“Jack needs me”: domestic violence

Wellington, 1971

He was late. I could cope with an hour, or an hour and a half, but then I got jumpy. I had done all the usual things — drawn the curtains, put the lights on in both the lounge and the poky old kitchen, whipped up a Betty Crocker yellow cake from a packet I’d brought home from the store and stuck it in the oven to cook. I’d throw it out the next day; most likely feed it to the sea gulls down at the wharf. I turned on the telly. It was playing Ironside, which normally Jack and I watched together, just not tonight.

It was a routine. Jack went out after dark to do his rounds, and I stayed home to make it look as though we were there together. I hated it, but I had no choice. I was his alibi. If anyone walked past the house, they’d assume everything was normal, and if asked, I could tell them exactly what we’d been doing.

Outside, a southerly wind whipped the last leaves from the trees. I rubbed my palms on my sleeves. The dog had been shadowing me all evening, as if knowing the night was tense, so I sat on the sofa and he slumped at my feet. I twirled his black fur in my fingers trying to control my breathing.

The waiting was interminable. In the corner of the lounge, Mick Jagger’s face seemed to protrude from its poster, distorted and threatening. I thought how I hated that picture jeering at me whenever I came in, the parting leer as I left. The aroma of Betty Crocker reminded me to take the baking out of the oven. I grabbed a grubby oven mitt and tossed the cake onto the wooden dish-drainer. When it was cool I’d plate it up and dust some icing sugar on the thing to show how much I cared. We never ate it.

He’d only been gone two hours. I turned off the oven, thinking how many times I had done this before, wondering how many more times it would happen. The wind was picking up and a small branch slapped against the window as it fell from the old pohutukawa tree on the hill behind the house. Five years? Six? Of course I was crazy, the others said. Even Jack admitted that sometimes, yet he admired me for it; grudgingly, in his own way.

I went back to the lounge, thinking I might make an effort with Ironside, but Jagger’s heavy mouth pouted and I turned away, sick with waiting and thinking and being afraid.

I went into the bedroom and searched Jack’s clothes for cigarettes. I found a pack of Winfield’s, which Jack liked because he thought Paul Hogan was cool.

We had no children, Jack and I. Nor a marriage certificate. I’d lived with him since we met at a party one of my high-school friends was hosting, and within a month I’d left school, ignoring my parents’ horror, and moved in with him. He’d never even said he loved me, except when he was drunk or high, and I’d learned never to ask. There were women he’d discarded all over the city, some he’d clearly been infatuated with, but he’d never loved them either.

I knocked the ash off my cigarette and it rolled along the floorboards, caught in a draft that sucked it into the empty fireplace with a little gulping noise.

Jack O’Leary was 32, tall and dark. His eyes were black and intense, but his mouth was soft. It didn’t suit him.

There was distant thunder now and the dog came shivering to my feet, begging comfort. I stroked his fur with one hand, stubbing the life out of the cigarette in an ashtray with the other.

I decided to go out, despite the rain. My need to escape was stronger than risking Jack’s anger. The waiting got harder every time, and more excruciating. The dog would stay at the house and hide under the bed, and anyway, I could be home before Jack. Maybe.

I could hear him shouting if he found out: “Damn you, Maggie! I told you to stay here. How hard can it be?” Treating me like a child was all part of the game. Part of the pretence that eased his guilt at not loving me.

The streets were deserted, but the big empty bus saved me a drenching. I got off near the wharf and crossed the road to Frederico’s where golden light was pouring from the windows and the sound of voices and music penetrated the rain. Inside was the usual crowd of sailors, waterside workers and the unemployed, clustered around the bar or the pool tables. The whole place was foggy with cigarette smoke, but I could see the familiar figures of Stacowski and Isaacs at a corner table, deep in conversation with a man I didn’t know. They looked up as I approached. The Pole nodded, but Isaacs just sat, his square head like a chopping block on his shoulders.

Stacowski pointed the stub of his cigarette at the newcomer, then at me. “This is Cantlon. Meet Jack’s missus.”

I sat down. So they had been talking about him, then; about tonight. Cantlon offered me a beer from the jug on the table, but I shook my head. He went to the bar and bought me a scotch instead and I downed it in one gulp, feeling it warm my blood despite my wet clothes. I could feel them all watching me, especially Stacowski with his creepy white eyes.

“Does he know you’re here?”

The question was as ridiculous to him as it was to me and I ignored it. Isaac’s head sank deeper onto his chest. He was a nobody, but he could be a real mean nobody when the mood — or his orders — required. Stacowski I could handle, and we often quarrelled, but openly with all our cards on the table.

