3rd April 1961
If humans had meant to fly they would’ve been born with rocket jets up their arses, War thought as the plane touched down at Idlewild Airport. He still regarded how these heavy hunks of metal hung in the air as some kind of witchcraft, even after Conquest had drawn several explanatory diagrams.
Just sixty years ago, humanity had started out with wood and paper aircraft tied together with string. Now they were strapping themselves to steel tubes filled with explosives and firing them willy-nilly into space. War was all for progress, but he sometimes wondered if they were getting ahead of themselves.
Back in London, Death had offered to give him a lift to New York, but this was a journey he decided should be made alone. Releasing his grip on the seat’s armrests, he dismantled the small fort he had built out of pillows and blankets over the last few hours. The plane came to rest outside the terminal. Sighing with relief, he unbuckled the seat belt with fumbling fingers.
He straightened his tie and smoothed his large red beard. By the time he’d reached the plane’s exit he’d regained his composure. He doffed his trilby to the stewardess who suggested that he have a nice day and descended the metal stairs. The passengers marched across the hot tarmac towards the new terminal building. With its curved lines and modern materials, it looked as if the architect hoped the rocket ships of the near future would soon stop here before taking their passengers to the moon and beyond.
A silver-haired driver stood just beyond the arrivals gate holding a sign with ‘MR WAUGH’ written in marker pen.
‘That’s me,’ War said, pointing to his name.
The driver tipped his peaked cap. ‘Good afternoon, sir. My name’s Argyll.’ A thick New Yoik accent. He’d already grabbed War’s suitcase when he asked, ‘Take that for you?’
Argyll led the way, moving smoothly between the bodies that crowded around the arrivals hall. ‘You a Brit? What brings you to the States? Business or pleasure?’
‘I’m visiting an old friend.’
‘This your first time?’
‘Oh, I’ve often been here,’ War replied. He’d hung out with Sir Walter Raleigh in Virginia. Witnessed the Salem Witch Trials. Fought in the Revolution and Civil War (Won one, lost one). And he was sure he’d won Rhode Island in a card game at some point.
War’s ride was a long black town car. Argyll placed the luggage in the boot as War slid into the backseat. Argyll climbed behind the steering wheel. ‘Where we going to?’
War pulled a piece of paper from his suit pocket and passed it over. Argyll read the scribbled address. ‘This is in the ‘burbs. You sure you wanna go here? I can show you some sights?’
‘I told you. I’m visiting an old friend.’
‘You’re the boss,’ Argyll said and steered the car towards the exit and onwards to the freeway. He looked at War in the rear view mirror. ‘Who’s this friend, if you don’t mind me asking? Old war buddy?’
War smiled to himself. ‘We were in a few scrapes together.’
‘I was in the Pacific. Man, the things I seen. But I reckon I don’t need to tell you.’
War shook his head. ‘You don’t.’
‘Where were you in Dubya Dubya Two?’
A sigh. ‘Everywhere.’
Argyll could sense that his passenger wasn’t the talkative type so turned his attention to the road.
War picked up a copy of the New York Times from a selection of newspapers arranged in a pocket on the back of the driver’s seat and thumbed through it until he grew bored.
He watched the city swell and rise in front of him. A new empire on the horizon. Scrubbed, shiny and brimming with optimism. That always made War uneasy. He was more comfortable with empires on the slide. He was usually the reason for their crumbling and he regarded it as a job well done. That’s why London felt like home.
The car skirted the edges of the city and soon the buildings shrank and levelled out until they plateaued into suburban homes. The grey and silver gave way to greens and browns. Two car driveways, climbing frames and kids on bicycles replaced the gridlock, offices and frazzled advertising executives.
Argyll had taken a few wrong turns (‘Sorry, Mr Waugh. This ain’t my usual parish.’) but soon they arrived at the address he’d been given. It was a two storey house with a porch at the end of a tarmac driveway. Well maintained, freshly painted with trimmed lawns. It didn’t look like much, but Argyll understood why an old soldier would travel three thousand miles to be here.
War hunched over his knees in the backseat. He looked pale and nervous.
‘You okay, sir?’ Argyll asked.
‘I’ll be fine. It’s just been a while, y’know?’
‘You didn’t shoot the guy in the foot or anything did ya?’
War chuckled and straightened up. ‘No, nothing like that. Argyll, will you do me a favour?’
‘This won’t take long. Will you wait for me?’
War leaned forward. ‘And then we’re getting really, really drunk.’
Argyll laughed, ‘Yep, that I sure can do.’
War patted him on the shoulder and stepped out of the car.
There she was.
Elizabeth sat in a rocking chair on the porch. Though she was over ninety years old, War could see the little girl she used to be in her smile.
He climbed the handful of steps. His heavy legs ached as if he’d walked to the top of the Empire State Building. His head swam. None of this appeared real. So many conflicting emotions, head and heart seeming as if they would simultaneously implode and burst out of his body. War didn’t understand how humans handled feeling like this all the bloody time.
He silently sat in the chair next to her. Between them, a small table with a jug of homemade lemonade and two empty glasses.
I’ve been expecting you, she said without moving her lips. War scratched the back of his head. It always made his brain itch when she did that.
‘You look well,’ he replied.
Elizabeth gazed out the corner of her eye. ‘I look old, War. You, however, haven’t aged a day.’
Her accent was unfamiliar. Distant. American. War realised a lifetime had passed between this moment and when he’d last heard her speak. Back then her voice had been full of dropped aitches and missing tees.
‘How have you been?’ he asked.
‘Fine. Would you like a drink?’
War was aware how dry his throat was. ‘Please.’
Elizabeth poured them each a glass of lemonade. He watched her delicate movements, the almost imperceptible strain of old muscles as she held the jug.
‘I often wonder if I made the right choice,’ he blurted out. ‘Were they good to you?’
Elizabeth leaned across and placed her hand in his. Her skin was dry and paper thin against his warm, fleshy palm. ‘Mother and father were lovely. I met a fine man. We had a wonderful time before he passed and our children and grandchildren turned out great.’
War smiled. ‘That’s good to know.’
‘Are your friends all right?’
‘You know us. We never change.’
Elizabeth squeezed his hand. ‘Oh, I think you do. Now, if you’re here either your other friends are no longer a threat to me or they think I’m no longer one to everyone else?’
War ignored the question. ‘Do you still have it?’
She took her hand back and pulled out a long silver necklace hidden under her floral dress. A small red and gold Christmas bauble dangled from it. Unable to help himself, War reached over and took it in his fingers. It was so fragile. One swift squeeze and it would shatter. He let it drop back onto Elizabeth’s chest.
‘I think it’s time you had it,’ she said. ‘You should keep it safe. I won’t be able to for much longer.’
War nodded and waved his glass. ‘I don’t suppose you have anything stronger?’
Elizabeth let out a laugh so huge War was surprised her small body could contain it. ‘I thought you’d never ask.’