Summary:— This is an Uberfic set in Great Britain in 1943. Zena Mathews and Gabrielle Parker, both pilots and members of SOE—Special Operations Executive, are on a mission to transport a mysterious object from the North Atlantic to Southern England. On the way they hit various problems and dangers.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics, or whoever, own all copyrights to everything related to ‘ Xena: Warrior Princess ' and I have no rights to them.
Warning:— There is a great deal of swearing in this story.
Note:— This story follows on, chronologically, from the previous story, ‘ A Music Concert '.
This is the 10th Story of the 'Mathews & Parker' series.
1. Anything To Anywhere
2. An Aerial Taxi
3. The Shetland Bus
4. A Brush With The Enemy
5. The Long Trip
6. A Rainy Sunday
7. The Ring of Brodgar
8. On Convoy Control
9. A Music Concert
“Choppy, ain't it?”
Three thousand feet below the Walrus the sea was dark grey, dull, and cold. The entire surface was threaded by lines of whitecaps as a stiff breeze blew steadily.
“Yep. Kind'a energetic t'day. Think ya can land down there?”
“Zena, I can land on the back of a buckin' bronco, you know that.”
The New Zealander returned to her chart with a smile. She had every confidence in her partner, and knew the plane was in safe hands. Gabrielle, from her seat on the port side of the cockpit, now banked the aircraft and pushed the stick forward, slowly descending towards the sea. A minute earlier Zena had indicated to her pilot that they were now somewhere close to the co-ordinates of their destination.
“1,500ft.” Gabrielle grinned across at her companion. “Think you'll be able to see a destroyer from here?”
“Thank you, madam, I'm not quite blind yet.” Zena stuffed her chart into a canvas pocket at the side of her seat, and directed her gaze through the side-window. “Damn, those whitecaps look as if they're movin' fast. It's blowin' a mains'l gale today.”
“Nah.” The blonde pilot glanced out her side-window with an air of superiority. “Only a top'gallant breeze. Nothing we can't handle.”
“Any idea what we're supposed to be lookin' for?” Zena glanced over at her pilot, before trying to shrug her thick jacket more closely round her body. “Damn, it's cold this mornin'.”
“It's cold every morning, in this tub.” Gabrielle was unconcerned. “You know that, Zena. No, the message only said HMS destroyer was on position. They were bein' very cagey, like always.”
“Would that be Destroyer, with a capital D, maybe? As in, its name.” Zena was launched on a course of logical deduction all her own. “Or just destroyer in the insignificant lower-case, as it were?”
Gabrielle took time from her examination of the various dials surrounding her to give her companion a long stare. Finally she shook her head; sometimes, with Zena, you just couldn't tell what was in her mind.
“The message was in ‘ Cypher-17 ', Zena. You know how complicated that code is? Anyway, I'm mistress of all the general codes SOE has its dirty paws on, so you can take my word the message has been de-coded perfectly. Nobody with any sense is going to call a destroyer—‘Destroyer'!” Gabrielle attempted to damp Zena's imagination with the cold light of logic. “I mean—it's obvious. Y'might as well call a battleship ‘HMS Battleship'. Y'can see the confusion that'd cause.”
“I remember reading in one of those old Navy magazines littering the NAAFI there used to be a Navy Commodore whose actual name was ‘Captain'.” Zena studied the frowning face of her doubtful pilot, and then smiled broadly. “ That'd cause confusion, I bet.”
It was the turn of Gabrielle to look non-plussed. With Zena you just never knew when she was serious, and when she was engaged in one of her nefarious New Zealander leg-pulls. The harassed pilot took the best course available, she changed the subject.
“You've studied the message I took down last night—er, earlier this morning.” Gabrielle eased the control column slightly, bringing the Walrus onto a level run at about 1,400 feet. “What's our time-table for the day?”
“It all starts off when we find this destroyer.” Zena bent over the sheaf of notes resting in her lap. “We land. Ha! Land, in this weather; that'll be the day! Then we take on board ‘ something ' unspecified. That's typical, too. From there on things just go to Hell an' Damnation. We got'ta return to Scapa; switch the old Shagbat for the Anson that's been takin' a holiday in Hangar 3 for the last two months,—wonder if it'll start?; then fly down to Rosyth, where we change to another plane, a Mosquito, of all things; then we head south to London, an' this Bletchley Park place. Any idea what goes on there, Gabs?”
“Haven't the faintest, dear.” Gabrielle took time off to giggle, a tad edgily. “Never heard of it. Probably the NAAFI Stores Administration HQ. Maybe we'll finally be able to wring some decent tea out'ta them, eh! By the way, can you fly a Mosquito Zena, ‘cause I can't? At least, not very well. I only had four test flights; an' I bust the port undercarriage tyre on my second landing. The instructor wasn't happy. Said I might think about becoming a lady's-maid, somewhere far from the Front Line. Bastard!”
“Never fear, Zena's here.” Zena grinned widely. She'd been patiently awaiting for weeks the chance to dump that choice couplet on an unsuspecting audience, and here she was. “I can fly a Mosquito through a thirty foot wide hoop, without touching the edges. It's not that I'm an expert or anything; but show me the pilot in the RAF who says he can fly a Mosquito better than me, an' I'll show ya a goddammed liar, that's all.”
“That's re-assuring.” Gabrielle spoke with less than the confidence her reply might have normally suggested; after all, she knew Zena. “Now I can settle back comfortably an' let this bag of struts an' wire fly itself. A Mosquito has a wingspan of fifty-four feet, y'know. Only sayin'.”
A strained silence ensued for the next five minutes in the close cold cockpit. Then things came to a sudden head.
“Ship down below.” Zena made an effort at pointing; but with her thick glove this was less than specific. “A little ship. A very little ship. What's the difference between an American destroyer, a British destroyer, or a German destroyer, Gabs?”
The blonde pilot was intent on veering to port, keeping level, and trying to restrain the Walrus's usual tendency to side-slip at the least opportunity; at the same time as peering through the forward windscreen at the grey waves below, so she was not in the right frame of mind for conundrums.
“Gim'me a break, sister. I got things t'do here.” Gabrielle gave up on looking for the ship herself, and concentrated on the Walrus, and the state of the sea below. “You keep an eye on the ship. Gim'me an exact—an' I mean exact —position. Then sit back an' tell me the best time to abandon landing an' return to Scapa, after all. God! It is blowing a gale down there. Look at those waves an' whitecaps.”
Enclosed in their cockpit the only thing the women really knew about the weather was that it was damn cold; but then, as Gabrielle had already stated, this was the norm for almost any kind of RAF plane. The wind only created a slight eddy where it found its way through the partially open side-windows, along with a slight thumping and trembling of the airframe; which Gabrielle controlled with relative ease. But on the surface of the sea it was now all too apparent that a real gale was blowing.
“OK, sister. An American destroyer'll fire flak at anything in the sky, friend or foe or albatross.” Gabrielle's expression had taken on a scowl of concentration as she resumed, pushing the control column forward to let the Walrus glide towards the sea surface. “A German destroyer'll wait till the Kapitan see's the whites of your eyes, then fire flak a thousand feet above you. A British destroyer'll send a friendly message requesting identification, and asking after your sick mother-in-law; then fire a pattern of depth-charges if you fly too close; they got'ta hold onto their 20mm rounds, y'know—damn expensive. We're gon'na land now, dear. You might wan'na prepare.”
“Prepare? For what?”
“For the bumpiest landing you've ever experienced.” Gabrielle glanced at her companion quickly, before concentrating on her flying once more. “The waves are around three to five feet high down there; an' I estimate the wind at North-Westerly 20 knots. We're gon'na bounce; we're gon'na bump; we're gon'na get covered in spray; we're gon'na get rocked around like a pebble in a bucket. You should think about closing that side-window, if ya don't want a ton of sea comin' in an' soakin' you.”
“Captain Maltravers, sir, plane reported to starboard. 800ft, and descending, sir.”
“Well, Sanders? Friend or foe? Do we break out the Bofors, or the Bohea, eh,—Ha-Ha!”
“Look-outs report Walrus, sir.” The young Lieutenant seemed a little unsure himself; plane recognition was not his strong point.
“Ha. Well a fine lot of good they'll do.” Captain Maltravers had been awaiting just such an arrival; though in better weather conditions. “Not much the RAF blighters can do now, but fly over and waggle their wings; before they fly off back home. The sea's cutting up far too rough for ‘em to land. Suppose we'll have to sail into Scapa ourselves, with our little toy, eh, Sanders?”
“Yes quite, sir.” The young man seemed baffled for a moment, but then the approaching plane took up his interest once more. “Captain? That plane's coming in rather low on the starboard side. I really think they do mean to land, after all.”
The plane's mighty Bristol Pegasus could now be heard clearly, over the stiff breeze and waves smacking against the side of the nearly motionless destroyer. Everyone's attention, on the decks of the small ship, was fixed on the biplane, with its curiously high wings and massive backward pointing engine. It was now gliding only thirty feet or so above the waves, and its intentions were obvious to even the slowest-witted on board.
“Good God, Sanders! You're right!” Captain Maltravers had no choice but to accept the obvious. “The damn fools are goin' t'land. What are they thinking? That plane's going to sink, Lieutenant Sanders; mark my words. Look at the spray from the white-caps, an' the waves. She can't possibly land in that. Are they mad? Ready the rescue boats, Sanders.”
“Yes sir. Right away, sir.” And the young Lieutenant beat a hasty retreat from the bridge on his mission of mercy.
“Are ya sure this is necessary, Gabs?” Zena could see the waves thrashing the surface below, and it was a sobering sight. “I mean, perhaps we could come back another day? Like tomorrow? Ya know, tomorrow is —”
“Zena, belt up. An' get ready to land.” The blonde pilot was made of sterner stuff than her nervous navigator. “No-no, I didn't mean belt up . I said belt up! Fasten your safety-belt, woman. God, do I have'ta do all the thinkin' around here. Hang onto something, dear; this ain't goin' t'be pretty.”
