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 an especially godforsaken 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 that’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 ratty 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 snaggletoothed. 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 Jerry’s 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, been 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 on to 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.