By Emilie Kristensen-McLachlan
She had tried. Tried to reason with herself. Going rationally through the pros and cons, she had tried to tell herself what to do. But she wasn’t listening. Not to herself, not to anyone else. Or perhaps she was in fact listening. Perhaps she understood, but still wasn’t able to change things.
Tommy Knightley. She had laughed at him that first night they went from being people in the same drinks group to being something else. Something more. It was the first time she heard his full name and she’d gone around the pub mocking him, cackling with her girlfriends: “Tommyyyyyyy Knightleeeeeeey, it rhymes!”
There was nothing to laugh at anymore. He had been the joke that first night, even the first few weeks they were going out. But it soon changed. Slowly, invisibly he came out on top. Growing bigger, tangling his way into every nook, crease and cranny. Emma had a slight suspicion he was the presence in her mind that made it impossible for her to quarrel with herself. To reason with herself. She heard his voice in her head. Not only the things he would say now, but also how he had been in the beginning. He had been fun, caring and had always remembered she preferred the sugar and milk to go in the cup before the tea bag and boiling water. It had been good. Safe and comfortable.
“It’s the two of us against the rest of the world,” he would say to her under the covers at night, kissing the tip of her nose, tucking her in.
He always wanted to be where she was but the warm cuddles started to feel colder, clammy, until she couldn’t escape his embrace. Couldn’t escape him. No matter how sure she felt about how something had happened he always ended up convincing her of the opposite. First by using, what seemed to her, better arguments. Then she became used to just agreeing with him so she wouldn’t have to hear about all the things she was and all the things she was not.
A few months before she met Tommy, she had travelled to Australia on her own. As just about everyone else her age she had been backpacking up the east coast. In Brisbane she had bought a daytrip out of the city to go to one of the national parks. The area was luscious and you could feel the watery moist just by looking at the forest. The colours of the landscape were so green, cerulean and ochre that they looked like thick, glossy oil paint straight out of the tube. The guide took the tour group past massive trees covered by long, thick plants along a path trodden by so many tourists before them.
“Buried deep behind those lianas there is a dead tree. The lianas live off the trees, crawl up them to steal sunlight, tangle themselves around the trees and take over their water supply. Literally cuts off the tree’s life source.”
The guide had explained it with a geeky fascination but Emma had been disturbed by what was in front of her.
Tommy and her still went out sometimes. Emma’s friends would be relieved. They never mentioned anything, didn’t want to interfere with their privacy, but Tommy and Emma’s outings seemed to be a reassurance to them. Things couldn’t be that bad. If Tommy was so controlling and problematic as rumour had it, surely, they wouldn’t be coming to hang out. They were a big group of friends, mixed gender, a lot of couples. Often the girls would stay at whatever place the group had designated as theirs for the night, while the boys would gather around the pool table, bar or screen when the football was on. Tommy didn’t even seem to notice Emma most of the time on those nights.
“It had become impossible to define what ‘you are hurting me’ meant. She had no marks; no evidence.”
But he was good. Calculated. Thorough. Every time Emma would allow herself to think he really was preoccupied with the guys, he would send a text. Like clockwork. She could feel the phone buzzing in her pocket but didn’t go to reach for it. Instead she would catch his eye across the room, like a brief way of saying, “I understand. I know you’re watching.” Later, when she would go to the bathroom there would be five, six, seven messages from him. A grey row of little bubbles without any text or emojis.
He never hit her. No, he was too sophisticated for that. His words bruised. He would poke and twist but those were the only punches Emma would get. One Sunday afternoon he came close. She was fed up, filled to the brim with misery yet still not able to do anything. Because was he actually doing anything? It had become impossible to define what “you are hurting me” meant. She had no marks; no evidence. She was ashamed when she realised she had started to hope he would hit her. Just once. If that happened, she thought, she was sure to be knocked out of her daze. A hard slap across the face, perhaps a bloody encounter between his fist and her mouth.
On that Sunday they had had a fight in the morning. While she was in the shower he locked himself in their bedroom. She came out wearing a robe, trying and failing to get into the room to get dressed. She lost it. Hammering on the door, kicking, screaming, calling him all names under the sun. His childishness, his control over her knocked her off course. She didn’t give a fuck about the consequences. She wished it would have consequences. She listened at the door not hearing a sound from inside. He was ignoring her, which only set her off more. She screamed herself hoarse.
Suddenly she heard Tommy jump up and race across the room. Emma’s blood immediately ran cold. He unlocked the door and flung it open. Storming towards her he nearly slipped going in his socks from the bedroom’s carpet to the hall’s wooden floor. Without realising it her body was moving her back one step after the other. Tommy held up both of his hands in front of him and grabbed onto her shoulders so his knuckles went white. He pushed Emma until her back rammed into the front door.
“Don’t fucking push me!”
He screamed in her face, the spit hitting her across the nose and cheeks. He leaned back, folding his hand into a fist. “Here we go,” she quickly thought to herself. Tommy slammed his fist into the door next to her head. Some of her hair was caught under his blow and her right ear felt warm from the imagined impact. He turned around, stormed into the bedroom and slammed the door. Emma heard the lock turn.
Slowly, she walked across the hall into the living room. She sat down on the leather couch. Staring out in front of her she became aware of how dry the skin on her forehead was. The tightness across her face telling her she needed some moisturiser. She visualised the bottle sitting on her bedside table. Emma didn’t notice she was crying until the tears started hitting her naked thighs.
Later she sat with him in the A&E for four hours repeating how he fell. It became true. She could see the fall, remember running to check if he was ok. The story started to have the blurry, seemingly transparent quality of cling film covering the real memory of that Sunday afternoon. Their new beginning.
Emilie is a writer and journalist based in Denmark. She recently made the move from Glasgow to Aarhus. Her work primarily consists of flash fiction, short stories and essays.