Not only is leaving an abusive relationship hard, sometimes seemingly impossible, it is dangerous. At the time of leaving, and in the days, weeks or months after, the victim is often the most at risk of being hurt by their abuser as they ever have been.
It’s so still. So quiet. So calm. It’s dark, apart from shards of light from outside that creep through the shutters. It casts it’s warm glow across the hotel room in which she and her children are now safe. She looks across at the three little people sleeping peacefully beside her. They had pushed the two single beds together when they arrived an hour ago, climbed into bed together and fell straight to sleep, their tired little minds wanting to escape from the horrors of being awake. She wants to be sure they’ll never hurt again, but she can’t be sure of anything right now.
George is woken at two in the morning by a call from a police officer. He tells him he has some refugees for him to house for a few nights. He sighs, not again. His hotel has turned into something of a safe house due to it’s close proximity to the station, and his own experience in the force. He gets up, pulls on some clothes and splashes some water in his face. Wandering down into reception he sees a car pull up outside and a few shadowy figures moving in the darkness. He opens the door just wide enough for them to slip in, and closes the door behind them. His heart fills with sadness when he sees his guests. A woman, fairly young, her face pale, black trails smudge down her cheeks. She wears a green vest, a pair of leggings, she’s shivering. She’s holding a toddler in her arms, a little boy, maybe a year old, wearing only a nappy and a vest. He’s clinging to her, a blanket wrapped around his little body. There’s two other little children, haunting big dark eyes staring up at him as they cling to her sides. One maybe 3 the other older, maybe 7 or 8, both in pajamas. The older boy looks terrified, like he’s just seen something no child should ever see. “Would you like something to eat? Something to drink? Come with me.” He leads them to the bar area. “I’m really sorry, there isn’t much here, the kitchens are closed. I can give you some milk for the baby, and some juice cartons for you and the kiddies?” The woman smiles weakly, “Thank you”, she whispers. He finds some cake left over from afternoon tea. “How about some cake?” He asks the little ones. The little girl, a halo of dark curls framing her face, smiles and nods. He wraps the remaining cake in a serviette and passes it to the woman. Her eyes fill with tears, and they trickle down her cheeks. She smiles at him, and takes the cake.
He picks up her three bags left in the reception area, they’re not heavy. He wonders if she has more belongings or if this is it. He shows them into their room, and they push the two single beds together. The children immediately lie down, they are shattered. Poor little mites, he thinks. The woman turns to him and with tears filling her eyes again, she thanks him for his kindness. She has red marks on her face, finger prints on her neck. She looks worn, hollow. “You’re safe now” he says to her.
After he leaves, she surveys the room. It’s very old fashioned. Exposed brick work, floral upholstered chairs, large beach scene pictures hung on white washed stone walls. She doesn’t like the fact that it fronts on to the main road of the higgledy-piggledy old town, that she won’t be able to open their shutters during their stay in case they are seen on the balcony. But regardless of the creeky floorboards, the old dirty looking fridge humming in the corner, and the inappropriate location, it feels homely and welcoming, like arms stretched wide for her telling her everything will be fine now. She walks round to the other side of the bed, where there remains a tiny slither of bed for her. She lies down, fully dressed, and stares up at the ceiling. She’s out. It’s done.
She watches the light through the shutters, it changes colour as the sun comes up, throwing the room into a dull orange glow as the birds begin to sing. The odd car and truck pass on the road below, life does go on. She couldn’t sleep. The feeling of inner calm and peace that she was finally away she had had a few hours earlier, was being replaced with a sense of urgency. Things must be done. She quietly slides out of bed, being careful not to wake the little ones, and tiptoes over to the three bags she had managed to bring with her. She’d felt strong and resourceful as she’d hidden these bags all those weeks ago, delighting in gradually filling them with some of hers and the children’s clothes and belongings without his knowledge, but as she unzipped them now and saw what she’d packed, she was starting to feel less so. Woolly jumpers, tracksuit bottoms, coats, jackets, jeans… in her mind when she packed she would be going home, to England. But here she was, in a hotel room that was getting hotter and hotter with every inch of the rising sun. And, now she thought about it, it was July in England too. Shit. What an idiot.
