Pilot

Avro LancasterPilot (very much a working title) was inspired in part by Stephen King’s fantasy epic The Dark Tower, the central character of which is Roland Deschain, last of the gunslingers. Roland is a kind of knight-errant/cowboy who bears more than a passing resemblance to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name from those classic Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns.

After reading the seventh and final Dark Tower book, I found myself musing on what the English equivalent of Roland might be. My first thought was an Arthurian knight, but that didn’t feel right. After more daydreaming, my mind turned to a WWII Spitfire pilot. That was closer, but still no cigar.

Tapping the wartime vein further, I upgraded from one engine to four and started imagining a fantasy story centred around the crew of a Lancaster bomber. This pushed my buttons. When I was a plastic-kit-obsessed youngster, the Lancaster was my favourite of all the aircraft I built. The Dambusters is still one of my favourite films. And every time I’ve been to an airshow and watched the Battle of Britain flight thunder overhead (a trio of aircraft comprising a Spitfire, a Hurricane and the UK’s last flying Lancaster), I’ve felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand erect.

I still love the idea of writing a book about a bomber crew. It has the kind of mythology-in-the-real-world vibe I love. And that aircraft is just so damn cool. Whether I ever do it remains to be seen.

Until then, I’ll leave you with these: the first three chapters of a Pilot: a part-manuscript about a Bomber Command mission whose target is not just secret, it’s out of this world …

Pilot – Extract

Chapter One

Eric Finds a Penny

The bomb-aimer walked across the concrete and into the long shadow of the Lancaster.

Ahead of the bomb-aimer was the pilot, eating up the ground with his easy stride; behind them both walked the rest of the crew. The cold air sucked at their breath, constructing from it a plume of cloud that pursued them all towards the gigantic aircraft, and the cold ground sucked away the heat from their boots, drawing all it could of these seven airmen down into the earth as if desperate to stop them from taking to the sky.

Enormous though it was, the Lancaster seemed frail beneath the vast sky. The bomb-aimer couldn’t work out why. The crate was as square and solid as ever: broad, black-bellied, prickling guns. Undercarriage thick as girders held up the four big engines, the full and heavy fuel tanks, the payload …

At last he had it. The Lancaster was the only aircraft on the field. Dark against the flat horizon, G-Galahad was utterly alone.

The bomb-aimer stopped and looked over his shoulder. From the group of five men following him a hand rose to wave.

Behind the men, blocky buildings huddled in the dying sunlight. From the roof of the nearest building rose the control tower – a squat glass turret festooned with radio masts and encircled by a spidery catwalk. Beyond the control tower loomed the hangar’s grey curve. Beyond that there was nothing but sky.

‘Hey,’ said the pilot. ‘What’s this?’

The bomb-aimer snapped his head forward in time to see the pilot fold his long legs until he was kneeling. The pilot’s body – half in the sunset’s light, half in the Lancaster’s shadow – was all angles, like a wading bird.

‘Wotcha found, Eric?’ called the rear gunner.

‘Ten to one it’s a four-leaf clover,’ said the mid-upper gunner. ‘Odds on we’ll need it.’

The other crew members threw in their comments but the bomb-aimer tuned them out. The sight of the pilot bent double like that had hit him like a train. He reeled sideways, his breath an icy knife in his throat, his left hand pressing to his stomach, drawn there by a sudden churning.

‘All right, Owain?’ said the navigator, coming up behind him. His voice was deep and close.

‘I’m fine,’ the bomb-aimer replied quickly. ‘Just need to tie my bootlace.’

He bent and pretended to fiddle with his boots. But his eyes remained dead ahead, never leaving the pilot, who was picking something up off the ground.

Whatever it was, it was small. The bomb-aimer dared to hope it was something trivial: a spent cartridge case, maybe a button. Such finds on the way to the aircraft were treated with almost holy reverence. Flight crews were superstitious creatures and on mission nights they could find omens practically anywhere. Owain wondered what G-Galahad’s mid-upper gunner – the most superstitious man on the crew – would make of the pilot’s find.

The bomb-aimer identified the churning in his stomach. It was dread.

The pilot stood erect, his fingers travelling from the shadow back into the light. The small object he’d found flared orange.

The rear-gunner trotted past, clapping the bomb-aimer on the back and calling to the pilot, ‘Show us the treasure then, Eric. If you found a ration book, it’s mine!’

They all crowded together beneath the Lancaster. The bomb-aimer arrived last.

When they saw what lay in the palm of the pilot’s hand, the crew grunted approval. The youngest of them, the wireless operator, broke into hesitant applause. All looked pleased except the bomb-aimer who, knowing they were cursed, could only stare.

It was a penny. It was lying heads-down, tails-up, to expose the figure of Britannia, the words ‘One Penny’ and a date: 1944.

Minted this year then, thought the bomb-aimer, even though he knew no British pennies had been minted since 1943. They needed all the metal they could get to make bullets and tanks. There was a war on after all.

Against the pilot’s pale skin the coin was dark and coppery. As the pilot tilted his hand, the reflected sunlight sent beacon-flashes across the faces of the crew.

