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The Merlin Factor. Chapter Fourteen.
Topic Started: Dec 17 2015, 06:55 PM (90 Views)
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The Merlin Factor. Chapter Fourteen.


England: The Thames Estuary, 1940.

Long before we had the bandits in sight, Control came through again:
..."Keyboard calling all Drum aircraft, repeat all Drum aircraft, return to base. Buster. Repeat Buster!"...
The squadron rolled as one, anxious faces peering ahead at Danger Man's aircraft as he acknowledged, smoke belching from his exhaust stubs. We were still high, high enough to enter a long, shallow dive, back the way we had come. What the devil was going on? Somebody had fucked up. No other explanation. As the thought flashed into my mind, Control came back on the air, the usually calm, almost monotonous voice now noticeably tense.
..."Keyboard calling Drum. Bandits approaching base from the southeast. Step on it, Drum!"...
Our base? Oh great! Here we were, swanning around in useless circles while the bastards were sneaking up on the station. What was the bloody point of radar? Jesus. It made you bloody sick!

Maybe we had been warned in time. Maybe we could still get in among the devils first. There were W.A.A.F.s down there. Women. How would we ever be able to face the ground personnel if we didn't get over there in time to defend our own bloody station? Our airspeed was up around four-fifty by now, the angle of our dive steepening in urgency as we traded height for speed. The miles hurtled by, swallowed up in a growing sense of doom. However fast our speeding fighters were, they were no longer fast enough.

A bright flash flickered against the patchwork green and brown dead ahead, and another. Control had been advising us of the situation when it suddenly went off the air in mid-sentence. The gap closed at a snail's pace, eleven sweating, ashamed, misplaced avengers, whining down too late. There had been music blaring in my brain. The foolish, martial music of the would-be Hero. Charging to the rescue. In the nick of time. I sobbed in impotent fury as more and more flashes lit up the swift-approaching field. Individual machines were visible now, making off to the north-east, trailing smoke and staying low. Junkers 88's. Fastest of the German bombers. We poured after them, raging over the shattered, smoking field in impotent fury. Livid bars of tracer lunged out, curving away and down, far, far short of their targets. It was a short race. One sided. A fool's race. Red One came on with the words we had all known would have to be said, but were hoping somehow wouldn't be:
..."Wrap it up, Drum. Break off and form on me. Breaking port. Now!"...pop...

The smoke lessened as the eleven aircraft came out of boost and leaned over to follow Danger Man back to the shambles of Hornchurch. Hoods slid back, goggled faces peered down, flaps dropped, wheels dropped. We dropped. Dropped like eleven heavy stones into a world of blackened, smoking holes, unexploded bombs and cold, accusing eyes.

We lost two aircraft. Two perfectly serviceable Spitfires, lacking only fuel, their ammunition belts still full. One minute they were threading their way through the gaping bomb craters that stitched across the field, the next they had vanished in a searing blast of heat and light. As if they had never been. A third, touching down eighty yards downwind was lifted back into the air, jarred off balance and dropped down to shear off its undercart, spinning and squealing across the asphalt and onto the grass, ending up poised half in, half out of a still-smoking hole.

Nice. UXB. Delayed action bombs all over the place. Just bloody great! I blinked at the incredible carnage, shocked to see Georgie leap from his Spitfire, yell a few words at his fitter and then punch him in the face. Madness. All utter madness. The N.A.F.F.I. tea van was lying upside down, crushed and blackened beside a ruined shelter. A bomb had gone right through the haven's roof and exploded inside. No tea today. Warrant Officer Soames, a stout, hairy W.A.A.F. was spread-eagled over an L.A.C. rigger, looking for all the world as if they were performing oral sex on one another, except for the horrible reality of her stockinged legs being spread apart right up to her chest and the L.A.C's left arm being shredded like a skein of crimson spaghetti. He was still alive. Barely. His eyes were insane as he writhed in his own agony, looking into the sickening cleft of the woman's hips.

