The Prettiest Star

It’s been a weekend. Growing old disgracefully doesn’t come easy as you’d think. Happily, Monday’s my day off. I haul my aching body out of almost ten hours’ sleep, roll over and check my phone. The internet’s alive, but someone I once thought would live for ever no longer is. So many legends lost to the world in the past few months, but this one’s different. This one’s the author of my song. This one’s part of my personal soundtrack. This one’s David Bowie.

One day, though it might as well be someday … Not twenty-four hours back from here, I’m eating well-buttered toast in unaccustomed company and talking about Blackstar. I haven’t heard it yet. Sometimes I don’t keep up so well these days.

It’s dark. Very dark.

I guess I might make dark music if I knew how close the end was, and listening thirty-two hours later I can hear that he knew. But wasn’t Bowie always dark? That’s why I loved him. The glitz all on the surface. But camp always bears the miasma of darkness in the end.

I’m in my grandmother’s room, stealing precious time on her walnut-veneer radiogram. My parents don’t do music and I’ve fought hard for the concession. I can play my records quietly. With permission. When Nanna’s not there. I take the single out of its paper sleeve, check the surface for scratches and wipe the duster over it. I set the switch to 45 rpm, blow the near-invisible debris of my last visit off the needle and lower the stylus tenderly onto the very edge of the black disc. No matter how careful, my fingers always shake. The ritual. A crackle or two. Twenty seconds of near-silence. Ground control to Major Tom … Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you … Here am I, sitting in a tin can … I already know there’s no happy ending. The late 1960s was the best time to discover music. Everything was new. The stranglehold of commercialism wasn’t total then, and Bowie rode the wave into the 70s and beyond like no-one else. Friends of every age are posting on Facebook today. Most know far more about him than I ever will, and that’s all as it should be.

I was a good Methodist Sunday School kid from the age of three. I grew up on hymns. I still remember most of them now. Change and decay in all around I see … See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down … I lay in dust life’s glory dead … dark stuff for a childhood. I’ve never understood how it didn’t make the same ache for music in the people who put me in its way. When I decided the god of my childhood might not exist after all, the hymns were what I missed most. Never mind just love, music’s fed my soul through light and darkness. Each and every song has a tale to tell, often more than one. It’s Sunday afternoon. I’m walking through the tunnel of ever-changing street art between home and my allotment in unaccustomed company. In the entrance, a man’s making music. The acoustics of the tunnel are breathtaking. One day I’m going to sing my heart out in here, but the song he’s playing now I sang at my daughter’s funeral. I can’t even speak.

My parents chose my name without sentiment. It may not have been beautiful, but at least it couldn’t be shortened. I’m not sure they gave a thought to its rhyming with ‘bean’. This dismal lack of romance means my appearances in song have been rare indeed. Cheer up sleepy Jean … I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair … although strictly speaking ‘Jeanie’ doesn’t count. The Jean Genie burst on the scene late in 1972, brimful of attitude. I was at Essex University, hub of student revolt back then. I fell head over heels. Bowie’s androgyny tuned with my nascent feminism. His strut and rebellion played counterpoint to my reticence. Friends coined the nickname for a time. Jean Genie, let yourself go … and for a brief moment, I did just that.

And yes, my memories are old, personal and of their time. Space Oddity. Jean Genie. The Prettiest Star. Ziggy Stardust. This is ‘my’ Bowie and will remain so. Music’s made in the heart, not the intellect. She’ll come, she’ll go, she’ll lay belief on you …  Bowie’s music whispers of places long forgotten.  Some perhaps best forgotten, but no less a part of who I am. The whispers are sometimes of sadness. More often now they make me dance and laugh for the sheer joy of living.  That’s when the Jean Genie lets go once again. So the last word belongs to the man himself: I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.

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Resolution

In a past life, I used to squeeze the occasional walk with the dog in between shopping, washing, cleaning, cooking, holding down four part-time jobs and being shouted at. Dog-walking’s a pleasingly solitary occupation. A dog, a rubber ring and me, stomping round a muddy field together. It was the bliss at the start of yet another day’s madness. Of course there were always other dogs and their walkers. The Jack Russell, who savaged my son whilst his owner stood by and did nothing. The Westie whose walker carried him because she couldn’t bear the idea that he was no longer able to walk. There was the pedigree gun dog we had to avoid because his owner didn’t like him to mix with other dogs, and of course there was the gorgeous Golden Retriever whose walker hand sewed his own equally gorgeous dresses. If our paths accidentally crossed, we humans would perform the essential grumbling-about-the-weather ritual, while the dogs did the canine equivalent, then we’d go our separate ways.

