Authors: Elizabeth Forbes
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Post Traumatic Stress, #Combat stress
She goes into the nursery and finds Ben shivering, only half into his dressing gown. ‘Here, put your arm in the sleeve.’ Then she ties the belt around his waist. He stands watching as Juliet deftly pulls the bottom sheet off the bed, revealing the plastic mattress protector which is stained yellow. Then she rips open the poppers on the bottom of his Spiderman duvet cover and drags the duvet out. She feels the duvet for dampness, and then she sniffs it.
‘Eeeugh, Ben. It stinks of wee.’
Ben looks down at the floor. ‘Sorry,’ he mutters once more.
‘It doesn’t matter.’ Juliet threads the duvet over the top of the radiator. She won’t have time to wash and dry it today, of all days. It will just have to stay stinking. ‘Come on, let’s get you in the bath.’
She pours bubble bath under the hot tap and swirls the water to make it foam. Then she adjusts the temperature by adding more cold water. ‘OK, ready now.’ Ben’s fingers pull at the knot in the dressing gown tie. ‘Here,’ she says impatiently. As she pulls at the knot, Ben almost loses his balance and his head rocks backwards and forwards as if a supporting screw in his neck has come loose.
‘Stand up properly,’ she orders.
‘Sorry,’ Ben says again.
‘Ben, for God’s sake stop saying sorry. It’s all right, babe.’ She gives him a hug and then slips the dressing gown off his body. His legs are getting long, he’s getting thinner, stretching like elastic, although he still has a little childish pot belly. She holds his hand as he climbs into the bath, and then he plops down into the water, staring at his hands which are clasped together in his lap. ‘Ben, it’s OK. It doesn’t matter.’ She puts her hand under his chin and lifts it. His eyes are wet and there’s snot escaping from his nose. ‘Don’t cry, darling, it’s all right.’ Deep down she suspects that the bedwetting is really their fault. Ben’s neither deaf nor blind and she knows he’s seen and heard things. She is so desperate not to fuck him up, but how can she protect him, with Alex the way he is?
‘Father Christmas won’t come and see me now cos I haven’t been good. Do you think he’ll know, about the bed … like Jesus. He can see everything?’
‘Oh Ben …’ Juliet suddenly feels that she’s in danger of crying too. Her throat constricts so much that she feels if she takes a breath it will just erupt into a loud sob. And she doesn’t want to cry in front of Ben. She tucks her head down and tells herself to get a grip. She can’t give in to weakness.
‘Of course he’s going to come. You’ve been a very good boy, darling. I promise you. Now let’s get you washed, because we’re going to get the tree later and we’ve got to get all the decorations out. Shall we put chocolate on the tree, like last year? Do you remember?’
‘One, two, three, four chocolates a day, Mummy.’ Ben holds his fingers out as he counts. ‘I like the red balls best, can we have lots of red balls and all the presents underneath?’ Amazing how quickly he can change his mood.
‘We’re having gold this year darling, and you can help put them on.’
‘We can decorate it when Granny comes this afternoon.’
‘Granny smells funny.’
‘Don’t be silly, of course she doesn’t.’
‘She does. Like Daddy does when he’s drinking whiskery. Eeeugh. Granny smells like that.’
‘Granny doesn’t drink whisky. Probably just something’s she’s eaten, darling.’
Juliet wonders if she’s been a little unsubtle in the choice of goodies she’s procured for Geraldine’s stocking. The off-licence had been a great help – miniatures of vodka, four cans of ready- made gin and tonic, a pretty little bottle of sloe gin which Juliet couldn’t pretend she’d made herself, but she had bought it at the Country Living market, which was the next best thing. She shouldn’t really be encouraging her, facilitating her, but what the hell … it’s Christmas. Geraldine drinks because it takes the sharp edges off her life. It helps her pretend that it’s a lot better than it is, and was. She’s what Juliet supposes is a functioning alcoholic. She doesn’t ever appear to be blind, falling-over drunk. Alcohol is just the drug that her body has become dependent upon, and in order to function she just needs to keep her levels topped up. So actually Juliet is helping her. Perhaps she will give Geraldine her stocking in private, And then after she’s opened it they will just exchange a quiet wink about it.
!’ Juliet says aloud as she helps Ben out of the bath. The same – year in, year out. Pissed mother, desperate wife and fucked-up husband. And now, very possibly,
psychologically damaged son to carry on the family tradition.
With Ben breakfasted and finally settled in front of CBeebies, Juliet opens up her laptop and logs in to one of her chat rooms. There’s a private message for her from FightbackGirl asking how she is. She’s one of Juliet’s regulars and so she types quickly, telling her about last night – well, some of it – and within seconds of her pressing send she sees that FightbackGirl is online and is typing her response. A question Juliet’s not really got time to answer properly but she feels deserves a response, however brief.
What was it like at the beginning? Passionate – once I got over my initial aversion to him. He was SO not my normal type. My mother loved him and that was just the kiss of death for me. He was perfect for her. Just SO bloody perfect it made me NOT want to go out with him.
Juliet pauses and takes a sip of her coffee. FightbackGirl is typing again. Juliet responds:
We’ve got history, my mother and I. Not exactly what you’d call close. Sorry. I’ve got to go. A million things to do. I’ll be online later if I get chance. I love ‘chatting’ to you. Keeps me sane. Ta for listening. Hope you’re OK and you have a peaceful and happy day. Hugs X
She sits down with a blank piece of paper and pen, ready to start yet another of her endless lists, but instead of writing she finds herself daydreaming, thinking back to that first time and wondering how they got to this. Maybe if she hadn’t gone to that wedding … but then if she hadn’t met Alex she wouldn’t have had Ben. And she could never regret that, no matter how many regrets she has about everything else. He was standing in the doorway, directing people to their pews; the usual thing, groom on the right, bride on the left. Juliet had come by herself. Anna, the bride, was her cousin and so no ‘plus one’ had been issued to Juliet. The family would have been far too scared of who she might bring. He was dressed in a fancy uniform with lots of gold bling and red toothpaste stripes down the outside of his trouser legs. Anna was marrying an Army guy. Juliet had met him once or twice and he’d done nothing to make her reconsider her prejudice. This one looked typically self-satisfied, smug and over-confident. Just the type that Juliet loathed. He gave her one of those looks that lasted a bit too long, like he was studying a menu. ‘Bride,’ she said.
‘Alex’, he said, and put out his hand. ‘Your hand is cold,’ he said, giving it a second squeeze. She snatched it away from him.
cold heart too.’
‘Don’t believe that. Bet I could warm it.’
‘Christ!’ she said. ‘That’s so bloody corny.’
‘You started it,’ he said.
‘No, I didn’t, you did.’
‘And you just blasphemed in church.’ He was grinning at her and she wanted to tell him to fuck off, but even Juliet had to draw the line somewhere.
‘Guess I’ll probably be struck down then. Ah well, perhaps we could hold the funeral at the same time, seeing as everyone’s gathered here. Save money on the wake.’
‘Be a shame though.’
‘What, champagne at my wake? Be just how I’d want it.’
‘I mean, as we’ve only just met.’
‘Look, I don’t know how to say this politely, but you’re SO not my type, I wouldn’t waste your time. Can’t you hit on a nice bridesmaid instead?’
She gave him a tight-lipped impression of a smile and headed off to take her seat.
The reception was a sit-down affair: lots of round tables, and hand-written place cards with their names. When it came to take her place for dinner – surprise surprise –
was sitting next to her.
‘You moved the cards,’ she said. ‘And I was probably going to get someone really nice.’
‘Actually you were due to get a seventy-year-old.’
‘I’m not ageist. There’s some pretty hot seventy-year-olds around. Anyway, I don’t believe you. I expect it was someone Anna picked out as being just my type. That’s the way it goes at weddings, isn’t it? Your mates fix you up with suitable partners and then hey-ho in a year’s time we can all get together for a rematch in someone else’s marquee?’
‘So you’re looking for a husband?’
‘A husband!’ Juliet nearly choked on her champagne. ‘Me? You must be bloody joking. That’s the last thing I need.’
‘So you’re not disappointed, then, that I’m sitting here?’
‘As long as you’re not looking for a wife.’ She barely managed to stifle a yawn, and picked up the menu card on the table and glanced at it quickly. Familiar fare: duck pâté with apricot blah blah … rack of lamb … and lemon tart or yukky pavlova. Food did nothing for Juliet. She fiddled with the card, keeping her eyes down, hoping that this guy would get the message.
‘So what do you do?’ he said.
‘Don’t you know it’s terribly
to ask someone what they do?’
‘It’s pretty obvious what I do, so it’s only fair that you tell me what you do, isn’t it?’
‘No. Anyway I’ve no idea what you do, apart from ponce around in a fancy uniform, and kill people occasionally.’
‘Maybe you’re a little rich girl, and Daddy keeps you and you don’t do anything, and that’s why you’re so shy of the question.’
‘Ooo … dear me, perhaps I’ve hit on a nerve. Well whatever Mummy and Daddy do, they certainly taught you a colourful way of conversing.’
‘A colourful way of conversing …’ she mocked. ‘Are you for real? I didn’t know there were people who spoke like that. I bet I can guess where you went to school.’
‘Eton or Harrow or possibly Winchester. And you’ve joined Daddy’s old regiment, and you probably didn’t do university because you’re a bit thick between the ears, and so the Army was the obvious place for you. And then after a few years shooting and shouting at people, you’ll come out and get a cosy job in the city – possibly in Daddy’s old stockbroking firm.’
‘Very perceptive, aren’t you?’
‘So people say.’
‘OK. My turn now. I bet you didn’t want to go to normal school. You were far too special, far too arty-farty and …’ he made little quote marks in the air ‘… individual to go anywhere ordinary. Bedales would be the place. I’d put money on the fact that’s where you went. And while you were there you got yourself into a nice little drugs culture, and picked up an eating disorder, too, by the look of your skinny little frame.’
‘You’re bloody rude!’
‘Ah. So I guessed right, then.’
‘You’ve been talking to my mother or some other helpful relative, haven’t you? Been doing your homework?’
‘Put it this way,’ he said. ‘When I come across something that interests me, I make it my business to get to know everything about it.’
‘I’m not a fucking object, and you sound like some kind of weirdo, like a bloody stalker.’
‘I find you fascinating, like a puzzle that needs solving. Complicated but ultimately satisfying. This front you put up, it’s because you’re scared of something. All feisty and strong on the outside but all of that’s a cover-up. Something or someone hurt you. It’s what people do, like animals, all aggression on the outside and fear on the inside.’
‘You don’t know me. You think you’ve found out a few things about me but actually you don’t know anything about me. I think you’re spooky – no, worse than that. I think you’ve got that inbred arrogance, that sense of entitlement, that posh boys like you imbibe at your mothers’ breasts. And you sit there and think that your pathetic little nugget of armchair psychology is enough to define me. Jeeesus Christ …’ He caught hold of her arm and pulled her towards him and then he somehow managed to press his mouth onto hers. She struggled for a second or two and then there was something about his mouth, the warmth of it, the hard pressure of his lips against hers, the scent of his skin, that sparked not only anger, but something else, something sensual and scary. When he took his mouth from hers she was speechless. All she could do was return his stare, and for those few moments it seemed that there was no one else in the room but the two of them. Then she picked up her handbag and almost ran to the ladies’ to splash some cold water on to her face and try and calm herself down as she redid her make-up. How dare he! Who the hell did he think he was? And what gave him the right to speak to her like that? She should never have come. These people – men like Alex – they were everything she despised. She took the little purse from her handbag and decanted a line of coke onto a tiny mirror and then used a rolled up note to inhale the precious white powder. Then she brushed the telltale traces of white from her nostrils. She could hear the music, a live band striking up, and as she stood in the shadows of the garden, waiting for the drug to take effect, she was pleased to realize they were actually quite good. She waited until the dance floor had filled up and then slid herself between the swaying bodies and let the music take over. If she closed her eyes she could imagine herself alone and sinking into the music, becoming a part of each instrument, the song of the guitar, the pulse of the drums, every lyric evoking a memory or an unfulfilled desire. She seemed no longer there in the mental sense; she was oblivious, removed from the bodies around her, there was just herself and the music. When she felt the firm hands on her waist and opened her eyes she expected it to be him. She didn’t resist when he pulled her body so close that his pelvis clamped against hers, nor did she mind when they swayed together as one. She liked the strength, the muscular feel of him. And when he put his mouth on hers she relaxed her lips, letting his tongue slip inside her mouth, tentative and teasing at first and then deep and insistent. Later she couldn’t remember which one of them had made the first move that would lead to the inevitable. But they ended up outside and nor could she remember if there had been much in the way of foreplay. But what she did remember was the intensity, the eroticism, the feel of him thrusting into her and then coming with him, his hand over her mouth stifling her screams. She remembered him slipping out of her and the slow return to reality and the realization of what she had just let happen. No regrets. No point in regrets, and a fuck was a fuck, nothing more.