Men were running, bawling at each other. Trying to imagine what to do when there was really nothing to do but vomit, collapse and cry themselves to sleep. Danger Man roared at a stunned erk to get the machines refuelled, cursing and threatening him until he climbed on his bicycle and wobbled off looking for an undamaged bowser. Little by little, we came back to readiness, fuelled and armed, shocked but ready. We sat in our cockpits while the station adjutant listened by R/T to Fighter Control at North Weald, calling out updates on his megaphone as he received them. Debden had been attacked. Then Rochford. Tangmere, Kenley, West Malling, Lympne, Westhampnett.
One after the other, the Nazis were catching the Sector stations, as well as their satellites, while the fighters were up after another plot. Only Biggin Hill and Northolt had so far not been hit. We waited, knowing we would be needed, and when we were, it would be at a moment's notice. My bladder filled, stretched, screamed and finally burst. I couldn't get out of the cockpit. Not only because it might cost me vital seconds when the call came, but I simply couldn't allow myself to be seen pissing with all this death and carnage around me. No one would ever wear my parachute but me. I wondered if it would even open, so often was it soaked. Stuck-together silk. I should have had it re-packed over and over, but I just couldn't face the embarrassment of allowing a W.A.A.F. to smell the fear I lived with nearly every time I went into combat. I took great care to hide it away from the other pilots, leaving it in my machine, or else wrapping it in a rain-cape. Damned uncomfortable, sitting like that. Ugh.

The explosion shook me badly. Another delayed-action, ticking down to zero. A harsh, flat CRUMP! followed by a dirty brown geyser of flaming soil rising for a hundred feet before slowing, stopping and showering back to earth.

...ksshk..."Scramble! All Drum aircraft scramble! Form on me, vector one-four-oh, angels eight. Buster!"...pop...
The noise seemed very much louder than usual, a brain-numbing wave of wailing, bone-shaking power, hammering around the cockpit. The Spitfires themselves seemed angry. Eager, uncaring, anxious only to avenge.
We opened up, weaving around craters and the two, crumpled ruins of our fallen comrades, accelerating up to the velocity of flight.
Right. Right, you bastards! You shit-stained murderers of English women! Now it's our turn! They were strung out in a long, smoke-trailing line like a swarm of locusts against the brassy glare of the sun. Rising and falling, wobbling from time to time as a greasy burst of heavy flak sought them out.

We were, this time, well positioned, angling in to drive a wedge between them and the Channel. We dropped like psychotic falcons down over the shimmering, smoke-stained Thames estuary. Talons extended. Murderous.
There were always so bloody many of them. We always seemed so hopelessly few against the crushing weight of these dirt-mottled, beetle-backed invaders. It didn't matter. Not this time. Not to me, anyway. As we closed the range, superimposed against the reticle of the reflector sight I could see only the raped and slaughtered carcass of Warrant Officer Soames, hairy and blood-soaked, split from crotch to chest, and the staring, maddened eyes of the little one-armed L.A.C. pinned beneath her. I screamed like an animal, like a banshee from the darkest of nightmares, tearing away the tears from my eyes. Somebody, I raged, was going to bloody well pay!

The rhythmic bark of Hispanos and Brownings soothed my shattered psyche. I stared, intent and elated, as ribbons of metal tore back from the body of a bloated, dark-green Heinkel, mashing down the rear-gunner into a frothy, pink paste. Another. Cannon-strikes walked over the bomber's canopy, a schoolboy's wet-dream, clouds of shattered glass as I rolled to sight on the next. The rearview mirror vanished as the Spitfire hesitated, lurching under a hail of fire, shaking itself, spitting blood and going back for more. A Messerschmitt rose like a serpent in front of me, impossibly, lethally close. I ducked out of pure reflex and hosed it down in passing. A dull bang from beneath the seat, another behind, breaking glass and hot-metal smell. An engine, falling, oil spraying the perspex, thinning to an almost clear dull brown. Head to head now. A squat, chattering Heinkel expanding like a carnival balloon, melting, dreamlike into smoke and flames...

Bang! The Spitfire collides with something, yaws wildly, starts to spin, dragging my head to one side. I stare, horrified at the parachute draped over the starboard wing, the headless body drawn out taut in the slipstream, silk canopy bursting like a soap bubble and then he is gone. Hair crawls on my scalp, and oh the horror...

