Jeremy’s War: Chapter 31 “An Accidental Encounter “

Posted on September 1, 2008

Ch. 31
AN ACCIDENTAL ENCOUNTER

There came a point when he started to feel bloody silly.

By the time he had accidentally on purpose trotted past the entrance to her farm three times.
This could go on forever. When ever he managed to get away – which was very rare – the chances were poor indeed that she should happen to be coming in or out. It was more likely that she had just finished a ride, or was out and about. He realized he could spend a month of Sundays ‘happening to amble by’ and still miss her.
More drastic action was needed.
What?
Letter? No. Ride up to the house? Hardly…
He brooded on it all. Where could he go from here?
It was hard to know. Very hard.

At least he had discovered a decent little cafe. He turned the horse’s head in that direction, and reflected on his situation. He tied the beast in the stables around the back, and entered the cafe. The proprietor, always obliging, smiled warmly at him, and poured him an extra large cognac. He was glad to see the pilot. He hoped there would be more. Business had not been the same since that terrible affair with poor Genevieve. The old gang had evaporated, embarrassed no doubt, and his business had evaporated with them. If only… he shook his head. A terrible affair. Marion had warned her, but she had taken no notice. Terrible. Really terrible.
Throughout these sad deliberations, he kept a warm smile on his face, and showed the airman to his usual corner table. He obsequiously wiped the table, and fussed a bit, expressing his delight at seeing Jeremy again.
Then he withdrew tactfully. A born businessman.

Jeremy enjoyed Cognac. It warmed him, and gave him courage. He liked to sit quietly in the corner, smoking and drinking, and nobody bothering him.
He never noticed the mousy haired girl, who came out from the kitchen, stopped, stared, and beat a hasty retreat.

* * *

“Are you sure it was him? “, a flushed Genevieve inquired off Marion.
“Eh, bien sur! Of course it was him! Papa says he has been in several times in the last two weeks. He says he has never seen him before that! ”
Genevieve reflected on the news. The cafe was only half a mile from her farm. The airfield was six miles away.
It was no coincidence. But why did he not write or call?
Was he shy? A pilot who kills Germans, shy of meeting a girl? The thought warmed her heart in a way. He was human. He had to be kind. She was right. There had been some misunderstanding. At the same time, she couldn’t help feeling a small amount of irritation. Charles Nungesser would not have been so shy. He would have roared up in an expensive motor car, and swept her off her feet…
Suddenly, she was glad that she had written.
Marion was studying her closely. They had been inexplicably distant after Genevieve’s ordeal.
Now they were at least closer again. She wished she could help more. A nice man in Genevieve’s life would do her good, and help her overcome past hurt…

The opportunity arose a few days later. It was a foggy morning. The airman turned up at the cafe again, and sat in his usual corner, sipping Cognac. Marion, tipped off by her father, hurried around to the farm, and caught Genevieve lying in bed. Dressing hurriedly, she saddled up Pecadillo in record time, and galloped the surprised animal the half mile down the road. Pecadillo, used to a gentle warm up, soon entered the spirit of the chase, and fairly streaked across the ground.
They both arrived within sight of the ‘Cafe Brittanique’ slightly the worse for wear, and she pulled off the road to regain her composure. Pecadillo, slightly bemused by it all, stood there steaming quietly, froth blowing around the bit. Uppermost in his mind was the thought that he had not had breakfast, and this puzzled him greatly. Peering through the bushes, Genevieve watched the cafe, hoping fervently that her quarry was still within those ancient walls.
They did not have long to wait. The figure of a uniformed man could be seen walking – slightly unsteadily, so it seemed – around the back, and presently the same figure on horseback could be seen riding around to the front. She realized her pulse was beating fast, and wondered if he would turn her way or back to the airfield. He appeared to hesitate, and debate that choice himself. Then, to her great pleasure and relief, he turned unmistakeably in her direction. She swiftly mounted Pecadillo, who had been disconsolately nibbling at some tufty grass, and had a quick last minute self inspection in a small round mirror. Then, kicking Pecadillo in the sides, they set off towards a meeting.
She rounded the bend and the die was cast.
There was no going back now. She saw, even from the distance, an electric shock pass through his frame. He was suddenly sitting much more upright, she noted with satisfaction.
Slowly, they ambled towards each other. Pecadillo, interested now, speeded up of his own accord.
Company!

