Photograph by Louis Leeson, Story by Lucy Beckley
The night before is always the hardest. I want to devour yet simultaneously savour every moment. Every time it’s the same dichotomy of suppressed desires and unfulfilled needs, an unquenched thirst that threatens to dry me to my core.
The weeks leading up to it are always fraught. As the departure date looms ever closer, we try to fill the time making memories and enjoying each other's company, expectations soar. But this time, it’s different.
I see the creases in your forehead fold into a frown and you self-consciously try to smudge them away with your fingertips, hoping no one has seen you. I watch the way you take a breath and hold on to it, just that little bit too long, so that the exhale is sharp, laboured. The children are older now and whilst we are very used to this deployment dance and routine, there’s just something I can’t put my finger on this time. Something, unsettling, out of kilter.
The last supper is muted, devoid of the normal fanfare. The magnolia walls close in on us in the dining room, as the children’s attention wavers, their desire to escape to their devices spills out into loud huffs and sighs. You relieve them of their frustration, ‘Ok kiddos, off you go then’. You seem distracted, the glow of your phone lights up the contours on your face as you settle down on the sofa, I see your soft, kind eyes illuminated, but underneath a flicker of worry dances across your brow. How I wish to trace those lines, to follow the path back to how those memories had formed in those folds. I linger on that moment, tears bulge in the corners of my eyes, one escapes, leaving a salty silvery trail behind. I must drink more water. I suppress the accompanying sob, swallowing sharply to ease the closeness building up in my throat and busy myself with my glass of wine on the table. I drain the rest of the bottle into my glass and clear away the dishes, a welcome distraction from these tears that keep threatening to appear.
The house is quiet now. I catch my reflection in the kitchen window as I wash the dishes, for a moment I don’t recognise the person staring back at me, it’s so rare that I look at myself now. My uniform of sensible chinos and smart shirts, is a far cry from the rainbow of colours and floaty dresses of before. In a crowd, I easily fade into the background. The highlights and choppy bobs have grown out, tamed into a more uniform colour and shape, gone are the layers and bounce. With every new rank you gained, a small part of me disappeared, the multiple piercings, cheeky smile and flicky eyeliner only now present in the photos hidden up high on the shelves, their edges faded from the multiple moves. The constant pressure to assimilate into this life we’ve fallen into but never quite fitted into.
The waistband of my taupe chinos, sticks in awkwardly, a cruel reminder of the layers of the middle years that have spread across my body. My hands now shrivelled from the washing up, I wash the bubbles off and head back to the lounge picking up my book and settling into the opposite sofa to you, you don’t look up, I pause, desperate to say something, to tell you how much I’m going to miss you but you’re distracted. Later that evening, when the children are finally asleep, you look up from the sofa and turn to me, ‘Bed then?’, I want to say No, to refuse, to let the tears flood out and release everything that has built up over the past month, to try and halt the inevitability of what lays ahead but I simply nod, following you up the stairs.
In the bedroom, you brush against me and in a moment that furious electricity is once again there, but we fumble, our bodies hesitant then entwining, you’re always so confident and strong, yet I feel all at once like the 17 year old girl who met you all those years ago, shy, embarrassed, inexperienced. My cheeks warm as you kiss and tease me, a red flush appears across my chest, my body is now a constellations of scars, stretch marks and moles, criss-cross across folds and wrinkles. Self-consciously I retreat from you, but you pull me closer and that makes me desire you even more. The silent tears begin and the pain and ping of broken heartstrings radiates across my chest, but you don’t notice.
Two weeks later, I’m back at the kitchen sink washing up the wine glasses. My parents have the children for the weekend, a welcome reprieve. I catch my reflection, the haze of weariness has given way to lightness. I smile at the woman before me, emboldened, buoyed. My dinner guest sits in your seat. I think about what you said on the morning you left, ‘This will be the last time, then we can start to make a plan.’. Exactly the same line you had used the last two times, but each time you get the call, you go back. I think you secretly love the anonymity and freedom it gives you, away from the shackles of children and marriage.
Later that evening, a loud shrill pierces the darkness of our bedroom. I look at the clock, it's 03.21. My back arches into an upright position but my hand freezes mid-motion, my dinner guest is fast asleep, his breathing shallow, the contours of his body so different to yours. I shiver with a sense of foreboding that answering this call will change the course of everything. Then the adrenaline kicks in, I remember the children aren’t here. Snatching the phone off the hook, my voice cracks as I try to whisper ‘Hello?’, a voice shouts in the distance, I hear you ‘Anne, love’ in the background gunfire roars, then line drops.
Lucy Beckley is a writer, wanderer and wonderer. She's lived in London, Cornwall, Berlin and has recently moved to Lisbon. She can often be found trailing after her children on the beach, taking a moment to catch her breath, soak up the sunshine and find the extraordinary joy in the everyday ordinary. She writes mostly poetry and is in the final stages of putting together her first collection, called The Fridge Door. She is also working on a fiction novel. You can find more of her and her work here.
Louis Leeson is an independent documentary photographer and filmmaker based between London and The Gambia. His work focuses on human rights, migration, and the consequences of war. He has worked extensively in Africa and the Middle East, with editorial publications, news channels, NGOs, and brands to tell stories visually.
Louis also works as a speaker and educator with a focus on the ethics of photography and the representation of trauma: its effect on the image maker, the viewer, and the person photographed. Louis has completed an accredited hostile environment and first aid course with SEPAR International. He is represented by Eyevine in London and holds a degree in Photojournalism from the University of the Arts London. Find his work here.