At last one of the lads gave a slow, reluctant nod.
‘Tha’ll manage, lass,’ he said. ‘I can see tha’ll manage.’
That first ATA flight Maddie made was hard work. Not frightening; just hard work. It was hard, at first, to look past the gun sight sockets and camera fixing plates and rows and rows of bomb selector switches for bombs she wasn’t carrying, a Morsing key for a radio that wasn’t connected, etc.
Fly the plane, Maddie.
The six familiar, friendly faces of the flight instrument panel smiled at her behind the control column. One of the ground crew anxiously made sure she knew where to find the forced-landing flare release.
The weather cooperated for her, but the Lysander fought her for nearly two hours. When she tried to land at Elmtree, she misjudged the amount of runway she was going to need. Hands and wrists aching with the effort of keeping the control column far enough forward to land, Maddie took off again without touching down, and had to come in over the runway twice more before she got it right. But she landed safely at last.
I sound so authoritative! It must be the immediate effect of the aspirin. Imagine if you gave me Benzedrine. (And I still crave coffee.)
Maddie, also craving coffee, went to scrounge a sandwich from the workshop canteen, and found another ferry pilot there ahead of her – tall, square-faced, with dark brown hair shorter than Maddie’s, in uniform navy slacks and tunic with the double gold shoulder stripes of a First Officer. For a moment Maddie was confused, thinking that, like Queenie, she was seeing ghosts.
‘Lyons!’ Maddie exclaimed.
The pilot looked up, frowned and answered tentatively, ‘Brodatt?’
Then Maddie saw it wasn’t the vicar’s son who used to fly at Maidsend before being shot down and incinerated in flaming petrol over the South Downs last September, but someone who clearly must be his twin sister. Or an ordinary sister anyway. They stared at each other in bewilderment for a moment. They had never met.
The other girl beat her to the question. ‘But how do you know my name?’
‘You look exactly like your brother! I was a WAAF at Maidsend with him. We used to talk about maps – he wouldn’t ever dance!’
‘That was Kim,’ said the girl, smiling.
‘I liked him. I’m sorry.’
‘My name’s Theo.’ She offered Maddie her hand. ‘I’m in the women’s ferry pool at Stratfield.’
‘How do you know my name?’ Maddie asked.
‘It’s chalked up on the assignment board in the radio room,’ First Officer Lyons said. ‘We’re the only ATA pilots here today. They usually send girls in the Lysanders – the lads all want something faster. Have a sandwich. You look like you could use one.’
‘I’ve never flown a Lysander before,’ said Maddie, ‘and I wish I never would again. This one just about killed me.’
‘Oh, you brought in the faulty tailplane! It’s terribly unfair of them to give you a broken Lizzie on your first go. You must have another go immediately, flying one that works.’
Maddie took the offered half-sandwich – bully beef straight from the tin as usual. ‘Well, I have to, I suppose,’ she said. ‘I’ve got to take one from here down to its normal base this afternoon. It’s not top priority, but it’s got one of those S chits, secrecy and a report required. It’s my first day on the job too.’
‘You lucky thing, that’s RAF Special Duties!’
‘RAF Special Duties?’
‘Your guess is as good as mine. They’re sort of embedded in the normal RAF base that you fly in to, but after you’ve landed there two or three times you start to work it out – a little fleet of Lysanders camouflaged in black and dark green, all equipped with long-range fuel tanks, and the runway laid out with electric lamps. Night landings in short fields –’
She let that hang between them. France, Belgium, Resistance agents, refugees, wireless equipment and explosives smuggled into Nazi-occupied Europe – you didn’t dare talk about it. You just didn’t.
‘It’s brilliant fun landing a Lizzie in their training field. They have a mock flare path laid out, little yellow flags; you can play you’re a Special Duties pilot. Lysanders are wizard at short landings. You could land one in your granny’s garden.’
Maddie could scarcely believe that, having just managed to get her first Lizzie down only by using every available inch of runway.
Theo pulled her crust to pieces and arranged three crumbs in an inverted L-shape to imitate torches blazing in a dark French meadow. ‘Here’s what you do –’ She glanced quickly over each shoulder to make sure she wasn’t overheard. ‘They’re always a bit boggled when a girl leaps out of the cockpit afterwards.’
‘They were a bit boggled when I got in this morning!’
‘How’s your navigation? You’re not allowed to mark this airfield on your map. Takes a bit of studying before you leave, so you can find it yourself.’
‘I can manage that,’ Maddie said confidently, and truthfully, having earlier that day done almost exactly the same thing.
‘It’ll be fun,’ Theo repeated enthusiastically, encouraging her. ‘You couldn’t get better training if they gave you a course! Flying a broken plane for two hours then landing a fixed one in twenty yards in the same day – we might as well be operational.’
All right, this airfield, the Special Duties airfield. It is the same one Maddie and I took off from six weeks ago. The pilots who use it are called the Moon Squadron – they fly by moonlight and only by moonlight. The location of their airfield is one of our most closely guarded secrets and I thank God I don’t know its name or have any clue where it is. I really don’t – though I have been there at least five times I was always flown there from my own base outside Oxford, in the dark, sometimes via another aerodrome, and I don’t even know which direction we set off in to get there. They did that on purpose.
