After he won my confidence; after
he got a grip on my home; after he snared me
with false promises, after all that, he never once
told me I was ugly or fat, never once called me
stupid or dull company, never once said
my food was crap, but he found a thousand insidious ways
to make me feel a failure
in every way.
He was an avid chess player.
Only now do I make the connection between that
and his treatment of me.
His first aggressive move came on the day he returned the keys of his bachelor flat and came to live with me. His attack showed me I had made a mistake. I looked at the trap he had wrapped around me and saw what he must have guessed;
my compassion suppressed the temptation to throw him onto the street. I told myself it was stress, tomorrow would be better.
But from that day it all changed; no more
was he the fun uncle to my kids, no more
did he convince me of his love or admiration.
He gained the finances, chose the food,
paid bills if it suited him, bought useless trinkets
though rain leaked through the soles of my daughter’s shoes,
leaving her feet wet and me broke, while he pretended
to be trying to help. His torture was clever,
inventive, his helmet of ignorance hiding the truth, and I –
unable to explain and ashamed to admit the error I’d made –
played the happy bride when outside eyes
were upon me.
It must have been a breeze for him. My shrinkage
was rapid; by the time compassion ceased
I had already lost all self-belief;
I had no strength to make him leave and no faith
that I could survive alone.
In twenty years he didn’t hit me once,
never did more than occasionally raise a fist,
but he combined subtlety with growling rage
to beat my spirit into pulp.
I wondered if I smelled bad,
thinking I must be repulsive in some shameful way,
but when I plucked up the courage to question him
he was not swayed by temptation to reassure, instead
selecting to look vague, yet turn away as if
in distaste, as if
he didn’t like to say….
He used friends, family, strangers in the street, my political alignments, my ethics – everything I possessed, liked or believed in – to hack at me, yet when I described my debasement to a trusted few, they looked beyond me in disbelief and switched to a safer subject.
Only my mother listened to me.
She looked sad as she said:
Her words were my validation.
Looking back, I think she was trying to help me make a decision,
and I suspect she saw a reflection
of her situation in my eyes.
I did my best with my children, who fell into two categories, those we shared and those who were mine. He used each in opposing ways, giving no consideration to the future of his own, and with dire intent for the two he had not sired.
When he agreed to relationship counselling,
like a fool I believed it was a breakthrough – but he
knew this; risky moves can prove advantageous
when playing chess.
The female counsellor
fawned beneath his charm, instantly morphing
into another pawn. I was ringed
by black players, while all that might
have been my whites
He had a catchphrase for occasions when his back
was against the wall: It was a misunderstanding, he would say.
If I dared challenge him again he’d play his back-up tactic;
flying into a rage.
Sometimes he’d be angry enough
to pack a bag and go to London for a couple of days.
On those occasions, the moment he drove away, we’d fling cushions on the floor,
up-end the sofas, slide down our stairs on on old horsehair mattress.
We bounced on the beds, threw pillows at each other’s heads,
skipped about on the kitchen’s flat roof,
hiked up the music. We screamed, we rampaged, we sang
until our throats were sore and our ears rang,
celebrating the brief holiday.
We made sure that when he walked back through the door,
no clues would betray our joyful rebellion;
we’d swept away the feathers that flew.
Nothing could prove us guilty of frolics and fun.
Everything was clean, still and neat.
We’d be sitting, miserably prim, his presence deleting
our secretive grins.
I don’t go in for competition; while I was with him
I failed to perceive the chequered board.
Like a fool, I sought to improve, thinking
to win his respect, not knowing
he wanted me to lose.
In Sue-Ellen style I’d tried changing my hair and my shape. I even wore make-up one day, breaking a lifelong rule of keeping such gunk away from my face, but he insulted the consultant who plastered it on. I wore the clothes that he bought me, read the mags that he brought me, talked to the women he thought should be my friends, tried to find out who he wanted me to be, but he couldn’t change what was inside my mind, and no matter how he might try to reshape me, he didn’t like whatever I tried, so I resurrected my creative side and hoped he get pleasure from that.
While the children were at school or in bed
and whenever I got a break
from my solo act of shaping our joint business
into a small but great success,
I renovated our ramshackle home;
honing my building and carpentry skills,
I worked up from the ground floor joists to the attic,
demolishing defunct walls, making new rooms,
sawing, nailing, stripping, plastering,
sawing again, screwing, sanding, decorating
to perfection, working late into the night, making do
with five hours sleep. Next,
I dug, planted and snipped our surrounding wilderness
into a lush garden replete with secrets and surprises, hemmed
by a cleaned-up stream.
Village folk and passengers on buses admired my work.
They took pains to compliment me.
The Lady of the Manor was impressed with my efforts.
When she held a garden party
she proudly showed me around her greenhouse.
We talked about plants, and for a moment
I felt significant.
I did too much, too well and too famously.
He accused me of leaving him with nothing to do.
His only ambition had been to steal all of my achievements,
and was angered that people knew
I was the achiever. That’s when I realised I was the enemy;
the enemy he wanted to keep.
He’d dressed me in white so he could diminish me,
punish me until he no longer viewed me
better than him;
too good for him.
I finally understood I could never win with him.
A few weeks later my mother was found cold in her bed, the smile on her face suggesting she had somewhere better to go. I thought of the trauma she had survived and of the freedom she had gained when my father died.
I had endured two decades of abuse.
Those twenty years of abuse were swallowed up
by the grief of losing my mum. I cried every day for four seasons
Surviving that suffering gave me the strength
to finally leave.
picked up my feet,
nipped neatly across unseen chequered squares,
Played at competition level, chess is a complex game. Whole books are written about particular moves and their ramifications. After I left my partner, I was talking to my brother about his chess skill. My brother, who had his own reasons for not liking the man, remarked “Yes, of course he would be good at chess. I’m a poor player myself; I don’t have his competitive streak.” He added that you need a killer instinct to be a good player.
©Jane Paterson Basil