Welcome – AtoZ April, 2018

Hello!  Thanks for stopping by!  Fiction Can Be Fun is a writing project run by David (@breakerofthings) and Debs (@debsdespatches).   Normally, we each post a piece of fiction every month, run a writing prompt once a month and are the originators of #secondthoughts. #secondthoughts are reflections on writing, responses to writing and…well, take a look and you’ll see!

If you’d like to find out more/get involved, please do take a look at the ‘About’ page.

Our regular schedule has been superceded by #AprilA2Z/#AtoZChallenge: we’re doing a novella that plays out over the month.  Every day includes a prompt based on the Nato Phonetic Alphabet, so we kick off with A for Alpha.  We’d really recommend starting at the beginning as we got…enthusiastic…There’s also a summary of where we’re up to – look up there, no, top-right (for readers on their phone, you’ll need to use the drop-down menu) got it?

Normal (or at least what passes for normal around here) service resumes in May.

 

Advertisements

The Juliet Jinx

When civil war had broken out in Ireland, Michaela had been protected by her social class and old family money, but there were plenty who’d suffered …

“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

William Shakespeare

J

While she absolutely adored the Strand Palace, spending several days on the trot with Bunty had been tiresome to say the least. To be fair to Robert, Bunty had not tried anything on … at all. Initially she’d wondered if he wasn’t interested in girls but, no, just not her. It seemed he really did just want her contacts and her endorsement.

There’d even been that luncheon at his London flat, which she’d been decidedly unsure about, but he spent the whole time pumping her for advice over a little shindig he was planning to host there. It appeared there was no detail too small over which to consult with her. Being entirely honest, the whole entertaining business really bored her senseless. Of course, she knew how it all had to be done and so he did get the benefit of her experience, but she was glad to be leaving London behind and getting back to her workshop.

*****

Getting out of the taxicab in the yard at Jack’s Theydon Bois home, Michaela looked around with a sort of vicarious proprietryness and thought again how setting up shop here had been the right thing to do. When civil war had broken out in Ireland, Michaela had been protected by her social class and old family money, but there were plenty who’d suffered … and badly.

Parents had done all they could to hide their children, so many ended up as orphans in their teens. Taken in by wider family members who, whilst understanding their grief and anger, were struggling enough with the difficulties of keeping themselves and their own children under the radar, it rapidly became a serious problem in the community.

Like much else, it was Jack who’d persuaded her. Having snorted and insisted that she didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, Jack had persuaded her that was exactly what these wild teenagers needed. Maternal nurturing wasn’t working, but some form of eccentric aunt, who’d provide them with someone to look up to, one of their own …

When Michaela had countered that her family would simply not stand for it – they’d stood by her, albeit with much in-family grumbling – but this would be more than a bridge too far, Jack had – once again – out manoeuvred her “Come live on my Estate. I’ve some out-buildings that would be perfect for you. You could set up a forge and have a proper workshop for a change. As an extra bonus, you’d also be far enough away that you’d not be bothered by family members constantly ‘dropping in’ to lecture you on how to behave like a proper lady and finding a husband. Sleep on it, then let me know what you think.”

She had just that, and in the morning she’d signified her agreement with a handshake. In the years she’d been there, there’d been a steady stream of apprentices. Much to her surprise, Michaela discovered how much she gained from sharing her love of metalworking and everything else. Teaching these troubled youngsters how to harness their skills in the smithy had been both uplifting and satisfying. She could see how right Jack had been to suggest it was the perfect outlet for all that pent-up emotion.

Her workshop had grown steadily and she’d soon had to call for help. The community had responded with Agnarr and Hildr. With no children to lose, they’d poured their efforts into keeping the older members of the families safe. Now, they wanted somewhere new – somewhere safe – to put down roots. Remarkably skilled and patient teachers and, like Michaela, not the traditionally nurturing sort, they combined a gentle manner with an impressive work ethic and high standards. Their shared history and background meant the apprentices felt understood – it had proved to be a winning formula.

But it had all changed the day Jack dropped off Juliet.

The first objection Michaela had raised was about mixing Juliet in amongst the boys “I’m not going to be dealing with a love-lorn girl, let alone one who gets in trouble Jack, that’s not what I signed up for.” He’d laughed “Trust me Michaela, you won’t have any trouble on that score.” Barely allowing her to get out the words “But what if …” Jack countered with “In the unlikely event you do, I’ll pick her up myself. Look, she really could do with a female role model, especially one like you who’s at home being both worlds. You can teach her how to combine ladylike behaviour with doing a dirty job. Just give it a try.”

Although she was just a little thing, Juliet was older than her usual apprentices. Despite being in her mid twenties, she could see why Jack felt she needed taking in hand. Immature and downright clumsy, Juliet had proved to be quite the challenge. Michaela had kept her close-by, but that decision was costing her a lot in re-done work, what with the breakages and spillages. Not that Juliet wasn’t apologetic, in fact Michaela sometimes felt she was overly hard on herself, it was just … she really needed to steady up.

And that’s precisely what Michaela told her. Closing up early, she got Juliet to clean herself up and come out to tea with her. Whilst there she’d talked to Juliet about the sort of behaviour she needed to demonstrate when out of the forge and away from the lads. She offered to help her practice, even though Juliet had wrinkled her nose at Michaela’s talk of ‘wifely duties’. Deciding to leave to another time how difficult it was for her, even when she had her own money, that’s when she’d hit her with the ‘you need to steady up’ lecture. Juliet had looked positively crestfallen until Michaela had offered to teach her to drive when they got back.

After a rather stuttery start, Juliet was beginning to get the hang of it when she nearly ran into Robert who’d driven into the yard at his usual breakneck speed. Unsurprisingly, Juliet had stalled the car, prompting Robert to make one of his typical remarks about women drivers. Attempting to silence him with one of her looks, Michaela had been furious when he’d continued to tease Juliet on the subject of her famed clumsiness.

