Authors: Elizabeth Forbes
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Post Traumatic Stress, #Combat stress
Juliet responds straight away:
Hi Claire and I just can’t thank you enough for helping me out. I’ll get in touch with your brother straight away cos I really am getting to the stage where I can’t stay put any longer. It’s ironic cos the Brecon Beacons used to be one of my OH’s and my special places. Where he proposed!!!!!!! Yes, my little boy has just had his appendix removed and he’s quite poorly in hospital – I’m with him now – drips and stuff and it’s all really upsetting for him. He’s such a little chap … awful isn’t it and you just wish you could suffer for them. I hate it, I really do. Anyway, hopefully he won’t be in hospital for very long and then as soon as I get him home I can start making proper plans to get away. I don’t think my OH suspects what I’m planning. Like I said in one of my messages, if he knew I think he’d probably try and kill me. Least that’s what he’s threatened and I believe him. God I’m so scared. I’d better go now and see my little boy, but I’ll be in touch and let you know how I get on with Mark. I just can’t tell you how grateful I am to you and I don’t know what I’d have done if I hadn’t had the support of the group.
Hugs and love
Juliet can’t believe how everything seems to be falling into place. So many problems that have seemed insurmountable are now being overcome. The money is in place – Geraldine has texted Juliet to say that she’s been to the bank and everything is OK. Alex is happy to go to Scotland without her and Ben, so he can’t watch her every move or hold her prisoner. And now there’s the possibility of a safe house. God, it almost seems too good to be true. All she now needs is for Ben to get better.
‘Juliet! Wait …’ Someone is calling her name. She is nearly back at the children’s ward, cup of coffee and a giant chocolate cookie for Ben in her hand. It’s Rowena, looking flushed, her hair in its loose ‘not-at-work’ messy style. She’s carrying a bag and half jogging to catch up. ‘I called your house and your mother-in-law told me about Ben, so I thought I’d pop up and see how he was, and see if you were OK, if there’s anything I can do.’
‘You are such a sweetheart. How very thoughtful.’ They kiss their hellos and Juliet thinks that she sees a flicker of surprise as Rowena closes up on Juliet’s cheek. Juliet has to stop herself from wincing as Rowena’s lips hover over her bruised cheek.
Rowena is frowning, and she takes a moment longer to check out Juliet’s face. ‘Honey, what happened?’
‘Oh, silly me, I hit it on the wardrobe door knob … you know … kneeling on the floor and then I got up and just … you know … hit it. Stupid. Bloody sore, too. Does it look really bad?’ Rowena tugs on Juliet’s arm and pulls her over to the side of the corridor. She lowers her voice. ‘Juliet, I’m not an idiot. You don’t have to tell me, but I’d put good money on the fact that it wasn’t a door knob. And this isn’t the first time. Christ, what’s the matter with him? You poor love, just look at you.’
‘I thought I’d done a good job in covering it.’
‘Maybe from ten yards. Oh, Juliet. You’ve got to do something. Now’s not the time, obviously, but whatever I can do to help, you know I’m here for you. Just promise me you won’t let him do this to you again.’
‘I …’ Juliet is fighting back the tears. ‘I can’t talk about it. He’ll go mad if he thinks I’ve been telling you. Promise me you won’t say anything to him! You’ve got to promise.’
‘I’d like to punch his fucking lights out. But I promise.’
‘Do you mind if we don’t talk about it …? Please …’
‘Sure, whatever you want. How’s Ben?’ Rowena sounds completely off-balance and embarrassed and she’s obviously trying to cover it up for Juliet’s sake. ‘Is it OK if I come in and say hello? I’ve brought him a couple of things.’
Rowena clucks around Ben’s bed, pulling out a picture book and an old-fashioned kaleidoscope which Ben, in spite of his tubes and discomfort, has already put to his eye and is twisting the cylinder to see the different patterns. ‘I remember having one of those as a child,’ Juliet says. ‘Clever you – you are kind.’
‘I’ve brought something for you too, sweetie.’ Rowena hands Juliet a copy of the latest issue of
and a tissue-wrapped bottle of Jo Malone hand lotion. ‘I thought you might need some TLC yourself.’
Juliet suddenly finds her eyes welling up and her chin starting to tremble. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a scrunched- up tissue before a great big sob escapes. Rowena closes the gap between them and puts her arm around Juliet’s shoulders. ‘Hey, honey, don’t cry. Come on …’ She gives her a big hug, and Juliet sniffs loudly, nodding and taking deep breaths and stammering ‘Sorr – ry …’ between them.
