Authors: H.E. Bates
âMust you?' the Colonel said. âSo soon?'
âI'm as hungry as hell,' the boy said. âI've got to get dressed and lunch is off at two.'
âWell, nice of you to come up,' the Colonel said. âI do so appreciate it.'
âCan I send you up a can of beer, sir?' the boy said.
âNo. No thanks. I don't think so.'
âA half-can? The orderly can bring it up.'
âNo, thank you. Thank you all the same.' He did not want to offend the boy. The pilots were very kind to him sometimes like that, sending him up tobacco or chocolate, or a glass of beer. âPerhaps tomorrow. Perhaps we might have a drink together. I should like that.'
âGood show,' the boy said.
âAbout this time?' the Colonel said.
âYeh. I'll get the orderly to bring the beer up.'
âI'll wait for you,' the Colonel said.
The boy tucked the towel round his loins and hopped over the hot lead of the terrace into the bedroom, calling back over his shoulder something about the Colonel having a sleep, and as if in obedience the Colonel smiled and closed his eyes against the brassy midday light, the only light in which, after many years in the East, he ever felt really warm.
He lay there next day at about the same time, in much the same attitude, waiting for the boy. The strength of the grasses' sweetness had faded a little overnight. He caught it only at odd moments, in brief renewed waves, on the seaward wind. But the branches of the cedars rose and fell with the same slow placidity as the day before, and beyond them, if he raised himself up on his fleshless knuckles, he could again see across brown cornfields to the blue-grey edge of sea.
He waited for just over an hour before deciding to go down into the garden to see if he could find the boy. He was permitted to use the back-stairs, once the servants' stairs, on which now there was always a loathsome smell of stale cooking. He did not like these stairs and he was glad to be out of them, past the back entrance and the heaps of boiler coke, into the garden and the sun.
At eighty-three he walked very slowly, with a sort of deliberate majesty, keeping his head up more by habit than any effort, and it was some time before he could walk far enough across the lawns to find someone to ask about Pallister. Groups of young officers were playing croquet on the farthest lawn, and the knock of balls and the yelling of voices clapped together in the clear air.
Under one of the cedars, in shadow that was almost black, an officer in battledress was lying on the grass with a book. He had Canada on his shoulder.
âExcuse me,' the Colonel said.
âOh, hullo, sir,' the Canadian said. âHow've you bin?'
âI was looking for Mr. Pallister,' the Colonel said. âWe were to have a drink together. I thought you might have seen him somewhere.'
âI guess he bought it,' the Canadian said.
The language that he did not understand left the Colonel without a reply.
âYeh!' the Canadian said. âI guess he bought it. Over France last night.'
Miss burke, who was Irish, and at pains to explain that she did not like men, stood on the open airstrip watching the wounded being loaded into the dusty Dakota. Her sunburned face had the deep Irish upper lip; she had square shoulders, and in her khaki drill she did not look like a nurse. She looked rather like a man who had indecisively begun to let his hair grow long and then has become slightly self-conscious of it and tucked it under his cap.
When the wind that churned the soft yellow dust of the airstrip into high smoky clouds came beating under the body of the Dakota it caught the edges of Miss Burke's masculine short back hairs and blew into them sudden small dimples, as into the fur of a cat. The dust had everywhere the fineness of powdered sulphur. It settled like fine sprayed paint on the dark wings of the plane, on the fabric of the ambulance, and even the bear-brown blankets of the stretchers, whenever for a moment or two a wounded man was set down.
Whenever a plane took off or landed out on the runway, dust rose up into the clear air with oppressive insistence in huge yellow smoky columns, and clashed there against the harder, yellower light of sun. It seemed to make even more oppressive the oppressive heat of the shadeless afternoon. Only Miss Burke was not oppressed by it. Miss Burke, who had been nearly three years a nurse on the Burma battlefield, was quite used to most things now.
In about another five minutes all the stretchers were in the body of the plane, strung from the roof traces and ready for take-off, and the crew were pushing past them into the nose. The men on the stretchers did not seemâto Miss Burkeâany different from the men on the stretchers of any other day. They were a series of rigid and nameless bodies covered by brown blankets: a couple of Indian boys, turned Chinese yellow by pain and shock, and the rest British boys, pale too,
and rather impassive, staring stiffly upward at the dark-green roof of the fuselage. For some reason today's casualties were mostly leg wounds, so that the men, set in plaster, had something of the look of bits of broken statuary. Nobody acutely bad. Nobody screaming, anyway.
