Tuesday, 15 December 2020

The Brylcreem Boy by Richard Tearle - a story inspired by a song

Read the Story - Guess the Song 

here's a clue:

The one thing that Alistair Benson knew about himself was that he was good looking. At nineteen years of age, he was tall and slim with the physique of an athlete. His hair had just a touch too much red in for it to be called blond. Which  is why all through Prep school and then later at Harrow he had been nicknamed 'Ginger'. The thin, fine hairs sprouting above his upper lip were of the same colour. The narrow cleft on his chin added manliness to his youth and was further complimented by dark brown eyes and high cheekbones.

Add to that, the splendid blue uniform, immaculately pressed, with his RAF Wings neatly sewn just above the left breast pocket of his jacket and white sergeant stripes on the arms. Here was a man who could conquer the world. He could, he knew, command the attentions of any woman who crossed his path. But tonight he was meeting Mary. Mary was a member of the WRAF, a pretty young thing from the East End of London. Socially they were worlds apart, but together they were closer than sardines in a tin. Mary had never considered herself beautiful. But beauty, as her mother had told her time and again, was not only what was on the outside, but what lay underneath. And Mary had a beautiful heart. Thoughtful and caring. Filled with both passion and compassion. She thought herself a little overweight and, in truth, when she first arrived at Manston airfield she had been. But exercise and hard work had sweated off those few additional pounds from her figure. Auburn hair tumbled to her shoulders and then decided to climb back up again; the curls were natural. Her dark eyes hid the secrets of her soul. Her smile was open and friendly.

They first met in the Mess Hall when Chas Keane was not so much tickling the ivories but more thrashing the hell out of them. The old joanna had seen better days, was narrowly out of tune and some keys just refused to emit any sound at all apart from a dull 'plunk'. But it barely mattered: the tunes were recognisable and the raucous singing drowned out most of it. And in any case, the needles for the gramophone were nearly all blunted and were more likely to damage the shellac platters than play them. The air was thick with smoke, both cigarette and pipe and all the windows were open, for the evening was warm. Mary tried to avoid placing her elbows on the bar which was sopping  wet with spilled beer.

'Hello!' she heard a very cultured voice behind her. 'Who's this pretty little thing then?' She turned and immediately fell in love with Alistair Benson.

In truth, the only thing that Alistair really loved was his fighter plane. A Hawker Hurricane Mk 1. And yet, after an evening of laughter, singing and, perhaps, just a little too much beer, he was quite happy to introduce his first love to Mary, his new love. With darkness approaching, he led her out onto the airfield and stood proudly in front of the plane, arms spread like a fisherman illustrating the fish that he didn't catch. A  Players cigarette dangled precariously from his lips.

'How on earth do you get into it?' Mary asked.

Alistair chuckled, took her hand and they both ducked under the fuselage to the port side of the plane where Alistair showed the stirrup that enabled easy access to the cockpit. Then he indicated the shaped slots on the underside of the wing. 'Retractable undercarriage.'

'Have you – have you shot any planes down yet?'

Alistair shook his head. 'Not yet. Most of the time we just patrol. Getting in the hours in the air. So far no action. Pity.'

'Aren't you afraid? I would be.'

'Everyone of us is afraid, my dear,' Alistair told her with more than a touch of boyish bravado. 'But we do our job and don't think of these things. Besides, we have these two to protect us,' and he tapped the machine gun in the wing behind him  and pointed to the other attached to the fuselage. 'Same on the other side. Four of 'em in all. One thousand rounds a minute. Each. Get a bomber in our sights and – boom!' He waved his arms in an expansive gesture.

'But what about their fighters?'

Alistair frowned. 'ME 109s mostly. Pretty nippy, to be honest but they can't turn quickly enough. Not a patch on our Hurries and Spits.  We have Merlin engines, you see – best in the world. Well, you'd expect that in a British plane.' Darkness closed in. The sky was purple as the sun sank slowly. There was no cloud and the moon smiled down on them while the stars twinkled their approval.

'I worry so much about you. All of you boys.'

Alistair pulled her gently to him, his arm behind her back, hand firmly placed. She nestled her head against his shoulder. He felt her intake of breath. Kissed her and she allowed him to lower her to the ground.

It was the night of July 9th, 1940 and the Battle of Britain was about to begin.

Alistair was shaking badly when he finally climbd out of the cockpit. He was greeted by Flt/Sgt Watkins who immediately offered him a cigarette and lit it for him with a steady hand.

'Tough up there?'

Alistair ripped off his flying helmet and struggled out of his Mae West. He held the cigarette between trembling fingers. 'It's Hell,' he confirmed. The sky was black with planes. Junkers. Some Dorniers. Messerschmitt's backing up. They were up there waiting for us. Sitting ducks, we were.' He blew smoke out, coughed. Took another draw.

