Two years ago, novelist Lesley Pearse stood in the lobby of London’s Haymarket Hotel, her heart racing, as a middle-aged man approached her. “The janitor saw me hugging the man and then crying,” Pearse, 79, recalls.
“Later she asked, ‘What was going on?’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you tomorrow.’ But the next day I wasn’t on duty. She laughs. ‘I’m probably still waiting to find out.’
What the janitor witnessed was more extraordinary than any plot twist in Pearse’s novels, which have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. The man was Pearse’s long-lost son, whom he had last seen when he was a baby 57 years earlier. At 19, she had given birth to him, abandoned by the (married) man who had seduced her when she was a virgin.
Estranged from her family, Pearse lived in a mother and baby home in north London. With no one to help her with childcare so she could work, Pearse had been warned that raising a baby would be impossible. However, she was determined to keep her son, whom she named Warren.
The night before Warren’s adoption, 1964
For the first three months, she became a housekeeper for an elderly couple, but they treated her cruelly, accused her of being a “whore,” refused to pay her salary, and finally kicked her out.
She was taken in by a friend but, as she only received £4 a week in social security money, she could not offer anything towards the rent. After a month, she went to an adoption society to give her son to a family who could keep him.
Within weeks, Pearse was told that a family had been found. He was not given any further information. He would later find out that this was a military family.
‘The short time we were together was like the days before an execution; She couldn’t stop crying,’ she says. ‘She was still breastfeeding. I had to give her a bottle quickly, but she didn’t like it and was screaming continuously.’
That day, a social worker took Warren to the adoption society’s offices. The door slammed in Pearse’s face as she kicked and screamed. ‘I came home to the carrycot with the little dent where her head had been, and her hair was still on the sheet. He was tormented.’
She quickly met and married a kind man, got pregnant again, lost that baby, and then left her husband. “Under other circumstances, the marriage might have lasted, but I was too screwed,” she says.
The time we stayed together was like the days before an execution.
Pearse married and divorced two more times, had three daughters (and later two grandsons), and worked everything from telesales to Playboy Bunny. “I’ve had more fun at a bus stop,” he says of the latter option, which turned out not to involve waiting for movie stars but for “north London businessmen on a joyride.”
However, she never stopped thinking about Warren and commemorated each of his birthdays with tears. “That was always a day I had to get through,” she says.
‘His 18 was the worst. As he had been adopted by an army family, I was worried about him enlisting and being sent to Northern Ireland. I just hoped that one day he would try to find me.
Pearse speaks to me from his colorful home in Torquay, Devon. She is happily single, tremendously positive, and clearly reluctant to dwell on those many difficult moments documented in her recently published memoir. The long and windy road.
‘People always said, “You should write the story of your life,” but I didn’t want it to be a memoir of misery; I despise them,” she says. ‘I was always a Catherine Cookson fan, but then I read her autobiography about her mother’s drunkenness.
Lesley reunited with her son Martin in 2022
I thought, “Oh, come on! You ended up in a nice house and being one of the most successful writers in the world. Let’s go beyond that!’
Pearse was born in Rochester, Kent. When he was three years old, his mother died of sepsis after a miscarriage. Pearse’s father, a royal sailor, was away and his mother lay dead for three days before neighbors saw Pearse and his five-year-old brother Michael in the snow without coats.
I always think about how alone my mother must have felt. She was a nurse, she would have realized the seriousness of the situation, but in those days we didn’t have a telephone. We must have been hungry and cold without heat.
As her father was unable to leave work, she and Michael were placed in separate Catholic orphanages: hers was in London, Michael’s was in Gloucestershire. The nuns were mostly kind to Pearse (the older girls were treated much more harshly), but she still remembers the terrible cold and the atrocious food.
We would have to stay in the refectory until we had eaten every last bit. Even if it was frozen on the plate.
After three years, their father remarried and the children returned home. Pearse was delighted, but his stepmother was an unloving and cruel woman, so he left home at the age of 16 and since then he barely communicated with his family.
‘For years I was very obsessed with my problems with my stepmother. He had that tough attitude that you leave home when you’re 16 and you’re on your own. But I got it out of my system a long time ago. I realized that she was responsible for me coming out the way I am,” she says with characteristic positivity of hers.
Pearse prefers to dwell on the happy times, especially his life in London in the 1960s, after his first marriage ended. ‘It was the summer of love and we were part-time hippies. On weekends we painted flowers on our faces and went out barefoot.’
Her second husband, John Pritchard (‘a tortured soul’), was a trumpeter who performed with Steve Marriott of the Small Faces and toured with an up-and-coming musician called David Bowie. ‘David was very funny. I remember that one time he came with two pineapples in his pink sweater because I was pregnant and I wanted to eat them.
After marrying her third husband, lorry driver Nigel, Pearse began writing.
She realized she had a talent for it because she had won awards for sending funny letters to women’s magazines. She finished her first novel, Georgia, for several years, while his children played at his feet and while he ran a gift shop in Bristol. He then spent another seven years looking for a publisher.
Such as Georgia came out in 1993, Pearse’s store collapsed financially, leaving her bankrupt and suffering from depression. She divorced Nigel and moved into a “bleak” flat in Bristol with her youngest daughter, Jo, then 12.
Still, he forced himself to continue writing. The success was not overnight, but her third novel, Charity – about a woman who gives her child up for adoption – was a bestseller in 1995. She has published 31 books.
Pearse spent decades searching unsuccessfully for Warren. (In 2010 he even wrote an article in the Daily Mail about his search to find it.) In 2022, while finishing his memoir, Pearse visited some cousins in Ireland. They told him Warren had contacted them after an online DNA test revealed they were related. He wanted to meet his mother.
‘The day before I had told my cousin that I no longer believed in God, but then I turned to her and said, “Now I believe in Him!”
“I was so excited I could have flown home without a plane.”
Pearse discovered that his son had been renamed Martin and was a marine engineer and had settled in Houston, Texas, to work. They spoke on the phone and soon after met in London. ‘He still had exactly the same baby face. We couldn’t stop laughing.
I had a lot of questions about his life, but you couldn’t ask them all, so we just sat there, looked at each other and smiled.’ She discovered that she had three more grandchildren and one great-grandson, and they all lived (surprisingly) in Kent, near Pearse’s birthplace.
Since then, she visited Martin (“it was hard to call him that to begin with!”) and his partner in the US and they call each other often. But Pearse knows not to be too harsh.
‘Every time you speak you try to cover everything you can, but it is not possible to fill in all the missing years. I’m glad to know that he became a good man, a son to be proud of.
Lesley’s autobiography. The long and windy road is published by Michael Joseph, £22. To order a copy for £18.70 until March 17, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £25.