Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

A few weeks ago I trapped the little finger of my right hand in a car door and severed the nail at the base, an accident that was shocking and excruciating but ultimately minor. I was with both my toddler and my mother when it happened – getting out of my mother’s car, which she had parked on a hill, so that the incline allowed the heavy door to fall back as I got out – which meant I had 1) someone to care for me and 2) someone to care for, and therefore very little space in which to spin out into pain, as well as water to wash it, a clean cloth to dry it, and a plaster to cover it. The toddler was disconcerted by my momentary shrieking and clutching and sitting on the wall saying I thought I would faint, but I attempted in the hour following, as we walked around the nearby woods and playground, to demonstrate the temporary, surmountable nature of my pain, and of my fallibility. By the evening, it was an inconvenience only.

However, I could not look at the damaged finger without trepidation and an edge of nausea that did not subside over the following days, but rose and churned, started to damp the feet and then ankles and then thighs of each moment, until I was wading in it, tripping, swimming, drowning. It bothered me. No, that’s not strong enough: It disgusted me, horrified me, even, to see that part of my body undone. It felt like I was coming undone. When the severed nail fell away to reveal the raw, bulging flesh underneath – a hot slice of pain at the edge of a playground, a few weeks later, caught on the Velcro inside my son’s nappy bag – I stood staring at it while the blurred world cascaded around me for long enough that when I looked up, it was several seconds before I located my boy.

What I mean is, the injury had a power over me; it wasn’t only an injury, it had become symbolic. It had gained the ability to warp time and space.

I should explain.

A decade or so earlier, on a hill, coincidentally less than half a mile from the hill my mother parked on, another door had closed too fast and forcefully on the same and another of my fingers. The later injury was almost identical, except scaled down, a suggestion only of the previous one, and a tincture only of that first pain. The finger that was caught in my mother’s car door, in fact, was not my original finger, or not entirely; along with its neighbour, it had been reconstructed by a plastic surgeon ten years before. The nails were already distorted: wonky and overly curved, too stiff. They had sat, too obvious, at the end of my hand for a decade, during which early stage arthritis had begun in the joints of the same fingers, a result, a doctor explained, of the ricocheting impact on the bone. Regularly, as I toyed with items on tables, tore up beer mats, rolled cigarettes, took notes, a friend or stranger had asked me: What happened to your hand?

I would tell them the truth, but not the whole truth, which I will try, and inevitably fail, to tell you now.

I was twenty-two and living with a boyfriend in a house that was bordering on derelict. There was no central heating or hot water, and several of the windows were broken or hanging from hinges. The front door was warped and hard to shut. If you were going out, you had to reach back through the door and pull it hard, whipping your hand out at the last moment, or it would bounce open again. We became adept at this act, nonchalant about it, surprising visitors with the strength and suddenness of our yanking. The problem could have been fixed, perhaps, easily, by fixing a door handle onto the outside, but we were not that industrious. We were young and distracted. We had conditioned ourselves to enjoy the idiosyncrasies, deprivations, trepidations of the house. We used piles of blankets and fan heaters, wore hats and gloves inside, and took icy showers in the middle of winter, cooked on a fire outside. But perhaps these conditions took their toll, or the dereliction itself began to creep into us, at least into our relationship, because it wasn’t long before I was catastrophically depressed and he was having daily rages.

