Since they'd returned to Lavenham Allie had thought that her Christmas leave could quite possibly end up being cancelled. It had been none stop and quite clear that something had to be going on. She didn't ask questions, Philip couldn't tell her why they visited the radar stations and air fields that they went to. As summer had turned to autumn their trips into London for meetings at the war office and air ministry were even more regular. Unfortunately for both of them they were also brief, nights spent at home had now become a memory. Letters and telephone calls it seemed were all they both had to look forward to. Another birthday for Allie had passed and this time it had gone almost uncelebrated. It didn't really bother her, her birthday hadn't meant anything for years; missing out on one more wasn't the end of the world. Philip hadn't let the day pass completely unnoticed, he'd given her an hour alone in his office to use the telephone and he'd given her a small bunch of flowers.
“You know Bea would have given them to you herself if she were here.” He'd grinned before closing his office door and headed to his room.
“I can't believe it's October already.” Allie had sighed at breakfast.
“It seems this year is passing rather too quickly.” Philip agreed with her. “On the bright side we still have Christmas leave to look forward to. I expect Bea has something special planned since she knows you'll be at home this year.”
“Christmas at home is always good, well…” Allie trailed off.
“You've only spent one together.” Philip sat forward in his seat.
Allie frowned, of course he knew that, it was impossible not to work it out. “Yes…it's her birthday the day after and I missed that last year as well.” Allie sighed.
“Well we have ten days, you'll think of something special to do to make it up to her.” He sunk further back into his seat.
Now traveling towards Lincolnshire Allie looked back at him in the mirror, it seemed strange that he wasn't buried under a pile of notes or scribbling in his note book. He looked more relaxed than he ever did when they were visiting an airfield. She decided to take the bull by the horns and just ask the question that was burning in her brain.
“Allie?” He chuckled.
“Is this more than just an ordinary run of the mill visit? I mean you look very relaxed and not that I'm happy that you do it's…well it's just not your normal behaviour.”
“A question and a statement all in one. You never cease to surprise me. What's not to like about Lincolnshire?” He smirked knowing she was watching him and frowning. “Cranwell airfield is special to me let me tell you a little more about it. It has its own train station, bet you didn't know that. I hear there's a new batch of freshly qualified WAAFs arriving there today. I remember arriving there my first day. When I stepped off the train I paused for a minute, you know just to take stock of my new surroundings and the next thing I remember is being told to ‘Step lively’ by a very impatient warrant officer.”
“Did you do as you were told?” Allie laughed, it was hard to imagine Philip ever being given orders.
“Honestly? Not really. I'd just become a squadron leader, moved up in the ranks but I still flew amongst my other duties. It was a good time really, I had the respect of all the men under my command, you might not believe this but I knew each of them by name. I was tough though and I regret that I carried that on when we first met.” He told her knowing there would be more questions.
“Just how tough were you?” He seemed happy to talk about his time Cranwell so why not see just how much he was ready to tell her?
“The usual, I used to make the men drill a lot. You know what it's like I'm sure. Before the drills it was inspection. I was the hard nosed officer who inspected their buttons closely, you use button polish daily and don't try and tell me otherwise and your cap badge is always gleaming. One day I was in a bad mood, you know bad nights sleep after an argument with Edward on the telephone…he was far from happy with me taking the new posting. Well, this day I was inspecting the airmen and WAAF and I was far from happy with their appearance. I made one WAAF and two airmen remove their caps and take their badges out so I could inspect them closely…”
“You scrutinised cap badges?”
“Can I finish or would you like the same treatment?” When Allie didn't answer he carried on. “Yes I scrutinised them, you know you are supposed to clean the backs of them, you do know that don't you?”
“I do, feel free to scrutinise mine any time you like.” Allie chuckled.
“Long story short I put them all on a charge, two because they weren't shiny enough the other because there was still button polish adhered to it. I'm sure you know you can be charged with ‘Conduct prejudicial to the Service.’”
“They really do put you on that charge?” Allie asked as she got the first look at the airfield. “Looks like we're here.”
“We are. And Allie, people do get put on that charge.” He laughed as they slowed to a stop at the main entrance to show their identity cards.
