Catherine released her firm grip from the steering wheel as she absent-mindedly listened to the incessant pattering of rain assaulting the metallic roof of her car. She watched little streams of rain sliding down the windscreen, taking full advantage of the cessation of slashing and hacking wipers. The perpetual grey wall of liquid surrounding her refused to submit to conformity – it assumed a rebellious life of its own, dispatching screaming gusts which tore through narrow valleys, through patchwork fields and claustrophobic, cobblestoned streets. Catherine jerked the car door open with a snap, slamming it behind her. She shuddered from the onslaught of rain that danced all over her body. Her long, coffee coloured hair mimicked the animations of the unbuttoned wings of her pale blue cardigan; the velvet mane thrashed and whirled along to the screaming wind like the sails of an ancient ship at sea. Like the fall of a great boulder, the thick sky suddenly exploded with an echoing boom – in a series of flashing strobes, snake-like tongues of silver cavorted across the puffy, steel coloured barrier above.
As a child, Catherine had been terrified of thunder and lightning – her grandfather, a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War, had been the instigator of such fear.
“When I first met your grandmother, God bless her restin’ soul,” Catherine’s grandfather had once told her in his thick Cockney accent after he’d slugged a few glasses of gin and tonic; he then pointed to the deep scar that formed from his weathered cheek and carved a skinny stream down to the slack skin on his neck, “she thought I’d gotten this little nasty thing after I let a snapper - I mean a Messerschmitt – jump me from above.”
A sharp, wet laugh which carried connotations of age like lines of laughter cutting into the sides of the man’s eyes, left the grandfather’s throat. The old man gently cupped the waist of his granddaughter, planting the captivated six-year-old girl on his lap. “But I was too good for those crafty bastards. I’d never let a snapper jump me from above, even if some boffin German engineers made their aircraft superior to the ones sportin’ the Queen’s Colours.”
“I thought you were shot down?” A innocent Catherine asked, staring up at the man she adored with all her heart. “I thought that was how you got the scar, Grandad? That’s what Nana said before she went to heaven.”
The old man laughed incredulously. “Shot down? Me? My gal, I was the best bloody pilot this country ‘ad when Hitler was around. You fink the best bloody pilot in Britain would get shot down by a kraut in a Messerschmitt? I’d ‘ave rather serve Mein Fuhrer before I let that happen.”
A little Catherine cupped her mouth with her hand, giggling at her grandfather’s cussing.
“I didn’t get shot down by a snapper. That was some bollocks the Wing Commander made up, to make our unit look good because trust me, my gal, we were gettin’ battered when the Huns tried to invade this country.”
“Then what happened, Grandad?” Catherine asked with a mischievous grin. “Were you too drunk to drive a plane?”
“’Fly,” the old man corrected, smiling at his granddaughter’s snarky comment. “You don’t ‘drive’ an aircraft, darlin’. You fly it. Anyway, it was a bad day. Thick clouds, strong winds and limited visibility. Flyin’ back in the day was much more difficult than today – you get little boys and girls sittin’ in the cockpit these days, because those modern aircraft do everythin’ for ‘em. Don’t have to lift a bloody finger, they don’t, these young lads and lasses. A bloody monkey could do their work. I mean, these days, you can shoot down an enemy down from a distance of over a hundred miles. Where’s the fun, and not to mention the skill, in that?” A disapproving snort and a bitter shake of the head was followed by the clinking of ice; the old man lifted a tumbler swirling with gold coloured fluid, finishing the rest of his drink. “Anyway, yeah, we was caught up in a big dogfight over Essex. You know what a dogfight is, don’t you?”
Catherine nodded eagerly, pleased she was versed in grown-up matters.
“Well, the dogfight was bad, but the weather was even worse. Couldn’t see a bloody thing. Next thing I know a streak of lightnin’ hits my poor aircraft. Felt like a punch from Zeus Himself. The impact knocked straight me cold and my aircraft, from a height of six thousand feet, plummeted to the ground. I was lucky it was a belly-up landin’ on a farmer’s field and not a nose-dive in the middle of London. If it had been the latter, let’s just say that you wouldn’t exist, sweetheart.”
The thought of a rampant storm, of thunder and lightning wreathing her indomitable grandfather in an abyss of terror, had shaken the little girl. The thought of nature, and not man, being able to toss aside metal and flesh with such nonchalance had made Catherine wary. And so she’d shuddered whenever she heard the crack of thunder piercing the air – she’d blinked and retreated when she saw silver strobes indicating incoming danger like the snarling jaws of a leopard. Even through adulthood, Catherine’s fear, although somewhat anesthetised with age, had remained alive in a deep hole that was bleached with thin flickers and shafts of light – by the hope of clawing itself back to the surface and prevailing on the creature it had once taken with all its might.
