When you can’t look away

26 Mar

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I have been extremely passive of late. I only seem to have enough energy for the very big decisions I’m making, and everything else, all the small yet visible things that seem to matter but really do not in the grand scheme of things, have fallen by the wayside.

I will at some point clean the bathroom. I’ll find the time to re-hang the living room curtains that my son tore down last month. I must, by the end of the week, contact the mortgage broker about my current deal coming to an end, but first I need to increase my annual earnings by £40,000. These things will happen. They just haven’t yet.

The only things I’ve failed to neglect are my children, nits and domestic abuse. The first two cannot be left to their own devices for large amounts of time, so I tend to them. The last is thankfully something I walked away from a very long time ago, and I have chosen not to think about it for a while now, mainly because it makes me uncomfortable and sad. However, in the past few weeks, I’ve experienced it from afar.

The other day my daughter and I reported an incident to the police. We felt virtuous, like we’d done something good. In terms of being a parent, I was grateful that I’d been presented with a situation where I could demonstrate how to deal with an unpleasant situation in a sensitive and intelligent way.

It wasn’t another case of “Now, what would you do if you saw a woman being shouted at, and threatened in the street?” type scenario. It was actually happening, right outside our house, so we didn’t have the time to ponder over how we’d deal with it. We just had to deal with it.

My daughter called me to her bedroom. “Mum. A man’s shouting at a woman and she’s crying.”

We watched at her window. The woman, perched on a neighbour’s wall, was clearly half-cut but extremely upset. The man was pointing his finger at her accusingly, calling her bitch and cunt.  The woman sobbed and stared into her lap looking incredibly lost.

Just another pissed-up couple having a row, I thought. Sad, but something I see quite a lot around where we live. Was it grounds to call the police? He hadn’t hit her.

But then I had to correct myself. It was clearly not a fight, as the woman was being subjected to this man’s anger but was not in any way retaliating. She was passive throughout: not fighting back, not looking up.

The man walked a few steps and pulled out a knife from inside his coat. It was long and looked sharp.

“Call the police, mum” said my daughter, as we continued to watch the man bend to hide his weapon in a bush that adjoined the two houses opposite. He carried on walking, and without further pestering, the woman stood up and followed him, like a dog that knew she wasn’t loved by her cruel owner, but worried if she’d survive without him. They disappeared around the corner.

Strangely enough, during my telephone conversation with an officer (where I provided some pretty detailed descriptions of the type of trainers, hat and coat the man was wearing, due to my daughter’s fastidious examination of the visible branding, impressive from 20 feet away) the man and woman reappeared on our street. He walked in front; she dragged behind.

The police cars arrived shortly afterwards, and nobody ran. Later, when the officers knocked on our door to question us, we were told the man had been arrested due to possession of a dangerous weapon. We had seen him getting into the van, shouting “Wait until I see you next, bitch,” to the woman, who had been searched but not arrested.

Only a couple of weeks before the knife incident I was with my daughter at a restaurant in town. As our food arrived, we heard a man’s angry shouting rise above the general noise of the room.

When I looked up I saw that he was shouting at a woman. There were two young children also present. (I later learnt that this was his wife and their daughters). The man wasn’t drunk, and he wasn’t wearing a tracksuit from Brixton Market. He was well dressed, and well spoken. He stormed away from the table and over to the counter.

“GET OVER HERE AND GIVE ME THE FIFTY QUID. DID YOU HEAR ME? DAMN WELL COME HERE NOW, OR I’M LEAVING!”

I think the whole restaurant went into hush mode, not really knowing what was going on. A fight between a customer and a waiter? No, actually, but that would have been preferable.

The man didn’t just stop there. He continued to shout from across the restaurant. He seemed far from embarrassed, which in itself was terrifying, because he was in an uncontrollable rage. What we were all witnessing was a man humiliating and verbally attacking his wife in public. It couldn’t be brushed under the carpet by anyone.

I couldn’t watch anymore and I stood up. I told my daughter to stay sitting. I was shaking, but I walked over to where the man was standing and I told him that I could not bear to see him shouting at his partner, in front of their children. He refused to acknowledge me. I went over to the wife and asked if I could do anything. She was crying. “Sorry. You probably think I can’t cope. I can usually, really.”

“I don’t think anybody would or should be able to cope with the way he behaves, but you’re doing brilliantly” I replied.

“Daddy’s very grumpy,” one of the girls said. Was this normal, I asked myself?

“My husband is a bastard,” the woman said, in a voice so quiet that it suggested she’d probably never said it out loud before.

