Maddie was battling the control column as though it were alive. In the brief phosphoric flashes her taut wrists were white with exertion. She gasped with relief when she felt her passenger’s small hand gripping her shoulder through the gap in the armour-plated bulkhead.
‘What’s going on?’ Queenie asked.
‘Dratted anti-aircraft guns in Angers. The tail’s been hit. I think it was flak, not a night fighter, or we’d be dead. We don’t stand a chance against a Messerschmitt 110.’
‘I thought we were falling.’
‘That was me screaming downhill to put out the fire,’ Maddie said grimly. ‘You just dive as fast as you can till the wind blows it out. Like blowing out a candle! But the tailplane control’s come disconnected or something. It’s –’
She gritted her teeth. ‘We’re on course. We’re still in one piece. We lost a bit too much height in that dive, but all the dratted plane wants to do now is climb, so, well, that’s not a problem. Only if we go much higher the Jerries might be able to see us on their Radar. The plane’s still flyable, just, and we’ve made such good time we’re not even behind schedule. Only, I think you should know that it’s going to be – um – a bit of a challenge for me to land. So you might have to do another parachute jump.’
‘What about you?’
‘Well, I might too, I suppose.’
Maddie had not ever practised jumping out of a plane, but she had practised landing broken planes more times than she could count – had, indeed, landed broken planes on plenty of occasions – both girls knew that if it happened a thousand times Maddie would every time die with her hands on the flight controls rather than trust in a blind plunge into darkness.
Especially as, like most shot-down British airmen, she spoke only the most basic schoolgirl French and had no clever forged identity to fall back on in Nazi-occupied France.
‘I might drop you out and try to fly home,’ Maddie said casually, hopeful words spoken through clenched teeth.
‘Let me help! Tell me something to do!’
‘Look for the landing site. Less than half an hour to go. They’ll flash at us when they hear us – Morse for Q. That’s long-long-short-long.’
The small hand did not let go.
‘You’d better put your parachute on,’ Maddie reminded her passenger. ‘And make sure you’ve got all your gear.’
There was a lot of crashing and cursing in the rear cockpit for a while. After a few minutes Maddie asked with a gasp of fearful laughter, ‘What are you doing?’
‘Tying everything down. I’m responsible for this lot whether or not I see it again tomorrow morning. If we bounce, I don’t want to be strangled in electric wire. And if I have to jump out before you try to land, I jolly well don’t want it trailing out after me and smacking me in the head.’
Maddie said nothing. She was peering into the dark and flying the plane.
‘Should be getting close,’ she said at last. Her voice, faintly distorted over the crackling intercom, was neutral. There was nothing of either relief or fear in her tone. ‘Descending to 700 feet now, all right? Look for those flashes.’
Those last fifteen minutes were the longest. Maddie’s arms ached and her hands were numb. It was like holding back an avalanche. She hadn’t looked at the map for the past half an hour and was navigating wholly by memory and the compass and the stars.
‘Hurrah, we’re in the right place!’ she said suddenly. ‘See the confluence of those two rivers? We land right in between.’ She gave a shiver of excitement. The small, comforting hand gripping her shoulder suddenly let go.
Queenie pointed. How she’d spotted it through the page-sized gap in the bulkhead was a mystery, but she’d seen the signal, a little to the left of them. Clear and bright flashes in fixed series – Q for Queen, long, long, short, long.
‘Is that right?’ Queenie asked anxiously.
They both gave spontaneous yells.
‘I can’t let go to give them the answer!’ Maddie gasped. ‘Have you got an electric torch?’
‘In my kit. Hang on – What’s the letter to answer them?’
‘L for Love. Dot-dash-dot-dot, short-long-short-short. You’ve got to get it right or they won’t light up for us –’
‘I’ll get it right, silly,’ Queenie reminded her fondly. ‘I can flash Morse code in my sleep. Remember? I’m a wireless operator.’
Ormaie 25.XI.43 JB-S
Hauptsturmführer von Linden says he has never known any educated person so foul-mouthed as I am. No doubt it was extraordinarily stupid of me to bring his daughter’s name into the catfight we had last night. This morning I am to have my mouth swabbed with carbolic – not carbolic SOAP, like they do in school, but actual carbolic ACID – phenol – which is the same stuff they use for lethal injections at Natzweiler-Struthof (according to Engel, my ever-flowing source of Nazi minutiae). She has diluted it with alcohol – she wore gloves to do the mixing, as it is incredibly caustic. But she won’t come near me with it because she knows I will battle her and it will go everywhere. Even with my arms tied behind me (which they aren’t, obviously) I would have a good go at getting it everywhere. I am hoping the whole situation will evaporate if we postpone it long enough and I think she is too.
The catfight started over the heartbreaking French girl (I think she is the only other female prisoner here), whom they have been stubbornly and persistently questioning day and night all week, and she, just as stubborn and persistent as they are, refuses to answer their questions. Last night she was weeping noisily for hours, in between shrieks of genuine heart-stopping agony – I have actually torn out chunks of my hair (it is that brittle) whilst trying to endure her shrieking. At some point deep in the middle of the night I broke – she did not, but I did.
