Jon Paul Roberts

Jon Paul Roberts is an essayist, journalist, and screenwriter from Chester. He worked as an editor for a Liverpudlian literary magazine In The Red, as well as contributing to various sites and local publications within Liverpool. He has run events including launch parties, open mic nights for writers, and other readings. In his essays he hopes to find the line between his experiences and the forces that influenced him, whether that be film, television, family, or friends. He aims to find silver linings in darker moments by writing about them because, as his hero, Nora Ephron, said, everything is copy.





‘She knows it when you try and talk to her,

though this is something you’ll never understand’ –

Lorrie Moore, How to Talk to Your Mothers (Notes)



When I was about seven or eight, I had a theory that the woman who walked her dog by my house was my mother. I thought that she had faked her own death and, instead of disappearing, had taken up residence close to where we lived so she could watch over us. The reasons I thought she faked her death were constantly changing; money trouble, evading the law, she had joined a cult of some sort or the witness protection programme after seeing some terrible crime.

I never told this theory to anyone. I never tried to rationalise or let anyone in on it. I would see her once a day and consider asking her or maybe giving her a knowing nod and seeing if she responded by telling me everything. I imagined what would happen if other people figured it out and she was discovered then she would have to go further away and I might never see her again.

The woman didn’t look exactly like my mother, but I put that down to necessity. She would have had to change her appearance in some way, otherwise she might have been recognised. I always wondered if Dad knew it was her. Or if she’d changed just enough that even the man she married wouldn’t know. Sometimes, I’d ask him questions to see if he knew. The veiled answers he gave made me think he didn’t.

‘Where did you meet her?’

‘At work,’ he’d say.


‘A long time ago.’

Once, on our way back from a day trip somewhere he showed my brother and I where we used to live. It was a small house in Wales and I don’t think he had planned to show us. He just realised that route we had taken home had brought us close to it.

He slowed the car down so it rolled past an unassuming house with a red garage door. It looked like every other house on the street. The car came to a stop and we waited for a second. No one said anything. We just looked at the house. At its white door with the glass panels, the brick that didn’t yet look that old but wasn’t quite new, the lawn, neatly cut and square. A car behind us beeped and Dad turned his eyes to the road and drove us home.

If you asked me to point that house out to you in a line-up I wouldn’t be able to. It seems like every other house but it is the last place my mother lived and I can’t, despite trying, create any kind of emotional attachment to it.

The house we moved to wasn’t too far from there, about a forty-minute drive away. I don’t know if we moved because she died, or because the downsizing was required financially. I get the sense that the house I lived in growing up was a place my mother had never been.

As part of my theory I thought she might have spent all her days trying to figure out where we were. Maybe she’d created a radius, knowing that Dad worked in the high school so we had to be within driving distance of that. Maybe she had one of those cork boards, with the pins and string. Maybe she had looked everywhere in that radius and eventually found us in the small semidetached by the army camp. I wondered how hard it was to trace someone if you’re supposed to be dead. You can’t go through the normal channels so maybe it involved back alley deals and bribes. This fictional version of my mother existed in my head until I was at least twelve when I began to accept that, maybe, it wasn’t true.

My mother died of cancer, just like Dad would seventeen years later. I know that there was a period of time in which everyone knew it was terminal and that all avenues of treatment had been exhausted. I know how sad they thought it was that she’d be leaving a behind a husband and two boys under five. I don’t know who was with her, where she was, or if she felt comfortable or ready.

In the house I grew up in there are pictures all along the hallway. Pictures of me and my brother, and our cousins as kids, pictures of days out to Southport and Llandudno, and then pictures of my mother. If I look at these pictures hard enough I can see that the woman who walks her dog bears very little resembles to my mother. In fact, there is almost no resemblance at all.


I don’t remember being told that my mother was dead. It was just information I grew up with and, by proxy, information everyone around me grew up with it too. I was the kid without a mother. Along with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy there was an element of fiction to her. A sense of mystery that still exists. She was a woman who had given me certain physical things, like the gap between my front teeth, but she was also the person I attributed all my differences to.

Dad and my brother were very similar. They both played sport, laughed at the same jokes, and made this odd noise when they scratched the inside of their ear. It sounded like a cross between an engine starting and someone splashing in water. So, I thought, if he was like him then I must be like her. In my head, she was a reader, she enjoyed films, and she felt like she did not fit in. I thought she would be understanding of my problems, because she was the same way. I assigned all these differences to her because I had no idea who she was and it was easier than admitting I’m vastly different from my family.

