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Chapter 20

When Carter first decided that he wanted to be in the Air Force; that exact moment, was something that eluded him at first when he thought back. Sure, like many teens growing up in America, he dreamed as a child of becoming a brave and dashing fighter pilot, wooing the ladies and engaging in terrifying dogfights. In so many words, he supposed, that had come true. He had in fact lived the washed-up hero fallacy for a while, attending wine socials, shaking hands with diplomats, couriering important envelopes, that sort of thing, all for ridiculous sums of money. This was a time he was more decided on; the moment where he had realised that he did not want to be a fighter pilot anymore, at least not for the sake of money. But where the ambition began was a mystery.

It could have been his time in Scotland that influenced him. The area where he had lived, though primarily consisting of open moor-land, was also the location of an RAF training facility. It wasn’t large, or at least, not much of it was visible; it had been built where the moors ended and patches of trees obscured much of the landscape. All that was really on show were a few old-fashioned buildings, a military checkpoint and a gate with a warning from the British government tastefully adorned on it. There could well have been bunkers, hangars and even planes hidden in the more dense undergrowth. This sense of not seeing the full picture piqued Carter‘s interest. He wanted to see more.

One weekend, he and Oliver had gone on a military tutorial at the RAF centre; a kind of exercise camp, usually the sort of thing forced on the obese generation in America, but open to anyone here in Scotland. The camp had involved rugged hikes across the moors, assault courses through freezing mud and scrounging pints from a local pub. Carter had asked Oliver what he wanted to get out of it; they had both had important assignments to do for their English course at the university, and Carter had been reluctant to put off writing his up. His cousin had shrugged off the question, mumbling something about getting into shape. Carter had nodded, but only out of respect for his privacy. Oliver had been in good shape the entire time he had known him, and the lie told Carter that his cousin was secretly toying with the idea of joining the RAF, much as he now was. He could relate with that. So he had forgotten about the course for the weekend, and had got stuck in. The drill sergeants in charge of the programme were hard-assed, as Carter had expected. Sometimes, he reckoned he could hear them shouting all the way from his campus, and even sometimes when he was lying awake at night in Brian’s cottage. One of them had turned on him on the first day.

“Oi! Yank! Down and poosh 50!”

Carter hadn’t said or done anything to warrant this seeming punishment. The man in charge had simply jumped up in front of him and yelled the command, as if to test the effectiveness of Carter’s reflexes or alternatively, his hearing. He must have been satisfied, because after watching Carter push his way through fifty press-ups and push himself to his feet and stand back to attention, the sergeant simply grunted and moved on, which Carter had come to accept as praise. If nothing was open to criticism, you were in favour. It was a simplified view of the world that appealed to Carter. He liked discipline. Not a lot of other men whom he had worked with could say the same, mind, and he reckoned they were blind to its advantages. Discipline made the world a less-complicated and therefore easier place to live in for everybody. When the time had finally come for him to enforce discipline, as a commander and as a colonel, he had fully realised the power of discipline, and decided he liked it even more. So a love of discipline, a longing for insider knowledge, and a childhood dream of touching the sky; all had contributed in their own way towards the day that he signed on at Michigan Academy as a cadet.

When the weekend camp had ended; the Sunday evening, they were discharged from the RAF centre, but not before the sergeant who had shouted at him had hailed Carter from the office inside the checkpoint, as he and Oliver were leaving. Shrugging to his cousin, Carter had sidled past the barrier and approached the window of the small outpost. The man’s big face loomed behind a plastic sliding screen. It squeaked like mice as he pulled it back.

“You’re what we’re after, Yank. You wanna give us a call…” And that was it. The man flicked a card in Carter’s direction, which he caught and read. It was the telephone number of an RAF centre, presumably this particular one. He looked up, but the man had gone, the screen replaced. Carter smiled and shook his head. He and Oliver traipsed to the pub, and while his cousin got some beers, Carter fiddled with the piece of card, absent-mindedly. Was it then that he had known what he was to do? He had thought the idea of going on the exercise had simply been as a way of keeping Oliver company, but now Carter saw that it had been more than that. He had been curious too, and had been quick to agree to accompany his cousin, too quick he realised. This was not what he wanted, was it? Had he not wanted to pursue his writing? Or journalism? What had happened to them over the past few days? Oliver had not seemed to begrudge Carter, not at first anyway, but as they made to leave the pub, The Rook, he seemed decidedly sullen, and had not spoken until they parted on the main road.

