Home Run... | By: Peter Hunter | | Category: Short Story - Novelistic Bookmark and Share

Home Run...

Home Run … Peter Hunter … from the dog's yelp - Leveret Smith knew… he detected an urgency in Woody's barking, an alert but not an aggressive note. Resentful at the interruption to his breakfast, he reached for his carefully carved stick of heavy blackthorn, the thicker end, a knob cut from where it had joined the tree trunk… He may, he thought, be nudging seventy but he was very fit for his age, and could still give a good account of himself if threatened. His interesting face, deeply browned by sun and wind appeared devoid of expression but concealed perception and intelligence that, if anyone cared to investigate, extract the utmost interest. His hair was still thick and dark, poorly tended curling generously down to his collar. Almost a caricature - rather exactly a portrait of how you would imagine he should be… Together they left the small red brick bungalow… the dog scampering towards the vardo, parked alongside a tall hazel hedge. The climbing morning sun glinted on the white canvas roof of the wooden caravan, picking out details such as the small lion heads carved into its corners. It was a carefully preserved wagon… Ben, the horse - the vardo's sole means of propulsion, still grazed unconcerned at the far end of the meadow. Woody ran to the vardo, paused between its twin shafts, barking at the gold painted horses decorating the half door. Leveret Smith swore under his breath, half-forgotten Romany curses… with his single gold ear ring glinting in morning light, a red and white spotter scarf knotted over the open neck of the check patterned shirt, he looked the stereotype of a Gypsy - an image he deliberately cultivated. There was someone in the vardo… in his wagon, his most precious possession - dating from before he was born, a reminder of where he came from, his family, and their traditions. Someone was in there, probably a stranger, most probably a gorgio - a non-Gypsy. Some mush violating his privacy and way of life. His grip tightened on the blackthorn stick and he felt inside the pockets of his battered tweed jacket for the clasp knife with the six-inch blade he kept there. Hilton was still unconscious, as the door of the vardo gently swung open - sleeping on the floor. He had avoided touching the crisp linen on the small bunk, for fear of soiling it with his dirty clothes. Instead, he lay on the colourful carpet, his head against the small round cast iron stove. Awakening - his mind re-lived his flight from Elstree to Norfolk. Gradually he'd become familiar with the flying characteristics of the Beagle Pup. The controls had proved surprisingly light and responsive after the Cessna on which he was learning, and flying at night proved less difficult than he had imagined... The moonlight had been sufficient to provide a natural horizon, lessening his dependence on his token two-hour experience of instrument flying. It had given him more time for some crude navigation using the light from towns to identify his position. St Albans had soon passed on his left, then Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City. He hadn't been completely sure he was right, but they had shown up at roughly the time and place that his mental calculations indicated. The further he’d flown away from the metropolitan area the more scattered these landmarks had become. A direct track would have crossed Stansted airport, prohibited airspace without authorisation, but he'd already broken so many aviation laws that another infringement didn't seem to matter - and there was probably little chance of him being identified. Stansted, its two-mile runway and acres of buildings had seemed obscenely bright, polluting the Essex countryside. Spotting the landing lights of a descending jet, he'd realised that aviation law was not the real problem. There was a more practical one, a possible collision with one of their night cargo flights. He had turned left, aiming for Royston, to avoid the problem… Shortly afterwards, an unexpectedly large patch of light ahead, had confused him. It had taken a few minutes before he realised it could only be Cambridge. No other town in the area could be that big. He had turned slightly to over fly the town, and had felt relaxed enough to enjoy a Mars Bar from his rucksack. At first, he'd thought it imagination, but he felt dizzy and disoriented. Concentrating inside, on the flight instruments, to control the aircraft, the feeling had lessened, but as soon as he looked ahead, it returned. He had feared loosing control of himself and the aircraft. Realising the lights of Cambridge seemed to be pulsing, a violent flickering in his forward vision he had once more concentrated on the instrument panel. Things had returned to normal. Now he'd understood. It was a stroboscopic effect - caused by the rotating propeller blades interacting with the background lights of Cambridge. He turned north to avoid the place… * * * Pushing wide the door into the vardo, Leveret Smith assumed the man lying on the wagon floor, was dead, He seemed completely lifeless. Woody was the first to react, surging forward first to sniff, and then lick the man's face. 'Rod…?' the Gypsy spoke hesitantly, using Hilton's first name, unsure if it really was his old friend. Slowly the younger man revived - he had obviously been sleeping deeply. 'Leveret, how are you, how are you keeping?' Much later, refreshed and awake, Rod Hilton told his story. 