What ensued was horrible in the extreme. It could be described from two points of view; those on the Walrus, who really ought to have known better; and those merely spectating on the destroyer, who were hypnotised by the most improbable action by an aeroplane they had ever witnessed.
What a flying boat needs most when it lands is calm water. The merest ripple can often make it buck like a wild stallion; the smallest swell or, horrors, waves can make it bounce like a rubber ball in the hands of an angry child.
Gabrielle brought the Walrus down with its nose slightly up, trying to achieve that chimera of every pilot's dreams—a perfect landing. But she had chosen the wrong day, and the wrong weather. The nose and curved bow of the boat-like lower part of the plane touched, with the mighty impetus of 60 mph or so behind it, right on the peak of a rolling four foot wave heading straight towards and under the plane's keel. There was the almightiest thump, which shook the frame of the entire plane, rocking the two women in the cockpit like marionettes on the end of broken strings. Then the Walrus bounced into the air, with a creaking and grinding, and snapping of unseen cross-slats; sounding for all the world like a regiment of souls in Hell. Gabrielle had pushed her throttle open, and the control-wheel forward, before she knew what she was doing. It was a mistake; but a mistake which probably saved their lives. Because, when the plane next hit the water there was never any chance of it rising into the air again at this point in the proceedings; the machine now had far more impetus and power driving its boat-like frame horizontally over the broken waves than was at all necessary. The next wave crashed against the bow—there was another almighty thump—but this time, instead of bouncing, falling between waves and probably turning over,—the plane dashed through the spray to hit the next wave again head on; throwing water in huge masses right over the whole structure.
The plane, from the point of view of those watching mesmerised on the destroyer, disappeared from view in an explosion of shattered spray which enveloped the whole plane, flying into the air like waves crashing on the rocks of a cliff-face. Then, miraculously, they subsided and the plane could be seen still driving through the water, leaving a broken wake behind its tossing tailplane. The whole machine seemed to be at the mercy of the massive forces of the ocean for several seconds—seconds which seemed to those on the destroyer, and particularly Zena and Gabrielle in their seats, like slow-moving minutes. The wings thrashed around like a child's toy, rolling in the air from side to side; the rear fuselage and tail jerked about as if tossed by an angry sea-god; masses of water every so often rose over the whole plane, obscuring it from view; then it finally seemed to make some kind of pact with the crashing waves, and settled down to a leaping, jerking run across the surface of the boisterous sea. One more massive wall of green water burst over the whole machine, obscuring it from view once more; this again dissolved to show the plane still afloat, like an old time clipper-ship riding out a storm; then the plane rocked to a standstill, humping and rolling, and cleaving first one then the other outboard stabiliser entirely beneath the foaming dark green sea. Gabrielle eventually, heavens knew how, re-gained control; gave the Pegasus another burst of throttle and by judicious, not to say miraculous, use of her ailerons and rudder directed the ungainly plane towards the destroyer and its already deployed cutter waiting some hundred yards away. Gabrielle had landed.
“We're down, Zena.”
“ Oh God! ”
“Told you I could land the old Shagbat on anything, didn't I?”
“ Oh God! ”
“ Phew! That was some bouncy landing, eh? Thought, for a moment, we might have'ta abort an' fly round for another go, but I made it after all.”
“ Oh God! ”
“S'easy! I knew there wouldn't be anythin' to it. God, I'm one helluva pilot, ain't I, Zena?”
“ Oh God! ”
It had been found expedient to leave Gabrielle in charge of the still bucking Walrus, with a sea-drogue run out astern in lieu of an anchor. Zena had been taken across the tossing waves in the cutter, to meet the Navy ship. A few seconds more found Zena in the gun-room of the small destroyer, attended by two young Lieutenants and the Captain himself. All three officers wore startled expressions. The first action the Captain took was to cross to the sideboard, necessarily screwed to the floor, and pour his visitor a stiff rum-and-nothing.
“Good morning, er, madam.” Captain Maltravers was usually a man of few words and tight discipline; but he knew when a really strong snort was needed. “Here, knock this back. Navy rum, it'll take the back of your head off, but I think you need it.”
After a short pause Zena raised her eyebrows, took the glass, and dutifully knocked its contents back. While she bent over, speechless, nearly breathless, and gasping for air, the Captain went on regardless; obviously well used to the effect his ship's rum ration had on the unsuspecting.
“So, we were not, ah, expecting ladies to join us for this little binge. Eh, Sanders?”
“Damn strai—I mean, no sir. Certainly not.” The Lieutenant stumbled for the mot juste to suit the occasion; and not finding it, fell back into silence.
“But still, there's a war on, eh what!” The Captain was a product of both Eton and Cambridge. His officers having the opinion among themselves that he still saw present circumstances as not much more than a jolly good Rag. “I must say I'll be damn glad to get rid of this, er, little toy we happen to have received. Where is it, by the way Sanders?”
“In your day-cabin, sir. In the safe. Shall I get it, sir?”
“Certainly.” Captain Maltravers nodded his assent, then returned to his duty as host. “Sanders won't be a couple of minutes. Unless he forgets the combination again, harumph ! Anyway, you'll be glad to take the, er, object on board an' fly it safely to, er, wherever you happen to be flyin' it to. No, don't tell me—walls have ears, y'know—words mean lives, what—can't be too careful, eh. Do you really think it was wise; landing that, er, somewhat ungainly aircraft in this weather? We all thought you'd crash, y'know.”
“Gab— haah , Gabrielle can land in any weather. No big deal.” Zena had finally caught her breath. That Navy rum certainly lived up to all the advertisements. “No, I won't take a re-fill, thanks. So, what is this, umm , thing everyone seems so nervous about, may I ask?”
There was a short silence in the gun-room, which Zena finally interpreted as—no, they weren't going to tell her what it was—when the slightly embarrassing situation was broken by the return of Lieutenant Sanders.
“Here we are, sir.” Saying which he leaned down and deposited a small closed wooden box on the gun-room table.
“Thank you, Sanders.” Captain Maltravers indicated the object with an extended hand, and looked at Zena. “There it is. Doesn't look much. Only a wooden box; but what's inside could alter the course of the war. No, don't ask. I'm not going to tell you what it is. No-one will, so save yourself a lot of disappointment by not asking the question of anyone you meet in the course of your further voyages. It's important; you've no doubt been given instructions on where to take it; do so, then forget it ever existed.”
“Where did you get it, sir?” Zena was nothing if not determined, and a tad inquisitive still.
“Inquisitive blighter ain't you, madam.” Maltravers raised an eyebrow and assumed a confident, commanding expression. “I think, perhaps, our discussion is over. I will say, however, that our ship here is somewhat lighter regarding depth-charges and heavier regarding some few prisoners from a country I need hardly name. So, madam, do you really think your, ah, valiant pilot will be able to take-off again in this weather?”
“If Gabrielle could land in a gale, she can take-off in a gale.” Zena thought a smidgen of self-confidence was allowable in the circumstances. “Thank you for the rum, and the advice, sir. Bon voyage.”
“Bon voyage, indeed, madam.” Captain Maltravers was nothing if not the epitome of manners. “Lieutenant Sanders, show our guest back to the cutter, and take her back to her plane.”
The small, but surprisingly heavy, wooden case was enveloped in a shapeless grey canvas bag whose open neck was tied by a tight length of cord and locked with a small padlock. Lieutenant Sanders made a point of returning this padlock key to his own pocket, before handing the object over to Zena. Then with a parting nod from Captain Maltravers, she headed once more for the open deck and the return voyage over the rolling waves to Gabrielle.
The cutter had left on its homeward run to the destroyer, lying a hundred yards off like a sleek greyhound. Gabrielle, during her wait and to take her mind off the unruly thumping and rolling Walrus, had been examining the ship in detail. It was her boast that the type of British navy vessel, of any size, did not exist which she could not recognise. This representative of His Majesty's Navy, however, had her flummoxed. It had a low square bridge structure; two double-barrelled gun-turrets forward, and a single double-barrelled turret aft. It had two low funnels, of varying heights, and several anti-aircraft flak guns along its sides; while towards the rear was an open space where a low pipe-like machine sat. A triple-barrelled torpedo-launcher, to Gabrielle's expert eye. But still she could not name the ship-type, which annoyed her considerably. Then her thoughts were broken by the arrival of the cutter with Zena. A minute later the rather hairy, not to say outrightly dangerous, act of Zena clambering through the open side-door just under the lower wing was successfully accomplished to everyone's satisfaction; not least a soaked Zena.
“God, I'm soaked to the skin, dammit.”
“Don't drip on me then, thanks.” The blonde pilot could be harsh when required. “Did you close the door properly? OK-OK, only askin'. God, you'll never get to be a vicar's wife, if ya keep usin' language like that. So, did everything go off well? I saw that lumpy grey thing you threw aboard. Is that— it ?”
“Yep, that's it.” Zena settled back in her seat, on Gabrielle's right-hand, and grinned in satisfaction. “The Captain insisted on givin' me a tot of rum. Mmm .”
“Ha! Thought I could smell it on your breath.” Gabrielle affected a sneering tone. “And here's me, the gal who got us down on this tumbling sea, an' I get damn all. Hummph !”
“Well, ya get to take-off in this weather—I hope.”
“Huh! Don't hope, be certain!” Gabrielle was nothing if not assured of her capability. “This ain't nothing but a light breeze, ducks. Strapped in again? Right, here we go—upwards and onwards.”
The spectators on the destroyer were as interested in the Walrus's attempt to take-off as they had been overwhelmed by its earlier safe landing. Three different Petty-Officers had opened books on, in order of likelihood, the Walrus nose-diving in pieces in the heavy waves, and the cutter being sent out to the rescue; the flying-boat staggering into the air somehow, but then being caught by the wind and thrown back into the sea; and finally, Petty-Officer Dawson being the sort of chap who always looked on the bright side, the Walrus would take-off and disappear into the clouds without a problem. The latter, it need hardly be reported, was the least taken-up by the throngs of sailors anxious to part with their money before the flag went up.
