Friday, September 26, 2014

If Only Jewels Could Make A Woman Happy - Excerpt 2

Royal Palace of Jerusalem, March 1171





If only jewels could make a woman happy, Maria Zoë Comnena thought as her ladies prepared her for yet another state dinner. Her great-uncle, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I, had sent her as a bride to the King of Jerusalem, laden with jewels as a way to demonstrate his wealth.

Maria Zoë remembered all too vividly what it had been like when she arrived in Jerusalem at the age of thirteen. The marriage had been celebrated just two days after her arrival, before she had had any chance to recover from the arduous journey. Although she had been given French lessons to prepare her for her marriage to Jerusalem, at the time of her wedding she still needed to concentrate very hard to understand rapidly spoken French. She had been utterly exhausted, from the constant use of a strange tongue and from wearing the heavy, jewel-encrusted gown, long before her husband consummated the marriage.
T
he next morning she was presented to the court again, this time as a married woman, and she had been so tired she could hardly keep her eyes open―which sparked much jocularity and teasing, and the King had beamed with pride. Amalric had been proud of his little Byzantine bride. She was as pretty as a doll, with curly black hair, big amber eyes, a nubile white body, and the riches of Byzantium draped upon her.

That was five years ago. Now Amalric was also proud of her learning, particularly the fact that she could read and write in Greek, Latin, and French. The King had even been known to brag about the fact that she had read Aristotle and Plato. But such bragging was because he felt her learning, like her bloodlines and her beauty, reflected well on him. These things did not fundamentally alter his attitude towards her. Except in bed, he treated Maria Zoë with the greatest of courtesy, and her authority was never publicly undermined, but he never sought her advice or interacted with her on an intellectual level. She was his Queen, not his companion or friend.

As his Queen, he expected her to be immaculately dressed, coifed, and made up whenever she appeared in public. This started with a daily bath in rose water, followed by skin creams. Her fingernails and toenails were manicured. Then she was dressed in silk undergarments, over which came silk gowns and surcoats embroidered with bright silk, gold, and silver threads. Last but not least, she was laden with jewels: hairpins with pearl or rolled amber heads, earrings that dangled almost to her shoulders, necklaces with multiple strands of gold or beads of precious stones, bracelets as wide as an archer’s leather brace, and rings on every finger. A Syrian Christian had been employed for the sole purpose of outlining her eyes, rouging her cheeks and lips, coloring her eyelids, and styling her hair, which was never entirely concealed under the sheer silk veils that she wore.

The result was dazzling to the observer, and utterly stifling to Maria Zoë. She could not move naturally in her clothing, nor sit comfortably, nor relax even for a moment. She was transformed into a doll, her thoughts and feelings completely buried behind the façade.

Amalric of Jerusalem had once been a handsome man. Now, although he was only thirty-five years old, his once powerful body had become flabby to the point of obesity, and his once fine, blond hair was receding. His hazel eyes, however, were hawkish, and they lit up at the sight of his wife. He smiled as he came forward to kiss her on each cheek. “You look lovely, my dear! Absolutely lovely! You’ll have all the bachelors swooning at your feet—and my barons as well.”

Didn’t it ever occur to him that I don’t care about that? Maria Zoë wondered. What good are hollow conquests based on attraction to a façade?

The King took her hand through his elbow to lead her out of the chamber. “I swear, my dear, you become more beautiful with each day,” he assured her. Evidently he thinks women care only about being beautiful, Maria Zoë concluded with inner resentment.

Because she did not respond with blushing delight at his compliment, Amalric asked hopefully, “Is something the matter, my dear? Are you indisposed?” He associated indisposition with pregnancy.

“No, my lord. I am only anxious that the Assassins might take advantage of this gathering of all the important men in the Kingdom.”

Amalric’s face darkened instantly. He had recently concluded a treaty with the Shiite sect based in the Syrian mountains, who were famous for sending out assassins to eliminate their enemies. The treaty had been a significant coup for King Amalric, but the Knights Templar had shown their contempt for the King of Jerusalem by striking down the sect’s ambassadors during their return journey. The diplomatic consequences were still unforeseeable, but the impudence of the Templars had provoked a domestic crisis. Maria Zoë knew that her husband had tried to seize the Templars responsible for the murders and punish them, but the Templars had met the officers of the King with open defiance, insisting they were subordinate to the Pope alone. In a rage, Amalric had sworn to teach the Templars a lesson. He had even threatened a military confrontation with the mighty Order. In the end, however, cooler heads had prevailed. He had been talked into sending a letter to the Pope demanding that the Templars responsible for the murder of the ambassadors be punished—and demanding that the Order as a whole be chastised and disciplined. Maria Zoë knew all that—but not from her husband.

