(Setting: Pilots of an RAF Squadron deployed to France at readiness.)
The squadron commander did a double-take before he recognised Priestman. “I say! What’s happened to you?”
“What hasn’t happened, sir? – bombed, dive-bombed, strafed, played ambulance to civilian casualties and slept in the open – and I didn’t have a change of clothes or a razor with me.”
“Right. Well, your batman packed some of your kit for you.” Sharp was looking around, watching the rest of the squadron land, making dispositions in his mind. “Not much here, is there?”
“No, sir. Who’s missing?”
“Sergeant Putnam is dead; Ned is still missing. He may be a POW, but we don’t know. At least no one’s found his body yet.” This said, Sharp strode away towards the Lysander, from which the Flight Sergeant was emerging.
He sensed it more than anything. Then the sun blinked. “BREAK!”
They were all over the place. At least 20 of them. They fell out of the sun. One minute they were nothing but a winking of the light, and the next they were blotting it out entirely while their wings lit up with flashes. The smoke of tracer smudged the sky, and then Yellow Three started spewing black smoke. Wasn’t that Roger? Whoever it was, he flipped over on his back and started downwards. More Robin didn’t have a chance to see, because he yanked his own Hurricane instinctively into a tight turn and was temporarily blinded as the blood drained from his head.
Priestman unhooked his oxygen mask and shoved the hood back before he landed, gulping in the fresh air. When he set down on three points, he thought he had never in his life been so glad to have ground under him. He was aware of a pulsing headache and his eyes felt swollen in their sockets. He taxied absently to the side of the field, too tired to notice if someone was signalling him somewhere else. He cut the engine and pulled off his helmet, and ran his hand through his hair – it was wet and sticky.
He heard someone pant up beside him. “Robin?” He glanced over; it was Roger Ibbotsholm. So he hadn’t been in Yellow Three after all.
“Aye, aye.” Robin was having trouble unclipping his straps for some reason.
Roger was on the wing and bent over to help him. “Are we glad to see you! We thought you’d bought it.”
“They did rather catch us out again. Is everyone else back?”
“The CO’s gone for six. Flamed out and went straight in from 10,000. Guy had to hit the silk over Seclin. Driver swears he saw a parachute land just beside the field and so he’s almost certainly a POW. Shakespeare says Spotty didn’t make it either – crate flamed before he could get out.”
Douglas and Sellers reached Priestman. They too were panting, having run over from the far side of the field. “Are you all right, sir?”
“I’ve got a terrible headache, actually,” Robin admitted rubbing his forehead.
“There’s a ruddy great hole in the back of your seat, sir!”
“Oh, that. Yes. Good thing about the armour plating.”
“You can say that again, sir!”
Shakespeare woke him in the dark. “Time to get up, Robin.”
“What time is it?”
“Time to get up.”
“What time is that?”
“If you insist on the ugly details: 4.25 am. The lorry will be in the square in 5 minutes.”
“Isn’t that the name of a flick?”
“With David Niven, I think.”
“I don’t think it had a very good ending.”
“Not for everyone.”
The telephone was ringing in the ops tent. They turned their heads and stared at it, 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,” Shakespeare intoned as he set his mug aside.
“Shut up!” 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.
“What’s the matter?” Driver asked innocently.
Yardly was shouting at them to “get cracking,” 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.
“‘Or close the wall up with our English dead.’”
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