It was almost 10.30pm before Mark and Julie arrived back from Wimbledon, and the rain was still pelting down, but the thunder and lightning had passed over. While Julie went up to put Erin in her cot, Mark joined the group in the lounge for the cocoa that Nanny had made. He noticed the change in his eldest brother almost immediately, and he drew Max to one side and they spoke in hushed tones that no one else could hear.
“He seems a bit better,” Mark said. “We saw the wheelchair outside on its side. Surely you didn’t take him out in this weather?”
Max grinned. “He took himself out - to pray apparently!” He gave a brief account of the chaos earlier, ending with, “We all had to shower and don dry clothes.”
“Well, it seems to have done some good. He was almost pleasant when we came in.”
He turned to look at Brad, to find him scowling at them. “You don’t have to whisper about me,” he said. “Just ask me! But yes, for everybody’s information, I’m still the boss around here, so can you all stop wrapping me in cotton-wool? My lovely wife informs me that I WILL walk again….” He bit his lip, and continued with a relaxed sigh. “… and I think - hope - that God confirmed it!”
Vicki shot across the room to give him a hug. “Really? He spoke to you?”
Brad laughed, a genuine sound that they hadn’t heard for a long time. “No, Vicki. Why do you always think that I’m so special that He speaks audibly to me? I’m flattered, of course, but God is hardly likely to speak to me after I’ve ignored Him for weeks!”
Carrie stopped sipping her cocoa and looked at him. “And I hardly think He’d be so petty as to hold that against you! Some people never even acknowledge Him at all, but He still loves them.”
“Exactly,′ Max said, grinning at Brad. “We’ve been trying to get you to grasp that fact, but you’ve been locked in a world of depression. I’m sure we’d all prefer you to be your normal stubborn self!” He winked at Carrie. “Your darling husband appears to be getting better.”
She smiled. “He will be, - soon. We have some work to do, of course, but he trusts me, - I hope!”
Brad lowered his eyes and pulled a face. He had experienced her ‘work’ after his last major spinal op, and knew how intense it could get. Oh well, he thought, at least this time it wouldn’t hurt!
“You do trust me, don’t you?” she asked softly, when he made no comment.
“With my life,” he mumbled, and then he smiled. “It’s just that, - I think I’ll be the one doing most of the work!”
She gave a titter of laughter and planted a soft kiss on his lips. “Clever boy!”
In their room, she helped him into bed, and he watched her take her clean set of pyjamas from the chest of drawers.
“You - you are going to sleep here, aren’t you?” he asked quietly, patting the bed beside him.
A questioning frown crossed her face. “Of course, I am. That’s our bed!”
He smiled. “I’m glad you remember that!”
He lapsed into silence, observing her as she undressed, breathing heavily. When she was in her pyjamas and had brushed her teeth, she slipped into bed beside him, cuddling close and putting her arm over his naked torso, He stayed silent but he put his arm around her, stroking the soft skin of her shoulder. She gave a soft sigh and let her lips run down his chest. He drew in his breath sharply, stiffening as her mouth closed over one of his hard nipples and she sucked gently.
“Carrie,” he groaned, turning his head and letting his lips linger on her hair, until she lifted her head and looked down into his face.
“Do you want the light off, love?”
He groaned again. “Oh God, Carrie. You - you know I can’t… I want you so much, but - but I c-can’t… My body just won’t work anymore, d-down there. Please understand!”
He pulled her down to him, burying his face in the folds of her pyjama top, but she merely lifted her head again and smiled down into his anguished eyes.
“Relax, darling. It’s ok. I understand. Just kiss me.”
Tears stung his eyes as she bent her head to touch his lips with her own, and he gripped her shoulders, and cried out in torment, “I don’t want you to think that I don’t want to. I do! I just can’t get it to - to work… Oh God! Carrie, I can’t make love to you anymore....”
She held him while he sobbed, whispering comforting words against his head, but it was a long time before he calmed enough to sniff and murmur, “I’m so sorry, my darling.”
She stroked his cheek. “It’s all right, Brad. You’re stressed out. And exhausted. Just relax, love. This is a temporary condition, I promise. Trust me. It’ll all be ok again soon. Let me put off the light and you can go to sleep.”
