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The Merlin Factor. Chapter Twelve.
Topic Started: Dec 17 2015, 05:45 PM (78 Views)
crow
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The Merlin Factor. Chapter Twelve.


Insight.


England: Hornchurch, Essex, 1940.


No sooner were we back on the ground than the Tannoy crackled into garbled life, spreading unintelligible noises around the station in a series of booming echoes.
You'd have thought a country that could build an aircraft like the Spitfire would be able to manage to figure out an intelligible public-address system. Everyone always got the gist of it though...

"Scramble!"

Bulky, leather-clad figures madly sprinting to their poised machines, blue smoke and the solid, thundering roar of thousands and thousands of raw, unmuffled, supercharged horsepower.
I looked around, uncertainly. I'd just used up a good third of my fuel and by the time I'd topped off, there would be no catching up. I glanced over at Dangerous Dan and saw his machine already moving off downwind, rudder wagging from side to side.
"Get her going!" I screamed over the rippling roar of the eleven eager Spitfires. "Hurry!"
L.A.C. Mead strapped me in for the second time in less than thirty minutes, looking worried. He cupped his hands and cried:
"Watch the petrol, Sir! You ain't got much!"
I waved him away impatiently and gunned the Merlin, skidding the fighter around to follow the rest of the squadron.

All this grappling for height was murder on the eardrums. As we lifted higher and higher over Essex, I swabbed blood first from my nose and then from my right ear. The nose simply bled a little but my ear throbbed with a dull, nagging pain. Damned thing had never recovered from its dunk in the Channel and here we all were, heading the same way again.

From the sparse R/T traffic I discovered that while Dan and I had been duelling over Hornchurch, high above the clouds, a great air battle had been taking place south of London. Eighty plus bombers and escorts had been broken up before they could reach the capital and now were being ravaged by squadron after squadron of R.A.F. Spitfires and Hurricanes as they headed for home. The race was on.

We climbed only to nine-thousand, just under the thickening cloud-base, under full boost, trying to close the gap and get a chance at them before they got too far out over the water. Many had been brought down judging by the far off whoops and yells on the R/T, and now brief lines of tracer arced out from the speeding aircraft as they tested their guns for the coming skirmish.

My eyes flicked from horizon to fuel gauge, estimating how long I could afford to stay up, and it was with some relief that I spotted the dirty black specks of the fleeing armada crossing the coast a few miles ahead.

Strange. I had no fear today. Usually I was all but paralyzed by it, just before joining combat. Very strange.

Black smoke streamed from our exhausts as we whipped our wonderful Merlins to death. Marvellous engine, the Merlin. Only an outfit like Rolls-Royce could have created such a lion-hearted mechanism. There never was another like it. Never would be. The only engine ever built to sound so rich and musical. You didn't work on a Merlin. You tuned it. Then you closed your eyes and listened.

I crossed the frontier. Beautiful, beautiful machine. My love and my life. What a terrible thing that it had to be so intimately connected with death. Just like Marion. Heart-rending, breath-stopping Marion. So stunningly sexual. So warmly maternal. So eager for me to kill. So eager to dominate. And doing it all for love. I shook my head and turned on the gunsight, puzzled at every moment.

...ksshhkk..."All right lads! Line abreast to contact. Pick your own when we're through them. Chase the buggers back to Hell!"
...kshhkkk... "Red Two?"....kshhk... I blinked, startled, fumbling for the mike switch:
..."Red two. Go ahead"...
..."Watch your fuel, Johnny. Good luck everyone."...kshhhhk...
Roger, I thought. Roger that. The Channel was one place I didn't want to visit again. Then there was no more time...

The bombers grew with alarming speed as we bore down on them at four hundred miles per hour. We had only the time for one fast pass before the 109's dropped down on us from above where they had been engaged by the previous relay of British machines. The depleted Hurricane squadron gratefully dove away as we arrived, low on fuel and full of holes.
I lined up on a fat Heinkel and squeezed the button, gasping at the sheer magnitude of the destruction I was causing. The machine's port engine blew right out of the wing, trailing sparks and greasy black smoke, to fall spinning to the water far below, the stricken bomber beginning to lurch like a dazed crab under the hail of high explosive shells. Cannons. This was more like it. A single hit could well destroy an enemy machine whereas before, you might lob a whole belt of .303 ball at it and fume impotently as it ran away from you, apparently undamaged. When you scored with a cannon, you really knew you had scored. The De Wilde hits were dangerously close to mesmerizing; the lethal little incendiary charges winking like fireflies all over the thin skin of the target...

Bang! Something wickedly fast shot out through the instrument panel, shattering the turn-and-bank indicator and exiting through the hood.
Bang! A fist-sized hole grew in the starboard wing.
I wrenched the stick over to see a stream of tracer climb over me, curving away. A mottled grey Messerschmitt thundered past and shot up into a vertical climb while I coldly ruddered, centered the bright pip on his dwindling hood and fired again.
Bang! Bang! The Spitfire shuddered and shook itself like a wet dog, stunned at two more hits, somewhere aft. Another Spitfire blazed past, its hood smashed and nobody driving. A stab of pain and anger as I recognized Bishop's fuselage letters. The blast of it exploding less that a hundred yards below threw me on my back, completely disoriented.
Bang! The compass exploded outwards, peppering me with splinters of glass and perspex and I'd had enough. I rammed the stick forwards and dove, down, down towards the sea, eyes anxiously searching the mirror for the one behind me. The airspeed climbed towards the do-not-exceed level as I reluctantly closed the throttle, weaving to cover my blind spot. Though I craned my neck around, there was nothing to see. Easing off still more, I made a cautious turn, not trusting this strange emptiness. I'd heard about this bizarre phenomenon before, but had never actually experienced it. One moment the sky filled with twisting, battle-crazed aircraft and the next, complete emptiness. Eerie. Sinister.
The fuel gauge was dipping lower. Time to go.
I glanced around and awoke to the realization that I had completely lost my sense of direction. The compass was smashed, along with half the flight instruments. Looking up, the clouds had lowered and thickened, giving no hint as to the direction of the sun. Too little fuel left to climb out into the clear. What now? A tightening noose of doom made every breath an effort as I discovered that the R/T had died, along with almost all the electrics. It looked like I was about mid-Channel, white cliffs visible to each side of me, far off through the light mist. I circled, searching the skies for another machine, knowing I had to make a choice, and make it soon.
A fifty-fifty chance. For any average person, anyway. Not for me. I had always chosen the wrong queue at any shop, bank or cinema. I chose to turn to port. Then went the other way to try and cheat my record. Throttled back and running lean.
The Merlin sounded sweet enough, but something was clattering around behind my seat, driving me crazy wondering if it was something vital. No way to tell. Sweat broke out on my forehead and ran down inside my goggles, so I pushed them up out of the way. I was shivering, although it wasn't at all cold, imagining the icy grip of that hungry grey water down below. Once was enough in any one lifetime. Yet here I was. Oh God. Not again.

The chalk cliffs grew slowly at first, then much faster as I cruised in at a hundred and eighty miles per hour.
I couldn't breathe. Was it? Was it England? A few bursts of light flak stabbed at me before giving up, but that was nothing uncommon. Hard to decide whether it was a good thing or not. I still didn't recognize anything. A village swept past, and a railway line. I wasted a little more precious fuel circling once to try and identify a parked car. It looked like an M.G., but I couldn't be sure. I bore away inland, sinking to a thousand feet over some woods and then I saw an armored car. A grey, crab-like vehicle. Easing the stick forwards, I dove down at it, trembling, hoping...

