Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the day I grabbed my daughter and ran for my life. At the time I was living in Ibiza, and I had a Chinese restaurant that was sub-let, ran a very successful language school that I had built up from two to a hundred and six students in the space of a year and worked in the mornings for the Spanish Ministry of Work teaching English on their Adult Training for Work Programme. I lived in a large, attractive flat, albeit a rented property and drove a brand new car. I had a gorgeous four-year-old daughter and, many thought, an attentive husband. For those who knew the truth, he wasn’t attentive, but a controlling, manipulative, abusive, cunning, lying bully who made my life an absolute misery.
We were together for almost eight years and for five of those I’d tried to leave him. I always sigh when I hear people say of battered wives, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” If only it were that simple! Abusers – and I’m going to use the gender-neutral term here because I know that there are women who batter men, too – are cunning and manipulative. I mean, if he’d hit me on our first date, or even during our first few months together, he’d never have seen me again and he’d be walking with a permanent bow to his legs. But it doesn’t work like that. Interestingly, abusers usually choose strong, attractive, out-going partners – modesty aside, I was all of those things! – and then set about changing them. They work on your self-esteem, criticising what you’re wearing, refusing to go out with you in that dress as you “look ridiculous”, telling you your hair looks a mess, that your make-up makes you look like a tart. They pick you up on every comment you make, especially in company, and tell you daily that you’re stupid. And when someone tells you that daily, you end up believing it. Isolation is the key word. They don’t like your friends, especially those who can see them for what they are and what they’re doing to you. They tell you not to invite them round and kick up such a fuss if you want to go out with said friend(s) that you end up not going. And eventually, the only person close to you is the abuser themselves; just the way they like it.
My ex was insanely jealous of any man I had ever known in my entire life. I would walk or drive through San Antonio as if I were wearing blinkers, only looking straight ahead, terrified of looking to the side and perhaps seeing a male who knew me and who might greet me. Bear in mind I’d lived in Ibiza for six years before he arrived on the island, so I knew loads of people. If that ever happened, it would lead to hours of interrogation and one-sided arguments. I lost count of the number of nights I would be kept awake until 4 or 5 am listening to his ramblings and accusations, so tired and sleep-deprived that in the end I would agree to anything he said; black was white, up was down, he was right and I alone was responsible for the murder of JFK and for the gross national debt. He would then fall into a deep sleep, knowing that he didn’t have to go into work until lunch time, while I lay fretting, afraid to even move, watching the clock tick down until 7am when I had to get up, or listening for our daughter to wake up.
On March 14th 1986, my birthday, our daughter had her tonsils out. She was four years old and, of course, needed my full attention. But he didn’t like that. A father, a 30 something man, jealous of the attention his wife was paying to their four-year-old child after she’d had surgery; you couldn’t make it up. Anyway, as soon as we got home from the hospital, he started on me demanding to know what I’d done with a ball of string that was missing from the larder. I hadn’t seen it and told him so. Well, that started him off. As I sat with my child – still groggy from the general anaesthetic she’d been given – on my knee he carried out a two-hour-long interrogation about the ball of string. In the end, desperate to be allowed to leave the living-room and attend to my little girl properly I said: “What do you want me to say? I haven’t seen it. But if you want me to say I’ve moved it then I will. Just let me give her a drink and put her to bed.”
With that he strode across the room and punched me in the face, twice. My head hit the wall and I saw stars. The cartilage in the bridge of my nose broke and blood spattered all over my daughter who started to scream hysterically with fear. With that, my brother-in-law (his sister’s husband) came into our flat from his, which was below – he’d heard the screaming – below and held him up against the wall and told him what he’d do to him if he touched either of us again.
The following day, he appeared with a late birthday bouquet and a necklace. “You see how nice things can be when you don’t provoke me?” he said.
It was then that I decided he’d hit me for the last time and that I was leaving him. It didn’t matter where we would go or what we would do, I just knew that I would never again allow my girl to witness her father raising his hand to me or mistreating me in any way. But, I knew I’d have to wait for the right moment. In the meantime, I wore dark glasses, invented yet another “fall” and asked to leave work early and went to a medical centre on the other side of the island where they didn’t know us and got a certificate from the doctor describing my injuries and then to a photographer who took a passport-type photo of my face, showing my black eyes and swollen nose clearly. These I put in an envelope and sent to my mother, telling her not to open it under any circumstances until I told her to.
