Authors: Alex Gerlis
‘Lieutenant Quinn? I am your new physiotherapy nurse. My name is Nurse Mercier.’
Quinn stood still without uttering a word. He was trying hard to compose himself. She had walked out of a French film.
,’ he replied, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.
Ainsi, vous parlez français
?’ she asked.
Quinn panicked. His French was good enough to hold a decent conversation, or at least the first part of one, but that would be in normal circumstances and these were not normal circumstances.
,’ came out making him sound unwell. ‘I do speak a bit but I am sure that your English is much better than my French.’
‘Nonsense! I will help to make you better and I will help you to speak better French and you will help me to speak better English.
Which was how Owen Quinn’s life came to change forever.
His treatment was still supervised by the physiotherapists, but now Nurse Mercier was with him throughout all of his sessions. She was responsible for overseeing all of his treatment. He realised it was in his imagination, but he liked to think that her face lit up when he hobbled into the room and that she seemed to give him that much more attention than her other patients.
When he was practicing walking on the mats without sticks, she would be right behind him, her hands gently holding him at the top of his thighs. He had to concentrate hard on keeping his balance, which was difficult with her hands gripping the side of his thighs, sometimes seeming to slip an inch or two round to the front. He began to spend more time in the downstairs lounge, where he knew she would go and spend her morning or afternoon break. Invariably she would come over and sit with him and they would talk. She now called him ‘Owen’ rather than ‘Lieutenant Quinn’ and he began to call her Nathalie, certainly when no one else was in earshot.
She would ask him about his life and what plans they had for him once he left Calcotte Grange and she would tell him about her life in France. She talked of her strict upbringing as an only child in Paris and of how her parents had died within a few months of each other when she was in her late teens and training to be a nurse. She spoke of how she became an army nurse and ended up in Dunkirk and managed to scramble onto one of the last boats back to Britain.
At the beginning of February, Quinn was moved into one of the side rooms. These tended to be reserved for the more senior officers, or those with the most serious injuries, so Quinn was surprised that one was being offered to him rather than to a more senior officer, but he did not complain. He assumed that it was because he had already been in the hospital for three months.
He told Nathalie about his new room at their next session and she began to visit him there at the end of the day. It was not unusual for the physiotherapists or their assistants to visit the patients on their wards, especially if they had a difficult session that day.
Nathalie’s visits became nightly. At first, they were brief, sometimes she would just stand inside the partially closed doorway and wish him a good night and correct his pronunciation. Other times she would sit by his bed, talking of how she had no one in France and of how nursing was now her life. She would untie her hair, shaking her head to allow it to fall by the side of her face and would turn slightly away from him. Once or twice when this happened, he caught a glimpse of her jet black eyes, moist like pools of water.
One evening he was telling her of how he hoped to go back to sea soon, how it seemed right to do so. He was not terribly close to his parents and, of course, he was not married, so he did not really have to worry about someone left behind.
Nathalie gazed at him as he spoke and then looked down towards the bed. Without looking up she spoke quietly.
Tu n’es pas seul maintenant
’ You are not alone now.
Her fingernail was gently tracing circles on his forearm, the fair hairs on his arm picked out against the bright red of her nail varnish. He stopped talking and she brushed her fingers down his arm. The room was so quiet that Quinn could feel a buzzing in his ear. Their fingertips touched and hands intertwined. Maybe it lasted a second, possibly longer, but for Quinn it was a lifetime. That was the first night that she kissed his lips as she left. It was not a kiss that lingered, but as she kissed him she placed a hand on his shoulder and he could taste her warm breath.
The following day he did not have any physiotherapy and did not go down to the lounge. He was confused. He knew he had fallen desperately in love with Nathalie, but was sure that it was unrequited and that she was just being kind to him. If he was honest with himself he knew that he was not bad looking, but Nathalie was a beautiful woman who was not only his nurse, but also two years older than him. He felt embarrassed at having a schoolboy crush at his age. Although the hospital seemed relaxed about allowing the patients — who were officers after all — and the medical staff to mix socially, having a friendly chat over a cup of tea was probably the limit of what they had in mind. A relationship was quite another thing.
