Maddie studied the map beneath a tent she made of her tunic. Michael was smartly on target as far as she could tell. The glaring prison fence was close to a railway bridge over a river which should have been the turning-back point. Maddie switched off the torch and stared out of the window, her night vision ruined by trying to read the map. But she could tell they had turned back.
‘You didn’t need my help after all,’ she said, and passed him back his torch and map.
‘I’d have just played follow-my-leader after Jamie all the way to Paris if you hadn’t reminded me to turn.’
‘He’s not going to Paris, is he?’
Michael said enviously, ‘He won’t get to buzz the Eiffel Tower, but he’s picking up a couple of Parisian agents. He’ll have to land well outside the city.’ Then Michael added in a more sober voice, ‘I’m still jolly glad you came along. That prison gave me a turn. I was so sure I was in the right place, and then –’
‘You were,’ said Maddie.
‘I’m jolly glad you came along,’ Michael repeated.
He said it a third time when they landed back in England two hours later. The relieved squadron leader grinned and nodded tolerantly as he welcomed them back. ‘Find your way all right?’
‘A piece of cake, apart from the bit at the end where the pinpoint turned out to be next to a ruddy great prison!’
The squadron leader laughed. ‘I’ll say you did find your way. That always comes as a surprise the first time. Proves you got there though. Or did you have help?’
‘He found it all himself,’ Maddie said truthfully. ‘I can’t thank you enough for letting me go along.’
‘April in Paris, eh?’
‘Nearly as good as.’ Maddie ached for Paris, imprisoned, inaccessible, remote.
‘Not this year. Perhaps next!’
Michael went to bed whistling. Maddie found her way through the darkened Cottage with his tune stuck in her head. After a moment she recognised it as ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’.
It was nearly four o’clock in the morning when, brimming with elation, Maddie crept into the room she was sharing with Queenie. She checked the blackout blinds were down and then lit a candle, not wanting to put on the lights and wake her friend if Queenie was asleep. But Queenie’s bed was empty and unruffled, the counterpane smooth and straight. Queenie’s small travel case stood unopened by the foot of the bed where Maddie herself had set it down earlier. Whatever Queenie was here to do, she was still doing it.
Maddie put on her pyjamas and pulled the blankets up to her chin, her mind full of air and moonlight and the silver Seine. She did not sleep.
Queenie came in at half past five. She didn’t think about whether or not she’d wake Maddie; she didn’t even check that the blinds were down. She snapped on the electric light overhead, heaved her travel case on to the bare bureau and hauled out the regulation WAAF pyjamas and a hairbrush. Then she sat down in front of the mirror and stared at herself.
Maddie stared too.
Queenie was different. Her hair was pinned up as usual, but not in the signature French chignon twist she’d been wearing when Maddie had left her last night. Queenie’s hair was scraped back severely from her forehead flat against her skull and wound into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. It wasn’t flattering. It made her seem plainer, and her face was made up in pale colours that weren’t flattering either. There was a harshness to the set of her mouth that Maddie had never seen before.
Maddie watched. Queenie laid down the hairbrush and slowly took off her blue WAAF tunic. After a moment Maddie realised she was being cautious, not slow – moving carefully, as though it were painful to stretch her shoulders. She took off her blouse.
One arm was livid with bruises, red turning purple, the clear, brutal marks of a big hand that had gripped her hard and not let go for some time. Her throat and shoulders were scored with similar ugly marks right the way round. Someone had tried to choke her to death a few hours ago.
She touched her throat gently and stretched her neck, examining the damage in the small mirror on the dresser. The room wasn’t very warm and after a minute or two Queenie sighed and inched herself into the cotton shirt of her men’s pyjamas, still moving cautiously. Then she stood up, incautiously this time, and wrenched all the steel hairpins from her tightly bound hair. With a vicious scrape of the back of one hand she scrubbed the beige lipstick from her mouth. Suddenly she looked very much more herself, a bit dishevelled, as though she’d pulled off a mask. She turned round and saw Maddie looking at her.
‘Hullo,’ Queenie said with a crooked smile. ‘I didn’t mean to wake you.’
‘You didn’t.’ Maddie waited. She knew better than to ask what had happened.
‘Doesn’t hurt,’ Queenie said fiercely. ‘Not much. Just – it was hard work tonight. Had to do a bit more improvisation than usual, play it closer to the edge –’
She scrabbled abruptly in her tunic for her cigarettes. Maddie watched quietly. Queenie sat down on the end of Maddie’s bed and lit a cigarette with hands that shook a little.
‘Guess where I went with the lads tonight,’ Maddie said.
‘To the pub?’
Queenie spun round to stare at her and saw the sky and the moon still lighting up Maddie’s eyes.
Maddie hugged her knees, reeling with the magic and menace of that stolen flight.
