The room had a lot of light, really caught the sun. Annie and I found ourselves peering out onto one of London’s most vibrant neighbourhoods. We pulled the windows up to let in some air and were greeted by fumes from the Westway.
We breathed them in and smiled.
We called it the smell of freedom.
“Do you remember how daddy always kept the curtains shut? Let’s never shut the blinds!” she said.
She was seven years old.
The woman doing the viewing, Jennifer, she wasn’t your typical estate agent, with her Union Jack tattoo and cigarette perfume. But she was very enthusiastic about the room; plenty of wardrobe space, the finest mousetraps, a bunk bed.
“I’m having the top bunk!” shouted Annie.
I too searched for the positives; a feature fireplace with a very useful mantel, high ceilings. The flooring was laminate and noticeably chipped but you can deal with that. Throw over a vintage rug and you’re all set.
This is a place with great potential, I thought to myself.
It had got to the point in the viewing where you usually say – yes, we’ll take it!
But this is a women’s refuge and you don’t get to make choices in situations like ours.
And Jennifer? She wasn’t an estate agent, she was our support worker, and she was going outside for a fag.
She quit her job the following day.
It took me two years to save the money to run away from him.
I stuffed £5000 in tenners in a pink Agent Provocateur box. Amongst them was a list; it read first month’s rent, deposit and estate agent fees - £3000. Then there was a list of everything we would need to start our new life, there was no way he’d let me take any of my belongings. £2000 would set us up.
As a family, we blended in with the mediocrity that people aspire to in affluent London suburbs; you wouldn’t have thought there was anything sinister about our situation. We owned a beautiful house, mortgage free, and we had jobs that placed us in the highest tax bracket. We cooked on an Aga.
Yet behind the curtains there was never light. He rarely hit me but over the course of our lengthy relationship he had emotionally and financially destroyed me.
I was working full time but he found ways to ensure my money went to him. I knew very early on that I was in an abusive relationship, but I had no family to run home to so it was easier just to believe him when he said he’d change, that he’d see a therapist, that he was my family and I couldn’t leave him in his moment of need.
I was always in debt to him. Often emotionally, but mostly financial. He was a gambling addict and had transferred debts into my name, he controlled all my money and refused to pay for utilities or food.
He constantly demanded money from me. I owed him from a holiday ten years ago, for a sofa that he didn’t want, for the watch he bought me for my birthday that I no longer deserved.
When Annie was a baby he once refused to buy nappies until I transferred the money into his account. If I’d been a penny short he would have returned home empty handed. It was always best to overpay.
People in debt are filled with fear when the post arrives and hide behind the sofas with every knock at the door. But I was living with my own personal bailiff so there was nowhere to hide.
I paid him in weekly instalments. I lost track of what I was paying for. If I missed a payment he’d add on interest.
“I need to hold onto my money in case anything goes wrong”, he said as he forced me into bankruptcy.
“And you live here rent free!”
He made it clear that it was his house. Instead of being his partner I was an object to be controlled. Whenever I did something he perceived as “wrong” - not done the washing up, looked at him in the wrong way, gone out with friends for longer than I should have then he would scream:
“THIS IS MY HOUSE!”
And within an hour all of my clothes and Annie’s toys would be thrown into bin liners and onto the street.
It happened at least once a week.
But he’d never let me leave, regardless of how often I tried.
“The only way you’ll ever be able to leave is by running to a women’s refuge”, he’d snarl.
So I secretly saved £5000. It took me two years of sneaking away whatever I could.
And we were on the verge of leaving when he found the pink box…
That night he destroyed everything I owned. Plates, furniture, clothes. He ripped pictures from the wall screaming “Whore!” with every smash.
When Annie woke up, I told her to pretend to be asleep as I barricaded our bedroom door with a chest of drawers.
He kicked the door for two hours as she lay on top of me shaking. Eventually he smashed his way in. I thought we were going to die but he just gave me a spiteful kick to the shin.
He smashed everything in the room and tipped the contents of the pink box everywhere.
“Please just let us leave.” I begged.
He pulled me up by my hair.
“Looks like you’re going to live in a refuge.” He laughed.
He was right.
Most nights, when the light left the room the mice would join us in bed, the ceilings would leak and the fire alarms would screech.
Annie no longer slept in the top bunk.
“Will we ever find a safe place to live, Mumma?”, she’d whisper.
As we stood outside, waiting for the fire engines to arrive, she would say: “Are we going to be like Grenfell? What if the fire alarms don’t work tomorrow?”
I complained to the support staff and they would tell us it was our fault; we’d left food in the room attracting rodents, one of the women must have tampered with the fire alarm.
I never once felt supported by the company which managed the refuge, Hestia and didn’t feel the staff had the skills to help me navigate the complex and soul destroying system inflicted upon women and children fleeing domestic violence. I felt like I was a burden, looked down upon - that we were desperate women unable to have functioning relationships, that we’d brought this on ourselves.
I started plotting our escape.
Then the roof collapsed.
On Monday morning, we all went to the council to present as homeless.
The support workers turned up at our meeting at the council and suggested we return to the refuge. We refused, which was lucky because the ceiling collapsed again, and I believe that if anyone had been there they could have died.
With our things packed into bin liners, we left.
We had gone from one abusive situation and into another…
Names have been changed for safety reasons; the author has chosen to remain anonymous.
If you need to talk to someone about domestic violence contact Women's Aid/Refuge free helpline on 0808 2000 247. If you are in immediate danger, call 999.
Main illustration by Ella Paton. Her work can be viewed at: https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/V...