Bowles jumped and looked over at Pilot Officer Goldman, who was walking beside him. Goldman’s face a wreck from the run-in with the tree yesterday; half was black and blue, and his nose was swollen up like a pig’s. There was no question why the CO had let the two of them have the afternoon off. If anyone in the squadron needed it, they did.
“Do you need a lift anywhere? To get to your father, or whatever?” Goldman asked.
“Oh, my Dad’s staying way up at Midhurst, sir. Miles away. I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Please, don’t call me ‘sir,’” Goldman answered. “It makes me feel like I’m 60 years old or some stuffy banker.” What he really meant was he wanted to make friends. The auxiliary pilots had started calling him “Banks” on account of his father owning one, and he was grateful that they hadn’t chosen a less pleasant nickname such as “Judas” or “Jerry,” but he still sensed their disdain for him. If he was going to have any friends here, then it was more likely someone like Ginger who was as much an outcast as he was himself, if for different reasons. To Ginger her noted with a tentative smile, “Nothing’s that far away in this country.”
“It is more than 10 miles, s— What do you want me to call you?”
“David. 10 miles is nothing. Besides, I’ve got nothing else to do with the afternoon. Couldn’t I take you and your Dad somewhere? Chichester, for example? I hear the Cathedral is worth seeing.”
Ginger was mortified. His Dad in this rich man’s Jaguar? But how was he supposed to say “no”? “That’s what I’ve been told too, but m’ Dad – well, he’s a very simple man. I don’t think he’s very keen on that kind of thing.”
“In that case, I’ll just drop you off and continue on my way.”
“But it’s out of your way. Midhurst is due north and Chichester is west.”
“I’ve got nothing else to do.”
Ginger sensed it would be rude to protest any more, so there was nothing for it but to set off together. In front of the mess, however, they ran into the padre. He asked where they were going, and Goldman told him.
“Oh, I was just on my way to Chichester myself,” Colin answered. “I’ve got a list of things to pick up.” He indicated a folded piece of paper, which he took out and then stuffed back into his breast pocket. “Would you mind if I tagged along with you?”
“Of course not,” David agreed at once, glad of the company. “In fact, if you don’t mind, you can drive my Jag. I strip the gears too much.”
“May I?” Colin asked eagerly. A silver Jaguar was much more exciting than the hand-me-down old Bentley from his father.
With Colin driving and David beside him, they set off. Ginger was glad to be in the back. He didn’t have to say anything that way, except what was necessary to direct them to the farmhouse bed-and-breakfast.
When they arrived, Ginger climbed out and hastily thanked David and Colin, anxious to get inside before his father came out and the others saw him. Just as he straightened to wave the others off, his father came out of the house. He must have been sitting at the window watching – hoping – that Ginger would show up. He was dressed like the day before, in his Sunday best, and holding his hat in his hands.
Ginger cringed. Yesterday, he had been too overwhelmed by his father’s unexpected presence to be ashamed, but now he saw all his flaws: the suit shrunk so that the sleeves revealed the frayed cuffs of his shirt and the trousers exposed his thick socks; the dirty fingernails; his terrible tie – and all that displayed for the rich banker’s son and a future peer of the realm. It was horrible.
Worse. The officers were getting out of the car, coming over to offer their hands to his Dad. And his Dad – grinning like an idiot – was offering them his stained, stubby workman’s hands. Ginger wanted to scream at him: That’s the future Earl of Exmouth, Dad! You should knuckle your forehead, not shake hands. But already his Dad had worked out that Colin was the padre who had organised the telephone call on the night of Ginger’s arrival. Rather than letting his hand go, he grasped it in both of his filthy paws and pumped it up and down vigorously as he thanked him earnestly.
When Colin finally managed to extricate his (nearly crushed) hand and introduce David, Mr. Bowles wanted to know right off what had happened to David’s face. When he learned that David had bailed out, he started chattering about how Ginger had bailed out yesterday, too.
“They know that, Dad. Now, let them get on their way,” Ginger intervened in a peeved voice.
“Oh, where are you off to, then?” Mr. Bowles senior asked.
“Chichester, sir,” David answered readily. “Do you want to join us?”
“Chichester? Oh, yes! The vicar said I shouldn’t miss the Cathedral. Are you going to the cathedral?”
“Yes, of course,” David answered, with an amused smile to Ginger, as he opened the passenger door for the older man.
“Dad—” Ginger tried to stop him, but Mr. Bowles was already settling himself in the front seat of the Jaguar, looking pleased as punch.