Gabrielle dealt with the sea-drogue, a sort of long open-ended canvas tube, by throwing up a switch which released its catches; leaving the canvas bobbing on the surface behind them as she gave the throttle a strong push forward, and trod on the pedals operating the ailerons. The Walrus, ungainly at the best of times, rocked and bounced like a live thing as it negotiated the wildly undulating seas. Finally head into wind, Gabrielle wasted no time in testing the wind speed or gauging the run of the sea; she gave the mighty Pegasus engine full throttle, gripped the control-wheel grimly and sat forward gazing through the windscreen with absolute concentration.
On board the destroyer the sailors watched as the huge wings bobbed up and down; rocked sideways, drowning each stabiliser completely underwater in turn as a particularly heavy sea hit the machine; making it disappear from sight in a thick cloud of white spray, like the explosion of a depth-charge. Then the rocking plane re-appeared, heaving on the waves like a piece of flotsam. The spray from the waves once more hid the boat-like hull completely, so that only a pair of wings and the huge engine could be seen; spray flinging back in the engine's wake as if it were throwing fuel from its radial valves. It rocked nose-up; bounced down with its tail up; nearly disappeared again; came back into view, like a submarine rising from the depths; then started a long run over the rolling snapping waves. For the longest time all that was visible to the intent observers on the destroyer was a heaving cloud of misty spray; then out of this, like a phoenix rising from the flames, the bulky ungainly Walrus hove into view, nose up and gaining height: it had taken off successfully. In a staggering, half-hearted, crashing-bouncing manner; but it had taken off. Another thirty seconds and it disappeared into the low cloud cover.
“Well Lieutenant Sanders, that's either the best bit of flying I've ever seen; or the damndest piece of pure luck that's ever happened.” Captain Maltravers shrugged, then returned to the duties of the day. “How much did you lose, Sanders? And how many depth-charges have we left?”
“Twelve bob, sir.” The unsuccessful gambler mused on his losses for a moment, then came back to his duty. “Eighteen, sir.”
“Well Lieutenant, it's a bloody awful day out here in the North Atlantic. I don't know about you, but I have nothing better to do. Let's see if we can't find ourselves another U-boat. Course 125 East, speed fifteen knots.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“ ‘ PD6 Ramona '. Lem'me see. OK, that's ‘ Secular-B ' code for ‘ a battleship has entered harbour .' ”
The radio had just finished transmitting its incoming message; and Zena had just re-surfaced after a few intense minutes de-coding it in extremely trying circumstances: the plane was still bouncing around the sky like a flat wooden board in a hurricane, not an unreasonable description of their present plight.
“Oh God.” Gabrielle shuffled in her seat and took a tighter grip of the control-wheel. “Does that mean we can't land at Scapa?”
“What about putting the wheels down an' paying Kirkwall aerodrome a visit?” Gabrielle could see the easy way out with the best.
“Strict instructions not to land on land at Scapa, dear.” Zena, however, had absorbed all the small print of their earlier instructional message. “This is a SOE operation, an' nobody must know anything's happening out of the ordinary. There'll be an SOE wallah waiting at Rosyth to see we get aboard the Mosquito alright; then we're on our own.”
“God Zena, we're always on our own.” Gabrielle let rip unenthusiastically. “That's what really gets me about this sort'a thing. No-one ever wants to admit anything's ever happening at all. Everything we do seems to be so secret, they'll have to invent a new word to describe just how secret everything we do is.”
The roar of the giant Bristol Pegasus radial engine above their heads drummed through the cockpit of the Walrus. As a result both women could feel the whole fabric of the plane vibrating. If Zena put down a pencil on the small shelf (actually a thin ledge) just at her right elbow, then that pencil would inevitably roll off to fall on the floor, which was uneven, and disappear into the forward cockpit space where the tunnel leading to the front gun was located. Getting it back from there, while in flight, would be extremely annoying.
The Walrus, not being the greatest designed flying-boat in the world, had a tendency to roll from side to side in anything like a crosswind, or even a respectable headwind. The pusher-propeller exerting its great force on the tail and rudder made handling the machine something of a physical assault course. And, like any other plane, it was freezing cold in the cockpit.
“Well? Where can we land then?” Gabrielle imbued her question with just the right aura of snappishness; which, of course, was a mistake.
“You can land anywhere you want, kind lady.” Zena was mistress of this sort of repartee. “Honolulu! Atlantic City! Monte Carlo! Buenos Aires! The World's your oyster, Gabs. Of course, the fact we only have fuel to reach either Wick or Inverness is really of no consequence whatever.”
“OK! OK! I get the point.” Gabrielle knew when to give up graciously; or in her case, ungraciously. “Seeing as you'll only bite my ear for the next hour otherwise, I shall condescend to take your advice, navigator. Where to?”
“Co-pilot—gunner—bombardier—navigator, if you please.” The dark-haired one dearly loved a title. “Wait a minute. 200, divided by 127, add 3/4, an' carry 6. Gabs? We can't make Inverness. The furthest we can manage, if we miss out Wick, is Invergordon.”
Gabrielle scratched her nose with a gloved hand, her usual method of taking thought; then made an indeterminate noise, and shrugged her shoulders.
“What was that, dearest?”
“ Hurpph! ” Gabrielle, even after deep thought, was still in two minds. “What's Wick got to offer?”
“Apart from the aerodrome an' the harbour? Nothing. It's a hick town.” Zena let her natural cruelty roam free, always a satisfaction to her when telling it like it was.
“And Inver-wherever? Wait a minute, Zena; I remember reading about that place in the NAAFI library. It has a good, or as they say here in Scotland, a bonny bay.” Gabrielle sniggered at her own joke. She did so because Zena had made it her policy not to. “Virtually enclosed on all sides, with a small entrance to the sea. You have to come in from the sea, because of high ground landward. Oh, an' there's a big Naval presence; because of the harbour, y'know.”
“So what you're trying to tell me is, we're goin' to Inver-wherever?”
“It's so nice to be really clear about these things.” Zena sniffed, in a snobbish manner she had recently perfected. “Don't know what I'd do without you, darling. Probably get on better.”
“Huh! Nae chance o' that, ma wee bonny lassie.” Gabrielle had been studying the local vernacular back at Scapa. “Is it no the muckle bletherskite ye'll be for showin' yersel, hen?”
“What?” Zena laughed, against her better judgement. “Nonsense. Talk English, Gabs. Or better still, talk New Zealander. Maybe then we won't end up in the Isle of Lewis, like we nearly did the last time you navigated us back to Scapa.”
“A technical problem.” Gabrielle was instantly on the defensive. “How was I to know the compass had developed jaundice, and started losing three degrees on every reading? Good job I eventually noticed, and hauled out the substitute compass. Yet another case of my saving your bacon, sister.”
“That'll be the day.”
Another hour and a half found them flying down the Moray Firth, rather more like a dry leaf being blown along in an Autumn gale than was really comfortable. A quick side-slip at the right moment, turning the nose to starboard, and losing altitude at an alarming rate, and they saw the opening to the bay at Invergordon spreading wide before them.
“Better let the people on the ground know we're coming in to visit.” Gabrielle was nothing if not pedantic about good manners. “Don't want our own anti-aircraft guns opening up on us. Is there a Balloon Barrage around Invergordon?”
“Balloons? Probably to landward, be silly if they haven't,—but we're coming in from the sea.” Zena had her head down, studying a sheaf of documents. “I'll call the main Invergordon Command; got their frequency here. Should I use ‘ Schubert ', ‘ Xenophon-128 ', or ‘ Amazon-Green ' code, Gabs? What d'ya think?
“I'm busy here, Zena.” Gabrielle grumbled through clenched teeth. The Walrus was rocking like a roller-coaster; and she needed all her strength to hang onto the control-column. Her energies were all taken up. “Use your intelligence, girl. ‘ Schubert ' is for SOE use only. ‘ Xenophon-128 ' is strictly for our long reports to Somerset House in London. An' ‘ Amazon-Green ' is the general day-code for all RAF planes reporting to base. What does that tell you, baby.”
“OK-OK, ‘ Amazon-Green ' it is. Only askin'.” The New Zealander bared her perfect teeth in a grumpy growl. “I knew already. I did.”
At this juncture, a minute after Zena had finally sent the radio message and at a height of one thousand feet and rapidly decreasing, Gabrielle discovered the centre of the bay was taken up by a battle-cruiser lying at anchor side-on to their approach. To port of the mighty vessel were two large destroyers, and to starboard were a group of what might be corvettes or mine-sweepers.
“Looks like they've left me a channel of about thirty feet in length an' twenty feet wide to land on.” Gabrielle leaned forward, examining the terrain. “It's gon'na be tight, Zena.”
Zena closed her eyes; after all, what was the purpose in keeping them open? The radio buzzed and a tinny hollow voice could be heard repeating a series of disconnected words, in rather a frantic manner.
“Message from Invergordon Command, Gabs.” The dark-haired navigator leant over the crackling radio, pencil travelling scratchily over her notebook as the message came through. “Seems rather anxious about something. It'll take me five minutes to de-code it. The fool's using the ‘ Bolero ' cypher—ya know how bloody difficult that is to de-code.”
“Bugger ‘ Bolero '.” Gabrielle had other things on her mind. “Take no notice; they'll go away. We ain't got any more time. The old Peggie's only running on a faint lingering aroma of fuel that used to be! Here we go.”
The high rolling hills behind Invergordon had cut off most of the earlier force of the gale, but it was still more than windy. Gabrielle let the plane glide down till they were only fifty feet above the still choppy sea, then gave the engine a touch of throttle, eased the flaps, and brought the Walrus down onto the water just inside the harbour-bay. There were a few bounces, a series of giant splashes of spray which over-topped the plane before crashing over it; then the Walrus shot across the harbour, missing the cruiser's side by a fair forty feet; before running on to come to a halt within thirty feet of the nearest destroyer, on whose deck there was visible a sudden burst of frantic activity.
