Jeremy’s War: Chapter 36 "The Lonely Sky"

Posted on November 11, 2008

Ch.36 THE LONELY SKY

The lonely sky…
Thirty miles on the wrong side of the lines.
Cold.
Wondering whether, any second, the tortured metal components spinning around, red hot, under the cowling, will simply give up the ghost, and seize solid.
Any other enemy scouts?
Amazingly, no. Not yet.
Fuel?
What fuel. It is better not to ask.
Damage?
Colossal. The lower wing looks somehow odd. Twisted up.
The propeller is damaged.
Shoot. This can’t last. How long to cross the lines?
Years. You’ll never make it.
Oh, well…

The minutes crawled slowly past. Each mile traveled was a mystery. Each revolution of the battered wooden propeller, which set up colossal vibrations, was in defiance of all the laws of physics.
Something was screeching loudly. Something tore, metal to metal, and he knew it couldn’t last.
Crossing the lines was an impossibility. He didn’t even know where he was.
Head west, young man, head west…
Slowly, he was climbing. At about 100 feet per minute.
It would help, when the inevitable long glide began.
The minutes passed slowly.
He came to wonder incredulously, what force was it that kept those cylinders firing, and stopped his airframe from breaking up?
He realized he was lost in his own thoughts. His lookout had virtually ceased. That mechanical, automatic, conditioned reflex of scanning sky for enemy, and the ground to ascertain his whereabouts, was fading.
I don’t care anymore…

Life resolved itself into memories.
Emmy. Smiling wisely. Glad to see him. Not, repeat, not in love with him. Oh, no. And he was not, definitely not, in love with her. Oh, no.
Genevieve. He wanted her. Wanted to hold her. She was worth fighting for. As long as she never found out.
Found out what?
The doubt. The purposelessness. The way he felt, or rather didn’t feel, about Life.
Why?
Ah. That was the question. Indeed. That was the question.
The little French priest was there, quoting from the Bible. He was a nice man. Nice man.
The Blue Albatros wasn’t a nice man. But he was… gone. Out of the picture. All that hate he had felt…
All gone.
Strange. Unreal. ‘A’ Flight. Mac. Tiny. Dillon.
Which one had bought it? The flamer…
Depression. His gramophone. Smashed. He’d shot it.
Why?
It didn’t do. To listen to such beautiful music. When you had to hate. So deeply. Do violence. To your own nature.
To kill, you had to hate. He had too, anyway. Music made it hard to hate.
Aw, shut up.
Lookout.
They’re at it again…
Archie was bursting everywhere, creeping closer.
Disinterested, heading west, not caring where he was going, he took time off and studied the shell bursts.
He’d never done that before. Curious. The flash. Black smoke. Shock wave. Smell.
Rather a lot of it…
He looked out. The lines were slowly creeping into view.
Amazing. What height was he at?
700 feet…
Low. No wonder archie was having such a fun time.
The lines, eh? Where?
No idea. Never seen this bit before…
He felt no elation at crossing the lines.
The realization that he might actually get away with it brought him no comfort. He was past caring, and didn’t even flinch at the shell bursts that twanged shrapnel off the fuselage and wings.

A few minutes later, it was almost a relief when the engine finally, abruptly, quit.
Good. I can crash now…
He pitched the nose up for best glide speed, and tried to trim the aircraft. No dice.
Shot away…
Far ahead, past the nose, he saw sunlight reflecting on something. He weaved the nose, and spotted buildings.
Hangars…
Somebody’s airfield. Unfamiliar.
Good place to smack in…
Mentally, he worked out the distance versus glide angle.
He knew he couldn’t make it.
Oh well, let’s plough in as near as we can…
Something was trying to make itself heard in his mind.
A tiny voice of reason. "Why crash?", it was saying.
Why crash…
Wearily, he thought about it. He had never for a moment thought he would make the lines. Yet he had. So why shouldn’t he make a successful ‘engine off’ landing?
Seems logical…
But a little voice told him he was missing something.
Something important.
He couldn’t think what.

* * *

It was a smooth looking field, and just beyond it lay the airfield. They had probably already seen him.
Good… I hate walking.
It looked like a good approach. Speed was good, and at this lower airspeed, the buffeting had reduced somewhat.
He started to ease back at 50 feet. At 15 feet, he was smoothly rounding out.
This is too easy!
10 feet.
Looks good.
5 feet.
Any second now.
The machine settled smoothly.
He seemed to be sitting very low.
There were funny noises coming at him.
Grating noises.
No wheels!
NO WHEELS!
He somersaulted, with the little voice of reason shouting at the top of its voice: "See! SEE! SEE!"
Aw, flippin’ heck…

He slipped out of the crumpled wreck, mentally brooding over his failure to think through the results of the collision with the Albatros.
The sickening crunch had knocked the breath out of his body, and his left shoulder ached abominably.
Blood trickled into his eyes, and down past his left cuff, and his ribs hurt. He knew the machine would be a mass of flames any second, and frantically he half staggered, half ran from the wreckage. Twenty yards away, he slipped and fell in a muddy puddle. He splashed about and made another five yards, before slithering into a low ditch, utterly exhausted. He arrived at the bottom with a splash, and lay there for a moment, too sick and weary to move.
The airfield fire engine raced up, and two men jumped down.
"Are you all right, Sir?", one of them inquired solicitously. Jeremy staggered to his feet, nodded, and waved them on. They jumped back up, and raced to the now fiercely burning aircraft. Jeremy staggered out of the ditch, walked a few steps, and sank to his knees, watching the blaze with large round eyes, that stared from an oil blackened face.