Her attempt to provoke her husband into discussing the issue, however, failed flatly. Despite his scowl at the mere mention of the incident, he patted her hand and urged her not to “worry her pretty head” about the Assassins. “I promise you, we have everything under control.”


Maria Zoë gave up. This was not the time or venue for a renewed attempt to get her husband to view her as a mind, not just a body.


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Friday, September 19, 2014

A Landless Knight - Excerpt 1 from "Knight of Jerusalem"

Ibelin Castle, Kingdom of Jerusalem, March 1171






Barry snorted. “And what about you? What are your plans now?”

Balian shrugged. “Hugh suggested I go to Jerusalem.”

“Don’t tell me you still have romantic notions about winning fame and fortune by great deeds?” he asked with contempt. Then he added condescendingly, “It’s time you grew up, Balian, and recognized that earning honor with great deeds is for the romances and the songs of troubadours, but not relevant in today’s world. Face it,” he continued: “nowadays kingdoms and baronies are inherited rather than won by the sword. Look what happened to Reynald de Châtillon when he tried to seize Cyprus by force.”

Balian bristled at the suggestion that he was a man like Reynald de Châtillon, a brutal adventurer with no respect for the Church or his feudal overlord. “I have no desire to imitate Reynald de Châtillon!” he snapped at his elder brother.

Barry laughed, and too late Balian realized his brother had been baiting him. “Even in our father’s day, winning a fortune by the sword took longer than the alternatives.”
When Balian refused to answer, Barry continued, “Your problem, Balian, is that you’re not acquisitive enough. You need to be greedier if you’re ever going to make something of yourself.”

“Greed is a deadly sin, Barry,” Balian answered, echoing what he had said to Henri only a few hours earlier, and adding before Barry could make any snide remarks, “I think I’ll go to Jerusalem as Hugh suggested.”

“Jerusalem,” Barisan countered, “is full of younger sons from every noble house in France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire. You don’t have a chance of standing out in that crowd. You should go to Antioch. Prince Bohemond is still young and hasn’t been in power very long. He will be in need of men to support him―and the competition isn’t as stiff in Antioch.”

Balian smiled crookedly. “Thank you for your faith in my abilities, Barry.”

“Oh, don’t be so thin-skinned! You know I didn’t mean it that way. I just want you to be successful. After all, the more successful you are, the more successful we are as a family.”

“I’ll try my luck with Jerusalem.”

Barisan shrugged. “As you wish, but don’t come crawling to me if things don’t go according to plan.”

“No, Barry. Never.”


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Friday, September 12, 2014

Reading About Things We Know -- Another Book about Anne Boleyn....

As a novelist, I have always favored something novel. I strive to be original in both my style and my subject matter. As a historical novelist, I am drawn to the "untold stories" of history. I like to "discover" historical events that have been forgotten or neglected, and bring to life historical figures who have been locked away in dry and dusty history books but not handled in literature. 

This may explain why my success to date is so modest.

Readers much perfer to read about someone they "know" than someone they've never heard about. It's the natural tendency of all people to be more interested in gossip about their neighbors than in strangers. If you don't "know" someone, why should you care about them?  In the same way, an audience prefers a familiar tune to a new one. Even if we don't particularly like a melody, we'll still find ourselves tapping our feet or nodding our head in time to the tune; we'll hum or whistle or sing along. But if we've never heard a song before, we can't do any of that and so it's more likely to be ignored or switched off altogether as mere noise. Performing artists understand the need to mix new songs in among older songs to get their audience to listen until the new becomes familiar.

With books the interest is more cerebral than instinctive. Just as we go to see a new production of Shakespeare's Hamlet because we want to see how the director and actors interpret the familiar plot and dialogue, we read books about familiar historical events and people in order to she how the author has portrayed them. Thus reviewers often compare authors/books about similar subject matter. "This book makes character x much weaker than author y did in his book z...."

