It’s not every day you find out you’re dead. A quiet, family evening at my brother’s house. We’re sorting out an Indian takeaway. Negotiating portions of rice. Extra poppadoms. Anyone want to share a naan? Don’t suppose there’s any mango chutney, is there? I notice a missed call on my mobile. Gary doesn’t phone often. When he does, it’s usually about Charlie. I don’t think I’m going to like the voicemail he’s left. Please call Mike as soon as you get this. I was right. I don’t like it.
Mike’s the Community Police Officer. He sounds surprised to hear my voice.
You’re OK then?
Only Charlie told me you were dead.
He said you died last week. Of a heart attack.
Not that I noticed …
I hear disbelief. Then anger.
But he was sobbing his heart out. How can anyone lie like that?
It doesn’t seem a good time to tell him how rich I’d be if I had a fiver for every convincing lie Charlie’s told me. With tears. Snot. Anguish of the soul. The whole nine yards.
Maybe Reeva Steenkamp was less surprised by her demise than I was by mine. After all, she’d already told her lover she was scared of him. Only a few days before he shot her. Through the locked door of the toilet. At three in the morning. Four times. Just to make sure. She’d known he had a gun. A previous girlfriend once hid it because of his insane rages.
If Charlie’d ever had access to a firearm my death might have been more than a figment of his imagination. Over 70% of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has left the relationship. I left Charlie five times. He’s one reason why I’ve followed the media circus surrounding Reeva’s killer with such interest. There’s a photo that stands out for me from all those Oscar-winning performances in the witness box. The man’s in tears. Again. A single drip hanging from the end of his nose. Puts me in mind of Charlie whenever I see it. He could have won awards for acting too.
Reeva’s killer. Charlie. Nigella Lawson’s ex. Rosemary Gill’s murderer. They think they’re the victims somehow. If Reeva had behaved the way he wanted her to, everything would have been fine. It was all her fault. Charlie’s predecessor spelled that one out for me. Loudly. And often. The average abuser is utterly convinced of his own rightness. When the solids hit the fan it’s only reasonable for him to lie his way out of trouble. After all, he’s intelligent enough to know the truth might not garner much sympathy. I didn’t like what she did / said / the way she looked at someone. I threatened her. Smothered her. Shot her. Throttled her. Beat her to death. I couldn’t help it. Not going to go down well in a court of law. I thought she was a burglar. Much better. No matter how implausible. Tears are just the icing on the cake. It can’t be hard to squeeze out a few if you’re staring life imprisonment in the face. Poor me. Look what she did to me.
I once knew a man who’d been bullied in school. He was fifteen when it dawned on him he didn’t have to take this any more. He punched the bully. Knocked him out cold. Or so he told me. A light bulb moment. He’d never been bullied since. Instead he’d gone through life fists up. Always first to throw a metaphorical punch. Never letting anyone get close enough to hurt him. But he’d never stopped seeing himself as a victim. A frightened child. And a frightened child who’s six foot and eighteen stone is someone you don’t want to mess with.
Fear tells horrible lies. It told Reeva Steenkamp she’d be safe behind the locked door of the bathroom. It told her killer that Reeva wasn’t to be trusted. He had to subjugate her. And if she died in the process? Collateral damage. That’s what they call it in Gaza isn’t it? Once fear’s in the driving seat, empathy goes out of the window. Compassion. Humanity. We revert to blind animal instinct. Fight or flight. Not a good way to conduct intimate partnerships. Interactions with neighbours. International negotiations. Fear’s a liar. Fear’s a killer.
A couple of paragraphs back I snuck in the words I left Charlie five times. Five times. Stands to reason I’ve been interested in the hashtag trending on Twitter this week #WhyIStayed. Anyone who’s been abused will recognise the rollercoaster. The decision to stay, or to return to an abuser, is rooted in fear. It also flows from an optimism just as insane as the fear. I refused to believe there was nothing to Charlie but the monster. I knew there was more. I’d seen the good. I didn’t want to believe the evil would win the day. I don’t think he did either.
One evening in the kitchen. Roast lamb. Charlie was always a good cook. We worked well together. Pans clattered as I rooted through the cupboard. I finally found what I wanted. Stood up. Charlie wasn’t there. My stomach knotted. If you’ve ever lived with a hardcore abuser you’ll know about The Silence. I found him in the bedroom. Tears pouring down his face. Instead of the usual rebuff, he looked up. Helpless.
I can’t trust you.
Of course you can.
No. You don’t understand. It’s me. I can’t trust you.
He was right. No matter how hard I loved him. No matter how much he wanted to. He couldn’t do it. He wasn’t capable of trust. Fear’s a thief too.
I wish I could paint a fairytale ending. The moment of truth that set us free. We walked off into the sunset hand in hand … We didn’t of course. I cooked the lamb. He refused to eat it. The rest was messy. Because where domestic abuse is concerned, happy ever after is just another lie.
All the names in this piece have been changed or omitted, except those of the victims of domestic abuse. I see no reason why our abusers should steal the limelight as well as our lives.