‘I WANTED US TO STAY TO­GETHER FOR OUR SON, BUT I WAS CUL­TI­VAT­ING MIS­ERY’

Nov­el­ist Al­le­gra Hus­ton ex­plains why break­ing up is some­times for the best

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It seemed to me an English thing: a mar­ried cou­ple sleep­ing in sep­a­rate bed­rooms, lead­ing sep­a­rate lives. ‘Pre­tend­ing’ to be mar­ried, as I thought of it when I was in my 20s. I saw it as pas­sion­less, unimag­i­na­tive, con­ven­tional, ‘po­lite’. It ap­palled me. Life should be fo­cused on ro­man­tic love: pas­sion­ate, exclusive, face to face. If not Pride and Prej­u­dice or Per­sua­sion, then Wuther­ing Heights.

I also dis­ap­proved of such ar­range­ments for ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons. They re­quire money – ideally the kind that just makes its way into your bank ac­count un­der its own steam – and a house large enough to pro­vide those sep­a­rate bed­rooms; ex­pres­sions of priv­i­lege that of­fended my egal­i­tar­ian heart.

Of course that kind of ar­range­ment isn’t just an English thing. It’s very much a French thing and an Ital­ian thing, too. But not, I thought, an Amer­i­can thing. Amer­i­cans just get a di­vorce.

I am English and Amer­i­can: Amer­i­can when I’m in Eng­land and English when I’m in Amer­ica, which is where I was when, four years ago, I un­der­stood the pos­si­bil­i­ties of such an ar­range­ment and wanted one for my­self. The fact that I wasn’t tech­ni­cally Op­po­site: Al­le­gra and Cisco with their son Rafael in New Mex­ico, 2004

mar­ried to Cisco, the fa­ther of my child, made no dif­fer­ence to me; I had no in­ten­tion of ever leav­ing him.

Cisco and I used to joke that the rea­son we didn’t marry was so that we could never get di­vorced. But at my 49th birth­day party I re­alised that I could no longer go on pre­tend­ing we were a loving cou­ple. He gave a speech to the ef­fect that the best thing about be­ing with me was my won­der­ful friends. (It sounded bet­ter at the time.) Then he kissed me, an os­ten­ta­tiously long, pas­sion­less smooch that was, ba­si­cally, a mark of own­er­ship. I felt like a fire hy­drant.

I had asked for no presents, but even so I re­ceived one: an apri­cot tree seedling from a friend. The tree died. Of course it did. But I had been dead in­side for…I didn’t even know how long. A cou­ple of years maybe? Longer than that? I had already ar­tic­u­lated to my­self that I no longer knew what joy felt like. That re­al­i­sa­tion shocked me deeply. The name my mother gave me means ‘joy’. She died when I was four and it’s one of the few things of hers that I have. The thought that I was let­ting her down over­whelmed me with de­spair.

How had I come to this? The life I’d built in Taos, New Mex­ico, where I’ve lived for nearly 19 years now, while vastly sur­pris­ing to the friends who had known me in Lon­don was, in my eyes, nearly idyl­lic. Af­ter a chain of co­in­ci­dences, I’d fetched up in a beau­ti­ful and his­toric town, pop­u­lated by un­con­ven­tional peo­ple, with an un­usual and charis­matic man by my side, work­ing hard but on my own terms. We had de­signed and built a house to­gether. I was still de­ter­mined that this re­la­tion­ship would en­dure un­til one of us left feet first. I am a child of sep­a­ra­tion and di­vorce – even that is a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. Though I learned to be grate­ful for it, since I wouldn’t have had the life and fam­ily I’ve had with­out it, I wanted noth­ing like it for my own child.

For two years I drew floor plans for the new house. It would be U-shaped, with a court­yard in the mid­dle, but which rooms would go where? Mas­ter bed­room on one side, chil­dren’s wing on the other? (I hoped that once we had more space my step­son would spend the night of­ten.) No – if my son cried in the night I wanted to be able to hear him. All the bed­rooms to­gether in the tra­di­tional ha­cienda ar­range­ment of pub­lic side/pri­vate side? No – we wouldn’t have enough pri­vacy. Even­tu­ally I fig­ured it out: close but not too close, and the mas­ter bed­room big enough for a king-size bed. In our old house Cisco had of­ten slept on the sofa but I ig­nored that fact as I drew my plans. There were ex­cuses: I was a bad bed­mate, first be­cause I was preg­nant and hot as a ra­di­a­tor, and then be­cause the baby slept in our bed­room. Things would be dif­fer­ent in the new house.

