Evelyn wasn’t sure how long she slept that night, but she didn’t think it was very long. It seemed like she’d just put her head down on the pillow when she could feel someone gently shaking her awake. In the darkness of the barracks, all she could see was the outline of a man at her side, with his hand on her shoulder. She thought that he was wearing a military uniform, but she wasn’t sure
Evelyn sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Across the room, she could see Gene pulling on his pants as he finished getting dressed. The man at her side must have been one of the poor soldiers stationed at the airfield they’d dragged from bed to help send them off to France.
“What’s the time?” she asked as she swung her legs out of bed.
“Early,” he said. “You have thirty minutes to get dressed and ready to go.” With that, the soldier left with Gene right behind her, leaving her alone in the barracks to get dressed.
As Evelyn changed out of her nightgown and into a shirt and pants, the nervousness she’d felt the previous night returned. Her heart began to pound against her chest as she buttoned up her blouse and her pants, her hands began to shake as she laced up her boots; by the time she was done putting her hair up in a bun, she felt like she was going to be sick.
Once she was done getting dressed, she began to pack up the last of her personal effects to be sent home. She folded up her blanket, which bore the blue, red and green tartan of clan McIntyre, her silver locket with a picture of her mother and her father in it, a worn picture of Will in his RAF uniform, a stack of encouraging letters from friends and family, the bible her father had taken with him into the trenches of Belgium and France; it felt strange to pack them all into the cardboard box, as if she were packing away pieces of herself rather than comfort items.
Lastly, she pulled her rosary beads out from under her pillow; however, rather than put it with the rest of her things, she put it around her neck. Because a lot of France was Catholic like her, the SOE was going to let her take it with her. She was originally going to leave them behind out of fairness for Gene (he had a star of David necklace his mother had given to him for his Bar Mitzvah), but in the end, she’d decided to take it; it would be the only link to her life her in Britain while she was in France, something that she’d decided she needed to keep herself sane.
When she walked outside that morning, she saw that it didn’t look any different than it had when she’d first went to bed. The sky remained dark and full of stars, with only large floodlights to light the night so they could prepare for takeoff. Men were fueling up the plane, the pilots checking the plane’s systems to make sure they were all working properly, soldiers were loading crates filled with supplies for the French resistance that would be accompanying them to France; it looked like it wouldn’t be long until Evelyn and Gene were to leave for occupied France.
Soon after she’d stepped outside, she saw a familiar face walking toward her. Vera Atkins, the woman in charge of all the female SOE agents in occupied France, wore her usual outfit that morning: a white blouse underneath an olive green jacket and tucked into an olive green pencil skirt, and a pair of old, brown oxfords. She walked with a certain air of authority, even though she was little more than a glorified secretary.
“Good morning, Miss Evelyn,” she said as she came closer. “How are we feeling this fine day?”
“Nervous,” Evelyn admitted. Vera nodded in understanding as they walked towards the plane, where a few soldiers were helping Gene strap on his parachute. The plane looked to be the same kind as the one they’d jumped out of during training, with one major difference: it didn’t look like it would fall apart at the seams when they took off.
“I understand,” Vera said. “In all honesty, I’d be more worried about you if you weren’t; at least you know what you’re getting into.” Once they reached the plane, one of the soldiers began to help her get on her parachute. Even though her hands were shaking, she didn’t fumble with the straps too much.
“Is Chaplain Clarke going to be here?” Evelyn asked as she did up her parachute. Vera squinted at the face of her watch.
“He told me he would be here,” she said. “He’s got five minutes to show up, or you two won’t have any last minute rites.” She began to look around, seemingly searching the crowd of soldiers for the missing chaplain.
“Speak of the devil,” Vera muttered. When Evelyn looked up from her parachute straps, she saw that Chaplain Clarke had arrived. He was wearing a black suit, just like the Catholic priests she’d grown up listening to every Sunday, but as an army chaplain, he administered to every religion. He also had a leather messenger bag slung over his shoulder, the very one he carried with him to every religious service he performed with all of his religious items.
“The way you avoid me, Ms. Atkins, one would think that I am the devil,” he said. He looked over at Evelyn and smiled warmly. “Is it safe to say that you need a blessing?”
Evelyn nodded without hesitation as he opened the bag and pulled out a simple, metal crucifix from his bag. He cleared his throat, holding his fist up to his mouth.
