Bedtime stories

John A Silkstone

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In Afghanistan, our boys are reading from the front

Fighting overseas doesn’t stop British soldiers telling their children bedtime stories

Across Afghanistan are secret caches of The Gruffalo, tattered and dusty copies of the children’s book hidden safely in British army rucksacks. While soldiers recover from the latest bout of fighting, army padres poke their heads through desert tents, asking if anyone wants to read a bedtime story to their children, 4,000 miles away.

Another favourite spot for recording is a British army ammunitions compound, where a dog-eared copy of The Night Before Christmas is the most popular right now. Soldiers sit alone with their book amid the stacks of bullets and explosives, whispering into a microphone about how “the children were nestled all snug in their beds”. Meanwhile, the warrant officer guards the door.

These recordings, edited free of sandstorm wind and the constant beating of helicopter blades, are now being played to soothe thousands of British babies, children, and teenagers missing their fathers this Christmas.

It’s part of a new service called Storybook Soldiers, offered by volunteers in the Army to try to close the family fracture caused by the conflict in Afghanistan. Although soldiers can send occasional e-mails and make even more occasional satellite phone calls, thousands of families have discovered that there is nothing more evocative than the sound of a parent’s voice, reading.

On my visit to an army child’s home, at bedtime on a dark December night, I also realised that these story CDs are the most powerful testament to the self-sacrifice of those who go to war.

The garrison at Aldershot is gloomy in winter, but Kate Pates’s house is lit up like a Christmas tree — inside the door we have to duck to avoid, among other ornaments, an abseiling Santa on a zip wire. Kate admits that she may be overcompensating a little with the decorations. Will, her 28-year-old husband, left for Afghanistan in October, and he won’t see his wife or his three-year-old daughter, Izzy, until early next summer.

Izzy nestles on the sofa, holding her battered, laminated photo of her father, pictured standing in this living room in his army fatigues. It’s nearly bedtime, but she prefers to listen to her CD now rather than in bed, so she does not wake in the night calling for him. Izzy lifts the CD reveren-tially out of its box and cues it up.

The disembodied voice of Lance Sergeant Pates fills the room. “Hello, Izzy, it’s Daddy here,” his voice says, before beginning a story that he adapted for her, called Isabelle and the Beanstalk. He recorded it before he left for Afghanistan — there are handheld voice recorders set up for units about to deploy, as well as ones sent out with them to the field.

The first time Izzy listened to it a few weeks ago, her chin went “wobbly”. Now, hundreds of hearings later, it gives her a rush of excitement. It has become a talisman and a stand-in. The CD ends after about five minutes, “That’s all now, Izzy. It won’t be long before I’m home. Love you lots,” Will’s voice says. Izzy laughs and says “night night”, but I notice Kate is discreetly wiping her eyes. “When I listen to it, I realise how hard it is for him, missing her. And it’s the contrast between doing something this nice and sweet for a little girl, and the reality of what’s going on out there, which is horrific.”

Just then, my mobile phone rings, and Kate jumps. She hasn’t heard from Will for more than a week, which is normal. She can go without news for two weeks. But she is anxious. Just a few days before my visit, a soldier from his same regiment, the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, became the 99th member of UK Forces to die in Afghanistan this year. That loss weighs heavily on the close-knit army wives.

“It sounds ridiculous, but I take my mobile phone into the bathroom with me, just in case I miss a call. But actually talking on the phone is hard. The signal can be so bad. You get cut off. This CD is something she can relate to, when she needs it, which is every time she mentions Daddy.”

Andi Gray is married to the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards. Before he left, Lieutenant-Colonel Toby Gray recorded one CD for the youngest of their four children, five-year-old Johnny, and the eldest, 15-year-old Madeleine. The nine-year-old twins are getting theirs soon, as soon as Toby gets enough time in between combat to record a story in the Afghanistan mountains.

They received the two CDs three days ago, and decided to listen to them first, all together in the car. Andi put on Johnny’s story, a cautionary tale about a shark. “There was a bit of silence when I put it on. That was a variety of things. They were listening to make sure it was Daddy’s voice. They listened intently that first time, until it finished.”

Then came the CD for Madeleine: Toby’s favourite poem, If, by Rudyard Kipling, which he had adapted to suit a girl. “That one, yes, my eyes began to fill up,” Andi says. Her son “absolutely loves” the personal message at the beginning, “Hello, Johnny, this is Daddy ... ” it begins, but Andi’s favourite bit is the faint sound of men’s voices in the background. “I love the fact that we can hear them, and a telephone not answered. It really brought it home to me. It was real, very real.”

That said, she would never listen to them on her own: “It’s the last thing I would do if I was having a wobbly moment. And anyway, I don’t feel like it’s made for me. It’s very personal.” Some wives were reluctant to participate in the scheme. They felt, like the Second World War tradition of a final photograph before a pilot went on a bombing raid, that it almost tempted fate. “There is a dual position,” Andi says. “Some people find it a bit spooky — to have that disembodied voice, when you know that person is somewhere horrible. It doesn’t make me feel too bad. I’d rather press ahead and do all these things so you won’t regret not having the chance. And the more you listen to it, the more it becomes part of everyday life.

