Fiction: Watch the sky burning

Sophie Burdge reveals the stark reality of abuse through the disturbed mindset of the abuser

Illustration by Gitu Sharma

“Let’s go for a walk.”

She shrugged. Continued to stare straight, not into her coffee but over it. She didn’t look round.

“Come on,” I pressed. “It’s a beautiful day, let’s take a wander along the canal.” It was her favourite kind of day as well. Or would have been, under normal circumstances. Autumnal, but not yet grey and chilly, the sky was still bright and the air had both the huskiness of bonfires and the sharp bite of the approaching winter. “A beautiful day,” I said again.

Clearly she didn’t feel like having an argument today, as she stood up and reached for her coat, all the while saying nothing. I almost wished she would argue, I wished she would scream and shout and hate me and leave me. Anything but this impenetrable fog of silence between us. She downed her coffee—it must have been cold by now, but she tipped it back anyway. Not even a grimace as the cold grit from the bottom of the mug hit her throat. She probably didn’t notice.

I helped her on with her coat—she didn’t need me to but I liked it. I’d always liked the feeling of being a gentleman, pulling out chairs and opening doors for pretty girls. Even when she told me off and said that I was being “benevolently sexist,” I did it anyway. I liked it. We hoiked on our wellies and shuffled out the door, sliding our way through the swell of orange that coated our front steps. I’d never really appreciated autumn before we met, always thought of it as something of a nothing season, just a filler between summer and Christmas. I still didn’t like it that much, if I’m honest. I hated feeling as if it were the middle of the night as soon as I finished work, and the way the air snapped at you but without the promise of snow. But I’d learned to sort of objectively appreciate it—for her sake. She wanted to us to stand round bonfires together and go on evening walks to watch the sky burning. I could sort of appreciate that now. I guess. She probably doesn’t like it as much anymore though.

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She’d always liked wrapping herself up, that was another of her favourite things about autumn. She always looked so sweet, enveloped in huge scarves and jumpers, a little flushed face peering out into the cold. Now it looked more like armour. Impenetrable. She’d lie wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa in the evening. And I’d come and sit beside her. And she’d just pull the blanket tighter.

We’d reached the canal by now. A few ducks skated serenely over the crimson water, avoiding the token shopping trolley. I reached for her hand. She tried to pull away but I persisted. Tightening my grip around hers, keeping her soft little hand enclosed in mine, I felt like I was holding a mouse, or a little chick, something that you had to be gentle with but also not let go of. That was her all over: be gentle but don’t let go.

I did the not letting go part pretty well. We had a strong relationship, I think. But sometimes I perhaps wasn’t as gentle as I should have been. And that’s what got us into this mess. Well, it wasn’t all my fault. She had her fair shame of the blame as well, and she knew that. I think that’s what had sent her into this extended sulk actually. She knew that she was partially to blame and she couldn’t stand it.

Her hand gradually relaxed into mine as we trailed along the canal. We’d walked that way so many times, our hands always intertwined, that it began to almost feel normal. A dirty, greying sheet had spread across the sky by now, any trace of azure blue enveloped by its fraying corners. No burning sky tonight. Just nothingness. Blank. I pulled her closer, trying to steal her away from the cold’s probing finger tips. I tried, but she resisted. One step at a time. The squelch of rotting leaves beneath my feet was beginning to nauseate me, with each pace the damp radiated into my boots a little more, her hand pulled away from mine a little more. I tightened my grip. Be gentle but don’t let go.

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The frustrating thing was that I was really trying. I was trying my absolute hardest. And I understood why she was angry, genuinely I did. But she couldn’t just keep giving me the silent treatment like a petulant child. In fact, it was this sort of lack of communication that had led to the problem in the first place. It was like she just expected me to know exactly what was going on in that manic little mind of hers all the time. Bloody typical of women when you think about it. They go on and on about communicating and how important it is to be open in a relationship, but as soon as something goes wrong they shut you right out. Or that’s what she did anyway. I mean, I sort of realised at the time that something was wrong. But she never said that she didn’t want it. She never said stop. She never came right out and said it, you know? And I’m not a mind reader. How was I supposed to know? Seriously, how the hell was I supposed to know? Bloody women. You try and you try and… nothing.