She always swore she'd never fall for a soldier.
Vivid childhood memories of Sunday afternoons spent after a huge roast dinner wedged between her grandparents had somehow taught her that. Her grandfather had served in the RAF during the Second World War, and his stories of the things he could tell her about played on her mind from an early age; the unspoken stories behind his eyes too horrific for her young mind to comprehend. But it was her grandmother that fixed the decision for her.
There was something in the gentle tone of her voice and the way it sometimes caught when she remembered losing friends and family. Something about how her hand absentmindedly found her grandfather's, even across her own small lap, as she spoke and brought her memories to life. And something in the intensity of the gaze between her grandparents when they recalled almost losing each other. Electric was in the air, torture in her heart that she didn't yet understand, and a forming certainty that taught her one thing.
Never marry a soldier.
Because one day, you might lose them.
Growing up, this had become her mantra. She admired a uniform when she saw one, and as family tradition dictated, she was a huge supporter of the troops. Poppy selling. Remembrance Sunday attendance. Wreath laying at a cenotaph. and woe betide anyone who dared interrupt the precious two minute silence.
But any time a military man paid her attention that was anything beyond mere friendly, and sometimes even then too, she retreated. Sorry, no thank you, her smile always said. And then later with her friends she would bemoan her loss. "He was... beautiful." she would say. "Too beautiful to lose. I couldn't."
When drunk, the mantra would be unfurled, taken out of her back pocket and laid bear on the table for all to see, like a shiny but redundant party piece. "Never marry a soldier." she would (sometimes) yell. Which was often met by a drunken chorus of "Because one day, you might lost them." and then followed by a rousing toast to soldiers everywhere. Her friends knew.
So, naturally, of course, because that is The Way Of Things, she fell in love with a soldier. It had to happen.
She was 23 when she met him. Collided with would be a fairer assessment of their first encounter as she had literally stepped off the train, misjudged her footing and landed, nose to nose, in his face. Quite a feat given that he was six foot two and she a good half a foot shorter.
It was the amusement in his smile, the laughter in his eyes, and quite honestly the strength in his arms that had prevented her from kissing the pavement, that she remembered best from that day. One glimpse at his face and her stomach did that awful flopping thing it does, and she knew. She was in trouble.
For the first year they were together, and together they were pretty much from that very moment, she told herself it was all 'just a bit of fun'. She would tease him that the RAF was better than the 'regular' army and that no man could ever live up to her grandfather. He would smile knowingly and respond that she had had to find a soldier because she needed daily protection - from her own clumsiness.
It was when he received news of his first posting abroad since they had been together that she really knew she was in trouble.
They'd been laid together on a lazy Sunday afternoon - following a huge roast dinner, since some traditions must always be kept - and she had realised. Curled up in his arms, she had suddenly stiffened and untangled herself from him. He had looked at her with a raised eyebrow of questioning. She had sat as far away from him as a two-seater sofa will allow, perched on the edge and in danger of falling. Her eyes were wide in her head and her hands out before her, palms physically pushing him further away.
"I love you." she had blurted, then covered her mouth as if to stuff the words back in. He had smiled a heart-breakingly happy smile, and she had felt the weight of the world crashing down.
"I don't.... I don't want to love you! You're... going to... leave... me...!" and as any (in)sane, hormonal woman is want to do the day before the man she loves is leaving her for an unknown length of time, she collapsed in tears before running and locking herself in the bathroom in an (un)characteristic dramatic gesture.
He had been very patient and sat down cross-legged outside the bathroom door, saying all the right things. That he loved her too. That he promised to be careful. That he would contact her by whatever means every opportunity he got. That he would boast about her to the other troops. She could feel him smiling at her through the door, she could swear it.
When he left, it was as though someone had removed all of her organs silently in the night whilst she was sleeping. She was numb, raging, crying, angry, scared, brave. Everything and nothing all at once. At first she had adamantly refused to even be in the same room as a TV when the news was on. She just couldn't risk seeing...something... and would become near-hysterical if her requests for the TV to be switched off went unheard. Eventually she became obsessed with the news, sat there bent forward in the armchair, face almost pressed to the screen, as though her permanent attention could keep him from harm.
