Jack looked up from the pile of Ministry of Defence memos he was reading and looked at his brother. The Hub on a Thursday evening wasn’t exactly an after school club but Grey didn’t mind staying there until Garrett was ready to meet them both and head home via a good pizza outlet. He had been sitting quietly on the other side of the desk doing his homework for the last hour and a half. The history text book and an a4 writing block where he had been drafting his essay were in front of him, but his mind had wandered and so had his fingers. He was playing with the scale model of a World War II aeroplane that Jack kept on his desk among other souvenirs of his chequered past.
Actually, this model of a Mustang fighter plane was a present from Gwen. She had found a collector’s shop in the City Centre and bought an exact copy of the one he used to have that was smashed to bits when the Hub exploded. He had almost cried when she gave it to him. If he ever had any doubts about living in this time and place, that little gesture of kindness from a friend blew them away.
“You flew a real one of these, didn’t you, Jack?” Gray asked him. “In the Battle of Britain.”
“No, the Mustang was later. The USAF brought those over when America joined the war. In 1941 I flew Spits.” He glanced at the text book in front of Gray and pointed to a colour image on the page. “Spitfire Mark One. Different colour to that one. Eagle Squadron had their own markings.” He picked up the book and looked at the chapter heading. “You’re learning about the Battle of Britain in history?”
That seemed a rather short answer from Gray. He usually talked enthusiastically about history. It was his favourite subject. He and Garrett both loved to sit and talk with him about his homework tasks in the evening. Jack felt a little disappointed that his brother didn’t want to talk about this topic with him when he had so much he could tell him.
“We have to write an essay about how it felt to be either a civilian in the bombing or a pilot flying the planes.”
Empathic history. Jack had read about that teaching method in the prospectus for Gray’s high school, but he had not really thought about the effect it might have on his brother. He had been more interested in the school’s promise to have eradicated all forms of bullying from the playground and classroom.
But Gray didn’t have to imagine what it was like to be a civilian living in fear of attack from the air. They had both lived that way as children on the Boeshane peninsula. They had done emergency drills daily at school. They had listened to their teachers and parents telling them what to do when the attacks came.
They both knew the terror that ensued when it happened for real.
“We saw a film,” Gray continued. “The Battle of Britain. Kenny Davies wet himself.”
“Mr Hargreaves had to take him out of the class. His mum came for him.” Gray paused. “Kenny’s dad is in the RAF. He’s in Afghanistan. There’s a bit in the film where we see pilots getting burnt alive in their planes... And...”
Gray didn’t need to say anything more. His brother understood.
“I didn’t wet myself,” the boy said. “But... I know how he feels. When dad’s away on duty... we never know if...”
Jack understood about that, too.
“Empathic history is a bloody dangerous idea. Why can’t they just give you loads of dates to memorise and leave well alone?”
Gray laughed softly.
“I’m ok,” he said. “Kenny will be, too. They’re really down on bullying at school. If anyone gives him a hard time when he comes back, they’ll be in trouble.”
“Just... make sure you’re not one of them,” Jack told him.
“I will,” Gray promised. “Even though he had a go at me about having two dads when I first started. But... Jack... will you tell me... what it was really like... being a pilot... then...”
“For your essay – what my big brother did in the war?”
“No. They wouldn’t believe it anyway. I mean... because... you’re my brother and...”
Again they understood each other without needing to finish sentences. Jack sat back in his leather backed executive chair and held out his arms. Gray moved around the desk and sat in his lap. He often sat with Garrett that way in the evening watching TV.
“You’re getting a bit old for this,” Jack commented, stroking his brother’s soft curling hair back from his face. “You won’t want to sit on my knee soon. And if you do, somebody will call social services!”
Gray laughed again. Jack sighed and let his mind go back seventy years, to that first year of the war when he had joined up to fight a more immediately dangerous enemy of the Human race than anything that came from beyond the solar system.
“I wasn’t known as Jack Harkness,” he told his brother. “I joined the RAF as John Harker. The men I trained alongside called me Jack. It felt right. I’d been Jack for so long by then, it could have been my real name after all. I was based across the river, just outside Bristol. It was our job to get up into the air when we got the call and stop the German bombers reaching the ports... Bristol and Cardiff. Both were strategic. The war effort needed the coal that came through the docks that used to be up above our heads here, and Bristol was the gateway to southern England for just about everything. We had to protect them. With the daytime raids as well as the night bombings, we could be scrambled three or four times in twenty-four hours. And every time we went up, we didn’t know how many of us would come back to the airfield. If we only lost one or two it was a good day.”
“How did you cope?” Gray asked. “When you could be talking to somebody one minute, and the next, you’re up in a plane and... and he might not be alive the next minute?”
