Jen is a young doctor working for MEDICINS SANS FRONTIERES (MSF) in Yemen. She’s married to Joe, an investigative journalist writing about humanitarian issues. They’re their own best friends, and undeniably in love. When Jen is killed in a bombing raid on the hospital, Joe is devastated. But, surprising his friends, and claiming relief from his heartbreak, he marries Mia – an opposite in every way to Jen – within months of Jen’s death.
But Jen wasn’t killed. Although believed to be at the hospital when it was bombed, she was out visiting a patient. Captured by terrorists, raped by them, and made to treat their wounded for six months, she manages to escape and find her way back to London. When she finds not only is her husband married to Mia, but rumoured to have been sleeping with her before she was supposed to have been killed, she’s left desolate and destroyed, and struggles to find sanity and a new life.
The case for Joe Broom
Yemen, June 15th 2014
You may find this hard to accept, knowing me as you will, but the next few minutes were the sweetest in my life.
Her face touched mine. Softness I’ll never forget, a smell I’ll always remember.
‘Sorry, Joe,’ she whispered, with the warmest of smiles. ‘Got to go.’ It was five in the morning. She was wriggling, trying to squeeze past me, and out of the small, single sleeping bag, trying not to wake me.
‘That’ll be kind of difficult.’ I laughed. ‘We’re sort of glued together. Hang on a minute.’ I breathed in. She did also, and slithered past me, her naked skin against mine, and then she was out. Out of the tight cocoon that had been our love nest for just a few hours. In what seemed like a few seconds more, she pulled on her bra, stepped into her knickers, then slid into a pair of shorts and a black T–shirt. I’d watched her, and gasped. My God, I love her.
‘See you tonight.’ She shrugged. ‘Don’t know when.’ She squeezed her lips together, her head tilting a little to one side. ‘It’ll be late. Miss you like mad.’ A kiss on my mouth, and then she vanished.
The tent where Jen and I and seven others had spent the night seemed odd: eerily empty, as though its spirit had been sucked from it – soulless with a sort of poignancy hanging in the air. To my left, two feet away, my dark green T-shirt lay crumpled on the sand with Jen’s tiny footprint across the front. Probably did it on purpose, I thought, smiling, as I reached for it and my boxer shorts.
Sleeping bags lay discarded – left as they’d been crawled from, wrinkled and dishevelled; dirty, sandy, looking as though they’d been slept in for months. Abandoned phones, tablets, other electronic devices lay scattered on top; toothbrushes poked from the tops of half-open wash bags; books, piles of clothes, and other items were strewn all around – this was the home to eight people, five men and three women. Young doctors who’d volunteered to work for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in war-torn Yemen. All that was left was their smell. The odour of bodies living and sleeping in a small confined space, crammed together, unable to wash as frequently as they’d wished. Rank, and sickly sweet.
I pushed back the flap of the tent. The sun, a big red ball hanging low in the sky, must have just risen, and seemed only a building’s height above the distant horizon, between which and me stretched many miles of empty, golden sand. The helicopter taking Jen and her colleagues to their destination stood about one hundred metres away with its engine running, it’s blades rotating, and kicking up a sandy dust cloud, making it hard to see clearly. I watched as the last of the team climbed aboard and the door swung closed. The noise increased, the dust cloud thickened, and the helicopter became just a shadowy outline. Straining my eyes, peering through the murk, I managed to see it rise off the ground, and then it was clear. Rising in the cloudless, blue sky, I continued to watch as it climbed and headed off in a northerly direction. It grew smaller and smaller until it became just a speck on the horizon, and then no more.
She’s gone, I thought, gazing for some time at the vast emptiness – the sun getting ready to fry white-skinned and non-acclimatised Westerners like me.
Around thirty hours earlier – between eleven and midnight London time – she’d called. I’d been working, finishing an article I was writing for The Morning News. Her image had flashed up on the screen of my phone. ‘Hello,’ I answered, figuring it was some time in the early hours in Yemen.
‘Oh Joe, listen. I had to call you.’ I knew from the tone of her voice she was distressed.
‘A tiny, under-nourished girl, could be no more than five, came in with her arm blown off. She was shrieking with pain. Oh, Joe it was so awful. I thought I’d seen so much of this horror that I was immune to it all.’ She paused, taking a deep breath. ‘But no, this one just broke me up. I had to stitch her up, and we’re short of anaesthetics. She screamed and screamed. Finally, when I was done she stopped, and passed out. Joe…’ Jen sobbed and sobbed, then said, ‘Her pain still showing on her pretty face.’
I was left speechless, wanting to rush to her and cradle her in my arms. I had to say something, however inadequate. ‘My God, Jen, that’s awful. Will she make it?’ I burbled.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied, her tone a tad more upbeat. ‘I did what I could, but it’s got to me. Day after day we are stitching people up who’re innocent. They’re poor, have nothing, live lives trying to sustain themselves from the land, and then this hits them.’ She paused for a couple of seconds.
‘The girl had been taking wood to sell at the market with her family when the planes came over and fired at them. I spoke to her father. He looked, you know, just like the old Arab guys you see in the movies – dirty, white sheet-like cloth around his waist and legs, shirt hanging loose, grey striped jacket, a red and white Bedouin-style bandana around his head, several days stubble, four or five teeth missing.’
Jen had become quite lucid, in full speech mode, uninterruptable.
‘Well that’s what I counted, there could have more missing. He said they were just subsistence farmers, didn’t know anything about the war or why it was happening, just trying to make a living, and then this. One of his children, a boy, was killed in the attack.’ She paused. I heard her sniff and snuffle. ‘The wounded girl is his only other child. His wife – the children’s mother – died a year earlier.
‘He was distraught.’
‘Joe,’ she wailed. I don’t think I can take any more. Day after day, night after night, they bring in people with appalling wounds. We try our best to mend them. We’re so short of medicines, often we have to carry out some of the procedures with little or no anaesthetic. It’s awful. They scream…’ And then she sobbed, saying nothing for about five minutes, by which time I’d made up my mind.
‘I’m coming out. I’ll get the first plane in the morning. I want to be with you. I love you.’
‘You can’t. You’ve got your work to do. There’s nowhere for you to stay or sleep.’
‘I’m coming. I don’t care where I sleep. On the ground, under a sheet, on a rug, or whatever. I don’t care. I’m coming.’
‘Why?’ she pleaded. ‘I’m okay. I’ll be alright. I just needed to get things off my chest.’
‘Do you want me to come? Do you want to see me?’
‘Of course I do. I love you, but…’
‘I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow some time. I’ll find you.’
‘Joe,’ she’d yelled, as I disembarked from a helicopter at nine the next evening. She was sitting with her colleagues around a long trestle table outside a large brown tent. Once she’d recognised me, she’d leapt up and ran toward me, wearing a pair of scruffy khaki shorts and a red T-shirt that I recognised as mine. ‘My God, I love you,’ she cried out, as she flung her arms around my shoulders and kissed me. ‘You’re a bloody genius. How did you manage it?’
With our arms around the other’s waist, looking into each other’s eyes, I told her I’d called Richard at The Morning News after I spoken to her the previous night and asked him if I could I do a piece for the paper on all the work MSF were doing in Yemen.
‘He hesitated to begin with then said he’d call back,’ I said. ‘So, while I waited, I packed, then fixed myself a large scotch. He called within the hour and said it was okay.
‘I caught an 8:00 a.m. plane to Dubai, waited for a connection then landed at Sana’a an hour ago, and here I am.’
‘Insanely great.’ Her grin lit up her face. With her arms still around my waist, she tilted her head back, and looked up into my eyes, and said. ‘Can you stay some time?’
I smiled. Her face was pasty grey. Puffy bags drooped large under her eyes. Her long black hair, tied back, was dry and knotted, caked in sand. A wiggly line of angry red mosquito bites ran down one side of her face and her neck. Poor Jen, I thought, but felt so happy to be with her. ‘I guess I can string it out for a bit,’ I answered.
She laughed, and looked me up and down. I narrowed my eyes. ‘Why’re you looking at me like that?’
‘I was checking you hadn’t blobbed out and put on weight while I’ve been gone. We’ve no spare sleeping bags. You’ll have to squeeze into mine, with me.’ She laughed, again. ‘It’ll be mighty cosy.’ Her eyes seem to sparkle. ‘Snug as bugs.’
She grabbed my hand and pulled me away from the helicopter. ‘C’mon, let’s go and meet the others. We’ve just finished supper.’ She shrugged. ‘Let’s see if we can find you a scrap or two.’
Some colour had returned to her face.
Ayanda, a six-foot-six South-African guy with a chiselled angular face, pronounced bone structure, and wearing a South-African rugby shirt, pushed a can of beer across the table in my direction. He ran a hand through his thick, curly black hair. He frowned. ‘I can’t answer that question. That’s politics. We just do what we can,’ he said, and shrugged. ‘Today we operated on the most serious, those with limbs blown off, serious head wounds, some with damaged and contorted faces. Many died, others we were able to patch up.’ His big brown eyes shone out from his dark skin and bored into mine. ‘This is third world, man. There’s no free health care, no ambulances. Family and friends bring in all the people we treat on makeshift stretchers. I guess there are many out there, right now, who couldn’t make it to the hospital, and who’ll die.’ He shrugged again, and grimaced, twisting his pursed lips. ‘It’s wrong, but there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. We just do all we can for those who can get to us.’
I looked at him, then Jen, and then at the others. The two other women in the team were Australian and Russian. None of them wore make-up. The guys came from South Africa, America, Germany, and Iran. Ayanda, Jeb the American, and Heinz the German sported several days’ stubble of varying length. Faraj, the Iranian, wore a long, untrimmed beard. All eight of them wore shorts, well-worn tops, and either sandals or flip-flops.
‘Doesn’t it get to you?’ I glanced up and down the long table. ‘You know. The constant stream of maimed and injured people, who, after you’ve done your best for them, you know could die?’
‘’Course it does.’ Jen had her elbows on the table, her hands holding her cheeks, and was looking at me. ‘You know that. I bawled my eyes out to you last night. We all deal with it in different ways. Some cry, some go quiet, some of us shout and holler.’ She turned to Jeb. ‘Don’t we?’ He nodded. ‘But we get over it, and keep going.’
‘Look,’ Faraj said, stroking his long beard. ‘It sucks. All the political leaders jaw-jaw a lot but nothing happens. I’d be more than happy to be back home, working in a nice comfortable hospital with good facilities, but hell, how am I going to live with myself if nobody lifts a hand to help these desperate people. I’m not doing this forever. I’m going back to Tehran in a few months, that’s if I’m still alive.’
His forthrightness and honesty impressed me. I guessed they were all similarly minded. ‘Is that how you all feel?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Heinz said with a shrug. ‘I guess it’s something like that. I’ve never really thought about it much. I just do it.’
I looked left. Ayanda had stood up and was walking away from the table with his phone clamped tight to his ear. With his left foot, he kicked the sand around his feet and listened. He turned to look at us all, said a few more words to the caller, and cut the call. He walked back towards us; his forehead furrowed, his lips closed tight, his expression serious. ‘We need to get some sleep. We have to leave early tomorrow to set up a remote operating theatre near the bombed bridge to treat the injured left behind.’ He looked around. The sun had dropped below the horizon. Candles shimmered in the fading light. ‘I guess we should call it a day.’
Jen and I sat on the bench outside the tent while the others made ready for bed. Stars shone in the pitch-black sky. Jen told me that the bridge Ayanda had mentioned had been blown up in a bombing raid. Now it was gone, no food or medical supplies could reach Sa’ada, a town in the northern most part of Yemen in desperate need, and already heavily battered by both sides in the war. Many had died in the blast. She turned to look at me in the moonlight. ‘With the bridge destroyed, more will suffer the same fate,’ she said, and pursed her lips.
Her hand took mine. ‘Come on. Let’s forget about it for few hours and go squeeze into that tiddly bag and see what we can get up to.’ She laughed. ‘It’ll be fun.’
I’d met her five years earlier. I’d been standing in the foyer of Tate Britain, thinking about nothing in particular, sipping on a cappuccino, and waiting for my sister when she’d tapped me on the shoulder.
‘Oh, sorry, I thought you were another guy,’ she said with a soft lilt to her voice, which I guessed meant she came from Ireland. A couple of brass rings hung from the lobe of her right ear, another ring pierced her lip. She wore a short, black skirt that finished well above her knees, showing off her long, thin legs, and a simple black leather polo-neck top. Her hair was black, down to her shoulders, flicked-up slightly at the ends. She had a thin, fine-featured face: unusual, distinctive, pretty – almost elfin. She was slight, and five-foot-three in height.
‘I’m not complaining. It’s not everyday a pretty girl taps me on the shoulder.’
Her expression changed. She looked annoyed. ‘Don’t patronise me. I’m due to meet a guy who has the same build and hair colour as you, and wears jeans and a shirt like you, but he hasn’t turned up. I’m sorry I disturbed you.’ She turned to walk away.
‘The person I’m meeting hasn’t turned up either,’ I said, looking at her back, wondering why she’d stopped, and hadn’t moved on.
She turned. A smile lit up her face. She had striking steely grey eyes. ‘He wasn’t a date, like a lover. Just a friend, but he should have been here fifteen minutes ago.’ She looked into my eyes. ‘And you? Meeting an illicit lover, maybe?’
I laughed. ‘Hardly. My sister. But she’s just texted me and said not to wait for her. She’s been held up.’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘Were you going to see the Lucian Freud exhibition?’
‘Yes, were you?’
‘We’d wanted to, but I couldn’t get tickets. So…’ She nodded her head to one side. ‘It’s kinda good my friend hasn’t turned up. We wouldn’t have been able to get in.’
I shrugged, and smiled. ‘You can come in with me, on my now spare ticket, but I guess you’d call that patronising.’
She laughed. ‘Sure would – but if you’re offering, I’ll accept.’
I was thirty, she was twenty-three at the time, and had just graduated from medical school. We married at Christmas the same year, and became our own very best friends – the breath that we both breathed, the reason we lived. We liked the same stuff. Often we’d sit and talk for hours about books, movies, plays, music, and life. We knew each other like we knew ourselves. We had no secrets.
Life with her was unpredictable: fun, wonderful, but like going for a walk on a stormy day. One minute you’re walking along happily, unaware of the weather, then you walk around a corner and you’re hit by a wind so strong you find yourself blown to the ground, drenched by heavy rain – the earlier peace and harmony gone, caught by a gust, and swept away. I remember one such day.
She’d come home from the hospital after a fourteen-hour shift. She slammed the door closed, dumped her stuff in the hall, and headed for the kitchen. ‘Hi,’ I said as she swept passed me. ‘How was it?’
‘Shit,’ she snapped, without looking at me, heading for the fridge. She pulled open the door and fixed herself a drink. Her face was grey and gaunt, her skin tight and hollowed out under her bloodshot eyes.
‘I’ve made a tomato sauce, and there’s some fresh pasta.’
She took a large gulp from her gin and tonic, clunked the glass down on the marble worktop, and turned to look at me with an expression of shock, as though I’d just told her some awful news. ‘I’ve got eyes you know,’ she said. ‘I can see. You know I don’t like pasta.’
I shrugged, and threw open my hands. ‘We ate pasta at Benito’s at the weekend. You ordered.’
Her face contorted. ‘You just made that up. You know I don’t like pasta. You’re dumb,’ and then she flew out of the kitchen. I followed her to the bedroom. She glared at me, her face bright red, her nostrils flared, anger in her grey eyes. ‘Go away,’ she yelled, picking up a small china vase, and making as though she was going to throw it at me.
