The Complete Flying Officer X Stories (7 page)

BOOK: The Complete Flying Officer X Stories
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“You think they don't understand?” I say.

“Not only that.”

“What else?”

“It's not only time they understood,” he says, “it's time they got angry. It's time they got good and angry too.”

“Like you?”

“A bit more like me,” he says.

He smiles and we sit without talking for a little while and I watch his hands. He has a way of crooking the fingers of his right hand into the fingers of the left, and then pulling them, as if they were triggers. Finally I ask him if he will have a drink, and with a charming smile but without uncrooking his hands he says: “Possibly. Thank you. Possibly I will. It is very kind of you. Thank you.”

“What will it be?”

“Thank you,” he says, “a beer.”

When the beer comes I ask him what it is like up there in the rear turret on ops. — if he gets bored or tired or very cold; and he says: “No. Only just angry. Very good and angry all the time.” I listen and soon he goes on to tell me about the flak: how it seems to come up slowly, very slowly, as if it will never climb into the darkness.

“Very bad too?”

“Not at all polite,” he says.

“And in Texas,” I say — “what were you doing there?”

“Sheriff.”

“Gun and all?”

“Why, sure,” he says, “gun and all. Notches and all.”

So he goes on to tell me about the life in Texas, the life of a boy's dream: the gun and the notches, the sheriff and the posse, the remote, enormous country. As he talks I try to see the life as something real, but it unfolds itself to me only like a series of glimpses into a dusky unreality. I cannot believe in the gun, the little sheriff's office in the
little town, the dusty plains, the posse, and the notches whittled on the gun-stock. I cannot believe in the life of his America any more than he can understand, now, the minds of so many who go on living it.

So we talk about flying again. He has not flown for a week, and as I look at him I see that the small blue eyes are sharp and fretful with impatience as much as with anger. “My God, if I don't soon fly,” he says, “I'll be swinging on the bloody chandelier.”

He finishes the beer. “You will have another? Please. This time on me?”

I thank him, and when the beer comes he talks a little more. There is a medal ribbon on his chest. It seems more real than the notches in the gun, but I do not ask about it. Instead he tells me about a time when they stooged above the
Scharnhorst
at Brest. It was the day they scored a hit, and he talks for a time about this, casually, without anger, as if it were an afternoon picnic. It is as though battleships were impersonal things and I know suddenly that what he likes is the personal feeling about it all: the feeling of cold isolation in the rear turret, the sight of the flak climbing up in the darkness in slow coloured curls, the feeling of his own thick powerful hands on the guns.

I know that this is what he likes, but I still do not understand why he likes it. I do not understand why he likes it more than the life of a sheriff in a little Texas town, with his posse and his gun and the notches on the gun, as if he were a hero in a film. I do not understand why he has left that life, to fly in a country that is only half his own. I do
not understand why he does not remain, like so many others, isolated, apart, away from it all.

And finally I ask him. “You really like it up there, don't you?” I say.

“Like it?”

“Yes.”

For a moment he does not speak. Then he looks at me with a fierce little smile, his fingers tightly crooked into each other, his eyes screwed up, hard and intense.

“Like it?” he says. There is nothing of the receptionist or the bank cashier or the traveller in toys about him now. He is far removed even from the little sheriff in the little Texas town. His eyes are furious and the smile in his face is quite deadly. He is caught up by a raw hatred of someone or something that is almost sublime and he no longer leaves me in any doubt as to who it is.

“Like it? I was just born with a natural hatred of these swabs. I was born with it and all my life I've been living to work it off. Like it?” he says. “It's a personal argument with me. It's a personal war!”

Now I understand, and suddenly I feel quite small and there is nothing I can say.

I can only look out of the windows at the huge dark Stirlings shining dully on the perimeter in the rain, and hope that soon there will be a wind that will drive the mist away.

K for Kitty

Harrison was one of those lean, brown, old-eyed Australians who seem to accept England with a tolerance that Canadians never know. If there were things about England that needed changing or setting right Harrison rarely talked about them. If there were better pilots I rarely met them. Harrison was quiet, modest, friendly, and as tough as hell.

