Posted January 30, 2018
The white envelope fluttered down to the carpet. In the kitchen, Seb Shaw put down the spoon he was using to make himself a cup of tea. He walked through the hall towards the front door. It could be a birthday card,’ he thought. He’d had enough of those over the last week, and the mantelpiece in the living room was almost full of cards celebrating his 40th birthday. The only people who had really celebrated with him though were his friends and family. They’d had a small party in the evening to mark the event. However, he would have quite happily spent the evening on his own, nursing a quiet pint in the pub and reading the local paper.
Shaw regarded the envelope lying on the doormat by the front door. It was impossible for him to see what was written on the front, although he was fairly certain what it was as he’d been expecting it all week.
He picked it up off the doormat and walked back into the kitchen to finish making his cup of tea. He looked at the front of the plain white envelope. There was nothing on the front other than a small transparent window through which he could see his name and his address, and a pre-paid postage label. He tapped the envelope on the kitchen worktop until the letter inside slipped down, revealing the words ‘PERSONAL FOR: MR SEBASTIAN SHAW’ written in bold capital letters.
So this was it. His birthday present to himself. Finally, after all these years, he would know the truth.
‘Dad,’ he heard his son shouting from the lounge. ‘Dad?’
‘Just coming,’ Shaw replied. He finished squeezing the tea bag and put it into the small compost bin under the sink. Picking up his tea, he walked through to the lounge. Ignoring the birthday cards that taunted him from the mantelpiece, he knelt down next to his son. ‘What’s up son?’ Shaw said.
‘Hey Dad, see what I’ve built on Minecraft!’ Shaw’s seven-year-old son Mark knelt down by the television with the X-Box controller clutched in his hands. Shaw listened half heartedly, enjoying his son’s enthusiasm while not really understanding what he was talking about. He looked at his son fondly. Shaw had taken the week off work as his wife, Natalie, hadn’t been able to get any more time off from the pharmacy. It gave Shaw the opportunity to finally get the truth that the white envelope in the kitchen would give him.
Shaw thought back over the last few years, while his son Mark carried on explaining the various permutations that Minecraft had and how he could make glass by combining this and that together. Shaw and Natalie had been married for almost 20 years, having nipped to the registry office to do the deed when Natalie had found out she was pregnant for the first time. That’d been an emotional time, Shaw remembered with both bitter and sweet memories. The second child had just turned up, not unplanned like the first, but not specifically planned for either. He’d just arrived, which had been fine with all of them at the time. Then, a good few years later, surprise! Biology had got the better of them again.
By this time Natalie fell pregnant again, the other two children were starting to become self sufficient. The thought of going back to the beginning, and doing night-time feeds and dirty nappies, was disheartening to say the least. So they sorted through what was left of the baby equipment and clothes that they’d hidden away in the loft a few years before. Thinking back, it was just as well that they hadn’t just got rid of it all. When they’d been putting it away, they’d talked about being able to give it away in the future, maybe to a young couple who’d got caught out the way that they had. Neither of them had thought that it would be them who got caught out again.
Shaw finished his cup of tea, and left his son to do whatever he was doing. Walking back into the kitchen, he picked up the envelope to have a closer look. Shaw picked at the corner of the envelope seal with a finger. He could just rip it open now, read the contents, and be done with it. But he hesitated. Once the letter was open and the contents read, there would be no going back. Pandora’s Box would not be closed again.
Shaw was a computer programmer by trade. He dealt with binary stuff that was either one or zero, either worked or didn’t work. He didn’t deal with grey areas, his comfort zone was true or false.
Shaw couldn’t really remember when the doubts started. When Mark was a baby, they just hadn’t bonded in the same way that Shaw had bonded with the other two. At the time, Shaw figured it was the gap in time between children that made a difference. But as Mark got older, there were small things that nagged at Shaw. The child looked nothing like him, for example. Shaw remembered thinking at the time, what baby looks like a man in his mid thirties? There were other things too, small things, inconsequential things and mannerisms that Mark developed as he grew. On their own they meant nothing, but when they were put together they added up to something.
When Mark was four or five, he started drawing and writing in earnest. With his left hand. Shaw thought it was strange back then. He was right handed, as was Natalie and all four grandparents. Shaw had carefully probed both sets of grandparents to try to discover whether any of their parents were left handed, but it seemed that the entire family was right handed as far back as their collective memory went. In which case, where had this left handed gene come from?
He knew from what he’d read on the internet that genes could skip a generation. He’d also found out that many left handed children had two right handed parents. But could it skip three or more generations? Google didn’t seem to think so, and neither did Shaw.
Shaw sat at the kitchen table with the envelope in front of him. He was scared, not of what was in the envelope, but of the the knowledge that it would give him.