‘See a penny, pick it up,’ said Flight Lieutenant Eric Dance, pilot and commander of 643 Squadron’s Avro Lancaster Q2-G, otherwise known as G-Galahad, ‘and all the day you’ll have good luck.’

The crew cheered.

But the bomb-aimer didn’t. Instead he thought,

He’s found us!

*

By the time Owain climbed aboard the aircraft, Eric had already gone forward to the cockpit. He would be in his seat by now, talking quietly to the flight engineer, making his preliminary checks.

But Owain knew Eric’s fingers would be distracted. They would be fiddling with the penny, turning it over and over, fascinated by the way the King’s face became Britannia, only to become the King again, over and over and over …

Stop it! Owain told himself. What’s found is found. Maybe it is just a penny after all.

But Owain knew better.

He also knew there was no choice but to go on with the mission. The die was cast. What would be would be.

‘Penny for your thoughts, Owain.’ It was the navigator, speaking from the gloom inside the hatch.

The navigator’s name was Charles Falconer. To family and friends he was Charlie; to the crew of G-Galahad he was the Bear. The nickname was an inevitable consequence of his enormous physical size, for which he was famous throughout the RAF; he was close to legendary in fact.

They said it was crazy letting a giant like Charles Falconer loose inside a Lancaster. Leave the Bear on the ground, they said, and you could carry another rack of bombs. The Bear, they said, was the only man in the RAF who needed two parachutes. If you had two engines down and needed to ditch ballast, they said, the Bear would be the first to go.

But they said other things too.

With the Bear as your navigator, they said, you’d reach your first waypoint before the rest of the wave was off the ground. The Bear didn’t need a sextant, they said, because the stars knew him of old. The Bear read rivers like hieroglyphs; he saw in the swell of the mountains an echo of the heartbeat of the land. Take his maps, they said, take his compasses, his rulers and he would still find the target.

Shatter his window, shoot out his eyes, and the Bear would still get you home.

Owain looked into the face of this myth, this man who was neither fat nor musclebound, just big, and saw deep, appraising, bright blue eyes in a face as wise and round as the moon.

Oh, I’m glad you’re here, Bear, you of them all, Owain thought. We may need your special brand of magic before this night is out.

‘I was woolgathering,’ said Owain. ‘My mind was elsewhere.’

‘Nice habit,’ said the Bear, ‘for the man with his finger on the bomb release.’

‘I’ll try to apply myself when the time comes.’

‘Going to be a long night.’

‘Long indeed,’ agreed Owain. ‘How about you? Are you ready?’

The Bear gave a perfunctory nod: the question was moot. ‘Getting there’s easy. If we get back, we get back. A child could do my job on this run. Eric’s the one with his hands full, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Eric will certainly have to do some fancy flying,’ Owain said, feeling something like a tremor run down his spine. Usually he felt safe in Eric’s hands – pianist’s hands, they called them. But tonight he was nervous. He rubbed his stomach; the churning sensation lingered.

‘And you,’ said the Bear. He leaned against the airframe; the airframe creaked. His body filled the fuselage, a human bung in a giant bottle. He stroked his dense, black beard. ‘It’s a small target.’ His eyes flicked to the bomb bay, which lay just forward of the hatch. ‘And a strange little bomb.’

‘She’ll hit the target,’ Owain said, his hand-wave dismissive.

Their gazes locked, two men equally secure in their own unique abilities, both aware that something was terribly wrong.

Then Eric’s voice drifted back from the cockpit, telling Owain to stop daydreaming and get to his station. That meant the front turret, which as bomb-aimer Owain would operate until the time came for the bomb run.

‘After you, old man,’ said the Bear, dropping him a sober wink. ‘See you for breakfast.’

*

Owain made his way forward. Squeezing past the mid-upper gun turret, he rapped three times on the metal casing.

‘How many girls did you sneak aboard this time, Cav?’ he called.

‘Just three tonight,’ came Cav Benton’s cultured voice, muffled inside the turret’s thin shell. ‘I’ll give them a squeeze for you.’

‘I don’t known where you get the energy, Cav.’

Owain continued forward. The narrow interior of the Lancaster was a nightmare of struts and cables and awkward angles. Moving through it was like negotiating a metal-edged assault course. And they hadn’t even taken off yet; in flight, things could get really tricky.

Beyond the main spar – a huge structural girder which delighted in knocking unwary crew members unconscious – was the wireless operator’s station. Here sat Jimmy Reed, hunched at his desk, collar lifted high and headphones jammed low. All Owain could see of Jimmy’s face was a smooth curve of cheek.

The youngest member of the crew, Jimmy was also the newest. He neither shaved nor smoked nor talked about girls. He was eighteen but looked four years younger. Between missions, he skulked in the quietest corner of the mess, reading the latest American pulps and funnybooks. His current favourite was Smokey Stover; last month it had been Amazing Stories.

Jimmy rarely joined in with the crew banter. But he was young and sweet, and when the jokes were flying the comic book would drop to reveal on his face the most dazzling, artless grin. Thus, despite his shyness, Jimmy Reed had managed to endear himself to the rest of the crew. His youth made him both worthy of their protection and somehow lucky, like a mascot.

