The second beating was not so easy to forgive. After the first slap in the face, their happy-ever-after lasted exactly two weeks. Then another weekend came around. Johnny was out again, late; he arrived home smelling of liquor and perfume. Grace exploded. He said nothing as her insults crashed and bounced off him like big balls of hail. The longer he failed to react, the angrier Grace became until she ran up to him, lunged at him, and tried to force him to look at her, to look her in the eye and tell her where he’d been.

Johnny snapped. This time, the benign open palm was not to be. Knuckles connected with her eye socket, then went on to do their work on her lip, splitting it open and leaving a flourish of blood on her face. Grace retreated into the bedroom and tried to lock the door, but this time he came after her with a rage that had overtaken hers. He pinned her onto the bed by the shoulders while a knee pressed down hard into her thigh. She couldn’t move, could not even scream. The more she tried to free herself, the harder he pushed.

“Now you listen to me, crazy bitch. I’m not going to take this shit from you. You stop this. You stop this madness or I will beat it out of you.” The words hung in the air as he waited for them to have the intended effect. He was deadly serious, knew what he was doing. “I’m not a man who needs to beat a woman to feel like a man. But by God, you keep on pushing me, and this is how it will be. You push me up against a wall and I will fight my way out. This, right here, is the consequence of the mess you made. You hear me?”

They stayed locked in this grotesque embrace for a while, him on top of her, both heaving. Grace closed her eyes, trying to get away from him and the angry hot breath assaulting her face. She wanted to die. Oblivion seemed the only way to erase the pain tearing through her. Then she went limp, and after a few calculated minutes Johnny rolled off her, sinking next to her into the bed.

Grace fought the urge to jump up and run through the flat and out the door. But where would she go? She was motherless, fatherless; Aunty Joan was gone. David, out of the question. She’d had a life, a good life, one she’d carelessly discarded. This was it, this room with its stench of cigarette smoke and stale wine, this was her home, her prison, the only place that could contain someone as low as her. Look around you, she told herself, this is where you belong; in filth because that’s what you are. Filth. You made your bed, now lie in it.

The second time a man hits you, in the face, with his balled fist, there can be no more denial. Once can be passed off as an accident, a temporary loss of mind: he wasn’t thinking, was drunk, was stressed; got away from himself. Twice? No. After the second time you can be under no illusions – you are inducted into that silent army of women. You see them everywhere, members of an invisible sisterhood of the  downtrodden, their eyes vacant and their spirits sagging. Being one of them, you recognise them by the curve of the back, the stoop of the shoulders, the downcast eyes; and sometimes, not often, the residue of a bruise.

You catch the wounded eye on the train, on a taxi, and the moment of mutual recognition becomes the same instant in which you look away, ashamed. We are sisters, yes, but we daren’t reach out to each other, and for heaven’s sake, definitely mustn’t talk about it. That would be betraying our men, ourselves. Shame settles like an invisible cloak around the shoulders of the sisterhood, impossible to shake no matter what they try. And after a while, as Grace found out, it becomes part of you – you believe you were meant to wear this garment, that you deserve no better because wasn’t he the sun and the stars and the moon at the beginning? Didn’t he love you, pursue you, adore you? Why would such adoration just go away if you hadn’t done something to make it dry up? That indefinable something you must have done wrong, that made him stop loving and turn to punishing instead. It must be something in you; something innately unlovable or despicable about you to turn a man into that.

And so you wear your shame, get comfortable in it, make indignity your home. It happens so gradually yet so quickly: the love that once lifted you tramples you down, and you start to believe that this is love. This is love. He hits me because he loves me. Loves me so much.

After the second beating, Grace could not get out of bed for three days. She lay there, stiff, her body bruised as if it had been hit by a truck. Johnny came and went as if nothing had happened. There were no earnest pleas, no rings and no walks on the beach this time.

When he left the apartment, Grace produced a mirror from her nightstand with which to examine her face without leaving the bed. She stared  at the woman in it for hours; the woman who looked like Mary on the day they went to the department store to get make-up. Grace stared through days, as the flesh around her eye went from purple to blue-black, and finally turned a sickly dark yellow. She would not be that woman who went to buy potions to hide the fact that her man had beaten her. Grace refused to be that woman, to have the glare of contempt and pity reflect at her from the eyes of strangers. Fuck that.

She called work and lied about having a bad strain of flu. Sindi was due for her second visit that weekend. The thought of David seeing her like this sent her heart racing, but she couldn’t put off this hard-won visit. Sindi had come for five hours the week before. The visit had not gone as it had in Grace’s fantasy. Sindi, afraid in an unfamiliar space, had moaned and fussed, refusing to leave Grace’s arms. She was scared of Johnny and turned her little body violently away from him when he tried  to  take  her  from  Grace’s  arms.  Johnny  had  mumbled something about her being spoiled, and left the flat. Grace felt heartbroken. No one had co-operated to create the cozy family scene she had imagined, and Johnny’s departure had spoiled her reunion with Sindi. She spent the rest of her time with Sindi fretting about what Johnny was getting up to.

Grace thought about cancelling the second visit, but now, more than ever, she needed the little girl. Her bruises were more or less healed, but she kept her sunglasses on as David dropped Sindi off. He stared at her, bemused by the sunglasses, and lingered at the door, as if waiting for an invitation to enter. Grace felt ashamed by her face, the flat, her life. She took Sindi from him and masked her embarrassment with rudeness, asking David to leave.

It was just as well. Johnny returned a few minutes later, and Grace was not yet ready for the two of them to encounter each other in her living room. She was surprised at Johnny’s appearance, as he knew Sindi was coming – she’d expected that he’d stay away. They were still not speaking to each other. Each staked out a different corner of the cramped living room, Grace with Sindi, and stayed there. When it was time for David to pick Sindi up, Grace took the child down to the street so as to avoid the two men seeing each other.

There was another appointment, made weeks ago, that she could not get out of. She called the number she’d used before but could not get through. With just two days until they were due to meet, she had no way of reaching him to cancel. Of course she could just not go. She didn’t owe him anything, not a damn thing! But even as these thoughts swirled around her mind, she knew that she’d be there, at the agreed upon place, at the appointed time. Was it curiosity? A need for reckoning? She didn’t know, but even as she fought against wanting to see him, her compulsion to see him was stronger than any revulsion   she felt. Some unknown force was propelling her towards the ordained time and place. Grace knew that she was destined to see him one more time – Patrick de Leeuw.


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