'And your flight, where did you land the plane?’ Asked Leveret. 'I'm not sure I want to go through that again, even in my mind,' replied Hilton, 'But I'll do my best.' 'Once I passed Cambridge, there were more dark bits and less towns lit by street lights to navigate by…' 'So you used your instincts, like a migrating bird flying home…' interrupted the older man. 'Not that easy, Leveret, not that easy. But - I was coming home, just pointing the thing where I thought the centre of Norfolk should be. The sky was getting brighter. Soon I thought could identify my position and find somewhere to land. A disused airfield or a big field...' The other man nodded seeming to understand. 'But it wasn't like that,' continued Hilton, 'not at all like that…' He continued - how he had flown eastwards, into a dawn slowly lifting the lid off the night sky - tired eyes straining to identify features below. The Mars Bar had helped him find reserves of energy, slowly controlling the plane better. Pups were reputedly easy to fly, and so it had proved. If he were not a fugitive, it would have been enjoyable. But then the engine had quit… He'd assumed he was low on fuel, but light aircraft fuel gauges are notoriously inaccurate and he'd prayed there was still enough. So, the engine had quit - but not a sudden decisive stoppage. Nothing as simple as that… First, the music had changed - its steady beat dying - sotto voce - only to pick up again, a few seconds later. As the power plant had scavenged for the last dregs of fuel… Hilton had never experienced this before, and could not explain it. Problems, obvious when safely on the ground - are seldom clear when alone - two thousand feet up in a tiny plane - especially to a student pilot - night flying for the first time - and in an unfamiliar machine. Then the music died completely… Only the hiss of the slipstream remained, plus some clanking from the wind-milling propeller turning powerless a few hundred times each minute. Still Hilton didn't fully realise what had happened. The needle of the fuel pressure gauge was wildly oscillating between zero and five inches, oil pressure hardly registered and the vertical speed showed twelve hundred feet per minute descending. ... Just seventy seconds left in the air… He'd become a glider pilot - and the Pup was a lousy glider. The drag from the wind-milling prop doubled the descent rate he had trained for in practice engine failures. Overcome by confusion he had forgotten the emergency checklist - neglected to switch fuel tanks, kill the electrics, and even unlatch the door. He'd just panicked… Fifty seconds of primitive fear… seemingly an eternity… but ample time to flirt with death - airspeed decaying to within one or two knots stalling or spinning into the ground. Only luck and a well-designed aircraft had saved him. By the time his survival instinct established supremacy over the easier option of just dying, he was down to one hundred and fifty feet… .... just eight seconds of flying left… At this point in the story, Leveret interrupted, 'You're completely mad, you know. You wouldn't get me up in one of those bloody things.' 'If you had two from London, thugs chasing you, things might seem different,' replied Hilton. 'But by then, they were a hundred miles behind you,' the other man reminded his friend. Hilton continued, reliving those eight terrifying seconds. A little voice in his head had said; Fly the plane, keep the speed up, and don’t stall in. But he could not even see if he was over clear ground. One hundred feet, now he'd been able to identify the vague outline of trees on his left, probably a wood. Gently he'd banked right. The turn and slip gauge indicated a skidding - out of balance flight. He'd nudged the right rudder pedal to correct it. Fifty feet… he had seen the ground ahead now, a meadow or a field, but too dark to see any detail or accurately judge his height. Flaring the aircraft high could stall it into the ground - breaking his back. Not flaring it in time could push the engine through his chest… … and what was ahead in the gloom? Trees, a wall, maybe a thick hedgerow... Then... the first impact had shaken him badly, but the plane would not stay down. It had bounced viciously back into the air, but running out of airspeed. Then it stalled - falling out of the sky… The second impact had seemed too heavy, but for a few moments, he thought he'd got away with it. The wheels had rumbled noisily on the rough ground as he stamped on the brake pedals. Then he'd been thrown violently upwards, held in his seat only by the safety harness biting deeply into his shoulders. His world turned dark… The noise became horrendous - unforgettable, impossible to describe. First a terrible rending sound - tormented alloy buckling, tearing, crushed into a shape no longer resembling an aircraft - and a staccato popping as hundreds of rivets unzipped. Metallic bangs, screeching, ripping - Hell's noises - as the plane rolled itself into a singing ball of scrap metal. And he'd been in the middle of it… At this stage he wanted, needed to wake up - the way it always ended. But this time it wasn't a dream… Unknown to Hilton, a ditch had lain across his landing run. It broke off the nose leg - the aircraft pitched nose down to perform a complete somersault before finishing on its back. Both outer wing panels and the tail fin snapped off, and the fuselage roof had been crushed inwards. Leaving only eighteen inches of height for the occupant. 'What did you do next?' asked Leveret. 