First published in Poetry Quarterly, then in V-V.
Dad never spoke about the war,
although, in hindsight,
its heavy hand was everywhere.
Maybe Mum told me the fragment,
the amazing flying away part.
The rest is in my mind.
First, I see the night,
then the twin engined Vickers Wellington
taking off from Gibraltar and flying out
over the approaches to the Mediterranean
in search of U-boats.
I see six young men,
all brave, dutiful, all with a sense of honour,
but all of whom have seen loss,
been shocked by it and become resigned to it.
They must go on,
each evening flying out into uncertainty.
I am not yet born but one of them I know well.
I have often seen his young face in photos.
I know he is 12,000 kms from home.
I know his little country town, the green valley,
the temperamental river.
I know those who live there,
his mother and father, his brothers and sister,
his young wife and the child he has never seen.
The night passes.
The first light is in the sky.
The silver-grey sea barely ripples beneath them.
The Rolls Royce engines drone.
They have seen nothing.
All is routine. They must head back to base.
Their lumbering plane is vulnerable in the daylight.
Then someone stares and squints.
Bloody hell, what's that block dot?
I think it's a fighter.
Ours or theirs?
O God, it's a Messerschmitt.
He's seen us, boys. He's heading straight for us.
He's too bloody fast. He'll catch us.
Get ready, boys. Give him hell.
The tail gunner and nose gunner
have swivelled their guns.
The Radio Operator, the one I know well,
has rushed to an extra gun.
I hear their thoughts.
We'll never outrun him.
There's cannons in his wings.
We've only got machine guns.
One of us might get lucky.
Concentrate. Concentrate. Aim.
Give it your best.
Suddenly, almost within range,
the Messerschmitt turns
and flies parallel to them.
He tips his wings,
back and forth, back and forth,
a kind of greeting, an acknowledgement
before he peels off and flies away.
They watch him receding,
become a black dot and then disappear.
A wave of relief rushes over them.
They are incredulous.
A crazed kind of laughter echoes through the plane.
They will drink when they land.
But in the Messerschmitt that flies away
sits a young man tired of war,
tired of killing, tired of the mad folly of it.
He knows that plane, its vulnerabilities, its blind spots.
He knows he could have fired his cannons
through its canvas and into the flesh of the men inside,
or into the engines and he knows
he could have watched
their slow, smoke-filled spiral
into the water below.
He has seen too much of war and death.
He is past inflicting harm or even wishing it.
Are not those men his brothers.
What difference is there but place of birth?
And he knows, too,
with a sad but wished-for resignation,
that his time will come soon, soon.
He has heard his scream of engine,
seen his billowing smoke,
seen his water rushing up to meet him.
He will kill no more
and someone, somewhere,
a mother or lover,
will shed tears for him.
And the man in the Wellington,
one of the six, the one I know well,
is free to head back to the rocky little island,
free to fly again,
free to go into his future,
free to embrace his yet to be known,
his great tangled twist of life and fate,
his triumphs and struggles,
his laughter, joy and pain.
He is free to one day return
to the life he left,
to his wife and child
and to the four more unborn children
still waiting somewhere in the future's silence