Dragons and Coal Cinders
Copyright© 2016 by Myrtle Lane
The next morning passed in a whirlwind of activity, partly because Alfred stepped on the grounds at the same time as Dr. Rootstein arrived for work. I knew when I returned from the pub that Alfred would be caught. The hospital ward was small and an empty bed would be noticed. I also knew Alfred didn’t care, and I couldn’t blame him for sleeping in his wife’s cottage. “Perhaps my rebellious nature rubbed off on him,” I had thought.
The ward’s night nurses had checked with me when he wasn’t in bed for the night. There wasn’t any way around telling them the truth, so I did. The nurses thought it rather romantic that Alfred had escaped the grounds. What I didn’t expect was Alfred getting caught entering the building by the good doctor. Rootstein ranted at my partner all the way to my room. Of course, the doctor was surprised I was in my hospital attire rather than a uniform like Alfred, as it was clear from his attitude that he thought I must have sneaked off too. But with no evidence to back up his suspicion he turned his rant on me, since I was nominally his supervising officer. I bit back at him explaining we weren’t on a plane, so Alfred was his own man. Alfred ignored the doctor the entire time he was talking to me, which seem to upset Rootstein more, causing him to finally storm off, promising to inform our superiors of our antics.
The relief emanating from Alfred was evident, even before he said, “I kid you not, that was the best night of my life. Getting that earful didn’t help, but I hope I didn’t drag you down with me. There is no doubt he’ll talk to the General.”
I shrugged and put my hand on his shoulders. “What can they do? Send us up alone against a wyvern clutch?”
Alfred laughed and relaxed a little, happy I wasn’t mad at him. “There’s always the Falkland Islands and the Dragon Point watchtower.”
I didn’t get the joke, so he pushed on. “So, how was your big night with Ivy?”
It was my turn to laugh. “Ivy had a bit too much to drink and Shirley ended up putting her to bed.”
“That’s bad luck. My wife said Ivy was smitten with you. Have you seen her today?”
“Ethel said it’s Ivy’s day off. Ethel seems to blame me for getting her girlfriend drunk too.”
“That is total rubbish,” Alfred responded. “You didn’t encourage her to drink ale.”
“Never mind Nurse Ethel, the truth will come out when Ivy’s head isn’t spinning anymore. Help me get dressed in my uniform. It must look perfect for the inspection,” I answered.
We fussed over our uniforms for half an hour, and then Penelope, the nurse covering Ivy’s normal shift, entered the room announcing she was to escort us to the main office for our meeting. She was the nurse who had been smoking with the men when I was first introduced to the patio and the hospital grounds. I looked her over with interest. She had been described as a rather outspoken woman, which I admired. She blushed prettily, having noticed my examination, whereupon she swiveled and exited the room. Alfred and I looked at each other with grins; clutching our hats, we followed her.
She took us into the other wing of the hospital, which was full of banners and British flags. We passed a number of gentlemen in suits and top hats accompanied by older women in very conservative dresses. They all looked rather stately, carrying themselves as though they belonged here. Our guide dipped her head respectfully when one of the couples looked at her as she took a turn towards the front of the hospital.
An old, short, round woman whose dress was shades of white, walked into the hallway and looked at us while releasing the button on her heavy cloak in one graceful movement. The elderly lady shouted, “God bless you.”
The distinguished gentlemen next to the old woman tipped their heads slightly, acknowledging us, and the ladies in the same group were just as solicitous.
Penelope walked closer to us and whispered, “Hospital supporters and patrons.”
“Ah,” Alfred commented. “It’s a ‘must attend social event’ when a Brigadier-General visits.”
“They suspect who ye are too ... the main meeting room will host the affair,” Penelope explained, placing her hand on my shoulder and pointing down the hallway, while leaning her face close to mine.
Penelope was acting like a proper lady, but she invaded my personal space without giving it a thought, which surprised me. Her light perfume enveloped me and I rather liked its sweet fragrance.
“Can’t keep the brass waiting,” Alfred said, interrupting the moment. His expression was earnest.
“Of course,” Penelope said in a cheerful tone, taking me by the elbow and leading me forward between two groups of patrons.