“Almighty and eternal God,” he began, his hands held out toward her. Evelyn bowed her head. “Those who take refuge in you will be glad and forever shout for joy. Protect these soldiers as they discharge their duties. Protect them with the shield of your strength and keep them safe from all evil and harm. May the power of your love enable them to return home in safety, that with all who love them, they may ever praise your loving care.” Chaplain Clarke slowly began to make the sign of the cross over her head. “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.” Evelyn raised her head and looked up into Chaplain Clarke’s kind, warm face. Would this be the last time she’d ever see him? She hoped not.
“Thank you, father,” she said. “I really appreciate it.” Chaplain Clarke reached his arms out, and the two of them embraced. It was warm and inviting, just as Papa’s were; it was one of the many ways that he reminded her of her father. Unlike him, however, the chaplain wasn’t going to be dead of tuberculosis when - if - she came home.
“Go with God, Evelyn,” he gave her a pat on his back. “I’ll see you when you come back.” With that, he walked over to Gene, putting the crucifix back into his bag and replaced it with a yarmulke and a prayer shawl.
“When will my family get my things?” Evelyn asked as Chaplain Clarke began praying over Gene in Hebrew and a soldier approached with a parachute in hand. He handed it to her and she slipped it on as he checked it to make sure everything was in its proper place.
“I’ll send them after you two leave,” Vera said as Evelyn began to strap herself into the parachute. “Is it safe to say that anything you got from Will can’t go back to them?” Evelyn nodded. Mother would be quite furious if she found out that she was still in contact with a man so below their station; she wanted her to marry up in society, not down.
“Send them back to Will, if you can,” Evelyn said as she finished strapping herself into the parachute. The soldier patted it, signalling that there wasn’t any wrong with it. “He’s still in Scotland, going through basic training.”
Vera nodded as Chaplain Clarke finished praying over Gene. The two of them embraced and exchanged goodbyes in Hebrew. “I’ll do that.”
One of the soldiers that had been loading the plane jogged over to them. “The plane’s ready to go; finish whatever you’re doing here, and get on the plane.”
Evelyn swallowed down the lump that was beginning to form in her throat; it looked like the time had come.
Vera reached into her pocket and pulled out a small, silver locket and a beige pill. “Take
these. Swallow the pill before you take off if you don’t want to get air sick.”
“What about the locket?” Evelyn asked.
“There’s a cyanide capsule in there,” Vera said. “If you’re ever captured by the Germans, just take a bite out of it, and everything will end.”
Evelyn bit her lip as she continued to look down at the locket. It looked so innocent, like something a little child would wear. Apparently, it was anything but.
“I guess this is goodbye for now, then,” Vera said. The two of them hugged. “Stay safe over there, alright? The only telegram I want to write to your mother is one that says you’re coming home, safe and sound.”
“Alright,” Evelyn said. The two let go of each other and she began to walk towards the plane, taking deep breaths to try and calm her nerves.
“Are you two ready?” One of the pilots asked as he helped them into the plane. The inside of it was bare, with the skeleton of the plane visible, and simple, wooden benches on the sides of it so they could sit while waiting for the plane to reach occupied Europe. A wire spanned from the front of the plane to the back within arm’s reach, where Evelyn and Gene would clip their parachute wire onto when they jumped, so the parachute would deploy a few seconds after they’d jumped from the plane.
“We don’t have a choice, do we?” Gene asked as they took their seats.
“Not if you don’t feel like being thrown in the brig, no,” the pilot said as he and the navigator hopped in. “You’ll want to take those motion sickness, pills, now; if any of you throw up in my plane, I swear on all that’s holy, I’ll kill you before the krauts get the chance.” Gene laughed at that, but Evelyn didn’t; she wasn’t feeling very humorous at the moment.
With that, the pilot shut the door. Evelyn’s last glimpse of Britain for the next few years was a view of that dark, dusty airstrip in West Sussex, where Vera and Chaplain Clarke stood, waving, still among a moving crowd of soldiers.
Evelyn closed her eyes and swallowed the pill. To think, that in an hour or so, she would be in occupied Europe; it seemed so surreal.
After a few minutes of sitting in the dimly sit cabin, the plane’s engines roared to life. It began to rumble down the runway, slowly gaining speed. As it got faster and faster, the plane began to bounce up and down as it tried to get itself off the ground.
Evelyn found herself shutting her eyes tight and taking deep breaths at that point. This was her least favorite part of take-off; the plane’s creaking and groaning made her wonder if the plane was about to fall apart.
Her stomach seemed to drop as the plane pulled up into the sky. There was a loud, shudder, then eerie quiet ensued as the plane began to level out, the hum of the engines being the only sound that dispelled pure silence.
