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Wing Commander by Helen Angove and Joel Crisp



He’s in a hurry, but then, he’s always in a hurry. He’s just dashing through his study to pick up some sermon notes, he’s already late for the next appointment. But Hannah looks genuinely worried. He looks up, even though his whole body is poised to head straight back out the door.


“The Archbishop called.”


“The Archbishop?”


She looks momentarily flustered. “Well, I mean, his secretary, obviously.”


“What did she want?”


Hannah looks even more distressed. He realises, suddenly, that whatever this is about is going to take more than the couple of minutes that he’d mentally allowed, and he makes the appropriate cognitive adjustment. He’s giving her his full attention now.


“She… well, she sounded confused, actually.”




“Apparently – well, she says the Archbishop wants you to hear someone’s confession.”


He frowns. “Did he say why?” The Archbishop isn’t given to contacting his bishops on a whim over a matter of hearing a confession.


“No. Natalie said he wouldn’t tell her. He just said it was important. Very important.”


“How strange.”


She nods. There’s a certain emphasis to the inclination of her head that lets him know she’s as bemused as he is. Were she an ounce less professional than she is – and Hannah is a very efficient secretary – she’d have been nodding fervently.


“You have a name?”


“A Mr Smith.”


“How illuminating. Address, then.”


“She said he’s living at the Convent of the Holy Rood.” Well, that at least made sense. There were a number of elderly residents at the convent – such younger Religious as the place still attracted had come to feel their vocations lay in the direction of running the place more and more along the lines of a nursing home, providing sanctuary for retired priests and others of the religious establishment along with the increasingly elderly nuns. No doubt this Mr Smith would prove to be an elderly layman with strong church connections. Still, it was strange. The convent had its own chaplain.






Hannah looks nervous. “Well, she said it was important, so I took the liberty…”




“I rang Sir Phillip’s secretary and told him you’d be an hour late for golf this afternoon. It was the only way I could fit it into your schedule.”


He sighed. His one - jealously guarded - period of free time. Philip would be annoyed, too. But it couldn’t be helped. “Thank you Hannah. I appreciate that was probably the only solution.” She looks relieved.


He looks at his watch. “Very well. I’ll be back at one. Could you get out my purple stole, and… yes, better take the communion set and the consecrated oil as well. And could you sort me out a sandwich to eat in the car?” He smiles winningly, then pauses, forehead creasing again. “Did Natalie give you any more idea what this is all about?”


She shakes her head. “Sorry.”


*          *          *


He continues to wonder about the mysterious Mr Smith for the rest of the morning, diverting his attention from the – admittedly exceedingly dull - committee meeting he’s attending. Even the excellent sandwich that the repentant Hannah procures – bacon, white bread and real butter, in direct contravention of his wife’s, not to mention his doctor’s orders – doesn’t quite succeed in distracting him. By the time he reaches the convent he’s positively glad that Hannah had managed to set up the appointment as early as she had, if only to put an end to his speculations.


The nun who answers the convent door – one of the old school, in habit and veil - looks old enough to be in need of nursing care herself. She evinces no surprise to see him, nor when he asks to see Mr Smith.


The nun leads him through what feels like several miles of dimly lit corridor, and up at least two narrow staircases. The convent is in the Gothic Revival style, but the ostentation of the vaulted ceilings and arched window openings is belied by the scuffed and dingy linoleum on the floor, the damp-stained engravings and the peeling paintwork – hallmarks of institutional impoverishment. There’s also a faint but pervasive smell of must in the air. Had Pugin and his ilk ever guessed, the bishop wonders idly, how sorry their grand architecture would look, after nearly two centuries of increasingly compressed maintenance budgets?


Eventually, at the end of yet another corridor, at a heavy wooden door next to a faded reproduction of Hunt’s The Light of the World, the nun stops. She knocks. There’s a sound from within, and she opens the door.


Upon stepping in, the bishop’s first thought is surprise at the size of the room. It’s octagonal with a high, fan-vaulted ceiling, and each wall is set with huge arched diamond-glazed windows. The almost complete lack of furniture, however – or indeed, any concession towards human comfort whatsoever – lends the room’s grandeur more than an overtone of austerity. Even the light seems cold.


The room’s single occupant, contrasting freakishly with its surroundings, is a figure in a chrome wheelchair next to one of the windows. The figure lolls over to one side, as if it no longer has the strength to sit up straight, and seems somehow to have shrunk in on itself. It is dressed in what appears to be a hospital gown, one of the kind that ties at the back, and has a tartan blanket draped over its knees. Behind it, attached to the back of the chair, something angular has been covered by a sheet. Life support equipment, guesses the bishop, given the frailty of the chair’s occupant.


The figure raises its head. “Who’s the old bugger sent this time then?” it asks. The voice wheezes harshly.


Old bugger? thinks the bishop. The Archbishop – old bugger? And then: this time? But the figure in the chair is speaking again. “A bishop, I see. You’ll excuse me if I don’t kiss your ring.”


The bishop clears his throat. “Actually that’s a more of a Catholic custom, and a rather old-fashioned one at that…” but the figure has already made a gesture of dismissal with his hand, and the bishop’s voice trails off into silence.


“Sit down, then.”


The single item of furniture in the room is an old wooden chair placed conveniently close to the wheelchair. The bishop crosses the room and sits, placing the communion set in its case carefully on the floor beside him. Looking around, he realises that the nun who brought him here has left, closing the door behind her.


He can see the face of the wheelchair occupant now. It is an old man, as he expected, the face crumpled and collapsed in on itself, cheekbones and beaked nose jutting out sharply from the sunken cheeks. What he hadn’t expected was the expression of ill-will – the lines around the eyes hardened into a sneer, as if long years of a bitter life had caused the expression to become petrified.


Don’t pre-judge the man, thinks the bishop. He is human, like any other, and he has asked for your help.


“What can I do for you then, Mr Smith?” he asks, as cheerfully as he can manage. “You wish to make your confession?”


“I want you to listen!” growls the man’s voice. The bishop almost jumps. He had not expected such vehemence from such a wasted form.


He recovers himself. “Of course,” he replies smoothly. He arranges his face into an expression of polite attention.


“It was a mission.”


“A mission?”


“Yes, a mission! The commander had given us our orders. Top security classification.”


I see, thought the bishop. A military man. Well, he would not be the first former soldier to have found a place of refuge in the Church. “Are you sure you should be telling me this?”


“Ah,” the man makes the same gesture of dismissal as before. “All water under the bridge, now.”


“Well, if you’re sure.”


The man makes no indication of having heard, but continues with his story. “We fell down into orbit from the base station, wings in tight orbital mode…”


“I beg your pardon?”


The head came up again, abruptly this time. “What?”


“Base station? Orbit?”


“Are you trying to tell me, bishop, that you believe your pitifully narrow experience of life to comprehend all the secrets of this world?” the voice spoke sharply again.


The bishop suppresses his irritation at the insult. “Of course not. Please, carry on.” After all, he thinks, there must be many military developments to which the public is not privy – perhaps this man’s experience really does relate to one such. Give him the benefit of the doubt for the time being, anyway.


The man goes back to his theme. “As we fell, we skipped the earth's atmosphere and gradually slowed to only supersonic speeds, deploying our wings to manage the slower flight. I looked to the right and the left, checking my wingmen and their payloads. In formation we swooped on down towards our target and extended our wings to allow us to manoeuvre.”


His face is raised, now, and the dull light from the windows catches the angle of his cheek. His eyes are closed, and, with his face angled towards the light he looks suddenly arrogant and feral, an eagle in flight. His voice drops to almost a whisper.


“I remember the feel of the wind rushing past, making our flight seem so much faster than it had in orbit. I remember the sense of freedom, the joy of unfurling my wings, stretching them wide and feeling the strength of them, the latent power in them. I remember the bite of gravity, and laughing out loud because I knew it only affected me because I allowed it to. I remember the heady sense of omnipotence.”


The man has fallen silent. The bishop struggles to suppress another burst of irritation, exacerbated by the knowledge that the old man had almost had him convinced. He is elderly and confused, he thinks: he no longer distinguishes between his dreams and reality. I shall continue to listen, but only because even the senile deserve the dignity of an audience.


The silence continues, and the bishop wonders for a moment if the old man has fallen asleep. Looking up, however, he sees that the man’s eyes are open, and are regarding him steadily. His eyes are red-rimmed and watery: nevertheless they are alive with intelligence and the bishop has the sudden, unnerving impression that the old man knows exactly what he is thinking. The bishop lowers his eyes, breaking the gaze.


The old man begins to speak again, even more quietly now. The bishop has to sit forward in order to hear.


“The target was in our sights. I broadcast the command, and we unleashed the destructive power we carried. Thousands died, most of them before they even knew anything was happening. Others had the doubtful privilege of a few moments of false hope: but we circled around, returning to complete our attack, picking off the survivors as they tried to flee. Not a single man, woman or child survived: we had fulfilled our orders.”


Despite himself, the bishop finds himself trying to think of any event, any military attack of recent history that might fit the pattern the old man has described. He has to mentally shake himself to rid himself of the impression of truth that the old man’s narrative has engendered in him.


The old man is sitting up straighter. Now it is no longer collapsed in on itself the bishop can see the breadth of the old man’s chest, recognise the remnants of power in the shoulders. His breath has become audible, fast and harsh.


“Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven.” The man has abandoned his whisper, and is declaiming loudly. “And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. Genesis nineteen, verses twenty-four and twenty-five, isn’t that right, bishop?”


The bishop is grateful for familiar territory. “So you feel that this… this thing that you – you and your – er – wingmen were ordered to do – you feel it was like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah?”


But the old man gives no sign of having heard him. He is speaking again, almost as if to himself. “Duty. I did my duty. But what had they done, to deserve such punishment?”


“War is a dreadful thing,” says the bishop. “It destroys many lives, not least the lives of those who bear the guilt for the things they have done. Have you ever spoken with the others in your – er – squadron about this? Sometimes there can be a great comfort in talking with others who shared the same experience.”


The old man snorts. It might have been a laugh. “All gone. Many years ago.”


“I’m so sorry.” The bishop pauses, waiting for a reaction, but none comes. “But God does forgive, Mr Smith, He does forgive. He even forgives those who commit atrocities.”


“He does, does He?” mutters the old man.


“The picture outside your room.” The bishop has been struck with sudden inspiration.


“The Hunt print?”


“Christ stands at the door and knocks. Always. The possibility of forgiveness is constantly there. God does forgive.”


“Ah, but do I forgive Him? Maybe that’s the question we should be asking.”




“What you may not understand, bishop, what your petty, comfortable faith might not easily comprehend, is that I enjoyed it. The sheer, glorious, beautiful destruction we wrought on the earth? I revelled in it, bishop. I have never, before or since, felt so marvellously, so powerfully alive.”


The bishop tries not to show how taken aback he is. “Nevertheless, if you repent…”


“Ach.” It is a staccato expression of contempt. “Crawl to – to Him – in repentance? He made me, bishop. He made me an instrument of destruction, and then He sent me to do that which I had been designed to do. I fulfilled my purpose, and I gloried in doing so. I sent those thousands of innocents to their deaths, and I laughed. Now do you understand why I hate him? Why I can’t forgive?”


The bishop struggles to find the right words. “It may have felt – it may have seemed to you as if your purpose in life was to destroy, but I don’t think – I do not believe in a God who would create anyone with that sole purpose. I do not think any human being - ”


Human?” The old man scrabbles at the arms of his chair. He seems to be trying to push himself to a standing position. The bishop, suddenly conscience-stricken about having allowed the old man to become so worked up, leans forward - either to offer resistance or to restrain, he isn’t sure – but he’s too late. The man is on his feet, suddenly broader and straighter and more powerful than the hunched form in the chair could possibly have suggested, and the sheet is slipping off the mass behind him revealing not medical equipment, but an indistinct shape that at once gives the impression of softness and great strength, and which flexes and extends, suddenly revealing itself to be a pair of massive, powerful wings spanning nearly the entire room. The bishop is forced – almost physically it seems - back into his chair. It feels like his heart has stopped, and for a moment it is hard to breathe.


And then, as abruptly as it began, the moment is over. The figure sinks down into its chair and seems to deflate back into its hunched posture. The wings furl themselves meekly back into position behind it. Apart from the sheet – now lying crumpled on the floor – the room looks exactly as it had done when the bishop first walked into it.


“So you see, bishop,” the voice sounds breathless and slightly hoarse, but speaks in tones that are entirely conversational, “the truth is both more complex and simpler than you’d realised. Do you have anything in your box of tricks,” he gestures at the case on the floor beside the bishop’s chair, “that can make me want to repent?”


The bishop shakes his head.


“And as for that picture,” the figure inclines its head forwards towards the entrance to the room. “You have no doubt heard the old chestnut about there being no handle on the outside of the door?” The bishop nods. “Thus the door remains closed, for it will not be opened from within. Goodbye, Bishop, I shall look forward with interest to see who they send to me next year.”