Michael awoke to the mindless fury of the guns. It was an obscene ritual celebrated in the darkness before each dawn in which the massed banks of artillery batteries on both sides of the ridges made their savage sacrifice to the gods of war.
Michael lay in the darkness under the weight of six woollen blankets and watched the gunfire flicker through the canvas of the tent like some dreadful aurora borealis. The blankets felt cold and clammy as a dead man’s skin, and light rain spattered the canvas above his head. The cold struck through his bedclothes and yet he felt a glow of hope. In this weather they could not fly.
False hope withered swiftly, for when Michael listened again to the guns, this time more intently, he could judge the direction of the wind by the sound of the barrage. The wind had gone back into the south-west, muting the cacophony, and he shivered and pulled the blankets up under his chin. As if to confirm his estimate, the light breeze dropped suddenly. The patter of rain on canvas eased and then ceased. Outside he could hear the trees of the apple orchard dripping in the silence – and then there was an abrupt gust so that the branches shook themselves like a spaniel coming out of the water and released a heavy fall of drops on to the roof of the tent.
He decided that he would not reach across to his gold half-hunter on the inverted packing-case which acted as a bedside table. It would be time all too soon. So he snuggled down in the blankets and thought about his fear. All of them suffered under the affliction of fear, and yet the rigid conventions under which they lived and flew and died forbade them to speak of it – forbade them to refer to it in even the most oblique terms.
Would it have been a comfort, Michael wondered, if last night he had been able to say to Andrew as they sat with the bottle of whisky between them, discussing this morning’s mission, ‘Andrew, I’m frightened gutless by what we are going to do’?
He grinned in the darkness as he imagined Andrew’s embarrassment, yet he knew that Andrew shared it with him. It was in his eyes, and in the way the little nerve twitched and jumped in his cheek so that he had constantly to touch it with a fingertip to still it. All the old hands had their little idiosyncracies; Andrew had the nerve in his cheek and the empty cigarette-holder which he sucked like an infant’s comforter. Michael ground his teeth in his sleep so loudly that he woke himself; he bit the nail of his left thumb down into the quick and every few minutes he blew on the fingers of his right hand as though he had just touched a hot coal.
The fear drove them all a little mad, and forced them to drink far too much – enough to destroy the reflexes of normal men. But they were not normal men and the alcohol did not seem to affect them, it did not dull their eyesight nor slow their feet on the rudder bars. Normal men died in the first three weeks, they went down flaming like fir trees in a forest fire, or they smashed into the doughy, shell-ploughed earth with a force that shattered their bones and drove the splinters out through their flesh.
Andrew had survived fourteen months, and Michael eleven, many times the life-span that the gods of war had allotted to the men who flew these frail contraptions of wire and wood and canvas. So they twitched and fidgeted, and blinked their eyes, and drank whisky with everything, and laughed in a quick loud bray and then shuffled their feet with embarrassment, and lay in their cots at dawn, stiff with terror, and listened for footsteps.
Michael heard the footsteps now, it must be later than he had realised. Outside the tent Biggs muttered a curse as he splashed into a puddle, and his boots made obscene little sucking noises in the mud. His bull’s-eye lantern glowed through the canvas as he fumbled with the flap and then he stooped into the tent.
‘Top of the morning, sir–’ his tone was cheerful, but he kept it low, out of courtesy to the officers in the neighbouring tents who were not flying this morning ‘ – wind has gone sou’-sou’-west, sir, and she’s clearing something lovely, she is. Stars shining out over Cambrai–’ Biggs set the tray he carried on the packing-case and bustled about the tent, picking up the clothing that Michael had dropped on the duckboards the night before.
‘What time is it?’ Michael went through the pantomime of awaking from deep sleep, stretching and yawning so that Biggs would not know about the hour of terror, so that the legend would not be tarnished.
‘Half past five, sir.’ Biggs finished folding the clothes away, then came back to hand him the thick china mug of cocoa. ‘And Lord Killigerran is up and in the mess already.’
‘Bloody man is made of iron,’ Michael groaned, and Biggs picked the empty whisky bottle off the floor beneath the cot and placed it on the tray.
Michael drained the cocoa while Biggs worked up a lather in the shaving mug and then held the polished steel mirror and the lantern while Michael shaved with the straight razor, sitting up in his cot with the blankets over his shoulders.
‘What’s the book?’ Michael demanded, his voice nasal as he pinched his own nostrils and lifted the tip of his nose to shave his upper lip.
