15. Britain - even if it doesn't know it - is at war, and politics make strange bedfellows - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
She cast her mind back, thinking frantically. But all she could find, in whatever depths of her mind she sifted, was recognition. Her cousin had only crystallised the fear that had been haunting her all day, not generated it from thin air. She nodded, slowly.
“Yes. But it was - it was earlier than that I realised it, actually. Since the housekeeper told me about Polly - oh, do you think she’s really at sea, or have they simply - ?”
Infuriatingly, she found herself unable to finish the sentence. Charles patted her, somewhat awkwardly, on the shoulder.
“Well, that’s what we’re going to Liverpool to find out.”
“Liverpool! But we can’t go all that way in the back of a butcher’s van” Especially one that we’ve -” she caught the edge of incipient disapproval emanating from the back of Rhys’s head, and amended, hastily. “Only borrowed.”
Her cousin’s voice sounded amused; almost relieved.
“No, of course not. We did a bit of telegraphing and ‘phoning on our own account before haring off after you. If our messages got through we’ll have a change of transport, by and by. Not that I can offer you anything very luxurious.”
She nodded her head.
“Not a problem. I’ll be glad to take what we can get. After all, you’re right: it is war.”
“That being so, sir,” Rhys interjected abruptly from the driver’s seat, “you know what I told you. You ought to let me come along with you, sir. Permission to fight alongside you, in the last ditch if need be, sir.”
Her cousin’s voice was rough.
“And the last ditch is exactly where I’m posting you, Rhys. If this fails - if we don’t stop them now - England will be occupied territory. And before the year’s out. But occupied doesn’t mean defeated. You saw guerilla warfare on the veldt; you’ve a brain in your head: you’ll be worth a hundred men if - God forbid - it ever comes to the Shires. I can’t afford the luxury of taking you with me, so there’s no point in talking about it. Take the post you’re assigned, and don’t complain, Sergeant.”
“I’ve never been one to complain,” Rhys muttered. “Sir.”
Charles gave a compressed, tight nod, and turned again to Helen. “You too. This is war, make no mistake about it. If you do have to use that -” he nodded towards the gun which was now lying across her lap, “don’t waste time reflecting that ‘he, too, is some mother’s son’. It’s true, of course - it always is - but - save it for later.”
Having exhausted his emotion, he turned his head away. Although they were slumped awkwardly against each other, and the motion of the van down the twisty roads threw them together more and more,it was clear he was in no mood to talk, and Helen let him be.
The butcher’s van rushed on under Rhys’s sure direction into the December night.
Helen had not precisely begun to doze - dark as it was, it was still not yet late - but been lulled into semi-hypnotised stupor by the jolting of the van by the time they came to a halt at last.
Rhys hopped out of the driver’s seat and came round to the back of the van to release them.
The van was parked on an expanse of muddy gravel outside a corrugated iron shed which - from the number of goods vehicles parked around it - seemed to do duty as cafe and rest stop for all the commercial traffic of the Midlands.
Helen was aware that the mechanic who had been peering under the raised bonnet of the lorry next to them was now turning, alert and wary, to scrutinise them.
She clutched at the twelve-bore, and started to bring it up to her shoulder.
With an almost insolent nonchalance the man acknowledged the threat of her weapon, and raised his hands above shoulder level, staring levelly back at her above the wavering gun barrel.
“Good grief, Helen, you look amazingly like Franky in this light,” he drawled. She gulped, in sheer shock.
“She most certainly doesn’t, Sullivan,” Franky’s brother interjected.
Joe paused, almost as though taken aback, and then grinned.
“Whatever you say, Charlie. But I’m not planning to stand in your light, if that’s what’s bugging you.”
Her cousin snorted. Tremulously, Helen lowered the gun.
“I’m awfully sorry, Joe,” she said, “I just wasn’t sure -“
He gave her a quick, reassuring shake of the head.
“No offence taken. As things are, I’d rather you were overly suspicious than too trusting. Especially since - Look, what is the story about Polly? Charlie’s message just said ‘Bad news’. How bad?”
Helen hesitated, wanting to pick her words carefully. It occurred to her that she had never been sure exactly how things stood between Joe and the glamorous American.
“Well, according to the house-keeper she caught a boat to the States, from Liverpool, two or three days ago. But -“
Joe nodded; the light which spilled from the café’s windows showed his expression to be grimly watchful.
“If she has, why not let us know? Unless she thinks she’s got a scoop and she’s keeping it to herself - that’d be insane in the circumstances but just possible - for her.”
“Well, I might believe that apart from this other thing,” Charlie interjected. “Mosley’s crew weren’t at all keen to have anyone enquiring too closely about where she’d got to.” And he retailed Helen’s adventure with the man on the motorbike, with some passing compliments on her cool head and quick thinking that made Helen glad that the dark was hiding her blushes. Joe looked grimmer as the tale went on.
