Her dad left when she was four, but it wasn't until many years later, when she saw a photo of a girl who looked just like her, that Susan Swingler began to unpick his web of deceit
'I thought I was an only child' … Susan Swingler discovered she had a secret half-sister whose life had mirrored her own. Photograph: Sam Frost Sam Frost/Sam Frost
Saturday 24 May 2014 17.01 AEST
It was 1967, the summer of love, and I was going to get married. But I needed my father, Leonard, to give permission because I was under 21. I hadn't seen him since I was four, when he left my mother, Joyce, and disappeared from my life. I knew he was living in Australia with his second wife, and I nervously wrote to tell him of our plans. He didn't reply.
However, a few months later I received congratulations cards and cheques from two people I had never heard of – Laura and Harry. My mother told me they were my aunt and uncle, my father's sister and brother. But where had they been all my life? She hesitated before saying: "When your father and I separated, he asked me not to contact his family … He was in a terrible state, so I promised."
I arranged to visit my aunt Laura at her home in Essex. We sat in her front room drinking tea and I felt I was being examined, but for signs of what, I had no idea. She told me that the last time she'd seen me was in 1949, when I was three. She said what a pity it was that we'd moved so far away, and asked when my mother and I had come back to England.
What did she mean? Come back from where?
"From Australia, of course."
I stared at her. Neither my mother nor I had ever set foot outside Europe.
"But," she said, "you wrote to your grandfather, and Joyce sent photos." She fetched a framed photo.
The picture was of a girl of about 15 standing by a gate, her eyes hidden by glasses. I wore glasses, too. She was slim, with straight hair, like me. Could that girl be me? Had I been there, wherever it was, and been photographed and then forgotten all about it? Laura didn't seem to doubt that I was that girl, and yet the photo was sent from Australia.
"I don't think that's me," I said with more conviction than I felt.
Laura frowned. "Wait here." She left and returned a few moments later with a shoebox stuffed with envelopes. She produced another photo. "And this isn't your brother and sister?"
"I'm an only child," I told her.
Laura spoke quietly. "I could never understand why your mum didn't write, and when she finally did, the handwriting didn't look right. I told Harry and Father, that's not Joyce's handwriting, but they said I was imagining things."
I gave her the bare facts concerning the past 17 years of my life: after my parents separated, my mother and I lived in a series of boarding schools where she taught, before settling in Exeter, where she remarried.
I went to Bristol University, married straight after my finals and was now a trainee teacher. I hadn't seen my father since I was four.
I thought back to the day he said goodbye. We were at a busy railway station. Daddy lifted me up on to the train and as it started to move, he ran along the platform. I leaned out of the carriage window shouting goodbye and waving until he disappeared in a cloud of steam. I was told that Daddy would be going to Scotland, where he was looking for a house for us to live in.
But at Christmas we didn't go to Scotland. It was then that my mother told me there would be no house there. I was devastated, furious, and I hit out. My daddy had lied, and so had she. As soon as I could write my own letters, I wrote to my father weekly. I'd ask: "When can I see you again?" He would reply: "When you're old enough."
A moment came, when I was about 14, that should have made me give up this quest to see him. I was at home on my own and bored. Rummaging around, I found a letter, and recognised my father's writing. I knew I shouldn't look at someone else's letters but … I took one and began to read: