Schräge Musik

A boy bends over his work, shoulders hunched, absorbed in his task. It is mid-afternoon on a bright, sunny day, yet the boy has switched on a pair of angle-poise lamps and in their pooled circles of light a few pieces of grey plastic and perspex can be seen on the desktop behind which he stands. At the centre, the almost completed 1:72 inch scale model of an Avro Lancaster B, Mark I bomber rests on its under-carriage and wheel assembly. The boy’s nimble fingers gently prise the tiny plastic figure of a miniature aviator from the sprue and with a modelling knife deftly trims the vestigial nib of plastic by which it had been attached at the crown of its tiny plastic head. Taking up a fine haired paintbrush in one hand and holding the figurine between forefinger and thumb of the other, the boy delicately paints first the drab brown of the airman’s flight suit overalls, and then, after dabbing the brush into thinners and onto a cotton cloth to clean it, black for the flying jacket, helmet and boots, yellow for the Mae West life-preserver and lastly a rather muddied pink for the face and hands. The Lancaster has already been painted a camouflage pattern of dark earth and dark green on the upper parts and night black below. While the painted figure dries the boy applies Royal Air Force roundel decals to the wings and fuselage. He has modified the capital letters supplied in the kit to create RVJ 1642, the serial mark of his dead father’s squadron and aircraft.
 
Muttering to himself the boy takes up the painted figure again and, speaking in the clipped officer-class accent borrowed from the black and white films of the war and news reels he has watched in the cinema he says:
 
“You’re my Bomb Aimer Joe. We’ve got an important operation ahead of us tonight and you’ve got to man the forward guns as well. Think you’re up to the job?”
 
He answers himself, mimicking a high-pitched, squeaky Cockney,
 
“I’ll do me best Skip’, you can count on me.”
 
He places the supine figure into position and then carefully glues the shallow Perspex dome onto the nose of the Lancaster.
 
The model is finished and the boy regards the day’s effort with quiet, contemplative satisfaction. He tilts one of the lamps to closer review his work. He studies the span of the wings and the four mounted engines. “The Mark I Lanc.”, he says, speaking to an imaginary audience, “was fitted with four Rolls Royce Merlin engines, the same engine that powered both the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane.” He moves the lamp slowly along the upper part of the fuselage, from the Pilot and Flight Engineer in the cockpit, to the Navigator, Radio Operator and Special Operator, just visible through the astrodome. The Mid-Upper Gunner is in position in the dorsal turret as is the Rear Gunner in his lonely tail turret. Peering closely he sees with dismay that he has neglected to paint the tiny grey figure of the Special Operator before fixing the Perspex cover of the Astrodome. “You stupid boy,” he says to himself. He turns out both lamps and leaves the room. A home-made valve radio glows gently on top of a bed-side bookcase. On the shelves below are a few books: amongst them are a number of Compton’s ‘William’ stories: William the Outlaw and William Does his Bit, as well as The Wireless Constructor's Encyclopaedia (1934), The Boy’s Own Book of Practical Chemistry, A Scouting Handbook for 1954, I Bought a Mountain, Ventriloquism for Dummies, a tattered hardback copy of Reach for the Sky and a battered paperback of Wind, Sand and Stars. From the radio, though the volume is low, Conway Twitty can be heard singing It’s Only Make Believe. It is July 1958, and through the high window in the pitched roof of the boy’s attic bedroom, ribbons of altocumulus can be seen streaming across a mid-summer sky.
 
After tea, which in this part of the country refers to the meal taken in the evening after work, and sat at the dining room table with Mother, he had asked:
 
“Will you be Bluefrock?”
 
She had slowly studied him through her spectacles.
 
“Who the Devil is Bluefrock when he’s at home?”
 
“Shhh. Careless talk costs lives. Codename for Control”, he muttered conspiratorially holding a finger up to his lips.
 
“I can’t. I won’t.”
 
Her head was slightly tilted with a look that was both beseeching and reproachful and which, he noted to himself, she had recently begun to adopt when he made such requests. Failing to keep the exasperation from her voice, she went on in hesitant, measured tones:
 
“You have to stop these games.”
 
He began idly toying with a prism of solid glass, holding it up to his eye and laying it on the table where the refracted sunlight cast a rainbow pattern on the white linen cloth.
 
“Please Mum, it’s important… it has to be tonight. It’s the anniversary. It will be the last time, I promise.”
 
Mother got up, tight-lipped, frowning. She began clearing away the remnants of their tea. She said: “If you think I’m playing any part in your silly, childish make-believe you’re mistaken. You’re too old for these games. I don’t know why you aren’t outside on a day like this. I’m sure that it’s not healthy for you to be cooped up in that room all day. I’ve told you umpteen times that you shouldn’t dwell on what happened in the past and on things which might be better forgotten…” He could see she was close to tears. He too felt the involuntary welling of emotion, of unnameable feelings unwittingly invoked.
 
Desolated, he picked up a framed black and white photograph from the sideboard. In it two young airmen in Royal Air Force uniform and between them a pretty dark haired WAAF, stared out, smiling confidently.
 
“Tell me what he was like…”. He has asked her this before and immediately regretted the ill-chosen words. She answered, this time with a direct, barbed riposte: “I will not. You’re nothing like him, that’s for sure.”
 
Hardly able to contain an engulfing wave of rage and shame he rose quickly from the table with a choked, sarcastic “May I get down?” and following her downcast, supplicant nodded assent, abruptly left the house by the kitchen door in a towering sulk.
 
He had taken his father’s bicycle from the shed and cycled for half-an-hour, pedalling hard along arrow-straight lanes bisecting the flat, arable landscape. It was still light and in the clear air the command tower of a distant airfield could be seen, miles away across the fields and hedgerows of the flat lands beyond the Wold. Hunched over the handlebars, red-faced and gasping from the effort, the boy muttered to himself:
 
“It’s not a game … what does she know? … She doesn’t care about it … doesn’t bloody care … doesn’t ruddy care about any of it …”
 
The road he was following turned deceptively down into a narrow, twisting, deep-sided wooded valley. Too late, he realised with dismay, as he and the bike plunged downhill through the trees, that this way a hostile, sometimes ankle-nipping dog guarded the ford in the valley bottom. Too late to stop now, he threw himself on the pedals, urging the bike headlong down the last slope before the river. But no growling dog lurked here today, in the silent valley bottom, where the slow stream ran over the cobbles of the ford and where sunlight, filtered by leaf and branch, played on the surface of the quiet water. Both boy and the unmanageable bicycle, already parting company, careened into the stream. He made it almost across, until the front wheel striking a loose cobble upended the boy into the shallow water. The bike clattered over on its side.
 
He lay for a while where he had fallen, conscious of the flow of the water across his cheek but thinking of nothing. A leaf turning slowly in the gentle current. Insects, motes in the shafts of sunlight between the branches of the trees that lined the beck. The sound of a distant tractor.
 
He got to his feet noticing that he had bloodied his lip. The bike appeared undamaged save for a bent front mudguard. He pushed it up the incline on the far side of the ford.
 
By the time he reached the disused airfield, he was out of breath and hot and sweaty again. He rested the bicycle against the wall of the building in the shade, amongst a patch of nettles. A door lay unhinged in the undergrowth, permitting access through an opening to the interior of the abandoned building. The stairs were dust-choked but sound, and he climbed to the upper storey. From here the windows on all four sides of the tower presented in unbroken panorama the expanse of the airfield and surrounding countryside. The triangle of the grassed runway and its two taxiway diagonals were still clearly discernible. Nissan huts, their corrugated iron roofs now a rusted brown, still stood, but the hangars that had housed the bombers were long gone, demolished, filled-in or blown-up. On previous visits he had observed sheep and cattle wandering freely over the decommissioned airfield but today two horses lay at rest below the tower. They were large beasts and lay back to back. The black one seemed to be sleeping. The white one had its head raised, but was otherwise unmoving. It was surrounded by a small flock of jackdaws. From his vantage point the boy watched as the birds took turns to hop onto the broad back of the white horse where they pulled and pecked until white tufts of horsehair, like strange, bushy handle-bar moustaches, protruded from either side of their beaks. The daws repeatedly pecked at one patch on the horse’s hindquarter. There was a raw, red wound on the horse’s flank.
 
