No Chance to Meet Again: Chapter One

USS Wasp (CV-7). British Royal Air Force Spitfire V fighter takes off from the carrier, after a 200-foot run, May 1942. Probably taken during Wasp’s second Malta aircraft ferry mission.

This is the first Chapter of No Chance to Meet Again, a story about love, hope, and survival in a Second World War not quite like our own.

“So, where are you from?” I glanced up from my logbook to see a curious-looking US Navy Lieutenant sitting across from me. He’d had the generosity to bring two cups of coffee over to the table with him, though considering the pitching and rolling of the carrier I doubted I drink much. I’d learned that much over the last couple of weeks since we’d sailed out of Glasgow.

“I’m from London,” I answered as he sat down, suppressing a grimace as his curious look furrowed into confusion.

“London?” His American accent sounded questioning. They always seemed like that.

“Yes. Born and bred,” I added, knowing exactly what was coming next. You got used to it, even if every time you hear it you want to tear your hair out.

“But, I mean, you don’t look like…“ he faltered, and I smiled half-sympathetically at him. This Navy Lieutenant seemed like a good-natured fellow if a little naive. His mop of straw-yellow hair draped carelessly over a face that had probably seen more action than I had, but at this moment, he still sounded very, very stupid.

“My mother is from Trinidad,” I supplied for him. “Came over to England just after the last war.” It was my usual answer, ready on the tip of my tongue for when someone’s curiosity about a tall, lean black man with a crisp English accent got the better of their sensibilities. I’d had it as long as I’d been old enough to answer the question, and even before that, I’d had to deal with the usual odd looks. It was part of my life. I knew that.

It didn’t stop it from being damned annoying though, especially when I was working. Or when I was in uniform. You’d think people would show more respect to someone with Officer’s stripes, but apparently, that wasn’t enough for people. No, people always wanted to know where Flying Officer Peter Toussaint was from. Really from. Good for them, I guess. Better to be interesting than dull.

“Oh, that’s…interesting.” He seemed satisfied with that, which was polite of him. Plenty of people have asked me worse follow-up questions. He looked nice enough, for a sailor. Honestly, two weeks aboard ship, and I still wasn’t sure if I liked sailors anymore. Or if I hated them much more either. Maybe it was just because he was American. I was never sure what to make of Americans. “So, you’re from London, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said, scratching the back of my dark hair awkwardly. “It’s alright though. When it’s not being bombed, that is.”

“Yeah, I saw that,” he ruffled his hair slightly, before sipping his coffee. I’d seen him around a few times, now I thought about it. He’d been loitering by our planes in the Hangar deck, I think. They were a bit of a curiosity, I suppose. The yanks had not been in the war for long, and we were as new to them as they were to us, with their huge aircraft carrier full of fun trinkets and well-stocked messes full of donuts and pastries and real, proper coffee. It was the sort of coffee my mother wistfully remembered when she complained about the stuff we got at home. Nothing was ever as good in England as it was in the old country for her. But that’s how it always was, I suppose. The immigrant experience, as I’ve been told. What would I know of that? I was born in Britain, in the front room of the semi-detached house I grew up in, the same room my younger sister was born in and the same room my parents slept in for their whole marriage.

The ‘mother country’ was my country. I knew nothing of palm trees and coconuts beyond what I saw in films. Sure, I knew the culture, but I’d been to more Empire Days than carnivals, even when they started holding it in London. I’ve seen more snow than sand. I don’t mind it though.

“You miss it much?”

“Home? Well, who doesn’t?” I mean, I didn’t. Not as much as I thought I should. Home was…complicated. Home meant my mother, and my baby sister Tori, and warm, good food and laughter. But it also meant gruelling work and looks in the street, and unhelpful patronising and bitter catcalls in the street. The Air Force wasn’t like that, at heart. I knew what I was doing here. You still got the stares and the kids asking you for the time and where you learned to speak English, but they called me sir now. I was valued, in a way. I knew what I had to do -what it meant to exist here, even if that existence was fleeting and dangerous.

