Jeremy’s War: Chapter 27 “The Meeting “
Posted on March 30, 2008
He was glad to be back on a good horse, and out in the fresh air. Baxter had been right, and the patron of the stables near the airfield had been delighted to acquiesce to Jeremy’s request for a horse. He had watched approvingly as Jeremy picked out one of the best animals with the cool eye of an old pro.
This English pilot knew his horses!
To Jeremy, it was a heaven sent opportunity to get away from the squadron. He could get away from the grinning faces, the sly digs, the stage whispers. He could even – briefly – get away from the war. Explore the country side. Think.He needed to think.
He knew he was changing a lot. Two months in war time was like ten years of ordinary life. The debacle at the hands of Mimi and her assistants had affected him deeply. Another factor gnawing at him was the fact that he still grieved for Baines. He was also sleeping poorly. It was a relief once more to be in the saddle, exploring a new wood. The trail had already taken him past a small lake, and through a shallow stream. The trees became taller, and stood closer together.
He arrived in a small clearing, surrounded by pine trees. A fallen tree in the middle sprouted a tangled crop of roots. He tied the gray to a tree, and sat down wearily.
What the hell am I doing? What’s the purpose of it all?
He knew well that his spirits were sinking lower and lower. Death. The stupid, hopeless, pointless horror of it. Emmy. Baines. Digsby. His father. Death. Misery. More death. Did he really want to live? No matter if he did.
He would soon be dead anyway. It was only a matter of time.
It was all like a dream. You thought you were alive. You’d expect it to last forever. Then, suddenly,
Poof!, all dead. Bye-bye, world.
What in hell for?
Joke. Bitter joke. Why bother with Life? Waste of time.
There’s only one outcome, whatever that funny old priest might say. One moment there’s Life, the next, there’s nothing…
He thought of the gun he wore in a holster. He always brought it along. Flying or riding. It gave him a comfortable feeling. Latent power. Silently, the weapon waited for him. Silent, but deadly. He took it out, and examined it. Six bullets.
Only one through my head would solve all my problems.
He shuddered. It was an eerie thought. The sneering expression of Mimi rose up before him. McAllister’s voice was ringing in his ears.
…and thirdly, rank cowardice.
…rank cowardice… rank cowardice…
Bullshit! That was what McAllister was full of. He was a fine one to lecture on cowardice…
Hell, no. It’ll be a German bullet that blows me away.
He started to put the gun away. But Mimi was laughing. Everybody was laughing. Cheering. Stamping their feet. Whistling. Gesticulating. Why wait for it? Why not get it over with? Now, here, cleanly, quickly, as opposed to dying painfully, horribly, slowly? The end result is going to be the same.
You lose your virginity. You lose your life. So what? What’s the difference? Who the hell is going to care? Really care? Life goes on. There’s thousands of blokes getting theirs every week.
Nobody takes any notice. Not really…
He shook himself. That was crazy thinking. While there was Life, there was hope. What was it the Bible said?
“Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and puts them into practice, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house upon a rock. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; but it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock…
One of Emmy’s favorite verses. She had this bright theory that the ‘house’ was in fact symbolic of a person’s life. Perhaps…
One thing’s for sure. I’ve had plenty of rain and floods and winds in my Life! It’s all but beaten the door in…
Emmy. She had ditched him. For some nurd who read poetry to her.
She prefers poetry to guns, and I’m stuck with more guns than poetry…
Well, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. He fingered the gun, put it down, picked it up again. He wanted to shoot something. Anything.
God… if you’re up there, where the hell are you…
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a war going on down here…
No, it was all too far fetched. Too good to be true. You had to be naive to swallow all that stuff. He put the gun down, and buried his face in his hands.
* * *
The first thing she saw was the horse. Tethered to a tree, a dappled mare nibbled away contentedly at her reins. That contentment was not echoed by her rider, who sat on a fallen tree stump, head in his hands. Beside him on the stump lay an evil looking revolver.
She took all this in simultaneously, and her heart leaped. Then she recognized the uniform. A pilot!
What was the gun for? Was he…?