Bursting into tears, Juliet had stumbled off, rapidly followed by Michaela calling “oh do shut up Robert!” over her shoulder. Unable to find her in the forge or her room, Michaela had asked the lads to be kind to her before returning to give Robert a piece of her mind. She knew he’d meant no harm by it, but his all-boy schooling and the army hadn’t exactly taught him much tact. But Robert was bursting with enthusiasm over his new car and insisted she come out with him for a test drive. Explaining that she’d already driven it was falling on deaf ears, so stifling a sigh, Michaela hopped in to the passenger seat to be whisked away in a cloud of dust.

“Cheer up old thing, I thought I’d pop down and check how things were going with Bunty?”
“Not here to give your new car a test run then?”
“Well, ever since the Feldman when you mentioned it was ready for a test run, I’ve been looking for an excuse. This way I can have a few hours out of the office on the excuse that it’s actually work. I must say, old thing, this is a rather splendid machine …”
“Way more than you deserve too …”

Slipping out of the shadows, Juliet stared at the disappearing dust long and hard. It had nearly been the best day of her life … ever. Michaela had chosen her to take out to tea and she’d been so kind, promising to teach her how to fit in to the outside world. Even the ‘steady up’ lecture hadn’t been too bad, for Juliet knew she needed to. She wasn’t really clumsy, it was just … sometimes her emotions got the better of her and stuff happened. When Michaela had offered to teach her to drive, she’d been so happy and then that Robert. How dare he call her clumsy, he’d nearly driven in to her. She didn’t know how Michaela put up with him. The lads were a bit rough and tumble, but they were like her. Robert wasn’t. He was one of Them. And Michaela had done that car specially for him. If she’d made something for Juliet, she’d treasure it and be careful, not rush around like some idiot.

She heard the car return and Michaela came knocking on her door soon after. She’d sat down and they’d had a nice talk. Michaela’d apologised for Robert’s behaviour and Juliet had just shrugged, like it meant nothing. When Michaela told her there were a few last minute modifications to be made on Robert’s car, Juliet had been quick to offer her help. She’d had an idea of how to teach that Robert some manners.

Working away into the night with Michaela, Juliet had managed to avoid spilling or breaking anything. Asking her to cover everything up while she made the forge safe, Michaela’s heart sank when she heard an unmistakable ‘crack’. Rushing back into the workshop, she found Juliet calmly and carefully covering up all the new parts. Looking up Juliet asked Michaela “I just heard a loud crack. Was it the forge?” “N … no” Michaela had stuttered, before sending Juliet off to bed. Uncovering and checking all the new parts, she had to admit they looked perfect. Deciding it must’ve been the lads playing the fool, she decided to turn in too. Juliet watched her walk across the yard with a small smile on her face. She’d made sure her jinx wouldn’t hurt Michaela. It would only happen when Robert was alone …



© 2018, David Jesson & Debra Carey

The India Docks

It was no surprise that the Docks were a prime target for the Luftwaffe: cripple London’s ability to unload imports and you cripple London’s supply chain. Cripple the supply chain and you cripple the ability to lead.

“If war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful”

C S Lewis, God in the Dock

IThe Indias, the East and West India Docks, had been serving London for nearly 150 years by the time war broke out.  Originally, they were built at the behest of the great trading companies like the the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants and the Honorable East India Company, to serve the imports from the Caribbean on the one hand and India and the East on the other.  The East End, particularly the Isle of Dogs, had done reasonably well out of the construction of these vast networks of wharfs and warehouses. Dockhands and labourers made a reasonable, if precarious living: accidents happen, and a family’s main breadwinner could be taken out of action in an instant.  It was almost a blessing if they died outright, rather than becoming a lingering drain on fragile family resources.

It was no surprise that the Docks were a prime target for the Luftwaffe: cripple London’s ability to unload imports and you cripple London’s supply chain.  Cripple the supply chain and you cripple the ability to lead.  Cripple the ability to lead and, well, you win, hopefully.  A simple enough equation, and good tactics in many ways.  It was the cynincal punishment of the working classes, the deliberate bombing of the dwellings of the East End that was harder to accept: the German High Command had come to the view that the working classes could be cowed, made to lose heart for the fight ahead.

They were wrong.

They never quite succeeded in shutting down the docks, but the area would never quite be the same again.  They never broke the spirit of the East End, but in the long run, this too was changed forever.  A lot of brave men, who kept the supplies flowing, frequently under difficult conditions, had been treated quite badly by those who thought that they should have been fighting overseas.

*****

Billy Blind had contacts all over London, and the joke, though never to his face, was that for a man with only one eye, there was little he didn’t ‘see’.  It was the East End where he was most comfortable, even though he’d not been born there.  Over the years he’d probably done every labouring job going, so not only could he sympathise with the problems specific to a working man’s conditions, but he knew the jargon.  Billy liked helping people too: he lent a hand wherever he could, whenever he was able.  There were many who were able to eat, when it looked like they might starve, thanks to Billy.  And if anyone was having trouble lighting a fire, there was a silent blessing when they saw Billy passing by – he had the knack, and the reputation for being able to make a flame out of a handful of snow.

He didn’t collect favours, like some did, but the code of the East End was that you coped, that you didn’t get into debt.  Billy never said anything, but some of the smarter ones realised that Billy collected information and some of them paid off a perceived debt in this currency.  Some would help out when Billy needed a hand.  Those who thought Billy should stay out of the East End soon found out that messing around with Billy didn’t pay.

*****

The damage to the docks had taken its toll.  They’d kept up as best as they could but by the end of the war they’d lost about a third of the capacity, not to mention the devastation to the communities around about.  With the pressure off, the business of the docks declined as other routes were found.  There was talk of rebuilding.  The optimists prophesied a new golden age, greater even than when the docks were first built: the most up to date facilities, greater consideration of safety – the works.  The pessimists predicted urban clearance at best, an abandoned wasteland at worst.

