Georgina hurried up the stairs to the attic. As the housekeeper had warned, the door was locked from the inside. Georgina knocked. “Philippa? It’s me, Georgina. Please open the door.”
Silence answered. She called louder and knocked more forcefully. “Philippa?”
Still no response. Georgina went back downstairs and reported to the housekeeper, asking “Where is Mrs Radford?”
“Oh, she’s dealing with a case of colic at Highbourne. Could be gone all night she said.”
“I’m…I’m afraid that Philippa might be sick or have hurt herself.” Georgina’s imagination had gone into overdrive, remembering tales of unwed mothers aborting their babies or killing themselves from shame.
“I’ll call the carpenter.” Mrs Kennedy responded with new vigour as she too acknowledged this was a crisis. “You keep trying to wake her,” she ordered.
Half an hour later, the carpenter clomped up the stairs and hammered with his fist on the wood beside the handle to test it. To the surprise of all, this provoked an outraged curse from the other side of the door.
“Philippa? Are you all right?” Georgina called relieved yet concerned.
A groan answered her, followed by a thud and the sound of retching. “Oh God,” Philippa’s voice moaned.
“Let us in so we can help you, Philippa!” Georgina urged.
Shuffling approached the door from the inside and the carpenter, with a tip of his hat, withdrew discreetly. A moment later the key turned in the lock and the door was yanked open. Philippa stood swaying in front of them with her dressing gown gaping open and the smell of vomit wafting from it. “Oh, God!” she gasped. “I’m going to be sick again!” She turned away, cupping her hands in front of her face and vomited into them.
“Get her down to the bath. I’ll clean things up.” Mrs Kennedy directed.
Georgina put her arm around Philippa’s waist to guide her down the stairs to the bathroom on the floor below. As she turned Philippa, she noticed two empty gin bottles on the floor. Well, that explained her state, Georgina registered. It also made her a little nervous — she’d never dealt with anyone suffering from such an excess of alcohol before.
In the bathroom Philippa barely managed to wash her hands before she collapsed beside the lavatory. She threw up into it, and then leaned back against the wall with a groan as Georgina pulled the chain. Georgina decided she had to get Philippa cleaned up since the smell was making her feel sick too. She helped Philippa remove her dressing gown and underwear. These she put into the tub and ran water over them to rinse away the worst of the mess and smell. Meanwhile Philippa tried to wipe herself clean with a flannel then dry herself off with a towel. In the process she stopped more than once, apparently dizzy. “My head!” she exclaimed. “It feels like it’s been whacked by a propeller blade!” A moment later she groaned again, then remarked, “Now I know what they mean when they talk about hangovers.”
Mrs Kennedy went by with the bucket and mop, “All cleaned up,” she announced into the bathroom cheerfully.
“Could you put the kettle on?” Georgina called after her. Then she ran upstairs to fetch her own dressing gown. The latter was a little too small for Philippa’s fuller figure, but better than nothing on a chilly night like this. With Philippa covered, Georgina persuaded her to come down to the kitchen for tea and toast to settle her stomach.
Philippa did not resist. She seemed content to surrender to Georgina’s care. The edginess had transformed into something much heavier. Philippa seemed weary and aged, as if she were sixty-five rather than twenty-five.
In the kitchen the kettle’s whistle softened to a whimper as Georgina and Mrs Kennedy settled Philippa by the stove with a cup of tea in front of her. Mrs Kennedy then excused herself. It was nearly eight o’clock and she had to get home. Georgina, although grateful for her help, was also glad to see her go. She now had a good excuse to ask Philippa what was wrong, and Philippa was more likely to open up if it was just the two of them.
Georgina put slices of bread in the toaster and margarine and jam on the table. Since she’d had no dinner, she helped herself hoping her example would encourage Philippa. It did. Philippa took a piece of bare toast and started nibbling on one corner of it.
“Sir Howard has been very worried about you,” Georgina opened the conversation cautiously.
“Oh, really?” Philippa asked back listlessly.
“He rang me at Kirkby Grange today, hoping I could tell him what was wrong. He seemed very upset.”
“Oh, I’m sure. It must have disturbed his social calendar, not having me at his beck and call,” Philippa agreed indifferently. It would have been more in character if she’d spat this out as a snide quip, but she didn’t. The words simply formed a weary statement of fact. It was as if Philippa wanted to snap but didn’t have the energy.
Georgina reached across the table and laid her hand on Philippa’s. “What is it, Philippa? Have you broken up with Sir Howard?”
“Broken up? With Sir Howard? Why should I do that? He’s such a gentleman, such a perfect gentleman…” Her tone rang flat, mocking almost, and then she added, with a vehemence that made Georgina flinch, “Not like that beastly Yves!”
Georgina was taken aback. Had the RAF officer done something really vile to earn Philippa’s outrage? Had he pushed things too far? “Has Wing Commander Gorel done something?” Georgina asked, picturing a cruel letter, hurtful gossip or a public scene.
“Done something?” Philippa asked back in a tone of mock astonishment. “Yes, I suppose you could say that. Wing Commander Yves Gorel, the invincible, immortal “Steeplechase,” DSO, DFC and bar did indeed do something — he attacked an Me109 with a Lancaster. A Lancaster against an Me109! Brilliant, what? I suppose you might say that’s doing something.”
“I don’t understand,” Georgina stammered, confused as much by Philippa’s tone as by her words. Philippa sounded bitter and angry about something that Georgina would have categorised simply as an act of foolhardiness.
“Several crews reported that two Me109s attacked one of the squadron aircraft. One set the port outer engine on fire and then continued diving, but the second was still pumping lead into the wounded Lancaster, having already killed the rear gunner. Yves wheeled around and took his Lancaster in under this persistent Me109, and his mid-upper gunner managed to shoot it down. Terrifically valiant, of course — except that it made him a sitting duck for the second Me109. In the end both Lancasters went down. That was nine days ago. Some parachutes were seen, so it wasn’t until last night, when I was on duty, that I learnt Yves wasn’t one of the survivors. He was found burnt to a cinder in his cockpit.”
The anger was gone. Philippa closed her eyes and leaned her head against the back of the chair, tears streaming down her face.
“Oh Philippa!” Georgina jumped up and went around the table to put her arms around the WAAF Officer. Those horrible days after Don’s death came flooding back to her. Her sympathy was not feigned as she murmured, “I’m so sorry!”
Philippa answered by breaking down completely and sobbing miserably in Georgina’s arms. “I thought — I thought,” she gasped out between sobs, “I thought, if I just didn’t let myself get involved with him — if I had someone else — if I called him names — I thought — it wouldn’t hurt so much!” She broke down again, and all Georgina could do was hold her, feeling her pain so sharply she was close to tears herself.
After a few minutes, Philippa pulled away and wiped at her face with a tea towel. “I was such a stupid fool. Such an idiot!” She shook her head again and again, wiping her nose with the tea towel in between shakes of her head. “All I did was make it worse. I haven’t just lost him, Georgina. For the rest of my life, I’ll also feel guilty for being so beastly to him in his last months, when I could have been making him happy instead.”
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