Summary:— This is an Uberfic set in Great Britain in 1943. Zena Mathews and Gabrielle Parker, are both pilots and members of SOE—Special Operations Executive. They are on blackout detail on the Orkney Mainland, going round the outlying houses and farms. Then they sit in a deserted farm-house for a short time one night, reflecting on life; after which they attend a large entertainment party for the troops.
Warning:— There is a great deal of swearing in this story.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics, or whoever, own all copyrights to everything related to ‘ Xena: Warrior Princess ' and I have no rights to them.
This is the 9th 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
“Who's goin' to be appearing at this hootenanny, then?”
“Katie Channing and her Band; Tommy Trinder; and Conway and Bryce.” Zena thought for a moment, as they bumped along the narrow un-surfaced farm track. “Oh, and a girl dancing troupe called the Highsteppers.”
“How big's Katie's band?” Gabrielle was driving, but didn't let this stop her asking questions.
“ I don't know.” Zena grunted disdainfully. “Ouch! Watch what you're doin'. This ain't a main road, kiddo.”
They were, in fact, crawling rather slowly along a track leading off a side road somewhere in the interior of the Orkney Mainland. In this district the only inhabitants were a few isolated houses, cottages, and farms. These were spread lightly across the rolling landscape, and were difficult to access because of the awful state of most of the tracks leading to them. On a March night; with the blackout in full force; and their Austin Utility truck sporting blacked-out headlights, giving only the faintest of glimmers from their hooded and mostly painted-out glass, Gabrielle and Zena were having a hard time reaching the farm which was their destination. And when they finally made contact they knew the sort of reception they were going to receive.
Air Raid Precaution patrol was always the same. Meaning they toured the roads looking for slips and slants of light coming from people's windows, where the blackout curtains had not been satisfactorily closed. A seemingly minor, un-interesting occupation, till it was realised that the merest flicker of light in a dark landscape would show up like a beacon to a passing aircraft: and this was the location of Scapa Flow, after all. The authorities took the blackout deadly seriously in these parts; which explained Zena and Gabrielle being ordered to carry out their part in the operation on one night a week. Even Group Captain Graham, back in Somerset House in London where he oversaw the women's work for his Department of SOE—Special Operations Executive—could not wangle them out of this necessary aspect of military work. The time was 1.30am, and it was very dark indeed.
“Keep your shirt on, lady.” Gabrielle took a tighter grip on the steering-wheel. “I got it under control. I ain't responsible for all these damned pot-holes. OK so, I know Katie; we have some of her records back in the Nissen hut. An' I've seen Tommy in films. Bit of a wide boy, ain't he? But Conway and Bryce, who're they?”
“From what I could gather from Sergeant MacQuarie they're a crosstalk act.” Zena shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “God, this is the worst farm-track we've been on all night. I don't know about citing him for blackout violations; we should nick this farmer for crimes against humanity, going by the state of this track. Where was I?”
“He ain't really a farmer.” The blonde driver went off on a tangent of her own as she often did, to Zena's annoyance. “Up here in the Orkneys, an' the Hebrides, an' the Shetland's too, they're called crofters. An' their farms are actually crofts. Not a lot of people know that, Zena.”
“Not a lot of people want to know that, darling.” Zena could be snappy with the best when she was pis—not feeling her best.
“So, Conway and Bryce?” Gabrielle returned to her original question; she was nothing if not persistent; another trait which often got right up Zena's left nostri—made Zena crotchety on occasion. “You were goin' t'give me their life-history?”
“Hah! All I know is they stand on stage, throwing insults an' dubious jokes at each other for ten minutes, then go off to a storm of applause.” The dark-haired New Zealander wriggled around again. “God, I need more leg-room. Think I'll undo the bolts an' shift this seat back a few inches tomorrow. Grauurh! Gabs! My head hit the goddam roof then. Watch where you're goin'.”
“Watch where I'm going?” The driver snorted irritably, as she struggled with the wheel. “Hell! This truck handles like a goddam tank in a swamp. It's the road, Zena. It's made up of boulders, an' I can't see the dam thing anyway. These bloody blacked-out headlights give less light than a match. Damnation. I'm stopping. I think I might have gone off the track a'ways back. We may be in a field.”
And, indeed, Zena's driver was only too correct in her assumption. They had indeed lost contact with the winding lane and were now in the middle of a stony, boulder strewn, field. There was nothing to be done but for Gabrielle to turn the truck in a circle and head back the way they had come; hoping, the while, they could find the exit onto the road they had mistakenly left. Finally success crowned the blonde one's efforts, as they bounced back onto the track.
“Just luck, Gabs, just luck.” Zena could never pass up a really good ‘ I told you so ' moment. “Might have hit the fence, as well as not.”
“Oh, thanks for that ringing approval, dearest.” Gabrielle could deliver a snarky rejoinder with the best. “Now I can go on confidently in Life, an' face Destiny with a smile. Idiot.”
When they reached the farmhouse in question the time, as Gabrielle brought the truck to a halt on the gravelly track in front of the one-storey building, was 1.45am. Like many others of its kind it was roofed with heavy looking grey slates, the walls being mostly roughly hewn boulders whitewashed a dirty cream. The door was set in the centre of the long low building, with two square windows on either side. At one end of the house a stone-built chimneystack rose up above the roof, with a single chimney-pot. From the left-most window, through a wide crack in the dark curtain, a shaft of light blazoned forth like a searchlight. Everything else around was dark and silent.
“There ain't any dogs barking, Zena.” Gabrielle made this perceptive remark as they climbed out the truck to walk over to the door. “I thought every croft had at least three dogs each. Remember that animal a week ago, that nearly had my right leg for supper? Thanks, by the way.”
The dog referred to had been a cross between a wolf, White Fang, and an Irish wolfhound. Unrestrained by chain or rope, when Gabrielle had approached the farmhouse it had taken immediate offensive action. Rushing up to the slightly built blonde woman growling in fury, it had made the tactical error of pausing momentarily by her side to snarl viciously; obviously with the motive of showing its victim the extent of its long teeth before pouncing. A shot rang out and the animal jerked sideways to lie motionless on the rough ground. From twenty yards behind Gabrielle Zena had taken a crackshot with her .455 Webley Service revolver. That dog was dead. The enraged farmer coming out his house at that moment, obviously worked up to swearing foully at the young apparently defenceless girl before him, paused in shock himself on seeing the other clearly far more dangerous lady sporting a large smoking gun. The person to do the swearing, in the event, had been Zena. She had not held back, giving the large uncouth man the bollocking of his life. A citation; a couple of military police-officers; and a Sheriff Court summons had all resulted. There would certainly be a large fine for the farmer, in the offing. Job done.
“Hell, it wasn't anything.” As always, when congratulated on helping her friend, the dark-haired New Zealander became tongue-tied with embarrassment. “Nothing to it. Now, what about this fool? Look at that light. A Jerry bomber could see that ten miles away, like a searchlight. I'm gon'na enjoy waking this guy up.”
A hearty rap with her gloved hand on the ancient wood of the door brought no response. Another rat-a-tat again made no headway. Everything remained dark, silent, and unmoved.
“Here, give me a chance.” Gabrielle stepped up to the door.
She had provided herself with a long heavy spanner, her usual means of defence since the incident with the dog; though, like Zena, she also now carried a Service revolver in the holster at her waist while on duty. She raised the tool high and proceeded to give the door the pounding of its long life. The thunderous crashes echoed all round in the dark night, as she went on and on and on before stopping.
“Wonder if that had any effect?” Zena smiled in the darkness. “When ya do a thing, you really roll your sleeves up an' go to it don't ya.”
“Rosie the Riveter's my sister, didn't I tell you.” Gabrielle sniggered quietly.
Inside the croft they could finally hear sounds of activity. Thirty seconds later there came the grinding sound of a piece of wood being slid aside; the screeching of a badly oiled lock being turned; and the door opened, to a blast of high-flown invective of extraordinary descriptiveness; then the bulky man so revealed saw the uniforms, the waist-guns, and the mean looks in both women's eyes. He stopped swearing.
“What was that last phrase? I didn't quite catch it.” Zena spoke in her deepest, most threatening tone. “I am a bloody goddamned son-of-a —what did you just call me?”
“Er, er, nae offence, ma'am.” The sturdy solidly-built man was in his forties, wearing a pair of unlaced shockingly battered heavy boots; loose trousers of dubious age, a rumpled shirt not tucked into his nether garments; and a pair of red braces. His face was also decorated with something too long for stubble, but too short to be called a beard. This he began to scratch nervously, very nervously. “But whit d'ye expect a mon tae think, bein' wak'ed at this horrible hour o' the nicht.”
“I expect anyone to be respectful and polite. You great ape.” Gabrielle stepped in with her angle on the matter. After all, half of the man's charmless profanities had been aimed in her direction. “So we got you out'ta bed. So what? You deserve to be dragged from your ratty fleapit at any time o' the night. You are in deep shit, sunshine.”
“But, what did I dae?” The man surrendered all attempt to appear threatening; even he could see he was beat. The women wore RAF uniforms; and in these parts even he knew that meant serious business. “I hav'na done owt.”
“What's your name, friendo?”
Something in Zena's tone made the man blanch, and take a step back. He could not retreat into his house and slam the door though, because Gabrielle had slipped round behind him and now guarded that escape route; one hand resting nonchalantly on the butt of her holstered pistol. After one glance he got the message.
“Er, Sinclair—Hugh Sinclair. This is ma ain hoose.” He looked from one woman to the other, and licked his lips. “Whit—whit's wrang?”
“Come out here. Yes, just over here. See that?” Zena, using a now well-rehearsed routine, indicated where she wanted the man to stand. “Yeah, that's right. See that light?”
“Oh God, indeed.” Zena now got down to brass tacks, consulting a clip-board of documents she held in her left hand. “Charge one—breaking the blackout regulations by showing a light contrary to the Order. That'll mean a fine—a large fine. Charge two—using threatening and offensive language towards two members of the military. That'll mean another fine, a large fine. Sign there, here's a pen. And there. You'll be gettin' a visit from the boys in blue in the morning. Now, my partner and I will just wait here till you go back inside an' make sure that blackout curtain is closed properly. Go on. Oh, an' by the way, goodnight.”
They returned to the main road and were soon back on patrol. It was still only 2.15am, and the night continued dark. There was no Moon or stars because of the heavy overcast, though a strong breeze blew across the open fields. This part of the Mainland was bereft of almost any sign of human presence. Just low rolling hills or sloping ground, interspersed with a few small streams. No woods, or individual trees. Even the wire-fenced fields and enclosures had petered out; giving way to what was merely heath or moor.
“God, it's a good job someone had the idea of painting the boulders at the side of the road white.” Gabrielle was still struggling with the Austin Utility truck, trying to keep it on the all but invisible road. “If it wasn't for them every ten yards or so, I'd have no idea where the bloody road is.”
“Yeah, it helps.” Zena had been bending low in her seat, trying to study an open map by the light of a pencil torch. “Damn, map-reading in a bouncing truck is impossible. I think we're nearly at the old Seatter farm—croft—whatever.”
“The one we were told to check to see if it was bein' used unofficially?”
“Yeah.” Zena sat back and eased her shoulders. “Hell, it really is dark out there. The farm track should be appearing on our left in a hundred yards or so.”
Gabrielle slowed down, leaning forward to gaze intently through the windscreen. Finally two white-painted boulders on the left indicated the presence of a track and she grabbed the wheel to swing onto it. Without power steering this needed real physical effort. The small blonde slowed right down to a crawl and hauled the wheel round in an anti-clockwise direction with more than a few grunts; but finally the manoeuvre was completed satisfactorily.
“Heavens! Driving this thing is hard on the arms.” Gabrielle gasped dramatically. “Flying a Sunderland's easy by comparison.”
Eventually they made it up the slightly inclined track, coming out on a small level patch of ground on which stood another low single-storied croft. This one had a slate roof with a chimney-pot in the centre, and a single window on each side of the central door. It was whitewashed the same dirty weathered off-white as most of its compatriots, and showed no sign of life. The two women climbed out the truck and made their way to the door, Zena fiddling in her pocket as they approached.
“I got the key, Gabrielle.” She inserted the long iron key in the wide aperture for it, then gave a hard twist. “Nothing's happening. God, damn keys. Aaaarh! There we are. Talk about needing oiling.”
Inside they stepped immediately into a wide room, with doors at either side. Opposite the front entrance was a window obviously looking out on the rear of the premises. The floor was stone-flagged, while a few pieces of furniture were visible. A table; a couple of straight-backed chairs; and a tall dresser against one wall, with drawers in the lower portion and shelves on the upper open part. There was no sign of electric lighting.
“Come on, let's explore.” Gabrielle walked over to the door on her right and opened it. “Hey, this is the kitchen, Zena. A sink, a kitchen table, a storm-lantern, two buckets, two chairs, and a dresser with some cups and plates. There's an oil stove here, too.”
“I've found the master-bedroom, Gabs.” Zena had gone on her own expedition to the other room. “One rickety bed; no mattress; one chair; no other furniture. God, the place really is abandoned. Where'd they go, d'ya suppose?”