'They'll be targetting the airfields, I reckon,' Watkins said. Cool as a bloody  cucumber, thought Alistair. But the other man hadn't been up there.

Alistair wiped the sweat from his face, smoothed back his dripping hair.

Watkins turned his attention to Alistair's aircraft. 'Looks in good nick still. Any damage that you know of?'

Alistair shook his head.

'Engine ok? Guns didn't jam?'

'Every – everything's ok,' he confirmed.

'Well, we'll refuel her and give everything the once over,' Watkins told him. Then, placed his hand on the flyer's shoulder. 'Go and have a shower. Calm yourself down. Don't have a drink yet as we're still on Standby. Once we get the Stand Down, go and get yourself pissed.' Alistair nodded and turned away.


'I was scared,' Alistair admitted in a low voice three hours later 'What must you think of me?' The Stand Down had been issued and there would be no more flying this day. Alistair's sigh of relief  was tempered only by the cold clutch of fear for the coming twenty-four hours. For now, though, he sat at a table in the corner, smoking incessantly. Mary touched his arm.

'No less than ever,' she assured him. 'There's no shame in feeling scared. Everybody else does too. But you were brave. You went up there. You fought the enemy. But, most of all, you came back. And I for one am mighty glad that you did.'  She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the forehead. The memories of their earlier feverish love-making were still fresh.

'But look at them,' Alistair's voice was almost whining. 'They were up there too. And there they are, singing, dancing. Laughing. How can they be like that?'

'I expect they are more used to it.' Mary was mothering him as if he were a child frightened by the monster under the bed. 'You are still new here, don't forget. These men are experienced. They fought over France, didn't they? Protecting the airfields before the Germans invaded?'

'I know. But...'

Mary placed her forefinger over his lips. 'But nothing,' she soothed. 'You're my hero,' she whispered.

'I don't feel like anyone's hero.'

'Oh, don't take on so! Everybody is dong their bit. And especially you, darling.'

The strains of Roll Out the Barrel faded and became lost in the smoke. 'C'mon, Mary, give us a song!'

Mary turned. Penelope Fareham. Known to everybody as Penny Farthing because, well, work it out. A petite blonde who was well aware of her assets. She stood there, elegantly holding her cigarette, tossing her curls away from her face.

'Oh, I couldn't,' Mary protested.

Penny would have none of it, grabbed Mary's arm and pulled her from her chair. 'Everybody,' she announced. 'Mary's going to give us a song. Aren't you, Mary?' And she pinched Mary's arm, leading her to the piano where Chas Keane was waiting. Mary looked over her shoulder and shrugged in a resigned and apologetic manner. Alistair smiled and nodded. Mary and Chas exchanged a few words and and the pianist hit a few tentative notes. Mary smiled, took a deep breath and opened her mouth.

Alistair sat up, mesmerised. Mary's voice was as clear as a bell and rose and soared like the very bird she was singing about. The room was perfectly still as she teased out the lyrics to A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square. Looked at no one else but Alistair as she did so. Alistair smiled back. Her voice lifted him, made him feel safe. He knew where his future lay. If only this damned war wasn't on. He was aware of clapping. Cheers. Cries of 'More! More!'

Mary blushed. 'Just one,' she agreed with a laugh.

'On the table, on the table, on the table,' someone chanted and the cry was taken up. Strong hands gripped her arms and lifted into the air. Maintaining her composure, Mary managed to gain her balance, checked that her skirt was properly aligned and that her seams were straight. She mouthed the title to Chas who nodded and struck the opening chords. 'We'll meet again …'

A mixture of cheers and a chorus of voices joining in. Everybody's favourite. Even Alistair joined in. When she had finished, Mary took a mock bow, was helped down and crossed the room to where Alistair was sitting. Her cheeks were flushed and perspiration glowed on her forehead.

Alistair stood up. 'That was beautiful,' he smiled. 'I had no idea you could sing.'

'Phew!' Mary let out a breath, ignoring Alistair's complement. 'I need some air. Shall we go and inspect QO-S again?' Those were the letters painted on the side of Alistair's Hurricane. But their use had a different meaning for Alistair and Mary.


The Luftwaffe's bombing raids were unrelenting. Day after the day Junkers 88s with their deadly cargo and vicious fighter escorts droned over the Kentish skies. The strategy was clear: disable the airfields. Manston had been hit badly, but they weren't the only ones to suffer. Day after day the squadron took to the skies in search of the inevitable raids. Alistair got his first kill during those times. Strangely elated, he took heart and almost immediately took another Messerschmitt down. He took no notice as the German fighters spiralled to the ground or the seas; they were the enemy and they had to be stopped.

