‘A Rainy Sunday’
By Phineas Redux
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. It is Sunday, and they struggle for something with which to occupy themselves.
Warning:— There is some swearing in this story.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics own all copyrights to everything related to ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’ and I have no rights to them.
In Britain, and especially Scotland, there was a well-established tradition that Sundays were sacrosanct, not only to religious contemplation and a certain amount of church-going, but to a determined attempt by all and sundry to do absolutely nothing at all in the way of physical exercise or activity. One lazed; one took things easy; one did not lift a finger to help someone do something active under any circumstances; one did not get off one’s butt all day. The arrival of world war, and military discipline, had remarkably little effect on the overall tenor of this phase of weekly life. And so it was at Scapa Flow.
“What time is it, Zena?”
“It’s seven minutes and twenty-five seconds later than the last time you asked that question, Gabs.” The New Zealander was fed up, as she sprawled at full length on her bed. “Gim’me a break.”
“Just as well the rain stopped us from attending the church service, eh?” Gabrielle, from her own bed opposite, lay with hands behind her head; contemplating the curved corrugated iron roof of their shared Nissen hut. “We’d only have had to listen to an interminable sermon from that—wa’sis name—Vicar Templeton. What a bore.”
“All the other personnel have to go.” Zena sniggered quietly. “One of the perks of belonging to the SOE. Ya don’t come under the overall military command, an’ can’t get ordered here, there, an’ everywhere.”
Sunday at Scapa Flow. No-one was out in the stone–walled enclosures where the sheep were penned. The streets of the few villages were silent and deserted. Around the farms in the surrounding low hills no sign of life could be seen. There was absolutely no traffic or vehicles to be seen anywhere, on any road or lane. There were no dogs in view meandering aimlessly around, as they usually did on week-days. Even the few birds soaring through the overcast grey dreary sky, mostly battered-looking crows, flew past with an obvious air of having a guilty conscience about the affair. It was Sunday at Scapa Flow.
“It’s only 9.35am.” Zena made this astute chronological appraisement after a careful study of the tin alarm clock sitting on the rickety chest of drawers by her low bed. “How long did ya say this day was gon’na last?”
“Eternity. Eternity, Zena.” Gabrielle spoke in a low bored tone, as befitted a Sunday at Scapa Flow. “It’s Sunday. At Scapa Flow. It’s gon’na be a long day.”
“Hell, there must be something t’do.” Zena glanced to her left at the sloping corrugated tin sheets that formed the curving walls, as well as the roof, of the Nissen hut. Then she glanced over at her friend, and the opposite curving metal wall. “I feel like a sardine. Jeez, ain’t there anything? Surely there’s a football match we could go an’ watch?”
“On a Sunday? Are you mad, girl.” Gabrielle took the realistic outlook. “The football field’s nearly two miles away, along the coast. It’s open to all the elements of all four points of the compass. An’ do you really wan’na stand ankle-deep in mud, in the pouring rain, amongst 500 sailors who’ll be busy bawling obscenities at the referee for an hour and a half? I thought not!”
“But what else is there, for Gaw-”
“Nobody does anything here on a Sunday. It ain’t looked on as being ‘quite the thing’, y’know.” Gabrielle inexorably continued her social history of the region. “We could go for a stroll, I suppose, along the road or the edge of the water. But no fishing, Zena. Oh no, no fishing. That would definitely be sacrilege. God, I don’t know what awful punishment from on high would fall on your head if you tried to fish!”
“Jeez!” The dark-haired New Zealander shuffled about, trying to make herself more comfortable. The only result being the agonising screeching of her bed-springs. “You’d think everyone was dead! There’s a war on; surely the military have to keep up appearances somehow?”
Gabrielle was un-impressed by this flawed logic. Her foreign friend obviously had no understanding of the real meaning of a British Sunday; especially a Sunday in Northern Scotland: well, the Orkney’s, certainly.
“Zena, if you so much as dart a quick look out your front door to see whether it’s raining or not, that’s pretty much looked on as a criminal act.” The blonde-haired one heaved a sigh; a bored sigh. “Nothing happens on Sunday. We could put the wireless on, mind you?”
“Huh!” Zena gloomily squeezed all the juice of resentment from her partner’s remarks that was possible. “Put your head out to see if it’s raining. Huh! Anyone round these parts would know it was raining as a matter of course. Ya wouldn’t need to look to verify it; it just is. It’s the Orkney’s. It’s bloody Scapa Flow, dammit. It’s raining outside. It never does anything else outside but rain. That’s what Scapa Flow’s really for—to be rained on, without break or pause. Bloody rain!”
“We could polish our medals.”
“We ain’t got any medals, Gabs.”
They actually knew well enough it was raining at the present moment. They could hear each individual raindrop as it hit the corrugated iron of the roof. The interior of the hut acted like an echo box, making the rain seem all the louder and heavier. They did not belong to any accredited corps, squadron, or regiment; so were never bothered with the ordinary day-to-day activity surrounding your actual soldier’s life. They were on their own, and left to themselves; whenever there was no mission for them, of course. Today, Sunday, there was no mission.
They did not even have a plane which could take up their attention and time. The Sunderland had been sent back to its rightful owners at Oban; and a replacement for their Walrus had not yet arrived. If Group Captain Graham, back at Somerset House in London, wanted any work from the women he would first need to provide a new aircraft.
“What about the aircraft recognition sheets?” Gabrielle felt that anything was better than this continued boredom.
“Damn aircraft recog.”
