Monday, July 09, 2007

the game

Fred has been lying on his back on the kitchen floor since he tottered in from the sitting room at ten o'clock this morning, tripped and went down. It is now just after five; his wife came back from an epic expedition into town, found him stretched and helpless, and called the ambulance.
Fred's right leg is lying a good inch shorter than his left and turned slightly outwards - a good indication that he has a fractured neck of femur. The morphine is helping him cope with the pain. It needs to. We will be moving him outside to the ambulance shortly, and it will inevitably aggravate his injury.
'But once we've got you on the vehicle the worst will be over and we'll be on our way to getting your leg sorted out.'
'Will you be needing these?' his wife says, standing with his cardigan in one hand and his slippers in the other. 'I'll be following up later with Rene.'
Fred is ninety four years old, a powerful man blasted by long years and late-stage Parkinson's. In his crumpled white shirt, black braces and trousers he looks like a preacher laid out by the hand of God.
'Thanks for coming,' he says.

On the trolley, easing tentatively away from the horrible pain of the move, Fred comes to himself sufficiently to be able to chat to me. He struggles to make his words clear above the noise of the ambulance and the depradations of accident, illness and age; he rests between phrases, and stares up through the skylight to the sky rushing above us. I piece together this war story:

Fred was the youngest child of a family of six. His parents owned a big garage, and Fred, along with his five sisters, picked up light engineering skills. When the war began, Fred's sisters found work in the new aircraft factory whilst Fred joined the RAF. He became a flight engineer, mostly on Lancaster bombers, stationed up in Lincolnshire. He was twenty-five.

He lasted the entire war, flying seventy missions across Europe. In all that time he crashed just twice, once mid-way when they limped back to the strip in tatters, the young tail gunner dead, and once on the very last mission when the plane was skewered by a German fighter, thirteen millimetre shells ripping through everything but him. The whole crew was wounded, and Fred had to land the plane on his own - the one and only time he took the controls. He managed to ditch safely in the sea, and they were all picked up by a naval frigate.

'I bet the others liked flying with you,' I say to him, adjusting the blood pressure cuff on his arm and taking a final reading before we turn into the hospital. 'I bet they thought you were lucky.'

'Nah,' he says, clearing his throat. 'It's a game. It plays itself out, and there's nothing you can do. One time I was supposed to crew up with a pilot to test a new Mosquito they'd delivered, but I was late coming back from a meeting and he took some other poor fucker up. That one crashed.'
He shrugs, and whinces.
'Will my wife know where to find me?'
I tell him I think she will.

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