Marking an important 20 year anniversary
On my bedroom wall sits an apparently unremarkable photograph. A fragment of a larger photo-collage, it blends with all the other family snapshots scattered in plain, wooden frames around our house. In this photo I am smiling, wearing a red, seersucker dress from a well-known UK retailer founded in Leeds in 1894 by a Polish-Jewish refugee Mr Marks and his friend from Skipton, Mr Spencer. The blue fabric mules I’m wearing are from the same shop. Sunglasses swing on a string around my neck and my hair is short, lightened by having lived in the sun. I’m wearing a silver Star of David, shining slightly in the light. I’m not Jewish. It was given to me by my best friend when I started to go travelling and was referred to as my red bendli, to keep away the evil eye, though it is neither red, nor a bendl. Perhaps these private jokes don’t translate well, but it meant a lot to me at the time.
I am holding a child on one hip. He is squinting in the sun, not smiling, a little unsure. He has the maddest arrangement of hair, organised around two double crowns and a corflick. He’s wearing a T-shirt that I made for him, printed with a smiley-faced sunshine and little shoes that say ‘hello!’ on them. A passing stranger must have taken the photo, because we were alone together that day. We seem to be on holiday. Certainly I was pretending to be on holiday by doing holiday-type things. On that particular day we are waiting in the harbour for a boat trip where we will see dolphins for the first time. I will remember them, my son won’t, he is too small, but there are photos.
What can’t be seen is the feeling of intense anxiety I had that day and all the other days to follow, ’til we were strapped into our seats for our booked flight home. You can’t see the lurching-towards-the-edge shriek I spent so much energy in suppressing but I remember it as a thunderous pressure that accompanied us to the beach, to lunch, to bed, so that I was exhausted from trying to find a moment of quiet away from my child to release the noise. Please don’t knock on the toilet door, please play quietly for just a minute, please don’t demand my attention for just a little while, I need to breathe, I need to cry, I need to mourn. That silent scream reverberated inside the police car that drove us to the airport and echoed through the departure lounge as our uniformed protection escorted us. It began to fade only in the air when we had the good fortune to be seated next to a woman, a stranger, whose calm, upbeat conversation and easy friendship kept me sane all the way home. I suspect she sensed my anguish and I will never forget her kindness.
So this photo was taken after the second (and final) time I left my violent, drunk, ex-partner. It was August 1998. My first attempt to leave him was in January of the same year, when we were living together in England, before this strange vacation in his home country. It came about after he successfully quit drinking and (wanting to keep my word- that if he stopped drinking we could try again) I returned to the relationship for a trial. He began drinking again almost immediately after I arrived with our son, quickly returned to his old ways and the final straw broke when he took our little boy out one morning before I woke, with no forewarning, returning with him around midnight. That day I woke late, unusually, and couldn’t find them. As the morning drew on I became more and more frantic but was persuaded by his family to not make a fuss. He would be fine with his dad, don’t be so silly – though his dad had never taken him out of his own accord before and everyone knew his dad was a drunk, though it’s possible they were in denial about him being violent. Somehow I got through that agonising day, but it haunts me still, especially now I know how dangerous those moments are for children of men who see them as property, and a way to hurt a woman who won’t do as she’s told. I knew couldn’t trust this man but didn’t yet have the confidence to trust my gut. I wondered if I would ever hold my child’s little hand again. I didn’t think it beyond my partner to do him harm, intentionally or accidentally. Even when I suppressed these thoughts I knew my small child had been taken out without a hat, suncream or his favourite drinking cup and I didn’t know where he was. It was above 40 degrees outside.
