Love and betrayal in Battle of Britain echoes into the present day in this short story

Sitting Duck

Creative Writing, Short Stories

Love and betrayal in Battle of Britain echoes into the present day.

In 1988 LWT produced a TV series, Piece of Cake, depicting a fictional RAF squadron in the early part of World War II and the Battle of Britain. The series was criticised for depicting some of ‘The Few’ as snobbish bullies and ungentlemanly rogues as does this story. The Few may not all have been perfect gentlemen, they were human, but they were heroes.

Run, come on. Bloody heavy flying boots thudding on the grass.

Step up, onto the wing, into the office. Johnson pulling the straps tight.

Fuel cock levers – ON. Throttle open half an inch. Mixture – RICH. Airscrew speed control – CHECK. Radiator shutter – OPEN Pump, pump, primer. Ignition – ON. Firing – hope that bloody fool Corporal Mathews has got his head out of the way of the prop.

Come – on – start.

The engine is spluttering into life; great clouds of smoke puffing out of the exhausts. The smell of petrol. Good lads, the ground crew erks have been doing regular runs to keep her warm, ready for a scramble.

Chocks away – come on get out of the way Mathews. Follow the boss – cannot see. Zigzag to get a better view.

Runway coming up – remember T.M.P. Trim set. Mixture rich. Pitch OK. Fuel – Flaps – Radiator. Throttle forward – keep her straight right foot forward on the rudder, thigh shaking.

Come on you beauty let’s fly. Tail coming up, at last I can see where I’m going. 80, 90 miles per hour, floating off – yes – we’re flying.

Change hands, left off throttle onto stick, right onto undercarriage lever. Bloody things stiff. Wheels up – two greens. 140 miles per hour stick back, starting to climb. Throttle back a little, tuck in behind the boss. Hands slippery with sweat in flying gloves.

‘Hello control Gipsy squadron airborne Angels 1 heading one four zero.’

The boss’s voice is in my head. We are a thousand feet up, a thousand feet from safety. I am sitting in a Spitfire climbing away from the warm, green, English, earth towards people who will try and kill me.

‘Come on control, Gipsy squadron airborne. Where are we bloody going?’

‘Hello Gipsy squadron, sorry bandits at angels one five bearing one eight five.’

‘Gipsy squadron this is Gipsy leader – turning to one eight five – GO.’

Stay in place, keep on the boss’s tail. Jiggle the throttle – keep the nose up. Still climbing up to angels 10; ten thousand feet above the earth, my mind wanders, nearly two miles up. I’ve done this so many times this summer.

It’s still beautiful, blue sky above arcs around into a summer sun, below a green and pleasant land fading into the grey of London in front and to the left. Somewhere in the distance to my right is the blue-green North Sea. It really is a wonderful day to kill someone.

‘Gipsy leader this is Blue 2. Bandits at 12 o’clock. Tally Ho.’

Straight in front, somewhere through the whirling disk of the propeller, there are foreign aircraft, invaders, nasty little buggers with swastikas on them, intent on despoiling our land, repeating what no one has done since William the Conqueror. I see them little dots moving resolutely west.

The boss was quite clear when I joined the squadron; I have two tasks; one – stay alive – gain experience – become stealthy – wise – live to become better at my second task which is – kill them before they kill me. Well, I have managed to live. For nearly six weeks this summer jerry has thrown everything at us, I’ve flown nearly every day and yes, I have become stealthy and wise – and very good at killing them.

Isobel pushed down hard on the rail that divided her from the featureless grey sea that rose and fell with a gentle rhythm against the solid legs of the pier. Snowflakes drifted down in a shower of soft feathers, as if a hundred pillows had burst above her head, and disappeared as they touched her face leaving it glistening with a varnish of water and tears.

The freezing wind blowing off the North Sea seemed to try and push her back onto the safety of the deck as she stretched onto tiptoe. The fall would not hurt, she thought, then the cold North Sea would simply draw the warmth of life from her.

She looked down at the sea as it swelled up, dark and grey like liquid mud. Was he down there? Had he spent forty years in the depths of the dark sea whilst she reared a son with a man she had pretended to love, that she had only married because he did not remind her of him?

The love of her child might have replaced the love she had felt for him but that to had been snatched away to lay in a grave in the dank and gloomy churchyard and now his father lay beside him.

