Fly away peter, p.7
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       Fly Away Peter, p.7
 

           David Malouf
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  All that first time up the line was like some crazy camping trip under nightmare conditions, not like a war. There was no fight. They weren’t called upon in any way to have a go.

  But even an invisible enemy could kill.

  It happened out of the lines, when they went back into support. Their section of D company had spent a long afternoon unloading ammunition-boxes and carrying them up. They had removed their tunics, despite the cold, and scattered about in groups in the thin sunlight, relaxed in their shirtsleeves, were preparing for tea. Jim sat astride a blasted trunk and was buttering slabs of bread, dreamily spreading them thick with golden-green melon and lemon jam. His favourite. He was waiting for Clancy to come up with water, and had just glanced up and seen Clancy, with the billy in one hand and a couple of mugs hooked from the other, dancing along in his bow-legged way about ten yards off. Jim dipped his knife in the tin and dreamily spread jam, enjoying the way it went over the butter, almost transparent, and the promise of thick, golden-green sweetness.

  Suddenly the breath was knocked out of him. He was lifted bodily into the air, as if the stump he was astride had bucked like an angry steer, and flung hard upon the earth. Wet clods and buttered bread rained all about him. He had seen and heard nothing. When he managed at last to sit up, drawing new breath into his lungs, his skin burned and the effect in his eardrums was intolerable. He might have been halfway down a giant pipe that some fellow, some maniac, was belting over and over with a sledge hammer. Thung. Thung. Thung.

  The ringing died away in time and he heard, from far off, but from very far off, a sound of screaming, and was surprised to see Eric Sawney, who had been nowhere in sight the moment before, not three yards away. His mouth was open and both his legs were off, one just above the knee, the other not far above the boot, which was lying on its own a little to the left. A pale fellow at any time, Eric was now the colour of butcher’s paper, and the screams Jim could hear were coming from the hole of his mouth.

  He became aware then of blood. He was lying in a pool of it. It must, he thought, be Eric’s. It was very red, and when he put his hands down to raise himself from his half-sitting position, very sticky and warm.

  Screams continued to come out of Eric, and when Jim got to his feet at last, unsteady but whole (his first thought was to stop Eric making that noise; only a second later did it occur to him that he should go to the boy’s aid) he found that he was entirely covered with blood – his uniform, his face, his hair – he was drenched in it, it couldn’t all be Eric’s; and if it was his own he must be dead, and this standing up whole an illusion or the beginning of another life. The body’s wholeness, he saw, was an image a man carried in his head. It might persist after the fact. He couldn’t, in his stunned condition, puzzle this out. If it was the next life why could he hear Eric screaming out of the last one? And where was Clancy?

  The truth hit him then with a force that was greater even than the breath from the ‘minnie’. He tried to cry out but no sound came. It was hammered right back into his lungs and he thought he might choke on it.

  Clancy had been blasted out of existence. It was Clancy’s blood that covered him, and the strange slime that was all over him had nothing to do with being born into another life but was what had been scattered when Clancy was turned inside out.

  He fell to his knees in the dirt and his screams came up without sound as a rush of vomit, and through it all he kept trying to cry out, till at last, after a few bubbly failures, his voice returned. He was still screaming when the others ran up.

  He was ashamed then to have it revealed that he was quite unharmed, while Eric, who was merely dead white now and whimpering, had lost both his legs.

  That was how the war first touched him. It was a month after they came over, a Saturday in February. He could never speak of it. And the hosing off never, in his own mind, left him clean. He woke from nightmares drenched in a wetness that dried and stuck and was more than his own sweat.

  A few days later he went to sit with Eric at the hospital. He had never thought of Eric as anything but a nuisance, and remembered, a little regretfully now, how he and Clancy had tried to shake him off and how persistent he had been. But Clancy, behind a show of tolerant exasperation, had been fond of the boy, and Jim decided he ought, for Clancy’s sake, to pay him a visit. He took a bar of chocolate. Eric accepted it meekly but without enthusiasm and hid it away under his pillow.

