Robin reached Emily at the Seaman’s Mission. “We’ve just been stood down, so we thought we’d go over to The Ship in Bosham for a nice celebration. I’ll pick you up at Aunt Hattie’s in an hour. Is that all right?”
Emily was a bit flustered; it was only 4 pm. She hadn’t expected to see him until much later – eight or so, as on the other nights. “Why have you been stood down so early?”
“Look out of a window; even the birds are walking.” It was pouring rain.
“All right. Should I dress?”
“You’d be happier.”
Ah ha. “Who else will be there, Robin?”
“I don’t know exactly, but Reynolds rang one of his actress friends, and Donohue wheedled Virginia’s number out of me. She’s bound to bring some of her crowd along.”
“Sounds as though all that’s missing is the Duke of Windsor,” Emily quipped.
“I didn’t invite him,” Robin retorted. “In an hour’s time at Aunt Hattie’s?”
“Yes, I’ll do my best.”
She left everything standing – but the others understood – just barely caught the bus and hastily bathed and washed her hair. She put on the only pair of silk stockings that she owned and chose the cocktail dress with crossed bodice and bare back that she knew Robin liked best. Her hair was still damp when he rang the bell.
Robin was looking freshly bathed and shaved, too, and driving MacLeod’s old MG. He helped Emily into the passenger side, and then dashed around to the driver’s seat. Pouring rain all but overwhelmed the windscreen-wipers and the MG was so low to the ground that they seemed to submerge in some of the puddles. Robin drove the MG rather like he flew a Hurricane, aggressively and purposefully, which meant he concentrated on driving, which was just as well given the conditions.
Emily was left to her own thoughts. At first, she was uncomfortable, remembering that the car belonged to the dead Scotsman and thinking that they were going to celebrate a hundred “kills.” What sort of a monster was she turning into? For a moment, her pacifist sentiments returned with intensity. War was madness! Why on earth should normal people, who really just wanted to follow peaceful pursuits, be turned into killers? She was reminded that the man beside her had blood on his hands. Rather a lot, even by the standards of his profession.
She looked over at the darkly handsome man on her right with his cap low over his eyes and thought to herself: this can’t be real. He belongs to a different world. A world of glamour and danger. And at that instant she realised, if she was honest with herself, that she enjoyed being part of it. It was as wonderful as flying itself – this fast-paced world of spontaneous decisions and unexpected encounters. It was – being alive. Maybe humans needed the proximity of death in order truly to appreciate and enjoy being alive?
The carpark at The Ship was already full, and a variety of vehicles lined the street and crowded the churchyard. “Have you set a date for the wedding yet?” Robin asked, with a glance at the church. They had agreed at their last parting that he would request leave as soon she had set a date with the vicar.
“How does the 21st sound?”
“Too far away. Why not sooner?”
“I have to be baptised and confirmed.”
“Can’t they do that the same day as the wedding?”
Robin held the pub door for her and they went inside and through the blackout curtains, to be greeted by shouts, cheers and whistles. Emily recognised Virginia Cox-Gordon from the newspaper article. The socialite swept up smelling of expensive perfume and feeling like satin. “So you’re the reason Robin gave me the brush-off all summer. Congratulations!” She kissed Emily on both cheeks. Donohue was standing behind her looking very pleased with himself, and he winked at Robin.
They were drawn towards the bar. Champagne was poured for them. Virginia was reminding Robin of the names of the other girls leaning on the bar with Sutton, Ware, Needham and Ringwood. Many of the WAAFs were here as well, including Lettice Fields. She was looking remarkably perky considering what a wreck she had been at MacLeod’s funeral six days ago. The Station Commander had put her in for a citation for her actions during the raids two days ago. So Emily left Robin to go over and congratulate her.
She blushed. “I didn’t do anything special,” she insisted, but Rosemary Winters, her arm in a cast, contradicted her firmly. “You saved Elaine’s life – and put the erks to shame! They would have just left us there!”
Bridges arrived with a drink for ACW Jane Roberts. Emily caught the look of adoration Jane gave him and decided it was time to withdraw, glad for both of them.
Ginger, Banks and Colin chose a table in a niche, to be a little apart from the antics of the others. An elderly gentleman in tweeds and ascot recognised Colin, however, and came over to clap him on the shoulder. “Good to see you, Colin. May I buy you and your friends a drink?”
“Thank you, m’lord. That would be very kind,” Colin answered easily. “May I introduce David Goldman, from Canada, and Ginger Bowles from Devon?”
The gentleman shook hands vigorously with the two pilots. “A pleasure to meet you! A pleasure to have you here! What are you drinking?”
They both assured him beer was fine, and as he withdrew to place their orders, Banks levelled a stern look at Colin and asked for both of them. “My lord?”
“Oh. Didn’t you know? That’s the Duke of Norfolk.”
David and Ginger looked at each other. David shrugged. “What’s a Duke or two?”
“Norfolk is one of the oldest peerages in the Realm,” Ginger pointed out, awed.
“Lives just up the road at Arundel,” Colin replied. “Owns several of the cottages across from the church. One often runs into him here at The Ship.”
By the time Emily had had three glasses of champagne, she bluntly told Robin that if he didn’t find her something to eat, she was “going to embarrass him.”
“That would be interesting,” he replied, but found her the menu, and she ordered the French Onion Soup followed by salmon.
The door opened and Vivien Leigh walked in with Rex Harrison and Lawrence Olivier. That electrified the entire room. Everyone crowded around while the celebrities graciously laughed and shook hands and even signed autographs for their eager admirers. Pilot Officer Reynolds followed in their wake, with a couple of lesser starlets as well as Green and Tolkien.
Someone started playing dance music on the piano, and Kiwi was first off the mark to ask Vivien Leigh to dance. She laughed but put her drink aside to accept at once. Ringwood coaxed Lettice Fields onto the dance floor and soon there were a dozen couples on the floor. One of the starlets went over and spoke to Ginger, Banks and Colin. She was clearly trying to convince them to join in the fun. It didn’t take her long before she had Banks on the dance floor with her. Ginger was soon dancing with Corporal Winters despite her cast, and Colin with one of Virginia’s friends.
“Who’s Colin with?” Emily asked Robin.
“Titled girl; Lady Margaret, I believe. She knows Colin’s bloodlines, you can be sure. Aren’t that many eligible heirs to earldoms around these days – and Colin’s not about to go for six, either. Good bargain, if she can snag him.”
Emily took a moment to absorb that, by which point the conversation had moved on. All that was left was a slight chill at the cold calculation of it all. The dark side of moving in these circles, she reflected: they were all predators.
Rex Harrison came to the bar beside Emily and ordered a drink. Then he turned and smiled at her. “Fine lot, aren’t they?”
“Yes, but don’t you think it odd that they were the same yesterday and last month and even last year, yet no one seemed to take any notice then?”
“Ah, but, my dear, they weren’t the same last month or last year. Then they were just a bunch of spoilt youngsters letting the tax-payer foot the bill for their fun in the sky.”
Emily looked puzzled, but Robin was back and added emphatically, “Quite right, and all this adulation hadn’t gone to our wet heads yet.”
Robin took Emily onto the dance floor. “It is flattering,” she insisted.
“The stars are here for their own publicity and image,” he gestured towards a photographer eagerly snapping photos of the stars from the fringe of the crowd. “But I don’t care. They’ve bucked up the lads no end. Look at Reynolds.” He drew Emily’s attention to the failed-actor-turned-pilot dancing with Vivien Leigh. “He said himself that he couldn’t get even the third-rate actresses to return his calls a year ago, and look at him now!”
“It’s only what you deserve,” Emily insisted serenely.
Robin bent and kissed her for that. Then he dropped his mouth beside her ear and murmured, “What I deserve is for you to marry me sooner.”
“All right. Fly me up to Gretna Green in the Maggie and we can get married tonight.”
“Done.” He started to lead her off the dance floor, then stopped himself. “Didn’t I say even the birds are walking?”
They started dancing again.
Ginger took Rosemary Winters back to the table and offered to get her a drink. “I’d better not,” she told him sensibly. “Not until I’ve had a bite to eat.”
So Ginger offered to buy her a bite to eat as well. When he returned with a sandwich, he found that Lettice had joined their little round. She’d had too much to drink already, and felt she had to apologise for making such a scene at the last squadron do. Rosemary told her not to worry, and David offered to get her something to eat. Colin brought over the girl he’d been dancing with and introduced her around. She was very young and would have come out this year if there’d been such a thing as a “season” in the middle of a war. She was glowing and breathless with excitement, knowing already that this was a night she would remember for the rest of her life.
Some time later, when they were all very pickled, Kiwi started playing “Run, Rabbit, Run” on the piano, and Green obligingly climbed up on one of the tables to run – at least he took his shoes off first, Robin noted. Donohue and Virginia were inseparable by now. The celebrities had disappeared, but the lesser starlets had stayed. They clustered around the piano and encouraged Kiwi to keep playing, while they sang.
The sirens went off. The proprietor and the waiters looked rather alarmed, but Sutton told them sternly, “The bloody Luftwaffe ruins our days; they’ve got no damned right to wreck our nights as well.” The civilians retreated to the shelters, leaving the RAF to their fate.
Robin staggered to his feet and went to the door to look out. The searchlights from Portsmouth probed the night, and the dull throb of unsynchronized engines came across the opaque sky above the gentle hissing of the waves on the shore. Emily joined him, and he held her to him. “Portsmouth.”
“I hope Hattie’s all right – and your mother.”
“Mother practically sleeps in the cellar, and Hattie’s no fool. You’re the one I always worry about.”
“Meaning I am a fool?” Emily teased.
He just held her tighter, and they started kissing vigorously until the ack-ack opened up rather close at hand. Flashes of light burst against the dark sky. One of the engines overhead took on a different note. Distant detonations and more flashes of light followed as the navy guns took up the fight.
From inside came the strains of Gilbert and Sullivan: I am the very model of a modern major general…. accompanied by whistles, cheering and clapping as the pianist and singer increased the pace until they stumbled over the words and ordered another round.
“What time do you go on readiness tomorrow?”
“When we leave here.”
“You’re all smashed.”
“I know…. There’s a dance at the Sergeant’s Mess Saturday night. Did I mention it? Wouldn’t do not to show up. You’ll be there, won’t you?”
“Wasn’t it only yesterday that you said we couldn’t build a future on the assumption that you are going to die tomorrow?”
“Who’s assuming I’m going to die tomorrow?”
“No one – you’re just acting as though you thought it.”
“No; but some of us are going to die tomorrow, so we can’t stop living for a second, can we?”
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