Words for Friends #7

This is part of a new series of blogs entitled Words for Friends, in which I will try to acknowledge some people in my life for whom words of thanks are not nearly enough.

These living epitaphs to my true and lovely friends are published in a random order as fancy takes me.

#7 Judith and Lawson

It seems that Judith and Lawson have always been part of my life… and it is true that since 1992, when we first met, they have always been there.

We witnessed our respective daughters (six in total between us!) being born and start school, and over the years they stood by me through relationship breakdowns and more house moves than you could shake a stick at.

But one almost divine memory of our friendship will always remain:

One hot July eve in 1993, they came to our house for a fondue meal. And as we ate our way through various hot oil dips and puddings, and drank far too much wine than was good for us, their baby daughter slept soundly in the next room.

We continued drinking, talking and laughing; and watched the sun set through the west facing window of the kitchen. Many hours passed until with shared awe we watched the same sun rise through the east facing kitchen window.

We fired up the fondue again and for the first and last time in my life, we shared the delight of fondue cooked bacon for breakfast.

Some memories and friends are priceless.

Denial

THIS is the third instalment of my Back From the Edge quartet and is entitled: Denial.

A Fight for Justice
“We can and do frequently fall out of love with our partners. It is a pain that is impossible to explain when we feel betrayed by someone we once loved, and entirely natural that we feel the desire for revenge. Children, however, only fall out with their best friends but never Mummy, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa.”
“I cry silently for these children who, through no fault of their own, are forced to grieve unnecessarily.”
EVELYN DOYLE, AUGUST 2003

