I know Alban from around the circuit. We work in the same industry and occasionally run into one another at events and catch up for dinner or beers. He’s a bit younger and more mild-mannered than I, and in keeping with his English roots he speaks with purposeful reserve. We also both have young kids and Chinese wives. I don’t know Alban well but I like him. He’s the perfect companion with whom to unwind after a long day on the road.
He’s recently broken off on his own to try his hand at a business. The decision centered around his relocation from Hong Kong to Suzhou, where living costs are lower and the market conditions for his new endeavor are apparently ripe. I haven’t seen him in nearly a year so I am keen to learn how things have been going. Leaving a good job at a multinational firm to go solo is a bold and respectful move. He’s the type of guy for whom you can only wish the best.
Over a curry vindaloo, I am happy to hear that his business is doing well. He shares innocuous details about his clients and his plans for development, and it sounds like he made the right move. His daughter is also happy in Suzhou, and he enjoys the now extra time to commute her to and from nursery school. He also now has another child on the way.
Alban has a prominent scratch or perhaps scar across his forehead. The lighting is too dim to tell. It’s a feature I don’t recall from before though possible had always been there. Given our relaxed conversation, it seems too abrupt a change in topic, if even inappropriate, to say anything. We finish dinner and he suggests an expat bar he’s been meaning to check out.
At the bar he soon discloses that his wife has not adjusted well to the move. In fact she was not supportive of the whole idea from the beginning, feeling it was too risky and also much preferring life in Hong Kong. But he had made her come around in the end (he is after all a good salesman), so eventually she went along with it. In recent months, however, she has not been happy. Maybe it’s hormonal, I suggest, but he indicates there is something more. They had an argument a few week back that ended with her hurling a glass at his head. Pointing my attention to the dried gash on his face, the incident resulted in a trip to the hospital for stitches.
Alban nervously continues telling me that his wife sometimes gets violent. I’m not sure exactly what he means, but I assure him he can talk to me, that sometimes talking to someone can help. He is reluctant. We simply don’t know each other well enough to have this level of trust. But he needs to tell me more. I ask encourage him to without pushing him, or at least not that I am aware.
I want to know the frequency and nature of the violence. And what I soon hear does not sound good. Sometimes she throws things, sometimes she hits him, scratches him. She becomes uncontrollably angry, he tells me. He fears she has a mental problem. He knows she does. Sometimes his wife beats him.
And this has been going on since soon after they met around two years ago. He had gotten her pregnant within the first few months they were dating. He didn’t know her well. At first he passed off the anger fits to pregnancy hormones, but by the time their daughter was born the episodes had become bi-monthly or even weekly . And since making the move to Suzhou it has gotten worse.
Over the next few drinks I learn about her broken childhood, about her absent father who may have abused her, about her estranged brother, about a lot of unhappiness and darkness. Alban is cautious telling me all this, remarking on more than one occasion how he has not confided in anyone to this extent and how uncomfortable it all feels. But he is amatter-of-fact with the details, and I listen as empathetically as I can.
We soon finish our last-call pints. There are two other patrons at the bar. We have discussed all options, all contingencies, all scenarios, and with the best intentions of reconciling their marriage. But there is sadly only one conclusion. He has to leave her. I have said it to him, and Alban knows it. It was not the thing I would have expected I could say to him only several hours prior over dinner. The separation will be tactically difficult, extremely painful, if even dangerous. But there is no other choice.
The next day from the train station I think of calling Alban. Maybe it’s to reassure him of my trust, to extend a more sober acknowledgement of our night, I am not sure. I want to tell him that his secret is safe, that I support him. But I don’t know exactly what to say or if it will matter. And besides, my train is here, and I was, after all, just passing through while on the road.