I watched Murenga sleep wearing a slight frown on his face, both hands tightly gripping the duvet, half of which lay on the floor on his side. He was a furnace and, even with the thermostat turned down, I felt the heat radiating from his sweat-soaked side of the bed. His legs were restless, twitching and kicking as though he was fleeing some horrible monster in his dreams. I couldn’t sleep, but I preferred this—me watching over him than him watching over me. A few weeks ago I’d woken up in the dark and felt his bright eyes boring through me, trying to see through to the very depths of my soul. And when I asked if he couldn’t sleep, he mumbled something about being ever vigilant because the enemy can come at any time, then he turned away from me and returned to his brooding.
There’s nothing like waking up next to a stranger, one who looks so much like someone you knew a long time ago, so you do a double-take, frown and try to remember where you’ve seen that face before. That’s what it felt like every morning I woke up beside Murenga. But then I wasn’t in bed with all of him. A part of him was missing; hidden under the duvet. I could not see it, but felt its absence all the same.
I tried to creep out of bed, but felt his callused hand grab my arm. He held on tight.
“Let go, I have to get ready for work,” I said. His hand relaxed with some reluctance.
In the bathroom, under the bright light, I inspected the dark bruises on my forearms and the bite marks on my chest which he had made. My friend, Sarah, from work was worried about it, but to me they were scars I bore proudly, his signature on me, the sign that despite everything, some part of him, buried deep inside, still loved me and I had to dig it out gently, one scoop of dirt at a time like an archaeologist unearthing ancient treasure.
My mind was constantly on Murenga when I was at work. I was a nurse and my vocation demanded that when I was with my patients, they were my sole priority. But it was hard to invest my emotions in them when he weighed so heavily on my mind. A bell went off in Bay 2, the orange light outside flashing while I sat at the nurses’ station. I imagined him at home sitting in front of the television. His right hand with its fresh scars would be on the remote control, which he held onto obsessively as he flipped between the various news and documentary channels until something caught his attention. This was his daily routine—sand, helicopters, men bearing arms, reporters in flak jackets and helmets. He would sit there for hours, a bottle of beer in hand, in a gloomy silence, eyes fixed on the screen, his chest rising and falling at irregular intervals as if he’d forgotten how to breathe, that he had to inhale after every exhalation. It’s funny how a few years before, I had been the one watching the news compulsively, hoping to hear a word, to see a picture, and simultaneously fearing what that might mean.
It was the brooding silence that got to me. When he was in this zone, he was impenetrable, his mind away someplace else, a place so far away I could not join him. He was a black hole in the centre of the room, devouring life—our life. At times like this anything could set him off, an ill-placed advertisement, the phone ringing, the sound of my footsteps in the kitchen. It was like he was stalking deer in our flat, a landmine waiting to explode.
In my reminiscences I often forgot the sound of his laughter, the raspy laugh that had so wooed me when we first met. Easy to forget he was only twenty-five and I was thirty. Well, thirty-two. But he seemed like an old man, though the old folks in my ward had more soul than he had. Amidst the drip stands and beeping pulse oximeters, I remembered the day I got the call that he had been flown to the hospital in Germany for treatment.
But this was not the time for these thoughts. I got up and went to answer the call bell in Bay 2.
My lover lived in a tenement on Hermitage Terrace in Morningside. On days I didn’t feel like going home early, I would text Murenga and tell him we were short-staffed and I had to stay on for a few more hours to help out. My wedding ring rubbed against the steering wheel as I drove from Little France, through Cameron Toll and Liberton, to Morningside.
Tatenda buzzed me up; he was waiting at the door for me as I made my way up the dark stairway that led to his flat on the first floor. He kissed me on the cheek and led me inside where he had the table laid out, scented candles—a strong lemongrass essence—burning around the room, on the windowsill, the fireplace, the bookshelf and the coffee table.
When Murenga went away on tour, I found Tatenda not to be the panacea to my loneliness, but a cool balsam to apply on a burn until time healed. He quenched an ache, soothed my solitary nights and was the voice leading me in the dark. People think that when a woman finds a lover it is solely for sex. We are a sex-obsessed culture and seek depravity under every stone, but more than the physical act, a lover is an accomplice, a crutch, that secret something that answers a hidden need. And the guilt that comes from having one is sweet, but like eating too much honey, it turns and churns in the bowels afterwards. Maybe I just made up these reasons to rationalise my deeds, to sooth my conscience, but I know there is some spark of truth in these words.
“How are things at home?” he asked. This was his code for asking about my husband.
“The usual,” I replied. He elegantly let go, knowing that I would tell him if I felt like it. Not today.
Tatenda was a podiatrist; I met him in his surgery which I went to every couple of months to treat the callus and corns I bore on my feet from walking the hard floors of the hospital. He spoke of my rear foot valgus that needed correction with insoles and my weak tibialis anterior that caused me suboptimal dorsiflexion as if they were matters of life and death, when all I wanted was to have the hard skin removed. Perhaps he wanted me to see him as something a little more than a glorified pedicurist. I found him interesting; he was the opposite of my Murenga in every respect. Where Murenga was hard, reserved, every bit the macho man, Tatenda was soft, almost effeminate in stature and voice, a gentle soul. He poured me a glass of rosé and we clinked glasses. What for, I know not.
