I emerge from the freezer with a box of sausages. I’ll swear I’m going to find a body the day I get to the bottom of that machine. Back out in the cafe, the atmosphere’s tense. Most of the food bank staff are by the door and there’s a lot of shouting going on outside.
“Don’t go out there. There’s a fight.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Ben and Izzy.”
A couple of women are standing in the porch. One I don’t know. The other I can’t help but wish I didn’t. She nicked a customer’s phone last week, then demanded twenty quid from the owner before she’d give it back. She caused no end of a headache on a busy morning when I was in charge. Why do these things always happen when Anne’s not there? Anne’s nowhere to be seen now. Everyone’s jumpy and the fight’s moving closer to the door. I’m going to have to get assertive with someone, although I can’t help thinking my supply of assertiveness ran out around two hours ago.
It’s more than half dark outside. Don’t you just love December afternoons? There’s a bright green bike chained to the drainpipe, and it’s blocking the fire exit. The dog that’s running round the garden looks a lot like a pit bull. On the pavement opposite, Ben and Izzy are hurling abuse at each other. Ben’s strutting and ranting and reminding me an awful lot of Charlie. The dog’s lead’s getting a few mentions, in between the effing, so I guess the unfortunate creature must be theirs. They can’t find the lead, or one of them’s forgotten it. I can’t quite make out which. Maybe they don’t know either. The dog makes a bolt for the road. I grab her harness as she passes. There’s a length of parcel string attached where the lead should be. She seems unfazed at being restrained by a total stranger. In fact, she’s altogether the least worried of the lot of us, but I suppose this is more or less normal for her.
Woman-I-wish-I-didn’t-know’s in the cafe now, and altogether too close to the till. Maybe I should have cashed up before I started excavating the freezer. Not for the first time I wish I had eyes in the back of my head and Inspector Gadget arms. I know her of old. She’ll have anything that’s not nailed down. Ben’s in my face. He grabs the dog, and heads off up the road. Izzy starts screeching. He’s going the wrong f***ing way, she says. He needs to take the f***ing dog home first. He lets go of the dog and tells her to take the f***ing thing home herself. She can’t, she says. The f***ing string hurts her f***ing fingers. Suddenly, they’re walking off into the sunset together, in quite the opposite direction from the one Sam was headed just now. The dog comes back to me. Even she looks confused now, although less so than I feel.
“COME BACK HERE, RIGHT NOW! YOU’VE FORGOTTEN YOUR DOG!”
It’s worth it just for the stunned silence that follows. I’m not noted for raising my voice. Ben comes back, tail between his legs. I swear the poor dog sighs.
Back in the warmth of the cafe that woman’s still far too near the till for my liking. I pin on my smile. Sometimes the only option left is to be nice.
“Are you all right?”
“Is there any food left?”
The cafe closed two hours ago, and I’m not in any mood to be generous.
“Depends on what you want.”
“Anything you’ve got really. I’ve got nothing in the house.”
Great. It’s not my problem after all. This is a job for food bank. Sue bustles up with her clipboard. The woman slumps onto a chair and starts answering her questions. All of a sudden, I hear myself offering her a cuppa. Two minutes later I’ve collapsed onto the chair opposite and we’re drinking tea together.
I’ve learned more than I ever needed to know about the world in the past ten years or so. You might imagine I’d be hard-nosed, and I admit that sometimes I’m more so than I like. Mostly, though, it’s more difficult than ever to turn my back. Jane, who’s in front of me now, has just lost someone she loved. If I’m honest, I’ve known that for the last three weeks, but I’ve chosen to ignore it because of her behaviour. And also because of who he was, if I’m going to be even more honest. Yes, I still have to wrestle with my judgmental streak from time to time. Faced with her tear-stained face across the table now, I have to admit that, although he was quite literally her partner in crime, her hearts’s no less broken than mine would be. She’s hit the bottle hard. She’d known him since she was seventeen she says, between gulps of sweet tea. My cynical side thinks he was likely the one who introduced her to this murky half-life. He’d done the same for a goodly number of young women by the time he keeled over with a crack-induced heart attack, barely an hour after leaving the cafe on a Thursday morning. Anne wasn’t here that day either. Was ‘pimp’ a conscious career choice, I wonder, or did he just drift into it after a stint on a Youth Training Scheme?
