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Authors: Derek Robinson

Piece of Cake

Piece of Cake

Derek Robinson is a policeman's son from a council estate who crossed the class barrier by going to Cambridge, where he got a degree in history and learned to write badly. A stint in advertising in London and New York changed that. In 1966 he moved to Portugal, wrote two unpublishable novels, returned to England flat broke, and finally got it right when
Goshawk Squadron
was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. That is a story of the Royal Flying Corps.
Piece of Cake
is something of a sequel. It follows the fortunes of an RAF fighter squadron in the opening year of World War Two. What his RFC and RAF novels—six in all—have in common is a streak of black humor and a certain debunking of the myths of war—myths that portray air combat in comic-book terms, with every pilot an ace, and every ace handsome and debonair. The truth is that all war is an untidy, inefficient business, much influenced by luck, good and bad. Wartime flying demanded a special sort of courage and resilience. The novels aim to expose the myths while they reveal the courage.

Derek Robinson lives in Bristol. When he's not writing, he's either publishing his best-selling guide to the local underground lingo known as “Bristle,” or playing much squash, against everybody's advice.

Piece of Cake

Derek Robinson

An imprint of Quercus
New York • London

© 1983 by Derek Robinson

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by reviewers, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of the same without the permission of the publisher is prohibited.

Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.

Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use or anthology should send inquiries to Permissions c/o Quercus Publishing Inc., 31 West 57
th
Street, 6
th
Floor, New York, NY 10019, or to
[email protected]
.

ISBN 978-1-62365-329-3

Distributed in the United States and Canada by Random House Publisher Services
c/o Random House, 1745 Broadway
New York, NY 10019

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons—living or dead—events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

www.quercus.com

For Wally and Beth

Contents

September 1939

October 1939

November 1939

December 1939

January 1940

February–April 1940

May 1940

August 1940

September 1940

Author's note

SEPTEMBER
1939

Dawn was beginning to soften the edge of the night as the Buick convertible cruised through the Essex countryside. Its driver was a small man, so short that he had to sit on a cushion and lean forward to see over the Buick's broad bonnet. His right leg was at full stretch; even so, only his toes pressed the accelerator. The rush of air lashed his curly hair forward.

There were three other men in the car, all asleep. Like the driver, they were young and dressed in lounge suits or blazers and gray flannel trousers. One of them, in the back seat, held an enormous stuffed golliwog, half as big as himself.

A pothole made the car lurch. “Sorry,” said the driver.

The man beside him slowly woke up. For a while he stared ahead, blinking occasionally at the curving lane in the Buick's headlights, the rushing hedgerows, the branches flickering overhead.

“Sticky,” he said. “You're on the right side of the road.”

“Of course I am,” Sticky said. He flinched slightly as his wheels flattened a dead hedgehog.

His passenger glanced at him uncertainly, and then looked ahead again. He held up his hands and looked at each in turn. “What I mean is,” he said, “you're on the wrong side of the road.”

Sticky thought about that as he swung the car into and out of an S-bend.

“So I am,” he said, and crossed to the left-hand lane.

They drove for another half-mile, through a little village and over a bridge, before the passenger said: “Sticky, how long were you driving like that, for God's sake?”

“How should I know?” Sticky sounded annoyed. “Am I supposed to keep track of everything? Bloody hell, it's hard enough to steer this beast without remembering every bloody little detail. I mean, damn it all.”

His passenger sighed, and then belched.

“Anyway,” Sticky said, “this is an American car, and over there they drive like that all the time.”

“But you're in England.”

“Well, so are you.”

“Yes, and I like it here, and you could have killed us all, driving—”

“You don't like the way I drive? You don't trust me? Is that it,
Patterson? Fine! Drive the rotten thing yourself.” Sticky folded his arms. The car hit a patch of corrugations and drifted across the crown of the road. Patterson grabbed the wheel, over-corrected and had to shove it back. “For Christ's sake, Sticky!” he cried. Sticky deliberately looked out of his side window. The car zigzagged, jostling the men in the back seat. “Hey, hey, hey,” said one. The other simply groaned and clutched his golliwog. “Stop playing the bloody fool, Sticky,” Patterson said. The road curved to the left and he made desperate adjustments to keep the car on it.

“What's the matter?” complained one of the men in the back seat.

Sticky tipped his head and arched his body until he was looking backward over the top of the seat. “My standard of driving does not satisfy young Pip,” he said. “I have therefore relished command of this vehicle.”

