As they reached 5,000 feet, Moran levelled off. All was silent and dark. Again, they appeared to be completely alone in the sky as they crossed liberated France. The Channel beckoned, and beyond Moreton-in-Marsh, and the Green Man, where the crews of Course 73 not selected for this sortie were probably already ordering their first rounds in the end-of-course celebration.
Moran clicked on his intercom. “Well done, everyone!” He was a little taken aback by the cheers that answered him. Part of him wanted to warn them this had been a milk run, and real operations were going to feel different, but why spoil the mood?
“Isn’t it time for that coffee?” Peal asked.
“Coming!” Babcock answered and a moment later he emerged from the nose with four thermoses clutched in his arms. He passed one to Moran and continued down the fuselage to hand one each to Peal, Tibble and Osgood. Moran unclipped his oxygen mask and let it hang down beside his face as he took a sip of the warm, sweet liquid. It might be weak and watered down with milk, but it was still real coffee.
“I haven’t tasted coffee this good since before the war!” Peal announced, clearly enjoying his first taste of operational privileges.
“I’ve never had real coffee before,” Tibble answered.
They landed at Moreton-in-Marsh at 20:38 without incident. The ground crew welcomed them cheerfully with words of congratulation, and a crew bus awaited them. After returning their parachutes and Mae West lifejackets, they crossed to the ops building and climbed to the de-briefing room on the first floor. They exchanged brief greetings on the stairs with Forrester’s crew as the latter hurried out, already done with their debrief and anxious to join the party at the Green Man.
At the top of the stairs an airman ticked their names on a list as they reported in, and another handed a mug of tea laced heavily with rum to each of them. Intelligence officers waited at tables spread around the room to debrief the crews.
It was only when Kit tasted the rum-laden tea that memories flooded over him. Suddenly he was back with his old crew at the end of a long sortie over Germany. An instant later, like a kick in the gut, he realized that most of them were dead — the aggressive Canadian gunner Bob, the ever competent and mature navigator ‘Sailor,’ and the introverted wireless op Les, while Reggie was a cripple. Only the cheeky half-Yemeni bomb aimer Hamad with his nearly incomprehensible Geordie accent was still flying. Yet what hurt most, of course, was the reminder that Don wasn’t with him, that Don would never be with him again.
For a second that seemed impossible, unreal. Then, with disbelief, Kit realized it was nearly a year since Don had been killed. With shame he registered that in all that time he had not once visited his grave. He had been posted LMF at the time of the funeral and after that Don’s father had told him he was unwelcome. Yet the anniversary of their last flight together would fall next week, during seven days’ leave. Instantly, Kit knew he had to alter the plans he’d made to stop himself from thinking about Georgina. He had to pay his respects at Don’s grave on the anniversary instead. He owed it to him. No matter how hard it was to get there —
“Flying Officer Moran?” It was the WAAF intelligence officer at the wooden table where the rest of his new crew already sat. She was looking at him puzzled.
Kit recovered himself and joined them.
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