The Women’s aid office is unusually quiet for a Friday afternoon. Famous last words as my colleague often remarks. I am grateful for the peace; I have a report to finish before I head out to meet a client at her mother’s house. Lisa should be leaving her own home by taxi round about now, which gives me ten minutes of typing time if only the computer wouldn’t keep going slow... The phone rings. My colleague looks up and smiles as if to say she told me so.
“I can’t go, he’s got Chi!” The voice at the other end of the phone blurts out breathlessly.
“Lisa I’m sure it’s fine, perhaps your mother has him?”
“My mother hates Chi. I can’t go through with this, I’m sorry to waste everybody’s time, I’m calling it off…”
“Lisa wait! Don’t do anything just yet, I’m on my way...”
Time was never on our side and it is now half past one. Barely forty five minutes remain for Lisa to make the break. The break that could ultimately mean the difference for her between life and death. How many times have I seen the fatal signs of panic before? How many girls have I lost to hesitation? Not this time I am resolved. Not this girl. I switch off my computer and head out of the office.
As I approach the traffic lights they turn red and I quickly apply some lipstick using the rear view mirror. The lights change and I move off slowly. The streets from here on are all the same tired grey and I have lost count of the number of times I have found myself swallowed up and lost in the maze of this estate. Here is the first road with all the maisonettes, sitting heavily on top of the ground floor flats. There is the first tower block... there is the second... and here is the turning into Lisa’s road, yet another street stacked high with flats, all with the same crumbling corners. I pass the block at the end of the road and try not to think about the lady who used to live in there, who I had worked so long and hard with, but who didn’t get out in time.
I park outside a driveway filled with rusty motorbikes and walk carefully up to the door, avoiding the cracks in the pathway and the bolts and other metal parts strewn about. I am careful to hide my ID badge. The neighbours do not know about Lisa’s situation, she has carefully maintained an outward appearance of all being well. I glance at my watch. 1.45. Just half an hour left…
At first there is no response to the doorbell. I try again. Still no response. A little frustrated I hammer my knuckles against the door, avoiding the splintered edges of its panels. Finally the door opens and a pale face flashes for a moment in front of me before turning away into the dark shadows of the hallway. I follow behind, shutting the door behind me, and pick my way over the toys littering the way.
Once in the living room Lisa turns around. There is a new bruise on her right cheek. Her eyes are wet and smudged.
“Mark knows, he must do, why else would Chi be missing? He threatened to kill him if I ever left”
“Oh honey, you can’t let a dog keep you here. You’ve said so many times that Mark will end up killing you if you stay.”
“We’ll call the RSPA...”
A photograph sits crookedly on the mantelpiece. The two pairs of eyes smiling from it are bright and hopeful. Lisa’s head is resting on her new husband’s shoulder, her pink bouquet tickling both of their chins and casting a rosy glow across their faces. Mark’s arm is holding Lisa protectively. There is another frame propped up behind it. Here Mark again has his arm stretched around Lisa but this time his fingers are gripping her dress tightly at her waist, pulling it forcefully around her pregnant form. Lisa stands stiffly, her upper body tilting away from that of her husband’s. There is a crack in the glass splitting the pair.
Lisa’s eyes follow my gaze. She turns to the mantelpiece, picks up the wedding photo and pulls out another hidden behind the one on display. She holds up a picture of herself with two girls either side of her dressed in fuchsia crushed silk. “My bridesmaids. I haven’t seen them for years. Mark wouldn’t let me go out with the girls after I’d had Ella, he said she came first and only a bad mother would leave her to go partying. I know I must sound dumb for listening to him, but he made me feel so guilty it just became easier to stay in. I couldn’t tell the girls why I wouldn’t go out, I just pretended to be happy and they never suspected… strange how easy it’s been to cover it all up…”
I glance up at the clock. Two o’clock. Fifteen minutes remain. Lisa’s mother would be collecting Ella from school, an hour early as arranged with the teachers. Mark would be leaving to head home in five minutes.
Lisa winces; standing for too long has taken its toll. She limps to the sofa and lowers herself down, groaning. “I’m a flippin’ mess! I used to be so fit too...”
I first met Lisa when she had been discharged from hospital following a back injury caused, she had insisted at the time, by falling down the stairs. Her injuries had raised the suspicions of an alert nurse and so began my journey with her. We had to find creative ways to meet, often at the GP surgery when Lisa went for blood tests. Even so Mark would be sat outside in the car waiting for her and meetings were often shortened by Lisa’s anxiety that he would become suspicious.
Several months of such clandestine meetings had finally resulted in Lisa deciding she had to leave. The physical abuse was worsening and Ella was potentially at risk. Mark rarely left her alone so opportunities to leave were few. He had hidden her passport and benefit books along with her most precious possessions: a locket her late father had given her as a child, swimming medals, her grandmother’s wedding ring. But a month ago Lisa had found them all in a box hidden under a loose floorboard in the garden shed. The coincidental arrival of a hospital appointment card for Mark’s annual asthma check-up had seemed like an omen and she had started to plan her escape. How excited she had been as she told me about her hopes for a new future for herself and her daughter. Her face had flushed with hope then. Now she looks pale, twisting her skirt around her fingers and biting her lip.
I am suddenly conscious that I am staring at her and so I pull a compact mirror out of my handbag and apply some powder to my face. When I look up again it is Lisa who is now staring at me, a little wistfully. “You always look so nice” she murmurs. “I used to like making an effort but Mark accused me of dressing to flirt with other men. As if I had the opportunity to meet other men! He accompanies me everywhere. He even comes shopping with me and picks out my clothes, I thought it was quite sweet at first... But nothing too short or clingy though, he said I didn’t have the figure for it. Guess he’s right, I am a bit bony...”