“What’s wrong with me? It isn’t you, Carrie, I swear! You know how much I love you!”
She smiled, bending forward to kiss him again. “I know, darling. There is nothing wrong with you! But this is just stressing you out more, and that isn’t good. Let me just lie in your arms and go to sleep. That’s all I need.” She snapped off the bedside light and settled down beside him, and he held her tightly to him, trying to relax.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered into the darkness after a moment. “I’m sorry.”
She moved against him. “Go to sleep, Brad. Everything will be ok.”
Her hand was on his chest and she could feel his heart thudding against her palm. And he was trembling too. She hadn’t noticed that earlier.
Ten minutes later he was still awake, still trembling and still emotional, and she put the light back on and sat up in bed.
“Ok, Brad! Tell me what’s going on in that head of yours!”
He blinked, and swallowed. “I - don’t know what you mean! I just - can’t sleep.” He brushed away the tears on his face, and tried to pull her back down, but she resisted, looking down into his face.
“We’re going to talk about this,” she said firmly. “It’s not as if we make love every night! Why is this worrying you so much?”
He remained silent, but the shaking increased, and she sighed heavily.
“Brad? Talk to me. I want to help you!”
“Nobody can help me,” he cried in anguish. “She gets in my head and I - I just remember every blasted thing she flung at me!”
“She? You mean - Barbara?”
He swallowed back tears. “I’m so sorry, Carrie. I know she’s dead, and I know that I shouldn’t let her words hurt anymore, but - but it’s so hard to forget, especially - especially now when I can’t...!”
Carrie took a deep breath. She could feel her anger rising and knew that she would not be able to help her husband if she let it loose. Barbara! The bane of her husband’s life. The dead woman, with whom she so frequently felt that she needed to compete.
“What did she say, Brad?”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry if I disturbed your sleep, darling. I’ll try to …”
“No Brad! We’re going to talk about this. I won’t have that woman upsetting your rest. Tell me what it is that she said!”
He shook his head again. “It was just something silly. Please Carrie, just drop it. I - I’ll try to go to sleep.” But he saw the stubborn compression of her lips and he knew she wasn’t going to allow him to leave it there. So he mumbled. “She said I’m not a man unless I can perform in bed. If - if I can’t satisfy a woman, I’ll always be a - a spineless piece of…….” He closed his eyes, shuddering, not able to finish, - but Carrie exploded!
"What? My God, Brad! What utter rubbish is that? When did Barbara say that to you?”
“Our - our first time - together. I - I was nineteen, and I’d just had my first book published. I didn’t know anything about - about sex. You know that she taught me how to… Oh God, Carrie. Please, - just drop it!”
She sighed, her eyes travelling to the clock. It was already after midnight, and she needed to be up earlier than was usual on a Sunday, to help him dress. But that bloody Richardson woman was not going to mess with her husband’s head any longer!
“Yes, Brad. I accept that you’re such a wonderful lover because of her. But I will not allow a blasted dead woman to leave such thoughts in your head! What on earth made her say such a ridiculous thing? Is this why you’re so worried that you can’t get an erection at the moment?”
He wet his lips, and gulped. Then he whispered, “She thought I was gay!”
Carrie’s head spun around quickly, and her eyes widened in shock. “She thought WHAT? My God, Brad, was the woman mad, or just a plain idiot?”
He very nearly smiled, which caused him to relax a fraction. “She was just conceited!” he said. “I hadn’t had any girlfriends, and hung around mostly with Roy. I think I was too busy trying to make a success of my writing to ask any girls out. I’d already disappointed my dad by not going to university, and - and Barbara was too - worldly for my taste. All the guys wanted her, even Roy! Did I ever tell you that he slept with her before I did?”
She shook her head, frowning. “No. I didn’t know that!”
