home leave, february 1917

“Can I trouble you for a light?”

It was innocence of the situation which he remembered most, afterwards.

He’d been in the Long Bar of the Trocadero a dozen times before; had waited there for the best part of an evening before, eking out a short measure of watered-down whiskey with his eyes on the door, hoping that someone he knew would come in; had probably, once he thought about it, been asked for a light before, though he couldn’t remember a specific occasion.

Later, that lack of awareness made him feel oddly complacent, like the pilot who assumes that the sixty-first minute of a patrol will be the same as the sixtieth minute, the same as every other minute of an uneventful morning in the bright air over France. If it had been a patrol, he’d have known better. He would have remembered that the moment you assume that the next minute will be the same as the last is the moment when the invisible mote in the eye of the sun screams down on your tail to rake you with machine gun fire.

This, however, wasn’t a patrol. It was a London bar; and why should this evening be any different from the dozens of similar ones that had gone before?

Biggles patted the pockets of his tunic automatically. “I think so. Just a moment – “

The man who had asked the question was no more than twenty-five, and in civilian clothes, well-cut and sober; for all Biggles knew they might have even been fashionable, but it was difficult to tell when you were only in Town for a few days at a time and half the men were in uniform anyway. His hair would have had to be cut a touch shorter or attacked with a good deal more Brilliantine to tame the irrepressible curls. But even with those unmilitary touches, it was difficult to imagine he could be anything but an officer. Something in the steadiness of his eye, perhaps, or the set of his jaw.

He had caught Biggles’ eye for a second as he came in, just a disinterested glance as he scanned the room, as if looking for someone else. And when he had walked over to stand beside him at the bar, it had only been because there was a space there.

Biggles located a box of matches, somewhere in the depths of one of the too-numerous pockets, and proffered them to the other man.

“Could you light one for me?” the man asked, extracting a silver cigarette-case from his inner breast-pocket and fumbling with the catch. He smiled slightly, without looking up. “My fingers are sufficiently numbed that I’d probably either drop the box or set light to the bar.”

“Of course, sir,” Biggles replied, extracting a match and managing to strike it at the second attempt.

The man didn’t attempt to take the match; just steadied Biggles’ hand with his own, leaned in, and touched the tip of the cigarette between his lips to the tiny lick of fire. His fingers were pale, and very cold; and somehow the flame seemed to tremble even more when his hands were steadying it than it had when Biggles had held it alone.

His eyes flickered upwards from the glowing point of contact, and met Biggles’. Biggles felt his breath catch, like the first touch of freezing air in his throat on a frosty morning.

The man released his hand, and moved away from him, very slightly. He took the cigarette from his mouth, and breathed out a soft wreath of smoke.

“Sorry – very rude of me. Can I offer you one?”

“I’ve – got my own, thanks,” said Biggles, nearly dropping the matches as he put them away, feeling that his hands were suddenly two sizes larger and ten times clumsier than usual.

The man leaned on the bar and regarded him with lazily amused eyes. “By the way – why did you call me ‘sir’? We haven’t met before, have we?”

“I don’t think so, s- I mean – “ Biggles broke off, with a rueful grin, and tugged on the epaulette with its single pip on his shoulder. “It’s just that I’ve got rather used to calling more or less everyone ‘sir’ over the last few months. Sir.”

The other man laughed. “I remember that feeling rather too well. I didn’t think you’d ever served under me – I’m sure I would have remembered.”

His eyes were a clear grey-blue, Biggles noticed, irrelevantly, as they caught and held his own for a moment. It was the sort of blue that was as far from the sky as possible.

He felt conscious of some current catching at him from beneath the surface of events, but couldn’t put a name to it.

Perhaps it was the obscure feeling that he was being challenged that made him hold that look for as long as he did. One of the things that France had already taught him was that there were some fights it was as dangerous to run away from as it was to fight out.

“What’s your name, laddie?” the officer asked.

“Bigglesworth.”

A look of faint surprise flickered across his face. “Distinctive sort of name.”