“I have a friend who has lost her husband in Afghanistan. Before he died, he had recorded a story for her children with Storybook Soldier. That is really, really poignant. It is doing a great job for my children, but it is also doing a great job for her children.”

Storybook Soldier was set up by Kirsty Alderson, herself an army wife and mother of four. She works in army education, helping soldiers to gain basic skills in reading and maths. At an awards ceremony for some work she had done, she happened to bump into the organisers of Storybook Dads, a scheme to help male prisoners to keep in touch with their children by recording audio books.

“I just thought the underlying principle was so blindingly obvious. Being parted from their children is part of the job that soldiers do, but they sign up quite young, when they don’t have families of their own. It’s the older ones, in their thirties, who are very aware of what they are leaving behind.”

She began in 2007 with a handful of soldiers and a small network of army wives who volunteer their time to give the stories a professional sound edit. Many of the soldiers are dyslexic and reluctant to have mistakes captured, but the editors piece together takes and weave in appropriate music with the aim of creating a family heirloom. “They put so much care into it, because they know how much it matters,” Alderson says. Since then they have sent out 2,500 CDs, and the scheme now covers the whole Army, with 30 stories a week arriving home for their volunteers. They are barely able to keep up with demand.

When Alderson’s own husband was last deployed, she was of course full of the best intentions to record a story from him. But to her surprise she found she could not. “It was me. My youngest would have loved a story. It would have been good for the little ones to have the familiarity of his voice. But I was so emotional. At the last minute, I thought: ‘I can’t handle it.’ ”

Back in Kate Pates’s house, I am preparing to leave when Kate’s phone rings. “It’s Will!” she says, springing out of her chair with excitement. After a few minutes of urgent conversation — the line may go dead at any time — she puts the phone on speaker for her daughter.

“Daddy, I miss you!” Izzy shouts.

“I miss you too,” Will says.

“I miss you so much. I’m doing a dance for you!” Izzy dances around the room.

Kate passes the phone to me and, down a very scratchy phone line to the war zone, I ask Will about how it felt to record the story. “It was a bit surreal. It was a story I know she likes, but that I won’t read to her for another six months. When I recorded it, I imagined myself away. And I imagined her sitting at home without me. It is kind of heartbreaking. And I imagined ... ” Here Will’s voice slowed. He sounded exhausted.“I imagined it could be the last time. That’s the reality of the situation that we’re in.”

I passed the phone back to Kate and she left the room to have a few minutes of private conversation. I stared at Izzy, still dancing. Never before have I truly appreciated how much courage these men show, to risk everything most dear to them to go to war. And the courage of their family, left behind.

‘You don’t want a child to hear bullets flying. You have to pick your moment’

Some time next week, three small children in Aldershot will receive a special recording of their father, Corporal Richard Loughton, reading them a Grinch story. He is in Afghanistan and will not be home at Christmas. “You’re not there in person, but I know I’ll be with them when they listen to the story every night before they go to bed,” Loughton says.

“They will always be able to hear me and that gives me a really nice warm feeling.”

Loughton’s eldest son, Samuel, 4, has a picture of his dad in uniform in his bedroom. “I thought it would be nice for him to sit with his brother and sister, hear my voice and look at the photograph,” he says.

“This year Samuel knows what Christmas is, and Charlie and Abi, who are 23 months, can unwrap presents. The story will keep for later years.” He has been away for three months; tours usually last six.

He made the recording in the company of Mark Christian, a senior chaplain,who has encouraged many soldiers to read to their children. “The positive effect that this storytelling has on everybody is incredible,” Christian says.

“It makes children and fathers and mothers connect, and remain connected. I’ve heard so many tales of wives getting sick and tired of these things because the children insist on listening to them morning noon and night. It’s the sound of Dad and it maintains the connection.

“If someone says: ‘I’m missing my kids, Padre,” I say: ‘Have you done them a Storybook Soldier?’ So they sit in the privacy of my room and record one, and all their feeling goes into it. I’ve done loads of them; I did The Night Before Christmas for a godchild myself, and I really hammed it up.

“People often are moved to tears because of it. I suggest putting a picture of your child in front of you while you’re doing it, because it gets them focused on what they’re doing; they’re not just speaking into a recording device.”

Isn’t it strange to read silly stories in the middle of a war? The operating base from where the soldiers are speaking is relatively comfortable, Christian says, though some recordings are made on the front line.

“The problem there is getting the quiet, because you don’t want a child to listen to a story when there are bullets flying in the distance. So you have to pick your moment.”

Warrant Officer Dale Simkiss recorded a Gruffalo story for his three nieces. “I’m close to them and they visit my house quite often, so I thought it would be nice for them to hear my voice,” he says.

“I felt quite emotional as I did it, because you realise you’re speaking to them. My wife says she’s going to play it for the dog.”


The top 6 bedtime stories

The Gruffalo

The Snail and the Whale

Room on the Broom

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

The Night Before Christmas

The Gigantic Turnip
 
Excellent article, John. Too many people forget about the children of those who are doing the fighting for our collective countries. It's heart warming to read about those who care enough to go that extra mile, when it comes to caring for the little ones we've left behind.

Well done.salute;
 
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