GETTING TO THE PARTY
It was war time. The Germans may not have invaded, but the Blitz had rained hundreds of thousands of bombs on Britain’s cities, bringing destruction on a scale never before witnessed by a civilian population. There was rationing – of food, drink, petrol – of everything, it seemed. Abroad, Britain had suffered one disaster after another: Norway, Dunkirk, the loss of the Channel Islands, Crete, the debacle of Dakar. Her lifeline, the convoys from America, were suffering such losses that Hitler’s promise to slowly strangle Britain into submission looked sure to become a reality. In short, things were not going well. The future looked rather bleak.
Not that Edward Gregory worried unduly. He had survived thirteen months of almost continuous front-line action and was still alive, and, if the truth be known, enjoying it in a way.
During the Battle for France, they’d lost half the squadron’s Hurricanes in twenty-four hours. They’d been hopelessly out-numbered. Without radar, no one had the faintest idea what was going on. After twelve days of frenetic action, they had been pulled out. Edward had been just about to take off to fly back to England when yet another bevy of German bombers had roared past their decrepit airfield; he’d been lucky not to roll into a bomb crater. Certainly he hadn’t been able to see much: the huge engine cowling in front of him made forward vision impossible on the ground and what with the smoke – well, it had been pure chance that he’d managed to get airborne. Several others hadn’t been so lucky. He sometimes wondered what had happened to them. Did the Germans ever bury them, or had they burnt to nothing with the remains of their planes?
After a month, during which time the squadron had been brought back to strength, they were sent into front-line action again. Firstly based in the north of the country, and then, from late August onwards, to the South-East, to an airfield in Kent. This was the Battle of Britain, and although they were still bombed every day, at least they now had radar and could get themselves airborne before the bombers arrived.
Those had been long days: Up at dawn – which in summer was very early indeed – then up to twenty-thousand feet with eleven or so other planes, (or whatever was available), to intercept a hundred-and-fifty plus enemy bombers and fighters. Then back home, bit of a rest, up again, back, rest, up again. Sometimes they were in the air fighting the Germans as many as four times a day. In the evening, a few beers, bed, and then the whole thing started all over again.
Every morning he knew he might well never make it through the day. He didn’t dwell on the matter, but it was there, in the back of his mind. Lots of friends had gone. Colin had ended up in the Channel. Brian had never escaped his burning Hurricane. A faulty parachute had done for Tony. Bill and Roly had crashed into each other and both been killed. Only yesterday, Dougie had been seen spiralling down to the ground, shot out of the sky by one of the new German Focke-Wulfs. Perhaps he’d been picked up as a Prisoner of War, but the way his plane had trailed smoke, Edward was pretty certain Dougie had had it.
Those were just his good friends. He couldn’t even remember the names of half the others – some had been with the squadron less than an hour. Of course he missed them, and their deaths upset him dreadfully, but he’d become an expert at not dwelling on it, even if one his close friends died. He would have his nightly bath and think about them very hard, imagining them in the place he thought was most appropriate. He felt sure, for example, that Dougie would be best going to Tahiti, or one of the other South Pacific islands. As soon as an image of his friend’s burning plane came into view, or he thought of the screams in his ear-piece, he concentrated for a few moments and there was Dougie surrounded by nubile Tahitian girls, the shadows of the palms above flickering gently across his face.
It was as though they had gone off on their travels, only liked the place so much they’d not bothered coming back.
So Edward carried with him a â€˜what will be, will be’ attitude that had served him well. He’d always been like that, even as a child. And he liked flying. He loved his Spitfire. What a plane that was! He liked most of his fellow pilots, and he particularly liked Diana Mortimer, a WAAF who worked in the Fighter Control Room at the station. Really, he had a lot to be thankful for. Far better flying around the sky at three hundred miles-an-hour in one of the most beautiful machines ever built, than slogging your guts out on the ground. If he had to die, far better to do so in style. And as a fighter pilot, rationing barely affected him, especially since they had started taking the fight to the enemy. Instead of waiting for the Germans to come over when they chose, it was the turn of the RAF to decide when attacks would occur. Since the previous December, he’d had three hot meals a day. He felt a bit guilty that his family in London were going hungry, but then, as his mother had said in a letter to him, he needed his strength kept up if he was to fight to his best ability. And he’d got to meet Diana. He couldn’t help thinking she might not have let him know her quite so intimately had the circumstances been different.
