BIT BY BIT (Foxfires VI)

Foxfires

foxfires snowy moors

FOXFIRES I      FOXFIRES II    FOXFIRES III   FOXFIRES IV   FOXFIRES V

Chapter Four

Tuesday Night

“The stew’s ruined, but you should have been home a half hour ago.”

“Sorry, love.”

“Sorry, Gran.”

Emily sat near the Rayburn, the clothes on her back so warm they were almost burning her chilled skin. Her thawing fingers tingled as she dug a fork into her heaped plate. The stew wasn’t ruined. It was delicious. Grandma was full of false threats. She was incapable of handing out punishments to her loved ones. Even now, full of her own family’s betrayal, she was helping Granddad to more cabbage.

One thing Emily didn’t miss about home was her mother’s cooking. Her mother wasn’t built for cooking. She was designed for looking pretty and saying witty things, but those rare skills definitely had their place. Emily got the impression that her grandparents did not wholly approve of the match their son had made. The odd remark here and there about homemaking and ‘don’t cry over anything that can’t cry over you’. But, though the cooking hadn’t been great at home, Emily felt she hadn’t missed out on anything. The social whirl of her girlhood was something she treasured. Especially now, stuck in the middle of nowhere.

“Any news from the village? I haven’t had the time to go down for three days.” Grandma said.

It was one of her pointed ‘poor me’ remarks that generally passed uncommented, much to Grandma’s chagrin. Emily opened her mouth to tell everything and Granddad fixed her with a meaningful stare.

“Not really,” she said, and shoved another mouthful of stew in to stop any more words coming out.

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BIT BY BIT (Foxfires V)

Foxfires

foxfires snowy moors

FOXFIRES I      FOXFIRES II    FOXFIRES III   FOXFIRES IV   

Chapter Three (Part Two)

“They’re coming. They’re coming. Everything will be alright.” The pilot tried to console himself, but it wasn’t the same as having someone else consoling you. It was much harder to believe.

He found his way onto his hands and knees and bashed his fists against the cockpit door to get out. The way the plane had turned over meant that the door was angled more towards the sky and had not been buried in the snow. It was a small consolation. The door opened easily and the pilot swung it open and hauled himself out, careful not to put pressure on his broken ankle.

The snow was deep and getting deeper. When the pilot put his gloves down into the snow, his arms were buried almost to the elbow. On all fours, he surveyed the blank canvas that stretched before him. The dark sky whirled with millions upon millions of white dots, and the snow-blanketed moors below it rose and fell forever, it seemed, into the distance. Though all his memories had been bashed from his head, he still knew that light was a good thing… Light = People + Help. But, unfortunately, Number of Lights = 0. There was nothing to guide him in a particular direction. He would have to take a risk.

“Eeny meeny miny mo,” he chanted, thinking it was a method as good as any.

Once he had chosen a direction, the pilot spent a bit of time looking for a makeshift crutch, and found one of the support struts hanging off the damaged framework of the plane. With a twist and a pull the metal tubing fell away. It was a bit sharp, but his flying jacket was so thick with sheepskin that it wasn’t too uncomfortable underneath his arm. He practised hopping about, forced to lift his ankle high to avoid the thick snow, but he seemed to be quite accomplished with a crutch. Maybe he’d used one before. It was the first positive thing to happen so far, and for a second he even felt a little hopeful.

Then the strangest thing…

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BIT BY BIT (Foxfires IV)

Foxfires

foxfires snowy moors

FOXFIRES I      FOXFIRES II    FOXFIRES III      

Chapter Three (Part One)

The young man awoke in the dark to the smell of burning. His head throbbed with an immense pressure, and his ears sang with the thundering pulse of blood. He opened his eyes to the mangled metal of the cockpit, scattered with an array of smashed instruments, nothing of which he recognised. An icy wind blew through the shattered windscreen, biting at the exposed skin of his face. Blinking, he peered out and was surprised to see that the world outside had not only turned completely white, but also turned upside-down.

There were straps biting into his shoulders and chest, holding him captive. He felt his way along them with gloved hands, searching for a release, and his fumbling dislodged the identity tags that hung around his neck. They fell down and hit him on the nose with a jangle, making him jump. It was then that he realised. It wasn’t the world that was upside-down; it was him.

Reaching for the identity tags, he scrutinised them. The letters swam before his eyes until, with effort, he managed to focus.

“J Fairchild, Pilot,” he read out loud.

He repeated the name a few times with a voice he didn’t recognise, and wondered why the tags said ‘J Fairchild’ when his name was… was…

Looking again at the twisted metal in front of him, it occurred to him that it might once have been a plane. The tags around his neck said ‘Pilot’. And as there was nobody else around…

“Hello?” he tried.

No answer.

… As there was nobody else around, he must have been flying the plane. But how could he possibly be a pilot? He didn’t know the first thing about planes or how to fly them. He sifted through his memory, searching for the merest scrap of knowledge about flying. And as he was sifting, it became clear that there was nothing to sift through; he didn’t seem to know anything at all about anything at all. Not about flying, not about his name, not about where he came from, or about how he’d ended up hanging upside-down in a crashed plane in the snow.

He hung there a while longer as he thought about this. There were suddenly questions everywhere, pecking at him like hens.

Who am I? How old am I? What am I doing here? What day is it? What did I have for breakfast? Will anyone miss me?

The last question seemed the most important, for with all these questions came a profound sense of loneliness. And above all else, what he needed right now was the feel of someone else’s arms around him, the whisper of comfort in his ear, the soft press of lips on his cheek. He closed his eyes and was horrified when a tear squeezed out and dripped down his forehead.

Was this the kind of man he was?

But he let the tears fall. He allowed himself the self-pity. After all, there was nobody around to see it. And if the sobs that escaped from his mouth were too loud, what did it matter?

When there were no more tears he sniffed loudly a few times, and then continued the search for the catch that would release him from his straps. He couldn’t remember how the harness worked so he tried everything he could think of. The last thing he wanted was the indignity of dying upside-down.

“At least let me walk a few paces so that they know I tried.”

Quite who ‘they’ would be, he didn’t know. He imagined some faceless creatures dressed in thick overcoats and hats trudging through the snow with a stretcher. They would find him, not in the cockpit, but stretched out as a frozen slab of flesh in the snow a hundred footsteps away, eyes closed, but jaw set with determination. ‘At least he tried,’ they said to each other, ‘We can tell his parents he was brave.’ If he had any parents.

Just when he was trying to picture what he looked like; what he would look like dead (he couldn’t), his gloves snagged on the release catch and the harness regurgitated him unceremoniously onto the shattered ceiling of the cockpit. The pilot discovered that he knew quite an impressive range of swear words, and also that he had broken his ankle.

Pain screamed up his left leg and a tidal wave of nausea caused him to retch. He swallowed hard, fighting the urge to vomit, aware that his body may need all the nutrition it could get. As the blood that had pooled in his head began to flow back down to where it should be, his ankle began to throb. The slightest movement was agony. The pilot gritted his teeth in an effort to control the pain and the panic that came with it. He wouldn’t be walking anywhere. He would be hopping. He would be lucky to get out of this alive.

BIT BY BIT (Foxfires III)

Foxfires

foxfires snowy moors

FOXFIRES I               FOXFIRES II

Chapter Two (Part Two)

…   “Forget it,” Emily said, “If you’re going to be like that.”

And then she felt so bad because there were people dead, or dying, up there on the moors, German or not.

“Em, love. Don’t.” Granddad got up off his stool at the bar and came towards her, “Tell us what you saw.”

“I’ll tell you,” she said, “But I’m saying nothing to them.”

Nothing to Harry.

Harry passed her to pull back the curtain and look out of the window. Emily tugged her granddad to one side.

“It was flying really low. I knew it was going to crash, and then it did. Up on the moors.”

“Are you sure?”

She looked into his old eyes, the eyelids framing them like baggy stage curtains. She saw something there. He couldn’t afford for her to be wrong, not if she was on the other side. She wondered whose side he was on and remembered that his family had lived in the village for centuries. Never anywhere else.

“Granddad. I saw it. It made me think of Dad. You know, if he’d been flying that plane, he’d…”

He nodded to stop her words: ‘Don’t say it out loud’.

Harry came closer. She could feel the weight of his presence. “Did you see any signs on it. You know – a circle or a cross?”

Emily turned on him. “I know what to look for, thank you very much. My father’s a Squadron Leader.”

Harry raised her eyebrows at her. “Well, excuse me.”

“I think I saw a circle. From the wing shape it may have been a Hurricane.”

A crowd was gathering around them now. The three old men who always played dominos by the fire. The man from the Post Office. Harry’s father. Mr Hopkins the mill owner. Emily was bombarded with outrage.

“But no British pilot would risk such weather.”

“How sure are you it was a circle?”

“Our lads aren’t daft enough to fly in these conditions. It must have been a German bomber.”

“It can’t have been flying low enough for you to see a circle in this light.”

And now that they were surrounding her, Emily felt more and more certain that she had seen a circle.

“Firstly,” she said, “I know how to identify aircraft better than any of you. Secondly, it was too bloody small to be a bomber. And thirdly, I’m pretty damn sure I saw the RAF insignia on the wing. If you choose not to believe me, then that’s up to you.”

They looked her up and down and she felt very small so she puffed herself up and made her expression as hard as she could. She wasn’t about to crumple before these village idiots.

“Ned. I think you’d better take your granddaughter home,” said Harry’s father.

Emily’s grandfather was quiet for a moment, then he put his hand on Emily’s back. “Come on, love. I bet tea’s ready any-road.”

~ ~ ~

The snow was getting thicker in the lane and settling on top of the stone walls like sugar icing. Emily trudged by her grandfather, eyes down as she watched her boots press the snow flat, her toes aching with cold.

“I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong,” Emily lied.

“You’re a bright girl, Em, and you’re not afraid to show it. It might be acceptable in York, but here young girls don’t talk down to their elders, and they certainly don’t swear at them.”

“Not even when there might be lives at stake and nobody’s listening?” she said, screwing her face up in disgust, “There could be men dying up there, and nobody’s bothered but me. They’re all cowards.”

Her granddad swept his arm over the landscape. “And what is anyone supposed to do in this blizzard? We’d be risking our own lives too, trying to get up there. There are bogs and cliffs, and drifts as high as you and me.”

“You would risk it if Dad was in that plane.”

“And what if we got all the way up and it was a blinking German? What then?”

“A German is still a human.”

Ned said something like ‘hummph’. Emily didn’t push it. He’d had his own fair share of fighting Germans.

Up ahead, the small farmhouse sat nestled against a line of trees. There was a thin line of light from the kitchen window and, through it, Emily could see her grandmother moving about.

“She never shuts the curtain properly,” Ned said, glancing up at the sky as if for opportunistic bombers, “Don’t mention what happened, will you?”

“Why not?”

He left her question hanging in the air and Emily ran through some possible answers.

Because her son flies planes.

Because she’ll probably think we’re all cowards too.

Because I’m embarrassed of you for showing me up in the pub.

Emile thought the last answer seemed the most probable, and it made her grind her teeth together in frustration. If only the war would end, she could leave this bloody place and get back to civilisation.

Moss, the old sheepdog, began to bark in the farmhouse. As he was mostly deaf, Emily had to conclude that he’d smelt them. Her grandma opened the door in her pinny, cardigan over the top, and peered out, rubbing her arms when she felt the chilly breeze.

“Where’ve you been?”

Moss came running up, tail wagging, not sure who to greet first. Emily bent down to sink her nose into his warm, doggy fur. She would let her granddad explain their late return.

Before she went inside, she paused and ran her gaze over the moors high above her. They looked so majestic, lit by the rising moonlight. Majestic, but eerie. If there was an airman stranded up there he would surely feel like the loneliest person in the world.

 

BIT BY BIT (Foxfires II)

Foxfires

foxfires snowy moors

FOXFIRES I

Chapter Two:  CENTURIES LATER

“LOST. Metal Distaff. Reward offered for safe return. Inform the Verger if found.”

The note looked old and the ink was faded. Emily wondered if she was reading the word ‘distaff’ right as she had never heard of such a thing. How would she know what she was supposed to be looking for? A diagram would have been nice.

