Awesome forgiveness? Or devilish revenge?
Posted: Jun 13, 2014
Awesome forgiveness? Or devilish revenge? The cheated wife who made her husband's mistress part of the family and created Britain's most unlikely best friends
They share a passion for adventure, culture and travel. They go to the opera together, to the theatre, to football matches. David and Mary Harper and their friend Gilda have, for the past 16 years, enjoyed a most remarkable closeness.
Despite the fact that the Harpers live in Sussex and Gilda in Frankfurt, they meet regularly.
A few years ago, they all went on a cycling tour of northern Spain — not on individual bikes but on a £4,000, three-person cycle that David built for them. He mischievously dubbed it The Threesome. They even wore matching cycling gear. Gilda took the middle seat behind David, who steered, with Mary, who is the shortest, at the rear.
If this arrangement seems remarkably close, it is all the more incredible when you consider its origins. For while he was working away from home in Germany, in 1998, Gilda was David’s mistress.
The Harpers had been happily married for 20 years when Gilda and David began their affair.
David, then aged 40, was European marketing director of a large multinational company and the father of two teenage boys. Gilda, an economics student at Frankfurt University, was single and 13 years his junior. When she discovered her husband’s betrayal, Mary, a computer programmer, was distraught. Yet today she feels a sisterly bond with 43-year-old Gilda, who is now a commercial pilot, divorced, and the mother of eight-year-old twins.
As for David, he’s relaxed enough to crack those jokes about their Threesome bicycle. The sheer effrontery of it seems boggling.
Isn’t Mary irked by her husband’s none-too-subtle suggestion of a menage a trois? Doesn’t she resent her erstwhile rival’s constant presence in their lives? Is she certain a vestige of attraction does not persist between her husband — now 56 — and the beautiful, leggy, much younger Gilda? And what in heaven’s name are the sleeping arrangements on their holidays?
Extraordinarily, Mary laughs at these questions — and even claims that making friends with her husband’s former lover has helped her marriage.
- Gilda has become a very good friend,’ she says. ‘I care about her as I would a sister, and genuinely enjoy her company. We all laugh about The Threesome, but I know there is no frisson between David and Gilda now, and there wasn’t on that cycling break either.
When we’re on holiday, we retire to our double room, Gilda to her single.
- It took me about four years to totally trust David, but I don’t worry any more. Actually, I feel our marriage is safer since his affair.
- And to be jealous about his cerebral relationship with Gilda would be to suggest I had no confidence in myself. I’m not a little mouse. I’m not dull or unintelligent. So I don’t perceive Gilda — funny and clever though she is — as a threat.
- Her affair with David made us realise what we valued most was each other. We’re still madly in love. I still feel a little leap of the heart every time his car turns into the drive.’
For Gilda, it seems, the conclusion is a similarly happy one and she seems to carry not a jot of guilt.
- Today, I love both David and Mary in a platonic way,’ she says. ‘They are wonderful: funny, loyal and, above all, honest.’
So how on Earth did three people who would, in normal circumstances, be bitter adversaries, become the most genial of friends? The answer, it seems, turns on Mary’s remarkable response to her husband’s infidelity — which is described in a book, Counting Wild Strawberries, in which David, writing under a pseudonym, tells their incredible story.
The Harpers had what appeared to be a solid, happy marriage when David strayed. They’d met at Glasgow University (he was studying biology, Mary mathematics) and fell in love when they were both 19. They started living together after their first date, and married three years later, in 1980.
Their relationship was affectionate, and they insist they enjoyed a satisfying sex life. David says he missed Mary’s companionship acutely when, in 1998, his job took him on a year’s secondment to Frankfurt.
They’d discussed moving there en famille, but it would have been too disruptive for their sons. So Mary stayed put at the family home, and David returned every weekend.
But during the week, he says, he felt isolated. ‘I’d spent all my adult life with Mary. Living on my own was a big shock to the system.’
In an attempt to forge a social life, David joined a backgammon club in Frankfurt. It was there he met Gilda — and instantly they hit it off.
Later that evening, she took David back to her attic flat. She assured him she was too busy studying for her finals to want commitment, but said she was amenable to sex.
For David, who was missing the physical intimacy of his marriage, the offer was too tempting to resist.
- It was completely unexpected,’ he says. ‘Yes, I felt guilty and wondered whether there’d be consequences — but I told myself I wouldn’t have to make excuses to Mary about where I was, or lie to her, so I thought I’d be able to keep my two lives separate.’
For six weeks or so, David did just that. He enjoyed regular sex with Gilda in the week — and more sex with his wife at weekends.
But if he thought his duplicity would remain unnoticed, he had underestimated Mary.
- David phoned me one day and he seemed remote and unhappy,’ she recalls. ‘It was so uncharacteristic, I knew something must be wrong.
- Immediately I said: "Are you seeing someone?" and he just said: "Yes". He didn’t lie or prevaricate, and I took some comfort in that. But I was too shocked to speak. I burst into tears.
- That night, I lay on the sofa crying and listening to Puccini’s Madam Butterfly. It’s a tragic opera and it matched my mood. I had such a dull ache in my chest, I thought: "This is what they mean by a broken heart."’
Mary thought hard, too, worrying what she would say to the husband she still loved and how best to achieve the outcome she wanted.
