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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM SYD McGINGLEY
Per Ardua ad Astra
RAF Station Baginton December 1941
“You’re a morale issue, Abingdon. The men are bothered. You’re to be transferred to another station – apparently they can use you at Chilbolton. I advised them against Middle Wallop given your proclivities. Perhaps your reputation will not precede you. Had I my druthers, you’d be court-martialed, but Fighter Command won’t waste a pilot. Leave tonight. There’ll be transport leaving for the train at 1930 hours.”
Geoffrey shut the door to the Group Captain’s office with exaggerated care. His last outburst was the cause of all his woes. He spat into the gravel as he crossed the courtyard. That was a damned lie. His woes were caused by Neville having the bloody fool luck to be shot down.
Christ, if only he had some privacy, but his damned billet was a cot in a crowded Romney hut. At least back in the summer, they’d sat in deck chairs outside while they waited to scramble.
A vision of Neville laughing, hand across his eyes, looking into the sun…
This sort of mooning around was just what had betrayed him. Neville’d be white-lipped with fury to know how Geoffrey was behaving. As for how he was being treated, well, Neville brooked no nonsense from anyone.
Clegg was lolling in the hut’s one easy chair listening to the radio, and he made a sotto voce remark to Jonesy as Geoffrey entered. Geoffrey caught the word “bugger” and re-stiffened his lip. He suspected—no, knew—that Clegg and Jones were the ones who’d ripped the pages from Neville’s battered copy of A Shropshire Lad and left that damnable Housman poem on Geoffrey’s pillow.
He couldn’t honestly say he wasn’t tempted to follow their hint…the pistol to the head. A clean ending. But the same reason that kept him from a court martial kept him living. He was needed. He had a duty still to do. Chilbolton was a small airfield, but they still sent escorts and decoys as far as the Channel. Geoffrey could draw off an enemy plane on his next mission, and perhaps they’d supply the bullet.
Geoffrey glowered at Clegg and Jones and hauled out his kitbag from under the cot. Perhaps they’d leave him alone if they saw they’d hounded him out. The complaints to the Group Captain were no doubt their filthy work.
The other chaps had kept quiet. They’d seen him wait past all reason for Neville’s Spitfire to return, and had left the room when he’d howled with grief when the report came that Flight Lieutenant Sharpless’ plane was downed in the channel. Billings had returned with a stiff drink and a curt “pull yourself together, man” before leaving him again. The true sin in their eyes, Geoffrey knew, was the open grief. It was only Clegg and Jones who gave a rat’s arse about his and Neville’s quiet love, but since then their open hostility had meant no one spoke to Geoffrey except when strictly necessary. He’d begun to accept only speaking to his fellow officers over the radio, but the indirect snubs were wearing him down. Geoffrey knew that, if push came to shove, the other officers would side with Clegg and Jones over a defective specimen such as himself. He shook himself mentally. What rot! He and Neville were as honorable as the next man. It was Clegg and Jones that were the threat to morale.
Geoffrey packed methodically only wavering a moment as he came to Neville’s shaving kit. In his precious half hour alone on that foul day, he’d downed his drink then shamelessly pilfered from Neville’s effects the few items he thought would be unnoticed. The poetry book, the shaving brush and soap with a few blond bristles yet embedded, and Neville’s sampler.
He snorted. Clegg and Jones had not dared mock that. Wing Commander Gibbons also sat in the sun and stitched away as they waited for alerts through the summer of ’41. He and Neville had passed embroidery—wool, was it? Geoffrey wasn’t sure about such things—back and forth and had niggling conversations about matching the shade of blue and red in the crest. Gibbons had completed a Hurricane in mid-victory roll, while Neville had only limned in his Spitfire.
Neither of them finished their sampler. Gibbons’ effects had been sent to his wife, and Neville’s packed off to his sister in Nottingham.
He looked up. Stars be praised! Those two had left. They’d left the radio on, but for once had gone without a jostle or insult. Joined at the fucking hip those two. Always together. They should be careful, sniggered Geoffrey, someone might start talking about such inseparable chums.
Since they’d destroyed Neville’s book, Geoffrey had kept the sampler hidden. He slid it out from his cache, and smoothed the fabric. He chuckled ruefully at the tangle of thread on the backside of the work. The last words he remembered Neville saying before they scrambled that day were “Blast this knot! Gibbons, give me those scissors. I’ll cut through this mess.”
