My father was very popular in our village, and my hero. He would carry me on his shoulder when I was tired from walking. He was the first to pick me up when I stumbled. The first to wipe away my tears when I cried. Then, in an instant, it all ended. We never saw him again. I can still feel the aching void – a void overwhelming everything else. Grieving from such a profound loss, I did not cry, nor utter a single word, for almost a month.

Until recently I could only recall incoherent fragments from that day. The love I felt when wrapping that watch in blue paper – his favourite colour. The strange silence that met us after a day full of laughter and anticipation. Empty drawers. Missing photographs. Frantic questioning. Anguished pleas for help. A hastily scrawled note. And, over the next few days day, furtive glances and lengthy stares as the news of his desertion spread. 


Believe it or not, it has taken me all these years to fathom out why I find it nigh impossible to unwind. To just be me. I am not referring to the masking of my natural temperament in order to conform to community pressures, or cope with stressful situations. We all do that from time to time. Rather I am talking about an emotional struggle I face each day. 

The authentic “me” finds relief only in those rare moments when I am alone. Everything else is merely an enslavement to public mores. Each discrete word and deed that others, including those closest to me, routinely observe, and to which they invariably react, are part of a residual shadow, cast by my desire not to offend or burden others with my insecurities, anxiety and nervous energy. 

Ironically that shadow, my alter ego, is most commonly interpreted as belonging to a self-confident and secure person. An individual who has experienced a relatively comfortable and happy life. While that is undeniable, self-doubt has always stalked my every thought, creating a gentle man who is unconscionably apprehensive at the best of times.

From an early age I always considered myself different from - but no better than - most other people. I found the rough and tumble of youthful play a torment. Swimming was terrifying. And I could never master the balance required to ride a bike. I even managed to fall off the beautiful black tricycle I was given as a Christmas present. On the other hand I found classical music captivating. I wrote reams of poetry in secret. And I spent hours in the local library perusing every book that sparked my interest, irrespective of its content. 

All of this made me an obvious target for the village bullies, who were convinced I was a cowardly know-it-all who deserved every thrashing they dished out. Even adults relished teasing me. In short I was both disliked and persecuted. The problem was made worse as I could never work out why I was taunted so. Nor did I have a way to explain, or excuse, the excessive timidity that helped conceal my quiet recalcitrance. 


It was not until I was watching my youngest son, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was three years old, that the truth dawned on me. I had been living with the same disorder since boyhood. 

Not only was that a revelation – it was incredibly liberating. It provided respite of a kind I cannot even begin to describe. In an instant I knew the disparities I had always felt were not imagined but absolutely real. I could now accept I was more than just a restless, shy, intolerant narcissist, who appeared incapable of carrying out even the most basic tasks most other males accomplished with ease. Like climbing a ladder for example. Yes, I was different. But my differences were genuine. Suddenly I felt no need to constantly comply with practices I found harrowing, draining, or so pointless. 

The need to apologise for my shortcomings all the time, morphed into new truths. I could now celebrate who I was, rather than who others wanted or expected me to be.

Further pieces of the puzzle fell into place over the ensuing weeks and months. I began to grasp how my empathy for others could also be a curse, playing on my vulnerabilities. On some occasions my uncanny ability to sense deeply what others were going through was so overwhelming it would almost bring me to tears. I realised why I find it so unnerving to enter a room full of strangers though have no qualms about speaking to a large audience. And why I cannot abide my photograph being taken but relish being interviewed on TV. 

I began to scrutinise my own behaviour too. The need to plan ahead in such painstaking detail. A studied avoidance of those I regard stupid. My intense shyness. The desire for routine, precision, and order. The host of tiny quirks that most people do not notice. And the traits that even deceived my GP into believing I had Parkinson’s disease, when these are probably simply indicative of the nervous intensity within me.

Over the years I had cultivated temporary solutions to deal with issues associated with my reticent and somewhat antisocial interactions. Experience had taught me how to hide my real feelings, when to remain silent, and when to speak out. A degree of level headedness advocated the adoption of protocols allowing me to cope with the routine vagaries of life. 

