DOWN below there was only a vast
white undulating sea of cloud. Above
there was the sun, and the sun was
white like the clouds, because it is
never yellow when one looks at it
from high in the air.
He was still flying the Spitfire. His
right hand was on the stick, and he was
working the rudder bar with his left
leg alone. It was quite easy. The
machine was flying well, and he knew
what he was doing.
Everything is fine, he thought. I'm
doing all right. I'm doing nicely. I
know my way home. I'll be there in
half an hour. When I land I shall taxi in
and switch off my engine and I shall
say, help me to get out, will you. I
shall make my voice sound ordinary
and natural and none of them will take
any notice. Then I shall say, someone
help me to get out. I can't do it alone
because I've lost one of my legs.
They'll all laugh and think that I'm
joking, and I shall say, all right, come
and have a look, you unbelieving
bastards. Then Yorky will climb up
onto the wing and look inside. He'll
probably be sick because of all the
blood and the mess. I shall laugh and
say, for God's sake, help me out.
He glanced down again at his right
leg. There was not much of it left.
The cannon shell had taken him
on the thigh, just above the knee, and
now there was nothing but a great
mess and a lot of blood. But there was
no pain. When he looked down, he felt
as though he were seeing something
that did not belong to him. It had
nothing to do with him. It was just a
mess which happened to be there in the
cockpit; something strange and
unusual and rather interesting. It was
like finding a dead cat on the sofa.
He really felt fine, and because he
still felt fine, he felt excited and
I won't even bother to call up on the
radio for the blood wagon, he thought.
It isn't necessary. And when I land I'll
sit there quite normally and say, some
of you fellows come and help me out,
will you, because I've lost one of my
legs. That will be funny. I'll laugh a
little while I'm saying it; I'll say it
calmly and slowly, and they'll think I'm
joking. When Yorky comes up onto
the wing and gets sick, I'll say, Yorky,
you old son of a bitch, have you fixed
my car yet? Then when I get out I'll
make my report and later I'll go up to
London. I'll take that half bottle of
whisky with me and I'll give it to
Bluey. We'll sit in her room and drink it. I'll get the water out
of the bathroom tap. I won't say much until it's time to go to bed,
then Ill say, Bluey, I've got a surprise for you. I
lost a leg today. But I don't mind so
long as you don't. It doesn't even hurt.
We'll go everywhere in cars. I always
hated walking, except when I walked
down the street of the coppersmiths in
Bagdad, but I could go in a rickshaw. I
could go home and chop wood, but the head always flies off the ax.
Hot water, that's what it needs; put it in the bath
and make the handle swell. I chopped
lots of wood last time I went home,
and I put the ax in the bath. . . .
Then he saw the sun shining on the
engine cowling of his machine. He saw
the rivets in the metal, and he
remembered where he was. He realized
that he was no longer feeling good;
that he was sick and giddy. His head
kept falling forward onto his chest
because his neck seemed no longer to
have- any strength. But he knew that he
was flying the Spitfire, and he could
feel the handle of the stick between the
fingers of his right hand.
I'm going to pass out, he thought.
Any moment now I'm going to pass
He looked at his altimeter.
Twenty-one thousand. To test himself
he tried to read the hundreds as well as
the thousands. Twenty-one thousand
and what? As he looked the dial
became blurred, and he could not even
see the needle. He knew then that he
must bail out; that there was not a
second to lose, otherwise he would
become unconscious. Quickly,
frantically, he tried to slide back the
hood with his left hand, but he had not
the strength. For a second he took his
right hand off the stick, and with both
hands he managed to push the hood back. The
rush of cold air on his face seemed to
help. He had a moment of great
clearness, and his actions became
orderly and precise. That is what
happens with a good pilot. He took
some quick deep breaths from his
oxygen mask, and as he did so, he
looked out over the side of the
cockpit. Down below there was only a
vast white sea of cloud, and he
realized that he did not know where he
It'll be the Channel, he thought. I'm
sure to fall in the drink.
He throttled back, pulled off his
helmet, undid his straps, and pushed
the stick hard over to the left. The
Spitfire dripped its port wing, and
turned smoothly over onto its back.
The pilot fell out.
