It was a letter from a son to his mother, returned with the words `Do not write to me. Do not contact me'. Martyn Percy, chaplain of Christ's College, Cambridge, was seeking the woman who had put him up for adoption when he was six weeks old. He unearthed instead an extraordinary family history. By Paul Vallely. Photographs by Martin Morrell
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The day before the man was killed, Martyn Percy had a premonition. On the back of his neck, he felt a dank, cold breath, and he saw his car ploughing into the cyclist. It was disturbing, but he ignored it. He was a solid individual, a rationalist intellectual who was making his mark in the world. At the age of 24, he was already the marketing manager for a firm of publishers. So he got into his car as usual.

The accident happened exactly as he had foreseen. The cyclist appeared from a side road and careered across the dual carriageway along which he was driving. It was not Percy's fault. He did not feel guilt. But he was seized with something else - the sudden horror that the dead man might have been the father he had never met.

And so began the story of an extraordinary quest which 10 years later still has not really ended for Martyn Percy - now the Reverend Dr Martyn Percy, chaplain of Christ's College, Cambridge, and director of theology and religious studies.

He was adopted when he was only six weeks old. The couple who adopted him were always Mum and Dad, and it didn't seem to matter. But the accident changed everything, creating an unease which steadily grew "like a low, background hum, always present throughout all the other activities of my life".

It was not just his father; after he was ordained, he became consumed with the idea that every middle-aged woman to whom he gave communion might be his real mother. The thought would intrude at the oddest times: on parish visits, at tea with old ladies. "They'd often get out the family photographs, and I would find myself drifting away from their conversation to think of how there was no resemblance between myself and the people in my family photos."

He got married, and his unease only increased. His wife was one of four siblings, two of whom had inherited a genetic disease. "I began to wonder what inherited disease I might unwittingly be carrying and might transmit to my own children."

The joy felt by the Labour politician Clare Short over reuniting with the son she gave away in her teens tells only a small part of what happens when adopted children seek their parents. Her story had a happy ending, but most conclusions are messy, says Percy. "In setting out on the journey, I had to prepare myself for the possibility that I wouldn't be able to trace my mother, or that she might prove to be dead, or that I might find her and she might reject me again."

His adoptive parents proved to be very understanding. He had grown up with a sense of being special - chosen - set apart but always included. "I was a handful as a teenager, but no one blamed my genes. Yet I wondered about their influence. I was the only child in the family who went to university - there wasn't a pattern of academic activity. I began to wonder who I looked like, from whom I'd inherited my gestures or other mannerisms."

In 1992, when he was still a young Anglican curate, he went with his mother and father to a loud, jazzy restaurant, where they told him, to his amazement, that they had met his birth mother. She had been 21, not much younger than them - they had thought they were infertile. They met for tea, using false names. The woman who had borne him had insisted on handing him over personally, which was very unusual in the 1960s when shame, and social-work policy, kept mothers from facing those who were adopting their offspring. The encounter lasted 40 minutes. He wore girl's baby clothes, which suggested that he had an older sister. His father remembered the woman's face: "`You look like her', he told me - `same face, same stance, same reflective hunch.'"

The couple gave him their blessing to go and look for her. "They understood it was a search for roots, for identity, and not for another father and mother. But they did ask me if I'd thought through what I was doing. `What if they don't want you? What if they are needy and want more from you than you can give?' We talked it through, but they didn't stack the closets with ghosts."

The law has changed since, but, if you were adopted before 1975, you can only apply for a copy of your original birth certificate in the presence of a counsellor. His counsellor turned out to be a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Anne; she runs an agency on whose adoption panel Percy now serves. She handed over the certificate, and Martyn William Percy discovered that his original name was David Gordon Rowlands. The certificate also contained the name of the woman who had borne him. In the light of what subsequently occurred, he prefers not to reveal it. We will call her Bronwen. Along with the document, the nun offered a tip. She said that, in the1960s, most women who gave up a child for adoption tended to get married, on average, within four years of doing so.

