The Past Mind: A Short Story

Perhaps one of the most chilling and memorable lines in war poetry comes from the third stanza of John McCrae’s work In Flanders Fields: “To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high”. For me, this section has always carried a hint of the futility and uncertainty of the two World Wars; as well as the necessity for those of us– veterans, children, new generations– to accept that torch. Not a torch of conflict, but certainly one of remembrance and of resolve. I think of this every time I hear McCrae’s lines and every time I watch those staunch veterans march past a little fewer.

The idea for a brief story based around this idea of inherited remembrance has been in my head for awhile, and finally I got it on paper. I don’t have much time for writing anymore, but as I write this I realise how much I’ve missed it! Perhaps that is a good metaphor for remembrance too; let us each contribute what we have when we can, and what’s important will never be forgotten. I hope you enjoy, and remember.

The Past Mind: A Short Story

The Tuesday 09:50 to Kamenskoye was my trip; every week, without fail. I used to walk it, but sometimes if weather was poor I wouldn’t make it in time for lunch, and Babushka loved her Tuesday lunches. So now that I was head seamstress on my factory floor, I made sure that I always put aside that bus fare. I’d bring along whatever leftovers I had– usually okroshka– and my book bag. Tuesday was reading day at Babushka’s.

As the bus lumbered past the Bylniki junction, I heard engines outside and looked up to see the four contrails of a jet tracing the sky. Too bad Babushka was housebound, she’d get a thrill to see that. She was used to being alone, really, but I’m not sure she was used to not getting out. Dedushka died during the First Battle of Smolensk; and their daughter, my mother, died in ’83. In the past few years though, Babushka has started to get old and forget. So with my father in prison now for car theft and with no children on the horizon, I’d decided it would do us both good if I gave her some of my time. A few hours every Tuesday wasn’t bad, even if she didn’t remember it for long.

After an hour or so, I was off the bus and at the door of Babushka’s flat. It looked grim, paint peeling and number askew, but it really hadn’t gotten much worse in twenty years. I’d hardly finished my first knock when the door swung open, Babushka peering keenly up at me. “What is it?”

“I’m Nastya,” I pointed to myself as I’d learned was necessary. “How would you like some lunch?”

“Lunch? Well, I haven’t eaten today. Are you alone?” She asked, looking past me into the hall.

“I am quite. I have some books too, if you’d like to read.”

“Books?” Babushka sounded surprised. “Well, alright. Come in and tell me a good story.”

Walking inside, my eyes lingered on the portrait of a smiling Yuri Gagarin which still hung pristine in the hallway. Babushka caught my gaze, and she nudged me and chuckled, “Handsome, isn’t he? Look at that smile…”

She can’t remember, but she sure is sharp in the moment. Pity she can’t remember, though. Mama always told me how she stayed up all day and night waiting for updates and Gagarin’s inevitable speech once it was announced that he was in orbit in ’61.

“Here, have some food,” I said, setting a plate on the windowsill and opening my book bag. “And what would you like me to read?” As usual, I brought a selection of books with me; a volume of classic Russian short stories, an imagining of The Firebird, and a timeworn book full of the exploits of women aviators in the Great Patriotic War. Scanning the books with keen eyes, Babushka picked the last one. And that’s the funny thing; she always did. I don’t know how you can have favourites if you can’t remember and everything seems new, but she did. She always picked that book.

And so I read to her, choosing a few particular accounts which she had always seemed to enjoy. There were many magnificent women who fought for our country, and they displayed bravery seldom seen even in our men. Many of these women had worked in factories or in the fields and already were raising families, so they completed their Soviet duty and then some. I’d always seen them with an eye of admiration that I extended to Babushka.

