He heard their sound, like ripping cloth, as he pulled the stick back violently to climb He craned his neck but could see no gratifying holocaust beneath him, not even isolated fires When he thought he was out of range of ground defences, he slowed the rate of climb and felt the pressure slip from his neck and shoulders. He throttled back a little as he headed out northwest towards the sea; there was sweat running down his spine.
He breathed in and dropped the speed again, safe above the Channel waters He let the plane drift in a circle while he gathered himself and listened, but there was only the chugging engine and the slight whistle of wind through the airframe. His Hurricane carried four 20-mm Hispano cannons, known to their admirers as "tank-busters," and four 250-lb bombs in place of its regular machine guns. He calculated that he had about half his ammunition left; he could not return to base with it and he could not fire it into the empty sky as he flew back.
He went round once more, making certain of his position, then began to lose height slowly He pushed through the light cloud and picked up the outlines of the port below: he would flatten out along the harbour wall and fire as he turned to climb.
This time, the tracer started coming up at once, along the path of a weak searchlight Gregory opened the throttle wider and closed his ears to the engine's screaming. The plane was juddering as he straightened out. He was so low that he could see the ground, and there were no oil tanks in view He switched the button to fire and emptied the cannon at random in the direction of some parked lorries Then he pulled back the stick and climbed as fast as he could. He saw the tracer again on his port wing; then the rudder kicked his feet and he knew he had been shot in the tail.
The tracer stopped coming for him He looked down and saw a foaming black sea of welcome cloud. He started to level out, then breathed in deeply and blew the air towards the windscreen. He tested the rudder, one way, then the other; it seemed to react quite normally--the blow to the tail had apparently done no damage.
The southern shore of England was ahead At the airfield, there would be someone waiting for him at dispersal, with whisky if he wanted it Nothing could hurt him. The others were dead, but he was untouchable.
It had become suddenly brighter A mixture of elation and indifference to his own safety made him want to roll the plane upward, and he opened the throttle again: 320, 350 the needle said He adjusted the tail trim: it responded He pulled the stick back, gently, then harder till he felt the plane was vertical, hanging on the propeller He pushed the stick over to the right and felt the aircraft go round. He stopped and pushed the stick back. The horizon was upside down in the night He could see nothing, but he knew how the plane was flying He pushed the stick forward, then over to the left, and rolled out.
He felt sick Then he felt worse than sick: he felt disorientated He did not know which way up he was; sudden clouds were covering up the light of the moon. He pulled the stick back to climb but felt he was spinning; he was aware of the vastness of space around him and the little box in which he was plummeting.
Bloody Isaac, he was saying into his mouthpiece. Unless he could get a fix by a light or by some static point he did not know which way to push the stick. The tail must be more damaged than he had thought.
The plane bumped as it went into the cloud, and through the floor, though it must have been the canopy, Gregory briefly saw the moon . Craning his neck to keep the light in view, he brought the plane up and round on its axis. His back was aching with the pull and from the effort of keeping the moon in sight as he hauled the invisible horizon to where it should have been, the moon above, the ground below.
He dropped the speed and reset the altitude instruments, whose gyroscopes had been toppled by his roll. Something was wrong; although the rudder seemed to work, the weight did not feel right He set his course for the airfield and hoped the wind would let him land. Eventually he picked out the flarepath and brought his speed down to 150, then lowered the wheels He slowed again for the flaps, turned in steeply and felt the crosswind hammering the plane as he reached up to open the hood. The rudder bars were shivering as the wind ran through the damaged tail; below him, Gregory could see the pale runway lamps as they lurched from side to side He sank the plane down gently, but it kicked and rose on the wind, out towards the edge of the field He pushed open the throttle and began to climb again. This time he came in from a different angle and hit the ground hard He held it down and braked.
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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