I was in awe of the gothic splendour of the main hall of the Wills Memorial Building. A magnificent place, unfortunately funded by the proceeds of tobacco and, indirectly, the slave trade. We filed out into the bright Bristol sunshine and I was joined by my son, William, whose graduation ceremony I had attended. I shook his hand and congratulated him on his master’s degree.
Being a very proud dad, I had to have photographs of him in his ceremonial robes. I moved around to get the sun behind me and managed to snap a few shots before Will’s cheerful expression changed.
“What the hell is he doing here?” he said.
I turned to see a Rolls Royce standing at the side of the road. Its chauffer was arguing with a traffic warden. In front of the roller stood a man of slight build, about five foot ten inches tall with grey hair and piercing blue eyes. At 60 years of age, he was fifteen years older than me and the man I’d least like to find at my son’s graduation.
I moved towards him, but Will was ahead of me, striding across the pavement towards the interloper.
“What are you doing here? I don’t need you and I don’t want you here. Get back in your car and clear off back to London!”
The man put both his hands in front of him, palms towards William in a conciliatory gesture.
“Relax young man, just calm down. I’ve seen what I came for, now I need a quick word with your father and I’ll leave you to your celebrations.”
I put my hand on Will’s shoulder. “It’s okay Son, I can deal with this. You get off to your champagne reception and make sure you save me a glass.”
Will turned and went back to his friends who stood with puzzled looks on their faces. He would obviously have some explaining to do. Most of his mates would know that Will was arguing with Terry Sandford, but few if any would know the reason.
“Is this it, Sandford? No lawyers, no minders, just you?”
“This is it Mr Jennings, just me. I’ve given up talking to lawyers where you’re concerned, it does me no good at all. I just want to talk to you. Just me and you man to man.”
“I’m not aware that we have anything left to discuss.”
“Please Mr Jennings. I’m not a man who is used to begging but if that’s what it takes ... Here, take my card. We’ll meet anywhere you choose. We have mutual interests and we need to work out how to go forward.”
“I don’t need to call you. The Clifton Sausage, 7 p.m., you’re buying,” I said angrily. “I’ll book the table, I’m sure your chauffer will find it for you.”.
I turned and walked off to join Will in his celebrations.
I hadn’t seen Terence Sandford in almost nine years and I’d hoped that I would never see him again.
After only sixteen years of marriage, my darling Vicky was taken from me as a result of cervical cancer. Her death left me devastated, not knowing which way to turn. It had taken a year for the disease to take her from me, yet it still came as a shock when she eventually died. I tried to tell myself that it was an end to her suffering, and that it was better that her battle had not dragged out any longer. However, none of that stopped me wanting to keep her just that little bit longer. Every day I longed to wake up and see her face, even as thin as she’d become.
The days dragged by, and slowly I came back to the land of the living. I had a twelve-year-old son and a daughter of only ten, so falling into a morass of self-pity wasn’t an option. I had some help from Vicky’s sister Madeleine, who was with us at the end and stayed for another two weeks. After that my mother did her best, but mum was torn between me and dad, who was himself not well.
No matter how long you live with someone, there are always some surprises when they die. Mine came in the form of a savings account she told me about once when the end was near. She told me to take the death certificate to the bank and I would automatically get access to the account. She didn’t tell me that the account contained more than £40,000, enough to pay off the mortgage on our house.
By the first anniversary of Vicky’s death, we were starting to get back on our feet. I couldn’t face the idea of my children becoming latchkey kids so I quit my job and started working from home as a consultant. Both Will and his sister Zoe did their best to pull their weight around the house and I tried my best to be both mum and dad to them. Our house was filled with love, but we all knew there was someone missing. Every night the words of Sting would come home to me. “The bed’s too big without you.” he sang and I couldn’t hear it without crying.
