When the flyers came home

It was a standing joke between them. Sam took a Bushmills and Sean a Jameson. They’d done it for over forty years, but they united around the Guinness. That seemed to cut across all creeds.

“Parade gets smaller every year,” said Sam as they settled into the snug in the small bar in central Belfast where they felt relatively safe. Sam as always sat facing the door. He still carried his personal weapon. “Didn’t see wee Tommy?”

Sean pursed his lips. “A bit of bad news in that area, boy. Tommy Heuston’s gone.”

“Ah not Tom” said Sam. “I thought he was doing alright.”

“He was until he fell down the stairs & broke both hips. Then he got pneumonia, died last week: big funeral at Glasnevin.”

It was out of the question that Sam would have attended Tommy Heuston’s funeral in Dublin. It was far too risky. It was 1973 and Sam McCausland was a retired Chief Superintendent of the RUC. Cross border trips were not advisable for men like him unless he went with a couple of bodyguards.

“Here’s to Tommy then” said Sam raising his glass of Bushmills with a trembling hand.

“To TommyTit” said Sean wheezing as he laughed.

Sam choked on his whiskey, forgetting his grief. “He’d square up to you if he heard you calling him that! He wasn’t that big was he?” he said through his laughter remembering wee Tommy Heuston.

“Poor Tommy. He so desperately wanted to fly but he couldn’t see out of the cockpit and his feet couldn’t reach the controls!” said Sean to more laughter as he jiggled his own feet in imitation of Tommy. “Mind you, that saved him. Most air mechanics survived the war. If he’d become a pilot, like us, he might not have made it through. We were the lucky ones, Sammy. Still he was a great mechanic for all his size.”

“The best. He got me airborne when no one else could” said Sam

“To Tommy”

“To Tommy”

They raised their glasses above their heads and looked skywards, then sat in silence, their smiles crumpling on their wrinkled faces; each holding memories of their dead friend.

It was Sam who broke the silence. “Did I ever tell you that Tommy saved my life?”

“He saved many a life, sure.”

“Aye but this was different. He put a small piece of armour plate behind my seat. It was heavy, but the Sopwith Pups1 could carry it. That very same day I took two in the rear that would have killed me except for that armour plate.”

“Tommy did that for all the boys. I don’t know where he got the armour plate from. It was hard to come by.”

“My life was saved twice that day” said Sam staring into his Guinness.

“How so?”

“May 1917; just before the push on Passchendaele. Remember?”

“Aye, I do” said Sean.

“We were up on a reconnaissance looking for that big German gun near Menen that was giving our boys hell.”

Sean nodded trying to single this flight out from the hundreds they flew.

“It was you, me, the CO and the Canadian, Frank Yarrow” said Sam. “We had just spotted the gun emplacement and I was sending the location to the station on the Morse. You three were covering me when a lovely new Sopwith Camel2 comes along side me. Just like the one Mickey Fitzgerald flew. He came from nowhere. The pilot was frantically signalling that there was trouble above me. It was Jimmy Fitzgerald.”

“So?”

“Jimmy had gone down the previous month over Ypres. We buried him in the little churchyard at Poperinge. You and I carried his coffin.”

Sean said nothing in response. It wasn’t unusual for pilots to claim to have seen dead comrades up in the clouds; some even claimed that the dead intervened at key times to save the living. The top brass dismissed such stories as hallucinations brought on by stress and lack of sleep. Those who persisted in discussing their experiences risked being seen as ‘unsound’ and losing their wings. So at the time Sam had kept his apparition to himself.

“Jimmy was right” said Sam breaking the silence. “There was a Gerry above diving straight at me. If I hadn’t dived and turned the very next second the Hun would’ve had me cold. None of youse dozy bastards had seen him.”

“I remember that now!” said Sean. “You dived like a maniac with this black Fokker on your tail. We didn’t know where he had come from. I set off after him while the CO and Frank kept his pals busy. I remember because he forced you really low over his own lines and half the German army were firing at us.”

“You got him though, Sean. Right over his own lines. You and Tommy saved me that day,” said Sam quietly.

“I’ve a confession, boy. May as well get it done with now,” said Sean as he drained his whiskey. “He was already dead by the time I got to him. He must have been shot by friendly fire; he was so close to you. I just put a few rounds into him for good measure and he went down into the German front trench killing a few more on his way.”

“Still, you stayed with me. Sure, you would’ve been well within your rights to run for home under such fire behind enemy lines. But you didn’t.”

“Forget it, boy” said Sean not wishing to say more. “Drink up. It’s my turn.”

“Now you’re talking. My son’s collecting us at 2.30. He’ll take you to the station. Get the food menu when you’re at it. I’m starving. I’m going for a piss. Watch my back will ye?”

Sean Skeffington lit a cigarette and let the smoke linger in a great curling cloud above his head. These trips from his home in Dublin to Belfast each Remembrance Day were getting harder. He felt all of his seventy-five years that day. He had never liked Belfast and now it was like Dublin during the worst of times in the Twenties. As a young man he had fought in three wars by the time he was twenty-five. He’d had enough of slaughter for one lifetime, first in the Royal Flying Corps fighting for the British, then in the IRA fighting against the British with old comrades on opposite sides and finally in the IRA fighting more old comrades in the Irish pro-treaty forces.

