A drink too many, a cold night – and my Nicole was gone

Jonathan Falkingham was at work in Liverpool on January 22 when he got the call about his wife. “I was preparing for a big presentation to the city council. I got a call from a friend who said, ‘Jonathan, have you heard anything about Nicole?’ I said no. I could tell she was quite anxious. I said, why? She said, ‘We think you need to come. You really need to be here.’”

He gave his apologies and left the office. When he met his friends they told him Nicole was dead. It seemed she had been drinking for several hours and had collapsed in a wine bar. Two people who knew her had offered to look after her and took her away. But she was found the following morning in the back of the acquaintances’ car parked on the drive outside their house. Temperatures had fallen to -2C and she had died of hypothermia and acute alcohol poisoning.

When Falkingham arrived the house was cordoned off as a crime scene and the car was covered by a police tent. He approached the police: “I said, I believe my wife is here . . .”

It’s a situation anybody would dread. What made it particularly hard for Falkingham was that while he remained his wife’s next of kin, they had recently become estranged. Talking to me he struggles with the complicated feelings and often refers to her in the present tense (“she’ll kill me”, he says at one point, describing a teasing conversation between them years ago).

More than once this successful and prominent businessman is reduced to tears and halting, fragmentary sentences. But he has decided to do this first and last interview because he has been unhappy about the coverage of Nicole’s life and death in some newspapers.

He doesn’t accuse the papers of factual errors, mind you; he confirms several awkward facts himself, of which more later. What seems to distress him is the way the coverage has shown Nicole to be some kind of lush and the hint that his company’s documented difficulties during the downturn may have contributed towards their breakup.

“Whatever happens in a relationship, you were with somebody for a reason. I had my reasons for being with Nicole and we were very much in love. It came to a point where it wasn’t working any more, which was regrettable and a shame, but that doesn’t mean all your feelings evaporate.”

They met at work. Urban Splash is a property company known for regenerating old buildings in city centres — it was a pioneer of loft apartments as a lifestyle choice then almost unknown outside New York. The company was co-founded by Falkingham and Tom Bloxham in 1993. It had grown substantially by 1999 when Nicole joined as a receptionist in the Liverpool office. “She was the best receptionist we ever had. It didn’t matter if you were a business suit or a dustman, you got the same treatment. She was very warm straight away, very instant with a big smile, very touchy-feely, and she made everybody feel very welcome. It was quite disarming.”

It was three years before they started a relationship. “She’ll kill me, because she denies this, but if we ever went out, like for a Christmas party, she somehow always ended up sitting next to me. I said to her afterwards, you were obviously after me all this time. She flatly denies it because I should have been chasing her. But it hadn’t even crossed my mind that she could be interested because she’s younger than I am. She’s 41 and I’m 50 now, so back then she was a young, beautiful girl and I didn’t think somebody like that could be interested in me. I had a couple of kids . . . I was gobsmacked.”

Nicole’s father had left home when she was young and her mother died aged 42. She had a stepfather, whom Falkingham is close to, but no brothers or sisters. She had been married twice before. “I don’t really know what went wrong with those relationships. She talked fairly fondly of her first husband, perhaps a bit less so about the next one.”

I ask what he was hoping for from the relationship. “I was 40 when we got involved. I think I wanted . . . I wanted it to develop into a relationship for the rest of my life.” He goes quiet, wells up, then apologises. “And that’s not how it turned out.”

Did he tell her how he felt? He doesn’t remember, but thinks she can’t have been in any doubt.

“From the moment we decided to make a go of it she was immediately a part of everything — my family, my friends — and I probably put more into my relationship with her than I had put into any other. If you have had a failed relationship you don’t want to have another one. I was very keen to make this one work.

“We were in very different worlds, she was a receptionist and at the time I owned three businesses and I was well known in business circles and as an architect, so I wanted to make her not feel uncomfortable, because I thought there was a danger that she might. But she adapted very, very quickly.

“My colleagues were very much charmed by her and we did virtually everything together. If I went to London for business she came with me and we went out together in the evening.”

