I can’t recall how many summers ago I was sitting with friends at a table on a lawn surrounded by flower beds. It was probably too late for birds to be singing, but they echo in my memory of a perfect moment of stillness – a pause in the dance of time. At some point the conversation turned to a strange, almost unimaginable event.
‘You can hardly believe it,’ said my friend, ‘but I think it was my uncle who recounted a strange circumstance.’
‘What was it?’ ‘It happened when he was staying with his aunt in 1940, or was it 1941? He must have been about twelve then. She was entertaining a couple of friends in her garden, just like us now, though not with gin and tonics! Probably she was offering tea with the dry scones produced by eking out their meagre wartime rations. A bee buzzed among the marigolds. The sweet peas were entwined over a trellis and there must have been a Red Admiral among the white cabbage butterflies. Then round the corner of the house came an apparition dressed like a pilot in clothes that had a grey and blue affinity with clouds and sky. He paused, looked at them and slowly raised his arms.
They stared back, too amazed to know what to do. The apparition lowered its arms and spoke in what sounded like gargling. One of the guests had spent six months in the Thirties studying medicine in Heidelberg and understood the gist.
‘He’s a German pilot,’ she whispered, ‘and is asking us what to do.’
‘Where’s his parachute?’ another asked, ‘or his plane, for that matter?’
The boy whispered to his aunts that the man seemed to be unarmed. His aunts asked him to fetch a chair as well as a cup, saucer and plate. The stranger was invited to sit down, all the time looking fixedly at the people sitting round the table. At least he didn’t laugh at the absurd situation. He spoke again.
‘He’s asking, I think,’ and the guest who understood a little German hesitated, ‘if we can call the police.’
I looked at my friend and smiled. ‘This comes straight out of the TV series Dad’s Army,’ I said, ‘it could never have really happened’.
‘But it did,’ my friend insisted, ‘to my uncle. Why would he lie?’ He could be imagining it, I thought.
That reminded me of a recent literary festival. A local politician opened it by enthusing over the range of speakers on historical and biographical subjects adding, rather apologetically, that there would also some writers of fiction which was “made up”. ‘You see,’ she elaborated, ‘it’s about what didn’t really happen.’
So they’re not true?
Well, my friend’s uncle was a child at the time. Had he made it all up? Perhaps no German pilot had walked round the corner of the house on that perfect summer day in 1940, so the aunts didn’t have the dilemma of deciding what to do with him while he was sipping a cup of tea and eating (delicately or ravenously?) a hard little scone.
The uncle’s memory seemed to fail at that juncture. He couldn’t recall what happened to the pilot. But he could clearly remember coming home from school along a country lane and seeing young men wearing strange clothes with large patches working in the fields. He was told they were POWs. It was some time before he worked out what those letters stood for.
These were memories retold as pure, honest facts while relaxing in a garden on a perfect summer’s day. If they were facts unintentionally framed in fiction, are they any less true?
[Photo By U.S. Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]