In case you missed some, here is the whole story. It’ll be the last one for a while so make the most of it
She’d first noticed it when opening the curtains: a black Ford sitting at a stubborn angle as though it had screeched to a halt, no driver in sight – and more puzzlingly, facing the wrong way. You couldn’t miss the No Entry signs; not only that, they’d made it deliberately difficult to enter the street from this end. You’d have to go right across the verge and bump up the kerb – and why would anyone bother to do that? A car chase, perhaps? Her imagination ran on.
At lunchtime the car was still there. Problem was, it was blocking their drive and that would mean trouble. A lot of trouble, most likely for her.
She went outside to take a closer look. The car was an Escort, one of the newer models with a dark interior, tinted windows at the back. There were no signs of life. Surreptitously, looking up and down the street, she tried a handle; the car was definitely locked. She walked all the way round as if looking for clues but found nothing. Only, at the back it had a bumper-sticker: in bold black letters on a Union Jack background it said LEAVE MEANS LEAVE. Anna felt suddenly faint; she rushed indoors and locked the door.
It wasn’t as if no-one had warned her – and she had tried but it was so hard. It was like coming off heroin. The bruises fade but the craving continues, the knowledge in the bone. He does this because he loves you. He loves you so much – that’s why it hurts so much. Love hurts.
How many excuses had she made? Walked into a door, fell down the stairs, hit my head on the cooker – so many excuses to explain away the bruises. Then once folk had started to guess, she made excuses for him instead. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s always so sorry, he always makes it up to me, he doesn’t mean it, not really. She hated herself for going back every single time. How could she be so weak? But she knew fine well (sometimes her mother’s Scots surfaced) that decisions were made in the bone. The head said one thing but the bones spoke a different language.
It was the pregnancy that woke her up; for the first time in her life she felt a terror for someone other than herself and a determination to keep the baby safe. So, miscarriage or not (and that was a proper accident, nothing to do with him) the decision was made. She was gone.
And yet she delayed. What if she’d brought about the miscarriage by her own actions? What if it was God’s punishment for deciding to leave? What if there was worse to come? She made up her mind and unmade it a thousand times a day. And then suddenly one summer’s day by some alchemy the decision was made. Only by a small margin but there it was; she was going. Simple as packing a bag, writing a note and walking out the door.
She remembered that note with a stab of guilt; it’s two inadequate words: I’m leaving. That summed up their whole marriage; she’d never been enough for him, had always fallen short, was always making him angry. Then as she left the house she saw the car again with its message. LEAVE MEANS LEAVE. It was back, in the same place, and that could only mean one thing: it was the universe telling her – don’t go back. Don’t even look back. And this time she took the message to heart.
She had barely mourned for the baby. Before the bleeding there were tiny white blobs on the scan that were the baby’s bones; remembering the fractures in her arms she fiercely promised the baby that no-one would ever harm a single one of those tiny bones. The baby would never be his, ever. No. The no sounded in the bone, hollow and resonant; it was a decision taken at the cellular level. No going back. Leave Means Leave.
In any case, she said to herself as though rationalising the decision – as though bruises and broken bones weren’t reason enough – there was hardly room for her in that place, let alone a baby. His stuff was strewn everywhere and he didn’t like her tidying. Knew where everything was, he said. Got cross if she moved anything. It was his flat after all, he paid the rent, didn’t he? Didn’t he have any rights? And so on. She was sick with the weariness of it.
So with the baby they’d have had to move anyway and he’d have made a huge fuss about it. Would he even have been glad? Probably, yes, because it would have been another tie, keeping them together, stopping her from running off. He was always ranting about her running off, wouldn’t even have let her go to work if they hadn’t needed the money. When the bleeding came she just mopped it up and carried on. Force of habit. The the next day she packed a bag, put on her coat and instead of going to work went to the police station. Leave Means Leave.
She showed the bruises to a WPC, the WPC called social services and Anna was referred to a shelter. The woman looked at the bag she was carrying. ‘Do you want to go back for your things? An officer can go with you.’
‘No.’ There was no going back: Leave Means Leave. So she went in the police car to the shelter where she was welcomed by a brisk, hard-faced woman called Eve who showed her up to her room.
