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Christmas at 169 Squadron

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“I've got no idea what to wear,” complained Biggles.

They were in Hut Four. The fire was roaring away, and seemed in imminent danger of setting the whole hut ablaze. By rights they should all be in the Mess, but each Flight was working on its contribution to the Christmas show.

“Not that kind of show,” said Mabs, when applied to. “The Old Man thinks we should put on a bit of a party for Christmas.”

They had had a hard week of it; the Hun had not let up despite the advent season. The cordialities of two years past, when the opposing sides had had a kick-about in No-man's Land, were long forgotten. And something worrying was happening at Douai, just across the Lines. Huts and hangars for a big combined squadron were going up, and no doubt it boded ill for the members of 169 Squadron.

So Major Paynter, that wily old bird (a good five years older than Biggles, at any rate) had decreed a Christmas show, and left it up to the individual Flights and ground-crews what they would put on to entertain the rest of the squadron. The prize for the winning team was to be overnight leave passes in Amiens. A fraught discussion among 'A' Flight, which took up most of a raw afternoon, with rain drizzling from continuous cloud cover, had come up with the one idea which seemed to have any potential.

“That's agreed, then. We're going to dress up as our names. We should manage to make some costumes in the time we've got. I'll nip into St-Omer and get a tutu. I could play Queen Mab in my sleep, I've done it so often,” said Mabs.

“It's all very well for you,” demurred Biggles. “With a name like mine, what can I dress up as?”

“You'll think of something. Necessity is the mother of invention, and all that,” grinned Mabs.

The next day, the rain had turned to sleet, and the cloud base had dropped even lower. “B” Flight had fought its way into the sky, and come back with the news that there was nothing to be seen, not a break in the clouds for a good twenty miles over the Lines. They had slouched off into their own hut and shut the door with a bang, and not a peep had been heard out of them since. Major Paynter had called off any further sorties that day.

Mark was trying to fix a miniature signpost to his flying-helmet. “It's the best I can do with Way”, he said, surveying it with a grin. One arm read, “London, 110 miles”, another “Berlin, 490 miles,” and another, “New Zealand, a Very Long Way.” Conway was cutting battlements into his castle costume. McAngus had simply got out his tartans and bagpipes and defied anyone to protest.

“What's that, Lutter?” called Biggles, surveying that young officer's attempt. It looked something like a pantomime horse, something like a dragon, and had a curly tail. Lutter looked up from his attempts to attach a spiky point to this tail. “Give me a hand instead of asking silly questions!” he snarled. “If this thing falls off one more time...”

Biggles lounged across to him and picked up pieces of the costume. “I'm sorry, old chap, but I cannot make out what it is at all.”

“It's a beast from the Luttrell Psalter. The Padre's idea. It's a good thing we've got one man of culture in this squadron.”

“Hey!” Mabs, clad in a long green tutu and fairy wings, turned round indignantly. “Where would you be without my idea in the first place, may I ask?”

“I don't see a man of culture there at all, just a fairy queen!”

Mabs executed an extravagant curtsey. “Thank-you, kind sir.”

Between them, Biggles and Lutter got the spiked point attached to the tail. “How are you going to wear it?” asked Biggles curiously.

“I'll ride it like a hobby-horse. I just hope the head doesn't fall off at the wrong moment.”

The hut was a scene of happy industry. Biggles mooched back to the stove, and took a pan of cocoa, that had been heating all this time, from it, and began to pour the liquid into mugs. These were greeted with cheers by the recipients. He took two mugs back to the table where Mark was still wrestling with his signpost.

Mark took the mug, raised it to him in salute, and smiled across it. Biggles smiled back involuntarily; the cheerful din of the hut retreated for a moment shared by just the two of them. The thought of an overnight leave pass was an enticing one. All they'd managed so far were snatched kisses and hurried embraces. Several undisturbed hours together would, he knew, be bliss.

“So what are you going to go as, young Bigglesworth?' called Mardell, breaking the spell. He was busy decorating a cardboard pillar with a feather as a brush, giving a nice marbled effect. “You know, my mother was right about this. It works a treat.” He had written to his artistic mother for help with the effect, and had received a reply by return, with a handful of feathers - black, chestnut and speckled, not a white one among them.