‘You’re not supposed to tell me that,’ Queenie said.
‘I’m not,’ Maddie agreed. ‘I wasn’t even supposed to have gone. But we didn’t actually land there.’
Queenie nodded and examined her cigarette. Maddie had never seen her friend quite so undone.
‘You know what you looked like just now,’ Maddie said, ‘when you came in, with your hair pulled back in that strict Victorian governess way, you looked like –’
‘– Eine Agentin der Nazis,’ Queenie supplied, taking a long, shaking drag on her cigarette.
‘What? Oh. Yes. Like a German spy. Or everyone’s idea of a German spy anyway, fair and scary.’
‘I think I’m a bit small for the Aryan ideal,’ Queenie said, observing herself critically. She stretched her neck again, felt the bruised arm cautiously and raised the cigarette to her lips, more steadily this time.
Maddie did not ask what had happened. She was never so petty. She did not dabble with minnows at the surface when there were thirty-pound salmon swimming deeper down.
‘What,’ Maddie said quietly, ‘do you actually do?’
‘“Careless talk costs lives,”’ Queenie retorted.
‘I don’t talk,’ Maddie said. ‘What do you do?’
‘I speak German. Ich bin eine –’
‘Be sensible,’ Maddie said. ‘You translate … What? Who do you translate for?’
Queenie turned towards her again with the narrow gaze of a hunted rodent.
‘You translate for prisoners of war? You work for Intelligence – you translate at interrogations?’
Queenie hid herself in a cloud of smoke.
‘I’m not a translator,’ she said.
‘But you said –’
‘No.’ Queenie was quiet too. ‘You said that. I told you I speak German. But I’m not a translator. I’m an interrogator.’
It is ridiculous that you have not already guessed the nature of my Intelligence work, Amadeus von Linden. Like you, I am a wireless operator.
Like you, I am bloody good at it.
Our methods differ.
‘On the job,’ as it were, I am called Eva Seiler. That was the name they used for me throughout my training – we were made to live and breathe our alter egos, and I got used to it – Seiler is the name of my school and was easy to remember. We had to discipline people who called me Scottie by accident. In English I can fake an Orkney accent better than a German one, so we went with that when I was operational – obscurely difficult to identify.
That first day – that first assignment, the very first one – remember how giddy everyone was the morning after, when they handed out all the champagne and perfume at The Cottage? I’d caught a double agent. A Nazi agent masquerading as a French Resistance courier. They’d suspected him and they brought me in to be there when they landed him in England – I caught him off guard at the low ebb of his strength and adrenaline (he’d had a long night being hauled out of France, they all did). He was a known womaniser; he didn’t have the balls to admit he didn’t recognise me when I threw myself at him in that frosty little debriefing room, laughing and weeping and exclaiming in German. The room was bugged and they heard everything we said.
It wasn’t always that easy, but it paved my way. Mostly these men were all so desperate or confused by the time I appeared, with my neutral Swiss accent and comfortingly official checklist, that they were often gratefully cooperative if not wholly bewitched. But not this night, not on the night last April when Maddie flew to France. The man I interviewed that night didn’t believe in me. He accused me of treachery. Treason against the Fatherland – what was I doing working for the enemy, the English? He called me a collaborator, a backstabber, a filthy English whore.
You know – the stupid man’s big mistake was in calling me ENGLISH. It made my fury wholly convincing. A whore, we’ve established that, filthy, it goes without saying, but whatever else the hell I am, I AM NOT ENGLISH.
‘You’re the one who’s failed the Fatherland, you’re the one who’s been caught,’ I snarled at him, ‘and you’re the one who will face trial when you’re returned to Stuttgart –’ (I recognised his accent, a coincidence and a direct hit) ‘– I am merely here doing my job as Berlin’s interpretive liaison –’ (oh yes, I said that) ‘– And how DARE you call me ENGLISH!’
At which point he launched himself at me – we don’t usually bind these men – and took my head beneath his arm in a grip of iron.
‘Call for help,’ he commanded.
I could have escaped. I’ve been trained to defend myself against an attack like that, as I think I proved during the street brawl when I was arrested.
‘Why?’ – Still sneering at him.
‘Call for help. Let your English masters come to your aid or I will break your neck.’
‘Calling the English for help would be collaboration,’ I gasped coldly. ‘I don’t depend on the English for anything. Go ahead and break my neck.’
They were watching, you know – there is a slotted window to the kitchen which they can watch through – and if I had called for help or seemed anything but wholly in control they would have come to my aid. But they saw what I was doing, what a tight wire I was walking, and they sat biting their nails and let me win that battle on my own.
And I did win. It ended some time later with him breaking down in tears on the floor, clutching at my leg and begging me to forgive him.