By the time I get to Phoenix… the song had run on in her mind all day, altering the words to suit the case. By the time I get to the police station, he’ll be in a meeting. By the time I get to my room he’ll be having lunch, by the time I have dinner he’ll be coming home. He’ll be swinging his car into the street and spotting the car blocking the driveway. He’ll be cursing and yelling and threatening to call the police, resentfully parking on the road next to the offending vehicle (Leave Means Leave) resisting the temptation to smash in the windscreen, storming into the house ready to have a go at me. By the time I’ve finished dinner he’ll be running round the house calling out my name, demanding to know why the car was parked there… by the time I’m watching TV he’ll have found the note and – what? Would he laugh at it or howl in rage? Would he smash things? Or would he confidently sit down, open a beer, feet up and TV remote in hand, expecting her to walk in the door? How long before he realised she wasn’t going to? By the time I go to bed… It occurred to her that according to Einstein there was no such thing as simultaneity. She’d been meaning to pursue that idea before they got married.
Already her brain was sharper, coming back to life. All the time she’d had to hide it because he didn’t like clever women. Any female politician or pundit always got him yelling at the TV. Smart bitch, clever clogs, snotty cow, grammar-school gargoyle. She’d go and busy herself in the kitchen, staving off the inevitable.
No more now. No more covering up, no more hiding away, no more fending off his irrational rages. Vast vistas opened up all around her. She could go back to college, finish the course he’d interrupted. An interruption, that’s all he was, a hiatus. All her words were coming back; they settled on her shoulders like birds coming home to roost.
But next minute the ground was falling away and she had to clutch at a railing to stop herself overbalancing. What was she doing, how would she cope? She’d never been away this long. What would she do about work? That’d be the first place he’d go. She’d take a few days off, say she was sick. Yes, that was it. Then think about what to do next. A panic engulfed her, the earth seemed to break away from under her feet and she was falling, feet and arms flailing, grabbing onto the nearest thing… she clutched the railing, breathing hard and trying not to draw attention to herself, pulling out her phone and pretending to check for messages. People mostly looked through her anyway; it happened so much that she’d come to feel like a ghost. She straightened up, feeling nauseous – like that time he’d turned on the gas. What was she thinking? Of course she’d never make it without him. Who was she? Without him, she was nothing and no-one; she needed him and he needed her. Sometimes when she threatened to leave he’d beg so pathetically her heart would break. Then the next day he’d be worse again.
He could be so tender… when she thought of his tenderness her bones ached. But they remembered their brokenness too. She set her face to the horizon and walked on. She could go to London! He’d never find her there, she’d have a new name, do her hair differently, even learn to walk differently! Just a slight catch of the knee from the coffee table…
He’d find a replacement soon. By the time I get to London… because that’s what he did, once he lost something he looked around for something to replace it and like a great swollen spider in the middle of a web he reached out and grabbed it. Some poor girl on the rebound, some sad neglected kid who’d come running soon as he showed her a bit of attention…
Going to the shops, her feet dragging, dark glasses on, timing herself in case she took too long (Who did you meet? Don’t lie to me! Who did you talk to?) and if she said ‘one of the neighbours’ he’d say ‘which one?’ and then he’d check up on her the next day, go up to them all nice and friendly, Anna said you had a chat yesterday! like he was just passing the time of day. None of them had a clue, they all said how great he was, every last one of them. He’s such a lovely man, your fella! And Anna would nod and smile, all covered up like some incognito celebrity to hide the bruises.
One night in the shelter they were all smoking (Anna didn’t smoke but it helped her fit in) she was shocked by the casual way they all accepted violence, then heard herself joining in. Broke my arm in three places. Had to keep going to different hospitals. Shoved me down the stairs, held my hand over the gas, put my face in the oven, held my head under water… the endless, banal litany of domestic violence. The women were all on a short fuse and fights would break out over nothing, over a pair of tights, a hairbrush – then there’d be a sudden tenderness, everyone huddled in the kitchen listening to each other’s stories, nodding sadly.
I thought if I took it, if I never fought back…
I thought once I’d been to hospital…
I thought once I’d called an ambulance…
I said I’d never go back but I done it…
I thought, I thought…
Some days the universe seemed to speak to her, leave little messages in graffiti or slogans written on walls and coffee-cups. Be your best self. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
Always be yourself unless you can be a unicorn. Then be a unicorn.
