By Laura Cutmore
‘What the hell?’ I muttered to myself as I turned the car radio up. The 9am news bulletin had just said something about Northern Ireland and I was immediately less aware of the fact that I was 30 minutes late for work. The end of the lead story went something like: ‘so today, the 31st July 2007, after thirty years of conflict and nine years since the “Good Friday Agreement”, the British army’s operation in Ireland has come to an end’.
As I switched the radio off, I became strangely aware of the cars that surrounded me. These people were making their way to work, taking their children to school or appointments, going food shopping. These people were undoubtedly contemplating about the day ahead, but I could not think of anything but my father.
Deciding I was not going to work today, I took a detour down a side road and started on the A3 towards my mother’s house. I would ring the office when I got there and explain something about mega period pains; Jason, my manager, could not handle the details of my inner workings and therefore allowed me sick days whenever I wanted them. Keeping to the 70 speed limit, surprised at the lack of traffic for a Tuesday morning, I arrived at my mother’s house at 10:13am according to my mobile phone and rapped on the front door.
After waiting for about thirty seconds, I knocked again. I knocked a third time before lugging my enormous set of door keys from my bag, sighing because I hadn’t wanted to get them out. Fumbling through years’ worth of keychains from various holidays which really need to be sorted out, I finally came to the key to the house. After unlocking the door, I stepped into the hallway of my childhood home (only vacated for a few years) and called out to her: ‘Mum?’
Although there was no clear response, I noticed that I could hear her chatting away to herself somewhere upstairs. I dropped my bag to the floor by my recently discarded shoes–an old habit–and went in search of my mumbling mother. She wasn’t difficult to locate as she was sitting on her bed jabbering away into her mobile, presumably to her sister. She gave me a small wave and gestured for me to sit down on the bed next to her while she finished her conversation.
‘Yes. Yes, that’ll be lovely. Yes, definitely. Yes, Lillie has just turned up so I’ll have to talk to you later, Kirsty. Yep, speak to you soon. Bye!’ said Mum enthusiastically to my aunt at the end of the line. I watched as she struggled to locate the “end call” button on her age-old Nokia. It was painful watching her deal with technology–she had only got rid of her dial-up connection the previous year after I told her she was ancient for not using Wi-Fi like everyone else on the planet.
‘So how are you, darling?’ asked Mum. She seemed to be brighter than usual, with a particular gleam in her greeny-blue eyes that suggested she was excited to see me; but also that she had perhaps been crying earlier that morning.
‘I’m great, thanks, but I wasn’t really feeling work after hearing the news. Have you heard?’ I asked curiously, despite already knowing the answer.
‘Of course. That was Auntie Kirsty on the phone–she was rambling on about coming over at some point next week to cook for me, as if all of a sudden I’m incapable of looking after myself because the troops are coming home–well they’re not coming here! She doesn’t need to cook for the five thousand’ she ranted.
‘Okay, calm down, Mum, she’s just trying to be nice’. I laughed a little and pulled her in for a hug. It turns out it’s quite difficult to hug someone when you’re sitting down and the last time you hugged them was at your graduation three years ago. Intimacy is a funny thing.
‘I suppose you’re right’ she reluctantly admitted. Looking down at the floor on her side of the bed, she remarked ‘hey, look, I found this…’ She picked an envelope up from the floor and handed it to me. I turned it over in my hands and found the address of the house in which they were sitting, the name on the top line read: MRS EMILY SPENCER–my mother. I took the letter out of the envelope and began to read:
22nd September 1983
I’m writing this letter to you to show you how romantic I am. That’s why you married me, right? I know we can talk on the phone, but I feel like I need the time to write down how I’m feeling. (And For when I write my memoires about being in the army).
The barracks are smaller here than they were back home. Rodgers practically sleeps on top of me and Smith tells me stories before we go to sleep–of his time as a student at university. I bet he wishes he hadn’t joined up now that he’s been sent away so quickly.
