“Hurry up, Jenny! We need to leave now in case we’re stuck in a bomb scare. You know Auntie Sue’s plane flies at four o’clock!” Vicky shouted to Jenny, her daughter.
“I’m coming!” Jenny replied, as she quickly rushed down the stairs and out the front door, carrying Auntie Sue’s large brown suitcase in one hand and her small red bag in the other. Jenny threw the little red bag into the boot of her Mum’s turquoise Mini, then jumped into the back seat and squeezed the large brown suitcase in beside her. As Vicky started the engine, Jenny leaned forward and spoke to Auntie Sue, who was already in the front passenger seat. “I wish I was going with you to Vietnam! I’d love to see the faces of the little children who get your sweaters, just like the wee kids in Africa that you showed me in your photos.“
Sue wasn’t long back from a place called Biafra, in Africa, where there’d also been trouble, but now she was travelling as a nurse to a clinic in Vietnam to treat people who’d been injured in the recent war. There’d been a programme about Vietnam on TV the evening before and Miss Young, Jenny’s geography teacher, had talked about it in class. Sue normally worked in the Accident and Emergency Department of the Belfast City Hospital, but every six months she volunteered as a nurse for a large overseas charity. Jenny thought Auntie Sue was cool, because she loved to help others and even looked a bit like herself!
As Jenny tried to make herself comfortable in the backseat, she asked another question. “Auntie Sue, how many sweaters have you got in your little red bag this time?”
Sue smiled as she replied, “I’ve lost count, but I think there’s about thirty. No doubt I’ll meet children in desperate need of new clothes.”
“I’m sure those children will like them,” Jenny said. “I wish I could knit. I still haven’t got the hang of it, and I even find it hard to wrap the wool around my needles. Miss Kershaw, our craft teacher, is always cross and thinks I’m the worst knitter ever! At least it’ll be the summer holidays in a couple of weeks, and I’ll get away from her for a while!”
“Don’t worry,” Sue said in response. “I’m only away for six weeks this time, but I promise I’ll help you when I get back. I’ve never been to Vietnam before and I guess I’m going to be busy treating lots of injured patients or helping orphaned kids.”
Jenny felt sorry for children like that, and she said, “I saw a photograph of a wee Vietnamese girl in the Belfast Telegraph with terrible burns on her skin; I hope she gets better quickly. I know you might meet patients like her. There’s two boys in my class from Vietnam and they’ve both got lovely shiny black hair.”
A few moments later, Jenny straightened up and looked out the window as she realized they’d reached the Ormeau Bridge, about a mile away from Newtownbreda, where they’d started. As Vicky manoeuvred her car into the inner city bound lane over the Bridge, Jenny exclaimed, “Hey, look at those rowing boats in the river! They’re going really fast!”
Auntie Sue responded, “They’re probably students from Queens’ University Boat Club. They must be pretty fit, they’re travelling at some speed!” Jenny nodded in agreement.
The car suddenly shuddered as Vicky put her foot on the brake and exclaimed, “Oh no! I don’t think we’re going anywhere fast! There’s a huge traffic jam ahead!”
Normally it took an hour to get to the airport from Newtownbreda, but it would be an awful lot longer with a roadblock. Jenny could make out an army jeep on the bridge as Vicky switched off the ignition and turned to Sue. “We might not make it in time for your flight, Sis. We’ll just have to wait it out in this queue.”
This worried Jenny, as she didn’t want Auntie Sue missing her flight to London, nor her onward connection from Heathrow Airport to Vietnam.
Vicky turned on the car radio just as a newsflash came over the airwaves. “Oh no,” she quietly muttered. “A bomb’s gone off in the city centre. That must have been the bang I heard before leaving the house.” Jenny had also heard a bang while she was in the bathroom, and it was likely to have been the same one.
Just then the sound of a fire brigade reached them from the other side of the bridge. “That must be the firefighters trying to get to the bomb site; they’re very brave. Ricky told me he wants to be a firefighter someday,” Jenny said to her mother and aunt.
“That wee brother of yours can hardly climb the ladder to his bunk bed, he’d certainly not manage a ladder that needs to stretch to the top of high buildings,” Vicky added as she shook her head. “I just wish he’d put his head down and do a bit more homework, instead of rushing off to play football all the time!” Jenny had to agree. Ricky wasn’t too bad as a brother, and he’d often let her share his sweeties, which he bought on the way home from school on Fridays.