Come January, all that used to change. On New Year’s Day there’d be ten or a dozen joggers sweating their way round the freezing field, churning up the mud with their brand new running shoes. Jess tried chasing one the first time she saw them. She soon got fed up with that. As time wore on, their numbers would diminish. Mid-month and the last two or three would still be doggedly pounding the turf. By the beginning of February, it was business as usual.

In recent years, the main use for New Year’s resolutions in my world has been to explain the use of ‘I’m going to … ‘ to students of English.

I’m going to lose three stone.

I’m going to go to the gym ten times a week.

I’m going to read everything Shakespeare ever wrote.

No, not ‘I will’, ‘I’m going to’.

‘I will lose three stone’ might be a statement of fact. ‘I’m going to climb Mount Everest’ has more to do with insane optimism. ‘I’m going to … ‘. Big on dreams, small on delivery. The first time I researched the topic, Wikipedia told me a mere 12% of us keep our resolutions. It seemed a rather generous estimate, but being Wikipedia it may or may not have been accurate. However, there is one thing any New Year’s Resolution’s guaranteed to deliver in bucketfuls.

Guilt. There are so many things I ought to be doing instead of writing. I’m a hundred miles or so from home right now, so the half-painted wall in the hallway, the apples turning into cider instead of chutney and the mirror that’s been behind the armchair for three years because I’m paranoid about electric drills are going to have to wait. Nothing I can do but tick them off the worry list, and that’s no end of a relief because there are any number of other things I ought to feel bad about. The phone calls I’ve put off. The emails I haven’t sent. The family and friends I haven’t seen because there wasn’t time on this flying visit. Then there’s the weight I’ve put on this year. The publicity I didn’t do for the business. The abandoned creative journal. Even the fact that my friend’s scuttling round making lunch on her own and refusing all offers of help. I can feel guilty about anything.

I came into the world less than ten years after the end of World War II. I’m told I was one of the very last people to have a ration book issued in my name, although my parents never actually used it. Wartime austerity was a thing back then, and guilt was the stock-in-trade of postwar parenting. Guilt, and what-will-the-neighbours-think.

What do you mean, you don’t like tripe? Think yourself lucky. We couldn’t get this during the War you know.

In the end, even Mum had to admit tripe was a failure. Dad struggled to eat it, and he’d have eaten his own legs if Mum had asked him to. It was simply vile. We never saw the stuff again. Other tactics for inducing guilt were far more effective. The Sunday School Scripture Exam, for example. My mother wanted me to come top, and nothing less would do. She’d drill me for weeks, convinced I was fluffing my memory verses on purpose, to spite her. No matter how much she yelled, Colin Rowlands beat me every time. I’d do the walk of shame to the front of the church to receive my certificate with could have done better ringing in my ears.

We moved into a wonderful, ramshackle Edwardian house with my grandmother when I was eleven. The inaccessible loft space of the three-bed semi I’d grown up with was replaced by a long room with sloping ceilings, which became my brothers’ bedroom. Once upon a time it must have been the servants’ quarters. I used to imagine maids in starchy pinnies running down the stairs at the pull of a bell-rope.

Tucked into the eaves by the bedroom door was a tiny, triangular attic. All the contents of the old loft were stuffed into this space. I’d read ‘A Little Princess’ far too many times. My head was full of mysteries and long-forgotten secrets. I yearned to stumble across evidence that I was an orphaned princess after all. One of my pastimes was browsing through the back-and-white photos in the sideboard drawer. I studied the family tree in my Baby Book, asking endless questions, until my mother dumped the silver polish in front of me and told me I could polish the best cutlery if I had nothing better to do. The loft had always been where all the really interesting stuff was kept of course. There were ancient toys that had belonged to my father, stamp albums with pictures of Queen Victoria and boxes and boxes of photographs. For the past eleven years I’d only been able to see it from the bottom of a ladder. Now all of a sudden it was there for the asking, but for one small problem. I was strictly forbidden to go into the attic.

