A Patched-Together Tale
Two photographs are on the desk in front of me. They are creased and have damaged edges but have been kept flat, placed between the pages of a dictionary. On the back of each is a stamp from a Lincolnshire newspaper and some penciled notes. This is the first time I’ve seen them, but I have a good idea what they are. In the first picture a vintage biplane, a Hawker Demon of the Royal Air Force, can be seen at long distance, sleek and silver. It lies upside down in a ploughed field, seemingly unharmed except for a wrinkle in the top wing now splattered with mud. Around it are various official looking people, perhaps assessing the damage or trying to ascertain how to move the wreck. It’s dated on the back in pencil: November 3rd, 1938.
The second photograph is a close up of the same scene from the other side. A tall figure in a full-body Sidcot flying suit holds out a cup to accept something - tea, I suppose - from a young woman, slight, pretty, who pours carefully from a thermos. In his other hand is a cigarette. Behind him the same aircraft lies, obviously mangled in this shot, its propeller shattered. Stacked on the wing are his parachute and other items too indistinct to identify. Both figures are standing ankle deep in shiny, glutinous mud. She has rubber wellingtons; he has mud on the lower parts of his flight suit.
At first sight it all seems like a joke, something about Britain and the Empire and stiff upper lips in 1938. Here they stand, this rather glamorous pair, soothing themselves after a flying mishap with the nice hot cup of tea – the very thing my grandma saw as a solution to almost every upset in life. The way the young woman leans in towards the pilot, avoiding the direct gaze of the camera, suggests a possible attraction between the pair, a shyness that is based in the feelings of the moment’s drama.
It’s the first time I’ve seen these photographs. This one has some sort of damage in the emulsion, which gives it a gently mottled look. It feels as if that surface blemish brings me closer to the scene, as if I’m looking at it through a chain link fence. There are questions here, and I want to explore them.
The date is important. In less than a year Britain will be at war with Germany and this young man, Sergeant Jack Bullard, will be expected to take a much more modern aircraft into combat. It has all the makings of romance.
And perhaps there was romance in that moment. The young woman, in her expensive looking full-length rain slicker and stylish beret seems to be rather upper class. Jack is a sergeant pilot - not an officer and therefore not a gentleman. But romance can conquer such obstacles, surely. Her body language suggests she’s already smitten.
But there’s an obstacle to romance – isn’t there always? Doesn’t that make the emotions keener? This new dimension is not obvious unless you do some research. That’s because family lore won’t be enough to decipher the emotions and currents in this picture. Indeed, the old stories will probably get in the way.
Here is what we know; and some of what we can deduce: Sergeant Jack Bullard had been flying a Hawker Demon on a routine exercise when he collided with the other aircraft he was in formation with. Both pilots had to make emergency landings. Jack stayed with his crippled plane and attempted to put it down in a suitable field. He could have bailed out, but he hesitated to do that – he had a passenger. Behind him sat Aircraftman First Class Hill. Hill was probably very excited by all this, since he’d been brought along for the experience of flying, one that most in his lowly position would only get rarely.
The aircraft was still flyable, but only just. It was the mud that was the problem. All the fields had been recently ploughed for winter, and a gentle stretch of a few hundred yards of grass was no where to be seen. These Hawker biplanes were very light and quite fast for their time. All the weight was in the engine. If the wheels decided to dig in (and mud will oblige) then the plane would flip over onto its back. Jack knew that. Perhaps Aircraftman Hill knew it, too. But aircraft were not to be abandoned in the air if there was a chance of bringing them to earth so they could be repaired. The rumblings of war were in the newspapers. Every plane would be needed soon.
The plane skimmed past the trees, silent but for the whistle of the wind through the wires. Jack had switched off the engine and the fuel in case of fire and that meant he had no power and not much room for error. Keeping the nose well up, full flaps, he aimed to stall and so drop the plane almost straight down on its wheels, leaving it with minimal forward motion. It was a good big field, but sooner or later he’d have to put the main wheels on the ground. He eased back on the stick, felt the shudder as it stalled. Then came the thumps as the wheels brushed the ploughed clods, touched the ground, and promptly dug in to the mud. The propeller windmilled into the ground, shattering, stopping the plane dead, throwing it onto its back.
The edge of the windbreak around the rear gun must have connected with the back of Hill’s neck. He was killed outright.
Upside down, hanging from his safety harness, Jack wouldn’t have known this right away. He’d have yelled to Hill to get out in case of fire and then clambered out himself. Turning to help Hill he’d have seen the dead man’s body dangling on the safety harness. He’d have had to reach in, unbuckle the quick-release at Hill’s waist, and the dead weight would have slumped onto his shoulder. He couldn’t avoid being pushed into the mud – he’d have to duck down to get out of the fuselage, and so he’d have pulled the body free and dragged him clear.
The picture now takes on a different aspect. Jack accepts his cup of tea some time after the smash. He has stacked the parachute packs and other items on the wing, away from the mud, ready to be returned to stores. Perhaps someone is attending to Hill’s body, out of camera view. Perhaps Jack is standing as he is in order to distract the young woman from the sight of the bundle of flesh and overalls that had once been Aircraftman Hill. He is in an agony of guilt and regret. Look at the picture – this is not a photograph of a man who is relieved to be alive, breathing the cool clean air in miraculous intoxication at having survived. It is an image of a man in pain at what has just happened.
He cannot leave his plane until he officially hands it over to the retrieval crew. If he is saying anything to the young woman with the thermos it is probably something to the effect of what a damn shame it is. He’d wanted to do something nice for Hill and had ended up killing him. And then the photographer appeared.
Jack’s only too well aware of the ironies he’s living through, that he feels he’s got caught up in. It makes him so angry he could spit. So he feels he has to explain himself to this shy, attractive young woman standing beside him who seems to ask nothing of him. Is he speaking now because he’s afraid he might burst into tears? This Hawker Demon, he explains, had been recently updated. And that was a shameful euphemism for the half-hearted attempt to turn it into the thoroughly modern fighting aircraft that it could never be.
She hears him use the word euphemism and feels a slight shock. This was not something she’d expected any military man to say, not in the official vocabulary. No one she knew spoke like that. Who was he, this tall and agonized man? But he’s talking, now, talking to keep hold on his emotions.
Jack would have known all about the new Hurricanes and Spitfires; of course. Seen a few flying by. Sleek monoplanes with eight – yes eight – forward firing machine guns. Proper Brownings with belt feed, 1000 rounds a minute times eight. Not at all like the twin Vickers guns in the nose of the Hawker, and certainly very different from the precise and dignified Lewis gun in the rear gunner’s hands. That gun needed a new magazine every forty-seven shots; or ninety-seven but only if you had the larger magazine. Valuable seconds spent discarding one drum and placing a fresh one on the breech, then cocking the mechanism while, presumably, the pilot is taking violent evasive action. That would have been Hill’s job, if he’d lived, poor devil. But a Spitfire – now that’s a plane you could use to cut up the Germans when the time comes. And it won’t be long. But for now he has to fly these Hawker biplanes. This one had just been fitted with a so-called turret. That was a bad joke, too, since it was a thing like a bathtub designed to shield the gunner from the slipstream so he could aim better. Useless, of course. If this metal bin hadn’t been added then poor old Hill – poor young Hill, actually - could have settled down, tucked his head in well out of the way of trouble, and he’d still be alive. But in this dreadful excuse for a turret he was up high, strapped in, and had no way of getting his head down fully.
Actually that might not be true, either, Jack thought. Hill was a cheeky little bugger, not afraid of anyone or anything. It would have been just like him to ignore Jack’s shouted instructions on their final descent. Hill probably didn’t keep his head down because he was too busy looking round to see what was happening, thinking of the yarns he could tell when he got back, cooking up a good story. But who knows?
A training picture Jack kept shows approximately how Aircraftman Hill would have been sitting in the plane. He’s very high up compared to the pilot, pointing his gun directly at the camera. Good position for shooting; very bad for forced landings. If you look behind the figure you can see the curved coaming that broke his neck.
These were things Jack couldn’t normally talk about without getting in a tangle with official secrets acts and so on. They weighed on him, now. So he talked anyway. It was a relief to be talking to her after what he’d just gone through. The thing he dares not mention to her is that he’s anxious about the other aircraft. Did it get back all right? The Officer who arrived to take charge of the crash scene half an hour later didn’t know anything. Jack could weep with the agony of not knowing.
And yet something had happened. When two people meet over the dead body of a young man, in the windy desolation of a field recently ploughed for turnips, something has to happen. It may take a few days, but nothing remains as it was.
The tea is finished. Jack thanks her for her kindness, and picks his way through the mud towards the van that has been sent for him, his arms weighed down with two parachutes, his flying helmet and map case. Light is fading.
She watches him go.
Something has happened.
She writes to him.
She’s had plenty of admirers. She’s 24 and has never lacked male attention, particularly because she’s never played at being less than she is. She never pretended to be the little woman so the men could act superior. Spending time with farmers had taught her well that she had to stick up for herself. Give them half a chance and they’d be ordering you around fetching things they could quite easily get for themselves.
But this is different and she knows it. Those others were boys, somehow, and Jack is, whatever else he is, definitely a man. He’d spoken to her as an equal. He cared about something more than dogs or horses or livestock. There was an intensity to him and she found it stirred her.
Her hand trembles a little when she writes her brief note and she has to start over. The cotton of her blouse seems to tickle her, around her neck, her wrists, her breasts. Her skin feels thin and alive. She thinks of the way that horses shiver when they walk out into sunlight on a cold day, the whole surface of the skin along the shoulder and haunches shaking, quivering.
She doesn’t use the house phone. She slips out to the box at the corner by the church, in case her uncle overhears. He might not approve. She calls the local exchange, her hand unsteady, and they redirect her to the guardroom at the airfield. For some reason it seems important to make sure she has Jack’s rank correct. Her voice wavers when she makes the call and the person who answers is brusque, probably having to deflect calls from anxious girlfriends on a regular basis, she thinks. Eventually she gets the confirmation she wants. Sergeant Jack Bullard exists, then. He isn’t a delusion or a dream. He’s a real person with a real career and responsibilities. She replaces the receiver slowly.
Then she crosses the road to the village post office, and after a short delay to comment on the weather she buys a stamp for the letter she has in her pocket. She doesn’t drop it in the tray beside the till. She’s well aware that Mrs. Coutts will read the address and speculate and gossip. So she takes the letter out only when she’s back on the pavement, then slips it into the red pillarbox on the corner.
At the village shop she scans the local newspaper. It has a front page article about the collision, and she’s relieved that the pictures are too small to enable her to be identified. The other aircraft made it back to the airfield safely with only minor damage. She breathes out slowly.