“Oh, I’ll think of something,” said Biggles vaguely. In fact he had no clue; with a name like his, what could he come up with? Even Marriott had an easier name. Marriott was from Australia, and was going as an island. He swore blind that this island was named after one of his ancestors, and was painting a kangaroo on his grey, cone-shaped costume.

“How about St James?” enquired Mark, doing his best to help.

“What about him? Do you know anything about him?”

“He was an apostle, wasn't he?”

“I'm not dressing up as an apostle,” said Biggles flatly. “I'd be struck down by a lightning bolt if I tried it. It's bad enough being shot at by the Hun. I don't want the Lord Above getting in on the act.”

“What abut James I? Or James II?” called Conway.

“Well, what about them? They weren't exactly great kings.”

McAngus rumbled something from the corner, but was ignored.

“There's nothing for it, you'll just have to change your name!”

Biggles lofted a cushion at Lutter, who had made the suggestion, and the noise of conversation in Hut Four continued unabated. Outside, the sleet turned to snow.

#

On Christmas Day, Biggles woke to hot tea, provided by his batman, and hitched a wary eye over the edge of his blankets.

“Merry Christmas to you, sir,” said the batman, and Biggles remembered with a rush about the show that night.

“No chance of flying, I suppose?” he enquired. At the moment, that didn't look like too bad a prospect – because how could he let 'A' Flight down tonight, with leave-passes at stake? And Mark?

“None at all,” said Casey. “We've got a nice breakfast party going on in the hangars instead of getting the machines out. You're welcome to come along, sir.”

“Thank-you, Casey, I might do that.” Biggles dragged himself further up in bed. His eye fell on the rack of costumes on the other side of the chilly hut. An idea flitted into his mind. He sat up straight. “I might just do that.”

“You getting a plan, sir?”

“I'm getting a plan. I'll see you there in twenty mintues, Casey.”

With a conspiratorial grin and wink, Casey departed.

#

It had been a quiet day, the snow giving the bleak landscape a peaceful air, belied only by the distant rumble of the guns now and then. The Hun seemed inclined to live and let live on this one day, though. There had been church parade, and they sang the old familiar carols they had all grown up with, and then there was a mighty Christmas lunch to get through.

In the evening, when they had recovered a little, there was the show. Local carpenters had made a makeshift stage in the Mess, and every chair in the squadron was collected and ranged in rows before it. Curtained-off areas behind the stage served as dressing-rooms. Here 'A' Flight was waiting, listening to Captain Todd introducing the evening's entertainment while waiting to go on. From the next section came whispers of "Tarantara, tarantara."

Mabs raised his wand. “Are you ready?” he asked. The members of 'A' Flight all nodded mutely - Biggles, especially carefully in case bits of his costume fell off. It was a distinct possibility, since it had been put together in some haste that afternoon.

“Right. Follow me!” Mabs rocked his wings, McAngus started up his bagpipes, Mark adjusted his signpost for the last time, and the Flight took to the stage.

#

The after-show party was glorious: loud, prolonged and bibulous. Biggles and Mark ducked out of it after a few hours, crossing the trampled snow of the apron and heading for the relative quiet of Hut Four.

“Tomorrow night in Amiens,” exalted Biggles, as they opened the door to their deserted hut. No light came in through the shuttered windows; just the glow of the fire illumined the room. He went over to the fireplace and stirred up the coals enthusiastically. “We deserved to win, hands down.”

“We certainly did. How did you come up with that costume? It's a corker. No wonder we won.”

“It was Casey who gave me the idea. He had a shady past, you know, before they pulled him out of jail and gave him a job as a fitter. He and the lads fixed me up between them. We had a lot of fun with it.”

Biggles started detaching pieces of his costume, which was in danger of catching fire from stray sparks. It consisted of dozens of pieces of paper pinned to his uniform, each one printed to look like a high-denomination bank-note. Mark came up behind him, encircled him in his arms, and began removing notes from various portions of his anatomy.

“I'd pay it,” he murmured in Biggles' ear, and, all the notes removed, turned him and took him properly in his arms, and began to slow-dance them to the sound of the gramophone from the distant Mess. “I'd pay it for sure. Biggles is definitely worth that much.”