Almost fifteen months after Vicky’s death, the letter arrived. At first I thought it was a sick joke, then I thought it was a scam. It purported to come from, a company of solicitors in London. I studied it, I even showed it to Will. We looked up the solicitors on the Internet and they seemed to be genuine. The wording seemed extremely vague.
Mr. Vaughan Jennings, husband to the late Victoria Jennings. You are invited to ring these offices quoting the reference number above. If you do so, you may learn something to your advantage.
I was mystified. Did Vicky have had another secret account? Neither Will nor I saw any trap in it so I rang the office of Wallace, Wallace & Simkins. As soon as I gave them the reference. I was put through to a Mr. Anthony Johnston.
“Mr. Jennings, you are the husband of the late Victoria Jennings?”
“Yes I am, what has this got to do with Vicky?”
“Are you familiar with the name of Terence Sandford, Mr Jennings?”
“There can’t be many people who haven’t heard of him, but of course I have. Vicky used to work for him when we lived in Sunbury.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jennings, it seems that you are the man we need to talk to. Unfortunately, this is a matter that can’t be dealt with over the phone. Could you come into our office so that we can discuss it? We’ll pay you full expenses including loss of earnings, irrespective of the outcome.”
I realised I couldn’t lose so I made an appointment. I arranged for Will and Zoe to go to Mum’s in case I was late getting home, and on Wednesday morning I set off for London.
My experience was that solicitors always kept you waiting, much to my surprise, I was shown into Johnston’s office as soon as I arrived.
Anthony Johnston was a tall well-built man in his fifties. I sized him up as he came across the room to meet me. I guessed six-foot-two, a little taller than me. Broad shouldered I could imagine him playing rugby in his youth. He had brown eyes, salt & pepper hair, a square jaw with a cleft chin. He was probably the sort of man who had no trouble finding lady friends. He offered his hand and I shook it.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr. Jennings, thank you for coming. Please take a seat.”
He guided me towards a chair and returned to his desk.
“Before we start, I must point out that in cases like this, we like to record our interviews.” He pointed to a video camera fixed to the ceiling in the corner of his office. “Is that okay with you?”
“Cases like what? I still don’t know why I’m here.”
“Cases which involve substantial amounts of money, with conditions attached. It helps us prove to our client that we have explained everything correctly. So are you okay with the recording?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Thank you, now let’s get down to business. I represent the interests of Mr. Terence Sandford.”
“Sandford? I’d have thought with his money he’d get the senior partner on his case. Mr. Wallace at least.”
“Both the Wallaces are long since dead I’m afraid. I am the senior partner. Now, if I may continue?”
I nodded for him to continue.
“As you may have read in the papers, Mr. Sandford recently lost his two sons in a boating accident in Acapulco. This means your wife’s children are his sole surviving blood relations.”
“What are you talking about? My wife’s children? You mean my children, my William and my Zoe. My children ... nothing to do with Sandford.” I was starting to get irritated.
“Oh dear, I’m sorry Mr. Jennings. Mr. Sandford said that you were aware of the situation.”
I got out of the chair and leaned across the desk. We were almost nose to nose when I spoke.
“Just what situation would that be, you slimy piece of shit? What are you trying to say about my wife?”
I had to give him credit for the fact that he never backed away. He remained remarkably cool, but then it wasn’t his wife that was being insulted.
“Will you please sit down, Mr Jennings and I’ll do my best to explain.” I fell back into the chair and let him continue. “Mr. Sandford has sworn an affidavit to the effect that for the last two and a half years of her employment, he and your wife carried on a sexual relationship. He thought you knew and that was why you moved to Somerset.”
“Mr. Johnston, I’m trying to stay calm here, but if you continue to cast aspersions on my wife’s character, I won’t be responsible for my actions. Now can you get to the point of why you’ve got me here.”
“I’m trying to do that, Mr. Jennings. Had I known that you were unaware of all this, I would have been better prepared. To get to the point, Mr. Sandford alleges that both William and Zoe are his biological children. He believed that it was quite right for the children should be with their mother. Now Mrs. Jennings has passed, he feels that as their biological father, he is best placed to care for them.”