But Juliet shakes her head and struggles to control herself. Her internal voice is screaming at her: ‘Hold it … just hold it together … just a bit longer …’ She takes a couple of deep breaths and the tears stop. ‘It’s just seeing Ben in that bed, with all the tubes and everything. I can’t bear to watch him suffering. Poor little mite. Sorry. You’re such a good friend to bring all of this.’
‘Looks like I should have bought a hip flask with some whisky in it, my darling. It’ll be OK. He’s in the best hands.’
‘I know. I know. He’ll be fine.’
* * * * *
Mark Price’s response to Juliet’s email is both businesslike and informative. Juliet has given him no indication of her personal situation and is obviously unaware of whether Claire alias Lil’ Miss Happy has done so.
Thanks for getting in touch about the cottage. I travel a lot and so when I’m away it’s just good to know there’s someone there looking after things. It’s an old place. What they call ‘characterful’, I guess. But it’s cosy and warm. Obviously it’s furnished with my stuff but you can bring your own linen and I’m not much of a cook so you might want to bring whatever kitchen stuff you want. You won’t find food processors or cake cooking tins. I just about run to a couple of saucepans and a roasting tray. There’s one double room and one reasonable-sized single, plus a tiny room which I use as my office. There’s wi-fi – I couldn’t survive without it – and a bit of a garden. I’m only looking for nominal rent and obviously all bills paid. That’s oil, water, electricity, wood for the fire. Oh yeah, there’s central heating and a Rayburn which is pretty crap but it does heat the radiators and water, and I’ve got an ancient electric freestanding cooker which is a bit dodgy cos the door’s prone to falling off. There’s a shed in the garden for bikes and stuff. I don’t need you to sign a lease or anything. You can have it for three months … maybe a bit longer depending on what my plans are. But I’ve got mates around that I can shack up with, so no worries really. Just give me a few days’ notice and I’ll get it ready for you. I’ve attached a couple of photographs for your info.
So, her safe haven will be Brecon. How bloody ironic is that? But this trip will be a
different to the last one.
Alex had been due to go on a training exercise to Jordan for a month, and so before he left he’d booked them into a B & B in the Beacons. It was to be a romantic weekend, a farewell to each other. They woke to thick fog on the first morning, and Juliet remembered thinking that they would be able to have a lie-in, maybe sit in front of the fire and read cosily, find a nice pub for lunch. But Alex insisted they get kitted up in their outdoor gear. They set off, barely being able to see two yards in front of them. Juliet wasn’t nearly as sure-footed as Alex and she was
an outdoor kind of girl. The ground was wet and slippery and she kept losing her footing. All she could tell was that they were climbing. Alex kept up a pace which was too fast for her and sometimes she completely lost sight of him in the swirls of fog. She would call him, and her voice just seemed to get soaked up in the thick, damp air. At one point, she just stopped, feeling close to tears because she had no idea where she was, and Alex seemed to have abandoned her. But from out of nowhere he appeared. ‘Alex!’ she shouted. ‘You bloody idiot. Don’t leave me behind. I’m scared.’
‘Trust me. You’ll be fine. Your life is safe in my hands,’ he laughed.
Then he took her by the hand, and after what seemed like at least an hour of stumbling and slipping, the mist began to clear, and she had to admit that the views were astonishing. There was nothing but acres and acres of rolling green, mauve and brown hills with a scattering of dishevelled-looking sheep.
‘Aren’t we there?’ she asked, wherever ‘there’ was.
‘Nope, come on.’ She was knackered, cold and wet, but he was already ahead of her and she didn’t want to get left behind again, even though she could now see him. Maybe another half-hour passed. She’d got beyond measuring the distance in time, focusing instead on her exhaustion. She called out to Alex: ‘Enough. You’re so much fitter than me!’
‘Come on. You’re capable of more than you think!’
‘Alex I’m not one of your bloody squaddies on some God- awful fitness test. Seriously, I’ve had enough.’
‘They’re not squaddies, they’re guardsmen’, was all he’d said, and then increased his pace so that when he rounded a corner she was alone, again. She remembered the feelings of disquiet, a sense that there was something more to Alex’s route march. Some kind of test of her stamina and her strength of character. So what if she failed the test? What if he left her here? She remembered feeling just a tiny bit unsure of him. Was this actually a kind thing to do? For the second time she felt like bursting into tears. But when she rounded the spur that hid Alex, she found him sitting there with a bottle of champagne and two glasses, laying out some smoked salmon sandwiches. He had spread a white linen napkin over a boulder and flourished a rose at her. ‘Your table awaits, milady’, he said.
