From the way the trainees reacted, you would have thought they’d got the Dornier themselves. It didn’t help that a rain front had come in the next day and there had been intermittent showers ever since, inhibiting flying. This gave the trainees and ground crews the opportunity to cluster around his Spitfire, inspecting the bullet holes in the belly and starboard wing and – more fascinating – the bullets still inside the cockpit. Altogether they’d found seven in the cockpit itself, while another half-dozen bullets had been stopped by the armour plating behind his seat. Robin found it a fraction unsettling and thought it almost uncannily odd that he’d come away with only a scratch to his forehead, from which a fragment of glass had been promptly extracted. In short, All he had to show for his brush with death was a sticking plaster.
And then the reporters arrived. First came the local press, of course, which Kennel was used to handling; Priestman got off with a handshake and a photo next to the damaged Spitfire. But the day after, two American reporters and a photographer turned up.
The Americans had been in Liverpool covering “the convoy story” (as they called it): the courage of sailors facing an invisible enemy practically unprotected. That was the angle that fascinated the Americans, of course, because the United States had some fifty-odd de-commissioned destroyers, which the US government refused to lend, lease, sell or give to Great Britain. They argued it would be a violation of “neutrality.” It didn’t make Priestman feel particularly friendly towards Americans.
He was down at the dispersal hut, trying to catch up on some paperwork, when he heard loud American voices and Wing Commander Kennel saying, “Flight Lieutenant Priestman is just in here, and I’m sure he’ll be happy to answer a few questions.”
Priestman looked for cover. There wasn’t any.
Kennel stood in the door of the hut and asked, “Robin, would you come out and meet some gentlemen from the American press?”
“No. I will not,” Robin answered bluntly.
Kennel was taken aback – but only for a second. He was, after all, used to dealing with fighter pilots. “Yes, you will, Priestman, and that’s an order.” Kennel spoke softly to avoid being heard by the Americans, who were talking in loud voices behind him.
The Americans were asking someone if that was the Spitfire which had shot down the enemy bomber, and one of the trainees answered readily: “Indeed it is, sir. May I show you the bullet holes in the cockpit?” By the time Priestman emerged from dispersal, the Americans were already halfway to the aircraft.
Kennel remarked as they approached, “I’m quite surprised you don’t want to talk to the press, given the way you’ve been behaving.”
“What is that supposed to mean, sir?”
“Seems rather like you’re trying to attract attention, doesn’t it? First the Heinkel over Southampton and now this night intruder.”
“It wasn’t my idea to go on night ops – or fly to Southampton, for that matter.” Priestman reminded him. “Besides, it was pure luck that I got anything. If the search-lights hadn’t found it, I wouldn’t even have seen the damn thing. Once they had it in the beams, even one of that lot” – he nodded towards the trainees – “could have bagged it. Piece of cake.” Robin dismissed the episode.
He had something else on his mind. “Would you mind if I nipped over to Chester County Hospital this afternoon? I’ll be meeting the train from Bristol anyway, and if I went over early I could drop by the hospital.”
Kennel stopped his pipe halfway to his mouth and froze in his tracks, staring at the junior officer. Robin didn’t meet his eye; he pretended to watch the American journalists inspecting his Spitfire instead. He felt Kennel’s searching gaze and self-consciously tossed his hair out of his eyes. He had both fists stuffed in his trouser pockets.
“Now why would you want to go and do that?” The Senior Officer asked very seriously.
Robin shrugged. He didn’t know why he wanted to, exactly, but it had something to do with being honest with himself. With being able to look himself in the mirror. With being able to face Emily again.
Funny how often his thoughts came back to Emily. He knew he’d been a bit of a cad in the past. Too keen on having fun to take any girl seriously, and – except for the predators like Virginia – most girls wanted to be taken seriously. He’d tried not to let things go too far with anyone nice. He’d done nothing he really had to be ashamed of, but he’d caused a lot of tears. It was hard to have fun with a girl and then leave her without her getting upset about it. That had always been his dilemma in the past.
And now? Now he often found himself wondering what Emily would think or do or say. Emily wasn’t a trophy like Virginia. She would not enhance his reputation, but somehow that didn’t matter to him any more. What he cared about was whether Emily would like flying, and if she’d get on at the Mess, and if he’d have as much fun with her this time as he had before. “Don’t do it, Robin,” Kennel brought him back to the present.
“Are you forbidding it, sir?”
“No. Facing the men you shot down is between you and them – and God. No commanding officer has the right to interfere. But my advice is: don’t do it. Now, we’d better go and talk to these American chaps before they’re too filled with rubbish to see straight.”
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