As they drove further along towards the buildings Allie peered around looking at the airstrips easily identifying the Tiger Moths, Blenheims, Oxfords, Masters and Spitfires through the camouflage. She parked where Philip told her to and she watched all the blue uniformed figures rushing around. A warrant officer appeared from amongst the many people milling around and escorted them both towards the impressive looking college building. It seemed like every other time they visited an airfield and Allie was expecting to be told where she'd have to wait.
“My driver will be accompanying me today it's already been cleared with the Air Commodore.” Philip said in a low gravely voice.
“Very good, sir. Then if you'd both like to follow me this way.” The warrant officer said in a level tone.
Allie looked at Philip and rolled her eyes, it was just typical for him to do something like this without telling her in advance. As they walked along she remembered hearing that this airfield had been none operational at one time or another and had been used as a training centre for new pilots. Looking up she saw that the roof had been damaged.
“A plane hit the roof in a bad fog, if I remember correctly it was a Whitley, some of the crew members died but I can't for the life of me remember how many.” Philip leaned in a little closer and whispered to Allie.
They were taken through the back door of the large college building and walked through the countless long corridors past various impressive portraits of men all displaying various insignia. When they reached the domed centre it was full of scaffolding and they both looked up at the tarpaulin that covered where the plane had hit the dome.
“No need to worry, Allie.” Philip whispered close to her ear. “It's highly doubtful that the same thing will happen again, and especially while we're here.”
As they walked further around the building Allie just had to marvel for a few moments at the history and all the pomp and ceremony that surrounded the RAF. She'd been taken aback by the grandeur of Elveden Hall when she'd first seen it but here inside this building she felt a little more overwhelmed. She remembered a time when she'd never imagined ever finding herself in places like the ones she often frequented now. Her life before the war had been simple, awful for the most part but very simple. Without the war she'd never have broken free from Marie's grasp, she'd have gone on as she had for years until that life finally ended hers. Even after breaking free from Marie her life hadn't seemed as though it would get better, she was still having to do the things she hated to just to feed herself and get a bed for the night. One simple decision had changed her life for the better. Her second decision might not have been so favourably received at home but it had changed her and her whole outlook on life. She was never destined to live the life her mother had, a life of cooking and cleaning and getting married but she'd been given the most precious gift. Being part of Debbie's life and helping to raise her was something she'd never imagined. Being parted from Bea and Debbie wasn't always easy but she was doing something she thought was important. She took a deep breath, she felt privileged to have been given a chance to experience a normal life and even more privileged to be able to experience and explore the world outside of London. As they walked she thought back to a time when she was doing her basic training and she'd wondered how she would ever get through it all. Meeting Philip hadn't been a bed of roses in the beginning but now they were friends and he treated her like she mattered. Like Bea, Franky, Liz and Maxine he treated her with respect. The war was touching ever inch of everyday life but she now held her head even higher knowing that she was at least a tiny part in ending it.
“What's going on over there?” Allie whispered to Philip when what looked like a truckload of WAAFs marched passed them.
“New…well just passed their final tests. This will be there first posting.” He grinned. “You never had to suffer so much, trust me administration here takes forever. I'll imagine a number of them will be taken over to East Kirby.”
Allie looked back at him questioningly.
“A satiation that supplements Scampton. You must remember Scampton played an integral part in ‘Operation Chastise’ when 617 squadron bombed the German dams in Möhne, Eder and Sorpe. Back in May remember, you didn't need me to tell you about it everyone heard about it. They destroyed the dams and caused massive damage to plenty of industrial buildings that were in the valleys below.”
Allie nodded, she remembered it well she'd sat with Irene and Virginia with a map searching for the areas in Germany that had been hit. Scampton was famous and she knew from Philip that Lancaster bombers had been sent from there to North Africa.
“This I'm afraid is as far as I can let you come with me.” Philip said as he pointed at three chairs sitting outside in the corridor. “As much as I'd love to take you into this meeting with me I can't. I shouldn't be more than an hour and I'm certain the warrant office here wouldn't mind fetching you a cup of tea.”
“Sir, no sir.” The warrant officer saluted before they both watched Philip disappear through the door to their right.
“Tea, miss?” The warrant officer asked as Allie took a seat.