‘What’s Smokey up to this week?’ said Owain.

Without turning round, Jimmy held up the funnybook he’d smuggled aboard. The front page showed a cartoon fire-fighter putting out a blaze in a barber’s shop.

‘Guy’s scissors went so fast they set the customer’s hair on fire,’ Jimmy said. He pointed to the speech bubble above Smokey Stover’s mouth. ‘Where there’s foo,’ Jimmy said in the high-pitched voice he used for Smokey, ‘there’s fire.’ The fire-fighter’s hose was trained on what appeared to be a pile of burning wigs.

Jimmy’s face remained hidden throughout his pantomime but the sound of his voice told Owain he was sporting a wide and sunny grin.

*

Owain passed the empty navigator’s desk (the Bear was still loitering aft) and entered the cockpit. Outside, the setting sun fired the last of its light through the gap in the elm trees behind the tanker bay. Owain raised his hand, momentarily blinded.

‘Glad you could make it,’ said Eric from the left-hand seat.

‘Sorry I’m late, skipper,’ said Owain. The sun plunged behind the elms, its light dying on his face. He felt cold.

‘Not ‘alf as sorry as me, mate,’ said Buster from the right-hand seat. The flight engineer was really Albert Bartholemew, but that was quite a mouthful. And with his deep jaw and twice-broken nose, he looked like a Buster.

‘Bite your tongue for once, Buster,’ said Eric amiably, ‘and let the man through.’

Eric winked at Owain just as the Bear had. For an instant, Owain saw everything he loved in this lean, intense young man: confidence bordering on swagger, in both himself and his crew; natural authority; the simple charm that made others look up to him, made him a man for whom they were ready to die.

Then Eric’s long fingers – pianist’s fingers – moved and Owain saw the coppery disc in the palm of his left hand.

‘Come on then, sunshine,’ said Buster. ‘I ain’t waitin’ all day, you know.’

The bomb-aimer’s compartment was slung below and in front of the cockpit. But the hatch to the compartment was blocked by the flight engineer’s seat. Buster stood, folded back his seat and waved Owain through.

‘Your pal’s bomb,’ Buster said to Owain as the bomb-aimer lowered himself through the hatch. ‘Will it, you know, work how they say?’

Owain considered this.

‘The bomb will do what it was designed to do,’ he said. ‘Have no fear of that.’

‘He’s a rum fellow,’ said Eric,’ that pal of yours. Brilliant of course, I’m not disputing that. But he’s …’

‘Eccentric?’ said Owain.

‘Crackpot, more like,’ muttered Buster.

‘Eccentric,’ said Eric. ‘Yes.’ He held up the penny. ‘Tell you what – we could toss for it. What do you say, lads? Heads the bomb works …’

‘No!’ cried Buster. He lost his grip on the folding seat, recovered himself and caught it a second before it crushed Owain’s hand against the hatch rim. ‘Skipper! What’re you thinkin’? Are you stark starin’ mad?’

Owain saw something – a dark glint, the opposite of a twinkle – in Eric’s eye. Suddenly he didn’t want to know the answer to Buster’s question. Superstitious flight crews might be but nobody – least of all the pilot – invited fate along for the ride. Finding what everyone but Owain thought was a lucky penny was one thing; gambling the success of the mission on its spin was quite another.

Eric flipped the coin. It rose, seeking sunlight, then. Finding none, it began to sink back towards the cockpit floor.

Owain held his breath. He heard Buster whimper. Even young Jimmy Reed, huddled behind the cockpit, had looked up from his funnybook.

Then Eric’s fist snapped around the penny, removing it from the air. A swift movement delivered it into the top pocket of his jacket.

Buster breathed a sigh of relief; Jimmy stowed his funnybook out of sight and started flipping switches on his wireless. Owain saw that he was grinning.

‘Come on, chaps,’ said Eric. ‘What do you think I am?’ The heartiness in his voice sounded authentic. Again Owain’s mood shifted.

Trust the man, he told himself. You’ve trusted him all along. Here, on this night of all nights, trust him just a little more.

Eric was laughing. ‘I’m not a fool, whatever you might think.’

He fixed Owain with his confident gaze, an arrogant man the bomb-aimer couldn’t help but love.

‘Now,’ said the pilot. ‘Stations. Everyone. It’s time to go.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Owain.

*

As he settled himself into the front turret, Owain made his usual pantomime of complaining about the cramped conditions. Eric listened while his bomb-aimer grumbled, then he laughed and told Owain to cut down on the beer and take some exercise.

Another small ritual, one of the many they all indulged in as they greeted the aircraft.

Running his fingers over the barrels of his twin machine-guns, Owain stared out across the airfield. The view was splendid – but then he was twenty feet off the ground. Crows turned in the sky above the distant elms; behind them the clouds were racing the darkness for mastery of the night. The runway beckoned, its geometry seductive beneath dusk’s soft blanket. Owain let his eyes wander and dreamed briefly of peace.

