Revelations

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Can one kill and not be ill
Affected by the task?
Can another forgive this brother,
No matter what he asks?
Yet when they meet amid a war and morality is lax
Each will discover in the other
An answer is unmasked.

Submitted: November 16, 2007

A A A | A A A

Submitted: November 16, 2007

A A A

A A A


 
 
‘Revelations’ is copyrighted to Nathan Stonehouse. Please do not use without the permission of the copyright holder.
 
We were basically being starved into submission. At that time every school field, village green and football pitch round about was an allotment to compensate and that needed a lot of work. That’s where I was that afternoon, hands in the soil with the Old Boys and the Schoolboys: sowing; weeding; gathering for the village.
We heard it before we saw it.
One had grown accustomed to the silent black birds with their feathery tails entwined in the sky, and the occasional earth-bound representative of that dashing dance, but the display rarely affected our cheerful struggle.
On hearing it, we scattered.
Turning lazily over it nose-dived into the grass at a 100 miles an hour, ploughing a ravine from one end of the pitch to the other. The impact blasted its skin apart and scoured the area with innards which decimated the cabbages and carrots. Its wings tore off as its body drove through the earth, shattered fragments of their skeletons somersaulted away, carving separate dot-dash trenches. Hot fluid sprayed down in fat droplets as the ground shook and more spread into pools which quickly soaked into the freshly-turned earth. Sods and soil hammered down on the remains of the dead bird, each a faint echo of its land-fall.
As day re-emerged the short and the stooped sought each other out and, finding no-one hurt, stood in silent groups as the authorities arrived and honed their skills in organizing chaos.
I turned then and left that place.
The war took its toll on everyone. For some it was the destruction of so much food; for others it was the obliteration in a few moments of weeks of hard toil. For me it was the guilt: I could not forgive our lads who fought the Nazi’s. Murder was murder, whichever side did the killing and the jollity of the chaps in the village boasting how many they’d shot down turned my stomach. Yet my freedom was being defended so I should’ve been grateful. I could not mourn their deaths for they had lived and died by the sword without remorse, yet anyone who dies should be grieved for, especially in so horrific a manner as a plane crash.
I returned home, mulling these thoughts and found George in my sitting room. My door was always open then and pilots from the airfield outside the village did visit from time to time, so what surprised me more was that it was he.
“George my boy! I thought you’d forgotten me!” He stood as I entered.
“I could never forget you Father.”
“Are you managing?” He had recently lost his parents in the Blitz, prompting his joining up and as a family friend I’d kept my eye on him. He resumed his seat, leaning forward on his knees and I sat opposite.
“Yes.” His upper lip stiffened for a moment before he cleared his throat, seeming embarrassed. His red-marbled eyes wandered above their pillows of shadow and lines creased his skin which had been rosy with youth when I last saw him and was now almost translucent. This was more than the second-by-second fear of death, minute-long snatches of sleep and hours of waiting would cause.
“You can tell me what the matter is lad.”
His eyes locked onto mine, then flicked nervously over my shoulder to the door, perhaps fearing intrusion. “I, er – ”
He cleared his throat again.
“I wondered if maybe you could help me out.”
“Of course lad.”
There was a pause.
“Father, I think I’m being haunted.”
In the silence I recall thinking the tumult had cracked him.
“You know my parents were…I was raised a strict Catholic,” he hurried on as if to qualify himself, “and I know that spirits don’t exist – so maybe it’s just bad dreams.”
He glanced towards the door again. “But I can’t shake them off.”
I got up and made a pot of tea from my rations, closing the door on my way back to put him at ease.
“You forget; Samuel appeared to Saul as a ghost,” I said as I put the cup down beside him. “It’s probably best to begin at the beginning lad; if you want to.”
He hesitated, still embarrassed.
“The thing is… I don’t like shooting things down. I know it sounds soppy, but I can’t help thinking of the other fellow and ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’. I hate Jerry after….what he did and I have a duty to do and I’m proud of it, but I can’t make it seem right, you know, killing people; even if they are wicked.” He tried to chuckle; I smiled encouragement.
“Look, a few days ago I got my fourth confirmed kill. We were scrambled and picked them up about 10 miles east of North Weald: a big pack of Heinkels, with a 109 fighter escort about 5,000 feet above and a lot of patchy cloud between. We got between them in a good position and the CO led us down, reckoning we could knock a few out before the 109s saw us. But we had to be jolly quick away from the pack because they can dive a lot faster than we can.