As ever, sooner or later, word got to Billy: someone was using the docks without Port Authority permission.  Money had been seen changing hands.  A different quay everytime but the same three or four small ships bringing people and portable goods in. People disappearing into the night.  Billy let it be known that he was interested, that he’d like to know if anyone had any ideas about when the next ship would be coming in. Further afield, he wondered if anyone fancied a bit of a rumble?

*****

The timings had actually worked pretty well, as it turned out.  Tinkerbell had a few days grace to settle into the safe house in Seagull Lane.  It wasn’t luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, but it was clean and tidy.  Without being too obvious about it, Tinkerbell set out about improving security and started thinking about how to go about interdicting a whatever was coming ashore in the Indias.

At relatively short notice, Billy was able to find a dozen or so lads: the usual mix of dockers, East End likely lads, and leavening of a couple of demobbed soldiers who knew what they were about and missed the excitement of a few years before.  There was little time to do any serious training, but on the basis of the brief sketches that Billy was able to provide, Tink buddied up the ‘help’ and planned on three teams of two pairs each.  At least one docker, all of whom had worked the Indias at one time or another in the past, was included in each team.

They’d only just had time to hold a proper briefing – not all of the lads, obviously, because that would have been a bit too suspicious, but Billy had found a back room in a pub that they could use.  They’d had one night’s grace.   They looked at the maps, and one of the team leaders, a docker named Albert Grice, who’d been working at the Indias until the day they officially closed was able to bring the map up to date with information on the state of the wharfs and warehouses: which were too precarious for anything, and which might be risked if the stakes were high enough.  Which had been demolished completely, and which were still occasionally used for semi-official purposes.  Billy’s latest news gave them the details that they needed to refine the plan.  The next shipment was coming in tomorrow night: they knew the time, they knew the quay, but they did not know what it was that was being brought in.  Tink had the uneasy feeling that he always got when working with a rag-tag team without the time to prepare a proper plan.

*****

And now it was later, and the plan had not survived first contact with the enemy.  For a start it seemed as though they’d known something was going to happen, and one of the help had been shot before they even realised that the ship had pulled up at the quay. It was much smaller than they were expecting for a start.   Then the fun and games had started.  The dockers hadn’t signed on for getting shot at, but fair play, they’d stayed close, even if they had kept their head’s down.  The ex-soldiers had fallen into the old drill pretty quickly and had managed to take out a couple of guards and armed themselves at their expense.  Then it had really got exciting.  The smugglers or whatever they were hadn’t signed on for this, and tried to cast off, but clearly there was another party involved, and they were rather keen to get whatever it was that was being brought ashore off and somewhere safe.  It was hard to tell who was who and what was what in the general melee, but there appeared to be two, perhaps three people who were couriers, and then some muscle who were trying to fend off the interlopers, keep the smugglers under control, and keep the couriers on track.

In this last endeavour, and probably the most important, they were unsuccessful: one of the soldiers, who fancied themselves a bit of a marksman, managed to get an angle on one of the couriers and took his chance.  The man fell, his package tumbling onto the ground in front of him.  The muscle apparently didn’t have good leadership, because they tried to go after the soldier, and then got confused when the remaining couriers took off in different directions.  One of Jack’s men managed to take advantage of the situation and secured the package – a briefcase as it turned out – and disappered into the wasteland of the docks with the rest of his team providing some cover.

Jack let the team go.  He whispered a message to the man leading the team he’d attached himself to: they took off after the courier heading out of the docks, and he followed the man heading further in.

Now that he was trapped in this creaking old warehouse, he was beginning to think he may have made the wrong move.  The warehouse had taken damage in the past, but not so much that it had been condemned.  In total it was five storeys of brick, with large arched windows on every floor.  He’d manged to scragg the courier just as they ducked through the doorway into the building: it had been an untidy rugby tackle that had seen the unfortunate tacklee crack his head on the stone floor with the kind of sickening crunch which suggested urgent medical attention was required.  Hearing footsteps pounding outside along the open boulevard between this warehouse and the next, Jack snagged the package, this one a package about a foot on each side, done up in brown paper and string with red wax seals holding the paper and the string in place.  Jack hared off into the building and bounded up the stairs three at a time.  He took two flights of stairs this way, and hoping that he had sufficent lead he took another flight much more carefully, before trying to lose himself in the interior of the building.

Jack caught a whiff of something flammable on the still night air. As he looked for a way out, he heard the unmistakable snick of steel on flint. A tiny glow in the darkness came flying in his direction. He flinched as the Molotov smashed on his improvised shelter, splashing its contents: the maker clearly hadn’t had much experience of the Finns or their Alko manufactured fire-bombs and the liquid failed to ignite – this time.  Again the snick.  Jack got his bearings.  The window behind him faced the Thames, and whilst three storeys up was the only credible exit remaining.  Time slowed: he could see the next Molotov arcing towards him and he started to move, bouncing to his feet and hitting his stride as if he was wearing the boots of his spring-heeled namesake.  He dived through a window as the bottle landed where he had been, and the sudden ventilation encouraged a minor fire to go for the big time.  The conflagration washed back towards the arsonist and there were cries of alarm and screams as those coming for Jack beat a singed retreat, where they could.

Outside, ripples spread out from the point at which Jack had entered the water.  Broken glass and burning wood fell as a light rain, followed by smouldering fragments of paper, flaring and charring as they floated down on the murkey water of the Thames.  Jack sank into the darkness, his last thoughts before it engulfed him that the fire at the docks would be hard to explain and that he would just have to make sure he didn’t need to…


© 2018, David Jesson & Debra Carey

Hotel safehouse

Charlie knew better than to ask what had happened with the last one. He also knew enough to make sure he used a different set of credentials for the new one.

