Aidan Flynn met his father for the first time on his 16th birthday.
In what Aidan was to discover was true Jerry style, he turned up completely unannounced at the front door just after breakfast, having only made the decision to visit the night before. Unlike Holly, Aidan had always known who his father was and, thanks to a faded photograph his mum had left behind when she moved to Greece, he also had a vague idea of what Jerry looked like. When he approached the frosted glass of the front door that morning and saw the blurred outline of someone very tall and very dark, Aidan felt his heart take a distinct leap, almost as if he knew exactly who it was on the other side.
All he knew about Jerry was what his mum and nan had told him, and over the years Aidan had pieced together an image of his father as a passionate but irresponsible man. What his mother described as ‘untameable’, his nan dismissed as ‘immature’, but to Aidan he remained a stranger. Eventually, though, he had stopped asking questions. It upset his nan, so why bother? Jerry had never been a part of his life, and so there was nobody for him to miss.
So, when Aidan sat down on the old sofa in his nan’s front room and looked his father in the eye for the first time, all he really felt was intrigued. The love was to come later, but for now all Aidan had were questions. And, as it turned out, Jerry was more than willing to tell his son anything he wanted to know.
They started at the very beginning.
‘Did you know your mum was only 18 when she got pregnant with you?’ Jerry asked Aidan, his foot tapping restlessly against the pink rug on the lounge floor.
Aidan nodded slowly.
‘It happened during our first year at art college,’ he recounted. ‘We met at a party, and she just blew me away, you know? She had this amazing hair, the colour of cinnamon, and I watched her for ages from across the room. She seemed to me to be like a bird that had been caged all her life, and now she was flying free.’
Jerry paused as he saw the expression on Aidan’s face.
‘Sorry,’ he said, braving a smile. ‘I should have mentioned that I’m a poet in my spare time.’
Aidan ran his eyes over his father’s unkempt curly hair, his battered leather jacket and the numerous holes in his socks. The boots he’d left out in the hallway had jangled with buckles as he crossed the threshold. It was obvious to anyone that Jerry Flynn didn’t work in an office, or any place where a man was expected to look clean cut.
‘Savannah told me that she’d been kept under virtual lock and key while she was growing up.’ He grinned sheepishly at Aidan’s nan, who had just shuffled in with a tray of tea and biscuits.
‘I think perhaps that was why she let an eejit like me chat her up,’ he continued. ‘She was intent on making up for lost time, so she told me. She wanted to party.’
Aidan looked across at his nan in time to see her flinch slightly at Jerry’s words. She was taking an awfully long time to pour the tea.
‘I was a bit less naïve than your mother,’ Jerry went on, his eyes finding a spot on the wall just behind Aidan’s ear. ‘At that time, everyone was in and out of each other’s beds – me included. But with Savannah it was different. It was…’
‘What?’ Aidan was quick to ask, earning himself a stern look from his nan. She’d finished dealing with their tea and was now settled in her chair by the window.
Jerry smiled nervously at each of them in turn before he continued.
‘I spent my days back then reading poetry and painting flowers,’ Jerry shrugged. ‘Of course I thought I was madly in love, and things between us were intense right from the start. She used to say that she loved the way I looked at her, as if she was the most wonderful and beautiful thing I'd ever seen.’
Aidan blushed. There were a few girls at school that he fancied – a few had even let him kiss them – but he’d never experienced anything like love before. He tried to picture his mother as Jerry described, so free and wild and incandescent with love, but it was hard to fathom.
‘I admit, we weren’t careful all of the time,’ Jerry added, causing Aidan’s nan to cough into her mug of tea. ‘That was foolish of us, but we felt as if we were untouchable. It’s like that when you’re young and in love, I suppose.’ He looked to Aidan for confirmation, but only got a shrug in return.
‘When Savannah told me she was pregnant, I’m ashamed to say that all I felt at first was anger. The way I saw it, all my hopes, dreams and ambitions had been ripped away from me.’
He looked so shamefaced as he admitted this that Aidan felt compelled to reassure him. ‘You were only 18,’ he reminded Jerry.
