Sweet historical romance/some violence: hate crime, WWI
Herbert Powlin stepped off the troop transport int0 the Dover rail yards, glancing around him curiously. Until recently, he had never been out of his native Scotland, and only rarely out of range of Glasgow. Times were different now, though; and Herbert had abandoned his tutorship in Civil Engineering at the University of Glasgow, a position he had coveted as a boy in public school. Serving his nation was of far greater importance than satisfying one’s own ambition.
As soon as Britain had entered the War against the voracious German and Austro/Hungarian war axis in August 1914, Herbert had notified his Dean and written to his mother, Matilda, who lived in a Glasgow cottage. Once he had enlisted, there was no turning back, nor did he desire to do so. Herbert was adjudicated too slim and light for infantry, so was enrolled in England’s Royal Flying Corps. Herbert possessed a quick mind, though, and a predilection for rapidly grasping his training, and was soon commissioned a Leftenant in the RFC, and just in time, as the War escalated.
Herbert and his fellow pilots and observers expected to be taken by train directly to the new Dover Marine Station on Admiralty Pier, but that had closed in August after cessation of ferry traffic to and from the European Continent, and would not reopen until February.
Today was Christmas Eve-1914-and Herbert sorely missed spending the Christmas holidays and Boxing Day with his long-widowed mother, but only three days earlier the first German bombs had dropped near Dover. Bombing equipment was very primitive, and pilots had to hold the navigation stick with their knees, and drop the bombs by hand. Sighting of drop sites was minimal, and luckily for the British, that first bomb fell into the Channel off the Dover coast. All knew though that such wartime luck wouldn’t continue; there would soon be reaction to the British reconaissance raids. The Huns were especially furious over the August incident in which 3 British planes had forced a German crash-landing. One brave pilot had chased off the German pilot, then set fire to the German plane and flew off victoriously!
Jamie Owen-Ballard, a Leftenant recruit from Edinburgh, clapped Herbert on the shoulder so firmly that the latter nearly stumbled off the step onto the platform. “Wot’s up, Herbie? Move along smartly now,” Jamie chuckled. “There’s a war to be won!”
Jamie sported a continously charming and pleasant expression, no matter the conditions or the turmoil, and a wicked sense of humour. In a few short months he had become one of Herbert’s closest pals in the Squadron. Lightly blond, with a taut body belied by broad shoulders, Jamie did not appear to be a man to be relied on, but that flippant exterior concealed a deep sense of responsibility and honour. Herbert only wished they could have met years earlier, at school; but Jamie, who had uncles living in England, had schooled at Eton, and Herbert in Glasgow. Nevertheless, they were now fast friends, and Herbert was very thankful to have Jamie at his side.
Even Jamie, close as they were, had not discovered Herbert’s hidden side: the predisposition to melancholia, the clandestine attempts at poetry, and definitely not the most closely-held secret. Although still virginal at the age of twenty-three, surrounded by fellow lecturers, tutors, and male students, Herbert was Gay. In terms of the time, he was a “Nancy boy,” an object of denigration and abhorrence. Shy and retiring by nature, his sexual drives just weren’t sufficiently powerful to impel him to seek relief with a companion, in the face of societal and cultural condemnation. When the War commenced, he found himself even more grateful that he hadn’t a reputation as such, for any hint of his predilection, even if not practised, would have prevented his enlistment in the British military. The British Criminal Law Amendment Bill of 1885 had outlawed male homosexuality in the Isles, and had been utilised to convict poet Oscar Wilde in 1895. In the 18th century, the punishment for homosexual acts in the Royal Navy had been death.
Herbert turned and smiled over his shoulder at Jamie as he finally stepped onto the platform. Laughing at Jamie’s immodest wink, he shouldered his kit pack and stood aside to allow the Squadron to debark.
Later that evening Herbert decided on a stroll through the city. The mess hall had been stuffy, too full of eager young male flesh only lightly binding the volatile combination of determination, aggression, and fear. The atmosphere wasn’t conducive to digestion, calm, or an evening’s journalling of poetry, so Herbert elected to see the sights of Dover instead. What he wasn’t expecting was the encounter that would change-nearly end-his very life.
Lengthy walks were common for Herbert as an energy outlet. During his rural childhood, isolated but seldom lonely, Herbert frequently climbed the surrounding hills. At University, walking tours with fellow students and later faculty were common, and he had managed to explore much of the countryside. So strolling the length and breadth of the City of Dover did not seem an odd endeavour.
Eventually Herbert had worked his way down to the Marine Pier, and stood solemnly gazing out at the Channel. For some reason, tonight his melancholia and his orientation weighed heavily on his mind. “Perhaps,” he considered silently, “I shall crash on a reconnaissance flight, and I shall have died without ever once knowing love nor the practise of lust.”
Rowdy noises broke into his reverie, and he turned when he heard a male voice cry out in pain. Striding away from the Pier toward a collection of shabby warehouses from where the noise seemed to emanate, he could now hear scrabbling footsteps and punches landing on flesh. “Stop this instant!” he shouted, beginning to run. “Stop!”
Around the corner of a bedraggled building, he spotted three or four ragged sailors bent and saw punches flying, heard the sound of deadened flesh. He still couldn’t identify their victim, who was concealed by the bent figures, and he immediately realised a slight, slim man like himself could not take on these rowdies alone. But when he heard one of them curse the “bloody poofter,” his temper ignited, and he spun around and picked up two bricks from the roadside and tossed them, one after another, into the melee. The first flew wide and above the fray, but the second smashed into the back of the sailor who had cursed the victim, and he spun around and glared at his attacker. Herbert for a moment was certain the sailor’s eyes glowed red; but just then the sound of propellers rent the atmosphere, and a horrendous crash startled all. Air raid sirens wailed and the sailors ran out into the street and back toward the Pier, desperately seeking shelter.
