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Authors: Barbara Erskine

The Darkest Hour (40 page)

BOOK: The Darkest Hour
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Lucy sat back and closed her eyes, her head pressed against the head rest. ‘The exact word she chose was obsession. Yours, not mine. She thinks you are obsessed with me.’

There was a long silence and when she opened her eyes at last to look at him he was staring at her, an unreadable expression on his face.

‘Exactly!’ she said tartly. ‘I told her to sort it out with you. Please take your hand off my car.’

He stepped back without a word.

‘And when you see her you might explain that any books I remove from the studio are part of my research and I will return them.’ She was astonished at the hostility she felt towards him suddenly.

He stood back out of the way as she pulled into the lane and drove up the hill. She glanced in the mirror and saw him still standing looking after her as she turned the corner into the village.

November 19th 1940

Tony was flying at twenty thousand feet. It didn’t make any difference knowing someone might be trying to sabotage him, not when there were hundreds of ME 109s out there all bent on the same thing. He wasn’t hearing the RT any more, just the voice in his own head dictating the moves one by one.

Lock onto the enemy; follow him, finger on the tit, fire. Another burst. I’ve hit him. He’s on fire; he’s going down. Watch out behind. No time to check, dive away out of line. Constantly dodge and weave. Never stay on one course for a second. There is another one. Finger on the tit, fire. The gun button is hot. No, it’s my hands in the gloves; the whole cockpit is hot. Please let me not be on fire too. No, I’m flying too close to the sun. Joke. Dodge. Watch out, someone behind me, but it’s someone with a black cross on his tail. Swoop away, watch for tracer bullets, come up under another chap and fire. Got him. Check fuel. Nearly out. Look down. The sea as far as I can see. Better break away and go down lower. Head for home. Sweat, it’s sweat dripping into my eyes. Sweat shouldn’t be red. Am I hit? I can see the coast now. Make a course west. Can I reach our airfield? I’m much lower now. Turn off the oxygen. Wrench back the canopy. The blast of fresh air clears my head. It’s just a scratch. It can’t be any more. The Spit doesn’t seem to be damaged, so how can there be blood? Feeling woozy. Maybe I shouldn’t have turned off the oxygen. There it is, Chichester spire. I can make it. Turn into wind. Lower and lower still till the wheels hit the deck and we bump across the grass towards the dispersal huts. The boys are waiting for the plane. Am I late? The others are back. Slowly we drift to a halt and I just sit there, waiting for something to happen. More sweeps I expect. More patrols. More encounters out to sea.

It was just a scratch. A splinter deflected from a hole in the Perspex of the hood. How could he not have known that the plane had been hit? A cup of sweet tea and a dressing over the cut and he was back on readiness.

‘How are you, Tony?’ Don was waiting for him in the Mess. ‘Two shot down confirmed, and two probables, I hear. If you go on like this we’ll have to give you a gong, old boy.’ Tony was conscious of the man’s steel-grey eyes steadily scrutinising his face and he knew what he was thinking. Don’t go mad; just because you think you are going to die, don’t take unnecessary risks. It doesn’t work that way. Keep calm. Keep thinking. Don’t go looking for trouble because the next time it will find you and we can’t spare you. Not yet.

There was a letter waiting for him on the locker by his bed. His batman must have put it there earlier.

I’m missing you too, but Daddy is not well. Please don’t come up for a bit. I’ll let you know when. Be careful, my darling. With all my love, E xxx

He kissed the sheet of paper and tucked it under his pillow, then he lay back and closed his eyes. He dreaded this interlude before blessed sleep took him because suddenly he could again feel the vibration of the plane through his whole body, feel the joystick in his hands, feel the angle of the wings as he soared up towards the sky.

Sunday 18th August

‘Just drive in to the Goodwood Motor Circuit,’ Robin’s friend Ted Bairstow had said. ‘Drive through the tunnel and pass all the parking areas. The hangar where we are working is on your right. If I’m not there one of the boys will let you in and you can walk through to the airfield beyond. It is much the same as it was in 1940. Still grass. The farmhouse they used as a Mess is still there. It’s a private house now.’