Anyway, we screamed down from their right and I shot a long burst into the closest until almost point-blank. His starboard engine exploded with a terrific bang and straight away he broke out of formation streaming smoke, rolled over and angled down. Parachutes appeared when I levelled out for a moment below him; then I banked hard and turned up, cleared my tail and rejoined, raking the belly and fuselage of another as I went. I tore his wings to tatters and his nose dropped as I rocketed over him, but I didn’t see what happened – I had to screw my bird over in a loop and put her into a pretty steep dive to avoid over-flying the rest of the formation. Just as I got her over the vertical a fat line of red dashes arrowed past, skimming my undercarriage: Then a quick squirt went over my head the other way, punching a hole in the canopy.”
George’s hands mimed the fight, all embarrassment gone. It seemed another Heinkel further back in the formation had caught him in a cross-fire.
“Just as I got diving, I heard BANG! BANG! and my bird shook like a frightened thing. When I looked out, there were holes all along the trailing edge of my port wing: one or other of those guns must’ve caught me.
Then it was ‘Tally Ho!’, and right behind me the 109s came pelting into the scrap. Straight away I checked my tail and one was on me already. He must’ve dived through the bomber formation brave-as-you-like, and as I glanced back he gave me a long burst bloody close to the cockpit.
I eased her flat and banked round hard to port, going back the way I came. One of our fellows got hit ahead of me, spinning earthwards as I got straight again. The blighter behind tried to turn with me but he over-cooked it, went wide. He squirted me again as he tried to get back on my tail but he missed – I yanked her round again and he went past. He didn’t come back for another go.
I could see we’d made pretty good hay on the Heinkels now: there were gaps all over the formation and some were gushing smoke and had gunfire damage. I cleared my tail and climbed back towards them, hoping to pick off a straggler. But before I could get into range one of ours with a 109 on his tail went across my nose. He was in trouble: leaking coolant and debris; zig-zagging, trying to throw off the Bosch, so I went for them. One’s always supposed to be a Good Samaritan.”
George’s exuberance evaporated, and he swallowed hard. I let the silence lie like eiderdown until he swallowed again turned his eyes down and stared into the floor.
“They were about a mile away and I came in from the rear starboard quarter of the Hun. I had to put the nose up to lose some airspeed so I didn’t reach him too quickly. He didn’t see me. He was zagging away from me when I got close enough. I gave him a long burst; raked him all down his starboard. I hit the engine just in front of the cockpit and instantly smoke boiled from under the cover. I didn’t have to turn hard to avoid him and as I glided past, closest I’ve ever been to a German, I looked over…”
He glanced at the door in a different way than before, met my eyes and coughed sternly.
“He was wrestling with something in the cockpit as the plane drifted. Then flames burst up in front of him; just erupted from the engine bay. I saw his hands hit the canopy and it came off but he couldn’t get out. I could see him struggling. And then he looked at me…he was screaming. And thrashing. I saw his wide eyes: terror and agony. Then the plane slipped to port and nose-dived.
I banked back round to see if he’d get out. It… blew up about 1,000 feet down.”
George cleared his throat again and blinked rapidly, his jaw set firm.
The shape of some reality, before soaring had now dived into my consciousness bringing closer the talons of my dilemma. I was ashamed for having thought him mad; grief for this reality made my eyes prick, yet I struggled to find words of comfort in the silence that stretched.
He took a long breath.
“We got left in peace that night. Do you remember that really hot night we had? Like most of the chaps I left my window open – so long as the lights weren’t on one didn’t have to bother with the blackout curtains – and I suppose it must’ve been  the moonlight that disturbed me, but there an uncomfortable pressure lay in the air when I first jumped awake. I listened for the sound of Merlins and running feet but everything was very quiet so I rolled onto my back.
There was someone standing at the foot of my bed.
The door wasn’t open. I’d have heard him come in anyway for I sleep lightly.
At first I thought it was Bricksey larking around so I turned back over, pretending not to notice, and grabbed a pillow. He didn’t move. Neither did I. We waited.
Suddenly, with a shout I spun over, hurling the pillow across the room like a bolas and as it caught him square in the chest I was laughing, anticipating a blasphemy.
It passed right through Father; right through. Hit the wall behind and he didn’t flinch.
I saw then he was in a flight suit, but it wasn’t one of ours: a Swastika glared at me from his arm.
For a moment I couldn’t move, I almost couldn’t breathe.
I made a snatch for my revolver but my arm was too heavy, the weight in the air made everything heavy. I found my voice and shouted till I was hoarse but he didn’t move and no-one came.