Jeremy’s mind raced. He wanted so much to talk to her, but had no idea how to begin. He was glad he was fortified with Cognac. He felt disconcerted now, but he knew it would have been infinitely worse if he had been stone cold sober. Alcohol blurred the edge of reality.
A good thing too…

“Now or never, Jeremy boy! “, he whispered softly to himself.
A few seconds later he was adopting an incredulous expression; a ‘fancy meeting you here’ look of surprise.
Genevieve too was wearing a mystified look, and wondering what to say. He looked even more handsome in his uniform than she remembered. She looked at his face, and was glad he was smiling. She decided the moment was right to beam back a huge smile.
“Bonjour, Genevieve! ”
“Hallo, Zjeramy! ”
Pause.
“You’re looking great, Genevieve! ”
“You too, Zjeramy! ”
Pause.
Both features worked flat out on a controlled exterior.
A vague smile now, not too over or understated. Both hearts wrestled with undercurrents of deep emotion.
It was Jeremy who relaxed first, suddenly, and became himself.
“It’s wonderful to see you, Genevieve. I… I’ve missed you. ”
There, it was out. Good old Cognac. If she was offended and rode off, he could always go back and get some more.
She only smiled however.
“I’ve missed you too, Zjeramy. We had a misunderstanding, non? ”
He nodded vigorously.
“Yes, I think so. Can we talk somewhere? ”
From there on in, it was plain sailing for a long time.
They ended up back at the farm.
He told her he had thought he had told her too much, too quickly. That she had ended up embarrassed. That in turn had angered him. She shook her head, and told him it was not that.
He, earnestly, had said:
“You were suddenly so sad. You bit your lip. I thought you were about to cry. Then you were raking the fire so as not to show your face to me. I knew you were upset. What happened? Was it me? Then you wrote to me. I was so glad to get your letter. It has been hell this last few weeks… ”
His voice had broken off with a tremor. He had gazed longingly at her, and she had returned his gaze, with an equal longing.
“Was it me? Did I tell you too much, too soon? ”
That wonderful, honest, open, caring look again; she loved him so much for that! There was nothing bad in this boy!
She shook her head, half smiling, half crying. Again, vigorously.
“Non, Zjeramy. It was not you. You were so honest.
I was sad… because of what happened to me also. ”
She debated going on, agonized for a second, and then…
plunged straight in. Diable! Hell! Spit it out! Get it over with! It would be better that way. Spit the poison out. Come to terms with it. She could trust him. Her secret was safe with him. She wanted, no, she needed to tell him.
“That night club where you were… ”
She trailed off, and started again.
“Zjer-ami. You said there was a ‘funny red bird’ over the door of that night club you went to? ”
“Yes? “, he looked surprised.
“Well… ” She looked out the window, up at the sky, as if searching for inspiration.
“…it is meant to be a canary, Zjer-ami. A RED canary. It is the name. The ‘red canary’. ”
He nodded, wondering where she was going.
She continued, with difficulty, yet also with determination.
“I went there… oh, August last year. With some pilots… from your squadron. ”
She smiled a sad little smile, and shrugged her shoulders as if trying to make light of it. Jeremy was surprised, but said nothing.
“They got very drunk. Everybody got very drunk. Like you, I thought it was… degoutant? ”
She searched for the word. Jeremy’s lips curled as he remembered his own impressions.
“Disgusting “, he helped out.
“Oui, oui, disgusting. Very disgusting. It is like you say. Everybody pretends to be very happy. But it is all pretend. It is false. The jokes they play… they are cruel. Like what they did to you… ”
She looked at him, and her eyes were soft with pity. He said nothing, and reflected bitterly on the truth of what she said.
“Everybody is carried along. You have to laugh, and be happy. You must laugh at all the jokes, even if they are not funny. Everybody is drunk… ”
She paused, and drew a deep breath.
“I left. I was… disgusted. I walked away, on my own.
I wanted to walk back to the ‘centre de ville’, and get a hotel for the night. It was so late… ”
Jeremy stirred. Somehow, he suspected what was coming.
“You went out on your own? And they let you? ”
She smiled sadly. One of them, Alan, he came out after me. But… ”
She paused again. Jeremy, frowning, was about to ask “Alan who? “, when he suddenly decided to keep quiet for the moment.
“…he tried to kiss me. I slapped him hard, and he fell down. I ran away. Then… I got lost. ”
She discovered she needed to swallow hard, and she had also gone strangely rigid. Her face was pale and white, and Jeremy knew that whatever had happened, had utterly shattered her. Instinctively he reached forward, and took hold of her hand. She glanced at him, gratefully, and returned her gaze to the fire. Then she struggled on.
“It is an area for… des femmes. How do you say? ”
“Prostitutes “.
“Oui, for prostitutes. There were these men everywhere, looking for… prostitutes. Some of them called for me. I passed on quickly. Then I saw a man in a uniform. A British soldier. I thought I could trust him. I went up to him, and asked for directions. He seemed very nice… ”
Jeremy felt his heart sinking. He knew what was coming.
“He gave me directions. I believed him. I went up this narrow street, and… ”
She was rocking herself backwards and forwards, and her bottom lip was trembling. Her eyes watered, and Jeremy, with a purity born of his kind heart, at that moment would have fought lions to save her.
“…and he… dragged me into a dark building. ”
She was trembling all over now. Jeremy’s eyes widened in alarm. He was stroking her hand gently, wondering if she should go on. Something again told him to remain silent.
“Then he… took my clothes off… and tied my hands behind my back. ”
Jeremy felt the blood drain away from his face.
“He… laughed… ” She said it wonderingly, with a disbelieving half laugh.
“He played with me, and used me. He… made love to me… ”
It was out. She had told him the story!
“And… I spent a long time in hospital… I couldn’t face up… to life. I spent weeks in bed here. I wouldn’t get up. I had nightmares… I was frightened… ”
She turned to face Jeremy, looking him deep in the eyes.
“Zjer-ami, I was so frightened! I was frightened of all men! I was frightened of you, when I met you the first time! I wanted to run away… ”
His heart bled for her.
“Then… when you told me of your experience… what they did to you… I remembered everything he did to me.
That is why I was sad. Do you understand, Zjer-ami?
She turned to him, and searched his eyes again.
He nodded slowly. It was all clear now. Perfectly clear.
Alan who? Alan Ross? Probably. That would be his style, all right.
“I am glad I have told you this, Zjer-ami. You don’t… ”
Tears were beginning to pour down her cheeks now. Her voice was choked with sobs.
“You don’t think… any bad now of me, do you? ”
The appeal in her eyes pierced his heart. He took her easily, without any self consciousness, into his arms, and held her there, tightly, for an eternity. She sobbed her heart out, and held on tight to him, relieved, frightened, and heart broken, all at the same time.
He rocked her gently, and kissed her hair and neck, over and over again.
He would die for her, he knew. He would die for her, a thousand times, rather than let anything like that -ever- happen to her again.