“What about you, where’s home for you? Somewhere nice for a guy like you, I hope?”

He blushed suddenly. “Well, I’m from Chicago. In Illinois.“

“Gangster town, huh?” He snorted at that, and I grinned, enjoying his amusement. “You gonna put the krauts in concrete shoes or somethin’?”

“That was the worst accent I’ve ever heard,” he gasped out from behind a laugh. “Where did you hear that?”

“Brixton Cinema,” I grinned. “Not the worst place to spend an afternoon.”

“Really, huh?” There was a strange glint in his eye I didn’t quite get.

I shrugged absently back. “Better than rolling around in this tin can like we have for the last week.”

“Tin can?” His indignation was half-joking, but still light. “This is the USS Hornet, the finest ship in the United States Navy!”

“Give me dry land that doesn’t keel over all the time any day.” I paused for a second, my mock score dropping into a more relaxed smile. “Though there are some pretty good reasons that this tin can is better than the others out there.”

He gave me a sly look. “Such as?”

“Let me see. Well-“

“Toussaint!” I looked up to see another pilot standing in the doorway to the mess I was in, her blonde hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. “The skipper wants us.”

I frowned. “Already, Grayson?”

Flight Lieutenant Al Grayson gave me an apologetic look. “He wants a briefing before the launch. Probably wants to show us his holiday snaps as well.” Al Grayson was my flight commander. Confident, well-set for her age, and ridiculously good looking for someone that smug, she made up for being a bit of an ass to her friends with her loyalty to her mates, as well as being damn good in the cockpit. She was a pre-war regular and had come out of the Battle of Britain with two bullet wounds in her leg and Distinguished Flying Cross, as well as enough stories of derring-do to keep the ladies entertained all night.

I had met her on my first day with the squadron back in 1941, where she’d looked me up and down for a minute before hauling me out on a patrol in a Spit. “Ten hours isn’t enough,” she told me as we climbed into the air over Surrey. “Let’s make it twelve now, and you’ll see why.” Those two hours were, frankly, the most terrifying experience of my life to date at that point, even if the bullet noises were just her yelling through the radio at me. Later, after I’d recovered, she bought me a drink. “I don’t want you to end up like the lads who didn’t come back last summer.” I thought I understood it then, but after a year of brutal, pointless fighter sweeps over France, I got why she was so concerned, and I understood that behind her cocky grin and slightly oafish sensibilities, she cared for her mates more than she cared for any family she had on this earth.

Doesn’t stop her from being an ass, though.

I sighed. “Righto.” I looked back at the Navy Lieutenant with an apologetic smile. “Sorry. Duty calls.”

He stood with me, an apprehensive but warm smile on his face. “Good luck,” he said, taking my hand and shaking it.

“Thanks,” I offered back. “You too.” He did seem like a nice man. Confident, but still a little shy, even with that brilliant smile of his. I liked him.

“Come on, Peter!” Grayson was yelling now, and I realised that I had been lost in thought. I shot her a sardonic look then headed out of the mess, stopping to grab a handful of hard sweets from the mess bar before clinging onto a wall as the carrier pitched sharply.

“I’m a pilot, not a sailor,” I murmured as she grinned at me. I glowered at her half-mocking laugh as I clambered out into the corridor, pulling my officer’s cap on at a jaunty angle so it didn’t crush my hair. It wasn’t regulation, but what exactly was about pilots? That was part of the charm, I suppose.

“I got the hang of it,” she shot back. “Anyway, that wasn’t why I was laughing.”

I raised a dark eyebrow at her. “Really?”

“You and that navy man,” she supplied as she made our way through the winding, endless corridors of the Eagle towards our briefing. “He was cute. For a sailor.”

“I’m sure he was,” I murmured, “I thought you didn’t swing that way anyway?”

