Jeremy’s War: Chapter 12 “Mirror of the Soul “
Posted on March 8, 2008
24th February 1917
Dear Pater and Mater,
Not a very good few days. Feeling a bit better now, but I must admit I’ve spent four days grounded, trying to get my brain sorted out.
War! It certainly gets some people going.
Life’s different for me now, and the enormity of what has happened will take a long time to really sink in.
Feb 20th: Escort duty. One RE8 photographic two seater. And ten of us to protect him. We got into a dogfight. At the time, I thought I would never ever forget any of it, it was so terribly, horribly fascinating. But even now, I feel a lot of it slipping away. I just seem to have certain particular images and memories burned into my mind. I’ll give you a rundown:
1) The moment I knew we were going to fight, for the first time.
Two Albatri attacked the RE8. Owen took us down to attack.
Jeremy thinks: “Oh, hell… ”
I just knew Life would never be the same once I’d fought.
2) Losing Owen in the heat of it. With all the twisting and turning, and dodging Huns trying to fly through us, I ended up on my own. Jeremy thinks: “Oh, hell… ”
I knew I was scared, but I was so busy I didn’t have any time to dwell on it.
3) Feeling, hearing, seeing bullets rip through my aeroplane. They do an amazing amount of damage. A dull bursting sound as they smack through the fabric, and splintering noises as they demolish the woodwork.
Thoughts: “Oi! Stop that! That’s bloody dangerous! ”
4) Ending up with this Albatros D.III chasing me for ages, blasting me to pieces. Couldn’t shake him off.
Terrifying. I was twisting and turning to avoid the bullets, but getting lower and lower. There comes a point you can’t turn anymore. When you go straight, he has you!
I had to do SOMETHING, so I just pulled up vertically. When I got to the top, I didn’t know what to do. Brain froze. The machine started to slide backwards! I pushed the stick forward, expecting the nose to pitch down, and to my amazement, I did some kind of backwards flip flop.
Baines (the genius) reckons the elevators worked in reverse because I was going backwards. Amazing.
Anyway, I found myself on the Hun’s tail. He had followed me up. Still shooting, by the way.
I nailed him there and then, and I could see I’d hit him. He smashed into the ground and disintegrated. One wheel just kind of broke free and went bouncing along on its own. Mixed thoughts: ” Serves you right, you bastard! “, and “Oh dear, sorry! ”
5) Flew back streaming smoke, engine rough as hell, and messed up my navigation. Got lost, really. Ended up several miles south of the airfield. Suddenly got another Hun on my tail! Albatros, blue and green.
He was trying to finish me off. My engine blew up completely, and I crashed into a field. Ended up in a ditch. Struggled out, got away, thought I’d lived to tell the tale. Blow me down if the Hun doesn’t start machine gunning me on the ground! These rows and rows of little fountains of dirt marching towards you, where his bullets are drilling into the ground…
6) I ended up in some state, not quite knowing what was happening. I was in a ditch, and he circled round and flew along the ditch to get me. At one stage he actually waved at me! Then…
Sorry, but I’m getting tired now. For some reason, writing this is tiring me out. Reliving it, I suppose.
It was horrible. Baines came out of the blue and nailed him for me. My hero Baines. He saved my life, and I’ll never forget that. He is a super fellow, says very little, but a real chum.
Anyway, that’s war. I feel empty really.
Thanks for the letters.
Love to everybody,
* * *
Mrs Virginia Armstrong sat on the sofa and wept buckets. She was desperate to know more of his physical state, and suspected he was hiding the full truth. Why had her son been grounded? What did he mean with ‘trying to get my brain sorted out’. She felt desperately worried and concerned for him, and was horrified he’d killed a German. Her little boy killing! It was preposterous, and he should never have gone to war. She had known all along. She was inconsolable.
Mr Kenneth Armstrong was thrilled to bits. His son had finally nailed the Boche! He’d killed a Hun! Wait until he got to the club. Now he could mention it around – casually – and watch their faces. He debated taking the letter and showing it around, but there were two problems. First of all Mrs Armstrong, who clung to the letter like a limpet, weeping incessantly all over it. It wouldn’t do for somebody to comment on the tear stains, and ascribe them to Jeremy. In the second place, he disapproved of some of the paragraphs. Smacked a little of faint heartedness. It was a pity, because much of it was sterling stuff…
Miss Sarah Armstrong was secretly jealous of all the attention her brother was getting. She couldn’t wait for Rex to come and pick her up. They were going out for a walk and a secret cuddle. She couldn’t wait to get out of the house.