She had been planning this visit for ages; background information; seeing the real place, the scene of so many of Evie’s paintings. Finally getting round to a visit to Westhampnett seemed to be a good idea by way of taking her mind off her encounter at Rosebank. Lucy parked her car and climbed out staring round. Behind her, empty parking bays stretched back towards the gate in the distance; in front she could see the control tower and the airfield. Now, as she had seen from the map, it was called Chichester or, more often, Goodwood Aerodrome. When Tony had flown from here it had been called RAF Westhampnett after the nearest village.

Ted was there; a stout, cheerful man in his late fifties, dressed in blue overalls, he showed her round the hangar where, with a group of friends, he was restoring the carcass of a Mark IX Spitfire. She stared at it. She had seen these planes before in photographs and paintings, not least Evie’s, but nothing had prepared her for how small they were in real life. This little aircraft with its pretty rounded wings and cramped single-seater cockpit covered by a Perspex hood hardly seemed robust enough to have flown into battle, never mind helped to win a war. He showed her the ports for cannon in the wings. ‘There would normally have been eight machine guns in 1940,’ he explained, ‘in the Mark I and II, otherwise scarcely any difference in appearance.’ He grinned at her. ‘If you want to go up in one, there are one or two two-seater Mark IXs about nowadays. You could put your name down, though it might take a few years to get to the top of the list.’

She glanced at him to see if he was joking; he wasn’t. She took photographs, and unable to stop herself, rested her hand on the nose of the aircraft near the propeller. She could almost feel how keen it was to fly again.

Ted opened the full-height hangar doors which fronted the airfield just a crack and waved her through. She walked out, clutching her camera. In the far distance she could see the spire of Chichester cathedral rising above some trees. There were a few private modern planes drawn up round the perimeter, and a windsock flying in the distance, but otherwise there was no one there. The airfield was quiet. She shivered. As she stepped out of the shelter of the hangar she had heard Ted pulling the doors closed behind her, anxious to keep the cold wind and the dust out of the hangar. She stood staring out across the field to where the sun was beginning to set in a bank of cloud, turning the edges of the slate-coloured haze every shade of flame.

The Spitfire was standing facing into wind in the distance, a silhouette against the sunset. As she watched it began to move, racing across the grass towards the west and rising up to fly low and steady towards the spire. Her eyes narrowed, she put her hand up, trying to see against the glare as the plane swung round in the far distance and turned back towards the airfield. She could hear the throaty roar of the engine now as it approached, low and fast, heading straight for the row of hangars where she stood. She watched spellbound as it flew closer and almost ducked as it thundered over her head with a quick waggle of its wings and was lost almost at once in the distant haze.

She waited to see if it would return, then she retraced her footsteps to the hangar doors. Someone slid them back a couple of feet so she could slip inside and they closed behind her. The lights were on now, two figures bending over a piece of engine on the work-bench in the corner. She walked up to Ted.

‘Did you hear it? I didn’t realise there were any Spitfires flying from here. It was wonderful! I am so pleased I saw it.’ Her eyes were shining, her earlier tangle with Charlotte and Mike forgotten.

Ted looked at her puzzled. ‘There are no Spitfires here at the moment, or at least only this old lady.’ He jerked his thumb towards the plane behind him.

‘But I saw it take off. Just now.’ She felt foolish suddenly. ‘Perhaps it wasn’t a Spitfire. It flew right over the hangar. It waggled its wings like they do sometimes at an airshow when they’ve finished and they are going away and then it flew off up towards Tangmere.’

She stopped abruptly. Towards Tangmere. Why had she said that? How had she known where it was going? Ted was watching her speculatively and she found herself shaking her head.

‘I must have imagined it,’ she said with an embarrassed smile. ‘It is all too emotive, seeing your plane here after I’ve been doing so much research into 1940.’ Her voice trailed away. Ralph had been based at Tangmere. He must have come here from time to time, surely.

‘There are vintage planes here aplenty,’ Ted said thoughtfully, ‘and Spitfires fly displays quite often in the summer, but I am pretty sure there aren’t any here now. Besides, no one is allowed to fly this late. Did you see the letters?’ She realised that Ted was still talking to her.

‘The letters?’

‘On the fuselage. They all have letters to denote the squadron they came from and then a number.’ He pointed at his plane.

She shook her head. ‘It was going too fast to see. I didn’t think.’

