The Welsh Squadron
By Margaret Ronald, illustration by Ian Simmons
10 July 2006
Part 2 of 2
Nate woke at dawn on the tenth and listened for the phone's summons to scramble. It didn't come. Neither did MacDonough with more information. Nate lay staring at the ceiling, waiting, until Birney shook him awake. "You must have been as tired as I was," he said, grinning. "Jerry's decided to let us sleep in today. I'll have to thank the next one I shoot down."
"You're sure?" Nate dragged himself out of bed. "The radar towers aren't down?"
"Ask MacDonough yourself."
MacDonough confirmed it. There had been a few flights of Messerschmitts over Brighton, but nothing the bases there couldn't handle. It was the same the next day, and the next. Nate lay awake each morning, expecting the scramble orders any minute. They flew maybe one sortie a day, downing a few stray Ju88s. But beyond that—nothing.
"I don't like it," Kay said on the twelfth, over lunch.
"I do," Baker retorted. "Now the ground crew can get to fixing the Hurries in the hangar rather than putting petrol-can patches on ours. And I can look up at the sky and not expect to see a bloody Dornier."
They needed the rest. Baker and Birney needed it the most, but the entire airfield had suffered in the last months. MacDonough, Clare and the Y Service, the ground crew (who finally got all the craters in the airfield filled in tight)—all greeted the respite with wary joy. The only one who didn't notice was Furness, probably because the bastard was getting plenty of sleep no matter what. But even Baker cheered for Furness when he announced that he could probably risk giving 188 Squadron a day's leave. After 72 Squadron's turn, of course.
Idris spent most of the time reading the Round Table book, grinding his way through the unfamiliar words. Nate taught Kay and Owen poker, and Birney played endless games of checkers with Pig. The waiting became almost as tiring—almost, Nate thought, glancing out at the airfield for the fifth time in as many minutes, but not quite.
On the thirteenth they were called out against another attack on London. This time they didn't have as much warning; they were barely in the sky when a squad of Messerschmitts caught them from above. Idris rallied and shredded the first attacker's wings, but not before Baker's Black Bess went down, spiraling smoke. Someone shouted over the radio, but Nate paid no attention, flipping Sweet Addie into a vertical roll and firing at the first Me he saw. Shards of blue and black painted steel rained down, and the Me went down to join Baker.
They fought grimly, with barely any exchanges over the radio. Even the call to head back didn't bring its usual cheer. When they got back, MacDonough was out on the airfield before they touched down, waving his arms. He ran up to Sweet Addie as Nate brought her in. "Baker!" he yelled. "I've heard from Baker!"
It turned out that Black Bess hadn't been as damaged as she'd looked from the air. Baker had brought her down in a field and plowed straight into a barn. He was fine, aside from a few minor burns; the plane, though, was a mess, and the flight mechanics had been sent to bring her back. Baker, meanwhile, had spent the rest of the afternoon with the retired major who owned the barn.
The rest of the squadron hurried over one by one as they set down, so the story had to be repeated several times. But the important fact got through: Baker was alive. "By God," Birney said quietly during the third iteration, "I was beginning to think it was back to the old days for us."
"Unlikely," Nate replied, but he'd had the same thought: from here on out they'd only lose more men. "As far as I'm concerned, lads, the evening's ours," he called out. "You go on ahead. I'll wait for Baker to show up, and we'll meet you there." A few protested; Idris wasn't among them.
It was well past nightfall by the time Baker showed up. A few lights were on, barely visible through blacked-out windows, and someone in the infirmary had brought out a gramophone. Nate lit another cigarette and leaned back against Sweet Addie, wondering what Idris and his men thought of gramophones.
Finally, a battered old Daimler with the paint scratched all up one side pulled up. Nate watched as Baker made his way out of the car, talking the whole time. It drove away at last, and Baker turned toward the barracks.
"You're late, Baker," Nate said with a grin. "Glad to have you back."
"I did try to get here sooner, sir," Baker protested. "But the major was an old windbag and barely shut up long enough for me to say I had to go. That was him in the car just now."
"Next time this happens, you remember you're not paid to drink sherry in a country house."
"No," Baker agreed. "But he did send along a gift." He drew a package from under his jacket and peeled back the paper to reveal a dust-smudged bottle. "Single-malt Scotch, sir. The kind MacDonough would weep for. Said it's for all of us."