“NO!” I shouted. I slammed my fist down on Johnston’s desk so hard that his pens leapt off the desk. I got out of the chair and started pacing up and down in the office.
“He can’t do this. Look I’m sorry about his boys. I know how it feels to lose a loved one, but just because he’s lost his family doesn’t mean he can steal mine.”
I was losing it. That’s what the pacing was all about, trying to control my aggression.
“How is any of this supposed to be to my advantage? Just tell me that.”
“I’m coming to that, Mr. Jennings. Mr. Sandford appreciates the way you have cared for his children over the years. As a token of his appreciation, he is prepared to settle on you the sum of £300,000.”
“You what? You mean he thinks he can buy my children? Well, tell him peddle his lies somewhere else. My children are not for sale.”
Johnston tried to stand between me and the door. I pushed him aside. I’d almost reached the door when it opened and I came face to face with him for the first time. Sandford closed the door behind him.
“I should have known better than to send a boy to do a man’s job. Just sit down, Johnston and let me deal with this.” He turned to face me. “Now listen to me, Jennings, I may not have had the benefit of your education, but even I can count to nine. Neither of those kids was early, they were both spot on time. You can try and fight me on this and end up with nothing, or you can give up now and walk away with three hundred grand.”
“You are NOT taking my children. I don’t care how much money you’ve got. I’ll fight you every inch of the way.”
“Be sensible about this, you know I can give them a much better life ... it’s not as if you’ll never see them again. I’m sure we can work something out.”
“Justget out of my life.”
“Look, if it’s the money, I can make it a half million.”
He couldn’t have said a worse thing. I lunged at him, grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him towards me.
“I wouldn’t sell my kids to you for any amount of money,” I shouted. “Now take your money and get out of our lives.”
I pushed him away. He stumbled and fell as I stormed out of the office. All the way home I was in complete turmoil. The arrogance of the man amazed me. To think he could step in and buy a family; he must be mad.
As some of the heat went out of my anger, I started to think about what Johnston had said. It couldn’t be true. I found the idea of Vicky having an affair for two and a half years, to be totally preposterous. I would have known. I tried to think back to that time in our lives. Were there any telltale signs that Vicky was cheating on me?
The allegations were still whirling through my head when I arrived at Mum’s to pick up the children. Will had told her all about the letter so she had to quiz me on the events of the day.
“Well, what did they want? Was it worth your while?”
“It was a waste of time Mum, so no, it wasn’t worth my while.”
“But they said it would be to your advantage.”
“Well, it wasn’t.” I snapped back at her.
“But the expenses covered your costs?”
“I didn’t claim them, alright? Now just leave it, Mum.”
“Can’t I be concerned for my son without being snapped at?”
“I’m sorry Mum, I guess I’m a bit cheesed off. I’ll be okay tomorrow. I hope Will and Zoe haven’t been any trouble.”
“They’re never any trouble. We love having them, you know that.”
The talk of the children brought tears to my eyes. I tried hard to disguise it as I gathered up the children’s belongings, but I guess there’s no fooling your mother. The concerned look she gave me as I left told me I’d been unsuccessful. The children hadn’t been in bed long when the phone rang. It was Vicky’s sister Madeleine.
“Vaughan, how are you?”
“I’m fine Maddy, how about you?”
“That’s not what your mother says. She’s worried about you. What happened today, Vaughan?”
“Bloody Sandford, the bloke she used to work for. He claims the kids are his.”
There was a silence at the other end of the phone.
“Maddy, are you still there?”
“Yes, sorry Vaughan. Can I come over to talk to you, tomorrow? I’ve got something for you.”
I tried to get more out of her but she was having none of it. I had no option but to wait.
At 10 am the following day, I found Maddy waiting on my doorstep. I invited her in and made some coffee. We sat at the dining room table drinking coffee while I waited for Maddy to produce whatever it was she had to give me.
