Like the frog who is slowly boiled alive, some forms of coercion and control can be so insidious that victims don’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late. Inspired by the SBS documentary on domestic violence, “See What You Made Me Do,” by Jess Hill, this three-part series of fictional stories looks at the emotional, psychological, and financial impacts of violence against women.
Why I Stayed
Walking up the grey city streets, my husband hands me the car keys and I put them in my bag. He’s wearing the expensive, double-breasted suit he bought when he got his new job. It was his first real job since he dropped out of university and we thought we were on our way. But today we are going to court at the Owen Dixon Chambers and he might not be coming home.
We go inside a coffee shop with an enormous, orange cup and saucer painted on the window. The floors are tiled with tiny, burnished squares, like the ones from my childhood home and there are moulded plastic chairs at laminated tables. The air is fat with the steamy smell of fried food and boiling milk. But rather than tempt my appetite, the aromas make my nervous stomach lurch.
“Want anything?” my husband asks.
“Black coffee,” I say and turn to find a seat.
“Hey,” he halts my progress with a hand on my shoulder. “Got any money?”
Irritated, I rummage in my purse and hand over some change. He takes it and walks to the counter. As I sit down on the hard plastic seat, I almost smile at the irony.
He embezzles thirty grand from his employer but he can’t buy me a coffee.
With hindsight, he now admits what he did was stupid and wrong, but at the time it seemed so easy. A recruitment consultant, he had made up the name of a non-existent employee and had his bogus wages paid into a business account he had set up.
For a while, he got away with it. But then people started asking questions and he eventually got caught.
He comes back to the table and puts the coffees down in front of us. There is a pool of dark liquid in my saucer, and I don’t know if it’s because his hands are shaking with fear, or because he’s just careless. He sits down and looks around the room with darting eyes. His leg is jiggling under the table and I can feel the reverberations through the floor.
He looks at me, at last. “You Ok?”
“No,” I say, “not really.” With two young children, no money and a husband who might be going to jail, I am not OK at all. I wait for an apology, or some words of reassurance, but they never come. I sip my coffee and stare into the whirls of faux wood grain on the plastic table in front of me, when my husband bolts to his feet.
“I’m getting and egg and bacon sandwich,” he announces.
“Thought you didn’t have any money.”
“I’ve only got a fifty,” he stares at the lonely note in his wallet. “Didn’t want to break it.” He goes to the counter and I sip my bitter coffee.
When the kids came along, I stopped working for a while. This meant that I had to rely on my husband. Sometimes, he would come home with a brand new car, wide-screen TV or set of golf clubs. If he didn’t have the cash, he would take out a loan or put it on his credit card. I tried to explain that this meant we had less money for the things we needed. But he used to get angry if I talked about money.
He returns to the table with egg and bacon between thick slices of white bread. Greasy fat and butter drip down the sides, and over his fingers when he takes a bite. He chews slowly as he stares out the window. It is starting to drizzle outside but we haven’t brought an umbrella. He finishes his mouthful and pushes the plate away.
“We should go now,” he says, getting up.
“But you haven’t finished your sandwich.”
“Don’t want it.”
I close my eyes to try to keep down my anger at his wastefulness. But we have more important things to worry about and it’s not worth the fight.
We head outside and the chill winter morning hits my face. There are more people in the street now, in business suits and office wear, heading off to work. Going to start a day which will be like any other.
I wish I was one of them.
When my husband first told me about the fraud, I said it was over. I knew he didn’t exactly do things by the book, but I never imagined he would break the law.
“Stick with me,” he said with a sidelong smile. And with two young kids, no job and no money, I didn’t know what else to do.
My husband was not charged that day. He got off with a good behaviour bond and community service. The barrister said that he had never been in trouble before, was sorry for his mistake and would go on to be a better person.
When I asked my husband later what happened to the thirty grand, he shrugged his shoulders.
“Dunno,” he said, “it just went.”
“But don’t we have to pay it back?”
“Of course not!” He laughed at my naivety. “It will just get written off.”
After the court case, my husband managed to get a job in sales, through a friend who underpaid him but didn’t ask any questions. We stayed together, and although it wasn’t easy, there were many good times and we managed to raise our family.
But then twenty years later, he walked out and left me with nothing. It was abrupt and brutal and left me reeling.
At the time, I tried to ask him why, but I didn’t get any answers. None that made sense anyway.
We have been separated now for almost a year, and the question I ask is not why he left me. The question I ask is, if I meant that little to him, then why did he stay?