The boy’s uncle had first brought him here, to this place, the aerodrome where he and the boy’s father had been stationed during the conflict. Together, the boy and uncle, inadequate as playmate though the uncle was, had explored the underground bunkers used to store stacked drums of fuel and munitions and the dank interiors of other subterranean chambers which had served as air raid shelters, present day Neolithic long barrows, now empty, their iron doors, rusted and broken.
 
Uncle’s stories had ignited a spark of curiosity and fuelled a burgeoning fascination. More than once he had been pressed by the boy to recall the operation of the loading of the bombs into the Lancasters. Such accounts seemed to hold a peculiar, dark attraction for the boy, whose note taking and fanatical demands for accuracy and detail: the tractor pulled bomb-train, bomb loads, tonnage, net high explosive quantity and the like, had unnerved his uncle, not least because he had struggled, when quizzed, to remember the make-up of load for a given type of area bombing raid and, in his confusion, to make distinction, to the boy’s scornful frustration, between Industrial Demolition, Maximum Incendiary and Blast, Demolition and Fire. Nor had the boy’s mother approved of visits to the airfield, or the routine tea table grilling the boy subjected him to. She had quietly reproached the Uncle and bade him promise to curtail their adventures. Notwithstanding his mother’s teatime embargo and his uncle’s more recent reluctance to supply “the gen”, the boy had succeeded in compiling a substantial dossier on his favoured topic. It now filled a fat manila folder, which he kept under his bed.
 
“The models are bad enough, Mrs Taplow complains she can’t see to clean in his room these days. Those bally planes are an obsession with him, a downright obsession, and I’m at my wits end with it.”
 
“The boy needs a father figure”, he’d had the temerity to reply. The boy’s mother had looked at him with something approaching contempt,
 
“You bloody fool. Take him fishing for Pete’s sake, or to the cinema.”
 
“He won’t keep still for long enough to sit through the main feature.”
 
“He can sit for long enough building those damn model planes of his.”
 
“He likes the cartoons though… and the odd poem. ”
 
He has made the upper room in the Control Tower his centre of operations. Far to the west the sun has started to set behind a line of distant hills. Through the windows of the room the sun’s last rays lengthen the boy’s shadow across the floor. He takes a tuning fork from a pocket in his shorts and strikes it against the nearest wall. When the solitary signal tone has faded, he speaks:
 
“Gather round chaps…”
 
A spectral squadron materialises in the dust-filled air, aircrews of a ghostly row of bombers at rest on the airfield below the tower, to listen attentively to the briefing. Their faces are only rudely formed, unconsolidated, still plastic. They are young men all, some just boys perhaps, only a few years older than himself. The figures coalesce and amongst the featureless crowd the crew of aircraft RVJ 1642 are distinguishable.  Here’s Joe “Explosive Joseph” Cohen, the bomb-aimer and forward-gunner, here’s Flight Engineer Ginger “Biscuit” McVitie, and the Navigator Flying Officer Roger Winthrop-Young and there the Radio Operator, the Welshman Hugh Pugh and there the grey figure of Special Ops., whose name Uncle claims he doesn’t know, and there the Mid-Upper Gunner Sergeant Alex “Sandy” Wenton and there the Rear Gunner, Charlie Fetch. The penumbral figure of his father, Flying Officer 1588461, Pilot of aircraft RVJ 1642, stands at the edge of the group, in the shadows by the far wall smoking a cigarette. The boy speaks:
 
“Well lads there’s no doubt that we’ve got a good one for you tonight. The job of each crew is to locate oil storage tanks on the dockside and destroy them. The Pathfinders should light it up nicely for you and it should be fairly easy to find. The weather forecasters have promised you a tail-wind on the way out and clear skies later tonight. As soon as the Hun hears you knocking on his door you’ll get the usual warm welcome from the Luftwaffe and a plentiful supply of Flak to go with it. So it’s no good expecting an easy passage because you won’t get one. With the water landmarks and moonlight you should manage a good run up. Go in and flatten it and the best of British to you.”
 
He has placed a Services Diary for 1943, a tuning fork and a small dog-eared photograph of his father in flight gear in front of where he sits on the floor. He takes a sheet of paper covered in handwriting from a pocket in his shorts. The script isn’t needed and the talismans lie disregarded. He knows the lines and all the parts he has to play by heart.
 
But quietly, almost whispering, though there is no one to overhear him in the fading light, he begins to intone.
 
“Hello Bluefrock this is Romeo. Over.”
 
“Hello Romeo, this is Bluefrock. Cleared for take off. Over.”
 
“Hello Path, hello Path, R for Romeo calling, R for Romeo calling, may we taxi up? Over.”
 
In another ghostly voice, he says: “Hello R. Romeo, hello R. Romeo, Path answering, Path answering, yes you may taxi up and take off, yes you may taxi up and take off. Over.”
 
The boy’s absorption in the game is absolute and he flits between the characters in his make-believe with practiced confidence, adopting a different, borrowed voice for each.
 
“Hello Romeo, this is Bluefrock. Wind at 22 miles an hour at 319 degrees, visibility 12 miles with three tiers of cumulous at three thousand feet. Over.”
 
The sun is almost lost behind the line of hills and darkness is quickly descending but the boy in the lonely tower is still at his post.
 
Now, as though he is summoning the memory of his own portentous experience, he speaks again:
 
“Path, we’re turning onto the end of the runway …”
 
“It’s bloody dark in ‘ere …”
 
“Moon’s not up yet Taff …”
 
“Come gentle night…”
 
“Crew are all in position, pre-take off checks complete …”
 
“Come loving, black-browed night…”
 
“Shut up Ops.!”
 
They wait for the Aldis lamp to give the signal . It comes on and the cockpit is suddenly flooded with green light.
 
“OK chaps here we go!”
 
Then the Lanc starts to move, the Skipper has his left hand on the joystick, his feet on the rudder pedals, easing the throttles open with his right hand, keeping her straight with the runway. The crate builds speed, slowly and slowly, like a great lumbering truck, the deep throated roar envelops them. The Skipper eases the stick forward and then pushes it as far forward as it will go to get the tail up.
 
“Sixty miles an hour … seventy miles an hour… end of the runway in sight…”
 
Through the glass of the cockpit windows the Skipper and Flight Engineer can see trees and the darkness beyond. They strain forward, everything alert, keeping her straight, throttles forward.
 
“That’s it … full power! … Watch the steering! … watch the airspeed!”
 
“Eighty … eighty five miles an hour… Straight and true Skipper…”
 
“Biscuit … keep your hands behind the throttles so they don’t slip back please…”
 
“Ninety miles an hour … a hundred … a hundred and ten.”
 
“Both hands on the stick now, keep her straight … Ease it back, gently, don’t jerk it, we don’t want to stall it and lose an engine do we?”
 
“Approaching end of the runway …”.
 
The Lanc is throbbing, the full roar from the Merlins deafening. They can all feel the massive vibrating weight of the aircraft, the 2,000 gallons of fuel and six tons of bombs.
 
“One-twenty … airspeed.”

 

Then there’s the first bump as she lifts off, then a second and she clears the end of the runway and all the rumbling and shaking stops. The Skipper touches the brakes to stop the wheels spinning.
 
“Wheels up!”

 

The aircraft starts to climb and turn, turn and climb into the darkness.
 
Night has fallen while the boy cycles home. The moon has not yet risen. It is night as he stows the bicycle and quietly lets himself in through the back door. Mother has gone to bed, although a faint lamp-glow shows beneath her door as he climbs the laddered steps from the first floor landing to his attic room. “Put that light out,” he whispers under his breath.
 
Later, after midnight, he has changed into pyjamas and is wearing a leather flying helmet, goggles and a pair of earphones. He has cleared the debris from the work area and holds the model Lancaster in his hand. He trundles it along the makeshift runway of the desktop and, mimicking the sounds of its straining engines, slowly zooms it up over his head into the imaginary sky.
 
He ties a length of nylon line to the top of the Lancaster and suspends it from a crossbeam in the roof and carefully pushes the undercarriage into the wing housing. He climbs onto his bed. He holds a fishing rod in one hand and his tuning fork in the other. A torch is taped to the bed frame at the foot of the bed, a second torch lies close at hand beside him. A small pile of  aluminium foil strips is heaped on the bedclothes.
 
He looks at the illuminated dial of his wristwatch and speaks.
 
“Hello Bluefrock, hello Bluefrock, Path calling, Path calling R for Romeo took off at twenty one thirty eight, repeat, twenty one thirty eight, over.”
 
With the fishing rod he sets the suspended plane into pendulous motion. From the light of a half-moon flooding through the attic window the aircraft makes an enlarged, erratically dancing and crazily-motile shadow on the maps of Germany and Northern Europe which the boy has pinned together and laid out on the bedroom carpet. He strikes the tuning fork against the frame of the bed.
 
“Bombardier to Pilot, coming up on Stream Skipper.”
 
“Thank you, Bombardier.”
 
“Hello Skipper…”
 
“Hello Roger,”
 
“T-turn onto heading n-nine one magnetic, re-p-peat nine one magnetic,”
 
“Roger Navigator, nine one magnetic, turning on,”
 
“ETA Spurn Head at zero fourteen, Skipper.”
 
“Roger Roger. Thank you Navigator....Pilot to Crew. We’re just moving up to join the Stream at the rendezvous. OK Hugh Pugh?”
 
“Wireless Ops., aye Skip”,
 
“Special Ops.?”
 
“Special Operator, yes thanks John. OK.”
 
“OK Mid-upper Gunner?”
 
“Mid-upper, yes thanks Skip – not a patch of cloud out there.”
 
“Don’t worry Sandy.”
 
“Permission to test the rear guns Skipper.”
 
“Give it a few minutes until we’re clear of the coast if you don’t mind Charlie.”
 
“Wilco Skipper.”
 
“OK down there Bombardier?”
 
“OK Skipper.”
 
RVJ 1642 and its squadron have joined an immense airborne formation of heavy bombers heading out over the silent sea from the Humber towards the German Bight.
 
And although the Special Operator can make out the darker shapes of other aircraft against the darkened sky through the glass of the astrodome, it seems unimaginable and improbable that each could contain a crew, other men, other companions. It is more evident that they are alone in this shuddering, juddering crate, separate from all else by the constant hammering, numbing drone of the engines. Elect, perhaps chosen, remote in their lonely fortress and no longer of the world. He whispers to himself:
 
“More distant and more solemn than a fading star.”
 
“Have you brought your football boots with you Joe?”
 
“I ’ave Skipper, we ought to give those bloody Gerries a proper kicking tonight,”
 
“Just like at White Hart Lane, eh Joe?”
 
“What a caper that was … a proper offence to King and country that was Skipper … the bleedin’ Swastika flyin’ over North London,”
 
“Still we won, didn’t we Joe?”
 
“Yes Skipper, three nil, but it was only a friendly, or so called.”
 
“Flight Engineer?”
 
“Yes Skipper?”
 
“A few more revs please Ginger, we don’t want to fall behind do we?”
 
“Wilco Skipper.”
 
“We beat them again in ’38 didn’t we Bombardier?”
 
“That we did Skipper, six three it was in Berlin, but that caper was an even bigger disgrace … the whole bloody England team givin’ the Nazi salute before the kick off. Disgrace to King and country Skipper.”
 
“Yes. Well with any luck we’ll give them a proper beating again tonight.”
 
“I ’ope so Skipper. I ’ope so.”
 
A half-moon has risen to the north. Ten thousand feet below them the expanse of the North Sea stretches to each horizon, a vast, sullen, almost molten leaden plate. From this height its crudely sculpted surface appears immobile, unfinished. Behind the crew in the cockpit and below the Mid-upper Gunner in his dorsal turret, the Lancaster’s cargo of bombs rest, cradled, sleeping, in the bomb bay. Ahead, in the night shrouded unseen east, lies the darkness of Germany.
 
“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.”
 
The Special Operator’s muted, disembodied voice goes unheard. He his studying the oscilloscope of the in-board radar set. The radial scanner casts a pale band of reflected light across his masked face on each pass. He can make out the airborne mass of the bomber force as an amorphous blip and the enemy coastline ahead as an uneven line of light towards the top of the screen. How strange it is, he wonders to himself, how unutterably strange and sad that the world outside could ever be represented and somehow reduced to these unreal and random shapes, dots and outlines illuminated on a small dark screen.
 
“Deploying radar counter-measures Skipper.”
 
“Good show Ops.”
 
He cranks the handle on the transmitter and looks over his shoulder through the astrodome at the antenna.
 
“How’s your girl, Ginger?”
 
“Mavis,? Och she’s fine thank you Skipper…”
 
“Important to have someone, you know…”
 
“Yes Skipper. I suppose it is.”
 
“What about you back there Charlie? Is there a good woman waiting for you?”
 
“My Ethel might be a-waiting on me Skip, but I ain’t entirely sure if she’s a good woman or not…”
 
“How about you Sandy? Is there a Mrs Wenton?”
 
“The good Mrs Wenton is as well as can be expected, Skipper, given how she is herself expecting.”
 
“’Cor stone me… She ain’t up the duff again is she? I don’t know how you find time to do it. Don’t you know there’s a bleedin’ war on?”
 
(Laughter breaks out, momentarily breaking the tension on-board the Lancaster.)
 
OK chaps, Pipe down now.”
 
“When I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars…”
 
Hugh Pugh, the Wireless Operator, turns in his seat and looks quizzically at Special Ops opposite him. Special Ops looks up from the Radar and HS2 ground scanning apparatus. Nearby the Navigator, shoulders hunched, is absorbed in his task and bent over his charts on the map table.
 
Pugh glances forward to the cockpit beyond the forward bulkhead and removes his face mask, nudging his seated companion to do the same and quietly says:
 
“Bit of poetry that, Ops., is it?”
 
“Shakespeare, Juliet, a soliloquy.”
 
“Like a poem, do you Ops.?”
 
“Yes Hugh, I do.”
 
“Keep your chin up is my advice. We can’t be doin’ with too many of them melancholy-flowers. It’s bad enough as it is, isn’t it?”
 
“I suppose you’re right Hugh, but don’t you ever think about what we’re doing? Up here. In all this?”
 
“Keep your bloody voice down you fool. I don’t think you can afford to think too much about it. There’s a bloody war on in case you’ve forgotten. There’s a job to be done and all that. Our's is not to question why…”
 
“Yes Hugh, our's is but to do and die…”
 
“’Old on a minute there Ops., enough o’ your bloody conchi talk. I knows my duty. King and country and what’s so wrong with that? I would have thought you Polish fellows would be keener than any of us to settle the score.”
 
“It's true. Most of us are. Or were. So many dead.”
 
“Well they died fighting for a noble cause, didn't they?'
 
“Perhaps. But I think they died because they didn't know what else to do. What's heroic about that?”
 
