I honestly can't remember how I lost contact with my dad. It was 15 years ago. We were both bad with our phones, before everyone was constantly glued to them. His drinking exacerbated my anxiety. We lived in different cities. Things like that can happen without you even realising at the time. It was weird, like one day I was on his sofa downing strawberry Nesquiks and watching Hey Arnold! And the next I was in my mid-twenties, with barely any memory of what it was like having a dad in the first place.
My parents had me when they were teenagers, so it makes sense that they broke up soon after. Since then, I’ve always been the embodiment of an only child. People can tell this about me immediately. I have bad food portion control because sharing doesn't come naturally. I like spending a lot of time on my own. I tend to get my own way, quietly and solidly. For years, my 'only-childness' has been a fundamental part of my personality – like my haircut, or the fact I only ate pasta and sausages as a kid.
But all of that's wrong – I’m not an only child. Because ten years ago, my dad had another daughter with his wife. I did know this deep down. I’d been told when I was in my teens somehow, but this actually quite significant fact didn’t soak in properly. If you’re not in contact with your dad, does your new sister count as yours? I wasn’t sure, so I just filed it away for years. Until a few months ago that is, when her mum added me on Facebook and asked for my number. Two days later I got a WhatsApp notification. Not from her, but from my ten-year-old sister, because kids have iPhones now. “Hi” it said. “Hello!” I replied.
I don’t really know how to speak to kids because I’ve never been around them, especially not at that age. So my fingers hovered over the glowing screen for a little while, as I tried to remember what it felt like to be ten. “What’s your favourite food in the world?” I eventually typed. “Noodles,” she replied immediately, “And roast dinner.” There was a pause. “Can I speak to you on Saturday?” she asked me, with the straightforward confidence that ten-year-olds possess. “That would be lovely,” I replied. “I'm looking forward to hearing what you’ve been up to.” “OK,” she said.
Over the next few weeks, we spent a lot of time on the phone. To start with, our conversations felt strange and alien. I would ask her questions about school and how she liked to spend her time (singing, watching rom coms, sleepovers) and she would ask me questions (did I have a boyfriend? What year was I in at school or did I leave school a very long time ago?). Over time, the conversations got easier. She'd tell me the playground gossip, or what she hoped to get for her birthday. Occasionally, I'd forget how ten-year-olds lived their lives. “Are they gonna go on a date?” I asked her once, after she told me about a friend who had a crush on another friend. “Maybe when they're like 12!” she replied, snorting.
These phone conversations quickly became a positive, almost calming presence in my life. We don't look that similar (we maybe have the same shaped eyebrows, a certain glare?) but she sounds like I did when I was that age. She talks at 100 miles an hour. Has a dry sense of humour. Takes the piss out of me when I don't quite get something. “I got engaged!” she exclaimed once, sending me a pic of her flashing a silver ring over WhatsApp. “Oh wow, should I buy a hat?” I replied. “I'm kidding,” she replied. “I'm literally ten.”
If there's one thing about that first WhatsApp which scared me, it's that ten-year-olds aren't as sturdy as they seem. She's close to the same age that I was when I lost contact with my dad. I am a happy person with healthy relationships and a solid support network, but I'd be lying if I said the whole thing hadn't affected me somewhere, deep down. I can be held back and distrustful. I often assume that people will leave me. So I realised that I couldn't abandon this sister of mine, now that she'd reached out. And if I did, what did that say about me? Am I the same as my dad? It's a question we all ask ourselves.
I haven't met my little sister yet but I'm sure I will. Maybe we'll go get noodles followed by a roast dinner. In the meantime though, we have this WhatsApp correspondence; the one that started with "Hi” and then, simply, just carried on.