Alex shivered. In fact, he was shivering convulsively but not so much from the cold, more from shock. It had been a... a most weird, even an unearthly, experience. So vivid - and so real. It was all over in a flash and yet he could easily recall every minute detail of it. He drew his coat collar tighter. What had triggered it off? There was nothing he could recall that offered any suitable explanation. Nothing!
Suddenly, it wasn't only the chill of a January wind that was seeping into his bones.
Within twenty minutes of parking his car in the lay-by at the bottom of the hill, he was ready to tackle the final assault on the steep gully leading up to the iron-age fort and stone monument. Conscious of the sweat trickling down the small of his back, Alexander Elgin urged his tiring legs to continue the climb onwards and upwards.
'Slowly but surely,' he muttered to himself. Yes, that was the order of things these days especially when the going was this difficult. The faded sign pointing the way at the bottom of the path had given no hint that recent rains had turned the higher ground into a quagmire. Wryly, he reflected that was left for walkers to find out for themselves.
With each squelching step he looked for firmer footing, whilst at the same time, becoming increasingly aware that his exertions were causing him to take breaths in deeper gulps. This didn't alarm him unduly. He was quite fit for his age or so his doctor had recently told him. 'Fitter than a lot of other men I know, Mr Elgin.'
True his late wife, Mary, used to remind him with her favourite adage, 'But the years are there, Dear.' He smiled at her loving memory and pressed resolutely on. He had to. He felt an inner compunction, a driving urge that he had to reach the top.
Fleeting shadows cast from giant beeches on either side of the deep gully mingled fitfully with the surrounding wild undergrowth while an east wind moaned its way through their outstretched denuded branches. And that was another thing. For the past few minutes he had an uncomfortable feeling he was being watched.
A metal gate, its bent bars thick with rust, leant drunkenly across the muddy track, barring his way. He looked for an alternative path. He remained undecided for several moments and pausing, listened to his pounding heart. He scanned the morass about him before climbing an adjacent wooden fence and jumping down awkwardly onto drier ground. With some care, he edged his way round a deep sprawling pool. Even his robust hiking boots offered little protection against that sort of hazard.
But just a few yards further on the ground became stony and firmer. He took advantage of the wet tufts of rye grass and spent a short while cleaning out the mud from the deep-treaded soles of his boots. Now, with a renewed vigour, he strode the last few yards to the summit to take in the magnificent view.
'Made it!' he gasped. Even as he looked at the sheer expanse of the Gloucestershire landscape stretching away out in front of him, his eyes felt the biting air. Two steps later, his whole body felt the unrestricted vortices blasting across the open plateau of Sen Montecute. Alex momentarily wondered if that was a Norman Conquest name meaning Blood Hill?
Protecting the lower part of his face with his woollen scarf, he looked about him. He was surprised to see he was not alone. Not too far away, two young golden retrievers were playfully chasing each other round in large circles encouraged by the sporadic shouts of their owner. One dog, its coat matted in mud, dashed by revelling in the game of canine tag.
Over there, to his right, a young girl stood high in the stirrups on a spirited grey galloping towards him. Her blonde hair and the silver main of the stallion flowed horizontally in the wind. He continued to watch as horse and rider thundered past at full tilt, and until long after the thuds from those flashing hooves had died away. He brushed a mitten hand over his watering eyes.
Immediately to his front, a tall figure in anorak and wellingtons appeared to be studying, with some devoted interest, the rain clouds scurrying across the darkening sky. Alex followed his gaze. Suddenly he saw it, a large white model glider. It wheeled and soared gracefully along the ridge, responding instantly to every command from the radio controller held in the man's hands.
Whoosh! As he watched, the sailplane rode the strong air currents sweeping up the slope before turning gracefully on tapered wing tips in defiance of the blustery forces of a near gale. Then he noticed the small black dog, dashing helter-skelter at the model's every move hoping, no doubt, it would come within biting distance. Instead, the sleek machine swooped and rolled, banked and looped in a never-ending series of graceful responses.
Looking westwards, beyond the grassy slopes and across the patchwork of fields, Alex could make out the pewter tones of the Severn. The Welsh hills across the other side had long since disappeared in the fast descending gloom. Curtains of rain and possibly hail were heading his way. A flash of lightning lit the threatening sky and a moment later, he heard the angry rumbles of thunder.
Yet another flash and this time, the rolling thunderclaps were much nearer. The white glider streaked across Alex's field of vision. At that instant, he experienced the strange freak illusion - if that's what it was.
Those wings are no longer slender and white. Peering through the blurred propeller disc of his own machine, he sees the wings of the biplane in front of him. They're olive green on top, cream underneath. He grins, wipes the glasses of his oil-spattered goggles with the back of his gauntlet and slams the joystick hard over.
Quickly easing off the turn, he banks the other way and coolly lines up the sight of his Vickers guns on the plane ahead. God! How each of those roundels makes the perfect target. But instinctively he remembers McCudden's golden rule and instead, aims directly at the pilot.
Someone shouted. He turned his head in time to see the glider hovering a few inches above the waving grass tops before landing almost at his feet. It was then the hail began to sting his face.
Another brilliant flash initiated the sharpest clap of thunder so far, this time directly overhead. Alex flinched. He felt isolated...and vulnerable. He glanced anxiously about. The two retrievers had vanished along with their master. The grey and its young rider had also disappeared. Only the man and his black dog remained nearby. Alex guessed he was trying to protect the glider from the peppering of hailstones.
