It was late Monday afternoon when a Landrover drew up to the side door.
"Visitors” cried Danny. "Put the kettle on Crawlie.”
A vision appeared in the doorway, immaculately uniformed with cut throat creases and two shiny stripes on his arms.
"Ooh! a real soldier.” squealed Danny. "Isn’t he lovely?”
"Cut it out and get in the Rover, you’re all wanted over at headquarters.”
"Can’t love.” minced Danny. "I’ve got a bun in the oven.”
"Get in the bloody Rover.”
The Admin Sergeant surveyed us over horn rimmed glasses.
"Ah, the Four Musketeers; I have a job for you.”
"Apart from guarding sheep you mean” smiled Chatwin.
"Oh I just love comedians, well try this for size. The old hangers on the airfield, you have noticed them I trust, their big and black and in the second one, that’s the one with a big number 2 painted on it, has a few drums of paint and about ten drums of nasty toxic stuff, you can’t miss them they have Toxic Handle with Care stencilled on them and they need shifting because they’ve been deemed a fire risk. So here you are Hardy, take this chit down to the MT compound for a Three Ton Bedford. I would get an early start tomorrow; the pick up truck is due at midday.”
I drove back to the Hilton and put the kettle on the stove. Crawford collapsed on his bunk with his head in his hands.
"What’s up Crawlie?” I asked.
"I can’t go.”
"You bloody deaf? I said I’m not going.”
Chatwin pulled up a chair.
"You had better tell us about it lad.”
Crawford looked up.
"Ok, I suppose I had better tell someone, it’s getting me down.”
"Ooo, I love stories.” cried Danny.
"Shut your mouth and make the tea.” Chatwin told him.
“Dad and mum split when I was five, I hadn’t seen my dad for years and you know how it is when you miss someone. Well I was about seventeen and it was really getting to me, I just had to find him. Mum had re-married and she never talked about him, but I traced his sister who told me that he had been in a nursing home in Basingstoke for years. That wasn’t true, it was a Mental Home. I found him in the summer house and told him who I was, he seemed to accept it. We talked for a while and he seemed ok but I found out later that it happened to be one of his good days.”
Crawford’s voice broke and he fumbled in his pocket for a handkerchief.
"Take your time lad.” said Chatwin softly.
”Dad was in the air force in the war, a navigator on Lancs. He had flown fourteen missions, on the next one it happened. The truck had stopped next to the Lancaster and the crew got out and walked over to it”.
”Son.” he told me. "My bloody legs froze I couldn’t move, I was shaking all over.”
They had to send the truck back for a replacement, the only navigator available was a nineteen year old kid just out of training school; they never made it back”
Danny handed round the tea and for once without a word.
”Dad stared into space, his lips, quivering, dribbling like.”
”They never found them son but I know where they are, oh yes I know. I get this dream see, over and over; I’m with them in the Lanc, they don’t see or hear me but I’m there alright. The bombing run, the worst part straight and level, bombs gone and then the night fighter finds them. Bloody terror, I hear Bill screaming in the upper gun turret. The skipper puts the Lanc into a corkscrew then levels out. The engines sound ok but the Nav gear is all shot up, so no homing beacon but it’s just a case of dead reckoning, after all England’s too bloody big to miss but the kid screws up. They cross the coast and out to sea but it’s not the English Channel, it’s the North Sea.
Crawford looked up at us.
“Dads crying now, tears running down his cheeks.”
”On and on until the petrol gauges are reading empty, no choice but to ditch. If they can inflate the dingy there’s still hope but the bomb bay doors are locked open, the hydraulics smashed by cannon shells. She sinks like a stone, the screams, oh the bloody screams. The skipper turns in his seat the water is now up to his waist. He sees me. "You B.”
Crawford dropped his head into his hands.
"A month later he was dead, he slashed his wrists with a razor”.
We had listened in silence, which now it was over no one wanted to break, after a minute or two Chatwin stood up.
"That’s tough lad, bloody tough, but its over now, try to forget it mate.”
Crawford stared at him.
"You don’t get do you.” He shouted. "This was dad’s old station he flew from here, all those years ago.” he pointed to the window. "Out there”
He flung his mug at the stove; it bounced twice and rolled under Danny’s bunk.
Chatwin caught him in his arms.
"Take it easy lad.”