One advantage of being a solitary child is that a lot of what you do passes under your parents’ radar. My brothers were also strictly forbidden to dangle toys out of their bedroom window on bits of string. It didn’t stop my father having to fish trains and boats and planes out of the gutter below the window most evenings. They were noisy rebels. Meanwhile, I discovered the value of quiet defiance. I spent hours squished among the boxes in the semi-darkness of the attic. So long as I made no trouble, nobody would come looking, and if I put things back where I’d found them, no-one would be any the wiser. Seek and ye shall find. But it won’t necessarily be what you hope for.

I’m deep in the attic, curled between the boxes under the slope of the eaves. I’ve found a battered sepia photograph. In the dim light, I can see that everyone in it’s dressed to the nines in proper old-fashioned clothes. One little girl in a frilled white pinafore looks a lot like my grandmother. Nanna was one of ten children. Some didn’t survive the First World War. Half of them I’ve never met. I’m old enough to know there was a lot of falling out in my grandmother’s family, but not old enough to understand why. There are so many questions I want to ask to ask. I consider taking the photo downstairs and sneaking it into the sideboard drawer. Maybe I could ‘find’ it in a few days’ time.  Somehow, I don’t think Mum would be fooled. I’ve already been in here too long. The butterflies are gathering in my stomach. She’ll notice I’m missing any minute, either that or one of the boys will come storming upstairs and blow my cover. I tuck the photograph away. In the bottom of the box is a pile of envelopes I’ve not seen before. Just one last peep … Inside the first envelope is a simple drawing. A smiling stick man in a sailing boat. There’s one word, in Dad’s handwriting. ‘Me’.

My father was the world’s worst worrier. He and Mum had been through tough times in the early stages of married life, and the rapid arrival of the three of us hadn’t made things any easier. Even with those hardships long gone, Dad loved to recount how he’d had to walk to work, carrying only the price of a cuppa from the tea trolley in his pocket so his colleagues wouldn’t guess how hard up he was. I think we children were supposed to learn frugality and the importance of keeping up appearances. What I actually learned was that my parents would have been better off if I’d never been born. Now I’d found the evidence. My father’s self portrait. His future as a happy yachtsman all blown to the wind because of me. To my eleven-year-old mind the logic was unassailable. I was the reason for my parents’ ill-concealed misery. I never told a soul, of course. You don’t go sharing secrets as guilty as that. Especially not if you were where you shouldn’t have been when you discovered them.

The guilt I acquired became my constant companion. My familiar. The excuse for fear and failure. The reason not to try. Doesn’t everyone need a friend like that? Could-have-done-better became the mantra of my school reports. Guilt whispered I had no right to succeed. The first boyfriend dumped me. Guilt told me he was too good for me anyway. I made resolutions. Guilt made sure I failed to keep them. Then it flourished in the manure.

I don’t drive. I failed my test twice and after the second attempt I decided there had to be better uses for all that money. As a result I do a lot of walking, mostly without a dog these days. I’m pondering my predicament on the walk from my brother’s house back to work one spring afternoon. Charlie and his predecessor are history now. My life should be my own, yet I’m still scared of everything bar my shadow. It doesn’t make sense. The bad times are behind me, why don’t I feel better? I’m admiring the daffodils in the hedge when the truth hits me. I’ve spent nigh on fifty years pretending to be like everyone else, when I believe deep down I’m not. In the past few months everything’s come apart at the seams. I’ve fled half way across the country to escape Charlie. My life’s a mess, and everyone knows it. Why am I still pretending to be normal? Don’t I have a choice here? Of course I do.  I can keep up the good-girl-hard-done-by act, go on wearing the mask and spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder. Or I can forgive myself for mistakes and bad choices. I can stop living what-will-the-neighbours-think, let go all that bloody guilt that was never mine in the first place and start living as if I have nothing to hide. I can’t describe the relief. Call it resolution if you like, in every sense of the word.

And she lived happily ever after ….

Well, almost. The truth is, I still have a to-feel-guilty-about list, but these days it’s my own mistakes. Forgotten birthdays. Missed appointments. Messing around on Facebook when I’d be best cleaning the bathroom. Writing blog posts when I should be doing lesson plans. My choices. I’m no longer responsible for anyone else’s happiness. No more could-have-done-better, nor what-will-the-neighbours-think. The latter was never any of my business anyway. I resolved some time ago that New Year’s resolutions would no longer be a part of my life. There’s altogether too much scope for failure for my liking. This year I think I might break my resolution though. I’m going to give up all those remaining niggles of guilt once and for all. As resolutions go, this one’s pretty much foolproof I think. After all, if I do ever have the odd twinge, at least I won’t be able to feel guilty about it.

