This is an excerpt from a longer novel I’m writing, provisionally titled No Chance to Meet Again.
“The CO hates me, Kwame.” Stringer Bagbin looked me up and down, a keen look of derision behind his thin black moustache.
“No, he doesn’t.” He knocked his whisky back and tapped the glass for another one as I eyed him with suspicion from where I stooped over my beer.
“And why would you know that?”
“Because the CO actually hates me.”
I raised a sardonic eyebrow. “Really?” Kwame Bagbin was an honest man, and a good pilot, but he was also someone who liked to bluster and over-sell a story to make himself look more dramatic for his lady and gentlemen friends.
From what I’d seen, it usually worked, even if others suffered from it.
Bagbin smiled knowingly at me. “My dear Froggy — my dear Peter,” he began as he sipped his third whisky of the evening, taking a second to look around the dimly lit basement bar we were in to see if he had an audience larger than myself and Sam Smythe. “The CO actually hates me. He hates me with the sort of cruel passion only someone as deeply unfuckable as Charlie Ambler could muster.”
“And why, exactly,” I asked, “is his hatred for you so special?”
The Ghanian pilot officer grinned at me. “Simple. Ackie Ambler thinks I shouldn’t drink so much.”
Sam looked up from her book. “Everyone thinks you drink too much Stringer.”
“Listen, Johnny,” he retorted, wagging a finger in her direction, pushing another Brylcreemed curl back into position with his other hand. “You all think I drink too much because it makes me shouty.”
“And you always end up fighting someone.”
“Yes, yes,” he waved us off with a half-serious scowl. “Well, Ackie Ambler on the other hand thinks that I shouldn’t drink because it makes me a bad flyer. As well as the shoutiness, arrogance and all the other stuff.”
“I can imagine he’s a fan of the fist fights either,” I murmured.
“The point is,” Bagbin continued, “he’s wrong. I fly better after I drink. I mean I’ve never exactly flown sober, but that’s beyond the point. He has it out for me just because he’s a goddamn teetotaller. You don’t need to be dry to fly well, and he fucking knows that, otherwise he’d have kicked me out the squadron by now.”
I frowned at him. “I feel like we’re getting away from the point here.”
“What point?” Stringer looked up from his self-aggrandising rant. “Oh, yes. Yeah, Ackie doesn’t hate you.”
“I’m struggling to believe that, despite your…explanation. I mean, I know I stuck that landing a bit, but he went up like the Crystal Palace on the field!” I sighed, taking a long drink from my beer, grimacing at how warm it had already gotten.
“Listen, Froggy,” Smythe had put her book aside now and was leaning in, blowing her cigarette smoke into my face as she pushed a curl back in line. “Ambler had his reasons.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Which were?”
“For a start, he was right. We can’t afford to lose a single plane to a balls-up landing of any kind right now.” Her Jamaican accent came through thicker as she continued to half-glare at me. “Secondly, if you had lost control of your Spit on the runway, you’d have smashed into the wall at the end and instead of having this lovely conversation, we’d be bagging your kit up and mailing it back to London.”
I watched her for a second, trying to tell if she was joking. She wasn’t. “Ambler was trying to make it clear to you — at the other lumps in your flight who were pissing about this afternoon that this isn’t a training squadron anymore. This is real.”
“I get it, I get it,” I mumbled.
“I know you do, and so does Ambler. He just needed to bollock someone this afternoon, and you were the poor bastard who buggered up in his line of sight.”
“Lucky me,” I snarked.
“Don’t take it personally,” Bagbin offered. “He’s not stuck on latrine duty or struck you off the flying roster.” He paused, thoughtful. “Not yet, at least.”
“Really filling me with confidence here, stringer.”
“You want optimism, go drinking with Chalky White,” he shot back. “We’re here to drown your sorrows, not line them up like ducks in a row for some shrink to sort out.” He smacked me on the shoulder energetically, ignoring my spluttering as the mouthful of beer I was drinking tried to leap down the wrong hole. “What you need, my dear Froggy Toussiant, is a distraction.”
“A distraction?” I coughed. “What kind of distraction? We’re drinking aren’t we?”
“You could…dance?” Bagbin tapped his fingers on the table, a glint in his eye.
“I’m not dancing with you, Stringer. You just use dancing as an excuse to punch someone.” He looked offended, but also caught out.
“You don’t need Kwame,” Smythe said.
Bagbin pouted. “Why doesn’t he need me?”
“His feller is here,” Sam grinned, pointing her glass behind me.
I snorted as I turned to look towards whoever she was gesturing at. “I don’t have a fel-“
My words dropped away as I saw Michael Grassley sitting in the corner of the bar, writing on a newspaper idly while his beer and cigarette lay forgotten on the table. Even in the dim light, I could see the concentration written into his hard face, his eyes flitting quickly as he frowned beneath his thin moustache. I froze for a second, worried that he would look up and see me staring across the room at me. I twisted back to face Smythe, scowling at the smug grin on her face.
“I honestly don’t know what you see in him,” Stringer said, still grinning like an idiot at me as he knocked back more whisky. “I mean, sure, he’s not bad-looking, but a white as chalk jock with a chip on his shoulder? You can go better than that Froggy.”
“Unlike you, Stringer, Peter’s feller doesn’t smell of Jameson’s and Brylcreem.”
“He’s not my feller,” I murmured, aware that my cheeks were probably now visibly red even in the poor lighting.
Stringer chuckled as he fiddled with one of his curls. “Sure, Froggy, and I’m a Quaker.”
“He’s not!” I insisted, much to his enjoyment. “He’s just — it’s none of your business.”
“What isn’t our business?”
“Alright! Fine!” Stringer threw his hands up in surrender. “Whatever your business is, it’s not stopping Ginger over there from looking at you every two minutes?”
“What?” I turned to glance but jolted as Stringer kicked me in the shins. “Hey!”
“Don’t look back, Froggy!” He gave me an admonishing look. “You’ll look like an ass!”
“And I don’t already?”
“Talk- I should go and talk to him? Are you two insane? Why would he want to chat to me? Here?”
Bagbin and Smythe looked at each other, and back at me. “Because he- just go and ask him to dance Froggy.”
Stringer lurched back slightly at my indignation. “Hey! No need to wake the whole bloody island up!”
“You expect me to go over there,” I hissed, “and ask him to dance?”
Sam nodded. “Yup.”
“Why would I do that?
“Because he’ll say yes?”
“He will not say yes.”
“He won’t say no,” Sam said as she lit another cigarette, “which is basically the same thing with dancing. Doesn’t apply to, like, anything else of importance, but with dancing…”
“Sure,” I said dryly. “Either way, I’m not gonna do it.”
“Why not? Too chicken?” Bagbin leaned forward, eager and ready to start teasing.
“I’m not doing this Stringer.”
“Now now Froggy,” he smirked, “you’re ready to go shoot down every Italian who comes your way, but you’re frightened of a good-looking guy and Artie Shaw?”
“I am not frightened.” Stringer raised an eyebrow at me. “I’m not!”
“Prove it.” There was a level of fight in his eyes that scared. “Go over there and ask him to dance.”
“Or what, Kwame?”
“Or…” he paused for a second, and then an evil grin came across his face. “I’ll tell Stomper Sampson you’re the one who nicked his whisky.”
“But you did that!”
“Try telling him that when he comes for you with that bloody great sword stick of his, he won’t listen.”
I groaned. “You can’t be serious. You’d fuck me over like that just to watch me make a fool of myself on a dance floor?”
“It’s for your own good Froggy,” Bagbin insisted.
“And Ginger Grassley’s,” Sam added, through her cigarette smoke. “He looks like he needs a good fuck.”
“I am not fucking him,” I growled. Sam shrugged at me.
Bagbin was still grinning at me “Well then, Pete? What’ll it be?”