Herbert instead raced toward the figure bleeding into the pavement. At first he thought the man had already stopped breathing. His face was mauled and his greatcoat was soaked in his own blood. His left leg bent at an odd angle as did his left arm. Herbert felt tears pouring down his own cheeks as he crouched and put his ear to the man’s mouth. “Barely breathing,” he thought. “Damn them! Bloody damn them!”
Another burst of propeller noise from the direction of the Channel impelled Herbert to reach under the man’s shoulders and drag him several feet, as cautiously as was prudent with a bombing occurring, to an open doorway, whose door dangled by one set of hinges. Pulling him inside to an inner wall, Herbert lay the man down gently and yanked off his coat, wrapping the man in it.
“Can you hear me?” he breathed, catching his own breath in a quick gasp as one eye slowly opened, and the thinnest trace of a smile curled the left corner of the man’s mouth.
“I’m Herbert, Leftnenant Herbert Powlin, Royal Flying Corps, just arrived in Dover today,” Herbert stammered in a rush, inspired to communicate with a man he knew had to be on death’s sharp edge.
“Gantry here, and you... You are the Hero of My Hour” came the last words the man ever spoke, and his eyes closed over that quarter-smile as tears flowed from Herbert’s eyes.
Herbert waited out the last winding wail of the air raid sirens. He wanted intensely to give the young man-Gantry-a good burial but quickly realised the impossibility. Instead, he gently and respectfully searched through the man’s pockets, finding his identification.
102 Loudoun Road
according to the wartime identification card; but inside Gantry’s greatcoat Herbert found a more astonishing piece of evidence: officer bars. Gantry Philip had been a Captain in His Majesty’s Royal Navy. A Captain-just like Herbert himself-and quite possibly, of an orientation like Herbert’s, if those rowdie bigots had not just attacked at will but had grounds for believing their victim to be homosexual. Herbert realised the sailors must have been Merchant Marine; if they had been Naval men, surely they would have reported their suspicions to the First Mate, and let the proper channels deal with the matter. Or would they? And why was a Naval captain out near a closed wharf this late at night anyway? Seeking an assignation? Surely not the one he had found; or perhaps it was. Perhaps Gantry had discovered he could no longer live with himself, and took the worst way out, taunting a gang of drunken rowdies into beating him into oblivion. What a horrid way to die!
Herbert sank back on his heels and considered the best action to take next. He pocketed Gantry’s identification, the card itself stained in blood, hoping he could at some future point find a family to notify. He sat up and pulled the body into a far corner, stacking around it several nearly-collapsed cardboard boxes, then added bricks from the nearby street as a sort of cairn. He whispered words of regret and a longing for peace over the man’s tormented corpse, then on a sudden inspiration leaned down and placed one hand on Gantry’s heart, touching his lips to Gantry’s forehead.
“I could have loved you,” Herbert whispered almost silently. “I could have made you happy. If only.. I pray your spirit can somehow find its rest after all.”
Suddenly Herbert’s body felt suffused with warmth, despite the night’s chill, and the distinct awareness of a touch on his shoulder comforted his sorrow. A final tap on Gantry’s heart, and Herbert turned to walk back to the barracks. He knew that this night would never be forgotten, as long-or as short-as his own life might prove to be.
At the door he turned again, but could not see the corpse in the warehouse’s far reaches, not even the stone cairn. “I wish you well,” he murmured, and walked out into the deserted street.
Four monnths later Herbert’s life was full of the constant presence of death looming over him at every turn. Nightly flights across the Channel and into France and Belgium had atrophied the flesh from his bones. Formerly slight of build, Herbert was now nearly skeletal. Stultifying anxiety over the slow progress of the War racked everyone’s nerves, military and civilians alike, but it was the men (and women nurses and ambulance drivers) serving on the front lines and in the trenches who bore the brunt of the ugliness of battle and untold tolls of death.
Herbert’s one consolation was the nightly visits of the apparition of Gantry Philip, who had begun to appear on the night of Gantry’s murder. At first Herbert had not realised whom the apparition represented, because he had only encountered Gantry drenched in blood, but at the sound of the whisper and the stroking touch along his cheek, and the words “You are the Hero of my Hour,” Herbert realised at once who visited his dreams. Despite the tight unappealing confines of the Dover Barracks, each night Herbert’s dreams allowed him to partake of an intimacy he had never expected to engage in, as the gentle lovemaking of Gantry’s ghost carried Herbert to heights undreamt.
Now the April night, cluttered with twinkling stars, seemed remote, unattainable, and Herbert’s superstitions were awakened. Each pilot knew with every flight that it might be his last, but tonight intuition especially prickled along Herbert’s nerves and spine. “Gantry, my love, be with me,” he begged in a whisper as he reached for the flight stick and began the mission. Herbert had even said “goodbye” and not “ta ta for now” to his friend Jamie before they had separately departed the barracks. In his bones Herbert knew, and although his brain was racked with fear, his heart welcomed the opening threshold, for tonight he might be reunited with Gantry as one.
Over Flanders a stray tracer tickled its way through the night’s atmosphere, and connected with Herbert’s right wing. He knew in an instant that the impact portended certain death, but he aimed to diverge as far he could from the Allied trenches far below. If he must crash, then let it be behind enemy lines, and let his plane render as much enemy destruction as possible. As a reconaissance flight, the plane carried no gunnery, but he remembered that a German emplantment was suspected not far ahead. He aimed in that direction, thinking only of his beloved ghost lover Gantry, and as the plane’s spiral commenced, Herbert closed his eyes and reached his hand to the man standing close beside him.
“Gantry, my love, you are truly the Hero of my Hour,” Herbert breathed as the Sopwith crashed and exploded in flames.