Copyright Helen Pryke 2016
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The characters and situations in this book are entirely imaginary and bear no relation to any real person or actual happenings.
For all women, everywhere
“Violence against women” is understood as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women and shall mean all acts of gender-based violence that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life – Council of Europe Convention of Istanbul 11 May 2011
She watched the grey clouds scurry across the autumn sky, imagining sad faces peeping out from among their billowing forms. Trees with leafless branches reached up towards the hidden sun as if trying to reclaim their souls from its molten core. Dry leaves were being whipped into a frenzy by the wind along the deserted country road, settling for a second only to be tossed into the air once more in an endless merry-go-round.
Autumn was the worst time of the year for Julia. Everything died, everything lost its colour, birds flew off to warmer climes and animals went into hibernation, while she remained in the house, trapped, dreaming of better things, of a better life, of having just a touch of colour in her life instead of all this grey emptiness.
Sighing, she turned away from the window and looked around the living room. Everything was in its place, the neutral colours of the sofa and chairs in tone with the pale cream walls and ivory-coloured curtains. There were no brightly coloured cushions on the sofa, no garish souvenirs from their holidays abroad. There was nothing quirky anywhere in the house. Any attempts she had made at introducing some character had been quickly removed and thrown away, just like her own personality.
She could see her reflection in the mirror above the fireplace. Her pale skin emphasised the dark circles beneath her tired-looking eyes, their former blue vitality now hidden in shadow behind a veil of sadness. She stared critically at herself, hating her sunken cheeks and downturned mouth that never smiled any more. Forty years old and what did she have to show for her life? A perfect marriage with an attentive husband who went out to work while she lived in luxury and looked after the house. That’s what everyone saw, and more than one person had said as much to her face when she had tried to complain about things. So she had dried her tears and painted a smile on her face, and now when someone asked why she was down, she blamed it on a sleepless night or too much housework the day before. Because the truth was too painful for others to hear. It was too painful to admit to herself, so how could she even begin to explain it to them? Best just to carry on day after day and ignore the ever-growing sense of hopelessness that she felt in her heart.
“Hi, sweetie, did you miss me?” Simon swept in through the front door, kissing her on the cheek before dropping his suitcase on the floor. “God, it’s good to be home again!” He grabbed her and pulled her close to him, kissing her on the mouth this time.
“How was your trip?” she asked, extricating herself from his embrace.
“Oh, the usual, you know… convincing everyone our offer was the best, getting them to sign the contract even though they had some doubts. It’s incredible what a few drinks in the pub after the meeting can do to change someone’s mind! But I knew I’d do it, that’s why the company sent me, because they know I’m the best.” He grinned at her, and Julia smiled weakly back. “Where’s my drink, then? Don’t tell me you forgot to prepare it? I stay away four days and you’ve already forgotten the routine! I texted you the time I’d arrive.”
“Of course I haven’t forgotten, it’s on the coffee table,” Julia replied. “Whisky on the rocks, just how you like it.”
“Thanks.” He gulped down a mouthful. “Hmm, that’s good. So, what have you been up to?”
“Oh, just the usual. The house, supermarket, laundry… there’s always something that needs doing.” She didn’t mention going for coffee with her best friend Becky the day before. That would only have made him get upset and accuse her of wanting to go out without him so she could meet other men. And she really didn’t have the energy to deal with that today. He hadn’t even asked her how she was. She waited silently while he finished off his drink.
“What’s for dinner? I’m starving. First class plane food isn’t what it used to be, they’re really cutting back lately. I had to send the first course back, it was so overcooked it was disgusting. Travelling isn’t like it used to be.”
She mumbled a vague reply and went through to the kitchen, taking a deep breath to stop the tears that were threatening to spill from her eyes. She dished up the food on automatic pilot, and ate in silence as Simon told her all about his successful business trip. He didn’t seem to even notice her lack of participation but just kept on talking about himself, never once asking about her. She nodded every now and then and tried to appear interested but her mind kept straying to what Becky had said to her the day before.
“Don’t you dare tell me everything’s OK, I know you better than you know yourself, Julia Reynolds! You’re not happy, I can tell, and I bet it’s got everything to do with that self-centred pig of your husband.”
Of all her friends, Becky was the only one who couldn’t stand Simon and she made no effort to hide it. She had even tried to persuade Julia not to marry him and they had risked falling out over it. But their friendship had survived and now Julia regretted that she lived so far away, they didn’t see each other often enough.
“No, I’m just tired. I told you I’ve been doing too much lately. Simon’s OK.”
“Bullshit! I’ve seen you when he’s around, it’s like you lose all your personality. It’s “yes, Simon, no, Simon, of course not Simon”. And when I see that stupid smirk on his face I want to punch him.” She leaned over and touched Julia’s hand. “I hate to see you like this. I want to help you but if you won’t let me, it’s difficult.”