Expectantly, an airman stepped out of the crowd and shook Alfred’s hand. “You had a jolly jaunt, I heard. I imagine it was hair raising, Sir.”
Alfred smiled and patted his shoulder, but pressed on.
“Can’t keep the general waiting,” Penelope explained, pulling me along.
After that we worked around a large, ornate column that boasted a pair of airmen resting their shoulders while chatting with an attractive aid worker who stood between them. They were too involved to notice us as we slipped behind their backs to walk the last five feet to the office door.
“Here ye are,” Penelope said slowly, as if passing a warning. “Dr. Rootstein and the men from London are in there. I was told Dr. Rootstein was going to confer with the general’s aide, while waiting for you.”
“Thank you, Penelope, we promise to behave,” Alfred said, looking at me with a stern face.
“I get it. The best way to avoid any sort of self-inflicted trouble was to say as little as possible,” I thought, following Alfred into the outer-office. The small room guarded the entrance to another office that had smoked glass windows and a solid ash-wood door. Inside the room was Rootstein and a youthful looking captain with a lot of medals on his uniform. The officer was pacing in front of a tall metal cabinet.
The doctor exchanged only banal pleasantries with us—under the watchful eye of the Brigadier’s henchman. We saluted the Captain and introduced ourselves. All the short, thin officer said was his name: Captain Devon. If I’d seen him on a college campus, I’d say he was a gymnast because of his smooth movements and solid muscles. His short black hair was neatly trimmed, and a curled mustache dominated his face. There was a little color to the Captain’s hollow cheeks, like he had been having serious words with the doctor.
When the Captain’s back was to him, Rootstein’s expression tightened, his nostrils flared as if venting steam. A clear non-verbal message of disdain. He was still mad at us. An air of anticipation filled the room, I sensed we were catching them at an awkward moment.
Captain Devon half-turned to Rootstein, clasping his hands behind his back. “The decision’s been made. I’m just communicating it to you.”
Devon’s tone made it clear no argument would be had. The Captain’s face was impassive, but his fierce eyes had an edge that told me not to trifle with him. A palpable tension filled the air between the two men. When the muscles flexed in Devon’s jaw, Rootstein’s proud gaze faltered.
Rootstein turned to me unexpectedly. “Don’t take this wrong Lt. Green, but I expected to be performing an autopsy on you when you first arrived from your crash. By living, you represent an important medical opportunity. I’ve sent a copy of your case notes to Sir Walter Morley-Fletcher, director of the Medical Research Committee. He’s a friend of mine.”
Rootstein glanced at the Captain as he dropped Fletcher’s name into the conversation, probably trying to score a point at my expense. Alfred sighed theatrically.
“I’d send a copy of your case to Dr. Karl Landsteiner at the University of Vienna if I could,” Rootstein continued in a rapid fire sentence.
Alfred was mildly amused by the Doctor’s apparent resolution to get his hands on my body and keep me at the hospital.
“Enough,” Captain Devon said with steel. “The Brigadier doesn’t care about blood types or your Austrian doctor. I don’t care if our officer’s blood is strange. This is about direct threats, real dangers and keeping up the population’s spirits during the war.”
The Captain’s voice clamped a firm grip on me. His civility was coated with authority, but Rootstein acted undaunted in his own hospital.
Rootstein walked to the exit, and then rested his hand on his cane, looking over his shoulder. “I noticed you didn’t mention how Sir Fletcher might find a wyvern survivor of importance.”
With that Rootstein left the room. I wasn’t disappointed to see him leave.
“A foul man,” Captain Devon mumbled under his breath.
Alfred and I remained at attention.
“At ease,” Captain Devon announced. “Enough of that, until you see Brigadier-General Wallace. That was sterling work with the wyverns.”
He walked over and firmly shook our hands, which made Alfred and me relax. A brass clock on the wall struck the hour, gears rotated in it and a chime rang for a moment. Devon looked at it, and then he pulled out his own brass pocket watch.
“We must keep on schedule,” Captain Devon mused, directing us to the general’s door.
