Lou, I'm having great fun with the reunion story. I loved your last episode. Hasse, terrific continuation of Julius's story and a really interesting photograph. Wonderful to have you back. HarryH, that's quite a character on your machine. If Lazlo is anything like the image, you need to visit the Mercedes works with a special order. Carrick, if I were Keith I'd never want to get better. Fullofit, you're very close to a milestone. Take care.
The few days in Salisbury continue.
An Airman’s Odyssey – by Capt James Arthur Collins, VC, MC
Part Sixty-Nine: In which I go fishing for Alex
Now, when I feel an odd tingling in my cheeks I know my bloodstream is warning me that it’s time to switch to lemonade, but the second bottle of champagne was better than the first and the port sat on the table making goo-goo eyes at me while Alex spent the whole damned evening batting her eyes at Swanson and taking notes. “Ooh Swany, that must have been terrifying!” “Ooh Swany, and what did the General say to you then?” “Ooh Swany, how did you know they were Chippewa?” At one point I excused myself and sat in the tiny toilet of the Haunch of Venison with my head between my knees, hoping that the place would stop spinning. It didn't work. I made my way gingerly to the downstairs bar and asked the fellow at the taps to send a message that I’d been called away. The journey across Poultry Cross, down the lane and over the high street to the Old George was long and perilous. Once past the desk with a cheery wave and a manly “Gah ebenin’,” I climbed the stairs, pausing briefly to consider sleeping on the landing. But I made it to my room, left a trail of uniform items from door to bedside, and was asleep before I hit the covers.
I woke briefly in pitch darkness to stroll down the hall to hurl my steak and kidney pie and Stilton and bless Thomas Crapper & Co for their achievements. Much enlivened, I weaved my way back down the hall to my open door and this time tucked myself in. Some demon pounded on my door at nine. It was, of course, Swanson. He was dressed in a woolen shirt, dungarees with braces, and Wellington boots. “We’re going fishin’,” he announced.
“Oh dear God,” I said joyfully.
Swany sat in an armchair while I washed and shaved and tried to comb my hair. I didn’t have the right clothes for fishing so I put on my uniform with the maternity jacket, slacks, and shoes. I watched him in the mirror while I asked how he liked Alex.
“Not too bad for a city girl.” Swany was nothing if not understated, so I knew Alex had him beguiled. “She shore asks a lot of questions, she does.” After a few minutes he said, “We met a man at the Haunch of Venison, Thompson. Dey call him a river-keeper. He works for a guy named Lord Bath and da lord has a big place near here wit good fishin’ – fly fishin’.”
“Can you fly fish?” I asked.
“Ja, you betcha. Alex said she always wanted to fish like dat,” said Swany. He explained that the hotel had arranged for the fishing gear and he had directions.
There are some things that if not learned from one’s father, one never learns at all. How to play bridge, for example. Skin a rabbit. Fly fish – that one is certain. They are things that take too much time for anyone else to teach or things that need a change of clothes after. My father was up in the Yukon most of my childhood. I had never cast a line in my life.
I had scarcely time to wolf down a piece of dry toast and some tea downstairs, and then the three of us were loading the car. Alex wore a pair of high-waisted corduroys and a plain white blouse. She carried a bulky knitted sweater and wore a wide-brimmed straw hat with a green ribbon. I started the motor and to my relief, she jumped in beside me while Swany got in the back alone. “What happened to you last night?” she asked.
“Problem back in North Weald,” I lied.
“Is North Weald feeling better this morning?” she asked with an evil smile.
“North Weald is bloody marvellous,” I said.
Alex read the directions while Swany regaled her with tales of my goose-hunting prowess in Flanders alongside my trusty sidekick Sergeant Wilson. We came a half-hour later to a vast estate, the signposts telling us it was called Longleat. Longleat house was enormous Elizabethan manor of palatial dimension. The house proper was serving as a relief hospital. Recovering soldiers in badly-cut blue tunics walked or sat in deck chairs on the lawn, while nursing sisters hovered about. We paused on the drive to speak with a fellow walking several fine dogs. He directed us to a side building close by the main house. There we would find Mr. Thompson.
Longleat House, c. 1916
Thompson was a splendid man, middle-aged, with a massive moustache and bushy eyebrows. He was all tweed and worsted and patches, the perfect English man of the country. He directed us to follow him and, mounting a horse, led us past sheep pastures and barns and villages and copses to a broad meadow where the trees were turning colour and dropping their leaves into the winding Avon. There brown trout awaited our cast. He told us we could bring our catch to the house and he would have the staff prepare our lunch. Swany tied our flies – orange mayfly – on and immediately began casting lessons. He was having the time of his life and Alex was laughing merrily. I buried my hook in the front tyre of the Vauxhall and missed the advanced lessons.
Swany ribbed me mercilessly and I answered him with unfettered profanity. Alex was, thankfully, entertained by this. She caught on to fly fishing very well and actually landed a trout but it was too small to keep. I lost two flies to branches across the stream and grew accomplished in replacing them quickly from the leather fly case we had been given. By one o’clock the sun was warming the grassy banks and the fish were no longer seen splashing as they had before. I excused myself and drove back to the house. I found Thompson and promised him that I would leave a prepaid ten-pound chit at the Haunch’s bar if he’d be good enough to see we didn’t starve. He asked me to give him a few minutes and he disappeared into a side entrance. I had a smoke and walked in the gravel drive. Thompson returned a quarter-hour later with a large hamper and a blanket, declaring us all set.
I drove back and spread the blanket, announcing my “catch.” Three glasses, two bottles of chilled Muscadet, a battalion’s worth of smoked salmon sandwiches, lemon tarts, and tea in a vacuum flask. Alex proposed a toast to Jim Collins, champion in the catch of the day contest. Swany gave me a wink, silently acknowledging that the score in the struggle for Alex’s attention was now one-all.
The sun straining through a willow speckled the grass, cows lowed in the far fields, white clouds scudded across a cerulean sky, and Alex caught a stray wisp of hair and tucked it behind her ear. Tomorrow I was back to London, but today I was here.