Non-Fiction

An article published in Through the Aether, Jubilee Press, University of Nottingham, 2012

by Helena Durham

Step-mum of a Soldier, the added strain

Let’s face it, being a parent is tough. Being a step-parent can be even tougher, and often more complicated. But what are the added pressures and fears for the step-mums of children on active duty in the Armed Forces? 

I travelled to Nottingham to meet just such a step-mum and to find out more. Lyn is in her early sixties, and tall. She has a warm, mousy tinge to her greying short hair and a bright eyed face with a smile. These give her the appearance of a woman younger than her years. We buy tea in a cafe-bar in the city centre. The building’s past as a Music Hall is still in evidence. We sit in the upstairs balcony where it is quiet; the loud music downstairs fades into the background.

Nik, the younger of Lyn’s stepsons, is now 30 and a Captain in the 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment. He is currently on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan. In his role as adjutant, Nik is responsible for the welfare of 600 British soldiers. One of  his duties is to organize the repatriation of members of  his regiment who are killed or injured. Sadly there has already been one fatality: Pte Matthew Haseldin, aged 21 from North Yorkshire. Others have been injured, some seriously.

Dad Alan, brother Christian, Lyn and other family members are counting down the days until Nik returns for two weeks R&R (Rest and Recuperation) in the New Year, and to the end of his tour in March. By then another stepmother’s stepson, Flight Lieutenant William Wales, will be in the Falkland Islands, and perhaps his brother, Prince Harry, will have found a way to return to Afghanistan as is his wish. I begin the interview by asking Lyn how she came to be a step-mum:

‘I met Alan and the boys at church, but we didn’t go on a date until 1989. Nik would have been seven by then, and Chris ten. Home for them had always been with their Dad. Their mum moved away after the separation, so the boys only saw her in the holidays. Once Alan and I decided to marry, I sat down with Chris and Nik and said to them: “I will never be your mum, but I will always love you like a mum”. We married in 1990, and I became the step-mum of two very giggly boys.’

Was it complicated having their mum in the background?

‘Not particularly, but handing the boys over to a stewardess at the airport when they flew to Guernsey to visit her was hard. They were often anxious, particularly Nik. Little did I know then that there would be other airports, other goodbyes.’

It sounds like you were fully involved with the boys’ lives.

‘Oh yes, with everything. Parents Evenings, Sports Days, football matches, church. Everything.’

And the boys didn’t mind?

‘Not at all, as far as I know. And you know, they never once referred to me as their stepmother, they still don’t. They both introduce Alan and I as “my parents”. I see the joy this brings to Lyn. ‘Their mum did move back here, which made it easier,’ she continues.

When did you know Nik was considering the Army?

Lyn laughs, heartily. She has an infectious laugh. It’s not difficult to imagine children warming to her.

‘That was the oddest thing. When Nik was about 14, he went to the Army Cadets. Before he’d even got to the point of needing a uniform, he left. Some of the boys had thrown him into a ditch. He came home soaking wet and vowed never to go back. So the thought of him going in the Army would have been a big joke. He loved sport though. He has a degree in Sports Science. We thought he’d do something like Sports Centre Management.

‘After university he was uncertain what to do next. He visited the Army Recruitment Office. The man he saw tried everything to put Nik off, but that just made him more determined. He got into [The Royal Military Academy] Sandhurst on his first attempt. He was one of the few men in his set without a military family background and who had attended a state school. You know, I think he might have been the only one who had a stepmother, so I’ve never met another Forces’ step-mum. That would be helpful sometime. Prince Harry was in the set below Nik, but I’ve not met the Duchess of Cornwall.’ She laughs again.

Lyn  tells me that Nik wanted to join a regiment with local connections. The Mercian’s heritage is from the Worcester and Sherwood Foresters Regiment and has as its motto: “Stand Firm, Strike Hard”.

What’s the best aspect of being the step-mum of soldier?

