It was not, it seemed, a matter of particular concern to RFC headquarters as to whether or not the sleeping-quarters of their dependants were fitted with windows of a reliable quality. Indeed, Biggles mused bitterly, the term 'window' could only be applied in its loosest possible sense to the cracked, insubstantial pane of glass that endeavoured to plug the hole in the wall of his own hut. The slightest breath of breeze was enough to set the glass quivering in its ill-fitting bracket, while a long laceration, meandering diagonally from the top right-hand corner of the pane, rendered the far northern parts of the aerodrome impossible to see from any sensible position. Nevertheless, the window served its purpose well enough, if that purpose were to allow both the feeble light and the biting chill to permeate the hut until any young officer within felt suitably despondent.
Biggles rubbed briskly at his arms through his shirtsleeves with the intention of generating something resembling heat, pointedly ignoring the protestations of the over-taxed bedsprings. Two years of boisterous young officers and their bulging kit bags had not been kind to the mattress; Biggles himself had subjected it to a considerable amount of use as an impromptu trampoline in the early days. Not that he felt in the least inclined towards such whimsy at the moment. His eyes ached with tiredness, set red-raw and shadowed in his wan, pale face. His skull throbbed as if it would shatter. He felt, in short, as if he would never be happy again.
It was not his inadvertent destruction of the brand-new Bristol Fighter that had instigated this spell of dejection; on the contrary, the loss of the aeroplane meant that he could barricade himself into his room and sleep with something close to a clear conscience. Since the raid of three days previously, any and every officer with access to one of the few intact machines had been flying ridiculous hours; on one occasion, Biggles had flown a dawn patrol, a mid-morning sortie, two afternoon patrols and a night flight. He had arrived in France with less than fifteen hours' flying experience; he had flown twice that in the past two days alone.
For an older man, such a period of uninterrupted, enforced alertness would have spelled disaster. Biggles' hands trembled uncertainly, his eyelids were heavy, and behind his eyes swam aeroplanes of every colour and several nationalities, black and red and green, each one a different model, and each hurtling, wreathed in furious flame, to an identical oblivion. He was deadly tired, but his brain was whirring at double speed, making rest impossible.
Sleep...well, sleep was something a seventeen-year-old could easily train himself to live without. Biggles resisted the weary pain in his bones with all the stubbornness of adolescence, forcing his body into this unfamiliar routine to the extent that now, when sleep could finally be permitted, his mind was loath to break its cycle.
He curled his fingers into the rough counterpane and ducked his head to watch them clench and unclench in the dark fabric with an almost childlike fascination. The linen of the sheet underneath was poorly starched, stiff and unyielding to the touch. It was the sort of sheet - as Biggles knew from long and uncomfortable experience - that stretched awkwardly from shoulder to ankle without ever moulding comfortably to the contours of a body like a good sheet ought to. Biggles thought cynically that this was probably partly to do with the fact that the same sheets were used to cover dead bodies as (barely) live ones, and that it bordered on being unpleasant when one was able to see all the features of a corpse through the shroud.
It wasn't so bad when a fellow was shot down over enemy lines. Sometimes, stricken pilots remained staunchly inside the roaring conflagrations that had been their machines, the flames engulfing both together in the great tradition of the warriors of old. Sometimes, if he were able, an officer would leap out of the inferno, a dark speck in the white sky. Biggles had often seen them turning over and over through a turbulence of storm-tossed cloud, far below him, moving so slowly that it seemed as if they would never reach the ground. Either way, the result was the same - a dead body, and a body left for somebody else to bury. One could almost pretend that the chap in question had merely taken indefinite leave. When the hollowed shell of a friend lay still and cold on the tarmac, blood seeping from a deep wound in his spine and ebbing in narrow rivulets from the corner of his mouth, pretending wasn't so easy.
It was Biggles' greatest fear that, one day, the corpse huddled by the flight sheds would have Mark Way's face. He rarely, if ever, spared a thought for the possibility that he himself would die. In the beginning it had often preyed on his mind, in that short intermission after his initial enthusiasm had worn off, but before the ruthless, disciplined abandon of the experienced flyer had taken its place. Long ago, though, he had come to the irrefutable conclusion that if he died, then he would die, and would, therefore, be dead. And if he were dead, there would be nothing more to worry about. If Mark were killed, though...well, that was a different thing altogether.
