On the Fringe

 

Guilford Barton

 
Leftenant Owen Lancaster never went anywhere without his golf clubs. Not even Hitler and the Blitz could keep the lad off the courses of South London, whose many new bunkers were the result of stray bombs courtesy of the Luftwaffe.

When he enlisted in the RAF during the summer 1941, Owen took his clubs with him. He had been flying Spitfires for less than a month when his squadron was sent to Northern Scotland on the slim chance that the Germans might try to sneak a flock of bombers in the back door and hit the tank factories of Glasgow.

Initially, Owen was excited at being stationed in the home of his favorite pastime, but his euphoria soon evaporated when he learned that the nearest links were over fifty miles away in Inverness. So he spent his days by the radio with his mates, waiting anxiously for either the war to come to him, or he to it. At night he did what all flyers worth their wings do, he hit the local pub.

Late one evening Owen found himself alone at the bar after his fellow pilots had staggered back to their makeshift barracks. As he slouched there on his stool the barman placed a full pint of ale in front of him.

"What's all this?" Owen asked.

The barman nodded toward a table by the wall. "He sent it over fer ye."

Owen turned and saw a gnarled figure huddled in a chair and hoisting a pint of his own in Owen's direction. The room was almost empty save for a few knots of local men, so the young airman picked up his beer and went over to thank the old fellow. "Who are you?" he said.

"A patriot," the stranger replied.

"Well, thanks for the beer anyhow."

"Where are ye from?" the old man asked, motioning for Owen to take a seat.

"London," he answered but remained on his feet, hesitant to get himself trapped with the old gent.

"Yer a golfer, then," the man asked with a twinkle in his eye.

"How did you know that?"

"Just somethin' aboot the way ye hold yerself. I bet yer a fair player."

Owen sat at the table and said, "Truth is I happen to be the club champion back home. If it hadn't been for the war I might have even tried to qualify for this year's open at Turnbury."

"Aye, tha' would've been grand," the old man remarked sadly. "Bloody war's caused too mooch hardship."

"Yes," agreed Owen, "I'd give anything for a round about now."

"Then why don't ye?"

"Why don't I what?"

"Play a round."

Owen gazed deep into his ale. "The closest course is in Inverness."

The old man chuckled at this. "Did nae one tell ye aboot the one ootside of town?"

Owen looked up, startled. "What? Where?"

"Oot on the north end o' the moor. 'Ave ye not seen it from the air, then?"

"Never noticed it; we don't fly over that part of the moor much."

"Ye must play it then and tell me wha' ye think o' it."

Owen grinned at the idea. "I'll do that," he said merrily. Then he drained the last of his ale and stood to leave. "I should get back to the airfield. Never know when the Jerrys might try something. Thanks again for the pint."

"I live in a yellow cottage near the first tee," the old man said. "Visit anytime ye please."

On his next patrol Owen detoured his Spitfire over the northern end of the moor and, sure enough, there was a course laid out just as the old man had said there would be. He made out eighteen fairways -- nine going out and nine more coming home -- with ten greens, eight of them being double greens. A lone golfer looked up from the seventeenth tee and waved at him as he zoomed overhead. Owen waggled his wing tips and made note of the little yellow house before turning back toward base.

He landed his fighter on the grassy field and rolled it to a stop beside his wingman's plane. As he climbed out of the cockpit his mechanic ran up and said, "Group Captain Higgins wants to see you, Owen."

"What for?"

"How should I know?" the mechanic said as he lifted off the engine cowling. "He just said for me to tell you to report to his tent the moment you landed."

Owen pulled off his life jacket and leather helmet and carried them into the CO's tent. "You wanted to see me, Sir?"

"Yes, Lancaster," the officer replied, looking up from a stack of weather reports. "Pitlow tells me you pealed off today and went sightseeing by yourself. That true?"

"Yes."

Higgins looked back down at the gloomy weather bulletins. "Why?"

Owen fidgeted for a moment, not knowing what to tell his CO. Finally he decided on the truth. "I was looking for a golf course that I'd heard rumored about in town."

"What in heaven's name for?"

"Thought I might get the chance to get a round in sometime."

