Jeremy’s War: Chapter 22 "Goodbye to the familiar"

Posted on March 28, 2008

Ch.22

GOODBYE TO THE FAMILIAR


It was a full three days before Jeremy was summoned once again to McAllister’s office. He used the time to rest and recuperate. The strange experience of sitting around, inactive, in a mess with a war going on, made him go deeply introspective again. He had many serious conversations, as well as one crazy drunken binge.
He was convinced McAllister was going to get him slung out of the RFC. Everybody was sympathetic.
"Bit of bad luck, old chap, eh?"
That seemed to be the general opinion. There was warmth and genuine enthusiasm at his safe return, Jeremy reflected sourly. He was being welcomed back to go and try and kill himself again. So why, oh why, did he feel grief stricken at the thought of being drummed out of this crazy war?
He wrote a pile of letters to his parents, relatives, and Emmy. He mentioned the incident, although not the likely repercussions, and the accusations that McAllister had made.

Standing in front of McAllister’s desk again, Jeremy felt stoically resigned to what was coming. McAllister was on his back now, and had given his own pre-conceived interpretation to the whole incident. Now he was having Jeremy booted out of the service. It was perhaps just as well. He could go home and forget the whole stupid war. The inevitable shame and tittle-tattle that would surround him was just something he would have to grin and bear. He could resume his interest in building aircraft, and take up writing poetry again.
He hoped his equanimity showed in his face. He did not want McAllister to see hurt or shame there.

McAllister busied himself for a long time with his paperwork. When at length he looked up, he seemed almost reluctant. He studied Jeremy for a while, and then cleared his throat.
"I have forwarded my… aaaah, recommendations to Group, Armstrong, and I have now received their reply."
He waited for a reaction. None came. Jeremy stared woodenly ahead.
"They have studied your record, and they agree with me that…"
He paused. Jeremy wondered why his chief was so reluctant to pronounce the sentence.
"…that your record needs looking at. Accordingly, you are being transferred to forty five squadron at Aix-en-Chapelle, where you will report to Major Raymond Baxter."
McAllister tried to look as sternly as possible.
"You will find Major Baxter a very… determined person. You are to leave immediately. That is all. Goodbye, Mr Armstrong."
Jeremy wished his Commanding Officer goodbye, saluted smartly, and left the office.
His brain was numbed by the unexpected turn of events.

Your record needs looking at…

What did that mean? Why was he being transferred? Not booted out? Astonishing! Still, any place had to be better than this god forsaken hole, and the thought of at last getting away from McAllister filled him with relief.

He packed hurriedly, and found he did not want to say goodbye to anybody. The driver picked him up, and without a backward glance he passed through the gates, sitting stiff and erect, and outwardly unemotional.
Underneath it all, he felt choked up.
He was going to miss those guys…

* * *

It was four o’clock in the afternoon before the car pulled up at Aix-en-Chapelle, and he was left standing with his bags outside what looked like an old farmhouse.
A sign read ‘Forty-five squadron’, and he entered.
A spotty faced young serviceman with a disagreeable manner sullenly directed him to the duty sergeant’s office, and he soon found himself ushered in to Major Baxter’s office. The Major rose to meet him, and shook hands firmly. Jeremy was motioned to a chair, and studied his new C/O. He found himself looking at a man in his late thirties, gaunt, erect, with a bushy mustache and penetrating eyes. Baxter was smiling, but some sixth sense warned Jeremy not to cross this man. His immediate gut feeling was that this was a man he would respect a lot more than Captain McAllister.
Baxter had been reading a report in front of him, and Jeremy guessed he him self was the subject.
Baxter was eying Jeremy carefully, whilst lighting a cigarette. He offered Jeremy one, which was gratefully accepted. Jeremy tried to imagine McAllister offering him a cigarette. He couldn’t visualize it.
Baxter blew a large smoke ring towards the ceiling, and settled back comfortably. When he spoke, it was quite mildly. Jeremy was on guard however.
"I have read your file, which I must say is very detailed. I have also read of your recent adventures. I now have a good idea of how your former C/O. sees your abilities as an officer and a gentleman…"
Jeremy wondered if there was a slight amount of mischief in those eyes.
"I would now like to hear your side of the story. Tell me how you feel about your services to King and Country. Eh?"
Baxter’s eyebrows had risen quizzically, but there was no sarcasm there. It was just a neutral inquiry. Jeremy was a bit taken aback.
It was not what he had expected.
He coughed, and wondered how to start. Baxter motioned with his hand.
"Take your time. Use your own words. Tell me in detail. There’s no rush. I’m a good listener."
Jeremy believed him. He drew a deep breath, and started…

