‘Scramble! Scramble!’ The tinny command from the Tannoy echoes around the runway as he charges towards his Blenheim. As he clambers up the mobile steps and onto the roof before dropping down into his gun turret. The light of the moon momentarily catches the tail fin before retreating behind a cloud. The pilot starts up the engines, the propellers sending shards of sound whirring into the night. But all he can think about is Jack. Will he lose his leg, or worse? The injuries he’d received, after bailing out from his Spitfire, had been brutal.
But the Luftwaffe is approaching from over the Channel. He must concentrate. He must be ready to retaliate.
Robin opened his eyes and sat upright in his chair before folding up his official-looking letter and replacing it in its thick velum envelope. Mavis and her friend Enid were approaching him from the direction of the notice board.
‘I see you haven’t put your name down for our trip, Mr Ellis. I should hurry while there’s still space. September will be upon us before you know it.’ Mavis’s voice was too loud, too officious, and much too close. The whirring, pulsing sounds in his head were increasing. ‘Tinnitus,’ his doctor had diagnosed, but Robin knew better.
‘It seems I have another engagement for the 15th, ladies.’
‘Oh that is a shame, isn’t it Enid? And you the only man amongst us.’ Mavis was leaning in towards him, her myopic eyes searching his face, no doubt in the hope of ascertaining the nature of this more pressing engagement, more pressing even than the annual coach trip to Margate. ‘Your son Merlin, perhaps?’ she continued. ‘He’ll be coming to visit you at last… taking you out.’
The smell of lavender water was colonising his nostrils. He resisted the urge to sneeze before replying. ‘I’m afraid not. He’s much too busy.’
‘I don’t believe that,’ Mavis said. ‘He must be retired by now.’
‘Men such as Merlin never retire,’ was Robin’s reply. He was not expecting a visit. He and his son had nothing in common, except perhaps for their ridiculous ornithological Christian names. Except that Merlin had been named after the Spitfire engine, not the falcon.
Robin handed Mavis the envelope. He would have to tell her. Secrets didn’t lie well with the residents of his new retirement home, and particularly not with Mavis. She fumbled to put on her reading glasses from the chain around her neck before taking the proffered envelope.
‘Oh, I say! Look at this, Enid. An invitation to the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. At St Paul’s Cathedral!’ She briefly waived the invitation in Enid’s direction before scrutinising it again. ‘A Spitfire pilot, no doubt. How glamourous!’
‘Blenheims, Mavis. And a gunner, not a fighter pilot. And not for very long.’ Robin ran one hand across the black leather glove that permanently encased the other one. ‘And it certainly wasn’t glamourous. I spent the latter stages of the war in the command bunker at Uxbridge.’
‘I told you there was more to him than meets the eye, didn’t I, Enid?’
‘Did you, dear?’ Enid was bobbing and weaving around Mavis, endeavouring to get a glimpse of the illustrious missive.
‘You’re a hero, and no mistake.’ Mavis was almost on top of him now in her attempt to block Edith’s approach.
A hero? That was not an expression he would have used. Jack was the hero. Jack, his best friend at school – the joker, the raconteur, the golden boy who attracted everyone to him. Robin was the one lurking in Jack’s shadow. The goal hanger picking up the scraps left in his friend’s wake. The one with the ludicrous name. He had tried getting people to call him Rob, but nobody ever had. Jack and he had been rivals as well as friends, and Jack had always taken the prize. Jack was the one considered officer material, the one who gained his wings. And they had also been rivals in love. Jack and Diana had been married as soon as he received his call up papers. Not even out of their teens… but that’s what people did in those days… living the present and future all at once, just in case.
No, he would definitely not describe himself as a hero. He was a coward, an interloper in Jack and Diana’s life. He had caught Diana at a vulnerable time. She would never have accepted him under normal circumstances. In fact she would never have noticed his existence if he hadn’t been Jack’s best friend. He had never been able to replace Jack. She was like Robin himself in that respect – faithful to her first love, never feeling comfortable in someone else’s arms. He quite understood. There had never been anybody else for him since Diana’s death… and that was thirty years ago.
Everything about him had annoyed her – the grinding noise his teeth made while chewing, the way he neatly refolded the morning paper after breakfast, his insomnia. But he had to stay alert at night when the droning noises were at their most pronounced. If he closed his eyes for even a moment, the dark shapes of the enemy planes would start appearing from over the horizon. He would sleep fitfully after dawn, nap at lunchtime over his office desk, and in the evening he would nod off in his chair over the Light programme on the radio. He’d never been any company for either Diana or the boy. And she had always recoiled at the sight of his hand, insisting he wore a glove. It was as if she was imagining the layer of fat taken from his abdomen to act as a bed for the numerous skin grafts. He’d chosen to wear one of black leather – a sign both of mourning, and a reminder of his shame.
‘Come along, Mavis,’ Edith was saying. ‘Let’s leave him to rest. We’ll remind him of the bridge evening later.’
Robin sunk into his chair, the only comfy one in reception, and closed his eyes. He was too weary to move just yet. But he was finding it difficult to relax. The noises in his head were getting louder. Old memories that he had forced to lie dormant were rising to the surface of his consciousness and he hadn’t the strength to control them. On his release from hospital after being shot down, Jack had been offered a desk job, but of course, he’d refused it. ‘I’m fine,’ he’d said to anyone who tried to persuade him otherwise. ‘Leg all patched up with so many pins and screws, I’ll be almost part of the aircraft. I’m an experienced pilot. I’m needed. They’re bombing our cities. It’s not as if I’ll be going overseas, just defending the coastline. And I’ll be with Robin. I’m transferring to Blenheims.’
The moon is low and full, cutting a vast silver corridor on the surface of the sea. Jack and he are in lead position and, from his backward-facing gun turret, Robin can see the rest of his squadron flying in perfect formation behind them. There is a strong south wind blowing from off the Channel, partially masking the sound of their engines, but there is still that deep drone followed by the high-pitched whirring and pulsing of the propellers. Looking down, the clouds below him appear like snow-capped islands in the dark sea. Everything appears serene until he cranes his neck.
There they are straight ahead, the Luftwaffe, skimming the edge of the horizon, flying towards them in equally perfect formation, their dark forms standing out against the bright sky. Then the neatness and order becomes chaos. He’s taking aim and firing as the enemy planes bank and swoop around him. The surrounding air is popping with gunfire. Planes from both sides are falling from the skies in a trail of black smoke, nosediving into the sea in a splash of red.
Now it’s their turn. They’re spinning out of control, losing height, falling downwards, the aircraft on its back. The long pencil of sand is before him, the cliffs… The plane spins upright and clears them just in time. There’s a vast jagged hole in the blue and red roundel near the right wingtip. It reminds him of the bullseye on the dartboard in their local pub. They are approaching a corn field, so low now that every sheaf stands out.
There’s a grinding noise, a pulling back and a great rush of wind. He’s out of his turret in an instant, edging his way on his stomach to the pilot’s hatch cut into the roof. It’s still closed. What’s Jack thinking of? The whole thing could go up at any minute. He heaves it open and peers in. ‘Jack?’
‘My leg. It’s trapped. The joystick.’ He looks down to see Jack’s trousers soaked in blood. Part of the mechanism is piecing through Jack’s patched up leg. He’s inside the cabin in a flash. He’ll get him out. He’ll have to, before everything goes up in flames.
‘Leave me, Robin. Save yourself.’ Jack looks up at the open roof hatch. ‘Even if you free me, you’ll never get me through that thing. Just go. It’s an order!’
So he obeys his officer’s commands. He pulls himself through the hatch, slithers down the undamaged wing and onto the ground. He moves well clear before the explosion. He watches until the bright red flames turn to black, choking smoke. The surrounding corn is alight now, so he runs and runs until he reaches the road, escaping the dry crackle of the burning corn that follows at his heels. It is only then that he feels the searing pain in his hand.
Robin opened his eyes to find himself surrounded by his harem of elderly ladies. Enid had a solicitous hand on his shoulder. ‘Are you quite well, Mr Ellis? You appeared to be having a turn.’
‘Oh yes. Quite well, thank you.’ The continual whirring noises in his head were receding as he straightened himself in his chair. ‘I was just thinking of absent friends.’ He pulled himself to his feet and took his walking sticks, one by one, as Enid offered them to him. He was proud that he had never lost that straight backed, military stance.
He had made a decision. If Merlin was not going to contact him, he would take the initiative. It was a ridiculous situation; they hadn’t seen each other since Diana’s funeral. He would invite Merlin as his guest to the commemoration ceremony. They would take tea somewhere afterwards and perhaps a light supper before they parted. Eventually, Merlin would invite him home to stay the night. He would reintroduce him to his grandchildren and he may even get to meet his great grandchildren. Even if not related by blood, they were all still his responsibility. He owed that much to Jack.
He turned to Enid before negotiating the long corridor to his room. ‘And as to the bridge evening, my dear, I would love to make up a four. But on one condition… you must call me Rob. Everybody does.’
Author Notes: For more of my short stories, and for details of Books 1 and 2 of my trilogy The Main Man, please visit http://www.janebean.co.uk. You can also follow me on Twitter @janebean103