“It was two brothers, Zena.” Gabrielle came across to join her friend. “I read it in the report we saw back at Stromness HQ. John and Alec Seatter. They both went off for soldiers. One died at Dunkirk; the other at some sandy hole in Egypt. Result, one empty croft.”
“God. War, what's it good for?”
The women retraced their steps to the deserted kitchen, where they sat on the chairs by the table. It was Gabrielle who noticed the can sitting in a dark corner.
“Hey, Zena. That's oil for the stove.” The blonde one rose and darted over to claim her prize. “And there's a lot left. Hear it swishing around. I'm gon'na see if I can fire-up the stove. If you get the cups an' kettle from the truck we could have a brew-up and a sandwich. How's that sound?”
“Suits me, Gabs. We'll be off-duty in half an hour or so anyway.” Zena headed for the door. “Might as well have a break here, before we head home to the old Nissen hut. Won't be a mo'.”
Ten minutes found them again sitting comfortably round the kitchen table. The stove was giving forth a warm glow; the kettle had boiled nicely, they having brought water in from the large can they always kept in the truck; and their wrapped sandwiches were ready on the table-top. Zena poured the curious dark brew which passed for tea in Scapa Flow; the packets of tea-leaves provided under Army-Issue having a rather more than dubious history and character. Whatever the tea's origin was, it was certainly neither China nor India. Gabrielle suspected Kenya; while Zena put the finger on Uruguay, for reasons best known to herself. Anyway it was drinkable, just.
“ Gwaaugh! That's awful. Tastes like rust, mixed with sheep-droppings.” Gabrielle scowled, as she wiped her lips. She had a running competition with her partner to come up with ever more vulgar descriptions of the mixture every time they brewed up. “It's definitely gettin' worse. Can't we buy some new stuff from the NAAFI?”
“Even if we did, there's no tellin' its origins, either.” Zena gulped the brown liquid philosophically. “I don't know, though. Tastes like Jamaica rum, with a touch of engine-oil, an' a soupçon of malt vinegar to me. At least it washes the sandwiches down. An' while we're on the subject, girlie, how come it's always my brews that get a kickin' from you? You ain't so hot at makin' tea yourself, I can tell ya.”
“Nonsense.” The blonde was not to be defeated by such a paltry suggestion. “It tastes just the same even when I make it. Which goes to show it's the quality, not the brewing, that's at fault. An' by the way kindly desist from calling me girlie ! I ain't a pin-up in a magazine.”
“Never thought you were, Gabs.” Zena instantly realised her mistake but, of course, it was now far too late for anything except snivelling compliment. “Not that ya wouldn't look good in a mag—I mean, you'd outshine any of the other floozies—oh, God, I mean—”
“Give it up Zena, you're knee-deep an' sinkin' fast.” Gabrielle giggled over her tin mug. “Any last words, or shall I just write in your obituary that you gave your life for my honour like a true New Zealander?”
“Your honour, Gabs?” Zena imbued these words with a wealth of astonishment, as if describing a mythical concept unknown to modern science. “Where did ya last see that?”
Gabrielle had been engrossed, while this badinage was being tossed back and forth, in chewing part of her second beef sandwich. Like most British beef sandwiches of the times, this one lacked that certain oomph that makes the best beef sandwiches such a delight to discerning taste-buds. To be truthful, it was rather more gristle than beef. Showing all the delicate comportment of a young gal fresh from her Finishing School in Switzerland, Gabrielle pulled a fragment of this free from her front teeth and threw it unerringly across at her seated friend. It hit the tall dark-haired woman squarely on the chest, where it stuck to one of her shirt buttons.
“ Aagh! That's so nasty, Gabs. Ugh. ”
“You deserved it. Now, to business.” Gabrielle merely made a rude noise and settled more comfortably on her hard chair. “First, this place is empty an' hasn't been used for ulterior purposes in months, if ever. Write that down in your report there, Zena.”
“Yeah, yeah. Lem'me finish my sannie will ya. It can wait till we get back to Stromness.” Zena obviously felt that eat first, write later, was the order of the day.
“Secondly,” Gabrielle continued remorselessly. “That idiot Sinclair. We'll have t'fill in the usual forms back at HQ. Don't forget, like you did last time. Remember Peter Scarth, a month ago, got off Scot-free ‘cause you didn't fill in the documents properly. Ha-Ha! Scot-free, in every possible way.”
“Darling, let's not rake up old mistakes.” Zena groaned in despair at the memory. “How was I to know these damned Scots solicitors are all related to Machiavelli? He grilled me so hard that finally if he'd suggested my name was Bessie Buchanan, an' I worked as an usherette at Green's Playhouse, I'd have agreed with him.”
“Huh! More fool you.” Gabrielle could be hard on occasion. “Thirdly, tomorrow evening's the concert, don't forget. Hangar 3's been tarted up to the eyeballs with streamers and balloons an' whatnot. They've built a sort'a stage, an' everyone's goin' t'have fun dancin', an' whatever. So Zena, you dancin'?”
“You wan'na swing with me?”
“God yeah! I mean, of course I'll dance with you. Seven o'clock be fine?”
“That'll be great.” Gabrielle was grinning broadly by this time. “Don't be late, mind you. Heavens, the time it used'ta take my last girlfriend to put her make-up on; you'd a'thought she was painting a battleship.”
“Ha! Ya never had a girl friend before, Gabs.”
“How'd you know?” Gabrielle laughed gently, reaching across the table to grasp Zena's outstretched hand. “I might have my secrets.”
A peaceful silence reigned for a few minutes, while they both relaxed on their chairs. The room was cosy now; the beef sandwiches hadn't really been all that bad; and the tea had warmed them wonderfully. Then Gabrielle quickly sat up, in a listening posture, before glancing over at her companion.
“I hear engines. Aero engines.”
Instantly Zena was alert. She jumped to her feet and crossed to the window, where she peeped round a corner of the thick blackout curtain.
“Yeah. I hear ‘em now, too.” She took a step aside as Gabrielle joined her. “Here, hold the edge of the curtain tight. Don't let it open too much.”
Another minute went by as the women listened intently. The question being, of course, friend of foe!
“They ain't Dorniers.” Gabrielle turned to the tall woman beside her, with a raised eyebrow. “What d'ya think?”
“Nor Ju88's. Messerschmitt 110's, maybe?”
“Nah. Too low-pitched. They sound heavy. Real heavy. Maybe Lancasters.”
“When was the last time you saw a Lancaster up here in Scapa, Gabs?” Zena snorted, as she shook her head. “There's something about the tempo. I've heard it before somewhere.”
“God, they're B-17's, Zena! Flying Fortresses!” Gabrielle shook her red/gold hair and gave a nod of certainty. “We heard them at Kirkness airfield three weeks ago, remember?”
