Authors: Alex Gerlis
‘Did Vermeulen behave during the transmission?’
‘Yes. We had a couple of our most experienced radio chaps watching over him. They know what to look for. Selection of frequency, speed of his keying, any deliberate mistakes – anything that would suggest he was trying to surreptitiously let the Germans know that he has compromised. As far as they can tell, he was as good as gold.’
‘And how did the meeting itself go?’
‘Just as Vermeulen said it would. Bang on eleven o’clock woman turns up the main road opposite the park. Vermeulen has been sat there for fifteen minutes, all his signals on green. We’ve got the place well covered, of course, but keep well back. Over she comes. They have a little chat. She leaves ten minutes later.’
‘And you were able to follow her?’
‘Only just. Very smart lady she is, very smart. She was a textbook example of how to do it. If we hadn’t put a tail of seven people on her we wouldn’t have made it. She went to Ealing Common Station and then spent the next two hours on a tour of London. Thought we’d lost her at one stage in the Strand heading towards Fleet Street but then one of our chaps spotted her on a bus going in the opposite direction. It stopped at a red light and he managed to get on. She got off in Northumberland Avenue and then walked down the Embankment, across Westminster Bridge and into St Thomas’s Hospital. Magpie, Professor, turns out to be a nurse.’
‘And does this nurse have a name?’
‘Indeed she does. Nathalie Mercier. Aged twenty-six. From Paris. Arrived in England second of June last year. Story was that she had been treating French soldiers and was scared of what the Germans would do to her. As far as we can tell, she was certainly working in a field hospital in Dunkirk at the time of the evacuation, so nothing suspicious about her. Cleared at Balham at the end of June.’
‘Is she a genuine nurse?’
‘Indeed. Met her matron. They think she is wonderful. Very competent and quite beautiful, I must tell, you sir. Slim figure, long legs and long dark hair. Her eyes are jet black, quite the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. Patients adore her, especially the chaps.’
‘Naturally. And what did matron say?’
‘This is where it is most fortuitous, sir. Contacted matron and said we need to see you on a matter of national security, please say nothing to anyone, usual routine. When I arrive, I say it is connection with Nathalie Mercier – we knew her name from when we followed her into the nurses’ quarters. ‘Ah,’ says Matron. ‘It must be about her transfer request.’ Appears that the beautiful Nathalie has applied to be transferred to a military hospital. Not fussy which one, anyone would do it seems though she would prefer to be in the London area. She said she felt she wanted to give something back after France’s defeat, do her bit for the Allied cause. Matron believes it, of course, which is convenient for us because we have a ready made cover story about why we’re interested in her.’
‘Which presumably is the reason why she was now ready to make contact with the Germans. So you said ...?’
‘Yes, of course! I am indeed here to check her out as to whether she can get security clearance to work in a military hospital. No need after all to resort to the rather complicated tale I had prepared for Matron about needing to check over some paperwork. Matron would be sorry to lose her, but quite understands.’
Professor Newby sat still, holding his sherry glass in front of him with both hands, gently turning the glass and watching the slow movement of the drink. Edgar’s sherry remained untouched.
‘This has the makings of something most interesting, Captain Edgar. In the fullness of time we will grant Nurse Mercier her request. Until then, we have her exactly where we want her.’
Surrey, August 1933
Owen Quinn had spent the summer of 1933 watching and playing as much cricket as he could manage and watching his grandfather die at a hospital in Guildford.
He was still a few months short of his sixteenth birthday, unaware that these few weeks would mark his transition from childhood to adulthood.
The summer had started very promisingly. His grandfather’s illness that no one discussed meant that he was able to use his ticket for the Test Match against the West Indies at the Oval. The ticket allowed entry every day although the match ended early on the third day thanks to the English bowler, Marriott, taking eleven West Indies wickets. He spent the rest of the day exploring the heart of London. He walked down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament. Quinn had stood outside 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace and even gone into some of the shops in Oxford Street. He had sat by a small lake in St James’s Park eating his cheese and pickle sandwiches, before walking back to Waterloo Station to catch a train home in a carriage full of businessmen and civil servants. He could not imagine being happier.
