Nam si vos omnibus imperitare vultis, sequitur ut omnes servitutem accipiant?
(Tacitus, Annales XII, xxxvii)

26 Apr 2010



As the fifth rum fueled his memory, he’d taxi
along the runway, up to the high blackness,
away from the Sunday-night armchair, away from the telly,
Norths versus Parra, the scrums a ridiculous joke,
and, nineteen-years-old, strap himself back into the war:
switch on the cold night, switch on the electric suit,
switch on his much more intimate suit of fear,
rehearse the nightmare crawl to the front of the plane—
the rear-gunner’s always the last bastard out, Young Stevo,
if he gets out at all from his lonely post up the back—
and he'd restlessly swivel his turret from side to side,
pitch vision to the limit, searching the sky below,
Vaughan Williams' Fantasia right through his head
(he was that sort), to soar in poetry and terror,
to search the black against black for a different black
which, if he failed to spot, they'd be all bloody dead,
the whole bloody crew, and no more girls and cards.
If you saw the bugger first, fired a warning shot
from the pea-shooter .303s—not the .5 cannons
like the Yanks had—fire a burst and he’d piss off looking
for some other plane (whose rear-gunner had gone to sleep
or was dreaming about his girl-friend’s fanny) and blow
those other poor bastards out of the sky; and you’d shout
'Corkscrew port!' and down we’d go, left and down;
then searchlights lit you up, and the clatter of flak,
and more night-fighters playing their jazz-music;
but only the heroes flew right over the markers—
nobody was keen to be in a crew of heroes;
like most planes we’d just dump our load and turn:
our mission was just to stay alive, Young S.
We bombed more country shithouses than factories;
and, coming home over Koblenz, the navigator
was killed by a piece of flak right through his chest;
all he wanted was to plot our course back to Driffield.
After that it gets quiet, just the engines pulsing
across the darkness of Europe, the empty sea...
Dad was still up there, didn’t see me, was still searching
the blackness for that elusive message from death,
could hardly hear me through his ruptured ear-drums
(corkscrewed until they popped—denied of course
by Repat), but anyway, he wouldn’t hear me,
him being there, and me radioing faintly
from somewhere in 1983. He slowly glided,
descended, bumped, rumbled to a kind of stasis;
could breathe now, walk light across solid tarmac
towards debriefing, its customary tea laced with rum.

(first published in Unlikely 2.0)

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