Tracers stabbed up at me from the turret at the same instant I picked out the black Nazi crosses stenciled on its mottled, insectoid shell. My stomach heaved and squeezed itself flat at the certain, final knowledge that I had once again chosen wrong. I was out of fuel, in a damaged machine, five hundred feet over occupied France.
Oh well, I thought. That's it, then. The awful, flat finality of it made my mind strangely blank. Curiously insulated from further worry. Out of the frying pan and into the bloody fire. Johnny in the lion's den.
I cruised on, looking for a flat place to put her down without killing myself in the process. Throttled right back, flaps down, wheels down, slowing to a hundred and twenty.
Sorry, Auntie. Sorry Danger Man. 'Bye Fred.
I blinked back the tears, living through a gauzy wrap of cotton bandage. A fuzzy, empty feeling of no-feeling. The end of the nightmare. The beginning of the next. The gauge was pegged on zero. Not even flickering. No time left to choose. Put her down. Put her down fast before she puts you down. A road sprang into sudden existence a quarter mile ahead. A wide road, lined with those tall, smooth trees that the French like to line their roads with. Platanes, they call them. Like tall, skinny maples. They fall down every time the wind gets up. An empty road. Almost wide enough...

There being nothing else better, I jinked the sinking fighter around and lined her up, cursing myself for a fool as the width of the highway seemed to shrink the closer I got to it. I was committed now. The Merlin missed, coughed and recovered again as if to remind me not to even think about going around again.
"That's your lot, mate," she chided. "I done me best, like, but now it's up to you."

I started at the rippling corruption of an enormous fart, exploding from my seat and wafting up to choke me. Ugh! My stomach was expressing just how unimpressed it was at my whole sad performance. I gasped and threw back the hood, sucking in clean air and remembering almost too late to raise the seat for the landing. One hundred and ten, one hundred, shudder, shudder...

The port wingtip tore through a branch and the aircraft lurched drunkenly. Aaaahhhh.....

A strange strangled cry squirted through my clenched teeth as I crushed the stick between my tight-clamped hands, wanting to pull back, but afraid even to move it so close to the stall. Like the well-bred lady she was, the Spitfire snorted, skittered and straightened again, stalling out a foot and a half from the roadway and bouncing lightly down to earth. Ahhhhh....

I let her roll, the motor still idling, guiding her with little jabs of rudder, tail up, at around fifty miles per hour. The road was dead straight, and up ahead, up ahead...
I erupted into insane, spring-release, maniac laughter. Bouncing up and down on my parachute. A fucking garage! God Almighty! A beautiful, wonderful, perfect, marvellous French roadside garage! I scanned the mirror, out of habit, and studied the swift approaching establishment, cutting the throttle and easing on some brake. Some of my insane enthusiasm died away as I first noticed the state of the building - run down - peeling paint - smashed windows - and then, as the tail dropped, the screaming, grinding racket from behind. What the hell was that?
On impulse, I steered the now trundling Spitfire behind the barn-like structure and switched off. Afraid to hope, but unable to help myself. Maybe...

"Vous etes Anglais, Monsieur?" I almost had a heart attack. I had seen no-one. A short, hairy fellow, dark and swarthy, wearing an enormous smile had seemingly materialized from thin-air.
"Ah..." I stared at him, looked furtively around, looked back. "Ah - oui. Uh - Moi, je - ah - je - suis - Anglais."
"Is all right. I spik the English." His grin was enormously out of place in this particular reality. I wasn't really prepared to meet anyone friendly at this point. My system was awash in adrenaline while my hands shook as if I might be the victim of some fatal malarial attack.
"Ah..." I had to get myself under control. Had to. "Ah - me pilot. R.A.F."
He laughed. A delighted, bubbling laugh. "Sank-you for telling to me zis sing, Monsieur, l'aviateur. 'Ow would I 'ave ozairwise known?"
I blushed and felt stupid. But no time for that. I had to get cracking. Maybe there was still a chance.
"I - ah - that is - I don't imagine you have any petrol, Monsieur? Do you? By any chance?"
"But of course. Do you imagine jus' because you are in France zat zere is nossing 'appening? Zis is a garage. I 'ave petrol. 'Ow much you want?"
The supercharger cut in somewhere inside my chest and I felt I might simply start flapping my arms and fly back to England under my own power. Incredible! I'd found petrol! Now if only the Huns would stay away long enough to let me get some of it into the tank...
"Ah - as much as you can give me, Monsieur. Oh!.." I slapped the hood, grinning insanely, remembering the French currency supplied to all service pilots, "I can pay!"
He nodded, laughing again. "I am 'appy to 'ear it. Petrol is 'ard for me to 'ave, vous savez. Per'aps you 'ave notice' zere is a war."

