So, Domestic Abuse Awareness Weeks has been and gone and I didn't really write anything for my patch.
I say this as every year I try to do something to highlight the issue. But as I (repeatedly) say to my contacts in this field, particularly the Plymouth Domestic Abuse Service, "domestic abuse isn't just for domestic abuse awareness week".
No-one seems to get my joke, mainly because I say it through clenched teeth. In my old patch of Basildon, I'd be down at the Women's Refuge, chatting with the manager, staff and current guests about how they are, what they need, what they're planning, who they're teaching about DV and how it needs to be countered, which court cases I need to know about and which bigot in the council is trying to give them a hard time.
Here? I'm person non grata, being a) a man and b) a bloody journalist. A combination which assures the view that I'm not to be trusted. So I don't write as many stories about DV as I'd like.
The irony for me being the Basildon Women's Aid group had me tagged from the first second. The manager there and outreach workers (most of whom were 'survivors' themselves) sussed my background before I'd opened my big gob.
I still recall hearing my mum's screams. I recall her black eyes, split lip, her fear as the door went and Dad'd come home in one of "those moods" which meant we should all run for cover unless we wanted a piece.
I can't find any pleasure in playing with Matchbox toys because the metre long track, usually orange, but occasionally the more stiff and unyielding yellow tracks, were not something of fun for me and my brothers. Kept on a little ledge above the fridge, we'd know that if Dad headed towards it, we'd be nursing welts for the rest of the night. I remember almost proudly being able to breathe through an ear after receiving a clout around the ear. I say clout, but that's rather a quaint old fashioned description. I was playing cricket with a tennis ball with my friend in our garden. The ball hit our back outhouse. Nothing broke, but I was hit around the ear so hard I couldn't hear the rest of the day and found if I held my nose I could push air out my ear. Strange really.
I had a regular nightmare (at least once a week for several years) of a steaming monster racing up the stairs if I dared venture out of the bedroom to go to the toilet. Only years later I clicked it was about my Dad who, if you heard him stomping up the stairs because me and my younger brother made a noise at night we'd cop a walloping. I remember lying in bed one night, listening to him getting hit and hit and hit, screaming "no, no, no" thinking to myself "if I call out, tell him to stop, I'll get it too" and hating myself for being a coward.
I got the same feeling of cowardice when I'd hear my mum, in the next room at night, making the same pointless appeal. She'd cry out, begging him to stop. I'd lie there, feeling sick, wondering how breakfast time would be, and whether school would be a kind of freedom.
Like I said, it's hearing your mum's screams which I'll recall for a long while yet.
This went on for years. I didn't even know it was wrong for a lot of it. I do recall sitting on my bed, in the room I shared with my younger brother. I was about 10, sitting there sobbing after being hit several times. Mum, who'd tried to protect me before I ran, came in and was sitting next to me, also in tears. She'd been hit after she'd stood between me and Dad. She sat, I sat, both crying. I eventually asked her in all sincerity "why can't we just leave him". She hugged me closer and after a long pause said: "where can we go? There's nowhere we can go... I'm sorry".
Here's the thing. I know full well it's all relative and I got off very very light. Since becoming a reporter I've made it a kind of point to do stories on domestic violence, or to give it it's current name, domestic abuse. I've heard far, far worse straight from the horses mouth as it were, cases in court, or from officers who've attended scenes. Some will make your jaw drop and shake your head. Like the one where the wife is kicked on the ground for daring to answer back, and then the guy got his seven-year-old son to keep kicking mum, so he learned that "that's what you do to a woman who answers you back".
One or two have made me well up, particularly when it's kids because I think back to the fear you feel, all the bloody time. The dread you feel on your way home from school, dawdling so you don't get home early, hoping he'll come home in a good mood or there will be Morecombe and Wise or Les Dawson on telly so he'll laugh in his chair, and we can watch and laugh and we can sit and act like a normal family for half an hour.
I had one of those moments today. I've heard this woman's story from a couple of other people in Plymouth. It was only a few seconds of conversation. I don't know her name. I was with Kerry Whincup, the co-ordinator for the Plymouth SEEDS (Survivors Empowering and Educating Domestic Abuse Services) for a meeting. Round table, different ages of women, different styles of hair, different outfits, different stories.
She'd come back in after a ciggie and a wee.
She'd left an 11 year relationship on New Years Day. She'd suffered lots of beatings. "After 11 years you leave with what you stand up in". She has two children. To get at her, to make her suffer, he took a pair of pliers to the children's teeth.
He's dead now, and - I am not surprised - she is pretty happy about that.
"You get so used to the daily beatings and everything which goes with it. I didn't even know what a Refuge was..."
I've thought for a while about writing this. About some of my past, why I want to write stories about domestic abuse, why I keep banging my head against some organisations to ensure the message gets out not just one week a year, but as many times as possible.
Meeting her today made my mind up. So bloody brave... and now joined with other victims (okay, survivors for the PC brigade) to help other women, to educate the authorities, the police, the magistrates, the judges, the lawyers, the councillors, the public about why it's so damned important that this - domestic abuse, domestic violence, 'another bloody domestic' as jaded cops sometimes say - should be dealt with, taken seriously, acted upon, spoken about out loud.
I f***ing ask you! Pliers!
And you know the worst thing?
That's not even the worst story I've heard so far, after 13 years as a reporter. Not by a mile. But it still makes me go very, very cold inside.
And also reminds me to call my mum and tell her that I love her because she took a lot of punches for me. So bloody brave...