Nate whistled. "That was good of him. Take it in to the lads; they should be down at the pub by now. We ought to save a drop for MacDonough, though. He saves our hides often enough."
Baker shrugged. "We'll forget once we're halfway down the bottle. You take him some if you want."
Nate handed him his thermos, and he tipped a generous slug into it. "Thanks. I'll meet you there."
MacDonough wasn't in the radio tent, and neither were any of the Y Service girls. Nate ended up leaving the thermos at MacDonough's desk with a folded note so that he wouldn't mistake it for coffee. The airfield was even quieter on his way back. Somewhere the Luftwaffe were still going after London, but no trace of their current assault marred the night.
As if to make up for the base's silence, the Good Intent was about ten times noisier, probably because most of the lads were here instead of at the base. Nate paused a moment at the door and made a halfhearted attempt to smooth down his hair. Then the roar surged, and one voice—Idris's—carried over it.
"Damn," Nate muttered, and tugged the door open.
The pub was packed. Some of the older officers, easily the age of Nate's grandda, clustered by the bar. 188 Squadron was just beyond them. Idris's voice rose again over the buzz of conversation. "—of lies about us! And they expect me to—"
Nate cursed again, loud enough that the WAAFs nearby jumped, except Clare, who grinned and waved. He waved back absently and threaded his way through the crowd, catching fragments of Idris's rant. They had gone most of the way through the old major's Scotch already. Between the twelve of them, it hadn't gone far, but in Idris's case, it had gone far enough.
"I mean, what kind of name for a sword is Excalibur? And out of a lake? You didn't pull anything out of a lake when I was young but that you gave thanks. And Merlin? The only Merlin I know is the one that runs my Hurrie."
Nate's mouth went dry, and he almost retreated. But Idris had seen him and now advanced on him like a Messerschmitt at full power.
He slammed King Arthur and his Knights down so hard it knocked over the last of Gwyn's beer. "This is what they say of us now, Holyrood? This is what you make of our battles?"
Nate said nothing.
"I stole the cauldron of the sea-god from his glass fortress! I chased the boar Twrc Trwyth across Britain into Ireland and back into Cornwall again! I dragged the Black Hag from her cave and split her from pate to groin!" He struck the book again, and the table shuddered under the blow. "And they call me an impotent dawdler, someone who can't even save his own wife!"
A few of the lads chuckled. "Yeah, and the Yanks too!" Birney called.
Idris gave him a blank look. Birney's not hearing the same conversation, Nate thought. Everyone else is hearing a different argument.
"They're just stories," Nate said.
"My stories!" Idris shouted. "My name, given to this craven king! I was never a king—I never even wanted kingship." He took a glass from the table and drained what was left over Pig's protests. "And who the hell's Lancelot?"
"Terrible name," someone said.
"You know who I blame," Wallace said, tilting up his beer and gazing into it. "I blame the French." That drew a guffaw from Baker, and again Nate wondered what conversation the rest of the pub heard. "It's pretty obvious they stole those stories and rewrote them."
"Tournaments," Idris muttered. "Tournaments and idiots searching for Christ relics and fighting on horseback. No blood. Nothing about watching your own men die. Relics don't change that. Nothing changes that."
"So the stories change," Kay said. "So what? The sea-god we met was hardly the one from the tales. Did you expect men never to forget?"
"I didn't expect to be fighting for men who thought me a blockhead. You read it and see, Kay. They got you right at least; you're a useless git with meat between your ears and the courage of a mushroom."
Kay went very still. The other Welshmen fell silent, glancing from one to the other. Not even Birney or Baker spoke. Outside their cluster of tables, the cacophony continued unchecked, but a tense silence enclosed all in that corner—all except Nate. They've never followed me, he thought; they followed Idris, and he followed me. But if they no longer follow him—
"Idris," Nate said harshly, "you're drunk. If you think insulting each other will help us bring down a few more Jerries, then go right ahead, but from where I stand I can't see that you're doing us a damn bit of good."
For a moment he thought Idris would hit him, or that Kay would. But Idris only glared at him, shoulders heaving, then bowed his head. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."
"I'll see you back to the barracks. Baker, glad you're all right. The rest of you, watch it. We may still have to scramble come morning, and Furness is still a bastard." He picked up the book and nodded to Idris, who followed sullenly.
