My friend Helen has a secret and, in telling me, she’s made it mine too. I wish she hadn’t because now it feels like a burden. Try as I might, I can’t un-hear what she said and can’t un-know what I learned.
We’d met as usual at Julie’s in Oban, selecting our favourite table and enjoying the mixed aromas of coffee and sweet cakes. After our usual blethering to catch up, Helen had leaned forward and put her hand over mine.
“Alice, there’s something I’m bursting to tell you” she said. I smiled and wondered briefly if she was pregnant.
“I’m having an affair.” She whispered in an excited and conspiratorial tone. I must have looked shocked because she sat back in her chair.
“You don’t approve” was her challenge.
“I’m... I’m just surprised” I said, struggling to sound reassuring and not judgemental. “I had no idea.”
I suppose, looking back, I’d been blind to the clues, the slimmer figure, the change of hairstyle, an animation in her manner; but I would never have suspected this. I became aware that Helen was leaning forward talking again and, as she trod on the fragile eggshells of truth, I learned how they met, connected and stepped into this dangerous dance.
“But what about Derek?” I found myself asking.
“Oh God, he doesn’t know and he mustn’t find out! You must never tell him.” Helen emphasised this by again covering my hand with hers. And there it was; I was drawn into her secret.
As we sat Helen talked about her lover, his smile, his eyes, the way he dressed, it struck me she sounded like a lovesick teenager. I tried to give the right responses and reactions but my mind was already on a different track.
We were interrupted by her ring tone and, judging by the giggling and flirting, this was her lover. It gave me time to ponder; I never thought Helen would have an affair because her husband Derek is so nice. I really like him, we all do, he’s funny, romantic and kind; we were all delighted when they threw in their lot together. But, apparently, he’s not romantic, funny or kind enough for her now, she’s looked elsewhere. Although the man she’d just told me about didn’t sound as nice as Derek, maybe she’s attracted to a different, possibly darker side of him that her husband doesn’t have.
When Helen eventually finished her call with whispered endearments, she unnecessarily informed me it had been her lover. We continued our chat, eventually moving away from her affair and onto sharing news of friends and family. I tried to react to her in the way I would normally, but part of me was already in a quandary. We parted having made arrangements to meet again.
As I wandered away I couldn’t stop thinking about the situation. Helen and I have known each other since infant school, a friendship forged over Lego bricks, play dough and paint pots and developed through exams, make up, boyfriends and the first tastes of alcohol. We’d shared everything and always remained close wherever life took us. But this was something new. My dilemma is what do I do now? When I see Derek I won’t know what to say and can anticipate being embarrassed. I don’t ‘do’ secrets, never have, and I don’t like lying to people, even by omission. If he sees my embarrassment will he guess?
In the weeks since Helen first told me, things have got worse. She phoned last week and said she’d told Derek she’d been with me on Tuesday when she was with her lover. She’s asked me to cover for her if it comes up with Derek. I was horrified; it felt like one of those dreams where you’re dragged unwittingly onto the dance floor even though you don’t know the steps.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Helen phoned again yesterday and told me she’s going to see her lover on Wednesday and she’s told Derek she’s going to be with me, and to give her an alibi if he happens to call. I can feel myself being pulled ever deeper into Helen’s dissembling like being sucked into the swirling depths of a whirlpool. I feel trapped by her lies. This isn’t my life, it’s hers, but she’s making it mine.
I feel as if Helen’s stretching the bonds of friendship too far, but I also think she’ll be hurt if I say no. In her somewhat selfish pursuit of her adventure she’s blind to what it’s doing to me. I’m hurt that she wants to drag me into her subterfuge. I’m not judging her, it’s her life and she must live it as she may, but she’s forced me unwittingly to become part of the deception.
I don’t know what to do, my mind’s whirling with the strain of it all, words are buzzing in my head: ‘lies’, ‘deceit’, ‘suspicion’, ‘alibi’, ‘cover up’. Other words like ‘truth’, ‘exposure’ and ‘confession’ are also drumming in my skull. If I refuse to co-operate will I mortally wound our friendship? That would hurt me a great deal, but then I think Helen has pushed the limits of friendship to breaking point. I’ve also thought a lot about Derek; I can’t help but feel immensely sorry for him in his innocence of this cheating. I’ve also had to keep this secret from my own husband because I know, unbound by friendship with Helen, he would tell Derek in an instant. I’ve even been tempted to tell Derek myself but that would feel like betraying Helen and it’s difficult to be the bearer of such devastating news. The consequences of either of those courses of action are intolerable to me.
And yet, here I am, sitting by the phone about to make a call. Who shall I call and what shall I say to them?