Robin walked towards the dispersal very slowly. His feet were leaden. He felt as if he couldn’t take another step. He was weighed down with exhaustion and emotion. Bowles was bad. He hardly knew him, but he couldn’t get over his awe of a pilot who was so terrified he was physically ill before every combat – and still went in like he did today. Bowles had not lagged or hesitated or said a word. He just did his job. Robin hated to think that Bowles was dead – or badly wounded. Now he remembered someone shouting, “Red Four, you’re on fire.” Why did it have to be someone like Sergeant Bowles, who was so gentle? What was he thinking? Not even the bloody Huns deserved to be incinerated by aviation fuel!
Get hold of yourself, Robin.
He stopped where he was. Just stood in the middle of the field and let the wind blow through his hair. He concentrated on feeling the way it fretted with his silk scarf and slipped up his sleeves, making them tremble. He looked up at the sky, which was still clear except for some very high, thin cirrus.
Pull yourself together, Robin.
He couldn’t walk into the dispersal hut like this. His nerves were taut as a drawn bow. If anyone said anything to him, he’d snap their head off.
Goldman. He’d killed Goldman. His own selfish desire to have a couple of more mature and experienced pilots in the squadron had resulted in Goldman being shot down on his first combat sortie.
Robin had never been so conscious of killing someone before. All the German airmen in the planes he’d shot down just weren’t the same. He hadn’t known them personally. Besides, they were the enemy. They were bombing his country, his city, his fiancée’s home, for Christ’s sake!
Robin shifted uncomfortably. He didn’t have to close his eyes to see the way Portsmouth was burning just now. His mother was safe. The bombs had fallen predominantly near the dockyards – where Emily lived and where she and Aunt Hattie worked in the Seaman’s Mission. That was what had made him lose his temper out there.
He’d looked down and realised that the bombs were falling on Emily’s neighbourhood. For all he knew, she was dead, too. Just like Goldman. If Emily was dead, it was in part because they had failed to intercept in time. Failed to break up the bomber formation. Failed to shoot them down last time they were over. Failed to discourage this kind of bloody raid. Failed, failed, failed.
“Are you all right, sir?”
Robin jumped out of his skin. Then he looked over and saw Allars studying him very intently.
“No. No, I’m not all right. If you must know, I’m about to have a nervous breakdown. Any second now, I’m going to throw myself on the grass and start tearing it out with my teeth and throwing it at the heavens or – whatever. Something like that.”
“Oh, well, if that’s all, don’t let me stop you. Before you start, however, I thought you might want to know that Pilot Officer Goldman has called in from some girl’s school. It seems his parachute got entangled in a tree beside their hunt field. The sight of which sent quite a number of their silly, over-bred mounts bolting in all directions. The girls, it seems, are willing to forgive him, and the Head Mistress has promised to have him back here in time for dinner – but she insisted he stay at the school for tea.”
Robin stared at Allars for a minute in disbelief before he finally smiled. “And Bowles?”
“Give me another half-hour on that, will you?”
“Half an hour? I’m a generous man. Take an hour. But get him back.”
“I’ll do my best. Now, would you like to tell me about the Junkers Kiwi says you ‘nailed.’”
They were walking back to dispersal together. Both the weariness and the tension had eased. They weren’t gone, exactly, but Robin could shove them into some corner and keep functioning.
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