Home > Sea of Memories(21)

Sea of Memories(21)
Author: Fiona Valpy

‘Sorry, Vicky, I just can’t.’

‘Well, I’m very disappointed in you Miss Lennox’ – Vicky could do a mean impersonation of Squadron Officer Macpherson’s strident tones – ‘I expect my gels to show a bit more fighting spirit.’

‘My fighting spirit is all reserved for the job these days,’ Ella sighed. ‘I know I’m being a bit pathetic. I just feel so flat. I saw a glimpse of what my life really could be when I was in France. There was so much promise; it was all just beginning. And now the war has slammed the door shut in my face. I know that sounds awfully selfish when people are suffering so. But I’m terrified that, when all of this is over, it’ll be gone. I can’t imagine what my life will be like if I can’t go back to be with Christophe.’

Vicky patted her hand. ‘Don’t worry, Ella. Life goes on – come what may. Even if this bloody awful war changes everything, we’ll win through in the end. The world might be different when it’s all over, but you’ll be alright. Christophe too, I’m sure.’ She stood up, pulling down her pencil skirt where it had rucked up a little around her hips. ‘Now, are my seams straight?’ She turned so that Ella could check the backs of her stockings. ‘Last chance to change your mind and come with us. No? Alright then, have fun mouldering beside the wireless!’

Ella smiled and shook her head. ‘Actually, I’ve got another contact at the Red Cross to write to, so I think I’ll get the letter done tonight.’

As the months had gone by with no word of the Martets, she had continued to pursue every means she could think of to try to find out what had happened to them all. She listened obsessively to the official news bulletins on the wireless and in the cinema, desperate for any mention of Paris or the Free French, the depleted remnants of France’s army who were now fighting for their country where they could under the direction of General de Gaulle from his headquarters in England. She pestered Vicky and the other radio operators on the base for any snippets of news that they could glean over the air waves; and she wrote letters to anyone she could think of who might be able to get word through to France or back from France.

Mostly, though, her petitioning was met with annoyed impatience. ‘Miss Lennox, our priority is to communicate – where we are able to do so – with the families of British servicemen. I’m sorry, we simply do not have the resources, let alone the capabilities, to track down missing French soldiers too.’

She knew she was searching for a needle in a very large and very chaotic haystack, but since there was nothing else she could do except carry on searching that was what she did.

Yet, all around her the war swept onwards, gathering momentum as the Germans focused their fearsome firepower on Britain. On the first day of July, the Luftwaffe announced their presence over British skies by bombing Wick, one of the most northerly airbases in Scotland. Lives were lost that day, despite the brave defence put up by the Hurricane pilots who Ella saw off from their East Lothian base.

All through that summer, and into the autumn, the Battle of Britain raged. All leave was cancelled, and the crews at RAF Gulford were busier than ever. Each time she waved the squadron off on another sortie, the bone-shaking roar of the Hurricanes’ engines seemed to Ella to represent the desperation she felt, her longing for an end to the war. It was unbearable to count the aircraft back in and realise some of their number were missing.

Ella tried to stay focused on the job, methodically ticking off each task on her check-lists. They all knew that the Hawker Hurricanes were workhorses, less glamorous than the Spitfires which were gaining a reputation as the thoroughbred racehorses of the skies. But, as Sandy told Ella, ‘Our ’uns are getting the job done too. When it comes to downing a German bomber, give me a Hurricane any day. They’re a damn sight more sturdy and just look how many we’ve managed to get back down safely even when they’ve been shot to buggery.’

But they all knew, as well, that the aircraft’s Achilles heel was fire: the pilot sat just behind the aircraft’s gravity fuel tank and more than a few of the boys they’d sent off from Gulford had been horrifically badly burned by a jet of flame shooting through the instrument panel in front of them. This war was a random, casually cruel lucky dip. Young lives curtailed so abruptly: ‘Assumed missing’ written on the reports. Families left in a harrowing limbo of loss and grief, without the closure of a body to bury, a coffin to mourn over; husbands, sons and brothers disappearing into thin air.

