12. Joe and Dex are forced to separate to tackle the growing threat to world peace. When will they be reunited? - Book Two - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
The long-distance line crackled repressively; already they had been interrupted by the operator asking if they wanted a further three minutes. Joe repressed an urge to stamp a booted foot while trying to get his point over to the remote presence on the far end of the phone.
“Why do you want to get to know this fellow Mosley, anyway?” Charlie demanded. “From what I can remember of him from the RFC he’s a total stumer. Borrowed a tenner off me on Armistice Night. Which he’s yet to return. Besides selling me a hunter that broke down a fortnight later with a chronic wheeze, when he’d assured me on his honour that she was as sound as a bell.”
Charlie emitted a peculiarly British “harrumph!” sound.
“Won’t do you any good with m’sister if you go taking up with him, either. I understand she had her own run-in with him, at some tamasha in Malta. Chap apparently made an improper suggestion to her in the rose-garden of the Governor’s Residence. Didn’t behave like a gentleman at all.”
“If I know Franky, I’ll bet neither did she,” Joe observed.
Charlie’s grin was clearly audible in his voice, even over the dreadful connection. “You could have something there. At least: so far as I know he’s definitely preferred blondes ever since.”
Joe’s eyebrows rose. “Does he indeed? Charlie, you interest me strangely.”
There was an audible sigh. “All right, Joe. If you insist. I suppose you’ve got a reason. Tell me what you need for an introduction?”
“Is there any sort of big event coming up, one that he’s bound to be at? Sort of thing where we’ll pass in a crowd, not look noticeable? Where someone might get acquainted with him, if you introduced them?”
Without warning, a highly refined voice cut across their conversation. Joe broke off to inform Our Lady of the Switchboard pointedly that yes, indeed, he was aware of what the current conversation was doing to his bank balance, and, notwithstanding that, he did believe he wanted it to continue for at least another three minutes longer, yes.
It had not been an unproductive pause; Charlie, in the interim, had clearly been thinking.
“Well; there’s the Hunt Ball. On Friday. The full season starts next week. The Brigadier’s on the committee; he’s been pestering me to take tickets for weeks. I doubt he’s left the Mosleys alone - they’ve rented a place over Melton way for the season, I think - and someone with political ambitions can’t afford to miss an event like that; half the Cabinet will be there, to say nothing of a few choice members of the House of Lords.”
“And are you going?”
“To a dance? Me?” Charlie’s voice was loaded with incredulity. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“Why not? Doesn’t sound to have stopped the Brigadier. And anyway, Charlie, you were famous for not dancing at dances even when you did dance. What’s to stop you spending half the evening in the bar, and then vanishing off with the prettiest girl in the place, same as you always did?”
Charlie’s voice was bitter. “Pretty girls go for dashing young airmen, not crippled old crocks.”
His defeatism stung Joe into contradiction.
“And have you tried actually proving whether that’s true? Or are you just going to hole up and watch your house crumble about you, while assuming that there’s nothing left in life for you?”
There was a slightly shocked pause, and then, “Excuse my asking, but are you in love, Joe, by any chance?” Charlie enquired.
“What!?” He checked himself. “What makes you ask?”
“Oh, just this thing Franky said, when Iphigenia got engaged. She said that one of the first signs, before the announcement was that she immediately started trying to fix up all her friends and relations with someone of their own, too. ‘More contagious than cholera’ was how Franky put it.”
“Yes; it was always your sister’s delicacy of expression I found most attractive,” Joe said, rather desperately trying to deflect Charlie’s unexpected perceptiveness. “Anyway, I’m not standing here paying the Post Office God-knows how many shillings per minute so we can dissect my love life. This is fate of the world stuff -“
“Again?” Charlie enquired. Joe ignored him.
“So, frankly, Charlie, I’ll consider it pretty poor of you to stand in the way of doing anything you can to help unravel the plot, even if it does mean hanging around at some dance or other being bored to tears. It’s only one evening of your life, Charlie, for God’s sake, and anyway, what else did you have planned for next Friday?”
There was a brief pause.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Charlie said in a resigned voice. And hung up.
Joe stepped out of the little mahogany cubicle which housed the telephone at the aerodrome in a thoughtful mood. And then there was a stir across at the far door, and a flurry of activity from the few men who were working here so late. Polly must have arrived.
As indeed she had.
With a flicker of irritation he noted that she’d evidently talked Dex into carrying her luggage. He was trailing in her wake, loaded up like a beast of burden; evidently the concept of “travelling light” still hadn’t got through to her. And then Joe consciously checked his irritation - or at least, his urge to express it. After all, if Charlie, who had never been noted for being the most perceptive of men, could have picked up that there was something going on in about five minutes from the wrong end of a terrible telephone line, perhaps Joe better had work on cultivating a bit more discretion.
It wasn’t a quality he’d ever rated very highly; briefly his lips curled up in a wry twist as he considered whether earlier attention to discretion might not have avoided some of his problems in Nanjing - but in the current circumstances he didn’t really see any option.
