Jeremy’s War: Chapter 33 “Shadows in the Fire “

Posted on November 9, 2008


It could have been a great day. It very nearly was.
The day the Master Plan went into operation, and worked. Spectacularly. Until the very end.
Jeremy grimaced in reflection, shaking his head in disbelief.

* * *

The airspeed in the dive was on the upper limit. He dared not go any faster. Reluctantly, he rolled a bit of throttle off.

Why? Why? The Blue Albatros again!
That man is super human… what maneuver was that, for goodness’ sake? It looked like…what? How did he do it?
One moment he was diving away, running like the rest of the survivors, and the next… hanging upside down, hundreds of feet higher, with deadly accurate fire scathing down enemy aircraft! But how did he get there so fast!? What the hell maneuver did he start with? It looked like he was spinning around in a second, whilst climbing!?
What in heaven…?

The surprise and confusion in Jeremy’s mind was easily exceeded by the sheer terror in another pilot’s mind: the Blue Albatros’ latest victim, as he hurtled towards the ground, the center of a gigantic fireball. The man’s thoughts raced, as he desperately tried to grapple with a sudden turn of events he had not been expecting.

God help me! Now I’m in trouble…

He knew he was on fire, he knew it hurt, yet he still gripped the stick, obsessed with the faint glimmer of hope that he might just reach the ground in time, land and jump out, before he burned to death.

So this is what it feels like? All the men I’ve shot down in flames, this is what they went through?

He was writhing in the cockpit, beating at the flames with his left hand, aware of the futility of the action at the same time as he redoubled his frantic efforts to beat the flames out.

Crazy! I’m burning! I’m covered in flames! And I’m still THINKING! Talk about a slow death…

He knew his wife was unaware of his predicament. He could see her in the kitchen, snipping roses to length to fit in her favorite crystal vase. He wanted to scream at her.

Look woman! I’m burning! I’m going to die! Help me!

But he knew it was no use. She couldn’t hear him, and would go on snipping -infuriatingly- at her blessed flowers, while he… he died.

No! Sodding hell, no! Damn, damn, damn, BLAST IT!
I’m NOT going to die! Ground… where’s the ground!?…
right, roll right!… trees… that’s no good…
God, it hurts… there!… those fields…
bit small… it’ll have to do…
we’ll be there in, what?… two minutes?…
What height are we?… 1000 feet…
can… I…
that… long?…

The last remnants of his mitten holding the stick seemed to peel and blow away, and with an agonizing horror he realized his skin was bubbling and turning a vile black.
He wrenched his eyes away from the horrible sight. His teeth were clamped together now like a vice, but his chest ached from searing fumes entering his lungs.

GOD!… if you’re there… help me get down…
get down…
I can’t… stand… the pain…

* * *

It was later. It had to be later. Sky. Blue sky. He was lying on his back, of course. Gazing up. Into heaven.
But this was still the world, wasn’t it? Yes. He could hear the birds. Singing. A breeze. Rustling through the trees. Playing. Sighing. He could see the clouds. Moving. Gathering across to cover over the blue. Slowly. Inexorably. Pity.
Funny kind of.. peace. Peace?

The pain… it’s here but it’s not so bad… maybe that’s because I’m dying?…
who cares?… I do… I suppose…
why am I dying?… because of the war… what were we fighting for?…
was it worth it?… worth this end?…

He felt sad, and yet joyous. It was a dream, but not all a bad dream. Some of it was good. Just to rest. Rest his soul from it all. Escape the weariness. Just to stretch out… for a little while. How were the boys? Had any of them bought it? Yes… he’d seen some… but the Germans had copped it worse… much worse…

War… it’s funny lying here, thinking… I’ve never thought so clearly about it… why are we so intense… about fighting one another?… why can’t we love?… why prolong such slaughter for years on end?… there’s no good reason really, is there?…

He found himself chuckling. It hurt, and he went into a paroxysm of coughing. When it subsided, he lay very still, drawing breath carefully into his tortured lungs.
It was odd. Maybe only now, when he was dying, could he see, for the first time, the sadness of it all. If only… it was possible to explain to one’s enemies that sadness…

If I can recover… with what I’ve experienced… then maybe… I can… save… the world…

He felt through the ground, rather than heard, the approach of thundering footsteps, that drew up beside him. A figure bent over him. He recognized the silhouette. His favorite pilot. He smiled painfully, and struggled to talk. The man crouched beside him leaned forwards to catch the words.

You… you… silly sod!… I knew… you… you’d come!

The message. He had to pass on the message. What he had learned. Realized. The Love. The Pure, great Love. What he felt. What he now knew existed.

listen… listen closely… we don’t… have to…
any more…

The man bending over him held his breath, so faint were the words now.

every man… just… has… to…

The flames of the burning aircraft were dying down now, the profile unrecognizable, consumed, cleansed, purified, by fire.

