Byline: PAUL BRACCHI
WELL I'm not surprised,' said the voice on the end of the line when informed yesterday that Professor Stephen Hawking is divorcing his wife Elaine. 'Not surprised at all - I just wish it had happened a long, long time ago.' The voice belonged to a nurse who used to care for Prof Hawking; she parted company with him, reluctantly, after Elaine became the second Mrs Hawking in 1995.
'She is the reason I left. It's the reason everyone leaves. It's impossible to reconcile the way she treated Stephen with the ethics of our profession. I don't want to say anymore because it brings back painful memories.' It is a sentiment shared by almost all Prof Hawking's friends and family; relief that he is now finally free of Elaine, and distress that it has taken so long; the couple have been together for 17 years.
It is a relationship that, almost from the beginning, has provoked a storm of controversy - and suspicion - the wheelchair-bound Prof Hawking, 64, who has suffered from motor neurone disease since the age of 22, and the 'controlling, manipulative and bullying' (the words of another former employee) Elaine.
Because for years there have been shocking rumours of violence and abuse against the vulnerable scientist - mental as well as physical - supported by his own children no less.
There is unlikely to be any reference to these allegations in divorce papers lodged by both parties at Cambridge County Court, however.
Prof Hawking has publicly denied such claims in the past. For a fiercely proud man who, though feted as possibly the world's most famous living scientist, must rely on others to help him perform basic human functions, it surely would have been the final indignity: to be forced to deny that he is a battered husband.
Next month, he will receive the Royal Society's most prestigious prize - the Copley Medal - won by such luminaries as Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.
Conspicuous by her absence at the ceremony, of course, will be Mrs Hawking, 55, who is thought to have already moved out of the marital home.
So why after all these years have they split up?
There have been suggestions that he has found a new girlfriend but a source close to the family has strenuously denied to the Mail that the break-up was caused by Prof Hawking having an affair. 'It is complete and utter rubbish,' he said.
What's more, it is also rumoured that Mrs Hawking has become 'close' to another man, a former carer, believed to have been appointed by Elaine, who used to look after her husband. 'I met "him'' once,' said someone who worked for Prof Hawking.
'It was a few years ago before they supposedly became involved and I can't really remember anything about him.' Mrs Hawking - or Elaine Mason, as she was formerly known - was also married when she joined Prof Hawking's nursing team back in the Eighties; she subsequently left her husband of 15 years, leaving him to bring up their two young sons.
But what of her now? She will leave her second marriage considerably wealthier than she did her first. The couple's townhouse in Cambridge, purchased in 1992 and now worth [pounds sterling]750,000, is in their joint names.
Moreover, he has amassed a vast personal fortune. More than 210,000 copies of his book A Brief History Of Time have been sold in the past eight years alone, netting more than [pounds sterling]2million. He has also made lucrative sums from other books.
On Thursday, Mrs Hawking, who has always denied marrying for money, cycled to the (former) marital home where she was understood to have attended a meeting with solicitors. 'I have been told that - surprise - one of the stumbling blocks in the divorce is money,' said an old family friend.
Under different circumstances, this would be hardly worth mentioning.
But, in the light of all the other allegations, it is, you might think, particularly telling. …