He dragged out a long rubber hose from the building and passed it up to me while I unsnapped the blade of my jack-knife and dug at the key-slots of the tank cap. It would wreck the engine, I knew. Probably about three octane. It would have to do. It was an incredible stroke of luck to have found this place at all. There couldn't be that many French garages catering to drop-in R.A.F. fighters these days. You wouldn't think so.

We took it in turns to pump. Me, thrashing up and down on the handle as fast as I could manage, and him just easing it up and down. Up and down. In no particular hurry. Nice and slow. I examined him more closely, as I gasped and wheezed in-between pumpings. Odd. He looked strangely familiar. He kept beaming at me in a way I had seen no-one smile since - before the war? I realized I couldn't even remember there ever being a `before the war'. A wide-open, peaceful smile. Friendly. True. As I took over once more, I extended my hand.
"I'm Johnny. Johnny Hawken. I'm very pleased to meet you, Monsieur..?"
"Merlin," he pronounced it `Mayor-lann', made a little bow, straightened, and took my hand in a firm, sure grip. "Jacques Merlin, at your service."

I stared at him. Caught in one of time's little bubbles. Our eyes locked and held. I knew him. So intimately you could call it love. I loved him. The certain knowledge of this incredible thing washed over me like a warm summer breeze. Kind and safe and limitless. A bee buzzed by my ear. Somewhere close, a cow grunted something bovine. My cheeks ran with the warmth of wet emotion. How long had it been? Long enough to have forgotten. Oh the joy! Oh! I lunged at him and clung like a kitten. He held me close and gave me his strength. Such overwhelming, exquisite relief...

"It is good to meet you, Monsieur Hawken. I am so glad you could come. An' 'ow is it en Angleterre?".
"Not so good. Very bad, in fact. Lots of bombs. A nasty business. And here?"
"It is 'ow it is. It will be worse. 'Ere we are very accustomed to war. We suffer a leetle time. Zen we laugh again. It goes. Every-sing goes."

I stood back, studying him, bathed in some strange, poignant emotion. He was courage. He was life. He was everything good that I'd missed so much. He was wisdom and warmth. And today he was my salvation. He patted my shoulder.
"Better we 'urry, hein? Les Boches will 'ave seen you an' start to search."

We decided a half a tank would be all I would need either way. If I had to fight, the lighter the machine was, the better. If I didn't, then I would have more than enough to make it to one of the coastal fields. I banged back the tank-cap and dug the hand-crank from the cockpit.