Look­ing back I can see that was my first fail­ure. We should have ac­knowl­edged it then: we were lousy house­mates. Cisco likes shadow; I like sun­light. He finds the drone of the TV sooth­ing; I find it crazy-mak­ing. If we’d built a house in which we could have lived sep­a­rately and met in the mid­dle, per­haps we would still be to­gether. But we never faced up to the dis­tances that were already grow­ing be­tween us. Since I was a teenager I’d loved to lie in bed de­sign­ing my house, which of course was built for a ‘nor­mal’ fam­ily. Fan­tasies built over decades don’t crum­ble eas­ily.

Five years later we moved into the new house, and soon Cisco took up night-time res­i­dence on the sofa again since I re­fused to have a TV in the bed­room. I hated that he slept there, both be­cause it gave the lie to the life I was still in­sist­ing to my­self I was liv­ing and be­cause it made the re­al­ity so ob­vi­ous to visi­tors, es­pe­cially when he nailed up blan­kets over the win­dows. He could have moved him­self and a TV into the guest room but nei­ther of us ever broached the sub­ject. We were drift­ing apart and we didn’t dare ad­mit it. Ir­ri­ta­tion and dis­like were grow­ing in the dark.

We didn’t fight; we sim­ply be­gan to avoid each other. In sum­mer he bus­ied him­self with his white-water raft­ing com­pany un­til late at night; in win­ter he lay on the sofa with bron­chi­tis – it seemed he was sick for three months of the year. Mum­mi­fied in the head­phones he’d set­tled into be­cause I couldn’t bear the TV noise, he watched end­less shows about hoard­ers and ex­treme fish­ing, and I moved my workspace to the kitchen ta­ble. I felt trapped there, be­hind the wall of un­ac­knowl­edged re­sent­ment hang­ing be­tween us. I’d al­most hold my breath as I walked to the front door; it felt like run­ning a gaunt­let.

Ev­ery day our son made his way through this silent land­scape. One day, when he was about ten, his fa­ther said to me, ‘He hates me and I’m re­signed to it.’ I was hor­ri­fied: more by the sec­ond half of the sen­tence than by the first. I booked us into fam­ily ther­apy. ‘Of course he doesn’t hate you,’ said the ther­a­pist. Well, duh, I said to my­self; it’s be­cause his fa­ther doesn’t have time or en­ergy for him. But nei­ther did I. We had both sunk into the same gloomy las­si­tude.

Our son started hav­ing be­havioural prob­lems at school. On the evening of his first day back af­ter the Christ­mas break he an­nounced that he wanted to go to a dif­fer­ent school. We sat down for a fam­ily talk, in which I ended up do­ing most of the talk­ing. You can’t run away from your prob­lems, I told him. You have to face the re­al­ity

of the sit­u­a­tion, be hon­est with your­self. If you have is­sues with other peo­ple, you have to find a way of work­ing them out. I was proud of my­self: I was be­ing calm, ra­tio­nal, loving but not in­dul­gent. Our son agreed to stay where he was. ‘Good par­ent­ing, babe,’ his fa­ther said, pat­ting me on the shoul­der, at which point my heart thud­ded on to the floor. I knew in that in­stant that I was a hyp­ocrite. I’ve al­ways been pretty good at what I call ostrich pose: putting my head in the sand, ig­nor­ing re­al­i­ties I don’t want to face. Here I was telling my son to do things I wasn’t pre­pared to do my­self. Sud­denly I saw that his prob­lems were caused, at least to some de­gree, by my re­fusal to face my own.

The fol­low­ing night, I ap­proached the sofa where Cisco lay. I talked about the ele­phant in the room that nei­ther of us was ac­knowl­edg­ing: the fact that we were not in a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship any more. But I was firm about one thing: I did not want to break up our fam­ily life in the house we’d built. He agreed to adapt the work­shop, which had already be­come his of­fice and ping-pong room, into his liv­ing quar­ters. We’d live ‘to­gether but not to­gether’ – just like those cou­ples I’d sneered at in my 20s, not un­der­stand­ing the lengths to which one will go to pro­tect a fam­ily and a dream.

Would I sleep with other peo­ple? he asked. I replied that I didn’t know. I had known for some time, with cer­tainty, that I didn’t care if he did. He cared if I did though and af­ter two weeks he broke un­der the pres­sure. That must be why I’d forced the issue, he de­cided, and af­ter tak­ing our son to visit his fam­ily for the week­end he an­grily re­fused to re­turn to the house.

The trans­for­ma­tion in the house was im­me­di­ate. My son and I cleaned, we ti­died, we took down the blan­kets shroud­ing the win­dows. One night he said, out of nowhere, ‘You know, Mum, since the changes in the house, I think my be­hav­iour has got a lot bet­ter.’ Those words – ‘the changes in the house’ – were his favourite short­hand for his dad mov­ing out. Such self-aware­ness from an 11-year- old sur­prised and im­pressed me. It was true: a cloud had been lifted from him. Liv­ing in a house with two mis­er­able peo­ple had made him mis­er­able, too.

