A fifteen-year-old girl experiences the worst night ever. Filled with violence and abuse, the horrific scene in the next room is not seen but only heard by the teen as she rigidly stands behind bay window curtains. Hoping that in some way she can be at the ready to defend her mother and pacify her stepfather's vicious outbursts, the girl places her life in danger knowing full well that if her stepfather senses her presence, he would inflict the same cruelty that he thrusts upon his wife—even threats from the dreaded axe—onto her. And though the axe is used, that is not what eventually takes her mother's life. A powerfully poignant testimony, Jean's starkly candid memoir takes readers on a gut-wrenching journey into one woman's harrowing roller coaster past, her addiction to alcohol, and how she overcame it all.
I stand in the bay window behind the curtains. I shiver as I stand here. It is two o’clock in the morning. I can feel the cold tiles underneath my bare feet. My pyjamas are thin, but it is fear that makes me shiver. Joe has been beating my mother for at least the past hour.
His shouting and terrible swearing brought me from my bed to slip onto the stoep and to climb through the sitting room window where I can stand in the bay window, hidden by the curtains. I can’t see, but I can hear what is happening to my mother. The darkness around me is cold, and I can smell Joe’s sweat. The curtains smell of lavender and I wonder why. They are thick and lined so that the main light comes from the street lights outside.
I wonder if Joe can see my shadow, and my heart beats a little faster. If he sees me, he will lunge at the curtains and start to beat me too. When this happens, my mother always intervenes and tries to pull him away, desperately defending me. She tells me just to stay in my bed and feign sleep, so that Joe will leave me alone. But, surely, if she defends me, I should be allowed to defend her too?
The dreadful swearwords come out of Joe’s mouth so loudly that I know the neighbours must be hearing them too. I wish that they would call the police. But none of them ever do.
“Bitch! You think I won’t use this?”
I can’t see, but I know he’s got the axe again. The axe lies to one side of the fireplace and his threats are real. I am terrified, but I have to look. I have to find the courage to take a peek, to make sure of what is happening beyond the curtain. My mouth is dry and my limbs rigid from fear, so rigid that I cannot even tremble. I know that this could be the last night of my life. I am very cold. I understand the saying “frozen to the spot”.
I peep. The axe is in his hand. He lifts it above his head. My mother stands on the other side of the table, head held high, looking him in the eye, daring him to do it.
I would like to be able to say that I caused some diversion to save my mother’s life. My fear, my guilt, my very youth, kept me transfixed behind that lavender-scented curtain, unable to scream or move or even to think.
I was fifteen years old, and this had been happening to us since I was ten. Night after night I would lie in my bed, every muscle in my body tense. I could taste the blood in my cheeks as I bit them and held them between my aching jaws. I can’t remember that it was painful, but I can still taste the blood. Night after night I would wait for the screaming to begin. And there weren’t many nights that passed quietly, without a noisy, terrifying outbreak of violence and abuse. I really don’t know what it was that I said or did, or how I said or did it, that was so wrong that it “set Joe off”, as my mother used to say. I would lie there, struggling to understand what it was that I needed to do differently so that Joe would be pacified and stop his foul-mouthed physical abuse.
Joe didn’t bring the axe down on my mother’s head, but he did bring it down with a thunderous noise right onto the centre of the table. It hit with such force that it cleft the table in two.