“I don’t,” she reminded me. “But I have eyes. And, unlike you, I also have ears.”

“Ears?” I frowned. “What the hell are you talking about? I heard you alright.”

“No, I-“ she groaned as we climbed a ladder to the deck above. “He was chatting you up, you pillock.”

“What?” I tried not to sound too incredulous as she laughed at me, earning a curious look from two passing ratings. “No, he wasn’t. He just wanted to know about me.”

“Peter, no one is that interested in what part of London you’re from. Ever.”

“I mean, you don’t know that.” Grayson gave me another tedious look. “What? You don’t!”

“You’re a menace to yourself, you know,” she said as she pushed the door open to the briefing room. “Terrible.”

I frowned. I mean, yes, that Lieutenant had been good-looking, in a sort of quiet, boyish way, but had he been flirting?

Oh god, he had.

I think I’d even flirted back.

“You coming, Toussaint?”

“Oh!” I started, clambering through the hatchway into the briefing room, ignoring the amused snort from Grayson and her friend Barrett-Jones gave as I slid into a seat behind them. Squadron Leader Frampton raised an eyebrow at me but then continued with the briefing.

“As I was saying to those of us who turned up on time,” he said. “Our run to Malta is of vital importance. This window between attacks will not last forever, and if we can get to the island, disperse the aircraft and get some hours in over the place, we’ll be in a good place to stand up to Jerry when she tries to crack the island again, and we know they’ll have another try.” We didn’t need to be told why. Malta sits right at the heart of the Mediterranean, halfway between the two vital bases at Gibraltar and Alexandra, and right along the Italian convoy routes to and from Libya. You know the story. After France packed it in 1940 and everyone thought Britain would be next, Mussolini wanted to get a piece of the prize — “A few thousand dead” so he got to sit at the peace conference, that sort of thing.

He also wanted to get his grubby hands-on Egypt, which meant wrestling Britain’s grubby hands off of Egypt first, which — well let’s just say we weren’t fans of that idea.

Thus began two years of surging two and fro across North Africa, as either we (the gallant forces of Freedom and Democracy that fought under the banner of the British Empire) or the Afrika Korps (the dastardly fascist oppressors of the German Reich and Italian Empire) fought tooth and nail over a large amount of desert with nothing of note in it except than a large amount of sand and the odd rock. Last I checked, we were…not doing well. I mean, it wasn’t my area of the war until now — when I’d arrived at my Squadron, I’d been thrown straight into the equally badly thought through fighter sweeps, which seemed to serve no purpose except to see how many times we could get bounced on by the Luftwaffe over Calais in one month.

(The answer is a lot, by the way).

Either way, while we sat here, bobbing up and down in the western Med, our comrades in the 8th Army were doing their best to keep Rommel at bay at a place called Gazala. As those of you who read your histories will know, it did not go well for them. We didn’t know that, of course. We were more concerned with Malta, which as part of the Axis plan to kick us out of the Med, was being bombed into submission. At least, that was the idea. Our job, as fighter pilots, was to do as much as we could to stop that from happening.

The problem, of course, was getting there, which was why us flyboys, with our seasickness pills and slightly green faces were currently listening to Frampton reminding us how important it was to follow directional instructions to get into the air. I’d heard it all before — this might’ve been the third or fourth briefing we’d been given, but to be perfectly fair, we couldn’t really afford to get it wrong.

These ‘Club runs’ as the English, in their infinite wisdom and wit have begun to call these operations, were not smooth sailing. Launching dozens of fighter craft from moving carriers and getting them across hostile territory to Malta, an Island that is getting bombed around the clock without losing any of them? ‘Bit of a tall order’, as my mother would say. The last buggers to try it had all their planes smash to pieces on the airfield within a day of their landing, which was not ideal.

Which was why the skipper was running us through the flight for the fifth time this journey, despite the obvious boredom from almost everyone in the room. He was rounding off now (once again reiterating the dangers of missing the signals and being led onto an enemy airfield) and I began to perk up.

