A Charlie Bellman story
Into the wide blue yonder.
They left the train one station short of the Union Station—Bellman wondered if it was the usual North American union of railway companies, sharing a facility, or some other sort of union—and were picked up by a military vehicle. That worried Bellman for a moment: he had been too long in Berlin. It wasn't a truck, and hardly a limousine, but big for an ordinary car, and quite reminiscent of one of the heavy motor cars that the Wehrmacht was buying, maybe big enough to carry a battalion commander and a wireless set, and still have enough room to unfold a map. It was a comfortable vehicle, built and tyred for rough roads, and not exactly spartan. Austere, Bellman decided, was the word.
The driver was quick, even a litle enthusiastic, but good. He was, Bellman soon realised, anticipating the traffic. He wore what resembled a naval uniform, though the cap was not the sort that Bellman was used to. As much as anything, it looked like a cap he'd seen some German soldiers wearing, when he'd been down near the Swiss border. Comfortable, and practical, this one in a dark naval blue, with its peak to shade the eyes. He'd felt a twinge of envy for those German soldiers: it would have been a good cap on the Frontier.
There was a brief pause at a gate. Armed sentries, in a green uniform. The same style of cap, with the same black-and-red background to the badge, and green to match the uniform. It was hardly smart, by Bellman's standards, with not an ironed crease in sight, but the uniforms were cared-for. They were not slovenly. And the rifles, some sort of Mauser, he thought, looked ready.
He was a spy. He was being driven through Rain Island's main naval base. Of course he paid attention to what he saw. There was a cruiser, rather old and possibly outclassed, and what seemed to be a very new destroyer at the next pier, with guns in three twin turrets which seemed capable of high-angle fire. And a stern filled with depth-charge racks. More guns than the latest Royal Navy destroyers, and possibly better for anti-submarine work.
He didn't want to be obvious, and the two banks of torpedo tubes were shrouded under tarpaulins. Fanshawe probably knew all about these ships, and it was likely that they were in Janes, but, to Bellman's eye, she looked right.
“I once took a boat trip in Plymouth, up to Brunel's bridge, and back, past the Devonport base. There was a rather tedious German, one of the old families, who kept taking photographs.” She winked. He thought it was Lady Carol. “He fell in the river.”
“Oh dear,” said Bellman. From what George had said, she might not have been born to the family, but she certainly fitted. He wasn't sure that he wanted to know what either of them had done in the General Strike. It would, he was sure, have been both unconventional and effective. “The Germans are building warships again, but they'll never have the numbers.”
The driver laughed. “Just like the last war, you pay us and we'll come.”
A different world,” said Bellman, judiciously. “I doubt we shall want to run convoys to Russia.”
The driver glanced over his shoulder. “Could be,” he agreed. “Starling is more likely to be fightin' you, next time.”
“Will there be a next time?”
Bellman wasn't sure which of the two ladies had asked that. “I very much fear so,” he said.
“And then you'll go off back to war, while we go through all the waiting again.” That was definitely Helen: she had a well-used aviator's jacket on one shoulder, half-carried and half-worn, like a Hussar's pelisse. “I had four brothers in 1914, Mr. Bellman.”
“I volunteered,” he replied. “And I'd volunteer again, even at my age, because I could ensure that the young men I trained would be better prepared than I was for my first battle.” He paused. “But if they told me to go into battle too, I'd go. I'd be no soldier at all if I wasn't willing to go with my men into battle.”
He realised Helen was staring at him. And then the driver said, “I know that look.” He was staying focused on his driving, turning onto one of the broad piers, an older destroyer to Bellman's left. “And if he don't come back, the Alfies will be signing him up in Valhalla.”
“Alfies?” Bellman hadn't heard the term.
“Army Union Landing Force. Real crazy, but good men.”
“That Wolf Baginski fellow,” said Carol. “I read about him in the Express. Made him sound like one of Kipling's heroes. He's one.” Helen was rolling her eyes. “The report said that the Landiing Force had started out as the Mountain Boys Militia, and that had been set up by some chap who had been an officer in the Guides.”