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But for the grace

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 heart’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?”
“Seven weeks.”
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.

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Empathy, gaslighting and coercive control

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.

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Fairy tales and chewing a commotion

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.

Rosie!

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.

A pain.

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.

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Gravitas … and rock ‘n’ roll

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.

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No, George …

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.

Scabby prostitute.

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.

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What’s so special about women?

October nineteen-ninety-seven. Mother Teresa and Princess Di are barely cold in their graves. I’m sitting in a low, concrete building in the middle of a Delhi slum with a bunch of other naïve foreigners, while a local doctor talks about her work with the women who live here. She’s explaining how a project that began as an outdoor clinic has progressed, via organising campaigns for improved community facilities, to giving loans so the women can set up small businesses. The inevitable happens. A man puts his hand up. Why give money to the women, he wants to know. Wouldn’t it be more effective in the hands of men? Aren’t men the ones with vision and energy? After all, they’re not hampered by minutiae like housework and childcare. Surely they’re better equipped to run businesses.

The doctor’s gracious. You can tell she’s been asked the same thing a hundred times. No, she says. It’s been tried. The men invested the money in ambitious schemes. Minimum-effort-maximum-return, look-how-great-I-am ideas, with feet of clay. Or they frittered it away on drink and card games, then came cap-in-hand asking for more. Either way, the women and children ended up no better off than before. The women, on the other hand, think of what’s best for their children. For their neighbours. For the community as a whole. They work together. Share resources. Co-operate, instead of competing. That way everyone ends up with a slice of the pie. The squalor of the slum is transformed for everybody, instead of escaped by the fortunate few.

Eighteen years on, and it’s International Women’s Human Rights Defender Day. I’m perusing my Facebook feed over my toast and marmalade, when a man puts his hand up in a comment on a post about domestic violence, just the way that one did all those years ago. Why don’t we have International Men’s Day, he wants to know. What’s so special about women? Actually, we do. It’s on November 19th. My mind goes straight for the jugular. Men have free rein 365 days every year. The world runs on testosterone. One woman in three will be subjected to male violence at some time in her life. Can’t we have a day off from all that now and again? Even it if is purely theoretical. Apparently, we can’t.

To my core I believe every human being is of equal value. No exceptions, no provisos, no quid pro quos, to misquote Aladdin’s genie. There have been generations of activism, from Suffragettes to Everyday Sexism, yet inequality remains the daily experience of women everywhere. We’ve been fighting this corner for more years than I care to remember. What on earth are we doing wrong?

I look back at 2015. It’s been a bit of a year for fighting. Shooting. Bombing. War. Terrorism. Revenge. Retribution. Come to think of it, was there ever a year in human history that wasn’t this way? Different places, different people. Same behaviour. ‘The war to end all wars’ ended in 1918, but alien observers of life on Earth might be forgiven for having failed to notice. And who’s led the charge through all this mayhem? Men. OK, there are exceptions I’ll grant. The Iron Lady springs to mind, but what did she ever do for equal rights? Even Hasna Ait Boulahcen probably wasn’t Europe’s first female suicide bomber after all. Our overlords are used to all this conflict. It’s in their blood. Maybe, just maybe, we women aren’t wired that way. All this time we’ve been up against men on their own turf, they’ve simply changed the rules whenever we got a sniff of victory. If you don’t believe that’s how it works, try living with an abuser for half a lifetime. Not that I’m suggesting for one moment that all men are unscrupulous, warmongering narcissists. When all’s said and done, a number of my best friends are men. Nonetheless, in a world that values competition ahead of co-operation, these are the dubious qualities that place people in positions of power. How else do you account for Donald Trump?

My ex nursed an irrational grudge against knitting. Not that he ever tried it, he just objected to me doing it. It was a waste of time, he said. If I was knitting, I wasn’t giving him my full attention, he said. There must be more important things I could be doing, he said. The excuses were many and various, but none of them made full sense of the ferocity of his hatred. After a while I began to realise that the bottom line was, he felt threatened. He couldn’t understand knitting. He didn’t get why I enjoyed it. When I was knitting, he had no control over me. I wasn’t on his turf any more, and he didn’t like it. Small wonder my living room’s littered with wool and needles now. Who knew knitting could be so subversive?

