The Devil and the Detail

The land was forgotten as the sun bedded into the west: a brief mottled sliver of cinnabar fading into midnight blue. Retreating brilliance seeped away like the tears of the goodbye girls at the aerodrome fence. Intense. Poignant. Repeatable.

They’ll make an example of you, the creep whispered sibilantly, thin lips curling like the edge of a snail’s foot. He smiled at me with eyes wrinkled through years of malice. In the old days we’d have run him out of town for spoiling the crops; burned him warlock with a longhorn’s iron. You’ve let your men down, he said, brandishing his camera like an aegis against depravity. His words had fallen like summer rain; transient, light as eiderdown.

A hundred miles had passed yet the smell of roses lingered carrying us forward with the false promises of a welcome home. We followed the ghosts of old Mme Curie’s lantern on the dials. Altitudes and wind speeds glimmering in the cabin’s tin can shelter. So many degrees from north, so many thousand feet above the slab of sea. Every colour a shade of underwater green.

We don't make the rules, the goons had said, following the tracks of their railroad existence with linear precision. No room for compromise as they manhandled me into the cell. Time to reflect, they said, straightening their backs with righteous certainty. Outside the letterbox window engines droned beneath a canopy of stars. The midnight hours I spent staring through the bars till dawn broke the loneliness of night, day-dreaming my symphony of solitude where nightingales sang like angels and a strong masculine mouth pressed down on mine giving meaning to my imprisonment.

Charlie crackled over the comm talking about his cousin’s bar mitzvah back in the Big Apple, in a land of plenty: a concentrated burst of human static before we reached the outer limits of safe discourse. Before the radio fell silent and our thoughts crept out insidiously to whisper encouragement to our fears. It was against regs but we were still far from the badlands of Europe, invisible above a charcoal ocean.

Morning birthed with the clicking of a cell door and a shame-faced goon forcing the steel back with a harpy screech of metal on concrete. The CO was angry, his face livid with rage. I gathered the photographer, with his basilisk black-eyed stare, had been sent packing. No one understood why the goons had followed his lead, least of all them in the bright light of day. Nazi sympathiser, the CO spat, wanting us to lock up good pilots. A pair of black armbands hung their heads in shame. What are you waiting for Harkness? Go rejoin your squadron…

Eagles to a boy they followed in my wake, churning through the ether with their propellers, wings twenty feet on either side giving benison to the earth at two hundred miles an hour. As our unfettered Merlins roared in our ears the miasma rising from the oil and glycol pipes made hazy our cockpit air. These were our winter nights: no warm fires waiting for St Nicholas, no evensong in stone churches, no carols to gladden the heart.

Silent as a lie I wandered into the mess hall for breakfast. Joined the camaraderie of the tables discussing the King and the African provinces. Swapping tales of tea-mottled legs and beetroot lipstick. Of who would dance for chocolate and who would kiss for stockings. And of what delights three shillings may bring in the backstreets of Cardiff.

We dug through clouds like garden weeds and strafed the horizon with bonfire smoke. They were ready, my boys. The One Three Threes. Sure fingered enough to meet the enemy. Staunch against odds uncounted. Behind our backs the coast of England, a distant bar of dim hope. It was time: I gave the order to bank for home when out of the droning sky the hellhounds pounced.

We're not afraid to die, the boys had chirruped over breakfast, crumbs sticking to rosebud lips. Let us at the enemy. Their sweet faces turned to me as chicks to a mother hen. Give us this day our chance to fight. And I sat there with the cream of doomed youth, the taste of a man lingering on my mouth, and exhorted them not to be afraid to live.

Two arrowheads sped towards us with the certainty of summer lightning. I holed the side of the leading aircraft and watched it spiral downwards out of sight. There's too many of them, I gritted my teeth for the radio, full speed back to base. A second fighter got between my crosshairs and fell away. Two for the road… Jerry was concentrating on me now; the boys had listened to my orders and were almost out of range of the leaders. A stray shot broke through the fuselage behind me. Somewhere beyond the turn of my head there was a flicker of intense yellow. I clipped the heels of a third hound and laughed aloud as it tumbled to the earth.

Then I heard Charlie cry, to the boiling sky, I'll sit shiva for you, and I knew my battle so was done.