Two days later a reply comes. It lands on the front door mat together with her uncle’s bills and circulars, and he scrutinizes it before handing it to her at breakfast.
“I’d say it’s from that young airman. He wants to take you out to tea, I expect.”
She opens the envelope, reads and blushes.
“He’ll be here this afternoon,” she says. Her uncle grunts and tells Mrs. Hobbes that there’ll be a young man joining them for tea. Her famous scones will be in order, he says, as will clotted cream and this year’s jam. Some of that fruit cake, too. Perhaps some sliced ham. Good but not too fancy. “Don’t want to scare him off, do we?”
When Jack arrives she hardly knows where to look. He thought he’d take her to a tea house somewhere nearby but her Uncle insists on tea in the front room of their rather run-down farmhouse, rebuilt 1675. He feels an affection for Jack and they both know it. He’d served two years with the Lincolnshire yeomanry in the Great War. He’d lost a few friends himself in that terrible time. He asks Jack about Hill.
“Oh, he was a good lad. You know, like the cards in shop windows say: “Smart Lad Wanted. Apply within.” He was everyone’s idea of a decent young fellow who could turn his hand to most things. Nothing special about him, but he would have made an excellent rear gunner. That’s why I took him up. Our plane had the new power assisted open turret. I don’t see why I shouldn’t tell you as it’s plain as day in the newspaper pictures. Anyhow, it takes some getting used to. Flying in formation gives the gunner a chance to practice bringing his weapon to bear and it gives the pilots a chance to work together, so it seemed perfect. But it was a mite blustery up there. How do you explain that to his grieving mother? You don’t. So I wrote a letter about how cut up we all were, and how her son had many good friends in his section, and that he’ll be sorely missed. Sometimes words can feel so terribly hollow.”
Elizabeth wants to hug him, hold him, breathe in the scent of him. She offers him a scone instead.
“The thing is,” Jack leans forwards to say it, “We’ve got perfectly good turrets on many of our other planes. But they’re heavy, too heavy for the Hawker. So we got this half-measure. A bit like wrapping string around a chair leg, and then wondering why the old break splits and dumps you out on the floor.”
The uncle maintains eye contact, then nods. He and Jack know the situation only too well. Elizabeth is fascinated and alarmed at the same time. She’s never heard conversations like this before, words that ask questions about the effectiveness of official decision-making, discussions that question accepted wisdom. She can feel her heart beat faster.
Later they pull on their coats and go for a walk. She slips her arm through his. He pulls her close. They walk easily together, their paces neither stretched nor hurried. She’s never felt such physical ease before. They walk past the church to look at the sunset. She knows the village gossips will be busy behind the twitching curtains. She decides she doesn’t care.
At 6 o’clock one of Jack’s friends from the airfield calls by in a car to give him a ride back. At the door Elizabeth gives him her hand to shake, aware of her uncle standing a few feet behind her, and then Jack leans forward and kisses her on the cheek. After barely a pause he kisses her on the lips. “There,” he says, “I want you to know … why I’m here. I’ll see you on Monday, I hope. I’ve got the Incident Enquiry this weekend.”
He crosses the yard and climbs into the wheezy Morris, waving to her silhouette in the doorway.
Away from her now he feels again how self-serving his criticisms of the RAF were. Blaming the way things had happened on everyone but himself was too simple – even if he was ashamed of seeming incompetent with this woman beside him, even if he needed to justify himself. With a shudder he felt the uncle had seen through his bluster, and yet had the restraint to say nothing. That he shouldn’t have spoken as he had seemed so clear now, and the words couldn’t be taken back. He was the one who was out of position in the formation. He was the one who landed the plane and made such a mess of it. He could have given Hill the chance to bail out.
Back at the squadron he knew only too well his situation had changed. He was now the one who’d made a mess of things and killed an airman. No matter which way you cut it, that was the feeling that followed him. That and a certain air of pity, of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God sympathy followed him now. The sort of thing that would get you a drink at the bar, just one, and a brotherly slap on the shoulder; or perhaps a muttered “Could happen to anyone old boy” that disguised what was now missing. He’d moved from being regarded as a competent pilot, a cheerful member of the squadron, someone you could rely on – to being someone who’d made a mess of it.
Hunched in the Morris, greatcoat collar turned up because the old car seemed to be entirely without heat, he wondered if this ride back to camp was a charity gesture where once it would have been a laugh, something friends would do if there was a pretty girl in question.
He sends her a postcard.
On the other side she reads: ‘This what they look like when the pilot is doing what he’s supposed to be doing’.
Some of the words have been altered. It’s not hard to see that the original message was:
“This is what they look like when they’re doing what they’re supposed to.”
In the image that fateful coaming stands clear. It’s not hard for Elizabeth to connect the dots.
There’s another picture –nothing written on the back of this one - that shows this same type of aircraft with the new turret even more clearly. These postcard sized images were widely reprinted. It seems the Air Ministry was keen to impress the public with its ingenuity in adapting the planes they had.
Of course Jack hasn’t told her everything about himself, not yet. He didn’t mention too much about his family, his wealthy father’s disapproval of his enlisting in the RAF, and his choice not to be an officer. “I’ll serve in the ranks. That’s where it’s honest. And if we’re to face fascism that’s where I’ll want to be. I don’t care about the rest of it.”
Jack’s father has no reply to this. He knows his son well; perhaps too well. Himself a veteran of the Royal Flying Corps in the Great War he’d urged his boy not to be drawn into military life in any way or form. Jack as an academic, a university historian - that made sense to him; someone leaning towards understanding the past might help to change the future. Jack as an architect, even, would be acceptable. A Cambridge degree would keep him out of the front lines, with luck. At least he’d be building for the future rather than aiming at destruction. In the back of his mind he could not escape the haunting detail that Jack had been born in 1914, and warfare had been part of the air he’d breathed for the earliest part of his life. This thought had never been absent, and it gave Jack senior a sense of the hopelessness of each new generation fated to move towards armed conflict, a gloom he worked hard never to express openly. It wasn’t as if he was pessimistic. Counting the events of the past few years didn’t exactly reassure him - The Irish Rebellion and then the Civil War; the Bolshevik revolution; the chaos that was Germany in the 1920s, with hyperinflation and Freikorps roaming the streets; The General Strike of 1926 with young men sworn in as Special Constables; Moseley’s Brown Shirts; Spain; Hitler; Mussolini. Every few years a major armed conflict seemed ready to break out. Why should his son be sucked into it as he had been? Perhaps the best anyone could do was to stay well out of it and try as best one could to avert future strife. It was an attitude that had cost him some time and pain to construct, garnishing it with a gloss of urbane disinterest. In the end it had convinced no one. Jack had declared that he wanted to make a difference in the most direct way he could. His father had expected no less. His son had caught the sense of anguished idealism the father had tried to stifle and ignore, and seized it as a way to define himself. Sometimes the very thing we seek to protect others from is the choice they move most eagerly towards, and nothing we can say will derail them. Sometimes they detect the thing we’ve tried to bury and dig it up so they can live their lives by it.
The Court of Enquiry takes longer than expected. Everything takes longer than expected these days. The pilot of the other plane has to give evidence, too, and then the Station Meteorologist has to testify about the wind and weather and if he was correct to give the go ahead. “For God’s sake,” Jack blurts out at one point, “It was a fine day. Fair-weather Cumulus at 5000. No reason to expect turbulence of any kind. We’re both experienced pilots, you know. Don’t blame the Met officer.”
His unrehearsed words seem to break the ice. The four officers behind the long table murmur together and then announce a break for lunch.
The afternoon goes less well. Jack describes how he was flying in the accepted tight formation, wingtips nearly overlapping, and he cannot hold himself back.
“I know this configuration is standard procedure, but I’d like the court to consider that it is inherently dangerous and unnecessary.” The Wing Commander in charge of the Inquiry raises an eyebrow. “Go on,” he says.
“Sir, as far as we know the Germans in Spain seem to fly in much looser formations, almost 100 yards between aircraft, and that allows them to look for targets rather that focusing on the lead plane. If we’re going to fight the Germans then we may want to consider their tactics.”
“I’m not sure what relevance this has to this Inquiry.” The mustached Squadron Leader on the Wing Commander’s right doesn’t want to hear what’s been said, that much is clear. “It is ultimately up to Command to decide on formations. You do know that, don’t you, Sergeant?”
Jack can feel himself blushing. “Yes, sir.”
“Well then, I think we’ll confine ourselves to the facts and put your opinions aside.”
“Now, now, Geoffrey, I have to disagree with you a little on this.” The Wing Commander cuts in. “Courts of Enquiry are about finding out what went wrong so that we can learn from our mistakes, and not just about handing out disciplinary measures. Our ultimate task is to refine operations. If there’s something to be learned here I want to know it. Where did you hear about this German formation, Sergeant?”
“I have friends I write to who are in Spain, sir.”
At five o’clock the Court adjourns and the Wing Commander asks for a moment with Jack.
“Thank you for speaking up about formation flying, Sergeant.”
“I was presumptuous, sir.”
“Yes, yes you were. I can see you’re not - I can see you’re a thinking man, Sergeant. I’ve read your file. I know that you joined your University Air Squadron and then left before taking your degree to enlist. That’s unusual - wouldn’t you agree?”
“Most of my family would say so too, sir,” he couldn’t help grinning.
“I’d like to buy you a drink and listen to what you have to say but unfortunately I’m the senior officer on this board, you’re the defendant, and you’re not an officer, so we can’t do that. But I am interested in what you say. In the Great War we could have saved a lot of trouble and a lot of lives if we’d listened to people like you sooner than we did. What do you think about formation flying generally?”
“ I can see why it would be excellent practice, sir, in terms of precise management of the aircraft.”
“But it’s exhausting, it’s dangerous, and it’s not what we’ll be doing when the time comes.” Jack swallows hard and then decides to continue: “A tight formation of aircraft looks good at an air show or a parade, but it makes a huge target for anti-aircraft fire, sir. It’s easy to spot from the ground and by attacking aircraft. So I hope we won’t be using that tactic, when the time comes.”
“I see. Are you aware of any other occasions when aircraft have been damaged in this squadron as a result of mid-air incidents?”
“So why do you say it’s dangerous?”
“The fact that we haven’t lost more planes and lives doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous, sir.”
The Wing Commander looked grave. Jack noticed his medal ribbons for the first time. The red and white flashes of the Air Force Cross told him all he needed to know about the man in front of him. “Well, I’ll tell you something Sergeant, just between us: this is the third Board of Enquiry I’ve been on this month, and they’ve all been a result of close formation flying. We’re mangling planes and losing trained airmen for no good reason I can see, and we already have other training accidents as it is. It’s disgraceful that we should do this sort of thing when it’s so unnecessary. But you didn’t hear this from me. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir. Absolutely.”
