Grace spiralled into joyless purgatory. Johnny did his best to cheer her, arguing that David would change his mind once he was less angry; that Sindi would not even remember this time of her life. But Grace, refusing to be cheered, vented at him.

“How do you know! You don’t know David. You can’t know that he’ll change his mind.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, Grace. David this, David that. You’re right. I don’t know David and I don’t want to know him. But I feel like he’s living right here with us! It’s all you ever talk about. David, David, David.”

“Well, he’s Sindi’s father! He controls her now. It’s up to him if I ever see my daughter again.”

When the words “We could always have one of our own” escaped Johnny’s mouth, Grace reeled. For the first time, she wanted to punch him. Disdain crept into her heart, and made   it a permanent residence. For  this she had lost her daughter?   A man who could glibly suggest that they forget about Sindi and replace her with another? Repugnance seeped into her words, gestures and body, lacing every  expression  towards him with a cutting edge. She could not help it – as much as she loved Johnny, there co-existed in her body now the impulse to wound him. Johnny felt the chill even as she tried to hide it. They never exchanged words about this shift in temperature, but it was there, palpable, a pane of glass sitting between them that they could not see, but kept bumping up against even as they reached for each other.

Johnny started making detours on his way home from work, stopping off at a friend’s place or for a round at the pub with increasing frequency. Jealousy made its bed alongside disdain in Grace’s heart. After his nocturnal excursions, she’d greet him sullenly, if at all. Sometimes she’d pretend to be asleep when he got home, but mostly she’d wait, sit in silence, and watch him undress. She would lash him with her serrated edges when he tried to come close.

Whatever had lived between them – love? lust? – became brittle. Their love-filled nights retreated into silence, blistered only by the occasional explosive fight.

It was on a night like this that Johnny hit her for the first time.  She’d  been  waiting  for  him  for  hours,  and  had  found company and solace in a bottle of wine. He hadn’t called before he’d left work, hadn’t bothered to do that in a while. Grace lay curled up on a forlorn armchair, punctuating her swigs from  the bottle with endless puffs from her cigarettes.

The pleasant, dulling effect of smoke and wine had cooled the anger she’d felt rising earlier in the night, when he hadn’t walked through the door at seven. This time, she’d make an effort, she told herself. She’d welcome him, smile, ask about his day; really ask, and really listen to his answers. She’d rub his shoulders, kiss his neck, soothe him with her words and body.

But Grace fell asleep and woke hours later to a still empty home. Three in the morning. Where was he? Mouth dry and head throbbing, Grace had started to carry her body off to bed when he appeared through the front door. Addled with wine and sleep, Grace lunged at him. “Where have you been? Who were you with?”

“You’re drunk. Shut up,” Johnny countered.

“Not even a call from you – nothing!”

Grace pressed her face right up against his, rage oozing from every pore. She didn’t see it coming: the palm of hand – wide, hard, – the same palm that had caressed and held her, flattened into the side of her face. She lost her balance and staggered backwards, almost hitting the wall behind her. She brought her hand to her hot, stinging check, wet with tears, while Johnny looked on with wide eyes, his face immobilised with shock.

“How could you…?”

Shame veiled his eyes. Before he could answer Grace ran from the living room and locked herself into the bedroom. What had her life become? Aunty Joan’s voice rang clear in her head: swear to me you’ll never let a man hit you. Grace had sworn. She would never be that woman. But here she was – how had she got here?

If he could do it once, he would do it again. This much she knew. Shivering and sobbing, she pulled herself into the furthest corner of the bed, incredulous still that her Johnny with the kind eyes had done this to her.

Fear stalked her throughout the night. It skulked on the bed next to her, running its cold fingers up and down her back; came to sit at the base of her spine, where it mocked her: on your way to join your mother, cold and dead in the ground.

She tracked Johnny’s movements, his every breath, in the next room; heard him pour some water, noted his shuffling    up to the bedroom door and his waiting there, his listening.

He didn’t utter a word, or knock to be let in, just stood for the longest time. A predator stalking his prey. Grace didn’t make a sound, didn’t want him to hear her fear. Some men fed off fear: it emboldened them, gave them pleasure. She didn’t yet know whether Johnny was such a man.

Sleep came to her when grey morning light filtered through the bedroom blinds. Sleeping fitfully, Grace felt her everywhere: her breath, her presence, rocking her into an anguished sleep. She was a sigh, floating over Grace like a leaf, but there, present: Mary.

***

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