I’d always known I was adopted. My parents told me when I was young and I don’t remember a time I didn’t know my mum and dad weren’t my real mum and dad. I knew nothing about my heritage and the older I became, the more I began to think and the more it haunted me.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like my life, my advantages. I did. I just had this twisting, burning need inside me to find out where my thick black hair, my green-grass eyes and my flat feet came from. I was happy, flighty, with a great wicked humour my adoptive family lacked. I had everything I could ever want. But I didn’t know me.
I was sixteen when I asked for information. My parents told me what I already knew –I’d been adopted by them in October 1989 through Westminster social services and they gave me my name, Angelina, after my mother, Angela. It’s all they said they could tell me. I had no life-book or historical records like adopted kids have today. I imagined myself as a lost puppy, free to a good home, kind owners required.
The Cuthbertson’s gave me everything a girl could want. Dad was in banking and mum was a PA somewhere in Whitehall. I was educated in the best private school in Westminster and we had holidays abroad every year. I had an allowance and access to credit accounts at the best West End boutiques. I didn’t realise or appreciate privilege because my friends all had the same. But I still felt like an outsider.
I was eighteen when the gnawing, an unsettling worm inside me, wouldn’t rest.
I sat in the offices of Pimlico Social Services with the smell of dust and dirt and old files. A black guy with dreadlocks was banging on the reception desk, demanding someone let him see his kids. He smelt sweet, a mix of coconut and hash. I shrank into my plastic bucket-chair as he flounced down beside me, thick twisted noodle hair flying. The waft of dirty stale alcohol hit me with a whack to my stomach like a punch.
A few minutes later a large lady with a musty smell of her own stood at the security door and called my name. She told me to come back later in the afternoon to see her. She thrust a card at me. Margaret Baker, social worker.
I returned at two o’clock. The black guy had gone and in his place was an oriental family jabbering away in some foreign tongue I assumed was Mandarin or Cantonese. I swallowed uncomfortably as I watched the family struggle to make themselves understood. The littlest boy started to cry and clung to his mother’s long skirt. I smelt the urine as it pooled by his feet and seeped into his little open-toed sandals.
I felt out of place with my heels and semi-padded shoulders, my made-up face and passport to riches. As I eyed the family in front of me, I wondered; was this what I had come from? A family who couldn’t hope to care for me? A family who loved me so much they didn’t want me to grow up as they had, needy and neglected by a society who made it hard for them to cope? A family who could offer me love but nothing else? I fantasised about how I could make it all right for my original family now I had money of my own. I could repay them with love, kindness and the sorts of luxuries I’d grown up with. I could prove to them I had made it, they had done the right thing for me but it was time to come home now.
It never crossed my mind on that day how naive, patronising, and insulting I might have been and it shames me today to think of my ignorance.
I waited a short while and then I saw Margaret. She called me forward and took me into a dingy airless room. I saw a file on the desk. It didn’t look very thick.
‘Does your mother know you’ve come here, Angelina?’ she asked.
‘I’ve come here to find my mother,’ I said, not understanding.
‘I mean your adoptive mother.’
‘Err ... no.’ I swallowed, my mouth dry. ‘I’ve talked about it with her. But she doesn’t know. Do I have to tell her?’ I hoped not.
‘No. You’re eighteen. But we always suggest you talk it through first. Have you had any counselling?’
‘No. Do I have to?’ I didn’t want counselling. I just wanted to find her. My mother. And then, hopefully, perhaps, my father.
‘No. But there are many reasons why children are placed for adoption and we suggest counselling when it comes to looking for birth families. It’s not an easy process and it’s not all happy endings.’
She smiled at me. I half-smiled back, unsure. What could be so difficult?
I discovered I had been given to social services for adoption by the maternity ward of St Thomas’s Hospital and that’s all they knew. There was a report by a policewoman, number 821CV, with a scrawled signature and the surname Watson. She had suggested adoption to the courts after all police enquiries to trace relatives had come to nothing. There were plenty of reports and orders in the file but they were all about the court process and nothing about my parents.
Margaret said, ‘Apparently the paperwork had been with the police and as the years went by, when we tried to get it back, it was lost.’ She explained the turnover of staff was high, people moved on, offices relocated and it was easy to mislay files in a over-loaded system.
Like many others I was a casualty of the system. There was nobody left from that era who could tell me anything. The hospital couldn’t – or wouldn’t – help me. So I decided to find the policewoman. They have to tell you the truth, don’t they? The Police.
I told my mum and she said she would help. She supported me and I loved her all the more for it. I think she thought once I’d found what I was looking for, things would settle and go back to normal - a quiet little life in the middle-class privileged existence they had provided. She was nearly sixty and didn’t want to dredge up the past. I looked at her wrinkles, the crinkles on her hands, the wobbly skin beneath her neck, and I realised my birth mother might be half her age.
So I told her, my mum, with arrogant youth and innocence, ‘I’ll be lucky. I’ll have two mums, mum!’
I found out quite quickly CV meant Vine Street police station. However, Vine Street Police Station had long been converted to offices and everything was now located at West End Central, just off Regent Street. Then I found out my officer, 821CV, had transferred to Chingford in 1992 to work in a sort of child protection/vulnerable persons team. So I went to Chingford where I found out 821CV was now 621JC because police officers changed numbers when they changed stations. My officer had also married, had a baby, then another. Then she left.
I was fortunate to find a Sergeant Taylor who told me Diane Watson had married a friend of a friend of hers called Steve Ash, who was also a policeman. ‘They went somewhere up north. To a constabulary,’ she said.
‘Do you know where?’ I asked, eager and elated at the break-through.
'The connections were loose in 1996 when they moved so she could be anywhere. Sorry. That’s all I know. I don’t suppose I should be telling you this but if you find her, say hi from me.’
I had so much invested in finding her I began to feel as if Diane was my mother and I had to keep reminding myself she wasn’t. I was obsessed with finding her. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I took a gap year and decided university could wait as I had other things to do. I fantasised about what I would say to Diane when I found her and then fantasised what I would say to my mother when I found her.
I soon found Up North was a big place. I spent a fortune on phone calls to various police headquarters dotted on the map above Watford. They either didn’t know or wouldn’t say and couldn’t help. I spent hours browsing the internet, searching telephone books, and going off on tangents I thought might lead somewhere but rarely did.
One day, after searching sites full of useless information, I found a press report from 2003. Detective Sergeant Diane Ash had identified the body of a man accused of abusing his step-daughter after he had been found hanging in his Newcastle bail-address flat. I rang Northumbria Police Headquarters. They didn’t have any officers called Ash. When I mentioned the newspaper article, they suggested I tried Durham, a neighbouring force.
Bingo! Yes, they had officers Stephen and Diane Ash. But euphoria crashed to despair when the polite lady with a Geordie type of accent on the other end of the phone told me they had both retired from the force. No, she couldn’t give me their address. No, she had no further information. Sorry.
I cried for a week. It had become more than an obsession. I tried the social network sites – Friends Reunited, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace – but I realised I had no idea what Diane Ash looked like, how old she was or even if she would speak to me.
I had all but given up when, one rainy Sunday afternoon when I was idly googling, not expecting to turn up anything new, I almost missed it. Dinah Ash, a writer from Crieff, Scotland, had a poem published on a website. I clicked the link.
It was a poem about waiting and about there being no end, not yet. It spoke to me. In that moment of suspended time as I read the words on the screen, I knew it was her. Dinah. Diane. Writers sometimes use different names, didn’t they? I read the poem, over and again. There is no end, not yet ...
There was an email address underneath the poem on the writing site. I tapped out a message. Deleted it. Started again. Then clicked send. I told her I liked her poem and it resonated with me. Was she the same person who had worked at Chingford with Sgt Taylor? If so, she said to say ‘hi’.
Was it too much? Not enough?
Every day I’d log on, eagerly look for a new email, check the poem to see if there had been any activity, but there was nothing. Then, a week later I received a reply.
Hi. Thank you for your message. I appreciate your comments about my poem. Please tell Sgt Taylor I said Hi back. Kind regards, Dinah. (You can find more of my work at writersright.com)
I researched her work and found poems and stories littered with police references. I googled images and found a grainy picture of Dinah in The Courier. She looked younger than I thought she would be. In her forties, long dark hair, nice smile, kind eyes.
There was only one thing to do.
Go to Crieff.
Mum came to Scotland with me. We booked a bed and breakfast and left the leaving date open. First stop, Crieff police station.
No. They did not give out ex-cops addresses even if they knew where they lived. The sergeant looked at me with suspicious eyes as he asked for my details. I guess he thought I might be an ex-con looking for revenge or something but I gave him my name, address and phone number willingly, just in case he passed it on to her.
Next stop, the library. Writers hang out there, don’t they? The librarian was giving nothing away either. She offered me a visitor’s card if I wanted to book out Dinah’s latest anthology but I wanted the woman, not her book.
