After a year of duds, Northern Lass, 32, wishes she could just do things the old-fashioned way – flutter eyelashes in a bar. Here, she opens an occasional series on navigating the new dating jungle
“Why can’t we all just meet in clubs like we used to?!?” This is what I silently wail a couple of times a week as I log on cynically to my dating profile and roll my eyes to the ceiling – usually on receipt of another dodgy message from a bloke. This week’s particular message-induced despair was from someone speculating on whether I did in fact have a penis. Men of the internet dating world, please note: this is not the best way to charm someone you have never met.
I had better tell you how I got here – a bit of context is always handy to blast away any initial stereotypes that I may be a sad, lonely, Mancunian spinster with eight cats that I talk to in baby voices.
This time last year I emerged from an 11-year relationship as a single mum in Manchester at the grand age of 32. After the common reaction of a contained meltdown, wondering if I’d be alone forever and then having a stern word with myself to get a grip and get back out there, my mind turned to the fact that I was very much single. Single, in my early 30s, and with absolutely no idea of how to be a single woman. Flirting, dating, flings … all of this was something I hadn’t done for an extremely long time and I had no idea where to start or what to do.
Practising making flirty eyes at the window cleaner when he came to collect his money once a week was out of the question. Just because he was the only man that called round didn’t mean the poor soul should be victim to my paranoia that I was very much out of practice, and therefore subject to comedy eyelash batting. No, I needed to get out there in the real world, with real single men, practicing real flirting with the added side effect of maybe having a nice time with some new people.
But as I quickly found out it’s very different in your 30s than in your 20s; things have changed. In my early 20s, I could rock up to a club and 50% of the guys would also be single. Therefore with a scientific combination of the power of averages and copious amounts of alcohol, it really wasn’t that hard to dance around someone at the Music Box (RIP), give them the eye, pretend you could hear what they were saying, then … BAM! Boyfriend! Well at least that’s how I remember it.
Now however, they are all paired off, settled down, off the shelf and there is the added minefield of multi-platform stalkfests such as Facebook and internet dating sites to navigate.
In the beginning I turned to the only resource I had when it came to 30-something dating advice: Sex and the City. Remembering Sarah Jessica Parker’s success skipping around New York wearing something painfully fashionable such as bra made of dead mice, and still getting dates with cool, sophisticated, eligible bachelors, I figured I needed to be where they hung out. So, I signed up to Deansgate’s Whitewall Gallery mailing list and decided to hang out at the art previews. Yes, that’s where they will be, art previews, just like on SATC.
Now there were two fundamental flaws to this plan. Firstly, I am as far from Sarah Jessica Parker as you can get. Rather than writing this from a loft apartment in NYC, swathed in Chanel with my inner monologue booming out “where ARE all the single men in Manchester?”, I’m writing this from a terraced house in Stockport, swathed in whatever didn’t need ironing with my inner monologue booming “I really need to go out and get more biscuits!”
Secondly, Sex and the City is bollocks.
On turning up to my first art preview, I scanned the room and noticed that it wasn’t full of single, eligible bachelors. There was no-one I could sidle up to and practice flirting with. It was mainly full of older couples, stroking their chins and looking for something to hang above the couch. So I drank the free champagne, had a quick look round, then ran away.
I needed to rethink my strategy; a few of my friends had tried Internet dating and loved it. So, figuring I had nothing to lose but a subscription fee, I signed up to Guardian Soulmates and Match.com. That was 12 months ago, and wow has it been an interesting ride. The messages and dates have ranged from the lovely to the out-and-out bonkers.
Internet dating is a bit like catalogue shopping for someone you want to hang out with. Little thumbnail pictures of, in the Guardian’s case: X hanging out with friends, or X building an African village and then X skydiving for charity. Or in Match.com’s case: X lifting up his top to show his abs and his ex-girlfriend’s name tattooed on his chest.
Among all the faces and messages, I started to communicate with a few blokes that seemed nice so started to meet up for the odd date. But a pattern emerged. All the guys I got on with and fancied didn’t come from Manchester. Derby, Sheffield, Kent, Liverpool – all great dates, all who I would see again. Manchester, on the other hand, seemed to be a hotbed of dating disaster.