“Vaughan, you know I love you, don’t you. Not in the same way that Vicky did, but enough to want to protect you from things that might hurt you or the children.”
“Of course I do Mads. You’ve been a great help to us over the last year. We’re really grateful to you for all you’ve done. I’m sure Vicky would be pleased.”
“Well there was something else she asked me to do that perhaps I should have done a little sooner. Before she died Vicky wrote you a letter. She knew you would be struggling after she’d gone, so she asked me to hold on to it until I thought you could cope. I’m sorry, but I should’ve given you this before.”
She handed me a white envelope. I opened it and took out the letter inside. As I unfolded the letter I caught site of her handwriting and tears came to my eyes. Maddy squeezed my arm as a comforting gesture as I unfolded the letter and started to read.
My Dearest Vee,
If you are reading this, then I am dead and Maddy believes you have recovered. I want to tell you that our years together have been the happiest time of my life. When we married, I fully expected to grow old with you and nothing would have made me happier. Seeing you with Will and Zoe did my heart good and confirmed my belief that you would always be the man I wanted to be with. You were a great support to me right up to the end and that makes what I have to tell you all the more difficult. I’m sad to say that I don’t deserve the love you gave me. Had I not died, I would never have revealed my secret, I know how much it will hurt you. Now that I’m not there it is essential for you to know and I want it to come from me and not as a surprise.
For two and a half years prior to our leaving Sunbury, I had an affair with my boss Terence Sandford. It was not just sex, I’m not like that. I did love him, but you must believe, not in the same way I love you. During my time with him I got to see a side of him that others don’t. He can be kind and generous and not at all like the ruthless business man he appears to be. We were only together when we were away on business and you were never a part of that. We never spoke of you when we were together and he was never with me when I called you. It was like two separate lives.
In one life, it was fancy restaurants, Versace dresses, Gucci bags and Jimmy Choo shoes. In the other, I had my wonderful man working to build us a future and making me feel special. It started before William was born and I ended it when I returned to work after having Zoe. During that time, his relationship with his wife got worse and when I returned to work, he said he was going to leave her and wanted me to marry him. That was never an option, my love. I chose you and our life together over life with a man more rich and powerful than I have ever known. Please remember that my love. After your anger has died down and you’ve got over the shock, remember I CHOSE YOU.
Now I come to the really hard part. The part I’m too much of a coward to tell you in person. I think he is the biological father of our children. I really wanted them to be yours, but when their eyes never turned brown I began to have doubts. I’ve never told him any of this. YOU are their father, the one they love and who has always loved them. It breaks my heart to tell you this; I know how much it will hurt, but you have to know. One day you might need to find blood relatives and I want you to know where to look.
I pray that one day you will be able to forgive me. I’m so sorry and ashamed for what I’ve done and since we moved down here to Somerset, I’ve tried to be the wife you deserved. Now I’m being taken from you and perhaps that is my punishment.
I wish a wonderful life for you and our children. You are still a young man and too good a man to be left on his own. I pray you’ll find someone who will be a better wife than me.
Goodbye my love, Have a wonderful life and always remember I love you.
The tears were running down my cheeks as I finished the letter. Maddy began dabbing at my eyes with a tissue. I read it again and a third time. The tears stopped and I just sat there.
“Vaughan, are you alright?”
I sat with my head in my hands. “So that’s it, it’s all true.--Why would she do this to me? She gives me two children, knowing someone is waiting to snatch them away from me. How could anyone do that and still claim to love me?”
“She did love you, Vaughan. Writing that letter was the hardest thing she ever had to do.”
“And you, you knew. All that sympathy and helping out while all the time you were laughing at the gullible fool. Bringing up another man’s children and he doesn’t know.”
“It wasn’t like that. We never laughed at you. She loved you and I was jealous of what you two had together. I didn’t know anything until she gave me that letter. She only let me read it so that I could gauge when would be a good time to give it to you.”
