Do not let us speak of darker days; let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days: these are great days--the greatest days our country has ever lived.
– Winston Churchill
There was another war: men returned to the military life, while women left the schools, the kitchens, and dreamt of soaring the skies side-by-side the fighters flown by their brothers. There were adventures; there were close scrapes and close friendships, and a sense of order in the midst of the chaos of conflict.
For two pilots in particular, the normalcy of war life was their ideal.
And one day Squadron Leader Marcus Yorke placed a phone call, and everything changed.
"He's famous," Frecks said, nudging Worrals with her elbow. "Smaller than I thought he would be, but handsome!"
Worrals looked up from her morning meal with a look of supreme disinterest on her face. She studied the four pilots sitting at the table across from them for a few long, steady moments, then turned back to her oatmeal.
"If they weren't here," she said coldly, "the Squadron Leader might have let us do the job."
Frecks laughed. "He'd never let us escort heavy bombers to France, no matter how much you argued! Besides, if he's got them in here, then it must be a pretty fancy job."
"I don't believe half the stories I've heard about that crew," Worrals said.
"Cross my heart they're true," said a voice from behind her. Worrals gasped, and turned around quickly. One of the pilots was standing there with an amused expression on his face.
"Flight Commander Algernon Lacy – but you can call me Algy," he said, extending a hand. "Yorke told us that you two girls really knew the lay of the land around here. We were hoping you could join us for a tour of the facilities later this morning."
Frecks giggled as Worrals reluctantly shook Algy's hand. Looking past him, she noticed that the youngest member of the new group was looking at them with a hopeful expression on his face.
"We'd be happy to, Commander," Worrals said. "But do inform the redhead there that we're not looking for boyfriends."
"Speak for yourself!" Frecks squeaked, as Algy laughed uproariously. Over at the other table, the redhead turned pink, while the man of the hour resolutely kept his eyes on his morning newspaper.
"I just don't care what you say; there's no way a girl can fly a Spitfire like a man can."
"A man?" Worrals said, with a disdainful look at Ginger. "Why, I've flown a Messerschmitt through occupied France."
"We should take you girls on the mission to see what you're made of," Algy said, laughing.
"Absolutely," Worrals answered immediately.
"I say, Squadron Leader Yorke wouldn't be well-pleased with that," Bertie cut in.
"I don't know," Biggles said, thoughtfully. "Do either of you young ladies speak French?"
"L'oiseau a volé," Worrals whispered into the man in the trenchcoat's ear. The man nodded once, carefully, and then slipped off into the darkness.
"What did she say?" Ginger whispered.
"That he should offer you up first if he's found out as a spy," Worrals replied. Beside her, Biggles stifled a laugh.
"Come on," he said. "We have to get back to the rendezvous. Algy will be going spare." He put out his arm, and Worrals stared at it for a few seconds before cautiously hooking on her arm.
"It is dark out," she said, shrugging her shoulders at Ginger's look. "Practicality will get you everywhere, in the end."
"What was that French again?" Biggles asked, a mournful note in his voice.
"The bird has flown," Worrals replied, kicking a stone in the dirt. In the distance, a Spitfire lifted off majestically into the sky, growing smaller by the second.
"At least the others are safe," Biggles said decisively.
Worrals nodded. "We completed our mission. Now, we walk."
Biggles held out his arm once more, and after another moment's hesitation, Worrals took it.
"I've always wanted to fly," Worrals said, curled up on the ground, while Biggles stood watch. "I clipped stories from the paper about aeroplanes, and pilots."
"You handled the Spitfire well," Biggles said approvingly. "I can't say I'm well pleased that we've had to recruit girls for our war effort, but you girls are doing a bang-up job."
Worrals snorted, and Biggles looked over. "You keep calling us girls," she explained. "I'm twenty-two years old. Women my age are married, bearing children. I'm flying 'planes in a war. I'm not a girl."
Biggles laughed, but there was kindness in his eyes. "This is my second war. But I understand. We all have to grow up, in these grim days."
Worrals frowned, and half-closed her eyes. Biggles went back to watching the skies; Worrals watched him stand there until she nodded off into an uneasy sleep.
"When we get back, I'm taking you up in any 'plane you fancy," Biggles said decisively, getting up from the ditch they'd hastily flung themselves into to avoid a passing regiment of troops. "That was a close call. You've got great hearing."
