1. Joe and Charlie have a frank discussion, in which Joe says more than he means - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
“There’s something new in the stables I’d like to show you,” Charlie said, when the breakfast dishes had been cleared away. Polly blinked at both of them and muttered something about wanting to catch up on some sleep; they had, after all, arrived - stumbling sleepily out of the car Charlie had thoughtfully sent round to the aerodrome where they’d landed - not much after 8.00am that morning. It had been a long night. Joe, who had revived amazingly under the influence of bacon-and-eggs, a hot bath and - thank all the stars - decent coffee, was, however, more than happy to play the part of complaisant guest. He left Polly to be shown to the room prepared for her while they were having breakfast and he wandered out after his host into the weak sunlight, strikingly calm after the storm through which they had flown.
Charlie barely waited until they had reached the stable-yard - someone had been weeding between the cobbles, Joe noticed, and there was new paint on the loose-box doors - before hissing at him,
“Look, Sullivan, what’s going on?”
Joe recoiled slightly at his ferocity.
“That girl you brought with you. She is the one from Nanjing, isn’t she? What’s going on?”
Charlie was looking uncharacteristically tense; his lips were compressed into a thin white line and his nostrils flared; hard dents appeared either side of them.
“What?” Joe muttered feebly.
“Look, Sullivan, you can do what you like in your own life, obviously. But, for preference, not under my roof. I mean, if you choose to drag me into it - well, anyway, put it this way; have you ever seen my sister angry?”
Joe chose his words with extreme care.
“Charlie; I’ve seen Franky take out a Japanese machine gun post with a mortar fired from her hip.”
His friend shrugged. “That’s not what I meant. For Franky, that sort of thing simply comes under the heading of “line of duty”. I saw her when my toy steam train went off the rails and melted the face off her favourite wax doll. And, believe me, I really don’t want to be in the spatter zone if she was going to lose her rag like that again, frankly, Sullivan.”
Joe exhaled. “Promise, Charlie, honour bright. Nothing like that going on at all. Quite apart from the fact that what me and Franky had, we had, and trust me, nothing could be deader than those ashes, fond as I am of her. But there really isn’t anything between me and Polly. And I just wish you could convince her of that fact, actually, because I’m at my wits end about it.”
He must have got the right note of sincerity in his voice, because Charlie relaxed, suddenly, leaning back against one of the stable doors, pulling out a cigarette case and, having offered it to Joe, who refused, lighting up.
“Oh? Sorry if I got the wrong end of the stick, but the way she was looking at you at breakfast -“
Joe groaned. “Don’t I know it? Look, Charlie, it’s complicated. The short version is; she thinks we are, and we’re not.”
Charlie blew out a smoke ring.
“That sounds pretty convoluted, even for you, Joe. Though, come to think of it, you always were better at picking them up than dropping them again. Why don’t you just tell her you aren’t interested? Or, better still, if you have got someone else, tell her you’re otherwise involved. There is someone, isn’t there?”
The sudden question flustered him; he was responding almost before he was aware he was doing so.
“Well - um - yes, there is, but it’s not exactly the sort of set-up where I can blab about it -“
Charlie raised his eyebrows - Joe felt a stab of apprehension that he had said too much - and then he grinned.
“Married, is she? Well, don’t go getting yourself on the wrong end of some outraged husband’s revolver. Though actually, I’ve always suspected you must be bullet-proof in that direction. Given all the provocation you’ve offered over the years. Anyway, I really did have something to show you. What do you think?”
And he waved a hand proprietorially in the direction of the corner loose-box, out of which an intelligent chestnut head was poking, and making whuffling noises in their direction, presumably in the hope that they might have something edible concealed about their persons; a hope which proved justified when Charlie produced an apple from an inside pocket, quartered it efficiently with his clasp knife, and held it out to the occupant of the loose-box, which snaffled it off his outspread palm, and started blowing and lipping at his chest in the hope of more.
Joe tried desperately to think of something suitable to say. “Oh! Another horse!” seemed, somehow, rather inadequate.
“It’s very - um - shiny. I mean - er - well-groomed.” Useful recollections of inspecting other men’s new automobiles and planes crossed his mind. “It looks pretty powerful for its size.”
An instant’s thought saved him from the wholly fatuous addition of, “But what sort of horsepower does it actually deliver?”
Charlie laughed. “OK, relax Joe; I know gees aren’t your thing. And I’ve only got this one on approval, anyway. Rhys talked me into it.”
“Not that the Squadron-Leader needed much talking, either, Mr Sullivan,” the groom said, materialising behind them with, Joe was amused to notice, the inevitable tray of tack-room tea. “It was something you said to him last time you were here that set him off.”
He had, it seemed, been promoted on the strength of it; this time the biscuits were home-made shortbread, and there were scones with jam. But there was an ominous yellow envelope on the tray too. Rhys nodded his head towards it.
“Came in a few minutes ago. Addressed to Mr Sullivan.”
With only the scantiest nod towards Charlie as an acknowledgment to manners, Joe had snatched up the telegram and slit it open with the butter-knife. And his face, it seemed, had betrayed his consternation.
He nodded. “The worst. They have been at the safe. They have all it takes to build that weapon. Whoever they are, this time round.”
He looked up; past the intelligent heads, twitching ears and liquid eyes of the horses poking out over the half-doors of the loose-boxes - out across the stable yard, manure heap and all, towards the rolling fields and trees beyond, as they unfolded, partly mist-shrouded, in the golden delicacy of a perfect English autumn morning.
His voice was sombre, heavy with foreboding.
“It will be war, if we don’t stop it. And I’m not sure we can win this war if it starts, Charlie.”
There was a pause, and then the old groom, drawing himself up incongruously into a shadow - though not a parody - of a military bearing, said, “Then it seems to me it’s for you gentlemen to see it doesn’t start. But if it does, we’ll take our positions as ordered. Sir.”
“Of course,” Charlie said quietly, before Joe could comment, “we’ll all do our best.” His eye flickered over the old groom, still standing as it were to attention. “Rhys was at Spion Kop, you know.”
“Then he’ll know just what sort of a fucked up mess things could end up in, if we decide to leave “the Establishment” to sort them,” Joe said, in an outbreak of frustrated anger that was wholly foreign to his normal self. Ignoring Charlie’s remonstrances and shrugging off his impeding hand on his arm he left the stable yard, walking determinedly towards that distant prospect of rolling fields. He needed to think, and he needed to be alone.
Because despite his airy invocations of “fate of the world” he had not, until now, truly realised what it was he was fighting for. And how slender his chances were of prevailing.