Ella immersed herself in her job, working such long hours that summer that she scarcely had time to notice that autumn had arrived. Then, all of a sudden, it was time to harvest the potatoes in the fields surrounding the base and the wind from the sea regained its bitter edge, numbing her fingers as she tightened engine bolts and mended worn tyres. And she realised that the nights were drawing in as September rolled into October. At last, the bombing raids on British cities began to tail off thanks, in part, to the Luftwaffe’s Stukas being savaged in the skies by the Hurricane pilots sent up from RAF Gulford and a hundred other airfields across the country. But, whilst she gave thanks that fewer pilots were being lost, Ella longed to stay busy, to be kept running from plane to plane from dawn to dusk so that she wouldn’t have a minute to think. Because when she did think, images of Christophe, injured or dead, flooded, unbidden, into her mind, and the terror that the Martets’ must surely be feeling, living their lives in occupied France, tormented her dreams through the long, dark winter nights.

And then the seasons turned again and it was spring. In March, Scotland reeled as Clydebank was bombed and more civilian lives were lost. Ella had run out of contacts to write to in order to try and find out what had happened to Christophe, so she began all over again, pestering the organisations she had already tried, even wangling an introduction to a female SOE agent (through his contact with the pilots on the base, Sandy knew people who knew people), who was rumoured to be about to be deployed into France, and begging the girl to try to find out news of the Martet family of 3, rue des Arcades, should she make it to Paris. But still no word came.

One summer’s day, when even the blue sky and scudding white clouds above RAF Gulford couldn’t dispel the gloom of the war grinding on interminably with Germany’s recent invasion of Russia, Ella packed away her tools as usual and cycled back to her digs. When she walked into the kitchen, her parents were sitting at the table nursing cups of tea which Jeanie had brewed for them. And her heart stood still. Because they wouldn’t have come all this way, unannounced, unless there was news.

Her mother embraced her, with a careful gentleness that made Ella’s heart break into a thousand pieces. And then she handed Ella an envelope, addressed to the house in Morningside and franked with a Spanish postmark, which contained a note and another, longer letter.

The note was from Monsieur Martet to Mr and Mrs Lennox, asking them to read the enclosed letter from Caroline and to make sure that they were with Ella when she read it.

With trembling hands, scarcely able to breathe, Ella unfolded the letter. She hesitated, realising that even though it was the definite news for which she’d been longing for over a year, she didn’t want to begin to read. Because once she did, it would make the truth real. And maybe, after all, it was better to go on without knowing the truth, to be able to go on hoping, instead of knowing and giving up.

14 July 1941

Dearest Ella,

I write this letter not knowing whether it will ever reach you, like the others I have written over the past year. Maybe you have received them, but when there can be no reply we have no way of knowing. And so I must keep on trying, because I know you will be thinking about us and wondering and worrying. In any case, I hold out a little more hope that this one will get through because now we are on the island and Benoît will take this when he goes out to tend to his lobster pots. Like a message in a bottle, it will be borne by the waters of the Atlantic, bobbing from fishing-boat to fishing-boat on a secret tide which allows such messages to wash up in Spain, from where they can be sent onwards by more conventional means. I cast it out on these stormy and uncertain waters in the hope that, this time, it will finally reach you.

If you have had any of my other letters, then you will know the news of Christophe. I do not wish to re-open those wounds, which I know cannot possibly have healed, although I pray that time will work its magic on us all in the end so that we can get through each day without having to bear the searing pain of loss. But if they have not reached you then I must tell you again. He was killed on one of the first days of the Battle of France, in May last year. All we have of him is a scrap of paper with the Paris address scribbled on it in his handwriting, sent back with the letter from the Croix Rouge confirming that he died, without regaining consciousness, after being caught in machine-gun fire just outside Sedan when the German forces attacked in the Ardennes. The piece of paper was in the pocket of his jacket, which had his name clearly marked so that they were able to identify him. His body is buried, with the bodies of others who died that day, in a field far away on the other side of the country, so we cannot visit him and lay flowers on his grave. But one day we will do so, and he will smile down on us and know how much we all still love him even though he is gone from us for ever.

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