An Interview with Elaine Gosden

Elaine was born and raised in Margate in Kent. She was engaged to be married to Lieutenant Marc Lawrence, who served in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm and died in a helicopter collision in the North Arabian Gulf in 2003. Elaine explains her position as a fiancé, rather than a wife, whereby she had to prove she had a ‘significant and long-term relationship’ with Marc before the Royal Navy would grant her his service pension, even though she was listed by Marc as his next of kin. Elaine was not deemed eligible to receive a War Widows’ Pension as they were not married. Elaine talks about her childhood, her education, her long distance courtship with Marc, how she coped with his death, and her life as a successful business woman running a consultancy company with her husband. This interview was conducted by Melanie Bassett on 6 December 2018.


Click here to download the transcript of this interview as a pdf file.

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

Okay. I’m Melanie Bassett. I’m here interviewing Elaine Gosden for the War Widows’ Stories project. It’s Thursday, 6 December 2018. Hi Elaine, thank you for being interviewed by us. Could you state your name and your age, please – the year of your birth?

Oh. Yes. Elaine Gosden, and I’m 38. Am I 38? Yes. I was born in 1980. It’s my birthday soon.

What is your role at the moment? What’s your current situation?

Jobwise? I am the Director of a company that I own with my husband.

And what’s the nature of that?

It’s, well, this is a complicated question because we have two sides to our business. So there’s my side and there’s my husband’s side, and we both operate under the same business name, which is Blue Gnu Consulting. We’re both consultants but I do learning and development training workshops for, typically, corporate organisations and my husband deals with medical data and helps to get pharmaceutical products to market. So he helps with gathering data around new drugs, their efficacy and cost-effectiveness and hopefully influencing government bodies to prescribe them. I can’t do that, [laughs] so he does that and I do my bit.

So could you tell me a bit about your childhood and early life, where you were born and brought up?

Yes. I was born in Margate, in Kent. And I lived with my parents happily for the whole of my childhood, pretty much, but when I was 10, nearly 10, a little surprise arrival of a baby brother happened. And then when I was 12, another surprise arrival of a little baby sister occurred. So I am one of four. And I have an older brother, and myself, we’re two years apart, so I’m second. Then my younger siblings arrived ten years later, randomly. So yeah, family life was interesting. We grew up on the edge of a council estate, we didn’t have much cash. It was a case of; Dad brought the wages home on a Friday, we paid the bills and did the shopping on a Saturday – it was a very hand-to-mouth existence. And then certainly, when the little ones came along, things were a bit tighter. So it was all a bit um… not stressful, I don’t think my parents ever felt stressed about their life, I think they were very happy, but it was a very simple existence. There were no holidays, no flash cars, no big house. It was just, we did what we could with what we had, and it was nice that way.

Did you find you were doing lots of babysitting when you were…?

Not so much babysitting as my parents never went out, much, but I did have a huge role in the upbringing of my brother and sister, to the point when my sister was born, my mum had quite a lot of medical complications so she had to stay in hospital for quite some time. And she had a hysterectomy, which, in those days, nearly 30 years ago, hysterectomies were a really big deal. So she had to stay in hospital for six weeks with the baby, and we had a 2-year-old, so she took me out of school for the whole time. I remember it, I was in Year 8, and she said to the school, “I’m really sorry but my daughter needs to stay at home to look after her brother,” because my dad had to go to work or we’d have no cash.

My dad worked in a factory. So it was a case of, if Dad didn’t go to work, we’d have no money. So my dad couldn’t stay at home to look after my brother, so I was the chosen childcare provider. I’m not sure how the law or how society would look on that these days but my mum just wrote a note to school, saying, “I’m really sorry, she’s not coming for a few weeks.” So that was that. And I remember clearly walking into town, we didn’t live too far away from the town centre, and um, I remember quite clearly walking into town with my little brother in a pushchair, and some of the older ladies frowning and tutting, saying, “The youth of today!” as if the baby was mine! And um, he obviously wasn’t mine, and I made a point of telling them that. But it’s funny how people judge you when you’re a young teenage girl and you’ve got a baby in a pushchair. So yeah, it was quite interesting. But very happy. We were always having fun, sharing bedrooms, with bunk beds in every room and it was a very small house for six of us to live in but we did it. It was good.

Did your brother take on a role?

Not really. [Laughs]. Oh no, bless him, he wasn’t particularly child-minded. Also because he was a couple of years ahead of me, he was at a bit more of a crucial point in his schooling than I was. So, he was just about to do GCSEs so you know, it was more important for him to go to school and get his grades than me, I guess. Plus, I didn’t really mind doing that kind of thing. So, you know, it was like a “real-life dolly” situation, so. And my younger brother, Adam, and I, are quite close and I think that’s probably because I helped out with him when he was a dinky one. I’ve got lots of lovely memories of family Christmases and me going out with my friends as an 18-year-old and getting drunk in the pubs and rolling in on Christmas Eve at 2am, and having strongly briefed the little brother the night before, and the sister, to say, you know: “As soon as you know that Santa’s been…” because, you know, we had to – we lived the ‘Santa years’ right up until I left home, briefing the children, you know, that they must wake me up. So oftentimes, I’d get in from a nightclub at 2am then they’d wake me up at 4, to open Santa’s presents. [Laughs].  And then, then we’d be up from that point on. So there’s lots of lovely family memories. Bless them. But we’re all scattered around now, everyone’s gone in different directions. My sister still lives in Kent but even my parents have moved away, and both my brothers live elsewhere. So.

Do you have any military connections in your family?

Hmmm. I did do my family tree for my father actually. When my dad turned 60, I researched our family tree on my dad’s side, partly because someone else had already done it on my mum’s side but no one, to my knowledge, had ever looked into my dad’s family history. And dad – my dad knew that his family had army connections but it was hundreds of years ago. I discovered a few chaps who had been to India prior to the First World War and around the turn of the 20th century, like 18—whatever, going off to some really exotic campaign locations, and finding their military records and everything like that was really exciting, I really enjoyed doing that. Um, but not in recent years, directly. But I have many cousins, both my parents are from large families, and some of my younger cousins are, I believe, enlisted. One of my younger cousins is a marine, another one is in the army. But not directly, not really.

Can you tell me about your education? Did you go to college or university?

So I went to grammar school in Kent. They still had a grammar school system, so all four of us actually passed our 11-plus and went to grammar school. We all chose the same school to go to even though we had a choice. It was a single sex school or a mixed school, we all went to the mixed school. But I was very clear… I’m not really a – not really a rule-following type of person, I’m not that conventional, and a lot of my friends wanted to stay on after GCSEs to the sixth form and do their A Levels then go on to university, as that’s what we were all being groomed for, I guess. In a grammar school system, it’s expected, I guess, ish, that you might head off to university. And I didn’t want to do that so I had my eye on more of a vocational route, so there was a large company a few miles away from where I grew up in East Kent, and they were the biggest and best employer in the area and everybody knew that they paid well and it was a really great company, and thousands of people worked there and you were really lucky to get a job there. It was like, you know? It was real, a real thing.

And so I targeted them because I knew they were doing what nowadays I guess you’d call a modern apprenticeship scheme. So, at the time, it was just called a YTS, a Youth Training Scheme. And at that time, I thought I wanted to be a secretary, so I enrolled on this – got interviewed and I had to go to these glamorous buildings and go through lots of processes to get the job, but basically I got a trainee secretary’s job there, which involved four days a week working in the office and one day a week going to college. I did that for two years, while my friends were doing their A Levels. But I realised it was actually quite easy being a secretary. Apologies to any secretarial people out there, but I found it quite straight forward so I actually went to evening college as well and did a couple of A Levels in my evenings because I felt like I could, and that suited me better. I did distance learning so I had a tutor and I had some … these days you’d probably do it on the internet but I just had ringbinders upon ringbinders, upon ringbinders of ‘stuff’ to study, and yes, I managed to get two A Levels and my secretarial qualifications within that two-period. And I was super-lucky-slash-worked really hard and my boss at that company, at the end of the two years, offered me a job. So I got straight into work at 18 when all my friends were heading off to uni, I was heading into work, which suited me down to the ground. That’s what I wanted, that’s why I did it that way. So I didn’t do a conventional route, I didn’t do further education and university in the same way as a lot of my friends and peers have done.

Brilliant. So if we can move on to talking about how you met your fiancé – late fiancé – can you remember your first date?

I don’t think we had a first date as such. I think, I remember first meeting him. Ummmm … and it’s a funny, slightly inappropriate story, but it’s quite funny so I’ll tell it anyway. But um … my best friend, a girl called Laura, and I have been best friends since we were in senior school together. And she had an older brother – she still does – [laughs] called Mike, and Mike lives in the States. He had, I guess back at that time, he must have fairly recently married his American wife so they were maybe two or so years into their marriage, and Mike’s a schoolteacher so he comes home to England typically for a holiday during the school summer holidays, and in California, they start their holidays in like June/July. Anyway, Mike came home for Christmas and Laura and I had been really close,[1] we’d both sort of split up with boyfriends and we were both there for each other, you know? And she’d said, “Oh, my brother’s coming home.” I knew her brother anyway; I’d spent many a time in her house with her brother there and whatever. But she said, “Oh, Mike’s coming home and we’re going to have a big night out, do you want to come?” Because it was his birthday, I was like, “Yeah, I’ll come.” So we got all geared up to go to a nightclub. We went to the only nightclub in Margate – it’s a very small town. [Laughs].

And I just, then just this very handsome man was there. And I didn’t really know who he was or who he was with but as the evening progressed, I kind of realised he was one of Mike’s friends, and through the drunken haze of memory, I remember spending a lot of time with him at the bar and chatting. And that evening I was supposed to be staying at Laura’s house but I didn’t go to Laura’s house, I sort of went home … he was staying with a friend but we were just chatting so much that I just went back to his friend’s house with him and we stayed up all night just chat-chat-chat-chat-chat-chatting. And then the next morning, he took me back to Laura’s house because I had to, of course, go and get my stuff. [Laughs]. And he took me back and Laura was like, “I can’t believe. I can’t believe you’ve spent the night with Marc.” I was like, “I haven’t spent the night with him like that. Like, we’ve literally been chatting the whole time.” Then about two hours later, he came back to bring me some earrings and bits and bobs of, you know, jewellery I’d taken off, and he brought that stuff back to me and it was a bit kind of … . We didn’t – it was a bit kind of “Oh, are we going to exchange numbers? What’s going to happen?” So we did exchange phone numbers but I think because I knew he lived and worked in Cornwall, and at the time I worked and lived in East Kent. It was that – it’s a long way from the bottom of Cornwall to the top of Kent, and, and he was from that area – his parents were from East Kent as well, but it was kind of obvious there was no mileage in being boyfriend and girlfriend at that stage, so he went his way and I went mine. And then we didn’t really get in touch much again until … I can tell you exactly when it was, because 9/11 happened, so this was in 2011. So 9/11 happened, and obviously that was a really memorable day for most people. I certainly remember where we were, you know, when the planes hit the towers, and I knew from sitting up and chatting to Marc all night back in the summer that he worked in military aviation and that he lived on an airport, basically. And I’d heard on the news that all planes worldwide were being temporarily grounded because obviously, at least three aircrafts were affected in the States. And so I just thought that was really significant for someone who lived on an airport so I just texted him and said, “Are you okay with all this stuff that’s going on?” You know? “Does it affect you? And, what’s going on?” Which struck up some conversation and contact, because we, we had no real reason to be in contact prior to that. And then we stayed in touch and then that year, in October, I relocated from Kent to Surrey so I moved about 100 miles west, which just meant that the thought of a relationship with someone who lived in Cornwall was a bit more ‘workable’ because it took about an hour and a half off the journey to potentially get down to see him. So that time, October to December, we started seeing each other a bit. And he would come – I lived in a big house near where I worked with lots of other colleagues – one of whom [laughs] is my husband now – so we all lived together and Marc used to come up at weekends and hang out with me. Then we realised we did want to be boyfriend and girlfriend, and then we were. But we only really saw each other at weekends because he lived “on board” as they would call it in the Navy. So yeah.

He was at Culdrose?

Yeah, yeah Culdrose. Yeah, which is a military air station down at the south of Truro in Cornwall. It’s, it’s a long way. Just when you think you’re there, or nearly there, you realise you’re not nearly there – the country just keeps on going in a westerly direction for many hours. So the drives down there, I used to go down to him or sometimes we’d meet halfway and like we’d, you know, rent a caravan in Dorset or somewhere so that neither of us had to do like a five-hour drive – we’d both do 2 and a half hours and try and find places where it was convenient to meet. So yeah, a long time ago now.

And telephone conversations, were you …?

Oh, every day. Every day. Yeah. All the t- like it was like, you know, we were properly boyfriend and girlfriend and we were on the phone every evening, emailing throughout the day, you know, as and when he could. In our quite short relationship, he only had one, well, two significant deployments – one of which he didn’t come home from. But the first significant deployment was eight weeks, when he went to the Mediterranean, and that was really hard because when someone’s living on a ship, it’s very difficult to get in touch with them because they don’t switch the communication on all the time and obviously they’re doing military exercises so they don’t want to be contacted or found from time to time, so that was a real test for us, eight weeks apart with literally hardly any contact and the occasional “bluey”. Have you heard of blueys? They’re like … I don’t know if they still do them, I think they probably do them by email now. They were certainly starting to do them by email in 2003, but the occasional little blue note would arrive through the door and … But it was really tough for both of us, I think. He found it hard being away and I found it hard him being away.

Yes, they do “e-blueys” now.

Yeah, I think they’d just started to do that when Marc was on the ship, when he was on the deployment that he didn’t come back from. It was a new experiment thing. It was like, oh, I found this e- e-thing. But it didn’t really make sense because we could email anyway so it was all … but this was in the days when email wasn’t a thing, and you certainly couldn’t get emails on your phone or whatever, it was all very … you had to dial up to a slow telephone point in the corner and wait for some kind of connection. [Laughs]. It was a long time ago.

So can you tell me about when he proposed?

Yes, I can tell you exactly about that. As young couples do, I think we’d been talking a little bit about fu- the future and whether we’d get married and all that kind of stuff but I have to say, he totally surprised me with the proposal. So in the Navy, it’s a bit like being at university, I suppose, or being at school in some ways in that you get quite a lot of holidays. Not – quite a lot of fixed holidays and time when you’re just expected to go away for months on end. But when you’re living and working in the UK, you kind of get Easter off, a bit of the summer off, some Christmas holiday, and you know, they don’t ask people to go in over those times, so he had an extended leave period in December, partly because he knew there was … well, the Navy knew there was a big deployment coming up and he’d been chosen for the deployment. So he had most of December off up until early January where they to start to get ready to deploy.

And one evening, at the beginning of December, or maybe it was the very end of November, he’d had, you know, a significant chunk of time off, and he’d come up to the house. So where we lived at the top of Headley Hill, near Reigate, he’d – in my, in the big, shared house that we had, there were loads of big bedrooms, it was like a big mansion house. And upstairs in the part of the house that I lived in, there were two large bathrooms – one en suite that was attached to my friend’s bedroom and one main bathroom that was right next to my room and between a couple of other bedrooms. And it was a large room, so probably a 4 metre-squared room and in the middle of it was this huge bathtub, and we’d loved that bath.

Like, the one thing about Marc that was significantly notable was that he was a real water baby. Throughout his whole life, he was in the water a lot. So he loved sailing, swimming, diving, wind-surfing, you know anything, actual surfing – anything to do with the water, Marc was a real fan of. So this one evening, he was like, “Why don’t we have a bath?” which was not an unusual occurrence at all. I said, “Okay.” The bath was big enough, we could both get in, yada-yada-yada. So we were in the bath. We’re in the bath and there was candles, bubbles; it was all very lovely – a winter’s evening bath. And he just leant out of the bath and got this little box and just opened it in front of me. I was honestly … if I’d been wearing socks, they’d have been knocked off. I couldn’t, couldn’t quite believe that he’d asked me. So yeah, he did, and I said yes. Then we got out the bath and I said, “Have you asked my dad?” [Laughs]. I think he had. That’s a difficult one, I can’t remember whether he had or not. But yes, I still wear his ring. I, I’ve never – I promised him that day … because he almost couldn’t believe that I’d said yes. He was a very attractive man, but for a very attractive man, he had sort of middle levels of confidence, like he certainly wasn’t one of these attractive guys that would strut around and you know … He had a few confidence issues. And he almost couldn’t believe I’d said yes, that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. And I sort of said – I promised him that evening, and I remember it really clearly, that I was never going to take this ring off. And he was like, “Not ever?” I was like, “No, never. I’m never going to take it off.” So I don’t. I keep it on. And my – I’m very lucky that my husband is cool with that. He doesn’t … He knows all about that situation so it’s fine. Other than when I’m playing netball, I don’t take, take it off. I’m very lucky.

Just to clarify, it’s on your right hand?

Yeah, it’s on my right hand. I’ve all my current rings [laughs] on the proper fingers. Yes, it’s on my right hand, and I did that … I wore it on my left hand for about a year after he died and then I switched it over, and it’s been there ever since.

So did you experience any base life or were you living completely off-base?

A little, in that I would go down at weekends. And I had security clearances and I could come and go from the base as I pleased, with effect, but not a lot because I had a fulltime job in Surrey, so I needed to be here for five days in a week. But I would go down at weekends and when we had time off or whatever. But I didn’t – I wasn’t very comfortable with it because there were people on the gates with guns, and I always thought that was a bit much. I understand why they’re there but you know, when you’re not in the military, it’s a bit intimidating to have to drive past serious-looking chaps with guns on – strapped to them. So it wasn’t my favourite place to be because I found it quite intimidating. But I got used to it. And I probably spent quite a bit of time living on the base after he died because the navy were very kind in letting me do that. They let me stay in his room for a bit after he died, which was really sweet of them. And it was really helpful for me because it provided me with a bit of comfort, being surrounded by his stuff and all the rest of it. It wasn’t, it wasn’t for a particularly long period of time but nonetheless, they didn’t kick up a fuss and they didn’t mind, and I had all the relevant passes to come and go, so it was, it was fine.

Did you go to any military events or dinners or were you only …?

Yes, there were lots of mess dinners, because you know, officers, they like to have mess dinners and they like to celebrate everything so there were lots of summer balls and Christmas balls. And that would be the draw to go to Cornwall, usually, was for a significant something like that. We wouldn’t necessarily spend the weekend down there just for the weekend’s sake; it would usually be, there’d be some kind of event. And you know, there was pomp and ceremony for everything so there was always a service or something going on, which was nice. Lots of, you know, “Trafalgar day dinners” and this, that and the other day dinners, and Remembrance Day dinners. There was always a dinner for something. And I quite liked that. I quite liked getting dressed up and going to those things and letting your hair down a little bit, and I think it was important for the guys to do that, because  a lot was asked of the men – and women – in the Navy. They have to give a lot so it’s quite nice that they get to let their hair down and celebrate from time to time. Quite a lot of times.

Fig. 1: Elaine and Marc at the Culdrose Summer Ball 2002.

Did you feel a part of the military family? Did you have other friends that you made, of women whose partners were in service?

Yeah, yes. So in the squadron that Marc was in, there are typically two students that join the squadron every year as trainees – this is how it used to be anyway – and   they go through their training together and they pop out the other end hopefully, as like – they get their wings and everything, you know, and then are part of the squadron – the main squadron. Marc had a very close friend called James who he did all of his training with, and I think there was at least one or two others. But with helicopters, it’s quite tough to stay in – there’s lots of points where if you don’t make the grade, you get asked to leave. So, it’s not just the case of if you pass the initial test, you’re in. It’s a case of once you’ve passed the initial test there’s lots and lots of other tests and competencies, and skills and things that they have to develop and grow with, and, and a lot of people fell by the wayside because they didn’t meet the criteria or they, they just simply weren’t of the right standard.

But James and Marc did all of their training together and stayed together as, as, as partners throughout their training and we would hang out with James and his fiancée, Sarah. And they got married – they got engaged about 2 or 3 weeks after we did, so it was all very parallel and we would, you know, see them a lot and hang out with them a lot. And I, I, you know, I knew a lot of the guys that were a similar age to Marc. I have to say, I didn’t know many of the older members of the Squadron because there was no need for me to, but the people around the same age as, as Marc, I knew. There was a one chap, a really lovely American guy called Tom who joined the Squadron as an attachment from the US Navy, and he was lovely as he really enjoyed being – having a British life. He got a BMW and he just thought that was marvellous to have a German car. He was really full of, full of zest for life and what, not but sadly he was killed in the same incident as Marc, and James was too, so they all died together, which is really sad. But yes, I knew a lot of – particularly Sarah. She and I to this day are still in touch and there are other girls I knew at the time that I haven’t stayed in touch with as much as Sarah, I guess because she and I have the most in common. But the other – the guys in the year below Marc and James, one of them is still a good chum, and their partners I that knew. So we had a little friendship group, a little support network of people that got it, and people that understood. And if I’d lived in Cornwall, which was the plan, they would have been my support network and my go-to people, but we didn’t quite get to that stage. Because I was going to move down in the summer when Marc returned from sea, and obviously he didn’t. He didn’t come back so we didn’t really get to do that bit, but hey.

Fig. 1: Elaine’s fiancé, Lieutenant Marc A. Lawrence (29 December 1976 – 22 March 2003).
Fig. 2: Elaine’s fiancé, Lieutenant Marc A. Lawrence (29 December 1976 – 22 March 2003).

And was it a consideration, the danger of his job, when you met?

