As I lay my head back in her lap this spring evening, the look on Flora’s face is soft and worried. For whatever reason, it washes warmth over me where before I had been so cold, so shivering cold.
And I wished to tell her everything would be fine. Even in war, everything can be fine. If I didn’t believe this, all would be lost.
“Oh, Bobs,” I say, calling her by the nickname I gave her for her short hair, which scandalized my mother, “I wish you wouldn’t worry so. I have been the luckiest boy ever and I’ll be coming home in just a month or so. General Trenchard told me I could come home when I hit 50.”
Fifty victories, I mean. In May of 1917 the victories are getting more difficult for us boys in the RFC. The Boche Air Corps have new machines that are cutting down my mates like the first grass. But I can’t tell Bobs that.
“Albert, I would worry about you climbing into your aeroplane even here at London Colney,” she says. “But I know you’ll be careful. You were careful when you took me up with you in March and I know you want to come home. This time you want to stay, don’t you?”
She was right; I had to go, but for once, I longed to come home.
Five minutes after I was introduced to Flora I wanted to take her into my world, impress her with the thrill of flying and maybe thrill her with me. I scrounged up a flying kit, helmet and boots, belted her in front of me in the cockpit of the dreadful SE-5 scout I was training other boys to use, and up we went. I would have preferred my little Nieuport Scout, which could flit through the sky like a sparrow. But there was barely enough room for me in its cockpit, let alone the two of us. To tell the truth, I wish I had tried.
When we landed, she was indeed thrilled with the experience. But my delight of being close to her was even greater. She took my breath away. Even now, 20 years old, decorated Captain in the Royal Flying Corps, having flown more dodgy sorties than most other pilots – at least the living ones – I still found myself breathless in her presence.
I am so lucky.
“Bobs,” I say, “I’m more pleased to have met you than anything that’s happened in my life. I’ve waited so long and have had so many disappointments. I hope that this will all be over now and that you will bring me luck on this next run in France.”
My luck thus far had been remarkable, but I hadn’t really appreciated it until I met and fallen in love with my Flora.
I had been like all the other boys when the Germans had run through Belgium and stormed toward Paris in ’14, wishing to sign up and beat the Huns back across the Rhine. I had to wait ten days until I turned 18, and convince Mother, before I could enlist.
From my first days with my hometown unit, the Sherwood Foresters, through my time as a motorcycle messenger, I knew I wanted to fly, even though there were no scout planes when I enlisted—no one knew they’d be needed. The sky pulled me upward as much as the look in Flora’s brown eyes above me.
I had Dad use his political friends to help me transfer to the RFC. Actually, I had even used some money Dad had sent me from Nottingham to pay for my own flying lessons from civilian instructors, just so I would be the most ready when the call came.
It didn’t take too long. Getting to fly in combat took longer. But the excitement of taking an aeroplane over the lines for the first time was like nothing I had previously experienced. Getting shot at by Boche machines beat that by a mile, though.
“Albert, do you ever worry about what might happen to you? I mean as much as I worry?” Flora says.
“Oh no, Bobs,” I say, “Not as much as you do.”
That was true, but lately, even as hard as I had fought to get back to France to be with my mates, to do my job, it felt different. I wasn’t afraid of dying, just not being able to see Bobs’ beautiful face again. Look at her, like a child, leaning over me, touching my cheek, her hand so warm. I could just close my eyes and sleep here, I feel so safe.
The chilling memories of my days in the air come back to me all the time now. Mostly they come at night. But I have these visions sometimes even in daytime, like I’m living them again. Alone, as I prefer to fly. I’ve even taken to my own tent away from the new pilots. Being alone there out near the landing ground with these thoughts is better for than to show the lads some sign of my feelings.
Right now, I can feel as well as see the time last summer when I flew 15 miles over the front and loitered above that Boche aerodrome. Bobs would think this frightening. Mother would be appalled. I wrote to Dad: “I’m really having too much fun for a boy my age. I was met by 14 Huns. My windscreen was hit in four places, mirror broken, spar of the left wing broken. Also, the engine ran out of petrol.”