His dad nodded, grateful, lifting his tea up to his mouth but failing to take a sip.
‘Savannah was distraught. She said her parents would murder the both of us,’ Jerry continued, shaking his head. ‘I wasn’t too sure how mine would react, either. As far as they were concerned, I was on the path to becoming a famous artist – I had it all planned. I'd had it all planned for years. You weren’t part of the plan,’ he said simply, raising his shoulders in an honest shrug.
Aidan said nothing, just tried his best to imagine what it would feel like to be expecting a baby with someone, another life that depended on you so entirely. It was a frightening concept.
‘There was no question of Savannah not having you,’ Jerry assured him. ‘But there was no way she could stay at art college, not once she’d confessed what had happened.’
Again Aidan glanced in trepidation at his nan, but she didn’t look angry. On the contrary, she actually seemed riveted by Jerry’s version of events.
‘We tried to make it work,’ he continued, ‘sneaking phone calls to one another in the middle of the night and writing letters. One weekend, I even took a train out here, but I wasn’t allowed into the house.’
There was a distinct bitterness in his delivery, and Aidan squirmed with discomfort.
‘I was very angry about that at the time,’ Jerry went on, addressing Aidan’s nan this time. ‘In yours and Larry’s minds, I was the man who'd led your precious daughter astray and therefore I wasn't fit to be a father. It was made clear to me that you would raise the child yourselves, as a family – and that I wasn't welcome.’
An awkward silence settled across the room as this truth took root in Aidan. He felt a mixture of emotions: anger at his nan for standing in the way of his relationship with his father, dismay at his father for not fighting harder, and a surprising stab of pity for his mother, who he suddenly wished was here with them.
‘Don’t blame your grandparents,’ Jerry hastened, looking straight at Aidan. ‘I thought that nothing could stand in the way of your mother and me, but in the end I think I was relieved to have been pushed out. I wasn’t ready to be a dad or a husband; I let you both down.’
‘Savannah wasn’t ready to be a mum, either,’ Aidan’s nan said then, her voice small as she turned towards him. ‘She did her best, but the maternal bond was never there in the way she wanted it to be. I could see what was happening, but I tried to ignore it.’
She sighed heavily now as the memories dragged themselves up from whatever part of her mind she’d buried them in. Aidan was aware of tears prickling in the corner of his eyes, and took a very deep breath.
‘She seemed to be numb most of the time. It was so strange, like she was there holding you or feeding you, but the real Savannah wasn’t even in the room. There was nothing behind her eyes. She’d stick you in your playpen and leave you wailing away as she painted up in the attic. I would come home from work and find you all alone. It was heartbreaking.’
The brutal truth was, Aidan had been abandoned by both his parents, but even now he didn’t feel any real animosity towards them. His mum felt like a virtual stranger, and this man in front of him now might look just like him, but he may as well be the milkman.
Aidan had absolutely no memory of this at all, and hearing it for the first time shocked him. He knew his mum had moved away when he was only five, but his nan had always been so sweet to him. He thought of her more as a mother than the woman who sent him postcards from abroad.
‘I came back here on your second birthday,’ Jerry said now. He was still holding his mug of tea, and Aidan could see that a film had formed on the top. ‘I brought you a little brown teddy, do you remember?’
Aidan shook his head.
‘Ah, well. That day I promised Savannah I’d be back again soon, but I never was. Well, not until today.’
‘Why not?’ Aidan asked him, scared to hear the answer but desperate to find out the truth.
‘Honestly, the change I saw in the woman I'd once loved so intensely was too painful. Like your nan said, it was as if she’d gone from inside herself. Over time, I’d convinced myself you were all better off without me, and seeing her in such a state just confirmed that.’
Aidan’s nan was shaking her head at this. Clearly she remembered things a little differently.
‘Savannah was in pain, too,’ she interrupted, addressing Aidan. ‘Every time she looked at you, all she could see was the face of the man she'd lost. The more you chased her and begged for her attention, the more she shut you out.’
