WE MIGHT HAVE PLAYED CHESS • by Oliver Antony Jolly

6th March 1943

It’s remarkable to think that a year ago my biggest fear was failing to become a pilot. All I wanted then was to fly a Spitfire, to ride the skies like an avenging eagle and help to win the war; nothing else mattered to me.

I was a boy seduced by news reels; the dogfights above the rooftops outside; the sound of Merlin engines roaring and the smell of cordite drifting down from white, winding trails written like chalk through the blue stratosphere above. I had dreamed of being an Ace. I joined the air force.

Now I am a Spitfire pilot. I’ve grown up pretty quick. My biggest fear these days is death, or to be precise, being slowly burnt alive while encased in the cockpit of my crashing plane.

I’m almost nineteen and I’ve killed another human being. My spitfire’s got a little black cross painted beneath the canopy to represent one kill — a badge of honour. Ha! I remember being positively anxious to play a part in this war, well, now I guess I can say that I’ve played it.

I downed my first Nazi fighter, a yellow-nosed 109, after a five second burst. Up until then I had shot at countless enemy planes. Sometimes I’d hit them and I’d feel happy. It was like scoring points in some exhilarating game, but I only ever felt that I was shooting at aircraft, machines, not people — that is until a target of mine exploded. That made my jaw drop. It was so sudden. I was racking up points, letting the aircraft have it and relishing the damage I was inflicting. The plane just took it, flying straight and level. In hindsight I guessed the pilot must have either been debilitated by fear (possibly his first time in combat) or he was already dead. But at the time I carried on shooting, relishing my good aim. Bits of metal debris were flying from the airframe of the 109 like confetti when BOOM! And in an instant I knew I’d not only destroyed a plane, but a life too.  On returning to base I tried to wear a proud smile.

I used to have dreams where I was flying like a bird, but since I killed another man I’ve only had nightmares. In them I see my dead pilot. He is young, handsome and full of life. He is sitting with his sweetheart; a red haired girl who gazes at him with so much adoration and blushes when he smiles. They are speaking. At first I only hear German and I don’t understand, but after a while words start to make sense to me: marriage, children, vacations; I realise they are talking about their future and I hear so much optimism in their voices that I can’t help but feel excited for them. Then, in utter horror, the red haired girl screams as her lover coughs up blood and is suddenly engulfed by flames — he lurches over. I hear a joyous cheer of celebration issue from the clouds and I see a small cross flutter down to land at my feet. Meanwhile the pilot’s sweetheart clutches at his burning body and sobs uncontrollably; she burns with him.

I wake up, soaked in sweat. I try to tell myself it’s not real, it’s just a dream, but deep down I know it is real, and that somewhere his loved ones mourn his loss. I took him from them. Did a part of me really enjoy doing so?

I told Davies, a fellow pilot, about my dream. He says that it isn’t so bad, that he has much worse dreams where he finds himself without fuel over occupied France and he can see the country below him is ablaze from horizon to horizon and he is helplessly drifting down towards the inferno.

“Your dream, old boy,” said Davies as he exhaled cigar smoke “Is born out of guilt — but why should you feel guilty for killing a German? They started all this!”

Sometimes I find myself agreeing with Davies. Who do the Nazis think they are? They just invade other peoples’ countries, kill and slaughter, destroy, bully. They shall not do that to Great Britain! But then my fury subsides and I dwell on one simple element: I killed another person. Can I live with that? And what if, in different circumstance, I had met that German pilot in peace time? We might have played chess together or gone fishing — maybe he had a pretty sister?

***

9th March 1943

I am still drunk with adrenalin. I have just returned from escorting American bombers over France. We were attacked by swarms of Huns black like crows, weaving and diving. I saw Davies go down (no chute), Wilkes too (he bailed out). I was hit a few times, not seriously, but the German was a cunning beggar. He zoomed up from out of nowhere, gave a spray of bullets, then rolled over showing me the dirty black crosses on his wings as he dived into the silver clouds below. What an insult! I rolled my Spit into a dive to avoid another attack of a similar nature, but when I broke hard to the left I found myself, by sheer luck, tailing behind the same 109 who’d just given me the burst of fire: I didn’t hesitate — I returned the gesture. I lined up my sights, pressed the fire button and Rat-AtatAtatAtata filled my ears until I saw (and I confess it delighted me) a black column of smoke billowing from the nose of the 109. I went to give him another quick tap but stopped when I saw his engine cowling separate and a bloom of red flames came spitting from his exhaust. The plane plummeted down.

Today I scored my second kill. Tonight I shall not sleep easy. I am three kills away from becoming an Ace.


Oliver Antony Jolly is 26, happily English and very fond of deep, clear ponds. He mostly breathes oxygen but is partial to smoke, from time to time. He has never seen a UFO.


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