The train​ from Verona to Udine crosses a plateau of vineyards and terracotta-roofed farms backed by an indistinct range of hills. After an hour or so it stops at Mestre, allowing a glimpse of Venice across the lagoon, then retreats into the campagna. As we headed north, the hills bulked larger and darker. We got off the train at Conegliano, just north of Treviso, where we caught a bus to Tezze di Piave. I picked some straggly poppies at the roadside. Tezze is a small town, much prized and fought over for hundreds of years, but with little to impress tourists despite being the site of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. At the end of a path lined with cypress trees a rectangle of clipped lawn is enclosed by low grey stone walls. Some 356 British soldiers and airmen of the First World War are buried here, the graves set in rows, softened by evergreen shrubs, floribunda roses and photinia trees. The headstones are engraved with regimental badges, names, ranks and dates. The first plans for the cemetery were drawn up in 1920 and finalised two years later by Sir Robert Lorimer, an architect inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and Scottish baronial architecture – nostalgia to soothe the pain of modernity. Like most such cemeteries, it is overlooked by a Cross of Sacrifice – an elongated cross usually set on an octagonal base, with what Rudyard Kipling, the CWGC’s literary adviser, called a ‘stark sword brooding on [its] bosom’. ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, a text Kipling chose from Ecclesiasticus, appears at the larger war cemeteries. Such imagery turned conscription into crusade, slaughter into sacrifice.

Tezze was devastated during the First World War, which isn’t surprising, given its proximity to the front, which ran along the Piave River, a mile or so away. In October 1917, after the Italians were routed at the Battle of Caporetto, a hundred miles north-west, the Austrians advanced and occupied Tezze for a year until the tide turned at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. A combined force of Italian troops and the British 7th Division then crossed the Piave and recaptured the town. Thousands died in the process, the battle ending just a week before the Armistice. Many of those killed on the north bank of the river were buried at Tezze, their graves marked at first with simple wooden crosses. After Caporetto the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) had sent five squadrons to establish airfields in the land between the hills of the Asiago plateau and the broad valley of the Piave, and several airmen were also interred there.

We were looking for the grave of a particular British pilot, Lieutenant Van Dyke Fernald, who was shot down at Godega, near Conegliano, in July 1918. He may have accidentally broken formation – often a fatal mistake – but his fellow officers believed he had hung back deliberately at the end of a patrol in order to engage the enemy. His plane was either hit by anti-aircraft fire or attacked in the air – a letter dropped by the Austrians stated simply that he and his observer, 2nd Lieutenant William Watkins, had been niedergeschossen and were dead. Whether they were killed instantly or died of wounds is unclear. In October 1918 two periodicals devoted to the new art of aviation, the Aeroplane and Flight, reported that Fernald had ‘died as a prisoner in Austrian hands’.

Howard Redmayne Harker and Van Dyke Fernald, France, December 1916

Howard Redmayne Harker and Van Dyke Fernald, France, December 1916

Fernald had gone up to Trinity College, Oxford in October 1915, where he immediately joined the Officers’ Training Corps. Not much interested in his studies, he applied for a commission, stating in order his preferred branch of service – artillery, infantry, cavalry (but explicitly not the unglamorous Army Service Corps) – and confirming that he was ‘of pure European descent’. In February 1916 he completed a short service attestation form, swore allegiance before a magistrate and was posted to ‘A’ Company, No. 2 Officer Cadet Battalion in Cambridge for 16 weeks’ training. From his billet at Queens’ College, he wrote enthusiastically to his parents that he was having a ‘good healthy time’. A typical day consisted of Reveille at 6.45, followed by breakfast parade, PT, platoon drill, dinner, route march or arms drill, tea, lecture, supper, Last Post and lights out at 10.15. They played football against local boys, losing 18-0 to The Leys School, and canoed on the Cam. ‘I am very warm at nights,’ he reassured his mother, ‘and sleep like a log, eat like an elephant, work like a dog, and love my Dad and Mum as only their Van Dyke can.’ He took up smoking and sent his younger brother cigarette cards showing uniforms and battles. He revered his captain, ‘an awful sport’ who had won the Military Cross at the First Battle of Ypres. In July he was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion of the Royal West Surrey Regiment, and applied for an attachment to the RFC. The following month a medical board at Chatham confirmed his vision, hearing and blood pressure were normal, and he was in.

