Debbie Howells: Small Town Secrets

Debbie Howells: Small Town Secrets

When we first meet someone, we base much of our initial judgement on the most superficial information. Then, as the relationship develops, we’ll ask more questions, share more about ourselves. There has to be trust, too, because most of us don’t open our hearts up until we believe it’s safe to do so.

One of the themes of The Bones of You is about how well we ever truly know other people. Not just those we meet fleetingly, but also people we might interact with quite often, such as neighbours and work colleagues, as well as those we believe we know quite well and who we consider to be our friends.

In this digital age, much of our communication takes place online, with texting replacing calling. It’s about words – from which you might hazard a guess at the sender’s mood – but that’s about all. What’s missing are the nuances conveyed by eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, body language: how we build a picture of who a person is. When you’re with someone, you pick up not just on mood, but also emotions and personality, which allow you to gauge their response to you. It’s different, isn’t it?

Yes. Of course it is. There’s also much to be said for a friendly smile; the knowledge that someone’s stopped and made time for a chat as opposed to just picking up your email at a moment convenient to them; the touch of a hand on an arm that conveys what words can’t.

This form of contact is perhaps more common when people live in small communities, where there’s a sense of belonging and where, over time, people get to know each other a little beyond first names, simply because there are fewer of us. When we meet, we’re more likely to stop and talk; this kind of behaviour is less likely when you live in the middle of a big town, where you face anonymity amidst the crowd surrounding you.

But no matter where you live, none of us really knows what hides behind a smile, or what a blank face might be concealing. Take depression, for example, which sufferers clas¬sically hide with great success so that its exposure often comes as a complete revelation. And while some faces may appear easy to read, in truth who really knows how someone feels – the worries they might be harbouring, grief or a broken heart – or something else just as invisible?

It’s this assumption that we know more about people than we actually do that makes secrets more shocking in small communities. Somehow you expect everything to be more visible. There are fewer people to hide amongst and we all talk, don’t we? If something was going on, someone would know; word would get around. Like if someone was being abused. It would be obvious, wouldn’t it?

Emotionally abusive relationships, which appear as a theme in The Bones of You, are one of the worst kinds of secrets, extraordinarily well-kept because the bruises are on the inside. More common than many people realize, even the victims of emotional abuse may not recognize what’s happening to them. When abusive behaviour forms a backdrop to everyday life, it ceases to shock, and can even become normalized. How would you tell, if it’s all you’ve ever known? It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, with fear ever-present in order to silence its victims while they are controlled, undermined and isolated, so that it becomes almost impossible to walk away.