It was not Harrison, but someone else, who first talked to me of the idea that planes and ships have the same delicate and temperamental ways. Just as you find no two ships alike, so you find no two planes alike; just as you find ships that are heavy, graceless, unalive, so you find planes that are dull and wooden in the air. In the same way that seamen come to know, trust, and finally get fond of a ship, knowing that she is a living thing and will never fail them, so pilots come to know and trust and get fond of a plane, knowing she will bring them home. In every squadron there is, I suppose, a plane that everybody
hates. Then one day somebody quietly wraps it up in a distant corner of the drome and everybody is relieved and glad. But in every squadron there is a plane that everyone likes, that is something more than a pattern of steel and wood and instruments and mechanism, that is a living, graceful, fortunate, and ultimately triumphant thing, and this was the sort of plane that Harrison had.

Harrison's plane was a big four-engined Stirling called K for Kitty. The kite, like Harrison, was no stranger to the shaky do. On a trip to Brest the bomb doors froze up and would not release. This was bad enough. But the starboard outer also failed on the journey home, so that Harrison was obliged to land on three engines, with a full bomb load, in darkness — the sort of heroism for which, at the moment, we have struck no special gong. On other trips other things happened. Something happened to the flaps; the undercarriage jammed; the radio went u.s. — it does not matter. For the heroism of overcoming such minor misfortunes there are no gongs either.

After such trips Harrison naturally trusted and grew fond of K for Kitty. Not that I think he ever said so. He would call the kite a good kite or perhaps, if he were a little happy, a wizard kite. These events in K for Kitty bore, after all, only a very slight relation to suicide. It was not until the big Brest trip that anything really serious happened to the plane.

I am not sure if this raid, made on a clear blue winter afternoon when the sunlight was light orange-coloured and the horizon peaceful with light haze, was the biggest
ever made on Brest. But that night many bottles were opened and many songs sung, and I conclude from that, at least, that it was very big. And among the many planes that went Harrison was in K for Kitty.

Nor am I sure if they tried to blow Harrison to small pieces before he bombed or after. Possibly both. Finally a force of Messerschmitts attacked him, in a rapid succession of ten, and put out of action every turret he had. Tracer tore at all angles through the nose and body of the plane. It shaved the skin off the knuckles of Harrison and his second dicky. It smashed the inter-comm. and mortally wounded the engineer. Blood flowed over the floor of the plane, mingling stickily with oil. It was hard to stand up and the gunners could not fire and there were no warning voices in the inter-comm.

Many other things had happened that Harrison did not then know about, but was to know about later. He was glad enough to see Spitfires coming up as escort, and the Messerschmitts diving home to tea. He was glad to be out of it and setting course for home again. He was quite glad that K for Kitty was his plane.

At home, in the bright calm golden air of the late winter afternoon, Harrison brought her down gently and beautifully, making a perfect landing. He even succeeded in holding for some distance to the runway. And then everything that had not already happened began to happen at once. It was as if the kite had blown home held together only by strips of sticky plaster and string; as if she were a toy plane, put together by children, that could
not withstand the vibration of contact with earth.

She began to fall to pieces suddenly, terrifyingly, and almost systematically. The starboard outer air-screw fell off, and then the starboard inner engine fell out completely. Then the complete starboard wing fell off, and then both the fallen wing and the fallen engine caught fire. Just before she came to rest, the port wing was flung high into the air like the arm of someone drowning, and remained there, high and stiff and awkward and dead.

I do not know how Harrison and the crew got out of the plane, slipping and skidding in the oily blood and lifting the wounded engineer, then skidding and falling down in the blood again, the plane burning all the time, the main door jammed and only the forward hatch available for lifting to safety the heavy wounded man. It seemed at any moment that the plane might blow up. But somehow Harrison and the crew and the wounded man got out and the plane did not blow up.

