By Rayna, 77. Sandy Beach, NSW
As the sun dips on the horizon, Harry slowly places the binoculars back in their case. His arms ache and his eyes sting from scanning the skies all afternoon. Knowing there won’t be any sign of him now, he trudges back to his cottage. Charlie never flies at night.
His wife, Mavis, is setting the table when she hears his heavy footsteps and the back door creak open. There’s no need to ask. One look at Harry’s face is enough.
“He’ll be okay, he’s probably just been held up. You’ll see. He’ll be home tomorrow. Look what the butcher had for me this morning,” she chirps, placing two sausages on the table in front of him. He pushes the plate away, lumbers into the sitting room and switches on the wireless.
The announcer’s dull voice is giving an update of last night’s raids by the Luftwaffe. This time it was the east coast just south of London that took the pounding. Charlie’s route. Harry hauls himself to his feet and draws the blackout curtains.
Walking in, wiping her hands on her apron, Mavis says, “How about a game of rummy?” But Harry shakes his head and heads for the bedroom.
Awake at first light, Harry eases himself out of bed and opens the blackout curtains. Rain clouds are rolling across the sky, blocking out the sun. He wipes his eyes with the palm of his hand and turns to Mavis.
“What hope’s Charlie got in this,” he says, pointing out the window.
Mavis sighs. “Come on love, how about I make you some porridge,” she says, and Harry follows her into the kitchen. Wandering outside onto the porch, the bowl in his hands, he sits in his old rocking chair, and as he scoops up spoonful’s, searches the grey sky.
“Here,” Mavis says, handing Harry his binoculars. Although he shakes his head he still takes them out of their bag and holds them to his eyes.
“It’s almost time,” she calls from the sitting room.
Joining her, he positions himself in front of the two way radio and puts on his headphones. The radio crackles and Harry picks up the hand piece.
“Cauliflower zero eight six. Do you copy?” the operator asks.
Pressing a button, Harry replies, “Copy. Parsnip four nine zero. Missing. Over.”
“Left at zero eight hours yesterday. Over.”
“Copy. Over,” Harry replies.
Harry replaces the receiver and removes the head phones. He’s never really gotten used to all this code talk, all he knows is that Charlie is missing.
Sighing, he shuffles out to the porch and picks up the binoculars. Visibility is down to around one hundred yards as he strains his eyes through grey clouds. He’s not about to give up on Charlie. Not yet.
By early afternoon the clouds clear. Resting his elbows on the porch railing, he’s staring through his binoculars when he hears a bell ringing. It’s Stan, the local Post Master and member of the Home Guard pedalling up their driveway. He props his bicycle against the picket fence, waves, then strides toward Harry.
“Yer don’t look too good. What’s happened?” Stan asks as he reaches for Harry’s hand.
“It’s Charlie. He hasn’t made it back.”
“Christ. I don’t know what to say,” he mutters, patting his friend’s arm.
“There’s nothing you can say,” Harry replies, looking down at his worn-out slippers.
Hearing voices, Mavis walks out, “Hi Stan. Wanna cup of tea?”
“Nah, but thanks love. Betta keep goin’. Good luck with Charlie,” he says, picks up his bicycle and rides off down the driveway.
“Supper’s ready,” Mavis calls, and Harry ambles into the kitchen. “No luck with sausages today, but I did manage to get four ounces of butter,” she says, dishing up a bowl of broth she’s made from turnips and carrots. Harry butters a chunk of bread and wanders into the sitting room, he leaves the wireless off—he’s feeling depressed enough.
Early next morning, as Harry hitches Jock up to the cart, he calls, “‘I’m going out to look for Charlie. Should be back in a couple of hours.”
“Alright love. And stop worrying,” she replies, although she knows the chances are slim.
Heading home two hours later he turns off the track leading to their cottage and feels his heart pound. Mavis is holding binoculars to her eyes.
“Easy boy,” Harry says, and Jock slows down to a walk. “No need to rush.”
“Found two eggs in the chook house this morning. How about boiled eggs for supper?” she asks, and Harry nods. That night, despite the knot in his stomach, he enjoys the eggs.
Sitting in his rocking chair, Harry watches the sky change from pale-pink to bright-red tinged with gold as the sun sets. It’s going to be a fine, warm day tomorrow.
Settled in the sitting room, the wireless on, waiting for Mavis to play her next card, Harry hears a noise outside.
“Switch off the light! I think I heard Charlie!” Harry shouts, as he runs for the back door. Calling, “Charlie! Charlie!” he stumbles down the wooden steps, trips over a broom and lands face down.
“You alright Love?” Mavis calls, rushing out the door.
“I heard Charlie. I know I did,” he says, dragging himself to his feet.
At that moment, the moon appears and the back yard is briefly lit up.
“Mavis! Look! It’s Charlie. He’s come home,” he shouts and runs. “Charlie. I thought I’d lost you,” he pants, his eyes brimming with tears. One of his wings appears to be broken and his feathers are singed but he’s alive. Carefully scooping him up into his arms, Charlie rests his eyes on Harry, seeming to say, “I’m sorry.”
“Mavis, get some warm water and soap.”
An hour later, and all cleaned up, Harry inspects his wings. The left one is broken and one of the claws on his left foot is missing. After a life time of breeding homing pigeons, Harry knows how to tend to Charlie’s left wing. Nothing can be done about his claw. It’s retirement for Charlie. And Harry is secretly delighted. Sixteen missions are enough.
Two days later, hearing Harry’s voice, Mavis parts the lace curtains in the sitting room and smiles. There’s Harry, sitting in his old rocking chair, chatting away to Charlie who’s perched on his lap gazing into his eyes, listening to his every word, singing, “Co-roo-coo-coo,’” to let Harry know he understands.