Cricket was still his passion. In the past year he had become taller and his slender figure had filled out enough for him to become a useful quick bowler and a careful batsman in the summer and a quick defender in the winter. His grandfather had taken to coaching him and came to watch him when he could. After one game, when Owen had taken four wickets and scored a match-winning 43 his grandfather had briefly placed an arm round his shoulder as they walked to the car. ‘You played like a proper Yorkshire man then.’ Owen knew it was meant as the ultimate compliment.
But other passions were creeping in, though Quinn was too naive at the time to recognise them for what they were. He was in the top French class at his grammar school and towards the end of term their teacher, grateful for such a responsive group of students, took the enthusiastic class to London to see a French film that he told them all of France was talking about. Feeling at the height of sophistication and allowed to wear their own clothes, the small group of boys travelled up from Surrey in the company of Mr. Bennett, who despite his impeccable English accent which even extended to when he spoke French, still insisted on being addressed as Monsieur Bennett.
The film was
Boudu sauvé des eaux
. It was a witty comedy about a businessman who saves a tramp and the effect that the tramp subsequently has on the businessman’s family. Monsieur Bennett told the boys that Jean Renoir was a very important director, but on the journey back to Surrey it was the actresses that he could not get out of his mind. It was not just their beauty. It was the style and sophistication that he had never observed in anyone in England. At night, he began to dream of them. Accepting that they were unlikely to reciprocate his interest, however fluent in French he might become, he began to return the waves and greetings of the girl across the road who was the same age as him and went to the girls’ grammar school. He started to time his leaving the house at the same time as she left hers so that they could walk to the bus-stop together. Sometimes in the evening they would stand and talk outside one of their neat semi-detached houses. They even went for walks in the park. Towards the end of that summer, he allowed his arm to brush against hers and on some nights she would move hers away only slowly. If only, he thought, she was French.
Owen Quinn was close to his grandfather, who had moved down from Yorkshire in search of work. He did not share the middle-class reserve as the rest of Quinn’s family. He remembered the scandalised silence in the family when his grandfather had announced that he was no longer going to church every Sunday. When his parents had asked him why he was no longer going, his grandfather asked them to give him one good reason why he should. His parents exchanged low glances, but could not come up with a satisfactory reason. Owen decided then that when it was up to him, he would not go to church either.
He was someone who the young Owen could talk openly to, so when he was moved into hospital that July, Owen had visited him most days. Owen’s grandmother and mother and aunt visited every day, but their visits comprised them sitting still by the bed, handbags tightly clutched on their laps, punctuating the silence with frequent ‘How are you feeling, Arthur?’ or ‘Is there anything that we can get you?’ They would huddle together in the corridor outside his room, whispering and hoping that Owen would not see them dab their eyes.
He took to visiting his grandfather on his own and they would talk openly, though his grandfather was losing the ability to talk for any length of time. One day he had remarked to his grandfather that it didn’t seem like he was getting better. He immediately regretted saying this, but his grandfather placed his hand on top of Owen’s hand. He told him he was the first person to acknowledge this and how much he appreciated it. They sat there, hand in hand, until his mother and grandmother arrived.
On a baking Thursday at the end of August, when the grass was beginning to turn brown, he again found himself alone with his grandfather, who was having trouble breathing now and barely ate. His skin seemed to have changed colour and was pulled tight across his face and arms. It was early afternoon and the sunbeams were darting into the room through the large window, catching a storm of specks of floating dust as they did so.
His grandfather was drifting in and out of sleep, his uneaten lunch on a tray at the side of the bed, the smell of cabbage, boiled potato and beef stew pervading the room. Owen had moved over to the window, looking down at life going on as normal below and wondering how that could be. His grandfather spoke and Owen moved over to the bed.
