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<< Back to Short Stories

The sky is beginning to lighten in the east. Leaning against the gate at the end of the runway, a solitary figure pulls the fur collar of his flying jacket higher around his ears. A match strikes, illuminating a narrow face with shadowed eyes that flick constantly up to scan the horizon. A faint, swishing crackle, a brief redness, then the flame dies and the figure pulls itself up to perch on the top bar of the gate.

Flaming June is flaming cold at three thirty in the morning. I’ve had a rotten night, even after sinking a couple of sleepyheads in the mess. All I could think about was what would have happened if number two engine had fired on all cylinders. I’d be up there now, seeing the coast darken ahead and looking forward to my bacon sandwich. Or I’d be floating in the North Sea in a dinghy the size of a bathtub and hoping for someone with sharp eyes and a Short Sunderland. Or smouldering nicely in Bremerhaven without a care in the world.

I can’t say I was upset about hearing seven bangs and two squishes from the starboard engine; to be honest I switched off and called a problem fast enough for Tony to do a double-take and Rob to stick his head into the cockpit to ask me what was up. But then Chiefy started singing “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight” over the intercom and we all got used to the idea of a night off rather too quickly. That’s what had me awake all night. I had wind-up all day yesterday that I’ve been riding my luck too hard. Thought tonight was the night when I wouldn’t come back. When that engine played up I just chucked it in, didn’t even try to persuade it. That got me an old-fashioned look from the Wingco, but he didn’t say anything.

We’ve all been a bit windy if we’re honest. We’ve had some duff luck recently, losing three aircraft and eighteen good chums in four days. Then there was Collins in H for Harry. He stuffed it in yesterday, landing from a radio check flight and finished himself and his new WOP, whose name I never got to find out.

Engines! Is that them? I look up, though I know the answer before I see the shapes: a pair of Spits from Goathill heading southeast to ruin some Jerry’s day. The leader flickers his Aldis in case any of our ack-ack bods are feeling enthusiastic. I watch them go, lucky buggers. I came in as low as that the day before yesterday, coaxing the old boot to keep going, just stay up for a few minutes more. Number two engine had caught fire over the sea. The fire bottles had done their job but a one-fan Wimpy’s bloody hard work for the left leg; mine was still twinging even now. Then number one’s oil pressure started to drop. I throttled back to not much above idle and hoped for a few more turns of the screw before it all went quiet. By the time we reached Withernsea we were down to four thousand feet and the Humber had never looked so wide.

We made it, of course, with a few bits of hawthorn in the landing gear and a few blue bricks in the pilot’s long johns. Chiefy said he saw a barn owl fly up from the hedge and look straight into his turret. If it survived, it’s probably got an attack of funk as bad as mine.


That’s definitely engines this time. Yes, there they are! Can’t see how many yet. Doesn’t look like anybody’s trailing smoke… no, scratch that, there’s a trail from somebody at the back, but looks like they’re keeping formation.

Here they are. There’s Chapman in L-Leather leading the first vic, with Thomas and Fraser on his wings. No damage I can see, that’s good. Wait a minute, who’s that circling back? Looks like Mick in F-Freddie. There’s a fair bit of smoke now, I can see. Come on, you silly sod, get it down. Don’t mess it all up now you’re home.

Everybody’s getting into in line astern, dropping down onto 22. That’s the nice thing about coming in from the north-east: you can just land straight on, and you don’t get the sunrise in your eyes.

Bugger, there’s only eight. Who’s missing? Here they come now. L-Leather, A-Able, B for Beer, C for Charlie, then a gap for the next vic. There’s N for Nuts; that new  AG giving me a wave from the nose turret, can’t recall his name. Then O-Orange and old Queenie.

Mick’s still circling – looks like he’s trying to climb.

S-Sugar’s down. So that leaves little Stan in U for Uncle. What the hell’s keeping little Stan?

I can hear Mick’s engine now that the others are down. Just the one. He’s still circling, but he’s not going to get any height on one motor. Must be trying to get high enough to bail out. That’s not good.
Jumpers! They’re out! One, two, three umbrellas. Somebody’s still falling… no, it’s open. That’s going to loosen his dentures when he hits the deck, opening that late. Still, they’re lucky they opened at all at that height.

Four chutes. Mick and somebody else are still in there. Here he comes, turning for the strip. Gear coming down. Only one main wheel. Port airscrew’s windmilling and he’s crabbing like mad, coming in starboard wing high. Straight at me.

I ought to move. If he undershoots then I’ll be a red stripe on the threshold. Posted missing without even leaving the base. That’ll confuse the brass.

Too late now anyway. Christ, now I see why he’s crabbing. Hardly any rudder left. Anybody’s guess how he’s kept it as straight as he has. Rear turret’s pretty banged up too. Compton’s his arse-end Charlie. That’s probably who’s still in there with Mick, either dead or too knocked about to jump.

If it was me I’d retract that wheel. Safer to belly it than risk cartwheeling all the way down the runway. Dare say he’s tried that already; he knows what he’s doing, does Mick.

Hold it off! Hold it off! Gently does it, mate. Go on, keep that wing up! You’re going to do it mate, you’re nearly there! Oh shit, there it goes…

I’ll never know how that didn’t end in a ball of snot. Mick, I’ll buy you the biggest drink you’ve ever had as soon as I get back. Hope Compton’s OK.

It’s nearly light, I hadn’t noticed. Just little Stan to come now. I’ll wait a bit longer and see them in. Stan, Walloper and the rest. Stan always gets home. Always struggles to get down the ladder because his legs have gone stiff stretching for the pedals. Gawd knows how he got past the Selection Board. Five foot three and the best flak-dodger in the squadron.

He’ll be back soon.

The Louth Road is busy for a Sunday. A red Volvo pulls into a recess alongside a rusting gate. The passenger door opens and a thin figure unwinds itself hesitantly to stand by the car. He bends forward, leaning on a stick, and says something to the driver, then he walks, slow but upright to the gate and turns to lean against it. He looks out across the road, blinking red-rimmed eyes against the brightness of the sky. Despite the noise of the traffic, he seems to be listening.

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Both The Larks and It Never Was Worthwhile are published by Penkhull Press. You can visit their website or view their latest blog post by clicking below


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