My mum tells the story of what happened to her best friend who had been married twenty years. Let’s call her Susan. One day she came down for breakfast to find the table laid but her husband missing. She had two sons and in front of their plates were two letters with their names printed on the envelope. When the boys (who were 10 and 12) opened them they found an account written by their father who wrote that he was terribly sorry but he was leaving their mother (my mum’s friend) for another family. It turned out the affair Susan had discovered her husband had been having 15 years ago hadn’t ended, as he had promised, but continued to flourish and he and his mistress had gone on to have two children.
This devastating news he thought appropriate to pass on to his young sons via a letter. To Susan he had written nothing. Just left. She later discovered he had been earning twice what he had told her, using the extra money to finance his second family while Susan scrimped and saved, thinking money was tight. It took Susan years to recover.
My beautician told me one of her clients had the worst Christmas ever. She and her husband had been married for ten years and had three children. Throughout that time the woman’s best friend, who was divorced with two children, visited regularly, went on holiday with them and was part of the family. All was going swimmingly until the husband announced AT THE CHRISTMAS DINNER TABLE in front of BOTH sets of young children, that he and the friend had been ‘exploring their feelings together’ and was leaving the wife for the friend. They all had a big row and the husband and friend ran off leaving the wife to look after all the children!
Crappy behaviour by men is something with which we can all identify. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not a man hater. I have a gorgeous (second) husband and I love my brother, and of course, Daryl Dixon. Nothing against men. And of course the stories I hear tend to be from the woman’s perspective. I know damn well there are plenty of examples of shocking behaviour by women, but today – you lucky people – I thought I’d tell you the story of bad behaviour by two people who were very important in my life 25 years ago: my then best friend, let’s call her Jezebel or Jessie for short, and my first serious boyfriend then husband – I’ll call him Arse.
I met Jessie at sixth form and we hit it off straight away. One of my closest friends had recently moved to America leaving a big gap in my life. Jessie was funny, irreverent and clever. An interesting and complicated personality, her slight darkness complemented my silly, optimistic naivety and we quickly became best friends. Along with Guy who quickly became a central pillar of our triumvirate, we rock and rolled our way through sixth form and I was sad to go off to university without her. By the power of the handwritten word and landlines (seems ridiculously old fashioned now) we kept in touch.
The first term I was away, the central topic of conversation was breathless descriptions of my first serious relationship with someone I met in the halls of residence. His name was Arse. He was short, but striking looking with high, Slavic cheekbones and thickly lashed dark brown eyes. He also had weirdly small teeth like little seed pearls stuck in his gums. Oh and a gigantic nose, but I didn’t really notice when I first met him as I only saw him head on and he kept his mouth shut. He also had a very thin long plait which came down his back like the young Darth Vader.
At the time I thought it looked cool, but looking back it just made him look like a knob.
He would wear a long Russian great coat and DM boots. All very on trend in the early 90’s. Although I was over 18 by then, I hadn’t had any significant relationships so was pretty bowled over when he showed an interest in me. He was very confident, which was attractive and made up for the nose and teeth.
My most romantic moment with him ever was standing in a seething mob of students at a bar. Loud music, the stink of spilled beer and Guinness – oh and the ubiquitous Newcastle Brown Ale, or Newkie Brown Ale, which I used to pretend to like but absolutely hated. (I preferred snakebite and black). We were standing close together and Arse was holding two pints of beer. ‘I don’t know whether to drink my beer or kiss you,’ he said provocatively.
‘You could do both!’ I said.
Oh the romance!
So that was it. He moved into my tiny room in Halls and we were an item. Gushingly I wrote to Jessie spilling every detail. I couldn’t wait for them to meet. I’m sure they would get on. Both of them had difficult and painful backgrounds. I pictured us telling those stories all young people tell when they first leave home: dredging up all the awful things parents had done; how they screwed up their poor children. We seemed stuck on repeating the narratives of painful childhoods as we were still too young to have forged proper narratives of our own – just reacting against perceived injustices and unfairness. Is that mean of me? I have a lot less patience with that kind of thing now!
The first holiday began and I couldn’t wait for Arse to meet Jessie and Guy. We arranged a big night out at our favourite pub. I volunteered to drive so everyone could drink. Everyone had a great time. My brother turned up and loads of friends from school. I didn’t miss drinking as I was high on catching up with everyone, buzzing from group to group. I noticed Arse and Jessie were getting on really well and was delighted.
