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You are unique as you are here and now. You are never the same. You will never be the same again. You have never before been what you are. You will never be it again. Swami Prajnanpad
Divorce, and its protracted, heartrending implications, was a crushing experience.
‘I’ve been to see a solicitor...’.
Suddenly, my mind was a maelstrom of panic, confusion and disbelief. Threatening, satanic storm clouds were racing to block out the warm, sunlit skies that had epitomised married life. Thunderous waves of emotion were crashing on once tranquil, golden sands. Countless questions were vying for ascendancy and screaming for answers.
But there was only one of any significance.
For 12 years I believed we were the perfect couple, the perfect family, that we’d be together until death do us part.
So where did things go wrong?
Should I have reacted more forcibly to Christopher’s shocking revelation two months previously?
Had I become too preoccupied with my own problems to realise I was losing one of the three people I loved most in the world?
Should I have confided in her more about my mounting fears and concerns?
And what about her, how did she rationalise and justify actions that to me, and many others, seemed totally inexplicable and without reason?
Had she thought of the impact divorce would have on the children; children who, hitherto, had enjoyed an exceptional family life; children who always seemed so happy, who loved their mummy and daddy so very much and who were loved equally, in return…
It’s surprising I had children. Two boys. And if divorce marked the lowest point in my life the births of Christopher and Daniel were the pinnacle.
Alongside my marriage.
Well, not because I didn’t want children. Quite the opposite. Being an only child I’d always hoped for a family of my own, to love, to care and provide for, to guide through their formative years, with grandchildren to enhance our later life. But marriage, albeit not a prerequisite for procreation these days, had, for one reason or another, eluded me until a month before my 41st birthday.
There had been numerous relationships over the years. Ros, Angela, Carole and Avril each lasted a few years, perhaps a dozen between them, then many shorter liaisons that didn’t progress beyond a few weeks or months for one reason or another. Mainly, my own desire to move on.
And there was Karen…
So, a womaniser.
No wonder she left.
Before you jump to conclusions, a history of sexual partners doesn’t equate to extra- marital relations. I was never unfaithful during our marriage. In fact, I was never unfaithful to any girlfriend.
Which meant I never suffered the shame, the ignominy or the torment of betrayal.
I won’t deny there were temptations but I’d always maintained that when, or if, I married it would be forever, forsaking all others. And I was determined to honour that pledge.
And my wedding vows.
Call me old-fashioned but that’s the way I’d chosen to live my life. Admirable sentiments, some might think, but totally unworkable if the other party chooses not to subscribe to the same philosophy.
Anyway, when the boys came along that sealed it for me. Having waited so long for a family I wasn’t going to risk losing it for a 5-minute fumble in the Four Ferrets car park. The fact that so many men, and women, do, or purport to do, is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps it’s the adventure, or a reaction to boredom or complacency. Or maybe it’s a reflection of their own immaturity and inadequacies.
But I’d had my share of risks and escapades long before my marriage. In fact, life up to then had been one long adventure, one long voyage of discovery.
Especially of self-discovery.
I did start late. Sexually. East Finchley, spring 1970.
We all remember our first time, so they say.
Even if it wasn’t that memorable.
Mine certainly wasn’t.
But then I failed my driving test first time.
I didn't perform too well the second time, either.
I don’t suppose many men today would confess to being a virgin at 22, almost 23. I guess not many are. But it was a major concern to me that the years were ticking by and I still hadn’t… done it.
Why was I so concerned prior to that first, tentative, awkward effort?
Feelings of inadequacy or unfulfillment?
Looking back, I can’t believe that many of my friends or colleagues scored by the time they were 22, I’d be surprised if some of them scored more than a once or twice in their lives. But they exuded more confidence and bravado than me and I suppose I was taken in by the rhetoric.
So, what if I was to die without... doing it?
Well, I couldn’t see it being a major talking point at Rotherham Crematorium.
‘It’s just not fair him going so young’.
‘No, life can be cruel sometimes. Did he ever… do it?’
‘Not that I know of’.
‘Shame, him dying without… doing it’.