Their path to the door was blocked by a white-headed officer in a uniform that could have come from the Great War. "Heard what you were saying back there, lad," he said to Idris, whuffling through his mustache. "You're not alone in it, not alone at all. But we mustn't despair, not so long as we have our good lads like you."
"Thank you," Idris said stiffly.
The officer clapped him on the shoulder and beamed. His gaze lit on the book Nate carried. "King Arthur, eh? Good stories. Read 'em as a boy. Tennyson." His eyes clouded. "Supposed to come back, he was. Would have been a lot of help in Ypres, I can tell you." He patted Idris's shoulder again, blinking fast, and wandered off.
Idris, tight-lipped and pale, strode past Nate. "Were you in Ypres?" Nate murmured as they reached the threshold.
"No," Idris snapped.
"I don't know!" He shoved the door open so hard it banged into the wall.
Nate followed him to the barracks without speaking, then dug out a pack of cards while Idris dunked his head in the water barrel. When he returned, he looked a lot more himself, though the grim set to his mouth hadn't changed. Nate offered him a glass of water, and he took it with a nod. For a few minutes the only sound in the barracks was the buzz and riffle as Nate shuffled the cards.
"You do that often?"
Nate shrugged. "It's something to do. Keeps my hands busy."
"Ah." Idris fell silent again, glowering into the distance. "How'd you get into this?" he said, waving toward the airfield. The gesture could have meant anything—the barracks, the RAF, the war itself. . . .
"Grandda," Nate said after a moment. "Mostly Grandda. My dad was a soldier in the Great War—he met Mum, married her, and got me, all while he was on six weeks' leave." Idris chuckled. "Yes, probably not in that order . . . he didn't come back after that. Grandda talks about the Great War a lot, though to hear Mum tell it, he wasn't hale enough to do more than cheer on the Order of the White Feather." He riffled the deck. "I joined while the RAF were in France, getting the piss beaten out of them. Thought I could do some good." He tapped the deck on edge against the table, and the water in Idris's glass trembled. "I couldn't leave now."
He didn't add that his worst dreams—or what had been his worst before the long night keeping a dead body afloat—always consisted of paratroopers descending over the farm, of what little family he had blown to pieces by a stray bomb. "How about you?" he asked, mostly to fill the silence.
Idris didn't answer immediately. When he did, it seemed unconnected to anything that had come before. "You from London?"
"Ah." He took a long drink. "I was in London once," he said. "Just the once. Went up to the White Hill—it's where the Tower is now, so Baker tells me. There was a head buried there, the head of Holy Bran, said to keep Britain safe. I dug it up." He flashed a grin at Nate. "Wanted my men to have faith in their own strength rather than some decaying bones. So I dug, and I found a skull, and I tossed it in the river."
Nate's hands had frozen on the cards. The thin sound of familiar voices drifted in on the breeze: the rest of the squad coming home.
"That night I dreamed," Idris continued. "I dreamed I went to the river, and the skull rose from it and took on flesh. And it spoke to me, and asked why I'd done it. I gave it the same reason I gave my men, the same reason I gave you. It told me I overestimated the men of Britain; I said it underestimated them."
He laughed. "Those aren't the words we used; I'm translating as I go. But we came to no agreement. So finally it said, 'Will you take my place, then?' And I—I thought it was bluffing. So I said I would. I and my men."
The voices were louder now. Soon they'd be at the door.
"That's the hell of it, Nate." In the pitiful lamplight, there were lines in Idris's face that hadn't been there before. "I said yes, but they didn't agree to anything. I dragged them into it. And this is where we end, till Holy Bran calls us back to hear the birds of Rhiannon sing us to sleep."
He drained the glass and dropped it onto the table. As if summoned by the sound, Ben opened the door, supporting a staggering Kay. "You still mad, Idris, or you want to help us get this lug to bed?"
Idris shivered, and the haunted look in his eyes receded. "That oaf's probably going to be snoring like a bear all night," he said, getting to his feet. "Give us a hand, will you, Nate? Sir."
Furness very nearly didn't carry through on his promise of leave. By the fourteenth, Nate had to threaten to ring Biggin Hill and show someone the schedule 188 Squadron had been put through. While war excused many things, exhausted pilots were no good.
At last he was informed that they could "take your bloody leave and break your bloody necks with it," and went out to tell the others, who were watching Baker apply handfuls of dirt to the newly-repaired Black Bess. The crew had hosed her down before repairs, washing off most of Baker's luck—except the bagful he'd saved in case something like this happened.