"Hmmmph," Higgins remarked. "First off, you know the rules: no going solo on patrol. You either stay with your wingman or you stay on the ground. Understood?"

"Yes, Sir."

The officer stood up from his desk and stood looking out the door with his hands behind his back. "Second, there are no golf courses in this vicinity."

"Sure there are," insisted Owen.

"Where?"

"On the northern moor."

"Impossible."

"But I just saw it, Sir!"

Higgins returned to his desk and picked up a reconnaissance photograph that he handed to the young pilot. "Here, see for yourself. This was taken only two days ago."

Owen studied the photo, clearly recognizing the rocky bluffs and barren, rock strewn fields past the north end of town. But where the links should have been he saw only desolate moor and a few flocks of grazing sheep. "I... don't understand, Sir, I just saw it with my own eyes."

"Well fortunately I do understand, Lancaster; too much beer and not enough sleep. The pub's off limits for two week's time... and you're grounded for five days." Higgins sat down again and went back to his weather reports. "Dismissed."

"But, Sir..."

"I said you're dismissed."

Owen immediately went to the barracks, which was really just a converted barn, and gave his wingman an earful. "Thanks a lot, Billy, you got me banned from the Shivering Ewe for a whole bloody fortnight."

Bill Pitlow lowered his week old London Times and looked up from the bunk he was stretched out on. "Don't go blaming me, Lancaster, you know you're not supposed to leave my wing and go joy riding on your own."

"You could've covered for me," complained Owen.

"Higgins was waiting on the field when I got back. What was I supposed to say, that you had to stop and use the loo?"

Owen plopped himself down on the bunk next to Pitlow's. "I'm grounded until Monday."

Pitlow shrugged and said, "Could be worse. Did you find your golf course?"

"Yes," Owen answered, "and no." He ran a hand through his sandy blonde hair and described what he had seen and his subsequent encounter with he CO. "It's the damnedest thing, Billy, I could swear that I saw it down there."

"You probably saw what you wanted to see," reasoned Pitlow.

"But what about the golfer? He waved at me!"

Bill shrugged again. "We've seen a lot of strange things up there, Owen. Maybe he just looked like a golfer. It was probably just a shepherd."

"I guess you're right," Owen admitted glumly.

"Listen," Pitlow said, "you've got five days on the ground. Why not hike out and take a look for yourself?

 
 
While the rest of the squadron was out on patrol the following afternoon, Owen walked through town and out onto the moor that bordered it to the north. He spent two hours exploring the wild landscape, extending his search right to the edge of the chalky cliffs that fell away into the cold sea. Nowhere did he come across anything that resembled a golf hole. As dusk approached he gave up and wandered back towards the town. Spotting the old man's cottage, the pilot strode through the rickety gate and knocked on the weathered door. The occupant answered so quickly that Owen thought he must have been standing on the other side.

"I've been waiting for ye," the old man said, stepping aside to let Owen into the house.

"You have?" Owen asked, taking in the dim and sparsely furnished room about him.

"Aye, I saw ye oot on the moor this day."

Owen chose a chair by the sputtering fire and settled into it. "I was looking for that course you mentioned the other night."

The old man's eyes glittered in the firelight as he regarded the airman with amusement. "And did ye find it now?"

"No," Owen said, "only sheep and rocks." The old man nodded and took a pipe from the nearby table, lighting it with a stick from the fire. When he did not reply Owen said, "But it's there, isn't it?"

"Aye," the old man said, releasing a cloud of smoke that twirled its way up to the low ceiling where it spread along the dark beams.

"How come I could see it from the air the yesterday but not from the ground today?"

"Ah, if I only knew the answer ta tha' I'd surly tell ye," the old man said, leaning back in his chair. "Sometimes it's there, and sometimes it's nae there. Ye can nae always see it and nae everyone has the ability in the first place. Some folk 'ave lived their entire lives aroond 'ere and 'ave never seen it once."

"Then how come you were so sure that I'd be able to?"

"I told ye, it's the way ye hold yerself, the way ye look at the world tha' tells me ye can see things tha' others can nae."

The two fell silent for a time and studied the fire burning in the ancient hearth. Finally Owen looked over and asked, "Will I see it again?"

