When Rosalyn Hollidge met George Best, she was living in the aftermath of a violent attack and he was slowly dying. Their unlikely relationship – despite his destructive tendencies – was to give her a new lease of life
I've arranged to meet Rosalyn Hollidge under the clock on London's Waterloo Station. Despite the midday crowds, I'm confident of spotting her. "George's Last Blonde" was how the red-top newspapers usually described her as they observed her long vigil at the deathbed of George Best in the autumn of 2005.
The phrase immediately conjures up an image for anyone who followed, even casually, the footballing legend's off-pitch life. But among the dozen or so people gathered under the clock, there isn't a single blonde.
I call Hollidge's mobile number and the phone rings in the hand of the slight woman with sleek dark hair who is standing to my left, dressed soberly in a business-like black dress and grey coat. Rosalyn Hollidge steps forward and introduces herself.
"I was only ever blonde by mistake," she jokes after I've explained my inability to locate her. "It was just a colour I put on; it wasn't meant to be that blonde. I'd never been blonde in my life and that ended up as a standing joke with George. I went back to being dark straightaway afterwards."
The misconception about her hair colour sums up much else written about 41-year-old Hollidge during her 15 minutes in the limelight. Best had a reputation as a womaniser and a magnet for those who hoped his fame would rub off on them. His son and first (blonde) wife, Angie, have now found fame and roles on reality TV. Hollidge, however, has steadfastly shunned all attempts to get her to tell the story of the two-year relationship which ended with Best's death in London's Cromwell Hospital from the ravages of alcoholism, despite a successful liver transplant in 2002.
After attending his funeral in Belfast, where 100,000 people lined the streets to welcome home one last time their local boy ("Maradona good, Pele better, George Best", said the banners across Northern Ireland), Hollidge, in her words, "went underground". She returned to her professional life as a counsellor, life coach and trainer. None of her clients has any idea that she was "George's last blonde".
And she would probably happily have remained out of sight had it not been for her work with the Forgiveness Project, a grassroots organisation that promotes notions of reconciliation and forgiveness in society, especially between perpetrators and victims.
When Hollidge stands up to speak for the Project at schools, universities and prisons, however, it is not to talk about Best, but her own ordeal, a decade ago, at the hands of a violent rapist, now serving three life sentences for his attack on her. She shares something of the enduring damage he did to her, physically, mentally and emotionally, and how, through accepting the challenge to forgive, she has been able to move on to live what she believes is a far more rewarding life than the one she had before the attack.
Best, of course, was often himself described as having been damaged by the adulation that was heaped on him after he made his debut as a 17-year-old for Manchester United in 1963. His inability to cope with fame led him, it has been said, down the self-destructive road of alcoholism.
Theirs were different sorts of damage, Hollidge points out, but there is, she concedes, common ground that may explain why two such unlikely people ended up falling in love. "We tapped into each other's shadows", she says. "We tapped into the bad bits as well as the good bits."
In November 1999, Rosalyn Hollidge was living in prosperous suburban Surrey, having exchanged for motherhood the IT consultancy business that she had built up in the City of London after escaping an unhappy childhood in a council tower-block near Paddington. Her husband was due home the next day from hospital, after getting over pneumonia. Her 11-year-old daughter was away at a sleepover and her two-year-old was in bed in the next room. At 9.30pm, Hollidge heard a noise. She went to investigate.
"I remember a tall man with one hand stretched over his face and the other jabbing a knife at me. I let out a scream. 'Don't scream,' he said, 'you'll wake the baby.' My hand went up over my face instinctively and he caught my finger with the knife, cutting through the skin. I screamed again. 'Don't scream. You'll wake the baby,' he repeated. He had me captive and powerless. 'It's okay,' I reassured him. 'Take anything you want.' 'I'm not here to rob you,' he replied. 'I'm just the rapist'."
We are now in a café in the wide-open foyer of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. I am anxious about anyone sitting too close and overhearing, but Hollidge tells the story matter-of-factly, her luminously green eyes all the time fixed on mine. Is it hard, I have to ask, reliving her ordeal for strangers? "The first time the Forgiveness Project asked me to talk about it in public, I felt very uneasy sharing what is a very, very personal story, but now I've got over that. Sometimes I am still emotional, sometimes I'm not, but I've lived with it for 10 years. It is only a small part of the person I am today. It's integrated."
Hollidge's attacker only fled when the knife he was using on her broke. Three weeks afterwards, police arrested and charged a 24-year-old man who already had committed a string of attacks of increasing violence on women. For eight months he insisted he was innocent and Hollidge faced the appalling prospect of giving evidence at the Old Bailey, but at the last minute he changed his plea to guilty.
