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The Usual Argument
I didn’t expect it to happen like that, hadn’t even meant for it to happen at all. But it did, and now it’s done. I can’t do anything about it now.
It was just one of those ordinary arguments that millions of people must have every day. You know the kind, to do with the clothes on the bedroom floor, the towels dumped over the banister, the tendency to leave as much of the housework as possible to me. That sort of argument. When I think about it now, I suppose I can see that it was partly my fault too, I do have a tendency to nag about things that are not important. But God Almighty, they just get so defensive and then aggressive, and then you find yourself saying things in retaliation that you didn’t really mean to let slip, things that you meant to think about for a good while longer before vocalizing.
‘You don’t know how lucky you are,’ I said, forcing myself to stay composed. I had learned years ago that shouting at him only made the row escalate out of control to a point where I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t throw something really hard at his head. I had once ripped his novelty football phone out of the wall, and thrown it across the room, smashing it to bits, because he’d come home late from the pub, which was really stupid because I had liked that phone almost as much as he had. But I’d calmed down a lot since then, and had never done anything so violent again.
‘I’m lucky? Your life’s never been so easy!’ he shouted in my face. He still shouted when we argued, seemingly unable to learn from my good example, so that whenever we had a disagreement I knew it would turn nasty very quickly no matter how calm I was or what I said to try to diffuse the situation. He probably needed some anger management counselling, but of course, I couldn’t say that to him.
‘Well,’ I said quietly, with even a hint of a friendly smile, ‘I do appreciate that I’m very lucky to be able to stay at home with the kids, but that does not mean that I enjoy being taken for granted.’ I folded my hands in front of me, stood up straight, and prepared myself for the onslaught, which came immediately, with the power and force of a tornado, ripping up everything in its path that wasn’t fastened down.
‘OH, HERE WE GO. BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, I NEVER DO ANYTHING ROUND HERE, YOU DO IT ALL, DON’T YOU …’ His expression had changed so quickly, from one of mild dislike, to a menacing scowl, involving strangely threatening eyebrows, and red hot retinas boring into my soul. I could never quite tell whether he was trying to make me feel intimidated on purpose, or whether this was a genuine reaction to my unreasonable request for him to clean his toenail clippings out of the sink.
He was breathing fast, his eyes fixed on mine, ready for a fight; and this was the point when I always had to make a conscious decision about whether to back down, or to carry on. Almost always I would back down, because arguments were pointless these days, especially without the enjoyable, often physically demanding making up activities that we used to partake in: we had been together for ten years after all, the spark was quite definitely gone. In fact, we didn’t even like each other any more – and it was acknowledging this fact in that split second that made me carry on this time. I could not abide this person who was standing in front of me, with such an ugly look on his face, directing all of this hate towards me.
‘Well,’ I smiled, of course being fully aware that my smiling during an argument infuriated him, ‘it is true, you don’t do anything around here. I do it all, as you say.’ I put on my biggest, happiest smile, the one that includes the eyes and everything, knowing that he would think that I was laughing at him and thereby injuring his male pride. I pushed a little further, ‘I don’t really need you, do I?’ I raised my eyebrows, daring him to disagree. He looked furious, and I was enjoying myself enormously.
‘You don’t need me?’ He was incandescent, ‘you don’t need me?’
‘No, I don’t need you. And I wouldn’t be here at all, if I could afford to leave.’ I knew that what I’d said was ridiculous, because I’d just acknowledged that I did need him, even if it was only to keep me in food and clothes. But I still looked, and felt, triumphant. I had voiced the thoughts that I’d been keeping to myself for months, and it felt good to let them out. I didn’t really expect the words to change anything though, we’d just have the same row we always had, and then be back to normal in ten minutes. I didn’t actually mean to leave him, yet.
He looked slightly taken aback, but recovered himself quickly. ‘So you don’t need me, you just need my money?’ he smirked. But I could see that he was putting on a brave face, pretending that he wasn’t bothered at all about whether or not what I had just said was true, acting as though he had the upper hand.
I hadn’t replied, but had just continued to smile, looking patronizing, and perhaps even a bit sorry for him in a condescending sort of way. In fact, I knew that I was looking at him as though he was stupid, and as if I was waiting for him to catch up with the conversation – this, I knew, he would hate, because he actually had a very large brain, and was super-proud of his intelligence and of the fact that he had never lost to me at University Challenge on a Monday evening for years.
‘This is all just for convenience is it?’ he said, still with tremendous anger in his raised voice. But he already knew the answer, had probably known it for a long time if he was honest.
I nodded, but the smile dropped from my face, and shattered on the floor – something else for me to clean up. I was amazed that he had taken my words so literally. This had suddenly become too serious for playing games, and as an aura of calm descended we both looked away from each other for a moment, lost in our own thoughts. I suddenly felt foolish. What had I been thinking? I couldn’t leave him, I had nowhere to go and no job, and I had three children to take care of. I had meant to make plans and save some money of my own before leaving him. There was nothing for it, I would have to say that I hadn’t meant it and that of course I still loved him. I took a step towards him, and formed the words in my head, ready to apologise for blowing things out of proportion again. But I stopped in my tracks when he looked up at me, with his eyes full of hate. Had I got it wrong, had I completely misjudged how far I could push him?
‘I’ll go then,’ he said quietly, his voice shaking slightly as he fought to control his emotions, not willing to let me see that I had hurt him. But the fight had gone out of him.
‘What?’ I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. I had not expected this.
‘I’m gonna go, stay in a hotel tonight, until I can sort something out,’ he said flatly. But in that moment I knew what he was doing, playing the victim so that he could use it against me once we’d sorted this all out, twist it all around and tell other people, family and friends, that I’d almost thrown him out of the house.
He brushed past me and headed upstairs, saying ‘I’ll just pack a few things.’ I was alone for a few minutes.
I stood up and went to the stairs, but paused with my hand on the banister and my foot on the bottom step, straining to hear what he was doing. I heard him pulling the biggest suitcase out from under the bed: he actually did mean to go. And he was right, this was right. I could apologise, as I’d done many times before, and then settle down to a bit of telly, but when I did that nothing ever changed – we still rowed almost every day, yet always managed to ignore the critical lava-flow of acrimony that was bubbling under the surface.
I went back to the dining room and waited, feeling strangely uplifted. Could this point have been reached years ago, if I’d just stuck to my guns and not backed down? Had our marriage lasted this long because I’d always apologised in the past? If that was the case, then maybe this was what we both needed, to be away from this poisonous relationship. I’d done us both a favour by getting it out in the open. I was going to be skint, would have to get a job and sort out childcare, but I’d be up to the challenge, because I’m a woman, and women are strong!
I was lost in these thoughts and didn’t hear him come down the stairs, didn’t hear him put the open and empty suitcase down next to the table, didn’t hear him move over to the bookcase and pick up the heavy faux-Tiffany reading lamp, didn’t register his sharp intake of breath as he lifted the lamp high above his head … but I did hear him whisper,
‘I’m not going anywhere, you can leave.’
And I looked up, still with a half-smile on my face as those delicious thoughts of freedom and independence were forming themselves in my head, to see the suitcase by the table, the lamp in his hand, and on his face a distorted and hideous grin, all in that split second before he used his whole strength to bring the lamp crashing down onto my temple.