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  • It was hugely exciting, more exciting than the beach or even ice cream, when Grandfather emerged from one of the hidden rooms of the Lorne beach house where he spent his final years, and where we spent our summers, to play table tennis with us. He was a gun player, had an array of trick shots, including an absurd slice serve that he hit from well below the level of the table. I marveled too, to see my Dad with his dad. I felt, as a son, a grandson, too rich for words. It was never enough. Those fleeting moments, I could count them on one hand.

    Enwrapped in my memory of him is the background hum of the 'Puffer', the oxygen machine that helped him breathe. He'd taken up smoking during the war. During endless hours in the cockpit it helped keep fatigue and fear at bay. The sound always came from within one of the forbidden rooms, but one day, when I was about 8 years old, I saw him on it, on the verandah.

    I suddenly recall now, the verandah with its ping pong table, its wooden floor gritty with sand, the greenish light that fell through the louvers, the roar of the sea, restless in the distance. On this day Grandfather was there, dressed as always in blue shorts, a grey-green shirt stained with fish guts, undone to his belly, his hairy chest exposed. Legs, chest, head and feet were brown leather from all those years spent fishing, careless of the sun. A plastic mask was over his nose and mouth, a thin hose running from it to the machine itself, which was set on wheels. He was breathing from the machine, or the machine was breathing him perhaps. Nobody else was home, they'd gone somewhere. Drawn by the sound, I stood on the edge of the lounge, unnoticed, unsure whether to approach him. The machine stopped abruptly and he removed the mask, revealing his straight nose and pencil moustache. (I'm told I have his nose, the moustache I've never attempted.)

    Just then an elderly man appeared in the open doorway. He was thin beneath a dark overcoat and grey slacks several sizes too large. He had wispy blond-grey hair, piercing blue eyes and a pencil moustache the very twin of my grandfather's. A walking stick hung from his wrist as he leaned in the doorway to catch his breath. He seemed incredibly worn yet remarkably healthy at the same time. I had the distinct, yet inexplicable impression that he had come a very long way to be here. Quickly I hid behind the couch and there I stayed, unable to see, but well able to hear, the meeting that ensued. A meeting so extraordinary I can scarcely credit it even now.

