The long black coat I grabbed from the hook by the door conceals my torn dress and in this half-light I hope it will help me merge with the trees, at least for a while. It’s only 5 o’clock but dusk falls fast as I trudge up the path through the woods I’ve known all my life. Once managed they are now overgrown and tonight I’m grateful for that. The ground is a carpet of leaves, golden, russet and purple, a few leaves still hang precariously from the trees, and it’s just a matter of time before they too fall to the ground to be crushed underfoot. And that was me until tonight, clinging with all my might to the branches of my marriage.
I reach the copse where I played as a child, the copse where Mark put a slug down my top, the copse where we first kissed. It’s almost the same except for a few more overgrown brambles. The tree stumps littering the grass remind me of the ‘dens’ we built in the summer holidays, only for the older lads to knock them down when we’d gone home. Mark was one of those bigger lads, the tall leader of the pack. How my friends envied me when he chose me as ‘the one’.
I listen out for signs he’s following me, he sometimes does, but I guess that he’ll already be in the pub. The moon is rising and there are pockets of mist forming in the hollows between the trees. I carry on walking but avoid the main paths, keeping to the rock strewn gullies I slip on the moss and scramble towards the old water tower at the top of the hill. Just in case he is actually following me I push my hair inside the cavernous hood, the moonlight shining on my blonde hair is like a beacon in the gloom. The trees are more spindly here, younger and more widely spaced and the silver bark catches the moonlight casting an eerie glow. I’ve never been frightened of being in the woods, not even in the dark. The rustling and scurrying noises beneath the leafy carpet are somehow comforting, reminding me I’m not alone. Anyway I’m safer alone in the dark. I have no plan, I never have a plan.
I find myself here more and more often but I always go back. Where else can I go? I sit beneath the black shadow of the water tower, tonight the sky is grey, washed out by the brightness of the moon and there are few stars to be seen. I’ve been here when the sky is black and I’ve just stared at the stars, pinpricks of light in the vast skies with an occasional satellite dancing its way towards the horizon. I track its progress above me until it disappears and a little bit more of me dies.
Every time I sit here on this old tree stump I ask myself ‘What went wrong?’ When did I officially become a ‘battered wife’? I realise there is no defining moment, no line actually crossed just a gradual increase in violence from an occasional slap, laughed off as a mistake, to a more meaningful punch, always in a place where the bruises won’t show. After a while he even stopped apologising, the blame always laid squarely on my shoulders. If I don’t have his dinner ready, if his favourite shirt isn’t in the drawer, if I make fish pie instead of sausage and mash on a Wednesday, the reasons are endless and change all the time and now I’m more surprised when he doesn’t hit me than when he does.
‘Everything ok dear?’ my mother asks when she rings. ‘Yes of course, why wouldn’t it be?’ is always my answer, I can’t worry her with my problems. Everyone stopped asking about the prospect of children years ago. In hindsight I’m thankful we never had kids, the one and only chance disappearing after a miscarriage brought on by a severe kick to my stomach. Mark said it would ‘teach me a lesson’ for forgetting his beers from the supermarket. I remember him saying he was sorry that I’d lost our baby, but it was my own fault for winding him up.
The girls at work never ask me ‘What are you up to at the weekend Julie?’ I think they know that things are not the same for me as for them, although I’ve never spoken about how ‘things’ are. I used to think ‘Does it happen to them?’ I’ll never know about them and they’ll never know about me either, well not from me. I’m not ready to talk to anyone about what goes on for me at home, I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready, not sure I can face the shame of people knowing I’ve failed as a wife. Over the years I’ve built a wall between home and work, I keep my conversation light, usually just ‘What’s on TV tonight?’ or ‘What are you having for dinner?’ It’s easier that way.
So what now? The breeze is picking up and strands of hair stick to the congealed blood around my eye. I won’t be able to hide the evidence this time, and part of me says ‘Why should I?’ Explanations circle around my head. ‘Oh I fell over’ or ‘You won’t believe this but I slipped and hit my head on the door’ even ‘I braked too suddenly and hit the steering wheel’ all are ridiculous, all are obvious lies, all will raise more questions. I didn’t get chance to examine my face before fleeing the house but my fingers feel the dried blood, and my eye is swollen, the skin tight across my eyebrow. It’ll be a mess. ‘What if it needs stitches?’ springs to mind, but there’s nothing I can do about that now. I stand in the fog for what seems like hours but eventually I take my phone out of my pocket and switch it on. I have 3 messages ‘Where are you? I tried the house.’ from my sister Ginny and ‘Give me a call’ from Mandy my next door neighbour. I wonder if Mandy knows. The wall between our houses is pretty thin, I often hear their TV. Ginny will just be calling for a chat, well she chats and I listen. The other is a missed call from Mark, he’s probably wondering where his dinner is.
The mist is getting thicker, my coat absorbs the wetness and feels heavy as I stand here and decide that this time I won’t be going home. I don’t know where I’ll go but I can’t go back to Mark. I switch off the phone and start walking, not back down the path to the village as I usually would but towards town. I have no plan, I never have a plan. Keep walking and something will occur to me, town has more options. The railway station, taxi rank, bus stops.
I remember once seeing a notice about a refuge, there’s no going back this time.
© Nita Lewsey 2022