The next day Nathalie was not in the room when he went down for the physiotherapy. He was supervised for the whole session by the senior physiotherapist and for a time he was aware that the senior medical officer and a couple of uniformed naval officers were watching him, which was not altogether unusual. Often when a patient was being considered for release back to active service he would be carefully assessed as he went through the paces.
That afternoon he sat in the lounge for an hour either side of the afternoon break, but there was no sign of Nathalie. He decided that she realised herself that perhaps she had crossed a boundary the other night and had gone elsewhere. Or, perhaps, it was his fault. Two nights ago she had assured him he was not alone. He should have told her then that she wasn’t either. Why had he missed that opportunity, to tell her that he cared for her? Why had he not held her when she kissed him, pulling her closer to him and promising never to let go. He was desolate, chiding himself for his response which she must have seen as him not caring.
That night he lay in the bath in the private bathroom attached to his side room. Nurse Slade, the large nurse who always reeked of tobacco, had helped him into the bath. He was careful to remove the towel only when she had left. She would give him twenty minutes and then knock on the door before entering, allowing him time to put the towel back in place before she helped him out of the bath.
He liked to lay in the bath with the harsh overhead light turned off. Enough light seeped in from his bedroom for him to see what he was doing, but he found lying in the warm water, in the half-light, was relaxing.
He had only been in the bath for five minutes when there was a gentle tap at the half open door. It was far too early for Nurse Slade and in any case her taps at the door tended not to be gentle. He had enough time to grab the towel and cover himself when the door from the bedroom opened. Silhouetted in the doorway was an unmistakable figure. Nathalie entered, leaving the door from the bedroom fully ajar, so the bathroom was now flooded with light.
He started to speak, but she placed her forefinger over her mouth.
‘I told Nurse Slade I needed to see you and would help you out of the bath. The door is locked.’ She was speaking very softly.
And with that Nathalie helped him out of the bath, removing his towel as she did so. He stood quite naked in front of her, the first time he had ever been like that with a woman, the water dripping fast and heavy from his body. He began to breathe deeply and opened his mouth to speak. She smiled, shook her head, placing her forefinger in front of his lips and then allowing it to move inside his mouth.
No need to speak
. She was staring directly into his eyes. In the half-light, her eyes were even darker and brighter than he had imagined.
‘It is all right. Don’t worry. I told you, the door is locked.’ She was speaking in no more than a whisper, her face just a few inches from his. ‘
Nous avons seulement quinze minutes.
Just fifteen minutes.
As she spoke she was releasing her belt and unbuttoning her white uniform. She stood as naked as he was before him, but even before that he had already begun to respond. She moved towards him so that their bodies were now touching. She reached out, her hand sliding down his bare back and then round to the front, setting fire to every inch of his flesh as she did so. She led him towards the bedroom.
The next fifteen minutes were everything that Owen Quinn had ever dreamed of and more.
Be careful what you wish for.
At the beginning of March, two weeks after Nathalie had come into his bathroom and his life, Quinn awoke from an early evening doze to find a tall man in a dark coat and still wearing a trilby with a wide brim sitting very still in the chair in the corner of the room.
The two men stared at each other for quite a few seconds before the tall man broke the silence.
‘Captain Edgar. Not your lot. Army.’
More silence before Edgar pointed to Quinn’s bedside table where there was a bottle of very good malt whisky. Quinn raised his eyebrows.
‘Don’t worry. Officially sanctioned. Understand you prefer it to rum.’ He smiled at his own joke. Quinn could not remember when he had last drank whisky other than in his dreams.