‘They are giving three to one that you and the major take them both with no butcher’s bill.’
Michael wiped the razor while he considered the odds. The sergeant rigger who ran the betting had operated his own book at Ascot and Aintree before the war. He had decided that there was one chance in three that either Andrew or Michael, or both of them, would be dead by noon – no butcher’s bill, no casualties.
‘Bit steep, don’t you think, Biggs?’ Michael asked. ‘I mean, both of them, damn it?’
‘I’ve put half a crack on you, sir,’ Biggs demurred.
‘Good on you, Biggs, put on a fiver for me.’ He pointed to the sovereign case that lay beside his watch, and Biggs pressed out five gold coins and pocketed them. Michael always bet on himself. It was a racing certainty: if he lost the bet, it wasn’t going to hurt much, anyway.
Biggs warmed Michael’s breeches over the chimney of the lamp and then held them while Michael dived out from under the blankets into them. He stuffed his nightshirt into the breeches while Biggs went on with the complicated procedure of dressing his man against the killing cold of flight in an open cockpit. There followed a silk vest over the nightshirt, two cable-stitched woollen fisherman’s jerseys, then a leather gilet, and finally an army officer’s greatcoat with the skirts cut off so that they would not tangle with the controls of the aircraft.
By this time Michael was so heavily padded that he could not bend to pull on his own footwear. Biggs knelt in front of him and snugged silk undersocks over his bare feet, then two pairs of woollen hunting socks, and finally eased on the tall boots of tanned kudu skin that Michael had had made in Africa. Through their soft, pliable soles, Michael had touch and feel on the rudder bars. When he stood up, his lean muscular body was dumpy and shapeless under the burden of clothing, and his arms stuck out like the wings of a penguin. Biggs held the flap of the tent open, and then lit his way along the duckboards through the orchard towards the mess.
As they passed the other darkened tents beneath the apple trees Michael heard little coughs and stirrings from each. They were all awake, listening to his footsteps pass, fearing for him, perhaps some of them cherishing their relief that it was not they who were going out against the balloons this dawn.
Michael paused for a moment as they left the orchard and looked up at the sky. The dark clouds were rolling back into the north and the stars were pricking through, but already paling out before the threat of dawn. These stars were still strange to Michael; though he could at last recognize their constellations, they were not like his beloved southern stars – the Great Cross, Achernar, Argus and the others – so he lowered his gaze and clumped after Biggs and the bobbing lantern.
The squadron mess was a ruined labourers’ chaumiére which they had commandeered and repainted, covering the tattered thatch with tarpaulin so that it was snug and warm.
Biggs stood aside at the doorway. ‘I’ll ’ave your fifteen quid winnings for you when you get back, sir,’ he murmured. He would never wish Michael good luck, for that was the worst of all possible luck.
There was a roaring log fire on the hearth and Major Lord Andrew Killigerran was seated before it, his booted feet crossed on the lip of the hearth, while a mess servant cleared the dirty plates.
‘Porridge, my boy,’ he removed the amber cigarette holder from between his even white teeth as he greeted Michael, ‘with melted butter and golden syrup. Kippers poached in milk–’
Michael shuddered. ‘I’ll eat when we get back.’ His stomach, already knotted with tension, quailed at the rich smell of kippers. With the co-operation of an uncle on the general staff who arranged priority transport, Andrew kept the squadron supplied with the finest fare that his family estates in the highlands could provide – Scotch beef, grouse and salmon and venison in season, eggs and cheeses and jams, preserved fruits – and a rare and wonderful single malt whisky with an unpronounceable name that came from the family-owned distillery.
‘Coffee for Captain Courtney,’ Andrew called to the mess corporal, and when it came he reached into the deep pocket of his fleece-lined flying jacket and brought out a silver flask with a big yellow cairngorm set in the stopper and poured a liberal dram into the steaming mug.
Michael held the first sip in his mouth, swirling it around, letting the fragrant spirit sting and prickle his tongue, then he swallowed and the heat hit his empty stomach and almost instantly he felt the charge of alcohol through his bloodstream.
He smiled at Andrew across the table. ‘Magic,’ he whispered huskily, and blew on his fingertips.
‘Water of life, my boy.’
Michael loved this dapper little man as he had never loved another man – more than his own father, more even than his Uncle Sean who had previously been the pillar of his existence.
It had not been that way from the beginning. At first meeting, Michael had been suspicious of Andrew’s extravagant, almost effeminate good looks, his long, curved eyelashes, soft, full lips, his neat, small body, dainty hands and feet, and his lofty bearing.