In the impact statement she submitted to the court, Hollidge wrote: "Prior to this attack, I believe I was a very happy, confident and secure person. [It] has altered my entire persona, I believe irrecoverably. It is like a death – only I am the person who has died and any hope of conquering the grief and trauma continues to elude me." She suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Unable to stop shaking, vomiting if she ate, having constant flashbacks, she couldn't even shower because she feared the noise of the water would drown out the sound of an intruder. She was existing on tranquillisers. "It was like going mad", she recalls now, "and I didn't understand what was happening to me. I thought PTSD was what happened to people who had been in a war."
The breakthrough came, she believes, when she decided that she had a choice not to let what had happened to her destroy her. The theme of choice remains key to work as a counsellor, life coach and trainer. "I couldn't let this man destroy me. So I just stopped taking the tranquillisers – which was probably not the best way to come off them – and for six weeks put myself through what I now see with hindsight as a kind of boot camp for victims – researching, meditating, eating well, exercising, not talking to anyone unless I absolutely had to, shutting out television and newspapers and all negative thoughts. It gave me the beginnings of a tool kit that still helps me deal with what life throws at me."
Her marriage was under great strain after what had happened, and her chosen means of therapy in the years after the rape was to get involved with projects related to her experience. She volunteered with the Witness Service in courts and joined an advisory board at Scotland Yard on how the police might handle rape victims more sympathetically.
"I'd got a certain way down the line with my recovery with the help of therapists. Eventually I reached a stage where the subject of forgiveness came up. I was very stuck. I'd gone through the grief and the anger and the hurt. And I was being told that to move on I had to forgive. At first I was furious. Why should I forgive? But I started to look into it and came across the Forgiveness Project."
Part of the Project's work involves what happens when victims and perpetrators confront each other. Has Hollidge sat down with the man who raped her? "I've never had the opportunity. He has never shown any remorse. He has ' been contacted and told of my willingness, but he has no interest. So I have had to find another way round it."
And then, in March 2004, Hollidge and a girlfriend went for a break to a health spa in Hampshire. "When we got there, I went to take my suitcase out of the boot of the car. I'd left it at home. I checked in with just the pair of old tracksuit bottoms and jumper I was wearing and my gym kit, but I wasn't worried. I wasn't there to impress anyone."
Her friend had told her on the drive down that George Best was currently living at the health club while his divorce went through. The name meant little to Hollidge. "I knew he had a reputation as a rogue and a drinker and a womaniser," she remembers, "but my overall impression was that he was a bit of a has-been and I didn't give him a second thought".
That first evening, she was waiting in the bar for her friend before dinner when a man who had been staring at her came over and introduced himself as George. It was the first of several meetings over the weekend. "He told me that he was attracted to me, but I told him I was a married woman. 'And I'm a married man,' he replied. 'No, George', I said, 'I mean I am really married'."
After that weekend, Best began bombarding her with messages. "I was flattered, of course," she says. "And I was tired of the effort of recovering from being raped, tired of all the anxiety and pain, and feeling very neglected by my husband. Our marriage was falling apart. We had hardly made love at all since the attack. I had simply flicked the switch on my sexuality off from that moment. So I was desperate to feel wanted and whole again, to feel alive."
She was, she admits, attracted to Best, in spite of herself, but still believed her marriage offered her the best chance of a future and healing. "And so I rationalised it. What will happen, I asked myself, if I tell George exactly who I am. I had never done that in my whole life. So I arranged to meet him and I told him about the rape. It was an experiment, if you like. I was sure that, given the sort of man I believed he was, he'd say, 'OK, no way' and leave me alone. I was waiting for it, but the opposite happened. He told me it was remarkable I'd come through it. That I was remarkable. He treated me like glass. He embraced me. And I embraced him back."
Best, she recalls, called theirs a "fatal attraction". For five months they saw each other without anyone else knowing. "Our favourite evenings," Hollidge remembers, "were when we were curled up on his sofa watching University Challenge followed by Mastermind. He had a very high IQ and could finish a cryptic crossword faster than anyone I have ever met." While Hollidge was trying to keep her family together and cope with her guilt at going behind her husband's back, Best was secretly continuing his battle with drink. "In those first few months, I don't remember ever seeing him with a drink," she says. "I don't think I understood alcoholism sufficiently at the time. George was essentially a very lonely person. He said it himself. And I couldn't provide him with constant company because I had my own family. It was when he was alone that he drank. If I said to him that I couldn't be around for a few days because my children needed me, that would send him off the rails. He'd get more and more extreme the longer I left him." There is a pause before she adds, "in everything".
What, I wonder, does "everything" mean? Best had a reputation for violence. "Oh yes," she replies without flinching. "We had one huge fight later on which became very public. 'George and the Dragon' was how The Sun reported it. I am not a violent person but when he hit me I hit him back." But after all you had been through, you stayed with a man who hit you? "I understand what you are saying, and I wish I could find the words to explain why he wasn't an easy person to walk away from. I could see the path he was going down and I felt I couldn't let him go like that."
