Before her mother died, she handed over a shopping bag of private and personal letters sent long ago between her and her father. But what would Sabine Durrant learn about the man who died shortly after she was born?

My father died just after I was born and I knew very little about him until I was in my 30s. I was a journalist then, and I approached it like an investigation, writing a memoir about what I discovered – his unhappy childhood, his life as a pilot in the navy, and his disappearance one November night during practice manoeuvres off the Dorset coast. The memoir was published in a book and serialised in a newspaper. After it appeared, my mother talked to me about him; not much but enough. She told me he had been a great love, and she told me in heart-rending detail about the night he didn’t come back. We both cried, which was good, because I had got used to thinking she had forgotten him. We had met for lunch, and when we had finished eating she rummaged in her shopper and brought out a plastic bundle, a small Ottakar’s bag containing a thick pile of letters. “You can read these,” she said. “If you like.”

I took the letters home, and I was going to read them that night. In some ways, it felt like victory. The teenage me, the one who in secret trawled for evidence, who had raged against her silence – would have drunk them in. I liked to think I had bypassed her in my search, because I hadn’t wanted to upset her. She was long remarried, with a life of her own. But if I am honest it had also been a way of snatching my father from her, of having him to myself. And maybe their letters were too much of a rebuke of this, provided too concrete a proof that he had been a lover, a husband, hardly a father at all. Or perhaps their existence was just too personal – that squeamish resistance all children feel towards parental intimacy. I put the Ottakar’s bag on the table in the hall, and at one point it was moved on top of the piano, and then it graduated into a space on the bookshelves behind. I stopped thinking about it. The bag, with its green logo and arc of orange, wasn’t sealed, the top with the handles just folded over, but it gave the impression of being bound in Sellotape and masking tape, of being as impenetrable as a cage.

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