“We just did,” Jack answered. “In one way... we were kind of selfish. Every time it was somebody else and not you... you felt bad for them... but you were glad it wasn’t you. You... had a drink in the pub. You... made what you could of relationships... as best as you could. And you just hoped that it wouldn’t be you the next time, either.”
Gray looked at his brother through eyes that matched his.
“But you couldn’t die, Jack?”
“No, but crashing was painful. Happened to me twice that summer. Once I went down in the Irish Sea, about three miles off Pembroke. Crashing in the sea isn’t the easy option. My plane nose-dived. It was at terminal velocity. When it hit the water it broke my back in eight places. I sank with the plane. My body mended, but I was under water. I drowned trying to release my harness and open the cockpit. When I came to life again, I was floating on top of the water. I must have drifted free. I swam for a bit. Then a fishing boat from Haverfordwest found me. I’d been listed as missing, presumed dead. They were pleased to get me back. Pilots were nearly as valuable a resource as the planes. I saved them having to train a new pilot.”
“That’s all that mattered?” Gray was shocked. “Nobody cared about you except for you flying a plane?”
“One man did,” Jack admitted. “Flight Lieutenant Tom Anderton. He cared. When I got back to base he....”
Jack remembered that he was talking to his eleven year old kid brother and paused uncertainly. The boy understood that what went on behind a closed bedroom door in their apartment was different to what went on in his friend’s parent’s bedrooms, but Jack wasn’t sure if he could or should explain his past love affairs to him.
“Jack,” Gray said to him. “We have sex education classes at my school, too. And they have to explain about gay sex, too. I know how it happens. Tom was your boyfriend?”
“I couldn’t call him that, of course. It was illegal. We’d both have gone to jail. But we found ways of being together. Tom rented a flat in Bristol, over the top of a bakery. When we were on leave we drove up there together. Once the door was shut, what we did together was nobody’s business.”
Gray didn’t want or need to know more than that. He was happy to know that his brother had found somebody to love in a time when life was hard and death was sudden and brutal. But, his memory having been stirred, Jack let some images rise to the surface. He remembered light sandy brown hair and freckles, blue eyes and an engaging smile. He remembered that the freckles continued down Tom’s back and across his shoulders. He had caressed those shoulders as they lay between cool sheets committing hot acts of sexual gratification upon each other. He remembered holding him in his arms when they were done, kissing his freckled face. He remembered one time when an air raid had disrupted their love-making. They had dressed in a hurry and gone down to the basement of the building with the elderly baker and his under-military-age apprentices who made bread for the housewives of Bristol. They had listened to the sounds of bombs falling and the dog fights between the RAF and the Luftwaffe fighters. They had thought about comrades who might have been up there at that very moment, risking their lives, and felt a little guilty about not being with them. But they were on leave. It wasn’t their turn.
After the all clear they had returned to the flat and made love with an urgency and sense of need that only somebody who had sat out an air raid in a cellar full of frightened men, none of whom dared reach out to each other for comfort, could possibly understand.
The next day when they returned to duty three names had been crossed off the roll call. They mourned them and were thankful to be alive.
“That’s how it was, day after day, night after night,” Jack explained. “It felt as if it would never end, or it would end with the German tanks rolling over the country while we threw off our uniforms and tried to pretend to be farm labourers or something. Even for me... with the benefit of hindsight... I knew the Nazis didn’t win. It was in my history books when I was at school. But in the middle of it all, I did sometimes wonder if the history books could be wrong. There didn’t seem to be any way that we could win through. I thought we’d run out of men and planes first.”
Gray nodded and asked about the second time he had crashed.
“The second time was over land. The plane’s still there, the rusting wreckage of it, still buried in a field just outside Gloucester. I can’t remember anything about it. I was already dead before the impact. The local police gathered up the body parts and put them in the morgue until somebody from the RAF could do a positive identification. Rough night that. Nobody was around to hear me screaming, though. I woke up about five o’clock in the morning, naked, aching all over. I found the clothes belonging to another body… a more intact one... and then walked across country to the next village before telling the police there that I was a pilot who ejected before my plane came down. I got back to the base later that day and I was flying again just as soon as they got a new plane for me to use.”
“And you weren’t scared to fly again?”
“I was never scared of flying even before I was immortal. It’s what I always wanted to do. Even when we were kids, remember, I loved watching the Federation ships overhead, dreaming of being a pilot. But that was a long time back even in 1940.”
“What about Tom?” Gray asked. Then regretted it immediately. He saw Jack’s sapphire blue eyes dim. “He died? I mean… he probably would be dead by now anyway. But… he died in the war?”
Jack sighed deeply. Then he hugged his brother closely.