She would have turned quickly, and fled away, but for the fact that he suddenly looked up, and then leaped to his feet guiltily. She probably still would have excused herself as quickly as possible, but then she noticed his eyes. They were red rimmed. Curiosity overcame her fear, and she smiled engagingly. Her first smile at a strange man for five months.
He… smiled back, rather shyly, she thought, and self consciously holstered the gun. They entered into an inconsequential conversation. About the weather, the cold, and their horses. After a few minutes, she found herself sliding out of the saddle.
Even as it happened, memories of her ordeal came back, and she cast an anxious look around the forest. Deserted. Nobody would hear her scream. He could do anything he liked with her. Why was she taking such chances?
I must be mad. He could do anything to me. Rape me. Beat me. Strangle me. Kill me any way he likes.
She wanted to flee…
Come on! You can’t let that other bastard spoil the rest of your life! Come on! Just… talk to the man!
She tried to pass off her stumble with a smile and a little laugh. But she didn’t recognize the high pitched nervous sound that emanated from her lips. Suddenly she became aware that she was shaking like a leaf. Shaking so violently, that she felt it must be obvious to him.
He can see! He can see! He knows I’m helpless! He knows… everything. He was probably there! They told him! He knows I’m nothing. Nothing…
With a supreme effort of will and courage, she took a grip on herself. If only she knew it, her actions and behavior – far from meriting shame or guilt – were worthy of the highest accolade for courage. Courage in the face of Man’s cruelty…
It was better now. She had her breathing back to the point where her heart was merely beating hell out of her ribcage, and no longer sledge hammering her entire frame.
Could this young man before her be another animal? A wolf in sheep’s clothing? Or, in this case, pilot’s clothing?
But somehow he looked harmless. Exhausted, done in, and definitely not rampant. They introduced themselves.
She liked his name. Jeremy. He had a nice accent.
“Are you a pilot? “.
She asked the question eventually, knowing full well that he was. She pronounced it the French way, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Despite his misery, Jeremy felt charmed by her. They sat down on the fallen tree now, five feet apart.
“Yes “, he said vacantly without elaborating.
He felt neither pride nor elation at being asked the question. There was a pause. She was dying to ask questions, but his diffidence was obvious. Eventually she whispered quietly:
“Do you like it? ”
Although she half expected his answer, it shocked her nonetheless.
She slipped into French again: “Pourquoi? I mean, why not? Is it not wonderful? ” She put the emphasis again on the last syllable, and pronounced the ‘u’ in a strangely French manner. He smiled again despite himself.
“The flying is marvelous, Genevieve. It is the killing I hate… ”
His face crumpled a little, and his voice sounded unsteady. Her heart missed a beat, and she felt a warmth towards him. He was human, flesh and blood.
Definitely not a wolf…
“But Jeremy… ” She pronounced it ‘Zjer-am-me’, with the accent on the last syllable. He liked it.
“You are killing the Bosche, non? ”
He nodded absently.
“That is good, non? ”
He smiled, and it pleased her to see it. He made no effort to reply however. She noticed his fingers moving oddly. They seemed to tremble slightly, whilst they stretched forward. Then they would bend into claws, and his thumbs would rub along the inside.
The silence grew longer. He was staring ahead now, making no effort whatsoever to chat her up.
Suddenly she wished he would…
* * *
Forty seven miles away, at an airfield that Jeremy had not even heard of, the sound of an aircraft engine could be heard in the distance. It approached slowly, and became louder.
In the hangars and the maintenance sheds, heads turned, and ears strained. Misfire? Sounded rough. Very rough. People called out the others from inside. Somebody pointed. Low above the horizon, far lower than normally, the outline of a biplane could be seen. Excited shouts. Black smoke could be seen, pouring forth. The fire crew raced to their machine, and started the engine.
* * *
In a way, she wanted to leave. It was getting late.
But this man… he needed her.
No, she told herself, that was crazy.
I hardly know him, for goodness sake! Come on, it’s time to leave. Forget the memories…
But the Memories that had been stalking her steadily now flooded back, and the shadows seemed to have lengthened suddenly. Maybe he was just waiting his chance. Maybe…
Maybe he is only waiting until it gets darker! Maybe he’s only pretending not to be interested in me! Maybe…
She stood up suddenly, and bid him goodnight.