A few weeks before she’d announced that she was pregnant for the third time, Natalie went to a pharmaceutical conference in Brighton. Shaw had originally planned on going with her, and staying in the hotel while she was at the conference, but their plans for childcare had fallen through so he’d stayed behind to look after the children. Natalie had seemed relieved that he wasn’t going, but he’d thought that it was probably because she was looking forward to some time on her own.
When Natalie had got back from the conference, she’d seemed down. They’d argued at the time, more than once. Shaw felt hard done by that he’d been stuck at home with the kids while Natalie was enjoying herself without him. He remembered being unreasonable. It was a conference, not a hen party, but he’d expected her to be a bit more upbeat about a weekend away. She’d said something at the time about not being able to get in with the people at the conference who she wanted to network with, but he’d not really listened to her.
What was in the envelope was definitely binary. He was either Mark’s biological father, or he wasn’t. There was no grey there. Black or white were the only options. Finding out that the last seven years were a lie, that he’d been raising another man’s child would destroy him more than the fact that his wife had been unfaithful. And what would it do to them as a family? Would he be able to stay, or would it mean the end of everything?
‘Dad, what’s for lunch?’ Shaw jumped as his son’s voice broke his train of thought.
‘Er, what do you fancy?’ he replied.
‘Cheese sandwich please. And crisps. Red ones.’ Mark said over his shoulder as he went back into the lounge.
‘Yep,’ Shaw mumbled. ‘Coming up.’ He put the envelope against the kettle, to come back to when he had another cup of tea, and set about making a sandwich.
Later that afternoon, Shaw finally managed to get Mark off the X-Box and doing something more creative. While his son coloured in a picture of what was probably a dinosaur, Shaw sat opposite him at the kitchen table and looked again at the letter. It still sat against the kettle, unmoved from earlier, although Shaw had thought of little else all afternoon.
Mark was sticking his tongue out of the side of his mouth as he tried to keep the felt tip pen within the lines in the book, Shaw felt a sudden wave of sadness. Whatever the letter said, life would never be the same again. He would either have been raising a child that wasn’t his for the last seven years, or he would know that he had doubted his wife so much that he’d had to take a DNA test to prove that Mark was actually his. Either way, that was a bad place to be. Shaw hadn’t discussed any of his doubts about Mark with anyone, least of all with Natalie. Perhaps he should have at least had the moral courage to talk to her, rather than sneak around getting hair from hairbrushes and sending it off to a laboratory with a sample of his own skin cells.
He tried to think about his wife being unfaithful, but for some reason couldn’t. He tried to be angry, but he couldn’t because he didn’t actually know if he should be angry or not. Shaw knew that if Natalie walked in from work in a few minutes time and announced that she’d been having an affair, he’d be angry. Really angry. But that would be now, in the present. Not back then. He couldn’t work up any anger about something that might – or might not – have happened seven years ago. He’d thought about this a lot over the last few months. If she’d been unfaithful at that conference, he couldn’t really blame her. He had, he reflected, not been much of a husband or a father at that point in time. He wanted to blame her, say it was all her fault. But he knew deep inside that it wasn’t. It’d been him that had pushed her away, perhaps so hard that she’d ended up in someone else’s bed. But if it had happened, it had only been for a night or two. That was different to a full blown affair, wasn’t it?
‘Look Dad,’ his son said with a hopeful expression on his face. ‘I’ve done a dinosaur.’ Shaw saw how much Mark wanted him to like the picture. He reached out and ruffled the boy’s hair, smiling as he replied. ‘That’s fantastic, Mark. Really, really good.’
The smile Shaw got in return for the compliment broke his heart.
Shaw opened the fridge and took out a bottle of wine. Natalie would be back from work any minute, and they’d got into the habit of having a glass of wine in front of the wood burner to start off the evening. Then he’d be back on cooking duty – spaghetti bolognaise tonight. One of Natalie’s favourites, and one of the few dishes that he could pull off. Natalie would catch up on Mark’s day in the lounge while Shaw cooked. Then Shaw and Natalie would eat together. If they were lucky, one of the older children might even put in an appearance when they both got back from school. But tonight might be different. He picked up the letter from the worktop and, carrying two glasses of wine, walked through into the lounge to light the wood burner.
The front door opened, and Shaw heard Mark running down the hall to hug Natalie like he had done every day this week. Shaw listened to Mark telling Natalie all about the dinosaur that Dad had said was fantastic. He heard her walk down the hall towards the cupboard, where he knew she would be hanging up her coat, like she had done every evening. Her footsteps grew louder as she walked back towards the lounge. The door opened, and Shaw’s wife walked in and sat down next to him with a sigh.
‘Oh boy, have I had a busy day,’ she said. ‘I am so ready for a glass of wine. How was your day, Seb?’
He watched the unopened white envelope curl up as it caught fire on the wood burner, Shaw replied. ‘Bit of a grey day, to be honest,’ He kissed the top of her head. ‘But I can do grey.’