Jeremy’s War: Chapter 19 “Strange Awareness “

Posted on March 27, 2008




First came the slow awareness that something was going on. Something… was most definitely occurring. Something which warranted his attention, only…
At times it was like a dream tossed sleep. A knowledge that had not yet achieved the awareness of self. A consciousness that tried to grapple with that which seemed very important.
Time went by. There seemed to be another dimension to the awareness now. A sort of… feeling. A feeling of… what?
It stabbed to a degree, but there was as of yet not sufficient thought power to identify the sensation.
That was it. Pure physical pain.

It was the wood pigeon that did it in the end. The screech -just- penetrated Flt. Lt. Jeremy Armstrong’s brain. It left an impact. Although the stimulus was not identified, it served a useful purpose. It rendered Jeremy’s brain just a little more receptive. Thus it was, that a certain insistent staccato sound started to irritate Jeremy. He found himself getting positively annoyed, in fact. Why couldn’t they just let him sleep! He tried hard to ignore the intrusion, but it was no use. The obstinate sound insisted on continuing, as much as he wished it would go away.
But there was more than sound. There was also something else. His brain tried hard to grapple with the sensory inputs, but found no interpretation satisfactory. Both the pain and the overwhelming smell of fuel continued to fester and grow. Until in the end, even Jeremy’s severely shocked and concussed mental consciousness flickered into life. He listened for a long time, while he wondered if he would ever see again. That he had gone blind was obvious: he couldn’t see anything.
He accepted his blindness with surprising equanimity. What worried him a lot more was the pain. He seemed to be suffering agonies. He slowly became aware of an object exploring his face. At the same time the pain was dissolving itself into distinct components. His back hurt. And his legs hurt abominably. His head was exploding.
And his face…
The object he could feel on his face seemed to be responding in some manner to his thoughts. He concentrated hard, and became aware that he was clenching his fist. He deliberately unclenched his fist, and located with some degree of precision where his hand had ended up. With another mental effort, realization came flooding in that he was very uncomfortable. That was his right hand he could feel. What had happened to his left arm?
He struggled feebly, and it was as if the slight movement turned a switch in his brain. The stench of petrol engulfed him, and he gagged momentarily. His struggling intensified, but he seemed to be pinned down.
A groan came to his ears. He wondered idly if the groan was something to do with him. He groaned again experimentally, partly to test his theory, and partly because he hurt all over. He recognized his own voice, and was aware this time of his lips moving. He licked his lips, and tasted something horrible between his teeth. He gagged again, and spat the strange substance out. His struggling intensified, but achieved very little.
“Damn! ”
The curse sounded a bit more positive. He drew a certain amount of relief from his ability to swear.
“Hell, damn, and blast! ”
It was louder this time.
“And damn you to hell, Captain McAllister! “, he added as an afterthought. The picture of the captain briefly fleeted past, and Jeremy felt a desire to punch him as hard as he could.
His left arm had miraculously materialized, and with both hands operable, Jeremy explored his face and environment.His nose was smashed. Blood everywhere. A sticky, caked mess, that seemed smeared everywhere. He licked his lips again, and spat out more dried blood. No wonder he was blind. He had lost his eyes.
Panic was setting in now, and he struggled again against his unseen bonds. The movements taught him something important: he was still strapped in the cockpit. He felt around for the straps, puzzling at the same time why there was a strange pressure on his shoulders. He located his shoulder straps, and tugged at them. They were very tight. He felt strangely light in his seat. He tried to puzzle it out. In frustration he pulled at his mitten, and it came off surprisingly easy. He fumbled and lost it, and to his surprise he felt it glance off his face.
The penny dropped: he was suspended by his straps upside down!
“Bloody Nora! ”
The oath made him laugh, despite the pain. He said it again and again, enjoying the sound of his own voice, and beginning to really feel alive again. The panic subsided as he busied himself with the next question: how high was he above the ground? If only he could see!
He felt gently for his eyes. His goggles had disappeared, and his cheeks were caked in congealed blood. He wiped his eyes, and blinked hard. Nothing. He was really blind. Panic started to rise again, but then a very slight glow arrested his attention. He focussed on it with all his might. He could just make out a dim airy lightness above and ahead. But there was too little to discern any details. He shut his eyes, shaking his head, wishing he could clear the pain. His nose was broken, that was for sure. Maybe his back and legs as well. Everything hurt.
Moreover, he was cold. Bitterly cold. As if to reinforce that sensation, his teeth started to chatter. He was lucky he hadn’t frozen to death! He groaned again. An exaggerated groan. He blasphemed. Then he thought deeply.
There was no point in staying in his present position. He would soon freeze to death if he did. At the same time, he had no idea of how high above the ground he was. Ten feet? Fifteen feet? More? And he was upside down to boot.
If he undid the harness, he would probably fall straight onto his head. That would be the ultimate irony. To survive a crash like that, and then to break his bloody neck falling out. At the same time…
The whole weight of his body was on the shoulder straps. That fact was quite clear, the more he wriggled. He tried to grab the sides of the cockpit to see if he could pull himself up, but it was hopeless. There was only one way out.
“Bloody Nora! ”
It wasn’t funny anymore. He was scared.
“Hobson’s bloody choice! “, he announced angrily to the world. There was no reply. He thought briefly of God. Should he pray?

