by Steve Lambert

The mission had gone without a hitch. It was when we were almost safely home that we ran into trouble. As we were flying over the Channel, something bright flickered in the corner of my eye: the starboard engine was on fire. The Lancaster began to fall fast, and the black depths of the sea swooped up towards us.

    Mick, our pilot, somehow managed to float us clear of the water and down into a field. All eight of us got out safe. We were unharmed, alive. We laughed and cheered. At least, they did. All I could think of was falling into the cold, lightless, impossibly-deep sea, going down and down and down, my breath running out, knowing that to open my mouth to gulp for air would be to suffer the agony of drowning.

    When I woke the next day, I found I had lost the ability to speak. Given a few minutes, I could just about stutter a few words, but only at the expense of a violent shaking of the hands.

    My CO was understanding. My colleagues were shocked, saddened, made comforting noises. It was hard to know what they really felt. They had looked up to me as we cheated death raid after raid. They called me Grandad. I was all of 27.

    It wasn't as if I'd actually refused to fly and been branded a coward with the dreaded initials LMF - Low Moral Fibre. No, I was transferred to other, ground-based duties.

    Near half of Bomber Command crews died during the war, which means, of course, that half survived. Yet within a year, all seven of my crewmates were dead.

    Don’t worry, they didn't come back to haunt me. They are not who this story is about. But I think you need to be aware of my state of mind - the constant fear of death replaced by guilt, watching a bomber fly over me as I stood safe yet helpless on the ground, and grief for lost comrades - I was steeped more in death than life. And this made me vulnerable, open, to another world, one that runs parallel to our own, one of sadness and darkness next to the comparative light of our finite existence. 

    I was driving down a country road at night. I'd never really got the hang of driving in the blackout, the meagre beam of dipped headlights filtered through a mask of horizontal slits. The rain was relentless and as I rounded a bend, I felt the tyres slip. The car tipped, and I felt like I was falling into the cold embrace of dark waters. The car ended up on its side in a ditch. But apart from a bang on the knee, I was unscathed.

    I scrambled out, trying to protect my uniform. I looked up the road and there, ahead of me, was a figure. It was silhouetted in the rain and held some sort of lantern. It wore a cape, whose hood obscured its face. And it was looking at me.

    I was unable to move, afraid. Then the figure tilted its head, as if to beckon me, and turned to walk away. And I could see that its movements were those of a young woman.

    I limped after her. She moved swiftly, almost floating, her feet hidden by the hem of her cloak. I was afraid of losing her. I tried to call out, but of course I could not, not even a pitiful stammer. She rounded a bend. I reached it in time to see her slip through a gate in a high hedge. The gate swung shut. As I pushed it open, I tore my wrist on some brambles.

    There was a path leading to a house. In its front porch hung a dripping cape and extinguished lantern. As I approached, I saw a young woman in the doorway; pale-skinned, dark-haired. She looked at me, hesitated. Something wasn't quite right, there was something about this that didn't fit into what I'd just experienced. Once again, I felt afraid. Then the woman stepped off the porch and walked through the rain towards me. She reached out and touched my hand, and suddenly I felt safe.

    I sat in her kitchen as she tended to the wound I had suffered from her brambles. She seemed preoccupied with my wrist as if it held a particular importance.  I wasn't in a position to ask her why, and she asked me no questions either, perhaps in view of my uniform. Careless talk, and all that.  As she bathed and dressed my wound, she moved with an understated elegance that seemed at odds with the theatricality of the cloak and lantern. But I was soothed by her silence. For the first time in a long while, I felt in no way judged.

    After a hearty rabbit stew, a real treat during rationing, she brought me a dressing gown so I could get out of my damp uniform. She handed it to me almost reluctantly, in the same way she'd hesitated at the front door before welcoming me inside. There was an air of sadness about her, a restrained sense of loss. I longed to ask her but the words remained choked in my throat, and I slumped back in my chair, defeated, impotent, useless.