Hmm … Yeah, a little. But he would say, and which he did say this right up until a couple of days before he died, he would insist that he was quite safe because he wasn’t in a ‘militarised’ or no, a ‘weaponised’ … I don’t know the correct word. But his helicopter was unarmed; he was in a surveillance helicopter, so part of his job was airborne surveillance and control so they would have, the helicopter that Marc worked in had a big radar on the side of it, and they would typically be flying around above areas of conflict. So in. in Iraq, in 2003, my understanding of what they were doing is that they were up, flying at a safe altitude but using the radar to look down at ground troops and provide intelligence and direction to those troops on the ground. And if they weren’t doing that over land, they were doing it at sea and looking for, you know, ships and things out in the ocean. So his job, you know, he would consider it to be very safe because he wasn’t – because it wasn’t like an Apache helicopter that would have missiles and things on the side of it. You know, it wasn’t necessarily flying into combat zones, per se, and he would always describe his job as, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about me, what you need to worry about is …” and he would list his friends. One of his good friends, Simon – I’m still friends with to this day – worked in Lynx helicopters, which were usually flying off with destroyers, so a bit more active I guess in their job roles than the Sea Kings were. So he would say to me, “Oh, you don’t need to worry about me, you need to worry about Simon. Don’t worry about me.” Because he considered himself to be quite safe, hovering around looking at things. [Laughs].

Do you remember the last time you saw him?

Yeah, yes, very clearly, yeah. I had to leave him in a car park. [Sobs]. It’s funny how it makes you sad. It’s a long time ago. It was in the car park outside the accommodation block that he worked [lived] in. And we knew it was our last day together and so we’d done lots of silly things together, which were very cute and very silly. So we’d gone to the local curry house and bought onion bhajis, and had like a ‘last supper’ of onion bhajis together because we just enjoyed them. And then we’d always say, “Whenever we’re having an onion bhaji, we’ll remember this,” you know, it’s very sweet. And I had a little sports car that he’d encouraged me to buy, we’d bought it together – had a little two-seater MG, which was gorgeous. It was January, a few days – was it? A few days before my birthday because I think he deployed on the 16th or somewhere between the 13th and the 16th January. He was flying off to meet the ship.

The ship had been in Scotland and getting all filled up with supplies, then the ship was going to sail down the west of the UK, and as it was sailing down, the helicopters based at Culdrose would fly onto it. My understanding was that was happening really early on a morning, of whatever day it was, and so I left him in the car park faced with a 5-6-hour drive home. And, I can just remember … I can tell you exactly the space I was parked in, and, you know, we said goodbye, and it wasn’t like, “Oh bye, see you later then …” We knew it was a long deployment and we knew … Although we hadn’t declared war, it was all in the news at that time about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction, and ‘does he, doesn’t he?’ It was all very clear that the ships were being positioned to go there. We weren’t at war until March but they knew where they were going, they kind of, they had that.  And he knew he was going to war. In fact, in the days running up to it, he – we went to the barbers in Falmouth, which was the nearest big town to Culdrose. He said, “I’m going to get my ‘war haircut,’” and he had all his hair sort of shaved off to go to go to war. So. So yes, I do remember very clearly the last time I saw him. It was very emotional. It was hard to say goodbye.

Can I ask you for what period was he over there before you got the news of the accident?

Ummm … It was all very badly handled actually by the BBC and by the Navy. They didn’t do a very good job and I don’t think they’d mind me saying that, of how they handled the communication following the accident. So, the ship had been in the northern Arabian Gulf for at least a week before the accident had happened. War was declared, I think. I need to check my facts but I think it was declared on the 18th/19th March, something like that, and then Marc died on the very early morning of the 22nd. And we’d spoken the night before. So things were in train for our future. So the big, shared house I mentioned that I lived in, I was moving out of that house because everyone … We’d all moved there as part of the relocation from Kent to Surrey, so it was always going to be a temporary place to live. We lived there for a year and a half, and then everyone started to buy their own houses or drift off into relationships or wherever, whatever; we were all going. People started to head off. So as a group of friends, we had identified this particular weekend in March that we were going to move out of our house, and … And I had arranged to live with a friend of mine, a female friend who’d recently been divorced, who had spare room. She needed the company, I needed the company because my partner was off for months and I needed to save some cash because the plan was, as soon as Marc returned we would buy a house. In fact, I was already on the list of estate agents receiving property details and kind of beginning to scope out the market for where we wanted to be.

So, it’s a complicated story but essentially, Marc died very early on a Saturday morning; on the Friday night I had started to move my stuff to my friend’s house because the end of the tenancy was the Saturday, or Sunday maybe. Um and so I’d started to move my stuff. I had said to my friend who I was moving in with, “Oh,” you know, “I’ll come and stay with you from the Friday night.” So I was in her house on the Friday night. And my phone rang, and it wasn’t a fancy phone like we have these days; it was a big old Nokia brick. But my phone rang and – a number I didn’t know, and it was Marc. He’d phoned. It was about 9:30pm on the Friday night. And he’d, he was just so excited that the ship’s communications had been switched on, because they were effectively in the dark zone i.e. very little communication, not wanting the ship to be identified by, you know, ‘the baddies’ and all the rest of it. They didn’t have the communication from the ship switched on a lot.

So he was just about to go out on a sortie, and he had … the communication had got switched on just as he was getting ready to go so he managed to get in one of the phone call queues and make a call off. So he’d phoned me, and we had a lovely chat. And he was telling me all about how much flying he’d been doing and how busy it was, and how “This is why I joined the navy” and he was just totally buzzing from the energy of a ship, being there doing what they’ve trained for all these years. And he was absolutely loving it, and he was excited to hear from me about the fact that I’d started moving, and the fact I was at Vicky’s house and the fact that, you know, essentially it was another step closer to us doing what we wanted to do, which was to buy a house together and get married and all that stuff. And we’d booked the wedding. The wedding was … we’d sorted that out during the Christmas holiday after he proposed. So the wedding was happening, we had the date for that, so it was just about getting everything else in position and getting him home again in order to make that happen. So … Um …

I’ve forgotten your question and why I went round that big roundabout, but it was all to do with the communication or how I found out, that’s what it was. So I’m staying at a new house, I’d spoken to Marc about 9:30. We’ve had maybe a – they’re not allowed a lot of time. I don’t know what happens now but they had these little credit card things with phone credit on. So he’d, you know, used up his phone credit and we’d said goodbye and “I love you” and all that stuff, which I really, since then I’ve held onto that as a really good thing, that I managed to speak to him and tell them I loved him, and he told me he loved me. And we were in a sweet spot, we were happy, we were doing what we wanted to do. And then he went flying and that was the last flight. So I literally spoke to him about five hours before he died, which was great. But how I actually found out about … Well, I didn’t find out about death, I found out about the accident first. So Sarah, who I’ve mentioned already, she was at university in Liverpool, and my phone rang probably at 7:30 maybe 8 o’clock in the morning. On the Saturday, which is unusual, and she said to me, “Have you seen the news?” I said, “No, I’m in bed. It’s Saturday morning, of course I haven’t seen the news.” And she said, “You need to switch it on now.”

So I had put my TV in my bedroom so I did switch on the news and sure enough, standing in front of us, is Alan Massey, who was the captain of the Ark Royal, stood there talking about an accident of two helicopters hitting each other. And you sort of listen to the news, and I had Sarah on the phone, and I was listening to what he was saying, and they were saying it was 849 Squadron. And you’re like, “Well, that’s our squadron …”  And it was two Sea King helicopters. “Well, those are our helicopters …” And we know, if we don’t know them personally then we know who the people are in that squadron, and they were reporting seven people dead. And straight away, there was something fishy about that because the helicopter crews flying in threes, so why are there seven dead? And then in the next breath they were saying it was six Brits and one American. So we know the American is Tom because he’s the only, he’s the only goddamn American in the squadron.

So, they made a lot of errors because nothing had been communicated to anybody at this stage and yet the captain of the ship is standing on BBC television, live from the side of the boat, like from the ship. Talking to the BBC film crew. We knew a BBC crew were on board, partly I guess because the BBC had made that happen, because they knew we were going to war and I guess they wanted ‘live updates’ from the war zone – [ironic voice] “Like how exciting and dramatic?” But they were also filming a documentary which was aired on TV a little while later, called HMS Ark Royal about life on board, so they happened to have a TV crew there but then this horrible tragedy happens. But between the BBC and the Navy, they kind of messed it up a bit because they shouldn’t really have been reporting all of the detail that they were reporting before families found out.

And my understanding is that since the accident, because a lot of families were very cross – understandably so – is that the next of kin informing process has changed quite drastically since that conflict. And I don’t think it’s just us, but I think in many military squadrons if its, if they are based or different units … If someone’s reporting, saying, you know, “A soldier from 21 Brigade …” or whatever, you can’t – if you’re attached to that brigade or that particular troop, you kind of know that it affects you. So I heard that news from the BBC at about 8am and they were putting a thing on the thing … a number on the TV, that “if you suspect this affects you …” which you just think that’s a bit arse about face, that I should know if this affects me before I see on the television. But there was one of these numbers, of you know, “Call this number if …”  So I got off the phone from Sarah and called the number and of course, as soon as I gave his service number, the person that I’m speaking to on the screen must absolutely know that my partner’s died but they’re not able to tell me because that’s not the process. The process is: An officer will visit you with a priest, and then you kind of know that your partner’s dead. But because I am on the phone to them and because I happen to be moving that day, they’ve got my old details.

So, and they’re asking on the phone first of all, all about Marc and what his service number was and about what I knew about his attachment and where he was. But then they go on to ask, you know, where am I? Because obviously, they need to get to me. They know that and I don’t. So I’m like, “Oh, well, it’s complicated. I’ve kind of got two addresses today. I need to go back to my old house and move the rest of my stuff because I only moved enough pretty much to stay the night.” And so the person on the phone obviously cannot say to me, “Well you kind of need to stay where you are.” So I was in a bit of shock at this stage so I said, “Well, look, here is my new address,” in this house in Reigate where I’d moved with my friend. But they had my old address as well. And then once I’d got off the phone, it was just a case of waiting. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and a lot of waiting. And by this stage, I had called my parents in Kent and they’d said … even though we didn’t have any news, I think they had a sense that it was going to be a tough day anyway, so they’d came up. They’d came to my friend’s house to visit me there and bought my brother and sister who were 13, and probably 11, at that stage. And we were all sat around drinking hot cups of tea, waiting for news which just didn’t come, and just didn’t come, and just didn’t come. And so then you start to convince yourself, “Well the news can’t be coming. If they haven’t told me by now then maybe it’s okay.”

And um Sarah rang me at about … I forget the time exactly, but she rang me maybe between 10 and 11 o’clock in the morning and she just … she was just crying so I knew that James had died. [Voice waivers. Sighs] And then because I knew James had died, your brain starts to play tricks on you. You start to imagine that you are going to be affected and then you imagine that, well, it can’t be by now, if she knows and … We’d been frantically trying to get hold of other people that day and no one was answering their phone. And we now know the reason why no one answered their phone. And again, another mistake from the Navy, is they had allowed all surviving members of the Squadron, so anyone who was alive, a call off the ship at about 5am. So all the girlfriends of the guys that were alive had received a phone call saying, “We’re okay,” which is why we got radio silence. So I rang a couple of girlfriends whose numbers I had and left voicemail after voicemail – “have you heard anything? Is your partner okay? I still haven’t heard anything.” Der-ler-ler … And how heartbreaking for them to see missed calls and to hear our voices on the other end of the phone and they already knew what we didn’t know. [Takes big breath out] Which is just a huge amount of error on the Navy’s part, and for which they never really have directly apologised for that but hey, there’s a lot of water under the bridge now.

