THIS IS LONDON! Such a thrill, no other word for it, THRILLING, to hear the BBC – just incredible. How amazing, astonishing it is that we have this technology, this link – all the hundreds of miles between us, field and forest and river and sea, all the guards and guns, bypassed in an eyeblink. And then that moderate voice, speaking clear French that even I could understand, as though the chap were standing next to you, secretly telling you in your blacked-out European field that your rescue plane is On The Way!
Paul introduced all the lads of the reception committee – not by their real names of course. You have to shake hands with everyone. Hard to remember them all after one meeting in the dark. There was a girl who was supposed to be picked up with us, a wireless operator, they were dead keen to get her back to England as she has apparently got half the Gestapo in Paris on her tail.
‘Don’t know what we’ll do without you, Princess,’ Paul said, squeezing her round the waist.
‘I’ll come back,’ she said quietly. Not like Julie at all really – shy and soft-spoken. Must be every bit as brave though. Can’t imagine what nerve these people must have.
Then Paul pointed out to me, ‘That young fellow just coming with the last bicycle is the other pilot, the one who got stuck in the mud west of here. You probably know each other?’
I looked up. It was Jamie, JAMIE BEAUFORT- STUART. Even in tossing shadows and under a waxing moon I knew him, and he saw me at the same time. He dropped his bicycle and we leaped for each other like kangaroos. He burst out, ‘MA –’
He nearly said my name. He caught himself and stammered a little, then smoothly cried out, ‘MA CHÉRIE!’ and slung me over backward in a swooning Hollywood kiss.
We both came up for air, gasping.
‘Sorry, sorry!’ he hissed in my ear. ‘First thing I thought of – didn’t want to blow your cover, Kittyhawk! Won’t do it again, I promise – ’
Then we were both overcome with silliness, giggling like gormless idiots. I kissed him back very quickly, so that he knew I didn’t mind. He swooped me upright, but kept one arm over my shoulder – they are all like that, those Beaufort-Stuarts, affectionate as puppies, dead casual about it. It’s not British! Not English anyway, but I don’t think it’s very Scottish either. For a moment I saw Paul watching us, himself with one arm still clamped round the other girl’s waist – then he turned away and said something to one of the landing team.
‘Any word from our Verity?’ Jamie asked suddenly.
I shook my head, didn’t quite trust myself to answer.
‘Bloody hell,’ he muttered.
‘I’ll tell you Paul’s long shot –’
We went to sit in the car with Amélie, who had fallen blissfully asleep on the back seat. Mitraillette was perched on the bonnet with one of the Sten guns propped on her knees, keeping a good lookout as usual. It would be a couple of hours before the plane arrived – the reception committee were laying out the flare path – electric torches tied to sticks. Nothing for us to do but wait and watch till it was time to turn on the lights.
‘The long shot?’ Jamie prompted.
‘There’s a woman in Paris who announces a radio programme aimed at the Yanks,’ I told Jamie. ‘Paul’s asked her if she can interview the Ormaie Gestapo, perhaps include some propaganda supporting them in her show – let the American boys on the battleships know how unfeeling it is of us to use innocent girls as spies, and how well the Germans treat them when they catch them. The broadcaster’s called Georgia Penn –’
‘God, doesn’t she announce that sickening “No Place Like Home” for Third Reich Radio or whatever they call it? I thought she was a Nazi!’
‘She’s –’ I couldn’t think of the right word – except ‘double agent’, which isn’t what I meant, though I suppose that’s what she really is. ‘She’s not a courier, she doesn’t carry messages – Who’s the person a king sends ahead of his army and expects won’t get killed?’
‘That’s it exactly!’ I should remember. It’s the name of the American paper she used to work for.
‘What’s she going to do for us while she’s pulling off this positive Nazi propaganda campaign in Ormaie?’
‘Try to find Verity,’ I said softly.
That’s what this woman does, this mad American broadcaster, though her wages get paid by the Nazi Minister of Propaganda in Berlin – she walks bold as brass into prisons and prison camps and finds people. Sometimes. Sometimes she’s refused entry. Sometimes she’s too late. Too often the people she’s looking for just can’t be found. But she tries. She gets let in as entertainment for the imprisoned soldiers, and comes out with information. And she hasn’t been caught yet.
Dratted wind. Still howling all over France – a beautiful day otherwise, for once.
Well – the plane got there, finally, one of the Moon Squadron Lizzies – lovely, familiar, ducky fuselage and diddy, hawklike wings – would have been a tight fit with the three of us in the back, but we’d have made it, none of us very big – anyway it didn’t land. Gusts must have been 40 knots, blowing crosswind over the landing strip, pylons to tangle with in the approach, batteries dying on the electric torches we were using to light the flare path – finally me and Paul and Jamie had to stand there switching the lights off whenever the pilot climbed away and back on as he started another circuit of the field. The chap circled overhead for three-quarters of an hour and tried to come down half a dozen times before finally bottling out. Suppose it’s a bit mean to say he ‘bottled out’, anyone with half a brain would have done the same and I don’t think I’d have stuck around as long as he did. Moon sets about 4 a.m. at the moment and it must have been down by the time he got back to England.