“The great advantage of a hotel is that it is a refuge from home life.”

George Bernard Shaw

HBilly had dropped in on Charlie ‘cos they needed to find a new safe house … and pronto. Charlie knew better than to ask what had happened with the last one. He also knew enough to make sure he used a different set of credentials for the new one.

Happy to get out of his grim office, Charlie gone pounding the streets – checking small ads, looking for signs in windows. Most weren’t right, but then they weren’t looking for the stuff most tenants were. Billy had drummed into him what was important.

“It needs to be sum place busy enough … ”
Yeah, I know, so comings ‘n goings won’t draw no attention or be worthy of comment. I remember from the last time.”
“There’s gotta be more ‘n one way in ‘n out …”
“Look Billy, I know you’ve bin doin’ this since before I was born, but I do remember stuff. Unless you want sumfink new and differen’ to last time, I’ve got this, I was thinkin’ down by the docks could be good, ‘cos no-one stays there for long. There’s also no families roun’ there, so no housewives leanin’ over the fence noticin’ and gossipin’.”
“Mebbe you ‘ave bin listenin’ at that Charlie m’lad, mebbe you ‘ave. But not wivin a mile o’ the Dogs … alright?”

Realising something was afoot, something he’d be better off not knowing, Charlie’d got cracking. Quickly ruling out Surrey Docks as it required a river crossing and the Regent Canal as being too small, he surveyed the options. That still left him St Katherine’s, London, Victoria, Albert, and King George – a lot of worn shoe leather there right enough.

Having walked round St Katherine’s, Charlie realised it – too – would have to be ruled out. All the docks had taken a right pasting from the kraut bombers – Charlie’d heard the figures bandied about, thousands of those incendiary bombs and about 900 Doodle Bugs – but even by those standards, this was a right mess. Worse, he’d not realised, this being a bit out of his manor. The eastern side and its warehouses were totally destroyed, and there was no sign of any efforts to repair it. Putting the lads in here would raise too many questions of the “what they up to?” type.

Trying not to be despondent that he was already three down having just started, he reminded himself there were still four more to check out. Still, Charlie hoped he hadn’t been too cocky with Billy.  It was so bad here, there wasn’t even somewhere to grab a cuppa, so he made straight for the London docks in the hope there’d be more people about.

Finally nursing that cuppa, Charlie considered the possibilities offered by the London docks. He’d had a good gander before allowing himself that cuppa, and he’d liked what he’d seen. There were two docks – West and East – with a short little dock in between called Tobacco. The West dock was joined up to the Thames by two ‘basins’ he’d heard them called – Hermitage and Wapping. Charlie thought this set-up could provide the lads with lots of options for coming and going, so he’d grabbed the papers for a quick read of the ads. Not finding anything there, he took to the streets, asking around in his usual ‘charm the ladies’ manner. Just before lunch, he found what he thought was a good ‘un; he thought Billy would think so too.

In fact, as he sat in the caff, stirring tea so strong that it was practically orange, he was so confident, he considered not bothering with the Royal Docks. Telling himself it weren’t worth trying it on with Billy as he seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, he consoled himself with the thought of that plump little darling who worked at the pie & mash place in Silvertown. He’d pop in there when he’d finished and see if he could persuade her to step out with him for a drink one night she wasn’t working.

A spring back in his step, Charlie headed over to the Victoria docks first. Everyone who’d worked down the Royal docks carried themselves with a little bit of extra pride, even for an East Ender. It was where those floating harbours had been built, the ones they’d used for the invasion. Course no-one knew what it was all about, not till they towed them out … to Folkestone one of the dockers heard tell.

The Royals had been built on the Plaistow Marshes and they were deep, so they could take the bigger ships. Traffic at the Royals was the busiest of all the docks because they handled passengers as well as produce. Despite his previous confidence, Charlie now felt the Victoria or the Albert may provide even better cover, because of the bulk grain being shipped there. He had a slight preference towards the Victoria because the big grain mills were on its south side, and they added an extra layer of traffic, allowing the lads to blend in even easier, and have a range of cover occupations. He’d ruled out the King George V as, even though it had passenger traffic, the extensive damage done to Tate and Lyle, the Primrose Soapworks and the Silvertown Rubber Works, offered too many opportunities for someone else to observe the lads’ comings and goings from the rubble without being noticed. Whittling down the multiple small ads, Charlie found a two-up, two-down on Seagull Lane which looked good.

Feeling he’d done well, he looked out for a gents where he could have a quick wash ‘n brush up. He wanted to look his best for his next encounter.

*****

Later, date successfully arranged, Charlie headed back to the office to give Billy his report. To his surprise, Billy was already there … and with a face like thunder.

“Whut you bin doin’ chattin’ up all the ladies darn the London docks? Yew told me yew unnerstood ’bout gossipin’ women. Well, I’ve already ‘eard word of where yu’ve bin and ‘hoo yu’ve bin talkin’ to.”
“But there was no ads for properties round there and it seemed perfect for the lads …”
“Not perfic’ if everyone knows to look out for the new lads with the charmin’ mate, eh?”

After roasting Charlie alive to check no-one knew about the other place – the one on Seagull Lane – Billy gave him the nod to sign it up, with one final parting shot “An’ meet me there with a key quick, so we can get it set up right …”

Scouting the area in advance, Billy decided even if it weren’t perfect, it would do. When a subdued Charlie handed over the key, Billy dragged him indoors to get the place sorted. A bit of furniture moving later and Billy kicked Charlie out. He’d already sussed out the options from the back entrance, and both ways up and down Seagull Lane. The railway line running parallel to it offered another transport option. Waiting for the after work bustle, Billy took his time, placing a few strategic chalk marks to alert the lads to the new location of Hotel. They’d know the address beforehand, but protocol had to be followed for using it safely, with checkpoints all needing to have the right ‘safe to proceed’ mark.

