Title: Watching Chinooks (Short Story) Author: Fiona Mackenzie Genre: Military/Women's Fiction
by Fiona Mackenzie
(UK writer so please forgive different punctuation etc. All comments gratefully received. Thank you)
I’m on my knees in the NAAFI, trying to price up biscuits with a knackered labelling machine, when Connor marches through the swing doors, bringing curling autumn leaves and bad news to my feet.
His joints click – from too many exercises on the moor where it’s always ‘brass monkeys’ – as he squats down on his haunches next to me and my little tower of custard creams.
Connor used to have hair the colour of dark marmalade and eyes like bright sea glass, but every time he comes back from a war zone, he seems a faded version of himself. I worry that one day he’ll vaporise into the air of a foreign country.
‘Lel, sweetheart, Sergeant Jago’s sick.’ He says this casually but I can smell the adrenalin on him. ‘They need a replacement for the Bosnia posting.’
I rest the labelling machine on a box and turn away. Down by the booze counter, all Laura Ashley and pearls, is Mrs Buchannan, a Wing Commander’s wife. She’s frowning at a bottle of Chardonnay and sighing. I’m supposed to ask if she needs help but she’s barely nodded at me in two years and the truth is she makes me nervous. They all do. For the officers’ wives, its ladies’ lunches in the Mess, chocolate torte and coffee mornings. But for me and my mates its Ann Summers parties in the front room and cheese toasties in the café. The huge officers’ quarters are guarded by privet hedges with 4 x 4s in the drives, while we, the lower ranks’ wives, doss out in neglected seventies semis, pock-marked with concrete cancer at the fag end of the camp.
Connor says I’m too sensitive, that there’s no difference between a sergeant’s wife and a captain’s. Of course I know different. I’d even overheard Mrs Buchannan saying she wouldn’t buy anything from the thrift shop in case an airman’s wife had worn it first.
‘I bet you misheard,’ he’d said that evening as we snuggled up on the settee, with baby Ben wedged between us, like a tubby little hamster and Chloe curled up against Connor’s chest, the pink butterfly on her new head band snagged up in his jumper. ‘There’s a name for people like you,’ he said rubbing my aching feet.
I was only half listening. The other half of me was making up a verse for those soppy cards: ‘Love is massaging your wife’s toes when she’s knackered.
‘An inverted snob, that’s you sweetheart.’
I kept my eyes closed and grinned. ‘There’s posh. I’ve heard of inverted nipples but not snobs, mister grammar school boy.’ And then he’d tickled me ‘til Chloe and the baby woke up and the baby sicked up his milk on Connor’s lap but we couldn’t stop laughing.
‘Lel, did you hear me?’ Connor’s twisting his beret in his hands, knuckles as bony and bloodless as his face. ‘I’m going to Bosnia and…’
‘You can’t go back there. You’ll miss Chloe’s Naivety play and its Ben’s first Christmas.’
He covers my hands with his. ‘It’s only six weeks. I’ll be back for fireworks night. We’ll have a grand time then.’
I stand up and stroke his shaven head. There’s a dent above his left ear from a rifle butt. He’s only thirty six but his men call him Grandad because he’s a mess of old wounds.
‘There’s the other thing, the real reason you shouldn’t go.’
He leaps to his feet. ‘What do you mean? What’s the real reason?’
I screw up my eyes because I mustn’t cry.
‘Forgive me interrupting your important conversation,’ Mrs Buchannan huffs up to us in a fug of Chanel 5, ‘but do you have any avocados that are actually ripe?’
Ten years ago at seventeen, I was just a bolshie girl from the valleys, carrying my father’s chip on my shoulder and a baby in my belly. The baby died before she was born and I ran away from Mountain Ash, ending up here: the Cornish Rivera, land of the surfer – and the underage drinker.
During the day, I’d traipsed the streets of Newquay, looking for work, waitressing, cleaning – anything. At night, I slept with other runaways, drunks and druggies on the beach, the almond sand still warm from the midsummer sun.