For the first fifteen to seventeen years of my life my mother went virtually unmentioned. Dad rarely brought her up and, at parties, my aunties and uncles wouldn’t either. There were the same pictures of her in every house we visited, her school photo and one of Dad, her, Steve and me, but she was so rarely mentioned that I figured it was something I could not ask about. So, I continued to make things up.


I’m going to pause for a second and say this: I have referred to my mother as ‘my mother’ in this piece, and will continue to do so, because I do not know what else to call her. Sure, there is ‘mum’ but whenever I say that out loud I don’t like it. It sounds very odd to say because I have spent all of my life not saying it. I have chosen ‘mother’ because it’s the default. The standard. Maybe, on some subconscious level, I chose to use ‘mother’ as a way to distance myself. I am already distanced by knowledge and time and maybe I want to put up that final barrier to protect myself. From what? Maybe, finding out that she wasn’t like me in the way Dad was like my brother, finding out that there are things I do not know, and may never know, about the people that brought me into this world, or from opening myself up to a pain I have been very good at avoiding. Maybe I’m afraid of finding out that I’m still the six-year-old boy who cried in the toilets at school and refused to leave them because a boy asked why I was making a mother’s day card. Or I’m still the kid that believes she faked her death and is out there somewhere, still.


A week or two after Dad died, I found my parents’ wedding rings in a jewellery box when we cleared out his room. The box was small and wooden with a stained-glass lid. I’d seen it before and I remember Dad used to keep my debit card in it before I was trusted to take it out with me. Inside were old credit cards in that had expiration dates in the nineties. When I pulled them out to look at them I saw two rings wedged in between velvet cushions underneath. I pulled one out and looked at it. A small gold band with grooves that were placed equidistantly around it. It must have been my mothers. I tried to slip it onto my finger and I could just about get it onto my pinky but it would only go about halfway down. I tried to force it and felt the skin beneath rip slightly. I took it off and looked at the small tab of skin that was curling out from above the knuckle.

I put the ring back in the box and pulled out the other. It was bigger and slid onto my finger easily. I had never noticed that Dad stopped wearing his wedding ring after she died. I guess I was too young to remember a time when he did wear it so it seemed normal to me.

I wear that ring almost every day now, not to feel close to my Dad, because I have so many things left behind by him, but I wear it to be closer to my mother. They bought these rings together, I assume. They must have picked them out, and then wore them as a way of saying they would love each other forever. I can see them in a jewellery store, trying on different kinds, my mother maybe picking this one and holding it up to the light, sliding it onto her finger, and saying ‘This is the one.’ I think then, of their wedding day and her placing the ring onto Dad’s finger, the one she chose.

The ring was a commitment Dad made to her and so, when I wear it, it makes me closer to her. There is a possibility that she bought the vase at the top of the stairs, or the paintings that hang in the living room but Dad never said. As far as I know these rings are the only thing left of my mother. Yet, wearing it doesn’t make me feel as close as I’d like to be.

The hardest thing to do is figure out how I feel about her. Other than how I know I am supposed to feel. When people ask about her I feel like I’m talking about a stranger. It’s as if someone asked me for my opinion about a friend of a friend that I’ve heard about and seen in pictures, but don’t feel comfortable passing judgement on their character. This feels the same in many ways. Though, I know I’m entitled to an opinion on the person who gave birth to me.


Dad and my mother were buried in the same place. Well, their ashes were buried in a small plot in the local churchyard. There is no headstone, or any indication for anyone, other than people that knew them, that that’s where they’re buried. Often, unmarked graves are considered a final resting place for those who caused shame or disgrace during their life. Criminals were often buried in unmarked graves. In Judaism unmarked graves are to be avoided at all costs in case a pious Jew is tainted without being aware it happened. As I understand it, this is less about the person who was buried and more about the person who finds the grave. They say descendent of Aaron can’t be within four cubits of a grave, except for the funeral of a relative, and so, if it’s unmarked they wouldn’t know. Alternatively, Apple CEO, Steve Jobs was buried without a headstone, so was Mozart. The same goes for Bessie Smith and John Wayne.

I do not know why my parents chose to go unmarked. It’s true they weren’t religious. My brother and I weren’t christened so we could ‘make up our own mind’ when we grew up. Yet, for whatever reason they chose a churchyard. It is not the church they married in. It is simply the church closest to where we lived.

