Jeremy’s War: Chapter 24 “Return of the Conquering Hero “

Posted on March 29, 2008

Ch.24

RETURN OF THE CONQUERING HERO

 

Major W.A.McAllister, R.F.C., recently promoted, was thoroughly enjoying his leave.

The High Society reception, the umpteenth one he had managed to get invited to, was in full swing. Surrounded by beautiful ladies, the center of doting attention, he was in his element describing his adventures.
The wine and champagne had gone slightly to his head, but he was too shrewd to miss an opportunity. There were some very prominent business men around, and it was a matter of necessity to explore his options for once the war was over.
Some had their daughters with them, mostly remarkably desirable, and these he used shamelessly to secure introductions to wealthy and influential people.
From there, it was an easy step to adopt a modest, deprecating attitude towards his past battle victories.
It all followed a pattern…

First: check out which father belongs to which daughter.
Second: Select daughter. Ignore buck teeth, bad breath, incessant chatter, and age.
Third: Be very modest.
Fourth: Wait to be introduced to father.
“Oh, Daddy, this is William! He’s a MAJOR in the Royal Flying Corps! He shoots down Germans. He’s bagged ever so many, haven’t you, darling? ”
Fifth: Squirm with feigned embarrassment. However, allow the truth to be dragged reluctantly out of you.
Sixth: When Father asks anything about future post-war plans, look very concerned, hang your head just a little, and say it is a matter that concerns you greatly.
Seventh: Wait for the inevitable avuncular talk about the wonders of being a member of a particular profession.
Eighth: Fingers crossed, and you might even get a “Come and see me sometime, my boy, come and see me… ”

* * *

He should not have taken leave, he reflected regretfully. It had been a mistake. Same as last time. A mistake…
He gazed across the great divide at Emmy, and longed for her in a way he had never felt so intensely before. She, on one sofa, he, across the room on the other.
Her parents had tactfully gone out, and left them together. Jeremy had been relieved at that, but had soon grown sick at heart as the afternoon had progressed.
The conversation they were having was going nowhere, and they seemed at loggerheads in a way that had never happened before.

Emmy could not understand his apparent indifference towards the men he had killed.To her questions of how he really felt about it, he had shrugged his shoulders, and felt only a great emptiness. Unusually taciturn, he had fidgeted, looked embarrassed, and tried to change the subject. Emmy, resolutely, had steered the conversation back each time to his inner feelings, probing deeply, and asking him what had caused the change in his being. She had felt a frustration, as well as a deep puzzlement.
How this gentle man had changed! He was a killer now…
The thought was abhorrent. She thought of all the broken bodies she attended every day, and felt almost angry at times at this instrument of brutality…
…that was sitting quietly in the half shadows of the early evening, sipping tea, and answering in increasingly monosyllabic grunts.

Jeremy sat and reflected how he had rushed to Emmy’s house on his second day back. How he had entered her house with beating heart, how beautiful she was, how gentle, how feminine… and how vile and sordid and depraved he was. With Emmy… he had once talked of Man’s Destiny, of God, and Death, and noble causes… and now… he had become a tool of… stupidity.
Robert… was she in love with Robert? That…wimp? Why… why did she never ever show any true feelings for him? Was he that far gone?

At length he prepared to take his leave, with aching heart. He stood in the hallway, muttering polite goodbyes, tears strangely not far away. He forced them away, and made an effort to appear relaxed and nonchalant.

Emmy looked as best she could into his eyes, and sensed a great volcano bubbling dangerously. She took a step back, and her hand came up to her mouth. She realized the depth of his struggle at the precise moment the volcano erupted.

He grabbed her roughly, wrapped his arms around her, hurting her ribcage, and clumsily tried to kiss her on the mouth, not knowing what he was doing, but desiring her with all his might.

She hit him across the face as hard as she could, at the same time pushing him away with all the force she could muster.

He reeled back against the wall, his face moving strangely, and flushed crimson.

