115. Soulsisters

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

His car had that smell. Old tobacco, men, dogs, vinyl, spilt food. Dina depressed the button to open her window a little, and he immediately pressed the master button to wind it back up.

“My car, my rules,” he said.

“I get a bit car sick when the heating’s on,” Dina said.

He wound down her window just a crack, and turned the heating knob from 24 to 21. “Take off your jacket and your shoes and socks if you feel hot. You’ll get used to it. I like it warm,” he said.

There wasn’t a day that went by where she didn’t regret marrying him. She imagined how her life would be if she’d kept her shoes on, got out of the car at the traffic lights and just ran. No matter how much she repented, it never got any easier. She convinced herself he was the lesser of two evils. He had wooed her with the promise of a life as his wife, which was supposed to save her from the boredom of looking after her parents. They told him she was a wild cat that needed routine and discipline to tame her. She realised she had made a mistake just a few days into the honeymoon.

He put an app on her phone so he knew where she was every moment of the day, and wrote a shopping list of places to go to and in which order. Drive the car to town. Doctor. Pharmacy. Library. Back to the pharmacy to collect her prescription. £10 to treat herself in the charity shop, but only if he thought she deserved it. Supermarket. Home. At first, he would ring her every 20 minutes, but then, over time, the frequency of calls dropped, until he trusted her enough to do this monthly visit on her own.

The bruises were in places that didn’t show, and he was careful that she was always clean for the Doctor. Not that she was allowed to wear clothes that showed off her shape in any event. He knew what was best. She’d made a vow that her body was his so other men weren’t even allowed to look. He slashed a dentist’s tyres because he put his fingers inside her mouth, so she never went again. Those three hours of freedom every month were the best and worst, but woe betide if the supermarket didn’t have the food he wanted, or she bought something he considered to be slutty from the thrift store.

An unsuitable book fell of the shelf and as she put it back, she noticed the ‘#Ask for Angela’ poster on the library wall. The next thing Dina remembered was that she was sitting on a wooden chair, with the feeling of someone stroking her hair, even though there was no-one else there. She looked at her watch. 11.11am. She still had time. A hushed conversation with the librarian who then rang her friend in the charity shop. Within ten minutes, Dina had a free bag of clothes as a running away kit, and a lift to the train station. On the way there, she threw her phone out of the car window.

In road rage vs truck, the car always loses. Dina read about it in the paper, but she didn’t dare believe it until the police came knocking. She thought they were there to arrest her. Even though she was twenty miles away on a train when he died, Dina knew this was her fault because he’d gone out looking for her.

It took over a year before she was able to sleep again. They say that if you live long enough, you see the same eyes in different people over and over again, but she can’t take that chance. Her only ambition left in this world is to be defiant enough to hold someone’s gaze. Like she used to do.

Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash

107. Design Bulletin 32

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Photo by Raphaël Biscaldi on Unsplash

“All Life is forwards, you will see.” 

The Beigeness by Kate Tempest

All Sofie wanted was to get out of this lay-by of a town as soon as she could. It was stifling, a predictable, cookie-cutter, Edward Scissorhands estate where everyone was a clone or a drone. They all bragged about how much their house was worth but how little they spent on food from the local European mega-hypermarket. Their disposable, mass-produced, bland uniforms bought from the giant dazzling, car park shrine to Arcadia.

The only thing her mother said after child body parts were found in oversized plant pots in the dentist’s house round the corner, was “you never know what goes on behind closed doors”. Neighbours tutted about how it “affected the resale value” and that they could hardly believe it was true because “he was such a lovely man,” but they never once said anything about the girl. Yeah, middle-class people were such proper aspirational role-models. They didn’t drink or abuse their own kids did they? Some dinner parties were code for swingers. More pills and coke than a rock band’s dressing room. They’d still elbow their own mothers out of the way for a place at the local Catholic high school.

When her sister Jade, came back from a gap year of backpacking round Asia, she was in a black trouser suit almost before her nose-ring had been taken out. A few net curtains twitched as she walked up the drive in her billowing patchwork pantaloon trousers. Never fear, they went straight into in the dustbin. Dreadlocks off to reveal a cute pixie crop. It was as if everyone was allowed a year away from ‘normality’ and was then neutralised back to generic acceptability. Don’t even think about putting your bins out whilst still in your pyjamas.

Their parents tried the same trick again with Sofie but she wasn’t having any of it. “After you’ve done your Masters, we’ll pay for you to go travelling or buy you a car. Your choice.” The only caveat was that she had to live at home and go to one of the local Universities. Sofie thought the point of higher education was to the chance to live independently and experience life with people from all different backgrounds, not as the primary way to get a higher income as fast as possible.

One family said nothing about their offspring’s University aspirations then nonchalantly dropped the bombshell of “Oh, our son is at Yale.” You could sense the seething resentment bubbling at that dinner party like a thumb over a hosepipe.

Why couldn’t here be like it was in Denmark? People didn’t actually all need their own tiny square of green. If the gardens were all joined together, kids could actually play outside again. People would sit and chat. Be neighbourly. Look out for each other. Grow veg. Have barbeques. Form a cross-generational community. Obesity and loneliness obliterated. Sort of like the intent of London gated gardens in Kensington. They might share the same cleaners but they were well-paid enough to be loyal, crucially remaining tight-lipped about the contents of other people’s knicker drawers. If someone gossips to you, the chances are that they are also talking about your life to someone else behind your back.

No matter how big the driveways were, some people would always park on the road, usually at the exact spot where children wanted to naturally cross it. Pedestrians and cyclists seemed to be an afterthought in this plan. There was no point even trying to discuss it. People’s entitlement extended to the public road immediately in front their front gates. It was an unforgiveable sin to park your car outside someone else’s house. Don’t even get me started on the pitfalls of driving a works van.

A neighbour, Stan, with a blue-eyed, Siberian Husky named Rula, was pressured into muzzling his dog whenever he took it for a walk, just to placate the neighbours. When he discovered sympathetic Polish graffiti on the side of his garage. Nie wywołuj wilka z lasu  (translates as ‘do not call the wolf out of the woods’ or ‘let sleeping dogs lie’)  he left it, and it would still be there today if some unknown person had not painted over it when he was on holiday.

Heaven help anyone who wanted to tinker with a motorbike outside their OWN property on a sunny afternoon, with the radio on low, or who didn’t water or cut their front lawn often enough. Failing to deadhead flowers or having the wrong kind of patio chair was punishable by being ostracised from the PTA. You might find an influx of dead snails on your path, all with smashed shells, that had been tossed over the fence during the night in frustration, because your lack of local pride was showing up their impeccable, efforts. Having an argument within earshot of the neighbours rendered you invisible and people always claimed they “never heard anything”. They wanted to know why an ambulance with flashing blue lights was outside your house at 2am, but they would never actually be the one to call the police about a ‘domestic’. They’re not getting involved.

Some of the best one-upmanship efforts ever displayed were at Christmas. Most people wouldn’t be stupid enough to display the packaging from their gifts of electronic gadgets and children’s toys for fear of opportunist burglars, but here, it seemed to be mandatory. How on earth could everyone possibly keep up with the competition but still stay in their own lane?

The final straw was when some neighbours won the lottery. They didn’t want to move. They would build an extension. If that wasn’t enough, one of their teenagers bought a drum kit and VW camper van. Clearly obvious deliberate provocation designed only to put ideas into the heads of the other kids on the estate.

Sofie decided that the invitation to spend the summer in Cornwall with her childhood friend was a brilliant way to get out of Dodge. She could practice her guitar and get a job as a waitress, whilst he surfed, and maybe, their band would get good enough to even play some gigs.

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Photo by Eugen Popescu on Unsplash

72. Serenity Now

This post is about the consequences of adult bullying.

I may as well not even be there. I sit between them in the open-plan office and they ignore me. They talk animatedly to each other, about TV, music, food, football, the weather, their families, office politics, weddings, sport, films, holidays, diets, alcohol, clothes, celebrities. If I try to join in, I am frozen out. I sense a prickle in the air as the atmosphere changes. Like I’d opened the window on a winter’s day. Once I asked them if they could talk about a new film another time because I hadn’t yet seen it, so didn’t want any spoiler alerts. Their incredulous looks sent pangs of ice through my heart.