Our Father,
Who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on Earth as it is done in heaven,
give us this day our daily bread,
forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive them that trespass against us…

The mental picture came to his mind of the blue and green Albatros, and the grinning pilot, waving cruelly, and the bullets whizzing down past him as he cowered in the filthy ditch. Hatred rose up inside him, and boiled over into a raging inferno.

Forgive them that trespass against us…

Forgive that Boche bastard? No bloody chance!
With the Lord’s prayer unfinished, he gritted his teeth.
Then, sucking in air in great lungfulls, he shouted
at the top of his voice, pulled the quick release pin, and fell spectacularly five feet to the frozen ground.

* * *

Slowly, she turned over the yellow scarf.
I hope he likes it…
Emmy was not a natural at knitting, and this project had taken her a long time. She felt the soft material, and examined the stitches again minutely. She sighed, and hoped Jeremy would wear it flying. It would be nice to think of him wearing her scarf… it would keep him warm.
She wondered what he was doing at that instant.
How nice it would be to talk to him…

* * *

The massive impact knocked the breath out of his body, and hurt terribly. Winded, he rolled half over, gasping for air in a pathetic series of sobs. The only sound was a high pitched whining noise, like an old man dying feebly. His lungs battled to supply the oxygen his body so desperately needed, but it was some minutes before he could breath without difficulty.
He lay there exhausted, aware of pain, the smell of petrol, dull moonlight, and cold snow. But he was too sick and weak to do anything about it. He tried to raise himself onto one elbow, but the movement defeated him. His stomach contracted, and he vomited with gusto. The painful retching joined forces with all the other aching to further torment him, and he wondered when it would all end.
Panting deeply, he lay still for several minutes, resting and gathering his spirit. The vague realization crept in that he had felt better when he was cursing. He thought of the cynically smiling McAllister, and addressed him warmly:
“You pompous, sly, stupid looking BASTARD! ”
He breathed deeply, and felt better. Carefully, he rolled over and studied his whereabouts. His eyes seemed to be adjusting to the dim light better now, and he sensed that there was still a small amount of tired moon light fighting its way down to the ground. Dimly he could make out the shape of his crashed SE5a, inverted, with the remains of the lower port wing somehow crumpled over the top of the cockpit. He struggled slowly and painfully to his feet. Standing up, he slowly stretched himself.
Amazingly, he had obviously not broken his back. Or his legs. If only the excruciating throbbing from the site of his nose would go away, he would almost be human again.
His teeth chattered, and he decided to look for his mitten. He groped around with difficulty underneath the wreckage, and reflected that it was hardly surprising that he had assumed himself to be blind. It was pitch black underneath the fuselage, and the crumpled wing blocked out what little light scattered down.
He retrieved his mitten, but not before he banged his head painfully fumbling about. Eventually he stood beside the wreckage again, mitten recovered, debating what next to do.
He had been very lucky. Of that there was no doubt. The degree of destruction to the aircraft surprised him. Although the wings had absorbed a lot of the impact during the initial contact with the two fir trees, there had been still sufficient energy to wrench the engine almost clear of the airframe. It lay at a strange angle, pointing almost backwards. This he discovered partly by sight and partly by touch.
The fuselage had somehow rotated, losing the horizontal tail plane and rudder in the process. Only the crumpled fin remain attached to the fuselage. The interplane struts had splintered, and lay entangled with smashed wing ribs. Oddly enough the spars had snapped quite cleanly, and his roving fingers followed the smooth, varnished contours up to the first breakage. He reflected sadly on the diligent handiwork of the many craftsmen who had combined to produce this fine aircraft. Their work was in vain now.