* * *

“So you see, gentlemen, that is the master plan! ” Baxter leaned back in his chair, looking pleased with himself. Around the room, there were mutterings of approval.
The half dozen leading airmen relaxed and stretched, or drank deeply from tall glasses. Squadron leader Bob Matherson lit his pipe, and chuckled to himself. He eyed Baxter, winked, and blew out a huge cloud of smoke.
“Well, you can rely on the Sopwith Pups! ”
Bernie Owen, who along with Reg Greenhall represented
Jeremy’s old home, 66th Squadron, laughed drily.
“Ace idea. We’ve tried surprising them before, but they either see us lurking topsides, or there were never enough of us to really hurt ’em. This way… ”
He trailed off, nodding approval. Jeremy, sitting quietly in a corner, caught his eye accidentally. He felt embarrassed and out of place. He was in effect sitting at a table with several of his old teachers, ostensibly as an equal. He found it impossible to make any input, and instead concentrated on making himself as small and unobtrusive as possible. What on earth was Baxter playing at by including Jeremy in such a distinguished gathering? He didn’t belong here. How long had he been leading ‘A’ flight? Four weeks? Maybe it was more. What did he know about the air war? He just went up and tried to survive. Tried to keep his men alive. He hadn’t lost anybody – yet. He thought of his wing men. Little sheep at first, they had followed him blindly, trustingly, so innocently. He had had to mould them into fighting men, make them think. Teach them how to shoot.
Funny lot. Mac Dillon. Stocky little gunslinger. Always ready to have an enthusiastic shot at anybody; including, on one unfortunate occasion, his leader. Jeremy grinned quietly to himself as he remembered Mac’s horrified face as he had been shown the rows of bullet holes through Jeremy’s favorite rudder. Silly sod…
“One thing I want to look at… ”
Baxter’s voice droned in and out of Jeremy’s consciousness. “…is the matter of redundancy. If one of the leaders gets shot down, I don’t want everything to fall apart because nobody else knows the game plan. So… ”

Dek. Dek Moriarty. Strange fish. Never quite knew where you were with Dek. Thoughtful chap. Quite serious. Could suddenly go off at a tangent to everything agreed. Good flyer, lousy shot. The only man of ‘A’ flight still without a kill. Oh well… Time would fix that.

