Friday 24 May 2019

Rear View Mirror

by Paula R C Readman 

Ting with a Sting (a St. Kitts drink from the West Indies. Rum & grapefruit soda.)

The journey I am on might not have happened, if it had not been for a couple of coincidences. Firstly, Alex’s phone lay as dead as a dodo in the kitchen charging.  The second came after I had shown Alex’s work colleagues into the living room for their monthly meeting and carrying in a tray of refreshments. As soon as everyone had their drinks, Alex dismissed me from the room.
I hastened back to the kitchen to catch up on household chores. By chance, I was standing at the kitchen sink filling a jug ready to water some tomato seedlings I had potted on, when I saw the light on the kitchen phone flash red, alerting me to an incoming call. I snatched it up before it had time to ring. Alex hated any interruptions once the meeting had begun so I had disconnected the landline in the living room as a precaution.
“Hello yes,” I whispered.
“Good morning. This is a courtesy call from the garage.Your car is now ready to be collected,” said a pleasant, but authoritative voice.
Suddenly, the opportunity I had been waiting for arrived. I glanced towards the closed living room door, fearing Alex could hear the relief racing through my body.
“If it’s possible you could collect it now? We’ve a backlog of cars waiting to be collected?”
A burst of laughter echoed into the kitchen, making the skin on my arms crawl. I froze with apprehension. Now the drinks are flowing nicely maybe I have enough time. Alex would be entertaining for quite a while. As the voices softened, returning to a light easy chatter they seemed almost alien to me in their gentleness.
“Hello, are you still there?” the voice demanded in my ear.
“Yes,” I said firmly, my decision made. “I’ll come now.” 
After hanging up, I crept slowly upstairs. My thoughts raced as I wiped the back of my hand across my cheek in an effort to stop the tears. With no time to rationalise my situation, I needed to remain focused on the moment. It broke my heart the thought of running away from the only home I have known.
The sudden death of my parents meant I had to work hard to pay off the mortgage to make it my own. Yet, the pain I had endured at their loss was more bearable than the physical abuse I was suffering now that had finally broken me.
The only option left open to me was to skulk away like a beaten dog. With my heart thumping as I pulled my hidden overnight bag down from the top of the wardrobe and swung it onto the bed.
As I did so, I caught sight of the framed photo on the dresser next to the mirror. Taken only seven years ago, it depicted us standing on a golden beach, dressed in our wedding finery and locked in an eternal embrace, smiling into the lens, our eyes bright with love and happiness.
Stunned I was unable to recognise the person reflected in the mirror.The harsh dark lines under my brown eyes, the tightness across my brow and my sunken cheeks set my nerves on edge.  In my head I heard the echoes of Alex’s jarring, unforgiving voice.
“You’ve no backbone. God only knows, what I saw in you, Harper.”

Seven years ago, everything had been so perfect, so beautiful. Alex’s gentleness had been a sweet joy, but where had it all gone?
I rubbed the small dark circles of unfathomable pain that scarred the back of my hands and ran up my arms. They serve as a reminder of why I was leaving. I checked the holdall again to make sure I had everything I needed.
Another burst of laughter echoed up the stairs. I shot out onto the balcony and tossed the bag into a shrub below. Back in the bedroom, I inhaled deeply, mentally searching for a friend, someone I could speak to, maybe put me up for a few days, but there was no one.
As a couple, we shared everything apart from the pain. I am certain that my so-called friends would not understand the situation I found myself in as much as it is unbelievable to me. I have no doubt that they would find it hilarious. Oh, how they would laugh and mock me. “Harper, where’s your backbone?”
With the utmost care, I went back into the kitchen. Slipping into the garage, I collected the rest of my secret stash before retrieving the bag from garden. At the bottom of the garden, hidden by trellising, I climbed over the locked gate and dropped into the alley that led to the main road to collect the car.