The fact was, Oliver was the more keen of the two cousins to join an Air Service. He had, a few weeks later, presumably after some considerable thought, called up Carter at Brian’s cottage and asked him if he still had the card that the sergeant had given him. Carter said that he had, paused while he pretended to look for it, and then pulled it from his pocket, and read out the number down the phone for Oliver to copy down. To Carter’s knowledge, Oliver did not sign up for RAF flight training until the following year, when he decided to drop the course he and Carter studied at the university. He apologised to Carter, saying that this was what he wanted to do, and that he couldn’t keep up with the course and concentrate on his flight training at the same time. Disappointed though he was, Carter had nodded, and smiled. He understood what his cousin saw in this avenue of education. He also understood that Oliver had split with his partner with whom he had been living for the past year, and wished to move away. That was something he talked about, ever since the weekend camp, and Carter had known that these plans were steadily coming to fruition. Since the weekend camp, Carter had read the poem ‘The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,’ by Dylan Thomas, and had forgotten about flying for now.

Carter had at first wondered whether he would still have the enthusiasm he had for the course that he had had when Oliver had been sat next to him, but he found that it still held the same appeal. The absence of his cousin meant that he soon got talking to a girl who usually sat on the other side of Oliver; a wavy-haired local girl called Lucy. She became his regular sort of buddy on the course; they would meet outside before the lecture, and would walk on home together afterwards. Lucy had lived in a dilapidated farmhouse just outside the city, so she had to walk in the other direction when they reached the main road leading out of the campus grounds. She had been slightly older than Carter, by two or three years, and actually had a young daughter, who was looked after by her mother when she was away. Carter met the kid a couple of times, when he was invited round for a drink or some dinner. He hadn’t realised at the time that he was falling for this local girl, but, it seemed, she had. One night, when they had been reading up on Alexander Pope in the campus library and were packing up their books, she had asked him whether he fancied a night on the town. Carter had heard negative things about the nightlife in Scottish cities, but had decided to accept. After all, wasn’t that what he was here for? To be different; to try new things.

In fact, Edinburgh at night turned out to be far more peaceful than some of the rougher American cities at night, in places like Detroit, and Carter was charmed by its classically-styled street lamps which pooled circles of light onto the genuine cobbles. Edinburgh’s ancient buildings and structures had loomed over them in the darkness, darkened further by the effect of the street lights so that they became like far-off monsters in a dream. They had gone to a few bars, but it was clear that they were among a minority who had chosen this as a night to hit the town, and the pubs and clubs were half-empty and surprisingly quaint. Nonetheless, they bought drinks and perched at bars, talking to barmen and women, other drinkers, locals, but mostly each other. Carter had really enjoyed it, and, slightly muzzy, vividly recalled that feeling of comfortable contentment as he and Lucy had walked back up the High Street, arm in arm, her blabbering on about something in her cute accent, him listening quietly, smiling encouragingly. He hadn’t gone home that night. Lucy had invited him in for coffee, like, she had joked, ‘in one of your cheap Yank movies.’ Carter had accepted, digging the Scottish girl playfully on the arm. They didn’t make it to the kitchen. Carter wasn’t even certain that they made it upstairs. The house had been very quiet, quilted-like, warm and semi-dark. Turning on any lights would wake her kid. Further details were unclear. When Carter had woken the next day, he decided that either the liquor he had drank was stronger than he first imagined, or that he had been overwhelmed with passion. Or some shit.

Carter’s relationship with Lucy differed slightly from some of his other longer ones, in that it ended remarkably peacefully, with negotiations on an extension suspended indefinitely, and with a promise to put the other up should they visit one another’s country in future. That had surprised him. Carter had always stayed in contact with Lucy, calling her when business or pleasure had taken him across the Atlantic in future, as he had done with his cousin before. She too would send him emails, keeping him up to date with her life. She later became a local newspaper journalist. Like Carter’s father, Lucy seemed to be achieving everything she wanted in her career; something that Carter found wasn’t happening for him. He had finally come to terms with the fact that he was to join the USAF in Michigan, his home. For now, there was no future for him in the world of literature. He had to do it; now, before he changed his mind again. So he had applied, and had awaited a response.

In that time, one week before he was set to attend a tutorial at the barracks, his family received a message from Brian back in Scotland, whom Carter had left following the completion of his course, with a promise that he would return one day with a good story, and it stated that a reconnaissance plane had been shot down by an anti-air gun over Bosnia-Herzegovina, or the battlefield that was to become it anyway, and that this plane had contained Oliver, along with three other officers, and that he was dead. Just like that. The relative who had been there for Carter when he had arrived in Scotland, looked out for him, made sure he was comfortable and happy, who he had shared beer, ambition and literature with. He was gone. Something had clicked inside Carter. That had been it. The moment he was destined to become a fighter pilot in the USAF. He worked his way through the tutorial, receiving notes of commendation from several officers, and signed on as a cadet soon after. It seemed they needed more pilots for the Bosnia Crisis and ‘Operation Deliberate Force‘. And he was happy to help.

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