses and play in the grounds. The lady who lived in the big house was nice at first but then Mummy stopped working there and never spoke of them again.
One day after the war, a soldier came to their house. He had seemed strange, had walked in a funny way and had looked at him intently. Mummy had introduced him and told him that he was his Daddy. He had wanted to hug him but the leg he had grabbed was metal and then Daddy told him to go out and play. When Mummy came to find him an hour or so later, it had been obvious that she had been crying and the house was a mess, with lots of things broken and strewn around.
Mummy had told him that Daddy was very ill and was going into hospital for treatment. She said that they were going to live in London and that Daddy would join them when he was better. They left soon after and took the train down to London and then a bus to Camberwell where they rented a couple of rooms in the house of one of the families whose children had stayed in the village. They were nice people and they helped Mummy to find a job.
He started at the local primary school, passed his Eleven plus and went on to Grammar School. Exceptional Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Maths A levels won him a place to read Medicine at Oxford. An MSc followed and he continued working in research at Oxford. The hours were long but during this period, he met, fell madly in love with fellow student Susan, and they married in the autumn of 1969. Ellen, Matthew and Bethany came along in quick succession.
During these all these years, he never saw his father again, Elizabeth always telling him that Vic, his father, had mental problems following his experiences in the war. It wasn’t until his eighteenth birthday that she had finally told him that he had died. There was little shock as Peter had never known this man, had never had a relationship with him. He had tried asking questions about him at first but Elizabeth had always seemed to be able to change the subject. Any thoughts of the man soon disappeared into oblivion once more as he started his studies at Oxford.
With his continuing research and the work required to complete his Doctoral thesis, the time available to take on the role of father himself always seemed elusive. Susan, who had given up full time work and study when Ellen was born, seemed to understand and just accepted his part-time role of father. The truth was that he hardly knew where to start in his role, there had been no role model, no one to offer guidance or advice.
With his Doctorate obtained and his role as professor at the university established, and the children teenagers, he started to think more and more about his father and his background. Elizabeth always told him that Vic had been a blacksmith, as had his father before. Then, Elizabeth started to become forgetful and gradually slid into decline and a nursing home nearby followed.
With Elizabeth being born when her mother was well into middle age, and being an only child, her side of the family seemed to have died out, with Peter never knowing much of them. He was supposed to have a cousin somewhere in Canada but that was all he knew. So, he settled back into his sense of self, a sense of being self-made, somewhat of a mystery to himself and others. In the small Oxfordshire village where they lived, the locals just knew Doctor Shadwick, as the Professor of Genetics at Oxford.
With Ellen now at Cambridge and Matthew and Bethany starting their A and O levels, Peter felt that he should attempt some research into the family background. If not for himself, then for the children.
Then, with her decline turning into full dementia, Elizabeth died following a short illness. There was no estate but Matron of the nursing home gave him a letter that she said Elizabeth had written before her condition had worsened. She apologised and said that although Elizabeth’s handwriting was largely a near illegible scrawl, she had spent many hours with her in her more lucid moments. And, over the previous months, had managed to write what she thought was a fair summary of the main points.
Peter had spent hours that evening in his study, reading and re-reading Elizabeth’s childlike scrawl and matron’s summary. There were also a few photographs of an elegant, impeccably dressed young man standing outside an enormous country house. He alternated between tears and laughter. And then knew there was a journey he had to take.
Now, he passed through the high gates and up the long driveway to the Georgian mansion that stood on the rise. He was sure that the Honourable James Heatherington would be pleased to welcome his long-lost son and learn of his grandchildren. But, if not, there was always DNA testing and he had come prepared.
Image: Original by A.J.Armstrong