The Complete Flying Officer X Stories (8 page)

BOOK: The Complete Flying Officer X Stories
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When Lawson was fourteen they were able to send him to the local grammar school. Or at least they were going to send him. Everything was arranged for him to start in September when one of those little accidents happened that often greatly affect the course of people's lives. Lawson fell off a bridge and broke his left arm. By the time it was better the vacancies in the first school were filled and he was sent instead to a school about fifteen miles away. He travelled there every day by train.

It was at this school that he heard the remark that was to affect, and crystallise, his whole life. The third term he was there, within a week or so of his fifteenth birthday,
he heard a lecture in the school hall on the work of the R.A.F. When the lecture began, he told me, he really wasn't very interested. When he came out he could not get out of his mind something the lecturer had said about those who fly. “I often think,” the lecturer said, “that they are the greatest people in the world.”

When I knew Lawson the war was two years old. He had graduated rather uneventfully in the usual way, up through Moths and Ansons and so to light bombers, until now he was captain of a Stirling. There was even then a kind of premature immobility about him, especially about his eyes, so that the pupils sometimes looked seared, cauterised, burnt out. His first trouble was to have been made a bomber pilot at all. He had been through the usual Spitfire complex: all roaring glory and victory rolls. The thought of long flights of endurance, at night, with nothing to be seen except the flak coming up at you in slow sinister curls, the earth in the light of a flare, and then the flare-path at base if you were lucky and the fog hadn't come down, shook him quite a lot. It may have been this that accounted for what happened afterwards.

He had stayed at school until he was eighteen, and had virtually walked straight out of school into the Air Force. What struck me most was that there was no disruption, no disloyalty, between himself and his parents. There might well have been. Their life, simple, bound to earth, lighted by that cheap oil lamp which they carried from room to room, compressed into the simple measure of hard work, saving, and devotion, was like the life of another
age compared with the life they had chosen for him. I don't know what education exactly meant to them; I don't know what ambitions they had for him. But neither could have been connected with his flying a bomber. Yet they never uttered the smallest reproach or protest to what must have been rather a terrifying prospect to them. They might have thought that it would be better for him to be ploughing his own good Somerset clay. They probably did. But if they did they didn't once say so. They simply knew he wanted to fly and they let him fly because it was the thing that was nearest his heart.

His own part was just as straightforward and steadfast. As I became acquainted with it I didn't wonder at all that he had been made a bomber pilot. The qualities for it were all there in his behaviour towards these two simple, self-sacrificial people. They had sent him to a pretty expensive school — to them it must have been fabulous — and he might easily have turned his back on them. A touch of swollen head and he might easily have decided that he was too good for that shabby little cottage, with the unplastered walls, the windows stuffed with paper, and the one cheap oil lamp carried from room to room. But I don't suppose he ever dreamed of it. He remained not only loyal to them, but loyal in a positive way. He sent home to them a third of his pay every month, which for a pilot officer meant practically the same sacrifice as they had made for him.

He couldn't in fact have been more steadfast and careful. Perhaps he was too steadfast and, if it's possible as
the captain of a crew of seven in a very expensive piece of aircraft, too careful. Yet nothing went right for him. Before his first big trip with a Stirling he felt the same dry mental tension, and the same sour wet slackness of the stomach, that you feel before a race. It was a sort of cold excitement. He felt it get worse as he taxied the aircraft across the field. It was winter and there was a kind of smokiness in the falling twilight over the few distant trees; and the hangars, looming up with their red lights burning, looked enormous. The runway seemed foreshortened and it looked practically impossible not to prang something on take-off. He was certain it would be all right once he was up, but it was the idea of lugging thirty-two tons of aircraft off the wet runway, which was soft in places, and in half-light, that worried him.

He was worked up to a very high state of tension, with the kite actually on the runway, when Control informed him that the whole show would be scrubbed. His crew swore and mouthed at everybody and everything all the way back to dispersal. He felt too empty to say anything. He felt as if his stomach had dropped out and that he might be going to pieces. The awful anticlimax of the thing was too much.