Babushka’s favourite story was about a lesser-known woman pilot named Vasilisa Orlova. She flew Lavochkins for nearly three years in the war, and although she was not an ace she was characterised by her relentless attacks even in poor weather and damaged aircraft. Through interviews with her comrades, the book spoke glowingly of how she never gave up on her targets and how she was a fearsome and relentless thorn in the fascists’ side. It gave particular praise to the instance where she escorted a heavily-damaged and flaming parachute plane to its drop-zone; ignoring the threat of its imminent explosion, and navigating a barrage of anti-aircraft fire while firing upon attacking Messerschmitts all the while.

This woman was never awarded Hero of the Soviet Union nor anything beyond awards for bravery and for battle merit, yet her conduct had an effect upon all her comrades and all those who knew her. After making such a positive contribution to the defense of our Motherland, the book noted that Vasilisa Orlova returned to civilian life and focused on raising a good Soviet family, although she never forgot her love of the skies. Her story seemed to have an effect on Babushka, as it did every Tuesday.

“What a woman,” she marvelled once this astonishing account was finished. “To fly high above in fire and adversity and to accomplish so much! And yet, she was an ordinary Soviet woman through it all.”

“Indeed,” I replied. “She led a life that I aspire to.”

“You know, Nastya–” Babushka turned her eyes to the window and the sky; the sky that held so much promise and that had seen Captain Orlova’s legacy: “–I am not a young woman, but if I were young again, I should do all that.”

I smiled to myself, slipping the volume back into my bag for next week. “Ahh, Babushka Vasilisa. You did.”

 

Text copyright © Adair E. R. Jacobs, 2019

 

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The Fall: A Poem

A few weeks ago I had the honour of seeing a Spitfire in the air not far from my house. She was a newly-refurbished bird with less than 30 hours flight time, but the sound of that Merlin engine remains unchanged from how it did at the height of wartime! It was a sight (and sound) to remember.

I’ve also recently been missing England a lot. Three years since I’ve been to that green and pleasant land… so lately I’ve been enjoying a lot of patriotic music, and have been listening to the part of my heart that will always be in England.

Anyway, these two events really influenced me to share this poem with you today; full of aviation and British nostalgia, it’s one from my archive which I hope you will enjoy.

The Fall

Aflame, I fall

A burning carcass beside me

The wings that served me nobly

Now shrapnel plummeting to the sea.

We spiral wildly

As we did in triumph

But now we are the fallen

Soon to be silent.

He came from the sun

A ferocity I never knew

Until we burned like the rays

Which disguised him from my view.

I look around

As she falls down, my noble bird

Twisted metal, shrieking

The saddest sight in the world

She soared like a lark

Like an angel; and stung like a bee

Not meant to fall, though now she does

Further away from me.

Further and further

To the sea, my little Spitfire

Burning like the fury of her name

Ablaze, like a pyre.

And she is gone, her fury now extinguished

It was only through her spirit

That I became distinguished

And I mourn her,

Even as I spiral and burn

Towards the same ruin

Which awaits me in my turn.

My aeroplane gone,

My eyes fall to the north

To the green and pleasant land

Undefiled by war

England, my home

Keeper of my heart

Yet I fall in exile

England and I apart.

The chalky cliffs

Stand resolute, and beckon

But I won’t reach them

They are too far, I reckon.

I feel England’s song;

Her heartbeat in my very own

Mine failing, hers goes on

I pray for evermore.

And I pray now

For a final return

To those shores, those cliffs

For which I yearn

I do not need

To be recalled in thought or name;

But only for England to accept me back

And I will feel no shame.

 

© Adair E. R. Jacobs, 2018

The Empty Platform: A Poem

The following poem was written early last year, and once again I was fortunate enough to have the generosity of Michael from Forties Photos to help me make this post a special one! His photos have such a gorgeous atmosphere to them and I encourage you to check out his work and website through this link. Although it took me ages to get this poem out into the world, finally it’s here… and I do hope you enjoy it.

The Empty Platform

The whistle blows, and what can I do

Now that it’s time for us to part

I’ve run out of time to give to you

And the platform is as empty as my heart.

