The first time her Father leaves for Kuwait, Antonia is five years old.
She sits on the upright piano stool, letting her tiny fingers be dwarfed by the great expanse of white keys and black sharps and flats, letting them curl and twist to make a tune as Hagman had tried to teach her on one of his many visits. The sun spills over the deep, dark polish of the wood, tumbling through the white curtains and purple flowers in a blue and white vase.
From the hallway, she can hear her Mother pleading in Spanish, her voice strange and strangled, contrasted with her Father’s deep, comforting voice that she loves to listen to when it is his turn to read her a bedtime story.
‘Why do you have to go, Richard? Isn’t it enough that they’ve had your service before? What about us? What- What about Antonia? How long will you be away? She barely knows you!’
Her Mother’s voice choking, breaking on her name
‘I’m sorry, Teresa. I- ‘
A broken pause, followed by the sound of heavy footsteps on the passageway.
There are other voices too, and she stops her playing to listen- Harper’s Irish accent thick and steady, another one whom she has often forced to read her stories and Harris with his funny ginger curls that once, when she was much smaller, she had liked to curl about her fists and watch it spring back, snapping against his skull.
Her Father seems to fill the room as he enters it, already in the green jacket and dark trousers of the 95th Rifles with the shiny buttons that she likes to play with when he picks her up. His voice is deep and caught, his eyes wide and dark and hollow, biting his lip. Behind him, she sees Harper and Harris hovering in the hallway, eyes dark.
She runs to him, skittering over the wooden floorboards, squealing as he gathers her into his arms, warmth and strength and home and safety flooding through his grip.
‘Mi querida,’ he murmurs, his voice thick in her hair, pressing a soft kiss over her ear.
‘Dada has to go away for a little while, love,’ he murmurs, the words thick in the silence. ‘To- to fight bad people. People who- ‘.
In the kitchen, Mother is crashing about by the sink, drying the lunch dishes, the radio swelling over the silence.
It is a moment before she realises what he’s said, latching on to the one word that she understands.
A thick finger reaches up to curl itself through an escaped lock of her hair, not meeting her gaze and she bites her lip, trying and failing to read his face.
‘Yes,’ he murmurs, swallowing thickly and meeting her gaze again. His eyes are glistening, and a shiver runs down her spine at the sight of them.
She has never seen her Father cry before.
‘But I will- I will write and I will let the men write and tell you how much they love you and your Mother. D’- D’ you understand?’
She thinks she does.
‘You… You’ll come back though? Won’t you, Dada?’
In the hallway, Harper gives a loud sniff and Harris takes off his spectacles to wipe his eyes.
It is a moment before her Father replies, shifting her further onto his hip, so that she can play with the buttons on his jacket.
‘Yes, my darling. Yes, I will.’
The second time, she has just turned fifteen.
It’s late when they receive the phone call, a week after her birthday. Antonia is sitting at her Father’s desk in his study, trying to make sense of geography revision for her GCSEs.
She isn’t really concentrating. Her mind is on the new charm that Perkins had given her for her charm bracelet- a first communion present from her parents when she was six and too little to wear it, now cluttered with eight years’ worth of love from her parents and the Chosen Men.
The bracelet glitters in the light, the charms collected every birthday and Christmas. The latest, a castle chess piece, cradles in her palm.
‘For steadiness,’ Ben Perkins had written in his card from his garrison in Baghdad and she had smiled at that, remembering his cheeky smile, dark eyes lighting up at any sort of mischief.
‘Antonia? Can you- Please can you peel these- these cebollas for me?’
Her Mother’s voice sounds strangely agitated, although why she should be, Antonia doesn’t know. All she knows is that Teresa is making Potaje de Garbanzos, her Father’s favourite soup for supper, one that will always bring him into the kitchen rubbing his hands and humming a Spanish folk tune as he helps to set the table.
‘Onions, Mum,’ she says with a sigh, rolling her eyes as she does so, rolling up her sleeves and tucking away her hair, catching herself before she says anything more. Her Mother is stood at the kitchen sink, arms braced against the work surface by the sink, a knife half raised, staring into space.
There is something strange, distant, about her stare as she turns to Antonia, eyes wide and frightened.
Her Mother is never frightened.
But she can see the fear all too clearly in her deep, dark eyes and the sight sends a shiver down her spine.
‘Mamá? What’s- what’s wrong?’
But before she can enfold her Mother in her arms and stroke her hair and ask more questions, Teresa finds her voice, the words slow and tentative in the silence.
‘Something- Something’s happened to- To your Dada. I can feel it. I-.’ Distracted, she turns from her daughter to glance quickly at the phone, as if expecting it to ring.
‘Mamá, you’re scaring me. Nothing’s happened. We would’ve been told. Harper, Harris, the war office, they would-’ Antonia tries to keep her voice steady but cannot seem to manage it.
If anything had happened.
It is at that moment that the phone rings.
Her Mother seems to unfreeze and lurch for it, nearly dropping the knife in her haste, hands scrabbling, voice catching around a bravely masked sob.
‘Hello? Teresa Moreno Sharpe speaking, who is it?’
The silence that follows is a long, achingly slow beat in which Antonia hears her heart hammering in her ears and barely takes in her Mother.
‘Yes- Yes, sir. Yes, we’ll be there. Yes. Yes, thank you.’
The phone is returned to the handset and for a moment, Antonia watches Teresa stand there, frozen in time. Her eyes are wide and unseeing, emotions playing like ripples on water too quickly for Antonia to decipher across her face. A lock of hair has fallen out from her bun and curls about her Mother’s cheek, limp and unseen.
‘That was Captain Lawton.’ As if in a dream, she watches her Mother brush the hair back, bite her lip, fighting each second for an ounce of composure. ‘Your Father… Your Father’s been wounded, caught in a roadside bombing. He’s being airlifted back tonight. They did an in-air blood transfusion, but it may not be enough. He’s unconscious and on an IV. Harper’s with him. He’s…’
She sounds as if she has swallowed glass, each word brittle and jagged, splintering in the floor in the silence.
The words don’t make sense.
‘Is… Is he alive?’
The question sounds hopelessly childish after she’s said it, but Teresa nods and swallows, her lips an invisible line, using all of her strength to hold herself together.
‘Just. Lawton says it was a roadside bomb that caught them on patrol. He’s been airlifted to St Thomas’s Hospital. He didn’t tell me anymore. We must go, Antonia. Now.’
They drive through dark and lonely roads, hitting the motorway to Teresa cursing softly in Spanish, her hands never leaving the steering wheel. Sometimes Antonia hears her Father’s name, whispered like raindrops on a windowsill.
Antonia hunches deep in the passenger seat, her eyes on the flickering lights of the road and tries not to think about what awaits them in London. Tries instead to think about her geography revision that she had taken at her Mother’s insistence, the half-made pot of Potaje de Garbanzos that had been hurriedly taken off the hob and tucked into the fridge for later.
Two hurriedly packed overnight bags are crammed in beside her, essentials stuffed in as they were pulled from cupboards and tables and under pillows.
They pull into St Thomas’s just after 1 in the morning. Antonia’s eyes sting with exhaustion and she has to raise a hand to shield them from the bright, artificial glare of the entrance lobby.
The atrium is a blur of strip lights and nurses in pale green scrubs, doctors and medical students in long, white coats and a few desperate relatives crowded round the welcome desk.
A radio loops through the 90s greatest hits in a steady, buzz of sound that no one pays attention to.
Sweat pulls at the back of Antonia’s hands as they wait, her Mother’s face an iron mask of composure beside her.
‘He’ll be all right,’ she thinks desperately, ‘Harper’s with him. He’s going to be all right.’
‘Mrs Moreno- Sharpe?’
The receptionist is a young Bangladeshi woman in her late 20s, her dark hair tucked back in a sea-green hijab, with wide, dark eyes, a soft mouth and a simple, golden nose stud. Her smile feels genuine, and for that Antonia is grateful.
Her name badge reads Zinnia Stewart.
‘Your husband was brought in an hour ago,’ she says without being prompted, scrolling down her computer screen to find the records.
‘He’s been intubated in ICU. A private room off Ward 12. He’s been prepped for surgery and they’re hoping to operate in half an hour. I think there’ll be someone to take you to him coming shortly.’
Antonia feels her Mother’s hand reach for hers, the grip painful as she nods, fighting for all she is worth to keep the mask of composure in place.
Above the receptionist’s head, the green hands of the clock glow 02:00.
‘If there’s anything I can do, please don’t hesitate to ask,’ Zinnia smiles a little sadly and Teresa’s shoulders slump in relief.
He’s still alive.
The sound of her Mother’s name, spoken in the English fashion make them turn to see Lawton hurrying down the corridor as fast as his lame left leg can carry him. Beside him is a young, dark eyed doctor with a tousled mop of mousy hair, wire framed spectacles and a stethoscope looped around his neck and a clipboard clutched in his hand.
Lawton’s face is pale and drawn with exhaustion, dark eyes full of worry as he greets them, sending Antonia a small smile.
The doctor introduces himself as Luke and Antonia sees at once that he is just as worried as Lawton, chewing his lip and not meeting her Mother’s eyes.
‘How is he?’
Her Mother’s tone is curt, yet Antonia knows her too well not to hear the brittle tearing of the mask that she has firmly put in place ever since picking up the phone, seven hours and a lifetime ago.
‘He’s in a medically induced coma, Ma’am,’ Luke says quickly, glancing up and, catching the icy calmness of Teresa’s stare and back down to the safety of his notes. ‘Initially the patient lost a considerable amount of blood, but we hope than the in-air blood transfusion with Sergeant Harper has reversed some of that damage. Some- Some lethal damage was done to his stomach and we are going to operate to see if any of the crucial internal organs have been hit and- ‘
Beside him, Lawton seems to sag, passing a craggy hand over his face.
Teresa listens, arms now folded, a seemingly impenetrable fortress of Spanish pride. From the welcome desk Zinnia is watching them with concern.
‘We’re particularly concerned about his right patella and the articular cartilage. It looks as if it’s been completely ripped apart, putting a dangerous amount of pressure on the lateral and medial collateral ligaments, but until we operate, we can’t be sure. If we can’t rebuild the knee, there- There may be the possibility of amputation.’
He stops and looks up from his notes, eyes darting from one pale face to another.
All the air seems to have left Antonia’s lungs and she swallows thickly, willing herself not to cry.
‘Can we see him?’
Teresa’s voice wobbles for just a moment and Luke pauses for a moment, before nodding.
They are shown into a small room with a window looking out onto a cold, star-studded night, that whirs with oxygen and blood pressure monitors. A double IV with blood and oxygen hangs on a spindly pole beside the bed, its’ wires passing over the sheets to rest on her Father’s outstretched wrist.
‘Talk to him. He’s able to hear you. I’ll just be outside if you need me,’ Luke murmurs, scribbling down some notes. Lawton hovers by the door, then slips out with him.
His broad, cragged, beaten face is half obscured by bandages and an oxygen mask, the sheets pulled down to reveal more tubes snaking their way over his bandaged torso. His right leg is raised in a cradle, a great white cast supporting the fractured knee.
Before she can stop it, a sobbing laugh catches in Antonia’s throat as she sees the great, green jacket of the 95th Rifles lying across the pulled back hospital sheets.
In a chair by the bed, an open book turned upside down in his lap, sits Harper, one hand resting lightly in her Father’s.
‘Patrick,’ Teresa’s voice softens for the first time since they had left home, as she crosses the room to greet him, pulling him into a tight embrace as he struggles to his feet. ‘Thank you. For everything.’
‘They’re going to operate, aren’t they?’
Harper nods wordlessly as he pulls away and retakes his seat, holding Teresa at arms-length.
His dark eyes are glistening, and he cradles his head in his hands, shoulders heaving, weathered fingers raking through his hair.
‘I was supposed to protect him,’ he whispers, the words dull and colourless, choked and broken in the silence.
‘That’s- That’s my job!’ He raises his head from his hands, eyes blazing as if they could burn away the memories.
Antonia knows all too well from listening to her Father’s nightmares, that they can’t.
I- I was trying to get him and- And Ben Perkins out from that fucking truck before it blew up. Dan Hagman and I managed to get Perkins clear, but I didn’t, I couldn’t- There wasn’t any fucking time! ‘The words break off into a caught, sobbing howl that slices at Antonia’s heart like a piece of jagged glass. From the door, she hears the sound of footsteps approach then retreat hurriedly away.
Crossing the room, she drops to her knees beside his chair, reaching for his free hand, trying to look anywhere but the body in the bed.
In the silence she listens to the whir of the oxygen machines, the steady ring of the heart monitor rising and falling in bright green across the screen.
‘Oh, my love,’ Teresa murmurs, turning back to the bed, reaching out a trembling finger to trace the line of his cheek, pressing a soft, tear stained kiss against cold skin.
‘Ricardo. Mi querido. Mi amor. Don’t… Don’t leave us, my darling. Please, please don’t.’
‘He’s a fighter. And he’s not going to say goodbye. Not like this,’ Harper’s voice has regained some of its’ fire that Antonia remembers, his dark eyes blazing through his tears. She nods fiercely. ‘The men won’t let him. I won’t- I won’t let him.’
From outside the room, she can hear the low, urgent voices of the medical team, a brisk knock at the door.