“Oh, alright.” Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders, and twisted into a more comfortable position on her bed. Her bed-springs squealed too. “How about—”
“Ain’t we got any oil?” Zena groaned loudly in disgust. “These beds are pathetic. The springs need oiling. Where can we get a can?”
“Shouldn’t think so.” Zena shook her head. “Probably better cadging some off the mechanics at the slipway sheds. How are we with them at the moment, by the way?”
“Hmm. Not so good.” Gabrielle pursed her lips and thought for a moment. “A fortnight ago we rammed their launch, an’ nearly sank it. And knocked Bill Harper into the water. He wasn’t happy, you’ll recall.”
“Yeah!” Zena sniggered. She did remember. “Remarkable turn of language. Didn’t think he had it in him. Very droll. Then, of course, there’s the fact you broke that guy’s arm who was specially sent from Glasgow to fix the Pegasus engine. I know he shouldn’t have, er, touched you—but did ya need to break his arm?”
“He did touch me, as you so politely call it.” Gabrielle was unforgiving. “And yes, I broke his goddam arm. Serves him right.”
“Well, they had to send to Glasgow for another expert.” Zena cleared her throat non-committally. “They very nearly billed us for the travel-expenses too.”
“Bunch of idiots.” The blonde offended one snorted in anger. “Did you hear that lecture the Squadron Leader tried to give me? About engine experts being hard to find and perhaps, if I thought about it for a moment, the man didn’t really touch me like I said? Goddam bast—”
“Well, ya never let him finish, anyway.” Zena grinned as she thought back to the officer’s expression when Gabrielle pulled rank on him. “Telling him to contact Group Captain Graham was a master-stroke. A bunch of redcaps from Stromness arrived within two hours and took him, an’ the dam mechanic, away with them. Did he ever return, by the way?”
“Not to my knowledge, Zena.” Gabrielle huffed in contempt. “When Group Captain Graham takes people away, they stay taken away. Graham took my side without hesitation; I kind'a like that.”
“Yeah, he ain’t so bad, after all.” Zena agreed, then returned to the important issue. “All the same, I wish he’d send us another plane.”
“How about a game of tiddly-winks, Zena?” Gabrielle was now grabbing at the thinnest of reeds. “They’re in that box of games you discovered in the bottom of that tall cupboard at the back of the hut. Wan'na get it?”
“Gabrielle darling, you know what ya can do with every single one of those damned tiddly-winks.”
“Oh well, if that’s how you feel.” Gabrielle raised her head to bring into view the alarm clock, sitting on the low chest above Zena’s head. “It’ll be lunch-time in, aaaaa—three hours. So, what’re we goin’ t’do meanwhile?”
There was a silence in the Nissen hut, except for the rattle of rain-drops on the exterior shell of the building. Zena shuffled about, trying to get comfortable. Gabrielle followed her example. After the cacophony of screeches from the springs had died down once more Zena pursued an idle line of thought.
“Wonder if Sergeant MacQuarie would let us take that old Saro ‘London’ up for a test flight?” Zena was considering something she had first contemplated three months ago. “Have they fixed its engine yet?”
Gabrielle, on the other hand, was realistic. That ‘London’ flying boat had apparently not moved under its own power in living memory, going by the mechanics and local knowledge. And she, Gabrielle, was not about to risk her neck in an old crock—even on a Sunday.
“How can they fix its engines, dear?” She hit her New Zealand friend with uncompromising harsh reality. “There are no spares for those engines anymore. The wing-frames are buckled; and the main-hull has been so strained the floor’ll probably fall out if you take it for a run over the water. It’s a heap. A heap that ain’t going anywhere but the scrapyard.”
“It’s still only ten o’clock on Sunday.” Gabrielle took note of the important items. “Should you be saying ‘damn’ so much, on a Sunday? Don’t you believe in fate, providence, karma, retribution, whatever?”
“I believe in having something to do with my day.” Zena struggled up to sit on the edge of her bed, and stretched with wide-flung arms. “Come on, get your butt out'ta that flea-pit. We’re goin’ over to the slipway hangars. There must be something doin’ there. Even if it’s only dusting an’ house-cleaning.”
“House-cleaning? Huh!” Gabrielle nevertheless put her feet on the floor and stood up, amid the last squeals of the mattress. “You’ve never dusted anything in your entire life—an’ don’t try to say otherwise, sister. OK, let’s go. Got your jacket an’ cap. It’s raining outside, y’know.”
There was little activity on the wide gently sloping concrete slipway. The three tall hangars were equally free of visible activity, but from the central one came the metallic clang of equipment and tools being used behind closed doors. As the two women slouched up, in their flying-jackets, scruffy slacks, boots, and RAF caps (to which they were not, strictly speaking, entitled), a greasy overalled mechanic stepped out a side door and started fiddling with the appurtenances of a hand-rolled cigarette.
“Hey, Allan, wassup?” Zena greeted the man as a long-lost friend. “Anything doin’?”
The mechanic, on his side, gave the tall New Zealander a gloomy look; which he transferred to Gabrielle too, obviously in the belief that nothing should be wasted.
“Nah. Anything up? That’s a laff.” He had a shock of oily black hair, and was literally covered in smears of grease and oil. His hands and fingers were also blotched with dark stains. “We’re workin’ on that Pegasus at the moment. You know—the one that guy from Glasgow was sent up to sort. The second guy, that is!”
“Har-har!” Gabrielle was not amused. “Say, Zena, shall I kick this twerp; or will a punch do instead?”
