Authors: Elizabeth Forbes
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Post Traumatic Stress, #Combat stress
A Cutting Edge Press Paperback Original Published in 2014 by Cutting Edge Press
Copyright © Elizabeth Forbes
Elizabeth Forbes has asserted her moral right to be identified as the author of this work under the terms of the 1988 Copyright Design and Patents Act.
This book is sold subject to the conditions that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published, and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
The characters appearing in this book are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved
E-PUB ISBN: 978-1-908122-74-2
E-Book production by Mousemat Design Limited
All rights are reserved to the author and publishers.
Reproduction in any form currently known or yet to be invented, or the use of any extract is only permitted with the written approval of the publishers.
For Y. J.
Alex walks up the street he’s walked up every week night for the last twelve months. Lime trees, uniformly spaced, march up the wide pavement. Useless things that cover the cars with an irremovable stickiness and make the parking difficult especially as each house now seems to accommodate two cars, and sometimes even a third for the help. Litter escapes the street cleaners’ suction machines by skulking beneath the trunks. Detritus from the KFC, McDonalds, lager tins, supermarket carrier bags and styrofoam cups mingle with the dead leaves. Alex scans the rubbish as he walks past it, searching for anything that looks unusual; anything other than the normal crap. There’s a fresh lot every day because each morning between 5 and 6.00 a.m. the road-sweeping machine drones along the street, waking him up if he’s not awake already, mawing and scraping and bleeping its health and safety warning. His ears are so finely attuned to the noises of the night that he can hear it coming from a long way off, and he can hear it going first down one side of the street fading into nothing, and then coming slowly back up the other, growing louder once more. The same movements every single day; a fixed routine that you can set your clock by. Alex never feels comfortable with fixed routines.
The street, which is actually an avenue thanks to the trees, is flanked mostly by semi-detached houses of the late-Victorian period constructed from mellow, reddish-orange brick. London brick. Each house shares the same footprint, apart from the grander detached ones nearer to Richmond Park at the top of the hill. They are all of a similar value, give or take the odd few thousand pounds for an added-on conservatory or remodelled kitchen. It’s nearly half past seven and most of the inhabitants haven’t yet got around to shutting their curtains, so when he looks up from the pavement he can see right into the elegant rooms. He sees silk-covered lampshades, collections of silver-framed family photographs, gilded antique mirrors over the Victorian mantelpieces, and tasteful pictures adorning the walls. Through some of the windows he can see small children in nightclothes talking animatedly to slim, chic, interchangeable women. Their hair, clothes, mannerisms, all seem to have morphed into an homogenous glob of same-ness. Alex prides himself in recognizing when things are the same, and sensing the danger signs when there is the slightest shift from the norm. In the same way that he watches the street, the houses and the people inside them, his hyper-vigilance picks up on anything that is out of place, and things are definitely out of place in his own home. It’s just a matter of time until he’ll have to act, or perhaps deploy is a better word. The irony is that he really does love Juliet and he wants to have a happy, perfect home with her and Ben. He wants to be able to look into the windows of his own house and see the same story-book scene of marital and material comfort. A genuinely happy wife and child waiting for his homecoming, instead of the caricature they have created. He’s always looking in at them from behind his own walls, and there’s nothing he can do to pull them down. If only … If only they were different people, if only life had been different, then things would be different. Now they are just advancing towards the inevitable battle. Alex is so tired. Not just tired as in needing to get in, pour a drink, sit down and somehow put his mind on hold; he feels swamped by a thick mud of exhaustion that invades both his limbs and his mind.