I glared back at him, waiting for his resolve to break, but staring into his dark eyes and the snarky smile on his face I could tell that he wasn’t going to break on me. “Fine,” I murmured, sidling off the barstool. I straightened my jacket, ignoring the chuckle of satisfaction from Bagbin behind me, and strolled over to the small table in the corner of the bar, trying to ignore how much my heart was racing over something so stupid.
This is ridiculous, I told myself, but I didn’t stop moving until I was standing in front of Grassley, leaning slightly on one leg with my hand in my pocket trying to look much cooler than I was.
“Hello Michael,” I said with a small, nervous smile. There was a second where he didn’t look up from his paper, and I suppressed the urge to say his name again, but then his eyes flitted upwards briefly and caught mine, the vacant expression in his face vanishing as he looked at me.
“H-hi Peter,” his eyes lit up as he looked at me, a smile pushing through to emerge onto his face. “How are you?” I hadn’t expected him to smile.
“Oh, I’m fine. Well, you know, still a bit rattled after the whole thing with the CO.” I cringed internally. Why the hell would he want to talk about that?
“Don’t worry about it.”
I shrugged. “It’s hard not to.”
“Ambler rides us hard because he doesn’t want us to screw up when the real show begins, and I’m with him on that.” He looked sad for a second — a little distant behind the eyes, and I tried not to think about what prompted it.
“Oh really? Am I going to get a bollocking from you too now?” I jested, earning a half-hearted chuckle from Grassley.
“Well, listen, you should’ve been keeping your eye on the field instead of-“ he stopped, waving a hand in front of him as a warning to himself to shut up. “You didn’t come here to get a lecture.”
“I mean-“I would have listened to him talking about landing hydraulics for all it matters, “No. I was wondering-“ I jerked a finger over at the main floor of the bar- “would you like to dance?” I hoped I didn’t look as nervous as I thought I sounded as he looked at me, his face unreadable.
“I-“ he paused, looking away for a second. “I don’t really dance, I’m afraid.”
“Good”, I grinned as I pulled him to his feet, not questioning where this bubble of energy and enthusiasm had come from. “Neither can I-“
“But-“ He glanced down at his paper at his scribblings but gave up as I dragged him away from his table. Where the hell had I learned to be this brave? I’d never been this brave with anything. I didn’t even like the idea of dancing, but here I was, leading someone to a dance floor, a grin spread across my face. I’m sure I heard Stringer Bagbin whoop at me as I passed, but I don’t think I cared.
“What do we do?” he whispered as we reached the dance floor. I looked around to see one of the fellows from A flight changing the record.
I shrugged. “Go with the music.” He looked confused.
“But-” There was a scratch, and then the sounds of the Benny Goodman Sextet filled the dark dance floor. I started moving with the rhythm, instinctively leading Michael with my hands on his arms. If I’d even thought about it I’d have freaked out, but it came naturally to me. I might not be a musician, but I knew how to move to this music, and that was enough to crush all my anxiety about dancing with anyone.
It helped that Grassley was too busy looking at his feet to look into my eyes, because if he’d done that, I’d have definitely been in trouble.
“Michael-” I chuckled as he glanced up from my feet. “Look at me.”
He frowned. “But I don’t want to mess it up.”
“You can’t mess it up, it’s dancing. And even if you do, We’ll be fine.”
“But-” there was something about how disbelieving he sounded that tore at me, and I sighed.
“It’s alright,” Instinctively, I reached out and pulled his chin up slowly so he was looking at me now, his blue-grey eye glistening slightly in the light. An eternal second passed when we were both looking into each others’ eyes. I realised I’d lost myself in his pale irises, taken in by their intensity, following the light that flickered in them amongst all that apprehensive sadness that filled him. I resisted the urge to shake myself out of it, and just grinned madly at him. “Don’t you worry about our feet. If you step on me, you step on me. We’ll manage.”
He nodded quickly, but was still moving hesitantly. “Relax!” I pushed, pulling him close and spinning so I was facing the bar now. I could see Bagbin and Smythe watching me, and for a moment I felt very self-conscious. “Just…try and let it flow around you. Like you’re flying. Don’t try to force it. Just…let the music carry you.”
