He drew a long, shaking breath. ‘“Killed in action” was what the first wire told us, and “killed in action” the verdict shall remain,’ he said firmly. ‘She was killed in action by this account, and given the number of people who died under fire that night I don’t think we need give out details of who shot whom. Your story shall not leave this building. You’ve not told anyone here what happened, have you?’
‘I told her brother,’ I said. ‘And anyway you bug this room. People listen through the shutters to the kitchen. It’ll have to come out.’
He gazed at me thoughtfully, shaking his head.
‘Is there anything about us you don’t know, Kittyhawk? We’ll keep your secrets and you keep ours. “Careless talk costs lives.”’
It really does in France. It’s not as funny as it sounds.
‘Look, Maddie, let’s break for half an hour – I’m afraid there are a beastly lot of details I’m meant to grill you about which we’ve not even touched on yet, and I feel I’ve rather lost my composure.’
He pulled out a spotted silk handkerchief, turned aside again and wiped his nose. When he faced me once more he gave me a hand to raise me to my feet. ‘Also, I think you need a nap.’
What did Julie say about me – I am trained to react positively to orders from people in authority. I went back to my room and fell soundly asleep for 20 minutes, and dreamed Julie was teaching me to foxtrot in the kitchen at Craig Castle. Of course she did teach me to foxtrot, though it was at one of the Maidsend hops and not in the kitchen at Craig Castle, but the dream was so real that when I woke up I couldn’t at first figure out where I was. And then it was like being kicked in the head with desolation all over again.
Except now instead of ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ I have got ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ stuck playing in my mind over and over, which is what the band was playing when we were dancing at Maidsend. I don’t mind at all, as I am so sick of ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’. If I ever hear either tune being played in some public place I am sure I will immediately start to howl.
So then Balliol and I had another session and it got a bit more technical, me having to remember names and numbers I didn’t know I knew – code names for every single Resistance agent I’d been introduced to, Balliol tallying them against notes in a little calfskin notebook of his own, and the location of any arms or supplies or cachettes I knew about. There was a moment where I was bent over with my elbows on my knees, and I was pulling at my hair until the roots hurt, trying to come up with accurate map coordinates for the Thibauts’ barn and the rose woman’s garage. It dawned on me I’d been sitting there tearing my hair like that for the past twenty minutes, and suddenly I got mad.
I raised my head with a jerk and asked furiously, ‘Why? Why do you care whether I can come up with the coordinates out of my head? I can make up coordinates the way Julie made up code! Give me a map and I’ll point it out, you don’t need me to do this! What do you really want, you bloody Machiavellian BASTARD?’
He was silent for a minute.
‘I’ve been asked to test you a bit,’ he confessed at last. ‘Turn up the heat, see how you respond. I’m not honestly sure what to do with you. The Air Ministry wants to take away your licence and the Special Operations Executive wants to recommend you for a George Medal. They’d like you to stay with them.’
NOT IN A MILLION YEARS.
But, but. My success as an unofficial agent for the SOE will cancel out my flight to France as an unofficial pilot for the RAF. I won’t get a medal, and I jolly well don’t want or deserve one, but I won’t lose my licence either – I mean, you could say I’ve already lost it myself, but they’ll reissue it. They won’t take it away. They won’t even take away my job. Oh – now this really is good reason to blub, tears of relief. They will let me fly again. I will have to go up before the Accident Committee, but that will just be about the actual accident – as if I were one of the Moon Squadron itself, pranging my own plane. I won’t be charged with anything else.
And the Air Transport Auxiliary will be ferrying planes to France, come the invasion. Not long now – spring. I will go back. I know I will go back.
I am exhausted. Except for my nap and a couple of hours after we landed I haven’t slept since Sunday night, and it’s Tuesday evening now. One more thing though before bed –
Balliol has given me a copy of a message they have just received and decoded from the Damask W/T operator.
REPORT HEAVY ALLIED BOMBARDMENT OVERHEAD ORMAIE NIGHT OF SAT 11 DEC AM SUN 12 DEC SUCCESSFUL OP DESTROYING CDB AKA GESTAPO REGIONAL HQ NO KNOWN ARRESTS ALL WELL SVP PASS MSG TO KITTYHAWK SAY ISOLDES FATHER IS FOUND SHOT THROUGH HEAD BELIEVED SUICIDE
‘Who is Isolde’s father?’ Balliol asked when he gave it to me.
‘The Gestapo officer who – who questioned Verity. And sentenced her.’
‘Suicide,’ Balliol said softly. ‘Another wretched man.’
‘Another wretched girl,’ I corrected.
Those ripples in the pond again – it just doesn’t stop in one place. All those lives that have touched mine so briefly – most of them I don’t even know their real names, like Julie’s great-aunt and the driver of the Rosalie. And some of them I don’t know anything other than their names, like Benjamin Zylberberg, the Jewish doctor, and Esther Lévi, whose flute music Julie was given to write on. And some of them I met briefly and liked and won’t ever see again, like the vicar’s son who flew Spitfires and Anna Engel and the Jamaican gunner.
And then there is Isolde von Linden, at school in Switzerland, who doesn’t know yet that her father has just shot himself.
Isolde still in the realm of the sun, in the shimmering daylight still, Isolde –
I have still got the matchbook that her father gave Amélie.
I’ve had a bath and borrowed a pair of pyjamas from the pretty First Aid Nursing Yeomanry driver who never says anything. Goodness knows what she thinks of me. I am not locked in or guarded any more. Someone is going to fly me back to Manchester tomorrow. Tonight – tonight I will sleep in this room one more time, in this bed where Julie cried herself to sleep in my arms eight months ago.
I’m going to keep her grey silk scarf. But I want Jamie to take this notebook, and my Pilot’s Notes, and Julie’s confession, and give them all to Esmé Beaufort-Stuart because it is only right that Julie’s lady mother should be told. If she wants to know, I think it is her right to know. Absolutely Every Last Detail.
I am back in England. I can go back to work. I haven’t got the words to say how stunned and grateful I am that I have been allowed to keep my licence.
But a part of me lies buried in lace and roses on a riverbank in France – a part of me is broken off forever. A part of me will always be unflyable, stuck in the climb.
26 Dec. 1943
My darling Maddie,
Jamie has delivered your ‘letters’ – both yours and Julie’s, and I have read them. They will stay here, and be safe – the Official Secrets Act is of little consequence in a house which absorbs secrets like damp. A few more recipe cards and prescription forms tossed in amongst the teeming contents of our two libraries will surely go unnoticed.
I want to tell you what Jamie said to me as he gave me these pages:
‘Maddie did the right thing.’
I say so too.
Please come to see me, Maddie darling, as soon as they let you. The wee lads are all distraught with the news and you will do them good. Perhaps they will do you good as well. They are my only consolation at the moment and I have been fearfully busy trying to make it a ‘happy’ Christmas for them. Ross and Jock have now lost both parents in the bombing so perhaps I shall keep them when the war is over.
I should like to ‘keep’ you too, if you will let me – I mean, in my heart and as my only daughter’s best friend. It would be like losing two daughters if you were to leave us now.
Please come back soon. The window is always open.
P.S. Thank you for the Eterpen. It is most extraordinary – Not a single word of this letter has blotted. No one will ever know how many tears I shed whilst writing it!
I do mean fly safely. And I do mean come back.