The Garden of England

Kent, 1990.

There was a hint of doubt in Rob’s voice. “Shouldn’t there be a pub here? Are you sure this is the right place, grandad?”

The older man laughed gently. “Yes, and yes. It’s changed a bit, but if you look to your left you’ll see a bridge.”

About 50 yards away an old stone bridge was half-hidden behind a copse. The older man started to walk towards it, his silver hair glinting in the late afternoon sun.

“That’s where I last saw Jamie.” He paused. “My older brother.”

Rob walked beside his grandfather, his interest piqued. He was aware that his grandfather was one of The Few, but beyond that he knew little about his wartime experiences. His grandfather never spoke about the war, and Rob’s mother had discouraged him from broaching the subject.

This time he didn’t have to ask.

“It was August 1940. I was a sprog – rookie – pilot with 687 squadron. We’d just been moved down from Acklington to Kings Oak to replace another squadron. There wasn’t much in the way of action at Acklington – we were too far north to be troubled by major raids – but the squadrons down here in Kent were right in the thick of the fighting.”

“You’d be about my age back then, I guess.” Rob was twenty.

“Nineteen. And very scared. I’d never actually seen a Luftwaffe aircraft up close let alone fired at one. Still, at least I’d had enough time to learn how to fly a Spitfire fairly well, unlike some of the chaps who joined us later that summer.” He sat down on the bridge wall and sighed.

“Poor sods never stood a chance…” His voice tailed off, lost in the music of the water that flowed under the bridge.

Rob put an arm round his grandfather’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, grandad.”

The older man waved a liver-spotted hand.

“No need for apologies, Rob.”

He paused, letting the memories take shape.

“My squadron had arrived at Kings Oak that afternoon, just late enough to miss the last big raid of the day. After we were stood down, the chaps decided to pay a visit to the local pub, The Pony & Trap. I wanted to finish a letter home, so I followed along a bit later. The pub, which sat over there,” he pointed to a modern bungalow, “was about a mile and a half from the airfield. I remember it being a particularly beautiful evening; the countryside was bathed in golden light. The Garden of England in all its splendour.

I had just about reached the pub when I saw Jamie. He was sitting on the parapet of this bridge with a sketchpad and pencil. Jamie flew Hurricanes out of Biggin Hill, so it was quite a surprise to see him at Kings Oak. He told me that his Flight had been released early – his squadron had more pilots than serviceable aircraft. He’d heard that my squadron was coming to Kings Oak, so he cadged a lift to the railway station, jumped on a train to Kings Oak station and headed for the pub nearest the airfield.

He was three years older than me, but it might have twenty. He’d been at the sharp end since the Battle of France, and it showed; he looked tired and careworn, but there was a fire in his eyes. He produced a few bottles of bitter from his gas mask bag and we sat and talked for a while. Although he never said as much, I figured he’d come to give me some brotherly advice before I entered the lions’ den. He was very clever about it, slipping hints and tips into the general conversation. We chatted for about an hour before he had to leave. But just before he went, he gave me the sketch he’d drawn – a view over the bridge to the pub and the countryside beyond.”

Rob’s voice was gentle. “The drawing that sits above your desk?”

The older man nodded.

Rob scratched his chin, weighing up tact against curiosity. Curiosity won.

“And that was the last time you saw Jamie?”

“Saw him, yes. Heard him, well that’s a different matter. I’ll tell you, as long as you don’t mention it to your mother. She thinks I’m crackers as it is. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“My squadron was scrambled the next morning. We were still climbing when a pack of 109s bounced us over Ashford. The first I knew they were there was when a voice shouted ‘Break right, Tom’ over the r/t. I was the only pilot out of the rear two sections to make it home. My squadron lost five pilots that morning, including the CO. I’d most likely have bought it as well but for the warning.”

The older man produced a handkerchief from the top pocket of his blazer and pretended to blow his nose.

“I’m certain it was Jamie who warned me over the r/t – it was his voice I heard. It certainly wasn’t anyone in my squadron. In fact, I seem to have been the only one who heard it.”

Rob exhaled hard. “That’s quite a story, grandad.”

“Oh, that’s not even the half of it, Rob. I was informed that evening that Jamie had been killed. He’d been attacking a formation of Heinkels head-on and left it a fraction too late to break away. Fatigue, I suppose. Such a bloody awful waste…”

He stood up straight, pushing back against age and gravity.

“But here’s the thing: Jamie was killed on the morning of the 26th of August, the day my squadron arrived at Kings Oak, the day I met him on the bridge, the day before he saved my life…”

Home page image: public domain. Courtesy of http://www.goodfreephotos.com

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