Authors: H.E. Bates
He spread out his fingers loosely in the sun. The weather had changed at last. Now he could feel the heat stinging up through his fingers from the lead. It was the sort of heat he loved; it seemed to burn him to the bone. It was now about twelve o'clock and if he were lucky one of the young night-fliers who slept all morning would be waking up now and would come up to talk to him before lunch. The war was going very well at last, and there had arisen another of those curious situations in which the night-fliers now talked of beating the daylights out of Jerry.
He sat for another ten minutes or so alone, listening to the clap-racket of the horse-mower and the soft wind that lifted gently up and down, in slow dark swells, the flat branches of two cedars on the lawn. He felt the sun beating not only into his fingers but down through the closed lids of his eyes, which seemed transparent in the vertical light. Then he heard sounds in the bedroom that opened out on to the balcony and the voice of one of the young men saying âGood morning, sir,' and he opened his eyes to see Pallister, one of the night-pilots, standing there quite naked except for a pink-and-white towel round his loins.
âAh, young fellow,' he said.
Pallister danced from one foot to another on the hot lead of the balcony, and then dropped the towel and stood on it. His
body was brown all over, a sort of light buttery brown, except for paler islands of skin on the inner flanks of his thighs. The Colonel knew all about those islands. The skin from them had been used to re-cover the burnt lids of the boy's eyes.
The Colonel watched Pallister spread out the towel and then sit on it, cross-legged, like one of the Indian boys the Colonel so clearly remembered. The boy sighed and screwed up his eyes and put on a pair of dark glasses.
âToo hot for you?' the Colonel said.
âI just can't have enough of that sun soak into me,' the boy said.
âIt's certainly very beautiful,' the Colonel said.
He wanted to talk about the war; to get that intimate touch of fire no newspaper ever gave. But Pallister, behind dark glasses, looked remote and anonymous. He was cut off from him, and the Colonel lost for some moments the friendliness of the young face.
But after a time he got used to the dark glasses; he concentrated on the lips of the boy instead. They, too, were friendly, and unlike the eyes had never been burnt out of the shape of youth. They had sometimes a way of looking very cynical that only made them more youthful still.
âWell,' the Colonel said, âwhat is it like over there?'
He supposed he always asked that. He could think of no other way of beginning.
âOh! It's a bloody ramping mess,' the boy said. âLooks like fair-day.'
âEven at night?' the Colonel said. He wondered how even the August moon showed this rampant detail.
âOh! It was light already when I was coming back,' the boy said. âThere was a bit of a doings.'
âShoot something down?'
âUp,' the boy said. âRoad stuff. And a Ju.88 down. Piece of cake.'
âTell me about it.'
âOh! They hadn't a clue. It was just a hell of a nice bang on the ground and hell of a nicer bang upstairs,' the boy said. âVery smooth do.'
The boy grinned as he spoke, and the Colonel got the impression of an idol, darkly eyeless, laughing up into the sun.
The severance of the lips from the black-glassed eyes was so complete as to be unreal and in a way almost hideous. The eyes in their unalive darkness were for the Colonel the symbol of the fact that there had been a time, only a summer ago, when the boy had really been eyeless and for many months nearly dead. It had happened that flak over Denmark had hit something in the Mosquito, the Colonel thought perhaps the pyrotechnics, and had driven white whirlwinds of flame down through the aircraft with terrible fury that could not be stopped. It burnt the face of the boy for a few moments as the heat of a blow-lamp burns off the skin of old paint. The boy had heard himself screaming against the death that was coming up to seize him with a terror that made a lacerating shriek throughout the whole of his body. Instantaneously he was dead but alive: the death living and torturous in a second of screaming flame before its hellish extinction of him. He knew in this awful interval what it was to be burning alive; to be dying and to be aware; to be aware and to be quite helpless. The flame leapt up for an awful and final moment of savage agony and slit the light out of his eyes and left the light of his body and the terror of his mind completely dead.