“I know the type,” said Bellman. “I served on the Frontier.” He grinned. “You're flattering me, a lot, because I was never as good as one of the Guides.” Even if he could masquerade as a Pathan. His grin faded. “Valhalla, you say? I thought I was through with frost and snow.” He explained a little as the car slowed to a halt. “It's the old Gods, recruiting warriors for the Final Battle, which they expect to lose. And it'll come after a great winter that overwhelms the whole world.”
The driver pulled on the handbrake and twisted around. “What do ya mean, they expect to lose?”
“The Vikings,” said Bellman. “Everyone dies, even the Gods. But they were going to go down fighting.”
“Gotterdammerung,” said Carol. “Not a good ending. Wagner, Charlie, surely you've heard of him?”
“The Nazis get rather enthusiastic about Wagner.” He paused. “I fell asleep, the one time I went to the opera, in Berlin.” There was general incredulity. “Old soldier,” he explained. “I can sleep while marching. Don't guarantee to march down the right road.”
He noticed Helen's very slight nod, as if she maybe knew. Perhaps one of her brothers?
“Well, all you folks have to do is go down onto the pontoon, and the boat will take you to the 'plane, and then you can sleep all you want.”
Bellman chuckled. “Never been in a 'plane before.”
Helen looked at him. “Don't worry, Charlie. I'll look after you.”
She was teasing, of course. Wasn't she?
Rain Island Naval Syndicate—that was another odd way of putting things. And they ran the air forces, which made sense to Bellman. Apart from Canada, all the possible threats were naval. Just like England, they had to come by sea. And if the Royal Navy thought that aircraft were no threat, the R.I.N.S. disagreed.
Bellman had done a lot of reading, building a context for that tiny fragments of information which he would be gathering. That destroyer, there were rumours. It wasn't as fast as the Admiralty standard classes, but had greater range, and Rain Island thought aircraft were a real threat.
There was a motor launch beside the pontoon, and a young Naval officer, another woman. And she had what must be a pilot's wings on her uniform. They didn't look quite like anything Bellman had seen before but, where they were, it seemed impolite to look closely.
Nice looking feline, though; calico fur patterning; the same sort of almost skinny look of athleticism that Arabella had... Bellman very firmly shut away that memory. She was smiling, and she had a nice smile. “Welcome to Rain Island, folks. I hope you're all OK with boats. The 'plane is that flying boat out there, the Dornier 24. We have it on a lease from the Dutch East Indies, and it looks likely that we'll be buying some. German design, Dutch built, and American engines. With the winds, we should make good time to Tillamook, where we drop off some mail, grab a decent meal, and refuel. Take-off around dusk and through the night to the Spontoons.”
Helen was nodding, and Bellman had the feeling that she was working things out in her head. “Night over ocean? Well, it's not as if you have any landmarks.”
“You got it. And it can be easier seeing the lights on Casino Island than spotting the atoll in daylight. Plus we can home in on the radio broadcasts a bit more easily. Well, all aboard for your Exciting Aero Adventure.”
One of Bellman's brothers was a barge captain Bellman wasn't afraid of boats, at least, and nobody fell in. Close to, the flying boat was even more impressive, though the camouflage was disconcerting. He half expected a Dornier to have the dark shades of the new Luftwaffe, rather than pale blue and white and pink. He wondered whether the pattern was Dutch or not. The national markings were. The boat was handled very delicately: it made sense, you built 'planes light.
He could recall the Dornier factory, on the Swiss side of the border at Lake Constance. It had been an entirely lawful work-around of the Versailles Treaty, and a little bit awkward from the point of view of a British spy based in Germany. Somebody could have taken umbrage, though all he was doing was using a pair of binoculars to watch a Swiss-built new 'plane from outside Switzerland.
As he'd heard the story, Blohm-und-Voss had got the contract from the Luftwaffe because Dornier were making bombers. And the Dutch were paying Dornier well for the rights to build the 'planes themselves. But he hadn't realised that they were using American engines.
Like the car, the cabin was austere. And, with the mailbags and the gun turret, it was a little crowded. The seat let him see outside, and was probably meant for somebody to watch the world. Well-padded headphones rather than a flying helmet, and he was pretty sure he knew why. One thing he did know about aeroplanes; they were noisy.
Somewhere in all that, he learned that the young woman was Ensign Catriona MacDonald, that he wasn't to touch anything on the little panel the headphones were connected to, and he should keep the lap-belt fastened.