“An airman is dead, an aircraft is badly damaged and a second one is undergoing extensive repairs. It would be easy for us to charge you and find you guilty of all the things on our charge sheet. There are plenty of administrators who would prefer to do that than to admit their own mistakes. So I have to tell you, now, that it is my belief those turrets are death-traps.” Their eyes met for a moment. “Thank you, Sergeant, for this conversation.”
The Wing Commander turned away and then swiveled back to face Jack. “And Sergeant?”
“If I had my way you’d received a commendation for attempting to land that Demon. You had no way of knowing the condition of that field from your altitude, and you’d certainly not have known they’d put a deep furrow plough through it barely days before. If you’d been two days earlier that field would have been smooth enough for a Hawker. Timing’s everything.”
The Wing Commander cleared his throat. “For now, though, these are the aircraft we have; these are the orders we have; this is the way we do things. We expect all ranks to do as instructed. Understood?”
He doesn’t make it for tea on Monday. A hasty note arrives by the midday post and Elizabeth feels a sharp needle of disappointment. She hadn’t realized how much she had been looking forward to his return, and how much she’d tried to pretend that this was nothing special. Now she knows.
She takes a walk to the field where the marks of the plane’s forced landing have been churned up even further by the work of the recovery team on the day following the crash. She’d watched as, with the help of a mobile crane they’d raised the tail, turning the plane right side up and then lowering the rear portion of it onto a flat bed lorry equipped with a winch. That allowed the whole thing to be rolled on its own wheels backwards up a ramp. There they set about removing the wings. Once more on its wheels the extent of the damage was obvious. The rudder was badly chewed up – by the other plane’s propeller, Jack had said. That alone should have been enough to exonerate him.
The deep furrows ran undeviating to the edge of the crash site, then picked up again beyond the churned flattened mud, the tire tracks, the deep gouges where the lorry got stuck. It was hard to match the image of the flying aircraft, so sleek, gleaming like a dragonfly, skimming treetops, with the solid weight of the thing, stranded like a, like a silver whale, Elizabeth supposed, although she’s never seen a whale. More like a salmon, then, helpless on the fishmonger’s slab.
Jack is cleared of all charges. He comes to tell her in person, appearing one afternoon when she’s out at the large barn with the vet seeing to a sick cow. She walks to back to the house to find him waiting in the yard, blowing on his hands to keep warm.
It’s only when he begins to explain what the possible penalties might have been that she realizes how anxious he must have been.
That was how it started. Over the next months Jack becomes a frequent visitor. At first he’d arrive with his friend who had the Morris, then by bus (unless it was Sunday, when the buses didn’t run), once by bicycle, and eventually, more reliably, on his Matchless motorcycle. Here’s a picture of what one would have looked like, taken from an old catalog. The second picture is of the actual bike, which survived, as it looked a few years ago.
He’d bought it especially, and had a second seat added - although he didn’t tell Elizabeth that. He reasoned he could always put a sidecar on it if they had to, and when he’d saved up for it. That might be a while. When she asked him about it he told her that he’d always wanted this particular bike, but he knew that this wasn’t quite the truth. He’d have preferred something a bit more sporty. What he did want was to see Elizabeth whenever possible even if it meant freezing himself in the winter drizzle. From the core of his being he longed for the quietness of the farm, the warmth of the hearth, and for something so accepting in Elizabeth that he never quite knew how to describe it. He felt he had to be there, sitting in the tattered wing-backed kitchen chair, feeling the slow beat of the pulse in his veins. She, perhaps, standing at the table making pies, or he’d help her peel potatoes, the firelight glancing off the paring knife. Laundry on hangers hooked over the nails on the overhead oak beams, probably.
The uncle was unimpressed by the bike. Eventually, when he saw that Jack was likely to be a fixture for some time he’d told him to take his van if the young couple wanted to go anywhere. He wouldn’t have his niece perched on the back of some great roaring motorcycle, he’d declared. He was astonished by Jack’s response.
“Thank you very much. I’d like that. We’ll use it to look at some churches.”
Elizabeth was somewhat taken aback also. Was this his way of asking to marry her?
Yes and no. Jack was fascinated by architecture. He’d been studying History at Cambridge but had given it up after his second year. With the war in Spain and the rise of fascism in Europe he’d decided he’d better get trained to do something useful. Waiting, he said, was a fool’s game, because those who wait get drafted into some regiment or arm of service that has no idea what the individuals in it can do, and doesn’t care. They just need people who can shoot. No, the best way forwards was to become a specialist before the shooting started, and then be used in a capacity that wasn’t simply cannon-fodder.
She had to admit it made sense. Even so she was frightened by his talk of war, by his utter certainty that it was coming and of his duty to serve. She’d always wanted a quiet life, here on the farm, inheriting after her uncle died, raising her children there, when they arrived. Jack wasn’t a farmer, so what did that mean for her sense of what her future should be? She felt rooted in the countryside, in the farm, in the cycle of the seasons and the fields she’d grown up beside. He was always at the behest of the Royal Air Force. It could send him anywhere at any time. He might get sent to India, or Singapore. It made her shiver.
“But if everyone expects this war, “ she began when they were on a trip to Lincoln Cathedral in her uncle’s van, rattling along the country roads. “Then why can’t something be done to stop it before it gets started? I read the newspapers. I see what’s going on. Why must we sit and wait for it to get us. It’s like sitting on the beach when the tide comes in.”
“You’ve been reading Mr. Churchill, then?”
“Yes. I think he’s right.”
“Yes. Yes, he is. This ‘Peace in our time’ agreement isn’t going to stop anything for long. That’s the puzzling thing,” Jack turned to look at her and the van hit a rut, then bounced out of it. “I can’t work it out either. Why don’t the politicians stand up for the Treaty of Versailles? Why do they give in all the time? But they say Hitler’s made no direct threat against us, yet, so we can’t do much until he does.”
“Hmm. So we’ve got all these ghastly dictators and it seems pretty obvious to me they’re looking for their own wars of conquest. And if it’s obvious to me, a country girl with not a lot of education, then why isn’t it obvious to our Government?” The van lurched to one side. She put out a hand to the dashboard and steadied herself, then continued. “Mussolini wants an empire in Africa; Hitler seems to want a greater Germany; Hirohito wants to claim any part of the East he can get his hands on. Franco’s the only exception. He doesn’t seem to want anything more than control of Spain. Do the politicians think they’re all like him?”
“That’s exactly it. The people at the top seem to think that dictators will grab a little bit of someone else’s country and then stop. And since it’s always someone else’s country then why get involved?”
“But you don’t think they will stop?”
“No, I don’t. I think Franco really is the exception. You see he didn’t take someone else’s land. He’s had a civil war, and none of his people want any more fighting now. He’s the only one who seems to know just how awful war is when it’s on your own doorstep.” Jack looked grim. “I heard about Spain from those who were there. Our newspapers didn’t report the half of it.”
He turned to look at her again.
“I just can’t believe anyone would do that to their own country,” she said. “Sometimes when I’m walking down a lane or just when I’m around the farm I find myself thinking how beautiful it is to be here, to be alive, and I wonder why anyone would want to have a war. The thought of turning all this into a battle field…. Hitler served in the Great War. He should know. All Germany should know.”
“Yes, but this time they think they’re going to win. They think round two will be the knock out.”
“Aren’t you afraid it’ll get you killed?”
“Are you?” He smiled at her.
“Yes. Very. I don’t want you to be killed.”
He was silent a moment. “Perhaps if we’re perceived as strong enough to give Hitler no end of trouble he won’t try anything more. Perhaps. That’s why we have to be ready for him.”
“But why you? As an airman you’ll be in tremendous danger. Couldn’t they use your skills better doing something safer? You’re a thinker….” If he’d finished his degree he’d have been an officer at least, she thought. Surely that would have been safer?
“Yes. Yes. Perhaps you’re right.’ The van gave a lurch. “But somehow I got the notion to sign up for the RAF, and now I’m in it, I can’t change it. Why did I do that?”
“ Some lonely impulse of delight?”
“Ah yes. The Yeats poem. How does it go? ‘ I know that I shall meet my fate/ Somewhere among the clouds above/ Those I fight I do not hate/Those I guard I do not love.’ Perhaps that’s true. If I’d known you then I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry.”
“You flatter me.” She smiled.
“No. I don’t think so. I don’t think I had anyone to love back then.”
Pause. “Are you telling me you love me?”
He kept his eyes on the road, perhaps surprised by what he’d just said, the way it had slipped out before he’d had time to know he’d said it. He swallowed hard, and kept watching the road, avoiding the worst ruts. “Yes. Yes I am. Is that all right?”
Pause. “By the way, are you keeping your eyes on that map?”
“Of course,” she lied. “It says we have to pull in here.”
“Yes, and we have to stop the van. Just here.”
“Um. Are we lost?”
“Not in the slightest. But we have to stop. Otherwise I can’t very easily kiss you, can I?”
Is that the way it happened? Who knows? But if I piece together all the things I heard over the years and add in the stories that were told from time to time then something like that is very probably what happened. I know my mother would never have spoken first about her love for Jack, and I can guess how she would have spoken after hearing him make his own declaration. I know their trip to Lincoln Cathedral marked some kind of turning point for Elizabeth. I recall her saying, “I’d never been kissed in a church before. Let alone a Cathedral. It made it seem so very special. Standing together just off the nave, where no one could see us. We were holding hands. Then he stepped closer to me. He brushed my hair from my face, my forehead. It was the gentlest, tenderest kiss. I shan’t forget it, ever. I felt cherished.”
I’m not sure how Elizabeth got hold of those original photographs of the plane wreck. She could easily have cut the prints out of the newspaper, although the cheap newsprint of the era would have been dust by now. Did someone send them to her? Did she ask for them? The newspaper itself is long defunct, its files destroyed or dispersed.
I recall as a young boy looking out of my bedroom window on the third floor, and watching the ripening wheat heaving and rippling under the wind. It felt miraculous the way the wheat would bend in a wave, then straighten and the wave move on. Of course you couldn’t see the wind, no one could. Even on a snowy day, or a day with sheets of rain, what you saw was the snow or the raindrops being blown around. But this was different. A whole swath of wheat would duck and dance and rise again, as if a large invisible animal had just passed by. I would watch it for hours.
Years later I saw the wind do something similar to the surface of the sea, and the sailors I spoke with called the long channels where the wind marked the surface wind lanes, and the smaller ones, the ones that looked like a star burst on the surface, those they called cat’s paws.
