Jeremy’s War: Chapter 39 “The Third Homecoming “
Posted on November 11, 2008
Ch.39 THE THIRD HOME COMING
He opened the little white gate, picked up his small, rather battered suitcase, and walked up the long garden path towards the house, feeling uncomfortable and self conscious. How well he remembered this house!
How much he had loved it in his lonely dreams!
It was a home coming, after all the horrors of war.
He passed the green ironwork bench, and thought back to the many nights he had sat there with Genevieve, gazing at the stars.
He stood before the door, and straightened his tie. He fiddled a bit with the flowers, and then, drawing a deep breath, he rang the bell. It seemed to take ages for somebody to answer, but at length old Madame Pegoud’s shuffling step could be heard, approaching along the corridor. The door creaked open, and her withered features stared out. Jeremy lost his speech, and could only stare at her. No emotion at all seemed to pass over the old lady’s features. Then, she stretched out a knurled hand, and touched him on the arm. She smiled at him, a toothless, gummy smile, warmly welcoming for all that, and beckoned him inside.
He stood in the hall for a minute or two, and then Aunt Agnes appeared at the top of the stairs. She stared at him, smiled, and then came down the stairs.
“Jeremy! I am so glad to see you! ”
The welcome was genuine, but there was a slight air of worry about her. She embraced him, and kissed him.
Then she quickly ushered him into a side room, and invited him to sit down. They exchanged pleasantries. She was obviously glad to see him, but there was something else… Several times she glanced out the window, nervously, as if watching for somebody. In the end he could stand it no longer.
“How is Genevieve? ”
He phrased the question in a neutral manner, but he could have screamed it out loud. Aunt Agnes picked up on the tension in his voice, and steeled herself for the task ahead. She liked Jeremy. She eyed the bunch of flowers, and started with a sigh…
“She is very well, thank you, Jeremy. There is something I think you should know however. ”
Jeremy’s heart sank.
“Genevieve is… how do you say in English. She is going to have a husband. ”
Jeremy nearly fainted.
“You mean she’s engaged!?? ”
His voice had risen unintentionally, and in those few words Aunt Agnes saw his whole soul revealed. Her heart bled for him. She leaned forwards, and clasped both his hands in hers.
“Oh, Jeremy, you are a good boy. You will find your happiness too one day. I am also a bit surprised at what has happened… ”
That was true, she reflected bitterly.
“But you know, when it comes to the affairs of the heart… ”
She paused, unsure how to continue.
“…the young are… impulsive? ”
Long moments passed in silence.
She realized she was gripping his hands tightly.
The blood appeared to have drained away from his face.
He stared past her at the wall, with large, unseeing eyes. What remained of his world was falling apart also.
With an effort he pulled himself back into the real world.
“Where is she now? “, he managed to ask.
Aunt Agnes studied him for a moment.
“She is walking in the back garden. Her… her man… is with her also. Is it best that maybe you do not see her, Jeremy? ”
She searched his face earnestly, and shared his hurt.
The girl was a fool not to have waited for this one!
Jeremy sighed, and his head slumped. He stood up slowly, and gazed sadly out of the window.
He turned and faced aunt Agnes, and summoned up strength and composure.
“Aunt Agnes, you have been really good to me, and I am grateful beyond words for that. And… ”
He turned to face the wall.
He forced down the emotion, swallowed, and then spoke calmly.
“I think you’re right… it is better if I don’t see her. I’ll leave straight away. ”
He smiled at her, leaned forward, and kissed her gently on the cheek.
“Good-bye, Aunt Agnes. Thanks for everything. Don’t mention to Genevieve that I was here. ”
The good old lady shook her head and showed him out, sadly.
She waved him goodbye, wiping away a tear.
The door shut silently behind him, and Jeremy gazed at the sky. The sky…
He had torn tracks up there…
It was all over.
He shook his head, and headed for the gate.