He ushered us into the office and closed the door behind us. Captain Devon offered us respect without formality. Alfred and I both noticed the deferential treatment. We passed each other a confident look before facing the other man in the room. Captain Devon moved around us and brought us further into the large office. It had a lit fireplace bordered by cabinets that had medical books on top of them. In the center of the room were an oversized oak-desk and a pair of guest chairs; other chairs were near the wall facing a window, which overlooked the fountain in the front lawn.
“Come in gentlemen,” the Brigadier beckoned from behind the desk.
The Brigadier-General Wallace spared us a quick glance, confirming our approach, before opening a file in his hands.
Devon announced us, “Lt. Green and Second Lt. Radford.”
“Thank you, Devon. Be seated gentlemen.” The Brigadier’s voice was deep and his simple command made my insides squirm. “Tell me about your encounter with the wyvern clutch.”
Alfred was a natural storyteller, so I turned in my chair to face him. My friend took the hint, gripping his hat, he started by detailing the early morning flight from the aerodrome. Alfred’s tale made me feel like Don Quixote, who attempted to right all manners of wrong by placing himself in danger to achieve justice at any cost. “Except, the danger was real,” I thought, chiding myself for the silly thinking.
In Alfred’s story I could do no wrong, pointedly mentioning I’d alerted him to trouble before the first wyvern struck anyone. His words painted suggestions that the unforeseen disaster of losing an entire flight of planes was due to the sun being in our eyes, stretching the truth to deflect any fault from their memory. Listening to Alfred’s swift tale, I could almost hear the death throes of the men, even though I hadn’t. Alfred didn’t add his normal exaggerations, just commenting on various maneuvers we used to defeat the clutch. He confined our heroics to dealing with the wyverns, he didn’t mention the guard balloon putting holes in our plane as we attempted to land.
“Fine work turning that disaster into a win,” the Brigadier finally said, “a captivating story.”
Without thought, I blurted, “Alfred has a flair for the tragic, poetic, and the dramatic effort in a story,” I explained.
The Captain’s eyes laughed at me. The Brigadier just studied me, probably sizing up my bullshit.
I was proud of Alfred, so I trod where I shouldn’t and added. “It is true, sir.”
The Brigadier laughed and looked at his aide.
“That’s the kind of spirit I need for this job,” Sir Wallace said, pushing his fist down on his desktop.
“The men on the ward speak very highly of Lt. Radford’s stories,” Devon commented. “They all believe him, and they are proud as a peacock to tell it to someone they think hasn’t heard the tale of the defiant and desperate little plane. In my investigations around town, I have heard similar stories that have been attributed to both Green and Radford.”
“The pubs?” the Brigadier asked.
“Yes, Sir,” Devon answered unabashedly.
I suppressed a wince, as my ears perked up at the comment. “Did he hear about our trip to the harbor pub,” I thought, hearing my stomach rumble at the same time.
Alfred squirmed in his chair, so I suspect he wondered if Devon had heard about our behavior down in the harbor. However, the Captain didn’t cast any hard looks at us.
“The pub stories are imperfect in detail, but parallel Radford’s. Our observer’s tale sounds irresistible and gripping, rather like your friend H.G. Wells. The story is spreading quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised if a Scottish newspaper man hunts Radford down to quote it in the paper,” Devon said, amusement tinting his words.
“What! He knows H.G. Wells.” I thought.
“Make sure you each write a report with fine detail, I won’t mind if your accounts are dramatic. It won’t go in an official record,” Wallace said, seeing an advantage from a more emotional version. “At the moment, you’re highly popular with the locals. I plan on encouraging that. Dundee has a large population of employed men and women, showing off a heroic pilot and his sharp observer will play well here. Our military men will appreciate the success of living through a fight with wyverns too.”
All I could picture was me as a Rome gladiator facings lions in the Coliseum. “A roaring crowd loves blood,” I thought.
I tuned out the Brigadier’s monotonous voice as he continued planning out his campaign to win the hearts-and-minds of the Scottish people. After a few minutes his voice got excited. He rifled through his briefcase looking for something. Wallace snapped the local newspaper open, the sound penetrated my thick head and reminded me this man had my life in his hands. He was making another point about keeping the home front happy.