“Here, there’s no need fer fisticuffs.” Alan smiled thinly. He and Gabrielle had been engaged in a sort of war of words for the past two months, to each’s mutual enjoyment. “Take it easy. Anyway, Sergeant Appleby’s in there, too. Overseeing things.”
“Oh God.” Gabrielle stopped short. Suddenly she didn’t want to enter that hangar. “Is he now. Well, considering he took the Squadron-Leader’s part in that little fiasco a fortnight ago, I believe I shall not thrust my presence on the damned—”
“What’s happening in Hangar Two?” Zena thought it prudent to change the subject quickly. “They still tryin’ to fix that Vickers gun? Maybe we could help there.”
“Don’t let me stop yer, ladies.” Alan had finished rolling his cigarette and now placed it between his lips, where it hung loosely. “I only work ‘ere. Carry on.”
A gentle incline led up to the side of the hangar in question. The metal cladding was broken by a small door and Zena wasted no time in clutching the round door-knob, pushing the door wide, and walking through, closely followed by Gabrielle. The interior, as was to be expected, was merely a wide high open-raftered shed of huge proportions. This being required in order to house a Sunderland. At the moment it was empty of any aircraft, but a section to the rear of the concrete floor was taken up with a large scaffold-like rig which enfolded in its embrace a propeller-less Pegasus engine. Nearby was a long wooden table on which the pieces of a Vickers K gun were scattered. Three men in shockingly dirty overalls were standing in a group, consulting together on some erudite matter of detail. They all looked across and smiled when the women entered.
“Hello, ladies.” Sergeant MacQuarie stepped forward with a gesture of welcome. “Come to view the remains? One Vickers K type, no longer viable. It’s just been formally declared deceased.”
“Hell, I was lookin’ forward to tinkerin’ with it for at least two hours.” Zena instead transferred her attention to the restrained bulk of the mighty Pegasus radial engine. “So, what’s up here, then? Anythin’ we can do t’help? Just askin’, y’know.”
There was a deathly silence.
“Aw, come on boys.” Zena affected her patented pleading tone, but as all present had been subjected to this on more than one occasion her heartfelt groans fell on deaf ears. “Gaskets, prime seals, fuel lines, oil pipes, I’m up for anything. You know y’can trust me!”
This exclamation came from three throats at once. If there was one thing they knew about Flying-Officer Mathews it was never to let her near an engine repair un-supervised.
“What about that old ‘London’ out in the parking lot?” Zena carried on mournfully, returning to a topic the women had discussed earlier. “Nobody’s doing anything with that. We could take a launch out, climb aboard, an’ see if we can’t get the old bird active again. What d’ya say?”
Sergeant MacQuarie gave both women a sad look, as he wiped his oily hands on an equally oily rag. He was a good man at heart, but even he couldn’t work miracles.
“Miss Zena, that old bird is now seven years old.” He shook his head in regret. “It’s been renovated, repaired, and up-graded more times than I care to think about. Its flight-log and repair book are as thick as an annual volume of a magazine. It’s sitting out in the Flow, in the parking lot, because there’s no reason to have it taking up useful space in a hangar. Both its engines are shot to buggery. An’ its wing-frames, as both of you know perfectly well, are buckled and twisted like a wet rag. There’s a bet goin’ the rounds of the mechanic’s shops here at the moment about how long it’ll last, floating out there, before it just sinks out’ta sight beneath the rollin’ briny! Wan’na contribute ten shillings?”
“Nah! We’ll pass, thanks.” Gabrielle was notoriously tight with their money. “Say, have you got a small can of oil we can borrow? For mechanical upkeep of our Nissen Hut.”
“Yeah, right.” Gabrielle looked at the man, wondering how he knew. “How’d—”
“Them tin huts.” MacQuarie almost sneered as he shook his head. “When people come askin’ for oil, an’ it transpires they lives in an Nissen; well, they’re infamous for bein’ damp. It’s allus the bedsprings. Here, Reg, you still got that bottle of ‘H-2’ some’ers?”
The man indicated scratched his sandy hair and shuffled his booted feet in the effort to recall what had happened to the object in question; then light dawned.
“It’s over there, in the second tool cupboard.” He nodded in affirmation of his memory. “Third drawer down, blue glass, an’ a cork. Label says ‘ Methylated Spirits’, but it’s really ‘H-2’ piston oil fer the Pegasus engines. There’s only about half a pint left in it, mind yer.”
“That’s alright.” MacQuarie dismissed the future use of the oil-bottle with a wide gesture. “We won’t be needing it anymore. We just got a new delivery of bloody gallons of ‘H-3’ yesterday, didn’t we, Reg?”
“Yerss, that’s right enough.” Reg nodded again; this time allowing himself a smile. “We don’t need it anymore, right enough.”
“It’s all yours, ladies.” MacQuarie allowed himself a parting joke. “Don’t bother bringing the empty bottle back. The War Office doesn’t give return pennies on their empties, har-har!”
“Very funny, MacQuarie.” Zena tried to sneer, but could only manage a soft smile as she went over to the drawer indicated. “I’ll take it to MacLeod the grocer, down at the village. He’ll give me tuppence for it, I bet.”
Gabrielle couldn’t help sniggering as they both headed for the side-door. MacLeod was particularly known as a miser, but he’d shell out in order to get back the dividend offered by the bottling firm on empties. One up to Zena.
