All it takes is for one of the kids to wrap their fingers around my neck in play and I’m transported back in time to the day a man strangled his daughter on the stairs of their home while her mother and siblings watched.
Because of a scarf…
It was a school morning and my father was dropping us off. The tension ratcheted up as he barked at us to hurry, resentful of making allowances for anyone else: “Get a move on! You’re making me late for work” Teeth were brushed, bags zipped and my mother beat us about the head with a Mason & Pearson hairbrush in what passed for grooming in our house. Small shoulders shrugged their way into stiff duffle coats whose wooden toggle shackles would require a teacher’s help to undo, while two of us donned the standard issue grey winter coats of our convent school uniform.
As we all rushed to and fro, getting in each other’s way in the narrow hallway, my mother’s voice rose above the din, issuing last-minute reminders and directives; “Have you got your lunch?” “Remember to bring home your PE kit” “Don’t forget your scarves.”
I was the eldest of four girls. The organized one, the responsible one – the Goody-Two-Shoes who knew EXACTLY where she’d left her scarf the day before and went to grab it as we prepared to leave.
Tearing up the stairs with my customary two-at-a-time grace, I hurled myself into the small study that overlooked the patchwork of fields and the river beyond our back garden. No bigger than a box-room, it contained the ornate wooden bureau that once dignified the library of our Irish farmhouse but now stood sorrowfully in the custody of two locked metal filing cabinets whose drawers were labeled with cryptic acronyms: P.A.Y.E., V.A.T. … A brown swivel chair with a scratchy embrace completed the mismatched arrangement. This was where my father did “the accounts” and, if you swiveled the chair around to face you, you would discover it was also where my mother hid the ironing basket in an effort to forget it’s accusatory existence.
I stopped dead. No blue and grey scarf met my expectant gaze. My sister, smugly wrapped downstairs, had beaten me to it. Known in our household as the personification of irresponsibility, my nemesis, having misplaced her own scarf, had purloined the nearest available replica.
I rushed to report the sibling treachery; vindication ringing in my voice as I came downstairs looking pointedly in her direction “SHE”S got it! I dunno know where hers is but that one’s mine…”
By now however, the fear of my father’s unpredictable temper and the school-morning hysteria had combined to create a crackling, pregnant tension that just needed a trigger. The fuel was strewn, the paraffin poured and the words that dropped from my mouth might as well have been lit matches.
Events moved quickly then, in the same way flames lick along the floor coating everything in their all-consuming saliva. Through anger’s warped viewfinder, my father saw the scene in terms of Cause and Blame: He was late. I was talking; ergo I was to blame.
His temper unfurled with the pent-up force of a deployed airbag and my words went unheeded as he sprang up the stairs with uncharacteristic and frightening agility. We met in the middle, me descending, him ascending. My mother and sisters stood transfixed at the bottom, beatifically lit from behind by the morning sun streaming through the frosted glass of the front door, a religious depiction of sainted familial grace at odds with the scene before them.
In the flashes of time that followed, like lightning illuminating memory, I can recall the familiar metallic bite of injustice as I realized the facts were irrelevant to all but me and I was the scapegoat in this particular vignette.
My father’s unnatural speed told me punishment was imminent. Arms outstretched in self-defense, as a last resort I tried to slow him with words. Pleas broke from my lips with all the pathos of the wrongly convicted; “It’s not my fault! She’s got my scarf! Please! I put mine away yesterday…” But his hands were already on me. Stuck on the narrow staircase, I had nowhere to go. Desperation flooded my senses and I split into two: instinct took over my body and intellect viewed the scene dispassionately from above. Panic overthrew self-control in a swift and bloodless coup.
I remember gripping the thick wooden bannister for support – body braced, knuckles white, sinking to the steps as rough hands found my neck. I screamed in terror as I felt the pressure of his fingers like a steel ring around my throat; I couldn’t believe what was happening, “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!” was all I could say, over and over again. Pedestrian and juvenile sounding, this one solid fact pushed everything else aside. Poetry, irony, wit or intelligence were beyond the reach of my thirteen-year-old mind. Ineloquent though it was, it was my truth, and it came, unbidden, from the core of my being.
His grip tightened as he tried to silence me but I was beyond the reach of pain. I struggled to force the sound out. Incapable of anything save delivering this single sentiment, I used every atom of breath left in my lungs to convey it; “IHATEYOU!IHATEyouIhateyouIhateyou…” until finally, nothing more than a rasp came out. The crushing pressure on my windpipe prevented any inhalation and I knew I’d used the last of my breath to finally make myself heard. As darkness claimed me I knew I hadn’t wasted it.