by SQUADRON LEADER H. E. BATES
COLONEL MOTLEY lay alone in the sun. By pressing down his hands so that the bone-cream knuckles touched the dusty hot lead of the balcony floor he could raise himself up in his chair just enough to look through the openings of the stone balustrade to where the deep ring of rhododendrons broke and revealed, across fields of oak-brown corn, the line of the sea. The balcony was built above the portico of the house, facing southward. Beyond the rhododendrons, flowerless now, dark without that Indian glory the Colonel loved, he could see also his only gardener cutting with a horse-mower the wild outer fringe of lawn, and he could smell the sweet, light fragrance of it drying in the August heat.
The terrace, the gardener, the horse, and the sun were practically all that was left to him of his life before the war. Not, he often reflected, that they were very much good to him. He could no longer ride the horse, and the gardener was a witless bounder who abused him to his face and raided his tobacco jar behind his back. That left him only the terrace and, if he was lucky, the sun. All the rest had long since been given up to what he always called the young Air Force gentlemen. They had long since invaded the solitude, broken the silence, and recolored, sometimes excitingly, the gray privacy of a house that was anyway too large for one man. All that remained to him now was a single room above the stables and, by a purely compassionate arrangement, the terrace in the sun. The young men had long since filled all the rest of the place with their eating and drinking, their laughter and their language that he could never quite understand, and he in turn had lain for four years in the sun, whenever there was any sun, and watched the faces of them come and go.
He had not been lucky with the sun since invasion day. The papers were saying that it was the worst summer for forty years. The cold gales that had swept down from the north in June had broken the oats into shabby and forlorn wreckage and had burned the tender leaves of the limes. The Colonel, who felt the cold easily and bitterly, lit the gas fire in his room in the evenings, or sat on the balcony with his overcoat on and read over and over again the invasion news in the papers. After the first few days there was little flying. The cloud seemed solid, unchanged by terrors of wind, and dark over the whole world. Ten-tenths, the boys called it — which seemed a curious arithmetical and more difficult way of saying complete, he thought.
But then he had no knowledge at all of the language of modern war; he had lost touch with its progress; at eighty-three he had fallen a long way behind. The young men who came and talked to him in the garden, and even on the balcony, talked to him constantly in a language which it seemed to him made practically no sense at all. He discovered in himself a depressing and uneasy ignorance as they talked of kites and pieces of cake, of the shaky do and a curious situation in which they informed you that you had had it. Language in his day had been rather a pompous affair, but at least you could understand it. He did not understand this other at all.
And yet he liked talking to them. He liked it very much; perhaps more than he cared to say. When flying began again he found himself alone on the balcony all day in the sun, bored with the remote context of the newspapers, missing the immediate touch that he got from talking with those who only an hour before had been over the battlefield.
That also was a thing he could not get used to. In his day you went off to war after a series of stern farewells; you lived a life of monastic remoteness somewhere on a damnable plain in India or you went to the northern hills and were cut off for some months at a time. Or if there was no war you went pig-hunting or you had furlough; and if you liked that sort of thing, you arranged something unofficially delicious in the way of women. You needed the hide of a pig yourself not to be affected by all this, and you did in fact come back with that sort of hide, sun-brown or yellow, and as harsh as rind. You looked like a soldier.
But nowadays these young fellows flew out and put the fear of God into what they called a gaggle of wolfers or a bunch of tanks at four-thirty in the afternoon and at seven they were lying in the hay with a young lady or drinking gin in the local bar. For some reason or other they hadn’t any kind of soldierly look about them either. He sometimes saw instead a touch of dreamy feminacy about some of them. They were quiet sometimes and had longseeing eyes that seemed to be dreaming in planetary distances. They were boyishly hilarious and laughed fantastically behind quite impossible unclipped mustaches. There was none of that heroic stuff at all.