Julia had wanted to blurt out all her worries and fears, to tell Becky how she thought she was going crazy, about how she saw things one way but Simon managed to convince her it was all in her mind. The words were there, in the back of her throat but they wouldn’t come out. She shook her head.
“Please, Becky, I can’t…” Her voice caught as her emotions overwhelmed her.
“OK, OK, I’m here when you need me,” Becky said softly. She took a magazine out of her bag and passed it across the table to Julia. “Read this. There’s an interesting article on page 15. Then phone me.”
The magazine was still in her handbag, folded open at page 15, at an article titled Walking on eggshells. She hadn’t been able to get any further than that. Even now, her heart started to beat faster at the thought of what she might read. What if it described her life perfectly? What if it made her admit her deepest, darkest fears? What if reading it made her perfect world come crashing down around her? She wasn’t sure she was ready to face that, if she would ever be ready. Surely it was better to go on like this? If she pretended enough to everyone else, maybe she would end up believing it herself. After all, it hadn’t been like this in the beginning. Perhaps, with a little effort, she could make things like they were before, when she had been swept off her feet by this handsome, charming man.
The first few weeks had seemed like a dream, a wonderful dream that she never wanted to wake up from. Flowers, expensive restaurants, shopping, driving around in his sporty Mazda, it was all a long way from her ordinary life as a supermarket cashier. That was how she had met him, commenting on the expensive bottle of champagne he’d popped in to buy. They’d exchanged a few words, had a laugh, and then she’d noticed him popping in more often to buy this and that. Eventually he’d asked her out for a drink. The other girls had seen what was happening and encouraged her to say yes.
She’d been so happy at first. He’d treated her like a queen, holding doors open, only looking at her, attentive to her every need. She’d never met any man like him and enjoyed all the attention. The text messages every half hour, just asking how she was, sometimes just a few hearts in a row, made her feel special, loved, wanted. The telephone calls in the evening that lasted at least an hour, where they’d talk about their day and then about nothing in particular.
The day he asked her to move in with him was the happiest day of her life. She left her tiny bedsit to go and live in his spacious apartment in the city centre. Everything was perfect. Then it started. Just small things at first, nothing important, nothing that fired warning shots. He asked her to leave her job and work from home for him, typing up reports and other things he didn’t have time for during the day. She’d accepted with relief. At least she wouldn’t have to spend half the evening telling him about who she’d seen that day, who she’d talked to, which of her colleagues she’d shared a joke with. Life was so much easier after she started working from home.
Later, he started making excuses to avoid seeing her family and friends, telling her that a romantic night in with her was all he wanted. She felt flattered that she was the only person he needed in his life and slowly began losing contact with people she had known for years. She turned down nights out with her old work colleagues and saw her parents less often. Curled up with Simon on the sofa with a glass of champagne in her hand, she convinced herself that she’d made the right decision.
If they ever went out, it was with Simon’s friends and work colleagues, loud, arrogant people that she struggled to get along with. But she made the effort, after all she loved Simon and so put up with his obnoxious friends. Even when the women wrapped their arms around his neck, gushing about how wonderful Simon was, how long they’d known him, how much they knew about him. A little knot of jealousy formed in her stomach that gradually grew bigger each time, but one look at his apologetic face and that little half-shrug of his stopped her from saying anything.
Until the evening they went to a restaurant with the usual group and he ignored her right from the beginning. He helped her to her seat right at the end of the table, then proceeded to be the life and soul of the party with everyone else. She just sat there quietly by herself, tears prickling at her eyes as the rest of them shouted and laughed together. When the waiter arrived, Simon asked everyone what they wanted to eat, one by one, missing her out completely. She had to wave her hand at the waiter to place her order.
“Sorry honey, I forgot you were there,” Simon giggled, already drunk.
She picked up her glass of water, drank it down in one mouthful, and held out her glass towards him. “I’d like some wine, please,” she said quietly. “You also seem to have forgotten to fill my glass.”
“No,” he slurred. “I didn’t give you any because you’ve got to drive us home.” He laughed. “I can’t drive tonight, I’ll lose my licence!”
“Thanks,” she muttered, but he’d already turned away from her. The rest of the evening was a nightmare. Hardly anyone bothered talking to her and when they did, they didn’t wait for her to answer. But the lowest point for Julia was when Simon got up and danced provocatively with one of the other women. The husband didn’t seem to care, he just pointed at them and laughed.
Finally, they were in the car and going back home. Julia didn’t say a word, she just drove while Simon went on and on about what a wonderful evening they’d had. Once they got indoors, she exploded.
“How dare you ignore me like that all evening!” she screamed at Simon. “It was so embarrassing, it was as if I didn’t even exist!”