“I’m afraid it’s the only one I’ve got,” said Biggles, with the slightest touch of irony. “Do you have one, sir?”

The man hesitated. “Shaw.”

Biggles grinned. “Which, you must admit, isn’t very distinctive at all.”

The other man smiled back, a little lop-sidedly. “Guilty as charged.”

“I once had a school-master called Shaw,” Biggles commented, in an off-hand way. “Unpleasant character with a neck like a tortoise. No relation, I suppose?”

“Almost certainly not.”

The man regarded him through the cloud of blue-grey smoke, then took one last long draw on the cigarette, and stubbed it out in one of the heavy crystal ash-trays. “Thanks for the light,” he said – and that odd current had invaded his voice now, adding a touch of curious tension to the measured tone. “I was fairly gasping for that.”

“Don’t mention it,” answered Biggles. “Anyone else would have obliged.”

“I didn’t ask anyone else,” said the officer, softly. “I asked you.”

Biggles had no patience for pilots who assumed that the next minute would be the same as the last. And he wasn’t an innocent, not after these last months. And he wasn’t a coward. So he should have felt angry, he knew, or at the very least annoyed at his own blindness up until this moment to what had been happening.

He shouldn’t be feeling like all the air had been slammed from his lungs, like the first flicker of shadow had flashed across his peripheral vision in the bright air above Bethúne, and he was caught in those fractions of seconds before the guns started.

Shaw. It lacked the suspicious anonymity of Smith, but it had many of the same virtues. It was clearly not the man’s name.

The officer stood up. “I’ve got a place not far away,” he said, lightly, too lightly.

Biggles nodded, dry mouthed.

When the other man made his way to the door, he followed him.

Outside the air was bitingly cold, and the street-lamps glittered on early-falling frost. Easily cold enough to numb the fingers, thought Biggles, though perhaps not if you had your hands jammed into your great-coat pockets as the man who called himself Shaw did.

“Cold night,” the officer observed, setting briskly off towards Piccadilly Circus, his head wreathed with the cooling vapour of his breath, thick as cigarette smoke. He walked two paces ahead – close enough to talk, far enough to dissociate himself. A non-committal distance to match the non-committal name. “It’s not far, hardly worth trying to find a cab.”

“I’d take a cab to ferry me around the billiard table if I could find one that took the corners tightly enough,” said Biggles, pushing his hands as deep into his trouser pockets as they’d go and regretting the fleece-lined flying jacket draped over his bed at the hotel. The frost had fallen fast this evening, chilling a clear bright day into a frozen night. The streets were very still.

The officer laughed, with an odd sort of affection. “Typical bloody pilot. Just waiting for the day when your legs’ll atrophy and drop off, like the dodo’s wings.”

“Better that way than sticking to the ground like the dodo did and ending up in the stew.”

Biggles watched the straight, dark-clad back ahead of him, and tried to picture those level eyes and stubborn curls under a flying cap. It made more sense than trying to picture them in the muddy bottom of a shell-hole; but then, it was difficult trying to picture anyone in a shell-hole and have it make sense.

“Have you been flying long?”

“A few months,” said Biggles. He didn’t like to put a figure on it because he knew the figure would sound absurdly small.

Again, it was the innocence of the thing which would stick with him. To be talking in this desultory way about the weather, the war, flying, just as if he was chatting with Mark Way in the mess (no, not with Mark – Mark had a gift for comfortable conversation like no one he’d met before, there were never these awkward, full silences with Mark) – as their footsteps rang out along a strangely silent Piccadilly, walking back to this stranger’s rooms –

He wondered if the other man was frightened. Whether the vibration of nervousness in his voice was because he’d never done this before, or because no matter how many times he did it the thrill of tension was the same, or because there was always the chance that if he picked the wrong words with the wrong chap he could end up beaten, robbed, shamed, disgraced.

Then he wondered if he should be frightened. The officer had a good three inches and fifteen pounds on him, and moved with a sort of easy assurance that Biggles could only envy. This wasn’t like picking up a girl at a bar – not like he imagined that would be, anyway – when she would be the one running all the risks.

