Published in Legion Magazine, November 1984
By Rosemary Hutchinson
Exclusive Audio Version:
The year of our war 1944 finds me and my friend Charlie still driving cars in the RCAF, but Ottawa has lifted us out of Newfoundland and plunked us on a Yorkshire bomber station.
We are having supper in the mess. I jab at a piece of burnt toast covered with blobs of melted cheese, the whole surmounted by a piece of raw bacon. Only in the air force have they the ability to burn the bottom of something and leave the top raw.
“Hey Charlie, called the maitre d’. This bacon is still twitching, it’s about to crawl off the plate.”
Charlie flips her toast in the air with her fork to see if the other side looks better. “Very funny,” she says, then changing the subject: “When are we going to ride the bikes down Sutton Bank?” Charlie has a one-track mind. When things are going OK she has to think up something dumb to make life more exciting.
“Never,” I tell her, chomping on my burnt offering; it is amazing what you can eat if you are hungry enough. “I’d rather go down Sutton Bank on roller skates than those old wrecks.”
These are our issue bicycles. When people are transferred out they are turned back to stores. Someone there gives them a shake; if anything rattles it is tied up with wire and they are reissued: “airmen for the use of!”
Sutton Bank has a chilling gradient of one in four. It joins the soft rolling Vale of York to the higher moors and dales that stretch away into the distance to Scarborough and the sea. The road ascending this mini-Mont Blanc borders its edge, so that any fool daring the descent stands a good chance of soaring into space and landing below in a horrible tangle of body and bicycle.
Charlie and I go up and down regularly in our little Hillman cars and I always treat this hill with great respect. In fog it is a brute. It is so steep that if I have someone fat like Floot-Loot Plopper in the car we simply don’t make it. The Hillman stalls halfway up and I push – figuratively, of course – the Floot-Loot on to the road where he trudges forlornly upward while I pass him, to await his arrival at the top. Plopper isn’t a bad old duck, and a real tiger with the ladies. He must have addresses all over Yorkshire where he “stops for tea” – while his driver waits. We frown on such unmilitary behavior.
Charlie and I leave the mess and repair to the NAAFI to eat its stodgy tarts, drink its milky coffee and eat our chocolate ration in one glorious orgy. The initials stand for something, but I can never remember what. We just call it “naffi” with affection. It is a canteen, a great social spot for the other ranks, which certainly includes us.
The subject of the great suicide ride is dropped and might have lain forever buried had not Bussy Bodine’s aircraft blown up practically on the end of the runway while Charlie was watching it take off.
This gave Charlie an acute case of the shattered nerves quite unlike her usual stoic acceptance of sudden death among aircrews.
Bussy was our old cohort of laying-the-flare-path days in Newfoundland, when the three of us had worked together on the runways with the harsh sea wind howling about our ears and extinguishing flare-pots as fast as Bussy could light them. He had come up in the world, a pilot with his own crew, halfway through his tour, but was the same cheerful, chatty boy quite unchanged by promotion. We had been having great fun together through this hot English summer.
Apart from Bussy’s death, I think Charlie was just fed up with life in general, the deaths, the food, the black-out driving, even the titanic struggle to bag a bathtub at the wash-house before the hot water ran out. It was about the only place you could be alone, though as you lay in the tepid water contemplating your toes someone was sure to bang on the door telling you to get the lead out.
So, to cheer up the poor girl, I gave in to the inevitable: “OK, I’ll ride down Sutton Bank with you.”
Our next 48-hour pass finds us staying with my Aunt Sophy in Thirsk, a town within biking distance of our project. Aunt Sophy is a pal of my grandmother, a remarkable old girl who still plays tennis wearing a voluminous ankle-length white skirt. She can smash a ball so accurately that your survival depends on leaping out of the way and, as Aunty likes her tennis appreciated, you must shout “Oh, well played” as you dive to safety. She should be commanding a gun site on the south coast: She could waste any enemy object in the Channel with one shot.
The next day is very hot and it is late afternoon before we struggle to the top of Sutton Bank and collapse exhausted in the grass bordering the road. Shirt, shorts and even my socks are wet with sweat. We lie in silence gazing down over the Vale of York. The green fields flow into the distance, dotted here and there by darker clumps of trees. The farm houses look like toys, and in the distance the Pennines frame the sky. The sun is low and the landscape shimmers in the heat, giving everything a golden glow.
Charlie gently touches the tiny flowers that grow among the grass. “Where do they go?” she says softly as though to herself. “Where do all those dead boys go?”
I stare up at the blue sky wondering if she expects an answer. Perhaps the Archibishop of Canterbury or the Pope know, but they are not handy. Then I think of my mother – in times of crisis I often think of her.
“Charlie,” I say, “my mother is quite good-looking for her age. She’s old now, of course, must be nearly 50. She likes parties, nice clothes and doesn’t go to church much, but she has this awesome faith in God.
“If she were her now she’d give you a bit of a hug and say ‘God knows,’ and really mean it. Of course she’d weep for their short lives, but to her God knows everything. So why not let Him look after your boys. He knows where they are. What we must try to do is remember them always and what they did for us.”
There is a long, long silence, Charlie and I not often dealing in subjects so profound. She gives me an intent look and finally says quietly: “You do me good,” adding in an offhand way “Kid, you got depths I have not plumbed. Let’s get down that hill.”
We line up the bikes at the top. I nod at Charlie to go first. As I watch her gathering speed I fervently hope this is not one of the days the air vice-marshal decides to drive to Filey. Perhaps, at this very moment his big staff car is climbing the hill towards us. He won’t take too kindly to us plastering ourselves all over his windshield. Neither will his driver, who has spent hours checking and polishing the Chrysler. If we are not dead on contact she may finish the job in a furious rage.
I push off, the hill grabs me and my clapped-out old bike and we start to fly. Charlie disappears around the first curve at a precarious angle. I follow and survive. The wind sings in my ears, the road edge flashes by in a green blur. Everything on my bike is vibrating, there is an ominous flap-flap from one of the tires. I am paralyzed with fright at the furious speed, but as the road straightens I am suddenly exhilarated. It’s fun to be young, alive and doing silly, dangerous things like this. “Live for the moment,” I shout at the wind. “There may be no tomorrow!”
We reach the foot in a ridiculously short time, considering the long struggle we had to get to the top. The road flattens out and I wobble to a stop beside Charlie. “Wasn’t that great,” she shouts, “If I weren’t so pooped I’d do it again!”
“Yeah,” I reply, “next time we’ll try it in a fog. Let’s go. Remember we’re taking Aunt Sophy to the Red Lion. Do you suppose they’ll have steak and kidney pie tonight?”
Charlie gives me a small, very apologetic smile. “God knows,” she says.