“Damn, you're right, girl. They're American!” Zena leaned close to her friend as they both put their heads nearer to the glass of the window, straining to catch the slightest variation in the engine notes vibrating through the dark night sky.
“How many, d'you think, Zena?”
“Four, maybe—” Zena paused to listen again. “—maybe six. Which direction are they comin' in from?”
“North-West.” It was Gabrielle's turn to identify the rising and falling notes of the engines, now appreciably closer. “Yep. They must be coming in from Iceland. You know what this means, Zena?”
“What?” The New Zealander could be sarcastic when she chose. Now was one of those moments. Like Gabrielle, she had already experienced the confident young American Air Force men who were in residence on Orkney. “We'll have to listen to more of their tales about how wonderful their K-rations are? And how their canteens are like the Ritz, compared to our NAAFI?”
“Nah.” Gabrielle laughed contentedly. “It means more WAAC's. They'll have a platoon of them coming over as passengers, for sure. We'll have to try to understand their accents; try not to go green with envy when they boast about their silk stockings; an' the other British girls here, ATS, WAAF's, an' WREN's, will all be as jealous as hell. Especially when the Yank girls start stealing their boyfriends.”
“What about those WAAC's who start stealin' a gal's girlfriend?” Zena stood back from the window as the sound of the approaching bombers rumbled closer, then roared overhead. “If any o' those Yank floozies makes a play at you, Gabs, I'd just have t'tell ‘em you're already spoken for.”
“Ah, that's the nicest thing anyone's said to me in—in years.” Gabrielle turned a trusting happy face to her friend. “I love you too, girl; for all your bad habits. Come on, let's have a last cup of tea.”
Zena took up the gist of this interesting topic as they re-filled their mugs and pulled their chairs up to the table again.
“Bad habits, Gabs?” Zena imbued her voice with a pained questioning tone; and raised her eyebrows high for good effect. “ I ain't got no bad habits, as you well know.”
“Always the first at the ladies shower block of a morning, to collar all the hot water!” Gabrielle started noting each point on her fingertips. “Never up in the morning to stoke the stove. Always loses at least one of her socks, and has to have my help t'find it again. Eats like a starvin' horse, with manners like a drunken longshoreman —”
“Hey, that's libel—or slander—or sacrilege—or somethin'!”
“—always wants to be navigator when we fly, even though we both know you couldn't find your way out of a paper bag on a sunny day. —”
“That's just plain mean.” Zena pursed her lips, like a little girl in a sulk.
“—always snores like a buffalo every night. No, don't deny it.” Gabrielle was warning up now; a broad grin spreading over her lips as she continued unremittingly. “Wears her cap at such a jaunty angle, she's been reprimanded three times. Has forgotten to salute officers so many times the Accounts Office has issued you with a third Disciplinary Card—a record for the entire Royal Air Force, apparently. Sergeant MacQuarie, as you well know, has now opened a book on just how many times you can pull off this particular item of insolent behaviour, without being sent to the glasshouse. —”
“Huh!, Bastards!” The dark-haired proto-Valkyrie tossed her black hair resentfully. “Half of those officers have no real idea they're not still at Eton, or still at dear Mamma's country-house, being nasty to the servants. What'll they do when they all go home after the war, an' find there aren't any servants anymore? They'll all have gone into factories, at triple the wages they ever got as a scullery-maid!”
“Don't be communistic, please. It doesn't suit you.” Gabrielle proceeded undaunted. She was, after all, enjoying herself. “Always complains, I'm talkin' about your bad habits again, about the quality of the food; but never gets stuck in with flour an' margarine to show us what she's made off as a cook. An' finally, declines to, ahem, change her laundry until the dogs in the street come up to sniff, an' then run away whining! That's all!”
There was a short pause while the party of the first part, with black hair, ruminated on what the party of the second part, with red/gold locks, had determined to be her most salient personal features. Then she responded to the charges with quiet dignity.
“No. Maybe. I don't. Nonsense. Rubbish. That ain't true, an' you know it. There's worse than me. I'll eat anything on my plate, as well you know. An' that sarky remark about my laundry is just vulgar. So there, madam!”
“D'you have a boyfriend?” Gabrielle was sitting at the table in the croft's kitchen, running a finger round the rim of her tin mug. “I mean, did you have a boyfriend before—before you joined the ATA?”
The silence in the room seemed to intensify, as the single storm-lantern cast flickering shadows into the corners. The blackout curtains were firmly closed over the one window; so the women sat in their own small private domain. Zena gave a sort of shrug and pursed her lips, glancing at her companion while she considered the import of her question.
“I sort'a—I've had a kind'a peripatetic life.” She sighed nervously, and looked at the low raftered ceiling. “To tell ya the truth, Gabs, I never really got into the way of having a—boyfriend. I was always too busy to, er, go down that path. What about yourself? Some guy out there waitin' for your next billet-doux?”
“Nah. Who'd have me.” Gabrielle avoided the question light-heartedly. “Looks like we'll just have to stick together tomorrow evening, then. How's your waltzin' these days?”
“Ha! Nobody waltzes nowadays.” Zena grinned, as she leaned back comfortably. “It's all the Jitterbug, Jive, an' the Lindy-hop, or just Swing. Can you Jitterbug, Gab?”
“I'll have you know I was the best Jitter-bugger in East Lothian, Zena.” Gabrielle raised her nose in the air in disdain at the question. “I was simply supreme. So you better be on your toes tomorrow, girl. I could throw you all over the dance-floor if I wanted.”
“Ha! Ha! That'll be the day.” Zena rose and started picking up their white-enamelled mugs and plates. “Come on. Time we were making tracks for Stromness. I got'ta get my beauty sleep before the dancin' starts tomo—later on this evening.”
“Beauty sleep, eh?” Gabrielle skipped smugly at her friend's side, after they had doused the stove and storm lantern. “That'll be five minutes for me; an' five hours for you, then? Ouch! That hurt.”
There were several little jobs to be done with the ‘ Tilly ' truck that evening, to ready it for the important business of transporting the two ladies to Hangar 3 and the coming festivities. The canvas awning that covered and roofed-in the rear of the small truck needed to be tied down with long cords wrapped round metal pins on the side of the truck and near the edge of the cab door. These latter were the most difficult, because the ends of the cord or thin rope tended to get caught up in the door as it opened or shut. Zena finished tying-off the rope on the near-side of the truck; it was, she reflected, just like wrapping a clothes-line round a pole. After making sure the loose end didn't hamper the cab door she wiped her oily hands on a rag and walked over to the Nissen hut. Inside she found Gabrielle already far advanced in her own preparations for the coming dance/entertainment show.
