There were only three of us along for this trip – dangerous in both directions, didn’t want to drag Papa Thibaut into it. His friend who owns the motor car set off at top speed, full out and going like the clappers, no lights as usual except the waning gibbous moon on the rise. The Rosalie really did not want to go like the clappers and performed its usual consumptive drama every time we came to an uphill slope, coughing and gasping like a dying Dickens heroine, and finally just stopped – engine still gasping a bit, but the car just stopped. Simply could not move forward up the hill. Choke full out, but cylinders firing pathetically as though we were trying to make the poor thing run on nothing but air.
‘Your choke’s not working,’ I said from the back seat.
Of course the driver didn’t understand me and I didn’t know the French for choke and neither did Paul – ‘Le starter’ it turns out, which is not the same as ‘the starter’ that might turn on your English engine. Unbelievable confusion followed. Paul tried desperately to translate and the driver resisted taking advice from a Slip of a Lass or whatever the French is for ‘Slip of a Lass’. I’m sure the direct translation in any language is more or less ‘Featherbrain’ as it’s what I get called whenever I’m expected not to be able to do whatever it is – fly a plane, load a gun, make a bomb – fix a car – so we lost fifteen minutes arguing.
Finally, as it was dead obvious that the choke wasn’t working, the driver jiggled it about violently enough that something finally slid back into place and after a few healthier-sounding coughs, the Rosalie reluctantly set off again.
This whole routine was repeated detail for detail THREE MORE TIMES. FOUR TIMES IN TOTAL. The car stopped, I said the choke wasn’t working, Paul tried to translate without success, we all argued for 15 minutes, Papa Thibaut’s friend jiggled the choke lever for a while, and finally the Rosalie wheezed into life and trundled off again.
We had now lost AN HOUR, A SOLID HOUR, and I was fuming. So was the French driver, who was tired of being shouted at in English by a Slip of a Lass younger than his own daughter. Every time we moved off again Paul would reach back and give my knee a reassuring squeeze, till finally I thumped him and told him to keep his mucky hands to himself, so that even when the car was moving, we were all growling at each other like tomcats.
I was no longer afraid of being caught by the Nazis or worried that we’d be too late for the Lysander pick-up – both of which were more and more likely the longer we were on the road. I was just mad as a hornet because I knew what was wrong with the car and they wouldn’t let me do anything about it.
When the car stopped for THE FIFTH TIME, I climbed over Paul and got out.
‘Don’t be an idiot, Kittyhawk,’ he said through his teeth.
‘I will WALK to this airfield,’ I said. ‘I know the coordinates and I have a compass. I will WALK there and if I am too late to meet the plane I will WALK back to Ormaie, but if you EVER want me to get in this French car, EVER AGAIN, you are going to have to make that French MORON who is driving it open up the engine cowling so I can fix the choke RIGHT NOW.’
‘My God, we haven’t time for that – we’re an hour and a half late already – ’
‘OPEN THE COWLING OR I WILL SHOOT IT OPEN.’
I didn’t mean that. But it was an inspired threat, mostly because it gave me the idea of levelling my Colt .32 at the driver’s head and making him get out of the car.
He didn’t even turn the ignition off – the engine was still gasping as we pried up the side panel of the bonnet with the tin-opener on Etienne’s Swiss knife. All was inky pitch-black beneath it. The driver cursed and complained, but Paul murmured reassuring words to him in French, as I was clearly set on getting my own way. Got one of them to hold an electric torch for me while the other made a tent with his jacket to hide the light. Oh – the screw that held the cable to the choke valve had come loose – PROBABLY WITH ALL THAT BLASTED JIGGLING – the flap that is supposed to close over the air feed to the carburettor wasn’t closing properly, and all I had to do was tighten the screw with my wizard pocket screwdriver nicked from the Nazis.
I slammed the bonnet shut, leaned in the driver’s door and yanked the choke on, and the engine roared into life like a zooful of happy lions.
Then I climbed back into my maidenly spot in the back seat and didn’t say anything else till we got to the field, half an hour after the plane had left. Most of the reception committee had left too, only a couple of them still waiting for us to turn up in case something awful had happened to us.
I was too mad this time to think of Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz. I gave the poor Rosalie such a kick in the front mudguard that I made a dent in it with my wooden clog. Everyone was shocked. Apparently I’ve got a reputation for being quiet and a bit weepy – in a word, they think I’m gormless.
Paul again, explaining: ‘They couldn’t have waited – it’s so late now it’ll be daylight by the time they get back to England. They couldn’t risk being caught over France in daylight.’
Then I felt dead selfish and bossy and mean, and tried to apologise to Papa Thibaut’s mate, in my rubbish French, for denting his fender.
‘No, no, it is I who must thank you, Mademoiselle –’ says he, in French ‘– for you have mended my choke!’ And he held the door open for me gallantly. No suggestion that he had wasted yet another night risking his life for an ungrateful foreigner who would never be able to repay him – the Aerodrome Drop-Off Principle taken to extremes.
‘Merci beaucoup, je suis désolée –’ Thank you so much, I’m sorry, I’m sorry – seems like I’m always saying ‘Thank you, I’m sorry.’
