Read Racing Manhattan Online

Authors: Terence Blacker

Racing Manhattan (28 page)

Then something happens which changes my life for ever.

When Michaela returns from her holiday, she is tanned yet weirdly distracted. France was great, she says, but she's glad to be home – particularly now that I'm here. Our first evening together, she tells me that she needs to show me something.

After supper, we go to her room. She sits at a little table, and switches on her laptop.

‘Prepare yourself for a bit of a shock,' she says as the computer comes to life.

‘Is this your family heritage project again?'

‘Hm, sort of.' Michaela is never more annoying than when she's got a secret, She taps at the keyboard. A file marked ‘JDad' appears on the screen.

‘JDad?'

She opens the file. A list of documents scrolls down the page. I see the words ‘Genealogy', ‘Letters', ‘Helldawgs', ‘Crazy Jerzy', ‘Fan sites', ‘Jim', ‘Polish builders'.

‘What is this, M?'

‘Right.' Michaela turns towards me. ‘Confession time. I wasn't really doing a family heritage project for school.'

‘
No.
You mean you
lied
to me?' My best I'm-being-totally-sarcastic voice goes right over her head.

‘I just thought, after the whole Jean-Paul thing, I owed you one. We all owed you one really.'

I'm still suspicious about where this conversation is going. ‘Are you telling me you found out something?'

‘I asked my father about our grandparents. And about their childhood. And your mum. I said it was for my project. He gave me a big folder from his filing cabinet, marked “FAMILY”. It was full of photographs and letters and quite a bit of legal stuff about their will after their parents died. Then there were some letters from your mum to my dad.'

‘I never knew.'

‘The letters are quite short, and not exactly friendly. When I started asking questions, Dad suddenly realised what he had given me. He took back the folder and locked it up.' Michaela's eyes are sparking with excitement. ‘But not before I made a discovery. Seventeen years ago, she mentioned Jerzy – that's your dad, right?'

I nod.

‘He was a musician in a metal band. She writes about the “Jerzy problem”, how they had been a bit careless. There's something about “my little accident”.'

I begin to see where this is going. ‘Seventeen years ago. The accident is me.'

‘There's nothing more from your mum for a while, but there is a copy of a letter from my dad to a Mr J. Turkowski.'

‘My father.'

Michaela nods. ‘It says that if Mr Turkowski agrees to leave the country immediately he will not be reported to the police.'

‘Reported? For what?'

‘My dad discovered that he was in this country without the right papers. He was an illegal alien – it was before Poland was part of the EU. He could have been in big trouble.'

I'm confused now. ‘So why didn't my mother tell me any of this?'

‘Because she didn't know.' Michaela gives a little embarrassed wince. ‘In the letter, it says that if Jerzy agreed to leave the country immediately, my dad would support you and your mum. All Jerzy had to do to give you security in the future was to go home – disappear. He couldn't tell your mum because she would want to go with him.'

‘You mean he did it for us?'

‘Looks like it.'

‘So all that stuff about him being a coward and running away was a great big lie?'

‘Maybe his life back in Poland wouldn't have been such a great life for a young English mum and her baby?'

Suddenly I feel overcome with sadness – for my mum, for me, for my Polish dad who just wanted the best for his family. Even Uncle Bill probably thought he was doing the right thing. ‘It gets better,' says Michaela, as cheerful as ever. ‘I became a detective and started searching online for Jerzy Turkowski. It turns out he was in a Polish heavy metal group called the Helldawgs that was quite successful at the time. Your mum and Jerzy must have met when the band were touring in England. I got on to one of those chat forums. Someone had asked whatever happened to “Crazy Jerzy Turkowski of the Helldawgs?” I scrolled down and found this.' Michaela taps a link to a website called
metalchat.com
. ‘Jerzy is now an American citizen and works as a builder in Oregon under the name of Jim Thurston. No longer on the music scene.'

I sit in silence. I'm really not sure I like the direction that Michaela's Sherlock Holmes act is taking us.