“This-” he blinked at me for a second. “This is a lot harder than flying.” his brow was still furrowed slightly, but underneath his ginger moustache his small, open smile was beginning to emerge. I grinned back as the music picked up, and we began to move together, Grassley gradually, but steadily falling in step with the music. He stumbled sometimes, but he always caught himself, and as she staggered back to full height, he laughed low and hard, the grin on his face reaching up through his laugh lines to set his eyes alight. It was contagious, and as I led him along I couldn’t help my laugh too.
The music reached a peak, and instinctively I spun him, and he let out a sudden whoop as he turned around my raised arm, and just as unexpectedly I found myself being spun by him, and I couldn’t help but roar back, grinning like an idiot. Suddenly he grabbed me and lifted me, spinning me a full circle before dropping me back to my feet as I yelled in surprise. “Where did you learn to do that?” I gasped as we continued to dance quickly.
“Ceilidhs!” he yelled back.
“Ceilidh! It’s a Scottish dance!”
I gave him a snarky smile. “I thought you didn’t know how to dance, Ginger?”
“Well-” he had gone red, but he hadn’t lost any energy as he held firmly onto me. “It’s different. Not like this. Very regimented. Very easy to know what you’re doing. Not at all like this.”
“Well, you got the hang of this,” I pointed out.
“You’re a good partner,” he replied too quickly. “Dancing partner, I mean,” he added, looking away for a second.
“You’re not half bad either,” I added, trying not to crush the awkwardness before it spread. “Not many people could pick up a six-foot fellow like me!”
“I do my best,” he snarked back.
The music ended with a crash, and we came to a halt, both panting slightly with exertion, but still grinning wildly. He let go of me, thrusting his hands into his pockets with satisfaction. I glanced over at the bar, where Stringer Bagbin sat, still watching me with a look of amusing and terrifying genuine interest. He waved sardonically at me, getting a two-fingered V back at him in return. He merely chucked. “C’mon,” I began, moving over towards the end of the bar furthest from Kwame’s ministrations. “Let’s get some water.”
“No, wait-” turned to see Grassley still standing on the dance floor as the music changed again. “How about this one?”
I paused, listening to slow, smooth turns of Glenn Miller as it floated across the bar. “Alright,” I said with an apprehensive smile. “But you’re leading.”
“Not a problem,” he said, taking my hand in one of his and resting the other on my hip, his touch almost electric even through my bush jacket and shirt. He led slowly, and with more grace than I’d have expected, turning with as much delicacy and ease as he would maneuver a plane. The couples dancing around us (which now included Sammy Smythe and a Canadian nurse) seemed to slip away from my periphery, blending together until the whole world was this hard-edged, tender Scotsman in front of me who looked up with the most curious and handsome smile I’d ever seen.
“You never told me where you learned to dance,” he said suddenly.
“Oh-” I blushed, realising I’d been staring. “Soho.”
“Yes. While working.” Part of me wanted to tell him what the work was, but I shoved that thought down before I could make a fool of myself. “Picked up a few things.”
He nodded quietly. “Soho sounds like good fun. I didn’t see much interesting when I was still in civvie street.” He paused. “If I ever really was in civvie street.”
“Well then,” I ventured, “When this is over you’ll have to come back to Soho with me. See my Uncle’s Pub. We can have a few drinks and then we’ll probably end up in a brawl with some sailors or something.”
“I’m not sure I’d be up for that. I’m not very good in a fight,” he countered. “Not coordinated enough.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re a fighter pilot. Also, more to the point, the first time I met you, you threw a left hook at me in this very bar.”
“It was an accident!” he blushed, looking away. “I thought you were a fucking sailor.”
“And I thought you were a prick,” I shot back.
He laughed, but then he looked back up at me, and the light in his eyes seemed to have dimmed slightly. “And now?”
