So what happened to Sharon, the young woman I was there to represent?
The women all exchanged glances but before anyone could speak the door of the family court opened, the usher appeared and Sharon’s case was called on. I pushed the stories I had just heard to the back of my mind and walked into court with my client, leaving the three other women behind. Once in the courtroom I called Sharon to give her account of the incidents which gave rise to the application for an injunction preventing her boyfriend from contacting her. She wasn’t the best of witnesses and I could see that the judge was not impressed. Then cross examination began with the boy friend’s barrister asking Sharon if she wanted to stay at the Hostel or go back with Colin to her flat. Sharon hesitated.
‘Of course I’d like to go back to the flat.’
The Judge interjected, ‘Of course she wants to go back to her own home. That Refuge is disgusting.’
‘Yes of course, your honour. But I am suggesting that the witness wants to go back to the flat with Mr Fenton.’
‘Well say so.’ It was clearly the end of a long day. He turned to Sharon and asked her if she did want to go back to her boyfriend.
Sharon looked round the court room. First at me with a look of desperation on her face and then at Colin’s barrister who was holding a piece of pale lilac notepaper in his hand. I looked away: I knew what was coming. Sharon had seen the letter as well and was struggling to find an answer.
‘Let me help you,’ said Colin’s barrister smiling, and he handed the piece of paper to the usher and asked her to give it to Sharon. Sharon looked at it. The barrister paused.
‘Did you write that?’
‘Would you like to read it to the court?’
Sharon read out the letter she had written asking Colin to meet her at the shop near the Refuge to talk about her going back with their child, Angelina.
‘You met Colin by arrangement and went back to the flat with him?’
Sharon’s voice was dull ‘Yes.’
‘And when you were there, you had intercourse with him.’
I looked up at the Judge and, as I expected, he told me that I did not have any grounds now for the application. I agreed and he turned to Sharon and told her to stop being so silly and return to her flat. Then, with a swift nod, he rose and swept off the bench before anyone could get to their feet.
Once outside the courtroom, the three women wanted to know what had happened. Sharon was crying so I told them she had agreed to give Colin another chance for the sake of the child. ‘That’s right, isn’t it?’ I said. Sharon nodded her head as she wiped away the tears and blew her nose. All three of them looked at her in amazement, turned on their heels and walked away, leaving me with Sharon.
Along the corridor, I could see Colin saying goodbye to his barrister and then he walked towards them. He came up to Sharon and put an arm round her shoulders.
‘Come on, let’s go and get Angie and your things.’ And, without a word to me, the two of them strolled out of the building.
The usher came out of the courtroom and stood watching them for a few moments before turning to I and saying ‘They’re such liars, these people aren’t they.’
I smiled ‘That one was.’ but I wasn’t sure about the confessions I had just heard. I thought then, and still do they were true.
I sat very still, hardly daring to breathe, the pages of the brief unturned in my hands. Had both women been telling the truth? Weren’t they the victims of violence not the perpetrators? I didn’t know what to think.
Whilst I was turning these thoughts over, Sharon turned in her seat towards me. She appeared to be surprised I was still there but asked when they would be going into court. I said I didn’t know but the usher would call us when the court was ready. Sharon sighed and turned back to face her friends. The eldest of the three women reached over and patted Sharon’s hand. I had hardly noticed her before but now as she tried to comfort Sharon I saw that not only was she older then the others but she was dressed in more expensive clothes. Her white Mac was belted and she wore a blue silk scarf tightly knotted; both had seen better days. Her brown hair, which she wore in an untidy French pleat, was beginning to go grey and the lenses of her gold rimmed glasses were thick, emphasising her brown eyes.
It was completely dark outside; the only light in the room was from the street lamps and the lighting in the corridor. I went back to my papers. A telephone began to ring somewhere in the building and there was a squeal of brakes from outside. The familiar noises, breaking the silence, acted as a stimulus and conversation was resumed. They talked about the hostel and how difficult it was living with a number of other women and children. They spoke of who let their kids run riot, who didn’t do their share of cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen, who took other people’s food from the fridge and who always got their own choice of television programme. The eldest of the three women made very little contribution to the discussion until the talk turned to a child who played football in the garden, kicking the ball against the wall of the house for hours on end, then she said, ‘I like gardening. I miss having a garden at the hostel. It’s not the same when there are lots of other people walking all over it and picking the flowers. We had a nice garden at home. I spent a lot of time out there. It got me out of the way, being in the garden, particularly when Phil was in a bad mood. I like flowers – didn’t grow vegetables- perhaps a few tomatoes. Course, this time of year it’s a bit bare so I’d pot up some hyacinths for the house. I’d bought a bag of them in the market. Kept some of them back for planting outside. I had a nice blue bowl; the same colour as the flowers and when they began to grow, pale green shoots coming through, I put them in it and put them on the hall table. They did look lovely.’