We had arguments. At first, it was only once a month or so but then it was every week, twice a week, every day. There were three reasons we argued and this never shifted, only the intensity bubbled up or boiled over. The most common argument we had was because I was sad. I would start crying, and he would be furious. Why are you doing this? he’d say. What do you want from me? Stop crying, why are you always crying, stop crying. And so on. The second was because he was silent. This time I would be the one who could not stand his demeanour. What’s wrong? I would say. Why won’t you talk to me? Can’t you tell me what’s wrong, please, let me help. He did not want me to help, and my questions were not answered, only drove and stuffed him further into his silence. The last type of argument happened any time I said I had seen another man, a male friend or acquaintance or even an enemy, or once, when I had been to a Bruce Springsteen concert. He became belligerent and demanded an excess of details: what we said, if I laughed, how close we stood, if we hugged, if he looked at my chest, had I given him my number, how did the meeting come about, had I ever slept with him, I wanted to sleep with him, didn’t I? Conversely, he was a musician and often made friends at gigs, or out busking, and mostly these friends were women. Sometimes he stayed the night at their houses without telling me he wasn’t coming home or where he was. Often, I found their phone numbers and names scribbled on bits of paper in his pockets when I did the washing. It makes me laugh now to write that, and to think it was possible, that at twenty-two, a recently graduated feminist with hardened ideas about the patriarchy and gender roles and emancipation, I was already doing my boyfriend’s washing, as well as cleaning and cooking for him, and believing all his far-reaching reasons for having these women’s numbers in his pockets. We never argued about that, perhaps because I knew how all our arguments turned out, and it made no sense for me to start one.

The first time he hurt me I was startled, shocked, even, that it had happened. We were arguing on the way to a café – we had no internet at home so went there to work – and he said I was wasting his time and he’d go somewhere else. I said, “Fine,” haughty and hurt, and turned from him and he reached out and grabbed the top of my arm, pinching it, hard enough that I yelped. “Ow,” I said, rubbing the area, “you hurt me.” “That didn’t hurt,” he said, “don’t be ridiculous.” Then he laughed and went on his way. More than the hurt, what surprised me was that later, unusually, he wasn’t angry any more but in a good mood. He’d brought me a tiny chocolate book and a bottle of whiskey for us to share. He played me a new song he’d written.

The second time he hurt me seemed almost like an accident: He pushed me onto the bed during an argument, and I twisted my shoulder and bruised the backs of my thighs on the hard wooden edge of the bed. He landed on top of me, winding me, and once I had got my breath back and the pain had subsided, I was only relieved to see he liked me again.

The incident with my hand, perhaps, was the last time his violence marked the end of his anger. After that – because although his actions had caused the need for me to have my right hand reconstructed, I did not leave, in fact, he left me and I insisted we get back together a month later – his anger swelled and burst its dams, permeated the house, the street, the air, any time we were together. It was a storm we lived inside, a fugue state, a fog, intoxicating and transfixing, choking and suffocating, I would be paralysed, held within it, unable to act except – I recoil to remember – to insist it was my fault.

I always insisted it was my fault.

Even when he threw a chair at me. Even when he threw a shoe at my head, with the wooden shoe mould still inside it. Even when he shouted at me for hours on end, including one night from eleven p.m. until six in the morning, after which I felt certain that something essential inside me had been grated down to nothing, lost forever. Even when he called me an idiot, and a whore, and greedy, and told me that if I wanted to lose weight I should just stop eating, what was wrong with me, I didn’t have bulimia, I was just greedy and wasteful. Even when he admitted he had kissed that girl, and another of them, and walked all the way down Wardour Street –  only Wardour Street, maybe a corner of Berwick Street – clasping her hand.

But all of that came later. And what I wanted to write about was the hand. My hand. My right hand. The mangled one.

We argued all that morning, but at some point something flipped in me so that I understood, for one sudden, enlightened moment, that he didn’t love me, didn’t want me, despised me, in fact. And I seized the moment, seized my abrupt self-preservation instinct, and grabbed my bag and rushed out of the house. But then, the door – I had to shut the door. He was coming up behind me. I could see him. I wanted to be on the other side of the door. I was on the front step, but I had to shut it. I reached through to shut the door. And at the same moment, I saw him raise his leg and bring it down.

Moments later, there was only pain, agony, blood, my pulse a clanging bell shattering the street, the moment, severing the possibilities I was trying to rush out into. I screamed. The door juddered open. He stood, wide-mouthed, in awe. There was so much blood.

