The hours before dawn were at their darkest. The wind was restless. Sarah’s fitful sleep was punctuated by Daniel’s relentless snoring. His whisky soured breath spewed over her.
What’s happened to the man she and their son Jack had welcomed home from Afghanistan several months ago,from his final overseas deployment?
In the throes of her drifting in and out of sleep Sarah remembered standing on the air base’s tarmac as the Hercules carrying Daniel’s unit landed into the shimmering haze.How she felt the joy of knowing they would resume their family life, free from the fears and anxieties of some god forsaken war zone. How her body trembled at their embrace on the tarmac, with the promise of being bathed in his intimacy.
But now it was as if she was in her own war zone of his heavy drinking, sullen moods, angry outbursts and his hiding away in his office.
As the greyness of dawn crept over her,Sarah awoke to the man lying beside her and stretched her tired body. She was still angry over the incident yesterday afternoon when she had found Daniel in his office. Like on so many days, he had been holed up there doing God knows what but certainly drinking.
Sarah walked into his office and asked, ‘Dan can you pick up Jack from school?’ Daniel looked up from the blank computer screen with an appearance of, “and what are you doing here”?He remained silent and continued to stare at the blank computer screen.
‘Daniel, will you please pick up Jack from school?
‘Why can’t you?’ he said.
‘Because I need to finish marking my students’ exam papers,’ she said.
‘Well, can’t you do that tonight?’
‘Jesus, Daniel I have parent/teacher interviews tonight. So for God’s sake just get off your arse and do it!’
‘No Sarah, I won’t.’
‘Oh, OK I get it. You won’t?
You mean you can’t because you have been stuck in this room drinking!’ Her words were sucked into his sullen silence.
Fully awake now and with the demands of a busy day, Sarah rose to leave the bed. Momentarily her eyes strayed onto Daniel’s muscled torso and firm stomach. Instinctively her hand reached over and stroked his flesh but it was the flesh of the shell of a man lying amongst the crumpled sheets.
Looking down on him she called, ‘Daniel. Wake up.’
‘What…. What’, he muttered from his drowsiness.
‘I said, wake up! I have an early morning staff meeting and let’s not forget that last night I had to work late. So Daniel, while I am out working what are you going to do today? Self-medicate on alcohol?Lock yourself away in your study? What about catching up with Greg? I know that he has been ringing you.’
‘For fuck’s sake, Sarah, shut up’, he exclaimed, rising onto his elbows as anger surged through his hung over drowsiness. ‘What the hell has gotten into you?’
‘I’ll tell you what has gotten into me.I’ve cut you plenty of slack since you’ve been home. I’ve put up with your angry outbursts, your drinking. And what have you done to deal with them? Nothing! You have done bloody nothing to help yourself.Remember that PTSD course you walked out of because nothing was right and everyone other than you was fucked up; remember the psych you don’t see anymore.And you don’t return Greg’s calls.’
There was no response, just his vacant eyes staring at her from the bed.
Words flowed from the wounds of her shattered dreams, her thwarted intimacy,‘I have done everything to try and understand all that you are going through, to encourage you and all I get in return, is shit!
‘And what about Jack? Does he deserve the father you’ve become?It was bad enough having to protect Jack from your father. You do remember what he was like don’t you?’
Daniel’s father was a Vietnam Veteran who had drunk himself to a premature death.
‘Don’t you bring my father into this. I had a gutful of his anger, his drinking and his ravings about bloody Vietnam, all of my bloody life.’
‘Jesus Daniel, can’t you see that’s exactly what you are doing to Jack?’
‘And you’re doing it to me.’ Sarah said. ‘I can’t keep on going like this. My life is nothing more than a nightmare, day after day after day’.
Daniel staggered out of bed, almost falling over and pointing his finger, ‘so you think you’re living in a nightmare. Well I lived in a fucking nightmare for 6 months and that nightmare hasn’t gone away: it stalks me, haunts me.’
Sarah stepped back, throwing her arms onto her head. ‘Daniel, where do you think you are? YOU ARE NOT THERE ANY MORE. You are here with me and I’m not going to live in your goddam nightmare.’
Her words were uttered from tiredness and suffocated in despair. She had no idea how this nightmare might end. However, she still clung to a sliver of hope that something or someone might break through the hardened shell imprisoning Daniel.
With a deep breath and taking his hands in hers she sat him on the bed and said, ‘Daniel, when you Skyped us from Afghanistan, you weren’t anything like you are now. You seemed OK. You always ended the sessions with, “I love you”.
He was lying back on the bed, looking up at her, ‘I know, Sarah.It’s hard to understand but the closer I got to coming home I was getting more and more fucked in the head. I was battling to keep control of fear. Only by shutting down my emotions could I talk to you.
‘Sarah when I said, “I love you” I was really saying, “goodbye.” Every time I went out on patrol in those last few weeks,I was sure I would be killed. All I cared about was getting my men home.’
‘Jesus, Daniel,you did make it home but it’s almost as if we don’t exist in your life. All I want is our life and marriage back’ and she thought, the caress of your body, the intimacy of your touch.
Sarah had to get ready for work and reminded Daniel that today was a curriculum day.
‘Dan, you’ll have to spend time with Jack. Just be a dad, he needs you.’
As she turned to leave the bedroom,she hesitated for a moment. She reached down and brushed her hand across the sweat-laden flesh of his shoulder, letting it linger there for a moment.