The yard is small and filled with graves. Big marble ones, and some look tacky, echoes of the seventies and eighties. The last time I was there, I stood with my hands deep in my pockets because it was a winter evening, the air was cold, the clouds were low, and there was very little light, like something out of Great Expectations. The small stone that says ‘Garden of Remembrance’ is placed in the middle of a small rectangle by the furthest hedge. The grass is encroaching on it and is starting to cover up the words. Along the top of the rectangle are small plaques that give the names of some of the people whose ashes have been buried here. There is no plaque for my parents.

They were both teachers, so maybe there wasn’t money for a headstone. If I think logically, I guess they didn’t want headstones because that would take money away from the two children being left behind. This conjecture might be the only ‘answer’ I get to this question.

I kneel down to find the grass is damp and it creates dark patches on the knees of my jeans. I pull at the grass around the centre plaque and clear off the overgrown plants. It proved harder than I thought and I had to place on hand down on the ground to steady myself. I pulled at the grass manically, until all the words were fully visible again.


There are answers that I managed to find on my mother’s death certificate. Firstly, that she died at home on the 30th March 1995. In the house that Dad drove us past when we were younger. That moment takes on a whole new meaning now. The house that I could never connect to suddenly feels urgent. I don’t know how, in the seconds it took to read that line on the page, my whole opinion of this place, a place I couldn’t connect to, changed to being the most important place in the world. I can’t imagine driving past a place that must hold so many memories, mostly good, but must be tarnished by that final one. I understand why we moved.

The certificate also reveals the cause of death, 1a. Carcinomatosis and B. Carcinoma breast. The former is a direct effect of the latter. The certificate also says that her brother, my Uncle, was ‘present at the death’ and think I could maybe ask him but this is something he has never mentioned. The certificate was issued a day later. I do not know where I was, on the day she died. I wonder if I was present, or at least in the house, if she died at home.


All these thoughts about my mother have been stirring him me, and as I write them down I decide I need to go home and try to find out more. One weekend, I get a train to Chester from London and ask my brother, Steve, about the letter she wrote us. A letter she wrote in pencil on lined paper that Dad was supposed to read to us when we were certain ages. I remember the age in the letter not being the age I was so he must have caved and read it to us a year or two early. I remember sitting on Dad’s bed, and him reading it aloud to us. I remember it being a bizarre experience, to have this person I didn’t know talk directly to me in this letter and it upsets me that I can’t remember what it said.

We try to find it, we search the house for about two hours and it doesn’t turn up. Steve says that it could be in his bedroom, though he’s already looked, and suggests we go up together and check.

We go into his bedroom, that used to be Dad’s, and he searches through boxes that he keeps in the top of his wardrobe.

‘Check in those drawers. The ones in the side of the bed,’ he says.

‘What drawers?’

I went to the side of the bed, which is the same bed Dad had albeit with a new mattress, and found the length of the bed was split into two pretty big drawers. I don’t know how I never noticed them before.

There are three things I notice right away when I open them. The first is my mother’s veil from her wedding day. It’s aged from sitting in this drawer for over eighteen years. It has faux flowers along the top and the material falls down longer than I expected. The next is a pleather white handbag, which is assume is also part of her wedding outfit. It’s still bright white and when I open it I feel slightly disappointed that is nothing in there. The third thing, and the one I pick up and put into my pocket, is her garter. It’s frilly, and a very light purple, but I can’t tell if that’s because it used to be ‘something blue’ and it’s faded. It has a purple bow on the front that has flowers embroidered at its centre. I scrunch it up in my hand when it’s in my pocket and feel it in my sweaty palms. I feel weird about taking it, such an intimate thing.

‘You can go through them whenever you want,’ Steve says, motioning to the drawers. ‘I don’t like to do it very often.’

He continues to go through boxes that he’s pulled down and I find loads of ‘Get Well Soon’ cards in a plastic bag and the first two pages of a letter. It’s addressed to my mother and there are pages missing so I don’t know who it’s from. It starts After I heard the terrible news nearly 3 weeks ago, I was really shocked and upset for you. As I read it I realise it’s from a student she taught. She says she isn’t looking forward to her mock exams and didn’t want to play hockey because she was too stressed. Then she says that she decided to play and scored a hat-trick after she decided she would play the game for my mother. The letter is dated the first of March and the death certificate says the date of death was the thirtieth. That means that were at least seven weeks where it was widely known that she was ill.

Steve finds a handmade book that our Aunt made us. I think my Aunt realised that we didn’t know anything about our mother so she made a small book that acted as a hand-made biography of her life. She gave us one each when we were round at her house, maybe the first Christmas after Dad died, and everyone stopped and went quiet. They asked what they were and neither Steve or I answered. My Aunt explained them, and we, dumbfounded by the new information in our laps, thanked her and let the conversation move on. This one is his but the books are near identical.

