“I work until 1 pm on Saturdays,” she wouldn’t tell me where “I can meet you at Gibbys on Collins Street at 2 pm. You know where that is?”
“I grew up in Melbourne. Everyone knows where Gibbys Coffee Lounge is.”
She smiled at me. Not too big a smile and definitely not a come-hither smile, she was too classy for that.
We had danced together since I walked into the hall.
Fitzroy Town Council had allowed a women’s auxiliary to put on a dance to entertain the soldiers who were home on leave. I’ll bet the councillors believed it was better to have the servicemen all in one place instead of roaming around looking for an excuse to defile their daughters.
During our second dance (I had to give the glare to some Army sergeant to get him from cutting in) I told her that I only had a couple of days leave before I was due back in England.
My dark blue uniform and the gold wings on my breast pocket didn’t hurt my chances with the ladies. All girls love a uniform, but she wasn’t a girl, and I think that she looked past the uniform, which made me nervous — I don’t reveal myself to people easily, especially not women.
She was a few years older than most of the young women at the dance. I could see it in her eyes.
Before the War, there were groups of men and women who would come early to a dance because they wanted the floor to themselves. They came to dance, and anything else that might happen was secondary.
Molly was an unofficial member of this unofficial association of lovers of dance.
The hall was beginning to get crowded, and Molly’s friends were tugging at her sleeve.
“Come on Mont; it’s getting past that time.”
I must have looked quizzical because she said to me, “Friends call me Mont. My little brother couldn’t pronounce Molly, and it stuck.”
“I don’t care what they call you as long as you meet me tomorrow. Don’t forget that I’m due back at the front.” I placed my hand over my heart in an exaggerated silent movie pose. She smiled again — just a little one. She understood my World War One reference. A beautiful face, not frightened to smile, well dressed on a shop girl’s wages and she has a sense of humour. I’m going to enjoy this leave.
During our brief encounter, I did manage to find out that she worked in a ‘Sweets Shop’ somewhere in the City, but when I pressed her, she said, “The details are boring. A person needs to eat so a person works. It’s better than working in a Knitting Mill and not as good as working as a nanny, but it pays the bills. Well, half of the bills. My sister pays the other half.”
Her friends whisked her away, and they were soon absorbed by the ever increasing crowd, and I was left to ponder how I was going to fill in the rest of my evening.
I wandered around looking for a drink and maybe a little trouble, but in the end, my heart wasn’t in it. I found a place that was selling sly grog, but other than that, trouble wasn’t looking for me. I didn’t really mind. My senses were still reeling. I could hear her voice, and I could smell her perfume. She had style and taste. Her perfume must have cost more than a week’s wages.
The RAAF had me billeted at a small hotel on Lt Collins Street. I could have travelled to Ferntree Gully and caught a bus to Belgrave, but I knew how my mother would react. She’d have invited all the neighbours and any relatives within a hundred mile radius. I couldn’t face the fuss. I’ll visit them on Friday and be on my flight on Saturday night. This is precious time, and I don’t want to spend it travelling around. One day of having my father look at me with those sad eyes is about all I can take. He was in the trenches during The First World War, and he saw what happened to flyers. He’s convinced that the same thing is going to happen to me.
I’m strongly ambivalent about death — my own that is. On the other hand, I have to stay alive, or my crew don’t make it home. Bombers don’t fly themselves, and every time we go up, they expect the crazy Australian to bring them back alive.
The other crews are starting to look at us strangely.
We have never had a crew member injured, let alone killed. We refused to paint a naked woman on the side of our ship and we didn’t give her a name.
Half of the other crews think we are crazy and will not come home one day and the other half are beginning to believe that we are charmed.
I don’t know what I think, and just now, all I’m interested in is getting to see that well-proportioned woman with the dark wavy hair and the great legs.
I grabbed a few hours sleep, walked around the city and down by the Yarra River.
I caught a number 12 tram up the Collins Street hill and sat on the Parliament steps until just before 2 pm. I enjoyed savouring these few moments before I saw her again. Gibby’s is only a short walk from my place of solitude.
I can find solitude in the midst of bustle — chaos even. In the briefing room where other pilots would moan when the night’s targets were read out — in the air with flak bursting all around us. On a good day, I can even find solitude under the clocks at Flinders Street Station.
