A lucid dream?
The proximity of death affects us strangely and The Goddess is mysterious
Childhood diseases in the sixties were real. There were no vaccines, no MMR. You had Diphtheria, Smallpox and later the BCG but the regular bouts of measles, mumps, chicken pox and so on were just a part of life. We endured them with little emotion, except to savour the few days off school they’d buy us.
The one we didn’t joke about, though, was Scarlet Fever (scarlatina). This is arguably less deadly than measles but it was not seen that way back then. Other than the dreaded tuberculosis, which we didn’t even talk about, this was the most feared of the lot.
So, naturally, I went and caught it.
A month off school
The first thing I remember is waking up in my mother’s bed and realising that the white shape I was looking at was actually the ceiling. From over by the window I could hear voices but I couldn’t move my head enough to see who was speaking. Any attempt was searingly painful. I recognised the voices, of course, my mother and father and our doctor, Dr Stuart. They were speaking in hushed tones and I could tell my mother was upset.
Both my parents grew up in the era prior to Penicillin being available and my mother herself had nearly died of a poisoned finger that spread. They had a really healthy respect for diseases and it was clear that Dr Stuart was doing his best to settle their minds.
‘The Penicillin will cure it,’ he was assuring them. ‘It’s the best for this sort of thing. But he’ll have very high fever and you need to try to keep his temperature down. And after he’s recovered, the whole house will have to be fumigated.’ My father grunted at this; he was averse to having his domestic routines upset.
‘How long will he be off school?’
‘I can’t say, Mrs Fleming. Maybe a month. He has to be completely clear before he has any contact with other children.’
A whole month off school! And it was already May! Roll on the summer! This was definitely worth suffering a little for!
Actually, the suffering was intense enough to make me revisit that opinion. I seemed to go through days of constant vomiting interspersed with raging fever that caused abstract hallucinations. I did not know these were hallucinations, so they appeared completely real to me, but I wasn’t really able to feel fear. I think if I had died – and people did – it would have seemed like a weird fairground ride, a hall of mirrors sort of thing. When I wasn’t vomiting or completely spaced out, I was unconscious.
The Tiger Moth
One day I woke up, still in my mother’s bed. There was a noise outside, a noise I recognised. Looking out of the window I could see the familiar yellow fuselage of a De Havilland Tiger Moth performing aerobatics above the house.
This wasn’t unusual. The plane was one of the trainers from RNAS Condor outside Arbroath and regularly flew in our area. I loved to watch as the pilot pulled loop-the-loops. It always seemed, as it climbed vertically, that the plane would not quite make it but just when I thought it must stall it would roll over the apex, dive down and start again. Often I would stand in the lawn and wave and once or twice the pilot had flown low over the garden and saluted me with a waggle of the wings. Quite the uplift, especially as I was a big fan of Biggles then.
This time was different. The pilot was waving to me. He seemed to want me to go outside. I did, without knowing how I did and made my way to the field behind the garden, through a gate in the hedge. The Tiger Moth had landed! The pilot had jumped out and was swinging the tail of his plane round ready for take-off. He turned to me.
‘Want to come?’
I looked back at the house and then at the magical flying machine. I nodded.
The pilot swung me up into the front seat, strapped me in and adjusted my helmet and goggles. Then he took the Instructor position in the rear seat.
We took off
Saying no more, he launched us forward. There was a steep slope ahead, where the land fell away to a river valley, but there was always an updraught there and it lifted us, up up and away (as they say).
All around me I could see my fiefdom, the Angus countryside of my home, laid out. There were the hills where we walked and there the quarry where we hunted quartzes. Down there was the burn where I went guddling for trout and over there the wood at Hunter’s Path. To the south west, the smudge of Dundee and behind it the Lomond Hills. South, the land sloped down to the Tay Estuary and beyond that the coast meandered away, past Tentsmuir Forest, St Andrews, on towards Dunbar. The view was incredible.
I nodded and as I did so felt my tummy sink as he pulled back the stick. Up we went, up into that beautiful blue sky, so lovely the tears ran down my cheeks. And then we pitched over and were hurtling earthward, soon again to feel the g-force as he bottomed out of the dive and began to climb again.
All too soon it was over and we were bouncing across the grass field towards the hedge. The pilot lifted me down and removed my helmet. I was still wearing my pyjamas but I wasn’t cold.
‘Did you enjoy that?’ asked the pilot
‘Yes! I mean, thank you, yes, sir.’
‘No need to sir me, lad. You better get back to bed, I’ll be on my way. Stand back now!’
He jumped back up into the cockpit and roared off, waggling his wings as he climbed into the azure sky.
I woke up freezing
I woke up on the lawn outside the house. I was on my back. There was no sign of the Tiger Moth or its enigmatic pilot. I could hear my mother screaming my name. She was running towards me. ‘Call the doctor, quickly,’ she yelled to the girl. ‘And get a blanket for goodness sake, he’s freezing!’
By the time Dr Stuart arrived I was back in bed with a cup of Horlicks. He did the usual, checked pulse, pupils. ‘I hear you were outside.’
‘Yes, I went in the plane, Doctor. We did loop-the-loops. Can I go again?
He smiled. ‘You mustn’t. Not till you’re really better.’
He turned to my mother. ‘What’s this about a plane?’
‘I don’t know. He said he went through a gate in the hedge into the field and there was a plane there. He says he went flying in it. There’s no gate in the hedge and there’s been no plane here. He’s scaring me.’ My mother’s voice was shaking. ‘What’s wrong with him?’
Dr Stuart nodded sagely. ‘Well, I don’t think you should panic, Mrs Fleming. I think he’s had a hallucination, maybe like a lucid dream. They’re common in high fevers. They can be intense but they’re ephemeral, you know, they pass quickly. He might not even remember it, tomorrow. But the good news is, I think his fever has broken. I’ll give him a wee sedative to calm him. Best thing for now is sleep.’
That pilot never came back- but who sent him?
I didn’t forget either the pretty yellow aeroplane or the pilot, but he never came back to fly me up into the clear blue sky. I thought about it often and certainly, the good Dr Ian Stuart was right, it was a hallucination, a lucid dream. But I have had another like that, when I was on the brink of death and my girlfriend resuscitated me. It had all the same clarity, the same sparkling vision and it concerned the same place, the house where I grew up – even though, when it happened, I was thousands of miles away from Scotland.
It also featured the lawn and the garden chairs, just as they had been all those years ago. My mother was there too. But most of all, I was searching for that gate in the hedge, which – in this reality – was at the end of the path that led past the fruit garden. I think that gate has significance but today, old and tired as I am, I am afraid to step through it. I fear what might be on the other side.
I wonder sometimes, who that pilot might have been. I am persuaded by my dull adult rationality that it was all a hallucination, a kind of dream, as Dr Stuart said. But it was so real, to me, as real as the sun and the sky, the Scottish landscape, as life itself.
Whatever he was and whomever sent him, if anyone did, I believe he saved my life, just as Sam did, so long after. Perhaps he was my guardian angel, with flying goggles on, in a yellow bi-plane. Who knows? The Goddess has mysterious ways and it is not good to question them too deeply, I think.