Emily moved away from the church noticeboard, annoyed at having to resort to reading boring announcements to kill time. Huffing more than a little, she pulled her woolly hat over her ears and stuffed her gloved hands deep into her pockets. A comfortable hum of conversation leaked from inside the warm pub. Her granddad said he would ‘only be a tick’ and, already, ten minutes had gone past. If he was in there having a swift half while she was outside freezing to death, there’d be hell to pay.

Again, she played with the idea of going in to fetch him, but the thought of Harry stopped her. Harry, the Innkeeper’s son, serving behind the bar with his dad. Harry who’d kissed her like she was everything three whole weeks ago and completely ignored her ever since.

“Sod him,” she said, stamping her feet on the snowy pavement.

Above the darkening village, the snow-covered moors were half-concealed in a ghostly mist. Tendrils swirled and intertwined, drifting apart and together, teased by the wind. It was getting late. The church clock told her tea was on the table, going cold.

Even though Emily had promised herself she wouldn’t peek through the pub window, she found herself doing just that. And at the same time, who should walk over and pull the blackout curtains across, but Harry. Emily froze, then managed a half-hearted smile. Harry nodded at her and covered her smile with the curtain. A wall of black.

“Sod you, Harry,” she swore, and stuck two fingers up at the window. It was such a shame he missed it.

Now he would know she’d waited outside instead of coming in with her granddad, too embarrassed to face him. He’d probably be sharing that little nugget of information with his reject friends later. All the lads who couldn’t go to war because they were too busy farming, or couldn’t hear properly, or were a bit daft in the head. Harry himself was ‘crippled with asthma’ though Emily wasn’t sure how he swung that one because she’d never heard a wheeze from him in the time she’d been there. Maybe having a dad who was not only an Innkeeper, but a councillor too, helped.

For the hundredth time that day she wished she could go home. Back to York. Back to the hustle and bustle of the city, her friends, even the job in the tearooms. But no, it was unsafe in York. As her father was in the RAF, her parents moved to Leconfield Airfield when war began and persuaded Emily that her grandparents needed help with their farm on the edge of the Pennines. When she handed in her resignation, the boss of the fancy tearoom, Mr Marshall, said he might not be able to take Emily back on after the war. He said it with his arms folded over his pudding stomach and looked at her like she was a coward for escaping to the countryside. Most of her friends had joined up to serve in the war effort, scattering across England like dandelion spores on the wind, and not keeping in touch because they were so busy doing their important, heroic jobs.

There was nothing left for her in York, but that didn’t stop her missing it. Missing the life she used to have.

Here she had dawn cock-crows, milking twice a day, mucking out and kissing decidedly non-wheezing boys who afterwards pretended she hadn’t kissed them after all. She knew she was an oddity to the village lads. A posh city girl with airs and graces, unused to their country ways. She knew they didn’t like her, so when one of them offered her his lips, she’d been surprised into succumbing. And now she wished she hadn’t bothered.

“Sod it all,” she decided.

She would count to ten. If her granddad hadn’t finished his swift half by the time she reached ‘ten’, she was walking back alone. Grandma would have a fit. Emily could hear her now. ‘He may as well be pouring our precious money straight down his throat’. She began to count…

“One,

Two,

Three,

Four,”

From the sky came a low whine…

“Five,

Six.”

…The stuttering purr of a propeller and the hum of the engine that drove it.

“Seven.”

Germans? Here? It had been known, but… in this weather?

“Eight.”

Whoever was flying it, Emily knew the plane was low. Too low. It was snowing again and the fog was too thick for planes. A pilot would have to be stupid to take such a risk.

“Nine.”

There was no ten.

Instead: “What the hell is he doing?” Emily whispered, shielding her eyes from the snowflakes as she tried to catch sight of it.

The plane was heading towards the moors above her, and the moors were really quite high, and the plane was so low. Too low. She felt a burn of tension in her chest. It wouldn’t make it. There was no way.

Maybe it was German, though it sounded too small to be a bomber. If only she could see it, she’d know. She kept her father’s aircraft recognition book by her bed and knew all the shapes off by heart. The wing tip emerged through the fog, just for the briefest moment, and then it was gone. Emily thought she saw a circle on the wing; an RAF circle, but she couldn’t be sure.