I AM many things, have many flaws and made many mistakes in my life. I have paid for them all. I have not always been the best partner and have at times been wayward – for which I am truly sorry – but I have always been a good father.
As a human being I am sometimes quirky and find it hard to tolerate fools, but above all, I am gentle, kind, caring and honest… qualities which those who know me well can confirm.
So what follows has taken many years to get my head around and many months of stalling to begin its telling.
I guess it all began when my second life partner – and the mother of my two middle girls – and I separated in the summer of 1999. We had been together for eight years and despite an at times tempestuous relationship we raised our two daughters with mutual care and love. We also parted amicably.
At the time of the break-up, I was working away in Aberdeen in the North East of Scotland. My ex-partner stayed living with our girls in our family home near Edinburgh. She found another man – a road engineer – very quickly, but that did not play on our emotions too much. We parted on an understanding that I would always have free and equal access to my daughters, Rhia and Shannon. Indeed, my ex said openly: “Don’t worry you will always be able to see the girls. You are their daddy.”
Within a few months she relocated with our girls to a farmstead in the North West of Scotland. A few months later, I heard she had ditched her road engineer in favour of a wealthy computer tech, who also shared her passion for horses. Her new relationship did not appear to unduly change the joint parenting of our daughters.
Despite a great distance between our two homes (a return trip by car of almost eight hours), I maintained good contact with my daughters and, with a couple of exceptions, had them to stay for every school holiday and half term – logistically quite difficult when I was only able to take 25 days holiday a year from work. These visits were supplemented by additional trips to her locale, where I visited the girls in situ and took them out, plus a Christmas Day drive to deliver presents and spend two valuable hours in their company.
My daughters were always delighted to see me and and enjoyed a loving and caring time with me and my new wife. I never lost my temper with them and never smacked them or hurt them in any way. I was, after all, their daddy and I loved them to bits.
But in the summer of 2002 my ex married her new partner and everything started to change.
He was a self-proclaimed millionaire and showered her with gifts: a new sports car with personalized number plates, a huge bronze bust of a horse for her stable yard and everything else money could buy… a sharp contrast to the frugal life she had had with me.
Her new husband – who I will call X for the sake of this piece – is all things to all people. His personal CV would make even Superman’s eyes water: a successful entrepreneur, a professor and doctor in computer science, a self-professed psychologist, a horse whisperer, a top photographer and an acclaimed web-site designer.
He was everything I wasn’t and I guess my ex had found her man!
But within a couple of months of their marriage, I had word from my eldest son Ben and some mutual friends that they had concerns about changes in the way my daughters were being parented and a new party lifestyle. The concerns were so serious that I drove to North West Scotland and spent two days talking to acquaintances to set my mind at rest.
The following May I remarried and my daughters were bridesmaids at our wedding.
That summer my new wife and I bought a family home in South Tyneside and, due to complications with the conveyancing, I had to delay my daughters’ two week summer stay by nine days. At this juncture I could tell things were decidedly cool with my ex. Her annoyance was obvious, despite my apologies.
But that did not prepare me for what lay ahead.
As explained in my earlier blog posting entitled Regret, in September 2003 I was reunited after 18 years with my eldest daughter T. I naturally informed my ex of my delight at the reunification and told her I looked forward to our daughters meeting their step-sister.
A family gathering was planned for the October half term where T would meet her grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and most importantly her older step-brother and two step-sisters. This was going to be the weekend I had dreamed of for almost 19 years… my family all together for the first time. I wrote to Rhia and Shannon to prepare them and enclosed new photographs of their stepsister.
Then came the hammer blow.
In a short telephone call, my ex told me that the girls could not attend the family party as they had ‘other arrangements’. She added a justification that the girls would be ‘emotionally damaged by suddenly meeting a mysterious sister that has materialized out of nowhere”.
Yet my daughters had grown up with pictures of T in the house and always knew of her as their estranged sister. I even received letters from the girls thanking me for the new pictures of T, with Shannon adding: “I hope I can see T when I come up”.
I was crippled by my ex’s attitude and could tell immediately that someone else was orchestrating this move.
But there was more to come.
I challenged her assertion that T was a “mysterious sister”.
She retorted: “If you are really so honest, have you told them where she came from and who her mother was and how old she was?”
This was coming from a woman who had known of my conviction since we first met in 1991 and had often teased me with the words: “Don’t worry, it was just your willy being silly”.
Now she was using my conviction as some first assault weapon.