“Well, that’s it then. Just got to sit and wait for him to come for them”
“What do you mean come for them? ... Who is going to come for them?”
“Haven’t you listened to anything I told you? He’s going to take them. Sandford’s going to take them from me”
“I don’t understand. How can he take them he doesn’t even know?”
“Of course he knows. What do you think yesterday was all about? He offered me half a mil if I didn’t fight his paternity and custody suit.”
“Tell me you didn’t accept. Please Vaughan tell me.”
“Don’t be stupid Mads, of course I didn’t accept, but he’ll take them anyway. Who would you award custody to? On one side, an unrelated, self-employed consulting engineer with no support network to speak of. On the other, their biological father who can give them anything they want and can pay for any level of support.”
“We’ll fight him. I’ll help you in any way I can. I’m sure we can make the courts see they would be better off with you. Please don’t blame Vicky; she didn’t expect this to happen. I know how much she loved you.”
“Yeah, doesn’t change the fact that she brought all this about.”
“Calm down, and we’ll make plans to deal with this. The first thing to do is to find a solicitor. We need one that specialises in family law. We can do this Vaughan, really we can.”
Like her sister, Maddy was always optimistic. She and her husband, Robert, did their best for me and we nearly pulled it off. Within two weeks of my visit to London I received a summons to take the children to a clinic for paternity test. My solicitor had advised that fighting the test would be a waste of time and money. He was right, of course, fighting at that stage would have made it look like I had something to hide.
After Vicky’s letter I thought I was prepared for the result. I was wrong. No matter how often I told myself that the result will go against me I secretly hoped it wouldn’t be true. When the results came back all that hope was taken away and I slipped into a deep depression. My, carefully preserved, air of normality disintegrated. If it hadn’t been for Maddy, Mum, and the children I would have given up. Maddy realised I couldn’t speak about her sister without falling apart, so she volunteered to explain everything to the children.
Will was adamant, there was no way he was leaving me, no matter what happened. Two weeks later that I received a summons to attend the family court for a custody hearing.
The family court is an unusual affair. It has its own special judges and is held in a committee room. Nothing that happens in that room is ever made public and anyone disclosing any of the discussions can be prosecuted for contempt. On the day of our hearing Sandford had two legal representatives, one of whom was Johnston. Social Services and Children’s Services were represented along with me and my solicitor. It seemed ridiculous to me then, and it still does, that the two people whose future was to be decided were not allowed to attend. Johnston and his deputy presented their case, that the children should be with their biological father. They outlined all the advantages the children would receive by living with Sandford.
My man told the court that I was the only father they had ever known and that it would be extremely traumatic to take them away from a loving father. I could see from the faces around the table that he was having the desired effect. I began to have real hope. Unfortunately Sandford’s team could see the same thing I did. When asked if he had anything to add Johnston stood up and addressed to court.
“The court has been told what a good job Mr Jennings and his wife have made of bringing up the children. This is true and my client is very appreciative. However, that was when there were two parents. Since the death of Mrs Jennings more pressure has been placed on Mr Jennings. Unfortunately Mr Jennings seems to have developed a propensity for violence as a means of dealing with that pressure. I would like to show the court some extracts from a recording of the interview my client and I had with Mr Jennings.”
He opened up a file on his laptop and the picture appeared projected onto the back wall of the room.
“This recording of a meeting we had with Mr Jennings to discuss this matter. I made Mr Jennings aware that the meeting was being recorded.”
The first scene was me grabbing the front of Johnston’s shirt and going head to head with him. Then there was me thumping the desk, jumping up and pacing up and down the office. Finally came the bit with me pushing Sandford in the chest sending him sprawling on the floor.”
My solicitor tried to stop me as I sprung to my feet.
“It didn’t happen like that. That meeting was a goddamned ambush.”
The judge repeatedly told me to sit down and eventually I did.
Johnston continued. “Mr Jennings cannot cope and my client does not feel the children would be safe in his care.”
