Who’d marry a soldier?

Guess who?
… Makes friends easily, adaptable, well travelled, independent, decorator, gardener, mechanic (when necessary), single mum (frequently), tough, fiercely loyal, wry sense of humour, expert gin & tonic maker, resilient, always hopeful – a lover of life.

My dictionary definition of an army wife, in case you hadn’t guessed.
I’m proud to be one of this diminishing breed, whose other characteristic is being a ‘pack animal’. Army wives are there for one another. When the going gets tough they stand alongside each other’s families supporting one another, sometimes emotionally but also practically.

Some of my best friends are either army wives or ex-army wives. The experiences we went through together as we waited anxiously for news from war zones or coped with being a lone parent far from our families, drew us close. Those bonds aren’t easily broken. That’s why writing a book with one particular army wife was the natural thing to do.

I first met Brenda Hale when she was a Sergeant’s wife while we were posted in Germany and our husbands were on an operational tour in Northern Ireland. Our children were born within a few months of each other. Brenda put me to shame in exercising back to fitness after giving birth and supported me in trying to run chaotic Sunday school sessions at the church on the barracks. In those years, although we worried for our husbands on operations in Belfast and Bosnia, I could never imagine what lay ahead.

One sunny August morning in 2009 I found my husband hunched at the foot of the stairs, shocked by the sudden death of a great man and a good friend. Neither of us could believe that this giant of a man had been taken away and his family left devastated. The harrowing news stories on the death of more soldiers in Afghanistan had become more personal than ever.

Some days later sitting at a table in an airport I still couldn’t take in the fact that the woman beside me had lost the love of her life, the father of her children and her best friend. How could this have happened?

It’s been a privilege to retrace the journey which the Hale girls have been on, through writing I married a soldier with Brenda. As she says, we’ve shared both tears and laughter as she has recalled wonderful moments, along with the most painful times.

If you’re looking for an inspirational read that gives you a real picture of life for army families, you’ll enjoy I married a soldier published by Lion Hudson. It tells the true story of how one very special army wife found a way through an event that threatened to crush her. This is a story of hope and faith beyond grief.

Blackberries and a beach

What makes you smile, even when things go wrong? For me, this weekend, it was unending hedgerows of blackberries and a beautiful beach.

Moving house and moving countries was always going to have its moments. We’d anticipated some of the problems including parting with the wrong stuff for 6 weeks going by container ship, collecting the cat from Heathrow, buying a new car and sorting out phones and internet. It turns out there was more…

No sooner had we set off on the journey south, in a packed car to our new island home, when the phone call we all dread came saying our daughter had been in A&E after miraculously surviving being hit by a bus. Still, it was an emotional call as everyone was in shock and suddenly life felt very fragile and the worries of removal vans and packing boxes seemed less significant. What you need most in those situations is just to be able to give someone a hug – distance and circumstances have meant the hugs will have to wait till this weekend. Just before we left for our flight back to the UK we also heard the sad news that a friend who had been ill had died quite suddenly. It made me realise our lives are in God’s hands and each day is precious – none of us know what’s around the corner or what the next day will hold.

And just as we were settling in, amassing our list of ‘army quarter’ deficiencies – from a faulty cooker to windows that don’t close – the next little hiccup occurred. The cat, who has already survived being abandoned as a kitten, being hit by a car and now flying 5 hours from Cyprus to Heathrow with other orphaned pets, worked out how to unlock the newly installed cat-flap. Our plan to keep him in at night had failed and he was on the prowl in the dark in a strange new country. We thought he had worked out how to find his way back to the house after his first night escapade on Thursday, but the next day he didn’t appear or the next. A weekend that should have involved relaxing and exploring with the family became a search and rescue mission. Search parties were dispatched from dawn to dusk, armed with cat treats and torches. ‘Missing’ posters were printed and distributed door to door. On Sunday afternoon we were beginning to feel as if something bad had happened and we might have to adjust to life without our strange sandy cat. So we headed for the beach around the corner on paths lined with blackberry bushes and I thought about baking a crumble on a happier day and basked in the sun in the shelter of the sand dunes.

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A little while later there was an urgent call that a sandy cat had been spotted near the road by a wood. We raced to the spot and tramped through undergrowth spotting a pair of wary eyes and a sandy tail hidden in the long grass. Was it Simba? We couldn’t be sure. The cat didn’t respond to our calls and moved further away. We couldn’t get close enough to be absolutely sure it wasn’t him and wondered what had made him so frightened. We tried to approach from the other side of the wood and as I crunched through deep undergrowth and trampled down waist high nettles, I thought about snakes and what might be underfoot. But this is England now – not Cyprus! The abandoned cat eventually disappeared deep into the undergrowth and we had to abandon the quest. We decided to leave food and water and a box… just in case and return the next day. At dusk we made a final sortie along the beachside path, through the boatyard and back by some large houses at the edge of the airfield. Our voices were growing hoarse with calling out and listening in case he was trapped somewhere. Just as we were about to cross the road back to our house we heard a faint cry. A fluffy bundle appeared from the bushes and the cat that was lost was now found.

We’re not sure what has happened to the cat in the woods, but people say he lives in a nearby barn. So we’ve retrieved our food bowls and box and left him to it. I’m hoping our dramas are over for a few days. Our cat is sleeping safely on a chair by the window and apart from nursing some giant mosquito bites we’re all in one piece. This weekend the whole family arrive, our ‘walking miracle/accident victim’ included. We’re looking forward to blackberry picking and I’ve even found an old apple tree nearby so blackberry and apple crumble is on the menu. That’s something to make me smile.