Leave means leave.
She’d given up so much for him; her degree, her hobbies, her friends – what had he given up? He talked of sacrifices, but the sacrifices were all hers. He talked of working hard but around the house he did nothing, except the odd repair job. Mostly he got someone in to do them – so long as he was inconvenienced by the problem. If not, she could live with it. She’d lived for months without hot water in the kitchen, boiling the kettle for everything because he wouldn’t stump up for a new boiler. He wouldn’t let her pay for it either, said it made him feel emasculated. Then there’d be another row.
Fear clutched her heart at the thought of walking outside alone but the thought of leaving the town where she’d spent most of her life made her feel faint. She hadn’t been outside it for ten years; they’d never taken holidays because he’d say we need to save money (though he never said what for) and what’ve they got abroad that we haven’t? He probably didn’t want her having her own passport. He wouldn’t let her learn to drive either; she had to get the bus to work.
Work! She could do better than that miserable office. Go back to university, get a degree, do what she’d always wanted, have the future he’d stolen from her. Move down South… little by little the plans were hatching. And then the next day coming back from the shop with Michelle she saw his car in the street, just sitting there with the engine running. She looked to left and right but too late, he’d seen her. He climbed out and stood between her and the shelter.
‘Hello.’ Odd how light and pleasant his voice could sound, how free of menace. No wonder everyone thought he was so lovely. Michelle wasn’t fooled though; she stood her ground and folded her arms.
Anna said nothing.
‘I thought I’d find you here.’ Still pleasant, two friends passing the time of day. A couple went by on with their dog, didn’t even glance over.
For the life of her she couldn’t speak. She stood rooted to the pavement, willing one of the staff to come out of the shelter. She went to reach for her phone and he took a step nearer.
‘Don’t come any closer.’ She found her voice and Michelle took her arm in solidarity.
‘Or what?’ He was still smiling pleasantly but the menace was creeping into his voice.
‘I’m going to phone someone,’ she warned.
‘I really wouldn’t.’ He took another step forward, pulling out a cricket bat from behind and holding it in both hands, like a batsman readying to take a swing. Waiting for a full toss.
Now or never. She screamed at the top of her voice and ran out into the road, causing a car to stand on the brakes – then she ran back, grabbed Michelle’s arm and charged past him to the shelter, hammering on the door as if her life depended on it.
Susan came, took in the situation and quickly ushered her inside, saying to him calmly, ‘I’m calling the police. Right now.’
‘Well done girl!’ Michelle was full of admiration but all Anna could do was collapse into a chair, her breath going like a steam train. ‘Is he gone?’ She could barely get the words out.
Susan was scanning the CCTV. ‘He’s getting into his car.’
‘He could just wait round the corner.’
‘You need to be careful when you go out. And take an alarm.’
‘I can’t believe he found me.’
‘You’d be amazed, we’ve had guys from all over, from Scotland, Cornwall, we even had one fly over from Spain. They come to get their property back.’
‘That’s what they think of us, you know ?’ Michelle laughed mirthlessly. ‘We’re their property, like a bike what’s been stolen. They come to get us back.’
Anna started laughing, she hardly knew why and they ended up falling about like idiots, all three of them in the office. But the decision was made now, in the chambers of her heart, in the corpuscles of her blood, in the silent cells of the bone. There was no going back.
Leave means leave. End of story. And the beginning of a whole new story, the story of Anna.
She’d been doing so well. She’d got a support worker and a police liaison officer; as for him, he had an exclusion order banning him from her street. He was not to go within a hundred yards of her place of work, nor was he to importune her on the street. In three months, not a sign of him, no phone calls, no texts, nothing. And now this.
He’d used newsprint, must have spent hours cutting out the letters and sticking them on. The messages were crude; threats mostly – we know where you are, your days are numbered, watch your back, bitch. Nothing to identify him, nothing personal. It had to be him; but how could he have known the first one would arrive on the same day as her acceptance from Durham? She was to do an access course in the summer and providing she passed that she’d have a place waiting to study Physics. Far from disparaging her application as she’d feared, they were only too keen. It had helped to have a woman on the panel.
