WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, GRANNY?
By Karen Treanor
"I smell fear," said one old lady to the other.
"Solange, you never change! Will you please relax and try to have a good time?" Edith Cotton whispered fiercely. Honestly, there were times when she thought her friend was getting senile.
Edith waved at a flight attendant and mimed pouring something into a glass. When the young woman came down the aisle to where Edith and Solange sat in the business section of the Franco-Anglic AF360, Edith said, "Could we have a bottle of champagne? My friend gets a bit nervy flying."
"But of course, Madame. I will not be long." The flight attendant disappeared into the galley and pulled the curtain.
"The fear smell is coming from her," Solange hissed to Edith. "Something is going on, ma vielle, something is not correct."
"Now stop it, Solange, you're giving me the willies. We're supposed to be enjoying ourselves, having the time of our lives. You don't want Jean-Claude to think he's wasted his generous gift, do you? This is probably our last trip before they lock us up in an old ladies' home, let's make the most of it." Edith was irritated. This was the first long trip she and her old friend had ever taken, largely due to the generosity of Solange's grandson who was something pretty big in the Franco-Anglic hierarchy. He'd treated them to a week in Mauritius, and Edith didn't plan to waste any of the time in needless worry.
"Look, Solange, remember that time we went to Amsterdam and you thought the cab driver was a Moluccan terrorist? And he turned out to be a harmless little Indonesian with Tourette's syndrome? Remember how I had to bail you out of the police station after you got him in a headlock? It was only by my pretending to be your guardian that we got away from there without an enormous fine. Let's not have anything like that happen this time."
Edith broke off as the flight attendant came up with the tray of champagne. As the girl bent over to put the glasses on the little tables, Solange hissed something to her in French. The young woman rolled her eyes towards the galley and muttered back "Les etrangers, ils sont….." and something else too rapid for Edith's ears.
Solange drank half her champagne and said "There are two strange men in the galley and Cecile thinks they are dangerous. She says one has a gun. There are probably more upstairs, trying to get into the cockpit." The plane made a sudden swerve in the air, as if avoiding a tree. Edith clutched her armrests. "Or perhaps they are already in the cockpit, non?" Solange went on. "I must think on this." She took the champagne bottle and refilled their glasses.
Edith hissed "Isn't it possible that the strangers are security men, or efficiency experts or something? Come to check up on the staff?"
"They would have documents of some sort, surely, something to show the attendants to prevent fear. No, ma chere, they are hijackers, and we must think what to do."
"Why us?" Edith asked.
"Because we are so unlikely, we are frail little old ladies. We shall have the advantage of surprise."
"Solange, I beg you, let us not get into trouble again. Remember the taxi driver." Edith felt a cold curl of fear uncoiling in her gut. At the very best, Solange would get them into another embarrassing to-do; at worst, they'd be dead before the day was out. Of the two, she didn't know which held more terror for her.
Solange pushed her service bell. Cecile came out of the curtained galley again, her smile looking forced, Edith had to admit.
"I am a bit chilled from the champagne, may I have a blanket?" Solange said loudly.
"Of course, Madame." Cecile said, opening a locker and shaking out a soft lap robe. As she tucked it in, Solange spoke very rapidly to her. The old woman's tone was quiet, but fierce and uncompromising, although Edith could not get the words. Cecile gave a nervous smile and said loudly, "Will that be all, Madame?"
"For now, my child," Solange said, leaning back in her seat and pulling the blanket up to her chin.
"Solange, what hare-brained thing have you thought up now?" Edith muttered. Solange paid no attention, but commenced fumbling under the lap robe. "What is it, is your brace troubling you?"
"In a manner of speaking," Solange said, rummaging some more. At length she settled down and appeared to drop off to sleep.
Edith stared out the window and forced herself to breathe slowly. Solange's leg brace was a source of recurring embarrassment on their trips together: it had to be removed and passed around airport scanners, it had a bad habit of locking in damp weather, and it often squeaked. Edith always kept a bottle of Singer Sewing Machine oil in her bag when she travelled with Solange.
