Obviously, all the other girls in the office noticed that she was “tarted up” (as one of them ungraciously put it), and the word spread like wildfire (from the boss’s secretary to the others) that she had asked to leave early. “What’s she up to, then?”
“A big date, it seems,” the secretary said in a stage whisper.
“Wonder what she’s dragged in?”
“Oh, I heard her say she’d met him at the Salvation Army.],” the secretary confided.
The others roared with laughter. “Do you think he was a customer or the old man who beats the drum?” There were more delighted giggles.
“I just wonder why it has to be so early, don’t you? I mean: you don’t suppose he’s married or something like that?”
“Emily? With a married man?”
“Well, she might not know. She’s so naïve!” They all laughed again.
The whole delicious incident gave the office something to gossip about all day, particularly after Emily went out on her lunch break and bought lipstick.
The receptionist was quite as distracted as the others, and then suddenly the most gorgeous young man that she’d ever laid eyes on was standing in front of her. She could hardly take it all in: the dark wavy hair falling over his forehead, his large dark eyes, his left hand casually stuck in his trouser pocket, two rings on his sleeves, and the silver pilot’s wings on his tunic. “Excuse me,” he interrupted in an upper-class accent.
“Any time, love,” she gazed up at him, feasting on the mere sight of him. “Any time.”
“I’m looking for Miss Pryce. Miss Emily Pryce.”
For the second time in one day, Priestman was conscious of everyone in a large room staring at him – only this time he hadn’t the foggiest idea why.
Farther up the room, Emily got to her feet and waved to him. He smiled and waited while she packed up her things. She locked the desk, dropped the key into her handbag, and started towards him. She looked smashing. With her hair down she looked gentler and more feminine. The suit revealed a very delectable figure. Her legs were definitely a piece of nice. In short, streamlined with graceful curves, just like a Spitfire. He smiled and held the door for her.
Outside he returned his cap to his head and opened, “I thought we could go to the Queens.”
“Yes, thank you,” Emily managed. She was feeling as if she had swallowed a whole flock of butterflies. Seeing him in uniform for the first time drove home the fact that they were worlds apart, and part of her felt the whole thing was hopeless. What could an ex-pacifist and an air force officer ever find in common? Furthermore, his uniform was attracting more attention in this port city than an Admiral would have done – and that meant that everyone was assessing her as well. She had never been so aware of jealous looks from other women before. Last but not least, the Queens was a nice hotel right on Southsea Common. Despite growing up in Portsmouth, Emily had never been there because her parents considered it too “bourgeois.”
As the Queens was within walking distance on such a pleasant day, Robin need only gesture, and Emily started along the sidewalk with him. She was obviously nervous, and Robin asked, “Is something wrong? I mean, why did everyone in your office stare at me?” He was beginning to think he had oil stains in unseemly places or some such thing, and unconsciously (and rather too late) remembered to button up the top button of his tunic.
“You just surprised them.” Emily admitted, glad for anything to talk about.
“How?” Robin wanted to know.
“Well, I said I’d met you at the Salvation Army. I suppose they expected an ageing alcoholic on the dole.”
Robin threw back his head and laughed, ending it with a piercing, sidelong glance and the remark, “And you did nothing to disabuse them of their expectations?” Emily intrigued him. He had never met a girl like her before. He supposed it might be because he’d never dated a University graduate before. At all events, she was challengingly unpredictable. As was her answer now.
“It was better the way it was,” she observed simply.
Robin considered that answer, and then the girl beside him, more seriously. That was a wise answer, but it also suggested that her relationship with her co-workers was less than friendly. “Don’t they like you?”
Emily looked up sharply, then shrugged. “It’s just that we are so different. I’m the only one with a University education. Their chatter doesn’t interest me, and they think I’m a snob to prefer reading books and listening to ‘posh’ music to going dancing with sailors.”
“Why are you doing the same job as them – since you’re so much better qualified?”
“Well, I’m supposed to be a ‘management apprentice,’ actually, and supposedly I will move on to better jobs, but no one seems willing to tell me when. Meanwhile, I just do clerical work while the young male graduates go right into Sales or Claims.” There was a trace of bitterness in her voice.
“Sounds a rum deal to me. Surely with all the blokes getting called up, there are some really good jobs opening up? If not in that office, then somewhere else.” When she didn’t answer right away, he asked, “What did you read at University?”
“History. Medieval history. Not very practical, you see. My parents warned me this would happen – and never tire of telling me they told me so,” Emily added, sighing unconsciously. That was another of their perpetual fights, like her leaving the Party and working at the Salvation Army Mission.
Robin looked at the slender, dark-haired girl beside him and felt an unexpected tenderness towards her. His usual dates, the ones who slept with him, were witty, self-confident working-class girls, happy to flaunt an officer boyfriend even if everyone knew what it meant, and his “nice” girl friends were the spoilt daughters of privilege, who expected to be courted or entertained. He hadn’t been out on a so-called “serious” date since Singapore – and back then he’d made damn sure none of them had any reason to think he was “serious.” They would have ruined his career.