“There we are, Zena. As nice as ninepence. Looks as if we've woken the entire harbour up.” Gabrielle sat back, dragged her gloves off, and peered nonchalantly through the windscreen. “What's that officer guy on the destroyer sayin', Zena? The one who's waving his arms around like an apoplectic chicken.”
The dark-haired navigator had just opened her eyes again, and was looking around with a sort of startled expression, as if amazed to see they had actually landed in one piece.
“Him? Oh, he's just gallantly telling you how much he appreciates your wonderful piloting, in only just not reducing his beautiful boat to a heap of scrap, darling. Gabrielle?”
“Yes. Is that what he's really sayin'? Seems a little agitated t'me. Can't think why.”
“Gabs, don't ever do that again, please. My nerves can't stand it.”
“Hi-ho, Zena. So, who's goin' to go off to the petrol-dump, wherever it is, an' pull SOE rank an' ask for more fuel?”
An hour later Zena had communicated with the Captain of the destroyer; Gabrielle had communicated with the Admiral on the Battle-cruiser; Gabrielle and Zena together had communicated with both destroyer Captains, the Admiral, and the five corvette Captains, and a resolution had been approved by all parties. The two women would be given as much fuel as they could possibly want, from the Cruiser's tanks; the destroyers, simply out of the kindness of their hearts, would vacate their positions for a time; and with the extra space available Gabrielle would take-off again, paying the strictest possible attention to the safety of His Majesty's ships. Everyone was pleased.
A few minutes more found the sea left behind and the rolling, sometimes cliff-like, mountains which made up the Highlands passing under the keel of the flying boat; Gabrielle having decided on a straight course South to Rosyth, with no messing about.
“What're these mountains below us, Zena.” Gabrielle peered down through her side-window on the port side of the cockpit with every sign of interest. “I've never visited the Highlands before. How high d'we need to fly, to be safe?”
“Those are the Monadhliath Mountains, Gabs.” The navigator was too engrossed in poring over her charts to look out her own window. “Don't ask if that's the right pronunciation, I bet it isn't. Then there'll be a wide valley, or whatever they're called in this damned wilderness. —”
“Whatever.” Zena was scribbling mathematical equations on her notebook, and replied off-handedly. “Then there's another group of mountains, the Cairngorms. My notes here say they're the worst of the lot. For God's sake don't crash anywhere on them, Gabs; we'll never be found again.”
“These look just like rolling hills to me.” Gabrielle was unimpressed. “The sort'a thing sheep graze on down in England, with nice views of the sea.”
“Well these are the Highlands, in Scotland,—and they'll bite you on the ass as soon as look at you, take my word.” Zena obviously felt the concept of self-preservation had its good points. “Then comes a third mountain range, the Grampians, after which ya just need t'keep an eye out for the Sidlaw Hills to port an' then the Ochil Hills dead ahead again; then we're there—”
“Hell. This damn terrain obviously never heard of the phrase ‘ too much of a good thing '.” The blonde pilot snorted in disgust. “Bloody hills. How high did ya say?”
“Make it 4,500ft. That'll settle their hash.” Zena took the view that you could never fly too high when crossing a mountain range. “If ya wan'na climb to 5,000ft, I won't mind.”
Gabrielle gave the Pegasus another touch of throttle; the engine roared louder behind them; and she gently pulled back on the control-wheel, gauging her speed carefully as the nose rose in the air. Soon the required height had been reached and the mountains spread out below like a huge map; looking curiously unreal, as the ground always did in these circumstances.
“Zena, I was thinkin', after we retu—”
Brrpp! Brrpp! Brrpp! Brrpp!
The series of bangs seemed to sweep along the length of the plane's fuselage behind the cockpit, followed by a smell of burning rubber and hot metal. A dark silhouette swept past on the port side of the Walrus; diving low below them, then rising nose-up with a swiftness that defied belief.
Crrrp! Crrrp! Crrrp! Crrrp! Crrrp!
Another series of crashes hit the plane, sending a shudder through the whole airframe and rocking the women in their seats; pieces of shrapnel sliced through the confined space with evil whines. Another shape whizzed past the Walrus on the starboard side, at the speed of a racing car, before it too rose once more into the sky in a graceful curve. The last bang seemed to be right at their feet, in the cockpit; and as Zena swivelled in her seat to glance down she saw a large hole in the port side fuselage a foot or so behind the seats, with the shattered remains of a fuse-box fixed against the side streaming smoke.
“ Aargh , Zena. I'm hit.” Gabrielle's voice was full of pain. “Something hit me in the lower back, right side. Aaah! It hurts.”
Zena clambered out of her seat and with some difficulty crouched beside Gabrielle's chair. A swift examination showed a tear in the blonde's flying jacket, exposing the internal sheepskin lining; and caught in this was a jagged piece of small metal. Zena carefully caught hold of the sharp edge and pulled it free. There was no blood.
“Undo your jacket. And for God's sake lose height, quickly.”
Zena pulled the loose jacket aside and ran her fingers along Gabrielle's lower ribs beneath her shirt, but thankfully there was no sign of an open wound.
“There'll just be a bruise, Gabs.” Zena grabbed hold of the back of Gabrielle's seat. “No cut or blood. You're lucky. Those were Focke-Wulfs. We're up shit creek. There's no way our two machine-guns can equal their cannon.”
“God, my ribs hurt. I think one might be broken.”
“Can you still fly, Gabs?”
“Yeah. I'm OK.” The blonde pilot took in a large breath, and looked at her companion with a wide grin. “Take more than this to make me cry. OK, we're goin' down to hedge height. Let's see how those bastards like flyin' at daisy level over the mountains.”
Brrnng! Brrnng! Brrnng! Brrnng!
The whole plane shuddered, as if being punched by a giant, or an Ancient God. There were several explosions back in the rear, and the smell of burning was much stronger. Just as Zena turned to peer back she saw flames licking at the fuselage side some way down the interior. She grabbed the small fire-extinguisher behind the seats and crouched down to make her way along to the scene of the outbreak.
“Fire, Gabs. I'm goin' to put it out. There's another extinguisher down there. Keep losin' height. I'll man the waist gun when the fire's out.”
Gabrielle shoved the control-column forward, lowered the flaps, and eased the nose down; heading for a rolling hillside, seemingly covered in a sea of grey boulders as far as the eye could see.
“How're you doin', Zena?”
No answer, just strange noises from the bowels of the plane, mixed with the competing smells of burning rubber, scorched metal, smoke, and hot air in a confined space. Then Zena's head re-appeared at Gabrielle's side.
“All out. No more fire. Yeah, you're doin' good. Try an' skim over those boulders down there as close as you can get.” The New Zealander turned to go back along the fuselage. “I'll see if a few squirts from the waist gun'll make them sit up an' take notice.”
“How many are there, Zena? Two?”
“Three, I think. We got'ta get low, an' stay low—it's our only hope. Focke-Wulfs don't like grass-hopping.”
The Walrus finally reached the top of the mountains. Gabrielle levelled off and concentrated on flying the plane just above the boulder-strewn surface of the hill. She was hardly forty feet above the ground, but wondered if she shouldn't lose a little more height still. The plane suddenly vibrated in a particular way with which Gabrielle was well used. Zena had started firing the Vickers K machine-gun in the waist. She knew it was nothing more than a bluff on their part. The gun's .303 bullets were not in the same league as the German 20mm cannon rounds. If the Focke-Wulfs got a good unobstructed run at the Walrus they could literally blow it out of the sky with ease. It was Gabrielle's job to prevent this, and the only course was flying as near the ground as possible—and changing direction as often as she was able.
Suddenly she saw a shadow directly ahead, closing with her fast. In an instant she had veered to port and increased her throttle. The fighter rushed past on her starboard side so close she could read the identification numbers on its fuselage, and see the gun-ports on the wings flashing fire. Then it was lost to view behind her. But Gabrielle inadvertently glanced up, and saw another silhouette racing along at around 1,000ft, keeping tabs on her. The slightest mistake and she would be scattered over the side of the mountain, in little pieces. She still didn't know if there were two, or three, Focke-Wulfs on her tail.
The hill-crest had passed under her keel almost unnoticed. The far side of the hill fell away with horrifying speed, at a horrifying angle; leaving Gabrielle once more flying at an altitude of around 1,000ft or so. Far too high to escape the hunters waiting for just this eventuality. The fuselage was once more vibrating to the Vickers gun, then came what Gabrielle most feared.
Crrngg! Crrngg! Crrngg! Crrngg! Crrngg!
Without a moment's notice Zena's seat, beside Gabrielle, suddenly erupted in fragments—a cannon shell having exploded against the fuselage-side just to the rear of the starboard seat. For several seconds the cockpit was filled with shrapnel; pieces of seat covering; assorted fragments of equipment; and general odds-and-sods. The cockpit was also filled with a thick acrid white smoke or vapour. The bow and cockpit of the Walrus jerked and reverberated like a whale hit by a harpoon, and Gabrielle's ears rang with the concussion. She looked down at her flying-jacket, and saw several new rents running across the front, exposing the sheepskin lining. Lowering her gaze, she saw a great tear on the thick leather boot on her right foot, and a thin trail of blood running down the exterior over her ankle; but there was no pain or discomfort from this or any other wound. She gripped the control-column and once again pushed it forward, with a fervent prayer.
A few seconds later she was again down at ground level. She followed the descending angle of the hillside and pulled up level as the bottom of the glen was reached. She was now flying along a narrow valley, the glen, with high hills rising on each side to great heights. The German fighters couldn't follow her in this situation and, peering up through the glass top of the cockpit, Gabrielle could see no further sign of the aircraft. As she gazed ahead she saw a widening of the valley approaching; then this revealed itself as the crossing of another glen with the one she was flying through. This other glen seemed to have several good points in its favour. It was lined by enormously high mountains on either hand; it was extremely narrow; and it seemed to carry on, in the direction she wanted to fly, for several miles. Waiting for just the exact best moment, Gabrielle suddenly lowered the port wings slightly; gave a few degrees of flaps, and boosted the engine. She flew into the new glen like a dart on its course towards the board. A small rocky stream ran along the centre of the glen, and Gabrielle lined up her course with this; keeping as close to thirty feet above the ground as she could.