“Well, that tells us one thing. These gentlemen don’t like their affairs being sniffed around. Good thinking of you to have a story which checked out so neatly. Otherwise it’d be two missing women we’d have on our hands rather than one - I don’t suppose you managed to get the name of the boat Polly’s supposed to have sailed on, did you, Helen?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t dare seem too nosy. But the housekeeper said that it was a Canadian line, and very modern -“
“Canadian!” Joe expression of surprise seemed, Helen thought, barely warranted by the triviality of the information. His hand went towards the breast pocket of his coat, but he appeared to change his mind in mid-movement, withdrawing his hand empty.
“Well, that narrows the field a good bit, anyway. First thing tomorrow, Helen, you hit the shipping offices for the Canadian lines, and see if you can get passenger lists. If we find out that Polly - or someone purporting to be her - is on board, we need to intercept her before that ship docks, otherwise she could get whisked off anywhere. It’s a big place, America.”
“And how do you propose to manage that?” Charlie demanded sceptically. “Even you can’t be planning a mid-Atlantic hold-up of an ocean liner with a Warhawk.”
Joe, Helen thought, looked for a moment almost shifty. But all he said was, “First catch our rabbit. Once we know what boat it is - or if there’s a boat at all - we can choose our strategy. Anyway, we can’t stand here chatting, we’re beginning to look conspicuous. Chris!”
At his shout a second man, in canvas overalls, cloth cap and muffler came round from the back of the lorry.
“Helen, Charlie; can I introduce you to Comrade Sugden? Chris; Helen Adamson, Charlie Cook.”
“The lass’d best be changing into something she can travel in,” the stranger observed. “The back of van’s still over engine oil from that last load, and there’s no call for her to spoil a good skirt.”
Helen glanced down at the respectable-but-dowdy tweeds she had donned on rising, back in another lifetime.
“I suppose I -” she was beginning, when Joe interrupted.
“Good point, Chris. Also, I’d rather not have to explain to some inquisitive copper what we’re doing with a young lady in the cab. Filthy minds some of these blokes have.”
“Not without cause, in your case,” Charlie muttered. Joe spread his hands.
“Not any more. I’m a reformed character.”
Charlie snorted. “Don’t tell me you’re claiming to have been redeemed by the love of a good woman?”
Even in the dreadful light Helen could see Joe was looking somewhat self-conscious.
“Hardly - and anyway, like I said, we don’t have time to stand here gabbing. Helen; I think I’ve got just the thing for you in the cab.”
He scrambled up, and tossed a bundle of fabric down to her.
“Here. Change in the back of the lorry.”
The interior of the lorry was dark, and empty, though it indeed smelt strongly of machine oil. Helen retreated modestly towards the back, and investigated the bundle Joe had given her, which proved it to contain heavy blue denim overalls and a blue fisherman’s guernsey. The overalls’ owner couldn’t have been a particularly tall man, fortunately; she only had to roll the bottoms up an inch or so. She rolled her skirt and coat into a bundle and jumped down from the tail of the lorry.
Rhys had gone; she devoutly hoped to return the butcher’s van from wherever he had purloined it. Joe looked approvingly at the transformation.
“Here, you ought to be able to cover all your hair with this,” he said proffering her a flat man’s cap. “Thank god you wear it short.”He added a wool muffler. “Oh, and try putting this round the lower part of your face. It won’t stand up to close scrunity, but at least you’ve a sporting chance of passing as our apprentice if any cop gives the lorry a routine check. Try and keep in shadow so far as possible, and if you have to say anything, an adenoidal whine would be just the ticket.”
“And what about me?” Charlie demaned. Joe looked ruefully at him.
“Sorry, old man, but we’re just going to put you in the back, and hope for the best. I can’t see overalls and a flat cap making a blind bit of difference; whatever we dress you in isn’t really going to stop you looking like exactly what you are.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Charlie demanded. It was the man addressed as Chris who responded.
“Officer class. Eton and Oxford. Pillar of the community. On the bench. Ardent preserver of pheasants, class privilege and capitalist system. That about it, Mr Cook?”
Helen’s jaw dropped; she had no idea how her cousin was likely to respond. Actuallly, after looking non-plussed for a moment, he grinned.
“Harrow, actually. But the rest of it was about there. So I take it you’re one of these Red revolutionaries? We had one of them in my Squadron in China. Best mechanic I ever had. So how come you ended up going in to the delivery business with Joe? Press gang? And what are you two delivering, anyway?”
“Contrary opinions,” Joe said. “Comrade Sugden - as you’ve gathered - is strongly in favour of a popular revolution.”
“Which is also to say,” Sugden said, “I’m very strongly against the notion of Mosley and his bully-boys or any other bargain-basement Mussolinis foisting their own notions by force on the rest of us. And since it doesn’t seem as if the Establishment - present company excepted, Mr Cook - can see beyond their obsession with the threat from the Left to notice what the Right’s been up to these last few years, I’ve been having to see what I can do about it myself. Finding Joe was on the same track was a godsend. And as you’re friends of his -“
He shrugged, obviously intending to convey that amnesty had been declared in the class war for the time being, and politely gestured towards the open back of the lorry. “Sorry the proletariat can’t offer you the standards of transport you’re doubtless used to.”