As luck would have it she’d opened Durham’s letter first, thinking the other one was probably junk. For a few seconds she was floating on air – until she opened the other envelope. It was brown, the label printed, no postmark. Inside there was a single page: she pulled it out and looked at it without comprehension. When the meaning sank in she collapsed, feeling as if a car had run her down. She read it again and again, knowing that she shouldn’t, unable to stop herself. It was like cauterising a wound. Then with a shaking hand got her phone out; she had the police liaison officer on speed-dial.
Nadia was plain clothes, a purple headscarf the only outward concession to a faith she presumably practised. They’d exchanged details – part of the ritual, Anna assumed – so she now knew that Nadia was a few years older than her and married with three children. She looked young, but there was something in Nadia that inspired confidence. A level of self-belief, Anna decided – something she’d always lacked. Considering they were supposed to be so downtrodden, young Muslim women were very confident, much more so than Anna’s contemporaries. She wondered about that.
‘It has to be him, right?’
Nadia, gloves on, was examining the letter. ‘It’s likely,’ she said briskly, ‘but let’s not jump to conclusions. We’ll look for DNA first.’
‘Who else would be sending me threats?’
For answer, Nadia just shrugged. ‘There’s some real cranks out there – you’d be surprised. We’ve had people sent death threats just because they put an EU poster up.’
‘I haven’t done anything like that,’ Anna protested. ‘I mean, yeah, I don’t like Brexit but I’ve not got any posters up.’
‘You’ve not done anything public that would indicate your views? Nothing on Facebook, Twitter, no demos?’
Anna laughed. ‘I stopped going on Facebook a long time ago. And I’ve not been on a demo since – well, before I got married,’ she finished a little sadly.
‘OK.’ Nadia was making notes; then she put the letters into a folder and slid them into her bag. ‘Are you going to be OK?’
‘I’m late for work.’
‘I’ll give you a lift.’
Driving lessons would be a good idea, she decided. Then she could get her own car, be less vulnerable. When she thought about all the things he’d taken from her, all the opportunities he’d stolen… it had to be him, it had to. Some sixth sense had warned him she was moving on; he had to have one last stab at spoiling it for her.
Why had she ever thought it would be easy? Why had she thought he would let her go, just like that? Of course he wouldn’t stop – no amount of exclusion orders could keep him from what was rightfully his. She must stop thinking about it. ‘You don’t want him inside your head,’ Nadia had warned. ‘You’ve got your own life now. Try to forget him.’
But did she have her own life? Would she ever be free?
In the next few weeks there were more letters, all in printed brown envelopes, all on a single sheet of white paper, threats in cut-out newsprint. If this were a TV series there’d be a clue, a smudge on one corner that would narrow it down to a single newsvendor, then CCTV would show him buying that paper… but in real life the police looked for fingerprints or DNA and if there was none, that was it. Just keep all the letters, inform your liaison officer, thank you and goodnight. She’d felt so bolstered in the shelter; out here in the world she felt alone, unprotected, scared.
Then the letters stopped.
A week went by; two weeks went by and still nothing. At first she was even more frightened: was he about to do something worse? Would the next step be a bomb? Then as several uneventful weeks passed she began to relax. Perhaps he’d given up; perhaps it wasn’t even him. She didn’t believe either of these stories but they were something to calm yourself with at night, like telling a child a fairy story. A child! It still caught her like an old wound when she thought of the baby that was lost. But there was time, she told herself. She wasn’t thirty yet. Soon the years that he’d stolen would be compressed into a tiny compartment; eventually they’d hardly register at all.
As the time drew near for the summer course, she went out and spent most of her salary on new outfits, had her hair dyed, cut short and styled. With her new clothes on she thought even her mother wouldn’t recognise her now.
She’d called her mother to tell her she’d left. Her mother sounded older; she softened slightly at the news but didn’t approve of Anna going back to university. Jean was old-school; thought women should stick to the traditional occupations. She herself had been a school secretary and given it up to marry a policeman. If Anna’s father had been alive things might have turned out differently, she thought, but her mother knew how to nurse a grudge. She’d never believe it if Anna told the story of her marriage. She’d have said, well, you must have done something to deserve it or else why didn’t you leave him before? If it hadn’t been for that, she might have been tempted to go back to Fife; since Brexit Scotland was looking increasingly attractive. But going home again had never been an option.
