Summary:— This is an Uberfic set in Great Britain in 1943. Zena Mathews and Gabrielle Parker, both pilots and members of SOE—Special Operations Executive—are stationed at Scapa Flow. They become unwilling participants in a media publicity campaign for the Air Transport Auxiliary, and are reluctantly interviewed by a reporter and photographer.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics, or whoever, own all copyrights to everything related to ‘ Xena: Warrior Princess ' and I have no rights to them. All other characters are copyright © to the author.
This is the 12th Story of the 'Mathews & Parker' series.
1. Anything To Anywhere
2. An Aerial Taxi
3. The Shetland Bus
4. A Brush With The Enemy
5. The Long Trip
6. A Rainy Sunday
7. The Ring of Brodgar
8. On Convoy Control
9. A Music Concert
10. A Series of Cyphers
11. A Visit to Skara Brae
“ ‘ Picture Post ' did it, so we can too.”
“But isn't the Air Transport Auxiliary secret, or at least military?” The young woman seated across the desk from the man eyed him with a dubious frown. “I mean, won't we be clapped in jail if we try to get a story on these women?”
“No, no. Didn't you hear me? ‘ Picture Post ' did a photo–story on them.” The man shook his head, cigarette clamped between his teeth. “Front page photo, too. Very well done, if I say so myself. We got'ta do the same. Our readers'll love it. I mean, girls in uniform—an' flying planes. Well, can't lose, can we!”
“But why send me to Orkney?” The young woman tried to sound aggrieved. “It's at the top end of the country. One step further north, an' you fall off the edge of the world. Didn't you see that film, George?”
“That was the Shetlands. They're even further North; so just be thankful for small mercies.”
“Hebrides—Shetland—Orkney. Huh, same thing.” Susan Taylor was imbued with her full ration of womanly logic. “An almost uninhabited island, surrounded by water and seals. Nothing but heather, bogs, an' people who speak a language you can't understand. Thanks a lot.”
“Listen Suse,” George Halliday, editor of the popular monthly magazine ‘ Standpoint ', took his cigarette out, poked at a piece of tobacco on his lip with a thin finger, then replaced the cigarette. “I received a communication from the Ministry of Information last week. They want me to do a spread on the ATA women pilots. For the good morale of the country, they said. An', in the last paragraph, they started talking about the difficulties of supplying newspaper ink an' paper for magazines in these times of rationing; just in case I didn't get the message. See what I mean? I've been given an order—an' I'm passing it on, to you.”
“So, what I think is, we send Joe Barclay along with you. He's young, but the best photographer we've got at the moment. You write up the story from the point of view of these women. Get some pic's of them in situ, as it were; an' Bob's your grandmother's lodger.”
“There is one, er, problem.” George sat back, examining the tip of his cigarette again, obviously loathe to carry on.
“What? What?” Susan ranged over several possibilities in her mind. “Is the water contaminated up there. Do they only drink malt whisky? Do they serve porage at every meal? What? Come on, George, spill it.”
“Sca—what about it?” Susan was bemused. She knew her editor liked to skip from one subject to another without warning, but this was taking the biscuit. “That's where all the navy ships go, ain't it? There's a harbour up there somewhere. Should we be talking about this, at all?”
“It's something more than simply a harbour, young girl.” George straightened up in his chair. “A bloody big bay. Big enough to hold the whole Fleet. Haven't you seen those newsreels that used to be shown in cinemas before the war? Orkney is Scapa Flow. An' right now Scapa's top secret. So, I've been given instructions that you must on no account report facts or information about any aspect of the military activity going on up there. And, for God's sake, don't let Joe take photo's that could be construed, in any slightest possible manner, as showing anything at all military at the Flow. Got that?”
“Humph. Where will we be billeted, when Joe an' I get there?”
“The ‘ Allington ' Hotel.” George offered this information as he opened his desk-top cigarette-box, searching for another of its inmates to assuage his craving. “Very salubrious, so I'm told. Moderne. You'll love it.”
“Train leaves Euston Station at 10.45am tomorrow.” George gave his finest reporter a sweet smile. “Best go home now, an' start packing.”
“Oh God. I'll get you back for this, George, see if I don't. The back of beyond,—Huh!” The blond-haired woman rose; straightened her long tweed skirt; and gave her boss a sneer, though she loved the old fool, really. “I'm just going outside, I may be—”
The NAAFI canteen at Base ‘J', Scapa Flow, Orkney, had an area fitted with tables and chairs where one could read any number of magazines and newspapers, some several months old. It was a long low-ceilinged room with plenty of windows and a series of bookcases against one wall filled with books, looking for all the world like a local library; which, in fact, had been its purpose before hostilities erupted. Zena and Gabrielle were seated at a table by one of the windows, featuring a wonderful panorama of the Flow with the hills of Hoy in the background, which didn't interest them at all. What did take their attention was an old copy of ‘ Picture Post ' spread out on the table, open at the photo-story featuring members of the ATA going about their duties; or just posing, self-consciously, beside various aeroplanes.
“I can't believe Squadron Leader Markham has ordered us to take part in this ridiculous farrago.” Gabrielle was miffed to the tonsils. “This isn't an in-depth factual story. It's just a ‘babes in uniform' come-on. I mean, look at these photos. Who ever stood beside a Spitfire, looking poetically into the sky like that? I ask you.”
“What about that message you shot off by short-wave to Group Captain Graham, in London?” Zena sat woebegone beside her companion. She didn't fancy being a photographer's model either. “Did he get back t'ya?”
“ ‘ Good for morale. Stop. Go ahead. Stop. Don't mention SOE. Stop' .” Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. “Huh! Looks like we're on our own. So, what d'we do?”
“Smile when the man says to.” Zena took the morose outlook. “Look brave as we stand beside our Hurricane, ready to save the country from all dangers, with a happy grin on our faces; or whatever.”
“D'you suppose that if this young photographer were to be found one morning floating face down in the Flow, it could be traced back to us? Only askin'.”
“Ha! A good idea. In fact, a very good idea.” The New Zealander nodded her own satisfaction with this plan. “But I think there's laws against that sort'a thing.”
Another long silence descended on the table and its immediate surroundings. They had both just finished a rather tense series of flights, under SOE directives, which had left them with a week's leave; during which this photographic event had been arranged by the powers that be in London and Edinburgh. Those gentlemen, and the Base in general, still being under the impression that the two women were operating under the aegis of the Air Transport Auxiliary alone.
“What we need is a really good emergency operation.” Gabrielle mused on this possibility of escape. “Like having to fly someone to Africa, post haste, eh. What d'ya think?”
“It's a dream, Gabs, give it up.” Zena sighed forlornly. “The photos'll be bad enough. But what happens when the reporter starts interrogating us about our activities? If we keep schtum about the SOE, what does that leave t'talk about?”
“Thursday afternoons, when we go into Kirkwall to the cinema?”
Zena looked up from her magazine, to give her navigator a weary glance.
“You're not helping, Gabs.” Zena shook her head, returning to the photos in the magazine. “Look at this,—pictures of this woman cavorting around what looks like a Hurricane; with her parachute harness in a hell of a tangle; an' then, in the text, the reporter goes mad sayin' how she's single-handedly freeing a place in the RAF for a man to become a pilot and save the country. Rubbish!”
“Yeah, it's all of that.” Gabrielle nodded in agreement. “She's got a lovely hair-do, though. Must have spent hours in the hairdressers, t'achieve that wavy look.”
“ Your hair's fine by me.” Zena paused, after this un-affected reply, then blushed strongly.
“Hey, that's sweet. Thanks.” Gabrielle favoured her partner with a broad grin, then reached a hand out to pull the magazine over towards her. She flicked it shut, to examine the front page photo. “What issue's this? September 16, 1942. Say, I think I met this gal once; when I was down in Lincolnshire six months ago.”
“Only sayin'.” Gabrielle smirked gleefully. “I just thought; if we're famous after gettin' our faces in a magazine—do you think Group Captain Graham would spring for a wage increase if we asked?”
“Suppose you're right.” Gabrielle's smile went into neutral, then lowered to negative levels. “Which magazine are this reporter and photographer working for, anyway? Is it ‘ Picture Post ', here?”
“Nah. Something called ‘ Standpoint '.” Zena reached across the table to where a bundle of assorted magazines lay. “Here's one. It's a sort of mix of fact and fiction. Short stories an' what have you, mixed with reports and real-life. Lot's of photos; you can't have a mag without photos these days, wouldn't sell.”
Gabrielle did her best, but the opportunity was just too good. After all, it was so rarely the case that a gal had the chance to come off with a really good rejoinder. She leaned her elbows on the table, affected an air of innocence that would have made both ‘ Pollyanna ' and ‘ Anne of Green Gables ' proud, and let fly.
“But—would it sell any better for having our mugs on the front cover?”
Zena slowly raised her eyes from the magazine; realised instantly what her partner was up to; heaved a sigh, and replied in the only acceptable manner.
“ Aouuch! That magazine hurt.” Gabrielle rubbed her shoulder where the rolled-up weapon had made contact.
The ‘ Allington ' Hotel was modern, having been built in Downie's Lane on the hillside behind Stromness in 1934; as well as being Moderne , in that it partook of the streamlined Art Deco style which was all the rage at its inception. Certainly it looked out of place, towering seven stories high above the Victorian buildings of the harbour town; but that was its reason d'etre in the eyes of the backers; and they had not been wrong. There were golf-courses near at hand; plenty of sea and river fishing readily available; treks around the historical remains everywhere to be found on the Orkney Mainland; and, in the hotel itself, the most up-to-date service, cuisine, and mod-cons aimed entirely at the comfort of the well-paying customer. Susan Taylor, and her photographer Joe Barclay, both knew when their boat had come in, and that time was now.
“ Sheesh! This is the goods!” Susan smiled as she entered the lobby of the hotel, full of shining chrome, horizontal lines, and white paint set off everywhere by pale green highlights. “I can live here. I can.”
The room she had been allotted was just as snazzy. High ceiling; white walls, with thin green lines running all round at waist height; and up–to-the-moment room decorations and fittings. The sitting-room was exquisite; but the bedroom, with its wide white-covered bed, was like something from a film set recently vacated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Susan was happy.
“ Whee! ” She threw her coat on the couch, and whirled round the sitting-room; her skirt rising in flowing lines to nearly show her knee's. “ Yippee! I'm home.”
It was 10.30am on a fine morning. The ferry, escorted by a destroyer, had touched at the harbour at Stromness, where Susan had instantly identified her destination, half a mile away, high on the low ridge rising behind the coastal town. Its seven storey's towered in the air; its white paint shone brightly; its flat roof and stylish curves looked completely out of context with the Victorian buildings below; and it simply oozed wealth, luxury, and high class. A local taxi had delivered both her and Joe to the main entrance, and from then on she had been in a trance of ecstasy. She had always wondered how film stars lived, and now it seemed she was going to find out—on the magazine's expense account. What was there not to like?
She sat on a chair at the dinky little desk; picked up the white and gold telephone receiver; dialled the requisite exchange number; spoke to the local operator, who had a particularly heavy Orkney accent, and gave the London number she wanted; was put through, after some switching and brrrrmmming noises, to a distant crackly exchange operator who spoke English but very faintly; and was finally rewarded a few seconds later by the golden tones of her editor, who appeared to have emigrated to New Zealand judging by the pale crackly nature of his voice.
“Say, how're ya doin', Mr Halliday?” Susan didn't attempt to hide her enthusiasm. “Yeah, it's me. Yeah, I got here alright. Yeah, everything's hunky-dory.”
“You've kept hold of those letters of introduction I gave you?” George sat at his desk, in the tight little offices of ‘ Standpoint ' magazine in Fetter Lane, London, playing with the burnt match he'd just lit his latest cigarette with. “OK, just askin', don't get fretful. How's Joe settling in? Hah! I thought so. You got the official document from the Ministry of Information giving you authority to interview the ATA women? Yes, yes, I know I'm worrying too much; but these things matter in wartime. What're your plans?”
“I'm gon'na head out to the base at Scapa Flow in an hour, an' try t'find the women.” Susan consulted the small notebook in which she had laid down her timetable. “No, no interviewing today. Just let everyone know I'm here. Give ‘em some idea of what's wanted. Let them get to know me an' Joe. Say, Mr Halliday, can I invite the women here to the hotel an' wine an' dine ‘em? I can, good. Of course, I'll watch the expenses. No, I ain't going t'bankrupt the magazine. Keep your shirt on. OK, good morning to you too. Bye.”
The knock, when it came, was completely unexpected. Both Zena and Gabrielle were used to working by themselves, without overmuch interference from the ordinary routine of the army camp. But it was a military base, so they were never astonished to be dragged out of bed at odd hours of the night, or for other daylight exercises. Gabrielle sat at the radio desk working on a long message, about their last mission, which they were preparing to send to London. Zena, sitting at the main table idly tinkering with a decrepit flying helmet, was nearest the door so had no option. She strode half the length of the long Nissen hut and opened it, fully expecting an anonymous soldier with a message for them to engage in some further form of military time-wasting. But what met her eyes was a very pretty young woman. Blonde, with short hair; neatly dressed in a flowing knee-length flowered skirt and red blouse; wearing flat leather shoes of high quality, almost certainly of the ‘ Saxone' make; and holding a leather handbag big enough to pass muster as a haversack. She grinned at Zena and held out a hand.
“Hi, I'm Susan Taylor.”
“Good morning, I'm Zena Mathews.” Zena looked the visitor up and down, smiling the while. “You're not military. How'd you wangle your way onto the base? Got'ta pass?”
“Er, yes, as a matter of fact.” Susan stepped back a pace, looking worried. “Have I done something wrong? The soldiers at the main gate let me through easily enough when they went over my documents.”
“Well, if you'd like to let me take a gander, I'd appreciate it.” Zena carried on smiling, but also held a hand out. “You can't be too careful in a camp like this, y'know.”
Susan was already scrabbling in her bag, and came forward with two or three impressive A4 documents.
“Ah.” Zena laughed quietly, trying to put the young woman at her ease. “Even without looking at ‘em I can tell your papers are kosher. The pink one's a camp-pass, needs a Captain to authorise it. The green one's a security-pass for the whole island, needs a Major to authorise that. An' the yellow one's a personal authorisation docket, giving you free passage to consult and speak with military personnel; that one has a General's signature. Very high flying. Yip, they're in order. Come in; take the weight off your feet; there's a comfy chair over there; say hello to Gabrielle, she's my general bottle-washer an' housemaid.”
“Nark it, sister.” Gabrielle rose and came out of the shadows at the rear of the hut to welcome their guest. “Take no notice of Zena, she has a curious sense of humour. Well, we don't get many visitors here. Tea or coffee? An' do you like chocolate biscuits?”
When they were eventually settled round the long table in the centre of the hut, with steaming mugs, Susan broached the subject of her visit.
“You've probably already heard about a magazine wanting to do an article on you both, with photos?” She smiled somewhat shamefacedly. “Well, that's me.”
“Ah.” Zena looked at her, as if examining a rare species at the zoo. “We were sort'a wonderin' when the fateful day would arrive. So, what's the plan?”
“Oh, it won't come to much, in the end.” Susan tried to sound professional about the affair. “We'll decide a day for the session. You can get into the right kind of uniform. Then my photographer will do a series of shoots. The whole thing'll only take an hour or two at the most.”
“That's good.” Gabrielle sniffed, unconvinced. “We are on duty, y'know. May be called away at any time. Where's your photographer?”
“Yes, I understand about that.” Susan felt like licking her lips, but restrained herself. “Joe, my photographer, is back at the hotel. He's a good bo—man. The best the magazine has, so you won't be disappointed with the end results, I can assure you.”
“What about the words; the text of the article?” Zena came to the crux of the matter. “Do you just go off an' work somethin' up yourself? Or do you, er, interview us, an' write down what we tell ya?”
“The latter, in fact.” Susan felt she was on familiar ground now, and relaxed a little. “I'll ask about the kind of work you actually do; you give a few details, maybe with some funny stories of the problems you may have encountered. Then a few words about just what it's like to fly a plane by yourself; alone in the clouds, with nothing around but silence and the ground thousands of feet below. The joy and delight, and peacefulness of the whole thing, you know. Our readers will enjoy reading about that.”
Zena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. They were both trying to remember the last time they had enjoyed a peaceful flight; neither could bring one to mind.
“ Aa—uum. Well, we might be able to do something with that, I suppose.” Zena frowned, not exactly happily. “But you've got the wrong idea about that peaceful thing. A Walrus is a noisy machine. That Bristol Pegasus radial engine is a demon. You know what a radial engine is?”
“Er, no. Does it make a difference?” Susan felt she was moving into unknown territory.
“It's an air-cooled type.” Gabrielle had the details ready. She so loved to blind people with science. “The nine pistons exhaust separately. It doesn't have a manifold leading into a single exhaust pipe. The pistons are mounted in a circle immediately behind the four-blade propeller, firing in a radial sequence. The thing is, you wouldn't believe the noise.”
“Yeah, and as to the plane itself.” Zena blew her cheeks out in an expression of wonder. “The airframe groans an' creaks from one end to the other. There are enormous forces at work on the plane. The wings screech and strain; the frame sounds like its breaking apart all through its flying time; the engine constantly deafens ya; and the bumping and crashing of taking off, landing on the sea, and just going through turbulent air in flight, is one of the noisiest most uncomfortable experiences you'll ever have. Take it from me, Susan, there ain't no peace in a Walrus when it's airborne.”
“Oh, er, right.” Susan took a pull at her tea, and tried to think of a competent reply.
“About these photos in general, what did you have in mind?” Gabrielle looked over the top of her coffee cup at the young woman. “There's certain rules about photographing military planes an' personnel, y'know. Especially in an operational setting, like here.”
Susan turned round in her chair and indicated the notes lying on top of her handbag on a nearby chair.
“My security documents cover all that, I'm sure.” She nodded reassuringly. “Actually we won't photograph the planes in any detail at all. Just the outsides, with you both in the foreground.”
“So you'll not be coming up for a flight with us, then?” Zena lifted an eyebrow. “It probably wouldn't be authorized, anyway.”
“No, I haven't any wish to, er, go up with you, thanks.” Susan smiled somewhat weakly. “That shan't be necessary. I'd like to get a couple of pictures of your plane actually taking-off, of course. Would that be alright?”
“Yeah, we can handle that.” Zena laughed, as the thought occurred to her. “But you probably won't get much more than a cloud o' spray an' white water flung in the air, with a tailplane showin' above it all. That's the usual Walrus take-off, y'see.”
“Oh! Well, that's Joe's business.” Susan smiled brightly, at the thought of one less problem off her back. “He'll have to do the best he can in the circumstances; but he'll manage, don't worry. He's the magazine's top photographer. Have I already told you that? Very good at his work, too.”
Gabrielle indicated a lone magazine lying on one side of the table. She had borrowed it from the NAAFI for further investigation, and had read the article on the ATA pretty thoroughly.
“What kind'a readership d'you have for your magazine?” Gabrielle picked up a corner of the tattered copy beside her. “Is it anything like ‘ Picture Post ' here?”
“Oh no.” Susan shook her head. “That's a mass-market magazine. Hundreds of thousands of readers every week. We're only a monthly mag. ‘ Standpoint ' deals in fiction and general articles on politics, society, gardening, that sort of thing. We have a few tens of thousands of readers each month, but nothing spectacular.”
Zena mused on this, then glanced over at her partner.
“We were just wondering about that.” She looked again at the reporter, her head angled slightly; long black hair falling over her left cheek like Veronica Lake, only much more dangerous. “Seems curious a magazine like yours should wan'na break out into covering something like the ATA?”
