Backwards

Louise Wilford

“…The coroner noted that the body had signs of serious injury unrelated to the fall from the bridge, but recorded a death by drowning, probably suicide. 
    The victim, named as Victoria Kaufman, 28, worked in a garment factory less than a mile from the river where she died.  Her husband described her as ‘delusional’ and told us she had spent time in a psychiatric hospital in the past following psychotic episodes. However, her friend and co-worker, Shirley Blakeman, one of the last people to see her alive, believes she suffered from depression. 
    ‘Vicki had problems, sure. Sometimes I think it’s a pity people’s lives can’t go backwards, like that Benjamin Button film, you know – so they get all the bad stuff out of the way at the start, and end up in the happy times…'”
                                                                                                     Extract from The Echo, 15 November

05:00

She rose onto her bare toes, the wind pushing at her chest, pulling her long hair out behind her. The sun bled into the darkness, pale yellow behind the foggy silhouette of masts, dockland warehouses and the city’s high-rises, a pink stain rising on the horizon. 

It was so cold. She remembered Shirley’s blanket and, for a fleeting moment, felt a rush of warmth – but it was sucked away by the wind, the pain, and the fear.

Somewhere in that crowd of buildings, he’d be waking up, shouting for her to make him some coffee, then remembering that she couldn’t. Cursing, as if it was her fault. Though he might sleep in today, snoring through a fug of whisky and tacos. 

She could feel the uneven edges of the cement parapet against the soles of her feet.

How long would it take before her absence set him off like a match dropped into a box of fireworks? 

04:00

She rested in the entrance to an alley between a rundown minimart and a shuttered café.  Leaning against the discoloured brick wall, she focused on catching her breath, fighting the swell of nausea. It was as safe as anywhere else, out of the wind, in the greasy shadows. 

She felt her forehead, touching the swollen lump gingerly with her fingertips. It was rough with dried blood, but probably not as bad as it felt. A headache chiselled into her skull above her left eye. As her breathing became more regular and her heartbeat slowed, she took a deep breath of air but regretted it immediately: the over-full skips of garbage behind her reeked like a swamp. She did a mental inventory of her injuries: her hands were tender and sore, her shoulders stiff, and there was a grinding pain in her side. She realised she must have cut her bare feet on something, as bloody footsteps trailed after her into the alley.

A police car slunk down the street and she pressed herself into the shadows against the wall. She was shaking so hard with cold and fear that her spine bounced against the dirty bricks. She knew there was no hope that way. The police would send her back to him. They didn’t understand. After he told them about the psychiatric hospital, that last time, their sympathy had vanished. They thought she was a liar, mentally ill, someone who harmed herself, who fantasised. He’d told them she was “backwards” and they’d nodded, sympathetic.

Someone who needed help, but not the sort they could provide.

It was only half a mile to the bridge.

It would be light soon. She had to go now.

03:00

The empty early morning streets were cold, but she hadn’t had time to grab her coat or shoes. What was the point anyway?  

She ran barefoot down the paved sidewalk, hardly noticing the stones and bits of broken glass, the puddles of urine, the half-eaten burgers thrown from car windows. A cat skirted an oily pothole ahead of her, streaking off down a side alley. She could hear traffic, the distant sound of sirens, even the low moan of a ship’s horn out in the estuary.  But it was all far away, nothing to do with her. It all belonged to other people.

For a moment, she thought about going back to Shirley’s. But that was the first place he’d go looking for her. She could take a Greyhound back home to Daytona, but he’d find her there, like he did before. Anyway, what was there for her but a mother crippled with arthritis, a mother who’d told her to never come back?

She didn’t want to go back.  

There was only one place she could go.

02:30

Used to staying quiet, not provoking him, it didn’t occur to her for hours to wriggle her numb fingers, pull at the bonds, even though she could hear his snoring rattling through the wall. He’d told her not to move, not to try to escape. She’d tried, the first few times, but he always caught her and then the punishment was worse.  

But her arms and shoulders were stiff with cramp and she had to move them, if she could. That’s when she realised the bonds around one hand were loose. He must have been too drunk to check his handiwork. Silently, cautiously, she twisted her frozen fingers, feeling the skin tear, until one slipped bloodily from the loop of plastic washing line he’d used. The rope slackened and she could, agonisingly, pull her whole hand free. She bit her lip to stop herself crying out. Her fingers were so sore and stiff, it was difficult to pick open the knots around her other wrist, but her terror worked her hard. 

She could barely stand. Her body ached from the kicks and punches, from sitting on the cold floor in her nightdress for two hours, listening to the beetles scuttling over the ripped lino. She crawled across the landing, pulled herself up by clinging to the apartment door, terrified she’d wake him. The key was in the lock. She fumbled it open, expecting every second to feel his hand on her shoulder, his voice in her ear. But the apartment was silent as a cemetery as she slipped out onto the corridor.

