Jeremy’s War: Chapter 5 “The Reception “
Posted on March 5, 2008
His driver pulled up outside a long, low building, and informed Jeremy his bags would be taken care of. Jeremy thanked him excessively, without realizing it. He was as yet unused to the quiet arrogance of the officer class towards the lower ranks. Behind his back, the soldier’s lip curled in contempt as he picked up Jeremy’s bags.
Jeremy felt his heart beating as he entered the building. A burly sergeant was sitting grandly behind a battered desk. This worthy stood up smartly, and returned Jeremy’s “Good morning ” with a pleasant “Lieutenant Armstrong? Welcome to 66 Squadron, Sir. ” Jeremy smiled nervously, and produced the envelope containing his orders from his inside pocket. He placed the envelope awkwardly on the desk in front of the sergeant, with the uncertain statement: “I have to report to Captain McAllister. ” Sergeant Brinklow, a fatherly man, indicated the door on the far wall, which had a large and rather formal nameplate on it:
Captain W.A.McAllister, R.F.C.
Jeremy turned towards the door, smiling a nervous thanks.
Behind him, Sergeant Brinklow studied the new arrival sympathetically.
Just like a schoolboy…
He had seen so many eager, fresh faced young airmen report for duty to that office. Maybe too many.
He wondered why were they always so eager.
Jeremy stood in front of the door, and drew a deep breath. Suddenly, the realization hit him forcibly that everything that had gone before logically had led to this moment. The moment he reported for active duty to this man, W.A.McAllister, who would lead Jeremy to war.
This man would be his mentor in battle, with power possibly over Jeremy’s life or death.
This man would be… everything.
Suddenly, his lips seemed dry, and he hesitated. He felt himself torn between a powerful urge to see this great man, and a fear of what lay beyond. He had no idea really how they went about actually fighting this war, and he suddenly felt naked and helpless.
The sergeant tugged him by the elbow gently, very gently, and shoved the envelope back into Jeremy’s hands. Softly, without a trace of mockery, Brinklaw said:
“You give these to Captain McAllister, Sir… ”
Jeremy, lost in his reverie, smiled a grateful thanks.
He turned his eyes back to the nameplate, drew a deep breath, and knocked firmly on the door.
A voice from within barked: “Come in! “.
It sounded brusque, and straight off the parade ground.
Jeremy opened the door, and marched in…
* * *
Sergeant Brinklaw remained seated, and studied the closed door for a few moments. The low murmur of voices from within was of no interest to him. He knew by heart what was being said, indeed had heard the little lecture so often he almost knew it by heart.
He looked at the framed photo on his desk. A smiling wife and two rascally looking boys stared out, and he found himself touching the frame. He missed being home, and the war had made him sick at heart.
He replaced the frame, got up and walked over to a blackboard with a long list of names, one below the other. Behind most of the names there appeared various amounts of identical symbols, that looked like crumpled little airplanes. Some had as much as six, others only one or two. The three at the bottom had none, and below them Brinklaw proceeded to add the name of Armstrong. He added no symbols.
He walked back to his desk, and picked up a pen. The phone rang, and he answered it. The conversation at his end was monosyllabic.
“66th Squadron “.
“That’s right “.
“That’s his number. ”
“Fair hair, blue eyes, six foot, age… nineteen. ”
“That’s him then. ”
There followed a long pause, with Brinklaw listening with one hand holding his head. At the end he said: “Yes “, with a note of resignation, and put the phone down.
Slowly and unhurriedly, he got up and walked back to the blackboard. He picked up a duster, and wiped away the name directly above Armstrong. He walked back, glancing at McAllister’s door, from where the murmur of only one voice still came. He sat down, and realized he still had the duster in his hand. He frowned, and tossed it carelessly in the general direction of the blackboard. Chalk dust swirled briefly, blazing a trail of useless glory, that hung in the air briefly, tenaciously, and then was seen no more.
* * *
Jeremy meanwhile was sitting down opposite a very impressive looking RFC captain, who was giving Jeremy a pep talk on loyalty, the duties of an officer, and the deportment of a gentleman. Jeremy was drinking it all in eagerly, hanging on every word. He was very impressed, and found himself nodding slightly at the major points.
“I like my airmen to be smart, and conduct themselves as gentlemen “, McAllister was saying.
He was a very good looking man, with a high forehead, a thinly trimmed moustache, and short, carefully sleeked hair. He was smoking a cigarette in a long holder. His office was immaculately arranged, with pictures of school days, trophies, cricket bats, and a broken propeller propped up in a corner. A piece of a German aircraft, the German Cross boldly displayed, hung from the wall.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet, Armstrong, but things aren’t quite what they used to be. All sorts of riffraff seem to get into the services these days, and behave accordingly… ”
McAllister’s accent was refined, and spoke of familiarity with the upper classes.