While still a curate in Bedford, Percy was also completing a PhD on contemporary religious fundamentalism at King's College, London. Just across the road was the repository of the nation's birth certificates, St Catherine's House. He began to spend his lunch-hours searching through its files. Within two months, he had discovered that in 1966 Bronwen Rowlands had married. The family address of her husband was on the certificate. She had married the boy next door in a middle-class suburb of south Manchester. Percy went to the local reference library and consulted the telephone directory. Her parents-in-law still lived there.

"At this point," he says, "the advice varies. You can either get an adoption agency to write, as from a private address, a coded letter whose contents only the mother would understand. Or you can write a white lie letter, saying `a relative of mine who was at school with you has left me some photos of you', or some such. I chose the white lie."

What he did not know was that his mother had divorced, and that he was the second of her illegitimate children. The first, a girl called Jill, had been taken by Bronwen into the marriage and, unlike the step-father, she had kept in touch with her mother. His letter was passed in her direction. Three agonising months passed, in which that low, residual hum rose in pitch. Finally, Percy could stand it no longer. He got Sister Anne to send a second letter.

No sooner had it gone than the first returned. Scribbled on the back of the envelope were the curt words, "Do not write to me. Do not contact me", and a single initial. Percy knew it was that of the woman who had given birth to him.

"It seemed pretty final," he recalls. "I'd expected better - not that she'd necessarily want to see me, but that she would have written more. A fuller letter to say the same thing would have done. But it was too late. The second letter had gone."

And by the same route. But, this time, Jill's suspicions were aroused. She decided to open it, and knew instinctively what it was. She phoned the number on the letter immediately. Sister Anne answered and put Jill in contact with the half-brother she never knew she had.

Over the following months, he began to piece together the life of his real family. He discovered that there had been a big family row when Jill was 18. Her grandmother was dying, and Bronwen had been telling everyone she was making regular visits to her mother. In fact, she had been using her mother's illness as cover for another affair. Jill had heard the old lady shout that she was "a slut" who couldn't keep her knickers on and had had two bastard children whom she'd had to give away.

Bronwen had then taken Jill aside and said that her granny was spiteful and made mad by her illness. She was, on the contrary, visiting her every week. Jill had listened and, eventually, sided with her mother - until she saw Percy's letter and it all came back. She knew that she had been tricked into disbelieving her grandmother on her deathbed. She, too, had been betrayed.

Jill, a lab assistant at an East Midlands school, and her new-found half- brother corresponded for a while. They swapped photos and spoke on the phone. Then they met for tea one day in a hotel in Cambridge. "It was very ordinary, not emotional at all," he recalls. But it turned out that there were two other children. Jill, the first, had been kept, and so had a later son, born to Bronwen and her husband. "She had called him David, too. My name," he says, pausing as if to take the fact in for the first time.

Recalling the details of the row she had witnessed between Bronwen and her dying mother, Jill asked if, in his searches, Percy had come across any other child. "I wasn't looking for one," he replied. So Jill herself went to St Catherine's House and began to look for a child born with the same surname between the dates when her brothers Martyn and David had been born. She found one, another daughter. Under English law, Jill, because she had not been adopted herself, had no rights to ask for her half-sister's adoption details. But Martin did. He discovered that the sister was now named Corinne and was living not far from her birthplace in north Manchester.

But he still had to come to terms with his biggest source of angst, that Bronwen did not want to meet the son from whom she had parted at six weeks old, and Jill was unable to persuade her. "I respect that," said Percy last week, sitting with apparent composure in his broad chaplain's rooms with its book-lined walls and ancient, beamed fireplace. And then he spoke as if his mother were actually in the room. "I'm not hunting for you. I won't turn up on your doorstep. I'm not angry or bitter."

