You can ask how old I am," says Pauline Hyde graciously, from her Belgravia home. "But I'm not telling you. I don't want to be judged by the year I was born."
With her coiffed red hair, taut skin and bright eyes, Hyde could probably pass for a fortysomething, yet a rough calculation based on her CV puts her at somewhere between 70 and 80. Which perhaps makes it all the more surprising that Hyde has just written her debut novel: a champagne- and sex-fuelled "bonkbuster", set against the backdrop of cut-throat business deals in the City.
It is not a genre you would typically associate with a genteel, elderly and well-heeled widow. Nor a turn of events you would imagine to have been inspired by the slow demise of the writer's husband – Toby, who developed senile dementia, and whom Hyde nursed at home until his death in 2005, aged 93.
Hyde met Toby, who ran two advertising agencies, at a dinner party in 1961, soon after her divorce from her first husband. "A friend had tried to get us together twice before but I'd always been booked up," she says, "but it was third time lucky. He was a very attractive man, with a wonderful sense of humour, and he was a very good dancer. I remember writing in my diary that night, 'I think I've fallen in love with Toby Hyde.'"
The first signs that her husband was ill were the peculiar habits he began to develop. "He'd hide his wallet and watch and pen and couldn't remember where he'd hidden them." Another time, while the couple were on holiday in the South of France, he walked out of their villa and disappeared. "We eventually found him in a small hotel having tea with the owner, who had called the police because my husband didn't know where he was."
By 2002, it was becoming clear that something was wrong – and Hyde found it frightening. One day she returned home to find her husband sitting on the sofa with a strange woman. The woman was clutching Hyde's new Gucci handbag. "She said 'I live here.' I said, 'Oh no, you don't.' The woman told me that 'her brother' had let her in. I called the police, locked the pair of them in the TV room and went around the house with a stick to see if there was anybody else there. The police turned up and as they took her away she kept insisting she lived here. I still don't know how she got in. My God, that was scary."
It was at this point that Hyde realised she couldn't cope alone. "So I employed a team of nurses; I knew I wanted to look after him – to read to him, to go upstairs to see him – but I needed the practical help. The house became like a hospital."
At one point, Hyde asked her husband, "Do you know who I am?" and he said, "Yes. You're the person who runs all this." "That was my husband of nearly 40 years," she says. "It's extremely painful when someone you love has a mental illness; he was no longer the man I fell in love with."
While many might have crumbled, Hyde decided to do something positive. "That's when I started to shut myself away and write – it's a great way to take your mind off the things you don't want to think about."
Sitting in her sunny study, Hyde filled notebooks – by hand ("like Jackie Collins") – first with children's stories inspired by a wounded baby pigeon she rescued and named Eddie, and then with the stories that would become her debut novel, Midas Man.
Midas Man is set in an outplacement consultancy – effectively a resource for middle-aged high-fliers who have been made redundant. It may seem an unlikely setting, yet Hyde's can-do attitude was honed in the real-life version of this backdrop, in the late-1970s and 1980s when she set up her own, hugely successful outplacement consultancy, the sale of which was to make her a millionaire.
Hyde's company would essentially repackage these dejected men and turn them into highly re-employable propositions. She tells one story of a man so miserable and stressed that he'd "practically turned grey". Hyde sent him on a golfing holiday to get a tan, relax and pull his socks up so as to appear more attractive to employers. It's a good metaphor for Hyde's own late-in-life reinvention.
Midas Man tells of the fall and rise of a rogueish ad-agency boss (not based on her husband, she adds) whose adventures take him, in classic bonkbuster style, from London to New York and in and out of the beds of long-legged lovelies – and via an outplacement agency run by a female MD. "And she's certainly not based on me," laughs Hyde. "She dresses badly." It must have been hard not to be able to share the book with her husband. "Yes," she agrees. "He'd have enjoyed it."
Hyde still writes regularly. "My day usually starts at 5.30am when my Burmese cat, Carrington (after the Dynasty character? "No, Peter Carrington. Lord Carrington"), jumps on me. I write from 6am to 9.30am. I once had writer's block for two weeks but I unblocked halfway through a lecture by [the astrologer] Shelley von Strunckel."
Her voice drops a little when talking about her current project, an autobiography. "Writing it is much harder than fiction. I've been through some unhappy times and I find it hard to write about them. I sit down, sharpen six pencils, go off and make myself a cup of coffee, and don't want to go back to it."
Of course, she still misses her husband. "But I don't like to dwell on the past. Nothing lasts forever. That's why I keep busy."
Luckily, there are plenty of social distractions; she is a regular at the fashionable Knightsbridge restaurant San Lorenzo, and she rarely gets lonely: "I have a lot of friends. I have two or three very nice gay men. I don't think any widow can do without a few gay men in her life." And will she write more bonkbusters? "Oh yes, I'm convinced of it."
But before that there is one more pressing concern: "I'm eight stone one pound this morning and I want to be eight stone before I go to the Caribbean next week."
'Midas Man' (£17.99, Book Guild Publishing) is out on 29 May
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