I looked around the table, and realised I’d lost all the ground my solicitor had gained. The panel retired to consider a verdict, but I already knew the outcome. It only took them 30 minutes to decide that within ten days I would hand over my children to the Social Services who would in turn take them to Sandford. There can be no appeal against the decision of a family court so all I could do was to make the most of the time we had together.
Will wanted to run away so he wouldn’t be there to be collected, but I pointed out that would result in me being jailed for contempt. On the day of their collection there were tears all round. As I hugged them both. William stepped back and looked at me.
“He will never be my father. As soon as I can I’ll be back. I love you Dad.”
Zoe kissed me and assured me she loved me and would do whatever it took to get back home.
After they’d gone I looked around the house, she was still there. Vicky had family pictures everywhere and she seemed to be in all of them. Not surprising really, I took most of them. I thought about cutting her out of them but only for a second. Will might understand, but Zoe certainly wouldn’t.
The court ordered Sandford to make provision for visiting but I couldn’t bring myself to follow it up. As things turned out I didn’t need to. Within three weeks both of them stood on my doorstep. It seemed that Sandford’s idea of caring for and educating them was to send them off to boarding school. Will ran away, went straight to get Zoe and they made their way back home. Of course the police paid us a visit later that day and the following morning Social Services came to take them away again. They were smart kids so the next time they didn’t come to me but went to Mum and Dad. We had three days together that time. Following that it was to Maddy and Robert they went to. The police threatened me with a charge of abduction, but as I pointed out, I didn’t go and get them and I couldn’t stop them coming to me.
When Maddy leaked the story to the press, the Social Services came under a great deal of pressure. They were not allowed to disclose anything that happened in court and so couldn’t defend themselves. By the end of the summer term, both children had managed to get back to me four times. All this time my solicitor tried, without success, to get another hearing.
During the summer break Sandford whisked the children off to Mauritius for a holiday. This ruled out any more runaways. They kept in touch by phone and Skype but I missed them terribly. When Will told me he had a plan, I urged him not to do anything stupid or illegal. He just laughed and told me not to worry.
All the efforts made by myself, Maddy and my solicitor, got us nowhere. It came as a surprise when I was summoned to appear before the family court at the beginning of September. My surprise turned to shock when I found out the hearing was not to charge me with contempt, but to reconsider the original verdict. It seemed Social Services thought insufficient emphasis had been placed on what the children wanted. Sandford was only represented by Johnston and he seemed remarkably subdued. We all sat there looking at each other until the judge called the meeting to order. I was under strict instructions from my solicitor, to remain calm. Once the preliminaries were out of the way the judge turned to me.
“Mr Jennings, at the last meeting of this court you demanded sole custody of William and Zoe. Is that still your position?”
“It is Ma’am.”
“You would not consider joint custody.”
“No Ma’am, it would be too disruptive. Whatever the court decides, it would be best for the children to have only one father. I believe that father should be me.”
The Social Services spokesman told the court that during the interviews with the children it became obvious they wanted to stay with me. There actions since the previous court decision underlined that.
The judge turned to Johnston.
“Mr Johnston, during the previous hearing you claimed Mr Jennings had a propensity for violence.” She actually read this last phrase from the transcript of the meeting. “Mr Sandford was concerned for the safety of the children if they remained with Mr Jennings. Is that still the case?”
“No Ma’am it is not.”
I rocked back in my chair unable to believe what I had just heard.
“Would you care to explain what brought about this change of heart?”
“Yes Ma’am, Mr Sandford accepts that both children want to live with Mr Jennings and he doesn’t believe they would feel that way if he were violent towards them. He suggested we give the entire recording, of the meeting to a psychologist for evaluation. The court has a copy of the psychologists report. In short Ma’am, the report concludes that Mr Jennings had no idea his wife had an affair with my client or that the children were a result of the affair. The psychologist is of the opinion that Mr Jennings was in a state of shock and his reactions were those of a man defending his family.”
