....Coloured lights were strung in swags from lamp-post to lamp-post. Lights delineated the stone gables and studded the fir trees on shop front pediments. She smiled, enjoying the sting of the night air on her cheeks as she paused there, on the step of the Prince Rupert, to shrug on her coat. It had only been a few months, but the fact was undeniable. Already she’d begun to relax, begun to see the future with optimism, begun to feel safe – safer than in a long time.
She must bring Rory into town one evening soon. There were many childhood years ahead of him – plenty of time to make trips back to London for its bizarre cocktail of the gaudy and the glamorous. For the present, the simple Christmas decorations in this old market town would seem magical enough to him. His happiness and security were all important. It might just be the two of them from now on, and their pleasures might be simple, but life would be normal and safe; on that she was determined.
Without warning the lights jagged upwards, meteor tails zigzagging through the sky. The ground tipped. A jarring thud reverberated up her spine. At first she was too stunned by the heavy fall to understand what had happened. Then came the flush of embarrassment and self-blame. Why had she chosen to wear these stilt-heeled boots? Who on earth was she expecting to impress in this backwater? Already, in the split second since the world had tilted up and smacked her on the bottom, she sensed the damp chill of the stone flags seeping through her clothes, reaching her skin.
‘Get up! Fucking histrionic cow!’
Comprehension shocked through her in a sickening rush. Only then did she register the drag on her scalp, the whiplash pain in her neck. She tried to get up; the urgent need to retrieve her dignity overriding fear. But again he’d grabbed her hair and was hauling her up from the ground – her high heels slid and scrabbled to gain purchase on the slick surface.
‘Stop it! Stop pulling my hair you bastard!’
‘Then fucking get up, fucking c... bitch!’
‘You pulled me over!’
‘Balls! You throw yourself on the ground and scream blue murder as soon as anyone looks at you!’
Anyone? Did he really believe he was one of many falsely accused?
‘You’ve always been a drama queen.’
Why was she so surprised? Because until this moment she’d managed to convince herself she would be safe here, that he would rather pretend he didn’t care than add to the indignity by running after her. As time passed her confidence had grown, the tight, hard knots in shoulders and neck gradually loosening. Now, disillusion took over from surprise. Defeated fatigue weighted her limbs, fuddled her brain.
‘Why have you come here?’ she asked bleakly. ‘What do you want, Sean?’
‘You know! Don’t be fucking stupid as well as fucking deceitful and cowardly! No one runs out on me! I want you to come home! I want us to be a family again!’
‘And this is the best way to persuade me? To make me realise what a fool I’ve been? Chase me halfway across the country, then assault and abuse me in the street?’
‘You don’t know what abuse is! I’ve seen real abuse. Women with broken bones, ruptured organs....’
‘Exactly! Didn’t want to hang around till it got that bad. Anyway, we’ve never been a real family!’
His face darkened. ‘You’re a fucking spiteful slag! So bloody superior and sanctimonious! Always making out I’m worse than I am, that I’m not worthy of you and Rory ... like I’m some kind of bloody animal!’
You said it, she thought. Sheila had the right idea. Give them enough time and all men revealed themselves as pigs - though that was being offensive to pigs. She wondered where he’d sprung from. Had he discovered her address? Had he been following her? The pub was full; he could easily have been lurking in a corner behind the older regulars hugging the bar, or the gangs of boisterous, bragging youths and raucous girls in their Friday night finery. Though it wouldn’t have been easy to remain hidden amongst the group of ‘new-agers’ who’d colonised a bench table near the window behind them.
‘You’re the fucking animal!’ Sean continued. ‘You’re the slut! And the second you’re out of my sight, you’re out gallivanting, neglecting your precious son!’
‘Neglecting him? This is the first time I’ve been out in nearly three months! And it’s not like I’ve been clubbing all night! This is a pub. It’s barely ten o’clock. All I’ve drunk is a glass of wine and some tonic. I came out to have a drink with a woman friend and I’ve been no more than a couple of hours. Rory is perfectly fine. He’s with my neighbour. But she’ll be expecting me back by now. You’ve already made me late. I have to collect him....’