Three weeks have passed since I arrived at Lisanelly Barracks and the situation is far worse than they told us it was. Telly doesn’t quite convey how dreadful it is here in Ireland. I’ve had guard duty 3 times, all of which have been largely uneventful–similar to being at home.
The horror comes in patrolling the streets of a day time. Yesterday, we were walking around at 8 in the morning, making sure civilians make it to school and work safely. The mothers looked at us with disgust–to say “why can’t you English pricks go home? We don’t want you here”. The boys and I don’t expect anything less from them, so we just got on with what we were doing, but then this child (no older than 9) arrives at my feet and spits on my boots.
I felt numb. The whole of my stomach could have curled up into a ball and I could have thrown it up through my mouth. What am I doing here? Fighting for people who respect nobody but a God who has put them in this mess.
I love you, Emily. I promise I will always be there for you. This shit has lasted fourteen years already, it can’t last much longer. The situation must be calming down finally; we haven’t seen anything abnormal yet, and surely we would have by now? If not, I’ll come out as soon as my four years is up. Being away from you makes all of my days rainy. You’re the source of my sunshine.
Write me back. I can’t wait to hear from you.
Your man in uniform,
I had read the letter before when I was no older than 14, yet for some reason it had more of an impact this time. To think that for so many men, their job was to protect people living in a divided country, attempting to solve a 500 year old argument – which they had no way of settling themselves.
‘I’ve had a phone call, Lillie. Funny when I think about it, it was as if he knew that this was going to happen today.’ Explained my mother, wondering to herself. ‘It was from a gentleman named John. He told me that they’re building a memorial garden in Guildford for members of the Queen’s Regiment and asked if I and any other family members would like to go along to the opening day. I don’t know how he got my number, but he knew my name was Emily and everything–what do you think it’s about?’
I thought for a second. It was unlikely that Mum had ever changed her contact details, so the chances of people from the past finding her wasn’t extremely unlikely. On the other hand, I wanted to make sure she wasn’t being manipulated in any way–it was, after all, a delicate topic.
“Let me google it, they must have some information about it online” I suggested. “Go ahead, I’ll go get us some tea” she replied nonchalantly. I withdrew my Blackberry from my trouser pocket and began to search for information about the regimental memorial garden that Mum had mentioned. The first few options that became available were pages explaining the Queen’s regiment and their history–right up until their recent position in Northern Ireland. As I scrolled down the web, I found an information page on the garden that was to be set up and opened in the Spring of the following year. After reading a few sentences of the webpage, I had already decided that I was going to clear my schedule. There was no way on earth I was going to miss saying goodbye to the father I had never met.
Spring arrived far sooner than I expected. My mother and I were both dressed for a chilly March morning with scarves and gloves, precautionary because we had no idea what the itinerary for the day was to be. Getting into my car, Mum and I shared an endearing glance before I started the engine up and we made our way to the destination.
We drove along country roads, both of us taking in the scenery of the rolling hills and expanse of crops and flowers. The radio ambled on about nothing in particular when Mum suddenly spoke:
“Lillie, I’m so proud of you, you know” she stated. Tears were brimming at the edges of her eyes and she was trying desperately not to make me upset too. I quickly glanced at my beautiful mum–a lady who had been to hell and back in the past 24 years.
“I know, Mum.” I said with a smile. Taking my hand from the steering wheel, I placed it on her thigh and squeezed it lightly to show that I recognised she was feeling emotional, and that it was okay to feel that way.
“It’s just that… I’m so sorry you never had a dad growing up. There have been so many times over the years where I’ve wished and wished that he could have been there to see you” she cried softly. “You’ve achieved so much and I’m so humbled to know that you’re such a bright, remarkable and independent young lady and–” she paused. Gathering her breath, she sighed and turned to face out of the window.