She clicks on the keyboard. Two photographs appear on the screen. One is of a rock band, posing moodily for a publicity shot, all long hair and make-up. The lead singer, a little dark-haired guy trying to look tough, is at the front, sneering at the camera. The second photograph is of a thin, balding man in his forties. He has a neat moustache, and his arm is around his wife. In front of them stand two boys, aged about ten and eight.

It is the eyes which tell the story. Everything else is different – clothes, hair, attitude – but they have remained unchanged. The Crazy Jerzy of the Helldawgs, and Jim Thurston, the family guy in America, are the same man.

I am looking at my father.

Over the next few days, we find out more about Jim Thurston. There is a website for his building business, with other photographs of him – standing in front of a newly-built house, or looking at some plans, or up a ladder in a hard hat.

How do I feel? Not much. After the shock of hearing the news, I start to look at Daddy/Jim more coolly. The truth is I feel no connection to this serious little Polish guy in America. He is a stranger. In my room at night, I think of my mother and the past she never really discussed with me. What were they like together, Jerzy and Debs? In my imagination, I see them as only a bit older than I am now.

They were young, happy, in love. And then I came along.

I look at the photographs of my father at work and with his family. He once dreamed of being a rock star. Now he is a builder.

And perhaps, it suddenly occurs to me, there is a lesson there. I must try to stop myself thinking of the past – about Manhattan, and what might have been. I'll look forwards, not back. Perhaps I should be a vet's assistant. I shall work my way through college until I get the right qualifications.

Working with animals. A serious, secure job. I imagine myself, one day, posing like Jim with my little family around me. It will be good. It is all going to be fine.

There is a contact email address on the Jim Thurston website.

I'm nervous, but Michaela insists that we have to contact him. It's better to know who my father is – even if he doesn't want to meet me – than to live all my life not being sure.

‘We've got to be cunning,' she says. ‘We can't just come out with it. Men are scared of stuff like that.'

She is good at this, Michaela. She pretends to be someone called Carrie, a great Helldawgs' fan. Carrie sends an email asking Jim Thurston if he is Crazy Jerzy, the lead singer of ‘the Dawgs'? Is he in touch with the other Dawgs? Are they planning a reunion?

It is impressive. Reading it, I'm completely convinced.

Within a couple of days Jim Thurston is in touch.

Hey Carrie

Yup, I'm Helldawgs Jerzy but I'm not crazy any more! There's a fan website you can find online for all Helldawgs-related stuff. You'll find it at
www.realhelldawgs.com
.

Thank you for your interest.

Jim Thurston.

There is nothing for it now, but to tell the truth. Jim Thurston is Jerzy Turkowski and Jerzy Turkowski is my father.

I talk it through with Michaela. Then she writes the email. She isn't really Carrie, she says. She is Michaela. Her best friend is Jay, who was born Jasmine Barton sixteen and a half years ago. Her mother, Deborah Barton, tragically died when she was nine, but she really wants to be in touch with her father. She has reason to believe that you are that father. She doesn't want anything from him, just contact. She needs to know for certain.

We send the email late at night. An answer is waiting for us when we switch on the computer in the morning.

Oh my God. There's hardly a day when I don't wonder what happened to Jasmine. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Michaela. Please ask my daughter to write to me as soon as possible. As I've got older, I've outgrown having secrets!

Yours very happily, Jim.

Just like that.

I'd been expecting silence, maybe lies, but it turns out that there has been a gap in my dad's life too. He starts sending me emails. He says he has talked about me in the past to his wife Linda. He has missed me for the past sixteen years, even though we have never met. He asks me to send him photographs, tell him everything about me.

Whoa, there. Easy does it. One step at a time, right?

I tell him about my mum, about school. I give him a tidied-up version of my life as a stable lad. He decides to look for me online and finds stories and pictures of me on Poptastic and Manhattan. At this stage, he becomes a bit over-enthusiastic. He is proud of me, he says. So young, and already I have achieved so much.

He writes about his life in America. His wife Linda is ‘the apple of his eye'. He adores his ‘two little handfuls', Barney and Jared. His business is ‘pretty darn hunky-dory' thanks to improvements in the economy. And so on.