He’d been waging war for so long now he’d almost lost hope that such a thing as peace was even imaginable, let alone possible. Not just this war though. Owain’s memory was long, and always ready to throw the past in his face. Tonight it was playing tricks with his vision. To Owain’s left, the drab RAF buildings suddenly loomed like castle keeps; above the trees, the crows flocked like a fighter squadron; the runway’s hard line looked like the sight of some apocalyptic weapon.

And so it is, Owain thought. A tremendous gun. And G-Galahad is the bullet.

The long years blurred, running through his vision like rain across the perspex of the turret. Friends fought for and lost, battle plans drawn over many centuries, only to be torn apart in a single night of fury. Battles fought with bomb and bullet, with fire and light, with arrow and sword, with teeth and with claws. And Owain had been there, present among them all, the eternal soldier, his shoulders bowed beneath the weight of all his long life, wielding whatever weapons came to hand, losing ground, but gaining back more than he’d lost and moving ever forward, ever higher, slowly approaching the high place from which the final mission must eventually be launched.

Some might think me immortal. But perhaps tonight is the night I will finally fall in battle.

As his eyes looked deep into the past and his hands moved over the patient guns, the bomb-aimer wondered how much longer he could convince the other members of G-Galahad’s crew he was only a man.

Chapter Two

Monkey

The crate had looked good from the apron. With take-off thirty minutes away, Eric had taken his time on the inspection, walking beneath each wing, pulling the ailerons and the big, trailing flaps, kicking the huge tyres, stroking the fuselage, the green-and-tan camouflage of the upper surfaces, the black of the belly, the letters of the white identity code, the bright red heart of the RAF roundel. He checked the repairs. The flak damage they’d taken over Hamburg had been patched and painted; the three turrets gleamed like crystal in the evening sunlight; the eight machine guns gleamed with their own deadly beauty.

The crate was ready.

So was Eric.

At twenty-five, Eric was a veteran of sixty-two ops. That made him unusual. The same crew had been with him throughout – except for Jimmy Reed. That was unusual too. Like the Bear, Eric Dance had a reputation: the Bear never got lost; Eric Dance always got his boys home.

Only once he hadn’t..

*

They called him Monkey.

‘Running a crew?’ they used to tease Eric. ‘Or a zoo? Bears and monkeys? What’s next – a bloomin’ elephant?’

But Eric didn’t care.

They called him Monkey because he climbed everything: the elms behind the base, the blackout curtains in the mess hall, even the control tower. Once, Monkey had challenged Eric – no slouch himself at the hundred-yard dash – to a race across the concrete apron outside the hangar. Three Lancasters lined the proposed route. Eric was permitted to go under them; Monkey had to go over the top.

Cav Benton opened a book and the betting was furious.

Monkey won comfortably.

Monkey’s real name was Matthew Armitage. He and Eric had been friends since childhood and when, after several years of growing up and growing apart they’d found themselves thrown together on the same bomber crew, it was as if they’d never been separated. Two years older than Eric, Monkey was practically family to the young pilot, in many ways a surrogate for the older brother Eric had lost when he was just eight years old. He was bold and brash and full of mischief, and Eric loved him.

In his role as wireless operator, Monkey was quiet and conscientious. At all other times he was the life and soul, even when there was no party going on. They called him a live wire but one night over Bremen poor Monkey had all the juice sucked out of him.

*

It had been one of the big raids.

Two hundred bombers filled the narrow corridor between clouds and flak. The flak was bad but they were mostly above it. Downstairs, Bremen was a flickering starfield, alive with muzzle flashes, small fires in the industrial quarter, bigger fires set by the Mosquito pathfinders, whose incendiaries marked the munitions factories the Lancasters were here to destroy.

Despite evading the flak, the bombers still suffered heavy losses: these days the German nightfighters were playing a new tune called jazz music: gun turrets positioned behind the cockpits, barrels elevated at forty-five degrees. The German pilots would manoeuvre beneath the Lancasters’ undefended bellies and tear open the big fuel tanks in the wings.

For the nightfighters, jazz music was as risky as it was clever. It worked best when the bomber pilots couldn’t take evasive action; the optimum time was during the bomb run. Which had the undesirable side-effect of putting the nightfighters beneath open bomb bays.

But it wasn’t the jazz music that killed poor Monkey.

They’d been on their final approach. The flak was scraping 14,000 feet; G-Galahad was just above 16,000 and about to start her bomb run. Unusually, the nightfighters (tonight it was radar-equipped ME110s) were further back up the line, harrying bombers yet to start their runs. These were fighter pilots who didn’t relish the prospect of ordnance in their laps.

Eric Dance was never complacent but tonight the yoke felt good in his hands. The crate was flying straight and level and his men were breathing slow and steady.

It was the closest he’d ever come to the fabled milk run.

Owain’s voice droned in Eric’s headphones:

‘… steady … steady … course is good … steady …’

Eric held Owain in great respect. Like most Welshmen, Owain could be deep and difficult, but he was solid as bedrock. He was no older than Eric but his eyes seemed to hold an ancient darkness. His voice echoed, as if Owain occupied his own portable cavern, mined from the Welsh mountains. He rarely laughed.

