Never Can Say Goodbye
Give me a few moments, George...to get my breath back. Nice to be on our own for a while...the formalities over, thank the Lord. Maybe I should pinch myself...prove I’m awake and not dreaming! After sixty-four years I’m standing right here, talking to you. Just imagine; me – on ‘foreign soil’ for the first time in my life! The world has drastically changed, George; modern technology, computers and such, have left me behind, and as for going abroad, never thought I’d get the opportunity. Not what one would call ‘the pioneering kind’, was I?
Different from you...like chalk and cheese we were, but ‘opposites attract’, don’t they say? I’d always wondered how it felt – flying. Enjoyed every second, as it happened, much to my surprise, and I can certainly appreciate why it was your passion. You simply wouldn’t believe how commonplace air-travel is nowadays; planes are nothing like they were...way back then; jumbo jets, Concord, breaking the sound barrier; even men on the moon by the late sixties. You would have been in your element! It’s wasted on me, unfortunately. The quiet life...all I want.
Inconceivable, how the years have flown, George; twenty-one, us two at the start of the war. It was ‘love at first sight’ undeniably, so there was little point waiting to tie the knot, we’d agreed. My wedding dress is still up in the loft, but the ring’s too tight now, and I keep it in a trinket box on my dressing table. And no – I didn’t remarry. Nobody could have replaced you, even when I finally accepted you weren’t coming back. One doesn’t turn love on and off like a light-bulb, and in my heart of hearts, a tiny spark of hope refused to go out.
I remember, as if it were only yesterday, that drizzly, Monday morning you left for Cambridgeshire to join your squadron. You begged me not to come and see you off. You didn’t want any tears, you said. Wild horses couldn’t have kept me away though; kept me from thrusting our dog-eared copy of ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, in your hand...the book you’d read to me last thing at night, before we went to sleep. ‘Goodbye,’ stuck in my throat; something I’ve always regretted; turning my back and walking away, so you couldn’t see the heartbreak in my eyes.
And when I received that telegram, it almost destroyed me. It was the uncertainty – the not knowing. The only thing I knew for certain, was that you’d never reached your destination that fateful night – you and six others; shot-down by enemy fire, they assumed. The wreckage of your ill-fated Stirling, on its way to embark on a bombing raid in Kessel, was never found, but they did find three bodies. One was the pilot, but the other two, were to remain unidentified. Strange as it seems, I recall wondering, as the months went by, if I should tell myself that one of them was you, but lying to oneself is rarely convincing.
‘Missing; presumed dead’, the telegram read; makes my blood run cold only thinking about it. Impossible to put into words how I felt. At first, numbness and disbelief, I suppose, and then there was the inevitable anger and self-pity. But jealousy was the worst thing; something I’ve never admitted to before. How I envied those that had the luxury, or so I perceived it to be, of closure. My torment went on day after day, year after year. Yes, they were ‘the lucky ones’, I concluded, and felt terrible for doing so, but then war itself is pretty terrible.
Time’s running short, and I must get to the point; tell you the reason for this ‘flying visit’. Events started to unfold only a few weeks ago, would you believe; when a letter dropped onto my doormat, ‘special delivery’. Barely past breakfast, I admit to putting a nip of brandy in my Earl Gray tea; purely for medicinal purposes, you understand. Promise I’ve not become an alcoholic in my old age, except maybe an occasional glass of sherry. But I digress, and I can almost hear you saying, ‘Spit it out woman!’ in that exasperated tone of yours, reserved for occasions when you would accuse me, totally unjustly, of ‘beating around the bush’.
Funny, I can almost sense that wry smile. It was your smile first attracted me that evening we met at a mutual friend’s cocktail party. You bowled me over with a memorable rendition of Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day, even though the piano was sorely out of tune.
Speaking of which, dusk’s around the corner; chilly too – out here in the middle of nowhere; a place called Delden in Holland, to be exact. Apparently, in May, 2006, the Royal Netherlands Air Force were excavating at Bentelo, a small village only a mile or so from here. I’ve forgotten what the purpose of the dig was, but it was merely by chance they literally stumbled upon the wreckage of your plane; and four bodies, one of which was yours, dog tag and all.
Felt so proud of you today, George. They gave you a grand send-off; full military honours...the whole bit. Cold comfort for me, but the least said about that the better. They do keep the gardens here so pristine; flowers and shrubs in abundance. I considered it fitting the four of you should share the same resting place. They consulted me, naturally; only hope I did do the right thing.
“Sorry. Did I make you jump? You seemed miles away. You wouldn’t credit how far I’ve had to walk to get a signal on this damned mobile! I’ve been trying to get a cab all this while and it’s just turned up. It’s pushing it now to get to the airport in time for our return flight, what with all the security checks, etc. etc. Such are the joys of international travel, twenty-first century style! Say... are you OK? You look all in. Here – take my hanky and dry your eyes; it’s pristine, of course. ‘Always ensure one has a spare handkerchief in one’s pocket, for life’s ‘little emergencies’, isn’t that what you always used to say, when I was a knee-high to a space-hopper?”
“Good job I did, as it happens, and look, don’t worry about me; I’m a little weary, nothing more, which is only to be expected at my age! Go and tell the driver I’ll be there in a couple of ticks...there’s a good man.”
Looks like you, doesn’t he – our son? His hair’s a touch grey, but it was jet black, like yours. I’d an inkling I was expecting when you left, but I wasn’t sure; didn’t want to disappoint you if I was mistaken, so I kept shtoom. Wished I hadn’t, but one can’t put the clock back. I’ve tried to psyche myself up for this moment; promised myself I wouldn’t be a coward this time around. When the moment came, I’d find the strength to finally say, ‘goodbye’, and yet, when I look at our son, it’s you who looks back at me, so in a way, you never left.
It wasn’t true, you know...when I said I was OK. A pain shoots through my arm; it’s been happening frequently of late; must find somewhere to sit down. There, that’s better. My imagination, perhaps, but I can feel your hand steadying mine – see the wedding ring, as plain as day – here on my finger, catching the last rays of the sun, as good as brand new. Impossible, of course, but I won’t pinch myself. If I am dreaming, I don’t want to wake up...ever, and I’m feeling tired, so very tired. Think I’ll just close my eyes for a second or two. Read that book to me, George...like you used to. How did that passage go? Yes, I remember. I shall sleep soundly now, as indeed we both will.”
‘And at home by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be and whenever I look up, there will be you.’