When I did regain consciousness, I couldn't communicate. I had only fragmentary memories, but I did realize that I was in a hospital, and that I was very weak.
In the next few days, I recognized Vignis. She spoke to me, and I managed to reply to her in monosyllables. She remained with me all one night, evidently in order to protect me. I loved having her with me, and loved her touches, but I no longer felt fear. That was past.
Vignis didn't tell me that my legs had been mostly amputated, nor did she tell me that John Henry had been killed in the 110's second pass, the fireman taking over for him.
I found out about my legs when I told one of the nurses that my feet itched and asked her to bathe them. She had been told not to tell me, but she did. She said I would have discovered it soon enough for myself.
I began to wonder about John Henry when Sigiloff and MacRitchie visited. Sigiloff began to talk even faster and with less relevance than usual when I asked about John Henry. And, anyway, I knew that he would be around to see me if he were all right. Finally, in response to a direct question, MacRitchie told me what had happened.
During this time, it was Vignis who managed my case and insisted that the doctors and surgeons coordinate their efforts. In addition, she shamelessly tipped and bribed all sorts of people to give me extra care and attention.
There then came the turning point, the day on which over one hundred and eighty German aircraft were claimed to be shot down. Such claims were always much exaggerated, but it was certainly a great victory. It was obvious to all that the Germans couldn't long continue with such losses.
It was a festive night at the hospital when the results came over the radio, and I was conscious enough to be informed of them. One nurse even informed me hopefully that, even if I had to be carried on to my train, I'd get a chance to bag another Kraut.
Shortly thereafter, the Germans gave up the daytime raids on the Fighter Command airfields, and switched to bombing London at night. They couldn't hit any particular target, but they lost few planes and set extensive fires with their incendiaries. It was a great victory for Marshal Dowding and his Fighter Command, but it was an open question how much of London would be destroyed. Since the hospital was in a crowded section near London Bridge, it was, indeed, quite vulnerable.
Vignis wanted me moved, and she had also found that there was a famous burn specialist in Swansea, in South Wales. I was moved by stretcher to the ambulance and train, and then again at the other end. Everyone was worried about me, but, as I said to Vignis, I enjoyed being on a train again.
The specialist, a Mr. Whitely, turned out to be a small precise man with a dry sense of humor. Almost the first thing he said to me was,
"There are a lot of you chaps with burns these days. I've suggested that we take skin from captured German pilots and distribute it among you, but my proposal seems not to have impressed the bureaucrats."
When Vignis asked him about my prognosis, he replied,
"I dare say we'll manage to turn him out in decent shape. Wheelchair, of course, but he'll be able to run down the occasional pedestrian."
"Will I be able to use crutches and artificial legs?"
"I suppose we could hang some sort of wooden legs on you, but it'd be a less efficient means of getting about."
He then added,
"At least you've got your face. Some of these young pilots who've had their faces burned off want me to make them attractive to women!"
"Damned doubtful. Easier to put the woman's eyes out."
Vignis was appalled, but I liked Mr. Whitely immediately. I still do after dozens of operations.
Hospital life, like prison life, fails to lend itself to a racy narrative. Suffice it to say that I have now been here two years. Burns give rise to infections, and these have to be treated slowly and laboriously, one after another.
There have, however, been some few events worthy of notice. One day, Vignis arrived and said,
"I've been visiting Hall in Wormwood Scrubbs."
It turned out that Hall the Wise had been a German agent all along. When the war started, he went back to Hvalfjordur in Iceland, where the convoys assembled. He then radioed the information to U-boats. Since Britain had occupied Iceland, it was only a matter of time before Hall had been arrested brought to England. Vignis said,
"Spies are sometimes shot, but they seem to want information from Hall."
"It's surprising that they let you see him."
"The MI5 people found out that I knew him, and suggested it. They hope that I can get useful information from him."
"Yet another mission for you, Vignis."
"So far, I've found out only that he really is a medical doctor, as we suspected. He was sorry to hear about your injuries."
"Give him my best wishes. I could probably use some more of those injections with the giant needle sterilized on the forge."
On another occasion, Andrew Stewart turned up. We talked about the food supply situation, and he said,
"I think we'll make it. America's entry into the war is beginning to turn the tide against the U-boats. Our agricultural projects are also doing very nicely."
Just before leaving, he remarked,
"By the way, you're being given a medal, quite a nice one."