    Nesbit: Hello? Do I know you?
    Langford: I should say so.
    Nesbit: I'm afraid my eyes are as bad as my memory, you'll have to come closer. Jesus Christ!
    Langford: Steady there Nesbit, don't have a heart attack on me.
    Nesbit: Langford! Is it? Is it? No! It can't be. You're dead!
    Langford: No such luck.
    Nesbit: But you were captured.
    Langford: Yes.
    Nesbit: Then how?
    Langford: I escaped. Didn't they mention that, in a book somewhere?
    Nesbit: Attempted escape, yes. But you were shot, in the water. So said the Japanese Captain's report.
    Langford: Covering his backside, that's all. They shot at me, alright, I wont forget that. But by some miracle, they missed. Clung to a piece of debris, floated clear across the strait to the mainland.
    Nesbit: But your diary was found at the prison camp.
    Langford: They strip searched us on the boat.
    Nesbit: Unbelievable. Sit, pull up a chair! Close so I can see you properly. Langford it's incredible, I still can't believe you're here in front of me. You've aged a bit, but I still recognize you.
    Langford: You've gotten on a bit too.
    Nesbit: Yes well I'm dying actually but forget that. To think we were only 22 when it all happened. And yet it's like yesterday. Where did you go, what did you do? Where have you been all this time? Tell me everything, and don't rush.
    Langford: For five years I lived with a lost tribe, deep in the Papuan jungle. Even now, I doubt outsiders have found their way there. I watched the sky for planes. When I was convinced at last the war must be over, I walked out of the valley and back to the coast, made a raft, and tried to float with the current, east to Bougainville. But a storm came and stranded me on a tiny island.
    Nesbit: Good God.
    Langford: For 40 years.
    Nesbit: …..You're joking!
    Langford: It's not something I'd joke about.
    Nesbit: Incredible! And all this time we thought you were dead!
    Langford: Believe me, I wished I was, many times.
    Nesbit: Yet there you were, living like Robinson Crusoe, not 50 miles from Australia! How were you found?
    Langford: Finally spotted by the Navy. They thought I was a refugee, fallen off a boat. But Nesbit, I didn't come here to reminisce.
    Nesbit: Well we don't have to. Let's change the subject.
    Langford: I won't say it's not good to see you. We went to school together, quite apart from all those times we almost died in each other's company. So I won't say you weren't dear to me Nesbit. Once. But then, on my island I got to thinking, about our coin toss. You do remember it, don't you?
    Nesbit: How could I forget.
    Langford: The Jap army bearing down on us, as we scramble to evacuate. Two pilots, one good plane, one damaged. The good one full to the brim with Dutch civilians, waiting on the tarmac. The ground crew working like mad to fix the other one. We both bloody know it can't be fixed, it's shot through, but we can't abandon those left with no hope. One of us has to stay. We toss a coin. Your coin. I call heads. It's heads. What else can I do? I choose to stay. That's how we were, that's what we were taught, you put your mates first. You would've done the same. Or so I thought, then. Later, later I knew you better.
    Nesbit: What are you talking about, Langford?
    Langford: There was something about it - that coin toss - that stuck in my mind. I kept going over it, over and over, thinking. And then one day, alone on my island, it finally dawned on me, what you'd done.
    Nesbit: What had I done?
    Langford: Don't play innocent with me. I can see your face has gone white, even as I speak. You know what I'm talking about, don't you!
    Nesbit: Langford, you're yelling. Calm down.
    Langford: I swore there would be a reckoning and finally, finally you're here in front of me!
    Nesbit: I think that stint alone on the island has unhinged you old chap, sit down why don't you? And stop waving your arms like that, it's making me nervous. Tell you what, let's have a drink. It's past 11 so I've got my doctor's blessing.
    Langford: It was a bloody double header!!!
    Nesbit: What are you talking about?
    Langford: The coin! It was two-sided! Admit it!
    Nesbit: No!
    Langford: Yes!
    Nesbit: I never did!
    Langford: You did too!
    Nesbit: Langford, what are you accusing me of?
    Langford: It was just one more practical joke for you wasn't it? Tricking a man to his death!
    Nesbit: I don't know what you're talking about.
    Langford: Of course, it's all in keeping with your character. Banned for Life from the Royal Laha Weekly Frog Race for rubbing methylated spirits on your frog's backside!
    Nesbit: You're talking about a bloody frog race!
    Langford: Who stole the Commander's canned prune juice to mix with his whiskey?
    Nesbit: We all partook of that prune juice!
    Langford: Yes but who conveniently forgot to tell us where it came from? Who smuggled 6 cartons of stolen gin into Port Moresby in the nose of a B25?
    Nesbit: Somebody had to, we were out of gin! Listen, all you're proving here Langford, is that I made my own fun! As we all did! You included.
    Langford: There's no point denying it Nesbit, I recognised the coin! Sometime after the fact, unfortunately.You'd come to school with it one day, and proudly showed us. You told us one of the workers at your old man's factory had made it, by fusing two pennies together! Shall I round up the fellows present when you pulled it out? Some of them must be alive still!
    Nesbit: There's no need for that. If I admit it will you sit down and stop waving your arms? It was the bloody double header, as you say.
    Langford: I've waited 45 years to hear you say that.
    Nesbit: So you're sitting, good. Listen, don't think it hasn't plagued me.
    Langford: Don't moan to me about your conscience! You're an unbelievable cad, a scoundrel and a bounder! Of the worst possible kind. I'm ashamed to have ever called you a friend.
    Nesbit: Are you done?
    Langford: No. You're also a coward/
    Nesbit: /I suppose you've rehearsed this.
    Langford: Yes - right down to your rotten soul!
    Nesbit: Will you let me defend myself?
    Langford: What could you possibly say by way of justification?
    Nesbit: You'd be surprised. There's more to it than you think! You need to hear me out. Let's have a drink.
    Langford: A drink? With you? Never.
    Nesbit: Very well. I'll tell you, what I've never told another living soul. I knew I had to be the one to fly the first plane out. There were 28 men on board, she was severely overweighted. The chance of clearing the trees was slim. And never mind landing her in Darwin. I knew I could do it. Truth to tell, I wasn't sure you could.
    Langford: You bastard.
    Nesbit: I was the better pilot. You can't deny that.
    Langford: You arrogant son of a bitch!
    Nesbit: You are talking to a superior officer.
    Langford: Barely! And don't pull rank with me, the war's over!
    Nesbit: And yet, here you are.
    Langford: Why didn't you just pull rank then? And tell me to stay?
    Nesbit: You would've thought I was just trying to save my own skin.
    Langford: You were!
    Nesbit: And, you suggested we flip a coin. Well I knew I had my double header, so... And I knew you/
    Langford: /Always chose heads.
    Nesbit: Ever since school.
    Langford: What a liar you are Nesbit! You were always a master at twisting the truth when it suited you and I see you've only improved with age. I was as good a man as you in the air, day or night, and everyone knew it, including you!
    Nesbit: You always thought you were better than you were.
    Langford: Ha!
    Nesbit: They made me a squadron leader for a reason.
    Langford: They what?
    Nesbit: It happened after you ...died.
    Langford: Bah! Chummy with the boys in brass that's all. You only ever joined the RAAF to impress the girls!
    Nesbit: Incredible! Still jealous because they liked me better!
    Langford: Another lie!
    Nesbit: Listen, I told you the truth, if you don't believe me, what can I do? Did I happen to mention I'm dying? I don't want to spend my final moments in pointless argument. It was a question of 28 souls. I knew I could do it. I knew that plane, her idiosyncrasies, I'd flown her to Melbourne and back just days before. And then with that weight in her! I had to think, would you hold her on her brakes at full throttle or would you follow the book? Would you pull down the flaps on the runway or would you follow the book and wait? When we came into Darwin on radio silence, with the trigger happy bastards shooting at us, would you swing her into a diving turn or would you sit there like a sitting duck radioing the tower, as per the book? You would have done the correct thing each time, and each time it would have been wrong. It was a moment when all the rules had to be broken! The Commander was too distracted to think about it, so I had to. It wasn't easy for me, tricking you like that. It's hung heavy on my conscience ever since, say what you will. Maybe in time, you'll believe me. You were a good pilot but you followed the book, that was your trouble with everything, even with women! You say you jumped off that boat? I think you fell in! It wouldn't have occurred to you to try to escape! Aha! Who's changing colour now?
    Langford: You bastard.
    Nesbit: Well that makes two of us. You know, Langford, 45 years in the jungle has made you a tad uncivilized. When a man offers another man a drink it's customary to accept. That's unless of course, you're here to kill me? If so, I'm afraid you're too late, I've been killing myself for years, although I suppose you could finish the job. Now, what'll it be?
    Langford: I - I'll have a whiskey dammit.
    Nesbit: I'm afraid I'm out of prune juice.
    Langford: Very funny.
    Nesbit: I'll have the same. You'll have to get it for us on account of my legs. Just go into the lounge, yes, that's it. Soda's in the fridge. By God Langford, Time's been kind to you, you look barely a day older!
    Langford: I suppose it's the seafood. I've had rather a lot of it.

