So Few
On December 12, 2016

The sun is hot on his face as he watches the shadows of blood cells drift across the bright red screen of his eyelids, like balloons floating across a blazing sky. His eyes are tired and sore. He thinks about pulling the peak of his cap down as a shade but that would involve movement and he doesn’t want to move, doesn’t want to make any change that might trigger time.
Instead, he listens to grasshoppers, flies and bees busy in the field edge, skylarks chattering above his head and the distant click clack of a harvester in the field behind dispersal. From one of the maintenance hangars comes the ringing clang of a spanner hitting concrete, swiftly followed by a muffled curse. Then the irritating putter of a donkey engine is mercifully cut short after only a few seconds.
He feels weightless, cupped in the fabric palm of the deckchair, relaxed in his absolute exhaustion. His feet are roasting in their fleece lined boots but they are at least still, at rest. Sweat, accumulating under his hastily shaven chin, runs and pools in the hollow beneath his Adam’s apple. The hot rubber smell of his mae west mingles with the slightly acrid smell of his clothes, of the rich scent of warm grass, corn and high octane fuel. His hands are resting in his lap, quite still, fingers gently curled. They ache a little, but then so does the rest of his body and his head. His stomach rumbles quietly, felt rather than heard. Breakfast was how many hours ago? He doesn’t want to think, doesn’t want to conjure time.
His mouth is dry, lips cracked, throat a little sore. It’s not a cold, just the oxygen they have to breathe. He can still feel where the rubber mask fits his face, as if it is still there, can still sense the brow edge of his leather helmet, the Bakelite press of his headphones.
The Tannoy crackles and he holds his breath. Static. He breathes, tries not to guess how much longer they’ll have to wait. He can almost feel his wristwatch ticking off the seconds of the day, of his life. A Merlin engine coughs and roars into life on the other side of the field, reaches a steady pitch and then dips for a moment before resuming half revs. Mag drop, a bad one. It does it again and then is cut, the prop noise fading before clattering into silence.
A bicycle squeaks its way along the perimeter track and past where he sits. Someone nearby calls out, another bod whistles. Must be a WAAF on the bike, off on some mysterious errand. Maybe it was the one he danced with last night, or was it the night before? For a moment he can’t remember.
The harvester is louder and closer now, it must be working right alongside the fence. He can hear the horse’s hooves clicking on earthy stones, the swish of the blades through the corn stalks, the rattle of the seed heads. Seeds to corn to flour to bread to lunch. Simple, until you put a war in the way.
Someone shouts over by the admin office, an order maybe. A smaller voice responds. Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir. What did it matter anyway?
They had been up twice already that day, full squadron strength, at least to begin with. ‘A’ flight had lost two aircraft during the first sortie, one a flamer, no parachute, and one that looked as if it may have made it back onto terra firma in one piece. ‘B’ flight had lost another in a mid air collision with a Heinkel. Only ‘C’ flight remained unscathed so far that day.
That day, this day. He tries not to remember the other days, tries to concentrate on just this passage of twenty four hours or less, considering that the fighting, for them, will stop at sundown. Just like the end of the school day when the day boys get to go home, the rest back to the dorm. Just like a nine-to-five job.
Except that it isn’t like that at all. He never knows who will be missing from the breakfast table, or whether he will even be there himself.
And they are losing. They all know it, even though they keep on fighting and will carry on doing so until the bitter end. But it can only be a matter of time. The rumour mill has been working overtime, just like the fitters and the countless workers in the factories; invasion barges washed up on south coast beaches, fifth columnists setting up bases in the home counties, the government seeking terms with Adolf Hitler. Anyone who isn’t scared shitless can have had no imagination at all.
But still they carry on, flying all day, drinking all evening and sleeping, sometimes, all night. But for how much longer? For how long can he keep going on three or four hours sleep a night? For how long can he separate nightmare from reality? And how long will it be before his luck runs out?
The dance was last night. He had danced with any girl who would have him, got stinking drunk and had to be carried back to his mess. He had been sick in the night, out of the window. Nothing new.
There had been one girl though. He wishes he could remember her name, Jane? June? Julie? Joan? One of those. She had been beautiful, with auburn hair and big, doe like eyes. Married to a sailor on convoys. Poor sod, no nine-to-five in the Atlantic. She seemed to be having fun though. They had danced together three or four times. He hopes he might see her again.
Then what? Even if he does see her, there isn’t any future for them, for anyone really. Just this bloody war to a finish. And probably not the finish they want, despite Mr Churchill’s call to fight them on the beaches and the landing grounds. Fine for him to say, he’s not the one doing the fighting, and the dying.
The harvester stops with a jingle of harness. Now there is just the sound of insects and birds. A robin’s song joins the chattering of the skylarks.
He moves. Reaches up with his right hand to pull down the brim of his cap to shield his eyes.
His trembling fingers touch a ragged straw brim, draw it down. An aircraft drones overhead, a jumbo on its way into Gatwick. A hover mower starts up again next door. He inhales the smell of new mown grass, a hint of barbecue smoke from further up the street. He sighs as he remembers.
So few, so long ago.



© David Hermelin 2017

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