He visited her religiously every weekend. By now she was able to speak clearly, although her voice was a little hoarse. He brought her books about the Crusades and one about the SOE. He taught her how play poker and backgammon, at which she became quite adept, particularly with the doubling dice. He bought some furniture and painted the dining room downstairs.
When he had visited her on a Friday in August, she told him: “I had some visitors this week.”
“Well on Tuesday it was the adjutant of the SSR, from Hereford.”
“What did he want?”
“The usual, boots fit all right? Mail getting through? He caused quite a flutter among some of the nurses, because he was dressed in his No 2 gear, Sam Browne, the lot. Actually he sat with me and chatted for an hour. I am grateful to him.”
“You mentioned visitors. Who else came to see you?”
“Alan Bartlett. He warned me of your penchant for being a sexual predator. I think they might move me onto a side ward soon. I’m rather pissing off some of the nursing staff, by not being a good little girl and not asking any questions.”
“Do you think I’m a sexual predator?” he asked.
“Of course. I was an innocent little girl before you deflowered me in that hotel room.”
In quieter more reflective moments, he thought about her, because she was losing weight in front of his eyes. He prepared menu plans for each day but knew he would have a fight on his hands. Sitting with just a single light on one evening he was in a thoughtful mood. She was harsh, cantankerous, and very reluctant to show emotions. But underneath that protective shell, she was kind, loyal, brave, and loving and he knew beyond certainty that he was deeply in love with her. He seldom remembered Inés, she was a distant ache in his soul, like prodding a sore tooth with your tongue.
Eva was still as kind to all the team as she had been. She was around ten years older than him, and he loved her for making him stop drinking and providing solace and warmth in her bed. They often still looked at each other, a subtle little smile. And then they had to deal with the Albanians. He hated wet jobs, but with no Special Force team that could be readied in time, although the Watchers were in place. They would have to sort the Albanians out themselves.
Jean-Claude had made the requisition for two Sterling L34A1 suppressed variant SMGs and an afternoon on the range at Northolt. They each fired around two hundred rounds until Eva was totally proficient with the weapon.
“More fun than the Glock, isn’t it?” Jean-Claude observed, pulling a piece of flannelette through the barrel, before handing it back to the armoury.
“I don’t like doing this, killing people.”
“It’s them or you, Eva. Just remember to keep the bursts short, find cover and engage them.”
She was reluctant, but she did run the Western Europe desk. After it was done and they were on the road to Calais, she asked Jean-Claude to pull in. She got out of the car and vomited at the side of the road. He gently rubbed her back until she stopped retching and gave her a tissue.
“I’m just not cut out for this. It was horrible.”
“I don’t think anyone is, Eva,” but there was something inside him, a perversity that made him feel so alive while he was killing people.
I’m sick in the head.
But he had to function and he received a text message from Afarin. It was brief and to the point: They’re kicking me out tomorrow. Can the 7th Cavalry come and rescue me please?
He knocked on the door of Bartlett’s office, “Alan, Afarin gets out of hospital tomorrow.”
“OK, I’ll let the Business Partnership know and your sabbatical starts, effective of now. She will be hard work, Jean-Claude. Afarin is a poor patient. Be gentle with her.”
“I promise and I’m not even feeling in a predatory mood.”
Bartlett looked at him, “Quite.”
He drove to her house and opened some windows to let it air, hoovered and made sure the bedclothes were OK. That night he slept in the spare room and put his additional clothes in the wardrobe. In the kitchen he soaked some borlotti beans overnight and put the empty washing machine on a quick wash because it smelled stale. In the evening he sat down and chuckled through an episode of Spooks.
The next morning it was bright and sunny and likely to be hot and he put the beans in the slow cooker, with a tin of tomatoes, lots of herbs and a chicken breast. He mowed the lawns, had a quick shower and drove into South Swindon. Parking at the hospital was the bane of his life, but he was on the ward just after lunchtime. There were screen curtains round her bed, and she was having difficulty in getting dressed.
“Are you OK, Afarin?”
“Feel so weak. Will you help me, please?”
As he helped her dress in the clothes he provided the week before, a nurse came in and swept the curtain open, “Come on, Ms Khan. You were supposed to be dressed an hour ago, and what have you being doing and who are you?”
“I’m helping her get dressed. Instead of your extreme rudeness to a patient, could I suggest that one of you lot helps her, instead of skulking in the nursing station on your fat arses? This woman has put her life on the line in service of her country, and both she and I pay your wages. When you waddle home, get your training notes out and re-visit the bit about care and empathy.”
