by Ali Isaac
Content warning: Discussion of self-harm, sexual assault, violence.
My first attempts have faded into silver smiles. Others remind me of the hard, white slash of my mother’s lips, pressed into their habitual expression of displeasure. Some are pink and puckered with newness, one or two still angry red gashes. I was eighteen when I made the first cut. I trace it now with tender fingers. It was a long time ago, but the event which inspired it is still vivid, the threat still simmering under the surface of civility.
I am an invisible woman; fifty years old and sitting in a taxi, a young man, drunk, manspreading his thigh up against me. I shrink against the door, but his skin creeps after mine. The stink of beer wafts all around him, like his Lynx probably did at the beginning of the night. He leans closer.
‘Didn’t see you in town tonight.’
Beyond him, his buddy rolls his eyes, leans forward and chats to the driver. Around here, taxis aren’t for private hire; in rural areas it just wouldn’t be profitable, so they operate like buses, picking up fares and dropping them off randomly. I’d left my car at Mary’s; we’d had dinner, and the bottle of Frascati had seemed like a good idea at the time. Her husband would have brought me home, but I don’t trust men offering lifts.
God knows why, but I am polite. ‘I was at a friend’s house.’
‘Ah, I know all about ‘girly nights’. Got your Ann Summers knickers in your bag?’ He paws at my bag.
‘We just had dinner.’ I turn and look out the window at the empty blackness. We have left the town, and there are no street lights. The dark presses down on the car, one body upon another, solid, oppressive, and inescapable.
He places his mouth near my ear, thinking he is speaking confidentially, but his words reverberate through the cab. ‘I like older women. They know what they want.’ A hand descends onto my knee and travels upwards. ‘I bet you know exactly what you like.’
‘I do,’ I say. ‘And you’re not it.’
I reach for my knife, but not quick enough; memory fires and catapults me back through time to another night in another car, another man’s hand on my leg.
Matt, whose hand didn’t stop there. Mary and I had been together that night, too, celebrating our last day of school. We’d got ready at hers, blasting music from her open bedroom window so everyone in the neighbourhood could hear how cool we were. We did each other’s hair and make–up, sipping on smuggled vodka.
Mary was piling on her Maybelline Kissing Potion. ‘You have to make the most of what you got. I got these.’ She heaved up her ample bosom, revealing even more soft, rosy flesh through the deep V of her neckline. ‘And legs are what you got. They’re not just for walking, you know.’
Mary said my legs were like the pictures on the front of stocking packets; she was always on at me to show them off. I said she could have legs like mine if she came to Irish dancing class, but she just laughed and said she was already blessed with everything she needed. She had no shortage of admirers, but personally I wouldn’t have been so content with a man who talked to my chest.
The smooth glide of the blade unfolding wakes me to the present. It steadies me. My best friend and saviour.
In the dark, miles away from civilisation, in the middle of the night, on a deserted country road, a woman alone in a car with three unfamiliar men. My heart pounds while I hang onto my knife, palm sweating.
My knife: it is a switchblade given a fairy godmother makeover, all shimmering slender lines and delicate engraving. Its titanium handle is softened with pink anodising. The blade is cast from bright stainless steel: slim, double–edged and needle–pointed. Its name: The Icicle. This knife wasn’t made, it was lovingly coaxed into life by master craftsmen, a Richter–Benaitis fantasy. After my home and my car, it is the most expensive thing I own. If I could wear it as jewellery I would. But it’s my secret. No one knows, not even Mary. I never go anywhere without it. And if I cut my legs with it occasionally, it is only to ensure they never again draw the kind of attention I got from Matt.
Like everyone else, Matt worked in the shipyard. We danced, we snogged, he told me I could be a model. And then I remembered I had to do a Cinderella, or my mother would ground me for a month. Bitch.
But he didn’t drive me home. He took me to a dingy car park where a single streetlight cast a sickly orange glow in a forlorn corner; the council hadn’t bothered to fix the others. Bleak red–brick tenement buildings reared upward, gazing down at us with impassive facades. The presence of the streetlight only deepened the shadows. You would think in the night the shadows would be blotted out by the dark.
The taxi has stopped, and I have no idea where we are. The wind blows in through the open car door, and I shiver. A vague belt of trees crouch over a house like giants, a deeper shade of dark, swaying and sighing. My two companions dredge their pockets. They have drunk all their money; they want to pay by card, but the taxi–driver laughs. Buddy has to go and wake someone inside for cash.
Matt wasn’t like the boys at school, content with a ring of hickies around their necks and a quick grope. ‘No’ was not an option; he was entitled, a man made superhuman by adrenaline and alcohol. And then the sick epiphany: this wasn’t a fight I could win. The screams died in my throat, my body fell limp, and I withdrew to somewhere far away and outside of myself, a voyeur of my own violation.
Wedged beneath the weight of her assailant, the body of a girl I thought I knew wept tears of shame under a net of dirty blonde hair. She had flaunted herself, and got what she deserved. I watched, heard his animal grunts, smelled his animal sweat, but I felt nothing.
After, he lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, then offered it across to me.
I opened the car door and fell onto the tarmac. My fishnets were torn, my hotpants soiled. Blood seeped slowly through the denim, spreading like the black cloud which had settled within my skull. Tell–tale tender patches up and down my body would give way to bruises by morning. I had missed my curfew; Mam, who knew about bruises, was going to kill me.
He leaned across the empty passenger seat. ‘Get in. I’ll drop you home.’ Like we were friends. Lovers. Like he hadn’t done anything wrong. Like he’d never raped anyone.
The taxi–driver is getting impatient. ‘Get Romeo here out of my cab, mate,’ he says to Buddy, and revs the engine.
In the aftermath, maternal discipline wasn’t required; my incarceration was self-imposed and lasted years. I never told, because who would believe a slapper like me over a decent, responsible family man like Matt?
A husband came and went in the years between then and now. He didn’t seem to mind the scars on my legs; it was those hidden beneath the surface that he couldn’t handle. He ran off with the babysitter; I believe her thighs, like her mind, were smooth and unblemished. I stopped eating, just long enough that my body lost its shape. I hid behind folds of baggy jumpers and curtains of long hair. Nobody noticed. I had turned invisible. Still, I carried my knife with me.
The Icicle is singing to me. I tighten my grip and it brings me images: Matt rolling off me all those years ago, Dad drunk and violent, my ex–husband shagging the babysitter in the car before dropping her home. Mam’s cold, grim lips.
It is easy. Too easy. The slight elastic resistance of his skin, then I’m in, slipping through flesh as if it is butter. I feel him flinch, hear him grunt as I bite; my first taste of male blood.
But already he is being hauled from the taxi. The knife shimmers in the moonlight, my hand clamped so hard onto the handle I am afraid it, or I, will crack. Its song blazes into a triumphant roar, then falls into contented crooning.
It is over, fleeting as a thought. How strange that something so momentous goes unnoticed.
Drunk Boy falls onto the path, groans, makes no attempt to get up. ‘I’m sorry,’ Buddy says to me through the open door. I just nod, and he shuts the door. He half–lifts, half–drags Drunk Boy into the house.
‘Drunk as a skunk.’ The driver laughs as we drive on, but I’m not listening. There should be blood. On the seat, my hand, my clothes. Sticky. Warm. The Icicle always draws blood.
‘Look, sorry about all that, but no harm done, eh?’ The driver is looking at me in the rear-view mirror. I smile, and his eyes slide away; I must already be fading.
‘No harm done,’ I murmur. I take a deep breath and run my hands over my track pants, smoothing out the wrinkles. I can’t feel the scars beneath the fabric, but I know they are there. Invisible to other eyes. Like me.