Lucky Atwell's Nine Lives

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

Lucky was left without his parachute, sitting inside the turret as the tail revolved like a spinning jenny.


Henry James Atwell was born in London on 12 May 1924, the same day as Tony Hancock. While Hancock would go on to be a famous radio and television star, Atwell would mostly be known for his exceptional good luck, particularly as that luck usually manifested itself during the unluckiest of situations. It was often said that Henry must possess nine lives.

The year 1924 was a year of optimism in Britain, following on from the horror of the Great War, and in spite of the miserable weather: it was the year that the first Labour government took office, Imperial Airways was founded, the BBC started radio broadcasts in schools, both Abrahams and Liddell did Britain proud at the Olympics in Paris, and the British Empire Exhibition opened at Wembley. There was a belief that, although the war had been terrible, it had been the war to end all European wars.

Henry was the youngest of three sons born to a middle-class family residing in Richborne Terrace, Lambeth. Mr Atwell had a background in engineering and owned a small ball bearing factory; he had done quite well out of the war – avoiding conscription to boot. Mrs Atwell was particularly optimistic after backing Sansovino in the Derby and winning ten pounds; she declared Henry to be her lucky mascot – but then she was a great believer in astrology.

Henry was the easy-going, happy-go-lucky, carefree type; the type who irritates those who take life seriously. He was gregarious and affable enough, but wasn’t one for forming close and lasting friendships with other boys.

Mr Atwell had been warning Mrs Atwell and the boys that the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were too harsh and could only lead to trouble. In ’35, when The Night of the Long Knives occurred and the Austrian Corporal became President and Chancellor of Germany, Mr Atwell sensed that war was looming again, along with another good business opportunity. Of course, he didn’t realise how much air warfare had developed since the days of airships and biplanes.

By 1940, George, the eldest son, was helping run the factory with an uncle and was exempt from military service. James had started his medical training and was in the process of switching over to the Royal Army Medical Corps. Henry was in that no man’s land between childhood and coming of age, spending most of the time running errands for his parents and brothers. He anticipated eventually joining the militia.

Henry used up his first life on the night of September 27, during an air raid, when the family evacuated the house for the Anderson shelter at the bottom of the long garden. He was lagging behind George as they approached the shelter, and tripped over just as the house was hit. An oak table leg whizzed through the space he had been occupying to impale and kill his brother.

The family was now homeless and it would take time for his father to arrange their evacuation to a relative’s house in the country. In the meantime, he intended to find them a hotel, with a deep cellar, but everybody else with money had the same idea. A widower friend of Mrs Atwell’s on the Fentiman Road, agreed to take them in until alternative accommodation could be arranged. Her house had been damaged, but was still largely intact. The Atwells crammed into a single room for two weeks, before the wardens declared the house unsafe – the building’s foundations had shifted and it threatened to topple over.

Mr Atwell was reluctant to move his family into the shallow trench communal shelter at Kennington Park, but access to the Oval station and subway had been restricted. The shelter was a damp and claustrophobic series of rat tunnels covered with a thin layer of poorly set concrete; it was ripe with the smell of up to a hundred bodies. They settled into a dingy corner with the few possessions they had been able to retrieve, attempting to make themselves comfortable.

By the evening, Mrs Atwell wasn’t feeling too good; there had been too much going on for the men to ponder George’s death too deeply, but it had affected his mother and she was suffering severe depression and anxiety. James never missed an opportunity to continue with his medical studies and had gone off to explore the labyrinth’s darker recesses with a blonde girl who was far too mature for her age. Henry was sent to the Albion pub to buy some cigarettes for his father, and give his uncle a message.

Henry ended up dawdling because his uncle gave him some money for chips and scraps. By the time he’d returned from the fish and chip shop to collect the cigarettes, the air raid sirens had started wailing. They took shelter in the cellar of the pub, the punters carrying on singing, drinking and telling rude jokes about Adolf Hitler.

Henry returned shortly after 8 p.m. to find that the shelter had taken a direct hit – it was an appalling spectacle to have to witness and would haunt him for the rest of his life. His family’s bodies were never recovered, along with more than half of the other refugees.

Of course, it did mean that his inheritance would not be affected by his father’s insistence on following the outdated rules of primogeniture. Still, Henry was incensed enough to write letters to several newspapers condemning Churchill’s decision to abandon plans for the building of adequate communal shelters, along with his refusal to open up unused subway tunnels for refugees, based on his opinion that such sanctuaries would encourage the masses to hide away and not go to work – a decision that would lead to terrible tragedy for many ordinary Londoners during The Blitz.

Henry consequently earned the nickname ‘Lucky Harry’ for his knack of surviving. He moved in with the uncle who managed the factory, which he planned to sell eventually, providing him with the means to live his life as a gentleman of leisure.

