‘Extremely fit,’ he snapped. ‘Sir.’
Randall lifted a hand half an inch, dismissing the need for sirs.
‘I meant your knee,’ he said mildly.
‘Oh,’ Jerry said, disconcerted. ‘That. Aye, it’s fine.’
He’d taken two bullets through his right knee a year before, when he’d dived after a 109 and neglected to see another one that popped out of nowhere behind him and peppered his arse.
On fire, but terrified of bailing out into a sky filled with smoke, bullets, and random explosions, he’d ridden his burning plane down, both of them screaming as they fell out of the sky, Dolly I’s metal skin so hot it had seared his left forearm through his jacket, his right foot squelching in the blood that filled his boot as he stamped the pedal. Made it, though, and had been on the sick-and-hurt list for two months. He still limped very noticeably, but he didn’t regret his smashed patella; he’d had his second month’s sick leave at home—and wee Roger had come along nine months later.
He smiled broadly at the thought of his lad, and Randall smiled back in involuntary response.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘You’re all right to fly a long mission, then?’
Jerry shrugged. ‘How long can it be in a Spitfire? Unless you’ve thought up a way to refuel in the air.’ He’d meant that as a joke, and was further disconcerted to see Randall’s lips purse a little, as though thinking whether to tell him they had.
‘It is a Spitfire ye mean me to fly?’ he asked, suddenly uncertain. Christ, what if it was one of the experimental birds they heard about now and again? His skin prickled with a combination of fear and excitement. But Randall nodded.
‘Oh, yes, certainly. Nothing else is manoeuvrable enough, and there may be a good bit of ducking and dodging. What we’ve done is to take a Spitfire II, remove one pair of wing guns, and refit it with a pair of cameras.’
Again, that slight pursing of lips before Randall replied.
‘You might need the second pair of guns.’
‘Oh. Aye. Well, then …’
The immediate notion, as Randall explained it, was for Jerry to go to Northumberland, where he’d spend two weeks being trained in the use of the wing cameras, taking pictures of selected bits of landscape at different altitudes. And where he’d work with a support team who were meant to be trained in keeping the cameras functioning in bad weather. They’d teach him how to get the film out without ruining it, just in case he had to. After which …
‘I can’t tell you yet exactly where you’ll be going,’ Randall said. His manner through the conversation had been intent, but friendly, joking now and then. Now all trace of joviality had vanished; he was dead serious. ‘Eastern Europe is all I can say just now.’
Jerry felt his inside hollow out a little and took a deep breath to fill the empty space. He could say no. But he’d signed up to be an RAF flier, and that’s what he was.
‘Aye, right. Will I—maybe see my wife once, before I go, then?’
Randall’s face softened a little at that, and Jerry saw the Captain’s thumb touch his own gold wedding ring in reflex.
‘I think that can be arranged.’
* * *
Marjorie MacKenzie—Dolly, to her husband—opened the blackout curtains. No more than an inch … well, two inches. It wouldn’t matter; the inside of the little flat was dark as the inside of a coal scuttle. London outside was equally dark; she knew the curtains were open only because she felt the cold glass of the window through the narrow crack. She leaned close, breathing on the glass, and felt the moisture of her breath condense, cool near her face. Couldn’t see the mist, but felt the squeak of her fingertip on the glass as she quickly drew a small heart there, the letter J inside.
It faded at once, of course, but that didn’t matter; the charm would be there when the light came in, invisible but there, standing between her husband and the sky.
When the light came, it would fall just so, across his pillow. She’d see his sleeping face in the light: the jackstraw hair, the fading bruise on his temple, the deep-set eyes, closed in innocence. He looked so young, asleep. Almost as young as he really was. Only twenty-two; too young to have such lines in his face. She touched the corner of her mouth but couldn’t feel the crease the mirror showed her—her mouth was swollen, tender, and the ball of her thumb ran across her lower lip, lightly, to and fro.
What else, what else? What more could she do for him? He’d left her with something of himself. Perhaps there would be another baby—something he gave her, but something she gave him, as well. Another baby. Another child to raise alone?
‘Even so,’ she whispered, her mouth tightening, face raw from hours of stubbled kissing; neither of them had been able to wait for him to shave. ‘Even so.’
At least he’d got to see Roger. Hold his little boy—and have said little boy sick up milk all down the back of his shirt. Jerry’d yelped in surprise, but hadn’t let her take Roger back; he’d held his son and petted him until the wee mannie fell asleep, only then laying him down in his basket and stripping off the stained shirt before coming to her.
It was cold in the room, and she hugged herself. She was wearing nothing but Jerry’s string vest—he thought she looked erotic in it, ‘lewd,’ he said, approving, his Highland accent making the word sound really dirty—and the thought made her smile. The thin cotton clung to her br**sts, true enough, and her ni**les poked out something scandalous, if only from the chill.
She wanted to go crawl in next to him, longing for his warmth, longing to keep touching him for as long as they had. He’d need to go at eight, to catch the train back; it would barely be light then. Some puritanical impulse of denial kept her hovering there, though, cold and wakeful in the dark. She felt as though if she denied herself, her desire, offered that denial as sacrifice, it would strengthen the magic, help to keep him safe and bring him back. God knew what a minister would say to that bit of superstition, and her tingling mouth twisted in self-mockery. And doubt.
Still, she sat in the dark, waiting for the cold blue light of the dawn that would take him.
Baby Roger put an end to her dithering, though; babies did. He rustled in his basket, making the little waking-up grunts that presaged an outraged roar at the discovery of a wet nappy and an empty stomach, and she hurried across the tiny room to his basket, br**sts swinging heavy, already letting down her milk. She wanted to keep him from waking Jerry, but stubbed her toe on the spindly chair, and sent it over with a bang.