She dug all through that spring. She dug the earth. After the children had gone to bed Sarah stepped out of the back door, and in the chill evenings she turned the earth over. The vegetable plot had been abandoned years before. If a person was going to sow in the spring they should have dug and manured back in early winter, she knew that much. Added fertiliser, lime maybe, according to a gift-wrapped A-Z of Gardening she found in a drawer clearing out their married quarters. Had he intended it for her? She would never know.
The compulsion to dig into the earth, though, seized hold of her, and she obeyed it. Digging deep, stooping, pulling the fleshy roots of dogged perennial weeds. Clay and silt and sand churned together ten thousand years earlier into this rich topsoil gave off a dank, archaic odour she inhaled, and couldn’t hold fast enough. Standing up, back ache made her groan, a pain she came to relish.
Her tears were lost in the dark soil. She broke open clods of mud with her hands. Worms emerged as if she had liberated them, but this was their terrain, they had the run of it. What now took place was a collaboration: worms broke down matter with their digestion, Sarah tilled it laboriously, until damp earth gave way; crumbled in her grasp. It clung to her skin, silting under her nails, highlighting the lines and cracks on her fingers, ageing her.
The night before David joined his battalion she had woken, disturbed by his mind sawing beside her in the silence.
‘What are you thinking?’ she asked; in the dim seconds waiting for his answer knew she wanted only to hear of his love for her; and how their children – that genetic duet of theirs – had become the only heroic legacy he needed.
‘The peaceniks,’ he said.
‘The human shields, already there, in position. Before us! Already shipped out, and cosied up with their hosts. Welcome guests, don’t you think?’
He was alert. Lying on his back, fiercely awake. Artificial light outlined the curtains, seeped weakly into their bedroom; the shape of wardrobe, dresser, emerged vaguely from the mirk. There were hours yet before the undesired dawn, and no more profit to be had from them, she figured, than in sleeping.
‘They don’t support you, those peaceniks,’ she said. ‘They don’t support us.’
‘I wasn’t thinking that,’ he said.
‘They have no idea, do they, those people? Of what, of who, guarantees their freedom.’
He said, ‘That’s not what was in my mind. I was thinking of the tough guys left back home here.’
‘The hardballs. You know? Who sound off in the bars and the dinner parties. And write columns in your free newspapers arguing the case for war. Hardboiled truth-tellers making mock apologies for seeing the world as it really is. Tough enough to commit their views to print. In bold black and white. And take payment. I mean, look, they’ve got mortgages to pay, haven’t they? Kids to get through school.’
She knew him in this tensile mood: he was away now. The calmest of men, her husband, occasionally something riled him and he would worry away at it, gnawing it through till it was all chewed up. His eyes gleamed in the dark; she could feel his muscled body fraught.
‘The tough guys,’ he repeated. ‘Who believe more than we do, Sarah, in the accuracy – the righteousness – of our heat-seeking missiles. Our smart weapons. Our sci-fi. The big boys back home, you know? With their faith in our precision bombing. Oh, they regret that there may be collateral damage, there always is in war, but less this time, you see. Our expertise, our compassion, will ensure it.’
‘Yes,’ she murmured tiredly, wondering whether in bedrooms dotted all around the country other partners lay with their men and women grinding out resentment on the eve of departure. ‘Yes, David. Those guys support you.’
‘No, no, they’re the ones, Sarah, don’t you see, who should have gone? Who should be there. Well away from target areas, of course. I’m not being funny. Far from army bases and anti-aircraft batteries. But it’s the wrong way round, for Christ’s sake. Those who believe should be there. Not the protestors. The champions of war. Put up in some quiet residential quarter of the capital. Sitting on an upturned oil drum in… a busy marketplace. Camped out in the desert surrounded by… sheep, sand, blue sky.’
What did he mean, exactly? Should she ask? Did he want her to ask? A spouse should know the answer to such questions, at such a moment.
‘Why?’ she ventured.
‘Why? Why? Just… I don’t know. Just to feel how the earth shudders when our missiles land.’
She put her arm across his chest, squeezed his upper arm. Sarah felt herself tremble against David’s ribs, knowing there was nothing she could do to keep him here.
His battalion flew to the Gulf, where they played little part in the campaign but were kept on for the peace. He and the men in his platoon were manning a roadblock, according to the visiting officer, who with the garrison padre came marching through the patch in formal uniform to break the news of his death. There was no body. There were body parts, as Sarah discovered later when she asked to see him, seeking closure.
