Under Leaden Skies
1939. The arrival of war prompts 'Teddy' Garston to confess his love to childhood friend Huw Roberts. Separated by duty - Teddy piloting Sunderlands for the RAF and Huw working in a Welsh coal mine - their relationship is frustrated by secrecy, distance, stress. When Teddy returns to Britain, can he find a way to provide for everyone he loves, and build a family from the ashes of wartime grief?
February 1941, Shetland
"Letter for you, Garston," Jem called from his office as I passed by with my crew heading for our rooms after debriefing from our latest mission.
I stepped into the tiny room to receive the letter Jem held out.
Huw. I recognised the writing immediately though it had been so long since I'd seen him I sometimes doubted I'd be as quick to recognise his face. I tucked the precious missive safe inside my shirt pocket, beneath my jacket. As innocent as our letters were forced to be, I didn't want prying eyes reading them. I realised Jem had continued speaking while my mind drifted off to thoughts of my distant lover, and pulled myself under control before I got bawled out for ignoring my Squadron Leader.
"... Drummond? Looks like his orders have come through for his new posting."READ MORE
"Said he was due a hot bath. He'll be in the mess later." I turned to go, feeling in dire need of at least a splash of water to freshen myself up.
"Your replacement Nav's here already." Jem nodded to a figure I'd only been half aware of.
The chap was slightly built and sat on the wooden chair beside Jem's office door. He wore that expression peculiar to those expecting to be ignored for a good length of time. As I stepped back out of Jem's office and turned my eyes on him, he leapt to his feet.
"Charles Neville, sir. Just been posted here."
I nodded vaguely at him and shook his hand. "We've already got a Charlie in the crew. Guess we'll call you Cheeky – or Cheeks, maybe – until we come up with something better, eh?"
He grinned, and answered that it suited him fine.
"Right, well that's good then. My name's too long to bother with – I'm Garston to most folks, Teddy when we're in the air. You don't get to call me Teddy on the ground until you've earned the privilege though." He nodded, still smiling, so I can't have looked very menacing. Hard to, when you're flat tired. "Don't know what they've told you, but we've been doing some long stints lately. Just got back in. I need to spend a few hours in the company of my mattress so I'll see you after that. Probably take you up in the old girl for a short run tomorrow. Jem'll tell you how to be useful in the meantime."
Returning to the land of the living after a five-hour doze, I stumbled my way down to the mess. It was no more than a hut but we'd cheered it up inside to look like the pubs we remembered from before the war. All the boys were there, and gave me the usual hell for being a sleepy-head since they’d already had an hour's drinking under their belts. Laughing at myself with them, I scooped up the pint placed for me on the bar and turned to cast my eye over the room, my ears picking up threads of conversation as I searched out 'my' boys amongst the throng.
"Teddy, you crafty cad!" I turned towards my name, finding Price and Drummond chatting with the new lad I'd met earlier. "Bit rough, telling a chap he's to change his name then buggering off to bed."
That's Drummond all over, doesn't care who he's pulling up; he'd rip a strip off the Air Chief Marshal himself if he felt he deserved it. I told him where he could shove himself, since he was abandoning us, and pointed out how confusing it would get with two Charlies in the same aircraft.
"Not to mention the Charlie flying the damn crate, eh, Teddy?" he replied. "Honestly, I've no idea how they ever let you in to Oxford if you get thrown by two chaps having the same name."
"I've pickled my brains since then," I reminded him, finishing off my pint to emphasise the point. Cheeks – the new chap – looked from one to the other of us as if trying to work out if we were pulling his leg and the whole thing was a joke on him.
My glass empty, I returned to the bar. Cheeks followed, leaving Drummond and Price to argue between themselves the rights and wrongs of whatever they'd decided to disagree on that evening.
"I don't mind the nickname," Cheeks told me in a low tone while we waited to catch the landlord's eye, adding with a quick grin, "I've been called much worse."
"I've no doubt you have, Cheeks," I replied, deciding I preferred calling him by a single syllable name. It seemed a highly appropriate nickname, as I'd noticed when he'd had his back to me that he had a very nice pair of cheeks on him, though that wasn't a reason I'd ever be able to explain to someone else. "That's what schooldays are all about."
He laughed, which surprised me. I'm used to my paltry wit falling pretty flat.
After a few minutes that seemed an age, our empty glasses were replaced with full ones and I nodded towards a corner where I could see a pair of empty chairs.
He had an easy, open way of sitting, one ankle crossed on the opposite knee, and his free hand resting in his lap. I mirrored him without thinking, asked about his experience, and we chatted about flying like old pals who've been apart a while. He'd transferred from a night fighter squadron which had recently converted from Blenheims to the new Beaufighters. In contrast, I'd spent my whole time in Sunderland flying boats. I'd been at Pembroke Dock in the early part of the war, then transferred up here to Sullom Voe and took command of the craft I un-officially renamed S Sally because I felt silly calling her ʹS Sugarʹ.
It wasn't until his fingers brushed against my wrist during one of his stories that I realised Cheeks was flirting with me. More of a shock was finding myself flirting back: smiling and laughing when he wanted me to, grimacing when his tale hit a low point. After another tale or two, he looked straight at me and paused as if – I thought later – making a final assessment before taking a leap of faith.
"Getting a bit noisy," he said, his tone light but with steel behind his eyes. "Is there anywhere a bit more private round here we could continue getting to know one another?"COLLAPSE
"I loved this book, both for the story told within it and for the style in which it is told – addressing the reader throughout,"
Rainbow Awards Honourable Mention (2016)
Length: 46,000 words/166 pages