He releases a deep breath once he finally boards the train, he’s leaving the war behind him, the death, the fear, he’s about to start living once again and this time, it will be with Valentine by his side. But somehow, Christopher can’t seem to find it reassuring. Will she be able to take him as damaged as he is? Will she see the man she loves or will she just see what everyone else does?
He shakes those thoughts away, he can’t let himself doubt her. His sweet Valentine is the only thing keeping him alive, it was her face that made him believe there’s something behind the front line, that death isn’t the only end. And Christopher closes his eyes and imagines her face but then the train makes a sharp turn and he’s thrown on the end of his seat, suddenly sees a pair of green eyes and flirty smile. “Travelling alone?” she had asked him then and he could felt his face go up in fire.
He then remembers her soft skin against his palm, Valentines lips just an inch from his and they both get mixed in one woman and he isn’t sure where Sylvia begins and Valentine ends and suddenly he sleeps.
He’s woken up by the conductor, people are already exiting the train and Christopher hears excited screams. The soldiers are returning, wives and soon-to-be-wives, children and parents, everyone is waiting, crying and hugging men coming back from the death. Many haven’t returned and he desperately tries not to remember each name, each face that he himself had to cover. It’s impossible, they’re haunting him because he’s alive, he was lucky and it’s simply not fair.
The train is almost empty when he finally decides to face the people outside. Christopher doesn’t expect anyone he knows, he hasn’t written to anyone that he’s coming back. He thinks he needs to be alone, to heal to be able to function again, to pretend he’s human and the war simply didn’t happen.
Sylvia is there and he isn’t sure if she’s waiting for him. She looks beautiful as always, dressed in green velvety dress, her hair is up and hidden under a hat he would never call fashionable but on her, it looks right. She might be hidden by the crowd but it’s impossible not to notice her and when she finally spots him, she smiles.
“Christopher,” she runs to him, her skirts flying behind her, the small umbrella firmly grasped in her hand. He waits for her, tries to smile but it comes out as a grimace and it stops her from launching herself at him. It’s almost like she remembered that they’re not a happy married couple, that she’s the disgrace.
“Sylvia,” his voice sounds flat and his tongue is dry, stuck at the top of his mouth and he looks around, watches the real couples, people that love each other and then he turns back to her and there’s a look on her face he doesn’t recognize. “I didn’t know you knew I was coming.” It’s just a statement, way how to fill the silence. He never was a talker but now he finds that words elude him even more.
“I have always told you that being friendly with generals has its advantages,” she answers with a small smile and it looks different. It’s not a flirty smile, not a one telling him how clever she could be either. It’s one that might be telling him she’s glad he’s alive, that she’s glad he’s back but Christopher doesn’t allow himself to think such thoughts.
“I see,” he says and pushes his lips together because words are too difficult, words mean emotions. It’s the reason he always enjoyed numbers more, their practicality and usefulness. Words are emotions, numbers are logic. And then he doesn’t say anything else, waits for Sylvia to take the lead.
“I came to take you home,” she says suddenly and he can see her gripping the handle of her umbrella. Is she nervous? “The car is waiting at the front,” Sylvia turns away for him but just for a brief moment, then turns back and Christopher realizes she’s checking if he would follow. He does and he imagines he could see a delighted smile on her face.
The ride is quiet and not exactly comfortable but they’re used to it, it’s familiar and Christopher remembers all those times when they sat next to each other pretending the other one wasn’t there, when they were too angry, too disgusted, or maybe just too ignorant of each other. He feels aware if her presence now, like she did something to him, let him remember the one time he got to feel her skin.
“We’re here, ma’am,” the driver speaks and they both turn toward him. It’s the first time they actually face each other, it’s accidental and new and Christopher sees lines in his wife’s face. She looks older and exactly the same as on the day he met her, her eyes always spoke the stories, not her mouth. She just never bothered to synchronize them and now he maybe finally wants to ask for the truth but maybe, he’s just too tired of lies.
“Thank you,” they say at the same time but it’s Sylvia who pays and it’s him who follows after her. The street looks exactly the same, war didn’t touch here, just posters remind him that the last two years had not been just a bad dream. She looks at him over her shoulders, like she’s afraid he won’t be there and he manages a reassuring smile. Christopher doesn’t know who she is right now, and if she picked him up because they still share the same surname. But he doesn’t know anything at the moment and he just plays along, tries for a second not to think and fails when they enter their apartment.
It hadn’t changed a bit, the book he was reading before he left it’s still sitting on the coffee table and the painting Sylvia bought him is still leaning near the window. It feels like he never left. “Are you hungry? I could have something brought up,” Sylvia suddenly speaks and in the quiet room it sounds like screaming.