I first called myself feminist somewhere around 1975. We dreamed big back then, although in truth equality in the workplace wasn’t much to ask for. Ironically there’s still a million miles to go. It’s calculated that we’ll achieve our goal about 118 years from now at the present rate of progress. I sometimes wonder if we didn’t tackle the whole thing back end on. We could have re-imagined the world and worked towards a better life for everyone. Instead, we were lured onto their turf. The place they understood. Where they were safe and secure. Instead of weaving new dreams, we borrowed their fantasies of individual fulfilment. We failed to value our collective strengths – co-operation, caring, creativity, empathy and attention to detail, to name but a few – or to see how powerful we might be if we worked with those strengths. Instead, we trampled our traditional roles in the stampede for the citadel of male privilege. We made the basic, strategic error of agreeing with our enemy. What they had was better, and we wanted it. We confused equality with sameness. We ended up with neither. To be honest, it was never going to work. What dictator willingly relinquishes one shred of power, for heaven’s sake? The unscrupulous, power-hungry elite simply lowered the drawbridge, then robbed us of everything they could use and drew up the conditions for our surrender. Forty years on, most of us are still doing the lion’s share of the domestic drudgery we dreamed of escaping. Only now we’re considered inadequate if we don’t hold down a demanding full-time job at the same time. All this for around 20% less pay than a man.

In a world controlled by unscrupulous, warmongering narcissists small things often pass under the radar. The men in Delhi’s slums dreamed big. Nothing wrong with that, but someone has to do the spadework. You can’t leap from a slum to a palace without a good deal of hard work, especially if you choose to do it single-handed, although I’ll allow some exceptions for those who win the lottery, or become the stars of Slumdog Millionaire. The women dreamed big too. They dreamed for their children. For their friends and neighbours. For a better future for everyone, not just for themselves. They did the graft. They understood the importance of those piffling details.

The first thing they did was to get the stagnant pond at the heart of the slum drained. Now it no longer attracted mosquitoes and made their children sick. I can almost see men’s hands going up. Why bother? We won’t need to worry about a stupid pond when I make my first million. Next, the women clubbed together and bought a generator. They sat late at their sewing machines, making insignificant things, while the men played their card games and dreamed of that elusive big win. The things the women made brought in money to pay for their children’s education. As time went on, they began to campaign for proper sanitation for the whole community. They fought to be connected to mains electricity. Before long, they found themselves collectively powerful beyond all their individual dreams. I don’t doubt the men felt threatened. Oh, the subversiveness of sewing! I imagine some of the women paid a high price for their insubordination. But the fact remains that those women changed the face of their slum for ever, transformed the future for their families, and demonstrated something crucial about attention to the small things, and about the power of collective action.

Right now, all of us are living with chronic war and irreversible climate change. The resulting human misery stares out from our newspapers and iPads every morning. It’s getting closer by the day. Cities being bombed to rubble. Families fleeing for their lives. Children sold as sex slaves. Men and women beheaded for believing in the wrong god, blown to kingdom come on a night out in Paris or slaughtered in a Planned Parenthood clinic. All of us risk becoming the victims of those too focussed on their individual dreams to care about such piffling details as other people’s lives. We have to come together. We need to weave new dreams. We must learn to act collectively. To value one another’s lives. To work co-operatively for the small changes that will transform our communities. If we fail now, the face of the world will change for ever. Our children and our grandchildren may well be left with no future at all.

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Collateral damage

Hope. That’s her name, in a language not her own. We’re chopping cabbage and grating carrots for coleslaw. Negotiating the unexpected hazards of the English language as we go. She stops from time to time to write down an unfamiliar word, the letters ill-formed. Childlike. She used to be a teacher, she says. In her own country. How hard it must be to start all over again, in a language that doesn’t even use the same alphabet as the one you’ve known all your life. To leave everything and flee your oppressors, only to find yourself in a hostile place where even your style of dress can put you at risk of being identified with the very people who threaten your life.

The mayonnaise stirred in, we find ourselves with time to talk. She’s tired, she says. She doesn’t sleep well. Her husband wakes often at night, and she has to get up early in the morning to pray. There’s a stirring in my conscience. It’s been a long time since I was so disciplined in any spiritual practice. Her face lights up as she talks about her faith. I’m not sure mine would these days.