“Oh, necessity of war, I'm afraid.” Susan laughed, remembering her interview with the magazine's editor. “George Halliday, that's my editor, told me it was because of orders from on High—the Ministry of Information, in fact. They rule the roost in anything to do with print or publishing now, y'know. They tell you to do something, and, by God, you do it—and fast, too.”
“Ha, we know the feeling.” Gabrielle laughed as they all rose from the table. “Here, lem'me escort you t'the door. Zena here'll look after the cups an' saucers, won't you?”
“ Humph! ”
“So, when d'you want to do this photographing lark, then?” Gabrielle pretended not to notice the look on Zena's face as they all reached the door of the Nissen hut. “Would tomorrow be good? In the afternoon about 1.00pm?”
“Yes, that'd be great.” Susan smiled warmly at both women as they went out onto the grass in front of the hut. “See you both then. I'll just walk, an' catch the local bus at the main gate; the soldiers wouldn't let my taxi drive in. Goodbye.”
“Well, what'd ya think?”
“Think? About what?” Gabrielle was sitting once more at the magazine strewn table, wondering if she should have a second cup of coffee or not. “Oh, you mean Susan. She seems a good enough gal.”
“Let's hope this whole thing goes off quickly.” Zena grunted somewhat disparagingly. “The quicker we get back to normal duties the better, if you ask me.”
“Not fancyin' the idea of bein' a pin-up girl in a magazine, eh?” Gabrielle laughed as she stood up. “So, are you goin' t'wear the standard issue skirt for the great event? We'll need'ta find you a nice pair of stockings, I suppose. Think I've got some stashed away somewhere; but they wouldn't be your size.”
“Huh, it'd take more than a war t'get me into a skirt, baby.” Zena sneered with curled lip. “An' if ya haven't noticed, there's a war goin' on right now.”
“I think you'd look just great, Zena.” Gabrielle was taking the cups and saucers to the rear of the hut where the sink was located. She faltered a little, then grinned. “Only my opinion, of course.”
“Nah, baby, ain't fer me.” Zena snorted contemptuously as she bundled the pile of magazines together. “I'll stick to my slacks, thanks. Say, who's gon'na pilot the old Shagbat for the take-off an' landing photos tomorrow? Feelin' up to it?”
“Me? Of course I'm up for it.” Gabrielle laughed lightly as she came back and rescued a couple of the magazines from Zena's clutches. “But at the moment I'm gon'na settle down in the only comfy chair in this scrappy Nissen hut, an' read the latest news in this mag. Don't know what you've scheduled for the rest of the morning. The Tilly's engine needs the carburettor timing looked at, doesn't it?”
“Oh, I see.” Zena shot her companion an icy look. “You play; I work! I get it. Listen lady, if I'm bent over that damned carb for an hour, you'll be right there alongside me with the instruction manual, see.”
Gabrielle leaned back in the one and only armchair; slowly put both feet up on the small scuffed and tattered foot-rest provided; rustled the pages of her magazine proprietorially; and sniffed critically.
“Don't get so het up, girl.” She waved the front page of the old ‘ Picture Post ' at the tall dark woman. “See here? Wait'll the Public get's a load o' you bravely staring up into the Kraut-infested skies, doin' your bit for the country. Why, you'll get fan-mail an' offers of marriage, or offers of something altogether more common an' vulgar, from all parts of the Empire. Wha'd'ya say about that?”
Without a moment's pause or hesitation, and with no regard to ladylike etiquette or manners, Zena jumped right in and told her fellow airwoman exactly what she thought of all that. It was as she listened, making mental notes to remember the more lusciously contrived similes, that Gabrielle realised New Zealanders had words and phrases for concepts the average Britisher only ever vaguely visualised in their minds, but could never articulate in mere speech. It was an education.
“It's just as well we're in the middle of the month; gives us a couple of weeks to get the photos and story sorted out for the next issue.” Joe Barclay, from the vantage point of all of his twenty years, considered their situation. “If the weather holds up we can get some great outdoor shots. The ladies standing beside their Spitfires, or Lancasters, or whatever they're flying.—”
“They only have Walruses and Lockheed Hudson's. I took a quick gander at the aircraft hangars on my way out of the base.” Susan was making notes in her reporter's notebook, while the young photographer sat on a straight-backed chair at the dining table in her hotel room. “And only one each of those, I think. Don't forget, you mustn't photograph anything military. Not in detail, anyway.”
“So I've been told.” Joe twisted his mouth gloomily. “Hampers my style, but I'll just have to battle on, I suppose.”
“What camera are you using?” Susan was interested in every aspect of producing their monthly articles for the magazine.
“Its an old Leica, with a couple of useful lenses I've managed to filch from various places.” If there was one thing Joe was passionate about it was his photography. “I've got a boxful of flash-bulbs, but I'm hoping the natural sunlight'll be good enough tomorrow. Otherwise we'll need to set up a studio in one of the hangars an' see what we can do there.”
“Well, it should be easy enough to interview both women.” Susan lifted an eyebrow as she looked at her companion. “And anything that falls, er, short—I can just do some imaginative expansion on.”
“As long as you don't make it sound like they're characters from an adventure story in the ‘ Girl's Own Paper '. Mr Halliday wouldn't like that at all.” Joe grinned boyishly. “Remember the kerfuffle over Dan Richards and the Henley Regatta piece two months ago?”
“God, don't I!” Susan snorted with laughter. “Richards intimated that the Marchioness of Dalry had nearly won the America's Cup, captaining her own boat; when she'd actually only ever been on a yacht as a passenger five times in her life. What a rage Mr Halliday went into.”
“I didn't know someone could actually go purple in the face, till I saw it with my own eyes.” Joe mused on the memory. “God, I wouldn't like being on the receiving end of one of those storms.”
“Don't worry, I won't make the same mistake.” Susan knew her limits, and the dangers of over-writing, especially for a traditional monthly audience. “I'll give a physical description of them both. Then a word-picture of the base—but very general, no specifics—then launch into some interesting first-hand stories about their flying experiences. With your photos to accompany it the article should end up pretty good.”
“How many pictures do you suppose Mr Halliday'll allow for in the article?” Joe now concentrated on the important details. “If they're small it could be three, or maybe four, to a page. Say three pages. I'll have to pick the viewpoints carefully.”
“The question really is how much text will Mr Halliday need.” Susan, on the other hand, knew what sustained a truly good article. “Say three thousand words, maybe four? That'd be about three pages—with your photos it could run to a six-page set. That'd be good.”
While still hardly realising their own burgeoning enthusiasm for the project both journalists bowed over their notebooks; scribbling down important details and pondering over technical points, happy as larks. If this article finished up a damp squib it wouldn't be as a result of their lack of keenness.
“F3.2, d'you think?”
“Can you start a sentence with a preposition?”
“Should I use the 30mm long focus lens? Or the 25mm short focus? You get lovely detail with the 25.”
“Would a quote from one of Winston's speeches be too much? Bit over the top, maybe? But he always has such a lovely turn of phrase. Oh well, perhaps not.”
“Where's my ATA cap badge? I took it off to polish it, a coupl'a days ago. Now I can't remember where it is.”
The morning had dawned, as usually happens in Orkney, with a low cloud-base and a firm if not actually impulsive breeze. There would almost certainly be rain squalls later, but the morning might remain dry. Out on the Flow the water was almost obscured by the plethora of Navy and other craft zooming about. Cutters from the various wharves and jetties; launches from the ships, busily making calls on each other; mine-sweepers racing along, as if hurrying to a definite destination instead of just generally patrolling the Flow as normal; and a variety of small tugs and cargo craft heading out to the Navy ships on routine manoeuvres.
The majority of the craft on the sea's surface were, of course, Navy ships. Over to the west, sheltering under the shadow of the Hoy hills, lay a row of destroyers some nine in number. Across from them were a couple of cruisers; while further down the Flow could be seen a substantial number of other mine-sweepers, corvettes, and frigates: while in the distance rose the dark silhouettes of two battleships.
On the coast of the Orkney Mainland; that of Hoy; and the smattering of other smaller islands encircling the wide bay, were innumerable brick and concrete military outposts. Sentry-boxes; look-out posts; communication centres; small camps; warehouses; office blocks; and countless other buildings of all shapes and sizes, all connected in some way with military activities. At various places in the fields; near buildings; or placed higher on the rolling hills and slopes around the Flow, were numerous anti-aircraft and Barrage-balloon units.
On the roads, or at least those tracks and lanes which could nominally be so called, were huge numbers of trucks, cars, and lorries—all military in origin. The amount of civilian vehicles still operating were insignificant to the point of invisibility, because of the petrol shortage and rationing. Anyway, many roads and lanes around the bay were now off-limits to the public. There were several, some said far too many, road-blocks on every available road, lane, or muddy farm track, where soldiers would officiously stop every single vehicle and, if so disposed, subject them to rigorous search and investigation of papers. Getting from one place to another on Orkney could be a time consuming business, if you did not have the advantage of military uniform and a high rank: sometimes even those prerequisites proved useless, and officialdom had to have its way regardless.
“Zena, I'm surprised you haven't lost the Shagbat yet!” Gabrielle could be cutting, especially after being hoisted out of bed on a dreary morning while nursing a shocking headache. “Ya tried that rubbish-dump you call a wardrobe?”
“Yeah, yeah. I went through every drawer and shelf, except for the shoe-locker at the bottom.”
Gabrielle stood upright to her full five feet five inches, and regarded her companion with a pained expression; three-quarters pity, and the other half rising irritation. Zena got the message.
“Oh, alright. But it's such a bother gettin' down on my knees an' tryin' to see into the dark at the back.” The tall New Zealander caught a glimpse of the blonde's face and retreated in disorder. “OK, OK, I know when I'm—God, my trouser-legs'll get so dirty—wild goose chase, o'course—don't know why some young blonde virag— Oh my God! Here it is. Well, I'll be damned, who'd a' thought?”
“ Me , you—you idiot.” Gabrielle bathed in righteous victory. “Maybe next time you'll ask me first, before wasting an hour in useless scrabbling around.”
