It was raining buckets by the time the train finally pulled into the station at Chester, and Emily felt like a limp hanky. She had foolishly worn her best suit so she’d look nice for Robin, but after almost six hours in trains – much of it standing – her blouse and skirt were crushed and rumpled, and her lipstick was gone, too. (How did other women always manage to look so neat and fresh?)
The station was only dimly lit on account of the blackout, of course, and, never having been here before, she felt forlorn as she followed the crowds through the unfamiliar tunnel towards the exit. What if no one was here to collect her? And what if he was?
Her parents had filled her with apprehension. In fact, they had thrown a fit when she announced she was going to spend the weekend with an RAF officer whom she hardly knew. Her mother had wanted to know where she was to stay, and when she admitted she didn’t know, there had been a terrible row. Her mother accused her of being a hussy. Although her father defended her, saying she was just naïve, he had warned her against going. “You are being used, Emily. Can’t you see that? An honest man wouldn’t even suggest that you spend a weekend with him when he knows you so little! Why can’t he come to Portsmouth if he wants to see you?”
“Because he’s training pilots all day,” Emily told him, afraid to mention the fact that she also intended to fly with him.
“Then he won’t have time to see you whether you’re in Wales or not!” her mother retorted pointedly, adding, “I can’t believe my own daughter is so desperate for some man’s attention that she is willing to traipse halfway across the country at her own expense and make an absolute fool of herself – if not worse.” The remark hit home. Emily so wanted to see Robin again, that she would have travelled much farther than Wales.
So, her parents had raged and advised in vain. Emily closed her ears as much as possible, and stubbornly went and spent half her savings on a new cocktail dress, a new blouse and new shoes. She dug out a pair of riding breeches and boots (bought second-hand while at Cambridge for a week on a friend’s estate and never used since), and she went and had her hair cut – not short, just styled more.
Now she stood in front of Chester station on a rainy night, feeling like an absolute fool. Everyone else was rushing purposefully, and he wasn’t here. She’d been stood up. She should have expected it! A man like Robin must have all sorts of prettier girls—
“Sorry I’m late. I stopped by the hospital and it took longer than I expected.” He loomed out of the darkness, reaching for her suitcase. “I’m parked just over here – in a no-parking zone, I’m afraid.” He gestured with his head.
Emily took the hint and hurried, but she couldn’t help asking, “The hospital? Has someone been hurt?”
“I shot down a German bomber two nights ago and the crew was taken to hospital. One gunner was in pretty bad shape, getting blood and fluids intravenously. The other gunner had a thigh wound but seemed cheerful enough. The pilot had a shattered shoulder and elbow. Really quite astonishing what a round of .303s can do to human flesh and bones! Only the bomb aimer was unscathed. He actually landed the aircraft. The pilot couldn’t handle the bomber once his shoulder was shot up, and so the bomb aimer had to take over the controls with the pilot telling him what to do.” Robin was still very much preoccupied by the experience at the hospital and not entirely attentive to Emily. He threw her suitcase in the back seat and held the front door for her.
Emily slipped inside and waited while Robin went around to the driver’s side to get in. She was a little stunned. He hadn’t said anything about flying “ops” last time, and if one was to believe the papers shooting down an aircraft, particularly at night, was quite an accomplishment. Yet the most incredible thing about the incident was this idea of going and visiting the captured enemy crew. She found herself asking in disbelief as he climbed in behind the wheel, “You visited the German crew of an aircraft you shot down?”
“It seemed the decent thing to do, don’t you think?” Robin asked without looking at her. He was twisting around to see out the back window as he backed up. He sounded utterly casual, but in fact he was quite tense, wondering what she would think.
“I think that was very courageous of you,” Emily told him in a low voice that she hoped conveyed her sincere admiration. She felt it took at least as much courage to meet the men you have shot and hurt face to face as it did to brave their guns in the first place. She could not think of one of her University friends who would have done that – except perhaps Michael….
“It was odd, you know. I used to compete in air shows and I ran into the Luftwaffe fairly regularly. They always seemed so arrogant and self-assured. I don’t mean they were pompous and rude the way the newspapers portray them. It was subtler than that. It was more that they were so friendly and jovial that it was patronising.” He glanced over at her to see if she was listening.
Emily was watching him with fascination. She nodded, not wanting to interrupt or distract him with words.
“Towards the end, the rivalry was getting a bit barbed – at least on our part. I mean, after Czechoslovakia we could see a war was coming, and it really galled me the way they assumed we’d just roll over and play dead. They’d tut-tut at us over a beer: ‘Come, come, you don’t really think you can take on our Stukas with your bi-planes, do you? Why, our bombers can fly faster than the bulk of your front-line fighters! Why can’t we just be friends?’”
Now Emily was holding her breath. It was beginning to sound as if Robin had visited the men in hospital not out of concern but in order to gloat – to remind them of their former arrogance and rub their nose in their personal defeat. She didn’t want to think of him being like that.
“I was curious how they would behave in the face of defeat. I have to admit they were really very nice – especially the bomb aimer. He seemed shy and modest, insisting that the landing was nothing special. I expect he’d had some flight training. Still, with one engine out and in the dark, it was no mean feat. The gunner who was not so badly hurt was full of curiosity and acted down-right excited to meet me. I suppose they were just ordinary airmen, while the officers I met at air shows were probably specially selected not just for their flying skills, but for their political loyalty as well. These men were different. The bomb aimer spoke excellent English, and he was solemn and soft-spoken. I can only hope I will behave as well if I ever find myself in his situation.”
Robin paused, trying to sort out his own emotions. He knew that Kennel had not wanted him to go because he feared that seeing the enemy as human would make it harder to shoot at them. Seeing what machine-gun fire could do was certainly sobering….
“I had friends from University who went to fight in Spain,” Emily ventured a little uncertainly in the silence.
Robin looked over expectantly; her response so far pleased him. Virginia had been morbidly fascinated by his “kills” and that was a major reason he didn’t want to have anything more to do with her. Given Emily’s pacifism, on the other hand, he’d known she wouldn’t applaud his victory, but he had feared she might be appalled or disgusted that he’d shed blood. He’d worried, too, that she might consider him proud and gloating to visit the prisoners in hospital.
“One of my friends from Cambridge returned from Spain very bitter and cynical. He said both sides were guilty of unspeakable atrocities and that it was not possible to fight a war without becoming bestial. That confirmed my own pacifism at the time,” Emily admitted.
Robin looked at her hard, sensing she wanted to say more.
“I hope this doesn’t sound foolish or naïve,” she continued, “but I don’t want to think that any more. I want to believe that we all have a choice. I think that respecting the enemy and remembering that he is human is an important part of that. I think,” she hesitated but then forged ahead, “if you recognise your enemy as human and still feel you have to fight him – and if necessary kill him – then you know you are fighting for a good cause. If you have to turn the enemy into something sub-human or super-human or alien in order to motivate yourself, then you are deceiving yourself.”
It took Robin a moment to digest that thought, but then he nodded. What she said made sense, and his opinion of Emily rose further. No girl he’d ever dated before would have said anything so profound. “Thank you.”
Then, feeling embarrassed, he smiled and changed the subject. “I hope you don’t mind. I’ve put you up at a B & B. I thought you’d be more comfortable there than in a hotel, and it’s a little closer to the airfield.”
“It sounds lovely,” Emily responded, relieved. He’d said “you,” not “us.”
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