THE blue eyes, widely set and piercing in their intensity, are particularly striking. Then there’s the neat, straight nose, slightly pointed chin and perfect, small white teeth. There’s no denying Natasha Bell is a good-looking girl. She’s nice natured too, articulate and polite — the sort of 21- year-old any man would be proud to call his daughter.
But for Natasha, things aren’t as simple as that. They’re far from simple at all. In fact, an almighty, chaotic, legal, ethical and emotional mess is probably a fair way to describe her paternity.
The man she thinks is her father she spotted in the pages of this newspaper two weeks ago. Even she could see the similarities, and the uncomfortable feelings it stirred in her made her cry.
Angela Nelson and her daughter Natasha Bell, from Hartlepool, County Durham, whose father Ross Mclaughlan insists that Natasha is not his and is refusing a DNA test
But she’s never met him, never even talked to him on the phone, never received a birthday card or felt his hand in hers, despite knowing of his existence for nine years.
The man in the newspaper was Ross Mclaughlan, 55, a former rig worker from Hartlepool, who was desperate to tell his story.
He looked angry, unsurprisingly, since he was talking about the injustice he felt at being landed with a £20,000 maintenance bill for a daughter he said he had no idea existed, but whom the authorities claimed was his — despite another man being named as her father on the birth certificate.
Having read his account, Natasha, a make-up artist who grew up and still lives just 15 miles from Ross in Hartlepool, County Durham, is also angry.
Angry that he still refuses to take a DNA test to settle the matter, and furious at his version of events and his portrayal of her mother, Angie Nelson, whom Ross claims — in a somewhat ungentlemanly manner — not to even remember.
‘I know he’s never met me but I was completely floored by his claims that he’d never known my mum, and how he portrayed her as a liar and a money-grabber,’ says Natasha, staring down at her hands, morosely.
‘It was just so hurtful. He clearly never considered how I might feel reading about his refusal to accept my existence as his daughter.
‘If he’s so sure he’s not my dad, why won’t he take a DNA test to prove it? He says it would breach his human rights, but what about my human rights to know who my father is?’
But Ross is certainly not the only protagonist in this sad story, which began in September 1996.
What no one can dispute is that is when Natasha’s mother Angie, back then a pretty, married woman and book-keeper with a four-year-old son, fell pregnant.
Angie, now a well-groomed, good-looking woman of 52, says she and her then husband, Frank Bell, had separated briefly and she had a fling with Ross who was friends with her boss.
Having struggled to conceive first her son and then a second child with her husband, Angie claims she was undergoing fertility investigations at her local hospital at the time, and consequently she and Ross didn’t bother with contraception on the few times they met.
‘He was a handsome man, good fun and very complimentary,’ recalls Angie. ‘At a time when my marriage was in trouble, my husband worked away a lot and we’d been arguing over little things, I found it very difficult to resist his charms.’ Ross was then in his mid-30s and to Angie it was evident he was not the settling down type — he liked to travel and had never married or even cohabited — so she didn’t set her heart on a long-term relationship.
Ross Mclaughlan from Thornaby on Tees who has had £10,000 deducted from his wages to pay for maintenance
In fact, six weeks after that first sexual encounter, Angie says she and her husband decided to give their marriage another go. Then she found out she was pregnant.
At this point Angie’s and Ross’s version of events start to differ. Angie insists she told Ross she was expecting and that the baby could be his. Ross vehemently maintains he knew nothing of this pregnancy until a letter from the Child Support Agency arrived in 2010.
Perhaps surprisingly, for what would surely have been a highly memorable interchange, Angie does not recall how Ross responded, nor indeed where they were when the conversation took place.
‘He didn’t ask me about it again, and I read into his silence that he wasn’t interested,’ she says.
Meanwhile, Angie claims to have also broken the news to her husband, Frank Bell, that there was a chance the baby might not be his — something he too denies.
‘Frank didn’t probe but I was so confused about whether or not I should keep the baby, knowing I couldn’t be sure who the father was, that, eight weeks into the pregnancy, I made an appointment with my GP for a referral to an abortion clinic,’ she recalls.
‘But I broke down in tears in the surgery. I knew I couldn’t go through with it.’
If her account is to be believed, you don’t have to be a cynic to wonder whether Angie, after years of struggling to conceive — deliberately tricked Ross into fathering her child. This, however, is something she flatly denies.
She also claims Frank agreed that, whatever the biology, he would raise the baby as his own. He was the first person to hold Natasha after her birth at Hartlepool General Hospital, in June 1997, and proved to be a doting daddy.
But then comes another deviation between the various versions of this story. For his part Frank, a mild-mannered, decent man — a long-distance lorry driver by trade, who brooks no nonsense — says he was never given any reason to doubt Natasha was not his child. That is why he readily added his name to her birth certificate, and she still has his surname today.
Natasha Bell, pictured as 1 year old in Bournemouth on holiday, is angry that Ross still refuses to take a DNA test to settle the matter
Both agree that, within a couple of years, their marriage fell apart. And when Natasha was two-and-a-half and her brother, Daniel, seven, Angie moved out of the marital home, taking the children with her.
For the first year, the children saw Frank at weekends but then Angie ‘stopped access’ because, she says, they ‘didn’t enjoy’ spending time with him.
Despite no longer being allowed to see them, and repeated court visits to gain access at great personal expense, Frank continued to pay towards the children’s keep, up to £118 per week via the Child Support Agency, contributions which, over the years, became increasingly erratic.