So was Hollidge trying to save Best? "No. He was someone I cared about deeply and as his drinking got worse again and his health deteriorated people were closing the door on him and I couldn't. So I saw it through to the end."
Seeing it through to the end, as she describes it, involved being exposed in the News of the World in August 2004 after Best's unguarded comments in a newspaper interview about the married woman who was the "love of his life" prompted a nationwide search by reporters. She had to tell her husband the night before the story appeared and go into hiding. It was effectively the death knell for her marriage.
"It was horrific and I carry the guilt for that to this day. But equally I know our marriage had been falling apart since the rape. Something would have given eventually. And I think it is important to make it clear that I didn't leave my husband for George as was written at the time. I left with my daughters to live on my own and have done ever since."
After the initial burst of media interest in their relationship abated, Hollidge had more to put up with as Best's health went downhill. "He could be a nightmare. What I started to witness was not the person I'd met and fallen in love with. I was trying to keep things quiet because my divorce was going through, but he was seeing other women and drinking. He'd probably been doing both all the way through. He was like a child, very demanding. If you weren't there for George, he would kick up a fuss."
Yet at the same time, he spoke often to her about marriage. "I never took it that seriously," she says. "He was always seeing doctors and I couldn't see beyond a certain point in terms of him surviving. I may have wanted to believe it wasn't the case, but he looked so ill when he was drinking."
How did she cope? "Not well, some of the time, but I was keeping a journal all the time. It was my escape valve." She has hopes that she may be able one day to turn it into a kind of memoir – not a kiss-and-tell, but an empowering book to encourage others living through their own traumas.
The final drama of Best's life began with a kidney infection in October 2005. "He was spending a lot of time at my house but was getting slower and slower, doing less and less. I wanted him to go the doctor and eventually he was admitted to the Cromwell Hospital. I was there with him every single day. The nurses would ring at all hours of the night and say he was asking for me and I would go. He got worse and worse over the nine weeks. I was watching him die."
It was said at the time, I can't help mentioning, that Best effectively "wasted" his liver transplant because he didn't stop drinking. Did he ever address that charge? "He had few regrets," she answers, "but he would say that he failed the test of his liver transplant."
The couple said their goodbyes five days before Best's death. He was in a coma thereafter. "I didn't go in..." Hollidge's voice begins to break up. "I had done all I could for George and I didn't want to be part of that circus."
Back in the present, Hollidge tells me that even if she doesn't mention Best in the talks she gives, the two years with him inform her perspective: "Without doubt, in that he breathed life back into me, gave me back a part of me that I had lost." So despite the turbulence of their relationship, he was, in some way, part of her healing process? "Definitely he was. My attacker will be able to apply for parole in 2012. That used to prey on my mind massively because I firmly believed he would come and find me and kill me. Now I don't hold on to irrational fear. George taught me there's more to life than fear. Forgiveness, like life, is a journey not a destination. That's how I end my talks for the Forgiveness Project. And do you know what – and I am so grateful to be able to say this – I live on my own now and I am not afraid."
Love and loss: Rosalyn's diaries
3 July 2004
I think this man really does love me. After all he professed his love on national TV this week. The problem is that he is a narcissist. And an obsessive alcoholic. And a renowned womaniser. ('What IS a womaniser?' he asked when I said that to him.) And ill... I can't live feeling second best, whether it be to another woman or a glass of wine... A thin line between love and hate. That's what this relationship is built on.
10 August 2004
My guilt is unbearable. Last night it all got too much. I drove to our old house – the house where I was raped – and sat outside in my car. I sobbed and sobbed. I resent those people being in my house. I thought about all the happy times there.
30 August 2004
When I am with him, I wake up so early and spend an hour staring at him sleeping. When he talks, I stare into those eyes that are still a young boy's eyes. He makes me so happy – and so sad. He won't get his blood tests and he is drinking so much he could die any time.
20 September 2004
Alex [Best's second wife] was quoted a long time ago now saying that although she could handle George's alcoholism, she could not handle the other women during their marriage. My experience has been the polar opposite. Although I will always support him in his sobriety, nobody can change George except himself and to try is fruitless. It is a devastating fact.
23 October 2005
George has been deteriorating [in the Cromwell Hospital]. He slips in and out of being lucid and is prone to be confused because of the amount of drugs he is on. He asked me why wasn't he getting well. I said 'You're in for the long haul, George'.
21 November 2005
Arrived at hospital at 4am. George's lungs were filling with fluid and his breathing was extremely laboured. He motioned at me to take his [oxygen] mask off, which I did. He lifted his head and said, 'Fix it'. Such a typical George thing to say. My very last words to him before they put him into a coma were 'Do you understand I love you?' He nodded.