Last item first. It wasn’t about kneejerk political correctness. If I was that concerned about dogmatic PC, I wouldn’t have been writing about hardcore dominance and submission, human trafficking, and human sacrifice in the first place. I first came up with the title around 2014, in Budapest, when I started putting my dark and weird short and (nominally) erotic fiction together on a plan dating back to 2012. I went with it till early 2016, when I worked out the cover design and jacket image with my (Danish) publisher. I liked the cover so much that I put it out on Facebook for the horror/dark/weird fiction community. I had plenty of positive feedback, and no cautions or criticisms. I liked it so much that I made a t-shirt out of it. Then I looked at the design, and thought again. I asked some members of the same community whether they thought anyone would object to the title or cover design in the context of Black Lives Matter. They said no one in the horror/dark/weird community would notice or mind. I asked: what if I wore it as a t-shirt? Pause. Then: Better not do that. I tried the same test with a bunch of US media/journalism academics at the Central European University in Budapest. Same reaction.
I wouldn’t presume to speak for Black Lives Matter. There are others far better positioned to do that than me, from a far more informed and involved point of view. This time at least, I have to talk about me. And inadvertently, I had ended up with something that could, at a glance, or through a casual misreading, be seen as endorsing the Fox News/Bill O’Reilly/All Lives Matter bleating and barracking of the movement. A casual misreading as in, passing on the street, on a t-shirt. And if you can’t wear your slogan, on the street on a t-shirt, there is a problem with your slogan, no?
I couldn’t claim to be unaware of the issue, from the moment I first realized this. Way back when I was first mulling over titles, in Hungary, perhaps. But certainly not now. So I had to take a position on it. Practically, if I just wasn’t able to change the title, I would have to live with it. But the space between print book and e-book edition gave me some room for reflection. And the original print edition with its original title is still there, lest anyone suspect me of trying to (ahem…) whitewash myself, and airbrush out my past choices. But if I didn’t at least try to make a change, to my mind, I would be either indifferent to the Black Lives Matter movement … or worse. In any case, not acknowledging it. And even within the dark/weird/SF/horror fiction community, after recent debates on inclusion, H.P Lovecraft’s bust in the World Fantasy Awards, the Rabid Puppies assault on the Hugo Awards, etc. such choices do have resonance.
This is not a neutral context, if it ever was, and it is a space where I could make a public choice. A relatively small, insignificant space, fine, free from harm or consequences beyond a few sales gained or lost – but my own space, the one involving and implicating me, where I got to exercise personal responsibility. My space to make authentic choices, as author, not bandwagon-jumper or well-wisher; choices that directly impacted me, with implications for my own writing career; choices that put my skin in the game, however trivially, and allowed me to take a stand and do the right thing.
I also anticipated that some critics, on all sides, might accuse me of selfish opportunism, currying favour with a fashionable group for self-promotion and audience share, parlaying the suffering of others into a bigger readership with zero personal pain. Yes, I did think about market, and audience. But that kind of priority surely also acknowledges that Black Lives Matter. Black readers matter. Their opinion, their spend, their sensitivities, their economic as well as their political and moral power, matter. If you literally cannot afford to be indifferent to them, then that is exactly how things should be.
So why did I choose “Black Propaganda” as the title in the first place? First off, because partners and other members of the BDSM community were regularly referring to my sexuality as “dark” – and the stories in the book all ultimately stemmed from my own sexuality, as an exponent of the BDSM lifestyle. And of course, to evoke Fifty Shades of Youknowwhat. And because the collection is dark fiction. But I took the term itself from psychological warfare terminology, because it suggested exactly the kind of self-questioning, self-subverting, backbiting, reciprocal, ironic, self-interrogation that I wanted for the book’s focus on BDSM-style dominance and submission – a title that questions its own premises and implies that it may be the direct opposite of what it appears to be on the surface. Because of the mutual dependency, the interdependence, the sharing, that lies at the root of consensual power exchange and BDSM. Also because of “propaganda” in the original Roman Catholic sense – propagation of a dogma, in this case the dogma of dominance and submission. With again, the implication that this is a creed whose practice absolutely contradicts its explicit premises.
And why “Blowback”? Because it has a similar pedigree in psywarops terminology, and also describes something that rebounds on and undercuts its explicit purpose. And an obvious sexual implication. And also because it describes pretty much what happened to my first choice of title – unintended or unforeseen consequences. In fact, the new title fits the book so well that I don’t even need to change a single line of the original foreword to accommodate it. And that also reflects how any book is in a state of evolving, even reactive dialogue with its audience.
Except that part of that audience is literally in the firing line. Facing military grade firepower, or insanely empowered itchy-finger vigilantism. Facing plenty more besides, and elsewhere, certainly, but let’s focus on that one, uniquely American, thing that started this whole movement off in the first place. Dickens may have protested (quietly) against slavery in America in the 1840s; Einstein may have protested far more vociferously against segregation in the 1920s and 30s: neither was directly protesting against summary, serial, judicially sanctioned, public execution on suspicion, on the streets, without trial. Post Civil Rights. In a notionally free, fair and democratic country. To riff off Joss Whedon’s remarks when asked why he writes strong female characters: Black Lives Matter. Because what’s the alternative?
Turned out the first restyle of my site since for ever, to turn it into less of a blog and more of a personal home page. I do most of my web writing on Facebook or Twitter or TeleRead anyway. Not the most Gothic format, but working on that. Happy with it anyway.[Top]
One hundred years ago today, Europe went to war. A century later, Europe is at war again. The only question is how limited or how general, how cold or how hot. There’s no question about when: it has already started. Flight MH17 was the Lusitania of our time: a neutral passenger carrier blown up without warning in neutral space. European casualties have fallen on European soil (from a height). Nations went to war for far less in 1914. And appeasement is useless when the missiles are already flying.
I have two young half-Hungarian daughters. I don’t want them to become victims of this war like so many of their forebears were of the last. Therefore, I’d rather not hide my head in the sand or leave anyone else the luxury of doing so.
War will continue because Putin and his clique simply do not want peace. It doesn’t serve their political or their ideological interests. Autocracy requires it. Autocracy depends on it. Already Russian Facebook buddies are sharing stirring pictures of the Russian military in training which could have been taken straight from Nazi propaganda of the Thirties. Already we have tinpot authoritarians like Viktor Orban grooming themselves to be the new Quislings of a putative Russian Reich. And already we have useful idiots like the current French establishment trying to indulge their pompier fantasies of independence in the middle ground, in a polarized world where autonomy at the national level will be as fraudulent as Russia’s mini-statelets.
Sadly, Europe’s ailing democracies will probably need a few more lessons in threat management before they are really ready to face up to what is going on. European political establishments are Marshal Plan babies, whose diplomatic and strategic skills have withered under American protection, even if they ever could have supported much of an effort by themselves in the era of the Superpowers. And their resolve and commitment is fatally sapped by an era where they relied on the premise that freedom was about wealth. Having sold that to their electorates for generations, they are sadly inept and late to the game when it comes to rediscovering what freedom is really about.
However, they will probably not be given too much chance to disgrace themselves because the issues are so stark. There is no accommodation simply because, Russia and Israel are both demonstrating beautifully that anti-democratic governments need to shoot other people in order to stay in power. War is what props them up. And yes, Russia could develop a perverse self-interest in a Europe on a permanent cold war footing, since this would justify the autocracy staying in power, just as it did previously. Business could be done under those conditions – but with a very long spoon. And as for Russia’s liberals and more pacific elements, they may be casualties of history and their own heritage, but that is no reason to add the rest of Europe to the casualty list.
Containment is workable. It kept the peace in Europe for almost 50 years post the last war. Maybe it can keep this one within bounds too. If it has to be a permanent cold war, fine: it will be. And as for peace? An awful lot of reality is going to have to dawn for that to happen.[Top]
Got interviewed on Xpatloop:
and again …[Top]
And sort of again …[Top]
Yes, this blog has now logged 100,000 hits, according to the counter. So I’m past the magic number. In reality, I have *no* idea what this means. Yes, 100,000 readers would be nice though![Top]
Yes, *another* new story – not connected to the wonderful new Norwegian horror film Thale, and begun well before it, but hats off to you, guys. This was actually inspired by a visit to Iceland with school way back. Now read on …
The ash fells were bleak as Ragnarok, friable pumice slopes scoured bare and grey by the abrasive wind that swept down off the ice-blue glacier. Green grass grew on the flanks of the crags, and a few sere patches of ground cover dotted the valley floor, but otherwise there was no variation in the charred landscape: bird, animal and human life were completely absent, and only the braided river scraping along its gravel bed distinguished it from the surface of the moon. One isolated outcrop, enthroned atop the valley wall,dominated the scene, a gigantic black demon squatting on its haunches, one claw resting across its knees, surveying its domain.
Adam Nielsen stepped back from the eyepiece of his laser theodolite to check the monumented benchmarks either side of the road ahead. The Icelanders in the road gang stood about drinking their coffee from aluminium flasks or watching him line up on the next stretch of unmetalled wheel ruts.
This leg of the route made for fairly perfunctory surveying: the valley floor was flat and level, with no sudden inclines. It was almost a two-dimensional landscape: the few distant verticals marking the limits of the flat scoria plains. His job at this stage was more to tease out the contours to keep the widened road clear of meltwater in the spring, when runoff from Myrdallsjokull and the skirts of Hekla sluiced down the rough gullies, washing the ash. He had few natural obstacles to avoid, and none manmade: here on the southern fringes of the Icelandic Highlands, there were no settlements, just the barren ash desert stretching away to the hills. The road improvement scheme was supposed to open up the interior and facilitate coast-to-coast communication, but Nielsen found it hard to imagine anyone choosing to live up here, unless they had a yen for the stark, austere grandeur of the place.
The smooth gradient across the nearside of the valley floor was obstructed by a single lonely rock about two metres high by four wide, perhaps a glacial erratic, with a dusting of rusty orange moss across its broad flat back. Squinting at the dark mass, Nielsen mentally weighed up the amount of blasting explosive needed to pulverize it.
“Better steer clear of that rock.”
Nielsen stood up and turned round. The foreman had come up behind him unnoticed, and was regarding him calmly.
“It’s the huldra’s rock,” the foreman answered, shrugging as though that was all that needed to be said.
Huldra: he struggled for a moment to place the name. Some legendary forest witch, a seductress who slew her unsatisfactory conquests. He knew Icelanders were supposed to be a superstitious bunch, and still believe in tales of elves and so on, but even so this seemed a bit much.
“So you’re telling me that we should reroute the road hundreds of metres out of the way just to avoid that rock?” He waved to encompass the erratic, and the tenantless stretch of carbonized desolation around it.
The foreman nodded, big hands jammed into the front pockets of his jeans, leaning back phlegmatically.
“How do you know it’s the huldra’s rock?” he groped for a counter-argument, nettled by the man’s assurance. “I don’t see any sign on it or anything.”
The foreman scrutinized him indulgently. “It’s obvious,” he responded. “Stands out a mile. Anyone can see that it’s a huldra’s rock.”
One or two others nodded in agreement. Nielsen opened his mouth for a second, closed it, looked around once more at the men standing in a motley half-circle with the empty land behind them; then nodded hesitantly and turned the theodolite on to a new bearing to the left of the rock.
Satisfied, the foreman pulled his hands out of his jeans and clumped back towards the small parked convoy of huge-tyred high-wheelbase Japanese 4x4s.
Occasionally, Nielsen had to wonder what he was doing working on this island near-continent, surrounded by such people. Denmark could hardly be more different, despite the historical ties. And although the place scored high on all the approved metrics of civilization – parliamentary democracy, income per capita, mobile connectivity, and so on – there were times like today that really brought home the fact that he was marooned in mid-Atlantic, huddled just below the Arctic Circle, and cut off from the rest of humanity by a thousand kilometres of cold grey swell. His sense of isolation took on a fearful added emphasis at such times.
That was the only incident of the day, however, and they returned that evening in the long twilight of the northern summer to Hvolsvöllur, their base for this phase of the project. As they drove homewards, green crept back into the landscape, first a few tentative stipplings of grass in the gullies, then broader, more assertive swathes, until finally there was a smooth sward blanketing and softening the lowland’s contours, narrow strip fields, and a few stands of gnarled dwarf birches left by the reforestation projects.
Hvolsvöllur was a small settlement of a few hundred souls, on the Route One coastal ring road west of Vik but inland in the swamps of the Landeyjar, a scattering of aluminium-faced houses roofed in corrugated iron and painted in bright nursery colours like a toytown on the meadows’ flat green baize, sheltered by some domesticated trees, shops and suppliers for the local farmers, and the red and white Hotel Anna where they had put up. The bleak majesty of the surrounding environment had left no imprint of hardship on the place, no noble stigmata of endurance and suffering; rather, it seemed to have purged away all the excess fripperies of decoration and culture, so that the place had a bland faceless industrial uniformity, like a suburb with no town.
Facing the hotel was the bar, and it was there that they retired after dinner for a few lagers. Adam still felt a stranger among his workmates, dyed-in-the-wool Icelanders to a man and stoical navvies to boot, but he preferred to keep them company.
Midweek the bar was almost empty, with only a couple of locals leaning over their beers. Threadbare white drapes screened out the late evening sun, glowing palely. The workers ordered their jars from the lumpy, taciturn barmaid and clumped over to the jukebox or engaged the pair of tired-looking whores in one comer of the room.
Adam nursed his beaker of Thule, seated at the counter. The TV mounted on a bracket in the corner angle of the ceiling was recycling some old Bjork video.
“You know this is the setting for Njál’s Saga?
He turned at the light feminine voice. He must have been more engrossed in the screen than he had realized, because the girl had stepped up to the bar, sat down, and ordered the vodka cranberry on the counter in front of her without him even registering her presence. Now he looked at her. She was a natural brunette, with pendulous masses of dark curly hair, and she had the brightest, clearest blue eyes, as though the sky was shining right through her head from behind. Her body was lost under the nondescript parka, but she seemed both young and full-figured.
“No. I didn’t,” he answered finally.
“Oh, you’re a Dane; then I suppose l’m not surprised,” she continued. “You have no idea what you’re missing. It’s an awfully grim tale: nothing but revenge and tit-for-tat killings. Our forefathers were a bloody, quarrelsome, litigious lot.”
She had segued into perfect Danish, with a trace of an Icelandic accent, so smoothly that he had hardly noticed that they had switched languages. Adam’s smattering of Icelandic was one of the qualifications that had landed him the assignment: legacy of a grandmother who had insisted on telling him the old tales in the tongue of her own long-lost childhood.
“It’s not a matter of nationality: I never studied literature much. I’m a surveyor, working on the road improvements out by Myrdallsjokull,” he explained, rather superfluously, as he was still wearing his big work jacket with the dayglo stripes.
She regarded him sceptically. “Oh, I see, Mr Surveyor, a professional qualification is an excuse for ignorance, eh?” she chided. “Well, would you like to hear the story?”
She gave him a faultless five-minute précis of the saga as though she had rehearsed it, dwelling with almost intimate concern on the generational interweaving of blood ties and obligations. Her descriptions were as vivid as if she had been there herself to watch it all unfold a thousand years ago.
“So what are you doing here, researching for your literature thesis?” he asked at the end.
“Not at all, I’m a volunteer working for the forestry club,” she beamed brightly. “You know, once long ago this whole part of the country was covered in forest, before men came along and hacked it all down.”
“I heard they had this small thing called a Little Ice Age as well,” he countered gently.
“Pah, made about ten times worse by humans taking all the trees for firewood,” she dismissed him. “Anyway, we’re making some kind of atonement for past follies by helping it come back now.”
“Amen to that,” he replied. “So what should I call you?”
“Hella, like the town” she answered, after looking at him speculatively for a moment. “You know, just up the road from here. And what’s your name?”
“Adam,” he declared. “Adam Nielsen, like the composer.” They shook hands. Her fingers were pale and cool, firmer than he expected but with no trace of calluses or dirt.
“Son of man, eh?” she mocked him mildly. “How about a good old pagan Norse name like Ragnar or Thorfinn?”
“I can’t answer for my parents. It’s not like l had much say in the matter.”
“Pooh, you should have bawled louder at the christening.” She pushed back her stool and lifted her buckskin shoulder bag from the backrest. “Are you going to be staying long in this garden, Adam?”
“A few weeks longer, while we finish this stretch of the road.”
“Then perhaps we should catch up with each other some time,” she suggested, shrugging her bag onto her shoulder and fixing him with that clear blue stare.
“I’d like that,” he answered, pulling out his mobile phone. “What’s your number?”
“Oh, I don’t have a phone,” she laughed, waving a hand airily. “I don’t like those microwave emissions. Just keep an eye out for me: its a small town and I’m sure we’ll bump into each other.”
And with a fling of her fine dark hair, she was gone. That lustrous mare’s tail of black waves hung before his eyes long after her departing back had receded out through the doorway of the bar and down the street.
The next morning took them back out to the same section of road, several dozen kilometres inland from the coast, a tentative scrape in the tephra, warily tracing its way northwards between the volcano and the glacier, fire and ice. Adam duly surveyed a route that gave the huldra’s rock a wide berth. Directing the navvy who had been designated his assistant for the day, he noticed there was some strange interference in that area of the valley floor. He shouted into his walkie-talkie as the man stood motionless 300 metres away, holding the striped surveying pole, telling him to move to the right, but only a few faint bleats of static came from the handset. Finally, he was reduced to using hand signals.
The weather was fine and fair, with just enough breeze to keep down the heat and mosquitoes of summer. At lunch, they took a break in the natural hot springs by the valley wall, where a stream flowing pure and clear between black weedless beds of lapilli. As he splashed with the other men in the tepid water, Nielsen gazed upstream ? towards the steaming salt-encrusted fringes of the source pools, where a frog or man jumping into the water would have been parboiled in a blink. Wisps of pale vapour hung above the sulphurous cauldrons, filling the air with a faint whiff of the same rotten-egg reek that perfumed the streets of Reykjavik.
Nielsen seldom saw any sign of the famed happiness of the Icelanders in the men, who habitually were as stolid as fenceposts. But this time, ducking and laughing stark naked in the hot spring, he saw their warmth emerge, drawn out by the surroundings, from under the cold dark beds of long winter darkness and solitude. They could have been boys splashing in the bath together.
By evening, they were back in Hvolsvöllur, though with no special plans for another night of drinking this early in the week. Nielsen glanced around as he locked up the 4×4 for the night, half hoping to see the girl again.
“Hello again.” He looked around and there she was, wearing the same Goretex parka as before. Strange he had not noticed her in the street a moment ago: she must have popped out of a side road. Her blue eyes were as luminous in the open air, jewels emerging from the rough bag of the parka hood.
“Hella? Good to see you. How are you?”
“Oh, the same as always,” she shrugged brightly. “Is work keeping you well?”
“I suppose. It’s lucky to run into you again like this.” In daylight, she seemed to stand out very distinctly from her surroundings, as though undercut or in silhouette.
“Pooh, luck has nothing to do with it.” She waved her hand. “One main street, you see everyone here sooner or later.”
He slung his work bag on his shoulder more comfortably. “So, you come from around here?”
“Not exactly. My family do, but I’m not really in touch with them any more.”
“Oh? How come?”
She sucked her lip. “Look, if you’d like to hear the full story, perhaps I could tell you later this evening?”
“Uh… sure, would you like to meet up for a coffee or something?”
“I’d rather get dinner: I’m famished after a day in the plantations. Around eight? I’ll meet you in front of your hotel.”
Washed and changed into a fresh shirt, he stood waiting at eight o’clock. The few passers-by in the street were some distance off, as though warded away. As before, she appeared suddenly behind him, and he stood transfixed for a blink: she hadn’t seemed the kind of girl who would have a dress like that, certainly not here.
“Aren’t you cold?” he asked uncertainly.
“Of course not,” she chuckled, cocking her head. “Well, where are we going?”
He took her bare arm and led her to the town’s only authentic local restaurant. There, surrounded by timber and gingham kitsch, they ate well enough, though he balked at some of the more outré Icelandic delicacies.
“Rotted shark meat? Ram’s testicles?” He queried a dubious-looking patty with his fork.
“Call yourself a Dane?” she chided him gently.”There’s nothing wrong with it. Our forefathers used to snack off this like peanuts. It’s food of the soil.”
He flinched, screwed up his courage, and nibbled a tiny slice. It was suitably disgusting. Having proven his manhood by chewing a sheep’s balls, he left the delicacies alone for the rest of the evening. Hella fixed him with a laughing blue gaze and told him tales of the place and the sagas, the landscape and the glacial cold of winter. Soon she had him opening up and sharing details of his parents and sister back in Copenhagen, summers at the family chalet, picnics in the Tivoli, university, training and career.
Sitting across from her, he could appreciate details that had escaped him before, helped by the generous sweep of her dress as it fell away from the high backline. Her breasts curved under the fabric, rounded and firm as russet apples, for she seemed to have picked up a light all-over tan from her work in the plantations. And she had a strange way with her: she told stories and myths of distant times with fierce intensity, as though they involved her personally. But on details of her own family and past, she was surprisingly vague.
“It’s not important,” she insisted, brushing off the details of personality, biography, past, as though there was another order of things which rendered them meaningless. “I told you I don’t keep in touch with them, and there’s nothing more to it. We just aren’t that close.”
There was no point pressing the issue, and he was too captivated by what she did have to say.
When the meal was over, she walked at his side back down the main street, leaning on him. Despite her full curves and the firmness of her body against his side, her arms rested on his as light as a feather on the wing. Twilight was still incomplete at this time of the year, with a narrow amber band of radiance still rimming the west, but the streets were empty, blinds drawn down and shutters closed along both sides.
“You know that you can get a real midnight sun here sometimes?” she said, squinting at the sombre afterglow. “We’re not quite in the Arctic Circle, but refraction bends the sun up over the horizon, and you get full 24-hour daylight.” The pale sky backlit her, once again creating that strange illusion of flatness, as though her body was an oil film on the surface of a lake.
“I’m just glad I’m not here for the winter,” he shivered.
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” she beamed, still looking at the sky. “Firelight, Yuletide, cosy cabins, long long hours tucked up indoors with nothing moving outside but the aurora sparkling on the snow.”
Involuntarily, he kissed her, bending down to cut the light off from those shining eyes. Her tongue darted expectantly into his mouth with vixen cunning, pocketed and socketed in the warm wet narrow spaces beside its mate. They stayed locked together like that for many minutes in the gentle twilight, undisturbed. One or two cars slid past without slowing.
Finally, she took her mouth from his. “My hut’s just up the road,” she breathed, staring up at him. He let her lead him through the side streets and across a dirt track to the forestry plantation. He knew she was staying there, but was still surprised to see that her shed really was a shed: a one-room plank shack with a single window. Most of the dark, musty interior was filled with gardening tools and bags of compost and fertilizer: the soft earthy smell was actually pleasant, a little capsule from a more fertile, temperate clime, where there were proper forests and green hedgerows. On one side, against the wall under the window, there was a small three-drawer cabinet with a few personal effects strewn on top, and a narrow single bed.
Just as he was about to make some remark about the sparseness of the fittings, she pulled her to him and glued her mouth against his once more, tugging at his clothes. After that, he had no care for anything else. The small, detached part of the mind that floats free when the rest of a man is completely engaged in a woman observed that she seemed to pull at him as though desperate to keep him focused only on her, jealous of the slightest glance or thought that he cast elsewhere. If it was insecurity, she need not have worried: he was enraptured, clumsy, aggressive in his greed to get as much of her as humanly possible.
As his fingertips wandered over her back, they encountered gnarled ridges, beginning just below her nape. She flinched, and gently drew his hands away and down.
“What is it?” he asked. They were the first words he had spoken since entering the shed.
“A scar, from when I was a kid,” she explained diffidently. “My mother tripped and spilled hot coffee down my back.”
That would explain the coolness between her and her parents, thought the little objective nub. It was the only shyness or hesitation she showed, though, as she pulled him on, and he went into her with no protection. Her panting was like a persistent, recurrent sigh, some eternal regret caught in an endless loop, but it finally wound to a conclusion as she climaxed. Spent, he slumped across her, noticing how cool and dry her skin still was despite her exertions, her heart pulsing under her breast like a rounded drumhead.
“That was… marvellous,” he breathed. Her fingers wove patterns in the hair on the back of his neck.
“Welcome, Mister Dane.” She pecked him on the forehead. “I was pleased too.” She spoke in the tone of a virtuoso who had just recorded a particularly difficult solo.
“You know we didn’t use a condom?” he remarked.
She paused for a moment, as though suddenly robbed of speech, so still and silent that he thought she was in shock, then shrugged dismissively. “No need to worry: it’s my least fertile time of the month, and I’m a clean girl, so don’t you go worrying yourself.”
“Oh well. Anyway, that’s one way to get through the long, dark winters.”
She stared at him wide-eyed for a moment, them dug him in the ribs. “Kidder. And look at you, the mysterious stranger, waltzing into town and sweeping a poor young girl off her feet.”
“Oh, there’s nothing that mysterious about me,” he replied, truthfully enough.
The scents of summer slipped in through the shed’s thin walls, mingling with the earthy breath of the compost bags and planters. They slept in balmy comfort, wrapped round each other on that low pallet, and towards dawn, made love again, less feverishly this time. He had just enough time after he kissed her goodbye to shower and change into fresh work clothes in his hotel room, before joining the rest of the crew in the car park.
Strangely, no one mentioned the girl or his absence the previous evening: he had expected some half-envious ribbing, but none of the road gang seemed to have even noticed. They exchanged a few monosyllables in the hermetically sealed hush of the 4×4’s passenger compartment, the bare bones of a conversation as sparse and arid as the landscape outside. There seemed to be no point bringing it up, so he rode in silence with them out to the next stage of the new highway, nursing the warm ache in his groin, already anticipating the evening ahead.
Over the next few days, they settled into a routine, meeting in the car park or outside his hotel, choosing from the few restaurants and cafes that the town had to offer, strolling together afterwards in the long twilight before going to bed. She avoided mixing with his colleagues, who themselves phlegmatically ignored her. She also preferred her hut to his hotel room, and indeed she looked out of place in the antiseptic white sheets, against the anonymous sterile motel chic. And she would not let him see her back; pressing herself against the mattress or draping the covers over her shoulders like wings.
“I don’t like to show it,” she explained. “It’s not like it hurts or is that disfiguring, but I’d rather not have anyone stare.”
“I don’t mind,” he remonstrated with her, trying to catch both her hands in his. “No matter how bad it is, it can’t change how I feel about you.”