“Sorry. So, what's the drill with the plane?” Zena struggled to her feet, then bent to brush the dust of ages off her trouser-knees which were now filthy. “Are we gon'na take it up for a scoot around? Just for something t'do while we're waiting for Susan an' her photographer friend. We'll need t'get it out on the tarmac an' fired up anyway, for the photos.”
“Yeah, OK.” Gabrielle was lacklustre. Sometimes even the thought of piloting a noisy Walrus, that bucked like a mad bronco, couldn't cut the mustard. “I've got the most damnable headache this mornin', mind you. Got any o' those Beechams Powders? I could do with about four.”
The New Zealander finished her partial clean-up of her nether garments and headed over to the small chest of drawers by her bedside. She pulled open the top drawer and poked around amongst the variety of odds-and-ends to be found there-in.
“Yeah, I got two. Two enough?”
“No, but I'll have ‘em both, thanks.”
Gabrielle grabbed the slim paper packets and almost ran to the sink at the rear of the Nissen hut. Splashing some cold water from the tap into a tin mug she opened both folded containers, one after the other, and emptied the white powder inside into the mug; stirring the opaque liquid with her finger. Then she tipped back her head and swallowed the whole half-mugfull in one go. She clapped the mug on the shelf by the sink with a clatter, and made a face of extreme revulsion—they did taste awful, after all.
“ Graagh! I don't know what's worse; the headache, or the cure.” The blonde valiantly walked back to the front of the hut, still grimacing. “What time is it?”
“Nearly eleven o'clock.” Zena had finished attaching the errant badge to her cap. “Here, how does this look? Is it sitting right?”
“If you didn't slant your cap like Errol Flynn it might look more appropriate.” Gabrielle was unforgiving. “Straighten it up, for goodness sake. That's better. Anyone'd think you were auditioning for a part in a ‘B' movie. So, short light zipper-jacket; tan slacks; heavy boots; cap; yeah, OK, you look the part. But can you fly?”
“Har, har. A damn sight better than some lesser mortals, of blonde outlook as well as complexion, not a million miles from me at this very moment.”
The New Zealander meant her snide remark to score an instant hit, but its target simply ignored the thrust.
“Come on, gal. We got places t'go; people t'meet.” Gabrielle grabbed her own cap from the table and headed for the front door of the hut. “I'm lookin' forward to annoying Sergeant MacQuarie. Bet he's inside that Wellington when we get there. He loves that machine, y'know. He's definitely working on it to some nefarious purpose of his own; it's the only explanation. I'll drive the ‘ Tilly' ; might help t'clear my head. Don't worry, the members of the fourth estate won't have left the Hotel in Stromness yet. We got plenty of time.”
“What're we gon'na do with the Shagbat, then?” Zena reverted to the job in hand. “Take it for a short constitutional?”
“More or less.” Gabrielle stopped in her tracks as Zena closed the Nissen hut door. “Make sure you lock it this time. We don't want a repetition of last week, when you forgot.”
“Could'a happened t'anyone. Let it go.”
Zena snorted in disgust at this unfortunate episode's revival. But Gabrielle was like that, she well knew; never let a good thing go to waste, damn it.
“I was figurin' we could take Susan, an' her photographer friend—I can't remember his name—back to their Hotel, after they've done their interviewing an' picture-taking. Save them a taxi fare.” Gabrielle spoke as she gripped the ‘ Tilly' s backward opening cab door-handle; pulling it wide. “Susan can sit beside me here, an' you can hunker down with the photographer in the back.”
“Hey! The seats there're so low an' thin I'll get pounded to a pulp.” Zena winced at the thought of bending her six-foot frame into the interior of the ‘ Tilly 's rear compartment. “You know how bumpy the old wreck is. I'm sure its springs came out'ta an old horse-drawn carriage.”
“Stop belly-achin'.” The blonde driver turned the ignition-key, stamped on the accelerator, hoicked the hand gear-lever into first, and skidded off the grass verge onto the tarmac-ed road with a screeching of gears and tyres. “Whoa! A little wobbly. Must be because it's been left out in the rain all night. Maybe you'd better check the brakes an' oil later on today, after we finish with this photo opportunity.”
“Oh, that's great.” Zena, from her position cramped in the passenger seat, contemplated her driver with a mixture of awe and slight terror. “What we need I say, here in Britain, is less drivers like you. Lot's less drivers like you.”
“Ha! This is doin' my headache no end of good, y'know.” Gabrielle swerved past a two-ton Army truck that towered above the small pick-up as they passed each other, and grinned widely. “The fresh air; the joy of the road; these damned idiot Army drivers. Hoi, you! Where'd ya learn t'drive? A bumper-car ride at the Fairground? God, some people think the road's just for them! OK sister, sit back and relax; we'll be at the slipway in about a coupl'a ticks. I think I can break our record for goin' from the ol' Nissen t' the aircraft Hangars. What is it at present? Four minutes an' twenty seconds? Reckon I can beat that, easy.”
Zena settled lower in her seat, watching the rows of huts and other buildings outside flash past her nervous eyes. She wondered idly whether it would be a good idea, in future—if there was going to be a future for her—to leave a last heartfelt message for her loved ones back at the Nissen. Then she remembered she didn't have any close family, and damn few friends who'd care. God, what a world!
“Slow down, for God's sake.” Zena tried a last-ditch attempt at influencing her mad driver. “There's a speed limit in this camp, y'know. An' it's about ten miles slower than what you're already doin'.”
“Izzat'so? Ha-Ha, ain't it great? I ain't speeded up yet, mind.” Gabrielle giggled cheerfully; though it sounded to her passenger more like a mad cackle. “Not to say really speeded up. Oh look, here comes the main road; a straight half-mile all the way to the slipway. OK, hold onto your cap—here we go, baby.”
“No, ma'am, there ain't any chance of you getting the Shagbat off this morning—at least, on the water.” Sergeant MacQuarie was adamant; using, meanwhile, a scruffy shirt-sleeve to wipe his nose. “The ‘ Hercules ' has broken a propeller blade; an' it's sitting at anchor in the Sound, just North of Graemsay, waitin' for another tug t'haul it back t'the wharf.”
“Huh, one tug waitin' for another tug t'help it dock.” Gabrielle's tone was scathing. “There's a moral there somewhere. An' why call it that silly name, anyway? A flimsier, wimpier, smaller boat I've never seen—why, it must be about a hundred years old. Surprised it don't use paddle-wheels.”
“Is this goin' t'affect our using the Shagbat at all?” Zena, ignoring these criticisms, hit the main point of the argument as the trio stood on the hard concrete of the extensive slipway running from the giant hangars to the edge of the water. “We got things t'do later, y'know.”
“Yeah, the reporters from ‘ Standpoint ' magazine are here t'take your photos for an article.” MacQuarie spoke with the authority of someone who was au fait with the latest scuttlebutt, or unofficial gossip. “Taking your pics this afternoon, I believe.”
“So much for secrecy.” Gabrielle sniffed in contempt. “We might as well have put an ad in the weekly ‘ Orcadian '.”
“The plane could be hauled out on the slipway I suppose, ladies.” MacQuarie's tone was that of one offering great largesse. “No use puttin' it in the water, though. If you really want to take-off you'll have t'use the runway behind the Hangars.”
Gabrielle had been giving the far reaches of the Flow a searching examination; eyes shaded with the palm of her hand. The general atmosphere this morning was, as normally, grey and overcast. A fairly stiff breeze blew from the north-west, but there was no rain and the air was clear and fine. To their left, further along the Flow, sat the larger vessels of the Fleet; two battleships, various destroyers, a multitude of sloops, corvettes, and minelayers, as well as many support vessels of various types and sizes. Accompanying all these official Navy ships were the tugs, and a wide variety of supply ships: all coming and going, or resting at anchor in a variety of officially sanctioned areas across the Flow. If, because of circumstances, Zena and Gabrielle couldn't take-off in their Walrus towards Stromness, across Clestrain Sound, then it would be extremely difficult to take-off on the water at all.
“What about Destroyer Alley?” Gabrielle always had an eye for the main chance. “Doesn't seem t'be exactly over-crowded today, for a change. We could run down there, an' easily miss the two at the far end.”
Sergeant MacQuarie vouchsafed the blonde woman a knowing look from under his uniform cap and grey shaggy eyebrows, then ostentatiously wiped his nose again; he did, after all, have a nasty cold in the head.
“Taking-off down Destroyer Alley is frowned on from on high.” The sergeant-mechanic shook his head dubiously. “You'll find your asses in the slammer quicker than a flash o' lightning, as you very well know. I wouldn't advise it at all. Use the runway. But you'll need'ta be quick, we're expecting the Lysander back from one of its jaunts in about an hour.”
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and turned to her companion.
“I'd prefer using the water.” She nodded half-heartedly towards where, in the distance, the mouth of the bay where Stromness sat concealed could just be made out. “A bit of judicious climbing, an' we could head straight out over the ocean. But the runway means all those restrictions about flying over land, and the town too. We'll need'ta detour, then fly across those goddamned hills behind Stromness; an' stay over land much longer.”
“Well, there ain't nothing else for it, gal.” Zena shrugged; after all she was beginning to become bored, and her feet weren't even off the concrete yet. “Come on, let's get on with it. Hey, Sergeant MacQuarie, how's the third cylinder on the Pegasus doin'? Fixed it?”
“Course we fixed it, ma'am.” MacQuarie wasn't having any of it. “Spent three hours fiddlin' around, we did, but got t'the bottom of it right enough. You'll have no more mis-firing there.”