So how have these recent revelations and changes brought with them so much peace of mind? And why now?


Any such inquiry must begin with a different set of questions relating to circumstances in my youth to which I have already referred, and that have always weighed heavily on my mind. How could my father leave my mother and myself to fend for ourselves when I was barely eight years old if he loved me so much? Why did my mother, with the consent of others, decide it would be in my best interests to tell me he had died, rather than the fact he had absconded with another woman? 

Did she expect my grief to be any the less from such subterfuge? Had she considered the confusion that version of events might create in the mind of a child? Or was she simply trying to protect me from something even more disturbing than the loss of my father? A factor she found so distressing that it warranted such deception? 

Since discovering the truth of the matter – about 40 years later and literally months prior to his actual death in an Eastbourne nursing home, deaf, partially blind, and alone - I had been more distraught by the thought that my father could not possibly have loved me, as he professed, given that he never once tried to find me, or correspond with me. It was as though he had determined to erase me from his life. 

But now I began to have other niggling thoughts. When my assumptions, the cause of so much suffering over the years, were subjected to a thorough and dispassionate analysis, they did not make sense. Perhaps there were other reasons for him leaving. Factors that nobody else knew about or took into account. 

Might he have run into financial troubles, or found himself out of work, for example? And, if not, what was he thinking or experiencing that could provoke him into taking such a life-changing decision after 25 years of what, by all accounts, was a happily married life? Was his decision premeditated and, if so, how long had he been planning to leave? Perhaps he was simply a philanderer after all? Did I fabricate the myth of an accident in order to shield my vulnerable self from the truth? Or was it possible that my family concocted the entire fiction to avoid me having to confront what they perceived as a more terrible reality?


All of these possibilities, and many more besides, started to taunt me, playing psychological games during periods of solitude. I took the only pragmatic step that occurred to me to try and end the unease. I started to compile scraps of evidence that were still relatively clear in my mind, including details I had initially chosen to ignore, or consciously disregard, with a diligence hitherto lacking. As the list grew, unanticipated connections surfaced. Additional elements came to mind that, for some strange reason, I had forgotten. I now began to remember off-the-cuff remarks, illogical gestures, inconsistent behaviors. Trivial things that were said to me directly. Whispers in the dark, now took on a new significance. 

And something entirely new emerged that I found immediately unsettling...

In the weeks following his disappearance, that time when I was trapped in a cocoon of silence, my mother, my brother John, the Reverend Burns-Cox, Miss Allen my teacher, and a mysterious stranger in a dark gray pin-striped suit with a dark blue tie, had all asked me questions, for which I had no answers. They interrogated me without context, as if I had somehow been complicit in creating an intolerable situation for my father. I recall feeling culpable, but also confused about why I should be feeling shame. All these years I had put this traumatic questioning out of my mind. As you can probably imagine, it burst into my consciousness like a firestorm. The experience I was suffering at the time was enough to cause such trauma of course. But could all that questioning have been an additional reason for my refusal to speak?

As links between his desertion and his supposed death became less tenuous, my earlier assumptions started to fall apart. How could I have been so naïve when there was a note, written by him, but no dead body, no condolences, and no funeral? Did the shock of his loss persuade me to accept as true a conspiracy that was so obviously full of holes? Or was I alarmed by the possibility that an “accident” was merely a euphemism to cover up the fact he died by his own hand?

Over the years I sought for clues in memories of the child I used to be. Family friends and relatives would talk of my mother’s enduring devotion to her husband, and of his loyalty to her. How they both found so much joy in my birth, and how they always seemed to be happy – a fact borne out by the few photographs I have from that time. All the evidence seemed to point to a close-knit and loving family. 

Memories can be such fickle friends of course. They also have a habit of distorting history, and of misinforming. They rarely point to the truth. Yet stumbling upon what I now believe to be the answer to these questions, in all the blurred entanglement of facts and nostalgic half-fictions I have recorded over the past few weeks and months, possibly comes closer to the truth than anything I hitherto supposed credible. 

