The discs of light danced a violent tango on the thick cream paint of the cabin walls,  backwards and down, forwards and up and then backwards again.     The engine raced, rattling the glass syringes in their boxes and then slowed to a regular thud as the propeller bit into the next wave.  One small dark medicine bottle had broken loose and rattled back and forth across the wooden floor.  Somewhere a door opened and then shut with a bang.  The cabin smelt of Dettol, diesel and fish.  A body,  partly covered in a grey blanket lay on a metal table in the middle of the room.  The lights flashed across his swarthy features, the prominent nose, the high cheekbones, the dark moustache.  His skull, cushioned in pillows, was wrapped in layers of bandage, white except for a faint smudge of blood at the forehead.   His eyes were closed and he slept, oblivious to the world that rattled,  banged, bucked and lurched  around him.  

 

By the side of the table sat a young woman, dressed in navy slacks and a thick cream coloured Fair Isle cardigan.  She was pretty in a way.  Her brown hair curled loose over her ears.   Her reddened lips were parted to reveal rather prominent teeth with a gap between them.   A scrap of blue paper was screwed tightly in her right hand.  The long fingernails were painted a rich red.   She had been crying, her make-up ran down her face like the rusty stain on the cabin wall she stared at.  She felt sick.

 

‘You bastard!’   Doris shouted at the sleeping body.  ‘You utter bastard!’   Tears blurred the dancing discs of light as she suddenly got up,  paced back and forth and then tried to push the table to the door.  But it was bolted to the cabin floor and Doris collapsed into her chair, defeated.   The letter was from a girl, a WAAF stationed near Kirkwall.   Doris had read only the first two lines,  ‘Darling, you were so wonderful.  Please come and see me again just as soon as you can’   Just six weeks wed, Doris was completely distraught.  Caught in a blind fury, she just wanted to throw herself, her husband and the whole bloody war into the sea.          

 

Two years previously,  in that sunny autumn of 1939,  the British government under Neville Chamberlain, declared war on Nazi Germany.  Nothing much happened for the first three months.  In February the following year, the government issued a general call for volunteers.  Wallace, although he was tipped to be a high flyer in his company, had responded without hesitation.  Wrapping his fawn coloured gabardine raincoat around him and holding his dark trilby to his head,  he ran through the squalls to the Navy recruiting office near the top of Park Street in Bristol,  but they were closed for lunch and so he signed up for the RAF a few doors down.  He wasn’t that disappointed – his friends,  Pete and Bryan assured him that the RAF boys got a better class of crumpet.  

 

That evening he told Doris.  She was frightened;  Wallace couldn’t even drive a car – how on earth could he learn to pilot a plane?  Still, he was so brave and she felt very proud.  Silly with love,  she told her grandmother.   ‘I hope I never live to see you marry that boy’, was her only comment.   But it was war and there was no time to reflect.  Within a few weeks she had left the family; grandma, grandpa, aunts and uncles, her dog Rover, and Daisy, the devoted mother who had lost her husband in another war.   Doris rented a flat in the Victorian town of Clevedon on the Severn estuary; it would be so romantic for her and Wallace when he came home on leave. 

 

Wallace commenced his pilot training, first in Kidlington north of Oxford, then in Long Sutton in Lincolnshire, before he joined 253 squadron, fighter command, which was assigned to fleet escort duties in Orkney. 

 

By the spring of 1941, the British army had been defeated and plucked from the beaches at Dunkirk and the Luftwaffe had intensified their bombing raids on London.  The RAF recruited more pilots to respond to the threat of invasion.  Wallace was told that only one in nine of them would survive.   So on the 24th April,  he married Doris at a hurried ceremony in St Luke’s Church.  He wore the blue serge uniform of flight sergeant, his wings proudly sewn to his chest.  Doris clutched her bouquet of white flowers and shivered.  The honeymoon was a weekend in Weston-Super-Mare.  They never left their hotel room. Then Wallace rejoined his squadron.     

 

Just six weeks later on the 12th of June,  Wallace was on a reconnaissance flight in tandem with his commanding officer.  Witnesses said one engine was making a funny noise. The aircraft had come in from the east over the sea and were heading up a valley on Rousay when they noticed smoke to the south over the hill.  Wallace banked steeply to investigate but was too low to clear the ridge and crashed into a telegraph pole at two hundred miles an hour, cutting off all communication to the island for two weeks.      

 

Doris had only just got into her office in Clevedon when the call came through.  She left immediately and that same night, took the train to Scotland.  It took her three days. 

 

Wallace lay in the back bedroom of Mrs Greave’s croft when Doris arrived.     He had broken his back, shattered his right knee, his forehead had been lacerated by the perspex of the broken cockpit and his skull was cracked open.  The MO from the base told her that he had never seen anybody survive such injuries, but Wallace responded to Doris’s devoted nursing and three weeks later was stable enough to be moved to the mainland. 

 

When Wallace regained consciousness,  he had lost all memory of the accident and the events that had preceded it.  He could not even remember his wedding and he didn’t know who Doris was.  He was childish in behaviour and for a time just talked French.  It was another eight months before he could leave hospital.  Unfit to return to active duty, he spent the rest of the war serving pints in Daisy’s pub in Bedminster.   The daily contact with customers, getting to know the drinks and working out the change rewired his brain.  But he was not the same man.  The damage to his brain had disintegrated his personality.   He had had to reinvent himself.  His sisters remarked many years later that he had gone to war a confident, laughing boy, with everything going for him, and had returned a feckless, middle-aged man, prone to rages and embarrassing behaviour.            

 

By the end of the war, Wallace was able to return to his work in the same insurance company.  He even passed his professional examinations at the first attempt, but he had lost lacked the emotional containment to take responsibility for even a small  branch office.  He would lose his temper easily.  He drank heavily.  And his behaviour towards women, which had always been very polite, had become openly flirtatious; his innuendo could offend.   

 

Doris suffered it all, the flirtations, the humiliations, even the drunken rages. They had two young boys and women at that time rarely left a bad marriage.  She stuck it out, but the resentment inside her grew.  She kept the letter as a dark secret and from time to time she would open it and make a solemn vow to herself that if she ever had the chance, she would leave Wallace.  It was only what he deserved.   

 

They had been married for 18 years when she met Ron.  He had moved into the house next door.  He had recently divorced his wife for adultery, but had retained custody of their 5 year old son.  He and Doris would spend hours talking over the fence while they were both working in the garden. Wallace didn’t seem to notice.  He was hospitable to Ron; he invited him round most evenings – they all went out drinking together.  He even invited him to come on holiday with them.  There was a connection between the two men, a comradeship; during that same war, Ron had served on arctic convoys out of Scapa Floe, the very fleets Wallace had been protecting. 

 

Wallace never dreamed that Doris could be interested in any other man, let alone a sailor.   But she was.  She was falling in love.  Ron was everything that the old Wallace, the Wallace she had married, used to be – and the reinvented Wallace wasn’t.  He was young, bright, amusing, he had a lively interest in all kinds of things, and he made her laugh.  Wallace’s interests had constricted, become stereotyped by warm beer, laughing women and slow horses and he always seemed angry with her.

 

Soon Ron and Doris were having an affair.  He would visit her during the afternoons when she knew that Wallace would be safely seeing clients and the children were at school.  They were careful.  They made their plans.  After two years, she left Wallace without any warning.  There was just a note on the kitchen table. She rented a flat in town, hired a man with a van, packed up a few personal items, and left, taking the boys with her. Then she petitioned for divorce on the grounds of mental cruelty. 

 

Shocked by his wife’s betrayal and furious with the man he had welcomed into his house,  Wallace found the sense of abandonment almost impossible to cope with.  He couldn’t work.  He spent hours in the pub, drinking heavily, buying himself barstool friends by always getting the next round.  His only respite from morbid  preoccupations were the weekly commentaries he composed to his sons; long letters in which he imagined them conducting lives that were always successful and sexually adventurous. 

