“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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle