Shona always revered her father. Then he married a girl 14 years younger than she is – and now they’re at daggers drawn
My father was 57 when, in 2004, he fell in love with the woman who has now become his second wife.
I say ‘woman’ because, somewhat naively, that’s what I assumed she would be.
A divorcee or widow, perhaps, with whom he could share his retirement and who would, in turn, enjoy the extended company of his only daughter and three grandchildren.
‘Well,’ he replied, ‘she’s still at university. But she’s everything I want in a woman. She’s sexy, gorgeous and she looks after me. In fact, we have sex three times a day.’
At which point I almost spat out coffee all over the table.
To say I was horrified would be the biggest understatement since Brody in Jaws announced: ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’
In truth, I was totally floored. This was my dad talking about a 19-year-old girl who was born when I was approaching my O-levels, making her 14 years my junior.
The difference in years between them was greater than the sum of my entire life — an entire 38 years.
In short, my father, the man I had always put high on a pedestal, had turned into Woody Allen. And it made me feel more than a little unsettled.
Which is why, when I recently read that Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone’s daughter Tamara was planning to boycott her father’s wedding to Fabiana Flosi — who is 46 years his junior — I had to sympathise.
I, too, know how it feels to have a father who is hopelessly and inappropriately in love with a woman young enough to be his daughter. And while I consider myself to be liberal and open-minded, my growing sense of unease has destroyed my relationship with him.
We were once extremely close. When I was a child, my mother was quite distant and a stickler for rules, so it was my dad who provided the laughs and the fun.
I was with him when I tried my first alcoholic drink — whisky on the rocks — and when, as a teenager, I had a brief flirtation with smoking, rather than lecturing me on the dangers of nicotine he instead taught me how to blow smoke rings.
As a father he was undoubtedly unconventional, regaling me with stories of his past girlfriends and urging me to take risks and face life head on.
But, by the same stroke, he always made me feel incredibly safe. I never doubted his love for me and certainly never questioned that he would always be there for me.
As I matured into my 20s, I also grew to appreciate his company more and more. He loved nothing more than a good debate around the table and he had a passion for military history, which he could bore you with for hours if you let him.
I say this only to illustrate how my father has always thrived on lively conversation, social banter and a genuine meeting of minds.
Which only made his decision to marry a girl who was born when he was nearly 40 all the more shocking for those who knew and loved him.
Since my mother left him in 1993, my father had been in a relationship with Wendy, a woman in her early 40s, who I’d grown to love as my stepmother —even though they never married.
In 1995, because of his job as a land developer, they moved to Fiji together and had been living there quite happily for several years. And that, probably, would have been that.
Except on these far-flung South Pacific islands the rules are bit different. For some reason, my father — despite greying hair and a growing paunch — was considered a catch.
I imagine the temptation was all too great. His head has always been turned by young and beautiful women and, like many men, he enjoys his ego being massaged.
So it was perhaps unsurprising that, living in this environment, his relationship with Wendy eventually ended. And after it did, in 2003, he could, literally, take his pick.
This time he had no desire to meet a woman who was of a similar age — an equal with a sharp wit and a lifetime of complications behind her.
He later told me that all he wanted was someone compliant and unchallenging who wouldn’t nag but, instead, take care of him in his old age and massage his feet when he was watching TV.
All of which I could grasp. The thought of it made me frustrated, but I understood.
What man of his age would willingly kick such a woman out of bed? It’s just that I didn’t expect my own father to be such a cliché. Surely there is more to an easy life than sex and subservience?
Then along came Sufan, who was 19 and an absolute stunner. I have no idea how they met, but once they’d started dating my father sent me a photograph and it wasn’t hard to see the attraction.
With her curvaceous figure, huge brown eyes and thick dark hair cascading down to her waist, she looked just like she’d stepped straight from a Gauguin painting.
In the time it took for my own husband’s jaw to lift from the floor, the wedding was set. And, unlike, Tamara Eccleston, I was initially prepared to attend.
It was at this point that I began to realise my problem was not going to be with the new child bride.
I had, after all, no business with her. If she wanted to marry my father and stay in every night listening to tales of Napoleon’s conquests then good luck to her and each to their own.
But he was suddenly behaving like an idiot. And that’s when things started to get messy.
If I emailed him and forgot, at the end of the correspondence, to ask about her welfare I was accused of sidelining her.
Bear in mind that at this point I hadn’t even met my father’s new fiancée.
