Vale the Vulcan, god of fire
A bright Queensland spring day in 2011. I sit hunched next to Dad, keeping vigil as he slowly succumbs to his death. I gaze across a wasted body, a scraggy 45 kilos of flesh and bone — all that is left after years of fighting cancer — his face a waxy parchment hue. I gently stroke his clawed hand, it is tense with pain and mapped with purple-blue veins, I imagine death, a repugnant phantom, kneeling on his chest strangling his breathing, squeezing away life. Dad’s eyelids flicker.
Beyond the sombre mood of this room, flamboyant birds quarrel over the birdbath in the garden. Vivid green foliage wafts in the breeze.
‘Do you remember the accident?’ asks Mum. Her voice snaps me from my present reverie and steers me into another. Of course. How could I forget? I am transported back nearly 35 years.
The brass handbell is hefted back and forth by the head prefect through the lower corridors. Almost immediately a responding tattoo of feet, shod in sturdy brown, leather lace-ups, clatters from the rooms above, down the grand oak staircase of the boarding house. Thirty-odd schoolgirls stampede, chattering excitedly, as they jockey for position on their way to the kitchen. Seven o’clock — milk and buns for supper. A nightly ritual.
‘Susan Prior.’ The rough-cut voice of old Dot, cultivated by years of smoking Player’s, grates above the tumult.
‘Susan Prior, my office, NOW.’
With more than a little regret I veer away from the front wave of the pack, just as it enters the kitchen.
Dot stands at the door of her office waiting. Dressed in a pale-blue crimplene suit, her hair is cut short, but bouffant, and sprayed rock solid. She sports a badly executed smear of blue eye shadow on her crepey eyelids, and a cigarette perches with the pretence of elegance between her fingers, each with its tapered tangerine carapace.
Dot personifies evil and bad taste in one complete package.
She begins abruptly. ‘Your mother rang. Your father’s plane has crashed. She will call you tomorrow to speak to you.’
And that is it?
Apart from what comes next: ‘Now run along girl and get your supper.’
I stand, speechless, for a moment.
‘Shoo girl, she’ll call tomorrow,’ Dot brushes me off with a flick of cigarette ash.
I turn away in turmoil. For the next 24 hours I have no idea whether Dad is alive or dead. At school we don’t get to watch television after supper — there are no news bulletins. All I do know is that Dad is an Air Electronics Officer in the Royal Air Force’s V-Bomber Command. He flies a Vulcan, a god of fire, a massive delta-wing strategic bomber. And I also know that on that chilly day in January 1977, with the ground frozen hard like iron and relations with Russia as frosty as they could possibly get, the Cold War is at its height and Britain is on alert. The Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 60s is still fresh in Great Britain’s collective memory, at least for those serving in the RAF.
Some years later, after I leave school and Dot behind, I travel the stretch of road that runs north along the ridge line from Grantham to Lincoln. Lincoln Cathedral looms imposingly through the grey-green fug. It’s a dismal day. Just near the air base I pull the car over and get out. Traffic speeds past, buffeting me with an icy wind. Fog swirls from the flat marshy fens, its tentacles nimbly reaching down the back of my neck, exploring up my coat sleeves. I shudder. There’s a long break in the traffic and a thickening dead silence.
Closing my eyes, I recall that day at school, and I imagine the Vulcan, a vast metallic bird of prey casting a menacing shadow as it lumbers towards and over me with a deafening roar. Heaving its bulk aloft, it strains to skim above the traffic travelling along the road. It claws skywards and finally morphs into its alter ego, a graceful soaring swallow, diminishing as it sweeps and swoops towards the horizon on some secret mission.
The Vulcans, the fire gods, have gone now; the skies are silent.
Dad survived, but it was the end of his flying career. After his accident, after the inquiries, the finger-pointing and the blaming, our family faced a fork in the road. The fallout was a family split asunder. My parents moved to Australia to heal their wounds from a distance — and in a warmer climate — and my brother and I remained behind. Later, I joined my parents, but my brother stayed; he refrained from trading in his British passport.
‘I still think his cancer was caused by something in that plane. And so do the others,’ says my mother, referring to Dad’s colleagues. ‘Nothing can be proved though …’ her voice tails off.
I look at her worried face and shrug. ‘No, I guess not.’
Dad convulses and gasps from his very depths, grabbing sharply for breath. He strains to sit up, looking beseechingly into Mum’s eyes with a panic of knowing the inevitable, and a look that says ‘I’m done. I love you.’ He slumps back.
Momentarily, the birds outside his window fall silent. The breeze quietly dies.