Mike caressed the watch on his left wrist. It occurred to him, ironically, that it had no face. It had belonged to his father, but there were no memories. Even the photos of his father, which his mother kept, spurred no hint of recollection. He had left home long before Mike's young mind could form a picture of his face.
Hannah approached his side."You okay, darling? You're very quiet."
"You know how it is, not long now. And this of all times, when you're pregnant."
"I know baby. But if all goes to plan, you'll be back in time for the birth."
"I hope you're right."
"Both Greg and Katie were on time, so I don't see any need to worry."
She sat on his lap and kissed his lips.
"Six months of you being away again. I still haven't got used to it after all these years."
"It's the last time honey." He held her hand and squeezed it gently. "The shop will keep you busy and help take your mind off it."
"I'll worry about you, as always. There are soldiers getting killed out there all the time."
"Not that many considering the total numbers out there."
She sighed. "There's always the chance, and it terrifies me."
"I know my job, I've come through many scrapes over the years. You know I can look after myself, as well as the lads. Let's not dwell on it."
"You're right, I need to lighten up. The kids will be home from school soon in time to see you off."
"Eight months until I retire, then I'm home for good sweetie. Look, I'll finish packing, then we've got each other until I go."
"Okay honey, I'll get the kettle on."
Mike went up the stairs in a daze. He was getting too old for this. No, he wasn't old, he'd simply had enough of time away from his family. All the months away from seeing the kids grow up; the times when they had changed so much and he hadn't been there to witness the process. Now Hannah was expecting again, somewhat unplanned, but he was happy about it. He had the good fortune to be home during her previous pregnancies, and at the births. As she and the baby developed, he felt an enhanced closeness between them. He would miss that, but not her emotional roller coaster ride. He took that in his stride, though it wasn't easy. Nevertheless, he had fond memories of the ups and downs. They always laughed about the hard times, once they had passed.
His kit bag lay on the bed, where he would not sleep again until the summer. They had only put the Christmas decorations away ten days ago. He thought of all the nights Hannah would lie there alone aching for him, as he would for her, many thousands of miles apart. It was almost too much to bear.
There was only one remaining item to pack. He had left it until last to avoid crumpling it too much, though it would make little difference with almost two days folded up in the bag. He withdrew from the wardrobe his dress uniform, that of a Colour Sergeant, complete with its extensive rows of medal ribbons. He handled it with reverence. He was proud of his role in the Army, it had been his life, his profession, a job he loved. But that love was wearing thin. He was a family man now and he longed to settle down into that role properly.
He folded the uniform carefully and gently tucked it into the bag before he zipped it up. He threw the bag over his shoulder and picked up the grip which held the remainder of his personal belongings for the deployment.
He took one last lingering look at the bedroom before he closed the door and then turned away. That was always the most poignant moment. Of all the things he knew he wouldn't see again for six months; the street, the house, the car, friends, and many other things, it was the bed they had shared for so many years which hurt the most. All would become strangers. It was that within the home, his wife, and children, which was the hardest to bear.
Hannah, too, was pondering the future without Mike. She loved him dearly, and though she would be kept busy with her own business, it would be a tough time. As always, there was this final parting hour which they had repeated for so many years. The thought of the first night without him by her side. The comfort, the lovemaking, the intimacy. She would worry about him too, being in a combat zone.
She consoled herself with the thought that by the end of summer it would never happen again, except perhaps for his sailing trips with Bill. She loved sailing too, but couldn't always take the time away from her business for the longer trips.
She heard his footsteps as he came back down the stairs. As he appeared he looked as handsome, more so she thought, as when they had met. He was a well built, muscular man, well proportioned for his height of six feet. He had a firm jaw and blue sparkling eyes, a ladies man, but all hers and the gentle envy of her friends.
Now there would be the awkward silences as both faced the inevitable.
He dumped his bags on the floor and sat down with a cup of hot coffee in front of him.
"The usual route?" she said.
"Aye. Coach down to Brize Norton, then a direct flight out to Kandahar."
It was a pointless question and answer, both knew the routine. But such was the struggle to make conversation.
"Come here," he said.
They held each other close and kissed gently. No words were necessary, or easy. They had to cherish the last few moments before the kids came home.
Half an hour rushed by until Greg and Katie came in. They placed their school bags on the kitchen table and then sat down with Hannah for a hug with their dad. They knew how the game went too, though with far less experience than Hannah.
Katie began to shed tears which prompted Hannah to follow suit.
"Come on girls," Mike said gently. "Give me some smiles to remember you by."
"Oh, daddy, we're going to miss you so much," said Katie.
"I know. I'll miss you too my angel."
All too soon, the taxi arrived to take Mike to Glasgow Central railway station.
He picked up his bags with a heavy heart and then gave Hannah and Katie a last kiss. Finally, he gave Greg a hug and a handshake.
"You look after the girls, son. You...