Then moonlight drifted to his face. He was young, his features were still the blunted softness of a child’s and in the moonbeam his fair hair shone, neatly combed and parted on the right. He looked angry, his face twisted in rage and his narrowed eyes told of hate and blame. They were the purest blue I’ve ever seen, fixed on mine unflinchingly.
I recognized him in a second.
I tried to look away but I couldn’t avoid his eyes. I…threw my blanket over my head, it took all my strength but I could still feel him staring.
Then the noise started.
It was just a noise in the background at first but it got slowly louder and more frantic, gnawing away the silence. Screaming: a man’s voice made higher by torturous pain, screaming incoherently as if powerless to do anything else, gulping in breath between shrieks.
The smell of burning flesh and kerosene seeped through my veil. I gagged and shifted but the smell worsened, stifling me. I coughed and drew it into my mouth while the pressure from those eyes wormed in my skin, but I didn’t want to look at him again. Sweat tickled my skin and stung my eyes and my air got humid, each breath was like sucking through a straw and the terrible screaming pierced my ears.
I gave up and flung the blanket away, desperate for fresh air. My nostrils were burning and my mouth gaping but all I could draw in was searing heat and sickening smells. I remember my heart pounding in my ears as I wretched.
I must’ve passed out because I woke up with sunshine streaming in and some lads laughing outside. My bedclothes were kicked on the floor but there was no figure, no screams and no smell.”
He swallowed hard and shifted on the seat. I noticed his hand was trembling. He folded his arms. “I’m fine though.”
“Go on lad.”
“Do you believe me Father?” he said hesitantly, looking directly at me.
 “Of course I believe you lad” I answered gently. “Nightmares affect everyone from time to time.”
An earnestness came about him.
“I thought it was a dream too. But it wasn’t. I swear it wasn’t. I put on my old crucifix to ward him off, but it didn’t help. He came back the next night, standing over me again, but closer this time, more threatening. His intent was palpable. Sweat broke out on me and I pinched myself sore but I didn’t wake up. I struggled against the weight to turn my head and cover my eyes, but I could see him in my mind watching with those denuded eyes.
Before I could burrow my head into the pillows the noises started over my hammering heart. Not screaming, but a muffled crying next to my ear. I turned to block the noise. No-one was there, and even with my ear against the pillow the weeping was as loud as it had been. I tossed my head to block the other ear but the crying kept on, worse than a scream. God, it was a child’s voice Father. Right in my ear. Its heart must’ve been breaking.
I was overcome with sadness and hopeless pity.
Then another joined it, breaking in with a sudden spasm of sobbing. A woman’s stifled voice went awfully on, shuddering with grief, croaking between crying fits as though the misery were suffocating. She began to cry out in German, quavering through her tears, pleading desperately, on and on, until her voice gave out to inconsolable sobbing again.
For an age the voices went on, helpless and stricken. The grief weighed on my chest until my own breathing became ragged, and I cried out: ‘Go away! He deserved it!’, as if the weeping voices could hear, but they continued. I shouted again: ‘I am defending my country, leave me alone!’; ‘You have done as bad to me!’ as I rammed my hands on my ears but the noise was only muffled.
Much older voices echoed in my ears then, slow with age but sharp with hate. A lady, sniffling softly while she mumbled; a gentleman, murmuring comfortingly in a quavering voice, and cursing ‘der Britischer’. I knew they were wishing me dead.
 I…well, I cried then.
Just as the piercing wail of the siren cut through everything. Before I knew what was what I’d jumped out of bed and reached my clothes. As the noise died taking every other sound with it, I looked round.
He had gone. And behind him there was no seated girl, hysterical with grief, clutching a distraught child on her lap and pouring tears into its hair as she kissed its head again and again. No elderly couple: her sobbing into a flowered hankie, and him pacing the floor, returning repeatedly to place an arm round her shoulders and murmur in her ear as I had imagined. Just my old room, but I swear it was as real as I am to you.”
George blinked rapidly, sniffed then pulled up the sleeve of his jacket defiantly. Small purple bruises covered his forearm.
“It can’t have been a dream,” he said quietly.
I shivered, not in cold but a creeping of the flesh, and a silence passed between us.
“He’s punishing me because I killed him isn’t he?”
“Perhaps lad.”
“Punishing me for taking him from his family; for murder. What if he didn’t want to fight any more than I do?”
I didn’t answer for the dilemmatic talons had pierced my conscience and change fanned my soul with awful wings.
“Father I need your advice! I’ve not prayed for years but I resumed, night after night as I was taught, praying for him to leave; I sought blessing from the Padre; I’ve switched rooms twice now, and even had a gypsy woman try to exorcise him!”
