The Second Pot of Tea
One’s expectations alter during war time; the uncertainty of it all I suppose. Each day lived without any high hopes, when reaching the end of each day was accomplishment enough. One thing I would never have expected, in time of conflict or blissful days of peace, was to see a spectre in daytime. Indeed, on the sunniest and brightest of days and among a throng of people busy with their daily routines. Surely, if ghosts do exist, and experience has always provided ample inexplicable events for me to remain open minded upon the subject, then, well, the least one might expect would be that they confined themselves to places befitting their vocation, the dark shadows of inky night, in empty houses of distinct age, or some deserted spot or other, but here is the story as recorded in my journal for 1943.
It was the second day of a two day leave from my squadron. I had been on ops pretty much every other night for what seemed like months, the last of which had been the long trip to Berlin. It had been a bad show all round, it always seemed that if something went wrong early, it set the mood and flavour of the whole raid. Weather was worse than forecast, cloud over the target lower than expected, night-fighter activity more intense, and so on. We had limped home with one engine out and most of the hydraulics gone, which meant manually lowering the under carriage, which collapsed on landing. The aircraft was written off as U/s (unserviceable). While we waited for a replacement the station commander took the opportunity to give our crew a few days, well deserved, respite. The two unattached members of the crew had buggered off to the bright lights on a considered study of the city’s public houses, and the remaining four had taken the chance to snatch a few hours of bliss with wife or girlfriend, and in one case both, no names, no pack drill. I, not having anyone to visit, apart from my parents whom I dropped in upon for a brief visit, had the second day spare. It may seem a rather cold sentiment to express, but I disliked visiting them for too long a stay, not because of any dark family feud or like. On the contrary, it was because of the tender affection that existed in equal measure between us that contributed to my reluctance to see them. I would always see the worry in my mother’s eyes, and my father’s stoic silence and quiet resignation, mixed with his own memories of the last war, his gentle pat on my back each time we said our goodbyes. I suppose those normal, family moments brought back all the fear, all the things one struggled to ignore, to dismiss and bury somewhere deep in ones mind. Buried and refrained from digging up.
So on the second and final day of rest from all the horrors I find myself comfortably ensconced in a café in Nottingham that the boys from our squadron used to frequent. It had attractive waitresses and its fair share of customers were pretty WAAF’s, the tea was quite drinkable too. I must have been day dreaming because I was slightly startled to hear my name being called. I looked up to see Johnny Cartwright, an old chum I had done my heavy bomber conversion training with, standing in front of me. As luck would have it we had been posted to the same squadron.
“May I join you”, he asked, rather formally.
I was happy to see a familiar face and bid him sit down, ordering a fresh pot of tea as I did so.
“Off ops?” I asked, casually.
“Sticky one last night”, came the measured reply, “flak was hellish, could have stepped out and walked across Berlin on it, so thick”
I laughed, the times I had heard that one, Cartwright refrained from matching my grin, it had, obviously, been a bad one and the smile faded from my lips. I sat silent, hoping the tea would arrive to break the impasse. As a rule we never liked to talk shop, anything other than….but no tea forthcoming, I ventured, “Berlin, again?”
He nodded, “Lost six”.
Now six aircraft lost might not sound a lot to the uninitiated, but our squadron would, normally, put up around seventeen on any one raid. Six lost accounted for, roughly, thirty percent of our strength, and forty two empty chairs in the canteen. I cursed under my breath.
“You were bloody lucky to miss that one”, Cartwright said, matter-of-factly.
“Well, I’m sure I have it coming sooner or later”, I replied.
He looked at me, intently. It, rather, unnerved me.
“No, you’ll be all right”, he said, studying me with unmoving eyes, “you’ll get through, you and your crew”.
I did not, quite, know what to say in reply, such was his manner, other than a feeble “We both will, I’m sure”, lamely adding, “and your crew, too”.
He fell silent for a moment before saying, “Most to flak and night-fighters and one, one to falling bombs”.
It happened, occasionally, bombs being dropped by an aircraft at higher altitude hitting one below. It had happened to me, forced to swing the lanc’ about, not a pleasant experience, the bombs cascading just beyond the starboard wing. I had heard stories of planes coming home with small 40lb incendiaries stuck in the wing, that had failed to ignite, but you didn’t stand a chance, really, especially with something heavier. It, suddenly, occurred to me at that moment, the reason for Cartwright’s introspective and subdued manner. It had been his plane that had dropped bombs onto one of our own bombers. I stirred my tea and mumbled, “accidents happen, old chap”.
The passing waitress chipped in, “everything alright, Sir?” I smiled at her, weakly and continued, “One can’t take the blame, it’s mayhem, you know that as well as I, mayhem and in the freezing black of night with all hell breaking loose. One cannot dwell or lay blame upon it. Just an accident, old boy”.
“Yes, just a bloody accident”, he echoed.
He sat, motionless, for a few moments, then stood up abruptly and said “Well, must be off, good luck. You’ll get through, as sure as eggs are..”
“Powdered!”, I interjected, laughing, glad of the chance for a bit of humour. The waitress shot me another puzzled expression. Cartwright was already leaving the café, his cup of tea sitting untouched in front of me.
“See you back at the station”, I called out after him, but he did not turn. I noticed a number of people had joined the waitress in looking my way. I smiled, self consciously, I suppose I had, rather, shouted out with more than a little gusto. I buried my heard in my newspaper.
“Expecting someone were we, Sir?”, the waitress asked as she cleaned my table, some slight sympathy in her voice.
“Not that I am aware”, I replied, “Why do you ask?”
She nodded at the second cup of tea, left getting cold.
“Oh, that”, I continued, “no, it was for that other chap who joined me, but….” My voice faded. The waitress looked at me, the sympathy now mixed with some confusion.
“It must be tough, what you boys go through”, she said, “must do all sorts to you”
I paid and made my way back to our airfield.
“Bit of a bad show last night, I hear” I said, upon entering the station opps room.
“Yes, six failed to return, all confirmed now, bloody terrible, how do you know?”
“I saw old Cartwright in town, looked like he had taken it all pretty badly”, I answered.
The three chaps all stood in silence, shifting around uncomfortably, until one finally spoke up.
“We can all take a joke”, he said, “but bad taste, bad taste old fellow”.
“What?” I asked, somewhat taken aback.
“Cartwright and his crew were one of the aircraft that bought it last night”, came the reply, “got caught by falling bombs, bloody waste, a bloody stupid waste.