Jane’s got just enough booze inside her to loosen her tongue. She’s not yet reached the stage of being abusive or mendacious, or at least no more so than goes with the territory. I’ve learned to take drunken tears with an awful lot of salt, but I can’t help thinking she means most of what she says today. She’s got nine children, she tells me. All of them taken from her.
“I go to my daughter’s sometimes. But I’m a drinker. I always run away in the end.”
I’m struck by her fatalism. It’s as if she’s long believed she deserves this nightmare she lives in.
“Do you have a support worker?”
“Yes. But she’ll shout at me if I call her.”
She tells me the worker’s name, so I know I can say this next from my heart.
“She’ll only shout because she cares about you. She knows you’re worth more than this.”
She shakes her head and changes the subject. Next week she’ll steal the soap and toilet rolls, as usual.
The following Wednesday I’m late for work. I’ve been to a meeting and had to wait for a bus. I know Anne will be gone by the time I arrive. As I steam up the road towards the cafe, I can see a small crowd gathered on the pavement outside. Why is there always a queue when you’re running late? John and Alan are besieged inside the building. Anne’s left them strict instructions not to let anyone in until I arrive.
“OK. Let’s get these tables outside and get going.”
Pat and Joe are at the head of the queue. I try to commandeer them quietly, while no-one’s looking, it’s never going to work though. Suddenly, the whole queue’s in the café, dragging tables and chairs into the garden. I’ve barely got my apron on before they’re lined up at the counter, ordering toasted sandwiches.
Pat grins at me from half way down the line. He and Joe are in the midst of a monumental battle to kick the booze. He’s got a can of energy drink in one hand, as usual, and a herbal teabag in the other. He loves the Three Ginger ones.
“How’s it going?”
He doesn’t sound as thrilled as he ought to.
“Only now all the stuff that started me on it in the first place is coming back.”
He’s not keen to talk. I take fifty pee from the till and he goes off to the shop to buy a newspaper. At least it’ll block the demons for an hour or so.
To this day, I know nothing about Pat’s past. I met him first a little over two years ago. He and Charlie were drinking partners back then. They’d lived together on the streets for a while. He was three stone lighter, and could twirl a drum major’s baton like a pro. I now know he’s possessed of dignity, courage and a generous heart. Of all of us, Pat was the only one with the guts to stand up at Charlie’s funeral and pay tribute to his friend. Had I known this was one of our last conversations I’d be saying something different.
Two weeks to Christmas. Yesterday, Pat and Joe were telling everyone about their Christmas dinner. They’d bought everything they needed, right down to a frozen turkey. They’d been worried about Christmas before that. It’s the worst time of all when you’re trying not to drink. This morning they’re not here, and come midday we’re worried. The cafe’s quiet. Susie says she’ll go round the corner and check on them. She’s gone two hours. The moment I see her face, I know. In the middle of the crowded cafe we hang onto one another and sob. There’s going to be one hell of a lot of people doing that over the next few days. Pat had more friends than he knew. He and Joe had bought some pills to help them through the cravings. The pills and the energy drinks hadn’t mixed well and Pat was gone before Susie got there. The paramedics did their best, but he wasn’t coming back. Susie probably saved Joe’s life, but I’m not sure she’ll ever forgive herself for missing Pat.
The thought comes to me as we’re locking up to go home. Pat and Charlie will be together for Christmas. Some party that’s going to be. And do you know what? I really don’t care whether it’s true in any literal sense. It makes Susie and me smile through our tears and that’s what matters. There are times when we all of us need to believe that the universe is a kinder place than it appears to be.