Photographs show a handsome, confident 19-year-old with a centre parting and thick dark eyebrows. He looks charming and faintly dangerous. ‘The RFC attracted the adventurous spirits,’ wrote Cecil Lewis, whose Sagittarius Rising (1936) is the classic Flying Corps memoir, ‘the devil-may-care young bloods of England, the fast livers, the furious drivers.’ Airmen needed a low heart rate, had to be able to hold their breath for 45 seconds and to stabilise their eye movements quickly after being spun round in a typing chair. If they passed these tests they faced an interview where diffidence led to disqualification. Lewis remembered being warmly received by a staff captain who knew his housemaster from Oundle and was impressed by the school colours he had won playing fives. Candidates familiar with country sports were likely to be successful. The monocle-wearing director of air organisation, Brigadier General Sefton Brancker, thought flying ‘a little easier than riding because you sit in a comfortable armchair in a quiet machine instead of a slippery saddle on a very lively horse’. When asked if he rode, Fernald sensibly replied: ‘A little.’

Successful candidates were taken up in the air by instructors who stalled the plane’s engines to test their nerves. Fluent conversation was commended; clinging to the side wearing ‘an unintelligent expression’ was not. Half of all novice fliers were rejected, many others died in accidents: 8000 of the 14,166 pilots killed in the war died in training. At Fernald’s depot, three recruits were killed in a single fortnight in autumn 1916 – one when an instructor let off a Lewis gun – and injured another. Fernald trained as an observer, though this was no less perilous. He also learned to shoot in the air, which required quick reflexes, impeccable timing, technical knowhow (to free jams), instinctive geometry and, most useful of all, near suicidal aggression: in dogfights the plane had to get as near as possible to the enemy, sometimes within inches. Manfred Von Richthofen, the Red Baron, once explained how he became Germany’s most celebrated flier: ‘I fly close to my man, aim well, and then of course he falls down.’

In November 1916 Fernald spent his leave collecting aircraft spares, visiting his family for only 90 minutes before leaving for France. They dropped him at the station. ‘He was gay and splendid to the very last moment,’ his mother said, ‘and gave us a military salute as he disappeared behind the door.’ She had read a piece in the Spectator that described the departing soldiers as modern crusaders, but she felt ‘there is something that they have that no crusader ever had, and it was shining in V.D.’s face today.’ Fernald’s ship docked at Le Havre, from where he made his way to Rouen. A lorry took him to a farm, where he lived like a boy scout in a shelter with a stove that belched smoke; the officers’ mess was a house next to a dunghill. He spent six months on the Western Front with his pilot, Howard Redmayne Harker, and qualified as an observer. Harker, coincidentally, was Fernald’s mother’s maiden name and the two became close. (Harker died seven months after Fernald, of pneumonia.) There is a picture of them looking splendid, not quite smiling, cigarettes dangling from their lips. Van Dyke sent it to his mother as a postcard. ‘Isn’t this photo a scream?’ he wrote on the back. ‘I think he will be my pilot.’

Fernald’s job was to take aerial photographs in the Arras-Bapaume sector; the results were pieced together to make maps. He saw the front line for the first time on Boxing Day 1916, and wrote to his parents the same day, expressing excitement and disappointment: from 7000 feet the trenches just looked like ‘a lot of crossing paths’. But before long Fernald and Harker were in the thick of it. It’s amazing they survived: the life expectancy of an airman in France in 1916 was three weeks; by 1917 it was a fortnight. On one memorable occasion they skirmished with Von Richthofen’s ‘flying circus’ and claimed to have downed a plane.

They flew a Bristol F.2b Fighter, like all early biplanes a marvellous deathtrap, liable to stall and flip and spin and burst into flames. Before I went to Italy, I took my nine-year-old son Tom to Duxford Air Museum to see a Bristol Fighter up close. It was bigger than I expected, with a wingspan of nearly forty feet, but it looked like a box kite, all struts and laced-up canvas. It fascinated Tom – the sort of passion that gives parents nightmares. I had dreamed the previous night that he had been carried away by a balloon, an image that floated back into my mind as I watched him gazing at the plane. Afterwards I read an account of a German pilot chancing on a Bristol Fighter: ‘His machine sits there like a big butterfly with its cockades shining peacefully … a strange spectacle.’ He shot it down. Fernald’s mother felt her son was drawn to danger: his taste for action, his sangfroid about danger, and his philosophical musings that ‘he might be next’ all filled her with dread. She was so overjoyed to hear he would not be on the front line over Christmas 1916 that she bought a tree for her younger son to decorate – ‘an outlet for our feelings’. She got a new pair of fur gloves for Van Dyke (he’d frozen his hands trying to operate the gun after losing an earlier pair), which she posted along with some curtains for his hut.

A typical patrol meant being woken at 4 a.m. by an orderly, who lit a candle for Fernald to dress by. Ten minutes later he was wolfing down breakfast – eggs, bread, jam, tea – before hurrying to the aerodrome where Harker was running up the engine. Fernald tested his guns, put on his kit, clambered into the rear seat, and felt the ‘early morning feeling’ dissipate as the plane lifted off the runway. ‘The air fills your lungs and you sometimes want to shout at the top of your voice just for the joy of being alive,’ he wrote.

You forget that you are taking part in a war, and just feel like a spectator in the front row of a gallery. The morning mist is still clinging to the ground and through it you can see flashes of the guns as they send out their messages of death and destruction. The trench line is visible too, surrounded by thousands of shell holes, filled with water from the last rains. It is a dismal sight, barren and desolate.

The sky would soon be crowded with aircraft, usually with red, white and blue roundels rather than black crosses. Occasionally they would sight an enemy strafing Allied artillery positions and give chase. Then they would return to base, have a second breakfast and a cigarette, and go back to bed.

Subalterns in the trenches envied this semi-civilian existence, but the strain was intense. One pilot described his ‘perpetual state of wind-up during a patrol, a most unhealthy state of mind’. Flying was childishly absorbing and exciting, but actual fighting brought with it enervating bursts of confusion, terror and fury. Some airmen returned from sorties almost hysterical, shaking, gabbling, smoking cigarettes to the butt; others were silent. Many pilots were superstitious, and planes often carried talismans and trinkets – Denis Winter, in The First of the Few, calls this ‘mystical ballast’.

By the spring of 1917, the tone of Fernald’s letters had altered: they were no longer jocular – he had been fond of quips and wordplay – but sombre and introspective. ‘We just exist from day to day,’ he told his parents, ‘with no thought of the morrow except wishing this horrible war was over, or other impossible things.’ His best friend was killed – ‘it somehow leaves a gap’ – and he was irritated by ‘blood-and-thunderists’ at home. He was also frustrated that the censor thwarted his self-representation in his letters as a chivalric knight, a youth forged by war into an honourable man. ‘Amongst other things that modern warfare has done away with is the long and accurate chronicle which used to find its way to the anxious household, giving full details of the trend of recent events, sent back by the family hero. What a chance there was for blood-stirring writing … That’s all gone now.’ Instead, he had to be content with just dramatising his dawn patrols. He also imagined a perfect July day, the garden thick with grass and flowers, his brother playing with the cat, his mother pottering with her trowel, afternoon tea with strawberries. ‘That to me is all I want,’ he wrote. ‘Perhaps some day everything will be something like the same again.’

Fernald returned from the Western Front in June 1917, and began pilot training. His experience as an observer proved invaluable, though he confided in his mother that he was uneasy about the added responsibility. He earned his wings that autumn, and in June 1918 was posted to Italy with the 34th Squadron of the newly formed Royal Air Force. He grew an indifferent moustache (for which airmen required permission), and enjoyed a final leave. Soon he was in Thiene, near Vincenza. The airmen liked it there: they swam and rode horses, and basked in deckchairs eating peaches and ice cream and drinking lemon squash. Reliably good weather meant daily sorties over the Asiago plateau and long-distance reconnaissance into enemy territory.

Fernald liked flying – ‘skylarking’, as he called it, was ‘glorious’, the ‘star stunt’ of the war. There were breathtaking views of the Alps and of the Adriatic and Dalmatian coastlines; the gloom he’d felt on the Western Front seemed magically to lift. A pilot from his squadron described Venice ‘glittering like a pink opal in the warm early sunlight’. A classical education led these young men to frame their experiences metaphysically; leaving the earth felt like separating body and soul. ‘We moved like spirits in an airy loom,’ Cecil Lewis recalled, ‘where wind and cloud and light wove day and night long the endless fabric of the changing sky.’ Fernald, who aspired to be a writer like his father, contrasted the sordid battlefield below with ‘the blue sky dazzling in its radiance, and the horizon a glorious mixture of yellow, red and gold’. Mortal danger caused a rush of intense feeling, the ‘lonely impulse of delight’ experienced by Yeats’s Irish airman.

Van Dyke Fernald​ is almost a cliché: public school and Oxbridge-educated, rushing to his death with a head full of Horace and Herodotus. Not quite, though: he was born a US citizen. In January 1915 the 17-year-old Fernald was in a train carriage full of British soldiers wanting to know why he wasn’t in uniform. ‘On learning that I was an American,’ he wrote to his aunt in California, ‘one humorist, who was a Scotchman, told me to “go and neutralise myself”! I thought that rather good!’ A year later, he became a British citizen and joined up without delay. His letters slip into American spellings – ‘gray flannels’ – but are also exemplars of British understatement, and peppered with English schoolboy slang: ‘awfully’, ‘topping’, ‘top hole’.

He was born in San Francisco on 2 August 1897; his parents were Josephine Harker Fernald and Chester Bailey Fernald, a popular playwright. Chester could write anywhere, so the family moved around. In 1898, when Van Dyke was 15 months old, they came to London, and then toured France, Italy and Germany before returning to England in 1902. The next year the family went back to San Francisco, where they built a Mediterranean villa in Mill Valley, on the side of Mount Tamalpais overlooking the bay. They called it Crag Head, and surrounded it with young trees. The seven-year-old Van Dyke oversaw the laying of the cornerstone and built a treehouse – or ‘nest’, as he called it. His mother, Josephine, thought him ‘extraordinarily susceptible for so young a child to the beauty of the bay, the mountains and the surrounding forest land’. He was also uncommonly protective of his brother, Jack, ‘the Bambino’, born in 1905. In April the following year, an earthquake destroyed 80 per cent of the city, killing three thousand people. Chester and Josephine abandoned their new house, and in the autumn of 1906 moved to 4 Marlborough Road, St John’s Wood, where they spent the rest of their lives. A photo taken in the back garden shows Chester wearing a suit, Josephine in a deckchair. It wasn’t Crag Head. The garden had a single pear tree, which they jokingly called ‘the orchard’. In 1908 Josephine gave birth to a daughter, who died at six weeks; another girl, born three years later, survived only two days.

The Fernald family in the garden of 4 Marlborough Road, St John’s Wood (c.1920)

The Fernald family in the garden of 4 Marlborough Road, St John’s Wood (c.1920)

Van Dyke was a bold, impetuous boy. He had no time, his mother said proudly, for what he called ‘half-baked people’. He was puzzled when a schoolfriend (whose mother had been killed in a Zeppelin raid) became a conscientious objector: ‘I cannot understand that type of mind.’ His mother listed his many qualities: ‘persistent, very alive, sensitive to impressions, artistic and literary temperament. Great sense of humour; very gay at times; thoughtful and serious about greater things of life.’ Training in Scotland in 1917, he travelled five hundred miles by train to see her for a single day, and brought her violets. She admired the way he shrugged off failing to get the Military Cross, which was routinely awarded to aircrew, because he’d left the front a week early. ‘In one more week,’ he told her, ‘I might have gone west.’ He came home on leave in late July 1917. On the night of 2 August, Josephine came to his room to wish him a happy birthday. ‘But I’m not born yet,’ he protested, and she stayed with him until the clock struck ten – ‘the magic hour’.

March 1918 saw the last push by the Germans, the beginning of the end. Fernald attended a War Loans rally in Trafalgar Square, accompanied by his mother and his brother, Jack. There were tanks and field guns on display; Captain Harker was in charge of an Italian aeroplane. Afterwards they went for tea at the Criterion on Piccadilly Circus, where Josephine listened to the two airmen in rapt silence, absorbing all the detail the censor kept out of her son’s letters. ‘They were quite oblivious of Jack and me,’ she recalled. They gave a thrilling description of a ‘stunt’ at Le Cateau, and something ‘extra special’ at Vimy Ridge. Around this time, Flight published a caricature with the caption: ‘Young Fernald who has accounted for umpteen Huns’.

