Having pondered for a long time on how to write my family’s stories – and mine, I have begun to employ creative non-fiction; I take the outline and then colour it in and add extra details. Yes, I have to make up a lot but the bones are there, and I’m never trying to deceive, I’m not pretending that what I write is exactly what happened. Yesterday I shared a story from my dad who died over twenty years ago. It was about going to a dog race after the war while he was waiting to be demobbed. He went with a friend called Darkus, who thought he knew a bit about dog racing and kept suggesting ‘winners’ to dad. My dad wasn’t a betting person, but he took a fancy to a dog named Needles, just liking the name. It was a poor old thing and Darkus couldn’t help but laugh at where dad had put his money. The ‘poor old thing’ came romping home and dad pocketed his winnings. Into that I wove another true story about Dad’s friend Eric who was a betting man, and after putting all his carefully saved winnings on a horse which came home with fantastic odds, took his new winnings and never bet again. I think Eric’s big win actually happened after the war, but I’ve pretended it was before so it could fit into the Darkus story – I have no idea what the horse was which won whatever race it was so I chose the 1938 winner of the Epsom Derby.
I have another of Dad’s stories I would like to retell but it is more complicated as I’m not sure of all the details, and think some of it has been overlaid with a story by T.E. Lawrence. My dad’s story happened while he was in the parachute regiment during the war; at the time of this particular tale he was in North Africa – I can’t remember which country he was in, I’m guessing Egypt.
One of his friends was a mysterious man, and I can’t remember his name – only that probably it was a false name. Dad was a bloke who always had friends, not that he was one of those people who was the most popular but he always had mates, and this nameless man, let’s call him Ellis, was a mate. He was brave and tough and strong and handsome except for a scar down one cheek and whenever any of the Egyptian people saw it they would make a cutting motion with their hand and say ‘Arab’ – as if to say he’d been cut by an Arab saif (sword)
On one occasion Ellis got a couple of horses and he and dad rode off into the desert. Dad thought they were just going for a ride but it soon became apparent that they were going somewhere and they ended up in an Arab camp at an oasis. Ellis went away with some men and dad was given food and tea by some others. He felt perfectly safe and they were very hospitable even though they spoke no English… I can’t remember whether they stayed overnight (this is where the memory is muddled with the Lawrence story) but Ellis returned and they got back on their horses and went back to camp.
Dad didn’t ask where Ellis had gone or what had happened, and this was probably why Ellis trusted him as a friend, he wasn’t nosy and he would keep a confidence. Some time later, along with the rest of the parachute squad (is that what they’re called?) they were heading somewhere for a drop. I don’t know if it was a practice or if it was an active mission – if it was it could have been in Greece or Italy or North Africa. The soldiers were all on a line, so they didn’t actually pull their chutes open; they jumped on command out of a hatch – when I say jumped, they were more like thrown out by the sergeant who was what you might call a jump-master. They sat in a row and edged along as the people in front jumped.
It got to Ellis and he refused to jump; the jump-master grabbed him and threw him aside into the body of the aircraft. Dad jumped… and he never saw Ellis again. This was mighty odd. Ellis was fearless and loved parachuting and it was odd that when they got back to camp he had disappeared and all his things too, as if he had never existed. There must have been a lot of gossip, and the general opinion was that he’d been put in a military prison. Dad didn’t speculate with the others, but privately he thought Ellis was on some sort of secret mission. He couldn’t just leave the regiment, it would have seemed odd, but refusing to jump was a way of whoever ‘controlled‘ him could get him out and then sent elsewhere.
I’m sure everyone says this about their parents’ stories, but I do wish I’d written it down at the time – even just odd notes!
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