He backed away from her, then laughed. “Oh, come on! It wasn’t like that at all. You know those were my work colleagues, there was one of the big bosses there too. I had to work the crowd!”
“You could have included me,” she sobbed. “It was so humiliating. And when you started dancing with what’s-her-name. What was all that about?”
“You know, the one you did your Dirty Dancing moves with!”
“Oh her. That was the boss’s wife. It was just a laugh, he didn’t seem to mind.”
“Well, I did. It was horrible, seeing you do that.”
“Look, Julia, that’s how we act around each other. If you can’t handle it, don’t come out with us.”
“Maybe I won’t next time. I didn’t see the other husbands ignoring their wives.” She was starting to sound like a whining child, and she hated it.
“Because they’re not aiming for a promotion. I am. And I’ll get it, any way I can. Seriously, don’t mess this up for me, Julia.”
“So I’ve got to put up with watching you flirting with other women, for your promotion?” she asked sarcastically.
“Yes,” he replied arrogantly. “You know, if you’re scared that it’s going to go any further you can always…” he looked at her, raising his eyebrows.
“I can always… what?” she asked.
“Well, you know. If I’m already ‘satisfied’, the flirting won’t go any further, will it?”
“What do you mean?” she cried.
“Look, I’m a man. If a woman comes on to me, and I haven’t had sex for a while, it’s obvious I won’t be able to resist, isn’t it!”
She looked at him, horrified. “You mean you’d…” she couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Well, it’s not like it’d be my fault, is it? I mean, if you let me go out… you know…” He winked at her. “Right, I’m going to bed, I’m knackered. I’ve got an early start in the morning.”
“OK, I’ll be up soon,” Julia replied. She spent the night on the sofa, crying her eyes out.
Simon got his promotion. It meant more money, but also more business trips, more overtime, and more evenings out. Julia became paranoid every time he left the house. Who was he having dinner with? Was he having a drink in the hotel bar? Who was there with him? She started going through his pockets and briefcase, checking his receipts, hastily tucking away those that had only two sets of meals or drinks when he’d told her that there had been a big group of people. She tried to make excuses, telling herself that he’d only paid for two and the others had paid for themselves. Or that she’d got her dates mixed up. Or that she’d misunderstood him. She learnt not to confront him. He was very good at making her seem an idiot, or confused, or plain crazy, explaining things to her in that oh-so-calm voice of his that made her want to scream.
Time passed. When he asked her to marry him, she said yes automatically but the knot in her stomach seemed to twist painfully. She phoned her parents, who said they were happy for her but would like to meet the man she was going to marry. Already feeling guilty about not seeing them any more, their comment hurt her more than she wanted to admit. While she was telling them that it was difficult, he was so busy at work, etc, she sounded so pathetic to herself that she wanted to cry. So when her mother told her in no uncertain terms that if they didn’t meet Simon soon they wouldn’t come to the wedding, she told her not to bother buying a new outfit. After a few more harsh words, her mother put the phone down and didn’t call her back. Julia was distraught but Simon managed to convince her that it was her parents’ fault.
“They’ve got to understand that their little girl is all grown up now,” he said, cradling her in his arms as she cried her heart out. His constant reassurance that she was doing the right thing by not giving in to their demands consoled her and she followed his advice to just concentrate on the wedding.
She’d wanted the big wedding in a beautiful white dress, but her dreams were soon dashed by his parents who decided to meet their future daughter-in-law at long last. Just a small affair in the local registry office was all they needed, his parents decided, and Simon agreed with them. No white dress, because it wasn’t a church wedding, and Simon agreed. Just family and a few close friends, seeing as the registry office was so small, and Simon agreed. Julia felt like she was losing her grip on everything around her, and once again Simon managed to use his logic to show her how stupid and selfish she was being. Becky was the only one who tried to help her, who tried to show her that Simon’s logic was completely wrong. Becky told her what to say to Simon, encouraged her to stand up to him, but Julia couldn’t do it. All of Becky’s strong words left her as soon as she opened her mouth, and she ended up apologising to Simon and telling him he was right all along. He tried to forbid her to invite Becky to the wedding but at least there she managed to remain firm. Becky was her lifelong friend and she wanted her there on her special day. Simon had had to give in but he’d gone out of his way to spoil their wedding day by being rude to Becky.
Then they moved to their beautiful house in the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, away from Becky and Julia’s parents. Julia no longer had time for herself or for typing up Simon’s reports, but that didn’t matter because Simon now had his own secretary after getting his promotion. The house was enormous and the housework never seemed to be done. She hadn’t wanted such a large house but Simon had convinced her, telling her how their children would love the freedom of the countryside rather than a noisy, polluted city.