* * *
Mrs Hemke took the news of her son’s death stoically. Hans Joachim had died heroically in the service of the Fatherland, the telegram had stated. She could hold her head up high. She would accept the condolences from the other women of the town with dignity and pride. Her son would be remembered forever with reverence. Her son the pilot, who, aged only nineteen, had shot down two enemy aircraft, and had been last seen fighting against overwhelming odds…
She went to her bedroom, and looked out a black head dress. Then she posed in front of the mirror. Yes, that would be fine. It gave her a solemn dignity…
Mr Hemke, an ill, elderly man, was grief stricken, but hardly showed it. He retired to his greenhouse, and tended his plants. It was only when he was sure nobody could see him, that he allowed emotion to reign supreme.
Heidi Hemke, older sister to Hans, was devastated. With her father’s soft nature, she had doted on her little brother, mothered and fussed over him, and helped, unwittingly, to spoil him rotten. She ran to her bedroom, and lay on the bed, sobbing heart brokenly for hours.
She hardly slept for many nights. She had so loved her little brother, and now he was gone. Poor little Hans. He should never have gone to war.
The war. The war. The cruel, pointless war.
* * *
Genevieve had discovered a friendly cafe, where the patron had a daughter, Angelique, who also rode horses. The girl was shy and withdrawn, but Genevieve was glad to have at least an acquaintance, where she could go and visit.
She could tether Pecadillo at the back of the stables, and walk two hundred yards to the cafe, where, on a good day, the customers would sit about outside around small round tables.
Now, on a foggy February day, the white chairs were unoccupied, but faces appeared at the window as Pecadillo trotted up. She could just make out uniforms, and her pulse quickened.
Soldiers! Young men! A nice change from the usual old codgers!
Inside, her interest was exceeded by the three RFC pilots, who gawked delightedly at the elegant figure astride the gray.
“Cor Blimey! “,
the tall ginger head exclaimed drunkenly.
“Look at those knockers! “,
the curly spotty faced one murmured.
But the silent, dark one just looked. Hungrily. He felt an instant desire to undress her, and explore her body.
He said nothing. An erection arrived inconveniently, and he had to shuffle his pants and seating position to avoid agony.
What a woman…
The object of his lust walked in a few minutes later, smiling disarmingly sweetly. The tall ginger head held the door open with an exaggerated flourish, and with his open, honest face, he engaged her easily in conversation.
His charm flowed effortlessly, and soon she was sitting at their table, laughing and giggling at their attempts to speak French. She had studied English, and was quite reasonable at it. Between them they managed fine.
She sipped ladylike at a nice red wine, and pretended not to notice the way they kept filling it up. Worldly wise with men, she feigned the innocent, and meanwhile sussed them out. The tall ginger head was a charmer. She loved his refined accent. The curly spotty faced one was funny, but very drunk. He was harmless.
The dark, silent one made her nervous. He said little, but was not relaxed. He kept looking strangely at her.
His jollity was forced. Not natural. She didn’t like his eyes.
But it was fun. When it was beginning to get dark, and high time for her to leave, they all groaned loud and long. Then they trooped round to the stables, and inspected Peccadillo. She trotted up the road past the cafe to loud cheers, and ringing au revoirs. The old clientele frowned at the noisy newcomers, and continued their enthralling game of dominoes.
The patron smiled, and hoped the pilots would frequent his establishment more often. They were good spenders…
* * *
Baines lay in bed, and wondered about Jeremy. Those eyes… Jeremy had simply stared at the dead German, and had appeared rooted to the spot. Poor sod! He’d obviously been through hell.
Those eyes… Big, round, sad, empty, staring, but never accusing. That was what always struck him. He had seen eyes like that before, so many times. They were shattered eyes, that spoke of devastating experiences, but they never contained a hint of accusation.
The eyes are the mirror of the soul…
Where had he heard that? It was true though.
He thought again of Jeremy, cowering in the ditch, curled up in a little ball. He had refused to look up, even though Baines had done three low passes. Then he had flown away, tasting, sensing, the terror gripping the man in the ditch.
Weird war… the German pilot had seen him too late, only as the first bullets ripped through his fuselage. He had looked around in horror, and Baines had seen his jaw sag open in amazement. For one brief second Baines had sensed there too the terror. The mind defeating, all conquering terror. But, in contrast to Jeremy’s case, he felt little pity. Contempt, more like it. Little basket. Served him right.
It was odd the way he had sensed trouble when he saw the Albatros dive in the distance. He hadn’t even recognized the type. Some instinct…
Then, when he peeled off, and went to investigate, it was as if he had felt something strange and frightening going on. When the Hun had been busy machine gunning the ground, despite the fact that the wreck was already blazing, he had known instantly there could be only one explanation…
But more than that, he had sensed Jeremy’s terror, even before his suspicions were confirmed. Odd…
No point talking it over with anybody. They’d think he was mad. Try and sleep… Dawn patrol tomorrow.
He slept badly, tormented by a strange nightmare.
A beautiful young girl was lying face down on a bed, sobbing.
Sobbing… He was moved, touched by pity, and went towards her. She wore a thin dress that clung to her body, and he felt his senses reeling from her femininity.
Her legs were beautiful…
He touched her gently on the shoulder, and she looked up… Her face was delicate. A porcelain beauty. Tear stained. She looked up at him, tears still trickling down her face. He wanted to say something, but couldn’t find the words.
Then… she recognized him, knew who he was. She backed away in terror, into the corner…
He was amazed. Her eyes… the deep, deep hurt there…
What have I done…?
She looked at him, a terrible accusation written deep within those pools of hurt…
He wanted to take her in his arms, hold her, love her…
but he couldn’t.
What have I done…?
He woke up, screaming the words, became aware of where he was, and sank back exhaustedly.
A knock came at the door. Baines groaned to himself, and debated fumbling for his watch. There was no point. He knew it was the middle of the night.
“Come in… ”
How loud had he been screaming? Had he woken everybody up? It wasn’t going to do his ‘cool’ image any good, that was for sure.
A subdued Jeremy crept in.
“You all right, old son? ”
It was a kind inquiry, and Baines felt any irritation at being found out rapidly disappearing. Jeremy was a good chap. It was better it was him…
“Sorry, old boy “, he grimaced wryly. “Think I had a nightmare “.
It was an understatement. Jeremy said nothing.
“Always the same dream, you know “, Baines continued.
Jeremy wondered if he should speak. There was a long silence.
“Would it help if you told me about it? ”
Baines grimaced again, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Well… “, he began feebly. He felt stupid. This was definitely spoiling his strong silent image. What the hell…
He liked Jeremy Armstrong.
“It’s a girl. This beautiful girl. She’s lying face down on a bed. Crying. Crying her eyes out… ”
He paused, wondering if he should continue. He studied Jeremy, looking for the faintest trace of condescension or disdain. Finding none, he lowered his gaze, and stared hard at the end of the bed. Out with it!
“It’s always the same. I move to go towards her, to comfort her. She hears me coming, looks around at me, and screams in terror. She backs into the corner, petrified.
I keep asking her what it is I’ve done… I end up shouting, pleading with her. ”
His voice trembled slightly. He steadied himself, and then continued in a firmer voice.
“Then, suddenly, I’m standing in a cemetery. She is bent forward, holding a bunch of red carnations, reading the inscription on a gravestone, as if she has only just discovered it. She’s crying. I know it’s her, although I’m looking at her from behind, and she’s wearing a headscarf. It has a floral pattern on it. She kneels down, and places the flowers on the grave. Her whole body is shaking with sobs. She searches for a handkerchief to wipe away her tears, but can’t find one. Then she slowly peels her headscarf off and dabs at her face with that.
I feel sorry for her, and I want to comfort her.
I want to put my arms around her. She hears me coming, looks around, and becomes terrified. She cowers away from me, in terror.
I want to comfort her, but I can’t… ”
He shivered, and tried to compose himself.
“Oh God, Jeremy, I’ve killed so many more people than I know of! ”
Jeremy, helpless, put his arm around the man’s shoulders, and was unable to find any words.