“I’ll manage,” Charlie said drily. “Compared to other things I’ve been dragged into by Joe I don’t doubt that this is positive luxury. Can I trouble you for a hand up? When we evacuated from Shanghai one of my legs missed the flight out, and while the cork one’s fairly serviceable for most purposes, it’s not good for scrambling about.”
Leaving them to it, Joe led the way round to the driver’s cab and swung himself up, extending a hand to help Helen follow him. Sugden, having given Charlie a hand into the back of the lorry and latched the back doors, climbed competently into the cab the other side of her, and grinned.
“Doubtless you never expected you’d find yourself hitching a lift with a Communist, Miss Adamson.”
“Actually, if Mummy could see me now she’d probably have seventeen different kinds of fit,” Helen said candidly. A sudden thought of her mother’s reaction if she could be magically transported abord the lorry made her face split into a broad grin. Setting off to drive through the night to who knew where with not one but three young men, and one an avowed Communist, and all armed to the teeth! Her mother’s mind would be scarcely up to the boggling the situaton demanded of it. Her grin was infectious, it appeared. Chris grinned back at her. Emboldened, she said, “But skip the Miss Adamson business. It’s Helen. So how did you run into Joe?”
Chris extended a hand. “And I’m Chris. Glad to made your aquaintance, Helen. Well, it’s a long story.”
Joe steered the lorry out onto the main road. “It’s a long drive. Anyway, the short version: we both fetched up - separately - at a nasty little gathering of Mosley’s faithful in an Oddfellows Hall or similar somewhere on the outskirts of Sheffield. An assortment of speakers were spouting an assortment of foetid nonsense, none of it to the point, and I’d about concluded that no-one with any brains on Mosley’s side would have trusted any of these imbeciles with any more information about what was going on than they could possibly help, when Chris’s feelings about the whole business got the better of him, and, as the Quakers say, the spirit moved him. And he delivered himself of a short, but moving sermon on the subject of the last speaker.”
“Aye,” Chris said. “I were a damn fool to let him rile me, but it did me a backhand favour, nonetheless. Two of the bully-boys that crew always have on hand to make sure no-one makes the mistake of believing this is a free country dragged me out behind the hall, and another couple ducked out after them to assist the first pair in attending to my re-education.”
He paused for breath, and Joe, lifting his hand up from the wheel to make an airy gesture, continued.
“Well, given the home truths Chris had treated the platform too, I’d worked out he was probably about the only other man in the hall who felt the I did about the crew of thugs, weasels and resentful little upstarts who were running the show. Also, given how they’d been banging on about “being the true heirs to the spirit of Englishness” four against one didn’t strike me as in the best public school tradition- at least, not as portrayed in The Magnet . Charlie might tell you different . Anyway, I sidled out unobtrustively, and pelted round to the back -“
“And right welcome he was, too, when he showed up,” Chris said. “Got them from behind while they were too busy using my ribs as a football to pay proper attention. That gave me my chance to scramble clear, and start getting a bit of my own back. Only problem was, one of the four managed to dodge back into the hall to raise the alarm, and while we weren’t doing too badly at odds of two to one, a hundred or so to one didn’t look so clever. So we made a run for it while we could, and Joe offered me a lift out of town, which I gratefully accepted, me having temporarily made Sheffield too hot to hold me. Much to my surprise the “lift” turned out to be in a plane he’d got concealed in a handy field -“
“Not the Warhawk,” Joe said. “Too conspic by half. An old crate of a Cessna trainer that Charlie managed to lay his hand on through his Shuttleworth connections. But good enough for runabout work. “
“We must have been a hundred miles away before Mosley’s boys had finished searching the next street,” Chris said enthusiastically. “And I reckoned if there was someone around who felt the same about Mosley’s crew and who could command that sort of fire-power - well, if he was for recruiting me, I was for signing up.”
Joe grinned, his hands steady on the wheel, swinging the big lorry round a tight bend as it it had been nothing.
“So we called up Andrew MacAllister - Chris had come across him a couple of years ago, so that was something else we had in common - and he put us in the way of having a cover story - we officially deliver high specification machine parts.”
“But of course,” Chris interjected, “what we’re really doing is meeting up with people who are to our way of thinking, and can be trusted to do what’s necessary to spread the word when the balloon goes up. We must have done a thousand miles in the last three days, up and down the country. But at least now, when balloon does go up, there’s some people who know enough not to believe the police if they tell us “everything’s under control” but to ask ‘Whose control do you mean?’ And who’ll make it their business to secure their local strong points. Eh, I look forward to the moment when the British people wake up and see who were the ones they could trust in their darkest hour. That’ll be a right eye opener, it will.”
Helen thought there was something she should say, but couldn’t think of anything. And it was dark, and the motion of the cab, however monotonous, was somehow soothing too. Twice she caught herself abruptly as her head drooped. At length she could stop it no more. In a borrowed set of workman’s overalls, in the cab of a delivery van, Helen Adamson, the properly brought up daughter of a line of minor Hampshire gentry, put her head on the shoulder of a Communist Party activist, born in a Salford slum, and slept.