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I’m jumpy enough when the phone rings in the day, so when I get a call late at night . . .

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

Half past 11 at night and I am thinking of turning in early for once when the phone rings. I am jumpy enough when the phone rings during the day, so at this time of night it is positively nerve-jangling. But the name displayed on the screen is that of an ex-girlfriend of so long ago – we’re talking the first Thatcher administration here – that we can’t even agree on which of us gave the other one the boot. Even though we disagree on just about everything, from whether the Daily Mail is a newspaper or not to fun ways to spend a weekend, there is a residual sentiment there that makes us very fond of each other.

I’d last got a communication from her late in the evening about a week before; she’d asked me to be on standby while she participated in the village pub quiz. I sternly told her that I do not approve of cheating in pub quizzes, which must have given her the hump, as some time after closing I got a rather garbled text in which she sarcastically said thanks and also that she’d been beaten up. “Shit, seriously?” I replied. “No,” she texted back, mortified; she meant beaten – in the quiz.

Savage planet

Incident closed, I thought. So when I answered her call and she said that she’d had a row with her – can you call a man in his fifties this? – boyfriend and asked if she could come over, I said, “Yes, of course.”

I have heard much of this man over the past year and a half or so. None of it is good and I assure you this is not the proprietorial air of a man who thinks that his exes are worthy of no one but him. No, it’s because he sounds to me like a bullying, mean shit who disappears off to “do business” of an unexplained nature in Russia more often than looks good. Never mind, though, that’s not my business. And, after all, I tend to get called more when things are going badly than when they are going well. I only hear about the bad times.

What became clear, though, during the course of the debriefing session with my friend when she arrived half an hour later, was that it turns out he has, on about four or five occasions, maybe more, beaten her up. Her slip of the fingers in her text message from the week before was no accident.

I will leave the details obscure, except that the violence, as described, sounded frenzied and dangerous, with her at one point fearing for her life. She showed me her forehead where he had slammed her head against the door a week earlier; the bump was still palpable. How long, do you know, does it take for a bump to go down? I would have thought that one that lasted a week must have been rather impressive to begin with.

I must say, I really don’t get it, this womanhitting business. She was so impressed by the quality and strength of the violence against her that she wondered whether he’d had professional training of some sort but I assured her that she would be amazed by the intuitive manner in which men can become masters of savagery against someone of the opposite gender who is much, much smaller than them.

However, I only know this at one remove. There are only two people I can think of who deserve a thrashing that I would be happy to administer but they are both men and live at Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street, London SW1. Even then, it would be done more in sorrow than anger. Hit a woman, though? I can only imagine that for the men who do it, their very weakness must be some kind of provocation. This might be one reason they do it again and again.

Fearing the worst

So I went through my spiel, honed after listening to the experience of another good friend who had suffered the same, that she must never go back to him under any circumstances, for otherwise it will happen again and the next time the consequences may be worse than a bump on the head. She assured me that she’d do this. “But please,” she said, “don’t mention this to anyone.” She was “embarrassed”.

I suppose I am breaching her trust by writing about it here, even though she is unidentifiable. However, she now tells me that she has gone back to him and I brace myself for further worse news. It is the shame that women feel when evil has been done to them that I find the most perplexing, yet at the same time it is one of the reasons the violence persists, that the men get away with it. I hear that one in four women suffer from violence at some point. This must mean that one in four men are perpetrating it. Sometimes, you just want to throw up.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?