"Would you mind, Jacques?" I laughed the best laugh I could manage, patting the cowling. "This is a Merlin engine. Who better to fire it up than Monsieur Merlin himself?" I clambered up after giving him a crash course in how to avoid being decapitated by a back-firing prop. Switches. Primer. Throttle - set. Brakes - on. I froze at the sound of steel tracks. Squeaking and clattering. Moving along the road. Coming closer.
"Quick, Jacques! Hurry!"
His little body bent and tensed as he strained at the long handle. Chunk! The prop moved through an eighth-turn. He wound her up. Chunk! Another pause and a filament of blue smoke from the exhaust stubs. Chunk! Jacques was gasping for breath. A Merlin was all but impossible to hand-start, and I knew it. Why the hell had I not just left it running? I waited, my scalp crawling as the sound of tracks grew louder. Jacques had stopped and was looking down at the tail of the aircraft and then up at me, frowning. I stood up on the seat and leaped out. Jumped to the ground. I stopped when I saw what he was so interested in. Oh great. No bloody tailwheel. The screaming, grinding noise that had made my hair stand up on end as I was taxi-ing in was due to the tail grating along the asphalt, wearing itself down, almost to the elevators.
There was more. A dark puddle of hydraulic fluid had gathered under the port wing-root. Dripping slowly even as I watched. I closed my eyes and swallowed. No time to fuck with it. Leave it. Forget it. It was the least of my worries. I bounded over to Jacques and grabbed the starter crank.
"Together! Now!" We wrenched at the crank, winding the stiff, unyielding machinery slowly around. Chunk! A sucking sound. Smell of petrol. Chunk! The squeaking, groaning sound of doom drawing nearer. We both ducked away as the prop exploded into violent life, blasting us backwards. Jacques was jumping around, clapping his hands and shouting into the roaring drone of the motor, while I hurled the crank into the bushes. I grabbed him and hugged him in gratitude but he pushed me away suddenly, wide-eyed and pointing back over my shoulder. The Spitfire was taxi-ing away down the road without me! I cried in terror. No brakes! No! Not now! Not after all this! I raced away after it, leaving little Jacques to coil up the rubber hose and hide it away again. I reached the aircraft just as it reached the road, leaping up onto the wing-root, lunging for the cockpit. Close to panic, I forced myself to ignore the swiftly approaching trees and take the time to settle inside the cockpit instead of just diving in head first and grabbing the rudder pedals. The trees seemed to be racing towards me under their own power. It didn't look possible to avoid them. Too close, and the machine was accelerating all the time. Jamming on full right rudder, along with the almost useless brake, I scrunched up my face, waiting for the undercart to collapse. Hardly believing it, I sobbed at the realization that I was pointed straight up the road again, intact. More or less. How close can a race be run?
My hand was already on the throttle when a breathless Jacques sprinted up and leaped onto the wing.
"What?" I yelled at him, chopping the power. "What?"
"Nice motor, no? But nearly I forget to tell you! Your death! It is good! Do not fear! Never fear! You will see! We will meet ag..."
He staggered, his mouth wide, as a big hole erupted in his chest. I could see daylight through it. His gaping mouth pulled back and up into a wide smile, his eyes sparkling with amused mirth as he fell against the cockpit door. I leaned over. Held him.
"...do not fear," he croaked. "There is nossing to fear, mon ami. Do you see? Death is but a moment in time..." Another bullet smashed into his back, driving whatever breath he had left from him. He still smiled: "Do not fear zis, Johnny," he hissed. "I will wait for you..."
He slipped through my grasping fingers and rolled off the wing to disappear behind.

I screamed. A mindless, agonized scream. Struggling to stand in the tiny cockpit, I was smashed in the face by a chunk of exploding perspex. Dazed. I realized the canopy was smashed and the road ahead of me was dancing to heavy caliber bullet strikes. The selfish body wrestled control from the spinning mind and rammed the throttle up through the gate, stamping on the pedals, hunching down behind the armor plate.
A strange buzzing filled my head as I swam through the final climax of this awful nightmare, my eyes catching and holding the flight of a single bullet as it chopped into the cockpit frame and tumbled away, end over end like a dying comet, shedding flecks of grey, leaden death. Great clanging hammer blows smashed into the seat behind me, raving murderously on the heavy armor and ricochetting from the scything prop blades. The Spitfire thundered along the narrow road, trailing a smoking banner of sparks and shredded aluminum until the tail lifted, weaving from side to side with, it seemed, no coaxing from me. Angry. Enraged. Clawing for flight, screaming for revenge. No longer a sweet, purposeful thoroughbred, but a howling, deadly Harpie.