Worrals grinned. "I want the fastest one you've got."
"Fastest and highest," Biggles said, smiling at her. "Come on – only a few miles more, I'd say."
"Tell me another story while we walk," Worrals said, taking his arm without any prompting at all.
The others were in a state of nervous panic by the time Worrals and Biggles walked back onto the base, two days later, covered in dirt, arms linked together, and grinning widely.
"You always fuss too much," Worrals said to Frecks, only mock-irritably. "I was perfectly safe with Major Bigglesworth."
"And I with Worrals," Biggles said, smiling. "If this is the new breed of girl Britain is producing, I must say, our future is looking bright."
Curiously, Biggles decided to attach himself to that particular base for just a while longer.
"Your war record, Major Bigglesworth, does not allow you to take my WAAF girls up in a brand-new Spitfire!"
"They're damn fine fliers, Squadron Leader," Biggles said, with a stubborn set to his jaw. "And they're doing exceptional work for us in this war effort. They want to fly – we have to let them have something."
"They are good," Yorke said wistfully. "But regulations are regulations, and the girls are not to be put in harm's way."
"Except when you send them to occupied France. I'm sorry, sir." Biggles did not look particularly contrite.
"You are aware of Miss Worralson's age, aren't you, Major?"
"Yes, sir," Biggles said, nodding his head carefully. Yorke frowned.
And then Squadron Leader Marcus Yorke placed another phone call, and Biggles returned to his home base with his crew.
...a change of scenery would do us all good. Off to the front shortly, I would suppose. The Royal Arms at seven o'clock?
Frecks laughed as she brushed her hair. "You never want to go out on leave, Worrals. I'm so looking forward to going to town."
"Yes," Worrals said, distractedly trying to straighten out her skirt. Frecks tutted and came over to help, brandishing a tube of lipstick as she went.
"Yes – you're wearing some," she said, as Worrals struggled. "If we're meeting the boys, then you have to look good. Yes, of course I've figured it out," she continued, as Worrals stared at her. "I may be a bit dim, but I'm not thoroughly stupid."
"You're not dim, Frecks," Worrals said, sweeping her friend into a hug. "Oh, I have no idea what I'm getting myself into here. James sent a letter saying they'd be in town tonight, but..."
"So we'll go to town, and dance, and have a lovely time! I wouldn't mind seeing Ginger again. Oh, hush up." Frecks pouted as Worrals laughed, but couldn't keep it up for long, and ended up laughing with her friend.
"Those boys aren't going to know what hit them," Frecks said, taking Worrals' arm. "Come on, let's go show them what girl pilots can do."
"Noisy, isn't it?" Worrals said, wrinkling her nose.
"What did you say?" Biggles shouted. "I can't hear anything in all this ruckus."
Worrals laughed, and headed off for a quieter table in the back. Biggles followed her, shrugging his shoulders at Algy, who was watching intently. Ginger and Frecks were fairly busy on the dance floor, but Ginger craned his neck around for a better look.
"I'm glad you could join us," Biggles said, when they'd reached a quieter table. "Boy, that din sure is deafening."
"It's lovely to see you, James," she said carefully, as she flagged down a waitress to get a lemon squash.
"I will never understand why you insist on calling me that," Biggles said, with mock hurt in his voice. "I'll call you Joan, see how you like that."
"Please do," she said. Biggles laughed.
"Doesn't suit you at all, really," he said. "Too plain for an exciting girl like you!"
"What suits me is flying," Worrals replied, with a sigh. "The Squadron Leader is keeping a tight lid on us right now."
Biggles' eyes flashed. "It's just not right."
And the next thing either of them knew, he had his hand on hers, comforting her, reassuring her. Neither of them found they minded.
"Your lipstick's gone," Frecks said accusingly, as they ran back to their quarters, just a smidge before curfew.
"I was drinking lemon squash," Worrals said. "It didn't last."
"I couldn't get Ginger's attention once you'd gone off with Biggles. Bertie was a good laugh, but Algy and Ginger were pretty displeased."
Worrals laughed lightly. "I should say they're not used to sharing James. He really is delightful company."
"A delightful kisser, maybe?" Frecks teased, darting out of Worrals' reach as the other girl made to pinch her. "So, are we taking leave again next month?"
...setting up communication lines. Three days of flying! I'm so pleased. Can we move it up to Friday before I leave?
Worrals and Frecks laughed as Bertie finished up his story; Worrals so hard she had to borrow Biggles' handkerchief to wipe her eyes.
"Oh, I like these girls," Bertie said, grinning. "Haven't had anyone new to tell that one to for a while, and so appreciative, too!"
"It's not that funny," Ginger said. He continued to glare in Worrals' direction.
"You've heard it too many times," Algy interjected kindly. "Here, Ginger, Biggles, come with me to the bar to get some drinks."
At the bar, Biggles rounded on Ginger. "Would you knock it off?" he asked. "I don't know what's got into you, but I don't like it."
Ginger just looked at Biggles with a strange expression on his face: half anger, half sadness.
"You were supposed to be ours," he said simply, and turned back to the table. Algy pretended he hadn't heard or seen a thing, but put a hand on Biggles' shoulder, nonetheless.
"It's just been us lads a long time," he said, and turned back as well; Worrals caught the look that flashed across his face.
...don't want to cause any trouble for you. Do drop a line once in a while, if you can. This war does give one an awful fright for one's friends...
"That was a darn silly letter," Biggles said, walking up to Worrals at the hangar. She jumped, and turned around in a hurry.
"James! Don't sneak up on a girl like that. I thought I was hearing things."
"Sorry, I didn't have a chance to call in advance," he said, not looking at all contrite. "I happened to need to stop by to visit with one of the officers on this base." This was clearly a contrivance, but Worrals let it slide.
"I'm sorry for the letter," Worrals said, "but it's clear that your lads aren't very keen on me, and in a war there's nothing worse I could do than to disrupt your team. I'd never be able to live with myself if anything happened as a result."
"My team will learn to live with it," Biggles said. "I can't help how Ginger feels, but he's a good sort, he'll understand after he's had a bit of time. Bertie doesn't complain, as you can see. Well, he's started up with some of those hilarious comments of his about women and 'planes, but he doesn't mean any harm, not really."
"And Algy?" Worrals asked. "I find myself somewhat unsettled by your team, James. I feel as if there's – something there, deeper, that I don't understand."
Biggles flushed slightly. "Algy and I are dear friends," he said. "We've – been through a lot of scrapes together. But he – he understands. We all love our 'planes first, but we'd all like to meet a nice girl as well, in the end."
Worrals narrowed her eyes. "What exactly is Algy to you, James? Be honest."
"Algy, he – he's my wingman," Biggles said, lamely.
"So's Frecks for me, but you don't see me taking advantage of that," Worrals retorted tartly.
"It's not taking advantage!" Biggles replied. "Worrals, I'm an old man. I've had a long life."
Worrals laughed. "You're not old," she said, "but I do know you had a life before me. Still, won't you see what's happening on your team? You can't be involved with everyone, James."
Biggles took her hands then, and leveled a steady gaze at her. "I am old," he said, "and you're young, and I've done things you should find monstrous. But I – feel young again with you, and in this interminable war, it's a blessing." He broke off, and stared at her intently. Worrals felt her breath catch in her throat.
"This is absurd," she said, when she felt able to speak again. "We're fighting for our lives and worrying about the past, when it's the here-and-now that's the only thing certain at all." And with that, she leaned forward and kissed him.
...two weeks back from the front. Doctor says Algy just needs a rest after the blood loss. Will be at the hotel in town...
In a war, sleep is never deep. From the window, Biggles heard a creak and flung back the covers, reaching for the gun on his bedside table. "Stay where you are!" he rasped at the shadowy figure stepping over the windowsill.
"Be careful!" came the slightly high-pitched reply, and he put the gun down with a sigh of relief.
"What are you doing here?" he asked Worrals, amazed.
"I've made my way in and out of occupied France," Worrals said. "I think I can get into a man's bedroom."
Biggles laughed, still looking astonished. "I said I'd be in town, but I expected to see you during the day. What on earth convinced you to sneak over here? You'll be court-martialled if you're caught. This is no time to be playing games."
"I wanted to see you," she said simply, and moved over towards him. With a start, Biggles pulled up the covers, and guided her to sit some distance away from him on the bed.
"This is – this is not a good idea," he said, his voice still rough from a few hours' sleep, from the surprise of being awoken by a girl in his bedroom.
"Frecks and I are going back to France tomorrow," she said, without preamble. "And I thought to myself that I had to see you before I went. Just in case."
He frowned, and found he couldn't speak. Against his better judgment, he leaned over and wrapped her up in his arms.
"We're getting Spitfires," she said brightly, as she leaned into him. Her hair smelled fresh and her skin was soft, and Biggles found it hard not to react to her presence.
"You're good with Spitfires," he said, somewhat lamely. She smiled, then, a mischievous look in her eyes.
"Yes," she replied, and pushed back his covers. Biggles realized, rather belatedly, that he wasn't wearing a nightshirt, as it was warm in the room.
"Worrals," he said, warningly, but she shook her head as she pressed herself against him.
"James," she said, tugging at the buttons on her jacket in a matter-of-fact way, "I quite love you, you know."
And Biggles may have known better; may have been able to list a hundred reasons or more to walk away from this pretty girl, but he wasn't made of stone.
Worrals laughed a lot as they undressed; a sort of half-anxious sound that unnerved Biggles a little.
"We don't have to do this," he mumbled, as he touched her skin and felt so awake, so alive.
"You're not the first boy I've kissed," she said lightly, pressing up against him.
"I'm not a boy," he said, grabbing her shoulder. She opened her eyes wide and pushed back against him.
"And I'm not a girl." She punctuated her statement with a sharp bump of her hips that had Biggles seeing stars. He pressed his lips to her neck, and she parted her legs, letting him slip inside.
He frowned as she winced; one glance at her face confirmed that she was a girl, at least in one important respect.
"I'm all right," she said, slightly out-of-breath. "Please, James. There."
He buried his face in her neck, breathing in her hair, and moved slowly and carefully.
"I'm sorry," he said afterwards, when he had regained his equilibrium. "I didn't know – I didn't want to hurt you."
"You couldn't hurt me," she said quietly. "I know you'll never clip my wings."
He wrapped her up tight in his arms and they breathed in each other's skin, and tried not to think about war, and death.
And then it was V-E Day, and she was just Joan again: civilian, earthbound, a girl.
She ran to him as he taxied onto the aerodrome; was in his arms before he'd barely stepped down from his cockpit.
"It's over," she breathed, and he suddenly remembered a previous day like this, and he felt very, very old, holding the hope of the next generation pressed up against his chest.
"There's still Japan," he said, but she shook her head, and he understood what she meant. He squeezed her a little tighter, then stepped back. "What are your plans now, then?" he asked, trying for as much nonchalance as he could muster.
"I'm going to fly," she said matter-of-factly. Biggles' heart landed somewhere in the vicinity of his shoes.
"It's all over for girl pilots, Worrals, don't you see?" he said, trying to be kind. "The men are home – "
"And the girls are back in the kitchen, and having babies," she replied. "I belong in the sky, James. You know that more than anyone."
Biggles nodded his head slowly. Worrals looked at him, and he realized that in that moment, he held her heart in his hands, her heart and her hopes and her dreams: one slip of his fingers and they would crumble to dust, and she wouldn't be his Joan – his Worrals – any more.
"I don't have any particular plans for civvy street myself," he said carefully. "The boys and I, we'll probably go back to commercial pilot work, doing assignments for the Air Ministry or whoever needs us, whenever the opportunity comes up. You and Frecks could – join us. Help us out."
Worrals smiled, and shook her head. "We'll help when we can, of course. But I'm going to find my own way; stand on my own two feet. There's need still for good, reliable air ferry service, once I earn my ticket, and I can give lessons to other women who want to learn to fly."
"Marry me," Biggles said then, and Worrals' eyes went wide. "I'll help you set up your business, and if times are tough, you can rely on me."
"Yes," Worrals said simply. "Yes. And we'll still have adventures, James – we'll still find ourselves in scrapes and keep our wits sharp as we barter our hasty retreats. James – I'll have your baby, even, if you want. Just make sure I can still feel the wind on my face."
And on that brave and bold day, in the beginning of a new world, a pilot swept his girl up into an embrace, and promised her they'd never stop reaching for the stars.