TEN thousand boys in the upper air. Squadron upon squadron, their intricate machines thundered toward the target, heavy with death. Darkness below; and above, the stars. Below, the invisible carpet of the fields and little homes; above, and very far beyond those flashing stars, the invisible galaxies, gliding through the immense dark, squadron upon squadron of universes, deploying in the boundless and yet measured space.
In one of the bombers, seven boys. Seven young minds in patterned unity; each self-cherishing, but all knit inwardly together by fibres of steel-tempered comradeship. And all equally imprisoned, body and mind, in their intricate machinery.
Seven boys, and by strange chance a moth. It had strayed, no doubt, into the plane when the crew were taking their places. Since then it had wavered hither and thither, up and down its prison, from one domed transparent turret to another, teased by some obscure longing, needing though unwittingly a mate. Searching, softly colliding with now this young human cheek now that, kissing each one like the fluttered eyelash of an invisible beloved, it spent the numbered seconds of its life in vain. Or tremulously it thrust with feeble pressure against the prison windows, drawn by the pin-prick lights of the sky; but conceiving no immensity, no galaxies.
The seven boys too had their own, their more articulate yearnings. They craved the life that was normal to their human, and more conscious, but unfinished, nature. And like the moth sometimes their minds impotently fluttered at the prison windows, vainly questioning the stars.
The rear-gunner had never heard of galaxies. Even the stars were for him little more than drifting lights. He knew, of course, that they were suns; but what of it? The fact oppressed him. Shunned, it had sunk almost too deep for memory. And though, on nights like this he could not help remembering and wondering, after a moment’s blankness he was bored. The stars, he felt, didn’t help matters at all. Down here on earth it was hell, though streaked tantalizingly with unfulfilling joys, with sex and beer and the bitter shattering ecstasy of air-fighting. There were moments, too, rather frightening but somehow exalting, when something deep inside one seemed to take possession, so that the whole of life changed its colour and became terribly important, and one kicked oneself for being such a waster. But they didn’t last, those moments. They were probably due to digestion, or glands or something. No, down here it was hell; and up there, just those blank stars. And now, to make things worse, he was starting a cold in his nose. Already it tickled and exasperated him, and already his head was none too clear. Would it spoil his nerve? Would he muff his part in the show? Whatever happened, he must not let the crew down. That really mattered. Mattered? Why ‘mattered’? For a moment an abyss of emptiness opened before him, but he gallantly leapt it. Hell! He didn’t know why it ‘mattered’, but it did; it mattered terribly that the crew should do well. Then, remembering an earlier raid, when the air round the plane was all fire and hammer-blows of blast, he felt an inner sinking. Of course the odds were that the whole seven of them would come through safely. But some crews would not. And sooner or later — He pictured the plane ablaze.
Panic swooped on him; but instantly he beat it off. One mustn’t think such thoughts. Think rather of the pilot’s skill and his own gunnery. Oh well! Quite soon they would be racing home in front of the dawn, lightened of bombs, and of fear. Then breakfast. How he wanted to live! The moth’s careless kiss had stirred him strangely, like the tickle of a girl’s hair on one’s cheek, he thought. He had never been to bed with a girl yet, though he often pretended he had. And he might die tonight, never having done it. Why, he asked himself, was he so clumsy with girls? Perhaps he was really frightened of them, frightened of damaging something holy in them. He could never rid himself of that feeling, though he knew it was silly. They were just female animals, and he a male one. And so he covered his reverent shyness with a man-of-the-world swagger; but they saw through it. She saw through it. And she could lead him on and put him off so easily, the teasing little bitch. But oh God, perhaps — perhaps they were both messing things up; perhaps there really was something sacred; perhaps this business of loving was really the way to it, if only they had the right technique. By now the bomber was over the narrow sea. The risen moon’s reflection was a splash of light ahead. The moth pressed more urgently toward the increased luminosity, while far below, unseen, each wave-crest, each droplet of spray and bubble of foam, was transfused with moonlight.
