Thomasina says goodbye to a well-to-do life in rural England to move in with her new husband in the endless cornfields of Iowa, when things take a shockingly dark turn; by Caroline Taylor.
“Darling, remind me why we didn’t fly?”
My brand new husband seems to grow more taciturn, the farther west we go. He is definitely what the Yanks call the strong and silent type, emphasis on the latter. But we’ve been in the motorcar for hours now, and I am growing weary of the scenery. “People do fly, you know. After all, we’ve just crossed the Atlantic.”
“Mother is an old woman. Can’t risk it.”
Ah, yes. One must be careful these days. As our journey continues, I feel a mild headache coming on. Field after field of the same crop makes for a rather boring experience. I turn to Joe. “These crops. Are they corn?”
I’ve done my homework, checking out Joe Mason’s claim to owning a large farm in the middle of Iowa, but the pictures of cornfields aren’t the same as the real thing. The flat, green sameness stretches in every direction beneath a sky so blue it hurts my eyes. I should be grateful for the sunshine, but instead I find myself longing for the comforting gray skies of home.
It seems to me that if one must travel by motorcar, one would prefer having something to look at other than endless rows of corn, marching off into the distance in every direction. Iowa. My new home. We aren’t even there yet, and I’m already beginning to feel… What? Regret? A bit. I remind myself it’s normal to have a touch of homesickness. Anyway, I am in love with the man, although I’m beginning to find it rather difficult to carry on a civilized conversation with him. I understand he hasn’t had the same upbringing, but I also can’t help thinking his refusal to talk is rude.
I can hear Mummy’s voice reminding me that one must be careful when making choices in life. Perhaps I should have taken her advice. Instead, I’ve fallen head over heels for Joseph Mason of Charles City, Iowa. In my defense, what healthy young woman could resist the broad shoulders, the narrow waist, those eyes the color of the sky above, and hair reminiscent of a field of buttercups? Truth be told, there are other reasons I am here in this car with Joe. I was becoming rather tired of fending off the attentions of Hubert Wallingford-Stokes, fifty-five years old, skinny, bald, filthy rich, and reeking of stale cigarette smoke, who seemed to think we would make the perfect match. Marrying Joe also means I will no longer have village fêtes, Christmas pantos, and Mother’s annual New Year’s charity gala on my list of obligations.
I’d met my future husband at one of those charity dos. He was visiting Cousin Albert, who’d been a fraternity brother of Joe’s while they were both students at Grinnell College. “Joe’s a fine fellow, Tommy,” Albert had said, when we announced our engagement a week later.
“There, says Joe, pointing off toward the right. All I can see is a copse of trees surrounded by endless rows of corn.
Oh, dear. Our home. I will soon be faced with a daily vista of cornstalks in every blasted direction. Visions of Chipping Campden with its famous high street and lovely Cotswold stone buildings make my eyes smart. What have I done? I pull my mobile out of my handbag, ready to take a picture of the house.
Joseph clamps a hand on my wrist. “No cell service here.”
“Not to worry, darling. I just want to capture my first sight of the place.” I take the photo, thinking Hilary Abingdon-Wilkes will find it terribly amusing. Talk about the wilds of America! This will undoubtedly convince Hil I am totally bonkers.
The road leading to the trees is not paved, and we send up clouds of dust behind us. Then I get my first look at my new home – new only in the sense that I have not lived here before, I soon realize. It’s a two-story wood frame building with peeling, once-white paint and faded green shutters on the windows. One of the upstairs shutters is dangling and about to fall. The windows do not sparkle, although it’s probably because Joe does not have an army of servants to keep them clean.
He pulls to a stop in the forecourt and jumps out. “Come on, Thomasina. I need to go to the john.”
Oh, dear. Despite my girlish fantasies, Joe does not appear to be planning to carry me across the threshold, nor is it likely he’s going to help me with my luggage. I open the boot and pull my wheelie bag out, dragging it up the wooden steps and onto the porch.
The interior of the house is dark and stuffy and reeks of dust and mildew. I flick the wall switch, but nothing happens. “Joe,” I call out. “There doesn’t seem to be any electricity.”
He emerges from a downstairs room, zipping his fly. “We’ll just have to get by for a while, at least until I can get gas for the generator.”
There is petrol in the car. I don’t say it because I really do not want to be stuck here with no means of egress. Welcome to the 19th century, Thomasina.
