This Queer Angel is a revealing memoir, laying open the cruel truth behind the longstanding ban on LGBT personnel serving openly in H.M. Forces. Within its pages, Chambers discover the human cost of being deemed a criminal in the institutions protecting fellow citizens’ hard-won freedoms.
Published by Unbound in March this year, we are lucky enough to have been given an extract of the opening chapter:
This Queer Angel – Extract
The Beginning of the End
A fair-sized bedroom, situated on the first floor of the officers’ mess. The whole building is solid, well-built and typically ‘army’ in its outward appearance. Standard issue, uniformly hideous soft furnishings, magnolia paint on every wall, identically styled wardrobes, chairs, beds and dressing tables, all made of wood, functional, built to last. In the far left-hand corner is a large porcelain sink with the original taps, probably dating back to immediately after the war, when the Luftwaffe incumbents were supplanted by British military hospital personnel.
A young-looking sergeant is glancing out of the only window. She seems to be deeply embarrassed and cannot return my gaze. When she notices me observing her, we both redden slightly and avert our eyes. I sense a mutual understanding, a recognition.
I look down at my hands, devoid of any adornment as I’m still in uniform – no varnish, wristwatch or jewellery allowed. Nails neatly clipped almost down to the quick, my skin dry from the constant washing and use of paper towels, my cuticles ragged and untended. I find myself idly wondering if I’ll get arthritis in old age as my knuckles are already quite big. An inner smile plays at the corner of my mouth as I recall Sadie’s lewd remark about my fingers. My reverie is interrupted by a gruff cough as WO2 (Warrant Officer, Class 2) Lentman clears his throat. He starts reading from a printed sheet, MOD Form 811A, explaining to me that this is a ‘Notice to Suspect at Interviews with Service Police’. Once more, my train of thought careers wildly down a very different track – Suspect?! Bloody hell! My crazed imagination immediately lurches into yet another scene – I’m a latter-day Atticus Finch, mounting an impassioned plea to a jury of my peers, my eloquent defence causing deeply ingrained, long-held prejudices to crumble.
‘We’ll start now, ma’am.’ I look up at him from my subjugated position, sitting on a chair by the dressing table. Although my rank is superior, I am obliged to cede to his authority over me. His being a Red Cap instantly makes my Queen’s commission worthless.
‘Yes, of course.’ I feel like Alice, getting smaller and smaller, my voice not seeming to belong to me.
‘Are you happy for Matron to stay as witness, or would you like someone else?’
What a ridiculous question! My heart is pounding like crazy, racing as if about to burst; I don’t want anyone to witness what’s happening, let alone that woman. She cannot even bring herself to look at me, her tight-lipped, stern, humourless face is deeply pained. It feels as though she has already made up her mind as to my guilt.
The sergeant is now trying to put on a pair of latex gloves. It may be the stultifying tension or the heat – the window is shut on this hot summer’s evening – but she is clearly struggling. I’m instantly taken back to my earliest days as a ‘baby’ student nurse, convinced there was no way I could ever qualify. Three years of training when even the simplest of tasks seemed so impossible! Trying to feel a radial pulse through the thick wrist of some overweight Territorial Army squaddie, admitted whilst on exercise, playing at Rambo, suspected of having had a minor heart attack whilst trying to run for cover, or perhaps just constipated because he can’t digest ‘Compo’ food rations. Reading the seemingly invisible line of mercury in a glass thermometer. Taking blood pressures, trying to hold a stethoscope against the crook of the elbow and squeeze the sphygmomanometer bulb at the same time, even hearing the subtle ‘lub dub’ sounds of blood pushing against vessels, let alone interpreting their meaning…
A sharp snap jolts me back to the present: the cuff of the glove twanging against her wrist, two of the fingers flailing loosely. They’d brought a box of ‘large’ to suit Mr Lentman’s needs, but he is already busy, working his way through several packets of photographs he’d found. The fact they felt they needed to wear latex gloves just to search my room makes the whole thing seem even more sinister – and also absurd.
I sit there, outwardly silent, calm and orderly, knees pressed tightly together, ankles crossed, my dress smooth over my lap, beautifully pressed, medal and shoes gleaming – a perfect example of military training, ready for anything. Inside I am laughing hysterically at the madness of it all.
As they continue their very methodical search of my small room, I begin to weigh up my options, limited as they are. Ultimately, as I know there is no escape, I try to buy myself a little thinking time. I decide not to let them know that all the ‘evidence’ they need is right there on my single bed, nicely bagged up for them by yours truly. No, I sit very still throughout the three hours they take to ransack my life. It feels as if I am having a minor emotional breakdown. My thoughts are chaotic and rambling as they look at every single one of the thousands of photographs I own; pull each of the hundreds of LPs and singles from their covers; root through all the drawers, both wardrobes and the cupboards, checking pockets in clothes; even emptying my laundry bin – talk about airing your dirty linen in public! They flick through the pages of dozens of paperbacks; pull letters and cards from envelopes; open the box containing many years’ worth of diaries going back to my early teens, long before I’d even thought of joining up.
Then Lentman empties out the two carrier bags I’d frantically filled with letters, books and cards earlier that afternoon. He is speed- reading his way through my life, searching for the words that are relevant to the case against me. Every now and then, he emits a little ‘hmm’ as he reads something that hits an investigative chord.
I don’t know how I refrain from laughing out loud when he holds up three unlabelled VHS tapes: ‘Can you tell me what’s on these, ma’am?’
My slightly raised eyebrow, à la Roger Moore, gives him no clue, but I SO want to assume a breathy, pseudo-sexy voice and say, ‘Lesbian biker nuns on acid.’ Instead I hear myself reply in a slightly bewildered and amused tone, ‘I think it’s a James Dean film and Victoria Wood’s As Seen on TV. Do you want me to play them for you?’
‘That won’t be necessary,’ is the reply, but his facial expression is utterly readable, his disappointment tangible – I am clearly telling the truth, and I imagine how annoying it must be not to find some salacious, perverted filth to bag up with the rest of the gathered ‘evidence’ of my depravity.
Behind my bemused expression, reality hits home. Deep down, I know this is the beginning of the end for me.
Check out the book and the blog tour
If the above has whetted your whistle then check out some of the reviews written for the Random Things Blog Tour. The book is also available in paperback and on Kindle now.