‘Won’t your granddad do it for you?’
‘He wouldn’t even give it to me until I’d taken the engine apart. I have to do it myself or I can’t have it.’
‘I still love him,’ Beryl shouted.
They tore along the high green lanes of Highdown Rise, along tractor ruts that nearly bounced them over drystone field walls and into a bed of mire and nettles and sheep. I remember and I know what it must have been like. Every now and then, round a corner or at the crest of a hump in the hill, you can see the bare green chain of the Pennines stretching serenely to the west, or the factory chimneys of South Manchester scrawling the blue north sky with black smoke.
‘And you’ll have a skill,’ Beryl yelled.
‘Fixing engines!’ Maddie howled.
‘It’s a skill. Better than loading shuttles.’
‘You’re getting paid for loading shuttles,’ Maddie yelled back. ‘I don’t get paid.’ The lane ahead was rutted with rain-filled potholes. It looked like a miniature landscape of Highland lochs. Maddie slowed the bike to a putter and finally had to stop. She put her feet down on solid earth, her skirt rucked up to her thighs, still feeling the Superb’s reliable and familiar rumble all through her body. ‘Who’ll give a girl a job fixing engines?’ Maddie said. ‘Gran wants me to learn to type. At least you’re earning.’
They had to get off the bike to walk it along the ditch-filled lane. Then there was another rise, and they came to a farm gate set between field boundaries, and Maddie leaned the motorbike against the stone wall so they could eat their sandwiches. They looked at each other and laughed at the mud.
‘What’ll your dad say!’ Maddie exclaimed.
‘What’ll your gran!’
‘She’s used to it.’
Beryl’s word for picnic was ‘baggin’, Maddie said, doorstep slices of granary loaf Beryl’s auntie baked for three families every Wednesday, and pickled onions as big as apples. Maddie’s sandwiches were on rye bread from the baker’s in Reddyke where her grandmother sent her every Friday. The pickled onions stopped Maddie and Beryl having a conversation because chewing made so much crunching in their heads they couldn’t hear each other talk, and they had to be careful swallowing so they wouldn’t be asphyxiated by an accidental blast of vinegar. (Perhaps Chief-Storm-Captain von Linden might find pickled onions useful as persuasive tools. And your prisoners would get fed at the same time.)
(Fräulein Engel instructs me to put down here, for Captain von Linden to know when he reads it, that I have wasted 20 minutes of the time given me because here in my story I laughed at my own stupid joke about the pickled onions and broke the pencil point. We had to wait for someone to bring a knife to sharpen it because Miss Engel is not allowed to leave me by myself. And then I wasted another 5 minutes weeping after I snapped off the new point straight away because Miss E. had sharpened it very close to my face, flicking the shavings into my eyes while SS-Scharführer Thibaut held my head still, and it made me terribly nervous. I am not laughing or crying now and will try not to press so hard after this.)
At any rate, think of Maddie before the war, free and at home with her mouth full of pickled onion – she could only point and choke when a spluttering, smoking aircraft hove into view above their heads and circled the field they were overlooking as they perched on the gate. That aircraft was a Puss Moth.
I can tell you a bit about Puss Moths. They are fast, light monoplanes – you know, only one set of wings – the Tiger Moth is a biplane and has two sets (another type I have just remembered). You can fold the Puss Moth’s wings back for trucking the machine around or storing it, and it has a super view from the cockpit, and can seat two passengers as well as the pilot. I have been a passenger in one a couple of times. I think the upgraded version is called a Leopard Moth (that’s three aircraft I have named in one paragraph!).
This Puss Moth circling the field at Highdown Rise, the first Puss Moth Maddie ever came across, was choking to death. Maddie said it was like having a ringside seat at the circus. With the plane at three hundred feet she and Beryl could see every detail of the machine in miniature: every wire, every strut of its pair of canvas wings, the flicker of the wooden propeller blades as they spun ineffectively in the wind. Great blue clouds of smoke billowed from the exhaust.
‘He’s on fire!’ screamed Beryl in a fit of delighted panic.
‘He’s not on fire. He’s burning oil,’ Maddie said because she knows these things. ‘If he has any sense he’ll shut everything off and it’ll stop. Then he can glide down.’
They watched. Maddie’s prediction came true: the engine stopped and the smoke drifted away, and now the pilot was clearly planning to put his damaged rig down in the field right in front of them. It was a grazing field, unploughed, unmown, without any livestock in it. The wings above their heads cut out the sun for a second with the sweep and billow of a sailing yacht. The aircraft’s final pass pulled all the litter of their lunch out into the field, brown crusts and brown paper fluttering in the blue smoke like the devil’s confetti.
Maddie says it would have been a good landing if it had been on an aerodrome. In the field the wounded flying machine bounced haplessly over the unmown grass for thirty yards. Then it tipped up gracefully on to its nose.
Unthinkingly, Maddie broke into applause. Beryl grabbed her hands and smacked one of them.
‘You gormless cow! He might be hurt! Oh, what shall we do!’
Maddie hadn’t meant to clap. She had done it without thinking. I can picture her, blowing the curling black hair out of her eyes, with her lower lip jutting out before she jumped down from the gate and hopped over the green tussocks to the downed plane.
There were no flames. Maddie scaled her way up the Puss Moth’s nose to get at the cockpit and put one of her hobnailed shoes through the fabric that covered the fuselage (I think that’s what the body of the plane is called) and I bet she cringed; she hadn’t meant to do that either. She was feeling very hot and bothered by the time she unlatched the door, expecting a lecture from the aircraft’s owner, and was shamefully relieved to find the pilot hanging upside-down in half-undone harness straps and clearly stone-cold unconscious. Maddie glanced over the alien engine controls. No oil pressure (she told me all this). Throttle, out. Off. Good enough. Maddie untangled the harness and let the pilot slither to the ground.
