Authors: Gillian White
Veil of Darkness
To my agents, Brie, Ann and Jonathan, with love.
ESUS,’ WHINED THE MAN
in the fable, looking back over the sands of his life. ‘Why is it that when times were hard your footsteps disappeared from my side? Why did you always desert me just when I needed you most?’
And Jesus gave His chilling reply. He probably had it rehearsed for years, just waiting for this God-given question. ‘My son, when life was hard there was one set of footprints because during those times I carried you.’
Game set and match to The Lord.
But where the hell is He now?
She can’t spare a glance at this pious text that hangs above her mantelpiece, given startlingly prime position in her council-house lounge, produced like a rabbit from a hat out of her mother-in-law’s straw holdall one particularly hellish Christmas. Nobody ever carried her, let alone Jesus, but then maybe she hadn’t asked loudly enough. She’d stopped saying prayers after kindergarten. There’s a crack through the frame from top to bottom, mended untidily with Sellotape. There are cracks through so many aspects of her house and her life; black, sheer crevasses. Quick! Quick! No time for thinking. She can’t spare a glance, she hasn’t got time, she’s got to be out of here in ten minutes, ten short minutes to escape from the house where she has endured eight years of marriage that feel like a long, slow lifetime. As if she’s been ill. Bedridden. Seeing through a glass darkly. Recovering from some disabling disease. At last able to raise her head, now to eat, now to speak, now to read, now to see her situation for the first time through unblinkered eyes.
The kids have already gone—no, no, don’t think of them now, don’t weaken, don’t deal in self-pity—there was no alternative but to separate, but the crippling thing is that they are too little at six and seven to understand, and she didn’t dare warn them early in case they gave the game away. There was no time to explain that Mummy would come back and get them when everything was settled and safe. It was only this morning when he’d gone to work that Kirsty had got them up and dressed, then gently explained for the first time that there would be no school today. Instead, Aunty Tessa was here with her car and she was going to take them and their cardboard boxes to Maddy’s.
She and the kids could have stayed together if she had agreed to go to the hostel, but she didn’t want that. This way, at least, they’d have some sort of future. But the pain of parting had been agonizing.
She’d imagined the worst part would be breakfast this morning. She’d feared she might be sick with the strain, might crack or cry or give herself away with her eyes, but strangely enough she was as calm and cool as she’d ever been, her excitement acting as an anaesthetic, helping her to cope with the unnerving process of getting him out of the house without the surly grunts and curses that accompanied most of her violent mornings. Ah yes, this was her dream, that one day she would be woken by birds, not the beast in bed beside her at some dread hour between midnight and dawn.
He had kissed her goodbye and missed her recoil. Luck was on her side for a change. He had gone off to work as he always did, a thick-set man with heavy, dark eyebrows, a hard-working family man, nothing to single him out as sick.
He likes his socks to be ironed and folded.
Half a teaspoon of mustard on each slice of ham.
Half a teaspoon precisely.
Kirsty casts a quick glance at the clock on the wall—Marks & Spencer; she’d bought it herself when they were first married, thinking it tasteful. Tasteful—hah! What a laugh to think she was once bothered about rot like that. She stuffs his Adidas sports bag with her wash things, her small purse of make-up, her underwear, three pairs of shoes and two surviving paperbacks which he hasn’t torn up. Her books, oh yes, her wonderful, wonderful books. They had kept Kirsty alive and sane and, seeing this, sensing rebellion, sniffing a rival, these books drove Trevor to the height of violence. Second only to her children, her books, mostly Mills and Boons, easy, quick reads like that, had tested Kirsty’s bravery to the full. She could stay happy while she was reading, so she hid them round the house, risking a beating each time she did so, each time he went on the rampage and found one. Sometimes, as a punishment, he made her read out loud on her knees while he mocked the dialogue and interrupted with crude remarks, or shot out his fist and sent her sprawling. The rest of her stuff is in the case they bought that time they all went to Weston. She shivers at the thought of that holiday. The only holiday they’d ever had. She had come back on her own in the end, on the train with the kids. No tickets, just a kindly conductor.
No, the most dangerous time in her menaced life hadn’t been today’s breakfast, but six months ago, when she’d first begun to scrabble her way out of the coma of fear, peeping and frightened. When she’d first begun to see Trevor Hoskins through the eyes of the world, with the help of the Samaritans, and then the centre to which they’d referred her. Hah. She’d been too scared to speak at first from the call box on Massey Street, for fear he might be lurking, or that he’d
, in the way he had of knowing whenever she failed, transgressed, was disloyal, dirty, lazy. Just as God is all knowing so Trev’s spirit seemed to be everywhere. She thought of him as the Holy Ghost, which she’d never quite understood: ethereal, grey and able to change shape like porridge or some extra-terrestrial creature.
His favourite programme is
The Price is Right
. He curses the contestants. They watch the telly while they eat. He will not tolerate interruptions.
Thank God they didn’t insist on her name, but perhaps, they suggested, she would give one anyway, any name so they might talk more naturally, her and the gentle-voiced stranger. Sad and quavery she gave the name Valerie because she believed that if she’d been called Valerie her life would have been very different. Valerie seemed such a strong name, not the name of a snivelling victim, or someone whose name might be casually altered to bitch, slag,
whore, cunt, depending on somebody else’s whim, or someone who’d been named after a mother who died at her birth.
Mummy. Mum. Mama. Mam. As a child she had tried out all the versions to see what they sounded like. Mother. Another victim—of sorts.
She’d been late for work that first day she’d phoned the Samaritans and he had wanted to know why there was £2.45 deducted from her wages. Resentful and secretive, she had lied and told him she’d missed the bus, but she couldn’t do that every week and hope to get away with it.
So she’d started phoning during her lunch hour, with a hunger that was almost a sickness. She was unable to speak that first time, but pretty soon the rage and the bitter hatred flowed out, forged and hammered within her by every blow he had ever struck. It was the very personal rage of a victim, compounded by years of helpless humiliation, of broken ribs, of smashed fingers, of blue-black eyes, bruised breasts, arms in plaster and circles like purple chokers round her throat.
The girls teased her for having a lover. Called him her bit of dong on the side. ‘Ding dong bell,’ they sang as she tried to push her money in.
She was terrified Trev might suss it out, or see through her; his piercing eyes catching her resentment. That he’d drag out her brain and sift through it like he sometimes did with the rubbish bin, leaving the stinking remnants strewn over the kitchen floor. Waste. And she would have been waste if she’d waited any longer. But even then, even then, as she was beginning her slow recovery, she’d had the morbid desire of the victim to fall on her knees and confess to the tyrant, to throw herself on his mercy, to give him a stick to strike her with to ease the guilt for her awful daring.
The phone at home was out of the question since the statements had started being itemized. He went through them with a fine-tooth comb and blamed her for any unexplained numbers, even when it was him.
That was the start of living the lie. That was the hardest part. Her books had been her only escape.
She has forgotten why she loved him.
For years she kept thinking he might change.
He reads the sports pages in the
. He does Spot the Ball in the
. When they show the lottery winners on telly Trev spits on the floor.
Pretty once, with brilliant dark-brown eyes before sorrow filled them, Kirsty stands at the open front door, a small figure in blue jeans and a navy parka with her keys in her hand about to lock something out of her life. Her house, so silent. Almost peaceful. No sign here of alarm or terror, all neatly polished away, but flashes of memory trigger the pain. Number 24 Barkers Terrace always looks empty anyway by the time she has picked up everything and cleared it all away as he likes it, a house so empty and depressed surely no-one could feel at ease in it. How lovely to live in a happy house with a loving partner to come home to. A messy, comfy, colourful house, filled with the smell of home-made cakes and with jars of wild flowers with bugs on them, heaps of books, children’s art on the walls and a red Aga at the heart. But her surfaces shine like small lakes of tears and she feels an overwhelming urge to leave something disgusting on the carpet, a used Tampax or a turd, dreadful behaviour which her books never mention. Minimalist, they would call him, those arty types who consider it a question of taste. Spotless kitchen—not even a cloth on the draining board is allowed. No plates left drying in the rack to offend his desire for cleanliness. No knick-knacks on the shelves. No cushions on the sofa. No coffee table. No pictures, just a framed mirror over the fireplace and his mother’s dreadful text. But Trev’s obsession is paranoia, that is what Kirsty has been told and has begun, slowly, to understand.
Nobody seemed very surprised. Nor were they shocked by her story. It was all too common. ‘He’s mentally ill,’ they explained. ‘He needs help.’ And, ‘You must be determined and brave.’
Once she goes through that door she will never have to clean here again. Never have to whisper to her children or hide them when she sees a handle slowly turning. Never have to pretend to sleep. Never have to lie awake at nights waiting for the pain to begin, or to cook fearing her worthless offerings will end up on the kitchen walls. Never again will he terrorize her, abuse her or humiliate her. Fear is a tool box and a smell of putty.
In photographs he is always smiling.
He likes her to stroke his feet with her hair, to pull it slowly between his toes. When she thinks he’s asleep he wakes up. Hah. He was only pretending…
There is terror and an impulse to run. She must get out. She must break free. Is it possible she can take time and change it just by taking control of her life? She will not think of her children’s bewildered faces: Jake’s so resigned and defiant when she left him, trying not to linger over the goodbye; Gemma’s awash with tears yet refusing to cling or beg. Children made old before their time, both sinewy and nervous. Their unhappiness breaks her heart. She hurries down the garden path, every footstep dogged by fear, casting her eyes this way and that, lugging her case, trying to look casual. When she looks back for the last time it’s like lifting her eyes to his and staring out his smouldering hostility. Typically, it is raining. The litter in the gutters goes faster than she does, but summer is well on its way, thank God, for summer is so much kinder than winter. Shaven-haired youths, done with their loitering, head for free community-hall coffee. Bedraggled women with pushchairs and shopping make for the cover of the vandalized bus stop, each driven by some learnt momentum, nothing to do with their own.