‘Nik always includes us when he can. We took him to Sandhurst, complete with ironing board. We were glad that the recent BBC programmes about the Academy hadn’t been made then. We knew it was hard, but never knew how hard. Nik has the fame of having had the worst ever blisters at Sandhurst, even though he’d stood in water in our bath for an hour to mould his boots to his feet. An Officer had to tell him to let them heal a while, Nik would have carried on.

‘We had some great times in London when he was based there to guard the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. We were allowed into parts of those places that aren’t open to the public. We had lunch in St James’s Palace and stood in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard when Nik, as the youngest officer, carried the flag. I don’t know whether you should print this, but he winked at us when he marched past.’

Lyn says that Nik likes himself better now that he’s a soldier than he did when he worked as a phone shop sales rep. Sales pressure made the reps vie to grab the older, brackets gullible, customers. She says the Army hasn’t robbed Nik of his kindness and thoughtfulness, which she’d feared it might.

And the worst?

Lyn’s smile disappears in an instant. There’s a moistness to her eyes.

‘Saying goodbye. Alan and I always go. Nik hates goodbyes most of all, but I’ve told him we have to say it, it has to be done. Before he goes there are always tears and hugs, and fear. We say goodbye in private, so usually he’s all right on the day. He’s with his men.’ Lyn’s eyes are red now.

‘But when he was boarding the plane for Afghan this time, the RAF refused to take him with his men because there was a scratch on his ID card. So he had to get that replaced and take a commercial flight the next day to catch his flight out.

‘We ended up having the second, and public, goodbye at Belfast Airport. That was the hardest goodbye. None of his men there. So in the end Nik turned, walked away and never looked back. He sent us a text though, I’ve got it here.’ Lyn gets out her mobile phone. ‘I keep lots of them. He wrote: “I love you both very much indeed, thank you for all your love and for making the man I am today just about strong enough to cope with goodbyes”.’

Now we both have red eyes. But then a little smile widens on Lyn’s face, accompanied by a shake of her head.

‘Typical,’ she continues. ‘We’d thought he’d have been on a pretty regular flight to Afghan, but no, not Teflon Nik, that’s what we call him, – he slips into comfortable situations more often than seems normal – he found himself on a plane with Cheryl Cole, she was flying out to sing for the troops. Would you believe it? Part way through the flight she served Nik his lunch.’ Lyn laughs again, with a mix of pride and then worry.

‘Last Remembrance Sunday, instead of the usual prayers, the vicar asked everyone to write a prayer or message for Nik and his men on the small pieces of paper we’d all been given. There were 263 of them. Amazing. Did I say, Nik’s birthday is the 11th of November? We sent all of them out to him. Just so moving, precious.’ Lyn tells me more about photos, including Nik with his arm round an Afghan man, projected onto the church walls, and letters going back to the First World War being read out during the service. The WWI letter arrived, its writer didn’t.

‘At a church meeting a few weeks ago,’ Lyn says, ‘we read some poems. I took one written by a soldier, there are new war poets emerging, because it is war, we mustn’t forget that. The poem’s called The Brutal Game. And it is, this mess, it does haunt those who serve. Nik’s had his nightmares, his times of feeling beyond our reach.

What would happen if he were injured or…

‘The Army comes. They’d come to Alan. They come in a car, two people. I think Alan would have to tell Nik’s mum. Soldiers are only allowed to name one person as their next of kin. Sometimes a strange car drives into our cul-de-sac and our hearts speed up…  Thankfully though, it’s Nik who has come home to us. Nik with his massive grin.’

Will this be his last tour of Afghanistan?

‘We don’t know yet. We hope so. He comes home saying he never wants to go again. The smell, the dust, it just can’t be conveyed.’

It’s not easy to say goodbye to Lyn after three hours of listening to the love, joy, pride and fear she has for her stepson. I can imagine a little more now what it must be like to say goodbye after almost a life-time. But only a little.

© Helena Durham, 2012

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