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Authors: Elizabeth Forbes

Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Post Traumatic Stress, #Combat stress

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BOOK: Who Are You?
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‘Which they are …’

‘If there’s one thing Alex can’t stand, it’s feeling superfluous. He’s one of those old-fashioned types – you know, the man’s in charge. I don’t think he’d like me to get a job, seriously. He likes the idea of having me at home, bringing up our son … Oh God, Rowena, please don’t take that the wrong way.’

‘Don’t worry, I’m a lot more thick-skinned than that. We’re all different. Just so long as you’re happy doing that, my darling.’

‘Oh yes,’ Juliet says a little too eagerly. She meets Rowena’s eyes, which have suddenly become serious.

‘Look, sweetie pie, I don’t want to pry, and tell me to shut the fuck up, but sometimes I worry about you. I mean, I like Alex, don’t get me wrong. I do. But I’ve noticed when you two are together he sometimes doesn’t seem very kind to you.’

Juliet straightens her back and stares down into her glass once more. She can feel her cheeks colour. ‘Really? Oh, it’s just his manner. Used to giving orders. I think he sometimes forgets that I’m his wife and not his corporal.’

‘So you’re OK? I mean, really OK?’

‘Yes, of course. Don’t be silly. We’re fine.’

‘I know you are. Yes. Forget what I said, please. But if you ever need to talk – a shoulder, whatever … I’m very discreet. Promise.’

‘Thanks. You’re a sweetheart. Now if I’m not mistaken that soup’s about to burn, missus. Shall we pretend that we’re not pissed and give these children something to eat?

‘Oh, fuck it. You see … a domestic disaster, although I do admit I’m a bit of a goddess in other areas. Now, listen, I’m going to tell you something and you’ve got to promise not to explode.’

‘OK …’

‘It’s about that little bugger Rupert Hunt and something he said to Cordelia … I think you should know …’

*    *    *    *    *

Juliet walks hand in hand with Ben back to where the car is parked. His feet scrape on the pavement and he dawdles, pulling her back. ‘Ben, come on. What’s the matter?’

‘Cordelia said I looked stupid today. A stupid sheep. And she said I was a baby cos I was wearing a baby’s hat.’

‘Ben, for God’s sake. It’s what all the smart sheep are wearing, honestly. Take my word for it.’ Ben looks at her doubtfully and climbs onto his booster seat in the rear of the car.

‘And you know Rupert made baby Jesus fall out of his cot?’

‘Yes, I saw. But don’t worry, it’s not really Jesus, it’s a doll. Only pretend, Ben.’

‘He’s not very nice, Mummy, Rupert isn’t. Mummy, is Father Christmas all right? He will come and see me, won’t he?’

Juliet straps him in, silently sending up a prayer for patience.

‘Yes, darling. Of course he will, as long as you’re good. You know he only comes to see good boys and girls.’

She looks at Ben in the rear-view mirror, and he’s staring out of the window looking pensive. He’s tired after his eventful day so hopefully he should sleep well tonight. When they arrive home mid-afternoon the house has a chilly feel about it, and there’s so little natural daylight filtering through the windows that Juliet switches on the lights. There’s something a little depressing about artificial light in the middle of the day. Across the street she can see Christmas trees already dressed and lit in the windows. Juliet and Alex never do the tree until Christmas Eve because Alex is a traditionalist. She rubs her hands together to warm them and then says to Ben, ‘Blow it, it’s nearly Christmas. Let’s put the heating on – and don’t tell Daddy, OK?’

Ben switches the television on and Juliet pours him a glass of milk and cuts, quarters and cores an apple for him. She delivers both the glass and the apple to Ben on the sofa and, satisfied that he’ll be content for ten minutes or so, she fires up her laptop. She types in her password, navigates to her favourite support group and scans through the new messages to see if there are any comments or threads she wants to contribute to. She’d started looking into the chat room culture as a way to fill in the long evenings when Alex was away, a sort of harmless curiosity to know what they were all about. She soon discovered that there was an enormous cocktail-style list of tastes and flavours, ranging from the straightforward bored girl looking for clean friendship, to hot woman wanting to meet scorching man for dirty playtimes. You could visit these rooms as a guest, like an anonymous voyeur just waiting and watching to see what went on. If you wanted to visit any of the interesting-sounding rooms, though, you had to sign in with a name. Juliet had bided her time before deciding to take the plunge, because once she did she had no way of knowing what kind of Pandora’s box she might be opening up. But as long as she was careful not to give anything away about her real identity or where she lived, she could adopt any persona she wanted.