To begin with, Mark was his observer, his gunner. When Mark was in danger, it was because Biggles had put him there. When Mark was standing upright in the middle of a truculently furious dogfight, clinging to the side of the cockpit with one gloved hand while with the other he peppered some poor fool's fuselage with lead, well...it would be because Biggles had chosen to enter the fracas. And if a bullet should ever happen to come into contact with any part of Mark's anatomy, it would be because Biggles had been too slow to move the aeroplane away in the necessary direction. Biggles never, ever wanted to have to draw a rough, army-issue sheet over Mark's impassive face and know that he had killed him.
Too often they had strayed uncomfortably close to the fire. Biggles closed his eyes and thought of being forced to wander the aerodrome, alone and bereft like one of the shades of Asphodel. Life was made bearable almost solely by the existence of Mark; Mark with his interminably cheerful Kiwi voice and his keen eyes, bright blue in his tanned face. Without Mark, everything would be grey.
Almost subconsciously, Biggles lowered himself onto his side on the bed and stared dully at the pillow. Outside, an engine whirred; not the steady roar of a Pfalz, but the softer, rounder sound of a Bentley Rotary. He closed his eyes, and one engine soon became a whole squadron of Albatroses, circling like buzzards in his weary brain until he whipped his tail about and broke their formation with an aimless dive, perforating each one in turn until they shattered in the air.
When next he raised his head, dusk had melded into a darkness interrupted only by the faintly purple glow from the uncovered window. Slowly, his eyes refocused themselves on this square of feeble light, and he realised dimly that there was a man silhouetted against it. He raised himself on one elbow. "Who's that?"
The figure started. "Jesus, Biggles! I thought you were asleep!"
Biggles smiled. There was only one man on the aerodrome with an accent like that. "Sorry. I was asleep, actually, but I suppose you woke me up stomping about the place like a pet elephant, did you?"
Mark snorted. "Did I hell! I was just standing here, minding my own business, when out came this voice from the pit..."
Biggles rolled onto his back and laughed. "Oh, you needn't sound so hard done by," he protested. "Where've you been, anyway? I thought you were going to sleep?" He nodded towards the vacant bed that stood on the far side of the hut, although the gesture was rather lost on Mark.
"Well, I thought you weren't, so I nabbed Mab's bed for the duration," Mark explained. He seemed to be searching for something on the nightstand; Biggles frowned.
"What are you looking for?"
"Just trying to shed some light on the business," Mark replied shortly, lifting various items and depositing them unceremoniously on his bedspread. At length there came the sound of a match being struck, and then a candle flickered into life, illuminating Mark's grinning face with a soft, yellow glow. "That's one," Mark said in a tone of considerable satisfaction, setting it down on the nightstand, and promptly turned to look for another.
"Men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil," Biggles murmured absently to himself. Mark half-turned.
"Oh, nothing...just something that came to me. It's Shakespeare. Macbeth, I think."
Mark laughed. "I'll take your word for it. I never did get very far with old Will." Another flame bloomed and he straightened with a groan. "That's enough for the time being, I think."
"Yes," Biggles agreed, with his eyes on the ceiling. "Light's rather an overrated commodity, anyway, when everything else is gloomy."
"There you go, acting the cheerful Jonah again," Mark commented, crossing the room. He halted in front of the bed, his shadow looming dark on the opposite wall. Biggles closed his eyes again.
"Well, what is there to be cheerful about? It's dark, it's cold, I'm dog-tired, that bloody window has done nothing but rattle all night, fellows keep splattering themselves all over the aerodrome and, worst of all, I'm stuck here in a hut in the middle of France with an incessantly cheerful New Zealander."
The bedsprings creaked as Mark lowered himself onto the mattress. "And let me guess; you don't understand Euclid, you can't get a girl and you're an orphan to boot." He prodded Biggles in the ribs. "Hmm?"
Biggles permitted himself a smile. "Right on two and a half counts."
Mark's fingers trekked over the deserted plain of Biggles' stomach like a band of intrepid explorers, his fingernails scraping the serge of Biggles' tunic. "What was the half?"
"My mother's dead," Biggles replied shortly, flicking Mark's hand away. There was a pause, and then the bedsprings creaked apologetically.
"It's all right. It was a long time ago."
They sat for a moment in contemplative silence. At least, Mark appeared to be contemplating the bedspread, and Biggles was contemplating how handsome Mark looked in the half-light with his eyes downcast. At length, Mark drew his legs up onto the bed and spread himself out upon the mattress. Biggles smiled and shifted to make room. "You do realise that if this wall collapses, I intend to blame you," he said dourly.
"Duly noted," Mark agreed pleasantly.
There was a pause, during which Biggles' mind took the opportunity to wander off on a tangent somehow connected to the heroic quality of Mark's profile, in a way that was, of course, solely an exercise in aesthetics. It was distant, he told himself, like the appreciation of an artist for his subject. Mark's breath was warm on his neck, regular and comforting in the darkness.
Biggles started guiltily. "Hmm?"
"What's the matter?"
Oh, God. An explanation surged, hot and desperate, into Biggles' mind like the shrieks of some tortured soul. I'm tired and I'm sick and I'm too young for this and I'm too old for living, and I don't want to have to watch machines break up in the air and see the pilots fall out and know that none of them has a parachute, and my head aches and my hands are stiff and I can't let you die, I can't, because I love you.
Something juddered to a startled halt in Biggles' brain. Mark was still looking at him anxiously, and nothing had changed, but it felt as though the world had suddenly decided to begin rotating in the opposite direction. He remembered awkward clinches with Smith behind the bootlockers at school, the naïve experimentation of the British public schoolboy, and wondered whether things were like that on the other side of the world. A battle of words was raging in the back of his throat and he clamped his teeth firmly shut, afraid of what might leak out if he were to open his mouth.
"Biggles?" Mark traced a soft line from the side of Biggles' nose down to the corner of his mouth with a gentle finger. "Come on, you're getting lines around your mouth because of it; look!"
Biggles laughed. "I can hardly look at my own mouth, can I?"
"I suppose not," Mark agreed. "Trust me, though, they're there. You have lines at seventeen."
"I'm eighteen," Biggles protested. Mark laughed.
"Seventeen and never been kissed," he chanted.
"That's not true at all!" Biggles retorted hotly. Mark raised an eyebrow.
"On which count?"
Biggles lay in the darkness and listened to the wind. It rattled the loose pane and whistled feebly through the cracks in the dilapidated walls. The candles flickered precariously, and he smiled. "The latter."
"I knew you were only seventeen," Mark said scornfully.
Biggles would have argued the point, had Mark not chosen that opportunity to turn his head and lean in and kiss him, his hand cool and steady on the side of Biggles' face. The night air was cold and viscous on Biggles' mouth when Mark drew back, and he blinked hesitantly. "Mark?"
"What?" Mark's voice was soft, infused with a sort of anxious tenderness.
"I hope you're good at dodging bullets, because if you let yourself get shot, I promise you I shall kill you."
Mark laughed. "Oh, I don't intend to be shot, laddie, so you can stop worrying on my account." He paused. "Was that what was bothering you?"
"Mostly," Biggles admitted.
"Silly git," Mark muttered fondly, brushing his fingers through Biggles' hair. Biggles' skin prickled at the contact. "What you need is sleep. Somebody'll find us a new kite sooner or later, and then you can bet your boots we'll be sent out on a dawn patrol."
"Oh, inevitably," Biggles agreed. He hesitated momentarily, and then shifted to kiss Mark's cheek. "You're quite right."
Mark wrapped an arm about Biggles' slight, schoolboy's waist, and his uniform tunic was warm and rough and familiar. "Shh, then. Go to sleep."
The candles had burned down to twisted mounds of wax in their holders by the time Biggles' batman found them in the morning, huddled together in their outdoor clothes like children sheltering from the cold. He glanced at them, and at the rattling, loose window, and frowned.
He had been thinking for a good while that the window needed replacing, but if it was cold enough to merit the lads huddling together on one bed like puppies, it was really time that something was done.
He would have a chit sent to the War Office, he decided, as soon as Mr Bigglesworth had finished his tea.