My opinion is of no consequence at all. It does not matter. I am irrelevant. Old. Pointless. Unwanted. Snobby. Up my own arse. Too political. Not cool. Weird. The volume of their voices drowns out everything in my headphones. So there I am, invisible, listening to their chit-chat and jokes all day, but excluded from contributing anything. I am in a glass bubble. Mute. Silenced.

Their repeated, anticipated reaction means I am learning to be afraid to speak. There is a tacit agreement that I am forbidden from joining in. If I do, then the conversation will abruptly end, or they will pretend they have not heard me. If someone does reply to me, our conversation will run parallel to the original one.

My heart booms in my own ears and stomach, my throat constricts with a dry, nervous cough. Swallowing is impossible now. I press my tongue to the roof of my mouth, trying to blink back tears, but cannot stop one from falling down my cheek. I rise, head down and slip out of the room, unnoticed. I want to run. I try to remember my mindfulness training and breathe through the impending panic, then lock myself in the ladies room. I figure that this is the best place for me right now. Silent screams. I blow my nose and wash my face. I could be in here all day. No-one will come looking for me.

They think I’m depressed, anxious, bipolar, have aspergers, hormonal, borderline, got ADHD or every other amateur diagnosis they’ve heard of or read about online. I’m high maintenance. Overemotional. Hypersensitive. Can’t take a joke. Too full on. Annoying. Jekyll and Hyde. That I’ve got pain issues so I’ll snap at them for no reason. A crazy bitch. I talk to much. A nutter. That I never shut up ranting. I don’t fit in so they cannot accomodate me. I agree I was a bit much for a few weeks. It was well over a year ago, I was completely upfront about it at the time, and my new medication stabilised me very quickly. I’ve been a model employee for nearly a year, but as we all know, old habits die hard. No-one likes to be proved wrong. I haven’t said more than 20 words a week to them in the last six months. I’ve worked really hard to change. Have they? When will they consider I have been punished enough? Then, I remember that I’ll be gone soon, so what does it matter? I feel better for a moment. This time next year it will be as if I never existed.

Being treated like this makes me seethe. So much so, that I’ve gone back to my boxercise class to try to rid myself of this constant bubbling anger, and to yoga to try to regain some peace. I’m wearing a teeth guard at night because I grind them so much.

They’ve been counting points and having naughty, cheat days, and between them they haven’t even lost half of what I have. If you really want to know how to lose weight, try being bullied for over a year. A side-effect of the stress.

Every morning I wish for some kind of minor illness so I won’t have to go to work, but I have to, because an employer will look at my sick record. Applying for every new vacancy takes so much effort, and takes up most of my weekends, but I keep going because every day that passes is a day closer to leaving and starting afresh. I can’t even take a day off, because I’m saving up all of my holiday to use in my notice period.

I know the circle never ends. Bystanders don’t intervene. They don’t want to take sides. It’s nothing to do with them. They’re staying out of it and not rocking the boat. Why should they be the one to stick their head above the parapet? They don’t consider being complicit as bullying. People would rather be loyal to group, even though they know it is wrong, for fear of themselves being ostracised. I might think they’re my friend if they’re nice to me or turn on them, mistaking their kindness for pity. Best not to get involved at all.

I wonder if they would want someone to stand up and support the victim if it was one of their family that was living through this day after day?

I’ve seen them walking towards me in the street. I felt like I was going to pass out. I had a few seconds to prepare my reaction and all I could do was wave a hand in a hi gesture whilst willing myself not to cry. NO EYE CONTACT.  DO NOT PANIC.

I breathe in for four, hold my breath for five, then breathe out for six. Repeat until calmer.

Then, one day, I take my house key out of the keyhole, and push open the front door. A large, fat letter on the door mat is preventing the door from opening as smoothly as usual. I notice the envelope has the logo of the company I interviewed with a fortnight ago and in that split-second, I know that everything will be ok.