Authors: Alex Gerlis
As they drove around London the driver shared with Quinn his own insight into how the war could be won (‘we need to bomb the hell out of them, sir, if you’ll excuse the language, sir’). Just north of London, the nurse in the back did manage to persuade the driver to keep quiet for a while as the patient was trying to sleep. The driver then went onto a series of smaller roads. ‘We’ll be there soon, sir’ had been his refrain for the past hour and now the road felt like a dirt track and every movement jarred his back and leg. After a while the ambulance slowed down almost to a halt and made a sharp left turn.
‘Here we are, sir. Calcotte Grange.’
The road surface for the next half a mile was surprisingly smooth.
Calcotte Grange had been many things in its one hundred year history. It lay in open countryside north of St Albans in Hertfordshire and was built by the family after whom it was named. They had made their fortune in India and were keen to display it. As a result, everything about the house was larger than necessary. There were far more rooms than they needed and those rooms were bigger than required. The drive was longer and wider than many of the local roads and many of the side buildings and outhouses had no real purpose whatsoever and had been empty since they were built.
But what they possessed in wealth, the Calcottes lacked in sensitivity. Misinterpreting the lack of any obvious signs of gratitude or even admiration from their neighbours, they assumed this was because the house was not impressive enough. As a result they embarked upon a second phase of utterly unnecessary building. At the centre of this was a chapel. Characteristically, the chapel dwarfed the local church. Locals called it Calcotte Cathedral.
The family’s lack of judgement became their downfall. A lack of funds prevented the completion of the chapel and forced the sale of the property before the turn of the century. Calcotte Grange became a girls’ school before being converted into a nursing home for recuperating officers in 1916. After the war, it remained a nursing home and in 1940 reverted to its military use, becoming a hospital for Royal Navy officers.
The Royal Navy had cause to be grateful for the Calcottes’ unintended munificence. The large rooms had become small wards and at last the building that had been intended as the chapel was completed, though by now it had become a physiotherapy centre. The purpose of Calcotte Grange was to treat officers who no longer needed acute care. For most of the patients, the hospital was where they were sent to recover with the hope that they would soon be fit enough to resume active service.
It was to Calcotte Grange that Lieutenant Owen Quinn was brought in November 1941, six months to the day from when HMS
was sunk. His memories of the hours and days after his rescue were a series of blurred photographs rather than a clear film. The precious drink of water just after he was hauled into the lifeboat, the excruciating agony of his back and leg, the perilous transfer to the rescue ship and then the morphine and the oblivion until they reached Alexandria.
He had since been told that for a couple of days he was touch and go. He had lost a lot of blood and there were concerns that his wounds had been infected in the filthy water. But at the age of twenty-three he had youth on his side and after a delirious first week he was on a very slow road to recovery. He had suffered disc damage to his back and broken his right femur, but the doctors assured him he would be back at sea within a year. Three operations later he was on a hospital ship back to England and Calcotte Grange.
He had arrived at Calcotte Grange at night and awoke on his first morning to find his parents sitting nervously at his bedside. His father was still wearing his coat, scarf and gloves. His mother had adopted same pose as she had at her father’s bedside: anxiously clutching her handbag to her lap. She allowed herself a brief display of emotion and gave her son a peck on his cheek. Her eyelashes were moist as they brushed his cheekbone. His father became uncharacteristically jolly. His conversation fluctuated between detailed accounts of cricket matches from that summer and the tedious story of how the local council had allowed him a whole two days off to come and visit his son. They remained for two hours and, confident that their only child would live, left, promising to return before Christmas.
Quinn quickly settled into the routine of the hospital. He was in a ward with three other men. One never spoke more than three or four words at a time, preferring to lean on the windowsill and stare out over the open Hertfordshire countryside. He had been in the Arctic convoys. The other two were lieutenant-commanders. One had also been wounded in the Mediterranean and had been in the same hospital as Quinn in Alexandria and there was no detail of his injuries or indeed the man’s naval career of which Quinn or the other patients were unaware. The other had been injured while supervising the loading of his ship in Devonport, which he didn’t talk about very much. He spent much of his time reading Dickens.