“Come on, Gabs. We only have a coupl'a hours till— Wow !”
Gabrielle had thought long and hard about her appearance. The result consisted of a blue silk blouse with short ruffled sleeves; a two inch wide brown leather belt with a square silver buckle; and a pale cream slightly flounced cotton skirt which came to just above her knees. She also wore a pair of flat bright red buckled shoes. From somewhere, who knows where, she had produced and donned a pair of real silk stockings with a slightly golden sheen, which set-off her legs perfectly. Her golden/red hair hung in flowing waves to her shoulders; thus explaining the rows of curlers she had worn all that afternoon. She had also obviously spent the half hour to advantage while Zena was tinkering with the ‘ Tilly ' in completing her make-up. She had done something subtle with her eye-lids, shadowing them with a light-blue tone which perfectly set-off her green eyes. Her lips were exactly the right shade of pale red; her finger-nails reflecting a slightly darker hue of the same colour. She looked divine.
“Stop sayin' ‘ Wow!' ” Gabrielle laughed as she gave a half-twirl in front of her friend. “What d'ya think, then? Any chance I'll knock the guys an' dolls for six, eh?”
“Well, you've knocked me for six, that's what matters.” Zena stood transfixed at the simple beauty of the girl in front of her. “Gods, ya brush up well, Gabs.”
“Thanks a lot.” Gabrielle laughed again, then raised her eyebrows at her companion's attire. “So, are you meanin' t'go to the dance in oil-stained fatigues, an' muddy boots? It'll certainly be a new fashion, but I don't think it'll catch on, somehow. Where's your party frock?”
“Hell, I ain't swannin' around in no frock.” The regal dark-haired one sniffed haughtily; then back-tracked hastily. “Not that you don't look great—just great. But I don't suit them draperies.”
“Oh, that's sad.” Gabrielle actually looked anything but sad. In fact it was obvious she was having trouble not laughing at her friend's plight. “So, what you're really sayin' is ‘ Paquin ' couldn't outfit you? An' the ‘ House of Redfern ' were beaten, too? Ah well. So, what's your choice then?”
While this idle conversation had been going its merry way Zena strode around the Nissen hut, sorting herself out. A canvas tool-bag she had brought in, dirty and oily, was dumped unceremoniously in a corner. The flat peaked cap she generally wore was thrown in the direction of her bed; but, as usual, missed and skidded out of sight under it. She then ran both hands through her long hair; pulled it back, to raise her head ceiling-wards; gave a long tired groan, and sneered at Gabrielle's last remark.
“ I am goin' to the bath-house; to get me a nice private cubicle an' soak for half an hour in a really hot bath.” The promise of this future luxury brought a smile of pleasure to her lips, as she started tugging at the buttons on her overall. “Then I mean to change into a fresh cotton shirt an' slacks, along with the pair of low brown shoes I bought in Kirkness last week. An' that, dear girl, will be that!”
“Playin' safe eh? Wise move.” Gabrielle nodded as she picked up a small round cardboard container of rouge powder, and considered its possibilities. “It'll give you that mysterious Latin look. Sort'a flamboyant, yet still masculine.”
“Masculine, Gabs? Is that a compliment? Don't sound like it.”
“Masculine—like Marlene Dietrich in top hat an' tails.” Gabriele glanced at her friend. “What film was it—‘ Morocco ', that's it. Remember, ENSA showed it to the boys and girls in Hangar 2 three months ago. They liked it.”
“What they liked, darling, was Marlene kissing that other woman at the nightclub table.” Zena raised her eyebrows in a semi-censorious expression. “Hot stuff! The boys loved it.”
There was a short silence while both women ran over the famous scene again in their minds. Hot it had definitely been; unexpected and sexy; and regaled by the massed ranks of the uniformed audience with loud cheers and several rude remarks. Suddenly the silence had lengthened and taken on a mutually embarrassing atmosphere. Gabrielle broke the spell, in a rather nervous high-pitched voice.
“ Aaa —I mean, are you goin' for that bath or not. Times a'wastin'.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” The relief in Zena's tone was equally strong. “Say, where's that packet with the bar of magnolia-scented soap. Remember? It came in the last bundle I got from my folks back home?”
“In the tall cupboard at the back of the hut.” Gabrielle winced slightly, as she returned her attention to the circular container of rouge powder in her hand. “That soap's so strong the whiff was taking over the whole hut. I had to corral it in the dark. Another day an' it would'a started blocking out the light. God, they don't do things by half in New Zealand, do they? Say, Zena,—red cheeks or not? Just a little of this powder, to bring up the contrast on my cheek-bones, y'know. What d'ya say?”
“I say if ya wan'na look like a destroyer that's just been Dazzle-painted, go ahead.” The tall dark-haired lady paused in her preparations to give Gabrielle a steady look. “You're fine, gal. Ya don't need to impress me . I was impressed the first day I met you, back in Lincolnshire. Now, where in hell's that fluffy pink towel? You ain't been using it as a blanket, have ya?”
“ Sheesh ! I sometimes wonder if I ever want t'meet your folks.” Gabrielle shook her head in despair, as she crossed to a low bureau and opened one of the drawers. “I shudder to think how they live. Here,—here's the towel. An' don't forget to drape it over the end-rail of your bed when you're finished with it. The last time you simply threw your wet towel into the corner where the equipment boxes are. Remember that funny rancid smell we couldn't figure out—till we found your towel quietly going green, an' adding to the world stock of penicillin fungus for that nice Professor Fleming?”
“Complaints. Complaints. Nothin' but complaints.” Zena shook her head, long black locks swinging round her neck. “Is this what our married life'll be like, after the first beautiful unforgettable six months?”
“OK. OK. I'm goin'. Look, I've gone.”
And the door of the Nissen hut creaked slowly-to behind her retreating back.
There was a crowd of mixed ranks and personnel milling round the front of Hangar 3 when Zena, acting as Gabrielle's chauffeur, drove up in their Austin ‘ Tilly ' and parked off to one side. Amongst the many male privates, corporals, sergeants, and officers of every known rank up to Colonel, there were also a myriad of female uniforms on view. These consisted of WRENs (Navy), ATS (Army), and WAAFs (Air Force); all mixing randomly and democratically in the crowd. There were even a few members of the WAAC's, fresh from America via a flight of bombers a month previously. They stood out in their khaki uniforms, with lapel badges in gold showing the head of Pallas Athene. Not to mention their hairstyles and make-up, which were decidedly non-British. Everybody seemed determined to have a good time, as they thronged the now-opening hangar door.
