I am in the bathroom. It’s a busy morning and I’ve not had much sleep. I am 14 years old and it’s important to me to look good. My Mum bangs on the door, complaining that I am using too much time. I let her in and continue putting on my makeup. Mum takes off her work clothes after her shift at the cleaning company, changing into her uniform for her next job at the delicatessen.
She stands with her back to me as she changes but quickly turns as she hears my question. It is the first time I see a reaction, the first time I understand how deep the pain sits and how long it stays inside her after Dad has thrown a punch.
I freeze and can’t stop staring. Her whole arm, starting at her wrist and stretching all the way up to the join near her neck, is a mosaic of reds and blues and purples. They are not marks, more like splatterings of paint, colour layered upon colour, shade upon shade of blues and purples that join and mix to create an ugly mural. My Dad has done this! He is the artist and my Mum, his unwilling canvas.
My eyes well up with tears and Mum sees it.
“I didn’t mean for you to see this!” she says “I’m ok. It doesn’t hurt, really”.
I know she is lying.
“Dad’s promised it won’t happen again”.
I know he is lying.
“I won’t” I reply. This time it is my turn to lie.
It stays with me all day at school and I can’t stop the images in my head. I start to cry when one of the boys mess with me. It is just the usual fooling around but I tell him that he has been too rough and hurt me, even though he hasn’t. I need a reason to cry after all. I am aching inside, everywhere. I have a lump in my throat, my stomach is knotted and my head feels like it could explode any minute. I feel so tired and weak.
I can’t concentrate in class. My mind keeps wandering off but thankfully I’ve found a way for this to happen without the teachers really noticing. Regardless, I get the impression that the teachers are a little scared of me. I think they see fear in my eyes and it makes them nervous. They hold their distance and don’t ask.
I remember the day Dad hit Mum, the day when he came home from the military exercise. The smell of alcohol had seeped out his pores and as he leaned in to give me a hug, I had stiffened up and felt sick. I had prayed to God for him to go straight to bed and sleep it off but my prayer wasn’t heard and he didn’t lie down. He had sat there in his finery, his big boots slung over the armrest of the stool in front of me while he listened to music and puffed on his cigarette. From time to time he had gotten up and wandered in and out of the bathroom where I knew he hid his bottles. Mum knew it too. This was just the way it was in our house. No-one said anything about it. No-one did anything about it. No-one dared to, especially on days like this when his eyes became narrower, his glare harder and colder and his expression dark, very dark.
I had stayed close to Mum and tried to make sure that everything was as normal as it could be. It was so important that there was nothing which might annoy Dad. We had to be careful and manage the mood. It was a constant balancing act, like walking the tight rope at the circus. Not too serious and gloomy but not too cheery and happy-go-lucky either. No whispering. Act as normal as possible. Talk about normal things. I had felt like I was in a trance, like a zombie; doing things but not feeling like I was actually there, in the room.
Dad had made a bee-line for the fridge whilst Mum and I stood baking for the next night when Mum’s friends were coming to visit. I remember thinking that it was good that Dad was drunk today because it increased the chance of Mum being able to have her friends round the next day to chat and eat cakes. If he is drunk today, I had thought, it will be over by tomorrow and everything would be fine again. Everything would be back to normal, it had to!
I had held my breath and felt my heart beating like a loud drum but I had managed to keep talking to Mum. I had pretended to be engrossed in the baking but my whole body had been on alert. As Dad had gotten closer it had been like a shark circling round my feet.
The fridge door had slammed shut and I had known instantly what that meant. I wanted to cry but managed to hold it in, it wouldn’t have been of any help. The voice inside my head was talking, over and over, louder and louder “Please don’t hit, please don’t hit, please don’t hit.”
Dad had stepped towards us complaining that Mum hadn’t done the shopping; no eggs, no mayonnaise and only a slither of milk! He had said she was useless, a waste of space and had called her lots of names. He had gotten himself more and more worked up and started to swear and curse. Mum and I had known that this was just the start of it. It wasn’t going to end well no matter what we did, but we had to try anyway. I had stood between them, Mum leaning against the washroom door, her arm lifted, shielding her head and her face; she had known what would happen next. Mum had asked Dad to be nice while I had tried to do everything I could to get Dad to look at me instead of Mum. I had offered to ask one of the neighbours if they had egg or mayonnaise, maybe we could borrow some. I couldn’t help it and had started to cry, I even raised my voice a bit but it didn’t look like he had paid any attention. Then, he stepped back and for a millisecond I thought we had been spared, but he charged towards us, the rolling pin in his hand. I had screamed out but he had picked me up and thrown me across the kitchen floor, there was nothing more to do. “No! No! Dad! Don’t do it! ” I had begged. My words had been lost on him and I hadn’t the courage to go between them as he had raised the rolling pin against Mum’s skin over and over again.
I don’t know how she managed but a little later, Mum had gotten free from him and we ran together towards the bathroom but we had been too slow. My little sister was already there. She had woken up and stood watching us as we tumbled towards her. Dad had pushed Mum and she had fallen over hitting her head on the edge of the bath. He had cursed, slammed the door shut and had walked away. I remember crying hysterically, but not making a sound. Mum was lying in a heap on the floor; she hadn’t moved, she hadn’t made a sound. Only my little sister voice was heard as she stood there calmly saying “Mummy is dead. Mummy is dead“. My whole body had been like a block of ice. I had managed to move myself and had uncurled Mum’s arms and legs to rest her body properly on the floor. She was breathing. Blood had been running from her eye and I wiped it away with a facecloth before leaving it on her skin while I had taken my little sister back to her room and put her to bed again. I had told her that everything was fine and that Mummy would soon come and tuck her in and give her a goodnight hug, like always. Mummy and Daddy had just had a disagreement that was all. She had seen my calm face and heard my calm voice but couldn’t see, inside me, the hurricane blowing through my body, gathering speed and strength.
Mum eventually came round and she had sat up holding her head and crying quietly. She had told me to get into bed as it was so late and I remember going into the hall, hearing Dad snoring from the bedroom but not having the courage to go in and look at him. I had gone into my little sister’s room, lain down and listened in the dark to the quiet, painful sobs my Mum had made.
It hadn’t been long before I had felt Mum coming into the bed too. She had lain at the bottom, across the end. I had stared at the ceiling for hours; on guard, listening and watching. I hadn’t been able to stop thinking that I should have done more to stop Mum from being hit; I hadn’t done enough, I wasn’t good enough. Why had I not hit him over the head with the frying pan? What if he had passed out? What if I had killed him? My thoughts had jumped around like popcorn in a pot filling my head for the rest of the night and before I knew it the alarm bell had been ringing; it was morning and time for school.
Mum had put on her uniform for work. “It was so stupid of me not seeing the ice on that stair outside, slipping and falling like that yesterday” she says. “We need to remember and put some sand down later.”
It’s then I know that that’s what happened.
If anyone asks…