The result, as publishers well know, is that readers are more likely to buy the 101,000th book about Anne Boleyn than the first book about - say - Anne of Bohemia. The more famous the historical person, the more successful a book will be. Richard the Lionheart trumps Ethelred the Unready every time. It also explains why readers perfer to read about their cultural heretage: English history is much more popular to English-speaking readers all across the world than Chinese or Ethiopian history. 

From the point of view of novelty and "discovering" the "untold stories" of history, Ethiopia has much more to offer than England, but since I want people to read what I write, so I'm not going to go there. Unfortunately, I'm bored to death by Anne Boleyn and even Richard III at this point so I'm not able to write a single word about them. Instead, I float on the less familiar (but hopefully a little familiar) fringes of Western European history, with my up-coming biographical novels of Balian d'Ibelin and, later, Edward the Black Prince. 


Friday, September 5, 2014

Write About Things You Know – Not About Yourself

English teachers and other instructors of creative writing classes are in the habit of telling aspiring young writers to “write about things you know.” There’s a good reason for this. If they didn’t make this seemingly obvious suggestion, they would have a lot of students coming to them for ideas or failing to write a single sentence because they “didn’t know what to write about.”

The problem with this practical piece of advice is that, while useful in the classroom, it is too often transferred out of that context. “Writing about what you know” is a way to get started. It is a way to practice and exercise, to develop skill and style. It is not – repeat not - the finished product.

A finished product is a piece of writing that you wish to share with a wider public than your teacher, classmates, close friends and relatives. And this is where it is important to make a very important transition.

If you are writing for public consumption – i.e. if you plan to publish in a magazine, on the internet or to publish a book – then you should not confuse “writing about things you know” with writing about yourself. Yes, if you’re already a celebrity, people might be interested in you, but, if not, the chances are that no one who doesn’t already know you is going to be interested in reading about you. Do you go out and buy autobiographies of people who have never done anything exceptional or heroic? Do you read books about people who have not achieved fame or fortune?  And if you do, how many have you bought? Have you read a dozen, a score, a-hundred-thousand? Believe me, the market for autobiographies by John and Jane Doe is very limited indeed. In fact, it is limited to about the number of copies John and Jane Doe are prepared to buy themselves to try and give away.

“Writing about what you know” does not, however, necessarily mean writing about yourself. It can mean writing about a familiar environment, or abstracting from personal experience to more universal experiences. In this sense, “writing about what you know” can indeed be useful component in a finished product. The point is simply that the finished product is unlikely to use this knowledge one-to-one as in autobiography, but as part of a larger, more universally appealing story.


In short, while it is perfectly legitimate to try to learn writing skills without a particular message in mind, no one should aspire to be a writer unless he/she has something to say.  In fact, no one should aspire “to be a writer” at all because being a writer is meaningless; the message is everything. Writing is a means to an end, not an end in itself. In the same way, writing “about what you know” should be a means to an end: either a way to learn writing skills or a way to deliver a more profound and universal message in a convincing manner.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Wash-out?

Excerpts from Chasing the Wind (Kindle edition: Where Eagles Never Flew)