There were parts of a number of bodies. The bomber had eased his car, packed with three hundred pounds of Home Made Explosive, into the clamorous throng of people. Forensics had analysed the scene and it was believed that all victims had been accounted for.
Seven people were killed; eleven injured, more or less severely. Native passers by as well as foreign nationals in uniform. A child of three, a girl, was blown apart – was she grateful, Sarah wondered, for this unasked for martyrdom?
And her husband, infidel soldier, who according to witnesses was leaning towards the car when, at eleven thirteen a.m. local time, the bomber triggered the explosion.
‘Where is he?’ the children demanded.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Nowhere.’ What could she tell them?
‘You must know,’ the boy persevered.
‘He’s dissolved into the universe,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. He lived – we loved him, he loved us – he died. Death means oblivion. Your father no longer exists – except in us.’
‘But his soul,’ the girl insisted. ‘I don’t care what you think: I believe in life after death.’
‘Why don’t we say?’ the boy offered, twisting his mouth as he thought, the way his father had. ‘Let’s just say, he’s in another dimension.’
‘Yes,’ the girl agreed. ‘All right. And he can see us.’
The boy frowned. ‘I think that’s true.’
Her vegetable plot was cleared of all enemies: nettle, bindweed, dock. Couch grass, creeping thistle and a hundred unidentified species of weed. Swept clean, pristine, a deep and ample bed.
Seed potatoes had sat in egg boxes on the window sill of the gloomy living room, and sprouted. She marked out rows with taut string, cleared drills with a trowel and solemnly offered the vegetables to their places in the soil.
She followed them with broad beans: when he saw those large seeds her son demanded to sew them, and did so slowly, measuring each eight exact inches between them, his tongue working in concentration. Sarah wondered whether his father had done that as a boy. A boy from a fairy tale, with a magic beanstalk to a land above the blue sky.
She sewed carrots and broccoli, beetroot and courgette. Her daughter watched, unimpressed by her mother’s Passion, until in the first week of June she joined her to help sew the seeds of wrinkled garden peas.
‘They’re so old,’ the girl said. ‘They’re like pea grandparents, aren’t they?’
‘They are,’ Sarah agreed.
They raked the soil flat.
‘Do you think he’s still there, Mum?’
‘Where? In that other dimension, do you mean?’
‘Yes. His soul. Would he stay there, or would he move around? I’ve been thinking about it.’
‘What do you reckon?’
‘I don’t think he would stay in the same place, Mum,’ she said. ‘Forever. But will he come nearer, or move further away?’
Was that really it? Sarah wondered. The end of it. How could that possibly be, that a solid man, wide feet planted four square on the earth, the big man in whose body she had sheltered, the reticent lover who adored her, could in one shattering moment have all consciousness erased?
Become a memory, fading.
It seemed monumentally unfair to be so bereaved. Her man had gone from the modern world to be murdered in an ancient one, leaving her to grieve without the comfort of an old faith. An infuriating injustice.
And with this further maternal dilemma: what consolation could a mother offer her children beyond that which she finds for herself?
‘Where is he?’ her daughter demanded. It was such a simple question. The simple, unconsoling answer was truthful and insufficient.
How often had he touched her? Had she caressed every pinch of his skin? How many skins had he shed in the years they’d been together? How many cells of his body, his soul, had rubbed off on her?
It was a Thursday afternoon at the beginning of July that she lifted their first early potatoes. The prongs of her fork speared easily through the soil. She levered the fork back towards her. The flowered stem of the plant rose and she knelt down, plunged her hands into the earth and brought up a clutch of smooth white tubers, none larger than a hen’s egg. They snagged on the spindly roots of the original, a rotting old seed potato she’d planted barely two months earlier, now shrivelling from its improbable parentage.
Had she carried him on her hands, and planted him here too, in this soil deposited epochs past? Were there traces of his DNA, then, drawn back up from the mud in the vegetables’ substantiation? To nourish this coming evening herself and their children?
Sarah bowed to the earth, ache in her back and in her belly. She fell towards the soil, to the carbon of plants and animals, to the infinite remnants of all the people burned and buried before them; the gardeners and the farmers, old people who’d died in their sleep, soldiers, martyrs, unborn children. All the random, untraceable DNA transforming itself, communicating unknown signals to the future, in the clay and in the sand.
Inside, she rubbed the soil off under the tap and boiled the new potatoes, and she and the children ate them with butter and mint.
‘They’re delicious, Mummy,’ her daughter said. ‘They really are.’