IN THE spring of 1938, Gwen Herron, 17, was working as an usherette at the Regal cinema in Oxford. It was a time when the organ came out of the floor, the seats were covered in thick red velvet, the films were almost always romantic and the faces of Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo made everything seem possible: a suitable setting as a prelude to 50 years of love and betrayal.

'I was so ordinary before I met Yusif,' Gwen says. 'Poetry didn't appeal to me at all. But the moment he came into the cinema, I said to the girl who was selling ice-cream with me: 'Isn't he lovely? Where do you think he comes from? The south of France?'.'

In fact, Yusif came from what was then India and is now Pakistan. And he hadn't come to watch the film, but the pretty usherette: timing his arrival so that she would be the one who would show him to his seat, and being slow to join the queue for ice-cream, so he could enjoy her lit-up face for longer. He fell in love so honourably that it wasn't until he managed to ask Gwen to have coffee with him in his rooms at Brasenose, that she realised he had even noticed her.

Yusif's parents had sent him to Oxford to study law, a common ambition among the wealthiest families of India for their elder sons. 'He had so many books, he was so clever, he was such a gentleman,' says Gwen now. 'How couldn't you fall in love with a man like that? I used to think: 'Why is he interested in me? I'm nothing special'.' Special enough, however, for Yusif to visit Gwen's father the moment he had graduated, and ask for his daughter's hand in marriage. It didn't seem to bother him that the family house was rather small, or that Gwen's father was a plastering contractor and that they had little in common.

What did nag at him was the possible adverse reaction of his own parents, aware, perhaps, that his mother had plans to marry him to the daughter of an old friend of hers. He only told them about Gwen when she was already his wife. But Gwen's parents, though anxious she would end up living in India, rather liked him, and the marriage went ahead with only one serious caveat, from the registrar himself: 'Muslims can marry four times,' he said to Gwen. 'What will happen when he gets tired of you?'

But there was no need to take notice of such gloomy suggestions. Soon they were living the very idyll of a marriage: Yusif began training to be a barrister, and they moved out to a village in the Cotswolds. There was walking in the afternoons, poetry in the evenings, and then a baby daughter. 'He was so proud. We called her Suraya. He would push her everywhere round the village in her pram, and even when he was studying for his law exams he would have her on his knee with him.'

But Yusif began to worry about his parents. He loved them, and it irked him that they had inadvertently found themselves supporting not only a son through law school, but also a wife that they would rather he hadn't married. In the summer of 1942, he suggested to Gwen that they go out to India to visit them, and she happily obliged, despite being seven months pregnant and having to travel through a war zone. It only occurred to her a few months later that the move might turn out to be a permanent one, but as she says: 'I could have lived in a desert, providing Yusif was there with me.'

When they arrived at Peshawar, after a three-day train journey from the port at Bombay, the family covered them with garlands and made a point of making Gwen feel welcome. As a Muslim, she would have been expected to hold her head down at meal-times, never express an opinion, and live entirely according to the wishes of her in-laws, in whose house she would spend the rest of her life; but Yusif's father was more liberal than most, and made a point of listening to the female members of his family speak in turn.

Gwen did everything she could to fit in. When there were parties the women were taken to one part of the house and the men to another; and the avoidance of men, in general, was a habit quickly learnt. 'But my sisters-in-law would look on in horror,' says Gwen, 'if I so much as suggested replacing a piece of furniture. They soon began to resent me, but how could I blame them? They had to live in purdah. I was free.'

Or relatively free. When Yusif's father informed Gwen that her daughter's name would now be 'Nurjehan', and that she herself would answer to 'Shevkat', she had no say in the matter, and Yusif merely shrugged his shoulders. There was also the moral imperative that they should not sleep in a double bed, though in fact they 'chose to wear out one'. But still, for Gwen, the idyllic side of her life shone through. The family had a house in the hills, where they would go for holidays and when Peshawar was too hot. 'I remember the monsoon season, sheets of rain thundering on to the roof, and I'd be knitting, with Yusif and my small family about me. I don't think I've ever been happier.'

However, eight years after Gwen became her daughter-in-law, Yusif's mother began plotting with her old friend, whose daughter she had intended Yusif to marry. The daughter had since married her cousin, but was not happy and wanted a divorce. So the two of them planted her at a hill station and got a friend, a government official, to issue a formal invitation to Yusif to spend a couple of weeks with him there. Gwen was heavily pregnant with her fourth child, but she insisted that he go, as it seemed important for his career. 'Sometimes I think that if only he'd gone there after his son was born he would have been too happy to have succumbed to her. I don't even know to this day whether he realised what was being set up for him. But he fell for it.