This was a good day, but I was looking forward to more than solitude. A woman in the depth of her beauty and me just back from a place where beauty was hard to find. She could never understand and neither would I want her to. My father knew that — he never spoke of his War, never marched on Anzac day except for that one time. I’ve never met any of his Army mates, and I asked him once — only once, and he said that most of his mates lay in foreign lands and the ones who did come back with him dispersed themselves to all points of the compass. None of them wanted to remember, and now I know why. Who would want to remember constant terror — constant responsibility.
She was sitting at the table by the window.
Gibbys isn’t a large shop; there’s room for about six tables, and the store counter is toward the back of the shop. A glass fronted display case is filled with cakes. The back wall has glass shelves displaying coffee pots of various sizes and ground coffee in discretely marked packets. There seemed to be only one staff member, and she was young, bored and surprisingly efficient. The decor was simple with only two paintings on the walls — a scene from Paris painted by someone who had never been there and a country scene with lots of Gum trees and a river.
I got the feeling that she chose the seat by the window so that I could see her as I walked along the street.
The top end of Collins Street is leafy and high class. Lots of doctor’s rooms and exclusive clothing shops; the type that only have one dress in the window without a price tag and you go in if you can afford not to ask “how much is that green dress in the window?” The shop girl would never say it, but she would be thinking, “If you have to ask, you cannot afford it,” and she’d be right.
Molly was sitting quietly reading a book.
She wasn’t sitting in the window when I went past on the tram, but that was almost forty minutes ago. However long she had been there she looked like she belonged. If I owned the shop I would pay her to sit there — she gave the place a sense of style.
A simple white hat sat on the chair next to her, and her matching white gloves lay on the edge of the table. She wasn’t wearing a watch, but she was wearing an antique brooch. White and green stones, not precious stones but tasteful and old, probably from a time when people took pride it what they made, and others took pride in what they wore. Her dress was white with green flowers, definitely not what a shop girl would wear so she had gone home to change, wherever home was it was close by. More importantly, she wasn’t wearing a ring. She was just as pretty as I remembered her. As I entered the shop, she looked up from her book and smiled at me while removing her reading glasses. She has green eyes, how could I have not noticed last night.
“Captain,” she held out her hand, and I took it gently, “you came.”
“Did you doubt that I would?” She smiled, and there was a lot behind that smile.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Eventually. I did a bit of walking around before sleep found me. You?”
“No. I tossed and turned, and my sister complained because she has to be up even earlier than I do.”
“Was it me that kept you awake?”
“You think a lot of yourself, Captain.”
“Not really. I just thought that the question might make you smile. I like it when you smile.” She tried not to, but her face betrayed her. In the midst of that suppressed smile, I saw a look that said she wasn’t a woman to be taken lightly.
“What would you like to do this afternoon Miss ….?”
“Holmyard. Molly Maria Holmyard.”
“The Molly Maria sounds Irish, but the Holmyard doesn’t.”
“Irish on one side and Spanish and Danish on the other,” she said.
“I thought we could go for a walk through the Treasury Gardens and maybe find somewhere to eat in the city when it gets dark?”
“I would love to walk with you Captain, but I can’t keep calling you Captain.”
“William — William Smith, but you can call me Bill.”
“Well, William, I would love to go walking with you, but I’d like to finish my tea first.” This was a gentle hint. I’d sat down and started talking and had forgotten to order.
“Will they let us drink tea in a coffee shop?”
“I think they will if you ask them nicely.”
I asked the girl behind the counter for two teas and a couple of sticky buns, and I did it nicely as my mother had taught me and as befits an officer in the RAAF.
We talked about nothing until the teas arrived, which did not take very long.
The shop was half full and mostly with couples like us. A corporal with his girl who hung on to his arm as though she feared he might suddenly bolt for the door. Two civilian couples. The bloke in the blue suit had that look in his eyes that I’ve seen a hundred times. When they got up to leave, he took his girl’s hand and no matter how hard he tried he still walked with a limp. He gave me the nod as he walked by and I gave him the nod right back. It’s a funny thing that — the nod that men give each other when they recognise a fellow traveller.
“Do you have anyone in uniform? I asked.