He was half way along the garden path, when he heard voices. He passed the hawthorn tree, and suddenly recognized Genevieve’s voice. She was laughing gaily.
A man’s voice was telling a story. He knew that voice as well…
He looked across to the green bench, and saw two people sitting there, with their backs to him.
Genevieve was laughing, and had her arms on the man’s shoulder. He was wearing a uniform of the RFC, and was thoroughly enjoying himself.
“…so really, darling, it’s been a jolly good war.
I’m quite sorry it’s over in away. Nothing’s going to be quite the same again. No more popping up and shooting down a couple of bally Germans, you know… ”
Genevieve laughed again, and mused:
“You are so brave… ”
Her companion waved her praise away.
“Oh, nothing to it really, my dear… ”
He jumped to his feet, and launched himself into another story.
“Why, I remember, one day, we had this problem with a blue Albatros. Group Headquarters phoned me, and asked if I could sort the bloody Bosche out. Well… yes I said, of course, but you’ll have to give me some extra men. They gave me exactly what I wanted. So, one day, there I was, flying along at twelve thousand feet, and, away up in the sun, I could see this tiny dot… Aha! I said to myself. Got you, you ruddy Kraut… ”
His eyes caught sight of the silent figure, and he stopped. Something in his gaze made Genevieve turn her head also, and she stared in horror. In a flash she was on her feet, and moved quickly over to Colonel William A. McAllister, who placed his arm protectively around her waist. A witty sarcasm readily reached his lips, and then, mindful of the hiding he had taken on the last day of the war, he remained silent.
Jeremy suddenly felt shabby in his old coat. Wretched, and pathetic. Stupid, unbelievably stupid, holding the small, battered suitcase.
Words failed him, and then he realized he was still feebly clutching the bunch of flowers.
He tossed them gently on the ground, turned, and continued on his way. Nobody spoke. Nobody followed him.
Fifteen minutes later, tears pouring down his face, Jeremy realized fully for the first time, that he had…
…nowhere to go.
* * *
The cemetery was just the way he remembered it on that day when they had buried poor Digsby, Baines, Baxter, and all those other days. A dozen or so more pilots’ graves, that was all.
He hadn’t even realized he had consciously headed there.
But it was in fact the only place left to go. Old friends lay there…
He wanted to say good-bye.
He had long since lost his suitcase, which lay discarded in a ditch not far from Genevieve’s farm.
He looked a little wild, and the eyes were staring strangely. He staggered in through the old gates, and gazed around the cemetery.
He found himself staring down on the grave of Baines.
Memories flooded back to him of his old friend. The composed, competent, strong, invincible Baines, who had taught him so much. He moved on to the grave of Digsby, and reflected on the speech that McAllister had given.
The words came back eerily, echoing around his skull.
“…so, in conclusion, gentlemen. I want you to fight as British airmen. Steadfast, resolute, unflinching in the face of death. Remember the great historical contribution you are fortunate to find yourself in a position to be able to make. In decades to come, men will admire your deeds, and your spirit. Above all, your thirst for victory regardless of cost… will be admired. ”
Part of him felt like laughing. Part of him was crying.
“…victory regardless of cost “
The phrase took on an echo of its own. He looked at the inscription on the grave stone, and thought of McAllister with his arm around Genevieve.
“…victory regardless of cost “.
What a joke. What a joke…
Part of him became savage. He wanted to grab McAllister by the throat, and drag him to the side of Digsby’s grave. Point to the inscription, and ask McAllister if this cost was included in the calculations.
Included in his ‘jolly good war’?
He remembered the mystifying way he had been whisked out of France.
Was that to make room for McAllister to steal his girl? What had McAllister been up to?
The anger quickly receded. There was no point. McAllister and his types would never understand. They were so full of their own goals of advancement, that their eyes looked only to their own good. There was no time – or propensity – for reflection on the fate of those who fell by the wayside. Mere stepping stones…
Jeremy’s vision swam, and he moved on to the next grave.