Jamie and I knew he wouldn’t make it in. Still – I was desolated when he climbed away and headed back west. We stood watching, faces to the sky in the dark and fingers gripping the torch switches, only a few seconds and then we couldn’t see a thing of course – but could hear the familiar engine throbbing for a minute or two as it faded into the distance.
Like the end of The Wizard of Oz when the balloon goes off without her. I didn’t mean to, couldn’t help it, let out an enormous babyish sob as we trudged back across the field. Just seem to howl at anything. When we reached the car, Jamie took hold of the back of my head and pressed my face against his shoulder to shut me up.
I did stop, out of shame mostly, because the hunted wireless girl was being so stoic about it.
Had to pack everything up and head back the way we’d all come – we refugees to our different hiding places, and now of course it was well past curfew and we didn’t have the chickens to bluff with this time. Started bawling again when I had to say goodbye to Jamie.
‘Now stop. You go back to Ormaie and look after Verity.’
I know he is dead sick with worry about her too and was being brave to make me brave, so I nodded. He wiped my cheeks with his thumbs.
‘Good girl. Buck up, Kittyhawk! Not like you to blub.’
‘Just feel so useless,’ I sobbed. ‘Hiding all day, everyone rushing around me risking their lives, waiting on me all the time, sharing food when they have to account for every missing crumb, can’t even wash my own pants – and what’ll happen when I do get home? They’ll probably send me to prison anyway for hoodwinking my C.O., nicking an RAF plane and dumping it in France –’
‘They will grill us all and we will all defend you. They’ve not stopped any of us flying – they’re desperate for Moon pilots. You only did what you were told.’
‘I know what they’ll say. Silly girl, no brains, too soft, can’t trust a woman to do a man’s work. They only let us fly operational aircraft when they get desperate. And they’re always harder on us when we botch something.’ All true, and what I said next was true too, but a bit petty – ‘You even get to keep your BOOTS and mine are BURNT.’
Jamie burst out laughing. ‘It’s not because I’m a lad that they let me keep my boots,’ he said, with just as much outrage in his voice as I must have had in mine. ‘Only because I haven’t any toes!’
That got a little choking laugh out of me at last.
Jamie kissed me lightly on the forehead. ‘You’ve got to look for Julie,’ he whispered. ‘You know she’s counting on you.’
Then he called out softly, ‘Oi, Paul! I want a word with you!’ Jamie kept one arm lovingly round my waist – so like his sister. Paul came close to us in the dark.
‘Used this field before?’ Jamie demanded.
‘For parachute drops.’
‘The pylons are always going to be a problem for landing, even without the crosswind. Listen, old chap, if you can risk taking Kittyhawk about in daylight a bit more, she’s your best bet for field selection around Ormaie. She’s a cracking good pilot-navigator and a reasonable mechanic too.’
Paul was silent for a moment.
‘Aircraft mechanic?’ he asked finally.
‘And motorbikes,’ I said.
Another moment of silence.
Then, casually, Paul asked, ‘Explosives?’
I hadn’t even thought about it. But – well, why not? That’s a brilliant thing to put my idle mind to work on: making a bomb.
‘Not yet,’ I answered cautiously.
‘Tough work for a slip of a lass – are you willing to risk it, Kittyhawk?’
I nodded like an eager puppy.
‘Let’s get those papers made for you and let you off the lead a bit while you wait for the next flight out.’ He turned back to Jamie, and spoke in that nudge-nudge matey tone again as if I couldn’t hear, as if I were deaf. ‘Bit of a dark horse, isn’t she, our Kittyhawk? Thought she didn’t like men. Ready to go like a stoat with you though.’
Jamie let go of me. ‘Shut your mucky gob, man.’ He stepped close to our fearless leader in the dark, took hold of his jacket by the collar, and in a dead quiet voice that had gone dangerously Scots, threatened heatedly, ‘Talk like that again wi’ these brave lassies listenin’ an’ Ah’ll tear the filthy English tongue frae yer heid, so Ah will.’
‘All right, lad,’ Paul said calmly, gently shaking Jamie loose. ‘Back down. We’re all a bit excited –’
What was left of Jamie’s slim hand looked perilously small in Paul’s firm grip, and Jamie in general is nowhere near as big as Paul – a bit like a ferret going after a Labrador. At this moment the air began to hum. Another plane was crabbing in as low as it could safely fly, two broad searchlight beams stretching and leaping towards the ground before and behind it.
Paul reacted first and pulled the wireless operator under the shrubs where the bicycles were hidden. The rest of us threw ourselves into the low ditch that was the field boundary. No part of last night seemed to last as long as those five minutes lying trapped and defenceless in frozen mud and dead grass, waiting for the Luftwaffe machine guns to drill us into the packed earth or pass us by.