“Now listen here, damn you...”
 
“No one is listening. The dead don't give a damn what we think of them, or that we pin medals on their broken corpses to ease our guilt, or if their unknown children bestow them with a badge of bloodied honour. Only the night and the stars can hear, and what do they care? And the bombs … yes, perhaps they can hear us back there. Our silent, sleeping lethal friends … our deadly repayment package to the citizens of Europe. You remind me that we’re at war – as if any of us could forget. But it's a war unlike any of us have known before. No, this is a new war… a modern war. A war that rains fire from the air into the homes and onto the cities in which the people of Germany and Europe live. People like us Hugh … in Berlin and Essen, in Hanover, Frankfurt and Dresden.”
 
“What about Cardiff and Coventry eh? What about London and Liverpool? It’s like what Winston said … they done sowed the wind.”
 
“Is that how it is? Keeping score, like in a football match. Don’t you see, we’re heading backwards… flying backwards… all of us… we’re on some mad gyre… hurtling back, like – how do you say? - Widdershins, to some other place and time. Into a primal place, back into a time of elemental savagery.”
 
“I don’t know about any of that mental stuff boyo, except that it’s no good boyo, no bloody good at all it isn’t, and the Skipper wouldn’t like to hear you talking like this. Not at all he wouldn’t. So if I was you I’d button my bloody lip.”
 
“Hello Skipper.”
 
“Go ahead Navigator.”
 
“Will you turn onto heading one three seven.”
 
“Understood. Turning onto heading one three seven. Over.”
 
“Bombardier?”
 
“ 'ello Roger.”
 
“Let me know when we cross the coast.”
 
“Roger Roger.”
 
“Bombardier to Navigator…”
 
“Go ahead B-b-bombardier.”
 
“Crossing the coast now Roger.”
 
“Thanks Bombardier.”
 
“Bombs fused.”
 
“Thank you Bombardier.”
 
“Stay on this heading Skipper.”
 
“Roger Roger.”
 
The vast procession of aircraft has turned southwards, swinging in a mighty lumbering arc over the jaws of an estuary. Already the night sky ahead is lit up by the distant orange glow of a burning city. Already they can see the beams of the searchlights probing a ghastly towering clouded pall, the smoke from a hundred thousand fires.
 
“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”
 
“Hello Skipper?”
 
“What is it Radio Operator?”
 
“It’s Ops. Skipper…”
 
“What’s wrong with him Hugh?”
 
“I think he’s in a funk Skipper. He won’t stop reciting verse.”
 
“Watch your height Engineer.”
 
“I’m watching Skipper.”
 
“Ops? Ops? Ops. You bloody fool. Pull yourself together and shut up!”
 
“Well, there’s the target ahead off your port beam, Skip.”
 
“OK Bombardier, we're over the river now.”
 
“OK, Skipper, There's flares… just to the left.”
 
“What was the heading again?”
 
“137.”
 
“Thank you Navigator, on 137… What’s our airspeed Engineer?”
 
“170 Skip.”
 
“Yes, I've got it. Bang on. Bombardier check the position of the flares by your timed run.”
 
“Three minutes, ten seconds, Bomb Aimer.”
 
“ OK, Navigator, three minutes ten seconds. Flak coming up now Skip!”
 
“Oh God, oh God look at those fires!”
 
“It’s like Blackpool Illuminations before the war…”
 
“More like the circles of Hell.”
 
“Behold the beast with stinging tail unfurled…”
 
“Ops! Keep silent damn you!”
 
“Forty seconds Bomb aimer.”
 
“Flak’s awfully close Skip, can you weave a bit?”
 
“OK, Bombardier.”
 
“My God you could light a fag on any of those.”
 
“How many searchlights do you call them?”
 
“Too damn many if you ask me.”
 
“Thirty seconds.”
 
“I could murder a pint.”
 
“Keep your eyes peeled!”
 
“Twenty seconds.”
 
“I am Death become, the destroyer of worlds…”
 
“You’ll want some corrections, Bombardier.”
 
“OK Skip.”
 
“I'll fly her straight ahead.”
 
“Steer her nice and straight, straight and true.”
 
“Fifteen seconds.”
 
“Bomb doors open.”
 
“Bomb doors open Skip.”
 
“Give it a bit of extra time if anything.”
 
“Ok Skipper… left, left…”
 
“Ten seconds…”
 
“Steady… steady…”
 
“Five seconds.”
 
“Steady… Bombs away!”
 
“There goes the cookie…”
 
“And the incendiaries…”
 
“Good show lads… now keep your eyes peeled for fighters.”
 
“Lanc up on your starboard beam Skipper.”
 
“Thank you Mid-upper.”
 
“They’re searching for us now.”
 
“Look at all those lights!”
 
“It’s almost beautiful…”
 
“It’s the most horrible sight I’ve ever seen…”
 
“It’s like jewels on black velvet, red winking rubies, sparkling diamonds.”
 
“They’re firing at us now…”
 
“Flak! Flak!”
 
“Keep weaving Skipper.”
 
“That was a close shave…”
 
“New course please Navigator.”
 
“285 Skip.”
 
“Turning on 285.”
 
“Enemy aircraft coming below us to port astern Skipper!”
 
“Can’t see him Charlie, can’t see him.”
 
“Close the bomb doors Bombardier.”
 
“Firing at us now Skipper!”
 
“Engineer… jettison action now.”
 
“Roger.”
 
“What?”
 
“Not you Navigator!”
 
“Engineer… jettison…”
 
“OK Skipper.”
 
“Bombardier are the bomb doors closed?”
 
“Messerschmitt closing from below Skipper!”
 
“Enemy tracers coming up! Firing at us again!”
 
“We’re hit! We’re hit!”
 
“Bombardier? Bombardier?”
 
“I think we’ve been pranged Skipper.”
 
“Engineer…”
 
“Oil leaking from the starboard engine. I think the Bombardier’s been hit Skipper.”
 
“Glance over the temperatures will you…?”
 
“What?”
 
“The engine temperatures…Bombardier? Bombardier …”
 
The Lancaster hangs in the burning sky above a vast inferno that is the bombed and blazing city. Caught in a cone of searchlights and the crossbeam of torches, the shattered cockpit and flak-holed fuselage are filled with light brighter than any day. The boy has climbed into the rafters of his attic room and has splashed methyl spirits down onto the fuselage of the suspended plane and has set it alight with matches dropped from a trembling hand. The plane ignites at once, a pale blue fire engulfing the fuselage. The flames leap upwards to catch at the timbers below the roof. Flaming gobs of molten, burning plastic drip onto the map-strewn floor. The nylon line suspending the model breaks and the flaming Lancaster falls spiralling to earth.
 
The crouched boy, a fiery incandescent angel in his garret perch, regards the conflagration below with solemn maniacal awe.
 
 
© Bryan Maloney 2017
 
This story - Schräge Musik, is part of a longer story called Strange Music.
 
Schräge Musik was the byname given to upward firing fixed guns fitted to some Luftwaffe fighter interceptor aircraft in the latter part of WW2.

A boy bends over his work, shoulders hunched, absorbed in his task. It is mid-afternoon on a bright, sunny day, yet the boy has switched on a pair of angle-poise lamps and in their pooled circles of light a few pieces of grey plastic and perspex can be seen on the desktop behind which he stands. At the centre, the almost completed 1:72 inch scale model of an Avro Lancaster B, Mark I bomber rests on its under-carriage and wheel assembly. The boy’s nimble fingers gently prise the tiny plastic figure of a miniature aviator from the sprue and with a modelling knife deftly trims the vestigial nib of plastic by which it had been attached at the crown of its tiny plastic head. Taking up a fine haired paintbrush in one hand and holding the figurine between forefinger and thumb of the other, the boy delicately paints first the drab brown of the airman’s flight suit overalls, and then, after dabbing the brush into thinners and onto a cotton cloth to clean it, black for the flying jacket, helmet and boots, yellow for the Mae West life-preserver and lastly a rather muddied pink for the face and hands. The Lancaster has already been painted a camouflage pattern of dark earth and dark green on the upper parts and night black below. While the painted figure dries the boy applies Royal Air Force roundel decals to the wings and fuselage. He has modified the capital letters supplied in the kit to create RVJ 1642, the serial mark of his dead father’s squadron and aircraft.
 
