25 August 2011

A kiss with a fist

Don't EVER ring Southampton again!
One of the biggest reactions I got from my post Twists in the Road was to a sentence I wrote in passing:

I lived a miserable few months first in his house, until we had an inevitable screaming row, in which he punched me in the face.

It happened so long ago – 21 years ago, to be precise – that to me it was mentioned almost as an aside. But the response I got on Twitter, Facebook and the blog itself was of horror and shock. I feel little emotion about it at all anymore. It was so long ago, and the emotional abuse I suffered at the hands (or rather, the words) of my ex-husband – calling me frigid, fat, blaming me for his depression (the list goes on) – was far worse, in my book. I can see though why it shocked people, especially those who know me as a quietly strong person who isn't crossed easily.

Women have been through far worse physical abuse than that one punch. But I remember it clearly. And here's the story.

When I was in junior year of university, I spent a year abroad. Like any American student my first thought was to go to London. A representative from the University of Sheffield convinced me, with stunning photos of the Yorkshire countryside, to visit that fair city instead. Yeah, I know. That industrial city is hardly bucolic paradise. But I loved it there. And I fell in love with a man (ok, a boy) there.

We spent an academic year in the passionate bliss that is the reserve of the young. At the end of the year, we had to part. But not quite yet. When summer came, he came to the US through a programme called BUNAC, which gave him a working permit for the season. He stayed with my family and we had a wonderful summer together. He ate our food, I drove him everywhere, he didn't pay rent, and none of it mattered, because we were in love.

At the end of the summer, after a long drive to JFK airport and a tearful farewell, he returned to Sheffield to finish his degree, and I stayed in the US to finish mine. I immediately signed up to BUNAC as well, which also gives US students work visas for the UK, planning to come over as soon as I graduated.

In the meantime, early in the new year, I was dumped.

I came to the UK anyway. I rationalised that I'd already paid for the visa and the flight. At heart, I probably (certainly) hoped we'd get back together. We didn't get back together. But because I didn't know anyone else in the UK, I stayed at his. You can imagine what the tension was like. He was seeing someone new and I was miserable.

Things came to a head one night. I phoned a friend who was in Southampton at the time and he went ballistic that I was using the family phone. I thought this was unreasonable (I still do). And it turned into a heated, blazing row. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor, cartoon stars spinning around my head. After the initial shock, I screamed, and ran from the house.

…And then I realised I was in the middle of Ealing Common, late at night, with nowhere to go. A kind old man told me not to cry because I was “too pretty to cry” but I wasn't and I did. Reluctantly, I headed back to the house. I met him on the way. He told me I'd provoked him into hitting me during the argument.

In a way, it was the greatest favour he'd ever done me. In the second his fist met my temple, I fell out of love with him.

There followed a miserable time when I moved from youth hostel to youth hostel. One night I had so little money that I had to forgo a meal to pay for a room. Eventually I got a job in a pub (for the princely sum of £25 a week), and then an office job (for the extravagant salary of £8000 a year), and slowly I built up my own life from there.

A while later, he wrote me a letter telling me how sorry he was, and what a great girlfriend I was. It didn't even touch me. (Aside: my ex-husband also ended up crying one night about the way he'd treated me. Too little, too late. Don't appreciate someone after you've punched their lights out or beaten their self-confidence to a pulp and expect a happy ending.)

It's all such ancient history that when I recall it, it's as though I'm telling a story, not my own. That punch was at once the lowest point of my young life, and the start of my adult life.

Photo: freedigitalphotos.net

For advice about abuse please visit this BBC information page for resources, charities and helplines.


  1. I sometimes look back on my experiences and feel like it was somebody else's life, I assume that's a good thing. Thanks for telling the tale, hope you never have to tell a similar one ever again.

  2. A powerful bit of writing. I didn't get hit, but some of this rings true for me. This is what blogging is for: telling the truth, and giving other people the opportunity to think 'so it's not just me'.

  3. Thanks both for your comments. Some stories are easier to tell with the buffer of time and this is one. As a writer friend of mine said at the weekend, everyone has stories to tell; this is one of mine (well the whole blog is!) It didn't do lasting damage to my psyche or self-esteem, but I'm one of the lucky ones.