The ungainly flying-boat was hauled out onto the concrete runway behind the great Hangars by the simple expedient of sliding opening the rear doors with which each giant building was provided. A short avenue, paved with concrete sections, led out to the main single runway; itself made of thirty-foot wide concrete slabs, with visible connecting-edges between each. The runway was aligned more or less on a North-South line; any plane taking-off to the North having to fly over Loch Stenness and Loch Harray, to the East of Stromness, before crossing the mainland of Orkney towards the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
Although the plane's wheels were well inflated they were low to the ground; the base of the Walrus's boat-like hull only a matter of a few inches above the concrete. This meant that while taking-off there was a great deal of vibration through the plane's frame, and it needed a fair distance before breaking free of land. Even then matters were not ended; it gained height slowly at first, so needed open ground near the airfield. Any line of trees within a couple of hundred yards of the end of the runway, and the plane was in definite danger. Of course, this being Orkney, there were few trees to begin with; and those brave or foolhardy enough to have decided to grow within spitting distance of the runway had been swiftly dealt with when the camp was built.
Finally they were airborne, safely over the Lochs and the higher ground to the North, and skimming over the serried lines of white-caps on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean about two thousand feet below.
“Ah! The beautiful gray-green of the rolling billows.” Zena was in poetic mood,—Goodness knows why. “Don't it make you wan'na lie back on a tree-shaded greensward bank somewhere, an' drown your sorrows by readin' Christina Rossetti?”
“I said ain't it a grand sight, down there. The, er, sea, an' everythin'.”
“What? Can't hear you.”
“It's a beautiful day, Gab.” The New Zealander was beginning to lose patience. “Look at the cloud shadows moving over the sea-surface.”
“Speak up.” The blonde pilot had her hands full—flying a Walrus was no piece of cake at the best of times, and the roar of the nine-cylinder Pegasus engine tended to make idle conversation redundant. “What's that you said, about the port ailerons?”
“Oh Jeez! Gabs, can ya hear anything I say?”
“Bloody Hell!” Zena leaned over; grabbed Gabrielle's flying helmet; slid the right-hand headphone earpiece aside; and, putting her lips close to the pilot's shell-like, bellowed like a bull. “Gorgeous bloody day, ain't it!”
“Hey!” Gabrielle rolled her head in agony, and bared her teeth in a snarl. “Whad'ya think you're doin'? I can hear you. It's just another day. Nothing special. The sea always looks that colour. You got our course worked out yet?”
“Bleedin' Saints in Heaven!” The defeated navigator edged back on the narrow shelf that did duty as her so-called seat, and pouted in annoyance. “I was only tryin' t'brighten your day, dam'mit. What does a gal have'ta do t'keep her pilot happy? Take her clothes off, an' do a fan-dance or what?”
“That'd be fun. I heard that.” Gabrielle glanced at her dejected partner and grinned widely. “Where're your fans, then? I'm gon'na enjoy this.”
“Har, Har, Har.” Zena shuffled uncomfortably, pretending to look for an absconded pencil. “Just keep your eyes on the compass, dearie. An' don't forget t'give me the oil-gauge readings. We wan'na know if the engine's running sweetly now, or not.”
“Oh, so it's suddenly business before pleasure again!” Gabrielle pretended to be disappointed, as she stared out the cockpit window. “Ah well, I'll just have to put my dreams of idle lotus-eating aside, I suppose. For the good of the country, y'know. Still, I'd love t'see you wearing nothing but a couple of bright pink ostrich-feather fans. They'd suit your, er, physique, y'know.”
“Madam, there's a War on.” Zena actually felt herself blushing, and thanked the Gods for her flying helmet's protection from prying eyes. “Kindly keep your thoughts on your Duty. God, finally! Hey, Gabs, I've found the pad of instrument-reading slips we've been searching for over the last three days. It was stuffed under the bundle of maps on the shelf at my elbow. So that's where ya hid them? Mean's I won't need'ta make up my own. Great!”
“Hid them my left—.” The blonde pilot snorted contemptuously. “Hey Zena, how about, instead of taking the North-West course we thought about yesterday, we head South-East? That way we can swing round an' come back to make a Northerly approach to the runway. You know how much easier that is, than coming in from the South an' having to glide over the camp buildings at low altitude for ever so long. Everyone always complains, volubly, when we do that.”
“Oh, OK. But it's only because it's you, y'know.” Zena raised her chin, trying to look both stern and benevolent at the same time. “Wouldn't do it for anyone else.”
There were several advantages about the great height and width of the doors of the row of aircraft hangars which lined the shore on the edge of the Flow. For Susan Taylor and Joe Barclay the main one at present being the protection they afforded from the steady drizzle which was now descending on the grey concrete that seemed to surround the buildings like a solid frozen sea.
“You got all the equipment you need, Joe?” Susan contemplated the four camera cases and two other leather-bound boxes lying higgledy-piggledy at their feet. “Haven't forgotten anything?”
“Ha! You can laugh, but just remember it'll be my photos that make this article.” Joe, though young, was cocky. “Your text'll just be for descriptive purposes.”
“Joe, if you weren't so young I'd kick you in the pants.” Susan, however, knew how to handle this kind of attitude. “Come back in about ten years, when you've grown up, an' I'll do just that.”
“ Hiirrph ! Jesus, I think I left the red filter back at the Hotel. Damnation!”
“Too late now; the ladies'll be returning in just about ten minutes.” Susan glanced into the interior of the Hanger, at who's entrance they had sought shelter. “That Sergeant MacQuarie seems a nice man. He said he'd let us know when the men see the Walrus coming in from the South. Shouldn't be long now. Better hurry up and get set up. Never mind the rain.”
Joe had been busying himself, for the last few minutes, with various strange contrivances and objects from his seemingly limitless store. Now he raised a heavy-looking steel tripod into position and leant down to grasp hold of a large square camera. It had a bellows body, behind the lens, and a square shape; though this was set-off by the flashlight apparatus attached to one side of the top, with its reflective metal bowl. Altogether not a pretty machine. He bent to the task of fixing it in place on top of the tripod.
“ Aauurph ! Damn, these things don't get any lighter.”
“What the Hell is that, Joe?” Susan was mystified. “Where's your Leica?”
“This, madam, is a Graflex Speed Graphic.” Joe stood back from what was obviously his pride and joy, wiping the sweat from his manly brow the while. “Dam' bulky thing, mind you. All the best photographers swear by ‘em. You wouldn't believe the tribulations I had tryin' t'argue old Halliday into buyin' the dam' thing. But he came round in the end.”
“Stop swearing, Joe. It doesn't suit you.” Susan sniffed austerely, as if she never swore herself. “Anyway, d'you really know how t'operate that thing? Looks complicated. What about the range, an' focus, an' whatnot? Come on, don't be shy—I won't tell anyone.”
The young photographer leaned casually with one hand on the tripod, and sneered at his less than admiring public.
“Don't worry about me, Suse.” He shrugged, with the arrogant disregard of the true aficionado. “I've been reading books.”
“Oh God, was that wise?”
“Ha!-Ha! When the Walrus, or whatever the thing's called they're flying, takes off again I intend t'get a perfectly set-up shot.” Joe looked knowing as he carried on examing his camera, and almost winked conspiratorially. “This beauty utilises a focal plane shutter, y'see.
“But the real plane'll be moving—fast, Joe.” It didn't take any great expertise for Susan to see this major flaw in her assistant's logic. “All you'll get is a grey blur on the photo.”
“Ha! That's where you're wrong.” Joe pointed out the salient features with proprietorial smugness. “By turning this key on the side, and then this knob here, I can adjust the shutter speed to capture almost any fast-moving objective. A slow old biplane'll be easy.”
“How wonderful.” The best female reporter on ‘ Standpoint ' magazine curled a lip, somewhat disdainfully.
Apparently there were a multitude of small adjustments necessary; making use of various dials and knobs situated at curious positions on each of the four sides of the instrument.
“It is a bit fiddly; but I'm getting' the hang of it.” Joe raised his eyebrow and shrugged. “I'm confident it'll work.”
While they had been talking the general work of the airplane mechanics had been proceeding all round the reporters. The Hangar where they were standing was large and deep. Deep enough to have an echo all its own; so the noise of hammers being applied to recalcitrant parts; spanners being dropped on the concrete floor; various small machines being pushed or driven around; the chatter of the men at work; and the din of the power-tools being used, tended to create a cauldron of noise somewhat similar to a minor but powerful thunderstorm. This finally drew the inquisitive female reporter's attention. After all, something going on was something newsworthy—maybe.
“What in hell's all this racket?” She turned to gaze into the interior of the vast roofed building. “What're they up to?”
“Shouldn't ask, if I were you.” Joe knew when to keep his nose clean. “Probably get us thrown in the local clink. Or sent to the Tower, for spying.”
“Huh, it's just a bunch of mechanics doin', er, mechanicy things.” Susan wasn't overawed by circumstances at the best of times; an outlook which had gotten her into hot water on a number of previous occasions. Now she took a step forward, as if ready to penetrate the secrets of the Pharaohs. “Wonder if—”
“Good morning, ma'am. Everything goin' t'yer satisfaction I hope. Please don't go any further into the Hangar—it's restricted, y'see.” Sergeant MacQaurie materialised by her side, apparently from nowhere. “All this War work must be allowed to continue uninterrupted, as it were. The ladies an' their Walrus shouldn't be much longer, I'm thinkin'. Are you goin' t'take photo's when they land? You can't take any o' the Hangars, or what's goin' on inside ‘em, y'know.”
Stopped in her tracks, Susan regarded the rather oily and dirty specimen of manhood standing four-square in front of her. It took only a few seconds to realise she was confronting an implacable force of nature. Sergeant MacQuarie wasn't tall and elegant; rather, he was shortish, broad-shouldered, and showed all the pertinacity of his Glasgow forbears. It was immediately apparent that when he said ‘They shall not pass', that is exactly what he meant.
“Oh, er, of course not, Sergeant.” She fell back on bravado; her regular back-up move. “Just wondering what these aircraft were. It all seems so busy here.”
“Everythin' in this Hangar is Most Secret, ma'am.” Sergeant MacQuarie loved to be officious, when the right occasion transpired. “I couldn't possibly tell you anythin' about military operations. An' I should be careful not t'ask such questions at all, ma'am. Delicate times we live in, y'know. I'm sure I couldn't possibly say if there were any aircraft in this ‘ere Hangar; an' if there were I shouldn't admit it t'you anyway, if y'get my drift.”