I jumped up and began to scream at the top of my lungs (en français pour que la résistante malheureuse puisse me comprendre):
‘LIE! Lie to them, you stupid cow! Say anything! Stop being such a damned martyr and LIE!’
And I started wrestling insanely with the iron stub where the porcelain door handle used to be (before I unscrewed it and threw it at Thibaut’s head), which is pointless, because of course the door handle and its attendant hardware are purely decorative and all the bolts and bars are fixed to the outside.
‘LIE! LIE TO THEM!’
Oh – I got a result I did not expect. Someone came and pulled open the locks so suddenly that I fell out of the door, and they picked me up and held me blinking in the sudden bright lights, while I tried not to look at the wretched girl.
And there was von Linden, in civilian clothes, cool and smooth as a new frozen curling pond and sitting in a cloud of acrid smoke like Lucifer himself (no one smokes when he is around, I don’t know and don’t want to know what they were burning). He didn’t speak, merely beckoned, and they brought me over to him and threw me to my knees.
He let me cower for a few minutes.
‘You’ve advice for your fellow prisoner? I’m not sure she realises you are addressing her. Tell her again.’
I shook my head, not really understanding what the hell he was playing at this time.
‘Go to her side, look in her face, speak to her. Speak clearly so we can all hear you.’
I played along. I always play along. It is my weakness, the flaw in my armour.
I put my face alongside hers, as though we were whispering. So close it must have seemed intimate, but too close for us to actually look at each other. I swallowed, then repeated clearly, ‘Save yourself. Lie to them.’
She is the one who used to whistle ‘Scotland the Brave’ when I first came here. She couldn’t whistle last night, it’s a wonder they thought she could even speak, after what they had done to her mouth. But she tried to spit at me anyway.
‘She doesn’t think a great deal of your advice,’ said von Linden. ‘Tell her again.’
‘LIE!’ I yelled at her.
After a moment she managed to answer me. Hoarse and harsh, her voice grating with pain, so that everyone could hear her. ‘Lie to them?’ she croaked. ‘Is that what you do?’
I stood trapped. Perhaps it was a trap he had laid for me on purpose. All was very quiet for a long time (probably not so long as it seemed), and finally von Linden directed with disinterest, ‘Answer her question.’
That was when I lost my senses.
‘You fucking hypocrite,’ I snarled at von Linden unwisely (he may not have known what the word meant in French, but still, it wasn’t a clever thing to say). ‘Don’t you ever lie? What the hell do you do? What do you tell your daughter? When she asks about your work, what truth does the lovely Isolde get out of you?’
He was white as paper. Calm though.
Everyone looked at him uncertainly.
‘She has the filthiest tongue of any woman in France. Burn her mouth clean.’
I fought. They held me down while they argued about the correct dosage because he hadn’t made clear whether or not he actually wanted them to kill me with the stuff. The French girl closed her eyes and rested, taking advantage of the shift in attention away from her. They’d got out the bottles and the gloves – the room became a clinic suddenly. The truly frightening thing was that not one of them seemed to know what he was doing.
‘Look at me!’ I screeched. ‘Look at me, Amadeus von Linden, you sadistic hypocrite, and watch this time! You’re not questioning me now, this isn’t your work, I’m not an enemy agent spewing wireless code! I’m just a minging Scots slag screaming insults at your daughter! So enjoy yourself and watch! Think of Isolde! Think of Isolde and watch!’
He stopped them.
He couldn’t do it.
I choked with relief, gasping.
‘Tomorrow,’ he said. ‘After she’s eaten. Fräulein Engel knows how to prepare the phenol.’
‘Coward! Coward!’ I sobbed in hysterical fury. ‘Do it now! Do it yourself!’
‘Get her out of here.’
There was paper and pencil laid out for me as always this morning, and the drinking water waiting along with the phenol and alcohol, and Fräulein Engel is rapping her fingernails in impatience across the table from me as she always does while she waits for me to pass her something to read. She is waiting eagerly to see what I have written this morning, I know, as it has not been explained to her what I actually did last night to warrant such vicious punishment. Von Linden must be asleep (he may be inhuman, but he is not superhuman). Oh God. There isn’t much left for me to write. What is he expecting me to finish with? Isn’t the end of the story rather obvious? I want to finish it, but I hate to think about it.
Miss E. has managed to scrounge some ice for my water. It will have melted by the time we get around to scouring out the filthiest mouth in France, but it was a nice thought.
Now we are back in the air again, suspended over the fields and rivers north of Ormaie and under a serene but not-quite-full moon at its splendid silver height, in a plane that can’t be landed. The wireless operator flashes the correct signal to the ground and barely a minute later the flare path appears. It is perfectly familiar, three flickering points of light forming an upside-down L, just like the makeshift runway Maddie made her efficient practice landings on 4 hours ago in England.