Rosie loved Tom. Rosie had always loved Tom and, although she was unable to measure ‘always’ in terms of years and months, this made perfect sense to her.
Their love was not constrained by the mortal bonds of time; it was eternal, ageless and ancient beyond all recollection and record. All that mattered to Rosie, all that had ever really mattered, was that she loved him and he loved her. These facts, she knew, were as solid and undeniable as the old oak tree in the garden.
Nowadays, Tom talked to the oak tree more than he did to Rosie, but she didn’t take this personally. She understood his need to be with nature. She knew he found it comforting that a world which produced guns and bombs could also yield a dewy spring blossom. She realised that his eyes craved beauty, for she had only to look into them to see that his wounds were still fresh and current.
He needed time, she told herself. He hadn’t long come home and it was clearly going to take a little while longer for him to truly return to her. It didn’t make the slightest difference to how she felt about him. She had all the time in the world for Tom and, while she waited for him, their love would see them through.
Tom found the sudden change in his circumstances more than a little bewildering. To be here in the house, shadowed by his watchful, yet unobtrusive wife was wonderful, but also rather strange. It felt like the fantasies he’d created as a battle-weary soldier, when he’d shunned grim reality in favour of a romanticised vision of life back in England.
He’d so often dreamed of home, that his homecoming had seemed dreamlike and still now his surroundings quivered with the tremulous contours of a mirage.
Yet, for all its perplexing intensity, Tom was acutely aware that life here was good. The house was beautiful and so was she. It was his favourite time of year; the garden was brimming with burgeoning flowers, the house was bathed in the mellow luminosity of hazy spring sunshine and his wife… his wife’s blue eyes shimmered with the promise of better times to come. It was the culmination of his most cherished desires. His home, his garden and his lovely wife, waiting for him at the end of it all. Tom knew he would be happy, given time.
Rosie noticed that the ritual of familiar routine helped Tom adjust to his new environment. He took to making the bed with her, helping her set the table, putting out his West Ham mug next to her china teacup as she filled the kettle.
The more time Tom spent at home with Rosie, the more ownership he took of his daily chores and, much to her satisfaction, he even began to instigate them.
One Sunday morning, she found him in the kitchen, peeling potatoes and carrots for lunch. She watched him for a few moments, mesmerised by the rhythmic motion of his task and by the perfectly proportioned strips of orange vegetable peel emanating from the carrot in his hand. She bustled into the room.
‘You don’t need a housewife,’ she joked.
He put down the carrot and took her in his arms.
‘But I’ll always need a wife,’ he replied.
Rosie thrilled at his words and at his touch. After so long apart, his skin on hers felt like the very first time.
She cast her mind back to that exquisite night, not so very long ago, when their future together had stretched out before them, as long and as vibrant as their tightly intertwined limbs. She wished now she’d made a note of that date; the day they realised the full extent of their feelings for each other, the day that changed both their lives forever.
Why is it, she thought to herself, that I can remember every look, every smell, every taste from that night, but I don’t know whether it was July or January? She put it down to the heady excitement of first love and, as she looked into Tom’s eyes now, she knew he could still make her feel that way.
A few days later, he kissed her full on the lips, catching her unawares while she took tea in the garden. The shock of it caused her to drop her favourite cup and, as she responded to the warm pressure of his mouth, she watched the shards of rose-patterned porcelain scatter across the veranda.
She tried to focus on his kiss, the sweetness of which she had sorely missed, but her mind returned to the shattered pieces of bone china surrounding them. She fancied they were like splinters of fractured time; fragmented moments from their past together. Time they had wasted, time they had borrowed, time they had taken for granted and would never get back.
That night they lay down together, face-to-face on one pillow. Rosie held her breath and listened to the sounds of the silence; the dripping tap, the ticking clock, Tom’s steady breathing. She looked deep into the whirlpool of his cloudy gaze, trying to interpret its meaning and feeling much like Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole; dizzy with excitement, yet fearful she would lose herself in the sensation of perpetual falling.
‘I love you, Tom,’ she croaked.
He shifted beside her.
‘I should go back to my own bed.’
She squeezed her eyelids shut and tried hard to understand.
‘This is your bed too,’ she told him, ‘whenever you’re ready.’
He stroked her face and kissed her affectionately on the forehead.
‘Good-night, my love.’
He rose from the bed and left her staring into the shadows. She lay awake for a while, doggedly counting her blessings; but then the creeping darkness slowly dimmed her senses and sleep erased her memory until all that remained in her consciousness was the imprint of her sorrow.
Tom lay trembling in an unfamiliar bed across the landing. He thought about his wife, about her sparkling sea-blue eyes. She was all he’d ever wanted in a woman. Why then, when he loved her so much, when his body ached for her, was he spending the night alone, yet again?
He was tired, that he knew and he’d been through so much, but coming home to her had helped soothe the pain and he was now ready to put the past behind him. Tomorrow he would talk to her, explain how he really felt. He’d get a few things off his chest, about the loneliness and the fear. Clear the air so to speak. She’d understand. He needed to talk, to get back to his old self and then they could get on with the business of living.
The next morning, Tom found her in the garden, barefoot and dressed only in a thin dressing-gown. She didn’t notice him at first, so enthralled was she by the dancing daffodils under the oak tree, by the sweet birdsong and the long wet grass, which felt like tiny puppy tongues lapping her ankles.
‘You’ll catch your death, you silly old moo,’ he reproached her mildly.
She turned to him laughing and shivering, delighted that he’d sought her out.
‘Watch it, cheeky!’ she said. ‘I’m not old.’
‘Well you’re too old to be wandering around outside half-clothed,’ he grumbled as he guided her gently back into the house.
‘I was going to have a bath,’ she told him, ‘but I looked out the window and the garden looked so pretty.’
They sat down in the living room together and she put her hands in his.
‘Do you remember when we used to do silly things? Just for the fun of it?’
He shook his head.
‘No, not really. Can’t say I do.’
She leant forward and searched his eyes.
‘Of course you do,’ she insisted. ‘Running down hills, blowing spit bubbles. Skinny-dipping.’
She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively and saw a flame ignite in his dark eyes. He grinned.
His smile broadened and settled into the lines and creases of his lovely face.
‘There you are,’ she said.
She took him by the hand and led him up the stairs.
Afterwards, they slept and Rosie knew peace.
Tom’s slumber was not so restful and he found himself back on the battlefield. He was awoken by an explosion, which flung him out of the bed and onto the floor. His cries roused Rosie and she rushed to his side.
‘Get back in the tank!’ he screamed at her.
She cradled his head and stroked his damp hair.
‘Hush my darling, it’s not real.’
‘The enemy,’ he panted, ‘the enemy’s approaching. RUN!’
‘Look at me, Tom. It’s Rosie.’
He looked at her.
‘You’re at home with me.’
He sat up and looked around the bedroom.
‘Is the war over then?’ he asked.
‘Yes darling, it’s over.’
He let out a loud whoop.
‘Shush!’ she laughed, ‘you’ll wake the neighbours.’
The last thing she wanted was one of those busybodies knocking on the door. She got up.
‘Shall we have breakfast?’
Tom got up too but then flopped down onto the bed.
‘I’m still tired,’ he said, ‘how about you?’
He patted the empty space beside him on the mattress and she giggled.
‘I could do with forty winks myself,’ she said and lay down next to him.
They cuddled, oblivious to all else but the muted delight of their whispered intimacy.
Oblivious to the bedroom door slowly opening and a shadowy figure entering the room.
c. Tanya Bullock