Something about being in a podiatrist’s chair makes me want to talk, to tell all, but not like in a confession booth. The podiatrist’s chair, having your feet gently touched and pampered, loosens the tongue and has the added bonus that you leave walking on air. He had been my practitioner for years and he knew all about my life, but it was only after we became an item that I really got to know Tatenda, his messy divorce with Nyasha, the daughter he never saw, the human being with human problems.
I enjoyed his caramelised onion pasta. Though he was a mediocre chef at best, it was the passion he infused in his offering to me that was in itself a sweet condiment. We talked about the book he was reading, A Storm of Swords; something he was passionate about which I had little real interest in. I was not a literary person, but I liked hearing him talk about characters from the epic fantasy and genre noir that he so loved as though they were real people, like neighbours we gossiped about.
We did not fuck, it didn’t happen every time we met, and I left after dinner and apologised that I had a husband waiting at home for me. Tatenda was really into me and, if his eyes did not lie, I believe he had fallen in love with me. I left him at the door and waved good-bye as I descended the stairs. On days like this, I thought of calling the whole thing off, it was not fair on him; maybe I was just too selfish.
Murenga was in the park, sitting on his chair beside a wrought iron bench near the children’s playground. Leaves fell from the elm trees that stood on parade along the footpaths. He took a long sip of the Special Brew he’d grown so fond of. He looked like a bum in his greatcoat, one hand in a fingerless glove around his can of booze, a certain steely coldness in his eyes as he soaked up the weak rays of the sun and watched children tumbling off the slide into the sandbox below. Then he raised his face to the sky and muttered something to himself, maybe a prayer or a curse.
There was a time I thought this was just a phase, that he would stop drinking once he came home and slide back into society with grace. I was wrong, the drinking only got worse. Sometimes he mixed up his booze with Paroxetine and Xanax, creating a cocktail he’d named the Peacetime Special.
We used to walk together on the shore, the regenerated docks near our flat in Leith, but it became difficult as his paranoia got worse. He saw danger everywhere, mostly in clumps of litter on the roadside and cars with low suspension. It was like being with a child who had a hyperactive imagination, yet he insisted it was real, that one day we would all “get caught up in it” too.
We gave up the walks and he took to playing Call of Duty all the time. Our flat filled up with the noise of automatic gunfire and tell-tale explosions from airstrikes which he rained down upon his enemies.
The man I gave the British Army to fight in their War on Terror was not the same man they returned to me. The army demands that its recruits are perfect physical specimens; they reject anyone with asthma, back problems, eye disorders, neurological problems, and a hundred and one other conditions. Then they take these young men and drill them until they are Spartans. But that’s no guarantee of what comes back from war.
Before they sent him to the desert, my Murenga was the most wonderful lover in the world. We spent whole days in bed with our legs intertwined and locked together as though we were a single organism. I hid my feet from him saying they were horrible, abused from hours of standing at work, but he pinned me down, grabbed my legs and kissed my arches and toes, telling me how much he loved every square inch of my being. He had a perfect pair of feet, slender and sturdy, a bit of hair on the first metatarsal. I loved it when he ran them gently against my shins.
When he came back from the desert for the first time after a six month rotation—the first of many more to follow—he stood at the threshold in his black combat boots as if unsure he was allowed in. His feet were callused, toenails broken, and I hated them for what they represented—bloodshed and death.
“What does a Zimbabwean have to do with this whole issue? When have the Arabs ever bombed us?” I once asked him.
“We live here now,” he replied with a sad smile.
When he first signed up, he said it was for a stable career for a short time. But the army became home for him, the camaraderie sucked him in and those strange men from Britain and far flung places in the Commonwealth became his blood brothers. He even had an uber-patriotic edge that I never understood. I mean, who seriously supports the Scottish football team? They changed him.
The army did many things for Murenga and his companions, but one thing they did not do was to prepare these boys for the war, for what war really means. They didn’t get the ritualistic prophylaxis required to harden their minds against what they were to do and see in battle.
There was a time when tribesmen went out to war, the tips of their spears glinting under the sun, with the blessings of the gods and women ululating. They knew their enemies were infidels, vermin who deserved to be exterminated. In song and epics, great deeds of looting, rape, slavery, genocide were celebrated as acts of the highest valour, worthy of being passed down and remembered from one generation to the next. A warrior would come home with new scars on his body, blood on the blade of his sword and be welcomed back a hero. He had taken his enemy’s scalp, eaten his brain or fed on his heart to absorb his spirit. Rituals of purification were performed. The dead and vanquished slept peaceful in their graves, honourable foes who would have done the same to the warrior and his people had he not got them first. Everything was even on the moral plane.