Muttering to himself the boy takes up the painted figure again and, speaking in the clipped officer-class accent borrowed from the black and white films of the war and news reels he has watched in the cinema he says: 
 
“You’re my Bomb Aimer Joe. We’ve got an important operation ahead of us tonight and you’ve got to man the forward guns as well. Think you’re up to the job?”
 
He answers himself, mimicking a high-pitched, squeaky Cockney,
 
“I’ll do me best Skip’, you can count on me.”
 
He places the supine figure into position and then carefully glues the shallow Perspex dome onto the nose of the Lancaster.
 
The model is finished and the boy regards the day’s effort with quiet, contemplative satisfaction. He tilts one of the lamps to closer review his work. He studies the span of the wings and the four mounted engines. “The Mark I Lanc.”, he says, speaking to an imaginary audience, “was fitted with four Rolls Royce Merlin engines, the same engine that powered both the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane.” He moves the lamp slowly along the upper part of the fuselage, from the Pilot and Flight Engineer in the cockpit, to the Navigator, Radio Operator and Special Operator, just visible through the astrodome. The Mid-Upper Gunner is in position in the dorsal turret as is the Rear Gunner in his lonely tail turret. Peering closely he sees with dismay that he has neglected to paint the tiny grey figure of the Special Operator before fixing the Perspex cover of the Astrodome. “You stupid boy,” he says to himself. He turns out both lamps and leaves the room. A home-made valve radio glows gently on top of a bed-side bookcase. On the shelves below are a few books: amongst them are a number of Compton’s ‘William’ stories: William the Outlaw and William Does his Bit, as well as The Wireless Constructor's Encyclopaedia (1934), The Boy’s Own Book of Practical Chemistry, A Scouting Handbook for 1954, I Bought a Mountain, Ventriloquism for Dummies, a tattered hardback copy of Reach for the Sky and a battered paperback of Wind, Sand and Stars. From the radio, though the volume is low, Conway Twitty can be heard singing It’s Only Make Believe. It is July 1958, and through the high window in the pitched roof of the boy’s attic bedroom, ribbons of altocumulus can be seen streaming across a mid-summer sky.
 
After tea, which in this part of the country refers to the meal taken in the evening after work, and sat at the dining room table with Mother, he had asked:
 
“Will you be Bluefrock?”
 
She had slowly studied him through her spectacles.
 
“Who the Devil is Bluefrock when he’s at home?”
 
“Shhh. Careless talk costs lives. Codename for Control”, he muttered conspiratorially holding a finger up to his lips.
 
“I can’t. I won’t.”
 
Her head was slightly tilted with a look that was both beseeching and reproachful and which, he noted to himself, she had recently begun to adopt when he made such requests. Failing to keep the exasperation from her voice, she went on in hesitant, measured tones:
 
“You have to stop these games.”
 
He began idly toying with a prism of solid glass, holding it up to his eye and laying it on the table where the refracted sunlight cast a rainbow pattern on the white linen cloth.
 
“Please Mum, it’s important… it has to be tonight. It’s the anniversary. It will be the last time, I promise.” 
 
Mother got up, tight-lipped, frowning. She began clearing away the remnants of their tea. She said: “If you think I’m playing any part in your silly, childish make-believe you’re mistaken. You’re too old for these games. I don’t know why you aren’t outside on a day like this. I’m sure that it’s not healthy for you to be cooped up in that room all day. I’ve told you umpteen times that you shouldn’t dwell on what happened in the past and on things which might be better forgotten…” He could see she was close to tears. He too felt the involuntary welling of emotion, of unnameable feelings unwittingly invoked. 
 
Desolated, he picked up a framed black and white photograph from the sideboard. In it two young airmen in Royal Air Force uniform and between them a pretty dark haired WAAF, stared out, smiling confidently.
 
“Tell me what he was like…”. He has asked her this before and immediately regretted the ill-chosen words. She answered, this time with a direct, barbed riposte: “I will not. You’re nothing like him, that’s for sure.”
 
Hardly able to contain an engulfing wave of rage and shame he rose quickly from the table with a choked, sarcastic “May I get down?” and following her downcast, supplicant nodded assent, abruptly left the house by the kitchen door in a towering sulk.
 
He had taken his father’s bicycle from the shed and cycled for half-an-hour, pedalling hard along arrow-straight lanes bisecting the flat, arable landscape. It was still light and in the clear air the command tower of a distant airfield could be seen, miles away across the fields and hedgerows of the flat lands beyond the Wold. Hunched over the handlebars, red-faced and gasping from the effort, the boy muttered to himself:
 
“It’s not a game … what does she know? … She doesn’t care about it … doesn’t bloody care … doesn’t ruddy care about any of it …”
 
The road he was following turned deceptively down into a narrow, twisting, deep-sided wooded valley. Too late, he realised with dismay, as he and the bike plunged downhill through the trees, that this way a hostile, sometimes ankle-nipping dog guarded the ford in the valley bottom. Too late to stop now, he threw himself on the pedals, urging the bike headlong down the last slope before the river. But no growling dog lurked here today, in the silent valley bottom, where the slow stream ran over the cobbles of the ford and where sunlight, filtered by leaf and branch, played on the surface of the quiet water. Both boy and the unmanageable bicycle, already parting company, careened into the stream. He made it almost across, until the front wheel striking a loose cobble upended the boy into the shallow water. The bike clattered over on its side.
 
He lay for a while where he had fallen, conscious of the flow of the water across his cheek but thinking of nothing. A leaf turning slowly in the gentle current. Insects, motes in the shafts of sunlight between the branches of the trees that lined the beck. The sound of a distant tractor.
He got to his feet noticing that he had bloodied his lip. The bike appeared undamaged save for a bent front mudguard. He pushed it up the incline on the far side of the ford. 
 
By the time he reached the disused airfield, he was out of breath and hot and sweaty again. He rested the bicycle against the wall of the building in the shade, amongst a patch of nettles. A door lay unhinged in the undergrowth, permitting access through an opening to the interior of the abandoned building. The stairs were dust-choked but sound, and he climbed to the upper storey. From here the windows on all four sides of the tower presented in unbroken panorama the expanse of the airfield and surrounding countryside. The triangle of the grassed runway and its two taxiway diagonals were still clearly discernible. Nissan huts, their corrugated iron roofs now a rusted brown, still stood, but the hangars that had housed the bombers were long gone, demolished, filled-in or blown-up. On previous visits he had observed sheep and cattle wandering freely over the decommissioned airfield but today two horses lay at rest below the tower. They were large beasts and lay back to back. The black one seemed to be sleeping. The white one had its head raised, but was otherwise unmoving. It was surrounded by a small flock of jackdaws. From his vantage point the boy watched as the birds took turns to hop onto the broad back of the white horse where they pulled and pecked until white tufts of horsehair, like strange, bushy handle-bar moustaches, protruded from either side of their beaks. The daws repeatedly pecked at one patch on the horse’s hindquarter. There was a raw, red wound on the horse’s flank.
 
The boy’s uncle had first brought him here, to this place, the aerodrome where he and the boy’s father had been stationed during the conflict. Together, the boy and uncle, inadequate as playmate though the uncle was, had explored the underground bunkers used to store stacked drums of fuel and munitions and the dank interiors of other subterranean chambers which had served as air raid shelters, present day Neolithic long barrows, now empty, their iron doors, rusted and broken.
 
