Why is it so hard to escape shadow of the first wife? He’d been divorced two years, but finding a photo of her husband’s ex still left CLAIRE CALMAN riddled with self-doubt
Hunting for a roll of sticky-tape, I came across a photograph in a drawer, face up in a silver frame.
I had never seen the woman in the picture before, yet I knew at once who she was.
Her hair was light brown and there was a soft smile on her lips.
I knew who she must be — because there was a man, too, a man half turned away from the camera towards the woman, while she looked at him adoringly. The man was my boyfriend — now husband — and the woman his ex-wife.
At that moment, standing in my boyfriend’s flat, I felt the same as when I was punched in the stomach in the playground — winded, breathless, as if a supernatural force had given the ground beneath me a tug, sending me reeling. I examined the photo: was Wife Number One more attractive than me? Slimmer than me? Altogether better than me?
There was no need for competition — she and my partner had been divorced for two years before we met. And yet, I couldn’t help wondering if I measured up. He never said anything to indicate I was lesser, so there was no solid foundation for my self-doubt, but I wondered if, secretly, I was a disappointment, a make-do substitute.
I met my husband, Larry, through work, his company published my first novel, and I knew he was divorced. It didn’t bother me. He was 39, I’d have been worried if he’d never had a serious relationship.
Before we got married, Larry and I lived together for a year in the flat where he’d lived with his first wife. After his divorce, he had partly refurbished the flat, revamping the bedroom, his study, the bathroom, but the kitchen and living room remained the same.
The kitchen was anonymous — white, functional, unremarkable. The living room was another matter: it was First Wife Central, with the sofas, coffee table and blinds chosen during their time together.
At the windows hung blue Roman blinds emblazoned with cream and red flowers: striking, but not my taste. By the windows stood a veneered dining table with ornate legs — so wide that at dinner parties you had to shout to talk to the guest opposite. I’m more of a pine kitchen table sort. Between the two patterned sofas skulked a glass-topped coffee table.
This coffee table became the epicentre of my unease about living in a flat where another woman had been Queen Bee.
The glass top was set into a metal surround with scrolled legs that curved out, creating a trip hazard. The sharp corners were at the perfect height to scrape my shins, making me feel like an unwelcome visitor. Around the sides were coloured glass roundels, the kind you’d see in a pub trying to be Olde Worlde. I hated it.
Eventually, I confessed to Larry how much I disliked it and he said: ‘OK, let’s get rid of it. I don’t love it.’ Why on earth hadn’t I asked earlier? It never occurred to me he would be so willing to do something just to make me happy.
We hefted the table outside to take it to the dump, then realised, as it didn’t come apart, that it was too big for the car.
I had an idea. I had moved back to London to be with my fiance from a village in Kent where, once a month, we held a Help Yourself Day. You could put anything usable outside your door with a ‘Help Yourself’ sign. Larry was sceptical, but agreed. We put the table outside and taped a sign to the glass top, then went for lunch. When we came back, it had gone. My shins and my anxieties began to heal.
The author Daphne du Maurier captured the insecurities of the second wife in her psychological thriller Rebecca, where the beautiful, sophisticated first wife, though dead, dominates the story and casts a shadow over the second wife.
The heroine is deliberately left nameless throughout to mark how eclipsed she feels by Rebecca. When I came to write my new novel, A Second-Hand Husband, what intrigued me was both my own experience of being a second wife and my memories of growing up in a complicated and unconventional step-family.
My parents separated when I was two years old and, a few years later, my dad, cartoonist Mel Calman, met Karen, an artist and designer. She was six-foot tall (considerably taller than him), talented, with flaming red hair. My mother, Pat, had also met someone else and, by this stage, my parents got on.
I lived with my mum and older sister, Stephanie, in a rented flat on the second floor of an Edwardian block in Bloomsbury.
When the flat above ours became available, my father and step-mother decided to rent it.
Karen’s children from her first marriage were away at boarding school, or living with their dad, so we mostly saw them during the school holidays.
We didn’t question why they moved so close. Whatever you live with, as a child, is what’s normal. It seemed practical. My parents’ reasoning was that we’d move between the two flats easily. The main up-side was seeing more of my dad rather than just for weekend visits.
As an adult, I look back and wonder how it must have been for my step-mother, living with her husband’s first wife below. And how did my mother feel, with a much younger Wife Number Two living above her? The two women were outwardly friendly — both artistic, beautiful, intelligent — and I know they admired each other’s talents.
I never heard them argue, but would they have been happier if the two flats had been a few streets apart? How close is too close?
Reflecting on my experience, in some ways, perhaps it was worse I never met my husband’s first wife — as it meant there was no reality to counteract my imagined version of her. I did ask him about aspects of their wedding, because I wanted ours to be different, but after that we rarely spoke about her.
In Rebecca, the fact the first wife is dead means the second wife builds up a distorted image of her, fed by her own insecurity.
I was lucky in that my husband didn’t have children with his first wife so there was no reason for them to stay in touch, no need for discussions or joint decisions that would have affected our lives.
Next year, we will have been married for 20 years. Our son is 17. The shadow of the first wife has long since faded.
A Second-Hand Husband by Claire Calman (£8.99, Boldwood Books) is out now.