French November winds sharpening to ice,
muddy overcoats mimicking cement.
My Yorkshire lad, summer in his heart,
carrying despatches along the Somme.
Man and metal, symbiotic voyagers,
bucking, jumping, sliding sideward,
almost stalling. ‘Trusty Triumph
stumbles, buckles, regains its balance
breathes and soldiers on;
racing like an Arabian
across hard, bare rock.
Seasoned soldier, standing tall on his stirrups:
hurling to heaven news of the Armistice.
Knife-sharp winds, flensing the horror,
exhuming his dreams.
In his nostrils, mislaid scents
of elderflowers in an English spring;
blue bonfire-drift of autumn leaves,
poignant essence of Christmas trees,
soap-and-talcum kisses from his Gran.
Against his fingers, the smooth, cold river;
the silken caress of mesmerised trout.
On his tongue, pickled onions and home-made cheese.
Eighteen years old, more alive than he has ever been.
Beyond the wire, a German sniper takes careful aim.
MILITARY HANDBOOK FOR FLYING CADETS, 1941
‘Immediately on being seated, a guest should place his napkin
in his lap, unfolding in one direction only. It should never be
unfolded completely, or tucked into a belt or collar.’
They are more than boys, but not yet men,
embryonic air-crew sat in rows
on a booming, airless, airfield
beneath the savage Florida sun.
Two hundred homesick English youngsters
in a sea of Air Force blue:
each thumbing through his handbook
on just how a war is won.
‘The soup spoon is dipped gently into the soup away from
the person eating, and conveyed slowly to the lips, which
are placed against the side, never the end, of the spoon as it
is tilted toward the mouth.’
It’s not enough to be a fighter,
dining etiquette is de rigeur;
But if etiquette’s so important,
why not have an etiquette for war?
Escort your enemy into dinner,
seat him safely at the table,
refrain from killing millions, sip your soup,
and talk some more.
‘The soup plate may be tipped only away from the individual
… it is unnecessary to pursue the last, precious drop.’
According to the handbook, to help a fellow fly,
give him months and months
of marching; mathematics daily
and rarely let him see inside a plane.
Flying Cadet Cross must keep on drilling,
wheel and tip like birds at evening,
not knowing he’s pursuing
his precious Spitfire dream in vain.
‘The knife is never used to convey food to the mouth and,
preferably, it is not used to cut the lettuce of a salad.’
Cross doesn’t make the cut for pilot
though he’s in the top five in his group.
This chastened, second Icarus
tumbles down to Wireless Ops A/G.
Motto: Per ardua ad astra,
through adversity to the stars.
Go lad, take the fight to Hitler,
go fly and make us free.
‘It goes without saying that one should refrain from the
practice of juggling the knife or spoon, or toying with other
implements at the table.’
Pensacola to Toronto;
back to Pensacola, on to England.
From Sumburgh Head and Bircham Newton,
to Wigtown, Prestwick, and Petrivie,
Flight Lieutenant Cross is juggling Hudsons,
Dakotas, Dominies, and Ansons
with Wellingtons and Warwicks, and Lancaster 523.
‘As with every other article of an officer’s equipment, his
calling cards are required to be of the best quality.’
Mr. Barnes Wallace begs permission
to present his card outside the door
of the Misses Mohne, Sorpe and Eder,
that distinguished family of dams.
The squadrons focus their attention
on attaining the unthinkable —
with a bouncing battering-ram.
‘Nuts may be placed upon the tablecloth but one should
not place salt upon the tablecloth and then dip wet items
into it, as this practice soils the linen.’
Back from practice over Ireland,
the plane overshoots the Wigtown runway.
Flaps down and undercarriage lowered,
it staggers up the wooded valley.
Flying just above the sunlit water,
it clears a bridge by merely inches,
negotiates a second;
then the port wing strikes a tree.
‘Cheese must be eaten with a fork. Elbows have no place
on the table.’
As trees flash by the drooping wingtip,
Cross wonders why the flaps aren’t up yet;
leans across his wireless table,
wraps both arms tightly round his head.
The wing touches earth, the merest kiss
wheels the plane straight over on its nose.
It totters, topples forward:
pilot error, pilot dead.
‘If, through some error, a guest should end up with
a spoon where a fork is required, it is entirely correct
to request the proper implement from a servant.’
Cross lugs his crew through leaking fuel,
three unconscious, two are dead:
performs first-aid in thistled grass
beyond the shredded, severed wings.
He asks a car-load of spectators for coats
to warm the wounded. They refuse
because the man who has no legs
might leave blood upon their things.
‘One should not push one’s plate away, even slightly, at the
completion of a meal.’
Military handbooks fail to mention
the pain that goes too deep for tears.
A wreath of scarlet.
Watch, as Squadron Leader Cross salutes
those men who gave away their futures
so that you and I might have today.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
he will remember them. And never dream of juggling
his knives and spoons.
This is not my son.
Not this mishmash
of broken bone
and shredded flesh
sent in a box
to Wootton Bassett.
My son is a child
of the sunlight,
crafted of dreams;
pressing his footprint
on Gloucestershire’s hills.
My son is the peace maker,
the giver of music,
fashioned of rivers and trees,
as young as the May fly,
as old as the yew.
Not in my name.
Voice of the people,
outflanked by egos.
where opium poppies
are the colour of blood.
My son is a father-in-waiting,
a teacher, a child,
with just a king’s shilling
to spend on the peace.
Poppies ripening, wilting;
spreading their poison.
My son is a sleepwalker,
lost in the profits
of your armaments deals.
Vultures are circling.
Contrails from bombers
serrating the sky.
high in the mountains
living in tunnels,
lost to their families.
self-seeding like poppies.
killing my boy,
getting shot in return.
Who wields the power?
Not the mothers.
Not the sons.
Marilyn Timms is a writer and artist living in Gloucestershire. She has had her stories and poems published in magazines, anthologies and online and has read at four Cheltenham Literary Festivals. Alison Brackenbury describes Marilyn’s first collection Poppy Juice as a collection of brave and unexpected adventures, with intoxicating, sometimes threatening colours. Two of Marilyn’s comedies have reached the stage, the third lies mouldering alongside her novel.