“Don’t stuff this up, Maggie. Go home.”

I said nothing.

“Fuck it, woman. You need to be there! What if he gets caught?”

I shook his rough hand off my wrist. “Too bad! I can’t stand the waiting anymore. Doing all that stupid stuff to make it look like we’re having a cozy night in? Is that all I’m good for? I’ve been doing it for years and tonight…” I couldn’t explain it, not in any way that the men might accept. That I felt useless. “You guys are here, getting boozed. What do you care?”

Stacowski laughed then, showing teeth stained with nicotine. “Suit yourself,” he said. “Just watch your back.”

I felt Cantlon observing me quietly. “You don’t seem too worried.”

“What would you know?”

I shoved back the chair and took my glass to the bar for a refill, standing there and drinking it where I stood. Frederico shouted me the third one and I smiled wryly as he made a joke to a couple of foreign crewmen about how brave Kiwi women were, coming out on a night like this to drink whisky straight up with the men.

It was better than the interminable wait at home, alone and bitter on a cold night.

At the corner table, the three men were talking in low tones, making plans no doubt, discussing business, enjoying it as a bond between them. I sat down with my whisky, a little dazed now as the liquor took effect. The talk stopped instantly and I felt a surge of anger.

“What’s the matter, boys? Can’t talk in front of the little lady? You think I don’t know half of what goes on, don’t you? But I know more than any of you ever will, because Jack tells me things — things he’ll never trust you with!”

It wasn’t really true, but they didn’t know that, and I was desperate to earn at least a touch of respect. Jack owed me that.

Cantlon’s brows rose. “I hope you’re not including me in that?”

“I know nothing about you. Who the hell are you anyway?”

He rolled his empty beer glass in his hand. “I’m the new boy.”

Stacowski wagged a fat finger at me. “Shut the fuck up, woman. We don’t any of us need to know the full story. It’s safer that way. We each have our instructions, and you got a nice little business out of it, so you should be grateful to Jack and shut up when you’re told to!”

He was right, after a fashion. With some of the profits from the drugs the boys smuggled in through the fishing boats, Jack had created a company he called Paint It Black Ltd, after his favourite Stones song, and we bought a local shop that I owned and ran. The Red Door Dairy.

“It’s a front, Stacowski, as you well know. It gives me something to do and it’s close to the market. Also, I hear stuff behind that counter. It’s amazing how folks think that people who serve in shops are deaf.”

Cantlon chuckled and raised his glass in a mock salute. I got the impression he was the only one at the table who was sober. Maybe it was the beer he drank. Always seemed like water to me.

The roof rattled suddenly with a burst of hail. I shivered.

Stacowski excused himself and headed for the toilets and Isaacs appeared to be sleeping. I needed to go. It was almost closing time anyway.

Cantlon leaned towards me. “How old are you, Maggie?” I was startled, but he just shrugged. “Sorry. None of my business.”

“No, it isn’t.” I scanned his face for a second before I answered. “Twenty-three. Jack and I have been together for six years. Happy now?”

“Wow. Must have been some attraction. Did you even finish school?”

I jumped up from the table, avoiding his eyes, and shrugged into my coat. I didn’t need to reply; he could read the answer on my face anyway as a traitorous blush began. I turned away and headed for the door, punching it open and diving back out into the wind and rain. Damn Jack! Damn Cantlon! Damn the whole world full of men who expected that women were only there for their amusement, like a bunch of helpless wimps.

I needed to head home, but I didn’t care. I crossed the dark road under a single pool of light from a lamppost and headed for the wharf. The wind whipped up the sea, spitting ghostly foam onto the oily black water. I pulled the hood of my raincoat up and held it in place with one frozen hand. Across the harbour, lights still glowed from high-rises and expensive apartments. People watched television, cleaners pushed vacuums over grey office tiles for a pittance in the dead of night. Shit happened.

Cantlon was right, I thought, annoyed with myself for being riled up by a complete stranger. What was I, really? A sucker, like my father had once called me? No better than a prostitute, as my mother had frequently implied?

I had lived with a man nine years my senior since I was a kid in school; slept with him, cared for him, loved him, and waited for him. He’d never loved me back.

I knew he had been hurt by other women, and stupidly I felt partly responsible for that. Perhaps I’d thought I could make it up to him? Fat chance. Jack needed a woman in his bed and at his back, but he was never going to let them under his skin. I had only one thing in my favour — he needed me. That was supposed to be enough.

Cantlon came up so quietly that I didn’t hear him until he touched my hand. He sat beside me and we watched the ocean without speaking. As my head cleared, I began to shiver. He put his arm around me and drew me against him. I shook him off. It was time to go.

“Maggie!” he called, following me along the quayside. I paused, waiting until he caught up.

“I need to get back.”

“I’ll get a taxi.”

“No. I’ll walk.”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

There was a taxi rank outside the pub and he waved one over. I gave in. There were few buses still running at that time of night and it was a long walk; I was half frozen already, so I climbed in. The cabbie gave us a knowing look which I ignored. Let him think what he liked.

I wondered where Jack was. Maybe he’d gone to Frederico’s by now and was squashed into the little back room where the cops wouldn’t find them drinking after hours, swearing about me while Stacowski spilled the beans and Isaacs snored. I didn’t care anymore. I was angry with myself for being his doormat, for doing whatever he asked, for shielding him and lying for him, and being his alibi. And all the while being treated like a child. Never the partner. Never the lover.

The taxi pulling to a stop woke me. I hadn’t even realised I’d dozed off.

Cantlon ushered me out of the cab.

“Where the hell are we?” I asked, groggy from the warmth of the taxi.

Cantlon pulled me firmly by the elbow. “My place. You need to rest. Come on.”

“What? No!” I pulled my arm away. “I need to get home!”

“You’ll be safer here,” he said, pulling me up the steps and into a small hallway. The light was on inside and it felt warm and inviting, and I was so very tired. I wanted more than anything just to do what he said, to go into that little suburban house and let this apparently very nice man look after me, even make love to me if he wanted to, because wasn’t that what girls my age did?

I clung to the round brass door handle. “No, I can’t,” I said slowly. “I could, but not like this.”

He looked down at me, clearly exasperated. “I’m not trying to come on to you, Maggie. I’m purely offering you a place to rest and be safe tonight.”

“I-I know,” I replied, pressing my palms against his coat. “And I appreciate it. Truly. But I’m going now, because Jack needs me and you don’t.”

I turned and walked back to the street, feeling his eyes on me every step of the way until I reached the corner and turned out of sight. There was a bus waiting at a stop just up the road, and to my relief it was going in my general direction. I climbed aboard and sank into the seat. I found Jack’s packet of Winfield’s in my coat pocket and lit one with shaking hands.

It was after midnight when I finally reached the flat. The rain had lightened to a drizzle and the southerly was gone, but I was cold and wet and all I could think about was climbing into bed and sleeping for a week. I noticed a car turning the corner of the street as I fitted my key into the lock and went inside. I’d forgotten to leave the lights on and the place was dark. I reached for the switch but instead touched the skin on Jack’s hand.

He clamped his other hand on my mouth to block off my scream, and dragged me down the hall.

“I should kill you, you damned slut! Where the hell have you been? No! Don’t tell me. You can fuckin’ spit it out when I have time to listen to your lies.”

I whimpered as he shoved me into the hall closet. It stank of mothballs and sweat and there was no light. I could smell the nicotine on his breath, but no alcohol, so he hadn’t been drinking. That was something.

He pulled the door shut. “I told you to wait here for me, but you couldn’t even do that much, could you?” he hissed. “After everything I’ve done for you, buying you that little shit-hole dairy so you can make like you’re this successful business woman, you can’t even stay home for one fuckin’ night!”

“I-I’m sorry—”

“Save it!”

There were noises in the street now. He cracked the door open and a thin line of red and blue lights illuminated his profile. In that moment, I could see a despair in his face I’d never seen before. But it was too late. I no longer cared. I let myself slide to the floor of the closet and bury my face in my elbow. Sleep. I just wanted to sleep until this nightmare was over.

I knew Jack had gone when the dog pushed his nose into my hair. I wrapped my arms around him and sobbed softly into that familiar fur. There was loud knocking on the door now, and the dog began to growl. Then the door to our refuge was yanked open and a torch shone in our faces.

The dog leapt at the man, but I had a firm grip on him, and we rolled together out of our hiding spot and into the hall. “Don’t hurt him!” I cried as I tried to shield myself from the light.

The torch was switched off and in the light of the street lamp, I saw men in blue uniforms swarming into the flat. Then one of them spoke to me.

“We have a warrant for the arrest of you and your husband, Jack O’Leary,” he said.

I started to say that we were not married, when I looked up.

It was Cantlon.

Taken with kind permission from the new anthology This Town (Heritage Press, $29.99) by a group of authors in the Manawatu, centred in Feilding. 

Next week’s short story is by John Saker.

Patricia Dunmore is the author of over 15 books, including children', non-fiction and adult fiction. She moved to Feilding in 2021 with the idea of retiring, but still works for Upstart Press in Auckland,...

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