Monthly Archives: December 2015
I emerge from the freezer with a box of sausages. I’ll swear I’m going to find a body the day I get to the bottom of that machine. Back out in the cafe, the atmosphere’s tense. Most of the food bank staff are by the door and there’s a lot of shouting going on outside.
Charlie’s sulking again. His sulks are deep, brooding silences, heavy with threat. I believe they’re intended to convey that something I’ve said or done hasn’t met with his approval, but often there’s no discernible trigger. Today’s one of those days. He’s at the desk in the corner. I’m on the edge of the bed, waiting for the storm to break. I can’t help thinking he’s revelling in the control, although in truth I have no idea what’s going on in his head. I feel as if I’m in a courtroom where Charlie’s prosecutor, judge and jury, and I haven’t so much as the smallest inkling of the crime I’m supposed to have committed. I told him that once. He smirked into the middle distance and said nothing.
Mercifully, the tsunami blows through quickly this time. I dry my eyes on the hem of my T-shirt. Charlie’s still rumbling, deep in his chest, but the worst is over.
You know your trouble? You think you’re a victim.
If I did, I might have a point, but it’s more than my life’s worth to say so. He warms to his subject.
That’s the difference between you and me. You see, I really am a victim. You just think you are.
He doesn’t go so far as to say so there. Instead, he hauls himself out of the chair and lumbers off to the kitchen in search of tobacco.
I’ve no intention of analysing Charlie’s control issues here. All that’s long gone, and anyway no-one could expect sweet reason from a man who’d happily jump in front of an oncoming vehicle, rather than step on three consecutive drain covers. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a lot to trigger the memories. A newspaper article. A scene on the telly. A chance conversation. On a bad day, any one of them can reduce me to tears. Now, at long last, the kind of coercive control at which both Charlie and his predecessor excelled is to become a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years imprisonment. You could be forgiven for thinking I’m dancing in the street. If only life were so simple.
It’s possible I’m the only person ever to have broken an arm ten-pin bowling. I’m told my fall was spectacular, although I was too busy howling with pain to notice at the time. The paramedics were just as sceptical as you are. They thought I was making a fuss over nothing. They hauled me up unceremoniously, bundled me into a car and dumped me in the waiting room at A and E. It wasn’t till some four hours later that the doctor looked at me over the top of his spectacles.
It’s not good news, I’m afraid.
I could have told him that.
Luton and Dunstable Hospital’s A and E department is not a place you’d want to spend four hours of a Friday night, especially when no-one’s thought to offer you any painkillers. Through a haze of agony I became aware that the girl across the aisle had broken her ankle on a skiing holiday and come straight to hospital from the airport. Then the police arrived. I couldn’t tell you a thing about the woman they brought with them, except that she was covered in bruises and had probably never been on a skiing holiday in her life. I’d not long left Charlie for the umpteenth time. I could hear the officers pleading with her to press charges. I knew she wouldn’t. After a while they got an urgent call. When I next came to, she was gone. There but for the grace of God … I couldn’t get the words out of my head.
Yesterday, an article about the new domestic violence law passed down my Facebook feed. While I freely admit to being a social media addict, I rarely comment directly on news articles. It’s a murky world, inhabited by trolls, bigots and misogynists who do nothing for my blood pressure or my sanity. I do my best never to venture into it. This time I succumbed to temptation. The very first comment on the article had been removed by the moderator. A number of others conveyed, with less abuse but no less assurance, the ‘Charlie perspective’ on domestic violence. We men really are victims. You women only think you are. Empathy for the writer, who’d found herself homeless with a young child just before Christmas, was in very short supply.
As I’ve said, I’m not even going to start on the reasons why a perpetrator of abuse might want to believe himself to be a victim. Nor am I going to suggest that domestic abuse is an issue that affects only women. Far from it. Instead, as I read and re-read the article, I was forced to revisit the sheer helplessness of being neither heard by my abusers nor believed by those who had the power to help me.
