It had been 4 years to the day since Robert had left to fight in Iraq. Jennifer felt a wave of emotions rush through her as she attached the balloons to the ceiling. She could almost feel the day he had left as if it were yesterday, not knowing when or whether she would see him again. The occupation of Iraq was coming to an end; he would be coming home for good. She felt excited and nervous as she fixed a welcome home banner above the door. She had invited all of his close friends and family to welcome him home. He had always loved a party. Robert had told her he would be getting into the airport at 5pm so the taxi should arrive at the house by 6pm. Jennifer kept watch by the window, ready to usher everyone to their predestined hiding places, it couldn’t be a welcome home party without the surprise element. 6 o’clock came and went. The hours passed and everybody was getting restless, the children especially.
Jennifer was becoming increasingly worried so she phoned the airport to check on his flight, it had landed at five. All manner of thoughts passed through her mind but family and friends didn’t seem as worried, they assured her that he would be there soon. She ordered everyone to help themselves to food and drink as she grabbed her coat to sneak out. She must have wandered around for an hour, stopping by all his old haunts but there was no sign of him nor had anyone seen him. She headed back home hoping he would be there. It was a cold night; the cars glistened in the darkness. An icy wind blew as she reached the house; she wished he was there to make her warm. As she stepped through the door her face dropped. Some of the guests had already left, it was 10 o’clock now. She sat back beside the window to wait. Her sister Louise approached, looking worried.
“Jen, I don’t think he’s coming, are you sure you’ve got the right day?”
“Yes, I know it was today, it’s the 4 year anniversary of when he left. How could I get that wrong?”
“I’m sorry sis, the kids are tired, I’m going to have to take them home. I’m sure he’ll be here soon but it’s getting late.”
Jennifer attempted a smile “Yeah, I’m sure he will be.”
“Listen, I’ll pop round in the morning, he’ll have plenty of people to welcome him home tonight anyway, I’m sure he’ll be too tired for me as well.”
“Okay Lou, I’m sorry he’s so late. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Louise hugged Jennifer goodbye and left with her husband and two young daughters. Jennifer and Robert had moved around the corner from Louise and her family when they had found out Robert was due to leave for Iraq, Jennifer had not long given birth to the twins, Sophie and Billy and needed her sister’s help. Louise had always been there for Jennifer when she was struggling to cope on her own.
Jennifer knew the rest of the guests would soon follow. Over the next two hours all the guests slowly left, feeling a tinge of guilt. As she closed the door behind her parents, the last to leave, Jennifer had to stop the tears filling her eyes. She took Sophie and Billy upstairs and read them a bedtime story; despite their reluctance to go to bed they were soon asleep.
Jennifer went back downstairs and sat in front of the window to continue waiting. She took the photo album from under the coffee table and tried to take her mind of the fact that Robert was missing. The first picture in the album was of their wedding day, they were only married a year before Robert was posted; it was the happiest year of her life. She discovered she was pregnant with the Sophie and Billy not long later. It all felt perfect. Robert left just a month after the birth, it was tough but being in the army was all he wanted to do, when he was back they would have the rest of their lives to spend together. She sifted through pictures of the children growing up, she was eager to fill the album with pictures of the whole family. She had dozed off when she was awoken by the doorbell. She glanced at the clock, it was 5am. She rushed to the door. Robert stood in front of her struggling to stand. As tears filled her eyes she reached to hug him. He brushed past her, avoiding her open arms.
“Robert, what’s the matter? Why are you so late?”
“Stopped off at the pub.”
“The pub?” Anger filled her lungs. “Until this time?”
“We went on to a club.”
“I dunno, some guys I bumped into.”
“Some guys you bumped into? Your kids have been waiting for you. We’ve all been worried sick.”
“I’m off to bed.” Robert started up the stairs.
Jennifer wanted to cry but she was too angry. She opened the drinks cabinet to make herself a glass of Whiskey and sat down to calm down. She wanted to avoid a fight on his first night back so she climbed up to bed half an hour later. As she pulled the bed covers back she whispered “Robert, are you awake? Robert?” There was a complete silence. She turned over to attempt to get a couple of hours sleep but she merely tossed and turned until Sophie and Billy came rushing in at 8am.
“Daddy, daddy” they shouted as they jumped on Robert.
An angry reply muffled “get off” as he pushed them away. The tone in his voice was one Jennifer had never heard before. She didn’t want the children to be around him.
“Come on kids; let your dad get some sleep.” The children sulkily walked downstairs.
“Mummy, when will daddy be awake?” Sophie asked nervously.
“He’ll be down when he’s ready darling.”
As Jennifer made breakfast for the children she lost herself in thought, hoping that sleep deprivation and a hangover was all that was bothering him. She was startled by a knock at the door.
“Oh hi Lou”
“What’s wrong? Is he not back yet?”
“He came back a few hours ago.”
“So why aren’t you jumping around the room?”
“I’m just tired that’s all”
“Come on Jen, there’s more to it than that. What’s happened?”
“Come outside, I don’t want the kids to hear.”
“He is ok isn’t he?”
“I’m not sure”
“What do you mean?”
“He did arrive at the airport at five, he just decided to go drinking for twelve hours with some strangers, he wouldn’t hug me, he snapped at the kids this morning. He just doesn’t seem himself.”
“Hmm, he’s probably just struggling to get back to reality; it’s a different life here.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Just give him a bit of time.”
“It’s just difficult; I’ve waited so long for him to come home.”
“I know. He will come round though. Don’t worry. Here, give me a hug.”
Louise wrapped her arms around Jennifer. Louise had always made her feel better about things; she had always been there when she felt alone.
“Thanks Lou, I needed that.”
“Hey, why don’t you, me, Neil and the kids all go down to the park, give Robert a bit of space for a while.”
“Oh I don’t know.”
“Come on, it’s a beautiful day out there. We’ll be back in a couple of hours; he’ll probably still be asleep.”
“Okay then, I guess it couldn’t hurt. I’ll leave him a note”
Jennifer wrote Robert a note but when she returned home that afternoon she noticed the note was still in its envelope. She was anxious to see him but she remembered his tone that morning, she didn’t want to disturb him. Jennifer, Sophie and Billy spent the afternoon watching TV. Jennifer stared blankly at the screen, attempting to take in the moving images without much success. It was early evening and he still hadn’t made an appearance so she decided it was time to wake him. She started making a Shepherd’s pie, Robert’s favourite dinner. He must have missed home cooking. She took her time in the kitchen, making sure it was all perfect. It had been in the oven for twenty minutes when she decided to wake him.
She slowly climbed the stairs and cautiously opened the door. She gasped. Empty pill bottles lay beside him on the bedside table, she reached over to feel for his pulse but the warmth had already left him. She sat beside him, held him in her arms and sobbed for a while. She noticed the note which lay beside him that simply read “I love you but I can’t bear to see all the pain and suffering anymore. I’m sorry.”