PREFACE

I dislike when authors preface their story. It feels a little self-inflated. This effort is unfortunately a little necessary. This story contains references to domestic violence and may trigger those who are now or have been victims of it. You've been warned.

Originally, I set out to write a romance for the Winter Holidays competition. As I sat and pondered a plot, memories of my own childhood Christmases returned and with them, the taint of domestic violence that always permeated our large family gatherings. Mothers who tried to mitigate cranky tired husbands. Husbands who drank and repeated patterns that their own fathers (who were also present) taught them over their lives. Generations of people stuck in a perpetual cycle.

It was only as a young man that I recognised the cycle in my own life and sought counselling to try and break it. Just writing this has been terribly triggering for myself.

This ended up having nothing to do with Christmas.

It has a lot to do with love, bravery and the rocky road to redemption. It has a lot to do with hope.

I was going to publish in Romance, and while they are a gentle crowd, I believe it better belongs here as it follows the story of a loving wife as she tries to find her way through a maelstrom of violence. Comments and votes are turned on. Please hate on the cycle of violence that destroys so many families, and not too much on my less than expert writing.

And please, for the love of God, be kind and rejoice in your families through this season.

If you, like me live in Qld, Australia help is available here Domestic Violence Helpline. Call 1800 811 811 for help escaping violence (dvconnect.org) for both victims and perpetrators.

There are many services available, use them. Break the cycle. BDVFREE.

................

Some definitions. English is the language of sailors who were trying to negotiate with whores, and not at all universal. Here are some Australianisms, I've used. There may be more. Google is your friend.

Gingernut. -- A popular ginger flavoured biscuit. In Oz, a biscuit is a what we call your cookie.

Deadset. -- Total. Complete. As in, 'he's a deadset arsehole'.

Gash. -- A vulgar term for vagina. Also used as a word for a female. 'Check that gash out.'

Torch. -- A flashlight. Not a flaming stick.

Flogging.- A beating. Nothing to do with whips unless actually stated.

Quik.- A brand of powdered sugary milk flavouring produced by Nestle. I'm aware of chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and oh the horror, banana flavours.

Cattle ticks.- Roman Catholics as opposed to protestants. Also, a sucking parasite that affects cattle.

RSL.- Retired Servicemen's League. A veteran's club. Sometimes called 'the Rissole'. It's basically a hotel with a dining room and lots of poker machines. A membership is required, and you get some discounts.

Cracking the shits.- Not diarrhoea. To 'crack the shits' is to lose one's temper.

Spoon.- A stupid person. Analogous to those who use spoons to melt injectable drugs.

SERT.- Special Emergency Response Team. Queensland's version of SWAT.

Pub Parmy. -- An Australian icon of classic bar food. Basically, it's chicken schnitzel with a shit-tonne of cheese and a bit of Italian style tomato sauce. Generally served with chips (fries) and a salad.

AULRO and REMLR.- Internet forums specifically relating to Landrovers in Australia.

BDVFREE

~~~*~~~

"I'm six."

Her voice startled me. I had dozed off in my hammock. It threatened to tip me unceremoniously onto the grass below for several wobbly seconds. When I settled it, I'd spilled my beer on my shirt and dropped my phone.

"Here." A small person with long blonde hair and big blue eyes held it out to me.

"I'm six."

"Thank you, Six." I grinned at her and took my phone.

"Silly. My name is Squirt. I'm six years old."

"Oh. Hi Squirt. I'm Blue."

"No, you're not. You're kind of pink. Smurfs are blue." The suspicious look she fixed me with displayed serious concern for my mental well-being. "Anyway, you'd look stupid blue."

"No, my name is Gordon, but my friends call me Blue because of my hair."

"That's even more dumb. Your hair is red. Your friends are stupid."

I nod. "Some of them. Probably."

"What should I call you?"

"Well, Squirt... You decide. You can call me Gordon or Blue or Mr Shackleton. Whatever you like."

"I like Blue. It's my second favourite colour. I'll call you Blue. My other names are Penelope and Hiles."

"Well Penelope Hiles, what would you prefer I call you. You 'are' six and pretty tall for a 'Squirt'."

"I know but that's what Dad calls me. Mum calls me Penny. You can too if you like, Blue."

"Okay, Penny it is." I set my beer down and wonder what she's doing in my back yard. Her pretty young face is screwed up in a very serious look as she watches me.

"Dad is yelling. I ran away from home. It's only just there." She points at the low fence that divides my yard from my neighbours. "I climbed it. It was easy. Are you a stranger?"

"I can hear them. Until your Mum or Dad say otherwise, I'm still a stranger though, Penny." I nod at her.

"Humph." She stomped her foot and folded her arms across her chest. "I wanted to talk to you until they stopped."

"Okay. That's a problem isn't it? Because you just can't talk to strangers, can you."

"Uh uh." She shakes her head and a sad grimace sets on her little face. There are tears forming in the corners of her eyes. "I don't want to go back yet. Please don't make me go back, Blue."

"Okay. So..." Good lord, what does a bloke do? "Well let's see. The thing about strangers is you can't trust some of them. My mum used to say, 'If it feels creepy, it probably is creepy. If it feels safe, it probably is safe.' How do you feel about me, Penny?"

"You're okay." She shrugs. "I like your beard and you have kind eyes. You don't yell and your voice is nice."

"Alright then. If any of that changes and you don't feel safe, I want you to run as fast as you can and get back over your fence, okay?"

She nods fervently and a smile begins to form on her downcast face. "So, I can stay a little while?"

"Sure. Can I get you a drink or anything, Penny?"

"I like milk. And gingernuts. They're my favourite, but it's okay if you don't have any kid food. Can I try your swing?"

"Sure. I'll be right back."

My neighbours only moved in last week. He came over and introduced himself the following day. He was a quiet sort of friendly bloke, not the sort you'd pick for a wife basher. As I scrabble through my empty pantry for something edible, I wonder what a wife basher looks like. I always pictured them as heavy-set drunks with mean faces and bad teeth. A packet of muesli bars is all I can find, so I plonk some ice cubes in a glass and fill it with milk.

She's giggling on the hammock and swinging it back and forth with her legs.

"Here you go. Best hop down or you'll spill the milk. These are the only snacks I've got."

She jumps down more nimbly than I've ever got out of the hammock and takes the milk and looks quizzically at it.

"I've never had ice in my milk." Taking a sip, she watches me seriously and pronounces, "I like it! Wow! Are they choc chip?"

"Think so." I hand her the box of snacks.

She bundles herself down on the grass cross-legged and rests her milk beside her to open a muesli bar and chomp hungrily at it. Seeing some sort of etiquette set, I follow suit and open the fresh beer I've brought out for myself.

I'm sitting there watching her eat like it's a feast fit for royalty and listening to the urban symphony of cars and mowers and birds when I hear a door slam, then a car squeals its tyres and roar off down our little cul-de-sac.

"He's not my real Dad." She tells me with her mouth full. "I just have to call him that or he gets angry. He always does that spinny thing when he's angry. Mum says he shouldn't drive when he's angry. But he always does. I hope he doesn't come back tonight."

When she finishes the snack bar and washes it down with the last of the milk, she stands and wipes her hands on her little dress and kisses me on the cheek.

"I better go home now, Blue. Mum will worry about me. You're a good stranger."

"Thanks Penny. See you around."

I watch as she smartly climbs over the fence and disappears.

~*~

"Afternoon Blue."

"Gidday Frank. What can I do you for this arvy?"

"Got any of these?" He hands me a bayonet style 20-amp bulb.

"Trouble with the old girl?"

"Short in the taillights. She keeps blowing a bulb. The brake lights are fine, just the bloody left-hand rear."

I shrug. He's been driving that old Holden ute with a taillight out for as long as I've lived out here.

"It's only going to blow again." I tell him.

"I know. The new copper is a deadset cunt though. Defected me and fined me for an open beer I had between my legs. I wasn't anywhere near over. Just on my way home from the mill. He even made me tip the can of beer out after he wrote me up. I have to take the ute up to the cop shop and show him it's working."

"Shit hey?"

"Yup. It'll be blown again by the time I get home, but whatever."

"Here take a few. If he pulls you up again, tell him it's only just blown and change it on the spot. That'll be ten bucks neat, Frank."

He doesn't reply and stares straight past me towards the doors that slide open, like he's seen a ghost or something. He tips his hat in that direction, drops a tenner on the counter and takes off quick smart. Looking up I see a woman silhouetted against the bright outside. She wears a cotton dress and the sun outlines her lewdly. Turning away quickly, the image stays with me like retinal burn.

I watch her browse the aisle containing oils. She examines different top up bottles and can't seem to make up her mind so I decide to see if I can help.

"Can I help?" I smile and try not to creep her out with my inspection. She's slight. Slender, but curvy and has far too much make-up on for a little country town auto store.

Her face is demure and her eyes veiled as she answers, "My husband needs some oil for his car."

"What sort of car does he have?"

"Um... It's a Commodore. It's red."

While not as helpful as I'd hoped for, I'm pretty certain any of the oils she's examined would do for a top up. "He just needs to top it up?"

"No, he said he wanted to change the oil and filter."

"Okay." I nod. "We're going to need a little more information. Can you contact him and get the year and model for me?"

"Oh. He's at work..." She looks bothered but nods. "Give me a moment." A short time later, she approaches the counter and holds out her phone to me. "He wants to talk to you."

"Gordon Shackleton, how're you goin?"

"Hey Gordon. Roger from next door. I met you the other day."

"Oh yeah... Hi. I need... year and six or eight?"

"V-eight SS. Two thousand ten. I wrote it down for her, but you know what women are like, right? You'd cross the road and throw rocks at them if they didn't have a gash."

"Sure. Sure. No worries. I'll fix her up." My estimation of him falls quickly with his misogynist joke.

"Put her back on, champ?"

I hand her the phone and my face wrinkles with the parting, "Champ." He 'champed' me? Seriously? Selecting a five-litre container of Penrite 10w-50 in semi-synth and a filter to suit his car, I wander back to the counter to find the mousey little woman smiling strangely at me.

"Here you go. Won't be a moment. Will just ring this up."

"Thanks Blue." She smiles. It's unfairly disarming. Her face lights up in a way that makes me want to write music and her eyes twinkle with friendly joy. And she knew my nickname. My confusion must show on my face.

"Roger told me he introduced himself the other day. I'm your new neighbour." She holds out her hand, "Constance. Connie."

"Well, nice to meet you Connie." It's weird because when I introduced myself to the neighbour guy, I told him my name was Gordon.

"Penny ratted you out." She laughs a little, "Your nickname. Thanks so much for that."

The smile fell off her face like ice-cream sliding off a kid's cone. Embarrassment and shame fleet across her pretty face then she nervously offers a kind of explanation.

"Roger's job is pretty stressful. He gets... He... We argue sometimes and little Penny doesn't understand. I'm sorry if she bothered you."

"Not at all. She's a cool kid. Very grown up."

"Yes, well... Next stop for me is the supermarket to get ice. Someone's decided she needs ice in her milk."

"Oh..." I feel like I've fucked things up a bit for her somehow.

"It's alright, Blue." She smiles and reaches out to touch my arm. Electricity jolts right through me at the touch and when her deep blue eyes find mine, I feel drugged. "I was teasing. She thinks you're fantastic. I think she has a little crush on you."

Her own face reddens at that comment. "Anyway, thank you for looking out for her. It doesn't happen often. I'm glad she felt safe. Don't let her get annoying. I've told her she's allowed to talk to you, but not to bother you."

She smiles all through the sale. It's weird but it kind of makes me feel like I'm a bright moment in her day. It's sad too. If an unmarried at thirty-five, red headed sales assistant is a bright spark in your day, then you live in a dark valley.

~*~

It's closing time on Friday night. I've eaten my Pub Parmy and washed it down with ten beers while bickering playfully with Sally. Sally is the barmaid. The pub is busy, and the young fellas give her a bloody hard time, so she enjoys hiding at the end of the bar with me whenever she has a chance. She's from Germany and has a six-month contract at the pub. That will set her up for another six months travel. She also has the finest pair of breasts I've ever motorboated.

A couple of months ago she confessed that she was as horny as fuck but didn't want the drama of hooking up with one of the young bucks.

"They tell all their friends, ja? And then I'm slut. Slut all boys try and fuck."

"I'm sure a pretty kid like yourself could find a nice fella."

"Ja. I find nice boy and he want stay mit me. He attached and want to own me. Not work. Not work when ich travel, no? Big mess. Better Sally wichsen. Er... Wank."