At the end of the Great War in 1918 the returning Irish servicemen had no idea what they were going home to. The remaining Irish in their RFC squadron in St Omer in northern France had naively promised each other that they would meet up every year on 11 November. Yet in spite of everything Sam McCausland, Tommy Heuston, Sean and several others had kept that promise – apart from a gap in the Twenties when Ireland had its own war. Now there were the only two left from that band of Irish brothers in France – Sean and Sam.

What a pair they were, Sean mused. Here he was an IRA man minding the back of an RUC man while he took a piss. It had been a mercy that they had never faced each other in battle at home. After the Great War Sam and he were fighting on opposite sides one hundred miles apart, thank God. Fifty years later Sean still had nightmares of pulling the trigger on an old comrade. He shook his head and shivered. He silently cursed the politicians and the generals for failing his generation, leaving thousands of young men dead, families torn asunder and so many broken in mind and body. He clenched his fists at the thought of more young men now fighting and dying in Ulster. The country must be cursed, he thought.

Sam had always enjoyed a quiet piss away from the noise and the hassle: a time to gather thoughts in a dark corner. This time the old dull ache in his chest bothered him.

As he stood at the urinal staring at the wall reflecting on his conversation with Sean, he was conscious of a figure slightly behind him and to his left. He hated sharing a piss.

“Hello, Sammy, ye big mad bastard!”

Still pissing Sam angled his body round quickly to see who was talking. He knew he was vulnerable in the toilets with his back to the door and his cock in his hand: ideal target for a bullet in the back. He didn’t want to go that way lying underneath urinals with his cock out, his piss and blood dribbling down the drain. He trusted Sean to mind his back, but Sean was old and blind in one eye.

He blinked in the mirk of the dingy toilet to see who it was. The figure was smiling broadly. It was Tommy Heuston as Sam remembered him in this mechanic’s overalls with those big turn-ups in the legs making him look even shorter than he was.

“You’re going to piss yourself, McCausland – again.”

Tommy was chuckling at Sam’s struggle to finish his piss.

“God! The smell of piss in your cockpit that I had to work with. I used to throw bleach around it. Now they give them nappies.”

Sam gathered his senses with his cock safely back in his pants and his dignity recovered.

“You’re not real. Fuck off!” said Sam in a dismissive whisper moving to the wash hand basin.

“Not real? Well try this!” Tommy kicked Sam hard in the rear as he was bent over the sink, “and this.” Tommy Heuston locked the toilet door with a loud metallic click.

“Open the …..” began Sam as he advanced threateningly on the little mechanic.

Tommy held up his hands in a gesture that Sam recalled from the aerodrome telling him to kill the engine after landing and taxiing to the hangar door. It was the signal that the sortie was over: he had made it back home and was safe in the hands of Tommy Heuston and his crew of mechanics. The gesture stopped Sam then as it had done in 1917.

“You wanted to tell Sean just now. Didn’t you?” said Tommy.

“Tell him what?”

“Tell him about Brian.”

Sam’s shoulders slumped. He sighed deeply as if his engine had been cut once more. Tommy Heuston might be a short-arse, but he could always burst Sam’s bubble in spite of Sam’s size. Tommy could cut through all the bluff and bluster around the young frightened flyers. He seemed to know what made them tick, just like their flying machines, and how to put them back together again ready for the next sortie.

Tommy waited. His arms now folded, waiting as he always did for the flyer to tell him about his sortie.

“It was dark. South Armagh. 1922. You didn’t take chances. They’d just shot Maurice beside me. So I let the Lewis rip into them from the back of the tender. That sorted them. It went quiet.”

“You could always handle a Lewis in a tight spot,” observed Tommy.

Sam ignored Tommy’s compliment.

“We found two of them lying face down in the ditch. One was dead, one still alive – barely. We kicked him over and got ready to finish him. Then he says my name.”

‘How do you know my name?’ I shouts.

‘It’s me, Brian Filby,’ he says.

I kneels down beside him. The boys want to finish him. He’s badly shot up.                       ‘He won’t live anyhow’, I says.

‘I had the drop on you,’ says Brian. ‘But I saw it was you, so I plugged the                        boy beside you instead. Big mistake.’

‘Brian, I didn’t know it was you,’ I says; like a wee boy gurning.

‘What would you have done?’ he says to me.

Brian Filby had been an aircraft mechanic in the Royal Flying Corps from County Armagh who served with Sam, Sean and Tommy throughout the Great War in northern France. Back in Ireland in 1919 he joined the IRA.

Sam looked at Tommy with eyes narrowed in torment.

“What could I say? I couldn’t answer him, Tommy! I have carried that all my life: the knowledge that Brian saved my life and I took his. Sometimes I think the Great War was the only worthwhile thing in my life. Everything since then has been shit: Sean in Dublin shooting former comrades, me in the north doing the same. Now we’re the only two left; two sad old fuckers clinging to memories and this shit! Our generation was cursed, Tommy.”

“Brian never blamed you, Sam. It was the fog of war as they say. He wants to tell you that.”

“Brian died in the ditch without anything more being said between us! I couldn’t answer his question.”

“Now’s the time, Sam. Let’s make things right.”

Tommy slipped the bolt on the toilet door and the two men walked out into a bright cloudless sky.

Some moments later Sean Skeffington found his old friend Sam McCausland dead on the toilet floor. His trousers were zipped up.

 

 

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