Satisfied, Billy sent a message to Tink arranging to meet him at the pub below Charlie’s. All the message said was he had a new gaff where Tink could stay. He knew he could rely on Tink to arrange provisions …


© 2018, David Jesson & Debra Carey

The Golf Club

Robert had suggested the Feldman, a small jazz club in Oxford Street.

“It makes no difference if it’s sweet or hot, just give that rhythm everything you’ve got. It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing …”

Irving Mills (music from Duke Ellington)

GIt was an awful bore of Jack to have tasked her with persuading the Department to cough up. Even though they owed the team for a few months now which was really Not At All On. Still, she preferred to be piddle-paddling around in her workshop rather than getting dolled-up to the nines. Ah well, time to break out her best Her Ladyship act and get it done.

On the off-chance, she’d called up Robert’s London flat from the booth in the Lyon’s Tea Room. Jenkins, Robert’s valet, answered in his slightly plummy voice and condescended to tell Michaela that “the Colonel is not, presently, at home”, but that “he would be willing to dispatch a message with all haste”. This probably meant that Robert was at his Club, but she didn’t want to assume too much, and so she agreed to ring back in twenty minutes.  She laughed to herself at Jenkins’ pomposity: Jenkins had been Robert’s batman, and the two had been injured in the same blast, and both these things meant that the valet felt he had some claim on the master.  Jenkins had lost an ear, and Robert had smashed a leg, which put him out of action.  Robert had started the war as a captain, had field promotions to major and then leiutenant colonel, before the explosion that left him in hospital for six months and driving a desk for the duration of the rest of the war.  He’d been frustrated to be amongst the spooks and their games, even more so that he was put to use more as a liaison between Bravo and the bureaucrats.  Still, it had meant he could see more of Michaela, whom he regarded as something of an older sister.

*****

The request to meet at Rendezvous Delta had cleaned away the cobwebs: whilst Michaela didn’t really do much in the field, she’d been taught the rudiments of tradecraft, and it had been fun to put that into practice.  She amused herself with nineteen and half minutes of trying to spot any shadows, losing any which might have been, before finding a random phone kiosk and ringing back.

To her surprise, it was Robert himself who’d picked up the phone.  He said he was glad she’d called, as he’d been thinking of her. Of course he’d be happy to meet, he was at her disposal. Would she care for an evening at the Feldman?

She wouldn’t, not really.  The problem was it wasn’t just about the money, but the influence of the department, even it had been reformed.  So she agreed to meet him at 9pm, which left her with less than eight hours to make arrangements.  She rang up her own house from yet another phone box, and gave her maid detailed instructions. Following this, she took herself off to the British Museum, to while away a few hours and to make some notes.  From here – usual precautions taken – she took a cab to her favourite London haunt.

*****

Her maid met her with the things she’d ordered, and whilst Lady Michaela would have liked longer, she had plenty of time to settle into her favourite corner room at the Strand Palace. She simply adored the art deco decor, it was both glamorous and exquisitely engineered. During the war, she’d had to forgo it, as they’d given it over to the Yanks. What was it they called it? Oh yes, R&R – rest & recuperation. Absurd! Our lads didn’t get anything like that. No wonder there’d been ever-present complaints of the American troops being overpaid, over-sexed and over here.

*****

Robert had suggested the Feldman, a small jazz club in Oxford Street. She remembered it being popular during the war with the American troops. Apparently it was the real deal and all the top jazz musicians queued up to play there. But jazz was then, and remained still, a complete mystery to her. Still, if that’s what he wanted, that’s what he got. And he did. He also got her, in a dress and heels no less. She’d been careful not to overdo the gems though, just the small diamonds – a narrow bracelet and clip on earings. But she’d had her hair and nails done, she was buffed, polished and fully made up. Even if it wasn’t her style, she knew she’d be turning heads tonight. They’d make a handsome pair. Even in heels he was taller than her and he had the same sort of classic English countryside looks that she did. They both brushed up well when they made an effort though, and this was going to be one of those occasions.

The doorman whistled up a cab and she was on her way.

“100 Oxford Street love, is it the ‘Golf Club’ you want?”
“Yes, that’s the one.” She used her most reproving voice: “The Feldman Swing Club I believe it’s called.”
“That jazz. Not my idea of music at all love.”

Tipping generously (but not extravagantly), she inwardly agreed with him, even more so as she’d had to endure him going on at great length about the intricacies of jazz.  Still, it had allowed her to mentally prepare. Robert – the Colonel – had virtually grown up on her doorstep, hence Jack tasking her with the chore.

There was quite a queue at the door, but the doorman spotted her and quickly whisked her inside. Leaving her fur at the cloakroom, she made her way down into the basement. She was greeted, identified and seated at Robert’s table in less than a minute, with a glass of bubbly (purporting to be champagne, but decidedly not) poured and placed into her hand in a trice. Looking around the Club, she noticed that she was somewhat over-dressed. But then so was Robert. It had ensured her rapid entry, so the effort had been worthwhile. They chatted amiably enough about this and that over the music and she agreed to dance to the slower numbers, insisting that her jive was utterly non-existent. He’d laughed and they used the time on the dance floor to talk about why she’d asked for the meeting.

She was uncomfortable on the dancefloor and not only because of the heels. She simply couldn’t get the hang of jazz rhythm and having to rely entirely on Robert leading the dance went against her very nature. He’d agreed wholeheartedly that the Department would pick up the tab once more but, nevertheless, needed a favour in return for him unblocking the flow. On hearing what it was, she’d prickled and tried to storm off. But he’d held on tight, whilst attempting to smooth her ruffled feathers.

