The three of us are driving home through the dark streets of Noordhoek after a lovely dinner out. Our current favourite song blasts from the car stereo: Trailblazing’, by two SA musicians, Laurie Levine and Josie Field.
‘Teachers, truth seekers and pioneers. Rise up to shape the world…’ And then the rousing chorus, with Jack’s little voice from the back of the car, singing along lustily, ‘Break the silence, break the silence!’
As we sing along loudly and badly, I look up the shadowy slope of the mountain to the lights on Sea Cottage Drive. There used to be a guesthouse there called The Three Sisters. I picture a woman who looks a lot like me, only younger, standing silent at the window. She’s looking down towards Lake Michelle, back then still a grassy wetland. She is away for the weekend with her husband.
She stands motionless, breathing shallowly, a nervous mantra looping in her head, ‘Breathe. Centre yourself. Breathe.” She is waiting to be sure her husband is asleep. In a while, when his breathing has deepened and slowed, she will edge towards her side of the bed and ease her body between the sheets. Quietly. Slowly. Her heart beating nervously at the thought of him waking.
If she doesn’t get it right, if he wakes, then the long dark hours will start. His critical voice and clever psychological descriptions of her dysfunction will begin. He’s a life coach with a Psychology Honours. He’ll enunciate through gritted teeth what she’s doing that is not enough. Or too much. This is the dreadful inevitable climb up a steep slope to the dragon’s lair.
If he feels unheard, if she clears her throat the wrong way or responds angrily with a careless remark, the dragon will come roaring out. The night will be filled with raised voices, his black stabbing eyes and reddened face. He’ll spit words out at her between clenched lips. “You make me sick. Be in yourself. Stop invading my space.”
He will squeeze his hands around her neck. Shake her. Pull her by the hair as she scrabbles to loosen his grip.
That woman was me. And for the eight years of the marriage, I told no one. Not my mother. Not my best friend.
I wrote in my diary most days. I covered pages and pages with self analysis, prayers, insights from the latest self help book. I scrawled line after line, trying to find what it was about me that made my husband so angry. But I didn’t name it, this violence.
I couldn’t wrap words around these sleepless nights, the bruises, the blood encrusted lumps on my scalp. On the page, to myself, I only wrote, ‘We’re having a hard time again.’
I carry this woman inside me now, as I drive home happy-hearted in our family car with my loving, slightly scruffy husband and curly-haired son. I wonder if I should tell her story.
Even though I wrote two personal essays that were published in the POWA (People Opposing Women Abuse) Anthology, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. There’s more to tell. So for the past two years I’ve been working on a novel to tell this story in a safe, removed way.
But as I showed up to the page every morning, it began to feel uncomfortable and onerous. Like I was trying to squeeze my fictional characters into clothes that were too tight and didn’t suit them. And I’m not sure if these fictional characters are ready to get dressed right now.
As I’ve toyed with the daring and terrifying idea of telling my story as it is, as it happened, the all too familiar voice inside me has been weighing in snidely, “So what…are you jumping on this trending victim bandwagon? Like everyone else in this current culture of confession who’s got some story of abuse, of injustice? Are you just aiming to gather sympathy, to garner Facebook Likes? You can’t say #whyistayed eleven years later. You should be over it by now.” (Yes, I know. It’s a very bitchy voice.)
And I truly am over it. I no longer have nightmares. I no longer react disproportionately to loud noises. I no longer have days on end when I am too heavy with sadness to drag myself out of bed. I have a loving and thriving relationship with a sane man who cherishes and respects me. When we argue, I’m able to stand for my truth. I trust that it won’t flare into shouting, punching of doors and furniture breaking. It took me some time to re-learn that you can have a heated argument without anyone getting hurt. I trust myself (but maybe not with the unopened packet of Doritos in the cupboard). I love and accept myself. On most days. On other days, I scoff the Doritos.
So, when faced with a decision, should I or shouldn’t I? I ask myself a very useful question: On my deathbed, what will I regret? And my stomach dips heavily at the thought of leaving this world with my story coiled tight in my throat, unspoken.
So who am I to tell this story? No one really. I’m not famous. Sadly it’s not a particularly unusual story. But it’s mine. I can tell it. And I will.
Even if it’s only for that silent woman at the window, staring out into the dark night.