She paused to light a cigarette from a green and white packet and I caught the faint scent of menthol. I wanted to ask them not to smoke any more but knew it was hopeless. They might stop for a few minutes but then they would light up again as the tension and boredom of waiting got to their nerves, so I said nothing. The older woman put the packet and a yellow cigarette lighter on the table, inhaled once and placed the cigarette on the ashtray. I watched as she continued to stare out into lamp lit street and saw her lower lip quiver. Was this woman about to admit to some similar incident? I sat very still, looking at but not reading the brief, and listened. The woman began slowly and without emotion.
‘He had such a temper and he came in that day in a right one. His tea wasn’t strong enough; I’d folded his newspaper the wrong way. It didn’t matter what I did, nothing was right.’ She raised her voice slightly as if she was reliving the event. ‘He was effing and blinding at me and I asked him to stop. He went from the lounge to the kitchen and back again, me following, trying to get him to stop swearing. We were pulling and pushing at each other. You know what it’s like?’
She turned to face the others and, even though I could not see their faces in the dim light, I saw them all nod. The woman moved her chair back so that she was facing the rest of the group. Her voice became stronger and she spoke more emphatically.
‘We were in the hall and he pulled away from me sweeping the flowers onto the floor. The pot broke, there was dirt all over the tiles and the stems of the plants were broken. I was really upset. I do like flowers. I’ll give you hyacinths I thought.’
She stopped and untied the scarf from around her neck, folded it neatly and pushed into her pocket, then pushed up the sleeves of her Mac, and continued. ‘So a couple of days later I asked him if he fancied a lamb stew. ‘Yes’ he said ‘That’ll be nice.’ I went to the butchers and bought a bit of neckend. I made a stew with carrots and peas but instead of onions I used the hyacinth bulbs. I peeled them, chopped them and fried them just as if they were the real thing. I put them with the meat and the other vegetables in a casserole, added some beer, to disguise the taste, and cooked it. When he came in from work I gave it to him. He asked me if I was having some. I told him I‘d had some earlier. He said he thought that it tasted a bit funny. ‘‘Mine didn’t’’ I told him. He went on and ate it all up. After about half an hour he started to sweat and said he was going to bed; he didn’t feel very well. He was in and out of bed all night going to the toilet and saying he felt sick. The next morning he looked awful; he was all grey and his eyes were dull. He told me to get the doctor. He told the doctor how bad he felt, going to the toilet all the time and feeling nauseous. The doctor said it was food poisoning and asked him what he’d eaten. He’d had a pie a lunchtime in the pub and the lamb stew. He said that the stew had tasted funny. I told the doctor mine hadn’t. ‘‘It must have been the pie.’’ the doctor said. Anyway, he got a week off work. Kept on about how I’d given him a dodgy stew. I never let on, even after we separated. I’ve never told anyone.’ She paused. ‘I do like a nice garden.’
