London - One spring day seven years ago, an amateur detective mission I’d set myself came to fruition. I had amassed the clues and every shred of evidence. I was closing in on my quarry.
I can still feel my thudding heart and the dizzy wave of nausea as the moment approached when I would finally confront “her” The other woman. The mistress. The bit on the side. Whatever name I chose to call her, she amounted to the same thing.
She was the woman with whom my husband, Stephen, was conducting an affair. The woman for whom he was willing to sacrifice our seven-year marriage and the happy home we’d built for our two sons. And she was here, seated on this train. All I had to do was keep my nerve and find her.
Scanning the passengers, I began: “Excuse me, is there anyone on board called Sandra?”
I was surprised when a bleached blonde woman - slim, tall and a good eight years younger than me - stood up. “I’m Sandra,” she said. Her look of blank perplexity turned to shock when I replied: “And I’m Karen, your lover’s wife.”
I watched the colour drain from her face and in that instant I felt the world recede. I could not tell you how the other passengers reacted. All I knew was that my detective work had paid off. Here I was, face to face with the woman who’d destroyed my life.
Until then I’d envisaged Stephen’s lover as a younger and more successful version of me. Yet here she was in cheap jeans, a fake Donna Karan handbag and a lurid purple vest top.
I felt relieved, but also perplexed, that she wasn’t what I call his type. She was several inches taller than him for a start. I simply couldn’t picture them together.
Sandra, meanwhile, was dumbstruck. She meekly followed me off the train, through the station and into a cafe.
“I knew we’d get found out. He was being so reckless,” she spluttered. This was swiftly followed by her first “I’m sorry”, then another and another. On auto-pilot, I ordered coffee. Sandra proceeded to tell me everything.
She’d met my husband in the bar where she worked as a barmaid. They’d been sleeping together for more than four months. She was almost 20 years his junior.
I bled her for every detail, bar the intimate sexual ones, which, for the sake of my already shredded confidence, I didn’t want to know.
And Sandra, in her soft Welsh accent, told me Stephen had fed her all the usual clichés: his wife didn’t understand him and we were more like brother and sister.
I shuddered with indignation when she revealed how he had told her the insulting lie that I wore winceyette nighties in bed.
“My God, and you’re really pretty, too!” she exclaimed. Stephen had clearly enjoyed embroidering the fiction that I had long since stopped bothering about my appearance.
So how did I find myself in a coffee shop talking to the woman who was sleeping with my husband? To understand why I was suspicious of my husband, you need to understand the background.
I met Stephen when I was in my early 20s and running a design agency in Birmingham. Then in his late 30s, Stephen had attended a top London public school before going to Reading University. He was suave, attentive and self-assured: a typical product of his elite education and privileged background.
We started dating in 1997 and moved to Devon, where we bought a thatched cottage. In December the following year, our first son, who’s now 14, was born.
The following March we married and two months later we moved to New York with Stephen’s job as a director of a property consultancy.
Looking back, his behaviour towards me changed almost as soon as we were wed. In New York, bowed down by the stress of a high-powered job, he became irascible.
I made excuses for him: his job, I told myself, was taking its toll. We moved again with Stephen’s work, to Hong Kong in 2001, and a year later our second son, now ten, arrived.
By 2004, we were back in Britain, again in Devon, where we bought a rambling former rectory in three acres, with five rundown cottages that I renovated as luxury holiday lets.
Stephen set up his own consultancy in Birmingham, where we bought an apartment in the city centre. It wasn’t ideal for him to be away during the week; we regarded it as a judicious compromise. I adored Devon and we wanted to raise our boys there.
Stephen quickly established two separate lives. During the week, he was the jovial bon viveur in Birmingham. At home in Devon, however, he was erratic and unpredictable.
He’d be vile to me and testy with the boys. Then each Monday evening, having returned to Birmingham, he’d call me to apologise, promising: “We’ll have a lovely time next weekend.” But the sorry cycle would repeat itself.
I made a huge effort to ensure that when he got home the house was sparkling, the children in bed and a sumptuous dinner was in the oven. I tried to keep our sex life going, which is difficult when your partner is repeatedly unkind to you.
One weekend in May 2006, when Stephen had been particularly obnoxious, I threw the accusation at him.
“It’s obvious you’re having an affair!” I yelled. His reply was oblique. He said if I was so convinced that he was, perhaps I should check up on him.
I wonder now if Stephen wanted to be discovered; if the effort of maintaining a facade was so great that he could dissemble no longer.
I unearthed the first piece of evidence without even trying the following week, just after Stephen had left to go to a conference in Cornwall.
While sorting the laundry, I found a receipt and booking confirmation in his trouser pocket for a train ticket from Birmingham to London for the following Wednesday.
