Nigel pushes the door, boots clunking from the peeling cold of the airfield to the fug of the mess room.
A quick scan confirms what he’d hoped – that the men not currently up in the air have gone into the village. They’ll be lining the bar of the King Billy, a cluster of RAF blue among the brown clad locals. They’ll wink and smile at Sheila the landlady, hoping to melt that grim expression, fixed as a Tussaud’s waxwork. Bernard Faulkes was the only one who made the crows feet gather round her eyes, the only one to stretch the thin lips wide … He tries to shake the thought away.
He gives the door one last pull to keep out the worst of the snapping wind and heads for a chair by the stove. The place is in its usual state – boots flopped over onto the concrete floor, open newspapers, books and a half played chess game on the tables, a long knitted scarf and a dress shirt draped over the back of one of the chairs.
Unbuttoning his coat, he pulls a tobacco pouch from his inside pocket. He just wants to sit, let the warmth from stove fill him, smoke a fag, fall into a fitful doze. His fingers stumble, the cigarette paper slipping, strands of tobacco dropping to the floor. He tells himself it’s the cold but there’s a tremble he never had before, a constant shiver even in the warmest room.
Nothing official has been said and for that he’s grateful. He’s still on the same crew, still rear gunner. But a week ago, he would have been down the pub with the others, winking at Sheila, singing over the strains of a wheezing accordian. Pack up your troubles …
Now he’s always alone. Eats tucked on the corner of the room, shovelling potatoes and grey meat as the others smoke and laugh. A gunner’s cramped perspex dome is a solitary place too, draft tearing the heat from your hands and face, the rumble of the engines, the wind whistling. Sometimes, as the grey curl of the English coast retreats into the black and the stars pop into life above, he imagines he’s the only person left alive, damned to fly over the land forever, never catching the dawn, never touching home.
Finally, he rolls a cigarette, tucks the end between his lips.
‘It’ll get easier, you know.’
The voice makes him jump. He drops his lighter. It hits the floor with a loud thud.
Now he sees him. What he thought was just a pile of coats and blankets tumbled onto an old wing-backed armchair hides a man, cap pulled low, great coat high, so only his nose is visible. The coats shift, fall aside, the petals of a great blue flower unfurling to reveal Stanley Beard – a navigator on another crew – a short, red haired Scot he only knows by sight.
Nigel picks up the lighter, clicks it open, lights his fag in the quivering flame. He doesn’t want to talk, doesn’t want company, but Stanley is leaning forward, elbows on his knees, a sharp look in his green eyes.
‘LMF. That’s what they’re saying.’
The effect is instant. His skin burns, blood heating until he knows it will boil, burst from his skin in ruby bubbles. He can’t speak, can’t swallow. He sees fire, feels the gun triggers under his hands, unable to shoot. Bernard Faulkes’ Lancaster is burning again, flames falling, spinning, hissing to black as the sea swallows the wreckage. Bernard Faulkes with his easy charm, his sparkle. Bernard Faulkes melting in the heat.
Stanley inches forward, rests a hand on his forearm. ‘You’re not Lacking Moral Fibre, laddie. Ye don’t want te die and that’s just fucking sensible.’ A smile spreads across his face, compressing and stretching the skin so his ginger stubble pales and darkens. ‘Do ye drink?’
Stanley talks as he sips his whisky, as he stares into the stove, watching the flames die.
Written for Esther Newton’s Monday Motivations, for the prompt word HEAT. Why not pop along yourself and be inspired.
This was inspired by an article I read recently about LMF (Low or Lack of Moral Fibre). A judgement – sometimes official, sometimes bestowed by colleagues – accusing a man of cowardice, of lacking the will to fight.
Read more about the consequences of an LMF judgement here.