He didn’t feel frightened. Possibly during the last three months he’d had to learn to be frightened of so many new things that everyday risks would never move him again. This was closer to expectancy, like waiting for archie to start as you flew towards the lines.

The officer’s flat was on Curzon Street. It was chilly and smelled very slightly damp, as if had not been used for some months and then aired hastily. It was scrupulously tidy.

“Can I offer you a drink?” said the man, busying himself at the drinks tray with decanters and siphon and cut-glass tumblers, with his back to his guest.

“Thanks.”

“Whiskey all right? Have a seat if you like.”

Biggles had caught the swift glance which took in his position – prowling the room, touching the polished edges of desks, peering at the dusty book-bindings, reading the inscriptions on the hunting prints – three of the Pytchley, Boxing Day 1906, Boxing Day 1907, Boxing Day 1909, one of the Duke of Rutland’s – and the names written below a handful of rather uninspiring watercolours of high-bred horses, Golightly, Hoarfrost, Rob Roy – and smiled, very slightly, recognising the request not to pry beyond the bounds of the evening’s acquaintance.

There were no personal photographs, no family in silver frames, no wife, not even a cricket team or rowing eight or platoon or squadron; just expanses of well-polished and impersonal wood. Perhaps in the wardrobe there would be the familiar khaki, the necessary travel papers, the detritus of the man’s other life; or perhaps they were all in a hotel on the other side of town, to leave this place sufficiently clean and blank and – non-committal.

“Look here, I can’t call you Bigglesworth,” said the officer, handing him a whiskey and soda and sitting beside him on the comfortably shabby settee. “Distinctive it may be, but there are limits.”

“My friends call me Biggles,” Biggles volunteered, taking a sip of whiskey and somehow wishing that he hadn’t told the man his real name. It put him at a disadvantage, and he had enough of those this evening already.

The officer sat back, leaning his elbow against the back of the settee and resting his head on his hand. “Frankly, that isn’t so very much better. Don’t you have a Christian name? Or were you saddled with something like Gengulphus, just to complete the set?”

Biggles hesitated for a moment. “It’s James. But no one ever uses it.”

‘Shaw’ finished his drink in a long mouthful, and set the glass on the floor. “That’ll do admirably.”

Biggles felt more aware of his proximity than he’d felt of anything in these last days away from the Front.

“Well, I can’t keep calling you ‘Shaw’,” he said, a little hoarsely, hating the hint of seventeen-year-old in his voice.

The man raised one eyebrow. “You haven’t called me Shaw once yet.”

“I told you, it makes me think of my old history master,” Biggles insisted. “Don’t you have a Christian name?”

For a moment, the man only looked at him with those evaluating grey eyes. “Arthur,” he said eventually. “You can call me Arthur.”

It might even have been true, thought Biggles, as the cold fingers touched his cheek, brushed aside a few strands of straying fair hair, pushed him down to lie with his head resting awkwardly against the dust-scented arm of the sofa. He wondered, briefly, what Shaw – Arthur – the officer – saw when he looked down at him like that. A thin-faced, scrappy-looking kid –

“Do you mind if I – ?”

Biggles managed to shake his head, very slightly, to the whispered question, and received the kiss almost passively. He wasn’t innocent – could surely never be thought of as innocent, not after these last months – but he hadn’t – not since school –

The man was gentle, almost tentative. More gentle than Biggles might have expected, if he’d thought about it at all. More gentle than he might have hoped, maybe. His hands passed over Biggles’ arms, his chest, rested at his waist, movements designed to soothe rather than rouse; and Biggles had a sudden vision of a tall man in hunting pinks, darkly curling hair crammed under a soft cap, strong hands and capable fingers rubbing soothingly over the neck of dappled Hoarfrost or skittish Golightly. The thought made him stir restively, hands searching for activity, finding a strong curve of shoulder to clutch at, a tangle of night-cold curls to catch in.

Passivity had never really been his strong suit.