Beryl was there to catch the dragging weight of the pilot’s senseless body. It was easier for Maddie to get down off the plane than it had been for her to get up, just a light hop to the ground. Maddie unbuckled the pilot’s helmet and goggles; she and Beryl had both done First Aid in Girl Guides, for all that’s worth, and knew enough to make sure the casualty could breathe.
Beryl began to giggle.
‘Who’s the gormless cow!’ Maddie exclaimed.
‘It’s a girl!’ Beryl laughed. ‘It’s a girl!’
Beryl stayed with the unconscious girl pilot while Maddie rode her Silent Superb to the farm to get help. She found two big strong lads her own age shovelling cow dung, and the farmer’s wife sorting First Early potatoes and cursing a cotillion of girls who were doing a huge jigsaw on the old stone kitchen floor (it was Sunday, or they’d have been boiling laundry). A rescue squad was despatched. Maddie was sent further down the lane on her bike to the bottom of the hill where there was a pub and a phone box.
‘She’ll need an ambulance, tha knows, love,’ the farmer’s wife had said to Maddie kindly. ‘She’ll need to go to hospital if she’s been flying an aeroplane.’
The words rattled around in Maddie’s head all the way to the telephone. Not ‘She’ll need to go to hospital if she’s been injured,’ but ‘She’ll need to go to hospital if she’s been flying an aeroplane.’
A flying girl! thought Maddie. A girl flying an aeroplane!
No, she corrected herself; a girl not flying a plane. A girl tipping up a plane in a sheep field.
But she flew it first. She had to be able to fly it in order to land it (or crash it).
The leap seemed logical to Maddie.
I’ve never crashed my motorbike, she thought. I could fly an aeroplane.
There are a few more types of aircraft that I know, but what comes to mind is the Lysander. That is the plane Maddie was flying when she dropped me here. She was actually supposed to land the plane, not dump me out of it in the air. We got fired at on the way in and for a while the tail was in flames and she couldn’t control it properly, and she made me bail out before she tried to land. I didn’t see her come down. But you showed me the photos you took at the site, so I know that she has crashed an aeroplane by now. Still, you can hardly blame it on the pilot when her plane gets hit by anti-aircraft fire.
Some British Support for Anti-Semitism
The Puss Moth crash was on Sunday. Beryl was back to work at the mill in Ladderal the next day. My heart twists up and shrivels with envy so black and painful that I spoiled half this page with tears before I realised they were falling, to think of Beryl’s long life of loading shuttles and raising snotty babies with a beery lad in an industrial suburb of Manchester. Of course that was in 1938 and they have all been bombed to bits since, so perhaps Beryl and her kiddies are dead already, in which case my tears of envy are very selfish. I am sorry about the paper. Miss E. is looking over my shoulder as I write and tells me not to interrupt my story with any more apologies.
Over the next week Maddie pieced together the pilot’s story in a storm of newspaper clippings with the mental wolfishness of Lady Macbeth. The pilot’s name was Dympna Wythenshawe (I remember her name because it is so silly). She was the spoiled youngest daughter of Sir Somebody-or-other Wythenshawe. On Friday there was a flurry of outrage in the evening paper because as soon as she was released from hospital, she started giving joyrides in her other aeroplane (a Dragon Rapide – how clever am I), while the Puss Moth was being mended. Maddie sat on the floor in her granddad’s shed next to her beloved Silent Superb, which needed a lot of tinkering to keep it in a fit state for weekend outings, and fought with the newspaper. There were pages and pages of gloom about the immediate likelihood of war between Japan and China, and the growing likelihood of war in Europe. The nose-down Puss Moth in the farmer’s field on Highdown Rise was last week’s news though; there were no pictures of the plane on Friday, only a grinning mugshot of the aviatrix herself, looking happy and windblown and much, much prettier than that idiot Fascist Oswald Mosley, whose sneering face glared out at Maddie from the prime spot at the top of the page. Maddie covered him up with her mug of cocoa and thought about the quickest way to get to Catton Park Aerodrome. It was a good distance, but tomorrow was Saturday again.
Maddie was sorry, the next morning, that she hadn’t paid more attention to the Oswald Mosley story. He was there, there in Stockport, speaking in front of St Mary’s on the edge of the Saturday market, and his idiot Fascist followers were having their own march to meet him, starting at the town hall and ending up at St Mary’s, causing traffic and human mayhem. They had by then toned down their anti-Semitism a bit and this rally was supposed to be in the name of Peace, believe it or not, trying to convince everybody that it would be a good idea to keep things cordial with the idiot Fascists in Germany. The Mosleyites were no longer allowed to wear their tastelessly symbolic black shirts – there was now a law in place about public marching in political uniforms, mainly to stop the Mosleyites causing riots like the ones they started with their marches through Jewish neighbourhoods in London. But they were going along to cheer for Mosley anyway. There was a happy crowd of his lovers and an angry crowd of his haters. There were women with baskets trying to get their shopping done at the Saturday market. There were policemen. There was livestock – some of the policemen were on horseback, and there was a herd of sheep being shunted through also on the way to market, and a horse-drawn milk cart stuck in the middle of the sheep. There were dogs. Probably there were cats and rabbits and chickens and ducks too.