We hope you enjoy this extract from Rachel Hore’s Last Letter Home.
They call it a storm and after days of it she felt storm-tossed, clinging to the wreckage of her life, each new attack dashing against her with a force that left her bruised and gasping. She might have borne it if it had simply been words, painful, devastating words though they were, words that cruelly shredded her self-worth, her professional reputation, her trust in her own judgement, her identity as a woman, but it was more than that; her sense of safety was threatened.
It had been her first time in a television studio, Jolyon Gunn’s late night chat show, and she’d been invited on at the last minute because one of his guests had been taken ill. Probably with fear. Narcissistic Jolyon was not known for his charm, though this seemed only to boost the ratings.
‘And we welcome historian Briony Wood, who is writing a book about World War Two, is that correct, love?’
‘Yes, it’s to be called Women Who Marched Away. It’s about the ATS, the women’s infantry service during—’
‘Sounds smashing,’ he cut in. Jolyon did not have a long attention span. ‘Briony’s here to talk about the news that lady soldiers will now be fighting on the front line. Briony, I know this will be contentious but, really, war is a job for the lads, isn’t it?’
‘Not at all. There are plenty of examples of fighting women going right back to the Amazons. Or think of Boudicca or Joan of Arc.’ Briony tried not to sound strident, but the sight of so many men in the audience, some of whom had nodded in agreement at Jolyon’s words, meant she had to speak with confidence.
Dazzled by the studio lights, she blinked at her host, who lounged lord-like in his leather director’s chair with his short legs spread, suave in a designer suit, his fat Rolex watch glinting. He smirked back at her and rubbed his neat black beard.
‘Surely they’re exceptions, though, Briony, and we remember what those Amazon ladies had to do to use their bows, don’t we?’ He made a slashing gesture to his chest and winked and there were shouts of male laughter. ‘You see it’s not natural, women fighting, they’re not shaped for anything apart from pulling out each other’s hair.’
More bayings of amusement.
Briony drew herself up and glared at him. ‘That simply demonstrates their determination. Anyway, just because something is “natural” doesn’t make it right. Warfare itself is natural, after all. But, Jolyon, surely our discussion should be about psychology and the social conditioning around gender . . .’
The word gender made Jolyon straighten and his eyes filled with a mad light. Briony realized she’d walked right into a trap. This was a populist show and outspoken Jolyon had a huge following among a certain sort of male, but it was too late to retract her words, she’d look weak and stupid. She was suddenly acutely aware of how schoolmarmish she must appear, her light brown hair tied in a knot at her nape, her charcoal-coloured sheath dress smart and understated rather than fashionable, even with the soft blue scarf coiled about her shoulders.
‘The girls aren’t tough enough, Briony. They’ll cry, and fuss about their lipstick.’ The audience howled with laughter at this, though there were one or two hisses of disapproval as well.
‘I’d like to see you on a battlefield,’ she snapped. ‘You’d not hack it for a second compared to some of the brave women I interviewed for my book.’
There were shouts from the floor and several men rose to their feet. One shook his fist at Briony. Jolyon himself stared at her with a pasted-on grin, for a moment lost for words. Only for a moment, though.
‘Thank you, Briony Wood,’ he pronounced with mock surprise. ‘I think she’s just called me a coward, guys! Isn’t that smashing?’
Escaping into the rainy night, Briony switched on her phone to be greeted by a tattoo of alerts as the messages flew in. She opened her Twitter app with trepidation. As she read the first notifications, her eyes widened with horror.
You ugly cow cum the war you’ll be first against the wall.
Our Jolyon’s tuffer than any wimmin.
The third was merely a string of obscenities that brought her hand to her mouth.
The phone then rang. A name she recognized. She swiped at the screen.
‘Aruna?’ She glanced about the lonely South London backstreet and began to walk briskly towards the main road.
‘Don’t look at any messages. Especially not Twitter.’ Briony heard the panic in her friend’s voice.
Too late. ‘Oh, Aruna. Why did I say it? How can I have been so stupid?’
‘It’s not your fault, he was awful, the pits. I’m sorry I ever gave his people your name. Listen, where are you?’
‘Clapham. I’ve just left the studio.’ Briony turned onto the high street and startled at a trio of youths in leather jackets who swaggered, laughing, out of a brightly lit pub. They brushed past, not even seeing her. ‘What did you say?’
‘Don’t faff about with public transport. Get a cab.’ Aruna sounded urgent. ‘Go straight home, then ring to tell me you’re safe.’
Men from Jolyon’s audience were beginning to emerge from the studio front door. They hadn’t spotted her yet, but their coarse gestures and rough laughter frightened her. Briony pulled her scarf up over her hair and began to hurry.
Aruna came to her flat in Kennington that night, and Briony was glad because the next morning the abusive messages were still pouring in. At first, despite Aruna’s protests, she read them, answered the more reasonable or supportive ones, deleted others, sobbed with rage, but on they came. Finally, Aruna made her suspend her Twitter and Facebook accounts and told her to avoid the internet altogether. She did read a blog piece Aruna found, from a female politician who’d suffered similar attacks. ‘Eventually the cyber trolls will tire and retreat to their lairs,’ the woman concluded. The advice was to ‘stay strong’.