He looked up at Chatwin. “I’m too scared to go to sleep” He sobbed. “Cos I dream dad’s dream, just like he told it, with every pigging detail as clear as day’”
I woke that morning to the sound of Danny’s snoring. The last thing I remembered the previous night was Chatwin and Crawford talking softly together. I kicked Danny into life, grabbed a towel and went to the small washroom. The old gas boiler had broken down again; I washed and shaved in cold water.
Outside the morning mist was fast developing into a fog. The red eyed sun in a matter of minutes had become a fading blush in the east. We ate a silent breakfast and cleared away the plates and cutlery.
"We better make a move, the fogs getting pretty thick out there.” I said.
Chatwin turned to Crawford.
"You stay here mate, we can manage.”
"No, I’ve changed my mind.” said Crawford "I’m not bloody stopping here alone.”
"You sure? Ok, come on.”
Somehow we all four wedged ourselves into the Bedford’s cab. I switched on and stabbed the starter. The headlights were useless, their beam reflecting off the wall of fog that had reduced visibility to no more than a few yards. I wound down the side window and took a line from the edge of the perimeter track which led to the hangers and engaged the gears.
If anything the fog grew thicker as we crawled across the airfield, I gave a sigh of relief when the dim shapes of the hangers appeared out of the gloom. I reversed the truck to the massive doors, switched off the engine and applied the brake.
It took our combined muscle to slide one door open along its rusted runner, the fog followed us into the cavernous interior. Broken power cables hung down from the roof high above us like hangman’s ropes. Water drips bounced off the oil stained concrete floor. I felt like an intruder, this place should have been left to its memories.
Chatwin broke the spell.
"Come on lets get on with it.”
The oil drums were fortunately stacked by the side wall near to the open door. We began to roll them out and onto the Bedford. After twenty minutes of sweaty labour Chatwin called a halt and handed round the cigarettes. We leant against the tailgate and smoked in silence.
I think that I heard it first. The slow regular beat of aero engines somewhere out to the east. The engine note changed as if the aircraft was banking, the cigarette dropped unnoticed from my hand I was aware that someone was whimpering close by.
Sweet Jesus it’s coming in to land, but how in this fog and on a runway that was now just a stretch of ruptured tarmac.
The black bulk burst into view scarcely sixty feet above us. the deafening roar of the four Merlin’s, red navigation lights winking through the fog, the landing gear lowered, and the twin Vickers machine guns pointing skywards from upper gun turret. Then it disappeared into the fog. I waited for the crash but instead there was nothing but silence and the fog.
"You Ok?” it was Chatwin. I nodded not trusting myself to speak.
"Come on we better find the others.”
Danny was hiding under the Bedford, he had wet his pants. There was no sign of Crawford. We waited for five minutes.
"Maybe he’s gone back to the Hilton.”
"Yeah well, it’s a fair bet he won’t be coming back here.”
Wherever Crawford was he wasn’t at the Hilton
"Pack you’re gear.” said Chatwin
We looked at him
"Well do you want to stay here after that?”
We collected our kit; put it in the Bedford and drove to the camp.
Regimental Sergeant Major Green, in keeping with the others of the rank was unique among men. The R.S.M commanded respect from the commanding officer and all ranks below. In his long army career he had seen and had dealt with most eventualities but I doubt whether even he had been confronted with three confirmed accounts of a ghost plane. He listened to us in silence then told us to wait outside. After ten minutes we were called back into to his office where we were assigned a billet for the night and were posted the following day, Danny to a signals unit on the
outskirts of London, Chatwin and I to a tank maintenance depot about fifty miles away from the army camp.
As Chatwin later remarked. "The army doesn’t recognise anything that can’t be either painted or shot and certainly doesn't welcome an investigation by the press on paranormal happenings on its own premises”
It was about a week later I returned from the canteen to find Chatwin sitting on his bunk, beside him was the local paper.
"They found Crawford.”
"Found him?” I asked.
"In the river, a couple of days after we left.”
"An old boy taking his dog for a walk found the body snagged under a tree root.”
I collapsed on my bunk.
"Poor sod, I suppose he lost his way in the fog and fell in.”
"Maybe, but you’re forgetting the Lanc.”
"What about it?”
"Well it’s a bit odd don’t you think, Crawford and all the crew drowned?”
Chatwin got up and walked to the door.
"It was no accident John; they came back for him, sins of the father.”
He went out closing the door behind him.