Faced with this brick wall Susan could only admit defeat and turn once more to the grey sky outside. Joe had set up his tripod pointing south, and was busy still making adjustments, bent behind the camera. Sergeant MacQuarie, apparently in an attempt to show willing, felt impelled to put his tuppence-worth in.
“Very nicely positioned, sir.” He allowed a slight accent of inquisitiveness to enter his words. “That'll fairly catch anythin' comin' in from the South, I'm sure. But tell me, sir, d'ye realise the ladies'll be returning from the North? Ye can tak' my word for it—I ken them weel. The North it'll be, nae doubt o't.”
With this parting stroke of unwanted information the Sergeant walked off back into the depths of the giant Hangar, leaving the young photographer swearing foully as he struggled with the legs of the heavy tripod, trying to re-position the camera. Susan merely stood by, laughing like a drain; which only caused Joe to swear at greater length, and get caught up in the flailing legs of the tripod.
“Hey Joe, is that an aircraft engine I can hear?” Susan stepped out from the protection of the Hangar door and looked into the sky towards the North. “It is. I can see the, er, plane. It's coming in just like Sergeant MacQuarie said it would. You ready?”
“Dammit—yes—dammit—yes, I got it—I can see the plane—right in the centre of the lens, thank God.” Joe bent behind the camera and reached for the switch. “Please God, let it be good.”
The Walrus hove into clear view, flying low and steady—heading right for the centre of the runway. The great thing about landing a Walrus on land was to keep the tail up at all costs. The main wheels were slung low to the airframe—the boat-like hull,—and any variation in landing angle could result in disaster, especially with a pusher-propeller, as this plane had. But Gabrielle was a skilled hand, keeping just the right amount of pressure on the flaps and ailerons. The plane swooped over the runway; Joe clicked his camera; the heavy-looking ungainly machine settled on the concrete and flashed past the spectators with a roar from the high Pegasus engine; then it was gliding to a halt, having accomplished a perfect landing.
“God, it's more of a brute than I gave it credit for being.” Susan grinned as Joe stood up from behind his camera. “How'd you do?”
“Perfect—I think.” The young man was already dismantling the tripod and taking off the camera. “Have to get this film developed as soon as possible. But we still have the photo-shoot to do yet. We can get a few shots of the ladies standing by the machine, when they bring it over to the Hangar, here. Bet they'll be delighted to be the centre of attention—these ATA girls are all like that y'know, Suse.”
“Ha!” Susan knew better, and was quite looking forward to Joe's re-education. “You ain't met them yet, of course. Don't worry, they'll love you!”
“Wha'dya mean—stare up into the sky with an intent expression?” Zena locked eyes with the nervous newspaperman. She was in no mood for inane instructions having just recently, in the last hour in fact, stopped Gabrielle from attempting to do a cartwheel in the Shagbat—an aeronautical manoeuvre the girl was apparently determined one day to accomplish successfully. “Stare at what? Why? D'ya take us for department store dummies? Listen brother, take some photos—as fast as ya like—an' then get the hell off'a my aerodrome, OK?”
Gabrielle stood by the left elbow of the raging Valkyrie—perfectly aware of the reason for her partner's lack of compassion; indeed feeling slightly guilty, but only slightly. Now she stepped forward to do her patented casting-oil-on-troubled-waters routine.
“Easy, lady. You know how much I hate the sight of blood.” She put a quieting hand on Zena's wrist—which seemed to have an instant effect,—then turned to the quaking youth. “We've both been looking over the old magazine photos of those other ladies. We sort'a don't think much of their poses, if you catch my meaning. Perhaps you'd better just make do with some ordinary shots. How about we stand beside the hull of the Shagbat here, an' you can fire off as many photos as you like?”
It was just over half an hour since the women pilots had returned, to find the waiting-committee of two. The Walrus had been towed into a neutral position on the concrete at the side of the Hangar, where no military equipment or other planes could be seen, and a short conversation had taken place about what Joe required. His rather naïve attempt at manly organisation had instantly fallen foul of Zena's acerbic dislike, with predictable results. Finally, with Gabrielle acting like a one-woman League of Nations, order was restored and the necessary pictures taken. Then they retired to a table inside the Hangar where some chairs, and a metal tea-pot with accompanying metal mugs, had been considerately produced by Sergeant MacQuarie. Here the actual interview was to take place.
“Er, Miss Parker, if I can start with you.” Susan had written a series of pithy, searching questions in her notebook; but was now having second thoughts about the relevancy of these. She didn't want her head bitten off by the irate New Zealand woman sitting on the opposite side of the table from her. “How do you find the difference between working in the ATA and your, er, pre-war career Miss Parker?”
“Call me Gabrielle.” She smiled sweetly, which only elicited a deeper frown on Zena's part. “I didn't really do anything before the War, I'm afraid. Pots of money in the family, y'see. So finding my pilot's licence would come in handy for the ATA I joined up—an' haven't looked back since.”
“Ah. So you must find it rather interesting flying all sorts of military aeroplanes around the country, from one aerodrome to another.” Susan found herself floundering at the first hurdle, to her intense annoyance, “Perhaps you could give our readers an insight into your day's flying? Where you pick up a plane; where you fly it to; how you find the unaccustomed military atmosphere and activity of the bases you fly into all over the country? That kind of thing.”
There was a long, finally embarrassing, pause.
“Perhaps I couldn't, Miss Taylor.” Gabrielle favoured the young reporter with a searching green eye, and a raised eyebrow. “That's all so secret I think even just referring to it off-hand is treason! Maybe you wan'na re-phrase the question? Like—Do I find doing my bit for the country in times of need, satisfying? My answer to which question would be ‘Yes'.”
Another pause ensued, while Susan tried not to open and shut her mouth soundlessly. This interviewing lark, she now realised, was harder than one at first supposed. She fell back on riffling through the pages of her notebook, in a professional manner. ‘If you can't flummox ‘em with questions. Pile on the flannel instead', as her revered editor had frequently told her, from his vast experience.
“I expect you both find it, er, exhilerating—to be able to match male pilots at their own game, so to speak?”
“No.” Gabrielle answered for the two interviewees, with a curl of the lips which showed her aversion to the attitude specified. “That's just silly. A child's way of lookin' at things. We're all in this together. There is a war on, y'know.”
“Ah, of course. Miss, er, Zena,—do you take turns piloting your aeroplanes?” Susan decided that safety was the best policy, for the moment. “Or do one of you act as permanent pilot?”
“Nah, we take turns.” Zena replied nonchalantly, but still with some reserve. “I'm the better pilot of course; but I let Gab take control every once in a while, just t'keep her hand in, y'know.”
“In your dreams, sister.” Gabrielle laughed at this stroke of egoism. “Don't believe her, Susan. I can fly rings round her, in any type of plane she cares to name. But we get along well enough, usually.”
This was something Zena couldn't let go. She straightened in her chair and gave her companion a wide relaxed grin, as her temper settled back towards normality.
“I can fly a Mosquito better than her.” The New Zealander then felt a little praise would not be out of place. “Gabs does fly a pretty mean Sunderland, I'll give her that.”
“Which you can't do, lady.” Gabrielle milked this point for all its worth. “She hasn't been passed on four-engined flying-boats yet, y'see Susan. Doesn't take the course for another coupl'a months. God, I pity your instructor.”
“Er, do you find it makes for a long day, Gabrielle?” Susan tried to bring the interview back on course. “How do the other women in your ATA group react to all this, er, unaccustomed work? Do you get along like a team—perhaps I should say, like a company brigade?”
The fact that neither Gabrielle or Zena had been in this situation for the past seven months or more rather hindered Gabrielle's answering this query. She finally fell back on a general answer.
“Oh, everyone finds their own way of getting through the day.” Gabrielle, if nothing else, could evade a difficult question like a poacher evading a troublesome gamekeeper. “We just tend to take it as it comes, y'know.”
“Ah, er, how do you find being stationed up here in Scapa Flow, er, Zena?”
“That's restricted information, lady.” Zena jumped on this mistake like a tiger on its prey. “Your story'll just be sayin' we're stationed somewhere in Northern Scotland. Anything more precise, an' you'll be experiencing the stone dungeons of the Tower of London quicker than you ever thought possible, lady.”
“Um, of course.” Susan floundered once more, trying to make a dignified escape. “The printed story will just say somewhere in Scotland of course, don't worry. So, er, when you safely deliver a plane to an aerodrome, for one of the active squadrons, I suppose that gives you a great thrill—to be helping the war effort in such an important way—and helping to make room for more male pilots to join the fighting squadrons? It must be a great satisfaction to you to know that your simple efforts, transporting planes between aerodromes, are so vital to the squadrons in question. I mean, bringing the men the machines in which they can face and fight the enemy? You must be delighted your efforts have such an, er, useful outcome?”
The only excuse for Susan actually asking such a question out loud, completely in opposition to all the tenets of her suffragette mother's opinions, was that Zena's blue eyes—gleaming with the icy calm, but also cold dangerous intensity, of an Antarctic glacier—had long since focussed on her, like a weasel staring at its rabbit prey, and Susan was beginning to feel the tension.
Neither woman answered and Susan quickly decided, metaphorically coming up for the third and last time as it were, that beating a hasty retreat was the better part of valour.
“Well ladies, You've been most informative.” She took a deep breath and dashed for safety, like Eclipse galloping for the winning line. “I'm sure I'll be able to make a respectable article from what you've both told me, along with Joe's photos. Well, I shouldn't keep you any longer. I'm sure I have everything that's needed. Thank you both so much.”
“Is it over, then?” Gabrielle raised her eyebrow at the young blonde woman. “That wasn't as much of a chore—I mean, it didn't take as long as I thought it might.”
“Oh, I covered everything necessary.” Susan shuffled her notepads together on the table-top. “Joe has all the photos he needs, and I'll work these notes up into a respectable report in no time. Look out for the next issue, in a fortnight's time. You'll both look great, believe me.”
