Stunned with grief, Susan Francis sat in silence with her son Jonno in their rented apartment in Lisbon, Portugal.
The then 54-year-old Australian stared into space while her son tried to distract her with an action film.
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Just three days earlier, in June 2015, Susan’s husband of one year and partner of three years, Wayne, had died suddenly.
As Susan sat trying to process what had happened, she received a disturbing phone call.
Nothing could prepare her for what came next.
In 2012, when Susan was 51, she was teaching at a school about 70km outside of Dubbo in NSW.
“There weren’t a lot of social opportunities for me,” Susan, who now makes her home in Newcastle, tells 7Life.
“Meeting someone wasn’t easy.”
So she went online and came across Wayne.
They hit it off and made plans to meet up for tea at Susan’s.
As he approached her front door, Susan immediately noticed his tall stature.
He was wearing a long cotton shirt with buttons down the front and sleeves rolled up, and she thought, “Wow, he’s gorgeous.”
“I just remember looking through the window and he was just so amazing to look at,” recalls Susan, now 61.
“He had an aura and a presence about him.
“It struck me that he was very confident and confident and intelligent.”
Over the next few years, the couple became closer and shared glimpses of their lives.
Susan learned that Wayne was born in Sydney but had moved to Papua New Guinea with his father when he was young.
He lived there until his 20’s before returning to Australia to work.
Wayne, a miner, also told Susan that he changed his name “because there was another colleague at the mine who had the same name and he didn’t want any confusion.”
“He was such a confident, straight-forward person and seemed relatively easy-going,” says Susan.
The couple shared their dreams for the future, with Susan Wayne revealing her dreams of living in a foreign land.
So they started traveling to Spain in 2015.
Before leaving, they decided to become a hitchhiker and got married in 2014.
Everyone told them it was “very quick,” but the two didn’t want to wait.
“When you’re 50, you don’t have the whole future ahead of you, so we were both like, ‘Let’s do it now,'” says Susan.
“It just seemed practical to get married before we went abroad.
“But standing up for one another so late in life was important and meaningful.
“There was no doubt – we both felt that we had found our person.”
Tomorrow in Portugal
In June 2015, six months into their new life in Europe, the couple found themselves in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.
One morning, Susan was sitting in her small apartment in the sun, typing on her laptop.
But her quiet start to the day ended abruptly when she heard a noise from the bedroom.
“I ran in and Wayne was sitting up in the middle of the bed, leaning on one arm,” she explains.
His face was purple as he gasped for air.
“I understood almost immediately that he was dying and needed an ambulance,” she says.
Panicking, Susan rushed through the apartment trying to find a working phone and emergency number before running down the hallway and onto the street to get help.
She eventually found someone to call an ambulance for her husband.
“I was sitting next to Wayne and 20, 25 minutes later the ambulance came and then the police,” she recalls.
Despite the efforts of paramedics, Wayne could not be resuscitated.
Three days later, as Susan sat with her son trying to come to terms with her husband’s death, her phone rang.
It was David*, a distant relative who hadn’t reached out in 15 years after he and Wayne “fought.”
What ensued, Susan says, was a “bizarre” and “inappropriate” hour-long conversation.
“He introduced himself and said, ‘I understand that he died,'” she recalls.
David began to wonder if Wayne was really dead and why Susan had married him.
“He kept saying things like, ‘I saw your Facebook profile and you look like a really nice girl, why on earth did you marry him?'” says Susan.
David continued, “I never thought he would ever get married. He was always against it.”
His comments then took on a darker tone.
“He should have stayed underground. How dare he lift his head above the ground,” she recalls David’s words.
Susan says it felt like “I had to prove to this guy that we had a wonderful marriage and that we were very much in love.”
David continued and said, “Don’t you know what he did? If you had known what he did, you would never have married him.”
Susan was confused without knowing what he was referring to.
“I was still in shock and grieved for Wayne. I didn’t ask him what he was talking about and he didn’t tell me,” she says.
“I didn’t even half believe the guy because to me everyone who knew Wayne saw him for the man he really was and how could anyone have such questions about him?”
The long phone call finally ended – but David’s words had sown doubt.
find the truth
For two years, Susan’s unexpected, confused phone call plagued her mind.
It wasn’t until 2017 that Susan, who now lives in Newcastle, felt “strong enough” to ask her mother-in-law about it.
“It was just an itch,” says Susan, adding that Wayne’s mother visited her.
Never in a million years could she have imagined what her mother-in-law would say.
When Wayne was 22 and living in the highland region of PNG, he was charged with the murder of his de facto wife, Caroline Benny, who was only 21.
Wayne’s mother stated that the charges were reduced to manslaughter on appeal and Wayne served three years in prison for the crime.
Susan was in shock when her mother-in-law left the house.
“It was surreal and just absolutely shocking,” she says.
“I jumped in the car and went to the local mall and got in the car. I looked to the right and the car next to me rolled back.
“Suddenly I realized it was my car. I didn’t put the handbrake on.
“And that best expresses how I was thinking or feeling — just completely disconnected from the world I knew, from the people I knew, from my understanding of my life.”
Married to a killer
Susan’s mind was in overdrive.
For months she googled “crazy” looking for anything to back up her mother-in-law’s confession.
She found an article from 1978 referring to the death of “Miss Caroline Benny, 21” at the hands of “Mr. Wayne Francis Ryan” in PNG.
The article quoted the judge in the case as saying Benny’s death “occurred in distressing circumstances during an emotionally violent scene.”
“So I knew it was true, then I actually knew this had happened,” says Susan.
She says Wayne’s past life and mystery hasn’t changed her perception of him “in many years.”
“I was still grieving and I still loved him,” she says.
But she admits that if he had told her earlier, she wouldn’t have continued the relationship.
“If he had told me the very first night we met, or on the second or third date, I probably wouldn’t have seen him again because that’s a big deal,” she says.
“When we were married and abroad, I can’t imagine what would have happened if he had told me at the time.
“Because by then it was too late, by then it was a betrayal.”
In 2020, Susan shared her life story in a book called The Love That Remains.
“My biggest fear was that people would read the book and say I would defend him and stand up for him,” she says.
“When I wrote it, it was all about the love that was left.
“It wasn’t until last year that I really felt like my feelings were starting to change.”
Susan couldn’t look at the photos of her and Wayne on the walls of her house anymore.
They had previously allowed her to think of times when her husband told her, “I have your back.”
“I used to look at those photos and draw strength from them,” she says.
“I loved him so much and we did so much together.
“And suddenly last year I was looking at these photos and I was so angry.
“I couldn’t even look him in the face and it went on like that for a couple of months.
“You have to grieve for that person you love, and only later can you start to allow other emotions.
“I just hope that over the years this will pass too and I’ll somehow better understand how you deal with it.”
*David is not his real name.
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