“Get your foot off the gas, damn you!” Patterson shouted. He twitched the wheel and just missed a stone wall.

“Relished?” the man with the golliwog said to Sticky's upside-down face. “What d'you mean, ‘relished'?”

“Relinquished,” Sticky said, and choked slightly on his own saliva. “I said I relinquished whatever it was.”

“He said ‘relished,'” the man with the golliwog told the fourth passenger. “Bloody Stickwell's pissed again. Look at him. He can't even stand up straight.”

“Where the hell's the ignition?” Patterson demanded, scrabbling for the key with one hand.

“I said relished and I meant relished,” Stickwell declared firmly.

“Thank God he's not driving,” said the man with the golliwog.

Patterson's free hand thumped Stickwell on the knees until he sat down again. A sharp turn came racing toward them, and Patterson heaved on the wheel just in time. “God damn you, Sticky!” he said hoarsely. The wheel flickered back through his fingers.

“You're driving on the wrong side of the road,” Stickwell said. It was true. The lights of an oncoming truck glared. Patterson got the Buick into the left-hand lane and the truck flashed by in a blaze of horns. “For the love of Mike, stop the sodding engine, somebody!” he pleaded.

“Think I'll take a little nap,” Stickwell said, and closed his eyes. As he did so, the engine started to cough. It picked up for a few seconds, then spluttered and died.

“Now look what you've done,” Stickwell said severely. “You've broken it.”

Patterson heaved a deep and trembling breath. The Buick drifted along, shedding speed, and he edged it onto the grass verge, where it jolted to a stop. The night was very still. He rested his head and looked at the stars. They shimmered with unnatural intensity, blurring and sharpening and blurring again in a rhythm that matched a slow pounding in his brain. “As I live and breathe,” he muttered, “I swear I'll never drop another drink. Drink another drop. Whichever.”

“That black velvet did it,” said Stickwell. “You shouldn't have had all that black velvet. I didn't, and look at me.”

“You look bloody awful,” said Cattermole, the man with the golliwog. “You look as if you're about to spew.”

Stickwell twisted around to face him. Stickwell had dramatically gloomy features, and in the starlight his eyes were lost in their deep sockets. He studied the golliwog and said nothing.

“I've spewed once tonight already,” said the fourth man, Cox. “And it wasn't the black velvet, either. It was all those American martinis before the black velvet.”

“I don't remember any martinis,” said Cattermole. “Where did we have martinis?”

“In that rotten club. Before the party.
You
remember, Moggy.”

“I do not. I certainly had no martinis.”

“You had three,” Patterson announced. “And then you spewed.”

“Our big mistake,” said Cox, “was starting off on cider. I said at the time—”

“Were those things martinis?” Cattermole asked. “You mean those funny-tasting things, with the vegetables floating around in them?”

“I think I'm going to spew now,” Stickwell said.

“There you are!” said Cattermole triumphantly.

“It has nothing to do with the drink,” Stickwell announced. He spoke with some difficulty, as if he had a mouthful of chewinggum. “It's all this wild careering around. Very sick-making.”

“Well, get out, first,” Patterson told him.

“At this speed? Are you mad, Patterson?”

“Watch out, Pip,” Cattermole warned as Stickwell's head began to droop.

Patterson threw open the door and half-fell onto the grass. The sound of harsh retching began. “Shit,” said Patterson.

“Highly unlikely,” Cattermole remarked. He and Cox got out. There was just enough light leaking into the sky to silhouette hedges and telephone poles.

“Where are we?” Cox asked.

“Sticky ought to know,” Patterson said.

“Sticky's got his hands full at the moment.”

“Really? That stuff's not worth keeping, Sticky,” Cattermole called out. “Chuck it away.”

“Why did we stop?” Cox asked.

“Ran out of fuel,” Patterson said. “Had to make an emergency landing in pitch darkness. Brilliant bit of piloting.”

Cox climbed onto a tree-stump. “Nothing but fields,” he reported. “Not much chance of getting the Buick filled up here.”

“Sounds like Sticky's doing his best,” Cattermole said. The painful noises in the car eventually tailed off into feeble coughs and gasps. Stickwell appeared, gray-faced in the gloom, and stretched out on the grass.

“What time is it? We ought to be getting on,” Cox said. “How far to the airfield?”

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