Miss Burke got into the stifling plane and sat down on the edge of the iron seat opposite the door. One of the ground boys came almost directly afterwards and shut the door, and in that moment all the dazzling dustiness of the afternoon was shut away. Miss Burke sat with her hands in her pockets, listening to first one and then the other of the engines being started, until both were roaring together. Then as the plane began slowly to move out, away from dispersal tents, to the open runway, she glanced impersonally up at the wounded, suspended like a double row of carcases in oblong hammocks. They were all quite quiet.
As the plane turned into the runway and then began to move down it, in a moment or two very fast, Miss Burke hung on to the nearest strap. There were no belts in the Dakota, but she liked to hang on to the strap just in case. The runway seemed to bump a little, and it did not occur to her, until she suddenly looked up, that there might be, for men on those slightly swaying stretchers, a feeling of insecurity. Even then she did not move. If anything happened you were all helpless anyway.
It was only when she saw an arm being slowly lifted up and down from the foremost stretcher that she realized something was wrong. The signal annoyed her a little. No sooner airborne than somebody, she thought, starts binding. They were hardly even airborne. That was men, if you like, all over. The plane lifted itself off the earth exactly at the moment that her own impatience lifted her mind, and in the same way: in a slow, unsurprising pull, as of something so often repeated that it had ceased to astonish her.
She walked up the body of the plane, levelled out now, to where the hand was waving limply to beckon her. It was one of the leg cases: an English boy with his left leg entirely encased, like a piece of masonry. His face had once been very brown, but now it had turned, under shock, to the lustreless colour of the dust they had left behind. She saw at once, by trained instinct, that he was very tired.
âSomething wrong?' She had trained herself to speak not loudly but visually, with exaggerated movement of her big Irish lips, so that now, at once, the boy was sure what she said. She had trained herself also to record answers, and those also visually, so as not to strain herself against the noise of the plane.
âAre we up?' the boy said.
For crying out loud, Miss Burke thought, where in the name of God does he think we are? Only a man would ask it. She looked out of the window. They had climbed to four or five hundred feet, and down below, already, the tents of the airfield had begun to look like sunbaked seashells on a sandy lake between stunted fringes of palms. Beyond this, in all directions, low jungle was assuming a dark wavy relief, spreading outward in huge monotonous sections, unbroken except by the sulphury veins of tiny roads.
She turned her head and nodded. She did not know if there was anything she could say. Idiotic to ask him if by any chance he thought they weren't going to get up. Idiotic to discuss remote chances against the roar of two engines. She swallowed hard, and the noise of engines changed its note. Idiotic to talk to him, anyway.
âHow long shall we be?' the boy said.
âI wouldn't be knowin',' Miss Burke said. âWe'll get there when we'll get there.'
âWhere are we going?'
âI wouldn't be knowin' that either,' she said. âMaybe we're taking you to Comilla. Maybe we're not.'
He moved restlessly, troubled, turned his head towards her, and then, seeing the window, turned it abruptly back again. She knew then that he was afraid of looking out of the plane; she knew that he had never flown before. Of course that was idiotic too, and she wasn't going to have any unprofessional nonsense about it. âAll you have to do is shut your eyes and get some sleep,' she said. âThe other boys are asleep. Now come along.'
âI can't,' the boy said. As he shook his head she saw how deeply the eyes had receded through shock and exhaustion and pure pain.
âWhat do you mean, you can't?' she said. âOf course you can. If you can't sleep you can shut your eyes.'
âThat's what I can't do,' the boy said. âI can't shut them. They won't shut. They won't stay shut.'
