The pub was crowded, of course. Pubs always were in the evening. The newcomers were late because as soon as the CO had seen their logbooks, they had been sent up on a “familiarisation flight.” What the CO had said when looking at the logbooks still rang in Ginger’s ears: “My God! What do the chaps in Personnel think they’re up to? We haven’t got time to train green pilots down here! I’m going to ring up in the morning and see about having you posted back to some Squadron in 13 or 10 Group – safely out of harm’s way.”
Ginger would very much have preferred to be in another squadron. He didn’t think he was going to fit in here at all.
And now all this forced “conviviality.” Why did the RAF expect squadron members to do everything together all the time? Ginger would have much preferred to spend the evening alone in his room writing to his Dad. He owed his Dad a letter to explain where he was and why he wasn’t going to be able to make it home to see him any time soon. But, no, even though they got back from their flight after the rest of the Squadron had left for the Fox and Hounds, they found the padre waiting to take them over in his car. Obviously you couldn’t say no to that – not if the CO ordered it and the very nice padre was waiting there with his battered old Bentley.
The Fox and Hounds was already very loud and smoky when they arrived, and there was an inordinate amount of Air Force blue about. Some sort of competition was on at darts – apparently between the ground crews of two different squadrons. The cheers and shouts of encouragement/discouragement were deafening as they came in. The padre politely squeezed around the large crowd, and down a couple of steps into the lounge.
Here apparently the entire squadron was collected – at least Bowles recognised their CO. He was very debonair and reminded Ginger of Clark Gable on account of his dark moustache. He was currently surrounded by a bevy of other commissioned officers, including two Flight Lieutenants and a large number of Flying and Pilot Officers.
“Oh, there you are!” Squadron Leader Jones greeted them. “Come over and meet the rest of the chaps.”
There were far too many names to remember, and all the accents sounded very posh to Ginger. He started to feel more out of place than ever, while Green grinned rather inanely at everyone. Almost at once one of the Flight Lieutenants, “Tommy” for Thompson if Ginger remembered correctly, turned to the two newcomers and announced (rather aggressively, Ginger thought), “It’s the squadron tradition for newcomers to buy a round, lads, so—”
“I’ll get this one,” the young padre obliged, heading off to the bar while the others took their seats.
Ginger took the end seat and hoped he would be ignored. He was, for the most part. The others were talking about people that Ginger didn’t know or care about, so he fell to thinking about his Dad again, alone in the cottage. He wouldn’t know yet that Ginger wasn’t coming home. He didn’t have a phone, and Ginger’s letter wouldn’t reach him for a day or two. Maybe he should have sent a telegram? But his Dad said that in the last war a telegram meant another young man had died for King and Country. If he sent a telegram, his Dad would think he’d been killed and have a heart attack before he even read it.
“Is something the matter, Sergeant Bowles?” It was the padre who asked the question very softly, soft enough so none of the others heard.
“No, of course not, sir.”
“Please don’t call me “sir.’ We all use first or nick names here. I’m Colin. And you?”
“M’ Dad calls me ‘Ginger’ – I mean, everyone does. It’s just, I was thinking of him right now. He doesn’t know I won’t be coming home on leave – that I got posted straight here. He’ll be expecting me, waiting up half the night, no doubt. Then thinking he got the dates wrong, he’ll wait again tomorrow. He’s got no phone, see.”
“But that’s terrible. There must be a neighbour we could ring? Or a telegram—” The padre seemed genuinely distressed.
Ginger shook his head and explained about telegrams and that his father lived in an isolated cottage. “Our next neighbour is two and half miles away and they’ve no phone, either. The nearest people with a phone haven’t got a car, and it wouldn’t do to ask them to cycle six miles just to tell m’Dad.”
“Surely the rector has a car? Or the doctor? There must be someone we can ring!” Colin insisted. Before long, he’d coaxed out of Ginger the name of the vicar of the village church. Ginger didn’t know the telephone number, of course, but Colin got that from the operator.
They had just asked for last orders when the bartender called out in a loud voice. “Got a Sergeant Pilot Bowles anywhere in here? Telephone.” The bartender jerked his thumb in the direction of the narrow passage leading to the toilets, where there was a telephone box.
Ginger almost tripped as he extricated himself from his seat and had to squeeze his way past the other customers. He took the receiver hesitantly and identified himself. His Dad was on the other end.
“The Vicar picked me up and brought me home with him.”
Twelve miles there and back and there and back again, Ginger thought, embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble, Dad. I just didn’t want you waiting up for me.”
“Now don’t you worry about me. Everything’s fine. Are you all right? With your squadron now, are you?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Are they a fair lot?”
“They seem to be, Dad, but it’s hard to tell after so little time. I just got here this afternoon. I did a little flying, though. They sent me and another new bloke straight up. He’s all right, I suppose – Canadian, though. The others, I don’t know yet. I’m sorry I couldn’t get home.”
“Don’t worry. You’ve got more important things to do right now. I’m proud of you, Ginger. Get a couple of Jerries. Make ‘em think twice about invading.”
“I’ll do my best, Dad.”
“I know you will, Ginger. Take care of yourself, too.”
“Of course, Dad.” He was seeing the way that Hurricane had disintegrated under a three-second burst of cannon fire.
“Got to hang up now, Ginger. Don’t want to run up the Vicar’s bill.”
“Thank him for me, Dad.”
“I will. Take care of yourself.”
“I will.” They hung up. Ginger wasn’t sure if he was feeling better or worse, but he knew it had been the right thing to do. Who knew when he’d get another chance to talk to his Dad?
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