'I think I was knocked out,' replied Hilton, '… my head must have hit against the cockpit ceiling as it caved in.' 'When I came round, I was upside down, crammed into a tiny space. I could see nothing. It was still quite dark and the aircraft had been so flattened that the long grass in the meadow acted like a curtain. As the plane had turned over, what was left of the wings were now above me, also shutting out any light…' 'I can remember different noises… the whirring of gyro instruments still running and metal surfaces scraping together as the wreck settled and the hot bits cooled.' 'Smells too - burning rubber and oil. I remember sniffing for the smell of spilt fuel, terrified in case it might catch fire.' 'Sounds like petrol was your last problem,' observed the Gypsy, 'if you'd had any left you wouldn't have been there…' Hilton ignored him, 'I tried to crawl out, but I seemed to be pinned inside the wreckage. It was panicky - but then I realised I was still strapped in. Anyway I got out after kicking away what was left of the door - no bones seemed to be broken, but I was bleeding like a pig, from the top of my head, and from cuts on my hands.' 'You seem to be OK now. When did this happen?' 'Yesterday,' replied Hilton, 'yesterday morning...' * * * Hilton tried to guess the ingredients of the hot drink Leveret had given him. Obviously, it was some herbal concoction but he couldn't identify what was in the brew. It was a pleasant taste and he had gone to sleep immediately he had drained the half pint mug. The old Gypsy had obviously believed his friend needed to rest. He was right. Being chased by two strangers, stealing an aircraft, the challenge of the unfamiliar machine, teaching himself night flying - almost destroying himself in the resultant crash. All had taken a severe toll, physically and mentally… Hilton could have slept for a very long time even without benefit of Leveret's home grown herbal remedies, but it would have been a very haunted sleep - a string of dreams re-living his recent traumas as vivid nightmares. Instead he slept gently, the only dream he recalled on awakening was factual - remembering his first encounter, long ago, with the Romany who was to become a close friend... Hilton had been exploring the upper reaches of the river Yare. He remembered it was during a warm spell in late April. The day had begun with mist, but he'd expected it to gradually burn off as the sun climbed higher towards mid-morning. As he'd peered through the mirror surface of a deep pool lined with crack willows - searching for the almost invisible outline of a pike - until his instincts had warned him that the near landscape had changed. Cautiously, Hilton had scanned the water meadows, grey-green in the rising mist - the etched network of budding branches on the silent far sentry-line of trees. But everything looked right. The valley had seemed ordered and natural as it waited patiently for the warmth of the sunshine. Still the uneasy feeling, being watched, had persisted. It had taken Hilton several minutes to realise they had been in view all the time - looking so like little trees, stunted and dead, filling a gap in the sparse hawthorn hedge. Approaching him, they had gradually taken shape, three men shadowy and alert - almost primitive. Figures, that could perhaps be relics of the Stone Age. Undoubtedly they were hunters, predators - the long lean form of a dead pike dangled from the hand of the older man. Another, just a boy, had carried a pole rigged with cord ending with a large weighted treble hook. The third had held a crude fish spear with three wooden tines, their points probably hardened from the heat of a fire - poachers, with their out of season bounty, or the spirits of early man returning to their hunting grounds? The ghosts had glided towards him. The drifting mist shrouded any hint of a modern identity. Just the outlines of spears or harpoons, the primeval pike shape, had been raised high in a triumphant greeting. Timeless hunters - not sportsmen interested in finesse or technique - but gatherers from forest and stream, following generations of their ancestors before them. It had been the first pike Hilton had seen outside a glass case. His enthusiasm must have affected the older poacher, for he had rewarded it with an invitation to join their next expedition. Hilton had eagerly accepted the offer. That is how he first met the Gypsy family named Smith. Leveret, and his two sons, Terry and Gavin… Poachers they might have been, but they were gentle and sensitive people, understanding all too well the haunts and habits of their quarry. They respected nature and loved her way - still knowing things that most had forgotten… They had befriended Hilton, and he'd learned well from them. Now he wondered whether television and the other conveniences of modern life had blunted the edge of those primitive instincts. In Leveret's case, it demonstrably had not. Illegal as such activities undoubtedly were, they did little harm, in an age when fish and game were so prolific. The poacher's family had found the occasional pike, trout or bird, a welcome addition to their diet. They were not greedy, unlike today's pheasant thieves. Hilton remembered these early days fondly. Old Leveret had featured in so many of them… Now, so like a wounded fox on the run - just another of nature's fugitive kind - Hilton had instinctively run home to the place he knew and loved best… End © Peter Hunter

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