They came back from the target in time for breakfast. All but one of them of them, which was something of a miracle. One of the Blenheims was knocked about a bit. A lone Mitsubishi Ki-46 had caught the crew unawares on the way back from Myitkina. As usual, Sergeant armourer Walton was on the case before its engines were cold.
Gunner Arthur Pelham was much colder. His mid turret position had been badly smashed during the exchange, and Arthur himself was barely recognisable. Mid turret on the Blenheim was never a picnic. It was Walton’s job to clear up the mess, and get N Norman airworthy by the next day.
The debriefing was informal. They hadn’t seen an intelligence officer in weeks. Most of them were already back in Assam, preparing to defend India. Wing Commander Brian ‘Biffer’ Sloane took a Group adjutant through the raid, with other crew chipping in here and there. Sloane reckoned the Jap airstrip at Myitkina would be out of action for a week at least.
“And G George?” the adjutant asked. The aircrews shook their heads.
“Rum business,” Sloane replied, “Ted broke formation after dropping his calling cards pretty much bang-on. Next time I looked, there was no sign of his bus”.
Radio Officer Jeffries nodded, pulling hard on his cigarette.
“We were right behind him. He peeled off and after that I didn’t see them again. His radio was US for sure. No response at all. Crying bloody shame”.
Sloane collapsed onto his bunk, and scribbled down the names of the missing Blenheim crew of G George: bomb-aimer Jack Prince, wireless gunner Alan Fry, and pilot Ted Sampson. Ted was the Daddy at 26. Fry had celebrated his twenty-second birthday the previous month. He hadn’t a clue as to Prince’s age. The chap looked as if he’d just started shaving.
Biffer always felt wired after a debrief. He’d switch off his engines, feel drained as he crossed to the hut, and then have to relive it all. Since the CO died from a snake bite in Helwan, the letter-writing had been his job. His habit was to sketch out a few details, suggest their son’s heroism, say other men were proud to know him, that sort of guff. Then he’d fill in the gaps – half guilty – after a fitful sleep.
The Wingco felt clapped-out. He’d joined 113 squadron in ’41 at the Heliopolis base. Within a week everyone shipped out in a hurry as the Germans invaded. Not a single plane got off the ground, and they’d had to boat it out first to Crete, and then Egypt. Sorties against the Italians were non-stop, but then the Sons of Nippon invaded Burma, and so 113 went further East. He’d arrived in the morning, inspected his plane just after lunch, and then by evening was bombing Bangkok – a city he knew. It seemed almost criminal to bomb such beauty: but the Japs started it, so it had to be done.
To Brian Sloane, it felt as if he’d spent the entire bloody war running away. Hitching a ride out of Dunkirk in 1940, skidaddling away to North Africa a year later, and now fighting a losing battle against the Japs. He was, it seemed to him, only Wing Commander Sloane because every other bugger was dead.
Back in England, the son he saw for just seven minutes in January 1940 was now a few weeks over two years old. He and Penny had been evacuated out to Dorset. Brian had long ago given up hope of ever seeing them again. We’d win in the end – he was sure about that after Pearl Harbor two months ago. But he’d been shocked to feel himself relieved by the deaths of so many innocent sailors. War did that. Maybe it was a good thing, maybe not.
A wave of anxious exhaustion emptied what was left of his conscious mind. The pencil slipped from Sloane’s grip.
“Sir,” said the cockney voice from another world, “I’m sorry sir. You need to wake up. It’s G George sir. They’ve turned up”.
The wake-up call insinuated itself into a dream about school holidays. It started out as his mother, and then morphed into Aircraftsman Kidd.
“They’re all safe, sir,” Kidd continued, “But you need to sort er, a few things out, sir”. The Wingco pressed thumbs into dry eyes.
“Where are they?”
“Here sir, right here,” said Kidd. But something in his expression suggested more than enthusiastic relief.
“Here? How can they….what time is it?”
“It’s just before sixteen-hundred sir,” Kidd answered, “they landed about forty minutes ago”. Biffy was suddenly alert.
“But how the….where the bloody hell have they been?” Aircraftsman Kidd’s lips lost their smile as they whispered an answer.
“That’s just it sir. You need to come now sir, please. There’s a bit of a flap on”.
Biffy gulped down two mugs of tea before finally pitching up at Ted’s barracks. The G George threesome had been moved to the kitchen. On entering the long thin space, he felt it had the air of a makeshift interrogation room.
The Wingco proffered a mile-wide grin.
“Hello old boy,” he said to Sampson, “Thought you’d bought it for a minute there. You owe me ten knicker from our last game of brag, chum. Time to pay up”.
Edward Sampson – a veteran of thirty-two missions in three theatres of war – smiled back at Biffy Sloane.