    At that moment, the man came into the house proper and spotted me hiding there, beside the couch.
    "There appears to be a small boy listening in to our conversation."
    I decided I might as well reveal myself.
    "Ah, Langford this is my grandson Sam. Sam, Captain Langford. An old chum from school. And uh, the war."
    I held out my hand. Robert Langford looked dumbstruck. My sudden reveal seemed to have finished him off. Perhaps he was seeing in me the grandchildren, indeed the life, he could have had. But for a flip of a coin. Just as I was about to drop my hand, he finally shook it limply. And then I sat with them while Grandfather made small talk about this and that and where various fellows from school had ended up, while the man called Langford sipped his whiskey, fingered the gun in his pocket, and tried to decide whether or not to kill him.

    Based on true events. The man - called Langford in this story - did not in fact escape the Japanese Army, but was executed by samurai sword, alongside the rest of the army and air force personnel who remained behind on the island of Ambon. The man called Nesbit in this story, was my grandfather. (I've asked his spirit to forgive me for slighting his name! I figure he would've liked it - he had a great sense of humour.) The coin toss did in fact take place; 'Langford' won and elected to stay behind. He died, my grandfather lived, and consequently, I am here. You could say that I, and all my grandfather's descendants, owe our lives to the honour of a young man we never knew.
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