Skies of the past.
“The planet spins, time passes, and with it our lives. But there are lives that, for a reason we fail to understand, are connected through time. This is one of them.”
Part One – Death in the Sky.
Nerves preclude thought. I know I must recall all that the captain has bidden me remember, yet here I am, surrounded by my comrades, soaring towards my inaugural mission, utterly dumbstruck. I can call to mind the technicalities, the purpose of each gauge, switch, and lever. I know how to hold the aeroplane steady, how to take off, and I am fairly certain I can land it. In theory, I can evade attacks and, I believe, remember how to launch one of my own. But it all feels like a dream. I recall fragments, but they are disjointed, of no use to me now. Once again, I endeavour to bring to mind the captain’s voice, explaining tactics, but it eludes me. Just then, the control stick trembles and I realise it is my own hands that shake. Fear has me in its grasp. No, it’s more than fear; it is the cusp of panic.
Presently, I realise that there have been voices, shouting and speaking over the radio for some time now, but in my state I have taken no heed. I look about to see what my comrades are doing, but there is no sign of anyone. All I see is the beautiful blue sky, scattered with clouds like tufts of cotton wool. Below is the verdant quilt of the English countryside, divided into varying sized squares. In that moment, it dawns on me that something must have transpired of which I am blissfully unaware. Resolved to find my comrades, I prepare to manoeuvre and am startled to see lights flashing from left to right directly before me. I look to see their origin and spy a green fighter plane, almost upon me, set to collide. Instinctively, I raise my arm in protection, but after a few seconds, nothing happens. I look around and see more of those planes, and in that moment, the captain’s voice rings in my ears, reminding me that to remain stationary is to be a perfect target. I decide I must act. I am unsure of what exactly, but act I must. As I deliberate, I see those lights again, now coming from the left, entering the front of the engine and causing black smoke to engulf me while the roar of an engine passes just above me. I attempt to turn, but the aeroplane has lost speed and is difficult to control. I glance at the gauges and see the oil pressure is gone and then everything goes dark. Outside, all I can see is black smoke, which suddenly turns to fire, and I remember this is the moment to abandon the plane and jump. The aircraft starts to tilt to one side and fall. I have mere seconds. Frantically, I try to open the latch to the cockpit on my left, but the gloves hinder me. I remove them, tug at the latch, and it moves, but although it seems open, the cockpit does not lift. I use both hands to push upwards, but the only result is a sound like meat sizzling on a griddle. My hands. The excruciating pain jolts me into action; I must escape at all costs. I look up through the smoke and fire to see the beautiful sky becoming a green carpet then sky again. I am falling, and the plane is tumbling faster and faster. I think to use the gloves to push the cockpit cover, but they are gone. I look down between my legs to find them, but all I see is black smoke entering through holes by the pedals. Resolute, I decide to push again. I look up and see beautiful sky, green carpet, beautiful sky, green carpet, and I push with all my might as my hands burn and make that whistling sound of flesh on a griddle. It is impossible to open the cockpit and the smoke that enters turns to fire, climbing up my legs and quickly reaching my face. I try to shield myself with my injured hands, but the fire devours my skin in greedy, oil-filled bites. Overwhelmed, I scream in despair, looking up to see more green carpet than beautiful sky.
The scream jolted me awake. I found myself seated in bed, in my room, and I was eight years old once again. A nightmare had disturbed my slumber. I took a deep breath and lay back down, my heart still beating furiously. The house was silent. My parents hadn’t heard the scream, though in reality, I probably hadn’t made a sound. Is this how people die, I wondered. I hope I don’t perish in flames, I thought. Just then, I remembered it was Tuesday, and I had school in the morning, so I’d better try to sleep again. I always found it hard to wake up, which invariably put my father in a foul temper.
