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 mangel-wurzels – 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 onto 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 fucking 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 a specially 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 goose-flesh; 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?

He looked round him. No plane was visible. Anywhere. Then it came back to him, with a lurch of the stomach. Real, it was real. He’d been sure in the night that he was dreaming or hallucinating, had lain down to recover himself, and must have fallen asleep. But he was awake now, no mistake; there was a bug of some kind down his back, and he slapped viciously to try to squash it.

His heart was pounding unpleasantly and his palms were sweating. He wiped them on his trousers, and scanned the landscape. It wasn’t flat, but neither did it offer much concealment. No trees, no bosky dells. There was a small lake off in the distance – he caught the shine of water – but if he’d ditched in water, surely to God he’d be wet?

br />

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 mangel-wurzels – 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 onto 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 fucking 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 a specially 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 goose-flesh; 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?

He looked round him. No plane was visible. Anywhere. Then it came back to him, with a lurch of the stomach. Real, it was real. He’d been sure in the night that he was dreaming or hallucinating, had lain down to recover himself, and must have fallen asleep. But he was awake now, no mistake; there was a bug of some kind down his back, and he slapped viciously to try to squash it.

His heart was pounding unpleasantly and his palms were sweating. He wiped them on his trousers, and scanned the landscape. It wasn’t flat, but neither did it offer much concealment. No trees, no bosky dells. There was a small lake off in the distance – he caught the shine of water – but if he’d ditched in water, surely to God he’d be wet?

Maybe he’d been unconscious long enough to dry out, he thought. Maybe he’d imagined that he’d seen the plane near the stones. Surely he couldn’t have walked this far from the lake and forgotten it? He’d started walking toward the lake, out of sheer inability to think of anything more useful to do. Clearly time had passed; the sky had cleared like magic. Well, they’d have little trouble finding him, at least; they knew he was near the wall. A truck should be along soon; he couldn’t be more than two hours from the airfield.

‘And a good thing, too,’ he muttered. He’d picked a specially God-forsaken spot to crash – there wasn’t a farmhouse or a paddock anywhere in sight, not so much as a sniff of chimney-smoke.

His head was becoming clearer now. He’d circle the lake – just in case – then head for the road. Might meet the support crew coming in.

‘And tell them I’ve lost the bloody plane?’ he asked himself aloud. ‘Aye, right. Come on, ye wee idjit, think! Now, where did ye see it last?’

He walked for a long time. Slowly, because of the knee, but that began to feel easier after a while. His mind was not feeling easier. There was something wrong with the countryside. Granted, Northumbria was a ragged sort of place, but not this ragged. He’d found a road – but it wasn’t the B road he’d seen from the air. It was a dirt track, pocked with stones and showing signs of being much travelled by hooved animals with a heavily fibrous diet.

Wished he hadn’t thought of diet. His wame was flapping against his backbone. Thinking about breakfast was better than thinking about other things, though, and for a time, he amused himself by envisioning the powdered eggs and soggy toast he’d have got in the mess, then going on to the lavish breakfasts of his youth in the Highlands: huge bowls of steaming parritch, slices of black pudding fried in lard, bannocks with marmalade, gallons of hot strong tea . . .

An hour later, he found Hadrian’s Wall. Hard to miss, even grown over with grass and all-sorts like it was. It marched stolidly along, just like the Roman Legions who’d built it, stubbornly workmanlike, a grey seam stitching its way up hill and down dale, dividing the peaceful fields to the south from those marauding buggers up north. He grinned at the thought and sat down on the wall – it was less than a yard high, just here – to massage his knee.

He hadn’t found the plane, or anything else, and was beginning to doubt his own sense of reality. He’d seen a fox, any number of rabbits, and a pheasant who’d nearly given him heart failure by bursting out from right under his feet. No people at all, though, and that was giving him a queer feeling in his water.

