IT HAD BEEN ALMOST TWELVE MONTHS SINCE THE ENGAGEMENT, AND THE ARRANGEMENTS FOR THE WEDDING WERE FINALLY WELL UNDER WAY. They had both been so busy going to work and saving every last penny to cover the cost of the wedding and a deposit on a house.
With a week to go before the big day, they had just finished washing up after tea when someone knocked on the front door. Donna got up to answer it, and was surprised to see Cole standing there. He looked very smart in his khaki uniform, his beret almost covering his left eye. He had a moustache now, but even that couldn’t hide the cheeky grin formed on his face.
‘Cole! We weren’t expecting you to come home until Thursday - after all the wedding is still a week away.’
‘I thought I’d surprise you all by coming early. I’ve managed to get an extra week’s leave – after all it is for my favourite couple in the world.’
‘Oh Cole, you are silly,’ she smiled.
They hugged like old friends, and Cole gave her a little peck on the cheek. After closing the front door behind him, Donna shouted, ‘Evan, mum, look who’s here.’
They both looked up and seemed elated upon seeing Cole enter the living room.
‘Cole!’ Tears of joy came in his mother’s eyes. ‘I’m so glad you’re back safe.’
‘How are you doing, mum, brother?’
Cole put his bag down before embracing first his mother and then Evan vigorously.
‘Hey, this is brilliant,’ Evan laughed.
‘I decided to come early so me and you can have ourselves a proper stag night – what do you reckon Evan?’
‘I wasn’t planning on doing anything much – I’m not one for boozy nights out any more.’ Evan blushed with embarrassment.
‘Oh sure you are,’ Cole insisted. ‘I bet Donna’s going on a hen night, aren’t you Donna?’
She felt herself colour, before replying in a disapproving tone of voice, ‘Actually no, I’m not. I’m not into making a fool of myself, the night before my wedding.’
‘Quite right too Donna.’
‘But mum, Evan and me – well, we’re really close. Best mates as well as brothers. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t take him out for a celebration drink. Don’t worry, we’ll be good, won’t we Evan?’
Donna frowned at them, not believing Cole’s promise. But it was only one night after all. ‘It’s all right Cole; I’m well aware that this a man thing. Honestly, I don’t mind as long as you don’t get yourselves into any trouble.’
Cole grinned, with a mischievous grin on his face. ‘I’ll bring him back in one piece, I promise you – and I’ll take good care of him like a big brother should.’
Raising her eyebrows, she realised there wasn’t much she could do.
For the rest of the evening, they all sat listening to Cole’s bawdy jokes and stories about life in the army. He was so funny, tears rolled down their cheeks. He appeared to be the complete opposite of Evan, who was quiet, kind and loving.
Donna was tired after an exhausting day of preparations, and told them she was going to bed early. Everyone said good night to her in high spirits. Evan followed her up onto the landing and kissed her goodnight before they went to their respective rooms. She remained in Cole’s room while he slept on the sofa, still unable to sleep in Theresa’s room he said, because it brought back too many memories.
She’d fallen asleep that night feeling content and happy, the only worry constantly popping into her head was the wedding night itself and the fear that she might let him down.
She had been drifting in and out of sleep, when she suddenly woke needing the toilet. Opening the bedroom door, she walked across the landing, making for the bathroom. A few minutes later as she came out she heard a moaning sound coming from downstairs. On the landing, she listened more acutely and realised it was Cole.
What was going on down there couldn’t be ignored. But now she faced a dilemma. Either wake Evan or his mother or she should investigate herself. Since she was already up, there seemed little point in disturbing them.
Tiptoeing downstairs, she stood just inside the doorway, observing Cole lying on the settee, thrashing his arms and legs about. She switched on the light in the hall, so as not to shock him, then moved across to the settee to stand over him. His eyes were closed, sweat masked his face and was trickling down the sides of his cheeks. His hair looked wet and matted down on his head.
‘No! No! No! Please don’t make ... Can’t face … kill me … they will,’ he mumbled in his sleep. He moved his arms up to protect his face.
Donna watched this in amazement.
‘Don’t want... to die,’ he cried out. ‘Can’t go back ... not that ... they’re animals... can’t go … no … no … no!’
With that he jumped, then sat up startled. His eyes opened wide, staring at Donna. But the blank look on his face suggested he was only half-awake and unaware of his surroundings.
‘It’s all right Cole,’ she said softly. ‘You’re safe now.’
His head gave a little jolt. Then he started to weep, his shoulders shuddering with terror.
Donna was shocked, unsure of what to do, as she’d never seen him like this before. Always he’d been the suave confident happy-go-lucky bloke, everybody’s friend, willing to help anyone in trouble. To see this side of him amazed her.
She sat on the edge of the sofa, and put her arms around him and held his head against her shoulder, while he juddered continually for some time.
’Sssh, ’she whispered in his ear. ‘You’re going to be all right Cole; no one will hurt you while you’re here.’
‘But I have to go back.’
‘Yes, but you’ll be with your mates. You’ll all look out for each other – you know you will.’
