‘ Vic­tims of the abuse can look like gen­tle gi­ants. They can look like re­li­able men with big jobs’

The Irish Times Magazine - - FRONTLINES - JEN­NIFER O’CON­NELL

They were the nice cou­ple next door. He had a name that sug­gested he might be the kind of man to iron his py­ja­mas. Alas­tair or Rus­sell or Dou­glas. Some­thing brit­tle and pro­fes­sional and lanky. It suited him. Alas­tair or Rus­sell or Dou­glas wore a suit to work at the job that kept him away for long hours dur­ing the week. But on warm weekend af­ter­noons, you’d see his long back in a t- shirt in the gar­den, throw­ing a ball to his son. Or you’d smell the bar­be­cue smoke, and know he was home. He rarely said much, but he seemed like a solid pres­ence, some­one you could call on if there was a mys­te­ri­ous leak, a dis­tur­bance in the neigh­bour­hood, a pack­age gone astray.

She was like Princess Diana – a gleam­ing bob, Coach loafers, white denim stretched to ac­com­mo­date mus­cu­lar calves. She was charm­ing in that con­fi­dent, quick wit­ted, pri­vate school kind of way.

I met her out­side one hot day when I was vis­i­bly preg­nant and heav­ing shop­ping bags. “Oh my God, are you preg­nant?” she asked. “I hadn’t no­ticed. You must be fahk­ing mad.” Yes, there re­ally are peo­ple out there who pro­nounce it “fahk­ing”.

I de­cided I liked her in­stantly. “We must have a drink some­time,” she sug­gested. I imag­ined us stand­ing on ei­ther side of the fence, sip­ping Pimm’s.

“Cock­tails,” she said, as though she could read my mind. Then she glanced at the bump and wrin­kled her pretty nose. “Or maybe not.”

She cor­nered me one day on the street af­ter my nieces and neph­ews and a few other strays had been com­ing and go­ing over the weekend. “Ex­actly how many chil­dren do you have?” she asked, a touch icily.

They weren’t all mine, I ex­plained, they were nieces and neph­ews, and friend’s chil­dren, but it was too late. She had me down for a hip­pie, and that was it for the Pimm’s over the gar­den fence.

They had chil­dren too – a lit­tle girl and a smaller boy. A mini Diana and Dou­glas. They were hardy and blonde and tou­sled, like some­thing out of the Bo­den cat­a­logue. The Bo­dens are having a bar­be­cue, I’d think to my­self. I’d see them strap­ping a surf­board on to the car, and imag­ine the Bo­dens play­ing rounders on the beach, or grilling sausages on the baby We­ber, or putting the sun roof down and singing along to the Kaiser Chiefs on the drive home.

Their lives were glo­ri­ously, im­pos­si­bly per­fect. Per­fectly im­pos­si­ble.

Af­ter a while, her car stopped leav­ing in the morn­ing to go to work. I worked from home so I could hear them through the wall, her and mini Dou­glas. There had been no men­tion of cock­tails since she’d de­cided I was a hip­pie, but I hadn’t given up hope.

Even though we weren’t friends, I came to get the feel­ing from Diana that she was some­what am­bigu­ous about her life choices. “Do you ever wish you hadn’t ac­tu­ally had the lit­tle bug­gers?” she shouted at me one morn­ing, as we both left on the school run.

At 10.30 ev­ery morn­ing, lit­tle Dou­glas would cry for 30 min­utes. The first time, I thought maybe she hadn’t heard him, but there she was, in the gar­den, flick­ing through a magazine. She was sleep- train­ing him, I de­cided, even though he looked a bit old for a mid- morn­ing nap. Af­ter a few days of lit­tle Dou­glas’s hoarse wails, I started tak­ing my lap­top to a cof­fee shop at 10.20am.

Diana’s am­bi­gu­ity about her life choices be­gan rais­ing it­self at other hours, in­creas­ingly in the hours when the rest of the world is asleep. Their bed­room wall backed on to ours, so I got the kind of in­sight you don’t nor­mally get into other peo­ple’s mar­riages; the kind of in­sight you could do with­out.

Diana sus­pected Dou­glas of “fahk­ing” about with his PA. I don’t know how Dou­glas felt about this ac­cu­sa­tion be­cause, even in ex­tremis, he rarely said much. On and on she would go, about the life she didn’t sign up for, the kids she didn’t want, the hus­band who was un­faith­ful and weak. Thud. And whose fahk­ing PA could fahk­ing have him. Thud. Use­less p*** k. Thud. Had she thrown some­thing? Hit some­thing? Hit him? I didn’t know. He never made a sound. Never shouted or tried to pla­cate her. That was the worst part, the si­lence. You’d not have known he was there at all, ex­cept you’d see him in the gar­den the next morn­ing, word­lessly serv­ing pan­cakes to the kids at 7am. They moved away af­ter a while. Years passed, and I for­got about them, un­til I read an ar­ti­cle re­cently about how charm­ing men can make dan­ger­ous lovers. They can draw you in by be­ing lov­ing and charis­matic, it said.

But so too can charm­ing women. The thing about abusers is that they don’t al­ways look like abusers. They can look like a tiny Princess Diana in Coach loafers. The vic­tims of the abuse can look like gen­tle gi­ants. They can look like re­li­able men with big jobs who know their way around a bar­be­cue. They can look like me and you. They can look like the nice cou­ple next door.

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