The rear-gunner did not know that under this salt water was an ancient valley. There, forests had grown beside a great river. Mammoths had crushed their way through the brushwood, and swum the hurrying water, seeking new pastures in the future island. Crouching submen had used untrimmed stones for tools, and for weapons in’ their subhuman quarrels, preluding bombs. But to the rear-gunner the narrow sea was only the protecting moat of his island country. And his country was-just fields and houses, cities and mines, the King and the Princesses, and so on. And of course the decentest people in the world; and the motherland of an Empire which was a spreading decency in every continent. Some said it wasn’t, blast them! They ought to know better than to foul their own nest. But even if they were right, and the Empire was a huge fraud, what matter? It was only the people at home that really mattered. It was for them the crews were fighting, and for the whole decent way of life. Decent? What could that really mean? Sacred? Right absolutely? Or just the done thing, just a groundless habit?
Dark land now loomed beyond the moonlit sea. Soon they would be up against the enemy’s defences, and then there must be no more dreaming. Thank God, though he was clumsy with a girl, he was quick and sure with a gun; and though on the way to the target his belly melted and his legs might sometimes quiver, he was cool enough when the show began. How the seven of them would act as one living thing, keying their functions perfectly together! But oh, he wanted to live on. Of course those buggers must be stopped from smashing everything. And the island fortress must be defended, and the Empire, and all that. Yes, and though one longed like hell for Civvy Street, it was good to know that one was in on the greatest show, and doing it with style, like the ‘few’, the superb ‘few’, in the Battle of Britain. But oh, he wanted to live.
Well, if he did live through to the peace, he wouldn’t bother about politics. He’d have the hell of a good time to make up for all this. Suddenly he had a vision of himself with his medals and his wing on a shabby civilian coat, selling tooth-brushes from door to door. That sort of thing happened after the last war, but it shouldn’t happen to him! If they didn’t give him something better than that, he and his kind would smash everything. The country certainly needed cleaning up. It was all the fault of those dirty Jews, no doubt. Well, if life meant living as an ‘ex-serviceman’, far better die tonight, and have done. But pain! Like when he burned his hand, but all over. And death? One never spoke about these things. He didn’t even whisper about them to his secret self, not if he could help it. Tonight, somehow, he didn’t care. He must face the facts. It was so much easier for the Germans and the Japs, who believed they were going to Valhalla or something. But for us, it was different. Of course the Padre was sure we were all bound for some kind of heaven or other. At least he said he was, but that was what he was paid for. Risky to bet on it, anyhow. But if death was just a snuffing out, a switching off the current, what sense in all this, this mess of heaven and hell down here?
Once more the rear-gunner brooded on the wide pin-pricked dome. Those stars, those suns, were all looking at him with a cold objective stare; or blinking, the better to see him; the better to eat you up, my dear. At last he knew them for what they really were, the devils. So at least he half-persuaded himself.
Actually, of course, they ignored him as completely as he ignored any little phagocyte in his own blood-stream. The stars flowed in their thousands, their myriads, squadron upon squadron, phagocytes in the blood-stream of our galaxy. Depth behind depth behind depth, they streamed along the channels of space, the great stars and the small, the near and the far, the young giants and the senile dwarfs. And what their significance might be, neither the rear-gunner nor any earth-bound intelligence could ever know. Yet in the rear-gunner’s mind some dark, threatening hint of their possible meaning bore heavily down. He shivered and blew his nose. Christ! What sense was there in those bloody great fires? Those flying sparks, perhaps, from some unseen, far greater fire. What a thought! He must pull himself together. For him the flares, the flak, the tracer, must have more meaning; and to keep a sharp eye and a steady hand. For at any moment now enemy fighters might appear, and still far ahead lay the target, the City.
Far ahead the City lay in the moonlight, exposed, waiting. The sirens had sounded. Seen from the air by its patrolling fliers, this metropolis was a huge smear, spilt on the patterned carpet of forest and lakes, rivers and gossamer roads. It was an amorphous, yet an obscurely detailed patch, as of lichen or some fungoid growth. It sprawled over the plain, vaguely organic, splayed, a squashed animal on the tarmac. But it was not lifeless. Restless antennae of light reached upward from it, sweeping the sky, probing the upper air, fading before the starry depth. For they searched, those prying feelers, not for any heaven but for the expected re-onset of hell.
