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