There was the guy who left his bobble hat on for the entirety of the meal. Yes … THE WHOLE MEAL! Don’t get me wrong, I’m partial to a man in a beanie, wielding a skateboard (this according to my mother is a “problem” at the age of 32) but this wasn’t a trip down to Nandos to hold hands over a piri piri pita then make out behind the bins like teens. It was a grown-up date, and thus I kind of expected that when we sat down to eat, we would remove our outdoor attire. I’m sure he would have felt the same if I sat there eating my dinner wearing a deerstalker.
I started to get distracted; my outer voice answered questions and tried to make polite conversation while my inner voice was crying out: “Take your bloody hat off! TAKE YOUR BLOODY HAT OFF!”
By the end of the meal, I’d given up trying to concentrate, I just stared at the hat. We didn’t meet up again.
Not long after there was the guy that got increasingly more drunk as the evening went on. On losing his ability to string together a sentence, I called time on the evening and insisted on dropping him at his door in a taxi as it was on my way home.
As he got out of the taxi, to my horror, he thought it appropriate to grab my head and snog it. Whether I was involved in this snog or not seemed unimportant to him, I froze in horror as he covered my face in slobber. Then he gracefully stepped back, fell out of the cab into a large puddle and wobbled off into the darkness. We didn’t meet up again.
More recently there was the guy who was 14 years older. A serial dater, he made no apology for the fact he just likes to chase women about, and internet dating is an efficient means to meet this objective. I like his honesty; I don’t like his double denim. It will never go anywhere, apart from the odd visit to the Liars Club to get drunk on rum to make up for the gulf of common ground that we don’t have apart from fancying each other’s face.
I have met some nice blokes on dates in Manchester, three of which I’ve become friends with and hang out with from time to time still. So far, internet dating has been great for making friends, but sparks have only flown with people who live over the Pennines or up the M62.
So here I am, back in my Stockport terrace, bashing my face against my keyboard (still without biscuits) with my inner monologue wailing out: “Why can’t we all just meet in bars like we used to?!?” I’m far from perfect – I don’t profess to be anywhere close. But I also don’t have a penis, want to be slobbered on in the back of a cab against my will or date someone with a mildly alarming attachment to his bobble hat. Is that too much to ask?
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Nicola was sure her husband loved their children as much as she did. But when their son died of unexplained injuries, they both fell under suspicion. How could they clear their names?
It was late at night and Nicola Blantyre was asleep by her eight-week-old daughter’s side, on a hospital ward, when the call came. Rachel had been admitted in the very early hours of the same day, with a severe lung infection. Rachel’s brother, Thomas, almost one year old, hadn’t been able to stay on the ward with his mother and sister. It was dangerous for him – bronchiolitis is so contagious. The call was from reception, made by a friend of the family who worked at the hospital. Thomas had been brought to accident and emergency by Nicola’s husband, Steve. Their son was not breathing.
“I can remember looking at the nurse,” Nicola recalls, “then saying, ‘I’ve got to go downstairs. You’ve got to look after Rachel.’ ” I started running out of the children’s ward, going round in circles. I couldn’t remember where I was going. I got myself in a lift and I was shaking all over. I couldn’t see clearly. Then there was a woman in a green uniform running towards me. She took me to the intensive care room. I saw four or five doctors around Thomas. He had tubes coming out of him. As soon as I saw him, my legs went. Someone put me in a wheelchair and I just remember sitting there, frozen. I was shaking and cold; I couldn’t speak. I wanted to get near him, but they wouldn’t let me. They wheeled me into another room and Steve was there. He wasn’t saying anything much at all. I thought he was in shock.”
A doctor came in and told Nicola and Steve that Thomas was going to have to be transferred by ambulance to another hospital – one better able to cope with his head injuries – as soon as he was stable enough to be moved. After Thomas had been in the hospital for about an hour, his parents were allowed to see him. “Thomas kept crashing, his breathing kept stopping, they kept having to revive him. I collapsed on the floor, hysterical – just screaming. After a couple of hours, they managed to stabilise Thomas and then two doctors came to speak to us. It was an accusatory atmosphere: ‘Thomas is very sick. He’s one of the sickest children on the ward – he’s got a head injury, signs of trauma. Unless it’s a car crash or a clotting problem, he’s been deliberately hurt. We think he might have been shaken. Who looked after him?’”
