It’s fair enough, as questions go. All the more so because I’ve been asked it all my adult life.
As soon as people hear my name, and their brain makes the link, they ask it. Their Pavlovian responses have ceased to surprise me.
Last night the question was delivered by the telephone representative of a utility supplier. The young woman with a jolly Newcastle accent rang me at random to enquire whether I’ve ever considered switching to a water meter. She then asked, hesitantly, if I was famous as she vaguely recognised my name. And then she stopped. She apologised. She said ‘I should have known’.
I said it was OK. Just as I always do. And then the question came. I answered briefly, and I could almost hear her stifle a gasp, even over the telephone line. And, as per usual routine, the other questions followed.
Why haven’t you changed your name?
Why haven’t you moved away?
But still, the top spot of questions goes to ‘When did you realise?’
I want to say ‘I just did’.
But it’s not enough. Either for me, or for my questioners.
So, when I am asked, ‘When did you realise your own father was a serial killer?’ my response is well-rehearsed. I say ‘I always knew. He was a bad person from the get go. The killing was inevitable’.
But what I want to say is more.
I want to explain how I realised from my earliest memories that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed man who charmed every stranger he ever met, but who I was forced to live alongside in egalitarian agony, was not quite right in the head.
When he charged at my friends playing rounders on the street. When he ranted and threatened to kill them because they were playing near his car, I could see it.
When he shut our dog in the plastic laundry basket and hovered it at the top of the stairs, I could see it. When he demanded that the decision on the dog’s future depended on me: whether I would rather have a million pounds or to see the dog be thrown down the stairs inside the basket. I could see it.
When he knelt on my chest and slammed his knees against my ribs, I could see it.
Though I couldn’t name it, I could see it.
He claimed he was ‘angry’… but he wasn’t. He was blank and he was empty. He was cold and dark and detached. But he wasn’t angry.
When he told me I was a terrible daughter because I refused to allow him to teach me to kiss. With manual one-to-one lessons. I could see it then too.
When I was forced to install a lock on my bedroom door…
When he told my friend who had just been raped, that she was a slag…
When he refused to keep any promises…
To honour any commitments…
To deny them with a self-satisfied smirk. I could see it then.
Oh yes, I knew it. I knew it alright.
And when he was sacked from his job for knifing a colleague. And when he told me thirty years later that I had imagined this event, and was therefore insane.
And when he couldn’t keep a single friend.
And how we all were desperate to move away. And never see him again.
Or when he accused me of having some responsibility for my mother’s illness. And death.
I knew it.
But when did I know it most? Was it when he broke into my bedroom or threatened my boyfriend or told me he’d set fire to my hamster?
No. It was when he lectured me on why he had decided to be a professional driver. It was a good career for people who hated other people, he said, and then he laughed. That was the nearest I’d ever seen to an honest and open expression of emotion.
Peter Sutcliffe was a lorry driver, he said.
And I told my friends the following day that if he ever turned out to be a serial killer or mass murderer, then I wouldn’t be one of those people who said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it. He was such a nice guy. He kept himself to himself. Quiet and well-mannered.’
No. I would say.
‘Yes. I always knew.’ Just as I do now.