“If the enemy split into different sections, I want them all chased and destroyed. We should have way superior numbers, and I emphasize, gentlemen, I emphasize…we must destroy these blighters. Hit ’em really hard. ”

Tiny Tim. The fourth man of ‘A’ flight. Who needed a cushion to have a decent view over the edge of the cockpit. Aggressive little sod. Typical little man. Had to prove something all the time. Jeremy smiled faintly as he remembered their first little difference. Little Tim answering back to Jeremy. Shouting back, in fact. Cheeky sod.

Bob Matherson was talking. On the subject of range and endurance. Jeremy frowned. He was making it ever so complicated. Nobody was going to have time to do complicated calculations in the air. Why not draw a few fan lines on the map? Allow for wind and drift in the usual way, and that way it was easy to work out a maximum range point, beyond which pursuit of the enemy was impossible. Oh well…

Mad Mac, the gunslinger…
Dodgy Dek, the unpredictable good flyer/lousy shot…
Tiny Tim…

Jeremy had surprised himself that day. Tim had been rude and downright disrespectful. Jeremy had been totally taken aback. Then, suddenly, somebody else had bawled Tiny Tim out. Somebody very… what was the word? Angry? No. Ferocious? No. Authoritarian? Maybe. At any rate, Jeremy had let him have it right between the eyes. Tiny Tim had shriveled up, and been as good as gold – where Jeremy was
concerned – from that day on. Interesting character.

Baxter was talking.
“That just about wraps it up, Gentlemen. My own reserve man will of course be Jeremy here, who will take over if I depart the scene unexpectedly. Good. Any questions or reservations, Gentlemen? ”
Jeremy groaned inwardly. What on earth was Baxter playing at? Reserve leader? Why him? Well, at least the chance of Baxter going down was very small indeed. The man was invincible. The best pilot Jeremy knew.
As for reservations… Apart from Matherson’s weird ideas, no. He would go and fight, as usual. As long as he could.
No problem. It was his life. Or what was left of it. He thought of Genevieve. Was he good enough for her?
Probably not. What on earth did she see in him, anyway?
Strange life. Thank goodness the bloody meeting was nearly over, anyway. Maybe he could get back to his book now…