Steve told the doctors that he’d left his son on the sofa in the living room while he went to get a drink from the kitchen. When he came back, Thomas had slumped to the side. Steve explained that he had quickly realised the baby had stopped breathing, and called for an ambulance. Nicola and Steve had been together for 10 years, married for three. They were happy. They loved their babies. There was no possibility in Nicola’s mind that Steve had hurt her baby, any more than she had.
“They were asking all these questions, then they said, ‘The police might arrest you.’ I remember thinking, ‘How dare you accuse anybody of hurting my son? You’ve got this all wrong. How dare you assume it’s that, before you’ve even sent off any blood tests, or got any results back?’”
During that night, Nicola called her parents and told them what was happening and that she thought the doctors suspected Steve had done it. (She has no memory of this: she knows she made that call, said those things, only because her father told her later.)
The next day, at the second hospital, and after a brain stem test, Thomas was diagnosed as brain-dead and his ventilator was turned off. Nicola’s shock became more intense and she kept losing the use of her legs. “I held him as the life support was switched off, kissed and cuddled him. I couldn’t stop crying. Steve held him, too.”
As Nicola and Steve were travelling back to the first hospital to see their daughter, someone from the borough’s child protection team rang. Rachel had been examined by doctors. She had unexplained injuries and was being put under a care order. If they came to the hospital, Nicola and Steve would not be allowed to see her.
A couple of days later, immediately after Thomas’s postmortem, police arrived at Nicola and Steve’s home, separated them, and arrested them both. Steve was arrested on suspicion of murder and grievous bodily harm to Thomas, and grievous bodily harm to Rachel. Nicola was arrested on suspicion of grievous bodily harm and of allowing the death of a child. Nicola has no real memories of this time. All she has is what she wrote in her diary.
“I hear those awful words,” Nicola wrote, “and I say, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.’ My legs begin to wobble as I’m led to an unmarked police car. Rachel has nine rib fractures. Signs of other injuries had been found on Thomas’s body. I’m in total shock. How the hell did this happen? Did we pick our babies up too hard? Did we swaddle them too tightly? I was completely horrified that I, as a mother, didn’t spot these injuries.”
At the police station, Nicola was locked alone in a cold and dirty cell until she was photographed and swabbed for DNA. Interviewed by the police late in the evening, she was advised by her solicitor to make no comment and released on bail. Steve was held longer, so Nicola returned home with her mother. She found that the locks had been changed and the police were searching the house. With no access to her belongings, she went back to her parents’ house. Steve was released later that night and joined Nicola at her parents’.
Rachel was still in hospital and under the emergency protection order. It was arranged that Nicola and Steve would be allowed to make a 90-mile round trip, five days a week, to see her for three hours a day at a contact centre.
Nicola and Steve had had their ups and downs, like any couple. They had even separated for a while, after Steve became involved with someone else. They had worked through it all, though, got married and both were delighted to have started a family. They loved the babies. They had never been happier. It was absurd to Nicola that Steve, who was such a lovely father, so enthusiastic and hands-on, could possibly have harmed another person, let alone a baby of his own.
Nicola got in touch with the Five Percenters, a support group for parents who say they have been wrongly accused of shaking their babies. (It takes its name from the claim that one shaken baby syndrome case in 20 is misdiagnosed.) By this time, a number of extremely high-profile miscarriages of justice involving infant death were known. Chief among them were the cases of Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Trupti Patel, who were accused of shaking or smothering their babies before being found not guilty or having their convictions quashed. Patel had been cleared of killing three babies, after her 80-year-old grandmother travelled from India to offer the evidence that five of her own babies had died for unexplained reasons.
Some friends rallied round the couple, but others fell away. Nicola relied heavily on her own parents and on Steve’s mother, who was appalled that her son could be accused of such a thing. Sudden infant death sometimes runs in families, and Nicola began frantically researching her own family background, and Steve’s, for brittle bone disease, for something that would explain it all. She quickly became consumed with campaigning zeal. It stopped her from brooding. Steve remained passive, listening to Nicola’s updates on what she was doing, but deep in depression. The couple tried to comfort each other and still, occasionally, made love. Nicola felt strongly protective of Steve, who seemed so defeated by the accusations against him and by the loss of Thomas.
“I did a crash course in pathology and neuropathology,” Nicola says. “I contacted experts around the world, tried to build relationships with other parents, campaigners, support groups. I was on the phone constantly. I’d put together a kind of fact sheet for social services and said to anyone in authority, ‘Look at these other miscarriages of justice. This could be wrong. Keep an open mind.’”
