by PJ Stephenson
“Next time I looked, he…”
My voice catches, like someone releasing the R/T button too quickly. My lower lip quivers. What’s wrong with me? I’ve lost sprogs before.
I fumble to light another cigarette and exhale smoke through my teeth. The Prof watches me over his reading glasses, pen poised. I should be filling in my own bloody F form.
The dispersal hut is quiet, the other pilots long gone. The open window provides a view towards the blast pens. A rigger is inspecting the huge hole in my Spitfire’s tailplane.
Suddenly I see him again. He’s hugging armfuls of flying gear, cap askew, as awkward as a new-born puppy. His acne-pitted face screws up in concentration as he tries to imbibe all my combat experience in one short, pre-dawn briefing.
“He came straight from training school,” I say. I blow a smoke ring then realise the gesture is too frivolous and wave it away. “He’d only had two hours on Spits.”
My own training is a distant memory. Last summer I’d never have believed I’d be leading a flight at twenty-one.
A spanner clanks; someone curses.
“We were expecting a weather reconnaissance,” I say. “I thought a lone Dornier would break him in gently.”
“So he struggled?”
“He kept drifting astern.”
My trembling fingers spill ash on my trousers. The Prof inspects his clipboard, pretending he didn’t notice.
“And you didn’t see anything when he disappeared?”
I’m surprised the ground crew are trying to repair the fuselage. Are there no more replacement Spits?
“No. I didn’t.”
I smother a yawn. I’ve been feeling like an automaton these last few days. In the dogfight earlier, my heart rate hardly changed.
So why is it racing now?
“There’s nothing you could’ve done,” says the Prof, waving his glasses in the air as if he’s lecturing again. “Clearly, Black Two was lagging behind and a one-oh-nine bounced him.”
Beyond the airstrip, elm trees sway, hazy in my watery eyes. They trigger an image from a recurring dream.
Black smoke defaces an azure sky. Oil stains a green sea. Frothing. Bubbling.
Turning to blood.
“He went into the drink.” I brush ash from my leg. “We’ll never find him.”
The Prof stands up.
“I have the rest of your report: the damaged and the probable. Get some lunch. The squadron’s at cockpit readiness at fourteen hundred.”
I sigh. I’d hoped to grab a kip before another sortie.
“And Flight Lieutenant?” his eyes holding mine. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Outside the hut the sun is high but it doesn’t warm me. A mechanic cycles past, calling a greeting. I turn away.
Wiping my eyes, I walk slowly round the perimeter track towards the officers’ mess.
All I see is the face of a nineteen-year-old man. Tonight down the pub someone will mention him; then he’ll be forgotten, his memory washed away with foamy beer. Tomorrow another sprog will become Black Two.
Then I realise what’s upsetting me.
I don’t even remember his name.
PJ is a British writer whose fiction is inspired by history, nature and human nature. He’s lived in Switzerland for 20 years but still takes milk in his tea. You’ll find his short stories online and in various anthologies. Follow him @Tweeting_Writer.
Image of two Spitfires in flight, copyright PJ Stephenson.