“Here,” MacQuarie couldn’t let the ladies escape without getting the last word in his own workshop, after all. “Don’t try stealin’ a launch an’ goin’ over to that clapped-out ‘London’. Its engines won’t work. There ain’t no fuel in the tanks. The rear hull’s got tears an’ would definitely sink yer anyway, if you ever got up speed. The port wing’s about ready to fall off of its own accord. An’ I’m postin’ Alf here to t’see you both out of the area. If you make a break for the boat, I’ll have the redcaps on to yer like a pack o’ hounds after a fox, see if I don’t. Hey, Zena?”
“11.30pm this evening. The store-shed behind Hangar 1.” He grinned broadly at the women standing silhouetted in the open door. “The usual poker game. Five others there tonight. You both coming?”
“Damn straight.” Zena nodded animatedly. “I’ll be there. Got'ta bust your ass for those losses you gave me last week. You still doin’ the old ‘ bottom card of the deck’ routine?”
“Hey, I don’t cheat. I don’t need to, against you!”
“Harrph! That’s a good one.” Gabrielle paused, before following her friend out the door. “I’ll be there too, mind. How much did I take off you last week? Four pounds? I’m feelin’ goood! Kiss your money goodbye, MacQuarie.”
“Hah! We’ll see!”
He had gotten the last word after all, but it was only to the shut door; the ladies had departed in triumph.
Gabrielle wondered to herself whether it was worthwhile going for a stroll, now they were outside; then she glanced up at the overcast grey sky, the rain pattering in the puddles across their path, and the mean look on Zena’s face, and decided against broaching the subject. Instead she hefted the half-full bottle in her hand as they walked away from the hangar.
“Should be enough oil here to see to both our beds, eh?”
“Yeah.” Zena was thinking of something else, though. “Say, Gab, this rain ain’t gettin’ any lighter. Reckon it’s on for the day. How about visitin’ Professor Anderson? His house is only two miles away.”
“OK.” Gabrielle considered the matter, and found no fault. “He did say we could visit whenever we wanted. And he does have a wonderful library. We could spend the whole day there. Comin’ from you, dearest, that’s a great idea. Would he mind?”
“Nah!” Zena laughed. “We could make him a real lunch. You know he generally eats out’ta tins when he’s alone. Then he can disappear into his study, while we take over the library. Good thing his house is as big as a hotel, eh?”
“Right. There’s the main road?” Gabrielle was already thinking practically, as was her wont. “Or we could take a shortcut over the high moor. I just found it out by studying the map two days ago. I’m sure I can follow the trail well enough. Should knock half an hour off the walk.”
“We’ll take the main road.” The New Zealand woman’s tone was decisive. “I’ve had too much experience of your so-called shortcuts lately. Remember that last one. Got us into a bog it took an hour to get out of. No, thank you. The main road’ll do me. Coming?”
“Oh, alright.” Gabrielle was miffed, but resigned. “It would’a been a great shortcut though, I just know it. OK, OK, I’m comin’. Hold on!”
There were few large houses in this part of the Mainland, bordering the Flow. Most of the fishing and deer stalking was further north, so the rich Victorian merchants and aristocracy had built there instead. But several, nonetheless, had found favour with aspects of the southern coast and the Flow; so a handful of old Victorian residences lay scattered across the landscape. Most were either run-down, deserted, ruined, or had been taken over by the military. But Professor Anderson still lived in his private house on a ridge over-looking the wide Flow.
It had been built in the eighteen-eighties as a shooting lodge; which translated, meant a large two-storied house, with attics, outhouses, sheds, and cellars. It had about twenty rooms, a huge kitchen, and a positively resplendent bathroom with extraordinary Edwardian fittings which would have brought tears of joy to the Emperor Caligula himself.
Only the professor was in residence at the moment. He had a daughter of 23 years of age; but she had joined the Wrens and disappeared to London six months previously. By mere coincidence he had met Zena and Gabrielle while out on one of his local field-walking expeditions. They had shown real interest in the history of the area and he had invited them home. Since then they had visited several times, and formed a deep friendship with the old affable and extremely intelligent man.
The house was built of grey granite and had a steep slate roof. Two large chimney stacks, with several chimney-pots each, reared themselves at either end of the building; rising high above the rooftop ridge. The sash-windows were tall, giving plenty of light in the rooms. It sat back from the road about two hundred yards, at the end of what might pityingly be called a drive. As with the rest of Orkney, there were no trees and hardly any bushes. Even the dreaded rhododendron could make nothing of the Orkney weather. The door of the house was painted a deep blue, and had a marvellous brass knocker in the shape of a well-proportioned half-nude mermaid; clearly a fantasy of some long-gone Victorian gentleman. But Professor Anderson never bothered locking it, so the women simply pushed it open, stepping into the wide stone-flagged hall, while Zena gave a shout to announce their arrival.
“God God, woman! Has there been an earthquake?” The Professor’s voice echoed from a door three down on the left side of the wide hall. “Come in! Come in! I’m in the specimen room.”
Professor Anderson, having once been associated with the British Museum, had installed name-plates on many of the rooms in his house. Such as ‘Library’, ‘Specimen Room’ (Geology, Rocks), ‘Coins’, ‘Butterflies’, ‘Your Bedroom’, ‘ My Bedroom’, etc. Both Zena and Gabrielle were of the opinion he mostly still thought he was working in a museum, rather than living in his own house.
“Hello,” He rose from behind a large leather-topped desk as they entered the high-ceilinged room. “How nice of you to drop in. As you see, I am engaged on a sub-section of the fluorite feldspars. A most enjoyable exercise.”