She wondered if her friend's suspicions about the strangers in the galley were correct. Ever since the dreadful events of September 2001 her enjoyment of flying had been spoiled; in fact, she'd only made one short flight since then, to meet Solange in Avignon last year. Mostly now they took trains and boats on their little jaunts, for reasons of economy as well as safety.
Edith watched the clouds. The years rolled back as the clouds flew past. She was again 22 in wartime England, meeting the young woman who'd been brought out of occupied France by a team of commandos on some project so secret she'd never heard the details of it to this day. Despite her rudimentary French and Solange's fractured English, the two girls had got on like old pals from the start. Edith had chivvied Solange into doing the physical therapy required for her ruined knee, and Solange had ever afterwards given Edith credit for the fact that she could walk at all, never mind requiring the brace.
When Edith had asked how Solange's knee had been so badly damaged, she had said merely, "Even a German can operate, how is it called, un vis du charpentier." It was some time before Edith found the term translated to 'bench vice'.
The French girl would not be drawn about what she did in her homeland after the German invasion, but happily chattered about her life prior to that time.
After the war they had gone their own ways, but in the late 1970's, both widowed, Solange and Edith had met on the Island of Jersey for a weekend, discovered they still got on just as well, laughed at each other's grey hairs, and promised to keep in touch. Since then, they took small trips several times a year to places neither was likely to visit by herself. This trip was the most ambitious they'd ever undertaken. It had started so well, it was dreadful to think that it might end in--whatever it might end in. Edith sighed.
"Courage, ma vielle, there is hope while there is breath," Solange whispered. "Pretend to sleep now."
Edith had no idea what Solange was up to, but she laid her head back and shut her eyes behind her dark glasses. Not long thereafter, two male voices spoke from the front of the business section. In accented French and in almost unintelligible English they announced that the captain had some concerns about an approaching weather front and had requested all the business class passengers to go as far back in the plane as possible, just for the next hour or so. More champagne would be served to make this move palatable. The First Class passengers from upstairs would be joining the others. Edith opened her eyes a slit and saw that the men were wearing what appeared to be uniforms, but she had some doubts: there was something about the cut of the jackets that looked not very French. Having spent quite a lot of her working life as a buyer for one of the better clothing stores, Edith fancied she had an eye for cut and line, and these uniforms just didn't measure up.
People began collecting their bags and books and slipping shoes on. Very quickly the dozen or so people in Business Class were herded into steerage, leaving only the two old ladies. Shuffling noises and a few thumps overhead announced the emptying of the First Class section as well. About twenty people came down the stairs, clearly feeling cheated of the luxury they had paid through both nostrils for.
Edith heard Cecile say to the men "Oh, but the old ladies are so frail, and one has a brace on her leg, she cannot walk well." Edith almost snorted at that: Solange was pretty nippy on her pins despite the brace, and could probably walk many people half her age to exhaustion. Still, remaining where they were seemed to be part of Solange's plan, so if Cecile could arrange it, so much the better.
Solange's head seemed to slide against Edith's in her sleep, but it did not feel at all limp and relaxed, it had the feel of a coiled snake. Edith twined her fingers together and tried to remember some sort of useful prayer. All that came to mind was "Now I lay me", and that didn't seem in the least appropriate.
The curtains to the galley moved and one of the strange men came out. Edith felt rather than saw him standing over her. He moved away and Edith cracked one eye open. She saw him take a seat on the opposite side, two rows up. From her vantage point on the aisle, Solange peered through her tousled hair and saw the man pull something from his pocket and hunch over, looking intently at whatever it was. There probably wasn't going to be a better opportunity than now, and with a swiftness that startled Edith, Solange was out of her seat and in two strides was behind the man. There was the softest of noises and a sharp click. Solange pushed the button on the chair arm and reclined it halfway, pulling the man back as she did so.