Attempted Murder 1. I started to find the silence uncomfortable when this woman began to talk in a low voice. There was an urgency in the tone that made me want to listen. I turned my attention back to the papers on my lap, pretending to work and hide my interest in the conversation. The woman was talking in a low voice and I could only just hear what she was saying. ‘The doctor gave me antidepressants after I had each of the kids. I had this post natal depression. You know what it’s like?’ She paused and looked round at the others but there was no response to her question, so she continued. ‘Mind you, it wasn’t really the babies that were the problem. It was him. He was always more violent just after the children were born. He’d wait ‘til I was breastfeeding and then start to hit me round my head. I couldn’t do nothing. Well you can’t do much holding a baby in your arms, can you?’ She didn’t pause for an answer but went on, ‘I’d just curl up over the little’un to protect him from his dad. The other two would be crying and pulling at him to try and stop him. But it made no difference; he’d just push them away. One year, it was the year Eddie was born, it was coming up to Christmas and I thought I’ve had enough. What I need is a nice quiet Christmas. So what did I do?’ She sat back, took a small, battered tin from her pocket, opened it, used the contents to prepare a thin cigarette which she lit and then inhaled deeply. ‘What did I do? Christmas Eve I got my pills and crushed them into his beer. Well he was too drunk to notice. That’ll keep him quiet I thought. He’ll have such a headache tomorrow he won’t want to get up and me and the kids can enjoy ourselves without him.’ I put my hand up to my mouth. The eldest of the woman looked towards me. I looked back at my papers and drew a question mark in the margin of the brief. That must have reassured her I was still working, the woman turned her attention back to the speaker who was tapping her left hand gently, but persistently, on the table top. ‘I thought he was about to go to sleep in the chair so I got him upstairs, got his clothes off and rolled him into bed. Well, it was quiet.’ she nodded as if to emphasis her words. ‘He slept all Christmas Day and Boxing Day as well. I thought I’d killed him.’ She took a quick intake of breath, put her cupped hand to her mouth and whispered, ‘Course, sometimes, I almost wish I had.’ ‘I kept going upstairs to see if he was still breathing. Eventually he came to. He couldn’t believe he’d slept through Christmas Day and Boxing Day. He went on at me until I told him what I’d done. I got a real pasting. He threatened to go to the police about it but he didn’t. For a while he laid off me, but then he started again. That’s it, I thought, I’m leaving.’ When no one spoke, I looked up. The woman who had told the tale caught my eye and then turned towards Sharon before shrugging her shoulders. In the silence a cell door banged shut on the floor beneath. The elder of the three got up and leant against the window ledge, putting her forehead against the cold glass. To be continued
A recent exchange on Facebook reminded me of one of the more absurd episodes of my life. For reasons which I won’t go into I had become involved with the Cambridge Settlement in the east end of London. I had never been to Cambridge University but the project needed a woman lawyer as a group of women wanted to establish a Battered Wives Centre and it was to be a rule that no man would be allowed over the threshold. As the Cambridge Settlement didn’t have a woman lawyer I was volunteered by a friend.
So it was that one February night I found myself climbing over the wall of a large property in the East India Dock Road and helping to force an entry into the house. The building had been the home and surgery of a local doctor who had been provided with better premises from which to work and the property had been purchased by the now defunct GLC , prior to redevelopment of the site. They were not averse to unused properties being squatted and I duly arranged for us to pay rates and for the services to be reconnected. That was the easy bit.
The group of about four women who were the first group of wives trying to escape their abusive husbands moved in and with them came a number of social workers assigned by the local authority to ensure the children were not at risk. A number of house rules were agreed including that there was to be a meeting every Monday which all the residents had to attend. The idea of the meeting was to enable any issues surrounding the running of the house to be aired, the finances to be discussed and if there were disputes between the women for them to be resolved. Some of the social workers attended as well as me.
The women living at the house each had a separate room in which to live and sleep, but they shared the kitchen, bathrooms and a downstairs living room where the only TV was installed. It was here that the Monday Meeting was to take place. One of the mantra’s repeated all the time by the social workers was ‘There is no excuse for violence.’ Sure I thought although not without some reservations.
As the hostel began to fill up – if my recollections is right there were twelve rooms – the inevitable tensions arose. Someone would jump the queue for the bathroom or spend too long under the shower; not everyone was as good at washing up their plates as they should, the fridges rota wasn’t being adhered to. I’m sure you can think of many more of the small irritations that can arise in such cramped conditions.
Then, well let’s call her Pat, arrived. She had three children all under six, who ran wild around the house. They were always filthy and I found myself bathing them more than once. She always left the kitchen in a mess, the bathrooms dirty. She was disruptive, a heavy smoker who shouted and screamed all the time. She became the centre of heated debate at the Monday meeting and each time she was threatened with having to leave she would promise to behave.
One evening her husband came to the door and I went out to speak to him. He asked about the children and asked if they were OK as his wife was a very poor carer. He volunteered that he had slapped her across the face when he had come home from work to find the children hungry and very grubby. I had some sympathy for him and said so to one of the social workers we called Etty. She was furious with me and told me there was no excuse for violence.
A few weeks later when the Monday meeting was about to start, Pat was in the living room watching Coronation Street. Her behaviour had not improved despite the many promises. Etty asked Pat to turn off the TV, and she refused. Etty asked her again to which Pat replied, ‘I don’t want to attend your f….. meeting. I’m watching TV.’
Etty got up and turned off the TV. Pat retaliated by turning it back on. Etty turned it off again, only for Pat to turn it on. This was repeated another couple of times and then as Pat went to switch the TV on for the fifth time, Etty got up, grabbed Pat by the arm, swung her round and hit her across the face with the flat of her hand as hard as she could.
So, no excuse for violence then.