Allie smiled at him before he turned on his heels and walked down the corridor. After a couple of minutes he returned.
“Not too much milk, miss. I thought given the weather you'd appreciate it hot.” He smiled as he held the cup and saucer out to her.
“Thank you.” Allie said as she took it from him watching him take the seat furthest away from her.
A little over an hour later she found herself back outside standing next to Philip who was also shielding his eyes from the sun as they stood near an airstrip. The roar of engines made her turn her head.
“You can't mistake that noise.” Philip grinned at her.
Allie knew exactly what plane it was, she'd visited enough airfields now to not only recognise them when she saw them she could also distinguish between the engine sounds. The four engines on the Lancaster’s made a lot more noise than any of the other planes when they started up. It was a sound that had had always filled her with a mix of excitement and terror. Watching them taxi down the runway made her feel sorry for the seven young men she knew were cramped up inside. She knew she couldn't let those feeling overwhelm her though, they had joined up to do that job. She tensed up a little though when she thought of them not knowing if they would return back to base, if they'd ever see their families again. Even as a driver she'd had her own fair share of nerve wracking moments, the German bombing raid on the airfield they'd visiting had just been the icing on that cake. Icy roads, thick fog and heavy down pours made driving treacherous at times. Watching a Lancaster take off during the day was strange though since they had always been used in night bombing raids.
“Why are we eating here?” Allie asked when she found herself in The Bluebell with Philip and a couple of the flight crews.
“You'd rather eat in the mess? I used to come here back when I was stationed here.” Philip sighed. “I'll order some bread and cheese…oh, you drink cider with that don't you?” He grinned not waiting for a reply before he walked away.
Philip didn't normally ever speak about his flying career and Allie even now never dared ask. Everyone has things that they don't want to share with the rest of the world. Allie was no stranger to needing and wanting to keep certain parts of her life secret. She'd wondered if Edward would spill the beans, let her dirty secret out of the bag. Bea had told her that he'd never say anything to anyone. Now he'd had a chance to get to know her Bea was adamant that he'd see her for who she was now not who she'd once been forced to be. As they sat eating their bread a cheese Allie wondered if it was being back at a place he'd once called home that made him open up a little more. He recounted things to her that she'd never imagined he'd tell her.
“We used to come here all the time, when we went out on bombing raids the girls would wait back her anxiously awaiting our return. I remember distinctly sitting here one night after we'd just found out that one of the rear gunners had to be prised out of his freezing cold compartment. As you know the rear gunner sits tucked away at the rear of a Lancaster. One of my best friends was badly burned when his plane got hit, he was lucky to survive. The last time I saw him he said he couldn't make his mind up which had been worse being burnt or having to be in hospital for a seven day saline bath. That was the end of his war, never did find out what he did after that.”
Allie just sat quietly listening to him as he reeled everything off like Liz when she was reading out the shopping list to settle her mind that she hadn't forgotten anything they needed. It was silly she'd always thought because she often could only get half of what she'd wanted. She looked down at her half empty glass and thought about Bea back at home waiting for her letters and telephone calls. She wrote to her everyday but when those letters where held up she knew how much she must worry. The most she could hope for was that she'd get through whatever remained of the war unharmed so that she could go home to her family. She shivered a little when she thought about Artie who thought that it was all so glorious. His cousin was out there somewhere, still alive she knew that because Liz received letters from Colin almost every week. It had to be over soon didn't it? Over long before Artie could join up.
“I don't like to talk about this…” Philip paused as he glanced around the now almost empty bar. “I know you've heard the rumours, ground crew love to talk about the things they think they know. You know about the medals I was awarded?” He looked at Allie who only responded with a somewhat weak nod of her head. Leaning across the table he almost whispered so the last remaining patrons couldn't hear. “We were on a bombing mission over Germany and we got lost coming back. We'd been hit by flak, the instruments were all out and without navigation equipment we had to wing it back. Trust me flying at night with nothing to help guide you back home is no easy task. We'd lost two engines already and I thought we were going to lose the other two. My rear gunner, Peter, was hit and we couldn't do anything for him until we made it back to Blighty. I knew we were going to have to veer off once we reached the coast so we could come in from the north. And it's only by the grace of god we didn't run out of fuel. For a time I'd thought it might be best to cut our losses and ditch the damn plane near the coast. The only thing that kept me going on was knowing that we had no way of getting Peter out and I wasn't going to kill him. I'm told it was amazing flying but I just did what I had to do…anyway I just cut the throttle and managed to steer us in. We made it back there are plenty of others who didn't, Peter was taken to hospital and that was the end of the war for him. I was injured when we landed, not badly. The rest as they say is history. I was promoted to Wing Commander and here we are.”