But Catherine wasn’t frightened today. She barely noted the rumbles and flashes. She hugged her shoulders as she ambled forward. She stood precariously on the edge of the white-washed precipice. The young woman stared down at the angry, grey and frothy white jaws slamming against the black stumps of rock continuously emerging and submerging under the white sprays of liquid, desperately fighting against the powerful rhythm of nature; a battle that was about as futile as an avid atheist thumbing a Christian prayer bead in the face of impending danger.
It was easy just to let go for Catherine. It was easy to let the muscles relax, to close the eyes, to swing forward in a single motion and to let those hungry jaws claim her. But it was only the sight of the grey barrier lingering above the violently pitching sea and the choppy white jaws that stopped her. It was only the sky that was alit by sliver flame and ice cream grey that made her envisage the days of her late grandfather. The summer of 1940 – the year when the blue skies of Southern England were plagued thousands of miniature, ebony coloured ant-like figures moving through the air like the great sheets of an armada. By the hundreds of angular Messerschmitt fighters that protectively flanked the hundreds of fat-bellied Junker bombers moving across the blessed moat of the English Channel – an obstacle that had aggravated foreign invaders since the days of Julius Caesar.
Dover, Catherine’s hometown, had been on the forefront during that summer of 1940. The skies of the little coastal town had been ravaged by the demonic wails of diving Stuka bombers targeting both military and commercial ships in the harbour, by the raucous screams of darting fighters, by the deep rumbles of steady bombers passing overhead, by the white contrails which etched the sky in endless thin streams after a climactic battle. Catherine’s grandfather had been a nineteen-year-old young man from the East End during that summer. A young man who, like most his age, had a voracious passion for booze, fun and women. A young man who had been completely oblivious about what he was getting himself into.
Catherine stared at Dover lying below and two miles to her right. She stared at the compact houses that were perched on a steadily falling hill, at the networked streets that wove here and there in smart links like snaking veins, at the little flickers of incandescent orange and the round, white and red little lights that moved through the correlating veins like strange fireflies. She’d grown up in that little town. In the town where one could jump on a Channel ferry and be in France in a little under thirty minutes. The town where the sea was fair and blue when the sun summoned its courage, where the boys and girls stole first kisses on the shore when the sea met the moon-blanched land.
The young woman focused her steady gaze on Dover Harbour; on the elongated arms of jetties jutting outward like splayed fingers. The anchored boats steadily heaved along with the ocean that crashed against the man-made quays like a battering ram. Violent sprays of silver mists ravaged the labyrinth of walkways. The chequered red and white lighthouse sported its great Eye of Mordor; the almost supernatural arm of silver light slowly rotated at the apex of the lighthouse, casting a moon-shaped glare on the pitching sea. An incessant series of fountain-like explosions assaulted the jagged rocks around the base of the lighthouse, as though the liquid legions were retaliating from the eye’s incandescent infringement of their territory.
The tears which fell from Catherine’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks mixed with the beads of rain forming temporary scars on her face; an emotional gesture that was soon overwhelmed and forgotten by nature like the hollow space in the pit of her belly. Catherine turned away from the cliff. She brushed by her car as her converse trainers squelched through the muddy ground. After navigating through a phalanx of trees whose boughs and leaves swayed to the song of the screaming wind, Catherine followed the winding path to the beach – the place where she and her grandfather had gone on countless walks.
The sand on the beach was nothing more than a quagmire, causing Catherine’s feet to sink deeply, the shingle carpet clawing to her covered ankles. The subtle smell of sea weed, fresh salt and wet earth wafted into her nose, evoking a scything montage of mental sounds and images – of laughter with friends, of fooling around with boys, of sitting down and listening to her grandfather tell her about what it was like to see and hear death coming towards him.
Catherine placed her hand on her stomach, stifling the sob that threatened to tear through her from the recesses of her shattered soul. She listened to the grating roars of the foam-coated waves crashing against the shore, the hoarse crack roaring from the pebbles that were flung and drawn back as painful as the scream that left her lungs when she felt death ripping through her womb for the third time. The crashing waves reminded her of the repetition of history; a replay of tremulous cadence, of pleasure, conception and growth, of the eternal note of sadness lingering in her heart, the one the sea mimicked with accurate cruelty.
The silent streak of silver smiling across the sky caused her to jerk her head to her left, to notice the jagged, grey silhouette of the Twelfth Century Dover Castle perched on the apex of those famous white cliffs. Catherine remembered being a child and venturing on many trips to the iconic castle with her family. She remembered how her grandfather had frowned and muttered a curse when a flock of obnoxious seagulls plopped themselves on the roof of the ancient structure. Catherine’s grandfather was not only prejudiced against seagulls because of their maddening squawks, but also because of their hunting methods – the ninety degree angles the birds adopted when tearing towards the sea in hunt for fish reminded him of the Stuka bombers that dove and ravaged the town Catherine had grown up in.
“Rude bastards,” the old man had once muttered after buying a little Catherine an ice cream from the gift shop, glaring up at the calling seagulls. “Look at ‘em. Filthy animals.”
