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, often set off by the stress of her job. But 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 others smell randomly in the day, 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.
Yemen, 15 June 2014
It was 5:00 p.m. 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 on route somewhere else, and just passing overhead. I looked down at my laptop and tried to find where I’d left off. The noise became 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 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, this time anxious quickening. 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. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said was it was impossible to do any DNA. They buried all the ash in 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.
Taken from my new book, Truth is not always true, due out later this year.