This is a chapter from my second completed novel, Telling Her Stories. If you wanna publish it, you know, call me. This is a second draft, and full of errors, of course. Mind your step.
There’s not a chance that she knows; no chance at all.
If she knew, I don’t think there’s any way she’d be able to avoid asking me, even if she knew she could never have answer. She would ask me all the questions that I ask of myself, all the time. How did you let it happen? Why didn’t you leave? Why didn’t you tell anybody? Even selfish people want those kinds of questions answered. When the questions are that big.
The answers to those questions have changed over the years.
When I’m lying to myself, it’s easy enough to say, “I don’t know”. Plenty of women in abusive partnerships manage to trick themselves into believing that things will change, or that things aren’t that bad. That their partner doesn’t know what they’re doing. That they want to be different. That things will only be worse if they leave.
That’s not the truth for me, though. I knew exactly who he was, and what he was capable of. The war changed a great deal of men in my generation, and did it in differently insidious ways. Some came home physically scarred but mentally unchanged, and I suspect they had no idea that they were the lucky ones. Others came looking much the same, but with a look in their eye that had shifted; something almost like suspicion, that came of having seen the worst that the human race was capable of, and the subsequent belief that it must be watched for, and quelled.
Joe was never someone who would be described as kind, but that was not a fault, exactly. Kindness is not everything, though I suppose it’s a good starting point. It’s never mattered all that much to me because I was always able to be kind enough for the both of us. It sounds ridiculous, but then in a partnership, if you’ve both got all the same characteristics, it gets boring. Someone has to be a bit worse, don’t they?
Or that’s what I thought. Anyway, he was smart, and he was curious and he asked a lot of questions. I like people who ask questions. He always wanted to know how things worked, which was a bit like how I was, but he took it much further than me, taking things apart. When I cooked for him, he would sometimes question the science, or what made this rise or this flat, and I had no idea of the answer to any of it, I just knew that it did. I realize I’m making him sound a little like one of the men off The Big Bang Theory – I watch a lot of TV – but it wasn’t like that. It was just living his life with his eyes wide open. I liked that.
After the war a lot of people stopped living like that, even if they might have been that way before.
It just started to seem like a way to get in trouble, I think, like asking too many questions had got us there in the first place. And, of course, when you’ve made it back from something that so many people didn’t, where you never expected to come back from, it does change you. Most people I knew, it closed them down a bit.
So that was a good thing, about him. But with questioning things like that comes a degree of expectation, and it also meant that he always thought there were answers he hadn’t been given yet, like I was keeping things from him.
And that’s where it all starts to fall in together in my head, when his curiosity became cruelty. I know it seems like a big leap.
One thing I remember: I’d been out, across the park, where I’d stopped for a bit to sit and read, because it was warm and dry and because I wasn’t in any particular hurry. I was a housewife, you see, after the war, which I’d never particularly thought I would be. Before the war, I was at school, and working in the store. And during the war I was a nurse, thrust into it, like so many others left behind. And while I didn’t love it, the sudden housewife thing, I must confess that the amount of time I had to myself was something. This is pre-Elizabeth, pre-all of it, pre-everything, and everything was wide open, including my days. Or I suppose, thinking about it, it wasn’t exactly pre-Elizabeth. She was in there, tucked away. I just didn’t know it yet.
And then, after I was finished reading, I went to the market and picked up meat and vegetables, talked to a few people, and headed home. It was warm and quiet and I walked slowly, because I could.
I got home and started to cook, and he came into the kitchen, leaning against the doorway in that way he had, blocking out the light from the hall. I knew from his tread that something wasn’t quite right, and so I didn’t turn around, staring out the window into my little garden and kneading the pastry with a little more energy than it needed. My heart rate went up.
It’s silly isn’t. Here I am telling the story of when I first realized, when I first thought, but it’s all wrong. It’s full of flaws, like the fact that I didn’t turn around. Why not, to face my young husband? Why not, to tell him what’s for the dinner? Why didn’t I smile? It couldn’t have been the start. It doesn’t make sense.
The fact is that trying to point out one moment when something switches, when you look into a face and see someone different: that moment doesn’t exist. It’s not a gun being fired or a punch being thrown. It’s a leak. It’s a crack. Things come through slowly.
“You were gone for a long time”, he said.
“It was such a lovely day,” I replied, still looking out into the garden where the last of the sun was playing in a large square on the bench, and where I wished I was sitting, instead of hewing a large piece of meat into chunks for stewing, the smell of flesh rising to my nose and working into my fingers. “I sat in the park and read for a while”.
“What did you read?”
“Oh, something I borrowed from Sally. I don’t even remember the title, it’s in my bag. It’s alright, she really liked it but I…”
“There’s no book in your bag”, he said, and then I did turn around, holding my hands in front of me, to where he held my bag wide, and where there was no book.
“Oh,” I said, raising my eyebrows. “I might have put it in the bedroom. I hope I didn’t leave it in the market”.
He slapped my bag onto the table, so that my purse slid out, along with my diary, and with a lipstick.
“Where were you really?” he asked, his nose pinching up and his chin pinching forward, so that he looked like himself only older.
“Don’t be silly, Joe! I can find the book. I don’t know why you’d think I’d lie”.
He moved around behind me, not quite touching me, but close enough that I could feel his warmth. “It’s not warm enough to read anyway. You’d have mud on your dress. There’s nothing here”. His palm on my thigh, hard. Not a caress.
My fingers in the meat, the pastry to the side, the bloody strings. “It’s dry in the park, we should go there tomorrow and read the paper, you’ll see. It’s quite lovely, on the right day.”
“You were seeing him.” Not even a question this time, not even a chance at a denial. “You were seeing him, and you didn’t think that I’d figure it out”.
“Seeing who?” I asked, and this time I washed my fingers and dried my hands because I couldn’t fight with bloodied palms. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Joe, why are you so angry?”
“I don’t like being lied to,” he said, and he was so close, his face above mine like a moon, close and far, not even looking at me, but above my head and through the garden and further.
“I’m not lying,” I said, and I put a hand on his arm, damp against the white cotton. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, but I promise I wouldn’t lie.”
He took his hand and lifted mine, dropping it like a tea towel. He looked down at me then, but it was still like the garden, there was no focus. “Don’t lie to me again,” he said, and he left the kitchen and left the house, closing the door quietly behind him.
I followed him to the doorway and watched him walk down the street, briskly. He might have been going anywhere, but I thought probably to the pub, where he could hunch up to the brown bar and talk about sport, or not talk, and certainly not think about his wife. I locked the door. I threw the meat in the bin. I went and sat in the sun. That was the first time, that I remember.