To prove I was half-listening, just as in my college classes, I said, “With the stalled progress of the warfare in France, nasty surprises at home could have a disproportionately large impact.”
“My very thought, Lieutenant,” Captain Devon interjected with narrowed brows, reminding me of my place. Wallace never paused, as if he’d not heard the exchange.
“This editorial emphasizes my point. It’s a veiled call for the rise of Scottish nationalism. We must counter this nonsense, especially in war time. Not only do we have to worry about events on the continent, we have to deal with the Suez Canal and Africa too. We have operations going on, west of Egypt along the coast against Turkish troops, not to mention the Anglo-Egyptian Darfur Expedition. Of course, we are doing everything possible to stay away from the heart of the Sahara desert,” the Brigadier explained, as if he was giving a lecture.
“Red dragons are best left alone,” Alfred muttered with a disquieted expression. “Magic.”
“Quite,” the Brigadier agreed in a slightly more elevated voice. “We have enough trouble with the occasional rumor of Blue dragons in the South Atlantic. We all know it’s not just U-boats and Admiral von Spee raiding British shipping around the Falklands.”
Murmurs of agreement swept around me with the Captain and Alfred nodding their heads to emphasize their agreement.
“If wyverns weren’t enough, they have dragons too,” I thought, trying to conceal my bewilderment. “Dragons and magic are the last straw, I’ve got to get home.”
The longer I was in this world the more I knew I didn’t have a complete perspective on it. I really wanted to ask what they were talking about, but their casual treatment on the subject of dragons made me sure it was common knowledge. It sounded like it was an unpleasant topic, if not a social taboo. I’d already decided to be on my best behavior around the Brigadier and I wasn’t doing well on that point, so I kept my mouth closed. The fewer new issues that I had to deal with would lessen any stress points, I had enough on my plate. “It just wasn’t fair what I had to deal with. Damn, I miss Google,” I thought, “all the answers about the world at my fingertips.”
I wanted to mull over their words while they were fresh in my mind, but the Brigadier moved on. “Lieutenant Green, my aide has made arrangements for you and your observer to begin a tour of the local coastal towns starting tomorrow. You will meet with the leadership of each community and tell your story about your defeat of the wyvern clutch. This afternoon, in town, we will attend a social event together, but I must return to London on the morning train. I have to be home for Easter week.”
I kept my face impassive as he gave his orders.
He looked at Alfred and continued, “Both of you will make every effort to project confidence to the populace during these visits. Both of you will extend your leave from your squadron for the next two weeks. You will use Dundee as your base of operations ... I want you seen around town.”
No doubt the Brigadier felt we’d be horrified not to be put back in the air against the wyverns. He looked for drawn faces of disappointment. It took everything I had to hold my face neutral and not jump up and down in excitement. Alfred’s smile couldn’t have been bigger.
The way Wallace looked at me, I realized he expected some sort of response from me. “Of course, Sir. We are your men.”
He nodded at me and turned to my friend.
“My aide mentioned your wife lives in town,” the Brigadier stated perfunctorily. “She is welcome to attend these town events. I can see it helping.”
“Thank you, sir,” Alfred answered, looking pleased. “I am sure she will enjoy going on the tour.”
“Lt. Green, Dr. Rootstein insists a hospital representative monitor your health until you return to active duty. He is a rather bothersome man, but he has the ear of some important people and your medical case is of interest to certain members of the government. Mrs. Ann Crannach, the head nurse, will attend you this afternoon. Also, the doctor said she will handle assigning a nurse for the out of town trips,” the Brigadier added. “I suspect you may get called for more poking and prodding in the future, if the doctor gets the support of the Medical Commission. For now, I’ve put him in his place.”
There wasn’t anything I could say; spending more time with Ann sounded interesting, but I wondered if Ivy would be assigned to our day trips. I hoped so.
The Brigadier pulled out his timepiece and looked at it. “Let’s see the hospital patrons for a few minutes before we motor over to the social hall.”
