Surrounded by her fellow choir members, Gail Douglas feels strong enough to smile brightly and sing loudly.
Only occasionally – perhaps when the words of a song strike close to home and stir the emotions – does she begin to falter.
And then Gail’s singing companions simply carry on, letting her sit down and have a few moments to herself.
It’s been less than three months since Gail’s husband Mark died suddenly of an aortic dissection (a tear in the inner wall of the aorta).
And in that time, the group of women who form Portsmouth Military Wives Choir have become an important part of the 42-year-old Gosport mum’s life.
The choir sang at the funeral of 39-year-old Mark and Gail was so touched by the support they offered, she decided to become a member.
Now she rehearses with them at the HMS Collingwood Chapel – where the funeral was held – and finds the experiences uplifting, even though she has had the odd difficult moment.
‘Last week I was taken by surprise. We did songs that had been sung at Mark’s funeral and I was fine through those. Then we sang On My Own and it completely floored me. But I just sat down as everyone carried on. It was the best thing for me, I saw it as a man-up moment.
‘You just have to carry on. If someone had put their arm around me it would have made it worse.’
But Gail felt the support of her choir companions as they sang emotive lines like ‘On My Own, Pretending He’s Beside Me’ from the Les Miserables song.
The Military Wives Choirs Foundation was set up to offer the camar-
aderie many forces spouses and partners feel they need whether their loved ones are at home, abroad, serving in a war zone or on a less hazardous deployment.
‘It’s quite unsettling when you’re husband is away. You might not live anywhere near your family and this offers that extra level of support,’ says Sarah Kiff, member and publicist of the Portsmouth choir.
She explains that there are groups across the UK and world so if members move they can usually access another.
The Portsmouth choir, under musical director Ben Charles, performs to an extremely high standard.
As well as local community events, they have appeared at the Classical Brits at the Royal Albert Hall and the Festival of Remembrance. They also contributed tracks to the MWC CDs.
It was one of these that convinced Gail to ask the women to sing at Mark’s funeral.
The dad-of-three, who had recently left the navy when he died, was a big fan of the choirs and everything they stood for.
‘He used to torture our teenage children by playing their song Wherever You Are. It would blast through the house at 5am when he got up,’ laughs Gail.
‘So we thought it would be quite funny at the funeral. He was such a joker, he had a fabulous sense of humour. It was a solemn occasion but we also wanted it to represent him.’
The choir also performed a hymn that the couple’s seven-year-old son Dominic had learned at school and wanted to be included in the service.
No one else knew it and because the choir was singing, the little boy was able to join in quietly
Gail says the Military Wives’
presence at a tough time was invaluable to her family – Dominic and 17-year-old twins Alexander and Melia.
‘I didn’t want my children to be traumatised by their father’s funeral and it was a really beautiful service. We have happy memories and the ladies were a big part of that.’
And she immediately recognised the importance of the charity for herself and others.
‘Considering I didn’t personally know any of them before that, I’ve felt completely supported.’
‘It doesn’t get any easier,’ says Karen Sparkes, who has been married for 20 years but still struggles when husband Peter is deployed.
The 43-year-old teacher is used to life with a husband in the navy but that doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing when he’s about to leave.
‘It can be a stressful time. He’s going away, you’re going to be on your own. And at the same time you’re trying to do all the things that need to be done.’
Peter has been serving on an ice patrol vessel in the South Atlantic and Antarctica. In total last year, he was way for 40 out of 52 weeks (although not all at once).
As a teacher and mum, Karen leads a busy life but the support of the Military Wives Choir and the adventure of performing at momentous occasions have become extremely important.
‘It gives you friendship, a sense of community and something to look forward to every week,’ says Karen.
As a military wife and also a commander in Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service, Julie Thain-Smith brings another dimension to the choir.
She understands what it’s like to have a husband deployed and to be deployed herself.
‘Well the main difference is that when he goes away the house is tidy and when I come back it’s usually a tip,’ jokes Julie, 51, during a break in rehearsals.
Like the other women, she joined Portsmouth Military Wives Choir for companionship, fun and support.
And she can also offer her fellow members help, putting them in touch with services and family organisations.
Julie has served in Iraq as a medic and husband Darren has served in Afghanistan. She understands deployment but says: ‘Everyone’s experience is different.’ And she admits: ‘Being a service couple can be hard.’
Her favourite performance was at Ely Cathedral, where the choir sang with the Royal Marines Band.
Portsmouth Military Wives Choir will sing at Portsmouth Cathedral on June 26. Tickets are £8 with £6 concessions. Visit portsmouthfestivities.co.uk or call (023) 9282 4355.
On July 5 and 6, they’ll perform at the South Coast Proms at HMS Exc-ellent. Tickets are £12.50 to £25. Visit southcoastproms.com or call (023) 9231 2007.
The choir can be booked for events. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.