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The life of a Yorkshire widow: The secret is out

29 Feb 2024 | Written by Marina O'Shea

In her latest installment of ‘The life of a Yorkshire widow’, Jan Dunbar’s protagonist opens the box she found in the shed…


I unlocked the secrets of the mysterious box this morning. The one I found in the garden shed before Christmas. I’d been hoping it was a Memory Box of bits and pieces from Jack’s childhood. Jack used to laugh at mine; I call it my Treasure Box and it’s where I keep a few cherished bits and pieces, including a pressed flower from my wedding bouquet, faded now but still precious. I never did find a key for this mysterious box but in the end it was easy. I unscrewed the hinges and off came the lid. I expect you’re interested to know what secrets it contained so I’ll tell you but before I do, I’ll tell you something else. For the first time ever – and just for a moment – I was glad that Jack was dead, and that’s a very hard thing to admit.

First of all, there was a bundle of letters, 18 in all spread over a number of years and addressed to Jack at our home address. The envelopes were type written so I would have thought nothing of them arriving on the doormat. Jack used to get letters from several of the clubs and associations he belonged to. Nothing suspicious so far – until I opened the first one. The letter was hand-written and addressed to My Lovely John. It was signed Love, Sarah with several crosses which I assume were meant to be kisses. The date was Friday 7 December 1979. I won’t go into what was in the collection of letters as I’m sure you can guess but yes, they were love letters. The last one, dated Friday 14 September 1984, ended Thank you for everything, from Sarah and John. It was a while before I could take the next step.

Underneath the pile of letters was a birth certificate for a child named John Alexander Collins, born on 8 July 1980. The mother’s name was Sarah Jane Collins and the father’s name? I’m sure you’ve guessed by now. John Braithwaite. That’s when my whole world crashed. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and my heart was hammering so fast I was dizzy. I took myself out for walk round the garden while I let the implications of this bit of news sink in.

Finally, at the bottom of the box there were three photographs. The first one was of a very young baby in a crib; the second a toddler on the beach, dressed in a little sailor suit and the last one was of a little boy in presumably his first school uniform – and a handsome little chap by the looks of him. I stared at that photograph for the longest time, trying to see if this child bore any resemblance to my late B-word of a husband. All his life Jack hated the thought of being illegitimate and what had he done but given the same burden to this other little boy, born out of wedlock. I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry in all my born days.

After several cups of tea and not a little brandy, I’d calmed down enough to look at the rest of the letters. How had I never guessed that Jack was having an affair? Simple really. I trusted him. It appeared to have started when Jack helped this Sarah change a wheel after her car had a flat tyre in the works car park. They’d started chatting, met up again in the works canteen and from there, it was full steam ahead. It hadn’t been a long drawn-out affair – affair being the operative word – but rather it seemed to have been a fling that went on for several months and then just fizzled out, presumably once this young lady had announced that she was in the family way. After that, the letters were mostly news of how the little lad – John’s son apparently – was faring.

I have to assume it was Jack’s child; though how this happened so quickly after we’d tried for years to have a baby, I don’t know. Anyway, the final letter thanked Jack for his financial help in supporting his son but went on to say that as the lady was now married, it wasn’t necessary for him to continue with the monthly payments he’d been making. I still don’t know whether to laugh, cry or spit at that bit of news; there were times during the early eighties when money was really tight and we both went without because we hadn’t the money to spare. Now I can see why. Incandescent with rage doesn’t even touch the sides.

I suppose I’ll never know whether Jack agreed to having his name on the birth certificate or not, with all that that might entail in future years, but there it is. He fathered a child who would now be 43 years old and possibly a father himself. I could be a grandmother without knowing it, but do I want to be? I think that’s a question for another day.

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