A short story by D.B. MacInnes
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I imagine the boy heard the distant roar of the engine, long before the aeroplane emerged from the mountains of Skye. It took shape slowly; an incarnation of wire, stretched canvas and wooden struts staying impossibly aloft. This biplane from another age finally soaring above his head, before beginning its descent towards the deserted island airstrip.
The aeroplane was recognisable of course, from boys’ comics, where it looped and dived against the Hun, machine guns chattering above the shriek of the wind. High up on the hill, the boy would only just have recovered from his shock and delight, when another droning engine announced the coming of a second biplane. They came quickly then, one after another, as if the first had broken through some invisible membrane and made the passage of the others possible.
I picture him running down the hill to the four Sopwith Camels, lined up at the end of the airstrip and ready to scramble at a moment’s notice, the pilots pulling off their helmets and goggles, as they made their solemn way across the tarmac to the hangar. Christmas Eve was the next day, but it must have felt like his gifts for all time were sitting on that tarmac, engines ticking, exhausts reeking of burnt oil, propellers still spinning in the wind.
The bare bones of this I took from the boy’s diary, but most of it is my own fancy. What the diary suggests happened on that day, has taken root in my mind, and good or bad, true or untrue, it has worked its enchantment.
I am, was, Christy’s teacher before he vanished. I arrived a year ago on the island of Flodday, on the big ferry boat from Mallaig, which had to be met off-shore by the island’s lugger, the ‘Saucy Mary’, as there wasn’t the harbour or the depth to accommodate her. It was the last run before Christmas, with a weather front closing in. The sea was already choppy, but the ‘Saucy Mary’ made the run, and I was lucky to get off the ferry at all. Sometimes it just had to turn around, the island folk on the slipway watching the big boat disappearing with their visitors and their goods, back over the horizon.
My teaching contract at the two-room school was supposed to begin in January, after the holidays. I came early though, because Christmas had been difficult for me over the past few years, and I liked to go away during the festive season, to somewhere I wasn’t known. No-one on Flodday knew anything about me yet, or about how Marie and I had lost Dougal, our five year old boy, and then how we lost each other.
Christy’s mum, Alison, was the first person I met, as I walked up the slipway, my kitbag held on my shoulder with one hand, and suitcase in the other. I suppose she was picking up some mail-order item from the “Saucy Mary”. The first thing I noticed about Alison was her smile. It began in her eyes, and then her lips stretched upwards, so generous they refused to part. That morning her dishwater blonde hair was tied back loosely with a faded blue scarf.
A year later, the day Christy disappeared, she showed up at my cottage where it sits at the other end of the bay from the village. It gets dark by five o’clock in late December, so I know it was late. Where I live there are no streetlights, and when I opened the door, Alison was lit only by the lamp in my hall, her face calm, with only a slight trace of worry, snowflakes dissolving into her blonde hair.
She entered my living room and looked around. I followed her gaze, taking in the old sofa attempting respectability with its tartan rug, the table and single chair, the lack of pictures on the walls. She shook her head. ‘I guess you’re not big on Christmas, Graham.’
I shrugged. ‘There was a time I couldn’t be seen for baubles and tinsel. But that time has gone.’
Alison looked keenly at me then, and said, ‘not even a holly wreath on the door?’
I offered her a seat. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘I thought maybe Christy might be here playing chess. He hasn’t come home yet and I’ve looked in all the usual places, so I thought I would pop in. I know what you two are like when you get your heads into a game.’
‘We played chess on Friday, after school closed for the holidays. I haven’t seen him since.’
Her face fell. ‘He always comes home in time for supper. ‘
‘Have you tried the airstrip? I heard a couple of planes landing this morning.’
Christy was obsessed with planes, the more antiquated the better. He would find a way of including them in any project I set for the children. He drew biplanes from the First World War on scraps of paper, his tongue stuck out in concentration as he traced the tricky ailerons and landing gear. The island’s airstrip called to him, although it’s little used. Sometimes in an emergency a patient might be flown to the mainland hospital. Occasionally Flodday’s landowners, the folk in the Big House, use it to fetch friends and family from the South.
Alison said, ‘when he didn’t show up for his tea, the airstrip was the first place I sent Jake.’
I was surprised at this, as Jake, her most recent man, had shown little interest in the lad, or in doing anything for Alison at all. His handsome face seemed set in a permanent scowl. A few weeks ago, Christy had come to school with a black eye. I had asked him about it, but he just said he had tripped in the mud and fallen against the wood store outside their house.
Alison didn’t stay to chat. I suppose she wanted to be at home that night in case Christy showed up, but by the following morning she was back at my door, her hair uncombed and her eyes bleary with lack of sleep. She carried a brown notebook which she handed to me.
‘Graham, he’s still not come home. I don’t know what to do. The Police aren’t any help. I found his diary. I want you to read it, because I don’t understand.’ She started to cry. ‘All his presents are under the tree. Why isn’t he here to open them?’
I sat her in an armchair while I turned over the pages of the lined notebook. Christy had written in blue ink, using the fountain pen he carried proudly to school after his Dad sent it to him.
‘Sopwith Camels. Fantastic. They each made a perfect landing, amazing to watch. They smell of oil and cordite. “H201” (that’s the Captain’s), “H203”, “H207”, “H212”? Why are there gaps between the numbers? Behind the Captain’s cockpit ten holes shot through the fabric in a straight line. Pure dead brilliant.’
And later, scribbled in a hurry, using a pencil: ‘I’ve had enough. This is my chance. I’ve asked the Captain to take me with them.’
I wondered why, if Christy left voluntarily, he didn’t take the diary. Did he hope when we read it, he might save us the bother of searching? Or did he think the words might comfort his mum? In this age of Xboxes and the Internet, the keeping of a journal by a child was unusual and perhaps too much so. I entertained the possibility of fabrication by a more mature mind, but then suppressed the thought and turned to Alison.
‘This didn’t actually happen,’ I said. ‘I’m sure of it. Christy’s always writing stories. His imagination is one of his strengths. Have you really looked everywhere?’
‘Have you checked with Sandy the Boat?’
‘There was one ferry yesterday, and Sandy managed to get out to meet it, but Christy wasn’t with him.’
‘He’s maybe hiding somewhere.’ I only said this for something to say. Snow had fallen on the previous night and the temperature was minus five.
I hesitated, and then on impulse I asked, ‘How are things at home?’
Alison looked up from her hands which were twisting and untwisting a cord from her skirt. ‘Not great. Jake hasn’t found work since he came here and it hasn’t done his temper any good.’ She let go of the cord. ‘But you mean Christy and Jake don’t you? It’s true they have never got on. But it’s been no worse than usual.’ She tried to smile. ‘People get Jake wrong, I think.’
I looked down at the diary again. ‘These numbers that Christy lists. Do they identify the planes?’
‘Constable Sandilands phoned the Fort William Police and told them the numbers, and they ran some checks with the Civil Aviation folk. They didn’t come up with anything.’ She raised her hands helplessly.
After she left, I called an old friend from university days. Fred is a historian, but above all he’s a researcher, with access to online databases. Without much hope, I gave him the few identifying details I had gleaned from the diary, and asked him to let me know if anything came up.
Then I phoned Constable Sandilands, the island’s only policeman, to see how I could help with any searches being planned. As I waited for him to phone back, I thought about the contents of the diary. Something in me was already beguiled, I confess, by the story of the planes and by the mysterious ‘Captain’. It’s a rank that resonates more than any other, elevated just enough to command respect, but still close to the action.
Also, to be honest, living amongst Gaels had unmoored me a little, from my trust in the material nature of being. As they went about their business, in the day or in the night, the locals were mindful of a parallel world whose dwellers were excited by mischief. No one was surprised when occasionally the thin veil which separated the two was torn. Christy was twelve years old. The age of admission to ‘Neverland’, which had so entranced Dougal when I read to him. Had Christy flown ‘second to the right, and straight on till morning’? God knows, it would be lovely to believe that all lost boys took this path, rather than the one to oblivion.
Later that day I found myself on the hill that divides the village from the airstrip, where, if the contents of the diary were true, Christy had seen the biplanes arrive. Snow was still falling and had built up on the high ground. As we searched, we plunged our long poles into the drifts, anticipating the slight give which a body yields. In another time and another place, as a member of a rescue team, I had brought corpses off a mountain. It’s true this may have hardened me to tragedy, but that day as time passed, I became increasingly distressed.
A coastguard helicopter had been buzzing around since mid-morning, but by late afternoon it had left, and Constable Sandilands had rounded up the search parties and sent them home.
Alone, tramping through the crisp snow in the last of the daylight, I allowed a wintry memory to emerge which for years I had held at bay. A small hand in mine and the crunch of feet, every few seconds running to keep up with my stride.
I suppose the effort of maintaining that wall between my waking life and the dreams in which Dougal appeared to me, had become too much, and sooner or later it was going to crumble. I stood there on the hillside as my tears fell at last, and found that I welcomed them. I realised then, that I had to make a choice. To continue to mourn or to cherish.
After a while, I made my way down the hill to the cottage, passing through a grove of young spruce trees. Some of them had been felled by islanders taking Christmas trees, in defiance of the folk in the Big House.
The phone rang at seven o’clock on Christmas Day. I leaped from my bed, stumbling through the frosty air of the hallway, hoping because of the early hour, it would be Alison with good news. It was Fred.
He could hardly contain his excitement.
‘You know I was brought up beside RAF Halton?’
‘No I didn’t. It’s seven o’clock, Fred. For God’s sake, what is it?’
‘No need to be like that Graham,’ he said ‘I know it’s early. Anyway, they had a history museum at Halton for all the aircraft that ever passed through. So I knew right away the “H” in the registration was used by the Royal Flying Corps. That was easy. But I tell you, it was the numbers following the letter which made the hair on the back of my neck rise. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I wanted to be sure.’
‘The numbers didn’t mean anything to the Police or to the Civil Aviation Authority.’‘No they wouldn’t. If data is paper-based these characters don’t want to know. Lazy buggers. I mean, how many man-hours would it take to digitise it? I’ve written –’
‘Fred! Tell me what you’ve got.’
‘Okay. Keep your hair on.’ Fred went into the ponderous lecturing style he thought impressed his students. ‘“H201” was the number of the plane flown by Captain Robert Penwaller when he took off from Heathfield RFC Station in Ayrshire, on the morning of the 23rd of December 1917.’
‘Hold on,’ I said, ‘Christmas 1917?’
‘Well to be correct, two days before that. He had three other planes with him. They were all that remained of his squadron, which had taken a severe mauling from German Fokkers in the previous week. Penwaller was waiting for the War Office to assign new pilots to the squadron, but by all accounts he was pretty gung-ho, so he volunteered for light duties out of Heathfield patrolling in the Irish Sea. That morning they had been tasked with replacing the escort of a small convoy heading into Belfast from New York. Eye-witnesses said they took off, shook themselves out into standard flying formation and flew into the mist which was beginning to gather out at sea.’
Here Fred paused. A little theatrically, I thought.
‘They were never seen again.’
He stopped abruptly and neither of us spoke for a while. Eventually my mind returned from whichever realm it had wandered to.
‘Exactly one hundred years ago,’ I said.
‘Thank you, Fred.’ I replaced the phone on the receiver.
It rang again almost straight away.
‘Graham, Graham, is that you?’ It was Alison. ‘We found him, Graham. We found him.’ She was crying down the phone and laughing at the same time. I never can understand how women do that.
‘He’s at his Dad’s in Edinburgh. Neither of them thought to ring us. We’ve been trying to track his Dad down for ages, but he keeps moving and he’s changed his phone and Christy never told us. Eventually we got his number from an old workmate. Then we left messages, but he wasn’t checking his answerphone, the idiot.’
‘It’s a long way,’ I said. ‘How are you going to get Christy back?’
‘Oh Graham.’ Her voice shook. ‘He says he needs some time with his Dad just now. He and Jake just can’t share the same space. He’s getting to be a man I suppose.’ There was a pause, and muffled words, as if she was speaking to someone else in the same room. Then she came back. ‘His Dad is going to keep him for a couple of months, while I sort things out here. I’m going to miss him so much.’
I didn’t ask her how Christy had made the long journey down to Edinburgh, let alone got off the island. She had her boy back, and the return of a child from Neverland, as I knew, was a gift seldom bestowed. We wished each other a happy Christmas, and she invited me round for dinner, which I declined.
I walked through to the kitchen, filled the kettle and placed it on the hob. A couple of pine cones lay on the floor. They had fallen from the Christmas tree I had cut down in the forest on my way home. I had decorated it with holly berries and with pine cones, tied on with scraps of red netting from a whelk sack. Let Alison come and visit me now.
Then I turned and leaned against the range, feeling the heat rising against my thighs, and stared out of the window. It was still night outside, the stars winking bright against the infinite dark. Under the window there was a table, and on it was a framed picture of Dougal I had retrieved from the suitcase under my bed. Beside the picture sat a tangle of worn leather, steel buckles and amber coloured glass. Picked up on yesterday’s walk round the airstrip, they now made me smile. They looked very much like Royal Flying Corps goggles.