German or English, it was to have the same, inescapable fate. Even though she expected the impact, it still came as a shock.

For a split second, there was a flash of light from the moors, illuminating a sky of swirling snowflakes and, a moment later, the noise filled the snow-smothered valley. A thud as loud as a clap of summer thunder.

Emily couldn’t move. Her gloved hands covered her face, and the wool itched, and she wanted to take them away, but she still couldn’t move. She imagined a mass of tangled wreckage and men dying. Blood and pain and broken bones and warped metal.

“Shit,” she said into her itchy gloves, and then: “Shit….”

The words helped. Because her lips had moved, so could the rest of her. She forgot Harry – that kiss – and shoved through the big, green door into the noisy pub, pointing furiously at the moors to anyone who was looking. And that was everyone.

“A plane just crashed.”

Blank faces everywhere. Silence.

“A plane,” Emily said again, “You know, the flying things. With engines.”

Harry was pulling a pint for the Verger. He wiped his hands on a towel and emerged from behind the bar. Emily now remembered Harry and couldn’t keep the blush from her cold cheeks.

“We might be countryfolk, but we do know what a plane is,” he said.

Emily hated the way everyone stayed horribly silent and still. How their stares judged her. Suddenly it was so clear that there were sides, and she was on one side while everyone else was on the other. Emily the Townie VS The Whole Bloody Village.

MISSED FOXFIRES I? Here it is.

 

BIT BY BIT (Foxfires I)

FOXFIRES

bogcotton

Chapter One: THE ADVISOR & THE WITCH

He looked after her for as long as she let him. Though the wind tore through the grey stones of their fortified shelter, and the snow fell up to the roof beams. Though there was nothing to eat but frozen horse meat and nothing to drink but festering ale and rank bog water. He stayed because he could not bring himself to leave her all alone, and they covered themselves with sheepskins and slept more often than not.

It was on the darkest, coldest night of all that it first happened. He put a hand out to shrug the sheepskin over his shoulder and brushed the roundness of her breast. And even though they were so tired, so hungry and so rigid with cold, they bent towards each other. Their lips touched.

This was all they had. For many days. And then the snows melted. A trickle of fresh water ran past the dwelling. Small, white, cotton-top flowers grew from the putrid bog. Life.

“Go,” she said to him, as she had said many times before, “I am forever in your debt for staying with me so long. But now you must go.”

He protested. But the beauty of the valley beyond caught his eye, and he found it more beautiful than she, who had become wasted and gaunt over the winter. He thought of the pastures and woods and the ground soon heavy with swaying crops and grazing animals.

“I will return,” he told her, “I will come back with food and build you a better place to live.”

“No,” she said, “Never return to this place.”

“Then come with me.” An impossible request.

“You know I can’t leave.”

He looked into her eyes of a blue so bright it was as if they held a trapped piece of summer sky. He saw that she was stronger, and he saw she meant what she said.

She turned away from him and did not turn back again. Not even when he stood up. Not even when he gathered his few possessions together and walked away.

He kept his staff before him, pressing it down as hard as he could into the marsh before each cautious step, his thoughts on the smothered bodies of his tribesmen below him. Several times he felt a pull on his leg as the bog sought to reunite him with his people. Once he lost his leg up to the thigh in the foul, squelching mud, and struggled so hard to get it back again he thought he was a dead man.

As the advisor crossed the bog the sun moved across the sky, past midday and on into the afternoon. When the pale, yellow disc sank below the hills, he sank to his small island of wiry cotton-topped grass and slept without dreaming. Morning came with the skylark’s song, and he began again. Another day passed by.

When he had taken five steps, one after the other, on firm, solid ground, he knew he was free. His ordeal was over. The fortress glared back at him when he turned one last time. The woman, now a small dot slumped against the grey walls, did not move. He wondered how she would fare, all alone in the middle of the marshes, on the side of a wasted moor. He wondered that several times over the following days. But then he came across a village and people who were willing to take him in, and he found himself almost happy, almost belonging. The sun warmed his skin, food swelled his belly, the sound of fresh river water and lowing cattle smoothed over the bad memories. And he thought no more of her. No more of Berber and his tribe. At last he had only to think of himself.