THE AIR GUN
(From the Book "Killers, Angels, Refugees" by Peter Hammill)

      James Kirkpatrick. He is not entirely balanced. He likes cats but not dogs. He likes rare steak and soft-boiled eggs with traces of blood in them. He likes pain as donor, hut not as recipient. He is seventeen and works as a trainee salesman at Hepworths (the tailors). Which branch he works at is almost as irrelevant to this story as the above information.
      James Kirkpatrick is methodical but impatient. He is stupid, but fast with his words. He will eventually make a good salesman. He will eventually marry Diana Hargrove and transform her from an honest waitress in the local Wimpy bar to a dishonest and sometimes bruised and battered - housewife who has affairs, so animal that they are hardly worthy of the name, with the milkman, the coalman, the dustman and James' worst friend who, at the time of this story, is in Borstal as a result of assaulting his godmother with a coal scuttle. They will have two children, Olga and Steve. They will live average lives and James will eventually die an average death, the exact nature of which is as irrelevant to this story as the details of his spouse and children. James' importance in the social order hangs on one moment and it is that moment which concerns us now.
       At the age of seventeen, James is infatuated with model-making. He is not interested in watching The Golden Shot on Sunday afternoons with his Mum, Dad and three sisters, Jane, Judy and Josephine. He remains within his tiny room, festooned with plastic memorials to past instruments of sudden death, his model aeroplanes.
       On this particular Sunday, the date of which, it will become apparent, is immaterial, James is building a Fokker Triplane. He has already painted all the components, methodically, meticulously, while the rest of his family watched Manchester United beat Nottingham Forest on The Big Match. Nottingham Forest is his father's team, although they do not live in Nottingham. Manchester United is his mother's team, although they do not have in Manchester. His sisters follow Arsenal, who beat Man. Utd, last week on Match of the Day. It is quiet in James' room, but there are potential thunderstorms downstairs.
       James, having finished reading this week's copy of the Beano, begins assembling his model.
       It is 1/72nd scale. It is an American kit. James prefers American kits because he thinks their moulds and details are better than others. Most of the kits he has made are American, and he has made over thirty this year. They hang from his ceiling on white cotton in a frozen frame of elaborate choreography: Immelman turns, dives from the blinding cover of the light bulb, loops and rolls and sideslips. Sometimes, especially when the football results have thrown the living-room into a state of war, he simply lies on his bed and stares at his aerial / polystyrene/cotton ballet. But now he is building.
       First he glues the pilot (1) onto the starboard fuselage half (2). The pilot rests on an outcropping pin on the inside of the fuselage. He has black trousers, boots and helmet, brown jacket, silver goggles resting on his forehead and a splash of pink paint which is not quite flesh-coloured where his face should be. The paint has obscured all his facial features. There is an unpainted spot of blue plastic on the top of his helmet. There he was connected to the tree of parts. James always forgets that there is going to be this tiny unpainted patch unless he takes the pilot off the parts tree when he is painting, and, consequently, all of his models have pilots with strange flecks of white, grey, or pale-blue plastic on top of their black flying helmets.
      James does not wait for the pilot to dry into permanent contact with the projecting pin, but cements the port fuselage half (3) to the starboard half. At a later stage, this will result in the pilot becoming lop-sided, but that can be regarded as chance, and chance can be regarded as everything. The chance is, in any case, determined by James or; rather.' by his total inability to wait.
      He applies too much polystyrene glue to the edges of the fuselage halves. It spills out over the seam in uneven bubbles which are transparent at first but darken as they harden. The excreted glue makes of the join in the fuselage a scar on the completed whole. James has painted the Triplane blood red from front cowling to tail skid. The glue looks like congealed blood..
      James is too busy pressing on with the construction to notice this: he has already cemented the lower wing (4) to the fuselage assembly.
      He is making the model too soon after painting it. His thumbs and fingers leave imprints on the tacky paint as they press the parts together. They also leave traces of black and silver paint. James has not washed his hands since painting his model.
      He does not notice the blurred marks he is making because he is already attaching the struts (6, 7, 8, 9) to the underside of the upper wing (12). There are two short struts, which join the fuselage just in front of the cockpit, and two long ones. These pass through holes in the two centre wings (13, 1'), fixed by tabs onto the fuselage assembly, and are cemented to the lower wing.
       James has not waited long enough for the glue to dry: the wings set crookedly. They are 3º out from the vertical, and 2.45º from the horizontal.
      James does not notice this cant, because he is already affixing the stabilizer to the rear of the fuselage The stabilizer (13) is initially mal-aligned, but when he adds the tailfin (14) it falls into true. The tailfin is a lucky piece for. James.
       The engine assembly is not so lucky. The engine (16) is one of the few pieces which have not been painted blood red. Most of the engine is black, but the cylinders are silver. The silver and black have run together and shot tiny veins into each other at their junction. As James picks up the engine, the silver is shiny and diamond and metallic, with a small, unpainted, pal e blue plastic patch on top of one of the cylinders. The engine is a small piece, and difficult to bold. In grasping it, James rubs most of the silver paint onto the thumb and fore-finger of his right hand. The cylinders are still recognisably silver, but they are now matt and dead and all-too-painted plastic.
      James glues the pin (15) through the engine. The point of the pin projects out of the front of the engine, and is then passed (DO NOT CEMENT) through a hole in the cowling (17). The cowling is blood red and encloses two thirds of the engine. It is a rotary engine, air-cooled, and so the remaining, lower, third is exposed. The cowling and fuselage assembly are now locked in union, messily. There is another coagulated scar of cement where they meet.
      James does not notice it, because he is already applying cement to the projecting tip of the pin. He presses the propeller(18) onto it. The propeller is matt black, but now has silver smudges on it where James has held it in his right hand. He has put too much glue on the pin. It spills out of the socket in the back of the propeller, comes into contact with the cowling, and hardens. The propeller and engine assembly will not now revolve.
      James is already cementing the undercarriage together. The undercarriage consists of the wheels (19, 20), two struts (21, 22) and the spar (23). All the parts are blood red, except for the rubber of the wheels, which is matt black. The rubber is not well painted, and its edge is an uneven line against the red of the hubs. There are soon silver smudges on the wheel assembly as well.
      James is more concerned about fixing the assembly to the bottom of the lower wing than about the smudges on it. The operation is a difficult one, and the wheels eventually set at a tenuous angle. James locates and cements the tail skid (24). This is of pale-blue plastic, because James forgot to paint it. He should have painted it blood red. He thinks it doesn?t really matter all that much. One supposes it doesn't.
      Now lie glues the machine guns (5) in front of the pilot on top of the fuselage. He always glues the machine guns onto his models at the last possible moment, whatever the instructions tell him. He doesn't really know why, but it has become a ritual for him. He should have put the machine guns on before the top wing. It is difficult to fit them into position, and a great deal of cement surrounds their final, inaccurate placing.
      The construction is completed.
      James cuts the sheet of decals into their individual parts and fixes them in position. There are two large black Maltese crosses on the upper wing, and two similar ones in white squares on the underside of the bottom wing. There are two small Maltese crosses in white squares on either side of the fuselage, behind the cockpit and, in the rear of each, a serial number.
      One of the decals on the lower wing has split because James tried to remove it from the backing paper before it was ready. James is always, and still, in a hurry.
      And now the blood-red, glue-scarred, finger-printed mis-aligned, silver-blotched, overhurried Fokker Triplane is finished. James examines it from a distance, the distance across his room, about seven feet. He is not too happy. Speed kills.
     While James' mother, father and three sisters are watching Vera Lynn sing through Stars on Sunday, he goes out into the rudimentary garden and rests the newly-completed Fokker on top or the tiny garden shed. He retires to the back door of the house and takes careful aim with his air-rifle.
      The first pellet embeds itself in the roof of the shed. The second vanishes into vacant space. The third shot is a palpable hit. The triplane is knocked into the gutter on the far side of the roof. James walks over, picks it up, examines it, and smiles.
      The head and trunk of the pilot, incredibly, have been carried away by the pellet, while the rest of the plane is un-harmed. James places the model on the garden path and jumps on it in his size 9 boots. It dies like an insect.
 
 

       Time moves backwards as well as forwards, and intention is often as positive as action.
      On the 21st of April, 1918, Baron Manfred von Richtofen was shot from the skies of the Western Front. In final moments of fast-fading consciousness, he managed to bring his red Fokker Triplane in for a perfect landing on a hill near Corbie.
      The claim for the kill was disputed. Lieutenant G.M. Travers, an eyewitness on the ground, avowed that he had been shot down from the ground, by an Australian machine. gunner named Popkin. Two men from the 53rd A.A. battery, Evans and Bouie, were, however, credited and suitably decor-ated. On the other hand, in the view of the R.F.C., the victory was that of a Canadian, Captain A.R. Brown, who was awarded a bar to his D.F.C.
      The flames of controversy were further fuelled after Richtofen's corpse had been examined. The doctors reported that he had been killed by a bullet which entered on the left side of his chest and exited on the right. Unless he had been  performing aerobatics at the time, such a bullet could only have been fired from another aircraft. However, Edward Burrow, another officer from Travers? company, who was one of the first to arrive at the scene of the crash, stated that a bullet had entered the lower left jaw and exited behind the left eye, implying a shot from the ground.
      To this day there is still no theory which satisfactorily correlates the conflicting evidence, still no indisputable allocation of victory. Nor do I pretend to a theory, but believe that time itself is rarely given due consideration in such matters.
      If I were to say that Kirkpatrick killed Richtofen then, equally, there is a possibility that I have done so in the writing of this story.


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