“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
Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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