“Jack! Hey, Jack! Wake up, there’s someone to see you.”
“Ohhhh ... go away, Martin. I’m dead.”
The man on the bed didn’t bother to face Martin in the doorway or even open his eyes. Instead, he rolled to his left and curled up. Undeterred, Martin rushed to the bed and shook Jack with vigor, then bounced back to the doorway and swayed hanging on the doorframe, knees bent.
“Jack!” Martin wasn’t about to give up so easily. “I think you want to see who came in today.”
“No one’s coming today. Not that I know of at least. Go away and fix my funeral.” He curled up even tighter and pulled the covers over his head.
Martin let out an exasperated sigh and returned to the task at hand. “Jack—she flew in on the Trans-Oceanic last night, and now she’s here. She stayed at Sir Randolph’s guest house overnight at Tulagi and they brought her here just now. She says she knew Don. She wants to talk to you about Don Wheeler.”
Martin pulled the covers off Jack’s head to reveal an unkempt, unshaven man in his early thirties, hangover incarnate. Martin shook his head. “You should know better, Jack. Never ever drink with the Headmen. Their beer is not of this world. Besides, you need to get up anyway. No time to sleep all day.”
Jack tried to force his eyelids open, but now Martin was standing against the bright morning light flooding the hut from the open doorway. The blacksmiths in Jack’s head accelerated to full speed. The blood rushing between his ears sounded like a mighty furnace bellows, driven on by a feverish pulse.
“Come on, you want to see this lady. She’s not here for a holiday.”
Pushing himself up, Jack sat upright on the bed. With unfocused eyes, he tried to stand but fell back on the mattress instead, hitting his head on the curve of the corrugated iron wall. With a strained effort Jack finally stood up and managed to train his eyes on the porch bathing in the brilliant Solomon Islands sun.
A lady in a light dress with flowers stood there, on the porch. In her hand she held a purse and beside her was a leather Gladstone valise. Pushing Martin’s extended arm away, Jack dragged his feet to the door, painfully aware of the finesse his appearance lacked this morning.
“Jack McGuire?” The lady smiled. “So nice to finally meet you. I’m Kay Wheeler.”
The lady held out her hand. Jack took it and felt her firm grip. He tried to fix the name with someone Don might have mentioned when they flew together way back when, but his brain flashed “No Match”. But then, that morning, even his mother’s name might have pressed him hard.
Eventually the lady’s surname registered. A relation of Don’s? A sister or something?
“Hello,” he managed. “Have a seat.”
Martin stepped in, sparing a disgusted glance for Jack. “Would you like something to drink? All we have is gin and tonic, and some local beer, I’m afraid, but I think the gin would be safer.”
Kay nodded. “That would be great, thank you. It’s so hot already. It’s not like this in Boston.” She sat down on a rickety director’s chair on the porch. Martin nodded and went inside to the small wooden cabinet to make her a drink.
By now Jack had his head a bit clearer, and he was running it double time. Boston? Don had never mentioned Boston. Meanwhile Martin had returned to the porch and had passed the drink to the lady, who smiled her thanks and had a sip.
“I always thought Don was from Washington,” Jack ventured.
“Yes, he was born in Seattle, but I met him in New Mexico in 1939. We married in 1940, and you sailed out with him in July 1942.”
Jack was stunned. Don was married? As far as he knew, Don Wheeler was the archetype of the womanizing fighter pilot. Indeed, his wallet was among the thickest Jack had seen, not because of greenbacks but because of phone numbers hastily scribbled on the backs of restaurant bills, napkins and any other stationery available on the move.
So how come Don had married this lady, was living with her in Boston, and yet had collected such a walletful of acquaintances? He’d been even faster than Jack had imagined. Besides, it was not possible to be a married aviation cadet, at least assuming regulations were followed.
A response of some sort was in order. “Ah. Well, yes. Right. Ummm... How did you find me? Can I help you with something?” Stupid, Jack thought, but he could not help it.
“Well, that’s why I came, you see. Don used to talk about you when he was on leave, telling me how you always flew together.” A brief shadow crossed the woman’s face. “And when the official letter came, just saying he was killed in action, I needed to know more of his death. But I couldn’t get started. It took me years to get to this point.” She paused for a moment.
“So last year, when I finally decided to do something about this, I went through his letters again. I found some names and tracked down John Radner. He said that you were with Don on his last flight and I should try to find you.”
“Bunny Radner? Is he still in the Marines?” Hearing his squadron commander’s name felt odd to Jack, like an echo in a corridor of closed doors.
“No, he’s out on a...medical discharge due to an accident he had in ’45. He has an office supplies shop in Manhattan now. But he thought you could help me—he sent his very best regards to you. It so happens he had a newspaper clipping on his office wall, New York Times? It or some other paper sent a reporter here.”
Jack tried to remember a reporter visiting the area, but could not. He merely nodded in agreement because he found no useful comment, and let Kay go on.
“…and he passed through the Solomons on his way to Japan to see how the South Pacific was recovering and stayed with you. Now I knew the part of the world you were in. The rest was easy—I just wrote to the British authorities here and they knew you.” Kay’s face had returned to normal.
Jack’s head felt like a vacuum. “How did you get here? Sit on a copra ship for a week?”
“No, actually I flew to Sydney and went to the harbor to find a ship for the last leg. I was told that besides ships, I could try and see if the Trans-Oceanic Airways was headed this way soon. I was in luck, and only waited three days for a flight. A cruise would have been just as fine though,” Kay added with her head held high, looking every bit the adventuress.
She looked around. “And now I’m here. Is this place Tulagi? I thought I’d stayed overnight at Tulagi—the British administrator was very kind and offered me the guest house. The boatman talked of Hale ... Halava? Something like that?”
“Halavo Bay, that’s the bay down there,” said Jack, pointing west down the gently sloping hill towards the deep-blue waters gleaming between the trees. “Tulagi is where you landed. I just thought to call my place Tulagi Hotel because nobody would know Halavo, but someone may know Tulagi, at least those who were here in the war.”
Jack studied her face intensely, trying to remember her from somewhere, to pin a label on her, but gradually felt ashamed of scrutinizing her. Kay was not a stunning beauty, but her delicate eyes glinting with intellect and curiosity and high-angled eyebrows caught Jack’s gaze, and for a brief moment he felt he had achieved complete contact with her.
He decided to return to the original conversation. “And yes, I flew with Don. I mean, I was his wingman. And he was my wingman. Always. We never flew with anybody else.”
Jack sounded stupid to himself, but Kay encouraged him with her eyes, so he went on.
“I was his wingman when he died. It was an even day. On an odd day he’d have been on my wing. It’s a long story, really.” Jack looked over Kay’s shoulder into the bay, where his OS2U Kingfisher floatplane was moored, aligning itself with the light wind.
Kay settled to a more pleasant posture in her chair, which let out snapping sounds of imminent structural failure, a counterpoint of suspense to Jack’s prologue.
“I’m not sure you want to hear it all,” Jack said, hoping she’d agree.
“I would very much like to hear that story, if you’d tell me, please. I need to know how it all happened. I’ve spent so much time wondering if he suffered much.” Kay let her gaze traverse the lush surroundings and paused a moment on the beautiful woodwork decorating the window of the hut. Then she fixed her light-blue eyes on Jack’s bloodshot and black-rimmed ones.
Jack’s head swung as if he’d been hit.
“No, I don’t think he knew a thing. It was a routine mission from Munda to Bougainville, nothing special.” He picked up a half-empty beer bottle from the floor, had a sip of the stale contents, flicking the loose and torn label with his thumb. He needed a tangential focal point to recall that single mission which had become an almost unreachable part of his memory, fossilized by the sediment of dead emotion.
He was about to embark on a voyage to dark waters.