Peter Gregory kicked the door of the dispersal hut closed behind him with the heel of his boot. He sensed the iciness of the air outside but was too well wrapped to feel it on his skin. He looked up and saw a big moon hanging still, while ragged clouds flew past and broke up like smoke in the darkness. He began to waddle across the grass, each step won from the limits of movement permitted by the parachute that hung down behind as he bucked and tossed his way forward. He heard the clank of the corporal fitter's bicycle where it juddered over the ground to his right. The chain needed oiling, he noted; the man was in the wrong gear and a metal mudguard was catching on the tyre with a rhythmic slur as the wheel turned.
He could see the bulk of his plane ahead, large in the night, with the three-bladed propeller stopped at a poised diagonal, the convex sweep of the upper fuselage looking sleeker in the darkness than by day. The fitter dropped his bicycle to the ground. He made his way over in the light of a feeble torch which he gripped between his teeth as he helped, with both hands braced against his parachute, to push Gregory up onto the wing. Then he clambered up himself as Gregory hoisted a leg over the side of the cockpit and slithered down inside.
"God, it's cold," said the fitter. "My hands can't feel a thing. This north wind."
Gregory switched on the instrument lighting and settled onto the sculpted metal seat, trying to make himself comfortable on his parachute.
The fitter was talking as Gregory's eyes went over the lit dials. "My boy's got this cough. I don't know what I can do about it, stuck down here. Oxygen?"
The engine was started and the man was off the wing. He bobbed about underneath, then stood clear as Gregory ran up the engine before signalling him to pull out the chocks that held the plane against the wind. Gregory saw him hold up the torch when at la.st he straightened and picked up his fallen bicycle; he gave him a minute to pedal his way back to the fug of the blacked-out mess, to sweet tea and cigarettes. Then he opened the throttle and let the little plane creep forward across the grass, bouncin.g on plump wheels.
When he had taxied to the end of the strip, he turned the plane into the wind and waited. He shivered. With his bare fingers he was able to check the fixture of the oxygen and radio-transmitter leads in his headset. He inhaled the intoxicating smell of rotting rubber from his mask, then pulled the glove back onto his hand and grasped the stick between his knees.
The R/T barked in his ear--someone impatient to get to the barrel of beer he had seen being wheeled in that afternoon. The wind veered a little, due north, between the lines of hooded lamps on either side of the strip; it was making the plane toss like a .small boat at anchor. Gregory checked the propeller was in fine pitch and opened the throttle. He moved forward.
Almost at once the tail lifted and he felt the controls firm up in his hand. The engine moaned, and the plane bumped its way down the strip, where the forces of wind and speed first lifted it, then dropped it back to earth. He sensed the wheels come clear, then felt the ground once more banging through his spine as a down-draught forced him back. He began to mutter through clenched jaws, cursing, then with a small inward movement of his fingers eased the stick and felt the earth gone as the plane rose u.p greedily on the air.
Two red lights showed that the wheels were up and locked away. Watching the compass with one eye, he set the plane in a gentle climbing turn to the left. At about ten thousand feet he ran into moist and choppy cloud, thicker and more turbulent than he ha.d seen about the moon. He feared the plane's jolting movement as he nosed it upward: there was the sense of something else up there with them, another element bearing down on the clean lines of his flight. His eyes ran along the rows of instruments. Flyi.ng by night was a violation of instinct; there were no steeples or bridges from which to take a bearing, no flash of wingtip or underbelly to show the vital presence of other aircraft The Spitfire pilots' speed and daytime coordination were of no use: there were needles in glass jars and you had to trust them Even when you swore you could feel the brush of treetops on the undercarriage, you must believe the altimeter's finger pointing at ten thousand feet.
Excerpted from Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks. Copyright© 1999 by Sebastian Faulks. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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