That night he didn't sleep very well. He fell asleep and then woke up. His blankets had slipped and he was very cold and he did not know what time it was. He could hear his watch ticking very loudly. Someone had left a light on in the passage outside and it shone through the fan-light of the bedroom door. He lay for hours watching it, sleepless,
cold, his mind full of the impression of the wet runway, the hangars looming up in the twilight, the idea that he was about to prang something on take-off.

Then he fell asleep and dreamed that he really did prang something. He was taking off and his port wing hit the control tower, which had wide, deep, circular windows. Through these windows he could see Brand, the control officer, and a little flying officer named Danvers, and the two orderlies, one wearing earphones. The two officers were drinking tea, and his wing knocked the cups out of their hands. The tea shot up in a brown wave that broke on Brand's tunic, and he saw vividly the look of helpless and terrified indignation on Brand's face a second before he was hit and died.

It was fantastic, but very real also, and he woke in a terrible sweat of fear, scared solely by the happenings of the dream. He was relieved to find it a waking dream; that it was already daylight beyond the drawn curtains. It was in fact already late and he got up hurriedly and went down to breakfast without shaving. After breakfast he went straight over to the hangars and hoped there would be flying that day. But the weather was worse: grey fenland distances, gathering ground mist, spits of cold rain. The Wing Commander usually got the crews running round the perimeter track for training, but that morning the weather was too bad; there was no running and by eleven o'clock the crews were fretting at an afternoon on the ground. Lawson went over to his aircraft, but everything was nicely fixed there and his stooges were sheltering under
the wings, out of the rain, smoking. As he walked back in the rain to Control and went up the concrete stairs to the room where in his dream he had crashed through the wide windows and had killed Brand and Danvers, he saw at once that Brand and Danvers were not on duty, and by this fact, the fact that Brand and Danvers had been on duty at the time of the dream, he felt the reality of the dream grow brighter instead of fade.

After he had had the orderly bring him a cup of tea he drank it quickly and then went out alone. The trouble was perhaps that he was at that time a stranger in the station. There was no one — and it must have been better if there had been someone — to whom he could say, jokingly: “Had a hell of a queer dream last night. Dreamt I pranged the control tower. Brand was stooging around as usual and got it in the neck. He looked pretty damned funny when I knocked the tea out of his hands.” But he knew no one very well and could say nothing about the dream. It was like a complex personal problem. Once you had explained it to someone else, it was no longer personal; it ceased to be complex and finally it ceased to be a problem at all.

Unfortunately he could not do this, and unfortunately there was a recurrence of the dream that night. It was the same dream precisely, with one important exception. It was now not Brand or Danvers who were killed, but two men named Porter and Evans, the duty officers for that night. The painful brightness of the dream was identical; he could see the brown tea steaming as it splashed on Porter's
jacket and he could see on his face, as on Brand's face, the indignant, ridiculous terror.

The next morning the weather was much better, and by noon it was certain there would be ops. that night. At briefing he felt much as if he had a hangover. He concentrated hard on the met. talk, but his head ached and the green and pink and mauve contour lines of the map troubled his eyes. The target was Hamburg, a fairly long, hard trip, and his own take-off was at 18.00 hours. By the time he reached his aircraft the light was no longer good, but there was no mist and only thin cloud in a wasting blue sky. For some reason he now felt better: clearer-headed, quite confident. His stomach was dry and tight and the period of distrust in himself was practically over.

Then something else happened. His outer port engine would not start. As he sat there in the aircraft, struggling to get things going, his crew on edge, his engineer bewildered and furious by this inexplicable behaviour of an engine that had been tested only that morning, he felt his confidence breaking down again. The light was dying rapidly on the fringes of the field and he knew what must happen any moment now. “It's just one of these bloody damn things,” the engineer said over and over again. “Just one of these damn bloody aggravating bastard things.” Some minutes later Lawson, not listening much now to the engineer, heard what he expected to hear from Control. The trip was off; the margin of time was past. “Is it understood?” said Control in the voice of an ironical automatic parrot. “Is it understood?”