“Looks like we lost the buggers, Gabs.” Zena re-appeared at the blonde pilot's side; then noticed the damage which the cockpit had sustained. “ Jesus! What's happened? Are ya alright, Gabs?”
“I think I may be shot to pieces, Zena.” Gabrielle spoke in a shaky voice, while still keeping a sharp eye on her course and height. “My jacket's been torn to shreds, an' my right boot's leaking.”
Zena did a quick reconnaissance of the tattered front of Gabrielle's flying-jacket, and thankfully found no penetrating wound.
“Your chest's OK, gal. Nothing got through to your skin, thank God.”
Zena then bent down and gently pulled off the torn and blood-stained boot, placing it to one side amongst the debris of the wrecked cockpit. Then she slowly and gently pulled down the long woollen sock, part of which was blood-stained too. This revealed a small cut, around an inch and a half long, about three inches above her ankle. It had bled freely, but now seemed to have stopped of its own accord. It was not deep, hardly having penetrated the outer skin.
“It's a slight flesh wound, Gabs.” Zena heaved the longest deepest sigh of relief of her life. “I can put a dressing on it, an' you should be able to walk OK. Maybe hurt for a few days, but it ain't serious.”
“Thank God for that.” Gabriele was still absorbed in her flying, so didn't look over at her companion. “Thanks, Zena. Don't know where I'd be without you. Glad you're here.”
A few minutes later Zena re-closed the medical kit box and helped Gabrielle push her boot back on.
“The injection I gave ya in the leg should stop any infection, an' help with the pain for a while.” Zena allowed a note of humour to enter her voice. “Now the minor things have been seen to, what about the major questions?”
“And they would be—what?”
Gabrielle, on Zena's advice, had pulled the Walrus back up to mountain-top height, and they were again flying fairly freely; though still anxious about the Focke-Wulfs perhaps returning.
“Where do I sit?” Zena laughed, with a rich contralto note. “I mean, look what those damned Krauts did to my seat.”
“What about me, Zena?” The blonde pilot wasn't going to let her partner have all the fun. “Shot to pieces, or nearly anyway. There's a hole in the fuselage just behind me, as large as a dining table, that's blowing a gale round my legs. An' I think the upper port wing's thinking of falling off, in the near future. Any ideas?”
“Keep on this course, girl.” Zena snorted in reply. “Those Germans have gone. We have a straight run to Rosyth, then we can change this tattered relic for a bright new Mosquito. I'll fly the Mosquito; let you have a rest. You'll like the Mosquito, Gabs—it has cannon!”
The rest of the flight was uneventful, and Rosyth proved to be an altogether larger concern than Invergordon. There was a huge amount of space on the Firth of Forth, if you avoided the Railway bridge with its three huge cantilevered red towers.
“So—Rosyth Command? Better let ‘em know we're here, I expect. What frequency are they on today, I wonder.” Zena was in her element. Single sheets of paper were falling onto the vibrating floor of the wrecked cockpit from her note-folder; while others she discarded with a sneer. “OK, got it—137.28. I don't think the ‘ Amazon-Green ' code went down very well back at Invergordon, Gabs. Think I'll try the ‘ Winterchief ' cypher this time—it's fairly easy to de-code, when you know how. Don't want to strain their brains, down there in Scotland.”
“Whatever, Zena.” Gabrielle was past being interested. “Have you got the whole ‘ Dictionary of Secret British Codes ' there, or what?”
“Huh! I'm the sort'a gal who likes t'be prepared, that's all. A little higher, Gabs.” Zena tried to influence her pilot's tendency to scrape the paint off anything she flew over. “It's a bloody bridge, Gabs. A bloody big bridge. You're too low.”
“Stop whinin'.” Gabrielle concentrated on the essentials; just missing the massive object by a fraction and no more: she was like that. “Plenty of room. Send the bloody radio message; though what the possible need for it is I don't know, then go back to the waist door; an' be ready to open it like a shot. An' don't forget t'grab hold of that damned ‘ thing ' in the canvas bag; we've come too far, an' had a damn sight too much trouble, to lose it now. An' don't forget to pull the lever for the rubber dinghy. This crate'll probably sink when we land, y'know.”
“ Jeesus! Gabs! Higher! Higher!”
In the event the Walrus, groaning in every joint, staggered over the bridge with around thirty feet to spare. Infinity, in Gabrielle's opinion. Zena, after sending her necessarily short radio message, had ducked into the waist of the plane heading for the door; things could only get worse.
Gliding down in an easy curve, Gabrielle felt the plane quivering throughout its whole battered frame as the water below drew closer. She gave the situation in the cockpit one last glance, and tightened her lips. She had not been joking, as Zena well knew, when she had suggested the plane might sink. The wide hole torn in the fuselage just behind her seat had been letting a veritable gale blow through the cockpit for the last hour. The holes in the starboard side, where Zena's seat used to be, were just as major. Back in the fuselage, as Zena had reported to Gabrielle earlier, there were a whole series of cannon and machine-gun holes throughout the fuselage. Several electric circuits had been broken, and at least two hydraulic valves. Gabrielle was reasonably sure the main-strut on the upper port wing had been badly splintered. The tail-rudder and flaps were only operating at 60% efficiency; and Zena's examination had revealed that several cannon-holes existed in the lower boat-hull; some of them a foot wide. There were no suitable aerodromes in the Rosyth vicinity for them to make a wheels-down landing; which was out of the question anyway, as the broken hydraulics were those affecting the undercarriage: which Gabrielle couldn't now lower. It was going to have to be a sea landing, or a crash on land.
The waves came into view directly ahead of Gabrielle, as she looked through the windscreen. She lowered the flaps, eased off on the throttle, pushed the control-column gently forward, and was rewarded by a thump, thump, thump, hissss , as the plane took to the surface of the Firth and began running over the waves.
Then Gabrielle was immediately made aware that most of those waves were entering the forward fuselage, and her cockpit, via the holes in the airframe. A gurgle came to her ears from the starboard side, where the remains of Zena's seat were located. On her own side she could hear, then feel, the water rushing through the large hole behind her seat. As she took her flying-helmet off she could also hear gurgling rushing liquid noises from back in the dark reaches of the fuselage. The plane came to a halt far more quickly and sluggishly than usual, and Gabrielle realised the nose was already down at sea-level, and the water was up to her knees in the cockpit.
“Zena! Zena! There's no time. I'm goin' out through the cockpit roof. Get out'ta here. Now! Use the door.”
“I hear ya. Go, girl. I'll pull the rubber dinghy lever as I go. Get out'ta it!”
Gabrielle reached up, flipped a couple of catches loose, and threw up the glass window-frame which made up the cockpit roof. Grasping the edges she pulled her boots out of the water in the rapidly flooding cockpit, and slid up and over the side. For a moment she was underwater, in the cold sea, then she re-surfaced and began swimming quickly away from the scene of the disaster.
Zena, grasping the edge of the open waist door with one hand and clutching the ungainly soft canvas bag containing the mysterious wooden box against her chest with the other, waited till she saw the legs and boots of her friend disappear upwards in the cockpit. Then she crouched down in the fuselage by the door, took one last look at the interior of the now nearly half-full plane, eased herself through the waist-high water and dived free into the sea. She came back to the surface just in time to catch the trailing rope of the dinghy she had released. The canvas bag lay heavily against her side, held there by the long cord attached to it which she had thrown over her opposite shoulder round her neck. Fighting a sudden tendency in this cord to wrap itself fully round her neck and strangle her, she grabbed the edge of the dinghy with one hand and began swimming with the other; the heavy bag bumping against her ribs with every stroke. Seconds later she was yards away from the sinking aeroplane.
“Over here. I can see the dinghy.”
Two minutes later they both trod water by the side of the rubber dinghy, holding onto the ropes along its sides. Zena gave her blonde partner a hand and, with a powerful heave from her, Gabrielle slid into the water lapping on the bottom of the yellow dinghy. Another minute saw Gabrielle able to help her partner aboard, and they both sat back with sighs of relief to watch the outcome of the scene before them.
The fuselage of the Walrus was now submerged as far as the lower wings. No sign of the cockpit could be seen, or the forward fuselage. The tail was higher in the air than normal, and the great Bristol Pegasus engine leaned at a high angle into the air. Suddenly there was a rush of escaping air and the lower wing disappeared below the surface. The tail and engine rose vertically into the air. The propeller blades looking, to Gabrielle at least, curiously out of place in their nearly horizontal position. There was another, more sustained, hissing, creaking, grinding series of noises then the plane slipped under the waves and disappeared for good. The women were left bobbing around on the surface in their dinghy; the houses, shipyards and cranes of Rosyth clearly visible about half a mile away on their right hand.
“Well, we made it to Rosyth, Gabs. You, me,—and this damned box, goddam it! Great flying.”
“Only just, Zena. Wonder what Group Captain Graham's going to say when we report breaking a second Walrus? Oh look, here comes a rescue boat. Not before time.”
The rescue boat turned out to be a local tug, short and stumpy, with a single low funnel belching black smoke, and a tendency to bounce over the waves like a cork from a bottle. Gabrielle felt worse on the voyage of five hundred yards or so back to the dock than she had during the whole of her preceding air-flight. Zena dealt with the group of red-capped military police awaiting their arrival on the cold windy wooden dock by waving their SOE authorisation cards, claiming diplomatic immunity, and giving them three separate telephone numbers to consult. The first thing the officer-in-command had noticed on their arrival, and commented on, was the fact that the two women were soaked through. The Captain gave a few orders to his accompanying sergeant, sending the NCO off in search of suitable replacement uniforms. By the time the Captain had completed his examination of their security passes the sergeant had returned, complete with two sets of shirts, trousers, shoes and socks, and other necessaries. The women changed in a small room of the low ramshackle command-post nearby, thanking the Captain for his kindness. Fifteen minutes later the women were free to go; leaving four military police-officers; the anonymous Army Captain; the tug-captain; a Lieutenant from the nearby cruiser; and the Harbour-Master, all arguing over who was responsible for the now submerged wreck of the Walrus and what was going to be done about it.