On his second day, he had a series of consultations. He was examined by the senior medical officer and the senior physiotherapist. They studied his file and concurred with the doctors in Alexandria: he would be back at sea sometime in 1942.
Absolutely no reason why not.
The physiotherapy routine was brutal and he had to go through it every day, apart from Sunday, but by the New Year he no longer needed the wheelchair and his aim was to walk without the aid of sticks by Easter.
The senior medical officer, Dr Farrow, was a kindly man who had worked in a field hospital on the Western Front in the Great War and then returned to general practice in Norfolk. He should have retired in 1940, but the war had prevented that. He had a permanent air of weariness about him.
At the beginning of January, Dr Farrow received a visit from three men, two senior Royal Navy officers and a tall man in a dark coat who never gave his name but said he was involved in intelligence planning. The two Navy officers were clearly there to make Dr Farrow understand that the visit was sanctioned by the Navy. It was the tall man in the dark coat who did all of the talking.
He wanted details of all the patients in Calcotte Grange: their names, ranks, ages, injuries and prognosis. Dr Farrow started to explain that this was irregular, that there were ethical considerations but he was told firmly by one of the Navy officers that this was official business and his co-operation was required.
All the ethics have been taken care of, Farrow
, he was assured. He was unsure what that meant, but was too tired to argue.
Dr Farrow went through the sixty-three patients currently in Calcotte Grange. The tall man clearly had something in mind. Those with more serious injuries who were unlikely to recover for some time were eliminated, as were those over the age of forty or above the rank of lieutenant-commander. They were soon down to thirteen names.
‘Forgot. One more criterion. Any of these chaps married?’
Farrow looked at their details again. The list was reduced to eight.
‘All right, let’s have their files out, need to see a bit more detail.’
The Navy officers then looked at the files one by one, muttering to each other as they did so. Three more came out. Five remained.
The tall man studied the names carefully.
‘What does Broadhurst do?’
‘Gunnery officer,’ replied one of the Navy men.
The tall man shook his head and handed the file back to Dr Farrow.
One of the Navy men peered over the tall man’s shoulder and then consulted a list of his own.
‘Engineer. Same as Stewart here,’ pointing to another file.
Again he shook his head and handed the files back to Dr Farrow. Three files were spread out in front of him now. He was studying their photographs. He pulled one file out.
‘He seems right.’
Farrow lifted his glasses as he looked at the file.
‘Yes, Beresford. Good chap. Had a rough time of it though. Having a few sessions with the psychiatrist.’
More shaking of the head. Two remaining.
‘This chap. How old?’
‘I think you will find that he is twenty-four.’
‘Bit on the young side, but looks the part. And what does he do?’
‘Navigation officer.’ It was one of the Navy men again, looking through the file. ‘Well thought of. Something of an expert on tides and coastlines. Even studied that sort of thing at university. Didn’t know you could do that. Certainly not in my day.’
The tall man read through the file again.
‘Looks like he is expecting to go back to sea.’
‘Indeed,’ said Dr Farrow. ‘He is most keen to do so and we ought to have him ready by the end of the summer. No reason why not. Strong chap. Young and played plenty of sport. Always helps.’
‘And if he was not going back to sea, when could he be out of here?’
‘Well, there is no reason why he shouldn’t go back to sea ...’
‘If he were to be based in London. No active service. Behind a desk, that type of thing. When would he be ready for that?’
‘Well, he is almost there now, but a couple more months should do it.’
Silence in the room apart from the ticking of a large clock on the wall and nervous coughing of one of the officers. The tall man was reading the file carefully and nodding his head approvingly as he did so.
‘He’s our man. Has to be. Fits the part perfectly. I need him ready by the middle of April.’
Dr Farrow started to say something, but one of the Navy officers held up his hand to stop him.
