In The Dark Moment Before Dawn
'Come back,' she whispered into the freezing air. 'Come back to me.'
He had been sat on the end of the bed, back ramrod straight, for an hour. Shivering, shaking, sobbing: lost to her, to here and now. She does not know what made him this way because he will not tell her. He will not tell her in the bright sunshine of the day and he will not tell her in the anonymous shroud of night.
She knew enough to understand a little. She recognised the names of places he went because she read every scrap of newspaper she could find, every single day. She was sat up in bed recovering from Vicky's birth when she read about the liberation of a place called Belsen. She had no idea that he might have been one of the liberators of such a place.
She had no idea that he was one of the soldiers who entered the camp to find thousands of corpses and thousands of inmates so sick and mistreated that it was difficult to tell who was dead and who was alive. As the newspapers began to fill with details, she had no idea that her Bill, who had once been the gentlest of men, was directing captured SS guards to bury the dead in graves the size of football pitches.
When he returned in January 1946, he was a shadow of himself. She hated her friends whose husbands had come back uninjured, unbroken. She fed him with what rations she had, and those her family forced her to accept. As his body returned to the frame she remembered, she hoped his character would do the same.
She gave him plenty of time. She did not comment when he returned from the pub three hours after closing time and she didn't mind when he would go out on a Sunday morning to walk, not to return until almost dinner time.
In all that time, he said very little beyond trivial small talk.
He hit her on 15th April 1948. It was the first emotion he'd shown and she was almost glad that he'd responded at all, even if she had to cover up the black eye for days.
With Little Bill and Vicky he was gentle and quiet. He liked to sit and read them stories before bedtime, and he took understated delight in Vicky's insistence on sitting on his lap whenever they listened to the Light Programme on the wireless. She loved the silly voices of The Goons, so Bill learned to imitate them. He was able to accept Vicky's easy but insistent affection in a way he couldn't from his own wife, probably because his daughter wasn't there in the darkness.
She was there in the darkness. She was always there, and she pulled him back every time the demons emerged from the shadows.
'Come back to me.'
She did not know why it worked, but it did. He never spoke of it, so she never knew that recalling her soft nocturnal whisperings from the early days of their marriage was what kept him going during the never-ending night of the war.
He taught Little Bill and Vicky how to whistle like the birds, taught them their times tables and joined-up writing. His endless patience with them – especially with easily distracted Vicky – swelled and warmed her heart. She did not know that he clung to every single moment of normality, of pleasant because they kept the darkness at bay for awhile.
He began to sleep through the night once more. By 1957, she believed his nightmares were over. She was not to know that he had just learned to sleep through them.
Their children grew, as children do. Times changed, as times do. Little Bill got a job at Ford Motors and moved to Dagenham with the girl he married. Vicky cut her hair like Twiggy and moved into a flat with three other girls from her typing pool. The house was silent without them.
When England won the World Cup in 1966, she noticed Bill's jaw clench every time Kenneth Wolstenholme said a German player's name. As everyone else in the pub celebrated the victory, Bill sat and sipped at his pint of bitter.
In 1969, his nights became disturbed once more. There was so much about the war in the newspapers and on television because of the anniversary of its beginnings, she supposed that it had brought it all back to him. She was so much older and it was harder to deal with night after night of disturbed sleep. She could've moved into the kids' empty room but she didn't, because her voice was still the only thing she knew helped.
'Come back to me.'
In 1976, he was knocked over by a Morris Minor coming back from work. The painkillers he was given for his broken leg made the nightmares worse. He retired from work a year later, worn down by life, the war, strenuous work, his injuries and the effort of surviving. The nightmares only got worse.
Little Bill provided them with a grandchild in 1978, a chubby-faced girl called Lucy. Bill responded to her as he had his own children, with gentle patience. A year later he was fitted with dentures after years' of grinding had worn his own teeth down.
In 1984, she found him sat at the edge of the bed like so many times, but the cold winter's night had grabbed his frail body. The fever put him in hospital, the pneumonia which followed put him in the ground.
She thought it was a mercy, in the end. For her as much as for him. The funeral was full of people speaking of his kindness and quiet ways. He was admired and respected by the community. Few people remembered that he had not always been quiet. Nobody knew that the shadows around him had not always been there.
'Poor Mum,' she heard Vicky stage-whisper to Little Bill during the wake. 'Married to one man for so many years and now he's gone. How will she cope?'
Vicky knew nothing, of course. She had been married to two men: Bill before the War and Bill after it. Vicky did not know that it was a relief to sleep without fear, without interruption. Vicky did not know that she felt liberated and despised herself for it, nor what it was to love another person in their troubled entirety. She did not know what it was like to live with a stranger, for that is who had come into her house in 1946.
Her own dreams began in 1998. 'Come to me,' he said. 'Come back to me.'
Bill, with his gregarious smile and twinkling eyes restored, held his hand out and she took it without hesitation. She had missed him.