It surprised me to see Ann open the Brigadier’s office door behind me. She wore an elegant dress. I looked at her closely. She had fashioned her hair so it fell on her shoulders. It had a natural wave that I hadn’t appreciated before, because her hair had always been hidden under her Red Cross hat. In combination with a touch of make-up, Ann looked very striking. She caught me staring and blushed.
“It’s time to gather in the Hall. I’ve herded the patrons together and they are ready for you,” Ann announced.
The Brigadier closed his briefcase and handed it to the Captain. Wallace looked at Ann for a moment, deciding something.
“I know your late husband’s commanding officer. On a number of occasions, at private parties, really, he has made very complimentary comments about Captain Crannach and what he accomplished for the regiment that day in France. I just wanted you to know, he is remembered.”
Ann looked surprised, but bravely showed strength. “That is kind of you, thank you.”
We all suspected Ann had her mask on. I felt selfish, because I was more than slightly pleased she was available.
Alfred opened the office door and led us all out. Ann joined us and the Captain guided us into the hallway. We socialized with the elderly patrons for thirty minutes in a room set up for the gathering. The Brigadier was very likable and he worked the crowd with professional ease. Alfred tagged along with the Captain and Ann partnered with me as we worked the room. I was quickly tired of telling the story about fighting the wyverns, but Alfred seemed to collect a crowd until the end. Throughout the affair, Ann stayed on my arm, introducing me to people she knew. The Captain kept track of the time and helped the Brigadier disengage and make his excuses to leave. The Brigadier collected Ann and me, escorting us from the building.
Just outside of the front door of the hospital, three military steam cars waited for us. Each vehicle puffed out cinders and black smoke from its rear steam box, a driver was at the steering wheel and another man stood next to the passenger door. The six-wheeled, green colored cars looked more impressive and rugged than a steam cab. On each side, the oversized black rear-wheels were joined by a metal connecting-rod attached with crankpins. Piston rods connected to one set of rear wheels, which then transferred power via the connecting-rods. The vehicles looked sort of like armored cars; I could see how the windows could be popped out and imagined metal grills could be substituted. The car’s design seemed rather versatile, in its present configuration the large side windows allowed for a good view. “To see and to be seen,” I thought.
The aura of power around Sir Wallace was reflected in the deference the airman gave him as the car door was opened for him. Sir Wallace waved at the small crowd that filled the front lawn, and then got into the car. The general’s aide entered the car on the other side, whilst Alfred, Ann and I were guided to the second car. I didn’t know why there was a third car, perhaps it was a back-up vehicle. The general didn’t seem the type to leave anything to chance, so the extra car made sense to me. I lowered the car window by cranking a brass plated knob to enjoy the fresh breeze.
An orderly near my window pointed me out to a couple of home guard privates that were stationed between the car and the crowd of well-wishers on the lawn. His extended arm and pointing finger focused the crowd on me.
The orderly gave an impulsive cheer. “Hip hip hooray!”
The home guard privates joined the orderly, which triggered a dozen people near our car to join the chorus.
“The general’s getting his money’s worth,” Alfred commented.
Ann squeezed my hand, turned her pretty face to me and added, “We are all thankful for your protection.”
Alfred grinned at me from the other side of Ann, giving me a wink of approval. I knew if Mavis had been here, she would have added a cheeky comment, so I was thankful that Alfred just humored himself with my discomfort. Ann bent forward to wave her hand out the window around me. The general’s car shifted into gear and a puff of smoke covered our car, as his driver led our motorcade away from the hospital. In my normal life I’d always looked at things simply and rationally. Dealing with beasts, a woman in ghostly form with her voice in my head, and finding myself in the military, was reshaping my outlook on what I wanted while I was here. I couldn’t get Ann’s smile out of my mind. She was an attractive, slightly older woman and that gave me wicked thoughts.
Alfred tore me from my private thoughts as we sped out of the hospital grounds onto the street. “I understand what Wallace is worried about. The increased unrest in Ireland has our government on edge. The enforced conscription of Irish men for the war since 1914 has upset Irish republicans. My father says things are tense in urban areas in Ireland. What if the Scottish added their voices of discontent because of a feeling of lack of protection from the wyverns?”