His voice was consciously bright and sparkling as he greeted Polly and Dex - avoiding Dex’s eye - and said,
“I hope you packed a ballgown or two, Polly. I’m taking you to a dance.”
Dex dropped the bags in the place indicated by Polly’s gesturing hand, muttered something about “jobs to see to,” and vanished into the deeper recesses of the base. Joe watched him go with a worried frown, realised he was frowning, and turned his attention resolutely back to Polly again, only to find Polly was looking in the same direction.
“You know, I really don’t think Dex was well enough for the drive over from that cottage place. He hardly said a thing, the whole trip. And when he did say anything, it didn’t seem to connect to anything that went before. If you want my opinion, he should be in bed.”
Preferably mine, the bit of Joe’s brain that hadn’t yet been circulated with the discretion memo chimed in hopefully, before he mentally retrieved himself from an inexorable downward plummet.
“I’m sure you’re right. I’ll make a point of telling him. But anyway, there are some spares I need to get hold of for the plane; and things signed off and suchlike before we fly. Shall I organise someone to get you a cup of tea while I sort it? It’s going to be a long cold flight. And the drive can’t have been that good for you, either.”
She turned up to him in the bright lights of the hangar with a grateful eagerness that made him feel almost guilty.
“Thanks, Joe. I’d really appreciate that.”
The nightshift was, as he expected, crammed into their own cubby-hole listening to croon-moon-June songs from a Victrola and downing tea and biscuits while playing canasta. He introduced her, chatted inconsequentially with them for a few moments and bolted; left to herself she would charm the socks off them in five seconds, as he well knew, rendering his presence more than surplus to requirements.
And anyway, he had other fish to fry.
At the far end of the hangar by his plane he saw Dex putting down a spanner and closing the engine casing; clearly he’d not been prepared to take the service registers on trust before allowing Joe to take off again. Joe had got close before he risked a word.
Dex’s face was remote; evidently he was keeping his feelings compressed.
Joe gulped, apologetically. “We’re flying out in the next half-hour or so. But I need some stores. Can you help me find them, and then write me the right chits for the ‘drome? After all, you’re bound to know your way round the storeroom backwards, and it’ll stop me having to roust someone out. And the nightshift are idiots, like always.”
Dex nodded. “OK. Suppose we try through here.”
He trotted determinedly over towards another corner of the hangar. Joe followed Dex through the door marked “Stores”. Given the size of the place, he had to admit it was impressively well-stocked, and organised with a remarkable attention to logic.
Dex turned in the gloom, and chewed his lip nervously.
“So, Cap,” he said, “which spares were you looking for?”
It was like the moment of take-off, he was light as air, he was accelerating wildly into the void.
“Well,” Joe drawled, allowing his whole body to relax, so that he moved as though disjointed, “I think I can get hold of the left-handed spanner quite quickly, but finding the long weight could take me some time.”
Dex spun towards him on the spot, and Joe was waiting; he caught him and pressed him violently back into the shelves of the Stores, rubbing his hard, aroused body against him as he flung himself into the kiss. His lips parted and his tongue sought out Dex’s mouth. Dex’s right hand came up, roughly cupping Joe’s jaw, pulling his head down towards his frantic lips, whilst his left hand slipped down to rub Joe’s hardness through his pants.
It was an infinity of time; it was the briefest of times.
Their bodies were pressed close against each other, their blood thundered in their ears, their sweat smelled hot in each other’s nostrils.
It seemed as though they could embrace each other for ever.
Joe broke away.
“Oh, God: I just wish - I wish I had two spare hours with you, and a door with a lock that worked. Look Dex; I only want - I mean - look - don’t go forgetting me while I’m away.”
“Forget - ?” Dex’s eyes were bright with incredulity; it tore at his heart. And then Dex’s mouth was there again, feather-light on aching lips, and he clung to Dex with a bruising tightness, not wanting to let him go after finding him so late, despite everything, knowing he must go, and go now. And everything was, after all, so complicated, and so sudden. And he ought to say something. And he had never been good with words.
“Look after yourself,” he said meaninglessly, and turned away, out of the Stores, towards his plane.
“And you, ” he thought he heard behind him on the wind, but couldn’t be sure.
Polly had been escorted to the plane by half the night-shift: they had competed for the privilege.
She looked down at him from her enthronement in the passenger seat.
“Oh, Joe!” she said in a tone of exasperated protectiveness, “I can’t imagine how you managed to get engine oil all over yourself in thirty seconds. And how on earth could you have got it there? Look. Bend down. At least I can do something to sort that mess on your face.”
She whipped out a handkerchief, and licked it with all the enthusiasm of a mother cat. Given the wherewithal, she briskly polished his face for him.
“There!” she said, leaning back a little and surveying his face with an indulgent smile. “That’s much better.”
Joe grinned, catapulted himself into the pilot seat, and as he readied the plane for take-off had one thought in the forefront of his mind.
His current situation might be confused, unprecedented, messy, illegal, prejudicial to good order and discipline and, on current form, as frustrating as all hell.
But there was one thing to be said for it; it had unquestionable advantages.
He ran a reminiscent hand along the line of his jaw. His grin deepened, and he took off into the night.