I went for a coffee. Writers wrote in coffee houses, didn’t they?
When I had all but given up, on the fourth day I found her, thanks to a loose-lipped shopkeeper. My stomach twisted, turned and I felt sick with excitement and trepidation. Turning up on a stranger’s doorstep looking for information was what Diane Ash had done for years. Now it was my turn and I hugged myself with fear and delight, certain I was doing the right thing. I also had to keep reminding myself Diane Ash wasn’t my mother. This was just the next step in finding her.
I stood on Diane’s doorstep with my mum and knocked on the large black door with a brass knocker. Is that how Diane had done it? I looked around the front garden as I waited. A large magnolia bush filled the air with hopeful fragrance. I was just about to knock again when the door opened and I saw her.
I didn’t know what to say. A sob caught in the back of my throat. I said, ‘I’ve been looking for you for the last three years.’ Then I cried.
This lady who I didn’t know ushered me inside and fed me sugary tea and orange chocolate biscuits. She looked so ... so ... ordinary... so mumsy in a mid-life kind of way; not young, not old, just kind and warm and nice.
In between broken sobs and chocolate biscuits I told her my story. What I knew of it.
And then it was her turn.
She looked at me and at my mum and hesitated. ‘I don’t know if I’m allowed to say, if anything stops me from saying, and if so, who would know, or reprimand me, but as I see it, you have questions and need answers. I guess only I can say?’
I nodded at her through tearful eyes, hung on her face, her expression, her mouth as it moved. I needed this. She had to tell me. I don’t know what I would or could do if she didn’t. ‘She was called Angela. Angie. Angie Maxwell. You know that much. A Scottish woman, little and fiery with a funny tongue and a sad life.’ Diane Ash looked into her cup and then up at my mum.
I didn’t want her stop and willed her to continue. Maxwell? I didn’t know that, not that she was Scottish. What did she sound like? Look like?
As if she could read my mind, Diane continued, ‘Angie had short-cropped black hair and matching black eyes. Wiry and fiery she was, living on the streets with the vagrants. A down-and-out.’
She gave me a sad look but I wanted to hear the story. My story. All of it.
‘Angie told everyone she was a piano-man’s daughter. I know nothing of Angie’s previous life. Of how she came to be on the streets. All she ever said was she was a player and a drinker. Anything she could get, just like the people she shared her life with. An alcoholic. A down-and-out.
Diane smiled, a nice smile. ‘I was a kind copper, one of those who would nick the street people in bad weather so they had a warm bed and bellyful of breakfast the next morning.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, and I’ve often wondered why. But I know. It was on behalf of my mother. The mother I didn’t know.
‘People end up on the streets for all sorts of reasons, Angelina, and none of them good. So many tragic lives end up there.’
Diane looked down and watched her hands twist around her cup. I knew then she cared. Probably too much. And I would wager her head was full of memories of people like Angie.
‘Angie had a thing for a guy called Miles. He’d been a professional golfer, apparently. I don’t know if it’s true. He lost the lot to gambling and drink and ended up on the streets. Angie fell pregnant and told everyone he was her chance of a proper life. She said Miles was the father of her baby and they were going to set up home together, be like normal people. I hoped it was true. But ...’
Diane took my hands in hers. I saw a tear trickle down her face as she looked me in the eye. ‘I don’t want to hurt you but you came here for the truth. You sure you want to know?’
My heart was fluttering, my head pounding. I felt giddy. I heard my voice as it cracked. ‘Please ... just tell me.’
‘Angie ... the guys ... it was the way of the street. Anything in return for a can. Or drugs. Anything that helped take pain away. It was their life. Who knew who the father of her baby was? She wanted it to be Miles so that’s what she told everyone. Then come summer, Miles died. Sudden. Of a heart-attack in Golden Square.’
My eyes blurred. Hot tears fell and I wiped them away, off my rough red cheeks, angry and sore.
‘And Angie?’ I said.
Diane described a cold wintery Soho night, with neon lights flashing from the Raymond Revue Bar. She found Angie in an alley full of garbage, piled up and waiting to be taken away by the bin men. She’d been beaten within an inch of her life. She died the next day. But they saved the baby. Me.
And then I knew. And part of me wished I didn’t. The only thing I knew, and I wasn’t certain of it, was I’m the daughter of a piano-man’s daughter from somewhere in Scotland.
I kinda like it. It has a tune to it. The Piano-man’s Daughter.