Two Village Ghosts, Haunting Still

February 13, 2018

When you are a child both the physical appearance of adults and their behavior towards you leave lasting impressions. And the appearance and behavior of several men who lived in the village where I spent ten years as a child and teenager did just that. So deep were these particular impressions that I can recall them without difficulty, even now, decades later. Indeed, more than half a century later, though doubtless some details may have faded without my knowing.Kent, Riverhead, The Square

While these memories are mostly pleasant, there was one that was distinctly unpleasant, and two that I shall call ghosts and who presented more enigmatic examples.

My village in Southern England lay under the flight path of Luftwaffe bombers on their way to destroy London in the Second War. They were escorted there and back by fighter planes. Messerschmitt Bf109s and Focke Wulf 190s. The RAF sent its Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes to shoot down both the bombers and their escorts. The RAF succeeded in halting the immediate threat to England in what came to be known as the Battle of Britain. In those years the countryside was littered with the wreckage of that fight. Planes, ordnance live and spent, and bodies of both sides had fallen to earth near my home. One estimate claimed that nearly three thousand Luftwaffe aircraft had been shot down in this short but critical fight. The government actually established an aircraft metal recovery depot a few miles to the west.

I did not witness any of this. I moved there in 1955 aged nine, when England was still attempting to put itself back together again, and much of the debris of war had been cleaned up. But a piece of it, a man, remained very close to my home. My first ghost.

He always wore a tan raincoat, gloves, a brown felt hat, and sunglasses no matter the season. One could only see part of his face. The skin was almost white and stretched tight in a grimace, the lips a strange unnatural shade. It was the reconstructed face of an airman burned in a crash. Reconstructed by Sir Archibald McIndoe, the pioneering plastic surgeon. The story told by ever imaginative village boys was that he was part of the crew of a Luftwaffe bomber that crashed into a local lake, and after being treated for burns chose not to be repatriated at the end of the war, but live out his life in the very place where he had come down. It seems more likely he was RAF Pilot Officer Noble who had parachuted into the lake when his Hurricane was shot down on September 1, 1940, but the Luftwaffe story stuck. I never heard his name then, or knew where he lived, or heard him speak, and seemed always to be far away. But I can always recall the fear his infrequent appearances around a corner would cause me; a small boy. This harmless and sad ghost.riverhead-the-beehive-inn-c1950_r319001

My second ghost was very different, but in measure equally sad. He was a deaf mute. Short and with a twist in his body. He was badly dressed and walked with a stumbling gait. I knew where he lived, and back then may have even known his name. He was often in the village, sent there on errands by his family or caregivers, with a list and cash, to the grocer and the butcher. But I think he wandered and was often lost or gave that appearance. He could not speak but made loud guttural noises. These almost animal sounds frightened me, but on occasion I overcame that fear to hold his arm and lead him across the not so busy street after he had stood waiting for help at the pedestrian crossing in the middle of the village. The noise he made as we reached the other side was I suppose a thank you, but as a nervous child I made my getaway quickly. Now, years later, I wonder what kind of intellect may have been trapped inside that body. Was he another sort of Christie Brown (My Left Foot) or an accident of procreation?

I lived in that village from 1955 to 1965 when I left for my first job and College. Not once in those ten years did I ever see these two ghosts, these sad humans, in the village at the same time. An unconscious partition of haunting duties perhaps. Plainly they are still haunting me but on a more relaxed and distant schedule.

 

 

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