The next exchange was almost a month later.
On Wednesday 19 November, my wife telephoned my ex to chat about arrangements for the girls to stay at Christmas – a happy routine we had continued for four years. She was given short shrift and was told she was reviewing the Christmas arrangements.
I telephoned the next day to be greeted with a verbal assault over how our daughters were emotionally damaged “every time they stay with you”, adding that “after the last visit I caught Rhia bullying Shannon” and she placed the blame on me.
I told her that in turn Rhia was very unhappy at being being forced to go goose shooting with her husband and then being told to pick up the dead geese.
Soon hackles were raised and the phone call descended to a row, with my ex stating that I was an “unsuitable parent”.
In anger, I retorted that she was “an arrogant piece of dirt”.
I am not proud of my words or my anger, but I guess that is what happens sometimes when former partners disagree.
She slammed the phone down on me.
I redialed and the call was answered by X who bluntly told me not to call again, before hanging up.
I redialed again. This time I asked to speak with my daughters, as was normal. He responded with words that have haunted me ever since: “You will never speak with your daughters again”.
There followed the farce of me redialing again and again with my anger and frustration rising each time to be greeted with a similar response. On the ninth redial, X stated that he would report me to the police for harassment if I called again.
My wife was sat next to me and had witnessed the whole bizarre 20 minutes.
With tears flooding and anger rising, I sat and wondered what to do next.
What I did next was ill-conceived and something I regret.
I exacerbated matters and wrote a powerful personal letter to my ex raising a number of concerns I had over her morality and the welfare of my daughters in her household. It contained issues I had left bubbling since my trip to North West Scotland some 16 months earlier. It was spiteful and aimed to hurt.
I had marked the letter private and personal. In hindsight, it was clear that her husband had read the letter and I had stupidly upped the ante.
My ex wasted no time in cancelling my daughters’ Christmas visit. On 20 December I received a letter from her solicitor stating that if I attempted to contact her or my daughters directly again, they would seek a Court Interdict (Injunction) against me. The cost of contesting an interdict usually runs to at least £4,000. Breach of any interdict is a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment.
I was left in no-man’s land… I could not afford to contest the threatened interdict.
So the New Year of 2004 dawned and a six month legal battle began.
I instructed a solicitor to act for me, primarily to address the threat of an interdict, but also to establish legal access to my daughters.
A ream of solicitors’ letters still sit in a file and bare testimony to what was to come.
My lawyer offered mediation and even supervised visiting as a way forward. In the early replies from her solicitors, she said there would be no problem with resuming access on certain conditions.
But my ex then moved the goal posts over my rights again and again until it became obvious that she had no intention of allowing me any contact or access.
Initially she maintained that I was mentally ill and had “anger-management problems”… based primarily on the telephone exchange of the previous November.
In one letter her solicitor held out a twisted olive branch in which he said his client would ‘consider’ supervised contact, if I “acknowledged” I had mental health issues to address and a letter from my GP that these were “being addressed”.
In the letter she based this demand on the fact she was “increasingly concerned by the tone and content of emails, letters and telephone calls” from me!
Even 10 years later I still have no idea how this could have impacted on my parenting of my daughters.
The accusations are wholly ironic. For while I suffered short-term clinical depression on a couple of occasions in my life, my ex had a long history of mental illness and irrational outbursts. These included two suicide attempts and her jumping out of a moving car while she was seven months pregnant, with my parents sitting aghast in the back, and even her lying down behind my car while I was reversing it out of a driveway.
She then claimed that my contact with my daughters had only been “sporadic”. This was made despite a 600 mile round trip each time I had seen my girls in the previous four years.
Yet I jumped through all of her legal hoops – even paying for a full medical report which confirmed that I was NOT mentally ill nor had any anger management issues. But she brushed this report aside and demanded a ‘second opinion’. Even 16 letters in my support from friends and family did not sway her resolve to deny me any access to my daughters.
By early March, my solicitor warned me that legal costs in pursuing the case could be prohibitive as he would have to do battle in her local sheriff court some 200 miles from his office.
On 26 April, my solicitor wrote to her solicitor highlighting my ex’s position of “a lack of good faith” in ignoring the earlier offer of mediation and being obstructive and to ask her to make my daughters aware of “the strenuous efforts that their father is making to re-establish contact with them”.
My solicitor told me that in his experience of dealing with family law matters, “she has probably poisoned your daughters against you by now… this usually happens in cases like this”.