There are about four or five sites that she visits regularly, and then there are the other sites that she uses for research purposes. Google really is the most amazing search engine. She can type in any phrase, all the stuff that she can’t ask anyone else, and there’ll be answers, lots of them. She can type in Alex’s behaviour, his character traits, her suspicions about what’s actually wrong with him. God, the hours she’s spent, sometimes all through the night, just scrolling through stuff and thinking she can’t quite believe what she’s reading. Like it’s
so
Alex. These people are writing about
her
husband.

She’s made connections with people who are going through similar things and some of them are even becoming friends, of sorts. And the funny thing is that she finds it a lot easier to be open with them, online, than she could ever be with ‘real’ people. She doesn’t know their names. They all adopt aliases so that they can’t be tracked down. Juliet has called herself Sparrowhawk because it’s a bird that is small but nonetheless feisty and not to be messed with. People have asked her – people in the support groups, that is – why she doesn’t just leave Alex, but it’s not as simple as that, and she can’t really tell them why. That would be too dangerous because you never
really
know who these people are. It’s funny, but for all she knows the woman that she’s confided in so openly recently could be a man, or some kind of pervert. She could be being groomed. She’s read all about that too, people pretending to be someone they’re not. Apparently they’re called sock puppets. They can lurk in chat rooms and cause trouble by bullying people, or inventing stuff … like they’re suffering from a terminal illness; they’re weird attention seekers. But she’s no ingénue. She’s not stupid, even if Alex thinks she is, which is sometimes no bad thing.

There have been lots of really interesting books suggested by the groups, and since she got herself a Kindle she’s been able to surreptitiously read loads about men like Alex.
Inside the Minds of Controlling Men

Why does He Do That

How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life

Men Who Hate Women & the Women Who Love Them

The Devil You Know …
Most of them have given her
some
insight into the way Alex behaves. But with Alex there’s such a municipal- dump-sized heap of problems festering and eating away at him that it’s going to take more than a Kindle and a catalogue of self- help books to sort him out. On the good days she can convince herself that Alex really is the same man she married, and she can try and forget about all the bad stuff and be the glass half-full person and believe him when he says it will all be OK. But sometimes something will blow up – something not even of her doing – that will push his buttons and leave her feeling nothing but fear and despair. Those are the bad days, the dark days, and she doesn’t like to dwell on those because what’s the point? For Ben’s sake they’ve got to make it work. She wants him to have a secure home; a
proper
upbringing with both a mother
and
a father in his life. She owes it to Ben.

When Alex is loving he can be wonderful: kind and
really
gentle. And she has this hope that knowing what he was like before means that he can be like that again if he’ll only agree to get some help. Christ, if only. When he came back from Afghanistan the second time, when she realized there was something very wrong, that a new Alex had returned, she pleaded with him to talk to her about what had happened to him, but it was as though he’d locked his emotions into a lead-lined vault and no one – especially her – would ever get anywhere near them. It all seemed so bloody unfair. She’d always believed there was an unbreakable tie between them, based on a deep understanding of each other’s insecurities and what had caused them. She’d persuaded herself that one of the major strengths of their relationship had been this recognition of their similarities. It meant that when the bad things happened they could work things through. She’d tried to convince herself that it was the major crises in their marriage that brought them closer together, as though somehow battling through the traumas and crawling out the other side – scarred, maybe, but still
together
– made their marriage stronger. Sometimes she wanted to scream at him, ‘For fuck’s sake, Alex, just think of what we’ve been through, what I’ve put up with … and OK, what
you’ve
put up with … but we’re still bloody here. So if you can’t sort yourself out now, what the hell has it all been for?’ When she’d felt brave enough she’d tried to raise the possibility of his talking to somebody else, perhaps a professional, but he’d told her to lay off, to fuck off, to drop it or else … Christ, he’d even said he’d kill her if she raised it again. Sure, he was only saying that, like people do, but it was the way he said it, which convinced her he really meant it.

