Our next door neighbour:
Today was a fine English day. Our neighbour held a garden party to celebrate her birthday. Pretty bunting, loosely tied bouquets of old fashioned roses and bowls of strawberries welcomed the guests into a neatly clipped garden. It was warm and sunny (which I might say isn’t very English) and the Pimms quickly went to work on everyone’s head. The odd guest popped inside to check progress at Wimbledon, but otherwise, everyone sat contentedly and enjoyed the the green and pleasant land.
The chap two doors down:
I sat next to a clever, retired police officer at lunch (I know him well, but hadn’t seen him for some time, so it was a good chance to catch up). He’s recently published a book about the fate of the many servicemen from our little town. He’s a great source of information and his bright detective’s memory holds on to all the detail (‘talk to Chris…he can really find his way around an archive and knows everything about Naval matters…Did you know that there’s a fellow down at Rochford with a VC? He was 16 years old and didn’t leave his post…Old Ron, such a gentleman. He used to carry Prue’s Bible to church for her. Who would have thought that he was one of 2,000 (of the 8,000 that went in) who came out of Arnhem alive.) I admire him, because he was able to discover and record new things and had the dedication to fulfill his work in a fully published book (albeit published himself). “How’s your work going?” he asked. “Well, all I’m doing is reading what other people have written… I haven’t actually found anything out yet.” Which then made me wonder- was I tying to find something out? I think I’ve lost track. I guess the point is to discover what happened to Grandpa, but I think there will be very little find. I was pondering this problem when he tapped my arm “Hey- didn’t you say you’d flown a Harvard? You should talk to Peter here- he trained on them.”
Three doors down:
Peter is an elegant man, with a soft voice and beautiful manners. He and his wife have retired to the imposing red brick house three doors down. They once lived in a country estate, but as they were in their 80s, they figured it was time to relocate to something more manageable.
He has an exquisite charm and brightness that puts you at ease and encourages conversation. I’m not exactly sure how he started, but he explained that in 1945, he was stationed in Africa, where he was training to be a pilot. He trained on the Harvard, and was trying to remember whether they had canvas wings. He considered it wistfully and asked about Grandpa. I told him that he flew Wellingtons. “Oh yes, Wellingtons. They liked to fly them, because they could be shot to pieces, but still fly. They had a clever design.” (I wanted to pipe up with ‘geodetic’ but it felt a little silly to cut in). He was then trying to remember a particular aircraft that began with H and I chimed in with ‘Halifax’- which was clearly wrong. The neigbour two doors down helpfully contributed ‘Hampden’, which was the right answer. I felt a bit sheepish for randomly guessing at planes and thought I better remember that for the future- don’t guess at an answer. I’m sure it didn’t matter, but I still wanted to kick myself.
He then looked very quizzical. “It’s funny that you are interested in this. It’s not worth remembering. Such awful things happened. I think of some things… like the Americans in South East Asia. The Battle of the Coral Sea. Flame throwers. They destroyed the Japanese that they came across. Burned them to death and all manner of terrible things. Well, they had to. But who wants to remember that?” He paused and fidgeted with his cuffs (despite the heat, he was wearing a perfectly ironed button-down shirt).” I lost my brother in the RAF”. His hands started to tremble. Neighbour number two jumped in: “Now it’s not about glorifying anything. It’s making sure that history books don’t get rewritten and that important things don’t get forgotten.” He looked unconvinced and said quietly “I don’t know how this came up. I really don’t care to talk about it.” I looked at him helplessly and said “I’m not expecting to find anything heroic or happy- I just want to know more about what happened to my Grandpa.” “It’s just curious to me” he said “that someone your age is bothered with any of this.” And that was the end of the conversation.
Sigh. It does leave me uncertain. I’m not quite sure what I’m doing. The log book should arrive with me this week and perhaps looking at it will tell me whether to go on, or whether to quietly leave this alone.
Far more alarming is that I am interviewing an author on Tuesday who has written over 20 books on the Battle of Britain. Good grief. I need to tread a careful line here- thoughtful and interested, but don’t repeat today’s mistake of jumping in with the wrong aircraft. I do have a habit of saying foolish things when I get nervous. I asked the chaps in my office whether they thought that I could get through the interview without being stupid. They both smiled and answered ‘No’. Oh dear. That’s the next hurdle then- get through Tuesday in one piece.