A loud voice called out, “Pilot Officer Ainsworth? Is there a Pilot Officer Ainsworth present? You have a phone call, sir.”
Alan was embarrassed to be called in front of everyone – even the AVM. He excused himself, while the other pilots teased him on the assumption it was a woman – which only made things worse because, of course, it probably was Mona. He’d promised to call her this evening, and it was approaching 9.30. He slipped into the wooden telephone box the indicated. “Ainsworth,” he said into the receiver.
“Alan? I’ve been waiting all night for you to ring! I’ve been going mad! Have you talked to the CO yet?”
“Mona. I – no. I haven’t had a chance yet—”
“How could you not have had a chance? You’ve been there all day! How long does it take to ask one simple little question? Not 30 seconds, really, does it?”
“Mona, it’s not like that. Try to understand. There’s a war on—”
“Oh, don’t give me that stupid line! I know there’s a war on, for God’s sake! I wouldn’t be in this horrible ATS barracks with all these horrible, common girls working myself to a wreck, if there wasn’t a bloody war on!”
Mona never swore, so Alan knew how upset she was. Furthermore, her tone of voice was becoming increasingly hysterical. “I was right last night about you losing all respect for me, wasn’t I? You didn’t mean a word you said about marrying me! You just used me, and now you’re going to wash your hands of me! You know what you are, Alan Ainsworth? You’re a cruel, horrid bastard! That’s what you are!” She was sobbing furiously on the other end of the line.
“Mona! That’s not true! Listen to me—”
“Why should I? All you tell me is lies! Lies! Lies!”
“I haven’t lied to you. Listen to me. The train was late. And when I got here—”
“Oh, spare me your excuses! If you loved me, you wouldn’t treat me like this!”
“Of course, I love you, Mona! Listen to me. I’ll go and ask the CO right now. This minute. I’ll ring you back in an hour!”
“You know that curfew is ten pm!”
“All right! I’ll ring back before ten. I promise. I love you, Mona!”
“If you haven’t rung me back by 10 pm, I’ll know that’s a lie, too!”
“It’s not a lie. I’ll ring you back before ten! I love you, Mona!” She’d hung up. Christ! What was he going to do now? He looked back across the reception towards the open door to the bar, and his heart was in his mouth. He hadn’t seen a lot of the CO, but he wasn’t exactly the kind of chummy officer that made you want to come to him with your problems. He’d heard someone say he was Cranwell.
Alan glanced at the wall clock. It was 9.40. He had to do it. He had to go in there and try to have a word with the CO. He rubbed his sweating hands on his trousers and walked back into the bar. He scanned the crowded room for the CO, and when he saw him his heart sank. He was sitting with the AVM! Why did this have to happen now? Why hadn’t he said something earlier? When? In the dispersal in front of everyone? Or at the bar when the CO was telling him he needed more practice flying before he would let him on ops? The CO clearly thought he was useless, and now he had to ask for a favour? He couldn’t go through with this. But if he didn’t, Mona would never forgive him. She was really upset. Shouting and swearing like that wasn’t like her at all. She was regretting last night. He glanced at the wall clock; it was creeping up towards 9.45. Oh, God!
He plunged into the crowd and squeezed his way past the bar to the table where the AVM, his CO and another Squadron Leader were sitting with the Intelligence Officer, the Adjutant and a Flight Lieutenant he didn’t recognise. “Sir?” His throat was so dry that no sound came out.
Fortunately, the Adjutant saw him and glanced up. “What can we do for you, Ainsworth?” He asked the question in a friendly tone of voice, but his eyes were transmitting a warning.
“Ah— ah— may I have a word with the CO, sir?”
“This isn’t a very good time, Ainsworth,” Mickey warned him. “Air Vice Marshal Park is here.” Mickey nodded in the direction of the AVM, evidently thinking that Alan hadn’t recognised the senior officer.
“Yes, sir. But I only need to speak with the CO for a minute.”
“Can’t it wait until the morning?” Mickey’s tone had become pointed.
Alan glanced at the clock and licked his lips. “Not really, sir. Just a minute is all I need.”
“This is not the time, Ainsworth—”
Bridges had been listening to the exchange, and he nudged Robin. Robin glanced up. “Is something the matter, Ainsworth?”
“May I have a word with you, sir?”
Robin glanced at Park and Park nodded. “All right. Shall we step outside where it’s a bit quieter?” He led the way out of the bar but stopped in the anteroom expectantly.
“Sir, I realise that this is highly irregular and maybe—” Alan could hear the clock ticking; it was ten to ten. “Sir, I’d like your permission to marry at the first opportunity.” There, it was out.
Robin was thinking, I don’t need this: a pilot with 17 hours on Hurricanes and entangled in a love affair that is clearly robbing him of his concentration, if not his senses. He said: “How old are you, Ainsworth?”
“Twenty, sir. I’ll turn twenty-one in December.”
Robin almost said, “At your age, I was doing everything I could to avoid getting trapped in a marriage,” but he stopped himself in time. What did that have to do with anything? He was a different person, and he’d lived in different times. There hadn’t been a war on when he was 20, and any risk to his life had been entirely of his own making. Still, he felt constrained to at least point out, “You are not entitled to a marriage allowance, you know, until you are either 30 years old or hold the rank of Squadron Leader.”
Ainsworth nervously licked his lips and glanced at the clock. All he said was: “I understand, sir.”
For a second time Robin thought, I don’t need this. This pilot is not going to be focused on the job. But he personally resented having to ask permission to marry, and he was not going to apply a double standard. If Ainsworth was old enough to die for his country, he was jolly well old enough to decide for himself if wanted to get married. “If you think you’re ready for marriage, Ainsworth, then I’m not going to stand in your way.”
“Then I have your permission, sir?”
“Thank you, sir!” Ainsworth looked very relieved.
Robin nodded and returned to the lounge with an uneasy feeling, while Alan rushed to the telephone booth to put a call through to Mona.
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