He spread out his fingers loosely in the sun. It was now about twelve o’clock, and if he was lucky one of the young night flyers who slept all morning would be waking up now and would come up to talk to him before lunch. The war was going well at last and the night flyers now talked about 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 the 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 onto the balcony, and the voice of one of the young men was saying, “Good 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.
“Ah, young fellow,” he said.
Pallister danced from one foot to the other on the hot lead of the balcony, and then dropped the towel and stood on it. His body was brown all over, a 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 burned 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-lens glasses.
“Too hot for you?” the Colonel said.
“I just can’t have enough of that sun soak into me,” the boy said.
“It’s certainly 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 the dark glasses, suddenly looked remote and anonymous, and was cut off from him. But after a few moments 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 burned out of the shape of youth. They had a way of looking awfully cynical sometimes that only made them more youthful still.
“Well,” the Colonel said, “what is it like over there?”
He supposed he always asked that. He could think of no other way of beginning.
“It’s a bloody ramping mess,” the boy said. “Looks like Fair Day.”
“Even at night?” the Colonel said. He wondered if the August moon showed this rampant detail.
“It was light already when I was coming back,” the boy said. “There was a bit of a doings.”
“You shot something down?”
“Up,” the boy said. “Road stuff. And a Ju. 88 down. Piece of cake.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Oh — it was just a hell of a nice bang on the ground and a hell of a nicer bang upstairs,” the boy said. “Very 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 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 practically dead. Flak over Denmark had hit something in his Mosquito and had driven white whirlwinds of flame down through the aircraft with terrible fury. It burned the face of the boy for a few moments as the heat of a blowtorch burns off a 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 and complete 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 leaped 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 extinct.
He did not know quite what happened after that. The flame went out into instantaneous 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 utterly private impression of talking the whole time. It was fanciful, but it was also quite real — an impression of repeating to himself a frenzied catechism: “I can see, I can see, I can see.” And then: “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. Among other details, they said 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 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, he fell back on the simple defense against terror that was its own dissolution. It was just one of those things.
There followed nine months in hospitals. The Colonel knew all about that time. Sometimes the boy talked well. Even so, 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 the white patches on his thighs, and talked upward to the sun. He talked rapidly, giving no 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 way he talked of the miracles they had done to him in hospital. For there was no doubt that they were miracles: hideous miracles, fantastic miracles, and also very wonderful. The Colonel, simply by sheer repetition, got to know some part of the surgical language of them; he got to know about Tiersch 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 heard of physiotherapy 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.
AND the miracle of it had almost been lost. It appeared from the livid language of the boy, who could outswear an Indian regular 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 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 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. Something not wholly conscious had sent the boy into a frenzy of antagonism and scheming against all authority, until at last authority had 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. He longed to get a picture of it, fixed and clear, as the boy might have photographed it from the air.
“Tell me about this Seine thrust,” he said.
“ What do you think of it? Does it aim at the coast? ”
“I never really trouble what the Brown Jobs are doing,” the boy said.
Once again the Colonel was up against a term he did not understand. “Brown Jobs?”
“Oh!” the Colonel said. “Oh.” He understood now. Of course, apart from the slight contempt, it was apt and very typical.
“Yes, but it’s a combined operation,” he said. “You are all in it. You depend very much on each other.”
“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.
“Without you,” the Colonel said, “the 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, “Force the issue? What the 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 horsemower was silent and there was no sound except the sea sound of cedar branches now and then gently uplifted. It seemed now to the Colonel that the battle front, really half an hour’s flight to the south, was a million miles away.
“There is no bloody issue except killing Huns,” the boy said. “That’s all that matters.” He looked, as he spoke, straight up into the sun.
There was an essence of individual cruelty in this remark that 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 the Colonel’s day there had been, in fighting, some sort of — well, he supposed it to be some sort of ethical waterline. You kept above it. The people who sank below the waterline, who made public a private desire to kill the man on the opposite side, were not thought very much of.
It was like a game, and all the wars in which he had played it were really, beside this one, very small. They seemed important then but were quite forgotten now. He supposed perhaps 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.
