‘German. Obviously. They spoke it – well, an odd variant – in the village where I went to school in Switzerland. And I liked it.’
Maddie laughed. ‘You were wizard this afternoon. Really brilliant.’
‘I couldn’t have done it without you telling me what to say. You were brilliant too. You were right there when I needed you, not a word or call out of place. You made all the decisions. All I had to do was pay attention, and that’s what I do all day on the Y sets anyway – just listen and listen. I never have to do anything. And all I had to do this afternoon was read from the script you gave me.’
‘You had to translate!’
‘We did it together,’ said her friend.
People are complicated. There is so much more to everybody than you realise. You see someone in school every day, or at work, in the canteen, and you share a cigarette or a coffee with them, and you talk about the weather or last night’s air raid. But you don’t talk so much about what was the nastiest thing you ever said to your mother, or how you pretended to be David Balfour, the hero of Kidnapped, for the whole of the year when you were 13, or what you imagine yourself doing with the pilot who looks like Leslie Howard if you were alone in his bunk after a dance.
No one slept the night of that air raid, or the next day. We had pretty much to resurface the runway ourselves that morning. We weren’t equipped for it, we didn’t have the tools or the materials, and we weren’t a building crew, but without a runway RAF Maidsend was defenceless. And Britain too, in the bigger picture. We repaired the runway.
Everyone mucked in, including the captured German – I think he was rather apprehensive about his fate as a prisoner of war and was just as happy to spend the day stripped to the waist shovelling piles of earth with twenty other pilots than to be moved on to some unknown official internment awaiting him inland. I remember we all had to bow our heads in a moment of silence for his dead companions before we set to work. I don’t know what happened to him after that.
In the canteen, Queenie was asleep with her head on the table. She must have done up her hair first, before she came in from two hours’ stone-picking on the runway, but she’d fallen asleep before she’d even taken the spoon out of her tea. Maddie sat down across from her with two fresh cups of tea and one iced bun. I don’t know where the icing came from. Someone must have been hoarding sugar just in case there was a direct hit on the airfield and everybody needed cheering up. Maddie was quite relieved to see the unflappable wireless operator with her guard down. She pushed the Cup That Cheers close to Queenie’s face so that the warmth woke her.
They propped their heads on their elbows, facing each other.
‘Are you scared of anything?’ Maddie asked.
‘Lots of things!’
‘I can name ten.’
‘Go on then.’
Queenie looked at her hands. ‘Breaking my nails,’ she said critically. After two hours clearing the runway of rubble and twisted metal, her manicure was in need of repair.
‘I’m serious,’ said Maddie quietly.
‘All right then. Dark.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘It’s true,’ said Queenie. ‘Now your turn.’
‘Cold,’ Maddie answered.
Queenie sipped her tea. ‘Falling asleep while I’m working.’
‘Me too.’ Maddie laughed. ‘And bombs dropping.’
‘All right.’ It was Maddie’s turn to be defensive. She shook tangled dark curls off her collar; her hair was barely short enough to count as regulation and too short to put up. ‘Bombs dropping on my gran and granddad.’
Queenie nodded in agreement. ‘Bombs dropping on my favourite brother. Jamie’s the youngest of ’em, the nearest me in age. He’s a pilot.’
‘Not having a useful skill,’ said Maddie. ‘I don’t want to have to marry right away just so I don’t have to work down Ladderal Mill.’
‘You are joking!’
‘When the war’s over, I still won’t have a skill. Bet there won’t be this desperate need for radio operators when the war ends.’
‘You think that’ll happen soon?’
‘The longer the war goes on,’ Maddie said, carefully cutting her iced bun in half with a tin butter knife, ‘the older I’ll get.’
Queenie let out a giddy, tickled laugh. ‘Getting old!’ she cried. ‘I’m horribly afraid of being old.’
Maddie smiled and handed her half the bun. ‘Me too. Bit like being afraid of dying though. Not much you can do about it.’
‘What am I up to?’
‘You’ve done four. Not counting the nails. Six to go.’
‘All right.’ Queenie deliberately tore her bun into six equal pieces and arranged them round the rim of her saucer. Then, one by one, she dunked each piece into her tea, named a fear and ate it.
‘Number 5, the Newbery College porter. Blimey, he’s a troll. I was a year younger than all the other first years and I’d have been scared of him even if he hadn’t hated me. It was because I was reading German and he was sure my tutor was a spy! Five down, right? Number 6, heights, I’m afraid of heights, that’s because my big brothers tied me to a drain spout on the roof of our castle when I was five and forgot about me all afternoon. All five of them got a good birching for it too. Seven, ghosts – I mean one ghost, not seven, one particular ghost. I don’t need to worry about that here. The ghost is probably why I’m scared of the dark too.’
