It's Just the Way It Is

NOVEMBER rain falls harshly on the clean tarmac, and the wind, turning suddenly, lifts sprays of yellow elm leaves over the black hangars. The man and the woman, escorted by a sergeant, look very small as they walk by the huge cavernous openings where the bombers are. The man, who is perhaps fifty and wears a black overcoat and bowler hat, holds an umbrella slantwise over the woman, who is about the same age, but very gray and slow on her feet, so that she is always a pace or two behind the umbrella and must bend her face against the rain.

On the open track beyond the hangars they are caught up by the wind and are partially blown along, huddled together. Now and then the man looks up at the Stirlings, which protrude over the track, but he looks quickly away again and the woman does not look at all.

‘Here we are, sir,’ the sergeant says at last. The man says ‘Thank you,’ but the woman does not speak.

They have come to a long one-storied building, painted gray, with ‘Squadron Headquarters’ in white letters on the door. The sergeant opens the door for them and they go in, the man flapping and shaking the umbrella as he closes it.

The office of the Wing Commander is at the end of a passage; the sergeant taps on the door, opens it, and salutes. As the man and woman follow him, the man first, taking off his hat, the woman hangs a little behind, her face passive.

‘Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd, sir,’ the sergeant says.

‘Oh, yes. Good afternoon.’ The sergeant, saluting, closes the door and goes.

‘Good afternoon, sir,’ the man says.

The woman does not speak.

‘ Won’t you please sit down, madam ? ‘ the Wing Commander says. ‘And you too, sir. Please sit down.’

He pushes forward two chairs, and slowly the man and the woman sit down, the man leaning his weight on the umbrella. The office is quite small and there are no more chairs. The Wing Commander remains standing, his back resting against a table, beyond which, on the wall, the flight formations are ticketed up. He is quite young, but his eyes, which are glassy and gray, are old and focused distantly, so that he seems to see far beyond the man and the woman, and even far beyond the gray-green Stirlings lined up on the dark tarmac in the rain. He folds his arms across his chest and is glad at last when the man looks up at him and speaks.

‘We had your letter, sir. But we felt we should like to come and see you too.’

‘I am glad you came.’

‘I know you are busy, but we felt we must come. We felt you wouldn’t mind.’

‘Not at all. People often come.’

‘There are just some things we should like to ask you.’

‘I understand.’

The man moves his lips, ready to speak again, but the words do not come. For a moment his lips move like those of someone who stutters, soundlessly, quite helplessly. His hands grip hard on the handle of the umbrella, but still the words do not come, and at last it is the Wing Commander who speaks.

‘You want to know if everything possible was done to eliminate an accident?’

The man looks surprised that someone should know this, and can only nod his head.

‘Everything possible was done.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘But there are things you can never foresee. The weather forecast may say, for example, no cloud over Germany for perhaps sixteen hours, but you go over and you find a thick layer of cloud all the way, and you never see your target — and perhaps there is severe icing as you come home.’

‘Was it like this when —?’

‘Something like it. You never know. You can’t be certain.’

Suddenly, before anyone can speak again, the engines of a Stirling close by are revved up to a roar that seems to shake the walls of the room; and the woman looks up, startled, as if terrified that the plane will race forward and crash against the windows. The roar of airscrews rises furiously, and then falls again, and the sudden rise and fall of sound seems to frighten her into speech.

‘Why aren’t you certain? Why can’t you be certain? He should never have gone out! He should never have gone out! You must know that! You must know it! You must know that he should never have gone!’

‘Please,’ the man says.

‘Day after day you are sending out young boys like this. Young boys who haven’t begun to live! Young boys who don’t know what life is! Day after day you send them out and they don’t come back and you don’t care! You don’t care!’

She is crying bitterly now and the man puts his arm on her shoulder. She is wearing a fur and he draws it a fraction closer about her neck.

‘You don’t care, do you! You don’t care! It doesn’t matter to you. You don’t care!’

‘Mother,’ the man says.