How I managed to get back to my aerodrome and pancake my Nieuport in the middle of the old pasture criss-crossed with the ruts of aeroplane tyres and tailskids I can’t quite remember right now. I remember the other pilots running out to see if I still was alive. They looked like ghosts under all the oil and smoke on their faces. My crew—fitter, mechanic, armorer, they take care of me and my machines so well—were glad to see me walk away but knew I’d want this aeroplane ready to go back up as soon as they could put it back together again.
“Sorry, Willy,” I said to my rigger, the chap who cares for everything about the aeroplane but the engine and guns, “but there were so many Huns up there today.”
“Don’t worry, Mister Ball,” he replied with a crestfallen look, “I’m sure we’ll get ‘er up again.”
Putting things back together again has always been an issue for me. I was an engineering student and I don’t wish to break things anymore.
“Won’t it be nice when all this beastly killing is over and we can enjoy ourselves and not hurt anyone,” I ask Flora.
“Of course, Albert, I pray for that every day, right after I pray for you.”
I only half-listen to her. That is a bit of a habit now because I get so deep into these thoughts and dreams.
“I know, I feel I’m really looked after by God, but I do get tired of living always to kill. I really am beginning to feel like a murderer up there. I feel sorry for the chaps I’ve killed. Just imagine, Bobs, what their poor people must feel like. I must have sent at least fifty or sixty men to their death, something I try to keep from you. But it must be done or they would kill me and then I can’t come home to you.”
“My God, Albert,” Flora said and touched my face.
I dare not tell her of my most recent dream, where I brought my kite back to the aerodrome so shot up, all the controls shot away, that I had to land by manually adjusting the trim wheel and near-stalling the engine. Just about eight feet above the ground, in that last glide before she pranged in, I crawled over the back of the fuselage and jumped to safety. But it wasn’t a dream and I’ve been a bit wobbly since then.
I see myself sitting on a crate by the flight line the other day, thinking about these things, drawing in the dirt with a length of flying wire, when Duncan Grinnell-Milne walked by.
“Albert, my boy,” he roared, “won’t be long now. Just six more victories and you’ll be headed to Nottingham for good.”
Absent-mindedly I stirred the dust and said, ‘No Duncan, I don’t know if any of us are going home, not like it was, not like we were.”
I didn’t see him leave. Instead, I saw the time that German scout I’d damaged turned and tried to ram me. The pilot’s face was so close to me he looked like a specter of some kind sent to take me with him. Maybe he was.
I shiver again.
“Flora, I wish we could be together always,” I say, feeling colder yet.
“Albert, we will, when you come back to me. After all, we have an accommodation now, don’t we? I don’t reckon anyone can call it an engagement. You never asked me to marry you, just pronounced we would be married, you cheeky boy. You never gave me a ring, but I treasure your identity badge as I would any bit of jewelry.”
She held the round badge in front of me, shiny brass, like the setting sun. It stung my eyes for a second and I blinked as another dream crossed my mind.
I’m flying on the Huns’ side of the lines and it’s in the evening, the time some of their observation machines make their last runs and head for home. I’m up with ten lads in my new squadron, Number 56, in these dud SE-5 machines. The SE-5s are still so new that barely any of us know what they can do. For that matter I’m not certain what these new boys can do, which is why General Trenchard assigned me here.
I’m hoping that the machine gun on the deck in front of me doesn’t jam again. Can’t tell Flora this.
The skies are building spiral cloud mountains, towering to 20,000 feet, I’d guess. Below, is the town of Douai, where we know the Bloody Richtofen’s Jasta 11 keeps its aerodrome this month. The German boys don’t wish to fight single combat or in pairs anymore. Now they fight in packs like wolves.
The sun is setting and the Albatroses are rising to meet us. This is going to be a ripping scrap, I can tell. And then we are in a whirlwind of brown machines and red machines, red-white-blue cockades and black Iron Crosses all flashing by so fast that sometimes you can hardly keep your bearings. Like so many of these recent fights, everyone gets scattered across the sky. But I can’t look out for everyone when I have to do my other job, kill Germans and come home to Flora.