“Oh, another thing chaps,” he added as he rounded off. “We’ve been asked to boost the numbers with 261 Squadron, so Grayson, Barrett-Jones, Butler, and Toussaint, you’re going to go into Luqa instead of Ta’qali and report in with Squadron Leader Ambler. Understood?”

There was a moment of muttering around the room as I exchanged a look with Butler and then Grayson, who shrugged back at me before nodding an affirmative at the CO. “Yes sir,” she replied.

“Malta control will guide you down once we’re there so don’t worry about it too much on the flight over. Just focus on maintaining formation and flight plan.” He turned to face the rest of the room, which watched him with tired anticipation. “Any questions?” Silence. “Alright, dismissed. Up and

I wondered what I’d do now. I honestly knew I should sleep early before the long, gruelling day in the cockpit, but my brain wondered for a second, thinking about stretching my legs on the deck above me. A sharp pitch and roll that threw me against a wall pushed that ridiculous concept out of my head, even if I could hear my baby sister Tori calling me a coward for skulking away back to my bunk. It took me a while, as always to find my bearings within the steel maze, but eventually I staggered back onto the deck we’d been #billeted on. I slipped back into my cabin as the carrier pitched again, and I held onto the doorway for a second, waiting for the ship to level out again. When it did, I slammed the door shut and collapsed into my bed. My bunkmate, Bingo Butler, was already there, reading a book of some inordinate thickness while fiddling with the black, bristly moustache.

Learie ‘Bingo’ Butler does not smile. This isn’t because he is miserable — well, at least that’s what he insists. He just never actually seems to have a reason to. To be fair to him, he has his reasons. Butler was another pre-war regular, but he was nowhere near as dashing as Al Grayson or the others.

Then again, as Butler pointed out, they weren’t ‘cursed’.

It wasn’t that Bingo was a bad pilot. You don’t come all the way from Trinidad and join the RAF before the war without being an exceptional pilot, or having good connections, which Butler both was and had. He was, however, both extremely unlucky and lucky at the exact same time. During May 1940, he’d been bounced by two Me109s over Dunkirk. His Hurricane had been set on fire and he’d barely had time to bail out before it had exploded. After floating down through the sky, he had then landed in a tree in the middle of a firefight between our lads and Jerry. After five hours of terror, he’d been cut down by some Tommies and then been carried off the beaches with the rest of the BEF a few days later.

In September of that year, he’d been coming back from an operation over Kent when his engine had given out. He’d been forced to ditch his plane in a field, narrowly avoiding crashing his dying aircraft in a tractor before smashing into a hedge. Other incidents from gun jams to fuel leaks to one incident where his Spit inverted and threw him clear before crashing into the sea had more or less convinced Butler that whatever high power was out there had decided that he had been supposed to die when his Hurricane had blown up over France.

It sounded very phoney to most of us, but as time went on some of us began to wonder if he was right. He was certainly convinced. I once watched him sit in the briefing for a Rhubarb over Boulogne, shaking his head repeatedly as the CO ran through the plan. “I’m not going to make it this time,” he said to me. “I’m just not going to make it. It’s been too long.”

He did make it back. No one else did, though. Sometimes people said he was cursed. I just thought he was lucky, which wasn’t bad. Nothing wrong with luck — and he had plenty of it, especially at cards, especially when playing with me. He just didn’t seem to appreciate that it was good luck, not bad luck.

“You alright, Bingo?” He nodded, still staring at the ceiling, smoking quietly. I wondered if there was anything to say to him now, to reassure him. It never worked, but that didn’t stop me from trying.

“Have you ever been to Malta, Peter?”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Obviously not.”

“It’s hell, Peter. This is where I’m going to die.”

“Bingo, you said that about this carrier.”

“No, I said this carrier is taking me to the place where I’m going to die.”

“Right.” I slipped into my bunk properly, taking a couple of the sweets in my pocket out and dusting some of the grit off them before popping them in my mouth.

