The Sopwith Camel was not an even-toed ungulate. It did not provide milk or meat for consumption, nor did it provide hair for adornment. It was neither dromedary nor was it bactrian. It was in fact a single-seat, British fighter biplane, first flown on December 22nd, 1916 and grounded forever in the flower power outerskies of 1967. By the end of its lifespan, 5,490 Sopwith Camels had been built.
On 4th August, 2015, James Jupiter Jackson was in the process of building the 5,491st.
Jupe – as everybody called him – had been to a boot sale that morning with his dad and returned home with an Airfix Model Series 1 of The Sopwith Camel (1/72 scale). They had stopped off at Games Workshop in town to buy the requisite paints and glue before returning home to their small house, whereupon they entered together as always and dispersed to their separate rooms as ever they did.
Men do that. Boys do that. Fathers and sons – they do that.
Living with your only child in a two-bedroom, ground floor flat in Maldon can cause a thinking man to think and a drinking man to drink. Jupe’s dad was a thinking man. He had a thinking brow and a thinking chair, a thinking pose and a thinking stare. Sometimes Jupe would come out of his room and into the small lounge on his way to the kitchen to get a glass of milk, and he would observe his dad sitting in his thinking chair, thinking man that he was, thinking brow all browed up, just gazing wide-eyed and blank at nothing at all. Some call that thinking. Others call it wondering why that woman left you.
“What are you doing, Dad?” Jupe used to ask.
“Just thinking, Jupe. Just thinking.”
Whenever they spoke with one another, the father and the son, it would be in that fashion. Simple questions and simple answers. Matter of fact. To the point.
“Are you OK, Jupe?”
But over the last year, Jupe had stopped asking his dad what he was doing and his dad had stopped asking him if he was OK. That can happen too. It doesn’t mean that love isn’t in the house, just that it’s a young boy and his father, confused in life.
Relationships are strange things and sometimes it is so much harder when you love somebody as much as Jupe’s dad loved Jupe. Especially when you still miss the woman who walked out on you. He’d long forgiven her but forgetting had been so much harder. It was always going to be that way. It’s a time thing, I guess.
Step one of constructing The Sopwith Camel consists of firstly gluing together the two halves of the fuselage, with the little static pilot locked snug between the two. From out of the mess room and into the glueness: sniffed up, plasticked and irretrievable.
Jupe held the pilot figure up to his wide eyes and tried to discern an expression on that pale grey face. He saw nothing though – no excitement, no apprehension and no dreaminess – certainly no trepidation with regard to being glued, sniffed up, plasticked and irretrievably stuck between the two halves of a fuselage. So it was that Jupe decided the pilot did not warrant a seat in such a special aircraft. The tiny airman would have to sit this one out. This was going to be a special model and required only the most special of pilots to fly it. It was a tough decision, but probably the right one; if truth be told had it been any other way, this would have been a very drab story indeed.
The rest of the first section of the model included attaching the bottom wing (which consisted of one long piece) and then assembling the two-part tail fin – a short horizontal piece with a v-shaped groove, into which the rounded perpendicular tail slotted in. Having completed these tasks, Jupe gently placed his work-in-progress on his bedside table. He sighed when he looked upon it. If only life were as simple as the last hour had been. Even at his young age it seemed that things were unnecessarily complicated – friendship, happiness, contentment – all just so complicated for an innocent little lad.
“Need to turn your light off now, Jupe,” his dad called through the door. “Time for bed.”
Jupe silently crept into bed and felt not the need to reply. He closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep, knowing that his dad would come into his room anyway to turn off the bedside lamp and open the window. This happened every night and was one of Jupe’s most precious moments. He watched under his fluttering eyelids as his dad crept in.
Click and the lamp was off. A slow ruffle of the hair and moments later Jupe felt the coolness of the night air about his face, the window open, the world watching.
“The stars need to see you, Jupe. You’re one of them, mate.”
Each night, Jupe’s dad would whisper those same words. In waking hours he could barely muster a syllable, yet those nightwords would sustain Jupe through each and every moment. And that is why, regardless of the sort of day he had experienced, Jupe invariably drifted into sleep with a smile upon his face – whilst his dad drifted back to his own room to work on his model car, his fatherly duties completed, his adult time done.
Unlike the Sopwith Camel Airfix Model, Jupe’s dad’s model was fashioned entirely without blueprint, instructions or ready-made pieces. Whereas Jupe’s bedroom was tidy and compact, everything in its place, his dad’s room was a combination of junk shop, skip, tool shed and dreamworld. Jupe had never been in that room since his mum had left them.
’Tis a truism that with balsa wood and panel pins, Humbrol paints and vision, a man can make anything he wants to. And that’s the cool truth.
“Speak up, Jupe,” says his teacher. “No-one can hear you! You’re embarrassing yourself again.”
Jupe in dreamworld tries to hide beneath his desk but can’t quite fit, so he closes his eyes and shrinks just a little, until barely anyone can see him.
The second section of the model aeroplane involved attaching the propeller. The instructions gave Jupe the option of fixing it firmly in place or allowing it to rotate at the nudge of a nervous finger. He opted for the latter. For not only were his dreams filled with difficult times, there was a corner of them that instilled him with hope.
It was on the second morning of making his plane that Jupe fell out of bed. It wasn’t a sleepy fall, nor did he hurl himself out with the hope of injuring himself, as he had once done when being so scared [DM1] to go to school after the six weeks holidays. This was more the kind of fall that happens when you misjudge a step and stumble into nothingness for a moment. And Jupe being Jupe, his first concern was that he had fallen upon the body of his Sopwith Camel.
Jupe rubbed his head and breathed a little boy sigh of relief when he saw his plane had not been broken. He scribbled a note to his dad and slipped the piece of paper under his dad’s bedroom door.
Not well today. Not going to school. Sorry.
Ten minutes later, a similar piece of paper slid beneath Jupe’s door and landed near his Airfix paints. It was from his dad.
Not well today. Not going to work. Sorry.
And so it was that Jupe and his dad spent that day in their respective bedrooms, working on their respective models – Jupe on his Sopwith Camel, his dad on his green Bentley.
As an afterthought, or perhaps a forethought, Jupe took one of his cricket magazines and leant it up against the bedroom window as a makeshift ramp for when the time came that his model aeroplane was finished. He’d read the magazine anyway and it was far too interesting to throw away.
Dads dream too, you know. And it’s not always teachers who shout either. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s wives and lovers and bosses and total strangers. It’s not easy staying big when you’ve grown up. Not easy at all.
Section three of the Sopwith Camel was where it all came together. Jupe added the top wings (all one piece) and supported it with six tiny struts, hoping so hard, so much that it would all hold together. He gazed at it through the afternoon and the evening, keeping a weary eye upon every angle. But it held fast. The top wings were parallel to the bottom wings and the struts may have been made of rods of iron so well did they do their job. The model was complete, the work done. Another chapter in his short life completed.
So much did Jupe admire his creation, he couldn’t bear to put it anywhere other than on the pillow beside him. He drifted to sleep that night with his eyes flitting as he drifted, gazing upon that Sopwith Camel, desiring to be in that pilot’s seat so much that he dreamed of nothing else other than of his mother long gone and of his father far away.
The morning sun burst through as the morning sun does do, sometimes in summer when the wind is at ease and the clouds slumber soft in their slovenly universe sloth, and when little boys are too much in dreamworld to consider ever shutting their bedroom window or closing their ragged cloth curtains.
It’s a bursting. And no mistake. Though it wasn’t the sun that awoke Jupe the following day, but that intermittent buzzing noise that came from the other side of his bedroom door. Oh and the fact that he was now absolutely tiny and squished into his white pillow like a smitten skier in the snowy snow alps.
Now this is strange, thought Jupe. Very strange.
He may have been incredibly small but his imagination and loving was still large indeed.
It’s very strange, but I like it, he decided. And my aeroplane is just the right size now for me to fly it.
As the buzzing behind the door became more insistent, so the door began to open just a tiny bit, for it hadn’t been fully closed to begin with, which was just as well. Funny how things turn out when you’re making it up as you go along. A very small car requires a very small gap through which to pass and that’s a fact.
As Jupe clambered into the cockpit of his Sopwith Camel, so too did his father shift down into neutral, way below on the floor, the faint hum of the model car engine thrumming with the beat of all our hearts.
Nobody else existed in that moment: not me, not you, just maybe the birds in the skyway and the wonderfish in the oceans. For this was the one true day for this lonely boy and his dreamer dad.
Jupe took a breath, looked down at the controls on the simple dashboard that he had glued together and painted just the previous day, and let loose for the first time in his little life. The Sopwith Camel grumbled to begin with before finding its form and knowing its duty. And then there was nothing but air below that plane and Jupe was flying at last, unbothered by sadness, unbroken by the barbs of others and unconscious of everything but what lay ahead. It was only when he was about to fly through the open window that he glimpsed the flash of red below him.
Jupe looked down and waved to his father. His father looked up and waved to Jupe, who then pointed to the outerdoors. Jupe’s father pointed too in the same direction and, as the Sopwith Camel hovered, the car engine revved and roared at the foot of the magazine ramp, all set for the blastings.
And blast they did.
Jupe’s father gunned that car and he gunned it good, until he was all ready to release the handbrake. Then wham! That red streak of a plastic car whizzed across the magazine cover and threw the open window out of sight to all but Jupe who floated above, eyes wide, having steered the Sopwith Camel through the window in that same moment.
Unnoticed they left and unnoticed they travelled, Jupe in his aeroplane, his father in that red car, insignificant to all others as ever they had been. They travelled through streets and through gardens, over bridges and onto forest paths, invisible, ecstatic, engorged with love and connected. Occasionally Jupe would look down from on high to see that his father was OK and his father would every now and then look up to his son. They travelled and travelled until finally they reached the horizon. The sun was just turning from translucent to orange and on the verge of pink when the little car ran out of petrol and the Sopwith Camel started to struggle.
Jupe’s father let the car roll to a halt and watched as the tiny aeroplane made a landing of sorts.
So there they both were, back together, as small as you like and as far away from everything as they ever needed to be.
“Nice car, Dad,” Jupe smiled.
“You made a good job of that aeroplane, Jupe,” his father replied, nodding.
The half-sun now grinned upside-down scarlet across the curves of the world, bringing magic to the party and glow to the glow. Jupe reached out a hand to his father as they both gazed into the everdistance. His father held it like a brother, a lover, a father, a mother, a friend, a saint and a sinner.
And those two fine people never spoke another word to one another for the remainder of their glorious lives.