I ignored her, and made for the living room with the intention of picking up from where I’d left off on the article I’d been working on. I couldn’t concentrate, and turned on the TV. Later, at about eleven-thirty, when I’d downed a couple of whiskies, and was closing down the apartment before going to bed, she sidled up behind me, wrapped her arms around me, and kissed me on the ear. ‘Sorry, hon,’ she whispered. ‘I had a shitty day at the hospital. Two people died in A&E and we just didn’t have enough resources. I really don’t know how they’ll fix it, but it surely needs fixing in a big way.’ By then I’d turned around, and was looking in her face. She looked divine, as though she was an angel. You would never have thought she’d flown into such a rage. Her grey eyes twinkled. Her smile radiated across her face. She took my hands in hers, kissed me several times on my lips, and said, ‘Let’s go do it.’
And we did, many times. Making love to her was beyond description. No words or phrases could describe it without sounding cliché. It was a unique, deeply loving experience. A pleasure that was shared, mutual, and personal. Both wanted the other to enjoy the moment. We had no hang ups. Nothing was out of bounds. Afterwards, we’d talk about it. Both naked, sharing our thoughts on how it’d had been so beautiful – hugging, kissing, and caressing each other. Often, at those moments, she’d tell me about her frustrations in working for the NHS. The understaffing, the overworked medical staff, often tired and depressed, the budgetary controls: all putting patients’ lives at risk. When she’d unloaded her frustrations, she’d ask about my job, my concerns. I’d tell her, and then we’d talk about other things until all that was left to do was to make love again.
Our friends had called us wild, bohemian, unpredictable, exciting, fun to be with, and more. Maybe we were, and I know we did some crazy things, like the evening when we left a party and walked into a colossal storm. Lightning lit up the night sky, thunder crashed, and sheets of rain poured down. Gutters overflowed, and large puddles, almost lakes, covered the pavement. ‘Oh shit,’ I slurred, and Jen hugged me.
‘How’re we going to get home?’ she mumbled back, and laughed, her black hair looking like rats’ tails, mascara streaked down her face. ‘I think you’re drunk as a skunk, and I’m…’ Her head dropped on my shoulder. She turned her wet face toward me. ‘And I’m no better. Oh, but such a great evening. So much fun.’ She giggled. ‘Hey, look. What we’re going to do? Neither of us is capable of driving.’
‘Walk. That’s our only way. Leave the car here, and collect it tomorrow. We’ll look out for a cab?’
‘Oh, let’s go,’ she said, grabbing my arm, striding off. ‘How far is it?’
‘About an hour and a bit, I think.’ I shrugged. ‘Unless, with luck, we get a taxi.’
She shrugged as well, and looked down at her sodden T–shirt and jeans. ‘Oh to hell with it, these clothes need a wash, anyway.’ She laughed. ‘Hey isn’t there a song, “Singing in the rain, getting soaking wet?” or something like that.
‘Singing in the rain…
‘Getting soaking wet,’ I sang badly.
She bent double with laughter. ‘Hilarious, honey. Come on, let’s both try.’
We did, and sang just those two lines, swaying our way home for about fifteen minutes. Then I saw a black cab come toward us, and put my hand up. He slowed, and pulled in. He slid down his window and stared at us. ‘Sorry, mate.’ He turned his lips down, and shook his head. ‘Can’t take you. You look like a couple of drowned rats.’ His window closed, and he drove off.
‘Shit face,’ Jen yelled, jabbing her finger in the air in the direction he’d driven off. She turned to me. Rain ran in continuous drips from her hair onto her sodden T-shirt, streaked with a brown black mixture of mascara and her make-up, so wet it drooped and hung around her waist. ‘Kiss me,’ she said, blowing me a kiss, and wiping her wet face. We stood in the road, letting heavy rain drench us more, and kissed for about ten seconds. When we pushed apart she blew water from her face and said, ‘That was dripping-wet love, but good. Come on, let’s go.’ And so we did, trudging through the storm, drenched but happy, singing, joking, and often kicking our feet through puddles.
We reached our flat in East Dulwich at three-fifteen in the morning. She climbed out of all her clothes outside the front door, leaving a sodden pile on the doormat, told me to do the same, and rushed in to fetch towels. She came back a few minutes later with one of our big bath towels wrapped all around her, a smaller one around her hair, my towel tucked under her arm, and a large glass of whisky in her hand. ‘Come inside and have a gulp. We can share.’
‘That was fun,’ she said as I sipped. She grabbed my hand, and led me to our bedroom.
Then there was the hot Sunday when we woke early and cycled to Docklands wearing only our pyjamas. We’d bought croissants and coffee from one of the many dockside cafes, and sat outside, overlooking the water, eating and drinking, and throwing crumbs to the ducks. The time at dawn on another hot summer day when we went nude swimming in the lido in The Serpentine and were told off by one of the park rangers. The night we listened to old vinyl records until about five in the morning and were so drunk and tired we just fell asleep on the living room floor. The occasion when one of her friends came over from LA, and after dinner we played Who Are You – when you think of a famous person, alive or dead, and the other players have twenty questions to guess who you’re pretending to be. Jen chose Madonna. When after nineteen questions we were nowhere near guessing, she decided to give us a clue by miming her impression of Madonna. We’d drunk a lot, so her writhing, pretending to be singing, pushing up her breasts, and dancing seemed so hilarious that we all ended up on the floor, creased up, and rolling around with mirth.