She’d not yet taken those driving lessons but they were in the back of her mind as she caught the train up to Durham, then a bus to the campus. It was just as she’d remembered and she felt nothing so much as a sense of vast space opening up. She stood in the courtyard and took some deep breaths, then went to reception. There was no-one there, so she waited. Then her phone pinged with a text. She read it.
LOOK BEHIND YOU, it said.
She whipped round: the lobby was empty. She went to the doors and peered out; students and lecturers were strolling around, that was all.
The voice came from the desk. Trembling, though she hardly knew why, she introduced herself, was ticked off a list and given the key to her room. Second floor. She could take the lift? No, she’d rather walk – call it a dislike of confined spaces. Other students, perhaps on her course, were coming down the stairs; she smiled but didn’t speak. It did seem hard that her room was at the end of the corridor but she was here for a clean slate. Best foot forward. What would her mother say? Wheesht, ye great bawby, awa’ wi ye an’ git on! Words to that effect. Taking a deep breath, she turned the key in the lock. Her phone beeped again. She shut the door and put down her suitcase; she wouldn’t look at it, not yet.
Across the yard there was a cafe. She decided to get a cup of tea, maybe find some others from her course. Sitting at the table, she realised the others had name tags, each with their course name. She probably had one too, in her welcome pack.
A woman in her forties was standing opposite. ‘Anyone sitting here?’ Anna smiled and shook her head; then reading the woman’s name tag, said, ‘I’m Science too.’
The woman reached a hand across the table. ‘I’m Phyl.’
Anna looked at the name on the tag. Phyllis Norwood.
‘Horrid name, isn’t it? I’ve been Phyl since I was twelve.’
Anna introduced herself, said she’d forgotten her tag.
Pretty soon she and Phyl were chatting like old friends. Phyl didn’t say, but Anna wondered if she’d had some of the same experiences. She seemed confident, like she’d put it far behind her, but you could always tell: something behind the eyes. Like a bruise. They made arrangements to meet for dinner, then Anna went to her room for a lie down. As she opened the door there was a rustle. She picked up a piece of paper. It simply said in large red capitals: DID YOU SEE ME? She picked up the phone and pressed speed dial.
‘Try to ignore it,’ said Nadia. ‘If it’s him, he wants you frightened.’
‘I am frightened. How did he know where I was?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Nadia grimly. ‘But we’re on it. Just leave it with us. Have you got your alarm?’
‘In my bag.’
‘Don’t go out without it. Stay safe and try to enjoy your course, OK? Otherwise he’s won.’
As she was about to go down to dinner Nadia called back. ‘It isn’t him.’
‘It isn’t him.’
‘How do you -?’
‘He’s here. In custody. Assault on a minor. Poor kid, turns out after you left he went for a younger model. She was only 16.’
Anna sat down abruptly on the bed. ‘Are you -?’
‘Am I sure? I saw him, Anna. It’s him all right.’
‘So whoever is leaving those notes, it’s not him.’
Anna didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t understand it. Nadia just told her to keep her eyes peeled and report any further messages. She rang off. No sooner had she done so than another text came. LOOK OUT OF THE WINDOW.
No. Anna was not going to indulge these requests; she opened a folder labelled SPAM and saved all the texts to it. That felt good.
At dinner Phyl seemed to sense things were not well. But she was sensitive enough not to ask and in any case they were joined by two others from the course.
‘Wow,’ said Anna, ‘we seem to be all women.’
‘It’s an access course,’ said Trudi, one of the newcomers. She had a slight accent – American? Canadian? ‘So there’s definitely gonna be more women.’
Phyl sensitively looked down at her phone. Anna nodded; of course, she should have thought of that. To cover her embarrassment – though it was hardly anything to be embarrassed about – she looked at her phone too and saw another text, one she couldn’t help reading.
YOU GOT LUCKY. BUT YOU WON’T MAKE IT ANY FURTHER.
She put the phone away quickly. Phyl caught her eye. ‘Everything OK?’
