Having him back in his chair made our home feel complete again. I kept looking at him dozing as I washed his fatigues. I felt as if he might vanish at any moment while my back was turned, back to wherever it was they’d sent him while I was left here in half a home, waiting for news while my mind mixed hope and dread like my hands were mixing the grime from his trousers with soapy water.
I woke him by getting the boot brush from the cupboard under the stairs. He sat up sharply – it would be months before he would wake without a start – and stifled a moan of pain. I saw it on his face and went to him until he was sure he was safe at home. I made him a cup of tea and went back to the work surface to pick up the brush.
“What the hell d’you think you’re doing?”
His shout spun me round in time to se him slosh hot tea over his good hand. He dropped the cup, which shattered at his feet.
I gaped at him, too stunned to move, while he looked back at me with more pain on his face than a bucket of scalding tea could have caused him.
“I’m sorry.” His hand covered his mouth. “I don’t know what… how…”
His voice failed him, but his eyes carried more remorse than he could ever have spoken.
I looked back at the mud caking his boots. The mud of wherever they’d sent the man I married. The mud of wherever they’d brought back a man I wasn’t sure I knew from.
But they had brought him back.
“I will never clean these boots,” I said.
He nodded his thanks to me, still unable to speak.
I sat with him until he fell asleep again.