We had been married for almost one year and the marriage was not a happy one. As our anniversary approached, the Twin Towers were attacked in New York and the horror of the rolling news coverage kept us both pinned to the sofa, watching open-mouthed, united in a temporary ceasefire.
But the pictures of the white ash and the heartbreaking reports of the last phone conversations moved from the front pages to the middle pages of the newspapers. Life began again and my husband began to abuse me again.
He did not hit me very often. I think he hit me five times in our four years together. What he did was this: he told me every day that I was stupid. He shouted at me every day for my failure to perform domestic tasks to his standard.
Regularly he would look at me with an expression of genuine wonder and say “I have no idea why I’m with you. You are so ugly and boring.” Once, he locked me in the bathroom because I had not cleaned it well enough, and I could hear my baby crying downstairs for two hours.
After 9/11 happened I suddenly had the panicky sense that life was short and I could not waste more time being sad and afraid. I had thought of leaving him before, but now I planned to go. The problem was, I had no money. I had a job but my husband made me pay him rent to live in his house and I had to buy everything for our daughter, so I never had anything left.
On the day after our first wedding anniversary, my husband told me that he had lost his wedding ring and that he believed it was a sign that our marriage should end. I said that I agreed with him. This was a mistake: I should have cried and begged to stay, because then he might have thrown me out.
My husband told me that I was ungrateful to him for the life he provided for our daughter and me. That he had saved me from the usual fate of a teenaged mother. That this lack of gratitude was another example of my stupidity. And then he held me around my neck and lifted me up the wall.
I was too shocked for it to hurt, but I knew that it was the last straw. It was the bruises, you see. There was no way, after this, that I would not have bruises on my neck. It was September and balmy, but I would have to go to work in scarfs and polo necks, and I would be that woman. I would be pitied. Suddenly, I couldn’t bear it.
In my turtleneck t-shirt the next day I went to my bank during my lunch hour. I asked for a personal loan of two thousand pounds. I said that I wanted to buy a car. It was frighteningly easy. The money was given to me immediately and I felt foolish for not thinking of it before.
After the bank, I went to the only rental agency in my small town. I asked to rent the cheapest flat they had. It did not have any form of heating, but it did have high ceilings and pretty windows. Even better, the landlady did not mind renting to a working student with a toddler. I signed the agreement that same day. The deposit was six hundred pounds.
I had fourteen hundred pounds left with which to buy beds for me and my daughter, a washing machine, a kitchen table, chairs and pots and pans and towels. It felt like a fortune.
I bought everything secondhand apart from the beds. I did this in secret when I should have been working. My colleague, Lena, did my work for me so that I could plan my escape. I was so grateful to her but she said “It’s nothing. You take your baby and you get out of there.” Lena was a tough talker and she smoked all day in the office, which I hated, but I loved her at that moment.
I left my husband on a Saturday when he was at work. My friend watched my little girl for me and my dad took me in his blue van to collect all of our clothes and books and my daughter’s toys. I did not have many things and we only had to do one trip.
As we drove away my dad said to me “Don’t turn round. Don’t look back. You’ll remember this journey one day and you’ll see it as the point your life began. I’m so proud of you.”
In our new flat my friend helped me winch a secondhand sofa over the balcony and my daughter put all her toys in a row on her new bed. We had plates of chips at the pub down the road. I felt full of a strange energy, as though I’d been for a run on a hot day. I think that it was optimism, but I had not felt optimistic in such a long time, so I didn’t recognise it.
When it got dark I put my little girl to bed and locked the door. I lay on my stomach on the carpet in the sitting room to read. I was reading a book by Maggie O’Farrell. I remember the pale green cover of that book so clearly.
As I lay there, I realised slowly that the whole flat was silent, and the door was locked, and no one would come in unless I said they could come in. No one was going to unlock the door and start shouting at me. I could put a used plate on the work surface near the sink and no one would tell me I was an idiot for not washing it and then smash the plate.
It took many weeks before I believed in the new reality. A lot longer before I would describe anything I felt as ‘happiness’. I was empty inside for a long time.
But that first night, lying on rented carpet in a nearly-empty room — that was the first time I truly exhaled for many months. The relief of it was like a steamroller. I felt weak and giddy and I could see the distant outline of something that looked like contentment.