They did used to call me Queenie though. Everybody had stupid nicknames made up for them (like being at school, remember?). I was Scottie, sometimes, but more often Queenie. That was because Mary, Queen of Scots, is another of my illustrious ancestors. She died messily as well. They all died messily.
I am going to run out of stationery today. They have given me a Jewish prescription pad to use until they find something more sensible. I did not know such things existed. The forms have got the doctor’s name, Benjamin Zylberberg, at the top, and a yellow star with a warning stamped at the bottom, stating that this Jewish doctor can only legally prescribe medication to other Jews. Presumably he is no longer practising (presumably he has been shipped off to break rocks in a concentration camp somewhere), which is why his blank prescriptions have fallen into the hands of the Gestapo.
I’ve done her a nicer one, as well.
I meant to give her a Night Out, but when I picture this scenario, it makes me think of Mata Hari on a mission. Would Engel be happier as a spy, glamorous and deadly? I just can’t imagine her in any role other than Beastly Punctilious Official. Also I can’t say that the bleak aftermath of a Special Agent’s unsuccessful mission has anything to recommend it.
I was going to do prescriptions for William Wallace and Mary Queen of Scots, and Adolf Hitler too, but I can’t think of anything clever enough to make it worth the reprisals for the waste of paper.
Coffee would be at the top of my own prescription list. Then aspirin. I am running a fever. It won’t be tetanus, as they inoculated us, but may be septicaemia; I don’t think those pins were very clean. There was one I missed for a while after I pulled the others out, and the spot is very sore now (I am a little worried about some of the burns too, which chafe when my wrist hits the table as I write). Perhaps I will die quietly of blood poisoning and avoid the kerosene treatment.
There’s no efficient way to kill yourself with a dressmaker’s pin (I wouldn’t call contracting gangrene an efficient way to kill yourself) – I puzzled over it for a long time, seeing as they’d left the pins there, but it’s just not possible. Useful for picking locks though. I so loved the burglary lessons we got when we were training. Didn’t so much enjoy the bleak aftermath of my unsuccessful attempt to put them to use – very good at picking locks but not so good at getting out of the building. Our prison cells are only hotel bedrooms, but we are guarded like royalty. And also, there are dogs. After that episode with the pins, they had a good go at making sure I wouldn’t be able to walk if I did manage to get out – don’t know where you pick up the skills for disabling a person without actually breaking her legs, Nazi School of Assault and Battery? Like everything else it wasn’t permanent damage, nothing left this week but the bruises, and they check me carefully now for stray bits of metal. I got caught yesterday trying to hide a pen nib in my hair (I didn’t have a plan for it, but you never know).
Oh – often I forget I am not writing this for myself, and then it’s too late to scratch it out. The evil Engel always snatches everything away from me and raises an alarm if she sees me trying to retract anything. Yesterday I tried ripping off the bottom of the page and eating it, but she got to it first. (It was when I realised I had thoughtlessly mentioned the factory at Swinley. It is refreshing sometimes to fight with her. She has the advantage of freedom, but I am a lot more imaginative. Also I am willing to use my teeth which she is squeamish about.)
Where was I? Hauptsturmführer von Linden has taken away everything I wrote yesterday. It is your own fault, you cold and soulless Jerry bastard, if I repeat myself.
Miss Engel has reminded me. ‘The air-raid siren went.’ Clever girl, she has been paying attention.
She makes me give her every page to read now as soon as I have finished with it. We had fun doing the prescriptions. Will it get her in trouble if I mention that she burned a few herself to get rid of them this time? That’ll teach you to try to make a chum of me, On-Duty-Female-Guard Engel.
I have already got her in trouble, without knowing I was doing it, by mentioning her cigarettes. She is not allowed to smoke while she is on duty. Apparently Adolf Hitler has a vendetta against tobacco, finds it filthy and disgusting, and his military police and their assistants are not meant to smoke at work. I don’t think this is too strictly enforced except when the place is run by an obsessive martinet like Amadeus von Linden. Shame for him really, as a lit cigarette is such a convenient accessory if your job happens to be Extracting Information from Enemy Intelligence Agents.
As long as Engel’s crimes are all so minor, they won’t get rid of her because her combined talents would be quite difficult to replace (a bit like mine). But her offences do consistently fall under ‘insubordination’.
The air-raid siren went. Every head in the room looked up in dismay and exhaustion at the canteen’s pasteboard ceiling, as if they could see through it. Then everybody rocketed from their borrowed church hall wooden folding chairs to meet the next battle.
Maddie stood facing her new friend by the table they had just abandoned, people around her whirling into action. She felt as though she were at the eye of a tropical storm. The still point of the turning world.
‘Come on!’ Queenie cried, just like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, and grabbed Maddie by the arm to pull her outside. ‘You go on duty at one, what have you got –’ she glanced at her watch ‘ – an hour? Quick nap in the shelter before they need you in the radio room – pity you haven’t brought your brolly along. Come on, I’ll go with you.’