Uncle’s stories had ignited a spark of curiosity and fuelled a burgeoning fascination. More than once he had been pressed by the boy to recall the operation of the loading of the bombs into the Lancasters. Such accounts seemed to hold a peculiar, dark attraction for the boy, whose note taking and fanatical demands for accuracy and detail: the tractor pulled bomb-train, bomb loads, tonnage, net high explosive quantity and the like, had unnerved his uncle, not least because he had struggled, when quizzed, to remember the make-up of load for a given type of area bombing raid and, in his confusion, to make distinction, to the boy’s scornful frustration, between Industrial Demolition, Maximum Incendiary and Blast, Demolition and Fire. Nor had the boy’s mother approved of visits to the airfield, or the routine tea table grilling the boy subjected him to. She had quietly reproached the Uncle and bade him promise to curtail their adventures. Notwithstanding his mother’s teatime embargo and his uncle’s more recent reluctance to supply “the gen”, the boy had succeeded in compiling a substantial dossier on his favoured topic. It now filled a fat manila folder, which he kept under his bed.
 
“The models are bad enough, Mrs Taplow complains she can’t see to clean in his room these days. Those bally planes are an obsession with him, a downright obsession, and I’m at my wits end with it.” 
 
“The boy needs a father figure”, he’d had the temerity to reply. The boy’s mother had looked at him with something approaching contempt,
 
“You bloody fool. Take him fishing for Pete’s sake, or to the cinema.”
 
“He won’t keep still for long enough to sit through the main feature.”
 
“He can sit for long enough building those damn model planes of his.”
 
“He likes the cartoons though… and the odd poem. ”
 
 
He has made the upper room in the Control Tower his centre of operations. Far to the west the sun has started to set behind a line of distant hills. Through the windows of the room the sun’s last rays lengthen the boy’s shadow across the floor. He takes a tuning fork from a pocket in his shorts and strikes it against the nearest wall. When the solitary signal tone has faded, he speaks:
 
“Gather round chaps…”
 
A spectral squadron materialises in the dust-filled air, aircrews of a ghostly row of bombers at rest on the airfield below the tower, to listen attentively to the briefing. Their faces are only rudely formed, unconsolidated, still plastic. They are young men all, some just boys perhaps, only a few years older than himself. The figures coalesce and amongst the featureless crowd the crew of aircraft RVJ 1642 are distinguishable.  Here’s Joe “Explosive Joseph” Cohen, the bomb-aimer and forward-gunner, here’s Flight Engineer Ginger “Biscuit” McVitie, and the Navigator Flying Officer Roger Winthrop-Young and there the Radio Operator, the Welshman Hugh Pugh and there the grey figure of Special Ops., whose name Uncle claims he doesn’t know, and there the Mid-Upper Gunner Sergeant Alex “Sandy” Wenton and there the Rear Gunner, Charlie Fetch. The penumbral figure of his father, Flying Officer 1588461, Pilot of aircraft RVJ 1642, stands at the edge of the group, in the shadows by the far wall smoking a cigarette. The boy speaks:
 
“Well lads there’s no doubt that we’ve got a good one for you tonight. The job of each crew is to locate oil storage tanks on the dockside and destroy them. The Pathfinders should light it up nicely for you and it should be fairly easy to find. The weather forecasters have promised you a tail-wind on the way out and clear skies later tonight. As soon as the Hun hears you knocking on his door you’ll get the usual warm welcome from the Luftwaffe and a plentiful supply of Flak to go with it. So it’s no good expecting an easy passage because you won’t get one. With the water landmarks and moonlight you should manage a good run up. Go in and flatten it and the best of British to you.”
 
He has placed a Services Diary for 1943, a tuning fork and a small dog-eared photograph of his father in flight gear in front of where he sits on the floor. He takes a sheet of paper covered in handwriting from a pocket in his shorts. The script isn’t needed and the talismans lie disregarded. He knows the lines and all the parts he has to play by heart.
 
But quietly, almost whispering, though there is no one to overhear him in the fading light, he begins to intone.
 
“Hello Bluefrock this is Romeo. Over.”
 
“Hello Romeo, this is Bluefrock. Cleared for take off. Over.”
 
“Hello Path, hello Path, R for Romeo calling, R for Romeo calling, may we taxi up? Over.”
 
In another ghostly voice, he says: “Hello R. Romeo, hello R. Romeo, Path answering, Path answering, yes you may taxi up and take off, yes you may taxi up and take off. Over.”
 
The boy’s absorption in the game is absolute and he flits between the characters in his make-believe with practiced confidence, adopting a different, borrowed voice for each.
 
“Hello Romeo, this is Bluefrock. Wind at 22 miles an hour at 319 degrees, visibility 12 miles with three tiers of cumulous at three thousand feet. Over.”
 
The sun is almost lost behind the line of hills and darkness is quickly descending but the boy in the lonely tower is still at his post.
 
Now, as though he is summoning the memory of his own portentous experience, he speaks again: 
 
“Path, we’re turning onto the end of the runway …” 
 
“ It’s bloody dark in ‘ere …”
 
“Moon’s not up yet Taff …”
 
“Come gentle night…”
 
“Crew are all in position, pre-take off checks complete …”
 
“Come loving, black-browed night…”
 
“Shut up Ops.!”
 
They wait for the Aldis lamp to give the signal . It comes on and the cockpit is suddenly flooded with green light. 
 
“OK chaps here we go!” 
 
Then the Lanc starts to move, the Skipper has his left hand on the joystick, his feet on the rudder pedals, easing the throttles open with his right hand, keeping her straight with the runway. The crate builds speed, slowly and slowly, like a great lumbering truck, the deep throated roar envelops them. The Skipper eases the stick forward and then pushes it as far forward as it will go to get the tail up.
 
“Sixty miles an hour … seventy miles an hour… end of the runway in sight…”
 
Through the glass of the cockpit windows the Skipper and Flight Engineer can see trees and the darkness beyond. They strain forward, everything alert, keeping her straight, throttles forward.
 
“That’s it … full power! … Watch the steering! … watch the airspeed!”
 
“Eighty … eighty five miles an hour… Straight and true Skipper…”
 
“Biscuit … keep your hands behind the throttles so they don’t slip back please…”
 
“Ninety miles an hour … a hundred … a hundred and ten.”
 
“Both hands on the stick now, keep her straight … Ease it back, gently, don’t jerk it, we don’t want to stall it and lose an engine do we?”
 
“Approaching end of the runway …”.
The Lanc is throbbing, the full roar from the Merlins deafening. They can all feel the massive vibrating weight of the aircraft, the 2,000 gallons of fuel and six tons of bombs.
 
“One-twenty … airspeed.”
 
Then there’s the first bump as she lifts off, then a second and she clears the end of the runway and all the rumbling and shaking stops. The Skipper touches the brakes to stop the wheels spinning.
 
“Wheels up!”
 
The aircraft starts to climb and turn, turn and climb into the darkness.
 
Night has fallen while the boy cycles home. The moon has not yet risen. It is night as he stows the bicycle and quietly lets himself in through the back door. Mother has gone to bed, although a faint lamp-glow shows beneath her door as he climbs the laddered steps from the first floor landing to his attic room. “Put that light out,” he whispers under his breath.
 
Later, after midnight, he has changed into pyjamas and is wearing a leather flying helmet, goggles and a pair of earphones. He has cleared the debris from the work area and holds the model Lancaster in his hand. He trundles it along the makeshift runway of the desktop and, mimicking the sounds of its straining engines, slowly zooms it up over his head into the imaginary sky.
 
