It's every woman's nightmare. Hello, the caller said, I'm your husband's secret child
23:05 GMT, 12 October 2012
At first Angela was stunned by the ‘emotional hand grenade’ tossed into her family’s heart. But to her surprise, it would enrich their lives
The phone call that changed my family’s life irrevocably came out of the blue, as these earth-shattering events so often do, one autumn evening as we ate our supper.
The four of us — my partner Olly, our two young sons and I — had just settled down at the table. It had been an unexceptional day, yet the prosaic domestic scene is imprinted indelibly on my memory. I can still summon up the picture of that moment: the boys’ knees, mud-splattered from a game of football in the garden; their happy, idle chatter; even the cheese and spinach pie on our plates.
And then the telephone rang.
Happy families: Long-lost love-child Cindy with step-mum Angela and father Olly
I recall next — with a clarity undimmed by the passing of 25 years — the succession of emotions that flashed through my mind: first annoyance that our meal had been interrupted. Then, as I heard the tone and warmth of Olly’s greeting, recognition: the call was obviously from his mother in Holland.
And then there was a long pause which I recognised as a prelude to unexpected or untoward news.
I held my breath and listened intently. Next came an unmistakable frisson of worry and disbelief in Olly’s voice as he said, ‘I can’t believe it. Are you sure’ And in that moment I knew instinctively that the news his mother had imparted was momentous.
Olly was pale with shock when he returned to the table; his voice barely audible over our sons’ chatter as he relayed the content of his mother’s call. ‘She says a woman has been in touch with her claiming to have a daughter by me. She wants to meet me,’ he said, and in that instant my cosy domestic world seemed to spin on its axis.
I was stunned, confused and angry as a thousand questions coursed through my mind. How could Olly have a daughter when we had been together — contentedly, monogamously I believed — for the past 19 years
Of course, we’d had our bad times — there had even been a short spell when we had lived on separate floors in our house — but I had not imagined he was capable of infidelity. In fact I felt the passing years had brought us closer.
But now came a sickening feeling that made my head reel. It was as if an emotional hand-grenade had been tossed into my life. I had to ask him the question that spun dizzyingly in my mind: ‘Had he been unfaithful’
Reunited: Olly (right) found out he had a 21-year-old daughter called Cindy (centre0. She was born before he had met his wife Angela (right)
Our sons, Zek, 13, and Cato, nine, were happily oblivious, engaged in some absorbing game, but I feared the worst. I started to believe that this daughter — this interloper who threatened to disrupt our settled and contented lives — might have been conceived during one of Olly’s trips back to see his mother in their native Holland.
Yet he really did seem as shocked and confused as I was. He took my hand, held it tight and implored earnestly, tearfully even: ‘You must believe me. I really know nothing about this.’
What had happened was less worrying than the scenario my wild imaginings had conjured up. Olly explained kindly that he’d had several brief relationships as a young man before he met me. This girl, he said, must have been born as a result of one of them.
‘Maybe I should send a message via my mother to say I live overseas and can’t meet her’ he suggested. ‘What if I just ignore the message’
The selfish part of me wanted to beg him to do just that. Who knew what havoc this young woman might wreak on all our lives
But even then, in the midst of my angst, that seemed a very cruel path to take. I’ve always believed it is important for children to know their parents, so, with some trepidation, I urged Olly to make the phone call; to meet the girl — called Cindy — and find out if she really was his child.
And so, two months later, Olly travelled to the small Dutch town of Hilversum near Amsterdam, where he was born, to meet the woman who professed to be his daughter.
I stayed at home in London with our boys: it didn’t feel right for me to intrude on that first private, emotional meeting. It was something Olly needed to do on his own.
Even so, I was consumed by nerves; unsure how this strange and unnerving new chapter in our lives would pan out. If Olly met Cindy’s mother again, might their old passion be reignited The thought plagued me.
Yet I took consolation from my conviction that, although I was unsure about his undying loyalty towards me, I did not believe he would ever choose to leave his sons.
