A long time ago, way longer than last Wednesday, which is generally the length of my memory these days, I went out with a guy who owned an aeroplane. It was an old RAF trainer, an Auster, with two seats, one in front of the other and a see-through ceiling, if that’s the right expression.
He took me up in it one day. Made sure I was safely belted in the back seat and handed me a plastic bag (just in case). Just in case of what, I wasn’t quite sure. It was a glorious day in May, when everything in England is bursting into bloom and colour. The sort of day that would make Shakespeare leap out of his second best bed and start thinking of rhymes for May and day, and so forth. Anyway, it was just the dog’s bollocks, and there we were taking off into the blue, and the buildings on the little aerodrome were getting smaller and smaller, and I was wondering whether I should be wearing a parachute, when I realised we were heading straight up, and then ohhhhh, we were flying upside down, and the sky was the ground and the earth was above me, and then we came right round, and everything was the right way up again, and we had done, what is known in the trade, as a loop the loop.
Nowadays I’d probably have a nervous breakdown; on that day I just whooped with the joy of it all. I really did, and we did it again, only this time, coming out of the loop my man turned the plane over in a victory roll and we dive bombed a perfectly respectable bunch of cows.
What a brilliant, brilliant afternoon. (Except, possibly, for the cows). We spun about the sky, with only the birds hearing my screams and, joy of joys, for a few, never to be forgotten moments, I got control of the plane. I’ve read lots of lyrical descriptions of how this feels, but really there is a kind of wonder in the way you can feel the air thrum through the whole plane, especially in one like that; the way that it responds to your lightest touch. It was absolute, total magic. But eventually we came back to earth, literally and figuratively as, shortly after that, we split up. Which was a real shame as far as free flights were concerned.
Years and years later, in fact, last Wednesday, my husband and I were indulging in a spot of half-hearted bickering (you know, the sort that goes, ‘well, where did you last see your keys/if I knew that I wouldn’t have lost them/ you should hang them on the little hook/ you never hang yours on the little hook,’ variety when there was a low throaty roar, right over the house.
Steve said, ‘That’s a Spitfire.’ And after about two seconds there was another, unmistakeable neeeeeeooooooooowwwwwrrrrr, which rattled the windows, and then we both ran outside to the gate, and there, ripping across the pale blue sky was a Spitfire. It was grey and then shining silver as it caught the sun and it flew and looped and fell out of the sky, just as I had done all those years ago.
And as we watched, a car almost skidded to a halt in the layby opposite and a man got out and ran towards us. ‘It’s a Spitfire, isn’t it?’ he panted. ‘I saw it just now as I was driving along.’ And the three of us stood and watched with our hands trying to keep out the sun, as the little plane disappeared into the brightness and then turned and made straight for us, pulling up at the last moment and then heading straight up and up and up, turning and twirling and just being the next best thing to a natural bird.
We were so taken up in it all, in the pure joy that the pilot was having, that we never noticed the No 10 bus coming up the road, and it buffeted us with millimetres to spare, but none of us cared. We only had eyes for the Spitfire, who eventually tired of playing in the field opposite and flew away, and we watched until we couldn’t see it any more. And then we stood and smiled at each other and the stranger got in his car and drove away.