This is the first in a series of collaborative pieces, where other creatives and artists attempt to inspire each other, and hopefully in turn, be inspired. The first few stories, will feature photography by the very talented David Kennedy. David’s images are often bleak and moody, and feature objects and buildings, long since forgotten. I love his style, and every photo conjured a story for me. So, he kindly provided four of his favourite photographs, and for each one, I have written a short story inspired by that image. This story, ‘War,’ is the first of the four.
If you like David’s photography as much as I do, and would like to see more, you can follow him at @grey.lord on Instagram. Let me know what you think of the piece in the comments section below, and if you would like to collaborate with me, get in touch!
The explosion was deafening. The roaring wind was so loud, not even his head set could dull it. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear a voice yelling and the sounding of alarms as every light on the panel before him seemed to light up. Maybe he was injured, or perhaps he was pinned, he wasn’t sure, but either way, his body wouldn’t respond to his mind’s commands. He felt weightless, almost stationary, like he was floating in mid air. When he was hit, there had been a blinding flash, and then so much grey smoke began to stream from what used to be the nose cone of the plane. He wondered if from the ground, it looked like some kind of air show in reverse, like the Red Arrow shows he had went to see with his father when he was a child. You think strange things when you’re about to die. Rushing air choked him as his oxygen failed. There was so much noise. The desert landscape below, was rushing towards him, but all he could think about was Emma. He wished he hadn’t said those things to her. Then it was silent.
He had no idea how long he was out, but he felt stiff, the way you get when you’ve been stuck in the same position for too long. Slowly, he opened his eyes, and realised he was no longer inside the plane. Beneath him, instead of sand, was cold, musty earth. There was a thick, heavy fog hanging in the air, blanketing him, and making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. He wondered if he had been captured and taken somewhere, but he knew that didn’t make sense. He was clearly outside, and he hadn’t been bound or incapacitated in any way. There was a slight, chilly breeze and all around him smelled like rotting, damp leaves.
He tried to remember what had happened. Had he been flying? Something itched at the back of his mind, a memory just out of reach. He must have hit his head. He felt his face and skull, before conducting a cursory check of the rest of his body. No injuries, no blood. He felt no pain. What had happened? His head felt as foggy as his surroundings and he wondered if it had somehow penetrated his mind, and spread it’s blank grey there as well. He had his flight suit on, so either he had been flying, or he was about to fly, but which, he couldn’t decide.
He listened, but no sound came. He felt entombed by the fog, which curled around his boots like tendrils. It reminded him of a Vincent Price movie. He picked a random direction, and began to walk, slowly, feeling the ground with each foot before putting his full weight down. He had no idea where he was, or what kind of terrain he was on. One wrong step could send him off the edge of a cliff, or into quick sand. He walked for a couple of hours. At least, he estimated it to be that long, his watch had stopped at 01:04 exactly and no amount of shaking or fiddling with it had encouraged it to start again. The entire time, the landscape, or lack there of, never changed. He walked from one patch of fog to another. Not even the earth rose or fell beneath his feet. It was as flat as a runway.
But then, she appeared before him, curtains of fog pulling back to reveal her bulk. It was the other girl in his life apart from Emma, his plane, Bertha, named after his Grandmother, because she had been a fighter too. But something was wrong. Her nose cone was gone completely, and her insides were exposed like a gaping wound. He ran to her and placed his hand on her side. She was covered in a green, mossy scum, as if she had sat there for decades. But he had been in her yesterday, or was it today? There it was, that itch again. Why couldn’t he remember? This couldn’t be Bertha, that was the only explanation. He had got confused. This was just some wreck, kept for spare parts. But when he climbed onto the wing, and looked inside the cock pit, the serial numbers and the faded picture of Emma confirmed this was his girl.
He fell into the seat and pulled the photo from the control panel. They had fought, he remembered that. She had wanted to get married, but he had kept putting it off. He didn’t know why. He loved her with all his heart, and they were practically married already, but watching the slow, painful death of his parent’s marriage had put him off the concept for life. There had been yelling. She had packed a bag. He decided he would apologise to her when he got back, make it right, suck it up and propose. But something inside him said it was too late. He slid the photograph into his chest pocket, and began to flick the switches on the panel. Nothing worked. She was completely dead. The same green layer had settled on everything inside, and parts of her were bleeding dark orange rust. His head set was lying on the floor. He brushed it off and held it to his ear.
“Mayday, mayday, this is Flight Officer Peter Hastings. Can anyone hear me?” At first, there was silence, but then he could just make out a quiet voice. There was heavy interference. He twiddled with various buttons on the dead control panel.
“Mayday, Mayday, this is Flight Officer Peter Hastings of the Royal Air Force. Is anyone there?” Again, after a pause, he could hear a faint reply. He strained to listen, silently begging the various electronics to work.
“Mayday, Mayday. Please, this is Flight Officer Peter Hastings. Can anyone hear me?” The voice was slightly louder this time, and he could just about make it out. Mayday, Mayday. Please, this is Flight Officer Peter Hastings. Can anyone hear me? He froze. It couldn’t be.
“Hello? Please.” Hello? Please.
“Please, where am I? Someone? Anyone?” Please, where am I? Someone? Anyone?
He tore the head set off and threw it out of the side of the plane, watching it disappear into the formless grey world around him. He recognised his own panicked voice now. The radio was just parroting back what he said.