They had reached the Queens, and Emily led the way up the stairs and into the lobby with its stained-glass ceiling. Being such a nice day, however, Robin suggested they sit on the terrace. This was quite crowded, but the waiter found a small table for them towards the back where they had almost no view. Still, it was sunny and the breeze was lovely. Emily was relieved she had put on her best. The other ladies were all in wide-brimmed hats, many wore gloves, and Robin had to salute more than once before they got settled. They ordered cream tea with scones and jam.
Robin tried to pick up the thread of their conversation. “Do you regret studying history?”
“Not for a minute!” Emily’s face lit up with a smile, and suddenly she was so lovely it astonished him. When still, her mouth was rather too large and her nose too long, but when her face came to life it made all the pretty girls of his past look like pale, little dolls.
“I loved every minute of my studies,” she was saying with real enthusiasm, “but increasingly Cambridge seems like a fairy tale. Once upon a time…. Real life, as my parents would say, is about tedious and unappreciated work – just like the rest of the working masses.”
“Ah, your parents are Socialist.” Robin concluded from this.
“Communist.” Emily corrected. “They both teach at the Council school.” Emily did not want to talk about them, however, and she did not want to make the mistake of talking too much as she had last time. She was determined to do as her roommate had advised long ago: ask about him, get him to talk. “And your parents? What do they do?”
“My father’s dead, killed in the last war before I was even born, and my mother doesn’t do anything that I can see,” Robin replied candidly. “Aunt Hattie’s the dynamic member of the family, and you know about her already.”
Clearly, he did not want to talk about his family, either. She decided on an even more direct approach. “And you? What made you go into the air force?” Behind her question was the unspoken wish that he had been that civilian cipher wizard or translator that she had thought he might be when they met. If he’d been an intellectual in a reserved profession, things would have been so much easier!
It was Robin’s turn to smile unconsciously. “I was mad about flying! I still am. I think it’s marvellous that the British tax-payer is paying me to do what I love best.”
“But what about the fighting part?” the pacifist asked. She couldn’t help herself.
“I didn’t give it a thought when I applied. Of course, the Selection Board asked at the interview, but it didn’t seem all that real to me, and I told them what they wanted to hear: that I would be proud to die for King and Country. Dim, I suppose. I told you I wasn’t bright enough for University.”
“But you went to public school, didn’t you?” Emily pressed him. He had that finish about him, that understated self-assurance and impeccable good manners that she had only seen in her University friends.
“Not exactly Eton or Harrow. An obscure school up in Northumberland, actually. I suppose it’s time to confess that my grandfather, although himself an Admiral, actually came from a Quaker family.”
“What?” She was flabbergasted. How could a Quaker family produce an Admiral – not to mention an RAF fighter pilot?
“Well, I might point out that since the Society of Friends has no dogma, there is actually nothing inherently contradictory about a Quaker being a member of the Armed Services. Pacifism is a powerful tradition among Friends, but it is not theologically compelling.” Emily noted that he could argue very eloquently indeed, and his tone suggested schooling in debate – not at all the popular image of fighter pilots!
“But to be fair,” he continued in a more conversational tone, “according to family legend my paternal grandfather was so besotted by the woman who became my grandmother that he not only left the Society of Friends, but also took up a career in the Navy and rose to the rank of Admiral to win and retain her respect and affection. He insisted, however, that his sons and grandsons go to the school he’d gone to – which was emphatically non-denominational and the preferred school of the North Country Quakers – along with half the Jews north of the Trent, or so it seemed. There were only about 15% of us who were C of E. I have countless Quaker cousins.”
“And what are they doing these days?”
“Oh, most of them are in the Merchant Navy. Ruddy dangerous place to be these days! One drives ambulances and another works in a large mental hospital in the Midlands.”
“That’s why you didn’t mind what I said the other day.” Emily realised.
“Of course not. You’re entitled to your opinion. But I do hope you respect mine as well. My grandfather – to justify himself, of course – liked to quote the ‘Tombstone of a Pacifist.’ You know it?”
Emily shook her head.
Robin quoted: “Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight, – But Roaring Bill, who killed him, thought it right.” After a pause he added conversationally, “I decided against pacifism at a very early age. I think I was in the fourth form, to be exact. Anyway, I had made an enemy of an older boy and he felt he was entitled to teach me a lesson. He cornered me at dusk one autumn evening out beyond the playing fields, and although I tried to run he brought me down and, being a boxer, did a fair job of beating me up. In fact, I was in the infirmary for a week. All of which would have been bad enough, but as it happened my cousin Peter, who was the same age and no less fit than the bloke who beat me up, had been with me at the time. Because it was against his principles to raise a hand in anger, rather than help me he just stood there pleading with this other bloke to stop.
