Author: Jessica Pickard

Up, Up Brave Beauties!

War is a transformer. Ploughs were hammered into swords; farm horses pulled cannons and we flying girls, we found our wings.

Everyone knows the song:

Into the air brave beauties
Oh flying girls!
Up. And carry our hearts.

But before the war we were not brave beauties. We were oddities. On worship days Pere Peter sent my family to the side aisle. We knew why. Even my mother was ashamed, angry with what Namir had delivered at the birthing place.

So it was always:

‘Daughter! Keep them folded!’

Father tried harder. I’d hear his voice through the floorboards:

‘Not ODD Hilda. Only UNIQUE. Can’t we just agree on that?’

Father – may he walk with Namir – was not however right. There were others like me, although back then I knew only one. Esther lived over Earnshaw way but we were not encouraged to meet. I have a photo though. We are 12. Esther, taller than me, is looking at the lens from under her hair, wings bundled into an oversize jumper.

Then, in 2612, two things happened. First I turned 17 and, of course, the trolls arrived. We saw their cooking fires glinting across the river and heard their gargled songs. We knew what it meant. A regular fol-de-roll of rape and burning.

Pere Peter read:

‘For our great city boys and men 12 to 40 years are called. Also girls proficient in flying 15 to 25.’

Faces turned to our side aisle. Father gasped. Mother sat up taller.

I still have the badge, wings the colour of honey on a green circle, given to me by First Minister. Now it seemed we were not oddities but ‘key to the defence of the realm’. First Minister stayed all day clapping and hurrahing as we jumped from the airships, night glasses strapped uncomfortably to our chests, to land in practised formations.

The reality was different. For one we always flew alone. And at night – nights so cold you felt your wings might crack. Esther died in the first months, pinioned in the sky by crossed searchlights. I stared down on hairy backs bent over her broken body.

I remember gathering, shivering in first light, to count how many more would flutter in. Then the barked debriefings: Numbers? Crossbows? How close to the bridge?

But I remember too, when we were finally released for breakfast, the banter with the men of the Flying Corps. ‘Flying Corps’! How we teased them! Not one could fly without a machine. And how cheeky they were!

‘A bit of fairy cake tonight darling? ‘

‘Fancy a ride on my cockpit?’

Well we won the war, although what does it mean, to win a war? Win a race – you get a cup, win a bet – money. But win a war? At best you get the absence of war.

But we girls did win something. After the war we walked our city proudly, heads high and wings unfurled.

We, the carriers of hearts.