The officer had shifted lower, hands working on the fastenings of his trousers rather more dextrously than they’d been on his cigarette-case earlier.

“May I - ?”

There was something that struck him almost as funny about the idea of a man who was quite happy to fiddle about with another fellow’s flies, but hesitated delicately about putting a name to the action.

“Go on,” said Biggles, shortly, feeling his breath quicken. The officer interpreted the request as referring to the action rather than the sentence; or at any rate the few words he whispered before tugging Biggles’ trousers and underthings down far enough to expose his cock were well beyond the threshold of hearing.

It was probably for the best. Biggles wasn’t sure he had the vocabulary to do justice to the actions, without dipping into the crude, or the sentimental, or the juvenile, or the absurd. Words were much more difficult to pin down than actions.

He didn’t know whether to watch or not, as the other man licked his cock, took it into his mouth, left it shining and wet and cold in the air for a moment before beginning again. It seemed wrong to look, but even more so to look at the sober bookshelves and sporting prints in the dim light of the green-shaded electric lamps. And his eyes kept being drawn back, anyway, whether he wanted to or not.

He imagined the other man in khaki, speculated for a moment about how many shining pips would adorn the shoulders bent over him, whether a Major’s gold and red crown ought by rights to shine out one on either side of the eagerly bobbing head, or maybe something even more exalted –

The thought made him clutch at the dark curls, impulsive and ungentle, provoked an unexpected thrust into the wet demanding heat, which startled a soft noise from the other man. It might have been protest and might have been appreciation and might have been a mixture of both.

A minute later and he pulled away, and when he spoke he sounded breathless and husky. “Let’s go next door. It’ll be more comfortable.”

The bedroom was dim, comfortable, immaculate. When the officer – Arthur – undressed, he draped each garment over a conveniently placed chair, ready to be hung up and brushed and put away as soon as Biggles had left. Biggles watched, awkward and intrigued, as the man stripped efficiently and without any trace of embarrassment, or even awareness that there might be a possibility of embarrassment. Years of common changing-rooms, common bathrooms, close-living, ingraining the unconcern so deep he didn’t notice.

Biggles was holding his trousers up at the waist, still unbuttoned, still uncomfortable and ungainly and unfulfilled.

He caught the other man looking at him in the dressing-table mirror, and felt himself flush with annoyance. Briskly, efficiently, he unlaced his shoes, peeled off socks and trousers and under-clothes, unbuckled his Sam Browne belt, not troubling to put them neatly but just leaving them as they dropped. He had got as far as unbuttoning his tunic when the other man interrupted.

“Leave – leave that for now,” he said, not quite able to cover the hitch in his voice. He was standing by the bed, hand resting idly against the bedstead as though not sure what else to do, but his eyes were fixed. “Come and lie down.”

It felt very strange, to be entirely clothed on his upper half and entirely naked below; but perhaps not as strange as sitting on the bed, feeling the sheets smooth and cold and slightly clammy against his skin, the eiderdown settling under him with a sigh, with this man he barely knew naked as the day he was born beside him.

Biggles caught the clouded grey-blue eyes, recognised the sheen of uncertainty and the hint of desperation. He looked away, deliberately, glancing down the slim, pale figure, noting the couple of purple-silver scars dispassionately, reaching out with an unwarranted confidence.

He touched the other man’s cock, standing up from amongst the confusion of dark hair – softly at first, remembering the angles and the oddness of touching someone else like this, then stroking with more confidence, almost roughly. It shocked a gasp out of the older man, an arching of the back towards the contact.

“Don’t – “

“Why on earth not?” said Biggles, stilling his movement.

The officer found a smile, albeit a rather strained one. “Because I don’t want to – like that.”

Biggles sighed, a little testily. “For goodness’ sake. We’re not going to get anywhere if you keep tripping over the rude words in every other sentence.”

The officer looked a trifle startled, then laughed, a surprising, easy sound. “Pushy little sod, aren’t you,” he said, with that same odd hint of affection in his voice as earlier. Then he half raised himself on one elbow, leaned across to push the wing of fair hair out of Biggles’ eye, and said softly very close to his face: “I’d very much like to fuck you. Do you have any objections?”

