The glens were full of frost and fog. Fog lay in pillows in the folds of the hills; the distant mountaintops shone dazzling pink and white beneath rays of low sunshine that didn’t touch the Spitfire’s wings. The haar, the North Sea coastal fog, was closing in. It was so cold that the moist air crystallised inside the Plexiglas hood, so that it seemed to be lightly snowing in the cockpit.
Maddie landed at Deeside just before sunset. But it wasn’t sunset, it was twilight grey and turning blue, and she would either have to spend the night in a cheerless, unmade spare bed in the guestroom of the officers’ billet, or she’d have to find a guesthouse in Aberdeen. Or she’d have to spend half the night on an unheated and blacked-out train and perhaps arrive back in Manchester at 2 o’clock in the morning. Unwilling to face the loneliness of the airfield’s spartan accommodation, or a dour, granite-faced, Aberdeen landlady who wouldn’t accept her ration coupons for an unarranged evening meal, Maddie opted for the train.
She walked to the branch line station at Deeside. There were no route maps posted on the walls, but a Wonderland-style sign commanding, ‘If you know where you are, then please tell others.’ There were no lights in the waiting room because they’d show when you opened the door. The ticket seller had a dim banker’s lamp burning behind his wee cage.
Maddie straightened herself out a bit. The girls in the ATA had been given a good splash of publicity in the papers and were expected to live up to certain standards of neatness. But she’d found that people didn’t always recognise her navy uniform with its gold ATA pilot’s wings, or make sense of them, and Scotland was as foreign a land as France to Maddie.
‘Is there a train any time soon?’ she asked.
‘Aye, there is,’ agreed the ticket seller, as cryptic as the platform posters.
‘Ten minutes. Aye, ten minutes.’
‘Going to Aberdeen?’
‘Och, no, not to Aberdeen. The next train’s the branch line to Castle Craig.’
To make this easier, I am translating the ticket seller’s speech from Aberdeen Doric. Maddie, not being fluent in the Doric herself, wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly.
‘Castle Craig,’ this bogle of a railway employee repeated laconically. ‘Single to Castle Craig, miss?’
‘No – No!’ Maddie said sensibly, and then in a fit of pure insanity brought on, no doubt, by loneliness and hunger and fatigue, added, ‘Not a single, I’ve got to come back. A return, please. Third-class return to Castle Craig.’
Half an hour later: Oh, what have I done! Maddie thought to herself, as the antique and ice-cold two-coach stopping train lurched and crept past a number of pitch-dark, anonymous station platforms, bearing Maddie further and further into the haunted foothills of the Scottish Highlands.
The compartment in the railway carriage was dimly lit by one blue light overhead. The carriage was not heated. There were no other passengers in Maddie’s compartment.
‘When’s the next train back?’ she asked the ticket collector.
‘Last one in two hours.’
‘Is there one before that?’
‘Last one in two hours,’ he repeated unhelpfully.
(Some of us still have not forgiven the English for the Battle of Culloden, the last battle to be fought on British soil, in 1746. Imagine what we will say about Adolf Hitler in 200 years.)
Maddie got off the train at Castle Craig. She had no luggage but her gas mask and her flight bag, containing a skirt which she was supposed to wear when she wasn’t flying, but which she hadn’t been able to change into, and her maps and pilot’s notes and circular slide rule for wind speed computations. And a toothbrush and her last flight’s 2 oz bar of chocolate. She remembered how she’d nearly wept with envy at Dympna’s description of having to spend the night in the back of a Fox Moth and nearly freezing to death. Maddie wondered if she’d freeze to death before the train she just got off finally went back to Deeside two hours later.
Here I think I should remind you that my family is long-established in rather the upper echelons of the British aristocracy. Maddie, you will recall, is the granddaughter of an immigrant tradesman. She and I would not ever have met in peacetime. Not ever, unless perhaps I’d decided to buy a motorbike in Stockport – perhaps Maddie might have served me. But if she hadn’t been such a cracking radio operator and been promoted so quickly, it’s not likely we’d have become friends even in wartime, because British officers don’t mingle with the Lower Ranks.
(I don’t believe it for a minute – that we wouldn’t have become friends somehow – that an unexploded bomb wouldn’t have gone off and blown us both into the same crater or that God himself wouldn’t have come along and knocked our heads together in a flash of green sunlight. But it wouldn’t have been likely.)
At any rate Maddie’s growing misgivings on this particular ill-conceived rail journey were mostly based on her certainty that she simply could not go and knock on the door of a Laird’s Castle and ask for accommodation, or even a cup of tea, while she waited for the return train. She was only Maddie Brodatt and not a descendant of Mary Queen of Scots or Macbeth.
But she had not taken the War into account. I have heard a good many people say that it is levelling the British class system. Levelling is perhaps too strong a word, but it is certainly mixing us up a bit.
Maddie was the only passenger to get off at Castle Craig, and after she’d dithered on the platform for five minutes, the station master came out to greet her personally.
‘You a mate o’ young Jamie up the Big House, are ye?’
