There was an explosion of bedclothes as Jerry sprang up with a loud ‘FUCK!’ that drowned her own muffled ‘Damn!’ and Roger topped them both with a shriek like an air-raid siren. Like clockwork, old Mrs Munns in the next flat thumped indignantly on the thin wall.
Jerry’s naked shape crossed the room in a bound. He pounded furiously on the partition with his fist, making the wallboard quiver and boom like a drum. He paused, fist still raised, waiting. Roger had stopped screeching, impressed by the racket.
Dead silence from the other side of the wall, and Marjorie pressed her mouth against Roger’s round little head to muffle her giggling. He smelled of baby scent and fresh pee, and she cuddled him like a large hot-water bottle, his immediate warmth and need making her notions of watching over her men in the lonely cold seem silly.
Jerry gave a satisfied grunt and came across to her.
‘Ha,’ he said, and kissed her.
‘What d’ye think you are?’ she whispered, leaning into him. ‘A gorilla?’
‘Yeah,’ he whispered back, taking her hand and pressing it against him. ‘Want to see my banana?’
* * *
Jerry halted in the act of lowering himself into a chair, and stared at a smiling Frank Randall.
‘Oh, aye,’ he said. ‘Like that, is it? Niech sie pan odpierdoli.’ It meant, ‘Fuck off, sir,’ in formal Polish, and Randall, taken by surprise, broke out laughing.
‘Like that,’ he agreed. He had a wodge of papers with him, official forms, all sorts, the bumf, as the pilots called it—Jerry recognised the one you signed that named who your pension went to, and the one about what to do with your body if there was one and anyone had time to bother. He’d done all that when he signed up, but they made you do it again, if you went on special service. He ignored the forms, though, eyes fixed instead on the maps Randall had brought.
‘And here’s me thinkin’ you and Malan picked me for my bonny face,’ he drawled, exaggerating his accent. He sat and leaned back, affecting casualness. ‘It is Poland, then?’ So it hadn’t been coincidence, after all—or only the coincidence of Dolly’s mishap sending him into the building early. In a way, that was comforting; it wasn’t the bloody Hand of Fate tapping him on the shoulder by puncturing the fuel line. The Hand of Fate had been in it a good bit earlier, putting him in Green flight with Andrej Kolodziewicz.
Andrej was a real guid yin, a good friend. He’d copped it a month before, spiralling up away from a Messerschmitt. Maybe he’d been blinded by the sun, maybe just looking over the wrong shoulder. Left wing shot to hell, and he’d spiralled right back down and into the ground. Jerry hadn’t seen the crash, but he’d heard about it. And got drunk on vodka with Andrej’s brother after.
‘Poland,’ Randall agreed. ‘Malan says you can carry on a conversation in Polish. That true?’
‘I can order a drink, start a fight, or ask directions. Any of that of use?’
‘The last one might be,’ Randall said, very dry. ‘But we’ll hope it doesn’t come to that.’
The MI6 agent had pushed aside the forms and unrolled the maps. Despite himself, Jerry leaned forward, drawn as by a magnet. They were official maps, but with markings made by hand—circles, X’s.
‘It’s like this,’ Randall said, flattening the maps with both hands. ‘The Nazis have had labour camps in Poland for the last two years, but it’s not common knowledge among the public, either home or abroad. It would be very helpful to the war effort if it were common knowledge. Not just the camps’ existence, but the kind of thing that goes on there.’ A shadow crossed the dark, lean face—anger, Jerry thought, intrigued. Apparently, Mr. MI6 knew what kind of thing went on there, and he wondered how.
‘If we want it widely known and widely talked about—and we do—we need documentary evidence,’ Randall said matter-of-factly. ‘Photographs.’
There’d be four of them, he said, four Spitfire pilots. A flight—but they wouldn’t fly together. Each one of them would have a specific target, geographically separate, but all to be hit on the same day.
‘The camps are guarded, but not with anti-aircraft ordnance. There are towers, though; machine-guns.’ And Jerry didn’t need telling that a machine-gun was just as effective in someone’s hands as it was from an enemy plane. To take the sort of pictures Randall wanted would mean coming in low—low enough to risk being shot from the towers. His only advantage would be the benefit of surprise; the guards might spot him, but they wouldn’t be expecting him to come diving out of the sky for a low pass just above the camp.
‘Don’t try for more than one pass, unless the cameras malfunction. Better to have fewer pictures than none at all.’
‘Yes, sir.’ He’d reverted to ‘sir,’ as Group Captain Malan was present at the meeting, silent but listening intently. Got to keep up appearances.
‘Here’s the list of the targets you’ll practise on in Northumberland. Get as close as you think reasonable, without risking—’ Randall’s face did change at that, breaking into a wry smile. ‘Get as close as you can manage with a chance of coming back, all right? The cameras may be worth even more than you are.’
That got a faint chuckle from Malan. Pilots—especially trained pilots—were valuable. The RAF had plenty of planes now, but nowhere near enough pilots to fly them.
He’d be taught to use the wing cameras and to unload the film safely. If he was shot down but was still alive and the plane didn’t burn, he was to get the film out and try to get it back over the border.
‘Hence the Polish.’ Randall ran a hand through his hair, and gave Jerry a crooked smile. ‘If you have to walk out, you may need to ask directions.’ They had two Polish-speaking pilots, he said—one Pole and a Hungarian who’d volunteered, and an Englishman with a few words of the language, like Jerry.
‘And it is a volunteer mission, let me reiterate.’
‘Aye, I know,’ Jerry said irritably. ‘Said I’d go, didn’t I? Sir.’
‘You did.’ Randall looked at him for a moment, dark eyes unreadable, then lowered his gaze to the maps again. ‘Thanks,’ he said softly.
* * *
The canopy snicked shut over his head. It was a dank, damp Northumberland day, and his breath condensed on the inside of the Perspex hood within seconds. He leaned forward to wipe it away, emitting a sharp yelp as several strands of his hair were ripped out. He’d forgotten to duck. Again. He shoved the canopy release with a muttered oath and the light brown strands that had caught in the seam where the Perspex closed flew away, caughtup by the wind. He closed the canopy again, crouching, and waiting for the signal for takeoff.