“Good-bye, Digsby, old pal… “, he whispered.
He was quite unaware of the small figure at the far end of the cemetery, that walked silently along a row of graves, peering intently at each headstone, as if searching for a name.
* * *
Her husband-to-be had graduated on to passionate kisses, and had temporarily buried his face in her long neck. She leaned back on the sofa and enjoyed it. He was a hero! And a colonel! They would look a smashing pair together.
Her thoughts traveled back briefly to the scene earlier in the day. She frowned slightly, and studied the ceiling thoughtfully.It was a shame when a man fell apart like Jeremy Armstrong. How thin and shabby he had looked!
It was a pity. She had liked Jeremy. But he had read much more into their relationship than she had meant. However, that was not her fault, was it? That ridiculous bunch of flowers! That suitcase! What had he expected? To move in?
Mentally she went on comparing Jeremy with the man who was now fondling her breasts. She thought of Charles Nungesser, and wondered which of the two men Charles would have preferred as a friend. She knew the answer to that one. There was no contest, really.
Simply no contest.
* * *
Graves… they were all the same. Sad, meaningless, end-of-journey landmarks that most people pointedly avoided. Roadsigns to destiny everybody hurried past, eyes averted… Baxter’s grave, eighty miles away, was just the same. So much vitality, so much leadership, so much personal warmth… forgotten, pushed aside, bygone… hurriedly buried in a muddy hole in the ground…
Jeremy reflected on the invaluable teaching he had received from this great man. That terrible day came back to him. The day the Blue Albatros had latched onto Baxter’s tail, and Jeremy had been just too late. The agonizing descent. Ten thousand feet, watching his teacher and mentor desperately side slipping, frantically trying to keep the flames away.
The terrible scene brought back to Jeremy the echo of other guns, and the screams of another injured man, trapped, burning, in a German field.
“Shoot me, Jeremy, shoot me! For God’s sake, man, shoot me! ”
Jeremy shuddered. In his mind, he stood there still, his revolver in his hand, unable to pull the trigger.
His face muscles contorted, and moved unnaturally.
His mouth opened and shut, and he trembled uncontrollably.
A movement made him spin round. Twenty yards away, a figure, with its back to him, was sobbing quietly.
He knew that figure!
He studied the headscarf, and the bunch of flowers the figure was even now gently placing on the grave.
His eyes became haunted and staring, and his fists clenched.
The one Baines had…!
The figure of the woman, who lay on bed and wept!
Baines’ voice came floating back, as if from far away.
“It’s a girl. This beautiful girl. She’s lying face down on a bed. Crying… Crying her eyes out… ”
Jeremy’s face became horrible to see. Across it played terror and nightmare, death and suffering. His first instinct was to run. He checked this, and willed himself to stand still.
The echo of Baines’ voice returned again, as if from a great distance.
“Then suddenly, I’m standing in a cemetery. She is bent forward over a grave, as if she has only just discovered it. She’s holding a bunch of red carnations. She’s crying. I know it’s her, although I’m looking at her from behind, and she’s wearing a headscarf. It has a floral pattern on it. She kneels down, and places the flowers
on the grave… ”
Jeremy watched the dream unfolding, slowly.
The slim, forlorn figure knelt down, and a gloved hand reached forwards with the flowers.
“Her whole body is shaking with sobs. She searches for a handkerchief to wipe away her tears, but can’t find one. Then she slowly peels her headscarf off and dabs at her face with that. ”
It couldn’t be. It was impossible. Jeremy watched the dream continue yet, and his mind was tortured with a terrible dread. He watched her shoulders shake, and felt the hurt reverberating through the tiny frame.
“I feel sorry for her, and I want to comfort her. I want to put my arms around her. ”
Jeremy moved forwards, helplessly.
“She hears me coming, looks around, and becomes terrified. She cowers away from me, in terror. I want to comfort her, but I can’t… ”
Jeremy knew the moment she heard him. Knew it by the stiffening of her shoulders. In the same instant, he recognized the grave, and read the inscription.
