Very, Very Carefully
On the way back, they both walked as fast as they could, but the rain was so torrential that they were both soaked by the time they got to the shelter of the car.
Mr Kehoe met them at the door of the two-up, two-down, and gave Steve's jeans a disapproving glance, but said instead, "Where have you been? I was getting worried!"
"Hi, Dad," Steve said with a sigh. As she slipped out of her jacket, she started to say, "By the way, this is –"
"What on earth have you done to your hair!" Mr Kehoe exclaimed, cutting off the introductions. He himself looked like an aging hippie, with long, greying hair pulled back in a ponytail. "You look like you've just joined the army! And you're soaked through – don't you have the sense to come in out of the rain?"
"Obviously I don't, but thank you anyway for your kind and caring words, Dad," Steve replied acidly. "John, this is my dad. He's a pacifist, which is hilariously ironic considering how aggressive he can make other people feel. Dad, this is my friend John Porter. He's SAS."
There was a bit of an awkward pause while they both decided to ignore what they had just learned about the other, and then they said "Hello" at the same time.
"Come on, John, and I'll show you where you'll be staying," Steve said, leading the way towards the stairs. "You can change into dry clothes before we eat."
"Don't be too long, it'll get cold," Mr Kehoe called up after them, and Steve sighed in annoyance before calling back, "Yes, Dad." Sotto voce, she added, "As if he's never heard of heating things up in the microwave."
Then she opened the door to one of the bedrooms and led the way in. "You'll be sleeping here, and the bathroom's right next door."
"Is this your room?" John asked, putting his bag at the end of the bed and looking around.
"It's actually the guest room, but I've been sleeping here since I got back, yeah," she said, opening the wardrobe. "If you need to hang anything up, I've left you some hangers."
She took out a pair of jeans, then moved to the chest of drawers. "There's space in here, too, if you need it."
"And where will you stay to-night?" he asked. The single bed was almost as narrow as an army cot, and no doubt the only other bedroom in the house belonged to her father.
"Downstairs," she said evasively, which sounded like "on the floor in the living room" to John. "Do you need the loo before I get changed in there?"
"No, go ahead," John said, and opened his bag to find a dry pair of jeans for himself.
Mr Kehoe was waiting at the table when they came down again. He looked at John and said, "I'm glad to see you were with somebody respectable, Alexandra. I was just reading this article in the paper about a girl from Margate who was raped up in London, and I was worried about you when you didn't come home in this weather."
"Dad, if I had been raped in London this afternoon, you wouldn't be reading about it in this morning's paper," Steve said. "And yes, John is perfectly respectable. He certainly knows how to treat women. Now let's eat."
A certain word still made John uncomfortable, and he focused on the meal instead. The food looked suspiciously familiar, but when John dug into the shepherd's pie, he was pleased to find real meat inside. "This tastes good."
"Thank you," said Mr Kehoe. They both glanced over to where Steve was dissecting her helping in silent disapproval, pushing the mince to one side and eating only the vegetables.
"Alexandra, you need protein," Mr Kehoe chided.
"There are other ways to get protein besides meat," Steve said with exaggerated patience. "You'd know that if you read that cookery book I showed you. You could have put some pulses in here, you know."
At the mention of pulses, Mr Kehoe began to radiate the same silent disapproval that his daughter had inherited. In an attempt to defuse the situation, John said, "My daughter made me a vegetarian shepherd's pie yesterday. It didn't taste like vegetarian shepherd at all."
Mr Kehoe and Steve both groaned simultaneously, and Steve asked, "Is your daughter a vegetarian, too?"
"I think she might be turning into one," John replied.
Mr Kehoe murmured something that sounded like "Rabbit food!" and Steve shot him an annoyed glance, then put a forkful of food into her mouth. Almost instantly, she began to gag, fumbled for her serviette, then finally spat into it.
"Are you all right?" John and Mr Kehoe asked at the same time. Steve coughed a little, then took a long drink and finally said, "Sorry. I'm fine. I just –"
She stopped and looked down at her plate. Sweat had broken out across her face, and John thought she might vomit right then and there. Instead, she stood up and went into the kitchen. John started to rise, but Mr Kehoe was faster.
"You all right, love?" Mr Kehoe asked. From where he was sitting, John couldn't see what they were doing, but he could clearly hear Steve's shriek of "Don't touch me!"
"And don't call me that! I hate that name now, I hate it!"
"Just calm down, love, calm down." There was a silent pause, and then Mr Kehoe added, "You'll feel better if you eat something."
"No, I won't!" Steve shrieked again. "That's exactly what caused this in the first place – eating! Meat! I've told you often enough that I don't eat meat, and you still serve it! Well, that's it, Dad, that's it! I'm not staying here any longer!"
"I deliberately left that mince in big chunks so that you could easily pick it out –"
Steve made an inarticulate sound of rage, then exclaimed, "I still got some by accident! That's not the point! The point is – oh, never mind. I don't think you'd understand even if I told you."
"Try me," Mr Kehoe said. There was a long silence, and then Steve sighed audibly.