 Lucky signed up for the Air Training Corps in ’41, joining 241 Squadron Wanstead and Woodford. His aim was to join Bomber Command, based on the view that it’s better to bomb than be bombed. He volunteered for aircrew in late ’42 – three months before his eighteenth birthday – but wasn’t accepted until late ’43, when London was under attack by the V1 and V2 rockets.

In March of ’44, Lucky took part in a night raid on the German Ruhr. This was lauded as an important mission to take out a rocket factory – in reality the target was actually a meat canning factory supplying the German Army’s Alsatian dogs with food. Being a newbie, he was allocated the least popular job of tail gunner.

As the squadron prepared to make its final run to the target from twenty thousand feet, a message was received via the radio that a pack of Fokker Wulf bandits was closing fast. Lucky was just thinking about popping back into the fuselage to find his parachute, when an FW190 night fighter appeared in his sights, its yellow-painted radial nose grinning like a shark in a searchlight’s beam, cannons spitting death. In the ensuing panic, some of the bombers discarded their payload early in order to make a better getaway. Lucky managed to get off one burst of the Browning machine guns before a bomb collided with his plane. The blast ripped the Halifax apart, severing the tail section from the rest of the fuselage, which ended up vertically aligned, with the tail fins and gun turret lowermost.

Lucky was left without his parachute, sitting inside the turret as the tail revolved like a spinning jenny. He instinctively abandoned the glass dome and climbed into what was left of the fuselage, bracing his shoulders and feet against the walls. All that he could see was the sky above the ripped-off edge of the tail. There was no sensation of falling, no rush of wind – in fact, it seemed like he was simply hovering in space. He thought about condemned men’s last requests and decided to smoke one last Lucky Strike before he died. Lucky was philosophical about his fate, reasoning that he’d had a good run for his money, so far.

Half the cigarette had been smoked when he began to feel the sensation of speed and motion, the blood rushing to his head – and then he heard the sound of tortured metal and was catapulted forward. Branches whipped his face and battered his body, and the next thing, he was lying on his back looking up through the boughs of pine trees. The tail section was jammed between the trunks of two lofty pines – it was now horizontal again. Lucky stood up to see that he had landed in thick mud, heavily churned by animal hooves. He couldn’t help laughing, albeit a little nervously.

Lucky was eventually caught red-handed while stealing chicken eggs from a farmyard – which just goes to show that one cannot get away with everything – and was handed over to Luftwaffe ground troops. The jägers had a good laugh when Lucky tried convincing them that he had fallen from near on fifteen thousand feet without a parachute.  Needless to say, he spent the rest of the war in captivity.

When the war ended, Lucky returned to London, finding that although his father hadn’t been much of a spender, he had been a good saver. Lucky sold the factory and paid off his uncle. He bought a maisonette in Chelsea and fully lived the life of a bachelor for a few years, though he was careful with money and made some good investments in bomb-cratered land and ruined property – having the sites cleared and levelled before selling on to building firms at a decent profit. 

Lucky then met Marcia Devereaux, or at least, that’s what she called herself – he later managed to get a look at her birth certificate and found out she was actually born Ethel Humphries. Marcia was a night club waitress and would-be singer. She was also a social climber, and a bit of a vamp, but she did look the spitting image of Jean Harlow, and although Lucky didn’t use up a life seducing her, he sure felt like a lucky dog. The whirlwind romance was soon followed by marriage, although neither of them wanted children.

Marcia proved to be a bit of a drain financially, and not so forthcoming sensually once they had married.  In late 1950, while driving to Cambridge, Marcia produced some compromising photographs of Lucky with another woman, taken by a private detective and intended as grounds for divorce. Lucky was so shocked that he lost control of the Rover, ploughed through a dry stone wall and nosedived the car into a deep ditch. He was lucky enough to escape with whiplash and a couple of cracked ribs, but unfortunately, Marcia wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and broke her neck.

Lucky was devastated by his wife’s demise, so much so that he had to take a holiday – with the life insurance money. He embarked from Southampton on a Thursday afternoon in May, aboard RMS Arundel Castle. Throughout the nineteen day mail run to Durban, South Africa, Lucky half expected the ship to sink, on account of his strange mixture of both bad and good luck. Nevertheless, the old girl made it without incident.

He enjoyed a pleasant safari before settling into a hotel in Natal’s Kosi Bay. Each morning he would go for a revitalising swim in the bay. It was a week after arriving in Natal that his second greatest escape occurred. Lucky was wading in around five feet of water when he stood on something sharp – something which slashed open the sole of his right foot. The sudden excruciating pain caused him to cry out. A young man had been swimming past and approached, asking in a North American accent if he was all right. Lucky opened his mouth to explain about the foot, but lost the power of speech as, looking over the young man’s shoulder, he saw dorsal and tail fins cutting effortlessly through the water towards them. All he managed to think was Bloody hell, that’s a big fish, before the Good Samaritan was lifted out of the water up to his waist.