Yet, in truth, Nicola was in no condition to undertake research. She was finding it hard to piece even simple things together – not just the call she’d made to her father that first night, but other basic stuff. At one point, filling out forms, she couldn’t recall her parents’ dates of birth. At another time, as her father tried gently to persuade her that she was perhaps not being open-minded herself about Steve, he reminded her of a holiday in Spain, during which Steve, in a fit of fury, had subjected her to shocking verbal abuse. Nicola didn’t remember the outburst. She didn’t even remember the holiday.
In the end, no charges were made against Nicola. But about seven months after Thomas’s death, Steve was taken into custody and charged with murder and GBH. Nicola believed that the family was at the centre of a terrible miscarriage of justice, like so many of the people she had contacted through the Five Percenters. If only she kept going with her campaign, they would get to the truth.
After some weeks, Steve was bailed again and Nicola redoubled her campaigning efforts. She also discovered that she was pregnant. Against Steve’s wishes, she terminated the pregnancy. She knew the baby would be taken into care at birth and she couldn’t bear the thought of having a third child taken from her. In the weeks after the termination, Steve became even lower and began to talk of suicide. One afternoon, he produced a noose he had made.
Certainly, the situation did look hopeless. “By this time, nearly every medical expert witness report had come back,” Nicola says. “They all said something had happened to Thomas. There was no concrete alternative. They all said that Thomas had been abused.” Also, at the pathology level, an older skull fracture had been missed. A second opinion had been sought from another pathologist. It took about 13 months for that injury to be confirmed. As soon as it was, Steve was questioned by his solicitors. Still convinced by her brittle bones hypothesis, Nicola became increasingly desperate. She completely believed in Steve, but wasn’t able to get across to anyone the impossibility of him hurting a baby.
“He came home from the solicitors this particular day – I remember because that was the last time I spoke to him – and said, ‘Sit down, I’ve got something to tell you.’ He told me that Thomas had that skull fracture because he’d fallen off the sofa one day, while I’d been at the hairdresser’s. Steve said that he’d turned round to pick up the camera and take a photograph. Then he’d heard ‘this thump’ and Thomas was on the floor. I remembered that I’d come back that day and Thomas was pale, subdued and cold. I’d wanted to take him to the doctor but Steve had said it was fine.”
After he told Nicola about this, the first words out of her mouth were: “I’m leaving you.” In a terrible epiphany, Nicola realised that the problem wasn’t that she was right and everyone else was wrong. It was that she was wrong and everyone else was right. The switch in her mind was sudden and complete. There was no reason that her husband would not have told her about this earlier incident at the time, if he’d had nothing to hide. But he had hidden it. He had insisted that Thomas was fine and didn’t need to see a doctor.
Nicola was overwhelmed by this new shock. All that disbelief, all that contempt, was turned on herself. How could she have let her children down so massively, how could they both have suffered and one of them died, because she’d been so blindly loyal and had deferred so completely to their father?
Nicola moved in with her parents. She told her social worker immediately that – more than a year after Thomas’s death, more than a year after her separation from Rachel (whom she’d seen every day but never without chaperones) – she had stopped believing that her husband was innocent. The social worker told Nicola, not unkindly, that this was the first of many steps she needed to take to get her daughter back.
But that was still some way down the road. Finally, now that she no longer had to protect Steve, she began to address her own psychological problems. She sought professional counselling and was quickly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her urge to acquire some understanding, make some sense of what had happened, only strengthened.
Nicola wanted to tell the police why she had left Steve, why she had stopped believing him. But her solicitor warned her not to. Success in defending Steve, not truth, seemed the priority. It wasn’t the first time that the solicitor had displayed an aversion to Nicola telling the truth.
Before the revelation about Thomas’s skull fracture, Nicola had remembered Steve giving experts the wrong information about another injury Thomas had received, and had told social workers the real narrative, simply because she wanted honesty at all times.
This is what happened. Nicola had been upstairs putting Rachel to bed and came down to find Thomas ailing. The baby had slipped from his grasp, Steve said, and he had saved him from crashing to the floor by grabbing his arm. Steve had overruled Nicola this time as well, saying again and again that there was no need for a doctor. Because Steve had had medical training in the past, Nicola had deferred to him. But a day and a half later, they had taken Thomas to hospital, where he was found to have a broken arm.