‘Hey, chaps,’ said Monkey, overriding the bomb-aimer’s monotonous commentary. ‘Heard the one about the nun and the test pilot?’

‘Shut up, Monkey,’ said Eric. ‘Time and a place, and all that.’

‘Sorry, skipper,’ said Monkey.

‘… steady … steady …’ Owain droned on.

A rogue flak shell burst nearby. The bomber lurched.

‘All right, boss?’ said Buster, grabbing his yoke. As flight engineer, Buster was also G-Galahad’s co-pilot. More than once his muscle had come in handy when Eric was struggling to pull the gigantic bomber out of a violent corkscrew.

‘It’s okay, buster,’ said Eric. ‘Not even a scratch.’

‘… steady … hold it straight … steady …’ said Owain.

Now Eric could see bombs streaming past the window. The lead planes were dumping their payloads: SBCs spilling incendiary clouds, two-fifty and five hundred pound high explosives, a handful of ground-busting cookies. The bombs poured earthwards like giant hailstones, tilting forwards and spinning as their tail fins bit the air. Downstairs, munitions factories trembled under splashes of white and orange light.

‘… steady …’ said Owain then, without changing his tone, ‘… bombs gone …’

The Lancaster lurched again. But it was a good lurch, the big machine’s response to suddenly losing weight. Eric imagined the old girl’s relief: like having a shit after a week of constipation.

Eric let his fingers (those of a pianist, they said, but in truth even Chopsticks was beyond him) make small corrections to the controls, trimming the lightened aircraft. Flak burst again, too far below to matter.

‘… hold for photo …’ said Owain.

Eric held the Lancaster steady, allowing the bomb-aimer to fire the camera that would prove he’d done his job properly. Eric knew he had: Owain never missed.

‘All right,’ said Owain. ‘Let’s go home.’

There was a sudden bang. The Lancaster lurched a third time.

Eric cursed. The fighters were still nowhere near and that hadn’t felt like flak.

‘Avalanche!’ yelled rear-gunner Sandy Kay over the intercom. ‘Nearly took my bloody guns off!’

‘Holy shit!’ said Buster.

Eric looked up through the cockpit roof.

Directly above them he saw a crucifix-shape, dark against firelit clouds. It was another Lancaster. Cascading from its belly, falling right on top of them, was a stream of high explosives. British bombs, dropping in a lethal rain.

Avalanches, they called them. It had happened to Eric only once before but it happened far more often than Bomber Command liked to admit. Call it an accident of war; call it being in the wrong place at the wrong time; Eric preferred a word he’d learned from the pilot of a B-17:

‘Snafu!’ he shouted into his mike. ‘Roll left! Buster, help me!’

Situation normal, the American acronym meant, all fucked up.

Eric needed to turn this whale of a flying machine into as small a target as possible. Driving himself back into his seat, Eric locked his arms and hauled the yoke hard to port. By the time the wings were halfway over, Buster had thrown his weight behind the move. The blazing horizon tipped and the whole cockpit began to shudder; G-Galahad, free of her bomb load and as responsive as she was ever going to get, didn’t enjoy being hurried.

‘Sandy,’ said Eric into his mask. ‘Are you okay back there?’ The yoke juddered. Eric stood on the rudder pedal, transforming the roll into a turn.

‘Roger, skip,’ came Sandy’s tinny reply. ‘Bloody thousand pounder arse-clipped the turret.’ There was a pause, then a brief metallic chattering. ‘Guns are all right. Christ on a bicycle – that was a close shave.’ For a man whose protective plexiglass shield had just been struck by the tail fin of a British bomb, Sandy sounded remarkably calm.

‘All right,’ said Eric. ‘Stay alert.’

He scanned the darkness outside the cockpit. Everything looked clear. He was about to pull G-Galahad level when there was another bang. This one much, much closer.

Something slammed into the thick steel plate behind Eric’s head, hard, with a noise like a church bell. The plate was the only piece of armour on the entire crate; as the crew later discovered, it had just saved their pilot’s life. The level of sound in the cockpit changed: the engine roar grew suddenly louder and wind started to howl. Which meant the fuselage had been breached.

‘Jesus Christ!’ shouted Eric. His head was ringing. ‘Everybody call in!’

‘Flight engineer,’ said Buster, even though he was right at Eric’s side.

‘Bomb-aimer,’ said Owain.

‘Rear-gunner,’ said Sandy.

‘Navigator here, skipper …’ The word skipper was cut off, as if the Bear had censored himself. Eric ignored it: two members of his crew remained unaccounted for.

‘Mid-upper,’ drawled Cav Benton.

Nothing more.

Eric held his arms rigid against the drag of the yoke. The Lancaster was still heeled over, describing a great circle over burning Bremen. The din was unspeakable: the roar of the engines, the invasive wind, the groans of the protesting airframe.

‘Monkey!’ he snapped. It was hard to keep his voice under control. ‘Report in!’

Eric hauled the yoke back to starboard. By the time the Lancaster was level again he’d called for Monkey three more times, each time in vain.

‘Eric,’ said the Bear, ‘we’re hit.’ Then, ‘Shit! Shit!’

‘What, Bear, what?!’ cried Eric.