“Thank god, there aren’t any breeding grounds for wyverns around Ireland,” Ann muttered, sounding unsympathetic regarding the discord in Ireland. We bounced over a severe pothole in the road, which seemed to emphasize the point.
I’d seen a PBS documentary on a failed Irish armed insurrection, but I wasn’t sure what year it happened. I was certain it was sometime before the roaring 1920’s, yet I did know it was during Easter week. The show had mentioned the government was slow to act, because of the holiday. Mindlessly, I watched as we passed all the dull looking homes that were pressed together. The car stayed quiet as we all considered our own counsel. My hand stayed where it was under Ann’s palm, nestled on her knee. “I can’t remember how my hand had moved to Ann’s knee,” I thought.
I’d given up trying to understand how easily she was taking to me. I wanted another friend, and I thought she was both kind and strong of spirit. We took a few hard corners with the car before Ann realized she was still holding my hand. She looked at me strangely, which made me feel awkward about it, so I rolled the window up as an excuse to let go. She blushed after I’d shown my discomfort. “God, you’d think I was a teenager again,” I thought, cursing myself for showing weakness. “Now she will think I don’t like her. I need to fix that.”
The armored car turned a corner, on a hill, leaving a trail of coal cinders and gray smoke, neither Ann nor Alfred paid it any heed. I had a hard time getting over the oddity of it all. Alfred turned to me and found his voice again. “I don’t know how you did it. Wallace intimidated me, sweat trickled down the back of my shirt, when he was interviewing us. You looked like a stone lion guarding a gate to a castle. He never rattled you.”
“Perhaps because this whole experience is surreal,” I thought, “and I’d dealt with sterner engineering teachers, and a particularly bitchy, female lecturer in a mandatory, freshman year, gender sensitivity class.”
Ann elbowed me, since I’d not answered my friend. “You told me to be on my best behavior, so I just imagined it was Ann. She has a tough exterior, but I know she is gentle inside.”
Ann elbowed me again. “I never!” she responded. Her face didn’t frown and her eyes twinkled at me, so I knew she secretly pleased.
Alfred laughed and the driver smiled at me through his mirror. I’d forgotten there were two airmen in the front seat, listening in.
The car in front of us stopped outside a nondescript building in a narrow street with men loitering there. A few cameras on tripods were set up near the door. By the time our car stopped behind the Brigadier’s, a handful of home guard soldiers ran down the brick steps to greet us and present arms. A couple of men in black suits manned the ancient looking cameras. Each car’s footmen opened the back-doors of the vehicles, and slipping out, we followed the Brigadier and the Captain to the building’s door. Both cameras flashed, taking a photograph of our party. The camera men clamored for another photo, but Wallace waved them off and disappeared inside.
The mayor greeted our party members; he had a silver chain of office around his neck. The small hall was full of everyday people, men in suits and women in less fashionable dresses than we’d seen, while attending the social event at the hospital. Children were everywhere. All of a sudden the band on the stage stirred with the forceful, patriotic sounds of Rule, Britannia! It’s a beautiful song punctuated with brass expressions and smaller instruments that combined for a fine display. Happy children’s voices sang the song besides me, as I faked singing it. The crowd punched the words “Rule, Britannia! Britannia Rule the waves: Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
I could see the music touched the spirits of the crowd, creating a feeling of togetherness. Brigadier Wallace looked very pleased--even regal--as we slowly moved to the stage. A number of men and women shook my hand as we walked down the narrow aisle between the folding chairs. The Captain directed us where to sit. After the music stopped the mayor did what politicians do best, he addressed the crowd for fifteen minutes. The Brigadier spent his time looking into the distance, planning, deciding; I wasn’t sure, but by the end of the mayor’s talk he was looking unhappy. When the mayor saw how impatient the Brigadier had become, the mayor finished up and called the senior officer to the podium.
