Four years ago. He’d been gone a few weeks, and was still talking about maybe coming back. We had our first Christmas without him, for me a blur of extreme alertness spent mostly in tears. I’d been sure Christmas would bring him back. Such a family man. Such a loving father. And a Catholic, which, I (an atheist myself) thought meant something, though I wasn’t sure what. Xmas was a big deal in our family, or so I thought. I guess I had been projecting all these years.
We had our 8 foot tree as usual. The children decorated it, getting things down from the loft alone. I’d already done most of the gift buying (including for him) before he absconded, and the children helped me by wrapping each other’s. I was not capable. I don’t remember much about the preparation of the meal, but I have photos of the table set for guests. I suppose my family joined us as usual; I don’t remember. I’d filled the children’s stockings but could not, for some reason that escapes me now, put them at the ends of their beds as I had done every other year on Christmas Eve. Instead I left one in each child’s place at the breakfast table. I’d have forgotten, only I seem to have marked that with a photo, too. (This year – 2016 -I think was the first year I didn’t bother with stockings at all. In the intervening years the child who now lives with him made me a stocking – the first I ever had – and the children brought it to me in bed in a sweet reversal.)
So we sat by the tree on the morning of the 25th and the children opened their gifts. I sat, numb. He’d announced only a few days previously that he was going to Malaysia on a business trip, and would extend his stay. His client had a property he could stay in and it would cost us nothing. Looking back, the facility with which he lied astonishes me, but I know now that he had been practising for a while. He telephoned the house to wish the children a Happy Christmas. He told them he’d had a curry for his Christmas dinner. It all seemed very sad, and I felt more sorry for him than for us. My younger daughter asked if he could please call back later to talk to them again. He said no. She said ‘but it’s Christmas!’. He said no. She cried.
I found out later that he was not in Malaysia. He was not on a business trip. It was not being paid for by the client. In the course of our divorce he had to show certain documents, including credit card bills and bank statements. Of course, he had secretly opened plenty of new bank accounts and credit cards, starting before he left, and likely more than he revealed. And there it was: £25,000 to charter a plane, whopping bills for a honeymoon resort in the Maldives. I didn’t know any of this till much later, of course. But when I next saw him, I noticed that everything of his was new. New glasses. New clothes, belt, shoes. New watch. I commented on the watch. Like all of his new things, it was not like him, I thought. Showy, vulgar, large, self aggrandizing. ‘New watch?’ I said. ‘Yes’. ‘Didn’t you just buy that Rolex not long ago?’ (He’d bought a lovely old one, second hand, very cheap on Ebay, when the watch he’d had for fifteen years before that was irrepairable.) ‘I needed it’ he said. ‘Really? Why?’ I was genuinely curious, and worried that something had happened to the Rolex. I still thought if he said he needed something, then he must actually have needed it. ‘For the beach!’ he said, rather aggressively. ‘Oh!’ I said. I was thinking – does one need a new watch for the beach? I have never bought a beach watch. I was considering this. I was not thinking: lucky you, on a beach, while my car keeps breaking down in the snow. As usual, I thought he must be right and I must be wrong. (That day, in February, when we all went for a walk together because I thought it would be good for the children to see us able to get along even if we were no longer together, he subsequently described to me as ‘The worst day of my life’.)
Now, of course, I know that while we were sitting home, stunned by events, traumatised, weeping, he was shopping for and planning his holiday. (NB he did not buy gifts for a single one of us for Christmas, only for himself and possibly his new friends.) I don’t know with whom he went to the Maldives, or care. I suppose he did not go alone. His hotel bills (the Corinthia, no less, where he lived for almost 4 months, again assuring me that this was all on expenses) included £60 a pop for room service breakfasts, which I think one would be hard pressed to eat alone. Also numerous trips to the beauty salon, with products from Elemis added to the bill. I’m guessing that was not him, but maybe it was. He does seem to have been spending a lot of money on his appearance and generally adopting the view that ‘I’m worth it’.
He returned from his ‘business trip’ at the end of December, and it was agreed that he would take the children to visit his family up north. This was a trip we had all made in previous years, but now I was excluded. I supposed I must be the baddie. I spent New Year’s Eve alone. It was the first night I had ever spent alone since the day my first child was born 17 years earlier. I suppose I could have found a party to go to; I have a vague recollection that there were some invitations. But I rather optimistically assumed that I might get my first night’s sleep since he’d left over a month earlier. In the morning I sent a text to my eldest wishing her a Happy New Year. She was about to hear from Oxford whether she had a place (he’d left a few days before her interview). And then she would do her exams and go to university and it would all be so exciting and marvellous for her and I was delighted that she was about to enter a phase of her life that was full of opportunities and learning and fun. ‘2013 is going to be a great year for you and I am so proud of you and happy for you’ I said (or something like it). And she replied saying she was sure 2013 would be a great year for me, too. And the funny/sad thing is, what I thought when I read that was ‘Oh, so she knows, because he’s told her. He is going to surprise me with it: he’s coming back!’ I may be mistaken: I haven’t thought of it for a long time, but I think that, while I was expecting that they would all arrive home together and we would fall into one another’s arms, he didn’t even bring them back, but put them in a taxi while he made his way back, I suppose to the arms of another.
I was thrown into despair by this (though at the time the thought that there might be another woman had not occurred to me – I was distraught that he was not returning home). And then it turned out the children were all starving. It was quite late at night and he hadn’t given them anything at all to eat.