“I should have been used to it… losing people. I saw enough of it in the Federation War… And then I went through the Boer War, the Indian Campaign of 1909, World War One… and I went and joined up again the second time. I lost friends… I lost lovers… every time. I should have been able to handle it better. Maybe if Tom had just died… the way all the others did… but the circumstances of his death… they were… Well, Torchwood has a report on it in the ‘unexplained phenomena’ file…”
“You mean the ‘fucked if we know’ drawer!” Gray commented. “I’ve heard you call it that.”
“Don’t use words like that, even if I do,” Jack admonished him. “I’m not always a great role model.”
“Ok,” Gray conceded. “But… please, tell me what happened.” He looked at Jack’s face. It was hard to read what he was thinking. “If it was really bad, then you don’t have to.”
“No, it’s all right,” Jack decided. “We started this… we might as well finish it. It was late September of 1940. The RAF were starting to get the upper hand, but it was still pretty much hell in the skies every day. We still lost a lot of men each time. I was in command of a fighter group that day. Tom was my second in command. We set off in good weather to intercept the Luftwaffe heading towards Cardiff and Bristol up along the Irish Sea. We gave them a good pasting that day. I shot down two Messerschmitts and badly damaged one of the Heinkels so that it had to drop its bombs in the sea and turn back. Tom got another Messerschmitt. We were doing ok. We hadn’t lost anyone. And then my plane got hit. I lost concentration for a few seconds and got caught in the line of fire. The windscreen shattered. I got glass in my face… shards of it in my eyes, blinding me. I could feel the plane still flying. The engine was ok. I still had most of the controls. But I couldn’t see anything. I was in agony and there was blood running down my face. I expected to go down any moment. But the plane was still responding to my hands on the controls. I was still flying it… completely blind and without a windscreen at all.”
“Tom called to me on the radio. He said he was right there, at my side. His plane was flying in formation beside mine. He told me he was going to guide me home. Then he gave me instructions, told me my speed and altitude, direction, got me to turn around and head back up the Bristol Channel, back to base. He was fantastic… talking to me all the time, keeping my spirits up… making jokes… and all the time making sure I was flying straight. He kept me conscious. The pain was getting worse every minute. I was feeling weak from blood loss and shock. It would have been easy to give in and ditch the plain in the water. But he wouldn’t let me. He talked me all the way back to base, talked me through the landing… completely blind, still. I made it down. It wasn’t the prettiest landing, ever. I ran right off the runway at the end. But I got down… and this time I was alive and the plane was more or less intact. I think I actually managed to climb out of the plane before I collapsed. Woke up a day later in a nice warm hospital bed with my eyes bandaged up. A nurse with a sweet voice told me they managed to save my sight. I just needed to rest for a while. The next day, my commanding officer came to see me. I told him what had happened. And…”
Jack took a deep breath before he continued.
“The officer said it couldn’t have happened that way. Because Tom was shot down by the same Messerschmitt that damaged my plane. He didn’t get a chance to bail out. His plane went into the sea.”
“No… but… how?”
“That’s why it’s unexplained. I know what I heard. And I wasn’t the only one. The conversation was monitored by the radio operators at the base, and by the rest of the squadron. And later, when my sight was returning, I talked to the radar operators. They say they were sure there were two planes on their screen heading up the Bristol Channel together, but the spotters only saw me coming in.”
“So… it was… his ghost… talking you down… making sure you got home safe? Do ghosts exist? Are they real?”
“If I didn’t think so before then… It was Tom’s voice. I knew it well enough. And the more I thought about it in those strange days afterwards, the more I realised… If he managed to reach me from… whatever lies beyond this life… Then I guess he loved me even more than I thought he did. And that… made losing him harder… I did a lot of crying… once my eyes were mended and I COULD cry. But I felt honoured… privileged… to have been the one he wanted to reach out to. By the time I got into a plane again… when I passed an eye test and they gave me back my wings… It hurt a lot less to think of him. And… I always did… think of him… every time I turned my plane around to head back to base after another mission.”
His eyes were bright with tears he was holding back because he didn’t want to look soft in front of his brother. His thoughts were still half in that other time, so long ago, now, yet still so very vivid and real to him. He didn’t hear the office door open and close quietly. It was only when Gray called out and moved from his lap to hug Garrett that he came completely back to the present.
“Are you ok?” his lover asked. “You look…”
“Jack told me about when he was in the Battle of Britain,” Gray said.
“Ah… war stories. Jack has more than his fair share of those. No wonder this time of year is tough for him.”
Jack looked up and smiled at Garrett. His beige coat had a bright red poppy adding a splash of red to it. Jack’s greatcoat hanging on the peg behind the door had one, too. For both of them it was more than an empty gesture. They had a lot of people to remember. This Sunday, when they walked down to Cathays Park for the parade, he had a feeling Flight Lieutenant Tom Anderton would be in the forefront of his mind.
RDWF Supports Help For Heroes