Quickly regaining her place beside Edith, Solange said "Tell me if you can do this thing I am going to ask. You are taller than I, it would be better for you to do it, but if you cannot, say so. If I get the other man to come out, can you hit him, very, very hard, on the back of the head with the champagne bottle? Remember, if we do not take what chance we can now, likely there will be no better time. Recall the brave people on Flight 93, and say to yourself that the first chance may be the last chance. Can you do it?"
From some reservoir she had been unaware of, determination flooded Edith. She nodded, unwilling to trust her voice not to be too loud. She grasped the champagne bottle by the neck and stood where Solange pointed, just around the corner from the curtained galley.
Hyperventilating for a moment, Solange went to the curtain, pushed it aside, and gasped, "Quick, quick, something is wrong with your companion, his heart, I think!" The second stranger arrested his hand halfway to something inside his jacket and made as if to pick up the intercom telephone. Solange grabbed his hand and tugged, "Oh, please, come, he has become a very unhealthy colour, and I do not know the, what do you call it, first help?"
The stranger pushed Cecile and the other attendant aside and threw open the curtain all the way. Solange backed unsteadily up the aisle, wringing her hands and making little noises as if having an asthma attack. The stranger stepped into the aisle and into Edith's champagne bottle. The first blow was a bit off target, but not for nothing had Edith Cotton once been the scourge of the hockey field. She laid into the staggering man with three good blows, and with some satisfaction saw him crumple at her feet.
"Get his belt off, hurry!" Solange said, unable to get down on her knees easily. She hissed at Cecile, "Quick have you some tape or bandages or anything?"
Edith yanked off the man's belt and whipped around his legs just over the knee and fastened in. Cecile, still stunned, opened a drawer and held out a first aid kit which had a large roll of plastic bandaging. Solange snatched a handful of paper towels fro the counter and wadding them up, bent over and stuffed them into the gasping man's mouth. She ripped pieces of the plastic tape off and passed them to Edith, who slapped them over the swarthy skin to hold the gag in place.
"Quick, something to tie his hands!" Solange snapped. The other flight attendant seemed to come out of a trance, and grabbed a knife from a drawer. With a few slashes, she had hacked a strip of lining out of the galley curtain and knelt down beside Edith. The man was soon trussed like a turkey.
"We must hide him: where?" Solange demanded.
"There's a bulkhead cupboard, in the front," Cecile said, hurrying towards the nose of the aircraft. "If we push him in head first, we can fold him up and latch the doors." This was more easily said than done, but with three of them working at it, the second man was stowed away.
"Won't he kick and make noise?" Edith said, setting her glasses straight and heaving a sigh of relief.
"It may not matter if he does," said Solange cryptically. "Now, Cecile, do you know how many more men there are? And where they are?"
"There are two more and both are upstairs," said the other flight attendant. "They speak Catalan, but I pretended I didn't understand when these two were speaking to one of the others on the intercom. They spoke of their brothers, but I do not think that means real brothers. At least two of them are from Barcelona. I don't know what they are planning, but it has something to do with Rome."
"I shudder to think," said Edith. "If these people are hijackers, and they're looking to make some sort of political statement--ugh, it doesn’t bear thinking about."
"How far are we from Rome now?" Solange asked.
"Another hour at least."
Edith looked at the first man, still slumped in his chair. "Shouldn't we tie him up too? We don't want him suddenly waking up and tipping off the men upstairs."
Solange gave a short barking laugh. "I will swim la Manche naked if that one wakes again!"
Edith was about to say something when the plane lurched to one side. "Mira, get these ladies buckled up," Celeste said, her training taking over. She stepped to the intercom and announced to those in the Economy section that some rough weather was ahead and that everyone should remain seated and await the captain's further announcement. "There," she said, taking the seat opposite Solange, "the men upstairs will think I have been told to say that by the men down here. They will suspect nothing."