As the nights grew colder, I grew thinner, and by August I was broke. The girl who bunked down next to me went back to London. ‘You should and all,’ she said, ‘You’ll never get benefit without an address.’ She dumped her dog, a tiny Jack Russell puppy called Banjo, with me too. His head was too big for his body and he had a rasping cough. I took him to a vet with my last pounds but she sniffed and kept her distance from me. ‘I’d put him down,’ she said, ‘but you can’t afford it.’
I couldn’t leave Banjo to look for work, so I lay on the beach, listening to the wooka, wooking of the Chinooks in a tourist’s sky.
At dusk two men sauntered barefoot through the floury sand towards me. Nothing new there. I pulled my sleeping bag up to my chest and glared at them. One of them tried chatting me up. Even offered Banjo a Mars bar but his quiet
mate, tall and wiry as alley cat, hit his hand away. ‘Idiot, Jed, don’t you know dogs shouldn’t eat chocolate.’
I liked him for that and later, with Banjo tucked under my arm because he was too weak to walk, Connor showed me a cave he’d found. ‘A bit of shelter for you both at night,’ he said. Then he thrust a handful of notes at me, saw my face and put his
palms out, surrendering. ‘No, no, it’s not for…you know. It’s for your dog – find a better vet or do the kindest thing – if it comes to it.’
I hugged him and he started singing that song all the DJs were playing, ‘I can be your hero baby…,
‘That is the worst chat up line ever,’ I said, but I took the money.
I’m washing up when the military police arrive – twenty four hours since Connor left with a cold-hearted kiss from me and one of Chloe’s paintings, (a violent pink one of Banjo), in his kit bag.
Over the road, seagulls shout loutishly at each and rip open bin bags piled up on the pavements. Nappies spill out and lie like moon parcels among chips and tea bags.
The police car slinks pass my window and my stomach sort of pleats up. Please God don’t let it stop here. PleaseGodPleaseGod…
My best mate, Sian is at the other end of the work top, perched on a stool with Chloe on her lap. Sian’s plaiting Chloe’s hair and they’re pouring over a Hello mag which Chloe’s little fingers can barely hold up. ‘Look at Princess Di, Mum. Can you make my hair look like that?’
The car’s engine cuts out.
Don’t come to my door, please.
I crane my neck to see round the corner of the window. Perhaps they want next door and why are they in uniform? I thought it was meant to be the commanding officer or some welfare guys in suits? Not that it would make any difference. You’d still know. Everyone always knows…
‘Shush, sweetheart,’ Sian’s gently lifting Chloe off and hoisting her onto her hip and edging towards me. ‘Lel, what’s wrong?’
The doorbell goes. A line of warm wee fits and starts down the inside of my thigh.
I run through the hall and fling open the front door. Two military policemen loom over me, rain drizzling off their white caps.
‘No…Go away!’ I try to shut the door but one of them shoves his boot in the jam.
‘Are you Mrs O’Brian?’
I crouch down on the bottom stair, my head wedged between my arms, blocking my ears. I’ve spent my whole married life dreading this: Your husband’s been shot, blown up…
‘Mrs O’Brian,’ the second policemen bends over me, his fleshy hands pressed against his knees, ‘your husband has been reported absent without leave. Is he here?’
Not dead. Connor’s not dead. Relief makes me woozy. I haul myself up, clutching the banister. Chloe’s escaped Sian’s hold and is squeezing my waist. ‘Want
Daddy.’ She buries her face in my sweater and points blindly behind her, ‘Don’t like them.’
‘He’s not here,’ I tell the police, but they ignore me. One pushes past Sian, who’s gone a funny ash colour, and the other stomps up the stairs. ‘Sorry, Mrs O’Brian,’ he barks down at me, ‘but we have to search your house.’
I race up behind him. ‘You can’t go up there. My baby’s sleeping!’ He takes no notice and strides across the landing, banging open doors. I thump him between the shoulder blades and he snaps round catching my wrists. ‘Your husband has committed a criminal offence. I appreciate this is difficult for you but we have to do our job.’