There had been arguments. Mainly about sleeping. We were all sharing a room in the attic of his parent’s house. Our small son woke early always, around six, and I got up with him. My ex slept in or went out as soon as we woke, leaving me to care for him alone. In the South of Spain in August no one goes to bed till after midnight; it would be impossible to live in the heat otherwise. On less than 6 hours sleep, I often needed a nap, but my ex didn’t like me napping and would wake me if I fell asleep, even if our child was also asleep. I never understood why. Maybe he just didn’t like me to be resting and not available. This made me angry. I was so tired. Something had shifted in the six months we’d already spent apart and I wasn’t going to take this kind of shit anymore. My self-confidence and boundaries had been eroded since childhood – if you’ve read my book you’ll already know this – but it had collapsed completely in the four years I was with this man. However, now I knew that I could manage by myself. I had options. I’d left him once, one grey, British, January morning after an unbearable Christmas and New Year, waiting till he was out of the house, clutching our child’s hand and walking with him to a bus stop to get to a women’s refuge. I knew I could leave him again. I knew I had a choice. He knew I had a choice.
Typically, the moment a violent man realises there is a chance their partner really will leave is the most dangerous flashpoint, as are the days, weeks and months after leaving. It’s well documented that a controlling partner will do anything to keep control, including murdering the women that should have been able to trust them and sometimes their own children. However rare this is, it’s real. It’s a real risk but one that those outside and inside the relationship seem unable to take seriously. The urge to give a man the benefit of the doubt is somehow seen as more important than the potential safety of women and children. But back there in Spain, waiting for his return in a fog of anxiety and with no real notion of how this might play out, it seems I was in touch with reality enough to doubt that his walkabout with our child was benign. I suspected he had done it to frighten me, to teach me a lesson about complaining about lack of sleep, to show me who was boss, to claim ownership of our child. He would have known I had no chance of tracking him down that day, being a relative stranger in the community. I tried. That our child came to no harm that day makes no difference to me. He had used our small child to score points, scare me, let me know he could outwit me, and let me know who was in charge. Our child’s welfare mattered no more to him in the heat of the Andalucía August than it had the day he’d fallen drunk down the stairs with him a babe in arms back in the UK, or the various days he’d smashed up the kitchen around me (satisfying loud noises of metal, glass and ceramic, I suppose) while our child listened in the living room, or the day he’d head butted me in the street when I was 6 months pregnant. But I accept it’s all speculation. Here I am alive and well, my now adult son at my side.
This much I know: the way he behaved in the days after I fled his parents house, that oppressive Andaluz evening, scared me half to death. I had not been stalked before. This was newly strange and terrifying. I didn’t doubt he had the capacity to murder me, I’d seen it before in his blank eyes. I couldn’t shake the feeling if something happened it would be all my fault; I’d been so stupid. My child and I had been quite safe in a women’s refuge for three whole months, waiting for him to disappear back home. After leaving the refuge I’d recovered something of my life, returned to my own house, found the energy to care for our son and myself a little better. I had even started making plans for the future. I could have done without the sleep! Why did I even think it was worth arguing about? I should not have slept in that day. I should have noticed my son being lifted away from his cot. I should never have attempted this doomed reunion with a man I had loved, once.
In the heat of the first moment though, that starry night, when he walked through the door holding our son high, triumphant, as I rose on one elbow from the bed where I’d been trying to keep a hold of myself with fervent atheistic prayer, I saw him, smiling but guarded, as if for the first time. I was relieved to see my child but mortified at his father. That he could misuse our tiny boy in this way to get at me quickly lit a rage. I’m so glad I could find it in myself to get up and leave right there, right then. Clutching my child, wheeling our half-packed suitcase loudly, rousing the house from their cooling drinks after supper, I marched down the street with the neighbours all out looking and his mother shrieking at me over the sound of his voice, calling me back, softly. I knew I wouldn’t go back. I could sacrifice myself but I couldn’t sacrifice my child. It had not occurred to me until that long, long day that he might harm him deliberately, though there had been several close shaves through drunken accidents. He loved him, of course, they all do, don’t they? There was evidence of love: He had sat up all night to help me breastfeed in the hospital, he had been the first to bathe him because I was so nervous, he introduced him so proudly to everyone he met. Falling down the stairs with him was an accident, wasn’t it? When they were locked in the house together with him passed out on the sofa, drunk and a frying pan on the stove top, the neighbours, hearing my frantic banging on the door had called the police, and all had ended well. No harm done. His addiction was not him… that’s true, but he had been stone cold sober the morning he put his hands round my throat and squeezed, and the time he shoved me over during a row. Now this? In hindsight I feel he was testing something, maybe rehearsing something, and maybe not but I don’t owe him the benefit of the doubt, I don’t owe him anything. The doubt is what kills women, and sometimes their children too.
