His parents had named him Alphonse, but that was long ago and far away. They brought him to Australia as a child more than sixty years ago. He grew up as an Aussie, talked like an Aussie, and all his friends called him Alf or Alfie. After a few dalliances and a few serious romances, he met Isadore and fell deeply, profoundly in love. He courted Isadore and married her when he was forty-eight and she was half that age.
They enjoyed twenty-two good years and had two lovely children, the younger now in her last year of university studies. People who knew the family said Alfie had four loves in his life: Isadore, their two children, and his Cessna 182 Skylane. Those people were mistaken: Alfie indeed loved Isadore, and he loved their two children. He liked his Skylane a great deal and enjoyed flying it, but he reserved his love for his wife and children.
From her teens onward, Isadore had struggled with what a procession of doctors diagnosed as clinical depression or mono-polar depressive disorder, but Alfie had worked hard to help her cope with that affliction. In the past year-and-a-half, with Alfie’s encouragement and support, she had worked with a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and the counsellor she’d been seeing for four years. To her husband’s delight, all that work apparently had the desired effect—Isadore seemed to feel happier and to cope better.
The problem arose after Isadore’s counsellor involved her in a regular therapy group. By the fourth month of the group’s weekly meetings, Isadore decided she had fallen in love with one of the other patients. In reply to some questions from Alfie about her recent prolonged absences, she told him of her new infatuation and said she wanted out of their twenty-two year marriage.
Alfie loved Isadore so profoundly that her happiness had become his mission in life, his perennial goal, his Holy Grail. Learning that her happiness required her being with someone else threw Alfie into a conflict of emotions such as he had never known. He wanted Isadore to be happy, but he wanted her to be with him, but most of all he wanted her to be happy, but he wanted her to be happy with him, and so on and so forth and around and around until he could hardly think of anything else, could hardly walk down a street safely because of the tumult chasing itself around and around in his brain.
Both thoughtful and intelligent, Alfie soon recognized Isadore’s happiness demanded the company, the presence of Bill, her new beloved. Alfie also recognized he could not long endure the pain of her departure from his own life. His friends told him he would get over the pain in a few months; he knew better. Isadore told him the hurt wouldn’t last; he knew better. He even saw a mental health professional, who advised him to wait two years before making any important decisions—by then, the counsellor said, “you will have worked through your grief and will feel much better.” Alf didn’t believe that, but agreed to go through the motions of living his life for two years before making any major decisions.
Many times in those two years, Alf felt he could not stand one more day, one more hour, of the torment. The two year figure felt to him like a promise, however, so he trudged on through his days. He did his best to carry on all his usual activities, except, of course, those he’d shared with Isadore. Sharing with Isadore had been the center of Alf’s existence for more than two decades, and that gaping hole in his life ached constantly. He pushed himself hard to get out and continue his other endeavors—coordinating a local recycling program, planting native flora in deforested areas, and other environmental crusades—and mostly succeeded, apart from a few days when he just couldn’t cope.
Alf hoped, and friends said, those projects would prove therapeutic. He also did a good deal of therapeutic, or what he hoped would be therapeutic, flying, doubling the number of hours he spent in the air each month. None of those efforts seemed to have any significant impact, although Alf felt gratified to learn that Lumholz tree kangaroos had returned to a native forest corridor he and friends had planted a few years earlier.
“Isn’t that great,” Cynthia, one of the other volunteers with whom Alf had planted that stretch of cleared ground, said. “That young grad student fella counted almost a hundred of ’em.” Cynthia, who privately entertained hopes of her own attendant upon Alf’s separation from Isadore, continued, “It’s so nice to get some good news.”
The only good news Alf longed for could have come from noone but Isadore and didn’t. He made some polite but inconsequential reply to Cynthia and departed for his next scheduled project. That day, like all of Alf’s days without Isadore, dragged in weary agony from the disappointment of waking and finding himself still alive to lying down at night in the hope of not waking again. He hid his pain as best he could, wanting not to burden others with it, and carried out whatever tasks would most help those around him.