“Hmm.”
What George needed was… was forgiveness. To call young George a murderer seemed unfair – but it was true, and God help me but I couldn’t forgive a murderer!
“I read that by asking his name I could banish him to the place prepared for him; I’ve hung mother’s mantelpiece crucifix on the wall above my bed and I sprinkle Holy Water on my bedclothes nightly, but nothing has worked!”
“Hmm.”
George was like a son, but where was his remorse? This visit even had his own interests at heart! Perhaps re-assurance would be good enough. Someone to say he did it because he had to.
“Have you spoken to anyone else about this lad?”
He shook his head, eyes on the floor again. “They’d think I was a bit rocky.”
“Not even the scrap?”
He shook his head again. “I don’t think it’s not right to boast about what goes on up there.”
“It might help”
“It wouldn’t. Talking never did.”
I remember it was almost dark by now so I rose stiffly to prepare the fire. There was a long silence as I got it lit then went to shut the curtains and pull down the blackout blinds. I left the light off to save on electricity. My ornaments cast demonic shadows in the flickering fire’s reddy glow.
When I returned to my chair George fixed me with wet eyes.
“I need to tell you about last night.”
He paused and the air seemed to reject the fire’s warmth.
“After the child I didn’t sleep again for a couple of nights. I took extra duties so I didn’t have to. As I said, I prayed: that a better place was waiting for him, that God would watch over his family, that they were cared for and never alone. I’m not much of a believer anymore, sorry Father, but I really did mean it, I mean, I didn’t say it just because he is haunting me.
“But staying awake affected my duty – I had a couple of close-calls and the bird kept getting frightfully battered. Then I was brought down near Kenley by a 109. He somehow got behind me. Cannon shells crashed straight through the canopy and smashed up my instruments in front of my face. I don’t know how they missed my head, but I had to bail after that.
When I got back I found I’d been grounded for a stint. That gave me a terrific wallop; I felt like a bit of a failure. They didn’t even need me for my extras. And with all that waiting time I couldn’t stay awake.” It had grown so dark now that beyond our chairs in their pool of red light lay a void of blackness. It seemed to wait, while chilling the back of my neck. Outside, the wind howled.  
George’s eyes turned from the fire to the floor and his manner grew more disconsolate. 
“He came again; standing right beside my bed. The weight returned, much heavier than before. I could see the worn braiding on his collar and epaulettes now, the eagles glaring down at me from his badges, the comb-ridges in his hair, the slight stains on his teeth and the blonde lashes over those raging blue eyes.
I called to his face, begging him, yelling for it to stop. It made no difference.
My stomach lurched, my mouth dried as the voices came. With a sickening certainty I knew them as they reverberated inside my head, stern and disappointed. My parents scolded me as if I were a child again and now, as then, I was helpless to defend myself.
‘Oh George, we had such high hopes. Didn’t you think?’
‘Didn’t you take anything from the Good Book each night?’
‘Why would you fight and kill, and not object like your Father in the Great War? We instilled in you a sense of conscience, of forgiveness: why’ve you turned your back?’
‘We lived in hardship lest we forgot Christ’s suffering. In committing the ultimate sin, fourfold, you forgot.’
‘People say God’s on our side!’ I shouted, ‘you taught me to stand up for what’s right! I have that duty to do!’, but they got angrier Father.
‘You sully His name!’
‘Did you think we’d be proud? Revenge is never right George.’
‘You shame us!’
The twists relaxed out of George’s face as he finished the imitation and his shoulders slumped. My heart ached as he put his hands to his face and tears dripped from between his fingers.
“I said I was sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry – ”
I put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. It seemed again I’d misjudged him. So deeply buried beneath the required nonchalance were his regrets and his need to make amends, that only spiritual pain could draw them out. And then, only in private. I wondered how many other young men wrestled with their consciences behind a jolly face which boasted of their kills and flirted with the girls. Somehow I had overlooked the chance that, for some, this façade was merely a way of dealing with their duty.
I don’t mind telling you, this epiphany left me shaken, but in the minutes that followed I discovered I could forgive those fellows as readily as any sinner who truly repented.
“It seems to me lad,” I began ponderously, “that you believe more than you realize. Tell me, how long has it been since your last Penance?”
He looked up at me fighting away the last tears, sniffing.
“A few years Father, not since school.”
“Then I think perhaps it’s time for another.”
He thought for a moment, and then sighed. “Will it work Father?”
“I hope so lad.”
 