Hindsight, as I may have said somewhere before, is a marvellous thing. I didn’t realise it at the time because it wasn’t the worst thing he did, but the choking and strangling – not so I was injured, more to scare me – is a red flag. I’ve now spent a lot of time reading research carried out by women’s organisations and know there is strong evidence that non-fatal strangulation in domestic violence can be an indicator of a risk of future homicide. Add to this his clear sense of entitlement to my body and his contempt for my boundaries, I look back on the way I minimised his actions and the way other people were skeptical, distant or downright scornful, and I find it bizarre that the benefit of the doubt is given so generously. Why wait till something terrible happens? There exists enough evidence to allow us to err on the side of caution. How many women need to die, how many children need to die, before it’s believable there is danger in staying with or leaving a violent partner? People divorce and separate for all sorts of trivial reasons, parents often lose contact with their children… it’s sad, but life goes on. We should encourage women to be realistic about risk, cautious about their own safety and their children’s safety and make decisions based on that. Yes, even if leaving and going into hiding finishes more than one relationship. Of course it’s not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world. Instead, a cacophony of justifications, concessions, judgmental attitudes and gaslighting drowns out women’s instincts and our reasonable fears.
I found it so difficult to stand my ground against the disapproval and disbelief of relatives and friends (his and mine) and especially difficult to believe that I was entitled to live a decent life of my own, though of course that would help my child also. I had to learn that I didn’t need to be the sacrifice in our family for our son’s sake, and I had to learn that between a rock and a hard place there was firm ground where my son could be safe. The only reason I’d stayed in a relationship with this man for too long was because I doubted my own mind. It’s true he could present himself well when he wanted to. He was good looking and could be kind and funny. These qualities meant that I, and those around me minimised the seriousness of the situation I was in, as if it’s not possible to be a violent man as well as a likeable one. Certainly, he could be charming, but he was mostly a complete dick and people around me knew this, and said so, but there is a strong societal impulse to disdain women as hysterical or as vindictive liars, and this was much stronger than the urge to condemn him. Boys will be boys, after all.
The first time I left him was 18th January 1998, a date that has not faded from memory the way dates tend to. I completed much paperwork in the weeks after, repeatedly entering that date, memorialising it, but its significance is as an echoing apparition that it was one week since I’d left, two weeks since I’d left, one month since I’d left, one year… marking the time in small increments. I’d engineered a move from Spain to the UK, hoping things would get better. I thought I’d have more support near my own family and maybe he’d be happier where there was more work. He was, for a short time. We bought a little house. Our son started nursery. On good days it wasn’t too bad. The drinking was a big problem but it wasn’t the only problem. There were times when I didn’t feel scared of him at all, he just seemed pathetic, and I felt sad for him. Sometimes I could see the human he might be struggling to get out and I liked him. But then there were times when I’d look into his eyes and see only a baleful core, a deep lack of inhibition, like a shark waiting to strike.
I’d developed strategies to keep myself safe but he was unpredictable. I’d get lulled into a false sense of security and then be shocked out of it by a sudden rage. He’d whisper he was going to kill me, shoot me, set fire to the house with me in it, tear me limb from limb, slice me up with a knife. Sometimes I’d shout back at him, or leave the room, or leave the house and sit on a bench alone till it had passed, but mostly I retreated into myself and pretended it wasn’t happening. Trying to escape his attention at night I tried sleeping in the top bunk of our son’s bed. He removed the mattress, saying his friend needed it. I tried sleeping with my son in the bottom bunk but he was very wriggly, so in desperation I climbed the ladder and lay down on the wooden slats where the mattress had been. They were not strong enough to hold me and I fell through. I ended up back in the double bed.