A reply letter from her solicitor of 5 May 2004 simply reiterated earlier letters regarding my alleged mental illness and that she had been at the “receiving end of abusive and threatening text and telephone contact” from me.
It went on to say that “another party indicated that similar emails and messages resulted in the Police having to caution Mr Outterside in February 2004.”
To this date I have no idea who the “other party” is. But one thing is sure: I have NEVER received a Police caution in my life!
My solicitor told me that this letter was probably “designed to offend”.
The legal quagmire with its associated crippling costs eventually ceased in June 2004, when without the necessary funding to fight the battle in court, my solicitor advised me: “I have no confidence that Mrs X has any intention of co-operating, and is simply spinning out the process in the hope that her influence over the children will eventually resolve the problem for her”.
So, with the legal battle lost, I began my own campaign for access and contact with my daughters.
In August 2004 – the first anniversary of the last time I had seen the girls – I asked friends and family if they would help me lobby my ex to think again.
I was overcome by the response.
My mother led the crusade with a heartfelt letter in which she wrote: “I am struggling to come to terms with the fact that I may never see the girls again. As you know Rhiannon and Shannon were close to us and as their grandparents we really miss seeing them.” She added that my father’s (the granddad) health was deteriorating rapidly suffering from cancer, a stroke and Parkinson’s Disease.
Other people, including my sisters (the girls’ aunts), two doctors, a police officer, two solicitors and friends who had been denied access rights themselves joined the campaign with a host of letters.
But the missives fell on deaf ears and there was no reply.
A second Christmas with no contact with my darling daughters was upon me and I dutifully posted presents and cards for them both.
My parents received surprise Christmas cards from the girls and brave Shannon managed to smuggle a card to me inside one to her grandparents!
Unsure where to turn to next, in the Spring of 2005 I joined a local branch of The Real Fathers for Justice.
It was eye-opening, liberating and the most useful thing I had done in years.
Not only was I able to share my problems with other parents (both men and women) who had lost contact with their children, but among them were legal experts who helped immensely.
One lawyer told me I was entitled under English and Scots Law to receive school reports and school photos and to attend parents’ evenings (albeit the school was 300 miles away!). She also told me I was entitled to write letters to my daughters, though these may have to be channeled through a solicitor. And finally she advised me to record every letter and photograph every present I sent them, as in many cases mothers ensured children never received parcels from absent parents. This was done to make children believe the absent parent had ‘deserted them’.
Within a week I had written to the girls’ primary school headteacher requesting reports and photographs.
She replied immediately and a month later I received my first school reports and an offer of a telephone chat with their form teacher.
They were excelling at school, and I was both relieved and delighted.
Next I wrote to my ex underlining my legal right to write letters to the girls. She reluctantly agreed, but insisted the letters were sent via her solicitor. I in turn agreed and began writing a newsy letter to each of my daughters once a fortnight.
The letters were full of updates on how I and their young brother were doing and included recent photos. Not once did I mention the ongoing battle for access and kept the letters innocent and happy.
In one letter, I enclosed two £10 postal orders as a well-done for their excellent school reports.
And from June 2005 I also ensured that everything I sent, from CDs and books to an electric guitar and stethoscope were photographed as evidence of my continue campaign for access.
Very soon it was August 2005 and the second anniversary of the last contact with my daughters.
I decided to repeat the letter writing campaign from the previous year, hoping that time had healed the ire of my ex and that she may think again.
This time friends from The Real Father’s For Justice volunteered to write their own letters, explaining from first-hand experience the emotional damage to a child that comes from denial of the society of both parents.
I specified to all the letter writers that they “must not attack my ex or her husband in any way” but simply to appeal to their better natures.
Again all was silent.
Then suddenly on Saturday 22 October the postman delivered a brown paper parcel to my door.
I recognised the postmark and opened the package quickly.
My heart stopped. Inside was every letter I had written to my daughters since July… all unopened. In the package was also a letter from my ex. It was less a letter than a bullying and vitriolic rant. The venom, lies and anger it contained rocked me back.
What had I done to deserve this?
The letter kicked off with: “Rhia and Shannon are doing extremely well since the termination of your unwelcome involvement in their lives, and I believe correspondence of any kind with you is not in their best interests.”
Really?
Then turning to the anniversary campaign she added: “I remember you asking me to sign a letter you wrote to Ben’s mum complaining about access and then I receive the same letter from Ruth (my wife at the time), the same old harassment tactic.”
This was a complete fantasy as I had enjoyed more than 10 years unhindered access and contact with my son Ben from my first marriage and NEVER had reason to write to my former wife!