"You alright, Ernst?" Christian asked with apparent concern as he poured wine for himself. "The MO said  you had a concussion and no other serious injuries, but..." Christian looked at him intently. "What's bothering you?"
Ernst couldn't take the scrutiny. The tension was just too much, or the contrast between the inner tension and the warm, cosy environment was too much. Ernst wasn't someone who could pretend anyway. He burst out, "Christian I'm a wash-out, aren't I?"
"Whatever for? You did a great job putting your Emil down without breaking anything."
"But -- I mean -- that I had to crash at all. I mean...." Too late, Ernst realized that Christian didn't know about the oxygen and that he'd been lost. But they would find out as soon as they investigated. Ernst's head was killing him. He dropped it into his hands and just held it.
"Come on. What's eating you?" Christian urged in a friendly tone.
"My oxygen."
"What about it?" Christian asked confused.
"There wasn't anything wrong with it -- I'd just forgotten to plug it in." Ernst was so ashamed, he didn't dare meet Christian's eyes as he admitted this.
Christian just laughed. Ernst stared at him. "Hell. Who hasn't done that once or twice?"
"But I -- I panicked! I half-rolled and dived instead of staying below the Staffel. And I didn't realize what was wrong 'till I was back on the deck and, and...."
Christian leaned his elbows on the table and looked Ernst straight in the eye. "If you aren't getting any oxygen, you can't think properly. That's all there is to it. It's normal. don't let it get to you. What's important is that you plugged in and tried to catch up with us."
"Yes -- but I couldn't find you."
"Of course not. The weather closed in too fast and the sweep was scratched."
Ernst stared at Christian, hardly daring to believe what he was being told. Christian acted as if he wasn't to blame for what happened. He tried to explain. "I got lost Christian. I didn't know where I was. I kept following the coast, but I couldnt' find anything familiar -- not even Le Harve. I looked and looked, but I couldn't find any familiar landmark. It -- it was just luck that I landed so near the ZG base."
"How long have you been with us, Ernst? Ten days?"
Ernst nodded.
"And how many of those days have we flown? --not even half." Christian answered his own question. "So you've flown in France all of four times, right? and rarely the same route? And in better weather. Any of us might have lost our way in this muck." 
Ernst stared at him, almost afraid to believe him, but Christian really seemed to mean it.
"Cheer up, Ernst!" Christian urged with a smile. "If I have to spend the evening with you rather than Gabrielle, than at least try to make it a pleasant evening, all right?"
"Gabrielle? Is that your French girl friend?" Ernst ventured timidly. "Didn't the CO order you to stop seeing her?"
"So what? We've signed a truce with France. Half the Gestapo has French girl friends nowadays! What do they expect us to do? Live like monks? That's not healthy!" Christian delcared with conviction.
Ernst snickered in embarrassment. He'd never had a girl friend, and he was far too inhibited to go to whores. The very thought made him feel dirty. He didn't want it like that. He wanted a nice girl, who was there just for him. She didn't have to be beautiful, just kind and sympathetic and nice. He found himself gazing at his wine, wishing, while Christian continued his commentary.
Christian was telling him about meeting Gabrielle, and somehow he made it all sound very amusing. In fact, Christian soon had Ernst laughing. He forgot about his headach, and getting lost, and crashing. And when he remembered again, it didn't seem so bad.

Excerpt 2: New Assignment

Axel shook out a cigarette, and Christian took it thankfully. Axel gave him a light. As he straightened from bending over the match, the pilot's eyes fell on the two girls, still hovering just within earshot.  He smiled at them at once, and Klaudia's alarm signals went off. She took a step backwarks, but it was too late.
"Has the Luftwaffe come up with the delightful idea of training Helferinnen to service aircraft?"
Axel turned back from the waist, saw what Christian had seen, and with a somewhat annoyed frown signalled the girls forward as he explained. "No. They're both in Communications, but Rosa and I met at StG2. After I'd written back about how nice it was here, she got it into her head to follow me over."
Axel had his hand around Rosa's elbow as he introduced her. "Rosa Welkerling." Christian clicked his heels and bowed his head, smiling, but his eyes had already shifted to Klaudia. "Klaudia von Richthofen," Axel duly introduced her, adding for the benefit of the girls, "Christian Freiherr von Feldburg."
Again Christian clicked his heels and bowed to Klaudia. Klaudia was so distressed to find herself attracted to him when she had hardly recovered from what Jako had done to her, that she was immensely relieved when the fat pilot emerged beside them. He distracted the handsome baron, who turned on him to declare triumphantly, "I told you not to worry about me."
"You barely made it," Ernst pointed out.
"Perfect planning, as the CO would say," Christian assured him, flinging an arm over his wingman's shoulders.
"The CO won't say anything of the kind," Ernst retorted with a sour expression.
"He would, if he'd done it," Christian reasoned, and they all laughed a bit more loudly than the joke justified. Christian and Ernst started to turn away, but Christian remembered to politely nod to the girls. Then the pilots were gone and Axel turned to the Helferinnen rather sharply. "We've got work to do. See you later."
"As you like," Rosa answered, miffed, as the started to turn away. Then she stopped and called out, "Axel?"
"Now what?"
"You never looked that nervous when Pashinger was late."
"Arschinger was an asshole."
"And this baron's not?"
"Feldburg? No, he's all right."

....