…reach out…

A smile crossed the face of the dying man, tinged with a faint wonder, and a slight ephemeral surprise…

Jeremy felt for a pulse, found none, and stood up, his blackened, oil smeared face expressionless. Slowly he switched his gaze to the remains of the burning aircraft, and then on to where the sun was setting in the west.

Five hundred and sixty miles north-north-west, Mrs Cathy Baxter suddenly dropped her scissors, and clutched at her throat. Tears sprang into her eyes, and in that horrible instant, beyond human comprehension, she suddenly, shatteringly, knew…

* * *

The mess was quiet, and the fire in the grate was becoming the focal point. Nobody spoke. Despite the overwhelming victories of the day, the mood was glum. Nobody wanted to celebrate. It wouldn’t do, Jeremy knew. Wrong atmosphere to have in a fighting squadron. But just for the moment he had no desire to do anything.
He had to work through his own thoughts first. He was too calm, too composed, and he knew it. It wasn’t healthy. The others were reacting, letting the feelings out. He wasn’t. It worried him. It had to come out sometime, eventually. He was uncomfortably aware that this was the way he had felt before. When Dek had been killed. His responsibility. Then he had started out being calm. And eventually blown up. Spectacularly. Shot his gramophone. That must not happen again. He had to reason it all out. Yes, that was it. Logic. Equilibrium. Calm. It was just an exercise in logic. Not emotion. Or feeling.

First, what was going to happen now? With Baxter gone, the architect of the Master Plan and the man in charge of the squadron, who had impressed his own character on every aspect of squadron life, was no more. Who would Group HQ bring in to replace him? He hoped fervently that whoever it was, had some humanity in him. The squadron would not easily readjust. Baxter had been more than a leader. He had been a symbol, a man who led by example, and there was not a man in the squadron who would not have willingly followed him to the very gates of hell.

Second, what in hell’s name were they going to do about the Blue Albatros? Jeremy found himself once more talking to the man, through a medium he did not understand. He had addressed unkind mental thoughts before, but tonight was different. Tonight…

Tonight it’s as if I can hear his replies. Or sense his replies. Sense… your replies, you cold blooded killer!

His hairs stood on end, and adrenaline surged through him. He was gripping the edges of his chair, and staring fixedly into the fire, but he was unaware of this. Slowly, the room retreated, the shapes of his silent mess mates ceased to exist, and Jeremy was alone with his thoughts. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe it was…

You’re a bastard! You’ve killed some of my best friends… people I cared about… Baines… he was a good, kind man… and you… you butchered him!

The face that swam before him was cool, laconic. It didn’t even favor him with a reply. The sardonic grin was reply enough in itself. It spoke volumes.

Your good friend Baines was a fool. He didn’t look over his shoulder. I jumped him. And shot him down. I’d do it again. I don’t care who he was to you…

Jeremy’s knuckles were showing white. His mouth was beginning to contort. The face in front of him was beginning to take on detail. The high forehead, the strong nose, the deep eyes, the granite jaw.

You shithead! Baxter was more than my chief! He was my inspiration. I would have followed him anywhere… He had that effect on people. Where he went, we all followed. Few men ever earn that kind of respect from their men.

The granite jaw seemed to harden, and a sneer spread across the uncaring face.

You can follow him, little Englishman…

The face mocked him.

…straight down to hell!

A strange laughter seemed to echo around, as if from unseen persons lurking in the background. It was as if the Blue Albatros was speaking on behalf of many others, who waited in the background, laughing, sneering, clapping, stamping their feet. The flames of the fire seemed to rise up, and the silhouette of Baxter’s burning aircraft rose up. It changed slowly, and became the shape of Baxter himself, lying on the ground, gazing up into the sky, whispering… Whispering with an intensity that concentrated every effort in his burned body. Why had he used up his last energy in such a titanic effort of will to communicate to Jeremy the Answer?

every man… just… has to… reach out…

What did it mean? Did it mean anything? What was Baxter thinking? God…

You silly sod… I knew you…you’d come…

God… I should have been there. Should have been there…
A piece of wood cracked surprisingly loudly, and the fire spat out a flame that sailed in a sparking arc through the air, landing on what passed for a carpet in front of Jeremy’s feet. His eyes and ears registered the moment, but his mind dismissed the stimuli almost before they were offered for consideration. The mind was elsewhere…

The laughter was making him unbelievably angry. He could only see them as dim shadows in the background, but they were there nonetheless, and they were amused by his humanity. They thought him odd, and they disdained him. To them, he was a nothing, a fool, an oddball, and their leader with the hard blue eyes would blast him away one day. They were drinking… that was it. They were drinking, and clapping, and stamping their feet, and…
laughing at him.

You bastards… you unfeeling, cruel, heartless, primitive bastards! You underestimate me! You way miscalculate me… I’ll show the whole bloody lot of you… yes, go on, laugh now… we’ll see…

He was almost speaking now. His lips were moving. His expression changing from passive to murderous. He was quietly shaking. His jaw was making chewing, biting movements. Looking through the fire, past the fire, he saw what no one else in the room could see… and saw it with an intensity, a loathing, a bitterness, that would have astonished him not many months before.
The mess was quiet. Somebody had noticed. Nudged somebody else. Nobody had laughed. Or even smiled. Heads moved slowly. Messages were communicated. Although they didn’t understand all of it, they now understood some.
Somebody went as if to shake him. A head shook firmly at him. No. Leave him alone.
Quietly, very quietly, one by one, the men who had – not many weeks before – mocked him and laughed at him, filed out of the room. On tip toe.

