Mother Knows Best
'Never marry a solider' my mother once told me. Never was much of a traditionalist, my dear old mum, with her short skirts and her short hair and job that should belong to a man. I was fourteen and that was the first time she gave me love advice, sitting at a family meal with Uncle Stan telling gory stories from the war. I laughed then, and didn't notice when her returning smile didn't quite reach her eyes.
I was seventeen the next time she offered me wise words on the affairs of the heart. I'd just finished my A Levels, no results yet but a soaring feeling of hope in my belly. I felt that I'd done well, and everything seemed right with the world. It was summer, I was happy, and I chose that night to bring Danny home with me. I'd only met him two weeks before.
"That boy will break your heart," Mum said to me, the moment he walked out of the door. He'd laughed and joked with my brothers at dinner, and even Uncle Stan seemed to take to him. Everyone liked him, it seemed, but for the one person who's opinion I regarded most highly. I hated her a little bit, then, and I didn't stop seeing Danny.
"You can't just be happy for me, can you?" I shouted the words at her half a year later, our first real row. I was crying as I spoke; angry, bitter tears. The words that came next seemed like the ultimate betrayal as she insisted that she was only looking out for my best interests, trying to stop me from getting hurt. I was young and full of rage. She said 'I'm trying to look after you'. I heard 'I'm trying to hurt you'.
She wasn't pleased when I showed her the engagement ring and told her the date of the wedding. We'd tried to book an early date but everywhere nice was full, and finding somewhere quickly became impossible. We settled on September instead of February, the date of our ceremony three weeks after his first tour of Afghanistan should end.
"It's dangerous out there," Mum warned me. "You'll pick your vows and buy all the flowers and then something will happen and he won't come home."
"Shut up!" I screamed, fingers in my ears and humming like a child to drown out her words. "Shut up, shut up! I don't care what you say!" (But I did care, really, and that's why it stung).
"He'll go out there and get hurt, over and over," she persisted, determined old woman, "And by the end there will be so little left of him that you'll have medals and letters of commendation sent back in his place."
I stopped seeing her then, for quite a long time. Punishing her in the only way I knew how, I let her messages collect on my answer phone and never once called her back. It hurt me as much as it hurt her, but all I cared about then was making her suffer.
She sent me an email the night Danny left for a desert far away. I almost deleted it on sight, but couldn't quite bring myself to. It was short, just two words and meant as an olive branch I think. 'Good luck'. I send back 'Thanks' and left it as that, though I did keep her on the invitation list for the wedding.
We made love that night, Danny and I. It wasn't the first time and I swore to myself that it wouldn't be the last. It was slow and a little bit desperate as we tried to make it last forever, neither of us wanting the morning to come. He whispered 'I love you's into my hair and I lay crying in the dark.
I'd never been religious before in my life but I found myself praying a few times while he was away. Praying that he'd come home safely to me, praying that I would be able to prove my mother wrong. Three months felt like a lifetime, living in an empty flat and sleeping in an empty bed. Each morning I could scarcely bear to turn on the radio, terrified to hear of new deaths in the Helmand province, but each day spent worrying was one day closer to the time when he would come home to me.
Often, I was ill. Stomach aches and nausea that just wouldn't go away. A few times I dared to wonder if I might be pregnant, selfishly longing for a piece of him that I could keep here with me. But no, my doctor said, it was stress. I should avoid coffee, eat more healthy foods. When I returned home I was half relieved, and half so disappointed that I could cry.
I wanted to cry so often when Danny was away. I'd be sitting at my desk at work, just thinking of him, and then the tears would come. Everyone's so sympathetic to army wives at my office. It didn't make me feel better, it couldn't, but it made me feel as though it was justified to feel awful. And that was comforting, in a way.
And then he came home, and when I met him at the airport I smiled so widely I thought that my face would rip in half.
I joked that I loved a man in uniform, and he grinned so brilliantly at me in the late afternoon sunlight. There was stubble on his face where he needed a shave and he looked unwashed and tired, but I kissed him right there in front of all his mates and couldn't have cared less when they all teased me about it.
Three weeks until the wedding, and I had everything prepared. The invitations were long sent, the flowers had been paid for and a photographer had been booked. And yet, somehow, there was still so much to do. The weeks passed in a haze of activity, of meetings with florists and caterers and long discussions about just how, exactly, I wanted everything at the venue arranged.