When he came home, she was embarrassingly girly. She waited with the others with what she felt was an exterior of calm patience whilst bouncing up and down on her toes. But the second she saw him she ran, literally ran, and threw herself at him. She could not stop her limbs from propelling her towards him. It was such a performance that, mortifyingly, it made the local newspaper. He always swore that he had caught her mid-air because she was in danger of tripping over again. In truth, she really had just launched herself at him full force and then wrapped herself around him like a limpet. Shocking behaviour.
He told her what he could of his time away, and she told him about the mundanity of life at home. Except to him, it was anything but mundane, and so she became an excellent storyteller, revelling in the way it drew the horror from his eyes and replaced it with laughter.
War sounded every bit as horrific as she had feared. His pain at losing comrades became her pain too. His frustration at the lack of army supplies became her main source of indignation. They were a team.
She survived his second posting better, partly because of the coping strategies she had learnt the first time round, and partly (mostly) because of the sparkly ring on her finger that reminded her that he loved and missed her just as much.
They married on a bright afternoon in May, surrounded by loved ones and photographed in a garden of white flowers.
A short honeymoon followed, and then he was away again.
They found out she was pregnant when he was stationed in some god-awful desert location, a sandstorm blustering the tent he was satellite-calling from, waiting for the second line to turn blue. He said it was the best Bluey* she had ever 'sent' him and leapt out of his chair in excitement, managing to disconnect the call in the process.
Luckily, it was a straightforward enough pregnancy. And thankfully, thankfully, he was able to be home with her for the birth of their son.
Separation before was unbearable but now they were three, the pain was too much, too physical and too tangible. The night before he left he held their son in his arms and sobbed, for the first time actually questioning his choices, over and over again, whilst she, in some kind of maternal benediction, was able to say the words he needed to hear, to give him strength. He had to go. He had to. To defend all the other sons out there whose fathers could not return home and hold them as they slept.
Being a military wife was such a defining part of her life. She could share her fears, talk about situations that her 'civvie' friends could never comprehend. And if she felt like screaming in frustration, then there was always a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, a childminder that understood exactly what she was feeling. And on her strong days, she did the same for them.
When their son was four he announced that he wanted to 'be a hero like daddy' too. New, unknown fears forced ice shards into her heart. Constant fear for her husband was one thing, but the thought of her future adult son out there, god knows where, facing god knows what, made her feel all the helplessness in the world.
And now their son is nine years old, the image of his father and with that same knowing smile that you can't help but return.
Her husband is older, wiser, seasoned. Moved up the military ranks and allegedly away from danger. He is still out there, though. Defending the defenceless, fighting for freedom, doing what he has always truly believed in. The pride she feels is an inextinguishable flame, a fire in her belly that flares and rages when anyone says anything even remotely derogatory about the military or more specifically, about the people that serve. The military itself is still something she maintains an operating-level of disdain for due to the seemingly discriminate way that troops, both serving and veterans, are treated.
Despite his safer position, her fear for his safety never leaves. When people tell her that she has her grandmother's eyes, she pictures that intense gaze from long ago, and knows precisely what they mean.
For every time the doorbell rings, or the ringtone of her mobile sings out, there is a little jolt of terror in the pit of her stomach. Is today the day for bad news, for run out luck, for the end of the world?
Until he returns home from his final tour of service. Until he retires. Until they have that quaint little home in the countryside that they have always dreamt of - surrounded by peace, safety and a white flower garden reminiscent of their wedding day - until then.
She can never truly rest.
And whilst she is proud beyond words of the job that he does, and what he has achieved, she still repeats her mantra to young girls dreaming of a heroic husband, because she knows the pain of being a military wife. And truly, truly, it is not for the faint-hearted. Because even if he does return to you, you can never, ever be sure that he will be returned whole.
You have to be sure. You have to be brave. You have to be willing to lose your heart.
Never marry a soldier, she tells them. Never, unless you are absolutely prepared to spend countless years missing them, countless hours sobbing when they leave, and countless minutes living for the moment when he is there with you. Never marry a soldier, because one day, you might lose them. And if you lose them you know, you really must know, that you will lose yourself too.
Not everyone is strong enough for that.
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