Alf’s parents, his mother from Mallorca and his father from The Netherlands, both survived into their nineties. Their son could not bear the thought of having to endure for another twenty years the pain he bore every day. When Alf told his friend Neil about those feelings and also about the tree kanagaroos, Neil seemed upset. “Come on, Alfie,” he said, “buck up, man. Look at all you’ve accomplished, all the good you’ve done, all the good you’re still doing.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Neil,” Alf replied. “I have accomplished a lot, even raised two good, steady kids, helped a lot of people. I’ve had a good run.”
Neil, a real friend whom Alfie described as the “salt of the earth”, was a hard working farmer not given to introspection or too much sensitivity. As a result, he didn’t hear the implications of his friend’s last sentence and went away reassured.
Alf, on the other hand, found himself thinking, Yes, I have accomplished a great deal. I’ve seen my kids through into adulthood. They no longer need me. I’ve helped Isadore get healthier. She no longer needs me—or wants me. I can be proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’ve done enough for one man’s lifetime.
Isadore rang the next day, to say she thought they needed to obtain a formal divorce decree. Usually more self-aware than most, Alf had not recognized how much their still being officially married had allowed him to hope for a reconciliation. At the same time, he wanted first and foremost, as always, to do what was best for Isadore. He agreed to cooperate, of course, but asked her to wait. “Yes, of course,” he said, “I’ll do whatever is necessary to make it all happen for you, but just hold off for a few weeks.”
“Alf,” she said, “I am not coming back to you—not now and not in a few weeks.”
“Yes, dear, I understand that. I don’t like it, but I understand it. I just think it’s probably worth waiting for a few weeks. That doesn’t cause any problems for you, does it?”
“No, that’s fine,” Isadore said, and brought the call to a civil if not affectionate end.
That set in motion a chain of events that culminated in Alf’s checking the calendar to verify that two years had indeed elapsed since his meeting with the counsellor. Alf made no specific plans, but he made a point of not committing himself to any volunteer activities beyond the next few weeks. He had no clear vision in his head of what he intended to do, but he felt a new sense of freedom while wanting to ensure he did not disappoint anyone.
About a month later, Alf arranged to pick up a friend in Mount Garnet and spend a day in Atherton. For a change, Alf had no other commitments of any kind. He’d used his free time in the past few weeks to do more flying and to visit friends—including even a flight to see friends in Maryborough, whom he hadn’t seen for two years. A day of R & R in Atherton might prove a pleasant distraction, although what Alf really wanted was a day—many days, many nights, many weeks, many months, many years—with Isadore.
Alf lived about halfway between Townsville’s busy commercial airport and Donnington Airpark and kept his Skylane at Donnington. Because of his increased, if perhaps disappointingly non-therapeutic, flying time, Alf noticed the week after his Maryborough trip that he’d run his little Cessna up very close to the maximum TBO. In fact, he thought, as he filled out his logbook, I can’t go anywhere except Townsville without going over. He made a small amendment to the times in the log.
“Ah, well, you won’t mind, will you, oldtimer?” he said, as he completed the log entry. “I’ve always taken you in early before. I might need to take you in a few hours late this time.” He thought about making an appointment for the required overhaul but decided to put that off for a few days. Alf was aware of a few issues that would need to be fixed at the same time as the overhaul and worried that some might present major difficulties or expenses.
The day fixed for the Atherton outing arrived, and Alf’s heartache tortured him no more than usual, and no less. He checked the Skylane over carefully, as he had hundreds of times, filled the fuel tanks, guided it into the clear, blue sky, and headed northwest. With a couple of easy hours before him, he began thinking carefully and analytically about his situation, as the little Cessna carried him past Lake Ross and The Pinnacles.
