The Blackbird

Today I submitted my entry for the Guardian Short story competition.  The theme was “Summer” and there was a 2000 word limit. I realise that as I have only written a couple stories before, the chance of winning are slim to non existent.. but I really enjoyed writing it and hopefully I’ll write more in the future.


It was dad’s idea to go. We were sitting at the dining table one evening with mum. The other two had left to do whatever small town Midlands kids did in the mid 1970’s, and I was putting off doing my homework as usual, going through my Observer’s Book of Planes trying to memorise as many facts as possible so that I could impress anyone who might be interested. I think even then though, I was aware that it was never likely to be a very long list and that the two names highest on it, were at that very moment sitting in the same room, at the same table….

“Dad, do you know how fast the Saab J37 Viggen can fly?

“Mum, do you know how far Concorde can fly on full tanks of fuel? and so on, learning, testing and remembering.

Dad had read in one of his newspapers recently that a very special visitor was expected at this year’s Farnborough International Air Show, a biennial event that we’d not been to before and that he thought would make for an enjoyable “family jamboree”. The air show was sometime at the beginning of September and would bring the summer holidays nicely to an end. Over the next few days however it became apparent that this particular jamboree was going to struggle to get off the ground. No one apart from dad really knew where Farnborough was, and when he told us it was a “only a couple of hours away” somehow we all instinctively knew that it was probably much further than that. My sister had already made plans for what was the last the last weekend before having to go back to school and didn’t see why she had to change them to spend ages going god knows where, in a hot car to see some silly planes.

My brother was really a bit too young to have an opinion that mattered, and my mum was surprisingly ambivalent about the suggestion, especially as she always loved our big days out, preparing picnics and organising coats and toys with a seemingly endless enthusiasm. Maybe it was just her way of subtly coming out in support of my sister wanting to stay at home, or maybe she realised how much a day out with just dad would mean to me.

So there it was. An outcome far better than I could ever have expected, a whole day out, just the two of us on a big adventure: an exciting car journey topped off by lots of planes and noisy engines. Now that really was something to write about on my first day back at school. Over the next couple of weeks, I planned for the trip. I asked dad to show me all the newspaper articles that he came across and cut them out for my scrap book. I spent ages pouring over my aircraft books, reading and re-reading everything I could about the planes I hoped I’d be seeing, so that when the day finally arrived, a bright, sunny Saturday, I was so excited I couldn’t sit still.

After an early breakfast, dad and I climbed into the car, waved goodbye to mum and drove off towards the main road. Dad had carefully worked out the best route and remembered to bring the atlas, and I had carefully worked out how many sweets we might need and remembered to bring them along with all my aircraft books which now sat expectantly on the back seat. As if any further confirmation were needed that today was going to be a good day, dad pushed a familiar and well used green cassette into the stereo and the dulcet tones of Karen Carpenter filled the car. And so it was that with both of us singing along to a song about “crawfish pie” and “mesherameeyos…” we pulled out onto the virtually empty main road and headed south toward the wonders that the day held in store.

The main wonder and the reason that this years air show had received more press than usual, was the “special visitor” that dad had read about in the paper. The USAF Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird, the mere name of which was enough to set my pulse racing, was on its way to the UK for the first time. I had pictures of this sleek, sinister and oddly shaped plane in my books, and knew by heart the things that set it apart: it was made of titanium, it was virtually invisible to radar and flying at over 2000 miles an hour at 24000 meters, it flew faster and higher than any other plane on the planet. It came into service the same year I was born, effectively making us the same age, and I was now on my way to actually go and see one. I could hardly wait. To finally get to hear those twin engines and hopefully have my photo taken standing next to it… the anticipation was almost too much. Still, there were many miles to go before then and we both settled into the car enjoying the music and the sunshine.

After a short silence, while I concentrated on unwrapping my next sweet, and dad tapped along to the music, I asked as casually as I could, if there were any hills between home and the air show. He smiled at me knowingly, having already guessed the reason for my question, but asked me why I wanted to know, humoring me. My thoughts went back to our holiday in Wales earlier that summer when on the way back to our caravan after a day out exploring in the surrounding hills, dad had turned the cars engine off and we had rolled silently up and down the undulating landscape, alternately gaining and losing momentum until, despite all of us loudly willing the car to make it up one last slope, the heavy vehicle succumbed to the inevitable rules of gravity and friction and had to have help from the engine to get us to the top. Having enjoyed it so much a month or so earlier, I just wanted to do it over and over again, repetition being a pretty key ingredient of what I considered fun. So it was with a sense of disappointment that I listened as my father explained that he didn’t think there were any suitable hills between our home and Farnborough and that as it was a Saturday morning, the roads would be too busy for such a potentially dangerous (not to mention illegal) stunt. Reluctantly I had to accept that he was right, but not before I made him promise that if the opportunity came to relive the feeling of travelling in a silent car, we would.

As it turned out dad’s estimate of about 2 hours was pretty good, and the journey passed by so quickly that I hardly had any time at all to impress dad with a few last key aviation based facts before we reached the town of Farnborough, just to the north of the airfield.

I don’t know when the awful realisation that something was wrong started to sink in to dad’s head, but I didn’t notice anything until we got right up to the airfield. Looking around we could both see that there were hardly any other cars, and there was none of the associated hustle and bustle that these large events always seem to generate, no hot dog stalls, no burger van smells and no police presence either.

We pulled up to the security post and as Dad got out and I watched him walk over to the guard, I felt sadly deflated. All that waiting and excitement for nothing. Dad spoke to the guard for only a minute or two and then came back, sat down in the drivers seat and looked across at me. I could tell by his face that all was not well and even as I hoped that he was going to say we were simply in the wrong place, I knew we were not.

The bad news was that he had got the dates wrong. He didn’t know how, as he was positive he had checked them in the paper and I could tell he was just as disappointed as me. I managed to just about hold back the tears as he went on to explain that the one consolation was that we had actually got there a week early and therefore hadn’t actually missed the show. As he sat there and promised me that we would, without fail, make the journey again the following weekend, I took a deep breath, bravely fought the need to cry and started to feel better. If Dad wasn’t going to cry, then neither was I.

So that was it. Sadly there was not going to be any Blackbird spotting today, and there was nothing else to do but turn the car around and head back the way we had just come. Aircraft facts didn’t seem quite so important on the way home, so we played a game of pub cricket by counting the number of legs of the occupants of pub signs, stopping at a four runs count for dad (The Red Dragon) in a small village about halfway home, sitting out in the garden and enjoying our lunch in the beautiful sunshine.

Homeward journeys never seem to take as long as outward ones, especially when you’re playing games, and it wasn’t long before we were on familiar roads and nearing home. As we pulled up into the drive we could both see the look of surprise on mum’s face at the kitchen window. As she came out to ask what had happened, dad told her our story, and she gave me a big hug, asking me if I was alright.

It was at that moment that the huge excitements and disappointments of the day finally kicked in and my young eyes started to well up. As I helplessly let mum take control and lead me into the house, I was vaguely aware that dad sounded a bit surprised, telling mum how brave I’d been all the way home. I know I should have tried to stop and continued being brave like my dad, but it’s very hard when your mum’s in total control, and anyway, I knew I could cry now because next week dad and I would be doing it all again, and this time we would definitely get to see the Blackbird.

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