A text alert sounds. Lisa’s hand flies up to her mouth. She stretches out and picks up her mobile phone. “Its mum... she’s got Ella... Oh Mark is going to be so angry...”
“Lisa, let’s go” I say gently, although inside I am starting to panic. It is now five past two. Mark will be back in ten minutes.
“Oh where is Chi...?” She is crying now.
“If you stay what will happen to you?” I start to press her urgently.
“Probably end up back in hospital again I expect.”
I pick up a school photograph of a six year old girl and hold it out to Lisa. The little girl has a slightly anxious expression on her face, a look that often inhabits her mother’s own features. Lisa looks at it dully. I give her a moment then play my final desperate card.
“Do you remember what you told me last month, when we met at the x-ray department?”
“Yes” Lisa whispers. “Mark hit Ella.”
“He told her she was going to end up like her mum.”
“Honey come on, let’s go, let’s do this for Ella.”
Lisa shuts her eyes for a minute, then nods and pushes herself up into standing. Having steadied her balance she looks up at the clock. Ten past two. Her eyes widen.
“He’ll be back at any moment, it’s too late!”
Lisa is suddenly propelled into action and at last we are heading out of the door. Although she is still limping Lisa is walking quicker than I have ever seen her walk before. She is up the garden path before me. I press the key fob, the lights flash and Lisa has opened the passenger door and thrown herself in before I’ve even walked through the garden gate. I drop her holdall into the back of the car but as I start to slide into the driver’s seat there is a sudden shout from behind us. Lisa screams. I pull the door shut but before I am able to turn the ignition key a hand is banging on the window and a male voice is shouting. I know I should just drive off but instead I look up…
The face of a man in his fifties peers in through the window.
“I’ve got the dog!”
Lisa is curled up into a tight ball on the passenger seat, sobbing.
“Lisa it’s not Mark.”
I wind down the window. The man grins. “I’ve got her dog. He seems to have buried his way under the fence. Upset poor old Tibbles I can tell you.” A bark sounds from below the view of the window.
“Chi!” Lisa springs up and opens the door. There is a scrabbling sound around the front of the car and a spaniel jumps up onto Lisa’s lap.
“Thank you!” I call out revving the engine and driving off. As we start to accelerate down the road I glance down at the radio clock. Twenty past two… we are now on borrowed time… Lisa screams again. Up ahead a red estate car is turning into our road. Lisa ducks her head down clasping onto Chi who yelps unappreciatively. I can’t resist looking at the driver as he passes. It is the fair haired man in the mantelpiece photographs. For a moment I think he has spotted Lisa in my car and my insides lurch as I remember his violent history. But then I realise he is holding up a mobile phone and dialling a number. It isn’t the first time a phone call has saved one of my girls I reflect as we speed away…
An hour later we arrive at a neighbouring town. Lisa has been sat the whole journey from her mother’s house with her eyes shut, almost as if not seeing the way to the women’s refuge will somehow prevent Mark from following her. Ella sits on the back seat of the car cuddling Chi. We drive down a street of Victorian houses, all converted into flats and mostly occupied by students and foreign workers shipped in from Eastern Europe to work long hours at a local factory. No one will notice the arrival of a new resident. No curtains will twitch as we get out of the car with the suitcase collected from Lisa’s mother’s house. I leave Lisa and Ella with a large smiling refuge worker and take a squealing Chi to a nearby kennel that shelters dogs belonging to victims of abuse.
A successful getaway. Now I can only keep my fingers crossed that Lisa will not be persuaded to return. But I feel I can congratulate myself. A reward is in order I think, perhaps I will treat myself… I pop into a chemist and buy a new lipstick and some foundation before heading home.
Many years ago I worked as a volunteer for the Red Cross. It was there that I learned how to mix camouflage creams to cover up the scars caused by surgery, injury or disease. With the skill of an artist I could mix colours on my palette to match the tones of surrounding unblemished skin so perfectly that my clients, often embarrassed by the marks that made children stare and adults look politely away, could once more venture out and blend in with the crowd unnoticed.
I still have those potions and powders. Now I use them to mask my own marks: the scars and bruises that my husband so hates to see, reminding him as they do of the countless times that he has broken his wedding vows to love and to cherish. What part of “With my body I thee worship” implied the pummelling of fists on my frame? But his anger is always followed by tears of remorse and regret, and he castigates himself so bitterly afterwards, that I cannot help but feel sorry for him and hold him until his sobbing ceases. And then for a while he is so loving and tender and nothing is too much effort for him: He will wash dishes, iron laundry, buy me gifts and shower me with adoration... Until the next time his temper is stirred and that inner switch is flicked that turns him from Jekyll into Hyde. Faithful becomes fury and I am its object.
Sometimes the faces of my girls flash in my mind, mouthing back the advice that I have so often handed out. But surely the patterns of abuse and manipulation marking their lives are so much plainer, I argue back. Isn’t my own situation much hazier? For the lines here that map the boundaries of love and anger are so blurred that it is hard to know where one territory begins and another ends.
I hear a door slamming angrily downstairs. As I re-apply the fixing powder over the scar on my chin, and check my flawless image in the mirror, I almost hear a challenge that has been hanging around in the back of my mind for some time now...that tells me that my minutes are counting down too… But I push it away. I am not ready to listen to it… yet...