He did not quite know what happened after that. The flame went out into darkness. It seemed never to have happened; there seemed never to have been a flame. He was afterwards told that for a long time he did not utter a sound; but he had a fanciful and private impression of talking the whole time. It was also quite real; an impression of repeating to himself a frenzied catechism; âI can see, I can see, I can see.' And then: âI will see, I will see, I will see. God! I will see!' Then it appeared that at last he did begin talking and did amazing things in the way of instructing Jackson, his observer, to fly the aircraft. He was reported as being nervously and consciously active over the whole seaward course, and that, among other details, he kept naming the stars. He had again the private and absolute conviction that all this was nonsense. He had never talked at all. He knew that he was not even very good at naming the stars. He was quite certain about these things. And yet it was quite certain also that Jackson had flown the aircraft home and could only have done so under his advice. As he struggled afterwards to get at the truth of
the long darkness that had succeeded the catastrophic moment of white flame, in which he was living and yet also dead, he fell back on the simple defence against terror that was its own dissolution. It was just one of those things.
There followed about nine months in hospitals. The Colonel, who was still staring at the boy and trying to get himself into a state when he could talk easily beyond what were always the first moments of embarrassment, knew all about that time. Sometimes the boy talked very well. Even then the Colonel got the impression that, as often as not, he did not talk to him. He lay flat on his back, perfectly naked, outstretched and very brown except for white patches on the inner flanks of his thighs, and simply talked upward to the sun. He talked quite rapidly, giving no other sign of his high-pitched nervousness except that he drummed his fingers restlessly on the lead of the balcony. It might have been, the Colonel thought, that he was sometimes very much afraid. In a laconic and careless sort of way he talked of the miracles they had done to him in hospital. The Colonel, simply by sheer repetition, got to know some part of the surgical language of them: things like scarlet mercurochrome, Tierch grafts, pre-anaesthetic injections and God knew what. He heard how those grafts had left the boy for some time looking like a young cuckoo, his face a mess of puffed sewing that had a foul baldness not yet touched by sun. He had heard of physio-therapy and occupational therapy, and how, at last, the boy had come out of it, less shocking to look at than he had feared, with the fierce light of living in him, and able to see.
Then the miracle of it all had almost been lost. It appeared from the livid language of the boy, who could out-swear a regular army sergeant without effort, that there had been a fool of a psychiatrist who had made the suggestion that he was mentally unfit to fly. It had had a violently opposite effect. It instantly brought to the surface, in a high emotional temperature, all the symptoms of the disease from which the Colonel now knew the boy was suffering. For as the Colonel lay on the terrace day after day and talked to the boy, it seemed to him that the very great differences between war as he had fought it long ago in Northern Indian hills, and as the boy fought it over the fields of France, was not a difference of
time, of latitude, of speed or of weapons, but something more simple and more amazing. The Colonel had gone into war as another man might go into business; respectably, steadfastly, following his father in a line of succession. For the boy it was all quite different. Flying was a disease.
He did not know if the boy was aware of that. He had only recently become aware of it himself. You could, of course, suffer from a disease without being aware of it. It was quite certain that it was something not wholly conscious which had sent the boy into a frenzy of antagonism and scheming against all authority until at last authority had finally given way and let him fly once more.
Thinking of this, and then letting it slip away from his mind, the Colonel once again spoke to the boy. What was now happening in France interested him greatly. This war of movement was so fast that he did not know if you could any longer talk of strategy as he had once been taught it. He longed to get a picture of it, fixed and clear, as the boy might have photographed it from the air.
âTell me about this Seine thrust,' he said. âWhat do you think of it? Do you think it aims at the coast?'
âI never really trouble what the Brown Jobs are doing,' the boy said.
The Colonel was silenced. It was not a very good morning. Once again he was up against some new term he did not understand.
âOh!' the Colonel said. âOh!' He understood now. Of course, apart from the slight contempt it was very apt, very typical.
âYes, but it's a combined operation,' he said. âYou are all in it. You depend very much on each other.'
âOh! I know,' the boy said: as if he did not know at all.
