Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Saturday, July 18, 2009


An Innocent Fleeting Airborne Love Story

It was 1953.  Our Air India, Bombay-to-London flight, was flying very lightly.  In fact it was almost empty.  There was a closely-grouped party of eight or so people in the first three rows of seats.  My colleague George MacDonald and I sat a few rows further back.  A couple of rows behind us on the other, port, side, all alone and very small looking, was a young girl of very pleasant and neat appearance.

Within half an hour George had fallen asleep over his magazine so when the senior hostess came by I made discreet enquiry as the identity of the little girl behind us.  She told me that she had been put on the aircraft under her special care, and that she was the daughter of a prominent family from an important southeast-Asian nation.  Also she told me the young girl had been attending school in India and was now going to a finishing school in England.  She was being met at London airport by her uncle who had recently replaced her father as their country’s ambassador to Britain.  Intrigued I asked the hostess if she would ask the girl if I could sit by her for a little while.  After a while the hostess came back and said the young girl was in agreement with my request.

So that’s how I met Suzy, which, as this lovely fourteen-year-old girl told me, was her English name.  One couldn’t wish for a better travelling companion.  She was a wonderful mixture of American bobby soxer and classical eastern intelligence, beauty and decorum.  After a few minutes of shyness and modest reserve she told me about her school life in India.  She asked me to fill in the lengthy questionnaire in her autograph book.  I had to write down such things as who was my favourite film star, what I wanted to be when I grew up, what was my favourite colour, my favourite song, pastime, clothing style, and other such personal disclosures and ponderings.

Luckily I scored top marks in the music category owing to having listened, every morning whilst showering in my room at the Airport Hotel in downtown Bombay, to All India Radio’s repeated playing of the current top ten tunes.  I knew them by heart and found no trouble in singing them at Suzy’s request one after the other.  Several times over.  As for what I wanted to be when I grew up I told Suzy that when she became her country’s prime minister or president I’d like to be her official and private aeroplane pilot.  She promised that would be done.  At regular intervals our graceful air-hostess came along with appropriate drinks and little titbits and to see how we were getting on.  Suzy asked her if I could remain sitting by her side.  So I did.  For  the whole flight.

In a very conspiratorial whisper Suzy told me that the hostess had told her that the group of sophisticated people way up in the front of the aircraft were the stars, producers and director of Jahnsi ki Rahni, the first ever colour movie produced in Bollywood, as the studios in Bombay were later to be called.  Suzy said the movie crew were taking their film to England for some festival or other.  She said she would love to get their autographs in her book but she was too shy.  Even though I tried many times to get her to go up and approach them she was just too covered in confusion.

So at Suzy’s urging I went up forward with the autograph book and told them the story.  Of course, it helped when I could truthfully say I’d actually seen their movie, all several hours of it, full of glorious battlefield deeds from Indian history.  And I could even remember parts of it.  Effusively.

So they were very pleased to write down their particulars in Suzy’s book and a couple of them came back with me to meet her.  But Suzy was so embarrassed and shy that they soon returned to their intimate group.  Later as I passed them when going to the toilet they called to me and asked if I would be coming back to India.  I said I expected to be back there later that year.  They said they hoped I might be interested in visiting them at the studios for a talk.  Perhaps a business talk, they said.  With me?  Business?  Crumbs!  I wondered,  Surely they weren’t eyeing me for a role to play a brutal colonial villain in some future follow up of Jahnsi ki Rahni ?  I thanked them and thought no more about it except to tell a giggling Suzy.

Suzy and I chuckled, laughed and sang all the way across the Arabian Sea and desert until our aircraft landed for a brief stopover in Beirut.  Later, about local noon we landed in Rome and our small but distinguished group of passengers was taken into the airline restaurant for lunch.  In those piston-engined aircraft days it was usual for the planes, between their often lengthy hops, to land at convenient en-route airports for meals. 

In Rome we all sat at one big circular table and were served heaping plates of pasta and generous lashings of other very good Italian food.  After a while Suzy whispered into my ear that she just couldn’t eat any more and would the people think her rude if she left the rest.  I assured her that the airline staff would quite understand.  There wasn’t an actual host involved and so her ingrained cultural niceties could be treated in a free and easy, please yourself, manner in Europe.

Our next stop was in Switzerland.  I left Suzy for a brief while and went off to buy her a couple of bars of Toblerone chocolate to give to her as a surprise when we were back on the plane.  Before we left the airport she came up to me and took my hand and asked me to come over to a souvenir concession counter and look at something.  It was one of the little music boxes the Swiss make so well.  Then Suzy pulled me aside and opened her wallet to show me its contents.  She asked me if I thought she had enough money to buy the music box.  Inside that wallet was enough money to buy the whole store plus both those on either side of it.  So I helped her make her purchase and we got back on the aircraft.  

When we were airborne I gave her the Toblerone chocolate.  She was silent for many long minutes and she turned her head away to look out of the window.  And I saw her eyes were moist with tears.  And that she was overcome with embarrassment or emotion.  Over two small chocolate bars...  

So I looked the other way and leafed through a magazine.  After several minutes we slowly began to giggle and laugh again.  The merriment gave us an excuse for shedding another tear or two.

At that time I had two sisters who monitored radar screens in the London Airport GCA (Ground Control Approach) facility, —actually a portable wagon on the end of the duty runway.  So when we were flying across France I asked the air-hostess if she would ask our captain to request the London Airport control tower to give them a message that I was aboard this flight.

As soon as we landed the hostess took charge of Suzy and after the briefest of farewells she was whisked away by officialdom.  Anyway, I was busy saying goodbye to George MacDonald who was eager to catch a train to Edinburgh.  I told him I would look after all our baggage.  The message I had sent via the air-hostess must have worked because as I was trying to get the several boxes containing our survey equipment through customs, my sister Christine came up beside me and spoke to the customs people and swoosh, immediately I was through customs and in the arrivals hall.  Mary my other sister at the London Airport GCA  was apparently on duty that afternoon,  probably sitting in front of a radar screen in the control wagon stationed way out on the upwind end of the duty runway where no doubt she had assisted our Air India’s safe landing just twenty minutes before.  

As I was standing in the main hall talking with Chris and one of her colleagues I was surprised to see little Suzy coming though the crowds towards me.  Behind her was a man dressed in very formal clothes escorted by a couple of other very serious and robust looking men.  Outside, through the glass doors, I could see a big black limousine flying a colourful national flag. 

Suzy came up to me and said shyly that this was her uncle, the ambassador, and introduced us.  Then I introduced my sister and her friend.  We passed a few unimportant words and pleasantries, shook hands again and then the ambassador said to Suzy that they must really be off.  And off they went.  I watched as the uniformed chauffeur opened the door for Suzy and her uncle.  As they drove away I saw Suzy looking out the window towards me and so I waved goodbye.

The civil engineering company I worked for had sent a vehicle to the airport to pick up all the survey equipment and my colleague George.  But I stayed around the airport with Chris and some of her friends who took me to visit their hostel.  Later we went to a local pub and sat on the grass in the evening sunshine with our drinks.  Later, I went home to Ilford on the tube.  

A couple of months later I received a letter from Suzy at her English finishing school.  In it she told me of her new classmates and other congenial details of school life.  She enclosed a small photograph of herself with her family name written on the back.  Sadly it is long lost.  

I replied with an equally innocuous and friendly letter.  At once came another letter.  In it Suzy wrote that her uncle had been invited to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June.  And Suzy said:  ...would I like to come?...  Because she wrote, if I wanted to be in their party, her uncle would arrange it.  She was sure of it.  I was absolutely floored.  Scuppered.  I was right out of my depth here.  For several fundamental and obvious reasons.  Even if it was true about her uncle being amenable to inviting me it just could not be.

  (One prime reason was that the barber in Fao, Iraq, was still wearing my demob suit—the one I had given to my sweeper, in a fit of ill-fitting altruism, who had been dressed in rags.  A couple of days later when I summoned the barber to the El Ghar, I noticed as he snipped away, that under his white coverall he was wearing the same one-of-a-kind demob suit.  He had bought it from the sweeper.  Alas, its replacement which I’d had made in Basra made me look somewhat less than a royalty-connected dignitary).  

I wrote back to Suzy and said, (truthfully, as there had been talk of Scotland in the office) that I was expecting to be out of the country within the next week or so and so unavailable for such social niceties.  Or kind words to that effect.  So I gently begged off Suzy’s kindly but preposterous invitation.

Months later in Canada, I had another letter from Suzy, forwarded on from England,  She told me more of her school life in Britain and hinted of her musings as to my future whereabouts.  Shortly afterwards I set sail for several months of hydrographic exploring in Arctic waters.  Before leaving Ottawa I wrote a final, gentle, note to Suzy.

And that was that.

Our brief, one-day saga of enchanting tenderness was now just a precious memory.

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