|Foulsham Church, courtesy Stuart Borlase, May 2016|
The air was still, settled, calm ... and yet held a ripple of discontent. Who were these strangers entering its hallowed hall? Why had they come? What did they want?
The building was old, heavy with memories. It also held a sadness. Tears streaked its walls, imprinting the stone, leaving droplets of shadows marking the passage of Time.
Gently, reverently, we entered, stopping at the glass case where beneath its cover, a register of names caught my eye on the page of an open book. My hands reached to turn the pages back ... back ... back to a name which caught in my throat.
Flt/Lt Henry Victor Vinnell.
Stationed on the airfield just down the road at RAF Foulsham he probably wandered in through these same doors, walked the same way we had come. His eyes would have been drawn to the same stained glass window up ahead, and he might well have sat on one of the wooden pews to pause and reflect on what he hoped would be. Deep in the pocket of his heart where fear lurked, was a name that had become his world. With no family to call his own, already she was so much more than the young WAAF he had fallen in love with and was soon to marry ... please God! Silly really, that this WAAF could be jealous of the aircraft in which he flew and all because he spent so many more nights with it than she. 'N for Nina', a Mosquito IV, numbered DK292. It would be waiting for him now, being prepped for an op. He knew where he would preferred to be right now, and yet serving in the lead 192 Squadron under RAF 100 Group, Bomber Command, he was under orders. Until the war was over he was not a free man. But then they were already planning the wedding. He had the ring. Nina was his fiancee. Already his home was hers where they spent every Leave with her widowed mother. Soon, they would become Family, and they would look after and take good care of one another. Her mother, bless her, need never live in fear again. Their life would be almost complete ... almost ... because in time there would come children. And one day, he would return to this place and talk about his time here with them, teaching a new generation about the dangers of conflict and war. There must never be another. It had killed too many friends, colleagues, strangers, aircrew unable to save themselves when the enemy struck their aircraft high in the sky. This world needed to find its peace.
A shiver rippled the air.
Sitting in the front pew of the little village church I sensed suddenly I was not alone. A family entered through the door behind me. The lady wore a soft smile on her face, and she was looking at me with the eyes of someone who already knew my thoughts. As she approached, I stood up, and she introduced herself and I to her. Names. What were they but vessels filled with life, experience, knowledge, truths as yet unspoken. Somewhere in the far corner, children were playing. Her grandchildren. Her daughter stood off to one side. An onlooker. While her husband talked quietly to my companion Stuart. A stone mason, the man had run his hands gently over the ancient stones of the building, feeling its sadness, the pain of neglect, wishing he could heal its emotions. It was in a bad state of disrepair. The village, made up of few people, did their best. But this icon of history needed so much more to restore and give it back life.
Time stilled. It was as if everything around me was happening in slow motion. I felt caught in a place between past and present. The lady sat beside me, and suddenly I was enveloped with a huge wave of love, drowning me in tears. It reached deep into my soul while she stroked my neck, my back, holding me to her, reassuring me, telling me that those of the past were gathering round me, telling me it wasn't yet time for me to cross over, I still had so much more work to do. Knowing nothing about me, the words made little sense to her. She was simply the portal through which this message came. But it was nonetheless real ... heart-stoppingly real as I realised what her words meant. She said they were thanking me for keeping their memory alive, ensuring they never be forgotten, and yet still, my work was not yet done. This then was the message of the moment, the one, in truth, she had come so many miles to deliver from some other place ... beyond where we were right now.
Jacqui lives in Australia, not far from where my companion lives. Strange ... yet true. She and her family had travelled to Essex because her brother was dying. They needed to be there for him at the end. Assured he had time, their plan was to spend their days with him over the next few weeks, until finally, after he was gone, they would return home. But then, he passed sooner rather than later. They were caught off guard. Death isn't an exact science. It can creep up on us unawares. Suddenly, he was gone.
But then Jacqui suddenly knew she needed to be, not in Essex, but in Norfolk. She couldn't explain why. They had never been here before, yet somehow, that morning, they had been drawn to the church in Foulsham. More than Happenstance, it was a Meant-to-Be. We met. Our paths crossed and intertwined. And together we sat on the pew, talking and sharing as if we had known one another all our lives. Soulmates. In the time we shared, she felt so close, so vibrant, so filled with secrets and messages of hope, and the un-explainable fact was that she had come to pass on messages meant for me.
Vic and Jack his Canadian friend and pilot were close. I could feel them even as we sat together on the pew. A shaft of sunlight fell across the floor, for moments blocking sight of the door. I knew we weren't alone. Not just because there were other people ... her family, my companion ... waiting beyond. But again came this tsunami of emotion, great waves of love cradled me, urging me to speak their names aloud, to tell their stories, to write as I never had before.
The veil lifted. We had shared all there was to say. Our meeting was not about words, but something more ... something beyond words which even now I struggle to explain. But I know the way it was, and it reassured me.
I gave her a copy of the book Nina, my mother, and I had written together: 'Nina & Vic - A World War II Love Story' ... the book Vic had promised he would write once war was done. It was his passion to become an author. To tell the stories as I am doing now, of people he had known and who also had been a part of RAF 100 Group so that they be remembered in the wider world. I also gave her a copy of the weighty tome: 'RAF 100 Group - Kindred Spirits' which brings voices of different Squadrons under the Group together under the one cover, just as they had served under the umbrella of RAF 100 Group, Bomber Command, during the war. Then, walking away, down the path between grave stones, each a marker in Time of a life that had been lived with a story all its own; I became aware I was shaking, crying inside and out, filled with emotions beyond words, knowing my own journey was not yet done.
As we sat quiet in a corner of the local Inn, sharing experiences of what had happened, again I wondered whether Vic and Jack had sat here during precious moments away from duty. Did he come here, to this local haunt, perhaps with paper and pen in hand to write to his precious Nina, my mother? Or did he save moments he shared with her for times when he was alone? And on 26 November 1944, did he enter the church to say a prayer for God to keep him safe on that night's special operation, not knowing then it would be his last ... and that over seventy years on, the secret of where they went, what they were doing, why they were killed would remain unknown?
I can think now only of a young man, old before his time, just twenty-one years; wanting to reserve that most precious of days when ultimately he and his sweetheart would say their wedding vows, united before God, to spend the rest of their days together.
The future was theirs.
War snatched it away in a heartbeat.
One thing I do know for certain. That final word on his lips had to be: 'Nina ...' He loved her so much!
|Foulsham Church gravestones, courtesy: Stuart Borlase, May 2016,|
Graves, like markers,
map lives snuffed out before their time.
Set out in random Regiments
Standing on parade,
A permanent reminder
Of a country saved.
Next to each a stranger
With a story all his own
Buried deep within a field
A long long way from Home.
In the air around them
I feel their Spirit near
‘Remember how and where we died
and why we’re lying here.
Please do not forget us,
We didn’t die in vain.
Let our Life and Death have meaning;
One day we’ll meet again.’
Men who died in battle,
Brave boys who went to war,
Each and every one a Hero
Left … on a foreign shore.
Copyright: Janine Harrington