Some marriages end in a whimper, fizzling out after years of unspoken grievance. Others explode with a bang, inflicting irreparable damage on all parties, despite any love that may once have existed.
The union of disgraced former MP Charlie Elphicke — the so-called 'naughty Tory' — and his wife Natalie, both 50, certainly appeared to be the latter: a volcanic denouement which exposed Elphicke's infidelity, subjected Natalie to intense public humiliation and ended in a two-year prison sentence for Elphicke after he was convicted for sexually assaulting two vulnerable young women.
His month-long trial last summer devastatingly unpicked his disturbing behaviour, luridly detailing near identical assaults — one of which saw him attempting to spank his terrified victim as he chased her around the kitchen of his family home, shouting 'I'm a naughty Tory!' as his two young children slept upstairs and his oblivious wife attended a work event. The judge branded him 'a sexual predator who used [his] success and respectability as a cover' to abuse women.
It seems Natalie's resolve to cast Elphicke aside has wavered: this week, having been released after serving half his two-year sentence, he has returned to the family home — to her mother's misery
Surely, no wife could ever go back to such a man? This was precisely the thought of Natalie's mother, Julia Pears, when she heard of her son-in-law's downfall: at last, after more than two decades of turmoil during which she says she witnessed her son-in-law's 'predatory' behaviour around women, this was the end.
It would be a fresh start for her betrayed daughter, who had dutifully arrived at court each day, hand in hand with her husband, choosing to sit in a quiet room rather than listen to the mortifying evidence in court — before dramatically announcing she was leaving Elphicke moments after the verdict.
But it seems Natalie's resolve to cast Elphicke aside has wavered: this week, having been released after serving half his two-year sentence, he has returned to the family home — to her mother's misery.
Mrs Pears is concerned for her daughter and fears silver-tongued Elphicke — whom she calls Charles — could use this opportunity to wheedle his way back into Natalie's affections.
'I don't think he should be returning. This was the chance for Natalie to get free of the domination of Charles,' said Mrs Pears, a former head teacher and one-time town mayor, speaking exclusively to the Mail this week. 'I have witnessed it first-hand. He has a hold over her. He is at his happiest when he is knows he's got a hold over someone.'
Today, Mrs Pears is mourning what she sees as a wasted opportunity for her daughter, who had been married to Elphicke for 25 years, to turn her life around.
'This was the perfect break for her, the chance to set up a new life on her own . . . a fresh start,' she says, full of emotion.
'I was hoping she would go off on her own, particularly when she said at the court that was it, she was divorcing him. She said that to his face, then walked out.
'I hoped being separate from him would make her realise she can manage on her own. This gave her a chance to realise that she doesn't need him, and that what he did was very wrong.'
But instead of seizing her new freedom, Natalie — who took over her husband's Dover constituency — has instead agreed to his return to the £1.4 million Kent family home which, it is understood, is one of the conditions surrounding his release.
Today, Mrs Pears is mourning what she sees as a wasted opportunity for her daughter, who had been married to Elphicke for 25 years, to turn her life around. Their wedding picture is seen above
And while Natalie has said she has filed for divorce, it seems she has not ruled out a future reconciliation, stating that they will 'make arrangements to reflect this' after his entire sentence period is complete.
One can see how, perhaps, a wife with almost saintly forbearance might feel she is helping to rehabilitate a troubled husband by getting him back on his feet.
No one can doubt the depth of Natalie's love for Elphicke — immediately after his conviction, the former finance lawyer said she felt 'profound sorrow', adding: 'It ends my 25-year marriage to the only man I have ever loved.'
That said, it's difficult not to see, at best, a naivete in Natalie's attitude to the nature of her husband's crimes: she later became one of three Tory MPs suspended from the Commons for a day as punishment for trying to influence a judge who presided over his trial, and also supported his failed appeal in March against his two-year jail term which she said was 'excessive'.
Her mother, however, feels precisely the opposite: that her son-in-law should have been locked up for at least five years.
Her horror that he has been released already — having served just one year, some of which was at an open prison in Gloucestershire — is palpable.
'I think it is appalling. I think for him to serve only half of his sentence is a great disrespect to these victims and their whole ordeal,' she says.
'He is someone who has abused women — and I feel like he has used his position [as a politician].
'He considers these women inferior to him. The workplace, whether it's the House of Commons or wherever it is, should be safe.'
More than this, she fears that serving 'just half a sentence' will only empower Elphicke, giving him confidence to continue 'in his old ways'.