Biggles felt that same dryness of mouth, that same shortness of breath, that same feeling of a challenge that he had to take up. “None to speak of,” he managed.

The other man’s fingers were at work again, finding the fastenings of his tunic with a skill that could only have come from unfastening one much like it every day. Biggles wriggled out of it, hurriedly. He batted the officer’s hands out of the way to undo his shirt buttons himself, the feeling of impatience hot in his skin, but ended up swearing over his cuff buttons and the sheen of sweat on his hands in a way that Arthur was good enough not to laugh at, taking over the task with his cool, slender fingers.

He paused for a moment over the second cuff, letting his fingertips rest against the reckless drumming of the pulse. The look in his eyes was intent, distracted, almost desperately sad.

Biggles couldn’t endure it. “Don’t take all day over the bloody things,” he growled, looking away, hating the soft wash of pity. He didn’t want softness. Not in London.

A hand at his waist urged him to roll over, and he did so, his shirt still hanging loose over his back and flapping around his wrists.

“Kneel up a bit.”

He obeyed, resting his forehead against his forearm, and feeling the edge of the cuff as a line against the skin. He didn’t look up to find out what the older man was fumbling with in the bed-side table, didn’t look away from the mountain of crumpled white sheets even when he felt a finger at his opening, spreading something slick and cold around the skin. He speculated for a moment about what it was, but the only thing which really sprang to mind with that texture was engine grease, and that didn’t seem terribly plausible. He felt oddly detached, clinical – probably because medical examination was the only time when he could imagine anyone doing anything like this – even though he could hear the other man’s breathing turn rough and irregular, and could feel the heat so close against him.

The actual intrusion, when it came, shocked him back into himself, first with disbelief, then with discomfort.

“Try to relax,” said the officer, and the element of horse-soothing in his voice again nearly made Biggles laugh through his gritted teeth. “I – I don’t want – “

“Will you just get on with it?” Biggles grated out. Arthur, very wisely, said nothing, just ran a firm hand up over Biggles’ back to his shoulder, pressing the folds of fabric into the sheen of sweat, making him shiver and flex. Then he pressed inwards again.

It wasn’t in the least like flying, no matter what the racier kind of fiction might say. Even as the pain retreated and gave way to an odd, diffuse kind of pleasure – nothing at all like the feeling of his own or someone else’s hand on his cock, something less focussed, more unnerving – it still wasn’t like flying. Flying was about cold and clarity, punctuated by danger so fast it left your mind reeling. This was – earthy, base in a way that had nothing to do with baseness and everything to do with solidity, tinged with sweat and discomfort and hot, moist breath against the back of his neck.

“James…” gasped the officer, and Biggles pressed backwards instinctively, biting his lip against the sensation.

His arm rubbed against the rough fabric of his tunic, lying abandoned beside him. It had been a near thing whether it was taken off at all, he thought, whimsically. He wondered what would happen if he called the other man ‘sir’ now.

There was a bubble of almost hysterical laughter somewhere inside his chest, and he pressed his face against the cold pillow to stop it emerging. It hardly seemed the time for it.

He reached down to stroke himself, unable to bear the press and shift inside him any longer. He came hard, silently, only a few thrusts later, moments before Arthur’s rhythm faltered and failed and he found release with a cry.

For a handful of seconds he felt the other man’s face pressed to his shoulder, hot and heavy, before he pulled out, gently as he could, and allowed himself to collapse on a convenient corner of bed. Biggles rolled onto his side, suddenly conscious of the mess, the smells, the tackiness of his skin. He pushed himself seated, winced, and settled himself with his weight on one hip, with a fold of blanket pulled across himself.

He found Arthur’s eyes on him again, head nodding against his arm like the flower of a poppy, too heavy for its stem.

He frowned, pushing the image away, and reached for his tunic. “Mind if I smoke?”

“Not at all.”