He ties a length of nylon line to the top of the Lancaster and suspends it from a crossbeam in the roof and carefully pushes the undercarriage into the wing housing. He climbs onto his bed. He holds a fishing rod in one hand and his tuning fork in the other. A torch is taped to the bed frame at the foot of the bed, a second torch lies close at hand beside him. A small pile of  aluminium foil strips is heaped on the bedclothes.
 
He looks at the illuminated dial of his wristwatch and speaks.
 
“Hello Bluefrock, hello Bluefrock, Path calling, Path calling, R for Romeo took off at twenty one thirty eight, repeat, twenty one thirty eight, over.”
 
With the fishing rod he sets the suspended plane into pendulous motion. From the light of a half-moon flooding through the attic window the aircraft makes an enlarged, erratically dancing and crazily-motile shadow on the maps of Germany and Northern Europe which the boy has pinned together and laid out on the bedroom carpet. He strikes the tuning fork against the frame of the bed.
 
“Bombardier to Pilot, coming up on Stream Skipper.”
 
“Thank you, Bombardier.”
 
“Hello Skipper…”
 
“Hello Roger,” 
 
“T-turn onto heading n-nine one magnetic, re-p-peat nine one magnetic,”
 
“Roger Navigator, nine one magnetic, turning on,”
 
“ETA Spurn Head at zero fourteen, Skipper.”
 
“Roger Roger. Thank you Navigator....Pilot to Crew. We’re just moving up to join the Stream at the rendezvous. OK Hugh Pugh?”
 
“Wireless Ops., aye Skip”,
 
“Special Ops.?”
 
“Special Operator, yes thanks John. OK.” 
“OK Mid-upper Gunner?”
 
“Mid-upper, yes thanks Skip – not a patch of cloud out there.”
 
“Don’t worry Sandy.”
 
“Permission to test the rear guns Skipper.”
 
“Give it a few minutes until we’re clear of the coast if you don’t mind Charlie.”
 
“Wilco Skipper.”
 
“OK down there Bombardier?”
 
“OK Skipper.”
 
 
RVJ 1642 and its squadron have joined an immense airborne formation of heavy bombers heading out over the silent sea from the Humber towards the German Bight.
 
And although the Special Operator can make out the darker shapes of other aircraft against the darkened sky through the glass of the astrodome, it seems unimaginable and improbable that each could contain a crew, other men, other companions. It is more evident that they are alone in this shuddering, juddering crate, separate from all else by the constant hammering, numbing drone of the engines. Elect, perhaps chosen, remote in their lonely fortress and no longer of the world. He whispers to himself:
 
“More distant and more solemn than a fading star.”
 
 
“Have you brought your football boots with you Joe?”
 
“I ’ave Skipper, we ought to give those bloody Gerries a proper kicking tonight,”
 
“Just like at White Hart Lane, eh Joe?”
 
“What a caper that was … a proper offence to King and country that was Skipper … the bleedin’ Swastika flyin’ over North London,”
 
“Still we won, didn’t we Joe?”
 
“Yes Skipper, three nil, but it was only a friendly, or so called.”
 
“Flight Engineer?” 
“Yes Skipper?”
 
“A few more revs please Ginger, we don’t want to fall behind do we?”
 
“Wilco Skipper.”
 
“We beat them again in ’38 didn’t we Bombardier?”
 
“That we did Skipper, six three it was in Berlin, but that caper was an even bigger disgrace … the whole bloody England team givin’ the Nazi salute before the kick off. Disgrace to King and country Skipper.”
 
“Yes. Well with any luck we’ll give them a proper beating again tonight.”
 
“I ’ope so Skipper. I ’ope so.”
 
A half-moon has risen to the north. Ten thousand feet below them the expanse of the North Sea stretches to each horizon, a vast, sullen, almost molten leaden plate. From this height its crudely sculpted surface appears immobile, unfinished. Behind the crew in the cockpit and below the Mid-upper Gunner in his dorsal turret, the Lancaster’s cargo of bombs rest, cradled, sleeping, in the bomb bay. Ahead, in the night shrouded unseen east, lies the darkness of Germany.
 
“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.”
 
The Special Operator’s muted, disembodied voice goes unheard. He his studying the oscilloscope of the in-board radar set. The radial scanner casts a pale band of reflected light across his masked face on each pass. He can make out the airborne mass of the bomber force as an amorphous blip and the enemy coastline ahead as an uneven line of light towards the top of the screen. How strange it is, he wonders to himself, how unutterably strange and sad that the world outside could ever be represented and somehow reduced to these unreal and random shapes, dots and outlines illuminated on a small dark screen. 
 
“Deploying radar counter-measures Skipper.”
 
“Good show Ops.”
 
He cranks the handle on the transmitter and looks over his shoulder through the astrodome at the antenna.
 
“How’s your girl, Ginger?”
 
“Mavis,? Och she’s fine thank you Skipper…”
 
“Important to have someone, you know…” 
 
“Yes Skipper. I suppose it is.”
 
“What about you back there Charlie? Is there a good woman waiting for you?”
 
“My Ethel might be a-waiting on me Skip, but I ain’t entirely sure if she’s a good woman or not…”
 
“How about you Sandy? Is there a Mrs Wenton?”
 
“The good Mrs Wenton is as well as can be expected, Skipper, given how she is herself expecting.” 
 
“’Cor stone me… She ain’t up the duff again is she? I don’t know how you find time to do it. Don’t you know there’s a bleedin’ war on?”
 
(Laughter breaks out, momentarily breaking the tension on-board the Lancaster.)
 
“OK chaps, Pipe down now.” 
 
“When I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars…”
 
Hugh Pugh, the Wireless Operator, turns in his seat and looks quizzically at Special Ops opposite him. Special Ops looks up from the Radar and HS2 ground scanning apparatus. Nearby the Navigator, shoulders hunched, is absorbed in his task and bent over his charts on the map table. 
 
Pugh glances forward to the cockpit beyond the forward bulkhead and removes his face mask, nudging his seated companion to do the same and quietly says:
 
“Bit of poetry that, Ops., is it?”
 
“Shakespeare, Juliet, a soliloquy.”
 
“Like a poem, do you Ops.?”
 
“Yes Hugh, I do.”
 
“Keep your chin up is my advice. We can’t be doin’ with too many of them melancholy-flowers. It’s bad enough as it is, isn’t it?”
 
“I suppose you’re right Hugh, but don’t you ever think about what we’re doing? Up here. In all this?”
 
“Keep your bloody voice down you fool. I don’t think you can afford to think too much about it. There’s a bloody war on in case you’ve forgotten. There’s a job to be done and all that. Our's is not to question why…”
 
“Yes Hugh, our's is but to do and die…”
 
“’Old on a minute there Ops., enough o’ your bloody conchi talk. I knows my duty. King and country and what’s so wrong with that? I would have thought you Polish fellows would be keener than any of us to settle the score.”
 
“It's true. Most of us are. Or were. So many dead.”
 
“Well they died fighting for a noble cause, didn't they?'
 
“Perhaps. But I think they died because they didn't know what else to do. What's heroic about that?”
 
“Now listen here, damn you...”
 
“No one is listening. The dead don't give a damn what we think of them, or that we pin medals on their broken corpses to ease our guilt, or if their unknown children bestow them with a badge of bloodied honour. Only the night and the stars can hear, and what do they care? And the bombs … yes, perhaps they can hear us back there. Our silent, sleeping lethal friends … our deadly repayment package to the citizens of Europe. You remind me that we’re at war – as if any of us could forget. But it's a war unlike any of us have known before. No, this is a new war… a modern war. A war that rains fire from the air into the homes and onto the cities in which the people of Germany and Europe live. People like us Hugh … in Berlin and Essen, in Hanover, Frankfurt and Dresden.”
 
