He liked to reminisce about his time in the war, and his propensity to live in the past had increased during recent years.
Gertie was thoroughly fed up with hearing the same old stories over and over again. It wasn’t as if there was anything interesting, exciting or thrilling about them. Roger spent almost all of the war in the desert, and it sounded virtually serene to Gertie. While she was hiding in the dark, dank bomb shelter, he taught art to his mates, and perhaps went to see a movie in Cairo. While she heard the muffled sounds of bombs exploding and pulverizing homes, he listened to ballads sung by crooners in the hotel he visited several times.
Roger held their first great-grandchild in his arms, and this gave him a captive audience, who’d listen without comment on the story of his life. Gertie thought it was just as well he had no horror stories, that he’d been spared from front-line action, and had worked on designing camouflage for the desert environment.
Gertie didn’t like to reminisce at all. If she started to think back to before her emigration to Canada, the memories disturbed and agitated her. She’d trained herself to switch her focus to pleasant thoughts, to more recent events, such as their grandson’s wedding. Unfortunately, she couldn’t talk to Roger about that because he couldn’t remember anything about it. He’d immersed himself in the sands of the desert to such an extent - the camel rides, the horses, the tank he nearly buried by driving it around in circles - that it had become his current reality.
Gertie had teetered on the edge and even packed a suitcase, but then changed her mind. If you can’t beat them, then join them, her father used to say. So, she bought an old army tent, and cut it up, hanging pieces of it on various walls. She researched and collected World War II British Army memorabilia and converted the house into a kind of museum. She never had liked Vera Lynn’s singing – she was one of the few who wasn’t a fan – but his favourites were played repeatedly during each afternoon. He was served his lunch in tin containers on a tray.
Not entirely true to the time, he ate while sitting in his recliner with a cushion at his back.
Gertie believed that her acceptance of his short-term memory loss and her encouragement of him to remember the past, had helped to slow his inevitable decline. Perhaps it wouldn’t have worked for others whose memories were filled with traumatic events.
Gertie had no desire to live in the past. It was just as well that Roger’s early life had been completely separate, and rarely conjured up bad recollections for her. They had been in different parts of the world, and encountered different challenges. Roger dealt with heat and sandstorms, Gertie dealt with cold and hunger, and shrapnel falling around her. Roger had bedbugs for company at night, Gertie had a dirty blanket to pull around her as she sat on the cold, wet floor in the near-dark bomb shelter. Roger swept sand out of the huts. Gertie threw buckets of water on roofs.
Roger couldn’t remember where the baby had come from, who he was holding in his arms and telling stories to. Gertie didn’t push it, but just mentioned he was Simon’s son, knowing full well he wouldn’t remember who Simon was. He handed the baby to Gertie, having lost interest, and picked up his pipe. He didn’t smoke any more, but the feel of it in his hands gave him comfort.
He looked at Gertie and she knew he couldn’t figure out who she was. His eyes lit up a little, but Gertie could see that he didn’t really know.
The baby left, and the sadness at the family leaving her, hit her deep and hard.
Back to her life in the desert.
He took the cup and saucer from her but didn’t seem to know what to do with them. After some encouragement from Gertie, he took a couple of sips.
It happened like a lightening strike, out of nowhere. But it was as if he’d planned it. In a flash, he leant forward and pulled out a large kitchen knife. Gertie thought he was adjusting the cushion.
He stabbed her in the stomach and then stabbed himself.
He died before the ambulance arrived, but Gertie eventually recovered after some time in hospital and more time with her daughter. The house was sold.
The family blame Gertie. They say, because she allowed him to believe he was still in the army, he thought she was the enemy. But Gertie says he wouldn’t have killed himself, and he’d never killed or attempted to kill anyone before.
But her son asked how she knew that.
Anything could have happened in that desert.
Vicky Earle Copyright 2021