Inside all was brightly-lit and covered with colourful decorations. Most of the equipment and aircraft had been transferred to other hangars; leaving only a solitary Lysander at the rear of the huge interior, and a small Avro Anson placed sideways just inside the hangar. Otherwise the concrete floor, though stained and oily, was left free to host the crowd and a multitude of tables and chairs. Near the Lysander a temporary stage had been built, some four feet above the main floor. There was space on this for a band and, in front, an open area for the acts. The tables were placed round the edges of the hangar, so leaving the centre more or less clear for dancing.
The crowd surged in and a free-for-all happy atmosphere quickly developed; encouraged by the appearance of Katie Channing and her band on the stage. There were some fifteen members, their saxophones and cornets shining in the electric lights strung rather precariously from the hangar roof. They immediately went into a slow Swing number and the dance-floor soon filled up with eager couples.
Zena had grabbed a table near the left-hand wall of the hangar, where she and Gabrielle placed their jackets and bags as signs of occupation. Then they too walked out on the dance-floor. As there were so many women present, with a relatively smaller number of male personnel, there were already many female couples dancing together; this being the normal routine in these circumstances, so Zena and Gabrielle didn't stand out in any way from those around them.
“My, I can see you've done this before.” Gabrielle smiled as Zena guided her round the floor, adeptly avoiding contact with the other dancers. “Nice light music. Sounds good. You have a gentle touch, y'know. I could get to like dancin' with you, Zena.”
“Hell, don't be so sure.” Zena was embarrassed by this show of naive faith, but bravely soldiered on. “Wait'll I start steppin' on your feet. By the time this shindig's over I'll probably have to carry you back to the ‘ Tilly ', your feet'll be so sore.”
“I don't think so, Zena.” Gabrielle glanced around at the other dancers. “Hey. There's one of those Yank WAAC's. D'you think she's rather overdone the make-up a little?”
“Don't let ‘em hear you call them Yanks, Gabs.” Zena made a censorious face at her friend, as they circled round. “They'll probably take against it. We don't wan'na start a fight; at least not this early.”
“There won't be any fighting at all, gal.” Gabrielle made her feelings on this subject clear. “Come on. Let's speed up a little. Katie blows that sax real good, don't she?”
With Zena leading they sailed across the vast width of the hangar floor, expertly avoiding contact with the other dancers as they moved. The music was smooth; the couples around them happy and full of laughter; and the overall atmosphere was one of jollity mixed with a firm determination to have a good time. Katie kept her band going well, giving her audience a two-tune warm-up that had everybody swirling around in delightful close harmony. Then, with a clash of cymbals, the first dance-time came to an end and the smiling couples returned to their tables. The first act was going to be Tommy Trinder, their host for the evening.
“Tommy Trinder's the name, folks! It's on the bills outside, folks! I've just been down at the NAAFI, havin' my early supper. Well, it helps my digestion for when I have my late supper. I like my meals, I do! Breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, early supper, late supper, something to take to bed with me. No, missus—a cheese sandwich an' a cup o'cocoa. What? Yer up for something better than that? Well I never!—”
“You dance great, Zena. Whew! ” Gabrielle blew a breath of exhaustion as they sat down. “We better go slower on the next dance, or I'll be fit for nothing by the time the evening ends.”
“Ya ain't no slouch yourself, gal.” Zena grinned across the table at her friend. “I've danced with worse, much worse. Ha! Did'ya hear what Tommy just said? How does he get away with that?”
“He's a wide boy. That's his style.” Gabrielle smiled too, taking a sip of her glass of orange; the base being dry, of course. “They let these acts get away with pretty much anything these days, especially when they're entertaining the troops.”
“— Yes, you got to keep your strength up these days, folks. At least the NAAFI's better than my landlady down in Brighton. Pig's trotters, masquerading as mutton. Well, it's the War, she says. How come the War's been goin' on ‘ere since 1932, eh?, I asks her. Mind yer lip, says she. Yes, Monday-pig's trotters; Tuesday-pig's trotters sautéed; Wednesday-pig's trotters pureed; Thursday-pig's trotters rissoles; Friday-steak an' creamed potatoes with buttered Brussels sprouts, followed by chocolate pudding. Ha! Caught you there, folks! Bet yer thought it'd be pig's trotters agin? Well, it was! I never knew a sheep could ‘ave so many feet, did yer ? —”
Their table sat on the edge of the crowded spectators, so Zena and Gabrielle had an uninterrupted view of the stage and the rest of the audience as they laughed loudly at their host's jokes.
“Everyone seems to like him.” Zena glanced about her, at the nearby tables. “He's really goin' down well. Can't say he hits my spot though, much.”
“God Zena, relax.” Gabrielle put her hand on her friend's wrist with a smile. “It's Tommy! He's the best comic on the radio or stage these days. Mind you, he probably doesn't come over all that well in the Antipodes. London's his marching ground.”
“Yeah, well he can march right back there, as soon as he likes.” Zena sniffed haughtily. “An' another thing, young lady, it's ‘ An-tipodi-zz ', not ‘ Anti-Podes '. What a ridiculous thing to say!”
“Lighten up, madam, or I'll refill your orange juice glass again. You must have drunk about a litre of the stuff so far. Hey, listen, he's tellin' another joke. God, I love him.”
“—that's why I like the NAAFI so much, folks. They never let bygones be rissoles! So folks, this is Scapa Flow? That's funny, 'cause I only took a threepenny ticket from Charing Cross to Baker Street. Ain't it strange what can happen in the blackout? Chilly up ‘ere in'nit? Go on, yer can laugh yer know. There ain't any redcap rules agin' laughin' tonight. Oh go on, just one! Anyway's, I shall now regale the establishment with a quick burst of ‘ Champagne Charlie '. I know yer all knows the lyrics—the words, madam—so sing along with me an' Katie Channing. Oh, you lucky people!
Champagne Charlie is my name
Some people go for funny drinks and down 'em by the pail
Like coffee, cocoa, tea and milk and even Adam's ale
For my part they can keep the lot I never would complain
I wouldn't touch the bloomin' stuff, I only drink champagne. For,
Champagne Charlie is my name
Thank you! Thank you! Not too loud, now, I'm comin' back ter annoy—er, entertain yer, again this evenin'. I've got a contract to do it, yer know. Well, actually there's a coupl'a redcaps standin' by the door to stop me escapin', that's what it is folks. Meanwhile Katie an' her beautiful girls are gon'na jazz up the place once more. So get up on yer hoofs an' get out on the floor an' let's see yer all swing, like lights on a bloomin' Christmas trolley bus!”
“Looks like the rest of the gang are goin' t'have a good time tonight.” Zena glanced around the hangar, the air now beginning to cloud gently with coils of cigarette smoke as everyone settled in. “Oh listen, Tommy's gone off. It's dancing again. Feel like another whirl, gal?”
