The Squadron Leader's Girl

Contributor: Bruce Costello

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She was bearded, shabby, alone, and struggling to pick up one of her walking sticks from the carpet. The minister, young and bald, broke off his conversation with a group of relatives, picked up the stick with a cheery hello and asked if Edward, the deceased, had been a friend of hers. The old lady replied but the minister did not catch what she said.
The mourners had gathered for afternoon tea – or, as funeral directors say among themselves, ‘the after match function.’ Adults were mingling. Children were sitting or running about and being growled at. There was lots of noise, and heaps of food, including asparagus rolls and pikelets with raspberry jam and whipped cream on top.
The minister pulled up a chair, plonked himself down beside the old lady, beamed and repeated his question.
“Edward was a great old chap, wasn’t he? How did you come to know him?”
“I’d like to sit outside,” the old lady commanded, peering up at the minister, looking very directly into his eyes.
The minister hesitated, then let her lead him through the crowd of mourners to the Funeral Parlour’s outside courtyard featuring cobbled paths and a tranquil lily pond with goldfish and frogs.
It was a warm autumn day. The two sat side by side in silence until the old lady began to speak. Her voice, though cracked with age, was full of life, unlike her body.
“Edward was just a tiny boy when I used to know him. He was about seven or eight then, that was sixty or seventy years ago, and I’ve not seen him since. His older brother Arnold was my fiancé. Arnold and I were very much in love. We had wonderful times before the war. We’d go by train, Arnold and I and all his family, there were five boys in all, to Hampden, where they had a holiday home. Arnold was the oldest one and Edward was very much the youngest, like an afterthought.” She chortled. “Little Edward liked me a lot. Arnold said I was the older sister that Edward had never had. But I reckon Edward had a crush on me. Such a dear little chap he was, way back then.” Her voice trailed off. “Way back then, way back then.”
She fell silent. A fat young sparrow landed on a fence nearby and began squawking for his mother.
“He looks big enough to be feeding himself,” she chuckled.
The minister smiled, ran a hand across his bald head, and waited.
“That blighter Hitler decided to take on the world,” snorted the old lady. “So Arnold joined the Air Force and went overseas. My own mother and father both passed away around that time. Mother with a heart attack and father a few weeks later of something or other. Arnold’s parents very kindly took me in to live with them. They had four sons serving overseas then. I think I was a comfort, and I helped to look after little Edward, too. Arnold was in Bomber Command, and a Squadron Leader by the time he was twenty-three.”
“Uhuh,” nodded the minister. “Uhuh.”
“Arnold was shot down over Hamburg by a Junkers 88 night fighter flown by Staffelfϋhrer Graf Hans von Stahlmeister between 0230 and 0250 hours on May the twenty-third, 1943.”
“Eh? I didn’t quite catch that,” the minister said, with wrinkled brow, and puckered lips.
“You look constipated, dear,” observed the old lady. “Are you eating enough bran?”
The sparrow’s mother flew in with a fat worm for her big baby.
“That’s made his day,” laughed the old lady.
The minister nodded, looking around towards the entrance gate.
“After Arnold was killed, I couldn’t stay with his family anymore. They wanted me to but I just couldn’t. I found lodgings on the other side of town and kept well away, which was naughty of me. Little Edward must’ve missed me something awful. I felt very bad about that. I married another Air Force chap, a flying instructor. I never loved him, though, and soon I hated him. He left me after a couple of years and I didn’t marry again.”
“And you’d completely lost touch with Arnold’s family, and your little Edward?” prompted the minister.
The old lady nodded.
“So you have been listening,” she said.
“Indeed. Indeed.”
She began swishing with her stick at the leaves on the cobblestones.
“I have this friend Patricia who does computer classes at the Senior Citizens club. She invited me along and much to my surprise, I picked it up easily, even Facebook and researching on Google. I looked up things, like war records. About a fortnight ago, when the rest of the class was at afternoon tea, I found Edward on Facebook. He remembered me immediately. We arranged to meet up last week.”
“Heavens above!” exclaimed the minister. “Just last week! After so long!”
“On the day we were to meet, I saw his death notice in the newspaper. I don’t often buy the paper. It gets expensive when you’re on the pension, and food is so dear these days, and electricity’s going up all the time. I was really looking forward to seeing Edward and catching up on his life and talking about old times." Her eyes sparkled through tears.
“I still love Arnold. And little Edward. And I know we’ll all meet up again.”
She began to sing. ”Don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.”
The young minister looked towards heaven, eyes closed, and lips moving. His bald head glistened in the afternoon sun.
“The war might have ended a long time ago,” he announced, “but for a lot of folk, like your good self, its impact continues.”
“Could’ve been worse,” replied the old lady, with a chortle, tapping her stick on the minister’s knee. “At least we beat the bloody buggers.”

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New Zealander Bruce Costello retired in 2010 and began writing to avoid housework. Since then, he’s had 49 stories accepted by mainstream magazines and literary journals in six countries. He still does housework.”
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