It all happened in 1944. A group of men escaped from the notorious Nazi Stalag Luft III camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Australian Paul Royle was one of 76 airmen among them.
Their courageous feat was made famous by the 1963 film The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen. Ah—that film. I don't think there's a person on the planet who hasn't watched the drama unfolding on the screen. And, of course, the beloved Steve McQueen's bike ride along the fence is a classic.
In reality seventy-one years ago, the men escaped through a secret tunnel built from the Nazi camp. Only three of the men who escaped reached safety. Of the 73 recaptured, 50 were shot.
Interviewed last year about his wartime experiences, Mr Royle said he had vivid memories of escaping into a snow-covered pine forest. With another escapee, he walked through the night and hid in bushes but they were soon recaptured by the Nazis.
On Friday, the local media reported that Mr Royle had died in a Perth hospital on Sunday after surgery for a fractured hip. According to his son, his father lived his life to the fullest, but it was a fall that killed him. Source: BBC.
You may already know that I use news stories in my fiction. How could a writer depict scenes to resemble reality without prompts from real life? In my Moonstone series, Liliha finds herself in unexpected situations and sees what's going on through other eyes. In an effort to help, she can whisper advice, rather like a guiding spirit. And the situations I use come from news snippets.
Here's a scene from my latest novel:
I'm hovering like sprite without a body, transported from the table in my normal life by means of a vision. The murk lifts in patches. To one side, a man stands on the edge of a tall cliff. He leans forward, peers at the water below, and then points a mobile phone at the towering rocks opposite.
Several people stand on the landward side, and more hurry toward him along a walkway.
He's the one I must help. I take a mental leap toward him, which gives no more sensation than peering inside a microscope. When I meld with him, I learn his name is Guy. I experience his rapid pulse rate and jerky movements as my own.
We pocket the phone and take a hesitant step closer to the edge. Vertigo grips me, strengthened by a voice in his mind urging him. 'Jump, jump.'
I'm used to assessing the state of the body I find myself in, but this experience causes slight tremors in my determination. I whisper, 'Don't do it, Guy. You can get past this.' His thoughts concentrate on the destructive internal voice and ignore my words. Somehow, I have to reach his inner core. I try to ease calming thoughts into his mind, but the commands, 'Jump, jump,' drown them.
At the whine of a distant motor, we focus on a lifeboat surging over the waves toward us.
'The bitch. She's called the authorities, probably sent them the picture I texted to her earlier.'
A deafening whoop, whoop of a hovering helicopter distracts me. We duck from the loud beating blades and yell in defiance. "Get away from me." The internal goading continues. 'Jump, jump.'
People arrive along the path, grim and anxious.
I try to soothe his distracted mind with a charge of empathy. I don't want to fall in his body, unsure if I could withdraw before we hit the water. 'Easy now. Don't get so worked up. It's not too late to fix this. You can step away from the edge now.'
The helicopter lands. "Get away, I told you." We shift closer to the edge.
'What's bothering you?'
Guy rants over the din of the thumping blades. "She's driven me to … this. She tried. She couldn't … I caught them. Together. Last night." Our head jerks toward the landed helicopter.
A winchman climbs out and approaches."Perhaps we can help. If you'd—"
Pulse racing out of control, we gaze at the sea below. "Don't come any closer. I'll jump."
"All right. I'll stay here." The rescuer speaks in a smooth way. "Tell me why you want to jump."
"Why I want to jump?" Our voice catches. "Why not? She and my best friend together. Hot and steamy. She just smiled. Do you hear? She just smiled … like she was glad I'd found them."
His internal voice chants in singsong repetition, 'Jump, jump.'
Knowing his state of mind, I will my essence to the winchman, meld and whisper, 'He could go at any moment. Be careful.' The man halts and holds his hands out either side of his body in a gesture of non-aggression.
Guy gazes out to sea, and then faces the onlookers. "Back off."
I advise the rescuer, 'He's wound up and ready to jump."
We call, "Let's talk this over."
Rubbing his head, Guy stares over the edge again.
"Wait. Talk to me a moment longer."
I whisper, 'Be silent for a moment.'
More people converge on the area, gesturing and talking in hushed tones. They push forward. I block their compulsion with my mind.
Guy raises his fist and shouts his defiance. "I said leave me alone."
I need to return to Guy, yet I'm caught between an effort to prevent coercion from the others, and soothing the troubled man.
The onlookers hover closer. Guy jumps. People run forward and stare. His body careens off the jutting ledge into the water twenty feet below.
Regret sears me, However, I'm still with the winchman. 'There's nothing you could have done. He'd already made up his mind.' My sense of relief wars with the possible selfishness of leaving Guy before he plunged below. But, I couldn't have done anything either.
The winchman swallows and sighs, his acceptance allowing me to disengage.
At least I have eased the rescuer's mind although the crowd will have difficulty dealing with their horrible memories. I lift away, my spirit heavy with regret.
* * *