Allie rested her hand lightly on top of his and nodded, there was nothing she could say after hearing what he'd just told her. It had been an unexpected revelation and she felt a little guilty for keeping him in the dark about her past. She knew how people looked at people like her, even though it hadn't been her fault she still didn't want to take a chance that he would see her any differently. It amazed her a little how good people like him had to keep going through it, time and time again they had to face the fear of death. They all dealt with it in their own way she guessed, some became quieter and turned their anger in on themselves. Others like Philip had become angrier and took it out on other people around them. She smiled sadly at him because there had been a time she'd really wanted to ask to be reassigned, thankfully she'd dismissed that idea a long time ago.
The next morning after breakfast Allie knew Philip had one or two meetings to attend and she had planned on returning to the room she'd spent the night in to catching up with the letters she needed to write. The night before she'd already written one to Bea and one to Debbie but she'd been so busy over the last week her grandparents had been the furthest thing from her mind.
“I…I could take you for a little spin in a plane before we have to leave if you'd like.” Philip threw back over his shoulder as he was leaving the table. When Allie didn't answer he stopped and turned around.
“That…that's not…I'd like that.” She smiled. Allie knew that going for a joyride in an operational aircraft was strictly forbidden but she knew it happened. None of the other drivers had ever driven for an RAF officer so no one she knew had ever done anything quite so daring. She watched Philip disappearing and felt a shiver of excitement edge it's way through her whole body. She'd always wondered what it would be like to fly each time she'd seen a plane take off or land. The thought of getting to actually experience it for herself, soaring high above Lincolnshire was more than an exciting prospect. Philip had just gone up even more in her estimation.
At lunch time Philip made a quick stop by the mess where Allie was eating after finally finishing her letters. She hadn't been certain if she'd be able to have the posted from where they were and they had another night and half a day at Cranwell.
“Haven't changed your mind I'm hoping?” Philip smiled as he stood in front of her.
“No! I do have a question though.” Allie looked hopefully back at him.
“What is, Novak?” Philip suddenly remembered where they were. It was becoming habit when they were around Elveden Hall to call each other by their christian names.
“I have some letters…”
“Not a problem, see the warrant officer he'll sort you out.” He lent in so he wouldn't be overheard. “Meet me at number six hanger before dinner, oh and be prepared. There's a heavy ground fog forecast so they'll be no night flights apart from ours. I'm sorry it has to be so late but I have to make sure there's no top brass hanging around. Don't tell anyone about this will you?”
Allie nodded as fear and excitement washed over her all at once. She had no idea what he would do, maybe a low level formation that she'd seen a lot of the pilots do. Finishing her lunch she went in search of the same warrant office who had been accompanying them around the airfield.
“Here she is, Phil must have a high opinion of you if he's willing to break every rule in the book to take you up.” A short, stocky sandy blonde haired man grinned.
A much taller young man, who from his insignia on his cap Allie knew was a Flight Lieutenant, passed her a helmet and a parachute. “Put the helmet on and make sure your hairs all tucked in.” He told her as the rest of the crew joined them. “Don't worry we flew together before his nibs went up in the world.” He chuckled.
Allie walked across the runway surrounded by the rest of the air crew. As she climbed into the Lancaster she suddenly realised that aircraft had not been designed with women in skirts in mind. The navigator was right behind and gave her a helping hand, propelling her upwards. Allie almost fell into the bomber, once inside she was surprised by just how little space the crew really had. She did as she was told and positioned herself on the tiny ledge across from where the navigator sat just as the engines roared into life. She turned her head a little to face the window that was right beside her catching a glimpse of the Merlin engines as they revved up. She glanced back across at the navigator who had told her his name was Jack, he looked so young Allie thought, he looked as though he'd only just started shaving. She watched as he looked down at his maps and compass that were spread out in front of him. She turned a little more to watch the runway speeding away underneath them right before the huge plane started lifting into the air. The roar of the engines was louder than anything she'd ever imagined. They were so loud she almost missed Jack telling her to look out of the other window at the two spitfires that were flanking them. She gasped as she saw how close they were, the spitfires wings seemed to be only inches from the Lancaster’s.