Inevitably, in the days, weeks and months that followed my wife's shattering announcement, I found myself in deep and melancholy thought, consumed by incessant, protracted periods of self-analysis and self-recrimination.
I’d always tried to do the right things, always tried to be a good husband, a good father. A good man.
And I was still the same person she’d promised to love forever.
It seems we spend so much of our life getting to know other people but so little time learning about ourselves. Ironic, because we can never truly know anybody other than our self. We can never explore the recesses of someone else’s mind to fully comprehend their emotions, their fears, their desires... The recently departed Peter Sarstedt epitomised this dilemma in his evocative song Where Do You Go To My Lovely.
Words, quotations and lyrics have always held a fascination for me, particularly in times of great emotion but they now took on an added poignancy. Every song I heard seemed to be directed solely at me, as if I was being tormented by some demonic DJ. I found myself listening intently to every word, living every line. Salted water trickled incessantly onto lips that a few weeks earlier had mouthed the same words in pleasant disregard.
Songs such as Willie Nelson’s You Were Always On My Mind.
The words of that song have haunted me over the years. Maybe I did take her for granted. Maybe I should have taken the time to show her how much I cared. I loved her very much and despite everything that transpired, despite the dishonesty and deceit, both before and after the event, I’m not averse to saying part of me still does.
And always will.
She enriched my life. But she also brought it crashing down. And she failed the ultimate test of any relationship. She turned her back on me when I needed her most.
In my opinion.
Today the wounds have healed.
Memories have faded, both good and bad.
But the scars remain.
I can forgive most things.
But I can’t forget.
As the years have passed I’ve found some semblance of reason and explanation. But as the whole truth still eludes me I’m unlikely ever to find total peace of mind.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher, said that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
One thing I can testify to, when you hit rock bottom you either stay there or you climb back up again.
I’m still climbing.
But whatever the circumstances, whatever the perceived provocation there can never be any justification for what she did.
I committed my life to her and the children.
But that wasn’t enough.
I would have sacrificed myself for them without a moment’s hesitation.
But that wasn’t enough.
Somewhere along the way I let her down.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us...
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
I’ve long been interested in the forces, generic, social, political, economic, environmental… that combine to shape our characters, to make us who we are. Hence, the book’s introductory quote. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Swami Prajnanpad studied Freud in India in the 1920s. But don’t worry, fascinating though the topic is, I’m not going to delve too deeply into Freud and Jung’s psychoanalytical world. At least not in Chapter One.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a more relevant starting point.
Maslow theorised that we’re all motivated by needs but we can’t attain higher order needs until lower level needs are satisfied. Looking back on my early life, I barely graduated from Safety, the second level and stuttered at the third level, Belonging, a need particularly strong in childhood, which might explain my difficulty in maintaining emotional relationships later in life. Consequently, I had a constant battle with Self-Esteem and inevitably with Self-Actualisation.
I guess that's a D minus in life skills.
As Maslow was described as a shy, lonely, unhappy child we had much in common.
I was very reserved, a condition not helped, or possibly created, by being the son of a domineering mother, who lived in an exclusive world bereft of reality and who intimidated a reticent, largely undemonstrative father.
Not the best foundation for character-building. Or for ascending Maslow’s pyramid. Loneliness was largely confined to home life and, although this bordered on unhappiness at times, unhappy per se is probably stretching the point.
Just a little.
Personal conflicts and frustrations are an inevitable part of development but I certainly welcomed my escape from domestic dissatisfaction in the mid-1960s, after several failed attempts in earlier years. Prayers to a higher power for salvation having fallen on deaf ears.
That said, I enjoyed all the childhood pleasures of the day, football, cricket; children’s matinee at the Roxy cinema; collecting stamps, conkers, marbles… frog spawn; playing games in the street; riding my bike, at least when it was roadworthy having had several previous owners.
I enjoyed the outdoors whatever the weather. It provided freedom from the feudalism and isolation of home life. I even enjoyed walking the 2 miles to school every day especially through the snow and fog, or smog as it was in those days. And despite the adverse weather school never closed. But then we weren’t over-obsessed with health and safety.