Jen and I laughed often, and at times cried together. We’d talk for hours. What our friends were doing, world events, the environment, wildlife, films, books, and more. It wasn’t just agreeing with each other. We’d have a full-blown discussion, putting forward different opinions and points of view. But on the big issues, the issues that mattered to us both: politics, equality, our concern about humanity, and a clean, safe world, we agreed. We were in harmony, united, and soulmates.
And that was how life went on most of the time. Then she’d explode in an unexpected, idiosyncratic rage. Sometimes I wondered if she could have been bipolar, schizophrenic, suffering from a mental disorder, and would check out her symptoms. I drew a blank, and put her moods down to the stress of her job. Besides, sun followed the rain. I loved her, knew she loved me, and went along with her stormy ways. The good times were many, the bad times infrequent, and the good times, we agreed, like looking down on the world from Mount Everest, flying high in a glider, having no cares in the world, catching each other’s smell randomly in the day and making our chests tighten and feel warm; and not worrying about little things like one of us leaving the toothpaste cap off again. This was for real. We were deeply and frighteningly in love.
There were no strains in our relationship. No worries that we’d never make up after a fight, and go to sleep on a grudge. Ironic really. After a row, making up was easy, something we both seemed to want to race toward at breakneck speed. Sex after a row reached highs we hadn’t known before – a sort of invisible blanket wrapped around us, making us believe we lived in a warm, protective envelope that would keep us safe forever.
But it didn’t. At around eight in the morning of February 15th 2014, I awoke to see Jen, fully dressed, standing next to me with a mug of tea in her hand.
‘Where are you going?’ I asked, wiping the sleep from my eyes.
‘Jen leant down and gave me a kiss. ‘You know, that march in support of Syrian refugees. We talked about it last week.’
‘Oh, shit,’ I said, sitting up and shaking my head. ‘I clean forgot.’ I frowned. ‘Why didn’t you remind me last night? I know I was late in, but you could have told me.’
Jen sat on the side of the bed and smiled. ‘Because I forgot as well.’ She took my hand. ‘I woke up early, couldn’t get back to sleep, went and put some washing on, then heard about it on the news.’ She looked into my eyes. ‘You looked so peaceful sleeping, and I know you’ve been working really hard lately, so I thought I’d leave you and go myself. I’ve got to meet Misha in forty-five minutes, so I’ll have to scoot.’
I flung the duvet back, and started to climb out of bed. ‘Hey, look. I’ll shower and catch you up.’
Jen shook her head. ‘You’ll never find us. There’s supposed to be thousands taking part. Stay here and get your article finished?’
I looked at her and pursued my lips. ‘I guess you’re right, but you know I’m with you all the way.’
‘Sure do.’ She leant forward and kissed me again. ‘I must go now.’ She took a step back. ‘See you later. Love you.’ She turned and left the room,
‘Love you,’ I shouted as I heard the front door open.
Two big red pillars, standing about three and a half metres high, sit either side of the sturdy wooden doors with glass panels that make the entrance to The Garrick Arms, a Victorian era pub in Charing Cross Road, and close to Leicester Square. Jen and Misha looked at the imposing frontage and decided to go in. The march had come to a halt in Parliament Square where, along with a quarter of a million other marchers, they’d joined hands and sung hymns and protest songs until they were almost hoarse. All the pubs there and around St James’s Park had been packed with other demonstrators. They’d wanted a drink and somewhere to chat.
‘Over there,’ Jen said, pointing to an empty table in a quiet corner. ‘You get the table, I’ll get the drinks.’
‘Perfect,’ she said, minutes later, carrying a bottle of real ale and an orange juice.
Misha pulled down the hood of her black jacket, took off the black and white scarf she’d used to protect her face and nose from tear gas, and sat down. Her green hijab – pretty with small, gold, square motifs and a gold chain design running through it – looked slightly askew. She adjusted it, revealing her face and her pale, smoky, flawless complexion, her jaw that narrowed from her cheekbones to her small, square chin; her deep brown, almost black, big eyes, black eye lashes and eyebrows, her understated makeup, and her dusty pink lips – beautiful, poised, elegant. ‘Did we achieve anything today?’ she asked, flinging her hands apart.
Jen shrugged. She brushed her hair, and took a sip from her beer. ‘Hope so. We made our point. I heard one of the organisers say it was the biggest one yet.’ She stretched her hand across the table and placed it on Misha’s hand, and smiled. ‘Anyway, enough of that. Tell me your news.’
Misha’s eyes lit up. She blushed. ‘Do you mean Aziz?’
Jen laughed. ‘Who else? You’re marrying him in a few weeks, and I’ve never met him. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think it was an arranged marriage.’
Misha grinned. ‘Well, where can I start?’
‘At the beginning. Where and how you met? What’s he like? How did he manage to sweep you off your feet?’ Jen smiled. ‘Last time we met, not that long ago, you’d just split up with Mustafa, and said you were definitely not marrying a Muslim. Next thing I know, we get this posh invite to an obviously big Muslim wedding.’
Misha laughed. Her eyes sparkled, and she started to tell Jen about her whirlwind romance with a heart surgeon, how he’d proposed after four weeks, and how she’d accepted immediately.
‘What?’ Jen quizzed, leaning forward, a hand to her forehead, her jaw dropped, her eyes narrowed and frowning. ‘You didn’t ask your parents?’
‘Hell no. I’m thirty, and can do what I like. They wanted me to marry a Muslim. They’ve got their wish.’