“Toussaint, I’m being serious.” He rolled over now and stuck his head over the bunk, staring straight into my eyes. “They’re smashing this place day in, day out, every chance they have. They’re going to smash our planes on the ground. They outnumber us 2,3,4 to one in the air and they know it.”

“Okay.” I wasn’t sure what else to say.

Bingo seemed to feel I hadn’t gotten the point, though. “You really don’t understand, do you? This isn’t Kenley. This is the most bombed place in the whole bleeding show. And it’s not going to stop. You know why? If they smash Malta, they win the war. If we hold out, we smash them in Egypt and we win the war. But we’re not going to smash them. We’re going to be bled dry, day in, day out, until there’s nothing left but twisted metal and smashed masonry and whatever’s left of our bodies after this is all over.” His hand waved around, dragging cigarette smoke around like contrails between the two bunks. “We won’t survive this, even if we do win.”

“Full of optimism, you are.”

“What do you think then? It’ll all be fine and dandy?”

“Well-,” I paused as I swallowed one of the sweets. “We’ll make it.”

“We’ll make it?” he scoffed. “Is that all you have?”

“Come on Bingo,” I was irritated now. “What do you want me to say? ‘Oh, yes, you’re right, we’re all going to die on that miserable sandy rock and the middle of the med and then the Nazis and eyeties are going march all the way to India and meet the Japanese there and enslave us all for eternity?’” He didn’t reply. “I thought not. We’ll make it, Bingo.”

“I’m just no fan of your blind optimism,” he muttered as he rolled back over to lie on his bunk.

I ran my hand over my face in frustration. “It’s not optimism. I just don’t like to tell myself it’s all going to go to shit. It doesn’t help. You know what I think? I think you’ve got to think you’re going to be alright to actually be alright.”

“You always make it sound so easy.” His derision was palpable. “It won’t be. Trust me. You’re not going to make it out of this one alive. It’ll be like always, Peter. We make friends, relationships, find ourselves, and then-” he smashed his fist in the metal ceiling with a crash. “That’s it. Off the face of the earth. That’s how it always works.” He sighed for a second. “Don’t get attached to that island, Toussaint. Whatever happens, we won’t be there for long.”

“If we make it, we make it. If we don’t, well, we don’t.” I shrugged to myself. “Besides, if we do make it, we’ll do so handily, right?”

He didn’t say anything for a minute, mainly because he was waiting for the right thing to say. “If we are mark’d to die,” he eventually began, “we are enough to do our country loss; and if to live, the fewer men, the greater share of honour.”

I sighed. “Bingo, are you quoting Shakespeare again?”

“You really don’t know Henry V, do you?” He sounded as put out by that as my ‘optimism’. “No culture, you.”

“You know I could just leave you in here to sulk alone, Bingo.”

“Who else are you going to bunk with? Grayson?”

I rolled my eyes at him and turned to lie on my side. I felt suddenly tired and apprehensive as I stared out at the orange, flickering sky that rose and fell in the porthole in front of me. I needed to sleep, but Bingo’s words were stinging in a way they never had before. He was right, wasn’t he? This wasn’t going to be like Kenley or the Rhubarbs or anything like that? What if he was right about everything else?

That thought kept me up longer than it should have.

***

“All Pilots to their aircraft. All Pilots to their aircraft. Launch in 20 minutes.”

Mae West Life Jacket on. Parachute attached. Flying helmet and oxygen mask in one hand, Kitbag in the other, I stumble through the tiny corridors, bumping against the walls as the ship continues to roll. I’m following Bingo, who is following Grayson towards the hangars. Every yank we pass wishes us good luck -some stop to shake our hands (or at least try) but I appreciate their earnestness. I’m really not sure how I feel about all this. Despite last night’s talk of doom, Bingo is strangely calm, almost excited. He’d woken up much earlier than I had and was already washed and shaved by the time I’d wearily rolled out of bed.