"Who can say?" the old man replied with a small shrug of his bony shoulders. "Do ye wish ta?"

Owen leaned forward anxiously in the firelight. "Yes."

"Then meet me 'ere each day at noon. And bring yer clubs along with ye."

 
 

Just before noon the next day, Owen grabbed his battered golf bag and left the tent. Pitlow was sitting outside. "Where in bloody hell are you off to?"

"Into town."

Pitlow eyed the clubs and said, "What for?"

"For a round."

"Don't tell me you're still on about the bloomin' course that ain't there?"

"I saw it, I tell you!" Owen said defensively.

"And I saw Heinrich Himmler doing a jig outside of the Ewe a week last Tuesday," retorted Pitlow. When Owen made to leave, his friend stood and grabbed him by the elbow. "Listen to me, Owen, this is serious. You can't be going off chasing unicorns and fairies and hope to keep your wings. The boys are already talking about it, sayin' that they wouldn't want you for a wingman."

"And is that how you feel, Billy?" Owen asked.

"To tell you the truth I'm beginning to wonder," he replied. "Makes a chap kind of nervous to think his wingman might be seeing things. You've heard what it's like in a dogfight; chaotic as hell. What if you mistake my Spitfire for a ME-109, swearing you saw the German Cross on the wings?"

"That's not going to happen, Billy," Owen assured him and turned to go. "I'm not daft."

"Then stop acting like you are," cried Pitlow to his friend's back.

Owen walked to the yellow cottage and stood in the front yard. Looking out across the moor he saw only unkempt grass and rocks protruding up from the soil in a haphazard pattern. The old man appeared at his door but said nothing.

"Not today?" Owen asked.

"Nae."

"Tomorrow then?"

"Aye. Good day ta ye," the old man said and retreated back into his house.

The same ritual was repeated for five days in a row. On the fifth day Owen stood on the garden path and glared at the wild expanse before him. Finally he turned and knocked curtly on the cottage door. When the old man answered Owen said, "I've been here everyday just as you asked."

"Ye must be patient."

"But this is the last day I can come!" "Frettin' willnae make it show itself, lad," the old man said. Then he glanced over the young man's shoulder and added, "Then agin, maybe it will."

Owen spun around and there were the links. Where only moments before gorse and rocks met his gaze, lush fairway and distant greens now spread out at his feet. "I don't believe it," the flyer said.

"Aye," chuckled the old man, "it can be a wee bit unnerving. Let me grab me cloobs," he said and vanished into the gloomy interior. A few moments later he reappeared with an ancient looking bag of clubs slung over his shoulder and together they walked the few yards to the first tee. As Owen prepared to strike his first shot the Scotsman leaned close and said, "I must warn ye now, laddie, ye're likely ta see things as ye make yer way 'round."

Owen relaxed his stance and asked, "What kind of things?"

"Strange things. Fey things. Wondrous things. The past and the future. Things tha' are nae really there."

Owen looked out onto the course that awaited his play. "I see," he said.

"Nae ye don't; but ye will."

As they played the first few holes Owen kept imagining that he heard the bleating of sheep from somewhere close by, but whenever he looked around there were none in sight. Finally he asked his playing partner about it.

"Aye, they're there," the old man replied as his lined up a short putt.

"Where?"

"They're on anoother plane, lad, anoother dimension . . .but they're there noonetheless."

On the sixth hole Owen saw a young woman in a shear white gown strolling across the neighboring fairway. She appeared headed for the cliffs. "Who's that?' he asked.

"Ahhhh now," the old man remarked sadly, "tha' is Maureen MacDaniels. She was the fairest lass this town has ever known."

"What do you mean was?" Owen said, gazing after the alluring figure.

"She died at the tender age o' seventeen some twenty-two years ago."

"What?" Owen cried.

"It's the past ye're seein' now, lad."

"How did she die?"

"She took her own life."

"A beautiful young girl like that? But why?"

"When she was but sixteen she took a lover, an older boy who was called off to fight in the Great War," recounted the old man. "He refused ta marry her before goin' but promised ta do so upon his return from the battlefield. Poor Maureen learned o' his death on the same day tha' she discovered she was carryin' his child. She came from a strict Catholic family. Only disgrace, shame, and banishment awaited her."