‘It’s all very well to say,’ Briony sighed. She wished her father and stepmother weren’t on holiday. She could have done with a bolthole.
The ‘staying strong’ strategy might have worked had not the furore been stoked by Jolyon Gunn himself. When she sneaked back online that evening it was to find some stinging comments about her ‘prudish’ appearance being the reason she was still single in her late thirties. His fans, thinking this hilarious, all joined in.
‘Prudish? When have I ever been prudish?’ Briony gasped. Never mind Aruna’s reassurances, this was unfair.
It had been a quiet Easter for news and the second morning after the ill-starred chat show she emerged, a bag of student essays in hand, to hear a man bellow, ‘Briony! Over here!’ She turned and was blinded by a camera flash. ‘Give us a quote about Jolyon, love,’ he said, with a cheerful grin. Panicking, she fumbled her way back indoors and watched him drive off. She’d leave going in to college till tomorrow.
Later that day Aruna rang to warn that someone had posted her home address on Twitter. They knew where she lived now, the trolls. On the third morning, an anonymous postcard with a picture of a clenched fist on it arrived in the post. She was now too frightened to go out and made Aruna, who’d popped by with some shopping, tell a group of teenagers loitering on the pavement to clear off. Aruna’s dark bobbed hair flew in the wind as the youngsters stared back in innocent puzzlement at her earnest, pointed face. Briony realized with embarrassment that she was being paranoid. After Aruna had gone, an avuncular policeman showed up and settled his bulk on Briony’s sofa, where he sipped tea and recited comforting platitudes about the online threats.
She rang Gordon Platt, her department head, for advice, but he sounded flustered, muttered about the college’s reputation and told her not to come into work for a few days ‘for security reasons’. She ended the call feeling let down and marooned. ‘It’ll all go away soon,’ Aruna told her again. ‘If you keep your head down they’ll soon get bored.’
Aruna was right. The attention melted away as quickly as it had begun. There was other news. The trolls found new victims. It was safe for her to come out.
The trouble was that for a long while after that she didn’t feel safe at all.
She still dragged herself into work, but felt overwhelmed. It wasn’t simply the usual heavy workload, the administration she had to do on top of teaching and her own research, it was anxiety about getting any of it done. The headaches that had been bothering her for some time became more frequent. They would start at the base of her skull and creep up to her temples and behind her eyes so that sometimes students or colleagues might find her collapsed on the tiny sofa in her office, as she waited for the painkillers to kick in.
Eventually her doctor referred her to a counsellor. A few weeks later, she found herself in a peaceful upstairs room scented with lavender, sitting opposite a supple, elegant woman with a thin, wise face. Her name, appropriately, was Grace.
‘I feel I’ve struggled so hard all my life,’ Briony told Grace when she’d finished explaining why she’d come. ‘Now I don’t know what it’s for any more. I’ve lost all my confidence.’
Grace nodded and made a note, then looked at Briony with eyebrows raised, waiting.
‘Everything’s a huge effort.’ Her voice caught in her throat, so that ‘effort’ came out as a whisper.
‘Tell me about the other things in your life, Briony; your family, for instance, what you enjoy doing when you’re not working.’
Briony briefly covered her face with her hands, then took a breath so deep it hurt. ‘My mum died of cancer when I was fourteen. She wasn’t ill for long, but it was an awful time and then she simply wasn’t there any more. It was like this huge hole.’
‘That must have been dreadful.’ Grace’s sympathy encouraged her.
‘What was worst was there was no one I could talk to. Dad thought we should just get on with things, be practical, and I tried to be like Mum with my brother, which he hated. Will’s younger than me. He’s married with two kids and living up north because of his job. We’re fond of each other, but we’re not close.’
‘And you don’t have a partner of your own? Children?’
Briony shook her head. ‘I . . . it simply hasn’t happened for me, I don’t know why. Nothing’s quite clicked. It doesn’t bother me, exactly, I have lots of friends but, well, sometimes I think it would be nice.’
Grace stirred and smiled. ‘If you are open to it, then it might happen,’ she said, her eyes shining.
‘What do you mean?’ It sounded mysterious and a little patronizing, to tell the truth. She explained crossly how relationships had fizzled out, though she’d felt perfectly ‘open’ to them continuing.
Grace simply smiled in that slightly maddening way. ‘We can talk more about that. I think you should slow down a bit, Briony. Say “no” more often and try to do things that you enjoy. And perhaps the next time we meet we should start by talking about your mother.’
Briony nodded, wondering how all this could help her, but the doctor had said Grace was good, and she liked the sense of peace that the room imparted, so she agreed to visit again.
Over the course of the next few months she found herself telling Grace about how abandoned she’d felt by her mother’s death, how it had been the sudden end of her childhood. Grace pointed out the importance of other losses – her mother’s parents only a few years before, how her brother Will had learned self- sufficiency and their father had finally married again. Perhaps, Grace suggested gently, Briony had developed her own defensive shell that stopped her letting anyone in. And the trolling experience had traumatized her so much because of the stress she was already under.
After her eight weeks of seeing Grace, she sensed that something tightly coiled, like a steel spring, inside her was beginning to unfurl. There were still days when she would relive her ordeal, and feel frightened and powerless again, but these became fewer. She was beginning to come through.