This was supposed to go up two days ago, but I ended up being sick and have slept away most of the time since then, so it didn’t. My sincerest apologies. 🙂 Anyhow, you lucky people, you’ll get two posts today!
A Small Introduction By The Author:
As I was reading this over, I realised that my writing style has changed a lot since I first wrote this all those years ago (2015, in case you were wondering). I’ve grown a lot, and changed, and because of that, I was considering not publishing this story, like I said I would months ago.
But I changed my mind. Sure, this novella (if it can even be called that, it’s only 16k long :P) no longer reflects my style, or even really me, but it’s still a part of my history. It’s a part of who I am as a writer. I think too often we writers shove our old works to the bottom of the proverbial drawer, dust off our hands and exclaim: “Phew! At least no one will ever, ever see that!” This is usually a merited response, but the problem with it is that it makes us ashamed of growth. We cringe when we look back on old writing, and I think that comes, a lot of the time, from a feeling of insecurity. We don’t need to be ashamed of growing up and changing and we should be proud to show (some) of our old writing to the world.
And even though this is old, it’s still one of my favourite works. Not all our old writing is as bad as we think 😉 And even if it is…well, we all had to start somewhere, no?
So, in honour of growth, I will share my writing with you, in the hope that it inspires other people to be more proud of their writing heritage.
The bugle broke the still morning air, piercing the fog to reach my ears. I turned on my heel to across the airfield at the barracks, sighed and began to walk back toward it. Time to toughen up again. Wipe those tears away, Wolfe Verick. A soldier does not cry.
I hesitated in front of the door to the mess hall, stiffened my shoulders, straightened my back, and then opened the door.
Immediately, the pleasant aroma of ham and eggs, mixed with the sharp scent of black coffee, filled my senses. I glanced down the long tables, still mostly deserted, caught sight of Ernst and Kurt and went to sit next to them.
“Guten morgen, Verick.” Ernst looked up at me. “You’re up early.”
“Ja,” I grunted my agreement, but said nothing more.
“Couldn’t sleep?” suggested Kurt, from the other side of Ernst.
I frowned. “No.” I hesitated for a moment, considering how much more I should say. But how could I tell Kurt—a national hero—that I had tossed all night, unable to get the image of a burning English plane out of my head. How could I tell him that the horror had not left me? How could I tell him that I was not as strong as him? “I’m fine though.”
“Unfortunately, your buttons are not,” Ernst replied, his voice teasing.
I glanced down at the buttons on the front of my uniform. I growled, unbuttoned them all, and then set to work buttoning my jacket again.
“And your hair,” Kurt added. “Looks as if a hornet took up residence there.”
I said nothing in return, but flattened my short hair as well as I could. Then I glanced up, scowled at them and went to retrieve my breakfast.
When I returned a moment later, Ernst pointed out that my uniform probably hadn’t been starched since the start of the war and Kurt countered by adding that my shoes probably hadn’t been polished since the Dark Ages.
“You’d better not let Lieutenant Bolle see you looking like that,” Kurt whispered to me. “He’ll skin you alive.”
“Thank you,” I replied, still a little nettled. I hadn’t been here for long, but I did know enough about Lieutenant Bolle to know that he wouldn’t be pleased with my haphazard appearance.
During our conversation, the mess hall had filled up and was now blanketed in the hum of sleepy men grumbling to each other, or ribbing each other in the same way Kurt and Ernst enjoyed ribbing me. I put my head down and concentrated on my eggs, trying not to meet anyone’s eyes, but also trying to observe Kurt and Ernst as they ate their own breakfasts.
I was fairly certain that Kurt Buckler was the only man in the entire German Army who was smaller than me. He’d confided in me, almost as soon as I had met him, that he’d just turned seventeen and that he’d shot down one English plane for every year of his life. I did not believe a word of the secondary claim, but his eyes did spark with the kind of mischief and recklessness that only someone who’d joined the army underage could possess. But despite his size and his age, he somehow managed to earn favour with Lieutenant Bolle—and everyone else as well—and become a pilot a week later.
Ernst, on the other hand, was tall and, at twenty-three, the oldest in the squadron. Quiet and grave with everyone, except for me, who he teased. Not in a cruel way, but in the kind of way an older brother would tease the younger one. Or at least, how I imagined it would be like. As well as being the eldest, he’d been there the longest. He could remember shaking hands with Manfred von Richthofen over two years ago. Somehow, he’d cheated death time and time again and had come home from every mission.
I choked on my coffee as the door opened and Lieutenant Bolle strode in. Immaculate and sharp as always, of course. I hurriedly attempted to wipe the coffee stain from my jacket front, made it worse, and then smoothed down my hair again.
The atmosphere switched from teasing to tense. The lieutenant gave us a cursory glance—which thankfully did not rest on me—and we all stood to attention. “Muller, Verick, Hintzen, Loewe! Reconnaissance and patrol, I’d like you to report my office at once.” He gave us a stiff nod of his head as we saluted, and then he strode out again.
I sculled my remaining cold coffee, waved a quick goodbye to Kurt, who responded with something that sounded like a snort, and followed Ernst.
Half an hour later, I had changed from my formal uniform into my one-piece leather flying suit, and I was now in the process of pulling on my fur-covered boots. Ernst, on the other side of the room, finished with his boots and started on his flying cap and goggles, before stopping, half-finished.
“Are you all right, Verick?”
I hesitated. Then I nodded, concentrating on my boots. “As all right as anyone else here, I guess.”
“None of us all right here,” Ernst said, his voice tinged with sadness. “Not a single one of us.”
I lifted my eyes to study him, taking in his drawn, pale face. The ever-roving grey eyes and the hands which would not keep still. The strain of war had left two years worth of lines across his forehead. Two years of fear and uncertainty. Still, little but the strange, high pitch of his voice and the constant thrumming of his hand on his leg showed his anxiety. His ever-fraying nerves. Ernst Muller was a much stronger man than I would ever be.
I finished with my boots and snatched up my flying cap, deciding not to answer.
“We weren’t made for this, Verick. Not for this sort of horror. Killing people is not in our nature.” Ernst clenched his jaw as he did up his cap, and then went on. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
I scowled at my shaking hands, then picked up my gloves and put them on. I’d killed a man, several men, only hours ago. I’m going out now and maybe I’ll kill more. I decided to go with my default. “I’m fine.”
Ernst said nothing more. We finished dressing in silence and then made our way to the hangars.
Ernst’s Albatros biplane was his darling, his pride and joy, painted black and white by his own hand and named Schmetterling—Butterfly. Though it was less like a butterfly and more like a murderous wasp, I’d decided. Ernst ran his hand along the black canvas of the fuselage, smiled and then climbed onto the wings.
“Start her up, will you, Verick?” he called down to me as he slid into the cockpit, settled himself and flicked the ignition. At the same time, I hauled on the propeller and sent it spinning. Smoke blew into my face, making me cough, the engine sputtered and choked for a moment, before gradually falling into a raucous buzz.
I pulled down my goggles, put my foot on the lower wing and then clambered into my seat behind Ernst. I stood on my seat and inspected my guns just to make sure they were loaded with a full magazine. Schmetterling was certainly no first-class Fokker fighter, but she was quick, agile and armed to take on the English Camels.
We always flew in formation when we went out on patrol to hunt the English. I likened our formations to a pack of wolves. We hunted better in numbers. As Ernst taxied his Albatros into the formation, waiting to take off, I frowned and counted. Five others with us today. Two double-seaters and three singles.
We took off as one and flew, high and swift, above the broken French countryside, where we were stationed. Looking out to one side, the wind cutting at my exposed cheeks, I could see trenches criss-crossing the landscape, like scars from a monster’s talons. Like the furrows of a gigantic plough.
And then we were diving. I took my attention from the trenches below and focussed on what I could see before me.
Sopwiths. Beige coloured, with red, white and blue targets painted on the side. I bit my lip and readied my gun. Our formation positioned ourselves with the sun at our backs, and then we dove on.
We came out of the sky on the English like mob of black and white wasps. Tracer fire flew around us as they realised their danger and swung to meet us. I tensed, finger on the trigger, terror swirling in my stomach.
I forced myself to wait, just as I’d been taught, until I could see the pilot’s eyes and then I fired. The thrum of the engine and the roar of the wind kept me from hearing anything, but I saw the man collapse. The plane spiralled out of control and nausea seized me.
Don’t lose your head. Ernst wouldn’t panic. He’s not panicking. But the image of the plane I’d shot down yesterday rushed over me again. Don’t think about it! Concentrate on now.
I opened my eyes in time to see another Sopwith bearing down on us. I pulled the trigger again, as Ernst dove to the right, and then spiralled up again. A heartbeat later, the Sopwith spurted blue smoke, but I hadn’t hit it fatally.
But we were outnumbered and being driven toward a glinting blue mass beneath us, which I realised a moment later, was the English Channel.
The sound of tearing canvas caught my ear, even above the combined roar of the engine and the wind. I gripped the side and looked over, abandoning my gun for a minute. I winced as I saw torn canvas flapping in the wind, leaving a large portion of the wooden framework uncovered.
We were in serious trouble, that much was obvious.
Still Ernst did not panic. But I did.
I managed to calm myself by imagining Ernst, his face set like flint, determination in every angle of his body. If anyone could get me home safe, it was Ernst.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the other Albatros, black smoke pouring from its engine. English tracer burying itself in the pilot and the gunner. And all I could was watch as the plane spun, plummeting toward the sea. The image burnt itself into my head as I watched.
Another burst of tracer, and sudden, searing pain exploded in my ankle. I gasped and collapsed forward, my mouth going dry. With pain clouding my head, I couldn’t think straight, or aim, or even concentrate hard enough to hold down the trigger.
What are you doing? I mentally demanded of Ernst. Force a landing…force a landing. It’s the only way we can survive this.
But he kept going, as if he was disorientated. Flying toward a green smudge on the horizon—England, I guessed. Why England? Why not ditch into the sea? We would die—yes, definitely—but we wouldn’t be taken prisoner.
Pain blurred my vision, darkness closing in on me…but I couldn’t faint. Couldn’t give in. I forced myself to stay awake…stay alert…
Tracer struck the prop, buried itself in the nose…we were over England. The plane jerked to the left violently. I looked up and almost fainted again as I saw Ernst slumping forward, blood covering his side and back.
No! No! I thought, horrified. For a moment, I forgot my own pain. Not Ernst! Please, not Ernst!
With no one to guide the plane, it began to fall. Gliding at first, and then plunging. A forest rapidly rose before my eyes, then the splintering sound of a violent landing filled my eyes. Smoke, I could smell smoke.
The impact hurled me forward. Something struck my head and I collapsed, knowing nothing more.
Well, that’s it for the first instalment! How’d it go? And most importantly, how do you view your old writing?