It was beautiful midsummer’s day. A few wispy white clouds, but otherwise blue all over. Edward and the other pilots had moved some of the old chairs from the dispersal hut outside, and it was in one of these that he sat, his backside low in the seat, legs stretched out, his eyelids flickering gently in the brightness. A bee was busily visiting the daisies in the grass about him. In the distance an occasional clang of a spanner or wrench on metal could be heard. Otherwise, all was still and peaceful. No one spoke.
He was thinking about Diana: the creaminess of her thighs and breasts, the smoothness of her skin. The way her eyes had looked deeply into his and she had said, â€˜You know, I’m really rather crazy about you.’ He was so glad they’d done it; after all, it had worried him a bit that he might die before ever knowing what it was like – this amazing thing that was supposed to be so wonderful. And it had been. He couldn’t imagine ever tiring of waking up next to her. Perhaps they would get married. Mrs Diana Gregory. He liked that – a good ring to it. Married and living in a little cottage somewhere. With a baby boy. A boy who would be mad keen on cricket, just like him.
The telephone rang, shattering the peace of the slumbering pilots. It was rarely a scramble these days, but after the previous summer, living on a knife-edge waiting for the dreaded call, it still made him jump.
â€˜For you, Edward.’ Tom Wilson, the Intelligence Officer was standing by the open window, holding the receiver.
Edward eased himself out his armchair with a sigh, wondering who it could be.
â€˜Edward, it’s me – Diana.’
Edward looked around to check no one was listening then said in hushed tones, â€˜Diana – hallo, darling.’
â€˜Sorry to ring you on this line, but I was worried you’d forgotten about tonight.’
Tonight. Tonight? His mind raced. What was happening? Then he suddenly remembered: the party at her parents’ house near Tonbridge. He cursed to himself. How could he have been so stupid?
â€˜Course I haven’t darling. How would I ever forget that?’
â€˜Well, I didn’t think you had, only I was wondering about how we’re going to get there.’
â€˜Oh, don’t you worry, I’ve got it sorted. Tell you what: why don’t you meet me outside the Mess at six-thirty. Sound all right?’
â€˜Perfect. And Edward?’
â€˜I can’t wait to see you. Mum and Dad are so looking forward to meeting you. Bye.’
Edward put the receiver down and thought for a moment. Damn! He hadn’t a clue how they were going to get there. The car was no good as Barnie Fuller had crashed it two days before. The train would take too long, so would a bus, and it was unlikely he’d be able to find a motorbike in time. Anyway, Diana wasn’t going to thank him if she got oil all over her clothes. Bollocks! Why was he such an idiot? He gently thumped his head against the doorframe, then ambled back outside. There had to be an alternative.
At six-thirty, Edward was pacing up and down outside the Mess when Diana appeared. She had changed from her WAAF uniform into a sleek pale blue evening dress, with a small cape to keep her shoulders warm.
â€˜You look wonderful,’ said Edward, meaning it.
She smiled at him, and lightly kissed his cheek. â€˜Thank you. So do you.’ Then she looked around and seeing no obvious means of transport said, â€˜Did you manage to get a car?’
â€˜No – I’ve done better than that. Follow me.’ He took her hand and led her round the back of the mess towards one of the airfield hangars.
â€˜Edward?’ A note of alarm in her voice.
â€˜Trust me,’ said Edward, and he beamed, then even gave her a quick wink. Round to the front, away from the main buildings of the airfield, stood a lone Spitfire, its wings and perspex canopy glinting in the early evening sun. Edward stopped and bowed.
â€˜My lady, your carriage awaits.’
