The Tears of Autumn

The Tears of Autumn

by David Wiltshire

Hardcover

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780709084068
Publisher: Hale, Robert Limited
Publication date: 11/30/2007
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x (h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

David Wiltshire is the author of Beneath Us the Stars, Enduring Passions, and Nightmare Man, which was adapted for television by the BBC.

Read an Excerpt

The Tears of Autumn


By David Wiltshire

Robert Hale Limited

Copyright © 2007 David Wiltshire
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7090-9931-4


CHAPTER 1

He looked up at the stained-glass window. Through the little panes the sun was falling in dusty rays on to the flagstones of the church, the patches of reds, blues and greens shimmering as a leafy tree outside moved in a gentle breeze.

It had been just like that twenty years ago for his service. His gaze moved to a side wall, at the memorial plaques to long-gone bishops and other dead worthies, and from there ascended to the laid-up colours of the local regiments, some dirty and shot-torn in battles long forgotten.

His eyes alighted on the faded blue Colour with its Union Flag in one corner, and red, white and blue rondel in the centre, placed there when the bomber station five miles out of town was finally closed in 1946.

It had been his old service.

His attention came back to the lines of chairs. They were filled up now, the women mostly in hats of all shapes and sizes, some little more than a few skimpy feathers, others so large-brimmed that he couldn't see their owners' faces.

The men were mostly in suits or blazers, with the odd dark-blue number one uniform with Sam Browne, and red stripes down the trouser-legs, dotted amongst them.

Not a badly turned-out bunch.

He was seated near the front and to the right of the congregation. The first few rows of chairs were empty, awaiting the main participants in the annual ceremony that had been going on for 1,000 years. His attention went to the lady sitting all alone in the front row to the left, just one empty chair beside her.

She was very beautiful. He smiled: almost as beautiful as his wife when she had sat there.

The cry 'All Stand' rang out. Everybody rose, the man to his right helping him shakily to his eighty-eight-year-old feet.

Led by the mace bearer, the procession of civic dignitaries, the mayor in his ermine-trimmed robe with tricorn hat under his arm, followed by officers of the county and borough with chains hanging from their shoulders, solemnly took their seats.

After the civic procession there was a slight pause while they remained standing, then the crucifer headed the church procession. The choir came first, then the representatives of all the religious faiths of the town. Last of all the church wardens led the Right Reverend Thomas Fullwood, bishop of the diocese, and his chaplain to their seats in the nave.

Everybody sat down again. He loved the pageantry and the feeling of continuity that this ceremony gave. It had been going on since Saxon times – as his wife had gleefully pointed out when he had tried on his silk hose and breeches, ruffle and velvet jacket that dated from the eighteenth century. He smiled as he remembered joking about his sword, and the time when his name had been 'pricked' by Her Majesty when he had been put forward for the office – a tradition inaugurated by her namesake when apparently a quill was not at hand when the petition was presented to her, and she had used a dagger.

Ah, how his wife would have loved being here today. His throat started to ache. She had died a few months ago, and as he was a past holder of the office, would have been invited to attend today beside him. Further thought was interrupted as a fanfare of trumpets rang out.

Led by the vicar of St Paul's, the four purple-robed and bewigged crown court judges were followed by the high sheriffs of surrounding counties, then the coroner, the under sheriff, the chief constable, the chaplain and, bringing up the rear, the man whose service this was. He joined his waiting wife as he had done twenty years before.

They remained standing as the high sheriff's service for Her Majesty's judges in the county commenced with the processional hymn to the tune of Hanover.

Later, after the readings given by the incumbent's children, the congregation stood to sing. The hymn was one of his favourites. His voice was thinner than it used to be, but he sang with gusto.

We plough the fields and scatter, the good seed on the land.

Very appropriate he thought. The man was a farmer and seed merchant, and he noticed in the programme that it was being sung to Wir pflügen, the setting by J.A.P. Schültz.

That too, would have pleased his wife.

After another hymn and prayers, the Bishop ascended to the pulpit, and preached on the need for everyone, the judges included – and perhaps especially them, to remember that they would one day all stand before the judgment-seat of God.

He began to think of his war. He'd killed: sometimes women and children, there could be no getting away from that fact. The innocent had been caught up and ensnared by the evil that had been at the heart of the darkness that they had fought in order to reach Churchill's 'sunny uplands'.

He'd been so lost in his own thoughts that it came as a shock when another fanfare heralded the need to stand and sing the National Anthem. The service was finished. With them still standing the crucifer led out the choir and the church procession, then the mace-bearer and the civic dignitaries, and lastly the high sheriff's party including his wife, led by the vicar of St Paul's.

It was over for another year.

Across the road at the town hall, drinks were dispensed to the large crowd that grew increasingly noisy as the wine was consumed.

Several friends and acquaintances came up to him to shake his hand. In the end his legs couldn't hold out any longer and he had to sit down on a chair set against the wall. His mind began to drift again. It was at a do somewhat like this that he had first met Rosemary.

