They walked instead across the green to the King’s Head, a nice-looking building with a steeply pitched roof over white-washed brick. Black shutters closed over windows with round glass panes. Inside, it was warm and cosy, with low ceiling beams, horse-brasses and hunting paintings. The pub was nearly empty, and Philippa led Georgina to a small booth at the back. “Hopefully, none of the locals will notice us here. Now, what are you drinking?”
“I don’t suppose a country pub like this would have wine, would it?” Georgina asked wistfully. She didn’t really like beer and didn’t drink hard liquor but had been brought up on fine wines by a father who had learned to love them while in France. Indeed, Edwin Reddings’ wine cellar had been so generously stocked with pre-war acquisitions that it was not yet exhausted.
“Normally not,” Philippa agreed, “But there’s a South African squadron at East Kirkby, and ever since they arrived the landlord has an astonishing quantity of very drinkable South African wines. I’m not sure how legal it all is, mind you, but as customers we can’t be called to account for merely drinking the stuff. Do you want red or white?”
“I prefer white.”
“Excellent. So do I. I’ll get us a bottle. My treat.” Philippa was gone before Georgina could protest.
Georgina heard cars pull up outside and male voices, but she didn’t think anything of it until the door swung open and what seemed like two dozen RAF officers poured into the pub. All wore aircrew badges on their left breast pockets. Georgina stiffened. Seeing Kit in uniform with pilot’s wings had scratched at the scab on her heart, but he was still Kit, Don’s friend. This was different. She felt as if Don might be over there, in that crowd. Shy as he was, he’d hang at the back, trying not to draw attention to himself. But if she looked hard enough, she imagined she might find him, that tentative smile of his on his lean face, waiting and hoping that she’d look over at him.
The RAF officers were in high spirits, and they swarmed around Philippa who was at the bar trying to order. Georgina watched in astonishment and amazement as Philippa light-heartedly brushed off their compliments and invitations. “I’m here with a friend,” Georgina heard her say.
They all seemed to look over toward the booth.
“Hiding her from us, are you? I thought you had a kinder heart than that Pippa!”
“She’s too nice for you Billy.”
“I can be nice,” he protested.
“Come on Pippa. Bring her over and introduce her to us.”
“When hell freezes over!”
“That should be in about,” one of them looked at his watch as if preparing to synchronise it, “fifteen minutes from now.”
“Where’s she from? Is she staying around here?”
“Oh dear. You mean we have to get past you?”
“Precisely. Now let me through.”
One of the officers held out his arm to stop her but she ducked under it, carrying two wine glasses and the bottle. Fortunately, none of them followed her over to the booth.
“I’m sorry about this,” Philippa announced immediately. “I wouldn’t have even suggested coming if I’d thought they’d be here. They were on tonight. When I left the Station, start engines was scheduled for just about now.” She looked at her watch to confirm her statement. “The met forecast must have changed for the worse, and they scrubbed the op. I am sorry, Georgina, I really didn’t think they would be here tonight. You don’t want them to join us, do you?”
Georgina shook her head vigorously. “No, not at all. I’m not ready to — well—”
Philippa put her hand on Georgina’s. “I understand. If they try anything I’ll shoo them away.”
Already more RAF had arrived, and three officers wandered over to the booth. “May we join you?”
“No,” Philippa answered looking up at the intruders with a dazzling smile.
“Why not?” They leaned over the back of the booth and Georgina instinctively moved deeper into the corner. She felt overwhelmed and intimidated. Don had avoided taking her to the RAF watering holes.
“Because we’re having a private conversation,” Philippa explained.
“Can’t it wait? Let us buy you a round.”
“We haven’t finished what we have. Be nice and leave us alone, will you?”
This crowd moved on only to be replaced by another pair. “Pippa, what’s making you so antisocial this evening?”
“I’m not antisocial, I’m just trying to have a quiet conversation with a friend.”
A bomb aimer smiled directly at Georgina and reached over his hand. “Julian Trent. Don’t you want us to join you?” Georgina felt trapped and near panic. She felt as if she was close to tears again.
“No, we don’t,” Philippa answered firmly for Georgina. Then raising her voice slightly, she called to someone standing a few feet behind Trent with his back to them and a pint in his hand. “Excuse me, sir?”
The officer who turned around was notably older than the others, and he had braid on his cap. Georgina knew enough to know that this man must be a very senior officer. “Flight Officer Wycliffe?” He asked.
“Would you please call your dogs off, sir? My friend and I really don’t want to be disturbed at the moment.”
He raised his voice enough to be heard throughout the room, “Chaps, leave the ladies alone — for once.”
They were left alone after that, but Georgina did not feel comfortable all the same.
“I’m sorry,” Philippa said again. “We’ll just finish our wine and go home. I would never have suggested coming if I’d known the op had been scrubbed.”
“Who was the senior officer?”
“That’s Group Captain Seymore, the station commander at East Kirkby.”
“How far away is the station?”
“So they are often here?”
“If they’re not flying or making a nuisance of themselves somewhere else.”
“You seem quite indifferent to them,” Georgina observed. As long as they were on the other side of the room, they looked splendid. Half the teachers at college dreamed of having RAF boyfriends.
“As I said earlier, I’ve been in since the start of the war,” Philippa answered. “I’ve broken my heart too often already. They’re a good lot to work with but when it comes to romance, give me a civilian any day.”
Shortly afterwards, they finished the bottle, and slipped out to a chorus of cheerful “Good nights!” and “Maybe another time!”
Outside, a deep fog smothered the whole village. They could hardly see across the village green. As they moved cautiously forward, Georgina felt a terrible chill run down her spine. From the pub came the dampened sound of male voices all talking at once, and in her mind’s eye she could see them still, clustered around the bar, chatting, gesturing and laughing. So much life and energy and concentrated masculinity living on borrowed time. It was almost unbearable.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish