Into Darkness [WW2 SOE] – June Write Club Story
Into Darkness is the story I wrote for June’s Write Club, which is a local group to encourage us to write and share feedback with each other. There were eight stories this month, which is the third time the group has met, but the first time I’ve managed to join. I did submit a story for the first time, and wrote one for the second time but it got way over the word count and I didn’t send it in.
I found it a very friendly and supportive group, and it was a pleasure to read the stories that the others had written. The theme was to write something involving a letter. Write Club meets on the second Saturday of the month, with the stories due in a week before that. Right now it’s meeting via zoom, although that wasn’t the original intention. If you are interested you can find the organiser on twitter @WriteClubSurrey, or you could let me know and I will pass your details on.
The theme for July is to write a fairy tale.
Into Darkness re-uses a character that I first wrote about when I was studying creative writing with the OU. She first appeared in the short story Planting the Past, which was marked the end of her career. She then re-surfaced in Hunting Nazis, which I wrote for my end of module assessment. This story is the other bookend of her work as a special operations agent, with her about to parachute into occupied France in March 1943.
Dot (AKA Nancy) also appeared in Sticky End, a bit of flash fiction I wrote for the NYC Midnight competition. One day I’ll get into writing the whole novel of her time as a special operations agent, although not until I’ve finished Fierce.
We waited all day for it to get dark. It was worse than the day I saw the telegram boy coming up the street. Every step he took brought him closer to me. I dreaded the very news he bore. Every gate he didn’t stop at made me more certain that the awful news he brought was for me. All down the street the curtains twitched. Women watched with pain in their hearts as he came towards them, and relief when he passed their gate. Every one of us knew what tragedy lay in those envelopes. Even though I couldn’t bear it I had to watch him stop outside our gate. Every step down our path with the terrible envelope. Even when I knew that it was our turn to be the recipient I could not move. Until he broke the spell with the doorbell. Today felt like that, but this time I was going to a place that caused the telegrams to come.
We waited all day for it to get dark. It felt like a week. I cannot remember how many times we checked our stuff was packed securely, nor how many times we emptied out pockets, purses and bags to make sure nothing British was in them. I counted out the thousand francs so many times it was like I was working in a bank. My suitcase has a copy of Molière’s Tartuffe, which maybe is a bit too close to the truth, and a copy of the Segond Bible my father picked up when we lived near Versailles in 1920. Both are dog-eared and worn enough to show that I’ve read them several times. Our invigilator checked all the pages for annotations, thankfully none were in English.
We waited all day for it to get dark, and chain smoked French cigarettes so that we smelt right. They were dry and vile, I think they’d been in storage since before France fell. Ros was sick after her first one, although I think some of that was nervousness as much as the terrible tobacco. Between the cigarettes and the awful waiting I think the only reason I didn’t throw up was because my stomach was empty.
We occupied a hangar at the very edge of the airbase. We were driven in at dawn. The van drove straight into the hangar and parked. The hangar doors slid securely shut before we were allowed to get out and stretch our legs. Operational security dictated that we weren’t seen by anyone not directly involved, and that included other people who might subsequently go overseas. Especially people that might be flying over enemy territory. We didn’t want anyone to be able recognise us or betray us, however reluctantly. That meant that we were prisoners in the hangar. Our pilot wouldn’t see us until it was certain that we were going somewhere, the van would meet the plane on the runway.
There was little to do but sit around, smoke, and eat our rations when they came. I had two of my favourite books, and I tried to read. I couldn’t concentrate. I spent my time thinking of what was to come. Then I checked my kit again. We had to empty it all onto a table when we came in. Every bit was spread around and searched. My spare underwear, night dress, and a change of clothes suitable for a woman working on a farm were examined meticulously. The seams were checked, the labels and the buttons. They felt the linings for tell-tale bulges, crinkling and anything that might give away things hidden in them. My small suitcase was interrogated too. In its lining was a second set of identity documents, my fall-back if things went wrong. I was mostly unarmed, only a dagger that strapped outside my parachute harness. Ros had a separate container with her wireless set in it and a couple of sten guns and silenced pistols. We’d need to hide them somewhere when we landed. The dagger was so that we could cut it free if the straps got tangled.
I was supposed to write a letter now. My last letter home. Before the telegram I’d have written to Bernard. Maybe I still could. But it seemed far too final to write down what I’d have said if he was here. I didn’t want my parents to read it, it didn’t seem fair to burden them with it. It was bad enough to lose a child without thinking that your child had gone through a world of pain and torment before they died.
What worried me more than what to write in the letter was what we were dropping into. Ros and I were going to meet Roger. We’d met him a few weeks ago, days before he’d been flown into France. Something had gone wrong with the previous réseaux, we had to find out what.
When the small person sized door mounted in the hangar door finally opened for our evening meal to be delivered, I noticed that it was already dark. The great thing about March is there’s still about twelve hours of proper darkness. More than enough time for an aircraft to fly to central France and back.
‘Ladies, time to get dressed. We’re on.’ A severe looking WAAF officer, the same one that had interviewed me over two years ago, broke the silence.
I tucked Tartuffe back into the case and stubbed out my last cigarette. If I never smoked again it wouldn’t be too soon. I moved to my table and pulled the overalls on over my French clothing. The parachute harness went on next, a WAAF helped me into it, and she checked the straps were tight. The suitcase went in the leg bag clipped to the harness. I was supposed to let it down on a strap when the parachute opened. When it went limp I’d know that I was almost on the ground and could brace.
Ros and I sat facing each other in the van. The WAAF officer came with us in the back. The three of us shared the short bouncing journey with the container.
‘Bonne chance!’ she said as we climbed out awkwardly, with parachutes and bags strapped to our bodies. I smiled back at her. Now we were climbing into the hulking bomber I was happy. I was going back, three years since I’d last been there. I was going to repay every moment of fear and pain from my telegram.