The ground crew close the rear door. Freddie seals it shut. Clambers along the dim interior of V Victor. The echo of his passage like an indistinct memory from long ago. It’s another of his rituals to visit every area of the plane’s interior before take-off. Like a priest exorcising a home. He always tries not to look at the stretcher propped near the dangling legs of Woodsy up in the mid upper turret. He raps his knuckles on one or two of the oxygen bottles in racks as he passes with bowed head through V Victor’s belly, over her bomb bay.
They are on their way to Berlin again. Carrying a 4,000-pound “cookie” and fourteen 500-pound incendiary clusters. Rickie guides the aircraft to the target without problems.
“Turn starboard on to one-two-zero degrees.”
Up ahead are a forest of searchlights. A thicket of long thin smoking beams pivoting back and forth. Stabbing at the darkness. Making of the sky a kind of dome as though V Victor is about to enter some supernatural cathedral of light. The Pathfinder flares have splashed a vivid carpet of red and green over the target area down below. Red candles drip down slowly in the shape of a tree through the clouds.
A Lancaster in front is picked out by the finger of the master searchlight. Almost immediately a dozen other slave beams converge on her. Silvered and silhouetted by the powerful lights she looks like a ghost of herself. A dead aircraft returned to haunt the battle scene. She dives down through the stream of bombers and turns sharply but she cannot escape the deathly grip of the beams. Bursting shells cluster around her. A dazzling mosaic of curving red lines flicker across Freddie’s sight as he watches. For a moment he imagines he is inside that Lancaster and not piloting V Victor. The sixty-degree turn at three hundred knots creating a chaos of falling equipment. The men in the gun turrets flung against the perspex roof. Ammunition belts jumping out of their cases. Twelve volt batteries and oxygen bottles tumbling through the air.
He watches the coned Lancaster fall out of the sky. Trailing fire and smoke. The searchlights scythe through the dark space twinkling with red stars ahead. Seeking out a new victim.
This is the bomb run. He can’t weave or corkscrew V Victor. He has to keep her straight and steady. At fifteen thousand feet. The chewing gum becomes a bitter nugget in his mouth. Black clouds of smoke appear in the plane’s path and are shaken and stretched into grotesque protean shapes by the wind. They thicken into what looks like a meteor storm.
“Ruddy hell,” says Woodsy through his headset.
Menacing red dots snake up towards V Victor’s snout. There is a sudden billowing of explosive orange light to the left. A shockwave that rocks the fuselage. That tilts the port wing towards the ground. From the cloud of black smoke flaming trails of red, green and orange debris drip down like candle wax. To port Freddie registers flames licking at the wing of another Lancaster. The new recruits we played cricket with yesterday, he realises. The aircraft drifts drunkenly across his flight path.
Another silver flash lights up a grid of miniature streets and houses below. Teases out of the night this unsettling glimpse of the hidden life of the city and the realisation that there are people down there. Mothers seeking to comfort their children.
Freddie looks at the photo of Isabella among the dials. The green glow of the compass by his knee reflecting up a green sheen that he pictures on his skin, like theatrical face paint. Reg next to him in his mask and helmet. The collars of his Irvin jacket upturned, as if he is showing off for a girl.
The drunken Lancaster on fire, silhouetted against the glowing sky, begins spewing out black smoke. Its nose down. Its starboard wing tilting at a grotesque angle. He looks for as long as possible. Willing live bodies to appear. Chutes to open. Then V Victor is tangled up in a skein of searchlights for a moment. There is a lightning flash of blue light in the cockpit. So bright he can see a smudge of cigarette ash on his trousers. The blue beam seems to fizz static inside his body. His skin shrinks beneath his clothes. He turns away his eyes. Lowers his seat. When the searchlight moves away he has glittering stars on his retina. A blue glow glazes over the cockpit window.
“Bomb doors open,” says Spike over the intercom. Spike who is lying face down in the perspex nose of the aircraft staring down into his bomb-site.
The stink of all the explosions outside enters the cockpit along with an updraught of chill air. The smell of cordite stinging Freddie’s eyes, bringing forth tears.
“Nice and steady, Skipper. Air speed at one-eighty.”
V Victor leaps up into the air. As if hurdling a fence. Streams of red. orange and yellow tracer curve up towards her.
“Okay. Another minute to get the photographs and then it’s nose down and out of here. Navigator. Confirm the course out of here.”
The tension crackles with still more voltage as he waits for the camera light to go out on the instrument panel.
Two hours later, no matter whether he shepherds her upwards or downwards, Freddie can’t free V Victor from the engulfing thicket of fog. He has tried every trick in the book. Every textbook manoeuvre he knows. But he can find no gallery of open sky. Frequently he glances up through the perspex canopy. Never catching sight of the glittering point of a star. The relentless tide of cloud muffles the sound of the engines. Feeds a lethargic rhythm into his blood. Like a sedative.
“Navigator. Any idea where we are? We should be close to the Dutch coast by now, shouldn’t we?”
The words of the briefing officer keep coming back to him. “You’ve got eight hours fuel for a seven and half hour journey.”