Queenie washed back these unlikely confessions with more tea. Maddie stared at her in growing amazement. They were still eye to eye across from each other with their chins against their hands and their elbows on the table, and Queenie did not seem to be making it up. She was taking her unlikely inventory very seriously.
‘Number 8, Getting Caught Stealing Grapes From the Glasshouse in the Kitchen Garden. That’s another birching. Course we’re all too old now for birchings and for grape-stealing. Number 9, Killing Someone. By accident or on purpose. Did I save that German laddie’s life yesterday, or destroy it? You do it too – you tell the fighters where to find them. You’re responsible. Do you think about it?’
Maddie didn’t answer. She did think about it.
‘Perhaps it gets easier after the first time. Number 10, Getting Lost.’
Queenie glanced up from dipping Getting Lost in her tea and looked Maddie in the eye. ‘Now, I can see that you are sceptical and disinclined to believe anything I tell you. And perhaps I’m not really worried about ghosts. But I am afraid of getting lost. I hate trying to find my way around this airfield. Every Nissen hut looks the same. My God, there are forty of them! And all the taxiways and aprons seem to change every day. I keep trying to use planes for landmarks and they keep moving them around.’
Maddie laughed. ‘I felt sorry for that lost Jerry pilot yesterday,’ she said. ‘I know I shouldn’t. But I’ve seen so many of our own lads get confused, their first flight over the Pennines. Seems it shouldn’t be possible to confuse England and France. But who knows what you’re thinking when all your mates have been blown to smithereens and you’re flying a broken plane. Perhaps it was his first flight to England. I felt dead sorry for him.’
‘Yes, I did too,’ said Queenie softly, and swallowed the last of her tea as if she were throwing back a dram of whisky.
‘Was it beastly awful, questioning him?’
Queenie gave her an enigmatic little squint. ‘“Careless talk costs lives.” I’ve taken an oath not to tell about it.’
‘Oh!’ Maddie went red. ‘Of course not. Sorry.’
The wireless operator sat up straight. She looked at her ruined nails and shrugged, and patted her hair to make sure it was still in place. Then she stood up and stretched and yawned. ‘Thanks for sharing your bun,’ she said, smiling.
‘Thanks for sharing your fears!’
‘You still owe me a few.’
The air-raid siren went.
Ormaie 11.XI.43 JB-S
Not Part of the Story
I must record last night’s debriefing because it was so funny.
Engel flapped down my sheaf of scribbled-on hotel stationery in frustration and said to von Linden, ‘She must be commanded to write of the meeting between Brodatt and herself. This description of early Radar operations is irrelevant nonsense.’
Von Linden made a sound like a very soft puff of air, like blowing out a candle. Engel and I both stared at him as though he’d suddenly sprouted horns. (It was a laugh. He didn’t crack a smile, I think his face is made of plaster of Paris, but he definitely laughed.)
‘Fräulein Engel, you are not a student of literature,’ he said. ‘The English Flight Officer has studied the craft of the novel. She is making use of suspense and foreshadowing.’
Golly, Engel stared at him. I of course took the opportunity to interpose wi’ pig-headed Wallace pride, ‘I am not English, you ignorant Jerry bastard, I am a SCOT.’
Engel dutifully slapped me into silence and said, ‘She is not writing a novel. She is making a report.’
‘But she is employing the literary conceits and techniques of a novel. And the meeting you speak of has already occurred – you have been reading it for the past quarter of an hour.’
Engel shuffled pages in frenzy, hunting backwards.
‘Do you not recognise her in these pages?’ von Linden prompted. ‘Ah, perhaps not, she flatters herself with competence and bravery which you have never witnessed. She is the young woman called Queenie, the wireless operator who takes down the Luftwaffe aircraft. Our captive English agent –’
‘Our prisoner has not yet elaborated on her own role as a wireless operator at the aerodrome at Maidsend.’
Oh, he’s good. I would never in a million years have guessed that SS-Hauptsturmführer Amadeus von Linden is a ‘student of literature’. Not in a million years.
He wanted to know, then, why I was choosing to write about myself in the third person. Do you know, I had not even noticed I was doing it until he asked.
The simple answer is because I am telling the story from Maddie’s point of view, and it would be awkward to introduce another viewpoint character at this point. It is much easier writing about me in the third person than it would be if I tried to tell the story from my own point of view. I can avoid all my old thoughts and feelings. It’s a superficial way to write about myself. I don’t have to take myself seriously – or, well, only as seriously as Maddie takes me.
But as von Linden pointed out, I have not even used my own name, which is what confused Engel.
I suppose the real answer is that I am not Queenie any more. I just want to thump my old self in the face when I think about her, so earnest and self-righteous and flamboyantly heroic. I am sure other people did too.
I am someone else now.