The Canadian didn’t seem that concerned at first, just a bit surprised. Lucky froze, looking on in amazement as the man’s body was pulled alternately left and then right before him. Then he was dragged round in a circle, his upper body still clear of the water. As he came round to pass Lucky again, he managed to gasp out something about getting out of the water.

Not being the kind of chap to refuse a dying man’s last request, Lucky turned and crawled like hell for the beach. By the time he got there and looked round, there was no sign of the man but a slick of crimson foam hovered over by seagulls. Lucky couldn’t think of much to say when the lifeguard ran up, except what a decent fellow the young man had been.

For the next few days, newspapers like The Mercury and Daily News ran headlines accordingly: HERO RISKS LIFE TO HELP SHARK ATTACK VICTIM, along with a photograph of Lucky posing next to a hanging, monstrous twelve-foot bull whaler that had been harpooned and shot, his injured foot heavily bandaged.

Lucky enjoyed his celebrity status during the journey home and dined out on it every night. Some people even believed his tale about surviving the fall from thirty thousand feet without a parachute.

The next couple of years were pretty uneventful, by Lucky’s standards, anyway. But he did fall in love again, only this time he was certain it was for real. He met Zoe Kelly while she was holidaying in London, early in the summer of ’52. She was from Belfast originally, but had moved to Edinburgh to pursue a career in hotel management. Zoe didn’t have the sex symbol looks and charisma of Marcia, but at least she was enthusiastic about them not sleeping in separate beds, and she didn’t have to invent an attractive name.

Lucky couldn’t convince Zoe to give up her job and be kept by him, so he ended up spending much of the remaining year in Edinburgh, just popping back to London occasionally to check on his investments. He purchased a stylish baronial house designed by Calvert, in Marchmont Road, which was a steal compared to London prices. The intention was to buy the neighbouring properties when they became available, to develop their own small, but classy hotel.  

By December, listening to the news reports from London, Lucky considered himself exceptionally fortunate to have escaped the pea soup that had blanketed the capital like something from a science fiction film – finishing off thousands of vulnerable people.

That Christmas he proposed to Zoe, and she accepted, though she expected him to ask for her father’s blessing. They planned a visit to Belfast after the festive season was over and booked passage from Stranraer to Larne for the end of January. In the meantime, Lucky returned to London to settle some affairs.

While in the English capital, Lucky was taken in for questioning by the police. The nosy shoestring, whom Marcia had hired to spy on him, had been stirring things up with the insurance company. Henry was unable to meet up with Zoe for the ferry crossing, but assured her over the telephone that he would meet her in Belfast. It turned out that the police couldn’t come up with enough evidence to pursue the case and he was free to leave London at last.

Then he heard the terrible news on the radio. On January 31, an atrocious windstorm had battered the North Channel; the MV Princess Victoria ferry had gone down with a loss of one hundred and thirty-three lives. There had been forty survivors, none of whom turned out to be women, or children – it had literally been a case of ‘every man for himself’.

Lucky didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so he indulged in a bit of both. The loss of Zoe had a devastating effect on him, and from then on, he lost some of his happy-go-lucky attitude forever. He genuinely wished he had been there to go down with her and cursed the uncanny luck that haunted him. Lucky actually tried jumping off a bridge to end it all, but ended up in the bed of a wagon, carrying building sand to Dover – and that’s no word of a lie.

He sold up in London and retired to the house in Edinburgh, where Zoe’s presence lingered the most. Lucky had never had much time to ponder the peculiar nature of his life until then – he began to suspect that his luck had a price on it, and came at the expense of those around him. He became rather philosophical, particularly about a certain question: was his so-called luck a gift or a curse? Over the final year of his life, Lucky wasted away, becoming a recluse and ageing before his time.

Henry James – ‘Lucky Harry’ Atwell’s strange luck finally ran out in the winter of ’55. Although he had survived many blackouts during the war, it was the failure of a local power station that finally got him. He’d just finished having a bath while listening to Tony Hancock on the radio, when everything went dark. Lucky headed downstairs to light a candle and stood on Bomber Harris, his tabby cat – he tripped and negotiated the rest of the stairs head over heels. Just like Marcia, Lucky died of a broken neck – although the more romantically inclined would argue that he’d already died of a broken heart.

Bomber Harris eventually recovered from having a broken pelvis. Nobody knows how many lives the cat had used up.

Submitted: August 13, 2013

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