Everywhere there are aircraft dwindling earthwards, dragging their dead along with smoke, flames and fluttering, torn-metal parts. Severed wings, parachutes, plummeting bodies. Death all around. A vicious hammering signals my limbs to wrench everything into a corner, spittle floating in zero G as my mask is torn from my mouth. The shark lunges by, exploding as Danger Man throttles it with cannon shells. Gone.
Something catches my eye to port and I swivel my head in time to see the aileron part company with the wing. Gone.
A Spitfire flick-rolls away from a 109 and folds up in midair. Gone.

All gone.

The sky clears. Only smoke remains, and Danger Man spewing glycol, half a mile ahead. My port wing is low. Nothing will lift it. No flap or aileron to provide lift. Lift. A light and airy thing. I giggle insanely. A fright and hairy thing. Oh Jesus...
The rudder gives marginal control, enough to shudder back to Hornchurch, staggering along with one wing sagging like a derelict parrot. I am just lining up when a cowling panel lifts and flies back into the windscreen, gouging the lovely, smooth perspex.
Bang! It smacks the tail on its way aft and that's it for rudder control. What is there left? Elevators and one aileron. This is getting more ridiculous by the minute. I drop the flaps and wonder why nothing is happening. Clean forgot they were gone. No hydraulics. Wheels? No wheels. Down to five hundred feet and even if I was higher I wouldn't trust the parachute...
The port wing drops lower. Danger Man sidles up alongside, pointing at my wheels and drawing a finger across his throat. The radio is always the first thing to go. Always. He shakes his head and I vomit at him. Not on purpose. Suddenly I am spewing up all over my nice, true-blue tunic. Instant claustrophobia reminds me to slide the nice new hood back in case it gets stuck. Plop. The whole thing derails from its nice, new, free-sliding tracks, disappearing into the past and I look out the corner of my eye at Danger Man, watching him watch me throwing away pieces of my brand-new aeroplane.

The ground is coming up. Fast. No flaps and no wheels to slow my hot arrival. I close the throttle, nearly panicking as the low wing drops lower. Shit! Oh. Oh for God's sake. What next? I side-slip towards the deck, wondering what to do. Suddenly everything is happening too fast. Much too fast. In an automatic effort to raise the nose before I bury it in the racing ground, I pour on the coals and haul back. The low wing rises, levels and I even up, six feet off the grass, whistling along at a hundred and thirty...
The torque in the bellowing Merlin has rotated the aircraft enough to get me back on an even keel. Without waiting to consider, I push the stick forward again and slap us down into the blurring green of the field, cutting the switches at the instant the prop. blades fold back and stop, burying the oil-cooler and radiator and gouging out a hundred yard long furrow in the cratered earth. The blurring eases and quite soon individual blades of grass come into focus. Dew-drops sparkle. I can see even the algae in each droplet. I stare at a slow-worm, confusedly humping through the turf and notice the fins of yet another UXB poking up from yet another hole. No damage. I am still not dead. Trying to ignore the UXB, I deliberately heave the sopping, stinking parachute from the sopping, stinking seat and throw it to the ground ahead of me. Fuck it if the W.A.A.F.s see it. Or smell it. A chap could need one of the damn things someday. I grunt at the soggy weight of it and lift my eyes to see Danger Man lose his wheels, collapsing in a spinning, disintegrating wave of dirt and aluminum. I start to run, slipping and tripping under the weight of the 'chute, but stop as he emerges, swearing in a thunderous rage, from the cockpit of his very own, brand-new, demolished Mark 2. I glance down at my watch, catching it at it slips, strap broken, from a wrist that shudders to the beat of coursing, adrenaline-crazed blood. Staring. It isn't even noon yet.


We went up twice more that day, in whatever machines were still flyable. Twice more into the twisting, spiralling madness of those deadly summer skies.
We'd started out the day with eleven pilots and twelve machines. By the time dusk began to draw its flimsy shield over our maniac world, six pilots were dead, two hospitalized and of our twelve serviceable machines, only four remained.

