The ground appeared in a sudden burst of yellow and brown. He jerked the nose up, saw the rocks of a crag dead ahead, swerved, stalled, nose-dived, pulled back, pulled back, not enough, Oh, God—
* * *
His first conscious thought was that he should have radioed base when the engine went.
‘Stupid f**ker,’ he mumbled. ‘Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best. Clot-heid.’
He seemed to be lying on his side. That didn’t seem right. He felt cautiously with one hand—grass and mud. What, had he been thrown clear of the plane?
He had. His head hurt badly, his knee much worse. He had to sit down on the matted wet grass for a bit, unable to think through the waves of pain that squeezed his head with each heartbeat.
It was nearly dark, and rising mist surrounded him. He breathed deep, sniffing the dank, cold air. It smelt of rot and old mangelwurzels—but what it didn’t smell of was petrol and burning fuselage.
Right. Maybe she hadn’t caught fire when she crashed, then. If not, and if her radio was still working …
He staggered to his feet, nearly losing his balance from a sudden attack of vertigo, and turned in a slow circle, peering into the mist. There was nothing but mist to his left and behind him, but to his right, he made out two or three large, bulky shapes, standing upright.
Making his way slowly across the lumpy ground, he found that they were stones. Remnants of one of those prehistoric sites that littered the ground in northern Britain. Only three of the big stones were still standing, but he could see a few more, fallen or pushed over, lying like bodies in the darkening fog. He paused to vomit, holding on to one of the stones. Christ, his head was like to split! And he had a terrible buzzing in his ears … He pawed vaguely at his ear, thinking somehow he’d left his headset on, but felt nothing but a cold, wet ear.
He closed his eyes again, breathing hard, and leaned against the stone for support. The static in his ears was getting worse, accompanied by a sort of whine. Had he burst an eardrum? He forced himself to open his eyes, and was rewarded with the sight of a large, dark irregular shape, well beyond the remains of the stone circle. Dolly!
The plane was barely visible, fading into the swirling dark, but that’s what it had to be. Mostly intact, it looked like, though very much nose-down with her tail in the air—she must have ploughed into the earth. He staggered on the rock-strewn ground, feeling the vertigo set in again, with a vengeance. He waved his arms, trying to keep his balance, but his head spun, and Christ, the bloody noise in his head … He couldn’t think, oh, Jesus, he felt as if his bones were dissolv—
* * *
It was full dark when he came to himself, but the clouds had broken and a three-quarter moon shone in the deep black of a country sky. He moved, and groaned. Every bone in his body hurt—but none was broken. That was something, he told himself. His clothes were sodden with damp, he was starving, and his knee was so stiff he couldn’t straighten his right leg all the way, but that was all right; he thought he could make shift to hobble as far as a road.
Oh, wait. Radio. Yes, he’d forgotten. If Dolly’s radio were intact, he could …
He stared blankly at the open ground before him. He’d have sworn it was—but he must have got turned round in the dark and fog—no.
He turned quite round, three times, before he stopped, afraid of becoming dizzy again. The plane was gone.
It was gone. He was sure it had lain about fifty feet beyond that one stone, the tallest one; he’d taken note of it as a marker, to keep his bearings. He walked out to the spot where he was sure Dolly had come down, walked slowly round the stones in a wide circle, glancing to one side and then the other in growing confusion.
Not only was the plane gone, it didn’t seem ever to have been there. There was no trace, no furrow in the thick meadow grass, let alone the kind of gouge in the earth that such a crash would have made. Had he been imagining its presence? Wishful thinking?
He shook his head to clear it—but in fact, it was clear. The buzzing and whining in his ears had stopped, and while he still had bruises and a mild headache, he was feeling much better. He walked slowly back around the stones, still looking, a growing sense of deep cold curling through his wame. It wasn’t f**king there.
* * *
He woke in the morning without the slightest notion where he was. He was curled up on grass; that much came dimly to him—he could smell it. Grass that cattle had been grazing, because there was a large cow pat just by him, and fresh enough to smell that, too. He stretched out a leg, cautious. Then an arm. Rolled onto his back, and felt a hair better for having something solid under him, though the sky overhead was a dizzy void.
It was a soft, pale blue void, too. Not a trace of cloud.
How long …? A jolt of alarm brought him up onto his knees, but a bright yellow stab of pain behind his eyes sat him down again, moaning and cursing breathlessly.
Once more. He waited ’til his breath was coming steady, then risked cracking one eye open.
Well, it was certainly still Northumbria, the northern part, where England’s billowing fields crash onto the inhospitable rocks of Scotland. He recognised the rolling hills, covered with sere grass and punctuated by towering rocks that shot straight up into sudden toothy crags. He swallowed, and rubbed both hands hard over his head and face, assuring himself he was still real. He didn’t feel real. Even after he’d taken a careful count of fingers, toes, and private bits—counting the last twice, just in case—he still felt that something important had been misplaced, torn off somehow, and left behind.
His ears still rang, rather like they did after an especially active trip. Why, though? What had he heard?
He found that he could move a little more easily now, and managed to look all round the sky, sector by sector. Nothing up there. No memory of anything up there. And yet the inside of his head buzzed and jangled, and the flesh on his body rippled with agitation. He chafed his arms, hard, to make it go.
Horripilation. That’s the proper word for gooseflesh; Dolly’d told him that. She kept a little notebook and wrote down words she came across in her reading; she was a great one for the reading. She’d already got wee Roger sitting in her lap to be read to after tea, round-eyed as Bonzo at the coloured pictures in his rag book.
Thought of his family got him up onto his feet, swaying, but all right now, better, yes, definitely better, though he still felt as though his skin didn’t quite fit. The plane, where was that?