9:00AM GMT 14 Nov 2015
With hindsight, he was probably having a midlife crisis. But instead of splashing out on a sporty new car, my hitherto sensible, law-abiding insurance broker father hit 48 and upped sticks from our home near Glasgow to east Africa, with barely a word of explanation to his family.
I was 13, the third of four children, when he left in 1983, and his departure came as a huge shock. Our family had led an ordinary middle-class existence and our relationship with Dad was a happy one.
True, he was a long-distance runner, an activity that seemed designed to keep him out of the house, but I also remember him coming home from work to dance around the kitchen with me standing on his feet; or taking us on summer holidays to Arran with our many cousins.
Now he was leaving us for a job with a shipping company in Djibouti. It seemed impossibly remote. None of us could understand why he was abandoning us, but Dad wasn’t the kind of person you challenged.
It would take 25 years before I found the courage to ask him why he left. As we stood on the doorstep waving him off, we didn’t say a word.
Karen and her father, Ian
We hugged him and tried not to wonder when he’d be back. Then my younger brother, 11-year-old Sean, broke down in tears. He was showing what we all felt, but I remember looking at him and being embarrassed: our family – following Dad’s lead – just didn’t do emotion.
In the 10 years that followed, phone calls were few and far between and visits even rarer. He told us few details about his life and there was just one photograph, a faded snap of him staring at the camera from behind his glasses.
Mum brought us up, four noisy, outspoken teenagers who must have been a nightmare to look after. I don’t know how she coped, but she was always so good at keeping up appearances and so protective of us.
She later told me that she’d challenged my father on his brief visits but Dad brushed off her concerns and met any questions with derision. Then, one day, what was left of their marriage imploded. Dad admitted to a relationship with a barmaid, 33 years younger, called Tadelech. He’d met her in Ethiopia, they’d been living together for years and they had a five-year-old son, Campbell.
I remember screaming at him, outraged that he expected us casually to accommodate his love child. I got nowhere.
Dad left it to Mum to tell us about our new stepbrother. She waited until after my graduation from art school before she told me. I look back now at the photos from that day and can see that her face was full of tears.
The news hit me so hard that I was physically ill for several days. There was more to come. Dad sent Campbell to spend the summer at our family home. I remember screaming at him, outraged that he expected us casually to accommodate his love child. I got nowhere.
He was impassive in the face of emotion – and he certainly didn’t apologise or explain. Mum was trapped. Perhaps my father gambled on her Christian spirit and knew she wouldn’t turn away a child. More likely, he just didn’t realise how deeply he’d hurt her.
Karen’s parents, Ann and Ian, on their wedding day
With Campbell, an adorable five-year-old, installed, my visits to our hometown of Largs started to feel like trips to another planet. Mum did her best to protect the little boy from understanding he was a problem. Outside the home she was as stoical as she could be and very few of our neighbours or friends questioned who Campbell was, probably out of a sense of loyalty and kindness to Mum. Meanwhile, Dad continued to stonewall every attempt to talk. It was clear he believed that Campbell’s existence need not end their marriage.
In 1998 Mum and Dad separated (they wouldn’t divorce until 2009), putting our beloved family home on the market and buying two separate properties, a few streets away from each other.
Still, Mum wasn’t free. Campbell spent his summers at Dad’s flat in Largs but in reality, as Dad was still working – mostly in London, by this stage – much of Campbell’s care fell on my mother. In 2004, when he was 16, he started at secondary school in Largs and lived full time with Dad, who was, by now, developing grand plans for his son’s future, just as he had with all of us.
Karen and her siblings
Strange as it may seem, throughout this time my parents remained close. It was clear that neither of them really knew how to move on. Mum even let Dad bring his washing to her house: she found it utterly exasperating, but she couldn’t live with or without him. In those years they shared the joy of becoming grandparents and no family celebration was complete without both of them present.
Then, in 2008, with her four children all grown and established in their careers and Campbell now a young man of 21 – with an accent as Scottish as the rest of us – Mum, who was just shy of her 70th birthday, had a devastating stroke that left her wheelchair-bound. It knocked us all sideways. She’d been our family’s rock for so long and now she needed round-the-clock care.
Ann and Ian on their honeymoon in 1963
And still her relationship with my Dad persisted. In 2011, he surprised us all by moving back in to her house, citing various excuses such as the layout being easier on his knees. But I think what he wanted was to be at the centre of the warm family life we were making such an effort to create for Mum, rather than living in a bleak flat with Campbell, who was by then frustrating him with his inability to settle on a career. Also – he’d never say it – I think Dad wanted to help look after Mum and he certainly applied himself to that. I’d like to say he was trying to atone for his guilt, but I don’t think he’d ever put it that way.
Whatever we thought about his past behaviour, his help came as a huge relief. And this sad situation had somehow made us work as a family again. By then I was working in film and it seemed natural to me to start recording my family on camera, trying to make sense of it all. That’s when I finally started to ask Dad about Campbell’s mother, the woman he claims to have fallen in love with “at first sight”. For once Dad didn’t flinch from the truth. And the way he told it, the relationship seems to have been as much as a shock to him as any of us. While it is not to excuse his behaviour, I realised that he’d been naive about the fast and loose African colonial life.
But my Dad wasn’t done yet. Out of the blue one day in 2013 he announced he was returning to Ethiopia. He was 78 and as stubborn as ever and it didn’t seem to matter that Mum’s heart might break all over again.
A few weeks after his departure, I got an email: he had married Campbell’s mother. He “hoped I understood”. “Don’t tell Mum that I’m married,” he said. “That’s just not right.” Mum died later that year, quietly accepting that he’d abandoned her again, but never knowing that he’d remarried.
Now, I believe it is entirely possible that Dad loved my mother as well as Tadelech, however odd that sounds. He was always adamant that he’d never abandon Campbell like so many other expats who fathered children.
I suppose, in the end, I respect that he tried, in his own weird way, to do right by both his families, and although it’s taken me a long time to forgive him, I have. Fully.
The Closer We Get is in UK cinemas now