There was never a question about the righteousness of the warrior’s actions.
The British Army treats war as some kind of sport. It’s an army of professionals, as if there can be anything professional about the savagery of war. War is not sport, a game with rules in which when it is over, statistics are compiled and the combatants simply shake hands and move on with the referee’s final whistle.
There was a time I wished Murenga had died and got a medal, then I would miss him and he would be a perfect memory. I was not proud of these feelings, but they were an intrusive reality I had to confront nearly every day.
When they sent him back from the desert, our life became defined by absences created by his return. These were the things he no longer did, calling his family in Zimbabwe every day, spending a fortune on international calling cards, the weekends he would go clubbing with his civilian mates, church on Sunday, the flowers he used to buy me, words he no longer whispered in my ears.
He once said he missed the freedom he had in the desert. It seems he missed the war. I once heard an American army wife describe herself as a widow with a living husband. That is exactly how I felt.
My heart was pounding, my whole body trembling when I arrived in Germany and they took me to the hospital where he was. In that moment, I was not a nurse; I understood nothing the doctors told me. I couldn’t identify the machines they had him hooked up to, the hissing mask they placed on his face so I could not kiss his lips. Then the smell of burnt flesh. God help me, it was awful, I wished he was dead and I am ashamed of this.
I imagined the “accident”. That is how it was described to me over the telephone, that he was involved in “an accident”.
Murenga and three other men whose names I do not know were in a Snatch Land Rover, driving in a convoy on a dirt road somewhere in Helmand. They looked out the windows and exchanged bawdy jokes about women and sex. The sky overhead, cobalt blue. The mountains in the distance, jagged peaks and hard rock. A hot wind blowing dust in the air. I have to imagine these things for myself because Murenga clams up and withdraws whenever I ask about the “accident”. Then a blinding white flash and the Land Rover was lifted high in the air. Heat. A bloodcurdling scream. Maybe I should accept that I will never truly know or understand what he went through.
The miracle of modern medicine—a few months later, he was back home. When I say he, I mean not him, but someone resembling Murenga, a new being, some kind of Frankenstein’s monster built from parts of the one who had been there before.
They gave him a bed in the Mark Wright House to convalesce. I wanted him home right away but the experts said he needed to be in this half-way house so he could get the best care until he was ready. I went to visit often and watched him in rehab, the work outs with the physio, his hands gripping the parallel bars as he learned to walk again like a toddler. I was there, hands clasped together, a woman/ a mother/ a sister/ a lover, praying and supporting.
In that home in Gilmerton, I regretted ever wishing he had died. I learnt to count my blessings and to take this new existence one step at a time.
On some days I got back home and the flat was trashed. Broken beer bottles, broken plates, broken picture frames, torn curtains, scattered cutlery, like we had been robbed. It made me very afraid. I won’t lie and say there weren’t times I thought of leaving and fleeing, but something deep inside stayed me. Then there were good days. It’s in these good days that I pinned all my hopes. On the good days Murenga asked we go for a walk. He took his time putting on his new legs. He slid his stump into the above-knee prosthesis for his right leg and below-knee for the left.
The prosthesis made him look like a wounded cyborg with the metal tibia that ran down to his strange, pink silicon feet. There was a mix up with the prosthetist who decided to give my husband a white man’s feet. Murenga said the devices were comfortable and so he kept them. “The feet fit, to hell with how they look,” he said.
One warm spring day, I didn’t feel like I had to go to the desert anymore and sift through every grain of sand until I found his legs. Murenga wore shorts and exposed his legs to the public, maybe to show them the debt they owed to men like him as they went about their petty lives.
On good days, there was no shouting, no crying, and the dark cloud which hung over our lives lifted for a bit so we could see the beautiful sky in the day and the stars outside our window as we lay in bed at night. A little of the man I married returned and, dare I say it, I saw something resembling a smile on his face. I believed that it was possible to find happiness again. A bit of time, together with his medication and counselling, would help see us through. Something was growing inside of me. Perhaps in time, I would let my lover go, set him free as it were, because I would no longer need a comforter and everything I needed would be right here with Murenga. But we still had a long way to go.
We walked along Leith Shore, past the pubs and restaurants, the grey sea calm, salt air filling our lungs—me and my Terminator. It felt good to start doing the things we once did again, the war had changed us both and the new me was just getting to know the new him. His gait was a little unsteady, but I was happy he was out of the wheelchair; he would always have my shoulder to lean on. And we’d keep on walking until we got to where we needed to be.
Image courtesy: Wikipedia. The cover image for the story is from the painting “Unexpected Visitors” by Ilya Repin (1844-1930). The original hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery Alfred Yarbus, who pioneered eye movement research, used it to study what people focus on when they survey a scene (Hint: faces). Much has been written and continues to be written about this painting. The story’s sad, broken soldier and the woman who loves him, reminded us of one of the painting’s interpretations: that the person who returns is not the person you had said farewell to.