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Illingworth House: Chance Child - Part One: 93 - His Worst Fears Realised

John Illingworth survived after being shot down by a German fighter pilot - but now he begins to realise the extent of his injuries.

John Waddington-Feather continues his gripping novel. To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/illingworth_house/

He lost all track of time and kept hallucinating, imagining Helen was in the ward and speaking to him. He felt her presence all the time he was there - and afterwards. He saw her often quite clearly, smiling as she did in the photograph by his bed.

At first, a red film settled on his eyes and the light was so painful that he blacked out and had to have them covered. When he came to, a couple of nurses were dressing his burns; gently peeling off the saturated dressings and replacing them. They were chatting, assuming he was still unconscious, but he couldn't hear them properly through his swathe of bandages. He guessed they were talking about his burns and he strained to listen. They stopped abruptly when they realised he was awake and spoke to him reassuringly, but before they left they gave him an injection which put him into a deep sleep.

As the days went by he began thinking more lucidly and the pain began to subside. He could speak better, too, and one day he asked the nurse if he would be able to see again. "You're going to be just fine, sir," she said. "You're over the worst now, so just take it easy and rest."

She lied and he knew it. The worst was yet to come, through agonising weeks as surgeons tried to build up his face. Yet the nurse was right about one thing. When it came back, his eyesight was as good as ever and he also found that in time he could use his crippled hand. That recovered fully also, though it was permanently discoloured.

When he was able to feed himself, they moved him from intensive care into a general ward and allowed him to see his first visitor, his father. He had been waiting months to visit him and came alone. When he saw
him, he worst fears were realised and he wept.

By then they had taken off some of the dressings where the skin had healed, but his face was livid all down one side, from his head to the base of his neck. They had shaved his head completely, which showed that one brow and part of his nose had been burned away, leaving him a ghastly caricature of his former self.

Mercifully, he didn't see himself for some time because the nurses had made sure there were no mirrors in the place. But he saw himself mirrored in the eyes of those who looked at him, his father's most of all, for Sir Abe couldn't hide the shock of seeing him, no matter how he tried and involuntarily turned away to weep. He told no one about his son except Johnson. Not a word to Rosemary, who was always asking after him, and it was she who had the greatest shock when he eventually went home.

He had an unexpected visitor when he went into the main ward, a woman. At first she didn't recognise him, but he recognised her all right and called out to her as she went past his bed. She lived with her husband in a village not far from the hospital, after being bombed out in London, and she went to the hospital daily, serving teas, taking papers or writing letters for the patients. She turned, surprised to hear her maiden name, but stopped dead when she saw him, too shocked to speak at first. "It's Mary Calow, isn't it?" he asked.

He was so badly scarred and his voice so changed that she didn't recognise him and had to read his name at the foot of the bed. John watched her closely as she slowly lifted her eyes to his. As they met, the memory of what he had once looked like flashed across her mind but she was experienced enough by now to know how to hide her feelings and she hurried to his side, taking his good hand gently.

Neither spoke for some moments: she fighting to contain her shock; he continuing to regard her closely as he waited for her to speak. The last time they had met, nine years previously, she had spoken bitterly. Now she searched desperately for words of comfort.

"Well, well, this is a surprise, John," she managed tritely. "How long have you been here?" How she kept her voice under control she never knew, for the longer she looked upon him the more shocked she became. "I heard from Mary Gibson you'd been injured. It was in the paper up there. But I'd no idea you were here."

By now she was gripping his good hand tightly, as much to stop herself from shaking as to comfort him. She had noticed at once how badly burned his hands were and guessed what had happened. There were other fighter pilots in there with similar injuries. She had seen it all before, but not with anyone she knew. Not with John Illingworfh, the debonair man about town, the father of her godchild.

"I got pranged, Mary. Jerry caught me on the hop," he said, trying to smile. His words were slurred for his lips wouldn't function properly and his effort at smiling looked more like a snarl. "Damned lucky to be alive they keep telling me." He coughed awkwardly, as if he had suddenly become embarrassed meeting her after all this time. Then he said, "I suppose Mary told you about poor Sydney Goldstein. He was in my outfit. I saw him go..."

His voice now came only with effort and she had to fight back her tears, but she managed to answer calmly, "Yes. I heard. Mary sent me a cutting from the paper. How's Sarah and the baby?"

She threw the ball back into his court for she could hardly speak. He said Sarah had written. Her letter was in his locker if she wanted to read it. She reached across and drew it out and when she had read it, re-placed it silently. She asked where he had been shot down. "Somewhere over Kent," John replied. "Not far from here."

He sounded matter of fact, almost casual when he told her how Sydney had died. He didn't say much. Nothing about how he had caught it. They were all like that. No show of emotion, no hint of the grief they all felt deeply, least of all on his face. It was dead. It wouldn't register emotion again. All expression had been erased by the flames and only a livid mask remained.

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