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by John Brackenridge 

Posted: 30 April 2008
Word Count: 3143

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Content Warning
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

She still had hope, thoughts flowing around her mind at times like these, easing and soothing, buffering against the darkness and anxiety. Each day she delved deeper to remember, the bright hazy sunlight that seemed to come with every memory, memories that faded the harder she tried to embrace them. When the darkness came, shrouding those memories, she fought and fought so hard she felt her head aching with the effort. And the fight became physical, when he was not there, she pulled at her hair, dug her nails into her wrists, screaming silently into the sleeves bunched in her fists, in the place she normally went, at the end of the garden, on the bench under the tree.

Maria moved as she heard the gravel crunch on the driveway outside, moving towards the kitchen door, unwrapping the tea towel dappled with tiny spots of blood from her wrist. Overlong grass snatched at her feet, crossing the lawn, stepping across the patio, listening first for the sound of the engine dying, then the car door and the rattle of keys and he would be home from work.

She made it onto the darkened lino floor, the tea towel shoved with shaking hands behind the washing machine by the door as she moved into place behind the ironing board, steam rising from the iron as it rested. She reached for a shirt, white with pockets on the breast and cotton epaulettes buttoned onto the shoulders. Easing the shirt across the paisley pattern of the ironing board, she heard the lock turning, and the keys being dropped into the bowl as he came into the house.

Her hand gripped the handle of the iron, as, with haste, she sprayed a fine jet of water across the shirt. She could feel the fingers of her other hand, the nails digging into the underside of the ironing board, pressing back into the flesh underneath. Flinching, she heard the door to the front room open, the handle banging against the thin partition wall that separated the two rooms, and the sound of a football match begin. Carefully she rested the iron upright, winding the flex around the base as she did so and released it, her fingers retreating into her palms. She stood, the ironing board as a defence, a metal structure lying between her and the open kitchen door that led out into the hallway.

Maria shuffled back, moving instinctively away from the gap, stepping back from the ironing board and sitting on a chair that stood next to the kitchen table. Her hand eased open, lying on top of the table cloth, laundered, immaculate. Her eyes looked down at the red moon shaped marks left by her fingernails in the flesh of her palms. She could hear him moving back from the front room, and could hear as his keys were dragged from the bowl. Deep down somewhere inside, she hoped he was leaving again, believed she could imagine the sound of the front door creaking open and slamming shut. Wishing that he would be away somewhere, to the pub, the off-licence, back to work, anywhere. Away. Away from here. As quickly as her vivid imaginings passed through her wounded mind they were cut short and forgotten in the instant she heard him move back into the front room and heard the rattle of the keys in the cupboard he kept there. The cupboard where he locked the phone away, unplugged whenever he was out, and locked away to stop her doing whatever he believed she would do.

She heard the movement as the phone was taken out, the sound of the cupboard closing, locking, and the grunt he made as he bent to the socket, then silence. A silence she joined him in, as both sat in their respective rooms, the phone alive again, as both sat waiting as though they expected it to ring straight away, for that urgent call to come through, for the call to make everything better, to make it all go away. But the only ringing was the ringing in her ears, as the silence brought it’s own fears, and she waited.

Some kind of time passed, and Maria looked up towards the clock hanging above the calendar. She noticed the dried blood marks across her wrists, covering the old scars, merging with the new. She pulled at the sleeve of her dress, alternating hands, stretching the material to cover the evidence of her weakness. Her own weakness, the sign that she was letting him down, causing him to do what he did, no matter how many chances she had been given. Water gushed from the hot tap as she forced first one wrist then the other under the stream, scrubbing at the marks, washing away the dried blood as steam rose from the bowl. but still scrubbing, forcing the scourer into the scars until the blood came again and swirled into the water.

She stopped as he hailed her from the front room, calling for a beer to be brought, a can to be taken from the fridge which he expected to be there, and to be cold. She could feel the anxiety rush up through her body, heat rising behind her neck as her hands, shaking, pulled kitchen roll from the dispenser, wrapping it around her lower arms. He called again, louder, as her dress sleeves fought against her efforts to cover what she had done, to do just enough to stop him noticing.