The tall grey-haired man was lanky, with a thick crop of hair and bushy eyebrows. His skin was slightly greyish; lips full, and his light blue eyes penetrating. It was his steady gaze which assured the visitor he was not the stereo-typical absent-minded variety of his profession. In fact, he was on the ball. In his right hand was a small lump of inoffensive, and frankly un-interesting, greyish-white rock. But he unceremoniously dumped this on his crowded desk and moved round to greet his guests.
“Hi, Professor.” Gabrielle shook his hand, as she gazed around the dusty room. “See you haven’t given the place its yearly clean yet.”
“Madam,” The tall man held his head high in mock hauteur. “I’ll have you know I bought this dump in 1919, and it has never been spring-cleaned since. I’m rather proud of that fact, y’know.”
“Trouble is, Prof, it doesn’t look as if the previous owner ever dusted the place either.” Zena shook her head. “You really ought’ta let us loose on the joint, some day when we ain’t got anything else t’do—”
“Shut up, sister.” Zena continued with regal dignity. “I guarantee ya won’t recognise the place, afterwards.”
“Hummph! That’s as may be.” Professor Anderson gave a chuckle of delight as he escorted them into the hall and turned for the kitchen down a long stone-floored passage. “I remember the cleaners who came in at night at the Museum weren’t allowed to dust the exhibits! Dear me, no! Wash the floors, yes; dust the exhibits—ha, ha, what a thought. Ladies, I have a surprise for you.”
The kitchen, as befitted its Victorian antecedents, was built on the grand scale. The ceiling was around fifteen feet high; the three windows were close together, of the sash variety; and rose from knee height to nearly the ceiling. It was some twelve feet broad and thirty feet in length. The floor was of massive flagstones, smoothed to a gloss by generations of servants’ feet. The whole room was dominated by three things. Two long deal tables running down the centre; a huge fire-place deep enough to walk in, with two benches on either side of the enclosed space within; and a far wall entirely taken up with ceiling-high cupboards, walk-in pantry’s, dressers piled with cutlery and dinner services, and a huge modern refrigerator some four feet wide, with a five foot high door. There were light-bulbs in the three ceiling fittings, but scattered around were no less than four oil storm-lanterns.
Professor Anderson pointed to the refrigerator and waited while Zena, with a curious expression, stepped forward. She grasped the handle and pulled the heavy door wide. What met the two women’s eyes was shelf after shelf piled high with fresh produce of all sorts. There were bottles, tins, paper-wrapped objects, and plates under silver and stoneware covers. And on a silver salver on a lower shelf resided, in splendid isolation, four thick fresh beefsteaks.
“Gaargh!” Zena let it be known she was impressed.
“Yeeyay!” Gabrielle let it be known she wanted part of these treasures, too.
“There are potatoes, carrots, and peas in the produce-larder.” The happy proprietor pointed to a door at the other end of the kitchen. “There is fresh butter under that other plate in the fridge. And there are raspberries and cream in the fridge, too, as you see. Ladies, I believe the American expression is—dig in!”
It was only a few minutes after the meal had come to a happy conclusion. The women and their host had spent an entirely happy three-quarters of an hour preparing and cooking the ingredients. They had then retired to the bright dining-room where they commenced to drop on their food like a famished Assyrian on the fold. In twenty-five minutes they had reached the grand apotheosis of raspberries and thick cool cream; then had reluctantly left the debris, scattered wholesale over the table, to relax in the Professor’s study with its high broad window and warm radiator-provided heat. They were replete.
The Professor had just regained his seat, after filling his guests’ sherry-glasses with a rich brown well-aged nectar. The thick red curtains were drawn against the gloomy light of the advancing afternoon, and the room’s atmosphere emanated comfort and satisfaction.
“Say, where’d ya ever find beefsteaks like that?” Zena sat back in the leather armchair, resting her glass on its wide arm. “They were delicious.”
“You forget, Zena, I have lived here for more than twenty years.” The Professor smiled widely, glancing from one to the other of his guests. “I know every crofter on the island. And I have helped many, in my poor way, over the years. So when a farmer, who will remain nameless, has some meat why shouldn’t he offer me a small present? On the sly, y’know. Between friends.”
“And the same with your fresh vegetables, eh?” Gabrielle nodded contentedly, taking a sip of her sherry. “Those potatoes were divine. And this sherry is fit for the Gods. Thanks, Professor. I needed a square meal of good fresh produce. Better than dry bread with oily margarine, and bully-beef a year old.”
There reigned a comfortable silence in the room for a few minutes. True friends often did not need continuous conversation in order to prove their respect for each other. So it was at that moment. Then Zena shifted snugly in her chair and drained the last of her sherry.
“Professor, a day or two ago Gabrielle and I were walking along one of the roads. Just verging the Flow.” She looked at her host with interest as she spoke. “There was another small loch in the distance, and Gabrielle pointed out a group of strange-looking rocks. They were sort’a standing by themselves on a low ridge. There seemed to be something odd about them. As if they weren’t natural. We didn’t have time to investigate, but I said I’d ask you next time we met.”
“Yeah, they were definitely standing upright, if you know what I mean.” Gabrielle frowned as she thought back. “Their sides were sort of smooth; they were immensely tall, but remarkably thin; and most of them seemed to have angled top edges. Sort of looked as if they’d been placed there deliberately, for a purpose.”
“The Standing Stones of Stenness.” The Professor nodded with benign enjoyment. “A Neolithic Age monument. Something similar to Stonehenge in Wiltshire, y’know.”