One evening soon after his arrival on the squadron, Michael was teaching the other new chums how to play the game of Bok-Bok. Under his direction one team formed a human pyramid against a wall of the mess, while the other team attempted to collapse them by taking a full run and then hurling themselves on top of the structure. Andrew had waited for the game to end in noisy chaos and had then taken Michael aside and told him, ‘We do understand that you hail from somewhere down there below the equator, and we do try to make allowances for you colonials. However–’
Their relationship had thenceforth been cool and distant, while they had watched each other shoot and fly.
As a boy, Andrew had learned to take the deflection of a red grouse, hurtling wind-driven only inches above the tops of the heather. Michael had learned the same skills on rocketing Ethiopian snipe and sand-grouse slanting on rapid wingbeat down the African sky. Both of them had been able to adapt their skills to the problem of firing a Vickers machine-gun from the unstable platform of a Sopwith Pup roaring through the three dimensions of space.
Then they watched each other fly. Flying was a gift. Those who did not have it died during the first three weeks; those who did, lasted a little longer. After a month Michael was still alive, and Andrew spoke to him again for the first time since the evening of the game of Bok-Bok in the mess.
‘Courtney, you will fly on my wing today,’ was all he said.
It was to have been a routine sweep down the line. They were going to ‘blood’ two new chums who had joined the squadron the day before, fresh from England with the grand total of fourteen flying hours as their combined experience. Andrew referred to them as ‘Fokker fodder’, and they were both eighteen years of age, rosy-faced and eager.
‘Did you learn aerobatics?’ Andrew demanded of them.
‘Yes, sir.’ In unison. ‘We have both looped the loop.’
‘How many times?’
Shamefaced they lowered their shining gaze. ‘Once,’ they admitted.
‘God!’ muttered Andrew and sucked loudly on his cigarette-holder. ‘Stalls?’
They both looked bemused, and Andrew clutched his brow and groaned.
‘Stalls?’ Michael interposed in a kindly tone. ‘You know, when you let your airspeed drop and the kite suddenly falls out of the sky.’
They shook their heads, again in unison. ‘No, sir, nobody showed us that.’
‘The Huns are going to love you two,’ Andrew murmured, and then he went on briskly, ‘Number one, forget all about aerobatics, forget about looping the loop and all that rot, or while you are hanging there upside down the Hun is going to shoot your anus out through your nostrils, understand?’
They nodded vigorously.
‘Number two, follow me, do what I do, watch for my hand signals and obey them instantly, understand?’ Andrew jammed his tam-o’-shanter down on his head and bound it in place with the green scarf that was his trademark. ‘Come along, children.’
With the two novices tucked up between them they barrelled down past Arras at 10,000 feet, the Le Rhône engines of their Sopwith Pups bellowing with all their eighty horsepower, princes of the heavens, the most perfect flying fighting machines man had ever devised, the machines that had shot Max Immelmann and his vaunted Fokker Eindekkers out of the skies.
It was a glorious day, with just a little fairweather cumulus too high up there to hide a Boche Jagdstaffel, and the air so clear and bright that Michael spotted the old Rumpler reconnaissance biplane from a distance of ten miles. It was circling low over the French lines, directing the fire of the German batteries on to the rear areas.
Andrew picked out the Rumpler an instant after Michael, and he flashed a laconic hand signal. He was going to let the new chums take a shot at her. Michael knew of no other squadron commander who would stand aside from an easy victory when a big score was the high road to promotion and the coveted decorations. However, he nodded agreement and they shepherded the two young pilots down, patiently pointing out the lumbering German two-seater below them, but with their untrained eyes neither of them could pick it out. They kept shooting puzzled glances across at the two senior pilots.
The Germans were so intent on the bursting high explosive beneath them that they were oblivious of the deadly formation closing swiftly from above. Suddenly the young pilot nearest Michael grinned with delight and relief and pointed ahead. He had seen the Rumpler at last.
Andrew pumped his fist over his head in the old cavalry command, ‘Charge!’ and the youngster put his nose down without closing the throttle. The Sopwith went into a howling dive so abrupt that Michael winced as he saw the double wings bend back under the strain and the fabric wrinkle at the wing roots. The second novice followed him just as precipitously. They reminded Michael of two half-grown lion cubs he had once watched trying to bring down a scarred old zebra stallion, falling over themselves in comical confusion as the stallion avoided them with disdain.