Once I had settled the garage bill, I filled the car with petrol. On checking the rear view mirror, I moved out into the busy morning traffic. As I accelerated, my mind screamed at me. What the hell are you doing! You have nowhere to go!
 All I possessed was now was an old car and a bag. At the next roundabout, I decided to head for home. Panic gripped me. Could I get back in without Alex knowing? Would there be a scene?
I gripped the steering wheel,focusing on the oncoming traffic waiting for a break in the flow.  I caught sight of the dark cigarette burns marking my arms and hands.  A small voice of reason crept into my skull.
“There’s no one to save your sanity but you, Harper!”

Eight years seemed like a lifetime ago, when Alex first walked into my life. My mates couldn’t believe how lucky I was, and neither could I
I wasn’t anyone special. Yeah, I had a good job, drove a decent car, owned a nice house, but I’m not what some would call, ‘flashy’. Part of my upbringing, I guess. My parents were simple, hard-working folk from the West Indies. Mother always said ‘Love is more important than material things.’
As I was an only child, my parents were able to overindulge me, but not once did either of them raise a hand to me. I was not perfect, what child is. With both of them working long hours at a local hospital, home life was a little fraught at times when they came in tired. Tempers a little frayed, especially mother’s after constantly being positive, polite and happy. The only punishment they saw fit to bestow on me was sending me to my room without a television.
I can’t begin to explain to anyone what Alex has done to me. How loving someone soon turned into a weapon of self-destruction. How every uttered word she said carried a double-edged sword straight into my heart.

I glanced into the rear view mirror ready to pull out to overtake, and caught sight of the scar above my left eye. Suddenly, I’m back in the moment when a plate caught me on the side of my face. It was the first time Alex showed me there was a dark side to her. 
I stood frozen to the spot as blood trickled down my face a second before the pain kicked in. I’m not sure what horrified me most; the amount of blood or the fear of losing my eye, but what cut me the deepest was the coldness of her words.
“I saw that look of betrayal in your dark eyes. Don’t ever let me see it again,” she said slamming the kitchen door as she went back to her guests leaving me to clear up the mess. I heard her laughter as she explained my clumsiness.
Not one for making a scene, I didn’t protest my innocence, but sat alone in the kitchen feeling confused, holding a bloodied napkin to my face, staring one eyed at the remains of the meal as I questioned my behaviour. Had I chatted too long with Maureen, smiled or laughed too much. What else could I have done? The woman was seated opposite me. Should I have ignored her when she spoke to me?

On one occasion, I had been peacefully asleep after coming off a long night shift. The next moment I was wide-awake in agony and covered in blood.  Alex stood over me holding her red stiletto shoe, looking pleased with herself.
“What’s wrong with you, Alex?” I had asked holding the sheet to the side of my face, knowing she had split open the recently healed wound. For a fleeting moment, I wondered how I was going to explain away my clumsiness to my work colleagues. 
“Get your lazy ass off the bed,” she snarled her ice-blue eyes no more than nigrescent slits. “If you think you can laze around all day while I’m working, you’re darn crazy. I’m expecting a clean house and my dinner on the table when I get home. It’s good that you get a taste of the crap us women have to deal with daily.”
That was just the start of it. What could I do? It’s not as if I could talk to my work colleagues about it.
“You what? What sort of man are you? God, if she was my wife I would hit her back.”
Hit her back? And what would that make me?
Night after night,I asked myself why?  Why had she felt the need to abuse our loving relationship? What had I done?

Now I’m on the road to nowhere,leaving Alex and my old life behind. For the first time in a long time, I had made a decision for myself. Though, I’m devastated at the thought of breaking all the promises I made.
It seems like a lifetime ago when I asked Alex to marry me.What a fool she must have taken me for, but I truly believed I could give her the security she seemed to crave. After listening to her sad tales of a broken childhood, unfaithful lovers and the abuse she suffered, all I wanted to do was give her a loving home, and when the time came, our children too. Now I’m not so sure what happened to the promises we made on our wedding day.
I tried to understand it from her point of view.  It had hit me hard been made redundant, to lose the only thing that kept some sanity in my life. As a fire fighter, I was there to help others in their moment of need.  Then along came the Government’s cutbacks to destroy the only thing that kept me sane.
I know for sure if Alex had lost her job, I would’ve supported her through the free fall when self-doubt robs you of your confidence.

