Moth Therapy by Bruce Costello

Friday, November 17, 2017
Bruce Costello's flash about the son of a World War II fighter pilot struggling to find himself after his mother's death.

I was a mess after my mother died. For months, I sat about lost and bewildered, or wandered around the house, not knowing where to put myself. At night, I hardly slept, but I'd drop off during the day and have vivid dreams that went on for ages, which my elderly doctor said were more like hallucinations.

"Just enjoy them," he said, his jowls alert like those of a bulldog that's spotted a dropped meat pie. "The mind has its own logic."

I started going for long drives, always meaning to find a nice place with a motel and stay for a night or two, but as soon as I got anywhere, I'd want to go somewhere else, or just drive back home.

One day, travelling towards Queensville, I stopped in the middle of the Erehwemos Plateau at Akanaw Airfield, busting to find a toilet. Afterwards, I strolled among camera-wielding tourists queueing for scenic flights or daring aeronautics. A revolving propeller up a pole drew my attention to a sign: "Biplane adventures, only $255 for 20 minutes of open cockpit vintage flight."

Why not? I stepped into the office, talked to a bright-eyed girl with wavy blond hair, handed over money and signed some forms.

"You can wait over there, if you like," she said, pointing to a sunny window seat.

I sat and closed my eyes, enjoying the warmth and the sound of tapping fingers.

"Good afternoon, Sir." A man in a long leather jacket and an old-style flying helmet was standing in front of me, saluting. "Mr Smith? My name's David Smythe." He had an impressive moustache and an English accent with a lisp. "I'm your pilot for today, Sir. We'll get you kitted out first, same as me. It can be dashed cold up there."

"Fine by me."

"See if you can squeeze into these," he said, selecting leather gear and goggles from a walk-in wardrobe, waiting while I struggled into them.

I stared at the full length mirror.

"You look the part," he said, leading me out to the tarmac, where a white and red biplane was waiting.

"She's a 1941 Tiger Moth. Ex Air Force. Spent her war years at Taieri Base, training pilots."

"That's where my father learned to fly. He was killed in 1943 over the Channel."

"Poor bugger," said the pilot, staring at my face.

He helped me into the front cockpit, watched as I fastened my seatbelt, then strode to the front of the machine and swung the propeller. The engine started after the third attempt. Lowering his goggles, he leapt nimbly into the rear cockpit.

The aircraft waddled along the grassy field, then slipped the chains of earth and soared topsides, cylinders singing, wires whistling, wings dancing with the wind.

"How was that?" the pilot asked, twenty-four minutes later, helping me out.


"Better take these off." He removed my goggles, and peered curiously at my eyes.

"Tremendous," I said, wiping my face. "Roar of the engine. Slipstream in the struts. Felt like Biggles."

"Good show. Every boy's hero. I still read Biggles books myself. Spiffing yarns! Look here, I'm free for a couple of hours. Care to join me in the mess? I'd love to hear about your dad."

We sat in the window of the airfield café, gazing across the grass to distant hills, shimmering in the heat.

"Don't know much about my father," I said. "Mother never spoke of him. He gets a mention in a book, written after the war by a pilot from the same squadron. I know the passage off by heart. "Flying Officer Davey Smith was a natural fighter pilot, and a real character in the mess. He'd developed a speech defect after losing some front teeth in a training accident, and had trouble pronouncing words that started with f, which gave rise to much merriment when he was telling his bawdy yarns."

The pilot threw back his head, slapped his thigh and roared.

I continued. "My father shot down seven enemy aircraft before he was killed. I was born a week afterwards."

"Crikey. Who can imagine what life was like then? Not just for the men. The widows, too. And the fatherless children."

"My mum never remarried. Never got over losing the man she loved. She kept falling apart and being carted off, and I got passed around the family."

"Jolly hard on you, old boy!"

"When I became an adult, I never left home. Just couldn't, the way Mother was. She died last year at 94. We lived miserably together. And people used to tease me about still living at home with my mother."

"You spent your life caring for the war hero's widow? I reckon you and your mother were casualties of the war, too, just as much as your dad was. But you suffered longer. You're a bloody unsung hero, old chap!"

Nobody had ever said this to me before.

A few months later, I returned to the airfield.

The propeller was still revolving up its pole, but in the office everything seemed different and the receptionist was an older woman. I asked if I could see David Smythe.


"David Smythe, took me up in a Tiger Moth a while ago."

"Sorry, we've never had a pilot by that name."

"Are you sure?"

"I've been with the company since it started."

I gaped at her.

She turned to a man who entered the room.

"This gentleman is looking for a pilot called David Smythe. Says he took him up in our Moth."

"English fellow with an RAF moustache and a lisp," I prompted.

"Sorry, never heard of him, and I've been chief pilot since we began operating."

Unreal, I thought, and my doctor's words came back to me.

I picked up after that. I joined the darts team at the pub and took up clay bird shooting down at the range. It turned out I was a damn good shot.


  1. A beautiful and simple story well told. Thank you very much,

  2. A gentle tale of healing. Very good.

  3. Nicely told story about longing? Either way fine piece
    Mike McC

  4. Don't know about darts or clay pigeon shooting, but moth therapy - bang on!
    B r o o k e

  5. I love stories where something happens and when the person goes back later everyone says, "What are you talking about?" Usually it's a ghost story meant to just scare. The hitchhiker that gets picked up then they find out later that person died a year ago. But this story wove the same kind of tale into a poignant tale of regret and yearning and, ultimately, release.