Their planes need a lot of maintenance as they tend to go through them quite rapidly, bashing the undercarriages in the dark and getting bits blown off by anti-aircraft guns on their way home. Later Maddie made that run several times ferrying damaged or mended aircraft in and out of the bigger aerodrome that surrounds them and hides them. More recently she served them as a taxi pilot delivering their rather special passengers. The dozen or so quite suicidally deranged pilots who are stationed there grew familiar with Maddie’s increasingly expert dead-stop accurate short-field landings, and by and by they knew when she’d arrived before she got out of the plane.
I am out of time again – hell. I was enjoying myself
Ormaie 18.XI.43 JB-S
Engel thinks I am translating von Linden’s horrid notes, but I am sneaking in a few recipe cards of my own because I have got ahead of her.
She can be a perfect fount of information when she’s in the mood. It is because of her nattering on at me while I was hard at work that she has fallen behind. She tells me that if I am lucky I will be sent to a place called Ravensbrück when they have finished with me here. It is a concentration camp solely for women, a labour camp and prison. Perhaps it is where the charwoman who stole the cabbages was sent. Basically it is a death sentence – they more or less starve you until you can’t work and then when you become too weak to shift any more rubble for replacing the roads blown up by our Allied bombers, they hang you. (I am ideally suited to shifting rubble, having previous experience on the runway at Maidsend.) If you are not put to work breaking rocks you get to incinerate the bodies of your companions after they have been hanged.
If I am not lucky, in other words if I do not produce a satisfactory report in the time allotted, I will be sent to a place called Natzweiler-Struthof. This is a smaller and more specialised concentration camp, the vanishing point for Nacht und Nebel prisoners, who are mostly men. Occasionally women are sent there as live specimens for medical experiments. I am not a man, but I am designated Nacht und Nebel.
If I am very lucky – I mean if I am clever about it – I will get myself shot. Here, soon. Engel didn’t tell me this; I thought it out myself. I have given up hoping the RAF will blow this place to smithereens.
I want to update my list of ‘10 Things I Am Afraid Of.’
1) Cold. (I’ve replaced my fear of the dark with Maddie’s fear of being cold. I don’t mind dark now, especially if it’s quiet. Gets boring sometimes.)
2) Falling asleep while I’m working.
3) Bombs dropping on my favourite brother.
4) Kerosene. Just the word on its own is enough to reduce me to jelly, which everybody knows and makes use of to great effect.
5) SS-Hauptsturmführer Amadeus von Linden. Actually he should be at the top of this list, the man blinds me with fear, but I was taking the list in its original order and he has replaced the college porter.
6) Losing my pullover. I suppose that counts under cold. But it is something I worry about separately.
7) Being sent to Natzweiler-Struthof.
8) Being sent back to England and having to file a report on What I Did In France.
9) Not being able to finish my story.
10) Also of finishing it.
I am no longer afraid of getting old. Indeed I can’t believe I ever said anything so stupid. So childish. So offensive and arrogant.
But mainly, so very, very stupid. I desperately want to grow old.
Everybody is getting excited about the American radio woman’s visit. My interview will be held in von Linden’s study, office, whatever it is. I was taken to see it earlier today so that I would be forewarned and not fall over in a dead faint of astonishment seeing it for the first time in front of the interviewer (pretend all my ‘interviews’ take place beneath the Venetian glass chandelier in this cosy, wood-panelled den. Pretend I sit writing at his pretty little 18th-century marquetry table every afternoon. Pretend I ask his pet cockatoo in its bamboo cage to supply me with unfamiliar German words when I get stuck).
(Or perhaps not. The helpful cockatoo might seem a little too far-fetched.)
I am not writing there now – I am in my usual bare broom cupboard, pulled up to the tubular steel table with my ankles tied to my chair, with SS-Scharführer Thibaut and his mate whose name I haven’t been told breathing down my neck.
I am going to write about Scotland. I wasn’t ever there with Maddie, but I feel as though I was.
I don’t know what she was flying the night she got stuck at Deeside, near Aberdeen. It wasn’t just Lysanders that she ferried, and she didn’t do much taxi work that first year, so it probably wasn’t an Anson. Let’s say it was a Spitfire, just for fun – the most glamorous and beloved of fighter planes – even the Luftwaffe pilots would let you pull out their back teeth with a pair of pliers if it would buy them an hour in control of a Spitfire. Let’s say that late in November of ’41 Maddie was delivering a Spitfire to this Scottish airfield where they’d fly out to defend the North Sea shipping, or perhaps to take pictures of Luftwaffe-occupied airfields in Norway.
Our reconnaissance planes are tarted up in a lovely salmony-mauve camouflage to match the clouds. So let’s say Maddie was flying a pink Spitfire, but not up to the soaring blue heavens like the fighter pilots. She was flying cautiously, making her way along the coast and up the straths, the wide valleys of Scotland, because the cloud was low. She was 3000 feet above sea level, but between the Tay and the Dee the Cairngorm Mountains rise higher than that. Maddie flew alone, careful and happy, low over the snow-tipped Highlands on those pretty tapered wings, deafened by the Merlin engine, navigating by dead reckoning.