Come Fly with Me
Frankie, you star! You’ve brought a new kind of life to me. Ray squeezed her close, closer, right up against his heart and his hips. She didn’t object, she pressed herself to him, not crudely, but as though she had just…grown there, and she moved, a reed swinging in the wind, the same wind that made him sway, fly even. What was it about her? That old devil moon – must be. The moon and his passport, which arrived yesterday. 72 hours from this dance hall and he’d be flying. Ray hadn’t had time to look up where in Australia he would be landing, and in any case, right now, he’d rather be dancing with this girl. Woman. Close up she was not as young as he’d first thought. She was small, a face and body like a Sinatra tune, with peaks and curves. She danced well. She danced so bloody well! She was following him, his steps, his breathing, his mind, even. He held on tight, and they danced. Sinatra crooned.
“You live in London?”, she asked in a crystalline American voice.
“Nope. I’m off in three days.”
“Forever, if I can help it. I’m going to Australia”.
It’s very clear, our love is here to stay.
“Oh. Right. So what’s in Australia?”
“Space. Novelty. You’re gorgeous!”
“You dance well. That’s gorgeous”.
“OK, I’ll take that. You’re not bad yourself.”
“Your eyes, are they grey or blue?”
“How can you see my eyes?”
“I can’t. I can feel them”.
“I can feel you smile, too.”
“The departing hero has eyes at the side of his head?”
“Hardly a hero.”
She smiled again, and her grey eyes – or were they blue? – were laughing at him.
“You were a hero. That’s what they called you guys, no, in the war? Daredevil types, useless in peace-time.”
“What, that you can’t settle down? Was it so wonderful, the war?”
He hears mockery threading through her voice, like the beat beat beat.
“No, I meant – obvious that I’m an ex-serviceman. What makes you think I’m daring, anyway?”
“You have risk written all over you, even your dancing is dangerous. Especially your dancing.”
“You don’t like it?”
“Oh, I’ve always been a sucker.”
Ex-serviceman, priggish word. He had been a hero, of sorts, if anyone had. At least, that’s what the George Cross that slept in his top drawer said. What he remembered was his navigator with his legs blown off and not dying, because Ray flew his heart out on an almost empty tank. He remembered the engine vibrating in his hands, and stalling, just before the coast. He had glided her in and down. He’d never flown so well.
Her legs, her hips, her breasts, her whole body, vibrated along his. I’ve got you under my skin. Skin. Hers was soft, she smelt of wood, some spicy wood he thought must be her scent. A small hand and a silky cheek against his own, inside his own, then inside his mouth, and then her mouth, next to his. She didn’t say no. She didn’t say – too fast, too dangerous. He pulled her in a corner, next to a rubber plant. They still danced, smoothly like skin, like a kiss. His hand moved up to her hair – wavy, black, soft as spring grass – encircled her nape. After the kiss, her eyes glinted. That old devil moon, that you stole from the sky. She laughed as she might swill brandy. He didn’t want to ask her anything, he didn’t want to know what she did, where she worked, if she had a boyfriend, a husband (but there was no ring). He was not even sure he wanted to tell her his name, or hear hers. She was looking at him, more coolly now, assessing him.
“Aren’t you going to ask my name?” Why was her voice so loud? The whole dance hall must hear her! English girls didn’t talk like that.
“Oh, did I – put my foot in it, as you British chaps say?” she imitated his clipped accent.
“No, I’m sorry, just that…well, I said, I’m leaving…and I don’t know if I’m coming back…probably not…”
“Yeah, you said. It’s Elsa, anyhow.”
Elsa. Glad she told him. Glad it was Elsa, because he’d never heard a girl say that before, with that kick in her voice, say it like a dare, or a slap, a gauntlet flicked at his face. It reminded him of France, though he wasn’t sure why. He had worked in the South of France in a hotel a year after the war, his first job as a civilian. Elle-za. He repeated it in French in his mind. Now he was back flying again. He had liked France, but right from the start he hadn’t been able to take to civilian life, the boredom of it, the drear days, even in the Riviera sunshine, even in the melon-coloured hotel. That greyness had just gone on and on, after he’d returned to England, punctured only by the lurch in his stomach when it recalled the swoops of a Spitfire and by the self-conscious banter he exchanged with other former airmen, though some of them had to stretch their burnt faces into the parody of a grin. The years since the war had gathered like dust, until he’d swept them aside and walked into Australia House.
Elsa was saying something, he wasn’t listening.
“You’ve not heard a word, have you?” she asked.
“Sorry. I was thinking of something else.”
“You guys.” She repeated, tartly. He thought he saw her teeth, and felt a nip on his lips, then she had put her lips against his again, and he kissed her back, tasting spice.
“I live with two other girls”, she was mumbling. “And we’re not allowed to take anyone home. House rules. How about you?”
“I don’t have my own digs in London. I’m staying with friends until I leave.” He wasn’t sure where this conversation was leading. He hadn’t asked for anything. Or had he? Why should I try to resist, when baby, I know so well? No, that wasn’t it. Don’t you know, little fool, you never can win.
“The girls are away at the moment.” That spike of laughter again. Girls didn’t used to be like that. Or did they? Or was it because she was American and was called Elsa? In olden days, a glimpse of stocking…
“Why are you here?”
“In England, you mean? Or with you?”
“I don’t know, to both. I can’t see myself back in Upstate New York again, back to being my Mom’s little girl.”
“You could try New York City.”
“Yeah, I could. I should. Or California. England is so gray, every November I swear I’ll go, my friends back home write me to say – it’s a bright world out there, everything shines, everything is new.” She pronounced it Noo, like Frank Sinatra. “But then June comes…”
“I like Noo York in June”
“Nothing. Don’t you?”
“I like London, right now.”
“Are you half-French?” he asked. How stupid. She didn’t sound French, but she was dark, she was troublesome.
“No, why do you ask?”
“Just thought you might be, somewhere down the line.”
“Because I’m asking you home?” That was direct, at least. No mistake there.
“No. Your name. Your looks.Things you say.”
“My Pop chose my name. His parents were German immigrants. Elsa Himmel.”
Now that was different. He was not sure what he thought of it.
“He didn’t prop up the damn Führer, if that’s what you’re thinking.” This time her voice didn’t spike – more like smacked him.
“Must have been hell during the war”, he murmured.
“Awful, fucking awful.” It disturbed him, to hear her swear. In olden days, a glimpse of stocking…
“Did you change it?” he asked. To Elisabeth, perhaps, Elisabeth Heaven.
“No. I kept it. In the military I was called Heil Himmel.” Her scorn, tipped with pride, defied his pity. Her waist under his hand was not as pliant as it had been, but he pulled her out on the dance floor anyway. He wanted her skin against his, he wanted her laughter bursting out of his stomach. He hadn’t really taken her for an easy girl, but perhaps…or were girls just different today? The war had changed so many things. And yes, he did remember other moments, with other girls, days of, nights of…but those were desperate times, another world – taut, immediate. The world now, the English post-war world, had slackened like a leg muscle, or a heart, grown flabby with disuse. Except that it seemed to be flexing again. I love a fireside, when a storm is due…
“Do you have a fireside?”
“A gas stove. Not so romantic. But it’s June, I don’t use it. Are you cold?”
He held her tightly, and it was his turn to laugh.
“What have I said?”
“You haven’t. Just a song. Where’s your flat?
“Of course. I might have guessed.”
“Oh you might have? Despite our reputation, Chelsea girls are not all promiscuous.” Prim words, but the chuckle was back in her voice.
“No, I’m not.”
“So it’s that kind of night. Do I have to explain myself? You’re leaving.”
Stars in the night, shining so bright, can’t hold a candle, to your razzle-dazzle, you…He didn’t want her to explain herself, but he wanted very much for it to be different for her, too. He didn’t want to be just another man. Why did it matter to him? He was off in…seventy hours now. His pulse tick-tocked, like the beat beat beat. He wasn’t sure if it was Elsa or the thought of going to Australia forever, in the middle of nowhere, a place where the earth met heaven. When was the last time he had been so electrified? And so scared? In the sky? With a woman? Peter Karolski used to say flying and fucking was all the heaven we’d ever get. Ray had tried to get as much of both as he could but there had never been anyone like Elsa, never anyone with her eyes, her hair, or lips like hers, who swung straight inside him.
“Ray” he whispered, his lips kissing her ear with his name.
She started humming along with the music. “You’re much, too much, you’re much too very very, to ever be in Webster’s dictionary.
– “ What would the entry look like, d’you think? Ray: bored – and flawed – war hero who runs off to the other side of the world. See under: chasing rainbows and catching bluebirds. Why does that have to make you so goddamn attractive?” she asked, bitters in her voice.
“It sounds like you’ve known a few.”
“Just one. I was married to him. British, like you. Don’t ask why, you guys don’t even have good teeth.”
Was married. So that explained the bare hand. He didn’t really want to hear, but he asked all the same, out of habit, and good manners.
