Child’s Play

 

Child's Play

By Naomi Shepherd

 

 

She was certain that he would not be killed. Other wives at the children's school in the moshav were puzzled, until they reminded one another that it was her first war; she'd learn to fear. Her one concern was for the children, exposed as they were to war talk, bravado, in school and even in the nursery. It was a small community. One father had been killed, it was whispered, but with no confirmation yet. 
 
The children came home and asked her whether their father was dead, too. Of course not, she said, he couldn’t be. It wasn’t her words that reassured them, though; it was the way she behaved. She slept nights through without waking.
 
So it was no surprise to her when he phoned from the base to tell her warn her perhaps to avoid shock that he was on his way home. It was a Shabbat, so the children were there, clamouring at her knee as she nursed the baby. “I told you,” she said. “I told you he would be all right.” They nodded, respectfully.
 
He let himself in with his own key. How strange it was that he had taken his keys to war. 
 
The two children jumped at him, pulling at his trousers, but he ordered them away while he took the cartridges from his rifle. They stood aside, bewildered.
 
The boy said: “Why are you breaking your gun?”
 
He gathered the children tightly to him, not quite affectionately, but as if it were a duty he had to perform, and as quickly released them. 
 
“We made a cake for you,” said his daughter, shyly. His son began examining the rifle. 
 
“Great,” said her father. “But first I need a shower.”
 
“I’ll turn the water on for you,” said the girl eagerly, and ran off.
 
The wife offered the baby to her husband. It was all she could think of, a gesture of life perhaps? He took the child awkwardly, as if he had never held a baby before, as if he were not quite sure what to do with it.      
      
He had grown to a menacing bulk, with a thick beard. Sand and dirt were ingrained in his skin, and half the bulk was a thick, quilted anorak, not the light uniform he had worn when he left. Noticing her puzzled look, he said, “American winter issue.”
 
Holding the whimpering baby to his shoulder, he said: “It was hell this time. You shouldn’t have married me.”
 
What did he mean?
 
He handed back the baby as if it were a parcel.
 
The padded coat had sealed in all the odours of his unwashed body. The other clothes and underclothes, which she packed into the washing machine, were rank with sweat and filth. He only kissed her, perfunctorily, when he had soaped and rinsed himself several times and was dressed in clean clothes. She would not have minded, she thought, if he had embraced her earlier, stinking as he was.
 
*
 
He missed the others. He missed their familiar faces and their voices, and he was going to have to wait until his leave was up to see them again. He didn’t miss Dan because he knew there was no point. He barely looked at his own face, and shaved the beard off in great swathes, leaving little tufts here and there. 
 
He wondered why everything was so quiet. He could scarcely hear the children’s bird voices twittering away high above him. 
 
“Don’t make such a noise!” his wife told them.
 
At the kitchen table he ate awkwardly, feeling that his hands were too large for the delicate plates. He drank in great gulps, and saw the children staring at him. When he met their gaze, he tried to smile but only managed a grimace. His wife hurried them through the meal and told them to go and play. 
 
When they had gone, she began to ask something and then stopped. He was irritated by the way she was looking at him. What did she want of him? He was tired.
             
They had said a ceasefire. Perhaps it would hold, perhaps not. They had said that he should be ready at any time, but he might have as long as two or three weeks at home. There were things he could do meanwhile. First he had to go and talk to Dan’s parents. Not alone, though; with a couple of the others. He took his rucksack from the stand in the hall, rummaged until he found the notebook with the phone numbers jotted down. He lifted the phone receiver, replaced it. It was too early to ring; they had all just parted. Tomorrow would be better. He went to the bedroom, flung himself on the bed, and almost immediately fell asleep. It was midday.
           
*
 
She had thought several times of how she would greet him, of how she would tell him how calm she had been, of her good cheer with the children. Surely he would throw his arms around her. Instead, he was behaving like a stranger, a guest, and a sullen, ungrateful guest at that. It was hard not to feel rejected, however absurd and even heartless that was. After what he had been through… But what had he been through? She could not even imagine. If he were shell shocked, what could she do to help? Should she tell him to go to the doctor?
 
The sun was pouring into the bedroom but he was sleeping heavily, his mouth open. She drew the curtains gently, so that his face was shaded. He looked old.
 
“Did you kill lots of people?” the little boy asked at suppertime, staring at him, admiring. The little girl looked at her mother.
 
“I don’t know. I couldn’t see.”
 
“There was a lot of smoke,” she said. “Daddy was just trying to frighten them. So they’d run away.”
 
“No he wasn’t,” said the little boy angrily. “He needed to kill them, so they wouldn’t kill him.”
 
“Quite right,” he said. He looked at his wife, and could see that she felt rebuked. But how was he supposed to answer the boy’s questions? They had always agreed that children should be answered honestly when they asked about sex or death. Death of a different kind. Old people’s death, accidents.
 
*
 
Wives with more experience explained that her husband probably could not hear her. She had to understand that many soldiers had been partly deafened, that the desert campaign had been the noisiest since the Second World War, and if he had been near enough to an explosion, he might remain deaf for weeks. 
 