‘Chaps here tell me that you should be out of here soon, Quinn.’ The man was speaking quietly. He had taken his hat off and was turning it carefully in his hands as he did so, first clockwise, then anti-clockwise, as if checking for imperfections. Despite speaking quietly, his voice managed to fill the room. He had no discernible accent, certainly not public school. Not quite officer class, Quinn thought. Maybe even the very slightest trace of an educated northern accent, but he really couldn’t place it.
‘Yes, sir. I am hoping to return to active service as soon as possible.’
‘Not on the cards I’m afraid.’ Captain Edgar was shaking his head. ‘I’m told that they don’t think you’re up to it. Back not strong enough. Leg still playing up.’
Quinn was fully awake now, quite stunned. ‘But when I got here they told me I would be back at sea this year!’
‘Well, Quinn, the best laid plans of mice and men ...’
Quinn could feel himself getting angry and upset.
‘But surely this is something that the doctors would—’
Captain Edgar held up his hat to stop Quinn speaking.
‘But we do have a plan that will appeal to you, Quinn. You are going to come and work for us.’
Edgar waved his hat, as if batting away the question.
‘All will be revealed. We are quite impressed with what you have to offer, Quinn. Bright chap. You are a navigation officer, aren’t you, Quinn?’
‘Specialising in the weather and coastlines, that type of thing?’
‘Splendid. Just what we’re looking for. Couldn’t find a better man. You are going to meet one of our chaps soon. Archibald. He’ll tell you all then. Welcome on board.’
As he arose to leave the room, Edgar paused in the closed doorway, his head above the doorframe.
‘Just one thing, Quinn. Your nurse. Nathalie Mercier.’
Quinn felt himself turning bright red. He started to speak.
‘Gather you’ve got rather ... sweet on her.’
Quinn started to speak again, but Edgar continued.
‘And her with you, I gather. No need to explain. Understand and all that. Pretty woman, perfectly natural. Bit ... irregular in this kind of place, but she assures us that you both ... feel ... the same way about each other.’
‘Yes, sir, if I can ...’
Edgar shook his head as he stood up.
‘No need to explain, Quinn. She’ll be able to go with you. Just make sure you do the decent thing.’
The next day, he had been called in to see Dr Farrow, who confirmed what Captain Edgar had told him.
Dr Farrow was clearly uneasy about having to impart such bad news and for the whole time that he spoke to Quinn, he determinedly stared at the chewed pencil he was twisting in fingers.
He tried hard to convince Quinn, while managing to sound somewhat less than convinced himself.
Leg healing nicely ... but back not really holding up terribly well, not made the progress we had expected ... not your fault ... one of those things ... too risky to let you go back to sea ... know we told you hoped to get you back to active service, but not really worked out ... very sorry ... accept we were possibly too optimistic ... know just how disappointed you must be ... look on the bright side ... Intelligence chaps picked you out ... big job, important etc. etc.
And that was that. As far as Quinn was concerned, he couldn’t very well argue with the Royal Navy and the doctors. He was not going back to sea. He had somehow ended up in Intelligence and he had no idea why or how.
There are parts of south-eastern England that are so flat that at certain times of the year the harsh winds flying in from the Russian steppes manage to do so unhindered. The last week in March 1942 was one such time. In the morning, the day would be calm and there would be enough sun for those patients who were up to it to be able to gather on the vast terrace at the front of the house that the Calcottes had so thoughtfully provided.
By noon the wind would start to pick up and within minutes it would be whipping around the turrets, terraces and out-buildings of Calcotte Grange. Even the most hardy of the Navy officers would be driven indoors, with inevitable talk of ‘battening down the hatches’.
On the last Thursday of March, a group of patients were in the lounge, looking out over the sweeping drive and watching the arrival of a long black car. Owen Quinn was one of that group, more anxious to see the outcome than the others. He had been warned to be ready for a visitor that day and the visitor was in the car delayed by the sheep. He had been waiting for his visitor since Captain Edgar had turned up in his room a month previously.