She sighed, relieved that take off was over, then looked over at Gene. He sat across from her in the cabin, slouched in his seat with his hands behind his head and his eyes up at the ceiling. As always, he was relaxed self; he even seemed like he was on the verge of nodding off.
Evelyn closed her eyes and tried to relax, herself. Eventually, her home began to drift home to her family. She thought about the manor in Yorkshire that she called home, her sickly father, her sharp mother, the massive oak tree in the garden she’d hide in when she wanted to be left alone; her life had been so simple and safe before this, and yet, she found that she didn’t regret her decision. Will didn’t have very long until he was done with basic training with the air force and would be going behind enemy lines, as well; she had to do what she could to end the war soon, before it killed the man she loved.
However, that didn’t keep her from being scared out of her mind.
“Are you alright?” Gene’s voice pulled her out of her thoughts. When she looked over at him, she saw that he was looking over at her with his arms folded, a look of concern on his face.
Evelyn nodded as she sat up and stretched. “I was just thinking of home, is all.”
Surprisingly, he seemed to hear her over the sound of the engine. He nodded in understanding and settled back into his seat.
A few minutes later, the red light by the cockpit door flashed on, signalling that the time had come to prepare to jump.
Evelyn frowned, confused, as she stood up and clipped her parachute cord to the metal wire above her head. They’d only been in the plane for a few minutes; how could it already be time to jump?
“Didn’t we just take off?” she asked as Gene clipped in in front of her.
He shook his head. “You fell asleep a few minutes after we took off; you’ve been out for nearly a half an hour.
A half hour? She hadn’t thought that she’d be able to relax that long for the plane ride, let alone, sleep.
The cockpit door opened and one of the pilots came out and opened the cabin door. Ice cold air snatched at their clothes, trying to pull them out of the plane and into the dark night the second he did.
“I hope you two aren’t afraid of heights!” That was all he had time to say before the green light flashed on, signalling that they were to jump.
Gene entered occupied Europe the way he did most things in life: without a hint of hesitation. The second he saw the green light turn on, he leaped out of the plane without fear, just as they’d trained them to do in basic training.
However, when Evelyn’s turn came, she found that it wasn’t nearly as easy for her as it was for him. For a few seconds, she found herself staring into the dark sky, rooted to her spot with fear. The pull of the wind was stronger in the doorway; it felt less like it was urging her to jump and more like its cold fingers were trying to yank her out.
Evelyn closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She couldn’t believe she was about to do this.
In those slow-moving seconds afterwards, there was a feeling of weightlessness as she began to fall. A silent scream filled her body, her heart froze, the cold wind stung her cheeks. Then, there was a jerk on her shoulders as her parachute deployed, and she began slowly drifting to the ground, with her feet dangling in the air beneath her.
After having a slight panic when she couldn’t see the ground through the soft blanket clouds, Evelyn began to look around her rather than down. The sky was a dark, swirling abyss, with bright, twinkling stars all around her. The moon was full and big, casting a cold, silver glow on her and the world below, and with the plane heading towards the distant horizon, the only sound she could hear was the wind rushing in her ears. The world beneath her seemed to disappear for those few minutes she spent among the stars: there was no war, no Nazis, no SOE; it was just her, the heavens, and an overwhelming feeling of peace.
After a few minutes of looking at the sky, Evelyn looked down to see that the ground was coming a lot faster than she thought it would. She and Gene were landing in a vast field, one that went on as far as the eye could see to the south. To the north of the landing site, she could see a large, wooded area, one that she could see a few houses in.
Looking back at the ground beneath her feet, she braced herself for impact, the same way they were trained to.
Evelyn hit the ground with a thud, a little harder than she’d intended to. She tumbled in the dirt for a few seconds, then was pulled through the dirt by a breeze until she’d managed to get the parachute off.
Once she did, she stood up and began to look around for Gene. She could see him propped up by one of the supply crates, holding his leg.
Evelyn began running towards him, her blood running ice cold. Once she was closer, she could see that his face was twisted in pain and she could hear him cursing under his breath.
“What happened?” she asked as she knelt down beside him. He looked up at her, then gently knocked his head against the crate.
“I think I just broke my leg,” he groaned. Evelyn put his arm over her shoulder and slowly helped him to his feet. When she began to look around, she saw that they were alone, but she knew that wouldn’t last for very long. Odds were, a German patrol would be on their way, soon; they didn’t have very long to get to those woods toward the edge of the horizon before they were caught.
Without wasting another second, Evelyn began to make her way to the woods as fast as she could, with Gene limping alongside her.