The pilots were already racing for the Spitfires, and Maddie tried to fix her mind on the practical problem of how best to take off from the half-mended runway – taxiing would be the hardest, as you wouldn’t be able to see the holes in the surface past the high nose of the little fighter planes. She tried not to think about what it would be like running across the airfield to the radio room an hour from now, under fire.
But she did it. Because you do. It is incredible what you do, knowing you have to. A bit less than an hour later – to allow themselves some extra time for dodging bombs – the two girls were outside again, in the moonscape that was now RAF Maidsend.
Queenie steered Maddie at a trot, both of them bent nearly double, hugging the sides of buildings and zigzagging across the open spaces. They’d heard how during the retreat from France the low-flying planes of the Luftwaffe would strafe people on the ground with machine-gun fire, just for the hell of it, and right now there were two or three German fighters buzzing low over the runway like wasps with the sun on their wings, drilling holes in windows and parked aircraft.
‘Over here! Here!’ someone yelled desperately. ‘Hey, you two, come and help here!’
For a few seconds Maddie, doggedly coping with her own private hell of rational or irrational fear, did not even notice Queenie’s change of direction as she headed towards the cry for help. Then sense came back to Maddie for a minute and she realised that Queenie was dragging her to the nearest anti-aircraft gun emplacement.
Or what was left of it. Most of the protective concrete barrier and the sandbags surrounding it had been blown to bits, taking with it two of the Army gunners who had been valiantly trying to keep the runway fit for the Spitfire squadron who would have to land there after the battle. One of the dead gunners was easily younger than Maddie. A third man who was still standing looked like a butcher, without the apron, soaked from neck to thighs in blood. He turned wearily and said, ‘Thanks for the relief. I’m beat.’ Then he sat down on the ruined platform and closed his eyes. Maddie cowered next to him, her arms over her head, listening to the hideous rattle of the gunner sucking air into blood-filled lungs. Queenie slapped her.
‘Get up, girl!’ she ordered. ‘I won’t have this. I’m your superior officer giving orders now. Get up, Brodatt. If you’re scared do something. See if you can make this gun work. Get moving!’
‘The shell needs loading first,’ the gunner whispered, lifting a finger to point. ‘The Prime Minister don’t like girls firing guns.’
‘Bother the Prime Minister!’ exclaimed the superior officer. ‘Load the damned gun, Brodatt.’
Maddie, nothing if not mechanically minded and trained to react positively to orders from people in authority, clawed her way up the gun.
‘That slip of a lass’ll never shift that shell,’ croaked the gunner. ‘Weighs 30 pounds, that does.’
Maddie wasn’t listening. She was reckoning. After a minute’s rational thought and with strength that she later couldn’t explain, she loaded the shell.
Queenie worked frantically over the fallen gunner trying to plug the holes in his chest and stomach. Maddie did not watch. After some time Queenie took her by the shoulders and showed her how to aim.
‘You’ve got to anticipate – it’s like shooting birds, you have to fire a little ahead of where they’ll be next –’
‘Shoot a lot of birds, do you?’ Maddie gasped, anger and fear making her peevish about the other girl’s seemingly limitless talents.
‘I was born in the middle of a grouse moor on the opening day of the shooting season! I could fire a gun before I could read! But this poxy thing is just a wee bit bigger than a Diana air rifle, and I don’t know how it works, so we have to do it together. Like yesterday, all right?’ She gave a sudden gasp and asked anxiously, ‘That’s not one of our planes, is it?’
‘Can’t you tell?’
‘It’s a Messerschmitt 109.’
‘Well, clobber it! Point this way – now wait till he comes back, he doesn’t know this station’s still operational – just wait.’
Maddie waited. Queenie was right: doing something, focusing, took away the fear.
The blast momentarily blinded them both. They did not see what happened. Maddie swore, afterwards, that the plane did not go down in a ball of flame until it had made at least two more passes over the runway. But no one else ever claimed to have shot down that Me-109 (oh, how many aircraft I know after all!), and God knows the fighter pilots were a competitive lot of bean counters. So that kill – I expect the Luftwaffe also call it a kill when someone shoots down a plane, like deer – was credited to two off-duty WAAF officers working together at an unmanned gun station.
‘I don’t think our gun did that,’ Maddie told her friend, whey-faced, as the black, oily smoke rose from the turnip field where the plane had come down. ‘It must have been one of our lot, firing from the air. And if it was this gun, it wasn’t you.’
It was bad enough she suspected the reason Queenie was at her side now was because she’d had to give up on the lad whose gun they’d taken over. Bad enough. But there had also been a pilot in that ball of flame, a living young man with not much more training than Maddie herself.
‘Stay here,’ Queenie choked. ‘Can you load another shell? I’ll find someone who knows what they’re doing to take over – you’ll be needed in the Tower now –’