“Are you saying you wilfully mislead the court?”
“We did not try to mislead the court, Ma’am. However, we do believe we were guilty of misinterpreting Mr Jennings reaction.”
My solicitor looked at me with a huge grin on his face. I was mystified, everything Johnston said about me was correct but why the sudden change of heart. He’d had no worries about misrepresenting the situation before.
“My client has no objection to Mr Jennings having custody, but demands visitation rights.”
The judge turned to me. “Do you agree to this Mr Jennings?”
“No Ma’am, I do not. My children have been badly scarred by the events of the last four months. Being forced to spend time with the man they see as responsible for all of that, is only going to inhibit the healing process.” My solicitor was pulling at my arm trying to get my attention. He was mouthing the words “quit while you’re winning”. I turned back to the judge. “I am prepared to allow visits by Mr Sandford but only at the request of my children.”
“Are you saying you’d refuse to accept the children if Mr Sandford is granted access?”
“If Mr Sandford were a reasonable man I would have no problem, Ma’am. However, he has shown himself to be anything but reasonable. His behaviour so far has shown he is a man who is prepared to go to any length to get what he wants. If you grant him access I expect to be back in court every time my arrangements do not fit in with his. My children need stability. Giving Mr Sandford the right to interfere will damage that stability.”
The judge looked at Johnston, who just waved her away. She told us she would retire to consult further with Social Services. My solicitor wanted me to change my mind about access. He saw that as a deal breaker. I was confident something had happened to make Sandford change his mind and that lack of access would not be a problem.
The court reconvened an hour later. Once everyone was sitting down, the judge called us back to order. “I have reached a decision.” she said. “Despite Mr Jennings unusual attitude to access, I am awarding him sole custody of William and Zoe. Social Services will monitor the situation.” She turned to me. “Be warned Mr Jennings. If I ever find out you are preventing your children from visiting Mr Sandford, I will have you back in this court before you know what is happening.”
That was nine years ago and I’d not seen anything of Sandford since then. Neither Will nor Zoe had ever expressed any desire to see him. He did send birthday cards and presents for them. He sent Will a cheque for £1,000 for his birthday. I sent it back with a note saying he should send something more appropriate for a 14 year old boy. After that things got better. More sensible gifts arrived and I always made them write thank you notes. Other than gifts and cards he left us alone.
As the years went by, Maddy and Mum worked on me. It wasn’t right for the children to grow up with me hating their mother. Maddy kept reminding me that Vicky had the chance of having it all.
“She could have divorced you, taken the children and had a life of luxury. Instead she turned her back on all of that and moved here with you. Doesn’t that tell you anything?”
As Zoe got older she started to ask me more about her mother. What was she like when we were young? What did she like to do? It’s hard telling a young girl that her mother was a slag, so I gilded the lily a bit. Slowly but surely it had an effect on me. There’s a limit to the amount of hate you can carry for a dead person. The good memories started to return and they outweighed the memory of what she had done. Being both mum and dad to a couple of teenagers while trying to earn a living kept me pretty busy. Too busy to worry about people like Terence Sandford.
As I walked through the streets of Clifton I puzzled why would Sandford turn up here and now? Both children were of an age to make all their own decisions. They may not be financially independent but they were independent in every other way. I couldn’t see what I had to offer him. I arrived at the restaurant and went in. Once inside I was asked for my name and when I gave it I got another surprise.
“Ah yes Mr Jennings, your guest has arrived, let me take you to your table.”
The Clifton Sausage is a small boutique restaurant in Clifton village. It was Will’s favourite place specialising, as it did, in his favourite food, sausages. I’d chosen the place because for me it was home ground and I hoped it would make Sandford less than comfortable.
I got straight to the point.
“So Sandford, what’s this all about? The children are all grown up now, they make their own decisions. Neither of us can make them do anything, so why are you talking to me and not them?”
“Vaughan, you don’t mind me calling you Vaughan do you?”