Jen looked into Misha’s eyes. ‘Are they happy about it?’
‘Oh, they’re delirious. They like him, and are busy organising a swanky wedding. I just wanted a simple one, but…’ she shrugged, ‘it’s Muslim tradition.’ She looked at Jen. ‘And I’m back wearing a hijab again, so they’re doubly happy. Anyway, enough about me.
‘How’s Joe? He’s writing great stuff. I read his articles every week.’
‘He’s fine.’ Jen smiled. ‘He’s lovely.’ She pursued her lips and frowned.
‘What’s up? My God. Have I said something wrong? He’s not ill, or something terrible, is he?’
‘No, he’s fine. But I’m going away for a year to work with MSF, and I haven’t told him yet. I just can’t stand working for the NHS anymore, and I have to do something to help.’ Jen looked at her friend. ‘I have the utmost respect for MSF. They do so much good.’
Misha looked concerned. ‘Where you going?’
‘Yemen, to begin with, then I don’t know. I’ve signed up for a year, and may be moved on.’
‘That’s a bit scary there, isn’t it?’
‘I believe it is. But not half as scary as it is for those who’re wounded without any medical help.’ Jen shrugged. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.’
‘When’re you going?’ Misha turned her head to look into Jen’s eyes. ‘You’ll be here for my wedding?’
Jen frowned, and put both her hands on her cheeks. ‘Next week. I’m so sorry.’
Misha frowned. ‘When are you going to tell Joe?’
Jen dropped her bag at the front door and rushed in. ‘How did it go?’ I asked. ‘What’s up? You look really worried.’ Her face was pale. Her mascara had run. She’s been crying, I thought.
‘I’m going away,’ she blurted. She looked at me from across the room, rooted to the spot she’d stood on when she came in. I thought her lips were trembling. ‘Next week.’ My hand shot up to cover my mouth. I frowned, and looked at her.
What’s she on about? ‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m going to work for MSF in Yemen for a year.’ She started to cry little. ‘It’s nothing to do with you.’ She pulled a tissue from her jeans’ pocket, dabbed at her eyes, and looked my way. ‘Understand me, Joe,’ she pleaded, and pushed her lips hard together. ‘I’m stressed out working for the NHS. You know that. I feel I’ve got to do something to help innocent people affected by terrible wars they had no say in.’
I nodded. Her social conscience wasn’t new. We’d discussed and agreed on the NHS often. Its underfunding, the stress the nurses and doctors experience, their long, unsafe working hours – but never had we discussed her going away, and so suddenly. We both stood and stared at each other for what seemed ages. ‘I’m shocked,’ I said after a few moments. ‘You know I understand…’ I shrugged, ‘and agree with you, but to suddenly announce you’re going away next week is…is… I don’t know what to say. It’s as though I’ve done something terribly wrong, and you’ve got to get away.’ I looked at her.
‘No. As if. You know that. Look, I only agreed on it yesterday. They’re recruiting all the time. Jan, you know her, one of my work colleagues, is going, and she mentioned it. I called MSF yesterday. They said, subject to a medical and some paperwork, I could go at the end of next week. I couldn’t tell you properly last night; you weren’t here.’
She’s right. I wasn’t. ‘Come over here. You don’t have to stand some ten-foot away from me. Yes, I’m shocked that it’s all so sudden, and I’ll miss you, but let’s sit down and talk about it.’
Tears streamed down her face. ‘I love you,’ she sobbed, ‘but I’ve got to do something.’
I moved to her and hugged her. ‘Drink?’
‘G and T, make it a big one.’
‘Sure will, and mine too.’
When I returned with two almost pint-sized gin and tonics filled with large chunks of ice and thick slices of lime, Jen was sitting cross-legged on the sofa, looking sad, and as though she was waiting to say something. ‘Thanks,’ she said, taking her drink. ‘You’re not cross with me? I’ll be back every four to six weeks, and we can Skype each other every day.’ She leant forward and kissed me, pressing her lips on mine for several seconds. ‘I’ll miss you like mad.’
There’ll be no signal in the desert, I thought, struggling to come to terms with what she was saying. It takes guts to work for MSF. She’ll be in danger, and why so sudden and keeping it all from me. I’ll miss her like hell, but I’ve no choice. Her mind’s made up.
‘Me too. No, I’m not cross. But why such a hurry?’ I looked into her eyes. ‘But, hey, listen. I know people who’ve worked for MSF. There’s quite a big vetting process.’ Jen put her hand on my thigh. She looked up at me.
‘I know what you’re going to say; the process takes four to six months. Yes, you’re right, but I picked up the form six months ago when I was on one of my real downers.’ She looked into my eyes. ‘You know how I get?’
Oh yes, I do know. I nodded.
‘I filled it in, sent it off, and didn’t think any more until they called yesterday.’
I took a sip from my drink, and stared at her. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you’d applied?’