I remember school holidays, going out after breakfast and not returning home until dinnertime or until dusk descended. Nobody seemed to worry where I was or what I was doing.
Maybe I should have worried that nobody worried but…
Life then was so much simpler.
I remember when the only embarrassment was being the last pick for the after-school football team or never being invited to kiss a girl when the plate stopped spinning at the school Christmas Party. That being before the practice was banned on human rights grounds by the local namby-pambies. An expression first used by Henry Carey in his 1725 satirical poem. They complained that the game disenfranchised certain individuals such as Spotty, Snotty and Fatty.
And some of the boys, too.
The same people, no doubt, were responsible for banning parents taking photographs of their loved ones in the school play because they might be latent sex-offenders; banning mothers baking mince pies for fear they’d poison the young party-goers and banning school pantomimes because they corrupted young children.
What's all that about?
I don't feel my life has been adversely affected by Little Red Riding Hood or Puss In Boots. But you never know. And the politically correct might have a point, pantomimes, much-enjoyed by the Romans, were once denounced by religious leaders as Satanist because of their eroticism.
As with most children of my generation I spent many happy hours fruit-picking, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries… Today most of the hedgerows I used to forage have disappeared, which might explain why I pay £3 for what amounts to little more than a thimbleful of berries whereas I used to collect a bucketful for free.
Picking apples and pears from neighbouring orchards was a little more hazardous, not being strictly legitimate. In fact, one of my friends suffered a badly broken arm after being chased by one particularly irate land-owner and jumping over a four-foot wall.
Unfortunately, the wall was eight feet high on the other side.
I miss the sense of community we enjoyed.
Can you imagine a world today without locked doors; where neighbours move freely in and out of each other’s houses; where people are concerned if they haven’t seen or heard from Mrs Batty in 24 hours; where everybody shares all they have and lend a helping hand whenever they can…?
You probably don't even know your neighbours or talk to them and as for allowing them into your home...
Mother was clearly the exception and ahead of her time because nobody crossed our threshold. The barbed wire fence and sniper towers helped maintain our isolation.
I knew most people who lived on Crossland Street, some 60, mainly terraced houses and almost everybody knew me, though that didn’t always work in my favour as every adult felt able to castigate any child without fear of recrimination.
And invariably did.
Those days are long gone, along with school discipline.
I remember being sent to the Headmaster’s office and trembling in fear, not at the physical punishment he would impart, ‘hold your hand out, boy’, but in anticipation of my parents finding out and me suffering a double whammy. Order and respect for authority were firmly entrenched in everyday life back then.
Of course, in today’s modern society any corrective punishment is regarded as child abuse.
It certainly did me no harm.
The one who withholds the rod is one who hates his son. Proverbs 13:24.
I remember when the only take away was fish and chips, no Chinese, no Indian, no kebabs, no pizzas, no burgers, no McDonalds, no KFC... When every day we ate cakes, biscuits, chocolates, sweets, bacon and sausages fried with lard not oil, white bread with real butter, drank sugary drinks and never put on weight because we didn’t lead the sedentary lives of kids today.
Race issues were arguments about who could run the fastest; the only terrorists I encountered were the bully-boys from the local Comprehensive; the only bombs were water-filled balloons or imaginary ones dropped from toy planes; the only addiction I had was to sherbet lemons and blackjacks and the worst thing I caught from the opposite sex was a cold…
There were no ipads, ipods or iphones, no mobiles, no computers. Hardware was a hammer and a bag of nails and the only tablets were for colds and headaches.
Nobody I knew owned a car and in many households, including ours, there was no washing machine, no refrigerator, no television, no telephone, no cooker, no microwave, no hot water and no indoor toilet, which proved particularly hazardous on a snow-covered winter’s night.
Life then was so much harsher.
It was a time when 35 was middle-aged and 55 was old. But it was also a time when youth seemed eternal; a time when being gay meant being happy; when men only wore make-up in pantomime; a time when bankers, solicitors, priests and politicians were respected pillars of society. A time before mortgages, inflation and litigation. A time before…
A time before I’d heard of divorce.