At the end of every email he says how pleased he is that we're in touch.

Your loving father, Jim.
That's how he signs off. Personally, I don't see how you can love someone if you've never met them, but then maybe my dad is a bit free and easy when it comes to love.

He certainly was seventeen years ago.

Just now and then, the four of us – Uncle Bill, Aunt Elaine, Michaela and me – are all at Coddington and manage to have dinner together, just like in the old days. It is on one of those rare occasions that we break it to Uncle Bill and Aunt Elaine that Michaela has found my father and that I am getting emails from him. They surprise me by being quite relaxed about the whole thing.

‘Never liked the guy,' says Uncle Bill. ‘Jumping around on stage. Didn't do the right thing by my sister. She was a fool to fall for him.'

‘Is it true you made him leave the country?' Michaela asks.

Uncle Bill shrugs. ‘I was helping my sister. What kind of future would she and her baby have had with a long-haired illegal immigrant?'

‘He seems nice now,' says Michaela.

‘It broke my mum's heart.' I say the words softly.

A look of annoyance crosses Uncle Bill's face. ‘Family comes first. I was trying to help.'

‘But why was everyone so rude about my dad? He thought he was doing the right thing. I grew up thinking he didn't care about me.'

There is a heavy, guilty silence around the table.

‘Hey.' Aunt Elaine smiles, as if a thought has suddenly occurred to her. ‘D'you think he might want you to move over there, Jay?'

‘I'm not sure that—'

‘Nice place, Oregon. Lots of horses there. You'd love it.'

The telephone rings in the hall and Michaela goes to answer. She returns after a brief conversation, looking puzzled.

‘It was someone asking for Jay,' she says.

‘Talk of the devil, it's your daddy!' Aunt Elaine laughs cheerfully.

‘No, he had a funny accent – sort of weird and posh. He said he was going to call by here tomorrow afternoon.'

Uncle Bill looks worried. ‘Here? I don't want strangers turning up uninvited, thank you very much.'

‘I couldn't quite get his name. Mackerel? Mucking? He had a funny nickname too. Prince.'

I'm aware of a thumping in my chest. It has to be Prince Muqrin.

‘He definitely thought Jay would know who he was,' says Michaela. ‘He said, “Just tell Jasmine that the prince called”.'

‘I really don't like the sound of this guy.' Uncle Bill is staring hard at me. ‘When I was a kid, one of the local tough guys called himself “The Duke”. Ended up in prison. Is this boy in some kind of gang?'

‘Prince? What kind of name is that?' Aunt Elaine shakes her head. He sounds very unsuitable.'

‘Who is he, Jay?' asks Michaela.

All.

Eyes.

On.

Me.

A
LINE IN THE SAND

BY THE TIME
a big black car about the size of a small tank is kicking up dirt on the drive the next day, Coddington Hall has changed.

As soon as Aunt Elaine discovered that our visitor was a real member of the Saudi royal family, she went into action. Books that had been packed up have been returned to the shelves. The best china is making a rare appearance. She has borrowed a few magazines from a neighbour –
Vogue
,
Country Life
,
Horse and Hound
– and they have been left, ever so casually, on the table in the sitting room.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Elaine have spent a lot of time talking about what they should wear. Now, as we wait for the royal arrival, my uncle is in his green country-gentleman suit, and round his neck is a red spotted scarf thing of a type that I have only seen in pictures of Prince Charles when he is out shooting.

Aunt Elaine is in a tweed coat and skirt and pearls. Rather oddly, she has a scarf on her head, which she told Michaela is because the prince is a Muslim and women need to have their heads covered. The fact that she hasn't had time to go to a hairdresser is probably just a coincidence.

Only Michaela and I look even halfway normal.

Through the window, we see the prince's car as it sweeps up to the front door. Two large men, each the size of a wardrobe, jump out. One looks around as if a sniper could be hiding in the stables, while the other opens the back door. Prince Muqrin, wearing a dark suit, steps out. He says something to his security guards. They remain standing watchfully by the car as he walks towards the front door.

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