The first punch is a shock. We’re taking a short cut across where the old steelworks used to be, that huge old strip of land between the river and the canal with the motorway flying somewhere way overhead and down here it’s almost quiet. Silver birch trees and rowan bushes bursting up through the concrete foundations. Thistles with bright purple flower heads, stray yellow rapeseed flown in from the fields outside town, those white flowers with the petals like trumpets that wind their way across the ground and up round anything they can get their feelers on to. Butterflies and dragonflies and the evening-song of birds that have lived here for centuries. He says, you wouldn’t have thought this was a foundry just five years ago would you. Everywhere there are scattered lumps of machinery, lost cogs and gearwheels, stacks of plate, coils of wire. He says, the way these trees come back you wouldn’t believe it. He was one of the last workers to be laid off here, and he can still point out where the steel was smelted and poured and formed; the outlines of the old sheds and foundry-halls spread out across the whole site like a giant blueprint, ankle-high walls rearing up to hold a tall window frame, a door hanging off its hinges. But mostly there are trees and bushes and birdlife, and it’s a good place to walk on a long summer’s evening with the sky stretching hazy blue over our heads, a couple of pints swimming through us and one or other of us talking quietly now and again.
So when the first punch comes, it’s a shock. Straight into my stomach and my body folds around it, the breath knocked out of me and I stagger backwards with my feet scraping and scrabbling on the stony ground. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense that I’m surprised, because why else would we be out here, talking about these things, all this talk of I love my wife and if anyone ever tried I know what I’d do, but as I drag the air back into my winded lungs I’m surprised and I don’t understand.
I look up at him, laughing, as though it might be a joke or I can somehow turn it into one, and I say what what are you doing what’s this? He brings the heel of his open hand crashing into the side of my head like a lump-hammer. I almost fall to the ground, and there’s a high-pitched ringing noise in my ears and I can’t think and I don’t know how to respond. I lift my arms up around my head, turning away, and he pulls my wrists to my side as he slams his forehead into the bridge of my nose.
I’m on the ground, and he is standing over me. Everything is muffled. I’m aware of the sound of running water somewhere. He stoops over me, and punches each side of my head alternately, each punch knocking my head across to meet the next. My arms reach up again to shield myself, but he just punches on through them. He is breathing heavily, watching me, concentrating.
When he stops, there is pain. A hot roar of pain flooding through me. I turn my head to one side and vomit on to the ground. He stands away slightly, getting his breath back.
And this is not right. I should be running away, or defending myself, or calling for help, but I am doing none of these things. I am lying on the dirty ground, watching him, waiting for his next move.
He says what did you think you were doing?
He says how did you even imagine you were going to get away with it?
He calls me a cunt, and he kicks me in the side, his boot fitting neatly between my hip bone and the base of my ribcage.
The first time she ever touched me, she touched me on the back of the head, her fingers trailing down through my hair to the nape of my neck, up again, down again, suddenly pulling away as though scorched against a hotplate. She said sorry sorry and for some reason I said sorry too and we didn’t say anything else about it. But the way it felt; her long fingers pressing lightly and firmly, the slight scratch of her fingernails. I could feel the lines they had traced across my scalp, tingling.
It had come from nowhere, a lull in the conversation, her hand drifting there with her eyes fixed firmly on mine and I didn’t pull away or say anything to stop her, and afterwards I wanted her to do it again and I wanted to leave and I wanted her not to have done it.
We were sitting in the park. We’d finished our lunches and were about to go back to work, back to our different offices in the same building and I can’t even think now how it was we’d first come across each other and started talking the way we did. I was thinking about the cases I’d be dealing with that afternoon and suddenly there were her fingers trailing down the back of my neck and she was touching me.
I don’t know how we got to that. I’ve never been clear how anyone ever gets to that.
A few moments later she said excuse me but you just looked a bit sad. I said did I? and she said kind of wistful and I said oh I was just thinking about work and she laughed. That laugh.
She was younger than me, about ten years younger I think but I never really noticed. It never seemed important, meeting for lunch and drinks after work and sometimes being on the same bus. It was only ever about conversation. Our ages, or the rings we both wore, were nothing to do with any of it. We were good at talking to each other was all it was. I could tell her about work, and Eleanor, and fatherhood, and I wouldn’t feel like she wanted me to stop. She could tell me about her job, and her husband, and his job, and all the things she liked and didn’t like about her life, and I wouldn’t feel like there was anything I needed to say. Sometimes our conversation was funny, sometimes it was patient and sad, but always it just came easily and kept on going. And I thought I believed that the sheer startling fact of her physical beauty was no part of the way I enjoyed her company. But the way it felt, that day in the park when she just ran her fingers down through the hair on the back of my head, that was something; and her voice saying because she thought I looked like I was feeling sad, that was something more again.
It had been a long time since anyone had done that.
I wanted to say thank you but instead I said sorry. She laughed, and she said you look good when you’re thinking, pretty. I was embarrassed for a moment. Pretty seemed like a strange word to use of a forty-year-old man with lines around his eyes.
But all that happened next was I looked at my watch and stood up to go back to work. She said have a good afternoon, I walked away, and when I turned back to look she wasn’t looking at me. She was reading something, running her fingers up and down the back of her head, through her dark tangle of hair. I went back to work, and I tried not to think about it, and the next time I saw her was that afternoon at her house. His house.
He comes towards me, and my body tenses, my forearms crossing over my face. He crouches beside me, and pulls my arms away, pinning them to my chest with one hand. I look at him. His eyes are wide and clear, he is sweating a little, there are strands of hair sticking to his forehead. He takes off his jacket, rolls it up, and puts it under my head for a pillow. He doesn’t say a word. I look at him, my vision still clouded, my mouth gaping soundlessly. He smiles.
I say, but but what but I didn’t do anything.
He smiles again. He says you loved it didn’t you?
I look at him, and I don’t know what to say. I say, I didn’t, what? no, no I didn’t.
He winces, turns away, turns back. You fucking liar he says, don’t fucking lie to me.
The memory of her. Standing there in that dress. Her bare shoulders and the way she looked at me with those eyes. The movement of the dress when she turned in the doorway, the way it swung around the backs of her legs. That was all it took; her looking at me like that, those eyes, the way the dress swung around the backs of her long bare legs as she turned in the doorway there.
He rushes in towards me and stamps his foot down on to my chest and again all the breath is forced out of me, again there is staggering sickening pain. He does this three times, and the third time, barely realising what I am doing, I roll over and start to crawl away, scraping my hands on the brambles, heading towards the sound of rushing water. I can hear shouted voices somewhere, and laughter. I am crawling for perhaps thirty seconds when I hear quick footsteps behind me and feel a sudden snapping impact to the back of my head. I stop crawling.