Jean-Claude towered over her, and he was most intimidating.
“Her spare clothes and books are in those bags,” the nurse said and scurried off.
“Any medication to collect?” he asked her gently.
“No. The dietician was supposed to see me yesterday, but nobody showed up. I just want to get out of here.”
Then she started to cry, “I’m so bloody useless, I can’t even walk out this place.”
“Afarin, have you been winding up the nurses again? In a different hospital,” he asked.
“They were horrible. I was patronised for every question I asked, and I got cross with them. None of them would talk to me after that.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll find a wheelchair to get you out. Have you had any physio?”
“No. They were supposed to come and give me a course of exercise, but never did.”
“The envy of the world,” he muttered angrily and went in search of a wheelchair.
When he came back with one, she was sitting on a windowsill, head in her hands and crying softly.
“Oh, don’t cry. You’re going home.”
“I’m weak, exhausted, and useless. You will have gone in a couple of days.”
“Nope, I have been given sabbatical leave, specifically to look after you.”
He parked her by the main reception, “I’ll get the car. Stay put.”
He walked across the car park, so sad to see her like that. Ignoring the no parking signs he stopped in front of the main hospital entrance and went to get her, wheeling the wheelchair out. He helped her into the front seat and returned the wheelchair inside. They drove back to her house, and she was quiet for most of the trip.
“I hope you don’t mind but I painted your dining room bright red and went through all your underwear. It’s a bit tight on me.”
She looked at him sharply and then smiled, “That’s what I missed. Someone who would make me laugh.”
“You’ll be sick of me by the time you’re ready to join the active list again.”
They drove through Chiseldon to Wroughton, and he parked the car, got out and opened the front door. She was struggling to get out of the car when he picked her up in his arms and carried her into the house. She felt as light and fragile as an injured bird. He lay her down on the sofa and switched on the TV. He went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. When he came out, she was struggling round the sofa, using it for support.
“I’m sorry, John-Claude, but I need to go to the toilet. Those fucking bitches wouldn’t bring me a bed pan.”
He helped her go to the downstairs toilet and waited until she was finished. When she came out, she was crying again, “I’m so fucking useless that I can’t even manage a piss on my own.”
He helped her onto the sofa, “Now I’ve made you some chicken and beans in the slow cooker. Please eat some for me.”
He dished up a small plate of the chicken that was so well done, it broke up. She nibbled at it and said: “I’m sorry, but I’m full.”
“You must eat more. You need to build up strength and muscle and food is the only way.”
He re-heated her plate in the microwave, “Please eat some more for me, Afarin.”
And so, the war had started, a battle of wills. He pleaded, cajoled, but never became angry with her. He had a nuclear option he used when all other techniques failed.
“If you don’t eat, you will be medically discharged from the SRR as unfit for duty, and then what will you do?”
She would shout and swear at him, but he was so calm, which frustrated her even more. In the end she would capitulate and eat something but hated the high protein drinks with a vengeance.
“It’s like trying to eat and swallow baby food,” but he was merciless.
On their first night she was almost sleeping by nine-o-clock. He gently shook her.
“Afarin, go to bed if you’re that tired.”
“I never got much sleep in hospital. When I came out of ICU, they put me on a ward with dementia patients who would shout, scream, and moan all night. It was deliberate, the fucking bastards!”
“Because an Irish nurse hated my guts. I’ve rarely played this card before, but she was a fat, bigoted racist. When I was in ICU, she asked another nurse if the “camel jockey” had woken up yet. She used to call me Jasmine after the Aladdin’s love interest.”
“Would this be because you may have had words with the nurses?”
“There seems to be a pattern developing here. Come on, I’ll take you up to bed.”
He picked her up and carried her up the stairs and helped her put on a nightdress. He could have wept. Her voluptuous breasts and backside had gone, and he could clearly see her hip bones and ribs. But at least the scar on her side had lost its heat and redness.
“Where are you sleeping, Jean-Claude?”
“In the spare room to give you peace.”
She grabbed the front of his shirt and a button pinged off, “I’ve been alone in a bed for six weeks. I want to feel you next to me, make me feel safe. We don’t have to do anything, just be there, Jean-Claude.”
“Ok, Ok. Just let me turn everything off downstairs and then I’ll come up.”
“I’ll stitch that button on tomorrow.”