Strangely, he hardly reacted, and seemed lost in a world of his own. She walked to her horse, suddenly acutely aware that her back was turned towards him. Fear overwhelmed her, and she felt… a hand clasping across her mouth, and a hungry paw grabbing at her breasts!
Oh, my God!
Her ears twitched, waiting for the sound of steps. None came. On she stumbled, half running, half walking. The twenty yards distance to Pecadillo had suddenly stretched to a quarter of a mile. Fear prevented her from looking back. In her mind, she saw only the crouched figure of a man, waiting to spring on her. Tears stung at the back of her eyes…
Jeremy watched the retreating figure sadly, wishing he could have talked more. But the words had failed him. Her company had been nice. Now she was going. It was his fault. He noticed she stumbled awkwardly.
Climbing into the saddle, Genevieve cast a quick look at the silent airman. He was still sitting where he was, looking at her. His red rimmed eyes were sad. She paused for a second. What on earth was that man thinking? She smiled, nervously. He smiled a little smile back, and made no effort to rush over and grab her. Puzzled at her own feelings as well as the strange manner of the airman, she turned Pecadillo around, and broke into a trot.
Soon a tree obscured her from his sight. Jeremy sighed, and buried his face in his hands. What in hell was wrong with him? Emmy? Fear of death? Was he going the way Baines had gone? Loopy? Round the bend? Why these thoughts of death all the time, this morbid preoccupation with suicide? Maybe he was just lonely. Desperately lonely. He seemed to be swaying, and dropped his hands away from his face. The clearing stood quite still. What was wrong with him? A strange sound was buzzing through his head. It was getting louder and louder. He had experienced it before, but never as loud as this.
What in heaven’s name…
He shut his eyes, and shook his head. The buzzing sound only increased in volume. He stood up, swaying unsteadily. Suddenly, a wave of sadness came over him.
A tremendously powerful urge to throw himself on the ground, and burst into tears. Crazy! It made no sense! With difficulty, he tried to take a firm grip on himself.
He was a pilot! A soldier! He was a veteran fighter! This made no sense… The girl came into his mind, and he wished she had stayed. Wished with all his might that she was there, and that he could try and tell her how he felt. But she was gone. He had given her no encouragement. Now, it was too late. It was always too late. He was lost, and lonely, and frightened. Nothing made any sense any more. Baines. Pinky. Digsby. The blue and green Albatros. The pilot, cynically waving at him… Emmy…
He stood in the middle of the clearing, swaying like a drunk. He was talking to himself.
Calm down, old son. Take it easy. You’re all right…
His voice sounded croaky. The trees closed in on him.
He stared at them.
Then they moved away again, and his knees sagged. It was a trap! Suddenly, the ground ripped up, and bullets were flying all round him! The blue and green Albatros was screaming down behind him, intent on killing him.
His mouth fell open, and saliva trickled down his chin.
He screamed, and watched in horror as the silhouette of the pilot gave him a cheeky thumbs up.
The ditch! The ditch! Where was the ditch!??
The trees closed in on him again, and his mind reeled.
Mimi laughed cruelly, and McAllister shook his head in weary disgust.
Rank cowardice! Rank cowardice! Rank cowardice!
He screamed, and threw himself on the ground, rolling over and over, covering his head.
* * *
The crash made even the hardened wince. Pieces of wood and fabric went flying, the undercarriage collapsed, and the nose dug itself into the ground, tearing up great clods of earth. The tail rose up, higher and higher, until the whole aircraft shuddered as if to fall over onto its back. At the critical point it stagnated, and remained where it was. A figure fell out, and rolled away. The petrol tank ignited, and burning fuel sloshed over the pilot’s face, arms and hands. He screamed. A peculiar, high pitched scream.
* * *
Jeremy felt the first waves of comfort.
