A moment that changed me: I saw my father in court – and knew I had to turn my life around

Face to face with the man I had grown up hating, I realised what a pathetic figure he was. Suddenly I was free to focus on my own future

When I was a child, and friends asked me what I would do if I ever met my dad, I always replied that if I had a gun I would shoot him. I was a young teen in a small east Yorkshire market town with, at best, minor connections to a burgeoning petty criminal underworld. Even if I had been able to get a gun, I would have been more likely to shoot off a finger in error than aim correctly at my absent father. It was an empty threat that clearly revealed a deep, simmering anger.

My mum was a teenage tearaway who met an older guy, left school at 16, ran off to get married, and had me weeks after her 17th birthday. He turned out to be a violent alcoholic who was abusive. Thankfully, bravely, she left him before I was two, worried about the repercussions of me reaching an age when I could talk back. My dad did a runner to avoid paying child support and that was the last we heard of him. Until 14 years later, when the letterbox clattered open one morning: he had been found and summoned to court, in relation to the thousands owed, and Mum had to go. I insisted I go too.

Leading up to this, I had been on rocky terrain. I’d been suspended from school; fighting, drugs and crime were becoming an inescapable part of friends’ lives and encroaching on mine. One particularly terrifying day, involving buckets of weed and a psychotic-episode-inducing knock to the head, resulted in a friend trying to kill me. I was hardly thriving, and the paths that lay ahead contained some troubling signposts.

My situation was an amalgam of boredom, idiocy, hormones, white cider and, with hindsight, some unresolved feelings of hatred towards a man who never played any significant part in my life but still cast a looming shadow over it. I was never angry with my dad for not being there. You can’t miss what you’ve never had and I didn’t feel like anything was absent – we were super-broke, but Mum and I were a good little team. Any anger came purely from knowing what she had been through, and perhaps feelings of helplessness around it.

Courtrooms truly are life-sucking forces. Bad news hangs in the air like an impenetrable fog – every room having absorbed a lifetime of heartache, pain, misery and grief. Everything is ominous grey or faded brown. The grand courtrooms I had seen in films, filled with suited mobsters awaiting their fate, had bent my reality and seriously ill-prepared me for the bleak realities of Bridlington magistrates court.

My visions of revenge dissipated as soon as my dad walked into the waiting room. In a crumpled suit, with his mum in tow, he shuffled to a seat with his eyes glued to the floor. Inside the court he had a hangdog look, sitting shrunken, slumped and motionless. Like a living courtroom sketch of himself.

Claiming to be penniless, he reeled off reasons why he didn’t pay anything. One valid excuse was because of a very hefty prison sentence he had served. He didn’t speak to me, look at me, or acknowledge my presence, so I still can’t truly say I met my dad, merely briefly encountered his tragic existence.

My mum voluntarily relinquished all moneys owed to her. She didn’t want anything of his, only asking for me to get something in the future hope of a university education. Sixteen-year-old me thought: who the hell passes up on thousands owed? In retrospect, it’s one of the proudest moments of my life, a powerfully bold stance of independence and defiance. A glorious “fuck you”. He was ordered to pay money back but soon ran away again, and we were back to where we were.

Except something had changed. The simmering anger had reduced. I no longer imagined firing bullets because I had dodged the biggest of them all. I’d been given a glimpse of a parallel life: spending my weekends in the category A prison visiting room, with God knows what else thrown into the mix. An overwhelming sense of gratitude and relief completely eclipsed any feelings of hostility.

Combined with being taught by an inspirational GCSE English teacher, Mrs Stevens, I began to change. I still drank cider, knocked about with characters who would go on to live very troubled lives, and generally dicked about, but I got into university. I read, wrote and immersed myself in music and culture. I grasped for and cherished beautiful things and people.

We are often led to believe that single parenting is a lesser option, a weakened approach. Rarely is it spoken about as a positive force. My life has been unquestionably, unimaginably, better as a result of single parenthood.

I realised that day, in a dreary seaside courtroom, that the strength, resilience, bravery and determination it takes to walk away from a situation of violence and turn it into one of love, nurturing, safety and possibility is not a handicap – it’s a marvel.

• In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org

• Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here


Daniel Dylan Wray

The GuardianTramp

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