But then I remember Joe’s mother. How can she be living here with no electricity? It would probably mean no hot water, no telephone, no way to cook her meals. “Your mother. Is she here?”
“My mother is dead. Has been for fifteen years.”
“But you said we couldn’t fly because of your mother and COVID.”
“Good grief, Thomasina. Are you nuts? I never said anything like it. We didn’t fly because, frankly, it’s a pain in the – it’s not easy to fly from JFK to Charles City, Iowa. Too many changes of plane. Anyway, I wanted to show you a bit of the countryside, give you a taste of America.”
Have I gone mad? I don’t believe it for a minute. For some reason, my newly minted husband has lied to me, and now he’s covering up for it. I will chalk it up to the long drive. But I will not forget it.
As I drag my wheelie bag up the stairs behind him, I feel a growing sense of unease. It was a petty lie, but a lie nonetheless. A hurtful one as well.
“Here,” he says. “Our bedroom.” He throws his bag on a bed, sending up clouds of dust. I’m fighting valiantly to stifle a sneeze. While he unpacks, I stand there, trying not to let my jaw land on the floor. The bed is way too small. It’s built for people who cuddle all night long because they have no choice. Joe puts his travel alarm on the only nightstand and slips his mobile into the top drawer. I suppose I shall have to do without. Or perhaps I shall purchase my own nightstand. The dresser, too, is small, with only three drawers.
“Darling, do please remember you now have a wife. As I am sure you can imagine, we have far more items of clothing than you men. Could I at least have half of the bottom drawer?”
He scowls at me. “Maybe you should get rid of those fancy duds. They aren’t needed here.”
Yes, I can see it, but his tone is so dismissive and so unlike the man I married that, for a moment, I fear I have actually gone round the bend.
When we reach the kitchen downstairs, I am greeted by the disgusting odors of rancid grease and stale cigarette smoke. The appliances date back to before my mother was born. There’s a wood stove, for heaven’s sake. And an ice box, not a refrigerator. How can a modern human being live like this? I look at Joe, who is rummaging through lime green cabinets, surely not searching for food.
He pulls out two cans, one labeled pork and beans and the other labeled Spam. “We’ll have to make do,” he says, “until I can get over to Charles City.”
“How far away is it, dear?”
“Far. Trust me.”
For some reason, my trust is becoming a bit wobbly. I watch him open the cans, dishing out half the bean mixture onto each of our plates and then slicing up the pink square of Spam. My stomach lurches a bit. However, ladies do not display signs of discomfort. If I am truly nauseous, I shall visit the loo down the hall.
We sit down at a scarred wooden table. “This is – I don’t want to cause offense, darling, but this is not quite what I was expecting.” Or what Googling him had led me to believe.
“I told you. It’s only temporary.” He points at the food, clearly not understanding that what I wasn’t expecting starts with him lying and extends to the kitchen, the whole house, and, indeed, the vast fields beyond it. The nausea rises up, and I place my napkin on the table, prepared to make a run for the loo. “I’m afraid I’m not feeling too well.”
His eyes light up, and he smiles. “Really? Do you suppose it might be morning sickness?”
“I’m afraid not. It’s a bit early in our marriage, don’t you think?”
His face darkens, and his lower lip sticks out. “No. Why do you think I -?” He stops, coughing. “I thought you said you wanted children, Thomasina. I hope you haven’t changed your mind.”
“I do want children, darling. But not right away. I need to get settled here. We need to fix the place up, bring it into the 21st century, at least, before we have a baby.”
“It is perfectly fine,” he jumps in. “I was born in this house. My mother was born here. You’ll just have to manage.”
“Manage?” It’s a huge struggle keeping my voice under control, but I do succeed, thanks to my old-fashioned upbringing. “If you mean calling in contractors and plumbers and painters and electricians, I shall certainly manage.”
“We can’t afford it.” He leans back, crossing his arms. “We can’t afford anything, Thomasina, until you produce a son.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s the deal I made with your father. It seems he was disappointed not to have a son. I guess it’s a thing with you Brits. Anyway, he wants a grandson, and you’re the only one who can deliver. He told me if you have a boy, he will be, as he put it, ‘most generous’ in supporting us. I figure we’ll get the whole pile of money, once he dies.”
