I finger the newspaper article. It is crisp and yellowed, but the headline is as bold as ever.
You got a commendation for that — a special county award. I bought a new coat for the ceremony. I was so proud of you.
I read the newspaper text again, although I know it by heart.
“Two children rescued from house inferno by local fire-fighter. Tom Egger, aged 39, risked his life twice, going back into the burning house to rescue little Marie Anderson and her brother.”
It’s not until you read the final paragraph that there is mention of the baby.
“I didn’t know she was there,” you said, shaking your head. “No one told me there was a baby.”
Nobody blamed you. There was nothing but praise that you managed to get two of them out, returning to the building twice without breathing gear and the flames all around you. Your eyebrows were singed and your throat scratchy when the hospital released you and you got home. But you cried that night. The first time I’ve ever seen you cry. Being a hero was a heavy burden.
We both went to the funeral. The father carried the tiny white coffin in his arms, while the mother had to be supported by relatives. Marie sucked her thumb and never spoke. The boy was still in hospital. Amelia, the baby, was buried in the corner of the churchyard, the grave so small it was smothered in flowers.
After the funeral you were lost in your own world. You stared out of the window, silent, your eyes were glazed, unseeing. If I spoke you had to drag yourself back into the land of the living. I tried to interest you in things.
“Shall we go out at the weekend? A drive? Maybe a pub lunch?”
“If you like,” you said.
If you like, I thought. We went, but you hardly spoke. You didn’t notice anything around us. Even though I was with you, I felt lonely.
I tried a different approach.
“You could mow the lawn.” The sound of my voice made you start.
“Err, what?” you mumbled.
“You could cut the grass.”
“Oh, yes. Will do.”
Sometimes you did. Sometimes you didn’t.
You went to work. Life continued, but something wasn’t right. People commented that you were withdrawn. You were uninterested in food. You lost weight.
Then you began to disappear.
I didn’t worry at first.
“A walk,” you said.
I shrugged, mid-crossword.
“A river in Bangkok …?” But you’d gone.
The walks became more frequent. Weekly, twice weekly and then daily. You even went out in the rain.
“We should get a dog,” I joked. “You’d have some company.”
I had a visit from your Chief.
“I’m worried,” he said. “How does he seem to you?”
“Something is bothering him,” I said. “He won’t talk about it. If I ask, he says he’s just a little tired.”
The Chief nodded. “He’s different. He volunteers for everything and doesn’t stop to think. I’m wondering if I might have to take him off active duty.”
I gasped. “No. You can’t! He lives for his work. You know that.”
“At the moment he’s taking unnecessary risks and pushing himself too hard.”
I choked back tears. I feared what would happen if they stopped you doing what you loved.
The Chief recommended counseling. The word “depression” was bandied about. They suggested you consult the doctor for medication, but you shrugged the idea off.
“I’m just a bit tired,” you said, again.
“I’m only trying to help,” I protested. “You don’t seem happy.”
“Sorry. I’m fine.” You gave a small smile that didn’t stretch to your eyes. You were in some dark place where I couldn’t reach you.
You disappeared for longer. When I asked where you went you shrugged.
I heard the back door close in the middle of the night. I touched your side of the bed and it was cold.
One afternoon I followed you. Lost in your own thoughts, you didn’t notice me. When I saw you enter the churchyard I guessed. I should have known before.
You perched on a headstone and stared at Amelia’s grave. There was a pink teddy propped up against the shiny stone, and flowers.
Fresh flowers, even though her family had moved away. They couldn’t deal with the memories either.
You were talking. I saw your lips moving. You were talking to the gravestone.
I clenched my fists. I wanted to drag you back. I was jealous. Jealous of that helpless baby who had taken you away. Tears welled in my eyes. I couldn’t compete.
How long would it have gone on if there hadn’t been the fire at Parson’s Yard?
Afterwards it was ruled to have been an accident. The corrugated iron roof caved in, trapping you and two others. They managed to pull you all out but you were pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. Your body was broken and burned. You’d been pushing forward, at the head of the team checking there were no workers left in the place.
A hero again.
It’s the way you’d have wanted to go, doing what you loved.
There was no doubt in my mind. You were to be buried next to Amelia. The department did you proud. Your body was carried on the fire engine. A full turnout in uniform as the crew walked along side. Official wreaths covered your coffin, the scent so strong I could hardly breathe. I have the newspaper clippings.
I come and visit you often. I perch on a tombstone and talk. Sometimes as I turn the corner in the churchyard I see you both in the sunlight, a little girl, no longer a baby, and a man, his body miraculously whole, dancing a ring-a-roses across the gravestones. You’re both laughing.
I smile. I’m glad you are happy now.
I fold the newspaper cuttings and put them away. I shall go for a walk. I walk a lot these days.
I should get a dog. It would be company.