 

‘And do they admire you?’  he would ask, as if the continuation of his life depended on their answer.

 

To what extent, the burden of Wallace’s expectations shaped the lives of his sons is difficult to assess.  They were both successful.  Rory became an artist.  Jack, four years older,  won a  Flying Scholarship with the RAF, obtained his private pilots licence and might have joined the RAF or become a commercial pilot, but those  prospects seemed empty and boring.  So he went to University and pursued a career in zoological research, investigating bird migration.

 

Flying was Jack’s religion.  He maintained his private pilot’s licence, saved up his money and bought his own aeroplane.  Soaring among the sun-split clouds was the one place he could find peace and inspiration. .      

 

Jack could not be the happy-go-lucky philanderer that his father wished him to be. He was too shy and introspective.  He never let anybody get too close to him for fear of abandonment.  He had a series of prolonged relationships with women whom he loved, but the inevitable separation always left him with a loss of meaning, that sent him back to the clouds again. 

 

At length, he married Therese, his research assistant.  In the beginning, they were happy.  Their three children were a joy to them both.  Jack felt, for the first time in his life, that he belonged.  But Therese resented his preoccupation with work and the weekends he took off to go flying.  She grew angry. 

 

Hurt, Jack had a brief affair with one of his PhD students. Wallace would have been proud of him, but that was little consolation.  It could not negate the guilt he felt.  His girl friend became pregnant.  Jack could not abandon the child, but neither did he want to leave the marriage.  He continued to see his daughter but did not tell his wife, but this strategy was never going to last. After 19 years together, the loss of home, wife and above all, children, was devastating.  It was not an amicable separation.  Therese was furious and took her revenge.  Jack found himself isolated.  His friends deserted him.  It became impossible to continue his work.  He had to find a project, something that would capture his imagination, restore some meaning to his life.   

 

 

Wallace, meanwhile, had married a country woman who loved him for the man he had become and understood his losses of memory, supported him through crises of confidence, and guided him to behave in ways that were more appropriate. She became his rock.  He found a contentment he had not known before.  But one bitter February morning in 1994 she collapsed in the bathroom.  Her beloved spaniel also died within the month. 

 

Wallace lived for another ten years alone in his house on the hill.  His health deteriorated and he suffered being looked after by the carers whom Jack had organised.  It was while he was recovering in a care home from an operation on his hip that he crashed.  He had gone out of his room, without his sticks, on another low flying sortie to visit the ladies when he fell into the door frame, striking his head.  He died later that day in hospital. 

 

 

Jack heard the news in Indonesia.  He had left Queensland four days previously  on the third leg of his round-the-world solo flight.  His aircraft, an ancient J3 Piper Cub, had once been WW2 US Army spotter plane, but was very reliable – just a few problems with the carburettor in Australia.  He was island hopping to Singapore before flying on up the Malay Peninsula.  The next day was one of the most dangerous of the whole trip – along the northern peninsula of Sulawesi, then over the sea to Borneo and across the mountains to land in Brunei.  There were storms forecast.  Jack knew he should wait, but if he did that, then he would not get to Singapore the following day and he would not get a flight to England in time for the funeral.  He owed it to his dad. 

 

He was only an hour or two away from Brunei, flying up the densely wooded valley of the River Sesayao when the mountain ridge ahead was obscured by a tropical storm.  It was getting late.  Unwilling to fly blind into the mountains, he decided to  turn back and try to land by the coast.  He banked steeply towards the wooded hillside.  The cliffs at the side of the gorge were directly ahead of him, lit by a lowering sun that picked out the sparkle of the water cascading down their flanks.  They looked so beautiful,  ‘Oh dad would have loved to see this’  

 

Tears came into his eyes.  The engine coughed once, twice, three times and stopped. 

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