(From a writing exercise in Stephen King’s On Writing)
‘How are you supposed to duel if no one knows what weapons you’re supposed to use?’
David sat back on the hard wooden chair and chewed the inside of his cheek, looking around us with reddened, swollen eyes. Another survivor, like the rest of us, dealing with the same thing. There are hierarchies everywhere, and you seldom notice them until you’re at the rough end of one. We were a group for survivors of domestic abuse. It was a lie, you never survive it, but in time, you can live with it.
I hadn’t figured out when that would happen.
Growing up, I remembered cartoons and comic strips where the errant working class husband gets a rolling pin or a frying pan across the head for coming home late from the pub. One panel later, there would be birds and stars circling his head. His wife would loom over him and that was the joke.
I can tell you I didn’t see stars or birds. I saw blackness and withered with a terrible nausea as she stood there and laughed at me as I crawled around, fighting between vomiting, shitting myself or crying with the blunt agony of it. I refused to hand over my phone to her. My best friend had sent me the number for his solicitor and I hadn’t time to delete the message or save the number before she demanded to see it.
Paige slept in her cot down the hall as my wife scrolled through what few messages I had left. Cheryl threw the phone at the floor and I watched it shatter in dual, overlapping images. She leaned forward and I caught the smell of bergamot on her skin, sweet and metallic.
We had progressed. Open handed slaps to blunt objects. I had gone from a man to something less. It wasn’t until the court case anyone knew about her contempt for me, locked away on a social media account. My friends and family didn’t comment, more concerned with the coma she put me in. Three weeks gone forever. Time missed with my daughter, with the horrors explained to her by social workers and members of my family.
Her sentence was light, considering my injuries and the historical nature of them but she was pretty and garnered sympathy. The barrister had the decency to look nonplussed by it. She smiled as the court officers led her away.
David was a builder who showed us the constellation of cigarette burns on his ribs where she had offered him reconciliatory sex, tying his wrists before straddling and using him as an ashtray. Her husband gave evidence for the defence, making damp, pleading eyes in her direction. David, with his square jaw and callused hands spoke about it in a harsh whisper. We met once a month, shared our stories and our progress. Time and circumstance fragmented them, made the victories small and the setbacks monolithic but we turned up and talked to each other. My mum had Paige because I was fragile afterwards so I had the awful relief of an afternoon to myself.
I switched on the radio when I got in, filled the stove top kettle and turned the gas on. The whistling made me jump, but it was a ramshackle form of therapy, inoculating myself against the poisoned ambience of my marriage.
The song finished and the mellow tones of the dj slipped into the silence like a blade between the ribs.
An absconded patient from the secure unit.
I stared at the radio, waiting for a name. I made myself breathe and my nostrils flared at a scent which still made me unable to drink earl grey. Her laboured, wet breathing made me turn around and I looked into a pair of eyes, shining with malice like the paring knife in her hand.
The anti-psychotics had put weight on, slapped onto her jawline and hips like handfuls of wet suet as she charged forwards. Her hair was close to her scalp, dull like dry tobacco and beneath it, the feral expression of terrible passion. She raised the knife overhead as she came towards me.
The scream of the kettle saved my life.
In a vicious primal spasm which electrified my limbs, I grasped the handle of the stove top kettle and swiped it around as she came forwards. It reverberated against the side of her head with a dull thump and the sizzle of flesh against metal.
She gave a strangled cry and fell against the kitchen floor, eyes rolled back in their sockets and her cheek coming away in strings of melted skin like mozarella. I stood over her, the kettle held above my head and I heard someone roaring.
I realised it was me.
My body throbbed with adrenaline as I set the kettle back onto the stove. I staggered back against the counter, braced myself with my hands as I stared at her.
I shoved myself outside and grabbed my phone from my pocket.
I don’t remember what I said. I held it together long enough to give my details before I sat down, unable to be in the house when the police came. Another detail David had shared.
When I saw him next, I decided I would tell him my answer to the terms of the duel.