Kit stood and pushed his way to the bar.
Forrester was already there, and he caught Kit’s eye. “A word with you, mate.” The Australian pulled Kit over to one side. “Just want to warn you about that bloke,” he gestured with his head to a rather ugly sergeant with thick glasses who was now hovering around Kit’s table. “He’s going to try to talk you into signing him on as your wireless operator. The Canadians told me all about him. He’s practically blind, cheated on his eye exam to get in, and he’s completely wet. Spends all his time in his hut reading. A loser, I tell you.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Kit answered, and placed his order while Forrester shouldered his way out of the crowd around the bar carrying five pints in his big hands. Clearly his crew was already complete.
Sure enough, as Kit waited for his order to be filled, the short-sighted wireless operator approached him. He swallowed visibly before asking nervously, “May I have a word with you, Flying Officer Moran, sir?”
Kit nodded, noting that the sergeant was skinny though not short. His face was crooked, with a mouth full of too many teeth jumbled together and a long nose that bent in the middle, presumably from a break that had not been properly set. Everything about him screamed poverty, the nose hinting at scraps and brawls. Yet the dark framed glasses gave him an aura of vulnerability. Intuitively, Kit knew this was not the kid who picked fights; he was the kid the others ganged up on.
The sergeant drew a deep breath, “Your crew said you were still short a wireless operator, sir.”
“That’s correct. Are you interested in the job?”
“Yes sir. If you give me a chance you won’t regret it, sir. It’s true I can’t see particularly well, but I don’t need to for my job.” It all spilled out at once as if he’d been practicing the phrases in his mind. “It’s because I’m half-blind that I’ve trained my ears, sir, and I’m very good with Morse, sir. Twenty-eight words a minute, thirty on a good day.” He stopped, apparently expecting this fact to impress.
It did. After all, Moran had never managed better than eight or nine words a minute. Forrester’s warning rang in his ears though. Completely wet, the Australian had said. Nor was this sergeant the type of bloke Adrian and Stu would warm to. Still, Kit was reluctant to brush him off. “What’s your name, Sergeant?”
“Tibble, sir. Terence Tibble. Been called ‘Terry’ as long as I can remember.”
There was still no sign of the pints he’d ordered, so Kit asked Terry to tell him about his background.
He echoed Nigel with, “Not much to tell, sir.” Then elaborated, “Never had a dad. Mum died when I was ten. My mum’s sister looked after us for a while, but then couldn’t cope and sent us to an orphanage. I got work as a delivery boy at fourteen, and at sixteen took a job in a paper mill.”
“When did you join up?”
“Soon as I turned seventeen, sir.”
“When was that?”
“Thirteen months ago.”
Another boy, Kit registered mentally, with a sense of growing panic. If he took him on, he’d been responsible for him, too. Then again, he needed a wireless operator, and they were nearly all so young, he reminded himself. He made himself focus on Tibble. “I hear you read a lot.”
The youth looked embarrassed. “I don’t like going to the pub all the time. Can’t afford the high life. Reading’s not so expensive because I read library books. Been sort of educating myself, sir, though not systematic.”
Damn it! Kit thought. Terry reminded him of all the orphans his mother had ‘adopted’ over the years — the abandoned children left to fend for themselves with one kind of handicap or another, but a hunger to learn. Kit liked a man who liked books, and if he didn’t take Terry into his crew, he might wind up with a worse pilot and an even poorer chance at survival. His problem was that he questioned whether Terry would he get on with the others. Adrian and Stu were too posh, while Nigel was too cheeky.
“Please give me a chance, sir.” Terry begged.
Kit couldn’t turn down such a direct plea. He decided to make this call regardless of the others’ opinions. His first command decision. Just then the barman shoved four brimming pints in Kit’s direction and demanded two bob in payment.
“Here. And I’ll need a fifth pint please.” Kit slid the coins over the bar and turned back to Terry with a faint smile. “Done. You’re on my crew.”
Terry’s grin of relief was almost painful and he started thanking him effusively.
Kit waved him silent. “Come meet the others!” As the barman shoved the last pint in his direction, he reached for them but realized he was never going to get all five glasses to table unspilt. Without a word, Terry hastened to take two of them and they grinned at one another.
As expected, Kit saw surprise and wariness in Adrian and Stu’s eyes as he introduced Terry, although they were both polite. Nigel, on the other hand, seemed positively relieved to have Terry join them, and he grinned as they shook hands.
Kit turned away to hunt for another chair, and Forrester came up behind him. “You didn’t really take that loser, did you?”
Kit looked over his shoulder. “Loser? What makes him a loser? I have no reason to assume Sergeant Tibble won’t make a first-rate wireless operator.”
Forrester shook his head pityingly, “You’re out of your mind, mate.”
“Actually, I have a clinical diagnosis of ‘not insane.’”
“I’m not following you.”
“Never mind. We’ve both got a crew. Let’s see how they work out.”
As the words hung in the air, Kit felt a great burden settle on him. It was a heavy, almost smothering weight. He’d always known he’d have responsibility for “a crew,” but up to now, that had been only an abstract concept. Now they were names and faces. If he failed them, it would be manslaughter.
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