An Art Nouveau mother-of-pearl fan with jewelled and enamelled gilt-metal mounts, J. Th. Heinze, Dresden, circa 1910. The Brussels mixed lace leaf with flowers and scrolls, the gilt-mounted veneered mother-of-pearl guards each applied with a colourful enamelled peacock perched on a cabochon sapphire-set openwork flowering plant, each signed J. Th. Heinze, sapphire pivot, mother-of-pearl and ivory sticks.
A long, languid sigh of contentment came out as Juliane opened her eyes. Gaston’s head was coming up to meet her neck, lightly kissing her hollow.
‘He’s happy with me? Are you sure? Karla knows who I am?’ he asked between kisses.
‘But of course my dear! You are a vital part of the French cause! I have made sure he has heard everything of your exploits and how you are the most committed agent he could hope to have in his ranks.’ He chuckled and she could feel his chest expand in a peacock fashion. He moved down to her breast, lightly nipping and kissing which brought a sharp intake of breath from her.
‘The British have instructed me to head out on another, longer mission. I’ll be away for at least a week. We have a series of drop offs and reconnaissance to undertake.’
She sat bolt upright, eyes flared and glowing with anger. ‘We? Who is we?’ Hearing the pique in her voice, Gaston looked up sheepishly at Julianne. Moving back up towards her, he rested his head on her shoulder, slightly pouting.
‘Don’t be like that, my little ‘witch’. It’s only orders and they’ve said someone needs to be with La Dame Blanche for as long as she needs; and as commanding officer, I thought it only appropriate for it to be me’.
Her head snapped towards him, her eyes gleaming. ‘La Dame Blanche is here? Do you have a name? Who is she, then?’
‘You know I can’t tell you that and compromise another agent.’ He started stroking her long auburn hair, moving it away from her ears, nibbling her lobe. ‘What’s so special about her anyway?’ he whispered.
Julianne, hoisted herself up on her elbows, hair falling down around her and hiding her breasts. Gaston gently moved it away.
‘Special? My dear, La Dame Blanche is the British Army’s medical botany specialist! I heard they’d sent her out into the field but didn’t believe they would be so stupid to do it. They must be desperate. Or she’s working on something big.’
I sighed and looked around again waiting for Gaston to appear. He had been due thirty-five minutes ago and we had already missed the train to our destination. The longer we waited, the more nervous I became. My general antipathy for Gaston was a large part of that. The relish with which he had delivered the news that London wanted me to go ‘with a commander’ on this mission filled me with dread. I highly doubted that he was named in the dispatch itself, but he wouldn’t let me see all of it, just the aspect pertaining to my set instructions. Of course, it made no sense to the other members of the resistance group.
‘Sources say Culloden almost prepared, the bitter cascara might be the only option’
I had groaned at the thought. The Nazis were close to preparing the lethal botanical weapon and I had to sabotage the production. The cover was that Gaston would be my husband, an executive for a beauty company and we were visiting the town and factory for product. We had been told that the beauty factory was only a cover and that a separate factory was adjacent and where Culloden was being manufactured. We had secured a meeting and now journeyed for a week long mission. Anyone else I wished. Anyone.
A cough stopped my train of thought.
‘Madame? Claire?’ I recognised the soft voice with the hint of Scots lying underneath. For some reason, I caught my breath and felt the valves in my heart quicken.I looked up to see a riot of ginger curls, the sun beaming through, blinding me.
‘Jamie? Where is Gaston? I’ve been waiting for nearly an hour and the next train is due in ten minutes’
He scooted next to me, the warmth radiating so violently that my cold body was fighting to not sit up against him.
‘Taken ill, weird sickness. Raymond said it’s almost like M. Robichoux, so God knows how he caught that.’ His feet tapped on the platform and he glanced down at them. ‘So, I’m your husband’ He coughed again and looked towards my bags and before I could respond to his statement, stood up and collected everything and strode towards the platform, leaving me to rush behind him.
‘What do you mean you’re my husband? Are you saying you’re taking his place?’
Jamie stopped so abruptly, I almost crashed straight into his tall frame, panting with the quick exertion.
‘Well, er. Yes. What kind of a friend would I be to leave you in the arms of <Rupert>?’ I smiled and was returned by a glint in his blue eyes. ‘I don’t know what we’re doing, but I figured at least one of us does, I am at your service, madame’.
By some luck, we had it all to ourselves, which seemed to be both a blessing and a curse. There was a lingering tension in the air, from what I could not say, but it was palpable. Maybe Jamie was nervous about the mission, seeing as he didn’t really know the full extent of it. It was musty and dishevelled through wartime neglect. I smiled. Not unlike us all, I mused. I settled myself into the corner, by the window. Jamie, after placing our luggage in the overhead shelves, sat opposite me. The French countryside looked calm and reassuring, green fields suggesting fertile crops seeming to mock the shortages being felt by the population. I looked away to find him staring at me. I looked at him quizzically, and raised an eyebrow, he responded by reading a copy of the local newspaper, but his constant glances up at me, at the door, put me on edge.