She pursed her lips and hunched her shoulders, nestling even deeper into her new white plumage.
“Trust me,” he urged, stroking her shoulders through the sheets.
She shook her head. “I do trust you, but it’s personal. Please don’t keep asking.”
And she looked up at him with huge beseeching blue eyes, stilling his arguments, and his doubts.
Usually the weekend was a dead flat time for Nielsen, stranded up there in the dull small town with no entertainment to speak of, waste time to wait out until the next working week began. At first, he had made a few mercy dashes to Reykjavik, to burn off his boredom in its fleshpots, pervaded by the ubiquitous, sulphurous stink from its geothermal hot water system, but the trip down the coast road took so long that there was hardly any time for fun at the far end, and he soon gave up on it. Now, though, he looked forward to the free time with Hella.
On their first Sunday together, after spending almost the whole of Saturday in bed, they took Nielsen’s 4×4 up to Thorsmork, to see the magnificent valley. They parked in a layby and climbed up a spur of the glacier-carved ridge to look down on its sun-dappled length. The grey and dun ash, the sparse coverage of greenery, left the landscape rather half-finished, like a charcoal sketch on a body-coloured ground with most of the details still to be filled in. Against that stark backdrop, colours and details stood out all the more sharply, swept over by the wash of light and shade that the sharp wind blew across the terrain. Tawny patches of dried grass in fawn and ochre intercut with a fresher lime where water or thicker topsoil greened the turf. The streams themselves dyed the grey cinders inky black, or sparkled clear and glassy in their graven channels, slicing deep knife-sharp canyons into the soft, loosely compacted tuff of the valley walls.
Once up on the ridge, Hella stretched both her arms up above her head and whirled round on the spot with a loud “whee,” her dark hair flying loose in the fresh breeze. Laughing, he caught her round the waist and lifted her off her feet, marvelling at her lightness, but she pushed free of him, grinning, and ran off uphill towards the dark ridge wall at their back, casting an occasional mischievous glance over her shoulder, daring him to pursue her, gambolling almost like a young doe.
The hillside ascended in irregular broken terraces towards a waterfall where a torrent from the glacier far above spilled over the lip of the ridge. As Adam scrambled up by the steam bed, he lost sight of her. Breasting the rim of the bowl surrounding the plunge pool, he looked up and down its banks, but she was nowhere to be seen. White spray filled the air, sparkling in the pale sunshine, obscuring his vision.
He called out her name, but the continual din of falling water drowned out the sound of his voice. With no alternative, he started to work his way along the side of the pool, peering through the spray. Then he caught sight of her dim outline, standing facing towards the waterfall, her arms still upraised, as though venerating it. He stumbled over to her and called her name again, from close up. After a moment, she noticed his presence and turned back to him, lowering her arms. As her gaze met his, there was a momentary hiatus, like a skipped frame in a video playback, before she focused on him again; for that moment, her eyes were dark and empty as knotholes in bark. Then they filled with the old light and warmth, and she smiled at him coyly.
“Out of breath, dear?” she teased.
He laughed and reached for her, to dispel that instant of unease as much as anything, and in a moment they were shouting and chasing each other round the pool again. They fell winded to the turf and made love, surrounded by the earth and sky, warmed by the strong pale sun, the clear summer air mercifully free of mosquitoes.
During working hours, he caught himself yearning for her, wishing she had a mobile so he could call her. Occasionally he found his mind drifting, far from the job in hand. The Icelanders noticed and muttered to each other, but said nothing to his face. Almost every evening, though, there she was, waiting at the kerb when his car pulled up, ready for another meal together, another short promenade in the long dusk, another night.
Subtly, she grew more pressing, more importunate, though with no grating edge of insecurity; he honestly felt that she valued her time with him and wanted more of it. She had her own unknown duties with the forest service during the day, but even that, he felt, was now open to discussion.
“Can’t you take a day off?” she asked one evening, hanging lightly on his arm as always, by her fingertips. “I want more time with you.”
“I want more time with you too, but I’ve got a job to do. That’s why I’m here.”
“You shouldn’t treat it so personally,” she pouted. “Don’t I matter to you?”
“Of course you do, but what do you think brought me here in the first place?”
“I don’t know: destiny?” she shrugged.
“You shouldn’t talk about it in such grand terms: it was just a contract.”
“You shouldn’t talk about it in such petty terms.” She had a way of speaking with her fingers, very tactile, as though words were insufficient or unreliable and meaning could be blown away in the airy spaces between people, tapping and pressing on his skin almost like a court stenographer. Right now, they were probing insistently at his forearm, searching as though for a way in. “I’m here for you; and you’re here for me. Do you have to dismiss it like that?”
“Alright, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way,” he conceded, stroking her hair. “I just think too much like an engineer sometimes.”
“I know,” she complained with a little hurt moue. “You could be a bit more romantic. You know, I feel so empty when you’re not around, like I’m not all there. You fill me.”
Still, the topic of the day off did not come up again, and they kept to the old routine, as though present habit could exorcise any questions about the future.
On their third weekend together, Hella took him round the town’s pocket museum, the Saga Centre, to broaden his education, she said. Walking back towards the hut afterwards, she seemed distant, abstracted, looking through the walls of the houses on either side towards some unseen horizon. As he saw they were wending back towards her hut, he tried to make a case for going back to the hotel instead.
“Don’t you get fed up with living in a hut? Wouldn’t you prefer something a little more comfortable?”
She sucked her lower lip. “It’s not that bad. Remember, I‘m out with the trees most of the day.”
“Still, a few more table and chairs wouldn’t do any harm.”
She extended her right arm, thumb spring-loading her forefinger, and deliberately flicked the corrugated iron wall of the house beside her. The painted metal rang loudly.
“I don’t ever feel at home living in these tin cans,” she said tonelessly, her eyes hard and distant. “Hollow shells, with trinkets and lives rattling around inside them. I want to be close to the earth, where things are solid.”
“Just a bed between some sacks of fertilizer and a few odds and ends is hardly that solid,” he objected.
“You think these houses are that much more solid?” she countered, bridling. “Remember the Mist Hardships when Laki erupted? Sulphur fog over the whole country, half the livestock dead, a quarter of the population starving to death, no get-out, no appeal. What carnage, eh?” And she smacked her lips with slightly alarming relish. “And that was only two hundred years ago. It’s only been a few years since Eyjafjallajökull erupted and we had to host the Red Cross up here for all the evacuees. And that road you’re building runs right up between the two volcanic zones. This place is just a thin crust over an ocean of fire, and it could all be blown away, just like that.”
“I couldn’t live all the time in a hut, though. I’d want something more substantial around me.”
“I didn’t think that mattered to you.” She glanced at him, tone cooler, but expectant. “I thought you were moving on soon.”
“The plans aren’t settled yet.” He shrugged, careful to stay noncommital. “And we’re still not sure where the base for the next stage will be.”
“Maybe you could stay a while?” she moved into the shelter of his shoulder, eyes wide, angling her head up to gaze into his, then calmly said. “You know, you could quit and stay here with me.”
He looked at her. “And give up my career?”
“Why not?” she smiled nonchalantly. “We’d be together.”
“And what would I do?” he asked, unaccountably uneasy at the direction of the conversation. “How would we live?”
She shrugged airily. “Oh, people always find a way somehow.”
“But I have responsibilities, a profession,” he protested, unsure how serious she was. “I can’t just turn my back on all those years of study and work: what a waste it would be. And I make good money: I don’t want to give that up.”
“Pah, Mr Money,” she tossed her head dismissively. “I’ll show you what’s worthwhile.” And she kissed him hard, stifling his protests.
Time with her grew easier and calmer, but time by himself grew more fraught and burdened as he considered what to do. At almost thirty, he had honestly thought about settling down even before she came along, but he was still not sure whether he was quite ready to give up a decade’s habits and concede.
And it was very short notice to start making choices that might affect his future. Besides, there was still so much about her he did not know, though she breezily dismissed his questioning as though his concerns were irrelevant, almost surprised that people needed to know such things. She was eloquent, persuasive, and also, he thought occasionally for brief fleeting moments, just the tiniest bit sociopathic.
He would be a lot easier in his mind if he could be clearer on what he might be committing to. If he changed his plans now, he felt, he might already be granting all kinds of hostages to fortune, and since there was not the time to let the relationship evolve naturally to the point where the choices became inevitable, the onus was going to be on him to make a decision.
Pondering, he slid the 4×4 into the outskirts of Hvolsvöllur, already packing those concerns away into the back of his mind ready for another warm, relaxing evening together. Missing her figure on the pavement in its customary spot, he pulled up and got out of the 4×4. A wizened old vagrant in a greasy brown mac belted with string, with an ancient sou’wester pulled down low on the back of his neck, stood on the kerb where Hella usually waited. He turned his head and leered at Nielsen. Under the torn brim of the sou’wester, a soiled wad of bandage was taped over one eye socket, tumescent as a scuffed puffball on a rotting log.
“That’s a pretty girl you’ve got there, laddie,” he sniggered, baring yellowed stumps of teeth in liver-spotted gums.
Nielsen stared at him. The old tramp leered back, single eye maniacally bright.
“I’ll bet she bucks,” he crowed, spreading his cracked purple fingers in a open-mittened grip and thrusting his pelvis forward.
Aghast, Nielsen took a step towards the old man, uncertain whether to turn tail or attack him. The vagabond stood his ground, his almost square body swaying slightly with a meths-drinker’s tremors, still staring. He heard Hella’s voice calling him somewhere off across the street, and turned to see her hurrying towards him. When he looked back, the old man was gone.
“Where were you?” he asked. She looked slightly flustered and on edge.
“Nowhere: just got caught up on my way here. What’s the problem?”
“Nothing,” he replied, deciding not to mention the old man. She linked arms, with him, and they went off together to eat pizza.
Work on the road began to slow amid signs that the short Icelandic summer was nearing its end. More than once, they had to carefully push the 4x4s in Indian file through sudden flash floods at the fords: the crystal-clear fine days grew fewer and fewer. Weather reports on TV and radio became a matter of daily concern. Hella, too, became as skittish and unpredictable as the rainstorms and gales: swinging between febrile excitement and unaccountable bursts of anger. Nielsen hardly minded: if anything, her new moods made the sex even better.
That Sunday, they planned another picnic, this time in the lee of one of the fossil lava flows, where convolutions of molten rock had ossified in a crazily rucked quilt of folds, softened by blankets of moss and emerald grass, Nature’s stony maze hedged in by evergreen pumice. They took a path along the crest of one of the ridges, where they could drop down between the creases, out of sight of other wanderers. But the lowering sky put all thoughts of lovemaking out of their minds, and they munched their packed meal almost in silence, looking out across hectares of trackless, dark crevasses.
“Storm coming up,” Nielsen remarked, hands on hips, pivoting and sucking his lip as he surveyed the grey horizon. “Perhaps we’d better get back.”
Hella seemed distracted, head ducking, not really looking at him or the sky, jaw thrust forward as though she was trying to catch a scent. Instead of her normal radiant self, she looked worn and furtive as a harried vixen. She said something indistinct that sounded like a reply, or a refusal. Thick dark clouds were gathering along the sky’s western rim, towering and baleful.
“Darling…” He touched her on the shoulder. She jumped at the contact and stared at him, and the strangest thing happened: he saw her pulling away from him without moving, splashed strangely flat against the dour background, like a dolly zoom on film.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. With a look of sheer desperate panic, she broke and ran along the flow, up towards the crest of the ridge, where it dipped and converged with the other corrugations.
Pausing only to snatch up the packsack with their gear and the remnants of the abortive picnic, he ran after her, but she was dashing full tilt, arms and legs flailing, and had already opened a lead. In moments, she was lost to view, slipping out of sight in the labyrinth of chasms. Sudden gusts clutched and snatched at him as he ran, bearing a distant dull rumble, and all along the darkening western rim of the sky, a ramparted wall was advancing, bright flashes playing around its thunderheads.
The convoluted lava could have swallowed an entire war band, and rather than struggle in vain to catch sight of her, he worked his way by intuition along what he thought was her path, eastward and uphill, towards the larger ridge that loomed above the head of the old fossilized flow. Light was fading from the sky as the stormfront loomed nearer, and dull concussions rang through earth and sky like hoofbeats. Though she was still wearing her parka, he feared for her once the storm broke, quite apart from her inexplicable panic fit.
The summit of a lava fold gave him a brief wider view, and he caught sight of a struggling figure upslope in blue, toiling over the gradually diminishing ridges. The stampede of cloud thundered down on them, roaring. Lightning was flashing in earnest now, spraying lurid highlights across the gloomy murk under the cloud base; curved and keen as a gutting knife. The rain had mercifully held off, but he could see black squalls darting here and there across the wilderness, roving cloaked and menacing over the fells.
The lava field petered out into an obstacle course of ankle-high furrows before finally disappearing completely into the sleep basalt scarp of the fell. There he stopped again, breathing as wildly as the wind gusting around him, ribs aching and spots dancing before his eyes from more than the lightning bolts. Bent over, hands on his knees, he raised his head and saw a familiar outline on the fellside up above.
“Hella,” he yelled, at the top of his voice.
She turned back towards him in one wild movement, just as she reached the crest of the dark ridge and stood silhouetted on his horizon, and for a moment, though he could not be sure if he was seeing some reflection from the ringing sky behind him, it seemed as though he could see the lightning bursts in the sky behind her, flashing through her eyes. Then she dropped out of sight behind the ridge, and the rain, long restrained, came thundering down.