My head is so light at this point, I fear I am quite likely to faint dead on the spot. I want to throw the disgusting food in my husband’s face. I want to scream my lungs out, stamp my feet, slap his face and, in general, betray my heritage, which is the only thing keeping me rooted to the spot. “I see,” I say in my most dulcet tones. Nothing but a brood mare. “I do so appreciate your enlightening me.” How could you do this, Papa? “It is, however, a bit of a shock.” To put it mildly.
I stand up. “I am not pregnant, Joseph. And I must apologize for it. I had no idea -”
I run for the loo and lock the door behind me just in time to avoid spewing the lunch I never ate all over the dirty, urine-spotted floor.
There’s a knock at the door. “Are you okay, dear?”
Certainly not. In fact, it’s highly likely I will never be okay. “Please,” I manage to croak. “Leave me be.”
“You know, Thomasina. You’ve got to get rid of those high-faluting airs you put on. They’re only going to make things worse.”
I am not sure it’s possible. I continue to retch into the toilet bowl until there is nothing left but bile. At least the thing flushes, which seems to be the only functional aspect of this blighted house. What have I done, marrying this stranger? Not only have I traveled thousands of miles to get here, I seem to have also gone back in time to a world where marriages were arranged between men with nary a thought to what the woman might want.
I spend a great deal of time at the washbasin, bathing my face in ice-cold water, waiting until I sense an absence outside the door. When I open it, my husband is standing at the back door, gazing out across those endless fields of corn. He turns, saying, “I have to check on the generator. Will you be okay?”
“I just need to lie down,” I say, heading for the stairs. I shall call Mummy. She will know what to do. Unlike Papa, she won’t tell me I’ve made my bed and must now lie in it. I won’t mention him or the arrangement he has made behind my back. I will simply plead with her to help me escape from what is suddenly looking more and more like a prison.
Up in the bedroom, I pull my mobile out of my purse only to discover that indeed there is no mobile phone service. The battery is also low. I’m about to put it back when my hand hesitates. What if Joseph intends to keep me here against my wishes? What if he takes the mobile away or goes through my purse and finds the packet of birth control pills and throws them out? My passport, too. I pull my purse out and count the money. Seventy pounds. Never exchanged for dollars because Joseph said we didn’t have time. Is it possible to exchange foreign currency in the middle of America? I don’t know. But I do have my credit card.
I cannot let Joseph get his hands on those essentials. I’m about to put my mobile in the pocket of my coat when I spy the high-heeled boots I haven’t yet moved into the tiny closet. They’re a dark brown leather and highly polished. I shove the mobile down into the toe of one of the boots and the passport, credit card, and pill packet into the other. Then I move the boots to the back of the closet, bending the tops over, and reposition the full-length silk gown so its long skirt covers all but the boot heels. Imagine me thinking I might have to dress for dinner in my new home. I leave the money in my purse. If Joe finds it missing, he might become angry and accuse me of not trusting him. Considering what I’ve just learned, he’d be right.
The bedroom is so stuffy, I open a window. Oh, dear. The fresh air I’d been hoping for is hotter than what is already inside. I close the window, wishing there were electricity to run the ceiling fan. I’m so hot, my head is swimming. Fully clothed, I lie down. My eyes prick with tears. I want to go home. It’s more than being homesick for the Cotswolds; it’s discovering I’ve married a liar who has colluded with Papa to entrap me into motherhood. Here. Surrounded by nothing but corn.
Should I leave? I have my mobile, my passport, and a credit card. Joseph is stronger than I. He also knows where the nearest neighbors are. I certainly didn’t see any houses or clumps of trees as we approached from the east. Perhaps there are houses to the north, west, or south. But how far away and in which direction? Thankfully, my mobile has a compass. And perhaps there is mobile service somewhere nearby, just not here in this godforsaken farmhouse.
A blinding flash outside the window has me jerking awake. It is shortly followed by a loud boom of thunder and then a downpour so heavy I wonder if the roof can withstand it. I look at the watch Joseph left on the dresser. It is only four o’clock in the afternoon, but it is pitch black outside. I should worry if he’s been caught in the storm. Not five hours earlier, I would have worried.
