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 other family snapshots that are scattered in plain, wooden frames around our house. In the 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 in a short phase, 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 I can show him the photos.
What’s not visible in the photo is the feeling of intense anxiety I had that day and all the other following until 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.
This was the second and final time I left my violent ex-partner. It was August 1998. My first attempt to leave had been in the January, months before this strange vacation, which came about after he successfully quit drinking and (wanting to keep my word) I had 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 the day, but it haunts me still. The thought I might never hold his little hand again. The thought he didn’t have a hat, suncream or his favourite drinking cup with him. It was above 40 degrees outside.
There had been arguments about my sleeping. We were all sharing a room in the attic of his parent’s house. I always rose early, 6ish, with our small son. My ex slept in or went out as soon as we woke. In the South of Spain in August no one goes to bed till after midnight or it would be impossible to live and so I often needed a nap. My ex didn’t like me napping and would come wake me if I fell asleep, even if our child was also asleep. He just didn’t like me to be resting and not available, I think. 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 I could manage by myself. I had the option to leave. I’d done it once, leaving one morning when he was out of the house, clutching our child’s hand, to go to a women’s refuge. I knew I could do it 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 anythingto keep control, including murdering women and their children. However rare this is, it’s real, it’s a real risk. Back then, in a fog of anxiety and with no real notion of how this might play out I was at least in touch with reality enough to doubt that his walkabout with our child was benign. It seemed he had done it to frighten me. That our child came to no harm that day makes no difference; he had used our small child to score points, to scare me, to let me know he could outwit me, to 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.
This much I know: the way he behaved in the days after I fled his parents house to a rented room down the village scared me half to death with some justification. 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 in his blank eyes. I began to feel this was all my fault; I’d been so stupid. We’d been quite safe in a women’s refuge for three months, I’d recovered something of my life, returned to my own house, recovered enough energy to care for our son and myself a little better. I even had plans for the future. I should have done without the sleep. Why did I even think it was worth arguing about! I should have made sure I got up earlier 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 that first moment though, in the dark night, after the longest day, in the moment they returned as I lay on the bed trying to keep a hold of myself, praying fervently, I saw his father holding him high, smiling, triumphant and I was just relieved to see my child and mortified at my partner. 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 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 night that he might harm him deliberately. He loved him. He had sat up all night to help me breastfeed in the hospital. He had been the first to bath him because I was so nervous. He introduced him so proudly to everyone he met. Falling down the stairs was an accident, wasn’t it? When they were locked in the house while he was passed out, drunk and the neighbours, hearing my frantic banging on the door had called the police, I blamed his addiction… but this? Maybe he was rehearsing something, 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 didn’t seem like the worst thing he did, but my ex had on occasion choked or strangled me. Not so I was injured, more to scare me. Because I’ve now spent so much time reading research carried out by women’s organisations, government bodies, etc. I know there is strong evidence that non-fatal strangulation in domestic violence can be an indicator of a risk of future homicide. Looking back on the way I minimised his actions and the way other people seemed either skeptical, distant or downright scornful, I find it bizarre that the benefit of the doubt is given so generously. Why wait till something terrible happens? There is plenty of evidence to make us err on the side of caution. How many women need to die, how many children, before it’s believable that there is danger in both staying with and 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, the background noise 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 – I didn’t need to be the sacrifice in our family for our son’s sake. I was prepared to stay in a relationship with this man for too long because I doubted my own mind. 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 that doesn’t explain its significance. It’s an echoing apparition of the persistent thought that it was one week since I’d left, two weeks since I’d left, one month since I’d left, one year and so on, marking the time in small increments. I’d engineered a move to the UK, not planning to leave him, but 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 when he’d launch himself at me, knocking me down, shake me, put his hands round my throat. Or he’d whisper that 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, all the time glaring at me with such hatred. I’d sometimes shout back at him, leave the room, leave the house, 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 got into bed with my son but he was wriggly and it was difficult to sleep, 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.