I see Group Captain Vale waiting at the doorway to the hangar, a clipboard in hand. He’s obviously finished checking the planes for any faults. This is, apparently, the third ‘club run’ he’s done as chief aircraft engineer, and like the other two times, he’s been up all night, checking every part and motor and electrical mechanism on all our planes for any fault. He looks exhausted, but he still smiles at us as he passes. Bingo has no time for Vale. “He gets to go home after this,” he reminded me, as if I needed to have a reason not to like him. That’s not really reason enough to not like someone though, is it? I nod at him, and he nods back before hurrying to where an American Engineer is waving at him by a plane. Around me are the planes of our squadron, their graceful, curved lines cooped here in the hangar alongside the stubby, folded, and stacked away shapes of the American carrier fighters that lurk in the shadows.

“Come on!” I realised I’d slowed to look down the length of the hangar and turned to see Grayson giving me an admonishing look. I give her a sheepish smile and hurry forward to my plane. Even knowing the rush we’re in, I can’t help but pause to take her in. I think it’s safe to say that everyone has heard about the Supermarine Spitfire. It would be hard not to. They are something to talk about — to be remembered — to see them on the ground is enough to make you stop and stare. To see one in the air is enough to make people point and whoop and cheer like schoolchildren, no matter your age.

But flying a spitfire? I honestly don’t know if I have the words for it.

Flying a clunky biplane trainer is like wrestling with the machine itself, trying to force it to do what you want it to do. Even the Hurricane is a little stiff to fly, but when you’re in a spit, you barely have to think to get her to move. It’s almost terrifying on your first flight — it certainly was for me, but then it turns into a sort of euphoria. It’s freeing, in a sense. The boundaries between man, machine and sky seem to fall away around you, and you forget that you are flying 6,000 pounds of metal that has only one purpose: to destroy man and machine in the most efficient manner possible. Some might say it’s a cruel paradox, that beauty and death are intertwined in such a machine. I’d been told we didn’t have time for moral questions during this war — especially ones with as little importance as that — but it did trouble me nonetheless. At this moment, though, I ignored it as I clambered aboard my plane. This was not a time to think heavy thoughts.

I dropped into the cockpit and secured myself before going through the checks, barely thinking about them. I don’t even know if I was thinking at all. It all feels so heavy in my head even now. Before I’d even finished, my plane was being wheeled back out of its parking position and into the line waiting to go up and out of the cavernous hangar to the flight deck. Above me, I could hear the roar of engines and thundering of deck plates as plane after plane goes into the air. It will be my turn soon. I can’t remember if I was scared or not. I think I was worried about whether I’d packed everything this morning. I know I have, but I still sat there, about to shoot off the end of a small metal runway in the middle of an ocean, worrying about if I had left my razor behind. I think the absurdity kept me sane. An engineer appears suddenly, and he signals for me to start up. Magneto switches on — pump throttle — ignition. There’s a crackle and low rumble and then the Merlin engine cuts through in its beautiful, deep, melody roar as the propeller in front of me starts to spin. Oh, what a sound!

Bingo’s plane is wheeled into place in front of me. Behind me in her plane is Grayson, and in my mirror, I can see her shooting me a thumbs up as her plane rises up into the light. It’s me next. My kitbag sits uncomfortably between my legs, but there’s nothing I can do about it or the water bottle that jabs into my shin. It’ll be there until I get to Malta, whenever that is. I want to reach into my pocket and grab a hard sweet, but my hands are glued to the steering stick. I pushed my ring around on my right pinky finger, rotating the silver band slowly but steadily, feeling the lump where it flattened off at the top moved around. I should have really taken it off before starting up, but it’s too late now. There was a crunch of machinery behind me, and then two sailors grabbed my wings and pushed me back onto the ramp.

There’s a shunt of gears, the ship rises and then the lift rumbles skywards. Everything happens frighteningly quickly from this point onwards. The world was suddenly full of light, vision full of blue and white and grey — grey? I spot the flight tower. I should ignore the tower. I glance around. The Americans are wheeling me forward onto the main deck now. I spot an engineer crouching. He looks like a rugby player, but I watch his red skull cap and his raised fists for the signals. Brakes on. The balled fists rotate. The throttle! I opened it up, the engine roaring madly. The brakes begin to slip out from under me. I can feel the ring on my finger, catching on the steering column. I reached to push it away then-

Chequered flag!

Release brakes-throttle open-thunder down deck-tail lifts. Here we go! The sea appears over the nose of the spit-more grey deck rushing past christ it’s short! There’s the conning tower behind me — then sea below me, engine roaring, sea getting closer, closer, stick back! The engine roars higher, then my stomach lurches as I clear the deck just as the carrier plunges into another wave — Up, up, up!

There is a brief, agonising second of terror where I wonder if I’m about to crash into the ocean. The white peaks of waves reach out towards me andthen the spit picks up and pulls away from the ocean below me. The engine roars with triumph and I began climbing and climbing, pushing the plane higher and higher, turning, and turning to follow Grayson up into the sky and soon the carrier, my home for weeks and weeks is below me, surrounded by warships, the Battleships looming large even as we climb away and away, the destroyers disappearing under their smoke. I’m flying, I tell myself, the same exhilaration that comes in a wave every time I am in a cockpit riding across me as the Merlin engine roars and rattles in front of me.

The sea’s grey colour had slipped into a cooler, more inviting blue as I climbed further and further. I glanced back one more time at the pockmarks of smoke that marked the convoy and then I had to look away. I catch Grayson’s plane and slot into formation behind and to her right as Bingo and Barrett-Jones follow me up, forming the rest of our finger four formation, with Barrett on her left and Bingo to her right and rear. Ahead of us, the rest of the reinforcement squadron are forming up — there’s no circling about waiting, though. There isn’t the fuel to waste. No one wants to finish their first flight in the Med bobbing about in the water after you’ve exhausted your fuel tanks. Fuel Tanks! I flip the switch on the dash, switching to the external, long-range tank.

“You alright there Toussaint? Looks like you were angling for a swimming lesson back there!” Barrett Jones’s mocking tone drummed through the radio.

“Very funny,” I called back. “You do know which way Malta is, don’t you? Or do you need to ask?”

Shut it, both of you,” Cut in Grayson’s irritated, professional tone. “Save it for the ground at Luqa.”

If they haven’t shot us down by then,” Bingo murmured.

You too Butler.” I snorted, wincing as the movement jabbed my water bottle into my shin.

What part of shut up didn’t you understand?

Sorry boss,” Barrett-Jones muttered. “Just keeping an eye on the boys.”

I didn’t need to be next to her spit to know that Grayson’s eyes were rolling at that. “Keep an eye out for Jerry Fighters, I’ll keep an eye out for Malta.” The name of that fabled island bounced around in my head, louder ever than the rumble of the engines. Malta! The island under siege — the target of the greatest aerial bombardment of the war to date — and soon to be my home, my hearth, and perhaps the place I would give my life to protect. But there was no point thinking so grandly about it. Right now, it was just a destination, a place at the end of this journey through the brilliant blues of sea and sky. I could not imagine what was ahead of me. I told myself I’d be ready for it.

Was I? I could hear Bingo’s warnings bouncing around in my head about the heavy rumble of the engine, ringing around incessantly. Don’t get attached, he said again and again, as the beautiful sea and sky filled the view in front of me, poking out from behind wisps of cloud. Maybe I wouldn’t get attached. Maybe I would. But I’d survive. That was what mattered. The engine was loud and the cockpit stuffy and my leg already ached from where my water bottle jabbed into it. but I still grinned as I looked around me at the sea and sky. I was flying again, into a new world.

Next stop, Malta. Try not to miss it, chaps.”

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