‘Ten years on, and just reading this took me back to a place I never wanted to go again. It’s so hard for anyone who’s never experienced coercive control to understand how the perpetrator can get inside not only the victim’s head, but also those of the professionals involved. I applaud the government’s initiative in making this kind of abuse a criminal offence, but I suspect that even in the criminal courts it will be hard to produce enough evidence to get convictions. I’m sometimes asked why I remained in a coercive relationship for so long. The answer is complex, but in many ways quite simple. I had no bruises. My ex was manipulative. Even the professionals involved accused me of ‘catastrophising’ the situation. Put simply, no-one believed me and I had nowhere to go. It’s a level of helplessness that’s hard to understand if you’ve never been there.’
Needless to say, the first reply to my comment had to be removed by the moderator.
Much like a comments’ thread, the floor of a bowling alley’s an unforgiving place. I remember trying to make myself pass out. Anything to get away from the pain. Of course, the paramedics weren’t to know my left arm was broken clean through, just below the shoulder. After all, who does that to themselves ten-pin bowling? The thing that hurt most was the judgement they made. In their view, I couldn’t possibly have done that much damage, so I must be overreacting. They grabbed the belt loops of my trousers and dragged me to my feet, kicking and screaming. Quite literally.
Maybe you’re just going to have to forgive me if I’m not quite ready to party on the strength of the latest initiative on domestic abuse. It’s one thing to outlaw coercive control. It’s quite another to persuade people to listen to its victims without judging, and to empathise with their pain. The victims of most crimes can offer incontrovertible physical evidence that a crime has been committed, yet even in the face of this convictions for crimes such as rape remain at a depressingly low level. Instead the waters are muddied by judgement, excuses, or spurious justifications. She was drunk. What did she expect if she was dressed like that? She was gagging for it. Incredibly, in the twenty-first century it still remains possible for a prominent female barrister to hold women responsible for sexual assaults on themselves. What hope is there for the victims of emotional abuse, where the physical evidence is more or less non-existent?
There were a number of professionals involved in my life when my marriage ended. Three experienced paramedics came to my rescue at the bowling alley. Not one of these people was able to empathise with my situation, or to accept the evidence of my distress at face value. The paramedics took one look at me and made up their minds I couldn’t possibly be be seriously injured. They made a judgement about my character instead. Hysterical woman. She can’t be in that much pain. Making a mountain out of a molehill. I imagine the people who told me I was catastrophising back in the day went through a similar decision-making process. Only I wasn’t lying on the floor at their feet while they talked about me that time.
The process of bringing abusers to book is fraught with far more hazard than this government’s new legislation admits. I can envisage victims of coercive abuse having their sanity questioned and their reputations dragged through the mud in court by the very abusers they seek to escape, and with even less hope of a conviction than there is in a rape trial. After all, given a choice between the evidence of a pre-judged ‘hysterical woman’ and that of a plausible control freak, which way is a judge’s decision likely to go? I wouldn’t want to call it in the victim’s favour.
In the end, more legislation isn’t going to stop domestic abuse. At best, it might put one or two a**holes behind bars for a while, but it won’t change anything fundamental. Instead, why not try listening to victims and survivors? Not judging us, but believing what we say. To anyone who’s lived with coercive control that’s going to come as rain in a desert, take it from me. We’re accustomed to being ignored. To having our integrity and our veracity called into question. We’re used to being told that our reason and perception are inadequate. That our abusers are really our victims. Gaslighting‘s a standard weapon in the abuser’s armoury. We don’t need other people to use it too. What we do need is safe places to go. The most dangerous time for any victim of abuse is after s/he leaves. We also need basic support to rebuild our lives. An adequate income and a roof over our heads and those of our children would do for starters. So many of us are trapped in abusive relationships by sheer practicalities. Our abusers make sure we’re short of money, and we have nowhere else to go. When we’re safe, we’ll probably need counselling to help us shake the shame. That constant, nagging belief that we brought all this on ourselves. We’re strong women, every one of us, but our self belief has taken hammerings beyond anything most people can begin to imagine. It’s empathy we need, not condemnation. And when all that’s in place, someone might like to start asking the Charlies of this world why on earth they think they have the smallest right to control our lives in the first place.
