Home > Sea of Memories(19)

Sea of Memories(19)
Author: Fiona Valpy

Accepting the cup that was handed to her, Ella looked past Squadron Officer Macpherson to the window behind the desk, beyond which the deserted East Lothian airfield could be seen, comprising little more than a couple of Nissen huts and a makeshift hangar at one end of a landing strip surrounded by potato fields. The winter sky was a cold, flat grey and the wind, which blew straight in off the North Sea, snatched at the wind sock, causing it to spin wildly and strain at its fixings like a hunting dog eager for the off. A herring gull, which had been huddling on the scrubby grass alongside the runway, flapped its wings clumsily and then took off, suddenly graceful as it returned to its natural element, banking with outspread wings before disappearing seawards.

‘We shall also be requiring communications operators, a vital role, if that would be of interest. I’m sure you’d soon pick it up.’

Ella swallowed a sip of the tea, which was scarcely more than lukewarm and as weak as pond water, and plucked up her courage.

‘Thank you, I shall be pleased to accept whatever position you are able to offer me. I am absolutely committed to joining the WAAF and I very much appreciate you giving me this opportunity.’ She was aware that her mother’s formidable network of Edinburgh connections had already got her this far this quickly, and she didn’t want to push her luck.

‘But . . .’ Ella hesitated.

‘Yes, my dear?’

‘Well, it’s just that I should really like a role that’s a bit more practical. With the planes, I mean. I read that there’s someone called a rigger, who gets the aircraft ready to go and sees them back in and so on. And I know I don’t have any mechanical skills, but I promise you I’m a fast learner. And I should so like to be outside in the open air.’

Squadron Officer Macpherson pressed her lips together firmly. ‘Hmm, I see.’ She smiled, a little grimly. ‘Very well, Eleanor, you may have your wish. Let’s see what you’re made of. But I won’t be surprised if, within a couple of weeks, you are sitting here begging me to transfer you to a nice clean administrative role in a nice warm office.’

Ella beamed. ‘Oh, I won’t, Squadron Officer Macpherson. I promise. Thank you so much for giving me this chance.’

Her commanding officer stood, straightening the hem of her serge jacket, and extended a hand. ‘In that case, welcome to RAF Gulford, Eleanor. Now, let’s sort you out with your uniform and see if we can find you a billet.’

As the two girls took off their damp overcoats and hung them on the hooks in the narrow hallway of their digs, Jeanie Cochrane, their landlady, hailed them from the kitchen. ‘There’s a letter come for you, Ella.’ She handed her a flimsy envelope, addressed in Christophe’s distinctive handwriting, then turned back to stir the pot of mince – which was mostly onions and diced carrots, in fact, to pad out the fatty scraps of grey meat that the ration allowed. ‘That’ll be from your young man in France then?’

‘Aha, how is the gorgeous Christophe?’ Vicky pulled off her peaked cap and ran her fingers through her dark curls in a vague attempt to tidy the tangle the April wind had made of them on the bike ride home from the airfield. She sighed. ‘It’s so romantic, having a foreign boyfriend. I bet French boys treat their girls a lot better than British ones do. I’m going to have to find myself a foreign fella too. There’s a rumour that we’re going to get some Polish airmen stationed at the base, though I doubt the Poles are as romantic as the French.’ Vicky had progressed from her job amongst the filing cabinets to being a communications operator, which gave her access to all sorts of interesting and useful information.

‘Supper’ll be twenty minutes. I’ve just put the tatties on to boil.’ Jeanie turned to her young son, Dougie, who had come in from playing with his friends in the close now that they had been called in for their tea by their own mothers. ‘Not so fast. You can wash your hands and get that table set. Leave the girls in peace for five minutes, why don’t you?’

With his father in the army now and off to a training camp somewhere in the Highlands, Dougie was enjoying the leeway that being ‘At War’ entailed in the Cochrane household. Ella was aware that his status amongst his peers in the village of Gulford had shot up with the arrival of the two glamorous WAAFs. She’d overheard him telling them that he wasn’t interested in girls, but that Archie’s big brother, Tam, reckoned they were ‘right bonny ones, they lassies’. Ella and Vicky spoiled Dougie and sometimes gave him sweets from their rations, if there were any. Ella knew that, as she worked on the planes, Dougie was secretly hoping that one day she might be able to cadge him a ride in one.

Ella ran upstairs clutching her letter, while Vicky tactfully remained in the kitchen with Jeanie and Dougie to give her a little privacy in their shared bedroom whilst she read it.