Hans Joachim Hemke…
The bastard in the blue and green Albatros! The shit who tried to machine gun me on the ground! The damned sadist who waved at me from his cockpit! Baines killed you, you evil sod, and I hope you rot in hell…
His face contorted with the insane rage of those who have suffered mortal terror, and he was back in his own cockpit, raining down death and destruction on his enemies.
In one horrible instant, he had become Baines.
He gazed down upon the woman who dared grieve for his enemy, and her upturned face caught the full brunt of his anger, and read Death in his eyes…
* * *
They walked into the house, arm in arm, and the Colonel was still regaling her with his stories.
Genevieve couldn’t help admiring the man. He was so brave!
“Don’t you ever worry about all those men you have killed? ”
She gazed up into his eyes; somewhere, at the back of her mind, she remembered another young pilot, sitting in her kitchen, his head in his hands, agonizing over the men he had killed…
Colonel McAllister, lost in a mood of self satisfaction, glanced at her in surprise, and smoothed away a look of irritation that passed quickly over his face.
“What? Oh… ”
He thought for a moment, and then shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s quite simple really. They started it. It’s their fault, so they got what they deserved. Simple as that! ”
He was pleased with his answer, and felt it sounded quite heroic. She smiled in reply, and felt also that it was a good answer. It satisfied her. She debated asking about all his own men who had died, and how he felt about them, but decided not to.
His answer had satisfied her eminently well.
“…so they got what they deserved. ”
Yes, that summed it up neatly.
They passed into the dining room, and she decided to ponder no more on those problems.
That kind of brooding had been Jeremy Armstrong’s downfall.
The war was over, after all.
* * *
The face of the killer that stared down on her, lips drawn back from his teeth in an animal sneer, terrified her. She cowered away from him in unimaginable terror, knowing that the threat those eyes contained was too great not to be carried out.
The face advanced towards her, horribly expressing her own death sentence, the fingers reaching out like claws towards her throat…
* * *
Thank goodness the war was over. Genevieve reflected briefly on whether or not she would ever confide in the man sitting opposite her about her ordeal at the hands of the sniggering soldier. She had confided in Jeremy Armstrong. Should she not do like-wise in her future husband? Should she not be totally honest and truthful?
He smiled at her, and she smiled back. She admired the way he held himself at the table, erect, smart, sophisticated. A far cry from the casual manners of Jeremy! He held his wine glass just so, and toasted her good health with impeccable charm.
They clinked glasses, and she reached a decision.
No, she would not tell him. Ever.
The war was over. Her personal war was also over.
She smiled warmly in her new found peace of mind, and Colonel McAllister, imagining it was meant purely for him, enjoyed it as if it were a personal present.
He smiled delightedly back, and studied her lips.
He’d soon be making love to her, and, this time, he was really going to let her have it.
He felt elated, and full of life. All his plans had gone beautifully into fruition.
He remembered how he had orchestrated the quick removal of Jeremy Armstrong from France, ( “Poor chap’s unstable… best ship him out quickly before he makes any more trouble, eh? “), and laughed out loud. Good old ‘Scar-face’ had taken the bait immediately, eyes blazing, promising to attend to the matter immediately.
Yes, it certainly helped to cultivate friends at the top…
His teeth flashed, and an informed bystander might have decided there was altogether too much of the wolf in Colonel McAllister’s smile.
* * *
The turmoil in his mind showed in the wild expression.
He could hear the guns of the blue and green Albatros rattling behind him, as he fled in terror. At the same time, he sensed the presence of his enemy under the ground before him, and he wanted to kill him again and again. And kill anything and anyone associated with him.
You bitch! Do you know what that bastard did to me?
And you dare cry for that evil swine?
He watched her in a fury, cowering beneath his gaze, slithering away across the grave…
You bitch! Where do you think you’re going?
He closed on her, and she knew there was no escape.