“Sure, let's go.” Gabrielle laughed happily as they made their way back onto the concrete-floored arena. “We'll show ‘em a thing or three!”
Katie and her band of all-female instrumentalists had now warmed up, so the next couple of numbers were full of verve and energy; just right for guiding the dancers in a quicker tempo. The atmosphere was happy and relaxed, with everyone making the most of the entertainment. Cigarette smoke made a kind of bluish-grey haze over the circling couples, throughout the whole hangar; lots of high-spirited chat and laughter filled the air; Katie's music trembled in the ears of the dancers like magic; and an almost palpable nuance of romance began to filter around everything the hundreds of dancers said and thought.
“Ain't this just wonderful, Zena?” Gabrielle moved her head from side to side as they mingled with the crowd; slipping quietly between other couples with smooth efficiency. “God, I wish this could go on forever.”
“Me too, gal. Me too.”
A trumpet piped up with its sweet bell-like tone, and the dancers took the hint and speeded up once more; girls laughing and crying out here and there as they lost their footing or bumped into someone. All the couples seemed to be infected with a renewed vigour as men and women, and women and women, glided over the floor in tightly entwined embraces. Zena led Gabrielle effortlessly through this throng of joyful couples, making sure her partner never came to harm amongst the whirling mass. Then, once more the music paused as the giggling dancers returned to their tables for a well-earned rest.
“ Wowee! I need a break. God, that was wonderful.” Gabrielle took a swig of her orange juice, and re-filled her glass from the large jug on the table. “Here Zena, y'need t'wet your whistle after that. Lem'me fill your glass.”
Just as Zena was about to reply a tall broad-shouldered British Army Lieutenant appeared by their side, wearing a wide self-assured grin. He bowed to the ladies and went into his spiel with all the grace of a well-rehearsed routine.
“Hey ladies, you're lookin' lonely by yourselves. What say I take pity on one of you, an' sweep you round the dance-floor for a while.” He grinned even more broadly at Gabrielle, as he held his hand out to her. “Come on, blondie. Let's swing, eh!”
Gabrielle made no move but instead, with easy composure, gazed from the man's brown-booted feet up his uniformed legs to the regulation jacket and cap adorning his brilliantined brown hair; which seemed to glow, in the electric lights, with reflections like rippling water. The blonde-haired one didn't reply instantly, but let her gaze linger on the man's face appraisingly.
“Say buster, those feet of yours look like a pair of tank tracks. You got permission to take ‘em out the motor compound?” But this was just preliminary banter. Now Gabrielle warmed to her task with ill-concealed relish. “An' what's with the hair? Y'look like you washed it with pig fat or something. An' that moustache looks like a worm that missed its way. If you're going t'grow a moustache, grow a real one; don't let a weevil sit on your upper lip instead. Me an' my partner here are fine, thanks. Cheerio!”
The man raised surprised eyebrows; probably this being one of his few defeats in the trysting-grounds of Love. But he took it with true British aplomb. The man behind the moustache heaved a sigh; the tank-substitute boots picked themselves up and started moving backwards; the too-well-dressed hair slipped into the far distance; and the moustache disappeared among the crowd of dancers once more thronging the floor, a chastened and disappointed moustache; then the man was gone.
“Gabrielle, ya got a sharp tongue.” Zena shook her head, impressed. “That was some ‘ get lost ' line. Don't ya ever show mercy? Ya killed the poor guy.”
“He'll survive.” Gabrielle sniffed condescendingly. “Right now, as we speak, there's probably some peroxided floozy jumping into his arms on the other side of the hangar. Hmf! Say are you dancing, or just going to sit there and absorb more orange juice till you turn yellow? Only asking.”
“Come on.” Zena could take a hint with the best. “Get those plates of meat moving, girl, I'm goin' to swing ya round this arena like a Parisian Apache dancer sayin' hello to his gal. Get ready to rock, sister. You ain't never experienced what's goin' t'happen to you right now. Don't worry, I'll let your feet touch the ground once in a while, if I feel like it!”
“Ha! You can say that, gal, but can ya do it? Show me!”
And the two women went out onto the dance-floor again, where Zena did indeed live up to her boasts.
The Nissen hut was an arbour of darkness, peace, and tranquillity, when the ‘ Tilly ' drew up beside it somewhere around one in the morning. Only a stretch of cool grass fifteen feet wide separated the two women passengers from the luxury of home; but it was fifteen feet too far for at least one of the couple.
“ Oouch! Awwh! God, my feet hurt.”
“Told ya so before we came out tonight, Gabs. Sore feet, that's what y'll end up with, I said. And I was right.” Zena was merciless, as she put an arm round the shoulders of the slighter woman and helped her to limp along. “What can you expect when you insist on dancin' to every single tune Katie ripped out. Every single one!”
“I did not. Ouch! Go a little slower, can't you. I'm crippled.”
Gabrielle commenced to mutter further complaints under her breath; but her better half took no notice, instead gently steering the blonde woman to the door of the hut.
“There. We're here.” Zena inserted the key and opened the door, standing back to let her partner limp inside.”Oh, that's alright Gabs, I'll turn the light on. Shall I take your shoes off, an' give your poor tootsies a nice massage?”
[Part of what Gabrielle said next has been blue-pencilled by the British Military Authority Censor Board]
“. . . and it's all your fault, anyway, for insisting on doing that mad French dance.” Gabrielle was running on rocket fuel now. “God, I nearly broke my arm. Could you have been any more violent? Now I know what a sack of coal feels like.”
“The Rumba that Katie played afterwards was good, though.” Zena smiled at the memory. “Sort'a nice gliding round the floor in each other's arms like that. I like the scent of your hair, Gabs, kind'a flowery an' warm. God, I enjoyed myself.”
“So did I. Yeah, so did I.” Gabriele relented, as she sat on her bed and lay back with a sigh of relief. “But just give me a month's warning when you intend repeating it, please. I got'ta get in trim for another hip-hop like that. I could murder a nice hot cup of tea.”
Taking this brazen hint at face value Zena crossed to the rear of the hut where the oil-stove stood; and minutes later the women sat on their beds, knees almost touching, reviving their strength with the heady brew that hid under the moniker of ‘ Special NAAFI Three-Star '; not a drink for the naive or innocent.
“Yow'za, that's better. I think I'll survive after all.” Gabrielle took another giant swallow and grinned over at her friend. “God, that was some rambunction, wasn't it? Think they'll remember us for a while there, sister?”
“I think the whole of Orkney'll remember us for the next twenty years, darling.” Zena laughed, as she gazed intently, almost entranced, at the blonde woman opposite. “Sort'a thing one never lives down. What's the plan now, then?”