Really? Might he not be deceiving himself about the depths of his disappointment? "I don't think I'm fooling myself about that," he replied. "After all, she might have been dead, or just untraceable." Then he spoke directly to his estranged mother again: "Actually, I only wanted to say: It's been a good life. Thank you. Your decision was beneficial."

Why did he think that she doesn't want to meet him? "I suppose she's scared to. I'm a living reminder that she hasn't held many relationships together honestly, in spite of what she's made of herself. She is now a woman of great respectability in a Home Counties town. She's reinvented herself. Her life is a fiction, but one that works and that she likes, and which she does not now want to disturb."

He knows a lot about adoption now, from the panel on which he sits, and he says, "I don't think that mine is a particularly complex story. There's been no deception by the adopting parents, there's no mental illness, or drugs, or inter-racial complications, or Aids. My story is actually a fairly simple one."

Being a theologian, he has found other ways of sublimating his distress. "It has had a profound effect on my theology," he says, and points out that Jesus Christ, according to Christian doctrine, is history's most celebrated adopted child. "Jesus had to be adopted into a human family. And, if Joseph had not been a good father, Jesus would have been a dysfunctional adult. In the event, Jesus seemed very secure in his background. He approaches his ministry with incredible security - a ministry which is all about unconditionally adopting misfits: sinners, prostitutes, the handicapped, tax-gatherers. In a sense, we are all adopted by God. He takes us all on."

Percy believes that adoption is much more than a legal process - "at a much deeper and psychological level, it describes the process of good parenting". Not long ago, he appeared on the BBC religious programme, First Light, with his half-sister Corinne. Afterwards, a woman wrote to him to complain that her adopted son had turned out to be "difficult, a dreamer who won't settle down". Did the problem, she asked, stem from his genes?

"I told her no: it's called being a teenager. Plenty of non-adopted children are like that. Some adoptive parents do show this readiness to blame the genes, as if adoption was entirely an act of generosity on their part. But family is not a biological issue; it's a social one. The hard fact is that this woman can't adjust, as we all have to all our lives. Every child becomes a teenager who has to be `re-adopted' - that is, his parents have to come to terms with him on new terms. Dysfunctional families are those which fail to re-adopt their own children."

Martyn Percy does not articulate the thought, but it may be that we all have to re-adopt ourselves. Perhaps that is what his journey of discovery has been about. "I wanted to find someone who looked like me, whose gestures and mannerisms I'd adapted," he says. "But what I found was a mess, though one from which some very positive things had emerged. So I've had two beginnings: the first was turbulent, traumatic, secret and repressed. And then the story of my adoption is the story of my redemption."

There is a less abstract post-script. He applied to Lancashire County Council for his adoption records. They showed the name of the man who had fathered him, an engineer from Portsmouth who had been working in the North. He had thought his marriage was over when he started the affair with Percy's mother. But that lasted only 18 months and, before Percy was even born, he returned to his wife.

Back in St Catherine's House, Percy tracked down this man's marriage certificate and then traced his present whereabouts. He got Sister Anne to write one of her enigmatic letters. "He rang her straight away and said: `Wow! I've always wondered. Tell me more.'"

The man was about to retire to Spain, but they met in a churchyard in Cambridge and went off for tea together. "It was an incredibly easy meeting. I told him what I'd done with my life, and he told me what he'd done with his. He'd been married for 40 years and had never told his wife about the affair - or me. He thought it best not to tell her now. I totally accept what he tells me - I don't know his wife or his other children. He'd recently retired from engineering. He brought with him the watch he'd been presented with when he retired. He gave it to me." In the end, Percy hopes, it will turn out to be all he needs. But it may be years before he knows

Adopted children wishing to trace their parents may apply for a copy of their birth certificate from St Catherine's House, 10 Kingsway, London. WC2B 6JP (0171-242 0262). Further details may be obtained from Norcap (National Organisation for the Counselling of Adoptees and Parents) 112, Church Road, Wheatley, Oxon, OX33 1LU (01865 875000).