"Well Sir, I think it is fair to say that Captain McAllister and myself were unable to…"
He paused, frowning hard. He looked at Baxter. His gaze was returned quietly, devoid of expression.
"…we were unable to… strike up a good mutual relationship."
There wasn’t even a flicker from Baxter, and Jeremy continued haltingly.
"Captain McAllister… feels I am a bad pilot. He also suspects me of cowardice…" Jeremy paused again, unsure how to continue. Baxter looked at him with interest.
"And you, Mr Armstrong, do you think you’re a bad pilot? And a coward?"
The voice was calm, neutral.
Jeremy hesitated, then took the plunge.
"No Sir, I do not. I’ve made mistakes, but so does everybody. I’ve learned from them. As for the cowardice… that arises from the recent incident. With respect to Captain McAllister, Sir, he’s wrong."
Jeremy ended on a firm note. Baxter thought it over, but refrained from comment.
"Tell me about your landing in the trees".
Jeremy obliged, trying hard to copy Major Baxter’s pragmatic unemotional style. He tried to be honest about his mistakes, but at the same time firmly stuck to his version of events. He finished with a determined "And that’s the truth, Sir". Then he sat back and waited.
He wondered if he was now going to be roasted alive. Was this the point at which Baxter jumped up and down and started shouting at him?
But Baxter merely grunted. More cigarette smoke. Then a quiet order:
"Show me on the map where you crashed."
Jeremy obliged. Baxter said nothing for a while. Then, mildly:
"I know that area. Very heavily forested. Quite craggy as well. Bad place for an engine failure."
Jeremy was about to blurt out: "Precisely, Sir, perhaps you could inform Captain McAllister!", but checked himself just in time. Baxter had however noticed his reaction.
He raised his eyebrows again:
"Yes, Mr Armstrong?"
Jeremy shook his head.
"Nothing, Sir."
Baxter studied him quietly for a while.
"Anything else you want to say?"
Again, Jeremy shook his head.
Baxter stood up, a sign that the interview was over.
"Tomorrow we fly, you and I. I’ll show you our sector, and we’ll do some simulated dogfighting on the way home.
Any questions?"
Jeremy thought, and answered "No, Sir".
He had reached the door before Baxter’s voice spoke again, lazily:
"By the way, Jeremy, do you ride?"
Jeremy was momentarily confused.
"Ride, Sir?"
"You know, horses. Four legged creatures. Bloody nags. Can’t stand ’em myself. Make me sneeze."
Jeremy found himself relaxing into a half smile.
"Yes, Sir, I do enjoy riding actually. Used to ride with the hunt."
Baxter nodded absently.
"Thought you might. There’s a good stables down the road.How they’ve hung on to them in war time God only knows. But they’ll rent you some good nags if you turn up in uniform. The patron has a son in the French Armee de l’Air."
"Thank you, Sir, I’ll bear it in mind."

He left Major Baxter’s office in deep thought. The contrast between McAllister and Baxter was startling, to say the least. He had a feeling he was being looked at very carefully. He also had a feeling that to cross Baxter was an infinitely more dangerous activity than arguing with McAllister…

Baxter watched from his window as his new officer walked away. He drummed his fingers on the sill, and then returned to his chair. He opened Jeremy’s file again, and studied it once more. Then he picked up a pen, and scrawled the words: "Comes across very reasonable at interview. Admits his mistakes. Not a bad egg. Personality clash with previous C/O?"
Then he studied the report again.
When he was finished, he walked back to the window.
He reflected on the interview. Interesting. Very interesting. Colonel Raymond Rimell at group HQ always sent him the oddballs. He thought of the phone call he had received. Quite obviously Rimell was suspicious that there had been something altogether too eager, too obsessive in McAllister’s insistence that the book be bashed hard over Jeremy Armstrong’s favorite head.