The girl skirted the edge of the cliff now, looking down into the waves.

"How did she do it?"

"She cast herself into the sea."

As he said this, the girl suddenly spread her arms and leaned over the edge, disappearing in a billow of white fabric.

"My God!" Owen cried in horror. "Why didn't you say something sooner? I could've stopped her!"

"Ye can nae change the past, lad," the old man said.

Two holes later Owen and the old man were putting on a double green when they saw another golfer approaching. He had made the turn and was playing from the tenth fairway. The golfer had a beautifully fluid swing and his mid-iron shot seemed to float on the salt air before landing softly on the green. Owen watched him stride up the fairway and said, "I think that's Bobby Jones."

"Can't be," the old man countered.

"Sure looks like him."

"Impossible!"

"Maybe, but it's still him."

The great American golfer stepped onto the putting surface looking slightly bewildered. "I don't mean to disturb your game, gentleman," he said in his polite southern drawl, "but what is this place? Does it have a name?"

"Nae one tha's official," the old Scott answered, "but the some o' the locals in these parts call it The Fringe."

Bobby Jones smiled at this news, obviously pleased with the name.

"What brings you to our humble town?" Owen inquired, still in disbelief of his proximity to greatness. "Funny you should ask," Bobby mused. "I was on the road to Loch Ness -- to see the Monster," he added with a wink and a grin, "when I saw this here course scattered against the bluffs. There was a shimmer in the air around it, like the kind you see in mirage. And somehow I knew that I had to play it; that so few get the chance, and even fewer take advantage of it. I've been playing since early morning. Just going round and around. Wonderful layout. Challenging greens. But not another golfer in sight. I was just beginning to wonder if I was hallucinating the whole thing when I spotted you gentlemen."

"Maybe we're all hallucinating," remarked Owen.

"Then it's a marvelous illusion," Bobby said contentedly, looking out across the fairway. "Well, I need to be in Inverness before supper, so I best be on my way." The American walked to his ball and, following a brief lining up, stroked it into the heart of the cup. As he strode to the next tee he waved and called back, "Farewell, and good luck with the rest of your round."

 

The two played the final nine with no further visions beside the uncanny beauty of the course itself. Then, on the final hole, they heard a sound, a deep rumble blowing in from across the sea.

"What's that?" Owen asked, gazing out over the gray waves.

"I donnae know," replied the old Scot, "never heard the likes o' it before."

The sound increased noticeably as they stood and listened. Finally the young flyer whispered, "I know that sound, I heard it back in South London dozens of times. They're bombers -- German bombers." As they watched, a line of black specks appeared low on the horizon. "I have to warn the squadron," Owen cried and turned to run back to the airfield.

"Yer too late," the old man said. Off to their left, a swarm of Spitfires and Hurricanes streaked over the cliff tops with an insect-like whine.

"Give 'em what for!" Owen shouted over the din. The British fighters closed the gap with remarkable ease and dove toward the flock of bombers. They failed to see Messerschmits fall out the clouds above them.

"Look out, lads!" screamed Owen as the German fighters lined up his mates in their gun sites. "On your tail, Pitlow!" The toy-like clatter of distant machine-gun fire reached their ears even as his wingman's plane burst into flames and spun into the sea. In seconds half his squadron was shot down or crippled. The other half turned to engage the new threat, giving the bombers a clear path inland.

They continued on toward the coastline with only a single Spitfire in pursuit. Whoever the pilot was, he was focused only on the bombers, paying no heed to the two Messerschmits that hounded him. The RAF pilot released two quick bursts from his guns and one of the bombers spouted a column of smoke from it's left engine. Another burst and the entire wing broke away, sending the bomber tumbling into the surf. Owen let out a great whoop and cried, "That's giving it to 'em!" Even the old man cheered.

Then the lead German fighter opened up with his guns and riddled the side of the Spitfire with bullets. The British flyer immediately peeled away and turned for home, hoping to save his mortally wounded plane, but it was obvious that he would never make it. Losing altitude fast, the most the pilot could hope for was to reach the moor and avoid crashing into the cliff face. He was heading right toward the spot where Owen and the old man stood.