It was cold, so cold, unlike the summer of 1940 when she met Tony. He looked so smart in his blue RAF uniform; not brash and outgoing like some of the others. She was almost surprised when he said he was a fighter pilot.

She remembered watching the contrails of twisting and turning aircraft against the blue summer sky and thinking that at the end of each there was a man fighting for his life. She watched as some of the white trails became the dark smudges arcing across the sky like the strokes of a celestial pen and she knew that they were the last marks of men who were lost. She tried to stop herself wondering if one of the smudges was Tony.

They had made love for the first time, she for the very first time, in the bedroom of the creaky little Norfolk inn. There had been no suggestion of marriage, first he had to survive and then, maybe, when the war was over, she knew that was what he was thinking.

She looked up at the sky again; was he already spinning to his death at the end of one of those dark streaks? As they got closer to earth you could see the flames that were consuming the aircraft and the men within.

‘OK chaps, Gipsy squadron battle formation.’ The boss is cool as a cucumber. ‘Pick a target, get in close and watch out for snappers.’

I know that every pilot in the squadron is doing what I am: craning his neck around to look behind him for German fighters.

I look back in front of me and pick out a fat, lumbering Heinkel bomber on the right of the formation and flick on the gun sight. The boss is still slightly ahead, above and to my left. He seems to be aiming at the bomber next to mine.

The bomber grows in my gunsight; we are two medieval knights charging at each other, lances drawn.

I press the tit. There is a sound like ripping material and the Spitfire seems to stagger under the recoil of eight machine guns. The glasshouse canopy of the Heinkel disintegrates. Yes – that should have killed the pilot and probably the rest of the crew huddled together in the nose – they’re not going anywhere.

The bomber rears up – fills my windscreen. Christ, I’m going to hit. Push forward hard on the stick. The enemy’s oil-streaked belly almost seems to scrape the top of the cockpit. I flinch – close my eyes – wait for the crash.

Nothing happens. I open my eyes and the windscreen is full of England; the altimeter is unwinding at an alarming rate. Come on Tony, pull back on the stick, wind in some trim and hope that the wings don’t come off. I pull out of the dive.

I scan the sky and fly in a gentle circle; there’s no one else in sight. I point the nose North, time for home and beer. Pity I won’t be able to get my hands on the nice little popsie who is madly in love with me, but it was nice slipping in and out of her the other night – very inexperienced but when she got going – oh yes, very nice. Think I’ll keep her for a while, then maybe give her the burning Spit speech, that ought to do it.

Mind you there is that nice little WAAF in supplies. She looks like she really knows how to give a man a good time. I suppose it is the one good thing about this war. Half of the women are scared that jerry is going to blow them to bits, so they’d like to get one in before he does, so to speak, and the other half are convinced you’re going to cop it and feel it’s their duty.

Isobel watched Tony pull up outside her digs in the baby Austin and get out of the car. She had not seen him for three weeks and he still looked handsome almost heroic in his RAF blue uniform. She noticed admiring glances from a couple of girls chatting on the doorstep opposite and felt a surge of love as she grabbed her small suitcase and clattered down the stairs in her heels.

She stopped on the doorstep, Tony was waving at the girls opposite and when he swung round toward her his face seemed to light up into a wide smile, but he looked so much older than his 23 years. She ran forward and, as she kissed him, she noticed his eyes rimmed by dark circles of exhaustion, had lost their sparkle.

They drove to the coast, to the inn that they had visited before on the edge little town that seemed so far away from the war until they rounded a corner a saw a bombed-out building.

‘Don’t worry darling, we’ll be quite safe here,’ Tony grinned.

They booked into the inn; the owner did not seem to pay any attention to them. Isobel thought that they had probably got used to odd couples turning up since the war had started. People grabbing a little bit of solace where they could.

The sun was starting to sink, and the evening had the first touch of an autumn chill as she remembered Mr Churchill’s speech from a few weeks ago, ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few’. She wondered just what Tony had seen and done up there in the blue skies that summer.

They walked along the seafront past the barbed wire and ugly metal constructions that littered the beach in case of invasion until they came to the pier. In its centre, a large section of boards had been removed and its entrance was guarded by more barbed wire.

‘What a shame,’ Isobel said. ‘I would love to have walked to the end of the pier. This bloody war seems to spoil everything.’

‘We’ll make it to the end one day,’ Tony said quietly. ‘And it’s not going to spoil my 48 hours.’

Isobel smiled and they wandered back to the inn.

They pulled up outside Isobel’s digs and Tony cut the car’s engine.

‘We can’t keep doing this,’ Tony’s voice was calm matter of fact.

‘Doing what?’ Isobel asked.

‘This – seeing each other.’

‘Why?’ Isobel felt the tears in her eyes.

‘Because people are trying to kill me – and sooner or later they will succeed – or I’ll be burnt or maimed or worse.’

‘But I will still love you.’

‘No, you won’t – Not when I’ve been trapped in a burning Spit and half my face has been melted off.’ He turned away from her. ‘You have to find someone else – someone who is not in the front line of this bloody war – some nice little filling clerk who is tucked away in a bomb proof office somewhere. Just forget me.’

He leaned over and pushed the car door open.

Isobel stood on the pavement clutching her suitcase and watching the little car disappear down the road.

I’m tootling along over the coast with one of the new boys as my wingman when I spot movement way below us. What’s that? Ah ha, a nice Messerschmitt 110 steaming out over the Channel with a couple of Jerries thinking they’ll go home for tea and bed a couple of nice French girls.

‘Red 2 Tally Ho, two bandits two o’clock low. Follow me down.’

I push the stick forward, those bastards might have twin engines, twin tails and a nasty sting of cannon and machine guns in the nose but I’m coming in from behind and their only defence is one bloke with a machine gun.

I twist my neck around and look behind me – nothing. Oh, where’s he bloody gone? Silly bugger’s missing out on a nice fat kill. I close in. A quick glance in the mirror – don’t want someone doing to me what I am about to do to them.

The gunner starts firing wildly. Tracer rounds are arcing beneath me. Black smoke blossoms from the exhausts – he’s going flat out – no match for a Spit. Sight on the rear cockpit and I give him a squirt. The tracer stops. Let’s get in a little closer.

The pilot’s head is twisting, trying to see where I am. Kick the rudder – get the sight on the sweet spot just between the port engine and the fuselage; just where the fuel tanks are. Press the tit. The guns are roaring – nothing – I can’t have missed.

We seem to be hanging, motionless in the air. There is an almighty flash, and the Messerschmitt disintegrates. I can’t avoid it. Great chunks of engines – wings, flying past me. It’s as black as night. I smell burning and oil. I have entered hell. Pieces of plane are clattering off my canopy in the darkness. The sunlight is blinding. I am through – I’m alive – resurrected.

The Spitfire is flying straight and level, the Merlin engine humming away contentedly. I can feel the sweat cooling on my back. Below me, the North Sea looks cool and calm. I unclip the oxygen mask and breath out and relax. Again, I have killed a hun and he hasn’t killed me.

There are little holes appearing in my wing. How strange; there are something like fireworks streaking past me. Quite beautiful. Christ someone is shooting at me. The Spit is rolling over of its own accord. I can’t stop it. Got to get out. This is wrong, the sky is above me and when I look up all I can see is the blue North Sea coming up to grab me. Bugger.

Isobel didn’t remember falling but the impact seemed to have forced the air out of her and now she was floating in the ice-cold water. She had no sensation of her body dying, it was as if her mind and physical self had separated. She was tired of dealing with death, tired of the people she loved dying. She knew that he had never really loved her; she had accepted that years ago, what she resented was that she had been cheated of finding that out.

Death seemed to follow her, plucking the people she loved when they were barely open flowers. She had never loved her husband the way she had loved Tony, but she had been happy, content, and then had to watch as death ate away at him bite by bite until, just before his sixtieth birthday it devoured him. Now she was fighting back, she was confronting death, choosing when to die, not waiting for it to pick her off at its whim.

She began to dream that something rough, something solid was brushing against her face. Her body felt heavy again; cold seemed to slice into her. Somewhere in her dream she could hear people shouting. Distant voices in the wind. The voices seemed to be louder, dragging her back into the reality she so wanted to escape and then warm hands were turning her over.

She kept her eyes closed but her mouth opened; no seawater flowed in just cold air and she made a tiny sound that in her head was a wail. The sea had spat her out like a bad oyster and death, the monster that had followed her around all her life, had rejected her.

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