For years I kept rerunning those brief moments trying to work out if he intended to hurt me, if it was an accident, if he was as shocked by what happened as I was, or only shocked by himself, until in the end I have to conclude that he did, and he knew it, that he saw my hand shoot back through the door – we complained about the door endlessly – so he must have seen it as he raised his leg – I saw his leg, I can remember – and thrust it hard against the broad blue-painted wood, he must have done.

I drank morphine for a week until the operation and, though I had reckoned that as the end of pain, in fact I had to drink morphine for another week after, too, once the anaesthetic wore off and the new pain of having had my finger rearranged by scalpels and needles sunk through the bone and floored me. I won’t go into the rest of that winter, how long it took to heal and the various restrictions and humiliations of my non-linear recovery. It was enough to remember it, last month, when the scaled down version of the same accident happened again.

Accident. It’s not the right word. I guess that is what keeps troubling me, a decade later. That I keep calling it an accident.

That I can’t fully relinquish the idea that it was my fault: I argued, I angered him, and most of all, I stayed. In the moment when he was most contrite – those four hours waiting in A&E while my blood dripped and I sucked nitrous oxide to pretend delirium could crush pain – I told him not to worry, not to blame himself, it was my fault as much as his.

It wasn’t. That’s what I can’t get my head to believe. All this time later, all this life experience later, all this learning and reading and understanding the dynamics of abusive relationships and wanting to be different later. Still, I am asking myself: Why did I let it happen? Why didn’t I walk away sooner? The first time he pinched me. The first time I found a stranger’s number in his pocket.

Now I look at the bulging flesh of the exposed tip of my twice-crushed finger and I try to work out how I can make it up to my body, when in an instant a coincidence of sensation can spin everything backwards so that what happened is happening again, over and over again. I want it to end, to draw a line under it, and yet my bones, my flesh, the prematurely arthritic bulges in my knuckles remember.

Perhaps I will get two doors tattooed there: one to go in, and one to go out. One to get away, and one to hide behind. One to open and one to close. One to pass through, and one to only stare at, scrutinise, creep up to the edges of, and then seal forever. I would like a door that I can close behind me, click it silently into the lock and shut away those memories, and then throw away the key and walk away and not look back once, not ever.

Sometimes it feels to me completely artificial to make statements that I know to be true. It is as though growing up is only a process of borrowing the robes of adulthood, dressing up in facts I still can’t believe are mine to use. Instead, I keep finding myself retelling the story inside my own head, but always with the wrong conclusions attached. He never hit me, I will say, except if you count pinching, or pushing, or throwing hard objects – or perhaps what makes me falter is how easy it is to imagine, to remember, how many are in far worse scenarios, with far less recourse to escape. I can’t wear these facts because others need them more. And yet facts are not finite, and to speak, to write, is to share, to allow space for anyone to remember. And what I remember also is that it was not any of these acts that hurt the most, in the end, but the blunt expanse of his indifference. Not what he said or did but the fact of being close to someone for so long who did not care at all how these things felt to me. Because it’s leaked into me, this cold deadened nothingness, a sense of not mattering, of being nothing at all, and I can still feel it there, alongside the far-ranging insidious shame for staying where I was so obviously unwanted. These are the facts that don’t go away, the clothes that sit so close they become skin, the skin it is still hard to live in.

I wanted to write about the way certain physical sensations can echo, reverberate across time and make tangible connections between unrelated moments, but now I see what I was doing was attempting to draw the door, to put it down in my own hand, the right one, the wrong one, so that it is mine to rub the lines out again, to shrink, expand, and mine to disappear.


About Xanthi Barker

Xanthi Barker was born in London, where she still lives. Her novelette One Thing was published by Open Pen in 2019. Her memoir Will This House Last Forever? was published in 2021 by Tinder Press.

Xanthi Barker was born in London, where she still lives. Her novelette One Thing was published by Open Pen in 2019. Her memoir Will This House Last Forever? was published in 2021 by Tinder Press.

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