"Dad, I know you mean well, but the things you do – you're doing them because they'd be what you want, they'd be what would make you feel better. It'd be like me in the hospital giving one of my patients a sedative just because I don't want to listen to them moaning and groaning, but they're moaning because they've got a bladder infection and they don't need a sedative, they need antibiotics! You're giving me meat because you think it's good, but it reminds me of them, it reminds me of when I had to eat meat, you know, in Nigeria."
"You're stroppy because meat reminds you of people in Nigeria with bladder infections?" Mr Kehoe asked in complete innocence.
John would have laughed if he hadn't remembered the soldier in the cell, trying to feed the stew to Steve. Steve had only whimpered then, but now she roared with frustrated impatience.
"Never mind, Dad, just never mind!" she screeched.
She came out of the kitchen and went through the dining area to the living room, and John watched Mr Kehoe follow. She must have picked up the phone there, because the man said, "You're not ordering another pizza, are you, not when you've got a good home-cooked meal on the table?"
"Right, that's it," said Steve, just shy of another screech. "I am leaving, Dad! I am going to London, and I am not coming back! I'm going upstairs to pack."
She stalked towards the stairs, and Mr Kehoe followed. "You know, this never would have happened if you'd not gone to Nigeria in the first place!"
"It also never would have happened if I'd never been born in the first place!" Steve shouted back. "So if you're going to blame me for going to Nigeria because I was desperate for a job where I could earn some decent money, you might as well blame me for being born – oh, wait! That's your fault!"
As Mr Kehoe went back into the living room and sank down heavily into one of the armchairs, John stood up and walked towards the stairs.
"Don't follow me!" Steve shrieked from above, and John called out, "It's me. Can I come up?"
She didn't answer, but when she went into her bedroom, she left the door open. He looked in and saw her sitting on the bed with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.
"Can I come in?" he asked, and she lifted her head just enough to nod. He stepped into the room, and she reached out one hand to pat the bed next to her. John sat down, careful not to touch her.
"He's right, you know," Steve said. "If I hadn't gone to Nigeria … if I hadn't been on duty that day … if I hadn't been wearing my favourite trousers on my way to work, the ones that made me feel really attractive … if I hadn't given up karate when I was seventeen … I go over it again and again and again! It's bad enough when I say it to myself, but then when Dad starts, too, I just …!"
She screeched again, clenching her hands to fists and pounding on her legs. John waited until the attack of rage finally subsided and she let her hands fall limp again. Then she swallowed and said, "I should have known something like this would happen. I'm so embarrassed, and I feel so selfish, practically begging you to come down here, and then putting you in the middle of all this."
"I've been in worse situations," John said. Steve looked up at him, and he saw tears running down her cheeks.
"Yeah, and that's all my fault, too!" she exclaimed.
"No," John protested, realizing what she was referring to. "No, Steve, that's not what I meant!"
She started to sob, wiping the tears away from her cheeks with her fingers again and again. Very slowly and carefully, John extended his hand into her field of vision, then laid it gently on her leg. After a moment, she scooted closer to him, closing the gap that he'd left between their legs, and between sobs, managed to ask, "Could you – put your arm – around me?"
He did so, pulling her close so that she could cushion her head on his shoulder, and she took his hand in hers. It felt good. When she'd stopped crying enough to speak, she asked, "Do you ever feel like crying?"
"No," he replied honestly.
"No, of course not, you're a man," she said. "I suppose you feel angry instead of hurt, and you want to go out and shoot things or beat somebody up."
"Yeah," John admitted, surprised that she'd identified his feelings so easily.
"So … have you?" she asked.
"Not lately," he said. Not since Nigeria. "I work out. I go running."
He hadn't gone running lately, though, and he'd also had to modify his workout to accommodate his injuries – all of his injuries. It rankled.
"I like to swim," Steve said. "There was a good pool in the compound where I lived in Port Harcourt. I always felt better after I'd had a good swim. I should go again, find a pool here in Margate, but I – I don't want to go alone, and Dad can't swim – not that I want him around me all the time anyway."
She made a sound that could have been a little laugh or a little sob, John couldn't tell.
"I love my dad, even though it's hard sometimes, and usually, I can deal with him, but ever since I got back …" Steve began. She stopped, then added, "Now I know why wounded animals crawl away to die alone."
"You're not going to die, and you're not alone," John said. "You're a strong, brave woman."
"You're stronger and braver than me," Steve said, rubbing her cheeks with her free hand. "I was a wreck. I'm still a wreck now, and here I am, taking and taking from you. You were hurt worse than I was – I should be helping you, not crying in your arms like some helpless baby!"
"You are helping me," John said. She glanced up at him in confusion, and he went on. "You were there, you know what … happened."
"Yeah, but I'm the one who keeps begging you for a hug," Steve pointed out, then looked down.
"Would you—" John started to ask. Funny how the words seemed to stick in his throat, when they should have come out as easily as though he were asking Steve to pass the salt. "Would you give me a hug?"
Steve embraced him with just the right combination of eagerness and carefulness, and they sat for a long moment, content in each other's arms.