“Put a sock in it, Biff”.
Sloane pulled up an old wooden garden chair and sat down.
“OK Ted,” he began, “What’s the gen?”
Sampson spluttered – and to Sloane’s surprise, Prince and Fry gave the same reaction.
The disciplinarian in Wing Commander Brian Sloane sprung to attention.
“OK chaps,” he snapped, “that’s enough. What happened?”
“Bombs gone, skipper,” he said. Fry laughed out loud. The silence that followed gave Sloane a familiar sense of unfocused anxiety….a horror he occasionally felt between missions: the certainty of doom that came with flashes of future mortality. A stray bullet in the fuel tank, a steel splinter in the eye, a random flame in the parachute.
It was Sampson that filled the void.
“D’you ever wonder, Biff,” he asked, “about whether all this bloody farce is really worth it?”
Brian Sloane eyed Prince and Fry before responding.
“Of course I do,” he almost whispered, “but none of us can ever know that for sure.”
“Oh yes we can,” said Fry. His tone was challenging.
More than two decades passed. Jack Prince went awol and was finally traced to the famine areas of Bihar and Bengal in late 1942. He was tried by a military tribunal and shot as a deserter in February 1943.
Alan Fry survived the war and, on being demobbed, went to Tibet to study the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. He was killed during the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959.
Brian Sloane also survived against all the odds, and became a copywriter then Creative Group Head for the advertising agency Colman Prentice & Varley until the mid 1960s.
At that point, his main client – a bank – was taken over by a large international financial group. Both the agency CPV and the bank’s marketing director Jeffray Chamier were fired. Together, Brian and Jeffray formed Chamier & Sloane to cater for rich investors looking for long term advice on growth opportunities and tax avoidance. The duo were, effectively, one of the first firms to specialise in what later became the Wealth Management sector.
Over the next fourteen years, Chamier Sloane grew into the City media’s darling. Against all advice, the firm bought an old warehouse on the fringes of London’s Square Mile, and focused at first on using most of the profits to refurbish the space and pay off the loans taken out to buy it.
Over the years, the pair put their clients variously into Japanese equities, oil as a commodity, London property, UK equities, dotcom startups, UK banks, Russian business, mutual building societies, energy, internet service providers. When it came to getting into and out of booms, no wealth advisor came close to Chamier Sloane.
In 1985, the founders sold out to Wall Street’s rising star Rosenthal Stein for £735 million.
Brian lost touch with Ted Sampson, but finally matched his birth record to a State Pension receipt address in 1982.
Sloane went to the address in London’s Vauxhall area without warning, even though his visit was expected. The two men talked for nearly three hours, and then parted. No known record survives of their conversation.
Biffer Sloane died from viral pneumonia in 1996. The son he had left behind in 1939 cleared his father’s Chelsea house with few feelings of nostalgia, but his younger sister Angela fastidiously retained and audited all his correspondence. Among this vast collection of papers, she found but one letter addressed to her. It was sealed in an A4 manilla envelope. Attached to the letter was a second, opened envelope with her father’s name on it, scribbled in pencil.
22nd February 1992
My dearest Angela
You are the only person in the world to whom I can pass on this story. Anyone else would assume I was round the bend and then the Will would be contested and God knows what else. What you do with (or about) this letter and its attachment is entirely your affair: what you have left is your life not mine.
Over the years, you’ve asked me many times why I made such an abrupt career change in 1967. At the time, I seem to recall you were at Uni with a flower in your hair, a phase that I was pleased to see pass very quickly. But later you were – understandably – baffled by how and why we went from being modestly well off to infamously rich – and thus an embarrassment to your ‘radical chic’ friends.
Everything fell into place at the right time. I’d had twenty-five years to decide whether it was just a hoax. I decided it wasn’t. That’s why I teamed up with Jeffray to start the firm.
Well, the contents of the old letter attached – while not self-explanatory – will fill in many of the missing jigsaw pieces. Ted, by the way, was a pilot serving under me in Burma during 1942. During one particular sortie, Ted Sampson had what might best be called “an experience”. It changed his life, those of his crew, and mine forever.
There are some shocks in the Will, which is why I’d prefer it if you kept quiet about this story – at least until the Estate is in order and all the bequests have gone through. But as you would say “it’s your call”.
With all my love through Eternity
Angela Sloane pulled three sheets of cheap, yellowed paper from the envelope marked ‘Wing Commander Brian Sloane DSO – personal’. As she did so, two small photos of the same man fell out onto her desk. She took in the obvious resemblance, and then put them to one side. Her compulsion to read the letter was overwhelming.