“Mum, it’s okay. I couldn’t have done any of this without you. It’s understandable if you’re sad today, too.” I comforted. “I’m here for you” I added. This time Mum placed a hand on my thigh and squeezed hard. We smiled at each other and I felt as though a weight had lifted from me. We had always been there for each other even in the hardest of times, and this was just another one of those days.
As we pulled into the car park, a warden wearing a fluorescent yellow hi-vis jacket approached and informed us that as we held a family ticket, we had access to a car park closer to the building and also had seats reserved for the front of the ceremony. I hadn’t expected such special treatment, but we made our way through the building and out into the gardens where we took our places in the first row of chairs in front of a platform with a podium on it.
Finally, when the majority of seats had been filled, the ceremony began. A euphony of music could be heard from behind us. Military music. Perfectly harmonious drums, trumpets, cymbals–the works–were being played beautifully by men in uniform who made their way around the crowded chairs and to the back of the stage. All the while they were playing, a gentleman in immaculate uniform mounted the platform and stood behind the podium, waiting for the music to finish.
As the notes subsided to a low hum and then ceased, the gentleman began to speak.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the newly opened Queen’s Royal Regiment memorial gardens. Thank you so much for coming today to pay tribute to the astounding soldiers who have given their lives for Queen and country, so that their families at home could be safe.
“We are gathered here on this day for ten very important men. These young lads found themselves at the heart of a conflict, fighting for the safety of several countries and countless civilians. Without their efforts in Northern Ireland, the withdrawal announced last July would never have occurred. And with that, we give many thanks to them, for paying with their lives.”
Following this speech, the gentleman introduced himself as John Gibbens, a veteran who fought beside several of the commemorated men in his youth. He continued by announcing the names of the men they were there to celebrate and the details of their death until he reached a name I recognised.
“Private Peter Spencer. Aged 22. Killed by a remote controlled bomb which had been hidden in a wall and was detonated as his mobile patrol passed by, in the Creggan area of Londonderry on the 15th of October 1983. 2nd Battalion: The Queen’s Regiment. Married.” John stated this with a clear lump in his throat at the final word. He then added: “I had the pleasure of working alongside this truly exceptional individual through training at Catterick. He was a devoted husband who thought the world of his wife. Rest in peace, Pete, you were an extraordinary man”. This time a tear physically fell from John’s eye as he shuffled some papers in front of him and cleared his throat in preparation for his next eulogy.
His words reverberated and banged against the walls of my mind as I thought back to all of the days as a child where I came home from school to find my mother slumped on the sofa crying tragic, desperate tears. Of how many times I felt so furious with my father for breaking her heart by choosing a profession that resulted in his death. Listening to someone speak of my dad so highly made me see him as a true hero for what I believe was the first time in my life. Although I had never been able to physically see him, I realised that he never needed to be present, I was so much like him; it was as though he had been with me all along.
The rest of the day passed by in a simultaneously heart-warming and heart-breaking daze. Mum and I met several of Dad’s colleagues and heard incredible stories of what they all went through at training and in their short time together in Northern Ireland. It turns out Dad had been a really great bloke.
As the memorial came to a close, Mum and I got back into the car and fastened our seatbelts. I was yet to put my keys in the ignition when I felt something being placed into my lap. It looked like the letter that my mother had shown me back in July.
‘What’s this for?’ I asked.
‘Read it’ she replied.
15th October 1983
Hearing your voice has sent my mind into overdrive. Being with you is all I can think about. I’m penning this letter because you need these words in writing.
Only an hour ago you told me we are going to have a baby. You have made me the most elated man on these barracks. Maybe even in the universe. I have to cut this short because I’m due to be patrolling in thirty minutes. AND I still need to polish my boots and get my washing from laundry.
I love you, Emily Spencer. I promise you that we’re going to have the most beautiful child. We’ll raise them to be kind and courageous. We’ll be a joyous and compact little family back in Surrey. I can’t wait to really start my life with you when I come home.
All my love,
P.S. I like the names Jack and Lillie.