Please not yet!
Please just let us say goodbye properly!
‘He’s not going to,’ she repeats, crossing to the other side of the bed and reaches across the wires to kiss her Father’s cheek, her lips brushing past sweat plastered hair, kissing him for Harris and Hagman, Cooper and Tongue, Harper and Perkins.
And her Mother.
His right hand.
‘D’you hear that Dada?’ Her voice catches on another sob and she swallows thickly, eyes stinging with tears that she does not want to shed.
‘We’re not letting you go. Mamá’s not. I… I’m not. And Harper’s here and he’s- He’s refusing to leave you. So, you can’t go. Not- Not without us.’
By the time the main body of troops are pulled out from Iraq and the Union flag is lowered from the HQ in Basra, Antonia is 19.
She’s coming to the end of her first year studying at Queen Mary’s London for a BA in Hispanic Studies and Linguistics, her days full of lectures and tutorials, drinks and socials at the SU and trying to figure out what she wants from her course.
It’s 4 am and the pre-dawn light floods through arrivals at Heathrow’s terminal 4, bathing everything in an unearthly, sleep deprived glow.
Teresa waits beside her, steady in the fogged up wait, having done this innumerable times before.
Antonia knows her Mother well enough by now to see that her calmness is a façade, that underneath, she is fizzing with excitement, an excitement that had built up ever since the homecoming had been formally announced and that will spill over and over until she can find herself in her husband’s arms again.
She has her Father’s last letter, dated 1st April, tucked into a pocket of her wallet, his writing spiky and hesitant, as if he hadn’t dared to try and be optimistic about the Rifles’ homecoming. In it she has read about the deaths of Francis Cooper and Isaiah Tongue in an ambush on one of their final patrols, their lives remembered by the lighting of a candle by her bed.
Around them the crowd of anxious families fills up- parents waiting for sons, husbands and wives waiting for their spouses, some clutching the hands of quarrelsome children, bleary eyed and tetchy at being awake this early, others standing out the wait alone, clutching take away cups of coffee in the hubbub..
Perkins is the first one to come through the turnstile and her heart leaps, lodging itself painfully somewhere in her throat.
He’s taller than she remembers him, filled out from years of Iraq sun and army living, but his eyes still remind her of the cocky, skinny army brat that her Father had taken under his wing after his Father had died in a roadside bomb attack in Kuwait, his Mother an unknown lover in a barrack’s bed.
The cocky, skinny army brat whom her Father had brought home and filed the adoption papers for, her Mother had fed up and Hagman had taught how to shoot in the quiet, gentle manner he had with wild things, had soon been running in and out of the Moreno-Sharpe kitchen like the older brother whom she had never had.
Before she gives it a second thought, she has flung herself into his arms, making him drop the kit bag in surprise and lift her off her feet into a bear hug.
He smells of artificial air and sweat and sand and memories that she knows she can’t ask him to disclose.
Not yet anyway.
‘It’s good to see you, Antonia,’ he murmurs, the words almost lost in her hair and she feels him straighten up and draw her away to greet her Mother.
‘And you, Mum!’ The words have a teasing smile in them, that doesn’t quite mask their tug of homesick longing and Antonia is hit by the memory of the hours that Ben had spent cowering in their warm and cosy kitchen, wide-eyed and frightened of everyone but her Father.
Remembers the hours that her Mother had spent nursing him, sitting up into the small hours as he thrashed through his nightmares.
Remembers her Mother staring down councillors and the authorities who had queried their suitability to adopt a 12-year-old with PTSD that had kept him awake, crying and screaming for a woman who had died in a night attack on Kuwait City.
Remembers after the adoption papers had been signed, the many trips into London for trauma counselling, the slow lighting up of a pinched, dark face as her Father had taught him how to read, each word slow and deliberate after supper. She, at the age of eight and an only child desperate for siblings, had followed him everywhere like a small, loyal dog.
And now, 21 years later, with battle honours to his name and a smile that dares the sun to dim, he winks at Antonia, who grins back as her Mother draws the boy who has become her son into her arms and hugs him fiercely.
‘And you Ben! The others- Are- Are they-?’
‘Right as rain and that glad to be back with you, Mrs Teresa!’
Harper’s rugged face beams out of a dark tan, but Antonia can see the ghosts that haunt the space behind his eyes all too clearly as he shoulders his kit bag, claps Ben on the shoulder and pulls her in a tight hug.
‘Good to see you lass,’ he murmurs, and she remembers him as he had been sitting beside her Father’s hospital bedside six years ago, ghostly eyed and numb with emotion.