She’d dreamed of watching their children grow up in that house, running around the garden, trailing muddy footprints onto the immaculate white carpets. It had taken a while but Julia eventually realised that her children would only ever be dreams. In the beginning, she would tentatively bring the subject up. The first few times, Simon would use his calm logic to show her that the time was wrong, his job was too important right now to dedicate time to a family, he wanted to spend a few years alone with her first. Then, as she insisted more, he became angry.
“What do you want to have kids for, when you can’t even keep the house clean now?” was one of his favourite arguments.
“We can get a woman to help clean, you earn enough,” she replied.
“What, get some stranger to come round, check us out then come back when we’re not here and steal everything?” he shouted.
“We’ll make sure it’s someone trustworthy,” she said.
“No. No way! I’m not having strangers in our house,” he replied firmly.
“Enough, Julia. Why rock the boat? We’re happy as we are, aren’t we?” he said, smiling at her sweetly.
Every time it got worse. Every time there was another excuse as to why they couldn’t have children, and every time it was her fault.
And now here she was, forty years old, childless, trapped in her home as if it were a cage, her head filled with doubts and her heart filled with anger. Anger at the way she let Simon treat her, anger at how she let everyone convince her that he was right, anger at herself for not listening to Becky.
The next day, Simon left for work as usual. “No rest for the wicked,” he grinned, winking at her. “I’ll let you know what time I’ll be back. It might be a bit late tonight, I’ve got some meetings.”
Julia nodded. “OK, text me, let me know if I have to cook or not,” she replied, sighing.
“Don’t be like that, you know I’d much rather be here with you than some boring work do.”
“Yeah, I know.”
He reached over and kissed her. “Chin up, I’m sure you’ve got loads to do today, that’ll keep you busy.”
She watched as his car screeched down the road until it was out of sight, then went back into the house. She looked around, wondering what on earth she could do. Everything was neat and tidy, she’d hoovered and dusted the day before, the bathrooms were sparkling…
“Oh, to hell with it!” she shouted, switching on the kettle. “Today I’m going to take a day off!” She giggled, startled by the determination in her voice.
She sat down on the sofa with a steaming mug of coffee, grabbed her bag and pulled out the magazine. Walking on eggshells. She took a deep breath and started reading.
Psychological and emotional abuse are starting to be recognised as true forms of abuse by professionals. But how do you know if your partner is abusing you? This pattern of abuse can go on for years without you realising it. Are you afraid of being yourself around your partner or of saying something that might upset him/her? Here are some warning signals that you’re walking on eggshells in your relationship.
She sipped her coffee and tried to carry on. The words blurred as her eyes filled with tears and she could hardly make sense of the rest of the article. Only some of the words seemed to leap off the page at her:
constantly worried… cheat on you… being manipulated… fear of his/her reaction… suspicious behaviour… feeling unhappy… intensely insecure… being eager to please… emotionally and financially dependent… scared to be yourself…
At long last, she managed to finish reading and put the magazine down, her hands shaking. After years of denial, she had everything there in front of her, in black and white. All of a sudden she felt an intense, white hatred for Becky; how dare she make her read this rubbish, it didn’t apply to her, what the hell was her friend thinking! She reached for her phone, her finger hovering over Becky’s name. Then she felt all the anger and energy leave her body in a rush. She dropped the phone and it bounced across the white carpet. She leaned forward, cradling her head in her hands, tears streaming down her face and enormous, painful sobs wracking her body. She cried like she’d never cried before, all the emotions she’d kept under control for the last twenty years suddenly crashing through her body like a tsunami.
Eventually she stopped crying, hiccoughing as she tried to catch her breath. She felt empty. She looked around her, seeing her house as if for the first time, as if she were a stranger. Its cold sterility seemed to lack a heart, that throbbing centre of love and unity she had grown up with, had always taken for granted. Her phone lay a few feet away from her, its red cover looking like a bloodstain on snow. My blood, she thought. All those years of believing, trusting, ignoring that inner voice that tried to make itself heard, drowning it out with excuses, hiding her head in the sand.
“My blood,” she said out loud. “It’s like I handed him my heart on a plate and watched him eat it and enjoy it, without saying a word. I let him destroy me.” Then her inner voice spoke up, and this time she let it say what it had to say without interrupting or squashing it. You may have let him do this to you, it said, but he chose to do it. He could have treated you differently, he could have immersed you in his love and you would have followed him to the ends of the earth. But he chose to suppress you, to intimidate you, to upset you with his threats of infidelity and his behaviour around other women. You tried to fight it at the beginning, you knew it was wrong but no-one believed you, no-one wanted to help you. But now you have to help yourself.
“How?” she cried. “How can I stop him from treating me like this? It’s been too long, I haven’t got the strength, I can’t fight him, he’s too clever for me.” She stopped, her emotions threatening to overcome her and she found it hard to breathe. Becky, whispered her inner voice.