The panic that grips me is so overpowering, it paralyses my thoughts. I am certain I will die, and this thought terrifies me even more. Despite knowing full well that it is this very panic that will be my undoing, I am powerless to stop it. I become aware of orders being barked and shouts coming over the radio. My comrades are gone. The green aeroplane crashes, and I cover my face, but nothing happens. I try to do something and see tracers entering the engine. Smoke and fire and then I’m falling. I try to escape, but I can’t, I’m burning, burning. Beautiful sky, green carpet, beautiful sky, green carpet.
I wake once more, frightened, sitting upright in bed. It was the exact same dream as the night before. I lay back down, waiting for the pounding of my heart to slow. What a horrid nightmare! I needed sleep. Two nights had passed without rest, and relaxation was a necessity. My gaze wandered to the book spines on the shelves. They were my father’s, mostly related to his work at the university, save for the lower shelves where the science fiction books resided. I had read them all; the first at five years old, The Dying Star, by an author named E. E. Smith. That’s what happens when your grandmother, a teacher with years of experience, teaches you to read at four. But none of those novels contained anything resembling this nightmare. They had no propeller planes, only spaceships that crossed solar systems in seconds.
Voices and shouts resonate through the radio. My comrades are gone, and amidst the panic, I cannot even discern what has transpired. Tracer bullets streak across the sky. A fighter plane flies so close it seems it will collide with mine, but it doesn’t. I try to respond, to do what must be done. Tracers pierce my engine and my plane begins to plummet, ablaze. My hands burn as I struggle to open the cockpit, but it is jammed. Fire from the burning engine invades the cockpit, slowly consuming me as the plane descends. I burn, I burn. Beautiful sky, green carpet, beautiful sky, green carpet.
The scream of desperation once again stirred me from my slumber. This time, I found myself lying on my side, half propped up in bed. I sat up and waited for the calm to return, but I wasn’t as frightened as I had been on previous nights. I pondered the dream and couldn’t comprehend how one could experience the exact same nightmare three times over. I got out of bed and approached the window. The silhouette of Cerro Esperanza was illuminated by the streetlights. The stars twinkled brilliantly above the bay of Valparaíso. As I watched them, I was reminded of one of my father’s novels, in which one character perishes and another wonders what lies beyond death. At that moment, I decided that if I were to have the same dream again, I wouldn’t wake up while being burned alive. I wanted to see what happens when one dies. Because I was certain that the pilot in the dream was going to die.
Shining tracer bullets tear into the engine, and I hear the roar of the green plane that has just fired at me pass right above. A perfect target. Black smoke turns to flames, and although the bolt to my left is open, the cockpit cover refuses to yield. I push with all my might, and the skin on my hands blisters and blackens, but the cover remains steadfast. I know that any second now, black smoke will turn to fire. Fire that will cling to my body, to my hands and face, consuming me. This happens, and in desperation, I try to remove the fire from my face. Beautiful sky, green carpet, beautiful sky, green carpet…
…but now, I am no longer him; now, it is me in a lucid dream, and I have decided not to wake up.
Fire surrounds me. I place my arms just below my chin, preventing the sticky flames rising from reaching my face. I look up, and through the smoke and fire, all I see is green carpet. “Finally.” I think. “I’m nearing the ground and will crash. At last, I will die.” A deafening noise, and everything moves…
I awake, but unafraid. “Had I known, I would have done this sooner,” I think to myself. I haven’t discovered what lies on the other side of death, but I don’t care. I have ceased to suffer, and besides, it is Friday, and Friday is a good day. I never had that dream again.
Part Two – The Kingdom of the Picts.
After a coup d’état in Chile, during which my mother and father were detained and tortured by the Chilean navy, we began an odyssey that spanned years. First, the march with my sisters from house to house of relatives in Valparaíso, then the journey to my grandmother’s house in Codegua. Later, when my parents were released, we all went to Rancagua. There, my father learned that there was again a warrant for his arrest and execution, so one morning he left home to go into hiding. That same morning, my mother told us to choose only one thing from our belongings as we were leaving. I was twelve, but I took my teddy bear, which I’d had since I was little, and we left the town almost empty-handed. After several days staying at friends’ houses, we managed to reach my Aunt Flor, my mother’s sister, who lived in the middle of the Andes in a village built by an American mining company. I lived there for over a year, experiencing adventures such as heavy snowfalls, earthquakes that moved mountains, and condors that watched me with the same gaze I gave a cup of chocolate ice cream. But we had to leave that town after the DINA, Pinochet’s secret police, showed up at my aunt’s house asking about us. We weren’t taken away thanks to the bravery of Arturo, her husband. Shortly afterwards, my mother took us out of there and we went straight to the train station to catch a train that crossed the Andes towards Argentina, where we lived for almost three years as illegal immigrants. It was so hard for me that it still hurts to talk about it, but by the end of that period, my two sisters had returned to Chile which, despite everything, was safer than Argentina. The United Nations granted refugee status to my mother and me. After a long wait and much paperwork by my mother, the UN gave her the choice between living in Dallas, Texas, or Great Britain. My mother didn’t hesitate. She was not going to live in the country that paid for and organised so much death and pain in Chile, so we went to England. To understand how hard and difficult Argentina was for me, I tell you that the moment the wheels of that British Airways Boeing lifted off the ground was one of the happiest moments of my life, only surpassed by the birth of my two children many years later.
Despite having a leak above us throughout the flight, it was wonderful. I remember when we were still hours from arriving, looking out of the window and seeing a perfectly conical volcano poking above the clouds. I looked at the flight map in the back of the British Airways magazine and discovered it was Teide in the Canary Islands, which belonged to Spain, a country I would get to know years later. When we landed in London, we were met by officials from UNHCR, a man and a woman, both in their thirties. They were both blond, with very white skin, blue eyes, and very tall, but something about them struck me much more and was one of the things that made me realise, without a doubt, that my life had changed: their gaze. When they looked at my mother, their eyes were filled with affection and respect, without fear. It was a sunny day, and I remember on the train from the airport to central London, while I watched them without taking my eyes off them, I sighed deeply and was grateful for their gaze. In that small but significant moment, my life changed. Just like that, those looks transported me to a safe world where the future was something real. Where there were looks without hate and where I could live without fear.
London didn’t strike me with awe. It was just as chaotic as Buenos Aires. Even the train station we arrived at was nearly identical to the one in Buenos Aires. I read later that it was actually the other way around. Buenos Aires station was almost a replica of Victoria Station. The couple left us at a small hotel paid for by the UNHCR and handed my mother an envelope with money for food and transport because, according to them, London was expensive. Once in the room, my mother took some of that money and gave it to me. “In case you get lost,” she said. “Make sure you memorise the name of the hotel and the street.” I, having learned to navigate the Subte in the capital of Argentina, quickly grasped the logic of the London Tube. It was a marvellous week. One day, as I turned a corner near the hotel, I stumbled upon Big Ben, or rather, the tower of Big Ben. I stood frozen, overwhelmed by a strong sensation of déjà vu. I lingered, observing the tower of the British Parliament, but emotions that made no sense to me prevented me from continuing, so I turned around and went back to the hotel. A week after arriving in London, my mother and I were on a train headed for Edinburgh, and then to Falkirk in Scotland. It was the end of October 1977.
We arrived in Falkirk at the home of some Chilean friends of my mother. We stayed with them for several weeks, including my birthday. My first birthday in Europe. They gave me model kits to assemble with glue and paints of a Man-of-war galleon, a Boeing 747, and a small green World War II plane. One of the things I remember from that time was when my mother took me to the local cinema to see a film she thought I would enjoy as an avid reader of science fiction. She was absolutely right; it was the first Star Wars movie, “Episode IV – A New Hope.” Like most people, I wondered what had happened to episodes one, two, and three. My mother never knew she started a tradition that even reached her grandchildren decades later, who know more about Star Wars than I do.
But the best thing about Falkirk was going to school after four years without studying. The school I was supposed to attend was Camelon High School. An old school that still had “Boys” written above one entrance door and “Girls” above the other. Having never seen anything like that in my life, my first thought was either that they separated the children by sex, or that they were old, grand entrances to bathrooms that no longer existed. For a while, I opted for the latter; the former seemed too stupid for such a fantastical country. The view of a child that, over time, changed to realise that the United Kingdom was like any other country. I was the only foreigner in the whole school, and everyone observed me, but apart from my classmates, no one talked to me. Until the summer holidays, all I did was study English with Miss Philip, a tutor provided by the school, whose skin was so pale I could see the veins underneath, and who always had sleep in her eyes. I also attended all the maths and art classes—two universal languages.
I remember in Art class, my teacher was impressed with my drawing skills, so she entered me for the national exams in June. I’m rather good at drawing, but painting has always been a struggle for me. It was a real challenge. Years later, I discovered that I was slightly colourblind, and that was the reason I saw colours that to me seemed very similar, but to the rest of the world, they appeared quite different. I did my best in that exam.
That summer, having no friends, I spent countless hours watching television. I discovered Doctor Who, a series that began in the 1960s and still has new episodes on the BBC to this day. And for the first time, I heard Mr. Blue Sky on the list of the best songs on Top Of The Pops. A song that captured my heart and is not only loved by my children, but also brings me to mind for some people in different parts of the world when they hear it. That summer also brought a delightful surprise. I was about to leave the house with my mother when, upon putting my hand in a jacket pocket, I touched a bunch of crumpled papers. I pulled them out and saw that it was the money my mother had given me in London months before in case I got lost. I was shocked to see the amount, as there were more than three hundred and fifty pounds. “Well, London must be expensive,” I thought. We spent most of the rest of the money we were given on food in just over a week. I gave the newly found money to my mother, and she was overjoyed because arriving in a country with nothing but the clothes on your back is always expensive. You have to buy everything.
After the summer, for the first time in my life, I was delighted to go back to school, which was the same despite having moved to a neighbourhood called Bainsford. I continued with English, Maths, and Art. In the latter, the teacher told me that they had received a letter from the Scottish Department of Education asking them to confirm that I had really been the same person who had taken the drawing and painting exam. It turned out that my drawing had received one of the highest marks in Scotland, and the painting one of the lowest. Afer that my art teacher was determined that I should learn to paint, and for months that’s all I did. As a result, I managed to create an acrylic self-portrait that I gave to my mother, who kept it for many years until she died, and now it hangs on a wall in my house. Months had passed since I arrived in Scotland, and with many English tutorials, my level had risen significantly, and I managed to stutter my first sentences with a Scottish accent. My classmates found out that I was Chilean but had come from Argentina, but they didn’t care about Chile. Argentina had won the World Cup a few months earlier, and Maradona was famous among my classmates who were football fanatics. So, they made up the story that I was Maradona’s nephew and that I played football almost as well as him. The first-years started following me around at break time, saying things I didn’t understand, and my classmates would shout at them to leave me alone, that I was too important to be with them. After a while, my English level was high enough to understand what they were saying. They wanted to see me play football. Me! I didn’t even like football and was, and still am, terrible at playing. It all ended when they found out I played football in PE. Once a month, the teacher would have the boys and girls play the famous sport. That day, after changing and going out onto the football field, we got a huge surprise. Almost all the children from first, second, and third year surrounded the field. When they saw me play for no more than ten seconds, there was a collective “Oooooh, blimey.” and they went back to their respective classes angry at realising they’d been duped, disappointed. My classmates just laughed and laughed.
As the weeks went by, the Scottish winter arrived, and one day, walking home from school with some classmates during a snowstorm that made it impossible to see more than ten metres ahead, a parked ice cream van appeared in the snow, with its lights on and the typical music playing. We all bought a 99 Flake cone, so named because it cost ninety-nine pence. I was delighted to be able to walk and eat the ice cream without it melting. One of the good things about being five degrees below zero, but eating ice cream in a snowstorm was something my mother, who hated the cold, could never understand. Sometimes the ice cream van wasn’t there, but there was one that sold fish and chips. I always made an effort to stay away from fish, so I always bought traditional Scottish haggis, which was delicious. Years later, I discovered that the English consider it a disgusting food because apart from potatoes, onions, and spices, it contains many things that come from the innards of a lamb.
At that school, something else happened that accentuated the perception of the cultural shift in my life. Apart from discovering that I loved British food, including the desserts which were delicious, like chocolate cake with hot custard on top, another thing happened. I still had a month of classes left, and the weather had improved a lot, and many girls were wearing skirts. One of them, who was about my age, fourteen, was crossing the courtyard when an older boy approached her, lifted her skirt a little and said something. In the places where I had lived, in that same situation, the girl would have run away, or scolded him a little, or told him to leave her alone. But this Scottish girl, slim with white skin, freckles, and red hair, stopped, turned towards the boy, and without saying a word, gave him a resounding punch in the face. He stepped back a few paces, holding his nose, started insulting her, approached her, and landed a blow on her shoulder as she tried to dodge it. “You’ve gone too far now,” she said and with all her strength, kicked him between the legs. He fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes, clutching the family jewels. His friends saw this and ran to help him, but a group of about four went after the redhead. They never got to touch her. As if by magic, all the girls who were in the courtyard at that moment ran at them, screaming like true Pictish warriors. They didn’t stop hitting them, even when they were on the ground. Only the arrival of some teachers stopped the situation. I, with my mouth open, just watched that thin redhead, who for a moment led the defence of women’s dignity in that school courtyard. It was my first crush. Later I found out that her name was Sheila and she is probably partly responsible for my current belief that women should work together.
Sheila was the name I gave to a kitten that was given to me a few months later, just before my mother was awarded a scholarship to do a master’s at the University of Nottingham, in England. I lived in Scotland for just over a year, but the kingdom of the Picts gave me the strength I have used to face the great challenges of my life. It taught me what happiness was once again.
Part Three – Home of Nottingham Forest.
We were three who journeyed from Falkirk to Nottingham, as my little sister had been able to leave Chile and come live with us in Scotland. The university social worker for my mother managed to secure a flat in a Nottingham neighbourhood called Balloon Woods. The flat was decent, but the social worker couldn’t apologise enough for not having found something better. In time, we learnt that Balloon Woods was the second worst neighbourhood in the entire city, surpassed only by the flats of Hyson Green, closer to the centre. It made no odds to me. I had known the worst neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires where only a fool would venture without a knife, and Balloon Woods was almost as tranquil as my grandmother’s village. The neighbours, some of whom had never ventured out of Nottingham and had never even heard of Chile, watched us from a distance and seldom spoke to us. But the social worker was indeed pleased with one thing. Our neighbourhood was separated merely by a railway line from one of Nottingham’s finest, Wollaton, and it was there that, after explaining our situation to the headteacher, she managed to enrol my sister and me in the Fernwood Comprehensive public school .
During that time, I devoted myself to studying flat out. I would enter the school, attend classes, and during the break I would ensconce myself in the library to study English. Back to class, and come lunchtime, I’d grab a quick bite and continue studying English in the library, attend the afternoon class, and then head home to hit the books once more. I stopped saying “Aye” and switched it to “Yes”, which marked my final farewell to Scotland, that marvellous land in the north.
One afternoon, while unpacking a box that was still sealed, I found the green model aeroplane I had been gifted. I opened it and over several afternoons, I was engaged in polishing, painting, gluing, then polishing and painting some more. I ended up with a Spitfire MK-I, its two-tone green body and sky-blue underbelly, a fighter that was one of the principal weapons of defence when Hitler sought to invade England. One day, when I was feeling somewhat bored, I took the small fighter and removed its propellers, replacing them with a circle of transparent plastic of the same radius to make it appear as though they were spinning. I glued the wheels in a closed position. After finishing, lying in bed in my room, I gazed at the little toy model and in a moment, looked at it with the window in the background and its nose pointed towards me. My heart skipped a beat and I dropped it out of an unexplained fear that suddenly gripped me. After a few seconds, I picked it up and looked again, but saw nothing special – just a model toy of that famous British fighter plane.
Spitfire Model Kit
From that school, I have memories such as reading almost all the Jules Verne’s books with a dictionary by my side, something that impressed more than one teacher. At the end of January, a great snowfall occurred, and quickly on the basketball court, two barricades of snow were created on each side, and every break time was a pitched battle of snowballs to see which group could capture the other’s ground. No one ever won, but the fun was the best part of that year. When the weather had improved and there was nothing left of the large piles of snow, I remember once during the morning break a boy brought a large battery-operated radio with potent speakers known as a Ghetto Blaster, and he played a song by a music group called Pink Floyd with part of the lyrics going, “We don’t need no education, We don’t need no thought control.” A song of rebellion that was an instant success in that schoolyard, and listening to it from then on became a subversive act because the teachers banned it, and the best part was that it had a direct connection with my dreams. About a year before the song came out, I had a dream where I saw marching hammers that later appeared in the music video. I still love Pink Floyd.
One day in June, when most of the classes had ended, but the school was still open, all my classmates wandered with a big smile on their faces because Nottingham Forest had the possibility of winning the European Cup for the second consecutive time. It was one of those perfect spring days. The sun was warm, and there was a pleasant breeze. I was walking to the school to use the library and take the opportunity to go to the art classroom to paint something. The street was empty, and on my left, there was a row of large trees that separated the railway line from typical English middle-class chalets. All that could be heard was the breeze in the trees and the occasional bumblebee. Suddenly, I heard a buzzing that made me stop dead in my tracks. I wasn’t sure if I had really heard something or not, so I stood still, listening. Just when I thought it had been my imagination or perhaps a bumblebee, I heard it again. This time clearly. A shiver ran through my body, and I stood petrified. After a few seconds, I looked around, trying to discover what was emitting that strange and striking sound, but there was nothing. It happened again a few seconds later, louder and with a guttural touch. Whatever it was that was emitting it, it was slowly getting closer, and I was sure it was coming from the trees. I stood still and tense, waiting for a good while without taking my eyes off that direction. I could hear that guttural sound in the distance, approaching. A shiver ran down my spine, and I got goosebumps; something was about to happen, but I didn’t know what. I felt a mix of nerves, tension, fear, and expectation like when you are a child opening a Christmas present. The sound explosion of a Merlin engine accelerating filled my ears and the entire neighbourhood. I took two steps back as I saw a Spitfire MK-II appear roaring just above the trees and pass no more than fifteen metres above me. With my head raised and my mouth open in a scream that never managed to come out, I could see all the details of that light blue belly, which I had been painting on a toy model a while before. “But that’s the one!” I shouted alone in the middle of the street.
The aeroplane, with the typical elegance of the Spitfires, turned westward towards Derby and began to ascend. I watched it until it disappeared into a fog that turned out to be my tears, falling incessantly. I didn’t want that moment to end. When I calmed myself, I realised that the roar of that Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was one I had heard before. I dashed to the school library and immersed myself in every book about the Battle of Britain, where the Spitfires had fought, not because I wished to learn more about them, but because I wanted to know against whom they had battled. I remembered that it had been one exactly like the one I had just seen that had fired tracer bullets into the engine of the aeroplane I had flown in a nightmare, seven years earlier on the other side of the world.
The Spitfires fought against many types of aeroplanes, but I knew that “mine” was a fighter, of which there was more than one type. After hours of perusing books, I saw a photograph of a cockpit, and I had no doubts. What I had flown in dreams was a Messerschmitt BF 109 of the Luftwaffe in September of 1940. A date I decided upon by the number of British aeroplanes in the air that I had seen in my dream and by the experience of that young pilot who had died in flames.
Messerschmitt Bf 109
Part Four – Farewell to the Past
Four years on, I was studying A-Level Physics, aspired to be an aeronautical engineer, and lived on my own. I’d left home at sixteen, since then making ends meet to pursue my studies and indulge my passion for motorcycles. A vehicle that brings together a community of enthusiasts, but also because I was addicted to speed, often venturing to Birmingham to visit a friend, seizing the opportunity to open the throttle on small roads. My bike at the time was a Honda CB 250N, equipped with a special fibreglass fairing.
That day is etched in my memory for two extraordinary occurrences. I don’t believe in coincidences, and to me, the first was a lesson that striving for victory is an integral part of life, often signifying more than it seems. Allow me to share what transpired on that journey, for it marked the beginning of a final healing from a process that spanned years.
It was a summer Saturday morning bathed in glorious sunshine. I took the A453, passing the airport and meandering through country lanes in the direction of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, then on to Tamworth. I was cruising along, basking in the country air and sunshine, when to my left, I saw a Porsche Carrera advancing in parallel on another road. I knew that further ahead, our paths would converge, and that the driver of the Porsche would have to yield, a fact of which he was undoubtedly aware. I heard the downshift, the engine’s revs climbing as the car leapt forward. Never one to resist temptation, I dropped three gears, revved the engine past eight thousand, and shot forward to see if I could beat him to the crossroads. As I reached the junction, travelling at around 70 miles per hour, a little over 110 km/h, the Porsche, obeying the yield sign, came to a halt, allowing me to pass.
I was no stranger to such antics, having often raced against sports cars, more for the guaranteed victory than anything else. Those cars were typically driven by older folks who’d acquired them as social status symbols and had never really pushed their limits beyond the motorway. They usually abandoned the race, terrified, at the first tight bend we encountered. Even though a good sports car can take a curve at much higher speeds than a motorcycle, it was customary for the car to gradually shrink in my rearview mirror until it disappeared entirely. But this time, the car reappeared in my mirrors, growing larger, its engine roaring at high revs. With adrenaline coursing through my veins, I downshifted twice and revved the engine past nine thousand, maintaining my lead. I knew that just up ahead was a series of tight, undulating curves, a challenge I had never seen any car driver take at speed. In no time, we reached them. I took the first right-hander, downhill at about 60 miles per hour, the bike leaning over, knee almost grazing the asphalt. The road then veered left, ascending, so I leaned left and opened the throttle to the red line. A brief glance in the rearview mirror revealed, to my astonishment, the Porsche just metres behind me. The crest of the hill was a right-hand curve that immediately began to descend. I positioned the bike to the extreme left of my lane, allowing me to initiate the curve before actually reaching it. My aim was to have the bike upright as I crested the hill, knowing that the steep incline would cause the bike to lift. As I descended, the front wheel was airborne for a few seconds before dropping back to the asphalt as I continued to accelerate. Kevin Schwantz would have been proud. I accelerated more leisurely, confident that the Porsche driver would have been spooked, but there he was, steadfast in my rearview mirror, evidently as familiar with the road as I was. The descent gave way to a straight stretch spanning several miles. Although I knew the car had far superior power, acceleration, and top speed than my bike, I nonetheless downshifted and pushed the bike past ten thousand revs, reaching a little over eighty-five miles per hour, close to the bike’s top speed of approximately 140 km/h. The Porsche’s engine roared as it disappeared from my rearview mirror to overtake me on the right, just as we passed a police car conducting a speed check. Fortunately, we caught them off guard. The bobbies gawked, mouths agape, only raising their radar gun as we passed, but neither of us let off the accelerator. When they were out of sight, we simultaneously released the throttle but didn’t touch the brakes, lest they see our brake lights and come after us. After all, their Austin Metro would have stood no chance unless we’d slowed down. I half expected to see blue lights in the rearview mirror at any moment, but nothing happened. A few miles further, at a crossroads, the Porsche turned left and I turned right. We honked our horns in farewell and each went our separate ways.
I arrived at my friend’s house in Birmingham shortly after, and we decided to take a stroll around the city centre. He was keen on stepping into the Bullring Centre, but shopping centres were not quite my cup of tea, so we opted to park the motorbike and traverse the city on foot whilst I regaled him with tales of the race against the Porsche, and the expressions of the police officers as they saw us speeding by, thus turning two individuals who were up to that point rivals in a race into allies. In time, we happened upon a site that appeared to be an old industrial warehouse area, bustling with people coming and going. It turned out to be a museum hosting an exhibition of World War II memorabilia, and the entry fee was rather reasonable, so in we went to have a nosy around.