She was still there, in that lop-sided, high-flung position, flat-tired, partially burnt, when I went across the field next morning. Harrison was there too, looking at her. He was pacing up and down. The burnt, ash-coloured wreckage of the plane lay scattered in an almost straight line across the grass. Beyond the last grey scraps of wreckage the tire marks of the plane made brown parallel lines in the muddy grass as far as the runway. Harrison walked up the tracks made by the flattened tires, stooped down to look at them, and then walked back, stooping down again. Finally he came back to the plane.

We stood there for a long time together, looking at the plane. We picked up scraps of wreckage and dropped them again in the grass. We looked at the flattened tires and the broken undercarriage and the splintered turret. We examined the ugly rising lines of tracer holes, neat and straight as the crotchets of a rising scale punched everywhere across the flat face of the fuselage. We stood under the high, up-flung wing, smashed by flak, that looked more than ever like a stiff dead arm. We looked at everything in amazement and unbelief and then looked again.

Long after I left, Harrison was still standing by the plane. And once, as I walked across the field, I turned and looked back.

He was still standing there in the same attitude, looking at K for Kitty. I could not see his face, but it seemed as if he were looking at something rather distantly. It seemed even possible that he was looking at something he could not see.

It was like the attitude of a seaman who looks across empty water, for the last time, and sees his ship no longer there.

The Greatest People in the World

He was very young, and because he was also very fair he sometimes looked too young to have any part in the war at all; and more than anything else, as always, he wanted to fly.

It was his fairness that made him look so very much like one of the aristocracy, or at least very upper middle class, and I was very surprised to find that his people were labourers from a village in Somerset. His father was a hedger and ditcher with a fancy for leaving little tufts of hawthorn unclipped above the line of hedge. These tufts would grow into little ornamental balls and later were clipped, gradually, summer by summer, into the shapes of birds. His father hoped, Lawson would explain to me, that bullfinches would use them for nesting-places. I never met either his father or his mother, but I gathered that they must have been at least forty when he was born. I gathered too that his mother cleaned at the local rectory and that she worked in the fields, harvesting and haymaking
and pea-picking and cabbage-planting, whenever she had the chance or the time.

It was not only that Lawson wanted to fly. He had never wanted to do anything else but fly. It was the only life he had had time to know. There must have been thousands of young men like him, all reading the technicalities of the job in flight magazines, all passionately studying new designs, all longing for a flip, all flying Spitfires in imagination. But there were certain circumstances which made the case of Lawson different.

The chief of these circumstances, and the one which was in fact never altered, was that his parents were poor. When Lawson heard other people with incomes of five or six hundred or more a year talking of having no money, he thought of his parents. His father earned a regular wage of two pounds a week. In summer he managed to increase this by ten or twelve shillings by gardening in the evenings and his mother put in a weekly average of about sixteen hours at sixpence an hour at the rectory. As a boy, Lawson went harvesting and haymaking for about sixpence a day and doing odd jobs on Saturdays in the rectory kitchen. And somehow, out of this, they bought him an education.

I don't know who was at the back of this idea of education. It may have been the rector. Most likely it was the rector and the mother. Lawson's father, I gathered, was a solid, unimaginative man who was rather content to let things remain as they were. He worked hard for three hundred and sixty-two days of the year — he tended his
own garden on Sundays — and then got roaring tight on Christmas Eve, Flower Show Saturday, and the local Easter Monday races. It obviously wasn't he who had the idea of education, yet once the idea had been conceived he was behind it wholly and with all the solidity of his nature. For two years he and the mother saved up every extra penny they earned; every pea picked, every potato picked up, every forkful of hay turned over was something extra to the account. The house where they lived was old and damp, with unplastered walls and a brick floor and cracks in the window-frames that were stuffed with paper. The only light they had was a little oil lamp which they carried from room to room if they wanted a light in another place. They bought fifty pounds of coal each week and on Friday afternoons the mother wetted the last shovelful of coal and banked up the fire so that it would last till evening.

BOOK: The Complete Flying Officer X Stories
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