The fridge door opened, and she saw the one can of beer standing alone on the shelf. Looking behind, she saw the case sitting on the side by the window, the rest of the cans, the ones she had got that afternoon, still ensconced in plastic, warming under the last light of the day. The wave of trepidation came from the back of her throat, the fear she could taste so familiar to be like a recurring nightmare of childhood, but without the escape of a loving parent to promise her it would all be alright and that it wasn’t real.

His bellow echoed from the hallway, a third request that she knew would his last. Reaching into the fridge she opened that last can, pouring the contents into his favourite glass, washed and polished, the badge of the local football team highlighted against the amber liquid flowing behind. She caught the foam as it began to ease over the sides, mopping up, and wiping it away from the rim. Picking up a coaster from the table as she passed, Maria walked from the kitchen and towards the front room.

She stood in the doorway, her figure between the light and the darkness of the room in front of her, the walls reflecting the colours and sounds of the television in the corner. He sat sprawled across the sofa, eyes fixed on the glow, the telephone cradled in his lap. She moved carefully into his lair, heading for the table positioned in front of the sofa, exchanging her delivery for the empty can of lager already in place. She noticed two more cast into the waste paper bin, and knew that he had brought home lager of his own. The fourth would have been gripped between his thighs as he drove home from work, from the job that he hated, and the job that hated him.

She stopped her retreat as his eyes turned from the TV and squinted up towards her. “What you doing now?”

She stood still, the sleeves of her dress held in place by her fingers turned into a fist. She could feel the padded kitchen roll pressing at the material, sure it could be seen. “I was just going to finish the ironing.”

He watched her, almost rising up onto one elbow, then thinking better of it. “Hurry up with the bloody beer next time.”

She stood silhouetted in the doorway, waiting for his implied consent to leave, which was given as he eased back into the sofa, eyes turning back to the corner of the room. She stepped into the hallway and silently fled back into the kitchen, tearing at the plastic around the case of beer, a feeling of nausea revolving in her chest as she felt the warm metal. Carrying the first four, she tore open the freezer door, pulling packed meat onto the floor to make way. She forced the cans into the freezer door, and pushed the door shut. Thoughts rushed from her head as she willed the cans cold, the clock ticking getting louder and louder until it echoed inside her head. Putting the remaining cans into the fridge, she folded the cardboard in two, pushing it into the bin as she flicked the switch to bring the iron back to life.

She pulled another shirt across the ironing board, and began the smooth methodical movements across the material, a semblance of normality, an actor in her farcical efforts to engineer the home life she had always imagined. A slight smile touched her lips, the lines beside her eyes creased, as she remembered her games as a little girl, playing home with her friend from down the road. Taking turns with the pretend cooker, making tea and carefully pouring from the plastic teapot. She remembered the small ironing board her mother had bought her, a miniature copy of the one resting in the kitchen at home. Small enough for a young girl to iron her dolls clothes, kneeling in her bedroom, oblivious.

And oblivious she was, lost in her memories again, too far away to hear the volume go down on the TV next door. Snapping awake, she heard him moving from the sofa, his boots thudding on the floor next door, getting louder, moving towards the hallway. In one movement she was around the ironing board, her hands reaching for the freezer door. She could think of nothing but the warmth of the beer cans, the ones that should have been left chilling ever since she bought them home this morning, the ones that would still be warm, still warm because of her. He came into the kitchen as she slipped in the small pool of water left by the meat she had dropped onto the floor, the four cans taken from the freezer, almost cold, dropped onto the lino beside her.

“I’ve got your beer, I was just bringing another through to you, do you want a beer? You do don’t you? Something to eat? I’ve got them here, I’ll bring them through.” She spoke without comprehension, just responding to his presence, phrases spluttering from her lips as she pulled herself up by the freezer door and work surface. Phrases she had used before. Words strung together as an act of appeasement. An act of surrender.

Maria felt his presence, absorbing the space between the doorframe. She stood, the four pack of beer hanging from her fingers, suspended by plastic, and turned her face towards him. She focused on his chest, saw the crumpled white shirt, noticed the packet of cigarettes pressing against the material of the breast pocket. Almost without thinking, almost but not quite, she moved backwards into the kitchen, back behind the ironing board. Putting an inanimate object between her and her husband who stood mute in the doorway.

“What the fuck are you doing?” She flinched, instantaneously noticing the slur to his words as she smelt the burning of the material spread in front of her. Her hand snatched the iron from the burning hole it left behind, an iron-shaped space where the back of his work shirt used to be.

Then he came.

Crashing into the ironing board, his weight sent her backwards across the floor, her back striking the kitchen table. She saw the ironing board horizontal in front of her, his legs stumbling through the maze of metal underneath as he came at her. She forced the balls of her hands into the floor, her feet pulling up to her thighs, trying to rise, trying to escape somewhere. Her head struck the arch of the table leaves as she felt his hand grab her by the top of her dress, snatching at the material, his shouts drowned out with her screams as he punched her. Her arms came across her face, a token effort of defence against the blows raining down around her head and face, interspersed with kicks to her legs as she struggled.

Maria felt herself switch to somewhere else, felt that she was no longer part of herself, that the body being battered was no longer hers, just an object she had some kind of attachment to. The blood came down her face, stinging her eyes, her tongue tasting the bitter salt. She felt distant, wondering if it was really this time, this time that he would really finish her off for good. And the thoughts that came to Maria as she succumbed were that he would because he knew how to do it.

And then she fell to the floor, her body angled around the table leg, as he stepped back and stood above her. The back of her hand lying next to her face felt her hair matted in blood stuck to her cheek. She could hear him breathing, gasping for breath, the sounds merging with the pounding in her ears. She tried to move her eyes around, to see where he was, but tensed again as she heard him swallow air, gulping and retching mucus. As he spat, she heard the one step towards her, and tensed as his hands came down and wrapped around her face, his fingers entwining with her hair, and pulling her up, the whole weight of her body being dragged across the floor by the hair on her head.

What energy remained came back, and she screamed as the thousand points of pain discharged across her skull. Her arms and legs angled manically, randomly, as she fought to escape. She could feel her arms swinging, her balled fists connecting with his body as he turned her away from him, and forced her across the sink. Two, three, four times he slammed her forehead against the taps, pulling her head back by the hair, further back each time.

Suddenly she was released, left hanging over the sink, her hands wrapped around the cold and hot taps, holding herself up. She felt him still in the room, stepping back from her. She could hear him breathing, wiping his hands across his face, wiping the sweat onto his shirt. And she remembered that he said something like, “You think I’m finished? You think I’m finished with you you stupid fucking bitch!” as she heard the snap or ping from behind her and then she felt pain like she’d never felt before as he pressed the hot iron onto her thigh, burning through her dress in an instant. She felt pain and then it ended. He left the room, stumbling backwards, as she slid to the floor without moving.

* * *

PC Hazlitt sat in the back of the ambulance as the paramedic attended to the woman opposite.

The door was found wide open, no car on the drive. No-one else there, all the neighbouring houses in darkness. Hazlitt knew the house. Remembered it. It was always a contentious address because of who lived there, what they did for a living.

He remembered finding her there, seeing the state of the kitchen, looking at the body lying face down at his feet. Bending, he had gone for a pulse, his fingers sliding through the hair, blood smears across her cheeks. He felt something, the pumping of life in her neck and stepped back, his calls to her getting no response. The ambulance had arrived not long afterwards, and he had watched as they worked at her, the crew angled across her body, their intensity contrasting with his helplessness and the feeling of cold anger he remembered building inside him.

After a while she was carried out on a stretcher. Hazlitt followed, speaking quickly to the other officer manning the door. He lifted the police tape stretched across the driveway, holding it for the stretcher bearers, then he ducked underneath, following her to the ambulance. He could see people outside, standing by their front doors, a neighbour paused with her hand to her mouth as they passed.

The paramedic moved to the front and began speaking to the driver. Hazlitt placed his hat on the seat beside him, dropping his pocket book inside it. He looked at the figure prone before him. He could see her looking at him, her swollen eyes moving inside sunken sockets. He felt her flinch as he took her hand, remnants of blood across the fingers. He could feel the anger coming again, and felt that his hands were shaking. He placed her hand carefully back beside her.

"It's Maria isn't it?" He felt himself bending forward, then eased back so she wouldn't feel crowded or overwhelmed or threatened. He thought he saw her eyelids lower, ever so slightly. He took this as acknowledgment of her name.

"You're going to be okay, you understand that? You’re safe now. I promise you, you are safe now." He saw her eyes roving around, the eyeballs moving within their swollen surrounds. It seemed like she was trying to speak, but couldn't focus her energy.