* * *
 
About a week later as I celebrated the Eucharist beneath the golden wings of the lectern, among those self-same Old Boys and Schoolboys with whom I had toiled, I found myself looking once again into George’s face as he knelt at the communion rail.
 “Thank-you Father. Truly,” he whispered
I looked into his eyes I was delighted to see the old vitality had returned. I couldn’t help smiling.
“After my Absolution I slept like a child!”
“That’s good to hear lad.” I placed the Body on his tongue and he sipped from the cup.
“Amen.”
I didn’t see him after Mass for a longer conversation as I expected, so I resolved to go to the airfield after my house visits. In the event, by the time I was walking home along the avenues of rubble, between the quiet nests of steel and stone reaching up on either side, the silent black birds were dancing above me again so I put it off till a quieter time.
I was just settling down for a cup of tea when the phone rang.
“Hello?”
“Good day, may I speak to Father Cooper?”
“Speaking.”
“Hello Father, Douglas Bricks from the airfield, how d’you do?”
“Very well, thank-you.”
 “I wondered if you’d received my letter, and if you’d made any plans to collect the items at all?”
“I’m sorry, which letter young man?” I said.
“It was about George Barnett’s things Father. I believe you knew him?”
“Yes,” I answered slowly, “but I haven’t received a letter Mr. Bricks.” At that time, with the disruption the bombing caused, that wasn’t unusual. I swallowed. “Is there something I should know?” There was a pause at the end of the line.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you Father, George is MIA; he was shot down. Jerry got him when his parachute opened.”
“No!” I felt the cheerful wind that had buoyed me up since seeing George, suddenly drop from beneath my wings.
“As I said, I’m sorry Father. He left his personal effects to you in his Will – a crucifix and some other things. I’ll ring you again in a few days when you’ve had a think about your plans. Goodbye.”
“Wait! George was…close to me. I’d like to attend his funeral if I can. Do you know the arrangements?” There was another pause, longer than the first.
“That won’t be possible I’m afraid. George died two weeks ago. I really am surprised you didn’t hear – his bird came down in a field near you.”
 
* * *
 
I like to think the Good Lord had a plan for the both of us. Meeting George that day made me humble again: I realized I had judged men without knowing their lives and presumed to reach beyond my place in denying them forgiveness. I still have trouble seeing God’s reason for the numbers of young men that died in those years, but my faith is stronger now than before that uncertain time.
As for George, perhaps I helped him attain the spiritual peace he needed to move on; or perhaps I was just a friendly ear for a troubled soul. Either way, I’ll never know whether he was haunted or not but I maintain an open mind since that day in the Summer of 1940.
 
‘Revelations’ is copyrighted to Nathan Stonehouse. Please do not use without the permission of the copyright holder.
 


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