“Honestly, I’m not asking you to do anything other than be nice. Attend some events. Be seen out with him. He just wants to get noticed as a man about town and, with you on his arm, he will be.”
“You give me your word there’s no more to it? That he has absolutely no expectations of me?”
“If there was, I’d have asked someone else. I know you too well to suggest anything of that sort. Look old girl, I wouldn’t ask, but he’s got some awfully useful contacts. The sort we really need. He’s happy to make the intros, and this is all he wants in return.”
“Hmmm… but why me? Did he ask for me by name?”
“No absolutely not. He’s too much of a country bumpkin to have any idea who you are! Sorry old thing, but it’s true. His older brother died at Arnhem and now his father’s dead, he’s inherited and he’s having to step up. He just asked if I knew anyone who could give him an intro into London society. And whether you like it or not, that’s something you can do. And you know I’m going to have a hell of a fight on my hands to get your team’s funds unglued, there’s still far too many in the department who hold those views …”

The words were left hanging in the air as they strolled back to their table. Sat there was a rather gauche-looking chap. Robert made the introductions before she could bolt, and she found herself struggling to get to know Bartholomew ‘Bunty’ Hargreaves.  It was too hard to talk over the jazz, so Robert bundled them all into his car for a rather rapid ride back to the hotel. Safely ensconced in the bar amongst all the butter-soft leather, polished mahogany and chrome, she’d encouraged Bunty to hold forth. And he did. At some length. On subjects of a most dull nature. Robert’s description of country bumpkin seemed to be spot on. She was going to have to give him some pointers if he wasn’t to bore London society to death. Suggesting Bunty give her lunch the following day, she pled a headache before leaving the gentlemen to their brandy and cigars.

Settling in to bed, she realised with a start that she had absolutely no intention of letting Jack, Tink and Billy know about this arrangement with Robert. Despite his assurances, it felt a touch … sordid somehow.


© 2018, David Jesson & Debra Carey

The Foxtrot File

Knowing that Tink would help him plough through the papers and put together the File, Jack suggested they quickly stretch their legs in London Fields first.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes

FSeeing his overnight bag, Jack had offered Tinkerbell a shake-down bed at the garret. Unusually Her Ladyship hadn’t put in a counter bid so, knowing that Tink would help him plough through the papers and put together the File, Jack suggested they quickly stretch their legs in London Fields first.

Knowing Jack’s idea of a ‘quick’ leg stretch, Tink told Jack he’d meet up with him at the flat in an hour or so. Hopping off the bus, he stopped for a paper to check if anyone else had made the same exit there or at the stop up the road. Re-assured, he headed for the Dolphin where he ordered a pint and a couple of rounds of sandwiches. Indicating a table in the corner at the back, Tink positioned himself so he could view the entrance over the top of his paper. The sandwiches were as he remembered them, great doorsteps of bread, sharp homemade pickle and a decent amount of filling considering – a proper, crumbly Caerphilly, that left him wondering (but not caring) if it was entirely legal. That disgusting brew and poncy biscuits her ladyship had ordered wouldn’t keep the wolf from his door for long.

Suitably refreshed and leaving his second pint virtually untouched, he nipped down the corridor, out the back entrance and then round the back streets, till he was a few blocks north of Jack’s flat. Waiting till he spotted a bus going south, Tinkerbell grabbed the opportunity to hop on board as it pulled away, leaving no chance for anyone to follow. Flipping his fare to the conductor, he tucked into the platform corner, indicating he’d be hopping off again soon. Squeezing his hat – a squashy, tweedy affair – into one pocket, he was pulling a scarf out of the other when fortune smiled – a couple of elderly ladies with shopping bags rang the bell for the next stop. Tink jumped up, offering to carry their bags. Leaving them at their door to grateful thanks, he went down the back streets again. It was easy to check for tails there before he ducked into the alleyway leading to the back entrance of Richmond Court. Using the key which Jack had given him, Tink pulled the door firmly shut behind him before heading up the stairs to find Jack waiting for him at the door.

Jack indicated the big sofa in the corner where Tink found pillows and a folded up mummy bag – it may not be luxury, but he’d be warm and safe here. It wasn’t long before there were papers everywhere. Knowing better than to interfere in Jack’s random system of piles, Tink had made tea while Jack muttered to himself, pulling out papers in an apparently random fashion to make two stacks on the floor. Taking a stack, Tinkerbell spread out across the dining table and was soon engrossed. To his surprise, quite a clear picture was building up, a pattern of people and goods coming in through the docks. But none – not one – of the people involved were known to the regulars, and they appeared to prefer acting under cover of darkness. There was the odd rumour of ‘foreigners’ but none of the dockers who’d tipped the wink to Billy could recognise what accent to any reliable degree. They also didn’t have the license to roam, nor to get to know the higher-ups. That’s where Frank had come in.  One crash course on shipping later, he’d taken a job with a new shipping outfit.

It was becoming clear to Tink that Jack and Billy had been working in tandem for the last couple of years whilst he and Michaela had been out of the loop. Tink’s stack held a small number of notes in Jack’s familiar hand, together with a few he recognised as being from Billy.  One of the notes indicated that Frank had picked the monicker ‘Foxtrot’ for himself. Tink wondered fleetingly if he’d received a ribbing over the choice.

It seemed Frank had been there a few months without spotting anything of interest when he noticed a fellow in the local cafe sporting a black eye and a split lip. Seating himself down within earshot, he started to build a reputation for himself as something of a bad lot who was looking to make a bit on the side. He made a point of expressing how frustrated he was with his current employers for being so straight. It took a couple more months till that same fellow’d started to walk carefully, like he’d taken a few blows to the body. Spotting his opportunity, Frank had sprung his trap. Suggesting they work an unofficial swap, he’d got his ‘in’. No fool, he’d bided his time and made sure he was only illegal in ways his new employers wanted him to be. He also made certain to never associate with anyone else on the docks again, so he got a reputation with his new employers for being both tight-lipped and reliable.