The engines were more than noisy. The take-off felt rough enough to be frightening until, suddenly, the hammer of the water against the hull ended and everything became smooth, and almost graceful.
It was still noisy.
He counted two more destroyers, and what looked to be a third being built, saw what looked to be a dock that was covered over by a great roof, and wished he had a camera. There was some sort of large submarine, as well, but he had lost track of anything to scale it against, and he'd never flown over a naval base. He'd never flown over anything, but it wasn't so different from looking down from a hilltop on the Frontier.
The 'plane turned north-west. He could, at least, judge direction by the sun, well enough not to be totally lost. And he did have a decent watch.
He also had a book in his pocket, a Leslie Charteris.
At the forward end of the cabin were two crew stations. One was pretty obviously for a wireless operator. The other looked to be for a navigator. The navigation on this leg was probably pretty easy. The Tillamook chain was big, more land area than all of Rain Island, and he didn't see how you could miss them. The hard part was deciding which way to turn to get to where you wanted to be. You could have the same problem on land, and the answer, so he had been told by the Adjutant, was to aim for a deliberate miss, so you knew which way to turn.
Not much good if you were marching, maybe, unless your map and compass work was already pretty good, but rather obvious when you thought about it.
By now, it was feeling a little chilly. And there was something about the air. It was a little as if you'd just taken a patrol up a hill in a little too much of a hurry.
“You look bored, Charlie. I thought you said this was your first flight?”
He glanced across the cabin. Helen waved. “Well, it's not as though I'm driving. This feels more like a fancy Army truck, and it's nothing like the Grand Trunk Road.”
“You've no romance, Charlie.”
“I sometimes think I don't know enough to see it.”
“Believe me, it's there, but maybe you have to be a pilot. They call us pilots, you know, not drivers.”
“I'm not either.”
“Some, and when they made me an officer they expected me to ride a horse. But I'm an infantryman. Either I marched, or it was a railway wagon marked for 40 men or 8 horses.”
She didn't answer for a moment. “Two of my brothers have their names on the Menin Gate. The other is buried in a little cemetery on the Somme.” Even over the headphones, he could hear the strain in her voice. “My youngest brother was fourteen years old when the Armistice was signed, and he has not aged well.”
“I lost good friends. And then the Army seemed to think I was worth keeping.”
“So you stayed?”
“They didn't pay enough, even for an officer in a very ordinary Regiment. So I transferred to the Indian Army. Better pay and lower costs.”
He thought there was amusement in her eyes. “Very. But you have to learn a lot, and quickly, to earn it. You can't really lead men if you can't speak their language, or know how their lives work.” He paused. “It sounds romantic, like Beau Geste is romantic, but mostly it isn't. And the French Foreign Legion are a pretty rough bunch too, even if they can fight hard.”
It seemed a long while before a reply. “I think you're trying to warn me off.”
“Oh.” Just that.
He didn't try to time the silence.
“Charlie?” That was Carol. The Dowager Duchess. “Your brother told me a little. Not much. But when a man such as George Bellman says his brother is a fine fellow, one does not argue. And we ought to apologise for teasing you.”
“I felt flattered.” Yes, he thought, it had felt good. “But I am married, and that matters to me.”
“I'm sorry.” That was Helen's voice. Maybe there was something a little different about the circuit she was using. Or maybe there was something about being in a plane that made her change, slightly. After all, she was some sort of pilot.
“No apologies needed.” Bellman kept his voice steady, and added, “I was tempted. Very tempted.”
“Charlie, I'm not some innocent deb. I've done some rather wild things in my time.” He looked across at Helen. “I'll even call myself an anarchist,” she added. “You're a temptation too.”
She would have had it hard, he reckoned. She would have expected to marry a certain sort of young man, and most of that sort were dead. He had only got a commission because the Army had used up so many young officers of suitable breeding. And yet, for a moment, he wondered what he would do if she dragged him to a bedroom. He was too old. He knew better than that. He was married, dammit!
And he maybe wouldn't struggle, much.
They almost looked like sisters. And a widow had a little more freedom...
No, don't think it. Don't Think It. You Are Still Married, Charlie Bellman. After all these years, You Are Still Married.
Very deliberately, he turned to look out from the window again.