Authors: H.E. Bates
He had arranged to see her at seven o'clock and I made a bad impression by being late. She was irritable because I was late and because, above all, I was the wrong person.
“Don't be angry,” I said. “I'm very sorry.”
“I'm not angry,” she said. “Don't think it. I'm just worried.”
“You needn't be worried,” I said.
“Why not? Aren't you worried? You're his friend.”
“No, I'm not worried,” I said. “I'm not worried because I know what sort of pilot he is.”
“Oh, you do, do you? Well, what sort of pilot is he?” she said. “He never tells me. He never talks about it at all.”
“They never do,” I said.
“Sometimes I think I'll never know what sort of person he is at all. Never!”
I felt there was little I could say to her. She was angry
because I was the wrong person and because she was frustrated. I bought her several drinks. For a time she was quieter and then once more she got excited.
“One night he'll get shot down and about all I'll know of him is that his name was Albert!”
“Take it easy,” I said. “In the first place he won't get shot down.”
“No? How are you so sure?”
“Because he's the sort that shoots other people down first.”
“Are you trying to be funny?” she said.
“No,” I said; and for a few minutes I tried to tell her why it was not funny and why I had spoken that way. I tried quite hard, but I do not think she understood. I realised that she knew nothing of all that had happened in Kalgoorlie â the blank year, the awful discovery about England, the bewilderment and the anger. I tried to make her see that there is a type that thinks of nothing but the idea that he may be shot at; and that there is another type, of which he was one, which thinks of nothing but shooting first. “He's glad to go. He wants to go. It's what he lives for,” I said. “Don't you see?”
No sooner had I said it than I realised that it was the stupidest thing in the world to say. It was herself, not flying, that she wanted him to live for. She did not understand, and it would have sounded very silly if I had tried to tell her, that he was engaged on something like a mission of vengeance, that because of all that had happened in Kalgoorlie, and especially that one day in Kalgoorlie,
he felt that he had something damnable and cruel and hideous to wipe out from his conception of what was a decent life on earth. Every time he went up, something was vindicated. Nor did she understand, and again it might have sounded foolish too, that it was the living and positive clarity of the whole idea that was really his preservation. All I could say was: “He's the sort that goes on coming back and coming back until they're fed up with him and make him an instructor.”
Nevertheless, that night her fears were almost justified. The flak over Bremen was very hostile and it seemed that he had to take a lot of hasty evasive action before he could get clear away along the coast. They had brought him down even then to about two thousand feet. The searchlights were very thick too and it was like daylight in the aircraft marking the time. But as if he couldn't possibly miss the opportunity, he came down to three hundred feet, roaring over the searchlight batteries as his gunners attacked them. They flew for about forty miles in this way, until finally something hit the outer starboard engine and holed the starboard wing. After that they were in a very bad way and got home, as he said, later than originally proposed.
I do not think he told her about this. It went down into his log and some of it may have gone down into the diary he had promised faithfully to keep for his people back on the farm. He was satisfied that he had blown out about twenty searchlights, and that was all. Something else was vindicated. Two days later he had another go. In quite a
short daylight attack along the Dutch coast he got into an argument with a flak ship. He was in a very positive mood and he decided to go down to attack. As he was coming in, his rear gunner sighted a formation of Messerschmitts coming up astern, and two minutes later they attacked him. He must have engaged them for about fifteen minutes. He had always hated Messerschmitts, and to be attacked by them made him very angry indeed. At the end of the engagement he had shot down two of them and had crippled a third, but they in turn had holed the aircraft in fifteen places. Nevertheless he went down just to carry out his instruction of giving the flak ship a goodbye kiss. She had ceased firing and he went in almost to low level and just missed her with his last two bombs by the stern. As he was coming home his outer port engine gave up, but he tootled in just before darkness, quite happy. “A piece o' cake,” he said.
I know that he did not tell her about this either, and I could see that she had some excuse for thinking him undemonstrative and perhaps unheroic. For the next two days there was thick fog and rime frost in the early morning that covered the wings of the Stirlings with dusty silver. He was impatient because of the fog and we played many games of cribbage in the mess on the second day, while the crews were grounded.
On the third day he came back from briefing with a very satisfied look on his face. “A little visit to Mr. Salmon and Mr. Gluckstein at Brest,” he said. He had been flying
just a year. He had done twenty trips, all of them with the same meaning. It was a bright calm day, without cloud, quite warm in the winter sun. There were pools of water here and there on the runways, and looking through the glasses I could see little brushy silver tails spurting up from the wheels of the aircraft as they taxied away.
When I looked into the air, again through the glasses, I saw two aircraft circling round, waiting to formate before setting course. One of them was smoking a little from the outer port engine. The smoking seemed to increase a little and then became black. Suddenly it seemed as if the whole engine burst silently and softly into crimson flower. I kept looking through the glasses, transfixed, but suddenly the aircraft went away behind the hangars as it came down.
That evening I waited until it was quite dark before going into the town. I went into the bar of the Grenadier and the girl was standing by the bar talking to the barmaid. She was drinking a port while waiting for him to come.
“Hello,” she said. Her voice was cold and I knew that she was disappointed.
“Hello. Could you come outside a moment?” I said.
She finished her port and came outside and we stood in the street, in the darkness. Some people went by, shining a torch on the dirty road, and in the light I could see the sleeves of her coat hanging loose, as if she had no arms. I waited until the people had gone by, and then, not
knowing how to say it, I told her what had happened. “It wasn't very heroic,” I said. “It was damnable luck. Just damnable luck, that's all.”
I was afraid she would cry.