“What about Cardiff and Coventry eh? What about London and Liverpool? It’s like what Winston said … they done sowed the wind.”
 
“Is that how it is? Keeping score, like in a football match. Don’t you see, we’re heading backwards… flying backwards… all of us… we’re on some mad gyre… hurtling back, like – how do you say? - Widdershins, to some other place and time. Into a primal place, back into a time of elemental savagery.”
 
“I don’t know about any of that mental stuff boyo, except that it’s no good boyo, no bloody good at all it isn’t, and the Skipper wouldn’t like to hear you talking like this. Not at all he wouldn’t. So if I was you I’d button my bloody lip.”
 
“Hello Skipper.”
 
“Go ahead Navigator.”
 
“Will you turn onto heading one three seven.”
 
“Understood. Turning onto heading one three seven. Over.”
 
“Bombardier?”
 
“ 'ello Roger.”
 
“Let me know when we cross the coast.”
 
“Roger Roger.”
 
“Bombardier to Navigator…”
 
“Go ahead B-b-bombardier.”
 
“Crossing the coast now Roger.”
 
“Thanks Bombardier.”
 
“Bombs fused.”
 
“Thank you Bombardier.”
 
“Stay on this heading Skipper.”
 
“Roger Roger.”
 
The vast procession of aircraft has turned southwards, swinging in a mighty lumbering arc over the jaws of an estuary. Already the night sky ahead is lit up by the distant orange glow of a burning city. Already they can see the beams of the searchlights probing a ghastly towering clouded pall, the smoke from a hundred thousand fires.
 
“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”
 
“Hello Skipper?”
 
“What is it Radio Operator?”
 
“It’s Ops. Skipper…”
 
“What’s wrong with him Hugh?”
 
“I think he’s in a funk Skipper. He won’t stop reciting verse.”
 
“Watch your height Engineer.”
 
“I’m watching Skipper.”
 
“Ops? Ops? Ops. You bloody fool. Pull yourself together and shut up!”
 
“Well, there’s the target ahead off your port beam, Skip.”
 
“OK Bombardier, we're over the river now.”
 
“OK, Skipper, There's flares… just to the left.”
 
“What was the heading again?”
 
“137.”
 
“Thank you Navigator, on 137… What’s our airspeed Engineer?”
 
“170 Skip.”
 
“Yes, I've got it. Bang on. Bombardier check the position of the flares by your timed run.”
 
“Three minutes, ten seconds, Bomb Aimer.”
 
“ OK, Navigator, three minutes ten seconds. Flak coming up now Skip!”
 
“Oh God, oh God look at those fires!”
 
“It’s like Blackpool Illuminations before the war…”
 
“More like the circles of Hell.”
 
“Behold the beast with stinging tail unfurled…”
 
“Ops! Keep silent damn you!”
 
“Forty seconds Bomb aimer.”
 
“Flak’s awfully close Skip, can you weave a bit?”
 
“OK, Bombardier.”
 
“My God you could light a fag on any of those.”
 
“How many searchlights do you call them?”
 
“Too damn many if you ask me.”
 
“Thirty seconds.”
 
“I could murder a pint.”
 
“Keep your eyes peeled!”
 
“Twenty seconds.”
 
“I am Death become, the destroyer of worlds…”
 
“You’ll want some corrections, Bombardier.”
 
“OK Skip.”
 
“I'll fly her straight ahead.”
 
“Steer her nice and straight, straight and true.”
 
“Fifteen seconds.”
 
“Bomb doors open.”
 
“Bomb doors open Skip.”
 
“Give it a bit of extra time if anything.”
 
“Ok Skipper… left, left…”
 
“Ten seconds…”
 
“Steady… steady…”
 
“Five seconds.”
 
“Steady… Bombs away!”
 
“There goes the cookie…”
 
“And the incendiaries…”
 
“Good show lads… now keep your eyes peeled for fighters.”
 
“Lanc up on your starboard beam Skipper.”
 
“Thank you Mid-upper.”
 
“They’re searching for us now.”
 
“Look at all those lights!”
 
“It’s almost beautiful…”
 
“It’s the most horrible sight I’ve ever seen…”
 
“It’s like jewels on black velvet, red winking rubies, sparkling diamonds.”
 
“They’re firing at us now…”
 
“Flak! Flak!”
 
“Keep weaving Skipper.”
 
“That was a close shave…”
 
“New course please Navigator.”
 
“285 Skip.”
 
“Turning on 285.”
 
“Enemy aircraft coming below us to port astern Skipper!”
 
“Can’t see him Charlie, can’t see him.”
 
“Close the bomb doors Bombardier.”
 
“Firing at us now Skipper!”
 
“Engineer… jettison action now.”
 
“Roger.”
 
“What?”
 
“Not you Navigator!”
 
“Engineer… jettison…”
 
“OK Skipper.”
 
“Bombardier are the bomb doors closed?”
 
“Messerschmitt closing from below Skipper!”
 
“Enemy tracers coming up! Firing at us again!”
 
“We’re hit! We’re hit!”
 
“Bombardier? Bombardier?”
 
“I think we’ve been pranged Skipper.”
 
“Engineer…”
 
“Oil leaking from the starboard engine. I think the Bombardier’s been hit Skipper.”
 
“Glance over the temperatures will you…?”
 
“What?”
 
“The engine temperatures…Bombardier? Bombardier …”
 
The Lancaster hangs in the burning sky above a vast inferno that is the bombed and blazing city. Caught in a cone of searchlights and the crossbeam of torches, the shattered cockpit and flak-holed fuselage are filled with light brighter than any day. The boy has climbed into the rafters of his attic room and has splashed methyl spirits down onto the fuselage of the suspended plane and has set it alight with matches dropped from a trembling hand. The plane ignites at once, a pale blue fire engulfing the fuselage. The flames leap upwards to catch at the timbers below the roof. Flaming gobs of molten, burning plastic drip onto the map-strewn floor. The nylon line suspending the model breaks and the flaming Lancaster falls spiralling to earth.
 
The crouched boy, a fiery incandescent angel in his garret perch, regards the conflagration below with solemn maniacal awe.
 
 
© Bryan Maloney 2017
 
This story - Schräge Musik, is part of a longer story called Strange Music.
 
Schräge Musik was the byname given to upward firing fixed guns fitted to some Luftwaffe fighter interceptor aircraft in the latter part of WW2.

The Cast

in order of appearance:

 

Skipper..... Tom Newton

Radio Operator..... Bryan Maloney

Rear Gunner..... Harvey Jones - website »

Special Operator..... Jed Dmochowski

Flight Engineer..... Bryan Maloney

Bombardier..... John Ashton - website »

Navigator..... Julian Firth

Mid-Upper Gunner..... Brent Robison

Music on this episode:

 

'Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring' by J.S. Bach

from Cantata BWV 147.

License CC BY-SA 3.0

Sound Effects used under License:

 
 

BBC News (1958) from archive.org, License PD.

The Secret Escritoire, Goon Show episode 6/2 1955

from thegoonshow.net, License PD.

Lancaster cruising 20013 feet

by digifishmusic, License CC BY 3.0

Bf-109 Flyby by Fight2FlyPhoto, License CC BY 3.0

Spitfires and Bf-109 Flyby by Fight2FlyPhoto License CC BY 3.0

Sound Effects used under License:

 
 

BBC News (1958) from archive.org, PD.

The Secret Escritoire, Goon Show episode

from thegoonshow.net, PD.

Lancaster cruising 20013 feet

by digifishmusic, CC BY 3.0

Bf-109 Flyby by Fight2FlyPhoto, CC BY 3.0

Spitfires and Bf-109 Flyby by Fight2FlyPhoto, CC BY 3.0

THE STRANGE RECITAL

Episode 17091

BLACK BULL Logo

"More distant and more solemn than a fading star."