THE FRENCH CROW - Uschi Gatward
We gave the crow a proper burial, with full military honours, when we landed at Northolt. I dug the hole and Ken laid the blackened thing – what was left of it, which wasn’t much – to rest. He looked like a Roman augur, weighing up the feathers. The sky was iron grey, and drizzled on steadily. Farewell, Monsieur Crow, he intoned. Adieu. A good death. Better than being shot down by a farmer. At least you saw the world. I think he was dead by the time he saw the world, I said. Never mind, said Ken, with a warning look at me. He had a good send-off. Have you got a bit of flag left? He ought to have a flag. I hadn’t, but I had a pocket handkerchief, so we laid that over him. Bit of engine oil, I said. He’ll like that, said Ken. If I were in my workshop I could knock him up a coffin and a cross. He understands. * Well, look at you, said Ken. Darting off to Paris without your wife. She’ll kill me. She might not have to. He threw away his cigarette and climbed into the cockpit. Got the flags? Got the flags. I squinted at the sky. What d’you think of the cloud cover? Reckon it’ll last? He turned around and looked at me. No. But they’re not going to stop us this time. I sat on the wing and reached into my pocket. I’m going to have a last one if you don’t mind, and I’m aware it might be my very last one, so I’m going to savour it. I lit it and stretched out, enjoying the view of the sea. When’re you going to find yourself a good woman, Ken? He paused a moment, running through his controls. Let’s see how today pans out, shall we? Then we might give it some more thought. You ought to, you know. Find someone to look after you. Keep you in check. See that cold, wide expanse of water? I’ll drop you in it if you like. Don’t think I wouldn’t dare. But you must have someone, somewhere? Handsome chap like you. What do you get up to when you’re on leave? I looked out over the wingtip. Never mind, I think I have an inkling. I flicked the ash off my cigarette and took a long drag. What are we going to do in Paris then, I said, changing the subject slightly in the hope of something more fruitful. He pulled on his goggles. I thought a bit of shopping. Window shopping? Yes, that sort of thing. Sightseeing? Oh, certainly. What’ll our hotel be like, d’you think? I do hope it’s smart. Everywhere’s smart in Paris, haven’t you heard? City of Light, isn’t it? Yes, well, I’m hoping for not too much light actually. Need a bit of cover. D’you like art? Paintings and so forth. Not especially. Pity. I looked at my fingernails, then finished my cigarette and climbed into my station. The ground crew cleared the field and gave the green signal. The roar of the engines increased and the plane rattled as Ken accelerated and we climbed over the Channel into a fine misty rain. I don’t speak much French, I shouted through the intercom. Hope I can make myself understood. * We were skimming along just above wave-tip. The sun was breaking up the clouds already and the sea brightening with the blue of a June day. Have to keep down like this all the way. It’s not coming back. I could smell the spray and watch it hit the Perspex. I reviewed the maps, tracing the route from Deauville to Paris with my pencil and a straight rule. When I looked out again, France was in view, and the waves approached a settled calm. The cloud cover was dissipating gradually but surely before my eyes. Keep a sharp lookout, George. We crossed a rocky stretch of beach and low over fields. Sunlight glared off the wings. If we weren’t sighted now it would be a marvel. Still, there was good, dense forest as the maps had shown us. We hedgehopped, following the course of the Seine. Horses in the fields reared and galloped at the unaccustomed noise. I kept a close eye on the farmhouses and roads for any movement, of people or vehicles. We had a system: I would always look to port and to the rear, Ken forward and to starboard.
* Look here, George, you’ll have to give some vectors, I can hardly see a thing. Bloody bastard insects on the windshield. That’s what comes of flying low past a river. Got a better idea? Try zero nine five. Increase height a little. We flew over high-tension cables, and weaved around trees. I picked up my camera. I was hoping to take a few photographs— There was a sharp series of cracks, and we banked suddenly. Hell’s bells, what was that? There was a pause. Knocked a rook out of the tree. It’s gone up the starboard radiator. Are we damaged? Hope not. It’ll fry itself up eventually and fall out. What do we do? Nothing. It’ll be all right. Just keep an eye on things now. Thought we’d been hit. * The cockpit was boiling, and filled with the stench of burning flesh and feathers. I limited my remarks to genuine observations and adjustments to be made. We crossed a Luftwaffe aerodrome at a height below fifty feet. It was on the map, but we’d misjudged it. We’re done for, I thought, but, miraculously, nothing happened. I did begin to take photographs then, thinking they’d be useful if we made it back. I felt the heat of the fuselage where I leant against it. I tugged at my headgear, mopped the sweat from my brow and lined up a view. Bloody hot isn’t it, said Ken You could fry an egg back here. Could get even hotter. Don’t want to worry you, but my oil gauge is going haywire. Bastard bird. It’ll have to burn up soon, surely? Just as I was saying this, the vague mass of Paris emerged into our view. Slowly the Eiffel tower materialized like a matchstick in the distance, surrounded by a hazy lemon light. We paused to take it in. An ideal day for photography, George. It’s just how I imagined it. Is it how you imagined it? Still can’t see very much but yes, very much as I thought it would be. Neither of us had ever been, of course. I was grinning all over my face. I always wanted to see it, and now I have. I can die in peace. Anything else you particularly want to take a look at? I’ll see what I can do. I’d quite like to see the Champs-Elysées. I’ve heard of them. Well luckily we’re going that way. * The temperature was cooling, as bits of the bird burnt up and fell off. My breathing was easier too. I took some long shots of Paris whilst I still could. Not particularly strategic, but there’s something to be said for sheer artistry. Bank to starboard a moment … hold the angle … that’s perfect. I got a lovely view of the Seine. Never mind the holiday snaps, do you have the flag? Right here by my feet. I’ll line it up when we’re closer. Getting jolly close now.