Home sweet home

Gazumped! It’s an ugly word and being gazumped feels ugly too. But that was last week. Now it’s time to think again about where we will be moving and what it means to have a ‘home’.

I knew buying a house in the UK was fraught with ups and downs but we’d never had it this bad before. After taking months to decide what we wanted and where to buy, we thought the hard part was over. But there was worse to come – pitching bids, countering higher bids and finally that sickening feeling of being gazumped at the last minute. It was at times like this that I wished SNP MPs had more power and could bring in the same rules about purchasing houses as they have in Scotland. No fear of gazumping there as once your offer is accepted it’s legally binding.

After a dreary few days of mourning the loss of our prospective new home in the UK and watching the dreams and ideas we had been building sink to the bottom of the pool, we are picking ourselves up. There are consolations. We have an army quarter to move to. It’s got a roof and heating. I can’t vouch for the colour of the carpets or the state of the kitchen or even the age of the cooker….but it is on an island off the south coast and within a minute’s walk of the sea. It’s not right next to a main road either. In fact it’s part of an illustrious ‘gated community’ and you’d need photo ID to get there!

So, we will have a place to call ‘home’ again in the UK, even if it’s a temporary one.

So what makes a ‘home’? The perfect kitchen, open plan living, a fireplace, the tranquil garden and that climbing rose over the doorway? Trawling through estate agent house images on screen I find myself asking, what would this house be like with us living there… our pictures on the walls and our African carvings in the corner? In some places it’s hard to imagine, while others seem to fit. One of our children has told us “There’s no perfect house – there’ll always be something wrong.” And it seems very true, because with looking at so many different properties for sale the problems almost immediately jump out. I know ‘home’ is a million things more than bricks and mortar, or even stone and wood. It’s what we make it. It’s the welcome when you arrive. It’s the enticing smells from the kitchen, the familiar objects that have been with us for years and the permission just to relax and be yourself. The home I grew up in smelt predominantly of washing powder, because my mum often had clothes airing on a dryer high up above the Aga in the kitchen. That smell welcomed me into our rambling, often untidy home, whether I was returning from school or later back from university. It didn’t matter about perfection, what mattered was that my mum and dad were there and ‘Phew!’ I was back home – I could relax and I was safe.

Whichever house we end up buying in the future and wherever we settle, I want to make it feel like ‘home’ for all the family and friends that we welcome in. Time to put the coffee on and the bread in the oven – I feel in need of some ‘home cooking’ smells! And at least our Cyprus sign will still make sense in the next house for now…

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even more important than a Sunday roast…

Apparently Sunday roast dinners for the family are dying out in the UK (Mail 3rd Dec). As upsetting as this is, it also signals something even more disturbing, if it’s true. It could also mean the end of ‘eggy tea’ as we know it!

This has been a long tradition in our household, passed down now to our children, who even since leaving home, send messages to say they are just having ‘eggy tea’ with lots of smilies. ‘Eggy tea’ in case you hadn’t guessed involves soft boiled eggs – that is dippy eggs – and piles of toast. This event is usually enjoyed around the table or on special occasions in the lounge in front of the fire, when the toast tastes even better cooked over the fire with a fork. A pot of tea is also an essential and marmite and honey or jam for extra slices of toast.

Somehow this mini custom helped ease our family more gently into the semi-gloom of Sunday evening – when Monday morning loomed and homework needed to be finished, school bags packed, those forgotten ingredients found for DS lessons, gym kit unearthed from the dirty washing and general prep for the working week.

Sitting down to a Sunday roast meant that ‘eggy tea’ was on the cards and there were long faces if the main meal was put off until the evening, as there were cries of, “what about ‘eggy tea’?”. It didn’t really matter if it was a roast or a casserole just as long as it had vegetables and could be classed as ‘dinner’, to ensure ‘eggy tea’ with toast could follow on – sooner than later.

Even here in Cyprus, I have had that cheery feeling as I prepared Sunday lunch, realising there was an option for ‘eggy tea’ later. Last Sunday I left for church with the roast pork sizzling in the oven, and as I drove back home an hour or so later, I found myself looking forward to ‘eggy tea’ by the fire – a highlight of the weekend.

Unfortunately, last Sunday didn’t go quite as planned as a break in a pipe (I discovered later) left us with no mains water for more than 24 hours.

It may seem no big deal, but having no water in the taps very quickly becomes a nuisance. Buckets had to be filled from the swimming pool to flush the toilets and jugs of water left by the sinks to rinse hands. You never realise how many times you run a tap, until it doesn’t work. Washing up became a nightmare of filling kettles and pouring in the right amount of cool water from the huge container on the table. Every drop was suddenly precious, as there was a limited supply to last us. When the water eventually started flowing – a shower felt like a luxury and filling the washing up bowl with hot water from the tap was also a treat!

Domestic problems always seem to arrive as soon as one particular person disappears on a course or a deployment. Apart from the water being cut off, the next day one of the toilets stopped working properly and immediately after our friendly elf-like plumber left having fixed it…the other toilet broke. I decided it couldn’t be very hard, as Billy the plumber had made light work of the problem in just 10 minutes….an hour or so later, bubbles, rubber pipes and little bits of plastic shaped like butterflies had all been tampered with, but it still wouldn’t flush properly. So I thought I’d look for an answer on google – surely google has all the answers?

It turns out there are too many different types of toilet cisterns to be practically helpful, and a lot of the paraphernalia was under water or upside down, so Billy will have to be summoned again! In the meantime, I’ll leave the lid off the cistern and pour in buckets of water to flush the toilet… why do I feel like I’ve been here before?

Despite all this hassle, I am consoling myself that it will be the weekend soon and in this household Sunday roast and ‘eggy tea’ are staying on the menu.

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