By the time Natasha was 12 and Daniel 16, he was £38,000 in arrears and, when the CSA put pressure on Frank to pay — after hearing rumours around town that his ex-wife had been unfaithful during his trips away — he demanded a DNA test on both children. By now Angie says she was convinced Ross was Natasha’s father. ‘I could see more and more of him in her, so I was almost certain what the test was going to show,’ says Angie. Within days, the results were back and, as Angie predicted, they showed that, while Frank was indeed Daniel’s dad, he was not Natasha’s.
It took Angie four months to pluck up courage to tell her daughter the truth, which she did one weekend afternoon as she, Daniel, Natasha and her parents, to whom her children have always been close, sat in her living room.
‘I just cried. A lot. We all did really,’ recalls Natasha. ‘It was so emotional. I don’t know what I said, apparently not a lot, because the news was so shocking.
‘My next memory is of being in our kitchen, cuddling Mum and my brother as tight as I could, just clinging onto the family I knew, for sure, I had.
‘I didn’t feel close to Frank, I don’t really remember him being part of my life, though there was some comfort in knowing who he was. But what broke my heart most was finding out that my brother and I weren’t full siblings. We’d always been close and Dan tried to reassure me saying, over and over: “You will always be my little sister, no matter what happens. Nothing will change.” ’
After the initial shock and as the news began sinking in, Natasha became curious about her biological father.
‘Mum told me what she knew about him and said she’d done what she did because she didn’t believe he would be good father material,’ says Natasha.
‘She showed me some photographs of him from his Facebook page — they weren’t friends on there, so it was just what was publicly accessible. ‘I could see a resemblance between him and me and I remember daydreaming about what he might be like, and whether he shared my love of arts and crafts and theatre.’
At around this time, Angie says she received a visit from two CSA officers seeking the identity of Natasha’s biological father — Frank had agreed to pay the arrears for Dan, but not for her daughter.
She gave them Ross’s name but says she persuaded the officers not to knock on his door as it would be a ‘shock’.
Angie claims she intended to get in touch with Ross herself, but never quite got around to it.
But the plot thickens yet further with Angie’s insistence that she and Ross went on another three dates, even becoming intimate again a couple of times, when Natasha was aged between six and ten, and Frank was off the scene.
Even though Angie claims that Ross visited her at home, twice, she says Natasha was with grandparents on both occasions — and they never even discussed her. But, given that Frank was, by then, no longer on the scene, it’s difficult to understand why Angie would invite Ross over but not introduce him to his ‘biological daughter’.
Of course, turning back the clock and giving Ross a chance to see Natasha reaching all those important milestones — from saying her first words to starting school and singing and dancing in the local annual pantomime — is not within Angie’s gift.
But she doesn’t feel any guilt about robbing him of that opportunity, insisting that he would not have wanted to play an active role in her daughter’s life, even if he had known from the outset.
‘I feel very annoyed by his claims not to remember me. He’s implying I picked someone out of the phone book and said, “He’ll do as my daughter’s father”, which is very insulting,’ she says, defiantly.
‘He’s known about Natasha since she was 13 and has chosen not to get in contact.
‘I believe Ross’s refusal to take the DNA test, or reach out to his daughter, is down to the fact he doesn’t want any responsibilities.’ So, while there are clearly no regrets where Ross is concerned, surely not giving the daughter she adores the chance to know her dad, and one half of her biological family, must be a source of regret?
Mr Mclaughlan has so far had £10,000 taken from his wages for food, housing, shoes, clothes, toys and school equipment for the girl – and been told he owes another £10,000
For the first time during our two-hours together Angie, who now manages a pub, becomes tearful.
‘I’ve always had guilt: I feel guilty for the affair, guilty that I did that to Frank, the fact I fell pregnant, guilt that I let Frank say he could be the father and guilt that Natasha didn’t know who her dad was.
‘I console myself with the knowledge that I did what I did for Natasha’s sake, what I thought was best for her at that time.’
There is one happy ending in this sorry tale, however, and that is for Frank.
Now 54, he has rekindled his relationship with his son, Daniel, and the two are very close. He says he feels ‘very sorry’ for Natasha.
‘This must be really hard for her,’ he says.
‘I asked for the DNA test because friends told me that Angie wasn’t faithful while I was working away, but I only discovered Natasha wasn’t my daughter when I got the results back.
‘Of course I was angry that I’d been duped, but I’ve done my best to keep things civil.
‘My heart goes out to Ross, who I don’t know, but my advice to him would be to take the test, at least then he’ll know for sure.’
Angie admits that it is within her power to stop the Child Maintenance Service, as it is now called, hounding Ross — who no longer has an income, after resigning his job as an oil rig worker due to the stress of his predicament — for the £10,000 in arrears it says she’s owed.
‘That money is to compensate me for all the years he hasn’t paid,’ she says.
‘The CMS would let it drop if I wanted them to but I don’t — in fact, I’m even more determined to get it now he has gone public about this.’
Mr Mclaughlan (pictured aged 33) has faced a nightmare since he received an official-looking letter eight years ago saying he was financially responsible for a child who was biologically his
As for Ross, his stance has not changed.
When approached by the Mail again this week he said: ‘As I explained previously, I don’t remember this woman, or ever having anything to do with her, at all.’
Meanwhile how does Natasha, a total innocent in all this, feel about the way things have played out?
‘I’m not angry with Mum because it must have been a really hard time for her and I feel she did what she thought was best for me, and maybe it was, at the time,’ she says.
‘I feel hurt that Ross has spoken publicly about this, without ever trying to get to know me, but I don’t want to rule out the chance of being part of his life, one day.’
Perhaps if Ross can overcome the hurt and anger he is feeling, this story might yet have a happy ending.
- Additional reporting: Alison Smith-Squire