Steve had lied about the delay between the accident and the trip to the hospital, saying the couple had taken Thomas in much sooner than they really had. At the time, Nicola had thought that he’d been ashamed of his earlier decision. Now it’s probably what she feels most regretful about – questioning her partner’s actions and motives too little, failing to challenge his lies to medical staff, being blind to the fact that his behaviour had been manipulative. Had that injury been investigated more closely, perhaps things would have turned out differently.
Still the solicitor, busy with another case, didn’t set a time with the police for Nicola to be interviewed. Eventually, officers arrived at her parents’ house with an arrest warrant. “I’m sitting on the sofa in pieces, paralysed, shaking with fear. My mother phones up the police and says, ‘You can’t arrest her – she’s in a right state,’ and they say, ‘All right then. We don’t actually want to arrest her; we just want to talk to her.’
“I just said, ‘This is all bollocks. I’m going to talk to the police, on my own. I’ve got nothing to hide.’ So I went down there. I was in such a state that they sent me home. That was the turning point, though. That’s when I finally started working with the police, rather than seeing them as the enemy.”
Nicola called a female officer, met with her in the car park of a B&Q, and sat there in the officer’s vehicle, telling her everything. She also agreed to be formally interviewed as soon as possible, and confirmed that she had no problem at all with becoming a prosecution witness. She had broken completely with Steve. Nicola wanted the truth, and she believed that only Steve knew it.
Her parents supported her in this new course. Nicola now agreed with the social workers that Steve should not be around Rachel. But she was unhappy with how the Crown Prosecution Service was preparing its case against him. Her earlier research had taught her that the tests used to diagnose shaken baby syndrome were not always reliable. She thought that the experts were being too prescriptive in insisting that the murder charge rest on shaken baby syndrome alone. By specifying shaking, rather than suggesting an unspecified act of violence, the prosecution was setting a higher bar for reasonable doubt than it needed to.
Nicola didn’t know what had happened that night. She understood that she might never know. She knew that unless Steve was found guilty, there would never be any incentive for him to confess to what he’d done, but what she saw was two sets of experts set to field two sets of theories, based on nothing but an interpretation of injuries, to see which theory would “win”. Yet it was out of her hands. All she could do was wait.
At last, the trial came, and Nicola was the first prosecution witness. She couldn’t look at Steve.
She wrote in her diary, “Today is the day I give evidence. I am shaking. I meet the CPS QC, who is friendly and reassuring. As I enter the court I feel sick. I see Steve behind a glass screen and cannot believe I am here. I have to relive the horror of what happened to Thomas and I break down. My evidence lasts two days.
“These weeks seem to roll into each other. It’s a real juggle between seeing Rachel and being in court. I’ve been returning home very upset, which has been stressful for the rest of the family. It’s stressful to see Steve’s family, too, and sad to think we were so close in the past.”
It was almost two months from the start of the trial to the delivery of the verdict. Nicola says, “I’m inside Barclays bank when I get a phone call. Not guilty on all counts except GBH without intent to Thomas for his broken arm. Steve is sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.” On appeal, Steve’s sentence was reduced to two years. He was out in 11 months.
Nicola felt defeated. It wasn’t because her former husband “got off lightly”. It was because no one had helped her to learn the important thing – the truth. The man she had lived with for a decade, the only person who knew what had happened to their babies: she knew that he hadn’t been telling the truth, that he never had been. Mostly, in fact, he had preferred not to speak at all.
Right from the start, when Nicola had received that life-changing phone call, even in her hysterical state, she’d known it was weird that Steve hadn’t told her himself. When she thought back, she saw that it was she who had issued the early denials to the accusatory medics, she who had told the social workers and the police that they were wrong.
Steve had said nothing during those first few days. She’d known all through the campaigning that he wasn’t contributing – wasn’t writing letters, wasn’t making calls. But at the trial she heard the 999 call her husband had made, the call in which he’d asked the operator, “Cross your fingers for me.” Not for Thomas.
And when they switched off the life support system, Nicola had chosen to believe Steve’s explanation for his strange final words to his son. He’d asked for forgiveness, and had said this was simply because he couldn’t save Thomas, because he tried to resuscitate him and failed.