As he fell he opened his eyes,
because he knew that he must not pass
out before he had pulled the cord. On
one side he saw the sun; on the other
he saw the whiteness of the clouds, and
as he fell, as he somersaulted in the air,
the white clouds chased the sun and the
sun chased the clouds. They chased
each other in a small circle; they ran
faster and faster, and there was the sun
and the clouds and the clouds and the
sun, and the clouds came nearer until
suddenly there was no longer any sun,
but only a great whiteness. The whole
world was white, and there was
nothing in it. It was so white that
sometimes it looked black, and after a
time it was either white or black, but
mostly it was white. He watched it as it
turned from white to black, and then back to white again, and the
stayed for a long time, but the black
lasted only for a few seconds. He got
into the habit of going to sleep during
the white periods, and of waking up
just in time to see the world when it was black. But the black was
quick. Sometimes it was only a flash,
like someone switching off the light,
and switching it on again at once, and
so whenever it was white, he dozed
One day, when it was white, he put
out a hand and he touched something.
He took it between his fingers and
crumpled it. For a time he~lay there,
idly letting the tips of his fingers play
with the thing which they had touched.
Then slowly he opened his eyes,
looked down at his hand, and saw that
he was holding something which was
white. It was the edge of a sheet. He
knew it was a sheet because he could
see the texture of the material and the
stitchings on the hem. He screwed up
his eyes, and opened them again
quickly. This time he saw the room.
He saw the bed in which he was lying;
he saw the grey walls and the door and
the green curtains over the window.
There were some roses on the table by
Then he saw the basin on the table
near the roses. It was a white enamel
basin, and beside it there was a small
This is a hospital, he thought. I am
in a hospital. But he could remember
nothing. He lay back on his pillow,
looking at the ceiling and wondering
what had happened. He was gazing at
the smooth greyness of the ceiling
which was so clean and gray, and then
suddenly he saw a fly walking upon it.
The sight of this fly, the suddenness
of seeing this small black speck on a
sea of gray, brushed the surface of his
brain, and quickly, in that second, he
remembered everything. He
remembered the Spitfire and he
remembered the altimeter showing
twenty-one thousand feet. He
remembered the pushing back of the hood with both hands, and he
remembered the bailing out. He
remembered his leg.
It seemed all right now. He looked
down at the end of the bed, but he
could not tell. He put one hand
underneath the bedclothes and felt for
his knees. He found one of them, but
when he felt for the other, his hand
touched something which was soft and
covered in bandages.
Just then the door opened and a
nurse came in.
"Hello," she said. "So you've waked
up at last."
She was not good-looking, but she
was large and clean. She was between
thirty and forty and she had fair hair.
More than that he did not notice.
"Where am I?"
"You're a lucky fellow. You landed
in a wood near the beach. You're in
Brighton. They brought you in two
days ago, and now you're all fixed up.
You look fine."
"I've lost a leg," he said.
"That's nothing. We'll get you
another one. Now you must go to
sleep. The doctor will be coming to
see you in about an hour." She picked
up the basin and the medicine glass
and went out.
But he did not sleep. He wanted to
keep his eyes open because he was
frightened that if he shut them again
everything would go away. He lay
looking at the ceiling. The fly was still
there. It was very energetic. It would
run forward very fast for a few inches,
then it would stop. Then it would run
forward again, stop, run forward, stop,
and every now and then it would take
off and buzz around viciously in small
circles. It always landed back in the
same place on the ceiling and started
running and stopping all over again.
He watched it for so long that after a
while it was no longer a fly, but only a
black speck upon a sea of gray, and he
was still watching it when the nurse
opened the door, and stood aside while
the doctor came in. He was an Army
doctor, a major, and he had some last
war ribbons on his chest. He was bald
and small, but he had a cheerful face
and kind eyes.
"Well, well," he said. "So you've
decided to wake up at last. How are
"I feel all right."
"That's the stuff. You'll be up and
about in no time."
The doctor took his wrist to feel his
"By the way," he said, "some of the
lads from your squadron were ringing
up and asking about you. They wanted
to come along and see you, but I said
that they'd better wait a day or two.
Told them you were all right, and that
they could come and see you a little
later on. Just lie quiet and take it easy
for a bit. Got something to read?" He
glanced at the table with the roses.
"No. Well, nurse will look after you.
She'll get you anything you want."
