Katz felt he had all the time in the world. Just as in combat, everything slowed. He wondered if the two women staring at him from the center of the road and holding hands in a comic kind of tug-o-war as each tried to pull the other out of the way of Katz's roaring bike, experienced the same effect.
The corner had surprised him as it tightened hard. He'd leaned further than possible and instantly the powerful bike's foot-pegs had gouged tarmac and flashed fire. The rear tyre slipped then found traction - and Katz was instantly catapulted from his seat high into the air.
With the bike tumbling away, disintegrating, Katz flew directly towards the two women, bursting through their panicked grip knocking them over like nine-pins and hit the road hard. Air exploded from his lugs as if he’d been punched, something cracked and pain enveloped him like a drill piercing his brain.
The adrenaline dulled the worst of the agony and, now finding himself eye-level with the road and unable to breath, Katz groaned and concentrated instead on a rather pretty foot next to his bloody nose. It helped that the ankle above the foot was attached to a particularly shapely leg.
‘'Dice legs,’ he announced, as if agreeing with his thoughts.
‘What? Are you alright?’
A concerned face replaced the leg. Two faces in fact. The second one looked annoyed.
‘He’s drunk – and he's a pervert – see, he’s looking up your skirt!’
‘Jane, he’s just dazed. And hurt. Give me hand.’
Katz felt himself lifted into a sitting position.
'Dank you. Shorry 'bout that, didn’t mean to …’
‘What, sorry for looking up her dress?’ Jane finished for him.
‘Erm, yes, I mean, dow, owww … ‘
‘Jane, can’t you see he’s hurt?’
‘Oh, puleeease, so he’s broke his nose – Sally, we could have been killed! Another hot-shot fly-boy. They make me sick.’
‘It’s alright ladies, I’ll see to 'im,’ an unmistakable voice boomed.
Staff Sergeant John McKay, resplendent in starched, crease-perfect uniform, swagger stick clamped beneath one arm, marched towards the scene of the accident like a tidal wave. Beneath the shadow formed by the peak of his cap, pinpoints of fire glinted within his eyes menacingly.
‘Stand up, Sir, there’s a good officer, there are ladies present ... and still alive, no thanks to you.’
Katz noted that while Jane stepped away, Sally remained holding his arm. Despite this, he keeled over. Reaching for support, he found her leg.
‘He’s at it again!’ Jane screeched.
‘That’ll be enough of that, Sir. Now, up you get,’ McKay growled, grasping him by the scuff of his coat collar and hauling him to his feet.
‘My apologies, Miss. He’s a very new young officer - I might even say one of best I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a few. But I think this time he’s had one too many today. Don’t you worry; I’ll see he has a nice warm cell for the night. Come along now, there’s a good Sir.’
The next evening and the face in the mirror behind the bar scowled. His nose hurt, his head hurt - everything hurt. The CO had called him a blithering idiot but at least hadn’t grounded him. But what really hurt was that the bike was trashed - which meant he’d had to walk to the pub.
‘Hello, feeling better?’
Katz turned to see Sally standing by his side, her head tilted on one side in a show of mocking concern.
‘Oh, hello, yes, a bit I suppose,’ Katz said. ‘Sally, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, you remember my name?’
‘Yes, of course,’ Katz said, his face burning, ‘you, know, I didn’t mean to …’
‘Yes, well, that of course, but …’
Sally laughed. ‘It’s OK. My friend Jane is a bit paranoid; she’s had some bad experiences with flash pilots. I’m sure you weren’t really looking up my skirt. Were you?’
Katz held up his arms. ‘I might be guilty there.’ He stuck out a hand awkwardly, and added, ‘I’m Katz, spelt the German way because it annoys the hell out of people, since we’re at war. Can I buy you a drink to apologise?’
‘Honesty in a pilot, I like that,’ Sally said, smiling, ‘so yes, you can. A Bloody Mary please.’
‘Fighter pilot, if you don’t mind, and we’re always honest, as well as brave and true.’
‘Oh, that’s our best trait.’
‘I’m glad to hear it! That why you didn’t add fearless to your list of qualities?’
‘No, not fearless.' Katz face darkened. 'Would you like to know I can’t stop shaking because I’m so fucking fearless up there.’
Sally’s smile vanished. Katz turned away. She wasn't sure what to say, so instead she placed her hand on his.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t imagine what it’s like …’
‘No, it's me who should be sorry. Listen, Sally, I didn’t mean to be rude.’
‘Are you flying tomorrow?’
‘If they come, we fly. And they come every day …’
‘And it’s late. You could do with a coffee. I don’t live too far from here …’
Sally took his hand.
Once outside, in the empty countryside, the sounds from the pub fading behind them, the cold and darkness served only to accentuate their loneliness. Drawing Sally to him, Katz kissed her softly with the barest of touches as if the spell might break.
Bathed in colours washed to silver by the moonlight, he held her face in his hands and kissed her again with growing urgency. He moved his lips to her neck and felt her slide her arms around his waist.
Sally, far from resisting, pulled him to her. Her body felt on fire with her breasts in his hands. Remembering she knew nothing of this man, she tried to pull away.
‘Katz … We've just met, I don't do this sort of thing, slow down ...’
‘Sally … God, I want you. Right now.’
Each word seared Sally’s mind. His, her desire, swept away any caution. His hand slid beneath her skirt, stroked her thigh, fingertips sliding beneath underwear, touching, teasing.
