There were several distractions in quick succession during the year-long Russian language course which made it well-nigh impossible for me to concentrate on learning Russian. The first was in February 1977 when a fellow officer on our course set me up with a blind date. The lady was an RAF widow he knew and the location for the date was a Greek-themed private party in the North Luffenham Officers Mess. I’ll refer to the lady as Veronica to protect her real name for reasons that will become clear. In advance of the party, my friend told me that Veronica was the widow of an RAF officer who had been killed in a flying accident and she had a little boy about two years old. What my fellow officer did not know at the time was that Veronica already knew quite a lot about me and had asked to be invited to the party specially to meet me!
My meeting with Veronica at the party went very well and over the next few weeks we started going out regularly. I never asked her about first husband; the subject simply never came up because at that early stage of our relationship it did not seem important. I knew she would tell me when she wanted me to know. On one of our first meetings post-blind date, I went to her home in Lincoln and stayed the night. I met her two-year-old son and we later went to meet her parents. After several months and many meetings, I asked Veronica to marry me – and she agreed. Veronica was a strict Catholic and I had to go through a series of ‘educational’ sessions with her local priest during which I had to sign a document agreeing to bring up the two-year-old boy from her previous marriage “in the faith”. I did not know at that time that I was closely related to an Irish catholic bishop!
The second distraction was in early May when I began to feel perpetually mentally tired, physically drained, and unable to concentrate on anything much. I endured it for a couple of weeks before I also developed a sore throat and swollen glands in my neck. By then quite alarmed, I went to see the RAF North Luffenham station doctor. She almost immediately diagnosed that I had glandular fever, an insidious complaint correctly called infectious mononucleosis but sometimes referred to as ‘the kissing disease’ because it is often caused, the MO said, by transfer of infected saliva from another person. I was sent to the RAF Hospital at Nocton Hall, near Lincoln, to give a sample of my blood for testing and a couple of days later the diagnosis was confirmed. The doctor at Nocton Hall confirmed that there is no real cure for glandular fever other than complete rest to help reduce the symptoms. Worryingly, he added that glandular fever was one of those complaints that, once contracted, tended to return at irregular intervals but the good news was that glandular fever is not contagious. Despite all my efforts, I started to find it very difficult to concentrate on the Russian lessons and I began to lag well behind the others. The staff and my fellow students presumably thought that I was getting lazy, or losing interest in the course, or was paying far too much attention to my fiancée. I was not lazy, and I certainly did not want to fail the Russian course because that would have resulted in the cancellation of my posting to Berlin.
I told the course staff and my fellow students that I had glandular fever, the ‘kissing disease’, and that there was no real cure apart from rest and understanding. Far from being sympathetic, they all thought it was hilarious! However, the symptoms soon became worse and I was forced to spend a whole week confined to my bed in the Officers Mess on doctor’s orders. To my dismay, no visitors were allowed – not even Veronica. The MO said that was to permit me to have complete and uninterrupted rest. I imagine my friends were, by then, glad of an excuse to keep well away from me just in case I was contagious!
No sooner had I told everyone that I had glandular fever than there was yet another distraction. I had to consult the same lady Medical Officer again, this time with a suspicious lump in my right groin that had been bothering me for a couple of weeks after I had discovered it whilst having a shower. The MO diagnosed that lump as a hernia, large enough to require urgent repair in her opinion, so once again she referred me to the RAF Hospital at Nocton Hall near Lincoln. The consultant at Nocton Hall decided that there was also a lesser hernia on the other side. He decided that an immediate operation was required to fix both, but he was not prepared to do the operation until my glandular fever symptoms subsided.
In mid-June, as I was about to be wheeled off to the Operating Theatre at Nocton Hall, the Ward Sister came to me, clutching her clip board and said sternly: “Squadron Leader Cunnane, what is your operation for?” Because the pre-med injection was starting to take effect, I thought this might be a test to see if I was compos mentis.
“You know what I’m in for, Sister – a BIH – bilateral inguinal hernia repair,” I said, repeating the consultant’s description of what he was going to do.
“Then tell me why you’ve signed for a vasectomy when you recently got engaged to be married?” said the Sister, triumphantly waving her clip board in my face. She turned to the grinning RAF sergeant in the adjacent bed: “I don’t know why you’re laughing, sergeant. You’ve signed for a double hernia operation when you’re in for a vasectomy!”
After I came round in the recovery room, the very first thing I did was check under the bedclothes that the correct operation had been carried out. When the surgeon who had carried out my operation came on his rounds, he was accompanied by two grinning flight lieutenants, who looked to me like teenagers. The surgeon told me that those two “had done a side each to give them both some practice". I need not have worried about their skill because the repairs they had made lasted until 2005 when repeat surgery was needed on one side – although the NHS made me wait for nine months for that.
One day during my recuperation from the hernia operation, Veronica finally got around to telling me about the flying accident in which her first husband had died. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, I realised why she had wanted to find me. I had been one of the senior members of the five-man court-martial convened to try the captain of the aircraft that had crashed and killed her husband. The aircraft captain had been charged with mishandling an in-flight emergency and thereby causing the total loss of the aircraft and the death of several members of his crew and some civilians on the ground. We, the Court, acquitted the captain of the charge for reasons that even now, over 40-years later, I cannot reveal because they are legally privileged – as all court-martial decisions are.
A few days later Veronica told me, when we were in bed together, that she had been ‘talking’ to her late husband. Her late husband wanted me to know, Veronica said, that he forgave me for being a member of the Court Martial that had acquitted his captain of any wrong, and he approved of me – and my wedding to his widow! Veronica went on to admit to me, for the very first time, that she had known at least a full year before our first meeting on the blind date at the North Luffenham party, of the connection between me and her late husband and she had been planning how to engineer a meeting with me. I found that extremely disturbing. I told Veronica that I did not believe in messages from the dead and asked her never to do it again. But she did, quite deliberately, on several more occasions and finally on the very day that her little boy, whom I adored, called me “Daddy” for the very first time. There was no way I could live with a dead husband watching over me and approving or disapproving of my every action for the rest of my life. For the little boy’s benefit, I knew that the break had to be immediate and irrevocable. I left her bed and her house immediately, in the middle of the night, and never returned.