By about ten pm, Klaudia was falling asleep upright. It had been an eventful day, and she was no longer used to wine with dinner. She stood, hiding a yawn behind her hand, and announced she was turning in.
"I'll come too," Rosa agreed.
They said good night to the other girls and left their little mess, crossing the darkened games room and making for the main stairs. But as they reached the stairs sweeping up from the reception area, they could hear music and singing coming up from the Officer's Bar on the left. "Listen!" Rosa said with delight. "That's Veronica, der Lenz ist da!" When Klaudia looked blankly at her, she added, "You know, by the Comedian Harmonists! Surely you know the Comedian Harmonists?" Rosa might be a good National Socialist, but nothing could ruin her delight in the songs of the Berlin quintet. She tiptoed toward the stairs that led down into the rustic bar with its flagstone floor and beamed ceiling a half-floor below.
Someone was playing a piano very well, and several men were indeed singing in harmony. There was also the stamping of feet and clapping of hands to heard. Rosa tiptoed down four or five steps until, by bending, she could see into the bar itself. In a line with their arms around each other's shoulders, four of the pilots were dancing to the music as they sang.
They had their tunics completely unbuttoned, their ties loosened, and the pilots on the ends -- the fat pilot Ernst Geuke and a man she didn't recognize -- were having some trouple keeping up with the steps. In the centre, very much the motor of the little act, was -- who else? -- Christian Freiherr v. Feldburg....
Klaudia tried to picture Jako doing some kind of can-can with his tunic open and his tie loose; it was unthinkable.
Too soon the song came to an end. Rosa reluctantly got to her feet, sorry that the show was already over. "Axel was right," she concluded as the two girls went up to their room together."It is a lot nicer here."


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Friday, August 22, 2014

The Catch of the Season

An Excerpt from Chasing the Wind (Kindle edition: Where Eagles Never Flew):



As usual, [his mother] was talking even before she entered the parlour with the tea tray. "...and she left a number where  you can call her back."
"Who?"
"Robin! Haven't you heard a think I've said to you? Virginia Cox-Gordon!"
There had been a time when he would have been very excited to hear that Virginia Cox-Gordon had called. He had, shortly, been very interested in her.  She was pretty, witty, rich, and he liked being seen with her.  But Virginia picked her boy-friends by their pocketbooks, and Robin couldn't afford her. His parental grandfather, Admiral Priestman, had put him through public schools but he flatly refused to pay for anything as "nonsensical" as flying, and so he had only made it through Cranwell on money Aunt Hattie raised by mortgaging her house. As for his Flight Lieutenant's pay, you could book that under "petty cash" as far as the Cox-Gordons of the world were concerned.  There were allegedly officers in the Auxiliary Air Force who spent more on a bottle of wine than the regular officers earned in a month. But that was probably exaggerated, Robin relfected soberly. The point was: he hadn't inherited a fortune and he wasn't going to make one either -- and Virginia wasn't going to give sustained attention to anyone without.
Besides, Robin reflected on his reaction to his mother's news, he didn't particularly want Virginia's attention anymore. She'd been a bit of a status symbol before the war. Being seen with Virginia had been good for his image, and he'd been flattered that she would go out with him at all. But the fact was, he hadn't given her a thought since the war started in earnest.
His mother set the tea-tray down on the coffee table, and Robin took his crutch and hobbled over to sit on the sofa. "I droped by the Mission to see Aunt Hattie today," he remarked.
"In your condition?" his mother answered, horrified.  She had never approved of him 'hanging about' the Seaman's Mission, because he came in contact with 'bad company' there.  Robin, on the other hand, had been starved for masculine role models as a boy, and so he had been fascinated by the tattooed nd weathered men that washed up at the Mission.  He'd always spent time down there when he could, often helping Cook because the retired seamn had a wealth of fascinating -- and by no means completely sanitized -- stories. 
"There's a new girl working there. Emily Pryce."
"Good heavens! What do you want with the girls Hattie drags in? For all you know she was a you-know-what! She might well be diseased."
"With a Cambridge education and quoting John Maynard Keynes?"
His mother had not answer to that, but didn't need one. The telephone was ringing out in the hall, and she rushed to answer it.
"Yes, yes!" Robin heard her say breathlessly into the phone, and then, "He just got in. I'll go fetch him." She rushed back into the sitting room and stage-whispered at Robin: "It's Miss Cox-Gordon!"
"I don't want--" He thought better of it, took a crutch and limped into the hallway. He took up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Robin, darling! Ii was so worried. Are you really quite all right?"
"Brilliant. Wizard. Nothing but a bashed ankle. Cast comes off in a couple of weeks or so. Then I'm back on ops."
"So soon? Then we must get together at the first opportunity. What are you doing tomorrow? I'm having a few friends down to the country." She meant her father's country estate in Kent. "Why don't you join us?"
"Sorry. Can't drive yet. Not 'til the cast comes off. Nice of you to think of me 'though. Just have to wait 'til I'm fit. I'll give you a call."
"Look, if you can't drive, how about if I come down to Portsmouth one evening and pick you up?"
"Wouldn't want to impose. Besides, Portsmouth's pretty grim at the moment. Navy all over the place."
Virginia tittered. "Honestly, Robin, there's nothing new about the Navy in Portsmouth. Besides, it must be quite exciting, really. London is dreadfully boring these days. Blackouts and air raid wardens and everybody in some silly uniform -- and, oh yes, you should see the Americans. There seem to be American press people everywhere these days." She interrupted herself to ask him, "You know I've got a job with the Times, don't you?"
"Congratulations. Society Page?"
"No! Who cares about that now-a-days? I'm covering London, actually. You wouldn't believe all the silly questions these Americans insist on asking everyone! 'WIll Britain bear up?' 'Can the RAF stop the Luftwaffe?'"
"Can we?"
Virginia tittered again. "You're a card, Robin. You should know."
"Haven't the foggiest. Look, Virginia, my aunt just got in, and I must entertain her." He was looking at Aunt Hattie, who - having let herself in - was coming up the stairs. "I'll ring you later in the week. Thanks for calling."
"But--"
He'd already hung up.
"Just who was that?" Hattie asked giving him a piercing look.
"Virginia Cox-Gordon."
Hattie's eyebrows went up. She didn't read the gossip pages, but many of her staff -- and of course her sister Lydia -- did.  She new exactly who Virginia Cox-Gordon was: daughter of a millionaire, debutante, the "catch of the season" just last year, before the war started.
"You know  your other girl-friends call my flat," she told him in a low, reproachful voice.
"I'm sorry --"
"Just how many girls did you give my number to?"
"Only two." He thought about it. "Three."
Hattie sighed and gazed at him sadly.
"I am sorry they bothered you," Robin insisted, looking sincere. "I told them not to call unless it was an absolute emergency, and --"
"Yes, well, I'm sure things look very different from your superior male vantage point, but to us poor females here on the ground, the fact that you were last seen duelling with two Messerchmitts over the ruins of Calais in the midst of the worst rout in English history seemed very much like an 'emergency.' I can't say I blame them, but I do wonder about you sometimes....
Robin concluded it might not be the best moment to ask her for Emily Pryce's telephone number.


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Friday, August 15, 2014

"Or close the wall up with our English dead...."



An excerpt from Chasing the Wind (Kindle: Where Eagles Never Flew):

Tea time. Priestman joined the other pilots sitting in the shade of the mess tent. They were drinking tea. No sooner had Priestman sat down than the airman/cook shoved a mug of hot, sweet stuff into his hand. Priestman smiled up at him, "You're a marvel, Thatcher."
"Just doing my job, sir."
"Doing a damned good job, if I may say so, Thatcher."
"Thank you, sir." The airman looked embarrassed, as if he didn't know what to do with appreciation -- and that made Priestman feel guilty; obviously he and his colleagues were a little too sparing with praise and thanks.
The telephone was ringing in the ops tent. They turned their head and stared at the tent, waiting.
"Maybe it is just someone ringing up to see how the weather is over here."
"Or someone calling to ask if there is anything we lack?"
"Maybe someone has just signed a surrender."

No, it didn't look like that.  Yardly was standing in the entry, waving furiously at them.
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more," Shakespear intoned as he set his mug aside.
"I don't like that damned quote!" Roger told him irritably -- much too irritably. You could tell his nerves were a bit frayed.  He'd had an ugly belly landing the other day and hadn't been the same since, really.
"Why ever not?" Driver asked innocently.
Yardly was shouting at them to "get the finger out," but they ignored him.  After all, he wasn't flying, and they didn't presume it would make much difference to the war if they were a minute or two later. It was all a cock-up anyway.
"It's the next line," Priestman explained to Driver, putting his own mug aside carefully.
"What's that?"
"Or close the wall up with our English dead," Priestman told him.


