I found it on the second day of the six weeks that we lived in the invisible house – there in the cupboard under the telly, a book on UFOs, giving voice to those taken in the dead of night. Story after story, they spoke in the same unknowable language, of bright lights, cold metal and paralysing fear. I read it over and over, pausing only to tuck it, safely, under my arm, carrying it from room to room. At night, I lay with it beneath me, waiting for the men to come and break my body.
But it wasn’t the tiny green men that I was afraid of. It was the biggest man I’d ever seen. The man who had forced us out of our home and 172 miles across the country. The man whose hands were ships of black, fingers fully rigged with sovereign rings that sliced and sank the afternoon sunlight.
He’d met my mum over the damp bar of the local nightclub and I soon learnt that he was not just the biggest man I’d ever seen, but the meanest. On the run from the police after beating someone into a coma, we offered shelter and, within weeks, our home was his and we were the ones in need of refuge.
He wasn’t the first man to hit, but the first hit from him is nowhere in my memory. The fifth, the twentieth is. The wind rushing through the gap between his curled thumb and first finger; the whoosh extinguished with a crack by the meeting of hand and skin.
We’d set off running the morning he’d promised Mum “some fist” as he strode down the front path to work, the uneven second paving slab rocking beneath his feet. What was remarkable about that day was how unremarkable it was. There had been times that were worse.
The Sunday afternoon he’d used my chin to send my body through the air before it landed in the next room by the silent hi-fi. The Tuesday lunchtime he’d discovered Mum drinking a bottle of wine, dragged her upstairs by the hair, sat on her chest and, knees pinning her arms, punched and punched until her nose shattered and her fingers snapped and blood sprayed.
It was a house full of women and children who looked like us – small, brittle and tough; ready for a fight that we didn’t yet believe we wouldn’t need to have
This morning, there were spat words and the bang and the bounce of dressing-table drawers against the carpet after he’d been unable to find a pair of socks. But, after three years of violence, of fear unlike anything I’ve known bringing bile to my throat every morning, every evening, something had changed. We were leaving, Mum said, the words sounding impossible. Where would we go? Everything, everyone, was in this village or the next one. There was nowhere to run to, no hiding possible.
But we packed as instructed, taking only what we could carry. I piled clothes and books into my favourite bag that bore a picture of girl smiling outside a country cottage, roses pinned to the door. We followed his path, four more pairs of feet hitting the uneven step. We waited at the bus stop for our chariot to come bumping down the hill, my calves clattering as I imagined his blue Ford Capri instead. He would see us trying to leave and he would kill us.
But our chariot arrived and ferried us to the place that those with no hope go: the Citizens Advice. Mum told our story, mostly familiar, though that was the day that I learnt of the night he strangled her on the sofa. The harried lady behind the desk softened and picked up the phone – there was no way we could go home; she would find us a place in a refuge. She called and sighed and replaced the receiver, called and sighed and replaced the receiver. As the panic began to turn my skin cold, she had news. She’d found the only refuge with a room for us: it was in Wales.
Within hours, we were on a train we couldn’t afford, having been warned to go straight to the station without telling anyone we were leaving. We arrived under a black sky and once it was established who we were, welcomed into the house no one else knew about. It was a house full of women and children who looked like us – small, brittle and tough, ready for a fight that we didn’t yet believe we wouldn’t need to have.
The air was hot with fear; we were all being hunted. There was a panic button that connected through to the local police and a staff of warm, tough women to press it, but I wondered how many minutes and seconds the door would hold under a boot.
Clutching mugs of tea, the women shared their stories in small, sore sentences. One left after being stabbed, his final act after years of abuse. They’d run away before, several times; several times he’d found them. Her girls twirled on their toes around the words, knotted hair dancing. She would go home to him, sorrys accepted, just days later.
Our turn to go home came six weeks after that unremarkable day, when news arrived that he’d left our home for good, that he’d realised it was over. One day soon after we’d returned, the second paving slab rocking more gently now, a neighbour shouted over: “We would hear you all screaming. We thought about calling the police. But we didn’t want to interfere.”
We didn’t want to interfere. We don’t want to interfere. We’re not going to interfere. I’m here to tell you that a lack of interference can kill.
That neighbour may not have felt able, inclined or otherwise to intervene, but I have sent up a silent prayer of thanks to someone, anyone, on many nights, that our first shimmer of good luck meant we were given a room in a refuge. That we were saved. I have played the alternative scenario in my head a hundred times or more: the best, the beatings continue for a while longer before we get another opportunity to leave; the worst, he kills my mum. Her death is a bleak reality I could face, were I a child today.
In October, the government revealed plans to take away the last guaranteed source of income for refuges. They propose removing refuges and other temporary supported housing from the welfare system, essentially preventing women from paying with housing benefit. This housing benefit is responsible for over 50 per cent of refuge funding, with local authorities under absolutely no obligation to fund refuges. Zero. Jess Phillips has sponsored a Commons debate for the issue for December 12 and several MPs have called for local authority funding to be mandatory.
Let us be clear about the consequences of what they propose: Women’s Aid, after surveying a third of the 270 refuge services in England, estimates that 39 per cent of refuges will have to close their doors for good and another 13 per cent will have to reduce the number of beds. Have to.
I can taste their fear, their utter desperation. Feeling that the only option you have is to leave your life, your job, your school, your family, the very bed you lie in every night
In human terms (as that’s what we’re talking about: living, breathing, bleeding, pleading humans), over 4,000 women and children will be unable to access a refuge. This is 4,000 women and children who, while fleeing their homes in fear of their safety, in fear of their very lives, will be told, by this government no, go home, try to survive another way.
Domestic-violence services have been under attack for years – 80 per cent of Refuge’s services have seen cuts since 2001 and the UK has lost 17 per cent of refuge provision in the last seven years alone. Women’s Aid reports that on just one single day this year, 94 women and 90 children were turned away from a refuge, while 60 per cent of referrals to refuges in 2016-2017 were declined.
They are statistics that make me burn. Every single one of those 94 women and 90 children given a face, a body and a name in my mind. I can taste their fear, their utter desperation. Feeling that the only option you have is to leave your life, your job, your school, your family, the very bed you lie in every night. That if you don’t, you might well die. And, actually, allow me to be more specific: be killed.
How many women and children have had their bones broken, their minds shattered, after being turned away, not because of need but because there simply isn’t room? When still, an average of two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner in England and Wales, it’s nothing short of a national disgrace.
It’s proven that the time a woman is most at risk of death is when she is leaving or just after she has left. When they ask for help, they are in the most dangerous seconds, minutes, hours and days. And once the immediate danger is gone, they need help learning how to be again, free from the spectre of violence. From learning to live independently to helping their children with the trauma of what they’ve lived through.
Because that’s what they ask, that’s what me and my mum and my siblings asked almost 30 years ago now: to live through this.
Just to live.
Terri White donated her fee to this article to Refuge, a charity that supports around 6,000 women and children every day. It recently launched Refuge Advent (#refugeadvent), to raise awareness of those living with abuse. Find out more at refuge.org.uk