He paused and sat back. He looked behind him, watching the roads pass as the ambulance drove carefully towards the general hospital. He formed his words inside his head, made sure what he said was right first time. "You realise this is the last time don't you? You know what I mean by that?" He felt her hand in his again, careful not to squeeze and hurt her more.

"We're going to go after him for this. I don't care who he is or what he does for a living. I'm going to make sure he gets locked up for doing this to you, whatever happens. He can't do this to you Maria."

As Maria lay in the ambulance, she felt a strange calm about her. She could see the man opposite. She could see the man not the uniform, and she felt safe. With a feeling so unusual, she realised that it wasn’t her fault after all. She was not to blame for what had happened tonight. She was not to blame for what had happened on all the other nights. She knew that he was what he was, but as she looked across at the man with her, the man who had found her and taken her away, and knew that he was a good man. And as she drifted away, Maria knew that it would never happen again.

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Comments by other Members

Nella at 14:37 on 30 April 2008  Report this post
Hi John,
I found this to be another pretty disturbing story - like Darren's from yesterday. But basically a good story.
I wondered about the opening paragraph, felt it didn't hook me enough right away. And I wondered if the reader would get into the story more immediately if you started with the second para?
Just an idea.
The sentences of the 1st para all have a similar structure, i.e. long with many commas. I thought that made it a little monotone. Maybe you could break a couple of them up so as to give more variety? For example this one:
And the fight became physical, when he was not there, she pulled at her hair, dug her nails into her wrists, screaming silently into the sleeves bunched in her fists, in the place she normally went, at the end of the garden, on the bench under the tree.
I don't think this works well, grammatically speaking. If you were to use a full stop after "physical", then I think the rest of the sentence would work better.

washing away the dried blood as steam rose from the bowl. but still scrubbing, forcing the scourer into the scars until the blood came again and swirled into the water
Should that be a comma after "bowl"?

I would have liked to know what they did do for a living??!! That very intriguing question wasn't answered. Or did I just not understand something?

P.J. at 22:10 on 30 April 2008  Report this post
John, I agree with Robin about the commas and the need to know his job but the bit that jarred for me was
She still had hope,

This told me that the end would be a good one, whatever the story. But when I read on, I wondered what that hope was about - that she wouldn't get beaten again? That her husband would change? That she was intending to kill him or escape? Her fear was so great, her situation so terrible, surely she was beyond hope?
Perhaps the word hope could be changed for something with the same meaning, but what that could be I have no idea. Perhaps I have simply failed to understand.
Then I wondered how the policeman knew to go there, had the neighbours reported hearing screams?
The story itself was disturbing but so very believable.

John Brackenridge at 06:25 on 01 May 2008  Report this post
Thanks for the comments. I agree re the first paragraph, and will fiddle with it! The full stop after bowl was a typo I'm afraid. Read it over and over but missed the obvious!
The issue of her having hope is a difficult one. I think she must have some kind of hope to remain in the situation she's in. Hope that her life will get better in some way. It's a question everyone asks about domestic violence, ie why do they put up with it and not leave etc. I think the victims always convince themselves things will improve despite what seems obvious to outsiders.
What he does for a living. I have my own idea, but I wanted to leave it open to add some kind of menace I suppose. The issue of who the man is outside the home, someone who's profession is an issue to the policeman, suggests that Maria is even more vulnerable. The re-assurances given in the ambulance are meant to show the policeman as an individual is willing to take on the husband on Maria's behalf.

tusker at 14:37 on 01 May 2008  Report this post
Agree with the others regarding some grammatical errors but your story, though horrific, drew me on. Your character, is like so many abused women who endure brutality. Their self esteem has been eroded by years of abuse. They blame themselves. They feel shame. They hope their partners will change. I wanted to kill the swine. This could be a bigger story, leading onto? Well, you've got my imagination started now, John, and it's your story. Great writing.