The days of his absence passed in a tumult of nervous anticipation. Was the story true Could Cindy be his daughter
Then he arrived home, eager to impart his news. The young woman he met was, in fact, 21. I was reassured that her age proved unequivocally that Olly’s relationship with her mother had pre-dated our own.
He told me she had fine features: huge grey-blue eyes, a cascade of russet curls and a striking resemblance to his own mother when she was younger.
I was intrigued to hear, too, how tongue-tied and shy she had been, and how Cindy had arrived to meet her father with a list of questions she had prepared.
Life-changing: When Olly heard the news, he travelled to the small Dutch town of Hilversum where he was born to meet the woman who claimed to be his daughter
Cindy had been born in January 1966, when Olly was in his early 20s, after he’d had a brief relationship with her mother, who is still alive. She later married and had another child, but Olly had never been told about the first pregnancy.
It turned out that Cindy’s mother had only recently told her who her father was and Cindy had persuaded her to track down Olly’s mother.
Cindy wanted to know all about Olly’s parents and brother, about the kind of people they were, how they lived and, importantly, whether they had any inherited illnesses.
She was engaged to be married and wanted to have children, she explained, so a family medical history was particularly important to her.
At this stage, I admit, my relief that Olly hadn’t had an affair was mixed with anxiety: even though I knew now that Olly had not been unfaithful to me, an uncharitable mistrust of this beautiful new interloper started to creep up on me. Did I want Olly’s fully-grown daughter, with whom I had no biological link, to become part of our settled and self-contained lives
Cindy’s desire to understand her origins was reasonable enough, I told myself, but I felt uneasy. Friends did not help when they asked, incredulously, why I wasn’t more upset and jealous. Some even suggested I should throw Olly out.
Had I missed something Should I insist Cindy have no role in my partner’s life I reflected on this at length, but the truth was that she was the result of a liaison which had taken place before I even met Olly: why should I feel antipathy towards her
Over the months that followed, Olly travelled to Holland several times to visit Cindy. He would return, ebullient, clutching photographs he had taken and some that Cindy had given him from her past.
Unhappy: Cindy (pictured aged 7) had a difficult childhood
I tried to be pleased by the delight he clearly took in having ‘found’ her; I even endeavoured to understand when, in wistful moments, he regretted the fact that he hadn’t known Cindy earlier; that she had not been able to spend time with us as a child. I remember feeling then a niggling fear that she might become too important to him: the daughter he and I never had, who might assume a mythical place in his life.
Then suddenly, the following year — 1989 — there were new concerns to confront. Cindy and her fiance, Gerard, said they were planning to visit us in England. What if I didn’t like her What if I found her conniving What if she started making demands on Olly and wanted money from him at a time when, as a freelance writer and photographer respectively, he and I were struggling financially
Might she want a stake in our children’s inheritance Was she working on persuading Olly to change his will
Of course, I wasn’t proud of my thoughts — in fact I reproached myself for being suspicious and cynical — but I also recognised that all these scenarios were, after all, perfectly feasible.
Then Cindy arrived; bright, beautiful and unassuming, she seemed shyly grateful to be admitted into our lives, and within minutes my shameful suspicions dispersed.
Olly’s long-lost daughter was guileless, charming, open and as eager to be friends with me and our boys, as much as she was with her father.
During their visit, Cindy and Gerard made a discreet but concerted effort to fit in; our family, in turn, embraced her. She confided in me later that she, too, had endured her own private terror that she would feel out of place in our home; that I would dislike or reject her.
And even though our boys seemed uncertain and coy at first when their new half-sister came into their lives, they quickly took their cue from Olly and me, and their shyness and reserve soon dissipated.
So as Cindy and I grew closer, a firm and genuine mutual affection took root, and I was moved one day when, during a long walk, she told me the heart-rending tale of her childhood.
Her mother, Ellie, was just 19 when she fell pregnant by Olly, and she remembered little about him. Ellie’s strict Roman Catholic parents had shunned their daughter when she told them she had become pregnant, and forced her to leave their home.
