Adult Orphan – an excerpt (book available for purchase on


Jaci Stephen is an adult orphan. Thirty-four years after the death of her father in 1990, and nearly five years following the death of her mother in 2019, she finds herself alone and in an endless cycle of grieving. Contemplating the nature of mortality – from pets, to movie stars like Mij the otter, to friends and relatives – Jaci lovingly remembers the parents she thinks of every day in her new life of orphanhood.

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DAD’S LAST BIRTHDAY: MARCH 1989 (an excerpt from Adult Orphan)

It is his hands I notice first. He is out of hospital in time for his 60th birthday, but it is as if, in spirit, his hands are still in Frenchay Hospital. They are more lined than I remember: older, and, in the dim light of the hallway, they appear to have taken on a yellow tinge. The fingernails are, as always, perfectly trimmed, and there is no dirt under the nails.

‘Hi, Gaggie Nennens,’ he says, as Nigel, who has also returned for his father’s big birthday, locks the car door behind him. I am 31 years old, but I warm to my father addressing me by the pet name he has called me since I was a child. ‘Hello, Gaggie Nennens,’ he used to say, shutting the car door and opening his arms for me to run into them when he returned from work. He started using it because, with limited linguistic skills, it was what I used to answer when people asked me my name. ‘Hi,’ I say now, holding out my arms as he approaches the front door. ‘Gaggie Nennens,’ he says again, when I take his weight. There are times when the name has irritated me, but today I wonder how many more times I will hear it, and tears instantly form for the day I will grieve its loss. I try to banish morbid thoughts; after a conversation with the specialist, there is good reason to believe that Dad might die in the not so distant future, but I try to convince myself that the news is not all gloom. After all, most people go into hospital at some point in their lives, I tell myself, and most come out again. My father has always suffered from problems with his chest; at worst, we must just learn to live with this periodic, minor disruption to our lives.

Mum is preparing the food for Dad’s party. When Nigel and I were young, we were allowed to stay up later than our normal bedtime to watch her cook for the many parties that took place in our house. My favourite was New Year’s Eve, when the kitchen units and dining-room table were packed with exotic dishes with names that made me marvel at the glamour of my parents’ lives. Vol au vents, Black Forest Gateau, Thousand Island Dressing. There were trays of sticks containing cheese and pineapple, topped with a cocktail onion; tiny home-made pasties; trifles the colours of Stingray lollies. When it was all ready, I performed the last task: vacuuming the downstairs rooms. My pleasure at the perfection we had created was always tempered by the knowledge of the mess the guests would make of it all, come midnight.

The biggest party I remember Mum holding was some time in 1966. I remember it because Frank Sinatra had a big hit with Strangers in the Night, a year after Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass had hit the big time with Spanish Flea, and together they were the ‘in’ things to play among my parents’ friends. On the morning of the party, Dad put Spanish Flea on the record player and did a jive with me in the lounge. Mum and Dad were keen ballrom dancers and passed their love of it onto me.

Bored with his attempts to teach me the rumba to the tune of Strangers in the Night (I always preferred the fast dances), I joined Mum in the kitchen, where I took up my favourite post as vol-au-vent filler. I lifted the small, round hats off the flaky pastry cases and placed a dessertspoon of chicken in white sauce in the hole; rolled the fish balls in flour and watched them sizzle when Mum dropped them into the hot fat. I watched her melt the jelly for the trifle – red and orange rubbery squares slowly losing their shape in the saucepan – and whisk the custard for the top, hoping she would leave enough on the sides of the pan for me to scrape off and eat. I helped her pipe cream on to the top of the gateau and sliced glace cherries to lay around the edge. There was bread and cheese, bowls of salad, jugs of cream, curried rice salad and home-made sausage rolls. Nigel and I were allowed to roll two each. They joined Mum’s more professional creations on the same baking tray, although she took care to ensure that Nigel’s never made it to the table. He spent so long rolling the pastry with his sweaty fingers that the yellow had turned to black by the time it reached the oven stage. He had also developed the rather unfortunate habit of picking his nose and wiping it on the underarm of the sofa, and it would be many years before his pastry would be safe enough to eat.