It was in the mess one summer, pre-war evening. Of course, before that there had been all the thrill of leaving school and going to Cranwell. He'd already been infected by the bug of flying when a friend of his father had taken him up. To this day he wasn't sure whether the man was just naturally wild, or had his father asked him to try and put him off because he wanted his son to join him in the family engineering business.

After a succession of spins, loops and rolls he'd set foot on terra firma again, even more in love with flying than before. He was just one of a generation of young men for whom, in the thirties, the lure and excitement of the skies was overpowering.

So in the autumn of 1937 he entered Cranwell as an officer cadet, and after passing out as a pilot officer, the lowest of the low, he'd been sent on his preliminary flying training course comprising twenty-five hours of dual instruction and a further twenty-five hours solo. The aircraft was an all-metal Blackburn B2 biplane, and where he had expected to be sitting behind the instructor in a separate cockpit in the usual way, he was surprised to find that they were sitting side by side. His instructor was a Flight Lieutenant Johnson who, after eleven hours and twenty minutes of taxiing, flying straight and level, taking off and climbing into the wind, turns, spinning and stall recovery, spent a final twenty minutes with him doing circuits and bumps, then climbed out of the cockpit and told him to do a circuit and land on his own.

To begin with it was unnerving, that empty seat beside him, but once he was up in the air, over the patchwork fields of England, he felt a glorious freedom. He made it down without incident.

He'd soloed.

There followed more instruction, including aerobatics, side-slipping, instrument flying and finally a solo cross-country flight.

When his assessment came through it spoke of above average, but with a tendency to be rigid. But it was good enough.

His mother and father attended his 'Wings Ceremony', and when his name was called 'Pilot Officer Jack Banks', he marched smartly up to the Air Commodore, saluted, was presented with his wings, said something that he couldn't later recall, before taking one step back, throwing up a snappy salute, turning, and marching off.

He was conscious that his mother and father were in the audience, and felt immensely proud – and mature.

They'd brought his sister who had a friend with her. Before the ceremony he hadn't seen any of them; he'd been too busy with all the others making sure he was turned out immaculately, and it was only later, in the mess as drinks were served by stewards dressed in white jackets, that he had set eyes on his sister's friend – and all the excitement of the day seemed to pale into insignificance. As he took her white-cotton-gloved hand and looked into her wide blue eyes he felt as if he'd just pushed the stick forward and the pit of his stomach had come up into his mouth. She was so beautiful: slim and elegant in a belted summer dress that showed off her tiny waist. She wore a simple wide-brimmed hat with a silk scarf tied around it and trailing down her back. A few curls of blonde hair framed her oval face, with its little turned-up nose and red lips. Jack Banks was smitten.

'How do you do, Miss ...?'

He couldn't take his eyes off her as his voice tailed away.

'This is Rosemary,' chuckled his sister, and to her, 'and this is my big brother, Jack.'

It was a joke between them, since he was only five foot nine and a half inches tall, to his sister's five foot eight – without her heels. But he was powerfully built, and boxed and played at scrum half both at school and now in the RAF.

Rosemary smiled, little lines radiating out from those glorious eyes.

He continued holding on to her and grinning like an idiot.

'Jack.'

It was his laughing sister, nodding at his hand.

'Oh, sorry.'

Embarrassed he took it away, but kept his eyes on her. Rosemary said: 'Congratulations, you must be very pleased.'

He loved her voice. His own was, to his annoyance, more of a croak.

'Oh, it's fine.'

Another pilot officer started to edge past, accidentally coming between them. The man's interest in Rosemary was obvious, but he said over his shoulder: 'Sorry, Biff.' Still looking at her he moved on into the crowd.

She put her head quizzically on one side.

'Biff?'

He shuffled his feet in embarrassment.

'My nickname.'

Her pearly-white teeth were exposed as she laughed. 'But why Biff?'

'Rhymes with Banks – as in Biffer Banks.'

'Is that all?'

Sheepishly he said: 'I've had some success in the boxing ring.'

'Oh.' She looked a little concerned.

Quickly he explained. 'Only amateur stuff – did it at school – we had to, and you know what boys are – hence Biffer.'

'Have you ever knocked anybody out?'

Worried that he would give the wrong answer, the one that would displease her the most, he hesitated before answering sheepishly.

'Well – just the once.'

She looked at him from under the brim of her hat and raised one eyebrow. 'I thought that sort of thing didn't happen in school boxing.'

'It didn't.'

He realized that he had to explain when she continued to look quizzically at him.

Jack Banks felt quite unnerved by this girl. Every little move she made captivated him.

'Well – it was only a few months ago – against the Navy – a stoker actually.'

Her eyes widened.

'Gosh, they're quite tough, aren't they?'