“I always wanted to ride in a posh motorcar,” he told David happily, his eyes taking in all the shine and the dials, his hands stroking the leather seats.
Ginger looked helplessly at Colin, who shrugged and got back in behind the steering wheel, while David climbed into the back seat. For a moment Ginger stood outside, trying to think of some way to make his father get out again, but he couldn’t. He climbed into the car, feeling more embarrassed than ever.
First Ginger’s Dad wanted Colin to tell him what all the dials and knobs and “gadgets” were for. Then he enthused about what a pleasure it was to meet some of Ginger’s friends. Ginger had been such a solitary boy, he told the others. “Lived too far from everyone, you see,” his father explained. Finally, Mr. Bowles launched into his favourite subject: Ginger himself. He raved about how clever Ginger was and good with mechanical things. Good with animals too, but he “came by that naturally,” his father insisted solemnly. “His gift with machines – that’s something special.” Next, he was telling Colin about how good Ginger had been at school – “like no one in the family ever before,” and how he got a “scholarship.”
All Colin could do was nod and make polite noises – he couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Now and then Mr. Bowles would twist around to be sure David heard what he was saying, and David would nod and make the odd, encouraging comment as well, while Ginger tried to make himself smaller and smaller.
He wished his father had never come. He felt he couldn’t bear it a minute longer, but it went on and on and on. It only stopped when they got to Chichester and Colin conducted a tour of the Cathedral. Here at last Mr. Bowles was awed into silence by the great Gothic cathedral and the presence of God. Abruptly, in the Lady Chapel, he dropped on his knees, folded his hands and prayed so earnestly that it made even the padre a little uncomfortable.
The three young men in uniform stood about awkwardly, waiting for the old farmer to finish. Finally, Mr. Bowles got up, dusted imaginary dirt off his knees with his hat, and announced in a loud whisper, “Just praying for you, Ginger. That you always get out safe. And I put in a word for you too, young man,” he added to David solemnly.
“Thank you, sir,” David said in surprise, unexpectedly moved.
Ginger wanted to disappear through the flagstone flooring, David being a Jew and all.
They had tea together, Ginger’s father asking David about Canada – all the stupid, ignorant questions that Ginger had been careful not to ask. And, of course, he slurped his tea noisily and soaked up the spilt liquid with his scone. Ginger thought he was going to die there and then.
After that, Colin had to do his shopping, and Ginger’s Dad insisted on carrying everything. “Frail boy like you can’t manage that!” he kept saying. “Give it here, boy!” The future Earl of Exmouth: “boy”! Ginger almost corrected him, but every time he opened his mouth to protest, Colin intervened graciously, thanking Mr. Bowles and saying what a big help he was.
At last the afternoon was over, and they returned to the Jaguar and drove back to Midhurst. Mr. Bowles sat in front again, humming tunelessly to himself, very happy. Colin asked him about where he’d come from, and his wife.
“Now that was the finest girl you ever laid eyes on,” Mr. Bowles declared simply, with a smile that lit up his leathered face. “It took me almost a six-month to work up the courage just to ask her to walk out with me. I was that sure she’d say ‘no.’” He shook his head at the memory, smiling faintly, and then he turned and looked over the seat at Ginger. “You take after her, Ginger. All your good qualities, you get from her.”
Ginger knew that wasn’t true, but at that moment he was so furious with his Dad for this whole, embarrassing afternoon, that he said nothing.
At last they reached the farmhouse. They all got out of the car, and Mr. Bowles asked generally and eagerly, “You want to stay to dinner, boys? I’m sure—”
“NO!” Ginger couldn’t take it a moment longer. “We have to get back to the Station. I was much too late last night! I was a wreck all day. We have to get an early night.”
For the first time this day, his father looked deflated. For a moment a look of bewildered hurt came into his eyes – as if he had only just noticed that Ginger had hardly said a word all afternoon. “But—”
“I’ll try to ring tomorrow – but I won’t be able to get time off,” Ginger told him bluntly. Then, relenting a little, he gave his father a quick hug before climbing hurriedly into the back of the car again.
David and Colin exchanged a look, shook hands with Mr. Bowles, and then got back into the car. They waved good-bye, and Mr. Bowles stood at the end of the drive, waving as long as he could see the car. At the very last minute, Ginger remembered he might never see his Dad again, and turned sharply to wave back. But it was too late. The car had gone around a bend and a hedgerow got in the way. Sadly, Mr. Bowles wandered back up the drive to the house.
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