I’d never met a fighter pilot before. I don’t know what they were supposed to look like, but when I first met Colin, reeking of sour whisky and leaning laconically against the massive concrete mixer he operated on the sprawling construction site back in that harsh winter of my youth, I found it hard to believe that he had flown Spitfires in the heat of combat. That he had killed opponents – warriors – like himself.
But he had.
Almost 30 years before we met, and spent long evenings animatedly debating the climb dynamics of an ME 109 and the rate of fire from a Spitfire Mark 3’s eight wing mounted Browning machine guns, and what it was like to feel the cold sweat clamming over you when you threw your kite into a dive at 30,000 feet because you had two hostiles closing you down out of the sun, Colin was a front line pilot with 783 Squadron.
The Firm, as he called it, was ironically based barely three miles from High Wycombe, where we found ourselves working on the site which was being built to house currently serving US Air Force personnel.
There were many characters passing through that site back then. Work was pretty easy to come by, and if you didn’t mind the occasionally back-breaking nature of it and could adjust to the harsh conditions that went with the territory, then it was not a bad life.
I was drifting myself back then. I didn’t have a plan, thought maybe one day I should get myself a proper education, who knows, even a proper job, but for the time being I was happy enough driving a dumper truck on the site, building up my young body, getting strong, having a laugh on a good day and getting a weekly wage, solemnly handed over by the terminally depressed looking site agent on a Friday afternoon. The boys called him The Wasp – because he’s always fucking buzzing around getting in your face, said Frank the Slab Layer. The Fucking Wasp. I liked that.
It was all cash in those days. I took home around £46, the notes tucked neatly into a small brown envelope. The envelope had a window cut into the middle, the tenners and fivers tantalisingly revealed inside. Already I had mentally allocated where they would be spent.
Most of the men I worked with had alcohol issues. I recall one guy, a huge labourer from the south west of Ireland, Maurice – maybe 23 stone, massive – throwing up in a trench one searingly cold Monday morning.
Long night, Maurice, I asked pleasantly, looking down, perched as I was on the relative safety of my dumper, as he shuddered and shook, his terrifying bulk swathed in a filthy donkey jacket.
Jesus fucking Christ Lord God Almighty, whispered Maurice, his huge, spade-like face ghostly white, haunted and haggard despite his youth, framed against the translucence of that freezing late November morning.
Hell of a night alright, he managed a watery smile, before exploding into a coughing fit. A lock in. The van picked me and Frank up from the pub early this morning. What a fucking night – he pronounced it foook-in’.
Could be a long week, I heard him say to himself, as he picked up a shovel and dug deep down into the trench, could be a long week.
Most of the men drank steadily through the day, one way or another. Morning nips from well-used flasks were common, as was the obligatory dart to the pub to neck a few pints on a lunchtime – and it always struck me as miraculous that there were not more fatal accidents, such were the levels of drunkenness on site at any time of the day.
But Colin, who kept himself by and large to himself, could drink most of his fellow labourers under the table.
One Friday, late afternoon in early December, as the day was closing in and ice was already starting to form its familiar criss-cross patterns on the pocked puddles which punctuated the site, we all downed tools, shuffled into an orderly line, and picked up the brown envelopes.
Piling into one of the death trap vans perennially on hand to whisk us down to the Jolly Angler pub – a true horror of a drinker if ever there was one – I found myself in with around 15 blokes, most of whom were hell bent on getting as drunk as skunks as quickly as possible.
The Jolly Angler had a terrible jukebox which only ever played four songs, as I recall. Rock Your Baby, by George McCrae, Wichita Lineman by Glenn Campbell – which would incidentally always bring a tear to my eye once I had downed a few beers, Angie by the Rolling Stones, and a haunting, tragic Danny Boy. When the latter came on – as it did many, many times throughout the evening, the boys, many pints up, would throw their heads back and howl, oh-hhhh….
Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying.
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow.
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow.
I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow.
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.
Once they had sung, and the song had finished, there would be tears and then, in those long and cold nights as I fought to make my transition from boy to man, I would marvel silently at these enormous men, gladiators, hard as nails, weeping silently into their beers, thinking perhaps of back home and girls who had got away, parents and families they had not seen for many a long year.
So we’re drinking and I see Colin, swaying unsteadily towards me, glassy eyed, huge, with one of those fly-boy moustaches glistening with sweat. He had me in his gun sight.
Colin is a big guy, around 6.2, gangly but very strong. He clamps one of those big paws on my shoulder, cobalt blue eyes boring into me, and tells me how it was to put your kite into a dive at 37,000 feet and hammer down towards the 109s escorting the bombers far, far below.
He is very drunk, topping up over the day, now making sure he gets properly shit-faced before having to return to the solitary horrors of the caravan.