Automatically, at the first hint of aileron control, I pressured back and juggled the wheels up inside the wings, held her nose down for as long as I dared, to gain some flight control, then lifted up over the trees in one heart-stopping zoom, banking over and round. The airframe shuddered, in the transition from stall speed to flight speed, then leaped ahead like a rocket.

The fear was gone. Without trace. Blasted into a fine haze by the insane energy of fury. A vast dynamo span faster and faster within me, flooding my circuits with raw power. Sparks flying, a silver blade honed down to razor-keeness on the grindstone of grisly experience. I withdrew, redundant in this horrific enactment; drew back and watched impassively. Watched little Johnny Hawken line up and settle, closing in, to wipe one little corner of his sordid world clean of this sickening plague. Nothing, no power in all the universe would save the occupants of that armored car now...

The pressure needed to fire those two new cannons was in the order of fractions of an ounce. Almost lovingly, he squeezed the little button, holding the orange pip squarely on the circular track that allowed the vehicle's turret to turn. Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom...

The weapons fired in a slow, almost lethargic rhythm, belching out high-explosive, armor-piercing projectiles at horrific velocity. Like a drum at some dark event. Like a dirge. Arcing forwards and down. Running along the invisible, taut-stretched wire of his will. With a dull red explosion, the iron murderer spat its pus-filled insides in all directions. Like a soft yellow maggot under a careless heel.

He imagined he could hear the soggy, wet squish as it died.

He pulled up, climbed, located the coast and aimed for home, heedless of the possibility of trailing fighters, armored behind a thick, impenetrable wall of rage, barely noticing the oil speck on the windscreen that in an instant, grew into a battle-damaged 109, and disappeared behind, leaving only a thin streamer of glycol vapor in its wake...

Some time during the brief flight, I slipped back into the familiar shell that was me. Now not quite so familiar as before. To shudder and set to clearing away the clinging web of horror. It was all too dream-like. Too strange. And as I had climbed away from the ruined vehicle, I had not seen the body of Jacques Merlin. And somehow it wasn't a surprise. Because I knew now. I knew. He hadn't been there at all. He had no more been there than I had. Two bodies had met somewhere near the French coast and carried on a little play. Somewhere, there was a purpose. I would find it. Oh yes! I wondered who the two bodies belonged to. This one certainly wasn't mine. I'd known it all along. All along.
I wiped Johnny's tears from my cheeks, diluted by my own, embracing that part of me that gained relief in their shedding, smearing them into my blood-spattered uniform. One day it would all be clear. It was coming. It would take a little while. But he had given me his simple message. A message important enough that he would die in its giving. A final demonstration.
Do not fear, Johnny. See how I am not afraid? See how I can die to tell you this small thing? Do you see?
"All right, Jacques Merlin", I whispered. "I don't know who you are or who you were, but I know I knew you. You were my friend. A man to trust. A Man. I will remember your words. I will wait, and yes, I will see. I will see you again..."

As the coast loomed up ahead, I realized how very much it looked like the other side. No different. I shook my head and wondered vaguely whether my I.F.F. beacon was working. I might well be taken for an intruder, a good half-hour over my maximum fuel-endurance. The squadron would have been back almost an hour now.
Recognizing Dungeness Spit, I made my turn and began letting down. Better stop for fuel and a look-over. Plug that hydraulic leak before something fatal happened. Real fuel. Might as well wreck the tail here as back at Hornchurch.

Before long, Lympne materialized out of the low-level haze and I rocked in on my approach, swaying, clattering, wind whistling through the gunports and even louder through the wrecked hood. It came to me, as I was seconds away from touching down, that a vast calm had settled over me. Of the fear that had plagued me for so long, there was not a trace.

*****

"Squawk!" said the crow, and then made space.
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