I suppose Eva was quite successful at extracting information the Jerries would rather not have leaked to the Brits, and perhaps she’s even become one of many niggling thorns in the Führer’s side. But I hadn’t thought von Linden would know who I was talking about (I might have mentioned her sooner if I had). At any rate I didn’t miss a beat – this is how I operate. This is what I am so good at. Give me a hint, just one hint, and I will fake it. It’s the thin end of the wedge for you, me laddie.
I scraped my hair back from my face in the severe headmistressy way they used to fix it, and holding it in place with one hand, straightened my shoulders and clicked my heels together. If you don’t stand too close to someone who is taller than you, you can still affect to sneer down your nose at him. I said coldly, in German, ‘What possible reason could I have to pretend to be Berlin’s interpretive liaison with London?’
‘What proof? You have no valid papers,’ he said breathlessly. ‘You were caught with Margaret Brodatt’s papers on you, but you are not Margaret Brodatt either, so why should you be Eva Seiler?’
I don’t think he knew whether he was talking to me or to Eva at this point. (He suffers a certain amount of sleep deprivation as well, due to the nature of his work.)
‘Eva Seiler’s papers are all forgeries in any case,’ I pointed out. ‘They wouldn’t prove anything.’
I paused – count to three – and advanced on him. Two baby steps only, to make him feel advanced on. Still enough of a distance between us, a metre perhaps, that he could not make an advantage of his height. Then another step, to allow him the advantage. I let go of my hair and looked up at him, dishevelled and feminine, all doe eyes and vulnerability. I asked in German, in a voice of wonder and hurt as though it had only just occurred to me, ‘What is your daughter’s name?’
‘Isolde,’ he answered softly, his guard down, and went red as a beetroot.
I had got him by the balls and he knew it. I fell about laughing, instantly myself again.
‘I don’t need papers!’ I cried. ‘I don’t need proof! I don’t need electrified needles and ice water and battery acid and the threat of kerosene! All I do is ask a question, and you answer it! What more perfect proof than one lovely word out of you – Isolde? I’m a wireless operator!’
‘Sit down,’ he commanded.
‘What does Isolde think of your war work?’ I asked.
He took the final step towards me, using his height. ‘Down.’
He is intimidating, and I am so tired of being punished for my legion small acts of defiance. I sat down obediently, quivering, expecting violence (not that he has ever laid a finger on me himself). I pulled the eiderdown up round my neck, an illusion of armour.
‘Isolde is innocent of my war work,’ he said. Then suddenly he sang softly:
Im Reich der Sonne
Noch Isolde …
Sie zu Sehen,
We lch Verlangen!’
Isolde still in the realm of the sun, in the shimmering daylight still, Isolde – How I long to see her!
(It is Wagner, one of the dying Tristan’s arias. I can’t quite remember it all.)
He has a light, nasal tenor – so beautiful. It hurt worse than being slapped, being shown the irony of his life. And of mine, of mine – OF MINE – Isolde alive in the day and the sun while I suffocate in Night and Fog, the unfairness of it, the random unfairness of everything, of me being here and Isolde being in Switzerland, and Engel not getting any cognac and Jamie losing his toes. And Maddie, Oh lovely Maddie,
I pulled the eiderdown over my head, sobbing at his feet.
Then he stopped very abruptly. He bent down and uncovered my head gently, without touching me.
‘Eva Seiler,’ he breathed. ‘You might have spared yourself a great deal of suffering if you had confessed this sooner.’
‘But I wouldn’t have been able to write it all down if I’d done that,’ I wept. ‘So it was worth it.’
‘For me as well.’
(I suppose Eva Seiler must be a huge catch! He thought he’d reeled in yet another brown trout and it turns out he’s got a 30-pound salmon struggling to wrench itself off his barbed fishhook. Perhaps he is hoping for a promotion.)
‘You have redeemed me.’ He straightened up and bowed his head courteously. Almost a salute. Finally he said goodnight politely, in French: ‘Je vous souhaite une bonne nuit.’
And again I gratified him by gaping.
He slammed the door shut behind him.
He has been reading the Vercors – he has read Le Silence de la Mer, The Silence of the Sea – the French Resistance tract, at my recommendation! How else –?
He may get in trouble for it. He baffles me. I suppose it is mutual.
This time I know where I was, I know exactly where I left off. I know exactly where we were. Where Maddie was.
For the Nth time, four different people checked over the ration books and parachutes and papers. They briefed Maddie, let her know who she’d be collecting for the return trip, checked over the maps and the routes, gave her a call sign to use on the radio until she got to France (‘Wendy’, naturally). The police sergeant tried to give her a revolver. All the SD pilots carry pistols when they fly to France, he said, just in case. But she wouldn’t take it.
‘I’m not RAF,’ said Maddie. ‘I’m a civilian. It’s a breach of international agreement to arm civilians.’