But already I was starting to resent her presence. Not because of anything she was doing but because he was insistent about shoving her, constantly, in my face.
In 2005, with the wedding fast approaching, my father excitedly told me over the phone all about the preparations — how they were hand- sewing thousands of sequins on to Sufan’s dress and how there would be three bridesmaids and a whole host of festivities including ceremonial Fijian dancers.
And all I could think was: ‘What kind of man doesn’t want his grandchildren at his wedding?’ So I made a tough decision to stay put and not fly the 5,000-or-so miles to attend. Already, I had a sinking feeling where this was all heading.
He wasn’t even trying to hide the fact that, through meeting Sufan, he was attempting to remould himself.
And this new self did not include a slightly truculent adult daughter and three lively but pertinent reminders that he was almost of pensionable age.
I made a call and didn’t go because I wasn’t prepared to attend without my children.
I felt it was tantamount to my father denying his previous life had existed. I couldn’t forgive him for that and — as it was to turn out — he couldn’t forgive me for not being there.
‘But I came to your wedding,’ he told me angrily on the phone. I didn’t even bother to question this flawed logic.
On their honeymoon, my father came to the UK to show off his new bride, because none of his family or friends attended the wedding in Fiji. I offered them our spare bedroom (my husband, not very helpfully, had told the children that ‘Grandma’ was coming to stay) but they declined and opted to stay in a bed-and-breakfast down the road.
I went there to meet my new stepmother on neutral ground. She was sitting on the end of the bed eating a packet of crisps and looked as awkward as I felt.
My father, on the other hand was buoyant. ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ he asked me. I had to agree. She was.
But deep down I felt something almost impossible to describe. Was it inadequacy, jealousy — or, simply, just overwhelming disappointment? Once they’d flown back to Fiji, I felt a strong urge to try and explain to my father how hurt I felt.
I told him I missed him, that it would have been nice, when he’d been in the UK, for the two of us to have had some time alone.
‘You’re so selfish,’ he responded. ‘Why are you always trying to exclude Sufan from everything?’
This was bad enough, but the final straw was his 60th birthday in 2007. I made the decision to fly over there on my own for a week, hoping to rebuild bridges.
But I was bitterly disappointed. I didn’t get to spend as much as five minutes on my own with him.
Yes, I saw him every day, but it was always with Sufan as well. Every single meal or outing, she was there. The message was loud and clear — it was him and her, or nothing.
I cried all the way on the plane home, realising that to all intents and purposes I had lost my dad. Meanwhile, he thought the trip had gone well.
From then on, emails became more and more sporadic. I’d bite my lip and send him a brief message but sometimes he wouldn’t even reply. It was clear that he was losing interest in me and my family. We stopped talking about anything meaningful.
Communication came to a halt altogether at the start of last year after he failed to respond to my ‘Happy Christmas’ message.
So, seven years after the wedding, my father and I are no longer speaking. This saddens me in more ways than I want to admit.
Not least because my children ask questions about him all the time. I think they find it hard to comprehend why we’re not in touch.
Just the other day, Monty, nine, said: ‘I can’t imagine Dad never speaking to me again.’
I felt sad that something so dysfunctional has become their norm but it has crystallised my own feelings about parenthood: whatever happens in my life my children will always come first.
There have been many occasions where I have been tempted to pick up the phone and call — simply because I miss him every single day and I feel there is a gaping hole in my life — but there has been so much misunderstanding it’s hard to unravel the beginning from the end.
I feel he blames our estrangement on the fact I couldn’t accept him marrying a woman younger than me. I’m sure he thinks I feel usurped, replaced in his affections.
But it isn’t that at all. I just don’t understand how he can re-prioritise so casually and seemingly diminish a lifetime of experiences and rich family tapestry.
And what happens when he dies? I doubt I’ll be welcome at the funeral.
I’ll be like a mistress sneaking in at the back of the church and having to hide my grief and keep my memories to myself.
I have heard, through members of my extended family, that they had a baby last year — that I have a one-year-old half-brother.
I’d love to see him, if only to wind my father up about nappies and midnight feeds at the age of 65.
In the past he’d have had a laugh about that. But I doubt he’s finding it so funny now.
I hope he feels it’s all been worth it. Certainly, from what I’ve heard, they’re both very happy. But at what cost?
Because, one day, when she’s 41 — the same age as I am now — he’ll be a year off 80. And I can’t help wondering if she’ll think he’s such a catch then?