Gayle fixed the smile on her face as Richard introduced her to yet another couple.   Jenny and Mike, Sasha and Anton, Will and Miranda.   All good-looking 35-somethings.   The women slim, blonde, exquisite, the men smartly suited, charming smiles and hard, calculating eyes.   At 45 Gayle felt old, a has-been.   Richard managed to look younger, handsome and utterly charming, in that mature-man-I’ve-seen-the-world manner of his.   The only couple she had really taken to were older, in their 50’s she guessed.   Brian had a kind, lined face, and his wife, Beth, looked homely and a little plump.   “Our Accountant”, Richard had said.

Gayle longed to sit down.   Her insides felt as though they were falling out, and she was terrified the bleeding would start again.   She had been frightened when Richard had started on her again last night..   She had soon found out the sort of man she had married years ago.  Selfish, demanding, cruel, vicious.   And very, very clever.   The bruises never showed.   And despite the childish rhyme, his words were calculated to mangle her self-esteem.

She managed to slip away to the cloakroom, and leant her head against the tiled walls.   She shut her eyes tight.   Whatever happened, she mustn’t cry.   No-one must know.   But she felt really ill after last night.   It wasn’t Richard’s fault.   He had been very stressed over this new post.   A lot of younger men were snapping at his heels as he climbed the corporate ladder.

She opened her eyes to find Beth looking at her.

“Are you all right, my dear?   Can I  do anything to help?”   Beth’s kind Yorkshire voice nearly made Gayle cry, but she blinked quickly, and took out her lipstick.

“Yes, I’m fine, just a bit tired,” she said, and winced as the swelling in her mouth jarred against her teeth.    She saw Beth looking at her, and knew she had guessed how much she hurt.

“I must get back”, she said, “Richard will be wondering where I am.”   She knew only too well what Richard would say and do if she spent too long away from the noise and social chatter she hated so much,.

She wished she could just walk out, and go.   But where?   And how?   She had stayed all these years for the sake of the children, but they had gone now.   Out of a sense of duty?   But to whom?   She despised herself for being so weak.   Maybe Richard was right about her.   Maybe if she tried harder things would go better.

She took a deep breath, and started back to the Conference Room.

Beth looked anxiously after her.   She saw a lot of domestic violence in her work, but feared Gayle would remain just another statistic.

© Gillian Peall

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