“Becky!” she shouted, pouncing on her phone. Her hands were shaking so much that she couldn’t touch the right contact. She took a deep breath, steadied her hands and tried again.
“Hi Julia,” she heard. She tried to speak but no words came out.
“Hello?” Becky sounded concerned now.
“H-hi, it’s me,” Julia finally managed to say.
“Hello stranger, I wondered when you were going to call me. How’s things?”
“I read the article,” Julia said. Her voice sounded alien to her, completely unrecognisable.
“And?” She could almost hear Becky holding her breath.
“I-I…” and she burst into tears.
“Oh, Jules, don’t,” Becky said, her voice full of compassion. “It’s a shock, I know it is. When I read that article, I immediately thought of you. It was as if it was describing you. It shocked me, so I can only imagine what it’s doing to you.” She paused. “What can I do?”
“I don’t know,” Julia replied. “I don’t know what to do. I-I can’t go on like this, but I don’t know how to stop it. Where do I go? I can’t exactly go to my parents, not after everything that’s happened. I don’t have any money, Becks, Simon controls everything.” She started crying again.
“OK, let’s try to think about this calmly,” Becky said. “The first thing is to get you away from him, so he can’t try to sweet talk you into staying. So tomorrow morning, after he’s gone to work, you’re going to pack your things. I’ll drive down and pick you up.”
“No, I can’t ask you to drive all the way back down here,” Julia mumbled.
“Good, because you’re not asking, I’m telling you,” Becky said grimly. “I should be there by ten o’clock. I’ll help you with your packing, then we’ll come back to my house. Then we’ll decide what to do next. I think we’ll need to find a good solicitor.”
“What if Simon comes to your place?” Julia said, scared. “He knows where you live, he could turn up there.”
“I’ll deal with him if he does,” Becky said. “But remember he’s a coward, Jules. I don’t think he’ll try anything like that. So, I’ll see you tomorrow morning, then?”
“Yes,” Julia replied, relief flooding through her. “I’ll be ready.”
“Don’t give anything away, Jules,” Becky warned. “Go to bed early, or late, don’t talk too much with him, don’t show him you’re nervous. Try to act normal, even though I know it’s going to be difficult.”
Julia smiled. “I’ll do my best,” she murmured. “Bye Becks, love you.”
“Love you too,” Becky replied but Julia had already gone.
When Simon arrived home, Julia was in the kitchen preparing dinner. He didn’t seem to notice her pale face or shaking hands, he just gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and went to get changed. Dinner was a quiet affair; Julia was absorbed in her own thoughts and Simon was reading through a report.
While she was washing the dishes, he came up behind her and encircled her in his arms. “Hmm,” he murmured, breathing in her scent. “How about we go upstairs after you’ve finished?”
She tensed as panic flooded through her. Why tonight? Of all the days he could pick…
“Well?” he said, kissing her neck.
She tried not to shudder. “I-I don’t know. Why don’t we wait until tomorrow?” she said desperately.
“Is something wrong, Ju?” he asked, looking at her suspiciously.
“No, no, it’s just that I’m not really in the mood,” she said. “It’s been a long day, I’m tired…”
“Oh well, if that’s all it is,” he said grinning, “I’ll do all the hard work if you like!” He winked.
“No, seriously, Simon, I don’t want to,” she said.
He stopped kissing her neck. “I need you, Ju,” he said, his voice icily smooth. “You know what could happen if you say no to me.”
The knot in her stomach twisted violently as she thought about Jayne, Jayne with a y, her inner voice said maliciously. Jayne, the latest secretary. Being the newest girl in the office, Simon spoke about her constantly, singing her praise, making sure that Julia knew she was Jayne with a y, as if that made her all the more special. Brilliant, super-organised, super-young Jayne with a fucking y, she thought angrily.
“No, Simon,” she said quietly. For the first time in her life she’d stood up to him. Her heart was beating fiercely as she turned to face him.
“You know, Jayne asked me if I’d go out for a drink with her tonight after work,” he said, smiling at her. “I told her no, I had to get back to my beautiful wife. I had tonight all planned for us, Ju, and now you’re saying you’ve got a headache.” He shook his head sadly.
“Maybe you should have taken Jayne up on her offer,” Julia said. “I’m sure it’s not the first time.”
“You know I’d never do that, Julia, I always come home to you,” he said, startled.
“Yes, you always come home to me,” she said softly. “But what about before?”
“Before?” A dark shadow passed over his face.
“Before you come home. After you’ve left work.” Julia stared at him defiantly.
