|On the train waiting at Paddington, I was squashed into my seat in the crowded compartment, wondering whether I should just give up the ghost and stand in the corridor for the journey rather than put up with the overwhelming stench of garlic emanating from the vast woman sitting next to me. The warm weather wasn’t helping matters; she was dressed in a thick Harris tweed suit, and she kept taking out a handkerchief which smelt as though it had been doused in garlic-scented perfume to wipe her perspiration away.|
I pulled uncomfortably at the collar of my demob suit and turned to the window, which was fortunately both on my other side and wide open. I watched people scurrying up and down the platform; passengers hurrying to board the train, porters carrying luggage which they shoved into the van, the ticket inspector smoking a cigarette and discussing something with the guard. There was something oddly soothing about watching it all, the hustle and bustle of civilian life.
And now I was going to be a part of that at last. I had more or less forgotten how it felt to be a civilian. Even the three months’ sick leave I had spent in Armishire two years before felt like a distant dream now, but I was going to have to get used to it again. Still, at least I had Frank and Phoebe and good old Debby to keep me right. And of course Meg.
Meg, my Meg. My girl. God, I’d missed her badly. I couldn’t wait to see her again, and start making up for lost time. I’d have to get a job, too, for we couldn’t get married until I did.
I sighed. I was still undecided about my next career move, really. I knew Meg was keen for us to get a farm of our own, and while the idea did appeal to me, I felt I didn’t know enough about it to make a success of it. She’d said something about her brother-in-law getting me a job on Cairn Farm first so that I could learn the ropes, but I was well aware I couldn’t bank on that. Especially not now with men coming home in their thousands, looking for jobs and homes.
The train pulled out of the station with a whistle and a shriek, and I sat back in my seat. I was heading home at last! No more planes, no more bombs, no more saluting the superiors, no more having to break bad news to the squad that one of the chaps had fallen, no more biting my tongue when an order came that I disagreed with…
I sighed again. I couldn’t put my finger on when exactly my feelings towards the RAF had changed. Two years ago I would never have dreamt of tossing it all up and quitting, I’d had everything going in my favour; I was one of the youngest Squadron Leaders in Fighter Command, I’d been mentioned in dispatches, I had my DFC, I’d even merited an approving nod from Stuffy that time he’d come to inspect the squad at the height of the Battle of Britain. Not to mention that I’d taken three enemy planes down with me when I’d been shot down over the Netherlands and had even managed to evade capture afterwards and re-join the proceedings. I was an RAF poster boy.
But while the remembrance of all that did still fill me with pride and my love of flying had by no means diminished, I knew I couldn’t put up with the politics of army life any longer. As the war had progressed I had become more and more disillusioned with some of the decisions that had been made, both on the battlefield and internally. The ignominious removal of Stuffy still rankled; I couldn’t believe the way he had been shafted after he had basically been the main reason we had succeeded in preventing the Jerries from marching in and adding us to the Reich. Later on there had been other promotions and demotions up and down the chain – many of them influenced by money, blue blood, family connections within the ranks, or a combination of the three – which had left me shaking my head in bewilderment, and I had begun to rapidly lose faith in the system. Market Garden hadn’t helped, either; I had had a foreboding feeling about it from the beginning. Rushing the German line had struck me as highly unlike Montgomery’s usual cautious approach which had stood us in good stead up until that point, and I couldn’t understand why he had suddenly changed to such a risky strategy. My fears had been confirmed when we had failed to take all the bridges, lost hundreds of good men, and I myself had been shot down. When I had re-joined my squad some six weeks later and discovered that the person promoted to my place during my absence had been a mealy-mouthed young ass of a baronet who hadn’t even half of my flying experience, it had been the final straw. I could have named several experienced but non-privileged members of the squad who had deserved the position far more, and I had had an almighty argument with the Wing Commander over it. He had privately concurred with me – after threatening me with a court martial if I didn’t stop shouting at him – that old Cobbles should have been given the position, but had pointed out that young Chester had too many influential connections to be argued with. I had finally stormed out of his office in disgust, and written to Meg to declare that I would be taking my skills elsewhere the moment I was eligible for demobilisation.
Where, though? It was all very well getting on my high horse like that, but now that the Japs had surrendered and it really was all over and I was actually demobbed, I had to admit that I had nowhere to take my skills to as yet. Unlike Frank I had not dug in at school and walked away with a string of distinctions in the School Cert. – the best one could have said about my results was that they were fairly average. What use were maths and Latin and history going to be to an RAF pilot, my schoolboy self had reasoned. It was only once the war had started, and I had climbed the ranks enough to learn to look at the bigger picture rather than just blindly following orders from campaign to campaign, that I had realised just how essential geography, politics and history were in military planning and territory control, and maths, chemistry and physics in the building and maintenance of aircraft.
And now I was regretting my idleness at school even more; a decent showing in the exams would have got me into university to work for a degree. As it was, unless Meg’s promise held and she was able to get me into Cairn Farm, I could end up doing anything. Or nothing at all.
The train hurtled on west, and the garlic-scented woman disembarked at Reading, much to my relief. With my concentration no longer taken up by having to hold my breath repeatedly to avoid inhaling the fumes, I opened the copy of The Times that I had bought at Paddington and was soon immersed in catching up on current affairs.
It was a long journey, and seemed even longer in the blistering heat, but my spirits rose as we turned northwest towards the Golden Valley, which lay very peaceful and beautiful under the September sun. I would soon be home, home to my family and my girl and everything I had been longing for.
At long last the train pulled into Armiford station and I jumped off, looking around to see if anyone had come to meet me.
I turned and saw that most glorious of sights running along the platform towards me; Meg, in a low-cut blouse and tight riding breeches, and a blazing look on her face. The force of her hug as she flung herself on me and kissed me almost knocked me off my feet, but oh, how good it felt to hold her again!
When we finally came up for air, she brushed away the tears that had sprung to her eyes and beamed at me.
‘I was so afraid they were going to send you out to Japan,’ she said.
‘So was I,’ I admitted. ‘But it’s over now, and I’m home for good.’
‘You’re home,’ she agreed, tucking her arm through mine as we left the station. She paused for a moment, wrinkling her nose, then added in a much more measured tone; ‘And you know what you’ll have to do first now that you are, don’t you?’
‘Make up for lost time with you?’ I suggested hopefully.
‘Not before you have a bath, you won’t. You’re absolutely reeking of garlic!’