Stephen was not due to go to Birmingham that day - he had told me he intended to travel from Cornwall to London for business. Immediately, my suspicions were alerted. The ticket couldn’t be for him.
Over the next few days, my mind whirred. I knew that if I confronted him he would lie.
So, leaving the au pair in charge, I turned sleuth and decided to go to the flat in Birmingham that Wednesday - knowing he wouldn’t be there - to search for clues.
There, in the en suite of the master bedroom was all the evidence I needed: make-up and women’s skincare products.
But that wasn’t all. What I found on the bedside table shook me so much I had to sit down. It was a handwritten card, saying: “Dear Stephen, I always love our intimacy, love Sandra.” That’s how I knew the name of his lover. And I knew that he had bought that train ticket for her.
Instantly, I felt compelled to meet her. I know other women would have shied away from such a direct approach, but my curiosity - and desire to end this emotional turmoil - overwhelmed me.
And so I found myself on that train calling out the name of my husband’s mistress.
Talking to her in the coffee shop, it dawned on me that we’d met before. A year earlier, I’d joined Stephen at his favourite Birmingham pub one evening and she’d served us drinks. She even asked if I was Stephen’s wife.
I had joked with her that she probably saw more of him than I did. How ironic those words seemed now.
Sandra also revealed that she knew Stephen had children. She said she was especially sorry about that - but not sorry enough, evidently, to stop sleeping with their father.
Throughout our conversation, both our mobile phones had rung. Stephen, who was driving to London from Cornwall, believing Sandra was on her way to meet him, had tried to call each of us. His messages became frantic when neither of us answered.
Finally, I picked up: our conversation took place in full earshot of Sandra.
When Stephen asked where I was, I told him I’d decided to spend a day shopping in Birmingham.
Then I hit him with it. “You’ll never guess who I’m having a coffee with... Sandra!”
Listening to his blusterings on the other end of the line sent me into a fury. What followed was a vitriolic outburst of which I’m not entirely proud.
“For Christ’s sake, it’s not even as if she’s a class act,” I spat. “I could have understood that. But she’s got a plastic handbag. I’d have thought that if you were going to have an affair you would have at least chosen someone appealing.”
Such snobbery isn’t in my nature, but I just wanted to hurt them both.
I hung up, turned back to Sandra, told her she was welcome to my husband and left, holding back the tears.
On the train back to Devon, my feelings crystallised into something more rational. Though I had railed at Sandra, it was Stephen who was culpable. She was single; he had fed her lies about his disintegrating marriage. Could she be blamed for succumbing to his charms?
I felt emotionally drained, but knew I had to end my marriage. Without the incontrovertible evidence of Sandra’s existence, I might have vacillated and even given Stephen another chance. As it was I had clarity: I knew staying with him would do me no good.
When I arrived home, Stephen was waiting for me. Heartbreakingly - and predictably - he was unrepentant.
We argued for hours, late into the night. Astonishingly, despite the incontrovertible evidence, he maintained it was just a fling and scoffed at my heart-broken reaction.
Later that night I packed his bags for him and insisted he went back to Birmingham. I was exhausted, but resolute that our marriage was over. I just wanted him gone.
I didn’t tell the children he had cheated on me because they were too young to understand. I just told them that Daddy wouldn’t be home for quite some time.
Since he was away every week anyway, it wasn’t a drastically different situation for them to cope with. Sadly, our split could not have been more acrimonious. Stephen tried everything in the book to turn everyone against me - friends, family, colleagues - by attempting to persuade anyone who would listen that I had driven him to adultery. Sadly, there were some who believed him.
A gruelling 18 months later, the divorce was granted and I was left with a legal bill of £35,000.
From these doldrums, though, came unexpected happiness. Only a few weeks later, a mutual friend put me in touch with Will, 45, a chartered surveyor and an old friend who used to work with me in Birmingham. Instantly, my life changed for the better.
We married in 2010 and now, aged 44, I’m mom to our four-year-old daughter Ava. We live together, with my two sons, in Taunton, Somerset.
Meanwhile, Stephen, who’s now 52, still lives with Sandra in that small Birmingham apartment.
Strangely, after the drama of our first meeting, she and I have formed an unlikely alliance, as she acts as an intermediary when the boys visit their father.
It took a long time for us to have a second conversation but, today, she and I are civil.
I still maintain that she is quite a sweet girl, but malleable. After all, it was Stephen who was married and who had vowed to be faithful to me for the rest of his life.
Despite everything, I don’t think there’s anything she’s done that requires my forgiveness.
I’m glad I boarded the train that day. I’m even happy I met Sandra. That confrontation set the course for the rest of my life.
In a way, my husband’s mistress has made me happier than I ever imagined possible. - Daily Mail
* INTERVIEW by Sadie Nicholas. Some names have been changed.