In his last note, he’d sent Jack a list of names to see if Billy had heard any whispers. There’d been nothing immediate, as per Jack’s reply. Then for a couple of weeks – nothing. He was seen around the docks, but no notes, no chalk marks, no flags indicating danger. Until he’d been pulled out of the water at the Isle of Dogs that is.

Tink summarised his findings so far before Jack – wordlessly – handed him the other stack – a much smaller one. These were a lot more sketchy – some were scribblings in Jack’s handwriting, but there were others in handwriting Tinkerbell wasn’t familiar with. There were torn out scraps containing what appeared to be the same phrase – those in English read “the Reich is at bay, but the Dance Continues” and Tink thought those in German said the same. There seemed to be one key document. One copy was beautifully lettered on high quality paper, but others were hand-written – personal copies presumably. Tink’s German was very sketchy, but someone – Jack he thought – had scribbled various notes/translations in the margin. From these it was clear a new Aryan seat of power was being planned, some of the copies referred to this seat as Prydain, others as Albion. Whilst different names for the same concept, Tink was disturbed by the use of the Celtic terms. Used to the idea that Hitler had considered the English a race he could work with rather than one to be eradicated, he wondered if Wales and Scotland were to be included or excluded. Realising he was going down a rabbit hole, he enquired of Jack …

“How long have you know about this?”
“I always worried it would happen. The evidence came later. Most of this I collected on my travels. Not all of these people are alive anymore and most have made good their escape to South America. But there are plenty more copies of this document out there, that’s something I’ve been told unequivocally by those whose copies are here.”
“Who are these people?”
“Well, that’s the big problem. As far as I can tell, the names are real. But none have turned up, in Germany or elsewhere in Europe. What photos I’ve been able to find have been blurry or show only partial faces. I’m assuming new identities, whether arranged in Germany or here I haven’t been able to establish. Some of the other intelligencers have been talking about absconded SS and Wermacht higher-ups who’ve had experimental surgeries to change their appearance…Whoever is running this show has excellent contacts. If it’s happening here, they’re probably using a lot of the old blackmarket hands – apart from military intelligence, no-one else has the skills.”
“But it seems unlikely they’d do it willingly?”
“Agreed. So unless they are doing it unknowingly, pressure is being applied. And as Billy’s hearing nothing, it’s not London-based. We’ve assumed this is where they’re bringing them in, but Foxtrot – Frank – was digging around to see if they had any ships running into the likes of Harwich or Hull.”
“So, who knows about this?”
“Apart from Billy, just you and me so far. I wanted to check your reaction to see if – even without the gatherings from my wanderings – there was enough to go to the Department.”
“You still think they’ll …”
“Haven’t they always? We’ve had to prove ourselves, and prove, and prove again. No reason to think that’s changed just because the war is over. We’d better fill her ladyship in sharpish. And she can update us on her efforts to get the Department to re-instate our funding.”


© 2018, David Jesson & Debra Carey

The Echo Memorandum

Michaela realised the first time that she had seen the Memorandum itself had been in another Lyon’s, not that far away …

Lyons report a total of between 800 and 900 Nippy marriages every year, claiming that the marriage rate among Nippies was higher than any other class of working girl and that the job was of course excellent training for a housewife.

Picture Post, 1939

ELady Michaela was desperately excited to be meeting up with Jack and Tinkerbell for the first time since the War. She’d known Jack for quite some time before working with him on Echo. They’d had some fun, even in the midst of it all and she was fond of both Jack and Tink, even if Tink could be a bit of socialist twerp at times. And of course there was dear old Blind Billy, a cockney toff if ever there was one. The old firm back together again. Obviously it was sad about Frank, who’d been a dear boy, but it was still exciting, even whilst she knew that it might have been her.

She sat in the Lyon’s Tea Room on Coventry Street, waiting for the others, stirring what she knew would be a rather insipid brew: rationing was still in full force and there were lots of things that still weren’t quite up to snuff.  Staring, absentminded, at the less than inspiring macaroon, she pondered on all the conversations these days that seemed to turn, sooner or later, to moans about the continuation of rationing: “is this what we fought the war for?”. In many ways she was rather glad that the good old Official Secrets Act bound her from explaining some of the things that had been going on behind the scenes.

It suddenly occurred to her that the macaroon was the exact same colour as the paper that the Echo Memorandum had been written on. She remembered the paper, which she had made herself and given to Jack as a present. It wasn’t quite Basildon Bond, but it was a lovely thick paper, and she’d been messing around with some treatments to improve the way the ink went down and stayed on it. In thinking about it, Michaela realised the first time that she had seen the Memorandum itself had been in another Lyon’s, not that far away, identical in decor, as they all were. It all came back to her in an instant.

*****

It had been a trip up to town to do some shopping – new clothes, some toiletries, sheet metal, brass bar stock, a few components that it was not really worth her while making herself. The usual. A curious chap had stopped her in the street.  One eye was covered by a black patch, giving him a somewhat piratical air but he had a lively, honest face, and a truly genuine smile. His one good eye was a curious shade of blue.  For some reason it seemed to her that his face, whilst cheerfully ugly, was full of kindness.

“Lady Michaela McManus?” He said in a voice which instantly placed him as from the East End, and as rather out of his way.
“That’s correct. What can I do for you my man?”  She was puzzled at how this one-eyed chap had managed to pick her out in the crowd.
He had a rather leathery face and it instantly creased into a million wrinkles as he smiled. She’d always wondered what people meant by smiling all over, and this, she suddenly realised, was what it was all about.
“It’s not so much wha’ ya can do fer me ya ladyship, as wha’ I can do fer you” and with this he proffered an envelope. She took it from him and saw that it had her name on it. The hand writing was crisp, neat, fluid without being florid, and she recognised it immediately. Reaching for her purse to tip the man, she realised that he had gone: the street was bustling but not excessively so, but he had managed to completely disappear in the time that it had taken her to read the envelope.

