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Moondrop to Gascony Paperback – 1 Nov 2009
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"One of the outstanding surveys of the real life of a secret agent."
--Professor M R D Foot (from the Foreword of Moondrop to Gascony).
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
"Come on, Minou, make yourself comfortable," Jean-Claude said. "If you want to sleep, just lean on my shoulder."
As long as he wasn't bored, Jean-Claude was satisfied with everything. Just quietly satisfied. But when he got bored, he sat silently with a vacant look on his face and refused to submit to the most elementary forms of human civility.
Trying to argue with Jean-Claude was like attempting to crash head-first through a rubber wall: you bounced right back. This was one of those numerous occasions when he was contented with the impossible: he asked me to make myself comfortable. And without the smallest trace of irony, either. Minou was the nickname he liked giving me.
And all this time, I was tied up like a Christmas parcel in the tight harness of a heavy parachute, sitting on two inches of seat (because that was all the cumbersome parcel on my back allowed me to reach) in the side of a Halifax bomber. I was suffocated by the heat and deafened by the roar of the engines. I simply gave up arguing and gave up Jean-Claude, settled against his shoulder and went to sleep.
I woke up an hour later: Jean-Claude had also fallen asleep and slipped against my arm. His long eyelashes cast childish shadows on his cheeks. The engines still rumbled with a monotonous roar; the noise had become part of me. It caught hold of my head and shoulders and my blood seemed to run rhythmically along my veins. I wondered how the crew managed to keep awake. I looked round and saw the despatcher busily engaged in tightening the straps round the six bundles due to be dropped with us. I shifted Jean-Claude gently and settled him against a bundle of RAF coats: he never stirred. I joined the despatcher just as he was opening the trap.
"What are you doing?" I yelled through the deafening row.
"Leaflets..," he yelled back, pointing to a dozen square parcels on the edge of the hole and turning up the collar of his fur jacket.
The cold wind whistled inside the aircraft. The despatcher cut the strings round the parcels and chucked them out with precise and rapid movements. They hit the slip-stream with a crack. I tightened the scarf around my neck and leaned over the hole. Down below, I could see a city: it looked like a beehive. It also looked very small. The blocks of houses, the straight roads and avenues, the squares and, outside, the neat cutting-out of the land, conveyed a strong impression of design and order.
"Caen..," the sergeant shouted again, in answer to the mute question of my raised eyebrows.
Small puffs of clouds ran past under us in short bursts, hiding the city at broken intervals. In between them I could see black shadows sweeping rapidly across the beehive: heavy clouds were passing in front of the moon.
The weather was not improving as we flew further south; it was already poor when we had left England. After all the leaflets had gone, the despatcher started throwing out little cylindrical boxes with tiny parachutes packed on top of them. They whistled as they hit the slip-stream.
"They're pigeons," the sergeant explained after he had closed the trap again. "There's a questionnaire from the BBC in the box with them. The idea is that people answer the questions and let the pigeons fly back home with them. Pretty simple - but I bet half the folks down there eat them. I'm sure I would," he added, with a wink.
Pretty simple, indeed. I wondered how many simple things went on like that that no one knew about. All along, I had ached to keep some sort of a diary of all my activities and new sensations; but that was strictly forbidden, for obvious reasons of security. Now, as I sat down near Jean-Claude again, I wondered how long I would remember my emotions. Maybe I could write them down some day, but what day and when? The past months were very clear and very much of a whole in my memory, although, as soon as we had taken off, their disagreeable moments had receded into a distant unconsciousness.
Could it really be only six months ago that I had had my first interview?
"Do you speak French?" a short and jumpy Captain had asked. His voice was high-pitched and piercing. I had found his cold and bare office after losing myself several times in a labyrinth of corridors inside a large and nondescript block of flats.
"How is it that you speak French so fluently?"
I had explained that I had a French mother and had always lived on the Continent and been brought up like a French girl.
"Are you ready to leave England? Are you ready to do anything we may ask you against the enemy? Can you ride a bicycle?"
I had said yes to everything, although I had no idea what he was getting at.
Three weeks later I had understood, as I began my courses in various super-secret `schools'; hair-raising cross-examinations, tough soldier's training. If anyone had told me that I would spend the summer of 1943 being timed at assault courses, tapping Morse messages on a dummy key, shooting at moving pieces of cardboard, crawling across the countryside and blowing up mock targets, I would have shrugged my shoulders with disbelief.
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