I stared out across the darkening field through shattered panes of glass. Heavy equipment, light equipment, wheelbarrows, buckets, indeed anything that would hold earth, were being employed to fill the gaping craters that pocked the ruined station into a fair semblance of the surface of the moon.
On the positive side, a record number of enemy machines littered the countryside from Essex to Hampshire. We'd knocked down over eighty Nazi aircraft. On the other side, though, in a single day, we had lost almost a fifth of our entire fighter force.
Algy trudged in, fresh from a pilgrimage over to maintenance. He looked as if he'd been waylaid in some dark, dangerous alleyway. A broad swath of hair was missing from his head, stitches showing through, complete with seeping blood. His lower lip was a purple bulge of beaten flesh and one of his front teeth was missing. He spoke as if he was completely drunk.
"Not very promishing. Looksh bad. Me kite's all phucked up n' the bleedin' engine shop's bin demolished. The buggersh!"
"Will it fly?"
"Wot? The engine schlop?"
"Your kite, man! What the devil else?"
"Dunno do I? 'ave to try it to phind out, like."
Danger Man scowled at him, vigorously stabbing the tabletop over and over with his special pipe-smoker's knife.
"We're bein' pulled out again. Back to bleedin' Norfolk. Just as things were gettin' interestin'."
My heart gave a little lurch. Thank God! Oh. Thank God...
"You seem rather relieved, Johnny." Dan pulled his pipe out, stuffing it with dark, evil-looking rag.
"Oh - I - well, it seems rather pointless to stay here, Sir. I mean - I mean what with only the three of us, Sir."
"Lay off the fuckin' `Sir' for Christ's sake, will you? Sick an' tired of it, I am." He sucked on the gnarled little smoke-pot.
"Both Larkin an' Cottin'ton should be back with us in a day or two. Larkin's got a splinter through 'is foot an' Cottin'ton walloped 'is 'ead on the 'ood as 'e was steppin' out. Nothin' much. Bit sore, prob'ly."
His voice was slurred too. Dog tired. All of us were. Tired, sickened, exhausted excuses for warriors.
"Nice for you, eh, Johnny boy? I s'pect you'll be lookin' up that Lady what's 'er name then?" He choked on a foul blue cloud.
"If I have the time, Sir - ah - Dan." My back was killing me again. Not even the corset could entirely cope with it.
"Nice for some. Wish I 'ad a little bit somewhere just now."

Algy was silent, morosely picking at his weeping stitches. We looked at the floor and tried to block it all out. Minutes passed.
"Yes. Well. I'm off for a bit o' kip then. Bright an' early t'morrow gentlemen. Shake up them bastards over at maintenance, Algy. Your kite's got to stagger into the air some'ow. All right?" Danny creaked to his feet, rubbing his eyes.
"Right y'are. I'll give 'em an hour an' then see whatsh what. 'ave a nishe kip, Shir." Algy spat through the window. There was blood in it. He winced at the effort of pursing his battered lips.
I lay flat on the table, picking my nose. Incredible, the amount of junk that got stuck up there when you hadn't thought to clean it out all day long. The various stinks and particles of war contrived to thicken everything, turning it into a foul, clotted mess. Burning rubber, cordite, blood, boiling oil and death. I flicked a nasty ball of it absently into the air, watching it rise to the top of its trajectory and fall back towards me. Another piece of window glass tinkled to the floor as the building shook to the detonation of one of the last UXBs. All quite normal. Nothing out of the ordinary.

"Think your kite'll make it, Algy?"
"Hah! Better 'ad. I'll boot the phucker into the air meshelf if it don't. Enginesh shot. Shmokesh like a bleedin' Shquaddie, it doesh."
I giggled. That was a lot of smoke.
"Lady 'anworth 'shpectin' yer then?"
I luxuriated in the thought that very soon...
"Mmm. No. Think I'll surprise her. You got anyone up there?"
"Ushed to. Not any more. Wiv me fashe like thish, don't reckon I'll 'ave mutshe luck, neither."

A noisy buzzing started up behind one of the few remaining window-panes. We stared listlessly at the trapped bluebottle for a moment, before Algy drew his service revolver and fired three shots at it. The buzzing stopped. He twirled the gun around his finger like Wyatt Earp, jumping as it fired again accidently, bringing a shower of plaster from the ceiling. We glanced at each other. Algy laughed a hollow laugh. More silence. Only the off-beat clattering of the earth-moving equipment off in the night. Algy kicked over a waste-paper basket. Kicked it again. Jumped on it...
"Fuckin' war... Well... Fink I'll 'appen over to maintenanshe again. Don't want to get left be'ind, like, do I? Shee yer, Johnny."
"See you."
He wobbled out into the darkness and I lay there, lightly trembling to the aftershocks of fury.