'Charles is extremely arrogant and believes he is better than anyone. I don't believe that he will have changed at all, particularly with such a short sentence,' she adds. Mrs Pears and her husband Les — Natalie's stepfather — claim they have been first-hand witnesses to Elphicke's shameless behaviour.
Whether it be at professional, social or family occasions, Mrs Pears insists Elphicke has 'always been a predator'. She says he consistently behaved inappropriately' from the 'very beginning' of his marriage to Natalie in 1995 — talking about porn in front of them, for example, then claiming he was just being 'naughty'. At times, Elphicke's coarse behaviour took their breath away, including on one occasion at his swanky Belgravia townhouse — where he had an expansive wine collection in a special cellar — when Les caught him with another woman in the marital bedroom during a family party. The house was full of people but he was unabashed at being discovered.
It was in this Belgravia townhouse in 2007 that Elphicke's downfall began: he found himself alone there with a woman in her 30s, while Natalie was away on a business trip and their two young children — including their son, who was only a few months old — were asleep upstairs.
First he quizzed the woman about her sex life, asking if she was into bondage and whether she liked 'silk or leather'. Then he pounced on her, kissed and groped her, before chasing her around the house chanting 'I'm a naughty Tory' and slapping her bottom in a scene described as being straight out of a Benny Hill sketch.
'He just basically jumped on me,' the woman said. 'He pushed me down by my shoulders, he had his knee between my legs and he was groping my breast.
'He was trying to put his mouth on my mouth. It wasn't what I'd describe as a peck. It was like an open-mouthed smush on my face. He was all over me.'
Elphicke confessed to a two-year affair, beginning in 2015, with a young woman he'd met at work.
A year later, he set his sights on a third woman, a Parliamentary worker in her early 20s. Complaining about his 'unhappy marriage', Elphicke plied her with champagne, after which he kissed and groped her.
A second assault took place at a later date — behaviour he later justified as him being lovestruck, or taking a chance by propositioning the women.
Mrs Pears, who runs Bully Rescue, a charity that looks after and rehomes rescue dogs, and Les, a retired trucker, lead a life far from Westminster intrigue or Belgravia excess, tucked away in a farmhouse on the Lincolnshire Wolds.
While once close, mother and daughter have not spoken for ten years, after Mrs Pears challenged Elphicke, a former tax lawyer, about his behaviour — which she says included a one-off incident in which she alleges he manhandled her for, of all things, not mopping a floor to his standards.
Painting a disturbing picture of his Jekyll and Hyde personality, which his victims also described in court, Mrs Pears said she was now frightened of her son-in-law and what she describes as his aggressive behaviour. 'I was absolutely terrified of him . . . if he came here I would phone the police. I am honestly very scared of him.'
After she confronted Elphicke, the fallout was brutal. Not only did her daughter cut her out of her life, she says he prevented her from contacting her two grandchildren, Thomas, now 13, and Charlotte, 21 — the latter of whom is believed to be estranged from her father.
The schism between her and her grandchildren perhaps cuts the deepest — while her daughter and son-in-law pursued their careers, Mrs Pears happily cared for the children. Having been such a hands-on grandmother for so many years, the loss of contact is unbearable.
Her voice cracking, she says: 'Charlotte has the same birthday as me, so on my birthday I always think about her.
'All the years I looked after her, it makes me cry just thinking about her . . . I miss her desperately.'
She wonders whether her granddaughter might be trying to contact her: 'Once a week I'll get a phone call and they listen to me say hello and then put the phone down. I just don't know if it's Charlotte trying to reach out to me.
'We used to go to on holiday together, swimming, have a meal or go to the theatre. I can't stop crying. I wish it was different.'
Mrs Pears has tried to reach out to her daughter in the hope of reconciling their relationship.
'When she got elected [as an MP in 2019], I sent her a big bouquet of flowers from the florist and I said how proud I was.
'I said I would love to see her, but I haven't had a reply to that. I don't know what else to do.'
One option she has considered is to make the journey from her home to Kent in the hope of seeing Natalie. 'My husband suggested going down there. He's very keen I try to go down and maybe into the Conservative office to try to see her. But I am just so worried that I'd go all that way and the stress would be unbelievable if I didn't see her. I am close to Natalie, I always have been. It must be upsetting for her.'
When asked what message she would send to her daughter, Mrs Pears breaks down in sobs, and pleads: 'Please contact me. I love you so much and I miss you every day.'
Her only desire is to see her daughter move on with a new life without her husband.
'I just so hope she has no wish to be with him.'