Tuesday, March 15, 2011
A military convoy was on our right heading south to the coast. Gavin, sitting in the drivers seat, pointed out the nationalities of the different vehicles.
“There are Canadians, and these, let’s see, look like Aussies. Looks like troops from South Africa there. Those chaps are Indian, they are Sheeejs with those bloody turbans. And here are some of your chaps Langley.” I saw a blur of khaki and several low green jeeps. Clare, seated next to me in the back seat, disinterestedly turned her head to see the Americans. Lesley was seated in front with Gavin. She was wearing at a jaunty angle on her elongated head one of the pre-helmet Great War peaked caps I retrieved for her from my lair. It was a mild mid-April day. The top was down and the wind pleasant and cool, with a spring mist burning off in the brightening sun.
We were driving through a broad flatland under cultivation. Fields were bisected by crisscrossed rows of shrubs and small trees. Farms dotted the landscape --- low built indistinct and brown cottages, surrounded by a maze of stone fences with sheep and cattle safely penned. The grass was poking above the muddy wet fields.
“I don’t care what that bloody Anglo-American says, I think April is a grand month. Even in war time.”
“I agree,” chirped Lesley. I leaned forward toward them.
“Is Crotchford Downs in country like this?” I asked, the openness, the vast space!
Lesley giggled. “Not quite like this,” replied Gavin, “no, old boy. I should say a little more rocky and stony. Not much under cultivation. A trifle less sunny was well. The weather changes rather abruptly once we reach the uplands. More sheltered here, I’d say, and milder than Crotchford. What do you say Les?”
“Yes, quite.” she beamed.
We drove for sometime in silence. The car moved steadily toward a row of uneven hills at the horizon. I thought I heard a buzzing sound. The engine? But if came from above. Before any definitive spatial awareness dawned on me a low flying plane was above us, emerging from our blind spot. Smoke trailed from its propeller. I could see the black swastika on the nose and tail. It looped in the sky rather gracefully over our heads, then leveled out along the road ahead of us.
“It’s going to strafe us!” I yelled, but it was too late for Gavin to swerve. Bullets tore at the concrete in front of us, one hit Lesley’s vintage hat, and the cap flew angularly to the side of the road. Another hit my chest with a dull thud and a pop that somehow sounded delayed.
Gavin pulled the car to the side of the road. The plane, obviously disabled, disappeared behind a row of trees. Seconds later we heard a substantial crash in the distance.
“Is everyone alright? My God!” Gavin exclaimed, his eyes moving from face to face.
“I think Langley was hit,” I heard Clare say, but not very well. The world seemed to undulate between moments of crystalline clarity and smoky semi-darkness. I tried to speak but nothing came out. I saw a shimmering, wavering Gavin, as if he was composed of bright pixels, leaning over the front seat, examining my clothes.
“But I don’t see any blood, blast it where is he hit?” Finally, little bursts of air came wheezing out of my mouth. My diaphragm was working again.
“Alright… I’m alright…” I reached into my breast pocket and pulled out the metal cigarette case. There was a neat divot where the battle of the Somme had been. The little roses and thorns now circled the deep cavity. A bright iridescent bruise, like a purple heart, was swelling on my chest.
“I say, you’re lucky,” Gavin marveled.
“Damn lucky,” Clare concurred, “it’s like something out of a movie.”
I stood up on the road and twisted my torso about to check for broken ribs. I appeared to be intact. Gavin stood beside me and looked at the thin stream of smoke rising beyond the treeline.
“We should go find that plane Lang, if you’re up to it.”
Lesley and Clare drove to the nearest farmhouse to phone the Home Guard. Gavin and I hopped over the guardrail and took to the fields. Gavin produced a useless revolver out from the glove box and held it in front of him like a limp bird. Its sight was skewed to the right, and when it discharged it leaned to the left, but even with this self-correcting mechanism he could never get it to shoot straight. If we actually came across a desperate Luftwaffe pilot with an indeterminate amount of time in a POW camp his only future possible world, we would be on the losing end, done for....
Up ahead, near the crest of a small hill that was capped with bobbed red flowers we saw a piece of smoldering wreckage. It was the tail. A sunburst glimmered on the swastika. On the crest was the fuselage. It was almost intact, but gasoline was pooling everywhere, showing that it was ruptured somewhere out of view.
The propeller had cut up the muddy ground in a deep, irregular gash before coming to a halt. The pilot was about thirty feet from the fuselage. He had crawled away from the wreckage, or stumbled a few feet and then fallen face up. He had removed his helmet. Gavin carefully walked up to him and gently touched the body with his foot. He was obviously dead.
“He’s dead. Damn shame in a way, bloody good looking boy. But it serves him right, taking pot shots at us like that. Damn near killed us all. Come have a look Lang.”
I did. It was odd, he looked like a younger version of Gavin, all soft downy blond, but with a round face, puffed up with baby fat, from rich Teutonic mother’s milk, no doubt, which was now twisted obscenely in death, as if he had struggled in the final moments with that flesh and refused to give up the ghost. I bent down as if to touch him.
“Don’t touch him, old chap.” Gavin said calmly, “They’re real sticklers about that sort of thing, you know. Absolutely no souvenirs of any kind. When one of these crates falls from the sky it’s an intelligence gathering exercise. Check for chinks in the armor and all that.”
The German’s blue eyes were open. All I wanted to do was to close that blank stare, that oppressive empty gaze. Gavin and I stood quielty several feet apart waiting for the guard to turn up and secure the location. We could see them coming up the road in the distance, two small blue trucks with red lights blinking atop the roofs. I took out the Somme for a cigarette. I fingered the dimpled hole around the missing battle. All the cigarettes had disintegrated and blown away like brown lint in the stiff, English country breeze.