Eventually the landlord threw us out and we made our way home. I was driving Guy’s white VW Beetle and had to focus really hard as the country roads home were very windy and it was pitch black dark.
I noticed Guy, who was sitting in the front seat next to me, was chatting with great animation. It made me smile and I was just thinking goodness he’s drunk a lot tonight, when I saw with a sickening, ice cold jolt, that Arse and Jessie were kissing in the back seat.
I remember Guy shooting me a concerned glance and I smiled weakly. To this day I don’t know why I didn’t stop the car and chuck the two of them out on the road before driving off to Ibiza with Guy.
You see this was just the beginning. Over the next three years I did not handle this at all well. I used to long for term to start so I could get back to university with Arse leaving Jessie and Guy behind. I cannot explain my behaviour. I think I was bewildered by the way both Jessie and Arse acted as thought everything was cool and this was completely normal.
When I tackled Arse about the kissing he just shrugged and blamed the drink. I didn’t say anything to Jessie as I simply did not know where to start. She was my best friend FFS!
I felt gauche and naive and stupid and young. The others seemed so together and with it, I felt I couldn’t express how painful I found all of this without sounding like a square loser.
For the next three years whenever I was home from university I had to brace myself as I knew at some point over the holiday I would catch the two of them together. Not seeing Jessie seemed out of the question. We were best mates. We hung out. We stayed at each other’s houses, we were family.
But every time we went out, the two of them would slip away. I would smoke and drink and smile widely and pretend everything was fine. Once, we had gone back home and stayed up late drinking. Arse said he needed cigarettes with a loaded look at Jessie. She said she would go with him – I carried on nodding and smiling.
They didn’t come back for 24 hours.
Arse and I got jobs over the holidays working in a petrol station. The hours were punishing but the pay was great. The shifts were tough: 2pm – 10pm, 10pm – 6am then 6am – 2pm. One evening I was on the 2-10 shift with the next one starting at 6am the following morning. Arse was down to take over at 10pm. He didn’t turn up at 10, or 11, or 12, 1am. I had no way to contact him as there were no mobile phones.
I alternated from rage to fear that something had happened. Eventually, he arrived just after 2am. Jessie dropped him off. I had done a 12 hour shift and was exhausted but there was no way I was going to report him. I just left and came back to relieve him at 6am after about three hours of wretched sleep.
In my third year at university, Jessie wrote to tell me she was pregnant. At this point, I had been assured, she and Arse had cooled off completely (‘for my sake’, they had explained with sickening, condescending faces) and Jessie, who had now started university herself, said she was in a relationship with someone there.
Of course, my instant response, when I read the letter was to stare at Arse. ‘Jessie’s pregnant,’ I said. I remember having to swallow down the bile that washed up from my icy stomach. ‘Is it yours?’
Arse looked shocked. Of course not, he protested. Was I mad? He and Jessie had knocked everything on the head months and months ago. We hadn’t even seen her at all the past holiday as she had been away, he reminded me.
Of COURSE I was suspicious. Of course I wasn’t sure. But he was so convincing I believed him. Well, I said I did. I think it was just what I wanted to hear. If I went on about it too much he started to respond as if I was stupid, or mad, or both so I shut up. I realise now this is a classic case of Gaslighting.
The baby was born. I played the supportive, delighted friend. When we met up I kept a sharp eye on on her and Arse but couldn’t find anything suspicious. When I asked Jessie about the father she would just wave my questions aside, saying he ‘was a dick’ and he was ‘better off out of it.’
A few months later Jessie asked if I could babysit as she ‘had a hot date’. I remember being excited for her. If she had a boyfriend it would help me to relax as hopefully she would leave Arse alone for good now.
Jessie dropped the baby off and away she went. After an hour Arse stubbed out his cigarette and stood up. ‘I promised I would pop in to see Gran tonight,’ he said. ‘And I’ll visit Aunty Sue’s grave on the way You’ll be OK?’
‘Fine!’ I said, ignoring my heart sinking a little.
He didn’t come back that night. Nor did Jessie. When she finally returned to collect the baby I went ballistic. I screamed and I shouted that I never wanted to see her again. Arse got out of the car and bumped past me. He stank of her. I was revolted. Sickened. And I hated myself that I didn’t have the strength to throw him out too
This was the guy who I was living with. Who I had been in a relationship with now for years. Yet no matter what I said, if he got a chance to be with Jessie, he would take it. I caught them in bed together once, twice, three times. Each time they would promise was the last. This was the final straw. I didn’t know what was worse, getting your lover’s girlfriend to look after your five month old baby while you shagged him, or him lying about going to visit his dead aunt’s grave so he could shag his girlfriend’s best friend.