Her main concern now was getting home. It wasn’t going to be easy. He’d taken their passports while the police were at the house. She’d told them what he was doing, but their answer was, ‘He’s your husband. We can’t stop him’. Story of her life. She’d hidden a handbag behind the bins at her parents villa a few weeks ago. She’d put some loose change in it, a spare bottle for the baby, an old phone, another one of her ‘resourceful’ plans. She just had no way of getting to it. It dawned on her she had no nappies for the baby, he had nappy rash at the moment too, because of the heat. She had no cream. The secret mobile phone she had used to call her parents last night had long since ran out of charge. Secret phones need charging too apparently. Another fail there. Escaping certainly isn’t one of her strong points she thinks to herself. She’d tried to make lists, plans of action, in the lead up to her big escape. When you live with your abuser you cannot slip up. You can’t leave ‘escape lists’ lying around, because he’s on your case all the time. You can’t breathe without him asking what you’re doing and why. So she wrote them in book margins. He never read, he was too stupid for that, and there were lots of books lying around, ‘holiday reads’. Someone one day will find her scribbled escape plans, probably think they’re some intricate plot to a book the writer was planning on penning. She likes that thought, and it makes her chuckle. The problem with holiday-read-margin-escape-plans, is that they’re not easily accessible, you forget what books you’ve written them in, and then you have to find the right page…
Two hours later, she picks up the phone in the room and dials her parents number. The familiar English ring tone makes her feel suddenly very homesick. Her mum answers. Her voice is like a warm hug, and she finds herself crying properly for the first time. “Dad’s looking for flights now, he’s coming out on the first flight. Stay safe. I’m going to speak to the British embassy and work out what we need to do about your passports.”
That day they stay in the room, only leaving to eat in the courtyard restaurant. At breakfast George’s wife, who speaks very little English, fusses around them telling the children, ‘I make for you anything!’ She serves them up the most enormous plate of scrambled eggs and crispy bacon. The children eat happily, today they seem to be fine, like they’re on a little holiday. Only she feels like a rabbit, hunched, ready to grab them and run. She eats, one eye on the children, the other fixed on the hallway leading to the pavement outside. Where he could be waiting for them.
On the way back up to the room they run into George. He looks tired. “Everything ok for you in your room?” he asks. ” Yes lovely, thank you”, she smiles. He reaches into his top pocket and pulls out a 50 euro note. “I was a refugee once you know,” he says. “I had only my shoes on my feet and the clothes on my back. Take this and get what you need for you and the children.” He leans in close, “and get them some sweeties.”
The air conditioning doesn’t work that well in the room and it’s stifling. She tries to find something for the children to watch on the old VCR enabled tv mounted to the wall, but the little one keeps getting up and trying to open the shutters to go out on to the balcony. The baby is crying, he needs a new nappy. She needs to go to the shop, or get someone else to go for her. Thank god for the money George had kindly given her. She decides to head out with the baby, leaving her eldest in charge. “You look after your sister ok? When I go out you lock the door behind me. Don’t open it for anyone. When I get back I’ll do a funny knock, come to the door and I’ll talk to you, so you know it’s me. Ok?” He nods, and gives her a thumbs up.
She ran to the shop and back as quickly as she could. She wore a scarf around her head, not that that would stop him from recognising her if he saw her. Once back she tips out what she’s bought from the shop onto the bed. Some chocolate, crisps, chewy sweets and some orange juice. The children’s eyes light up, and they dig in.
Two days they waited, and then came the count down. He’s landed. He must be through security. He must be driving. He must be near… “He must be here kids. I’ll go down the stairs first, I’ll give the signal for you to come after me if all’s clear.” She inches slowly down the wooden staircase, craning her head down to see who is at reception. A familiar figure stands with his back to them at the front desk. She beckons for the kids to follow her down the stairs. “Dad?” He turns around, tears welling up in his eyes. They don’t speak, he just pulls her into his arms and holds her. He lets go and hugs and kisses the children. The children seem to suddenly remember why they’re here and they cry too.
That night was one of the best nights she could remember. After a scheduled meeting with a man from the British Embassy who told them what they needed to do, they went down to dinner in the courtyard. She saw the hotel through new eyes that evening. The courtyard standing in the centre of the rickety hotel was like a secret garden, ivy climbing up the stone walls, fairy lights wound in amongst the greenery, the sound of water bubbling into a stone bird bath. George’s wife surpassed herself in the kitchen, and he sat with them and ate while they discussed their plan of action. He agreed to liase with the police at the airport to make sure the children were able to safely leave the country, they were to keep in touch with him once they left the hotel the following day, contacting him if they needed help. Bellies full they wandered up to their rooms. They agreed they weren’t too tired, and so her dad came into their room. They put the children to bed and curled up beside them to watch some TV for a while…
I nestled into my dads side that night, the children asleep beside us while we watched Batman Forever on that tiny square screen. I can’t explain how I felt at that moment, but I can only imagine it is how a baby feels when it’s in its parents arms. My heart felt full. My mind was at rest. I was happy, safe and back where I belonged.
To be continued…