IoS Charity Appeal: How Fiona Bruce saved me from a life of despair

Even her best friend didn't know what was going on inside Louise's violent marriage. But when she did, she urged her to ring Refuge

Louise Leadbetter still remembers the day she first met her best friend, Fiona, at the start of her sixth form in south London. "This girl walks into the common room with very red trousers, screeching loudly, singing or something," recalls Louise. "That was Fiona."

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The red-trousered extrovert was Fiona Bruce, who grew up to become the reserved and refined BBC newsreader and presenter, who is now rarely off our screens. Fiona remembers Louise at that time as "incredibly trendy" with "all the trendy albums at the time, like The Human League". They quickly became close friends.

Later, after Fiona had finished university, they bought a flat together in south London. Both were confident and successful, with strings of boyfriends and busy social lives: Louise worked in public relations, while Fiona was at the start of her television career.

Then, on New Year's Eve 1989, Louise met Nick [not his real name] at a friend's party and everything changed. There was something different about him, and when he called a few days later she decided to go for a drink with him. The conversation was stilted and Louise was relieved when the date ended. "He was very, very hard work, so I just thought 'ugh' and went home."

Looking back, Louise says the signs were there of his darker side – a darker side that would later make him violent even when she was pregnant. But Nick wouldn't take no for an answer and continued to pursue her. "The more I got to know him the more I thought, 'Oh, he's quite interesting in a quirky kind of way,' " So they started seeing each other.

When Fiona first met her friend's new boyfriend, she was unimpressed. "I thought he was socially awkward and quite a cold person," Fiona told The Independent on Sunday. "He was good-looking and kind to her at first, and I could see he made her happy, but I didn't warm to him much."

His oddness meant that the former flatmates started spending less time together. Fiona recalls: "With your best mate, you want to hang out all together [with boyfriends, too] and that didn't really work. Over time, I saw Louise less and less. I was working all the time and Louise was setting up her own successful business, so she was as well. But I do remember thinking she was less accessible than she had been. At the time, I didn't put it down to him – I do now, but I didn't then."

On a walking holiday in 1992, Nick asked Louise to marry him. Fiona was not pleased when she heard the news: "My heart sank to my boots. I just thought he would crush her spirit because he didn't celebrate what makes her such a great person."

It was not until her wedding day three months later that Louise had any hint that Nick's "social awkwardness" might be something more frightening. "We had just left the wedding and were on the way to our honeymoon. I was fiddling with my hat and he screamed: 'Just fucking stop fucking with your hat.' It was so blood-curdling it stopped me in my tracks. The whole honeymoon was a nightmare. I cried a lot."

From then on, things got worse. After two years, his rages became violent, and after one argument he kicked her in the back in a fury. At the tiniest provocation she would be kicked, pushed or dragged around the house in a headlock. She was too frightened and ashamed to tell anyone – not even her best friend, and certainly not the police.

"I didn't call the police and that was a big mistake. I was too ashamed at the time, far too ashamed. In my middle-class way, you don't call the police. You don't have flashing blue lights turning up at the house. I thought I could find a way out of it all by myself."

Though Fiona was her closest friend, even she was left guessing what might be wrong. "The only thing Louise said, which should have given me a hint, was: 'God, no one ever tells you how hard the first year of marriage is.'" says Fiona. "I remember thinking I couldn't understand that. I've only got the full picture in the years since she left."

Four years into the marriage, Louise became pregnant and Nick got worse. He assaulted her so regularly that she was worried she would lose their unborn child. Once, when she was six months pregnant, she left the milk out of the fridge and he kicked her in the stomach so hard she fell back on the bed. The cruelty continued even as she began giving birth. Louise recalls: "I was in labour at home and he told me to stop whining. I was having contractions and he left me completely alone."

Five days after giving birth to their baby, he forced her to go on a walking holiday with friends. She was still sore with stitches and wanted to rest but was too scared. "The implied threat was just too much to bear. I'd just had a baby, so it seemed easier to go than incur his wrath."

She still struggles to come to terms with the fact that he managed to continue the abuse for so long. At times, he could be normal; they had a second child. But the abuse would always flare up again. "I spent 12 years trying to work out how to get away, basically. Eventually, you stay because there are so many threats thrown at you. He said: 'If you ever leave me, I will make sure that you never see the children again.' I thought he might do something awful and that fear kept me there for a very long time."

It was a poster from the domestic violence charity Refuge – which The IoS is supporting for this year's charity appeal – that made her wake up to what was going on. "I was in the doctor's surgery, because I was having a pre-natal check, and I saw a Refuge poster. It had this long list of things – you know, are any of these things happening to you?

"It was things like 'charming one minute and terrifyingly aggressive the next', 'constantly criticising you and putting you down'– and a light bulb went off. That list probably saved my life actually, without wanting to be too dramatic about it, because I could put a label to it, and that was the point when I rang Fi, because I could articulate it, finally."

On Fiona's advice, she called Refuge and started to get help over the phone. Though she knew she needed to leave, it was only when she saw the impact it was having on her children that she finally found the courage to escape. "He was hurling me around the house one night, and I heard my daughter crying; afterwards I went up to see if she was OK. She was only about five or six at the time. But she used the F-word and it so shocked me that she was using such bad language which she'd heard from her father.

"I went to my sister's. Our house was very remote and he would take the car keys away so I couldn't leave, but that evening he'd somehow left them out. I literally jumped in the car and drove away. I left the children as I thought that was safer for them. I thought if I'd taken them, it would make things worse. Looking back, that was stupid, but I didn't want to exacerbate the situation as I knew what he was capable of."

Now Louise realises the decision to leave may have saved her life. "I think he would have killed me. And he admitted later that he might have killed me if I hadn't left," she says.

Over a long walk with Fiona shortly after she escaped, Louise detailed what had been more than a decade of abuse. Fiona could not believe what she was hearing: "I just remember being utterly shocked that my closest friend, who I thought I knew inside and out, had been having to endure this. I was just poleaxed."

Louise and Nick are divorced now and she is living in Shropshire, running her own public relations company.

Fiona and Louise, now 48, have remained friends. In 2007, Fiona became a patron of Refuge. She believes that her friend's experience illustrates that these horrors can be visited upon anyone. "I think – and not just because I love her – that Louise is one of those incredible self-starters. So, if it can happen to Louise, it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody, and I can't imagine that many people can actually come out the other side. Although it has been very tough and continues to be tough, Louise is still a very successful person in her own right. It would crush most people, I think, but it didn't crush her."

To read about the warning signs of domestic violence, visit www.refuge.org.uk

The Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal is for the national domestic violence charity Refuge. To make a donation visit: http://refuge.org.uk/independent-on-sunday-appeal/

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