“It started with the narrowest of hairline fractures, so small I didn’t see what it would become”

Seeing the Nigella Lawson photographs everywhere, Sarah Pinborough remembers her own experience of a relationship that turned abusive.

Sometimes time folds in on itself. A picture, a word, a passing scent can trigger a visit to the graveyard of the past. This week, for me, those pictures and words are everywhere. Attached to them are so much advice. So much opinion. It makes me feel strange inside and I want to say, "You know what, just shhh. You’re not helping. You’re making her ground more unsteady."

That thought in turn makes me wonder if all these years on a small part of me still doesn’t always know where to put my feet.

One night when I was 19, at maybe three in the morning, he wrote "I love you" on an empty wine bottle and waited for me to notice it. And there it began. Boy kisses girl. I was wild and free and loved to laugh and dance and stay up all night. He was wild and talented and clever and funny. He was charismatic. He was also put together wrong.

Over the next 18 months he would slowly deconstruct me.

We loved each other very much, I think. At first. Too much. I loved him for the places where the ground was steady. I was too young to know that so much intensity was not necessarily a good thing. I loved his passion. I loved his talent. We could laugh for hours. The sex was great. He was wrapped up in me and I liked that. We were one against the world. And then, after a little while, the world shifted. There was only our world. And the ground was full of cracks that moved suddenly under my feet.

It started with the narrowest of hairline fractures, so small I didn’t see what it would become. Hours of silence and accusations after he’d seen me laughing with an ex-boyfriend on the college campus. The first bottle thrown. Not at me. Not then. But thrown all the same.

I slowly stopped talking to my friends. It was easier than the knot in my stomach that worried he might see me. I loved him. I just wanted him to be happy. I didn’t want to "do anything wrong".

We started living together. The cracks appeared more frequently. I flirted too much. I laughed too much with his friends. I realised things were very badly awry when I got home from college and chucked my cigarettes and lighter down on the table rather then placing them precisely at the right angle. He threw me down on the floor, knelt on my chest and squeezed my eyes into my head while spitting in my face. Afterwards he cried. I tried to make it better.

Of course there was no better. I just learned to put my cigarettes down properly.

The ground is never steady when you live with someone like that. It shifts with the moods. Where to put your feet becomes an OBSESSION. One day he shoved me against the wall by my throat and threw me down the stairs for putting a ribbon in my hair on the first day of a new term. Why? Who is it for? Who do you want looking at you? You’re so ugly and stupid no one would look at you anyway. The next week the problem was that I hadn’t put any make-up on or a short skirt to go to his gig and he wanted everyone to see his gorgeous girlfriend. I learned then that the cracks had no logic.

By the end of a year, watching the ground was all I did. My friends had stopped talking to me and inviting me to things. I only saw his friends and only briefly. If he went out he’d call every hour to check I was still at home. I tied my hair back every time I cooked (yeah, I even cooked back then) just in case one got in the food. I remember being curled up under the bathroom sink while he pressed my face hard into the wall. I can’t even remember what I’d done. The reasons blur. The outcomes don’t.

And then, for a while, it would all be fine. The knots would unfurl. We would laugh all night. I could do no wrong. It was magic that felt all the stronger for the times I got stuck in the cracks. It was love again. For a while.

One night, I was in the bath and didn’t answer the ringing phone. When he got back he pinned me down so hard he broke both our bed and the top rib under my collarbone. I think he even scared himself a little bit then.

At 41, looking back, reading this back, I can’t believe I didn’t get a bag and walk right out. Even some of his friends, young as we all were, had started looking at me searchingly and asking me if things were okay. I can’t even remember why I didn’t. I was worried about the lease on our flat that our parents had guaranteed. I didn’t want to talk to my parents about it – they still hadn’t forgiven me for my ridiculous adventure the previous year. I didn’t want to talk about it AT ALL.

The crunch came about two weeks later when I was on the phone to his mother – his not mine – and he threw a beer bottle at my head. She told me to get out. She told me not to worry about the rent.

And finally, I did. I was young and the young recover quickly and leave their baggage behind. Sometimes it’s too heavy to carry anyway.

Maybe those pictures are Nigella’s phonecall/beerbottle moment. I hope they are. There are lots of ‘yay she’s moved out’ comments in the papers and on the internet.

Still, it all makes me feel very quiet inside. All I can see in my head is a woman sitting in a corner somewhere wishing everyone would just be quiet about it because it’s all her fault and she doesn’t know where the fuck she’s going to put her feet.

Sarah Pinborough is a critically acclaimed horror, thriller and YA author. She tweets as @sarahpinborough. This post first appeared on her blog, and is crossposted here with her permission

It's hard to walk away from a home, no matter the circumstances. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear