Matters of life and death

There are always secrets in any marriage; little ones, usually, trivial things, whose revelation may be embarrassing or awkward, even upsetting, but no worse. Helen and Geoff’s marriage, though, held a huge secret, a matter of life and death. When chance brought it to light, it threatened everything. Can love conquer all? Or are some concealments unforgiveable?

Matters of life and death

“Come on, Miles, you’re twelve now. You can give me a hand with the tents.” Geoff was already manhandling the first bag out of the boot of the silver BMW.

“I’ll bring the other one, Dad.”

Geoff concealed a grin as he watched Miles wrestle with the heavy pack, but didn’t offer to help him.

“Good man!”

“Give us a shout when you’re finished, and we’ll come and do the beds and start cooking dinner.” Helen wandered down the field towards the sea, with Sophie skipping beside her. As they neared the path to the beach, Helen stopped. Later in the evening she hoped to photograph the sunset above the path, and she needed to calculate the best place to set up her tripod. It was a shot she’d long wanted to make but weather or season had never been perfect before. Perhaps this time would be better.

“Can we go down the sea, Mummy?”

“Not just yet, love. Later.”

She turned. Geoff was waving, and the tent and its awning were standing proud and colourful by the hedge.

“I think we could let the children go to the beach on their own this year,” suggested Geoff.

“Sophie’s only ten, dear.”

“Miles?”

“Yes, Dad?”

“Can I trust you to look after your sister on the beach? You’d both have to promise not to let the water go above your knees – that’s the crest of the waves, Miles, not the trough. Would you do that?”

“Yes, of course, Dad.”

“Off you go, then.”

The children ran off, helter-skelter towards the path.

Helen sat down at the table under the awning, busy with diced beef and vegetables. Every minute or so she looked at the path where her children had vanished. She wouldn’t feel completely comfortable until they were both back with her. Her gaze shifted to Geoff, perfecting his golf swing with a nine iron and a seemingly endless supply of plastic practice balls. She smiled and waved to him. He grinned and waved back. Geoff at forty was still fit, with endless stamina. She loved the feel of his hard body against hers. Perhaps the children would go to sleep quickly tonight. Helen was glad they’d bought a large tent, with separate sleeping rooms.

It was a pleasant, relaxing weekend.

*       *       *       *

As always on Monday, Geoff had an early start, driving from Gloucestershire to Leeds for a ten o’clock meeting. Helen felt full of energy. Bedroom curtains came down from the windows and were thrust into the washing machine. All the floors were vacuumed, and all the furniture dusted. Helen slipped a CD of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony into the music centre in the kitchen as she sat down to a salad lunch. ‘What shall I tackle next?’ she wondered.

Geoff wasn’t keen on her going into the study. Without ever saying so he’d conveyed an impression that he wanted it to be his private space, in the same way that the music room was, by default, Helen’s space. She’d hoovered the study and dusted it, but that was all. It could do with a thorough spring-clean, she decided.

It was while she was delving down the sides of the two-seater settee – they were full of biscuit crumbs – that she found the photograph. Intending to return it to the correct album, she glanced at it. It was old and dog-eared, a snapshot. Half a dozen young men in camouflage, holding what she took to be automatic weapons, were grinning broadly at the photographer. In the background were damaged buildings; it was plainly a village. ‘Africa?’ wondered Helen.

She looked more closely. The man on the left of the picture seemed familiar. Her stomach lurched. He looked very like Geoff. She took the photo to the kitchen, and tucked it into her handbag before she finished cleaning the room. She wanted to consider before she asked him about it.

There were still forty minutes before Sophie was due home. Helen went to the piano, but the image of Geoff in combat gear obscured the music. Well, if music couldn’t console her, perhaps she could banish her worry by making the room smarter. She fetched beeswax and cleaning cloths, and polished the piano until she could see her reflection in the lid.

Geoff was cheerful when he returned. Sales for the quarter were ahead of target, and there were two major contracts that he thought they could win. He’d brought Helen some flowers; he kissed her, and asked her to open a bottle of wine to enjoy with dinner. Then he took the glass of sherry she handed him, and went, whistling, upstairs to the study, until Helen called him down for dinner.

“May I have some wine now I’m twelve, Dad?”

“I don’t really think he should, Geoff.”

“Quarter of a glassful won’t hurt him, Helen. In most African tribes he’d be considered a man now.”

“We’re in Europe, Geoff. Miles, there’s Schloer. I bought it specially for you.”

Miles looked first at his Dad, then at his Mum.

“Cool,” he said. “I like Schloer.”

The children were in bed and settled by nine-thirty. Helen brought in coffee.

“So what do you know about African tribes, Geoff?” Helen tried to keep her voice neutral.

“What about African tribes?”

“You told Miles that most African tribes would treat him as a man now he’s twelve.”

“Oh, that. Reader’s Digest last month.”

“It didn’t have anything to do with personal experience, then? From that time in your life that you’ve never told me about? When you were ‘knocking about the world’?”

“What’s this about, Helen? You know – you’ve always known – that there’s a part of my life that I don’t like to talk about.”

“Is that because you’re ashamed of it?”

“No, not really. If you must know, it might make it more difficult for me to do my job if it were generally known, so I don’t talk about it at all.”

“I think you’d better start talking, Geoff, at least to me.” Helen laid the photo on the coffee table as though presenting evidence.

Geoff stared at the picture.

“Have you been going through my stuff?” The skin over Geoff’s knuckles tightened as he clenched his fists.

“No, of course not. I found it down the side of the settee in the study.”

“And what were you doing poking around there?”

“Cleaning. That room needed a proper cleaning. I found the photo while I was doing that.”

“Well, now you can forget it again. It’s nothing to do with you.”

“I beg to differ. What were you doing in that picture?”

“Helping the legitimate government of Sierra Leone re-establish the rule of law in their country. I’m rather proud of that, actually. Sierra Leone could have been a failed state, and it isn’t. I played a small part in that, and I think that’s a good thing.”

“You were a soldier? Why haven’t you told my dad? He’d love to yarn with you.”

“When I was in Sierra Leone, I wasn’t part of the British Army.”

“You were a mercenary?”

“You say that like it’s a dirty word, but I was fighting on the right side.”

“Did you…did you ever kill anybody?”

“That’s what soldiers do, Helen. Yes, of course I killed people.”

“God! I’m married to a killer. The father of my children is a killer!”

“If I hadn’t killed, I would have been killed.”

“You didn’t bloody need to be there in the first place! Nobody made you go!”

Geoff stood up and moved to the drinks cabinet. He poured himself half a tumbler of scotch.

“Do you want one?”

“No, thank you.”

Geoff sat down beside her. Helen hitched herself away. She couldn’t control the aversion she felt.

“Let me tell you a few things, Helen. The most important is that I love you. You are the most important person in my world, you and the children, that is. I left soldiering behind many years ago. It was something I did as a young man; it’s not something I would ever do now.”

He paused, picked up his glass, put it down without drinking, seemed about to say something, picked up his glass again and swallowed half the contents.

“The main reason that I don’t talk about it is that I was involved in an…an incident that escalated and became – illegal. If the police were to find out, I could face trial. I am putting all my trust in you, Helen.”

“What happened?” she whispered.

“We entered a village. There were three of us Europeans who had some idea of what we were doing, and a couple of dozen locals. We lost control of them. It wasn’t entirely our fault; the local fighters were involved in a feud with the village, and we hadn’t been told. Anyway, they went berserk. They killed indiscriminately. In the end, to bring them under control, I shot one of our local fighters in the head. It stopped the others, but by then it was too late. We were surrounded by dead and mutilated civilians. We got the hell out and got the lads back to barracks, but the damage was done. Newspapers picked up on it, and reported it as an atrocity.”

“How do you live with yourself, Geoff? How on earth do you live with yourself?”

“Arguably I saved lives. I shot one man to end a massacre.”

Helen stood up

“I’ll keep my mouth shut, Geoff. But this changes everything between us. I mean, keeping this secret for fourteen years, never saying a word. Why, when we met, this had only just happened!”

“Two years earlier.”

“I’m sorry. I’d never have married you if I’d known; I wouldn’t even have gone out with you.”

“And look what you would have missed. We have a good marriage, Helen. Let’s not wreck it. We can work through this.”

“I shall sleep in the spare room tonight. No! – don’t touch me!”

*        *        *        *

Geoff rose early and returned from work late every day that week.

“Where’s Dad?” asked little Sophie.

“Busy at work, silly,” said Miles. “That’s because he’s a man. He has to earn money to take care of us all.”

“Women earn money too, Miles.” Helen didn’t mean to sound snappy. When her back was turned, Miles shrugged and pulled a face at Sophie. She giggled.

That Friday, Geoff came home early and helped Miles with his homework. Helen had cooked cottage pie and, as usual on a Friday, the whole family ate together.

Helen spoke only to Miles and Sophie. When Geoff asked her a question, she gave a non-committal grunt; he didn’t try again.

“Is something the matter, Dad?”

“Your mum and I have had a hard week, that’s all. Sometimes being grown-up is hard work.”

“Ha-ha,” muttered Helen furiously, but under her breath.

“I’ll settle Miles, if you like?”

“No!” Helen was vehement. “I’ll do it.”

The air was muggy. It felt as though a storm was brewing. Sophie’s bedroom, at the top of the house felt stuffy.

“We’ll leave your window open tonight, love, otherwise you’ll cook.”

Sophie snuggled down under her duvet.

“There’s a draft,” she complained.

“Never mind, love. You’ll soon be asleep, then you won’t notice.”

“Night-night, Mummy. Love you!”

Helen left the door ajar and the light on above the little attic staircase, so that Sophie felt reassured and safe.

The air grew heavier and heavier. By the time Helen went to the spare room to sleep, she was sure there was going to be a storm. Even though the curtains were open, no light came in from outside. The darkness there was absolute.

Before climbing into bed, she went to the window. Lightning flickered on the horizon. There was no sound; it was too far away. She counted “37…38…39” There was a faint rumbling.

She was fast asleep when the storm broke in earnest. A bolt of lightning lit up the room; Helen stirred. The crash of thunder that followed a few seconds later woke her up completely. There was another dazzling flash, and another crack of thunder.

Helen stumbled out of bed. Sophie hated thunderstorms. Even though she was a deep sleeper, violence on this scale would probably wake her. Helen shrugged on her dressing gown, slid her feet into her slippers and went out onto the landing.

The world lit up. She felt a shock as though somebody had struck every part of her body a stinging blow, and she fell into darkness and the stink of smoke. The burglar alarm was shrieking. Helen fought to move, fought to breathe. Her body felt paralysed. The darkness was less. There was light flickering on the staircase up to Sophie’s room. It was orange and yellow, and showed up the clouds of dark smoke roiling up the stairs.

Helen tried to shout, but, as though in a nightmare, she was mute. Her voice wouldn’t obey her. The tingling was passing off, leaving an ache and a sensation of burning. She levered herself up on an elbow. The staircase was alight!

She forced herself to her feet, swaying, gasping, coughing and staggered forwards towards the stairs and the fire. The flames reached for her. She tried to run past them, but she was too slow. Her dressing gown was alight as she reached the door.

But her strength and her wits were returning. She threw off the robe and slammed the door on the fire. The room was hot and smoky. She threw open the window as wide as it would go, breathed deeply, then turned to Sophie.

“Mummy, I’m frightened. What’s happening?”

“You’re all right now, darling. Mummy’s here.”

The room was hot, but not unbearably so, and the smoke was already dissipating in the draft from the window. Helen blessed Geoff’s forethought for insisting that the door to Sophie’s room should be a proper fire door.

“We’ve got to go out of the window, Sophie. That’ll be an adventure, won’t it?”

Rain was hammering down outside.

“I don’t think I like adventures, Mummy.”

“Come here, Sophie. Climb up here. You must sit on this bit, and then we fasten the belt, and you’re good to go.” Helen smiled and patted Sophie. “When you reach the ground, undo the buckle, and shout so that Mummy knows you’re ready. Then move well away from the house – ten steps away – and Mummy will come down the same way.”

Helen took hold of Sophie, and, with a silent prayer, launched her out of the window.

“Mummy!” the little girl screamed.

The mechanism of the fire escape rattled as the line paid out. There was a bump from below, and a wail. ‘Thank goodness,’ thought Helen, ‘that means she’s alive!’

She waited. The room was becoming stifling. The soles of her feet were burning on the floor.

“Undo the buckle, Sophie. Take off the harness. Mummy needs it.”

“It’s stuck, Mummy.”

She was going to die here. At least Sophie was safe. She wished, though, that she’d had the chance to be reconciled with Geoff.

“Helen? Helen!”

Thank goodness! It was Geoff!

“Sophie, here, let me undo that buckle. Helen? Are you okay up there? Sophie’s clear. Wind up the harness!”

Helen pulled frantically on the cord. The ratchet mechanism seemed to take an age to retract the saving line. At last it was ready. She climbed into the harness. Her feet were hurting abominably. She fastened the buckle, and pushed herself out of the window. The ratchet whirred, faster this time under her greater weight. She thumped into the ground, and felt an acute stab of agony in her right ankle.

Geoff grabbed her, lifted her.

“Miles is in the car. I’ve sent Sophie to join him. God, I thought I’d lost you.”

Tears were rolling down his cheeks, she realised. She patted his back as he carried her towards the car.

“It’s all right, Geoff. It’s all right. I’m okay. Just a busted ankle and a few scorch marks.”

“We’ll call an ambulance, just to be on the safe side,” he said.

“Geoff, I’m sorry about this last week. When I was trapped in Sophie’s room but knew she was safe, the only thing that really mattered to me was the thought that I loved you and I had been horrible to you. I’m really sorry.”

“It was my fault, Helen. I should have found some way of telling you before we married. I was dishonest. Can you forgive me?”

There, in the light of their blazing home, they kissed and gave thanks. They had saved everything that really mattered.

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