All through the first 14 months, when Nicola believed her husband would never harm a baby, she had in her head the idea that most people have about child abusers. That they were “horrible monsters”. Of course, Nicola says, “hindsight is a wonderful thing. In the first months I was repeatedly told: ‘Good people do bad things.’ ”
Nicola felt defeated by herself more than anyone. But she also felt let down by a system that seemed to put guilt and punishment above truth and narrative, that never told Steve that the truth was the most important thing, because it hadn’t been about truth but about what could be proved.
This version of Nicola’s story cannot claim to be the truth either. It’s subjective, the product of Nicola’s imperfect memory. But a list of facts can be made, a list of the things that Nicola lost: Nicola lost her son. For a long time, she lost her daughter, and that lost time will never be recovered. Nicola lost her home. Nicola lost her career (because she’d worked with children). Nicola lost her husband, not just the future that she had imagined and assumed for them, but the past that they shared, too, because she looks back and thinks that she just didn’t know him, didn’t know that person at all.
Nicola isn’t bitter. She eventually got the chance to bury her son. She and Rachel live together again. They are happy and Nicola is calm enough about leaving her daughter in the care of others – which she wasn’t always – to start building a new career for herself. She doesn’t want to tell her story because she hates that her former husband is free. She wants to tell it because she learned so much from the experience. She wishes that someone had been able to get through to her earlier, that she hadn’t been forced into a corner so quickly, accused, threatened, put on the defensive.
“I now help with training the police,” she says. “We look at interviewing skills, safeguarding and best practice when investigating childhood death. The idea is to provide professionals with a parental perspective.”
Nicola wants to change the way that the medical profession, the social work profession, the legal profession and the criminal justice system deal with cases such as hers and Steve’s. It didn’t help, telling the couple so early on that they were likely to be arrested. It didn’t help, letting Nicola know how strongly she was suspected, when she knew she was innocent. It didn’t help, insisting that Thomas had to have been injured because of shaking, when that particular explanation is so notoriously unreliable. But perhaps it will help, listening to Nicola, who has learned so many harsh lessons, but is unlikely ever to learn the truth about how her baby died.
• All names have been changed and a number of identifying details have been omitted or altered.
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Olivia Fane and her first husband had an arrangement that allowed them both to stray, but within limits. It worked for years – but then he wanted to change the rules …
When I was a girl of 13, my mother said, “Darling, I want to give you some sound advice. You must be a virgin on your wedding night. No man likes soiled goods. But after you’ve had your children and providing you are totally discreet, you may take lovers.”
Doubtless her own mother had said the same to her; and I only learned recently that at the end of the war my grandfather had stayed on in Durban three months longer than was strictly necessary. Everyone knew that the reason was “a woman”. No one raged, no one even mentioned it. When he came home, my grandparents continued to have many happy years together, as though there had barely been an interruption.
When I was a teenager, this division of love from sex made perfect sense. For me, sex was fundamentally shallow. It was about lust, greed, the desire for possession. It was about appearances. It was about bottoms and hair and legs. It was about a Mick Jagger mouth. It was about wanting to be touched down there by someone who was really, really good looking. In fact, I was always faintly contemptuous of sex.
Love, meanwhile, was everything to me. If sex was about taking, love was about giving. While sex was possessive and turned a person into an object-body, love was generous. Love was about saying, “I trust you, and I give my very soul to you. I want you to know me, every part of me, and I want to know you, every part of you.”
Of course, I had never read Freud. I had no knowledge of the primacy of the genital relationship and how, if you get that right, everything else follows. Nor did I know anything about the modern orthodoxy that sex has to be sewn into the relationship right from the beginning for it to be a successful one. Instead, being a classicist, my influences were Plato and Aristotle, both of whom, I was delighted to read, had as low an opinion of sex as myself. For Plato, sex sat on the lowest rung of the ladder, while truth sat on the highest.
Aristotle was even more dismissive. Human beings shared a sex drive with animals. Sex was about biology, reproduction, and equivalent to a desire for food. Far more interesting, according to Aristotle, was the fact that human beings were intelligent and creative.
So when I met my first boyfriend, who became my first husband, I was delighted to discover that his family history in some strange way mirrored my own. At school I had found nobody to agree with me at all. When I had argued that the phrase “making love” in its modern sense was a lie – in that it was impossible to experience love and desire simultaneously – everyone looked at me pityingly. What a relief it was, therefore, to marry into a family who seemed to have lived out my entire philosophy of love and sex for generations.