He began to feel despair. Something was wrong with this place. Maybe it was a dream, or a nightmare. He desperately tried to remember what had happened before he awoke there, but everything felt confused. His memories were a set of blurry images, jumbled out of order, and he couldn’t make sense of them. They were at war, he remembered that. He had a mission, something important. Did something happen during a flight?
He nearly jumped from his seat. Was there someone else here? He had definitely heard a voice, he was sure. But he had been in this God forsaken place for days now, and he had never seen another person. It was just him and Bertha.
“Where the hell am I? Can’t see a damned thing.”
There was definitely someone there, he was sure he had heard them this time. He threw himself out of the cockpit, hitting the earth hard, winding him slightly. He squinted into the vast greyness, and saw a shape forming to the left of the plane.
“Hello? Yes, I’m here! Follow my voice.”
The shape grew more distinct. He stood up just as the man reached him. It took every ounce of strength he had not to embrace him in a hug. He had never been so happy to see another human being.
“Glad to see another survivor old chap. I’ve been wondering around this place for a good hour, and I thought I was the only one who made it.”
“What happened? I can’t remember a thing.”
“They knew we were coming. Hit us with everything they had. Damned Gerry’s.”
It was only then that he began to realise something was wrong. The man before him wore a brown leather pilot’s jacket, with sheepskin lining, and a brown leather aviator helmet and goggles. He looked like the photographs of his Grandfather, who had fought against the Nazis in world war two.
“What base are you from?”
Peter began to feel nauseous. He knew that base, or at least he knew the site where a base had once been. Now, it was a museum. He remembered his Father taking him there as a child. Tower museum, that was it; a monument to the long since dead.
“What year is it?”
“What? Listen here, I haven’t time for nonsense questions. Have you suffered a head injury or simply lost your mind?”
“Maybe both, I don’t know. Just, please, what year is it?”
“It’s 1942. Look Laddy, if you need to see the medic go now, but go quickly. We’re about to head to Cologne and we need all our birds in the air.”
“Good Lord Lad, what’s gotten into you? Tonight’s the night, Operation Millennium. They won’t know what’s hit them. Can’t seem to locate my plane though. They must have moved her without my say so. I’ve been here for days now and I still can’t find her. Can’t miss the raid.”
He racked his brain, and brief excerpts from child hood history books formed a story in his mind. Cologne, 1942, RAF base Bassingbourn; he was talking about the ‘thousand bomber raid.’ He dismissed the idea. Unless Bertha was also a time machine, there was no way he was talking to a world war two pilot. There had to be some other explanation. There was three possibilities he could come up with.
The first option was that this was some elaborate hallucination, brought on from medication, or perhaps the loss of oxygen during a flight. He recalled a colleague who had reportedly seen big bird flying along side his plane during a training exercise. They had called him Elmo after that, on account of his red hair. He never lived that down.
The second scenario, was that he was dreaming. Perhaps he was home in bed, Emma lying beside him, stealing all the covers while he irritated her with his snoring. A niggling memory about Emma drifted close to the surface, before sinking out of reach once more. Had they fought? He thought he remembered an argument. He hated the constant feeling of confusion that this place created.
The third option was the worst one. He immediately dismissed it. He would know if that had happened. He would remember that.
“Are you quite alright Laddy?”
He must have been lost in thought for some time, as the other pilot was staring at him with a puzzled, and slightly concerned expression.
“Yes, I’m fine, I’m just trying to figure something out. I’m just a bit, confused that’s all.”
“Oh God, you don’t have combat exhaustion do you? Seen it a dozen times now. Some lads just don’t have the stamina for battle.”
“No, I’m just struggling to remember a few things. Tell me, what’s the last thing you remember before bumping into me?”
“Good Lord man, you really have lost your mind. I was just in the air, we all were, standard training flights. I was just heading to see the Doctor, trouble with my back. Perhaps you should join me, eh?”
“I thought you were heading to Cologne?”
“Cologne? Why on earth would we be flying there?”
“To attack the Germans. You just said…”
“I think you must have me confused. Im part of the training squadron, for the night raiders. Can’t seem to find my damned plane though. Must have moved it on me, or maybe it’s being worked on. Have to get in the air. I have to…”
He trailed off, and his eyes glazed, as he stared through Peter, searching for a memory within the mist. Peter knew exactly how he felt. He watched him, hoping he would have an epiphany for the both of them, but knowing it would never come. After what felt like several minutes, the pilot suddenly snapped out of his thoughts and focused on Peter once more.
“Sorry Laddy, didn’t see you there. You haven’t seen my plane have you?”
“Need to get her repaired, she took quite a beating. They knew we were coming, damned Gerry’s. Lost so many. I thought for a second I was a goner too. I haven’t seen that many planes in the air since Cologne.”
He started to walk away.
“Wait, where are you going?”
“Have to find my plane, have to get back. Have to get back to the war.”
But he was gone. The fog had swallowed him whole, and Peter was alone once more. He ran in the same direction the man had taken, and yelled until he was hoarse, but there was nothing. Just the fog. Just the silence. He wished he would wake up. How long had it been now? He checked his watch; 01:04 hours. It was much later than he thought. It was day light when he had left home for the base. They had called him in for a special assignment, classified, very hush hush. He needed to get a move on or his commander would give him hell. Where was his car? Emma always joked that, despite being able to fly any plane, he was a terrible driver. He recalled his fight with Emma the day before. He wished he hadn’t said those things.
What had he been looking for? Was it a person? Maybe it was Emma. He realised he had his flight suit on. Bertha, his plane, that was it. He had to find Bertha and get her ready for the mission. He had to get her in the air. He had to get back to the war.