Authors: Jo Bannister
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Jo Bannister lives in Northern Ireland, where she worked as a journalist and editor on local newspapers. Since giving up the day job, her books have been shortlisted for a number of awards. Most of her spare time is spent with her horse and dog, or clambering over archaeological sites. She is currently working on a new series of psychological crime/thrillers.
He didn't know what to expect and he lay awake all night restless with apprehension. It was a timely reminder, if he needed reminding, of why he was doing this. Eighteen months ago the unknown was a joy to him: no situation was too alien, too alarming then. He'd left for the bloodiest of foreign wars with a spring in his step, his elf-green eyes bright with curiosity.
Now he lay on sweat-damp sheets, aching with the effort to be still while his wife slept curled peacefully beside him, fretting over an encounter with a psychologist in a London hotel. It was pathetic. He was ashamed of his timidity, didn't know where it had come from, why he couldn't shake it off. At first he'd refused even to acknowledge it: everyone at the TV station knew he was in trouble except Richard Speke. But he had to seek help when he couldn't get out his passport without his hands shaking.
This was the solution the station medico came up with: a Personal Discovery weekend with a psychologist and a bunch of other misfits. Eighteen months ago it would have amused the hell out of him; now he lay sweating in the dark, anxious about what waited for him at Lazaire's Hotel
At six o'clock he gave up the pretence of rest and dressed in the half-light. When he finished Fran was propped up on the pillow, watching. âDid you sleep at all?'
He shook his head, avoiding her gaze as if it were a confession.
She wasn't surprised: he hadn't slept properly for months. âI'll make some breakfast.' She padded through to the kitchen. She wore a choirboy mop of short brown hair that fell into place with a shake and one of Richard's T-shirts that came to her knees. She was everything he was not: small, neat, self-contained. Oh yes: and sane.
Richard picked at the meal as he picked at sleep, without enthusiasm. Now he was up he felt exhausted. âOh God, Fran, this had better work.'
âI hope it does,' she said evenly. âI'm just not convinced. You know my view.'
Endless rehearsals meant they knew each other's views intimately. Fran's was that it was not Richard but what he did that was the problem; that the solution was to do something else. His eyes rolled. âIt's my job, Fran. It's what I do, who I am. I'm not going to give it up without a fight.'
âFine,' she said shortly. She didn't want to argue with him, not again. She knew from bitter experience that it would do no good: not shouting at him, pleading with him nor rational discussion. It wasn't that he wouldn't talk about it, more that the debate never resolved anything. His determination to crucify himself was unshakeable. âJust remember that fights cause casualties.'
Richard raked long fingers through his sandy hair. âI'll take my chances.'
Fran rounded on him for that, angry colour in her cheeks. âAnd you think you're the only one in the firing-line, do you? That your choices don't affect anyone else?'
A famously articulate man, he could be reduced to gibberish by her scorn, most of all when it was justified. He knew he'd let her down. He was trying to make things right again, how they'd always been. He didn't understand why that wasn't what she wanted too. He was confused, his voice a plaint. âFran, I don't know what else to do. There are only two things in the world I care about, and one of them's falling apart around me. And if I can't get it back without losing the other I think maybe I
Compassion and fury warred in her breast. âDon't you
put this on me!'
Richard winced; he'd got it wrong again. Words were the one thing he'd always been able to do: now they betrayed him like everything else. Couldn't she see that? Couldn't she
how it hurt, losing something that important to him, feeling it crumble to dust in the palm of his hand? âPleaseâ'
One word, cracked and stumbling, reached her where any amount of skilful oratory would not have. She blinked and looked at him, and saw the pain crowding the corners of his eyes. She sighed and reached for him, her arms going round his waist. He dropped his cheek on to the top of her head, resting there.
After a time she said carefully, âI know how much this matters to you. And for the record, you'll never have to choose between your job and me. I love you, Richard Speke. That's why I hate what you're doing. You're hurting someone I care deeply about, and I don't believe it's necessary. You don't have to change what you do, only where you do it. You don't have to go to wild and dangerous places. There's plenty of work closer to home.'
She felt him shake his head. âOh sure. Political junkets, royal scandals, bishops and actresses. I cut my teeth on that stuff, I'd lose my mind doing it again.' He sniffed sourly. âWhat's left of my mind.'
He'd become inclined to self-pity. When they met Richard Speke was a rising star of television journalism, ambitious, energetic, the least neurotic man she'd ever met. He did his job and lived his life at speed, snatching experiences and fast food, the good and the bad, with a sure instinct for what to keep and what to leave behind.
But perhaps the instinct was less sure than it had seemed, because that phase of his life ended in breakdown. Fran knew that people weren't allowed to have nervous breakdowns any more, had to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder instead. But she'd seen it happen, and there was no better description of how his personality cracked and fragmented. His last trip to Bosnia, that the station had to bring him home from, was only the climax: for months she'd been watching him grow thin and brittle and known it was only a matter of time before something hit him hard enough for the pieces to fly apart.
âThere's nothing trivial about politics,' she insisted. âYou don't have to risk your neck to be a good reporter. Credibility doesn't depend on bullets whistling past your ear on prime-time news.'
He stood back, raking his hair again, automatically, unconsciously. Fran thought he needed another trip to the barber. These days his hair was the only energetic part of him. âMine does. It's all I know, Fran. I can't do the clever stuff. There are guys reporting Westminster who know more about politics than both front benches put together and always ask the right questions because they know what the answers are. Well, I can't do that. I don't know enough.
âWhat I can do â could do â is operate in places most people can't. I know which side of a street to walk to avoid snipers. I know my way around, even places I've never been before. I can get into areas that are supposed to be closed, reach people who're supposed to be inaccessible and get out with a story that makes sense to people whose experience of anarchy is limited to the buffet car on a football special. There aren't many things I do really well, Fran, but there's that.'
They'd been married five years. For four of them he really was among the best. She'd seen a room full of hoary old journos, print and broadcast, burst into spontaneous applause watching one of his dispatches. So she knew how good he'd been.
And she knew it hurt like an amputation, like flesh ripped from his body, to have that taken away. The pain of it, and the grief, glittered in his voice. âOnly I can't do it any more. I remember how I did it, I know what has to be done, but I canât do it.' He turned away, his long body rigid with tension, his angular face flayed. âYou want me to cover Chelsea Flower Show and Trooping the Colour instead? I'd rather dig up the roads.'
It wasn't mere bitter rhetoric; he meant it. In fact he wasn't bitter. He was too honest to pretend anyone had done this to him, blamed only himself. He wasn't strong enough and he couldn't hack it any more: not because the job was too hard but because he wasn't hard enough. At thirty-four he was still young enough to think that a failing.
âSo maybe this group encounter crap is a waste of time,' he went on, a tremor in his voice. âMaybe nothing will come of it. But it's my last shot at getting back to where I was. I know the station won't sack me if it doesn't work â they won't have to. I'll leave. I know how this job should be done. If I can't do it I won't stand by while people who can make kind remarks and try to find something I'm not too scared to tackle.'
Fran laid her hand on his. He was so taut the tendons along the top stood up like guitar strings. She murmured, âI still don't see how three days with a bunch of crazies is going to help.'
Richard let out a gust of laughter. It was part of the problem, that he could do nothing in moderation. His nerves were so close to the surface that he reacted instantly and often inappropriately. âThe only crazy there'll be me. It's a personal discovery course, not the Broadmoor annual outing.'
Fran went back to the bedroom, began brushing her hair. A couple of strokes would have served; all this extra effort was to keep herself occupied. She'd given up trying to talk him out of it, looked for something neutral to say. âSo what do people do on a personal discovery course?'