“You think I…” He laughed, a loud, hollow sound that had no feeling. “Of all the things… I go out to work, I have to travel halfway around the world for stupid business trips, stay out until all hours entertaining boring clients… I do all of this for you, Julia, because you’re my wife and because I love you. And this is all the thanks I get? Accusations thrown at me, and you refuse to have sex because you presume that you know things?” His voice grew gradually louder and his face became red with anger. Julia felt her defiance waning, melting, her normal state of submission returning to the surface. What would Becks do? she cried out inside her head, what would she say, what would she do? An image appeared in her mind of a receipt she’d found last month, just after Simon’s business trip to Paris, with only two meals on it, along with a bottle of champagne, two desserts and two coffees. Her blood started to boil again.
“Who did you go to Paris with, Simon?” she shouted. “Was it fucking fantastic Jayne with a fucking y? Or one of the other young secretaries you used to go on about before she arrived? Entertaining boring clients? More like seducing the office staff in romantic European cities!” She was breathing heavily from the tension, but she found that she was enjoying finally getting things off her chest.
Simon stared at her, then burst out laughing. “You’re crazy, Julia,” he said. “You’ve lost it. How can anyone be so stupid? Always seeing things that don’t exist, making things up in your tiny little brain. I can’t even talk about another woman without you going bat-shit crazy on me. You know, I won’t even bother replying to your ridiculous insults, you’ve gone too far this time.” He shook his head, looking sadly at her. “Get upstairs now, before I really lose my patience.”
Her shoulders drooped. He was never going to admit being unfaithful to her, not even if she shoved mountains of restaurant receipts under his nose. He’d just laugh at her and make her out to be an idiot. She wasn’t going to let him do that to her, not any more. Tomorrow she’d pack her things and leave with Becky. She thought of him coming home to an empty house, calling for her, searching every room until he finally realised that she’d gone. And she felt nothing, neither pity or exhilaration. Just a sad emptiness, of what could have been and what would never be.
“Go to hell, Simon,” she said and walked upstairs to the spare room, locking herself in.
She spent the next few days pouring her heart out to Becky. All the emotions she’d held in check for so many years finally found their way to the surface and she was unable to stop them from coming out.
“You know the worst thing?” she said one day, sniffing loudly after a particularly long bout of crying.
“Tell me,” Becky replied, hugging her.
“I feel like there were two Julia’s inside of me.” Becky waited for her to explain. “There was that part of me that hated him, that didn’t want him to touch me, that couldn’t bear to be around him, that knew, deep down, that everything I suspected was true, I just didn’t want to – no, I couldn’t – admit it.”
“Go on,” Becky murmured.
“Then there was that other part of me, the traitor within me, that wanted to be loved. That wanted him to touch me, to make love to me, enjoyed making love with him while that other part felt disgusted, contaminated, used… but not because I loved him, but because I wanted, needed, him to want me in the way he wanted those other women. Because I was his wife, goddam it! Because I needed to feel desirable, needed to be better than the others, because he was married to me. Because if he didn’t want me, or I didn’t let him use my body, then I was worthless. The title ‘wife’ meant nothing to him, it didn’t give me any advantage over any other woman, and I knew it. I knew it but I still demeaned myself, let him do what he wanted to me, because I had to be more important, I was his wife and I had to be loved more than anything else in the world.” She stopped, breathing hard.
Becky held her hand. “I’m not a therapist, I have no idea what to say to you,” she said quietly. “I’m so sorry, Julia, I had no idea what it was like for you, or I’d have said something much sooner. I-I wish I’d known.”
“It’s OK, honestly. I had no idea either,” Julia replied, half laughing and half crying. “I think I’m going to need some help to get through this. Professional help.”
“We’ll find the best person,” Becky promised. “In the meantime, I’ve made an appointment for you for tomorrow morning.”
Julia looked at her questioningly.
“Let’s make a coffee and I’ll explain.”
The next morning, they sat in the lawyer’s office, waiting for the secretary to call them.
“It will be alright, Julia,” Becky said. “I’m here, I’m not going to leave your side.”
Julia tried to smile at her. “I’m scared, Becks.”
“I know. But nothing can be worse than what you’ve already been through.”
They turned around as the secretary approached. “Mrs Reynolds, Mr Forrester is ready to see you now. Please follow me.”
Julia stopped outside the door and looked at Becky.
“Deep breath, Jules,” Becky whispered.
Julia squared her shoulders, took hold of Becky’s hand and squeezed it tightly. Holding her head high she walked into the room, towards an unknown future.
It hasn’t been easy writing this short story. Psychological abuse is insidious; it leaves you with so many doubts about your perception of reality and your ability to think reasonably. You try to bury your paranoia, to deny what’s in front of your eyes because otherwise you can’t carry on, you feel as if you’d collapse under the weight of the truth. But sooner or later you must face it, whether it takes you two years or twenty, and it leaves you with scars that may never heal. The shocking truth is that an almost constant state of hypervigilance is normal for all abused women, every single one.