Something exploded directly in front of the Lancaster. Smoke and shrapnel hailstormed the canopy. In dodging the bombs the Lancaster had lost 5,000 feet; they had fallen in range of the German anti-aircraft batteries.

‘Full throttle, Buster,’ Eric said. Buster’s hand was already on the throttle levers, moving them forward. ‘Let’s climb out of this mess. Bear! Talk to me!’

But Bear wasn’t talking.

Thumping sounds came from the darkness behind the cockpit. Then a cry, then a squeal of metal. Wind gusted papers and charts past Eric’s face. The roar of the engines grew even louder.

Then Eric heard the Bear in his headphones – not speaking, just breathing, hard and heavy.

‘Bear? What’s happening?’

*

G-Galahad had been hit by British bombs not once but twice.

The first impact had been the one recorded by Sandy Kay: a thousand-pounder had cracked the rear turret, giving the rear-gunner the fright of his life before bouncing harmlessly into the night.

The second bomb had been an incendiary, one of several hundred packed inside an SBC – a Small Bomb Container. It had hit G-Galahad just behind the cockpit when the aircraft was tipped at over seventy degrees. The bomb had pierced the thin fuselage like tissue paper and ploughed into Matthew ‘Monkey’ Armitage’s wireless station.

The Bear had been close enough to the impact to believe his number was up. By the time the big navigator realised he was still alive, Eric was shouting in his headphones. The Bear reported in with a breathless growl, then flung aside the blackout curtain that turned his navigator’s cubbyhole into a private office.

Monkey’s severed head was spinning like a top on the deck. One eye was closed in a grotesque wink; the other was filled with blood.

Eric was calling for Monkey report in. On the third call, the Bear – feeling not so much like a bear but more like a rabbit frozen under the lights of a landing bomber – managed to say, ‘Eric, we’re hit.’ It was all he could think of.

On the deck beside the severed head, its tail fins black with Monkey’s blood, was the incendiary bomb.

‘Shit! Shit!’ said the Bear.

Like Monkey’s head, the bomb was spinning. It was also ticking.

Ignoring the lighthouse sweep of Monkey’s bloody eye, the Bear grabbed for the spinning bomb. One tail fin was hanging off; the ruptured metal sliced his palm. He grabbed again, this time he caught the nose and stopped the bomb spinning.

The Bear lifted a thirty-pound ticking metal teardrop into his arms.

He wondered how long the fuse was set for.

Behind him, at eye level, was the ragged hole the incendiary had made on its way in. Grunting, the Bear tried to shove the bomb out through the hole. But the metal around the hole was twisted and the bomb jammed fast. It was still ticking.

You came in, you bastard! thought the Bear. You’re bloody well going out again!

Jabbing his fingers into the narrow gap between the bomb and the ripped airframe, the Bear gripped, clenched his teeth and pulled. Nothing happened. He pulled again. Something twanged in the middle of his back but this time, with an angry grinding sound, the airframe gave way. The fuselage peeled back like the lid on a tin of Spam and the bomb came loose.

The Bear slammed the heel of his free hand against the bomb, propelling it into the night sky to do the job it had been brought here to do.

Wiping bleeding hands on his jacket, the Bear swung round to find Monkey staring up at him. He’d stopped spinning, which was good, and that bloody glare seemed more benevolent than evil.

Good job, Monkey seemed to be saying. I always said keeping two animals in one crate was bad luck. Keep the faith, Brother Bear. Show them the way home.

Struggling not to vomit, Charles ‘The Bear’ Falconer stumbled forward to the cockpit.

‘One man down, Eric,’ he said.

*

G-Galahad seemed to attract men with reputations. Or maybe the war was such fertile ground that reputations couldn’t help but grow. There was the Bear, blessed with a perfect compass in his head; there was Monkey, the joker whom nobody could outrun; there was Owain Arrowsmith, aptly named, who never missed the target.

And there was Eric himself, the pilot who always got his boys home.

Except this time.

Eric didn’t believe his life was charmed, as some said it was. He was arrogant but not self-obsessed. But his legend grew like a tumour, and he grew to despise it.

Eric Dance always sees his boys home.

On the day Monkey died, a horrified Eric realised he’d begun to believe in his reputation after all.

*

The crew of G-Galahad pulled together. That was what bomber crews did. There was war in the world. Death was a constant, winged shadow that flew with them every time their wheels left the runway.

They buried Monkey. Young Jimmy Reed arrived from Andover to fill the dead man’s boots. Everyone tried to claim their share of the responsibility which, they all knew, Eric had taken squarely on his own shoulders.

‘I should have seen the bombs,’ said Cav Benton. ‘Up on the roof in that wretched turret. I should have been the first to raise the alarm. But I had my eyes on my girls, as always.’

It was in the mess after the funeral. They were slowly getting drunk together. All except Eric, who drank only water.

‘Hell, what about me?’ said Sandy. ‘I’m the one at the arse-end with the best view. It caught me napping too. Blame me if you like but blame never mended no pots, as my old man used to say.’

‘What the bloody hell does that mean?’ said Buster. He drained his beer and poured himself another from the jug on the table.

‘Buggered if I know,’ said Sandy. ‘Here’s to the Monkey-man.’

They clinked glasses. But Eric wasn’t drinking: he was clenching his fists under the table as he had been clenching them throughout the funeral. The pressure made claws of his fingers, was hard steel up his arm, across his shoulders, into his chest, his ribs, his aching heart.

Eric doesn’t always get you home.

By God, it hurt.

*

At first Eric found it hard to remember Monkey’s face. Death was like a sheet of gauze through which he could see the shadow of his childhood friend, but none of his features.

Then a memory came back from twelve years before that blew the gauze away and restored Monkey’s face to Eric with a sudden, agonising clarity.

*

They’d been climbing trees in Eric’s parents’ back garden. Monkey had, as always, beaten Eric in every race they’d devised, even when hampered by the most outrageous handicaps. Seeing his friend’s frustration, Monkey had suggested they change the game to hunt-and-destroy (which was their version of hide-and-seek). To widen the choice of hideouts, they’d expanded their horizons outside the garden and on to the railway sidings beyond.

Monkey hid first, choosing the narrow space beneath an abandoned railway carriage. It was a hiding place he’d used before and Eric found him easily, a little disappointed in his friend’s lack of imagination. Eager to make up for losing all the races earlier that day, Eric chose a clump of gorse bushes on the far side of the tracks. The boys rarely crossed the tracks, and the gorse was thick and forbidding; Eric doubted Monkey would even think of looking all the way over here.

Nor did he. Eric heard his friend searching for a long time near the old carriage and the coal staithes before wandering back towards the garden. He heard his mother’s voice drift down on the breeze and then, his senses dulled by the heat of the sun, he dozed.

When he woke it was nearly dark and Monkey was nowhere to be seen. When Eric had made his way back across the tracks he found the garden quite deserted. He called for his friend and was rewarded at first by silence. He was about to call again when the back door of the house crashed open and Monkey burst out, his face flushed bright red. He sprinted down the garden, arms pumping and bowled Eric off his feet.

‘You little bugger!’ he cried. ‘You had us so worried! Are you all right? We were about to call the police! God, Eric, don’t you ever do that to me again!’

Eric wrestled himself free of his friend’s embrace and saw his mother white-faced at the door, and even though he knew he would be lectured by her later, the only thing that mattered was the raw, authentic emotion on Monkey’s face, and the knowledge that here was a boy who cared for him, who would do anything to see that he came to no harm.

Five years earlier, Eric Dance had watched his older brother Alex die of influenza. Now a whole new brother had appeared before his eyes, red-faced with love.

This was the face Eric remembered when death’s gauze finally cleared enough for him to see through its veil.

*

While Owain stowed himself in the front turret, Eric slipped the penny from his pocket. He stared at it. The sunset had died to dim purple but the coin still glowed, coppery in the dusk.

Rule Britannia, Eric thought, regarding the warrior-woman on the back of the penny.

He looked out along the massive port wing. The engine nacelles rose like twin whales from a camouflaged sea. The wing itself looked as big as a runway.

Monkey’s death was like a disease for which there was no cure. The only relief Eric found was when he gunned the engines of the Lancaster and plunged into yet another ocean of flak. Only then – kissing death – did he feel distanced from his grief. Perhaps it was redemption he sought, or perhaps it was all just a way of distracting himself. Perhaps he filled his mind with bombs and bullets in order to avoid the sure knowledge that somewhere there was a bomb or bullet bearing his name.

Bearing all their names.

Eric turned the penny over.

The failing light made the king’s profile hard to see.

What a fate, thought Eric, to be king in such a time of war. Of course, the crown had ever been donned to the sound of a blade – sometimes doffed too, head and all.

Which just turned Eric’s thoughts back to Monkey again …

Fighting a rising tide of despair, Eric Dance made a fist tight around the penny, touched the fist to his lips.

Just this time. This time, just let me bring them home.

Something warm trickled down his wrist. He didn’t have to look to know it was blood. His fingernails were sharp, and his grip was strong.

Eric kept his fist as he worked through the pre-flight checklist. There was no pain there, only a warm glow. It calmed him.

Maybe it was a lucky penny after all.

Chapter Three

Take-Off

As night fell the airfield grew busier. Dim figures moved inside the control tower. Technicians hauled ground equipment across the apron and attached it to the aircraft. A bat flew past the canopy, as dark and silent as the sky.

Before beginning his pre-flight checks, Eric asked each member of his crew to confirm operational readiness: everything from guns to radio to oxygen masks. Not that they’d need oxygen on this mission.

Next, Eric signalled the ground crew to hook up the accs – which were big batteries on wheels – to the port outer engine. He looked for the familiar curves of Marian Foss among the ground crew but saw only men. Marian wasn’t a mascot like Jimmy Reed, but she was a rare beauty, and a welcome sight before take-off. Maybe she was sick.

The Merlin exploded into life at the first attempt. The big engine roared like a tiger, spewing black smoke from its exhaust. The Lancaster shook. Eric allowed a small smile to twist his mouth.

Eric and Buster went through the checklist on the Merlin: oil pressure, prop pitch, mag drops … fine tuning that felt fussy on the dispersal point but could separate life from death over the battleground.

As soon as Eric was happy with the port outer, the ground crew started up the other three engines in sequence.

When it came to the last engine, Eric let Buster perform the checks on his own. Buster, though nominally Eric’s co-pilot, was not a natural flyer. His love was for the crate itself, for the mechanical and electrical systems and sub-systems that made it – in his eyes – a living, breathing creature. A creature with four hearts, the last one of which had just begun to beat.

While Buster ran the checklist, Eric opened his fist. Wiping blood from his palm, he dropped the penny back into his top pocket.

At last Buster turned to Eric. He raised his eyebrows. A pimple shone on the end of Buster’s flattened nose; Eric had a sudden desire to reach over and squeeze it. Buster stared at him, waiting.

For an instant Eric had no idea what to do next.

‘Skipper?’ Buster said. ‘You ready to call the tower?’

Eric dropped his hand away from his pocket.

‘Tower?’ he said. ‘Yes, of course.’ He thumbed the radio transmit button and said, ‘This is G-Galahad, ready for take-off.’

There was a crackle, followed by the familiar rasp of Milky Jenkins.

‘Tower to G-Galahad. Roger – you’re cleared for take-off.’

Milky’s voice cut off abruptly. Milky smoked eighty Camels a day and spent most of the time between transmissions coughing. Everyone joked about having a tower radio operator who could barely speak; some said the war could be won at a stroke by parachuting Milky into Berlin and just having him breathe out. But when the chips were down and the tower business got serious – like the night when thick fog spat out three returning Lancasters with just six engines between them – Milky’s cough miraculously disappeared. On nights like that, it was Milky you wanted in your headset, or nobody at all.

Another little legend. Another war story growing tall and strong.

Having gained clearance from Milky, Eric caught the eye of Pete Wheeler, head of the ground crew. The pilot twirled his finger and mouthed the words,

‘Chocks away.’

Pete disappeared beneath the wing to drag the large wooden wedges away from the tyres. Eric gave him a count of ten. Then he released the brake and nudged the four throttle levers forward, just enough to get the crate moving.

The twilight held as G-Galahad taxied with the wind to the end of the runway.

Eric didn’t like taking off in the dark. But the mission’s unusual profile demanded it. It felt strange, too, to be the only aircraft on the field. Eric was used to taking his place in a bomber squadron, a great flock of black birds all jockeying for position, constantly adjusting their trim to avoid collision, gaining the sky one after the other until the sky itself was black and filled with wings.

Tonight was different. Tonight they were on their own.

One bomber, Eric thought as he turned the Lancaster on to the runway, into the wind. And just one bomb. What kind of crazy mission is this anyway?

He checked his watch. All tension had left him. He watched the seconds tick round from inside a bubble of cold calm. When his watch – synchronised an hour earlier with those of both his crew and the men in the tower – told him it was six-thirty, he heard Milky’s voice again.

‘Clear, G-Galahad,’ said the voice from the tower. ‘See you for breakfast.’

Between them, Eric and Buster ran a final check on all four engines. Buster dropped the wing flaps to thirty degrees.

‘Flight engineer,’ said Eric. ‘Ready?’

‘Ready,’ said Buster.

‘Bomb-aimer?’

‘Ready.’

‘Wireless operator?’

‘Yes, sir,’ came Jimmy Reed’s voice.

‘How about you, Bear?’

‘Ready, Eric.’

‘Mid-upper?’

‘Ready when you are, skipper.’

‘Rear-gunner?’

‘Let’s go.’

Eric eased the throttles forward. The brake stopped G-Galahad from moving. Eric kept the throttle levers biased to port to stop the crate’s tendency to yaw. Just before the airframe began to rattle, he released the brake.

A gusting side-wind was shoving the Lancaster a little to starboard; Eric’s feet danced lightly on the brakes, correcting for the sideswipe until he was going fast enough to use the rudders. As soon as the throttles were through the gate, Buster’s hand replaced Eric’s. Now the pilot had both hands free to work the yoke.

‘Bloody bumpy tonight,’ grumbled Sandy over the intercom. Squashed into the rear gun turret, trundling just three feet above the concrete, his opinion of take-offs was poor. ‘Ah, that’s better,’ he said when the tail-wheel finally lifted off the ground.

Eric held the crate level and the main wheels on the deck until the airspeed indicator told him they were travelling at 180mph. Then he gently pulled back on the yoke.

Alone in the twilight, G-Galahad rose smoothly from the runway, her undercarriage folding neatly into the inner engine nacelles like a magician’s trick, fat black tyres spinning all the way. A flock of crows, caught in the act of rising from one of the old elms, first veered then scattered as the enormous flying machine thundered across their path.

Just before the clouds embraced the aircraft, Eric touched his fingers to his pocket. He let them trace the outline of the penny. He thought of Monkey, now six months in his grave.

This time. We’ll all come back in glory.

Black as a bruise in the purple sky, the Lancaster lifted towards the clouds, above the world.

Copyright © Graham Edwards 2006

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