‘Maybe an echo from the past?’ Ted said comfortably. He reached for a rag and began to wipe the oil from his hands. ‘I sometimes think it’s still all very close, you know.’ He was silent for a moment, lost in thoughts of his own. Then he grinned at her and went on, ‘Look, we’re packing up now, Lucy, so I had better chase you out. Come again any time, OK?’ He looked at her closely. ‘Are you all right?’

She nodded.

It had been Ralph flying that plane, she knew it had.

Sunday 18th August, late

Charlotte was sitting in Rosebank Cottage in the dark. She had made a cup of tea for herself, but it had grown cold and the milk in it had skimmed over. She had rung Mike again and again, frantic with worry when he didn’t show up at the cottage. She rang the London number and Dolly and in the end she had rung Mike’s mother as well. Juliette was short with her, but sounded worried herself when Charlotte explained they had planned to meet at lunchtime, driving down in separate cars.

‘Please, you will ring me back if you hear from him?’ Charlotte knew it sounded feeble, but she was near to tears.

‘Of course I will.’ Juliette hung up.

Charlotte sat staring at the window, watching the reflections in the glass and finally she stood up and pulled the curtains across, not comfortable with the thought of the empty garden and the isolated studio beyond. She shivered before miserably confronting the thought which had been haunting her all afternoon. Had Lucy rung Mike and told him everything Charlotte had said to her?

The first thing Juliette did was ring Mike’s number. He answered at once. ‘So, if you are not at Rosebank, where are you?’ she asked crisply.

He was at her house within twenty minutes.

‘I know she was worried. She rang about every five damn minutes.’ He threw himself down on the floor in front of the empty fireplace, leaning back against the sofa seat, his ankles crossed on the rug. He reached up for the bottle of lager his mother passed him.

‘So what happened?’ Juliette perched on the edge of a chair opposite him. Her son was looking miserable and exhausted.

‘I got to the cottage and I met Lucy Standish coming away. She was in a rare old strop. She and Charlotte had had words and Charlotte had told her –’ He paused suddenly and Juliette saw a touch of colour flush his pale face. She waited several seconds before prompting him. ‘Charlotte told her …?’

‘Charlotte is under the impression that I like Lucy. I gather she told Lucy I am obsessed with her and she told Lucy to go.’

‘Ah, I see.’ Juliette nodded wisely. ‘And are you obsessed with her?’

‘No of course I’m not!’

‘So, why did you not go straight in and tell Charlotte as much?’

Mike took a long draught from his bottle. ‘I don’t know.’ His shoulders slumped back against the sofa and he closed his eyes.

‘Do you love Charlotte?’ Juliette asked after a long silence.

‘I don’t know that either.’

‘Not enough, obviously, to go in and reassure her.’

‘Perhaps not. She’s possessive.’ He stopped as though considering what he had just said for the first time. ‘She is the one who is obsessed by Lucy.’

‘I like Lucy.’ Juliette leaned forward, elbows on knees. ‘I’ve seen a bit of her since you brought her here.’

‘No doubt she is keen to find out as much as she can from you about Evie.’ He sounded bitter. ‘She is the one who is obsessed round here. With Evie.’

Juliette frowned. ‘I’m happy to tell her all I know. I thought that was the point of you bringing her here in the first place.’ She fixed him with a fierce look. ‘So, why did you go round to her gallery and make all kinds of accusations about her? Do you really believe she is trying to cheat you, or did you get all that from Christopher? What the hell is going on with Christopher, Mike?’

Mike hesitated, then he shook his head. ‘I have no idea.’ He sighed.

‘Did you know he hits Frances?’

Mike opened his eyes. He leaned forward and stared at her. ‘No, of course I didn’t know that. How did you find out?’ Suddenly he was suspicious. ‘Have you been to see her as well? This is all to do with Lucy, isn’t it? It’s her fault Chris was angry with Frances. He came to see me about it. Lucy is bloody persistent and she is causing a lot of friction in this family! I wish I hadn’t brought her to meet you, now.’

‘Well, I’m glad you did. As I said, I like her.’

‘Did Lucy tell you she and her husband had a painting of Evie’s?’

‘Yes, she did.’ She decided not to mention the fact that she had seen it – or at least seen its crate. What had happened between her and Lucy and the Redwoods was probably best kept to herself for now.

Mike frowned. ‘So, it’s only me she doesn’t trust.’

‘It looks like it.’ Juliette leaned back against the cushions and contemplated her son in silence.

BOOK: The Darkest Hour
7.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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