This machine would never fly again.
He thought wryly about his squadron companions. Unlike him, they had no regard for their aircraft, and demonstrated not the slightest appreciation of the craftmanship involved. He remembered back to Hendon, and with savage revulsion he thought of Dicky putting his flying boot through the fabric on his lower wing, and laughing uncaringly. Buffoon! Despite his injuries, Jeremy felt a sadness at the demise of his machine, and reflected on the strange way that a machine that took five thousand patient man hours to create, could be so utterly annihilated in less than five seconds.
Still, it was clear that his SE5a, in dying, had saved his life. The force of the impact had been absorbed in a progressive process of destruction, and the deceleration, although violent and painful, had nevertheless been survivable. It was also only by amazing good fortune that the fuel had not exploded. He thought back to his action of switching off the magnetos. One spark from them…
He shuddered, and thought back gratefully to his old instructor, Kershaw, and mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ for the endless ‘practice engine failure’ drills.
He backed away from the wreckage, and tried to focus his brain on the problem in hand. He was cold. Hungry. And behind enemy lines. Now what?
The knowledge that he could have been home in another ten minutes made him bitter. But there was no point in pursuing that sort of wishful thinking. He had to decide what to do. He stamped his feet, and tried to look around him. His nose hurt abominably, and for some reason his eyes kept watering. Carefully he explored around the aircraft, by touch as well as feeble sight, and was soon moving in ever widening circles. There was no sign of any kind of a path, and he was disappointed, although he knew that he was many miles from civilisation.
He would just have to head west, and try and cross the lines.

Try and cross the lines?

The thought made him almost want to laugh. Certainly, it had been done by some pilot in the Beauvais area, but…
The chances of being shot had to be very high indeed.
The risks would be colossal. Even if a German sentry didn’t get him, there was no guarantee that one of his own side wouldn’t pop him off just as easily.
Still… the thought of simply walking into captivity didn’t appeal to him either. He had no idea what his treatment at the hands of the Germans would be like, but he had no reason to expect it to be very cordial.
He thought longingly back to the warm mess at Sainte-Breuve-sur-Pont. Even with his generally strained relationship with his Commanding Officer, and the nerve destroying stress of war, at that moment the mess room seemed to him to be the most desirable place to be on earth.
He shivered again, and his teeth chattered uncontrollably. It was no good. He had to keep moving. A strong urge overcame him to lie down and rest. Just for a few minutes. Would he fall asleep though? And perish from exposure? He swore quietly, and kicked out at the silhouette of a fallen branch. How long had he been unconscious? No way of telling. Then again, it couldn’t have been that long, or he would have frozen to death and never woken up. The temperature was far below zero.
Which way was West? He didn’t know. He didn’t carry a pocket compass, so that left only the aircraft compass.
He crawled back under the wreckage. It was no use. He would never see. He groped by feel, and discovered his compass smashed, the fluid drained out, and the needle pointing out at an unnatural angle. His spirits sank again, and he wondered about lighting a fire. There was no way he was going anywhere until daybreak. But a fire…? It could easily attract the Hun. Doubtless they had seen him go down, and the anti-aircraft battery would probably have organized a search. Not for his welfare, he reflected grimly, but to be able to claim another score.
Lighting a fire was definitely not on.