The women exchanged interested glances. This was a subject they had wanted to consult their friend about for the best part of a week. Somehow, the stones had exerted a peculiar influence on both in the days since they had seen them at a distance.
“Ya mean there were people in this area thousands of years ago?” Zena was surprised. After all, bleak was the phrase which sprang to anyone’s mind who had spent any amount of time on the islands. “Where’d they find food. An’ where’d they live. An’ what were the Stones for? Do ya—”
Both Gabrielle and Professor Anderson laughed at Zena’s unrestricted enthusiasm. He was well used to this reaction though, having taken innumerable parties of school-students round the rooms of the Museum. He was an old hand at quick-fire questions and answers.
“All interesting questions, Zena.” He grinned at the somewhat shame-faced woman. “Here, may I offer you another glass of sherry. It is quite palatable, isn’t it? And you, Gabrielle? Yes, I think I shall indulge also. Now, to answer you in sequence. There were a large group of peoples inhabiting the islands many thousands of years ago. The climate was different, to a palpable degree, allowing woods and, one might suppose, forest-cover. Various crops could also be grown, and the sea provided fish and shellfish of all kinds. So, yes, they could live comfortably. As to their living-quarters, most would have spent their lives in low stone-built dwellings with turf roofs. Some remnants survive; and in particular Orkney has the honour of being the site of the most well-preserved group of Neolithic stone houses anywhere in Europe! Tell me, have you ever heard of Skara Brae?”
Neither woman had, so the Professor launched out on the seas of local history; a lecture to which his audience listened enthralled. Finally, after some fifteen un-interrupted minutes, he brought his remarks to a close.
“—and thereby they are now called the ‘Ring of Brodgar’, and the chambered cairn tomb is known as ‘Maeshowe’. Quite a remarkable history, I think you’ll agree.”
“Damn straight. I’ve never heard anything like it.” Zena nodded keenly. “Gods, the place seems t’be awash with ancient history, an’ the people who lived here.”
“Yeah, I like that sort’a thing.” Gabrielle spoke musingly, moving a finger gently back and forth over the arm of her chair. “Let’s you connect with the people who lived here so long ago. These relics ain’t so far away either, aren’t they, Prof?”
“Only a matter of a couple of miles.” Anderson nodded happily. “With the advantage that the whole group of remains are close together, here on the Orkney mainland. With your own base, if I may refer to it without breaking any rules, being here also—well, you should be able to reach any of the sites quite easily if you wish.”
The two women exchanged a glance, then Zena spoke for them both.
“Sounds like a good idea, Professor Anderson.” She nodded across to her companion. “If I can only separate Gabrielle from her sherry glass, we might take a walk out there tomorrow.”
“If it’s dry.” Gabrielle was stoical. “If it stops raining.”
Both Zena and Professor Anderson laughed pityingly at this.
“Madam, I honour your faith in the weather.” He rose from his chair to escort his guests to the front door. “Although I have to tell you that it once rained for 47 consecutive days here, without a break. A national record, I believe. Oh well, goodbye to you both. It was very kind of you to visit.”
At the door Zena paused to shake their host’s hand, then stepped outside while Gabrielle took her leave also.
“That was a wonderful meal, Professor.” Gabrielle smiled again as she turned to join Zena. “An’ that sherry was delicious. Can we come back?”
“Anytime ladies, anytime.” The Professor waved a hand in farewell, then disappeared behind his closing front door.
“Nice fella!” Gabrielle strolled along beside the taller woman as they made their way back to the main road in the darkness. The January afternoon had come to a close, and now dark night engulphed the surrounding country.
“Yeah.” Zena stopped to get her bearings, then walked on over the gritty un-made road. “Well, a cup of cocoa when we get back to the old Nissen, then retire to bed early. I like my sleep.”
“I know you do, Zena.” Gabrielle giggled. “Looks like I’ll need to get myself up in the morning. Remember, if you snore I’ll do the same thing I did last time. Pull your foot out of the blankets, an’ put it in a bucket of cold water. God, didn’t you just swear something awful!”
The night was dark, especially so because the blackout was in full-swing. There was not a single glimmer of light anywhere to be seen. The women were keeping to the road only by the help of a feeble torch, held by Zena, whose light was hardly better than that of a cigarette; but it was sufficient for them to see their way.
“Gabs,” Zena, a minute later, returned to the subject of their conversation. “If you put my foot in a bucket of water again, I’ll put your head in the same bucket. Just so ya know!”
“Knock! Knock! Knock!”
“God, what is it? Wha’ time is it? Jee—suus!” Gabrielle was not impressed, as she struggled out from her warm blankets. “D’ya know it’s only half past seven? Is there a war on, or something? OK! OK! I’m comin’.”
A moment later the irate woman had clambered into slacks and a heavy woollen jersey, slipped a pair of shoes on her bare feet and slouched, still mostly-asleep, along the length of the Nissen hut to the door at the front entrance. The blaze of early morning light made her screw her eyes closed for a few seconds as she confronted the source of her distress. This turned out to be an RAF ground-crewman holding a clip-board and a pen.
“What? What? Wha’ d’yer want?” Gabrielle was never at her best early in the morning, as she gazed balefully at the destroyer of her dreams. “We don’t do the military thing here, y’know. We’ve opted out’ta the war, so go away.”
“Flying-Officer Parker?” The man knew perfectly well who he was talking to, but the proprieties of RAF procedures must be adhered to. “Requisition Order here for you, and Flying-Officer Mathews. If you’ll just sign here—here—here,—an’ on the second pink page at the bottom,—there, there, an’ there, please.”