They married in 2007. Nicole had tried and failed to have children before meeting him and this remained a big issue for her. “The fact that I had two very young children at the time was very positive for her. We did discuss trying again with IVF and explored adoption, but we felt the local authority route was quite invasive.”

There were other options, but by the time they had ruled out local authority adoption their marriage was no longer strong.

“I have a lot of interests: architecture, design, world affairs . . . I also know about gardening and wildlife and I used to be a serious stamp collector. Nicole didn’t share those interests and she used to tease me about them, but latterly we were not spending so much time together. A part of the problem, surprisingly, was getting a dog. “My kids really wanted us to have a dog. Nicole took a lot of persuading, but we happened to meet a friend one day with a little bichon and Nicole made the mistake of saying, oh, well I wouldn’t mind a dog like that. In minutes the kids were on Google looking up bichons frisés and within a week we had a puppy.” The dog became Nicole’s world and it stopped being possible for her to travel everywhere with Jonathan.

As they became aware of the problem, they discussed making more effort to do things together. “It wasn’t that we weren’t getting on, but latterly we would eat separately, perhaps because she was on a particular diet. And we’d built an extension to the house, so we have two TV rooms and we don’t always enjoy the same programmes, so we quite often sat at different ends of the house.”

Were they taking each other for granted?

“You could say that. I don’t know. But I’m not sitting here now saying, if only I’d done this or that. There were differences and it was frustrating that we couldn’t resolve them, because I’m a problem-solver. It’s very rare for me that I can’t solve a problem. My view is that if you understand what the problem is, you can find the solution and I found it very frustrating that perhaps there didn’t seem to be a solution in this case.

“I felt very sad. A sense of failure in coming to the conclusion that it was going to be difficult for us to get back on track.”

So Nicole moved out? “No. The house is quite big, with another entrance. We agreed that she would use one part of the house and I would use the other.”

“We dealt with what happened in two different ways. I didn’t talk to people about it, but she did. She was on the phone all the time to anybody who would listen.”

He interrupts himself. It’s impossible to talk about this, he says, without it looking as if he is trying to make himself look good. “What happened in our marriage is private, between me and Nicole.” But it’s a matter of record that Nicole was charged with stealing £36,000 worth of his possessions.

“But I never pressed charges. After the separation Nicole used to come into [my part of] the house from time to time. And that included going on to my computer. I think she was interested to know if I had any other love interest or something. And on one occasion she found what has been referred to as an ‘embarrassing email’ between me and another woman — which was subsequent to our separation — and she decided to email it to everybody.”

When he found out what she had done and realised the laptop was missing, he phoned a friend who advised him to call the police. Having done that, he realised she had also taken all his watches out of the safe.

Nicole denied it, making up a far-fetched story in front of the police who asked her to open the boot of her car — where they found the watches. “So they arrested her and charged her because she had blatantly lied. If she’d admitted it they would have thought it was a pathetic domestic.

“That theft is entirely irrelevant to me. Everything was returned to me. I have no idea why she did it. She acted very foolishly. But people don’t always think straight.”

Do you remember when you last spoke to her? “Erm . . .” Tears well up again. “Yeah. It was before Christmas. We share the drive and we both happened to be outside . . . Erm, she ended up coming over and saying. Um. That she was . . . well, she said she was very sad it had come to this and she hoped we would both be able to move on and stay friends and she gave me a big hug and wished me merry Christmas. She was clearly upset. I suppose I was too. I agreed it was very sad and hoped we could come through this as friends. It was a very brief encounter but that was the last time I spoke to her.

“The press interest in what happened was unexpected, salacious and inaccurate. Nicole was portrayed in a very negative light. What happened to her was an incredible, unusual, tragic set of circumstances. She had acute alcohol poisoning and she had hypothermia, but she was portrayed as being some drunken person out of control . . . We all drink and get drunk occasionally, but you couldn’t characterise her life that way.

“As a couple we only ever drank socially. The headlines also suggested that my business activities had somehow contributed to what happened. Completely untrue. Reading that I felt very, very angry.”

Do you still love her? He pauses for a long time: “I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. A better way to answer is to say that I did really love her and it’s very sad.”

1932 words. First published 24 February 2013. © Times Newspapers Ltd.