01:00

She was sitting on the kitchen floor, her back against the door, hands bound to the door-knob above her head. It was difficult to rise to her feet. It was one of his regular punishments. He said it would teach her humility – she’d learn her true place, on the floor like the rest of the vermin. Her shoulders screamed with pain, but her hands, tied to the door handle, were growing numb.

She suspected the cut on her forehead was bleeding where he’d smashed her face against the kitchen counter. Strands of hair were stuck to her eyelid, pulling against her skin when she moved her head. She had a desperate urge to touch her brow, feel whether it was as swollen as she thought it was.  

A darkness lurked behind her eyes, something more than just physical discomfort, but she wasn’t ready yet to acknowledge it.

00:00

He was waiting for her when she got home. He hadn’t spent the night at Craig’s, as he’d said he would. His face was purple-red, the left eye discoloured from some fist he’d walked into. His pupils were huge black holes – alien.  

He didn’t bother asking where she’d been. He gave her no opportunity to explain, just launched his missile mouth straight at her bleary face.

“I knew you were up to somethin’, bitch!” Spittle frothed on his lips. “Knew it soon as I left. You were so fucking keen to get me outta here, weren’t you? But I know what you’re up to, you lyin’ whore!”

He’d drunk a bottle of Jack Daniels since he got in, on top of the stuff he’d drunk on the bar-crawl with his brother and their friends. Cowering against the wall, trying not to look too scared as that made him angrier, she felt herself fading out, floating away, so that for a moment it was as if she was looking down at her own self. As if she was some other woman, someone in a drama or a TV soap, distant and only vaguely interesting.

After he tied her to the door, he went to bed. She could hear him snoring through the flimsy wall.

21:45

“Come in for a while,” said Shirley. “Have a night-cap.”  

They’d walked as far as Shirley’s apartment together, as usual when they were on the same shift. That moment every evening when Shirley turned away, striding up the concrete steps to the front door, leaving Vicki to walk on alone, always felt like a light had gone out.

She hesitated.  “Dale doesn’t like me to…”

“Fuck Dale!” Shirley gave a contemptuous snort, then, seeing her friend’s anxious eyes, went on: “How’ll he know? That man be out all night himself, won’t he? You know what men’re like at stags!”

Vicki knew well enough – crazy-drunk, the wall between their public selves and their private rage torn down. And, for once, she found herself nodding.  

“Ok. Why not?”

What harm could it do? Half an hour at a friend’s? It was what other women did, after all. Normal women.

“Bet I can find us some brandy if I look hard enough!” laughed Shirley, unlocking the door, leading her inside.

Thank God she’d be back at work by the time he rolled in tomorrow. He might have slept it off by the time she next saw him.      

Shirley’s apartment was small, untidy and cold. “Heating’s fucked,” she explained, offering Vicki a burnt-orange woollen blanket. She pulled it round her shoulders gratefully; it reminded her of when she was a child, at her gran’s house.  

“Fuck, girl, you look like shit!”  Shirley pushed her gently onto the threadbare couch, staring at her closely, her own face wrinkled with concern. “When you last get some sleep?”

“I sleep okay,” lied Vicki. She remembered the hours she’d spent doing housework that morning, moving quietly so she didn’t wake him. He liked to wake up to a clean apartment. Taking a shower and curling her hair in case he wanted her to come back to bed. Toasting the sourdough bread he liked on weekday mornings, pouring his juice, making fresh coffee. Then, after he left for work, taking the ironing out of the cupboard where she hid it, so she could finish it when he wasn’t there. He couldn’t stand seeing women ironing. Couldn’t stand the hiss of the steam. Reminded him of his “martyr-mother”, who’d once burned his neck with a steam-iron when he was a kid. He still had the scar, shaped like an iron’s pointed prow.

Shirley didn’t need to know all that. She wouldn’t understand.

But it was nice to sit on the couch, be waited on for once. Her back ached from bending over the machines in the workshop for hours. 

They had hot chocolate laced with the brandy Shirley’s mother had bought her for Christmas, ate homemade fruit cake and watched a romcom on TV. Vicki fell asleep halfway through, wrapped in the old orange blanket, head lolling against Shirley’s shoulder. As her eyes flickered shut, she felt the warmth and comfort cocooning her like an embrace. For a few half-conscious moments, she forgot where she was, and felt only a quiet joy, a memory of nodding off cuddled up against her grandma when she was a little girl, safe and free.


Louise Wilford (https://louviewsnewscues.blogspot.com/) lives in Yorkshire, UK. Her work has been widely published, most recently in Bandit, English Review, Goats’ Milk, Jaden, Makarelle, New Verse News, POTB, The Fieldstone Review and Parakeet. In 2020, she won the Arts Quarterly Short Story Prize, the Merefest Poetry Prize, and was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Distinction). She is working on a children’s fantasy novel.
 

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