A touching short story by Fran Bovington
The curious sense of unreality that had been with me ever since the visit, still cloaked my thoughts as I stood with my husband Glenn on the windswept tarmac of the airfield. We were part of a small group of civilians and service personnel that had been shepherded into position to await the arrival of the Hercules transport plane. It seemed a long time coming …
As I waited, huddled into my coat, my thoughts strayed back to the day, almost three years ago, when our son Andrew had burst into the kitchen of our house at Cheveney, waving his acceptance papers from the army. That day felt more real than this …
I was surprised by the intensity of his reaction. It had been a long time since I had seen him so animated about anything. Distracted by that thought, it had taken a little while for the enormity of his news to sink in. When it did, I found I had to mask my anger and shock that he hadn’t talked to us about his decision, and I spread a congratulatory smile across my face.
Things moved quickly after that; too quickly. I felt powerless, mesmerised by the speed of events. I couldn’t find a way to express the negative emotions that were filling my mind and there had only been time for us to have one serious discussion about his decision to join up. Whether he had deliberately avoided bringing up the subject during the short amount of time we were together, I couldn’t say. All I did know was that the knot of tension in my stomach was growing tighter and tighter …
Then, without warning, came the talk we had in the garden. Looking back it was the saving of my sanity!
He’d just brought my car home and was walking down the path, whistling as if he didn’t have a care in the world. I was in the garden, struggling with a well-grown, deep-rooted patch of weeds. “You’ll do your back in pulling like that,” he said cheerfully, not offering to help.
I looked at him, “How about you applying some of the brawn you’re about to sacrifice for Queen and country and give me a hand!”
He must have registered the acid tone in my voice because as he took hold of the fork, he hesitated a moment, then said, “You’ve never told me how you really feel about me joining up have you?”
Slowly and stiffly I had straightened up, wiping the sweat from my face with a muddy palm. I knew the time had come to be honest, but what could I say? For what seemed like an age I had stood there beside him in the garden, wondering how, or where to begin. How to tell him I could not bear to face up to the awful realities of the life and career he, my only son, had chosen to commit his life to …
Like any right-thinking mother, I had come to terms with, and tried to prepare for, the time when any of my three chicks was ready to fly the nest. It hadn’t been easy when the girls left home, but it was nothing to having to accept the single-minded intention of my only son to leave home and become a soldier.
Despite my desperate attempts to rationalise them, my emotions had melted into one dark, almost uncontrollable fear. I was terrified of losing him, desperately afraid of the danger he might face and yet never able to feel free enough to share the strength of those feelings with him, because I knew it wouldn’t be right or helpful.
Finally, with a deep sigh, I looked up at him. He must have registered something of the internal agony I was in because he suddenly let go of the fork and put his arms around me, holding me close. It was the embrace of a man, no longer a boy. Despite my best efforts to hold them back, the tears had come, leaking out of my eyes and carving dirty channels through the muddy patches on my face.
“I only want what’s best for you Andrew,” I said.
“This is what’s best.”
There was a finality about his reply, showing me he wasn’t prepared to discuss his decision any further.
This was Andrew the man. I realised then, that all the years of love, care, support and encouragement, the discipline, the tears, the heart-searching, our mistakes and regrets had worked to produce this individual. I felt a new and profound respect for him and a confidence in him that went a long way to calming my fears. I suppose it can’t be helped that what’s best for our children isn’t always what’s best for parents! We have to respect their choice and learn the hard lessons of letting them go. If they can fly then, whatever the cost, surely we have done our job well.
I smiled ruefully at that thought and remembered how he had looked into my face and said, “You know mum, there’s as much chance that I could get killed crossing the road!”
There it was … he had said it and his words hung shivering between us. But, surprisingly, he had somehow embraced the unknown for me. Then he had laughed, sounding ridiculously like his father, and his laughter had swung back even further the dark curtain of fear and uncertainty that had held me imprisoned. In his own way, he had faced the horrors I had shrunk from and come through the experience. After all those years of him taking comfort and strength from me, his mother, suddenly and surprisingly easily, our roles had been reversed.
Not long after that talk, he left to join his unit. I was well in control at that time and it was a lot easier to handle the goodbyes. Even when the news came that his battalion was being deployed to a well-known and well-documented trouble spot, I was reasonably in control.
Up to the time he had left, we had seen him quite often. He had come home on leave, bringing a succession of mates with him. Gavin Cross was one of those who came most often, especially after he took up with one of Andrew’s ex-girlfriends. From the start I had really taken to Gavin. He had the soul of a poet, that young man, which seemed a bit out of keeping with his chosen profession.
