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Chapter no 90

Spare

FROM SHAWBURY MOVED ON to Middle Wallop. I now knew how to fly a helicopter, the Army conceded, but next I needed to learn how to fly

one tactically. While doing other things. Many other things. Like reading a map and locating a target and firing missiles and talking on the radios and peeing into a bag. Multitasking in the air at 140 knots—not for everyone. To accomplish this Jedi mind trick, my brain would first need to be reshaped, my synapses rewired, and my Yoda in this massive neuro-reengineering would be Nigel.

A.k.a. Nige.

It was he who drew the unenviable task of becoming my fourth, and arguably most important, flight instructor.

The aircraft on which we’d be conducting our sessions was the Squirrel. That was the colloquial name for the little French-made single-engine helicopter on which most British students trained. But Nige was less focused on the actual Squirrel in which we sat than the squirrels inside my head. Head squirrels were the ancient enemies of human concentration, Nige assured me. Without my being aware of it they’d taken up residence in my consciousness. More devious than the hover monkeys, he said, they were also far more dangerous.

The only way to get rid of head squirrels, Nige insisted, was iron discipline. A helicopter is easily mastered, but the head takes more time and more patience.

Time and patience, I thought impatiently. I don’t have much of either, Nige, so let’s crack on…

It also takes a kind of self-love, Nige said, and this manifests as confidence. Confidence, Lieutenant Wales. Believe in yourself—that’s everything.

I saw the truth in his words, but I couldn’t imagine ever putting that truth into practice. The fact was, I didn’t believe in myself, didn’t believe in much of anything, least of all me. Whenever I made a mistake, which was often, I was quite harsh with Harry. It felt as if my mind were seizing up like an overheated engine, the red mist would come down, and I’d stop thinking, stop functioning.

No, Nige would say softly whenever this happened. Don’t let one mistake destroy this flight, Lieutenant Wales.

But I let one mistake ruin many a flight.

Sometimes my self-loathing would spill onto Nige. After having a go at me, I’d have a go at him. Fuck it, you fly the damn thing!

He’d shake his head. Lieutenant Wales, I’m not touching the controls. We are going to get down on the ground and you’re going to get us there and then we’ll talk about it all afterwards.

He had a herculean will. You’d never have guessed it from his appearance. Average height, average build, steel-gray hair combed neatly to one side. He wore spotless green overalls, spotless clear spectacles. He was

a Navy civvie, a kindly grandpa who loved sailing—a top bloke. But he had the heart of a fucking ninja.

And at that moment I needed a ninja.

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