“Well, so much for business.” Zena didn't try to hide the relief she felt. “So, ya both goin' back t'the Hotel now?”
“Yes, I'll work on my article for an hour or two, I think.” Susan rose to stand beside the two uniformed women. “It's been very pleasant speaking with you both.”
“Our pleasure.” Zena seemed to relax and brighten up markedly as they walked to the door of the still noisy Hangar. “Say, were ya goin' t'take a taxi back t'Kirkwall? Gab and I'd be glad t'give ya a run in our Tilly —our pick-up. No problem.”
“Why, er, that would be fine, thanks.” Susan smiled at the women. “By the way, I wonder if you'd both like to come to the Hotel later this evening? Just for a light dinner and another chat—not about anything military; just idle talk. Oh, God, no! I didn't mean that, either. We'll just, er, have an enjoyable evening, is what I mean. The magazine'll pick up the tab, so you won't be inconveniencing me at all.”
Zena looked at Gabrielle, who pondered for a moment in her usual attitude of deep thought—teeth digging into her lower lip. Then she nodded brightly at Zena in acceptance.
“OK, we'll both drive ya t'the Hotel now; then come back t'the camp t'doll ourselves up, an' meet ya again at the Hotel later.” Zena motioned with her hand off to the side of the Hangar. “Our truck's over here. Gab's driving, I'm afraid, so we'll have'ta take pot-luck about actually reaching the ol' hacienda.”
“Hey, watch it!”
“Do we really have to get changed into our No.1 togs for this binge?” Zena curled a lip at the thought of dressing up for the almost formal occasion. “Can't we just—”
They had barely re-entered the Nissen Hut after returning from their taxi jaunt to the Allingham Hotel in Kirkwall with Susan; and Zena was already engrossed in trying to come up with excuses which would pass muster with her better half.
“No we can't.” Gabrielle knew just how to take command in a situation of this nature. “What we're lookin' to do is make an impression. A good impression, Zena. That means those oil-stained rags you're cavorting about in at the present moment will need'ta be dumped, post-haste. Come on, hurry up! We only have about three-quarters of an hour. You sorted anything out, in the way of clothes, t'stun the girl from the Metropolis with?”
In answer the New Zealander walked to the far end of the hut, where her wardrobe, Standard Issue War Office WD Q17934 commissioned officers for the use of, stood looking grey, well-used, and slightly wobbly—the door didn't close properly either, what with all the items of clothing Zena had managed to crush into its confines. After a tussle with the contents, most of which appeared to be making a concerted break for freedom as she yanked open the door, she finally turned to her companion with the innocent joyful grin of a happy owner of really fine accoutrements as she held up for inspection the garments she had chosen to cover her nether and upper regions that evening.
“ Jees-suus! ” Gabrielle was astounded, shocked, and ever so slightly affronted. What was her co-worker thinking! “You are not going to wear those—those—those things in public. Jees-suus! ”
The jamboree that evening started precisely on time at seven sharp. Gabrielle had donned her best pair of slacks, in muted grey, for the occasion; set off by a blouse in pale blue cotton. Zena had, after considerable criticism from her companion, foregone her first choice of cherry-red jeans with a flowing green silk blouse of dubious transparency in favour of her least oil-stained slacks in light beige accompanied by Gabrielle's choice of soft yellow linen blouse. Altogether they had both managed to make themselves look quite respectable for the occasion.
Joe was present, wearing one of those curious suits which had made their appearance in tailor's shops just after the outbreak of hostilities and which went under the name of Utility clothes. Best not to talk about design or quality, just focus on the covering potential of the material used; in this case a woollen mixture of mainly medium-blue tone. All very well, in its way, though the trouser-legs tended to flap around the lower limbs like a Barrage Balloon deflating in a strong wind—but that was War for you!
Susan had elected to appear in a two-piece skirt and blouse dating from a couple of years before the War. The skirt had originally been calf-length, but she had heightened the hem considerably, to just below the knee. The material was a pleasing pale cream, scattered all over with flowers; the jacket was long-sleeved and waist-length in a greyish wool sporting a row of buttons down the front which she left open, revealing a blouse in light-blue silk—a present from her mother on her last birthday.
“It's just a small table, but there's space for us all.”
Susan, after greeting them in the hotel's lobby, had conducted them up to her suite where a table in the large living-room had been prepared by the staff. Various ingredients of the meal to come were set out on a trolley to one side, on small hot-plates; while a couple of wine bottles stood ready on the table itself.
“If you sit on this side, beside me, Miss Mathews, Miss Parker and Joe can take the opposite.” Susan waved everyone to their places and the feast began. “I'll act as setter-out. I know what everything is. So Miss Parker, do you like mashed creamed potato with turnip?”
“Lady, if it's food set it here on my plate—I'll eat it.” Gabrielle smiled happily at the group seated round her. “An' call us by our first names Susan, please. Otherwise Zena'll just keep glancin' behind her—thinkin' you're talking t'someone else!”
“Ha, Ha!” Susan laughed in her turn, then cast a gentle glance at her young photographer accomplice. “Joe here prefers the informal tone, too. He gets nervous when people start calling him Mr,—makes him think they've found out one of his many delinquent activities.”
“Hey, that ain't fair, Suse!”
There was, as it happened, very little conversation during the first part of the meal. Everyone, including Susan herself, was too engrossed in enjoying the first-class provisions provided by the hotel. In this year of nineteen forty-three, during the cold harsh depths of rationing, there was little real good quality food to be found on the tables of ordinary citizens anywhere. So a meal consisting of fresh potatoes, steak, all the vegetables anyone could reasonably hope for; and a dessert which was positively rampant in its unrestricted sybaritic excess, almost on a par with the ancient Roman Emperors themselves, was something not to be swallowed in a gulp—but to be eaten with dignity, delight, and a deliberation worthy the rare event.
It wasn't till some twenty minutes or more later, on reaching the delightful little glasses filled with exquisite liqueur, cigarettes provided from a box-like silver container proffered by Susan, along with a smaller one from which Joe ostentatiously selected a long thin cigar, which he then coughed and choked over for the rest of the evening; and a tray of exotic nuts, many of which the ladies agreed they had never encountered before, that they settled down to talk.
“This dam' War is a complete bust, if you ask me.” Susan pursed her lips and blew a smoke-ring in the air as she sat back on the long couch to which the three ladies had removed; while Joe sat in a deep leather armchair to one side, still battling his cigar. “Trying to be part of a small magazine in these straitened times is a dam' bore.”
“Well, it ain't much better in the Forces.” Gabrielle laughed gently, and selected another walnut from the plate at her elbow; she wasn't smoking. “But everyone else in uniform probably says the same, I'm sure. You been a reporter long?”
“Oh, about three years.” The blonde ruminated on her past history. “I originally started as a saleswoman in a big London department store a couple of years before the war. Talk about boring! But you certainly met all manner of men and women, I can tell you. Then, when war came I spent a few months in a shell-making factory somewhere in the North-East. I jumped at the chance to go there, after ‘Ladies Undergarments'. Just as well, I suppose; the whole store was bombed flat in the Blitz. Then, somehow, I found a position on ‘Standpoint' magazine. I originally made the tea and shuffled visitors into and out of the Editors' Office. They usually came out quicker than they went in, more often than not. George Halliday, the editor, doesn't suffer fools gladly.”
“How'd you make your way to writing articles, then?” Zena raised a quizzical eyebrow as she puffed comfortably on her Turkish cigarette. “Ya must'a had some hidden talent to catch his eye.”
“I don't know.” Susan shook her head ruefully. “I think it was just the exigencies of war. Several of the usual male staff were called up. Of the remainder one was killed in the Blitz; one became too ill to carry on—he was in his fifties, after all. That left a sort of vacuum. One day I found Geo—Mr Halliday, standing over my shoulder watching me type a letter—I acted as general bottle-washer and all-round factotum, y'know. Next thing I knew he had me employed on an article about women in local war-work for the next edition; and it just snowballed from there.”
Gabrielle finished crunching her walnut; looked uncertainly at the plate containing others; thought better of it, and put her coffee-cup to her lips instead.
“Pretty similar to what my life was like before the war.” She smiled at the memory. “Daddy was in rubber—really big in rubber; he owned several plantations in Borneo and places like that. We have a nice country-house and estate in Hampshire, and a coupl'a flats in the Smoke. I just sort'a fell into doin' nothing much at all. I have an allowance from the family Trust Fund that keeps a roof over my head.”
“How'd ya start flyin', Gab?” Zena made herself more comfortable on the couch, where she sat in the centre with Gabrielle on her left and Susan on her right; both women taking full advantage of the couch's arm-rests, to the New Zealander's chagrin. “Didn't ya tell me somethin' about that a few months ago?”
Gabrielle shrugged; a furrow crossing her brow as she tried to recall, then gave the task up. She leaned forward to refill her coffee-cup from the pot on the low table beside them, added two lumps of sugar and sipped ecstatically.
“May have done; can't remember.” She cocked an eye at her companion; realised she was expected to carry on a conversation; grimaced sweetly, though secretly, at the dark-haired pilot, and leaned forward to offer Susan a look of pleasant openness. “Well, to tell the truth what happened was quite unexpected. Just one of those curious coincidences of life, like what happened t'you, Susan. I was drivin' my Jaguar two-seater along a country road in Hampshire one fine mornin', in nineteen thirty-seven it must have been, an' I suddenly saw a coupl'a biplanes in a field taxi-ing around. I don't know what came over me, but two days later I was taking lessons in a Tiger Moth; and three months on I had my licence and a brand new Moth of my own. That's how it went.”
Zena laughed unexpectedly, making both women turn to regard her. Seeing this she gulped and became silent, though reddening slightly.
“I, er, was just thinkin'—isn't it amazing what small strange events we often owe the most important decisions of our lives to?” Zena considered the matter; inhaling her cigarette a couple of times, then placing it on the glass ashtray on the table. “I mean you, Susan, deciding to go into war work then the magazine. It's changed your whole life and career. Gabrielle here not having much of an idea what she wanted to do in her life, then learning t'fly—an' now she's contributing really importantly t'the war effort. An' me—”
Gabrielle was the first to break the short silence, reaching out to hold her friends arm in a soft grip.
