Accident And Emergency

Annie's eye was swollen shut and her husband gripped her hand a little too tightly. It was a warning. They would ask her how it happened as they always did. He knew it and so did she.

A nurse came into the waiting room and called a name Annie didn't recognise. It wasn't her turn, not yet. The man sitting opposite them and holding a blood-soaked cloth to his head went in.

It would stop one day and today would be that day.

She felt as though everyone in the waiting room was looking at her and judging her for being in this situation. They wouldn't understand. What could they know of her life or her problems? She forced herself to look up and quickly glance at each and every one of them, hoping her husband wouldn't notice. Not one of them made eye contact with her, but even if they had, she would have turned away. She had to. They were all too caught up in their own lives to notice her anyway. She understood that. It mirrored how she felt about herself every moment of every day: unnoticeable, unimportant, and irrelevant.

The pain in her arm had lessened now. It was more of a throbbing ache. It wasn't the first time he'd broken it, but she had thought the previous time would have been the last because she would have to have a cast again and it would hinder her ability to do her chores. But he hadn't been thinking like that when he'd gone for her with that cast-iron frying pan. The hatred and fury in his eyes had taken over again making him cruel and mean. He had been too drunk to think it all through properly, but no so drunk he didn't know what he was doing. He'd deliberately aimed for her arm.

The woman sitting two orange plastic chairs away from her with the swollen ankle limped up to the nurse with the help of a man. Annie guessed he was her lover. The way he touched her, stroked her hair and held her hand, and the way they spoke together quietly, almost whispering. There was a sense of intimacy there Annie hadn't experienced in years. A wheelchair was offered to the woman and she took it gratefully.

Annie had still had to cook him his meal again before he would bring her here. The idea of making her wait before taking her to the hospital was new. With only one usable arm, she'd ripped open a new bag of peas with her teeth. They'd scattered. It had been enough to make her cry, but she felt every sob through the stabbing pain in her arm and had soon forced them down and calmed her breathing. Everything had taken so much longer with only one arm. By the time she'd served up his meal, she could no longer stop the tears from free-falling because it hurt so much. He'd kept the Paracetamol in his pocket and as he sat at the cheap Formica table, he'd laid them next to his plate. She hadn't been allowed to have one. She hadn't deserved them. She was lucky he'd brought her here at all.

A man cradling his wrist in his hand was called next. Annie still had to wait.

It would be her turn next.

She had to tell them. She had to leave him. This couldn't go on. He tightened his grip again and for a minute she'd wondered if she'd said it aloud. She felt her cheeks go red and willed them back to their normal pasty colour knowing she wouldn't really be able to make that happen. He looked at her as though he knew what she was thinking and she could see some of the hate in his eyes from earlier. He had sobered up some, but he didn't need the booze anymore to feel the disgust he had for her. He squeezed her hands even tighter and she felt her eyes fill with tears. She opened her eyes wide, batted her eyelids and silently prayed for them to go away. He wanted to see her wince but she didn't. It wasn't allowed, not in a public place and she knew it. It didn't matter that the waiting room was now empty.

"Mrs Underhill?"

She got up unsteadily, her stomach churning with anxiety. She was feeling suddenly light-headed with the joy of knowing what she was about to do. She turned to him knowing it would be the last time she'd have to see those horrible, hateful eyes ever again and was shocked to see that they were following her.

He was going to go in with her.

She didn't want him to, but how could she stop him? How could she do anything?

"Mr Underhill, you can wait here," the nurse helpfully said.

"My wife will want me with her," he said.

The nurse looked at her to see if she agreed. As much as she wanted to say 'no' she knew he'd hurt her pretty badly this time. She was going to need time to heal. She couldn't risk aggravating him now, just in case it didn't work. Just in case she was sent home with him again for another night. She hated that she had doubts already when only a moment ago she was so determined, so certain. Still, she couldn't choke the words out of her mouth, so she simply nodded and managed a weak smile.

Her heart was thumping so hard she felt her entire body vibrate with each beat. They'd ask her how it happened now, before the X-ray, perhaps even before the cursory examination. Now would be the time she'd have to say something, but he was right there.

The curtain was pulled around their cubicle as the doctor entered and the space seemed so claustrophobic. It was such a small space and he dominated it. Even when she wasn't looking at him, she could feel his eyes on her. He seemed to take up half the space. She was finding it hard to breathe.

An insistent nurse pulled the doctor back outside before he even got to speak to Annie. They were busy here. Annie watched the exchange between the nurse and doctor and noticed how the interruption had gone unquestioned. They spoke without the doctor showing the slightest sign of irritability. That nurse, that woman, had a purpose. She was respected and busy. Annie envied her. He scribbled his signature on the clipboard she handed him.

Annie could feel her husband's eyes on her. She looked at him, it was forbidden not to. He didn't say anything, didn't whisper any threat. He didn't need to. She knew what could happen to her, what would happen to her, but what could she do about it? What if she finally told the truth and all they did was make a note and then a few days later a social worker came around? A lot could happen to her in a few days.

What if she was taken away and put in that woman's shelter on Bridge Street? She'd walked past that place numerous times craving that sanctuary, but he'd know where she was. And what would she do there? They'd been married twelve years and he hadn't ever allowed her to get a job. She was to stay home and look after the planned children that had never come. She had no skills and no money of her own. He took care of her. He'd always looked after her.

He turned away from her and only then was she allowed to lower her eyes.

The doctor came in followed by a nurse. He glanced at her file and then at her and at her husband.

"Mrs Underhill, isn't it?"

He knew it was. She'd seen him only a few months ago.

He flicked through the numerous pages in her chart and looked at them both again before tossing the chart aside and moving closer to her. He moved her arm slightly to examine her better. She hoped he wouldn't lean in too close. Last time, she'd had to pay for that. His touch was gentle, almost caressing. It was the sort of treatment she only ever received here and she secretly enjoyed it.

With his hands still touching her skin, he looked into her eyes almost as though he could see right through her. It forced her to concentrate on him, to look only at him, to hear the words coming from his mouth.

"Can you tell me how this happened?"

The innocent question was loaded with meaning. He was searching for the truth. He'd turned her away slightly from her husband but she could still feel him there, feel his eyes on her. She felt safe when the doctor was touching her, but she knew it was false. She had no saviour. Tears welled up in her eyes as the truth disappeared from the tip of her tongue.

"I fell down the stairs."

"My wife can be quite clumsy." He wouldn't answer for her, but he would support her lie.

She wiped away her tears before they ran down her face and betrayed her, but the doctor knew. She could see his disappointment. He hesitated before turning back to the chart and adding her lie to the ever-growing patient record. Her skin felt suddenly cold where his hand had been. She'd supposedly fallen down the stairs a lot in the past few years. The doctor didn't believe her anymore and she knew it, perhaps he never really had believed her. Still, she gave the same excuse. It was her way of telling him the truth without having to actually say the words. One day she'd really be able to say it and he would rescue her somehow, take care of her injuries and make sure that she'd never have to see her husband again. She'd fantasised about it at length during those nights he'd made her sleep in the closet. Of course, she'd dismissed it afterwards, but she couldn't stop coming back to it and hoping, wishing for something better.

One day, her husband wouldn't come with her and she'd be able to ask him what would happen. She'd make sure, before she said anything, that she'd be safe, that he would save her, but for now she couldn't see a way out. She had long since run out of excuses for him, but she still hadn't stopped making them for herself.

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© Jacqueline Chandler 2003