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Should I have told my dying friend her husband was having an affair?

We met as parents in the school playground. Jane and I were never very close, but we shared that easy intimacy that comes from exchanging wry grins in the mornings, both often within a hair’s breadth of delivering our offspring late. 

We sat through class assemblies together, trying to quieten wriggling toddlers who threatened to disrupt their siblings’ big moments. When Jane was diagnosed with cancer, every mother in the class was appalled — it was as if someone had thrown a hand grenade into the cosy, predictable world of primary school. 

The chatter at the school gate was silenced — how could we complain any more about sleep deprivation, spelling tests or the other small stresses of parenthood? And no one wanted to gossip either. The two or three women who knew Jane best murmured seriously to each other while the rest of us cast sympathetic smiles in their direction. 

Jane, who was only in her 30s, was extraordinarily brave. When she reappeared at the school gate in between bouts of chemo, sporting a knitted hat and looking slightly older, thinner and wiser, I tried to find things to say that sounded neither trite nor too solemn. ‘Great hat,’ I said. Or just ‘Really nice to see you.’ 

Rachel Hancox explains how she caught her friend’s husband having an affair. UK-based author describes how her friend was deteriorating from cancer

Little did I know I would soon find out something so devastating that it would make her heartbreaking situation even worse. 

I’d only ever met Jane’s husband John a few times, at school events. He was tall, wiry, good-looking with long, curling hair, very dark eyes and a way of fixing his gaze on you, even when you were only exchanging a word or two. It was definitely him in the garden centre cafe, fixing that intense look on the mother of a child in another class at our school. She was a recent divorcee with shiny blonde hair who we’d all believed had run off with her yoga teacher. 

Maybe there was nothing to it, I told myself. I could imagine John needed support. I even felt guilty for thinking he could be flirting with another woman while his wife was so ill. I walked, out of the cafe and back to the bedding plants. 

But then I spotted them again — in a clinch among the climbing roses. There was no mistaking what was going on now. 

For a few moments I stood rooted to the spot, too shocked and dismayed to move. Perhaps I should have called out? Perhaps I should have walked on towards them until they spotted me? But I was a coward. I dumped my basket and rushed back to my car. 

I did my best to avoid Jane at school for the next few weeks. I was waiting for the news to break, as surely I couldn’t be the only one who knew what was going on? 

 Every fibre of my being wanted him punished

Meanwhile, I lay awake at night worrying about whether I should say anything — to Jane, her husband or the Other Woman. I railed against men, wondering how anyone could be so heartless. 

Bumping into one of Jane’s friends at the school’s spring fair, I asked, quaveringly, how Jane was and held my breath for the answer. ‘Not great,’ she said. ‘Back in hospital.’ ‘How awful,’ I said. I wasn’t thinking only of Jane’s condition. I couldn’t get the image of John among the roses out of my head. 

The friend was eager to tell me how marvellous John had been and how Jane couldn’t have picked a better husband. I really hoped my feelings didn’t show in my face — the doubt and dismay. 

I tried to persuade myself I’d been mistaken after that — or it had been a one-off thing, a mad moment. Anyone could forgive him for that, surely? 

But my hopes were proved wrong. A week or two later, I saw the pair of them again. 

Once more, it was somewhere they may not have expected to encounter anyone who knew them. I was out for the day with my parents and my son at a National Trust garden — and John and the Other Woman were there too. They were holding hands and, as I watched newly horrified, he leaned in for a kiss. 

Rachel describes how she tried to persuade herself she had been mistaken or that it had been a one-off thing

Rachel describes how she tried to persuade herself she had been mistaken or that it had been a one-off thing

There was no doubt now. He was having an affair. His wife was in hospital being treated for cancer and he was kissing someone else in the garden of a stately home. ‘What’s wrong?’ my mum asked, but I shook my head. If I had told her, I’d have had to discuss what I ought to do and then I might feel obliged to do it. 

I hated having this dire secret weighing on me, but I was terrified of doing the wrong thing and it felt better to pretend I didn’t know. It wasn’t mere cowardice nor was it just the strange shame of being the person — perhaps the only person — who knew what was going on. It was also that I really, really didn’t know what to do. 

Jane had cancer and her husband was having a fling. And, however tough things were for him, every fibre of my being screamed that it was wrong and he deserved to be punished. 

But there was no way to punish him without Jane finding out, and how could I do that to her? 

Perhaps, I thought, I should find a way to speak to him, to tell him to stop. But then I’d be in on the secret too — I’d be complicit. If the truth ever came out, could I bear Jane to blame me? To ask why I hadn’t told her? 

 I felt strangely embarrassed, as if it was my fault

Hang on, though — wasn’t that about protecting me, not her? What was best for her in this awful situation? ‘John’s so marvellous,’ I remembered her friend saying. ‘He’s really doing everything.’ How on Earth could I pull the rug out from under her and perhaps risk the marriage falling apart? 

Sadly, my dilemma didn’t last long. Jane’s cancer advanced more rapidly than anyone expected and, a few months later, she was dead. 

At the school gate, everyone was frozen with shock. People touched John’s arm, told him they knew what a fantastic support he’d been to his wife. I kept silent, but was plagued by the idea that Jane had found out about the affair — and it had made her last weeks even more intolerable. When John began appearing in public with the Other Woman a couple of months after Jane died, a few people made comments — ‘He didn’t wait very long, did he?’ — but most were pleased for him. They felt he deserved some happiness, and even said it was what Jane would have wanted. It was clear no one else had suspected. 

I felt strangely embarrassed — as though it was somehow my fault that things were more complicated than anyone realised. 

I was glad that I was busy at work and wasn’t often there at the school gate for the rest of term. But I played things through in my head over and over again. 

Suppose Jane had recovered and John had left her — could I have stopped that by intervening? Suppose she’d recovered and he hadn’t left her — would it have been better that she never knew? 

After her friend passed away, Rachel says that the husband started appearing in public with the other woman. Many people were pleased for him, praising him for being a 'fantastic support' for his dying wife

After her friend passed away, Rachel says that the husband started appearing in public with the other woman. Many people were pleased for him, praising him for being a ‘fantastic support’ for his dying wife

Perhaps the affair had given him whatever he needed to play the role of the devoted husband during that traumatic time? 

If it had, was the bargain a reasonable one? I’ll never know the answer to those questions. 

But I still think about them, even after several years. I still wonder if I did the wrong thing. 

I wonder whether we can forgive adultery in some circumstances — if it doesn’t harm the other party and even, arguably, has some benefits for them. 

And whether any of us can judge what other people do under unimaginable stress.

  • Rachel Hancox is author of The Shadow Child, published by Century. Identifying details have been changed.