Here we are, ladies and gentlemen! We’ve arrived at the second instalment. I’m glad you all seemed to enjoy last week’s post (if you missed that, you can find it here)
Without any further ado, here we go! Chapter 2!
I must have been out no more than a few seconds. I opened my eyes and found myself draped over the back of Ernst’s seat, blood running down the side of my head. Intense heat had woken me and it was scorching my back and legs.
The Albatros had caught fire.
Terror overwhelmed my pain as I scrambled to get clear, beating out some flames that caught at my sleeve. “Ernst!” I grabbed at my friend’s shoulder and shook him. When he only slumped forward, I remembered the bullet that had killed him. The bullet that would have struck me if I hadn’t ducked.
Survival instinct grabbed me and I didn’t think of grief. I scrambled out of the plane, crawled clear of the burning wreckage and collapsed on the grass. I lay there, exhausted, but thinking only of my ruined photographs. Pain flooded my body and I groaned, wishing my first aid kit wasn’t burning with my pictures.
I roused myself. I couldn’t lay next to a burning aeroplane forever. Already smoke was catching in my lungs, making me cough. I needed to get somewhere I could lie concealed from any passer-by, at least until I figured out a plan. I forced my eyes to focus, and then let them land on a forest I had fleetingly spotted from the plane. Gritting my teeth, I pulled myself up and then crawled toward it. A world of pain seemed to pass before I lay my head against a small, rough trunk and then blacked out again.
It was late afternoon before I came around, throat dry and my tongue swollen.
Slowly I became aware of something digging into my hip. I rolled over and my groping fingers touched the warm steel of my Luger pistol
Then I stiffened, hearing something awful that struck more fear into me than the sound of any gun could. Footsteps. Marching footsteps. I lifted my head slightly and peered through the foliage of my shelter.
About fifteen soldiers were marching across the open field towards the ruined Schmetterling. Clearly came the sound of their foreign language, words I couldn’t understand. I held my breath, knowing they would pass me by in a moment, and then praying they wouldn’t see me. Oh, please dear Lord, don’t let them see me! Please don’t let them see me! I prayed. My fingers tightened around my Luger.
Then I felt the irrepressible desire to sneeze. No! No! I thought, pinching my nose. Why would it be now, of all times, that I wanted so badly to sneeze? Now, when enemy soldiers were only a few feet from my hiding place?
The sound of their feet faded into the distance, and I muffled the sneeze in my jacket, then I mused over my position.
I was wounded and stranded in England—England! I let my eyes search out the billowing plume of the bluish-grey smoke and sighed. Any minute now the pilots in khaki would search it and they’d find Ernst dead, but they wouldn’t find me.
Fantastisch, I thought to myself, glancing down at the decaying leaves I lay on. Pain shot up my ankle as I shifted and that set my head throbbing again. Fantastisch, I repeated, I am wounded and in enemy territory. Can things get much worse?
I couldn’t walk, I was alone. Fantastisch.
I woke again in the night, every hair standing on end, ears straining, muscles taut. I wasn’t sure what had woken me, so I lay still for several seconds, trying to identify the danger I’d sensed. My head felt clearer now and I could think straight, and listen to the cricket sonnets and frog carols. The shriek of a fox startled me.
Then I heard footsteps. Again.
I couldn’t run, so I had nothing to do but hide. I pressed my forehead into my knees and felt my breath catch in my throat.
The footsteps grew louder, whoever it was, was getting closer, and I felt the blood drain from my face.
The tramping stopped and I knew the owner of the sound stood above me.
There was a brisk, mocking laugh, but I did not dare move. “You don’t have to hide,” said a voice in accented German. “I’m not the government you know.”
I uncurled and sat up, biting back my cry of fear, saw a man wearing the khaki uniform we Germans hated so much. I could see him well in the light of the lantern he held and the light of the moonlight filtering through the leaves. There were pilot’s wings above his breast pocket, and a grim smile on his weathered face.
I was rigid with terror for a moment, then I tilted up my head to look him in the face. “Who are you?” I barked out, though my voice shook. “Why do you speak German? Are you British?”
The pilot shrugged, ignoring my questions. “Are you from that Albatros that crashed back there?” he waved his hand in the direction of the extinguished aeroplane.
I hesitated, knowing I couldn’t trust this man. But I’d lost everything anyway, how could I lose more? “Ja.”
He nodded, because he hadn’t needed my confirmation to know he was right. “And your name is Wolfe Verick.” Not a question. A statement.
I started, surprised, but nodded in return.
The pilot eyed me. “I can help you,” he said after a pause. “You need to trust me.”
Suddenly, I felt angry at this stranger—angry at him for knowing who I was, angry at him for expecting my trust. “I don’t have a clue who you are!” I burst out, my voice rising. “I’ve never met you in my life and we are enemies! Why should I trust you?”
The man shrugged again, “How long have you been here?”
I bit my lip and glowered back.
“Look here,” The man said, starting to sound impatient. “I told you, I’m trying to help you. I’m a medic. You’re hurt.” He put his free hand into his pocket and drew something out. “See, I’ve got a message here.” He passed me a scrap of paper, which I recognised as coming from a German pilot’s journal. I took it, stared at the unfamiliar words, then held it out, pretending I’d read it.
The pilot didn’t take it. “Your friends dropped it, only an hour or two ago. They’re looking for you.”
I drew the note back and stared at it again, this time seeing my own name—Wolfe Verick—in the English writing. “Read it,” I demanded, thrusting it back at him.
The Englishman took it and began to read aloud, translating from English to German as he went. “‘Dear Sirs, we are looking for two of our crewmen, Lieutenant Ernst Muller and Observer Wolfe Verick, missing the morning of July 26th, 1916. Help appreciated.” The man stopped, but his eyes continued scanning the page. “That is all you need to know.”
I stared at him, trying to wrap my head around this startling piece of news. This man held a note, which he claimed came from a German pilot and which mentioned my name. Could it be true? How was I supposed to trust a man who wore a khaki uniform? “We’re supposed to be enemies!” I cried out, my voice higher than I intended it to be. “Yet you are aiding my comrades to find me? What kind of a war is this?”
The pilot shrugged for the third time. “We owed you one. For burying two of our men and dropping us photos of their graves.” He turned keen eyes on me. “We call it comradeship. I think you call it kameradschaft.”
“But…” I frowned, “I don’t understand!”
The man smiled, “I don’t expect you to. It’s a bit of revolutionary idea at the moment. But I’ll explain it all to you in time. Will you trust me?”
I hesitated, staring up at him. His word—Kameradschaft—was echoing around my head. How had the Englishman said it again? Comradeship… “But you’re my enemy!” I tried once more.
“So you keep saying,” the man observed, dryly. “And you’re right. But this is a hopeless war.” He smiled, bitterness touching his mouth. “But if we could get the useless aristocrats who started it to understand that…” he paused. “Will you trust me?”
I touched my pistol, hesitated, then let my hand drop by my side. I nodded slightly. “All right,” I breathed, hardly able to wrap my head around what I’d said.
The man helped me to my feet. “I’m Ben Simeon by the way.”
What did you think? Are you enjoying Wolfe’s narration so far? Do you think you’ll like Ben Simeon? What are you working on at the moment?