As they expected, on reaching the entrance to the dock Zena and Gabrielle found patiently awaiting them a grey-featured man, in a grey suit, standing beside a grey saloon car, and a dark blue truck. He gave them the keys to the truck, which was one size up from their own ‘ Tilly '; a map showing the location, some considerable distance outside Rosyth, of the aerodrome where their next plane awaited them; and also provided at no extra expense, as he himself said with a weak attempt at humour, authorisation papers allowing them to take command of the Mosquito fighter. A minute later he had climbed back inside his grey car and driven off in a cloud of grey smoke; his carburetter, as Gabrielle snidely remarked, obviously needing seeing to.
Zena took the wheel of the truck and with Gabrielle acting as navigator, sitting on the left side of the cab, they soon found the road and sped off. There was very little traffic, and no check-points to slow their journey. Within forty minutes the entrance to the aerodrome hove into view and they entered the military complex; the time now being 2.30pm in the afternoon. There were a number of necessary security checks to go through but finally they found themselves given the freedom of the aerodrome, within certain limits. This turning out to be the interior of Hangar 8, with a sergeant constantly at their elbows, taking note of their least action.
Zena, before she would allow anything else, first insisted on their taking time to consult the Medical Officer about Gabrielle's wounds. Zena was deaf to the blonde one's complaints that there was nothing the matter with her, and finally they set off in search of the Medical Centre. The resident Doctor there took Gabrielle into a well-appointed surgery and proceeded to bandage her ribs, one of which was indeed broken, and the wound in her foot; which he said was minor. He also gave her a tetanus shot and a bottle of aspirins. All this time Zena had assiduously kept hold of the canvas bag with its secret contents, hanging by a stout cord round her shoulder. Minutes later they were on their way back to the Mosquito.
The cockpit of a Mosquito was, in some respects, rather different from the usual set-up. Although it was built for two persons, they did not sit side-by-side. Instead the pilot was cramped into the left-hand side of the curiously small cockpit, while the navigator sat on a smaller seat on the pilot's right-hand side, set back slightly behind the pilot. It was all a very tight fit; being rather more uncomfortable for the navigator than the pilot. The Mosquito also had a tail-wheel undercarriage, which meant the tail and fuselage swept up off the runway into the horizontal during take-off while the main wheels were still running on the ground; a completely different situation from the boat-like qualities of the Walrus.
Zena, sitting cramped behind the control-wheel, could not fail to observe the red fire-engine which brazenly followed the Mosquito's course along the runway, keeping on the grass thirty yards to the plane's left. Finally the plane soared, much more smoothly than either woman was used to, into the grey skies and they were off on the next step of their long journey.
“What's the armament on this thing, Zena.” Gabrielle leaned forward to engage her pilot in conversation.
“Four machine-guns right in the nose.” Zena, on her part had to lean down significantly, and crane her neck back to speak to her navigator. “And just under our feet, in the main fuselage, there's four 20mm cannon.”
“Quite an arsenal. I like it.” Gabrielle felt far happier now than she had since leaving Scapa Flow. “Do you fire ‘em together? Or one set at a time?”
“I can take my choice, girl, depending how I feel.” Zena laughed easily. “If any Jerry fighter wants to try their luck, we're ready for them this time.”
Of course, if Zena had been an Ancient Greek warrior she would never have said such a thing—her words obviously being hubris, and taking the Fates' names in vain. To an Ancient Greek warrior speaking so would have been unthinkable. But Zena was not an Ancient Greek warrior; at least, as far as she knew—so let her remark pass as a funny quip. Though, for some reason, she did feel an icy cold chill running down her spine.
“God, it's damn cold in this cockpit, ain't it Zena?” The blonde navigator shivered dramatically, though wrapped in a brand-new sheepskin-lined flying-jacket. “Isn't there a heater?”
“Nah. What d'ya think this is—a Rolls Royce? OK-OK, I know it has Rolls Royce Merlin engines.” Zena wriggled her shoulders, and settled lower in her seat. “Every RAF plane's cold, Gabs. Thought you'd have figured that out by now. Didn't we discuss this earlier in the morning?”
“Can't remember—it's been a busy day.”
“We ain't flying south over the sea, are we, Gabs?” Zena recalled the hurried conversation between them about their course, as they had prepared to take-off. “So, where to?”
“The sea?—Hell, no.” Gabrielle was nothing if not positive on this topic. “Fly over the briny, an' get shot down in the icy water again? Not bloody likely, mate. It's dry land from here to London for us, Zena. Right, course 068 degrees, an' don't deviate by so much as an inch. An' keep high; about 2,000ft would be nice. The Southern Uplands'll be appearing ahead any minute.”
“What? More mountains? Doesn't this damn country know when to call it a day?”
“Figure that's what Hitler asks himself every morning, over his breakfast cup of tea.”
For a few seconds there was silence, then both women leaned back and roared with laughter. Gabrielle was the first to stop, clutching her ribs in pain; but Zena went on issuing deep-throated grunts of amusement. Gabrielle's remark had just seemed so appropriate.
The Southern Uplands, when they made their appearance below, were a bit of a disappointment; especially to Zena, who was quite cutting in her remarks.
“Mountains? They ain't mountains.” She gave the rolling green slopes sweeping under the plane a cold sneer. “They're just pimples on the backside of Lanarkshire.”
“Wherever.” The black-haired pilot expressed her contempt. “I've seen little girls make bigger sand-castles with their buckets at the sea-shore.”
“Well, don't get too confident, madam.” Gabrielle was a past master at raining on people's parades. “An' keep high. Around 1,500ft at least. The Cheviot Hills'll be appearing pretty shortly after we leave this range behind. Then, past them, you'll see a long extensive line of high hills that'll keep us company almost all the way south; they're the Pennines. Keep them about five miles to starboard at all times as you stay on course.”
“God Almighty.” Zena gave up the fight. “This bloody country has more damn mountains than New Zealand!”
It has been truly said that no-one can escape Nemesis, once She fingers you as a victim. This fate was now rapidly approaching the two women in the Mosquito, though they had no idea this was the case. But they weren't kept in the dark long.
Having overflown the Southern Uplands, the Cheviot Hills, and aligned their course carefully with the dark line of the Pennines off to starboard, Zena was now beginning to relax and think that perhaps the worst was over—but it wasn't.
Thirty-five minutes into the flight their scorn of committing hubris; lack of respect to the Fates; and unknowing awakening of Nemesis, all came to a head at once.
Crrnngg! Crrnngg! Crrnngg! Crrnngg!
“Jesus!” Gabrielle woke with a start from the light doze she had fallen into, as a result of all the medication she had taken.
The frame of the Mosquito rattled and quivered to the burst of cannon fire; which had mainly raked the rear fuselage, as well as the starboard wing. Most of the rounds had gone straight through the wooden frame, and the wooden wing; though two rounds had exploded in the fuselage, causing unknown damage.
Zena brought the plane's port wing up and veered quickly to starboard; losing height as she did so. The Mosquito responded with lightening reactions, as the dark outline of a speeding fighter flashed past on the starboard side. Gabrielle was alert and looking out her side-window.
“Messerschmitt! 109.” She made the identification immediately, recognising the long nose and thick fuselage round the cockpit of the fighter with ease. “Jesus! There's another. Two, Zena!”
The New Zealand pilot's first reflex was, considering their orders, to run for cover instead of mounting a counter-attack. But circumstances put that idea to flight at once. Their only hope, in this situation, was to fight; or be shot down.
“I'm going for Kraut One, Gabs.” Zena made rapid calculations in her head. “They won't be able to attack together. Too much chance of hitting each other. Right, Kraut, let's see who's on form t'day.”
The attacking Messerschmitt had completed its swerving run and now came round, trying to get back on the tail of the Mosquito. But Zena was waiting for just such a move. Guiding the twin-engined plane with gentle pressure on the control-column, she pulled the Mosquito up to port, then side-slipped with stomach-churning power; losing height rapidly, but making the German fighter overshoot. Suddenly the Messerschmitt appeared in her gunsight. Losing not a second, Zena pressed the red firing-button for her cannons, and was rewarded by the heavy quivering of the airframe as the kick-back from the powerful guns took effect. Gabrielle, peering through the windscreen, saw a line of white trailing across the intervening sky between the two planes; then a cloud of dust and debris as the Mosquito's cannon shells raked the whole length of the enemy plane. A ball of smoke materialised, followed by a blast of fire as the Messerschmitt exploded in fiery fragments.
“ Jeesus !”
Zena uttered the cry as she pulled frantically back on the control-column. The last thing she wanted was to fly straight through that oncoming field of broken debris. The Mosquito came up, veering to starboard, and both women felt the rattling bumps as shrapnel hit their plane. Then they were through and flying in clear air once more.
“Where's Kraut Two, Gabs?”
“He's—He's— I can't see him, Zena.”
Their anxiety was answered immediately, however, by a trail of white streaks passing in front of the Mosquito's port wing, as the surviving German fighter let loose another burst of cannon-fire. They both saw the long sleek plane slipping under their port wing, after its attack. Knowing he would curve round behind them and stick on their tail again, Zena yanked the control-column up between her knees; veering to starboard as she did so. The end result, after the passage of a nervous few seconds, was the sighting of the oncoming Messerschmitt dead ahead of them.
“Got the bastard!”
Zena aligned the nose of the Mosquito with her target, but just before she fired her cannon again the enemy pilot saw his danger and veered away, with his starboard wing raised high. The two planes flashed past each other, at a distance of only forty feet or so, at a combined speed of something like 500mph.