On the day, my mother was one of the last people to arrive. I couldn't blame her, really; the venue was a good few hours away from where she was living now, but for a few panicky moments I thought that she might not turn up at all and for some reason that terrified me. But then there she was, waltzing in all dressed in turquoise and gold. There was no father to walk me to the altar so Danny's dad did it instead, and I smiled at Mum as I stood before the registrar, all triumph and smugness because finally, I'd got here. She smiled back, and hers was a little sad.
Danny's voice shook as he spoke his vows and from the back of the hall I could hear his army mates joking about it, but that was fine, it was fine just as long as he was there at the altar. My voice didn't falter at all. How could it, when I was speaking the words I'd longed to say for so long? And when, finally, we were man and wife and he leaned in to kiss me, my eyes sought out my mother over his shoulder before I closed them. I smiled against his mouth.
I scarcely remember the meal, too glowing to really care about such mundane things as eating. There were drinks and photographs (I beamed in every single one, feeling as though I were floating) and then, once the tables had been cleared away and the dance floor set up, our first dance as man and wife.
My arms around his shoulders, his fitting snugly around my waist, we danced in front of our guests. In front of my mother, and as I sought her out in the crowd my expression said everything. It might have all gone wrong for her, but I was alright. Dad had been a soldier and he had died for his country, abandoning mum to a life of bitterness and 'what ifs', but I had Danny and light and life and love. He'd been out there, but he'd come back to me whole and healthy. I might have felt guilty for flaunting everything that my mother had lost in front of her, but I felt no guilt that day. Only triumph.
"You looked beautiful," Mum said to me that night, when the music was over and the DJ was packing up his kit. Her embrace was stiff, a little uncertain, as she hugged me but I returned the gesture and didn't pull away. "You have a brilliant life, you hear me?"
I nodded, calm. I hadn't cried or become overwhelmed all day, and I wasn't about to start now. It was my wedding, my life, and I was in control. I didn't need her to tell me. "Yeah. Yeah, I will."
In the hotel room that night, it seemed the first time that Danny and I had been properly alone together since he got back. When we sank down together on the bed, it was the first time we had made love since that beautiful, terrifying night before he flew out to Afghanistan. When he fumbled to undo the buttons of my dress, almost ripping them off in his haste, I stretched out before him on the sheets, my body familiar and his. I divested him of his own clothing by candlelight, and when I removed the veils of cloth from his body it was changed and marked by war, didn't seem to be the flesh and bone that I knew.
Silly, I know. I hadn't expected so many scars.
His fingers dug into my skin, crossing the threshold from passion into pain and I gasped, arching against him. His mouth found mine and there was need in the way he kissed me, desperation in the feel of his teeth biting into my lip. Everything was too rough, too hard. My hands came up to circle his wrists but he made a sound low in his throat and I couldn't tell if it was a whimper or a growl, twisting out of my grasp. There was nothing playful or erotic in the way that he couldn't bear the thought of restraint.
I whimpered as he pinned me to the bed and for an instant his kiss became soft and tender. An apology, I realised, but he didn't seem to be able to help himself. His fingers didn't so much explore my body as clutch at me, frightened that I would disappear if he failed to hold me tightly enough. I wrapped my legs around him as we rocked together, trying to reassure, but he would not be calmed.
His teeth broke skin as he came, crying my name into my mouth. I felt blood on my tongue, thick and coppery and when he kissed me he tasted of pain and fear and war.
Afterwards, once he'd finally fallen into a fitful sleep, I lay wide awake in the darkness. My body ached all over, lip stinging, and I knew that I would have the marks of his fingers branded black and blue onto my skin come morning. The only sounds in the room were my breathing (surprisingly calm, steady) and the whimpers of a sleep plagued by nightmares as he tossed and turned and, finally, rolled over to wrap an arm around my waste. It wasn't possessive, more the desperate action of a damaged man clinging to a lifeline.
I lay there, thinking of this strange new man wearing Danny's face who lay in bed with me. I thought of being fourteen, a family meal and my mother offering me advice. And, as a sob finally tore out of my throat and into the darkness, I thought mother knows best.