She said that she couldn’t believe her husband had really killed anyone. He was not a violent man. He was not even strict with the children, for God’s sake; she was the disciplinarian. It was all beyond her understanding. 
   
She was told severely that she should not even try to understand, and certainly not ask questions. Her job was just to be supportive, to let normal life reassert itself, as it surely would. 
 
Normal? He ate and slept, though he turned away from her in bed. She didn’t even caress him, afraid that he would see that as hunger, not affection, while he was still mentally in the battlefield. What was “‘normal life”? He went shopping when she asked him to, which got him out of the house. He watched the sports programmes on television; never news programmes or current affairs. Finally, to her relief, he was recalled not to the front but to his base, to a desk job. But when he came home there was no change in his behaviour.
 
*
 
It was important to protect her. That was the essential thing. To say nothing that could frighten her, or make her worry. Certainly never to talk about Dan. It was surprising that she hadn’t asked about him. The children had loved him, enjoyed his silly jokes, which were like theirs; he wasn’t much older than their son, who had asked Dan to explain what he did in the army. He’d hoped that Dan had been sensible enough to change the subject.  
 
There was no way he could explain to his wife what had happened. Telling her what he had seen, heard, touched was out of the question. 
 
*
          
The nightmares began after he’d been home for a month. At first she thought he was just restless. Spring had begun, and he complained that the thin duvet they shared was too heavy; even a sleeping bag would have felt lighter, he said. “I see you’re nostalgic for the army,” she said, smiling, and replaced the duvet with a sheet. This, too, he kicked away in his sleep. When the kicking went on night after night, she realized that he was not kicking, but running, giving high-pitched, alarmed little shrieks as he ran. At first she didn’t recognize his voice.
 
“That must be a very bad dream you’re having,” she said one morning, as casually as she could manage.
 
He frowned. “I never dream,” he said. “You’re the one who dreams.”
 
He went on running, and screaming, in his sleep every few nights. She’d lay awake, dreading the dream she could not share, and which he said he did not have.
 
*
 
The children came home from school one day and played a game in the garden with a dust pan, one of those with a long handle. The boy walked slowly forward, moving the pan just above the ground, passing it from side to side like a blind man feeling his way, and then he knocked the pan against the ground. As he did so, the girl yelled, “Bang! You’re dead!” and the boy tossed the pan away and rolled over on the ground. Both of them screamed with laughter. Then they began again.
 
She was in the kitchen preparing dinner and had not heard her husband shut the front door and walk into the kitchen. He was standing behind her, looking out beyond the windows into the garden.
 
“What’s that game you’re playing?” he called out to the children. 
 
Something in his voice made the children stop laughing and look at one another.
 
‘It’s a de… deckecktor game,” the little girl said.
 
“Dan taught us,” said the boy. “You look for the mine and then you blow it
up.”
 
“Bang!” said the little girl, and giggled. “Dead.”
 
“That’s not the way you do it,” said her father. “You didn’t understand what he said.” He opened the kitchen door, went outside, took the pan from the boy’s hand, and walked to the end of the garden, moving the pan from side to side, just above the ground, as his son had done, the children watching. 
 
He turned round so that he was facing his family.
 
“When you get near the mine,” he said, “the detector vibrates. You can feel the vibration, so you don’t step on it. You dig round it very, very carefully” he mimed what he was describing “so you can see the wires, and then you defuse. You stop it working or blow it up, from far away.” The demonstration over, he suddenly lost his temper.
     
“That’s a stupid game!” he shouted. “I don’t want you playing it again!” He threw the pan to the ground and then kicked it away, so violently that it broke
apart.
 
The children looked round for their mother.
 
“You’re frightening them,” she mouthed. Then she saw that he was shaking, so she went out into the garden, and put her arms around him. It was the first time she had touched him since his return. He stood rigid in her embrace, and then put his head on her shoulder and began to sob, an ugly sound like that of an angry child. The real children watched their parents in silence. 
 
Eventually he became calm. She wiped his eyes with the corner of her apron, then left him and went to pick up the broken pan. He beckoned to the children, who looked at one another hesitantly before approaching him.
 
“Come on, let's play hide and seek,” he said, trying to smile.  
 
The girl nodded, but didn’t move. The boy shouted: “No! Go away!” and ran into the house. 
 
*
 
That night, her husband told her what had become of Dan. What had remained of him. 
 

His nightmares faded. Hers began.

 
Copyright © Naomi Shepherd 2021 
 
Naomi Shepherd is the author of eight books published in the UK and US. Born and educated in the UK, she spent 45 years in Israel working first in the Hebrew University and then as political correspondent for leading UK and US newspapers. Her biography of Wilfrid Israel won the UK Wingate Prize. Others include studies of l9th century visitors to Palestine and the British Mandate, a history of Jewish women radicals, the administration and life of Jerusalem, Russian immigrants to Israel, a memoir, and one collection of short stories. “Local Currency” is the title story of a new collection for which she is looking for a publisher. She currently lives in London.


 

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