“If I did, I would not be sitting here with you.” She wasn’t mad, but she was firm.
“I’m sorry, that was rude, but in my defence, I only have four days before I’m on a transport heading back to Blighty. I don’t want to be treading on anyone’s toes, and I don’t want to be wasting my leave.”
“I’m not spoken for, I don’t have a boyfriend, I’ve never been married, and I have all my own teeth, at least for now.”
“How did you get this leave? However short it may be.”
“I have no idea. It’s rare to get leave to come back to Australia. Local weekend leave is hard enough to get.” I sipped my tea which was hot and strong and took a bite of my bun.
“My crew don’t mind because they don’t have to fly until I get back. Maybe the brass believes that we have been pushing our luck. We are the only crew that hasn’t had a fatality. We are kind of a good luck charm for the squadron. They pulled me into the CO’s office after our last mission. We lost almost half our group that day, and we were all exhausted. I thought I had done something to annoy someone important, but I was told that our aircraft was being pulled out of service for a few days for major servicing and I was required for a special mission. My co-pilot and navigator as well. They told me that I could say no, but there was eight days leave and a return flight to Australia if I agreed. No one asks your permission in the RAF they tell you what to do and you do it. This was genuinely strange, and when I asked if my crew were to receive leave as well, they said yes, so I said okay and what did they want us to do.”
“It must have been a dangerous mission for them to have asked you and given you so much time away from action?” She was staring into my eyes, probably trying to imagine what this all felt like.
“I was told that I’d be flying a Dakota to France at night. Landing behind the lines on a small field that was just long enough to land on. We had a passenger. A very young woman –some sort of spy. She was so young and innocent, and I thought to myself for the first time, that the Allies were in real trouble if we had to resort to dropping young women behind the lines.”
“Did you land safely?”
“My navigator earned his money that night. They had chosen a moonless night, and we only had a few seconds of a bonfire to guide us in. When we got to where the field was supposed to be there was no bonfire.”
“What did you do?”
“I asked my navigator if we were in the right place and he said that he was sure we were. I flew over the field once and hoped that we would see the signal, but none came. Dakotas make a hell of a noise, and if we went by again, there was a good chance that there would be a hostile reception committee waiting for us. So, I called the young woman up to the cockpit and asked her what she wanted me to do. She seemed determined to go ahead with her mission so I turned and dropped through the trees. I swear that the propellers were in danger of cutting off a few branches. We touched down, and as we got to the end of the field, I had to turn her around before we had washed off enough speed. The Dakota tipped up on one wheel, and I thought we were in trouble, but the propeller only grazed the grass, and I was very happy to be facing in the right direction and in an upright position.”
“That’s what I said, but I used slightly more colourful language. Our navigator made me promise that we would never volunteer to do anything like this again. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t sure we had enough space on this field to take off. We would be slightly lighter, but the young woman and her tiny suitcase weighed about as much as a large cat.”
“Did anyone shoot at you?”
“No, and I’m pretty sure that whoever was supposed to be there to meet her wasn’t there either. My co-pilot and I put our feet down as hard as we could on the wheel brakes, and I opened the throttle as wide as it would go and the plane started to skid along the grass with the wheels locked. After that, I released the brakes and held on until the last possible moment when we pulled back on the stick as hard as we could. It didn’t take a genius to work out that we were not going to make the trees at the end of the field. I didn’t pull the gear up because I hoped that it might help to slow us down if we crashed. We clipped the treetops, and for a moment I felt the plane hesitate, as though she was insulted by being flown into trees, but then she started to climb, and everyone took a breath.”
When I finished my tale, she sat for a moment and looked at me. I could see her visualising what I had just told her.
Her sticky bun had disappeared very quickly, and it crossed my mind that she might be hungry.
“Have you had lunch? Can I buy you anything else to eat?”
She hesitated before saying, “No, it’s okay, I’m fine.”
She gathered her hat and her gloves, and I took this as a sign that she was ready to leave. When I looked at my watch, I saw that an hour had gone by, but it felt like only a few moments.
I stood back to let her walk by. I paid the girl behind the counter, and she looked disinterested when I thanked her.
I opened the door, and we stepped onto Collins Street.
I reached out and took her gloved hand, and she didn’t pull away.
I took this as a very good sign.