He went downstairs and made sure everything had been turned off and checked the front door. He got undressed quietly and slipped into the bed. She was asleep. He lay on his back, staring into the darkness, while a couple of ideas swirled around in his head. He decided on a course of action and then fell asleep himself.
He woke up as the sun was warm behind the curtains and he thought about getting up. She opened her eyes and stared at him.
“I love you so much, Jean-Claude,” she told him and went back to sleep.
That was one hell of a wake-up call, he thought and closed his eyes. Her painfully thin arms grasped him like a drowning man. He kissed her and decided to go back to sleep himself. When he awoke, the morning was still bright behind the curtains. She was staring at him, and he grinned and sat up. She pushed him back down.
“We should really get up. You need to eat…”
“Do you know what the strangest thing about being in a coma is?”
“You can still feel pain and hear everything that’s said around you, but you can’t move or react. You still feel shame and recognise voices, but there’s nothing you can do. You can’t communicate with people you love, and they think you’re in a vegetative state. And people have the courage to tell you things because they think you can’t hear them.
“You are aware of someone holding your hand and weeping tears onto your skin. And they tell you how much they love you but think you can’t hear them. I didn’t come back a more ruthless version of me, I just came back, and you wanted to look after me, didn’t you Mr Mortimer? Do you still love me, or has that defensive shield gone back up?”
“What are you talking about?” he asked, puzzled.
“When I visited Alan Bartlett in London, he told me about you, the you that is kept hidden. I had told him that I had fallen in love with you, but I couldn’t read you well enough, so he told me. No secrets Jean-Claude if we are to share our lives.
“He told me that you had difficulty in committing and told me why. You asked to be sent home. You see that French lady, your lover, Inés was attending a French Embassy function one night. How the standard of driving is appalling in Moldova. She was driving across a junction, she had right of way, and she was hit by a lorry on the driver’s side. The lorry had no lights, was speeding and she was killed instantly. You haven’t got over it yet, which is why you are reluctant to commit to somebody else. Perhaps you never will.
“And he told me about your drinking, seeking solace and death, and I wept for you, Jean-Claude. Because I care deeply for you. You look after me, so I will look after you. I don’t care how you coped, all I know is that you got through it and have become an outstanding MI6 officer. Please don’t be angry with Alan. I don’t want us to have any secrets and he had your best interests at heart. I don’t feel any sadness or contempt for you. I want you, warts, and all. Do you want me, warts, and all?”
He lay back on the pillows, staring up without seeing anything. Part of him seethed with anger, reluctant to have his past life dissected. For a fraction of an instant, he hated her, but her face was so hopeful and loving, he knew anger was pointless.
“Shall I take that as a, no?” Afarin asked.
“I’ve wanted you since I first met you in that safe house in Oxford. Don’t get me wrong, the lovemaking is fantastic, but I want to share my life with you. All of it.”
“All right Jean-Claude Mortimer. Where do we go from here?”
“We get you better, then go on holiday to sort our lives out. We’ll take everything from there.”
“While you were asleep, I went downstairs, had some dried fruit and nuts, together with that bloody awful yoghurt.”
“What about the stairs?” he demanded.
“I took it slowly, hanging on to the banister and felt exhausted when I got back to the top, but it was a minor victory to me.”
“Well done! Do you need help having a shower?” he asked.
“Ohhh, yes please. I’ll have one of those walk-in baths fitted and you can loofah my back.”
He smiled, “OK, I get your point. I need to make a couple of phone calls outside, because the signal is so bad in your house.”
He cleaned his teeth, got dressed and went outside. His first call was to the high dependency unit at the Great Western and somebody finally answered the phone after ten minutes, “Hello, I wonder if you can help me. I had a relative admitted to you ward and she was delighted by the caring, nursing staff. She would especially like to thank an Irish nurse with a small gift for all your care and dedication, because she was so kind and understanding. I’m afraid she doesn’t know her name.”
Jean-Claude had her name, and his next phone call was to the Patient Advice and Liaison Service at the hospital, “Good morning, I wish to make a complaint about a member of nursing staff. Her name is Sister*** and she works in the HDU. The nature of my complaint is one of racism. That she addressed a patient with a racist comment on several occasions.”
Jean-Claude heard a definite gulp on the other end of the phone. Clinical negligence could be buried with bureaucracy, but racism was an entirely different ball game.