‘Supper’s on the table. Time to tear yourself away from your French lover-boy.’ Vicky tapped on the bedroom door before sticking her head around it. ‘Oh Ella, sweetheart, what is it?’

Ella lay curled on her side on her bed, with the letter crumpled in her hand, her cheeks wet with tears that were soaking her pillow. Vicky sat down beside her and gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze.

Fumbling in the pocket of her jump-suit, Ella pulled out an oil-smudged handkerchief and blew her nose. ‘He’s joined up,’ she said, miserably, carefully smoothing out the sheets of Christophe’s letter and folding them so that they’d fit into the cigar box that she kept on the chest of drawers that separated the two beds in their sparsely furnished room. She reached up now and opened the box, its faint smell reminding her of the Martets’ Paris home, of Monsieur Martet’s after-dinner cigars, and French furniture polish and white lilies. She gently touched the shells that sat in the box on top of Christophe’s letters and the postcard of the Mona Lisa that Caroline had sent her: a razor shell, a sun-bleached oyster shell and Neptune’s locket, the hinged clamshell Christophe had given her that first night in the dunes.

She wiped her eyes and turned to her friend. ‘I knew he would, but I’d been hoping against hope that something would happen to stop it – some vital war work at the bank. Or flat feet. Anything that would keep him safely behind a desk in Paris.’

Vicky nodded sympathetically. ‘Yes, but Ella, you know the French need every able-bodied man they have now that Mr Hitler is knocking at their front door.’

Ella knew that as well as anyone. Lately, the two squadrons currently based at RAF Gulford had begun a new pattern of training sorties. Previously, the Hurricane aircraft had been practising torpedo bombing in the Firth of Forth, with a view to deployment to protect the British fleet, rumoured to be concealed in Scapa Flow, if Vicky’s gleanings of information were correct. But these past ten days the planes she’d been sending up had been practising air combat manoeuvres, and Sandy, the flight sergeant who worked in the hangar fixing the planes when they needed more than just routine maintenance, said it was a sign that the boys were about to be deployed elsewhere. ‘Aye, it’ll be Holland or France right enough. Now, young Ella, hand me up that wrench so we can get things fixed up good and well to keep our boys safe while they’re giving that Adolf Hitler a right royal boot up his Nazi backside.’

Vicky passed Ella her hairbrush. ‘Come on, make yourself presentable. Jeanie’s mince and tatties will be getting cold. Christophe will be alright and we’re going to make sure our boys are there to help. One concerted effort from all the Allies together and the Germans will be put back in their box. It’ll all be over by the summer and then you and your Christophe can get married and live happily ever after in Paris with your six children. And don’t forget, bags I chief bridesmaid.’

Ella smiled wanly, then obediently ran the brush through her hair, unpinning and untangling the plaited knot in which she wore it for work to keep it safely out of the way, and smoothing out the wavy tresses which were still damp from the rain.

‘Come an’ get it before Dougie eats yours too!’ Jeanie shouted up the stairs, and the two girls trooped down for their supper.

Next morning, Ella propped her bike against the side of the hangar, reporting for duty as usual and going to find Sandy to get her orders. It was still chilly, even though Easter was past and the first lambs were shivering on uncertain legs in the fields. But at least the mornings were starting to get a little lighter now. In January and February, she’d cycled to the airfield in pitch-darkness, through air so sharp with winter’s bitter frost that her hands would freeze around the handlebars, even in the woollen gloves that her mother had knitted her, and her nose and cheeks were nipped red with cold. She had chilblains on her fingers and toes where she’d warmed them too fast on the rubber hot-water bottle that Jeanie gave her to put into her bed at night to take the damp chill off the sheets. Even with the extra blankets that Mother had given her from home, it was hard to get warm enough to drop off to sleep at night. But she soon warmed up when she got to work, kept busy with her tasks carrying out daily inspections on the aircraft stationed at the base, refuelling the planes and, on freezing cold mornings, plugging in the batteries to start the Hurricanes’ engines. Sometimes, the planes had to have their engines revved during checks and Sandy would make Ella and one of the other WAAF flight mechanics sit on the tail fins, one on each side, to weight the aircraft down and prevent it from taking off. ‘Hold on tight girls,’ he’d yell, climbing into the cockpit, ‘if one of you falls off the other will be flying out over the Bass Rock before you know where you are!’

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