Historical Competition - Runner Up

PJ Stephenson

Runner Up
The Day I Learned to Pray
Historical Competition


PJ Stephenson is a British/Swiss conservation biologist and environmental consultant who writes short stories when he can. He’s passionate about history as well as nature and much of his creative writing is historical fiction. He has been published in outlets such as 101 Words, Apricity, Dream Catcher, Flash Fiction Magazine, Flash Frontier, FlashBack Fiction, Reflex Fiction, Retreat West, Splonk, STORGY, The Fiction Pool, The Sunlight Press and several anthologies. He is a past winner in Writing Magazine; he came first in the ‘3 words’ competition in 2016, also with a story set in the Battle of Britain. Follow him on Twitter @Tweeting_Writer.


The Day I Learned to Pray By PJ Stephenson

My fitter helps me clamber out of the Spitfire and onto the grass. I remove my helmet and run my hand through my damp hair.
‘Any luck, sir?’
‘A bomber.’
I wrestle off my parachute and walk towards dispersal. Outside the hut, the squadron leader is chatting animatedly to the Prof, our intelligence officer. They stop as I approach.
‘Are you OK, Shepherd?’
‘I got a Heinkel, sir.’
‘Good show.’
We all turn at the sound of a spluttering engine. An aircraft trailing smoke grazes the top of an elm and lands heavily.
‘It’s Jock,’ I say.
‘That’s everyone except Frobisher,’ says the Prof.
‘He’ll be OK,’ I say. ‘No bloody Hun is going to get Shorty.’
‘Let’s hope so. Wainwright thinks someone went for a Burton out to sea.’
‘Might have been a Spit from another squadron…’ I say, but my gut tightens.
The other pilots take the Humber to the mess for lunch but ‘I need some air’ and walk back alone on the perimeter track. I’m suddenly pre-occupied with who will drive us to the pub tonight if Shorty bought it.
Why am I so strung up? Shorty can’t have died.
Other fears bubble to the surface. Are Mum and Dad OK? Will Maeve want to see me again after last night?
In the officers’ mess, I hurry to the telephone.
‘Can I speak to Section Officer Maeve Carr, please? Yes? Flight Lieutenant Shepherd. Thank you.’
I twiddle the cord in my fingers and turn down Jock’s offer of a pint.
‘Hello, Charlie?’ She sounds out of breath.
‘Charlie, are you OK?’
‘Yes, I just wanted to speak to you.’
‘That’s a lovely surprise. But I’ve only a minute or my CO will get shirty.’
‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine. How’s your morning been?’
‘Oh, you know. The usual. Are we still good for Saturday?’
‘Of course. Why?’
‘I thought you might have been put off last night. The chaps got a bit boisterous.’
‘It was fun.’
‘We’d had a tough day. They needed to let off steam.’
‘Darling, honestly, it’s fine. You were all very entertaining. And I’m really looking forward to seeing you.’
‘Are you?’ Suddenly my lower lip quivers. What the hell is wrong with me?
‘Charlie? Are you still there?’
‘Yes, sorry.’
‘Is everything alright?’
‘Yes. Well, no. Not really. Shorty’s missing.’ The words catch in my throat. Hopefully Maeve will think it’s a bad line.
‘Your old school friend? Oh my gosh. That’s terrible. I’m sorry, Charlie. Charlie?’
‘Thank you.’
‘Listen, Eleanor wants to swap leave days. I could get off tonight if you’d like.’
‘Could you? That would be fantastic.’
‘I’ll make the arrangements. Where shall we meet?’
‘The Nag’s Head at seven?’
‘Super. I must dash. Do take care, darling.’
‘See you later.’

I slouch in a deckchair under the afternoon sun, my Mae West lifejacket causing me to sweat. The smell of cut grass and aviation fuel gives me nausea. I clutch an Orwell novel but have no energy to read, so I just watch other pilots play cricket.
I keep seeing Shorty’s face over breakfast, egg yolk dripping down his chin as he tells a joke.
The telephone rings and my mouth goes dry.
The CO strides over.
‘Shepherd, there’s a raid further north. They want us to harry Jerry on his way home. I need Blue Section at cockpit readiness.’
‘Yes, sir. Gentlemen, you heard the squadron leader.’ Wainwright and Jock break away from the game and follow me to the aircraft. I squirm into my chute and clamber onto the wing.
‘Can I help, sir?’ It’s my fitter.
‘I’ll sort myself out, Jones. Could be a while.’
When I’ve strapped myself in, I rest my helmet on the control column and run through the pre-flight checks I don’t usually have time to do.
Elevator just below neutral. Rudder to starboard. Mixture control rich.
None of this is necessary; I ran the checks earlier. But it passes the time.
Airscrew speed control fully forward. Fuel cock levers on; lower tank full.
I swat away a wasp.
Flaps up. Radiator shutter open.
I verify the other two pilots are ready to go. Then I wait.
Maeve sounded keen about tonight. Why does this scare me?
I know one day I’ll go for a Burton and I’d started to accept that. But now I have Maeve – something to live for – I don’t want to accept it.
Shorty was the squadron’s leading ace. If he bought it, what hope is there for me? How have I survived this long?
Maybe someone is looking over me. The idea makes me think of praying. I never think of praying.
My parents took me to church irregularly. The RAF padre holds a Sunday service but my mind is always on the next sortie. I regret that now as I don’t know a suitable prayer for this moment. The only one I remember is the Lord’s Prayer.
Sitting in my tiny cockpit, a warm breeze caressing my face, I quietly mutter to myself: ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy…’
‘Are you OK, sir?’ Jones is looking up at me. I must appear a bit odd, talking to myself.
‘Fine, thank you.’
I gaze at the swaying elms.
The crew in the Heinkel I shot down probably prayed too. Were they Catholic or Protestant? Either way, I’m probably praying to the same god as my enemy. This makes me uneasy. Does my prayer count for less? Is it countermanded by my enemy? How can I forgive those trespassing against me if they’re shooting at me? Delivery from evil means I have to shoot down other Christians.
Surely God can’t support the Nazis? We’re the ones on the side of righteousness, the ones to be delivered from evil. It has to be that way.
‘Our Father, who art in Heaven...’
‘Start up!’ The orderly screams at us from the hut. ‘Start up!’
Here we go again.

