Extract 3 from a War Novel

Requiring Absolute Forbearance or ‘The Empress’

Q for Queen had sustained heavy damage in the raid over Engelsrichken. The night fighter’s cannon had ripped into her from below, breaching her fuel tanks and setting her outer port and inner starboard engines ablaze. The flight engineer had cut the fuel supply to the damaged engines and shut them down. Shortly after, the outer starboard had spluttered and died. Thus Queen-Bee had been losing height for the last half hour as she headed for home on her solitary engine. And now the flight engineer’s voice was coming across the intercom, informing them that they were about to run out of fuel. The Belgian coast lay far behind them, leaving the pilot no option but to ditch out at sea, somewhere between Norway and the Netherlands. There was neither height nor time remaining to allow for evacuation. A minute or so later, the bomber belly-flopped onto the water, scudding like a stone across the surface of a pond then drew to a dead halt. For some moments, Queenie sat on top of the North Sea, as a plate or a saucepan lid might be suspended on dishwater, seemingly held there by surface tension. Inside the bomber, the frantic escape effort had begun. And then, in a matter of seconds, she disappeared beneath the water, sinking straight to the seabed as though her airframe had been hewn out of granite, taking with her those crew members who’d failed to get out in time. There the plane would remain among the wrecks of galleons and fishing smacks, encrusted with barnacles on the outside, its interior now home to the nameless creatures of the unfathomable depths. Unlike those other structures, nothing would remain of the airmen’s bodies.  Their soft flesh was destined to be devoured by the molluscs and fishes, lacking as it was in coral fibre.

Three airmen sat shivering in the half-light in the inflatable life raft, the bomber’s flight engineer, navigator and mid-upper gunner. They’d brought with them a solitary flask of coffee. It was all they’d had time to salvage. In any case, they’d be picked up pretty soon, no doubt, and so their lack of provisions would prove immaterial. The flight engineer was in a bad way, though. He had a long, open wound on his head, a gash in his right thigh, and his left shoulder and arm appeared to be broken. The two others had come out of it relatively unharmed, the odd scratch or bruise aside. At first, they’d tried to make light of their situation, joking about their transformation from airmen into makeshift sailors.

And now a fourth member of the crew was approaching the raft. For some reason he was swimming on his back, if such could describe the indolent manner in which he was drifting toward them. He looked more like a man basking in the sun of the Aegean than one cast adrift in the cold waters of the North Sea, an hour before sunrise. As the airman drew alongside them, they recognised the bloodied features of the rear gunner. He must already have been dead when they’d hit the water. After some minutes, he floated away from them again.

The sun came up. And now they could appraise their position much more clearly. There was no sign of land, but every so often a big ship would edge along the horizon or an aeroplane would pass overhead at great height. It wasn’t long before the chill morning air had given way to blistering heat. They each sipped a little of the coffee. The mid-upper gunner had the red hair and pale, freckled complexion common among those of Celtic origin. By noon his face was badly burnt.

Later that day, the corpse of the rear gunner had visited them again. It had hung around for a while before finally floating off to God knew where. Once in a while, a gull or a gannet flew by. The flight engineer lay there groaning to himself. They drank a little more coffee. And then the sun had gone down.

On the second morning, they awoke from fitful sleep to find that the flight engineer had died during the night.  Having overcome their shock, they agreed upon a course of action.  They said a short prayer then gently pushed their comrade into the water.  The dead man remained close to the raft for an hour or so then struck out on his own.  Perhaps he’d gone in search of the rear gunner.

The sun was blazing down again. And though they’d eked it out in tiny mouthfuls, the coffee had all been consumed. There was nothing for it but to urinate into the flask and slake their thirst from recycled body fluids. And still there was no sight of land. No islet or inlet appeared on the horizon. Neither cliff-top nor sandy beach hove into view.  Was it just that they were drifting so very far from land or had the raft not moved at all? And what about those boats and planes that seemed never to come any closer? They remained distant, hazy images, like cut-outs moving along the backdrop of a puppet theatre.

On the third morning, the hallucinations had begun. The gunner kept calling out and flailing his arms about. His skin was cracked and blistered and dotted with open sores. His eyes were vacant. He’d become convinced that monsters were rising through the depths beneath them, bent upon their destruction. At any moment, the tentacles of a giant octopus might pull the raft beneath the waves or they might find themselves crushed in a sea serpent’s embrace. Only when the airman had slipped into an uneasy slumber did the shouting subside.

On the fourth morning, the navigator awoke to find himself alone in the raft. He could only assume that the gunner had fallen overboard during the night. But then, he was finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between reality and imagination. Maybe the whole scenario was being played out inside his head. And what of the seabirds? Were they cut-outs too, suspended by threads from the top of the box? His skull felt as though it were being crushed in a vice and his throat was as dry as the inside of an airman’s boot. Hunger was gnawing at his guts.

And then he’d heard it. A distant buzzing, as though a winged insect were circling around his head. But that wasn’t possible, not this far out to sea. All the while, the sound kept on growing louder. He had wondered at first if it were just another delusion. Very soon, though, he’d been able to make out the shape of the aeroplane, a fighter aircraft of some sort, flying low across the water. Mustering the last of his strength, he sat up and waved his arms about above his head. The pilot had definitely spotted him and had swung his aircraft in the direction of the raft. And now the throbbing of its piston engine was all engulfing. As the plane passed overhead he could very nearly see into the other man’s eyes.  The navigator raised a hand in acknowledgement. If the pilot had seen his gesture then he didn’t return it.

Surely, now his position would be reported and it wouldn’t be long before some vessel was diverted in order to pick him up. A grin spread along his parched lips. The plane was flying in a wide arc. The pilot had noted the navigator’s uniform, the model of his life raft. And now the plane had finished executing its 360-degree turn and was heading back toward the raft. Why was the pilot making a second approach? What further information could he possibly need? It wasn’t as though he could land his plane on the water or drop off provisions. The navigator had just been raising his hand again as the first bullets from the fighter’s machine guns tore into his flesh.

Text © PSR 2013 – reproduction by permission

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