The topic moves to families. She asks about my children. When I return the compliment I realise I’ve strayed over a boundary. She can’t look at me for a moment. She has four children, she says. One’s still with her. She’s lost two. The last has disappeared. She has no idea if she’s alive or dead. We hold one another wordlessly and weep. Yes, I’ve lost a child. How it feels to have no idea whether your child’s alive or dead, I can’t even begin to imagine.

Less than forty-eight hours on, I’m typing a tribute to my niece. It should be her twenty-fifth birthday. Instead, it’s a little over three years since the accident that took her life. My conversation with Hope blends raw with the pain of loss. It’s then the news of the Paris massacre begins to filter through. A hundred-and-twenty-nine lives pointlessly ended on a Friday night out in the city. Hundreds more changed for ever, by injury or loss. Hearts broken. Bodies maimed. More suffering piled upon that of the attack on Beirut the previous day. Upon that of all the attacks perpetrated in pointless wars throughout human history.

I’ve never understood the need to have everyone else see the world your way. I can see how it might be comforting to be convinced of your own rightness. But what if it turns out you’re wrong, or have only a part of the truth? What if you’ve brought misery to millions in pursuit of a mistake? Daesh, ISIS if you prefer, is only too willing to exploit this thirst for crude certainty. Fundamentalism, if you like. From medieval crusaders to the Hitler Youth, people have been seduced by its heady blend of triumphalism and self-assurance. It’s found in religions, political parties and patriotic movements the world over. It thrives on persecution. It feeds off fear and ignorance and grows like a weed in the face of opposition. The cruel and the clever exploit it for their own ends. The rest of us play directly into their hands when we retaliate in kind.

There are few phrases in the English language I dislike more than ‘collateral damage’. It sounds like a handful of tiles knocked off a roof. A couple of broken windows. An electricity pylon taken out of action for an hour or two. Inconvenient, but unavoidable. It masks a grim reality. Lives destroyed, hearts broken and loved ones lost for ever. Hope and her husband are collateral damage. Forty-three people in a market place in Beirut, their friends and their families are collateral damage. 4,287,293 refugees from the conflict in Syria are collateral damage. Real people, flesh-and-blood human beings. Just like you and me. Collateral damage is the price we pay for crude certainty. Someone else’s, more often than not.

I’m not in the habit of disagreeing with total strangers on Twitter, but this morning I was lured into a conversation by those very words. Collateral damage. A red rag, under the hashtag #PrayforSyria. There will surely be innocent lives lost (collateral damage) but you CANNOT berate France for defending herself, said the tweet. It was the mention of innocent lives, as if they were of no consequence, rather than the scarily blurred line between self-defence and retribution. I asked whether the tweeter would feel the same if said lives were those of his friends and family. He responded. Would I be tweeting #PrayforSyria if my friends and family had been in Paris? I wouldn’t be tweeting at all, I thought. But after a moment I realised that if I were, I’d be singing of empathy between the bereaved. Of art and music and poetry and all the other things that transcend man-made borders. Of Hope’s childlike trust that God will bring good from all her suffering. Of hearts brought together in the quest for peace. And of the inextinguishable beauty of the human spirit. I couldn’t squidge all that into 140 characters. Madam Empathy he called me. I think he meant it as an insult, but I wouldn’t want to be any other way.

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Austerity

I’m never going to forget the smell. This unspeakable blend of stale urine and rotting vegetables. It stings my throat. Clings to the air so thick you think you’ll never get away from it. The street’s uneven. Dirty. Dark as pitch. You can’t see where you’re putting your feet. The day’s debris is strewn everywhere, so you’ve no idea what that squishing on the sole of your shoe might be. The blackness deadens everything, except the smell. The chaos and colour of the market all swallowed up by the night. We speak in whispers, as if we might awaken something unholy. A scrabble and it breaks cover in front of us. Just a rat. The silence is broken though. From the shadows under the abandoned stalls, they emerge. A skinny boy. A girl, the baby on her hip almost as big as she is. Two younger boys. They crowd us. Seize the bread and the coffee, eating as if they’ve not seen food in weeks. They grow louder. The boys jostle and bluster. They flex their muscles and elbow one another aside. The girls hang back and watch the sideshow. A scrap of a girl’s tugging at my coat. She talks in a half-whisper. Rapid. Incoherent. As if our attention’s too brief for her need. She’s drunk. I hear baby. Dead. Anniversary. She can’t be old enough to have a baby, much less to lose one. Her first one died too, someone says as she melts back into the shadows. I feel sick.