***

Priestman couldn't sleep. He was exhausted beyond measure, but everything seemed to keep him awake -- the dampness of the earth, the roughness of his parachute pack under his head, the snoring or uneasy stirring of his companions, the distant bark of navy guns.  It should have been reassuring that the Navy was there, he supposed, but that quote from Henry V kept going through his head, too: "Dishonor not  your mothers, now attest that those whom you called 'father' did beget you."
Wasn't it odd that Shakespear, 400 years ago, could write something that fit so perfectly? There was hardly one among them whose father hadn't been here in France last time around, and they had fought for four years.  It was barely two weeks sicne the German offensive had begun -- and it was very nearly over. If Calais fell, they were all trapped....

Two hours later they were scrambled to intercept bombers attacking the British in Calais.  Priestman could sense he was in trouble from the start. At take-off, his Hurricane hit a small hole and bounced. He over-reacted pulling back on the stick too soon.  He didn't have enough speed. The Hurricane fell back to earth and he was running out of grass.  
When he did get airborne, he barely cleared the trees. The adrenaline pumping from the near miss, he had to throttle forward to catch up with the others as they swung west toward Calain the sun behind them bright and blinding. It was obvious that they were going to get bounced. But ahead, a gaggle of ugly Stukas was peeling off and going down to drop their loads on the ruins of Calais -- because that was all that was left of the city.  The buildings the Stukas were hammering had long since turned into heaps of rubble.  still, guns were being fired out of that rubble, and with a twinge of pride Robin realised that there were still British troops down there in that wasteland, and they were flinging defiance back at the overwhelming might of Germany.
They were so small, so weak, their arms inadequate for the task facing, and their situation was patently hopeless. In fact, the town had apparently already fallen to the Germans. The ugly swastika flag fluttered over the major buildings, but the Union Jack cracked defiantly from the medieval fortress.
Robin hated Stukas more than any aircraft.  They were ugly, vicious planes without any kind of natural grace. They had bent wings and massive, fixed undercarriages like the extended claws of an attacking eagle.  They had been designed to intimidate without majesty and were even equipped with sirens whose sole purpose was to increase the noise, and so the terror,t hey created as they dived.  They symbolised in his mind all that was most objectionable about the Nazis -- the brutality, the brashness, the bragging. Robin was determined to get one -- and confident too.
Bringing one down was not the problem. The Hurricane could fly circles around a Stuka, and Priestman, Ibbotsholm, Stillwell and Bennett all brought one down on their first pass. Robin's mistake was that he wanted more. His over-wrought nevers, the near crash on take-off, and now these hated planes harassing the shattered remnants of a gallant British defence, resulted in a dangerous fit of hubris -- just as had happened when he was 15, and again in Singapore.  As soon as he'd finished off one Stuka, Priestman started spiralling up the sky to get enough altitude for a new attack. He kept watching the Stukas, afraid they would get away before he could attack again. He was not watching his tail or the sun.
When the cannon hit him from behind, he was taken completely by surprise. He reacted as he had taught himself over the last ten days, with a flick quarter-roll and a tight turn. It worked, the Me109 overshot him, and Robin straightened out and started running inland. He'd made a second mistake: he'd forgotten the wingman.
The minute he straightened out, machineguns and cannon raked along the side of the Hurricane. He felt as if it had been violently wrenched out of his hands as it spun out of control. Still shaken by the suddenness of the dual attack and the terrifying sensation of losing control of the Hurricane, Priestman was close to panic as he tried to pull out of the spin.
Nothing happened.
The pedals and stick were dead.
His brain registered what had happened. His tail and/or the control cables had been shot away. He had no contrl over the aircraft and it was spinning around faster and faster. The Hurricane was past the vertical, and the earth was spinning so fast it was just a whirling blur.
He struggled to get clear of the aircraft, tearing off his helmet to free himself of oxygen and R/T, but the centrifugl force was pinning him to the seat. The hood seemed to jam. He battered hsi hands bloody trying to free it. At the very last minute it broke free, and with the super-human strength of panic he flung himself over the side of the cockpit. But he was took close to the ground. His 'chute didn't have time to open properly.