He seemed to be breathing easier now. “Well, he did! Once! He said he wasn’t rich enough for her. He said she spoke about me during their whole - date, asked him if I - didn’t like girls.” He gave a bitter laugh. “I must admit that we weren’t exactly - flattering when we chatted about stuff like that. Teenage boys can be pretty crude when they’re together, and Roy and I were no different. Roy knew that when I finally asked Barbara out, it wasn’t because I wanted to. It was to please my dad. Edmund was his best friend, and I - I also think dad was a bit worried that I showed no interest in girls. I hadn’t ever taken any girl out and my only interests were my writing, and my music. Maybe - maybe he also thought I was turning out to be gay.” He swallowed. “Not that it would have worried him if I was! He was lenient to people’s sexual orientation. But he was overjoyed when I started dating Barbara.”
He stopped speaking for about two minutes and Carrie thought he’d fallen asleep, as his eyes were closed and he seemed relaxed now. But when he opened them, he reached for her and drew her down to him, wrapping her tightly in his arms.
“I never loved Barbara,” he said against her head. “And she was angry because I didn’t respond to her advances. She was very beautiful, and every guy wanted her. I - I think I was flattered that she wanted me, but I was - scared. I didn’t know anything about sex. My body didn’t even respond to her at first! So, she proceeded to - to teach me what to do!”
He shuddered, and Carrie pulled her head back and looked into his face.
“Brad, if you’d rather not talk about this…”
“No, I need to tell you this before I lose my nerve. I’m not proud of it. It’s - it’s embarrassing! But, if you’ll listen, I think it’ll help to get it all off my chest at last.”
She nodded, smiling encouragingly. “Ok. I’m listening. But as soon as you feel uncomfortable, just stop. I’ll understand.”
So, he went on, “She taught me - graphically and physically - about - about everything! I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it. Well, some of it! I - I just did whatever she demanded, even - even the stuff I found repulsive. It was all about her, what she wanted, and I soon learnt that I had to comply with her wishes or - or suffer the consequences. Believe me, she could cause me more physical pain than my back ever did!”
He gave a grim smile to make light of that last sentence, but Carrie’s hands twisted into fists and she clenched her jaw shut to stop herself from using the vulgar language that she knew he detested. He stroked her cheek.
“It wasn’t all bad, Carrie! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want her, once I knew what I was supposed to do!” He shuddered, and she could sense his embarrassment. “But I didn’t love her, and as I - as I - matured - a bit more, I realised it was just sleazy sex, - and - and not even that great! It’s just - it’s just that I’ve spent these last few weeks hearing her words pound in my brain! I can’t perform in our marriage bed anymore! And even if - if I could get an erection, I - I don’t know if it would stay long enough to satisfy you. I’m as spineless as she said …”
She covered his mouth with her lips before he could finish, and she kissed him long and hard. His arms tightened even more around her body, and she felt his groans inside her mouth. When she finally lifted her head, her eyes were wet with her own tears.
“Oh, my darling. I wish I could help you forget all of that woman’s spiteful words! But, she’s gone, Brad! She can’t hurt you anymore. And whatever she said was all rubbish anyway! You are a wonderful man and an excellent lover.”
“Not anymore! Carrie, I can’t perform sexually!”
“What the hell is all this about performance? Is that all this marriage means? I thought there was more to our love than just sex, Brad! Do you think I love you less now? Is that it?”
He gulped. “No, of course not. I - I’m just …”
“Brad Conway, listen to me. There is nothing that can ever stop me from loving you, do you hear me? I love your kisses, your touch, your gentleness. I love your wonderful voice. I love the way you’ve brought up your siblings. I love your kindness and your generosity. I love feeling safe wherever we go because you’ll always protect me. I love…”
“Thank you, my love. You don’t have to try and think of anymore nice qualities I might have.” There was a light tone to his voice now, and he gave her a warm smile. “I know you love me. I don’t know why I’m so scared because I can’t make love to you. I want to, so badly. I - I just can’t, and - and Barbara’s words were burned into my head so long ago. I’m so sorry love. I’m trying to forget! It’s just so hard!”
He saw the sudden twinkle in her eyes, and he grinned now, a deep sigh removing all tension. “Yes, - well, I wish I could say that about my penis right now, but alas, that’s not the case.”
Carrie laughed and snuggled close, her head on his chest. “There are millions of ways you show me how much you love me,” she whispered. “I think you know that!”