  They talked about Clancy – there was nothing else – and he tried not to look at the place under the blanket where Eric’s feet should have been, or at his pinched face. Eric looked scared, as if he were afraid of what might be done to him. Isn’t it done already? Jim asked himself. What more?

  ‘One thing I’m sorry about,’ Eric said plaintively. ‘I never learned to ride a bike.’ He lay still with the pale sweat gathering on his upper lip. Then said abruptly: ‘Listen, Jim, who’s gunna look after me?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘When I get outa here. At home ’n all. I got no one. Just the fellers in the company, and none of ’em ’ave come to see me except you. I got nobody, not even an auntie. I’m an orfing. Who’s gunna look after me, back there?’

  The question was monstrous. Its largeness in the cramped space behind the screen, the way it lowered and made Eric sweat, the smallness of the boy’s voice, as if even daring to ask might call down the wrath of unseen powers, put Jim into a panic. He didn’t know the answer any more than Eric did and the question scared him. Faced with his losses, Eric had hit upon something fundamental. It was a question about the structure of the world they lived in and where they belonged in it, about who had power over them and what responsibility those agencies could be expected to assume. For all his childish petulance Eric had never been as helpless as he looked. His whining had been a weapon, and he had known how to make use of it. It was true that nobody paid any attention to him unless he wheedled and insisted and made a nuisance of himself, but the orphan had learned how to get what he needed: if not affection then at least a measure of tolerant regard. What scared him now was that people might simply walk off and forget him altogether. His view of things had been limited to those who stood in immediate relation to him, the matron at the orphanage, the sergeant and sergeant major, the sisters who ran the ward according to their own or the army’s rules. Now he wanted to know what lay beyond.

  ‘Who?’ he insisted. The tip of his tongue appeared and passed very quickly over the dry lips.

  Jim made a gesture. It was vague. ‘Oh, they’ll look after you alright Eric. They’re bound to.’

  But Eric was not convinced and Jim knew that his own hot panic had invaded the room. He wished Clancy was here. It was the sort of question Clancy might have been able to tackle; he had knocked about in the world and would have been bold enough to ask, and Jim saw that it was this capacity in Clancy that had constituted for Eric, as it had for him, the man’s chief attraction: he knew his rights, he knew the ropes.

  ‘I can’t even stand up to take a piss,’ Eric was telling him. The problem in Eric’s mind was the number of years that might lie before him – sixty even. All those mornings when he would have to be helped into a chair.

  ‘No,’ Jim asserted, speaking now for the charity of their people, ‘they’ll look after you alright.’ He stood, preparing to leave.

  ‘Y’ reckon?’

  ‘Of course they will.’

  Eric shook his head. ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘Wilya come again, Jim?’ A fine line of sweat drops on the boy’s upper lip gave him a phantom moustache. ‘Wilya, Jim?’ His voice sounded thin and far away.

  Jim promised he would and meant it, but knew guiltily that he would not. It was Eric’s questions he would be unable to face.

  As he walked away the voice continued to call after him, aggrieved, insistent, ‘Wilya, Jim’?. It was at first the voice of a child, and then, with hardly a change of tone, it was the voice of a querulous old man, who had asked for little and been given less and spen
t his whole life demanding his due.

  Outside, for the first time since he was a kid, Jim cried, pushing his fists hard into his eye-sockets and trying to control his breath, and being startled – it was as if he had been taken over by some impersonal force that was weeping through him – by the harshness of his own sobs.

  13

  THE AIR, EVEN at knee height, was deadly. To be safe you had to stay at ground level on your belly, but safest of all was to be below ground altogether.