“I can assure you that I have no intention of allowing this to drop and I am prepared to put my complaint in writing, copied to the Health Secretary. Yes, I’ll find the form online, fill it out and send it to you electronically. Thank you for your help and I expect to hear from you promptly.”
He hung up in an angry mood. He knew that the shit was on its way to the fan and there would be an immediate panicked investigation. The second call he made was to Alan Bartlett.
“Hello, Allen. Yes, she’s at her place. The bastards have starved her, and she is malnourished. She was also supposed to receive physio, but never did. Her body mass is through the floor, and she can hardly walk. It’s heart-breaking what they have done to her and I’m so bloody angry!
“Do your contacts in DSF have any way of referring her to one of the regional rehab units, with a dietician? She is after all, one of theirs and they should have a duty of care. OK, thanks, Alan, I’ll await your phone call.”
Jean-Claude went back into the house and asked her if he could use her laptop do download something.
“As long as it’s not cat porn, feel free.”
After he filled out the NHS complaint form, then resumed his battle with Afarin’s eating. Lunch wasn’t too bad but dinner…
“This morning you told me that you care deeply for me. Well prove it and bloody eat something!”
“That’s emotional blackmail!”
He stared at her teary, petulant face and knew they were locked into a battle of wills, one that if he lost, she would die. But she did eat slowly and after dinner, they had a few games of backgammon.
“I owe you £25. I wish I’d never taught you how to play the damned game.”
They went to bed, but much as she wanted, she was too tired and lacking in energy for sex, “I don’t want to just lie there like a bloody starfish,” so they chatted and fell asleep.
The next morning, they were on the A361 heading for Burford. Alan Bartlett had come up with a referral to the Regional Rehab Unit at RAF Brize Norton. He booked in at the main control of entry point and followed the map to where the RRU was located.
“Right, Afarin. There are military, they are on your side. Have the humility to listen to and do what they say. They are going to get you fit to fight. Got that?”
He helped out of the car and into the RRU reception. Give me a phone call when you’ve finished. Love you.”
She waved, suddenly looking scared, “You’ll be OK. Bye, love.”
He drove to Burford to look round the antique shops and had a long, slow lunch in a pub. He was debating what to do next when his phone rang.
“I’m finished,” she said, “Could you come and pick me up please?”
“Give me twenty minutes.”
When he arrived back at the RRU, she looked exhausted. Her sports clothes were still damp with sweat, and she carried a sheaf of papers, including something that looked like a prescription. She managed to get into the car herself and collapsed with exhaustion.
“I’ve got a prescription for high protein meal supplements and drinks, but I need to order them from a chemist. And I’m bloody exhausted. It was legs today and on Thursday it will be arms and upper body. I have exercises to do at home to strengthen my core.”
“So, you go twice a week?”
“Yes, and after two weeks it will be three times a week. Do you mind, Jean-Claude?”
He leaned over and kissed her, “Of course not. I’ll need to stop at a chemist and put in your prescription and a supermarket to get the stuff on the lists.”
They drove back to Swindon, and he stopped in a shopping complex, which had a chemist and a supermarket. She was asleep in the car, so he left her and went into the shops. When he came back, she was just waking up.
“I think I need an early bedtime tonight.”
“As long as you eat something first.”
“I will. Stop nagging!”
And so, Afarin’s long journey started. After a month she was strong enough to drive her own car and go to the RRU alone. She was eating more and filling out and Jean-Claude saw her backside and breasts had become rounded and voluptuous again. As she was cleaning her teeth, he came up behind her, reached his arms round and cupped her breasts.
“Hello you pair. Long-time no feel.”
“She spat toothpaste out, turned round and said: “It’s time.”
He was happy enough to be led to her bed and he was very gentle. It was beautiful.
They were sitting outside a café in Martigues in the South of France, admiring the boats in the marina and watching the beautiful people strutting their stuff. She wore a shawl against the cooler evening air and her jacket and skirt. He was delighted that she was bareheaded. She was smoking a Gitanes cigarette decorously, as though it made her look like a dusky Brigitte Bardot. She was drinking an Orangina, while he had a small beer and was enjoying the evening and the company.
She looked at him and smiled. Her eyes seem to glimmer like the Van Gough painting of Arles at night. She ground out the cigarette in a Ricard ashtray. He knew she was going to rock his world tonight and she was so beautiful, apart from the long scar under her breasts. But it was her, her battle injury and he couldn’t care less. He felt a frisson of desire in his loins.