Then he fled, panic stricken, out the door…

She bolted the door hurriedly.
Then she sank back, and sat on the floor, her back resting against the oak door. She tried to analyze her emotions.
The shrill indignation seemed to drain away remarkably rapidly.
She found herself….puzzled more than frightened.
Puzzled at her own feelings…

* * *

It really was marvelous being a war hero, he decided.
He rolled over in bed, and gazed at the ceiling, placing his hands behind his head.
Another brilliantly successful foray into the world of the rich and famous.
Perhaps… a career as a stockbroker…
There was a lot of money in that.
And there was Philippa. Her father was rich… and she was crazy about him. She had cried at the thought of his going back to war.
War… his forehead creased. Could he wangle another week’s leave by feigning illness?
A stomach bug perhaps?
No… it wouldn’t do. After all the tearful goodbyes from the lovely ladies…
It would spoil the image to go down to a stupid tummy bug.
War…
He HAD to survive. Cost what cost. The others could do the dying. He had done enough. Had he not shot down six Germans? It was enough. He had risked his life,many times. He had done his bit. It was up to the others now. Simple as that…

* * *

Jeremy had managed to avoid gatherings of any kind for the remainder of his leave, but his father had in the end almost pleaded with him to attend some major affair. Apparently there would be many of his father’s customers there, and Mr Armstrong Senior was anxious to ‘introduce’ Jeremy. Mrs Armstrong, for different reasons, had also been anxious to encourage her son to have a night out. Observant as most mothers are to their offspring’s psyche, she was secretly worried about the changes she could sense.

Jeremy had been dragged around by his father, and shown off as a prize poodle. He felt he was on a chain, and was insanely tempted to offer to do some tricks. Perhaps he could ‘fetch’, or balance a ball on his nose. His father’s insistence on telling everyone that his son had shot down two Hun aircraft soon came to almost nauseate him.
What he could see in people’s eyes was mostly awe, or simply undisguised delight. The older men talked of ‘bagging Huns’ as if they were talking of a grouse shoot. War seemed to everybody to be a jolly good sport.
And God Bless the bloody King, I suppose…

Digsby was on his mind. That awful funeral. Those rows of tidy little white crosses.
Baines…
Screaming. Screaming in the middle of the night.
The words came back, hauntingly, eerily…
It’s a girl. This beautiful girl. She’s lying face down on a bed. Crying. Crying her eyes out…
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…
Oh God, Jeremy, I’ve killed so many more people than I know of…

The evening dragged on with horrendous slowness, and Jeremy wondered over and over again what had possessed him to give in to his mother.
He no longer belonged in this society. What mattered here, what preoccupied people’s minds, was an irrelevance to him.
Do these people know there’s a war on? Not a grouse shoot, but a war, with people getting hurt and dying…

It was a good question, Jeremy reflected. He tried to swallow a mouthful of Saumon d’Ecosse, discovered he hated it, and flushed it down with a hearty swig of Chateau Neuf du Pape. At least the wine tasted good.
He became aware of a bespectacled young lady, wearing a ridiculous shade of face powder (it seemed to turn her face into a mask; a death mask, he thought), who was frowning at him severely. He sighed to himself, unnoticeable to anybody else, twisted his face into a smile, (hating himself while he did it), and addressed her as pleasantly as possible (raising his voice just sufficiently above the hub-bub of supercilious table talk):
“Lovely salmon, isn’t it? ”
He remembered he had been introduced to her. Her father was a stockbroker or something, and a bosom pal of his father’s. He couldn’t remember her name. She pursed her lips primly, and remarked, with a condescending nod of her head (she thought this young man -although splendid in his uniform, of course- a trifle uncouth):
“Of course, it’s Scottish! Don’t you speak French?
Ecosse... That means Scotland! ”
Jeremy, by now a fluent French speaker, sighed. He did not bother to correct her assumption. There was no mistaking the trace of indignation. Her accent was affected. She was from somewhere up Edinburgh way, he guessed. (Although he couldn’t have cared less).
He had better try and make conversation. People would start noticing that he had said nothing for ages.
Although, what was there to say? What, indeed?
He felt as if he were on a different planet.
Lord save us from civilized luncheons!
He cast a despairing look down the table, five or six animated conversations away, to where his parents were earnestly involved in something terribly important.
Lord save us from Saumon d’Ecosse!
He pulled himself together, and decided to make another effort. He looked back to the bespectacled lady with the ridiculous shade of face powder. She was still observing him, (quite fixedly it seemed to him), chewing determinedly on a -presumably- tough piece of bloody old Scottish fish.
He tried smiling again, (guessing she would probably see through his despair immediately), and commented in complimentary terms on the quality of the wine.
She was not impressed with him, however.
“I can’t see how you can tell, young man! “, she said cattily.
“The way you knock it back, I’m surprised you taste it at all! It’s not like drinking beer, you know! ”
He tried hard to smile, but it was hard going.
It transpired she regarded the drinking, no, the sipping of wine, as a sacred ritual.
“First “, she said, picking her glass up delicately,
“…you have to sniff up the bouquet “.
She made a great show of examining the red contents, exaggeratedly sniffing up the delicious aroma of the grape (she hated red wine, preferring sweet white).
“Then you must draw in a mere trifle of wine, sucking in across the surface of the wine in your glass. ”
She demonstrated all this, rather neatly, she thought.
He tried to look studious.
How revolting she looks…
“…and then you must play the wine around over your tongue… ”
At last she swallowed the blessed nectar (how she hated it, give her sweet white any day), and looked at Jeremy with an air of “See? It’s not that difficult with a little practice! ”
No breeding… she thought to herself.
Simply no class at all… such a pity…
He smiled his grateful thanks for the guidance to the betterment of his table manners, and comforted himself with idle speculation.
What, for instance, was the worst they could do to him…
if he knocked her teeth right down her catty throat?

