Mind the gap: The old and the young

06 February 2012 - 01:59 By Sally Williams, The Sunday Telegraph
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In 1994, Wendy Featherstone and her best friend Amanda Elliot-Murray decided to go clubbing.

Bheki Cele, 53, and his wife Thembeka Ngcobo, 33
Bheki Cele, 53, and his wife Thembeka Ngcobo, 33
Bheki Cele, 53, and his wife Thembeka Ngcobo, 33
Bheki Cele, 53, and his wife Thembeka Ngcobo, 33

"I drove Amanda home from work so she could get changed. I went into the house and was introduced to her dad."

Wendy was dazzled. "Robert was slightly taller than me, with an amazing, full head of white hair and stunning, twinkly blue eyes. I thought, 'I want to marry this man.' The attraction was that instant."

She was 25, he was 55. They wed on Valentine's Day four years later.

"May-to-December" relationships - romantic attachments where there is a significant difference in age - are not uncommon.

In 2010, suspended national police commissioner Bheki Cele, 53, wed Thembeka Ngcobo, 33. A few weeks ago musician Bryan Ferry, 66, married Amanda Sheppard, 29.

The "December" partner can be the woman - think Spanish Duchess of Alba and Alfonso Diez, Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler - though it mostly happens the other way around (Jacob Zuma and Nompumelelo Ntuli; Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng).

What is the appeal?

For the man, "it's about elasticity", says Phillip Hodson, spokesman for the counselling website itsgoodtotalk.org.uk.

"There is something very deeply attractive about tighter flesh."

Christine Northam, a counsellor working for the British organisation Relate, sees it more as a tactic for deferring ageing.

"She is where he wants to be. He still feels young and he doesn't want to feel old."

And for the woman?

"Women find power and money very attractive," says Northam.

"Older men provide them with the financial security they unconsciously want."

Wendy admits she had always preferred older men.

"It's a daddy thing," she says.

Born in Johannesburg, her father was the late John Featherstone, deputy chairman of a large newspaper publisher.

"My father was a very distant, unemotional man. He provided for us, but he wasn't involved in our lives. I wanted a father figure who thought I was valuable and really special. Robert gave that to me."

While boys her own age "were still trying to figure out who they were", Robert was running a building merchant company. He also had five children, now aged 48 to 38, from two ex-wives - but when she met him, he'd been a bachelor for 19 years and he infected her with his vitality and sophistication.

Over the next few weeks, she bumped into Robert at two parties in Johannesburg.

Then, about two months later, Amanda moved to London.

"When she left, she said to her father: 'Don't forget to look after Wendy.' And he took it seriously. He started phoning me and inviting me out to dinner," says Wendy.

His "old-world traits" were a large part of the attraction.

"He'd buy all the drinks, would stand up when you walked into a room, always make sure he helped you put your jacket on."

She conflated this sort of being looked after with financial security. Even though Wendy was forging ahead with her own career, as head of internet services at IBM, she saw him as her great provider.

Robert thought she was the "greatest thing on God's earth. Nineteen years a bachelor and suddenly a very young lady comes on to you strong".

Wendy says she didn't think about his age - "only when other people brought it up. If you weren't quick to introduce him as your boyfriend, or whatever, they would say, 'Oh, is this your dad?' You get used to it after a while".

But just before the wedding, she says her father (four years older than her husband) told her "you can do better". There were other bust-ups. Amanda was "not well pleased", recalls Wendy.

Early married life was a succession of parties - "we were very social and had millions of friends" - and great sex.

But the crunch was children.

"We'd decided we were not going to have children. About six months after we married, I became pregnant by accident."

Robert no longer got so much of her attention, which she says made him "grumpy".

"Older men have been through the mill - the wife, children, growing up, dogs - and now they're looking to have some attention."

In 2000, the relationship deteriorated further when they moved to England. He sold his business, and became a house-husband, taking the children (they'd had a second in 2001) to and from the nanny.

"One of us had to go to work," he says.

As he was 61 and approaching retirement, it was his 30-something wife who "was the more marketable commodity".

She took a full-time job as a development manager for a computer company. Home became full of anger and reproaches. She was exhausted from the office, he was alienated from friends back home. He suddenly seemed so old, she says, drained of life and energy.

"You leave your life, friends and comfort zone, and it puts years on you. His youthfulness had gone, and the age gap suddenly seemed vast."

He was losing touch with her: "S he was working, getting her social outlet. I was getting nothing."

Within a year, there were tense silences and appalling arguments.

When Wendy asked for a divorce, the bottom fell out of Robert's life.

"I never believed in nervous breakdowns before, and was in hospital for more than a week."

They separated in 2003 and got divorced the following year.

She is now 42, blogs about parenting and relationships on muminawe. com, and lives outside Bournemouth with a 46-year-old dentist. Robert is 72 and lives alone in Surrey.

Many older men will not want to hear Robert's advice about May-to-December marriages.

"Don't do it. It can't work. Both partners are living in different worlds. There is no way the two can mix."

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