I laughed at that. Sally is so very blunt. Later that night when she asked me, "Blue. You think Sally pretty?" I couldn't help but nod. "You want fuck me? I need fuck. No boyfriend even. Just fuck. Please?"

Personally, I've always been a community spirited man and I couldn't see the lovely young lady stuck in a hard spot. It was a terrible sacrifice. A few times that first night and a few times since. I'm kind of hoping to make a sacrifice this evening as well.

I watch as she hustles the hanger-on's out and I rise to follow them.

"Hey. Blue is sit down. Blue ist hast eine lager and wait. Sally take him home and fuck him. Nein air-con upstairs. Blue hast air-con and big willy. Make Sally happy. Yes?"

"Ja. Das ist gut!" She's been trying to teach me a little German and she finds my attempts laughable but cute, she tells me.

At home, I crank up the air-conditioning and find something on Netflix to mostly ignore. Usually, Sally likes to shower, steal one of my t-shirts and chill on the couch until she's washed her day away with a couple of drinks.

Tonight, she surprises me by returning in just her knickers. I'm startled out of my earnest inspection by the sound of a door slamming really loudly or something next door. Sally hears it too and looks in that direction then smiles back at me.

"What? Ist good for gander. You wear only pants. I wear only pants. Blue does not like looking at breasts, no?"

"Blue loves looking at breasts! Especially yours, Sally. Du hast wunderbar bruste." It's true. If you were to picture the first image that comes to mind when I say, 'Octoberfest babe', that's Sally. Buxom, blonde and deliciously curvy. I pat the couch beside me, and she presses her shower fresh skin against me in a brief hug before opening a can of Rum and Coke.

"What are we watch-" She's interrupted by insistent knocking at the back door.

As I make my way through the kitchen, Sally ducks off, probably to find a shirt more is the pity.

"Blue. Please be awake. Blue. Please..." A child's voice greets me and when I open the door, Penny rushes in and hugs me tightly around the leg. "Mummies hurt. There's blood everywhere and she won't wake up."

Picking up the crying child, I tell Sally to call the cops. "Settle honey. Shh, Penny. Tell me what happened. Where is Mum? Where is Dad?"

"Mummy is in the lounge room on the floor. There's lots of blood." She sobs into my neck.

"Where is Dad?"

"Gone. He just drove off. I was hiding and I heard him get his keys. I think he shot her. I heard a bang. He didn't do the spinny thing."

"Ok honey. Here's what we're going to do. You stay here with my good friend Sally. She's not a stranger and she gives good cuddles. I'm going to go and check on Mummy."

"They're on their way. And an ambulance." Sally tells me as I hand her the frightened little girl.

"Make her some milk and grab her something to eat."

"Can I have ice?"

"In her milk." I tell Sally and grab my torch. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

Hurdling the fence, I find the back door open and look around the unfamiliar house for light switches. In the kitchen I see shattered dishes on the floor and food sprayed up the fridge. Chairs lie on their sides and one is broken. Stepping over them and avoiding the broken china, I think to call out for her, but in my panic, I can't remember her name.

"Constance!" That's it. I've spoken to her a dozen times over the last few months. She keeps me well supplied with leftover meals and we chat often at the fence. "Connie?"

Groans answer me from the darkened lounge room and my torch picks her out curled up on her side. A three-inch-long gash in the centre of her forehead gapes and blood has pooled around her head. Her hair is matted to her face with it and my fingers on her throat can't find a pulse. Panic rises in my chest, but I remind myself I've always been shit at finding pulses.

Remembering all those compulsory first aid courses, I DRABC the moment. Danger? Well unless old mate returns, we're pretty safe. Response? I shake her and she groans. Groaning is good. Despite not finding a pulse, if she can make any sort of noise, she's probably alive.

Airway? The position she's in is almost classic recovery position anyway, so I gently tilt her head and open her jaw to check inside her mouth. The earlier groans tell me she's breathing and that'll do for my triage. I can hear sirens approaching, so satisfied she's alive and help is on the way, I look about for a light switch.

When I found it, the horror struck me hard. There were blood spatters all up a wall near the switch and the injury to Constance's head was not the only one. An extendable baton like those that security guards have, lay on the floor near her and dark purple bruises on her thigh and upper arm told me he'd hit her more than once. Her hands and forearms carried defensive injuries and rage boiled inside me.

What kind of monster can do something like this to someone he is supposed to love?

"Freeze. Police. Hands on your head. Face the wall." I comply quickly.

"Jesus, Jerry. Make sure that bus is on its way. Are you the neighbour? The one who called?"

"No that was Sally. I'm Gordon-"

"Shackleton." His partner completes for me as he looks at my licence from my wallet.

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