They spent their evening of leave in London, driving up in three packed cars (Baker had talked MacDonough into loaning his, and Nate drove Baker's), dancing at the clubs, and doing their best to charm the few young ladies out in the middle of wartime. Nate privately thought that none were as pretty as Clare. The Welshmen, Idris especially, were very quiet on the way up, but once there celebrated like madmen, dancing and drinking and singing barbaric ballads.
Birney stayed remarkably sober, and while Baker had to be poured back into MacDonough's car, Pig said that he could take the wheel on the way back. "Idris," Nate said as they manhandled Baker into the back seat. "Kay, Ben. Ride back with me."
"Kay's going to be sick," Ben said. "You want him to do it in Baker's car?"
"Better there than in MacDonough's." He opened a rear door and motioned inside, like a chauffeur. Idris grunted and opened the front passenger door himself.
The drinks he'd had (three pints of Lancashire Dark, plus a draught of something called "metheglin" that Wallace had brought) lent an odd clarity to his thoughts. Even in the dark, the road was clear before him; every blade of grass along the verges seemed outlined with black ink.
"We'll be scrambling again soon," he said.
It wasn't a question, but Idris answered anyway. "Yes."
"And then you'll go. Don't—" he overrode Idris's protest "—don't ask me what I mean. You know what I mean. Maybe it won't be tomorrow, but soon enough, when we've pushed them back." The dim glow of MacDonough's car's lights faded ahead of them. Nate didn't take his eyes off the road. "When you go," he said, "I want to go with you."
"You've got to be joking," Ben muttered.
"No." Nate shook his head. "I want to—to make sure everything stays all right. I'm helping now, but—" He thought about the old officer, and Grandda, and the land. "There'll always be something else coming. Something worse. I want to be there, to help when that happens. I want to—to keep this land safe."
Idris grimaced. "Maybe you just want to get away from Suffolk and your Grandda."
Nate's hands tightened on the wheel. "Kay's right," he said. "You are a fucking idiot, Idris."
In the back seat, Kay laughed drunkenly. Ben didn't dare to.
Finally, Idris chuckled and glanced back out the window, into the featureless dark. "All right, then. Pull over here."
Nate did so in silence. An image flashed through his head of King Arthur knighting his vassals on the field of battle, but he dismissed it almost as quickly as it had come. He reached over to switch off the engine, but Idris shook his head. "This won't take long. Ben, come with me. Kay, you stay in the car."
"I can walk as well as any of you," Kay slurred, but he was slow to get up, and by the time he was even sitting upright, Nate was already out of the car. Idris kicked a fallen branch out of the way and stood on the grassy verge, hands behind his back.
"Stand, Nathan Holyrood, and face me." Nate straightened his shoulders, standing at attention before Idris. "You want to come with us."
Behind him, Ben made a sound like a sigh.
Idris took a deep breath and let it out. In the blackout darkness, Nate could see only the glint of his eyes. "You're a fool, then."
He didn't even see Idris move until his fist caught Nate in the teeth. Nate reeled, pain exploding through his jaw. Ben drove a fist into his stomach, and he doubled over, the evening's beer threatening to make its way back up.
The last thing he saw before Idris clipped him on the back of the head was Kay, silhouetted motionless against the lights of Baker's car.
The water blurred over him. He'd let go, and it was he, not Carew, who was sinking in the Channel. His eyes blurred with salt stronger than the sea, and the surface of the water warped again.
When he could see clearly, the water had become poorly lit plaster. A woman bent over him. Clare. "You're awake," she said.
Nate didn't know what to say to that.
"Who was it? Someone from town?"
"Clare," he said, and it came out dry, without a gush of seawater. His teeth hurt. So did his back. The pain hadn't yet made it out from there, but he could feel the other bruises just waiting to be acknowledged. "What happened?"
"Some of your squad brought you in. Said they'd stopped at a pub on the way back and came out to find a pair of oafs kicking you into the ground. They'd have stayed here, but scramble was called this morning. They should be back by now, though."
"Scramble," he echoed, then dragged himself up off the infirmary cot. The room wobbled, and he clutched at the cot.
Clare took his arm. "You probably should sit down. Stephens says you've got a concussion."