In a nearer view the City, the great living, wounded creature, still displayed areas of vitality, intact tissues of patterned streets and roofs. But there were huge tracts also of roofless honeycomb, the cell-lids sheared away, leaving frail, broken, wax-thin walls, the honey spilt and lost, the grubs all killed. There were broad regions, too, where the comb had been crushed and flattened, the fragile tenements shattered down into formless rubble.
Within this hive, this ants’ nest, trampled and churned by giant footfall, insects were still alive. Though swarms of them had migrated outward into the forest and the frost to escape the nocturnal terror, many remained. Ousters were gathered in deep-lying crannies and into the buttressed shelters. Old people, their spirits already frayed out toward death, clung still to life’s last threads. Mothers clung to their babies, fiercely jealous lest death part them; and expectant mothers dreaded lest convulsive terror should drive the womb to vomit out too soon its unfinished treasure. Young men and women shared without privacy intimate delight, lest death should forestall them. But others of the city’s swarm had taken their stations for defence against Hell’s repeated impact. Gunners on their gun-sites waited. Fire-watchers on the roofs waited. Wardens were in the streets. Ambulance drivers were ready with their cars. In the casualty clearing stations doctors and nurses waited in tense idleness. In the mortuaries there were still displayed the unclaimed relics of the city’s previous agony, old withered bodies, and bodies in shattered bloom, bodies in rags that were recently fine clothing, and bodies in rags long worn; and torn disjected members, strangely impersonal, that were once the familiar limbs of living workers, housewives, children.
Hidden among the ruins, armed men in uniform were held in leash, ready to discipline the population.
City of horror, tortured no less in spirit than in flesh. Like any city, it was a swarm of anxious little solipsistic individuals, each encased in its own world, which seemed to it the one and only, the true, the great world. For each of these beings, these postmen, charwomen, shopkeepers, company directors, carried about with it, as an aquatic insect might carry down a breathable air-bubble, its own particular little universe, a microscopic and fragmentary excerpt from the immense real; and yet a universe, a microcosm, complete with landscapes and sentient beings, with cities and a starry sky, whether of pin-pricks merely or giant suns; complete, too, with its own flux of time, whether of a lifetime’s years only, or of historical centuries, or stellar æons. Within each universe the minute individual himself presided as a percipient, dynamic, scheming centre, endowing its peculiar bubble with fragrance and colour, with heats of desire and deadly chills of desolation. And these little selves, these body-minds, these vibrant instruments of passion and of will, insulated as mid-ocean islets, yet most strangely members one of another — might it be that these were fractional excerpts from one immensity, from one ultimate and single awareness? Or were they and all their kind throughout the cosmos utterly separate grains of consciousness, and the sole order of mentality in all the universe? Or did personal deity look down on them, sifting his myriad creatures like sand-grains between his fingers. Or were the little selves not in fact enduring spiritual substances at all, but merely evanescent wraiths of sentience and desire steaming from the physical processes of human bodies, like vapours from a dung-heap?
Viewed in the mass, as units in a city’s or a world’s population, or as insects in an ants’ nest, how indistinguishable they were; their prized differences merely the infinitesimal irregularities of a machined pattern. Yet in a closer, a more intimate view, how unique each one! Here, a little universe predominantly sunlit; until the common disaster of our times eclipsed the sun for all. There, a microcosm of sheer desolation. Here, a cauldron of furious events; there, a stagnant puddle. Here, a mean and shrunken universe, confined within a network of commercial or political intrigue, or of contrived occasions of self-display; there, an ample and ever-expanding microcosm, mirroring, however imperfectly, the whole tumult of our modern world, the sequence of human history, the dawn of man, and of the cosmos. Here, and here, and here, a universe disjointed by foolish dreams or crazy myths. But there, and there, a very simple microcosm, devoid of all immensities and subtleties, yet (who knows?) perhaps essentially true to the ultimate temper of reality, because lit inwardly by a few bright comradeships and loves.
And the little sentient, dynamic centres themselves, how diverse! This, a spider, spreading, day in, day out, its filaments to bind the wings of the innocent; that, a warm fountain of light irradiating neighbour universes. This, living by rote, unquesting as a sleep-walker; that, with fibres of martyred nerve extending into every cranny of its little world.