She said: “I can’t speak French, but I recognise the modulation and nuances of the language. You speak French beautifully, almost like a native. I know your mother was French, did she teach you?”
“Enough to get by. Afarin, I have a confession to make.”
She looked at him, wondering what the hell was coming.
“My Dad wanted me to go to university, and I promised I would go after I’d done something I needed to do. I can’t explain why, but it was a feeling that I didn’t lose my mother’s frenchness.Just a few days after my eighteenth birthday, I took funds out of a savings account and my British and French passports and birth certificates and headed to Paris. In the capital I made my way to Fort de Nogent and enlisted in the Légion étrangère. It took four weeks to process me and having dual nationality helped.
“They shipped me off to Aubagne with uniform and kit and I started the Initial training of 4–6 weeks at The Farm (La Ferme), and then specific to role training. On completion I was posted to the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment, reconnaissance, airborne and mobility. I was given a new identity and name and I did the full five years because I’m no quitter and served in the Central African Republic, Macedonia, and Kosovo with a tour in the Côte d’Ivoire. I left after a single five-year enlistment as a Caporal. When I came home, I had saved most of my pay and started university. My Dad died the following year and left me an inheritance as well as the house.”
She shook her head and reached for his hand, “My God, you are a real soldier, not like our military with its quotas, pronouns and obsessing on what to call airmen. Tanks that don’t work, ships that they can’t crew and aircraft that won’t fly. What name did they give you?”
“Garçon Chic. It means Posh Boy. I can’t think why they gave me that identity. It was brutal training, no safe space, no counselling. Just hard on fighting, with each other, a form of character building and that’s how they do things. Proper soldiering.”
“Does Alan Bartlett know?” she asked.
“Of course, he does. He got my direct vetting report.”
“My God, Jean-Claude, this is a bombshell. It explains a great deal about you. I’m amazed!” She shook her head, “Did you like it?”
“Most of it. I enjoyed the camaraderie and the macho side of things, batting around in fast patrol vehicles and helicopters, but I hated seeing the poverty and children suffering with machete limb amputations. In Kosovo we were on the wrong side due to political medalling. They don’t understand the military. In my dreams I recall the mutilated children. That’s why I promised myself to do kindness whenever I can, and it made for an interesting interview at Cambridge. I would never want to be in the military in this country, apart from being a fighter pilot, but your job is different and far too dangerous for me and I worry about you.”
“When you stalked the deer in Scotland, you moved like a soldier. I knew there was something fishy you were keeping hidden,” She knew he was the one, the man she would share the rest of her life with. “Is that why Alan Bartlett gave you a second chance, the time to dry out?”
“Eva had a lot to do with it, gentle and caring despite my mood swings and held me, stroking my hair when I used to howl with grief. I treated her badly, but that’s what dependency does to people. I think more of it was to do with post-traumatic stress and Inés’s death was the catalyst.”
“You are like Russian Dolls, and I never know what’s inside you. Despite your kindness and gentle manner, there is a core of steel. I recognised it from the start, the safe house in Oxford. I was fascinated by you and wanted you to make love to me, impart your wisdom. And you did.”
“Only because you threatened me with a knife.”
She smiled. It seemed so long ago, “Where do we go from here, Jean-Claude?”
“I rather thought we could see the Camargue and head north through the Massif Central. There’s a wonderful statue of Joan of Arc in Chinon that you must see…”
She sighed, “You know perfectly well what I mean. What do you want from me?”
“I don’t want anything specific, more a general package. I want to keep you safeand love you, which is rather difficult sometimes. What do you want from me?”
She thought about this, watching some bright young things on a yacht, drinking champagne, the smell of hashish was heavy in the air, “Despite the nature of my employment, I’m rather an old-fashioned girl. I want a husband and in time children. Not very feminist of me, isn’t it?”
“But we’re rather ignoring the large elephant in the room. You lead a dangerous life, whereas I sit on my arse in an office, steady salary, and pension, safe dumb and happy.”
“Being stabbed and what happened in the West Bank has clinched it for me. I will do one more mission and apply for premature release.”
“And then another and another…”
“I’m serious. I want to spend my life with you, unless the old commitment thing kicks in?” she said sadly.
“I look on Inés as a distant and lost love. I have come to realise that life must move on. We are together now, and I don’t intend to let you slip through my hands.”
“One more, I promise, Jean-Claude.”
Just one more.
© Blown Periphery 2022