She admits to having the careful, appraising mind of a scientist. She was distraught and bitterly hurt, but she didn’t want to lose David. So how would she ensure that he stayed?
What she did was counterintuitive. Mary resolved to give David the choice — to allow him to make the decision about whether to continue his affair. ‘Even though the thought of him and Gilda together made me feel physically and emotionally sick, I knew I wasn’t going to force him into making a decision,’ she says.
- I couldn’t say "It’s her or me" because he might have chosen Gilda, and I couldn’t take that risk.’
David, meanwhile, had woken up to the gravity of his actions, and the next day flew home to see Mary. ‘I told her the truth about it all because I’d never lied to her before and I wasn’t going to start,’ he says.
- I knew how much I loved Mary, but when it became clear she wasn’t insisting I end the affair, selfish as I was, at that stage I didn’t offer to.’
David returned to Frankfurt and Gilda. Mary put on a bright face for her sons, went back to work and settled on a strategy.
She told David: ‘I want to meet this woman.’
Mary’s sense of betrayal almost consumed her, but equally pressing was her need to know her adversary. She flew to Frankfurt.
- Gilda was in the arrivals hall trying to identify me from a photo David had given her,’ Mary recalls.
- She didn’t look like a siren or husband-stealer. She was tall and slender, and she’d dressed down in jeans and a T-shirt.
- I had, too. I didn’t want her to think I’d made any special effort.
DID YOU KNOW?
25.4 per cent of married men and 18.3 per cent of married women have cheated on their current spouses at least once
- Gilda shook my hand warmly and said she was pleased to meet me. "We’ll see about that," I said dryly, but I didn’t feel threatened.’
Gilda, meanwhile, was forming her own opinions of Mary. ‘When I met David, I hadn’t known he was married — but when he told me he was, I felt he should tell his wife. Perhaps it sounds strange in this context, but I’m a truthful person.’
Indeed, Gilda says she felt she owed it to Mary to meet her. ‘Of course, I was nervous when I met Mary — who wouldn’t be? A friend had joked: "At least she won’t be carrying a gun if she’s just got off a plane."
- She arrived wearing an almost identical outfit to mine — which broke the ice. And it didn’t take me long to realise she was an astonishing, warm-hearted person.
- Within seconds of meeting her, I knew that she was special. I knew why David loved her so much.’
What ensued was exceptional. Most scorned wives would have been corroded with bitterness, but Mary was much shrewder. She kept a cool head, fought her jealous instincts — and found herself liking the young woman who was still sharing her husband’s bed.
- If Gilda had been cold or calculating, if I’d thought she was a gold-digger trying to muscle in on my marriage, I would have detested her.
- But she seemed open and pleasant — even friendly.’
So instead of recrimination there was unexpected civility, and Mary agreed to go for a drink with Gilda. The women somehow felt an instant bond.
They shared confidences and almost forgot the betrayal that had brought them together.
- Then, on impulse, Gilda asked me if I’d like to go with her to see The Rocky Horror Show,’ recalls Mary. ‘I said: "But what about David?" I knew he’d be waiting anxiously for me.
- Gilda laughed and said: "Oh s*d him!" and I thought: "Yes, she’s right." So we went to the theatre, and David sat there stewing until 1am, worrying about what on Earth was happening between the two of us, and what we could have been talking about for six hours.’
Mary insists that she could instantly see how independent Gilda was, and knew she had no intention of stealing David from her for good. Subtly, the balance of power was shifting.
That evening, David found himself marginalised as Mary and Gilda formed an unlikely alliance.
- I was confused and concerned,’ he recalls. ‘Then, when Mary came back and said, "I can see she’s not out to snare you", I felt this surge of relief.’
Today, Gilda looks back on that surreal evening and recognises that it marked a turning point. ‘After our theatre trip, Mary felt more like a friend than the wife of the man I was having an affair with. The evening completely changed my perception of my relationship with David.’
Gilda, indeed, felt guilty about betraying a woman she now knew and liked. It took only a few weeks for the affair to burn out completely. When Mary left, the pleasure leeched out of the sexual encounters Gilda and David shared.
David, too, was wrong-footed by Mary’s magnanimity.
Naively, I’d thought Mary was offering me the perfect solution when she said I should make the decision about whether to continue the affair,’ he says.
- But I could see how deeply hurtful and wrong it would be to continue. I felt terrible guilt for the grief I’d caused.
- So I turned my back on an affair with an attractive young woman and went back to the woman I loved and had pledged to spend my life with. I rejected the "best of both worlds" in favour of monogamy.’
He looks at his wife and smiles. ‘It was the right decision,’ he says.
Mary and David remain happily together — their sons are now 32 and 33 — and they are insistent that there has been no more infidelity.
Gilda, meanwhile, has had other relationships, been married (indeed, her husband even met Mary and David, despite knowing of their shared history), had children and got divorced. Their extraordinary friendship has weathered it all.
Despite his infidelity, David Harper is a genial and likeable man. There will be those who will consider he has been blessed with undeserved good fortune. After all, his marriage survived and prospered.
And it did so as much because of his wife’s astute grasp of human psychology as her capacity to forgive.
Life consists not in holding good cards, but in playing well those you hold. keep your friends close,but your enemies closer.