She swallowed hard and did not answer. Really it was very exhausting talking like this against the noise of engines; it couldn't go on. She looked down with severity at the agitated face, with its dark eyes so sharply impelled by shock that they had become frozenly transfixed, but for some reason or other she did not know what to say. And while she was trying to make up her mind the boy began talking again, this time not exactly to her, not in continuance of anything that had been said before, but simply in pure aimless relief and excitement. She had sense enough to let him go on. And after a moment or two, hearing all the time less than half he said, she sat down on the seat again and rested her head back against the metal of the fuselage, in a pretence of listening. She realized then that all he needed was an object of reception for the things he had to say, and that its identity did not matter much, nor what it said in answer. And so she let him go on, while the plane flew steadily on its level course at about four thousand feet, over the green-encrusted contours of jungle and palm-fenced strips of water glittering in the white heat of afternoon.
For the next half hour she caught at intervals some intelligible phrase in the jumble of things he had to say, and now and then she would nod automatically in reply, as if to indicate that she was still listening. She was not so much bored as very sleepy herself. She expected him at any moment to talk about his mother. For God's sake, she thought, they're just like babies. The more you sympathize with them the more you may. She was determined not to hear any nonsense like that; she never did. But twice in quick succession the aircraft suddenly gave a violent bump in the heat. It was nothing serious, but it threw her about the seat with a jerk, and she saw the boy's hand flung out as if to save himself from falling. She stretched up and caught it and held it in hers. The palm was clammy with sweat.
âWe'll be all right when we're over the sea,' she said. âIt's just the heat. That's all.'
He turned to her and gave her a slow and possibly apathetic smile. For God's sake, she thought, I hope he's not going to
be sick. Not that I ought to pander to any of this emotional nonsense at all. Not that I should be doing it. I shouldn't be doing it. What in the name o' God would Johnson say if she could see me? Johnson was a sister up at Comilla. They shared a tent and called each other Johnson and Burke, as if Christian names were a soft concession not to be tolerated. In three years they had watched a constant stream of mutilated men come down from the front, in heat and in rain, at all times of the year, from every quarter from Imphal down to Akyab and Mandalay. It was one of her ambitions to see Mandalay.
âDid you come down from Mandalay?' she said to the boy.
âThat's where I got it,' he said, and pointed down to the leg.
âAh,' she said.
âTwo days ago.' His face was restless with fresh anxiety, the lids of the eyes stiffly held open. And then suddenly he came to the point of it all; he made a sudden wild grab as it were at the hot core of his own personal catastrophe: the thing that had been troubling him all the time. âI was time-expired,' he said. âTime-expired. Three more days and I'd have had this bloody country.' He grew for a moment or two pathetically excited. âI'd have had it. I was going home.'
Weak and immobile, his eyes held in them the smallest of solitary tears, so that even Miss Burke was for a moment or two touched by them in spite of herself. Now she knew why he could not shut his eyes. She did not know what to say, and suddenly the boy was silent too. She waited for some moments for him to speak again, but he was still quiet, and at last she said: âWell, you'll be going home now. It's all the same. You'll be going home, anyway.'
He did not answer even that. Now that at last he had been able to disclose the pain that really bothered him, it was as if it had never existed. It was not the wound but the circumstances that seemed to be destroyed by the wound that troubled him. He seemed quite at rest because of Miss Burke's understanding.
Miss Burke looked out of the small round window of the plane. Below, the jungle was breaking up, and rivers in which she could see shadows of pale brown sand-like muscles under the transparent blue skin of water were beginning to appear
and broaden among the mass of trees. She knew that they were coming to the sea.
She sat thinking about the boy being time-expired. Yes, she understood that. There was no one in the whole country who would not understand it. To be going home, to be at the end of exile: for God's sake who didn't know? One day she would be time-expired too. It was only at the rarest moments that she could think of it. But one day it would happen. She would be time-expired and there would be an end for her of the heat and sweat and the dust of summer and the miserable steaming nights of the monsoon, and the callous clash of death in every part of her life. There would be an end of the grey vultures feeding on the dead. They said time went quickly in the East, and that after a while you could not separate the memory of one individual day from another. But what happened really was that time built itself up into a mass of hard white light behind you, like an impersonal and glittering wall that cut you off from the shadowy remembrances of all your life behind it. That was what she hated; she knew that that was what the soldier hated, what they all hated. To be time-expired meant that you were going to break down that wall, break through it, break out into the resurrected memory of a sort of life that mattered.