“No,” he answers still taking in the atmosphere. This is the way home should feel like? Christopher asks himself before he turns back to his wife. She’s holding her hat in her hand and the lines around her eyes are even more visible now. She looks older and he wants to ask her for forgiveness but realizes it should be quite the opposite. “I think I’m going to lie down for a while,” he says curtly and walks towards his bedroom. He was never a master of the right words and Sylvia knows that.
Stripping of his clothes takes him much longer than usual but he keeps looking around the room, taking in the little details. A card from Valentine is still lying on his dressing table and he starts to reach for it, but then he sees his dinner jacket and puts it in the closet instead. Then spends next fifteen minutes putting everything on a different place and stops only if it feels right. And even he doesn’t know what does it mean.
He lies down then, hears Sylvia pacing the living room, her steps are quieter and then louder, she stops for a while and Christopher closes his eyes.
When he opens them, there’re two voices coming from the other side of his door. One belongs to Sylvia, the other takes him a while to decipher, he hasn’t heard it in such a long time and always, always very quiet. “I told you, he’s sleeping. You can talk to him once he wakes up,” Sylvia is trying to talk quietly but her voice sounds annoyed. The other occupant is still quiet and Christopher pushes himself up. He wants to be sure it’s her, he wants to know she cares enough about him to come.
“Is he well?” Valentine asks and her voice is so soft he can barely hear her. He tries to imagine her face, the pure innocence in her voice, the strength of her mind and naivety mixed in one. For him, it was an intoxicating combination. She loved his words, his mind, the way he sees the world. Christopher still doesn’t know for what Sylvia loved him and if she even did and there’re many more things he doesn’t know when it comes to his unpredictable wife.
“Physically yes,” Sylvia answers and then talks quieter and quieter as she leads Valentine away from his door. Christopher realizes he’s thankful, he isn’t ready to face her, he doesn’t want to see pity or love, he isn’t sure what he wants, but he doesn’t want Valentine to stay with him for some promise they didn’t even have a chance to make. He would destroy her, slowly. And then he tries not to compare her to Sylvia and then he again falls asleep.
It’s dark outside when he wakes up, his stomach feels heavy and his mouth is dry and when he tries to sit up he manages to knock down a book still lying on his bedside table. It makes far too much noise and after a while a soft knock is followed by Sylvia. “Are you well?” she asks and her voice sounds worried, very worried and it warms his heart. Her hair is down now, she was prepared for bed. She’s dressed in one of her night shirts he remembers lying on her bed when she decided to leave him for the first time. It has little lace flowers around her décolletage and he tries to recite Sonnet 141 in his head but he can’t. He’s distracted and ill. For the first time, he really needs her.
“No,” it’s the first really honest thing he ever told her and Christopher could see the surprise burning in her eyes. It freezes her near the door and he watches as her face changes, it softens at places he never noticed and then she suddenly moves and sits next to him on the bed.
“Talk to me, Christopher. I may know more about dinner parties than war, but I have eyes and ears and I know that too many men aren’t returning,” her voice is softer too and her curls keep falling to her face and she pushes them away but they come back and he suddenly can’t help himself and pushes them away too.
“Yes, they are dead. Good men, men of peace and honour, with families and I’m here. Why am I here, Sylvia?” her name tastes strangely comfortable on his tongue, he rarely used it with her in his presence. She was just his unfaithful wife, a topic of gossip, a reason for others to tease him but she’s now here, so close. Maybe it was him who didn’t give them a chance, maybe it was all the time just him.
She looks at him now, releases a breath and looks away. She’s distracted now too but Christopher doesn’t know why, he never knew “why” when it came to her. Sylvia was always a puzzle that didn’t need solving, not from him. She wanted to stay mysterious and he let it be that way, never tried to find out why did she choose him in that train, why she didn’t find much wealthier and much older husband. Her life could have been different, his could have been too but he knows now too that he wouldn’t want to change it. This is his life and Sylvia is his wife and he came alive from war. Isn’t it everything the men leaving their home country want?
She moves again, just by an inch, like it could help her to push air from her lungs. “Because I need you,” whisper would be like a scream because it’s just breathe released through her oral cavity hitting the right places and it sounds like words Christopher isn’t sure he can accept. He doesn’t say anything, looks down at his shaking hands and only feels her get up rather than sees her.
“I made us some dinner, would you like me to bring it here?” its Sylvia again, with firm voice and curves and sharp tongue that makes all the men hide away in shame. This Sylvia he knows but maybe he wants to know the other one too, with fear in her eyes and softness in her voice.
He knows he doesn’t need to decide know, somehow he has all the time in the world even though he was crawling though trenches just a week ago and he finally realizes it could be a good thing.
“No, I’ll join you in the dining room after I freshen up,” it’s a first step and he makes it by pushing himself up from the bed. Sylvia observes him from afar, her face it’s unreadable but after a while a small smile settles itself upon her features. And she stands there, watches him change and shave and only when he turns to her finally leaves his room. He, of course, follows.