“What is this? What requisition order?” The blonde girl rubbed her eyes sleepily. Intellectual activity before breakfast was not her habit, as a rule. “Requisition for what? Who by?”
“By the War Office, ma’am.” Air-crewman Giles, for such was his moniker, affected a haughty sniff. He was only twenty-one, and liked to pull the mantle of RAF authority round his youthful shoulders. “Counter-signed by a—a, er, Group-Captain Graham, apparently. It’s definitely for you.”
“What? What’s for me?” Gabrielle was aware her conversation was harping on a single note, but she was still three-quarters asleep.
“This ‘ere, ma’am.” Giles moved back from the doorway and indicated something to his right.
Gabrielle unwillingly stepped out into the harsh morning light, feeling like a vampire who had made a mistake about the dawn. After rubbing her watering eyes again she still could not see anything remotely like a postal delivery; birthday present; or RAF equipment consignment. There was nothing visible except the largish van the air-crewman had arrived in.
“What? What?” Well, she thought, her needle had undeniably stuck so she might as well let the record repeat itself. “What?”
“This ‘ere British Light Utility Vehicle, ma’am.” Giles indicated said van with his thumb. “For the use of you two—er, that is, Flying-Officer Parker an’ Flying-Officer Mathews, until further notice. Sign ‘ere, if you please. ‘ere, an’ —well, every ruddy-where you see a blank space actually. The Accounts Office got’ta have their receipts—in double-triplicate, ma’am.”
Gabrielle, wondering, scribbled her name at various points on the several sheets of coloured notes on the clip-board, then handed the paperwork back to the air-crewman. Giles nodded, held out a set of keys—which Gabrielle took in her hand, still only half-conscious—then turned and walked away. Another moment and he had vanished round the corner of another Nissen hut. At least he would have if Gabrielle had been able to focus her tired eyes at all normally. She stood—looking at the keys in her hand—the blue sky above, giving fair warning of a beautiful day—and the medium-sized blue truck sitting on the grass in front of the Nissen. Suddenly realisation broke through and she let out a loud whoop and darted into the dark of the hut.
“Zena! Zena! Zena!”
Back in the depths something stirred—an unhappy New Zealand lady torn from her slumbers, than which there is nothing more dangerous.
“Whar? Whaa?” Zena felt barely alive, never mind barely awake, and she wanted the world to know. “Whaarsis? Waass?”
“Get out’ta that pit, woman.” Gabrielle, on the other hand, was taking no prisoners. “Here. Come on. Wake up. We got’ta van. A real van! We got’ta ‘ Tilly’. You’ll love it. Come n’ see.”
The phrase with which Zena greeted this, only partially understood, piece of information was dire; wholly vulgar; grotesquely crude; and horrifying in its abandoned bitterness.
“Tilly? What a God-awful name for a girl.” Zena continued, still half-asleep, trying to come to grips with what she thought she’d heard. “Well, whatever her name is, she can take the laundry down to the wash-house. Then she can make herself useful making my breakfast. A servant, at last!”
“That’ll do, lady.” Gabrielle, now well-used to her friend’s vibrant use of the language and weak grasp of reality in the mornings, let all this wash over her without effect. “Come on. Get up. If the Squadron-Leader heard you, he’d put you in the glasshouse for a fortnight. Group-Captain Graham’s sent us a present.”
Finally, through a mixture of kindness and brute force, Zena was persuaded to clamber out of bed; into some form of clothing; and, with many curses, stagger to the hut door. Here she was met by a sight which abruptly brought realisation, understanding, and a modicum of intelligence back to her tired mind.
“That truck? That truck’s ours?” She walked out onto the grass in front of the Nissen hut over to the vehicle. Then turned to Gabrielle with a wide grin. “Wow! Are ya sure? It’s really all for us?”
“I should know. I signed for it about sixteen times!” Gabrielle nodded with all the pride of ownership, as she too joined Zena by the side of the vehicle. “A ‘Tilly’. A ‘Tilly’ all to ourselves. Well, we can go anywhere we want, whenever we want, now. Ain’t it great?”
“Tilly? Yeah, so you said a minute ago.” Zena still wasn’t really firing on all 6 cylinders. “So where is this girl, then. The truck’s great, yeah, but a servant all to ourselves! God, at last I can put my feet up an’ be the Lady I’ve always wanted t’be.”
“Darling, you’ll never be a Lady.” Gabrielle was crisp and cold. “We ain’t got a servant. We got a ‘Tilly’. There! A Utility Vehicle. A ‘ Tilly’. God, woman, wake up!”
“Oh! Oh! Right! I got’cha. I do. I do.” The tall sleepy air-woman cast her mind and eyes around, trying to come to terms with the abrupt change from deep sleep to flickering consciousness. “God, look Gabrielle! The sky’s blue n’ I can see the sun. I don’t believe it!”
“Oh God. Coffee.” Gabrielle took the elbow of her comatose companion. “We both need coffee. Come on.”
“Damn straight.” Zena allowed herself to be led back into the shadows of the Nissen; but something was still troubling her. “So, this Tilly girl. She ain’t coming t’help out, then?”
“I knew I should’a stayed in bed!”
Zena stood on the grass admiring the new ‘Tilly’. She had emptied half a pot of coffee, taken two thick slices of bread and marmalade and destroyed two boiled eggs. She was feeling much better.