Suddenly a terrible commotion fell into the baby princess’s cradle, and the baby princess picked it up and chewed it. My mother won a guinea from the letters page of a well-known women’s magazine for those words of mine. That was back in the days when twenty-one shillings could buy you something worth having. I’ve no idea what she spent it on, but I hope it was something special, because nigh on sixty years later it may yet prove to have been the only time anyone ever made a penny piece from my love of words.
And oh, how I do love words. As a child, I lived in a world of books and dreams. The stories I wove were my imaginary friends, blissfully free of playground politicking. Fairy tales and Saturday excursions to the library with Dad fed the flames. Christmas stockings yielded Alice in Wonderland and Black Beauty, both here beside me as I write, despite all the upheavals of my later life. Next came Wish for a Pony, Jill’s Gymkhana and My Friend Flicka. No prizes for guessing what I longed for every Christmas then. Reality was never a patch on the treasures between their covers. Swallows and Amazons followed hard on their heels, alongside Jane Eyre and David Copperfield. In adolescence, I devoured Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer and Elizabeth Goudge. If I’d known those starry-eyed romantics were to carry at least part of the can for disasters to come would I have done different? Not for one moment.
My mind’s eye always conjures a tearful boy and a gipsy caravan, so I think it must’ve been in a long-forgotten book I first heard it. Sticks and stones may break my bones … Even as a naïve eight-year-old I knew the rest was a lie. I’d broken my wrist playing in the snow by then, and thus found out there were things in this world far worse than breaking a bone. The words of an angry parent for instance, or a playground bully. A broken bone will heal in weeks. A trampled dream can take a lifetime.
In a small town bank, with wood panelling and clerks who wear suits instead of uniforms, I’m waiting for a friend. Her children and two of mine are on the floor at my feet, squabbling quietly over toy cars. A mum I know less well wrestles a buggy through the door. Her loose toddler makes a beeline for the counter while she’s struggling, and pulls down a shower of paying-in slips.
The child squats and scrunches paper.
Stop that, now!
The mother grabs Rosie’s arm and yanks her to her feet.
You’re a pain in the a**e Rosie. Do you hear me? You’re nothing but a pain. What are you?
I will her to stop. She doesn’t, of course.
What are you?
Rosie sniffs. A tear slides down her cheek.
That’s right. You’re a pain in the a**e. Don’t you forget it.
Thirty years on I still think of Rosie sometimes. Maybe she’s forgotten the incident. Her mother has, likely as not. But words cut deep. We teach our children not to lie, then wonder why they grow up to think the words we threw in fits of temper are immutable truths.
Such wisdom I have about words, yet still I choose the wrong ones. It’s eight o’clock on Thursday morning. I’ve locked the front door and I’m picking up my bags when my neighbour emerges.
Good morning! How’s the world?
I’m a doting Granny, thus ‘nativity play’ and ‘yesterday’ trip out upon my tongue without a thought. Your average bull responds more sanguinely to a red rag. By the time I reach the lift he’s kicking up a right royal commotion, berating me on the evils of Christmas.
I’m neither a Christian, nor a capitalist …
Fair enough. I’m not going to call persecution, despite all attempts to convince me that Starbucks are undermining Jesus by not having snowmen on their festive takeaway cups this year. It’s when he starts on the iniquity of Food Banks I have to bite my tongue. The trouble is, I agree with him. Of course we shouldn’t have Food Banks. I’m ashamed to live in a country that’s regressed enough to need them. But the fact is there are people out there hungry, and they don’t have time to wait while we sort out the political morass. They need to eat now, not just five years down the line.