She doesn’t have time to question him though, because she is being pulled into another hug, this time by Harris, his wire-framed spectacles balancing perilously on the end of his nose as he draws her back and gives a once-over.
‘How’s the studying going?’
His eyes are dancing with interest and she remembers with a guilty pang the hours of e-mails that she has sent over the past year and a half, asking his advice about essays and seminar questions, getting enthusiastic replies back with book and journal recommendations.
‘It’s fine thanks, Harris,’ she grins back, stealing a glance at her Mother, holding Harper’s arm and watching the slowly filling terminal with anxious eyes.
‘He’ll be out soon, don’t you fret, Mum,’ Perkins pipes up. ‘It’s probably security giving him a hard time what with the metal in his knee an’ all that, you know how it is. Dan’s with him. He’ll be fine.’
The others nod gravely, Harris removing his spectacles to clean them on the corner of his jacket. Teresa gives a small, tight smile in reply and without knowing why Antonia reaches for Harris’s hand.
He gives it gladly, rough, calloused fingers closing protectively over her own and squeezing gently.
Around them the crowd is slowly beginning to disperse, families reunited, lost ones remembered, making their way out into the world to face whatever their new lives have in store for them.
‘I see them!’
After what seems like an age of waiting, Harper’s voice rings out across the silence.
‘No, you don’t, you daft Paddy!’
Leaving Harris, Antonia slips to her Mother’s side, ducking under Harper’s arm to follow his gaze.
‘There! Just coming up the escalator- ‘
And sure enough, she does. Her Father, older, craggier, leaning heavily on Hagman’s shoulder, their kit bags slung over their shoulders.
‘Dada,’ she breathes, stealing a glance at Teresa, whose hands are at her mouth, dark eyes glistening with tears, her lips working soundlessly, though Antonia doesn’t need to hear her to know what she’s saying.
Perkins is fizzing with excitement, hopping from foot to foot.
Harris’s eyes are shining, Harper grinning like a teenager.
‘Well, if this isn’t a welcome reception! Let the devil through you lot! Damn security didn’t half give him a hard time. Let him through, damn you! Antonia, you look bonny, my lass- university keeping you well, I dare say?’
His dark eyes are smiling and Antonia grins back, sending a silent prayer of thanks to whatever God was listening for watching over Dan.
For watching over all of them.
Over her Mother’s shoulder, Perkins gives Antonia a conspiratorial wink.
And Teresa is being pushed forward by Perkins and her Father limping with Hagman at his back, bold and beautiful with fire in her eyes and love in her heart.
‘Teresa,’ her Father’s voice is a deep and husky thing, caught low in the base of his throat. I-‘
His eyes are dark with emotion, his hands trembling as he reaches to trace her Mother’s cheek.
‘Richard,’ she murmurs, her mask of composure that Antonia has watched her put firmly in place every day for five years finally slipping, the tears that she has refused to shed falling freely now, their hands entwined, tracing, remembering every inch of her husband’s face.
‘Mi querida. Mi ángel. Mi queridísima. God I’ve missed you. You have no idea how much.’
And then she is in his arms, their lips seeking what they have not had for far too long and Antonia thinks her heart may break from the pain of it.
‘Antonia,’ her Father draws back, the dark eyes that she has missed so much shining with tears that he roughly wipes with the back of his sleeve, a heavy hand reaching out for hers.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Harper slowly gather the Chosen Men and draw them away.
‘Don’t cry, Dada,’ she murmurs, knowing that it is hopeless, each word trembling with tears as she takes his hand and is drawn into the warmth and safety of an embrace that she never wants to end. Slowly, he tucks an escaped lock of hair out of her eyes, grinning through shining eyes.
‘Bonny lass,’ he murmurs, almost to himself, a low, wet chuckle caught in his throat, cupping her cheek, with tender, trembling fingers. ‘Have you missed your old Dad, then?’
‘Every day,’ she says quietly, not needing to tell him how much she means it.
‘We’re together now. That’s all that matters.’
Teresa joins them, enfolding them both into a hug that Antonia never wants to end, losing herself in the heavy leather safety of his great, green jacket.
Around them, the Chosen Men, men who have become her brothers, her fathers and uncles, send up a raucous applause that make passers-by turn with curious eyes before looking away.
In that applause, she hears the claps of the dead, of Tongue and Cooper and all the others brought home with a union flag on their coffin, and buries her face further into her Father’s jacket, letting her remembrance prayer float to heaven in thanks for being alive.