With that he waved his hand and went
out, followed by the large clean nurse.
When they had gone, he lay back and
looked at the ceiling again. The fly was
still there and as he lay watching it he
heard the noise of an airplane in the
distance. He lay listening to the sound
of its engines. It was a long way away. I
wonder what it is, he thought. Let me
see if I can place it. Suddenly he jerked
his head sharply to one side. Anyone
who has been bombed can tell the noise
of a Junkers 88. They can tell most
other German bombers for that matter,
but especially a Junkers 88. The
engines seem to sing a duet. There is a
deep vibrating bass voice and with it
there is a high pitched tenor. It is the singing of the tenor
which makes the sound of a JU-88
something which one cannot mistake.
He lay listening to the noise, and he
felt quite certain about what it was.
But where were the sirens, and where
the guns? That German pilot certainly
had a nerve coming near Brighton
alone in daylight.
The aircraft was always far away,
and soon the noise faded away into the
distance. Later on there was another.
This one, too, was far away, but there
was the same deep undulating bass and
the high singing tenor, and there was
no mistaking it. He had heard that
noise every day during the battle.
He was puzzled. There was a bell
on the table by the bed. He reached out
his hand and rang it. He heard the
noise of footsteps down the corridor,
and the nurse came in.
"Nurse, what were those
"I'm sure I don't know. I didn't hear
them. Probably fighters or bombers. I
expect they were returning from
France. Why, what's the matter?"
"They were JU-88's. I'm sure they
were JU-88's. I know the sound of the
engines. There were two of them.
What were they doing over here?"
The nurse came up to the side of his
bed and began to straighten out the
sheets and tuck them in under the
"Gracious me, what things you
imagine. You mustn't worry about a
thing like that. Would you like me to
get you something to read?"
"No, thank you."
She patted his pillow and brushed
back the hair from his forehead with
"They never come over in daylight
any longer. You know that. They were
probably Lancasters or Flying
"Could I have a cigarette?"
"Why certainly you can."
She went out and came back almost
at once with a packet of Players and
some matches. She handed one to him
and when he had put it in his mouth,
she struck a match and lit it.
"If you want me again," she said,
"just ring the bell," and she went out.
Once toward evening he heard the
noise of another aircraft. It was far
away, but even so he knew that it was a
single-engined machine. But he could
not place it. It was going fast; he could
tell that. But it wasn't a Spit, and it wasn't a Hurricane. It did
like an American engine either. They
make more noise. He did not know
what it was, and it worried him greatly.
Perhaps I am very ill, he thought.
Perhaps I am imagining things.
Perhaps I am a little delirious. I simply
do not know what to think.
That evening the nurse came in with
a basin of hot water and began to wash
"Well," she said, "I hope you don't
still think that we're being bombed."
She had taken off his pajama top
and was soaping his right arm with a
flannel. He did not answer.
She rinsed the flannel in the water,
rubbed more soap on it, and began to
wash his chest.
"You're looking fine this evening,"
she said. "They operated on you as
soon as you came in. They did a
marvelous job. You'll be all right. I've
got a brother in the RAF," she added.
He said, "I went to school in
She looked up quickly. "Well, that's
fine," she said. "I expect you'll know
some people in the town."
"Yes," he said, "I know quite a few."
She had finished washing his chest
and arms, and now she turned back the
bedclothes, so that his left leg was
uncovered. She did it in such a way
that his bandaged stump remained
under the sheets. She undid the cord of
his pajama trousers and took them off.
There was no trouble because they had
cut off the right trouser leg, so that it
could not interfere with the bandages.
She began to wash his left leg and the
rest of his body. This was the first time
he had had a bed bath, and he was
embarrassed. She laid a towel under
his leg, and she was washing his foot
with the flannel. She said, "This
wretched soap won't lather at all. It's
the water. It's as hard as nails."
He said, "None of the soap is very
good now and, of course, with hard
water it's hopeless." As he said it he
remembered something. He
remembered the baths which he used
to take at school in Brighton, in the
long stone-floored bathroom which
had four baths in a room. He
remembered how the water was so
soft that you had to take a shower
afterwards to get all the soap off your
body, and he remembered how the
foam used to float on the surface of
the water, so that you could not see
your legs underneath. He remembered
that sometimes they were given
calcium tablets because the school
doctor used to say that soft water was
bad for the teeth.