Our Skype calls were infrequent, as I’d expected. It wasn’t the connection, more that there were limited facilities to charge phones where Jen lived and worked in Yemen, and a video call to me drained her battery. We did make them, but not every day, more once a month, if our luck was in. Our main communication was through Whats App, where we could write messages, send images, and have the occasional conversation. After two months – in April – she came back for a week. No words could describe the bliss we shared together. We spent most of the days in bed, rising late, between three and four in the afternoon. Jen would make tea, toast crumpets, or cut a couple of slices from a cake she’d made, a coffee and walnut sponge, a speciality of hers, and made from her mother’s original recipe. Then we’d decide whether we’d have supper in or out, or maybe go to a movie. Whichever it was, we’d be back in bed by about ten-thirty. On the Saturday in the middle of her seven days back, we had to rise early to fly to Dublin to see her parents. They were, as usual, their warm, hospitable self: serving us a grand roast lunch, and then taking us on a bracing walk through St Stephen’s Green, up Duke Street to Trinity College, along the River Liffey, and back to their house via Dublin Castle and St Patrick’s Green. We just had time for a cup of tea and Irish scones before catching the 7:00 p.m. flight back to London. We were in bed by ten
The week ended, and the time came for Jen to return to Yemen. I took her to the airport. We were both fairly upbeat in the car, but once she waved to me for the final time and disappeared through Departures, my heart ached, my mind thought only of her. I felt shaky and on edge. The edge of what I didn’t know, but not in control of my mind and emotions. I had to drink two espressos before I felt able to drive home.
My loneliness was self-inflicted. Friends called to take me out for a drink, a meal, a movie, or a sports fixture. I’d refuse most, thanking them for the offer, but saying I had much work to do. That was true, but I used work as a crutch, telling myself that the more I worked, the less I’d think about Jen being away. Occasionally I’d watch some TV, a sports fixture or a documentary related to my work, and usually late at night when I’d finished whatever I’d be working on. Often, I’d find myself asleep on the sofa, the TV still on, an empty whisky glass resting in my lap. I’d always read books, as had Jen, but with her not there, and nobody to talk to about them, I let my reading slip, choosing to sit in front of my PC and work.
One evening, early in May, Luther, my oldest friend, phoned. He called me an ungrateful, anti-social introvert, and then said, ‘I know you’re missing Jen, but come on, man, you’ve got to get out. Loads of people have told me they’ve called you to ask you out, but you’ve said no.’
‘I’ve been busy…’
‘Get a grip, man. We’ll all busy. Look, no apologies. I’m meeting a few friends at the Trinity Arms on Friday night, about seven. See you there.’
‘I’ll think about…’
‘There’s nothing to think about. Just turn up. Okay?’
‘Do yourself a favour and be there.’
‘Okay. I’ll do my best.’
‘Good man. See you there.’ He ended the call.
She’d dressed like she’d just come from a photo shoot for expensive business wear with faultless make-up, shoulder-length blonde hair, blue eyes, and not a stitch of clothing or a strand of hair out of place. Her face was rounded, her nose slightly turned up and, I guess, she was conventionally pretty. Her name was Mia, a friend of Luther’s, and after he introduced her, I’d been taken aback. Luther was a private investigator, and mixed with shady, criminal like characters most of the time, many who I imagined would slit my throat if the price was right. He spoke like them, dressed like them, drank and smoked with them, and, if I didn’t know him better, could have been one of them. Mia was not someone I would have associated him with. She was Barbie-doll perfect.
‘So how come you know Luther?’ I asked her when he’d gone to buy some drinks.
‘I work with him,’ Mia replied, flicking a hand through her hair. She smiled. ‘You look surprised?’
‘Yeah, I am. You don’t look like a private dick or a mean-eyed, yellow-toothed, granite faced criminal.’
With an explosive laugh she replied, ‘I’m not any of them,’ then clasped her hands together on the table, and cracked a smile. ‘I’m a lawyer, a criminal defence lawyer. I get guilty clients off. You know, people who Luther would prefer to stay out of prison so they can keep informing him rather than being put away.’
I pulled a face. ‘You happy doing that? Don’t you feel it’s wrong, helping guilty people go free?’
She shrugged, and pouted a little. ‘Not really. They’re entitled to a good defence. If the crown prosecution don’t put forward a strong case and can’t prove they’re guilty, then the defendants get off. That’s the law.’ She pursed her lips, and nodded her head a little to the left. ‘Besides, it pays the bills.’
I frowned. ‘You said they were guilty.’
She shrugged again. ‘Well. I think they’re guilty, but I don’t know, and they would never tell me.’
‘What sort of cases do you deal with?’ I asked, looking around for Luther. He was nowhere to be seen.
‘Fraud, extortion, robbery with GBH.’
‘Violence, then? Where someone’s been hurt?’ I snapped.
She nodded her head. ‘Yeah, that’s about it.’ She looked away. ‘Anyway, enough about me. Tell me about you.’
‘Sorry, guys,’ Luther said, appearing from another direction with the drinks. A man I hadn’t met stood next to him. He was tall, skinny, with a four-inch scar on his left cheek and three-to-four day’s stubble. Scary, I thought. ‘I met Jamai, here.’ Luther made a hand gesture in the direction of the man. ‘Jamai, this is Joe and Mia.’ Jamai nodded at us, put a hand on Luther’s shoulder then, with an expression like an angry Rottweiler, looked at him. Luther turned to Mia and me. ‘You two seem to be getting along okay, mind if I leave you for a bit while I sort out a bit of business with Jamai?’
Mia couldn’t have been more different from Jen. Jen had a social conscience and wanted to work where she could make a difference to people’s lives, whereas Mia was materialistic. Her life mission: the making of money. As I walked back alone from the pub to Brixton tube station, I wondered how I’d managed to tell a complete stranger – someone I wasn’t even sure I liked – my life story and all about Jen being away and how I missed her so much. Mia had appeared to want to listen; so I’d told her.