“Thank you so much,” she said, as I helped her get the girls into their coats.

Her husband made his way back to the table, but stood away from all of us, a look of extreme arrogance on his face.

When everything was buttoned and zipped up, I asked if I could do anything else. What I really wanted to do was accompany the woman and her children to another place, away from this man’s rage. I wanted them to feel safe, but deep down I knew that they wouldn’t until some drastic changes were made, and I couldn’t make those changes.

So I returned to my table, pulled a business card from my handbag and surreptitiously handed it to the woman. “Please, call me. I have experienced this and you must do something.”

I later thought this seemed like the act of an evangelical nut, or an interfering do-gooder, but to be honest I didn’t care. The thing that bothered me was that this woman might not have had anyone to talk to.

The next day I received a text. “Thank you for your kindness yesterday. My husband is really stressed at the moment, but that does not excuse his behaviour. What you saw usually happens at home where no-one else can see.” I replied with a short bit of advice, and some support numbers. That was all I could do.

I hope she is seeking help. It’s sometimes hard to tell if the victims continue to excuse their abuser’s behaviour, through shame and loyalty and a need to keep it together. Just the very words she uttered in the restaurant “You probably think I can’t cope” seemed to suggest that she held herself responsible for making everything appear ‘normal’, in the face of her husband’s abusive behaviour.

The reason I’ve mentioned these two very separate incidents is because I’ve thought about them a lot, perhaps because upset usually lingers for longer than something uplifting. It’s the knowing that I can’t fix some things that frustrates, niggles and causes a sense of dis-ease.

And I’ve been in an abusive relationship, and in times of need, I was treated with kindness from friends and total strangers. I want to give something back.

On these occasions I was able to help. I felt safe. The outcome is questionable (the idea of an arrest is not always simply “Great! They’ve got the bad guy and now everyone can get on with their happy lives”). But it was, I believe, better than being a passive observer.

If I try to look at my involvement in these events in a positive light I think the fact that my daughter was present allowed me to actively demonstrate how to help someone in need. But that would seem very self-regarding, and suggests that I need real-life acting out of all sorts of predicaments (to the detriment of others), in order to show how to intervene in the ‘correct’ way.

Of course, it is not always easy to speak up. I don’t really want to be punched in the face by a hench guy twice my size, so I choose who I tell off in the park. “Erm, I think your dog just pooed over there, so you might want to pick it up,” is, I confess, something I prefer to say to a woman who looks a bit like me, rather than a bloke of 6ft 2 with a Staff Bull. Yes, I may be a coward but I like to think I know my limits.

As for the crying woman on the wall, she’s probably still wandering around looking a bit lost. Sadly, she’s most likely gone back to her man, if he’s out of handcuffs. But hopefully, one day she’ll have the strength to walk away.

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4 Responses to “When you can’t look away”

  1. sarinamoliver March 26, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

    You did your daughter proud my darling.
    Great writing. X

  2. Sharon Davies March 26, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    You never cease to move and amaze me Grace.Wow.

  3. britishbeautyblogger March 27, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

    I have had two similar experiences right outside my house.

    One, a man pushing and shoving a woman and shouting at her. I didn’t feel there was time to call the police so I went out and told him to leave her alone. He did have the grace to look embarrassed and he did stop. Every time he sees me to this day he yells abuse at me but weirdly, I also see her a lot (not together any more) and she has never once acknowledged my presence. She won’t even meet my eye.

    The second time was a younger couple.. he was shouting and shouting at her – really frustrated and angry and I was terrified for her.. so again, I went out and stopped them and asked her if she needed help. He burst into tears, turned around and one side of his face was running with blood from where she had scratched him with her long nails. She stayed totally passive and didn’t speak to me once. It was never clear whether it was just a terrible row, whether it was a usual thing for her to physically attack him or whether indeed he had instigated any violence.

    I think the bottom line is that if someone needs immediate help, you have to try and give it and thereafter, there isn’t a great deal you can do. I can’t hand on heart say I would have liked to become involved in any further way with either of them, but sometimes a stranger can break the moment and allow it to move along to something less intense.

    Well done you for speaking up.. it isn’t easy at all because all your fight and flight hormones come in to play (certainly my flight ones were nice and revved up on both occasions) and especially when it’s in front of others as in your restaurant experience.

    • mothersruined March 27, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

      Thank you for your comment. Sounds like you did a very brave thing on both occasions. And like you say, sometimes a stranger can step in and allow time for a very necessary, and immediate pause.

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