I thought quite seriously about killing him. I was learning to drive. We lived in a terraced house which had a dead end at the back, a dirt track running alongside the little back yards. I sat in the car with my hands on the wheel, revving the engine and wondering if my tiny 1987 Fiat Panda could accelerate 0 to 60 fast enough to run him down as he walked around the corner into the lane one night, after the pub*. It would have to be enough to kill him because he would need to be dead or I’d be dead, and then where would our son be? I’m not a violent person so this was my lowest moment. Violence is never the answer, though it is often the question. After a horrible Christmas and New year, on January 18th I’d had enough. I phoned social services in the morning to ask how I could get a place in a refuge and I had walked out the door holding my little boy’s hand and a badly-packed overnight bag by lunchtime. There was no place in the refuge till the following day. I stayed that first night with the same friend that had given me the red bendl, a friend that I had known at that point for 17 years and she was not kind to me. She still can’t explain why. She does not feel good about it. It’s easy to forgive her; the man that hurt me is the culprit here and her reaction was hardly unusual.
In my anxiety I had forgotten we might cope better with the pushchair and so we walked, slowly, as one does with a small child in tow, first to the bus stop and then 1.1 miles to my friend’s house. My little boy walked until he got tired and then I carried him. After one tense, miserable night in my friend’s house we moved into a refuge with a double entry door, razor wire all round and a massive metal clang as my own door to my own flat slammed shut. I was so happy to hear that noise. I stayed for three months. I made sure no one knew where I was. I had to give up my job. Refuge staff gave us a little food, some toys and basic toiletries and then we managed on benefits. Three months was enough time for him to realise I was serious and wasn’t coming back. My father drove him to the airport and he went back to Spain. I returned to our little house and tried to pick up the pieces. I passed my driving test on the 6th attempt. He took to phoning me after midnight to wake me up, saying he wanted to speak to our son, who he knew would be in bed at that time. I changed the number and eventually was able to move to a different address, where he couldn’t find me.
Returning to our story in August, I was relatively safe with my four older women, sisters, who knew me and knew him. They rented rooms in their house and even though he could have guessed where I was, the sisters being the only people I knew in the town not connected to his family, there was little chance he would risk the social ostracisation that would result if he were to disturb their peace. The women were well-known and respected in the town. The street was busy and central. I thought we’d be ok there till our flight home, which was almost two weeks away. There was an inner courtyard for fresh air and play, a kitchen and a roof but I was used to my freedom, I had gained confidence. It’s hard to stay cooped up in the heat with a three year old, so on the second evening we went out to eat dinner. Afterwards we went to the open-air cinema where my little boy had enjoyed The Little Mermaid a few days before. The film had changed to Titanic. I watched while my son slept on my lap. I can still hear that ridiculous song. Oh, I wanted my heart to go on too, I wanted so much for it all to be a romantic, passionate dream. As we left the cinema a movement caught my eye. He was hiding in the shadow of a doorway near the cinema exit. He must have been following us the whole night. As we moved, he moved. I can’t describe my alarm. We were walking with a large crowd towards the central square and I walked with the flow, carrying my son, looking straight ahead, until I reached a point where I could run home. I caught sight of him at the end of the street as I unlocked the door.
The following day I thought it best not to venture out and we had a lovely evening in the house with the kind old ladies surrounded by patio plants, laughing at my son as he entertained them with a funny little toy guitar I’d bought him that played the Spice Girls. I still have a photo of two of the sisters holding my son’s hands and laughing. But I had nine days to go before my flight home, I didn’t want to be a prisoner all that time. I wasn’t sure how to change the flight in those pre-internet days. I probably didn’t have the money to change it. My room was ludicrously cheap, it seemed best to stay put. I was taking one day at a time and I still couldn’t quite comply with my own fear. I didn’t want to overreact. I didn’t want to be unfair on him. I was sure I must be wrong about him. As I type those words, I’m amazed, twenty years later that that is how I thought.
