Watched The Choir, the series where choirmaster Gareth Malone took a group of British Army wives whose husbands were serving overseas in Afghanistan and formed a choir which performed for Remembrance Day at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
As Gareth said, the wives were unheard, living in drab married quarters, moving every few years. He wanted to give them a voice.
I was a military wife back in the Sixties and am appalled to see that, even after women’s lib, so little has changed. Sure, these women were able to talk to the BBC, something we could never have done, but what they said was heartbreakingly familiar.
Loneliness, isolation, fear, feeling unseen and unrecognized by the civilian world – all so familiar.
Back then, we didn’t talk of the fear. Not with our husbands – if the danger was recognized, put into words, they couldn’t carry on risking their lives. It was unspoken, the elephant in the room. So we waited long nights – you could tell which husbands were away, by the late-burning bedroom lights. We dreaded a knock on the door. We worried, but we didn’t speak.
I remember waiting up one night, when the flying conditions were clear, but he was inexplicably late, wondering how I would feed my kids, how we would survive on £3,000 life insurance. Sounds callous, but beneath my tigrish fight for my children, a river of heartbreak flowed.
I remember cooking lunch and hearing over the radio that there had been a mid-air collision at the base. Next of kin had not yet been informed – and he was flying that morning. I remember a ring at the door one night, the dark shape of a uniform glimpsed through the glassed front door. The walk down the long hall seemed frozen in time, each step slow like a dream, yet inexorable. With damp hands, I fumbled the catch: a policeman stood there. “You’ve left your lights on, miss”. Light with relief, but feeling way older, I walked back up the passage and hugged my sleeping daughter.
We felt unheard, yet we didn’t speak. Partly because of the social climate, particularly in the UK where one educated the boys and the girls didn’t matter. After all, they would get married! My father felt a university education “would make you discontented.” Even those women who did get ahead were paid less for their work than a comparable man.
I think this annulling of one’s worth bit deep. We all knew our futures depended on our husband’s survival, let alone his success. We also knew that a mouthy wife could sink her husband’s future.
I remember a magazine asking me to write an article about life as a service wife with the spin: “apart, yet we are together.” I refused to write it. There was no togetherness about 18 month separations, about not voicing one’s deepest fears or about always writing cheerful letters (years before email). You never wrote bad news because a worried pilot is accident prone. Likewise, he never it up for the kids at night because he mustn’t be tired while flying. It was hard not to get the message that when it came to needs, you were bottom of the pecking order.
Even when we wives chatted, I never remember our ever talking about our fears. Partly because we were expected to “carry on”, partly because we were afraid of being bad wives who seemed not to cope. But mostly, I think, because if we had relaxed our guard and self-control, the carefully constructed edifice would have crashed and we would not have been able to go on.
Yet, oddly, during those eight years of terror and reunion, I only knew one marriage that broke. There’s something about never knowing if your husband will return that night that powerfully concentrates the mind and puts things into proportion.
Life was indeed “tragedy to the sound of trumpets.” A quotation I found one night when we had to go to a glittering official cocktail party on board ship in Grand Harbour, Malta, amid the floodlit battlements, accompanied by the Royal Marine Band. Smiles in place, heads high, we stood dutifully, hearts heavy with the knowledge earlier that day that two friends had been killed.
I watched the military wives singing their hearts out – so little has changed.