Mission nerves. We all got them from time to time. Luckily, I had other things related to the expedition on my mind; how we were to find the cascara substitute, and how on earth we would be able to get into the factory in the first place to disrupt the process. I opened up my book and begun to study the composition of the plants the Nazis were using. Seemed simple, if yet very clever stuff. The fact that the British hadn’t even thought of it when the French surrendered was mind-blowing. Well, in truth, they had. Or rather I had.
My inability to get the team I was working with to consider the possibility that the plants could or would be synthesised was part of the reason I transferred into the SOE. Very firmly one evening, I was pulled aside by the section leader, the cigarette smell stale and worn on his motheaten jacket. It was ‘explained’ to me rather idiotically, that my idea would not get far, that I should give it up. Three weeks later, he came back again and warned me to drop my theory and protests to the head of command. But I persisted and found it so frustrating, that they moved me to another team. The boredom of that work was the reason, despite Frank’s displeasure, I ended up in the SOE.
But I was right. I was bloody right, the bastards.
The jostling of the train relaxed me and I looked up out of my window, closing my eyes to envisage the structures of the plants and how they were fusing together in the most deadly way. Clarity and sense of purpose flowed and I began to see how much cascara we may wish to use.
‘What have you got in that wee book there?’ I was thrown out of my meditation by Jamie’s soft Scottish burr. I glanced around and seeing that we were still alone looked at him ‘Your lack of security is quite something. En français, s’il te plaît’.
A lopsided smile came across his face. ‘Well, what is in your book that has you tapping and muttering so? Can I take a look?’
My large companion moved, to sit next to me. I moved closer to the window, the seat barely registering my presence, yet Jamie seemed to completely disrupt the wadding inside and, much to my amusement, bounced me in the air as he settled into place, dust moving everywhere like tiny wisps. In all the commotion, and in his eagerness to see the book, he practically sat on top of me, so close that our legs touched in a familiar, yet strange way.
‘It’s nothing really, just a little book on plants that I like to read from time to time.’
‘On plants you say? I’ve noticed you picking up little bits here and there. Is it a hobby of yours?’
I glanced up at him, meeting those earnest blue eyes. I breathed slowly, not knowing how much to give away in this area. I’d talked freely to Jamie, as open as one could be in the circumstances. I found him easy company. He was a born storyteller, like most Scots I’d come across, we had shared many stories and had reached a friendly intimacy and I felt awkward telling him the truth. I wanted to tell him more, yet I was torn. Any more information could certainly put him in jeopardy and I didn’t want his death on my head.
‘You could say that’.
I saw him eyeing me up, wondering what to say. ‘You could say that…’ he trailed off. ‘Something tells me you’re not telling me the whole story with that Claire. It’s more than just a hobby isn’t it?’ I could feel the perspiration begin to form on my neck, the clamminess uncomfortable and I moved my hand to my neck to try wipe it away. Jamie continued, low. Like a horse tamer trying not to startle a newborn foal.
‘I think there is room for secrets in the world we live in. God knows, you have to have them. But not lies. Not between us. Know that you don’t need to tell me anything that isn’t classified, anything that would compromise the mission and’ he paused and looked at me ‘more importantly you’.
I gulped. It was now or never.
‘Medicine isn’t my specialty. I am a trained nurse, but botany was my first love. The two together are rather fascinating to me, how nature itself can heal.’ And that was it. I found myself explaining my background, mindful to not tell him everything. I couldn’t tell him about Frank. Something always stopped me.
Silence. Jamie just looked at me. His face impassive and hard to read. I felt anxious but resolved. He wanted the truth, and I gave it to him. He knew some measure of the type of woman, the type of person I was.
He smiled that lopsided smile that gave me reassurance, a dusting of stubble lightly flecking his face and a twinkle lept to his eyes.
‘Now! I almost forgot, time to make it official!’ And with that he jumped up off of the banquette and grabbed at his case. ‘Can’t have my wife going about without a ring now, can I?’ I rolled my eyes. He chuckled, his shoulders raising.
‘Heaven forbid! What did Gaston give you, some old dusty gold ring?’
His eyes shifted to his case. The mood in the carriage suddenly went very serious.
‘Ah well, no. I brought my own.’ And with that he ceremoniously got down on one knee, I couldn’t help but smile at the sweetness of it all. ‘Claire Beauchamp, will you do me the honour of being my wife? My mission wife that is’.
I nodded, and he slipped the ring on, muttering something I couldn’t quite make out.
‘What was that?’
‘Nothing, just a bit of the Gaelic. Seemed wrong to put it on and not say it. Traditional like.’
‘Have I sold you my soul?’ I teased, laughing ‘and more importantly, did you give me your soul to so with as I like?’