By the summer, however, Fernald’s letters had dwindled, and his mother suspected something was wrong. She sent him a hamper from Harrods, but it went unacknowledged. The fighting had become more intense. A week before his 21st birthday she was staying in Ockley in Surrey, and cycled into Horsham to look for a card. She couldn’t find one she liked, so she bought a book instead, but later decided it wouldn’t amuse him. So she tried to write a birthday letter. She told him about the book and the hamper (which she worried was an unsatisfactory present) and a cheque his father had sent. And she chattered about Horsham ‘going placidly on being Horsham’ and recalled some of their times there together. She wrote this on Wednesday, 24 July. Her son was already dead.

The previous morning his Bristol Fighter was one of five planes sent on a long-distance sortie. Only four returned. After the Fernalds received the terrible telegram, letters began to arrive speaking of Van Dyke’s ‘joyous and unselfish nature’, his ‘keen and dashing qualities as an airman’. ‘Your son was last seen over the Austrian lines, carrying out his duties with his usual dash and keenness,’ Captain Harcourt Vernon wrote. ‘He was one of the most cheerful and unselfish companions I have ever met.’ Major Billy Barker, a Canadian ace (whose exploits inspired Hemingway’s ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’), offered this: ‘Your son was a splendid pilot and full of dash, and I feel sure that whatever happened he put up a good show.’ The commanding officer, Colonel Lincoln, met Josephine in London, and told her that her son and Lieutenant Watkins had earlier finished their ‘stunt’ for the day, but had volunteered to go out again.

It was more than a month before the Austrians confirmed that Van Dyke was dead, although in the meantime the RAF had altered their records from ‘missing’ to ‘death has been accepted’. Watkins was listed as ‘unofficially dead’. Both men’s ‘casualty cards’ were stamped ‘KILLED’ in red ink. Josephine wrote to Colonel Lincoln to ask about Van Dyke’s possessions, which had gone astray. She did at least have one of his uniforms, which she preserved like a relic, brushing it and checking for moths. There were some odds and ends: a pocket book, a rank pip, a lucky mascot, a button from his ‘British Warm’ overcoat. She also received the last letter she had written to him, unopened and marked ‘Ret’d to Sender’ by the Field Post Office in Italy.

Spiritualist​ mediums promised to reunite the war dead and the bereaved. Kipling, whose 18-year-old son John had died at the Battle of Loos, was sceptical, and his poem ‘En-dor’ advises bereaved mothers to stay away from psychics. But thousands disagreed. Spiritualism’s heyday was not Victorian – all that fumbling and table-rapping with the gas lamps low – but the interwar period. A million British men were dead, and mediums provided consoling narratives, not of courage and ‘dash’ in death, but of happiness in a new life. Arthur Conan Doyle and his friend Oliver Lodge, an eminent physicist, both lost sons and were ardent spiritualists. In 1924 Conan Doyle sent Lodge a photograph of the Cenotaph taken the previous Armistice Day during the two-minute silence. It shows a white miasma dotted with faces. ‘It is worth examining with a lens,’ Conan Doyle wrote. ‘My son is certainly there and, I think, my nephew.’ Lodge did not consider his son Raymond to be dead, and received regular messages from him through mediums, which he published as a bestselling book in November 1916.

Fernald was buried at San Fior di Sopra, near where he died, before being moved ten miles south to the cemetery at Tezze di Piave. The family chose the inscription ‘Against the barbarians freely he gave up an ever joyous life’ for the headstone. As well as her son, Josephine Fernald had lost two baby daughters and her brother, who vanished on a ferry trip between Berkeley and San Francisco in 1896. She searched for her dead relatives in the spirit world, at first using a homemade Ouija board she called ‘Chum Fo’. She had her ‘very first psychic experience’ in 1920. Lying awake one night, she saw Van Dyke standing at her bedside. ‘He spoke to me distinctly and quite naturally, and I answered.’ Soon afterwards he came again and this time she took a photograph, which she believed captured his faint image. Her Chum Fo sessions became more productive, the letterpointer spelling out ‘H-I-S-S-I-N-G N-O-I-S-E’ to describe the moment the Bristol Fighter’s engine was hit and the fuel tank caught fire. Josephine believed Watkins’s spirit was also present. ‘Something’s happened,’ he said, speaking through Chum Fo. ‘We must have crashed and left the world.’