I spent a lot of time crying. I was in despair. I hated myself for being weak and not sticking up for myself and walking away. It was a mess. It turned me into a paranoid, insecure bag of nerves. I ate and ate to dull the pain. (Kick starting my serious weight problem, thanks, Fuxkfaces)
So why didn’t I walk away?
Because I was a fucking idiot.
Also, because she was my best friend. He was my first love. I just couldn’t imagine how I would cope without them in my life. God, looking back I feel such a mixture of pity and contempt for my twenty-something self. I cannot believe how long I put up with that crap for. It seems inconceivable I would put up with that now.
After Babysitting Gate I would have nothing more to do with Jessie. I decided, in true feeble-woman tradition to stand by my man – a decision that still makes me wince when I think of it today. I kept Arse under a tight a leash as I could. I questioned his every move, and went through his stuff all of the time to find evidence of contact with Jessie. Years and years later I discovered why he put up with it. My mum told me, long after the relationship had ended, that one night Arse has got drunk with her and confessed he had eventually chosen me over Jessie because ‘you guys (my parents) had more money than Jessie’s did.’
‘Why the HELL didn’t you tell me this at the time?’ I asked in shock. ‘You wouldn’t have listened,’ my mum replied. And she was probably right. Many of my friends also came forward later to say Arse would constantly hit on them, saying our relationship was ‘open.’ News to me.
For the next year I would have constant nightmares about Jessie and Arse meeting up behind my back. Any talk of her would make me go cold and nauseous. This was really hard on Guy who remained friends with us both. He learned never to talk of her around me.
Then.. I married Arse! I can’t think why, but I suspect it was because subconsciously I thought if I married him, then I would have finally won him from Jessie. In the six weeks running up to the wedding my aunt, my mother, and my brother kept saying that it wasn’t too late. I could always pull out. That I must not get married unless I was really sure. They could see so clearly that I was making a huge mistake. My mum knew I was doing it for the wrong reasons. She couldn’t bear Arse, but was wise enough not to interfere.
I walked up the aisle thinking, well, I can always divorce him. Then went on to have a blast, partying with my friends, playing bass guitar in the wedding band, wearing my dress and a big pair of Doc Martens. I completely ignored Arse.
As a revenge, at the hotel after the reception, he told me Jessie’s child was, in fact, his. As I had suspected. I shrugged. I knew anyway, but we were married now. Nothing he could do, he was stuck with me.
What a naive stupid fool I was.
Of course the next eighteen months were a farce. Just because Jessie wasn’t around it didn’t mean Arse stopped being unfaithful. He just found other women. I didn’t trust him. Couldn’t trust him. I withdrew from all my female friends in case he tried to get off with them. Strange men would ring me late at night while I thought Arse was working saying, ‘Tell your husband if he doesn’t stay away from my wife, I’ll fucking kill him.’
This wasn’t me. This wasn’t my life. I found all this sickening and squalid. I was always sad.
This was such a low point. I had no self-confidence, I was miserable and loathed myself. I alternated screaming at Arse with begging him to stay.
In fact, that’s the one thing I don’t think I can ever forgive Arse and Jessie for – their behaviour not only meant I never trusted another man for years, but also I abandoned my dear female friends. It left me very lonely. Only Guy, lovely Guy kept me going with his kindness and constant support. Only now can I appreciate how horrific and difficult this must have been for him.
But things were taking a turn. I had started teaching and I was good at it. I was playing in a band. I was slowly becoming more independent and strong. I tentatively made some friends with women at work who bolstered me up.
One freezing day, in Birmingham of all places I was at a marking conference. I had to stay overnight so called home from the hotel to see how Arse was getting on. It was after 10 on a Tuesday night and he didn’t answer. My first thought? ‘Who’s he out screwing?’
And that was it. I was worth more than this. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering where the hell my husband was. A husband who seemed incapable of keeping his dick in his pants. I didn’t care if I would be alone for the first time in seven years, anything would be better than this misery of a life.
I told him to leave. It was messy. It was sad and it was difficult. But I knew if I didn’t shake him off he would destroy me. He didn’t think I would go through with it but I did. I stood firm, even when he tried to run me over when he came to get the last of his stuff – the wanker.