“What about you, Zena?” Gabrielle spoke quietly, as if not wanting to break the spell of the moment. “What's your story of pre-war life?”
Zena had been idly tinkering with her empty coffee-cup, resting on her lap. Now she leant forward to place it on the table and sat back, with a quizzical glance at Gabrielle.
“Oh, I knocked about the place, y'know.” She didn't appear willing, in the present context, to open up her private nature to an audience—prepared as they were to listen or not. “I spent most of my time in New Zealand, then came over here just before hostilities broke out. On the outbreak of war it seemed a logical step to join the ATA; that's the story of my life, really. Bit boring, but there it is.”
There was a pause, as the women considered past times; then another fit of badly controlled coughing told them Joe was still determined to triumph over his cigar.
“God Joe, put that bloody thing out.” Gabrielle took the frontal attack. “You've obviously never smoked one of those things before, an' it looks as if this one'll win hands down. Put it out, for God's sake. It smells revolting, anyway.”
“I— aauurgh —thought, if Winston can smoke ‘em, so can I.” The young man finally gave up, depositing the remains of the offending article in the ashtray. “I think I was wrong.”
Zena laughed throatily, though without irony. She filled a cup with life-restoring coffee and passed it to the needy patient, who took a hearty gulp.
“So, what's the story of your life, young ‘un?” Zena smiled as she spoke, meaning to offer the youth an opening into the conversation. “What adventures did you get up to before the war? Were ya a pirate? Or a smuggler? Perhaps a gentleman detective, solving crimes the Yard had given up on, an' so earning their undying ingratitude? Let's hear your autobiography.”
“That'll be the day.” Joe heaved his thin shoulders in a shrug, nearly spilling his coffee on his trousers. “I'm only twenty; I ain't got a autobiography. I barely have a life as yet; an' it looks as if bloody Hitler's intent on making what I have got last as short a time as possible.”
“Well, you're not alone in that, Joe.” Susan laughed gently at the sorrowful expression of the young photographer. “We're all in that can. At least your occupation has been classed as ‘exempt from service'; so you shouldn't have to face the enemy in uniform at all.”
The youth; hardly more than a boy though he was, seemed depressed by this rather than elated.
“I'd be happier in uniform any day, thanks.” He shrugged again, looking round at his listeners. “A couple of years ago, in the Blitz, I lost my father. Mother died before the war. I don't have any sisters or brothers; but I did have several close friends. We used to swan around, like the young idiots we certainly were. Now two of them are dead, an' several others are in uniform serving in various parts of the country. Sometimes I feel I've been left out: not doin' my bit, y'know.”
Gabrielle sat forward and reached out to place her hand on his knee for a moment. Zena could see her friend's eye was glistening a little as she regarded the pale youth.
“Never think like that, Joe.” Gabrielle sat back and smiled encouragingly. “We're all doin' our bit. Some of us, like Zena and I, are in uniform; but others, like you Joe, an' Susan here, are working to defeat Hitler just as seriously and powerfully as anyone else. I mean, look at the article you're both putting together here. Those photos you took of us are goin' t'be spread all over the next issue of your magazine. It'll boost the confidence of the readers no end, I'm sure. It's the right kind of propaganda; the kind that reflects reality: and it'll help a lot, an' you'll be contributing that way. And I'm here to tell you it's worth it, whatever silly jokes Zena or I may make about bein' involved. So keep on doing just what you are; it's needed in these days, an' you're doin' the right thing.”
The time, as Zena at this point felt moved to announce, had fairly flown along; no pun intended. Gods, was it really nearly half-past eight? They'd need to rush if they were going to get back to camp before the gates were closed; a crime in military circles regarded as only slightly below that of treason.
“Goodbye Susan.” Gabrielle shook the blonde girl's hand as the group made for the suite's door. “It was a beautiful meal an' evening. I really enjoyed it. Thanks.”
“Yes, thanks a lot.” Joe bent to instil some sort of order into the creases of his trousers, but quickly gave up the impossible task. “Lovely meal; I'll remember it for months. I'd better get back to my own room now, though. I still have a bit to do about those photographs. Bye all.”
“It was very kind of ya, Susan.” The tall New Zealander grinned as she stood by the door. “We don't get many chances t'have a good time like this. Gabrielle an' I really appreciate your invitation. Have a quick an' comfortable journey back home.”
Two minutes later Gabrielle, with Zena close by her side, stepped out into the cool fresh air of the dark evening. Their pick-up sat on the tarmac of the hotel parking area, and Gabrielle hugged herself as they walked across to it.
“Gods, that was a fine evening.” She shivered a little as she glanced at her companion. “Susan was really nice. Good Grief, it's cold. Let's get into the Tilly as quick as we can. There's still three-quarters of an hour before we need t'be back at camp; plenty of time. You drive, I'm freezin'.”
“Anythin' t'oblige.” Zena opened the near door, and assisted her companion in with an outstretched hand. “There, is madam comfortable? Does modom require her fox stole, or will the ermine wrap be sufficient?”
“Ha, Ha.” Gabrielle, sitting in the close confines of the small pick-up was nonetheless quite happy. “You can't niggle me tonight, lady. That meal was delicious. I can still taste the steak. Gods, I suppose you realise we'll probably never have the chance to repeat this particular exercise for the duration of the war? Never mind, there's a warm comfy bed, Army-Issue deserving women pilots for the use of, waiting back at the ol' Nissen. Home, Zena,—an' don't spare the horses!”
It was quarter past one o'clock in the morning. Gabrielle knew this because she had lit her small torch, that she kept on the low table by her bedside for just such an event. She couldn't sleep for some reason, and had spent the last two hours turning and tossing. After what seemed like half the night she switched on her torch to find that indeed barely a couple of hours had passed, and the full length of the night still lay ahead.
“Oh, nothing.” Gabrielle turned on her side in the darkness to face the direction the voice had come from, across the Nissen Hut. “Sorry Zena, did I wake you?”
“Haven't got t'sleep yet.” Zena's voice sounded louder, now that she knew her friend was definitely awake and probably wanted to talk. “Lovely evening with Susan. Hope that meal hasn't given ya heartburn or indigestion, or somethin'?”
“Nah. I enjoyed it.” Gabrielle, instead, mused on her thoughts. “I was just thinking—well, about us, Zena.”
“Us? What d'ya mean?”
“Well, the sort'a theme we were all talkin' about earlier.” Gabrielle lay back, head on pillow, arranging her ideas carefully. Something had brought the topic to the front of her mind; and something else told her now, if ever, was the time to raise and pursue it. “Our lives before, an' now during, this war. Who we were; who we are. What we've both found now, being friends together. I mean, I'm really glad I met you Zena. I can't think I'd be in any better place if I hadn't, if you follow me.”
“That's really nice of ya.” There was a creaking as the New Zealander moved in her low bed, rolling over to lie facing her companion in the darkness. “You're the best friend I've ever had, that's for sure. I hope we can go on together long after this damned war is over. Be friends for ever, I mean.”
“You're sweet, Zena.”
“Well, I ain't never had anyone I could be so open with before.” Zena silently blew breath out between closed lips as she frowned in concentration. “I don't usually like to—you know, open up about these things,—but you are my friend, my true deep friend I love with all my heart. I just want ya to know that. Gods, it must be the darkness; I never talk like this.”
“Ha! Maybe it's the chakram, wrapped in its silk scarf back there in the wardrobe, influencing both of us.” Gabrielle considered this possibility for a moment. “Y'know, we still haven't gotten to the bottom of that—thing. About time we started investigating its origins more carefully, don't you think? By the way, I love you too, Zena. I mean, over and above just being friends. I love you, Zena—an' I'm not ashamed t'say it. Gods, I feel like a character from that book—y'know, ‘The Well of—”
“—Loneliness!” Zena's voice sounded fragile, almost trembling, in the silence of the dark night. “Yeah, I read it too. I always thought it was a great book. It sort'a spoke out about—feelings,—I've always had myself. I've never had a boyfriend or male lover, Gabrielle. Y'know, to have sex, or whatever, with. Never.”
There was a further silence, as both women considered this confession. It was finally broken by Gabrielle, talking with a conviction she had never assumed in any of their conversations in the past—but whose words now held as much determination and certainty as Zena had just shown.
“I've never had a long-standing relationship with a man, either.” Her voice sounded frail in the night air; as if appealing for a much desired, and long-sought, understanding. “I had a boyfriend years ago—but when he started getting fresh I nearly threw up. We broke up soon afterwards. Zena?”
“Yeah? You wan'na tell me somethin'? I love ya, Gab,—don't worry, I won't condemn ya for your past. Tell me—anything.”
“I had a, a—relationship, with another young woman; a real relationship y'know; the physical things an' all.” Gabrielle tightened her jaw resolutely as she went on with her confession in the dark night. “We were together for three years, up till five years ago; then we broke up. I thought I'd die at first, but I got over it in the end. I'm a lesbian, Zena. Does that shock you?”
There was a long silence. Such a long silence, in fact, that Gabrielle began to think she had truly shocked her friend—then, out of nowhere, a hand softly touched hers as she lay in bed. Gabrielle felt her fingers gently caressed by Zena's, still invisible, hand; then a firmer grip on her arm raised the blonde a little onto her elbow. A moment later soft lips touched Gabrielle's mouth in a gentle kiss which seemed to go on for an eternity, and taste of lilies of the valley and honey combined. Then the unseen lips parted from, and left, her aching mouth. For the slightest single fraction of a second Gabrielle considered what was happening—then she moved forward just a trifle; felt the warm body kneeling by her side; carried on leaning into the face of the woman beside her; and closed with warm lips the open mouth awaiting hers.
To be continued in the next story in the ‘ Mathews and Parker ' series.
Return to the Academy