Women are ashamed or scared, their partner may threaten to take everything away from them, including their children, they have no way of supporting themselves if they leave… there are many reasons why they feel that they must stay in tense, horrible, or perhaps even dangerous situations. Many countries have places they can go, centres that welcome these women, listen to them and help them. Help these centres continue to be able to carry on their important work. All women have the right to a decent life, to live without fear, to live the best they can.
I wrote the article “Walking on eggshells” mentioned in the story using information from the internet and personal experience. Here is the full version:
Psychological and emotional abuse are starting to be recognised as true forms of abuse by professionals. But how do you know if your partner is abusing you? This pattern of abuse can go on for years without you realising it. Are you afraid of being yourself around your partner or of saying something that might upset him/her? Here are some warning signals that you’re walking on eggshells in your relationship.
– Being constantly worried that your partner will cheat on you or walk out on you, leaving you alone with nothing.
– Being manipulated all the time into doing things you don’t want to do and allowing your partner to dominate you to avoid confrontation.
– Biting your tongue to avoid arguments and refraining from speaking your mind to your partner in fear of his/her reaction.
– Feeling suspicious of your partner’s behaviour, to the point of doing detective work for peace of mind… then burying those suspicions when all the evidence proves that you were right.
– Feeling depressed or unhappy and trying to suppress those feelings for fear of ending up alone.
– Feeling intensely insecure due to your partner’s behaviour, especially when around other people who you believe are more attractive than you.
– Ignoring your partner’s flaws in order to survive in the relationship; you’d rather be taken for granted or compensate for his/her faults than admit that they have a problem.
– Being left out of all the decision-making in the relationship. If your partner makes all the important decisions for you as a couple, it leaves you feeling weak and powerless, which will only increase your sense of insecurity.
– Being constantly eager to please, always giving your all and ignoring your own wants, being unable to voice your own opinions, until after a while you start to feel like a slave rather than an equal partner in the relationship.
– Feeling that you are the one who has to do everything to keep the relationship going, while your partner seems to carry on oblivious.
– Being completely dependent on your partner, both emotionally and financially, to the point that it is impossible to leave the relationship because you are too weak and vulnerable.
– Being scared to be yourself, burying your true personality underneath the one your partner wants you to have to avoid upsetting him/her or to win their affection.
Admitting that you are walking on eggshells is just the first step to facing your relationship problems.
Thank you for reading my short story. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment and leave me a review at your favourite retailer!
Other books by Helen Pryke
Walls of Silence – Follow the emotional story of a young Sicilian girl set in turbulent 1960s Italy, where the traumatic events of her life take her from her childhood home in Sicily to the streets of Milan. Available as an ebook at all online retailers.
For every ebook sold, €0.50 will be donated to My Sisters’ House, a women’s centre in Bognor Regis, West Sussex (UK).
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Read an extract from Walls of Silence:
The carabinieri found me walking the streets of Rome at two o’clock one Friday morning, icy-cold sleet whipping my cotton pyjamas against my body, only minutes away from hypothermia. Flashing blue lights suddenly filled my vision and gentle voices quietly asked me if I was all right. Unable to answer, I let them place a blanket around my shoulders and help me into the back of the police car. I watched the windscreen wipers swish back and forth as we drove through the city, their hissing sound slowly hypnotising me, until my eyes closed. I knew no more until I woke up in hospital the next day.
My breakdown was attributed to my wife’s death from cancer only a few weeks earlier. I’m no psychiatrist, but even I could have told them that. After a long talk with a doctor I was sent home with a prescription for antidepressants and more hospital appointments. As soon as I got indoors I threw the prescription in the bin, unplugged the phone and locked myself away from the big, bad world outside.
I’m told it was quite a spectacular downward spiral, although I don’t remember much. I only have vague recollections of a gaunt, spectral face staring back at me from the bathroom mirror, of shuffling relentlessly around the apartment as if I were searching for something that could never be found, of making plates of food and then leaving them mostly untouched on the kitchen worktops, until they filled every available space and overflowed into the sink. Yes, they were bad times and I am thankful that I can hardly remember them.
If it hadn’t been for Antonella, I think I would have simply lain down and wasted away until I joined my wife. Antonella, with her long, dark hair, her smooth, olive skin and her open, honest smile that lit up her whole face; so like her mother that it hurt me to look at her. She gave me a couple of weeks to wallow in my grief, then one day she let herself in and quietly began sorting out the apartment.
I heard her scraping the congealed food off the abandoned plates, then the clatter of china as she loaded the dishwasher. Quietly, efficiently, she moved around the apartment cleaning, tidying, sorting, putting some order back into my life as I lay, feigning sleep, on the sofa. My eyes half-closed, I sensed rather than saw her standing over me, and I knew that behind her crossed arms and aggressive stance she was smiling.
