After Camilla's father disappeared, she spent years trying to forget him. But then a meeting with a cousin she never knew existed led to a series of very odd phone calls - and a new understanding of her heritage
Camilla Balshaw: ‘Why would I want to find a man who had no hand in my upbringing and whose face I could barely remember?’ (Photograph: Si Barber for the Guardian)
I had been warned by my cousin about the strange telephone habits of Nigerians so, as I prepared to speak to my father for the first time in 30 years, I thought I was ready. But I wasn’t. The conversation lasted four minutes. Not the way I had expected to strike up a relationship with the man I had last seen when I was 10.
My memories of my father are sketchy. I have no photographs of him, but I remember he was tall and thin and always wore expensive cologne. He smoked, too, a forgotten brand now relegated to empty packets on eBay.
My parents had met in London in the early 60s. They were part of the new wave of arrivals from India, Pakistan, Africa and the Caribbean. London swelled with a Commonwealth population who came to work and build new lives.
My father had come to study engineering. He met my mother, a trainee nurse, and swept her off her feet. My grandmother simply couldn’t understand why she insisted on a relationship with a Nigerian and not a “nice Caribbean gentleman”.
My parents’ union became increasingly fraught thanks to my father’s somewhat laissez-faire attitude to his duties as a husband. He had come from a wealthy family in Nigeria. His mother, a formidable businesswoman, spoiled and indulged him. Once in England, he was easily intoxicated and seduced by the brights lights, parties, whiskey and, whisper it, probably, other women. Engineering was abandoned and, regardless of a growing family, he showed no sign of succumbing to domestic life. He took a series of meaningless jobs and continued his playboy lifestyle.
Years of unhappiness and bitterness festered and finally exploded into an acrimonious parting. My mother gained custody of me and my siblings. She became a single woman with three children and no financial help from my father. After a few visits to London to see him, and occasional shopping sprees to Marks & Spencer (the 70s Nigerian shopper’s paradise), he disappeared. We were told that he had probably gone back to Nigeria.
I never saw him again.
We were brought up with a daily mantra from our mother to “never, ever marry a Nigerian”. After all she had been through, you couldn’t blame her.
Camilla Balshaw’s father.
I suppressed my African heritage and fully embraced the Jamaican. My father was a waste of space. In the early 80s, I wanted limited association with Nigeria. Jamaica was cool. They had reggae, a killer cricket team and lovely sounding patois. Nigeria was too foreign and they wore strange headwraps and spoke in sing-song dialects that I couldn’t understand. Plus, I had a fierce loyalty to my mother. She had brought us up single-handedly and done a very fine job. Why would I want to find a man who had no hand in my upbringing and whose face I could barely remember?
As the years and decades passed, there was still no contact, until a phone call changed everything. It was a cousin. Cousin? I had no sense of a wider family of cousins, aunts or uncles.
This cousin told me he had managed to track me down on the orders of the family in Nigeria. He was a professor, lived in Oxfordshire and made frequent visits to Nigeria. He told me I had a father who was very much alive and a host of family members in Abuja who were desperate to contact me. Apparently, the search had started years ago. My father had tried the Salvation Army with no results. Family members had tried too, until, bingo, they had tracked me down through social media.
When I eventually met my cousin, he handed me a letter; it was from my father. It was simple and short. The word “sorry” dominated each paragraph. At first I did nothing. I didn’t reply. I didn’t tell my mother he had made contact, not at first. It felt disloyal. I left his letter in a drawer for months but continued to meet my UK cousin. He was full of stories of Nigeria, its rich history and our large family tree. I wanted to know more about them. They had beautiful names and I couldn’t blame them for my father’s mistakes.
I wrote back to him. I saw it as an opportunity to let off steam and berate him for being a pretty lousy husband and father. He wrote again, apologetic, regretful and asked for forgiveness. Something thawed. I forgave him. We arranged a phone call.
At this point, my cousin in Oxfordshire gave me the warning about Nigerians and their telephone habits. My initial thought was: generators. I knew there were frequent blackouts and assumed this would affect our call as would the amount of credit on his phone.
Our first call came and there were no proclamations of long-lost love on either side. The conversation was incredibly formal. He asked about my health, my family’s health, my husband’s health. I asked about his health. He was 82 after all. Four minutes and the call was over.
What perplexed me most was the lack of questioning on his part and at the end of the call he said, “OK”, and the phone went down. He didn’t end the conversation with “goodbye”, which I thought incredibly rude.
We went through the same three-question telephone ritual a couple of times. I knew he had an interest in politics so I interspersed our chat with added comments on Theresa May and the weather. I asked questions. He didn’t. He would say, “OK” and midway through my own “goodbye” the phone went down firmly. We continued to call each other and on each occasion I was left with the receiver in my hand, incredulous at the brutal end of our conversation.
In one call, I mentioned I would visit him in Nigeria. It was a deviation from the three-question script. “When, when?” he said. I blurted out “April” without thinking. This was never going to work it was already early March. Why had I said April of all months?
I called a few days after this and told him April was out of the question and I hoped to visit in October.
“Thank God,” he said.
My father spoke Igbo, English, Yoruba and Hausa. I had learned from a phrasebook the Yoruba for “goodbye” “O da dor”. My intention on our next call was to impress him with my rudimentary attempt. I’d written him a letter too. It asked, “Why do you never say goodbye at the end of a call?”
I never got the chance to practise my Yoruba or get a reply to my letter. The phone call came in May. My father had died. A stroke. He was 83.
And then I got an invitation from another cousin to come over and meet all the family. They had been waiting, she told me. She put the phone down and didn’t say goodbye.
I made the trip to Nigeria and discovered Abuja – a green, wide-spaced, international, vibrant, youthful city, full of coffee shops (yes, Africa has them, too). I met a whole new family of aunts, cousins and uncles.
In Abuja, I learned that my name, which I had always thought was very English and not Nigerian-sounding at all, is quite a popular name. Its roots are in Arabic and it is spelt Kamilah or Kamilaat. My family were all solidly middle-class professionals with law degrees and architectural practices; one or two were presidents of oil companies, and a cousin held a seat in the Nigerian senate – quite an achievement for a woman.
They spoke fondly about my father, or Uncle as he was known by all the family. They told me he was a quiet, thoughtful presence, always elegantly dressed, who never forgot birthdays and smelled of cologne.
I asked one of my cousins about his phone habits. “My dad never said goodbye. Why was that?”
“Sometimes we don’t,” she said matter-of-factly. “Everything has been said already.”
And I suppose it had.