Anna hoists her own baby higher on her hip. She offers to show us where she lives. In the shadow of a shuttered shop, a fortress of security grilles, we duck behind a wheelie bin. The torch lights up a brick alcove. There’s a sleeping bag rolled against the back wall, a pink blanket spread on the concrete next to it. Anna sits the baby on the blanket. The baby shuffles and pats at the sleeping bag. She’s thin and none too clean. Her nose is running. Anna uses the sleeve of her jumper to wipe the baby’s face.

I used to go to school once, but then Dad lost his job.

She tells us how she started selling cheap combs and chewing gum at the age of five or six.

Mum couldn’t afford to feed us. Dad started drinking after the steelworks closed. He got mad if I didn’t bring enough money.

The baby begins to grizzle. Anna lifts her jumper and puts it to her scrawny breast.

I worked at the traffic lights. We used to run out and knock on car windows when the lights were red. It was like a game at first. One day a man in a big, dark car opened the door and told me to get in. He took me to the car park. He gave me ten pounds afterwards. I was just turned seven.

How old are you now?

Fourteen.

The baby falls asleep. Anna lays her on the blanket and tucks the end of the sleeping bag over her. There’s a fierce chill blowing under the wheelie bin. I shiver. The baby stirs. Anna strokes her head.

Katy’s baby got ill. We went to the hospital, but they wouldn’t help. We didn’t have any money to pay for the medicine. I’m so scared of losing Aleysha.

My eyes are adjusting to the torchlight. Anna’s belongings are stacked in the corner. Some rolled clothes. A half-used pack of nappies. A few cans of food. Sitting against them is a huge, pink-plush rabbit.

The ladies at the Food Bank bought it for Aleysha. Most of the things they gave me got stolen though.

Do you see your parents?

No. Dad went mental when he found out I was pregnant.

She touches a finger to the cigarette burn on her left cheekbone.

Will you use the Night Shelter now it’s getting cold?

Nah. It’s not safe. The men do things to you in the night. They steal everything. They might even take Aleysha. People give you more money if you’ve got a baby.

Is that how you live?

Begging? Mostly. Sometimes Danny looks after Aleysha. He’s little and I can still trust him. The men pay well, but I don’t like it. And I hate leaving her. One man said he’d pay big money if I brought her with me next time.

She shivers and tucks the blanket tighter round the sleeping baby. I wonder how much longer she’ll be able to resist offers like that, once winter sets in.

This brave, new world we’ve chosen. I grew up in a kinder place myself. Once, there were well-trained teachers. Good schools that didn’t run for profit. Hospitals that cared for sick people instead of money. We had social workers who’d have looked after Anna and Aleysha. Places where they could have been housed in safety. We sold the lot for a few shiny baubles. iPhones and Big Macs. We fell for the propaganda. Newspapers told us our teachers weren’t good. Governments told us our Health Service would be safe in their hands. There were child abuse scandals, and we held social workers responsible. We lapped up the myths of welfare scroungers and benefit fraud. Fell in love with austerity. Thus we allowed our rulers to dismantle the net that kept us from falling into destitution. We identified with the bankers and the corporations. The very ones who were bleeding us dry. They farmed us like battery chickens. After all, it couldn’t happen to us, could it? Poverty only happens to bad people.

We crawl out of Anna’s alcove. Our breath hangs on the blackness of the city street. I try to remember how it was when the golden glow of street lamps wasn’t restricted to the gated communities of the super-rich. In the background, Aleysha begins to wail. The sound’s drowned by the roar of a motor approaching far too fast. We’re immobilised in the sudden headlights. There’s the screech of a handbrake turn. Catcalls. Laughter.

Come on then. You know you want it.

A hand beckons through the passenger window. A flame sparks up. Something breaks cover behind us. The flame spreads its wings and flutters to the ground. Anna’s on her knees, pounding at it with her bare hands. She ignores the howls of derision. I’m not sure she even hears. The car screams away in reverse. Anna stands up. She’s shaking. Cradling something in her blistering palm. A shred of paper, printed with the number 50. A few ashes. And a singed portrait of the Queen.

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