  Breathless, and still trembling, his head numb with the noise that was rolling all about, Jim scrambled to the lip of the crater, and seeing even in the dark that there was no glint of water, went over the edge and slid. He struck something, another body, and recoiled. But in the sudden flash above the crater’s rim saw that it was, after all, only a dead man. He had stopped being scared of the dead.

  Making their way out here, crawling, moving on their knees, squirming at corpse level, they had seen dozens of unburied men, swollen black, their bellies burst, some with their pockets turned out white in the moonlight where the scavengers had been through. Jim had been happy to stay down among them while the air thumped and shuddered and occasional flashes revealed the thickets of barbed wire they had fallen among. The air was tormented. Dull axes might have been swinging down. An invisible forest, tree after tree, came crashing all about, you could feel the rush of breath as another giant hung a moment, severed from its roots, then slowly, but with gathering speed, came hurtling to the earth. Jim crawled among the dead. Occasionally one of them stirred and slithered forward; it was the only indication he had of there being others out here, still alive and moving on. There had been seventy of them at the start. But one of the officers who had brought them out was killed almost immediately and the other had got them lost. They were scattered all round among the wire and were no longer a group.

  It was this sense of being alone out here that had broken him. That and a renewed burst of machine-gun fire that whipped up all the earth around and made an old corpse suddenly bounce and twitch. He had decided then that he’d had enough. He lay breathless for a moment, then slid into the shell-hole from which, he decided, he would not come out. He put his arms round his head, while the sky bumped and flickered and the deeper sound of shellfire was threaded through at moments with the chatter of the Maxims. He was out of it.

  He lay back, breathing deep.

  But now that he was safe again the wave of panic that had caught him up retreated a little and he saw that he would go back. He told himself that what he had stood quite well till just a moment ago he could stand again. Besides, it was dangerous to stay here and be left. He rolled on to his belly in a moving forward posture, gripped his rifle, and was about to spread his knees and push up over the rim, on to the live and dinning field, when his heel was caught from behind in an iron grip. He gave a yell, kicked out and tried to turn, and another hand grabbed his tunic. He was hauled back. He and his attacker rolled together towards the oozy bottom of the hole. Hoarsely protesting, punching out wildly in the dark, he began to fight.

  It was eerie, nightmarish, to be fighting for your life like this in a shellhole out of the battle, and with an unknown assailant. They were locked fiercely, brutishly together, grunting strange words, trying to stagger upright enough to get the advantage, to get some force into their blows. The fight went on in the dark till they were groggily exhausted. Suddenly, in a flash of light, Jim saw who it was.

  ‘Wizzer!’ he found himself shouting as the man’s hand continued to clutch at his throat, ‘it’s me, you mad bugger. Jim. A friend!’ Wizzer seemed astonished. Falling back he threw Jim against the wall of the shell hole and Jim lay there, panting, with his heels dug in, and watched Wizzer draw a sweaty hand over his face, removing the mud. It was Wizzer alright, no doubt of it. Overhead the sky was split. A livid crack appeared in the continuity of things, a line of jagged light through which a new landscape might have been visible. The crack repeated itself as sound. Jim’s head was split this time and the further landscape in there was impenetrably dark.

  ‘What’re you doing here?’ Jim asked between breaths when they had recovered from this external assault.

  Wizzer looked sly.

  ‘What’re you?’

  Jim didn’t know how to answer that.

  ‘I sort of slipped,’ he said.

  Wizzer’s face broke into a mocking grin, and Jim remembered with shame that only a few moments ago he had been cringing at the bottom of the hole with his head in his arms like a frightened child.

  ‘You pulled me back,’ he accused, suddenly misunderstood and self-righteous.

  ‘Yair?’

  ‘Listen Wizzer,’ Jim began again, ‘we’ve got t’ get outa here and find the rest of the platoon.’

  ‘Not me,’ Wizzer said, springing to the alert. Just that, but Jim saw that he meant it, was in no way abashed, and assumed in his own frank admission of cowardice that they were two of a kind. Jim began to be alarmed. He tried in the dark to locate his rifle. He had stopped hearing the noise overhead. There were so many ways of being afraid; you couldn’t be all of them at the same time.