It says that she started playing rounders at a young age and she loved hockey. Reading it my heart sinks a little. She seems to be more like my brother, but then when I read the next page it says she enjoyed sewing and knitting with her mother and made one of my Aunts bridesmaids’ dresses. I have read these words before when my Aunt gave me this book one Christmas, but now I’m feeling like they’re doing more than they did then. Knowing that she was creative and quiet makes me feel, for the first time, I haven’t been making up that we’re alike. It’s a tenuous link, I mean I can’t sew or knit, but creativity is expressed in different ways and I have chosen to express mine through writing. It isn’t much, but it is enough to feel closer to her.

My aunt said this about my mother meeting Dad: She was so happy with him. Your mum was a quiet person but she would not suffer fools. Once she befriended somebody they would be a lucky person as she was loyal to them. Same with her family. I am trying to hold back tears.

‘I’m sorry,’ Steve says. ‘I didn’t know that you didn’t know about the drawers.’

‘No worries.’

‘And I can’t find the letter.’

‘It’s fine,’ I say. ‘If you’d known where it was I wouldn’t have found all this stuff.’

As he packs stuff away that he’s unboxed, I find a wedding album. No one has written the date on the dotted golden line on the inside but I can see the veil, the bag, and I know the garter is there too. There is a picture, where Mum and Dad are stood in front of a fountain, and the water behind is spurting up as if it’s coming from Mum’s head. Mum is tall, in heels she’s she same height as Dad. She has brown hair, that’s short and curly. They’re both laughing. I recognise Dad’s laugh and I think I might recognise my Mum’s laugh. I feel like I’ve seen it – or heard it – somewhere before. This is the closest I’ve ever felt to Mum and it feels nice.


I used to dream about her sometimes. She wouldn’t look familiar but it was her, in that way you know who someone is in a dream. Those dreams came frequently but all I can remember about them is that she was in them. After looking at those pictures and writing everything I know about her down. I have three dreams about her in one week. I can only remember vague parts, small flashes. I wonder if maybe they’re memories that my brain doesn’t know enough about the images to present them as truth so it throws them into my dreams.

One night, I lie I bed, unable to sleep, and look into the dark above me. As things in my room begin to come into focus, and my eyes start to adjust I begin those late night wonderings. I think of the universe and how it can splinter and crack and alter, the smallest change can affect things. I think of the alternate timelines that could have diverted from the one I’m living. All the points at which I’ve made a decision, or they’ve been made for me, and I imagine the diversion that happened in 1995, when she died, and think of the alternative.

In that world we get up on a Saturday mornings and watch cartoons. Dad and Steve get dressed for football and she give them both toast. They’d eat it and head out. Then we spend the day drawing, playing with toys, then we’ll go and meet them at the club and eat chips. We come home and watch a film together before we go to bed.

In this world, Dad spends less time alone. They are inseparable. She laughs at his bad jokes. They both work at the high school and with two teacher’s salaries we manage to go away on holiday. I sit between the two of them on my first flight, terrified we’ll crash and burn. They would take us to Greece, they always loved Greece. On the beach and she’d warn us about sunburn and make sure we reapply the cream every hour.

As I get older she helps me learn my lines for my first speaking role in a school play. She corrects me when I get it wrong in a way only a mother can. She comes and see the play, opening night, and tells me afterwards that I did a great job, every line was perfect.

When I’m old enough she starts recommending books to me. In this world that’s how I find out about Nora Ephron, Joan Didion, and Sharon Olds. We swap books and I get to know her through what she reads. One time, she gives me a book and I hate it and we argue over it. Not in any serious way and in the end we will agree to disagree.

At fifteen I tell her I’m gay and she puts one hand on my knee and say she loves me and that Dad loves me too. I’m able to talk about boys with her and she would sit with me as I cry after a boy, at the age of seventeen, breaks my heart for the first time. He doesn’t matter, she says. You’re still young. She helps me get over him by taking me on long drives down country lanes.

I go away to university and she and Dad get a dog. I joke that he’s my replacement.

She comes to visit me in Liverpool and we go for dinner. At my graduation she is so excited and cheers so loudly when my name is called and she cries a lot. She makes me take pictures in ever location and talks about how handsome I look. Handsome is a word that Mums use.

I move to London after graduation and she gets teary again and makes me promise to call. I try to call but I am busy and feel guilty when I don’t find the time. When I do call she says, How will I know you’re happy and doing well if you don’t call. Call me. No matter the time. Always call.

I fall asleep.