Upon sighting a sign pointing to the Battle of Britain exhibition, I felt an inexplicable force drawing me to it. There, in the grand hall, my eyes were immediately drawn to the second plane on the left – a yellow-nosed Messerschmitt BF 109. I stood before the aircraft for a considerable while, faintly hearing my friend inquire if I was quite alright from a distance. By the time I came to my senses, the hall had emptied out as people had left for their lunchtime meals. Seizing the opportunity, I approached the plane, reaching out to touch the 20mm cannon on its nose. The shock that coursed through me was akin to touching a high-voltage line, and had my friend not been there to catch me, I would surely have crumpled to the floor. His voice reached my ears, questioning what had transpired, but I found myself at a loss for words. Trembling, I circled the aircraft to check if it was connected to anything that might have explained the electric shock, but found nothing. When I asked my friend to touch it, he questioned my sanity, reluctant to experience the same. I showed him that it wasn’t plugged into anything, and eventually, he relented, feeling nothing out of the ordinary. A second attempt on my part resulted in nothing more than a mild tingle. I noticed a ladder leading up to the cockpit, and despite still being in a daze, I climbed up, taking in every external detail of the aircraft. Everything was exactly as it had been in a dream I had over ten years prior. For a few fleeting moments, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, the purpose of each switch and lever, even how to pilot the aircraft. I was on the verge of sitting down and flipping the ignition switch when my newfound knowledge of flight began to evaporate. A few seconds later, with a clearer head, I realized that any attempt to move the aircraft would have likely landed me in the nearest police station or hospital, given the museum exhibitions surrounding it. I descended the ladder, and minutes later, the knowledge of what each gauge did and how to fly a plane had completely deserted me. I was simply standing next to a museum piece from a war I had never known.
The connection between the race with the Porsche and that old Luftwaffe fighter plane escapes me, but I am certain that there is one. Could the driver of the Porsche have been an elderly gentleman who once flew with the RAF and downed a young and inexperienced German pilot? His son or grandson, perhaps? Whatever the case, starting as rivals and ending as allies marked the beginning of the lifting of that nightmarish burden from my shoulders. That those memories belonged to someone else’s past and not my own was a realization that began with that race.
The Messerschmitt BF 109 is an iconic aircraft from that era, albeit one that represents the darker side of that terrible war. It was a plane that the Luftwaffe had sadly tested with success against the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. To this day, I am moved by the sight of planes from that era, but not the German fighters. Instead, for some strange reason, it is the planes that had, in that dream, taken my life – the Spitfire MK-I and the Hawker Hurricane.
In time, I came to understand that the dream I had was a recollection of a past life. That was the only explanation I could come up with for my intimate knowledge at the age of eight of an aircraft I had never seen before. Back then, I was living in Chile, where World War II is primarily a subject for Americans. It was in that library in Wollaton, Nottingham, where I learned that during the Battle of Britain in September 1940, the Luftwaffe, despite having aircraft, lacked experienced pilots, and so young, almost novice pilots were sent into battle. I suspect that I was one of those young pilots, sent as cannon fodder to meet a fiery end in the skies over England. Whenever I see a book, image, or film from World War II featuring aircraft, I am reminded of that young German pilot I once was. Did he choose to join the Luftwaffe, or was he coerced? From which part of Germany did he hail? What was his family like? I have an answer only to the first question – I am certain he was forced. He did not want to be there.
Recently, I visited Berlin with my family, and although the city has direct connections to my current life, there were times when, rounding a corner past buildings that had survived the Allied bombings, I felt as though I had morphed into that young man, walking in a familiar way through that place. To this day, I wonder who he was and if there is anyone else who remembers him. I shall never forget him. To me, he is not an unknown soldier; rather, he is and always will be a part of me.
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