She began to frequent mediums, mostly respectable middle-class ladies esteemed in spiritualist circles. Mrs Gladys Osborne Leonard, Mrs Eileen Garrett and Mrs Warren Elliott included Conan Doyle and Lodge among their clients. With varying degrees of success, all three put Josephine in touch with what she believed to be the spirit of her dead son. She annotated photographs to show what they had got right. Mrs Garrett referred to a picture of Fernald’s class at Abbotsholme School, and to his time in the Oxford OTC in November 1915: ‘A portrait in uniform, something to do with the month of November.’ Josephine brought them ‘psychometric objects’ – the button, the mascot and, most emotionally charged of all, the unopened letter.

The first séance with Mrs Osborne Leonard was on 6 March 1925 at her seaside home in Whitstable. Josephine was accompanied by Chester, suppressing his scepticism. Entering a trance, the medium spoke as ‘Feda’, a 13-year-old Native American girl who died around 1800. Sometimes she appeared as a shadow on the wall. Chester noted her words: ‘A spirit I’ve seen before – a young man, very jolly, very happy – medium height, straight, good deal of energy – controlled movements, energy of nerves. Face a little to the long, chin and jaw firm but not heavy; chin flattened at tip.’ Soon Feda also found Watkins, who, five years Van Dyke’s senior, said he had been ‘looking after and helping the young one’. Finally Fernald himself made contact. He expressed disappointment at the quality of the psychic photograph, but was pleased that his old Oxford college was progressing with its war memorial. Feda claimed he was strolling around Mrs Osborne Leonard’s parlour, and had patted Josephine on the shoulder. ‘Don’t exaggerate suffering in connection with my passing – I hardly felt anything,’ his spirit said blithely. ‘Not conscious – felt faint, dizzy, not easy to breathe – pf – pf – pf … but it didn’t hurt me – felt I was going down, but it didn’t hurt me. It was better when I lost consciousness and gave up, like going to sleep. I woke up wondering where I was, feeling rested.’ He said he had been shocked to discover he was dead, and had vowed at once to find his mother. ‘I’m happy in a way that no one is on earth – above that – you might call it a consciousness of God. And I’m going to give it to you – I have given it to you.’ As he faded, he said farewell to his weeping mother: ‘My best love, my best love, my very best love.’

Josephine and Chester Fernald with Jack, California, March 1906

Josephine and Chester Fernald with Jack, California, March 1906

For Josephine Fernald the rest of the decade was filled with séances and messages telling of Van Dyke’s new-found happiness and friends, one of whom was Raymond Lodge. In June 1926 she visited Mrs Warren Elliott in London. Her spirit guide, ‘Topsy’, spoke in a babyish pidgin like Feda. An exchange from October went like this:

Topsy: Him just said, what a smash. Did something fall from somewhere, points up to air, does you know what him means?

Josephine: Yes, can you tell me more?

Topsy: Doesn’t know but him just points and says something and points to you and says something like something come down, does you understand?

Josephine: I think perhaps I do.

At one session Topsy said: ‘looks like him hurt and him had big fall when him crossed over’; at another she referred to the violets Van Dyke had given his mother. She described the trees at Crag Head, and recalled Chester’s passion for building the house. Chester didn’t often accompany Josephine to séances. It was a fundamental marital difference: a disagreement over whether their child was alive or dead.

Josephine joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1920, and made a habit of typing up her séance notes, intending them to provide evidence of the afterlife. Like her fellow SPR member, Conan Doyle, she saw spiritualism as a ‘New Revelation’, the next phase of human enlightenment. ‘Evidence of the presence of the dead appeared in my own household,’ he wrote, ‘and the relief afforded by posthumous messages taught me how great a solace it would be to a tortured world if it could share in the knowledge which had become clear to myself.’ Later in the decade Josephine worked at the SPR library in Kensington, and attended meetings until she became ill in 1931. Her last recorded séance was with Mrs Osborne Leonard on 29 August that year, when Fernald came through to say that he had been trying to whisper to her at night, and even to touch her – she thought she had felt him caress her forehead.