He stuck to his resolution for several hours. During which time he suffered more than he ever had in all his life. He had never known that it was possible to be so soul destroyingly cold. It was as if Life itself was being remorselessly sucked out of him. Slowly, despite all his earnest endevours, he found himself slipping into a sort of trance like condition, in which the severity of his situation became less and less meaningful. He had started out jumping up and down, and running on the spot. But soon it was all he could manage to stay standing up, leaning up against a tree trunk. His eyes also seemed to want to close all the time. He endured for as long as he could, until the moment he realised his shoulders were slipping down the tree. Barely conscious, he found himself in a sitting position. He fought the insidious urge to close his eyes, just for a moment, and struggled with difficulty to his feet. There he stood, swaying unsteadily.
There was nothing else for it. He would have to light a fire. The risk that he would be caught was infinitely preferable to the near certainty that he would otherwise freeze to death. Slowly and painfully, each step an ordeal, he gathered a small pile of twigs, ripped fabric, and splintered wing ribs. It seemed a pathetically small heap, barely filling a small hollow in the ground, beside a fir tree, some fifteen yards from the sad remains of his machine. He was by now seized with an uncontrollable shivering. With difficulty he searched his pockets for the matches he knew he had there. His fingers closed on the familiar box, but as he tried to extract a match, he dropped the box, spilling matches everywhere. Dropping to his knees, he felt tears coming to his eyes. He needed heat desperately. He couldn’t take much more of this. Groping around he located the box, and with difficulty managed to strike a match. It went out the moment he offered the flame to some fabric. So did his second, third, and fourth matches. An idea struck him. He returned to the aircraft, and, following his nose, he tore out some fabric from a section which appeared to be soaked in fuel. He made the trip several times, and then struck a match. The result was spectacular. Instantly, with a rushing sound, a large flame leaped up, and the assortment of kindling quickly began to take light. The fire seemed to throw an oasis of light around, and instinctively he looked around over his shoulder. He was surrounded by trees, which in the eerie flickering light took on an even more unreal, other worldly appearance. Warmth quickly started to enter his frozen body, and he removed his mittens to warm his hands. He found himself chuckling hysterically, greedily lapping up the warm comfort. After ten minutes he was feeling much better.
On an impulse he backed away from the fire. From a distance of twenty yards, it was already harder to see, surrounded as it was by trees and shrubbery. He felt reasonably sure that nobody could see it from afar.
Returning to the aircraft, he collected more of the wreckage, including a section of the top wing, which had all but been torn off. He now had an almost unlimited supply of combustible material. He could hunch close to the fire, whilst breaking the wing section into small pieces. That way he had something useful to do, and he could keep the fire going steadily, without letting it get too big.
The night wore on. He was feeling much better now. His nose still hurt fiercely, and he felt hungry, but his head had cleared satisfyingly. He realized he had been close to dying of hypothermia.

It was almost pleasant sitting there, feeding the fire, watching the sparks floating up and away, listening to the crackling of the spruce. He gazed into the flames, and thought of Emmy. She would be in bed now, fast asleep, with no idea that he was sitting in a forest in France, behind enemy lines, burning pieces of his crashed aircraft in order to keep warm. It was a strange world.
He found his thoughts wandering. He thought of school, of his parents, and learning to fly. The next day seemed far off, and he resolved to face those events as resolutely as he could. One thing was certain, he was not going to be taken prisoner easily.

The explosion, when it came, completely deafened him.
One moment he was hunched by his fire, thinking of what Emmy would say, his mind relaxed; the very next second his brain was numbed, and he was scrabbling away on all fours from a blazing inferno. He ducked behind a tree, and lay there trying to grapple with this extraordinary event. Grim realization was not long in coming. His aircraft had blown up…
A stray spark had obviously floated across, and ignited the fuel. He was amazed at the force of the explosion. Flames had appeared everywhere, and his hair and eyelashes were singed. A burning sensation around his neck told its own story. Looking down, he could see that even the fur on his flying jacket was burned.

He stood and looked at the inferno. It was like a dream. Flames were shooting up into the night sky, and had to be visible for miles around. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the ammunition started to explode as well. He groaned, turned around, and started running wildly.

