I’d like to say that I look forward to my lunch break, but the truth is I’ve been finding it difficult lately. Today, we’ve barely had a chance to start eating before Stella starts telling us about her latest Primark haul.
“I wouldn’t usually shop there, of course, but Ruth was wearing this gorgeous layered skirt and I had to get one. Six pounds, no kidding. Then I end up spending about fifty pounds on a load of other stuff I didn’t need.”
We nod in acknowledgment. That’s how it goes, I suppose. Not that I shop much, but I can empathise, you know. I have a standard style of knee-length skirts and long-sleeved shirts, and I rarely need to buy anything new. I’m a vicarious shopper. I keep up with what Stella, Jude and Nina buy, and watch the new styles pass me by. I’ve never had that much time for fashion.
I pick at my salad, wishing there was more chicken and less iceberg, glancing enviously at the tub of pasta bolognese that Nina is shovelling into her mouth. Last night’s leftovers no doubt. She lives alone with her cat and always cooks double portions to bring in. It’s easy to be jealous. I stick my fork into a slightly browned leaf and try not to think about it.
There’s a lull in conversation as Stella bites into her sub, and Jude makes a soft throat-clearing cough. It’s the kind of noise that she probably intended to be subtle, but it actually has the effect of making us all stop and stare at her expectantly.
Her face turns tomato, she looks down into her lunch box, and remains silent. If you knew Jude, you would know that this is far from normal. She’s what Stella would refer to as a “gobby cow” and what I would call “talkative”.
“Hey, what’s up?” I ask, although it could have been any of us.
Jude shrugs slightly and sticks her fork into her noodles. She twists them around, twirling them into a large clump, too big for her mouth.
She stops, and her eyes flick over to the door. She looks around the room and sees what we all see. Apart from a couple of the old guys from maintenance, we have the cafeteria to ourselves. They’re out of earshot, even with Stella’s booming volume, and this seems to satisfy Jude. Still, she doesn’t speak, she looks at us, and then stands up. She’s wearing a cute baggy top with little cats printed on it. I think she’s showing us the top, and I’m confused for a moment until she turns around and lifts one side at the back.
Stella breaks our stunned silence, after we have sat, staring at the huge, round bruise on Jude’s back for seconds that feel like minutes.
“How? What did you do?”
Nina isn’t even trying to hide her curiosity. She’s straight in there with the questions.
I look at the shape of the mark. It’s a fifteen-centimetre diameter splodge, almost circular. Just bigger than the size of my fist. Apparently your heart is about the same size as a clenched fist, but if I told you that Jude has a bruise on her back the size of her heart maybe you wouldn’t understand it quite the same way. It’s a heavy, deep, passion fruit purple. I’m still staring when she pulls the fabric back over and covers herself up.
Stella reaches across the table, nudging Jude’s lunch box to the side to rest a hand on her arm.
“You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to,” she says. “But we are here for you. We’re here.”
Strangely, it’s Stella who has tears in her eyes, not Jude. I think she’s going to break down and burst into hysterics right there, leaning over the lunches. I stare at my salad. I don’t feel hungry anymore.
Jude manages a weak smile that looks terribly forced and false.
“When? How long has this been...?”
Nina is still asking questions. She’s jumped to the same conclusion we all have, and she’s looking for confirmation. She wants the details. I don’t know what I want to know, and I don’t know what I should say. I let Nina and Stella do the talking, feeling like an independent witness to the conversation. I’ve felt like an outsider before, it’s not a new role for me. I feel like I should at least say something, so I add a confirmatory “yeah” when Stella says again that Jude can tell us as much or as little as she wants to.
“Yeah.” It’s an easy little word. It’s simple to say without anyone misinterpreting you.
Jude’s breathing quickly and I’m worried that she and Stella are going to have an emotional meltdown together.
I glance at the clock. We have a thirty-minute break, at least officially, and this doesn’t feel like the kind of situation we can talk out in a half hour slot. Ten minutes was spent on eating and listening to Stella’s shopping stories. I’m not sure we can deal with this now, but it’s also not the kind of thing you can reschedule.
Stella has started to cry, and Jude is, of course, joining in. It’s her situation, her pain, she has every right to own it. I look, awkwardly, to Nina, and she does this little semi-shrug movement that I take to mean “I have no clue what to do here”. I fiddle with my sleeve, put the lid on my lunch box.
