Bruises bloomed from beneath the thin cotton of Helena’s loosely hanging shirt; purple and green and blue had melted together like bleeding watercolour paints on warped paper. Her skin was thin and pale, which made the bruises even more prominent. She looked as though she was patched together from pieces of white and purple fabric, stitches pulled apart by whatever had caused her so much pain.
I didn’t ask her how she got them. I couldn’t, could I? It wasn’t my business, it was hers.
“So,” Helena winced as she set down her delicately decorated cup of tea. Another splash of mauve peeked out when her arm was stretched. “How are you enjoying teaching?”
“It’s going well,” I nodded and took a sip. The tea burned my tongue. I hoped that it’d burn the questions sitting stagnant in my mouth, too. “It’s different to what they teach you in training. They can’t really prepare you for the difficult kids who don’t behave.”
I dropped a sugar cube in my tea and watched the liquid ripple before I stirred it gently. The fact that I wanted to ask Helena about the bruises was irritating me, but the questions were in the corner of my mind, just out of reach. I watched her brush a stray bit of black hair away from her tired and sunken face, and felt my stomach sink. I couldn’t let my friend be in so much pain and not say something.
“I heard from a friend of mine that teaching is quite exhausting,” she continued.
“Yeah, it can be. Plus, the marking and planning I have to do in my own time can get really tedious,” I replied, searching for a way to change the subject. “How’s Michael been recently?”
Helena bristled and shrunk back into herself. That’s when I knew. After a few moments, she was back to normal, smiling as if nothing had happened.
“Michael is quite busy with work at the moment. You know what it’s like to work so many hours a week, he’s always so tired when he gets home,” Helena’s voice was no longer clear, it had become hoarse and rattled. “He just relaxes with a few drinks whilst I get the kids ready for bed, that way we get to spend more time together…”
Helena wasn’t looking at me. In fact, I don’t think she was looking at anything. Her eyes were glazed over with the ghosts of tears and I watched as she ran her left hand over her right forearm, where a thick scar had been ever since I’d known her. I reached over and put my hand on hers. The skin beneath my fingers was ice cold. Her wide eyes met mine, and I tried to convey everything I wanted to say to her in that one moment of contact before she pulled away. She sat up straight and cleared her throat.
“Helena,” I started, my voice soft. “Helena, are you okay?”
“Of course I am!”
“Are you sure?”
She opened her mouth to reply when we heard the door slam so hard the whole house shook. I turned to the hallway and a large, heavily-set man with rough hands and an intimidating glare stood there, staring at Helena. Michael was home early. In an instant, Helena was on her feet and kissing him on the cheek, appearing more in love than any woman I’d ever seen.
“Hello darling,” she greeted him in a singsong voice. Her smile was sickly, and his grin was menacing. It was like watching a lamb skipping wilfully to slaughter. “Shall I make you a cup of tea?”
Michael grunted and nodded. So, Helena darted off into the kitchen, leaving me alone with him. I felt myself shudder as he looked me up and down with that same grin plastered on his face.
“What’re you doin’ here?” he asked as he walked dirt into the living room. Michael slumped on the sofa opposite me. It creaked beneath him. “Helena don’t really have many friends.”
“We went to school together… I just wanted to know how she and the kids are getting on after the big move a few months ago,” I replied, ignoring the urge to correct his grammar. His clothes were dirty and in tatters, at odds with the perfection that Helena had obviously strived to achieve in every room.
“Well, you can see she’s doin’ fine. You can leave now.”
I had just mustered up the courage to reply to him when Helena came in with a large mug of steaming tea, three biscuits and what looked like a scrap of tissue pressed to her palm. I looked at her questioningly and she dismissed me with a slight shake of her head.
“I’m such a silly sausage, I spilled hot water on my hand!” she exclaimed. Helena was smiling but her eyes were full of fear. The change in her behaviour since Michael had returned worried me. She took a deep breath and looked in my direction. “Come now, I’ve got to go and pick up the children from my mother’s any minute now, and surely you need to get home too?”
I was ushered to the front door by a frantic Helena, who shoved my coat and bag into my arms as I protested. I kept getting glimpses of her bruises whenever she waved her arms at me. The thought of leaving her there with her monster of a husband made bile rise in my throat. I knew there was nothing I could do.
Just before she closed the door, I turned to my poor, bruised and battered friend. Seeing Helena hurt so badly left my insides crawling. Despite the glee Helena had when she was with Michael, the brutal bruises and her sunken face proved that any smiles she had were fake. But, for her sake, I swallowed all of my worries and smiled at her one last time.
“Call me if you ever want to talk, okay?”
Those were the last words I ever said to Helena.