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“Dad, is there a Benny in the family?”
Dad poured me a glass of wine. “Yes, I had an uncle called Benny. Why do you ask?”
I’d spent some time considering how I would reply to this inevitable question and had my answer ready, I’d say that Grandad had talked of him last time we’d visited. I wasn’t yet ready to tell of my meeting with the psychic medium – my imagination ran riot when I thought of Dad’s reaction to that! No, I would wait until I’d got more evidence that my brother Stephen really was communicating from the Other Side before saying anything to Dad, or anyone else in the family.
“I don’t know much about him, so your grandad is the best person to talk to,” Dad replied, topping up his own glass. “Benny was his brother. He died in the war, but as far as I know his body was never recovered.”
I gulped the cold white wine to cover my excitement. Bob had told me that much, and I was excited to have it confirmed. I wrote a letter to Grandad as soon as I got back home, this time saying that my reason for asking about Benny was because Dad had mentioned him and I was curious to know if we had a war hero in the family. Yes, I’d lied twice, but they were white lies and I hoped I’d be able to come clean eventually.
The response was swift and to my delight Grandad included some photographs and a couple of poems Benny had written. I studied the black and white picture of my Great-Uncle; so handsome and proud in his sailor’s uniform. So happy.
I quickly scanned Grandad’s letter and my jaw dropped when I found out that Benny had been in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. That explained the sailor uniform and the plane, but how could Bob possibly have known these things? It couldn’t have been fishing for information or cold-reading, which I’d been warned to be wary of, because I hadn’t known anything about Benny.
After a lot more correspondence with my Grandfather and also another of Benny’s brothers, and various military organisations, I had more information about him. When the Internet became more accessible many years later I added even more.
I learned that Benny had been a real live wire character, ‘a cheeky chappie’ according to Grandad, with a wonderful singing voice. He joined the Royal Navy and qualified as a wireless operator and air gunner in the Fleet Air Arm. He first served in Alexandria in March, 1942, taking part in Montgomery’s advance, and then to Malta in December of the same year. Malta had been one of the launching pads for the Allied invasion of Sicily.
As a member of 828 Squadron, he had been a rear gunner in a Fairey Albecore aircraft: a British single-engine biplane torpedo bomber popularly known as the ‘Applecore.’ Designed for spotting and reconnaissance as well as level bombing and dive bombing, Benny would have sat facing away from the other two members of the crew, the cockpit above his head open to the skies, manning the gun. During the night of the 12th and early hours of 13th March, 1943, the day before the Sicily Landings, his plane was shot down during a mission off the coast. The other two crew members were aged 29 and 39. Benny was just 20. The others were listed as “Killed,” but Benny is still listed as “Missing Presumed Killed.” Their graves are side by side in the Catania War Cemetery, Sicily.
I was fascinated to uncover all this information about a man that, if it hadn’t been for the medium, I probably would never have known anything about.
But all this was information I had collected myself. Bob had provided Benny’s name and some detail about his sailor’s uniform, planes and bomb cradles, that he was shot down over the sea during a mission in WWII and that his headstone is in another country.
Was this and the information about my brother enough evidence for me to believe that he had been communicating with Stephen and my great-uncle Benny?
What else did I need to do to be sure?
During that reading there had been talk of Spiritualist churches. I knew of one in Windsor as I had often passed the sign for it when driving into town, but I’d never given it much thought. I’d had no reason to before, but now I was on the edge of something truly mysterious and possibly quite wonderful, I was curious.
What was such a church about? When filling out forms that required such information I had always written ‘Church of England’ under the heading RELIGION, but I’d never been religious and had only attended services for weddings, christenings and funerals. Would a Spiritualist Church be the same? Sermons, prayers and hymns I clearly remembered from childhood? There was only one way to find out. I studied the local paper and found advertisements for services held on Sunday evenings — 6.30 start.
I told no-one about my intention, but I held the information in my mind. A couple of Sundays passed, however, and I didn’t go. Another Sunday dawned and still I dithered. What would I be getting myself into? What if there were weird rituals and they’d try to draw me into a cult? All day I couldn’t decide, but when the time approached to leave or risk arriving late, I decided to head that way and make up my mind about going inside when I got there.
The narrow streets near the church were choc-a-bloc with cars and I thought that not being able to park would be the perfect excuse to turn around and go home. Just as this thought entered my head though, a car pulled out and I had a spot just yards from the building.
From the outside the church was rather charming: narrow facade, single storey, white-painted brick, an oak door in the centre, two tall frosted-glass windows on either side of it.
The door was open and I could see people milling about inside. I joined those walking in from the street and quickly assessed the situation. Rows of chairs were set up either side of a central aisle and there was a small stage at the far end. I figured it seated about 60 or 70 people.
People were taking their seats. I wanted to sit as close to the exit as possible to give me a quick escape route, but the end seats were quickly taken in all the rows because they gave the best view of the speakers on the platform. I found myself in the middle of the back row, between charming strangers who greeted me with smiles.
The service began with prayers and a hymn, then the medium was introduced. I cannot remember her name, but I remember she was tall and slim, dark-haired and quite softly spoken. Someone in the congregation asked her to speak up.
Much like Bob had during the séance I’d been to the previous month, she gave messages to various people that seemed to be well received. I was beginning to enjoy it by now, but then she said something that made me go hot and cold: “I have a brother here looking for his sister.”
Could it be?
No, of course it couldn’t! I’d never been to that place before, no-one knew I was there – I hadn’t even been certain myself that I would step through the door that day, let alone sit through the service!
“It’s someone’s first time here. Someone sitting right at the back.”
She was actually pointing in my direction! I just didn’t believe it could be Stephen looking for me, but no-one else claimed to be a sister to a brother who had died.
“Just speak up and I’ll be able to make the connection.”
The silence went on until at last, I croaked, “I’m here for the first time.”
The medium immediately launched into a stream of information. His name was Stephen. He’d died from a wasting disease. He’d hated the wheelchair and worried he’d never walk again. But it was a relief to go, the treatment was just too much and he knew he couldn’t beat it. He was sorry for his wife, his children, missing him. He was worried about Mum and Dad and wanted me to talk to them. He was so happy to see me!
I was shaking, my hands trembling around an already-soggy ball of tissues. The man to my right patted my arm and whispered words of encouragement. A woman in front of me turned round and said, “Your first time here? How wonderful for you!”
The medium finished by saying that Stephen could not believe his survival. He wanted me to research it, look into life after death. He knew I could, and would. She ended by mentioning a cricket bat, just like Bob had, and said Stephen knew it evoked special childhood memories of playing in the garden with all our friends.
Once the service had ended, several people came and told me how thrilled they were for me. They patted my back, hugged me and smiled their wishes for ongoing communications.
I tottered to my car as if in a dream. I don’t know how long I sat there in wonder, before turning the key in the ignition and setting off for home.
These extraordinary events had impacted me dynamically, and I was reeling from it all, but little did I know just how much they would totally change the direction of my life.
next episode: a life-changing birthday
J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.