Zoe, suffering from an absent and sometimes abusive husband, find an unusual confidante; by Ceinwen Haydon.
During the last two months she had dared to think the unthinkable: maybe just maybe she was still a desirable woman, a capable woman, a person with a future that was in her own hands.
Their first meeting had been like a take from a corny sit com; the Polish plumber and the bored housewife. How she hated that word 'housewife'. Her husband, Bill, worked away on the rigs, and this shackled her to the house. Their youngest had only just started school, and with no-one to share the parenting she had to be ready and available 24/7. Working outside the home was out of the question for now. At least that was Bill's view, and he made sure that she understood this.
Bill confused Zoe, and her feelings towards him were complicated. One night last year, when he was on shore, he had asked her if she was happy.
"I am sometimes," she replied. "I suppose that's like most women." This did not satisfy him at all.
"So I suppose 'most women' have a husband who notices everything about them, their likes and dislikes? A man who always remembers to buy presents for birthdays and anniversaries, and who sometimes sends flowers even when it's not?"
Zoe made a huge effort to sound more positive, if she didn't she knew that the consequences would be dire.
"Bill love, you are very generous to me and to the children. We all loved going out to that new Thai restaurant last night, and I know that it was expensive. We always have lots of treats when you're home."
She felt a knot tighten in her stomach. The previous time that he had quizzed her like this he had started shaking with rage when she didn't give the right answers. She had tried to walk out of the room to give Bill time to calm down but he had come up behind her and yanked her head backward by her hair.
"You ungrateful bitch; things are going to change round here. You'll learn to respect me, and not go eying up other men in the clothes that my money pays for."
Bill wasn't joking; his efforts to control her moved on to a new level. Before he went back to the rig he had a closet installed at the back of the garage. It had two deadlocks and he kept the keys. He had it fitted out with shelves and hanging space, and a little dressing table. All her nicest clothes, expensive jewellery and good perfume were placed in this space, and then he locked the door.
"I have bought every damn thing that looks good on you; I've chosen most of them too. I know how to make you look passable, and from this point on you'll only wear them for me. Without my good taste you'd be a mess, if you're a mess you'll not get a second look. So get used to it." On his last evening he locked her into the closet and told her to, "Work on it until you look decent: we're booked into the Savoy for dinner and I'll not be shown up."
Zoe's fear had staunched the tears that she dreaded. If she cried her face would be puffy and red, and Bill would be enraged. She emerged after an hour and he guided her out to the waiting taxi. As they entered the restaurant he put his hand under her chin
"Smile won't you? You'll thank me one day for loving you so much."
When Zoe was alone again, getting on with the peaceful rhythms of everyday life with the children, she began to think. She asked herself why she let Bill get away with his nonsense. Part of it was because she felt sorry for him; particularly for his 'little problem'. It made him insecure and he wouldn't go to the doctors about it. She knew that impotence was a big deal for men, and that women were supposed to understand.
Bill was given to calling her and e-mailing several times a day, "Just to stay part of your life, darling." Last August he'd come back unannounced on special leave. The children were delighted to see their dad, and particularly the armful of presents that he carried. When she'd taken them up to bed, clutching their new iPods, she'd felt uneasy. On the way down she'd paused on the stairs, Bill was in the kitchen on his mobile and had not heard her coming.
"Yes Mr Ross, I'm sorry that I had to come back so quickly. As it happened I was too late anyway. Dad died this morning; he was in a lot of pain so he's had a blessed release, but it's hard. I'll need to stay and organise the funeral, but I'll make sure I'm back in a fortnight. Thanks for your understanding, it's appreciated."
Zoe had felt sick, what was Bill on about? He hadn't seen his father since he was a child; his dad had walked out and never come back. Another reason she felt sorry for him and made allowances. In fact early in their marriage, on a few occasions when she openly disagreed with him he'd trump her by saying, "Maybe you'd rather I left, like my old man."
When the call had finished Zoe confronted Bill.
"Why Bill, why?" she uttered quietly.
Immediately his face twisted darkly. She knew that she was on very thin ice. She'd seen the look many times before: the first time had been on their honeymoon when she'd teased him about his dancing, the night that he'd knocked out her front tooth. He'd never hit her since but then he didn't have to. The look was enough because she knew what might come next. Quickly she apologised for being nosey, and he stated what was, by then, obvious.
"I came back to check on you, the story was to get my special leave." He traduced her by adding, "You made me lie because I can't trust you."
That was the time that the worm turned. Zoe was frightened yes, but she was affronted too. How could he doubt her? She'd let him call the shots about everything, and still it wasn't enough. She began to be creative and strategic, out-manoeuvring Bill when he was off shore. She appeared to play by his rules when actually she was carving chunks of time when she was able to be away from the house and doing things for herself. Her own new iPhone was a great ally, and she learnt how to tell lies shamelessly; Bill had been a good teacher. At first these ruses had given her time to go to writing classes, swimming and the gym. Then she progressed to meeting friends for lunch, the ones that Bill disliked. Then came the fateful day when her water pipes burst. Enter Waldemar.
When she called the family firm that they'd always used, the boss said, "Both me and my lads are tied up for days, it's gone mental since the freeze set in. But I can give the job to a contract plumber, a Polish lad? He's on our books as backup and we've had no complaints."