I picked up the first flag and checked that it was rolled tightly enough. Munitions had cut it to size and sewn it onto a length of iron bar especially for the purpose. I held it across my body like a rifle. All the things from the guidebooks we’d pored over for weeks were up ahead of me, in perfect visibility – Notre Dame Cathedral, and that great domed church (Sacré Coeur, was it?); the tower, of course, its latticework shimmering, and the handsome streets and boulevards and public gardens, and the river like a ribbon threaded through it all. As we crossed into Paris I took a deep breath, tensed my arms, grasped the iron pole, and pointed it into the flare chute like a harpoon. The force of the suction nearly took me with it. That’s the Arc de Triomphe, shouted Ken. Are you ready? Yes, I’m ready all right, but the slipstream’s breaking my arm. * The Champs-Elysées. Trees. Lots of people on bicycles. Now! shouted Ken, and I dropped the Tricolor down the flare chute. No time to see it land but as I glanced back through the cupola I saw it javelin down and unfurl – blue … white … red … streaming out as it fell – then the grey-black blurring started round the edges of my eyes – I’ve had that before – and I braced myself and the sound went off and everything went still a moment before resuming and it was as though I’d taken a picture in my mind. Then we had to whip back round and get the building in our gunsight. My head cleared again and I picked up the camera for real. I was sightseeing in close-up now: I could see into people’s bedrooms. Back up the Champs – where were the troops to strafe? Something gone wrong there but no matter – get to the end, to the Place de la Concorde ... We flew at the height of the second-floor windows, nearly taking people’s hats off. All this time I was clicking away with the camera and I knew even as I took them that these were the best photographs of my life and the only thought in my head at that moment was please let me live to see them printed … I saw the surprise on the face of a woman with a shopping basket, as she stood stock-still and looked straight at me – she was lit by the sunlight in that dazzling street and I thought, I’ll remember that face for the rest of my life. A man in shirtsleeves was pointing and shouting but he didn’t look scared. People were flinging down bicycles and throwing themselves flat on their faces, or else running like hell, or ducking for cover under tables, sending things over as they went, and under a lorry (there’s a good place to be if you want to be blown to smithereens). Some remained upright and waved, looking dazed. A waiter carried on pouring wine. Look at that fat Hun, shouted Ken. Don’t you wish you could get him? Too many civilians, I shouted back. Oh I know, I know, but look at him. He’d pop like a balloon. Ken fired a six-second burst at the Ministère – cracking at the stonework and shattering the windows – then pulled up the nose and banked sharply to port. A siren started to wail as I released the second flag. Through the cupola I saw the fat Hun, on his feet and shaking his fist at our backs. Time we were on our way. * A few streams of tracer followed us and a scream of laughter blasted through the intercom as we hotfooted it back across the Seine – bye bye Paris, nice knowing you – leaving behind the city of lemony light and all the white marble and the shimmering architecture and the radiating boulevards and the two Tricolors, perfectly draped, as if by a Maison Chanel window-dresser, on the Arc and the Ministère … and the gleeful French, who, in our imaginations at least, had abandoned their cafés au lait and their croques messieurs and their Le Figaros and their ironwork chairs and their baskets and their bicycles and their excellent wine lists, and were now thumbing their noses at the Hun and dancing in the streets … I didn’t turn to look. Things seen backwards through the cupola are not always reliable.
Uschi Gatward’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), Resist: Stories of Uprising (Comma), The Mirror in the Mirror (Comma), as a Galley Beggar Press Single, and in the magazines The Barcelona Review, Brittle Star, gorse, The Lonely Crowd, Short Fiction, Southword, Structo and Wasafiri. She was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize 2016.