Arms folded, the Wing Commander looks at the floor, silently waiting for her to stop. She goes on for a minute or more longer, shouting and crying, her words violent and helpless, until at last she is exhausted and stops. Her fur slips off her shoulders and falls to the ground, and the man picks it up and holds it in his hands, helpless too.

The Wang Commander walks over to the window and looks out. The airscrews of the Stirling are turning smoothly, shining like steel pinwheels in the rain; and now, with the woman no longer shouting, the room seems very silent, and finally the Wing Commander walks back across the room and stands in front of the man and woman again.

‘You came to ask me something,’ he says.

‘Take no notice, sir. Please. She is upset.’

‘You want to know what happened? Isn’t that it?’

‘Yes, sir. It would help us a little, sir.’

The Wing Commander says very quietly: ‘Perhaps I can tell you a little. He was always coming to me and asking to go out on operations. Most of them do that. But he used to come and beg to be allowed to go more than most. So more often than not it was a question of stopping him from going rather than making him go. It was a question of holding him back. You see?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And whenever I gave him a trip he was very happy. And the crew were happy. They liked going with him. They liked being together, with him, because they liked him so much and they trusted him. There were seven of them and they were all together.’

The woman is listening, slightly lifting her head.

‘It isn’t easy to tell you what happened on that trip. But we know that conditions got suddenly very bad and that there was bad cloud for a long way. And we know that they had navigational difficulties and that they got a long way off their course. Even that might not have mattered, but as they were coming back the outer port engine went. Then the radio transmitter went, and the receiver. Everything went wrong. The wireless operator somehow got the transmitter and the receiver going again, but then they ran short of petrol. You see everything was against him.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘They came back the last hundred miles at about a thousand feet. But they trusted him completely, and he must have known they trusted him. A crew gets like that — flying together gives them this tremendous faith in each other.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘They trusted him to get them home and he got them home. Everything was against him. He feathered the outer starboard engine and then in spite of everything got. them down on two engines. It was a very good show. A very wonderful show.’

The man is silent, but the woman lifts her head. She looks at the Wing Commander for a moment or two, immobile, very steady, and then says, quite distinctly, ‘Please tell us the rest.’

‘There is not much,’ he says. ‘It was a very wonderful flight, but they were out of luck. They were up against all the bad luck in the world. When they came to land they couldn’t see the flarepath very well, but he got them down. And then, as if they hadn’t had enough, they came down slightly off the runway and hit an obstruction. Even then they didn’t crash badly. But it must have thrown him, and he must have hit his head somewhere with great force, and that was the end.’

‘Yes, sir. And the others?’ the man says.

‘They were all right. Even the second pilot. I wish you could have talked to them. It would have helped if you could have talked to them. They know that he brought them home. They know that they owe everything to him.’

‘Yes, sir.’

The Wing Commander does not speak, and the man very slowly puts the fur over the woman’s shoulders. It is like a signal for her to get up, and as she gets to her feet the man stands up too, straightening himself, no longer leaning on the umbrella.

‘I haven’t been able to tell you much,’ the Wing Commander says. ‘It’s just the way it is.’

‘It’s everything,’ the man says.

For a moment the woman still does not speak, but now she stands quite erect. Her eyes are quite clear and her lips, when she does speak at last, are quite calm and firm.

‘I know now that we all owe something to him,’ she says. ‘Good-bye.’

‘Good-bye, madam.’

‘Good-bye, sir,’ the man says.

‘You are all right for transport?’

‘Yes, sir. We have a taxi.’

‘Good. The sergeant will take you back.’

‘ Good-bye, sir. Thank you.’

‘Good-bye,’ the woman says.

‘Good-bye.’

They go out of the office. The sergeant meets them at the outer door and the man puts up the umbrella against the rain. They walk away along the wet perimeter, dwarfed once again by the gray-green noses of the Stirlings. They walk steadfastly, almost proudly, and the man holds the umbrella a little higher than before, and the woman, keeping up with him now, lifts her head.

And the Wing Commander, watching them from the window, momentarily holds his face in his hands.