Algy, on his way to an early night after a long day of flying his desk, glanced automatically at the letters awaiting uplift outside the orderly room. With a sinking feeling he saw that one had a ‘Return to Sender’ stamp on it. The well-worn paper was soft against his fingers, the dark ink scrawled artistically across the front as familiar to him now as his own. Teeth bit into his lower lip briefly as he worried at it before straightening his shoulders and taking the letter with him. For a moment he paused at the rough wooden door, before knocking softly, “Bertie?” despite having swallowed before speaking his voice sounded rough, the bearer of bad news. “Bertie?” Better this time. He was rewarded with the door opening. “What is it old chum? Towser! Towser! Here boy!”
Algy felt his heart sink even further at Bertie’s cheerful attitude. No matter how many times he passed on the news he still felt like he’d plunged into a dive and carelessly forgotten to warn his stomach first. Forcing himself to meet his friends eyes he murmured, “Your letter. It was returned” The stained envelope was held up as proof. Bertie froze.
“Returned?” suddenly Bertie was off the bed again, in front of Algy, eyes narrowed, “You mean the address was wrong.” At Algy’s mute shake of the head Bertie turned away, his shoulders slumping and his whole demeanour suddenly representative of an old man. Towser trotted over, whining and butting his leg. Silently, Bertie crouched and ruffled his ears. Algy quietly pushed the door to, unsure if his presence was wanted but sure that any larger an audience certainly wasn’t.
“Well, at least I’ve got you still, Towser old boy” Bertie murmured huskily, gathering the dog up in his arms and carefully putting the letter on his bedside stand, buying time before turning to face Algy again. “Thank you for bringing it over, Algy.”
Algy shrugged one shoulder, regarded his friend for a moment more and then surprised both of them by gripping his shoulder, “You’re welcome.” After a pause he added, shyly, “tell me about him?”
When Bertie swallowed thickly a few times, hand clenching in Towser’s fur, Algy led him to the bed, sighing softly. The beds in their current mess were rather on the old side, and as the two men sank into the mattress sundry springs creaked and moaned at the intrusion. Bertie shifted several times until he seemed comfortable, Algy shifting as well, not because he thought his seat might get any more comfortable but because if he didn’t he would be catapulted by the sulky springs into the hard, bare, floor. The silence stretched on, like a particularly thick and impenetrable London fog. It was some time later, wiping his eyes with a monogrammed handkerchief, that Bertie cleared his throat. “He was…well…he was a very good friend.”
“mmm?” Algy tried to sound just the right level of interested, without saying anything that might change what Bertie was about to try and get off his chest.
“We met in Monaco” Bertie continued, his left hand now stroking rhythmically down Towser’s back. “At one of the casinos there. You know what it’s like out that way, chaps talk to chaps, and one thing leads to another. We woke up in a gutter somewhere and that was enough to get us into the habit of hanging about together.” Towser settled with a great huff, his little paws kneading at the mattress for a brief moment. Bertie stroked him almost compulsively. “I was out there for quite a while you know. Doing this and that.”
Algy made an understanding noise. He’d spent some time in Monaco doing this and that as well, until he’d started to lose a bit too much.
“He looked me up when I got back to old Blighty and introduced me to some friends of his out in the West End, good fun and all doing the sorts of things that keep a man fresh. A couple of them got into gambling in a friendly sort of way but I steered clear of them once they tried to set it up as a going concern. This isn’t Monaco after all. Didn’t want to get mixed up with the jolly old bluebottles. Tommy was thinking of joining them but I said he’d better not and in the end he moved out to the country. Got into horses instead, racing ‘em and hunting ‘em both.”
Algy smiled a little, thinking that sounded much more fun for Bertie. “You went down I suppose?”
“Oh yes.” Bertie agreed, “rather often really. He had an awfully good stable. Then I joined up and...well. That was three years ago. Thought I’d look him up now and then, see how things were ticking along. He’d let me know he was off over in Africa don’t you know so I thought I’d see how he was finding it.” The letter lay reprovingly on his bedside table. Immobile since he'd left it there. “Suppose he didn’t find it much to his taste.” He added, with a vain attempt at a smile.
“I suppose not.” Algy agreed, clasping Bertie’s shoulder again. “I’ll tell Biggles you’re not flying, old man.”
Bertie looked at him, confusion written all over his features, “why ever not?”
“You know we try not to send chaps up after they’ve had a clanger like this. Makes a chap distracted and I’d rather not have you distracted in the middle of a dog fight.”
Bertie nodded slowly. Licking his lips he murmured, “Tommy was a good friend. Alright, but I’ll be up again soon. It’s not like I’ve lost a girlfriend, not like poor Walker.”
“I wasn’t suggesting you’d get that much time on the ground.” Algy agreed peaceably, “I guess you’ll sort out when you’re ready.” Standing, he patted Towser’s head. The little dog wriggled his tail and looked up at Algy with brown eyes. “Good boy.” Algy smiled, nodding at Bertie, “try and get some rest, old thing.” He advised, kindly.
“Thanks.” Bertie rejoined, shortly. He watched Algy go, chest rising and falling faster and faster until the door was shut and he couldn’t hear Algy’s footsteps any more.
“It’s just you now, old thing.” He whispered to the little dog, kicking off his shoes and lying back, “just you.” He curled up on his side and Towser licked his cheek. For a moment the dog looked confused and then he whined, butting his soft head in against Bertie’s as the pilot lay there, eyes burningly dry. Bertie couldn’t know, of course, but he rather thought – when he thought back on that dark moment in his life – that Towser somehow knew that his master wasn’t coming back.