You know me as a man of duty

And I’ve never known a woman so true

You know all that I would say; and truly

If I could stay, it would be for you.

But my future is calling me away,

With a voice I must not ignore

My journey is set, at least for today

Until this train brings me back once more.

Text © Adair E. R. Jacobs 2017

All Photos © M. A. Cain, Forties Photos 2017

The Curse of the Heart: A Poem

It seems I am long overdue to post some poetry! Unfortunately working hard at a job equates to slacking in other areas; and I haven’t written any poetry in a long time. But today that changes! I hope you all appreciate the following effort. Like all my work, it is nothing if not heartfelt; and it speaks of the rich and varied emotions we cannot help but experience as human beings. Enjoy.

The Curse of the Heart

I swear that I have never felt

More a curse than the human heart

When there are trials and passions spelt

It is no more whole but torn apart;

And filled with a raging ocean tide

Of fear and love most unconstrained

The wild wash dashes the calm inside

The heart does face to the storm in vain

But face it, it does, so resolute–

The human heart, a soul acute.

© Adair E. R. Jacobs, 2017

The Soldier that Endured: A Poem

It’s terrible to think that I’ve had such a hiatus from blogging here! I do apologise to all my followers, and thank you all for sticking with me. The past few months have been consumed by endless work, but honestly I’m not complaining– I’ve found a job which I really love, which is bettered by awesome people who keep me laughing and enrich my life, and which teaches me every single day.

But enough about that– on to this long overdue post! This poem is written in the context of (guess when…) World War II; but it was inspired by the struggles of life which I’ve observed in both myself and in friends of mine. It speaks to the stoicism of the human spirit, and in doing so I think it preaches a message of hope– that even when things are full of despair, we still find a way to carry on and reach something better. I hope you enjoy it.

The Soldier that Endured

Walking on the Tula road

A weary figure passed me by

Her steps were slow, but still they showed

The burning of her pride.

Her rifle held in one hand,

The other hand fell low

Crimson and scarred, Red as our Star

Which endures from long ago.

I watched her labour on at length

Her back hunched and tired

Weak but still bearing agony with strength,

A strength to be admired.

Her face was young, yet bore pain

Of years it had not seen

Its naivety had waxed and waned, but grit remained

In all the hours between.

As she passed, I spoke to her

And asked how she prevailed

The blood and gore that mauled and tore

Our hearts until we failed–

With startling eyes she said,

“There were hours I could not survive

And all through my head I believed I was dead

Until I breathed and was alive.”

Then she was gone, that soldier brave

And I pondered quietly

After all the battles through which I slaved,

Perhaps that soldier was me.

The Soldier at the Door: A Short Story

 

Stalin’s city was always a wonderful place to live. It was large and modern; with many factories supporting the industry of our Soviet Union. There were squares where we children played, and many shops and institutes where the adults worked. It was a city for the people, and all of us who lived there felt very glad that we did.

By autumn 1942 though, our beloved city was no longer where any civilian wanted to be. I guess when the fascists failed to take the capital, they set their iron hearts on another prize. Stalingrad must have been an easy choice. At any rate, they reached our doorstep and encroached into the surrounding villages; and that soon turned into streetfighting in the heart of Stalingrad itself. It was a dreadful situation; but my mother was resolute. My father and brother were out fighting the Germans, and we were going to stay here for them. The Germans will never take Stalingrad, she said, and we must give those boys a good home to come back to.

So we stayed, and we got accustomed to the sight of soldiers in the streets, and of tanks on the square. We weren’t even bothered by the gunshots after awhile, because there were always gunshots coming from somewhere. I guess we got used to the war, but what bothered me was that I couldn’t do anything about it. I wanted to help, but I was too young to do anything great. When our friends’ apartment in the next street was bombed, we took them in, and I shared my room with all three of their children. But it felt like it didn’t matter; because although they were warm and sheltered, we could still smell the smoke as their home and belongings burned. Even though we did the best we could, the war was evil and it kept coming on and on despite our courage and our efforts.

