More out of sheer boredom than real interest she told him that the boys back at RAF Tempsford had christened him an ‘Old Lag’. That he was an experienced airman she had little doubt, after all he walked with the requisite bail out limp, sported a handlebar moustache and, by the smell of his breath, had a taste for the hard stuff. “An Old Lag you say, do they by Jove? Bloody penguins the lot of them,” he bellowed over the thrash of the propeller and the angry bumble bee constant hum of the engine. Although sounding the worse for drink, to his credit and her relief he seemed to have total control of the willowy, matte black Westland Lysander flying by the light of a silvery moon, low over The English Channel toward a field ‘somewhere’ in Northern France. She felt compelled to pose a question, “Penguins?” “Yes my dear, ‘penguins’. I presume you are talking of those bloody ground officers with no operational experience, birds with wings that can’t fly, in my book.” Now she understood.
“May I ask what you were doing before you joined Special Opps?” She contemplated taking the easy route; telling him a lie, yet to kill time settled for the truth, “I worked in Paris in ‘a place more marvellous than any other,’ at 31 Boulevard Edgar Quinet in Montparnasse to be precise.”
“Well, well, well…you surprise me. ‘Le Sphinx’ no less, to my dishonour I know it ever so well from back in the day. Is the lovely Madame Martoune still in charge? I heard tell that Wehrmacht have commandeered the place for exclusive use of the military? Don’t recall seeing you there though, mind I was somewhat tanked up most visitations. Wonder if they still keep that dwarf chappie who gift wrapped the gals in Cleopatra garb, such as it was, in a rolled up carpet? The little chap had the finest job imaginable I’d say.”
She explained she had no idea as to the current welfare of Martoune, her bordello or the dwarf, adding that she had no recollection of her pilot either, “I left Paris in June 1940, the very day the Hun marched in… I was one of the lucky ones I suppose…and by the way, I merely served drinks, just a waitress, never a working girl…they said I was too skinny,” her roughly true explanation.
“You’re not French, your use of English tells me that; your diction perfect.”
“True, yet I am not English either, although if you heard me speaking French you would think me French…that is why they recruited me.”
He chose not to delve into her origins any further. “So it’s a bit of clandestine contact with the Resistance in occupied territory, no doubt a bridge to blow up or such like. You must be a very brave gal, going back there when you could be safe and sound, well as safe and sound as one can be in these wretched times, elsewhere?”
“I do not think of myself as brave, I simply take satisfaction from naked revenge and pay no heed to the consequences should my mission fail.”
“You owe the Gerry one then…payback time?”
“Very much so.”
Now over the solid terrain of La Belle France it was not long before the pilot announced that he had spotted the burning torches lighting the covert strip of field where they were due to land. “François and his cronies will no doubt be ready to whisk you off to the safe house. Take care my lovely.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Come next full moon above a cloudless crystal clear navigable night sky, the Lysander returned to take her back to England.
“You did your duty I take it?”
“More…much more than that I can assure you.”
She felt no affinity with kith and kin anymore, she had lost all to the firing squads or the ovens. The tribalism born of lines on maps left her bemused. The perceived requirement for flags and anthems an alien thing to a girl of Romani descent; a traveller who knew no boundaries; who took no prisoners.