The Brigadier made the normal polite thank you for welcoming us, mentioning the energy of the children singing the song, and then he proceeded to talk about the recent sacrifices of his aviators in defending the area. Wallace reeled the crowd in, expressing his pride in the town’s contribution to the war effort and the bravery of its young men. He kept his speech much shorter than the mayor’s, which surprised me a little. He had us stand and then encouraged the crowd to cheer and clap for us, which heightened the emotional atmosphere. Finally, Wallace called Alfred to the stage to give the tale of our fight in the sky. Alfred’s genuine enthusiasm for the task increased as the crowd showed great interest in the blow-by-blow tale of our encounter with the wyverns.
When the event finally ended, the crowd’s response was everything the Brigadier and the Captain could have asked for, the sounds of clapping and harmony of spirit drifted around us. The Brigadier shook our hands at the back of the stage, though I suspected it was just for show. He stepped off the stage, navigating the half-dozen steps to the ground. The Captain congratulated us too, which felt more sincere. We followed both senior officers to the main floor, while the mayor thanked the crowd and asked them to let us leave unmolested.
Ann had a front row seat, so she was the first member of the crowd to greet us and share her encouragement. “Well done.”
Other nearby guests threw out their support too, with more feverish clapping. The Brigadier shook hands with some retired veterans that were older than he; out of respect the general took a few moments with the veterans.
Amid the noise, Alfred said, “That went better than I expected.”
“Green might be a natural flier, but you’re the natural storyteller,” Captain Devon commented. “After seeing your performance, we could send you around all by yourself if we had to, Alfred.”
The captain joined his boss and they made their way to the door, expecting us to follow. My friend’s face soured, like he’d tasted a sour grape.
“I feel like I’m taking all the credit,” Alfred said regretfully.
“They want a PR tour, Alfred. You did well, but I hate to break it to you that it’s Jack whom all the ladies are watching” Ann said with sincerity. “I’m not surprised, but it’s peculiar, don’t you think?”
“They know I’m taken and he is single,” Alfred said with a snort. “The women must know Mavis got ahead of them.”
Alfred offered his arm to Ann and she took it, smiling at me as they followed the rest of our party.
“I am happy for your success, Alfred, truly,” I added, deflecting Ann’s statement because I honestly had noticed a few women staring at me during Alfred’s speech. Alfred looked back, more relaxed now I’d cleared the air, giving him more confidence in our relationship.
With Ann’s comment I knew I’d only lied to myself again. I knew the staring ladies were the women whose hands I’d touched while being paraded down the aisle. The brief handshakes with the ladies had contained a trickle of static electricity, which had felt weird at the time. “It’s all the wool clothes rubbing together,” I had thought, too distracted by walking amongst the crowd. On reflection, it was clearly more than that.
“It took you long enough to believe,” the ghostly woman’s voice whispered in my head, as I followed Ann and Alfred. “A woman with any interest at all in the opposite sex will feel your charm, if close to you. Touching releases magic, the strength will vary depending on your combined emotions. It’s an unexpected, if not unprecedented, side effect of my healing you. This is what celestial dragons use on potential mates. However, you need to attach much more emotion to your feelings for me ... Oh, I have a guest.”
I felt her presence disappear from my mind. Like a puzzle piece finding its rightful place, in my heart, I believed she was a dragon. I stumbled behind Ann and Alfred, wishing fervently to go home. On earth, only the mentally ill have voices in their heads. I talked to myself at times, but I never answered myself back. Talking to a ghost was freaky. Now, knowing I had been speaking to a dragon in some sort of holograph-like projected form caused my anxiety to race to the top floor.
“Is this why Alfred and the officers don’t like to talk about magic? Dragons get in your mind and make you crazy? And, why does she want me to get emotional? Do they have therapists here for people going dragon crazy?” I thought, laughing out-loud.
Ann looked over her shoulder quizzically at me. I sighed and shrugged my shoulders, not knowing how to explain myself to her. Alfred was too engaged with waving to the crowd to notice my outburst. I was distracted by a few well-wishers, as was Alfred for the rest of the short walk to the exit. So, Ann let my odd behavior drop from her interest. When we caught up with our commanding officers, we heard the end of their exchange of words.
“I’ll leave you to it, Captain,” the Brigadier said.
“Very well, Sir.”
Turning to Alfred, the Brigadier added, “Outstanding job.” Looking to me, he said, “You too, Green.”