‘I’ll drive you,’ Sean interrupted.
‘No.’ Apart from anything else he was obviously unfit. ‘How do you think I got here? My car is….’
‘Then I’ll follow you.’ He grabbed her arm. ‘I’d like to say hi to Rory.’
‘What are you...? Stop! Stop it! The car park’s the other way!’
‘We’ll go and get my car.’ His tone had moderated but retained a hint of exasperation as if she were the one being unreasonable. ‘Drive to yours. Then I can follow you.’
At once she was convinced this was a ploy; he didn’t know where she lived. Perhaps he’d come to the town on a hunch, knowing she had nostalgic memories of the area. Or perhaps a friend had let slip that she’d spoken of looking for a place near Warford. If so it was a dismal coincidence he should run into her on her first evening out. But if he really didn’t have her address she was desperate to keep it that way.
‘No, it’s too late. Where are you staying? I’ll meet you tomorrow,’ she lied, attempting a more conciliatory tone, ‘....bring Rory. We can have coffee and a chat.’
‘Oh no! I’m not waiting till the morning!’ His grip tightened. ‘I know you, you’ll chicken out...!’
‘I won’t! I won’t!’ She tried to pull away, but he held on. He couldn’t really intend to force her to go with him, could he? A cold sweat prickled her skin. She began to feel panicky, feverish. The heavy pulse of blood throbbed loud in her head. A fumbling struggle began, hampered by layers of winter clothing. Fighting and elbowing, she finally slipped out of his grasp; he was left holding her unbuttoned coat. Her bag skidded over the wet paving stones. She staggered backwards towards the pub and picked up the bag. Even though it was new and expensive she didn’t care about the coat. Nothing mattered beyond the imperative to lose him and get home to her son, but Sean dropped the coat and was after her, yanking at her long hair again, winding it round his hand.
‘We’ll do it my way!’ He started to pull her along.
‘Stop it!’ Stooped and tottering on her ridiculous heels, she still resisted him. ‘Get off me, Sean!’ she squawked, dipping and twisting her head to relieve the drag on her scalp. Traffic swished by on the damp road; cars, then a van, then a juggernaut, then more cars. None of them slowed. People on the opposite pavement were momentarily interested. A male voice bellowed something incomprehensible, followed by a laugh. No one was concerned about drunken argy-bargy outside a pub. The voices dwindled.
A sudden babble came from inside the pub. Whoever had opened the door was likely to be similarly indulgent to a minor domestic dispute, but by now she was in real pain and the fear was growing. If she achieved nothing else it was worth trying to embarrass Sean in front of an audience. She screeched louder.
‘Stop it! You’re hurting me!’
‘Shut the fuck up, slag!’ Moments passed as she writhed and ducked, scrabbling at his fingers clamped around the twisted hank of hair. A man’s voice chipped in.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Butt out! None of your business!’
‘It is my business. I don’t like to see a lady assaulted in the street.’
‘A lady? You’re mistaken there, mate!’
She began to struggle even more desperately, in the hope Sean might be distracted enough to loosen his grip.
‘Anyway, the slag’s not being assaulted ... she’s my wife!’ The declaration was made with the total assurance of a man who expected the world to agree it was husband’s right to do whatever he liked to his spouse. At this moment she broke free and ran a few paces towards the other man.
‘I don’t care who she is, pal. It’s an abuse of power and it’s unciv’lised behaviour!’ Though taller than Sean, her unexpected champion did not have his muscled bulk, and judging by his style of dress and knitted hat, he was a lot younger. She wouldn’t have given odds in his favour if this confrontation came to a fight.
‘Uncivilised!’ Sean spluttered. ‘You accuse me of being uncivilised! Look at you! You’re a fucking tramp!’
‘Call me what you like, but if you don’t leave the lady alone I’ll get the landlord,’ he tipped his head towards the pub, ‘to phone the police!’