Barging past him, I run into Ben’s room. He’s sitting up in his cot, sucking his dummy. I pick him up and he hugs me like a bush baby, gazing at me with his dad’s serious eyes.
We’re half way down the stairs when I notice her. Mrs Buchannan, standing on my door step with, what my mam would call, a holier than thou expression on her immaculate face.
‘I was dropping Amelia off at the childminders a few doors down from you,’ she gestures over her shoulder, making her highlighted bob shimmer under my porch light, ‘and I saw the police so I wondered if there was anything I could do to help?’
We stand facing each other for a moment while she smiles at me with her head tilted.
She gawps at me, ‘I beg your pardon?’
I’m about to say, you don’t give a sod about me. You just want something to gossip about with your mates while you shove coffee and walnut cake in your gobs, when I notice the mauve bloom, like a decaying rose petal, on her cheek bone.
Following my gaze, she reaches her fingertips to the bruise, almost but not quite, veiled by foundation. ‘The men, they’re under so much stress aren’t they?’ she whispers, beseeching me with her eyes to play along.
I clutch her icy hand. ‘I can’t talk…my husband’s missing but listen, you need to get help.’
‘I will,’ she says, but her eyes look dead as she turns and walks away.
Its 2 am. The kids are sleeping in my bed, bunkering me from the outside world with their warm little bodies. The window shivers in its seventies frame letting puffs of frozen air fill the room. We’ve asked the families officer to fix it but he said we’d have to wait. Tax payers’ money and all that.
At the other side of the bed, there’s a crater in the wardrobe door where Connor’s fist landed a few days ago. He didn’t remember in the morning. He can’t remember the time he hid under the bed when a car alarm went off, or the night he pulled the curtains off the window, screaming, ‘Jesus Christ, how many more in this grave?’ And then weeping until he woke up, sweating and shaking. He never remembers.
‘You should see the doctor,’ I said, but we both know what would mean – at best a desk job, filing papers and getting soft hands, at worst a medical discharge.
I ease myself out of bed. Ben mews in protest so I stroke his downy hair and nestle him closer to Chloe. She’s on her tummy, snoring quietly, legs splayed out like a frog.
Where is Connor? I can’t bear to think of him alone and frightened.
I go to the window and draw back the curtains. The scarred up old moon lights up the sentry box. A guard raises the barrier to let a troop carrier in. The night is so still, I can hear him whistling and my heart hurtles itself at my ribs. I think I know the answer.
The beach is worm grey under my torch light. I’m too close to the water. The sea breaths in and out, sucking up pebbles and groaning. Dark ribbons of seaweed cover
the rocks and I stumble, grazing my legs on the limpets. But not far now. I pause to get my bearings, taste the salt in the air.
At the cave’s entrance I hesitate, scared. I could have got this so wrong. Sian went mad when I phoned, begging her to baby-sit.
‘You’re in shock, I’ll bring some Bacardi and come and sit with you.’
Any excuse for a drink, Sian.
I’d waited in the car until I heard her stilettos clip clopping towards my house and then drove – too fast, over the cliff roads to Newquay.
A few bats swish out as I creep into the cave, feeling my way along the wall, condensation sending trickles of water over my numb fingers.
Connor doesn’t look up when the torch light finds him. He’s rocking back and forth on a washed up bit of tree trunk, arms wrapped across his chest.
‘Cariad,’ I whisper but he doesn’t move. Slowly I sit down next to him. ‘It’s going to be alright. Sod the Air force, we can leave and start again and…’
He stabs at his forehead with his fingers. ‘You don’t understand Lel, this is it. I’m going to be locked up, dishonourable discharge, the works.’
‘But if we tell them, explain about the night terrors. Its stress, they’ve got to understand…’
He almost slaps me as he squeezes my face in his hands. ‘Who’s going to believe us? They’ll say I should have gone to the Medical Officer.’
I nearly reply that’s what he should have done but I know why he didn’t. Bam. Career over.
‘We are going to get through this together. I love you, Cariad; nothing will ever change that.’ And covering his icy hands with mine I start singing, ‘I can be your hero, baby…’