Gradually, the cars started to move, but it took about ten minutes before Vicky’s small car reached the front of the queue.
At this stage, a young soldier stepped over to the car, fixing his gaze on the brown suitcase in the rear seat. “Your driving licence, please, Ma’am,” he requested of Vicky, as he bent his head through the driver’s window. Jenny thought his voice sounded very like the new P5 teacher at school, who’d recently come from England, and he looked about the same age.
The soldier quickly glanced at Vicky’s licence as another taller and older-looking soldier emerged from the nearby jeep and approached the car. It was easy to spot a scar above his right eyebrow, as he hadn’t much hair. “Please open your car doors and unlock the boot,” he abruptly requested. “A vehicle search is required.”
Sue now started to look panicky, as time really wasn’t on her side and she needed to get to the airport. “Please, could you be quick?” Vicky asked anxiously. “We’re in a hurry as my sister’s heading off to Vietnam and needs to catch a four o’clock connecting flight to London from Aldergrove Airport.”
The older soldier didn’t reply as he signalled the younger recruit to step back and started a search of the car. He opened the boot, checked under the seats and glanced into the compartment under the dashboard. He then lifted Sue’s small red bag from the boot and peeked at the contents. “I guess you’re taking these with you,” he addressed Sue.
“Yes,” Sue replied. “I plan to give them out to kids at a Clinic where I’ll be working.” The soldier placed the bag back into the boot then spoke again. “Be careful of landmines in the villages, Ma’am. I’m not long back from a tour of duty there myself. Avoid the city centre and aim for the M2.” The two soldiers then waved the next car forward as Vicky started up the car again and headed for the northbound motorway, not taking long to bypass the city centre.
Sue turned around to Jenny while she gazed out the window at Cavehill Mountain and Belfast Lough and asked, “Do you know that landmark over there?”
Jenny nodded, “It’s the Belfast shipyard, where the famous Titanic ship was built, and it sunk after it hit an iceberg on its very first voyage.”
“You’re right, Jenny,” Sue responded. “Belfast Shipyard has turned out several fine ships and cruise liners, but the Titanic is probably the most famous one.”
As Aunt Sue and Jenny continued to chat, Vicky kept her foot on the accelerator and drove as fast as she could within the speed limits, bearing in mind she’d three bodies and Auntie Sue’s baggage on board! About twenty minutes later an airport exit sign appeared up ahead.
“I’m glad we’re nearly there!” Jenny moaned from the back seat, as she was now feeling cramped and sore. “I’ve got pins and needles all over! That’s what I get for being squashed beside your big suitcase, Auntie Sue!”
Auntie Sue gave a small laugh as Vicky turned off the M2 motorway and drove towards the A57 junction, which showed a sign for the airport six miles further on.
Vicky drove on about another three miles until Sue suddenly blurted out, “Oh no! I think there’s another security checkpoint coming up! I forgot about this one! It’ll be a miracle if I ever get my London flight!”
Vicky slowed up before the checkpoint as a security guard quickly stepped forward and waved her on. “Maybe that Vietnam veteran warned him we were coming!” she said with a chuckle as Vicky and Jenny nodded. The last thing Sue needed now was to get stuck in another queue.
Without further delay, Vicky kept going and soon spotted Aldergrove Airport up ahead. It didn’t take long to go through the entrance and head for the short-stay car park where Jenny quickly spotted a parking space. This meant they’d now caught up, timewise, and Sue could connect with her flight after all.
Vicky turned to Sue and quietly spoke as she switched off the engine. “Jenny and I will stay for a wee while to see your plane off, so I’ll lock the car and we can walk over to the terminal together.”
“That’ll be great,” Sue replied. “I’m going to miss you guys, but I’ll try and phone if I get a connection.” Vicky and Jenny got out of the car first and helped Sue to lift her suitcase and little red bag onto a trolley, then the three of them took it in turns to push the trolley across the car park to the terminal building. When they got to the Departures entrance Vicky and Jenny could go no further.
“We’ll hang around for a bit in the main terminal,” Vicky said. “I know Jenny wants to see your plane taking off, and you can give us a wave from the runway!”
Sue gave both of them a hug as a small tear rolled down her cheek. “I’ll make sure my little red bag is on board,” she said with a slight giggle.” I don’t want to leave my little sweaters behind!” Sue then headed for check-in, as Vicky and Sue went off to find the airport viewing area.