'I slowly came to understand what had happened to him. It was nothing dramatic, but something was amiss. I would be feeding the baby when he came back from work and he'd say to me: 'Don't you get up to welcome me home anymore?' Letters were sent to him addressed in Urdu, and he'd take them from my hand. He would stay out late at work, and it was obvious that he wasn't happy. Then one night, even before he was late, I was convinced something terrible had happened to him. I thought he'd been in a car crash. I stayed up all night waiting for him, and finally I heard his car in the drive. We spent the night together, we were so close, and I thought, thank God Yusif is safe. Then in the morning he said to me: 'I'm sorry, Gwen, I got married yesterday, and I ought to spend some time with my new wife.' And then he left me.

'Those first few weeks I spent squatting with my back against a wall, physically unable to get up. I can't remember either sleeping or eating, though I suppose I must have. And this went on until one day I went blind - only for a few minutes, but I thought it would be for ever. Suddenly I remembered the children. I had to pull myself together.

'The months went by, and I didn't hear a word from Yusif. Then one day my parents-in-law drove me to their summer house in the hills. How could they all have done this to me? Halfway down the drive, Yusif and his new bride had come down to greet us. They were standing there together, so cool and so calm. First, my father-in-law greeted and kissed her, then my mother-in-law. And then she came forward to greet me, as though nothing had happened which could prevent us from being good friends. But as she came up to me, I hit her with my whole force. She stumbled backwards, and I just walked on by. Later that day Yusif came into my room and said: 'I'm so proud of you for doing that.' So he can't have forgotten me altogether, I thought. He still recognises the spirit in me when he sees it.

'Soon after that, Yusif consulted me about whether he should have some more children. I told him of course he shouldn't, he had enough already, and anyway, how could this new wife of his be spoilt enough to demand more than Yusif himself? 'You're right,' he said, and that's exactly what he told her. A week later she was dead. She'd killed herself.

'Now, how brazen can you get? Yusif did not even mourn her. He did this to me for a woman he did not even mourn. She was barely cold in her grave when I found Yusif's luggage in my bedroom. 'I'm moving back,' he said. He mumbled out some apology, but I could not hear him. Who was this man, anyway? I only knew that I wanted him out, I wanted nothing to do with him.'

Over the year that followed, Gwen found herself hemmed in by the hatred and prejudice of the household and their noncomprehension of her behaviour. She begged for a house where she could live alone with her children, but no one would help her. She gave Yusif an ultimatum: either he found her somewhere to live, or she would go back to England. He didn't respond. 'I loved him that much, I wanted him so badly, I only wished that one day he would love me and want me as much as I had wanted him. Perhaps I should have wished for something better.' In 1949, Gwen said goodbye to Yusif and her children and left Pakistan. When she returned to her parents' house in Oxford her mother said: 'Thank God you're home.' But home it wasn't.

Over the years that followed, she sent letters and presents to the children, but none reached them. Still, they never betrayed her: for 20 years, as she was to learn when they finally met again, she remained their 'Mummy', as alive in their memory as when she had been with them. They smuggled letters to her via the servants, and continually defended her name. 'That's my Mummy you're talking about,' they would pipe up, as required. And the energy for such loyalty was sustained by a single hope: that one day their parents would be re-united.

It was summer, 1979. For five years, Gwen's children, now grown up, had been visiting their mother in Oxford. On this occasion they had come to England together. They told their mother to dress up because they were taking her out to dinner, to put on her smartest clothes and to wear perfume. They were excited and rallied round her, telling her how lovely she looked, how she seemed as young as when they were children.

In the restaurant, they led her to the table. 'This is where you're sitting,' they said. 'And that,' Gwen says, 'was next to the white-haired Yusif, as beautiful as he ever was.

'I immediately said: 'No, I cannot sit here.' After all those years, I was still playing it cool; I was wanting to disappoint him, and I saw how he was hurt. So we sat opposite each other, and all the children looked on, expectantly, but we hung our heads. I shed some tears, I remember, and I think he did, too.

'Sometimes I think, why didn't I succumb to him then? Hadn't we both suffered enough? When he died two years ago I couldn't believe it. I went out to Pakistan to see his grave to help me to understand that he was gone. For the week before he died he was delirious. When anyone came into the room he would shout out: 'Gwen, is that you?'

'I only wish it had been.'

(Photographs omitted)

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