Before he’s within ten yards of the house he knows that something has happened. He feels a familiar surge of adrenalin. So perhaps this is it. This is what he’s been preparing for. There is no light coming through the glazed door; instead just blackness receding far into the house. The sitting room to his right is also in darkness. He takes a step backwards from under the canopy of the porch and looks up to the first-floor bedrooms. They too are in darkness. He turns to see if Juliet’s BMW is outside. His hand trembles but he manages to fit the key into the lock and pushes the door open, sweeping a pile of flyers across the doormat and onto the quarry-tiled floor. He closes the door and flicks the hall light switch. He puts his briefcase down, and then he squats to gather up the various takeaway leaflets, screwing them up into a tight ball. His footsteps echo across the floor, amplifying the silence of the house. He shrugs off his coat and puts it on the newel post at the foot of the stairs. He walks through to the kitchen. There is something that makes him pause before switching the lights on, knowing that this is a situation he has rehearsed in his head many times. His hand hovers over the switch, and he takes a deep breath. The room floods with light. It is all too tidy. There is nothing on the sink. All the work surfaces are clinically clean and clear. It is the way he likes Juliet to leave it if they are going away. He likes it to be tidy to come home to.
Propped up against the fruit bowl, on the island that occupies the centre of the kitchen, sits a white envelope marked ALEX. He picks up the envelope and stares at those four capital letters.
A FIRM BASE
Juliet wanted their new house to be perfect; a new life, a fresh start. She wanted to live in the sort of neighbourhood where people like herself lived, so she didn’t stick out like some sad, isolated sore thumb. She long ago got tired of their peripatetic lifestyle. Two years somewhere, just enough time to settle and get to know the people and, if you were lucky, make maybe one good friend, and then they would move on once again, all because of Alex. And now all that is behind them. She’s got her little family unit just as she wants it. So everything about this house, and their new, settled life
perfect, because she tells herself it is so, and she believes that if she tells herself often enough, then it
be so. In ten years of marriage it is the first place that she can really think of as her own home and so she is determined that they will fit in, like
things and that she won’t let Alex fuck it all up. OK, so Alex would much rather be living in some isolated farmhouse in the Welsh hills rather than in the goldfish bowl of south-west London, and there’s a big part of Juliet that is attracted to the picture-postcard idyll; it’s just that there was something threatening about being in the middle of nowhere with only Alex. Alex’s mother was so thrilled at the prospect of them living near to her after all the years of postings abroad, that she gave him a substantial gift of money to invest in the house. They could never have afforded it by themselves,
he found a good job. But she knows that he hates the transparency of suburbia. He hates being subjected to the sounds of other people, including their intimate moments, their rows, their children playing or crying; he says he can smell the scent of other people’s lives drifting across their air space. He reminds Juliet of an alpha male displaced from his pack.
‘No Alex?’ Rowena Wood sits beside Juliet and unwinds a dramatically printed pashmina and removes her hat. ‘Phew. Hot in here.’
‘He couldn’t get away from work. Ben’s disappointed but what can you do?’
OK, so last night they had a row about the fact that he wasn’t coming to the nativity play at Ben’s school, but to be honest she’s actually pleased. Juliet is very wary of him and his unpredictability, and lately he’s become even more volatile. She never knows just which Alex she might get. When he left the Army he told her he was tired of having to be nice to people just because it was either in his job description or because they were of some, as he put it, artificially constructed seniority. He was perfectly capable of ignoring someone, of blanking them, if he thought what they were talking about was dull or stupid. He said he just didn’t have the patience any more to suffer fools, that life was just too short to fill it with idiots.
‘You must be joking,’ Rowena says. ‘My job is
as high- powered as his, and if I can bloody well get here, so can he. But you know, it’s like a competition about who’s the most important. It’s so stupid because if he’d got any sense he’d realize that this is far more important. First nativity? I’m feeling sick with nerves.’
‘Mary, wouldn’t you know it. How about Ben?’
Rowena laughs. ‘Bloody pain in the arse. Last night I had to cut up a really pretty dress of mine because it was the only thing that was blue. And she’s got one of my designer belts holding her head thing on. I’m so scared she won’t look the part.’
‘She’ll look perfect, I’m sure.’ Juliet nudges Rowena, dropping her voice to a whisper, ‘Just look at Arabella. I
Charlotte went to a professional fancy dress place. I’m sorry, but those wings, and the halo … That dress is silk chiffon.’