The Colonel did not know what to say. The astonishing realization that the boy did not know what was happening on a general scale stupefied him. It seemed an incredible thing. It seemed to arise from a different sort of blindness, not physical, but from the blindness of this intense and narrow passion to fly. To the boy all horizons beyond these narrow limits of
vision were closed. His life soared furiously and blindly between.
âWithout you,' the Colonel said, âthe Brown Jobs might never force the issue.'
The boy slightly tilted his head, turning towards the Colonel a pair of black sun-glassy lenses, as if to say âForce the issue? What the bloody hell does that mean?'
For a moment the Colonel felt that he did not know what the hell it meant himself. He lay quietly in his chair. Across the garden now the horse-mower was silent. There was no sound except the sea-sound of cedar branches gently lifting and falling on the summer wind. It seemed now to the Colonel that the battle-front, really half an hour's flight to the south, was a million miles away.
âThere is no bloody issue except killing Huns,' the boy said. âThat's all that matters.' He looked straight up into the sun.
A certain essence of individual cruelty in this remark quite shocked the Colonel. It startled him so that he lifted himself up in the chair and looked at the boy. In the hot sun the face had a pure and impersonal immobility. The savagery of the remark was quite natural. To the Colonel there seemed a certain absence of ethics in the whole of this careless and calculated attitude of the boy's towards fighting. In his day, the Colonel's, there had been in fighting some sort ofâwell, he supposed it to be a sort of ethical water-line. You kept above it. The people who sank below the water-line, who made public a private desire to kill the man on the opposite side, were not thought very much of. It was very much like a game, and all the wars in which he had played it were really, beside this one, quite small. They seemed very important then and were quite forgotten now. He supposed perhaps that that was finally the essence of it: the hugeness of the thing. The boy had in his hands, like the rest of his generation, a frightening and enormous power. It was perhaps the greatest power ever given into the hands of the individual in all time.
âWizard day,' the boy said. As suddenly as he spoke he curved up his long legs and outstretched them again, in a slow convulsive movement of pleasure in the sun. âBloody wizard.' He took great breaths of the warm, noontide air and breathed them out again.
The Colonel, startled out of his reminiscence, did not speak, and the boy went on, talking as if to himself:
âGosh, the trees,' the boy said, âand the smell of the bloody hay and the lime trees and all that. After all those months of smelling hospital wards and ether and anaesthetics, Christ, it's good. Did I ever tell you what it was like in Normandy? I mean in the D-minus days.'
âNo,' the Colonel said. He had given up.
âNot the orchards? You could see them all in blossom at night, in the full moon. Miles of them. You know how short the nights are in May. Never quite dark. You could see everything. Every puff of smoke from a train, and the rivers, and the orchards in blossom. Bloody wonderful, Colonel, I tell you. You never saw anything so lovely as the sun coming up and the moon not set and the sky half pink with sunlight and half yellowy with moonlight, and all the colour on the French orchards. I tell you, Colonel, you never saw anything so wonderful.'
So much for the passionate, impersonal cruelty of the boy, the Colonel thought. So much for the notion of calculated savagery. It now seemed quite monstrous beside the tenderness of that description of orchards in May. He could see that the boy felt it very deeply and he tried to remember if, so long ago, he too had been touched by anything like that, but he could remember only scarlet rhododendrons, in fantastic cascades, on a wild furlough trek above Darjeeling; how they fell bloodily into rocky spring valleys there and how impressed he had been and how for that reason he had planted them liberally in the garden here. But the glory of them was never quite the same. The scarlet wildness was never renewed. There was something hot and foreign and un-English about them, anyway; not like the orchards, that were so cool and cloudy, like the northern skies. It pleased him very much that the boy liked them. It seemed to make him quite human again.
And to his dismay the boy got up. He stood quite naked, and took off his glasses and turned away from the sun. His eyes had the oddest appearance of not belonging to the rest of his body. The pale new tissue, not yet merged into the older skin of the face, seemed lividly dead. It seemed to have been grafted there from another person altogether. It aroused the
instant and uneasy impression that the boy was two different people.