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.’
The second confession
The youngest shifted uneasily in her seat; she was a thin pale woman in her twenties, her long face emphasised by her shoulder length, light brown hair. Her thin white blouse partly unbuttoned, revealing a gold necklace, was tucked into the waistband of a short denim skirt. She had taken off her leather bomber jacket and hung it over the back of her chair even though it was quite chilly.
The older woman returned to her seat, turning it so she could continue to look out of the window at the darkening skies. I pretended I was concentrating on my papers. Some sixth sense told me that I must remain sitting quietly if I wished to hear what this young woman was about to say.
The threat to make a complaint to the police by her friend’s husband must have struck a chord with the young woman because she began by saying, ‘Mine did go to the police but they didn’t believe him. They told him he must have fallen down drunk and that’s how he’d got the cut on his head. I did laugh about it later but …..’ Her voice trailed off, she looked down and took a deep breath before continuing ‘Well he’s a big lad; they just couldn’t believe I could hit him that hard.’ She turned to the older woman. ‘He is a big bloke isn’t he?’ she asked.
‘Yes. You only come up to his armpit. I’m not surprised the police didn’t believe him.’
‘Course he was drunk. He’d gone up town to watch Arsenal; been drinking all day leaving me with the kids. He’d promised to come home straight after the match so I could go to Bingo with my Mum. When he came in he was plastered; wanting his tea. I had a go at him and told him to make his own. He still had his silly supporter’s hat on, a bowler painted in red and white stripes. He was sat there yelling about his tea, telling me what he wouldn’t do to me if I didn’t get him some food.’
I looked at the group of woman round the table. None of them were interested in what I was doing and I was able to observe the women without distracting them. I thought how little surprise they had shown at the violence being described. Whilst these thoughts were revolving in my head she saw a small tousled head appear at the corner of the window into the corridor. At first she couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl.
The young woman continued ‘So I picked up the poker and hit him over the head with it from behind. Once I started I just kept hitting until his hat lifted up from his head, sort of popped up, and the blood poured down his face in little streams. He looked at me, his eyes wide open; put his hands up to his face, touching it.’
She demonstrated, putting her hands to her forehead and then her cheeks. I looked at her and back to the head at the window. Now a face appeared, pressed hard against the pane of glass flattening the features, two small, grubby hands palms facing towards me either side of the face. I put my hand to my mouth and pressed my lips together to stop from smiling..
I could still hear the young woman.
‘I think he thought that I had poured something over his head. When he looked at his hands and saw that it was blood he made a dive for me but I got out of the way and he fell onto the floor. The hat came off and there was blood everywhere.’
The little boy- it clearly was a boy- moved back a little and, looking straight at me, opened his mouth and stuck his tongue out. I began to laugh and then tried to turn the sound into a cough. Sharon and the artistically dressed woman looked at me and frowned before turning back to listen to their friend.
‘I didn’t know if it was the booze or me hitting him that made him fall over, but I didn’t wait to find out. I grabbed the kids and ran to my mum’s. I wasn’t dressed properly, still had me slippers on. I didn’t dare go back. So, I stayed there and the police came looking for me. They said they’d found him in the street, drunk, with this nasty cut to his head and he’d told them I’d done it. ‘‘Don’t be silly.’’ I said, ‘‘Look at me I’m only half his size.’’
‘‘Well do you want to go and see him? He’s up at the hospital,’’ they said. ‘‘We’ll take you up there if you want.’’
‘‘No, I think I’ll wait ‘til he’s sobered up a bit.’’
‘‘Might be best.’ they said.’’
Outside in the corridor a middle-aged woman, wearing an usher’s robe, came into my view, grabbed hold of the boy by his arm and pulled him away, mouthing the word ‘Sorry’ as she did so.
The young woman who had been speaking put her hands to her face, covering her eyes, bent her head down towards the table, pushed her fingers through her hair, pulling it back from her face before looking round at the others and smiling tentatively at them.
‘I haven’t been back.’ She added.
To be continued.