“Now-” I paused. The words I wanted to say lurched forward, but I held them down. I wasn’t ready for that yet. I’m not sure he was either. One day at a time, I told myself, thinking about how little we could think even that far ahead. “Now, I think you’re pretty swell.”
“Swell?” he snorted. “Didn’t have you down for a Yank.”
“Flight Lieutenant Grassley, that is a serious accusation to make of a fellow officer,” I growled in a low, mock-aggressive tone, a pale imitation of the CO’s gravelly snarl. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I’m very sorry sir,” he shot back, grinning like an idiot as he forced his accent out thickly. “It won’t happen again, I promise.”
“Very Good, Lieutenant, Carry On!”
He chuckled, then looked away again. “Listen, I’m sorry about- well, you know.”
“About being an ass to you. I- I don’t really like making friends. Or friendly people. Generally.Not sure I ever have.”
I frowned at him. “Why not?”
“Friends- companions-” he sighed, and I could see the light leave his glinting blue-grey eyes. “They tend to drop out of my life. Sometimes people drag them away, sometimes they leave of their own choice. These days, they tend to take off and…not come back. So I save the time and keep them away. Especially in this work. I’ve seen too many people die when they shouldn’t have. It’s easier to keep them away.”
“I’m….sorry,” I tried. He smiled sadly back.
“Don’t be. You’re…lucky in a way. You seem unbreakable in a way. Solid. Determined. I’ve missed that.” His smile seemed less sad now, and I nodded appreciatively. “You can fly like a bastard as well. We’re lucky to have you.” Ginger’s smile wavered for a second, but he pressed on. “I’m lucky you stuck around instead of fucking off like everyone else does when I yell at them.”
“I’m the lucky one. You warmed up to me in the first place.”
“Aye, I’ll give you that,” he agreed. What had Bagbin been talking about? Why wouldn’t I care about this man? Sure, he was a bit of an ass on the surface, but he was — well, this. Warm, thoughtful. Filled with melancholy, but also lost in the beauty of things. I get why he hid it, but I wished he didn’t. I wished I got to see all of it. “Thank you,” he added quietly, pulling himself closer so I was holding him, his head resting slightly on my shoulder.
We didn’t say anything for the rest of the song, just moving together with the music, his head resting upon me. He smelt fresh, in a strange way. It’d be stupidly poetic to say he smelt of highland flowers, or of summer days on a glen, or any other luvy-duvy nonsense. But he smelt fresh. That’s the only way to describe it. I’ll never forget it.
The music came to a close with a whirling rise of clarinets, and he moved away from my shoulder, his eyes slightly wet. His smile was different now. Not bad different, but just different. He led me off the dancefloor back to his table, where his newspaper lay untouched.
“This was nice,” I said quietly as he looked up at me, his expression unreadable. I looked back at him, trying not to let me smile drop as his eyes flitted across my face. The music rolled into another slow tune around me, but I could barely hear it. His gaze was firm, but there was something that held him back from saying, or doing, whatever he was about to do.
“Is everything ok Ginger? I-”
Christ, his lips were soft. The kiss was harsh, yes, and I froze for a second, as he leaned up into me, but after a second I felt myself turning my head and grabbing his hips, holding his coarse Airtex shirt tightly as I pulled him closer. I didn’t know if anyone could see us in the dark corner of the bar, but I wouldn’t care if Babgin was standing over me, whooping like my father at a cricket match now.
His lips were really soft, and I knew that I was grinning into them, but it didn’t matter because I knew he was too. I felt his hands running through the back of my hair, their worm callouses catching in my curls as he latched onto them, tightly but tenderly. He leaned forward, pushing into the kiss slightly, and I felt my back crash into the sharp brickwork of the basement walls, but I barely noticed it as I reached around him and pulled him closer.
After what felt like an eternity, we came up for breath, and I resisted the urge to giggle like a schoolboy as he looked up at me in shock. “Sorry,” he panted. “I- I don’t know-”
I don’t know when we left that bar on that hot Maltese night. I don’t care, either. We could have been dead within 12 hours. We had more important things to worry about.