MOTHS AND BUTTERFLIES
September, the back garden is looking good in as much as it’s tidy. My dad is on a visit from South Africa. He’s a Scotsman who, after over 50 years in South Africa, still has a Scots accent. His views are tempered by surviving the Apartheid years and, like my sister, he is old white South African and all that implies, but to his credit were his trade unionist activities. Before he arrived I wondered what we would talk about and how we would deal with our differing views on South Africa, but now he was here it didn’t seem to be so important. I loved the man.
Ann and I had the week off work and awoke mornings to find him sat out back in his dressing gown under the gazebo, staring at blue skies criss-crossed with vapour trails, smoking endlessly and being fascinated by the butterflies attracted to the wild buddlea which overgrew each year beside the high fence on the left side of the garden. The days he was with us, started with me making us a cup of tea and taking it out to him, and then at the hint of a question long answers which filled my head with things I never knew about him. Ann, I think by design, left us to it, and some mornings gloriously just went on for ages – and then later I would try to remember our conversation for Ann, and fail miserably to capture the moment, making it all seem very pedestrian. Now several years later it is the occasion that has stayed, the detail has become fudged.
Upon my joking about his tattoo, and the fact that he’d always maintained he didn’t know what it was of, his mood changed. He was immediately serious with that so very familiar look of paternalistic reproval, catching me unawares, mid-chuckle and genuinely happy and in awe to be in his company after so many years. Too late I realised I was barefoot on eggshells, and more than a hint of annoyance edged his ‘OK I’ll tell you about it.’
Here is the potted version. He was in the RAF during the war and at one point was stationed in Montrose in Scotland. He was part of the groundcrew, a fitter, and him and his pals serviced Tiger Moths. This also meant going up on test flights. One of his friends (name?) went up and the plane crashed and he was killed. When this happened the others had to go and clear up the wreckage. On this occassion my dad got very drunk on the way to and from picking up bits of his friend, so drunk that he went off and had a tattoo done on his left arm, too drunk to later recall what the tattoo was of, and all that remains of that night is a large blue blurry mark on his arm as a constant reminder.
We sat in silence for a while and then turned our attention to the butterflies.