One of the reception committee stuck his head into the car after me. ‘The Scottish airman said to give you these.’
Jamie left me his boots.
True to my reputation for gormlessness I blubbed most of the way back to Ormaie. But at least my feet were warm.
Penn’s found her. Georgia Penn’s FOUND HER! Julie disappeared 13 Oct. and Penn talked to her yesterday, 19 Nov. NEARLY SIX WEEKS.
I don’t recognise any of my emotions any more. There’s no such thing as plain joy or grief. It’s horror and relief and panic and gratitude all jumbled together. Julie’s alive – she’s still in Ormaie – she’s in one piece, in her usual battle gear, every elegant hair swept neatly into place 2 inches above her collar, she’s even still managing to do her blooming nails somehow.
But she is a prisoner. They caught her almost immediately. She looked the wrong way before crossing the street, typical Julie. Oh – I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. So fed up with crying all the time, but too upset to laugh. If she’d had the right ID on her when they first questioned her she might have got away with it. She didn’t stand a chance without ID.
Miss Penn had asked if she could interview an English-speaker and they got to talk face to face, under guard, and Penn verified Julie by her code name. She wasn’t told Julie’s real name. Don’t know what excuse they gave, Penn came away fairly well convinced the whole interview set-up was a complete sham, and Julie herself was being kept on a tight rein somehow. Invisible, but there. I suppose Julie knew that if she stepped out of line they’d silence Penn too – I know Julie would never risk that. She didn’t even go against orders and say her name, all information was passed in hints and code words. The captain and slave-girl were both there, and one or two others, and they all sat around drinking cognac – except the slave-girl of course! – in the captain’s dead swanky office where Julie has been temporarily put to work as a translator. So in fact she’s actually doing what she was sent here to do!
No name given, no military service or rank mentioned – she introduced herself to Penn as a wireless operator. She has told the Nazis she’s a wireless operator. MADNESS – that’s not why she’s here and so now they’ve gone to a lot of effort to get code out of her – Penn hadn’t any doubt they’d got code out of her, must be obsolete or invented, but definitely something they can try to work with. Penn thinks that’s exactly why she told them she was a w/op – they call it W/T in SOE, wireless telegraphist: so she could give them code. It’s more common for a girl in SOE to land in France as a courier, but if Julie had told them she was a courier they’d have grilled her about her circuit – obsolete code is safer to betray, I suppose, than real live people. And it’s straight truth in terms of Julie’s original training and her WAAF commission, and it goes along with the pictures they took at the crash site, which they’ve certainly shown her by now. As long as they’re focused on her non-existent wireless activities they won’t ask her about Operation Blow-Up-the-Ormaie-Gestapo-HQ or whatever it’s really called.
Penn was shown only a few of the administrative offices and an empty dorm room with 4 tidy beds in it – no contact with any other prisoners and no sign of the conditions they’re kept in. Julie gave her some clues. She said
– BLAST IT. Fly the plane, Maddie.
I WILL NOT CRY.
I got to talk to Miss Penn myself. Mitraillette and I met her by a little pond in a posh residential area of Ormaie and sat on a bench winding yarn while we talked, one of us girls on each side of Miss Penn and a canvas bag in her lap full of worn-out woolly socks to be unravelled. She must have looked like our nanny, she’s nearly a foot taller than either of us. She talked and we kept dipping into the bag for more yarn while we listened. Suddenly in the middle of her report, as I reached for another sock, Miss Penn took hold of my hand and held it tight. Just mine, not Mitraillette’s, don’t know how she guessed that I was the one who’d take it hard. A bit of an interrogator herself, now that I think about it – same job as the rest of them, pulling sensational stories out of reluctant sources. They all do it differently, but it’s the same job. And Julie, also an expert, made it easy, volunteering information that Penn didn’t ask for.
‘You feeling brave, Kittyhawk?’ Penn said, holding my hand tightly.
I gave her a sort of grimace of a smile. ‘I suppose.’
‘There’s no nice way to tell you this,’ Penn said, and her crisp, no-nonsense American voice was angry. We waited.
Penn told us quietly, ‘She’s been tortured.’
Couldn’t answer for a minute. Couldn’t do anything.
Probably seemed quite sullen – not surprised really, but Penn was so frank it felt like being hit in the face. Finally I croaked stupidly, ‘Are you sure?’
‘She showed me,’ Penn said. ‘She was pretty clear about it. Adjusted her scarf as soon as we’d shaken hands – gave me a good look. Ugly row of narrow, triangular burns across her throat and collarbone, just beginning to heal, looked like it had been done with a soldering iron. More of the same all along the insides of her wrists. She was very clever about showing me, cool as you please, no drama about it. She’d give her skirt a twitch as she crossed her legs, or let her sleeve ruck back as she took a cigarette, only moving when the captain was looking somewhere else. Ghastly bruises on her legs. But the marks are fading now, must have all been done two or three weeks ago. They’ve eased off on her, don’t know why – she’s made some kind of deal with them, that’s for sure, or she wouldn’t still be here. You’d have thought by now Ormaie would have either got what they wanted out of her or given up.’