So he gave her a pen instead – it’s called an Eterpen, a truly wonderful thing, no messy ink to refill and it dries instantly. He said they have ordered 30,000 of them for the RAF to use in the air (for navigation calculations) and a grateful RAF officer recently smuggled out of France had given one of the samples to Peter, who’d given it to the sergeant, who gave it to Maddie. The sergeant told her to pass it on to someone else when she had successfully completed her mission. He likes us very much.
Maddie was ridiculously pleased with her pen. (I did not appreciate then why it pleased her so much, the infinite supply of quick-drying ink, but I do now.) She also liked the idea of passing it on as a gift after a successful operation – a variation on the Aerodrome Drop-Off Principle. She confessed in a whisper to her passenger, ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with a revolver anyway.’ Which was not entirely true, since on her second and third trips to Craig Castle Jamie had taken her shooting and she had actually bagged not one but two pheasants with Queenie’s 20 bore. But Maddie was – is? Was, all right, was. Maddie was a modest sort of person.
‘Ready to do some practice landings?’ Maddie asked her passenger casually, as though Ormaie were as ordinary a destination as Oakway. ‘They’ve lit the mock flares over at the training field. I’ve not often landed on the flare path at night, so we’ll hop over there before we set sail.’
‘All right,’ her passenger agreed. It was impossible for either of them to be anything but elated – one of them on her way to France, the other flying the plane. Everything was loaded except Queenie – the sergeant offered her a hand up the ladder to the rear cockpit.
She threw herself at Maddie. Maddie was rather startled. For a moment they held on to each other like shipwreck survivors.
‘Come on!’ Maddie said. ‘Vive la France!’
An Allied Invasion of Two.
Maddie made three perfect daisy-cutter landings on the flare path, and then her stomach began to nag at her about losing the moon just the way it sometimes nagged at her about losing the weather over the Pennines. She set her course for France.
Southampton’s barrage balloons floated gleaming in the moonlight like the ghosts of elephants and hippos. Maddie crossed the silver Solent and the Isle of Wight. Then she was over the war-torn Channel. The drone of the engine mingled with her passenger humming over the intercom – ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’.
‘You are far too jolly,’ Maddie scolded sternly. ‘Be serious!’
‘We are told to smile all the time,’ Queenie said. ‘It’s in the SOE instructor’s handbook. People who are smiling and singing don’t appear to be plotting a counter-attack. If you go around looking worried someone will start to wonder what you’re worrying about.’
Maddie did not answer, and after half an hour of flying over the serene, smooth, silver and black eternity of the English Channel, Queenie asked suddenly, ‘What are you worrying about?’
‘It’s cloudy over Caen,’ Maddie said, ‘and there’s light in the clouds.’
‘What d’you mean, light?’
‘Flickering light. Pinkish. Could be lightning. Could be gunfire. Could be a bomber squadron going up in flames. I’m going to change course a bit and go round it.’
This was a lark. Light in the clouds, who cares? Let’s change direction. We were tourists. Maddie’s alternative route over the Normandy coast went straight over Mont St Michel, the island citadel glorious in the moonlight, casting long moonshadows over the swelling tide in a bay that shone like spilt mercury. Searchlights swept the sky, but missed the grey-bellied Lysander. Maddie set a new course for Angers.
‘Less than an hour to go at this rate,’ Maddie told her passenger. ‘Are you still smiling?’
‘Like an idiot.’
After that – this is hard to believe, but it was a dull flight for some time after that. The French countryside was not as stunning by moonlight as the English Channel, and after a long time of staring into indistinguishable blackness, Queenie fell trustingly asleep, curled among the cardboard cases and baled wires on the floor of the rear cockpit with her head on her parachute. It was a bit like sleeping in the engine room of Ladderal Mill – noisy beyond belief, but stupefyingly rhythmic. She had been keyed to fever pitch these past few weeks and it was well past midnight now.
She woke when her relaxed body was suddenly slammed against the back end of the fuselage along with all eleven crates. She was not hurt or even frightened, but she was hugely disorientated. Her subconscious mind held the reverberating echo of a hell of a bang, which had in fact been the thing that woke her rather than being tossed about. Bright orange light rimmed the windows of the rear cockpit. Just as she figured out that the Lysander was plunging earthwards in a screaming dive, the increased gravity knocked her cold again. And when she woke up a second time, some moments later, it was dark and the engine was still throbbing reliably, and she was heaped uncomfortably among the tumbled cargo.
‘Can you hear me? Are you all right?’ came Maddie’s frantic voice over the intercom. ‘Oh bother, there’s another one –’ And a lovely white ball of fire arched gracefully over the top of the Perspex canopy. It made no noise and lit the cockpit beautifully. Limelight, limelight. Maddie’s night vision was instantly ruined again.
‘Fly the plane, Maddie,’ she muttered to herself. ‘Fly the plane.’
Think of her three years ago, a weeping jelly of fear under fire. Think of her now, guiding a wounded aircraft through the unfamiliar fire and darkness of a war zone. Her best friend, untangling herself in the back of the plane, shivered with dread and love. She knew that Maddie would land her safely or die trying.