"Don't be a fool," Owen whispered, "you can't land here; it's too rocky." Quickly looking around him, all Owen saw was lush green fairway, but he knew the rocks were there -- he could feel their deadly presence. "Bail out. Ditch in the sea. Don't be a fool!"

But the fighter came on. It missed the cliffs with a bare three feet to spare and touched lightly down on the moor. And for a moment it seemed like he just might make it, just might be rewarded for his act of heroism -- then the plane exploded in a ball of fire.

To Owen and the old man it was on odd sight; to their eyes it appeared that the pilot had a clear field in which to maneuver. They couldn't see the boulder that suddenly crumpled the fuselage and sent the 12-cylinder Rolls Royce engine back into the pilot, killing him even before the fuel had time to ignite.

Out over the sea the German fighters had finished mopping up the rest of Owen's squadron. Then they turned to resume their escort of the bombers. The old man looked at the burning wreck of the Spitfire and said, "He was a brave lad, whoever he was."

Owen, who had noted the number on the wing of the doomed British fighter, looked up to watch the bombers pass overhead like a flock of great dark carrion. "That brave lad was me," he said.

"Wha' tha' ye say!" cried the old man.

"That was me at the stick; that was my plane."

"Then it's the future we're seein' now," the Scott said with relief. "And the future can be changed. Ye must hurry!"

 
 
Owen dashed into the Group Captain's tent without bothering to knock. "Germans, Sir," he said, trying to catch his breath. "Bombers coming in from the north!"

Higgins put down his incessant weather reports and regarded the young pilot tiredly. "What are you talking about, Lancaster; first it's golf course that aren't there and now it's phantom Jerry bombing raids?"

"It's not a phantom raid; it's real -- I saw it."

The officer held out his arms and asked, "Then where the bloody hell are they? I don't hear anything . . . do you?"

"It hasn't happened yet," Owen said, trying to sound as rational as he could, "But it will, and soon."

"And just where were you when you saw these bombers?" Higgins asked sarcastically.

"On the moor," he replied, knowing what his superior's next question would be.

"Playing golf, I suppose?"

"Yes, sir."

"On the course that's not there?"

"Yes, Sir. I mean, no, Sir . . ."

"Leftentant, I thought I gave you strict orders to keep away from the Shivering Ewe . . ."

"Do I look drunk, Sir?" Owen asked, leaning across the desk and fixing the officer with a steady gaze.

"No, as a matter of fact, you don't."

"Then please listen to me. I know it sounds completely crazy, but it will happen; they will come. What harm would it be to scramble the squadron north, just for a look see? If there's nothing there we can all come back and have a nice long laugh at my expense. You can even have me court martialed if you wish. What harm would it do?"

The Group Captain picked up his pen and returned his gaze back to the reports. "It's a waste of petrol," he said primly. "That will be all, Leftentant."

"But Sir . . ."

"THAT WILL BE ALL!"

 
 

Owen found Pitlow fast asleep in the shade of his Spitfire's wing. "Wake up, Billy," he said, shaking his wingman by the shoulder, "we've got a mission to fly."

Pitlow opened his eyes and peered sleepily up and his friend. "I thought you were grounded," he mumbled.

"I am, but we still have a mission."

Pitlow stretched and looked around the airfield. "Then where is everybody?"

"It's just you and me, mate, we're flying north to look for German bombers."

"You're daft," Pitlow laughed. "Does the CO know about this?"

Owen smiled. "Sort of."

"If you think I'm going to risk my wings, not to mention my neck, to go joy riding with you . . ."

"Fine," Owen snapped, pulling on his leather helmet. "I'll go alone then." He began to climb the ladder to his plane when Pitlow grabbed him by a boot. "You'll be court martialed," he said in a serious tone.

"Maybe, but I'm still going."

Pitlow grinned up at him, "For King and for Country?"

Owen laughed and nodded. "For King and for Country.,"

"Well why didn't you just say so in the first place?" Pitlow said as he dashed for his fighter. They donned their life vests and strapped themselves in. Before the rest of the squadron knew what was happening, the two Spitfires where lifting their wheels off the grassy runway.

