He’s a strong, wicked man.
When you say you are moving in with him, we say It’s too soon, you don’t know him. You say “But I do.” You breathe him in and breathe us out. He tells you he wants to look after you. This idea captivates. You suppose he wishes your life to go well and he’ll be the one to see to it. He admires your hair, your eyes, your lips and most of all, your legs. It is too late when you realise he means “I want you to do as I tell you. I want obedience.”
Reading between the lines we float on wisps of air, watching. Someone says, “You must love him very much.” You say “Oh, yes. I do.”
The first thing you lose is your ability to recognise irony.
He is big, dark-haired, head-turning handsome. Is it just sex? we whisper. There is that, you say and shake your head. There’s so much more. We’re bound together by what we share, so many things in common: music, art, travel, books. All the trappings of lovers. We peer in close but can’t see it. Not even a glimpse. We curl our spinster lips fearing we may hear the word ‘soulmates’.
You lose the ability to recognise the truth of things.
He knows we are the enemy. We stay with you in his ancient stone house. It is bone-aching cold. You shiver, we shiver,. He says, “There’s something wrong with you. This house is warm enough.”
When your friend M visits, he is angry. Cursing. Shouting. She cries. “I don’t understand,” you say, and M cries harder. He laughs and says “What is M blubbering about?” We could tell him, but he doesn’t listen to our whisperings. When your cousin S is in the house it seems a fight might break out between the two men. S takes the train and heads home instead.
Things are quiet after that.
We watch and wait and regret the loss of your friends. They catch on quick that, while you are with the strong, wicked man, the welcome mat will never be outside your door for them
We see his gaze on your shiny stockings and your red lipstick and your hair curling over your shoulders. We hold our breath waiting for him to bite his lip and narrow his eyes..
He prowls and paces outside, while you stay in the house. He has a memory for each remark you’ve ever made to him. He drenches them in a fretful wash of indignation and recites them ad nauseum. You can’t recall any of the words he swears to God have dripped from your lips. Toxins abrading his soul. You protest. “I never said that!” But he shrugs and his grey eyes darken, and he stays silent for days until you think maybe you remember them after all. You say “Sorry, I didn’t realise…I didn’t mean…”
We shake our heads.
You want to please but it takes time to discover there will never be pleasing him. It’s not what suits. Smiling, not on his agenda. As for laughing— He wants what he wants and that is to make you pay and pay and pay for being yourself. For daring to question him. He won’t forget. He’s always on guard in case you question again.
We flinch when we hear his the taunts: you’re opinionated, a pain in the arse, a know-it-all. We nod and have to agree. Yep. You’re all of that. Sometimes.
He doesn’t like what you have to say about matters of the world or life. “Go and make a cup of tea,” he says.
Another thing you lose along the way is that wilful, spontaneous spark we always treasured.
He likes to play with you. He is your master and a maestro of trick-or-treat. You have a yen for sunshine and he takes you to a sunny place. You fall hard for the villa with the orange tree in the courtyard. The one with the white walls and blue tiled floors and wooden shutters and a breeze that sweeps in from the sea. “I will buy that for you,” he says. Oh no he won’t, we tell you. But you’ve stopped listening to us.
Once he is certain your dreaming is settled, he says, “No. I’ve changed my mind.”
You hide the hurt that rattles through your lost stargazing.
You want to make a garden out of the weeds. He says “Go ahead.” and stands watching while you bend your back and dig and pull and grow calluses on your hands as well as poppies and roses and lupins and peonies. We sit beside you on the grass. The gloaming sun casts a benevolent shine on your face, and lights dance in your hair. The flowers bloom pink and baby blue and white and sweet. We catch glimpses of the girl you used to be.
He likes seeing you work. Hard graft, he calls it. He has no time for the fragrance that springs from your toil. He plants potatoes.
His addiction is Blame. Without someone to blame for all things in the world that don’t suit him, he is jittery, silent, dark, wasted. Shouldering blame is your job. To say sorry and sorry again, and make sorry your mantra.
You try to figure out what irritates and what infuriates. We try and tell you that you will never succeed because it changes from day to day. You don’t listen to us. Sometimes the words “How are you this morning,” madden him. He hurls them back. “What do you care how I am?” You must learn the hard way. Like we all did.
You tread cautiously around him and study his unpredictability. You’ve learned criticism is his strong suit. You wake each morning next to a man whose sole aim is to relate your failings as loudly as possible, and tell you how much he disapproves of everything you’ve ever loved. We cover our ears; his words are hatpins stabbing us through the heart.
You learn that for all your education you haven’t learned much at all. You have nothing to say worth the saying. He tells you to Shut up, and you do, and you learn to speak only when spoken to.
No matter how much we whisper that all will be well and all manner of things will be well, you lose hope, your optimism gives way at the knees
You learn to cook the right way, to set the table just so, to warm the dinner plates, to serve the meal at the same striking of the clock each night.
Gathering brambles from the roadside you fall. There is pain, the teeth-grinding sort. Dollops of it. There’s no respite. There are raspberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries yet to pick. In the hard, cold winter you begin to atrophy. The kittens you rescued are gone, the garden disappears, the days are small, dark, gutless and lacking all inspiration. You sense your own vanishing.
The only anger you know bleeds into your self-blame.
We huddle together to keep warm and try to warm you with our breath and the sound of our curses. We remind you of your intelligence and your beauty. As always, you refuse to listen.
We cross our fingers and blow his fires out, make his teeth ache and his hair fall out, will him an itchy rash, make the dog fart under the table at night and the mice eat the element out of his toaster.
He blames you.
Once you’ve lost all joy, all humour, all grace and charm, you bore him to tears. At last he says, “Pack your bags and get out.”
He’s trained you well. You obey. He says you’ve broken his heart. He would have given you everything. You’ve never loved him.
When you come home to us we fold you in our arms. We feed you salted caramel cheesecake and make you laugh again.
And pray he doesn’t come after you.
Ann Erskine has qualifications in Psychology and a PhD in English Literature. Her short stories and poetry have been published in anthologies in Australia and overseas. Her non-fiction book The Sexual Politics of Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ is soon to be published in the UK. She lives in Bali, Indonesia.