One of the reasons people object to infidelity so much is that they see it as a betrayal of trust. But trust is not an absolute. There is a context to it. My wedding vow might have been: “I trust you to love me, confide in me, have no secrets from me, and I shall have none from you.”
We wrote ourselves a marriage contract. Our marriage would always come first, would always win. My husband was a travel writer and away for months at a time. I had been brought up to believe that most red-blooded husbands were unfaithful to their wives anyway, particularly during conferences abroad, so wasn’t it both wise and reasonable to allow him one affair a year, provided his lover didn’t live in England, that it didn’t last more than a fortnight and he sought my permission first?
And as I didn’t travel, wasn’t it reasonable that I should be allowed 10 snogs a year and one full-blooded affair, lasting no longer than a fortnight and taking place within the London borough of Stoke Newington?
I loved my marriage. I adored my husband. He was the cleverest, wittiest man I had ever met. When he wasn’t abroad, he worked at home. I looked forward to every meal I had with him, every conversation. A poet friend of ours used to say about our marriage that it had “grammar”, whatever that meant. He said it in a serious, impressed sort of way. I enjoyed the fact that my marriage had grammar. My husband was my life.
I have in my attic a little red suitcase containing the 150 love letters he wrote to me over the course of our marriage. The last one in particular was poignant, written in Romania after the fall of Ceaucescu and communism. By then we had three small sons. The letter was a long one. He loved us all so much, he was missing us so much, he had seen such terrible things, that sort of thing.
But what are words? I’ve instinctively distrusted writers ever since, they and their pretty words. A month later he was in love with someone else.
He rang me from a skiing holiday, full of astonishment and praise. We talked a little. I was so happy. Then he said, “By the way, do you mind if I sleep with X? The trouble is, she lives in London.”
“Just once, just once,” I enthused, generously.
I’m afraid there remains a part of me as contemptuous of this “falling in love” business as I had been about sex as a teenager. What is falling in love all about? Even when he told me about it, well, we’d been there before. Falling in love = fancying someone rotten and wanting to sleep with them. By then – eight years into our marriage – I knew how history gives a relationship ballast. How can mere fantasy even rival intimacy? Yet fantasy is obsessive. It involves thinking about someone day and night. And that, I knew, was what he was doing. For the first time in our marriage, I understood I was losing him. Even when he looked at me, he was no longer there.
Our last weekend together was a travesty. We were on holiday in the Italian Alps, purportedly to mend our marriage. On the first night as we lay there in our bed trying to snuggle up together, water began to fall on us from the ceiling. The bathroom above us had flooded. The hotel was full, and the only place they could find a space for a bed was in a corner of the dining-room. The next morning we sat up to watch the breakfasters. It was the sort of surreal situation we’d have so enjoyed at any other time. But we could barely react, and lay there glum.
Eventually, we managed to set out for our walk. We were wearing ordinary walking boots and anoraks, but it was colder than we’d been expecting. Higher and higher we went, leaving the trees behind us, clambering up ice and rocks, trudging through snow. We barely exchanged a word. It was growing dark and on we climbed. At last we found a refuge, but we couldn’t reach it because the rocks surrounding it had become too icy and we couldn’t get a grip. I was so cold and tired and miserable that my only wish was to curl up in a ball to die. When my husband saw what was happening to me he suddenly took charge. He took my hand and said, “Come with me.” By now it was pitch black. I just let him guide me. An hour and a half later, we reached another refuge and here I am to tell the tale. He saved my life on the same day as he left me.
To be so close to a person for 12 years and then to lose him has been, without doubt, the most painful experience of my life. The trouble is that when you give your very soul to someone it takes a long time to retrieve it. I found myself phoning my oldest school friends, who’d known me long before I married. I wanted to say, remind me who I am, take me back to my old unwounded self. But everything seemed so empty, so devoid of meaning. Divorce is worse, I think, than bereavement. If he had died, I would have a memory and honour it. But he was only dead to me: he was absolutely alive to someone else.
The trouble with love is that though it’s the riskiest thing you can do, though it brings in its wake the greatest pain imaginable, it’s also the richest. Three years later, I married again, and we’re about to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. If anything, I value being close to someone even more second time round. It’s only when you lose it that you understand how precious the much-maligned nuclear family is. To have a second chance at playing those old-fashioned roles (we have two sons of our own), to play my female part in the most traditional of marriages, has been the luckiest thing that has ever happened to me.