Life got a lot harder when winter arrived. The Germans were everywhere but so were our troops; and there were so many men about and so much destruction that food became less and less. Sometimes supply shipments made it, but more often than not they didn’t, and the ration centres had nothing to give us. As a young woman with the hope of marriage and a household ahead of me, I put my efforts toward creating palatable meals out of whatever food was available. I got pretty good at it, but we were still always hungry.

It was tough, but life in a combat centre does make for some extraordinary stories. One day before the streetfighting got really bad in our neighbourhood, a sniper from the Caucasus and his spotter set up in our front room. They were there for the whole afternoon, watching the street and the square beyond; and every few hours my mother sent me to them with a mug of tea. Another time, a German bomber crash-landed into the square and its crew was captured. When the city was quiet, the local kids used it as a jungle gym until it was smashed by shelling a few weeks later.

I think about these stories a lot, because they were a break from the hopelessness. We were trapped in our own city as it was broken down around us, and nothing seemed to change from day to day. Just more bombs and more bodies in the street. Anything different to that is what I try to remember, but nothing bests the story of the soldier at the door. It was December I think, and mother was in bed with pneumonia. Since I was freshly eighteen at that time, she entrusted the household and all its duties to me. That meant  I undertook the weekly trek through the rubble to the ration centre; which wasn’t easy all the time, but which made me feel like I was accomplishing something every time I made it back.

On the day in question, I couldn’t leave the apartment until mid-morning because the neighbourhood was chattering with gunfire. But eventually I deemed it quiet enough that I gathered the kitchen-basket, wrapped a shawl around my head, and went downstairs. Stepping outside, I was taken aback to find a soldier lying on the doorstep. At first, I thought he was dead, because he was slumping awkwardly against the wall and was barely off the snowy street. But then he turned to see me, and attempted to make way for me. His eyes were kind and he looked tired, so I thought it alright to talk to him.

“Don’t trouble yourself,” I said, pausing opposite as I looked him over. “You seem tired.” The soldier was wearing a green greatcoat stained with old blood, and was cradling a submachine gun. At that time, I’d never had a boyfriend, but this soldier seemed like the type for me. He had kind eyes and a ready smile and I immediately wanted to help him. He was indeed handsome, but he didn’t seem very well. I judged that he was at most a half-dozen years older than me, but his face had a weathered look to it which was unexpected. Not only his face was haggard, but he had a bright red stain of blood on his far shoulder, too. I guess he was a frontovik.

The soldier sighed, but smiled. “Thanks. I’ve just stopped here to catch my breath.”

“I’m not sure you’ve picked the safest place,” I told him. “A shell came through a window downstairs yesterday. The old man who lives there says it knocked a jug of water right off the kitchen table.”

Laughing, the soldier tentatively pulled himself further onto the doorstep. “Where isn’t that happening? Don’t say that to my guys, though. We’ll stop the shelling soon enough.”

I hoped he was right and not just trying to seem brave. “You’re bleeding,” I observed. “How badly are you wounded?”

“It’s only shrapnel. I’ll be alright.”

“Why don’t you come inside? It’s cold out, and you’ll be safer there.”

The soldier shook his head but looked at me graciously. “I’d better stay out here. A medic will be by to pick me up soon, I’m sure of it.”

Surveying the empty, lifeless street, I disagreed. “Well, I’m not sure of it. There’s no one about. You might bleed to death!” And I tore the scarf from my head to use as a bandage for his wound, but he gently pushed it away.

“That’s too pretty a scarf to use for blood,” he said. “And weren’t you going on an errand?”

“Not if I can help you,” I replied resolutely.

He laughed quietly and gazed out at the street. “You shouldn’t worry. You go, and I’ll stay here. I bet your apartment’s never had an armed guard before.” I felt bad leaving him. I was sure his condition was worse than he let on, I’m sure he was trying to seem brave. I wanted to make some kind of difference, but he insisted. “Where are you going, anyway?”

