My Husband Douglas

Douglas rushed off again. He’d quickly polished his good shoes before hurrying to help Betty. With us he wears only trainers.

When we first met this new aunt, Betty, Douglas fell into a heaviness. It enclosed him for a time.

I would say he dropped down to a wound already there in himself. But Douglas protests at such metaphors – he wants facts.

However, two weeks after Betty came into our lives, he went to the GP.

I felt he was scared of his own dark mood and wanted a doctor to take care of it. Only the pills made him feel oddly disconnected and he soon stopped them.

By then perhaps the worst had passed.

Douglas generally appears calm and sure that somewhere there are explanations; even if we can’t find them now we soon will.

There is usually someone heroic who holds more answers than Douglas and the one who has such wisdom in his hands and tongue is always a man.

Though my husband is not a scientist he is a great believer in science and assumes reasoning underpins his own understanding and not mine, though he sees me as efficient and lovable.

How can he think himself rooted only in good sense when, like the rest of us, he comes out of a chaotic combination of unknowable inheritance. It seems that what our grandfathers ate has an impact, let alone the state of mind of his young birth mother.

Over all our years together I can never get Douglas to agree that what he likes to believe shores him up is rather shaky. Nevertheless he was badly shaken by what he understood from Betty.

He was a fault – at fault – and he caused harm – that is what he heard.

For as long as I’d known him Douglas too readily slid into taking blame. Initially in our marriage there was surprise that, if ever I got cross, he immediately offered apologies – words tossed out like a no longer wanted bridal bouquet and I felt grateful to catch his sorry, sorry, sorry.

It took some years to realise that response felt like a reflex which kept me distant. It meant he didn’t come up against the hurt or anger and truly answer it, even when I was being unreasonable.

Hiding under that readiness to apologise for himself lay something inaccessible which I thought Betty brought to the surface.

When our first child was born we lay together, the tiny, as yet unwashed, baby was on my belly and without doubt his open heart widened further, for her, for me and for family that was his own.

Perhaps it was his first recognition that the adopting family had not satisfied everything if having a blood child was such a precious connection.

He briefly wept while she was wrapped and said, “she is my own!”

He startled himself with this spontaneous comment and that moment remains etched more vividly than any photograph.

But, as long as his cool adopting mother was alive, Douglas would make no move to find his first mother.

When he finally did search she, too, had died. Her name was Nancy and it was her sister, Betty, who agreed to meet.

The long ago night when Douglas, whom I’d not yet met, stood near me at a party, was unnerving for us both.

Some current passed through him as well as me and he asked “Do I know you?”

I like to point out there was nothing logical to explain that.

And, as Betty opened her door, exactly the same question jumped into his mind, though this time he didn’t say it aloud.

Betty knew of Douglas, though she and Nancy secretly spoke of him as Daniel.

He was a forbidden subject in their parents’ home.

Nancy claimed conception came from an assault but there was to be no excusing her. She was immediately sent away though, at seventeen, she had never been anywhere on her own.

The “home” where Nancy was to be secluded from view was cruel.

“Sluts” like Nancy were to be taught a lesson, yet only one girl climbed up a tree and over a high wall to jump, despite her swelling belly.

The rest were more afraid of the judging world than the punitive regime.

Douglas’s grandfather was adamant that the only way for his daughter not to be banished permanently was if the baby was abandoned, taken at birth, and if there was utter secrecy, with the matter never discussed inside the family or out,

The cover story was that Nancy was looking after a distant relative who had no children, unlike their family of three boys and then two girls.

Nancy never recovered, Betty told Douglas.

She shrivelled and grew too fearful; expecting to do penance she looked after the ageing parents till both died then had to leave the only house she’d lived in, except during those months of shameful pregnancy.

Betty, who was two years younger, offered Nancy a room but perhaps her sister already suspected the cancer and did not intend to be the burden her parents had been.

What was he to do with such information Douglas wanted to know, as he tossed in our bed, keeping me wakeful with him.

Though he could hardly be held responsible for his own conception, asserting that failed to lift this weight on him of having defeated a teenage girl he never knew.

His first cells inhabited the frightened host and once developed he was abruptly severed from her.

He avoided letting that separation have any significance for himself and kept his focus on Nancy.

Adoption was just what happened, he insisted, as if that made it only a matter of fact.

However, that Nancy did not get over it became his to carry.

Betty, having dropped some of her own sad burden about her sister during our first meeting, wished to draw Douglas in. She was eager to speak of the more gentle Nancy.

It was the photos that were the shock.

Our second daughter looked unnervingly like Nancy.

People often said she had a look of me but, once we saw pictures of Nancy she became the one we could see so clearly in our girl.

Betty cried at seeing her sister in our daughter.

“Genes,” Douglas said as if they explained everything and put a full stop in the way of further discussion.

The social climate at the time and the particular rigidities of his powerful grandfather could not, I insisted, be pushed away as only genes.

Any more than Douglas’s loyalty to the pious woman who adopted him was just genetic.

It was our usual conflict zone.

Once more Betty called him today and Douglas dropped our plans to be of help.

Betty has become his responsibility, as her only son lives abroad.

Douglas is a kind man who likes to do things for others and that keeps him busy. But it also keeps at bay my push for him to answer whether, because Nancy’s life was blighted by his existence, it’s up to him to redeem things by excessive generosity to this aunt he’d not known until he was fifty-three.

Betty can be warm with considerable spirit but is also formidable – her father left his mark.

If severing connection to her baby made such impact on Nancy, why did Betty never worry that this cut might also lie deep in Douglas?

Being ready to do what Betty seemed to expect of him looked an easier option, for Douglas and for her, than wondering about his rejection or that he carried guilt.

But it is possible that I am just a more resentful person than he is.

We had to leave our difference there for eleven years.

Betty required more help as she aged.

Did she think Douglas, now in his sixties, owed her?

Her own son came back intermittently, though we barely saw him.

Betty told us he was grateful and perhaps he was. He made no effort to show it.

Then Betty had a stroke and he flew back.

Almost immediately there were a couple more strokes and he made it clear that Douglas need not visit.

He only rang several days after Betty’s death to invite us to attend the funeral.

“I know you were fond of her,” he said to Douglas.

It was Betty’s niece who came to visit a few weeks later.

She did not intend a cruel blow when she said it didn’t seem at all right to her if the five children of Betty’s three brothers were in the will and not Douglas.

There was far more money than anyone expected and most of it went to Betty’s son but there were some small legacies for each of the legitimate nieces and nephews, none of whom had been attentive as adults.

By the end of that week Douglas was back on the GP’s pills.

“One cup or a couple of plates would have been enough,” he said when Betty, her father’s daughter after all, failed to acknowledge him, her sister’s only child, as family.