“I was a war bride, genuine, 20 years old and as sweet as apple pie. He was a war hero. Commanded amphibian vehicles, D-Day and all that jazz. We met in spring of ’44, just before he went to France. I was an auxiliary in the US Army. I hardly knew him, of course. I thought he’d die. No, that sounds awful. I was afraid he’d die, I was crazy about him, crazy as in sick. And then he came back. After the war, he never managed to hold down a single job, so I ended up earning most of our cash. We drifted apart. There weren’t any children.”
“Did you try?” He blushed. What a question. He blushed again, for being so old-fashioned. She didn’t seem to notice, either way.
“Not that hard. We lost interest after a while. He met another woman in the end, and it was a relief. Why am I telling you all this? Did you leave a woman in that way?”
“No, she left me. But it was much the same story.”
“And now, suddenly, you’re fascinating. Would I have thought that a year ago?”
Ray winced. “Probably not. A year ago I was counting paper-clips in an insurance firm. They sacked me after six months.”
“Of course they did. You should have been an accounts clerk in the war. What was it? The Desert Rats?”
“No wonder you’re going to Australia. What do you think you’ll find there?”
“I’ve no idea. That’s the attraction. I’m 40. I want to fly again. I don’t want to bury myself in insurance. ” Or Elsa. But Elsa, on the other hand, was right there. She was so much more there than poor Mireille had been, on their poor honeymoon…
The test, it was coming now. Peter Karolski used to say that the test came right at the edge, as you’re about to fly off. There’s always something (with Peter, it was usually a woman). Peter always passed the test, fucking and flying. He died passing the test. Ray closed his eyes, moved Elsa to the middle of the dance floor.I want you to know, anything goes. A curl in her hair tickled his mouth. He saw red earth, sky without an edge.
The beat beat beat of the tom-tom. He had her nipple in his mouth. A fat reddish brown nipple, a woman’s nipple. He had never wanted anything as much as that nipple. No russet earth, no sunset sky, compared to that red fruit. And the grey blue eyes above it, and the legs around his waist. Devil, moon. In 1940, a shy 20-year old, he’d have stopped in Berkeley Square with the nightingale singing, but now he had gone as far as Chelsea, and found the bluebird. June sang outside. I love London in June. No, it didn’t ring quite as well as New York. Or Australia. Perhaps it should have been New York, with Elsa. She was trailing her fingers down his back, and scratching, and trailing again. She pulled herself up, pushed her mouth to his, he raised her, until they sat and faced each other, inside each other’s eyes, and shone in the prismatic glow of the gas fire. Their legs circled one another. I’ve got you under my skin. Within my skin. Elsa’s arms drew him closer still, her mouth kissed and whispered, whispered and kissed, night and day … Her voice and her kiss mingled inside his mouth, against his neck, his ears, and the blood rose in him as she moved, as she keened, then he cried too. He came like Australia, like New York.
Or like flying.
Elsa bit his shoulder, a nip, a bite, and suddenly they were wrestling, dodging each other round the bed, round the room. He caught her and they burst up against each other, half in rage, spitting fire. Then the clear clean air of each other’s eyes opened up. Elsa’s cool eyes, tender now, still quizzing him. They fell asleep holding hands and slept through the night. Ray had never slept well with a woman next to him, but now he rested better than he had since the war. It was Elsa, or Australia and the excitement swinging inside him since he’d heard he was going, since his passport had arrived, since the Land Allocation people had told him about this wild wild place under the endless sky.
He remembered his first solo flight, in the paralysing cold of January 1940. He remembered his first dog fight in June 1940, the first Messerschmitt he downed, the sight of the German pilot floating down towards the sea, a boy like him, who became a black-and-white speck against the diminishing sky. He remembered the first time his plane caught fire and he too had to bail out over the sea, and saw the look on the face of the German who had just shot him down – a mixture of jubilation, curiosity, and recognition.
You make me feel so young. You make me feel so spring has sprung. Ray slept, and dreamt.
The wireless woke him, and Elsa humming. He heard clatter, smelt coffee. That’s what you get, folks, for getting whoopie. He got up, dressed. Outside, June warmed the trees and flowers of Chelsea, a bluebird sang in Sloane Square. From his jacket pocket he drew out a pencil and a piece of paper. Quickly, he scribbled something down, and left the paper on the hall console. He let himself out of the flat, softly.
Elsa heard the door click, but didn’t leave the kitchen. Her fingers tightened, and she scalded her tongue on the bitter coffee. An hour later, next to the phone, she found a typed letter. “Australia House. 1st June 195…. Dear Mr Field,…” and in pencil, at the bottom: “Mayfair 3450. Elsa, come fly with me. Ray”.