"In Brighton," he said, "the water isn't . . ."
He did not finish the sentence.
Something had occurred to him;
something so fantastic and absurd that
for a moment he felt like telling the
nurse about it and having a good
She looked up. "The water isn't
what?" she said.
"Nothing," he answered. "I was
She rinsed the flannel in the basin,
wiped the soap off his leg, and dried
him with a towel.
"It's nice to be washed," he said. "I
feel better." He was feeling his face
with his hands. "I need a shave."
"We'll do that tomorrow," she said.
"Perhaps you can do it yourself then."
That night he could not sleep. He
lay awake thinking of the Junkers 88's
and of the hardness of the water. He
could think of nothing else. They were
JU-88's, he said to himself. I know
they were. And yet it is not possible,
because they would not be flying
around so low over here in broad
daylight. I know that it is true, and yet I
know that it is impossible. Perhaps I
am ill. Perhaps I am behaving like a
fool and do not know what I am doing
or saying. Perhaps I am delirious. For
a long time he lay awake thinking
these things, and once he sat up in bed
and said aloud, "I will prove that I am
not crazy. I will make a little speech
about something complicated and
intellectual. I will talk about what to
do with Germany after the war." But
before he had time to begin, he was
He woke just as the first light of day
was showing through the slit in the
curtains over the window. The room
was still dark, but he could tell that it
was already beginning to get light
outside. He lay looking at the grey
light which was showing through the
slit in the curtain, and as he lay there
he remembered the day before. He
remembered the Junkers 88's and the
hardness of the water; he remembered
the large pleasant nurse and the kind
doctor, and now the small grain of
doubt took root in his mind and it
began to grow.
He looked around the room. The
nurse had taken the roses out the night
before, and there was nothing except
the table with a packet of cigarettes, a
box of matches and an ash tray.
Otherwise, it was bare. It was no
longer warm or friendly. It was not
even comfortable. It was cold and
empty and very quiet.
Slowly the grain of doubt grew, and
with it came fear, a light, dancing fear
that warned but did not frighten; the
kind of fear that one gets not because
one is afraid, but because one feels
that there is something wrong. Quickly
the doubt and the fear grew so that he became restless and angry,
he touched his forehead with his hand,
he found that it was damp with sweat.
He knew then that he must do
something; that he must find some way
of proving to himself that he was
either right or wrong, and he looked
up and saw again the window and the
green curtains. From where he lay, that
window was right in front of him, but
it was fully ten yards away. Somehow
he must reach it and look out. The idea
became an obsession with him, and
soon he could think of nothing except
the window. But what about his leg?
He put his hand underneath the
bedclothes and felt the thick bandaged
stump which was all that was left on
the right-hand side. It seemed all right.
It didn't hurt. But it would not be easy.
He sat up. Then he pushed the
bedclothes aside and put his left leg on
the floor. Slowly, carefully, he swung
his body over until he had both hands
on the floor as well; and then he was
out of bed, kneeling on the carpet. He
looked at the stump. It was very short
and thick, covered with bandages. It
was beginning to hurt and he could
feel it throbbing. He wanted to
collapse, lie down on the carpet and do nothing, but
he knew that he must go on.
With two arms and one leg, he
crawled over towards the window. He
would reach forward as far as he
could with his arms, then he would
give a little jump and slide his left
leg along after them. Each time he
did, it jarred his wound so that he
gave a soft grunt of pain, but he continued to crawl across the
two hands and one knee. When he
got to the window he reached up,
and one at a time he placed both
hands on the sill. Slowly he raised
himself up until he was standing
on his left leg. Then quickly he
pushed aside the curtains and looked
He saw a small house with a gray
tiled roof standing alone beside a
narrow lane, and immediately behind
it there was a plowed field. In front
of the house there was an untidy gar-
den, and there was a green hedge
separating the garden from the lane.
He was looking at the hedge when
he saw the sign. It was just a piece
of board nailed to the top of a short
pole, and because the hedge had not
been trimmed for a long time, the
branches had grown out around the
sign so that it seemed almost as
though it had been placed in the
middle of the hedge. There was
something written on the board with
white paint, and he pressed his head
against the glass of the window,
trying to read what it said. The first
letter was a G, he could see that.