Now, all I can think about is escape. When I get home, I will prevail on Hilary’s hospitality and not return directly to Chipping Campden unless I absolutely have to. My father clearly considers me nothing more than chattel. Joseph apparently shares the sentiment. And to think I didn’t see it coming, although what were the signs? He’d been so attentive, so caring, so utterly charming. And now, all of it is gone. It’s as if the flight across the Atlantic stripped him of everything but his bleak Midwest roots. It started with those monosyllabic responses to my feeble attempts to engage in conversation as we drove from New York to Iowa.
When Joseph finally appears, I tell him I don’t think I can eat any supper.
“Just as well,” he says. “There’s only a can of chili. Unless you’re one of those amazing women who can whip up a fancy meal out of thin air.” He grins at me as though we’re all back to normal.
“Oh, Joseph. As I’m sure you must have noticed, I have always been fed by Cook, except for dining out. The only thing I know how to prepare is tea, and I can’t even do that because I simply have no idea how one operates a wood stove.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said ‘shit’, woman. Get used to it. And get your head around one simple thing: I am going to fuck your brains out until you produce a son.” He’s across the room in two strides.
He rips at my shirt, scattering buttons all over, and then he shoves my jeans down below my hips, tearing my knickers in the process. Before I have a chance to knee him, he’s got my hands trapped up over my head and is pounding into me, bringing excruciating stabs of pain with every thrust. I am being raped. By my own husband.
When he’s finished, he rolls off to the side. Without a word of apology, he pulls his jeans up and heads downstairs to the loo. It was an American who coined the phrase “barefoot and pregnant,” wasn’t it? I am so tempted to tell him I’m on the pill, but some sort of self-preservation instinct has me deciding it would not be wise.
I’m feigning sleep when he returns, but my mind is going at a fast clip, trying to plot my escape. My great aunt Eugenie was famous for what people used to call “bolting,” and now, it would appear, I must carry on the tradition. It is complicated, to say the least. I am in the middle of nowhere, under the thumb of a bigger, heavier man who is utterly determined to have his way. Even if I were to grab the car keys and manage to escape while he is asleep, how far could I get, and where would I go?
I am still pretending to sleep when I hear the mattress creak. It’s so dark, I can’t tell where he is, but I do hear the snap of my handbag as he opens it. There are some rustling sounds, followed by a whispered “shit.” Then he’s back in bed.
My moment comes when I hear his snores. The moon has come out, making it possible to see where I’m going. As quietly I can, I get out of bed, gather my torn garments off the floor, and grab the boots from the closet. I’m about to head down the stairs when I decide I will take Joseph’s mobile so he won’t be able to call the police or any nearby friends.
The drawer of the nightstand emits a loud squeak when I open it, and Joseph’s snores stop. I am paralyzed with fear. If he sees me, he’ll go berserk. He might even strike me. My heart is thudding so loudly, I’m sure he can hear it. He turns on his side, facing me, and I nearly scream. But his eyes are closed, and soon the snores resume.
I pull his mobile out of the drawer and back slowly out of the room. In one of the books I’d read as a child, the sneaky thief or burglar or naughty person always makes sure to walk down the stairs as close to the wall as possible so as to avoid hitting a creaky stair step. I take the advice and tiptoe across to the front door. There, I dress myself in the torn shirt, but I’ve not been thinking too clearly. I have no stockings to wear with the boots, and my handbag with my British driver’s license and the seventy pounds is still upstairs. I dare not retrieve it now. It would be tempting fate in the worst possible way. I pull my mobile and the other essentials out of their hiding place, put the boots on, and prepare to leave. I shall just have to appeal to the mercy of strange –
“What the hell are you doing?”
I jump, turning to find Joseph standing on the landing.
A midnight stroll? The thought almost brings a mad giggle to my lips. What does he think I’m doing? “I’m leaving you,” I say. “I don’t appreciate being raped by my own husband.”
“You can’t be serious. Either that, or you’ve never read the Bible where it says wives should submit.”
I ignore the comment and open the front door. Spying the car, I realize I forgot to take the car keys. I’ll just have to… take a midnight stroll.
I’m halfway across the yard, when Joseph catches up with me. He grabs my arm, pulling me backwards into his chest. “Now, now, Thomasina. Let’s not be silly. You can’t leave me. There’s nowhere to go.”
He drags me back inside and locks me in the loo. “You just sit there and cool off a bit,” he says. “Really. I know you’re not royalty, sweetheart, but you clearly are a drama queen.”