“ My plan, Zena, is to struggle out of these glad-rags, dive between the sheets, an' not wake up till ten o'clock tomorrow.” Gabrielle put her cup down on the floor and yawned widely. “I wan'na sleep, sleep, sleep. What're we doin' tomorrow, by the way?”
“Nothing. Empty schedule. An' it's today already, anyway, if ya haven't noticed.” Zena took their cups and placed them on the table, before returning to their bed area. “You look beat, lady. I'm goin' out to lock up the ‘ Tilly ', an' do a blackout check on our windows. When I return I wan'na find one blonde tired ex-dancer tucked up nice an' warm between the blankets; that's an order, OK?”
“ Yauuwh! ”
“I'll take that as a yes. Get a move on, Gabs, I'll be back in five.” Zena grinned as she made for the door. “If you're not ready, I'll chase ya round the hut till I undress you myself.”
“ Yauf! Don't know if that's a threat or a promise.” Gabrielle started unbuttoning her blouse, in a half-hearted sleepy manner. “Maybe I'd like it your way?”
“Huh! Don't string a poor gal along. Leave me one dream to give me hope, Gabs. Hurry up, it's cold outside.”
And the door shut softly behind the tall New Zealander.
It was somewhere around 3.15am when the short-wave radio positioned just behind Gabrielle's bed burst into life. It was powered by an extension from the base's main grid, and was set on ‘ open ' all the time. A red light flickered; a whine grew as the machine came to life; there was a hiss of static; then a buzzer went off in short bursts, advising that a message was coming in.
In the quiet Nissen hut everything remained silent for a few more seconds. Gabrielle was sleeping soundly the sleep of the worn-out reveller. Zena slept, as she always did, breathing deeply. Not, as Gabrielle frequently complained, snoring loudly. Then consciousness gradually returned to the blonde section of the hut's inhabitants.
“ Graugh! Wassat? Waa? Auugh! ”
Gabrielle finally sat up in bed, with a round curse; swung her legs outboard, and slid into her slippers automatically; before stumbling to the chair in front of the table which held the now twinkling radio. She wore a light floral cotton nightgown affair which regularly suffered Zena's derisive sarcasm. Gabrielle, still three-quarters asleep, put the headphones on and bent forward to listen to the faint voice coming over the air-waves. There were several code-words and phrases to interchange before it could be assumed at both ends that bona fide messengers were operating. Then, now far more clearly awake, Gabrielle listened to and took down the coded instructions being given by the radio-operator from Somerset House in London; where the HQ of their section of SOE was based. Finally the message was received and Gabrielle signed off, replacing the headphones on the table by her elbow while she studied the contents of the notes she had taken. It took only a minute for the experienced operator to de-code the few sentences. Then Gabrielle stood up purposefully and turned to the bed where her companion still annoyed Morpheus.
“Hey, come on! Time t'wake up. We got a job t'do.”
Gabrielle shook the blanketed shoulder on the bed, with no response. She grabbed a handful of the covering and shook harder. This brought some sort of return for her trouble.
“ Auugh! G'way. Bugger-off! Lem'me sleep. What ch'a doin'?”
“Come on, lady. Get your butt up an' moving. The country needs us.”
“Damn the country.” Zena now sat up, pulling the blanket round her shoulders. She was, after all, naked. “What time is it?”
“Nearly 3.30am.” Gabrielle always liked to be precise about these things. “We got a message from Somerset House. I'll tell you the details while you get dressed. Come on, we got time for a cup of tea; then we got'ta rush.”
“3.30! Jeesus! Is there an emergency, or what? Can't they wait till mornin'?”
Gabrielle was now deep in the shadows at the rear of the Nissen where the stove stood, clattering around with the kettle and cups as Zena morosely dragged herself out of bed and struggled around for her clothes.
“The message says we have'ta take the old Shagbat out into the North Atlantic. There's a destroyer waiting for us there. We got the co-ordinates.” Gabrielle poured hot water into the teapot and glanced at her friend, who was now sitting on her bed leaning down trying to tie the laces on her boots. “You'll have to change into your flying jacket and padded trousers, y'know. It's going to be a long flight. Kindly don't swear like that. They want us to take charge of something an' bring it back here. Then we got'ta transfer to the Anson an' fly down to England with this ‘ something '. To a place called Bletchley Park. There's a small airstrip a few miles away from it, apparently. A car'll be waiting for us to drive ourselves to Bletchley. Come on, we're on a schedule. We got'ta be up in the air in an hour. It'll take that long to rouse Sergeant MacQuarie an' those mechanics. Here, drink this. It'll either wake you up, or kill ya! Probably the latter, seein' how quickly I made it.”
An hour and twenty minutes later, the time now being somewhere close to five o'clock in the morning, the Walrus trundled down the concrete ramp leading from the hangar to the softly rippling surface of Scapa Flow. The weather was overcast, rainy, and cold: just, in fact, another ordinary day in the Orkneys. Gabrielle piloted the ungainly craft out into the channel; gave the huge radial Bristol Pegasus engine above their heads a touch of throttle; and swung into the wind; then with a grin at her co-pilot, who was gloomily studying her charts, opened the throttle wide and roared off across the water. Five minutes later they were at a height of one thousand feet above the dark surface of the North Atlantic, heading on the course which Zena had just given her pilot.
“Well, here we go again.” Zena affected a despondent tone, though a small smile hovered round the corner of her lips as she looked across at her friend; both warmly cocooned in their sheep-lined flying suits and heavy boots.
“Yeah, Zena, ain't it great!”
1. Tommy Trinder was a real entertainer, but the others are fictional.
2. Wide boy. A man who lives by his wits, wheeling and dealing. Synonymous with ‘spiv'.
3. Rosie the Riveter was an iconic American poster image from WW2.
4. Green's Playhouse. A large theatre in Glasgow.
5. ‘ Paquin ' and ‘ The House of Redfern ' were famous fashion houses in the 1920's-30's.
6. ENSA. Entertainments National Service Association. A British organisation which provided entertainment for the troops, using enlisted and civilian personnel.
7. Dazzle-painting. A form of camouflage for naval ships first used in WW1.
8. WREN's. Women's Royal Naval Service.
ATS. Auxiliary Territorial Service. The women's branch of the British Army during WW2.
WAAF's. Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Women's branch of the RAF.
WAAC's. Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. Women's branch of the United States Army.
9. Shagbat. The nickname for the Supermarine Walrus.
10. Bletchley Park. The code-breaking centre in England during WW2. The Enigma code was broken there, with the help of captured Enigma machines.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT STORY IN THE ‘Mathews & Parker' SERIES
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