After luncheon (exquisitely served, of course, a veritable barrage of tidy waitresses scurrying back and forth), he was handed a fat cigar, and the men retired to the smoking room. Jeremy once again felt like a prize exhibit, being shown off by his parents ( “How do you do? “, “So PLEASED to meet you? “), until he reeled under the onslaught of friendly, smiling faces, that fooled him not at all. He wondered at the cutting jibes behind his back, at the jealousy, the petty envy. His father, proud of his son, leading Jeremy around like a show winning pink poodle, basking in the limelight, reveling in the attention.
My son…
My son…
MY son…
MINE…MINE…MINE…

Who, Jeremy reflected grimly, strode along, playing his role, shaking hands, smiling grittily, behaving impeccably (apart from the disaster with that powder puffed scarecrow and the wine drinking lesson), whilst secretly nursing a peculiar desire to scream at the top of his voice…
Do these people know there’s a war on?
Everybody was smiling. Fed to bursting point. Drinking.
Most of the men were overweight. Flabby jowls competed with perspiring, florid foreheads (beads wiped away discreetly with white handkerchiefs which the butler had practiced for hours to fold just the right way) for attention and peer esteem.
Smatterings of conversations reached Jeremy’s ears, but barely registered in his mind.
That letter in The Times…
all quite disgraceful really…
Still, it’s a worthy cause…
Beautiful painting, isn’t it? I got it for a song, really. Hundred guineas. I’d have paid double, you know…
Edward, my dear boy, you’re looking well!
…raise it in the House… quite outraged… amazing technical range of Dickens’ writing… doing well in the Bank, the dear boy… I see possibilities in mining, myself… return on investments…

Jeremy tried to join in once or twice, but found his thoughts returning to the same subject over and over again.
Do these people know there’s a war on?

All the conversations were so animated. There was no regret, no revulsion at the bloodshed. Just a stoic denial of everything that tasted of human feelings or pity for those butchered in the name of King and Country. There was a strange certainty, that theirs was the right way, the only way, and that England and the Empire could be grateful for such sterling manhood as present in this gathering of the creme de la creme.
Yes, he could see the perfect sense. Perfect, beautiful logic.
Saumon d’Ecosse and Chateau neuf du Pape.
Yes. Quite.
That just summed it all up…

Jeremy emptied his nearly full glass in one hit, gulped it down…
turned…
flung the empty glass into the fire place…
watched it shatter…
savored the bouquet of tinkling glass…
the explosion of sudden stunned silence in the room…
turned smartly about…
and marched stiffly left-right-left…
left-right-left-right-LEFT-RIGHT…
out of the smoking room…
down the hall…
past the shocked faces…
past the butler…

and out of polite society…

F.M.
(c)


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