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
Lady 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:
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.
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