For a moment Maddie was too surprised to answer.
‘He’ll be glad o’ sensible company, he will, alone in that castle with them young rascals from Glasgow.’
‘Alone?’ Maddie croaked.
‘Aye, the Lady’s away to Aberdeen for three days with the Women’s Voluntary Service, packing socks and cigarettes to send our lads fighting in the desert. It’s young Jamie alone with them evacuees. Eight o’ them, the Lady took in, last ones in the queue – no one else would have ’em, the mucky wee lads, wi’ their nits an’ streamin’ noses. Dads all at work on the ships, bombs droppin’ night and day, kiddies never been out o’ the tenements in their lives. The Lady said she’d raised six weans of her own and five o’ them lads, eight o’ someone else’s lads wouldn’t be much different. But she’s gone and left young Jamie to make their tea with them puir mangled hands o’ his –’
Maddie’s heart soared at the idea of helping Jamie make tea for eight Glaswegian evacuees.
‘Can I walk there?’
‘Aye, half a mile along the main road to the gate, then a mile down the drive.’
Maddie thanked him, and he raised his cap to her.
‘How’d you know me for a friend of Jamie’s?’ she asked.
‘Yer boots,’ the station master said. ‘All you RAF lads wear the same boots. Never seen young Jamie take his off. Wish I had a pair.’
Maddie walked through the windy dark to Craig Castle, bubbling over with giddy laughter and relief and anticipation.
I’m an RAF lad! she thought, and laughed aloud in the dark.
Craig Castle is a small castle – I mean, compared to Edinburgh or Stirling Castles, or Balmoral where the King lives in the summer, or Glamis where the Queen’s family lives. But it is a proper castle, bits of it nearly 600 years old, with its own well in case of siege, and cellars you can use as dungeons or wine stores, and four different endless spiral stairways so that not all of the rooms on every level actually connect. There is a room lost behind a sealed wall (there is also a window missing on the wall outside, and an extra chimney, so we know the room used to be there). Also, there are gunrooms and a billiard room and a smoking room, two libraries, innumerable retiring and drawing rooms, etc. At the moment most of these are under dustsheets because everyone is off doing War work including the staff.
When Maddie arrived, it looked deserted – blackout of course – but she staunchly rattled the iron ratchet at the main door and eventually a Very Grubby Glaswegian Evacuee with egg smeared from the left corner of his mouth right across to his left ear opened the door. He was carrying a candle in a tin candlestick.
‘Jack-be-nimble,’ Maddie said.
‘Me name’s Jock,’ retorted the evacuee.
‘Have I interrupted your tea?’
Jock responded in a garble of excited Glaswegian syllables. He might as well have spoken German for all Maddie understood.
He wanted to touch her gold wings. He had to point to them to get her to understand.
She let him.
‘Come alang through,’ he said firmly, beaming, as though she’d passed a test. He shut the massive oak and iron door behind them, and Maddie followed him into the labyrinth where I was born.
They emerged in the below-stairs kitchen – with four sinks and three ovens and burners enough to cater meals for 50 guests, and a deal table big enough to seat all the staff if there were any. Around this table were seven young lads – properly young, primary school age, Jock being the eldest at about 12 – all wearing hobnailed boots and short trousers (to save on cloth) and patched-over school pullovers in varying states of grottiness, all their faces smeared with egg, all consuming toast soldiers at an alarming rate. Standing at the great black Victorian stovetop, presiding over a bubbling iron cauldron, was the Honourable youngest son of the Laird of Craig Castle – looking every inch the modern Highland hero in a faded kilt of Hunting Stewart tartan, hand-knitted woollen kilt hose and a machine-knitted woollen RAF airman’s sweater. His boots exactly matched Maddie’s.
‘Three minutes, who’s up?’ he announced, upending an extraordinary ormolu-gilt hourglass and displaying a boiled egg with a pair of silver sugar tongs.
His maimed hands, two fingers and thumb remaining on each, were deft and quick. He sniffed the air. ‘Oi, Tam, you flip that toast before it burns!’ he barked, then turned and saw Maddie.
She wouldn’t have recognised him as Jamie – tonight he was the picture of rosy health, nothing like the grey-faced, grieving invalid she’d last seen slumping bandaged and unresponsive in a bath chair. But she’d never have doubted he was her best friend’s brother. Same sleek fair hair, same small, light build, same quick, bewitching features with a faint hint of lunacy behind the bright eyes.
He saluted her. The effect was incredible. All seven young lads (and Jock) joined him smartly, leaping to their feet and scraping back chairs.
‘Second Officer Brodatt of the Air Transport Auxiliary,’ he introduced her. The boys reeled off their names like a row of cadets: Hamish, Angus, Mungo, Rabbie, Tam, Wullie, Ross and Jock.
‘The Craig Castle Irregulars,’ Jamie said. ‘Would you like to join us in a boiled egg, Second Officer Brodatt?’
Maddie’s egg allocation amounted to one per week. She usually donated it to her gran for baking, or for the Sunday morning fry-up, and she often had to miss that anyway.