Daniel sat alone in the gloomy study, the morning sun shut out by drawn curtains.
The morning’s clash with Sarah was ricocheting around his head. His consciousness was seared with the lingering touch of Sarah’s fingers. It was an intimacy he was fearful of: one that he was emotionally and physically unable to respond to; a sterility of arousal.
He was staring at the blank computer screen: the same screen Sarah and Jack were looking at when they were Skyping him in Afghanistan. He remembered how bizarre that was: one minute he would be patrolling in some desolate valley with tension eating at his gut and the next minute he would be in his barracks looking through a computer screen into his study back home, talking with Sarah and Jack.Where was he: Afghanistan or home?His time in Afghanistan had descended into a surreal nightmare and although his home was a thousand alien miles away, there it was on the screen, in his face.
His temples were throbbing and his mouth was parched from the alcohol consumed last night. It had been another restless night of reliving: the stinking heat or freezing cold of Afghanistan and its dust in every pore of your skin; the constant threat of IED’s and their horrific blast injuries; of never knowing if the locals were friendly or hostile; the sounds of bullets hitting flesh, the ‘fizzing’ of bullets brushing by, the cries of pain, of “Medic” and the downward thrust of the Medevac choppers.
Daniel leaned back in his chair, safe in the refuge of the room.
How the hell has it all ended up like this? He thought. He needed a drink. He reached for a glass and poured himself a generous whiskey.
In the soothing flow of the whiskey he remembered the day he returned home, seated in the Hercules aircraft as it made its landing approach. His feelings mixed:relief that he and his troops were returning home safely; fatigue, emotional and physical as this tour had been one too many;apprehension about how he might be able to resume his relationship with Sarah and Jack.Laden with his gear and feelings he saw Sarah and her look of joy as he shuffled across the tarmac. The memory of his emotional detachment from their embrace that morning,from her lips touching his, from her perfume washing over him,was now a shameful reality.
His mobile phone rang and he was back in the gloom of his study, ‘Hello…Oh g’day Greg, how’re you doing? …Yeah thanks, I’m fine … No mate, thanks for the offer but I’ve got too much on at the moment. Maybe we can catch up soon, OK? … Mate, I said I’m fine.’And he hung up!
‘Bloody Sarah. I bet that was her idea to get Greg to ring me. Doesn’t she get it?I just want to be left alone, he mumbled.’ Left alone in his anger and hangover.
Why couldn’t his pain be switched off, he despaired, like those Skype sessions in Afghanistan?
He drained the last drop of whisky from the glass, staring into its emptiness, gazing into the pain of his relationship with Sarah.Gradually he realised that the numbing of his pain with alcohol was not a Skype “off switch” but merely a “pause” button which was adding to the barrier between himself, Sarah and Jack. He had sensed this but now he knew it to be true. The truth tremored through him like a blast wave.
A wave of grief surged through him. He cradled his head in his hands, rocking back and forth, as tears welled from the inner depths of his being. In doing everything possible to make sure his men returned home safely, he had all but lost Sarah and he had stopped being a dad to Jack. His pained and blood shot eyes glared at the empty whiskey glass on the nearby table. He lunged out of the chair and with an angry swipe of his hand smashed the glass into the computer screen!
He stumbled backwards and slumped into the chair, curling himself into a ball; the silence of the gloom hovered like a blackened cloud, shrouding the study.
‘Dad!’ Jack burst into the room, breathless and holding a football.
Daniel sat up, looking at his son with the humiliation of knowing how he must look.
Jack stared at his dad, then at the computer screen and the shattered glass.
‘Dad, are you OK? You wanna kick the football at the park?’ Jack said so softly it was merely a whisper.
Daniel was frozen, unable to respond.
‘Have you drunk too much again?’Jack’s question was more of a dismayed statement.
‘Dad, come on …… Luke and his dad might be there. Maybe we could walk there. No need to drive,’ he offered in despair.
Unable to break out of his stupor, Daniel saw the look of shame on his son’s face.
Jack dropped his football, stormed from the study and kicked the door, slamming it shut.
The sound of the slammed door reverberated through Daniel as did the consciousness that he wouldn’t even go out and kick a football with Jack. Jesus, he thought, what sort of a father have I become? Just like your father: distant, unable to show affection and trapped in a life destroying cycle of alcohol abuse.
From the depths of his despair, the starkness of a choice became inescapable:do I switch off my life like a Skype session, or do live?Do I want to be a dad? Do I want to kick a football with Jack?
In that moment of suspended time, he was on the edge of a precipice swaying in the icy fear of stepping off: its irreversible consequences coursing through his being. But he just knew that he wouldn’t, that he couldn’t. Why, he thought, should I have suffered all that pain to make sure my troops returned home safely,if I now desert my life and my life with Sarah and Jack?
Another image of his thin and withered father came to him but it was with Daniel’s face on his father’s body. It was the time when Daniel had told his father he was joining the army. Daniel heard again his father’s words warning him that if he ever went to war then war would damage him, change who he was as a person. “You’ll never be the same again,” he had said with rare emotion.
Well I am the same man, he reflected, who left for Afghanistan all those months ago. Maybe I am damaged and changed but I am still the same man.
Daniel slowly rose from the chair,reached for and opened the curtains. Sunlight fractured the gloom as he called out, ‘Jack!’