And then that red aeroplane with a yellow nose and tail whips past Cecil Lewis and I take chase. I will get to 50. I will get to 50. I must get to 50. He twists and dives and heads into the clouds and I know he can’t shake me. My attention is solely on his tail. I recognize the flash of the setting sun on his goggles as he glances fearfully over his shoulder at me, as I’ve seen that look hundreds of times before. I know it as sure as I know the booming of my own heartbeat in times like this. I fire burst after burst into him, a drum of bullets from the Lewis on the top wing and 60 or 70 rounds from the Vickers gun in front of me.
I see him drop below me and I know he’s done. I see it all so plainly. The craziness and blood lust that overtakes me at such times ebbs away. And I think of my Flora again.
Then I break through the clouds, seeing from my altimeter that we’ve dove to only 200 feet. But the clouds are in the wrong place.
“Flora, why are the clouds below me and the church steeple above me?”
“Rest, Albert, lie back and rest.”
I fight the urge to rest, I have to get back to the squadron, get back to England get back to Bobbsy. The disk in front of me fades away. It’s not the disk of the sun, or my identity badge, it’s my spinning propeller. It stops spinning and then I only see its top, vertical like that stalactite church steeple in front of me.
And then that great noise.
“What’s going on, Bobs? Can I come home to you now? General Trenchard promised me I could come home now.”
“Yes, Albert, you can come home. You don’t have to hurry, though. We’re waiting.”
And I see her face above me again, so beautiful, so young. Even now when I see her I can barely catch my breath. Yet her eyes are so very sad as I lay my head back in her lap. I feel raindrops on my face.
“Don’t cry Bobs,” I say.
Fifteen year old Cecille Deloffre had lived amid the sounds of war for a quarter of her life. She’d learned to sleep to the thunder of the big guns as if they were a summer rainstorm. She had become inured to the buzzing drone of the aeroplanes as they flew west-to-east and east-to-west each day, often punctuating their passage with the staccato drumbeat of their machine guns.
Cecille had seen some of these machines fall from the sky, glowing and tumbling like a cigarette tossed by one of those German soldiers hidden in the steeple of the nearby church in the village of Annoeulin.
This evening during dinner she had heard the fight above her home, sounding so much like someone had struck a hornet nest and the swarms spreading across the sky.
Then Cecille heard the sound of what could have been two aeroplanes directly above. Her mother crossed herself and tried dragging Cecille from the table to the root cellar beneath the kitchen floor.
She broke from her mother’s grasp and ran into the small fenced yard in front of their farmhouse just as one machine spit a tongue of fire back from its yellow shark-like nose, engine sputtering, gliding to a crash landing on the other side of the village.
She heard another aeroplane’s engine sputter and stop, just as it whooshed, upside-down, from the low storm clouds not 300 metres up the road. She could see its pilot wore no helmet and she could see his eyes but not his face in the growing dark.
Then the aeroplane just fell, like a book knocked off a table.
Shocked, Cecille stood frozen for a second to see if this machine would catch fire. But it only lay crushed on its side like a coffee-colored bird knocked from the sky by a kestrel. She saw the pilot’s head move and she ran toward the aeroplane, unsure why, with her mother screaming behind her.
She came up to the crash site just as the young man within the broken machine released his buckle and fell from the cockpit with a thud, a moan, and a faint rasping wheeze.
Cecille reached for the boy and pulled him a few metres away from his machine. She rested his head in her lap and he slowly opened his eyes, looking up at her with such longing that she couldn’t keep from crying.
“Don’t cry Bobs, Bobs, Bosshh…” she heard him barely whisper. Then stillness.
From behind them came the sound of the jackbooted German soldiers from the steeple pounding up to the scene. They jabbered with delight, so sure they shot down a British flyer. But they hadn’t. Cecille noticed the boy had no wounds on his body.
Her eyes red with tears, Cecille looked down at the boy again and saw but a small bruise beneath his eye where his goggles had been. In her lap, the face of 20 year-old Capt. Albert Ball, MC, DSO, VC lay in silent repose. The sooty stain on it was variegated in white by the tracks of tears, like the half-smiling black marble bust of a saint. They were his tears and that of a beautiful young girl he briefly saw and was sure was the one he loved.
Cecille looked up at the surrounding soldiers and spit, “Boche, il est mort. C’est fini.”
But Albert couldn’t hear her. For all intent and purpose he had gotten his 50th and he was flying home.