I was 5 when I found out I was a bastard - and then discovered my real father in the most unexpected way
All I remember about the night I was told my dad wasn't my father was the pattern on my bedsheets, but it was 20 years later, in a near-deserted office, that I received the phone call I'll never forget.
I must have been about five years old when I found out.
Most people might struggle to recall the bedsheets they had when they were in Year 1. Mine were patterned with pictures of toy soldiers in red jackets with gold buttons. I had them pulled over my lap as I sat up in bed one night, mum perched on the mattress edge, explaining something important to me.
Perhaps I had come home from school with new sentences and concepts: "My name is... ", "My mum is... ", "My dad is... ".
Perhaps, with a clutch of school friends, she knew my insular nursery world was expanding quickly. Or perhaps my mother just thought it was time.
I don't remember her words that night, or how long she spoke. I was too young to remember the expression in her voice, but I imagine it would have been warm. My mum is warm. I love her fiercely.
I don't remember the look on her face, but I wasn't looking at her face. I just remember staring at those toy soldiers in red jackets as she spoke, and feeling very small.
Childhood in my small Queensland home town was comfortably ordinary.
My father, through amicable agreement made while I was in utero, had disappeared back to the big smoke from whence he'd come. Mum married my "dad" when I was a tot.
My parentage was not a source of embarrassment, just an unspoken matter of family discretion. With private amusement, I considered myself a garden-variety bastard or a love child, depending on the mood.
Dad and I would be told on occasion how I was a chip off the old block, and we'd share a quiet wink and giggle. But we never spoke of it.
Come my teenage years, the broiling angst so many families know emerged. This was when, behind closed doors, I'd lash out with the accusatory taunts that come so easily to petulant post-pubescents.
"You can't tell me what to do, you aren't even my real father."
My old man, to his eternal credit, wore my nonsense with anger but stoic resolve. I remain ashamed to this day.
Those stormy years were also when I found out my biological father's name and much more besides, including his profession at the time of my conception, and the city where mum guessed he lived. These details I committed to memory, where they held fast as the years rolled on.
The name would echo in my mind and he became a near-mythic figure who I built up as an idealised version of everything I wished I was.
The rage of adolescence cooled to a simmer as I entered adulthood. At the desk one evening I received a long-distance work-related phone call. It was a humdrum conversation, the type you have when it's after 6pm and most of the office is empty.
As the chat was winding up after the best part of half an hour or so, I politely asked the caller his name.
It was THE name.
A pause as I stopped cold. No, it couldn't be. He couldn't be. I probed.
"Hmm, that name sounds familiar, mate. I don't suppose you used to travel regional Queensland, and this bloody backwater, in a different life?"
He laughed. "An age ago."
I gently coaxed from him his previous profession, the towns he'd stayed in... and the industry employees with whom he was likely to have spent time. Things became specific.
"We're going back now," he said, "this would have been, what, 20 years ago?"
"Further. I'd say we're about 1976."
"Yes," he laughed. "That'd be right. Do we know each other?"
A longer pause, my heart in my throat. I hesitated. I took a breath. Then leapt.
"No but you know my mother." I told him her then-unmarried name. This time he paused. My pulse raced and my head swam with regret. I'd skewered the poor bugger.
Or had I? Had it all been a faulty premise? Was this bloke simply a victim of coincidence?
His response, when it came, was abrupt.
"I don't know that name but I think you have all you need, thanks. OK, goodbye." Click.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
The dial tone nagged at me to hang up. Eventually I did.
Another decade has slipped by since that conversation. I don't know if he ever called back.
I've long since left that company and my home town.
Over cuppas I've spoken with mum a few times about the phone call. She is warm, yet I don't really express myself with her. I've never been able to, which is odd because there's a right old chatbug pent up within me.
Sometimes we chuckled. Less often there were tears.
She always asked how I felt, was I curious about this man I didn't know and what would I like to do. I'm neither incurious nor unfeeling. I've thought greatly about it. I still do.
I've told her I would like to leave him to his life, to his family. And that I, too, would like to be left alone.
I've told myself he hung up in shock, not because he didn't want to know.
I've told myself my father might be just like me: content to have taken a peep through the crack of the door, rather than throw it open, not knowing what's inside or whether it can be closed again.
I've got a dad, and he and my mother are my world.
So many of my partners and friends over the years have come from unusual upbringings or - that quaint, awful term - "broken" homes and, quite frankly, there ain't nothing broken about them.
As for how I feel now, well, it's probably no different to thousands of others reading this.
I feel fine, mum.
* The author's name has been changed.