‘There’s hens all over the grounds,’ Hamish told her as she sat down with the boys. ‘We get to eat every egg we find.’
‘Keeps ’em busy too, lookin’ for ’em,’ said Jamie.
Maddie took the top of her egg off with her spoon. The hot, bright yolk was like a summer sun breaking through cloud, the first daffodil in the snow, a gold sovereign wrapped in a white silk handkerchief. She dipped her spoon in it and licked it.
‘You lads,’ she said slowly, looking around at the grubby faces, ‘have been evacuated to a magic castle.’
‘It’s true, miss,’ said Jock, forgetting she was an officer. He gabbled at her in Glaswegian.
‘Speak slowly,’ Jamie commanded.
Jock spoke loudly instead. Maddie got the gist of it. ‘There’s a ghost that sits at the top of the tower stairs. You go all cold if you walk through him by accident.’
‘I’ve seen him,’ said Angus proudly.
‘Aw, ye hav’nae,’ mocked Wullie with deep scorn. ‘An’ ye sleep wi’ a teddy, ae. There’s nae ghostie.’
They broke into an incomprehensible argument about the ghost. Jamie sat down across from Maddie and they beamed at each other.
‘I feel dead outnumbered,’ Maddie said.
‘Me too,’ Jamie agreed.
He was more or less living in the kitchen and the smaller of the two libraries. The Craig Castle Irregulars mostly lived outside. They slept three to a bed in our ancestral four posters. The laddies were happy to crowd in together as that’s what they were used to at home, and it saved on sheets, leaving Ross and Jock to share on their own (Ross being Jock’s wee brother). Jamie had them all wash up and brush their teeth military-style (or school-style) at the four kitchen sinks, 2 boys per sink, very efficient. Then he literally marched them all up to bed, installed Maddie in his fox’s den of a library on the way, and came back to her 20 minutes later carrying a steaming silver coffee pot.
‘It’s real coffee,’ he said. ‘From Jamaica. Mother hoards it for special occasions, but it’s starting to lose its flavour now.’ He sank into one of the cracked leather armchairs in front of the fire grate with a sigh. ‘How did you ever get here, Maddie Brodatt?’
‘Second to the right, and then straight on till morning,’ she answered promptly – it did feel like Neverland.
‘Crikey, am I so obviously Peter Pan?’
Maddie laughed. ‘The Lost Boys give it away.’
Jamie studied his hands. ‘Mother keeps the windows open in all our bedrooms while we’re gone, like Mrs Darling, just in case we come flying home when she’s not expecting us.’ He poured Maddie a cup of coffee. ‘My window’s closed just now. I’m not flying at the minute.’
He spoke without bitterness.
Maddie asked a question she’d wanted to ask him when she’d first met him, only she hadn’t had the courage.
‘How did you ever manage to save your hands?’
‘Popped my fingers in my mouth,’ Jamie answered readily. ‘I swapped hands over every thirty seconds or so. Couldn’t fit any more than three fingers at a time and thought I’d better concentrate on the ones I’d miss the most. My big brothers and little sister have all started to call me The Pobble Who Has No Toes, which is a very silly poem by Edward Lear.’ He sipped his own coffee. ‘Having something to concentrate on probably saved more than just my hands. My navigator, who came down with me, just gave up, only about an hour after we’d been in the water. Just let go. Didn’t want to think about it.’
‘You going back?’
He hesitated a little, but when he spoke it was with determination, as though he had a puzzle to solve. ‘My doctor says they might not want me in a bomber crew. But – you’ve got a chap with one arm flying in the ATA, don’t you? I thought they might take me. Ancient and Tattered Airmen, isn’t that what they call you?’
‘Not me,’ Maddie said. ‘I’m one of the Always Terrified Airwomen.’
Jamie laughed. ‘You, terrified! My eye.’
‘I don’t like guns,’ Maddie said. ‘Someday I’ll be fired on in the air, and I’ll go down in flames just because I’m too blooming scared to fly the plane.’
Jamie didn’t laugh.
‘Must be awful,’ Maddie said quietly. ‘Have you flown at all – since?’
He shook his head. ‘I can though.’
From what she’d seen of him that night, she thought he probably could.
‘How many hours have you got?’
‘Hundreds,’ he said. ‘Over half of them at night. Mostly on Blenheims – that’s what I was flying all the time I was operational.’
‘What did you train on?’ Maddie asked.
‘Ansons. Lysanders at first.’
He was watching her intently over his coffee, as though she were conducting an interview and he were waiting to hear if he’d got the job. Of course it was none of her business, and she had no authority. But she’d landed Lysanders herself too many times at that odd RAF Special Duties airfield, you see, even spent a night in the Moon Squadron’s private ivy-covered cottage hidden in a small wood at the edge of the normal airfield (there hadn’t been any other place to put her and she’d been very carefully segregated from the other visitors). She had some idea of the difficulties that peculiar squadron had in finding and keeping pilots. Hundreds of hours’ night flying required, and fluent French, and though they could only take volunteers, they were such a secret operation that they weren’t allowed to actively recruit anyone.