“ Uuaarph! ”
Exerting all her strength, Zena pulled the Mosquito's nose round in as tight a curve as she could manage. But luck wasn't on her side. There came the tearing crash of cannon rounds hitting the fuselage once more; then ear-splitting bangs as several of them went off in the rear of the Mosquito, making it rock and quiver like a leaf in a storm. This attack had come from below them, and immediately a red light on the panel to Zena's right started flickering.
“That's the undercarriage hydraulic safety light, Zena.” Gabrielle clearly wasn't as unfamiliar with the Mosquito as she pretended to be. “I think he's buggered-up our landing gear.”
Zena glanced quickly through the port side-window by her left elbow, across through the far starboard window; then concentrated on her instruments, and what was visible through her windscreen. She hadn't seen him, but Kraut Two must have passed them by in gaining height after the attack. She had two possible courses; either continue gaining height herself, or veer to port and lose more height: hoping the enemy plane would appear more or less at that level too. She chose the latter course.
Seconds later she was rewarded by the sight of the Messerschmitt almost in profile as he completed his own manoeuvre. Wasting no element of her surprise appearance, Zena veered to starboard and let rip with another burst of cannon-fire. As Gabrielle watched, the trailing lines of white vapour ran across the sky between the two planes. They intersected with the Messerschmitt and seemed to run across its port wing, before hitting the plane's propeller in a mass of sparks and grey debris. Then it had passed below them once more.
Zena banked the Mosquito hurriedly, not knowing what shape the German plane was in; but both she and Gabrielle heaved sighs of relief on seeing below them the weaving shape of the uncontrolled Messerschmitt trailing a white line of smoke as it nosed towards the ground. Just to its left they also saw the mushroom-like shape of a parachute as the unfortunate pilot descended to the ground himself, rather more slowly and safely.
“Well, that sorted him out, eh!”
“God, Zena!” Gabrielle couldn't keep a note of awe from her voice. “Do you know what you've just done? You shot both Messerschmitts out'ta the sky. That's unbelievable!”
“I was angry!” Zena waved the compliment away. “An' anyway, someone had to protect ya, Gabs.”
“Zena, I love you!”
Their flight had now lasted nearly three hours, and they had long since left the straggling range of the Pennines far behind. By Gabrielle's calculations they were now approaching Northamptonshire, where their final destination lay.
“So, where's this Bletchley Park place, exactly?” Zena had settled down once more to flying the Mosquito at a height of around 1,500ft. “Because I got'ta tell ya Gabs, I ain't confident we can land, y'know. On our undercarriage, at least.”
“God, another crash landing.” Gabrielle, however, sounded more bored than scared. “Gettin' t'be the order of the day, ain't it? Bletchley's just south of a town called Milton Keynes. But we ain't goin' t'land there—there isn't an airstrip. The closest one's at a place called Great Horwood, about five miles west of Bletchley. That's why the powers-that-be have arranged for another truck to be waiting there, as our transport to Bletchley Park itself.”
“God, they really want this damned wooden box there, don't they!” Zena sounded less than pleased about the whole affair; which wasn't surprising. “I'll be glad to see the back of the damned thing.”
“I'd better get on the radio to Great Horwood, I suppose.” Gabrielle started rustling around in the pile of sheets of paper on the small desk-top beside her left arm. “Good job we still have your code-folder, Zena. Bit of luck, you stuffing it into your flying-jacket when we crashed at Rosyth. So, what code d'you think'll suit the chaps down at Horwood?”
“It wasn't luck, dear.” Zena assumed an air of superiority. “I was thinking ahead, like I always do. Try ‘em with the ‘ Darkside ' code. That'll make ‘em sit up an' take notice. It's usually meant for the transporting of Royal, or aristocratic, persons of much importance. That'll make ‘em spill their cocoa. Oh, an' better warn them we're going to crash on their nice clean runway.”
Six minutes later, after an irate exchange of views on the part of the Officer-in-charge at Great Horwood about disabled planes falling on his airfield—all in the nearly impenetrable ‘ Darkside ' code—ruffled feelings were smoothed and permission was given for them to land—if what Zena proposed doing with the disabled Mosquito could by any stretch of the imagination be called landing.
“Here it comes Zena, dead ahead. What a lovely runway!”
Over the last few minutes Zena had tried several times to switch on the undercarriage hydraulics, but without success. They had been comprehensively shot to pieces by the Messerschmitts cannon. The only way the Mosquito was going to land now was on its belly, and here Zena had one more decision to make.
“On the concrete runway, Gabs, or the nice smooth soft grass?”
“Bags I the soft grass, Zena.” Gabrielle knew her comforts. “Less chance of the fuel tanks rupturing an' blowing up!”
“OK, sister, you got it. Grass here we come. Oh look, they've deployed three fire-engines. Ain't that nice of them.”
Bert Hailey was eighteen years old. Marked as C3 because of asthma; tall, but rather lanky and underweight, he was now in the Home Guard doing his bit. Life around the aerodrome had been rather boring of late. It wasn't a front-line fighter airfield, but a transport and ferrying point. In short, nothing ever happened there; but this evening was different. He was manning the leading ladder-engine, and knew he would be first up beside the plane when it came to a halt. His duty would be in seeing that the crew of the airplane could exit their cockpit, and not get fried alive by any fire that might break out. Bert had participated in many drills, but so far never the real thing.
His engine, driven by old Matt Brannigan who had seen military service in the Boer War, came to a halt at the extreme edge of the runway; leaving plenty of room for the descending plane. But it immediately became clear to all the firemen present that the plane was heading for the grass at the side of the concrete.
“Matt! He's going t'come in on the grass. Start ‘er up.”
Dutifully Matt brought the engine to life and began reversing back along the runway; halted; did an amazingly fast three-point turn; and set off back along the runway at a rate of knots. From his open position, clutching the nearly horizontal long ladder on top of the engine, Bert saw the whole thing unfold; like one of the American serials he so much enjoyed every Saturday at the local cinema.
From out of the gathering dusk, it being now nearly five o'clock in the afternoon, the shape of the Mosquito appeared above the far end of the runway. At first it was only a silhouette, but gradually details became clearer; the roundels on its sides; the numbers painted on its fuselage; the series of jagged holes apparent along its sides; and the broken patches of wood-covering on the starboard wing. Also quite apparent to everyone was the fact that its wheels were up.
“ Jesus! ” Bert thought to himself. “She's goin' t'belly land.”
It had been thumped into all the firemen's heads, during training, that a belly-landing often ended in broken wings, fuselages, and fuel tanks; with the inevitable outcome of fires. Bert set his teeth, and held tighter to the edge of his ladder.
The Mosquito was now about two hundred feet short of the runway, at around fifty feet in height. With a final swoop, and seeming to gain speed with every approaching yard instead of slowing, the plane reached the runway; though over to one side. It wavered, as if making up its mind about what to do for a second, then gently came right down literally to grass level. There was a brushing noise, quickly superseded by the grinding of the underside, then the plane shot along the grass at an unbelievable speed. Its two propellers immediately struck the ground with their revolving tips, setting up a storm of damp flying earth in its wake; then the starboard engine, nearest Bert as his appliance paralleled the moving plane, burst into flames.
The two propellers had by now ceased to rotate, their tips bent almost horizontal. After having slid along in a straight line for around three hundred and fifty feet the plane now slewed slowly to port, presenting its tail to Bert, along with the choking clouds of steam and smoke and burning kerosene from the wing fuel tank which had now also caught fire. Finally it lost all forward motion, coming to a halt with its port wing slightly skewed in the air; the burning engine and wing hard on the ground. There was a huge pall of black smoke rushing into the air, at the base of which red flames at the back of the engine roared up in seething sheets. It was immediately obvious that the whole thing was a major disaster.
Matt swung his engine round the burning wing and drove it, somewhat madly, almost right up to the tattered fuselage near the cockpit; only stopping twenty feet off. The glass cockpit was clearly visible to everyone, the whole front of the plane now sitting virtually flat on the ground around it; but the aircrew didn't seem to be making any effort to exit the burning wreck.
“Matt! Get nearer.” Bert called down to his driver, a note of excitement entering his voice. “I got'ta get my small ladder close to the cockpit. Come on, move it!”
There was perhaps a single second's pause, then the appliance's engine burst into life again and it moved forward till the red paint on its sides began to bubble and melt.
Bert threw a lever back, releasing the short ladder on the side of the appliance. This he grabbed tightly, holding to each side as if his life depended on it. He ran forward, and in an instant was level with the cockpit; the burning wing and engine to his side seeming like the very inferno of Hell itself. He hurriedly placed the ladder on the scorched grass and leaned its top against the still shut cockpit side-window, before clambering up the few rungs to be level with the cockpit side. Just as he reached over to touch the glass of the cockpit's window he was drenched in foam as the other appliances did their best to cool him down and also cover the burning engine. Bert quickly used his axe to smash the side-window; brushed a burning piece of debris from his jacket arm; then saw a figure inside the cockpit. A woman's voice came clearly to him, through the roar of the nearby fire.
“The outside hinges. They're twisted; we can't reach ‘em in here. Break ‘em, then the window'll pull up free. Quick!”
Bert, surrounded by fire, heat, smoke, and foam, leaned forward and gave the side of the cockpit window the hardest thump he could manage. It broke with a crack, rose up in two jerking movements, then the arms and upper body of a young blonde woman in flying-gear appeared. He grabbed her, helping her to the rungs of the ladder below him.
“Go down. Quickly. The men'll see you alright, miss.”
“Help Zena. She's still in there.” The blonde woman pointed back at the cockpit, as willing arms helped her from below to jump down onto the now blackened scorched grass surrounding the wreck.
Bert leaned forward again, though the heat was nearly unbearable by this time. The flames were gaining hold with every passing second, especially on the engine; which seemed almost close enough for him to touch. Every breath was becoming intensely painful, with the nearly gale force superheated air now engulfing him. He saw a shape moving inside, then another pair of hands, followed by the upper body of another woman, appeared at the shattered open window. Bet grabbed her arms without ceremony and dragged her onto the ladder beside him. Together they stumbled down the few rungs to the ground then, assisted now by Bert's mates, they all made a mad dash for safety. To his rear, through the wavering over-heated air, Bert saw Matt, in the driver's cab, once more revving his engine to immediately reverse the appliance away from the danger area; with a speed the old machine, its paintwork blistered and peeling, had probably never equalled before in its entire life.
In what to Bert, with his scorched uniform still smoking heavily, seemed the flick of an eye they had reached safety some hundred and fifty yards away. The other two fire-appliances had also moved away to safety; not before time though, as the fuel tanks on the starboard wing finally exploded, sending a ball of fire rushing into the air. Seconds later the port tanks went too, engulfing the wreck in a sheet of fire and heat which was impenetrable. The Mosquito had died.
Bert Hailey, who had never felt that he had ever done anything of real public worth in his life, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for meritorious service a month later.
“ Jesus! Are we both still alive. Somebody tell me, please.” Gabrielle was sitting on a couch in the Medical Department of the aerodrome, looking across the small room at Zena similarly placed on a couch opposite. “What a nightmare. Are you alright, Zena?”
“Yeah, yeah, I'm fine.” The New Zealander even managed a small smile. “Slightly scorched round the edges, but still dancin'.”
“Well, we can definitely scratch the Mosquito as a goin' concern.” Gabrielle mused on the realities of life. “Damn good job that young fireman knew what he was doin', Zena. We'd a'both been toast, otherwise.”
“Yeah, damn close call.” The dark-haired woman rose slowly to stand on the floor delicately, as if unsure whether her legs would take the strain. “God. I feel kind'a shivery. How about you, Gabs?”
“I've felt better, I admit.” Then the blonde navigator pointed at the floor by Zena's feet, with an incredulous expression. “Goddam, Zena. You've still got that damnable bag. The bloody thing's haunting us. I thought at least you'd have had the sense t'let it fry back there.”
“Sorry, wasn't thinkin'.” Zena regarded the canvas bag with some surprise, as if seeing it for the first time. “Must'a just been an automatic impulse. I don't remember doin' anything about saving the bloody thing.”
At that moment the base Medical Officer bustled back into the room. He was in high spirits, this being by far the most interesting day he'd had since arriving at the airfield six months previously. He was short in stature, but made up for this with a hearty, hail-fellow-well-met attitude, which generally quickly got up the noses of all he worked with; though he meant well.
“Right ladies.” He grabbed Zena's wrist without preamble and fell to checking her pulse, with a concerned frown on his face. “Hmm, I've known worse, but not by much. You're both suffering from shock, y'know. Hardly surprising, considering. Now, what I propose doing is using my syringe, I have it here as you see, to fill you both full of morphine. Wonderful stuff. Then I can have you transported to the Hospital at Milton Keynes for observation overnight. Then we'll take things from there, what.”
It was a rather surprised and somewhat disappointed Doctor, five minutes later, who watched the exit of his two patients towards the truck park on the edge of the airfield. But neither woman would tolerate for a moment the idea of being filled full of drugs and hospitalised. They had other, important, things to do. Important places to be. Important war-work to carry out. Thanks awfully for the skin ointment and bandages. We must do lunch sometime. Goodbye.
The truck awaiting their arrival, the papers for which they had hurriedly picked up from the entrance guard-house, was another ‘ Tilly ' though a size larger than their own back in Scapa Flow; this example being an Austin K2 lorry. They both clambered into the cab, the canvas bag on the floor at their feet, and Zena drove off with a grinding of gears; leaving behind the airfield, with its still burning wreck, at a fast pace.
Gabrielle had been given a local map by the Lieutenant in the guard-house, and this she now studied carefully.
“It's a straight road all the way to Bletchley, Zena.” She glanced over to her right at her friend, grasping the wide driving-wheel with an intense concentration. “We go North along this road, the B4033, through Great Horwood; then turn right on the A421; then finally turn off to the right along the B4034. Then we cut off to our left onto Sherwood Drive, an' we're there. Easy.”
The roads were well surfaced and relatively free of traffic, because of civilian petrol-rationing, so they had no trouble in keeping up a good speed. Within twenty-five minutes they reached Sherwood Drive and five minutes later had pulled up at the entrance-gate to a rather ramshackle-looking somewhat run-down estate. But there were no less than ten soldiers guarding the entrance, with a Captain in charge.
“We ain't got any papers.” Gabrielle took on the serious business of explanation. “We sort'a,—we sort'a lost them. But they're expecting us at the Base—the House—HQ—whatever. Better ring ‘em up, an' tell ‘em the code-word's ‘ Dirty British coaster, butting through the Channel '. Go on—Go on, it ain't a joke. They're waitin' for us, y'know.”
Ten minutes later they found themselves in the drawing-room of an old house, with dark panelling and a sense of extreme age. Within two further minutes three men, and two women in WREN uniforms, entered to greet them.
“Hello, my name's Markdale.” A tall dark-haired young man stepped up to shake Zena's hand, followed by Gabrielle's. “I'm sort of the Acting-Boffin-in-Charge (Temp), y'know. So, I believe you have a present for us; all the way from, er, somewhere ?”
Zena indicated the canvas bag at her side, its strap over her left shoulder. This she pulled over her head, offering the bag to the young man.
“Here, take the damn thing.” She was past being polite. “An' if you want it transported somewhere else, find someone else t'do it. Me an' my friend have bloody well had quite enough of the goddam thing, thanks.”
“Ah, yes.” Markdale considered the two women before him for a second. The curious aroma they had brought along with them into the room, he now finally recognised as a mixture of burnt clothing and kerosene. Their clothes still bore unmistakable and recent scorch marks. And Gabrielle's hair was seriously singed on the right side. “ Ummph , been through the wars, eh? I quite understand. Well, all's well now. Job done. All's correct. We can only thank you very much indeed for your efforts. I believe Captain Johnson here has documents to allow you train travel back to your, er, base; wherever that might be. No, don't tell me, I don't want to know. I suppose the whole thing does seem something of a mystery to you both; but that's War, y'know.”
“Yeah.” Zena hunched her shoulders non-commitally. “We're both just glad to see the last of the bloody thing. It has been something of an enigma, I must admit.”
There was a crash as someone's briefcase hit the floor, and Zena looked round the room to see everyone staring at her with a multitude of strange expressions.
Markdale stepped up to stand right in front of Zena, staring into her blue eyes with focussed intensity. Then he moved back and smiled, somewhat weakly.
“Oh, nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.” He appeared to make a concerted effort to control himself, then gave a short false-sounding laugh. “Well, it's been nice meeting you. I'm sure you'll both be wanting to go on your way. Captain Johnson'll see you both right. Goodbye.”
A minute later, except for the still silent Captain Johnson, Zena and Gabrielle were alone again in the quiet room. The two women looked at each other warily.
“Did you understand any of that, Zena?”
“Not a word, Gabrielle.” Zena turned to their host. “So, Captain Johnson, where's these travel-warrants everyone keeps telling us about. I for one wan'na wipe the dust of this district off my shoes for the duration. Let's go.”
Bletchley Railway Station lay just outside the confines of the estate, on the other side of the road. Their travel-warrants, surprisingly, gave them a special reservation in the officers' coach of a fast express due in fifty minutes. Their compartment being also reserved solely for their private use alone. They were also allowed ration stamps for a meal in the dining-car. After relaxing in the station's remarkably old-fashioned Ladies Waiting-Room for a comfortable half hour in front of a warm coal fire their train duly arrived, and they boarded it swiftly; without any regrets at leaving their hard-won destination behind as quickly as possible.
“Well,” Zena sighed, as she pulled shut the compartment sliding-door and sat opposite Gabrielle. “This is the end, at last.”
“Bloody well not before time.” Gabrielle sat back and gazed at the ceiling boards, before sighing long and hard. “What a day. D'we actually get paid for doin' this sort'a thing, Zena?”
“Afraid so, darling, it's in our contracts.”
“Huh. So, where are we headed now?”
“London, Gabs.” Zena grinned widely; a grin which swiftly turned to a yawn. “God, I'm tired. The Metropolis, Gabrielle! We've got tickets here for the whole weekend in a room in a grand hotel— the Grand Hotel, to be exact. D'ya feel like painting the town red?”
“I feel like sleeping for a month, Zena.” Gabrielle slid over to sit beside her friend, leaning her head on Zena's shoulder. “I'm going to start now, dear. Don't wake me, even if the war ends suddenly—I don't care.”
“Hah! Sleep tight, Gabrielle. Sleep tight.”
1. ‘ Cypher-17 '. The cyphers and codes which Zena and Gabrielle name and/or use in this story are all fictional.
2. Bofors. A quick-firing anti-aircraft gun.
3. Bohea. A type of dark China tea.
4. jolly good Rag. Organised exhibitions of high spirits by College students, generally in aid of charities.
5. muckle bletherskite. Scots for a great foolish person, or boaster.
6. Distinguished Conduct Medal. An actual gallantry award of the time.
7. Road directions from Great Horwood to Bletchley Park. All accurate and geographically correct.
8. ‘ Dirty British coaster '. From the poem ‘ Cargoes ' by John Masefield.
9. WREN. WRNS—Women's Royal Naval Service.
10. Markdale. A fictitious person.
11. Enigma. The famous German typewriter-like coding machine.
ERRATA:— in the story ‘ A Music Concert ' for ‘ I never knew a sheep could ‘ave so many feet ', read instead ‘ I never knew a pig could ‘ave so many feet '.
In the same story for ‘ friend of foe ', read instead ‘ friend or foe '.
In the same story for ‘ at Kirkness airfield ', read instead ‘ at Kirkwall airfield '.
In the same story for ‘ sheep-lined flying suits ', read instead ‘ sheepskin-lined flying suits '.
To be continued in the next story in the ‘ Mathews and Parker ' series.
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