    Seeing my distress, she beckoned me into the sitting room. I settled into an armchair while she sat to 'make do and mend' - sewing a man's socks, but not, I think, the same man in whose gown I sat. A glass of whisky was in my hand. I sipped at it, drowsy, and watched her work. As her needle flashed, the tip of her tongue flickered between her teeth and her head was tilted to one side.

    On the small table next to me was a photograph. Although blurred, the face of the woman in WAAF uniform had her unmistakable dark eyes, pale skin and fine features. Yet there was something wrong about her face. As she stared at the camera, her head at a slight angle, there was something in her eyes; a look of helplessness, fear, of someone about to fall.

    "It's nearly over, isn't it?"

    I looked up, startled at the question. She smiled at me sadly, then looked away.

    "Too late for some."

    She showed me to a bedroom at the front of the house, then left me to it.

    The night was mild, the rain had stopped. I slipped off my gown and took my cigarette to the open window, blowing plumes of smoke over the face of a full moon. I felt at peace. Yes, the war was nearly over. I was going to pull through. In recent months I had survived the darkest of thoughts, of ending my torment once and for all. Such terrible thoughts, in the world's hour of need. Self destruction, so selfish. We are so small. Yet how many others had fought this inner battle like me? How many others, men and women of honour? How many others, so brave in battle, had clung on desperately against the fear of falling and finally let go?

    I went out onto the landing and saw that the door to her bedroom lay open. She sat, her back to me, at her dressing table, in the dark, pulling a brush through her hair over and over and over. Mesmerised, I noticed too late that her gaze, reflected in the mirror, was on me and that I had forgotten to put on my gown.

    Convulsed with embarrassment, I retreated to bed. When flying, I had been supplied with sleeping pills for such difficult times as these, and amphetamines to get me going. I had no such remedies here. I was no longer worthy, a wingless, speechless thing.

    But the country air must have worked its magic, because the next thing I remember was waking up to see a female figure at the foot of the bed. Her head, faceless and silhouetted against the moonlit window, tilted slightly, then she crawled over the bed towards me. Her face closed in on mine, and her tongue flickered against my mouth. Her lips were shockingly cold.

    There was nothing elegant, nurturing or understated about the way she pushed me back. Our limbs did not entwine softly but locked violently, as if we were not sure whether to save each other or drown. My face was pressed against her body so hard I could not breath. Then I seemed to be breathing through her, my lips opening against her body and finding, through the act of love, the expression that my inability to speak had denied me.

    Her right palm covered my mouth. I kissed her hand then, at the wrist, my tongue found and followed the groove of a scar running towards the crook of her elbow. 

    And then I was waking in daylight. I stood at the window, smoking. Then a car swung into the driveway. It was mine.

    A tall, lean man in overalls got out and examined the bodywork, pulling some twigs from the wing. Then she emerged from the house, kissed him on the cheek and handed him a pair of freshly-mended socks. They exchanged a few words I couldn't hear. Then the man walked off and she turned to come back inside.

    She didn't look up at me as I stood at the window. There was no acknowledgement of what had passed between us in the night, and I wondered if it had been a dream. But no; the smoke in my mouth could not erase the taste of her, and my tongue still bore the imprint of the scar on her arm.

    After breakfast, I went into the sitting room to take a last look at the photograph on the table, at the blurred face whose defiance masked desperation, a fear of falling.

    She watched me from the doorway, smiling sadly. I had so much I wanted to say, to ask. My fingers gripped the photograph's frame so hard I thought it would crack. My mouth opened to drag out the words as if my life depended on it.

    "I w-w-wish I c-could t-t-take this."

    She sadly shook her head.

    "It's the only decent one of her I've got left."

    I didn't understand. Her? What did she mean, 'her'? As I struggled to speak once more, she raised her right hand to my face, and her sleeve slipped down her arm.

    And then I understood. The skin was smooth, unblemished, unscarred.

    After I'd said goodbye, I stopped by the village churchyard. The man who'd rescued my car was tending a grave. He laid some flowers, walked off. I stood in front of the headstone, unweathered amongst those long dead. In Memory of a Beloved Sister. I stood in silence, and peace. Too late for some. The branches of a tree curved over me and released a single leaf that fluttered, falling, falling, falling to the ground.