Almost three months went by and things had calmed down. I was due to go to Gerona to take my final language teaching exams. This would involve a two-night stay and bear in mind, this was at a time when there were no mobile phones, so I couldn’t be checked-up on. Three days before I was due to go, my dear, late sister-in-law said to me.”He’s taking your going to Gerona very well. I’m expecting something to kick off.” And kick off it did. That very night.
He woke me up in the middle of the night telling me to call an ambulance as he had severe chest pains. He was taken into hospital with a suspected heart-attack. They were monitoring him and had said they would keep him in for a week under observation. They couldn’t be sure it had been a heart-attack; I honestly think he either invented the symptoms or brought them on himself. The second night – the night before I was due to go to Gerona – there was football on TV. However, the nursing staff refused him permission to go to the TV room and watch it as he needed peace and quiet. The excitement of a football match wasn’t recommended for someone who was being monitored in case they had another heart attack. He went crazy. He pulled out the drip in his arm, and called a taxi and discharged himself. He came home, causing a fuss, demanding I make up a bed on the settee for him so that he could watch the TV and cussing the doctors. He told me I couldn’t go to Gerona as he needed me.
The following morning, I persuaded him to go to our GP. I went with him. The GP told him to get straight back to the hospital. He refused. I was then dragged to two cardiac specialists, who both told him he was nuts and to get back into hospital. He still refused. So, we went home, where I listened to a three-hour rant about doctors, the little they know, how the medical profession treat people like children and how I should be more supportive and not cause him any stress as if the truth be known, it was me and my selfish behaviour that had probably brought on his heart-attack.
It was then that I knew the time to leave had finally come. From then on, I went onto some sort of auto-pilot. It was as if I was watching a film of myself.
The following morning on my way back from work I called into a travel agent’s where I wasn’t known and booked two one-way tickets to LHR for the next day. I couldn’t be late home – I usually got in about 1.30pm after picking up our daughter from nursery – so I couldn’t risk going to the bank, which closed at 2pm, as the queues were usually long and I was already running late due to stopping at the travel agent’s. I went to the ATM and drew out the maximum daily amount, which was just about £100 at that time. That afternoon at the language school, I spoke to Brenda, the teacher who worked for me, and told her I was going away “for a couple of days.” She looked at me and said, “You’re leaving, aren’t you? And I don’t blame you.” I wrote her a cheque for her money but begged her not to say anything. She agreed and she also said she had an old suitcase I could take as I couldn’t take any of ours. I left the suitcase in the boot of the car. When I got home he was lying asleep on the settee. I went into the bedroom and threw a change of clothes for my daughter and a clean pair of knickers for me out of the window, down into the garden and then, on the pretence I had to tell his sister something, I went down, collected it all up and stuffed it into the case. I told my sister-in-law what I was doing. She was devastated that we were leaving as she loved my daughter as much as her own children, but she knew I had no choice. “I’ve been telling you to go for two years,” she said. The following morning, my heart thumping in my chest, I got myself and my child ready as if I was dropping her off at nursery and then going onto work. I’d managed to grab our passports, but couldn’t get my jewellery – which was worth a lot and subsequently ‘disappeared’ according to him – as it was in my jewellery box, just a few feet from his head. I had already agreed to give my friend Graciela a lift into Ibiza Town that morning. Grabbing my child and her favourite doll, a Cabbage Patch called Monica, which she’s still got, we picked up Graciela and I drove to the airport, explaining to Graciela what I was doing on the way.
Our flight to London wasn’t direct; we had a three and a half-hour wait in Palma. I asked Graciela to take the car and a letter I’d written him, but not to take them to him until 2pm, by which time we should have taken off from Palma. I was so nervous, but was trying to make-out to my daughter that we were going on a nice little holiday to England to see Nanny and Grandad. As we hugged and said our goodbyes, Graciela said, “Ahora vas a ser feliz.” Now you are going to be happy.