The tall man stood and the other three people in the room did likewise.
‘Lieutenant Owen Quinn. He’s our man. One other thing, Dr Farrow. A new nurse will be joining you next week.’
Nathalie Mercier arrived at Calcotte Grange in the second week of January and for the first two weeks she was on night shifts, as was customary for new nurses. She was due to start work in the physiotherapy department by the end of January, but the night shifts gave her some time before then to find out what she could about all the patients.
There were only sixty or so patients in the hospital and when all was silent and still in the early hours of the morning she had the opportunity she had been looking for to study their files. As a new nurse, she was based in the same office as the night sister, which also happened to be the office where the patients’ files were kept. They were locked away in a cabinet, but the sister had shown her where the key was, in case of emergency only.
Between the hours of one and three in the morning, not very much happened around her or anywhere else in the hospital. The sister on duty would leave the wards at one ‘to do her paperwork’ and would return at three, red-eyed, slightly unsteady and smelling of cheap sherry. There were two other nurses on duty, each in separate offices in different parts of the hospital, looking after around twenty patients each. Nurse Mercier removed four or five files at a time, relocked the cabinet and studied the files carefully. It was risky and she had not touched any files on the first two nights, instead observing the patterns of what went on around her. The office was at the end of a long corridor and any movement on the stone-tiled floor reverberated with the efficiency of an alarm system. She knew she would have to be both very unlucky and careless to be caught with the files.
When she started to look at the files after the second night, the information that she found in them was useful, some of it very useful. As well as their medical histories, they was full of detail about the patients’ previous postings, how and where they had been injured and, in some cases, where they were due to be posted after being released from Calcotte Grange. She made careful notes. It was all information that would be well received. At long last, she was playing her part.
It was not until her fifth night shift that she came to the ‘P — Q’ drawer and found his file. She recognised him from the photograph attached to the front of it. She remembered having seen him asleep on the ward on her first night. He was no more than a boy really, quite presentable in an English kind of way, with his fair hair and unblemished pale skin. But it was a note at the front of his file that really caught her attention. It was written and signed by Dr Farrow. ‘No return to active service,’ he had scrawled. ‘Transfer to Naval Intelligence requested. Approved after satisfactory completion of physio and final medical. Intelligence wants him by April. Top secret project. Tell Quinn of new posting in March. Delicate situation, Quinn anxious to get back to sea. Will be unhappy but Intelligence insist. Big role for him. Farrow
She read his file in detail. She read it again the next night and found it hard to believe what she had stumbled across. They would be delighted with this. More than delighted, in fact. It was a real opportunity. She had to be careful, but she also had to make the most of it. She checked him on her ward rounds. He looked innocent laying there fast asleep, his fair hair splayed out across the bleached white pillow, mouth slightly open to reveal a perfect set of white teeth and his pyjama top unbuttoned. She gently pulled the top sheet back over him and tucked it in. He stirred very slightly and turned onto his side, his hair falling over his eyes as he did so.
She knew what she had to do. There was no question about it. She looked around the ward. It could have been far worse, the one in the bed opposite was overweight and had bad skin and the two by the window were in their forties and looked it.
She carefully brushed his hair away from his eyes and he stirred, turning over to his other side.
It was towards the end of January that the lieutenant-commander who had been injured in Devonport came back from his own physiotherapy session one day with a twinkle in his eye.
‘You’ll enjoy your next session, Quinn. They’ve laid on quite a treat for us.’
He had forgotten that remark by the time he arrived at physiotherapy the next morning, but now she was walking towards him through the long hall. Past the parallel bars, across the mats and with a smile, tying her flowing dark hair as she walked, and dark eyes that had seemed alight even from the other end of the room. By the time she appeared in front of him he was quite transfixed. She was wearing a uniform that appeared to be halfway between a nurse’s and a physiotherapist’s. The uniform was predominantly white and pulled in tightly around her waist with a wide belt, to accentuate her already slim figure. She was above average height; her legs were long and slim.