Geoffrey picked a little at the snarl, and sighed. What a maudlin fool he was being. He flipped it back over. Neville had finished working the lettering: “Per Ardua ad Astra.”
He folded the cloth carefully and packed it in his kitbag. Perhaps at Middle Wallop he could learn to do this threadwork and complete the sampler. His belly clenched. He’d not complete Neville’s work. He looked around his corner of the billet. Nothing more to be packed. He sat on the edge of the cot, and looked around. Perhaps his new billet would have actual walls. Ones that weren’t curved and corrugated. Ones that didn’t summon memories of Neville stripped to waist trying to whistle and shave at the same time.
“Shit,” said Geoffrey. He’d missed the BBC announcer saying “This is London” and the jaunty strains of Lilibulero had spooked him into hearing Neville’s whistle. Leaving would be a damn good thing. Half an hour until the trip to town. He slung his bag over his shoulder and left the hut. No looking back.
Deep dark. Like his childhood skies growing up in the country. Say what you will, he mused, the blackout has given us back this. He craned his neck a little to look at the wash of stars. This fucking adverse passion. A widow could mourn. A widower would have some nods of understanding. We’ve all lost someone in this damn war. Just some of us can’t share in the commune of loss. Can’t have comfort of being known to be soldiering on. “You poor old sod,” said Geoffrey to himself. He lit a cigarette, and leaned against the wall. The stars shone, and he picked out the dippers. He inhaled and gusted up smoke.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” said Neville’s voice. “Smart old poofter that Wilde.” He’d grinned at Geoffrey as they hared off to their cockpits for a night scramble. Bombers heading toward Coventry. They’d returned that night to find their own airfield part-rubbled.
“Flight Officer Abingdon? Town drop off?”
Neville nodded curtly at the young WAAF. A woman driver. Just his luck. She’d chatter the whole way.
“Corporal Maizey, Sir. It’s just you and these parcels. Ready to leave as soon as you’re in.”
He was right. A talker. He stubbed out his smoke and swung his kit in the back. It would be past uncivil to reject the passenger seat.
“Eyes on the road, Corporal,” he growled after a bit after her inability to chatter without looking at him had all but jounced them into a hedgerow.
“Sorry, Sir, but it’s a real shame how they…”
He tuned back out. She was talking about Christmas and her friend in Nottingham and what a silly bitch she was and something to do with Red Cross packages. Geoffrey scrubbed his eyes. She was doing her bit, he supposed. Driving officers around and running errands so a man was freed to fight.
“Be like dad— keep mum!” he muttered.
“I heard that! I don’t say anything about anything important!”
“No,” said Geoffrey. “Evidently.”
“Just keeping my spirits up,” she snapped. “Being chipper! No sense being a Gloomy Gus.”
He groaned. “Christ, Corporal, I’m sorry. This has been a bad day.”
The corporal clashed the gears, stamped on the brakes, and came to a halt in the station forecourt.
“I am sorry. Really.”
“Well, Flight Officer Geoffrey Abingdon, if you’d been listening properly you’d have heard me tell you about the falling out I had with my friend, Dorcas. Dorcas Sharpless from Nottingham.”
The stars wheeled above, and Geoffrey grabbed the Corporal’s wrist.
“That bitch,” said Corporal Maizey slowly, “has known for over a month that her brother is a POW. Fished from the drink by a German patrol boat. He could only send one family letter. He asked her to tell you he is safe.”
“Oh God,” yelled Geoffrey. “He’s alive! My man is alive!”
Corporal Maizey laughed. “Loose lips, Sir. Loose lips.”
Syd McGinley is a grumpy-but-soft writer and academic. Syd writes the Dr. Fell series as well as the adventures of Tarin in Twice Caught and Out of the Woods. Syd is an ex-pat Brit currently living in the mid-west of the USA.
Per Ardua ad Astra is the Royal Air Force motto— through adversity to the stars.
Read the Housman poem here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5720/5720-h/5720-h.htm
It’s poem XLIV in A Shropshire Lad.
You can read about one particular man and WWII embroidery here: http://needleprint.blogspot.com/2011/09/needling-hitler.html
And here is a charming for the services only embroidery set:
You can hear the BBC “This is London and Lilibulero” here: http://youtu.be/B4BZrSj2VU4?t=16s
Advent Calendar Giveaway!
your choice of any one of my e-books (www.sydmcginley.com)
The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this - just save them up for Christmas Eve.)
19. Marzipan is made (conventionally in the western world) mainly from sugar and the flour or meal of which nut?