Wednesday, October 15, 2008

No blanket

One of my oldest friends is waiting for her decree absolute. I know her finances are precarious, and these are times when we all need some friendliness around, and you know, I love this woman, so the other night I gave her a ring.

It was one of those decisions where you wonder if there is a sort of sixth sense at work. It was her birthday, but she was in bed when I called at 9pm. I was on my way down to the Co-op for a bottle of wine, she was exhausted. The usual -- a long day at work plus solo early evening grappling with a recalcitrant three year old (possibly with a sixth sense of her own) -- but - happy birthday! - compounded by a letter from the lawyer of her nearly-ex husband. Something to do with the mortgage -- I didn't see any logic in the details, in fact the whole thing sounded rather bizarre and unhinged.

Which was what was troubling her. 'It's out of character, Jo,' she said. 'And that's when I get scared'.

This is a man who I know goes on days-long vodka and cocaine benders. He gets through cash like it's water. He's a useless waste of space, with fading looks and waning charm. And he has been a spectacularly rubbish husband and father. But... scared?

Scared? I said. But he's never... has he?

There was one of those silences when your stomach lurches, when you know there's something big that you didn't know, should you have known? Did she say something that you should have heard? Or did she not want you to know? If you had known, what would you have done? What could you have done?

Well, she said quietly, that's why the baby was born prematurely.

I was home by this point, bottle of wine open, red mist forming, tears rolling. Mate, I said, I am so sorry. I didn't know. I am so sorry.

I regret and resent every ounce of effort and energy I have ever expended on this man. But I also know that it won't be the last time -- there will be more instances in my life when I will prioritise the feelings of and cook food and pour wine for men and (more rarely, but not never) women who are abusing people I care about.

Usually, as in this case, I will not know what is happening. But not always. The first time I swallowed my disgust at the behaviour of the boyfriend of one of my friends, I was fifteen years old and she had an eating disorder. I said what I thought, and it wasn't me who got the hard time, it was her. What do you do?

I am not claiming moral high ground here, and in fact I don't think there is any. I have sustained bruises and gone back for more -- a long time ago now, but you don't forget -- and it could happen again, it could happen to anyone. One of the formative moments of my life was reading a -- I was going to write Guardian but it was before I was buying my own newspapers and my parents are not Guardian readers so probably -- Times article about Hedda Nussbaum's relationship with Joel Steinberg. She was a well-educated, middle class Jewish girl. He would beat her up and make her sleep in the bath, with only a blanket, "except when he said 'no blanket'".

I have been haunted by the words 'no blanket' all my adult life. They make me a kinder person as well as a more aware one. Technically, we all have the potential to be the abuser as well as the abused. The hippie in me says, let's just not fuck each other over for a bit, right? Life's hard enough right now. The pragmatist in me says, let's do the right thing by each other when it happens.

Now, where's my axe?



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