She stood still and quite silent. I felt that I had to do something to comfort her and I made as if to take hold of her arm, but I only caught the sleeve, which was dead and empty. I felt suddenly far away from her and as if we had known two different people â almost as if she had not known him at all.
“I'll take you to have a drink,” I said.
“You'll feel better.”
“Why did it have to happen?” she said suddenly, raising her voice. “Why did it have to happen?”
“It's the way it often does happen,” I answered.
“Yes, it's the way it often does happen!” she said. “Is that all you care? Is that all anyone cares? It's the way it happens!”
I did not speak. For a moment I was not thinking of her. I was thinking of a young man in a barber's saloon in Kalgoorlie, about to make the shocking discovery that the world was at war and that he did not know it.
“Yes, it's the way it happens!” she said. I could not see her face in the darkness, but her voice was very bitter now. “In a week nobody will ever know he flew. He's just one of thousands who go up and never come back. I never knew him. Nobody ever knew him. In a week nobody
will know him from anyone else. Nobody will even remember him.”
For a moment I did not answer. Now I was not thinking of him. I was thinking of the two people who had so bravely and stupidly kept the war from him and then had so bravely and proudly let him go. I was thinking of the farm with the sheep and the eucalyptus trees, the pink and mauve asters and the yellow spring wattle flaming in the sun. I was thinking of the thousands of farms like it, peopled by thousands of people like them: the simple, decent, kindly, immemorial people all over the earth.
“No,” I said to her. “There will be many who will remember him.”
November rain falls harshly on the clean tarmac, and the wind, turning suddenly, lifts sprays of yellow elm leaves over the black hangars.
The man and the woman, escorted by a sergeant, look very small as they walk by the huge cavernous openings where the bombers are.
The man, who is perhaps fifty and wears a black overcoat and bowler hat, holds an unbrella slantwise over the woman, who is about the same age, but is very grey and slow on her feet, so that she is always a pace or two behind the umbrella and must bend her face against the rain.
On the open track beyond the hangars they are caught up by the wind and are partially blown along, huddled together. Now and then the man looks up at the Stirlings, which protrude over the track, but he looks quickly away again and the woman does not look at all.
“Here we are, sir,” the sergeant says at last. The man says: “Thank you,” but the woman does not speak.
They have come to a long one-storeyed building, painted grey, with “Squadron Headquarters” in white letters on the door. The sergeant opens the door for them and they go in, the man flapping and shaking the umbrella as he closes it down.
The office of the Wing Commander is at the end of a passage. The sergeant taps on the door, opens it and salutes. As the man and woman follow him, the man first, taking off his hat, the woman hangs a little behind, her face passive.
“Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd, sir,” the sergeant says.
“Oh yes, good afternoon.” The sergeant, saluting, closes the door and goes.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the man says.
The woman does not speak.
“Won't you please sit down, madam?” the Wing Commander says. “And you too, sir. Please sit down.”
He pushes forward two chairs, and slowly the man and the woman sit down, the man leaning his weight on the umbrella.
The office is small and there are no more chairs. The Wing Commander remains standing, his back resting against a table, beyond which, on the wall, the flight formations are ticketed up.
He is quite young, but his eyes, which are glassy and grey, seem old and focussed distantly so that he seems to see far beyond the man and the woman and ever far beyond the grey-green Stirlings lined up on the dark tarmac in the rain. He folds his arms across his chest and is glad
at last when the man looks up at him and speaks.
“We had your letter, sir. But we felt we should like to come and see you, too.”
“I am glad you came.”
“I know you are busy, but we felt we must come. We felt you wouldn't mind.”
“Not at all. People often come.”
“There are just some things we should like to ask you.”
The man moves his lips, ready to speak again, but the words do not come. For a moment his lips move like those of someone who stutters, soundlessly, quite helplessly. His hands grip hard on the handle of the umbrella, but still the words do not come and at last it is the Wing Commander who speaks.
“You want to know if everything possible was done to eliminate an accident?”
The man looks surprised that someone should know this, and can only nod his head.
“Everything possible was done.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“But there are things you can never foresee. The weather forecast may say, for example, no cloud over Germany, for perhaps sixteen hours, but you go over and you find a thick layer of cloud all the way, and you never see your target â and perhaps there is severe icing as you come home.”
“Was it like this when â”
“Something like it. You never know. You can't be certain.”
Suddenly, before anyone can speak again, the engines of a Stirling close by are revved up to a roar that seems to shake the walls of the room; and the woman looks up, startled, as if terrified that the plane will race forward and crash against the windows. The roar of air-screws rises furiously and then falls again, and the sudden rise and fall of sound seem to frighten her into speech.
“Why aren't you certain? Why can't you be certain? He should never have gone out! You must know that! You must know it! You must know that he should never have gone!”
“Please,” the man says.
“Day after day you are sending out young boys like this. Young boys who haven't begun to live. Young boys who don't know what life is. Day after day you send them out and they don't come back and you don't care! You don't care!”
She is crying bitterly now and the man puts his arm on her shoulder. She is wearing a fur and he draws it a fraction closer about her neck.
“You don't care, do you? You don't care! It doesn't matter to you. You don't care!”
“Mother,” the man says.
Arms folded, the Wing Commander looks at the floor, silently waiting for her to stop. She goes on for a minute or more longer, shouting and crying her words, violent
and helpless, until at last she is exhausted and stops. Her fur slips off her shoulder and falls to the ground, and the man picks it up and holds it in his hands, helpless, too.
The Wing Commander walks over to the window and looks out. The air-screws of the Stirling are turning smoothly, shining like steel pinwheels in the rain, and now, with the woman no longer shouting, the room seems very silent, and finally the Wing Commander walks back across the room and stands in front of the man and woman again.