The second was an A, and the third
was an R. One after another he man-
aged to see what the letters were.
There were three words, and slowly
he spelled the letters out aloud to
himself as he managed to read them.
G-A-R-D-E A-U C-H-I-E-N. Garde
au chien. That is what it said.
He stood there balancing on one
leg and holding tightly to the edges
of the window sill with his hands,
staring at the sign and at the
whitewashed lettering of the words.
For a moment he could think of
nothing at all. He stood there looking
at the sign, repeating the words over
and over to himself, and then slowly
he began to realize the full meaning of
the thing. He looked up at the cottage
and at the plowed field. He looked at
the small orchard on the left of the
cottage and he looked at the green
countryside beyond. "So this is
France," he said. "I am France."
Now the throbbing in his right thigh
was very great. It felt as though
someone was pounding the
end of his stump with a hammer,
and suddenly the pain became so intense that it affected his head
and for a moment he thought he was
going to fall. Quickly he knelt down
again, crawled back to the bed and
hoisted himself in. He pulled the
bedclothes over himself and lay back on the pillow, exhausted. He
could still think of nothing at all except
the small sign by the hedge, and the
plowed field and the orchard. It was
the words on the sign that he could
It was some time before the nurse
came in. She came carrying a basin
of hot water and she said, "Good
morning, how are you today?"
He said, "Good morning, nurse."
The pain was still great under the
bandages, but he did not wish to tell
this woman anything. He looked at
her as she busied herself with getting
the washing things ready. He looked
at her more carefully now. Her hair
was very fair. She was tall and big-boned, end her face seemed
pleasant. But there was something a little uneasy about her eyes.
They were never still. They never looked at anything for more than
a moment and they moved too quickly from one
place to another in the room. There
was something about her movements
also. They were too sharp and nervous
to go well with the casual manner in
which she spoke.
She set down the basin, took off his
pajama top and began to wash him.
"Did you sleep well?"
"Good," she said. She was washing
his arms and his chest.
"I believe there's someone coming
down to see you from the Air Ministry
after breakfast," she went on. "They
want a report or something. I expect
you know all about it. How you got
shot down and all that. I won't let him
stay long, so don't worry."
He did not answer. She finished
washing him, and gave him a
toothbrush and some tooth powder.
He brushed his teeth, rinsed his mouth
and spat the water out into the basin.
Later she brought him his breakfast
on a tray, but he did not want to eat.
He was still feeling weak and sick, and
he wished only to lie still and think
about what had happened. And there
was a sentence running through his
head. It was a sentence which Johnny,
the Intelligence Officer of his
squadron, always repeated to the pilots
every day before they went out. He
could see Johnny now, leaning against
the wall of the dispersal hut with his
pipe in his hand, saying, "And if they
get you, don't forget, just your name,
rank and number. Nothing else. For
God's sake, say nothing else."
"There you are," she said as she put
the tray on his lap. "I've got you an
egg. Can you manage all right?"
She stood beside the bed. "Are you
feeling all right?"
"Good. If you want another egg I
might be able to get you one."
"This is all right."
"Well, just ring the bell if you want
any more." And she went out.
He had just finished eating, when
the nurse came in again.
She said, "Wing Commander
Roberts is here. I've told him that he
can only stay for a few minutes."
She beckoned with her hand and the
Wing Commander came in.
"Sorry to bother you like this," he
He was an ordinary RAF officer,
dressed in a uniform which was a little
shabby, and he wore wings and a DFC.
He was fairly tall and thin with plenty
of black hair. His teeth, which were
irregular and widely spaced, stuck out
a little even when he closed his mouth.
As he spoke he took a printed form
and a pencil from his pocket, and he
pulled up a chair and sat down.
"How are you feeling?"
There was no answer.
"Tough luck about your leg. I know
how you feel. I hear you put up a fine
show before they got you."
The man in the bed was lying quite
still, watching the man in the chair.
The man in the chair said, "Well,
let's get this stuff over. I'm afraid
you'll have to answer a few questions
so that I can fill in this combat report.
Let me see now, first of all, what was
The man in the bed did not move.
He looked straight at the Wing
Commander and he said, "My name is
Peter Williamson. My rank is
Squadron Leader and my number is
nine seven two four five seven."
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