She gave a brief smile, caught a glimpse of fellow-feeling from grey eyes. ‘Fine.’
After dinner Trudi suggested the pub. Anna was about to cry off when she thought, why not? She’d be safer there than alone in her room; whoever he’d got sending messages, they wouldn’t try anything in the middle of a bar. They were walking across the courtyard when Phyl caught her arm.
‘Look, tell me to sod off if I’m out of order, but – well, I recognise the symptoms. You’ve just got out of an abusive relationship – am I right?’
‘You don’t mind me asking?’
Truth be told, it was a relief; she shook her head.
‘How long has it been?’
She had to think; time seemed to have entered another dimension. What date was it when she’d left? ‘It was after Brexit, I know that,’ she said.
Phyl laughed. ‘So, some time in the last two years then?’
‘Has it been two years?’
‘I think I must have been in a sort of dream.’
‘Yep, been there.’
They were at the pub now. Suddenly Anna felt an urge to confide in her; she steered Phyl to a corner and they sat down at a table.
‘Can I show you something?’
‘He’s been sending me texts – at least, it’s not him cos my liaison officer said he’s in custody, but someone is, and I think he’s telling them what to do.’
‘Can I see?’
Anna opened the folder; Phyl scrolled through and whistled. ‘This is strong stuff. Have you shown the police?’
‘I’ve shown them everything. But there’s no evidence it’s him – there were no forensics on the letters either.’
‘There were letters?’
Anna explained. ‘Blimey girl, you’ve really been through it,’ said Phyl.
Anna looked up from her phone. ‘And you?’
Phyl looked up. ‘Tell you another time.’ Trudi was bearing down on their table with a tray of drinks. ‘Thought we’d have a bit of bubbly to celebrate,’ she said. ‘I hope that’s OK?’
Drinks to celebrate. Anna had drunk to forget, to console herself, to numb the pain but never to celebrate. She smiled. ‘Brilliant,’ she said – and Phyl gave her a wide, encouraging smile.
Once the course began in earnest there wasn’t much time for socialising. Phyl was a Chemist so they didn’t coincide often in lectures; at first Anna missed her but soon she forgot. People talked about the beauty of the arts, but there was nothing to touch the power and beauty of the physical world. Anna was in her element; if there were texts they went unheeded – mobiles were not allowed, not that anybody wanted them – and for the first time in almost a decade, she was happy. The lecturers were, by and large, entirely open to being questioned over a pub lunch. ‘I love doing these courses,’ said one, ‘you guys are so much more engaged than my usual students.’ Anna reflected that if all went well they’d be joining these usual students; she wondered how that would go.
And then it happened. She’d just come out of a meeting with her tutor and been told that if all went well she’d be accepted in September to finish her degree course. ‘I’m afraid as you didn’t complete your second year you’ll have to repeat that,’ her tutor was saying, but Anna barely heard her. She was coming here in September! She was going to get her degree! Why had she ever let him interrupt it? If she hadn’t, by now she’d be –
No. She heard her mother’s voice again: ye cannae live in might ha’ been! Put yer feet on the ground! That was one of her mother’s favourite phrases; feet on the ground. Anna left her tutor’s office and ran straight into Phyl.
‘Hi! I’ve just been told -‘ she began: the expression on Phyl’s face stopped her dead.
‘Can we talk somewhere?’ Phyl looked deeply troubled.
‘Has something happened?’
‘Not here.’ Phyl looked up and down the corridor. ‘Can we go to my room?’
‘Oh! Of course.’ Anna had never been to Phyl’s room; it turned out to be in a separate block a few minutes’ walk away. As they climbed the stairs it occurred to her to wonder why they weren’t in the same building.
‘I applied late,’ Phyl said, replying to Anna’s unspoken question. ‘This was the only accommodation left.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind. I quite like it, in fact.’
Phyl’s room was bare and cold. Anna sat on a seat by the window; outside you could see only the bins and a store room. Phyl made them both some herbal tea (‘I don’t take caffeine’) and sat in a chair opposite. Then without preamble she said,
‘Have you heard of Munchausen’s by proxy?’
‘It’s a syndrome? Munchausen’s by proxy.’
‘Oh! Yes, I think so. Wasn’t there a woman in the news, a few years back?’