Sean began to laugh. ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you, son. I am the police. And if you’re not careful I’ll arrest you for breach of the peace and threatening behaviour.’
At this the other man seemed to consider. ‘You’ll show me your warrant card then?’
‘I’m off duty,’ Sean improvised. And way outside your jurisdiction, she thought.
‘So, I’ll get him to call them anyway, then, shall I, Mister Policeman? You can explain why you were dragging your ... er wife? ... along the street by her hair.’
She could have kissed him. He even seemed to doubt Sean’s claim to be her husband. The rest of the ‘new-age’ group were gradually piling out onto the forecourt, and gathering around the first man in unspoken support. Though Sean continued to bluster he was now sounding less sure of his ground.
‘Are you coming with me or not, Jess?’ he eventually asked, as if by now she should somehow have been convinced she would be better off with him.
‘What part of go away don’t you understand? Get lost! It’s over!’
Sean took a few accelerating steps towards her, anger and frustration flared in his face. There was movement behind her, a murmur of resistance. He stopped an arm’s length away and spat out, ‘You’re such a fucking bitch!’
‘If that’s what you think why do you want me to come back?’
‘We’re a couple!’
‘Oh yes. Where one steals from the other?’
‘I borrowed it! I was going to pay it back!’
‘In your dreams! I’m not coming back with you, Sean. We’re not married! I don’t want to be married ... and certainly not to you!’
‘And if I have any more of this harassment I’ll get a court order. Your employers would like that?’
‘You wouldn’t dare!’ His finger jabbed at her repeatedly. The last aggressive poke thudded bluntly into the top of her breastbone. ‘Who’d believe you?’
She pushed his hand away. ‘I didn’t believe Gaynor. But I’ve got her address and number. If we’re both singing from the same hymn sheet it’ll be harder to dismiss!’
‘The girls would gang up on me, eh?’ he sneered, grabbing at her wrist. He darted quick looks at the eccentric audience, caution mixed with bravado, as if he yet hoped to persuade them he was in the right. She tried to pull her hand out of his grasp.
‘If we have to. Let go of me Sean!’
The group moved closer. The rumble of dissenting voices grew louder. As if suddenly aware of his vulnerability Sean looked around at the oddball band of individuals. There could be no doubt now whose side they were on. The man in the woolly hat moved closer, reached forward. Sean reared back, shoulder raised as if to strike. But the first man’s gesture was placatory.
‘You’re not hearing the lady, pal. Why give yourself all this grief? Force never solved anything. It’s obvious she doesn’t want to go with you.’
Sean let go of her wrist, flailed wildly at the man, knocking his hand away as if disgusted by his touch.
‘What do you know about it?’ he roared. ‘It was me rescued her! Picked her up and stood by her when she was in trouble!’
‘And I’m bloody tired of having to be grateful, Sean!’ Jess interrupted. ‘I’m tired of being pressured to go back to work. Tired of being shouted at or slapped whenever you feel frustrated. And I’m tired of you bullying Rory!’
‘Bullying? He needs discipline. You seem determined to turn him into a wimp. Well, don’t come running to me, darling, next time your life goes belly up!’ He glanced round at the others. ‘I should have realised you’d have found yourself another man ... men, by now. Don’t think much of your choice. You must be desperate! I’ll give it six months before you come running back.…’
‘It’s not up for negotiation, Sean.’
‘Even if you don’t want me, you’ll never hack it here! You’ll never be able to stay away from London. Impossible! You? Keep away from the shops? I’d like to see it.’
‘I no longer want that life.’
‘Then stay with your posse of weirdo friends. See how long you last! And don’t worry about harassment! I’m not coming here again. I’m not begging! You’re welcome to this fucking half-arsed town! Go to fucking hell, Jessica!’Sean stooped to pick up her coat and flung it towards her contemptuously. It landed on the ground near the young man; he stooped to pick it up.
Sean’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’d just better be hot stuff in bed, son, if you’ve a prayer of keeping that bitch interested,’ he said, before slouching bullishly up the road, stopping just once to glare at the people clustered protectively around her.