The Flying Nightingale
Margaret’s friend Joseph visited her regularly in that lonesome hour between supper and bedtime. He always sat across from Margaret on the lounge suite.
“Do you know why I enjoy you coming, Joseph?” she asked him one night, early in their relationship. “It’s because you don’t know anything.”
Joseph raised an eyebrow.
“I mean, you don’t claim to know anything. You never jump in with advice or criticism. You just listen. That’s why I can tell you things.”
“Thank you,” Joseph murmured, with a nod.
Joseph talked quietly and his nodding was thoughtful and sensitive. Margaret knew nothing about his life. He never talked about himself. She didn’t ask where he came from or how he could materialize in her lounge.
She knew she felt safe with him. She deduced all she needed to know from his caring eyes, and from his ears, which heard and understood every word, including some she didn’t say.
When Joseph spoke, his words were gentle and timely. He seldom asked questions. Occasionally, he made a witty remark to ease Margaret’s tension.
He kept his shoes shiny and his hair combed, and sometimes Margaret saw cat hairs on his trouser legs. She liked that about him.
Each time he called, he stayed for about an hour, said good night and vanished.
Margaret told Joseph about her life. She was raised in London, an only child. Her parents died in the blitz. Margaret joined the RAF’s nursing service and after the Normandy landing, was one of the Flying Nightingales, nurses who flew on transports, often under fire, to evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefields.
“We weren’t allowed parachutes. If our plane got shot up and was going to crash, we had to stay with it to help any wounded who survived.”
She made a face.
“It was long ago, but seems like yesterday. Terrifying, dramatic, great days, just about forgotten now. Nobody around here has heard of the Flying Nightingales. I get blank looks.”
Margaret told Joseph about hideous things she had never spoken of before. Tears streamed from her eyes. She sobbed and shook. Joseph stood beside her and put his hand on her shoulder until she calmed herself and was able to continue.
“When it was over, I found peacetime harder than being at war. There’s aloneness in peace you don’t get in wartime, when you’re with your mates. The war was the best part of my life, despite the horror.”
In 1946, she married a New Zealander called Keith who’d been a stoker on merchant ships. They came to New Zealand, set up home in Dunedin and had two daughters, Jane and Helen, whom she referred to as Picky and Bossy. They were both doctors in Brisbane.
“They’ve only been to see me once since Keith’s funeral, four years ago!”
“It’s been scary on my own. But exciting, too.”
She told Joseph about her social life since Keith died. She had lots of new friends, old folk like herself, who had lost their partners and gathered in each other’s homes for tea, card and organ afternoons, and there were travel groups, outings and socials organized by the local church.
Among her friends, romance flourished and relationships formed.
Two men were interested in Margaret. Max, an eighty-three year old ex-carpenter, and Harold Cunningham, eighty-seven, who’d been in the RAF, flying transport aircraft. After the war, he’d bought a farm at Seacliff near Dunedin and despite his age was still farming.
Max was ‘alright,’ Margaret told Joseph, but she couldn’t quite ‘go him’, because he mixed up ‘done’ and ‘did.’ And he was three inches shorter.
“I can’t possibly go out with a man who says ‘I done this.’ And it wouldn’t seem right to be with a chap who’s shorter than I am.”
Anyway, she was more interested in Harold Cunningham, who was funny and exciting, a real RAF type, with a moustache to match. He visited several times a week and she could tell he really liked her.
Harold started taking her out to dinner and to the theatre. He had plenty of money, always paid for everything and was ‘quite a looker.’
“It’s great to be going out, far better than sitting at home alone.” She paused. “It just doesn’t seem right for an old duck like me to be running around with a man.”
“Why do you say that?” said Joseph.
“Keith, my husband, he was a nice man. He had a good life, what with his fishing and that.”
She stared at Joseph, searching his face.
“Sometimes I think I could’ve done better,” she whispered. “But I was always faithful to him — although there were opportunities.”
Joseph nodded. “Keith has gone. You were a faithful wife. No need to feel guilty. You’re alone in your twilight years. You have a second chance.”
“That’s how I feel! Why should I sit around on my own?”
“But I’m eighty-six, for heaven’s sake. What can Harold Cunningham see in me? I’m not a young teeny-bopper!”
“Neither is Harold. Anyway, you don’t act old. And you’re quite a sexy-looker, you know.”
Margaret blushed and chuckled. “But it’s not right. I should be in a rocking chair. I should be behaving myself, not flitting about all over the show.”
“Too many ‘shoulds’,” Joseph said, shaking his head.
Two months later Margaret had news for Joseph.
“Well, I’ve done it. It was sensational. Harold Cunningham stayed the night. It was fantastic! To fall asleep with his big arm around me. Marvellous!”
“Bravo,” said Joseph.
“So it’s alright, then?”
Margaret’s relationship with Harold Cunningham deepened. They stayed living in their separate houses but often spent nights together.
Now Joseph visited Margaret less and less often. It was Harold Cunningham who filled her lonely hours, holding her in his strong farmer’s arms and warming her heart.
Harold and Margaret spent many an evening reminiscing about their wartime days. For a short time in 1944 they’d been at the same airbase, and may have even flown together.
“Topping bunch of girls you were, you Flying Nightingales,” Harold exclaimed, his eyes shining.
They recalled the danger, the deaths, the comradeship, the gaiety and the parties. And the excitement of those days stirred once more in Margaret’s soul.
Joseph stopped coming. Margaret barely noticed, hardly gave him a thought, and eventually forgot him.
Margaret was in love with Harold Cunningham and could hardly believe how happy she was.
One day the district nurse called on her weekly visit and found Margaret motionless in her rocking chair. She had died of a heart attack, possibly some days before.
After the funeral, Margaret’s daughters were called to the lawyer’s office. They exchanged blank looks when informed their mother had left almost everything to her ‘best friend, Harold Cunningham, retired Wing Commander, RAF.’
The lawyer made enquiries and even hired a private detective but no trace of a Harold Cunningham was ever found.
Bruce Costello studied foreign languages and literature at the University of Canterbury, sold used cars for a few years, worked as a radio creative writer for seventeen years, trained in psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapy and spent 24 years in private practice as a counsellor in Dunedin. Two and a half years ago, he retreated with his wife to the seaside village of Hampden and joined the Waitaki Writers Group. He’s had five stories published in NZ and over a dozen overseas. He was shortlisted in the 2012 Victoria Cancer Council Art Awards.
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