An hour before the guests arrived for every party, Nigel and I were allowed to choose our tea from the goodies on offer. The real treat was being allowed to take them to our bedrooms, where eating became a heightened, almost forbidden activity. Then, when the doorbell had rung several times and we had been scrubbed and dressed for bed, we were brought downstairs in our pyjamas (a thrill that came a very close second to eating in bed) to say hello to the guests.

Although the parties were strictly adult affairs, Nigel and I were always made to feel part of the event. When we finally went to our rooms, always with second helpings of food crammed into our pyjama pockets, it was not with a feeling of resentment that we were leaving the action, but a feeling of superiority in being allowed an exclusive party of our own.

This great nocturnal eating pleasure was not confined to parties. Occasionally (and a rare treat, given my parents’ limited finances), Mum and Dad ordered Chinese food from the takeaway, but felt too guilty eating it by themselves while we were in bed. When Dad returned with the food, they would therefore share everything out. There were always two main dishes – sweet and sour pork, chicken and pineapple – and one portion of rice and a chop suey or noodles. They put a small portion from each onto two saucers, one for Nigel and one for me, and Dad brought them up while Mum put out their own supper. Even if we were fast asleep, they woke us up for the feast, hating to enjoy any treat they were not sharing with us. With pillows propped up and the bedside lamp on, we waited like hungry, newborn birds, as Dad balanced the saucers on our laps, and our expectant little beaks strained against the half-light as our eyes adjusted to the cache our parents had found. White saucers, edged with primroses and leaves and, at the centre of the border, a mound of white, sticky rice. Beansprouts, which I had never seen in daytime; soft, glistening, quarter moons of pineapple; steam rising from the red balls of pork. Dad plumped up our pillows, made sure we were fully awake and handed us our saucers and teaspoons. No food ever tasted as good as these bedtime treats.

Dad’s 60th birthday party is different. It feels like a farewell: a rehearsal for the funeral. I try not to think of it as such, but the house has an air of broken past about it. In under three hours’ time, relatives and friends past and present will come to say Congratulations, each of them wondering if this is the last time they will see Dad. After the funeral, ten months on, my Uncle Brian will tell me that Dad told him he knew he would not see 61.

Today, there are no fishballs to roll. Everything has been chopped, sliced, fried, rolled, and laid on serving plates, with clingfilm over each one, and there is an air of hospital efficiency about the display. The sausage rolls are piled as neatly as Lego bricks; the trifle sits like a perfect trophy in the middle of the table. I feel momentarily resentful, the child I once was now little more than an extra in the performance. I lift a piece of clingfilm and steal a sausage roll from the bottom of the pile, half-expecting the whole edifice to come crashing down. It does not move. There are crumbs on my chin when Mum comes into the dining room with the last of the bread baskets. I start to cry.

At the end of the party, when I have helped Mum clear away, I go upstairs to bed. I meet Dad at the top of the stairs, where he stands outside the bathroom, looking pale and tired. He coughs, as he always does at night, but following his latest spell in hospital, the terrible raw clawing noise in his chest appears to have eased slightly. I am once again hopeful for his recovery and go to kiss him goodnight with renewed optimism. I put my arms around him and am shocked at the smallness of his frame in his pyjamas. Just hours ago, he seemed to be bigger, but now his body is drowning in blue cotton. The arms are too big for the softness I feel inside them, but when I hug him closer, hiding my tears, the softness gives way to small, sharp, pointed bones bursting out of his back. He is slipping away to a place he has not yet been, and I am helpless to pull him back. The more I try, the further he falls, all the time shrinking, shrinking. It breaks my heart to feel my father so small in my arms. This is not the body that carried me from the beach to stop the sand going in my shoes. This is not the person I remember, large and strong, encircling everything I was and thought and felt. And yet he is still there. It is still him. The inner strength that has always been him. Dad, in his perfectly laundered blue pyjamas, his soft face, sweet with fresh soap. He does not smell like a man who is going to die.

‘Night, night, Gaggie Nennens,’ he says.