To get out in the evenings we ate in front of the police station and within 200 metres of our lodgings. Within a couple of days I looked up to see him watching us, leaning against a wall nearby. He walked to our table in silence and sat with us while we ate. Our son was happy and not surprised to see him. They chatted. He didn’t make eye contact with me. Then he suddenly picked our son up from his chair and held him tightly on his lap, and not in a way that our child found pleasant. My little boy began to wriggle and try to get away. He held on tight. I had seen this look in his eyes before. I summoned speech and told him to leave us alone. He sat a while longer staring at me but the will of our three year old to wriggle free was strong. I held out my arms. I looked across at the local police, lazily loitering with their pistols in their holsters and wondered if they would actually help me at all. They had openly laughed at me when I’d first arrived in the town as a traveller and complained about a man who had masturbated at me on the beach. They’d said it was something to do with the shorts I was wearing.
I stared my partner out, waited till I was sure he’d left then ran to our rooms and packed. First thing in the morning I used my limited funds to pay for a taxi to Gibraltar, where our flight was booked. The taxi driver drove like a maniac and there was no car seat. I held on to my rising anxiety. I had only a vague notion of where we were going, I’d never been to Gibraltar before. I had a tenuous connection through a friend to a British woman who live on El Peñon. I was fairly sure she’d help me but really I was on my own. A few phone calls later and I found myself explaining to a strange middle-aged couple in a cafe, who looked at us with seriousness and sympathy and found us extremely cheap accommodation for our remaining seven days. They contacted their local friend, a Spanish police officer, and asked if he would accompany us to the airport for our flight, a precaution I thought was going too far. I was embarrassed to be wasting their time like that; I didn’t want to make a fuss. We passed six days of holiday. I have the photographs. We saw monkeys. We sat on a beach. We went on a boat. We flew home. We carried on. When I pause to reflect on how far I’ve travelled since that day it’s hard to believe how I live now. Luckily, my ex stayed in his country of origin and so I was more or less free from that point, living in the UK, though often feeling I should look over my shoulder.
I was lucky. I got out, I made a wonderful life for me and my child, but it wasn’t easy. Imagine if there had been no refuge in this story. What would have happened to us if I’d had to go back home after that single, tense night at my friend’s house? Would I have become one of those UK women killed every three days by an intimate partner? What if I’d managed to get a place in a refuge but needed to stay in my job because I wasn’t entitled to housing benefit and income support? Perhaps he’d have visited my workplace to end my life there, like the four UK women in 2016 whose ex partners murdered them at work. What if he’d ended my son’s life for revenge, as Neville Hord did when he murdered his ex partners’s daughter Jodie Wilsher in front of shoppers in a Skipton Supermarket? What if he’d decided he wanted the child but not me? How would I ever have got him back? Would he have been safe in Spain with his father? A friend advised me to see a Leeds firm of solicitors and they worked pro-bono to give my child a port alert and residency order. What if I hadn’t had a friend that had been a lawyer? What if, what if, what if he’d no intention of doing us any harm?
It’s all possible.
*Answer, a 1987 Fiat Panda accelerates 0 to 60 in a leisurely 22.3 seconds so, no.
I’ve made a gofundme for my local refuge charity Leeds Women’s Aid, to raise funds for one woman to stay for three months in a refuge, as I did. I’d really appreciate it if you could spare a little money and share the link far and wide. If you don’t have any money, and you are local to Yorkshire, you could drop off tinned and dried food, toiletries, nappies, baby clothes, sanitary products, toys, games and books at the Leeds Women’s Aid shop in Horsforth, Leeds, LS18 4QB, telling staff there that you’d like your donation to be transported to the refuge.
I know I have readers all over the world (so a trip to Leeds might not be so realistic!). If you’d rather donate to your own local refuge charity, please do, or give to one of the UK national charities, Women’s Aid and Refuge, donation links below. I’ve also included a donation link for the County Durham based charity Be Creative centre, which is at the heart of my new book Cree, out in October, because they do important work supporting women who have escaped violence and also women who are first offenders, and a link to the London based charity Nia, because they do important refuge work with the most vulnerable women, women who have substance abuse issues. Give what you can, and if you can’t give, share this blog post.
Thank you so much for reading.