Even by the time I reached the payphone; a twenty-minute walk from the house I had left, the blood from my nose was still streaming down.
It seemed the only real thing in the world in that moment, the other things I might dully notice – the cars whizzing past on the road, the muddy grass beside the gravel, the chinks of light peeping out from behind pulled curtains glinting like embers from a cigarette – all appearing illusory, a picture in a story book I could never believe in again. I never can think straight after a blow, still unable to comprehend it had landed at all but this time something had hurried within me, forced me out of the state of inertia I had been in so long.
I opened the door, doubled over and wheezing, my fingers massaging my chest, doing the now perfected check for broken ribs – one, two, three, is that one cracked? no, just bruised – and then pull the handle, cold in the winter night. I stood there for a minute, my hands trembling against the walls, breath choking in frightened gasps in my throat, in for four, hold for seven, release for eight, come on now, BREATHE – and fumbled in the lining of my coat for the change I had kept hidden in the lining, away from the checks she carried out on my wallet every day.
From the other pocket, the little poster I had spotted on a noticeboard walking to work that day, I’d quickly plucked down while taking a cursory glance around to make sure no one had seen me take it, premonitions of mocking snorts and scoffs already ringing in my ears. It was quite old, corners peeling and slightly yellow, and the dates for the support meetings:
29th September 1993 at 6:00PM in St Mary’s community centre, 6th October 1993 at 7:00PM at Brackenbury Hall
It had passed but a 24-hour number, promising to advise and support to anyone in need, was still printed on there. It appeared to me as the last bit of clarity in a world of madness, like the labels EAT and DRINK ME on the cakes and bottles in Alice’s Wonderland. The number on the poster, well, in many ways it was just that, but it was also so much more; a promise, hope, my biggest and only one.
I felt like a man swept out with the tide, drowning in the sea, just spotting a ship’s light in the distance, a lifeline rope bobbing on churning waves, just visible in the corners of my bruised eyes. The phone rings once, twice, and then-
“Hello?” it was a soft voice, a woman’s voice. My heart both shrunk and leapt; I’d wanted it not to be a woman, dreading a gentle tone taking my mind back to any of these past nights, where that gentle tone and its soft undertones rotted into fury, and yet I shrunk from the idea of telling a man, breathing in that stifled miasma that formed in its close apathy, whenever male comradery grows. In retrospect, it didn’t really matter who answered. All I needed was a kind word.
“Domestic violence and abuse helpline, how can I help you?” she asked, her voice a warm promise of sympathy, reminiscent of a hand taking mine, looking into eyes brimming with understanding, as if to say I believe you, I know what you are going through. My grip on the phone tightened, as if it would pull me out of those deep waters.
“Hello” I eventually said, trying to stop the crack in my voice, inhaling quickly to try to stop the saltwater welling up in my eyes.
“Hello sir, how can I help you?” The same gentle voice, but just hearing the deepness of mine, it was already changed. More guarded, watchful, polite but distant, a smile given over shop tills, tube seats and apartment doors, before the bolts are pulled, with keys between knuckles, bags and coats pulled over chests. But I couldn’t give up so soon, couldn’t relinquish that last hope, and so carried on, even though I could already feel the knots of the rope graze my palms as it began to slip from my fists.
“Well, um, see…” I began, and my voice is definitely shaking, my chin and throat aching in that awful nauseous way when tears are near, and she must hear its crack, but she offers nothing, and warmth begins to ebb away. I tried again, quickly, as though I could see an invisible timer ticking alongside the meter, the light of the search boat slowly beginning to recede. “My girlfriend, she’s been, well, kind of hitting me for a while, and no one I know would probably believe me, but I’m really scared, and I don’t know what to do and I saw this number and I thought perhaps you could help me to-“
“I’m sorry sir, but this helpline is for women only. We find a woman- orientated environment facilitates recovery speed, and that masculine influences are harmful to their welfare.”
All warmth gone, she’s an ice woman now, lips set, eyebrows raised, how dare I intrude into their world? She goes to say something else- what, I’ll never know. Perhaps because of it, I have only myself to blame for the dull ring echoing dimly as I slam the phone down.
That lifeline rope is gone I thought, a touch of wild hysteria entering my voice. Pulled out of sight by avenging hands, the sins of my companions taking it forever out of my empty grasp. Instead, the blood still trickles down my face as I flail in choking tides, ready to drown.