I am now as certain as I can be that piecing together these painful splinters provide a new pattern – a forgotten piece from a puzzle that has confounded and eluded me for most of my adult life. 


Among all the various possibilities I am now convinced I was largely responsible for my father leaving us. When all the evidence is analysed it is really the only explanation that makes any sense. 

I was always a precocious child, far preferring the company of adults to children my age. Mostly happy. Inquisitive too. Indeed I was curious about everything around me. But my behaviour, that of a child who had no conception of how to fit into the world, would have perplexed the ex-regimental sergeant major, and been easily misconstrued by the lowly farm hand. My brother, then in his early twenties, had a relatively uneventful upbringing. Predictable and respectable, the contrast with me could not have been greater. Here was a clumsy kid with protruding teeth who preferred listening to music rather than engaging in physical activity. A boy who rarely kicked a ball, but would go on long cross-country runs by himself. A child who wrote poetry, and devoted inordinate amounts of time to reading books with words the father could not spell least of all figure out. A boy who sang like an angel, could not ride a bike, hid from bullies, and appeared to be in his own world much of the time. 

I see now that my father would have been constantly trying to explain this behaviour to his friends and neighbours with nothing concrete to go on. My exploits would have been at odds with his expectations about parenting gained from his previous experience. For a tough, proud, tenacious, royalty-loving, hard-working man with little education, who had once been a Physical Training Instructor in the army and in that capacity coached the tug-of-war team for the Royal Tournament, trying to understand and deal with such strange mannerisms would have been too much. An enigma he could neither solve nor control.

That pent-up anxiety would explain why he smashed a 78rpm recording of the Swan of Tuonela I had been given by my piano teacher. Familiar only with marches, fanfares and foxtrots this symphonic poem by Sibelius appeared “too sad” for a boy of my age to be exposed to. It explains why he looked so dejected when I failed to catch a cricket ball. It explains why he cast bemused glances at me when I burst into uncontrollable giggles at some small thing he had not noticed or thought funny. It explains why he spent much of his time with me on commonplace tasks, such as gardening, pitching hay, riding on the tractor, and picking field mushrooms in the early dawn. For him this would have been a way of  instructing me into what he would have deemed normality. Remarkably, it also explains why he never hit me, always raced to my aid when I was in trouble, and enjoyed playing hide and seek with a child who would invariably reveal his location well before being found! 


Only now am I in a position to fully understand the conflicting emotions he must have had. The shame he possibly felt thinking that my odd condition was somehow his fault. While watching my young son at play I have experienced similar feelings, pulling me in so many different and cruel directions. A mixture of profound love grazed by bewilderment. And all that in spite of my own experience and knowledge, which far exceeds anything my own father could possibly have known.

Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome were first described in 1943 and 1944 respectively – a year or two before my birth. The medical profession at the time was largely ignorant of such neurological conditions. Families would have been completely in the dark. A child with special needs would have seemed strange, crazy - or some kind of genius. During my youth I was regarded as clever, if a little odd, shy and withdrawn. But I was most fortunate. Because of my musical talent I was considered a prodigy. That would only have added to my father’s confusion. 

These peculiarities, I now believe, led to my father’s departure when he eventually found it impossible to cope with his oddball son, or face up to the fact that I was different. What I had never previously accounted for was my own part in this little drama – a role I now think was the single most important factor in my father’s decision to leave.

Previously, somewhat selfishly, I had only focussed on the love I had for him - interpreting his departure as an act of betrayal and a refutation of that devotion. The fact that my mum never spoke ill of him, that he was in touch with my brother all those years, and kept up regular maintenance payments without any court edict, yet never once tried to intervene in the direction my life took, actually points, in a curious kind of way, to a compassionate man who sacrificed much for the love he had for us. 

In the end, perhaps, he was simply overwhelmed by circumstances far beyond his ability to grasp or to deal with.