‘No, can’t do it anymore. I won’t go.’ His hands gripped her arm, almost to the point where it hurt.
‘You can, Cole. You’re stronger than that. Haven’t you done this loads of times before?’
‘Don’t you understand? I’m a mess, a disgrace to the regiment.’
He moved his head from her, seeming to have come to his senses. ‘I don’t want you to see me this way. Just go back to bed and leave me in peace.’
‘I can help if you’ll let me. Talk to me about it if you want. I promise I’ll never tell another soul.’ She looked at him, feeling so sorry for him.
His blue eyes looked afraid as he stared into space, obviously pondering over her suggestion.
‘All...all right then,’ he said unable to look at her straight in the eye. ‘As long as you never breathe a word to anyone, especially not Evan or mum.’
‘I already promised, didn’t I?’
He grabbed hold of her hand as he sat up on the sofa, allowing her to sit by his side which she obliged to do because of his current state of mind; although this situation did make her feel a little claustrophobic.
’We...we were out on patrol in an armoured car. There were six of us. The streets were full of people, all going about their daily lives. Suddenly there was an almighty explosion. The vehicle must have gone over a device of some sort. Somehow, miraculously I found myself thrown clear into the road. But when I looked back dazed, I saw the most horrific scene I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Blood soaked body parts and pieces of flesh were strewn all over the place. I glanced around me and saw Alan, my best mate, half his body blown away, his eyes staring at me as if he was trying to beg for help. Can you imagine what that was like? And then I watched a mob, swarm around the burning wreck of our armoured car. They took whatever they could salvage. Then they started kicking the bits of bodies – acting as if they were wild animals – and I could do nothing about it except to stare in disbelief.
‘Nobody seemed to notice me, that was the strange thing about it. Somehow, I slipped away from the crowd and all that carnage. I ran away when I should have done something for my friends’ dignity. But I didn’t. I let the enemy do their worst to my comrades. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. When I got back to base, I couldn’t tell them what happened – I was too ashamed. They thought I was in shock because I had a gash on my forehead and had been knocked out. No matter how many times they asked me, the words wouldn’t come. When they found the vehicle they must have realised what I’d been through – but they didn’t do a thing, except to make me see a doctor and then a shrink, who declared me fit for duty. Can you believe that? I might have died; and I saw all my mates blown to bits. I was staggered when they said I was fit enough to resume my duties. All right, so I only had a few scratches and a bump on the head, but that doesn’t mean what I saw didn’t do something to me, even though I couldn’t tell them. I’ve never spoken about it to anyone until now. And now I have to go back into that hellhole again. And I’m not sure I can...’
‘Oh Cole.’ Donna tried to envisage what this poor man had been through. ‘You need to talk to someone more qualified than me about this.’
‘No, I can’t,’ he said shaking his head. ‘I don’t want them to find out. They’ll think I’m weak, a coward.’
‘They won’t. Why don’t you ask to see another doctor or a trauma counsellor, a civilian perhaps? There must be other people who deal with this type of stress, people specially trained in problems such as yours.’
He looked at her as if she was mad. ‘Huh, you having a laugh? There’s no way I’d ever talk to those quacks. And if I don’t go back, they’ll lock me up for sure. It’s no good, somehow I have to get through this in my own way. Don’t you dare tell Evan or mum - you hear me? If you do, I’ll never forgive you.’
‘All right Cole if that’s what you want. And it’ll stay that way unless you say otherwise. But you’re worrying me. You can’t sort this out all by yourself.’
He laughed, in an ironic way, as if to say he had no other choice. ‘Let’s forget this conversation ever took place. In the morning, I’ll be my old cheerful self and as far as you’re concerned, there’s nothing wrong with me. I know I have to cope and I will - but it’s just that sometimes it’s so hard.’ Those last few words were said in anguish, through gritted teeth.
He put his hand on her arm while breathing in deeply.
‘You sure you’ll be ok?’
He nodded without looking at her.
‘All right, if you’re sure’
‘I am. It’s my problem and my problem alone. Go to bed now – please, and forget about it,’ ordering her as if he didn’t want her around anymore.
‘If you say so.’ She reluctantly turned round to go back upstairs to his old bedroom. Halfway up the stairs she looked round and saw him lying back on the sofa facing away from her so she couldn’t see his face.
As she lay in bed, she was shaking, having found the whole experience unnerving. This wasn’t something she’d foreseen at all, and it made her feel so sorry for Cole. Her own hang-ups suddenly seemed insignificant. For although she’d experienced the worst of human nature first hand, it was nothing like the horrors of war that the soldiers in Afghanistan had experienced. She hoped he’d resolve his problems and wished there was more she could do for him. But sadly he didn’t want anyone to interfere.
Slowly Cole’s image faded from her mind, to be replaced by Evan’s happy smiling face. She knew he loved her and wanted so much to make her happy, and she wanted to do the same for him. Unfortunately, once more her own problems had come to the fore. She needed someone to confide in as well, and perhaps if Theresa was alive she might have spoken to her. Sadly now she felt so alone.