“The rationing centre. It’s just at the other end of Bogunskaya.”

“Don’t take Bogunskaya,” the soldier turned grave. “There’s a sniper installed out there, and he shoots at anyone.”

“Well, thanks,” I said, still not wanting to leave. “You’ll be sure to look after yourself, won’t you?”

“I will, you have my word on it.” The soldier nodded. “I’m sure a medic will be by very soon.”

Begrudgingly, I took my leave of him and set off through the snowy city. The streets remained quiet but I had to wait for an hour at the rations centre. And despite the quiet, I knew the enemy was still there. And I wondered about the soldier at the door– was he still there, or had someone come for him? Why wouldn’t he let me help him? I guess, as a soldier, he had to remain on guard for our city, but I wish he could have gotten some treatment someplace.

As I came back within a few blocks of the apartment, I began to feel nervous about what I might find on the doorstep. Turning onto the street, I saw the soldier’s figure still slumped there. Was he dead? I felt a mixture of relief and concern when he gave me a jaunty wave.

“Where are the medics?” I asked him as soon as I approached.

“Someone will be along soon,” replied the soldier, but his voice was more weary now.

Unsatisfied, I looked down at the basket of food in my arms. “Are you hungry?”

The soldier laughed with a ready smile. “Are you?”

“I’ve only been hungry since winter started,” I said. “Will you have some bread?” The soldier stayed silent, but his eyes and his face were tired and hungry. “What’s your name?” I asked. “I’m Marina.” And I started to divide up my ration of bread.

“I’m Nikolai.” Nikolai was slow to accept any bread, but once he did he ate it ravenously.

“I guess you are hungry,” I remarked woefully.

“Of course I am. But it’ll all get better soon. We’re keeping the Volga open for new shipments of food and supplies, and the enemy will soon be starved and beaten.”

“And do you still think a medic will come for you?”

“It’s only a matter of time.” Nikolai smiled, although his face was weary.

It would have been nice to share his confidence, or his bravado. I sighed, looking out at the snowy rubble-strewn street and pondering the sounds of guns in the air. Unconvinced, I turned back to him. “But how much time have you got?”

Finally he had no response. He sighed too, and his smile turned sad as he adjusted his grip on his gun. He looked broken and tired, yes, but only in his face. The posture of his bloodied shoulders and the precise, ready grip he kept on that gun told me that he’d made his mind up. And yet I still wanted to help him– I’d been fruitlessly just existing for the past few months, and now the chance to do something was sitting on my doorstep.

“Please, Nikolai,” I said desperately. “At least come inside to get warm. You’re not doing any good out here in your state! Won’t you just come inside?” I already knew the answer of course; but I had to ask him.

His laugh was hollow as he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Marina. I can’t leave my post. I have to stay here.”

“That’s alright,” I said. “I know you’re a soldier.”

We were quiet for a moment, and the atmosphere was one of regret. Then he spoke up. “Those guns are getting closer. You should go inside before you get hit.”

I smiled and nodded, but I was unable to reply… since I was leaving him, he was probably going to die. It just didn’t sit well with me. I turned to go, but Nikolai caught the handle of the kitchen-basket and stopped me. Looking at me with earnest brown eyes, he announced, “You were good to me, Marina. Kindness can make a big difference.”

That heartened me, and I was able to reply. “You make sure the medics take good care of you. You know I would have.”

“And you get inside, and stay there until this skirmish passes! Do that, and we might even see each other again.”

I left Nikolai sitting half-slumped on the doorstep, exactly as I had found him. But I hoped that I had made a difference to him as he’d said.