We spent many a long hour talking about all sorts of things, the meaning of life, that sort of thing. I marvelled at his ability to retain such faith and hope in his thinking and attitude to life, despite the obvious disadvantages of growing up as an abandoned child in a succession of children’s homes and with foster parents. The rigours of army training and discipline had certainly added to his toughness, but without making him coarse or hard.
Andrew nicknamed him ‘Byron’ because he was always reading or quoting poetry. Andrew told me there wasn’t a man in the unit who wouldn’t have trusted their lives to Gavin in a dangerous situation. That didn’t surprise me; I had sensed that integrity in him right from our first meeting. More than any of Andrew’s friends, he became a real part of our family.
I shivered, startled as a blast of cold air brought me uncomfortably back to the present. As I moved my stiff, cold legs, Glenn glanced down at me, “You all right?”
I was just about to reply when I heard the far off sound of aircraft engines. The rest of the small crowd heard it too. As one, we craned our necks to get a first look at the approaching aircraft coming into view on the horizon. Within minutes, the roar of the huge engines was all that could be heard as it landed and taxied slowly towards us.
The group of soldiers next to us responded to the snapped command of the Sergeant Major and came swiftly to attention. They remained ramrod straight as the Hercules transport plane came to a halt. As the noise of the engines died away, the band began to play and the ramp in the belly of the aircraft was lowered. There was a low murmur from the crowd, then total silence as we watched six soldiers carry the flag-draped coffin slowly and carefully down the ramp. I felt Glenn stiffen beside me when it came into sight and, as he wiped his eyes with his handkerchief, I noticed his hands were trembling.
Strangely enough, I felt totally calm as I watched the taut, grave faces of the young men bearing the coffin. Andrew had written me some short, but perceptive letters describing his particular friends. So sharp had been his observations that I felt as if I should know them instantly. But so sad and self-controlled were their expressions, so carved and set in grief, that I doubted even their close kin would have been able to recognise them.
With slow dignity and sombre expertise, they placed the coffin into the waiting hearse and Glenn, taking my arm, steered me to our car. I sat in the back seat, unable to cry. Any tears that may have been lingering were frozen in my eyes and heart.
Then, there was the ordeal at the graveside to get through. Despite my numbed state, a wave of impotent anger suddenly swept through me as they lowered the coffin into the earth. Inwardly, I raged against the horrors of war that robs fathers and mothers of children, sisters of brothers. Oh what was the point of it all? There didn’t seem to be any point for those of us standing in that place of crushing loss.
Glenn moved closer to me. He understood. I knew he did and that understanding broke me open, the frozen tears melted, coming hot and fast, impossible to control.
As the service ended, I had some control again and felt relieved of that hard, frozen lump. The group of soldiers around the graveside stood to attention, saluting as the mournful sound of the ‘Last Post’ was played. We said our last goodbyes and began to move slowly and awkwardly away from the site. I looked back at the group of soldiers lingering there, talking quietly among themselves. They seemed unwilling to leave.
Andrew caught my glance and lifted a hand to wave. With a quick word to the others he came across to us.
“Mum. Dad,” he said, as he put his arms around us, hugging us tightly. “Sorry I couldn’t get to you sooner. Thanks for coming.”
Glenn kissed his cheek. “How could we not come?” he said.
“Gavin would have wanted you here more than anyone, you know that don’t you? As far as he was concerned, you were the nearest thing to parents he ever had.”
I put my hand to my mouth, unable to speak.
In the end, it was Glenn who spoke for us both. “He meant a great deal to us,” he said simply.
As we turned towards the car, he continued. “This wasn’t the homecoming we had in mind for you son.”
Silently, Andrew glanced back at the grave of his friend and comrade in arms, then with a deep sigh he replied, “It wasn’t the one I had in mind either dad, but he would have done the same for me.”
Later, we were told the circumstances of Gavin’s death on the battlefield. He had been badly wounded by sniper fire, while out on patrol. As the radio was smashed, he had decided to give covering fire as Andrew and the rest retreated. He had insisted they go and saved their lives because of it. Later, Andrew had gone back with the recovery helicopter and found him. He had died in Andrew’s arms, but not before he had given him his little New Testament he carried in his inside pocket.
“Your mum’s afraid,” he had said. “Tell her to read this. It will help her. Tell her I know it will be OK …”
With that he had died.
I now held that little blood-stained book in my hands. What was it that he had found that enabled him to die without fear? That same faith that helped him to live, had been present there among the horror and the manner of his dying. His sacrifice had not only saved my son, but it was also a continuing gift to me of dawning faith, hope and peaceful knowing that somehow all would be well.
With trembling fingers, I opened the book. On the inside page, Gavin had written: “Greater love has no man than this that he chooses to lay down his life for his friends” …
- Fran Bovington has worked abroad with a Christian mission, providing recreational facilities for the British Army