Less than a month ago, I could never have imagined myself sleeping under a bush during a global health emergency.
It sounds conceited now, but homelessness was something that happened to other people – not me. However, after a drunken row with my emotionally abusive husband during the coronavirus lockdown, this impossible scenario became my reality.
I first met Neil* at my university freshers’ fair. He was (and still is) the only boy I’d ever kissed. The first time we slept together, he told me sex would allow us to surrender to one another. At 18, I thought this was passionate and romantic, but the memory now feels like an early example of the ways in which he would manipulate me for the next 17 years.
He proposed the night of my graduation and our married life soon settled into a volatile mix of control and mutual unhappiness, punctuated by the occasional session of missionary sex.
Although I earn more than he does, he regularly checks my bank statements and mutters snide comments if I go to a business meeting with a male colleague.
He even confiscated my wallet and house keys after I came home late one night a couple of years ago, which left me trapped inside all weekend.
At some point, I must have convinced myself a bad relationship is better than no relationship
I know I should be angry with Neil for the way my life has turned out, but all I feel is empty and exhausted. I keep trying to remember the exact moment I stopped loving him, but my affection dwindled so slowly it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific incident. All my rage is instead directed towards myself for not having the courage to end a miserable marriage. Somehow, I must have convinced myself a bad relationship is better than no relationship.
If I’m grateful to Neil for one thing, it’s his self-centered insistence we never had any children. However bad things were between us, I knew he’d never hit me. If Neil is one thing, he’s a coward and would never risk anything that could be proved in court. Things came to a head a few days into lockdown.
We’d cracked open a bottle of vodka and were soon rehashing the same argument we’ve been having for years: he insists I use money to emasculate him and I refuse apologise for my success. Just after midnight, Neil picked up my handbag and threw it at me before marching me out the house into the pouring rain. I didn’t have a chance to find my phone charger or pick up an umbrella. Although terrified by the prospect of having nowhere to go, I refused to give him the satisfaction of begging for permission to stay in the home I’d paid for.
It was also the moment I finally admitted to myself that my marriage was beyond repair. Under the coronavirus rules, all the usual avenues for finding a bed hit a stumbling block. I had my wallet, but couldn’t stay in a hotel because the government had ordered them all to close. With my phone out of charge, I couldn’t call my family and, besides, they’d never liked Neil. Despite my circumstances, I still wasn’t ready to admit they were right.
I desperately needed the loo so squatted in the park undergrowth, which was the lowest moment of my life
I’d heard reports of empty hotels offering rooms to rough sleepers but, without internet access, couldn’t check if this scheme was up and running or if I’d even qualify. I roamed the city centre terrified the police would stop me to ask if I had a reasonable excuse for being outside. Where would I begin?
As the rain got worse, I bedded down under a bush in the local park. By this point, I desperately needed the loo so squatted in the undergrowth. This was the lowest moment of my life. Drifting in and out of sleep and cursing my awful marriage, I kept fixating on a previously forgotten encounter with a homeless girl outside Sainsbury’s about 10 years ago. She approached me to ask for money.
I murmured that I didn’t have any cash. She followed me to the bus stop, screaming: ‘Don’t look at me like your s**t don’t stink.’ If only that girl could have seen me. The next morning, I was startled awake at 5am by council workers in fluorescent jackets walking by the park entrance.
After a night in the mud, I desperately wanted to get clean. My muscles ached but, emotionally, I felt numb. Perhaps I was too exhausted physically and mentally to allow myself to dwell on the night’s events. I knew Neil would have sobered up by this point so I skulked home along streets deserted in lockdown. When I arrived, he’d hoovered the house and taken a piece of lamb out the freezer. He knew he’d gone too far.
He didn’t ask where I’d spent the night and I didn’t volunteer any details. In fact, we made no reference at all to our argument and even had sex that night, perhaps to keep up the pretence nothing had happened between us. I looked at the clock the entire time and silently thanked God Neil rarely lasted more than three minutes. Things have been tense between us since, but perhaps no more so than for thousands of other couples in self-isolation. Whatever he says, I know Neil doesn’t love me and I suspect he’s having an affair.
A few months ago, I’d woken up one night at three am to the sound of Neil giggling flirtatiously in the bathroom, clearly on his mobile. When I confronted him the next morning, he looked panicked then tried to convince me I must have been dreaming. I know I wasn’t. He must miss his mistress (whoever she is) during lockdown, I suppose. Not that I care any more.
Like everyone else, I’ve been glued to the daily news briefings. When Home Secretary Priti Patel announced £2million in funding for domestic abuse victims during the pandemic, it seemed like a drop in the ocean. Even Robert Jenrick’s pledge that the government will prioritise domestic violence victims getting housing feels fruitless. How would either have helped me as I was frogmarched into the street?
While most of the UK is focusing on our lockdown exit strategy, I’m preparing my own. I’m siphoning money into a secret bank account, looking for a new job in a different city and hiding a bag of essentials in an airing cupboard. All so I’ll be prepared if anything like this happens again – and so I can leave Neil for good as soon as lockdown is over.