By Susan Rouell
The hand over my mouth was his, but it wasn't him. His eyes bore into the darkness, shiny orbs wide with urgency, yet seeing nothing.
"Contact!" he yelled.
My ears rang with it.
His slick palm left my face and his arms enveloped me, pulling me to him and then pitching me backwards. My sight popped and fizzed with a thousand tiny sparks as my head struck the floor.
He held me there, underneath him, his breathing shallow and fast. His eyes locked onto mine as his lips brushed my ear.
"They're here!" he whispered with such absolute certainty that I almost believed it myself.
We lay there for a few long minutes, he straining every sense to detect the enemy in the darkness and I? Waiting. Just waiting.
I shifted a little, expecting a warning but none came.
"I got that bread you like," I said as matter-of-factly as I could, squashed beneath him and gripped in his bear-hug.
"Eh?" I saw a change in his eyes as he drifted out of it. The dawning, the relief, the sweat cooling on his brow; the sinking, grinding realisation.
Billy's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had been diagnosed years after he'd left the Army. Twenty years after the conflict which had scarred his mind so irrevocably, and seven after he'd attempted to complete what the Argentinians had failed to do on the Falkland Islands.
It was my turn to snake my arms around him, and I felt him melt into me. He buried his face in my neck and his tears slid silently into the well of my shoulder.
"Brew?" I offered. He nodded but didn't move. "I'll pop the lamp on as well."
He nodded again and I eased myself away.
I left him there on the floor of our hallway, in the pale glow of the lamp, his eyes staring at the dusty skirting board. I smiled. He'd pull me up on that later. Obsessive attention to detail, cleanliness, hyper-vigilance, paranoia, anger – he had all the classic symptoms of PTSD. Yet treatment had been elusive, not helped by his absolute denial that anything was wrong. After all, he wasn't weak, he was tough. A strong, resilient, resourceful man, intelligent and self-reliant. Not mentally ill, not struggling to cope. Not him. Not Billy Ten Men.
But when they'd resuscitated him and sectioned him, medicated and discharged him, what then?
No one had knocked on his door to check on him, no-one had sat with him on Bonfire Night as the rockets squealed and the bombs and mines had swept him through a tunnel of time and back into hell. But then he'd met me, quite by accident as I bought a poppy outside Tesco. "Thank you," he'd said, and I'd never seen such sincerity. That was three years ago and I wouldn't be anywhere else.
Help came in the form of charities, mostly. The NHS in a crisis and for his meds. I almost laughed out loud! Crisis? Tonight's episode was just another day living with the fall-out of the horrors of war. Crises only occurred when I couldn't cope. In the end, it all came down to me. If I crumbled, so did he. If I was ill, he went into a tailspin. I had to be his absolute rock. If I caved in then he would flash-back and the police would restrain him and haul him away – to A&E, then the psychiatric ward; occasionally to a prison cell.
So often his symptoms provoked shock, emergency calls, outrage.
"How can you let him do that to you?"
"Here love, phone the Domestic Violence Unit."
"It's your fault for letting him get away with it!"
He needed help not imprisonment. A prison cell was as good as a coffin for Billy. In his mind it was a reincarnation of the hell of war. Trapped. Trapped below decks, bits of his mates' bodies spattered over his smouldering skin; his clothes literally blown off. Blinded by smoke, seared by heat, deafened by explosions. And the screams. His own nightmares mimicked them. The screams. He'd been one of many heroes that day, 8th June 1982, never imagining that he would remain locked in that date in a perverse iteration of Groundhog Day.
RFA Sir Galahad. He called me his Lady Guinevere! So I strive to keep him here with me – safe and level. And to do that I have to keep control.
And who helps me?
Charities mostly. The NHS in a crisis and for my meds.
And those others like me, 'military wives' - though not the singing variety, but all power to them too – no, military wives who shoulder their injured men and carry them through the minefields of life. Why?
Because I love him. I love him. I love him!
He shuffled into the kitchen and I risked a smile. His eyes never reached mine but you can transmit a smile and I knew he'd received it.
I handed him his hot, milky, over-sweet tea and a couple of ginger biscuits. He took them and retreated into the lounge. I followed, my mind doing the usual checks and yes, the News would be finished, the TV safe from shock, horror, explosions and corpses for the time being. I switched it on.
He slurped his tea the way squaddies do.
"That skirting board's in shag order," he muttered.
I tried not to smile as I rested my head on his shoulder. It was his apology and it was I'll I'd ever need.