By Cary J Hansson
Most of us no longer live in close-knit communities. The places where an aunt, or a cousin, or a sister lives within walking distance: a knock on the door, kettle on, trouble shared. Decades ago, as I was travelling through India, I remember seeing two elderly women, perched close together on a doorstep. This was late at night, their feet clad in sandals, saris gathered to their legs as they chatted away. They never stopped talking.
And even then I understood that this proximity to friendship was missing – certainly from the way I lived – and probably for many women. Twenty years later, I suspect that we are only more isolated, only further away geographically from family and friends.
But we have email and if what I’m about to write reaches just one woman going through, or has been through, something similar … If it helps, if it resonates, if it raises a smile or makes someone feel less alone, then that’s reason enough to be honest. In truth I can’t write any other way. So here it is.
Just over a month ago, I discovered that my husband was trying to start an affair. I say trying, because I found the message whereby he and the woman in question, had arranged to meet to ‘discuss taking their relationship further’ … before they could actually meet, and actually ‘take their relationship further.’ And I found out so quickly, because his behaviour and language changed almost overnight.
Let’s keep it short.
I went through his phone. There they were. Six months of flirty messages, all culminating in the arrangement to meet a few days later (on our son’s birthday of all days!).
The shock was visceral and my immediate response was to laugh. A little, I suppose because it was so inappropriate. Like being a kid, facing trouble, fighting the urge to giggle. Maybe that’s a defence mechanism? Anyway, it soon passed. I rang a friend, who was thankfully awake, and – for which I will always be grateful – picked up the phone. And as I said it out loud, a shard of reality pierced. Heart pounding, nausea in my stomach, the realisation of the depth of his deceit, the fact that he could be so cold, and the terrible grief of understanding how this would affect our son, every family event, and how it would change my life, a life I had been quite happy with.
We’d had problems of course, but never had I considered that they were insurmountable. Then again, never had I considered that he had been thinking they were insurmountable.
Before I went to bed, I banged out a message to this women (from my husband’s phone). I introduced myself, and asked her politely to make sure my husband got back in time for the birthday dinner I would be making for our son. Then I went to bed and left his phone by the kettle … so he would know.
So much to say here about what he said and what I said and maybe I will one day, and probably I won’t but. …
The first evening I cooked a huge dinner, probably just to keep busy, or maybe heartache creates appetite. I drank too much red wine and played Dire Straights, for hours. Romeo and Juliet, mostly, I’m embarrassed to say now, and so loud my son had to put headphones on, to watch his football.
The second day, I composed a long email to the woman. She’s fifty-three, divorced with a grown child of her own. None of which stopped her from engaging with a man she knew was married, and in a situation where she knew a child was involved. I’m not absolving my husband from anything. Don’t make the mistake of thinking I am. But hell has a special place for women so ready to betray other women and she must take responsibility too, as I pointed out in the email … which I didn’t send, and am now weeks later am glad I didn’t. That original text message however? From his phone? I’m still delighted with that one.
The fourth day, I wore mascara and heels to walk with him to the local restaurant where we went to talk. He didn’t hold my hand. He wouldn’t hold my hand and although we had a really good evening, reminiscing, discussing a way forward, as we walked back, not holding hands, my heart was breaking.
The day after, I flew back to the UK with a copy of Nora Ephron’s, Heartburn in my bag. (Nora, for those who don’t know, wrote When Harry Met Sally.) I spent a fortune on the unnecessary upgrade of a rental car I was too dazed to prevent myself from being talked into, and then drove around all the places where I thought I might be able to live. Where I thought, twelve years after leaving my home country, I might be able to put roots down, in the hope, that it’s not too late. That in my mid-fifties, they might still take and keep me sheltered and secure in old age. A place I could be happy, and my son could be happy.
But there was nowhere. (In short, I’ve been away too long and now, nowhere feels like home and I have a real inkling into how refugees must feel, the slow burn of sadness they endure knowing they can’t go back, can never really go back.)
Then I spent another fortune on a new summer wardrobe. Bright colours, pretty tops and the wonderful, honest camaraderie of the middle-aged changing-room attendants. Those ladies saved me that day. They will never ever know what a lifeline they were with their cheery assessments, No, that’s not you … Yes, lovely, really suits your colour … So yes, let’s all be kind, because we just don’t know what we’re paying forward.
Then I drove to my parents where I spent the week re-programming their robot lawn-mower, and printing out various confirmation emails and booking vaccination appointments and eventually telling them the bare bones of what was going on. Because of course they knew something was going on and of all the things I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive my husband for, it’s this: the look of worry in my eighty-six year old father’s eyes. I’m alright, dad. I said. And I am, but I need my father to believe that too.
And then I took a phone call from a director who is interested in the screen rights for my first book.
Joy and woe … Yes it was a time for both.
On the plane on the way back, I finished Nora’s book. It was written in the aftermath of the breakup of her marriage, which disintegrated after she discovered that her husband was having an affair. She was heavily pregnant with their second child at the time. It is a joyous and heartbreaking read and has to be the go-to manual for every woman, facing a similar situation.
My husband met me at the airport, along with customary bottle of bubbles he always brings. I didn’t drink it.