Nate took a few fumbling steps to the closest window. It didn't face the airfield, but even if it had, he knew only three Hurries would be there: Sweet Addie, Black Bess, and Malice. 188 Squadron was back down to three men.
Clare's brow furrowed, and her lips began to form the question he knew would come, the erasure of Idris's place in this world.
"They've gone," he said again, and dropped into the nearest chair.
The battle of the fifteenth turned the tide, for the aerial war at least. The threats that had lingered since mid-August dissipated on the cold autumn winds. As if taking his rage with the RAF out on the entire country, Hitler sent the Luftwaffe after London's civilian population, attacking the showier target in lieu of the more tactically important production centers. The damage was painful, but Fighter Command breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that they had, for now, held an invasion at bay.
Nate was reassigned to 72 Squadron, now that 188 had been dissolved by Furness's command. He flew his missions, escorting bombers over Germany as the Germans dropped their bombs on London and Coventry and everywhere else. He took Clare dancing a few times, and told her about his mother, his Grandda, the farm. He kept waiting for her to ask about the Welshmen, but she never did; they had slipped from her memory as they had from everyone else's, like a blip off the radar screen.
Two weeks' leave finally came. Instead of heading home to help Mum and evade Grandda, he took a train west, to Cardiff. From there he borrowed a car from a friend of a friend, promising to bring it back intact, and drove north.
The mountain called Cader Idris stood in Snowdonia, mired in late October fog. He stayed the night in a tiny pub, nursing weak beer and listening to the owner tell tales for two goggle-eyed American ladies who'd picked a lousy time to go sightseeing. The mountain was the Seat of Arthur, the owner told them, and any who spent the night there would come home a poet or a madman. The ladies gasped in appreciative horror; Nate finished his beer and left the last of his pocket change on the bar.
He went up to his little dark room that faced Cader Idris, autumn cold leaking through the window. The slopes of the mountain seemed part of another world, closer to the mist enveloping the summit than to the earth itself. Eventually he fell asleep, standing there at the window, and dreamed.
Dreamed that the mists clinging to the mountain swirled and came together, becoming fog in another place, a blank white wall in which indistinct shapes emerged. Some might have mistaken them for birds, or even a fleet of boats on some strange shore, but Nate knew them for what they were: Hurricanes, though they flew without sound.
He saw Idris half-carried, half-dragged out of the cockpit by Kay and Ben, bleeding from the temples, grayer than the mists. His Hurrie looked as though it'd been through a mincer. They carried him between them, as they might have carried Nate on the eve of the fifteenth. Behind them, the rest of the squadron emerged, bruised and shaking.
A woman stepped forward to face them, straight through his dreaming self, and with that step he knew he was not in truth there. She looked a little like Clare, he thought, and a little like his mother, and a little like stone. On one arm she carried a brilliant bird that whistled and muttered to itself.
"You may rest," she said to the Welshmen, and her voice shared the same music as the bird's, but also, strangely, something of a horse's whicker. "You have done what was asked. You may go to what gods await you."
Ben and Gwyn, and especially Perry, looked up at that, unsure as recruits who've been offered "special duties."
Idris coughed, and blood spattered his beard. "Bugger that," he muttered. The woman only blinked owlishly at him. "This isn't the worst of it, is it?" He managed to gain his feet and shook off Kay's hand.
The woman inclined her head. "There will always be something worse."
"Then I'm not leaving. Not while they might need me again."
"They might not," someone said from the back of the squad.
"They might not," Idris agreed. "But damned if I'm going to give up. They still fight for this land, Saxons and all, and they deserve someone to fight for them."
"It will not be only this island," said the woman. "If you are called again, you will be called to more."
Idris was silent a moment, swaying a little. "That's the way it was this time."
"That is the way it always is."
"Right. Well, then." He looked over his shoulder at the rest of the squad. "You lot can do what you like. I'm staying."
He tottered forward. The bird trilled a phrase of sweet music, and Idris slumped. Dreaming Nate recognized in Idris's face something akin to Birney sleeping in the cockpit, stealing a brief moment of respite out of a chaotic world.
If there was more to the dream, Nate did not remember it; it was as if the bird had sung him to sleep as well. The images faded, as dreams do, and were no more than fog when he woke—no longer by the window in the dingy pub, but on a cold mountainside.
He walked down the slopes of Cader Idris barefoot, frost crunching between his toes, going home.