We took off for Palma and there were at least a dozen people on the plane that I knew. To all of them I put on a brave face and said we were spending some time in Palma. The suitcase had been checked all the way through to London, so to kill time, we got the bus into the city and had some lunch, drew out another £100 and then made our way back to the airport. Once we had boarded my stomach was turning over. I kept looking at my watch; it was by now 1.45pm and the plane was half an hour late. I kept on praying that Graciela would wait until two o’clock before taking the car and the letter to him. Suddenly, through the window I saw two Civil Guards walking towards the plane. My heart sank. What I was doing was illegal; I was kidnapping a Spanish-born child. But they stopped at the bottom of the stairs, chatted and flirted with the stewardess and then suddenly the stairs were up, the door was shut and we were airborne.
I was absolutely fine until we stood at the luggage belt at Heathrow and I saw the battered old case coming towards me. Iberia had put a sticker on it claiming that it was already damaged at check-in and therefore they took no responsibility for the condition it arrived in. As I picked it off the belt, I looked at it and then at my daughter and thought of the £200 in my pocket – all the money I had in the world – and burst into tears. I clutched my child tightly to me and bawled my eyes out. It was 18th June, 1986; the day our lives changed for ever.
People have said that what I did was brave. I don’t think it was; I had no option. If fire is raging all around you and backs you to the edge of the cliff, the only possible thing you can do is jump off it. I HAD to leave for my own sanity but also for my child, who without a doubt, would have ended up with one parent in the cemetery and the other in prison if I’d stayed. The previous year I’d stood next to him at Mile End Station and felt such a huge temptation to shove him as the District Line train came in. What good would that have done? Leaving was the only option.
Life was hard at first, though. I got no financial help from the state at all, except some Milk Tokens, which my mum refused to give to the milkman. I asked to go onto the waiting list for a council place, but by the time it came through – a flat in a disgusting, graffiti-covered, urine-smelling block – I’d already been living in a house I’d managed to buy for a year and a half. I gave private English and Spanish lessons and took in lodgers to pay the mortgage.
And have I been happy since? Yes, of course I have; my life is amazing. Although, it took a few years for things to come together and every time I thought I had it sussed something else turned up. I am the Queen of Resourcefulness! LOL! But most of all, I know it was all worthwhile when I look at my daughter. I swell with pride and love whenever I see her. She’s a fabulous woman, her own person, with a good, kind heart who is able to stand on her own two feet. And I take full credit for that! Her father is the one who missed out. In the thirty years since we left, he only ever paid about £260 in maintenance. My solicitor said it would be hard to pursue him as we’d have to go through the British and then the Spanish Courts. So I left it, because to be honest, if he’d been giving me 10p a week it would have given him the excuse and opportunity to interfere and criticise the way I was bringing our child up. So, we’ve been better off without him. I never ever slagged him off to her. It was actually her aunt and her cousins who told her the truth of what had gone on during one of her summer holiday visits to them. She came home and said, “Mummy, they’re his family, but they love you.”
I used the doctor’s report and the photos I’d taken of my face when I filed for divorce and in a wonderful quirk of Fate, my Decree Nisi came through on 14th March 1987, my very next birthday. What a lovely birthday present that was!
Since posting on Facebook yesterday that it was the 30th anniversary of our flight, I’ve had so many goodwill messages from people and several women, friends, but whose stories I didn’t know, have shared their experiences with me. I am flattered and honoured. And every single one says that leaving was the best thing they could ever have done and they have no regrets whatsoever.
So that’s it: the story of my Great Escape. I can’t believe it was thirty years ago. I have to say that the fun-loving, slightly-wild, confident, gorgeous pre-battering Elaine no longer exists. You can’t come through something like that and not change; my self-confidence took a huge bashing and still suffers to this day and my compulsive overeating has also been a result of what went on, my way of dealing with it all. But compared to what could have been I have no complaints.
Last night I sat outside looking at the night sky – all the stars and the huge, almost full moon – and raised a glass to all my friends who are abuse survivors and gave thanks that I can count myself among them.