When I asked about it, he replied,
"It's one that's usually given for life-saving, a sort of civilian Victoria Cross. The citation will be for conspicuous gallantry."
I was very pleased with that. Gallantry is so much more refined than bravery, and it suggests that there is no difference in principle between shooting down an Me 110 with one's pants on fire and laying one's cloak over a puddle so that the queen may pass in comfort. Stewart then added,
"The presentation is usually made at the palace, but, in this case, a deputation will come down with it."
I asked maliciously,
"If I were well, would I be invited to Buckingham Palace?"
"There might be some slight difficulty."
"I also noticed that the word 'conspicuous' appears in the citation. Am I felt to be a conspicuous sort of fellow?"
Stewart, laughing, replied,
"Some of us knew about that before you ever arrived in England. We didn't care, but it happens that the queen did notice you on that occasion. I rather think that no one has put it to her directly, but ..."
I finished, in best British fashion,
"I quite understand."
The deputation arrived the next week. Apart from Vignis and Stewart, it included Air Chief Marshal (retired) Lord Dowding.
Dowding's political foes had ganged up on him after his victory at Fighter Command, and had forced him into retirement. He evidently now had nothing better to do than present medals. And, of course, there was a certain appropriateness. I had, after all, shot down a fighter plane.
The hospital staff was delighted. The nurses made a great thing of it, and even Mr. Whitely turned up. I could see that Lord Dowding was himself a difficult and irritable man, but he was on his best behavior. I was also sure that it amused him to pin my medal, quite a gaudy one, on to the front of my hospital gown.
The deputation had brought a quantity of champagne with it, and the staff produced juice glasses which were promptly filled. I noticed that Lord Dowding collared one bottle which he held with one hand behind his back, bringing it forward to refill his glass when necessary. He favored me with a frosty smile and said,
"I understand that you kept shooting until you got the bugger."
I allowed modestly,
"It was just a lucky hit."
"They're all lucky. Well done!"
He made as if to pat me on the shoulder before he realized that both hands were occupied. I caught Andrew Stewart's amused glance, and was morally certain that Lord Dowding hadn't been informed of the other incident. But, then, one never knows about other people. For all I knew, he might have thought that that, too, was "well done."
Much more recently, I've had another visitor, Sidonie. Although I hadn't seen her in almost three years, I had received an occasional post-card, as when she ran off with Sam Hanks. She also maintained a sporadic correspondence with Vignis, which was somewhat more informative. As nearly as Vignis could guess, she had taken lovers, but no one at all permanent. Mac had left her money, Vignis thought about a million, in trust. And so, of course, she could do whatever she wanted. Vignis had said to me some weeks before Sidonie's visit,
"It looks as if she'll turn up here. It's hard for civilians to get permission to cross the ocean in wartime, but, since she's still legally married to you, she's managing it."
"That's also dangerous, isn't it?"
"Somewhat. But she knows about your condition, and she loves dramatic gestures. It'll be as if she's come to rescue you."
I therefore wasn't taken entirely by surprise when I looked out of the window beside my bed and saw Sidonie as she crossed the street down below. She was more beautiful than ever. Moreover, having just come from America, her glamorous clothes contrasted sharply with the drab wartime clothing of the other women in the street.
I heard through the open door Sidonie's voice as she asked for directions, followed by the tap of her heels as she approached quickly. She then appeared in the doorway, her arms out-stretched. She was hesitating momentarily, but was ready to rush to me. I smiled urbanely and flicked aside the sheet that was covering me.
It must be understood that I am not an attractive sight, roughly from the navel down. For legs I have two little sticks, horribly twisted and discolored, reministent of those of a chicken that has been put in the oven and then forgotten. My penis has also had its difficulties. The half that wasn't burned off is blackened and pointy, like a stick that has been used to roast marshmallows in a fire. In my case, there is no marshmallow left. But I did open my little legs for a full display of the merchandise.
Nurses can deal with anything, but I have nevertheless heard a few stifled gasps from ones not previously acquainted with my condition. Vignis, early on, insisted on seeing the extent of the damage. She was prepared. She looked without blinking, touched me tenderly, and put the sheet back.
Sidonie was not prepared. Indeed, the look on her face surpassed any look I had ever produced on the face of any woman, no matter how shocking my performance. If there is such a thing as an association of flashers, that flash would certainly qualify for its Hall of Fame. The fact that I flashed my own wife with such effect would, I think, only add stature, perhaps not to my penis, but to my act of flashing.
Sidonie fainted while in motion toward me. That is, her feet kept coming, but the initial recoil of her upper body dropped her to the wooden floor with a loud crash. Nurses came running, but she moved not at all. A doctor also came in, and it was quickly established that Sidonie was breathing normally. They unfastened her clothes as she lay on her back, and the doctor put his hands around her small smooth waist and lifted it slowly up and down. She began to stir a little, and, just then, two orderlies arrived with a stretcher. Sidonie was lifted on to it and taken away.
The nurses had no idea who Sidonie was, and, a little later, Sister Arnett came in to ask me. I replied truly, but somewhat misleadingly,
"She's just come from America, and she fainted when she saw what condition I'm in."
"Well, it was very strange. We got her revived, and then she just left without saying anything."
"I doubt that she'll be back."
"It certainly doesn't appear so."
I let it seem that it hardly mattered. After all, it would never occur to them that I might be married to a black woman Sidonie's age.
Vignis came a couple of days later. Sidonie had come first to see me, but had then gone to London to see Vignis. Vignis had hardly known what to say to her, but, then, it hardly mattered. It was her impression that Sidonie would return to America as soon as she could, probably without seeing either of us again. Vignis said to me,
"I've been trying to work out whether this was just an extension of your usual pattern or an attempt to drive Sidonie away."
"I think it was both. It'd be ridiculous for me to stay married to Sidonie. I couldn't hope to satisfy her."
"She was going to play Florence Nightingale for a while, but she would've tired of it in a week or two."
"The trouble is that she's always playing a role, and roles wear thin."
I had already noticed that Vignis looked particularly elegant that evening. She arranged herself in the chair by my bed and thanked the nurse who brought her tea. Then, as she sipped it, I was struck anew by her slim smooth ankles and the way her extraordinary blonde hair gleamed in the dim lighting of the room. After a while, she said,
"Mac and John Henry are gone, and I think Sidonie's gone. That leaves you and I and Willy."
"How is Willy?"
"He's fine. He goes fishing as always, and he seems completely unaffected by the war."
"After it's over, we'll have to get back there. I guess I'll be able to travel."
"Oh yes. Willy will carry you around on his back if need be."
"I might be able to row a little if I were tied to a seat with a rigid back."
"He'll figure out a way. You know how inventive Willy is. In the meantime, there's just you and I."
"If I were a whole man, we might do all sorts of things."
"I've never thought the act of sexual intercourse was one of the most important things in life. Besides, I wouldn't be surprised if you still have some appetite."
"Well, I do in a sort of way."
"We'll just see what happens. I've arranged with the nurses to stay with you tonight."
Vignis had stayed with me before, a number of times, sleeping on a cot the nurses brought her. But this, I gathered, would be different.
We did our usual things for a while. Vignis had brought the weekly returns for our various railway operations, and we went over them. She said,
"There was some sabotage on the line near Acton Wells Junction which I think Hall may have inspired. After all, we took him on a tour of the London Circle."
"Was it serious?"
"No. The saboteurs were trying to blow up the bridge, but our people caught them."
"But you visit Hall all the same?"
"Yes. He was just doing his job. Besides, he might weaken and tell me what else they have planned."
The tension for me had been building, and there was, indeed, some stirring in what was left of me. It was when the shift changed that I saw that there was a conspiracy between Vignis and the night nurses, one that I suspect did not include Mr. Whitely.
Two sisters came in after they had gotten the ward settled and carefully moved me to one side of the rather large hospital bed. Then, all three laughing and whispering together, they helped Vignis off with her dress and hung it up before they left.
I had never seen Vignis naked before, but she seemed very young, very slim, and moderately innocent. Then, when she was in beside me, the feeling of warmth and comfort was greater than any I had ever experienced.
Vignis may have seemed, and even been, innocent. But she was also clever and experienced. I don't know whether we had intercourse, but I discovered that I was still capable of orgasm. She also managed to have one, and we both slept soundly afterwards.
That was only last Tuesday. The next morning, Mr. Whitely was in hardly an hour after Vignis had left. I had another operation scheduled for the next day, but that was hardly anything unusual. He did say, however,
"This one is a bit more difficult than the others. You may be in for a rough patch."
"Did you happen to say anything about it to Mrs. Garner?"
"Yes. She likes to keep track of you, of course. We discussed it at some length."
It surprised me, on coming out of the ether, that I felt no worse than usual. Indeed, I have written the last few pages with only occasional help from the nursing sisters.