Group Captain Higgins rushed out of his tent and cried, "Who's that? What are they up to? I authorized no mission."

One of the other flyers shaded his eyes and said, "It's Lancaster and Pitlow, Sir."

"Bugger it," Higgins muttered under his breath and strode to the radio tent in irritation.

 
 

"Tell me what we're looking for again, Owen me lad?" Pitlow asked over the radio as the two planes flew north.

"The German Luftwaffe."

"Right-o!"

"Lancaster, Pitlow . . . come in," Group Captain Higgins' voice intruded into their headsets.

"Here, Sir," replied Owen.

"Then I order you to stop being there at once and to return here with your aircraft on the double!"

"Won't do, Sir, we're on a mission."

"Blast your mission, Lancaster!" shouted the CO. "Pitlow, what are you doing up there?"

"I'm staying with my wingman, Sir."

"Don't get smart, Pitlow; you're in enough trouble at it is. What did that maniac tell you?"

"He said the Krauts are on the way."

"He also thinks there's a golf course out on the bloomin' moor," retorted Higgins. "Now turn the both of you around and get back here before I order you shot down!"

"Look down, Billy," Owen said, looking down himself through his cockpit canopy as they passed over the moor. "Tell the Group Captain what you see."

Pitlow looked down: "Bloody hell!" Below his wings stretched a long fairway that ended in a picture perfect green, it's red flag billowing toward the north in the stiff breeze that blew out to sea. "It's . . . it's a golf course, Sir."

"Repeat that, Pitlow; you're breaking up. Did you say golf course?"

"Yes, Sir, just like Owen described." A few moments of dead silence followed and then Higgins was in their ears again. "You two circle the cliffs and wait for us; I'm scrambling the entire squadron!"

 
 

When the fighters from the squadron had formed up, they headed straight out to sea. They had not gone more than a few miles when Pitlow's excited voice called over the radio: "Tally-ho! Jerrys at eleven o'clock low!"

"Right, lads," Higgins calmly ordered. "Peel off in pairs and engage."

"No!!!" shouted Owen.

"What is it now, Lancaster?"

"Messerschmits. ME-109s above us," Owen said. "We have to deal with them first."

"Where?" Higgins asked, searching the sky above him.

"They're in the clouds, Sir."

"How do you know that?"

"I JUST KNOW!"

"Remember the golf course, Sir," reminded Pitlow.

"Right!" the Group Captain cried. "Up we go, lads." One by one the fighters turned their noses skyward, and as they rose the German fighters descended from their hiding place. But this time they were the ones taken off guard. Five minutes of dogfighting and the German's were routed; the British fighters turned their attention back to the bombers. All except for a lone Spitfire piloted by Leftentant Owen Lancaster. Strafed across the fuselage by a row of bullets, his plane was losing altitude fast. He turned toward the coast. Now he knew why he hadn't bailed out or ditched in the sea, the bullets had shattered both his legs, making it impossible to escape his coffin-like cockpit. His only chance was to make for the moor.

Pitlow saw him first and realized in a moment what his friend intended. "Owen, don't be a fool, you'll never make it."

"No choice, Billy."

"Bail out. Ditch in the sea!"

"I can't move my legs; it's the moor or nothing."

He could clearly see that the course was gone, only the rock strewn pasture awaited his fragile aircraft. "It's there," he thought. "I know it's there."

"Good luck, Owen," Pitlow offered sadly.

"It's there. . ."

"Godspeed, Lancaster," Group Captain Higgins said quietly.

"I know it's there!"

His wheels missed the cliffs with a bare three feet to spare and touched lightly down on the moor. And for a moment it seemed like he might not make it; that he might not be rewarded for his act of heroism -- then the fighter rolled to a gentle stop above the windblown cliffs. To the others it was on odd sight: to their eyes it appeared that Owen and his plane had passed clear through the boulder that stood directly in his path -- they couldn't see the tenth fairway that greeted Owen's watering eyes an instant before his wheels touched home.

 
 
Leftentant Owen Lancaster never flew his Spitfire again. Crippled for the rest of his life, he never walked again either. Not counting, of course, the many days he spent out on The Fringe lovingly playing the game that had once saved his life.