“Monsieur! Monsieur! Un ami—”
“Christian!” Ernst tried to sit up and greyed out instantly, flopping back onto the bed but reaching out his hand.
“Lie still, you idiot!” Christian’s hand gripped his good shoulder.
Ernst opened his eyes and gasped. “What happened to you?” Half of Christian’s face was black and blue, and a big gash cut down from his forehead to the inside of his nose right across his right eye. Pools of blood were collected in the whites of his right eye under the thin membrane.
“Can’t take care of myself without you. That’s all.”
“But what happened to your face?”
“I don’t know exactly. It happened while bailing out.”
“You had to bail out?”
“It seemed the sensible thing to do at the time. My fuel gauge failed, and I found myself over the Channel with a starved engine and two Hurricanes coming in for the kill.”
“Christian!” Ernst tried to sit up again, but Christian held him down.
“Nix. How are you doing? The nurses tell me you’ll be back on your feet in no time.”
“How do they know?”
“Good question.” Christian grinned.
“What are you doing here?” Ernst asked next. “Aren’t we flying today?” He tried to twist around to see out of the window, but although he couldn’t, it was still obvious from the light in the room that it was a fine day.
“Got the day off,” Christian told him with evident satisfaction.
“How did you do that?” Ernst asked in amazement.
“Do you really want to know? It’s a bit of a story.”
Christian looked around, found a chair, and pulled it up. “You aren’t going to believe me.”
“Does it matter?”
Christian laughed. “All right. For that, you get the long version! When I got back to Crépon after seeing you off in the ambulance, we were just about to take off for the second mission of the day, and Fischer fobbed off this brand-new Fahnenjunker on me – still wet behind the ears. I can’t even remember his name. He couldn’t keep up with me. I lost him on the first bounce, and we’ve never seen or heard from him again. Poor Fischer has to write home to his parents and probably doesn’t even remember what the kid looks like – I certainly don’t. Anyway, without you I couldn’t concentrate on anything, so of course I couldn’t get anything.” Apparently unconsciously, Christian was holding his right eye closed with the fingers of his hand.
“You know how it is. Suddenly I was alone out there except for some Junkers on their way home. I thought I’d give them a little comfort – seeing as my fuel light wasn’t on yet. Mind you, it seemed odd, but you know what they teach us at flight school: trust your instruments, not your instincts. So, I was happily weaving over them when I caught sight of two birds flying in formation and rapidly overtaking us. Peculiar behaviour for seagulls, I thought, and drew the correct conclusion: they were Hurricanes. Gentleman that I am, I turned back to face them, and that’s when the engine cut out on me. It seems that the fuel gauge wasn’t working, so the warning light hadn’t come on. I was completely out of fuel.”
“With two Hurricanes on top of you?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I knew you wouldn’t. It gets better.” Christian brought his hand down from his eye, but held the eye shut as he talked. “I managed to jump out and – to be fair – the Tommies were very decent and didn’t try to shoot me in the ‘chute. They circled as I floated down, but they held their fire. When I went into the water, they flew off and left me there alone. I was almost sorry to see them go.” Christian’s hand crept back to his eye as he talked.
“The Channel is huge from wave-top level – and bitterly cold.”
“What about your rubber dinghy?”
“It had been shot up and didn’t inflate, but I had my flare pistol and sent up flares. The Channel is really cold!” Christian repeated with emphasis. “By the time an E-boat picked me up, I couldn’t feel my toes any more. I was ravenous, too, because I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast, but the slops they offered me were inedible. Did you have any idea of how bad our sailors have it?” He took his hand away again, but as before, he kept his eye shut. “I don’t even know what the stuff was – I think they called it Eisbein, but it bore no resemblance to any Eisbein I’ve ever eaten before. Fischer was quite decent about it when I got back to the base. He had the kitchen make me a steak extra and bought the champagne. We’d just started to have a pleasant evening when Fatty arrived.”
“What?!” Ernst tried to sit up again, and Christian pushed him back down. “You’re not serious?” Ernst asked breathlessly.
“Of course, I’m serious.”
“The Herr Reichsmarschall himself?”
“Don’t make it sound as if you would have liked to be there!”
“But I would have! What an honour!” Ernst spoke in all sincerity. The Reichsmarshall was the second most important man in the entire Reich. He wasn’t just the C-in-C of the Air Force, but Prussian Minister of the Interior and many other things as well. “Of course, I would have liked to meet the Herr Reichsmarschall!” he told Christian earnestly. “My parents would be so proud! Did he shake your hand?”
“No. He was not in a particularly good mood. He seems to think we fighter pilots are shirking our duty – avoiding combat with the Tommies, abandoning the bombers, and all-in-all responsible for the fact that we still haven’t obtained air superiority over England. In short, we alone are losing the war and disgracing him and the Luftwaffe.”
“But, Christian, that’s crazy….” Ernst couldn’t grasp it. They were doing their best. What more could they do? “Doesn’t he realise…. Didn’t Rosskamp explain?”
“Rosskamp was miraculously absent. Must have had wind of what was coming. So, I felt it was my duty—”
“No! Christian! You didn’t say something to the Herr Reichsmarschall himself – did you?” Ernst was horrified. He knew just how disrespectful Christian could be. But surely….
“Under the circumstances, I decided to ask him for a day off.”
“Christian! You couldn’t have! Did you?”
“Well, all right, I didn’t exactly ask for a day off. I said something about how if an officer’s courage was questioned that he had no choice but to resign. Something like that. In any case, I threw my cap at his feet and stomped out.”
Ernst hardly dared to breathe. He knew Christian wasn’t teasing him. He was too uncomfortable. He wasn’t looking at Ernst directly, and his hand had gone to his injured eye again, holding it shut.
Ernst was sure something terrible must have happened after this. Frankly, he was amazed that they hadn’t already thrown Christian in a Concentration Camp. He certainly would have expected Christian to be put under arrest, but since he was here, that clearly hadn’t happened – yet. “Have you been grounded, Christian?”
Christian tossed him a smile. “No. Fatty refused to accept my resignation. For some reason he decided my behaviour was ‘spirited’ – Fischer must have been very persuasive. After all the excitement on the day you were shot down, however, the bombers were too exhausted to fly again. Fatty ordered the 109s to ‘restore their honour,’ and so we flew one sweep after another all day. Only I suppose I wasn’t flying very well. Fischer told me this morning that he didn’t want me flying around endangering everybody else, and suggested I come and check on how you were doing instead. How are you doing?”
“I’ll be fine. Is your eye bothering you?”
“Not really. It’s just blurry. I can see better when I keep it closed.”
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