But. So I didn’t find out for a long time and it got to the stage where I was so bored of waiting and so kind of, well, “If they’re not here now, they’re probably not coming.” So it probably got to about 1:30, 2 o’clock that day, and I said to my parents, I was like: “I can’t just sit here any longer. I’ve got to go back to the old house and pack up the rest of my stuff.” So I went back, my parents came with me and we drove over there and we started packing away stuff that needed packing away and der-der-ler-der. Then my phone rang and it was my friend, Vicky, who I’d just moved in with, and she said to me … Bless her, she was trying to not tell me, but almost just by phoning me, she’d told me. But she said, “Oh, can I speak to your mum? I think she’s left something here,” and I knew full well my mum had not left anything at Vicky’s house because she only had my dad, her handbag, and my brother and sister with her. So I knew in that moment that he’d died and that the Navy were at her house and obviously I wasn’t there, I’d gone to the other house. So that – I’ve sort of – my, my memory has sort of blanked that little passage of time out because it wasn’t very nice and I – there was lots of … I, I’d just collapsed, dropped the phone [makes ‘bleugh’ noise], got a bit upset as you would. And then probably about 20 minutes later by the time I had had my initial shock, horror, the people who had gone to Vicky’s house rocked up at house. And then by that time, I was just so pissed off with them. I was just so cross with them for fucking it up – excuse my language. But they, they fucked it up left, right and centre, and we’d waited a long time for them to fuck it up so royally. So they, they arrived, and by that point, I was so cross with them, so cross with them. Then to make matters worse, they have to … part of the process used to be – whether it’s the same now I don’t know – but they have to hand you a piece of paper with the facts on it so, you know, the person’s name, their service number, the fact that they’re dead. And I’ve still got the piece of paper, it’s a bit dog-eared now, but I’ve still got it.

And what really peed me off about that piece of paper – and they got the full force of my anger at this point because I’d had the initial upset and now I was just cross with them – is that they didn’t spell his name right. And, I just sort of think; it’s the basics, like it’s just a name I know, but how you spell your name is how you spell your name. And he’d been in the military for, you know, 4 years/5 years maybe. So how does your employer misspell your name? But they had, they’d spelled it – Marc spelled his name with a ‘C’ and they’d spelled it with a ‘K’. And that was one of his pet hates. So I just shouted, a lot, at the man. And I just remember this priest guy having this vice-like grip, holding me on the sofa because I was so, so cross with them. And obviously, they’re trained to deal with that said, so they were probably expecting me to be cross with them. But, it could have happened in a far better, far more coordinated, and far less exposing way for me, because lots of people said afterwards that as soon as they saw it on the news, even though they weren’t reporting names, people knew. Because even my friends knew what squadron he was on and what ship he was on, and the fact that he was out there. And I don’t know how many crews they had out there, they probably about five or six helicopter crews, and two lots of crew members had died so it’s only a process of elimination to work it out.

And, if I’d known that on that day what I know now, I’d probably have been even more mad about it, especially that some of them … well, all the guys got to phone off and phone their family members to say they were okay. If I’d known that on the day, I’d have been furious, absolutely furious. Um … So yeah, it was handled badly from start to finish, and then to top it all off, [ironic laugh] to top it all off … Bless Marc, he was a water baby through and through, and the poor chap was missing in the water for a long time. So, some of the bodies were pulled out pretty quickly, because they’d collided over water, so there was a huge explosion and wreckage going into the sea and bodies going into the sea. And some of the guys were pulled out straight away, James was one of the first to be found and pulled, and obviously dead. It was not an accident that anyone could have survived. And some of the guys, it took a few days them to find, some it took a couple of weeks. Marc didn’t want to get found straight away; he’d been flung quite some distance – where they eventually found him it was quite a long way from the scene of the accident. So, he was missing for 10 weeks. Which is a loooong time, and by that time the Ark Royal had come home; it was already moored up in Portsmouth. I’d gone down with my friend, Simon, who was Marc’s best friend who was on HMS Liverpool in his, in his Lynx. I wanted to go and see the ship. I wanted to go and see Marc’s cabin and I really wanted to meet Alan Massey because I was very cross with him. And so I did. I had tea with him in his captain’s suite. It was all very polite and civil for some of it, and then I just explained to him just how cross I was with him because he was having tea with me in Portsmouth, and he’d left a crew member as far as I was concerned. He’d – Marc was the only one that didn’t get brought home, and I was absolutely furious about that.

Um and then, random coincidence or I don’t know what, I don’t know what these things are, but literally that day … I’d had had tea with Alan Massey, I’d been cross with him. I’d explained to him how I thought what he had done was unacceptable. And of course, it wasn’t his fault, and I know now that it was just the grief talking, but nonetheless I was pretty cross with the man – rightly so, I think. And that afternoon, once I was off the ship, someone came, I can’t remember if it was Simon who said it me or some random other Navy person that was hosting me that day said, “Oh, there’s someone in an office building here somewhere that wants to meet with you.” By that stage, I’d met with so many military people, I was like, “Oh, for God’s sake, really? Another person that wants to say how sorry they are or wants to …” You know, you get to a point with that where you’re just like, “Enough already, I don’t care really about any of these people.” Because grief is quite a selfish thing. And I was taken into someone’s office, crikey knows who the person was, I don’t remember, and they sat me down and they told me that they’d found him that day, just after I’d had my little rant at Alan Massey.

And then I got cross with them for finding him! [Laughs] So I was cross with them for not bringing home, and then the day they found him, I was absolutely furious with them for finding him. I was like, “Well, you can put him back them because he’s been there for 10 weeks and I’m pretty sure that’s where his resting place is, so can you just leave him there?” And I was like, “What do you think you’re doing, picking him up from the seabed now?” Like, “That is just ridiculous, just leave him where he is …”  But it wasn’t my choice, they had to recover him once they’d found him, and then it took a few weeks to get – get him home. And he got repatriated in the same fashion as all the other chaps that already, months, weeks ahead, weeks previous, had been bought home. So I’d been to quite a lot of funerals by this stage but hadn’t had a funeral of our own. We did have a memorial service about 2-3 weeks after he died but we, we couldn’t have a funeral without him being found. Then we did eventually have a proper funeral with a coffin and a cremation and all that jazz … Afterwards. But I was proper cross with them for finding him, which I don’t know if that’s the right thing or the wrong thing, but that what it was.

Fig. 3:  Commemorative plaque at the National Memorial Arboretum (Alrewas, England) for Elaine’s fiancé, Lieutenant Marc A. Lawrence.

Can I ask you about the process? You weren’t married at the time, were you put down on the paperwork as the next-of-kin?

Um hum. Yes. So there were two pieces of paper that confirmed what I knew, that Marc and I were in a long-term and substantial relationship but I did have to go through a process of proving that, which was, again, a bit degrading, after his death. But whenever, I don’t know about other services, but certainly in the Navy, whenever a ship is about to enter a war zone, everyone on board is asked to go to, you know, the writer’s office and fill out a will form, effectively, a wishes form for in the event of their death, you know, what they want. And Marc had done that back in … I don’t know, I’ve got the paperwork somewhere but he had done that and he had written a will and put me down as the sole beneficiary on his will. He’d also put me on his next-of-kin list as well. So although we weren’t married, I was there on the paperwork as being like a ‘partner,’ and then one of the Warrant Officers who was …

There were lots of people that came to support, and lots of people that were very helpful and friendly, and there’s a lot of things you don’t really feel like doing after someone’s died and one of them is all the admin and signing stuff and whatnot. But there was this lovely guy called Wally. I won’t forget Wally, he was a really nice, bubbly chap who sort of managed to smile his way through everything. But he came to the house and he was incredibly helpful in explaining some of the more tricky stuff; that I had been put on a next-of-kin list and all the rest of it, and if there were any benefits to be paid out in the event of Marc’s death, then that they should come to me. But in order for that to happen and to get the signing on the dotted line, I had to go through an application process to prove that Marc and I were in a long-term substantial relationship. So, things that you never think at the time of having, or of needing to prove, but I had to provide evidence, bizarrely, that we were engaged. We, we – I had to … The things I ended up showing, which we had anyway because we were … as much as we didn’t live in the same house because he lived on board, our lives were very much intertwined. So I mentioned that I had a two-seater sports car, we owned that car together. He paid for half of it and I paid for half of it, so we had made significant purchases together, that was one of the criteria. And we had the date of our wedding booked and we had paid the deposit on our wedding venue, so that was one of the things. We had a joint savings account, which we were both ploughing money into for the purchase of the house and payment for the wedding or whatever, and we had direct debits going into and out of each other’s bank accounts, although we didn’t have a joint account other than the savings account at that time.

So it was all those kind of admin-y things that when you’re just in the process of beginning to spend the rest of your life with someone, you don’t really think those things are going to be significant or important. And I found that at the time, although Wally was lovely, the whole process was quite degrading because anyone that knew Marc knew we were together, knew we were very happy, knew we were going to get married. But you had to explain it to a room full of strangers because they need to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, which is just a due process. I get that it’s a process that you have to go through, but had he died a year and a bit later, after the 22nd June 2004 [26 June 2004],[ which was the date of our wedding, I wouldn’t have had to any of that. It’s still quite surprising how antiquated some of the processes are in the military that you have to go through, and it does make me wonder about other widows, and especially “widowed fiancés” rather than widowed married women, and about how many people there must be out there who may have ‘failed’ that process, who didn’t perhaps have enough evidence to prove their love. It makes me quite sad to think that, especially in this day and age, when marriage isn’t such a thing, it’s not … You know, you can live with someone and have their baby and you know all the rest of it, but as far as the Navy were concerned at that time, that almost wasn’t enough. So it was all a bit, a bit strange really, as if losing your partner and effectively the rest of your future, or what you thought was your future, and trying to process that, you’re having to process all this kind of crap that goes alongside it of having to prove that that was a thing. And it sort of makes you doubt yourself, which is ridiculous – that’s the last thing you want to be doing when someone you love has just died. But that’s, that is what happened, and the people that helped me were good at their jobs; they got me through it, but it wasn’t a particularly nice process to have to go through. It felt a bit, “Really …?” But that’s what happened.

Fig. 4: Marc’s name on the Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum.

What was the support like from family and friends?

Um … So … Good. My parents were very brilliant in the, in the first few days, on the day we found out which was the Saturday, and we’d started the day at my new house when I found out the news. I was at the old house I was moving out of, and eventually by the time the padre and the officer came to tell us, by the time they left which was a few hours later as everyone was in shock, and it kind of put the kibosh on moving house that day for a bit. But by the time they left, my parents had decided that the best thing for me was to go home with them. And I couldn’t really drive, I was so, like, dumbstruck. They just put me in the back of their car and took me home. I was at home for a bit and I just remember that being a really bruising feeling, of number one: Losing your partner and all the kind of hope that. Whoosh … all that hope and energy and love and excitement you had just being totally eradicated and not obviously through your own choice. A really debilitating position to be put in.

