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“I thought loving someone was simple. It isn’t. Glorious, yes. Painful, yes. Unforgettable, yes. Simply, no. It took me the war to find out…”
Evelyn St. John has been parachuted into France to link up with the Resistance and to work undercover. Paul von Hoch’s brief, as a member of German Intelligence, is to track down enemy spies. Suddenly the battle lines shift between patriotism and a deeper truth that teaches us that other truths are more important.
Read An Extract
Quine spoke into his headset. In response, the dispatching sergeant eased himself over towards Evelyn and indicated that he wished to attach the automatic-opening strop of her harness which would ensure her parachute opened. She watched him, knowing that she was about to jump out into the cold dark air a thousand feet above France. Having checked the strap, the sergeant fastened the line which held her extra baggage onto her leg strap and showed Evelyn that both were correctly in place. ‘Remember that when the line slackens you will have three seconds or so before landing.’
He moved on to John and attached the wireless’s webbing to John’s harness. He gave the thumbs-up signal to Evelyn over the sergeant’s head. The sergeant crawled towards the exit door and pulled back the cover. Moonlight flooded in and a stream of thin, cold air invaded the oily-smelling fuselage.
Evelyn wished she had been awake when they had flown over Tourns. She would have liked to have thought of her grandparents and cousins asleep down below. Under her flying suit, she went cold and shivered. If any of them had the remotest idea of what she was doing…
John touched her arm. ‘Merde,’ he shouted over the roar of air and engines, using the traditional french slang for ‘good luck’.
Evelyn blinked back at him in the uncertain light. ‘Merde,’ she mouthed back. ‘All the best.’
The Whitely circled and a red light appeared on the road above them. The sergeant raised his arm and Evelyn shifted into place behind John.
‘There they are,’ shouted the sergeant.
‘Five hundred feet,’ said Quine into the headset.
The red light turned to green. The sergeant brought down his arm and John disappeared. Evelyn swung her legs over the ‘Joe’s hole’ and flexed her hands on the edge. Below her, three points of light were flashing.
‘Go,’ yelled the sergeant.
Forgetting to worry about her face hitting the opposite edge of the hole, she pushed against the plane’s protective fuselage and fell into space. A blast of air caught her and the Whitely’s underbelly slid away. The whine of its engines drifted back for a while as she dropped and then suddenly all was quiet. Almost immediately her parachute opened with a jerk. It wounded like sheets flapping on a washing line. Evelyn reached up with her hands as she had been instructed and grabbed the webbing.
Currents of air slapped her face and buffeted the harness, and she swung like a marionette on a string. The moonlight grew brighter and whiter and spread its silver over a silent landscape below. She squinted to get a better look and made out a shape floating on her right. After the plane, the peace was extraordinary.
The torches flickered through the darkness under her feet. Her panoramic view narrowed. She was floating down into a clearing surrounded by dark trees that sucked her towards the earth. The lights grew brighter. There was a burst of conversation and someone shouted ‘Shush!’ Then ‘Attention!’
The line on her leg went slack. When she hit the ground she bent her knees and rolled sideways. For one gut-freezing second she thought that it was Germans waiting for her under the trees. A stone grazed her cheek. Her fingers scrabbled unsuccessfully for a hold as the parachute pulled her over the rough ground. The skin was ripped from one finger and she yelped. But she was safe and presently slithered to a halt. Two shapes materialised out of the darkness.
‘Tout va bein, camarade? Vous n’êtes pas blessée?’
Evelyn sat up and reached for her harness clip. ‘Tout va bien.’
‘I can’t believe it, you are here at last.’ The speaker sounded breathless and excited.
Evelyn unclipped her baggage pack, wriggled out of the harness and undid her flying suit to reveal a camel coat over a blue cotton dress and wool headscarf. She struggled to roll up her parachute which continued to flap and billow.
‘Here, let me.’ The larger of the two men came forward and held out his hand. He wore a short black jacket and a beret. ‘I’m Jean-Claude and I’m in charge of the reception party here. We’ve been waiting weeks for you to arrive. Do you have the password?’
‘The apples are ripe, and my name is Violette.’
Antoine was obviously used to cycling and before ten minutes had passed Evelyn was panting to keep up with him. Scattered with stones, unexpected cracks and tree roots, the road was uneven and difficult and more than once she almost feel off.
At a crossroads Antoine halted. ‘We turn right here towards the main road and the demarcation line. There is a hundred yards or so of no-man’s land and then we’re over. I’m afraid I don’t have a pass for you yet.’ he said anxiously, and she felt guilty that he should be worrying about her. ‘But it would be difficult to use at the moment. Once over the road, we are almost there.’ He turned to look up the road and then flapped his arm for Evelyn to get down. ‘There’s someone coming.’