Aidan tried to picture himself as a toddler, reaching up his arms to his mother only to be rebuffed and ignored. It was an awful image, but it didn’t connect to his emotions at all. Perhaps if she’d stayed around instead of running away to start a life without him, then he’d feel it more keenly. Perhaps he would have had a whole lifetime of rejection to cope with.
‘Savannah’s depression got worse after Larry died,’ his nan continued, almost to herself this time. ‘You’d only just turned five, Aidan, and I was struggling to cope with my own grief and make sense of a future without my husband. I didn’t know what to do with Savannah. I felt so helpless.’
Aidan felt like he should say something to reassure her, but he found himself mute, his teenage awkwardness far outweighing his desire to rush over and hug her. Instead, Jerry put his still-full mug of tea down on the tray and crossed the room, taking Aidan’s nan’s hand as she choked back the tears and continued talking.
‘In the end, I swallowed my pride and contacted Larry’s sister, Janet. She was running a small hotel over on Kefalonia, in Greece. Janet had never really seen eye-to-eye with Larry, but I think his death hit her hard. She agreed that Savannah could stay with her for a while, until she felt better. I would stay here with you, Aidan, and care for you until your mum recovered.’
Aidan already knew the next part of the story. Instead of missing him and her life in Ireland, his mother found the escape she'd been craving every day since he was born. Savannah had kissed him on the cheek the day she left and told him that she'd see him very soon – that much he did remember – but it was more than ten years before he actually did.
‘My mum wrote to me and told me she felt like a new person over there,’ Aidan told Jerry. His dad had sat himself down on the floor by his nan’s feet, which Aidan found extraordinary but also touching.
‘I was too young to really understand at the time, but I kept all her letters and read them back again last year, before we went over there. She said the locals were so kind to her and that the island was the most beautiful place she’d ever seen. She’d started painting again, and she was even starting to make a living from it.”
‘I wrote to her all the time, in the beginning,’ Aidan’s nan told them. ‘I sent photos of you so she could she how you were growing up, but I rarely got a reply. I think she’d done what you did, Jerry, and told herself that Aidan and I were better off without her.’
The room fell silent again. The brutal truth was, Aidan had been abandoned by both his parents, but even now he didn’t feel any real animosity towards them. His mum felt like a virtual stranger, and this man in front of him now might look just like him, but he may as well be the milkman. It was then that he noticed the ring on Jerry’s finger.
‘I got married ten years ago now,’ Jerry said, catching Aidan’s eye. ‘I should have told you that straight away. I’ve got a daughter, Clara, so you’re a big brother too.’
‘Clara?’ Aidan tested the word.
‘She’s a right beauty, if I say so myself,’ Jerry rifled in his pocket and produced his wallet, sliding out a photo and passing it across to Aidan. The girl in the picture had dark red hair and green eyes, her head thrown back as she laughed.
‘Got her heart set on being a model, so she tells me.’
Aidan passed the photo back. ‘You should bring her next time,’ he suggested, quickly turning to his nan. ‘If that’s okay?’
She smiled and got to her feet. ‘Of course it is, pet. And Jerry,’ she put a hand on his shoulder. ‘I am sorry, for all that’s passed. And I am glad you came here today.’
They exchanged a look heavy with mutual regret, and Aidan looked away, suddenly uncomfortable. There was a creeping sense of excitement coming over him as he realised the enormity of what was happening. After all these years, his father was back in his life, and Aidan had the chance to really get to know him.
He thought about how his mother had reacted when he visited her in Greece for the first time last summer, how she’d picked up his face in both her hands and kissed him over and over. She’d tried so hard to show him that she cared, but Aidan had felt suffocated by her guilt. He’d been so excited to see her again, but then all he’d managed to show her was anger and resentment. He knew he’d been a disappointment to her, and it had been haunting him ever since. He must try harder.
As his nan closed the door behind her and Jerry turned again to face his son, Aidan made a silent promise to himself: from this moment onwards, he would do everything he could to make his parents proud of him. He’d be the best son in the world. And the first step? Well, that was easy. He had to forgive.
Isabelle Broom's My Map of You is out on April 21st.