He was exhausted. Every day, sometimes twice, they scrambled to their planes and played cards with the devil. It's only a matter of time. He could not get the thought out of his head. And he'd had more than his fair share of narrow squeaks. More than once he had landed with numerous holes in QO-S's fuselage. But the Hurricanes had been constructed in such a way that if machine gun bullets entered one side of the fuselage then they went straight through and out the other side. It was then just a question of hasty but efficient patching.

Flt/Sgt Watkins wasn't impressed, though. Moaning about his damaged planes and that meant that he and his crew would be working all night to get them serviceable for the following morning. 

The romance between Alistair and Mary blossomed and no one went anywhere near her; she was Ginger's Girl and therefore off limits. With QO-S out of commission for a couple of days and no spare aircraft, Alistair managed to beg a day's leave and he and Mary borrowed a staff car and went to nearby Ramsgate for the day. From the bandstand on Wellington Crescent, they looked down on the Royal Harbour. Little boats bobbed on the incoming tide, ropes slapped against masts. Strange to think that just a few short weeks before, many of these  boats had crossed the Channel in a valiant attempt to evacuate the packed beaches of Dunkirk. And from their vantage point they witnessed the daily air ballet from the ground. Alistair's face was white as he watched, but he could not pull his gaze away, Mary hugged him. Felt him trembling. Could think of nothing to say by way of reassurance.

'You still get nightmares?' Mary asked eventually.

Alistair nodded. 'Every flyer gets nightmares.'

'Can you talk about it?'

'I don't need to,' he said and pointed. Overhead an aeroplane was cartwheeling downwards, smoke pouring from it's nose. Mary could even see the bright orange of the flames. Just enough time to note that it was an enemy plane. She winced as the plane smashed into the sea, water and smoke forming a funereal plume. It had taken just seconds.

'Let's go', Alistair said, scrambling to his feet. Mary grabbed his outstretched hand. Each with an arm around the other's waist, they walked slowly to where Alistair had parked the car. 


The romance progressed. Mary took Alistair to meet her parents when they both managed to get leave together. Alistair was horrified to see the chaos the German bombers had caused. Streets were destroyed, empty shells of what had once been people's homes stood out like jagged broken teeth. Mary's street was untouched by the raids and Alistair was impressed by the way that Mary's mother kept the house immaculate despite the threat of destruction at any moment. There was an Anderson shelter in the tiny back yard for protection. Frail as it looked, Alistair knew it would keep up to six people safe during a raid.

'Albert. Call me Bert,' Mary's father introduced himself. His collar stud was undone and his trousers held up with braces. Bert worked on the docks. Mary's mother, Gladys, looked so neat and tidy in her green floral print dress. She was obviously delighted to meet her daughter's beau. Tea was served on what Alistair assumed was the family's best china.  He and Bert talked about football as it had been before the war. Bert was a Millwall supporter and with Alistair favouring Chelsea, the debate was lively, especially after a couple of beers.

They took the train back to Ramsgate from Victoria Station. The black liveried locomotive huffed and puffed its way through the Kent countryside. The crowded carriages all had the blinds drawn and the journey was one of discomfort and darkness. Alistair felt extremely vulnerable; apart from between Rochester and Chatham, there were no tunnels for the train to hide in should it be targeted.


Alistair hoisted himself into the cockpit, ran through the usual checks and routines. After two months of almost constant action, everything was automatic now. Including the kiss that he placed on his finger tips and planted on the lips of Mary's photograph, taped onto the instrument panel. The Merlin engine roared into life, propeller spinning, hesitating, whirling. Thumbs up from the ground crew.  Nod and a thumbs up from his leader. Start to taxi. Take off. Climbing steeply over the Channel, searching the skies. Where are they?

He banked the Hurricane, following his Leader. Cloudless skies, bright sun. The Channel was calm and sparkling, prisms of light dancing on the waves. Then he saw them below, making inexorable progress.

'Pick your target, Ginger,' came the order. 'You have cover.' Alistair acknowledged, peeled off, went into a steep dive. Chatter of machine guns. Holes in the Junkers, a trail of smoke, a lick of flame. Alistair climbed to avoid the falling bomber. He didn't watch. All around him planes were skidding around in the air, machine guns rattling out a deadly tattoo.

The dance continued. A Hurricane rammed a Dornier and both twisted in the air, shedding metal parts. Alistair stole a glance and was relieved to see the Hurricane pilot bale out and his parachute open.

'Behind you. Ginger!' The metallic voice warned him. Automatically he dived, almost colliding with a 109 that was crossing his path, chasing a Spitfire from another squadron. QO-S shuddered as bullets sliced through the tail plane. Rudder gone. He'd have to turn somehow.

Alistair struggled with the controls which failed to respond. Another 109 was heading straight for him. He saw the flames from the Messerschmitt's guns. Flinched in an involuntary reaction. Felt the bullets rake the fuselage. Sudden pain in his leg. Blood on his flying suit. And then. Smoke and flame from the engine.