Nowadays, I don’t even get to have a single snog a year with someone else, which seemed quite hard when he first told me he wouldn’t tolerate it. Yet though we’re faithful to each other, I’m pleased that, like me, he rates souls above bodies and shuns the modern orthodoxy of sex being deep and meaningful. We are merely lusty, and when we’re old and give up sex, a big so what. We have just as much fun reading plays together, and who knows, I might even start singing when he plays his violin.
“With this body I thee worship”, is what we say if we marry in church. We also become “one flesh”. As I get older, these words resonate more and more. My husband’s body is mine, my body is his. Somehow, I like that.
• The Conversations: 66 Reasons to Start Talking by Olivia Fane is published by Square Peg, £15.99. To order a copy for £12.79, with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846
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My father suffered from depression when I was growing up and my mother never had time to listen to me. Then as a teenager I went off the rails
My father was quite severely depressed during my childhood. I feel my mother handled things very badly when he became ill. When I tried to discuss my feelings, I was told: “Just let things wash over you.” Nobody talked to me properly. I self-harmed. I skipped school. I was caught shoplifting. It was ignored.
Aged 15, I took an overdose. I overheard my mum on the phone telling a friend “We had no idea she was unhappy” and genuinely do not know if she was lying or deluded.
I am now happily married to a wonderful man and have a good relationship with my parents. I feel no animosity towards my father as he has had a very difficult life; he is much better these days. I get on well with my mum now but feel frustrated that she handled things so badly.
My mother’s way of coping is to pretend that everything is fine; she cannot cope with recognising that it is not. I tried to talk to her about things recently and she said: “Well, you know that was a very difficult time for me.”
I really wanted her to say, “I’m sorry, that was a difficult time for everyone” or something that acknowledged I am a person with feelings too. I don’t think she is capable of apologising without excuses or justification. She is one of those people who only ever says: “I’m sorry but …”
I find I am hugely affected now. If I think I have upset someone I will apologise for hours and worry if I think I have made people unhappy. I don’t handle conflict or arguments well and tend to get explosively angry and then guilt-trip about it for days.
I am newly married and should be really happy, but here I am dwelling on things from years ago, and I don’t know why it’s suddenly all upsetting me now, or what to do about it.
P, via email
You feel like this now probably because you are in a place of safety and are finally able to pull out those feelings and address them. The child you were in that situation – not listened to, not checked in with – it’s heartbreaking.
Your mother probably did the best she could. It wasn’t great from your point of view, I grant you, and it’s enormously frustrating to not be listened to, recognised or thought of. If only she could just, even once, say “Sorry, it must have been tough for you, too” it would go a long way, wouldn’t it?
But trying to keep a family together with a suicidal husband (as you say in your longer letter) must have been extraordinarily tough. I’m not excusing it but I think it’s more complex than your mother just handling things badly.
She may well not be able to “go there” now, as the guilt she probably feels is enormous. Overwhelming. But we will have to leave her to deal with her feelings. It’s you that matters here.
I consulted Andrew Reeves, who is a counsellor and psychotherapist working with young adults (bacp.co.uk). “It sounds as if your family’s function was being responsible for your father living – and that’s an enormous responsibility.” Reeves wondered if your mother “ignored everyone’s needs, including her own”. He also thought you were constantly trying to become visible because you felt invisible – the overdose, the self-harming, the shoplifting. Reeves also thought that your feelings had always been “externally defined [mostly by your father's needs]. You’ve lost your sense of self.” He pointed out that constantly apologising may be internalised anger and that you may be frustrated with your mother because you learned that it’s safer to direct your emotions towards her.
Children in a house with a mentally ill parent learn to take the temperature of a room very fast. They learn to subsume their own feelings. You sound as if you have survived to become sensitive and empathetic – great attributes. The problem is that you have gone too far over to the other extreme and your perception of other people’s feelings affects your own behaviour too much.
It’s as if you dare not make any impact for fear that people can’t handle it. You asked me how to find a good therapist. It’s largely down to personality – who you get on with. Most therapists will offer a free introductory session. Not all are equal. Reeves thought someone with a humanistic approach (you can set this in the search terms here, itsgoodtotalk.org.uk/therapists) would be helpful.
Your problems solved
Contact Annalisa Barbieri, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
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