After this second disappointment he went through the same nervous agony of not sleeping. Because the breaking of tension at a vital moment was the cause in both cases, you might have said he was trying too hard. But the third occasion seemed to have nothing to do with this. He was again on operations, and again it was evening, with the fringes of the drome blue-grey with winter mist, the runway pooled with water, the red lights like beacons on the black mountains of the hangars. This time he actually got up off the runway. He had actually got over the sickening horror that, for the third time running, some damnable triviality would stop him from getting the kite air-borne. But soon that was past, and he was following the others. The sun had already set, leaving huge cloud-broken lakes of pale green and yellow light for miles above the sunset point, and towards these immense spaces of rapidly fading light he watched the black wings of the Stirlings fading into the distance until at last it was too dark and the lakes of light and the planes were no longer there to see. Then for the first time for weeks he felt good: strained, but calm, sure of himself, settled.

I suppose they had been flying about an hour when the icing began. They were over the sea when the kite began to make sickening and heavy plunges in the darkness — movements to which there was only one answer. Lawson felt suddenly up against all the old trouble again: the inexplicable bad luck, the frustration, the disastrous break of tension. He felt himself lose heart. His guts became wet and cold and sour and then seemed to drop out of
him. His only piece of luck was that he had not flown far, and when he had safely jettisoned his bombs and turned the kite for home he bitterly told himself that it was the only piece of luck he had ever had as a pilot or was ever likely to have. But even that was not all. As he came in to land, it was as if there were some evil and persistent Jonah in the kite with him, somebody for whom the simplest moments were inexplicably turned into pieces of hellish and ironical misfortune. Lawson landed perfectly in the darkness, but the runway was wet and greasy after rain. He put on the brakes, but nothing happened. The kite drove fast down the runway and then skidded into a ground loop that brought it to a standstill on the grass, the undercarriage smashed. To Lawson it was like the end of everything.

He expected to be grounded any moment after that. His despair was sour and keen and personal; he could tell no one about it. For about a week he did not sleep much. He did not dream either. He re-created the few moments of ill luck until they were moments of positive and monstrous failure. And as if this were not enough, he created new moments, sharp and terrible seconds of stalling, ground-looping, crash-landing, overshooting the drome. He imagined himself coming in too slow, another time too fast. It never mattered much. He was going to prang control tower in any case, killing the occupants there as they drank their last over-sweetened steaming tea.

Then by accident he discovered it possible to get some
sleep. He began to sleep with the light on. The station at that time was not very crowded; later two and even three people slept in a room. But now no one could see him giving way — not that he was ever the only one — to the fear of sleeping in the dark. In this way he slept quite well for about a week; it was fairly peaceful; he was not cold; he did not have the recurrent dreams. And, above all, they did not ground him.

I don't know if they were ever thinking of it, but it never in fact became necessary. Another thing happened: this time not just ill luck, frustration, a mistake, a private illusion about something, but a simple and terrible fact. It was a telegram from the rector of his village in Somerset. His parents had been killed in a raid.

After that telegram he got compassionate leave and went home. The next morning he stood in the garden of the house, staring at the bony, burnt roof timbers, the red-grey dust and rubble, the bare scorched blue wallpaper of the two rooms where the cheap little oil lamp had once been carried to and fro. It was winter-time. Red dust lay on the frozen leaves of the Brussels sprouts; the hawthorn twigs, fancifully clipped by his father above the line of hedge, were almost the only things about the place that remained untouched and as before. He did not stay very long; but while he stayed there, he thought he saw his mother working in the fields, skirt pinned behind her, and his father with the hedge-hook in his hand and the black twigs flying in the air. He saw for a moment their lives
with the simple clearness of grief, the lives remote from his own, so utterly simple and so utterly remote, yet bound to him elementally.

BOOK: The Complete Flying Officer X Stories
2.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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