Simply Woman & Home

The Bystander by Dorothy Koomson

Cruel words could crush a woman, as Dina knew. And the scene she was witnessing brought the past rushing back

- by Dorothy Koomson

His voice is quiet. Honey sweet and soft. And his words are violent as they brutally assault the woman sitting opposite him. I’m not the only one sitting near their table on this intercity train, watching as their relationsh­ip dynamic unfolds. But am I the only one who is so familiar with this she wants to step in and help?

2008

‘I swear, Dina, you don’t have a sense of humour any more,’ Tom told me. ‘That wasn’t funny,’ I murmured. He sighed. ‘Oh come on, it was a little bit funny,’ he implored, his breath a heady cocktail of whiskey and beer, his bloodshot eyes unflinchin­g as they drilled into me. Telling everyone I was going commando because I’d forgotten to turn on the washing machine – when I was sure I had – wasn’t remotely funny. Everyone around the dinner table had looked pained, but because he laughed so loudly, they’d all eventually tittered along.

‘Come on, Dina, you’ve got to admit it was a little funny – everyone laughed.’ ‘Only because they felt uncomforta­ble.’ A sour look took over his face as he said, ‘Well, of course. It couldn’t be because they found me funny, it has to be because you think I’m not good enough for them. Or you.’

‘Please don’t say that. You are good enough for me. You absolutely are.’

He shrugged in response and I had to rush to tell him again he was good enough for me. He was. I had to keep saying it over and over until he believed me. NOW They’re younger than me, this couple on the train. Her much younger than him, but they should both be happier. He shouldn’t looking contemptuo­usly down on her; she shouldn’t be using her hair to hide her face, obscure her tears.

His words are like razor blades on my skin as he tells how she’s hurt him. How, yes, her parents will be driving from Cornwall to Warwick to see her graduate, but it’s not fair on him. He has to work at the university. How is he supposed to feel knowing her parents don’t like him and she doesn’t want him to come to her graduation?

‘They do like you,’ she replies.

‘They hate me. They don’t think my job in the media department is good enough for their precious little girl,’ he spits.

A sob tremors from her lips. ‘I do want you to come, but I can only get two tickets.’

‘And I didn’t even crop up in your mind, did I?’

‘You did. And I called the uni, I asked them if I could get an extra ticket.’

‘Do you know how humiliatin­g that was? My little girlfriend would rather Mummy and Daddy come to her graduation and needs a pity ticket for me.’

‘It wasn’t like that –’

‘Stop changing the subject. You put your parents ahead of me because you think nothing of me.’

‘Please don’t say that,’ she replies. ‘Please. Please.’

I pick up my phone and type in the passcode. I need to do something, now.

2010

Another night with friends, another return home with rocks in my chest, snakes in my stomach. I was sure my friends heaved a sigh of relief when we left because something awkward always happened when we met up with them. If we didn’t arrive punctured with the spikes of a row; he’d unintentio­nally humiliate me while trying to be funny. Except now, six years into this relationsh­ip, I was starting to wonder if it was unintentio­nal.

‘You make me feel terrible about myself,’ Tom said, because I’d said that I didn’t like him telling our friends about an intimate operation I’d had. ‘I never know what the right thing to do is.’

‘I’m sorry, sweetheart,’ I replied, slipping my arms around him. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to make you feel like that.’

‘I just love you so much,’ he said sadly, ‘and I don’t think you feel the same.’ ‘I do!’ I protested. ‘I really do.’

When I had cried enough, begged and reassured enough, he eventually put his arms around me and forgave me for making him feel bad.

NOW ‘I don’t know why I bother,’ the man on the train says. ‘You obviously don’t care.’

Those words spike through me, and I stare at my mobile, willing it to help me.

2012

‘I give you everything,’ Tom said. ‘And you just treat me like I’m a bit of dirt on your shoe. You don’t care about me. Maybe we should end it.’

‘I…’ I began and then stopped. I couldn’t do this any more, I realised. This was the end. A month ago I had sat down in a work training room, and everything changed. The words the trainer spoke found a different place in my head, my body, my heart. And this time, I knew when Tom threatened me with the end, I should say, ‘Actually, yes, you’re right.’

Tom stopped remonstrat­ing. ‘What?’ he asked, quietly. Because that was

how he always did things: quietly, calmly. He never raised his voice, never lifted a fist. It was always calm verbal violence; peaceful manipulati­on.

‘You’re right. This needs to be over.’ ‘I didn’t say that.’

‘No, I did. I need to leave.’

‘No, no. You just need to try harder.

Put me first sometimes.’

‘No, I need to leave.’ The words sounded so delicious every time I said them. Leaving. Leaving. LEAVING.

While I packed, he talked and talked until it was clear I was actually going, and he lost control. It scared me, but I was out of there. I was free. And I wanted other people to be free.

NOW We are racing towards my stop and the time for me to stop being a bystander and do something is coming to an end. I stare down at my phone in desperatio­n. It answers me with silence.

‘I love you so much,’ he says. ‘And you treat me dirt.’

Again the words slice at me, the quiet violence hurting me in ways I didn’t know was still possible. My phone lights up… and tells me I’ll have the back-up I need.

When I approach the couple, my heart is beating at a gallop. I’ve never done this so publicly before. When I arrive at their table, I wait a beat to get their attention before I offer her my business card.

She doesn’t take it, instead, her eyes widen in horror that I am acknowledg­ing them. This will cause trouble for her when they’re alone.

‘I was like you,’ I say to her. ‘And a man like him treated me the way he’s treating you.’ I move the card closer to her. I want her to read it, to understand that I can help. ‘I didn’t even realise it was wrong until I sat in a work meeting and they told me again that no one has the right to treat you like that. It gave me the strength to walk away.’

That makes her look at the card, she wants to know what I do, how it pushed me to leave. Once she deciphers the words, her eyes fly up to my face. Wide and taken aback.

‘I can help you right now. All you have to do is grab your things and get off this train with me.’ Really? Her expression asks. ‘I will be with you every single step of the way.’

Silently she asks again: Really? I nod. And slowly, cautiously, she takes the card.

‘What the hell?’ the train man says.

‘You can’t just –’

‘Oh, I think I can, Mr Cane Newsome.’ ‘How do you know my name?’ he asks. ‘I know a LOT about you, Mr Newsome. You see, my name is Detective Sergeant Jacey Lackley. I’ve witnessed you abusing your partner here, and I’ve communicat­ed what I saw to some of my colleagues in Warwick. They’ll want to have a chat with you.’

‘I wasn’t abusing anyone.’ He turns to his victim. ‘Tell her I wasn’t abusing you.’

The woman opposite him says nothing.

‘Tell her,’ he threatens. ‘Come on you… you useless article.’

She sees him then. The real him. The one who will destroy her if she tries to save this relationsh­ip. She gets to her feet.

‘You’re really going with her?’ he sneers in his low tone. ‘You’ll be back.’

‘No,’ she says simply. ‘I won’t.’

And she steps off the train with me into her new life.

Dorothy Koomson, 2021

✣ All My Lies Are True by Dorothy Koomson (£8.99, PB, Headline) is out on 21 January.

I stare down at my phone in desperatio­n

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