‘Alex, you bloody idiot. It’s wonderful!’ She was so relieved that all the effort was for this, for her. She felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards him. Of course later she could rationalize her feelings and realize that her relief sprang from the fact that her ordeal was over, the fear she’d felt had melted away. Adrenalin. That was where the buzz came from, and she’d mistaken it for love.
‘Reckon you’ve earned your lunch?’
‘Oh, God. Give me a drink. But I’d better have some water first, otherwise I could down the whole bottle.’
After he gave her a glass of the champagne, he produced a small, perfectly water-proofed bag of kindling and some larger chunks of dry wood from his rucksack. ‘Wood? You brought wood all the way up here?’
‘Yeah? Of course. My gas stove wouldn’t exactly be romantic, would it?’
‘It must have been heavy.’
‘Not as heavy as I’m used to carrying. You’re hot after the climb, but soon you’ll start to feel a bit chilled. This’ll help dry you out and warm you up.’
He set to lighting a little fire, while Juliet had a chance to really take in her surroundings. It was indeed a gloriously perfect day and it seemed as if they had the entire landscape to themselves. Miles and miles and miles of nothing but rocky hills and scrubby grassland. If she stood up, she could almost see for 360 degrees, the hills falling away and then rising again in the distance. There was no cultivation, no hedges or fences, but here and there a track or a stream relieving the contours.
‘Do you still love it up here, even after all the time on those horrible, cold exercises? I’d have thought you wouldn’t want to be reminded of them.’
‘Not me. Nothing better. Testing oneself and coming out a stronger person at the other end. Surprising yourself. Finding hidden resources – you know, when you think you’re finished and then you go on and on, like you never thought you could. Imagine, Juliet, how that feels. It’s the best feeling you can ever experience. Pushing and pushing. Like you did. Go on, tell me that you don’t feel a little bit proud of yourself. Remember, when you said you couldn’t go any further, and you did? Doesn’t that make you feel good?’
‘I suppose. But most of all I’m relieved that we’ve stopped, and fucking dreading the downward trip. Alex, my muscles are screaming. They feel like lead, solid and painful. And my bloody feet. These boots, they’re new. Look at yours, worn in and loads of miles on the sole. D’you know what? I know you love this, and it’s all beautiful. I can see that. But … honestly … I’d be a lot happier if I didn’t hurt so much.’
‘I’m not bloody whingeing. But this is what you love, what you do. I’d have been happy curled up in front of a nice log fire with a good book and a supply of decent coffee.’
‘But look around you. When are you ever going to get a view like this?’
‘You’re right. I’m glad I’m here. Got any plasters in that bag thingy of yours?
‘Get your boots off and I’ll sort your feet out.’ And maybe it was the way he looked at her blisters, the way he carefully drained them with a sterilised needle and then applied blister plasters, that she thought, ‘Aaaah, he’s so sweet and caring.’
While Juliet was just grateful to be resting, trying to push aside the thought of the descent, enjoying the warmth of the fire and stuffing a smoked salmon sandwich in her mouth, Alex suddenly dropped down onto one knee and took hold of her hand. ‘Juliet, would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?’
She spat out her champagne and laughed. Oh, God. Imagine. It was such a terrible thing to do. It was just the way he said,
‘Would you do me the honour …’ Not ‘Will you marry me.’ it was so Alex. His face was a picture. First of all surprise that she was laughing, and then a bit hurt that she wasn’t taking him seriously, and then he too smiled. ‘You are such a one-off, Alex Miller,’ Juliet said, stroking his cheek. ‘Of course, I would be honoured to accept your proposal.’
‘So that’s a definite yes.’
‘Yes. A definite and absolute yes.’
They made love, obviously, to seal the deal, and Juliet remembers it not just because it was exceptionally romantic, but also because it was fucking uncomfortable.
* * * * *
Because Ben has to recover from his operation it’s not feasible to escape while Alex is in Scotland. He’s sore and finding it difficult to move around which, for a five-year-old, is ultimately frustrating. Five-year-olds don’t generally do ‘sedentary’. Well, only if it’s between bouts of furious energy. Ben, though, is happy to curl up on the sofa with a selection of games and DVDs. Juliet finds it calming to settle down beside him and watch hours of mindless cartoons. Rowena popped round with a basket full of food. That woman, she’s just an angel. There was homemade soup, a comforting casserole – chicken, so that Ben wouldn’t complain – and a chocolate cake. All made by the nanny, but who cares. It was a lovely thought, and Juliet almost feels guilty now for not opening up to this lovely, generous-minded woman.