‘Yes. You realise what it is?’
Anna searched her memory for a few scraps of news. ‘It’s hurting others – that’s the proxy part. A compulsion to hurt others.’
Phyl nodded, like a tutor pleased with a student’s answer. ‘Well, I should warn you. I’ve got it.’
For a moment Anna couldn’t take in what she was saying. ‘You’ve – what?’
‘I have Munchausen’s by proxy. In fact I have a variation of it. I’m one of only a handful of people with this condition; it’s called ‘Psycho-Munchausen’s’ officially but I have my own names for it.‘
Why was Phyl talking like this? ‘I thought – did something happen? I thought you were going to tell me about your past?’
‘Oh, I don’t think so. Not now.’
‘Then – why did you bring me here?’
Phyl smiled. ‘You really don’t get it, do you?’
There was a silence. Two cups of tea steamed in the chill air.
And then Anna knew. ‘It was you! You sent those texts! But why?’
Phyl just shrugged. ‘Why does anyone do anything? I just felt like it.’
As explanations went, it was right up there with I don’t like Mondays. ‘I found out you’d had an abusive partner, got hold of your phone number and the rest was easy.’
‘But’ – Anna’s head was reeling – ‘but how did you manage all that? Who told you about – about my past? Who gave you my number?’
Phyl just laughed. ‘Oh my dear, you really do have a lot to learn. It was him! He told me you were coming here! It was because of you that I came on the course in the first place. I’m way out of my depth here; I’ve only got a GCSE – but I can talk the talk, and that’s what matters. Soon as my acceptance came through he gave me your phone number and that was that. He left the rest to my imagination.’
This was too much to take in. ‘So he – like, recruited you?’
‘You simpleton! I went to him! I’d seen him around, knew he was beating up his girlfriend so I made friends with him, told him I was a legal secretary and I could get him a barrister, a female barrister. I told him most women don’t like defending domestic abusers but I’d make sure he got a decent one. Not true, but I’m a good actor, in case you hadn’t noticed – he fell for it hook line and sinker.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Understand what? It’s pretty simple, even for you.’
‘If he’s not making you do this, then why? What do you get out of it?’
Phyl just shrugged. ‘I guess if you have to ask you’re not going to understand, are you?’
Enough was enough: Anna stood up. ‘I’m going now.’
Phyl laughed again. ‘So you can put in a call to your Little-Miss-Headscarf? I don’t think so. You see I don’t give a damn about him and his control-freakery, all I care about is the chance to do some damage. And here you are, delivered into my bosom. So to speak.’
The alarm! With one hand she rummaged discreetly in her bag. Phyl looked almost bored. ‘I really wouldn’t bother – no-one will hear you. The building’s empty, I made sure of that. Told them I had mental health issues which meant I had to be alone. The delicious irony is – it’s true!’
Anna sank back in her chair.
‘Oh, come on – you must have a sense of irony.’
‘So you’re not even a Chemist?’
Phyl threw back her head and laughed. ‘Me! It’s a good job you didn’t ask me any questions – I’d have been completely stumped. Well, not totally – I am an excellent bullshitter after all.’
‘What are you going to do now?’ Anna’s voice sounded dull to her own ears.
Phyl sat back in her chair and curled an arm up behind her. ‘It’s pretty simple. I’m just going to talk to you.’
The abused really are easy meat, but still I can never resist one. They’re so grateful for the attention, so thankful to have a companion who’s been through the same thing. All you need is a sympathetic yet slightly wounded expression – I only have to think about my childhood and up it comes – and there you are. Just worm your way into the ex-partner’s confidence, tell him you’ll get her back and you can play for as long as you like.
My therapist says I’m like a cat with a mouse, and I guess I do like the play more than the kill. Afterwards they’re no fun any more, but you can draw out the agony for as long as you like. I didn’t have to hold Anna prisoner – though I had taken the precaution of locking both doors – I just had to talk to her. It’s like making bread, the stage where you knock it back, except that instead of leaving the dough to rise again you knock it back some more and keep knocking until there’s nothing left, no yeast, no self-confidence, no will even to get up and walk out of the door. I had no doubt I could do it, even though she had a new-found confidence which in spite of my efforts, I had so far failed to dent. This shortcoming had to be rectified, and soon. So I began. ‘You think they took you on here for your ability?’ I said. ‘I heard one of them talking about you. Poor Anna, she was saying, it’s such a pity she’s only a makeweight. But we have to do something about the gender balance.’