“Your turn, Papà,” she said, not fooled for a second by my comatose appearance. Protesting vociferously, I allowed her to guide me to the bathroom where she handed me soap, shampoo and electric shaver.
“I’ll be waiting outside,” she said, hands on hips.
I closed the door and leant over the sink, already exhausted. I glanced up at the mirror and stared at the stranger before me. A thick bristly beard peppered with grey covered his chin, there were deep black smudges under his emotionless eyes and what was visible of his emaciated face was the colour and texture of raw pizza dough.
“Not a pretty sight,” I muttered, and set to work.
Half an hour later I came out of the bathroom, looking and smelling a lot better. Antonella wasn’t there but I could smell a delicious aroma coming from the kitchen. For the first time in ages I felt hungry and my stomach grumbled its protest.
“There you are, Papà, I was starting to get worried,” Antonella said as I entered the kitchen. She had her back to me and was stirring something in a pot on the stove which made my mouth water.
“It was a mammoth task,” I joked, sitting down at the table. I noticed that she had used her mother’s best china and felt a sudden stab of pain in my chest.
“You’re looking more human now,” she commented, turning around and staring at me critically as she brought the pot of food over to the table. She must have caught my pained expression as I stared fixedly at the plate in front of me.
“I’m sorry, Papà, it was all there was,” she apologised. “All the other plates were dirty.”
“It’s OK,” I managed to say, and then I realised that it was. I smiled. “Honestly, it’s OK. Your mum always said it was to be used for celebrations… well, that’s what today is, a celebration.”
“Here’s to the future,” Antonella said. She raised her glass of water and smiled at me, then reached over and held my hand, squeezing it reassuringly. Her tender expression was so like her mother’s that tears sprang to my eyes and I suddenly found it hard to breathe. I blinked away the tears and stroked her cheek, thinking how lucky I was to have her.
“Let’s eat, I’m starving!” I exclaimed, making us both laugh.
It slowly got easier over the next few months. Every day I felt stronger, every feat I accomplished brought me one step closer to returning to normality. Antonella dropped by four or five times a week and phoned me every day, chatting about anything and everything but really checking if I’d got out of bed that day. I didn’t mind, it would have been only too easy to slide back down into oblivion again.
Eventually I felt strong enough to face the last hurdle in my healing journey. I called Antonella. “Will you come and stay the weekend?” I asked her. “I want to sort through your mum’s things.”
There was silence, then Antonella’s voice, sounding worried. “Are you sure you’re ready?”
“No,” I replied. “But if I don’t do it now, I never will.”
“OK, Papà, I’ll be there Saturday afternoon,” she promised.
True to her word, the doorbell rang at half past three on Saturday. She gave me a hug and we stood there like idiots, feeling strangely awkward for a moment.
“I’ve got a bottle of Pinot in the fridge,” I said. “I think we’re going to need it.”
The hardest part was going through her clothes. They still held the fragrance of her perfume and as I closed my eyes I could picture her clearly. I buried my face in her favourite jumper and breathed in her scent, ignoring the tears pouring down my cheeks.
I shook my head. “It’s all right,” I said, my voice muffled by the jumper. “Just memories of happier times, Anton.” It was true, I could see images of my wife standing a little way away, half-turned towards me, her black hair blowing in the wind. She was laughing at something I’d said, some stupid comment, but she’d found it immensely funny. I found myself grinning as I recalled the moment, crystal clear in my mind.
At long last almost everything was packed in boxes, ready to be stored at Antonella’s house. Neither of us could bear to give the clothes to charity. Just the thought of seeing someone walking down the street in her things sent a cold shiver down my spine. Antonella was busy pulling shoe boxes and carrier bags out of the wardrobe, the last things we needed to go through before loading everything into her car. She opened each box carefully, checking its contents and sighing occasionally.
“What’s this?” she said suddenly.
“A pair of shoes?” I suggested. “That is a shoe box, Anton.”
She glared at me. “I know what it is. No, this.” She lifted an A4 notebook out of the box, its edges worn and torn as if it had been handled many times. She opened it and we saw that the pages were covered in her mother’s scrawling handwriting, page after page, filled from top to bottom.
“‘My story, from the beginning’,” Antonella read out loud. Her voice faltered. “‘The events, good and bad, that led me through my life all the way to you.’” She closed the notebook and handed it over to me. “I think you should read this,” she murmured.
I gently took the book from her and held it at arm’s length, my heart thumping. I could hear the blood roaring through my head as I realised the enormity of the gift my wife had left me. I hadn’t spoken her name since the day she died, it had been my only way of retaining some sort of grip on my sanity. I knew that if I opened the book, I would hear her voice one last time as she told me her story. And I knew that anything could happen to me if I read it. I also knew that I would risk even my sanity for that opportunity.
“Maria,” I whispered. I opened the book and my daughter and I started reading together.