Authors: H.E. Bates
The plane would still not manoeuvre and he still could not increase the speed, but at that last moment he induced her to climb. She climbed very slowly to six or seven hundred feet and as he made height he saw ahead of him a patch of dirty cloud. He went into it, and when finally he came out of it, ten minutes later, the fighters were no longer to be seen.
He came home all the way, in half darkness and then in total darkness, through heavy rain, at what is sometimes jovially described as nought feet. He had only three engines and his speed was never more than a hundred and thirty. He could not see the flare-path well, and he landed too fast, lucky to land at all. It was a brave, exciting, shaky do.
“Did you prang the tanker?” Intelligence asked.
“She was smoking.”
“But did you hit it?”
“We wouldn't claim it,” E.G. said. “We're not sure.”
“Jeez,” Mac said, “we gave 'em hell. I don't claim no more than that. That's all I know.”
Intelligence, who is very charming, smiled.
“Are you bloody crazy,” he said, “or don't you care?”
E.G., who is also charming, but who claims no hit he does not see, who never drinks because he remembers his
crew, who flies faster than anyone else and makes his own rules and has no medals, smiled back in answer.
“A little of both,” he said.
They gave him no medals for that. But perhaps he is the sort of man who needs no medals.
The sun rises twice for him.
The day was to be great in the history of the station; it was just my luck that I didn't come back from leave until late afternoon. All day the sunlight had been a soft orange colour and the sky a clear wintry blue, without mist or cloud. There was no one in the mess anteroom except a few of the night staff dozing before the fire, and no one I could talk to except the little W.A.A.F. who sits by the telephone.
So I asked her about the show. “Do you know how many have gone?” I asked.
“Ten, sir,” she said.
“Any back yet?”
“Seven were back a little while ago,” she said. “They should all be back very soon.”
“When did they go? This morning?”
“Yes, sir. About ten o'clock.” She was not young; but her face was pleasant and eager and, as at the moment, could become alight. “They looked marvellous as they
went, sir,” she said. “You should have seen them, sir. Shining in the sun.”
“Who isn't back? You don't know?”
But she did know.
“K for Kitty and L for London aren't back,” she said. “But I don't know the other.”
“It must be Brest again?” I said.
“Yes, sir,” she answered. “I think it's Brest.”
I didn't say anything, and she said: “They are putting you in Room 20 this time, sir.”
“Thank you. I'll go up,” I said.
As I went upstairs and as I bathed and changed I made calculations. It was half past three in the afternoon, and the winter sun was already growing crimson above the blue edges of flat ploughed land beyond the station buildings. I reckoned up how far it was to Brest. If you allowed half an hour over the target and a little trouble getting away, even the stragglers should be back by four. It seemed, too, as if fog might come down very suddenly; the sun was too red and the rim of the earth too blue. I realised that if they were not back soon they wouldn't be back at all. They always looked very beautiful in the sun, as the little W.A.A.F. said, but they looked still more beautiful on the ground. I didn't know who the pilot of L for London was; but I knew, and was remembering, that K for Kitty was my friend.
By the time I went downstairs again, the lights were burning in the anteroom but the curtains were not drawn
and the evening, sunless now, was a vivid electric blue beyond the windows. The little W.A.A.F. still sat by the telephone and as I went past she looked up and said:
“L for London is back, sir.”
I went into the anteroom. The fire was bright and the first crews, back from interrogation, were warming their hands. Their faces looked raw and cold. They still wore sweaters and flying-boots, and their eyes were glassy.
“Hello,” they said. “You're back. Good leave?” They spoke as if it was I, not they, who had been three hundred miles away.
“Hello, Max,” I said. “Hello, Ed. Hello, J.B.”
I had been away for five days. For a minute I felt remote; I couldn't touch them.
I was glad when someone else came in.
“Hello. Good trip?”
“Quite a picnic.”
“Good. See anything?”
“Good show, good show. Prang them?”
“Think so. Fires burning when we got there.”
I looked at their faces. They were tired and hollow. In their eyes neither relief nor exhilaration had begun to filter through the glassiness of long strain. They talked laconically, reluctantly, as if their lips were frozen.
“The whole bloody crew was yelling fighters. Came up from everywhere.”
“Plenty. Had five M.E.'s on my tail. Then suddenly wham! Three Spits came up from nowhere. Never saw anything like those M.E.'s going home to tea.”
“Good show. Good show.”
The evening was darkening rapidly and the mess steward came in to draw the curtains. I remembered K for Kitty and suddenly I went out of the anteroom and stood for a moment in the blue damp twilight, listening and looking at the sky. The first few evening stars were shining and I could feel that later the night would be frosty. But there was no sound of a plane.
I went back into the anteroom at last and for a moment, in the bright and now crowded room, I could not believe my eyes. Rubbing his cold hands together, his eyes remote and chilled, his sweater hanging loose below his battle dress, the pilot of K for Kitty was standing by the fireplace. There was a cross of flesh-pink plastic bandage on his forehead and I knew that something had happened.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” he said. “You're back.”
For a minute I didn't say anything else. I wanted to shake his hand and tell him I was glad he was back. I knew that if he had been in a train wreck or a car crash I should have shaken his hand and told him I was glad. Now somebody had shot him up and all I said was:
“When did you get in?”
“About an hour ago.”
“Wrapped her up.”
“Well,” I said. “Just like that?”
“Just like that,” he said.
I looked at his eyes. They were bleared and wet and excited. He had made a crash landing; he was safe; he was almost the best pilot in the outfit.
“Anyone see me come in?” he said.
“Saw you from Control,” someone said.
“How did it look?”
“Perfect until the bloody air-screw fell off.”
Everyone laughed â as if air-screws falling off were a great joke. Nobody said anything about anybody being lucky to be back, but only:
“Have an argument?”
“Flak blew bloody great bit out of the wing. The inter-comm. went and then both turrets.”
“Ten at a time.”
“One certain. Just dissolved. One probable.”
“Good show. What about the ships?”
“I think we pranged them.”
“Good show,” we said. “Good show.”
We went on talking for a little longer about the trip: beautiful weather, sea very blue, landscape very green in the sun. And then he came back to the old subject.
“How did I land? What did it look like?”
“I couldn't get the tail down. Both tires were punctured.”
“Perfect all the same.”
He looked quite happy. It was his point of pride, the good landing; all he cared about now. With turrets gone, fuselage like a colander, wings holed, and one air-screw fallen off, he had nevertheless brought her down. And though we all knew it must have been hell, no one said a word.
Presently his second dicky came into the anteroom. He was very young, about nineteen, with a smooth aristocratic face and smooth aristocratic hair. He looked too young to be a part of a war and he was very excited.
“Went through my sleeve.”
He held up a cannon shell. Then he held up his arm. There was a neat tear in the sleeve of his battle dress. He was very proud.
“And look at this.”
Across the knuckles of his right hand there was a thread line of dried blood, neat, fine, barely visible. He wetted his other forefinger and rubbed across it, as if to be sure it wouldn't wash away.
“Came in on the starboard side and out the other.”
“Good show,” said somebody quite automatically. “Good show.”
“Anybody hurt?” I asked.
“Very bad. I bandaged him and gave him a shot coming home.”
As he went on talking I looked down at his knees. There were dark patches on them where blood had soaked through his flying-suit. But all that anyone said was:
“Think you pranged them?”
“Oh, sure enough! They've had it this time.”
“Good show,” we said. “Good show.”
Now and then, as we talked, the little W.A.A.F. would come in from the telephone to tell someone he was wanted. With her quiet voice she would break for a moment the rhythm of excitement that was now rising through outbursts of laughter to exhilaration. She would hear for a second or two a snatch of the now boisterous but still laconic jargon of flight, “Think we may have pranged in, old boy. Good show. Piece of cake. No trouble at all,” but there would be no sign on her calm and rather ordinary face that it conveyed anything to her at all. Nor did the crews, excited by the afternoon, the warmth, and the relief of return, take any notice of her. She was an automaton, negative, outside of them, coming and going and doing her duty.
Outside of them, too, I listened and gathered together and finally pieced together the picture of the raid; and then soon afterwards the first real pictures of operations were brought in for the Wing Commander to see, and for a moment there was a flare of excitement. We could see bomb-bursts across the battleships and the quays
and then smoke over the area of town and docks. “You think we pranged them, sir?” we said.
“Pranged them? Like hell we did.”
“Good show. Bloody good show.”
“Slap across the Gluckstein.”
“No doubt this time?”
“Good show,” we said. “Good show.”
At last, when the photographs had been taken away again, I went out of the anteroom into the hall. As I walked across it, the little W.A.A.F., sitting by the telephone, looked up at me.
“A wonderful show, sir,” she said.
I paused and looked at her in astonishment. I wondered for a moment how she could possibly know. There had been no time for her to hear the stories of the crews; she had not seen the photographs; she did not know that K for Kitty had been wrapped up and that it must have been hell to land on two dud tires and with a broken airscrew; she did not know that the ships had been hit or that over Brest, on that bright calm afternoon, it had been partly magnificent and partly hell.
“How did you know?” I said.
She smiled a little and lifted her face and looked through the glass door of the anteroom.
“You can tell by their faces, sir,” she said.
I turned and looked too. In the morning we should read about it in the papers; we should hear the flat bulletins; we should see the pictures. But now we were looking
at something that could be read nowhere except in their eyes and expressed in no language but their own.
“Pretty good show,” I said.
“Yes, sir,” she said. “No trouble at all.”
He is a little fellow with an oval head that is quite bald except for a few feathery wisps of grey hair. He has a small tobacco-gold moustache and sharp blue eyes and a way of bowing slightly when he speaks to you, as if he were nothing but the receptionist of a hotel, or a cashier at a bank, or a travelling salesman in toys.
It is not until you look at his hands that you realise that they are not the hands of a man who assigns rooms to guests or counts money or winds up the keys of little engines. They are very short and thick and powerful hands and the fingertips protrude unusually far beyond the small tight nails. Then after you have looked at his hands, which are so small yet so muscular and aggressive, you look back at his face, and you see then that the little stiff moustache and the sharp blue eyes and even the bald grey head are aggressive too, and that even the short and charming bow has another meaning. After talking to him for a little while you realise what this meaning is. He is a traveller in a Stirling, and his toys are guns.
We sit talking for a long time before he tells me this. It is winter and at the moment there are no operations. Still grey mists hang far over the flat land, and pools of yellow mud cover the track along which the bombers are lined up. It has been raining for a long time and there is no wind to drive the mist away.
Suddenly, for no reason, he talks of America.
“You have been there?” I say.
“For a long time,” he says. “I was born here, but mostly I have lived there.”
“In Texas mostly.”
“Which is why they call you Tex?”
“Which is why they call me Tex,” he says, with a smile.
“And how,” I say, “do you feel about America?”
“America or Americans?”
“Which Americans?” he says.
We both laugh. I look out of the window and watch for a moment the rain dripping down through the mist on the huge iron-coloured wings of the Stirlings, and when I look back at him again, I see that he has stopped laughing and is serious again.