WIZARD 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. “Bloody wizard.” He took great breaths of the warm, noontide air and breathed them out again.
The Colonel, startled out of reminiscence, did not speak, and the boy went on, talking as if to himself.
“Gosh, the trees,” the boy said, “and the smell of the bloody hay and the lime trees and all that. After all those months of smelling hospital wards and anaesthetics, God, it’s good! Did I ever tell you what it was like in Normandy — I mean in the D-minus days?”
“No,” the Colonel said. He had given up.
“Not all 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 color 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 monstrous beside the tenderness of that description of orchards in May. He could see that the boy felt it deeply and he tried to remember if, so long ago, he too had been touched by anything like that, but he could remember only the scarlet rhododendrons, in fantastic cascades, on a wild furlough trek above Darjeeling: how they fell bloodily into the 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, which were so cool and cloudy, like the northern skies. It pleased him that the boy liked them. It seemed to make him human again.
And to his dismay the boy began to get up. He stood up, 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 literally to have been grafted there from another person altogether.
“Must you?” the Colonel said. “So soon?”
“I’m as hungry as hell,” the boy said. “I’ve got to get dressed, and lunch is off at two.”
“Well, nice of you to come up,” the Colonel said. “I do so appreciate it.”
“Can I send you up a can of beer?” the boy said.
“No. No thanks. I don’t think so.”
“The orderly can bring it up.”
“No, thank you. Thank you all the same.” He did not want to offend the boy. The pilots were kind to him sometimes like that, sending him up tobacco or chocolate, or a glass of beer. “Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps we might have a drink together. I should like that.”
“Good show,” the boy said.
“About this time?” the Colonel said.
“Yeh. I’ll get the orderly to bring the beer up.”
“I’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 the next day at about the same time, in much the same attitude, waiting for the boy. The sweetness of the grasses had faded overnight. He caught it only at odd moments, in brief renewed waves, in the seaward wind. But the branches of the cedars rose with slow placidity up and down much as they had done the day before; and beyond them, if he raised himself up on his creamy fleshless knuckles, he could again see beyond the brown cornfields the blue-gray edge of the 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 slowly, with a 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 outer 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 battle dress was lying on the grass with a book. He had “Canada” on his shoulder.
“Excuse me,” the Colonel said.
“Oh, hullo, sir,” the Canadian said. “How’ve you been?”
“I was looking for Mr. Pallister,” the Colonel said. “ We were to have a drink together. I thought you might have seen him somewhere.”
“I guess he bought it,” the Canadian said.
The language that he did not understand left the Colonel without a reply.
“Yeh!” the Canadian said. “I guess he bought it. Over France last night.”
The Colonel still did not speak.
“Bad show, sir,” the Canadian said.
“Yes,” the Colonel said.
Now he understood. He began to walk away quietly, across the lawn, back to the house. Beyond the trees there was a jubilant row going on among the croquet players, and as he drew nearer the house he could hear a gramophone playing ferociously gay music at an open window. He walked straight on, round to the back entrance of the house and up the stairs that he hated so much and so out on to the terrace, on the south side. As he walked he felt uneasily conscious of the sound of his own feet. It seemed even louder than the shouting of the croquet players or the noise of the gramophone. It reminded him of how in the past, if someone in the house had died, he had never allowed the sound of raised voices or running feet, and how every yellow Venetian blind had been drawn and closed against the sun. He was troubled by the difference now.
He sat down in his chair on the terrace and lay back and shut his eyes. He lay for a long time without moving, listening to the sound of voices, the music of the gramophone, and the wind moving the cedars. He waited in the vague hope that someone else might come up and talk to him of Pallister and how it had been, but no one came.
And when finally he opened his eyes to look at the view he knew so well, the light was so dazzling in its downward power that he was blind in the sun. He could not see the sea, the cedars, or the sky. They were all beyond his vision now.