It didn’t take long for Vicky and Jenny to spot an upstairs café with a few vacant tables overlooking the runway, and they decided to order a snack.
Jenny asked, “Mum, can I have a packet of sandwiches and a Fanta orange? I’m a bit hungry, but I don’t want you to spend too much.”
Vicky replied, “That’s okay, Jen. I’m glad you noticed the airport prices are on the expensive side, but I’m a bit peckish myself, so I’ll order the same.” Jenny found and guarded a table while Vicky walked over to the food counter to place their order. It took several minutes for Vicky to come back, as there’d been a long queue.
“Oh great! You’ve picked my favourite!” Jenny exclaimed as Vicky lifted two packets of sandwiches and two cans of orange Fanta from the tray in her hand and placed them onto the table. “Can I swop one of my egg and onion sandwiches for one of your ham and cheese ones?” Jenny asked as Vicky unwrapped the sandwiches and pulled the rings off the top of the Fanta cans.
“Go ahead. These will have to keep us going until teatime, and we could face another bomb scare on the way home.”
Jenny really hoped not, and decided to enjoy her snack, as they’d at least got Auntie Sue safely to the airport and on time! Suddenly, there was an announcement.
“This is the last call for all British European Airways passengers travelling to London Heathrow on Flight BEA 1214. Please proceed to gate 5.”
Jenny turned to Vicky. “Hey Mum, that’s Auntie Sue’s flight! Her plane will be going in a few minutes.” Jenny sucked the last dregs of her Fanta through a straw while Vicky gave her a
“Look, Jenny! There’s the baggage going onto that plane over there.”
Jenny looked up and saw a huge pile of suitcases and bags being loaded off a small truck onto a large plane that stood on the runway. She couldn’t help noticing a small red bag being transferred into the hold at the rear of aircraft.
“Look, that’s Auntie Sue little red bag, the one with her small knitted sweaters inside!” Jenny proclaimed. “I hope all the Vietnamese children who need one get one!”
“I hope so too,” commented Vicky. “It’s lovely our Sue’s able to knit, and she’ll be able to help you when she gets back! She might even show you how to make a little sweater!”
“That would be cool!” responded Jenny.” I told her about Miss Kershaw’s awful craft classes on Monday afternoons, and how she’s always cross with me since I’m hopeless at knitting!”
Miss Kershaw’s craft class was quickly forgotten as Jenny and Vicky watched the British European Airways plane preparing to leave. Within a few minutes, the aircraft doors were closed, the passenger steps were moved away, and the huge propellers began to rotate on the wings. The propellers then got faster as the aircraft slowly reversed, turned ninety degrees, and headed towards the runway, disappearing from sight. Jenny and Vicky set their empty Fanta bottles and rubbish onto their tray then stood up to get a clearer view out the window.
“I wish I was on Auntie Sue’s flight,” Jenny said quietly.
Vicky smiled softly as she turned towards Jenny in response. “Maybe someday you’ll go off on an aircraft yourself, but I think Sue will have plenty to do in Vietnam without us around! Her plane should be coming back into view any moment!”
Suddenly, there was a huge rumbling noise and the plane reappeared. Jenny couldn’t take her eyes off the huge aircraft as it sped up the runway like a large silver bird roaring into the sky. At last, Auntie Sue was on her way to Vietnam! Jenny couldn’t wait to hear her stories on her return! Maybe someday she’d become a nurse herself, or go off to an overseas country! But for now, she desperately needed to learn how to knit: there was still Miss Kershaw’s craft class to cope with on Monday afternoon.
Monday afternoon soon arrived…
Jenny couldn’t help thinking about her Aunt as she gazed out of the P6 classroom window, spotting a few seagulls and a helicopter overhead. “I wonder what Auntie Sue’s doing in Vietnam at the moment. I hope she’s not too busy or tired.” At that moment, Jenny was quickly brought back to the present as Miss Kershaw was approaching, inspecting each pupil’s knitting on her way around the classroom. “You’re not my favourite teacher, and I don’t like your black rimmed glasses at the end of your nose!” Jenny muttered to herself, as Miss Kershaw got dangerously close. She also didn’t like the way her dark brown hair was pinned like a beehive on the top of her head!
Just then, Jenny glanced down. “Oh no, I’ve done it again!” she gasped. “I’ve dropped another stitch!” She’d been attempting to knit a long maxi scarf, but the piece of woolly cloth hanging off the end of her two wooden needles wasn’t exactly a work of art! She’d already dropped five stitches and the colour was a horrible mustard shade. Jenny hadn’t wanted to knit anything that colour, but it had been the only cheap and cheerful chunky wool that Vicky could find in the local wool shop. “I wish I could master the basic stitches in the pattern and not feel so clumsy,” Jenny thought. “It’s hard making something long enough to stretch around my neck without a lot of holes in it!”
Thankfully, the bell suddenly rang before Miss Kershaw got any further! “Great! I didn’t realise it was that late. At least Miss Kershaw won’t see my mistakes now,” Jenny mumbled to herself as she quickly finished the row she’d been knitting and stuffed her work into a large paper bag. She was ashamed of her so-called “scarf.” It was a much bigger challenge than she’d first thought! Most of her other classmates were producing beautiful pieces of work, like stripy tea cosies or gloves. Even Carole, her best friend, had already finished lots of small coloured squares to make into a colourful patchwork blanket. Jenny just wanted to make something to be proud of, and to let Miss Kershaw see that she really did have some talent! Roll on, Auntie Sue’s return!
TWENTY YEARS ON
Jenny woke up with a jolt and yawned before glancing down at her mobile phone and got a bit of a shock. “Oh no!” she gasped. “I can’t believe it’s six o’clock. No wonder I’ve a sore neck! I must have been asleep for over three hours!”
Poor Jenny’s head had been squashed against the edge of the sofa for most of the afternoon, so it was no wonder she felt uncomfortable! She also realized she’d been dreaming! It was hard to recall all the details, but part of the dream had been watching a large plane taking off from Aldergrove Airport on a nice summer day with Auntie Sue on board. Another part of it was about several small children sitting outside a small wooden dwelling, wearing little red sweaters. All of them had shining black hair and looked as if they came from a country in Asia. Jenny knew this dream reminded her of Auntie Sue going off on her volunteering trip to Vietnam as a nurse. Now, twenty years later, Jenny was a district nurse herself!
“Life was a lot simpler then.” Jenny quietly muttered. “My biggest challenges in those days were doing maths homework or trying to knit a scarf in Miss Kershaw’s craft class! Now I’ve lots of patients to treat! I needed that doze this afternoon, after two evening shifts this week!”
Jenny gave herself a long stretch then decided to go and get fed. Lunch was a long while back and a few hunger pangs were starting!
As Jenny got up from the sofa, she lifted the TV remote control from the coffee table in front of her and pressed the keypad for ITV. It was good timing as a news headline had just started on the screen:
A low-flying helicopter seemed to be circling over a young female reporter’s head as she stood in front of a barren landscape in intense heat with bony-ribbed cows and a struggling mass of people walking behind her. Many of the small, bloated-bellied children looked frightened or displayed vacant stares. There didn’t seem to be many older people in the crowd, but several young women carried babies on their backs.
Jenny caught the end of the young reporter’s speech:
“… this year’s harvest has failed, and hundreds are arriving daily at this refugee camp, walking over 100 kilometres to get emergency food aid. There’s been no rain for fifteen months and temperatures have now reached forty degrees centigrade, even in the shade. 5 million people are at risk of starvation. Hunger will steal their futures and, without support from other countries, many of these refugees will starve. This is Trish Flanagan from ITN, reporting from Juba in Sudan.”
As Trish’s voice tailed off, Jenny saw a small girl standing in the foreground of the TV screen alongside an adult and younger child. She could hardly stand up straight and looked extremely frail, with sagging dull skin around her neck and ankles. A few moments later the little girl appeared to collapse to the ground. The adult, who was likely her mother, quickly bent over to pick her up, but could barely reach down to ground level herself as she also looked weak and exhausted. Someone walked past a few moments later and seemed to step on the little girl’s hand. Jenny noticed her small face grimacing in pain, but no one seemed to be aware of this except her mother, as her gentle cries for help were too faint to be heard in the crowd.
As the news report ended, Jenny noticed aid workers handing out blankets, small garments and food rations from large cardboard boxes to several queues of waiting people. A request then followed on the screen for money to be sent to a charity appeal. Jenny thought to herself, “I must send in a donation, but I don’t know what else I could do right now.” The image of the little girl stuck in her mind as she switched the TV off and headed to the kitchen to grab something to eat.