Florence and the Machine’s lyric – “a kiss with a fist is better than none” – is, according to the singer, not about physical domestic abuse. She says it’s about “two people pushing each other to psychological extremes because they are fighting but they still love each other.” Sounds exactly like domestic abuse to me. The only difference between Florence’s song and true cases of domestic abuse I can see is that, in the song, she says there is no particular victim.
I used to live in a block of apartments surrounded by other similar blocks. From our lounge, I could see the sun-reflecting windows of six other apartments some distance away across a well-managed lawn. One weekend, a couple in their thirties moved into a first floor apartment across the way. They had two small children – a baby boy and a six-year-old girl – and the man drove an expensive, flashy red sports car. Most of the residents were ordinary working people or elderly couples, so the new family immediately stood out as a bit different.
After about six weeks, when they’d begun to settle in, I bumped into the woman in the lane that weaved between the different apartment blocks. She was taking her daughter to school. They both seemed sweet, but the woman was a touch reserved, as if she wanted to speak to me more, but felt she shouldn’t for some reason. I remember thinking at the time that maybe she was just shy and needed more time to build her confidence with new people, so I told her where I lived and that I hoped we’d see each other again soon. We parted company and I didn’t really think about her again for a few weeks.
Then, one warm, summer’s evening, when all our all windows and garden doors were thrown wide open to let in the steadily cooling air, I heard the woman and her husband having a loud argument. Psychologists say that anything that alters your emotions is much easier to recall – and I remember that first argument fairly well even now. I’d been sat alone in the lounge reading a book by the open garden door when her husband’s angry voice cut into the quiet. He didn’t shout at the top of his lungs, but he spoke loudly and with obvious aggression. The situation quickly escalated into doors being slammed, more angry words barked out, then a moment of quiet. Next, I heard the engine of his sports car growl into action and, as I twisted in my chair, saw the bright red car speed off along the road out of the apartments. I checked the clock by the TV – it was exactly 6.45 pm. He’d only returned from work half an hour before.
Someone once told me that it’s always what you don’t notice in a situation that matters, so I thought it over carefully. I could recall him shouting, him slamming an object near the open window, him telling his wife what he wanted and what she hadn’t done right, and him leaving in the sports car after the argument – but what I realised I hadn’t heard at all was the woman’s voice. That particular sound was missing. Then, my thoughts went to the children. Had they been present? Had they heard? Was his anger directed only at his wife or all of them? There was no way of knowing, but what I did know is that he didn’t return for another two days that I’m aware of – his red car was certainly absent.
About a week later, I’d just returned home and was busy preparing a snack, singing along to the radio in the kitchen, when I was jolted into the present by the sound of fists hammering against the glass of the garden doors. Heart in my mouth, I wiped my hands on a cloth and rushed into the lounge. The woman from the apartment was there, hands pressed flat against the glass from the other side like a figure in a horror film. She was crying, bleeding from a cut near her eye, bruised across bare shoulders near her t-shirt, visibly shaking and her face was covered in smeared black make-up. She had been beaten up and had come to my door. A flash of fear inside me didn’t stop me opening up and letting her in, but her first words shocked us both, “my babies.” I didn’t need an explanation: the two children were still in the apartment. She told me he’d “gone off on one”, hit her, then thrown her down the flight of stairs outside their apartment door. She’d run when she heard him threaten to kill her. I locked the garden door and helped her to sit down out of sight of the windows. As I dialled 999, I asked her where her husband was now. She said she had no idea. His red car was parked up as usual.
It was horrific. My hands were shaking almost as much as hers, but I managed to explain the situation to the police. They told me not to approach the apartment. I made her some tea. The cup rattled against the saucer when she tried to hold it. I still didn’t know her name, so I asked. She was Claire, her husband, Rob, her daughter, Ellie, and her little boy, Ben. In that moment, as she looked up at me, terrified, but also full of guilt for what she probably felt she’d let happen to her children, I made a decision. I told her to stay out of sight of the windows and wait for the police – who’d be at my front door very soon – and then I left the apartment and started walking towards hers.
I can’t remember anything about what I saw outside, although I do remember my back feeling very warm in the late sun. My pulse raced. My legs felt light. I kept as composed as I could. I was angry, determined and ready to face her husband if I had to. I also knew I was going against what the police had told me, but something inside stopped me from caring. A baby boy and a six-year-old girl were unaccounted for. There are times in life when the rules just have to be broken. I approached the apartment block where I knew they lived and went in through the wedged-open communal entrance door. The stairs she’d fallen down were ahead of me – I saw a fresh smear of blood on the wall – so I climbed, my attention fixed on the top of the stairs in case her husband were to reappear. He didn’t. When I reached the top, I looked for the apartment – it wasn’t hard to find. It was the only wide open door with a terrified little girl stood by it, chewing the edge of her hand. I smiled and reached out. At first she wasn’t sure, so I whispered to her that her mum was at my house and we were going there now. She took my hand. I asked her where her dad was. She said he’d gone. I asked if she meant in the car and she nodded. He can have only left moments before I arrived – and suspiciously quietly.
When I got back to my apartment, a policeman and policewoman were already sat with Claire on the sofa, taking down some details. She cried with joy when she saw her two children being brought into the room. I explained that her husband had left the scene of the assault in his car, so I hadn’t been in any danger. Claire told them she’d no idea where he went on those occasions. This triggered the police to ask how often he beat her and she said regularly, but she instantly seemed to regret admitting it. Then she said something I don’t think anyone in that room will ever forget: “I don’t want to press charges – I still love him.”
That day I learned that domestic abuse is complicated by love – if only by one of the people in the relationship. Claire did not want to give a statement to the police. She felt scared that Rob wouldn’t “want her anymore” if he found out she’d told them about his behaviour. By allowing me to contact the police, and by coming to my door in the first place for help, I know deep down she did want something to change, but I soon realised her goal that day was probably just temporary safety. She didn’t want to see her husband brought to justice. As much as they could, the police tried to remind her of the physical pain he’d given her and the possible psychological damage his actions could be having on the children, let alone the potential for the children to be taken away if the situation continued, but she reacted strongly to this and said she always protected them usually and that they rarely saw the two parents fighting, which she described as “more often than not verbal”. The police were clearly frustrated, knowing any kind of fight can be heard through a wall and can cause emotional damage to a child listening in, but their hands were tied. Without a statement and permission to proceed, they could do nothing.
After they left, I offered to help Claire by being available for her to talk to me – maybe I could slowly persuade her to get proper help later? – but she became agitated and told me she was worried that her husband would come back, find her gone and be angry with her again. As she gathered her children to her and prepared to leave the safety I’d provided, I saw the hold her violent husband had over her, the fear her decisions were really based on and, for the first time in my life, I began to understand the subtle legacy of hidden domestic abuse that I would later research in more detail.
I also knew I had to let her go. I was only sixteen-years-old at the time and my own parents were soon to return from their weekly food shopping trip.