Zoe'd agreed readily. She opened the door an hour later to a stocky man with curly brown hair and laden with two overflowing tool boxes. "You are bursting and I will sort you out!" He was blissfully unaware of any naughty connotations, and marched in whistling the theme tune of 'EastEnders'.
Zoe was briefly thrown by this entrance and she commented clumsily, "And there's me thinking that you Poles are all tall, blond and blue eyed! You've broadened my horizons for sure." Realising this sounded odd she added, "Welcome anyway. Thanks for coming."
"You will come with me and I mend, we make hot water flow, then we take tea to celebrate." Zoe showed her new plumber into the kitchen.
Waldemar ("call me Waldek as you are friend now") stayed for tea and cake, and at her invitation returned for supper when the children were safely tucked up in bed after their playdates. Lucky that at 10, 8, 7 and 5 years old they were all happy to be in bed by 8.00 on a school night.
Zoe fielded three phone calls from Bill between 5.00 and 7.00, and for good measure wrote him a long e-mail. She edited it three times to ensure that it wasn't too over the top and out of kilter with her normal messages.
She must have done a good job because in the last call Bill commented, "You sound a bit down love. You must be missing me. I'll be home before you know it."
'Down'? Zoe was anything but! Her heart was singing for the first time in years.
When she opened the door to Waldek, he thrust a brown paper bag into her hands. Zoe unwrapped her gift; she shook out a folded top from PriMark. It was bright yellow with 'You are my sunshine' emblazoned across it; the prettiest garment that she'd seen in years.
"Is small thank you, pretty T-shirt for pretty lady and her tasty tea and cake!"
Supper was chicken casserole and rice, nothing fancy, but Waldek was full of praise.
"Is the best in England. My thanks, for your chicken is tender and your rice is fluffy."
Zoe asked Waldek about his home in Poland.
"My house in small village, yes 10 km outside Warsaw. There live my family; my wife Danuta and daughters Anna and Maria. They grow up, study, Anna want to be doctor and Maria plumber like her dad. In pictures I see they are nearly women grown, I miss them so much. I miss Danuta, kind and strong, my only woman. I no see my family for two years. I have saved well, Poland good now. Soon I go back home. And you Zoe how is it for you, your husband not here for you?"
"Oh you know Waldek, men and women they see things differently. He tries hard but I make him mad."
"Zoe you think it you who make him bad headed? How is this? You are good woman, good mother. What he like, is he cruel like crazy dog?"
"I have started to think so. He hurts me, with his words and sometimes his hands too. He always wants to know what I am doing, thinks that if I look nice I'm cheating on him."
Zoe felt dizzy, she had never told her women friends how Bill was, and now she had opened her heart to this stranger. Her thoughts froze as Waldek banged on the table with his fist, upsetting the empty wine glasses.
"This is not good person. He makes you scared like secret police. You must be driver of your own car. He has forgotten Highway Code, too late to teach him now."
At 9.30 the phone rang: Bill. She knew it was him, but she did not answer. She went to clear the dishes and make coffee. Waiting for the kettle to boil, she texted rapidly, "Did you call landline? In bath - very tired speak tomorrow xxx."
Waldek left at 10pm; at the door he kissed her hand, and then stroked her cheek.
"You are beautiful, like Danuta; I will not put you and your kids in danger, do not think I take sex with you; but I help you see in mirror. Know you can be free."
After Waldek had gone Zoe sat up late into the night: he was Danuta's husband but how she ached for him.
Over the next few weeks she saw Waldek many times. It was always at home; always after the children's bedtime. She cooked as if her life depended upon it. He was ever the perfect gentleman; he could have been her brother.
One night in November, over Beef Wellington (her first attempt), she heard Adam call out, "Mum". Footsteps pounded on the landing as her oldest boy headed for the bathroom. As she reached the top of the stairs he vomited into the toilet bowl. The doctor said that Norovirus was doing the rounds. It got to them all within a fortnight, Waldek included. His landlady had been an angel, he'd said later.
Real life was never far away, but still Waldek tried to help her.
"You are very good Zoe, so much a woman. You come to Poland, my brothers love you, so sexy and so brave. Me I am nearly bad when I am with you, but I am husband and have given Danuta promise. You have husband. He does not know you. He frightened bully, too scared to let you free. This is wrong."
Zoe spent her days in delicious turmoil. She was in love, perhaps, and it showed, though delicately. Then the end came. Bill told her that he'd been promoted, got a job on shore at HQ. He was coming home for good.
Zoe and Waldek met for their last supper two days ago. Unusually she burnt the dinner and that is when they ate the leftover crisps. Waldek sat and held her hand, then he pulled a card from his shirt pocket.
"Zoe, I talk to Rachel who pays my wage. She, like you, had bad man and got away. She said good club help her. This now years ago, but she work at weekends to get help to others. I not say your name. She gives me card. She says 'Women's Aid' will help. Please go, talk, get help? You can be teacher or nurse, gardener or anything. You are strong and good, there is love for you. Not me. I must go. I stay and you have danger. I stay and hold you and see Danuta crying."
So Zoe weeps as she folds the packet carefully into her purse. Then she shepherds the children out into their new lives. The minibus from the refuge carries them off into the night, as she takes control at last.