Jude is dabbing at her eyes with one of the hard cafeteria napkins, so I pull a soft Kleenex from my bag, my last one, and silently pass it to her. Stella has her arm around Jude’s shoulder now, standing next to her in a half-crouch. It looks so awkward and uncomfortable, but I know that Stella is just doing what she thinks she should. Putting herself out to make Jude feel better. She’ll have read a book that detailed exactly what a friend should do in these situations. Stella loves that kind of thing “Emotional Intelligence for Dummies”, “Awaken the Inner Carer”, “Be Everyone’s Best Friend”. The type of books you see stacked high at the discount bookstores or on the shelves of women who have too much time on their hands in their perfect little lives.
Jude starts talking, and Stella sits back down next to her, pulling her seat up close. Nina doesn’t like to be left out, so she shimmies up to her too. I’m on the other side of the table like an interviewee with the most emotional recruitment panel you could imagine. I shuffle my chair round to join the cluster.
It’s not the first time, she tells us. He pushed her last week and she thought it was a one-off. It’s like there’s a script for domestic abuse that men must follow. Start it slowly, gently, maybe some name calling, emotional needling. Make her feel insecure and inadequate. She’s too lazy, too fat, too stupid. Choose your favourite insult. See which one gets the reaction that makes you feel the most powerful. When words aren’t giving you quite the response you want any more, when she starts to get used to it, when she starts to accept it, switch it up. Start with the pushes and the pinches and the punches: the kind of jabs that leave a heart-sized bruise.
With Nina asking the questions and Stella providing the emotional support, all that’s left for me to do is listen and nod. I make sympathetic noises, and try to hide my discomfort.
“You can’t let him do this,” Stella says, because it’s that easy. “You have to leave him.”
“Do you have anywhere to go?” Nina asks. She pauses just a little too long before adding, “You can stay with me for a little while if you need to. There’s not much room, but it’s just me and Eggo, and...you’re not allergic to cats, are you?”
Jude shakes her head and I’m not sure what it is that she’s responding to.
“Yes, pack a bag, just the things you need,” Stella says.
Leave everything you love behind. Leave everything you’ve ever worked for. Leave your photos of your mother, leave that box of paperwork with the cards you’ve kept from every birthday, leave all those little non-essentials, and run.
My skin is tingling, I’m too hot, too full of sentences that I’m not going to let my stupid mouth spew out. No one notices because they are caught up in their rescue mission. I tug at the end of my sleeve, and feel a little ache as my bangle digs into my flesh. I like to remember that it's there.
Jude seems hesitant, despite Stella’s textbook-level support, and Nina’s kind, reluctant, offer of temporary accommodation.
“I don’t know,” she says.
Stella can’t seem to process this, and I know instantly that this has become a bigger issue. It’s no longer about Jude’s situation, it’s now a feminist principle. It’s about oppression and power and control and the metoo movement, and Jude’s feelings are going to get lost in the melee somewhere.
“Really, I don’t know. I need time to think,” Jude says.
Stella is doing her best, I know. She does genuinely care. I don’t doubt that. Assuming you know what someone else should do when they have absolutely no clue themselves and when their whole universe seems to be collapsing, well, it’s a ballsy move.
I find some words. I don’t know where they have come from, and I don’t know why they choose to creep out, but I have spoken them before I can stop them.
“You need to do what’s right for you,” I say.
The words taste like sherbet lemon. A fizzy mix of sweet and sour.
Stella and Nina look at me, a frown and a shaking head, but Jude nods. She knows.
I’m burning up. It’s too much for me to sit in the huddle any longer, so I mumble something about needing to go to the bathroom. I do need to go. It’s not a lie. Maybe it's a white lie.
I push my chair back so that I can stand, and almost knock it over. I’m so clumsy, I really am. It would be funny, if it was funny. I don’t see the funny side of many things anymore.
I manage to get to the bathroom and into the cubicle before the dam breaks. I sit on the closed lid and let the tears come. They are strangely soothing on my searing cheeks. I don’t have time for this. Break time is nearly over. I have to get back to my desk. I have so much to do.
I allow myself another twenty seconds, counting them out loud, just to hear my voice, just to know that I can speak. I stand, suck in a deep breath and pull some toilet paper from the dispenser.
The bathroom is empty, so I stand in front of the mirror, wiping the mascara smears from under my eyes. I shouldn’t have given my tissue to Jude; the toilet paper is scratchy and irritates my skin. When I’m satisfied that I look an approximation of what passes as normal, I’m almost ready to return to the routine. Before I go, I look at myself again. I unbutton the bottom of my sleeve and roll it to my elbow. My silver bangle, the one that my mother gave me, the one I will never take off, circles the faded yellow-blue bruise that also forms a ring around my wrist. Further up, without pulling my shirt up any more, I see the edge of a fresher mark, a fierce red scar, a straight line branded into my flesh.
I see a woman who is both like and unlike Jude. I see what I was, I see what I could be. If I stand here any longer the tears will start again.
I don’t have time for this.