He’d flown about 175 miles since he took off two hours earlier, visually picked up the course of the Herbert River and begun roughly following it. The Skylane overflew the lovely little Yourka Reserve, which he’d visited on the ground a couple of times. As Alf looked down on that pretty spot, which he could barely make out, he thought, No, I think I don’t want a passenger today,” and picked up the radio’s microphone to inform Mt. Garnet that a change of plans meant he wouldn’t land there after all. He used his cellphone to ring the friend he’d planned to pick up and apologized, then banked to the right and altered his course toward Herberton as he radioed Atherton aerodrome he was headed in that direction.
Flying over the Herberton Ranges, Alf remembered a couple of walking visits to Hall’s Falls, both with Isadore. He altered course slightly and circled the falls twice, then thought, This is as good a place as any. At least they won’t get to the wreck quickly and hurry me off to a hospital. Pointing the Skylane’s nose a little northwest of the falls, Alf spoke out loud, “Sorry, old girl, I think time is about up for both of us,” as he pushed the wheel forward and aimed the Cessna toward the hillside.
With maybe two seconds before impact, Alf felt bad to remember he hadn’t left a note for his kids. No, maybe that’s better, he thought—and that was his last thought.
When an hour passed with no sign of the Cessna at Atherton and no further radio contact, the airport manager there grew worried and telephoned emergency services. A volunteer, one of the manager’s friends who helped out in such situations and happened to be at the airport, flew a straight line to Mount Garnet and back with an experienced and binocular-equipped passenger but saw nothing noteworthy. They repeated the exercise, flying further to their left both out and back but still saw no sign of a downed aircraft.
The police helicopter did much the same, further away from the direct route in recognition of the earlier search, but lower and slower. Four hours later, the helicopter’s observer spotted something among the trees of the Herberton Ranges Conservation Park and brought the pilot around again. Hovering just above the treetops, the two men could see what could only be the wreckage of a light aircraft. The mountainside offered no clearing for a landing site, so the pilot pulled the control to lift the chopper up and away from the hillside and headed for home, while the observer reported the GPS coordinates over the radio.
Afternoon began its transformation to evening, so the local police commander decided to defer sending in a ground crew until the following day. The evening news mentioned a light aircraft had gone down in the Herberton Ranges, but noone—not Neil, not Cynthia, not any of Alf’s many friends—connected the news bulletin to Alf. Isadore didn’t even hear a news broadcast, so she knew nothing of the crash until their younger daughter rang and asked in a panicky voice, “Where’s Dad?”
Once their daughter explained the news stories, Isadore knew exactly what Alf had done. She knew, but she couldn’t tell anyone. Isadore thought about the situation, thought about almost nothing else for a few hours, thought about her situation. The choice between keeping her knowledge secret and informing others haunted Isadore only very briefly. If she said nothing, she would inherit Alfie’s half of their home and land and would receive a substantial sum from his life insurance. If she revealed all she knew, she would probably get neither. Deciding to keep her own counsel took Isadore less than a day.
Ground crews retrieved the body and carried it out of the woods to where a helicopter could land. The helicopter delivered it to an ambulance that delivered it to the morgue for a thorough forensic examination. The coroner, several days later, announced that his team had found no evidence of a ‘medical event’ but could not rule out the possibility. A team of inspectors similarly examined the remains of the Skylane, recovered the logbook—which Alfie had altered only slightly—and noted that the aircraft had just reached its TBO, but found no evidence of mechanical failure.
If anyone noticed the records of Alf’s having made generous donations to SES and other search-and-rescue and emergency services organizations the previous week, he or she made no mention of that. The memorial service hastily arranged by Alf’s children drew more mourners than expected, overflowing the building they had rented with more standing outside than seated inside.
The elder daughter provided a tower of strength for everyone else right up until her time to speak in the non-denominational service. She said, “I miss my dad. I hadn’t even seen him for three months and didn’t think anything of it, but now I’ll never s—” She broke down in tears at that point and left the podium. The younger daughter stepped up and made thoughtful, responsible concluding remarks, then hurried to her sister, and the two wept in each other’s arms. Isadore, conservatively dressed in traditional black, graciously accepted everyone’s condolences.