He nodded. 'Yes – we lost four bouts to one.' Modestly he added, 'It's because I'm a southpaw really. I just caught him with a lucky punch.'

When he saw the concerned look on her face he added hurriedly: 'He was only out for a few seconds, just dazed, really.'

He didn't tell her that it had been a real slugging match and he'd been losing on points, aching and winded by very severe punishment to his body. So when the opportunity came he took it – brutally. His uppercut had slammed home, snapping the man's head back. His body had folded up like a puppet with the strings cut. The packed hangar had gone wild.

And so 'Biffer' – and thence the diminutive 'Biff' had been born once again and he knew that in the Air Force he would always be called it and was resigned to the fact that probably it would stick for ever.

'Can I get you another drink?'

He nodded at her nearly empty glass.

She looked at it herself before seeming to make up her mind. 'I'd like something non-alcoholic if that's possible?'

'Of course.' He caught the attention of one of the mess stewards who offered an orange squash on his tray.

His sister, who had seen the interest her brother had in her new friend whom she'd met when she had joined a solicitor's office in town, now decided to tease him – and her – because she knew enough about Rosemary to see that she was quite taken by Jack.

'Now then, you two, don't forget the rest of us, will you.'

Both of them went bright red, so much so that Elizabeth Banks regretted drawing attention to them, and tried to change the subject.

'Are you coming home this weekend, brother mine?'

'Yes, of course. I've got two weeks' leave before I start the next course.'

His sister doubted that he had intended to come home straight away, at least, not ten minutes ago. He probably would have been going off with some crowd on a cricket or rowing tour.

She smiled cunningly. 'That's good. Would you partner me then at the Peacocks? They're having a tennis party on the Saturday.'

Just then his mother and father emerged from the crowd.

'Darling, there you are.' His mother, despite the warmth of the day, was in a grey suit and a little blue hat with a net that covered her eyes, and a fox-fur stole around her shoulders, the fox's head and eyes looking dolefully at him.

'Squadron Leader Holmes has been most kind to us. He thinks you might be going to Duxford, dear.'

He groaned. 'Oh mother, you haven't been bothering him, have you?'

'Certainly not. Don't be so sensitive. Father – tell him.'

His father, dressed in a dark-blue blazer and a cravat in the regimental colours of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers – he'd served at Gallipoli in the slaughter that had been 'V' beach – cleared his throat and gave a twitch of his small moustache. 'Your mother's been at her most charming, Jack. Had the squadron leader eating out of her hand.'

That he could well imagine. He had always been aware of her good looks, and when they came to take him home at the end of school terms, he'd been conscious of the other boys and some of the masters showing off in front of her.

And now he had met a girl and he was the one in thrall to a woman's beauty.

'Sorry,' he mumbled.

She put a hand on his arm.

'Nothing to be sorry about dear. I'm so proud of you.' She turned to the girls. 'I see you've met Rosemary.' There was a twinkle in her eyes. She had guessed that her son would find his sister's new friend attractive.

Elizabeth piped up. 'I've just asked Jack if he'll come home this weekend and join the tennis party at the Peacocks on Saturday – isn't that so, Jack? What do you say?'

He looked at Rosemary.

'Will you be there?'

The blue eyes twinkled mischievously.

'Oh, yes, most definitely.'

His sister laughed at him as his face showed his delight.

'Don't be flattered, Biff,' she said 'Biff' with heavy emphasis, 'Rosemary's surname is Peacock.'

He must have looked so crestfallen that Rosemary took pity on him and said: 'My mixed doubles partner can't make it, and Elizabeth tells me you're enthusiastic, if not very talented. Would you consider partnering me?'

Would he!

'Of course – it would be a pleasure.'

'Good.'

In mock shock Elizabeth said to Rosemary, 'Oh, you little toad, I asked him first.'

He spent the rest of the reception looking at her, being moonstruck, as his sister said, and every time some of his fellow officers crowded in he grew terribly jealous, afraid he'd lose her.

At last his father said it was time to leave.

'I'll see you on Saturday then, Miss Peacock.'

'Please – call me Rosemary.'

He did so. 'Rosemary.' It sounded wonderful.

She smiled. 'We're starting at eleven and there's luncheon and high tea. We'll be on third, I think. We can have a knock-up on the back court first.'

'Right.'

She held out her hand.

'Goodbye – and congratulations again.'

He took the slim gloved hand.

'Thank you. I'll do my best on Saturday.'

She gave him a smile, eyes twinkling.

'I'm sure you will.'

His mother suddenly enveloped him in a hug and kissed him on both cheeks, and his father followed with a fine handshake and an affectionate pat on the shoulder.

'Well done, my boy. We knew you would do it.'

Which was more than he had thought at one point. His sister gave him a peck on the cheek as well, and whispered in his ear.

'Rosemary's a good friend. You behave yourself, now – no messing her around.'


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Tears of Autumn by David Wiltshire. Copyright © 2007 David Wiltshire. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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