He gasped and choked in the downpour, squinting water out of his eyes. The fellside above was awash, a sheer mud face sheeting with water. By the time it had abated enough for him to scramble and skid up to the crest where she had stood, there was nothing and no one to be seen: just a tenantless expanse of wasteland shaded by the ebbing storm, overlooked by a narrow ledge where even footprints had been washed away.
He scoured the fell, splashing though the sudden mud puddles, calling her name, but there was no sign of her. As the last storm clouds withdrew over the western horizon, he trudged back to the car, thinking she might have made her way back before him: still no sign. Disconsolate, he got in and drove back to town, mystified. His faint hope that she would be there, waiting for him, at her usual spot on the pavement, was disappointed. At a loss, he made his way to her hut on the forestry plantation.
The shed stood forlornly in the wet yard, its door on the latch. Nielsen opened it and looked inside. The bags of fertilizer and seed were as he remembered, and the bed was still in its place, but it was bare and without sheets or blanket, just a crash couch with a mattress for a nightwatchman to take a rest on. And the small cabinet by it was bare of all personal effects, missing even the cotton cloth over its top: just stark metal.
Now thoroughly confused and alarmed, he went to the town’s small police station, and gave her details to the bored young constable on duty.
“There was some thunder over towards Thorsmork, but I don’t remember any storm warnings,” the constable grumbled. “Still, we’ll look into it. Could you fill out this form?”
Nielsen realized that Hella had never told him her surname or her age. The constable gazed at him incredulously.
“You want me to file a missing persons report for a girlfriend whose name you don’t even know?” he asked.
“I only met her recently. She’s a student volunteer working on the reforestation project,” Nielsen explained feebly.
The constable gazed at him. “There’s no one working on the reforestation project,” he replied.”They finished the planting years ago.”
Moved by Nielsen’s obvious distress, the constable finally agreed to drive out to the fell with him in the fading light. Approached by road from the uphill side, the lava crag did not seem that formidable, and Nielsen sheepishly led the policeman down for some distance over the scoria maze, but the whole scene was now calm and bare, with nothing to suggest danger or mystery. All he could do was get back in his 4×4 and follow the police Volvo back into town.
Nielsen passed an anxious, sleepless night in his cheerless motel bed, staring at the roof panels and waiting for a phone call or a knock on the door. In the morning, he walked out to the plantation once again before breakfast, but the hut stood as empty as when he had last seen it. Mechanically, he followed the rest of the crew out to the worksite and surveyed a few more tens of metres of road across the blank grey ash plain. When they returned that evening, he scanned the roadside, hoping for Hella to be standing there unannounced, just as before, but only a few local passers-by trod the pavements.
The same pattern persisted over the next few days and nights. He took to going to the bar again, with the others or alone, morosely nursing an aquavit, ears cocked for the swing of the door. Towards the end of the week, they finished the current phase of the project, ending the survey at an arbitrary point in the wasteland,
ready for a move up the road and a change of base camp prior to the next stage. They chinked flasks at the kilometre mark in a little ceremony.
“Still got your mind on that girl?” the foreman asked, as they stood together cradling the metal phials of spirits.
Nielsen started and nodded. He hadn’t credited the foreman with such insight.
“I saw you two together,” the foreman continued, compassionately. “She was lovely, but she was a fey one. I always thought that sooner or later she’d give you the slip.”
Unable to reply, Nielsen looked away, to the horizon where a few grey clouds were tumbling along, recalling those eyes that were like the sky shining straight through the back of her head. A stray breeze gently ruffled his hair.[Top]
This is still a first draft, so comments are welcome.
The Echo of the Sea
I feel compelled to set down everything I could not put in the official Air Ministry report on the loss with all crew of Wellingtons GR-X and GR-V of RAF Coastal Command. That report concluded with an open verdict of navigational error, aggravated by adverse flying conditions, recording that the experimental new radar installations in both aircraft may have interfered with navigational instruments. Strictly speaking, that conclusion was accurate. Yet it leaves out important details I have to recount, if only to do justice to the memories of Flying Officer Clive Hampden and the nine other men who die in that spring of 1942.
First, a little of myself. My own brief flying experience was with bombers, which qualified me better than most other investigators, I suppose. But my real experience was engineering before the war, a love of the intricacies of wireless design, the little glowing hearths of valves that brought families together round them on long evenings, the fascination of cat’s whiskers drawing power from the airwaves, that earned me a reasonably respectable position in the design department of a growing firm of radio manufacturers in the Midlands. I could have, perhaps should have, enlisted straight into the Royal Corps of Signals or some other quieter, safer branch of the services, but some regrettable atavism, some basic relish for the thrill of adventure and the whiff of cordite, made me sign up for the RAF when war came. Besides, I had heard it was the most technical and modern of all the services.
Such silly pretensions were exploded above France in 1940. After my flight training, I was posted across the Channel to a Fairey Battle squadron of the Advanced Air Striking Force, supporting the BEF, a relatively competent pilot. But on only my second sortie, I was cut to pieces along with most of my flight by German fighters near Sedan – an appropriate enough location. It was an experience of sheer raw terror, bounced by Messerschmitts, the Battle’s placid, easy handling suddenly an all too seductive betrayal, my navigator and sergeant air gunner both machine-gunned in the first pass through the unarmoured cockpit walls, control surfaces chewed to ribbons, serenaded over the radio by the screams of my comrades roasting alive in their cockpits. I somehow nursed the crate back to the airstrip for a deadstick landing, but the Battle kept its worst for last and threw me nose over in a bizarre lurch that crumpled the engine, canopy and instrument panel onto me, mercifully crushing me out of consciousness after only a few moments of blinding agony. My right shoulder caught the worse of it, and I was invalided back home with a proper Blighty, missing the denouement of Dunkirk and the annihilation of the last pathetic remnants of my squadron.
After the prang, I spent a long and very unpleasant convalescence in an RAF hospital in Buckinghamshire that was basically a huddle of Nissen huts, contemplating with detached horror the effect of nightly damp on my joints, as the doctors and physiotherapists rebuilt my shoulder. The result was hardly brilliant. Months of exercises and lifting weights could only give me a very limited range of movement, with little strength and a grating pain when I pushed my arm too far. But for the poor disfigured gargoyles in the same hospital who had been cooked midair, or the cripples and amputees, I might have despaired. As it was, ironically, I who had always been called stiff was now trapped in a ghastly parody of English reserve, unable to unbend and reach out, doomed forever to strut about like a Gillray caricature or a ridiculous clockwork toy.
All the same, there was a war to be prosecuted. My own personal pain could wait. I had to find useful work for the war effort somewhere inside the vast machine busily grinding away to pulverize other Leviathans. The Air Ministry Accidents Investigation Branch gave me a chance to stay in uniform and keep my rank, and some of my self-respect, and the work of trying to make sure that other airmen did not share my fate at least kept at bay some of my guilt at not having died with my comrades.
So it was that in the spring of 1942 I found myself posted to RAF Kinross in the Moray Firth, then occupied by Coastal Command’s 5 Operational Training Unit. A long, slow haul up from the south of England, with changes at Waverley and Aberdeen, on dirty, draughty wartime trains, with tape crosses across the windows and hectoring propaganda messages replacing the peacetime travel posters, brought me through ever more rugged and stunning scenery to the closest halt to RAF Kinross, its name blacked out, after dark, where an unappreciative erk was waiting to pick me up in the station’s Humber Snipe.
‘Ye’r late for dinner, sir,’ the aircraftman remarked as the car bumped up a flinty unmetalled road, in a marked southern English accent, very different from the brogues I had been hearing on my way through and from Edinburgh. ‘Mess shuts early on account of those big old kitchens they have.’
‘A big house, is it?’
‘Big and bleak.’ The man shuddered. ‘Grand, you might call it, but can’t say as I care for all that cold stone. And when the cold wind blows off the North Sea, ooh, you don’t half shiver. Far as I’m concerned, the Jocks can keep it and welcome.’
The Snipe’s yellow headlamp beams swept across a stern little granite gatehouse, converted into a guard post with the help of some striped wooden poles and a couple of reels of barbed wire. The single sentry on duty waved us through with his lantern without troubling to check our passes – discipline had grown lax this far north, I thought. The car drove a short distance further, between low haggard trees of what might have been a carriage drive in warmer climes, and stopped at the main entrance of a tall, gaunt house that gave the impression, in the blackout, of a collection of dark verticals. There was only the vaguest suggestion of looming shapes beyond to indicate that we were on the fringes of an aerodrome.
‘Here we are, jiggety-jig,’ said the erk, uncannily like a bingo caller. ‘This is where I leave you, sir. You’ll find the XO inside; the squadron leader will have already turned in. Toodle-pip.’
Taking my cue, I grasped my kit-bag and levered myself painfully out of the back seat. The Snipe whirred away, round the back of the house, and I went up the low front steps, with the strangest impression that I had arrived at a mews house whose flanking terrace had somehow mysteriously been erased, leaving it standing alone and unsupported. Aside from the last fading whine of the motor, the only sound was the rushing of the salt wind in the stunted trees.
I let myself in at the unguarded front door: inside, the main hall was lit by a low fire guttering in a grate off to one side, with a flight sergeant slumped nodding in one of a pair of leather armchairs beside a rather incongruous desk, obviously a Forces addition, but the overall effect was anything but convivial and welcoming. Instead, the already forbidding stone walls, stripped bare of any pre-war adornment, were as drab and comfortless as a station waiting room, the kind of shelter a tramp would choose to snatch a few hours of fitful, broken rest before being thrown out again into the unwelcoming elements.
A door opened, further back along the dark corridor, spilling amber light across the little vignette, and a flight lieutenant stepped out, spruce in his uniform blue, and extended a hand to me. I reached out as best I could, and shook it.
‘Flight Lieutenant Lurie reporting, from the Air Ministry,’ I introduced myself, handing him my papers
‘Hello, my name is Darwin, I’m the XO,’ the man responded, throwing in a hasty salute at the end of his introduction. He was a lean, rangy figure, with a broad, sandy handlebar moustache, almost a caricature of an RAF officer, and one vigorously maintained at that, judging from the look of him. ‘I’m sorry: the Squadron Leader has already gone to bed, or I’m sure he’d have been here to welcome you himself. We go to bed early here; not much to stay up for, frankly. Not like Bomber Command, eh?’
The flight sergeant, awoken by the noise, hurriedly struggled to his feet, officiously attentive. ‘We’ve assigned you a room: Sergeant Harris here will show you up,’ Flight Lieutenant Darwin said genially. ‘The Squadron Leader will see you in the morning. Now please, get a good night’s sleep.’
The sergeant took my kit bag and led the way up the dark stairs at the back of the hall, turning on the electric lights one at a time as he went, while Darwin withdrew into his office. The few Scots baronial trappings around the landings, mainly jutting sharp-tined antlers and glittering steel blades, made the place seem if anything less even less friendly than before, and it was no surprise when Darwin showed me into a Dickensian garret room at the top of the stairs, with a bare iron bed and a washstand almost the only furniture. I guessed I might find, if I looked, a black-letter Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in the drawer of the bedside cabinet.
‘There you go, Sir: a bit bare, I know, but it’ll look better by daylight. I’ll send an orderly to wake you in the morning,’ Harris said, closing the door and leaving me alone under the bare bulb. Even in the spring, the cold seeped in through the small high window, into my damaged shoulder.
Morning, though, did make things look more cheerful, as Harris had said. Cool, crisp northern sunshine came sparkling through the high window, casting deep shadows across my face as I shaved in the small washstand mirror. The same light glossed the table tops in the mess, presumably the old servants’ refectory, when I went down for a hasty breakfast of actual, inedible porridge, washed down with watery tea. The small groups of aircrew scattered around the long, low hall, in their caps and flying jackets, at least looked somewhat martial, and helped improve the impression from last night. They eyed me surreptitiously as I sat alone over my bowl of cold salted oatmeal, murmuring in low voices.
Darwin called me away shortly after to meet the base CO, who he introduced as Squadron Leader Culdrose. Culdrose was a small, irascible man, very high-strung, apparently energized by some inner animus, against what I wasn’t sure, but I assumed it must be the usual Cinderella service resentment against the other Commands, who hogged all the materiel and glory. Thinking back now, though, I wonder.
‘You’re entitled to look at all the logs and Operations Record Books,’ he barked, disdaining to rise from behind his cluttered desk. ‘All except the radar reports: that stuff’s all classified.’
‘I have clearance for those too,’ I replied, passing my Air Ministry authorization across the desk to him. Culdrose scanned it, sniffed, and handed it back disdainfully.
‘Very well; please try not to interrupt the normal running of the station. We’ll give you what we’re authorized to, then you can complete your inquiry.’
He was angrily defensive, as though challenging me to suggest that any sort of negligence by the station and its commander might have contributed to the losses. This ought to have left me more suspicious of him, but strangely, did not: instead, I felt sorry for the man. Whatever the answer was, I felt immediately, it did not lie here.
‘Flying Officer Hampden was one of the most brilliant young officers we had,’ he went on. ‘We’ve had our losses, God knows: everybody has. But two whole crews one after another, and Hampden captain of one of them: the whole squadron is still shellshocked from that. You just make sure you find out the right answer.’
An answer that would not implicate Hampden, he implied, glaring at me from deep-set black eyes above his effort at an RAF moustache, which in his case appeared more as a matching set of twitching black hog-bristle shaving brushes. The same strong, clear northern light that had stolen in through my attic window first thing this morning washed in through the windows of his office now, and over the tarmac apron, hangars and dispersal bays beyond, where a few Wellingtons, Whitleys and Ansons in grey-green and white Coastal Command livery stood around in isolated, desultory groups. A wide strip of glittering silver, presumably a stretch of mudflats laid bare by the tide, divided the green sward of the airfield from the deeper green and stronger flash of the sea.
‘Darwin will show you around,’ he barked. ‘Now excuse me: I have paperwork to do.’ We left him at his desk, poring over requisition orders.
‘You mustn’t mind the CO’s manner: he’s liable to be a little temperamental at times, especially in the mornings,’ Darwin explained breezily, sweeping me down low arched white-plastered corridors through the peacetime servants’ quarters, and out through a rear door to the actual airstrip. ‘You have to remember the pressures he’s under: working all hours, dealing with Pitreavie Castle, struggling to keep the kites airworthy and the crews fit in one of the harshest climates in the British Isles. Now let me show you the Ops Room and our one remaining experimental Wellington.’
He led me across a few hundred yards of tarmac and rabbit-cropped grass towards a low one-storey cement building capped off with a little glass-walled lantern under a witch’s-hat roof. The windsock hanging from its white pole by the control tower twitched capriciously in the wind, and the three-cup anemometer beside it spun gaily; there was even a Stevenson screen on the grass nearby, with its white wooden slats, like something off a peacetime cricket field. The thin sunshine strove in vain to convey any real warmth against the brisk leaching morning breeze from the still-distant sea, but it flashed gamely enough off the wings and four propeller blurs of the only aircraft actually flying from the field, a slab-sided bomber I recognized as one of the new American Liberators, rising sedately from the far end of the runway.
‘Communications and electrics at the big house are a bit poor, and there’s a shortage of larger rooms, so we put the Ops Room and the control tower together,’ Darwin remarked, opening the shed door. The plotting table and blackboards inside were very faintly discoloured and a slight bloom of dust lay over all surfaces; the place was deserted, although some faint noises and muffled voices from the open wooden stairway leading up to the control tower hinted at some sort of activity. The base was a training and test station, I knew well enough, but that did not justify this air of slackness and neglect, as though Culdrose had incited a campaign of passive resistance against the whole war effort. This far north, surrounded by sea and sky and eternal mountains, it was indeed hard to remember that there was a war on.
‘Here are the Operations Record Books,’ Darwin announced, unlocking a cabinet and producing a bundle of identical RAF notebooks like a pile of schoolboy’s homework. ‘And here’s Hampden’s personal log: we’ve been keeping that under lock and key, with the other documents, since the accident. Of course, Hampden and his plane are still officially posted as missing, along with the other Wimpy, but no one here thinks they’re ever coming back.’
The extra logbook was pretty much identical to the others, only with its pale blue-green instead of brown cover, almost the same colour as the underside of a Spitfire, and the ‘Royal Air Force: Pilot’s Flying Log Book’ legend across the front. Darwin watched me grasp the bundle as though he was expecting me to receive and comment on some strong impression through my fingertips, and when it did not happen, decided to volunteer it himself.
‘Hampden was an exceptional officer,’ he reiterated. ‘He sometimes expressed himself … unconventionally.’
And he stood there looking at me expectantly for another few heartbeats. ‘I’ll bear that in mind,’ I said placatingly, tucking the bundle away as best I could under my right arm.
‘You flew before, didn’t you?’ he asked suddenly, his gaze shifting.
‘Yes,’ I admitted, not liking his sudden interest. ‘Battles; in France.’
‘Ah.’ Once again, he paused, but this time not as if he was waiting for anything at all. ‘Bad show, that.’
‘Bad,’ I agreed.
Neither of us had much more to add to that determination, and he led me outside again, across the short grass that was tinted a pale, almost acidic green by the slanting sunlight, to the forlorn Wellington standing by itself in a dispersal bay a few dozen yards away from the other aircraft. As we walked, the stiff onshore breeze snatched at the papers under my arm, and woke sharp aches in my shoulder.
I noticed that, instead of the picket fence of radar aerials I had spotted along the rear fuselage of the other Coastal Command Wimpys around the station, the test aircraft, GR-W by its markings, had a bulbous protrusion like a dewlap under the nose, which had a smooth Perspex canopy in place of the nose turret. There was also a circular fairing on the belly, just behind the bomb bay doors. ‘Is that the Leigh light?’ I asked Darwin, pointing left-handed towards it.
‘That’s it,’ he answered, with some satisfaction, ’22 million candlepower. If a Jerry sub is recharging his batteries on the surface at night, it pops out and lights him up like the noonday sun. Beautiful target. Boom: one less U-boat.’
‘And that?’ I indicated the nose blister and the greenhouse canopy over it.
‘Yes, that’s what all the fuss is about,’ Darwin assented briskly. ‘Centimetric radar. Powerful enough to pick a periscope out from among the waves, or so I understand. Anyway those Ministry reports will tell you more about it than I could.’
‘I’d like to go on board and take a look,’ I pressed. He looked at me searchingly, but nodded and led me to the open door on the port side of the nose.
The Wellington’s interior was very different to the narrow cockpit of the Battle: the triangular duralumin struts of the geodetic framework gave me a bizarre impression of being inside a giant trellis, only heightened by the wooden spacers screwed onto the beams and the texture of the doped linen skin, and the long Perspex window panels along both sides. The crew access door was forward of the cockpit, with the nose dome and radar operator’s station to my left, but I turned right, to the pilot’s position, set above and to the left of the main gangway through the aircraft. By rights, I suppose, I should have taken my first look at the radar installation that was the common factor between the two lost aircraft, but already I was interested in the man more than the machine, and I wanted to sit where Hampden had sat and see what he had seen.
The pilot’s office of the Wellington was roomy and even a little lonely in comparison with the cramped, narrow Battle, and the sunshine poured in through the broad, boxy canopy, glinting off the big exposed screw heads round the rim of the cockpit well and the dials of the instrument panel behind the big double yoke of the pilot’s control column. With the nose up on the ground, my view ahead was slightly obstructed, though less so than in a standard Wellington bomber, I guessed, with no bulbous forward turret in my way, and I had a fairly good prospect of the tarmac apron, and the runway and turf beyond. Instead of leaning forward to grasp the column, I just sat there with my hands in my lap, staring out over the narrow stripe of camouflage on the top deck of the nose, waiting for I didn’t know what, under that barred canopy with its square panels like the window leads in a church, while the whistling wind sighed and plucked at the fuselage.
‘Alright up there?’ came Darwin’s call. I stirred, levered myself awkwardly out of the pilot’s seat, and went downstairs.
‘Seen what you need to see?’ Darwin asked jovially. I grunted in response: my silent communion or whatever with Hampden’s presence or absence had told me nothing I could name. And it was odd how already I was dismissing the rest of the two crews as ciphers, immaterial: Hampden and the fate of both aircraft were inextricably bound together, I felt.
‘I’ll be wanting to take some time to read over the logs,’ I told him.
‘Of course; there’s a spare office back at the big house, next to the mess: you can use that,’ he beamed. ‘I’ll get one of the orderlies to clear it out for you.’
The office was a small, ill-lit, musty room in the house’s lower storey, carved out of the pre-war estate offices, but now occupied only by a few desultory stacks of old documents. There, I sat down at the deal table with a mug of muddy NAAFI tea, and began conning the logs of 5 OTU and Flying Officer Hampden.
The station logs were perfunctory. Culdrose’s slapdash management of the aerodrome evidently carried over to its documentation. After some terse descriptions of the harsh winter and the difficulties clearing and draining the runways in the spring thaw, I read a brief note: Wellington IC R1647 GR-X failed to return from a test and training flight, missing presumed lost at sea, followed by the names of the crew. A few weeks later there was a second almost identical notice, detailing the loss of Hampden’s Wellington GR-V. Same conclusion in both cases. Wind, weather and visibility were recorded as fair to good at the time of both incidents. There was no mention of the radar installations, I assumed for reasons of secrecy: both fatal missions were described as ‘training flights.’ I read all the way through the logs to seek for any further clue to the disasters that had overtaken the two Wellingtons, but there was nothing, just the driest, most anodyne tabulation of departures and returns, absences and minor injuries. Reviving myself with another gulp of the glutinous, fast-cooling tea, I opened the manila envelope stamped ‘Top Secret’ that was supposed to contain the reports on the radar tests, initialling and dating one of the boxes on its back as I did so. Inside were a few technical reports, with circular diagrams that I assumed were radar plots, surrounded by frequency notations that I half understood, with my radio engineering background. Separate sheets were included for both aircraft. Even with my limited understanding, I could see nothing there that remotely suggested any reason for the aircraft to come to grief, or even stray off course.
I slipped the test reports back into their highly confidential envelope and turned to Flying Officer Hampden’s log. Forewarned by Darwin, I was hoping for something at least a little more stimulating and enlightening, after the dry and useless official logs. I opened the curling, closely written pages, pages, and began to read.
Fulmars. That’s what I thought of when we first flew in here. Those white-painted Wellingtons scattered all around the dispersal bays, with that same characteristic angle of wing to body, holding them out rigid with that same stiff air a fulmar has as it soars and swoops. Might get to see some out here, besides puffins and gannets, but the Moray Firth looks more of a flat, muddy place: wader and waterfowl territory. Oh to be out with a flat punt and a fowling gun: would be a break from these awful rations, at any rate. The boys don’t seem to be too pleased with the house: too far from the home fires, and cold and bleak. Donaldson said it reminded him of his prep school. It certainly is a chilly, unwelcoming place, hewn from dark granite, as upright and narrow as a Calvinist minister. Bit of a hardship posting, in its way. Still, can’t complain: what can you expect in Coastal Command but coasts?
4/2/42: Getting the hang of the place a little more now, I suppose. Very Scotch Baronial: odd little pepper-pot turrets and corner towers all over, most superfluous, as I’m sure that the only thing this place would ever have had to defend itself from would have been rioting Chartists. Has the oddest little guardhouse on the main drive too: practically a Moorish kiosk. Scott would have been in ecstasies. Still plenty of snow on the ground as well, which only makes it bleaker, of course: people here keep complaining about the appalling winter they’ve had. The thought of spending Christmas here certainly isn’t very appealing, though at least here, in this billet, I stand more of a chance of seeing another Christmas, unlike the poor sods in Bomber Command. Curious how the mind turns naturally to these calculations in wartime. And now we’ve got the Japs to contend with too. God knows when it will end.
16/2/42: Singapore has fallen. Heard it on the wireless in the mess. Our impenetrable fortress in Asia, or something, wasn’t that what Churchill called it? I suppose one gets used to such fatheaded bluster, but then along comes something like this to expose just how hollow it all is. Truth really is the first casualty of war. Even so, I doubt Scipio or Narses had to spend their time deliberately lying to their own people. How can we hope to win if we cleave to standards like that?
18/2/42: Our new CO, Group Captain Culdrose, seems a little bit of a difficult sort: some invisible worm eating away at him inside. I have no idea why he should be so full of spleen: perhaps he’s one of those career officer types who believes the Service has gone to the dogs since it was overrun by volunteers. Not a good example in the rest of us. Seeing the rest of the base, I admit he has some reason: it appears that a bunch of temporary buildings were thrown up when the base first opened, and never replaced, so the whole place has soldiered on ever since with the same facilities falling down around everyones ears. At least the old house itself is solid enough, but the rest is atrocious. The airfield is a strange layout too: a sort of lozenge arrangement of taxiways with the main runways across the centre and the dispersal bays sprouting off from the sides like so many stems of bladderwort. Hardly Biggin Hill.
23/2/42: Been doing a little more digging into the history of the place, and turned up some interesting nuggets. Culloden is a little further down the coast: perhaps I’ll pay a visit one day, when I can take some leave. Apparently, there was also a local hermit: St Gervadius, who lived in a cave down on the head at the far end of the bay, where he would wander along the shore at night, waving torches to warn ships away from the rocks. Quite an appropriate patron saint for a Coastal Command base, really. His cave was a place of pilgrimage, the local guidebook says, until it was quarried out last century: I should pay that a visit too. This certainly is Scott country. On the other hand, what I hear of the history of the house itself sounds more like The Master of Ballantrae. Apparently, the owner took off at the beginning of the war to join some relatives in Canada, and left the place in the care of one old steward, who came along with it part and parcel when his lord and master leased the manse to the RAF. You can still see him on occasion, pottering around the house and grounds, then creeping back to his old croft on the estate: apparently the owner made it a precondition of the lease that he stayed with the house, to keep an eye on it and make sure that the RAF didn’t cause too much damage, I suppose. At least this local colour takes the edge off the loneliness and isolation for me, but I can see it’s telling on the other men. I might try to start up some reading classes or such, but you can’t hope to keep everyone occupied that way. Men’s mental and spiritual resources are so different. And just now, there’s still too much snow on the ground for football or rugby. The CO isn’t exactly wearing himself out in the battle to keep up morale either.
25/2/42: Turns out the Romans were up here too, under Agricola, all along the coast, a string of forts established to support their campaign against the Caledonians. I had no idea they came up this far. So Man’s martial madness was raging here that long ago. How depressing.