Leave him to it. He’s a good man. Lord knows what he’s going through. We’d be incredibly worse off without him.
Hell of a pilot… hell of a bloke… just leave him to it.

Jeremy sat for hours, on his own, lost in an inner world, where none could follow.

* * *

“Have ‘nother drink… ”
“Set ’em up, I gotta go for… see a man… ’bout a (hic) dog… ”
It was a few days later.
A party was going on, and some barrels of beer had mysteriously appeared from somewhere. It was rumored that the patron from the livery stables down the road had donated them.
The traffic to and from the gentlemen’s convenience was intensifying. Captain Culpepper, the new Boss, was making his way through that dimly lit establishment, when he almost tripped over a prostrate body. He paused, swaying unsteadily, and directed a solicitous inquiry at the dim shape.
“Hello, old bean, are you all right? ”
The voice that replied, although unsteady and a little thin, contained all the essence of military protocol.
“Never better, Sir. ”
This reassured Captain Culpepper somewhat, but there remained a nagging doubt at the back of his mind.
“What’s your name, old boy? I’m new here, y’know. ”
“Edmunds, Sir. ”
“Would you like a drink or something, Edmunds? ”
“No thank you, Sir, I’ve just had a few… ”
Satisfied, Culpepper left, only to return a few seconds later, having been struck by a piercing thought.
“I say, Edmunds, can I ask you something? ”
“F-f-feel free… ” The reply was distinctly more feeble.
“Why are you holding onto the jolly pot? ”
“Stop the… spin, Sir “.
“Oh, I see, full opposite rudder, eh what? ”
This novel technique quite tickled the C.O., and he staggered off to broadcast it.
A minute later, it was Mac’s turn. His figure could be seen navigating back from the said establishment, negotiating tables and chairs most carefully.
“I say, chaps, there’s a bo-bo-body in the lllll…
the lllll…. ”
Everybody waited patiently.
“…in the jolly zjithouse. ”
“My word, is it dead? ”
Dillon’s interest always tended to the funereal.
“I don’t think so, he’s just missed being sick all over my foot… ”
“Bad show, near miss, eh? ”
“Rotten luck. ”
“What’s he doing then? ”
“He’s being sick, Sir! ”
There being some dissenting voices raised, somebody felt obliged to stand up for the truth.
“That’s quite correct actually, I saw him myself. ”
“What, clutching the blessed pan? ”
“Gripping it like a whore’s knockers. ”
“Maybe he’s looking for specimens. ”
“What sort of specimens? ”
The conversation at this point seemed to diverge. There followed two indistinct strands of thinking, which appeared to be however somewhat illogically interwoven.
“Smashing hobby, collecting flies! ”
“Didn’t think he’d had that much. ”
“My grandfather collected butterflies. ”
“Well, he does like a drop. ”
“Had some beautiful big ones. ”
“What, knockers? ”
“No, you imbecile, butterflies. ”
“Read a book once… ”
“How awful for you. ”
“…about this guy… ”
“I say, chaps, Jeremy’s read a book about a guy. ”
“…who desired this gorgeous young female… ”
“butterfly? ”
“Worm? ”
“effalump? ”
“…no, you ass, a female… you know, knockers, and all that jazz… ”
“I knew there was knockers in it ”
“sounds like a crackin’ good book to me… ”

It was late, extremely late, before a deliriously happy
squadron fell towards their respective beds. The singing, as always, took on epic dimensions of clarity, purity, and visionary beauty.

My bonny lies o-ver the ocean,
my bonny lies o-ver the sea.
my bonny lies o-ver the ocean,
oh bring back my bonny to me, to me
Bring back, oh bring back, oh bring back my bonnny
to me, to me,
Bring back, oh bring back, the silly old cow to me…

Slowly, the ballads petered out, and the last modified rendition of ‘ten green bottles’, never quite made it to the very end.

Four lil’ fokkers, riding thru’ the sky,
four lil’ fokkers, quietly passin’ by,
and if ONE lil’ fokker, were to come to fall…
there’d be three lil’ fokkers, sittin’ on the wall…

Only one solitary voice struck up ‘Three lil’ fokkers…’
and hearing no support, merely muttered something about
“fokkin’ hell “, and drifted away mercifully on the wings of sleep.

In the abandoned mess, the flames slowly died down, until only the embers remained glowing, like furtive, malevolent eyes that watched and waited. The flames were gone, the dancing shadows had become fixed, and soon there would remain only total darkness.
The room was hollow now, bereft of Life, with only echoes remaining.

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on November 9, 2008, 2:25 pm

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