“The way I see it, pacifism landed me in hospital back then, and Hitler’s not much different from that bloke now. I’d much rather fight the Luftwaffe than beg it to please stop bombing innocent people.”
Emily nodded solemnly. “Very few people are so purist that they do not acknowledge the right to self-defence,” she pointed out. “And the defence of the weak and defenceless is part of “self-defence.” I do think this war is necessary and right. I didn’t mean to criticise you.”
She seemed genuinely distressed, and Robin thought maybe he’d said rather too much. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have rambled on like that. Peter, by the way, has remained true to his ideals. He’s the one at the mental hospital. Hard, gruelling, depressing work. I respect him for it – and I wouldn’t change places with him for the world.” With a grin, to lighten things up a bit, he added, “No Spitfires.”
“I can’t tell one aeroplane from another,” Emily admitted, “but it must be wonderful to fly. I wanted to – I mean, take a joy ride,” she added hastily, afraid he would be offended if she compared her humble desires with his own passion. “There was a flying circus that came to Haylings Island, near my school, and they were offering joy rides for a crown. I begged my parents to let me go. I promised to do the dishes for a week and – I don’t remember what else – all the things a child can offer. My parents were unyielding. My father said it was dangerous, and my mother that it was an outrageous waste of money. Didn’t I realise that children were starving all over Wales and the North? If I had five bob extra, then I should donate it to the miners – who were on strike at the time.”
“Jolly nice of them,” Robin observed sarcastically, taking an instant dislike to her parents. “Would you still be interested?”
“In a joy ride?”
“Oh, yes!” she said without thinking. “I tried again when I was at University, actually. A friend and I heard there were two women aviators giving joy rides from some airfield we’d never heard of. My friend had a car, and we set out to find this airfield but got rather lost. By the time we found it, it had started to rain and they closed the field to flying.”
“What are you doing next weekend?”
“Sorry?” She wasn’t following him.
“Next weekend, if you aren’t busy, you could come up to Hawarden and I’ll take you up in the Maggie – the Miles Magister. It’s a training aircraft. Two-seater.”
Emily couldn’t believe what he was saying. “Are you serious? Oh, I’d love to!” Then reality hit her. “But is that allowed?”
Robin laughed. “Certainly not – but we do it all the time. Besides, as they say, some rules are made to be broken – like giving rides to girlfriends and beating up places – that’s flying very low. I’ve done much worse. Don’t worry about it. Would you be interested?” He pressed her. None of his other girl friends had taken the slightest interest in actually flying. Not even Virginia.
“I’d be thrilled!” Emily told him forcefully. For some reason she felt as if she had never wanted anything so much in her whole life. Then reality came back to bite her again. “But where did you say you were?”
“Hawarden. It’s very near Cheshire.”
“Oh, so you’re not involved in the air battles they talk about in the news all the time?” Emily was calculating that if he was stationed as far away as that, he couldn’t be fighting over the Channel.
“No,” Robin admitted, wondering what she meant. Were only “real” fighter pilots with “front line” squadrons status symbols at the moment? Virginia had been fascinated with his kills; she’d have no interest in him now that he was with Training Command. But he had assumed Emily was different. He didn’t want to just be trophy, so he made sure she knew the whole of it. “I’ve been posted to Training Command and given a flight of fledgling pilots to train on Spitfires. Most terrifying job I’ve ever had!”
She smiled radiantly. “Oh, I’m so relieved. There was a terrible air battle just this noon over Southampton. The BBC said there were almost a hundred Germans and just 8 RAF aircraft. They claimed five bombers were shot down, but so was one of our aircraft. I was so afraid you might be up there.”
Robin couldn’t decide what to say, so he just gazed at her.
“Have I said something I shouldn’t?” she asked, confused by his look of consternation.
“Of course not.” He smiled. “It’s flattering that you should worry. You mustn’t, you know. It won’t do any good. What do you say we have dinner?” It was getting on to six and he had to catch the train back to Southampton in a couple of hours.
“I’d be delighted,” Emily agreed. She did not want this afternoon to end, and she didn’t dare believe in the flying offer.
Just as she was dismissing it, he said, “There’s a dance planned for end of the course. Nothing special, really. But we are sending the lot out to the slaughter, unready as they are, and something along the lines of a last celebration seemed the form. I gather some of the chaps are shipping in girlfriends, even sisters and parents. The CO thinks the instructors ought to give a little flying demo in the morning. So, you wouldn’t be entirely bored.”
“And we could fly? I mean, you could take me flying?” she asked hopefully.
That did it: she was more interested in the flying than the dance or the air show. Robin decided he liked this girl better than any other he had ever met. “That’s the general idea,” he answered with a smile.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish