Years ago when I was at school in the sixth form my English teacher sent a group of us into an old peoples’ home and told us to record the patients’ reflections on their lives.
The nurses assigned me to an old woman.
I didn’t take the exercise seriously at first. Most of the class were finished in less than an hour. A couple of us stayed all afternoon. I don’t remember the dates and places my woman spoke about but I can remember the shocks … one after the other. Perhaps the greatest was her complete openness about so many aspects of her life and relationships. I’ve forgotten a lot but can pass on the emotional reality. Here’s a snapshot.
‘Sierra Seven Four, runway frozen. Permission to pancake denied. Orders, tell your crew to bale out then bale out yourself.’
‘The crew baled out over Hell Fire corner. I can’t. My legs are gone.’
“Pancake” meant “Request emergency landing”.
So … end of someone’s story…
No one sleeps much now. Some of the flyers do if they can drink enough beer in the evening to get them to sleep. The beer is so weak we leave it for them. They still pay full price for it. It’s shocking really.
Tiff is a pilot. It’s first thing in the morning and he flew three sorties yesterday and the day before and the day before that. He looks like he needs a week of sleep.
‘Morning, Marge.’ Tiff lurches through the prefab canteen. He straightens or picks up anything he barges into.
‘Tiffy, there is one egg. It’s a bit small. You want me to fry it or boil it?’
‘Save it for someone else. I had an egg yesterday.’ He slumps over a mess table. He hasn’t had a haircut for weeks. Nor has he washed it – or the rest of his body. It’s best not to get too close to aircrew these days.
I’m on voluntary duty here from 06:00 until 08:00 every morning. Then it’s off to Fighter Command and that’s me until I drop. Another hour’s sleep would be so lovely. I’d be brighter, faster.
Tiff sleeps as his tea scums with cold. He dribbles on the table. The NAAFI staff arrive at eight. That’s no use for these men. I come in early to give them a hand and make them a breakfast they might otherwise miss.
Chuck turns up with a couple of boys who may not even be old enough to shave yet. Everyone has blue bags under their eyes. Only we women know how to counter things like that. Sugar, fat and flour … and tea.
“Piper” arrives next. Always perkier than the others. He tries harder; he’s stretched thinner if that’s possible.
I’m not bitter. It’s just the way it is for women. When the first Tiger Moth came to Tangmere I begged for a flight. As a woman I had to go up with a male instructor. He gasped. I know I’m good. I may be better than any person I’ve met but women don’t fly in the forces really: certainly don’t fight.
We just fry bread and the last egg on the airfield, for men who won’t even notice they’re eating.
I clean up. The NAAFI staff will complain if I’ve left a mess.
All too soon I’m at my seat in Fighter Command, headphones on. There are seven desks but only two operators today.
Nothing happens for two hours. Some straggling signals picked up by the towers at Dover and Ventnor. Germans bombers on the way home and ours returning, both glad to be still alive.
Sector 12 gets two scrambles. Some sort of Navy and Army training thing going wrong. No one asked for air cover.
A build-up of bombers over Holland comes to nothing. German pilots testing their equipment probably.
Then it’s me passing instructions to patrols and interceptions. ‘Green flight, angels twenty, Calais. Possible Heinkels, thirty or more, bearing three-forty.’
Outside our tacky cardboard hut, massive engines roar and shudder. The walls around me shake. Soon exhaust fumes will stain our air blue.
The men in their fighting machines. Eight .303 machine guns per Hurricane, all ready to destroy. One hungover, sleep-deprived and frightened man per plane.
A blur of time later. Tiffy’s voice, ‘Tangmere one. Green Flight. We’re at angels twenty, Folkstone. No contact. All clear, over.’
I scan the scrawled note in front of me. ‘Green Leader, climb to angels twenty-three. Maintain position. Ignore low-level attack from Ju-87’s; 18 squadron has them.’
So much danger… At least my husband is safe. Not much of a husband but I saw him playing with his nieces once. Maybe he will be good with children. Men are hard to find after Dunkirk; you take what you can get.
You beg. I beg. I’m not pretty. It’s all happening again. Only twenty years ago there were no men except the ghosts of the hundreds and thousands whose blood splashed the fields of Flanders for so many years. So many never made it to man or husband let alone father.
I feel like a prostitute, taking the first man that came along.
Now I feel like … I don’t know; it’s awful. I begged him to get a protected job, stay out of the firing line. He did. He argued and fought against me. I don’t like the way I won. I think he loves me but maybe he’s just a coward.
My mind wanders in the quiet moments like this. I jerk alert as the radio blares, ‘Ventnor, bombers angels three, heading for Woolston spitfire works.’
I relay orders, ‘Ignore that, Green Flight, maintain patrol.’
I’m hearing the usual stuff. Light another cigarette. Tea’s on the way.
Tiffy’s voice from up in the sky, ‘109s break, break!’
I’m not allowed to say anything when this happens, just take notes for the report.
A shout and then silence. Someone swears. Howling engines, gunfire, shouted warnings.
‘Oh God… The canopy … I can’t open it. Going down. On fire…’
The screaming… I don’t cope well. Even when I can hear only one man burning. I’m always the same, face in hands, tears gluing hair to my fingers. The staff officers look away when my legs kick and my heels clatter on the wooden floor. Maybe they could get someone stronger but trained staff are in short supply.
I compose myself sooner than usual but the silences came faster today.
The next message comes after an age of silence, ‘Tiffy here.’ A rasping, voice, more like a loud whisper. ‛Wounded. Attempting to land. Don’t think undercarriage has locked…’
I press the new button we’ve been given. It doesn’t work. I shout, ‘Lieutenant Kirby, Hurricane attempting landing without undercarriage.’
His button works. Bells ring, engines fire up; boots thunder over the concrete outside.
But they don’t swamp the rising howl of a plane. Planes don’t howl when landing; that sounds like a spiral dive. Kirby is looking out of a window, turning, running, hiding under a desk.
Tiffy has stopped talking. I’m not sure if I can hear his screams or it’s the shriek of the engine outside.
The transmission stops as the world explodes.
They finish pulling us out of the wreckage of our hut and the hangar wall that fell over it by about 17:00.
Tiffy … no one made it. Every day the papers are full of how many German fighters and bombers were destroyed…
I’m bruised and bloody but most of the cuts have stopped bleeding. My hair is full of asbestos.
I’m not as bad as I was a couple of days ago when we were bombed. I can walk as far as home. Maybe George will open up his shop for me to buy any meat he has, if any, with my remaining ration tokens.
There’s mud on my doorstep. Mud in the patterns that military boots make.
I push the front door open, my pathetic bag of groceries hardly slowing me as I stumble inside. From the cleanliness of the hall I assume there’s been no coal delivery today. I can’t remember the last one. Sometime after the last frost. Nasty brown coal all smoke and no heat. I had to light it again and again.
Bert’s in the kitchen but not sitting and waiting for his dinner. He’s dressed in khaki.
He looks so short. He always looked like a monkey at the best of times but the uniform makes him look like some freak from a circus.
He says, ‘Hello love.’
‘They’re waiting for me at the church. I have to go.’ He shuffles and looks down.
‘Look, I’m sorry… I signed up anyway … secret thing. Those days I said were extra work… We’ve been training.’
I drop my groceries and handbag. My palms thud into his meager shoulders. ‘What? Don’t you give me “Hush-hush”. ’
He staggers back under the weight of his equipment and thuds against the wall. I can be a bit too strong when I lose my temper.
I hiss, ‘Where are you going?’
‘Can’t say. We have an underground bunker, food for six weeks, some ammunition…’
‘I don’t know where it is. We’re to cover a crossroads and a bridge. I shouldn’t even say that much.’
Maybe my blank expression makes him talk more.
He says, ‘We’ve to stop any Germans moving. The captain reckons the invasion is three days away … the next moonless night.’
Oh God, what little I’ve achieved in the way of a husband is being snatched away and given a few rounds of ammunition and a grenade to stop tanks like all the rest of the Home Guard. He pushes past me and opens the front door.
‘Love you, Marge. I really love you.’
I’m empty. The house is empty. The country is empty.
The Germans will walk straight in.
© Gary Bonn: 2012