“It’s based on an Austin saloon, I think.” Gabrielle was looking at the log-book of the vehicle, as she sat in the driving seat on the right-hand side with the door open. “They’ve added a pick-up rear end, an’ metal struts to carry a flat canvas roof an’ sides. As you can see, Zena, there ain’t any back to the driving cab. It just opens into the rear cargo area.”
It was a front-opening door, so Zena stood beside the engine as she listened to the blonde girl. They had both had a good look all round the truck, inspecting all its details.
“There’s a canvas hood that falls down behind the cab though, an’ you can fasten it tight.” Zena nodded contentedly. “It’ll do for me. Quite a large vehicle, really, when ya look at it. The canvas roof of the cargo area is higher than my head, an’ I hardly need to stoop to slip into the cab. A pretty big vehicle, all in all. What’d ya say it was called, again?”
“They’re all called Utility Vehicles, Zena.” Gabrielle had some rough knowledge of the type. “They were cobbled together, sort’a off the cuff, just after the start of the war. There are Austin examples, like this one. An’ then Morris make them too; and Standard; and I think one or two other car-makers. There’s a sort’a variety. But they’re all called Utility Vehicles. So, of course, they all got the name ‘Tilly’s’, an’ there you go!”
Gabrielle shut the log-book and clambered back out to join Zena. They both cast professional, but house-proud, eyes over the lines of the vehicle.
“Yeah, a very tidy machine.” Zena was still taking note of its finer points. “Painted medium RAF blue, by the look of it. Two-wheel drive, with a thirty-horsepower engine, so ya say; so it ain’t going to break any records. Maybe twelve feet from front to rear, eh, Gabrielle? Sort’a rugged, but that’s what ya want. An’ easy to fix if anything goes wrong. The tyres’re deeply treaded, and I like the spare one sat on top of the cab roof. Hope it’s clamped firmly in position; don’t want it falling off when you’re doing eighty-five along the Stromness highway!”
“Huh!” Gabrielle laughed scornfully at this quip. “The Stromness highway is completely un-surfaced; there’s no ditches, walls, or railings at tight corners; an’ it’s bumpy as Hell! Nobody, an’ that includes you dear, could make a ‘Tilly’ go more than thirty-five anywhere along it, an’ that’d be pushing it!”
The women were still in a kind of hiatus, professionally speaking, waiting for a new plane before they could re-commence military operations. So they had all the time they needed for their own business. This new arrival, courtesy of Group-Captain Graham, was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. It allowed them the privacy to do whatever they pleased, without having to go to the official vehicle pound and sign out a car every time they needed to go anywhere. It made their activities, as the Group-Captain no doubt intended, all the more secret and off the record. It certainly suited Zena and Gabrielle right down to the ground.
“So, does this mean we can slope off to sample the dubious delights of the raunchy nightlife in Stromness whenever we want, Gabrielle?” Zena had her vision set on the likely possibilities which their new transport opened up for them. “Dancing, an’ singin’, an’ drinkin’ the night away.”
“There ain’t any kind’a nightlife in Stromness, as you very well know, dear.” Gabrielle, on the other hand, was realistic. “There ain’t any nightlife anywhere. Unless you count Sergeant MacQuarie’s twice-weekly poker game?”
“So what should we do on our first drive, then?” Zena walked round the front of the truck to the passenger door. “We got’ta go somewhere, to break the old girl in. You can drive. I’d kind’a like a laugh to start my day. How about spending half an hour zooming around the base; just to annoy everyone. That’d be fun, too.”
Gabrielle shook her head as she slipped behind the wheel, leaning forward to drag the door shut. She shuffled into a comfortable position, glanced down at the pedals to see her heavy-booted feet would have enough room to operate; then glanced at her passenger.
“What we are goin’ t’do, sister, is drive into the village at a stately pace.” Gabrielle looked intently at Zena, slumped comfortably beside her. “There we’ll buy a weekly butter ration at the grocer’s; go to Michael Halliday, who you know operates the black-market, an’ buy an’ extortionately priced bottle of whisky; then drive on to Professor Anderson’s, where we shall distribute our gifts like—like—like people who give gifts! You got our ration book? And the money for that wolf, Halliday? He only takes cash, y’know. That’s what we’ll do.”
“It’s a plan.” Zena agreed without argument; after all, a drive anywhere was still a drive. “OK. Hit the starter; put your foot down; an’ kick ass, lady! Take it away!”
“Zena, you need treatment.” Gabrielle let in the clutch gently and drove off at a steady controlled pace. “God only knows what’ll happen when you get behind the wheel of this thing!”
1. Saro ‘London’. Saunders Roe A.27 London, a biplane flying-boat introduced in 1936. Only 31 were built, and the type was essentially out of date by the outbreak of WW2.
2. Vickers K gun. A rapid fire machine gun firing 950-1200 rounds per minute, using circular 100-round ammunition drums.
3. Redcaps. British Military Police.
4. Wrens. WRNS, ‘Women’s Royal Naval Service’. The women’s branch of the Royal Navy.
5. The Standing Stones of Stenness; the Ring of Brodgar; Maeshowe; and Skara Brae, are all actual Neolithic sites on the Mainland of Orkney. They are all within a relatively short distance of each other.
6. Neolithic Age. In Britain this period spanned approximately 4,000—2,500 BC.
7. British Light Utility Vehicles. Known as ‘Tilly’s’, they were pick-up trucks built on the chassis’ of various British saloon cars. Mainly Austin, Morris, Bedford, or Standard vehicles which had the rear replaced by open pick-up spaces, covered with canvas roofs and sides. They operated widely in Army and Air Force units.
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