‘She sounds like a saint. Who wouldn’t love someone like that? You’re very lucky,’ she’d said, then squeezed my leg and continued; ‘You’ll see her soon.’
I guess it’s all part of the missing process, I thought, as I was about to turn into the station. I needed someone to talk to… My phone vibrated. I pulled it from my pocket. ‘Jen. I thought you were on duty all night?’
‘I was, but for once we finished early. Just wanted to say I love and miss you. Mwah, mwah. I don’t know how much more I can do of this. I miss you so much, and it’s so harrowing. Where’re you’ve been? I called the apartment first.’
‘I’ve been out with Luther. Well that was the idea, but he disappeared, and dumped me with one of his friends, a slick lawyer called Mia.’
‘Hey, you haven’t told me you miss me, and was she pretty, and did you want to fuck her?’
‘Oh come on, that’s ridiculous. Of course I miss you. I love you like mad.’
‘But you didn’t say so when you answered. In fact you didn’t seem to be pleased it was me, just asking why I was on the phone. Were you thinking about this Mia woman, and how you could get her between the sheets?’
‘You’re being irrational. I love you, I miss you, and I want to sleep with you – no one else. ’
‘Was she pretty? Did you think she might be good in the sack? I bet you did.’
‘Now you are being irrational. I love you, and no I didn’t think about sleeping with her at all.’
‘Not a tiny bit? Not even a glimpse at her thigh, boobs, bum, and a little bit of lust? You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t.’
‘Stop it. You’re being stupid. Yes, she was pretty, had a cute nose, but I…’
Jen cut me off.
Yemen, June 15th 2014
It was five in the afternoon when I found out.
I’d been sitting outside the tent on the sand, writing on my laptop. A cluster of nearby rocks provided a little shade from the sun’s scorching rays. The helicopter, at first a spot in the distance, became larger and larger. Is it Jen returning early? I hoped. Perhaps they did all they could do? Then I figured it wasn’t going to land here, likely to be en route somewhere else, and just passing overhead. I looked down at my laptop, and tried to find where I’d left off. The noise grew louder. I glanced up again, expecting to see it flying past overhead, but it had twisted, and was starting to descend. It is coming here, I thought, and felt my heart skip a beat.
I stood up to watch it land, shielding my eyes from the sand it threw up, and thought of Jen and the few hours we’d spent tightly encased in her sleeping bag. As always, she was wonderful – jiggling, twisting, turning, doing everything she could to make it possible to make love in so minute a space. When our moments came, she put her hand over my mouth, and I did the same to her, to muffle our exclamations, just kissing me so sweetly as she’d always done. Afterwards, I dropped my head onto her shoulders, and we both fell asleep. Oh, how much I love that girl, I told myself as I looked out for her through the sand storm.
Two tall men, whom I’d never seen before, wearing dark sunglasses and grey fatigues, climbed out of the helicopter and walked toward the tent in silence, carrying empty black canvas bags. They had sombre expressions. They looked at me, said nothing, passed by, and went inside. I juddered, and felt uneasy.
Shortly, one of the men came out with two canvas bags, both stuffed full and labelled with a large off-white tag with a name written on it in black ink. ‘What’re you doing?’ I asked.
He looked at me. ‘Who’re you?’ he replied with a French accent.
‘I’m Joe Broom, the husband of one of the doctors here.’ I motioned toward the tent. He looked at me, then at his colleague, just emerging from the tent with another two black bags, and walked over to him. They had a short conversation, which I could hardly hear, and couldn’t understand – and then he walked up to me.
‘Can I ask you for some identification, please?’
My heart started to beat fast again, quickening with anxiety. I began to sweat. I dug around in my backpack for my passport, and handed it to the man. Both men examined it. The man who’d spoken referred to a sheet of paper, running his finger down it. He looked up, his eyes meeting mine. ‘Mr Broom, I’m very sorry to tell you that your wife was killed earlier today with all the other doctors and nurses in her team. Warplanes bombed the hospital she was working in. There were no survivors from the patients or medical team.’
There was no funeral. All the bodies had been burnt to ash. MSF said was it was impossible to do any DNA. They tipped all the ash into one simple desert grave with a non-denominational official presiding over the sad spectacle. I didn’t attend. All I received was a letter from MSF expressing their condolences.
I turned off my phone, and contacted no one at home for a month. I stayed on in Yemen, writing a three-part article on the war: its causes, the suffering, the destruction, the misery of the innocent – the pointlessness of it all. I slept little. When I did, it was anywhere: the desert, a bombed building, occasionally an odd tent. I used Jen’s sleeping bag, her smell some comfort.
I cried a lot, working almost twenty-four hours, eating little, sickened by grief, sad and lonely. I thought only of Jen, her outright dedication, and how I could do my best for her and her colleagues’ memory in the article I was writing. On the thirty-second day after Jen’s death, I’d finished my work and returned home. I closed my front door, and I turned my phone back on. There were over one hundred missed calls. I called just one.
‘Where’ve you been? I’ve been going mad. You haven’t answered any of my calls, or e-mails, or texts. What’s being going on? Are you alright? Has something awful happened? Joe, you can’t do this to me. You can’t…’
‘Jen was killed in Yemen, a month ago.’