It was a question, and Jeremy answered sheepishly:
“No Sir, I can’t say I have. ”
McAllister studied him thoughtfully, and continued:
“I can see you’re a decent chap, Armstrong, and I’m sure we’ll get along fine together. ”
Jeremy found himself muttering: “I hope so, Sir. ”
He stood up, saluted smartly, turned around and left.
McAllister eyed the closed door for a while, and then picked up a silver trophy. The lid had the shape of a man throwing a javelin, and McAllister admired it fondly for a moment. He produced a cloth from a drawer, and started vigorously polishing.
After a short while he shouted loudly for Brinklaw, who appeared through the door in a hurry, and snapped rigidly to attention. “Sir! ”
McAllister eyed him coldly. “Add the name of Armstrong to the board, Brinklaw! ”
“Already done, Sir! “, Brinklaw stated in a parade ground manner, eyes straight ahead.
McAllister puffed on his cigarette holder, and eyed his sergeant. “And you can give the silverware another polish, sergeant. Properly, this time. ” There was an emphasis on the word ‘properly’.
“Very well, Sir. ”
McAllister puffed again on his cigarette. “Carry on, sergeant. ” But Brinklaw stood his ground.
“Begging your pardon, Sir. But a message just came in about Lieutenant Caldshot, Sir. ”
McAllister seemed unimpressed. “I see. How fares our brave lieutenant? ”
“Not too well I’m afraid, Sir. He’s dead, Sir. ”
There was a pause, during which McAllister seemed to notice a microscopic smudge on the gleaming javelin, which required vigorous rubbing. Brinklaw continued: “Positively identified by one of our batteries at Champ Du Croix, Sir. ”
Brinklaw sounded flat, and some of the parade ground iron had gone out of his voice.
McAllister blew out smoke, but showed no emotion. In truth, he had trained himself to feel little.
“Scrub him off the board, sergeant… ”
There was a slight emphasis on the word ‘off’. It sounded like ‘orf’.
“Already done, Sir “.
The parade ground bellow was back.
“Very well then, carry on, sergeant! ”
Brinklaw saluted, and departed.
Alone in the room, surrounded by visible, tangible, silver-plated proof of success and advancement, Captain W.A.McAllister remained impassive; smoking, thinking, and alone in his thoughts.
Through the window, dark clouds could be seen gathering in the distance. Somewhere, an engine was being started with difficulty, coughing, backfiring, and running rough.
* * *
Jeremy approached the mess nervously. It was getting dark, and he realized he was hungry. At least the interview with McAllister had gone fine. But, almost equally important, here were the men he would be fighting alongside. He was anxious to make a good impression there as well. Outside the door, he paused, and found himself making quick last minute adjustments to his uniform. He straightened his shoulders, breathed in deeply, stuck his chin forward, and reached for the door handle.
A split second later, his brow furrowed in surprise as, from within, there came a loud, lingering scream, a crash, followed by laughter and various strange remarks.
“You buffoon, Buxton! ”
“You’ve broken the scaffold! ”
“Oh dear, I can see right up your dress! ”
“Don’t be naughty, you wicked, wicked man. ”
Jeremy, puzzled, took a second deep breath, turned the handle, and marched in, erect and smart. He realized the lights were dim. As he stood framed in the doorway, without any warning, a large, clammy, sticky object smashed into his face, completely blinding him.
He reeled, tripped, lost his balance, and crashed down heavily.
* * *
In his office, McAllister sat immobile behind his desk, a faint scowl darkening his face. Smoke swirled around him, and his stare was focussed on a point in the far distance. Through the half open windows, a strange, distant noise could be heard. It sounded like a red Indian in battle, or a bear with toothache. The sound was repeated, with more shouts joining in, a discordant drum being beaten to death, and much whistling and cheering.
McAllister couldn’t help hearing it, but made no movement to shut the window. His stare seemed oddly vague, and only the cigarette smoke swirling in blue clouds, gave any indication of life behind the tired eyes.
* * *
Emmy sat alone on her bed, a book opened on her knees. She was not reading, but gazing into the open fire. Her thoughts were miles away. A thousand miles away. In France.
She was wondering. Wondering what was happening to Jeremy. Was he fighting yet?
She tried to imagine him up in the sky, in his flying machine, with bullets whizzing around him. It was almost too horrible to contemplate. The mutilated and the dying in the hospitals were nearly all young men, and she could recognize so much of Jeremy in many of them.
She was absently wringing a handkerchief around her left hand, and twisting the ends into a tight knot.
Her bedroom door opened gently to a crack, and her mother peered through. Emmy looked up wordlessly, and then looked back to the fire. Her mother said nothing.
The fire roared and crackled, and flames and sparks disappeared up the chimney in a mindless rush.
* * *
Jeremy’s parents too were lost in silent thoughts. His mother gazed out of the drawing room window. Behind her, his father filled his pipe. He studied his wife. There was nothing he could say. The chess board was set, all the pieces lined up ready for war, but one of the players was missing. In the corner stood Jeremy’s violin. He had not wanted to take it. Alone, it looked like a useless ornament.
There was a strange silence in the house.
Outside, it was windy, cold. Dead, long forgotten leaves were being blown about, carelessly, here and there.
* * *
Unaware of the sad and silent thoughts, far away, concerned about his welfare, Jeremy was picking himself up off the floor. The lights had been switched on, and he was busy wiping away the jelly and custard that trickled down the front of his uniform. He was covered with the stuff. In front of him unfolded a strange spectacle.
A young man was lying on the ground, on top of a broken plank, wearing a huge old fashioned dress. A bowl lay beside him upside down, on top of a growing mound of more custard and jelly. Round about stood a dozen or so extraordinary creatures in fancy dress, holding bottles, and swaying and slurring in the manner of the highly inebriated. A stepladder on one side of the room, and a pile of chairs on the piano on the other side, between which the remains of the plank lay on the floor, afforded a clue as to the nature of the ravine crossing game which had been brought so abruptly to a halt by the collapse of the bridge.
Jeremy, blinking in astonishment, wiped more custard from his chin, and tried to recover his composure.
“I say! What the dickens do you think you’re playing at! ”
He was both cross and perplexed, but he sounded angrier than he was. His remark however rebounded resoundingly.
A chorus of voices mimicked him in a heavily exaggerated manner:
“I say! “.
“What the dickens! “.
“I say, I say! “.
“What do you think you’re playing at! “.
“I say, I say, Buxton, you’re a scoundrel! ”
To this, Buxton, who was evidently the man with the huge dress, swiveled his legs around towards the new arrival, and teasingly lifted a corner of his hem; then, with a high pitched voice, he intoned sweetly: “I say, dearie duckie, would you like a peek under my skirt? ”
This provoked howls of laughter.
Jeremy was not amused.
Buxton, warming to his act, continued in the same high pitched voice, but with a conspiratorial note this time: “You see, dearie duckie, I’m wearing fwilly nickers! ” He pronounced the ‘r’ in ‘frilly’ deliberately like a ‘w’, and stood up, every inch the shy and coy young lass.
With a pronounced speech impediment.
Jeremy, speechless, could only stare. The howls of delight increased only more at the sight of his discomfort. Buxton now addressed some of the audience with a stage whisper, that still carried the lisp.
“He doesn’t believe me, dah-lings “.
Then, turning back to Jeremy, he shouted petulantly in the same high pitched voice: “I have! I have! I have got fwilly nickers! ” The audience joined in the chant, tears of laughter pouring down their faces, rapidly becoming incoherent with hysterics. Jeremy was still totally non plussed, completely at a loss how to react. He had only just come from a stern lecture from McAllister emphasizing the importance of being a gentleman, and the problems of ‘riffraff’ in the RFC. He could only stare in stupefaction at the complete opposite of what he had been expecting for so long.
The creature in the huge dress was now carrying out a little dance, swirling around like a ballerina. It stopped in front of Jeremy, turned its back to him, bent forwards and lifted its ample skirt. Sure enough, frilly nickers could be seen, a fact which delighted the audience, now at a crescendo of frenzied excitement.
Buxton quickly whizzed around so Jeremy too could take in the sight, and shouted triumphantly: “See? Fwilly nickers! ” Jeremy could only stare. Buxton dropped the dress, and dived for Jeremy, throwing both arms around him. Locked together, they crashed to the floor, with Buxton shouting: “He’s mine! I got him! I saw him first! Fwilly nickers! Kiss me, Hardy! On the lips! ”
It was too much for Jeremy, and, struggling up, he bolted out the door, his dignity in tatters.
Behind him, a chorus of cat calls and ‘Fwilly nickers! ” split the night air, and he heard their laughter for long afterwards.
It was a relief to enter his bedroom, and fling himself down on the bed. He stared in the mirror at the sticky mess on his uniform, and the disheveled, panting figure of Jeremy Armstrong.
The reception was over. It was not what he had expected.
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 6, 2008, 8:57 am