Juliet is finding lots of things hard at the moment, but she finds it particularly cruel when Alex accuses her of being the one who’s at fault. He has the bloody nerve to tell her she has mood swings. She tells him that they’re not mood swings, they’re just normal reactions to his behaviour. That anyone ‘normal’ would react in the same way as she does. He tries to make out that she’s bipolar or something, like a manic depressive, but she knows she isn’t. It’s his way of justifying his own behaviour. It’s just the effect that he has on her. God, that’s the basic script of so many of their rows.

She’s like an apple in a bowl of water, quite happily bobbing around on the surface, and then Alex comes along and gets his teeth into her to try and drown her. But he can’t. She just bobs up again. She thinks it annoys him the way she bounces back, because it shows that he can’t really control her fully.

‘Why can’t you just do as I say?’ he’ll ask her. ‘If only you could just do what I want then we wouldn’t have all these bloody awful rows.’

And what if she did? He wouldn’t respect her for it, would he? He’d just get worse until there was nothing left of her own will. It’s exhausting living with Alex but she has ways of coping, and she tries to show him that if he does treat her badly she’ll give just as good as she gets. Alex used to say that had always been their attraction to each other – opposites creating sparks of friction which ignite passion. But then he used to say a lot of things. If it wasn’t for Ben, Juliet doesn’t know what she might do. Anyone looking in from the outside would probably tell her to leave. It just seems such a bloody waste of all the years she’s spent longing for this, for him finally to be out so that they can build something worthwhile together; now that she doesn’t have to worry about him every bloody waking minute, wondering if he’ll come back to her, and if he does what state he’ll be in. All the years she’s sacrificed to the bloody British Army … Yes,
her
– not just Alex. Years of anguish and fear and now he’s back. They’ve finally given him back to her.

CHAPTER

2

Juliet has always been good at distraction techniques, almost – she was once told – to the point of dissociation. It’s a coping mechanism which lets her escape from the bad things, and Ben is a marvellous distraction. She always uses the time Ben spends in the bath playing with his ducks and boats to give his room a tidy up. She moves around the bedroom quietly and efficiently, matching up a sock with its partner, picking up a pair of pants, screwing them into a ball together with the socks ready to throw into the dirty laundry basket. Next she replaces the earless rabbit on the shelf with a menagerie of other soft toys and makes a mental note to sew the ears back on. She straightens the spines of the books on the bookshelf, picks up some random pieces of Lego from the floor and stows them in a blue plastic box.

‘Mummy …’ she hears Ben calling from the bathroom at the end of the landing.

‘Just a minute …’ she calls back because she needs to finish her tidying before she gets him out of the bath.

Juliet feels such a deep passion for Ben that it almost overwhelms her. The nursery, as they still call it even though Ben is five, is probably her favourite room in the house. It isn’t just showy-offy like the other rooms; it probably sounds silly but it’s like a material manifestation of the relationship between mother and son. Every prop demonstrates the degree of devotion which she lavishes upon Ben. Every
thing
is a symbol of shared memory between Juliet and her son. The map of their lives together thus far. Each item has a special significance, its own little history, a little story of which Juliet is the keeper on Ben’s behalf. It’s quite a thought. She feels a responsibility towards preserving this mental corkboard of memories because she has barely any memory of her own early childhood. There is no point in asking her mother to fill in the blanks because she’d only construct a fantasy, shutting out out all the bad stuff, including Juliet. Juliet has learned that guilt can do funny things to people; it can make them demonize the victim and defend the perpetrator. No, getting her mother to face up to reality is never going to happen. Not now, after all these years.

Juliet is different. She is determined to make sure she can supplement Ben’s childhood memories. Juliet thinks that by reinforcing the positives and blanking out the negatives she can determine whether Ben is a happy, outgoing child, or a neurotic, unhappy, introvert. Without any doubt it is all down to her, especially until Alex sorts himself out.

BOOK: Who Are You?
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ads

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