Hmm… He looked forward to figuring this guy out.
One thing was for sure. Lieutenant Armstrong had certainly upset Captain McAllister.
In a big way.

McAllister had wanted him court-martialed…

* * *

The crushed little girl who left hospital after two weeks, was only a shadow of the proud young woman who had once flirted so gaily with the menfolk. The good sisters came out and waved her an enthusiastic ‘goodbye’, but she hardly even responded. Although she didn’t want to stay in hospital, she didn’t want to leave either, somehow preferring the familiar.
Once home, it was weeks before she would even leave the house. She suffered constant nightmares, and frequently woke up screaming. The dark terrified her, and she would run, sobbing heart brokenly, out of her bedroom.
She refused to eat altogether at first. Her distraught father, not knowing what to do, had eventually enlisted the services of a distant aunt, who was old, motherly, and wise. Aunt Agnes had been on the planet a long time, and unlike some of her generation, had few illusions left. She combined a down to earth realism however with a cheerful pragmatism and great patience.
When she first saw Genevieve again, she had been privately shocked. The child she remembered as a healthy teenager had lost over two stone in weight. Her eyes were sunken and dull, yet could suddenly dart around fearfully. Sudden noises, sudden movements, all would bring about an unmistakable reaction of fear. Fingers that would clutch together, shoulders that would hunch down, a mouth that would drop open in a silent cry.
The eyes… The saddest part. The fearful look of the hunted, terrified animal.

Aunt Agnes camouflaged her true feelings with a breezy demeanor, and first set about quietly obtaining her charge’s confidence. They knew one another only vaguely, having met only four or five times. Mostly at funerals.
This process consisted of trying to coax the hurt mind out into the open again. To talk, communicate.
As time went by without success, Aunt Agnes kept up a pleasant flow of gossip, humor, and funny stories. She also read out stories. Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’. Balzac’s ‘Pere Goriot’. With the latter tale, she saw the first smile flit across the face staring at the wall, and she almost cheered. The recovery was underway.
At times, when Genevieve slipped away into blessed sleep, aunt Agnes too would ponder the life time of hurt inflicted in a matter of minutes. Poor child. The physical pain meant little. Pain passed. But the mental pain. The loss of trust. The strange guilt feelings.
It would always be with her in some way…
Poor, poor Genevieve.
Her time would come however. She would pull through. Maybe meet a man. A kind man. Who would show her what real loving was all about.

Then the old lady would think of her late husband. How long was he dead? Twenty years? She still missed him. How kind he had been. How utterly in love, all his life. She smiled. Maybe the passing of time had blinded her a little to his lesser virtues. A love of spending money. Irritability first thing in the morning. Lack of diplomacy.
She smiled. A good man though. A good, kind, decent man.

She would tuck her charge up, and try and tip toe out.
If she was lucky, she too would get some sleep. For a while at least. If not, screams would echo around the house. Aunt Agnes would run as fast as she could, and start talking even before she opened the bedroom door.
"It’s all right, child. I’m here! It’s only a dream!"
She would fling open the door, and rush in to comfort.
Occasionally she would find the bed empty, the covers flung aside. Then she would have to look around the room.
She would find Genevieve cowering terrified behind the curtains, or beside the wardrobe, or even underneath the bed.
"There’s a man! A man! There! There!"
A trembling finger would point at the shadows. Aunt Agnes would throw her arms around the little bundle of misery, and cuddle her, swaying gently back and forth.
"There now, child, there now. It’s only a dream. Only a dream…"
A shadow would appear in the doorway. Genevieve’s father, tears pouring silently down his face, would stand there, helpless, grieving for his child.

Sometimes, aunt Agnes reflected grimly, it felt as if that wicked man had wantonly wrecked not one, but two lives…

F.M.
(c)


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