Maddie has a rule about passing on favours which she calls the ‘Aerodrome Drop-Off Principle’. It is very simple. If someone needs to get to an airfield and you can get them there, by taxi Anson or motorbike or pony trap or pig-aback, you should always take them. Because someday you will need a ride to an airfield too. Someone different will have to take you, so the favour gets passed on instead of paid back.
Now, talking to Jamie, Maddie thought of all the little things Dympna Wythenshawe had done or said on Maddie’s behalf, things which had cost Dympna nothing, but which had changed Maddie’s life. Maddie knew she could never repay Dympna; but now, according to the Aerodrome Drop-Off Principle, Maddie had a chance to pass the life-changing favours on.
‘You should ask your C.O. about Special Duties flying,’ Maddie said to Jamie. ‘I think you’d have a good chance of getting in with them.’
‘Special Duties?’ Jamie echoed, just as Maddie had echoed Theo Lyons a few months back.
‘They fly dead hush-hush missions,’ Maddie said. ‘Short-field operations, night landings. Lysanders and sometimes Hudsons. It’s not a big squadron. Volunteer for RAF Special Duties, and if you need a reference ask to talk to –’
The name she gave Jamie was the alias of the intelligence officer who recruited me.
It was probably the most daring thing she’d ever done. Maddie could only guess at what he was. But she’d remembered his name – or rather, the name he’d used when he bought her a whisky in The Green Man – and she’d seen him more than once on the secret airfield (and he thought he was so clever too). Plenty of odd civilians came and went from that airfield, but Maddie didn’t see many of them, and when she recognised the one she did see, it stuck in her head as a most peculiar coincidence.
(Bloody Machiavellian English Intelligence Officer playing God.)
Jamie repeated the name aloud to fix it in his head, and leaned forward to peer at Maddie more closely in the firelight from the library grate.
‘Where the devil have you come by that sort of information?’
‘“Careless talk costs lives,”’ Maddie answered sternly, and The Pobble Who Has No Toes laughed because it sounded so like his little sister. I mean his younger sister. (I mean me.)
How I would love to stay in the library at Craig Castle with them all night. Later Maddie slept in my bed (Mother always keeps our beds made up, just in case). It was cold with the window open but, like Mother and Mrs Darling, Maddie left the window as she found it, also just in case. I wish I could indulge in writing about my bedroom, but I must stop early today so von Linden can prep me for this radio interview tomorrow. Anyway my bedroom at home in Craig Castle, Castle Craig, has nothing to do with the War.
This bloody radio interview. All lies, lies and damned lies.
Ormaie 20.XI.43 JB-S
I’m supposed to use this time to make my own notes on the radio interview yesterday – as a kind of backstop in case the actual broadcast doesn’t match up with what v.L. remembers of it. I would have written about it anyway, but BUCKETS OF BLOOD, WHEN DO I GET TO FINISH MY GREAT DISSERTATION OF TREASON?
They really made an effort to make me presentable, as though I were a débutante to be presented to the King of England all over again. It was decided (not by me) that my beloved pullover makes me look too thin and pale, and is also getting a wee bit ragged, so they washed and pressed my blouse and temporarily gave me back my grey silk scarf. I was flabbergasted to find they still had it – I suppose it must be part of my file and they are still hunting for unrevealed code in the paisley.
They let me put my hair up, but made a lot of fuss over how to fix it because no one trusts me with hairpins. In the end I was allowed to use PENCIL STUBS. MY GOD they are petty. I was also allowed to do it myself because A) Engel could not make it stay, B) she could not hide the pencils as well as I did. And even after soaking my fingertips in kerosene for an hour (who suspected kerosene has so many uses?) they have failed to get rid of the ink stains beneath my fingernails. But that just adds credibility to the stenographer story, I think. Also, because afterwards my hands positively reeked of kerosene, I was then allowed to scrub myself all over with a lovely creamy little bar of curious American soap which floated in the basin when you let go of it. Where in the world did that come from? (Apart from the obvious, ‘America’.) It looked like hotel soap, but the wrapper was in English and it couldn’t have been from this hotel.
C d M, le Château des Mystères
Engel did my nails. I was not let to do them myself lest I stab someone with the file. She was as vicious as possible without actually drawing blood (she succeeded in making me cry), but otherwise it is a perfect manicure. I feel sure she has fashion sense lurking beneath the Teutonic Mädchen guise she affects for the Gestapo.
They installed me at the marquetry table with some harmless dummy documents to work on – finding the best connections between French rail and bus timetables and making a list of them in German. When they brought in the interviewer, I stood up with an artificial smile and crossed the antique Persian carpet to welcome her, feeling exactly as though I were playing the Secretary on the opening night set of Agatha Christie’s Alibi.
‘Georgia Penn,’ the radio announcer introduced herself, offering me her hand. She is about a foot taller than me and walks with a stick and a prodigious limp. As old as von Linden, big and loud and friendly – well, just American. She worked in Spain during the Civil War as a foreign correspondent and got very badly treated by the Republicans, hence her pro-Fascist bent. She is normally based in Paris and does a radio show called ‘No Place Like Home’ full of jive tunes and pie recipes and discouraging hints that if you are stationed on a battleship in the Mediterranean, your girl is probably cheating on you back in the States. This rubbish is broadcast over and over to make the American soldiers homesick. Apparently Yanks will listen to anything if it includes decent music. The BBC is too serious for them.