A vehicle drove up behind him. He heard the sound of the engine drawing up, and then the handbrake was applied. The rasp of the ratchet oddly cut into his consciousness above the roaring flames, and the shouts of the fire crew.
A door opened, and shut. Feet crunched behind him.
A voice he thought he recognized, spoke quietly and acidly.
"Well, well. If it isn’t Jeremy Armstrong. I should have guessed from the appalling standard of dress…"
Slowly, painfully slowly, Jeremy, still on his knees, turned his head. The first thing he saw was a pair of highly polished riding boots. His gaze traveled up the starched breeches, up the immaculate tunic, the baton held rigidly in the correct position, slowly…
Slowly up to the thinly smiling supercilious disapproving face of an old acquaintance.
He struggled to speak, but found the effort surprisingly difficult.
"Captain McAllister" he managed to say at last, thickly.
The sneer on the face became more pronounced.
"Colonel McAllister to you, Armstrong. I see your recognition of rank is as poor as your flying. And why…"
The baton was now prodding Jeremy’s chest.
"…why are we still destroying perfectly good aeroplanes? The airfield, by the way, is that way. The other side of the hedge."
The baton pointed curtly.
"Of course I appreciate navigation was never your strong point, was it, Jeremy?"
Jeremy, exhausted, was finding it difficult to stand.
McAllister continued remorselessly, disapproval written all over his face:
"However, never mind Jeremy. The war is just about over." He emphasized the ‘over’. ‘Ooh-ver’.
"The Hun has had enough. He is negotiating surrender terms. So fancy that, there will be no need for you to go around breaking any more aeroplanes."
Jeremy turned away from McAllister, and gazed across at his fiercely burning aircraft. Beyond that, he saw the horizon, and the fact that the war was over. It was finished. He would never have to fight again.
McAllister’s voice spoke behind him. Coldly.
"Nobody even managed to clobber the blue Albatros.
Despite all that huge effort. It’s the last day of hostilities. And Lt. Jeremy Armstrong cracks up another perfectly good aeroplane. Quite irrelevant really to the war effort, but sadly typical nonetheless…"

Slowly, very slowly, Jeremy turned back to McAllister.
His expression was strange. If McAllister had seen it, he might have paused, but he was more intent on following the feeble efforts of the fire crew.
There was a pause.
Them McAllister spoke again. Airily. It was almost a throw away comment. Tossed casually over his shoulder.
"Fancy you picking my airfield to make your last landing of the Great War. A proper botch up you made of it.
And a proper shambles you made of your war. Never mind, Armstrong, there were other men who fought the good fight…"
Slowly, Jeremy moved towards McAllister…

He studied the proud military bearing. The way the colonel held the baton rigidly correct, clasped in the hollow of his right armpit, as if he was on parade…

The war was going slowly through Jeremy’s mind.
The last day of hostilities. Pointless…

The baton flew through the air in a high arc…

An outraged "What the dickens do you think you’re doing…!?" from McAllister was abruptly terminated by a fist in the stomach. With an amazed "Ooph…", he started to keel over forwards, only to be lifted clean off his feet by a sledgehammer blow full in the face. McAllister’s head jerked back, and blood spurted from his nose. He crashed over backwards. In a flash, Jeremy was on top of him, and lifted him by the collar, a fist poised for another drive.
But it was not necessary. McAllister, whimpering pathetically, held his hands up to defend his face, pleading "No, no!".
The sight disgusted Jeremy…

The bloodstained flier’s ugly expression, jaw squarely set, hovered close to McAllister’s terrified face. Slowly, he spat out the words:

"You insect. You hypocrite. You coward. You are so typical of them. You fight the war from behind your desks. You send men to battle and die who are far better than you.
Then, when the fighting is over and done, you stand up to collect the glory…"
He paused, a crazed look in his eye.
"The men who won this war are DEAD…"
He shook McAllister violently, and screamed at the man cowering in front of him.
"They’re DEAD, do you understand?!"
McAllister nodded vigorously. Extremely so.
Jeremy’s voice lowered dangerously:
"Don’t you ever forget that…"
The man cowering before him shook his head equally adamantly.

Suddenly, Jeremy was very tired.
Tired and disgusted. He let go of his superior officer, who fell back into the mud, and slithered quickly away sideways.
Jeremy started walking…

The white dove that flew across the field had a grand stand view of a strange tableau.
A burning aircraft, with men engaged in a futile attempt to extinguish the blaze. A mud stained colonel, lying on the ground, mopping his nose that pumped out blood.

And a retired airman, walking with a strange, fixed expression, staring into the distance.

Walking. Walking away…


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