Of course she didn’t believe me. Her tutor had given her a good report, etc etc. Well of course he did, I said, he wants you in the department. But not for your brains, doofus! He wants you there because they’ve been ticked off about not recruiting enough women. Last year they rejected all but one of the female candidates and got their knuckles thoroughly rapped. I could see she was slightly rattled, so I twisted the knife. Anyway, I said, I think he fancies you. Oh, I’m sure he hasn’t made a move yet, but wait till you get your feet properly under the table. He will then.
Of course at that she got up and tried to leave, but as I said I’d locked both doors. No good screaming, I said, there’s no-one out here. I’m the only person staying in this block and outside there’s only the bins. But scream if you like, I don’t mind.
She paced up and down for a bit, then sat with her arms folded. I was only just getting started; my next line of attack was the subject itself. I don’t know squat about physics but like I say, I can talk the talk so I started in with some subtle questioning. She knew her stuff; the trick would be to make her doubt what she knew. He’d laid the ground-work, all I had to do was build on it. Introduce doubt. After a while she grew silent and I could see it was working so I gave her a sympathetic smile and got up to make some more tea. This time I brought biscuits as well; it’s hard work being the good cop as well as the bad cop but it’s always the most effective way.
‘If you’re trying to get me to go back to him,’ she said, ‘you’re wasting your time.’
Him? I said, I don’t give a toss about him. He can go to hell for all I care. Anyway, last I heard he was up on a charge of assaulting a minor. He’s bad news Anna – you should stay away from him.
‘So what do you want?’ Her voice was a bit trembly now: good.
Nothing, I said, just to talk. Biscuit?
I could tell she wanted one and sure enough she took it, dunked and ate it and then did the same with two more. She must be hungry.
Suddenly Anna had a vision of her life as one long series of obstacles, from the reins her mother had used on her as a toddler to the barriers at school (her father had to fight to get her into A-level Science) and then Him, snatching her away from Uni in her second year, demanding that she commit to him or he’d walk. And now this, the woman she’d thought was her friend. Yet another obstacle. Well, she would rise to meet it – and suddenly another slogan came to her aid: Take Back Control. She finished her biscuit, washed it down with the last of the tea and then turned to face Phyl square-on.
‘Tell me if I’ve got this right: you have a desire to hurt yourself and it gets deflected onto others. Is that it?’
‘Well done,’ said Phyl sarcastically, though Anna could tell she’d never seen things in that light before.
‘So here’s the thing; you think you can take me back in time to where I was before, but if you knew anything at all about Physics you’d know that’s impossible. There is no going back. Time isn’t a line. Did you know that?’ She paused, mainly for effect, and carried on, ‘it’s a spiral. Time is a spiral.’ With every word the confidence was flowing back. ‘Have you never heard of the quadruple helix?’ She was riffing now; the idea had only just occurred to her, but it seemed a good one. Phyl was clearly wrong-footed, searching for a response and as she watched it came to Anna with a blinding epiphany that here was her dissertation. The idea needed examination, it needed testing – but sometimes knowledge comes in a flash and she knew, as surely as she knew anything, that it was true: time was a helix. This had huge potential: since Einstein no- no-one had done serious work on the non-linearity of time. She saw herself doing a Doctorate, publishing books; she also saw Phyl’s confidence crumbling. Phyl had her arms folded now and sat slumped in her chair.
Taking advantage of the moment, Anna stood up. ‘I’m leaving now. And you are going to unlock the door.’
Phyl sank further into her chair; she looked almost asleep and for a moment Anna thought she wasn’t going to respond. Then there was a clink on the bare tiles. A key clattered to the floor; Phyl lifted a foot and kicked it towards Anna, then she relapsed into a sleep-like state. Quickly, not trusting the moment to last, Anna crossed to the door, unlocked it and then turned the key again from the outside. The police would have to be called, the University’s procedures would doubtless be called into question – but before all that she had work to do. It was imperative to get the quadruple helix idea down on paper…