The Hurricane began to lose height. Only one choice. Unbuckle. Pull back cockpit cover. Get out. Jump.

The pain in his knee was intolerable and he screamed with almost every movement. The cover opened. About a foot. Then it stuck. Alistair couldn't shift it. He hammered at it, swore at it, but it would not budge. The wind was cold on his face, yet he was sweating profusely. Flames spreading into the cockpit.

As Alistair plunged helplessly to his death, just a single screamed word left his lips and fought against the swirling air before it, too, died.

Maaaa-rrrr-yyyy!

Song: The Wind Cries Mary

Artist: Jimi Hendrix

 About Richard (Discovering Diamond's senior reviewer)

My name is Richard Tearle and I am now retired. I was born in Muswell Hill, north London and but for a quirk of fate, might have gone to school with Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks and also Rod Stewart. I started work with the Ever Ready Co (GB) Ltd before moving to the Performing Right Society, collecting and distributing royalties on behalf of composers and publishers. After a short and unsuccessful venture into self-employment, I spent the last seventeen years of my working life as a Civil Servant, collecting autographs for the Government. I am a frustrated Rock God and frustrated Tottenham Hotspur fan (Spur's fans will understand that) and, for my American friends, a follower of the New Orleans Saints. I love tennis to the point that I would take Wimbledon fortnight off work and hang up the 'Do Not Disturb' sign. I am huge music fan where my idols include Bonnie Raitt, The Kinks (of course!), Neil Diamond and Julie London.

I have lived in Highgate, Friern Barnet, Barnet, Margate, Ramsgate and am now seeing out my dotage in Lichfield, Staffordshire. I have four children and an equal number of grandchildren. Following retirement in 2013, I became involved in reviewing historical fiction for the HNS and now for Discovering Diamonds, both organised by author Helen Hollick. The concept for #DDRevs was simple; to review Historical Fiction written, mostly, by 'Indie' authors who don't have the great publicity machines of mainstream publishing behind them. This has become a passion of mine; just as many will follow and unsigned band, I try to promote virtually unknown authors. Because of this, I have met (literally and virtually) many authors who I believe I can count as 'friends'. I have also read many really fabulous books that really deserve to be seen on the shelves of the big stores.

I began reading at an early age, lapping up the 'romances' of Henry Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, to name but two. Later I took to Ray Bradbury, Alexander Kent, Tolkien, David Gemmell, Joe Abercrombie and John Connolly. The way each of these told their tales impressed and inspired me. I hope those influences and diversity in subject show in my own writing.

I have recently published a collection of short stories - with Volume Two soon to be on the way, and my first novella - about a North London writers' group will be published in early 2021. 

I have several more short stories on my weblog:

 https://scrapsandscribblings.blogspot.com/p/stories.html

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18 comments:

  1. Another great story Richard - and superbly told. I DID guess the song, but only at the very end!

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    1. As I'm not 'into' Hendrix (sorry folks - and Richard!) I had no idea of the song, so it was a surprise for me.

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  2. Thank you Annie! Difficult to end it without giving it away, but the stories so far have been so good and difficult, I thought an easier one might be good for morale!!!

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    1. *laugh* yes we have had some toughies to guess!

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  3. Good for morale, by making us cry!! Fab story, again, so, well done. Good old Kent, love it and its history.

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    1. Thank you! I lived in the area for a while in the '80s. Fond memories

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    2. You've such a talent for bringing out emotions Richard!

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    3. I had a great teacher and mentor, Helen!!

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  4. I found the story very moving, Richard. I wouldn't have guessed the song as I didn't know it, I'm afraid. I was thinking along the lines of 'They call the Wind Maria', from Paint Your Wagon.

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    1. Thank you, Liz! You had a really good guess, though!

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  5. I was enjoying the story so much I forget I had to guess the song. And of course realised it as soon as I read the last line! So vivid and emotional Richard, thank you.

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  6. Thank you Liz! That happens to me too with these stories

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  7. What a sad but very real story. Amazing music.

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    1. Thank you Jane. Hendrix was The Master, but I love those war-time songs too!

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  8. Very atmospheric, Richard. I felt like I was back in the 40s with your characters. *sniff* I wasn't expecting that ending...

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    1. I'm usually happier a couple of decades after that, Char, but the music was great, especially 'A Nightingale...' The song and the ending came to me before I'd even thought about what to write this year!

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  9. Posted on behalf of Marina Osipova: "The subject close to my heart, the tale touched me deeply. Written with the beautiful simplicity of the sentences, there were enchanting moments here that came from the young people learning to love, no matter what. The climax was chilling to the bone. Two days after I’ve read the story, the scenes are still playing in my head."

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    1. Thank you Marina. I wanted a simple, matter-of=fact telling of the tale because I knew the ending was going to be sudden and dramatic. Hope the scenes weren't too traumatic for you

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