So diversified were the city’s millions in individual temper; and yet, under the stress of a common delusion, a common tyranny, a common tragedy, all now were harshly likened by the impress of an iron convention.
Crippled now, the city, but unflinchingly game; with the fury of the cornered rat, the tiger at bay. Proud and loyal people; but now bewildered, tragic. Their idols crumbling. Gentle at heart, most biddable. Delighting in the family and the Christmas tree; in the pregnant tome, the far-flung theory. Opening the heavens with their music. A people consciously how civilized; but latently barbarian; like all men, but perhaps more dangerously. Under all their subtlety, too simple. Under their gentleness, teased by the itch of their own brutality; like all men, though perhaps more fiercely. A people easily enslaved to brutish gods; the more so, since a nobler God had failed them. For now the old gentle faith of the West lay rotting in their hearts. Some, no doubt, still cherished it, were martyred for it, witnessing against the tyranny; yet for most it was dead. How faithfully had this people obeyed their new prophet, their frenzied medicine-man. Giving him their boys and girls to remake to his dream. Burning the books. Impounding, killing, torturing, to make a unified people. Swarming over the frontiers in the prophet’s name to make a unified world. Demented with visions, they had strained forward towards the promised land, the valhalla of glory and world-mastery and plenty, these self-chosen saviours of mankind. But mankind had refused them, had banded against them. And now their vision was fading. Not merely because their armies were driven back, their cities blasted; in their own hearts a spirit long dormant stirred in revolt against the prophet and his purpose. Was it perhaps because, month after month, year after year, the eyes of their victims and slaves had stabbed them? Impotent pin-pricks, merely, but infinitely reiterated. Or was it that their own suffering was at last teaching them gentleness?
Unhappy, tragic people. Deep sunk in guilt; but scapegoats also of a guilty world.
The straining ears of the city’s defenders were touched by a shadow of sound. Sound was it, or fancy? If sound, was it thunder, or the reverberation of distant battle? Advancing waves from the remote tumult vibrated through the city’s foundations, and slid along the air-ways of the streets. The ruins trembled. The whole great wounded creature quivered in every cell. And where the sound travelled, there travelled also throughout the city’s population, among the watchers at their posts and the crowds gathered in the shelters, a sigh, concealed by each from each.
Suddenly the city’s own guns shouted and raged. Windows rattled, crockery jangled. The sky’s pin-prick stars were outshone by short-lived brilliants. Ten thousand boys were in the upper air, intent on slaughter; fair game, these, for the guns. And now the downpour of great bombs tortured the city’s heart, each striking into street or building, with fierce rebound of fire; all intermingling their spreading blast as raindrops their rings on a tormented pool. And so, in half an hour, one more tract of the city’s honeycomb was obliterated, as by giant footfall. Once more, homes were disembowelled, or their fronts torn off, exposing the doll’s-house rooms and furniture. Factories, offices, schools, churches, became instantly mere rubble. And in these conglomerates of concrete and brick, of beams and girders, here and there were human bodies. Of these, many were quiet, their breath and life crushed out of them; but some still breathed, and cried. And now great fires were jubilant parasites upon the city, reaching their bright limbs skyward, their dark plumes above the bombers.
In those minutes, hundreds upon hundreds of the little personal universes vanished like the bubbles of a drying foam. Their vital centres annihilated, they were extinguished, as a lit room ceases when the lamp is shattered. And of the survivors some, because they were symbiotic with some slaughtered one, were themselves henceforth mutilated almost to death.
The city’s bright antennae swept and probed the sky. In the upper air the bombers picked their courses among cloud-high waving stems of enemy light and bursting blossoms of fire. The ten thousand were performing their appointed duty. For them the city’s heart was a target to be obliterated with finished skill before breakfast. That it was also a tissue of lives and loves, was by most, in the stress of the attack, forgotten. But for some it was obtrusive, and to be anxiously shunned; and by a few the stab of pity was turned aside by a carapace of self-righteousness; while fewer still, misshapen minds, secretly relished the vicarious agony. But the more lucid gravely faced the horror that they were inflicting, as one may press the core out of a boil; and in full awareness they carried on with the work.