  ‘Listen Wizzer,’ he said softly, as if reasoning with a child, ‘this is serious. We’re right out in the open here. Whatever happens we’ll be for it. We’re right out on our own.’

  His fingers reached the rifle and he looked to the place where the sky began, wondering, if he took off, whether he could make it before Wizzer was on him again. He wanted nothing so much now as to be back where he had been ten minutes ago, in the thick of it. Scared silly, but not yet sullied.

  Suddenly, alarmingly, Wizzer began to quake. His shoulders first, then his jaw. An odd moaning sound came from between the man’s clenched teeth and Jim could see the whites of his eyes in the mud-streaked face. He had drawn himself up into a ball and was rocking back and forth, clenching his fists to his chest. His whole body was being shaken as by other, invisible hands.

  Jim could have scrambled away without difficulty then, but was held. He felt a terrible temptation to join Wizzer in making that noise, in adding it to the whine and crack and thump of shellfire beyond the rim of the pit; it would be so liberating. But some sense of shame – for Wizzer, but also for himself – held him back from that and made it impossible also for him to slip away.

  ‘This is terrible,’ he said to nobody, standing upright now, knee-keep in the mud they had churned up. He didn’t know what to do. Wizzer had subsided into choking sobs. The other had let him go.

  ‘Listen Wizzer,’ he said, ‘I’m leaving now. Alright, mate? If you want to come with me we could go together. But it’s alright if you don’t.’ He backed away to the wall of the hole and dug in ready to climb. ‘Alright Wizzer? Alright?’

  He felt desperately unhappy. He really did want Wizzer to come; it was the only way to wipe all this clean. He kept his eye on the man, who was still again, with his head lifted like an animal and keenly observing, as if Jim were doing something incomprehensibly strange. Jim eased himself up towards the edge of the pit. ‘I wish,’ he said, ‘I wish you’d come Wizzer.’ But the other man shook his head. With one last look backwards Jim rolled over and out, and was immediately back on the field, in that weird landscape as you saw it at belly level of wire entanglements, smashed trees, the knees of corpses, and other, living figures, some quite close, who were emerging like himself from shallow holes. He was back.

  He began, half-crouching, to move ahead. It was like advancing into a bee-swarm. The air was alive with hot rushing bodies that knifed down and swung hissing round his ears.

  ‘Is that you Jim?’

  It was Bobby Cleese. He was never so glad to see anyone in his life.

  He scrambled to Bobby’s side and they started forward together, then with fiery stars chopping at the earth again, they fell, together with others, who had also appeared as if from nowhere, into a wet ditch. From there Jim could see more of their lot over to the right.

  So he wasn’t lo
st after all. He had found the company, and might have considered his time out of all this a dream, a fear of what he might do rather than what he had done, if it weren’t for Wizzer. Wizzer’s face, and Wizzer’s grip on him when they had wrestled together in the mud, were too real, and too humbling in his memory, to be dismissed.

  ‘I was scared silly back there,’ he whispered into Bob Cleese’s shoulder. He needed to go forward now with a clear conscience.

  ‘You were scared,’ Bob said, and they both giggled. Jim felt himself delivered into his own hands again, clean and whole – what did it matter if he got killed? – and discovered a great warmth in his heart for this fellow Bob Cleese, whom he had barely known till now. He was a bee-keeper back home. That was all Jim knew of him. A thin, quiet fellow from Buderim, and it occurred to him as they lay there that they might understand one another pretty well if there was a time after this when they could talk. Everything here happened so quickly. Men presented themselves abruptly in the light of friends or enemies and before you knew what had happened they were gone. Wizzer! It was odd to recall that not much more than a year ago he had been waiting, in what he thought of as a hypnotized state, for life to declare itself to him and make its demands.

 
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