Josephine died in November 1933. Her decline was long and painful, although, according to her obituary, ‘her fortitude and gay courage, and her interest in others never failed.’ The SPR remembered her as ‘a very gallant gentlewoman’. Chester died five years later. Jack, always in his brother’s shadow, was a late developer, but threw himself into drama at Oxford and in 1955 became president of Rada. ‘A sweet man … very highly strung and intense’, Richard Briers recalled – Jack had mentored him. The house at 4 Marlborough Road, with its solitary pear tree, the site of such intense feeling and memory, was destroyed during the Blitz.

I stumbled​ on Van Dyke Fernald’s story in 1999, when I was writing a book about spiritualism and consulting the SPR archives in the Cambridge University Library.* In them was Josephine’s birthday letter, unopened, radiating power. On 16 August that year, I met Donald West, the SPR’s then president, in the manuscripts room, and he opened the letter. Satisfied it had no evidential value for psychical research, he handed it over and left. I sat there a while, getting used to the slanted hand and rubbing away tears. By the end of her fourth page, Josephine has exhausted her trivial news and the strength to be light and bright. ‘As for a birthday letter, I can’t seem to write one,’ she concedes. ‘My heart is too near the brimming-over stage and so are my eyes, and all this love of the last 21 years is aching to make itself felt, and what is the good of trying to make a letter say the things that no letter can say! Think of me when you wake up next Thursday morning and be sure I shall be remembering all the August 2nds since 1897, and longing for the 21 kisses that are my due.’ She recalls the previous year when she’d waited until ten o’clock to wish him a happy birthday, and apologises for the hamper: ‘The contents are by no means romantic, but nectar and ambrosia are not to be come by these days, and if they were they’d be tinned until the divine flavour had evaporated.’ The letter ends: ‘Goodbye for this time my darling. God bless you and keep you. Vent’uno baci! Mum.’

Jack Fernald was married to the actress Jenny Laird, who played Sister Honey in the 1947 Powell and Pressburger film, Black Narcissus. Soon after I read Josephine’s letter I spent a couple of hours in her sitting room in Swiss Cottage, surrounded by framed theatrical memorabilia. Jack, who died in 1985, was much in evidence – I noticed a cushion embroidered with a naval officer’s cap badge, a memento of his service in the Second World War – but there was nothing of his brother. Jenny knew Jack had had a brother who was killed in the First World War, but he had hardly spoken about him, or about his mother, who could never pretend that her love for him matched what she felt for her eldest son. We talked about Josephine, and all she had endured. Had an emotionally fragile woman been exploited by fraudulent mediums? Perhaps – although they had also sustained her.

Later, I went to see Van Dyke’s name in the War Memorial Library at Trinity College, Oxford, just as his parents had at its dedication in 1928; 159 of the college’s scholars died in the war, ‘For the Honour and Security of their Country’, the plaque reads. In late spring of 1921, Josephine Fernald made the first of several train journeys across the Italian countryside to the cemetery at Tezze di Piave. On the afternoon of 5 May, she recalled that ‘I stood out in the corridor of the railway carriage (to be alone) watching the mountains and living over in my mind what I imagined must have been V.D.’s sensations as an airman in a landscape so beautiful and so majestic. There was a thunderstorm to complete the awe-inspiring effect and then the sun came out dazzling from behind purple black clouds.’ As the train left Verona station, she saw the word ‘Resurgam’ – ‘I shall rise again’, from John 11:24 – over the gates of the city’s cimitero. This, she knew, was a message from Van Dyke. Catholic Italy made the magic more real than St John’s Wood or Whitstable ever could.

As Josephine had, I looked for Plot 6, Row C, Grave 15, and finally stood before Van Dyke’s grave, William Watkins in the next plot. The headstones cast short shadows and the church bell struck noon with a dull clang. I laid my wilting poppies and a photo of Van Dyke I’d brought with me. Then I read aloud a facsimile of Josephine’s undelivered letter, and scraping away the ochre soil, buried it there.

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