“Can't leave the fighter escorts behind.” Jack laughed. “We're going to be flying out towards the wash.” He added as he turned his head back to his maps.
Allie was keen to see everything and she looked down to see the fields below as the few cattle in them scattered. She smiled brightly as she watched a farmer and his farm hands throw themselves against the side of one of the farm buildings. In the dark she figured it must be difficult to tell if the still low flying planes were actually friendly. Only a matter of minutes had passed before they reached the coast and it made Allie wish that it were still daylight so she could see the sea below and the sky above as they merged on the horizon.
A sudden thought crept up on her and she started hoping that the beaches would soon be free from barbed wire and mines so that her and Bea could take a trip to the coast. Sit on the beach in the same way Bea had told her she used to do, maybe make sand castles with Debbie and paddle at the waters edge. She dismissed the thought as she concentrated on the darkness beneath them. After a few minutes the plane and its escorts started to bank left turning back towards land. The turn was a little too much for Allie and she felt her stomach lurch. ‘Fuck!’ She thought when she realised what that old familiar feeling was, she looked around for something she could use to be sick in. Hardly surprisingly there was nothing, of course not she should have known she was in a Lancaster bomber, a war plane not back home in their comfortable bedroom. She tried swallowing it down but it was no use as she creased over and vomited against the side of the plane. Hearing someone laughing behind her hadn't been what she expected. As she spun around after composing herself Jack was still laughing.
“It happens to the best of us.” He chuckled. “I remember my first time, I thought I was doing really well until we turned back for home and my maps almost got my dinner all over them.” He reached in his pocket and handed her his handkerchief as he smiled back at her.
Allie as too mortified to smile or say anything, she accepted his handkerchief and wiped her mouth. By the time they landed her stomach had settled but she was still embarrassed.
“See haven't lost my touch.” Philip grinned happily at her. When Allie refused to make eye contact with him he knew what must have happened.
Allie just wanted to hurry away and go back to her room. Sit and write another letter home, Bea would tease her for months about this but she always told her everything. She'd laugh when she read her letter and the memory of her laughter for a few moments was enough to take her mind off her embarrassment.
“Hey, Allie!” Philip called out as he hurried to catch up with her. Reaching her quickly he placed his hand on her arm slowing her down a little. “Don't worry about it, we've all done it. I hear Jacks done it more than once. If it makes you feel any better even I had a problem hanging onto my lunch when I first started flying. Now come on apart from something that doesn't matter what did you think?”
Allie started to feel reassured by his casual attitude, his confession helped a little as well. “After meeting Bea…it was the most amazing experience of my life. Flying, I was actually up there with you all flying, it was amazing. Seeing the farms as we flew over, everything looked so small, so different but amazing.”
“So it was amazing then?” Philip chuckled.
“Sorry, got a little carried away, but it was it was so amaz…incredible, why don't more people want to fly?”
“I suspect they do. Flying has been my life even before the war, much smaller planes than these though. I wish the Germans would just pack it all in though. I know I don't fly right now…what I'm doing is important work though. You know that already and I suppose being grounded means that hopefully I'll make it through this. Edward hated knowing what might happen, when he found out how we limped home that night I though his head would explode.” He laughed lightly at the memory. “What I mean is Beas the same, she worries and I know Debbie does after that million and one questions she threw at me. We're doing this for them aren't we? I mean it all has to mean something, it isn’t for nothing. Maybe I'll fly again if I do make it out of this alive.”
“Don't say things like that. I'm quite sure you'll get through the rest of it just fine.” Allie said a little horrified that he would even say that and her voice faltered a little.
Philip threw his arm round her shoulders as they walked along. “Well you know, sometimes I'm not sure I will, after all you do remember who does most of the driving don't you?” He chuckled.