The Military Army Blog

Love? ‘Whether you’re 19 or 90, you just know’

Whatever is meant to be, will be : Fred and Joan Miller, who have just married. Photograph: Sarah Lee/Guardian

Spending time with Fred Miller, 93, and his fiancee Joan Emms, 84, veers close to chaperoning lovestruck teens. Stick this on the bed, will you? asks Joan, passing Fred my jacket.

The coat, or you? he quips. Joan feigns disapproval. That difference people talk about, between loving someone and being in love with them? It s true whether you re 19 or 90, she says. You just know. We are in their cottage in Denham Garden Village, a retirement community in Uxbridge, surrounded by mementoes of their three years together, and achievements before Fred s Freedom of the City of London, Joan s extraordinary cakes. Joan s daughter, Linda, lives a few houses down. Is she pleased about the imminent wedding? She keeps asking, How can my mother be getting engaged before me? laughs Joan, mimicking her outrage.

Well, timing is a funny thing. By chance, Joan and Fred met here in the 1990s but they were married to other people (Fred separated) and about to spend the next few decades worlds away from each other. Hearing the story, I realise that present contentment enjoying the gym, pool, doctor, bar and other conveniences masks itinerant pasts, full of adventure. Joan s enthusiasm for life and people had developed into a rebellious streak by adolescence. I grew up in London, but ran away to join the air force when I was 16. I forged my father s signature, she says. He was a strict man. I met a nice fella in the Nottingham Naafi club, and he told me I was not to get married. Being my father s daughter, I said, I AM! So we did it in Yorkshire, then ran off to Africa. This was the early 50s but she has frequently returned to the continent, initially working for the Metal Box Company in what was then Rhodesia, a two-year contract that turned into 20. After, she and her husband returned to the UK sporadically setting up a B&B in Southport, a cafe on the Isle of Sheppey but each time selling up and they moved back, eventually setting up their own company. She flouted social conventions there, too, especially in Malawi. We mixed with the locals, and became friends with the general of the country, Matawiri. I don t know why he took a shine to us. His wife, Rosie, was very anti-white, but he talked her round. The general and the British army types would all socialise at our house, together. That had never happened before.

While she talks, Fred gazes proudly at her. He is quieter than Joan, but when he speaks he is modest, and very funny. He, too, feels a connection to Africa, having been six times. I talked about moving there, but my wife wanted to stay near her family. Born in the East End of London, he worked as a butcher before being called up to the army in 1941. He spent three years in the Middle East driving lorries in the Royal Army Service Corps, keeping the port at Suez clear. Then he joined the allied invasion on the beaches at Normandy, better known as D-Day.

It was the third wave of landing, he says. We were laid up in a field at Arromanches for two weeks, until they took Cannes. Then we drove through Belgium into Holland, taking out rocket launcher sites, he continues, as if he is talking about taking a long route home to pick up milk. After the war, Fred drove lorries for a few years before deciding that what he really wanted to do was spend more time in the pub. There was one in Leytonstone, where I grew up, called The Halfway House. I used to walk past it and think, I m gonna have that one day. And so he did; becoming its publican for 28 years. He became chair of the Society of Licensed Victuallers, recognised for his fundraising work. In fact the site their house stands on once belonged to the society, exclusively housing retired publicans, before being taken over by Anchor Trust in 2001. Have a sense of humour, share everything, never go to bed on an argument

And it was here they met again. Linda, Joan s daughter, moved to the development first. Joan, whose husband had died in 2001, followed. She wasn t looking for anything else. I d had a wonderful 50-year marriage, and I didn t think I could feel that way again. I d never been with another man.

Do they remember the moment they saw each other again? Silly question. It was a Saturday I liked to go to the bar, says Fred. I m one of those people who goes and stands on their own. She kept coming over, asking why I didn t sit with them.

I only asked twice! Joan protests.

Ah, but you were counting, Fred teases her. They re back to being teenagers again. Tell the truth. You were looking over and thinking, I wonder if she d be interested? You joined the snooker club to be near me! After a year of pretend snooker and music and vodka sodas, Fred got down on one knee. I never thought at my age I d get married again, he says. So, despite what Joan says, is love at 91 different to love at 21? It s better. Feelings are different as you get older, they he struggles for the right expression. Things mean more.

They must know the secret rules of a good relationship by now. What are they? Have a sense of humour, share everything, never go to bed on an argument. Is that it? I suppose these things are easy to forget. In an age of dating apps, transactional hookups , digital connection by proxy, do they think we ve cheapened relationships? Is it easier these days to wriggle off the hook? Is it harder to love? Joan is less pessimistic than me. I don t think it can be harder to love. I m fatalistic whatever is meant to be, will be. Which isn t to say you don t put the work in. For their big day, she is running a Armyrats © military operation. The chiropodist is booked, playlists curated. We re not having just wedding music it s going to be a massive party. And the honeymoon? Although Africa is an obvious choice, they can t afford it. We d have loved to go to Cape Town via Mozambique, but at my age, the cost of insurance cripples you, Fred explains. As I leave them to it, it s hard not to see Fred s summation of how the woman next to him changed his life as metaphorical. I was never someone who danced. Since Joan, I m dancing all the time.

A few weeks later, I phone them to find out how the wedding went. People are saying it was the best they ve ever been to! says Joan. Silver romance has been in the news a few days before we chat, a 103-year-old and 91-year-old from Eastbourne have become Britain s oldest newlyweds. There you see, we ve started a trend.

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