My shoelaces are missing again.
My running shoes lie strewn on the floor, pointing in opposite directions. A ladder of darker grooves imprints the white leather tongues.
The first time, we have this conversation.
– Have you seen my shoelaces?
– What do you want laces for?
– I want to go for a run. There’s no laces in my running shoes.
– It’s raining. You can’t go running in the rain.
He doesn’t like me running. Thinks other men in the park will watch me, stare at my breasts, my legs. Not my face – he says my face would put a man off his beer. I tell him I don’t run in the park. I go along the river, under the trees. Nobody else runs there, the path is too winding, straddled with tree roots like old bones. It’s safe in the trees. I like to hear wind sing through leaves.
The second time, we have this conversation.
– My shoelaces are missing again.
– How the hell do you lose your laces?
– Did you take them?
He gets that look on his face – eyes flashing icicles, nostrils flare like wings. White-lipped smile. His voice hums like velvet – the touch of velvet rubbed against the nap.
– What would I need with your laces?
He laughs, as if I’ve cracked some eccentric joke. And he sighs, a shivering sound that makes me think of ghosts.
– I don’t know.
– I need a beer. You’re doing my head in. Get me a beer.
He stretches out on the sofa, socked feet propped on the arm. Grey socks. Lighter grey in a patch wearing thin on the heels. A thread hangs loose. If I pulled it, would the whole sock unravel?
– Beer, woman. And nuts.
The beer is in the fridge in the garage. I hate going into his garage. The light bulb doesn’t work and the light falling through the open door from the kitchen is thin and grey and only reaches halfway. I creep through the guddle of broken chairs, of rakes and spades and old paint cans, careful not to dislodge anything. They can leave bruises.
In the kitchen, I take a packet of nuts from the pantry. I prise the lid off the bottle. Gently, so beer doesn’t foam up and spill over. I flip it into the bin. He shouts from the lounge.
– What’s taking so long? Christ, call yourself a runner.
In the hall, the shoe rack is shoe-shop neat. My running shoes are a beacon of order, heels and toes together, laces threaded through all the eyelets, equal lengths tied in a pristine bow. I never leave them tied.
He is still lying like a fixture on the sofa, eyes fixed on the widescreen. I put the bottle in his outstretched hand. He grabs the peanuts, pours some into his mouth from the packet. Spits them out in a spray.
– These are bloody salted. I told you to get dry roasted.
The third time, we have this conversation.
– Did you go for a run today?
– I had a headache.
You’d think he’d won an Olympic gold, the way his whole body swells, and his face flowers. My stomach unclenches. He doesn’t know. I did go for a run. I found some old garden twine and threaded it through the eyelets, a green link to a snatch of freedom.
– A headache doesn’t get you off cooking dinner.
– What do you want?
I peel potatoes, slice them into chips. I chop red onions and fry them into crisp, battered rings, the way he likes them. I flame-cook the steak.
He hurls the plate against the wall.
– These bloody onions are raw
Food slides down the wall, huddles in a heap at the skirting board. Steak juice drips tears I won’t cry. He doesn’t realise I am an onion. He sees the surface – crisp, brittle skin, easy to tear and rip. He doesn’t understand layers. Each separate skin may be fragile, transparent, gossamer-thin. Together, they are opaque, sinewy. I won’t let him see my eyes sting and smart.
In the morning, I run. I run in the rain. My pony tail bounces, a wet rope drumming between my shoulder blades. I run on hard, wet pavements, my shoes a percussion beat, a cymbal hiss. The rain stops. I run between trees, feet dancing and dodging. The green twine snaps. I walk home barefoot.
The neighbour stands at her mailbox.
– I haven’t seen you out running for a few days. How are you?
– I’m fine. Busy with. . . stuff.
– How are you really?
She touches her finger to my wrist, where my skin wears a bracelet of bruises, the colour of onion skins.
– I heard things. Last night. Smashing. Shouting.
My tongue is locked. She tucks a business card into the running shoes dangling from my hand by broken green twine. Women’s Refuge, it says. And a phone number.
– I can help you. You know where I am, she says.
I hide the card inside a sanitary towel packet. He’ll never look there. I don’t know why I keep it. I don’t need help. I am an onion.
But it isn’t only shoe laces. He is a kaleidoscope of malice. I unpack groceries, put a new bar of soap in the bathroom, a new lightbulb in the garage, and fill his beer fridge. When he showers, he complains there is no soap in the soap tray. I fetch him another fresh bar. At dinner, he demands a beer. I fetch him a bottle from the garage, picking my way to the fridge. The new bulb is a scatter of glass shards on the concrete floor. When I drop the beer cap in the bin, I see a smooth yellow curve of Imperial Leather poking out through vegetable peelings and biscuit wrappers.
I put my house key in the bowl on the hall table when I come home. It disappears. He won’t get a new one cut.
– You’re so bloody careless. Just find it.
When I go for a run, I climb out of the kitchen window. My laces don’t disappear now he thinks I can’t go out.
He has names for me. Crazy. Slut.
He brings me flowers.
– I’m sorry if I’ve been a grouch. Work is stressing me out.
– A grouch?
I whisper. The word tastes yellow, like a wax crayon a child would use to draw a fat sun.
– Don’t make me say it twice. I’m really trying here.
– Thank you for the flowers.
– That’s better. Now kiss me.
He throws the flowers on the table. Throws me on the sofa, pushes my t-shirt up, my pants down.
– No, no.
– Wrong answer. You really should be more careful, you know.
He licks his fingertip and traces across my body, a dot-to-dot of bruises. I close my eyes and think of running. Bare feet, slapping on cool earth. Loose hair, flapping. Wind sings in the leaves. I’ll be safe here.
He zips himself up.
– That will have put a kid in your belly. About time.
This is the conversation I have with him now
I clean the house, make dinner, and fetch beer. In bed, I spread my legs and lie mute. When he sleeps, I slip out of bed, wrap myself in my dressing gown and stand at the window, watching streetlights through glass smeared with rain.
– I am an onion.
What else can I be?
I find the key when I’m dusting, tucked behind a picture on the same nail. I squirrel it away in the sanitary towel packet, with the card. The card is creased, curling at the edges. I recite the number. I might need help.
My stomach starts to spill over my waistband. He grabs a handful, kneading his fingers like I’m a piece of clay he’s sculpting.
– My son.
The ultrasound says it’s a girl. I watch him – his icicle eyes, his flared nostrils. He double checks.
– Are you sure?
– You made a useless effing girl.
He drags me to the garage. I try to run, trip on a paint can and slam into the concrete floor. He grabs a spade.
The baby leaks out of me in red tears.
He doesn’t realise I am a rain gauge. Every rainfall, water creeps up, until all it can do is spill over.
I knock on the neighbour’s door.
– Please could I use your phone?
My fingers know the number. The neighbour says she’ll drive me to the shelter. She waits in her car on the street.
He is at work. I pack a bag, and pull the front-door shut, a black full-stop. I thread a shoelace through my key, tie a pristine bow, and drop it in his mailbox.
This story won first place in the 2020 Page and Blackmore short story competition.
Domestic violence wrecks lives.
If you, or anyone you know, are dealing with DV, please seek help.