‘Oh, Katz …’ Sally sighed, resigned, whispering her acceptance into his ear. It was wartime, who knew what might happen tomorrow?
The next morning, in her bedroom, the soft dawn light allowed Katz to watch Sally dress.
‘What are doing?’ Katz asked as Sally drew a dark line along the back of her legs.
‘I’m putting on a stocking seam … it’s a little trick to make it look like I’m wearing stockings. Silly, I know, but as all the silk goes to make parachutes these days, real stockings can’t be had for life nor money.’
‘Ah, I see...’
‘The lengths we go to please you men.’
An air raid siren wailed, Katz leapt from the bed, pulled on his clothes, and then swept Sally into his arms.
‘See you tonight?’
‘I’ll be here, be safe …’
For Katz, the next three days became a blurred mixture of aerial dogfights interspersed with hours of desperate lovemaking with Sally. The fourth evening was different. Safe in their bed, Katz lay beside Sally, motionless.
‘What’s the matter, Katz? Talk to me.’
‘I have a present for you.’
‘What this?’ Sally quickly tore open the package Katz gave her. ‘Stockings? You got me silk stockings! But where? How?’
Katz tapped his nose with his forefinger.
‘Don’t ask, my secret, put them on …’
‘What do you think?’
‘They’ll never be as perfect with clothes on, come here …’
Later, their energy spent, Katz lay staring at the ceiling.
‘Something's troubling you Katz, what’s wrong?’
‘I killed a man today, Sally.’ Katz turned to Sally, tears in his eyes, willing her to understand. ‘In my head I imagine I kill planes - not men. Today was different. I bagged a plane, the engine was on fire, the pilot climbed half-way out and into the flames - and got stuck.’
Katz sighed as Sally wrapped her arms around him.
‘He must have been in that blow–torch of flame a damned minute. When he eventually fell out, he was burning … when his 'chute opened it left him dangling there, still on fire. I turned my Spitfire, lined up and shot him. Sally … the cannon fire blew him in half.’
She said nothing, cradling his head.
‘But it’s the flames that really scare me, Sally. Being burnt. I don’t want to go that way …’
The next morning, when the air-raid siren wailed, drowning the dawn chorus with its call to war, Sally wrapped herself around him, willing him to stay with her. Katz firmly untangled himself and kissed her cheek.
‘Wave to me from the hill, won’t you?’
Sally headed out to the hill by the end of the runway to watch as each fighter took off. As Katz’s Spitfire roared over her, he dipped his wings, and was gone.
With Sally’s picture between the dials and full power to the Spitfire’s engine, Katz smiled as he saw Sally waving furiously from the hill. Within fifteen minutes there was no more time to think. Plunging his aircraft into the dogfight, Katz sighted a target and loosed off a three second burst of cannon fire.
The enemy aircraft exploded, sending burning shards of debris towards Katz. His plane shook violently. He’d taken a hit. With smoke and orange flame licking towards him, panic took hold. Hauling the cockpit canopy back, he watched as the skin on his hands melted and fell from his bones. Then a blast of icy air told him he was free.
Tumbling, falling, he remembered Sally's warmth burning through the softness of the silk like the devil's tongue as she'd wrapped her legs around his waist. Those stockings had cost him dear but he had no regrets.
Seared by flames, half-dead, he fell again back within her arms. His useless parachute above, the silk tearing, seemed inconsequential. Below him his other mistress, his Spitfire, consumed by smoke and flame as if in a jealous rage, led the way to the sea.
Sally sat on the hill till dusk. Katz hadn’t returned. The familiar figure of Sergeant McKay came striding towards her.
‘They’ve found your young officer, Miss,’ McKay said as softly as he could.
Sally couldn’t face McKay let alone answer him.
‘He’s alive,’ McKay added.
Sally turned, staring hard at McKay.
‘He fell close to a small boat,' McKay said softly. ‘He’s got multiple injuries, Miss. His parachute failed, he landed very heavily.’
‘Partially failed, part of it tore, and he came down hard.’
‘Made of silk, aren’t they?’ Sally said, hollowly.
‘Yes, these things sometime happen, but he's alive…’
'Tell me he's not burnt ...'
'Badly, I'm afraid.'
'Oh my God ...'
'Come on, I’ll take you to the hospital.’
They drove in silence. When Sally saw Katz, she almost fainted. What remained of the skin on his face was blackened, cracked by deep red-raw fissures. His lips were just thin lines of bleeding, charcoaled meat.
‘I’m here, Katz, don’t try and talk, they’ll fix you up in no time, you’ll see, don’t you leave me, do you hear? Don’t you dare leave me.’
Katz stared at Sally. A single tear ran fell from the corner of an eye. Sally scooped it up, brought it to her lips and then touched his. When she looked up into his eyes again, they were dull and unfocused.
Sergeant John McKay watched Sally taken away, her heels clacking mournfully on the hard lino, her stocking-clad legs silken smooth. He pulled the curtains around Katz’s bed and privately saluted him. He’d heard the rumours, but never believed them until now.
‘Your secrets safe, young Sir, don’t you worry.’
No one saw the single tear form in the dark shadow beneath the peaked cap as he marched forcefully down the corridor, heading back to his other young charges waiting by their planes. Every parachute would be double-checked in future.