‘Where?’ she asked stupidly.
She did not need to be told twice. Antoine was already running towards a ditch with his bicycle. She pursued him, flinging her machine behind a bush where it lay with its wheels spinning. They sprawled in the ditch, breathing hard, face down in the grass.
‘Head down.’ whispered Antoine. ‘It might be nothing, but it is better to be sure.’
They waited, listening for the car engine. Antoine raised his head and the lights of a very slow-moving car broke through the dark night. He ducked. Cruising smoothly on petrol, the car came into view, stopped while the driver apparently checked out the crossroads, and then continued.
‘Vichy police,’ Antoine breathed into Evelyn’s ear. ‘Line patrol.’
Fear is infectious. Evelyn swallowerd and a treacherous thought surfaced that she had been a fool to get into this. She learnt later than Antoine had a lot to lose: a wife, small children and a job as a senior administrator in the town hall.
‘The bastards often work hand-in-glove with the Germans.’ the mild-seeming Antoine continued in a whisper. ‘In fact, in some cases they are worse than the Germans. We’ll get some of them one of these days.’
They waited for another ten minutes. ‘They won’t backtrack,’ Antoine informed her, ‘because they’re stupid as well as collaborators.’ Evelyn digested this information. It appeared that a section of the population was more hated than the official enemy.
‘It’s good to have you, Violette. For a time we thought we couldn’t ever make contact with England. But a friend called Laroche got through on a transmitter with the help of the Count. Otherwise you would have been dropped blind and we wouldn’t have been there ot receive you.’
Crossing the main road proved an anticlimax after that. An easy dash over the tarmac and then off at top speed towards the village of Bertric-Burée. She was not in occupied France. After riding through the cillage, smeling comfortably of dry dung and not so pleasantly of rubbish tips, Antoine bore left onto a track which ran between two maize fields sloping up to the breast of a rise. The green spears massed thickly, almost taller than Evelyn. Antoine went on foot and Evelyn followed, her feet sliding on the dry, whitish earth. Every so often she was forced to catch her breath: once she lost her balance and her bicycle slithered into the maize. She retirved it and toiled on.
At the top of the rise Antoine pointed to a path than ran off at a right angle. ‘I leave you here,’ he said, and Evelyn’s heart missed a beat. ‘Follow the path until you come to a gate in a stone wall. go through this and turn right, keeping the wall on your right. Walk about fifteen paces and you will see a creeper hanging down. Behind this is an iron grille set into a stone archway. Pull the grille towards you and follow the passage inside. It is quite safe. Please hide your bicycle in the shed you will see nearby. Goodbye.’
Antoine held out his hand, and Evelyn noticed that it was trembling. He seemed to small and frail to be doing this sort of work. She listened to the dull sound of his footsteps going away.
The maize rustled. Banks of cloud were gatherand and daybreak, she was, was imminent. She looked at the border of fruit trees beyond which stretched yet more maize. A cock crowed in the valley and the warm autumn night was heady with the smell of ripe crops. Evelyn’s fingers tightened on the handlebars. At least she had got this far.
The patch narrowed and a wall came into sight. It was high, built of flaking stone and in need to repair. A pair of wrought-iron gates opened through a stone archway into parkland and Evelyn had her first glimpse of the château set at the top of a gradient.
It was getting late. As instructed, Evelyn hid the bicycle and carried her suitcase to a massive vine and growing down over the wall. She searched for the iron grille and gound it with some difficulty. It was well hidden. It eased smoothly open when she pulled, allowing dank air to spill out. Taking a deep breath, she let herself down into the passage and pulled the grille shut behind her.
It was pitch dark. Evelyn felt for her torch and inched along the stone passage. The walls wept moisture and she noticed a strong odour of mouldy grapes. After a hundred yards or so, the passage widened, ran upwards and ended abruptly in a wall. She ran the torchbeam over it and discovered a wooden door set cunningly into the stone. Evelyn put down her suitcase and got out the pistol concealed round her waist before easing it open an inch. she peered htrough into a large barnlike structure with heavy beams, stone walls and a blacked-out window. On a table in the centre burned an oil lamp. A man was sitting at the table bent over some papers. Evelyn must have made a noise, because he looked up and got to his feet.
Evelyn lowered her pistol. ‘Monsieur de Bourgrave. The apples are riple.’
A compelling love story... The characters are utterly convincing... Genuine tension and excitment... An excellent novel... Even a man could risk reading it.
Philippa Gregory, Sunday Times
Echoing with danger and tension, tenderness and truth, this is a love story and a picture of war that will haunt you... unforgettable.
Peter James, author of Possession
An immensely interesting novel. The evocative atmosphere and dangerous exploits keep you turning the pages.