‘Tell me, Owen. What do you want to do when you are older?’
‘Play cricket for England, I suppose.’
They both smiled.
‘I’d probably like to do something with my geography or my French. In fact, I think I would even like to marry a beautiful Frenchwoman!’
Owen smiled as he had expected his grandfather to do, which he did, but only very briefly. He held Owen’s hand tight. ‘Be careful what you wish for.’
He fell asleep, so he would have to ask him what he meant by that later. But then his grandmother arrived with his parents and his uncle and his aunt and Owen was ushered out of the room. He went home on his own. His grandfather died that night. He could never get out of his mind his grandfather’s last words to him.
‘Be careful what you wish for.’
Crete, 22 May 1941
The German attack on Crete had been raging for days and it was evident that the Allied grip on the island was slipping. The night before, the Germans had captured Maleme airfield. They were now able to land troops and all the supplies they needed, as well as having a base for their Stuka dive-bombers. It was these planes that launched wave after wave of attack on the British naval ships that had been helping to defend the island. The fall of Crete was now just a matter of time.
The eight hundred man crew of HMS
were exhausted. Alongside HMS
they were trying to rescue survivors from the destroyer HMS
, but were coming under constant German attack. The RAF had withdrawn their air-cover. Only half a dozen planes remained on the Greek island and rather than sacrifice them, they had been sent to Egypt. The reputation of the cruiser, known as The Fighting G, meant little now. More waves of Stuka dive bombers and HMS
was fatally hit. HMS
was running out of ammunition and defenceless when another Stuka attack came in.
Lieutenant Owen Quinn had no idea how long he had been in the water. As he slipped in and out of consciousness, he could not even be sure that he was in the water. There was more flotsam and debris and bodies around him than water and any water that he could make out was black and thick with oil and stained red with blood.
He was twenty-three and too young to die. He had been in the Royal Navy for eighteen months. He had just finished his degree in geography at London University when he’d joined up and his interest in the weather, tides, coastlines and beaches had been put to good effect. He had been commissioned as a navigation officer and was having a good war. He found the action they had been involved in – and there had been plenty of that — exhilarating and he feared nothing. He never thought he would die. Until now.
He lost his grip on the oil-stained plank of wood that had been keeping him afloat, but was pulled back to safety by a man who looked like one of the stewards from the officers’ mess.
The steward was still wearing a white jacket, but the oil stains made it look like a black and white striped football shirt. Quinn tried to speak to the man, but his throat was too dry and there was vicious taste of oil and salt in his mouth.
He thought he could make out a lifeboat in front of him, weaving its way through the wreckage to haul any survivors aboard. Quinn tried to swim towards it, but he could not move one of his legs and his back was in agony.
Again, he slipped below the surface and again he was hauled back by the steward dragging him up by his collar. The lifeboat was gone now. He was resigned to his fate, but without any sense of acceptance. No life flashed before him. The steward who had twice saved his life and whose name he now remembered was Travers let out a groan. A bloody froth bubbled from his mouth and he slipped off the plank and smoothly into the sea. Less than a minute later, behind him he heard the clank of oars and a cry of ‘here’s one’ as a lifebelt tied to a rope was thrown just in front of him.
His greatest wish was for a drink of water and then to be rescued and it was about to happen.
Be careful what you wish for.
The country road was narrow and pot-holed and the ambulance appeared to have been specially chosen for its lack of suspension. The driver was under the impression that after weeks at sea in a hospital ship, what an injured Royal Navy officer would most appreciate was a constant stream of jolly chatter. There were a few feeble jokes, a long story about how his wife was not coping with rationing (‘they ought to take a person’s weight into account, sir’) and an account of how his mother was convinced she had seen a German spy in her church (‘he was staring at her, sir’) but for some reason the authorities had not been interested. For most of the journey from Southampton he had sustained this commentary through the small window behind his left shoulder. He had to slightly turn around as he did so and each time he did that, the ambulance lurched a bit too much for Owen Quinn’s liking.