26/2/42: Had our new assignment today, or at least, Elgin, Noys and myself did. They flew in this morning with a trio of transfer pilots: three Wellingtons with some new radar fittings that we’re supposed to test drive, along with a couple of Ministry boffins as test-flight observers to oversee proceedings. The Wimpys have had their forward turrets stripped out, and the RDF kit, whatever it is, installed instead – makes for a cleaner, more elegant, even more pacific-looking Welly, but I doubt the Boche will appreciate the difference. According to the briefing, these three originally had bloody great degaussing hoops slung under them to sweep magnetic mines in the Channel from the air, like giant flying haloes, and the generators for those make them ideal for testing the radar.
The boffins look just how you’d expect them to be, tweedy and bespectacled, but they don’t seem as rattled by the place or the prospect of hours of hazardous flying duty as I’d expect. Perhaps they’ve done this before.
28/2/42: Had our first proving run with the new Welly, GR-V, today. No problems with the handling: if anything, the crate flies more smoothly with the nose turret out of the way. A little heavier, perhaps, but nothing the Welly can’t handle. The radar just sits there up front, for the moment, not doing anything: the boffins haven’t turned it on. One of them, named Sonnerschein, came along with me for the flight, though. Jewish, naturally, and as it transpires, filled with a sense of mission to defend his people from the Nazi scourge. Quite a zealot. Have the impression he thinks that the physical laws of radio refraction have somehow been conceived by God to revenge His chosen people on the armies of Pharaoh, like Moses parting the waters. May it be so. Learned from him that they’ve been stuck in some encampment of huts on the South Coast practically since the war began, experimenting on this stuff. No wonder he seems hardier than your average civilian. Not a hint of airsickness or nerves: just sat up front through the whole flight, gazing out of that big new glass bubble they put on the front of this ship. Better than some aircrew I know. We men in uniform sometimes forget that there’s a whole civilian population enduring the same terrors with the same courage we do: I suppose we need to think that way, to keep us going. Men like Sonnerschein make that little morsel of self-deception seem like so much vanity, though.
1/3/42: Took my first walk down to the shore today to see the site of the old hermit’s cave. More of a hike than a walk, actually, almost two miles over snow patches and ground still frozen hard as iron. Sheepskin jackets are good for something more than cockpits, at least, but I still felt bloody cold at the end of it. Strange thing was, I found someone else already there, even in this weather, and a woman at that: Corporal Wraxall, one of the WAAFs at the station. Good-looking girl, too, or would be out of uniform: one of Scott’s dark-haired heroines, straight out of Waverley. She was wearing a bloody great RAF greatcoat when I met her there. Asked what she was doing, naturally: and she told me she liked to light a candle for the saint and pray for the safe return of the aircrews. Turns out she’s from around here: and if that’s a specimen of the local inhabitants, I must confess I’m impressed. Not much to see of the ancient cave, though: just the bare filled-in hillside overlooking the sea. I wonder if some Lowland Presbyterian did it deliberately: the cave apparently was a place of pilgrimage until quite recently. And now we have our own blue angel here to watch over us. Lovely.
At that point, I put down the log, suddenly wanting to meet and speak with this Corporal Wraxall. Why, I could not say, and I honestly avoided looking too deeply into myself to answer that question, but took it on trust. By that time, I had already been reading for a couple of hours anyway, and the sunbeams pouring through the narrow window had swung around the room. I stretched and massaged my right shoulder with my good hand, then took up Hampden’s log and went to look for Corporal Wraxall.
She, it turned out when I asked the WAAF clerks on duty in the station office, was indeed a local girl and lodged in the nearby village; this afternoon, she was off duty. With my working rhythm broken, and the day almost gone, I went to the officers’ mess, a small panelled salon with the atmosphere of a prefects’ common room, for a bottle of ale and the chance to stretch my limbs. One pilot officer was telling another a story by the low, guttering fire, lounging in deep cracking leather armchairs.
‘Hell of a lark,’ the raconteur said, as I helped myself to a bottle from the dark, heavy sideboard. ‘I was on a milk run over the Outer Firth, just taking some barometric pressure readings over the sea, then I looked out of the port window, and I saw fuel pouring out of the port wing tank. Some bloody fool erk had left the fuel cap off. Well, naturally I turned around and headed for home, but the engines started to stutter, and finally gave out as we were on final approach. Luckily, the tide was out, and I brought her down on the mud flats. No one was hurt, and the kite was still in one piece, but we had a mile walk home over the sand. Spent the next two days sneezing with my feet in a mustard bath.’
‘Bloody carelessness,’ his audience commiserated. “They’ll have us all in the drink at this rate.’
‘Strangest thing,’ the speaker continued. ‘I’d been having this recurring dream of landing on that beach, over and over again, ever since I got here. The crew knew all about it, so they weren’t in the least bit surprised when we had to set down there. “You’ve had your dream come true at last, Sir”, the rear gunner said.’
‘No help for it when your number comes up,’ the other grunted. ‘And the Welly?’
‘Still there until they get someone to fuel it up, tow it off, or lift it,’ the first shrugged. ‘Mind you, it’s had two or three high tides wash over it by now, so it’s probably not good for much any more. They may just have to break it up for spares.’
They fell silent for a moment and supped at their tumblers of whisky, and I look the opportunity to butt in.
‘Excuse me, but did either of you gentlemen know Flying Officer Hampden?’ I asked.
They stared at me, and stiffened. The Bomber Command insignia on my service dress singled me out, with its lightning bolts instead of the Coastal Command crown on waves.
‘Are you the Accidents Investigation bod?’ the raconteur countered, his puffy face slightly flushed with the effects of the whisky. I nodded.
‘He was a good officer,’ the other volunteered. ‘And a fine pilot.’
‘Is there anything you can tell me about him that might explain the two crashes?’ I continued. ‘Anything he might have told you, perhaps?’
‘We already told everything we knew,’ the quieter one said peevishly. ‘It’s all in the reports.’
‘Who said those planes crashed?’ the other one said. ‘No one reported an explosion or found any floating wreckage. The Wimpys just disappeared.’
‘But it’s obvious,’ I replied, suddenly less sure of my ground. ‘No messages were received from the two Wellingtons. No one’s seen any sign of them.’
‘You never know,’ the flushed pilot crowed, with some inexplicable air of triumph. ‘Hampden could have flown them to Iceland. Or Fairyland. He could have done anything with them. You didn’t know him: you can’t imagine what he was capable of. One morning, he may come flying back in over the beacon, leading the other kite behind him. Stranger things have happened in this war.’
I started to wonder what was going on with these men, whether the isolation of the base or something else was quietly driving them mad. But I could see no point in challenging them further, so I beat my retreat and took the books up to my room, where I read over the station logs again, looking for something I might have missed. I had had enough of Hampden and his craziness, everyone’s craziness, for one evening.
When I came down to breakfast at the NAAFI canteen the next morning, Corporal Wraxall was already there waiting for me.
‘I was told you wanted to see me, Sir?’ she said, saluting, with a trace of a Scottish burr. She was a smartly turned out brunette, very trim in her WAAF blue, with a clear yet slightly Latin completion that at once set me thinking of misty heather and castles on the moor, just as Hampden had implied. ‘I hope it’s not about anything I’ve done.’
‘Not at all,’ I replied, anxious to put her at her ease. ‘I’m here to investigate the disappearance of Flying Officer Hampden and his crew, and I was given to understand that you knew him.’
‘Och, not so well,’ she admitted, slightly surprised, her dark eyes casting around. ‘We walked down together to see the site of the old hermit’s cave on the head a couple of times, no more.’
‘Could you show me?’ I asked.
‘What, the way to the cave?’ She seemed even more disconcerted. ‘I’ll have to ask my sergeant if I can take the time.’
Actually, I could not really have accounted for my wish to walk the same route that Hampden had taken with her: wanting to be alone with a pretty woman had surprisingly little to do with it. Last night’s bizarre conversation in the officers’ mess had a great deal, though.
The day was, if anything, even more blustery than the previous one, but the sun was strong and clear, and the sky cloudless. Corporal Wraxall and I were warm enough in our dress blues, with no need for greatcoats. Planes circled the beacon, landed and took off, Wellingtons and Ansons, their droning faint and intermittent as the wind snatched it away. Culdrose plainly had the station on a more active footing today.
‘lt’s a bit of a walk down to the shore,’ Wraxall warned me, leading the way to a gate in the fence at the north-east corner of the airfield. Beyond, low close-cropped meadows criss-crossed by a few dark hedgerows led down to the headland, overlooking the curving bay and the silvery expanse of tidal flats.
‘Officer Hampden was a stranger to this place, but he loved it,’ Wraxall explained, as we strode beside the airfield fence. ‘He said that the bay was one great seashell, and that you could hear the sea here better than anywhere else in the world.’
‘Quite a lyricist, this Hampden,’ I observed, wishing I had a walking stick to give me a more stable footing as we tramped along the rutted path with its regular tussocks of tough, sharp-edged shore grass.
Wraxall started to speak, paused and sucked her lip, then went on. ‘He wasn’t like other officers,’ she admitted.
‘He was popular with them, though, by all accounts,’ I went on.
‘Oh, that doesnae surprise me. They’re a simple lot, these lads, easily impressed.’ She spoke of the men’s foibles with kindly, easy, tolerant understanding. ‘Joined up from all walks of life and thrown together here; they’re lost and casting about for guidance. They don’t have much education, most of them, and a little goes a long way with them. Hampden was, well, in a different class, and a fine flyer to boot; they all looked up to him, even the CO, I think.’
Oddly, I felt that Wraxall, though she evidently shared the general admiration of Hampden as a man and a scholar, lost some of her reverence when the subject turned to his qualities as a flying officer. A corporal she may have been, but she obviously did not share the general Daily Sketch level of culture of the base complement, and I felt her judgment seemed keen enough to provide some real insight into the mysteries surrounding Hampden and his fellow victims.
‘You don’t seem so surprised that he died, or curious as to how and why,’ I remarked, not especially intending to challenge her with the fact, but an extra edge must have shown in my voice, since she seemed to feel she had to defend and justify herself.
‘I’m not, in a way, though it’s nought to do with his flying record,’ she admitted. ‘He seemed like he was already halfway out of this world.’
I stopped. ‘What do you mean by that?’
‘I don’t know that I could explain it, least of all to you,’ she responded, then, noticing my reaction, she softened and, notwithstanding her assertion, began to explain. ‘Oh, I don’t mean anything personal by that. It’s just that, well, you’re a southerner, English, and this is something that even most lowland Scots would find hard to understand. You’ve heard of the second sight, I suppose?’
‘I’ve heard of it,’ I conceded warily, concerned at the direction this supposedly casual interrogation was taking.
‘I wouldnae expect you to be familiar with it,’ she went on, airily, with a charmingly coy smile. ‘It’s chiefly a matter for us, and not so common in these times at that. Highlanders who go among the Sassenachs – sorry, but there it is – lose the sight if they have it, and as Highland blood has mingled with the Lowlanders, so the strength and numbers of them that has the sight has dwindled. There used to be a lot of it around here: Coinneach Odhar, the Brahan Seer, from over the water in Cromarty, was such a celebrated prophet that they called him the Highland Nostradamus. I’ve a little of it myself, but nothing like my grandparents, and their visions were nothing like what you hear reported of the seers of old. Even with what I do have, though, I could see there was something fey about Clive Hampden. I was more sorry that he took so many others with him, and yet it was fated. I think he may have even felt it a little himself.’
By this time we had come to a gap in the hedges that marked the edge of the last field leading down to the head. We sauntered downhill over flat grass, stirring up larks from their resting places, with the sea sparkling before us.
‘You’re forgetting that his was the second plane to be lost,’ I remarked.
She shook her dark head gently. ‘No, I’m not, Sir [with the faintest suggestion of irony in the ‘Sir’]. It was all tied up with his destiny; that and the thing they had with them. And I can’t say whether Hampden took enough care of the other men he commanded, no matter how fated it was.’
‘Can’t, or won’t?’
‘Mister Lurie, now would you be trying to impose yourself on a lady in uniform because you outrank her?’ she responded archly, cocking an eyebrow at me. With that expression, I could hardly pull rank on her without feeling a fool and a blackguard, though I was seething quietly at the ease with which she took command of the situation.
‘I’m just trying to find out what really happened,’ I replied in the end. ‘And incidentally, Hampden’s private diary has come to light. It said you went out with him to see the site of the hermit’s cave. Did he have anything to say then?’
‘Nothing that would concern the enquiry,’ she shrugged. ‘We talked about religion.’
‘Yes: he was interested in the Highland Catholics. He found it hard to believe that someone would still come and light candles to a saint for the safe return of travellers in this day and age, but it turned out he had some pretty queer beliefs of his own. I think he’d been reading too much Lawrence of Arabia, really. A would-be warrior mystic type, but he flirted a wee bit too much with the mystic part in the end.’
By now, we were on the headland overlooking the Firth, past the last of the hedges, with the sweep of the bay unfolding to our left and the apparently endless sand flats stretching out from the shore to merge into the sea at some indefinite point in the distance. Further out at sea, great marble outcrops of cloud glided serenely over the smooth waters, casting white reflections in the waves, with a single dark boat, an RAF Rescue whaleback from HMS Flora at Invergordon, the merest splinter on the water, with only the sunlight glinting on its twin Perspex turrets to distinguish it from driftwood. The few aircraft still visible were black gnats against the blue vault of heaven, smaller to the naked eye than the skylarks still rising from the grass. Even the gulls and gannets screaming and diving along the cliffs seemed far more aggressive, and the rush of waves at the foot of the cliff below swallowed any sound of air engines.
