The dinghy was waiting and had me back across at the land-ing strip in a quarter of an hour. I found Hannah lying in the shade of the Hayley’s port wing, studying a map. He was as bad-tempered and morose as ever.
“Well, what do you think?” he demanded impatiently. “A waste of time.”
“Exactly what I told him, but he will have it” He got to his feet. “Have a look at that. I’ve marked a course although the bloody place probably won’t exist when we get there.”
“You want me to fly her?”
“That’s what I pay you for, isn’t it?”
He turned and climbed up into the cabin. Strange, in view of what happened afterwards, but I think it was at that precise moment in time that I started to actively dislike him.
I flew at a thousand feet and conditions were excellent, the sun so bright that I had to wear dark glasses. Hannah was directly behind me in the front passenger seat beside the rear door. He didn’t say a word, simply sat there scanning the jungle below with a pair of binoculars.
Not that it was really necessary. No more than fifteen minutes after leaving the airstrip we passed over a large clearing and I went down to five hundred and circled it a couple of times.
“Wild banana plantation,” Hannah said “We’re dead on course. Must be.”
Most forest Indians engaged in a crude form of husbandry when clearings such as the one below allowed it and it was an infallible sign that we were close to a large village.
I flew on, staying at five hundred feet and almost immedi-ately felt Hannah’s hand on my shoulder. “We’re here.”
The clearing seemed to flower out of the jungle beneath my port wing. It was larger than I had expected, fifty yards in diameter at least, the thatched long huts arranged in a neat circle around a central space with some sort of tribal totem in the centre.
There must have been two hundred people down there, per-haps three, scurrying from the huts like brown ants, faces turned up as I went in across the clearing at three hundred feet. No one ran for the forest for they were familiar enough with aeroplanes, I suppose, to realise we couldn’t land. Many of the warriors actually loosed off arrows at us.
“Stupid bastards. Would you look at that now?” Hannah laughed harshly. “Okay, kid, let’s get it over with. Take her in at a hundred feet, slow as you like.”
I banked to starboard, throttled back and went down across the trees. Hannah had the door open, I was aware of the wind and then the village was directly in front, faces upturned, arrows arching up towards us impotently.
I eased back the stick to climb, glancing over my shoulder in time to see a ball of fire explode in the centre of the crowd closely followed by another.
I saw worse things in the war that was to come, far worse, and yet it haunts me still.
I should have known, I suppose, expected it at least, yet it’s easy to be wise after the event He was laughing like a mad-man as I took the Hayley round again and went in through the smoke.
There were bodies everywhere, dozens of them, a large cen-tral crater and the thatched roofs of several of the long-huts had caught fire.
I glanced over my shoulder. Hannah was leaning out of the open door and laughed out loud again. “How do you like that, you bastards?” he yelled.
I struck out wildly at him backwards with one hand. The Hayley lurched to one side, faltered, then the nose went down. We grabbed at the stick together, pulling her out with no more than three hundred feet in it and it took the two of us to do it
I levelled off and started to climb. He took his hands off mine and dropped back into his seat. Neither of us said a word and as I turned back across the clearing for the flames blossomed into a scarlet flower in the clear air.
I was numb, I suppose, from the horror of it all for the next coherent thing I remember is coming in to land at the airstrip at Santa Helena. I wasn’t aware of anything very much except the Bristol at the south end. I went in that way which gave me the whole of the strip to play with and rolled to a halt about forty yards from the trees.