After reading the first five paragraphs of shakey longhand, she was convinced that the writer had suffered some kind of nervous breakdown. By the end of the letter, she was in shock.
I see you’ve recommended me for immediate and indeterminate hospital leave in Delhi. Whether you’ve done this because you believe me or just think all three of us went potty last week, I think it’s the right decision. There’s no fight left in me now.
I can’t leave it like it is. I’m not at all barmy old boy, and there are only two ways I can prove it to you. First, by letting you in on what I know will be. And second, by asking you to trace me forty years from now – always assuming you survive this Hell.
I told you how, about a minute or so after young Prince radio’d “bombs gone skipper”, everything cut out. This is it, I thought: I’m going to die because some bloody mechanic messed up. I told you we sort of floated in this nowhere place. I told you how we could all hear each other’s thoughts. I told you that I decided we were already dead.
But there was more. There was a voice. All three of us heard a different voice, but the words were exactly the same: “This won’t solve anything. Do not waste your Being”.
I felt as if my head was being syringed, like when the doc gets the wax out of your ears. We all knew it was happening to all of us. It wasn’t just pleasant Biff, it was divine. I mean, divine as in celestial. The growing euphoria of being turned into some sort of God.
Then it was over. All the electrics clicked on. My hands were on the stick. It was light. We were heading back home. The mystery was over. We all KNEW. Nobody spoke, but our thoughts were shared. None of us could work out why we hadn’t done this years ago – like you feel in a dream when you can fly without wings, and you think “Crikey, this is so easy”.
So this is what all three of us know, Biff. You know it too – you just don’t know how to get at it.
There followed a list of broad predictions of one form or another – some economic, some political….with what she felt was an almost spiritual twist, and even a hint here and there of modern physics.
The Allies would fall out, and much of the Far East fall to the Reds. The West would turn a soft Left, and this would be assumed to be the future. Children born in profusion after the war ended would become the dominant force for nearly forty years.
Energy would change everything as motor cars proliferated. The Rights of labour would be accepted. The rich would become at first scared, and then resentful.
The old ways would reassert themselves, but not before Imperialism had retreated, and power shifted massively towards the Middle East.
Horrific new weapons and the decline of both religion and scholarship would make the electorate increasingly sanguine and apolitical, while mass visual broadcasting rendered them easily distracted. Technology would power forward, led almost exclusively by the Americans. They in turn would come to view themselves as the planetary police.
Europe would become a huge third bloc, created with American money, to act as a bulwark against Communist thirst for world domination.
A coup in the US would produce the beginnings of corporate fascism, disguised as global free trade. The Soviet régime would collapse. China would grasp its own Communist fascism and use it as a tool to compete in the new world of more production and less direct democracy.
The Communist threat now dead, a new enemy would be put up to replace it: the Terrorist. The religious lunatic opposed to both the liberation of women and the onward march of Mammon would unite most Western ideologists in a campaign of Just Wars.
The need to keep the materialism show on the road would push willing banks and their credit facilities onto the Front Line of capitalism. Western dependence on Middle East oil would focus violent traditionalists in the region on America and its allies as The Infidel Enemy. A revival of fundamentalist Islam would be the obvious result.
Against all expectations, everything done by left-wing conservatives and social democrats to make Western society’s wealth distribution more stable would be reversed by the old Establishments and new money of the better educated working together. The new entertainment technologies available to labour would make capital’s task easier. Old ideologies would stifle the new alternatives necessary to fight capital’s advance. The new élites would bias educational techniques towards obedience.
By the dawn of the new century, everything required to negate all the War’s desired outcomes would be in place.
Angela found it hard to believe that these words had actually been committed to paper in 1942. It was like reading a potted history of her lifetime. Then the list of future trends stopped, and Ted Sampson concluded his missive to her late father.
The details don’t matter, because the details always change. What never changes is the outcome. The outcome is enlightenment, Biff. We can reach it with interminable pain, or minimal pain.
Forget the events, chum. All that counts is the development process. Everything has happened and will happen while things are happening. There is no Time, there is only a continuum of Now. Now is eternal. There is no infinity of space, there is only Being. If you tune into the continuum while still thinking Time is real, then it will destroy you. I have been given the gift of Now in my head. This changes everything else in there. As they say Bean, never look a gift horse in the mouth.
Let’s hope we meet again in 1982
Angela Sloane put the ancient letter back in its envelope, and then looked for a few seconds at the two photographs. She turned them over to find dates scrawled in ink on the back.
The first one said ‘Ted, February 1942, Toungoo aerodrome’.
The second one said ‘Ted, June 1982, London.’
She turned them over to re-examine the shots. What she had earlier seen as a resemblance was, she realised, one man completely unchanged by forty years of life.
© John Ward, October 2016