Autobiographical Posts / Mental Health

Choking on the memory

FreedomAll it takes is for one of the kids to wrap their fingers around my neck in play and I’m transported back in time to the day a man strangled his daughter on the stairs of their home while her mother and siblings watched.
Because of a scarf…

It was a school morning and my father was dropping us off. The tension ratcheted up as he barked at us to hurry, resentful of making allowances for anyone else: “Get a move on! You’re making me late for work” Teeth were brushed, bags zipped and my mother beat us about the head with a Mason & Pearson hairbrush in what passed for grooming in our house. Small shoulders shrugged their way into stiff duffle coats whose wooden toggle shackles would require a teacher’s help to undo, while two of us donned the standard issue grey winter coats of our convent school uniform.

As we all rushed to and fro, getting in each other’s way in the narrow hallway, my mother’s voice rose above the din, issuing last-minute reminders and directives; “Have you got your lunch?” “Remember to bring home your PE kit” “Don’t forget your scarves.”

I was the eldest of four girls. The organized one, the responsible one – the Goody-Two-Shoes who knew EXACTLY where she’d left her scarf the day before and went to grab it as we prepared to leave.

Tearing up the stairs with my customary two-at-a-time grace, I hurled myself into the small study that overlooked the patchwork of fields and the river beyond our back garden. No bigger than a box-room, it contained the ornate wooden bureau that once dignified the library of our Irish farmhouse but now stood sorrowfully in the custody of two locked metal filing cabinets whose drawers were labeled with cryptic acronyms: P.A.Y.E., V.A.T. … A brown swivel chair with a scratchy embrace completed the mismatched arrangement. This was where my father did “the accounts” and, if you swiveled the chair around to face you, you would discover it was also where my mother hid the ironing basket in an effort to forget it’s accusatory existence.

I stopped dead. No blue and grey scarf met my expectant gaze. My sister, smugly wrapped downstairs, had beaten me to it. Known in our household as the personification of irresponsibility, my nemesis, having misplaced her own scarf, had purloined the nearest available replica.

I rushed to report the sibling treachery; vindication ringing in my voice as I came downstairs looking pointedly in her direction “SHE”S got it! I dunno know where hers is but that one’s mine…”

By now however, the fear of my father’s unpredictable temper and the school-morning hysteria had combined to create a crackling, pregnant tension that just needed a trigger. The fuel was strewn, the paraffin poured and the words that dropped from my mouth might as well have been lit matches.

Events moved quickly then, in the same way flames lick along the floor coating everything in their all-consuming saliva. Through anger’s warped viewfinder, my father saw the scene in terms of Cause and Blame: He was late. I was talking; ergo I was to blame.

His temper unfurled with the pent-up force of a deployed airbag and my words went unheeded as he sprang up the stairs with uncharacteristic and frightening agility. We met in the middle, me descending, him ascending. My mother and sisters stood transfixed at the bottom, beatifically lit from behind by the morning sun streaming through the frosted glass of the front door, a religious depiction of sainted familial grace at odds with the scene before them.

In the flashes of time that followed, like lightning illuminating memory, I can recall the familiar metallic bite of injustice as I realized the facts were irrelevant to all but me and I was the scapegoat in this particular vignette.

My father’s unnatural speed told me punishment was imminent. Arms outstretched in self-defense, as a last resort I tried to slow him with words. Pleas broke from my lips with all the pathos of the wrongly convicted; “It’s not my fault! She’s got my scarf! Please! I put mine away yesterday…” But his hands were already on me. Stuck on the narrow staircase, I had nowhere to go. Desperation flooded my senses and I split into two: instinct took over my body and intellect viewed the scene dispassionately from above. Panic overthrew self-control in a swift and bloodless coup.

I remember gripping the thick wooden bannister for support – body braced, knuckles white, sinking to the steps as rough hands found my neck. I screamed in terror as I felt the pressure of his fingers like a steel ring around my throat; I couldn’t believe what was happening, “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!” was all I could say, over and over again. Pedestrian and juvenile sounding, this one solid fact pushed everything else aside. Poetry, irony, wit or intelligence were beyond the reach of my thirteen-year-old mind. Ineloquent though it was, it was my truth, and it came, unbidden, from the core of my being.

His grip tightened as he tried to silence me but I was beyond the reach of pain. I struggled to force the sound out. Incapable of anything save delivering this single sentiment, I used every atom of breath left in my lungs to convey it; “IHATEYOU!IHATEyouIhateyouIhateyou…” until finally, nothing more than a rasp came out. The crushing pressure on my windpipe prevented any inhalation and I knew I’d used the last of my breath to finally make myself heard. As darkness claimed me I knew I hadn’t wasted it.


16 thoughts on “Choking on the memory

  1. Aisha, what an immensely powerful story that is (as many others noted) extremely difficult to read. I too am the eldest daughter of 4 girls, was definitely considered the “goody two-shoes,” and held up to much stricter standards than my younger sisters. However, my Dad was a prince of a man who rarely lost his temper, but when he did, he would go silent, never physical. However, my Mom was a victim of childhood abuse and it took every fiber of her being to rise above her childhood imprinting and not sink into the abyss of becoming an abusing parent. I’ve always had tremendous respect for her determination – as do I for you. Frightening story, very well told. All the best, Terri

  2. As always when I read your accounts of the abuse you suffered I feel that I am there, it is a horrible thing that you had to go through, and I am guessing it must be hard to re-live these events. You do such a great job with writing, you should put it all in a book and let others see how horrible life is for children living in abusive situations.

    Take Care X

  3. Oh lovely lady, it sounds like we had similar childhoods. I so want to write about an experience I had with my father but I don;t feel that I can. My mother is finally speaking to me, we’re building bridges and she reads all my blogs, follows me on Twitter / FB and I know saying anything negative about my dead father would ruin the progress we’ve made (and I don’t like to think of him continuing to spoil my life from beyond the grave).

    What I am trying to say is that I know how hard, yet therapeutic, writing these things are. total respect and admiration for you x

    • I’ve spoken to my parents about these things and to them, it wasn’t a big deal, so I’m sure this won’t bother them…

      Every time I read someone else’s account of childhood abuse and felt pain and the desire to protect other children from suffering the same, I realised I was being a hypocrite, because I was still keeping secrets for my abusers. I found a wonderful quote by Anne Lamott that helped me – “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” xxx

      • Very very upsetting, but beautifully written. Not sure that I agree with your quote though…I feel that I cannot tell all my story because if I write about my ex, my kids might see it, and since they still have feelings for him, that would not be fair. If he saw it, much worse could happen. (over from #MBPW)

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