So my parents did the right thing in taking me home but by taking me home, it sort of exacerbated some of those feelings because it wasn’t my house. You know, I’m a very independent person, I always have been, and I didn’t have my car, I didn’t have, I didn’t have anything, I hardly even had an overnight bag with some clean underwear in. It was all just very weird. And because the children … we lived in quite a small house, still in the same house we all grew up in. My parents and my siblings had the upstairs bedrooms, so I was very much camping out in the lounge on an air bed or what have you for a couple of days and I found that quite hard. Because I didn’t sleep for about three days; I just laid on the bed watching the clock ticking and just your brain just goes around, and around, and around, and around, so many different things. You’re just wondering stuff and thinking about stuff and totally dumbstruck with stuff, and just sleeping and eating just aren’t important. You’re just literally “Urgh,” zombified or whatever, just in a total state of not human-ness. It was all very weird.

But my family were good, although I couldn’t – I didn’t want to stay there for too long. Eventually my housemates brought my car to me and I had my independence back. And that was good to put the roof down on the car and just go out for some drives and blow the cobwebs away with some music pumping and just try and, try and make my body feel something, you know, and just put a bit of … And it didn’t come. For long time, but nonetheless it was still fun driving round like a loon for a bit. Um … and then a few days after the accident, Sarah had gone already from Liverpool down to Cornwall, because she lived in Cornwall with James except when she was at university, so they had a house together in Falmouth, so she’d gone there because James didn’t live on board anymore, he had lived in their house. And so she went to Cornwall and obviously all the other partners of all the other people were in Cornwall because a lot of them were married men with wives and children who lived down there, who had already made the move down there. Marc was probably one of the only ones that hadn’t fully settled in the area and bought his own property and stuff. So everyone was down there, and there was this – I had this real sense of being drawn there. So I got in the car and drove myself there and that’s when I stayed in his little cabin for a couple of days, stayed in his room. I took his sister down with me and his parents came down and we sort of hung out there for a few days, and I stayed for a bit. Stayed with Sarah. I can’t remember after that. I can’t remember how long it took me before I came back again. I didn’t go back to my parents after that. But everyone was great, everyone looked after me.

I even sent an email out on the Sunday night, so Marc died on the Saturday morning, and on Sunday night … because I still worked at the big company that I mentioned earlier, so I’d been working there for eight years. I’d worked in the HR and training team. Everyone knew me and I knew everyone and you know, I was very involved in doing people’s inductions and welcoming new employees and keeping people well trained and up-to-speed with all the skills and whatnot that they needed to do their jobs. I was well aware that I lived with work colleagues, all of my housemates that I was moving out from, were all work colleagues, and I was aware there was going to be an impact of them going back to work on the Monday morning and essentially talking about what had happened at the weekend. And I didn’t want it to be their news to share and I didn’t want them to … It was such a big company, there was at least a thousand or so people who worked in this new building that we’d relocated to in Surrey. I was so aware that I just didn’t want to be the subject of gossip and to not clarify the facts for myself. And I knew I wasn’t going to work, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was not going to work. But I didn’t want to be the subject of gossip so I remember sitting, this was before I went to Cornwall, I sat on my parents’ stairs, connected to the dial-up Internet connection and I wrote an email to everyone that I could think of that knew me and who knew Marc. And people knew him because he’d been to Christmas parties, he’d been to office events with my firm, so people knew him as my partner and knew he was in the military. He’d come to Christmas parties in this full military uniform so people knew this stuff, and I just didn’t want it to be like … . We had this little coffee bar, and I just didn’t want it to be a rumour, an unconfirmed rumour, and it had yet to break the news in terms of – everyone knew there was an accident and people had died, but the names of those people hadn’t been released yet. And I just didn’t want it to be a big rumour and a big deal for my housemates to have to share all this quite major news. So I wrote an email to all the people I could think of email who either knew me, or knew Marc, or knew both of us just sort of saying quite factually what had happened, and the fact that I didn’t want him or me to be the subject of office gossip, so here I am clarifying the facts, and the fact that it hadn’t been in the press so, you know, this email was for them and them only. And I wrote this really lovely thing at the end, which I don’t quite know where it came from or how I managed to think of it so soon, but I just said at the bottom, you know, “What I find comforting, if anything, in this horrible situation is the fact I spoke to him about …” I was one of the last people he spoke to other than the people he was flying with before he died. And we had a real lovely ending to our last conversation, lots of ‘love you, love you, love you, love you’ until you hang up. I took real warmth and comfort from the fact that yes. He’d died, but he died doing a job he really enjoyed and he died a few hours after being told just how much he was loved. And we were in a really good place – we were planning our wedding, planning our future; I was sending him property details and things for everything for when we, when we got together after the deployment.

So I wrote in the email, “Marc knew how much he was loved in the moment that he died,” and I can’t say it without crying, and I still can’t say it without crying. [Sobs]. But I said to the people in the thing, you know, “If there’s someone that you love, you have to tell them today. You have to tell them, and don’t just tell them, show them.” You know? Like. “Life is too bloody short, as we’ve found out to not tell these people that you love them.” That was my parting comment to them on my email: “Go home and tell the person you love that you love them because you never know when it’s going to be the last phone call or the last whatever.” Because yes, he was in a war zone, yes he was in the military, but he wasn’t ground troops, he wasn’t on the ground with, you know, whatever. As far as he was concerned, he was in one of the safest places you could be, and so you just never know. You just never know when your number’s up. So. And the outpouring of support I got off after sending that email … It was almost like people needed permission to contact you when you’re bereaves, and what I’d done by sending that email, unknowingly, was I’d given them permission to write back. So I’d got, and this was before the days of Facebook and all these social media things, or if it was there, people weren’t using it.

And I just got an absolute outpouring of love and comments and flowers and visitors and … Because I’d said in the email, you know, I’m a people person, I really am. I do love a good old chat and I love being with other people. I am not that great in my own company. And I’d said to them, you know, “I’m a people person and I need people now. I can’t face this alone, so if you’re in the area and you feel like calling into my mum and dad’s for a cup of tea, I might not be saying very much but please come.” And the number of people, people I hadn’t worked with for years, random friends and colleagues, and neighbours that just called in, just dropped in to sit with me for 10 minutes. They didn’t – half of them didn’t say anything or if they did, they just said how sorry they were, and I asked them not to say that, and then that was that. And you don’t forget that, even like we’re 15 and a half years post that now, and I still remember the people that came and sat with me in my mum’s front room, and the little things that people did. Like, I remember my housemates bringing me the car, and I remember who sent me flowers and what those flowers – what those things said. And my best friend came and we just sat on the beach, just because I wanted to be near the sea, because I knew that’s where he was. So we just sat looking at the sea, in March, on the beach, on our own with no one there. Just by the water’s edge.  And my best friend didn’t really … we didn’t really talk that much. Well, we probably did, probably did have a good old chat but it didn’t matter what we were saying because it’s people’s presence that was important, not what they say to you in those situations.

I was very lucky to have a wide network of friends and a very supportive organisation who – the company I worked for at the time were amazing. They didn’t expect me to go back to work. I didn’t go back to work for a long time but none of it was put down as compassionate or sick leave, all of it was … I was just paid my normal wages as if I was there. They didn’t put any pressure on me to come back. They knew he was missing, so they knew I was living on the edge of: What if he’s found? And I was constantly getting updates of where they’d been searching, where the next day’s search was going to be. It wasn’t just, “Oh, he’s dead, that’s it.” There was a lot of communication, a lot going on for many, many, many, many weeks, and people were great, people were very supportive. So I’m very lucky that I had that.

Could I ask you to clarify your situation as far as finances went, because you said that you were entitled to what he’d bequeathed to you in his will; we’ve talked about this off recording that you weren’t entitled to a War Widow’s pension?

No.

Because you weren’t married. So could we just flesh that out a little bit?

Yes. And my understanding of this has changed recently, so it is a very confusing situation. Financially, at the time, I was in a well-paid job, as I just mentioned they carried on paying me so I didn’t have many worries in terms of money. I’d just moved out of a house that was expensive into a place that was relatively cheap or next to nothing so I wasn’t particularly concerned with money. I wasn’t concerned with whether my company paid me or not, to be honest, it was the least of my problems. And it’s funny how things turn out because I had no idea at the time that I would be entitled to anything, nor was I expecting to be entitled to anything, but random things happened. So Marc paid into a couple of charities that I didn’t know anything about, I didn’t know it was a thing as I’m not military and I don’t understand some of this stuff. But there is a charity called the Royal Naval Benevolent Fund, and my understanding of it – and it is not a complete understanding at all – but its that most people who are in the Navy are offered the chance to pay into this benevolent fund, and it’s something like 50p per week or 50p a month out of your wages that just goes direct to the charity. And in the event of a death in service, any death in service is my understanding – is that the benevolent fund pay out a nominal amount to the beneficiaries.

So in the first few weeks after Marc died, I just seemed to keep getting presented with cheques, and I almost didn’t know what to do with them, and many of them didn’t go into my bank for months because I was just so confused about why people were giving me cheques. And this was where Wally was really helpful, this Petty Officer or whoever he was, because I just didn’t understand it. But because I was Marc’s partner and because I was mentioned in his will, and obviously the Navy knew that instantly because they, they had dealt with all his files on board. They had all his documentation so they handed some of this stuff over to me straight away. So I remember being at James’s funeral actually, which was on the Squadron, on the base at Culdrose, and I got called into the Commanding Officer’s office. And again, I’d been called into so many people’s offices for them to go, “Oh, I’m really sorry,” and da-da-da, “… whatever we can do to support you …” And after a while, you just start to go, “Yep, move on.” Half the time, they’re not saying anything of any interest. And this one time, my mum had come to James’s funeral with me, just my mum and I, and I got called into the CO’s office and he sat me down. And I was expecting an update about the search, because I was getting daily updates on the search, like, “We still haven’t found anything; we’ve searched in this area, this area, in this area,” and it was very methodical as you’d expect. They could show me pictures of where they searched and where they hadn’t searched, what they’d found, and bits and bobs of wreckage they had, and the pictures I would get to see. And, you know, all very graphic and some of it unnecessary. But he’d given me an update, and this was probably 3-4 post accident, or … Yeah, I don’t know when it would have been because they would have had to repatriate everyone … But anyway, it was in the weeks after the accident, but just before James’s funeral, this guy called me into his office and said, “Oh, here’s a cheque for X thousand pounds.” And I’m like, “What? What? Why …? I don’t understand, what’s this for?” And he said, “Well, Marc’s been paying into this charity and the charity has paid out.” And everyone, “You are all getting the same. Everyone is getting this cheque today.” I was like, my God. You feel very lucky, bizarrely, that you’re getting all this cash thrown at you because it is helpful when you are trying to … Yeah, I’ve just lost my partner and my future and any financial security that comes with that has just evaporated.

So there were at least two charities that paid out in that way, which was handy, but this application process I was going through with Wally was for the more longer-term benefits. So, as I understood it at the time, I was applying for widow’s status to receive widow’s benefits. But the communication of that, and even to this day when I read it, is really unclear as to what I was applying for and what I was actually receiving. So I did receive his Death in Service benefit which was paid into his estate and then I was the main beneficiary of his estate, but I also receive a pension, which I thought – have thought – for the last 14 years or more that that was a widows’ pension. But it’s only more recently when I’ve poked around in dusty corners of the admin to do with that, I’ve discovered it isn’t a widow’s pension at all and I’ve never been entitled to a widow’s pension. My understanding of it – my crude understanding – because I didn’t understand the process, and the documentation isn’t actually that clear, is that the pension I receive is Marc’s Occupational Service Pension. So it’s related to his service and his length of service and his status in the Navy, but it’s not a widow’s pension. And the reason I don’t get a widow’s pension is because we were not married, so even though I’d passed the process of a ‘long-term substantial partner’ business, that didn’t get me anything because I would have got his ‘Death in Service’ through his estate anyway.

So it is all very complicated, and actually it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things, but nonetheless, it is a pretty degrading process to have to go to, to have to prove that you are entitled to something. And then years down the line to discover, actually, that’s not what I’m entitled to at all. So I do not receive any widow’s pensions, and my understanding from having poked around a tiny bit in some corners is that I will never receive anything to do with being a widow because even though I passed the ‘long-term substantial partner’ process, I’m not a widow, and I am not willing to push it any further than that. It is what it is and that’s fine, and I am lucky to get his occupational service pension, I think, based on the fact that I’m not entitled to be a widow. So, you know, I’m grateful to have that really.

Just to clarify is that occupation pension taxable?

Yes. It is taxed at source, yes, so I don’t receive the whole thing. Half of it goes back to the taxman, which is fine. You know, its fine. I feel like that is an incredibly … lucky is the wrong word because it’s just so not lucky to have it because I’d give it back in a heartbeat. But at the time when I was – it was a nice thing to have because it just relieved the financial pressures and it meant that I had choices. So I had a choice as to whether to go back to work. It’s nowhere near … my salary at the time, it was a drop in the ocean in comparison, but at least you could – I could pay for things. I could continue to pay my car loan, for instance, and I could continue to rent a room in someone’s house. I would not be able to buy property on the back of it or anything like that, but, it was enough to keep your head above water in the times when all your financial security has kind of been ripped out from under you. Especially when I didn’t know what was going with my job at that time or if I would ever return to work. But my company were amazing, absolutely faultless in the way they handled it, and in the end, I had four months off work. I didn’t go back to work for four months. And, and they didn’t quibble that at all, they just provided support where it was needed. They paid for me to go to a bereavement counsellor. All of that was happening during work time, and it continued for a long time after Marc’s death, and that was a good thing. Luckily, I had very few financial issues anyway but if I had worked for a company that weren’t as supportive, and if I’d had four months off in any other job, I’d have been broke, you know? But because they just continued to pay me without, without going, [mimics whiney voice] “Oh, but you only get five days’ compassionate leave,” or whatever … They didn’t follow any policy, because I don’t think they felt that any policy was really applicable, so they just supported me in the best and only way they could, which was to not give me any hassle about when to come back.

But I was in regular contact with them, and I did go into the office quite a few times, and I, I won’t forget the few times I did go into the office because a few things that happened that I was a bit cross about. I mean, you’re cross about a lot of things when someone has just died, but someone had cleared my desk and had put all Marc’s pictures away. Because I had a few pictures of him and a few pictures of … because we’d taken the children – my brother and sister – to Chessington. You know when you’ve got rollercoaster pictures so there were pictures of me and him and my brother and sister on all these rollercoasters and stuff. So because he was away, I had all these pictures on my desk, and somebody … I think because probably they felt they were doing the right thing; they thought that when I came back to work I didn’t want to see all that. They had cleared it all up and put it in a box so I was like, “Er, what have you done that for?” So I made a big, a big deal of just reinstating everything to where it was, just because the person has died doesn’t mean I don’t want to see their picture. But people don’t, people don’t know what to do in those situations. People make a lot of mistakes and there’s not a lot of protocol around what to do when someone dies so young, because it doesn’t happen very much, thankfully. But yeah, I forget why we started that conversation. [Laughs] How did we get to that?

… then about how you coped with anniversaries and birthdays, is there anything you particularly do to remember Marc by?

Erm … Yes, and no. So, anyone will tell you this. There’s this quandary of what to do on the death day. Do you get really sad on the anniversary of the death? With military deaths, you’ve obviously got Remembrance Sunday as well, and because Marc died in March, there’s these three points in the year where you’ve got an anniversary of some kind. You’ve got the death day, you’ve got Remembrance Sunday and then Marc’s birthday was at the end of December so then you’ve got the birthday as well. And I remember in the early days, the firsts and the seconds are really hard, especially the second. Because in the first year your support network is still really strong and buzzing and you’re still very much at the forefront and centre of their minds. But in the second year, everyone’s getting on with their own lives, so I think it’s much harder for people to remember that you still need that support. And 15 years down the line, it’s really interesting to notice the amount of people who do or don’t remember. And it’s a very small group of people that do be bothered to send or do anything now, even if it’s just a text message or what have you. And again, you do notice who these people are – again, without judgement but you just do notice who those people are.

But Remembrance Sunday for me is a biggie because you, you can’t get away from it. Remembrance Sunday is a big thing, everyone’s wearing their poppy, you know? I wear a special poppy at that time, and the kids bought our dog a poppy for her collar, you know? Like, they, they know all about Marc and they’re really into it so they understand and we, we sometimes … I mean my husband and I have done many things over the years on Remembrance Sunday. We’ve been to the Cenotaph. We’ve kept it quiet, you know, and gone to local memorials. In our village here, we’re really lucky that there is quite an active Scouts and Beavers community and it always has a military band, and there’s always something lovely at our main war memorial up here, which is where we went this year actually. And I was always put a little cross down with Marc’s details on, because – partly because I don’t want him to be forgotten. That’s one of my main, main things is I feel like I’ve got a bit … I bear the weight of responsibility for remembering him, and I know I don’t do that on my own. I know there’s his friends and family who are doing as well, but I feel like it’s partly, mainly, my responsibility to keep talking about him. And part of the reason I think people don’t contact you after the first anniversary so much as they used to, is because they don’t want to upset you.

But I saw this wonderful thing on Facebook recently, this beautiful and very articulate sentence that I’m going to do no justice at all in remembering. But it sort of said something along the lines of: People think after someone’s died that mentioning their name on an anniversary is going to upset you. But the fact of the matter is, if your person that has lost someone, you will never forget that that was the day they died or that is their birthday or that this Christmas they’re not there, or that it’s Remembrance Sunday and dah-dah-lah-dah. You just don’t forget that, so all the person is doing by mentioning them or just by sending you a little love heart on a text or whatever it might be, is just remembering that they haven’t forgotten the person as well, which is actually quite a nice thing. So, you know, I didn’t do that much justice at all in trying to get across what it said, but it just really struck a chord with me that socially, we don’t talk about dead people enough because we’re fearful that it is going to upset the bereaved people. But actually, in my experience – maybe it’s just me, but in my experience, talking about the people or person that has died is not upsetting at all because it’s really nice to remember them and it’s really nice that other people remember them.  And it’s really –  what I thought the time was a horrible coincidence but now is actually a lovely coincidence, is that our second son, Joshua, he is an IVF baby, so his arrival was [laughs] really welcome, and much wanted and much waited for. But because he was an IVF baby and we had a few interesting goes before it actually worked, we had no idea … .

When you are going through IVF, you never, ever think about the day, or the due date, the day the child is going to arrive, because you know there are so many hurdles to overcome in having a successful pregnancy or even creating an embryo or whatever. There are so many things you have to do which are quite artificial through, by the very nature of the IVF process, and once we had found out I was pregnant and I had had a successful scan and it was a viable pregnancy and all the rest of it, Joshua’s due date was 22nd December. And that’s fine by me, that’s actually my brother’s birthday, so 22nd December, that would be fine – except I don’t have babies on time. Both my boys have been late arrivals. And I was – because I was quite … I grow quite large babies, both were over 9 pounds when they were born. Yes, both big boys. And obviously the obstetricians and people can tell that when they’re measuring you and scanning your, your baby and stuff, they can give some size observations and they know when your baby needs to come out. And then they’d actually offered me, because I was carrying so big, they’d offered me the chance of an induction between Christmas and New Year and I declined it because Marc’s birthday is 29th December, and in my head I didn’t want our little baby to be born on the 29th December, because previously to that, that had always been like a sad day where I’d, you know, perhaps privately I’d just raise a little glass for Marc on my own, or with my husband, or with the people that would remember that it was his birthday.

And so I declined the opportunity for an induction and I asked the hospital if I could go in on the, on New Year’s Eve or 1st January or whenever it was but it so happened that those dates were on a weekend. I think the 29th, in fact I know, the 29th December that year was a Thursday, and so they offered me the Friday slot to be induced, and then potentially I’d have the baby the next couple of days. And we waited and waited because we were really hoping this baby would come before Christmas. The baby didn’t come before Christmas, and then we went – we got so bored of hanging around in the house waiting for a baby with our 3-year-old that we said, “Right, sod this, we’ll go down to my mum’s and celebrate a bit of Christmas with my mum,” because the baby wasn’t showing any signs of coming. So on the 28th December, we piled down to Kent, saw all my family, did all the present opening stuff and all the rest of it. I didn’t want to stay there because I didn’t want to be there to have the baby, potentially. I didn’t want to be stuck in Kent. So we travel back on the night of the 28th and didn’t think any more of it. Then I woke up at 2 o’clock in the morning of 29th December and little Joshua was making entrance, and he very quickly arrived. So, I woke up at 2am, thinking “Golly, this baby is coming” and my in-laws arrived at about 4am. We got to the hospital by about 5 and by 7 o’clock, he’d been born.

So compared to my first labour, it was quite a quick delivery and he was born on 29th December, which at the time I remember at the time being really upset and mortified that Joshua was going to share a birthday with Marc, because I thought that would make me sad that my baby will have the same birthday as Marc. And actually, what it’s turned into is something really lovely, because now, on 29th December, instead of being a bit quiet and reserved and having a glass of wine on my own and a kind of quiet memorial to myself, I’m actually watching my son open birthday presents, eating birthday cake, singing happy birthday, blowing out candles and all the kind of happy things that come along with celebrating a child’s birthday. So, I’m really lucky I get celebrate Josh’s birthday on the same day as Marc’s. And he knows that, Josh is very aware, the most aware of my two boys of, of Marc. He’s very clued up in emotional intelligence, is our little 6-year-old. So yes, birthdays and anniversaries are okay-ish, but they’re still hard, especially Remembrance Sunday.

Could you then talk to me about your journey and how you met your husband? How you got to that point, really, because it’s not an easy transition. Can you describe to us how …?

Yes. Yeah. So Toby’s my husband. I knew Toby, and Toby knew Marc prior to any of this happening. So Toby was one of my housemates in that professional shared house that we lived in, that I was moving out of on the day that Marc died, and so we’d been friends. I mentioned earlier; I saw a bereavement counsellor after Marc died because I was a very angry individual for quite some time. And she was an amazing lady, and shortly after Marc died I had an instinct to run; like I just wanted to run away from my life because it was unrecognisable from the life that I had felt like I was supposed to be heading towards, and so I wanted to run away. And by ‘run away’ I literally wanted to go the other side of the world and recreate myself in a new place. And my bereavement counsellor encouraged me not to do that. She said that I could run but that I shouldn’t run straightaway. So she asked me to stick with it and stick with her for a year, and then she said you could plan my ‘running’, and I could plan what I was going to do at the end of that year. She said, “But I think if you if you run now, you’ll always be carrying this burden of the grief. But if you have a year with the grief and a year to settle with what’s happened, then, and then go, then it will be a more fulfilling experience for you and you won’t be carrying this weight around with you the whole time.”

So I didn’t really believe her by I sort of thought ‘alright then, what have I got to lose?’ Plus, it was a really terrible year anyway Marc’s body being missing for three months and then not going back to work for four months and all the ramifications of where do I go, where do I live, am I going to buy a house on my own now? You know, [makes ‘blurgh’ sound] just a bit mess of the future that I didn’t feel like I had, that I wasn’t particularly in control of. So I stuck with her because eventually I learned to trust her. And she was a lovely lady and she helped me deal with the grief in a very slow-motion kind of way, and I planned my exit from my life a month and a year from the day that Marc died, so it was roughly at the end of April the following year that I got a one-way ticket to America. And I didn’t, didn’t have a plan – well, I did have a little plan; I knew who I was going to meet at the other side – a friend of a friend who was going to host me for my first week in the States while I got used to where I was and who I was, and roughly planned it. So I had this epic adventure, basically. The United States will let you stay in the country if you’re not working for six months, if you don’t have a green card to be there. So I did a full six months, top to bottom in the USA. I mentioned earlier that a lot of Marc’s friends live in the States. So, Mike lived in California, another friend lived in New York state, and another friend … Well, I had a friend from Philadelphia and another friend in Boston, and people – one of Marc’s friends got married in North Carolina during the time I was in the States. So there were lots and lots of friendly faces and people to see, so I punctuated my trip in the States with seeing people, doing touristy stuff and just living life with a backpack. And, and then I flew, after that six months, away from San Francisco towards Australia and spent almost a year in Australia. And then, really unfortunately, I had bought a house by then and my tenants in my house decided to stop paying rent and so it was all a bit dramatic so I had to … And I’d sold the sports car and everything to go, so I could afford it, so unfortunately, without them paying the rent on my house and without me having a job, I couldn’t really afford to be backpacking anymore. I had done loads of amazing things in Australia. I’d learned to sail and I’d got a job on the harbour. I just did things I wouldn’t normally- you know, I’d worked in an office for eight years. I wouldn’t normally have been working down on the docks and, you know, mooring up boats and serving seafood on dining boats and things. You know, I had an amazing time but tinged with a bit of sadness, tinged with a bit of trying to work out who the hell I was and what I was all about and all the while …

This was way before Facebook and things like that, but I was in email contact with my family, with my best friend, and I was journaling the whole thing the whole time, and I stayed in touch quite a lot of friends, of which Toby was one of the people I’d email. At the time, you could go on to a Kodak website and upload all your pictures from your digital camera, because there was no such thing as a smart phone, but you could upload your pictures and create these files, these albums of picture, then you could email them to your mates. So that’s what I did, so every couple weeks I could download my pictures in an Internet café. I’d send them all out to a group of people who said they were interested, and Toby was one of them. So we were constantly in email contact as mates. And I had to come home quite abruptly because I had to evict these nasty tenants, who weren’t tenants anymore, they were squatters in my house. So I had to kick them out, which again, was another legal hoi polloi where I learned a lot about what you can and can’t do as a tenant of a property that is not in a country that you’re currently living in.

So it was complicated, but, hey, it was a learning experience. So I came home and evicted my tenants and one of the first things I realised once I’d kicked the tenants out was that I needed to Hoover my house, because they’d taken all their stuff out so it was just a shell of a house. I’d let it unfurnished and all my gear, all my furniture, was up in my loft. It was actually a converted loft but I didn’t give the tenants access to that, so that was all padlocked up. And I knew that I needed to get the stuff out of the loft so I could, you know, sit on my sofa and plug my telly in and stuff like that. But I needed to Hoover my house and I didn’t have a Hoover. So I thought “Who do I know in the local area that I can phone to take me to Curry’s?” Because I didn’t have a car either. I had literally my backpack with my pants and my clothes in, I had nothing else. So I phoned Toby because I knew he lived roughly nearby to where my house was. I thought “He’s a good bloke, he’ll come and help a friend in need.” And so I phoned him, he said, “Yeah. Alright then.” So he came over, took me to Curry’s to buy a Hoover, and then we just said, “Oh, what’re you doing, do you want to go out for a drink?” Because I hadn’t seen anyone for a long time. So we had a drink in Wetherspoons and caught up, and there was definitely a hint of chemistry there. I think we both sort of thought “Oh, you’re a bit nice,” but neither of us were brave enough to do anything about it. So then we did this wonderful thing for a few months where we just started hanging out but as friends, and think we both knew we were attracted to each other. I mean, I’d never thought about Toby in that way, and I think he might tell you a slightly different story of how he felt about me, perhaps, but I just didn’t put one on one together until we’d been out for a few what you would call “dates”. Although they were they really dates, there was certainly no kissing involved, it was just friends hanging out and all the rest of it. And then I had some wonderful housemates living in my spare room, really good friends of mine that needed a favour. They needed somewhere to live for cheap while they were saving up for their wedding, and of course I had an empty house other than myself, so I said, “Come and crash with me, it’ll be fine.”

So they were staying in my spare room. And this one time, I remember it really clearly; we’d gone to the cinema to see one of the Star Wars releases, because I really wanted to watch the Star Wars films. I would normally have done that with Marc. I’d done the first Star Wars and the new release with Marc and I really wanted to see the next film but didn’t have anyone to go with, no Star Wars fans anyway. Then Toby was like, “I’m a massive Star Wars fan. Let’s go together.” So we’d gone out to see the Star Wars film in Epsom one Saturday afternoon. I got back and said to Toby, “Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea?” You know, “Hang out a bit longer?” You know, knowing that we, you know, were doing this little dance of friends that clearly wanted to be a tiny bit more than friends but we didn’t know how to do that. And it was all complicated because he knew about Marc and, you know, he’d had other girlfriends when I’d been away and stuff. So we were doing this weird dance around each other. And as I put my key in the door, I shouted up to my friend – I knew they were there as the car was outside. So I shouted up, “Hi.” And my friend my friend shouted downstairs, “How was your date with Toby?” not knowing that Toby was literally standing right behind me. Literally, I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow me because I was like, “Oh God …” I’d obviously been talking about it with her and had said, “Well, you know, whatever …”

So anyway, to cut a long story short, a few weeks later, it was Toby’s birthday and he wanted to have a party. And he’s quite introverted and not that … he would admit himself that he’s not that great at organising a good party, whereas I’m the opposite, like, if there’s a party happening, I’m either leading it, you know, or organising it or whatever. That’s right up my street. So he’d said to me, “Will you help me organise my party?” I’d said, “Yes, of course.” Then I took my best friend, the one who I’d met Marc through. I‘d said to her, “My friend Toby is having a birthday party will you – it was her partner at the time, but they’re married now, “Do you and Haydn want to come to Toby’s party with me?” She’d said, “Yes, we’ll come, we’ll drive …” der-der-der. So we went to the party and then we had our first kiss in Toby’s garden with all of his family watching. They were literally all leaning out of the back door, watching us have our first kiss, which was to so bizarre. But I think we both knew that the reason we’d teetered around the edges for so long, I think we both knew that if we were … We were either going to ruin a really great friendship by taking it further or we were going to be together forever. And luckily, I think it’s, you know, the latter. So we had our first kiss in July and we got engaged in the November, and the following May, we were married. So we didn’t hang about, and that’s partly because I have a fear of fiancés dying. [Laughs] You believe things to be true in your life, based on what’s happened to you so far, and for a long time I’ve always – I thought Toby was going to die, for a long time, because, you know, in my life, that’s what happens. [Sobs]. People die. Luckily, he’s not dead. [Laughs]. He’s fine.

But yeah, so I didn’t want to be engaged for very long and neither did he, so we, very quickly, got married. And we’ve just had our 12th anniversary in the summer, well, in May. So yeah, he’s been … And he, he, he is a great husband. He is a very good husband and he totally understands the whole ‘Marc thing.’ I don’t have to explain that. He came to Marc’s memorial service and Marc’s funeral. And by the time the inquest happened, which was five years after the guy’s died … It took them bloody ages to organise an inquest, Christ knows why? Just a delay at the coroner’s office. I mean, how ridiculous is that? And Toby, and my dad, came with me to that, which, you know, is a big thing to sit through a week of essentially a court case, listening to all the evidence about why so many people died. So yeah.

Fig. 5:  Elaine and Toby at their wedding in May 2006.

And now you work together, can you tell me about that?

[Laughs] Sort of. Yes. So I’ve always worked in HR in and Learning and Development, and I’ve always worked, even with both my pregnancies and having the children, like I have always wanted to stay working. Not to the detriment of the children in any way, but I’ve, you know, taken my maternity leave and then gone back to work. And after my second maternity leave, so after Josh was born, I was the Head of Learning and Development for a private healthcare company in Reading. And literally went back after my maternity leave, and after about 2 or 3 weeks, they made the role redundant, which was a bit of a shock at the time because I had, like, a 1-year-old baby and no job, and that was a bit scary. And they’re not technically allowed to do that, there’s quite a lot of, yeah, legal stuff that they were in contravention of, and I was well aware of that.

But my HR director at the time was a little bit naughty but quite kind in that she said, “I have to make you and your team redundant because of the cost savings for the business, you know and blah-blah-blah, business case, business case, whatever …”  But she said she recognised the value of some of the programmes I was delivering within the organisation, and she said she wanted me to continue to run those. So she said, “If you set yourself up as freelance, I will bring you back in,” which is totally illegal. If you are making someone redundant, you have to prove that you don’t need them in the organisation for a minimum of six months. But, I sought legal advice about it, as you would, and everyone I spoke to said, “Well, actually, you don’t stand to gain that much from compensation.” I don’t think then that sexual discrimination … the laws have been tightened up a little bit since then, this was, you know, seven years ago. But the solicitors basically said to me, “Look, for the value of the work that she is offering, you stand to gain very little by taking it through any kind of tribunal or court system. So actually, the path of least resistance, I’d just take the contract of work that she is offering you and know that technically she is in contravention of what she should be doing. But she probably knows that too, so let’s just all be grown-ups about it and accept it.”