“Jeremy? ”
Baxter was looking straight at him.
“Sir? ”
Baxter put his head to one side, and a quizzical half smile crossed his face. “Reservations, Jeremy? ”
Baxter knew his flight leader well.
All eyes turned to Jeremy, who felt embarrassed. A red flush spread out from his cheeks.
“Well, Sir, just one small thing really… ”
Oh, heck. Why didn’t they leave him alone? He’d probably make a complete fool of himself. Oh, well…
“With respect to squadron leader Matherson, Sir… ”
Baxter looked at him steadily.
Jeremy expressed his views, and there was a short debate, at the end of which Jeremy’s ideas were incorporated in the game plan.
The meeting broke up then, and only Baxter, Owen, and Greenhall were left.
It was Owen who cautiously raised the subject of Jeremy
Armstrong with Baxter.
“Sir, if you don’t mind… ”
Baxter looked at him, raising an eyebrow.
“Jeremy Armstrong, Sir… ”
Baxter grinned. “I know what you’re dying to ask. What makes him tick? ”
Owen nodded. So did Greenhall.
Baxter looked at the door, and frowned. “Half the time, I’d swear he lives on another planet. In the beginning, he’d sometimes stop listening. Just wander off… ”
He paused, reflectively.
Owen murmured: “When he left us, he had two victories “.
Baxter smiled, appreciating the implied question.
He studied Owen and Greenhall. “How many do you think he has now? ”
Both men shook their heads.
Baxter looked suddenly serious.
“Four-teen “, he said slowly. Owen whistled. Greenhall started.
There was a silence. It was Owen who spoke first.
“I’d heard he’d got some, but I didn’t know it was that many. ”
Baxter mused on the subject.
“Oddly enough, he could have had more. ”
A lot more, he thought to himself.
“I gave him ‘A’ flight just over a month ago. He hasn’t lost a man yet, and you know how unusual that is. ”
It was Greenhall’s turn to whistle.
Baxter continued, studying the faces of the two men opposite him.
“I can also tell you he frequently has to be prodded into making combat reports. I have a feeling that if you asked him straight how many aircraft he’s shot down, he would be hard pressed to answer accurately. ”
Owen and Greenhall exchanged glances.
“Also, two of his three wingmen have scored. Mac Dillon has three. Tiny Tim has two. I know for a fact that Jeremy either shot away the escort, or otherwise set the target up for his wingmen. He takes his responsibilities very seriously. ”
Greenhall spoke:
“I’m amazed. ”
Baxter looked sad. He played absently with his pen, looking at the table. “I’m not amazed. He’s a very, very intense young man. The problem as I see it is that very intensity. He hates the war. Somehow, he’s lost himself.
He has no idea what I see in him. He didn’t want to be here today, and I could see him groan inwardly when he knew I was making him my deputy… ”
There was a long pause, interrupted by Owen.
“I know he had some kind of a mental problem when he was still with us, Sir. He got shot down early on, and a member of the blue Albatros fraternity tried to machine gun him on the ground. One of our guys, chap called Baines… ” Owen grimaced as he remembered back.
“… he’s dead now… ”
Greenhall moved restlessly, and Owen ploughed on.
“…Baines arrived in the nick of time, and clobbered the Albatros. Jeremy was cowering in a ditch, and Baines reckoned he could see him shaking from two hundred feet. Jeremy didn’t seem to realize that Baines had shot the Albatros down, and stayed in the ditch. Baines flew off, and when he got back, we all went off on the search.
We found this old French woman, who flagged us down.
She was in tears… ”
Owen stopped, lost in memories. After a pause, Greenhall continued the story.
“She was going on about Jeremy talking to the dead. The look on her face showed she was scared out of her wits. When we arrived, Jeremy was standing beside the body of the German. Just standing there. Like a statue. It was Baines who went up to him. Jeremy followed him as meek as a lamb. The two of them were very close after that. Very close… ”
Baxter, listening intently, understood more and more.
A truly amazing story. There was a lot to Jeremy Armstrong.
Owen picked up the thread again. “Jeremy was off flying for a couple of weeks. It was supposed to be ‘concussion’, but… ” He shrugged expressively.
“He changed dramatically then. He had been friendly, outgoing, open. He clammed up. He’d sit there for hours, without saying a word. A few weeks later, Baines went down, more or less out of control, with his tailplane half shot away. Ten miles behind the German lines.
He landed really hard, and didn’t appear to be getting out. We were in deep trouble, and we should have been beetling back. Jeremy however… ”
Owen shook his head, half smiling.
Greenhall chipped in: “Jeremy went down and landed. ”
Baxter almost whistled. He could picture the scene.
He rose to his feet, walked over to a drinks cabinet, and poured everybody a stiff drink. They all drank deeply.
Owen was still shaking his head. “Stupid bastard! There were Huns racing in from all over. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We think Jeremy got close to Baines. And we think Baines was still alive, struggling to get out. His machine blew up then, and burned like crazy. Jeremy was burned in the face, and his flying suit was singed black. We’ll never really know what happened, because Jeremy… ” He looked at Greenhall, who nodded agreement. “…because Jeremy would never talk about it. ”
Baxter drank again, and asked the obvious question.
“How did he make it back? ”
Owen chuckled wryly. “Through a hedge “, he said thickly.
“Straight through a platoon of Krauts who were coming to arrest him. I’ve never seen anything like it. We’d still have been goners, but Matherson’s lot… ” He jerked a thumb expressively towards the door through which the bearded man had recently departed.
“…came and picked us out of the manure. After that… Jeremy became a complete loner. He used to spend hours locked up in his room, listening to his gramophone. Said something once about music ‘softening the soul.’ I thought it was a lot of bilge at the time. I went in once, and he was sitting there, eyes shut, lost to the world…
I believe he writes poetry. ”

Baxter worked it all out in his mind. He thought of the man who had briefly tried to socialize at his new squadron, and had then given up so completely. Only the responsibility of ‘A’ flight had brought him back to at least mix with his own wingmen. It all fitted together.
“Well, gentlemen… ” Baxter fingered his glass.
“I think young Jeremy’s nerves are shredded to pieces. The difference with the rest of us, although we’re all tired… ” That was a safe statement. “…is that we don’t feel things as deeply as Jeremy. By comparison… we’re a bunch of rough old sods! ”
He downed his liquor, and pulled the bottle over. He refilled all the glasses, and the three men drank in silence, each lost in his own introspective thoughts.

(c)
Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on September 1, 2008, 2:21 pm


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