For Lucy Bell, a simple phone call from her partner Ben was a special moment.
But then she would find herself tongue-tied. How can you talk about the little things in your life when he’s witnessing tragedy and facing the danger of roadside bombs?
An officer in the Royal Marines, Ben was on deployment in Iraq and Lucy would never know when she was going to be able to speak to him next.
She says: ‘It felt a bit like going from a modern lifestyle to being something like a World War Two wife, waiting to hear from him and sending letters and care packages.’
As Ben and his colleagues were busy with the immense challenges of their work, would sometimes be patrolling through the night and probably had to wait to use phones and computers, contact could be as infrequent as every couple of weeks.
‘And it was sometimes quite difficult to speak on the phone,’ says Lucy.
‘I would be so looking forward to talking to him and then get tongue-tied. All the things that you might start talking about, the petty things that have been bothering you, you feel you shouldn’t say because they’ve got far bigger worries.’
Being the wife or partner of a marine on deployment throws up all kinds of unforeseen challenges and can be a strange life, says Lucy.
And with service spouses in the forefront of people’s minds with the recent chart success of the Military Wives choir, Lucy decided it was a fitting subject for a play.
The 36-year-old mum has written Jo’s War, which focuses on both the mother and girlfriend of a soldier away on deployment.
It looks at the conflict between the mum, who is used to dealing with loved ones being sent to war zones and the girlfriend, who is new to the situation.
Lucy, who also writes a Tuesday column for The News under the name Lucinda Richardson, says: ‘In the play the main character starts off being nervous about military life because it is all very new to her. But by the end it has become a tribute to all the wives and girlfriends and the mothers who have been going through this life and their strength.
‘She comes to realise that life is about the long-term. That is what keeps military wives going. They might have a few difficult months, but they know they want to spend the rest of their life with the person they love. They think it’s worth putting up with a bit of loneliness short-term to be with their partner for many years ahead.’
Lucy’s play was the winner of a competition by Yorkshire theatre company Encore Drama. Jo’s War opened in Leeds in January and Encore will be bringing the production to Portsmouth’s Groundlings Theatre on March 3.
It isn’t based on Lucy’s life, but she has been able to draw inspiration from her own experiences as the girlfriend and then wife of a marine.
Ben was deployed to Iraq in 2006 when the couple had been together for about a year-and-a-half.
Lucy says one of the challenges was dealing with the debates in the media on the rights and wrongs of the war and she hopes the play will help people understand military families a bit better.
‘I understand that we had to have those debates, but it is very hard for the families.
‘I remember watching something with people saying their presence in Iraq was entirely cosmetic. When someone you love or even know personally is going out on patrol, taking huge risks and people are being killed, it’s quite hard to hear that in someone’s opinion they’re there as a token gesture.
‘People weren’t attacking the troops themselves but it’s very difficult to separate the two.’
Ben also went to Afghanistan in 2008 a couple of months after they were married. Now he is home and the couple are together in Portsmouth with their two young daughters.
Lucy says the play has plenty of light-hearted content and also looks at the positive aspects of having a loved one in the military.
‘I would hate people to think I’m whingeing. I’m very lucky my husband is okay and well,’ she says, adding: ‘There’s an awful lot of pride among the wives and we all look out for each other. If your husband is in the forces and you meet another person in the same position, they’ll watch your back.
‘It’s definitely a life with challenges. But the play aims to dispel some of the myths and stereotypes and show that people in the services community are just like anyone else.
‘Anybody who lived that life might find it hard initially, but they would get used to it because they would have to.’
It’s mainly the strangeness of the situation that she wants to get across.
‘It’s all the little things that other couples do. I’d watch someone’s husband putting the bins out and miss mine. And of course you can’t have an argument or go off in a sulk,’ she says, laughing.
‘You can’t think ‘‘right that’s annoyed me I’m not going to pick up the phone’’. It makes all those little day-to-day ups and downs out of the question.’
But there is joy and relief when a loved one returns.
‘I remember him calling to tell me he’d done his last patrol in Iraq and it was just like a weight lifting,’ recalls Lucy.
‘I went to work and suddenly I felt I could deal with things so much better.’
‘Of course that’s nothing to the difficulties of the soldiers themselves. But sometimes waiting and having time to think about everything can be a challenge.’
Jo’s War is a story of the evolving relationship between a soldier’s girlfriend, Jo, and his mother, Sue.
Jo is a Guardian-reading career woman for whom falling in love with a soldier is something of an unfortunate accident.
Sue is a patriot of the old school who thinks the world’s gone ‘squeamish’.
They are thrown together by soldier Steve’s deployment with explosive results. Fittingly enough for a play about military separation, the audience never actually get to meet the soldier.
Jo’s War plays at Groundlings Theatre in Kent Street, Portsmouth on March 3 at 7.30 pm. Tickets are available on (023) 9273 7370 or at groundlings.co.uk
There will be a collection at the end for Help For Heroes.
Sue looks at the calendar.
SUE A fortnight today ‘til he’s home!
JO Two weeks. That’s like a blink, a sneeze, a twitch after three months.
SUE (with excitement) Ten more shifts. Two more trips to Asda. I’ll never finish his
JO Fourteen more mornings ‘til he’s here – warming his hands on a coffee. Safe.
SUE He’ll be tanned. Tired but tanned.
JO His hair will be longer. Eyelashes blond.
SUE Calluses on his fingers. His washing all over the floor.
JO Only thirteen more nights reading too late.. The sheets cold.
(Jo looks at Sue with tentative empathy.)
JO How many tours have you been through with Steve?
SUE This is my third. There was Operation Telic 3 in Iraq, and the invasion before that.
JO I admire your courage.
SUE Why? My mother packed Dad off to Normandy before their honeymoon was out.
JO But it was different then. Everyone was in it together