Catherine licked her ice cream, a small smudge of white sticking to the tip of her sharp nose. She giggled like she always did when she was with her favourite person in the world. “Grandad, do you hate all birds then?” She asked in a small voice.
The former fighter pilot took his granddaughter’s hand, leading her along a walkway. “Not all birds.”
“Liar!” Catherine snapped in mock offense.
“Have I ever lied to you, sweetheart?”
Catherine thought about that for a moment. She then shook her head. “Okay, which birds do you like?”
“Which ones, then?”
“Um . . . eagles, hawks, falcons . . .”
Later in life, Catherine would learn that the only reason her grandfather admired those birds was because they were birds of prey, like he’d once been.
“But the ones I really like are doves,” he continued.
“Doves? You mean like the birds that are white?”
“Because they’re polite, intelligent and breathtakingly beautiful.” He paused, staring down at his granddaughter with the smile he reserved for her, and only her. He then scooped Catherine up by her tiny waist, evoking a shrill but satisfied scream from the girl. He held her close, kissing her forehead. “So basically they’re like you, sweetheart.” With the little girl in his arms, the grandfather ambled over to the edge of the walkway.
Below the battlements grandfather and granddaughter were standing on, an inviting view allowed itself to be devoured by those that couldn’t resist. Sloping greens that scarred the countryside with winding country roads and full hedges extended into eternity. Sun-baked villages intersected the rolling patchwork fields here and there. The swell of Dover rose beneath the castle like a bloated stomach, the clutter of terraced houses and streams of roads leading to the circular mouth of the harbour. Beyond the town and the sprawling fields, white cliffs, almost like crystal in their nature, beamed with the same pride of the country’s national flag. The ocean sparkled tenderly from the ribbons of rays the sun shot from space, evoking occasional white winks from the metallic exteriors of the sailboats which glided through the Channel. Even at tender young age, Catherine had stared at the scenery around her and envisaged confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies had once clashed by night.
“You see that?” The grandfather waved towards the subtle smog which obscured the faint outline of the landmass dotting the horizon - of the sight of France.
Catherine rested her head against her grandfather’s chest and nodded.
“That’s where the Germans came from.” The man’s weathered arm then shifted to the town of Dover. “And that’s where you came from. That, my gal, is your town. And since it’s your town, do you know what that makes you?”
Catherine shook her head.
He tickled her nose. “That makes you the Dove of Dover.”
“The Dove of Dover?” Catherine repeated in a fascinated tone.
She smiled. “Why does that make me the Dove of Dover?”
For a moment, and only a brief moment, the former pilot stared towards the sea – towards the source that had bred so much pain, anguish and terror. His brown eyes narrowed, the smile on his face vanishing and paving way for cold passiveness. His muscles contracted and he felt himself sub-consciously holding his granddaughter closer, almost as though he was making sure she was there and she wasn’t a phantasm of a mind that had no right to be wreathed in such bliss.
Only the sweet voice of Catherine jolted the man from his reverie. He smiled at her and kissed her forehead once more. “When you grow up and have your own children,” he whispered, “you’ll understand. You’ll understand why you’re the Dove of Dover to me when you see your own eyes in another human being.”
The words Catherine’s grandfather had told her, the words of having children of her own, echoed through her brain, sending electric charges to a tired heart and evoking further woe. Her body shuddered from the heavy rain and the stinging cold; the gesture being a biological reflex of necessity, not consensual acknowledgement. Catherine balled a fistful of wet sand in her hands – watched it slip through her fingers.
The roars from the sea elevated in anger as her mind scythed through a montage that had repeated itself for the very third time only recently; the unbearable pain from the abdomen, the wall of invisible heat that felt about as intense as a rogue conflagration, the dizziness, the wetness down below and the dread that devoured her with the darkness of a cold, winter night. The fear of knowing that the very thing that was supposed to give life had stolen it. Ripped it out and tossed it aside right within the walls of her sacred sanctity. Extinguished the beautiful dove that was rightfully hers.
Her shoulders heaved, her chest trembled, her throat swelled. Her legs gave up from beneath her. Catherine crashed onto the wet sand and let out the sharp cry of an anguished mother – a harrowing ache that only a woman could comprehend. She felt the miniscule stings of the sand matting to her face as her fingers clawed deep into the earth. The voice of her doctor floated in her mind, the formal and very familiar apology being the prequel to a stream of carefully worded sentences which suggested other “options.” The doctor’s voice was followed by the sweet voice of her husband. She heard him telling her they could try again after a third miscarriage – that they could have a child.
Catherine lay still. She laid on the very land her grandfather and his friends had defended, the very land the Romans had set foot upon, the land where she had played, loved and laughed as a child. Where she, the Dove of Dover, had graced upon with her own footsteps, her own identity.
She closed her eyes and dreamt of her own Dove running along the shore, giggling as she gave chase, as she saw her own brown eyes in another human being.