* * *

Sheer terror had numbed Genevieve. It was unreal. A waking nightmare. Harsh, cutting unreality. It was a mistake. It couldn’t really be happening. Maybe…
No! Please! No!
The rough wall against her back bruised and grazed her, but she didn’t even feel it. Her mind was shutting down protectively, and what was happening wasn’t true; it was just a distant dream.
No! Please! No!
This just wasn’t happening. The hands that pawed her everywhere… everywhere… Not her. Not her.
No! Please! No!
She could smell him. She could hear him. Why couldn’t she see him properly? There was only this crazy interplay between light and darkness. His looming shape, the awful breath on her face, and the outline of another building through the window. Beyond the roof line, she could see stars…

The sudden increase in light failed to register. His shocked gasp, and the sudden slackening of his grip around her also went unnoticed.
It was only when the hate-filled voice snarled out, that she was vaguely aware. But only vaguely.
A loud explosion rang out, and her attacker disappeared.
Somewhere, somebody was groaning in agony.
It meant little to her. Even the hands that untied her, and the gentle, soothing voice that wrapped her in a long trench coat, were a source of only distant puzzlement.
She presumed dully that this was what happened after you had been raped. Somewhere, somebody was screaming in agony.

Later, more funny images. Being carried, a car, doors being opened, long corridors, a bed. Gentle voices. A lovely, soft, warm bed. She sank into it, the lights went out, and she started to slide asleep.
Asleep. Glorious sleep…

* * *

The local papers two days later carried a very short story about a British infantryman found shot dead in a back alley.
That was all.
The tall, white haired, distinguished looking army Captain who filed away the newspaper cutting winked at his sergeant. He felt a quiet, ruthless satisfaction. So did his sergeant. Both men had daughters.
It had been close. But the journalists had understood in the end. Bad for morale. Never mention suicide during war time. Just leave it out. Don’t mention the bullet through the temple, chaps.
Wouldn’t do now, would it?
He smiled grimly. No journalist would ever get to hear about the other bullet. The one that had entered the victim’s groin, smashing a testicle on the way. Nor would they ever discover that the two shots had been fired ten minutes apart.

The bastard had died screaming…

* * *

Her recovery was slow, and was to take weeks, months and years. In several stages.
First, there was only the hospital room.
Long, dark nights, incessant nightmares.
She would be walking down a pathway, or an alley.
Strange, shadowy figures would stalk her quietly, always just out of sight. Out of the corner of her eye, she would catch sight of a furtive movement, and spin around. Nothing. She would break into a run, but all of a sudden a towering black figure would leap out of hell and grab her. There would be a horrible cackling laugh, and she would fight and struggle and kick in vain against powerful arms that locked her tight. She would become hysterical. The terror would give her super human strength, but even that would be insufficient. She would end up in a frenzy, unable to breath, and to all her other dread would be added the terror of choking.

Voices would slowly penetrate her mind. Faces. Many hands. Light.
Slowly, so slowly, she would relax a little. The man with the sneer had gone. There were other voices now. They spoke to her quietly. Did she detect a note of kindness there? She would relax a little more. She would realize her face and neck muscles were rigid.
A quiet voice would come in, soothingly. A woman’s voice.
“There, there, my child. It’s all right. You are safe now. You are here, in the hospital. Relax, child… “
She would look up, into a kind, smiling face.
Realization would come back. It would be Sister Agatha. Or Sister Beatrice. Or Sister Maria.
She would slowly stop trembling, and hold on to somebody’s hand tightly. Only when they were sure she was calm, would they leave her again. They would make her promise to call the moment she needed them, and then, uncomplainingly, the nuns would glide away to tend to a hospital full of the sick, the wounded and the dying.
Cocooned away in a little room by herself, Genevieve saw nothing of the misery, and was unaware how little time the nuns had to themselves. Or how unselfishly and oddly joyously they served others, as if each patient was strangely special in some way.