For some reason that he was unable to fathom, Alex wanted to talk to him. Yes, he simply had to talk to someone. 'Can I help you with that?' he called out.
'That's very kind of you,' was the reply.
Alex grabbed the rucksack. 'We'd better look lively then,' he shouted. The other man picked up the model and, lowering their heads against the stinging pea-size hailstones, they ran for the shelter of the tall monument standing at the edge of the ridge. Here, they continued to crouch in the lee of the stone structure until the worst of the storm had passed over.
Alex read the plaque set in the wall above his head. 'Timbrell Tower built in 1822 in honour of Viscount John Edward Timbrell who devoted a lifetime of service with the East India Company.'
'And made a fortune out of it, no doubt,' he muttered. He turned to his new companion. 'Damn good thing he had so many wealthy friends or else we'd been soaked.'
The younger man smiled and nodded his agreement while his dog, Fudge, rummaged about in the shelter of the weathered brickwork base. 'She likes chasing that plane of yours,' Alex said.
'Yes, she's plenty energy all right. Funny thing, did you see her cower just before I landed it, never known her to do that before.'
'Could have been the lightning or thunder, I suppose.' Alex rubbed his hands together. 'Not keen myself on being out during a storm,' he added. Fudge was sniffing at a small pile of melting hailstones. 'By the way, I'm Alex Elgin.'
'And my name's Hayworth, Steve Hayworth.' The two shook hands. 'Could have been the storm I suppose that frightened her like that.' He sounded unconvinced. 'She just went down on her belly as if to hide.'
'Animals can often see more than we humans can, or so they say.'
'Maybe.' Steve picked up the glider, its wings now separated for easier carrying, and Alex offered to take the rucksack. Except for Steve's comments directed at the dog, the two men went down the track in silence until they'd reached the rusting gate.
'Tell me, Steve,' Alex suddenly asked, 'do you know much about planes, different types, I mean?'
'More than some, I expect,' Steve said, throwing a stick for Fudge who was rummaging through a pile of leaves. 'Try me.'
'Well, here's a question for you. What was the name of a small British biplane, dark green in colour, single seater with machine guns that fired through the propeller?'
'Can't say for certain,' Steve replied, thoughtfully. 'But several First War jobbies come to mind.'
'Such as the SE5 I think, or the Sopwith Pup...or Camel.'
'Camel? That name sounds strangely familiar. I wonder if it's possible to see one.' He felt impatient to know more about Sopwith Camels. 'Any still flying?'
Again, Steve called out to Fudge before answering. 'S'pect so. In the States perhaps or maybe at the Shuttleworth Collection but you can definitely see one at the RAF Museum at Hendon...not flying of course. Fudge, good gal, over here.' The dog, its tail wagging, returned obediently.
'Love to see one in the air again.' Alex froze. What had made him say that? 'Love to see one in the air again.' As far as he knew, he'd never even seen a Sopwith Camel let alone one flying. Or had he?
Locked in thought, he sauntered slowly down the track behind Steve and attempted to recall every scrap of his uncanny experience. It was as if he'd been inside a camera when the shutter had opened for a fraction of a second. He had looked out and witnessed something totally unexpected, something of which he could have had no prior knowledge and yet, in that briefest of moments, it had been as real as the world about him now.
In his mind's eye, he could distinctly remember seeing the olive green biplane he so wanted to destroy.
Christ, of course, he'd even recognised the pilot...and yet now he wondered exactly who was he? He recalled the RAF markings, the layout of his own plane...even down to the oil stains on his leather gauntlet when he'd cocked those twin machine guns.
And what about those switches on the panel in front of him alongside the instruments. They were like the old-fashioned electric light things he remembered at his grandmother's when he'd been a boy. For some unknown reason, he thought immediately of castor oil.
Continuing to search every corner of his memory, his introspection was suddenly shattered by the aggressive blast of a car horn. Only the alertness of the driver saved him after he'd unwittingly stepped out into the road. Alex breathed a sigh of relief, swore at himself for being so inattentive and waited for the traffic to pass by.
Steve had parked his car by the chained war memorial and was busy putting his model into the boot. Fudge sat patiently watching. 'Here's your rucksack, Steve,' he said, handing it over.
'Thanks a lot.' Closing the boot with a thump, Steve said, 'It's been very pleasant meeting you, Alex, and thanks again for your timely help.'
'My pleasure. Oh, by the way, I wonder if you could recommend a book on, er...Sopwith aeroplanes. Something I could read up on Camels and with plenty of photographs.'
'I don't think you'll have much trouble in finding a good supply of information, been a veritable mountain of publications on First War stuff in recent years.' He opened the car door and Fudge scampered onto the front passenger seat. 'Try a library, I should. Videos could be another useful source.' Steve was writing something down. 'If you think I can assist you more, here's my number.' He gave a friendly grin. 'You never can tell.'
Again, the new friends shook hands but this time accompanied by, 'All the best,' and, 'See you!'
Standing there watching Steve drive away, Alex had little idea where this peculiar business would lead to although somewhere at the back of his mind, he was developing a compelling urge to seek out explanations. Perhaps the sooner he started the better.
It was then he began to shiver.