This is not a bad way to describe reconstructing a life story. We can see the effects of the winds that rock us, but we can’t know much about how the wind works, how it chooses to flatten this patch of growth and then perhaps to leave the patch next to it unscathed. All we have is the aftermath, the physical evidence of where it’s been most powerful, most destructive.
Jack began to bring her gifts. They were simple things he’d asked his friends to make for her. One of the ground crew, a Scot with an eye for such things, made brooches with RAF wings, fashioned from scrap Perspex and scavenged RAF insignia. They were rather tasteful, she thought, and she first tried their effect in her bedroom mirror. He, for his part, loved the straightforward unpretentiousness of them. At first she wore them on her dresses, and then on her scarf, and then after a hesitation, on her coat lapel. She was reluctant to broadcast her attachment, as if she were boasting, especially as she wasn’t sure yet that he was hers. What if it all fell apart? Then, soon enough, she stopped worrying and wore them with affection.
On the mantle in her bedroom she kept the small carvings of the Spitfire that Jack had made himself. He’d told her that he might have to wait a bit for his conversion to the new fighters. His accident hadn’t put him exactly at the top of the list anymore, and anyway there was a shortage of the new planes. So for now she’d have to keep the tiny replicas as good luck tokens, promises for the future. He even included a spent bullet head.
The bullet head always gave Elizabeth pause. From time to time she held it in her hand, turned it over, gazed at the furrows caused by the barrel rifling. It wasn’t very large, but it carried such terrible weight of possible sorrow. Her world felt so distant from the male mind set that could even think of such a memento as gift for a loved one. There was so much she didn’t understand about him – and so much she did.
I’m not sure how the courtship developed – for it was as surely a courtship as Jack’s first kiss had declared – because there isn’t much record of it. They met every few days as Jack’s flying allowed. In between there were brief notes. Here’s one, the handwriting bold and clean:
I can’t come and see you on Saturday as I’d hoped. I’ve been detailed for some specialist training and we leave early tomorrow. I’m going to be converted onto Blenheims after all. I’d hoped for fighters, as you know, but the Blenheim is one of the fastest bombers we have and so this is a new thing entirely. They say it can out-run any fighter it comes up against. It means I’ll be away for two weeks at least and then, with luck, we can take delivery of the new planes at Wittering and I’ll be back closer to you. And that’s where I belong, my love.
I think you’d like the Blenheim. It’s rather elegant in its way. It’s all metal and the cockpit is totally enclosed so it’s much more civilized than our old Hawkers. It’s a modern plane in every way. Can you tell I’m excited about it? I’ll have a Bomb Aimer/Navigator and an Air Gunner to take care of me, so I’ll have a proper crew to work with. This time the turret will be a real one, properly made for the job. It’s all very new. The main thing is that it’s got two engines, so you have to think a bit differently about what you want to do. It’s a bit more complicated than single engine planes.
By the time I get back the cherry blossoms will all be down, I expect. I’m always astonished by Spring. From the air the trees dot the countryside with white or pink color and hazy light green, the merest hint in places, or a reddish haze where the buds are still thickening. Looking down, with the shadows underneath the color, gives it a richer, sadder hue, somehow, than when you walk past and see the same blossoms against a blue sky. I’m not explaining it very well. I wish I could be with you, looking at them together. Holding your hand brings me such peace. Holding you close makes me feel I could be more than I am.”
Romances have a way of blossoming when war or disaster rumbles in the background. Elizabeth must have known this– her diary records that her Uncle had told her about this exact phenomenon during the Great War. In fact he’d married his own sweetheart before being sent out to France. He’d come back, invalided by a gas attack, and within two years his wife was dead of the flu epidemic. Knowing this, perhaps Elizabeth held back.
There aren’t many of Jack’s notes. There are none of hers to him. Probably that was a result of his Senior Officer (or that officer’s Adjutant) going through Jack’s personal stuff and getting rid of anything that might have caused distress to family members before the parcel was handed over to them.
Red tape. No body does red tape better than the British.
Jack’s funeral was at the local church in Uffington, in July 1939. Elizabeth stood near the back, and afterwards went to shake hands with Jack’s mother and father. She introduced herself as a friend. They didn’t seem to know about her. She hugged her secret close, but her tears were too plentiful for them not to have guessed something. At least that’s what she felt.
It’s clear that Elizabeth probably went into some kind of deep mourning after that. Almost nothing survives in terms of details of her life.
The crash was reported in The Times the day after it happened, but there’s no way to know if Elizabeth ever saw that report. It’s entirely possible she didn’t. The news would have arrived… how? We don’t know who told her.
Months after the funeral her cousin in Tasmania sent Elizabeth an account that had appeared in their local paper. It probably took forever to reach her. The official version she’d been told was probably Air Ministry curt and totally lacking in details, since the Nation was in a State of Emergency and this was a question of National Security. And she wasn’t next of kin, simply the fiancée Jack hadn’t told his family about yet. Presumably the same rules of secrecy didn’t apply to Australia. But then what rules did apply to Australia? Perhaps the reporters had made up most of the story. She had no way of knowing. The fact that she’d preserved the clipping meant that it somehow told her the things she needed to know. It was all she had.
The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania)
Saturday 18 November 1939
CADET'S LEAP FOR LIFE
Behaves Like Veteran After Collision In Sky
As a holder of a senior Officers' Training Corps certificate, Dennis Nahum, a 17 year-old English lad, went with a squad of other boys from Oundle to spend a week in camp with the Royal Air Force at Wittering, Northamptonshire.
It is part of their training to become "air-minded." On the Thursday a number of the boys were taken up in Blenheim bombers. In each bomber there was one pilot and one boy.
Each pilot wore his ordinary service parachute, but the boys, having a different variety of parachute, wore only the parachute harness. The parachutes themselves lay on ledges behind their seats. The squadron went off in formation. The machines rose to 3,000ft, threading in and out of the clouds, always in formation.
Dennis Nahum's pilot was 25 year-old Sgt. Jack Bullard. Side by side with them was the aeroplane of Pilot Officer Williams, leader of the flight. Beside him also sat an Oundle boy.
DUG IN RIBS
Suddenly out of a bank of cloud they came, and something was wrong with Bullard's position in the formation. The boy sitting with Pilot Officer Williams dug him in the ribs. The officer looked round. There, close beside him, he saw the other aeroplane. He swooped to clear, but it was hopeless. His whirring propeller sliced clean through the tail of Sgt. Bullard's machine.
Out of the clear sky had come almost certain death. Sgt. Bullard's machine, losing the stabilising effect of its tail, began to plunge and fall like a leaf in a gale. The sergeant and his boy passenger were flung from side to side, and from floor to the roof of the enclosed cockpit, stunned almost into unconsciousness.
With their faces cut and their bodies bruised they held the sides of the cockpit to steady themselves. All this time the shattered aeroplane was dropping swiftly to earth. Three thousand feet is not very high up.
The end was a matter of seconds. Dennis Nahum, stunned as he was by the buffeting, saw the pilot pull back the roof of the cockpit, and realised that it was a jump for life.
He calmly turned round for his parachute and began to clip it on. As he stood there trying to keep his feet for just an instant the pilot gave him a push and out he went, to life or death, as fate decided.
"I cannot remember going out," he says now, "but as I fell a sudden severe shock woke me up thoroughly." It was the parachute opening and breaking his fall. Dennis still cannot remember leaving the aeroplane, but as soon as he fell through the air his mind was clear enough, and his nerve so controlled that he remembered to pull the rip-cord of the parachute at the right moment. As the speed of his fall eased, Dennis realised that in the hurry he had only clipped on one side of his parachute. This meant that he must touch the ground sideways instead of feet first.
His mind was cool and clear enough to realise that as he fell, whirling and jolting.
He saw some high tension wires. He realised what they were, but, passing them, by, the narrowest, margin, hit the ground heavily and fainted.
Meanwhile the leader of the flight, Pilot-Officer Williams, had swooped to earth. He raced two miles from the airfield to the spot where Dennis landed. Just as he reached there Dennis was recovering from his faint.
"And then I saw a thing I'll always remember," said the pilot, "As I came up, the boy got to his feet, stood at attention, and smartly saluted me."
And what of the sergeant whose swiftness, allied with the boy's coolness, resulted in so miraculous an escape?
He died. He came down near the place where the boy landed, but fell like a stone and was killed instantly. When they examined his parachute it had a great tear in it. The propeller had ripped it as he jumped.
Dennis Nahum becomes the first English schoolboy to qualify for the Gold Caterpillar, the badge of the Caterpillar Club, open only to those who have saved their lives from a crashing aircraft by a parachute jump.
She folded the clipping and placed it back in the envelope. Surely it was an exaggerated account? How could it not be in these days of war and jingoism? The plucky young cadet, the brave pilot -- it was the stuff of schoolboy adventure stories. Why hadn’t there been more about Jack?
The crash had been back in July – on 20th – but news took a while to reach Australia if the cutting was dated November 18th. Elizabeth was probably reading this clipping in about March of 1940. It could only have brought it all back to her, raw. A wound reopened by a well-meaning relative.
What were his thoughts as he fell to his death? Had he thought of her? Perhaps he hadn’t been able to think of anything much. That description of the propeller cut on the parachute might have been a polite way of describing the horrific damage done by what was effectively a mincing machine that Jack had been thrown into. If only he’d been able to look out for just himself.
And yet it was exactly what Jack would have done in the circumstances. Of course he would. After the death of Aircraftman Hill this must have seemed like déjà vu, like fate was offering him another chance. He’d taken it, less than a year later.
The story she’d been told was somewhat different in the details. A friend of Jack’s had written to her, privately. He’d said that Jack had almost certainly clipped the boy’s parachute onto his harness for him and pushed him out the emergency hatch. The lad might even have been only partly conscious – stunned by hitting his head as the aircraft spiraled out of control. Jack would probably have pushed him to the escape hatch, given him a shove and pulled the ripcord as he was whipped out by the slipstream. That would have made sense. Then, only after the boy was safely out, he’d have tried to get out of the aircraft himself, but too late. His chute had no time to open.
The implications of this version made her shiver. Aircrew did not wear parachutes while in the aircraft, it seemed; only the pilot. Bizarrely, the crew were expected to retrieve their parachute packs and clip them on at the exact moment when the aircraft was probably falling out of control, when there was absolutely no time to lose - and then they were expected find their way out. If Jack hadn’t had to get the dazed schoolboy out of the plane then… then he could have survived. Perhaps.
So much for flying Spitfires or Hurricanes. He’d died trying to help the next generation to live, even though this schoolboy cadet could easily have become a pilot who was fated to die in training, perhaps, or before he could do anything to help get rid of fascism. It was all so desperately unfair.
The original clipping fell apart at some point, but Elizabeth wrote it out onto a fresh sheet before it crumbled, folding the remains of the original into the copy. The Hobart Mercury probably has its own records, a microfiche file in a local record office. I’ve never felt the need to question her copy.
It’s not possible to know much about the rest of the war. It seemed it was a time when everything happened and nothing that wasn’t national news was remembered. The Dairyman stayed (too old to be called up; done his bit in the First Show) and the labor shortage was made up by women from the land army. Fields were tilled by the village tractor (shared communally) and much of the planting was still done by hand. Potatoes were the chief crop. Elizabeth didn’t record any of the day to day details, or didn’t keep them if she did.
Then, in late 1945, Elizabeth met someone else whose life had been on hold for almost the same amount of time.
He was an RAF man, but he wasn’t much like Jack. He was thin where Jack had been robust, and hadn’t Jack’s height. This was Derek Harrison, and he had his own story.
He was shot down early in the war, before the carpet bombing and the horrendous losses of aircrew. He’d been a Bomb Aimer on Jack’s squadron originally, but then transferred to 59 Squadron. He’d met Elizabeth briefly before Jack was killed, and always remembered her. He’d served on Blenheims, too – for some months before being posted to France. In the scramble that turned into a retreat and then into the evacuation at Dunkirk he’d been ‘bounced’ by German fighters and their plane had been forced down. Their rear gunner had been wounded or killed – he wasn’t answering the intercom. The controls were barely responding and the plane was filling with smoke, so they headed for a patch of flat ground near a small wood. The small wood turned out to be full of German troops, and that was both good and bad. Bad, because the troops were eager to shoot anything, and good because there was at least one medic in the bunch that approached the tangled remains of the plane.
Derek knew he’d had a bad whack on the head but with the resilience of youth he stumbled out of the wreckage, dazed and determined. In fact he’d received a severe concussion, and on his own admission, his eyes weren’t pointing in the same direction. He staggered away from the remains of the plane and felt his legs give out. Crumpled on the grassy field, he held his head and gasped for air.
His pilot was bruised and covered in cuts, and had also dislocated a shoulder, but was conscious enough to get away from the wreckage before it started to burn. The Germans – most of whom had probably never seen an aircraft close up - ordered him to put his hands up, and he was only able to comply with one arm, which they didn’t appreciate. By this time Derek had realized that Sammy Sloan, the rear gunner, wasn’t with them. He sat up, clambered to his feet and tried to get back to pull him out. He might still be alive! The Germans didn’t understand that, so he shouted and pointed at the rear turret. By covering one eye he could see the shattered perspex and the limp form, looking so much smaller than in life. Thin pencil-like streaks of blood ran horizontally along the fuselage. Sammy had been bleeding for a while. He lurched closer. “I could see he was dead. He was a dreadful mess. But I wanted to get him out anyway. And they stopped me. Perhaps it was just as well. The whole lot could have gone up at any moment. Perhaps they thought I’d go and grab the gun, or something daft. Anyway, the German who hauled me back saved my life because a little bit later, moments later, actually, it did catch fire. And then it went up with a whoosh. I was in no shape to get myself out of there if I’d gone back.”
A picture survives – but who knows if it’s the same plane? The soldiers are German. The squadron letters TR are right.
Here are two pictures that Derek kept. Presumably someone took them early in the war. I do not know who the people are in the picture. The snow on the ground would have fitted right in with the winter of 1940.
What persuades me of the date is that in this second picture Derek kept we see that he’s loading up what look like propaganda leaflets to drop on the enemy – which would put this firmly in the “phony war” period of early 1940. At least I think that’s Derek, half obscured by the head of one of the other crew members, the man in the fur lined flying suit on the right; but the plane seems to be more bulky than a Blenheim. A Wellington, perhaps? Anyway, it was in the same batch of pictures so perhaps it means something.
Then followed 4 years in prison camps, cut off from all real information about the world, about the changes that upended everything. His sweetheart married someone else. His family’s house in Coulsdon was badly damaged by stray bombs in the blitz. Coulsdon was south of London and the bombers would release their bomb load if they were attacked, or sometimes just unload late at night when they’d not managed to get through to central London. Derek’s family’s house was just one of many that had all its roof tiles blown off one chilly night in October, with the added indignity of an unexploded bomb that burrowed its way into the foundations. With no where to go the family had moved to Wales, where his mother had family, and where the bombers couldn’t reach them so easily. His brother enlisted in 1943 and been killed at Nijmegen. What was left of the life Derek had once known?
When he met Elizabeth again they’d each been in a kind of time capsule of saved memories that insulated them from the losses of the present. Perhaps that was what drew them together.
He’d been the person who had delivered Jack to the farm all those years before, the owner of the wheezy Morris, and he’d never forgotten Elizabeth. With an instinct that was like that of a homing pigeon he’d turned up at her door.
Not that it was that simple. His route back from the prison camp had been long and hard, but at least he’d been fed by the Red Cross with miraculous regularity and in what felt to him like astonishing quantities. He couldn’t get over the whiteness of the bread. The first time was when he’d lined up at the relief lorry and they gave him a whole loaf. It wasn’t at all like the black German bread he’d got used to. He looked into the face of the young man with the Red Cross armband and said, “This is cake. All we need is bread.” And the Red Cross man just laughed, then handed a loaf to the next man.
They went by truck to an airfield near Hamburg, jostled and thrown around by the poor road, but jubilant, every one of them to be out, out in the open air, seeing houses even if they were ruined, or fields with lush green grass, the occasional dead cows, and shabby farmhouses. And wreckage everywhere, pushed to the side of the road. Cars, trucks, wagons, handcarts, jumbled together, burned out.
The planes that arrived were Lancaster bombers. As each arrived, turned, and faced back into wind the pows, or kriegies as they called themselves, swarmed forwards. Weak and emaciated, they clambered inside, to sit in the bomb bay or wherever they could. Derek had never seen a “heavy” up close. He’d heard plenty about them from others who’d arrived in “the bag”, with each new influx of prisoners. It was a strange introduction to a new age of mechanized warfare.
Each man carried his own hand-made kit bag of essential items – tin mug, metal screen made of flattened powdered milk cans to shield the campfire, some clothes, mittens and socks, shirts if they had them, foot-wrappings for cold weather or to make the former Polish army boots with which they’d been issued a little more comfortable, and food. Carefully saved bars of Red Cross chocolate, cans of all kinds, biscuits, cigarettes. All their worldly goods. The Air Controllers had tried to get them to leave at least some of these behind – with little result. The sledges and prams on which they’d hauled their stuff were, reluctantly, let go. But not much else.
They couldn’t see much on the flight as the Lancasters had few windows, but they took it in turns when the coast came in sight to get their first glimpse of Blighty, leaning over the navigator’s table. It was also way too noisy in the belly of the plane for anything resembling conversation, leaving each man alone with his thoughts about what he’d find when he got back.
What were Derek’s thoughts? It’s not something he’d ever talked about. The grey, sad and exhausted country he landed in must have come as a shock. Yet from the air the fields were green, lush and seemingly endless. Ruined buildings couldn’t be distinguished.
Once in England the men were de-loused, had their hair cut, were given a thorough medical examination, and placed on a special diet to fortify them. This seemed to consist of small meals served four times a day to get their stomachs used to regular eating again. They were told this, but even so, many of the men ate as much as they could and stuffed their pockets with whatever extra food they could find on that first day. Then they were given new uniforms and taken to their barracks. And they were told to stay put until further notice. All were aware that even though the war in Europe was over there remained the war in the East. The new uniforms suggested their flying skills would be needed and soon. Some were glad of it, itching to get “back to work” as they said. Others had no desire to fight anyone again.
To keep them busy programs of physical exercises and tests and report writing were implemented (“which camps were you in? Please list in chronological order.” “Did you try to escape during your captivity? Describe with dates if possible.” “What did you do to help the escape efforts of others while incarcerated?” “What items did you manufacture for escape?”)
At first it seemed important. After a while it felt like busy work.
So after a couple of days, when he felt his strength returning, Derek slipped through the boundary wire one afternoon and hitched a ride to the nearest station.
That’s how he turned up at Elizabeth’s door.
No, Jack Bullard was not my father.
He was something far more dangerous. He was the man my mother was in love with and wanted to marry who disappeared from this Earth before that could happen, and so he became the ideal man my mother always regretted not having married. No other male could stand a chance when pitted against a ghost of such dashing proportions. My real father never stood a chance, excellent man and gentle loving soul though he was. That was something he didn’t realize until much later.
Oh, and I didn’t have to check the dates carefully or anything like that because I didn’t appear until some years after Jack’s death – so there really wasn’t any doubt. But Jack was always there. The small container lined with cotton wool with the brooches he’d made my mother lay tucked in her dresser; the pictures; his few letters, tied with a fading red ribbon; they all survived. And with each passing year he became something more than he ever had been in life.
My mother, Elizabeth, didn’t marry until after the war. By then the world had changed in ways that no one, to this day, can quite comprehend. In September 1939 Britain was still Great Britain; food was not rationed and the farm continued to bask in agricultural plenty. There were plenty of eggs and the pigs were well fed from the scraps off our table. The British Army was still in France, Dunkirk had not yet happened, and the Blitz was something as yet unknown that would shortly be visited upon Belgium, Holland, and France and then, in horrific form, on the cratered and burned streets of London, Coventry and Birmingham. My great uncle’s farm had not been turned into a satellite for the US Army Air Force. Medium and heavy bombers did not yet roar overhead each night and most days. RAF Wittering was still small. The roses cultivated in the flower beds in front of the main administration block were not yet dug up and their place given over to vegetables. The block itself gleamed with white paint, like a country club. Khaki was not yet in fashion.
As the war grew more brutal and mechanized the glamor of Jack Bullard’s life and sacrifice grew in stature. It seemed to belong to a by-gone era as remote as knights on horseback. At least that was the way my mother saw it. My great uncle had seen the Western Front in the First Show, as he called it, and had no illusions. But even he was shaken by the concentration camps.
Jack Bullard became for her an emblem of all that had been lost when it had been so nearly within her reach.
Logic wouldn’t dislodge this idea from Elizabeth’s brain. Sheer statistics would have shown her that of the pilots in his squadron in 1938 exactly none would survive until 1945.
And so Jack became a ghost at every dinner we shared. My father tried his best with my mother. He thought that if he just loved her enough, was understanding enough, gave her enough time, then she’d get better and he would have healed her. Then their love would blossom. And she, to do her credit, thought the same. She would often say that she thought Derek had “saved her life”, and she wished that it were true. It wasn’t, alas. She never came fully back to life. Instead it was as if she were marking time, waiting for the moment when Jack would stride up the garden path, and she’d turn, untie her apron, letting it fall to the ground, and walk off with him to a new future, completely forgetting us.
It took some years, but when she knew that Derek could never displace Jack it was as if we were a provisional life for her. Stand-ins for the real thing.
To all intents she was haunted. Ghosts like these are very personal. Elizabeth would sometimes gaze off into the distance and you could be pretty sure she was thinking about Jack. She’d even say so at times. Cloudy days used to get her into that sort of mood, where she was not here nor, really, “there” -- wherever “there” was.
How do you shake something like that? I had no idea. I was a kid who wanted his Mum to love him, and I’d do anything to get that love. The only way I could do that was by believing her fantasy, joining her in it.
These days people talk about PTSD as if it explains something. But there must have been a couple of million people like my Mum in England, women who lost their beloved spouse or relative and had to make a life for themselves anyway. And the whole population had been traumatized. I remember growing up with bomb damage all around me. The first time I visited London I could see it with my own eyes. In some parts it had derelict expanses of collapsed houses until well into the 1960s. Food was rationed until 1955. Even the village school I went to had a bomb shelter on the green. That’s what we called it, although I think it might have been a defensive bunker hastily constructed in 1940 in case the Germans made it across the channel. It was filled with earth and rubbish by the time I took notice of it and it changed the way they played cricket there forever. Everyone said so.
I found it hard to imagine the fear that must have characterized that time. German tanks in our little village? It was unthinkable – and yet… It could have happened.
These are ghosts, too.
My father had been in Jack’s squadron. He’d known him. He was the one who was driving that old Morris when Jack first came to see my mum. He knew all about them. He was hoping to be trained as a pilot. Then, when war broke out dad was asked to volunteer as aircrew because of the shortage of planes, so he became a Navigator/Bomb Aimer instead. Even though he was shot down very early in the war he’d never stopped thinking about Mum and had even sent her some of his very few wartime issue POW cards.
But he was haunted, too.
He’d wake in the middle of the night sometimes shouting, “Don’t shoot!” He did that for a while. And eventually he told me what it was all about. He said he’d dug a tunnel with some fellows and they’d planned it to come up in a cornfield just beyond the sentry’s path. But they’d miscalculated and come up right in the middle of the path, so when he’d gone down the hole and popped up at the other end he found he was looking right down the sharp end of a rifle held by a very excited guard. He didn’t give any more details than that. I wish he had. It didn’t seem right to ask, somehow.
He did a few other things, too. Like in his sleep he’d fight with Mum. Then she’d wake him up and find he’d been dreaming, and he’d apologize, and then he’d be fine for a while. But POW life had been hard. He saved everything. At first it made sense as we still had rationing for just about everything, but after a while the jam jars full of bent nails and old screws got a bit overwhelming.
One time he brought home a suitcase-sized wooden box. In it was a bomb sight. He said they’d been throwing them away as obsolete kit. “They were chucking them into the station air raid shelter, so I thought I’d ask for one.” It turns out it was an early one, the type he’d used when he was retraining back in 1940.
He kept it for a while in the front room as he cleaned and oiled it. It was a wonderful contraption, with plenty of brass and dials and so on. He wanted to put it on display, but Mum wouldn’t have it. She allowed him a big old compass and a piece of polished wood propeller, but that was it. I loved the compass, and the way its needle moved so smoothly when I’d pick it up and twirl myself around. It always pointed North and never shook or jiggled. It was amazing to me. The little compasses I’d seen at school had shiny needles that wobbled a lot and you had to put them somewhere solid or they’d go all over the place. But not this one. I needed both hands to hold it. It was brass, too, underneath the black RAF paint, and the brass bits would shine through where it was worn off. It felt substantial.
The bomb sight went back into its box and the box went into the room he called his office, where it got buried under papers. But I liked to drag it out and push all the dials and controls. I’d try to think my way into his experience. The trouble is that you can’t think your way into things like that, you can only feel your way forwards. Some things can be understood in an intellectual fashion, others have to be felt in the heart. That’s what I couldn’t get to. I wanted to know why dad was so nice and loving and gentle and oh-so remote. I couldn’t get there.
The thing was – and I didn’t really get it until much later – that old bomb sight was truly obsolete technology, as was the compass. The modern compasses fitted to planes even then were gyroscopic, much more accurate, and gave a simple read out of a number, the compass heading. This brass compass was like a medieval helmet in an era of grey steel tin hats. The bombsight was all analog, as we’d say today, like an abacus in the age of calculators. You had to set the air speed by moving a brass bar to the correct point, then you set the altitude on a brass rod that stood vertically … and so on. There was nothing automated about it. It was a mechanical solution to a practical problem.
For my part I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to sit in an aircraft, setting up the coordinates on this device, flying straight and level towards a target that was probably sending up lots of gunfire. Remaining calm while buffeted by wind and explosions, waiting until the target slid along the sighting wires and into the sight line – how did those men do it? The drone of engines, the rattle of everything around you, and often doing this in the dark, too, as you spoke through the intercom to guide the pilot. Even the intercom was primitive. You had to say “right”, for fly further to the right, and “Left Left” for left. Why twice? Because the whole contraption was so noisy and inefficient that sometimes the pilot could only hear a blast of static. One blast meant go right, two blasts meant left.
After he died I found other things in the junk cupboard in his workshop. I found what I learned later was a part of a charting system for working on maps to navigate a plane.
I found more compasses, some in rather sad condition.
His old Sidcot flying suit with its inner high-altitude liner, which they called the Teddy Bear, was passed on to me when I was a teenager. I used it when I rode my various motorcycles. Eventually they went to a jumble sale.
The bomb-sight was more like a weapon, though. No wonder Dad never was able to let go of that.
The farm is gone now. When the airfield expanded with the arrival of the heavy bombers in 1942 the runways were lengthened considerably, and new aircraft dispersal areas sprang up at the edge of the airfield – well away from the central block and therefore harder for the enemy to find. All of this activity cut into the arable land. Farm buildings were requisitioned, even though the air force tried to be sympathetic to those whose job it was to produce the food. Nissen huts were scattered through the fields and woodlands.
There were a few air-raids, one of which killed a number of ground crew. That one was in 1941. A stray stick of high explosive bombs also damaged the farmhouse, and for the rest of the war it was shored up with timbers on one side. Sometime in the 60s it was condemned. A housing estate now covers the ground it stood on, and no topographical features of the farm remain at all. The pond by the smithy, into which generations of wagon wheels had been rolled with their new hot iron tires to quench the glowing metal and shrink it to size – not a trace of it now. Sometimes the whole wagon had been pushed down the gentle slope into the pond, to save taking the wheels off the axles. That smithy pond was one of very few that could offer the cooling necessary for good wagon wheels, and it had made the village important. Other villages might make do with buckets of water poured over the rims, but everyone knew the steel wouldn’t be as hard or as strong. Wheeler’s Pond wasn’t just a name, it was a description of a way of life.
Other land marks went the same way, including a small circle of prehistoric standing stones that were bulldozed by the air force construction crew before anyone realized what they were, or that they might be significant.
And so the landmarks of the age were shifted and now it’s hard to get back to what the original effect might have been, just as memories are replaced by newer impressions and then overlaid with other memories, and no one recalls quite what it felt like before the changes, not even those who lived through them.
What was it like to grow up in that village, on that farm? The sighing of the wind in the oaks, the sound of chickens, the distant lowing of cattle or the squabbling of sparrows in the hedgerows – all were replaced by the blasting roar of engines, the seemingly endless blanket of drumming, throbbing, screaming roar (what other word is there? Can there be another word?) as a stream of twin engine aircraft rumbled down the runway, full throttle, maximum power, overloaded with explosives, hammering past for what seemed like forever. Sometimes it was the rush of single engine fighters, all taking to the air at once. And afterwards, the sudden stillness.
Mostly it was used as a fighter base, although the lengthened runway, which eventually reached for an astonishing 3 miles, was created as an emergency landing field for crippled bombers. At night, or in the early morning stillness, damaged aircraft would fly in singly, sometimes with engines making strange unnatural surging sounds, to land or crash or do something that was neither one nor the other. Then came the sound of the fire trucks and perhaps a plume of smoke in the dawn sky, or perhaps just the smell of burning fuel and the choking sensation of smoke reaching across the dark.
This is what Elizabeth experienced. Not for one moment could she forget Jack, the air force, or the deaths of flight crews. With such daily reminders, how could she do as people advised her? Let go of the memory, they said. Try to forget it. Let it go.
This is the situation I grew up in.
As a child I didn’t really understand the sorrow Elizabeth and Derek, my dad, felt. I didn’t see how they were haunted by this past they could never quite come to terms with. I didn’t know how to make sense of their marriage or why my father was always trying to placate my mother for something.
I loved to run around the farm. What boy wouldn’t? It never occurred to me that the timbers holding up the part of the house we didn’t live in were a problem that needed to be solved. I thought it was cool that we lived in a place that had “seen action”. I’d chase frogs or fish for tadpoles in Wheeler’s Pond, its stone edging now crumbling. A little distance away we’d sometimes walk to the manor house, and the remains of the ornamental garden. There, in wall niches, were stone busts of bewigged gentlemen from another age. Heavily weathered, some hardly recognizable as human, I didn’t understand why anyone would put statues there.
That’s me on the right. I’m not sure who the older boy is. Perhaps he’s trying to imitate the expression on the statue?
What does all this mean? I think – or rather I feel – that this shows the background of my life as someone who lived in a country, an entire country, that was haunted by its past. Some people might call this tradition. Others might describe it as heritage. I feel that these are benevolent terms for a phenomenon that runs far deeper than this, a way of seeing life, of being in life, that is rooted in tragedy.
In England, the picturesque place I grew up in, the prevailing spirit has always been one of lengthening shadows, overcast landscapes and beauty that is threatened by something deadly.
I’d hear my father’s friends talk about things having changed, about how things were “before the war” - and hidden in that statement was an agonizing sense that something had been broken that could never be mended, not now. Instead of being glad to be alive to face a new day (for they’d all faced death and the threat of sudden extinction, one way or another) the feeling was of having been grievously wounded, crippled by the events that they had barely survived. Things might get better or get worse, but the damage had been done. The bounce in the step was lost; the optimism wafer thin.
That was the air I breathed.
Dad’s friends would sometimes have a drink or two with him in the kitchen and start talking about the aircraft they’d flown. Mostly they’d harp back to the Spitfire, the iconic fighter of the period. And it was like they were talking about a transcendent experience. They all agreed it was a plane that was a pleasure to fly, that it handled beautifully, responsive to the lightest touch, as if it were part of you. “It was the closest thing you could get to actually flying, yourself”. I heard that said a few times. Unspoken beneath this talk was that it was a killing machine of superb refinement. Beauty, it seemed, could only be felt as beauty if touched with imminent danger and the threat of destruction. Then it glowed.
