Above my bed, when I was young, the Airfix kits, the Hurricane, Spitfire, Messerschmitt, spun on their threads in the draft.
One by one they will return, throttling down over perimeter wires of forgotten airfields, then taxi up to abandoned huts. Down the bramble-choked lane come the women and men on bicycles, others on foot, the sound of their voices light and drifting as a summer swarm as they pass through the rusting gates, waving to the CO gliding by in his Lagonda.
The pilots jump down from their planes, knees bending as they hit the ground. A few stumble, awkward with their parachutes bumping at the back of their thighs. Some wave, some call, but their voices are so light they are borne away on the summer breeze. A faint rain is starting to fall and clings, shimmering, to their gray-blue uniforms.
The two groups meet and mingle. Handshakes and pats on the back. A hug and a light kiss on a cheek, postponed for sixty years. A black Labrador runs through legs and is greeted by a bulky man who kneels to embrace him. As they tussle, some drift over to the aircraft whose manifolds steam in the drizzle. These are mostly men, the fitters, riggers and armorers. They stroke the wings, run fingers over the blown-away fragments of cloth that once covered the gun ports, curse quietly.
Others look around in the rain at the rutted grass, the cracked concrete where the youth of the town race motorbikes and go-carts at weekends, the husks of Nissen huts. The control tower still stands though its windows are blank, the aerials bent and rusting. Some of the WAAFs move towards the concrete filter room, passing over the foundations of the communications hut. In the mud on the floor of the Anderson shelter one crouches and digs up the remains of an old Picture Post. She peels the pages apart and out falls a wizened French letter. She shrugs, others laugh. The youngest bites her lip.
Nearly all smoke. They pass cigarettes between them like benedictions, like tokens of belonging. After all, they need take no heed of health warnings, even if there were any on the packets they slip from breast pockets, flip open, light up, then breathe into the warm, damp air.
They talk in small groups. The pilots gesture with their hands, showing how it happened. They argue still over numbers and formations. One shows with the side of his hand dropping earthward how he had peeled away, then steadied and came up behind his other hand, flying level. Then both start to shake. The others nod and laugh, quiet but persistent as memory.
So they talk and drift till the drizzle slows then stops. Cigarettes are squashed under shoes and flying boots, ties are pushed up under collars, caps are straightened or set at precise, jaunty angles that pass just inside regulations. The couple who have been entwined since the beginning come back from the woods by the perimeter fence. The bells of the bicycles ring faintly as they fade up the lane. The propellers blur as the engines rev in whispers. Then one by one they take off and climb above the clouds where it is always blue, burning and burning at that summer's end.
There are some radio telephone signals from that summer -- pilots taking directions from the women who controlled them from the ground, or screaming at each other to get in formation -- that have become trapped between the ground and the Heaviside layer. They bounce back and forward like tennis balls in some endless rally, for they don't decay. Once in a while a radio ham, idly skimming the airwaves late at night, will suddenly be listening to men and women controlling, flying, singing, cursing, dying. All present in the headphones though they are long gone.
And among the few trees that are left beyond the rusting perimeter fence, there is a trunk with large distorted letters bearing a name and a date. It was carved by the other one, the lanky tired one who stands half in, half out the bedroom window of a house in the postwar estate, his tan boots sunk a foot below the floor. The one with his long back turned, whose right arm hangs slightly crooked, who is always starting to turn round, who never fully turns round, whose face would be so familiar.
Excerpted from Clouds Above © Copyright 2002 by Andrew Greig. Reprinted with permission by Plume, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. All rights reserved.
The Clouds Above: A Novel of Love and War
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Plume
- ISBN-10: 0452283604
- ISBN-13: 9780452283602