So I went freelance when Josh was one. That was a big risk, as with a 1-year-old it’s quite like stepping into the unknown, the not knowing when you’re going to get paid, when the next client is coming, setting yourself up as someone self-employed and … So I’ve been doing that for the last six years now, but then three years ago, Toby decided to leave the corporate world. And – just because of the pressure of the job that he was under was way too much and we decided, because I have a philosophy about life being too short and trying to enjoy life while you’ve got it, so him working five days and being asked to be in three different countries within one week and all the rest of it, just to deliver a job for an organisation that, actually, don’t really give two flying monkeys about your mental health or your well-being.

So we decided enough was enough and that he really didn’t need that stress in his life. So he had a couple months off and during that time we decided he, he – that it was best for both of us, and the children, if he didn’t work full-time either. So I’ve always done part-time as much as I can, like 2-3 days with clients a week and then 2-3 days at home. And so we decided that Toby might want to give that a go too. And because his skills are quite rare, he can pick up contracts relatively easy and relatively quickly. So we sort of do work together but we incorporated; so instead of having two self-employed people in one house, which doesn’t make a lot of sense for loads of reasons, instead of having two self-employed people in the same building, we just decided to set up an umbrella company and both, you know, go under that heading really. It’s, it’s, it’s interesting, and quite unique, because the learning and development I do has absolutely nothing to do with health economics, which is what he does, and I ca- I’m not qualified to do his. He’s a very bright guy, with academic experience coming out of his ears. I can’t do anything that he does pretty much, and he definitely can’t do what I do, but we run the company together. Um, and yeah, it’s a unique combination but it seems to work, I think. I hope. Yeah, it’s going fine. It’s going fine.

Fig. 6: Elaine, Toby, and their children on holiday in France in 2018.

Do you think there’s anything you would like to communicate to people about war widowhood, or perhaps in your case, being somebody who was not quite at the altar when you lost your partner that people should know or would want to know about the situation?

Um. I don’t know. I mean, I’ve developed a few life philosophies but nothing to do with being a war widow or a widowed fiancé or … I don’t even know what the words are, but, but there’s some things I’ve already said, around life being too short to muck about. So if there’s something you want to do, get it done. I definitely have a philosophy about that – just don’t – just do it, just jump in with both feet and see what happens. Um. But the whole war widow thing, I don’t know if that’s … I feel like I can and should do more with and for war widows. I feel like I have experience, I feel like I’m a young person with enough gusto and enough personality to make a difference for future widows. So I have – I am a member of the War Widows Association and I have been in touch with them about trying to be more active in their committee, with a view to … Perhaps not now, as my children are quite little, and running a company and having kids is enough of a challenge without taking on any charity or voluntary work. But at some point, I would like to have more of an active role in terms of providing support for war widows, because it is a really small club, and sort of we want it to stay small. You don’t want more people to join it really, you know; it’s a club you never wanted to be part of. But I do think how people are treated has been, is – has been in the past, really quite shocking. And I think so much can be learned and improved from a widow’s perspective but also from just a military perspective. And I think, to be fair to them, they have improved quite a lot. I would imagine they’ve still got significant strides to take around some of the errors that were made in dealing with me and my situation, and other people too at the same time.

Yes, I’d like to be more active. But I think people are fearful of asking. I don’t think anyone wants to drag you back through it, which is ridiculous because you live it every day – you don’t, you know, you forget this stuff. Just because I’ve got a husband and two kids, and I, you know, run a company and I’ve got a roof over my head doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten where I came from or what, what’s happened. So it’s just, I don’t know, it’s a really rubbish answer to a really good question, but I feel like I can be doing more but how I qualify that or quantify that is unclear at this stage because my, my hands are tied a little bit by my responsibilities as a mum and just as a busy person generally. Um, but yes, I would like people generally to know, and for people I know who have lost someone close to them, that don’t be afraid of mentioning it. You know, you’re not going to upset me, or anyone else who’s lost someone close to them, by mentioning that that happened or that the person died, because you – we know that every day. So, it’s not a bad thing, but I think people are very concerned with it, concerned about doing that.

One of the last things I wanted to cover with you, I’m going to look at your photographs in a minute, is that you said Marc’s death inspired you to do, the work you’re doing now, and I wonder if you could maybe expand on that, slightly?

Yeah, so I remember when I came back from travelling and, when, I needed to pay the mortgage at the end of the day. I had a house to pay for. But I remember feeling quite empowered to make choices because I had learnt a lot about myself as a person and I had learned a lot of new skills out in Australia and in the USA. I had learned so much about myself as an individual, about what I can and can’t tolerate, you know, and who I can and can’t be around, and what’s a safe situation, and what’s a risky situation because I was quite blasé and that got me into trouble a few times and led me into some quite unsafe situations. So I learned, you know, I learned a lot. But one of the things I remember feeling consciously when I came back to the UK was that I didn’t want to just go back to an office job and doing an ‘officey’ boring thing, you know, just make widgets and pay bills. I just … I just can’t think of a less fulfilling life than just something transactional.

So part of the reason I wanted to go back to learning and development – and it was a very conscious choice, I could have done lots of other things – but I felt the need to make a difference, and, and maybe that’s partly selfish because I want to feel as though I’m contributing something, but part, part of what I do – a lot of what I do – is I try and help other people improve themselves. So, you know, I’d typically get called into an organisation to try and improve the capabilities and skills of managers and I just think that’s such an empower – that’s such an empowering thing to be asked to do, because everyone knows management skills can be improved universally – everyone’s worked for a shitty manager and had a really bad experience. Very few of us have worked for a really inspiring leader that’s helped us to feel as motivated and as, you know, to reach our greatest potential.  It’s very rare that you find that, and it might have happened only once or never at all in your career. So I feel very privileged to be called into kind of help some of these people with some of the more gnarly jobs, like some really tricky jobs, to understand how they behave affects other people. And I see that as part of my … I’m not a religious person at all but I do see that as part of my calling, as part of my, part of my ‘reason of being’ is to help smooth the path for other people. If I can do that by improving the capability of the leaders that I’m lucky enough to work with, then, then I think I’m winning. I think that’s so much more fulfilling, for me, as an individual, then churning out whatever documents or … You know? I don’t know, I don’t know, but yes, I do … I do feel as though I carry my past with me in making those decisions.

And I would never talk about it; I’ve hardly spoken about Marc in a professional capacity, if ever, in the training room. I’ve never, ever mentioned it. Well, once, actually, I mentioned it. It came up on a really lovely presentation skills course I was delivering because it was the anniversary of his death and I chose to share that with the group and they asked me a lot about him; it was a two-day workshop so on the second day, I told them about him and showed them some stuff, which was really lovely, really lovely. But unless people ask about it, or know about it, which is very rare, I don’t necessarily offer it up in a professional situation because I don’t think it’s a … it’s not always relevant. And actually, part of being a good facilitator and and a good – helping other people learn, is helping them to learn that I am not a teacher; I don’t  stand there and go, “Well, this is what happened to me…” That’s not how I do it.  So it’s not always relevant but it is definitely there as a driving force behind why I do what I do, I think.

Thank you. Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to cover?

No, well I don’t think so. But one thing I haven’t spoken about much is my children. And they’re little cuties. But it’s funny how they talk about Marc as if they knew him, which is lovely. They never knew him, of course they didn’t know him – they were born years after he died. But, you know, part of, part of what I believe to be his legacy is that if something happens to me, the kids, the kids will continue to remember Marc and continue to put a cross up on the memorial every year, or whatever. And especially little Josh, he’s so fascinated anyway; he’s got a real interest in war and he’s a real World War Two fan and he loves the Lancaster bombers and the Dambusters. And he’s a real … We had to take him, because he demanded it, to the National War … The Imperial Museum in London, and we got the shock of our lives actually, because Marc’s in there.

Like, they’ve put a – they did a thing, some piece of art-slash-thing in there with pictures of Marc on, and all the other people that died – all the people that died in Iraq, the Iraq conflict, have been memorialised in this beautiful piece of wooden furniture where you pull out these slats and then there is a sheet of stamps, and each person who has died, their family have submitted a picture of the person and the picture has been put on the stamps and the stamps are in this beautiful pull-out cabinet. But I didn’t, I didn’t know anything about it because it had nothing to do with me. So, that was a real shocker, because we were just there to show Josh the Spitfire and, you know, all the stuff. And had no idea that was in there so it’s, you know? You’re constantly learning this stuff. But Josh is very sweet, and he wears Marc’s watch. Obviously, I don’t have the watch that Marc was wearing at the time that he died, but he had – all military airmen have more than one watch. And he had a backup watch and I have that, and Josh wears it. He loves it. It’s like his little thing. So, you know, I haven’t spoken much about the boys, but they are cuties. But I hope, I hope, I hope they don’t join the military. [Laughs]. Boys, if you’re listening – don’t join the forces! [Laughs]. Bless them.

Elaine, is there any final thing you’d like to say for the interview about being the partner of somebody who’s lost their life in service?

Yeah. It’s really interesting that people, especially in my situation, because I’m married with two children and I live in a different place, and you know, I think there is a perception, of which we have to be really careful of, of people who are bereaved in any circumstance – doesn’t have to be a bereavement from military service or whatever. But there is a perception that people are ‘moving on’ and you know, I just want to highlight that I think that’s a load of rubbish. People don’t move on, if you’ve loved someone and they’ve died – it doesn’t have to be your partner, it could be your parent, your sibling, your whoever … If you’ve loved someone and they’ve died, you don’t move on. You get on, you get on with life, but you don’t really ever leave that love or that experience, that person behind and I think that’s … I’m just curious, I’d love to have more open conversations with my friends and family about their perception, because I hope they don’t perceive that I’ve moved on. But social norms almost exist to say that you have or you will do, purely because I’m married and have a couple of kids now. So it’s, it’s just something to stew on, really, about this perception we all have, that people do move on. I don’t, from my own personal experience, I don’t believe that to be true. I get on with stuff, you keep moving forwards, but you don’t move on, really.

It’s not as if you don’t love your new husband just as much.

Yes, exactly, exactly. I do love life and I make sure that I do things that are in celebration of life, because I’m very aware of how quickly it can all be taken away from you in the snap of, the snap of someone’s fingers. Anything can change and you can’t take your health or well-being or your life for, for granted. So yeah, I think my experience has taught me to … I think I said it earlier, you know, jump, jump in – if I’m going to jump in, I’m going to jump in with both feet. I’m not going to, I’m not going to dawdle around the edges and wait on the sidelines to be asked to dance. I’m just going to get in there and throw some shapes. [Laughs] So, you know, and I, I hope – I think that comes across in my personality. I think anyone that knows me well would say probably that I’m, I’m quite a spunky, fiery, sunshiny person, and that’s, that’s a choice. It is a choice to be that way. I was always a bit like that but life experiences, especially Marc’s death, has taught me to not muck about with stuff. If you want something, do it. If you are dreaming of something, achieve it. If you’re, you know, gunning for something and you want something, don’t sit on the sidelines and wait for it. Do what you can to make it happen.

Fig. 7: Elaine and her husband, Toby, during a Sea Kings fly-past performed in memory of Marc.

Thank you very much.

It’s a pleasure.

[End of Recording]


[1] Respondent correction: Mike came home for a holiday in July, not Christmas.

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