Did you really fly Spitfires Colin, I asked, not wanting to doubt him, but wondering, did he, did he really sit in the claustrophobic space of that cockpit all those long years before. Did he take off into the grey light of dawn with death on his mind as a young man barely older than I was then.
Came over in ’42, Hell, kid, I didn’t ask for it – we got called up, I could fly a kite, was brought up on gliders, then officers air training corp at college, next thing I know I’m on the fucking banana boat over here. They gave me three weeks training on Spits, then you’re on your own.
Colin was leaning against the fag-stubbed bar, pulling on his thirtieth Camel of the day and ordering a pint of watery lager to chase the whiskeys he had lined up.
The more he smoked, the more he drank, the closer Colin leaned in towards me. The whiskey fumes threaten to overwhelm me.
The kite is bucking and kicking, you’re hitting past 600 and you’re thinking the wings are going to tear off, he whispers.
Colin stands up from his stool, unsteadily, and you know he is back in the cockpit, thumbs hovering over the gun buttons. He has not changed out of the threadbare sheepskin coat he wears from dawn to dusk on the site, and the long since faded and greying once white polo neck sweater is liberally daubed with beer and ancient food stains. His ill-fitting trousers hang loosely from his now emaciated waist, and the site boots he still wears are deeply encrusted and caked with an off green mud.
And you’re looking at your airspeed indicator which is going off the fucking scale, and you’re running the gun checks and adjusting the sights and wondering if any of those fuckers have sneaked out onto your tail, and you are thinking, you are thinking, fucker it’s me or you and it ain’t gonna be me, oh no not today.
And you’re there – what, it’s been maybe a 15 second dive to get down to the 25,000 and there they are all over the fucking sky and I lock onto one of the outriders – you know, he’s like riding shotgun for those fucking bombers – as if they can just waltz in and drop their bombs all over us – and he comes up in the sights and I hit the gun button….and….and…
Colin wobbles, steadies himself against the bar rail, stumbles backwards momentarily, before composing himself. Suddenly he is ram rod straight, now transported back to a tiny cockpit high above the Kent down-lands framed against a deep blue sky, the white trail of aviation vapours and staccato blasting of wing mounted machine guns and sharp tang of cordite lingering somewhere in the distant rim of a fading consciousness.
We were standing at the bar. No-one was saying much, but watching Colin, wondering what he was going to do next. Very slowly, he bowed his head, fumbled for his whiskey – brought back those massive shoulders, slugged back the drink.
I got a few, you know, he said quietly. Always difficult to prove a kill, but yeah, I got a few. Colin, now swaying, barely discernibly, held one hand above the other, demonstrating how he came up behind his enemy in a 600 miles per hour forward dive.
He’d come out of the sun – my wingman, dude called Charlie Johnson, Charlie, who didn’t make it back that day, had shouted for me to break and I managed to flip the Spit out and over, rolled back into the dive and I swear to all that is good and Holy that I saw that boy and he was a boy glancing over to me as he flashed past. Kid didn’t believe that he could have missed me.
His fucking mistake, Colin grinned at me – I cut him out when he was turning into his climb to come at me again in another pass, locked him on and gave him a two or three second burst and – boom – he was gone. I watched him go down, said Colin, lighting his umpteenth Camel of the night and slugging back his whiskey, sinking exhausted back onto the grimy bar stool.
Danny Boy was on again, and the boys were singing along tunelessly, mournfully. Colin, head bowing now, looked up at me, eyes no longer focused. Can you sing, kid, he asked? Me, no, rubbish at singing I am Colin. Do you, I asked? I used to sing kid, used to be able to hold a tune, just like I used to be able to climb into a kite and climb up into the sun and go to war.
I used to, he said, slumping forward now onto the bar as the day and the week and the long years that went into Colin caught up, finally. And in that night I looked into his cold blue eyes laced with shimmering lines of red and saw there the darkness and solitude that he took with him 30 years before as he climbed up into the morning sun to meet his enemy.
And so we stumble forward into the world, heads set silently against the wind and knowing that we must go on or fail, and as the strains of Danny Boy echoed and faded around the decaying walls of the chestnut bar and Colin sighed and silently faded from my life I knew that dawns and the pleasure of the dawns for all of us had been afforded by Colin and his ability to climb into the tiny space of a fighter plane and know that he was, somewhere, loved.
I never saw Colin again after that long day’s journey into the frosty night. When I arrived on the site for work on the Monday, I swung past Colin’s caravan to bid him a good morning and to make sure he had survived the weekend. But he was gone, the few belongings he had also swept up, gone with him.
I didn’t think too much more about him, until one of the boys told me several months later that Colin had been found lying dead in a local bar after a particularly heroic session. There was no-one to claim the body, no known family. He rests in a lonely grave, just outside of High Wycombe and far from home.
He had, finally, been shot down. And I know he wouldn’t have wanted to bail out from this final tail spin.