Algy isn’t a jealous sort of man, a trait which has stood him in good stead throughout his short life. If he had been, he may well have been of more concern to Wilks. Instead, Wilks just accepts him as the new man and continues treating Biggles as he always has.
From the moment he met Biggles, he thought him a little odd. There’s nothing exactly to put one’s finger to, but if he had to try he’d come up with a sort of list that started with Biggles inability to grow a moustache (Wilks, like many young men in the War, carefully fostered his moustache from the day he signed up until the day he checked into the great hangar in the sky) and continued towards his small stature and the occasional need he had for Wilks to help him with his great coat when they came back from a wet Friday evening in town. These are things which Joe Public considers flaws in a dashing aviator, but somehow in Biggles they aren’t flaws at all. Wilks does get jealous and on wet Fridays nowadays he wonders who helps Biggles then. But there’s plenty of other people in the 287 and hundreds of ladies in town who are more than happy with a man like him – a man who doesn’t drink in castor-oil whenever he goes flying – so he doesn’t get as jealous as he might do. Besides, it’s Bigglesworth. He practically taught the man how to fly for heaven’s sake!
None of this exactly explained why he was heading across to the 266, because the main reason he was going was to cause a bit of trouble. Mac was always able to be counted on as having enough of a level head to desire some levity and Wilks just knew that this new chap Algy would be into whatever crazy scheme could be thought up. Biggles had complained bitterly about him the first time Wilks had heard his name and that suggested that Algy was not only willing for a laugh but actively sought it and could therefore be counted upon to brighten up the autumnally grey skies of their little patch of hell.
“No friendly greeting, chaps?” Wilks hailed, stepping into the mess and straight over to the bar.
“For you? Never!” Mac was nose deep in a whiskey and seemed unlikely to leave it any time soon except to abuse the newcomer, which he did roundly and with a complete lack of malice. “Every time you come here it’s not to help us but to cause us a world of trouble.”
“You flatter me.” Wilks grinned, downing his own sherry and getting another, “as if I could be bothered to cause trouble in a second rate squadron like this one!” drawing up a chair he looked around at the young faces, all the same age as his own.
“We only seem second rate to you, laddie, because to the poor boys over at 248, a squadron as shining as this has to be right up there. Yours is what, tenth? Eleventh rate?” “First rate, if you must know. The CO announced it as soon as it was formed and he wasn’t bally wrong. We fly aeroplanes you know. Heard of those?”
Biggles snorted just as Algy came in with a grin and a burst of disgustingly fresh air. “Wilks! Here to get a beating?” His words were quite innocent and nobody noticed the slight flush in Biggles face. “Actually, I thought that you should know you’re being challenged. You see “ here he broke off to lean forward, “we’re sick of target practicing against each other, the SE5 is so fantastic and accurate that we can all pretty much get perfect scores all the time. What we need is something different. Not to challenge our scores of course because the Camel won’t ever do that, but just to be there as a distraction.” He grinned, white teeth flashing between sherry-stained lips, and Algy grinned back.
“You think that we can’t beat a few jumped-up pilots? We’ll blow your scores out of the water!”
“Just as soon as the weather improves, we’ll show you what….”
“You’re afraid of a little bit of bad weather?!” Wilks was outraged, sneering at Biggles half-finished sentence “No wonder we’re losing the war. This weather doesn’t ground us – we’ve been flying three patrols a day for the last two months, plus sorties!”
“Yes well we don’t have to.” Spluttered Algy, squadron spirit roused, “our reputation speaks for itself.”
Wilks got up and stretched, insufferably complacent, “your reputation merely supports the idea that real aeroplanes are steadily being replaced by Camel nonsense.” He retorted. “We will be doing some target work tomorrow morning and again the following afternoon. Best of three, out on the range behind our hangars. If you don’t show then…well…we know who’ll win.” Wilks grinned, happy that his plan was set in action. He loved the 287 of course but he wasn’t nearly as attached to it and the SE5 as Biggles thought he was. Just because Biggles had switched straight away and taken two changes of aircraft since then didn’t mean that he wasn’t easily goaded about his current aeroplane. Well, they all needed a bit of a rattle anyway.
Wilks wouldn’t have slept so sanguinely that night had he known what would happen in the morning. As it was, blissfully unaware of upcoming scrapes and a little worn out from the unaccustomed football game which he’d been a part of in the mess after dinner, he slept deeply. The crumping of artillery no longer disturbed him and, alone in his room thanks to a CO who was used to the finer things in life and thought that all officers should have sumptuous rooms to themselves, he had no snoring to put up with either.