“Botheration!” she huffed, and was half inclined to stamp her foot – but this is not something that a well brought up lady does. She was tempted to stamp her foot anyway, but instead looked for somewhere to prop the parcel that she was carrying, currently one-handed, so that she could open the envelope.

Opening the note, wondering who the strange fellow was and why he was bringing her a message from Jack, she took the missive in with one glance. The note was brief, almost to the point of being rude. Lady Michaela was no great letter writer herself, usually keeping herself busy with other pursuits, but there were certain niceties to be observed, after all, and Jack had been off on one of his jaunts for the last year or so.

*****

Between the Wars, Jack had spent a lot of time wandering around Europe. He had a reasonable facility with languages, and wherever he went he could usually pick up enough to get by, or at least to find a shared language that made communication possible. He was mostly self-reliant and this reduced the opportunities to get into trouble, although it was some years before he ventured into Germany, or anywhere where being English might be problematic.

He’d started in the pine forests of Scandinavia, and immediately found the peace and solitude that he had been looking for. By degrees he’d moved eastwards. He’d liked Helsinki and Tallinn, and whilst not a natural sailor had even enjoyed the crossing between these two ancient cities. He’d had a glimpse of Russia, but had not managed to reach the ancient boreal forests: a hasty retreat had been required, and he’d ended up in the Balkans earlier than planned.

Lady Michaela had the run of Jack’s small estate, which was itself mostly woodland. He was lucky to have a good estate manager who listened to the one injunction, to look after the trees, but enjoyed the autonomy to manage the farms, brewery and a modest timber-yard, kept supplied by two gnarled old foresters who had absolute authority on what trees could be felled and when this might be allowed to occur. Lady Michaela herself had the use of a suite of outbuildings, which allowed her to indulge her hobbies of tinkering with things, smithing and generally being creative in a rather hearty way, without the gaze of disapproving relatives on her the whole time.

The letter started “Michaela”, which immediately put her on her guard. The only way that it could have been worse is if he’d been more formal:
Michaela,
Urgent that I speak with you. I need your help in a rather big way. How about I buy you tea? Meet you at the Lyons Tea Rooms in Poplar at half past three. Sorry it’s not the Dorchester, but I wouldn’t fit in there at the moment.
Jack
PS: Don’t mind about the messenger, he’s a good friend, and a good egg.

She had planned on getting back up to the country that afternoon, as there were a few experiments that she was eager to progress, but as she was rather peckish, tea did seem like a jolly good idea.  It was all quite vexing, though because she should see a perfectly good tea room 50 yards up Oxford Street.  She hailed a cab.

“Is yer shore, missus?” The cabbie asked when I told him where I wanted to go. “It’s not the Dogs, but tisn’t the best par’ o’ town.”

“Well, if it has a Lyons, it can’t be all that bad” she said brightly.  The cabbie harrumphed into his large, boisterous moustache, and they were off.  Lady Michaela amused herself by mentally listing all the faults with the engine, that she could detect from the various sounds the well-used Austin High Lot made as it drove her to Poplar.

Twenty minutes later and she was pushing open the door to the tea room having paid off the cabby.  A Nippy immediately swept up to conduct her to a table; she was about to explain that she was meeting a friend when Jack stood up and waved her over.  He’d had his back to her, so it was surprising that he’d seen her – until she realised that he’d deliberately placed himself so that he had a good view of the room, and in particular the door, in the monstrous Art Deco mirror that hung on one wall, without being obvious himself.

“Thank you for coming Michaela.  I’m afraid I need your help.” He handed her an unsealed envelope, and began to explain.

*****

It was the Spring of 1937 that he’d finally made his way to the Black Forest.  He’d been following his usual practice of spending as much time as possible in amongst the trees, when he’d stumbled across a natural clearing in the forest.  The clearing had been a hive of activity: an apt description as there was an obvious Queen Bee – or King Bee in this case – with a small knot of drones buzzing about to little apparent purpose, and a group of workers hard at it – but what was it?  It appeared to be some sort of archeological dig.  Jack could probably have melted back into the trees without being seen, but he was curious, and so he followed the path on into the clearing.  He’d barely emerged from the woods before he’d been spotted and the King Bee had dispatched one of his drones to intercept him.  He’d engaged in some desultory conversation, but the young man was giving nothing away: he escorted Jack, friendly but firm, around the perimeter, and then sent him on his way.

The inference was clear: don’t come back.  Jack’s curiosity, which had been piqued before, was fully aroused now, but going back was a hiding to nothing.  He continued on. He thought that there was a village not too far ahead and hopefully it had a gasthaus. That would be where the senior  people were staying.

He’d been right, and this was the first time he come across the Ahnenerbe.  But not the last.

*****

“So, can you get this in front of the right people, Michaela?”

“Possibly, old thing – if I knew who the right people were.”

“Robert might know someone?”

“I doubt it!  He’s only a subaltern!  Wait a minute though… I met some of Robert’s chums when he passed out from Sandhurst.  There were some old duffers there chit-chatting about this and that.  Most of them were quite stuffy, but there was a chap in a monocle who was venting about rise of the Nazi’s and the fact that we weren’t doing anything about it, and a much calmer crusty in civvies was making some reassuring noises and saying that he would look into.  He didn’t look much, but the chap with the monocle seemed to be assuaged – and he looked like the kind of person that really would take on a tide if he thought he were in the right!”.

“That’s grand.  Remember Michaela, this isn’t just about the Nazis and the Ahnenerbe. There’s more than just lives at stake – but you must never let on.”

And so she took the letter to Whitehall, to the father of one of Robert’s friends, who turned out to be exactly who she needed to talk to, a rather good listener, and much more important than even she had realised.  It was he who had dubbed it the Echo Memorandum – which had promptly been filed, until it came to mind again in the summer of 1940.



© 2018, David Jesson & Debra Carey