She went on to state: “I would have returned these letters sooner but I like the other downtrodden and abused women on the other side of your F4J crap, have to work all the hours to feed and clothe my children because their father cares more about hurting me than caring for them.”
This part of her letter had me reeling.
But it became even more venomous: “If you only had put the same energy into your visits and child payments as you have into abusing me, abandoning your children and cheating on all of your life partners to date.
“Don’t write to the children again until you have paid all the arrears in full and are prepared to apologise for your threatening behaviour to date. It should be clear, even to a self centred bully that I am not going to be harassed into submission by the F4J letter campaign, nor will I ever back down although still very scared of you. I am no longer your victim or patsy.”
The allegations and insinuations in this final part of her letter took my breath away.
Was she really suggesting that I had abused her?
Never!
Abandoned my children?
Never!
Cheated on all my life partners to date?
I cheated once in my first marriage, seven years before I met her, and that has been well documented!
What threats had I made?
None.
And why suddenly, after two years, did she raise the spectre of unpaid maintenance for my daughters? Was she moving the goalposts yet again as she had never mentioned maintenance before, after I ceased paying it when she denied me access to my children.
More was to become clear over the next six months.
In January 2006 I sadly began divorce proceedings with my wife Ruth after she had found another man. Although acrimonious at first, we soon adopted a civil and adult approach for the sake of our son, Nathan.
In March 2006, Ruth and I agreed that following a trial weekend stay, Nathan should live with me. We arranged for him to begin living with me 24/7 in the early summer.
Ruth then asked whether I minded if she approached my ex as Nathan had often asked after his sisters.
So in April she telephoned her and explained that we were divorcing each other and could she drive Nathan to Scotland to visit his sisters.
Apparently my ex seemed flummoxed by the unexpected phone call before blurting out: “If Nic had apologised to me he could have seen the girls!”
Were the years of denial of access all to do with her hurt pride?
She asked for some time to think about Ruth’s request.
But she never phoned back.
Another year passed as I settled in my new home in North Wales.
Then in August 2007 I received a surprise letter from the deputy head of my daughter’s new high school.
His letter politely informed me that my ex had lobbied him for me to stop sending cards and gifts to my daughters via the school – something which had been common practice for two years until that point.
He added: “Mrs X has informed me that a procedure has been agreed that gifts and cards should be sent through a solicitor. I would ask that you act through the appointed solicitor in future.”
He was, of course, unaware that my ex had already put a stop to this in October 2005!
The school’s letter was followed up by another dose of hatred from my ex at Christmastime.
Without boring readers with most of its raging content, it reiterated that: “My solicitor wrote to you a number of years back explaining that all correspondence and gifts were to be routed to their office.”
She added: “I have also asked the solicitors to write in the New Year to the school to rebut your ridiculous claims, which I believe are born out of your extreme jealousy, ongoing mental health problems and uncontrollable paranoia… I did find it mildly amusing with your UNSPENT criminal record that you are spouting your fatherly rights chapter and verse.”
Was she really unaware that my conviction was fully spent in 1991? And why raise it at all unless out of spite?
This time I ignored my ex’s hyperbole and venom and wrote immediately to her solicitors, with accompanying presents for my daughters, offering to pay maintenance arrears in return for contact/access with the girls.
I was taken aback when I received a reply from the firm explaining that my ex’s solicitor had left them almost a year earlier and that they “no longer undertake civil work”.
I wrote to my ex to explain this, but never received a reply.
In fact, 2007 was a year of no replies.
In early 2008 my father’s health was failing fast. He was confined to a nursing home and bed bound.
My mother again wrote to my ex asking if she would consider letting the girls visit their grandfather one last time. She stated clearly that I would not be anywhere near the nursing home
Mum’s earlier letters had been politely returned by the former solicitor stating that his “client refused to give him instructions”.
She hoped a direct approach might this time have some effect.
My ex did not even have to courtesy or humanity to reply.
When my dad finally died on 30 October 2008, my eldest son Ben telephoned my ex’s house to tell the sad news. The phone was answered by her husband, who simply said: “Ah, he’s gone at last, I will pass the news on.”
When my son told me of the response my grief battled hard with anger that someone could be so heartless.
So there followed another two years of Christmas and birthday cards and following the girl’s progress through school reports and occasional phone calls from mutual friends who lived nearby.
Seven years had passed since I had last seen my daughters and both were now mature teenagers.
Then in May 2010 I was informed that something had happened which meant I would not see them again.
Now almost four years later I still cry tears for the daughters that were denied me.