Guiltily she hung her head, waiting for her punishment.
Why had she come to France? How had she expected to get away with laying flowers on a German pilot’s grave?
It was too soon after the war. Why had she come?
Somewhere, from far away still…
but maybe closer…
maybe even very close…
…a voice that Jeremy knew so well played through his mind.
“I feel sorry for her, and I want to comfort her, but I can’t… ”
Suddenly, all his anger and rage evaporated. Compassion filled his heart, and the gentleness of his nature reasserted itself gloriously, for the first time for years…
Words echoed through his mind. Words from afar. Never forgotten.
“Oh, God, Jeremy, I’ve killed so many more people than I know off! ”
Jeremy, helpless for words, put his arms around her shoulders, and hugged her tightly. She resisted only for a second, and looked up at him in stunned surprise. Then, when she felt his hot tears pouring down onto her face, she placed her head against his chest, and understood.
For a long time they remained, locked together, immobile, without words; communicating nonetheless, in the true language of compassion.
* * *
They were sitting in the old priest’s study.
Jeremy smiled sadly at the girl he knew so well now, although he had met her only two hours before.
Their conversation – lubricated with several glasses of the priest’s best wine – had been revealing, and he thought of some of her questions.
Had he known her brother?
How had her brother died?
A difficult one.
‘Bravely, against overwhelming odds’, he had lied.
She had studied him carefully.
Had Jeremy been there?
Another difficult one. Eventually: yes.
Had they… fought together?
Jeremy had shrugged his shoulders, and nodded. He didn’t tell her it had been a rather one sided battle.
She had been totally without bitterness against him. Only sadness. She had told him briefly about her brother.
How he had been his mother’s darling. A trifle spoiled, perhaps.
“Poor Hans. He had scored one victory already. He was desperate to add to his score. He wanted to join Jasta Boelcke. Become a hero. Score many, many victories… ”
Her voice had trailed off sadly, and tears had sparkled in her eyes again. Jeremy had been strangely moved.
She had continued, and almost mused to herself.
“I knew he was going to die. I dreamed it. Over and over again. You see… when he was smaller, we were so very close. So close. He ran to me first, if he hurt himself.
His mother… ”
She frowned, and corrected herself.
“Our mother… made him very ambitious. She is very… ”
She searched for the right word.
“…how do you say, strong? ”
Jeremy had nodded, thinking of his own parents.
“Hans became different as he grew older. He was still very affectionate towards me, but he became harder towards other people… ”
Jeremy had understood. Nor had he been surprised that Heidi’s father was the complete opposite of her mother.
It was the same as with his parents. He told her so.
“My father sells boots to the army, and fancies himself a great patriot. He wanted a son who enjoyed killing Germans. I’m afraid I’m rather a disappointment… ”
He had smiled wearily.
Nobody had spoken for a long time.
Now he could only look at her, and reflect on the stupidity of war. Here he was, talking intimately with a German. The Bosche. The enemy. Not only that, she was the sister of a man who had come within inches of butchering Jeremy. It was all crazy. Too crazy for words.
He found himself saying as much.
“I hated the war. I never could understand it. ”
She inclined her head, and looked at him seriously.
“You helped your side win the war. Does that please you? ”
Jeremy looked wearily at her.
“No side ever wins a war, Heidi “.
There was no answer to that.
Heidi knew she heartily agreed.
She was suddenly very glad she had risked her mother’s wrath by coming to France.
* * *
It was late when he bid her and the good priest a goodnight, and headed off to the airfield.
He had taken her address, and promised to try and locate the whereabouts of any of her brother’s personal effects.
The priest had offered Heidi shelter for the night, and they remained talking for a long time.
“He is a good man “, the priest said, with feeling.
“A good, kind, compassionate man. ”
She listened intently.
“The war though has hurt his mind. The body is whole, but the heart… ”
He shook his head.
“The heart is broken. ”
Heidi wondered, and felt deeply sorry for the man who had just left.