Algy had both loud artillery and snoring to keep him awake and it was with dark eyes that he drank his coffee the next morning. Their scheduled patrol hadn’t gone ahead thanks to the continued poor weather but Biggles was determined to put in a showing against Wilks. “I’m not letting that man beat me at anything” he declared around a second cup of char, “the wind won’t blow us over the lines you know, since we’re starting off so far from them, and the SE5 is even less able to deal with it than we are.”
“I still don’t like it” Mac averred, “at the very least don’t go alone. Take one of the new pilots with you. Give them some experience and let us get some rest.” It was always hard to tell when Mac was joking. He may have just caught Algy’s huge yawn, or he may have given his to Algy.
“Very well then!” Biggles stood, downing his cup, and strode over to Tom, the new boy.
Wilks was enjoying a final gaze across the target area when two Camels came in to land. Smirking through the drizzle he welcomed them with a certain triumphant air which rankled the other two pilots and encouraged them to further their own efforts. Two hours later, several aircraft were circling the area, getting in their sights and generally preparing for a round of strafing which would prove, once and for all, who had the better aircraft. Or so Wilks had promised!
At the drop of the starter’s flag, down screamed the first SE5, the other aircraft circling away from it just like real German planes would. It seemed the pilot would never pull out of his dive. Biggles could well imagine the pressure pushing him back to his seat, the difficulty breathing as the wind rushed into his mouth. Surely the struts would break? But they didn’t. Although he never admitted it, Biggles was always secretly impressed with that dive. Rat-a-tat-tat! The bullets rattled out briskly, scattering along near their mark. The aeroplane made one further circle away from the area and then came into land as the next one started firing. His score was just as mixed as the first man’s, and so it went on.
Tom and Biggles provided plenty of distraction, now and then warming their guns or switching to a completely different flight pattern just to see what would happen. In truth, they were both getting a little bored. Tom in particular, knowing nobody involved, was quickly becoming less and less interested. He thought he’d worked out the best way to go about the challenge, and now he was just awaiting his turn. Wilks had saved the best until last, the two Camels and then himself, to draw the victory home as he had put it. Tom, confident and determined, circled once, dropped like a stone, hopped across the hedge and emptied his mags dead on the target. With a gleeful whoop, he hopped onto the aerodrome and landed, turning to beam up at Biggles’ aircraft. Employing very different tactics, Biggles also enjoyed the challenge. He was pleased beyond belief at Tom’s excellent display, and intended to follow it up with one of his own. Tongue pressed tightly between his teeth, he pounced, whirling around to his right and lining up his guns. Counting slowly to himself he waited until sure of his shot before firing, making holes in exactly the middle of their target before shooting back up like a rocketing pheasant and racing for the aerodrome.
The sight before his astonished eyes left him wondering what the deuce had happened. Instead of a hero’s welcome, half of the squadron seemed to have decided Tom was the enemy and were trying to pull him from his plane and prevent him from taking off into relative safety. The other half were taking off and heading straight for Biggles whilst those without aircraft had decided to rig up a sort of obstacle course which the Camel, with its impossibility of manoeuvre on the ground, would never be able to get through. Tom, he noted, was doing the sensible thing and heading straight for 266. With one more glance at the swathe of aircraft swarming towards him Biggles decided to do the same. The two aircraft landed within minutes of each other but whilst Tom taxied straight for the hangars, shouting out warnings as he went, Biggles ducked and dove away from the SE5s on his tail before he could do the same. He didn’t think they’d actually shoot him, but he wasn’t prepared for what would happen next.
One of the pilots clearly had very high spirits, and swooped low over the airfield. In discovering that this made the men jumpy, he did it again. Then his friends joined in. Perhaps it was Wilks (Biggles afterwards averred it was Wilks though the man himself hotly denied it) who decided to prove their shooting prowess once and for all. Since Wilks was the only one with ammunition left, they took it in turns to shoot Very pistols down the Mess chimney. Moments later coughing and dirty officers came running out of the Mess, perturbed and not the least bit amused. Satisfied with their work, the marauders turned for home.
The last laugh was on them though – Algy sent them a chimney-sweepers brush for Christmas. Attached to it was a note indicating that their newest and most useful job yet might have been improved with the correct tools.