“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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt