Mobs of RAF and USAAF crowded the premises and filled the dance floor, but girls in satin, silks, and velvets held near parity with the numbers in uniform. The brass band wailed and a female singer in a sequined dress cooed melodiously above the benign rumble of voices and laughter. They joined the happy throng, squeezing in at a tiny round table, and soon the cocktails flowed.
By 1 o’clock in the morning, despite the large numbers of more glamorous Americans, Nigel and Stu were secure in the arms of their dance partners. Kit had had enough drinking, dancing and chatting, but since he was staying at Adrian’s home he could not just slip away. Fortunately, his host returned to their table without a girl and sank down wearily in his chair.
“Adrian, you look knackered, and I’ve had enough. Why don’t we pay up and go?”
Adrian roused himself. “Shouldn’t we wait for Nigel and Stu so we can drop them off at their lodgings first?” he protested, looking around the still-crowded dance floor for the remaining members of the crew.
Kit leaned a bit closer to his navigator, “Adrian, they’re dancing with their lodgings.”
“Oh,” Adrian blushed and hurriedly signalled for their bill.
They collected their greatcoats from the cloakroom and abandoned the over-heated, smoky interior for the crisp, cold air of a late-November night. The stars pricked the dome of the heavens overhead, and they paused to look up. “Before the war,” Adrian remarked with a deep breath, “you could never see the stars in London. There were too many city lights, too much coal smoke too.”
They found their way back to Adrian’s car, but Adrian had some trouble getting the key in the door.
“Shall I drive?” Kit offered.
“Would you mind?”
“Not if you direct me. I don’t know London.”
“No trouble at all.”
Kit got in behind the wheel and Adrian sat beside him. The streets were empty except for the odd taxi. Kit drove slowly and cautiously, unused to driving in an urban area in the black-out.
“Did you plan this, Kit? Nigel and Stu…”
“Let’s just say I didn’t want Nigel going back to Liverpool where he got arrested on his last leave. As for Stu,” Kit shrugged, “Let me put it this way: there’s a story that in the midst of the Battle of Britain some WAAF OC complained about the behaviour of the pilots to the CO of a Hurricane squadron. He allegedly he replied that it would be a shame if his pilots died virgins. I share that sentiment. Not that I think we’re all going to die, but we can’t ignore the odds.”
“So, you’ve been to places like that before?”
Kit looked over at Adrian briefly, then returned his attention to driving as he answered. “You may not be aware that I originally mustered as a fitter and spent the first two years of the war as an erk.”
“You? But why?”
“When I went to the recruiting office, they said so many had signed up for pilot training already that I might not be called up for nine months or more. I was 19, bored in my job, and in a hurry to do something ‘exciting.’ So, I agreed to muster as ground crew.”
“But…wasn’t that… I mean, well, awkward? With your background….”
“I’ve always been the odd man out, Adrian. Being an erk was arguably the first time in my life I was able to submerge myself in a crowd.”
“But…it must have been a bit of a rough crowd, surely?”
“Yes and no. The war had just started. Young men from all walks of life had rushed to volunteer with the RAF and we were all thrown together. All of us were experiencing service life for the first time. It seemed like a great adventure, and I was happy to be part of it. Dissatisfaction didn’t creep into my consciousness for another couple of years. By then the novelty of being surrounded by other immature young men had worn off, and that’s when I volunteered for aircrew. Yes, I wanted to prove to myself that I was brave enough to risk my life, but I was also looking for the company of men with higher ambitions than the next party. When I met my skipper, I recognized how much I’d been deceiving myself about fitting in. It was good to be back amongst people who shared my interests and views. Nevertheless,” he paused to toss Adrian a grin, “those two years as an erk were definitely an education!”
“Did you have many girls?” Adrian asked back seriously.
“Plenty of girls were happy to go out with us. We passed the word among ourselves about which ones were ‘snobby’ or ‘difficult’ and which were ‘easy’ and ‘out for a good time.’ We were all in our teens, remember. Few of us wanted to get serious just yet. All we wanted was a quick thrill. It was intoxicating at first.” He paused and remarked with a rueful smile. “I suspect Stu may be experiencing that thrill for the first time.”
Adrian laughed nervously. “Yes, I suppose so. And Nigel?”
“Nigel’s the son of sailor who grew up in the slums of Liverpool. He may be the youngest member of our crew, but I’ll wager he’s had more girls than the two of us put together.”
Adrian tittered uncomfortably, “That’s not hard, Kit. I’ve only had one girl, Julia.”
“She must be a wonderful girl,” Kit surmised gently.
Adrian nodded, but he didn’t meet Kit’s eye and his expression was more worried than pleased. They dropped the subject.
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