The anger’s deafening. He can’t hear a word I say. I know it’s not personal, but for a horrible moment, it takes me somewhere I never wanted to go again. I gave up fighting back so many years ago. There’s no point arguing with someone who doesn’t hear even his own words. Instead, that little woman in my head used to huddle in a corner and throw things at the walls while he hurled hatred at her. Never a broken bone. Not so much as a bruise. Such destruction, and all of it wrought with words. It wasn’t till a day or two ago I realised how obvious the wounds of it all once were. I met with an old friend at her fiftieth birthday party. We hadn’t seen each other since I walked away from him. Wow, she said. You look happy.
My neighbour knocks on my door when I get home. It takes guts to admit you’ve listened to yourself and not enjoyed what you heard. That’s a kind of courage I can live with. Mind you, I imagine if you’ve once faced down Iain Paisley, anything else is a stroll in the park. Now there was a man who liked nothing better than the commotion of his own words.
Despite it all, I love words with a passion hard to communicate by their use alone. I’ve known people ascribe quite terrifying cosmic powers to words. I’ve met name-it-and-claim-it Christians, who believe you have only to use the right words and God will be obliged to give you anything you want. Oh, such control over the creator of the universe. The same people will also tell you one careless word spoken from your cradle can ruin your life to the grave. Stuff that. It’s not a kind of power I’d ever want. I’m happy journeying through my universe of words. Mulling stories. Drowning in dreams. No more terrible commotions, and never the need to eat my words. If you want to join me for a mile or two, or more, you’ll be made welcome. Just be sure to bring along those seven-league boots. Baby princesses can throw a few surprises when they get to my age, especially ones who used to chew commotions.
The pub’s noisy and packed. I’m aware of my parents, smiling bravely while hating every minute. Pubs to them are dens of iniquity. I remember Mum telling me how much she loathed even the smell of a public house as a child growing up in London’s East End. She and Dad have been teetotal for years. I have dim memories of Christmas past, when my uncle used to arrive with crates of sherry and all the adults would be a bit strange by the middle of the afternoon. Methodism put a stop to that when I was five or six. Instead, the annual ritual of selecting exotic fruit juices from the Amethyst catalogue emerged. Guaranteed non-alcoholic. I remember the drinks arriving in a huge cardboard box about a week before Christmas every year. There was always guava juice, although I’d never seen a guava in my life. It was purplish as I recall, and it tasted like cough medicine.
Tonight’s my night I reason, suppressing the guilt as I see them shrinking into the corner of the function room. I’m reminded of my twin brothers’ brief dalliance with the local nursery when they were three years old. They sat side by side on a wooden bench holding hands and looking miserable. They were still in the same place when we went to collect them after school. Mum never took them back. But this is my fiftieth birthday party. I’m not a child, and neither are my parents. Half a century. Doesn’t that give me the right to choose my own celebration? To let my hair down a little? My son’s band are about to play a selection of 1970s rock classics in the main bar. Mum and Dad were never keen on music either, especially at high volume. I must’ve put them through hell when I discovered Led Zeppelin. Ah, that was a moment. The transistor radio crackled and spat, even when positioned at the optimum angle on the end of the sideboard. We were in the middle of Sunday tea when I first heard those chunky bass riffs. Dazed and Confused. I’ve been that way ever since.
I used to spend Saturday afternoons in the bath with John Peel. Not literally, of course. I should be so lucky. I did meet him once, mind. It was in the basement of the BBC’s Paris Studio, which was in London, not in Paris. Still is, for all I know. I was lost. He told me where to go. He seemed like a decent bloke. So much wonderful music he introduced me to, all forgotten now, except by hardcore aficionados. When do we ever hear of Caravan, Kevin Ayers, The Edgar Broughton Band or Blodwyn Pig? Who remembers Bridget St John, who could hold a whole room silent by the power of her voice? Or King Crimson? Terrifyingly, I heard a classic of theirs on a perfume ad last week, though I wouldn’t mind betting there weren’t many who recognised it. 21st-Century Schizoid Man. The 21st century was beyond imagination when I first fell in love with those scorching discords.
The band are warming up. Checking leads and counting into microphones. One two. One two. Some things don’t change. My eighteenth birthday party was a very different affair. For a start, there was the scheduled power cut at 9 o’clock, so music was out of the question. Amazingly, we had alcohol, but only because my friend and I had enrolled on a beer-making course as part of the sixth-form General Studies programme at school. Yes, you really could do that in 1972. We’d made barley wine, but we’d misread the recipe and ended up with less than half the amount we should have had. The resulting brew was satisfactorily lethal, but rather short on supply.
The band launches out with a drum solo. It’s been a long time since I rock ‘n’ rolled … I’ve always loved a good drummer. Who knew I’d someday give birth to one? My whole body aches to dance. To let go the gravitas of half a century and blast into the space in front of the speakers. Why, oh why do we worry so much about what people will think?
I’ve never been a classic beauty. In fact, I grew up believing myself ugly and ungainly. I was tall, clumsy and angular. I had freckles and big feet. My hair was unruly and refused to grow beyond shoulder length. A hideous brace put paid to the worst overbite my dentist had ever seen, but I never quite forgot that it was my own fault for sucking my thumb. All this before I’d finished my first decade on earth, and I don’t imagine for one moment I’m unique. From birth to oblivion we worry about image. My mother longed for snowy nappies and angelic toddlers. Twenty-first century man wants bulging pecs and six packs. Women are encouraged to worry about weight. We’re never quite enough as we are.
Fast forward the better part of twelve years from the party. I’m looking at a fading photo of a little girl with a doll’s pram. She’s confident, smiling. A dusting of freckles across her nose and a halo of dark curls. Nobody’s told her yet that it’s not OK to be who she is, or if they have, she wasn’t listening. By the time I see her next, she’ll be grinning awkwardly between her younger brothers, and trying to hunch herself small. I think I’ve been doing more or less the same ever since.
If I told you being over sixty doesn’t scare the living sh*t out of me it would be a lie. But with age comes wisdom, and not always in the way you expect. While my body lets me know I’ve been ill-treating it for six decades, my head’s in the bath with John Peel still. Only now I know it doesn’t matter what other people think. All the image and gravitas of my oh-so-grownup past were worth no more than a will-o’-the-wisp. If I so choose, I can dance naked round the living room, walk to the Post Office in my pyjamas, or stay in bed and read Barbara Cartland novels all day … no, don’t worry, I’m not that far gone yet … my life’s nobody’s but my own. The little girl in the photo had it right. Six packs and crash diets buy at best only slightly less misery. Give me kind eyes, strong hands and a wild heart I’ll be happy now. But getting here … in the words of the song, it’s been a long, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.
It’s a dull afternoon in central Bristol. Jim and I have just left work for a meeting on the other side of the city. He’s driving and he knows all the short cuts, knowledge worth its weight in gold as the rush hour traffic begins to build. We’re in one of those streets that really ought to be one-way. The car coming towards us looks as if it would be more at home in a scrap yard, and the driver’s not paying attention. He’s fiftyish. Slicked hair greying at the temples. The way he’s driving he probably needs glasses, but he’s not wearing any. The girl next to him looks fourteen, but doesn’t everyone these days? Her hair’s scragged back from her thin face and she’s sitting just as far from him as she can get. Jim kisses his teeth.
I grit my teeth.
If it wasn’t for scabby men, there wouldn’t be any.
He looks sideways at me as he negotiates the gap between the car and the wall.
I’d never thought of it that way.
I’ve told the story on this blog before, but plus ça change …
I’ll hold my hands up. I’m way past having any personal interest in the tampon tax these days. I’ve paid my dues and whatever happens in the long run, I doubt you’re going to give me a refund, George. I’m guessing a lot of what I paid went on bombing Iraq. I trudged past the Houses of Parliament along with two million or so others on a freezing February day in 2003, but it didn’t stop Tony. My periods were crazy heavy then, on the run up to the menopause. Talk about having blood on your hands.