I want to pound on the door and scream my bloody lungs out. Instead, I take a deep breath. He won’t leave me in here long. He’ll want to have his way with me soon. Which reminds me. I open the pill packet and swallow today’s dosage. Then I slip it back into my jeans pocket.
“Hey!” he calls out from above. “Where’s my damn phone?”
His footsteps come pounding down the stairs, and he throws the door open. “You stole my phone!”
“I most certainly did not.” Indeed, I’ve just barely had time to toss it into the toilet’s tank. “I have my own mobile, of course, but the battery died.”
“You fucking bitch!” His fist slams into the side of my head, and everything goes dark.
The next thing I’m aware of is a razor-sharp sword slicing viciously through my brain. This is followed by nausea so severe, I vomit all over myself.
He’s dragged me into the kitchen and is standing there holding the packet of birth control pills, the credit card, and my mobile. “Clean yourself up, you fucking, lying cunt.”
His language keeps getting coarser and coarser.
“Where am I?”
“Home, woman. And that is where you are going to stay. Don’t even think of getting away, you stupid girl. Those cornfields are full of snakes and other vermin. You’d never get very far in those fancy high-heeled boots. Which, by the way, are on the trash heap out back. As soon as you fix my lunch, I’m going to set fire to them.”
“My head hurts.”
“Tough.” He hauls me up, bringing a fresh wave of pain, followed by retching. “Pull yourself together, woman. I am hungry.”
My head spins, and I fear I might faint.
“Thought you could trick me. Well, watch this.” He tosses the pills out a window. Then he strikes a match and drops the passport into the kitchen sink where it begins to smolder. This is followed by him cutting the credit card in pieces and tossing it into the trash.
Head swimming, I manage to make it as far as the kitchen table before my legs give way.
“Jesus Christ,” he says. “All you have to do is open a can of chili and put it in this here bowl.” He points at a drawer near the ice box.
All I have to do is so obvious, I wonder why I haven’t realized it before. I drag myself over to the drawer beside the stove. It is full of items I should recognize but don’t because I have never had to prepare food in my overprotected, over-privileged life. One of them has a wooden handle with a long pointed metal thing protruding from it. “Please sit down,” I say, trying to introduce a note of meekness to my voice. “I’ll only be a minute.” There’s a grease-laden black iron skillet sitting on the stove. I grab it too.
When I hear his chair slide across the floor, I whirl around and prick the back of his neck at the base of his skull. “Don’t move an inch, Joseph. My hand could slip, and I don’t want to get blood all over myself.”
“You fucking bitch!” He reaches for the skillet, and I jerk away, slamming it down on the top of his head. He falls forward, and his head makes a loud crunch as it hits the table.
Oh, no! I have killed the man. I only meant to threaten him enough to –
He groans, sliding to the floor. His mouth and chin are covered in blood, and his nose is bent at an unnatural angle. He raises a hand to wipe his face, but it only manages to get partway there.
“I’m so sorry, Joe. I didn’t mean to…” Actually, I did.
I stand there, trying to figure out what’s likely to happen next. Or maybe I’m in shock. I look down at the skillet. I can’t hit him again, but if I don’t immobilize the man, he’ll surely exact some kind of revenge.
Grabbing a flimsy dish towel, I tear it into strips. He doesn’t seem to be conscious, but if he is, I’ll have to stab him with the ice pick. All he does is whimper as I tie first his hands and then his feet.
I reach into his jeans pocket and retrieve the keys to the car. It’s time to go. A search of his other pocked yields forty American dollars and my mobile. The passport is scorched, barely readable, but it will have to do. My headache is so bad, I feel nauseous. It’s probably a concussion. I am sorely tempted to go upstairs, lie down, and fall asleep. It would be so wonderful to just rest my eyes. But, needs must.
His eyelids begin to flutter, and he looks up at me. “Wha…?”
“I’m sorry, Joseph. But I really had no choice. I don’t believe you could ever change your ways, and there is something you need to know about me: “I am a bolter. It’s in the genes. When the reins get too tight, we take off.”
I cross the gravelly yard to the trash pile where I find my boots, lying on top of the smelly garbage. Back in the house, I pack all of my belongings into the wheelie bag and bump it down the stairs, out the door, and into the boot of the car. I can hear Joseph moaning from the kitchen. He’ll probably start screaming soon. He’s always bragged about his tough Midwestern roots. Now, he’ll have a chance to prove it.