This must have been how his grandfather had felt all those years ago, thought Tom Fletcher, his heart tripping as the ground dropped away and the small plane climbed steadily out over the Firth of Clyde. Straight ahead, the Isle of Arran and Goat Fell rose up through the afternoon sunlight. Beyond, across a further glitter of water, stretched the Mull of Kintyre.
Tom turned to smile at his wife in the seat behind them. Unbeknown to him, Laura had organised a weekend at Turnberry as a fortieth birthday surprise. They had flown up from London on Friday night – ‘We’re going to Scotland,’ was all she’d said, enjoying his mounting anticipation as the journey unfolded. On Saturday they’d played golf and that evening celebrated sumptuously in the hotel’s 1906 restaurant. Sunday morning they’d repaired their hangovers in the spa. Now it was Sunday afternoon and this was the biggest surprise of all, a one-hour sightseeing flight from Prestwick – a flight, what was more, with a particular destination.
Up here the air was like crystal, the sky around them a limpid blue. A lawyer with a firm of City solicitors, Tom had not been in a small plane before, though for all the flying tales his grandfather had told him as a boy, he might as well have been. Even so, the sense of freedom, of being suspended between heaven and earth, was more exhilarating than he could ever have imagined.
The little aircraft banked left and now he could see the long sweep of the Ayrshire coast below him, farmland falling away in soft green folds towards the sea. In the distance, Northern Ireland lay like a low smudge on the horizon. But it was the rounded hump of Ailsa Craig that held his attention, and towards which they were now heading.
Seventy years before, somewhere down there among the sea-birds that wheeled around the granite cliffs, his grandfather had nearly lost his life.
In spring 1942, 22-year-old Giles Fletcher had reported to Training School No 5, otherwise known as Turnberry, to learn how to fly a twin- engined Anson, the workhorse of maritime reconnaissance.
Tom had seen the letters home. He had heard the excitement in his grandfather’s voice, the indignation too as he described how sections of the famous links course had been levelled to make way for a triangle of runways – ‘sacrilege’ the keen golfer had added with a flurry of exclamation marks. Though there was consolation in the living quarters. No matter what the War Office did to it, a luxury hotel was always going to be a hundred times better than the draughty Nissen huts in which some of his friends on other postings were billeted.
And Giles had soon learned to welcome the solid feel of the tarmac under his wheels as he came crabbing in against a stiff south-westerly and set the ungainly plane down without incident in the middle of the golf course. He was lucky. The young Handley Page pilots had a much rougher time of it. Target practice, which involved firing dummy torpedoes at the hulks moored out in the firth, required fast, low-level flying and was perilous in the extreme. Elevated now to the No 1 Torpedo Training Unit, Turnberry had suffered more than its fair share of casualties in the closing years of the war.
Nor was Giles Fletcher to leave Turnberry unscathed. One blustery autumn afternoon, returning from a U-boat spotting mission over the Irish Sea, the Anson’s starboard engine had caught fire. After several minutes wrestling to keep the plane aloft, he had been forced to ditch in the choppy waters a few hundred yards off Ailsa Craig.
There was no such thing as a smooth landing on water and Giles had been badly thrown around in the cockpit. The crew had managed to get him into the life raft before the plane sank. After an hour or more, tossed about in an increasingly angry sea, they’d been picked up by a local fisherman. Severely injured, and almost delirious by now from shock and the onset of hypothermia, Giles could later recall nothing of the rescue except that one of the hands that reached down to haul him aboard the fishing boat had been missing two fingers. This, of course, was the part of the story that had stuck in Tom’s mind as a small boy; although later his grandfather claimed that he himself had probably imagined it.
Hallucination or not, for the rest of his life Giles Fletcher had maintained that, but for the timely arrival of the fishing boat, he would have died. As it was, his flying days had been cut short. Following a long spell in hospital he had been transferred back to England and the misery of a desk job for the remainder of the war.
The pilot had been well briefed by Laura. Now he took the plane low and they circled Ailsa Craig a couple of times. On a brilliant afternoon, with an unruffled sea turning to gold under a westering sun, it was hard to picture the drama that had played out below them, all those years before.
But as they turned for home, Tom found himself imagining the disappointment his grandfather must have felt on hearing himself pronounced unfit for active service. He had adored flying and had often spoken of those few short war years as one of the best times of his life .
Laura’s tap on the shoulder broke into his reverie. Directly ahead, a long elegant building, whitewashed with red roofs and tall chimneys, perched on the brow of a green hill. In front of it lay the links, the intersecting triangle of the old runways clearly visible from the air.
The pilot smiled. ‘I know what you’re thinking! But there’s too many potholes these days – not to mention golfers crossing. Anyway, unlike your grandfather, I’d lose my licence.’ He laughed. ‘But I’ll take you down a bit, get a closer look.’
The plane dipped lower. Now they could see the courses laid out beneath them in all their glory, the fairways and the rough, the gaping, sandy mouths of the bunkers, flags fluttering on the greens, a confetti of balls on the driving range. ‘See the lighthouse,’ said the pilot, ‘out on the point there, by the ninth green? It’s been keeping ships off the rocks since 1873. And the hump beside it – that’s the ruins of Turnberry Castle, though you can’t really see them from up here. They’re older still – by about six hundred years. It’s where Robert the Bruce was raised.’
‘I wonder if he ever drove a ball onto the rocks there, like I did yesterday?’ said Tom.
That evening, Tom and Laura made for the Ailsa Bar, a comfortable, spacious room overlooking the links and the sea. The last of the day’s sun streamed in through tall windows as they sat at the bar, sipping cocktails and studying the menu.
‘I’ve forgotten, did your grandfather ever find out who rescued him?’ asked Laura. ‘I mean, make contact later – meet up and thank him or anything?’
‘Yes,’ Tom replied. ‘It turned out he was a local fishmonger, from Ayr, I think – I can’t remember the name now. And Grandad did try to contact him once he was out of hospital, back home again. He wrote, more than once, apparently. But he never got a reply.’
The place had not filled up yet. The same young barman who had served them the previous evening - Kevin, they had learnt - was on duty again. He was busying himself behind the bar, polishing glasses and arranging his bottles. He enquired if they’d had a pleasant day.
‘We’ve been flying,’ said Tom.
‘We tried to persuade the pilot to let us off here,’ added Laura.
Kevin smiled. ‘It’s not unknown. We had a Sea King helicopter make an emergency landing on one of the runways not that long ago. We had the whole crew up here. We gave them drinks and a meal while they waited for their lift.’
‘Tom’s grandfather would have approved of that,’ said Laura.
‘He was an Anson pilot,’ Tom explained. ‘He was stationed here during the war. An engine caught fire and he had to ditch out by Ailsa Craig.’
‘That must’ve been rough,’ said Kevin. ‘Was he all right?’
As they finished their drinks, Tom recounted the story. Kevin listened attentively.
A little later a large party came into the bar and Kevin excused himself. Tom and Laura got up to make their way into the restaurant. He slipped his arm through hers.
‘Thank you for today,’ he said.
Laura smiled and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. ‘It’s been lovely – and it’s not over yet. I’m starving!’
Two weeks later, back in London, a small package dropped through their letterbox. It was stamped Turnberry Resort and addressed to Tom. Laura eyed it curiously, wondering if he had left something behind and not mentioned it to her.
When he got home from work that evening she watched as he opened it and took out a slim object about the length of his finger and wrapped in tissue paper. With it were a typed Turnberry compliments slip and a folded, handwritten letter.
‘Mr Maclean asked us to forward this to you,’ read the compliments slip. ‘We hope you enjoyed your stay.’
‘Mr Maclean?’ said Laura.
Tom shrugged, unwrapped the tissue and paused, his expression a mixture of shock and recognition, at the sight of a small bone-handled pocketknife with two blades, a spike and a corkscrew. It was worn and smooth to the touch, though his fingers brushed against something on the underside. He turned it over to see a silver oval set into the bone. It was engraved in copperplate with the initials GF and the date 8 May 1941.
His hand trembled slightly as he picked up the letter and read aloud:
Dear Mr Fletcher,
We don’t know one another, yet it seems we are connected by this little pocketknife.
As you will see from the initials, it almost certainly belonged to your grandfather, Giles Fletcher. It must have fallen out of his pocket when my father, Douglas Maclean, pulled him from the life raft after his plane went down by Ailsa Craig in autumn 1943. It had rolled under some equipment and my father only found it much later. He tried to contact your grandfather but failed. It seems these things were difficult in wartime.
I must explain at this point that my father is still alive, aged ninety-three, and in good health, though minus two fingers which he lost as a young man in a fishing accident – the vital clue in your description which put young Kevin Thomson, the barman at Turnberry, on our trail! He happened to mention it to a golfing friend of mine, who is a regular at the hotel and very well connected in the area.
This gentleman at once recognised my father as the skipper of the fishing boat in question. So it is young Mr Thomson that we really have to thank for what I trust is a happy reunion with your grandfather’s little possession.
Those are the bare facts, Mr Fletcher, but there is slightly more to this story. My father had a small fishmonger’s business in Ayr. He also had a share in a boat, though he didn’t often go out and, in fact, was only skippering that day because his partner was off with flu. In any case, during the war he struggled, as everyone did. But just before the war ended his fortunes seemed inexplicably to take a turn for the better. Over the next few years his business grew and grew, and in due course he started what became one of the most successful refrigerated haulage companies in the west of Scotland. He became a wealthy man, and he has always maintained that his change of fortune began in spring 1945, at exactly the time he discovered the knife. It had been lying all that time in a puddle of oil which had prevented it from rusting away. My father cleaned it up and kept it as a talisman. He was a superstitious man – fishermen often are – and I think he felt that it was some kind of acknowledgement for having come to your grandfather’s rescue. I personally remember it well, he carried it with him always. So when I heard of you, I was hesitant to mention it to him at first. But when I eventually did, he said at once that it must be returned to its owner’s family. “I’m an old man who has had his luck,” he said. “I don’t need it any longer.”
So there we are. I have great pleasure in returning it to you. I hope that if you ever come this way again you will look us up, and if my father is still with us – God willing – we can all visit Turnberry together and raise a glass to your grandfather and young Kevin Thomson.
Tom put the letter down and picked up the pocketknife again, turning it over in his hands.
‘You’ve seen it before?’ asked Laura, mystified. ‘How ...?’
‘I haven’t, not this one,’ he answered at length. ‘Though it is his. The date is his twenty- first birthday. But I’ve seen another just like it...’ He paused and Laura thought she saw his eyes moisten. ‘He gave it to me for my eighteenth birthday. An identical one. I lost it when I was a student. I was devastated about it.’
Oscar sat proudly in the cab as they drove slowly around the field and back again. Already he was thinking how he would tell his friends at home. He was so happy he felt as if his heart would burst.
He held the knife in silence, gripping it tightly in his fist. Then he turned to Laura with a smile.
‘You didn’t know quite what you were starting when you booked that weekend at Turnberry, did you?’