The next morning, the gunfire had quietened down and I rushed downstairs to the doorstep. I felt sick with worry over Nikolai; I wanted him to be there, but I didn’t want him to be dead. But there was nothing on the doorstep; nothing except a pool of dried blood where Nikolai had been. There was no one in the street, and I asked all the neighbours and nearby soldiers if they’d seen anything, but nobody had. My mother said that somebody must have come for him after all, because if he’d died then his body would probably still be on the doorstep. I hoped she was right, but I could never know.

After meeting Nikolai, I decided to join the medical corps in the Red Army. It was there that I met my first boyfriend, who in time became my husband. There I tended by chance to my brother, who had been severely wounded by shrapnel near Voronezh. By a miracle, he, my parents, and my husband all survived the war. We did some good work in the medical corps, and I finally felt that what I was doing mattered.

As for Nikolai, I can’t be sure that he survived that night, let alone the whole war. But there is one funny little event which makes me wonder. It was July 1945, after Victory Day, and Stalingrad was rebuilding. There were soldiers out and about to help and oversee the efforts, and I had returned home to visit my family. Walking along Bogunskaya, I had my floral shawl over my head to protect me from the sun. There was a convoy of army trucks crossing the street about 75 yards ahead; each truck packed full of soldiers hanging on like barnacles.

Well, one of those soldiers shouted my name and gave me a jaunty wave. He was too far away to recognise, and then he was gone, but not before I managed to wave back… And I do believe it was Nikolai, I always have. He was right after all. They did come for him, and we did see each other again. I might not have had much of a war, or a life, if I hadn’t met him. It’s been an encouraging thought all these years that, whether he lived or died, I made a difference to that soldier at the door.

© Adair E. R. Jacobs 2017

A Soul Remembered: A Poem

I hope that this post will take you, the reader, on a journey. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, then you’ll know that I post many stories and poems that I’ve written over the years. However today, this poem is a little bit different because it’s accompanied by beautiful atmospheric photographs from Michael at Forties Photos! Michael and I “met” through Twitter, and share a love of World War II subjects and everything ’40s. He’s quite a photographer, and has been kind enough to help me out by supplying me with photos for my blog. I’m excited to share this collaboration with you, and I’m sure you’ll be as thrilled with it as I am.

A Soul Remembered

The atmosphere feels thick yet calm

In this place that I have known

The air sparkles brown and gray

With the dust of a weary day

sargeants-mess

And I hear voices; no, an echo

Memories are my only fellow

Each man, each friend, has gone home

In a place so busy I am alone

But still can feel what I used to feel

A joy electric, an accomplishment real.

camp-chaplins

Whether that lives here or just in mind

Has an answer undefined

Though I remember; remember well

The stories only these walls can tell

And a story much more unknown

More rare and precious, and not yet grown

blast-shelter-b

I remember you who know it too

Though you are gone, and barely in view

We had that chapter, over too fast

Now onwards, perhaps the story will last.

watertower

The doors are locked, the memory within

And I am their keeper, their guardian

The soul of this place chills me yet

As I look around I can never forget;

blast-shelter

Echoes of toil float through the air

The laughter, the hardship we had to bear;

Our footsteps, etched forever in dust

Remind me of your presence, and that I must

Live on in this place, for the soul still remains

Somedays a whisper, then louder refrains.

first-aid

But always in the quiet, I can near touch that soul

Voices fade, friends leave; but it won’t grow old

In a cheerless shell, it brings hope

Through monotonous days, it gives scope

And as the poisonous dust hangs ever low,

Through it I see you as you come and go

foundations-2

You still exist here, somewhere in my heart

And here this great story got its start

Here I have lived, and many times cried

Here my feelings of doubt have died;

security-hut

Even as the soul sleeps, I know it is there

I can feel its breath, its life in the air

In the depths of silence, in questioning why

I find peace, in this place still alive.

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All photographs are attributed to Michael from Forties Photos, taken at former RAF base Metheringham. Check out the Metheringham Airfield website here, and be sure to browse more of Michael’s work here on Forties Photos!