Guy helped me move to my first house and even lived with me for a bit. It helped a lot over that lonely time. I met someone else who was a bit of a rebound but he thought I was great, and helped my confidence levels. I lost a lot of weight. I was still lonely sometimes but oh so much happier.
It’s strange how long you can drag round a great big suitcase stuffed full with numbing cushions of bleakness and damp unhappiness and you stop noticing the burden. When I let that all go, the difference was indescribable and worth all those quiet solo evenings when it was just me and a box of digestives.
I never saw Arse again. I have absolutely no interest in seeing him again. He tried to contact me on Facebook and I looked far enough at his profile to see he was a sad, ageing man living abroad. He never settled, moving from woman to woman – an empty life whereas mine was full to busting with love and life and beautiful children.
I miss Jessie, though. We were such good friends. In a way, that was the biggest betrayal. And betrayal was what it was. They were the most important people in my life, and they both betrayed me.
I didn’t see Jessie for ten years. I thought of her sometimes, but my life had moved on. The one thing I am grateful to Arse for is when I finally met Rob, I knew he was kind, clever, and loyal. The most important thing of all. I am not sure I would have appreciated his good qualities if I hadn’t been so scarred by the bad qualities of Arse.
So ten years after I had screamed at Jessie to get out of my life, I met her again. It was Guy’s 40th birthday party. He said he really wanted me to come, but then told me he had also invited Jessie. I was so cross with him! It was unfair of me, but I was heavily pregnant with Daughter at the time and very emotional. She would be about four weeks old on the day of Guy’s party. He kept asking if I would come.
Eventually I said I would, but he had to promise to make sure that Jessie kept well away from me.
‘Consider it done!’ he said happily. Friends and family were put on duty to keep Jessie away from my end of the room. Rob and I arrived in full 80’s goth glory carrying a tiny Daughter. (It was a fancy dress party – theme: 80’s) Guy’s gran happily looked after her while Rob and I had a dance and a drink. All the time my eyes were constantly scanning the room. ‘Stop it,’ Rob would say, eyes looking concerned behind the guyliner. ‘Forget about her.’
And then it happened. Despite everyone’s best efforts, Jessie appeared and made her way over to my side of the room. I only noticed because despite the throbbing disco music, the whole crowd had fallen eerily still. Guy threw me a desperate glance and started mouthing something incomprehensible. His boyfriend of the time was gesticulating, and shouting to me. I was mouthing ‘what?’ back when I saw her make her way through the dancers. Wearing a neon boob tube and frizzy hair she had obviously come as a member of Bucks Fizz.
It was so awkward. It felt like everyone in the room was watching. But when she sat next to me it was really odd, I felt like I had zoomed back to being 17 again and part of me wanted to give her a big hug. I didn’t though. With a heroic effort I waited for her to speak.
I can’t remember much of what she said, but I know she began by saying sorry. And that she missed me, and that I had been the best friend she ever had. The saddest thing was she admitted she and Arse never loved each other, ‘it was just sex,’ she said.
In a way it would have been better if they had fallen passionately for each other. A Romeo and Juliet affair with tragic consequences. But no. It was just sex. They created such destruction, such a lasting impact on me, and it was just sex. Such a squalid and depressing biological urge.
I haven’t seen her since. We are now ten years on from then. I am friends with her on Facebook. Rob thinks I’m mad. I can’t really explain why I keep up that contact. Is it so I can show off my perfect (ha! Facebook perfect obvs) life, or is it simply I miss her? That friendship forged at such an important time? I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’ve forgiven her. I think I have. I feel like I can wish her well now without rancour. Maybe one day I’ll message her and we’ll go out and get drunk and cry, then laugh, then put it all behind us. If I do, you’ll be the first to know!
So there it is. More of those scars we all gather as we age. This was all so painful at the time, but losing a child puts all this into perspective. Nothing can ever come close to the horror of giving birth to a dead child. I am pleased that this story, which defined me for so long, now feels like a distant memory which has lost its power to hurt. Because it is so long ago, I am sure the others involved in this will remember events differently, but, as they say, this is my truth and it has been strangely therapeutic to write it all down.
How about you? Ever been mistreated by a man? Or woman! Let me know your stories. And do you think I should contact Jessie again or move on altogether?
Stay strong, warriors – wear your scars with pride!