I accelerated wanting more distance between my pain and a new future.  I began to focus on what I wanted from life. I still love Alex, but what’s the point of staying when I’m no longer the person she said ‘I do’ to all those years ago.
Humiliation wears you down. The difficulty I have is why others do not see the pain I 'm carrying.
I was constantly checking myself as Alex questions everything. She scrutinised dates, times and facts, adding to my misery. At first, I blamed myself for everything, even the loss of my job, and the fact I was unable to find another. After years of long night shifts, I wanted time out to pursue other avenues. It wasn’t as if we couldn’t afford it.
“What do you need another job for when you have a perfectly good one here?”
I stared open mouthed, nervous about questioning her logic.
Her eyes narrowed as her lips thinned. “Well, Harper isn’t it what you men expect of us women, to stay at home and be subservient to you.”
“Never!” I said, believing us to be like my parents. Their marriage had been like a partnership, working together to create harmony in the home.
“You thought I was going to be like your mother!”she spat the words out. “Don’t make me laugh. Me staying at home doing menial jobs like domestic chores.” She leant forward, her face taut with rage. “Why, Harper, should I keep a dog and bark myself. After all you told me you would look after me. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“But I…” I trailed off, knowing if I questioned her logic, I would suffer more. The side of my face ached as the tension in the back of my head grew. I lowered my eyes.
“Good,” she said extending her hand, her fingertips seeming to burn my arm. I felt myself flinch and step back, but she still caught the side of my face with her other hand.
“You’re such a wimp, Harper. You should man up. Now haven’t you got something you should be doing?”
Oh, I so wanted to hit back, but I knew the moment I did my world would cave in. I would be the one the police took away.
It seemed such an insane situation when I believed in equality for all to find myself with no one to turn to for help.The soundtrack in my head constantly reminds me ‘there must be fifty ways to leave your lover, but all I needed was just one desperate bid for freedom.

Tired, hungry, and homeless, I stood a little fearful before a blue-chipped door. I hoped for compassion or at least someone who understood what I had been through without judgment.
Months ago, I’d been given a password by a small organisation I’d discovered online. But until now the opportunity hadn’t arose for me to be able to use it. Was it still valid?
How crazy it all seemed for a man of my stature to be broken like a beaten dog shaking before a door. My hand trembled as I reached for the bell.Anything could happen to me now, and no one would be any the wiser. 
Somewhere deep within the building a bell echoed. On realising, I was still pressing the doorbell I stepped back.

The door opened.  A young woman with a bright smiling face greeted me with a happy, “Hello, how can I help you?”
Fear welled up in me as I heard myself apologising. I muttered, “Looking Glass?”
The smile dropped from the young woman’s face. She stepped forward and peered up and down the street. With a hurried gesture, she said, “Come in,”
I stepped into a narrow corridor.
“Harper Newman?”
“Hello. We’ve been expecting you. I’m Nicky.”
My legs slid beneath me. Seated on the floor with my back against the wall, I sobbed uncontrollably. A hand touched my shoulder and I involuntarily pulled away.
“It’s all right you’re among friends,” she said. The door opened behind her and a tall lean black man entered the hall.
“Harper, this is Markus, he’ll show you to your room. When you’re ready, we’ll talk.”
Markus helped me to my feet. Within his eyes, I saw the same lines of pain that mirrored my own. With a nod, he acknowledged what I had been through and that he understood how I was feeling. At last, I had escaped not only my abuser, but also the fear that I was alone. 

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