The phone was ringing incessantly, and Emily groggily looked at her clock. Good heavens! It was already 8 am. She threw back the covers, grabbed her dressing gown and ran down the stairs to the phone, wondering where Aunt Hattie was. Had she already left for the Mission? She normally didn’t leave for another half hour.
“Fitzsimmons residence,” she said into the receiver, but only the buzzing of the lines answered. Too late.
Who could it have been at this time? A chill went through her. Tangmere. Eight am. He would have been on readiness since 5.30. He could have flown at least one sortie by now. He could be dead by now.
With relief she heard Hattie’s voice from the kitchen garden, apparently talking to a neighbour outside. Emily went into the kitchen and was about to join Hattie in the garden when the phone started ringing again. She rushed back into the dining room to answer it. “Hello!”
“Well, Emily, have you seen the papers yet?” It was her mother’s bitter, gloating voice.
“What papers? Why?”
“Your young man is making love to another woman all over them!”
The kitchen door slammed shut and Hattie called, “Emily? Emily? Oh, there – sorry!” She stopped just inside the door to the dining room as she realised Emily was on the phone.
“What are you talking about, Mum?” Emily snapped, her back up already. She was convinced that her mother was making something up.
“Just go and buy any local newspaper you like,” her mother retorted, “and don’t come crying to me. Your father and I tried to warn you. All I can say is, thank God this happened before the wedding. You will have to call it off now. I suggest you return home at once. It is quite ridiculous living with his aunt after the engagement is over.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, you threw me out, and frankly it was for the best. I have no intention of returning no matter what Robin has done. Furthermore, I can’t think of anything he might have done that would be reason to break off my engagement.” She looked to Hattie for support, but all she saw was distress on the older woman’s face.
“Read the papers!” her mother sneered and hung up.
“My mother—” Emily started, but Hattie just spread the local paper out on the table – open at the page with the picture of Robin and Virginia.
“I think I’d better go to Tangmere with the mobile canteen today. I don’t want you exposed to any commentary from the erks.”
“I say, Skipper, you might at least have introduced her to the rest of us, you know,” Donohue complained.
“Indeed,” Sutton agreed. “After all, most of the rest of us aren’t engaged to be married – even if we aren’t virgins, if you see what I mean.”
“Very streamlined crumpet, I must say,” Ware commented, studying the picture with appreciation. “Better than I remember her as a Deb.”
“That was just the dresses they were wearing that year,” Sutton reminded him. “Too much fluff and duff frills.”
“Is it true she’s worth close to a million quid?” Needham wanted to know.
“A night?” Kiwi gasped.
Donohue threw his paperback at the New Zealander. “Her inheritance, you dolt!”
“What does she cost a night?” Eton asked in Robin’s direction.
“Leave him alone!” Ginger ordered angrily, scowling furiously.
They looked over at the Sergeant Pilot in astonishment, and then shrugged and resumed the conversation among themselves, Donohue answering the question with: “Her brother will get the million-or-so, but she’s got a nice sum settled on her, I should think.”
“Somewhere near a hundred grand,” Sutton confirmed knowledgeably, glancing over towards his Commanding Officer with new respect.
The telephone rang in the dispersal, and everyone tensed. The orderly clerk emerged. “Sir,” he addressed Robin respectfully, “it’s the AOC.”
Robin dropped his head in his hands, then shoved them through his hair and dragged himself out of the deck chair onto his feet. As he disappeared into the dispersal, all the others watched him go.
“They wouldn’t really cashier him for something like this, would they?”
“Rather depends on what they think of him generally, I suppose. Stuffy strikes me as the type to take a very dim view of scandal. I’d say he’s going to get a packet.”
“On the other hand, experienced Squadron Leaders don’t grow on trees.”
Robin swallowed before picking up the receiver, which had been laid beside the phone on the orderly’s desk. In a tone of complete resignation, he reported, “Priestman.”
“Park. Would you like to give me your version of what happened?”
“I was told there were some reporters in my office who wanted to interview me, and that the Station Commander had already approved the interview. As I came through the door, Virginia threw herself at me and the photographer started snapping shots. I disengaged as soon as I could and got behind the desk. I did not drink a drop of the champagne, and I pushed off rather abruptly when the klaxon went.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Park remarked, “You called her Virginia just now. Do you know her well?”
“We went out a few times before the war, when I was flying in air shows, and once or twice this past winter.”
“I see. And what does your fiancée have to say about the whole thing?”
“I – haven’t – talked – to – her – yet.” Robin admitted feeling ill.
“Well, I hope for your sake – and the sake of your squadron – that she’s as sensible and doesn’t make too much of this. Boret reported that you were sitting behind your desk and very correct for the part of the interview he witnessed. He praised your answers, and I quite agree that the Times article – without photo – is really quite good. I particularly liked what you said about Hurricanes, and you fielded the question about claims deftly. Your Adjutant, incidentally, gave the same version of events as you, but I have to tell you that the C-in-C is not amused. He feels it lends credence to those who portray all fighter pilots as frivolous and irresponsible. He also remarked that it wasn’t the first time you’ve been impulsive and undisciplined.”
Robin ruffled his hair with his free hand, but there was nothing he could say to that. He sighed. Park continued. “I think it will all blow over very quickly. There are more important things on our plates at the moment, to say the least. Nevertheless, I would appreciate it, if you would try to keep a low profile for a bit; would you?”
“I didn’t ask for the interview, sir.”
“I understand. Boret said you were clearly annoyed by it all. He was afraid you might be too blunt about just how difficult things are at the moment.” There was a pause, and then Park added in a notably more friendly tone, “The PM was rather pleased, actually.”
“The Prime Minister saw it?!” Robin couldn’t grasp his misfortune. It had only appeared in the local Portsmouth papers, after all.
“He has a large staff that sifts through the papers, looking for anything that might be of interest to him. He rang me up about 30 minutes ago and growled at me that things couldn’t be as bad as I was making them out to be if my front-line squadron leaders had time for champagne and socialites.” Park paused and then added with obvious amusement, “He was tickled pink.”
Robin could hear Park’s amusement, but it didn’t make him feel much better. Churchill might be amused, but Dowding and Emily held his future in their hands – and he was afraid that Emily was going to react more like “Stuffy” Dowding than the amiable Churchill. He had to find time to see her tonight. In fact, he ought to get her some roses or some jewellery – at any rate, a peace offering.
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