Four years ago, I moved into a women’s refuge. It was the single most difficult decision I have ever made, and the lowest point in a life punctuated by low. My marriage had collapsed past the point of no return, and I found myself in the unenviable position of sharing a house with a man who resented my very existence. I was unable to afford the rent on a flat large enough to accommodate all of my children, and the home atmosphere was becoming increasingly aggressive.
I wasn’t able to take all of my children. My oldest son was already living in the UK, my daughter refused to even consider the idea, and my middle son was already too old, at fifteen, to be allowed to live with me. That broke my heart, having to tell him I was leaving without him. We sat on my bed, and sobbed. So I left, with my youngest son, then eleven, and two suitcases.
We shared a room initially, with another woman and her teenage daughter. I am not very good at communal living. I have a morbid fear of public toilets, and cockroaches. The shared bathroom was my idea of a nightmare, since it combined both. I would turn the light on, and then wait for ten minutes, to allow the cockroaches to skitter into hiding. Then shower quickly, eyes squeezed tightly shut, so that I didn’t have to look at stray hairs left by the other residents. And check the floor before I stepped back out, in case the braver roaches had already ventured from their hiding places (We are talking big buggers here, at least three inches in length).
I am still living within the refuge, but I am now in a separate flat, and have all my children back with me. And my very own bathroom. Without a cockroach in sight. And my now ex-husband and I get on far better than we ever did as a couple.
What struck me most about the initial move, was the reaction of other people. I have a plummy voice. Think a cross between Julie Andrews and Emma Thompson. Private school and a straw boater will do that for you!! My Torn Apart (himself a possessor of a voice that makes Hugh Grant sound like a cockney barrow boy) recently admitted that the first time he met me, his initial thought was “Oh thank god!! Posh totty!!” So there was a hint of disbelief that I was in such a situation, the assumption being that I lived in a palace, with a butler called Albert.
I was also struck by the preconception that the women in the refuge were all somehow ‘no better than they oughta be’, as if they had somehow brought this upon themselves. And that it was perfectly acceptable to ask the most personal of questions, in the same way that virtual strangers feel that they can pat your stomach when you are pregnant ( I would always counteract this by patting them on the bum).
This lead to one of my favourite encounters. I found myself one day being interrogated by a work colleague about my situation, as I attempted to have a quiet cup of tea in the staff canteen. I am not ashamed about where I live, but nor am I willing to discuss my situation in detail with anyone. Having neatly fielded numerous questions from this particular female for ten minutes, I could feel my patience start to fray. And then she presented me with an irresistible opportunity. The conversation went thus……
Her: So when will you be rehoused?
Me: I have no idea, it could be several years.
Her: I suppose they will give you one of the new flats?
Me: No, it is more likely to be one of the older ones.
Her: That will be expensive for you, it will probably need to be refurbished.
Me: Actually, I have a lot of friends in the building trade who have already offered their services.
Her: You will still have to pay them though.
At which point, I took a deep breath, looked her straight in the eye, and said
“Oh, no. I don’t pay them, I sleep with them. It gives me something to do in the evenings, and the work is always done to a high standard!”
I then left the room.
Two days later, I opened the tea room door to be greeted by a deathly silence. The sort of silence that only occurs when you have been the topic of conversation just seconds earlier.
Adapting the stance of a saddle sore cowboy, hands pressed to the small of my back, I staggered across the room. Turned to face the group at the table. And announced ………..
“My bookshelves are coming along beautifully.”