I wondered then about the legend of Acteon. He’d had the misfortune to stumble upon the goddess Diana and her nymphs when they were bathing. Astonished by their beauty he’d stood and gaped so long that he was spotted; so Diana, enraged, turned him into a stag and had her hounds hunt him to death. They ripped him limb from limb. Violent. Poignant. And it felt as if it explained something about what I saw in my elders. If Acteon had simply stayed put and apologized profusely he might well have been killed, but with some shred of dignity intact, perhaps? Living in England it felt as if we’d all stumbled into something truly beautiful and that we’d now have to be punished for that. We expected it. We loved what we’d seen and mourned the fact that we could never expect to see it again, so punishment was our reward.
The sense was, as I expressed it then, that we’d made it through just before everything went to hell.
How can one create a future out of that? How can one even have a half-way decent present?
I have various memories of growing up. One of them was that I was standing with my father by a brick wall at the farm, and he was shouting at me to stand back. In his hand was a half brick which he was about the throw at a rat. Was he killing rats to get rid of them? For sport? To protect me? I don’t know. I just know that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do and that I was in the way. In my memory it’s a grey day, the wall was of brick, and the place was called the pigsty, although pigs hadn’t been in it for years. Was he shouting? It’s hard to tell when you’re small. I don’t know what happened to the rat. Probably it escaped. I was three.
I can recall another memory at about the same time. I’m sitting in the bath, and the window opposite me has six panes. One is broken. My mother is washing me and she needs to rinse my hair. So she takes me by the scruff of the neck and tells me to hold my breath. She plunges my head under. When I resurface I tell her she’s gripping my neck too hard. It hurts, I say. She gives me a look. The look, in my memory, is one that says: “How dare you protest!” But I may have been wrong. She might have been amused and trying not to laugh. The feeling that remains is of being unloved.
The way I choose to remember may have nothing to do with the actual event and everything to do with how I chose to react to it. I chose her resentment and my father’s annoyance.
I could have chosen something else, couldn’t I?
At a certain point, as a teenager I found myself caught up in this nostalgia. Is that what it was? I’m not sure. All I can do is relay the facts and try to feel my way through the fog.
There was, for example, the coat. Derek’s RAF greatcoat had hung in the cupboard by the stairs for decades, and I wanted a big coat to keep me warm and not be like the obligatory tweed items that seemed to be all that were on offer. Everything in the shops felt thin and slight – made for elegance of line but not for warmth or comfort. This coat was from another era. It was of thick wool, RAF blue, double-breasted, with an enormous collar that would turn up and cover half your face. It reached down well below the knee. It felt substantial, luxurious even, ready to envelope you and keep you from the worst gales. It was the sort of coat you could wear in drafty and damp houses and not feel the chill – and so many houses were like that. So I asked if I could have it. I met a sort of cotton wool world of evasion. I kept asking.
Eventually I prevailed, but only on the condition that the RAF buttons were replaced and all marks of rank removed.
[picture of coat and buttons]
That took a while. And finally it was handed over to me. The look in my mother’s eyes was almost reproachful, as if I shouldn’t be wearing it. But I didn’t care. I had a coat that felt substantial. But why did I want this coat, this uniform item that came from a source that had already hurt my family so much? Why did I want to dress in my father’s clothes? And why did my mother not want me to wear it?
I had no idea then. Now I think I do. It was my way of trying to get closer to him, to feel in some way the things he’d felt during that most difficult period of his life. And perhaps my mother resented that. She wanted me to feel things as she’d felt them. I wasn’t able to do that because, for so many reasons, my mother never really felt as if she was present. In truth, she wasn’t. She was waiting for Jack, who would never return, so the real world had little appeal to her. She was waiting for the pre-war days to catch up, finally, and make everything right again.
I wore that coat through the winter, and it was one of the best coats I’d ever had. And then, in Spring, I began to feel that it was becoming too tight. I was not done growing, it would seem. I grew to be taller than my father, and the coat went back into the closet, then into a trunk where it remained for another 20 years. How could I be larger than my dad? He was the one who was supposed to be large, not me. But I was bigger in every direction. Something inside me knew that I was not like him, and that I’d been pretending. The coat was a way of entering his world, except it hadn’t worked. Can a piece of clothing be haunted? I doubt it. But being haunted may make anyone strive to fulfill a life that is not their own, such that they adopt the clothing and the ways of the one whose yearning most deeply impacts us.
The clothing was a symptom. It was the way of living that was the threat. I’ve learned that if a parent has a disappointing or unfulfilled life, or perhaps a life that he or she is unable to talk about and process, then the child will tend to respond to that unspoken feeling. And, if one is not careful, the child will seek to live the parent’s unlived life. This is a version, I suppose, of the child wanting to be successful in the terms the parents have defined. Wanting to “make father proud”. Except it this case it’s not fully conscious, and so it takes strange forms.
I’d heard about Jack’s Matchless motorcycle, for example. And so as a young man I decided I needed to ride motorcycles, too. I did so, despite a series of heavy colds contracted by the wet and freezing experience in the saddle in winter, and I did not stop until I’d found and owned the exact make and model that Jack had once possessed. He wasn’t my father. Yet something had come through my mother’s descriptions that made me want to do this, that made it compelling.
I know I’m not alone in this, because in my years working on old motorcycles I met many other riders who were proud to say, “my Dad had one just like this.”
Beneath the surface of life there exist channels of communication that are hidden, mysterious, and powerful. These were what I was feeling.
When Elizabeth grew into old age she did it almost without paying it any attention. She still dressed very much in the same way, and cared little about fashion. It was when she began her slide into dementia that we saw how time had chewed at her vitality. For it was then that she began to talk. The stories spilled out, in no particular order, and eventually in chains of endless repetition. Did she remember what she remembered because it reassured her? That is the way I’d have expected things to go, but does dementia work that way? No one I talked to seemed to know, exactly, because dementia happens in different ways for different people. Alzheimer’s is, by comparison, fairly well established as a disease and it seems to follow relatively well defined stages. Dementia, the doctor’s word for “we don’t quite know what’s going on,” is less predictable.
What I learned was this: Every memory has an emotional component, at least to begin with. We recall what we recall because we need to believe it was the way we see it now, because it is the story we tell ourselves about who we are, what we’ve been through. And so some memories get lost, since they contradict what we like to think about our lives. Other memories get added to, confused, blended. We construct our lives, and out of what we construct others make their truths, and so the whole tottering edifice becomes what we think we know. When dementia’s tentacles slither between the parts of the self that we’ve bound so tightly, forcing them apart, wrenching the whole process of memory recall and word retrieval, then there’s no real way to be sure what’s happening any more. Did Elizabeth use Jack’s name when she meant Derek? It’s quite probable – and it makes it bewildering for those of us who are hanging on to every word at the end of life.
When Derek was dying I came into the hospice room and told him my wife was at the bed side, also. I could have sworn he responded and said her name. She swears he said my name. But perhaps he was just sighing.
My mother mentioned that a couple of days before he died, before the ambulance took him away to the hospice, he’d awoken early in the morning, shaking her. He had then proceeded to tell her, at great length, about the flying characteristics of various aircraft, planes that had ceased to exist decades before. She was annoyed and frightened by turns. What did it mean? When she told me I was pretty certain that he knew he was dying, and that he wanted to give her advice about how to live on her own. But the language he used was the language chosen by his distressed brain, the language of the aircraft he’d lived and worked amongst. In a different context his words would have been important, life-saving, and generous. Now they meant very little to her. I felt them as an expression of love and caring, but then I wasn’t there. And perhaps he thought he was talking to someone else, someone who could fly, someone not my mother.
How do we understand this?
When my mother was dying, some years later, I came into the room after a long and cramped transatlantic flight and she looked up at me without her glasses. Her face lit up. Then I spoke and her smile faded. Had she momentarily thought I was someone else? I sensed at the time that she thought I was my dead father, whom I resemble, coming to guide her to the next world – and that she was actually bitter in her disappointment that it was me.
She lingered for nearly three weeks after that. Her last words were to my wife: “Now, Cathy, how do you like Waitrose [the local supermarket]?”
At least she’d got her name right. That was a minor miracle.
Neither of us quite knew what to say, but Cathy had no trouble in chatting about groceries, putting a reasonable gloss on things. My mother fell asleep a few minutes later. A week later she was dead.
Was this an attempt at lively, brave conversation in the face of death? Was she extending particular regard to Cathy, of whom she had tended to express slight disapproval, knowing she was close to the end? She knew she was dying, but perhaps she had forgotten?
In every case I can chose which interpretation I want, and perhaps none are true.
I waited in vain for each parent to say they loved me, so I did the only thing I could – I told them I loved them. Their need was greater than mine.
Still, we do have hopes of the dying. We hope that they might, at the end, become tender or reveal important secrets, or perhaps show love in a way we can remember for the rest of our days. This is natural, yet it tells us more about ourselves than about them. They are dying as they need to, with bodies and brains and spirits perhaps fading or in pain, and it is unfair of us to expect anything much of them. Life is not a Hollywood movie with a touching death scene that resolves confusions and affirms love, or justice, or anything else. Why should we expect a person who can’t even leave a party gracefully to be able to leave life and family halfway decently? Why should I have expected a woman whose idea of a good bye was a peck on the cheek and an admonition to wrap up warmly, while she handed me some sandwiches wrapped in wax paper – why should I have expected her to be able to do her last goodbye in some memorable way? That’s all about my expectation and nothing to do with reality.
And yet – my father’s funeral was a gift of a different sort. For one thing my cousins and my aunt were there, people I’d barely seen in the course of my life. And my eldest cousin related to me that even though Derek had been fond of her he couldn’t forgive my aunt her somewhat less than ideal life. While he’d been in POW camp, she’d married, had a child, separated from her husband, had an affair that produced her second child, then finally she’d moved in with the man who stayed with her till he died thirty years later. Yet he didn’t marry her, although he helped bring up the two girls and they all took his name. Perhaps he couldn’t marry her because he was already married? I don’t think we’ll ever know.
This was the semi-secret that Derek did not want others to know about him and his rather humble background. He didn’t hide it exactly – he just operated as if it had no significance.
So the Derek who married mom was a man whose world had been turned upside down and inside out. They were both confused by the way everything they thought they understood had changed around them. The world had moved too fast for their comfort so they found comfort in each other.
Was that really it? Is that analysis fair? We can’t ask them, and they wouldn’t have had the time or interest to think about it.
Another possibility exists, though, and that is an emotional one. Despite the disappointments of Elizabeth and Derek and despite my sense of them having somehow missed the boat on parenting it’s not all gloom and despair. These two knew, at some level, that they were loved. They came together like shipwrecked sailors clinging to the same piece of jetsam, and that bound them forever to each other. They had to hold on to the relationship that was their marriage, even if they each wanted something else much of the time – since they recognized that this arrangement had saved both their lives. And there is love in an agreement like that. Not story-book perfect setting-sun and violins in the background love, but perhaps something just as durable. Perhaps something more vital.
I like to think that there is something after death, and that both of them are now in another realm that is lighter than this. It would be a realm where they didn’t have to be defensive or reserved any more. It would be a place where they could recognize that they were loved. Imperfectly expressed love, true; but still it was love. And now they can know this, fully, because they wouldn’t let themselves know it or accept it before. And so I send them blessings and gratitude whenever I can.
Simplistic? Believe as you will. One of the advantages of this attitude is that it removes the sense of being hard done by. It removes me from victimhood or depression or anything similar. Instead I see that this was an imperfect world in which we got a lot of things wrong, most of the time. And it doesn’t matter.
It is said that it’s never to late to have a happy childhood and I know this to be true. If I focus on the love, even when it set my teeth on edge, I can feel a different power than when I focus on what’s wrong.
For there is always something wrong. When one is a child that unblemished little body one inhabits is, alas, not capable of very much. As one grows to adolescence the body seems to be pretty tough, but the mind is frequently confused and the hormones upset everything. On into the twenties - one often feels unattractive or gauche, or perhaps alienated and confused. Eventually, in age the body lets us down again and bits of it fail to function as they are supposed to. We are, by definition, tethered to imperfect bodies and that’s for a purpose. The purpose is to remind us every moment that life is imperfect. That we have bigger spirits and souls than we can ever express. That’s the nature of being human.
But this view can be challenged, too. Is it merely a convenient rationalization constructed to make life seem bearable? Is it a delusion like any other? And then, really, one is faced with the ultimate question about how we make our world. Are we constantly shielding ourselves against insignificance and despair?
I’d have to answer that with another question: what else is there?
We are creatures who make meaning from almost anything and everything. We wish on a shooting star. We believe we have our “luck”. We think black cats are lucky or unlucky. We think our lives matter because we have an important job. In the end, though, we get to choose whether we want to make a meaning that is consoling or a meaning that leaves us with emptiness and purposelessness. Perhaps that’s in some measure the value of children. When one has a child one has a purpose. And the child’s attachment to us awakens us to the power of love. We can welcome this. We can dislike the degree of the attachment. We can be frightened by it. But it’s hard to pretend it’s not there.
Which brings us to the question of how Derek and Mom got together. It’s always hard to imagine your parents’ emotional and romantic life. Or possibly I should say it’s easy to imagine, but hard to know if one’s imagination is in any way accurate.
Mom had hardly hidden herself away at the farm. She’d had a social life. She never seemed to take it seriously, though. It was like church on Sundays. You turned up, behaved well and forgot about it until the next time. She’d be at the dances in the village hall, but she’d be taking the tickets or pouring the tea when the band took a break. Or she’d be on the other side of the hall, at the bar pouring drinks. Not really participating, always some sort of barrier between her and the rest.
The best I can reconstruct is that Derek had arrived on her doorstep and she’d felt sorry for him, invited him in, and they’d begun talking. Eventually he rented the back bedroom in exchange for working on the farm. He was tired and weak from malnutrition, but soon began to strengthen with the outdoor work, the plain food, and the fresh air.
I think it was some time in this period that they began to see they were alike, babes in the woods, lost and sorrowing. Hansel and Gretel, hungry for something. So it was natural that they should cling to each other. Each saw in the other a version of their own sorrows. Surely, it was meant to be. They got to know each other over the mugs of tea, and the thick slices of Elizabeth’s bread topped with cream. The butter was all sent to market, but the cream, which wouldn’t keep, became their butter, with blackberry or damson jam on top. If he was out in the fields she’d bring him some lunch. Tea in a thermos – the same thermos she’d taken out to Jack all those years before – and sandwiches. Bacon and lettuce, usually, and a slice of pie. All was packed in her wicker basket. She walked out with the dog, a black and white sheepdog, for he could always find Derek without her needing to shout across the fields.
I could create a scene, with dialogue, to show all this. But how would I know it was in any way accurate? I wouldn’t. I’d be creating it from fragments of information I’d gleaned along the way, and that I’d made into a pleasing pattern. Pleasing to me. Perhaps totally inaccurate. Do I have a right to do that? Just because I’m their son do I have more right to create their supposed past than anyone else?
Imagine them, then, sitting on either side of the heavy scrubbed kitchen table, with the bread slices stacked on the large serving plate, the teapot keeping warm on the cast iron stove in the fireplace. Their first tea together, years before I’m born, and the kitchen still the same then as it would be when we moved out. Oak beams, yellowing walls, a welsh dresser with plates and cups, mostly blue and white willow pattern, mostly chipped.
Turning from the stove where she’s frying some bacon and potatoes, she says to him; “Have some of that whipped cream on your bread.”
And he replies, “Cream. I haven’t had real cream fresh like this, for a long, long time. Do you prefer it to butter?”
“It’s what we’ve always done. We send the butter to market. No one can use the extra cream.”
“Lucky for us,” he smiles at her.
“It’s good if you put some of that jam with it. Don’t wait. Help yourself. It needs eating.”
“Where do you get enough sugar for jam?”
“I don’t. It’s just boiled up fruit with its own natural sweetness. You may as well take plenty as that won’t keep, either.”
To him, a feast. To her, things that needed eating. To them both, a chance to establish normalcy.
And so the story is established. In the process I have invented my version of these people – based on some evidence, surely. It’s not mere fantasy. Yet all evidence depends for its value upon interpretation.
In the process of writing this story I have depended upon another construct – “you”. You are the one I’m communicating with, yet I’ve never met you. The you I have created is my imagined reader, perhaps the perfect reader, who will understand all I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and empathize. But still, this “you” is my invention. Perhaps I created it in order to mask my loneliness. Perhaps I did this because I want the reassurance of an imagined reader who will say – no, whisper – I see what you mean and I accept your attempt to convey what is ultimately un-conveyable, the nature of another’s existence.
Or is this “you” really just part of me? Possibly I’m observing me trying to make sense of something, and since that alerts me to the realization that I see that I need consoling, I console me. If I can console me, then presumably I can console others, the others who may read this tale. The many versions of “you” who are out there. Part of me wants to reach out to that series of yous.
And if I can do that then I believe, rightly or wrongly, that I’ll have pacified the ghosts of the past and these facts will be mere facts again, without any emotional overlay. They will no longer hurt me. They will not direct my life. They will no longer haunt me.
And so now we must take another issue in hand. You see, everything in this memoir is both true and utterly false. Like a person who goes to an antique shop to buy the things his grandparents might once have owned, hoping to recapture something of their time, of their influence on him, this memoir is made up of fragments. The fragments come from different places. Some were bequeathed to me, some were found, some were bought. They are, in legalistic terms, not part of this story at all. In fact this story is constructed from objects that do not belong together.
But that does not make it untrue.
It makes it in many ways more true.
What holds all these things together – and that includes the pictures of things supposedly handled by the main characters – is the sense that without this method of telling the story the story itself could not truly exist. I have been attempting to recreate a series of events to show how they unfolded. What lies caught in the interstices where the paper was creased is what matters, and its unfolding is, I believe, a true reflection of my parents and of many people who were like my parents.
The events described have been reconstructed using as much care and insight as I could muster; the emotions I’ve depicted are all those I’ve heard talked about and others have sighed over; some of the memories are my own, directly, and so colored by my own prejudices. The objects depicted are all well known to me and they are linked to real memories, mine and other people’s.
Perhaps that is enough for truth.
Jack Bullard’s story can be researched by anyone who wishes to do so. Elizabeth’s is fabricated from my mother’s life. Derek shares aspects of my father, and of me. For when we are trying to understand the way that previous generations haunt us it’s necessary to blend things in the way I have here. I collected the compasses and the bombsight, and gave some of them to my father, who was very pleased to get them. I knew he would feel too self-conscious to get these items for himself, so I helped him.
I have returned to his era, his life, to try and understand why it affects me. I’m not alone. People in England and the British Isles have, in record numbers, started looking for their ancestors’ histories, especially their military service records. Perhaps it’s because so much is now available on-line, which means anyone can research records that previously would have required long distance travel and dedicated days spent at dusty desks.
I chose not to write this as fiction. To write a novel is to invite in so many expectations. There is the tyranny the readers enforce on writers that they should have significant excitement at pre-determined points. They hope for action, romance, danger, and tension. They hope for some grand reveal at the end. But what if life just isn’t like that? What if the tension and boredom of war coexisted for so long that no one quite understood what it meant? The yearning for the war to be over must have exerted considerable psychic pain on so many, and when it was finally over….? What then? Despite the wild celebrations in front of Buckingham Palace, the kind you see on the newsreels – it’s true to say that for many people the war’s end was marked by silence, by a sense of the terrible waste of it all, by the absence of those who should by rights have been there but were in unmarked graves or no graves at all.
“Is this the promised end?” asks the aged Duke of Kent upon seeing King Lear, howling, dying with his dead daughter in his arms, and in that moment we have access to something vital. We hear Kent’s heartbreak, and we sense that he needs a different ending if his beliefs in goodness and justice are to remain intact. For Lear as for Kent that promise has failed. But for those who remain life must go on – and they must attempt to understand what has happened in whatever ways they can. That is the task of those who remain on stage, struck dumb by what they’ve seen.
Writers construct a narrative arc to reassure the readers. We do it so that they can feel there is someone in charge of the writing, of the story. There is a beginning, a middle and an end that mean something. Is there anything like that in life?
The days of peace that Elizabeth and Derek faced were a struggle, too. War’s end was not a triumph for them, and it didn’t even mark an ending. The houses were still bombed out, food was short, clothing restricted. In that time, the aftermath, they struggled to become real to themselves. In many ways they didn’t succeed. They wished to feel the world they’d lost, and knew they couldn’t. They wanted a promised end that didn’t materialize as expected.
That struggle is what made me.
A friend to whom I showed an early draft of this story said, kindly, “This isn’t so much a memoir or a novel as a patchwork quilt.” I’d have to agree. And on a cold night a patchwork quilt can be very welcome, especially if a blanket made of whole cloth is not available.
So, yes, this is a memoir. And a novel. And a fantasy. And it’s all true. And perhaps now I can let it go.