Grey smoke swirls round the oak-beamed pub. Lights glint off a myriad brass fittings; chatter and laughter ebb and flow.
Maeve and I cuddle up close in a dark corner. She holds my face in her hands.
‘Are you sure you’re OK, Charlie?’
‘Why is everyone asking me that today? I’m fine. Are you sure you want to hang out with drunken pilots again?’
‘Very much.’
I kiss her. My stomach reels like I’m doing aerobatics. Am I thinking rationally with so little sleep? Or am I really in love?
She strokes my cheek. ‘I worry. You look so tired, my darling.’
‘We flew four sorties again today.’
We pick our drinks off the table and she eyes me carefully over her gin.
‘When will you know for sure about Shorty?’
‘If he crash-landed or bailed out he may still be making his way back. He could be in hospital.’ I gulp my beer. ‘But I think we need to be realistic. It’s been more than eleven hours…’
She squeezes my hand as I admire a brass tack on the wall.

Back at base, I linger outside the mess. Looking up at the star-filled heavens I remember my prayer in the cockpit.
Poor Shorty.
I walk round the front and gaze at the airstrip. The distant Spitfires are dark shadows in their blast pens. It’s late but lights are on in the bar. Inside I find a steward alone, cleaning glasses.
‘Barry, I’d like a bloody big Scotch, please.’
A voice from behind me says, ‘Have some of my mine.’
Shorty is sitting in a wingback chair in the far corner, waving a half-empty bottle. I hadn’t seen him in the shadows.
‘You’re alive!’
‘Well, that’s debatable.’
I go over and shake his hand vigorously. His eyes are aubergine-rimmed, his jacket dishevelled. He has an oil stain on his cheek and a bandage on his left wrist.
‘Are you injured?’
‘Well, my head hurts, my wrist hurts…’ He groans to prove his point.
‘What happened?’
‘Some of the bombers dumped their loads, turned back. I latched onto a Heinkel over the Channel until he went in. Then I was bounced by four one-oh-nines.’
‘Ganged up on me, blasted Nazis. Took a few hits but they disengaged; maybe ran out of fuel.’ He sips his whisky like a castaway tasting freshwater. ‘I was streaming glycol and just got over the white cliffs before the Merlin seized up. Put down in a field.’
‘You were lucky.’
‘Let’s drink to that. Barry, bring the Flight Lieutenant a glass.’
‘But where have you been since then?’
I accept a glass from the steward and pour a generous measure.
‘Some Home Guard chappies helped me out of the kite. Then took me to the nearest pub.’
‘In the morning?’
‘They banged on the door until the landlord let us in. I got rather tight. We were there a time.’
‘Until now?’
‘No. I fell asleep on the train home. Woke up God-knows-where. Took the rest of the day to get back.’
‘Shorty, you should have telephoned. We thought you’d bought it.’
‘Sorry, old chap.’
‘I even started praying.’
‘Really? You?’ He grins broadly. ‘Cheers.’
He spills some of his drink.
‘I have something to celebrate too.’
‘A kill?’
‘Yes, but also…’ I raise my glass. ‘Maeve and I got engaged.’
‘Congratulations! Barry, Barry, we need champagne, man!’
I look at my drunk friend and am so pleased he’s alive.
He’ll make an excellent best man.

Finally lying on my bed, there’s a ringing in my ears.
Images flash through my mind: the Heinkel disintegrating; Shorty toasting me with champagne.
And Maeve, tears streaming down her cheeks, as she says, ‘Yes, of course I’ll marry you.’
I’ll call my parents in the morning. They’ll be delighted.
I plump up my pillow, but I’m loathe to sleep and restart the nightmares. I try to change my mood by reflecting on my good fortune.
I made it through another four sorties. Shorty’s alive. Maeve will be my wife.
Sometimes, even during war, good things happen. And who knows, maybe tomorrow, just for once, it’ll all be good.
I close my eyes and begin to pray.



Judges Comments

The runner up in WM's Historical Fiction short story competition is another war story, The Day I Learned to Pray, by PJ Stephenson. This time, it's a Second World War tale, told in the first person through the voice of Charlie, a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain. The life expectancy of a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain was four weeks, which gives a particular impact to this wonderfully well-told tale.

Using Charlie' viewpoint and the vernacular of the times, PJ conjures Charlie's world with vivid, adrenalin-fuelled immediacy. The Day I Learned to Pray unfolds as an immersive rollercoaster of a story where love and loss, hope and fear, are all bundled together as part of the experience of an individual in the face of battle. Overshadowing it all is the fear that Charlie's best friend, ace pilot Shorty, has been shot down, and the story is given a particularly moving dimension as Charlie's love for his friend, and for his girlfriend, Maeve, lead him to understand his own vulnerability and mortality.

PJ has wonderfully succeeded in telling a huge story that deals in life's biggest elements - life, love, death, war, fear, faith. It humanises war, making us see the human behind the heroic figures of the fighter pilots. The unsentimental delivery, in Charlie's voice, adds to its impact as Charlie, who we understand without it being spelled out is extraordinarily brave, learns to face his fears. At the end, with its wonderful moment of hope - and PJ makes us understand that's all it might be, just a moment – we're rooting for Charlie, and Maeve, and Shorty, all the way.