His hands were still shaking. He shielded the match with cupped fingers to hide it from the officer’s gaze, as if a cold night breeze was likely to blast through the still bedroom. He shook the match out, and then turned the stalk over idly in his fingers, unsure of where to dispose of it.

“You think I’m too young, don’t you,” he said, abruptly. “For any of this.”

The other man didn’t need to ask which ‘this’ was meant. “You are too young for this,” he answered, sleepily, but with that note of sadness again.

“I’m not so very much younger than you.”

Arthur rolled onto his back, and gazed up at the ceiling. There was a single cobweb in the corner, Biggles noted, following his eyes. It was hard to get good domestic staff these days. “I was old enough to fight when this war broke out. Are you even old enough to fight now?”

“Yes,” said Biggles, simply.

“I suppose you have to be.”

Biggles wondered, vaguely, what he would do with his cigarette once he’d smoked it as far as it could be smoked. He didn’t have anywhere to stub it out. For a moment he amused himself with the idea of putting it out on the surface of the polished bed-side cabinet, but decided sadly that it was probably unfeasible.

“I don’t get many chances to talk to an officer without the possibility of him talking back, probably in an official manner,” he said, after a while. “Since I’ve got one, I might as well use it. I didn’t particularly ask for this bloody war to land slap-bang in the best years of my youth, but since it did it doesn’t do any good complaining about it. I don’t want to be conscripted into any of this ‘pouring out the red sweet wine of youth’ nonsense. I wish to goodness people would just let me get on with flying instead of waxing lyrical about the springtime going out of the year. If I go west tomorrow – well. That’s how it is.”

“That’s a rather harsh creed.”

Biggles shrugged. “It’s a rather harsh war.”

Arthur pushed himself upright, leaned over, and took the nearly burnt-out cigarette from between Biggles’ lips. He took the last drag, burning the paper almost to his fingers, before dropping it into a half glass of water beside the bed.

“I don’t get many chances to talk to one of the men with the possibility of him talking back without fear of reprimanded, so I might as well use it too,” he said, voice losing its sleepy edge. “You have no idea what a bloody traitor I feel, every time I have to send some green kid with ten hours flying time over the line, knowing that there’s nine chances out of ten they won’t come back, while I sit quietly behind my desk and wish I was in the air. I remember being their age, and I spent every waking hour thinking about whether the new roan would come good in the first meet of the year. It’s not bloody fair that they won’t ever get to do that, and it’s no good pretending it is. And I hate more than anything that you can’t even show them that you think it’s unfair. They have to be dutiful and expendable, and you’re not allowed even to think of sparing them.” Biggles could hear the moment when he consciously caught himself, clamped the anger down under the shell of reserve. “Everyone’s got their cross to bear, laddie. It’s a damned useless thing to say, but it’s true.”

Biggles smiled, off-centre and unwilling. “Well, I suppose that would be one good thing about the prospect of going west tomorrow. It’d mean I never had to become a bloody officer.”

The officer returned the smile. “I pity the poor bloody officer who has you in his squadron. He must never know a minute’s peace of mind.”

* * *

When Biggles transferred to 266 squadron, some months later, and first met Major Arthur Mullen – twenty-five or so, dark, curly hair, level eyes of a colour as far as could be from the blue of the sky – his reaction had been a moment’s hysterical incomprehension. But the blue-grey eyes had held his without the slightest flicker of recognition, and their first interview had been as purely business-like as any other he’d been party to since joining the Flying Corps. Biggles left wondering, in a baffled sort of way, whether he could possibly be mistaken; whether Mullen could have forgotten entirely; whether there were perhaps two Arthur Mullens in the service, separated at birth.

Their second meeting had been much the same, as had the third; and, as Biggles continually reminded himself, it was a damned good thing too, as he had no idea how either of them could have functioned in the same squadron if there had been any hint between the two of them of what had happened in London.

He had learned his lesson, though. Just because the first, second, third, hundredth meeting followed the same pattern, that was no reason to assume that the hundred and first would too.