Becca at 19:18 on 05 May 2008  Report this post
Hell, John.
I can't tell you how glad I am that she had finally come to the realisation. It takes a long time apparently.
I thought it very clever the way everything was focused on the warm beer and all that would mean. I thought, also, that the section on her girlhood, and how she played out the grownup thing of being a wife person, was excellent. Another very chilling facet was the fact that he was, for the most part, in a different room, it added remarkably to the tension. You never knew, as reader, when he was going to come in.
This feels very authentic, and it's hideous. I do wonder, though, if it is quite right for a short story. As reader, I wanted to SEE the man dealt with - because of the strength of the writing in the first section. Also the introduction of PC Hazlitt, and his big feelings about the woman's condition was something else I wanted to know more about.
I do love it when writers tackle difficult things, as you did in your story about the boy and his mother.

Becca at 19:32 on 05 May 2008  Report this post
If it's of any use to you, the cycle that often occurs in DV situations, is that the man later begs for forgiveness and says he can't live without her, and she, being so annihilated mentally, falls for it yet again. It takes on average 30 semi-attempts to leave before she finally does. It's the mental state of both people that keeps it going on. [I used to work for Victim Support, which is why I know these things].
You might know this psychology, but someone reading it might not. Would it not add huge poignancy, and at the same time explain the woman's 'insistance' on staying if you added this typical scene? Also, maybe, just add a touch more to what his job is -- I took on board the epaulettes on his shirt 'She reached for a shirt, white with pockets on the breast and cotton epaulettes buttoned onto the shoulders.'
This is the kind of story I call 'urban horror'- meaning true horror - no worn out fantasy characters. But to explore it thoroughly in all its complexity, the begging for forgiveness is something to consider.

John Brackenridge at 18:12 on 09 May 2008  Report this post
Interesting comments Becca. This is actually a chapter from a book I've completed which is currently being 'considered' by a publisher. What the man does for a living is more apparent from previous chapters. I thought it might work as a short story, so gave it a run! I find the whole DV issue fascinating, and have dealt with the consequences of it as part of my real job. It is a hidden problem, with most of the reports being made to police coming from third parties. It is a standard belief that the victim doesn't really want to leave the other party when they don't support prosecutions, and stay in the family home. Very difficult one to know the answer to, but I think it is always worth discussion.

Becca at 07:19 on 10 May 2008  Report this post
... and having children complicates it hugely.

Buzzard at 20:02 on 12 May 2008  Report this post
I'm afraid I have a problem with this, not because I'm anti stories of domestic violence but because I don't feel I've got anything out of it other than the experience of watching it happen. Domestic violence is awful. I know that already. If I'm going to give time over to reading a story about it, I need to come away with something more than I had before - insight into the psychology of either party, for instance. I need to be made to feel something other than the repulsion for the perpetrator and sympathy for the victim that any decent person is going to feel anyway.

I want a writer to keep me interested by using a variety of skills and devices, shifts of tone and pace, etc. suspense and surprise . . . I'm afraid, pretty much from the off with this piece I thought, 'Oh, she's going to get a pasting,' and that's exactly what happened, with none of the details spared. So, I'm afraid the writing seemed almost as gratuitous as the act it described.

Sorry to be so harsh, but better I think (hope!) to be honest. I've just read what the others wrote, and nobody seems bothered by that aspect, so maybe it is just me. Sorry, John, but for my money, if I'm going to be put through an unpleasant experience I've got to get something out of it, and I'm afraid I just didn't get that with this.

All the best

Nella at 08:05 on 13 May 2008  Report this post
I don't feel I've got anything out of it other than the experience of watching it happen.

I think this is an important point. And articulates thoughts I fuzzily described as "the story is disturbing". I don't want to watch violent movies or read violent stories just for the sake of the violence. There has to be something deeper, more meaningful, in a movie, book, story, music, whatever, that makes it worth my while. If I want to know about the horrors of the world, I can read the newspaper.
I'm not saying this well. Of course there is a need to point out the horrors of the world in literature, and there are a lot of books that do it well, but there does have to be that other added something.

bjlangley at 10:08 on 13 May 2008  Report this post
Hi John, it's interesting to read that this is part of a longer piece, as, whilst on the whole it does work on its own, there are certain bits and pieces that leave you wondering if there's more to it, particularly when the PC is introduced, and there are suggestions that the husband is someone notable.

I think, from this section alone, it all seems rather inevitable, and whilst she has a sense of hope, I just don't see it myself. Even though at the end the PC tells her it will never happen again, I can't see how he can be so sure - but again, I figure that would come as part of the bigger picture.

All the best,


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