Barton Aerodrome: From a Work-in-Process

By Nicholas Royle


The house possesses a particular stillness. It is the stillness of a house you are not supposed to have entered. I think back to the time when Lewis mentioned that he habitually leaves his back door unlocked and wonder again if his mentioning it was deliberate. Did he want me to pick up on the line; did he want me to remember it? Or was he simply boasting that life here is like that? You can leave your door open without worry – who is going to come in? Or was he suggesting that he has nothing worth stealing? Since he has already lost what was dearest to him, what would it matter if burglars nicked his TV, his DVD player, his collection of Smiths albums? Actually, with regard to the latter, they’d be doing him a favour, although, as I’m always having to remind my creative writing students, since my opinion of The Smiths, is irrelevant here, I’ve no business including it. It doesn’t buy its way into the piece. How can I expect them to respect what I preach if I don’t practise what I teach?

Maybe it demonstrates character, my not liking The Smiths? Perhaps it’s designed to show that I’m an outsider, a Mancunian in his early forties who doesn’t like The Smiths.

These days, witnessing Morrissey’s mawkish, narcissistic metamorphosis into Tribute Morrissey, is there not a danger I might be perceived as slightly less of an outsider? Should I consider giving Morrissey another listen? One of the later albums, of course.

I close the back door quietly behind me.

There is a low hum from the fridge, a dripping tap. Beyond these noises lie the stillness of empty rooms, the tension of untrodden stairs. I move out of the kitchen into the hall. At the other end of the hall is the front door. I am about to cross the hall to the living room when through the stained glass of the front door I see a dark shape approaching the house. I feel immediately conflicted as adrenaline surges to aid flight, yet I know that the slightest movement will betray my presence. The figure bulks up in the stained glass, bulging and distorting as it reaches the door. There’s a pause during which everything is still. The shape of the shadow alters slightly, then the letter box is shoved open with a brassy clang and something is thrust part of the way through. A final push and a piece of twice-folded glossy paper falls to the floor. Splashes of colour, ugly, squashed-up typefaces, pornographic photographs of what would pass for food only among the truly desperate.

The takeaway menu delivery guy retreats down the path and I hear the gate snap shut.

The next sound I hear is the breath rushing out of me. I look at my hands. They will take a moment to be still. To my left is the lounge. I am a concert pianist waiting in the wings, trying to shake the tension out of my arms, before walking unsteadily through the open doorway.


I immediately clock Lewis’s TV, digibox and DVD player in an alcove across the room. I look around and see a shelf of DVDs in the matching alcove on the other side of the hearth, which inevitably features a gas-fed coal-effect open fire. On the mantelpiece is an isolated photograph of Lewis’s wife and daughters in an expensive frame.

As I cross the room, someone walks past outside the house in the opposite direction. The downside for me in this being a neighbourhood where Lewis feels able to leave his back door unlocked is the possibility that anyone passing by might know Lewis or me and suspect that I have no right to be inside his house. Yet it seems that the best course of action to avoid attracting attention is to act normally. So I stoop to check out his DVDs.

My eye flicks from one case to the next, reading the titles of a tiredly predictable collection, the collection of a man who thinks he is cultured, who wishes to be perceived as somewhat adventurous in his taste, the titles of films by Almodovar and Wim Wenders (later years). Quirky Euro fare – Amélie, Delicatessen, Run Lola Run. A copy of Chan Wook-Park’s Oldboy, still shrinkwrapped, because Lewis would only have bought it after it was linked to the massacre at Virginia Tech perpetrated by creative writing student Cho Seung-Hui. As my gaze drifts across the spines, it’s not images from these films that flash across my mind, but imagined frame-grabs from the home movie I think I’m going to find here. Our mutual acquaintance, Carol, on the backseat of a luxury car in Wythenshawe Park, her face grainy in the near-darkness of the car park. If I do find it, who will she be with? Her husband or some unknown dogger? Lewis, even (in my nightmares)? I picture her with her hair down, as she was at the barbecue. I picture her with her top down. This is what I’m looking for, what Lewis – deliberately or otherwise – has allowed me to believe not only exists, but might be found here, in his house, among his collection of digitised images.

He’ll have a computer somewhere, of course, a PC rather than a Mac, a laptop probably, but my guess is he’ll have burned the footage on to a DVD so he can watch it on the plasma screen with the lights out and the curtains drawn.

Prompted by this unwelcome thought, I go over to the DVD player and press eject. The tray slides out. The Motorcycle Diaries. I check the shelves of the unit that houses the various machines and there, finally, I find what I’m looking for: an unmarked case containing an unmarked DVD-R. I am certain he would not identify the contents.

I think about slipping it into the machine to check, but I’m acutely aware of how long I’ve already been inside the house. Lewis could come back at any time. It’s one thing responding to a perceived invitation to sneak in and help myself, but quite another to be so gauche as to hang around until the householder returns. Assuming I’ve interpreted Lewis’s devious signals correctly, that is, and I’d only give myself fifty-fifty on that.

I stuff the DVD case into my jacket pocket and leave the house the same way I entered it.

Five minutes later I’m inside my own house, kneeling down in front of the DVD player, when I change my mind and eject the disc. I take it upstairs and open the MacBook, sliding the DVD-R into the slot on the side of the machine that gives it a gentle tug as I let go.


I’ll admit that I was in a state of heightened erotic tension as I sat crouched over my laptop in my study at the top of the house. And that when the images appeared, it took a few seconds for that tension to dissipate. The first shot, unmistakably the product of CCTV, the wallpaper of our lives, showed a woman walking away from the camera holding the hands of two little girls, one in a red dress, the other wearing a denim skirt. The woman was slim, mid-thirties, otherwise nondescript only because of the quality of the picture. In the next shot, you saw them walking past a horizontal windsock towards a man – balding, slight paunch, weak in the shoulder – standing by a plane. It was a small plane in a field with several other small planes. In the background as they walked towards the man, another plane, a two-seater, could be seen taking off from a grass-covered runway.

Shot three was intermittently affected by some form of interference, but it was possible to see the woman walking purposefully away from the plane, still holding the hand of one of the girls, while the other girl had turned back to the man and appeared to be listening to something he was saying. There was a break. The screen was dark for a few seconds before the final shot appeared, apparently from a different camera. It showed a plane – a four-seater, clearly the same one the man had been preparing for flight – moving down the runway. Initially it wasn’t clear to me whether it was taking off or landing, but then, as if a magic trick were being performed, it suddenly lifted from the runway and climbed into the air. In two seconds it was level with the camera, which swivelled a couple of degrees as if to follow it, but then the plane slid out of frame to the right. It had not been a great shot, the runway being distant from the camera, but it had been clear that there were four people on board, the pilot and three passengers.

I think I knew as soon as I started watching what it was I was seeing. The expectation of arousal, which had turned out to be unwanted, had confused my initial response. I had an idea what the appropriate response ought to have been, but even by the end I remained in a somewhat excited state. I closed the machine down and now I’m sitting here staring out of the window, watching the sky slowly darken. Did I pick up the wrong DVD? Is there another disc somewhere in Lewis’s house showing Carol having sex in a car at Wythenshawe Park? Or is Lewis shrewder than I gave him credit for? Is this what he wanted me to find, this glimpse into the past, and if so, why?

Nicholas Royle’s novels The Director’s Cut and Antwerp have been optioned by the Recorded Picture Company and Apollo Films respectively. A short story collection, Mortality, is published by Serpent’s Tail. This piece is an edited extract from a work in progress, Very Low-flying Aircraft.