Both the novice pilots opened fire at a range of a thousand yards, and the German pilot looked up at this timely warning; then, judging his moment, he banked under the noses of the diving scoutplanes, forcing them into a blundering overshoot that carried them, still firing wildly, half a mile beyond their intended victim. Michael could see their heads screwing around desperately in the open cockpits as they tried to find the Rumpler again.
Andrew shook his head sadly and led Michael down. They dropped neatly under the Rumpler’s tailplane, and the German pilot banked steeply to port in a climbing turn to give his rear gunner a shot at them. Together Andrew and Michael turned out in the opposite direction to frustrate him, but as soon as the German pilot realized the manoeuvre had failed and corrected his bank, they whipped the Sopwiths hard over and crossed his stern.
Andrew was leading. He fired one short burst with the Vickers at a hundred feet and the German rear gunner bucked and flung his arms open, letting the Spandau machine-gun swivel aimlessly on its mounting as the .303 bullets cut him to pieces. The German pilot tried to dive away, and Andrew’s Sopwith almost collided with his top wing as he passed over him.
Then Michael came in. He judged the deflection of the diving Rumpler, touched his port rudder bar so that his machine yawed fractionally just as though he were swinging a shotgun on a rocketing snipe, and he hooked the forefinger of his right hand under the safety bar of the Vickers and fired a short burst – a flurry of .303 ball. He saw the fabric of the Rumpler’s fuselage ripped to tatters just below the rim of the pilot’s cockpit, in line with where his upper body must be.
The German was twisted around staring at Michael from a distance of a mere fifty feet. Michael could see that his eyes behind the lens of his goggles were a startled blue, and that he had not shaved that morning, for his chin was covered with a short golden stubble. He opened his mouth as the shots hit, and the blood from his shattered lungs blew out between his lips and turned to pink smoke in the Rumpler’s slipstream, and then Michael was past and climbing away. The Rumpler rolled sluggishly on to its back and with the dead men lolling in their straps, fell away towards the earth. It struck in the centre of an open field and collapsed in a pathetic welter of fabric and shattered struts.
As Michael settled his Sopwith back into position on Andrew’s wingtip, Andrew looked across at him, nodded matter-of-factly, and then signalled him to help round up the two new chums who were still searching in frantic circles for the vanished Rumpler. This took longer than either of them anticipated, and by the time they had them safely under their protection again, the whole formation had drifted further west than either Andrew or Michael had ever flown before. On the horizon Michael could make out the fat shiny serpent of the Somme river winding across the green littoral on its way down to the sea.
They turned away from it and headed back east towards Arras, climbing steadily to reduce the chances of an attack from above by a Fokker Jagdstaffel.
As they gained height, so the vast panorama of northern France and southern Belgium opened beneath them, the fields a patchwork of a dozen shades of green interspersed with the dark brown of ploughed lands. The actual battle lines were hard to distinguish; from so high, the narrow ribbon of shell-churned earth appeared insignificant, and the misery and the mud and the death down there seemed illusory.
The two veteran pilots never ceased for an instant their search of the sky and the spaces beneath them. Their heads turned to a set rhythm in their scan, their eyes never still, never allowed to focus short or become mesmerized by the fan of the spinning propeller in front of them. In contrast, the two novices were carefree and self-congratulatory. Every time Michael glanced across in their direction they grinned and waved cheerfully. In the end he gave up trying to urge them to search the skies around them, they did not understand his signals.
They levelled out at 15,000 feet, the effective ceiling of the Sopwiths, and the sense of unease that had haunted Michael while he had been flying at low altitude over unfamiliar territory passed as he saw the town of Arras abeam of them. He knew that no Fokker could be lurking above them in that pretty bank of cumulus, they simply did not have the ability of fly that high.
He swept another searching glance along the lines. There were two German observation balloons just south of Mons, while below them a friendly flight of DH2 single-seaters was heading back towards Amiens, which meant they were from No. 24 Squadron.
In ten minutes they would be landing – Michael never finished the thought, for suddenly and miraculously the sky all around him was filled with gaudily painted aircraft and the chatter of Spandau machine-guns.
Even in his utter bewilderment Michael reacted reflexively. As he pulled the Sopwith into a maximum-rate turn, a shark-shaped machine checkered red and black with a grinning white skull superimposed on its black Maltese cross insignia flashed across his nose. A hundredth of a second later and its Spandaus would have savaged Michael. They had come from above, Michael realized; even though he could not believe it, they had been above the Sopwiths, they had come out of the cloud bank.