He was being held firmly. He didn’t even know what it was for a while. He was lying on the ground, trembling, curled up, with his knees in his stomach, arms folded on his chest. The green and blue Albatros was retreating. Baines had come. That was it. Baines had come and shot the bastard down. Good old Baines.
A voice broke into his mind.
Baines is dead!
It couldn’t be. Baines had just shot down the Albatros.
Baines is dead!
It couldn’t be. Baines was here, holding him, trying to lead him away. He could feel his strong arms around him.
His mind relaxed a little, and he slowly looked up. The grip around his shoulders relaxed a little. He saw the hair first. Long, black hair, that brushed his face.
A beautiful face looked down on him, full of compassion. He stared in stupefied amazement. A hand touched his face, and wiped away the tears. He realized he was crying. His face was soaked. It was the girl. The girl on the horse.
What was her name again?
* * *
“His hands are a right mess. He’ll never play the ukulele again, and that’s a fact. ”
Nobody spoke. Everybody remembered the man’s music.
“He’ll fly again, once his hands have healed, but it’ll never be the same again. They’ll work, but without the agility and sensitivity he needs for playing… ”
The sergeant sighed deeply. He could have added “The same applies to minds that get hurt – they’re never the same. ”
But he decided not to.
Somebody brought the instrument from the man’s room. They hung it from the mess wall.
Nobody quite knew why.
* * *
He was holding on to her tightly, tears still trickling down his face. The wonder of his situation registered only dully in his brain. He could smell her, and it was wonderful. She had said very little in the last thirty minutes, once she had assured him that it was all right.
He had started to stammer an apology, but she had waved it away. He was recovering, and trying to deal with the facts that faced him.
Genevieve was also reflecting on their situation. Wondering. What women’s intuition had made her tie up Pecadillo, and creep back the two hundred yards or so to the clearing? She had watched him furtively from a concealed place for a few minutes, fearful lest he see her. He had walked around strangely, talking softly to himself. Then, all at once, his knees had simply given away, and he had sagged to the ground with a whimper. Astonishing…
She had run to his side, but he had been oblivious to her presence. She had found herself in tears. Tears of helplessness. But she had – somehow – understood. A hurt mind. Some terrible experiences.
She could relate to that. She certainly could…
She thought of Charles Nungesser. Suddenly he seemed a far away cold and heartless shadow, compared with this warm human being in her arms. He needed her. She needed him to need her. Was that it? It didn’t matter.
She loved him. Of that she was certain.
* * *
‘Uke’ lay in the hospital bed, studying his hands. Or rather, the large white bandages, which completely hid them. Although his face and arms hurt abominably, it was his hands that grieved him most. He knew without being told that the damage was grievous. His hands. His precious hands. Nothing would ever be the same again.
His life had revolved around his music.
He put his head back on the pillow, and gazed at the ceiling.
War. Life. Death. What did it matter? Any of it?
* * *
It was nearly dark before Jeremy unsteadily climbed to his feet. Genevieve stood beside him, her arm around him.
He had told her much of his experiences, and she had actually got as far as telling him that she too had been terribly hurt. She had omitted the details, and he had not pushed her.
They rode back slowly together to her house, and she invited him in. He demurred politely, but she insisted.
While he went to wash the stains off his face, and tidy up his muddy uniform, Genevieve quickly whispered the few facts to Aunt Agnes and Madame Pegoud. Her father was away. The old aunt registered not a flicker of surprise, and nodded sympathetically. Madam Pegoud, equally pragmatic, went off to organize soap and hot water.
The meal was sumptuous, and afforded Jeremy a chance to regain strength and compose himself. Aunt Agnes quietly observed the young man, and liked what she saw. She was amused at her charge’s mothering of the airman. Good.
This was more like the old Genevieve.
Was that true? No, this was a newer, better, wiser, kinder Genevieve. Reaching out. Life had made her more complete.
She studied the airman again, noticing the shadows under the eyes, and the odd way his fingers moved. A slight tremor in his voice at times. This poor young man had been through hell as well. Would it make him better, kinder? Or would the war brutalize him, turn him into a vicious animal like the soldier who had raped her niece?
Would he hurt Genevieve?
Looking at him, she somehow doubted it.