I should never have answered the door. I had been enjoying an afternoon of silence, thinking the young family upstairs had gone out with their tricycle riding toddler when the door knocking started, becoming more frantic as I approached it.
"I am so glad you are in! Please, close the door quickly! Have you got something to push against it? He may try and break it down!"
I bolted the door as Lara, my neighbour frantically began pushing the sofa against my main entrance. I automatically started helping before questioning her.
"Lara, slow down! What's happening, and whom are you talking about? Are you in trouble?"
"Haven't you got anything else we can use to block the door? What about your bookcase?" she said, her eyes darting around the room.
"We can't move the bookcase! Lara, calm down!"
"I have to call the police, Zodwa!" Lara continued, "Oh heavens, I left my phone upstairs. Let's use yours. We don't have time to waste. He's bound to come round and start looking for me. Perhaps if we keep quiet, he might leave the building thinking I have driven off."
I handed Lara my phone as she became increasingly agitated.
"Do you have the police on speed dial? Thank heavens! Hello? Hello, is that the emergency services? Yes. Yes. I want to report…"
Realising that I would not get any satisfaction till Lara finished her call, I switched off the TV and started rearranging scattered furniture. I gave up piecing together Lara's snippets of conversation. Soon she returned, crying uncontrollably. In her anguish, she forgot to conceal blue-black bruising around her neck as she wrapped her torn blouse around her chest.
After numerous sweet cups of tea, Lara blurted out her story in fits and starts. Then we heard yet another knock.
"It must be the police," I assured Lara. "If it's Zuva, I won't let him in unless you want me to. Stay in the bedroom. It's safer there."
"It's the police, Ma'am. We are responding to a 999 call from this address. Please may we come in?” Two officers entered, just as Lara came out of the bedroom looking more composed.
I escorted the group to the dining room and half-listened as I made yet more tea. Lara narrated her story once again. Zuva, her husband, had returned inebriated after an evening out with his friends. His pent-up rage was soon triggered by something petty, a quarrel over the evening meal Lara had served him, which Zuva described as pigswill. The situation deteriorated from then on.
"How did you get the bruises around your neck, Ma'am?"
"During our altercation, he lunged and tried to throttle me! I was caught completely unaware, picked up a pot from the draining board and smashed it over his head before escaping. I was so distraught and honestly thought I had killed him. I'm not proud to say I left him bleeding on the floor. Luckily my neighbour Zodwa here opened her door. We then barricaded ourselves in. That's when I phoned you."
"We’ll phone for an ambulance after my colleague has examined Zuva’s condition. Is this evening's incident the first time you've experienced domestic violence towards you?" the policewoman probed.
"Tonight was worse. Once or twice before, I have concealed bruising where no one can see. I also spent a week recently with a black eye. It's summer, so I wore sunglasses and didn't visit my parents, in case they noticed. Zuva doesn't mean it. He says he loves me and always expresses remorse afterwards. His demons come out when he drinks too much, but his mood swings are getting more frequent. I don't know whether I can take it anymore." Tears began to flow once again as she leaned on my shoulder.
The policewoman asked, "Ma'am, where is Zuva now?"
"And where is your son Kuda?" I blurted out.
Lara looked up amid tears, "Kuda's fine. He is at my parents' place having a sleepover. We were supposed to have gone on a date night, so I took him there today, straight after creche. Zuva, I assume, is still upstairs unless he left using the lift to the basement. And before you ask me, I don't want to press charges. I phoned you because I was terrified he would follow me and beat me to a pulp. If I stay away, perhaps by tomorrow, we will be in a better place."
After counselling and sharing support service contact details, which Lara accepted without conviction, I escorted the policewoman out. Lara assured her once again that the situation was not as bad as it looked. Lara instinctively pushed the sofa against the door as I stared at her in disbelief.
"Why are we still barricading ourselves in?"
"It's ok, Zodwa; I just need to give him a few hours to calm down and then everything will be fine. Do you mind if I sleep here tonight, and then I can sort myself out tomorrow? Just one night. It's too late to go to my parents and anyway, I don't want them to worry. They never really liked Zuva, and turning up looking like this will only increase their anxiety, especially since my mum suffers from high blood pressure. The last time I went to them for refuge, they were already searching for a divorce lawyer on my behalf. I had to tell them that I am the one living with Zuva, so I should be allowed to choose whether to leave him or stay. And I want to stay and work on my marriage."
"I'm sorry, Lara, but it's pretty clear to me that you are not safe. Anything can happen to you or Kuda if you return to Zuva!"
"I've tried going for counselling, but Zuva never agrees to accompany me. So there's no point. He says, why discuss our marriage in front of strangers? I also don't want Kuda to be one of those statistics from a broken home. My son deserves better. I just have to work harder in our relationship. Underneath all this drama, Zuva's still the man I fell in love with."
I half-heartedly added, "On the few occasions I have bumped into Zuva, he has behaved like a gentleman. He appears to be so good with Kuda. I've seen them playing football in the courtyard. There's a bond. But forgive me if I still struggle to understand how he could be the same man you reported to the police. He must be like Jekyll and Hyde!"
As I made up the spare bed, Lara showered and then sat glued to the TV screen in my nightwear. I was uncertain what to talk about but sensed she felt she had shared enough for one night.
During the night, I woke up on my bathroom break and saw the light under Lara's door. I resisted the temptation to check on her and was soon sound asleep.
The following morning, Lara had not surfaced for breakfast by 11 o'clock. I tentatively knocked on the bedroom door, only to find the bed had been made and Lara had neatly folded the nightclothes and left. She knew where to find me.
While parking in the basement after my shopping spree, I saw Lara coming out of their family car. She was carrying shopping bags accompanied by Zuva. They headed towards the lift, leaving me wondering whether to approach them or not. Lara caught my eye, pleading for me not to greet them or say anything.
I thought nothing more about the incident till I started preparing supper that evening. My peace was short-lived as raised voices bounced off the walls upstairs, and I could hear furniture being thrown about, followed by breaking glass. As I opened my door cautiously, in two minds whether to call the police or intervene, my neighbour opposite came out, listening while standing in his doorway. He glanced briefly upstairs and then, shaking his head, retreated behind his four walls. There followed a deafening silence. I closed the door.