Her physical wounds took only a week or two to heal. The bruises, the cuts, the scrapes soon faded.
Her mental scars were what troubled others. They ran deep. At first, the nightmares. Many times, every night.
This became gradually less severe, but the same nightmare would return occasionally years later.
Then, the withdrawal. Alienation. A silent brooding. A stare that focussed on infinity, somewhere above the ceiling. A stare that didn’t waver no matter who came into the room.
A male nurse, Jean Devaux, popped in regularly. He was a man in his early fifties, but he looked much older. Tired lines caused by a deep weariness of man and war, had reduced his once handsome face. He worked crazily long hours, and his faith in Man was at a low ebb. The injuries of war, the pain, the suffering… it all affected him deeply. He had none of the religious faith that the holy nuns so enjoyed. Nothing to really help him through. He was distant from his wife. They had two sons, grown up and leading independent lives. How he would have loved to have a daughter. His own little girl. Who might have grown up like this. Beautiful, soft, feminine.

He would take a few minutes off, and come and sit beside her…
She would ignore him, seemingly impervious to his presence. He would take her hand gently, and hold it.
Sometimes he would stroke it. She never replied to his questions, so, haltingly, he took to telling her stories.
He told her about his sons, and he invented a daughter.
Genevieve’s distraught father had been a great source of information, and from him the good carer knew of Genevieve’s love of horses. So his imaginary daughter had a horse, and rode around the country side, falling off occasionally, and having funny adventures.
Whatever else, he seemed to relax Genevieve, and often her regular breathing and closed eyes would seem a reward to him greater than gold. He would look at her for long minutes, studying the relaxed features. Blessed by sleep, the terrible stare would be gone. She would be peaceful, relaxed, and so beautiful.
A young woman with her life ahead of her…
Why, oh why, could men be so cruel?
He would ponder the enigma that had defeated him all his life. The sheer, utter depraved cruelty. He would think of the amputations. Young men, pleading with him, tears pouring down their faces. He would patiently try and explain, over and over again, the meaning of that awful phrase: “I’m afraid gangrene is setting in… ” They would argue, beg, shout, curse.
Usually he managed to reason, to convince them. Occasionally he failed. Then they would have the awful task of physically restraining the patient, before they could knock him out. The end result was always the same. A figure, lying motionless. Staring into nothing. Broken.
The odd outline of the body under the sheets would give away the loss. The betrayal of man by his fellow man.
Keen swimmers with one, occasionally no legs. Keen rugby players with one, or no arms. Enthusiastic painters, with no fingers. Husbands, lovers, with no genitals. Half a stomach. One lung. No lower yaw. No nose. A cheek blown away, so the teeth showed horribly white from mouth to ear.
The physical scars were bad enough. What mental wounds were inflicted? He could only guess. You couldn’t see.
The physical hurt camouflaged the mental. It distracted, took away attention from the deeper damage.

In this girl… it was different.
Her physical damage was inconsequential. The bruises where he had beaten her to subjugate her will and throttle her spirit, the cuts, the grossly inflamed nipples where he had bitten her viciously, drawing blood… all that would heal quickly.
The marks his fingers had made as they pawed her, played with her, explored her, were already fading away.
But the mental damage. The loss of trust in all things two legged and masculine… these things grieved him. It made him ashamed to be a man. His heart bled for her, and he racked his brain as to what was the best he could do for her. She seemed to trust the nuns, and she trusted him now. But when a male orderly had entered, she had gone hysterical, and tried to jump out of the small window. Her screams had reverberated along the wards, and brought a stunned silence, in wards used to screams and pain.
But no scream of pain could compare with her screams of terror…
Tears pricked at the back of his eyes as he studied her, asleep, at peace for a while. What, oh what could he do for her? Would men ever know how many months and years of terrible hurt could be caused to a woman by one selfish act? A few minutes or seconds worth of indulgence to male sexual lust? How had her attacker viewed her? As a piece of meat? A fresh green apple, to be devoured whole, with the pips spat out carelessly? He stroked her hair gently, and wondered at the years of love he would have gladly given a daughter like that. Her attacker had given nothing of value, but merely taken what was priceless. Trust. Innocence.
He hoped with all his heart that she would meet a fine young man one day, who would give her true love. And restore her trust in some men, if not all.
He tip toed to the door, cast a last look back, and closed the door gently behind him.

She stirred in her sleep, and moaned quietly.


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