'I first met my father's mistress...at his funeral'
At first I didn’t recognise her.
She was just one person in a room full of mourners I barely knew. We’d travelled up to Scotland, my mother, sister, brothers and I, to my father’s birthplace for his funeral.
After a Presbyterian service, grim and joyless even by funerary standards, we were standing around making stilted conversation with assorted creaky relatives when she appeared. Middle-aged with a hint of New Age hippy, she approached me.
"I’ll always remember your father coming to my house in the evenings," she recalled. I tried to place her, my brain feeling like one of the old clocks my dad used to restore, the wheels turning but to no effect.
"He used to rub my feet…" she continued.
Neurological cogs locked together and a cuckoo burst out of a window in my head. ‘It’s his mistress!’ I exclaimed inside.
The woman standing chatting to me at my dad’s funeral, just feet away from my grieving mother, was my dad’s bit on the side.
The idea of my father, the sort of old-fashioned dad who put up shelves in our bedrooms, being unfaithful had been inconceivable at first. But then I began to be aware of other women on the periphery of our family. The most obvious was Nancy*, his ‘tennis partner’.
My sister and I were taken to tea at her flat once. Presumably, babysitting had been a cover for an assignation. We can’t have been more than seven or eight, but we somehow knew not to mention the trip to my mother.
She knew, of course. She always knew. There were frequent ‘business trips’ abroad and nights spent ‘working late’. Occasionally there were rows behind closed doors.
It was never discussed in the open. Facing one of the women who had caused so much misery to my mother and the one who had probably been my father’s last mistress, I felt a mixture of disappointment and fury.
Disappointment in him that even as he was dying of cancer he had continued to be unfaithful. Fury that his ‘bit on the side’ felt she had the right to intrude on what was my mother’s domain. But then, she’d done it five years before, which is why I recognised her.
I’d come home from university to find we had a ‘guest’. I walked into the kitchen and she was seated at the table eating breakfast while my mum passed her the butter with a thin smile. The interloper was in the spare room, but a shared glance between me and my mother showed we both knew who and what she really was.
Now she was in front of me again, apparently wanting me to reminisce with her. So what did I do? Did I slap her, shout, scream? None of the above. I simply said, with as much dignity as I could muster, ‘I think you should leave. This is my mother’s day.’
The need not to make a scene overrode every other instinct. My mum didn’t acknowledge the other woman’s arrival or exit. She simply carried on passing around sandwiches and playing the role of dutiful widow.
I told my sister afterwards and she was livid, but just like that trip to Nancy’s so many years before, we both knew that it was better not to bring up the subject with our mother. It was forbidden territory. It became another peculiar family secret. I once asked my mum why she stayed with my father. ‘I come from the stick-with-it generation,’ she declared.
I told her I thought she actually came from the ‘look-the-other-way’ generation. I thought she was weak. But then, looking back at how mute I was when provided with cast-iron proof of his behaviour, I realise now that we are far more alike than I had thought.