“Thank you, and you can call me Terry.” I nodded to him. “Ok Vaughan, what you say is correct, but you can still help me if you choose to. I want to help them Vaughan. I can open doors. I can make sure they want for nothing but I can’t make them accept my help.”
“Well that makes two of us.”
“But you can help. Look Vaughan, I stuffed up big time nine years ago. I tried to treat it like a business deal. I got the best lawyers, made you an offer I thought you couldn’t refuse. I won the day but I couldn’t make them love me, quite the reverse. Anything they wanted, I gave them, but they still hated me.”
“Is that why you caved in?”
“I caved in, as you put it, because of the actions of our son.”
“Well the tests proved that I am his biological father but I accept you are the one they call dad. William brought that home to me with a vengeance.”
Our meals arrived and we started to eat. Sandford was surprised that he was really enjoying his meal. He made several appreciative noises as we ate.
“So tell me Terry, what did William do to change your mind?”
“Well, I was happy to let them keep running away. The police would always bring them back. I expected them to change their minds after the holiday. However, when the time came to go back to school, William refused to go. The night before the start of term we had a row about it. I told him. ‘I’m your father, and you’ll do as I say’ He looked at me with real hatred in his eyes. ‘You’re not my father. You’re just a man who f•©ked my mother.” It was the mention of Victoria in that way that made me slap his face. Just a slap you understand. I just lashed out, and I did it in front of my staff. Will took himself off to his room.”
“The next day, the chauffer, who should have been taking them to school, came to find me. He said I should see them before they left for school. I went out to find William had a black eye, so bad he couldn’t see out of it. I asked him how he came by it. ‘You did it.’ He said. ‘everyone saw you.’ I swear to you Vaughan, it was an open handed slap I gave him. He’d hurt himself in order to blame it on me. He told me I didn’t want to know where Zoe had bruises. He was going to set me up as a child abuser.”
“I saw how determined he was and I just knew people would believe him. In a way I was proud of him. He’d beaten me, so I gave in. He got what he wanted. Now I accept it was the right thing for both of them.”
“Well, that’s something he never told me, sounds like he’s more devious than I thought.”
“He takes after me in that respect. Like I said, I was proud of him, he knew what he wanted and was prepared to do whatever it took to get it.”
We finished our meals still talking about the children. Much to my surprise I found myself warming to the man. I even started to feel a little sorry for him when he told me about the way his marriage had broken up following the death of his sons.
“The divorce cost me an arm and a leg but it was the right thing to do. Without the boys there was nothing left to bind us together. I was still in love with Victoria. Sorry perhaps I shouldn’t talk about her, but it wasn’t just the boss taking advantage of his P.A. I really did love her, and I thought she loved me.”
“She did. She left me a letter. I didn’t get it until after I met you in London. She told me all about it.”
“She told you I wanted to marry her.”
“That’s another battle I lost. I really expected you to stay in Sunbury, especially after GKN offered you promotion.” My mouth fell open in surprise. “Don’t look so shocked Vaughan, I didn’t want to lose her. If that meant leaning on a few people to make sure your employer made it almost impossible for you to leave, then so be it. That’s why I was convinced you knew about me. Why else would you turn down an offer like that?”
“You won’t be surprised to find out that I was tempted. It would have made a big difference to our family but Vicky assured me we could manage and urged me to do what would make me happiest. I guess that had something to do with you also.”
Few people had ever seen what I saw that evening, the millionaire industrialist Terence Sandford with tears in his eyes. He used a handkerchief to dry them.
“What do you say I settle up here and we go somewhere and get a proper drink?
I indicated my approval and in five minutes we were walking down the hill to a large pub with a huge terrace at the rear. We went straight through to the garden and bought our pints at the terrace bar. The pub owed much of its popularity to the excellent view of the Clifton Suspension bridge. I love to look at that bridge so I found us a table facing it. I sat with him, both drinking beer now and enjoying the warm evening air.