Corporal Wraxall stopped in silence for a moment and stared off towards the northwest, where the faintest dark edging along the horizon suggested land, the brisk breeze snatching at her hair. ‘They burned the Brahan Seer over there, on the Black Isle,’ she remarked finally. ‘Boiled him alive upside down in a barrel of tar, says the legend, just the way he had foreseen. He must have had a strong mind to cope with such foreknowledge.’
She seemed distracted, even slightly upset, and I tried to steer the conversation back to Hampden and the enquiry, to quell the misgivings that had unsettled her and, to be honest, me.
‘Are you saying that Hampden deliberately risked his men?’
She shrugged ‘I suppose you could have called it that. He had a premonition: they all did. Yet he went out anyway, without much consideration for those in his crew who were a little less ready to embrace their fate. Of course, if you or I told a court of inquiry that, they’d call us mad, and Hampden too. But he could have made up something: a mechanical failure, a problem with the radar, even a mental breakdown, anything. At least he’d be alive, and so would they. But he flew straight into the jaws of death, because he thought it was preordained, taking them with him.’
Suddenly lost for an answer, I shivered, perhaps from the wind chill of the stiffer clifftop breeze, feeling I should have brought my greatcoat after all. Corporal Wraxall led the way down a domed bank of pale smooth grass beetling at a faintly alarming angle over the cliff edge. I noticed a small hollow near the foot of the bank, with the stubs of a couple of extinct candles, and drenched and blackened flowers in a jam jar, half hidden in it.
‘They filled it in as well as they could,’ she remarked absently, contemplating the little depression. ‘Supposedly, it was all business, but the quarrier was a Lowland firm, and I wouldn’t be the least surprised if they had taken the chance to chastise a Papist superstition.’
She picked her way down and turned to stand in front of the little hollow, then bent down and replaced the wilted flowers with a fresh posy from her jacket pocket, one I hadn’t noticed that she’d been carrying, making a little bob as she did so, almost a bow. ‘Gervadius is pretty much our patron saint in these parts,’ she explained, almost apologetically.
Not knowing what to do or say, I stood there awkwardly as she finished her little rite.
‘You’re not Catholic, then?’ she asked, straightening up.
‘C of E.’
‘That’s what Hampden claimed, though I think his superstitions were wilder and weirder than any Catholic. It’s a great divide up here, you know,’ she continued. ‘In Scotland, I mean. You have all the memories of the Jacobites and the ‘45, and Ulster. Sassenachs think we’re all one people, but we’re a backbiting bunch of little sects. Clannish, I suppose: too stiff-necked to reconcile with each other. Stevenson knew that: his stories are full of double natures and divided identities.’
‘Do you think it works?’ I asked, gesturing towards the candles, actually rather at a loss for how to reply to her remarks.
‘Works? How should I know?’ she shrugged. ‘It’s not supposed to be a magic trick. Anyway, when I pray, I ask the saint to watch over the men of this base as they go out over the waters. That could be either their bodies, or their souls. And any priest will tell you which matters more.’
I shivered once again, feeling the cool breeze a little more deeply than usual. It blew Corporal Wraxall’s hair, naturally curled rather than fashionably waved, I mused, around her face, giving her something of the air of a Highland sibyl. I stood aside to let her lead the way back to the station. But as she passed, she stopped, turned to face me, and rested a hand on my bad shoulder.
‘You were hurt,’ she said in a small, surprised voice.
‘I was in a smash,’ I explained, not wanting to pull away from her hand and discomfit her.
‘Oh,’ she went on, in the same quiet voice, withdrawing her hand. ‘Then you’ll know what it’s like.’
‘Know what what’s like?’ I asked, puzzled.
‘When your number comes up.’
‘That’s not how it was: it was just an accident,’ I protested, suddenly nervous.
’Of course,” she nodded gravely, in polite assent. We said no more for a little while after that, as we walked back up the cliff path together towards the airfield.
‘You know that a couple of Hampden’s messmates still believe he’ll be coming back?’ I said finally, partly to break the silence, partly to see if I could get a response out of her, as that absurd theory about a secret flit to Iceland was still stuck in my head. ‘They claim he’ll just reappear some day, leading the other plane.’
‘It doesn’t surprise me that some might imagine that,’ she responded thoughtfully, keeping her eyes fixed on the rutted path ahead. ‘He was the kind of man who attracts tales and legends about him.’
‘You don’t believe it, then?’
She sighed, and glanced across at me forgivingly. ‘I’m sure wherever Hampden is, he won’t be coming back. And I wouldn’t like to guess whether he’s in Heaven or Hell. No, I think he’s in limbo, flying through nowhere with his crew, for ever and ever.’
That sombre image rather chilled the conversation, and we exchanged no more than a few pleasantries for the rest of the walk back. Corporal Wraxrall went back to her duties, and I naturally went back to my impromptu office to continue reading Hampden’s log book in the short time left before evening mess call. Skipping over the trivia, this is what I read:
3/3/42: More proving runs out over the Firth. Sonnerschein turned on the radar today for the first time: said it seems to be working fine. We practised circling round and pinging targets on the water, just the Rescue launches and any odd merchantman or fishing boat that happened to be around. Sonnerschein said he picked up good strong echoes; the boats stand out like a bonfire on a hilltop. After we’ve done a few more runs to finish calibrating the gear, we’ll move onto smaller targets: Sonnerschein claims this apparatus should be able to pick up a U-boat’s periscope right out of the water. Bloody marvellous if so.
I do feel a little nervous with the thing there up front, though. For one thing, which wasn’t obvious until Sonnerschein turned it on, they haven’t yet got properly insulated bulkhead connectors for all of the cabling, so the ends of some of the cables are live while the generator is running, with thousands of bloody volts going through them. Sonnerschein warned everyone of course, and he’s the only one immediately at risk, but still, it’s not exactly the kind of thing you want in an aeroplane in wartime.
There’s something else that’s harder for me to put my finger on, though. We’re up there hanging above the ocean, sounding it, questing it. It seems somehow irreverent. There is that great shining silver shield, flashing in the sun on clear days, grim and grey as iron on overcast days. Flying above it, you feel as small, as insignificant as a gnat on a griddle. The sea is a great keeper of secrets. Perhaps it’s better left that way. I’m sure the brave merchant seamen wouldn’t want to hear that, but that’s how I feel.
3/3/42: Had the strangest conversation with the CO this morning. A pretty one-sided conversation too. He asked me to report on how the proving runs are going, and as I’m giving him a rough view, suddenly he gets up from his desk, goes over to the window, and starts waving his arm out to sea and spouting . ‘What good do you think that gadget of yours is going to do out there? While you’re up there, you ought to take more of a look for yourself at that great featureless expanse, then you would realize that your rotating thing would never stand a chance of catching a sub.’ That was more or less it. I made a few noncommittal remarks and excused myself. I had never thought he would be the type to be sensitive to such things, let alone to get worked up about them. It certainly suggests fresh depths to our CO. Perhaps he misses being out there, over the water. Can’t say it makes me feel any more confidence in him as a commanding officer, but at least it makes him more sympathetic.
7/3/42: Took a trial run with an actual submarine this morning: HMS Vigilant, brought in to act as our wooden duck. Rendezvoused at 11.30 hours at 57° 57’ N 3° 29’ W 25 miles due north of Burghead on heading 340° T from the strip, signalling by W/T and Very light, and ran up and down the Firth a few times, pinging the sub from different directions, first with the sardine on the surface, then submerged. And the thing actually worked. Sonnerschein got good strong signals on his PPI from the surfaced sub, then when they took it down, he could still pick up clear echoes from its periscope, as far out as 20 miles. Not that it was too harsh a test, with the sea millpond calm and the sun shining, clear visibility out to the horizon, and the sub’s hull clearly visible under the surface, even after it submerged. Did a mock Creeping Line Ahead search pattern on the target: same result. Those poor Jerry bastards won’t know what’s hit them.
16/3/42: Noys in the other kite reported the first signs that our new toy is not just all roses. He told me that the radar operator had started picking up ghost echoes, the oddest phantom signals off the water from boats that weren’t even there. Just a few, but repeatedly. The boffin on board couldn’t explain it, apparently. The real craft in the drink were still showing up plain as ever, but alongside them were these strange false signals, like hallucinations, if a machine could have hallucinations. If this goes on, I wouldn’t give much for the chances of this bit of kit being taken into service.
23/3/42: GR-X has disappeared. Noys and all his crew: gone just like that. And in clear weather too. They took off on another calibration and proving run two days ago: dog-legged out over the Firth, 40 nautical miles out, then just vanished. No debris found, no reports of an explosion. Of course they may have had mechanical trouble or fallen foul of a Jerry raider, but there were no reports of enemy activity either, and no SOS or other signals traffic. No one twigged that anything was up until they failed to report back by sunset. The CO sent up six kites to search and again at first light the next day: the crews overflew their last reported position, 57° 57’ N 3° 29’ W 25, then quartered the sea all the way out to endurance limit. Nothing. No sign of a dinghy in the water, even with calm seas and visibility good. No oil in the water, no floating wreckage.
It’s war: we lose people all the time. That’s what it’s all about: the small change of war. But this feels different. Somehow, now that it happened, it feels inevitable, predestined. For days I had the feeling that Noys and his crew were marked men: only, I couldn’t put a finger on it until now. It wasn’t anything as specific as the enemy, perhaps that’s why it took me so long to see it clearly. I knew that the sea was going to claim Noys and his men. We airmen don’t expect to go like that. It’s always fire and fury with us: we never see the black expanse of the sea in our dreams, lying there ready to swallow us up. But that’s what was waiting for Noys. I should have known that the sea was waiting to claim a tribute. Everything has a price. The only question now is: was it enough?
23/3/42: I’m starting to get nervous about taking the kite up again. Absurd I know: after all, there’s nothing to suggest that Noys’ flight was lost because of something to do with the aircraft, or the radar. It could easily have been pilot or navigational error: there are enough of those, God knows. All the same, I can’t help but wonder. Can’t let the chaps think I’m getting windy either, though. Nothing infects a crew faster than fear, especially from the top.
26/3/42: It seems that in any case the lads have started to feel something on their own. Donaldson asked me if he felt there was something strange about Noys’ disappearance, then confided, with the most poignant, straight-faced sincerity, that he’d dreamed he was dead. I really hope it doesn’t affect his navigation. He’s the one man in the crew apart from me who could most easily kill us all. But he said he’d dreamed that he was standing in the astrodome, taking sightings, when all of a sudden Gabriel flew over, lifted the lid off, and whisked him away to Heaven. I suppose there could be worse premonitions of your end. But to see his face as he said it, like a nervous little boy… My heart went out to him. All the same, told him to buck up, and that it was probably nothing. Like a little boy, he seemed to believe it just because it was me telling him, the father to my crew. That only makes me feel worse, as though I’m leading them all by the hand, and they could all fall to their deaths if I let go.
That was all I could stomach of Hampden for one evening, so I closed the log book and went to nose out some of the solid, brown, atrocious NAAFl tea. As Corporal Wraxall had presaged, I was beginning to feel more sympathy for Hampden’s crew in the hands of such an impressionable man than for the man himself. Not that I was about to dismiss his forebodings: far from it. Stranger things have indeed happened in war, and there might have been all kinds of rational explanation: some intimation of a problem or fault that never quite reached conscious awareness, a hidden sympathy between men and machine brought together in danger, call it what you will. But Hampden indulged in it so much. I suspect he half wanted it. Perhaps he had his share of the death wish. I certainly put away his writings for the night with relief, and decided to pay a visit to the station’s Mobile Bath Unit the next day.
The weather next morning was more changeable and unsettled, with great grey flotillas of towering cloud sailing in line ahead across the sea and the sun shooting intermittent beams between them. After my predictably chilly splash in the unit’s showers, which set my shoulder aching atrociously in the stiff breeze, I went downstairs to finish off Hampden’s logs. But instead, as fate would have it, I bumped into Flight Lieutenant Darwin.
‘Morning, morning,’ he said brightly, rubbing his hands as though anxious to get into the fray of another day at war. ‘How are your investigations going? Unearth anything yet?’
‘As a matter of fact, I did,’ I replied. ‘Do you have a moment?’
Darwin immediately shed his breezy, bantering air and grew furtive, almost conspiratorial. He drew me aside into the shelter of an alcove off the house’s main paneled passageway. ‘There, careless talk costs lives, eh?’ he quipped nervously. ‘Now, what was it you found?’
I told him about the phantom echoes on the radar of the first lost Wellington, and some of the premonitions among Hampden and his crew, taking care to add the theory that these were unconscious intimations of actual mechanical faults. Darwin listened and nodded as though this confirmed what he had known all along.
‘Hampden did say things like that before he disappeared,’ he vouchsafed, keeping his voice low. ‘Something about strange messages. And when I saw him just before his last flight: well, he was like a sleepwalker. Seemed already halfway out of this world.’
‘You didn’t tell anybody about this?’ I asked, trying very hard not to let the question sound too much like an accusation.
‘Hampden was special,’ he confided, after a brief glance up and down the corridor. ‘We couldn’t expect the top brass or the medicos to understand. They’d have said he was getting the jitters and grounded him, or carted him off to some funny farm. That would have been the end for him. He lived to fly. He used to say that the air was his spiritual element.’