With that dismissal, Wallace strode to his steam car, leaving Captain Devon with us. An airman opened the car door for the Brigadier, who jumped in. Devon waited until the car started to leave before addressing us. I had no idea what was proper etiquette for an aide and junior lackeys like us, so I didn’t say a word either.
“We can relax now,” the Captain said with genuine delight. “The crowd will be right behind us, so my only instructions to you is get a good night’s rest. I will escort Mrs. Crannach back to the hospital for the remainder of the festivities there. I suspect Alfred will take you to his cottage in one of the steam cars. The car is at your disposable until 8 p.m. Tomorrow, after breakfast, your car will pick you up, and we will all meet at the hospital. Once we have the nurse that is assigned to the day trip, we will be on our way to Arbroath where you’ll get a chance to see Bell Rock Lighthouse again.”
I sighed, not thinking about my companions.
Alfred put his hand on my shoulder. “I’ll take Jack home with me, Captain. A restful night sounds ideal. We’ll face seeing our crash site in the morning. I’m sure Ann is relieved she doesn’t have to stay with us all day.”
“I’m surprised that this is all we had to do,” I added.
“The Brigadier isn’t an ogre, he knows you’re both just out of the hospital. The rest of our touring will be much more taxing,” the Captain explained. “Shall we?” he asked Ann.
“Lead on, Captain,” Ann answered, politely.
The crowd started to exit, which was our clue to get away from the excitement. The Captain went for the closest car, so we walked briskly to the end car. Alfred didn’t think I was moving fast enough, so he grabbed my elbow, walking us away from the spectators in the most expeditious manner possible.
Ann gave me a long glance as she paused to take her place in her car. No words passed between us, but in that moment I knew she’d rather not leave without me. The Captain waited until Ann was safely in the car, and then went to the other side of the car. The airman raced ahead of him, and opened his door by the time Alfred and I reached our car. Devon slipped into his car, and the airman quickly moved to the front passenger-door and closed himself inside. Ann’s car sped off without delay.
A few little boys ran down the street with their arms out wide, pretending to be airplanes, making sounds that were intended to be machine guns. The boys were chased by two women. Alfred and I watched them before getting into our car. I could remember doing the same thing as the boys when I was their age. Most of the crowd had spilled outside, waving and cheering us on. Alfred looked at me with a grin and disappeared inside our vehicle. I jumped inside with him, pushing him over instead of running around the car to get in. He yelled at me playfully, but I ignored him. The airman didn’t seem amused and shut our door rather hard.
“Just get us away from here, and then I’ll give you directions to my house,” Alfred instructed the driver. “Just find a northbound road.”
“Yes sir,” the driver said, with as little ceremony as possible.
Mavis’s eyes shone with emotion when we walked into the cottage, you’d think we were about to head-off to war. For a moment she stared searching our faces, as we stood in the narrow entryway that faced the open kitchen door.
“Are you returning to the aerodrome?”
“No, love,” Alfred answered, “we have until tomorrow, before having to go on a public relations tour along the coast.”
Mavis threw herself at her husband and wrapped him in her arms. “Marvelous, I honestly thought they’d send their best men back into the fray.”
“We have two weeks of ground duty,” I added.
Unwrapping an arm from Alfred’s back, Mavis captured my neck with her hand and pulled me into their hug. “You lovely men. I’m so lucky to have you home.”
In quick succession, she kissed us both on the lips and then released us. Mavis skipped in to their tiny kitchen and put the tea kettle on without a word. Alfred smirked at me and took off his jacket and hat, hanging them on pegs in the hallway. I copied him, hanging my hat and itchy jacket up too.
“Now that’s what it’s like to come home to a happy wife,” Alfred boasted. “You’d do well to remember that and make yourself useful.”
His humor escaped me, which made him grin and slap me on the back, walking me into the kitchen. “You make a good salary; lots of lasses need a firm hand and a steady income.”
Mavis heard him and raised her fist, “Forgive my husband, Jack. I’ll be giving him a firm hand later. He seems to forget we are not in Victorian times. There are thousands of single women working in Dundee...”