She had subsequently struggled as a single mother and had gone to America to find work, intending to send for Cindy, whom she had left temporarily at home with her grandparents.
But it was six years before Ellie was able to return to Holland, by which time Cindy felt abandoned and bereft. Indeed, when she was eventually reunited with her mother there was a new stepfather on the scene, a new sibling, and an unsettling degree of family tension. Cindy confided in me that hers had been an unhappy childhood; at times, indeed, she had felt anger towards her absentee father who had not been there to offer solace or comfort.
I found myself reflecting on how crucial Olly’s love and consistency had been for our boys, and felt huge compassion for this young woman as she admitted how scared she had been about contacting Olly.
When Cindy confessed, ‘I didn’t dare imagine I would find a father who would take me on’, I felt a wave of fellow-feeling towards my new step-daughter, coupled with relief that I had urged Olly to contact her, and delight at the close bond they had formed.
Suspicious At first Angela was wary of Olly's lovechild but her suspicions soon disappeared after she met her and immediately began to warm to her.
But the human psyche is both fickle and complex, and even though I warmed to Cindy, my feelings were thrown into tumult once more when she gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Jamie, in 1991.
I’d naturally always assumed my sons’ children would be our first grandchildren; that Olly and I would share in the delight of our next generation together. Yet here was his flesh and blood, his ‘new’ daughter, getting there first.
Olly reacted excitedly, insisting he must go over to Holland immediately to take a gift and deliver congratulations. I felt shamed by my uncharitable feelings, and mercifully they dispersed as, during successive trips to Holland, I grew closer to her.
When her second child, Mikey, was born in 1993, I shared Olly’s joy, and as I grew to know Cindy better and better and saw how hard she was striving to create a reliable and happy home for her own family, my respect and admiration for her burgeoned.
I also appreciated how sweetly welcoming she was to me, each time we visited, and took delight in the genuine happiness our sons felt, too, at this new extension to our family.
Over the years, indeed, I have relished watching the bond our sons have formed with Jamie and Mikey. Despite this, I had privately wondered whether Cindy, now 45, felt resentment towards me for having a family with the man she so wanted in her own life — particularly since we lived in England and she rarely had time to visit.
I put this thought to her quite recently, confident that the bond between us is sufficiently robust that she would talk to me about things that troubled her.
Cindy with her own mother Elliie. Ellie was just 19 when she fell pregnant with her daughter
She hesitated, before answering: ‘I know there is a gap between Olly and me because we didn’t meet until I was 21,’ she confessed. ‘I felt for a long time that I had to be the perfect daughter to keep him interested in me, and that was a big stress. But now it’s gone.’
She went on: ‘I don’t have negative feelings towards you. You didn’t take Olly from my mother, and you have invited me to stay and taken an interest in me.
‘But I wish I could have met Olly when I was in my teens, and perhaps spent time living with you all.’
I was profoundly touched when Cindy told me she would have liked me to be part of her life when she was younger, too.
‘Having a father means a lot, and I am very grateful that you did not get in the way of that,’ she said. ‘It feels good to know he is there.’
I think back sometimes to the phone call that brought Cindy into our lives, and I am not proud of my initial suspicions.
I am grateful, however, that I didn’t let them corrode me, or impede Olly’s reunion with his lovely daughter and the joyful part she now plays in all our lives.
My elder son and his wife now have a baby daughter, Isana, our beloved granddaughter, and I look forward to the role Cindy will now play in her life.
We visit Cindy two or three times a year; we’ve spent holidays together. I am 69 now, Olly 68, and I have found in his daughter a true friend. She seems to value my experience as much as I set store by her perspective on life.
There is an immediate and easy intimacy when we meet. Only today, Olly and I were saying goodbye to her after visiting her in Holland, and when we parted she gave me a big hug and said: ‘I love you.’
I felt exactly the same way — which is a happy ending to a tale which, however convoluted and sad, has enriched my life beyond measure.
Angela Neustatter is the author of A Home For The Heart, published by Gibson Square at 10.99.