â€˜Edward!’ exclaimed Diana, her hands clasping her face. â€˜We can’t really be going in that!’
â€˜We can and we will. Come on, it’ll be fun.’
Slowly her face turned from an expression of shocked horror to one of capricious delight. Inwardly, Edward gave a sigh of relief. Outwardly, he hoped he was maintaining the debonair attitude he’d been trying to convey.
â€˜Edward, you are wonderful,’ said Diana, gripping his hand tightly and giving him one of her most radiant smiles.
Edward gave a signal to his groundcrew, already waiting by the plane. They waved back, and then the propeller slowly and silently began to turn until, with a puff of smoke and flame from the exhaust stubs, the engine roared into life.
â€˜Come on,’ said Edward, â€˜let’s go, although we’ve got to be quick.’ Glancing around, he led her briskly to the plane.
â€˜Thanks, you two,’ he said to Barlow and Lucas who were now standing by the wing waiting for them.
â€˜Let the lady get in first, sir, then you,’ said Barlow.
Edward nodded, them clambered onto the wing and held out a hand for Diana. Holding up her dress, she took his arm and allowed herself to be pulled up. Balancing gingerly beside him, she looked at him apprehensively, then hopped into the cockpit.
â€˜Good job you’re not some huge fat oaf,’ she laughed, as Edward
lowered himself onto her lap.
â€˜Sorry, but there’s no other way. Normally I’m sitting on a parachute, you see.’ He was a bit closer to the instrument panel than he was used to but, actually, his all-round vision was improved by sitting so far forward. Now he knew how people had managed before.
â€˜Are you all right, darling? I’ll try not to squash you completely.’
â€˜I’m fine. Anyway, I’m far too excited to mind.’
Edward signalled to Barlow and Lucas then slowly opened the throttle. The Merlin engine roared and the airframe shook, and they began rolling briskly towards the start of the runway.
â€˜Great thing about a Spit,’ shouted Edward, â€˜they don’t need much to take off. Let’s hope no one spots you.’ He released the brakes and opened the throttle further, the engine responding with a deep and guttural bellow. They surged down the grass strip. Either side, the wings began to wobble with the increased power. It felt as though they were racing over a rough, pot-holed track. Then they were airborne, and the shaking had gone, replaced by a soothing gentle vibration. In moments, the horizon had slid beneath them as the Spitfire sped skywards.
Edward had to remind himself that he was not climbing into battle, but taking Diana on a gentle jaunt. Like a thoroughbred, the Spitfire always seemed to want to fly faster and turn tighter, revelling in its own speed and manoeuvrability; but today, he must reign her in. He gently pulled the canopy shut and turned them with the gentlest of sweeps. The horizon slowly tilted as they turned back and circled wide.
â€˜Are you all right, darling?’ yelled Edward.
â€˜Couldn’t be better!’
Edward grinned. What a good idea this had been. He took them higher – although not too high: Six thousand feet should be plenty, as he wanted Diana to be able to see the countryside clearly below.
In the calm evening light, England lay spread out before them. A patchwork of green and gold. Ridges of hills clearly defined by the shadow of the sun. Snaking rivers silvery and gleaming. Dense woods. Such a shame, Edward thought, that they could only be doing this because of the War. And what a shame that his Spitfire, so beautiful, so sleek, such a joy to fly, should be designed not for pleasure, but for shooting other planes out of the sky. For killing people.
â€˜I can see our house!’ shouted Diana. They’d been airborne for about twenty minutes.
Edward brought the plane lower and circled, looking for the right field. There was a long grass paddock running alongside the house. It looked to be flat enough.
â€˜Do a fly past won’t you?’ said Diana in his ear.
â€˜If you want – hold on.’
Pushing the stick forward and opening the throttle, Edward dived towards the house, then pulled back as they whistled past. Diana screamed with delight.
â€˜Hang on tight!’ shouted Edward. As they turned and swept past again, he rolled the plane.
â€˜Oh my gosh!’ yelled Diana, then began laughing.
Moments later, they were coming in to land. The field was perfect – quite long enough, and Edward was thinking how glad he was that he’d forgotten about the party earlier and not organised a car.
â€˜Thank you, darling,’ said Diana as they came to a halt. â€˜I think that was the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done. I can’t believe I’ve just been in a Spitfire! Mum and Dad will be so impressed.’
Edward kissed her cheek. â€˜Rather fun, wasn’t it? England looks pretty good from up there, don’t you think?’
â€˜Beautiful. Thank you.’
Diana’s mother and father had some concerns about the sense and safety of two people flying in a single-seater plane with no parachute or harness, but were polite and kind to Edward all the same, and they and their friends had all enjoyed his fly-past. To make it home before it was completely dark, they had to leave just before ten o’clock, but neither Diana nor her parents seemed to mind.
â€˜That’s all right, young man,’ Diana’s father told him. â€˜Jolly good of you to come at all. After all, there is a war on.’ They shook hands, Edward thanked him and his wife profusely, then they turned to wander back to the Spitfire, standing in the field with its nose pointing imperiously towards the sky.
â€˜Do be careful though, won’t you?’ Diana’s mother called after them.
The rest of the party had come out to watch. Once they were back in the cockpit, Edward prayed the starter batteries would work, but having primed them, the propeller turned and the engine fired almost immediately. Soon they were airborne once more. Edward couldn’t resist one last sweep past the house, waggling his wings in salute. Diana giggled happily and tightened her arms around his middle.
â€˜I think I’m in love with you!’ she laughed.
What a perfect evening, thought Edward as they landed back at the airfield safely and taxied over to the hangar. He knew that even if he lived to a hundred, he would remember every part of it. He’d never been happier in his life. And Diana had told him she loved him! What a strange thing war was.
He awoke the following morning still thinking happily about Diana and their trip to the party. Outside it was raining. It was impossible to believe the previous day had been so warm, clear and sunny. To make matters worse, at breakfast the adjutant told Edward the CO wanted to see him immediately afterwards. â€˜Brace yourself,’ said the Adj.
Edward felt a knot tighten in his stomach. He must have been spotted the previous evening.
He was right. The CO was furious and gave full vent to his anger: What the hell did he think he’d been playing at? Did he have any idea how expensive those planes were? What if something had gone wrong? And to take a young girl out just because he was trying to impress her! Really, it was unforgivable. â€˜I need people like you,’ the CO yelled, â€˜experience doesn’t grow on trees you know. It takes time, not to say money. If anything had happened to you just because of some silly prank – well, I’d be bloody furious. I am bloody furious.’
Edward could say nothing. The CO was right, of course. Standing there, in front of the desk, he no longer felt so pleased with himself. In fact, he felt rather ashamed.
â€˜You should be court-martialled for this, you know,’ the CO continued.
Edward nodded meekly.
The CO sighed, rubbed his forehead vigorously, then pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Through a cloud of smoke, he reached into a drawer and pulled out a letter.
â€˜Here,’ he said, handing it to Edward. â€˜This has just come through.’
Edward took it silently, slowly tore open the envelope and read the perfunctory note. He’d been promoted from Flight Lieutenant to Squadron Leader.
â€˜Congratulations,’ said the CO.
Edward stood there, stupefied for a moment, then said, â€˜Thank you, sir.’
â€˜You’re going to need to act a bit more responsibly from now on. And by the way, you’re grounded.’ The CO rapped his fingers on the desk. â€˜If this had been peace-time, you would have been court-martialled, you know. Now leave me alone.’
By that evening the CO’s anger had cooled, although he made Edward buy drinks for everyone. The other pilots thought the escapade hilarious, and were glad for the drinks; twelve shillings a day didn’t go very far, even in the Mess.
The following morning, just after dawn, Edward led the squadron over France, escorting fifty bombers to attack German airfields. He had a headache, but couldn’t stop thinking about Diana and their flight together. Then he spotted some Focke-Wulfs, and ordering the squadron to attack, entered the fray for the last time.
Such things happened in war time.