They eased down towards the field as the sun was setting. As the exhilaration of the contest with the New Zealander faded with the sunlight, Robin realised he was tired. He touched down and rolled across the field, thinking that he could really use a beer. It took him a moment to register that something was wrong. Everyone seemed to be running in the opposite direction; a siren started wailing; the ambulance and fire truck were rushing onto the field. He turned the Spitfire around and looked back at the field. The New Zealander’s brand-new Spitfire was crumpled up in the middle, its propeller completely savaged and the aircraft flat on her belly.
Priestman hauled himself out of the cockpit and jumped down. He ran out to the aircraft. The ambulance crew was already on the wing, helping release the straps. The New Zealander was hunched forward in the cockpit, but he stirred as the medics released the straps and groaned as he sat up. He had a big gash on his forehead that was bleeding profusely, but otherwise he seemed unhurt. He was helped out of the cockpit and staggered a bit as if dizzy as he hit the ground.
“What the hell happened?” Priestman wanted to know.
The New Zealander was wiping blood off his forehead with his handkerchief. “I – I’m sorry, sir. I – I’m not used to aircraft with a retractable undercarriage. I – forgot.”
“Forgot?! Don’t you realise men are working themselves practically to death to see that we have enough Spitfires to fight the bloody Hun?! And you prang a new kite just because you forgot to let down your undercarriage!? I should dock your pay to cover the price of the repairs! You’re definitely grounded until we get a replacement aircraft! The other pilots shouldn’t suffer because you’re too bloody stupid to lower your undercarriage!”
Priestman felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked back at Kennel, who had now arrived. From Kennel’s face, he realised he was overreacting a bit. It occurred to him that he was angry in large part because Murray had proved his equal in the air – and because he very much resented the fact that the New Zealander saw the war as a kind of lark.
In fact, when he thought about that, he became so furious that he could not risk saying another word. He turned on his heel and steered straight for the mess. A scotch was more what he needed now. A scotch and a hot meal, and then he’d ring through to Emily to be sure she was coming up for the weekend.
He unzipped his flight jacket as he went, aware only now of how hot he was. Damn it! They were fighting not just for their own lives and freedom, but for Democracy itself and the Empire. Where the hell did New Zealand think it would be if the British Empire collapsed? And it wasn’t just the RAF and the Navy and the Merchant Navy that were giving all they had! Robin thought of the men in the Supermarine factory in their worn-out overalls, saw their pale, strained faces and their grimy hands. They didn’t work until they dropped so that some bloody playboy from New Zealand could prang a perfectly good Spitfire because he forgot his ruddy undercarriage!
Priestman entered the cramped little mess still steamed up, and was confronted by an unambiguous, chilling image. Goldman was standing forlornly at the bar, and the other pilots were clustered around in a happy group at the opposite side of the room. They were sitting on the arms of chairs and crowded together around a table with their backs to the newcomer. Robin’s anger boiled over, turning icy cold.
He walked up to the bar, right beside Goldman, and ordered a scotch. Without looking directly at him, he asked the newcomer softly, “May I ask why you’re drinking alone?”
“I was told that Jews don’t belong in a first-class club.”
“I thought I was fighting Nazi Germany, not living in it!”
Priestman burst out, his worst suspicions confirmed. Then he clamped his left hand on Goldman’s elbow, his scotch still in his right, and drew the reluctant Canadian towards the circle of pilots.
“Get up! All of you! On your feet!”
The trainees were taken by surprise. They looked around and gaped at the instructor in confusion.
Priestman repeated, even more forcefully. “On your feet! Now!”
They got the message this time and started to fall off the sofa arms, or push back the chairs, the legs scraping loudly on the floor. In the faces of the more intelligent an expression of guilt, or at least worry, spread.
When they were all standing attentively and facing Priestman, he looked them in the eye one at a time as he declared in a low, ominous voice, “You may think that the RAF is nothing but a first-class flying club, and that the only thing you’re here to do is fly Spitfires at government expense, but, by God, as long as you wear the King’s uniform you’ll respect the King’s laws – and one of them is freedom of worship. Pilot Officer Goldman can fly better than any of you. This country can count itself lucky that Pilot Officer Goldman has more in his head than beer, girls and Spitfires – like you lot. If any one of you ever makes a derogatory remark about Pilot Officer Goldman or his religion again, I’ll see that you spend the rest of the war flying cargo crates! Is that clear?!” He looked each of them in the eye, and then stalked back to the bar with Goldman in his wake.
Behind them came the booming drawl of the New Zealander, “And if I hear any of you sneering, I’ll beat your bloody brains out. Is that clear, mates?”
Priestman and Goldman turned as one to stare at the giant New Zealander as he now joined them at the bar. He held out his hand to Goldman. “My mother’s a Jew.”
Goldman smiled faintly as he accepted the giant paw offered him. “And my mother is Catholic.”
Priestman registered that maybe Murray didn’t think this war was just a lark after all – and started to like him.
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