‘And his crew?’ I asked sharply, disturbed by Darwin’s suddenly dreamy-eyed, wistful air.
‘They were Hampden’s men,’ he responded, focusing his gaze on me with an effort as though shocked out of his reverie by such an impertinent question. ‘They would have followed him anywhere.’
That fitted my impression of Hampden’s crew, dogged and sheepish followers of their moon-eyed pied piper even unto death, all too loyally, alas. But rather than tell Darwin what I really thought of his idol, I simply nodded curtly and left.
Back at my desk, I sat down to digest the last few written pages of Hampden’s log, ready for a couple more hours of solid reading before lunchtime.
29/3/42: Out again, and already something came up to unsettle us. The radar started picking up those same phantom echoes that Noys had reported. Sonnerschein had us quartering empty stretches of sea over and over again, trying to get a bead on what was going on. He said that the radar showed boats in the water, at least one large metal object, merchantman size. But there was nothing on the water. Not even much chop to throw up signals from the waves. We followed the signal, whatever it was, on its course for quite a few knots until it suddenly vanished: all that time, Sonnerschein reported the same thing. I wish I could say I thought it was only the radar. I would be so pleased if our shiny new toy was just a worthless piece of scrap metal, and nothing else was odd or uncanny at all. But I fear not.
Immediately, I picked up the file of radar plots, and leafed through to the sheet dated 29th March. I couldn’t make out much of it: doubtless the radar boffins could deduce far more than me from the circular chart roughly sketched in with grey shadings and dots round its circumference. But there was one segment that Sonnerschein – I assume – had ringed in red pen and marked ‘anomalous’ in large red letters in the margin, with a few other notations of time and bearing. So there was some independent corroboration of all Hampden’s hazy maunderings and premonitions. Unsure whether to feel relieved or even more disturbed, I went back to the journal.
1/4/42: April Fool’s Day. And someone had the nerve to play an April fool’s prank on Sonnerschein. They told him the kite was due to go up again at 5 a.m. the next day. And there he was on the stand at 5 a.m., in his full flying gear, waiting in the cold until one of the sentries found him. Poor sap. He was livid about it too: I suspect because he had been very scared of taking off that day. I don’t believe it was one of the crew: I’d give them hell for it if it was. But Sonnerschein himself wasn’t making much sense about it. He said: ‘I was ready and the bastards messed me about!’ Ready for what? I don’t dare to think.
3/4/42: The most bizarre feeling stole over me today that what we are doing is evil. I realize it’s nonsense: God knows, I know how awful the Nazi terror is, and I’ve seen enough poor bloody merchantmen holed and sunk by the U-boats without being able to lift a finger to defend themselves. All the same, there we are trying to find those tin cans that are desperately trying to hide and turn them into living coffins for their crew. Everyone knows how submariners die. Either their boats burst, and the sea rushes in to crush and drown them, or they sink to the bottom to stifle slowly in the dark. There are the horror stories of what hydrophone operators hear: the sounds of pistol shots, distant and muffled by the hulls, one after another, then silence. And we’re looking to bring that to more boats full of young men. Morbid imaginings perhaps, but I can’t feel easy in my mind about it.
That was certainly suggestive: had Hampden led his crew to their deaths in a fit of morbid guilt, I speculated idly. Definitely something seemed to be brewing. I turned the page, eager to reach the grand finale. But Hampden, for once, disappointed me: all I found was one final, brief entry, perfunctory almost to the point of deliberate evasion – just a date, aircraft number, and one description, reading ‘Proving flight.’
That stopped me in my tracks. Hampden, the would-be warrior-poet, the second Lawrence, so laconic, cryptic: it just did not seem to fit the style of the man. He had covered reams of his log with more effusions than I had ever seen elsewhere, he had poured out the spiritual lives of himself and his crew like the waters of Jordan, and now, after his most critical flight, which Darwin said had left him distracted, he left only this. I felt cheated. And immediately it came to me: I was being cheated. I drained my tea, got up, and went to look for the station commander.
Culdrose was behind his desk, grasping the chair arms with his customary prickly, defensive air, like a fox at bay. It was hard not to rise to his bait.
‘I read through Hampden’s log,’ I explained hesitantly, ‘And I wondered, could there be other papers he left?’
‘What do you mean?’ he growled. ‘Why should you think such a thing?’
‘Well… his last entry sort of tailed off. It didn’t seem complete. Might there be something else?’
‘Are you implying that we deliberately concealed important documents?’ Culdrose snapped back, never one to miss an opportunity to take offence. ‘What do you think we are?’
I summoned up all the patience nurtured in those agonizing months of immobility in the hospital Nissen huts. ‘I simply want to find out whether Hampden left any private documents behind: possibly something for his family?’
‘Find them yourself if you can: I don’t know of any,’ he snarled. ‘I’m an airman, not a bloody solicitor. Don’t you know there’s a war on?’
I had had I would ever get from Culdrose: certainly as much as I could stomach. I left im to his little realm of spleen, reflecting that a slightly mad CO seemed a good match for Hampden. Besides, I had a good idea where to look.
Outside, the weather was dark and fretful, gusts of wind tugging at the grass tufts beside the huts. I headed for the sea, anxious to put my vague supposition to the test and at the same time worried that I might have caught a whiff of Hampden’s vapours. The wind was atrociously cold, making my shoulder ache abominably and all the muscles on that side tense and cramp, so that I lurched and stumbled rather than strode along the path to the gap in the perimeter wire. This time there was a sentry on duty in his tin hat, rifle slung, but he let me through with a salute without challenging me. I think he was scared witless of upsetting a superior officer. On the way down to the cliffs, the wind continued to beat at the hedges and press the few twisted trees close to the earth: sky and sea were the same slaty grey, the same torn texture. I scrambled down the rough, rutted path with the wind pulling at me like probing fingers. Finally, I came to my destination; the small hollow that marked all that was left of the old cave of St Gervadius. I struggled down into it with surprising difficulty, the cramps in my shoulder making the whole procedure a grotesque ordeal, but finally I was there, somewhat sheltered from the squalling wind, and saw what I expected to see, or half remembered seeing, a cylinder of paper inside the jam jar that held the dessicated remains of a few dried flowers for the saint’s impromptu shrine. I picked up the jar and teased the paper out of it.
I unrolled the paper just enough to make out that it was Hampden’s bookworm scrawl inside, then closed it up again and slipped it into my greatcoat pocket. The clifftops were no place for close perusal, and I wanted to get out of that biting wind and into some shelter, where my shoulder and aching muscles would irk me a little less. The sky loured even darker and lower, and gusts of wind wrenched at me, but I slogged my way painfully back to the house unchallenged and slunk into my little cubby. There I unfolded Hampden’s last will and testament, and read it at one sitting, without even bothering to take off my greatcoat. This is what I read:
5/4/42: This will be my last entry. Even if there are more days after this, this is the last one I need to record. I know where we are going and what the end will be.
We took off early this morning at 06.30 hours into a clear sky, heading 38° north-east, on another proving and calibration milk run. Then, around 40 knots out from the coast, we run into this low cloud at around 2000 feet, even though the met forecast is for clear skies and light haze with only 2/10 cloud. Squalls start to buffet the kite and bounce us around like dried peas in a tin can. Visibility drops like a stone until I’m practical flying by the compass and altimeter. I try dropping through the cloud base, but the rainy sea is grey and featureless and the turbulence just gets worse. I try rising above it, but it doesn’t seem to have a ceiling. So I just fly on, straight and level, heading for God knows where, out to sea if the compass can be trusted, with the inside of the cloud just getting darker and darker until practically the only light is the glow of the instrument panel. The lads break intercom discipline and start chattering nervously, asking me if I know where we are: I tell them I don’t know, and that all we can do is try to fly through it. Donaldson comes forward with his little clipboard, to thrash out some kind of heading with me: I shoo him back, telling him to let me concentrate on the flying. Somehow I know it would be pointless. Altitude, course and airspeed are all over the place: I can’t trust any of the dials. Then Sonnerschein starts reporting blips ahead: shoals of them. According to him, the sea is suddenly full of ships, huge ones. I wonder absurdly if we somehow ended up over Iceland and if he’s picking up icebergs. I know his radar is supposedly based on some navigational aid, but it seems useless to us now. I ask him to check it again: he keeps on saying ships, more ships. Now I hear static on the radio, growing louder. Sparks confirms that it’s on the operational frequency. The static ebbs and flows, first louder then softer, until finally I hear a voice starting to emerge above the mush, repeating a single phrase. I strain to make it out. It’s a radio callsign. I realize I recognize the voice: it’s Noys.
His voice sounds regular, even, unhurried, as though he’s been repeating the same thing for a long time. I thumb the radio to transmit and rap out a response. There’s a pause as though he’s listening. Then he just keeps on and on reciting the callsign, as though he had forgotten anything else to say. There’s something dreadfully mechanical and regular about his tone that makes me think of fairground automata. Sparks comes forward, his face drawn and ghastly in the weird light from the instrument panel, and I realize he’s heard it too. I ask him unnecessarily if he recognizes the voice, though I already know from his look that he does. We huddle together listening to that crackling, rasping voice reeling off the callsign. Then there’s a rush of static, drowning out that voice: for a moment it resurfaces, then it vanishes for ever. Sonnenschein shouts back that the sea is clearing, and at that moment, the cloud parts like a curtain and we’re flying in broken sunshine over clear seas again with the faint brown line of the Scottish coast visible off to the right. I wish I could feel relief. But it seems more like we were shown what we were meant to see, and whatever it is has had its fun with us for now.
That was all. I refolded the paper and slipped it into the breast pocket of my tunic: in fact I still have it now somewhere in my files. I sat in the quiet little room for a long time, listening to the muffled voices and faint sounds of activity from elsewhere on the same floor, and the faroff drone of aero engines. Then I got up, slipped off my greatcoat, and went to look for Corporal Wraxall.
I found Wraxall in one of the station offices, with a couple of her sister WAAFs, filing cards. She looked up and acknowledged me without speaking as I came in, and there were exchanged glances and some suppressed giggles among the other girls. I asked her to step outside with me into the corridor. The passages were narrow and cramped in that tall, stiff house, and we were pressed close together. Wraxall looked up at me demurely, close enough for me to smell her hair.
‘You were right about Hampden,’ I told her. ‘It’s all there in his log. The premonitions, everything. But did he say anything to you about messages? Some inexplicable signals? Especially towards the end?’
She lowered her head then, avoiding my gaze. ‘There was something he said on our last walk down to the sea together,’ she admitted slowly. ‘He was scared, but also passive, fatalistic. He said he’d had a message, a message he knew he would have to follow. Follow was the word he used. He didn’t explain any more than that, but it was obvious that he thought he was saying goodbye. He tried to touch my hair.’
Her own fingers went half-unconsciously to the dark locks on her shoulder as she spoke. I was half jealous of Hampden, but her manner was compassionate yet strangely impersonal, as though he had never really managed to touch her heart. ‘And that was just before his last flight?’ I asked, to break the moment.
‘Just before,’ she concurred, raising her eyes back to mine. ‘I don’t suppose you’ll be able to report that, will you?’
‘I don’t think they’d understand,’ I agreed, for it was easier somehow on that bare coast, swept by wind and sun, with sea and sky yawning to the north, to accept that there were some things that the mundane world knew nothing of, and could not comprehend, let alone that great war machine, with its remorseless appetite for facts and figures, charts and tables. Not that I was falling into sympathy with Hampden: his death wish and his readiness to lose himself and his men in the infinite was more than ever repugnant to me. I felt he had found something out about himself here too, but that the encounter had not been a happy one, and had robbed him of the power to resist the call of the abyss. Even before my accident, I was always suspicious of idols and leaders, men who won the hearts of others and yoked them to their chariot.
‘You’ll be having to leave then soon, I suppose?’ she asked, letting the question hang in the air, awaiting a response.
‘Not just yet,’ I replied, looking down into her wide brown eyes. ‘I want to find out what those messages were that Hampden said he received, for one thing. And I have to write up my final report, and decide whether the new Wellingtons are airworthy. I’ll still be here for a while.’
‘Oh,’ she responded, seemingly pleased with the answer. ‘Well, I expect I’ll be seeing more of you, then.’
‘You will, Corporal,’ I nodded. For a moment, she looked as though she was about to say something else, but then, with the slightest twitch of her hand towards her cap in the beginnings of a salute, she turned and went back into the station office, casting a final demure glance back at me over her shoulder.
Margaret – Corporal Wraxall – and I were married in the nearby Catholic chapel just a few weeks later, in a hasty wartime forces wedding. Our postings parted us again almost immediately after the brief honeymoon, taking me back to the Air Ministry in London. Once there, I never revealed that final private memoir from Hampden. I knew the Ministry would never believe it. The experimental radar, implicated in the loss of two aircraft, was already out of favour, to be succeeded in due course by safer magnetron designs. Telling the Ministry in any case could have done nothing for the lost men.
And my own verdict? ‘Lost at sea.’ That’s what I believe. The sea took them. Only, in quite a different way from what the Air Ministry would assume. I believe the sea, that immense element that hides Leviathans and krakens by the score, simply opened and swallowed them up. ln war, with so much death about, perhaps the wall between this world and the next is thinner, the Styx easier to cross. In either direction. But when my end comes, I hope to meet it in a better state than the virtuous pagans lost endlessly in Limbo, like him.[Top]