Part 1, Chapter 2
The last time I’d set foot inside Waterloo Station was the day Ian left. I remember stepping out of the taxi and looking up while he paid the fare. The day was gray and dull, matching my mood. We’d just begun the ste climb through Victory Arch when I noticed the sun breaking through the clouds like a red-capped swimmer bobbing to the surface of a gray sea.
I took it as a good omen. A sign that Ian was right about the war. That it would be over in a few months. That he’d be back home soon. And we’d get on with our life together the way it had been in the beginning, when everything seemed bright and beautiful. Not the way things had ended the night before.
Ever since he’d been accepted into the Royal Air Force, he’d been behaving badly. The blue uniform and silver wings that set him apart as one of “The Few” revealed irksome aspects of his personality, which were quite new to me.
I first noticed the change when we joined three other couples at the pub one night. All the other men were unmarried pilots on dates with attractive women who were pretty in ways that I am not. I like to think I’m reasonably attractive, but I’ve never wanted to be judged by my looks alone. And until Ian joined the RAF, I hadn’t felt a need to arch my eyebrows with a pencil or vamp it up with elaborate pomps, rolls, or curls. I was Rita Alexander. Not Rita Hayworth, and I didn’t want to be.
Ian and his friends had become pretty cocky after earning their wings. They called themselves The Four Horsemen, bragging that they’d descend on Hitler like the mythic punishers in the Bible. I understood the need to psych themselves up. But in the midst of this pre-battle bravado, one of these “horsemen”—Neil Sommers—made a particularly offensive remark.
“I hear the ministry plans to remove the color bar,” he said. “Don’t know why they think a bunch of lazy Black blokes from the Caribbean can be of any use to us. We’ve already got one Nigger. That ought to be enough. He belongs to one of the Wing Commanders.“
“That’s what he calls his dog,” Sommers laughed.
He looked too chunky to be a pilot, thick-necked with hair that fell over his brow like blond bangs. He had beady blue eyes and ears that seemed too small for his head. I didn’t like him.
“It’s a Black Lab,” he said, sounding as if he’d just pulled a rabbit from a hat. “They’re training it as a sniffer. I’d wager a month’s pay that dog will help us a lot more than the niggers they’re bringing over from Jamaica. Can’t imagine any getting into the RAF, though, even if they do lower the color bar. Most likely wind up as brown jobs or wingless wonders.”
The other women tittered. They’d been clinging to the men’s arms or draping themselves around their necks all night. But I didn’t like the comment. My mother had been passionate in her support of The League of Coloured Peoples. At first, I wrote this off as another of her suffragette-like crusades. But after I heard the league’s founder deliver a blistering speech at Cambridge, I became intolerant of our national indifference to the Black man’s cause.
“What are brown jobs and wingless wonders?” I asked.
Sommers blew the head off his beer and laughed. “They’re our inferiors,” he said, lifting a pinky and pointing his nose in the air.
Finally, Ian said:
“Brown jobs are what we call army blokes, Rita. It’s because of their khaki uniforms. Wingless wonder is really an affectionate term. It’s how we refer to the ground crews. They can’t fly, but they make sure our planes do.”
I was glad to be let in on the jargon, but learning these terms did not erase the unpleasantness of Sommers’s remark, which lingered over us like the smell of rotten eggs.
I worried that Ian had become close friends with a creep like that. But It would have been easier to forget that night if I hadn’t noticed other changes after he received his wings. He took to preening before the mirror, more obsessed with his hair than I’d ever been with mine. Failing to grasp that it was not a compliment, he loved learning that pilots were known as “Glamour Boys.”
Women threw themselves at him, and he gloried in it. But I didn’t mind that so much. After all, I was his wife. Surely, some of that was to be expected. What really got my knickers twisted was when he encouraged it, openly flirting with other women in my presence. I’d always heard that clothes make the man. But was it possible that a uniform could change him?
End of Part I, Chapter 2
©2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill
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