Each crew was a steel-knit unity of special functions and diverse mentalities, obedient to a common purpose. Though each boy in each crew was indeed his own cherished self, with a private theme of life recalcitrant to this dread night, yet each was self-yieldingly organic to the crew. Here and there, maybe, some misfit in the mental pattern, some lone outsider or some untamed spirit, marred the crew’s unity; flustering all with mutual doubt and self-tender fear, poisoning the composite being’s single-heartedness and proficiency; much as an aching tooth, or any other thorn in the flesh, may loosen an athlete’s unity of eye and muscle.
But this discordancy was rare. Each crew, within the little universe of its common lethal purpose, was an integral creature. And the whole armada of aircraft, stooping squadron by squadron to the target, projecting their deadly spawn into the city’s heart with stop-watch precision and overwhelming concentration of onset, moved as a single creature, an organic and intelligent swarm of beings, self-tender, but self-yielding to the common life, the common purpose.
Not inviolate the bombers. Now one and now others, found by the city’s antennae, caught by the city’s guns or by airborne defenders, streaked the darkness with a long downward curve of flame; or blazed as a sudden eruption, then vanished.
The moth still vacillated up and down its flying prison, vaguely dissatisfied. But for the seven, the climax of their journey was now at hand, the releasing of their death-load. Rapt now in the urgency of their task, they were seven organs of one mechanical winged creature. If any thoughts from the world of individual living should flutter into any of the seven minds, these must be instantly destroyed. The composite life of the crew must be absolute. The moth only, unwilling and uncomprehending passenger, was separate. Imprisoned physically, it remained mentally unfettered to the human tyranny, through its very obtuseness.
The rear-gunner was happy. Already he had killed, and now he waited for the next attacker. But when again the moth touched him with the magic of a remote though so familiar world, his heart tripped; then instantly recovered. Fiercely he braced himself.
Suddenly the plane was caught by convergent fingers of light. Near shell-bursts blasted it hither and thither. In the storm of jagged illumination, the rear-gunner saw for a moment the moth, a tremulous creamy flake pinned on darkness.
Then overwhelmingly the rear-gunner’s universe became all brilliance and crashing noise: Wild pain flooded him through every nerve. Every cell of his body’s surface was attacked by smashing blast and furious heat. And so with all the seven. The moth’s papery tissues instantly became a whiff of disorganized molecules. The flesh of all the seven boys was agonizingly disintegrated. Seven young brains, the centres and king-pins of seven universes, received their last experience. Then these too became mere whiffs of gas, a rabble of wandering molecules.
And the seven young selves?
The rear-gunner’s ultimate moments were wholly occupied with pain, the frantic revulsion of his members against destruction. All other experienced things in his universe, the pin-prick stars that were suns, the crew’s sacred comradeship, the moth’s kiss, and all his nineteen years of growing, were obliterated in the white heat of his body’s agony. Then pain itself ceased. The rear-gunner was annihilated.
In the tube we said good-bye. You on the platform, I in the train. In the time of the rockets.
Smiling, you stepped back and blew me a kiss. It was bright with all our past.
The doors slid to, dividing us.
The chance that we should not meet any more was only, I told myself, one in many millions. And yet — that very morning, and only a few streets away, scores of people had been killed. Today, as on a thousand days, they had yawned themselves out of bed, dressed, breakfasted, set off about their business,’ then suddenly, or slowly and miserably, they had stopped being. Or so it seems.
What is this dying? No one who has done it can tell us what it is like.
Are we mere sparks of sentience that death extinguishes, or fledgeling immortals who fear to leave the nest? Or both, or neither?
We are conceived in mystery, and into mystery we die.
Let us, at least, not clamour for immortality, not pledge our hearts to it. If the end is sleep, well, when we are tired, sleep is the final bliss.
And yet perhaps what dies is only the dear trivial familiar self of each. Perhaps in our annihilation some vital and eternal thing does break wing, fly free. We cannot know.
But this we know: whether we are annihilated or attain in some strange way eternal life, to have loved is good.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00