I’m guessing you think your latest plan’s a pretty clever wheeze, don’t you George? Take the fifteen million quid women pay each year for the privilege of not bleeding all over their clothing and soft furnishings once a month, throw it at women’s refuges and charities dealing with domestic violence. That way they’ll get a few pennies to drop into the gaping holes left by your cuts, and you’ll get to play the philanthropist. Job done. I’m not going to lie, even I was taken in for a fleeting moment.
But you know something George? This one’s roughly on a par with Jim’s reaction to the girl in the car. The penny dropped for him, but you still don’t get it. You think it’s a spiffing notion, women funding their own charities. Self reliance and all that. After all, why should men shell out? These nasty feminists do nothing for them. Some of them even want to take away their property … er … sorry, partners. Victim-blaming is the oldest trick in the book, and women have borne the brunt throughout history. What did Adam do when God asked why he’d eaten the apple? You’ve guessed it. He blamed Eve. But I’ll tell you now, if it wasn’t for scabby men, there’d be virtually no need for women’s charities.
At the risk of repeating myself, two women are killed every week by their partners or former partners in the UK. I can’t help wondering how you’d react if two people a week were dying in terrorist attacks. One woman in four will experience intimate partner violence during her lifetime. Internationally, that last figure rises to one in three. And still the perpetrators blame their victims. She wound me up … I couldn’t help it … If only she’d done what I wanted … The truth is, no-one deserves to be beaten and terrorised. No-one should have their freedom restricted, their motives questioned or have to live in perpetual fear of accidentally triggering an attack. That’s why we need these services. And before you get uppity, I’m well aware that around 40% of victims of intimate partner violence are men. I assume you’ll be requiring them to fund their own services through a tax on shaving products henceforth.
I’m sixty-one, George. I’m not going to pretend my life wouldn’t have been different if I’d been born a man. For a start, I wouldn’t have spent all those years working shit jobs, then coming home to a partner who sprawled on the sofa and hurled abuse while I did the housework. I wouldn’t have walked away with my self esteem in tatters and fallen into the arms of the first idiot to pretend to be nice to me. I wouldn’t have had to flee half way across the country, and spend two years without a home to call my own. I wouldn’t be battling to rebuild my life at a time when most people are exploring options for a cosy retirement. And I’d never have had to pay the tampon tax. I’m not saying my bad choices didn’t contribute to the train wreck. Of course they did. What I’m saying is that both the men involved managed to walk away more or less unscathed. Apart from pre-existing issues with alcohol in one case. That’s the nature of domestic violence. Perpetrator takes all. But you know what, George? I don’t want to play the blame game. The past’s dead and buried. All I’m asking is that domestic violence services for women should be funded properly, so that other women will have a better chance at life.
The problem is, your insistence on funding services piecemeal, through a gender-specific tax that might be abolished at any moment makes me feel you’re not taking the situation seriously. It makes me think you don’t care about the hundred or so women who die every year. It makes me wonder if you’ve even thought about the children who listen to their mothers bullied and insulted on a daily basis, maybe see them beaten, or even raped. I find myself asking if you have any idea what it’s like to be punched, kicked, bitten and strangled, and to have nowhere to run from your abuser. That’s reality for so many families, and failure to fund adequate domestic abuse services is only going to make it worse. More deaths, more injuries, more fear and intimidation. Is that what you want? You see, you witter on about austerity, but if we’re even considering dropping bombs on Syria, there must be money enough somewhere. Bombs cost a lot more than safe houses. One Tomahawk cruise missile was estimated to cost around £850,000 back in 2011, and I don’t think they do Black Friday offers. I suggest you take a long, hard look at your priorities, George. Because no-one should be forced to live with domestic abuse. No-one. Ever. Period.