I may have told you that I wouldn’t be posting any more of my next book, but you’ve all persuaded me, just one more mini chapter. Then no more. Absolutely.
I don’t have many memories of life when my mother was alive. She died when I was 7 and the only mental pictures I have of her are stolen from black and white photos, not real memories at all. But while I don’t remember her, I do remember some moments, some places and incidents from those years. My first memory, in 1952/3, is dramatic.
We had been airborne only an hour or so, as far as I remember. It was an Army transport plane, no frills, a big payload space below us somewhere but, in the cabin, seats and a basic crew who served only sandwiches and tea.
I was with the other small children at the front of the cabin, in a space that had been cleared for us, seats removed, sitting on the floor, surrounded by crayons and colouring books. The older ones, my brothers included, were reading comics, or talking, or bickering, playing hangman, already bored. The mums were at the back of the plane, probably (I think now) worn out by the early start, leaving our married quarters, piling onto the buses, rounding up tired children whenever we had stopped for toilet breaks, waiting for what seemed like hours at the airport, before boarding – at last – the plane that was taking us to the regiment’s next posting in Cyprus. I can imagine now that this was a lull in the mothers’ horribly busy day, a time for just sitting, or chatting, or grabbing a doze.
I don’t know who saw it first. It was certainly one of the older children, and it may even have been Martin, my brother. At 14, along with the other teenagers, he had the job of baby-sitting the rest of us. I was just four, so I don’t remember feeling any alarm at all, just interest, as if this, too, along with the colouring books, had been arranged to keep us occupied.
An engine on our four prop plane was on fire.
The news was shared first by the teens, in a sort of muted awe. We clambered on seats to look out of the window. Because of the shape of the plane, we couldn’t see the engine, but we could see the wing and the smoke, and the blur of part of a propeller that seemed to cut through the guttering flames. It was nowhere near as exciting as the teenagers were making out. Their voices were shrill and loud. One of them went to the adults to tell them, but his mother simply nodded, barely breaking from her conversation. The news bringer was insistent. He was pointing back down the plane, to the right wing, his eyes huge and his mouth open… still no one took any notice. Now we were all looking, not at the fire, but at the mothers, and some had gone back to poke their own Mums, to relay the news. One woman put her arm out, pulling her daughter towards her, comfortingly, but still listening to some anecdote, still deaf to our growing excitement. The flames were a bit more impressive now, and there was a trail of thick smoke whipping away into the sky. The women remained blind and deaf to the urgency and the gradually mounting sense of fear.
And then a member of the crew came into the cabin, a strong male voice above the hum of the engines, the laughter and chat, and at last heads were turned. An engine was on fire. The extinguisher had failed, but there was nothing to worry about. We had three other engines. One of the younger mums, holding her baby, said ‘But if you can’t put it out and it spreads?” The answer was controlling, managing, “We’ll land at Orly airport in about ten minutes. There’s no need for any concern.”
As we returned to our seats and were strapped in, as the crew instructed us to tuck our heads into our chests when the order came, as everything that was loose was stowed away, the fire spread to the other engine on that wing. Martin, tall enough to see what was going on, kept us fully informed, describing the flames and smoke growing thicker, fiercer, and now there didn’t seem to be any movement from either prop….maybe the engines had dropped off… maybe the wing was going to drop off… finally someone told him, quite forcibly, to give the running commentary a rest.
The plane was full of children and mothers, but we were Army brats and Army wives and there was no panic. Concern, and a resigned rueful sense of ‘More bloody queueing up then, more waiting around. I hope there’s a cup of tea at the end of it.’
The crash landing was impressive. As the plane made its approach, the order came to brace ourselves, so we didn’t see the runway coming up to meet us, but as soon as we’d felt the crash, jolt and bounce of the landing, every head was raised and Martin shouted excitedly to look, and so we did, those of us who could crane high enough to see…. As our plane sped down the runway, on one side of us (my side) there was a convoy of fire engines, racing alongside us, not keeping up with us, but there, in attendance, impressive. On the other side, I learned later, the side where we would be evacuating there was a similar convoy of ambulances.
I would love to tell you what it was like, evacuating that plane. I would love to tell you how mothers gathered children, and grabbed their belongings, how cabin crew carried babies, how we escaped through hastily opened doors, tumbling onto canvas chutes…. But I can’t remember that bit.
Memories that are 68 years old have blurred edges, but the central image, the event, is crystal clear. Frozen in time. I just wish with all my heart that I could remember my mother, she’s there, at the edge, almost real, almost Mary Gannon.