Australia: Sydney Harbor, 1990.

When Daphne arrived, tired but excited, at the offices of the Royal Viking Line, in Sydney, to confirm her departure the following day, she discovered that she had a fax. message waiting for her from Marion. It was very brief. Almost breathless:
Dearest Daphne, Hope you are well after your long flight. Please call me, reverse charge. I MUST talk to you before you depart on your cruise. This is VERY important. I shall await your call. All my love, darling, Marion.

Daphne's eyes grew wide. Was her mother sick? Was she dying? Feeling close to panic, she persuaded the receptionist to let her use the phone, dialling for the international operator...
"Hello?" Marion's voice, sleepy.
"Hello? Hello, Mummy?"
"G'day. I heve a Dephne Henworth, calling collict. Will you ixcipt the chairges?"
"Daphne? Yes. YES! I accept. Daphne? Are you there?" She was wide awake, instantly.
"Mummy! It's me! Are you all right? I got your fax. Just now. Are you all right?"
The line hummed and buzzed, the words seeming to take forever to travel the intervening twelve-thousand miles. "Oh, I'm fine, Daphne, dear. I'm so sorry if I alarmed you. It was important, you see, to catch you before your cruise began. I've had a dream..."

Daphne listened carefully. She did not roll her eyes in disbelief, as many people might have, under the same circumstances. For Marion had had far too many prophetic, lucid dreams for that. When her mother dreamed something - and talked about it afterwards - it usually meant something was either happening, or about to happen. She was rarely wrong.
"The falcon - the Merlin - came to visit me again, Daphne. First it came right to the window. In the flesh! I'm not kidding. Right to the window, and sat on the ledge. Then I dreamed about it, again, the same night. It came back, and I knew something was going to happen..."

Marion paused to breathe. "I think - I believe - that you are going to meet somebody aboard the ship. Probably he is the man you never found, your very own Johnny. Are you listening?"
Daphne's heart leaped. "Yes Mummy. Yes. Go ahead..."
"But he may not be. He may actually BE Johnny. Does that sound silly?"
Daphne considered. It did sound silly. Johnny had disappeared fifty years ago. Although his body had never been recovered, after fifty years, it was hardly likely that he would just suddenly turn up, was it? But she trusted her mother's feelings - intuition - to such a degree, that she simply said:
"How could I know, Mummy? Miracles happen, don't they?"
"Yes, my darling. Yes, they do. So I would like to ask you to do something for me, just in case. Please?"
"Anything, Mummy. Tell me."
"Whoever this man is, even if you think a particular man could be this special man, you must mention me, saying I am your Aunt Marion. Or your Auntie Marion. Not your mother, but your Aunt. All right? Will you promise me?" This was really quite strange, Daphne thought, even for her mother. Was she finally losing that fine mind of hers? How sad... "May I ask why, Mummy?" "Because I beg you, Daphne. With all my heart. Please?"
"Of course, Mummy. Sorry. Of course I will."
"I love you so much, Daphne. So very much!"
"Oh Mummy! Silly! I love you too. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Just find this man, darling. Whoever he is. Find him and bring him home. Promise?"
"I'll try, Mummy." She laughed, suddenly, at this improbable conversation. A thought occurred to her: "What if he won't come?"
"Slap his face. Hard. Use your imagination. It worked, once, for me. Do you promise?"
"Yes, Mummy. Even if I have to slap his face and tie him up."
Marion laughed at the other end of the line. Half-way around the world.
"That's my girl! Now go and have fun. Enjoy yourself. I love you!"
"I love you too, Aunt Marion. Bye-bye!"
"Bye-bye, my darling niece. Bye-bye, sweetheart. Take care..."

What a strange conversation, she thought. Absurd.
Of course, if she actually did meet some special man aboard the ship, she would mention her Auntie Marion. After all, she had promised. But as this was not very likely to occur, especially so soon after her separation from Michael, she simply returned to her hotel to rest, thinking no more about it.


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