A few months later he put it more vividly: ‘There used to be only one and a half liv­ing things in this house,’ he said, mean­ing him­self, a half-alive me and his fa­ther dead­ened on the sofa. ‘Now there are three!’ Mean­ing him, all of me and Archimedes the cat. ‘I’d rather have mice,’ his fa­ther used to say when the sub­ject of get­ting a cat came up, so once Cisco left I promised my son we’d adopt the kit­ten he’d been beg­ging for. Archimedes be­came, for me, the em­bod­i­ment of the life force that I was des­per­ate to infuse into the house. When Archimedes dis­ap­peared, I’d panic that the coy­otes had got him. I was a ner­vous wreck, liv­ing on fi­nan­cial ten­ter­hooks, be­ing bar­raged by lawyers and writs and mo­tions. But Archimedes al­ways reap­peared, big­ger and stronger, and af­ter about six months the le­gal bar­rage died away (thanks to the ef­forts of an an­gelic friend), the ici­ness thawed, and Cisco and I were back on speak­ing terms.

Those six months were hard on our son. Cisco and I both wanted to avoid mak­ing him a bat­tle­ground but even so, per­haps in­evitably, he be­came one. The prob­lems at school re­turned with a vengeance; he be­came su­per-sen­si­tive to slights and phys­i­cal pain, and he had a hair-trig­ger tem­per. But as things eased be­tween his par­ents, they eased in him. Now Cisco and I are warm with each other again, as I al­ways hoped we would be, even if we weren’t to­gether. We have ‘fam­ily din­ner’ ev­ery week or so and we re­mem­ber why we liked each other in the first place. And our son, who is now 14, has be­come calm, re­silient and funny.

Could I have pro­tected him from the pain he went through? And if I could have, would it have been bet­ter for him? Knee-jerk an­swer: of course it would have been bet­ter. But, truly, I don’t think so. I’d told him what to do that night he wanted to change schools; but telling is weak medicine. Chil­dren learn from what you do, not from what you tell them to do. When you live to­gether, deny­ing re­al­ity and dy­ing in­side, you teach avoid­ance. You teach that mis­ery is an ac­cept­able emo­tional state.

But could we have kept the fam­ily to­gether in the way I used to de­spise, and have since come to ad­mire, liv­ing to­gether har­mo­niously with par­tially sep­a­rate lives? It would have re­quired com­mu­ni­ca­tion more fear­less than we were able to achieve; an abil­ity to adapt to re­al­ity rather than try to force re­al­ity to adapt to our pre­con­ceived no­tions – our fan­tasies – of what a fam­ily should be.

You may ar­gue with me, and in­sist that an en­dur­ing ro­mance need not be a fan­tasy. I will an­swer that those lovers are the lucky ones. We all hope that we will count our­selves among them but, how­ever care­fully we’ve cho­sen, in the end many of us can­not. Then what? I wanted us to stay to­gether for the sake of our child – and I was fu­ri­ous when Plan A failed. I thought I was cul­ti­vat­ing sta­bil­ity when in fact I was cul­ti­vat­ing mis­ery. But Plan Z– a sce­nario I never wanted and was des­per­ate to avoid – turned out to be the path to hap­pi­ness for all three of us. Al­le­gra Hus­ton, a writer and ed­i­tor, is the daugh­ter of bal­le­rina En­rica Soma and John Julius Nor­wich (Vis­count Nor­wich). Af­ter her mother died in a car ac­ci­dent, she was brought up in Ire­land by the film di­rec­tor John Hus­ton, her mother’s es­tranged hus­band. Her sib­lings in­clude ac­tress and di­rec­tor An­jel­ica Hus­ton, writer Tony Hus­ton, ac­tor and di­rec­tor Danny Hus­ton, writer Artemis Cooper and ar­chi­tect Ja­son Cooper. Her book about her up­bring­ing, Love Child: A Mem­oir of Fam­ily Lost and Found, was pub­lished in 2009 to great ac­claim.

Al­le­gra’s first novel, Say My Name, is pub­lished by HarperCollins, price £12.99. To order a copy for £9.74 (a 25 per cent dis­count) un­til 17 Septem­ber, go to you-book­shop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on or­ders over £15. For de­tails of the mem­oir writ­ing work­shop Al­le­gra is hold­ing in Mal­lorca from 22-27 Oc­to­ber, visit al­le­grahus­ton.com

My son’s prob­lems were caused, at least to some de­gree, by my re­fusal to face my own

Al­le­gra, far left, and with Cisco at Rafael’s chris­ten­ing, above; fa­ther and son raft­ing on the Rio Grande in 2003, left; Rafael with Archimedes the cat, be­low

Al­le­gra with Rafael in 2014, above, and with her half-sis­ter An­jel­ica Hus­ton, left

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