Time terrifies some people. A friend was convinced that she wouldn’t outlive her mother. Given that her mother was beheaded in a tragically stupid car crash rather than fading away in a care home, this worried her quite a lot. She was the front seat passenger. On a Highland road miles from anywhere she popped off her seatbelt to take her jumper off. At that exact moment a car came around the corner ahead on the wrong side of the road. She was not an old woman.
My friend continues to outlive her. And I realised, looking for paperwork about something else yesterday, that I’d outlived my father by more than two years, when I found the copy of his death certificate I’d obtained to clear up a mystery. In fact it wasn’t much of a mystery, just the bullshit combination of lies and collaboration that defines abusive relationships. My father, and after he left we were never told otherwise, said he was born in Australia. My mother repeated this to us as children, modifying this later to ‘nobody knows where he was born.’ In 1990 I went to Somerset House where then all the records of births, marriages and deaths were kept. It took me less than an hour of that sunny afternoon to find out he’d been born in Orpington, half a world away from billabongs and kangaroos, tied down or otherwise.
There were two lies there, then. Where he was born and that nobody knows. And another, by omission, that some people were happy enough to accept this fiction and tell themselves and anyone else who would listen that the truth was impossible, the truth could not be found.
But it could.
My fathers’ influence was disruptive, even after he was dead. Immediately after he was dead he smashed-up someone else’s car, which sounds quite an achievement; less so when you read on the death certificate that he had a heart attack at the wheel.
I wasn’t invited to the funeral. I don’t know where he was buried, nor even if he was. There is so much to uncover that I don’t know where to start.
It was dark. We’d finished eating. I got up to open a bottle of wine. She looked down and frowned and pursed her lips as she sat at the kitchen table. I’d got used to that look. It was usually when I said I loved her.
“It won’t work. You just say everything, to anyone. I don’t want anyone knowing about me. I might as well get a sign made as tell you anything. It’s what you’re like.”
She looked up at me then and kept my eyes until I sat down. What she said was true. Sort of.
I do say things. A bit. Quite a lot, in fact. My truest, deepest friends will tell you. The kind ones call it ‘sharing.’ There’s a reason for it.
In my life some people have benefitted hugely from silence. My father, for one. We were one of the last houses on the new estate in the fields to have a telephone. My father worked away from home a lot. In fact he was only at the house three or maybe four times a week at the most. Even some Christmasses he’d have to work and as children we never knew when he would arrive. Then everything had to change as the whole house was geared to welcome his triumphant homecoming.
Name and rank
His parents were dead, so conveniently dead that although he talked about his father who was in a submarine accident off Blyth after WW1 (but not one that can be identified clearly, looking at any website I’ve ever found) and the mother whose foot his ex-RAF guard dog used to hold gently in its mouth none of them turned up at his wedding to my mother. In fact, nobody had ever seen a single relation of my father’s, ever. Alarm bells ringing just a teeny bit yet? They should be.
So, it’s the 1960s, we have a new house, my father has a new car every two years and he isn’t there a lot of the time. When he is the whole house is disrupted. As children when we’re asked at school what our parents do my father goes ballistic and roars around the house screaming that he’s going to complain to the school officially. Somehow he never does, officially or otherwise.
The time he really blew up at me was over an Action Man. Action Man, like my father who had been in the RAF during what was then called The War (we just don’t have proper wars any more) had a pay-book. With his name and serial number in it. I didn’t know anything about serial numbers, so when I had to (obviously) fill-in the details I asked my father what his serial number was. Because he’d spent six years giving this every time anybody asked for it my father recited it immediately. Then there was a silence.
“Why do you want it?”
I said it was to put it in my Action Man’s pay book. The rest of the day was shit.
I didn’t know why for years. Nearly fifteen years in fact, until I worked out that his serial number was the one thing he couldn’t fake. And as a career liar, my father faked a lot. Like many abusers, he got his victims to collude with the abuse, making excuses for him, refusing to check his lies, pretending things he said or did were a misunderstanding.
Things came to a head when my mother tried to divorce him and found out that you can’t divorce someone you aren’t actually legally married to. For example, if they were already married when they married you. And running a parallel family, although strictly speaking that part isn’t enshrined in law. John Richard Bennett, presumably the only son of Hannah Ramsey and John Bennett, who were married in the parish church of St Mary Cray, near Orpington, wasn’t born in Australia. His parents were never immigrants to the UK. He did not arrive in the UK aged two. He was not a dashing pilot. He was a liar, a bigamist and an abuser who during the war learned to work a lathe on an airfield somewhere. His fondness for the Wellington bomber he made from an Airfix kit might narrow down which airfield he was on if anyone could be bothered to find out. I can’t.
I’ve probably just done it again. John Richard Bennett, bigamist and abuser, sometime resident of Snitterfield, Warkwickshire, Gillingham, Dorset Southwick and Trowbridge, Wiltshire, take a bow. You’re in the limelight, the place you always thought should be yours, but I think maybe for different reasons. I’ve stopped protecting abusers.
The beautiful woman in my kitchen the other night isn’t sitting at my table now. But if she ever reads this, that’s the reason why I say things. That’s why I’ve spent 20 years finding things out and telling people about them, for a living. That’s why I don’t like secrets. If people don’t want people knowing about the things they do there’s usually a good reason for it and I’ve never heard a nice one. Silence isn’t golden. It covers up abuse so everyone can pretend it isn’t happening. Silence doesn’t protect the victims, it just hides the people who look for victims. I’ve seen that happen enough.