During a recent stay in hospital, I found myself in the rare position of having nothing to do for hours at a stretch. I’d no reading material with me, and not even a notepad and pen to tide me through. All I had left was daydreaming, and quiet observation of my fellow in-mates in the few cubicles ranged along the walls of the assessment ward. One elderly lady in particular intrigued me. She rapidly became my study for a character I’m writing - a girl who appears in her young years at the start of the book and then in her declining years at the end, with a full life in-between.
This is how it often happens with me – I have the character in my head along with most of their life history, but only a vague idea of how their physical appearance, their mannerisms and so on, until almost inevitably a stranger appears somewhere and I know that’s the character I’ve been thinking about. Nothing pleases me more than an enforced bout of people-watching, and believe me, this particular bout was definitely enforced. But it was great, and the more I observed this elderly lady, the more and more rounded my character became, to the extent that when my dear husband arrived during visiting hours clutching a thin lined notebook and a couple of pencils from the hospital volunteer shop, I only had to make a couple of quick notes to record my character’s physical characteristics.
The next morning, her medical consultant visited. After a low-voiced discussion of whatever condition she had, he lifted her spirits by getting her to talk about her life. He drew her out beautifully, and here was the gist of her story.
She was eighty-three years old. She met the man who was to become her husband when she was thirteen. He was seventeen. They married when she reached her own seventeenth birthday, by which time the Second World War had begun, and he was already serving – together with hundreds of other young men – as a fighter pilot. He flew Hurricanes. During 1942 he fought in the Battle of Britain, which as all good history students know is considered one of the major events that prevented an invasion of Britain. It was the event that prompted Winston Churchill to pronounce that ‘never in the field of human conflict was so much owed to so many by so few.’ The Battle of Britain pilots are regarded by many now as, quite simply, heroes.
But what of my old lady? She was a wartime wife. She could have so easily been a wartime widow. I pictured her as best I could, perhaps standing on the white cliffs of the Sussex coast, wondering if the fighter plane caught up in a terrible dogfight over the Channel was his. How many times did she wonder if he’d come back? What did she to do distract herself from such dreadful thoughts? And did she ever feel the aching pull between her relief that he was back safe, and the sadness of the knowledge that on an almost daily basis during that stifling summer of 1942, so many other young men just like him did not return? They were his friends, his companions. They were her friends too. So many young lives lost, so much grief. So many memories to carry.
When he came to visit her in hospital, I watched them both from behind my notebook. My imagination found it difficult to balance the frail old gent I saw before me with the mind’s-eye image of a fresh-faced young man, not much more than a boy, in an airforce-blue RAF uniform jacket that was maybe still a little too wide around the shoulders. And yet, they were one and the same. Back then, he’d begun his adult life in a way he couldn’t have anticipated, and he’d come through to reach old age. Too many others never did.
Sitting together without much need for words, they were secure in each other’s company as they’ve been for over seventy years. He held her hand constantly while she dozed. They live in the village next to mine, these two. I may have stood next to him in the post office queue, never knowing that I was standing next to a wartime hero. I know I’ve stood next to her, or others like her, and forgotten to think of the life that she may have lived. I won’t forget that again. Thousands of other women shared her experiences, and yet their lives were unique. Each one has a story to tell, each one is individual. In my eyes, every one of them is a heroine.
It made me think. I’m ‘just telling a story,’ but I had come across one out of hundreds of others who’d lived that story. When I’m writing, I must remember those women, those men. They were real, they are real, and I have to write my characters as true as I can because in a strange way, now I know I owe it to all those hundreds and thousands of ordinary heroes and heroines.
They’re all around you, waiting quietly for their stories to be heard. All you have to do is listen.
I'm Jane Richardson, and I live on the Sussex coast in the UK. My contemporary romance novel A Different Kind of Honesty is availble from Amazon, The Wild Rose Press, and all the usual outlets in print and e-book. Find out more about me and my writing at my website and my blog.