Christopher Burns

‘We’re certain it must be his,’ the phone call had said.

The day was hot. You could see the excavator from a mile away as it crouched on the flatland, a giant locust of yellow metal. We drove at an angle to it along a road as flat and exposed as a causeway until Nick swung the Land Rover off the road and headed it towards the dig. Picks and spades clashed and shuddered in the back and Sally bounced on the seat beside me. She kept her balance better than me. I thought I was going to crack my head on metal or glass.

We stopped at the excavation and clambered out. The air was monstrous with heat. The ground smelt of salt and thick clogging mud. The vegetation was low and fibrous. It felt as if the sea would reclaim all this at any time.

The team stopped work and stood awkwardly around the site, embarrassed and guilty. Nick introduced me quickly and without formality. None of them came forward to shake my hand.

‘This is it,’ he said simply.

It was strange to stand there beside that opened patch of ground. The excavator shovel had scored across it and clawed up long strips which lay beside it, broken and dumped. Beneath the thick dark upper layer were patches where the soil was stained a vivid and surreal RAF blue. I felt heady. The blue was the colour of Asian gods.

‘It’s here all right,’ Nick said. ‘No doubt about it.’

I hadn’t met him before. Sally had talked about him and, like a jealous father, I had sought from her aspects of him that I could criticise. Now he appeared to be more of an organiser than I had suspected (‘a day-dreamer’ I’d scoffed, when I’d heard about his plans, but this was a considerable operation). He had a beard and tinted glasses and a forage cap. He wore jeans and turned-down wellington boots that were caked with mud. Sally had told me he had a genuine flying-jacket which he wore at university, and a genuine RAF tunic he kept locked in a cupboard.

I sensed he knew I was unconvinced and resentful. Sally would have told him, anyway. That was why he was pleasant to me, and that was why he had already implied that he would consider any objection I would care to make. Yet it was clear that, in the end, he would let none of his decisions be swayed by me. Just as he would go his own way with my daughter, so, even if I objected, he would continue and finish the dig.

My father was down there.

Nick went to talk to the operator and the excavator restarted, digging its metal teeth into the wide shallow hole and gouging another solid layer of earth away with a long scraping scoop. The noise of the engine exploded away on all sides. Two of the team swept the earth with metal detectors. The sun was so hot I could feel the blood move in my temples.

‘We calculated all this,’ Nick said. ‘There was an eyewitness. You didn’t know that, did you?’

I shook my head.

‘He was miles away but on a good sightline. He just thought someone else would be doing something about it. We got hold of him almost by chance. A few days with the detectors did the rest.’

‘Wasn’t it reported?’

‘You know how things go in a war. And by the time people got round to looking for it – well, it had buried itself. These days they’d be on it like vultures. Souvenir hunters strip crashed aircraft within a couple of hours now. Even on mountains. And there’s no doubt that it’s down here. We’ve followed the scatter pattern very closely. A complete disintegration would have been different.’

Sally came over to stand beside me. Her shirt was sticking to her. One of the team kept looking at her but looking down when he saw me watching him. It was natural enough but I still had a complex reaction to such everyday glances. It was compounded of jealousy, puritanism, protection and a sense of freedom. My feelings about her relationship with Nick were even more contradictory.

‘There’s a kind of standard pattern to the way they crash,’ she said, ‘Nick’s quite an expert.’

‘So I hear,’ I said drily.

‘We found the impact zone a few feet back,’ Nick said. ‘The Spitfire would have hit there’ – he pointed back to behind the excavator – ‘and ploughed into the ground just here.’ He pointed to where the excavator claw was scraping and peeling the ground. ‘We don’t think it can have broken up all that much. There’s a layer of harder subsoil over there. See the slight change in vegetation? That’s the line of harder soil. Well, rock deposition mostly, although covered over with sedimentation by now of course. That probably brought it up short, concertina’d it.’

A metal detector whined and from the soil one of the team picked a featureless twist of metal the size of his hand. He brushed the damp soil from it. ‘Could be anything,’ he said.

‘The way I see it,’ Nick continued, assisting his explanation with hand movements, ‘he must have come back over the sea, probably flying fairly low. We know the rest of the squadron went into a dogfight and that he went with them. What happened after that we don’t know. Officially, of course, he just went missing. So he would come back in from the sea, maybe low on fuel and losing it, maybe hit and wounded, maybe being pursued – although we don’t think so. Maybe he was dead at the controls. He came in’ – Nick’s hands sheared through the air – ‘and hit.’ He smacked one hand into the other.

I nodded. He pointed to some earth that was slipping over the side of the grab. It clung together unnaturally. It was not the same consistency as the rest of the soil and did not take the sunlight as it should. ‘Engine oil?’ Sally asked.

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