Aye, there was a war on, right enough, and many of the menfolk were gone, but the farmhouses hadn’t been sacrificed to the war effort, had they? The women were running the farms, feeding the nation, all that – he’d heard the PM on the radio praising them for it only last week. So where the bloody hell was everybody?

The sun was getting low in the sky when at last he saw a house. It was flush against the wall, and struck him as somehow familiar, though he knew he’d never seen it before. Stone-built and squat, but quite large, with a ratty-looking thatch. There was smoke coming from the chimney, though, and he limped toward it as fast as he could go.

There was a person outside – a woman in a ragged long dress and an apron, feeding chickens. He shouted, and she looked up, her mouth falling open at the sight of him.

‘Hey,’ he said, breathless from hurry. ‘I’ve had a crash. I need help. Are ye on the phone, maybe?’

She didn’t answer. She dropped the basket of chicken feed and ran right away, round the corner of the house. He sighed in exasperation. Well, maybe she’d gone to fetch her husband. He didn’t see any sign of a vehicle, not so much as a tractor, but maybe the man was—

The man was tall, stringy, bearded, and snaggle-toothed. He was also dressed in a dirty shirt and baggy short pants that showed his hairy legs and bare feet – and accompanied by two other men in similar comic attire. Jerry instantly interpreted the looks on their faces, and didn’t stay to laugh.

‘Hey, nay problem, mate,’ he said, backing up, hands out. ‘I’m off, right?’

They kept coming, slowly, spreading out to surround him. He hadn’t liked the looks of them to start with, and was liking them less by the second. Hungry, they looked, with a speculative glitter in their eyes.

One of them said something to him, a question of some kind, but the Northumbrian accent was too thick for him to catch more than a word. ‘Who’ was the word, and he hastily pulled his dog-tags from the neck of his blouson, waving the red and green disks at them. One of the men smiled, but not in a nice way.

‘Look,’ he said, still backing up. ‘I didna mean to—’

The man in the lead reached out a horny hand and took hold of his forearm. He jerked back, but the man, instead of letting go, punched him in the belly.

He could feel his mouth opening and shutting like a fish’s, but no air came in. He flailed wildly, but they all were on him then. They were calling out to each other, and he didn’t understand a word, but the intent was plain as the nose he managed to butt with his head.

It was the only blow he landed. Within two minutes, he’d been efficiently beaten into pudding, had his pockets rifled, been stripped of his jacket and dog-tags, frog-marched down the road and heaved bodily down a steep, rocky slope.

He rolled, bouncing from one outcrop to the next, until he managed to fling out an arm and grab onto a scrubby thornbush. He came to a scraping halt and lay with his face in a clump of heather, panting and thinking incongruously of taking Dolly to the pictures, just before he’d joined up. They’d seen The Wizard of Oz, and he was beginning to feel creepily like the lass in that film – maybe it was the resemblance of the Northumbrians to scarecrows and lions.

‘At least the fucking lion spoke English,’ he muttered, sitting up. ‘Jesus, now what?’

It occurred to him that it might be a good time to stop cursing and start praying.

London, two years later

She’d been home from her work no more than five minutes. Just in time to meet Roger’s mad charge across the floor, shrieking ‘MUMMY!’, she pretending to be staggered by his impact – not so much a pretence; he was getting big. Just time to call out to her own mum, hear the muffled reply from the kitchen, sniff hopefully for the comforting smell of tea and catch a tantalising whiff of tinned sardines that made her mouth water – a rare treat.

Just time to sit down for what seemed the first time in days, and take off her high-heeled shoes, relief washing over her feet like seawater when the tide comes in. She noticed with dismay the hole in the heel of her stocking, though. Her last pair, too. She was just undoing her garter, thinking that she’d have to start using leg-tan like Maisie, drawing a careful seam up the back of each leg with an eyebrow pencil, when there came a knock at the door.

‘Mrs MacKenzie?’ The man who stood at the door of her mother’s flat was tall, a dark silhouette in the dimness of the hall, but she knew at once he was a soldier.

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