"But sooner or later they will wish to speak to their comrades" said Solange "We must have a plan for that time. If one of the hijackers calls, you answer it, Cecile. Say there has been trouble at the back of the plane and the two men have gone to make things quiet. One of them will probably come down here to see what is happening. We must be ready for that. I need some fine wire, or thin tough string."
The four women looked at each other. Mira patted her pockets, as if expecting to find what Solange had requested. Suddenly, Edith clapped her hands. "Wait, wait, " she cried, dragging her large handbag onto her lap from the floor. Unzipping four different pockets, she finally found a square white envelope. "Voila!" she said, passing it to Solange. "My granddaughter asked me to get her some guitar strings, and I did, but I forgot to give them to her."
Solange threw off her seat belt and scuttled across to the stairs that led to the upper deck. There were several small panels of fretwork in the padded balustrade, and it was easy enough to fasten the guitar string to one side and lead it across the stairway to the other side. The extreme curvature of the stair sides formed a semi-circular space where someone could hide. It was a tight fit, and it was clearly not possible for Solange with her leg brace to crouch there.
"I am afraid, chere amie, you must again be the booby," Solange said to Edith. "The attendants must be where he will see them, in the galley, looking normal. As far as those upstairs know, all the business class people are now in the back of the plane. So you must hide here, like the little rabbit, and wait until you hear the feet on the stairs. Then pull the cord, and the fox will fall into the trap."
"Suppose I don't hear him, or I pull too soon or too late?"
"I will be standing just over there, just out of the line of the eye for anyone on the stairs. When I think it is just the right moment, I will wave, like this, and you will pull the cord, and all will go as we wish it to," Solange said, looking as if she were enjoying herself.
With many misgivings, but having no better suggestions, Edith crouched behind the curve of the stair well and wrapped the loose end of the guitar string around her hand, having padded it with a napkin first.
After what seemed an age, the intercom buzzed. Mira answered it, and spoke the lines she had been given. When she hung up, she said softly, "Someone will come down very soon." She turned to the counter and pretended to be busy making coffee. Cecile busied herself putting tiny cakes on a plate on the trolley, which she stationed in the aisle, effectively blocking the right-hand corridor to the economy class section.
Feet appeared on the stairs and stopped on the fifth one from the bottom. A man bent his head and peered at Cecile. "What are you doing?"
"The other men told me to prepare food, to keep the passengers happy. They are back there," she said, nodding her head towards the curtain that divided Business from Economy. "Somebody was ill, making a lot of noise."
The head withdrew and the feet came rapidly down the staircase. Edith, eyes fixed on Solange, yanked the guitar string taut when the signal came, and was delighted to see the third hijacker fold up like a cheap deck chair. Mira was on him in a flash, the remains of the plastic bandaging tape at the ready. By the time the man realised what was happening and began to fight back, his hands were tied behind him and his gag was secure.
"What do we do now?" Mira panted, her pristine chignon beginning to come adrift.
"Take off his shoes and socks and bring him up here," Solange ordered from the space at the front of the plane. With the persuasion of the galley knife, Mira and Cecile got the man where Solange ordered. She was fiddling with another two of the guitar strings. The man's eyes got very wide and his muffled roars would have become louder if Mira's gentle poke with the knife hadn't made him think better of it.
"Put him on his stomach, bend the knees back, and put this loop over one of the great toes. Then loop it around his neck and tie it to the other great toe." Solange ordered. The attendants looked puzzled, but fumblingly followed the old lady's directions. When they had done the job, they could see how effective it was. The man was effectively trussed, and if he struggled, would garotte himself.
"Let me guess, you learned this in the Girl Guides?" asked Edith, coming to sit on the arm of a chair to observe the operation.
"We did not have your Guides, but I did have an old fisherman friend, a sort of uncle, who taught me many useful knots," Solange said.
"Right, Miss Clever Boots, now what do we do? Presumably, the fourth man is in the cockpit, forcing the pilot to fly somewhere. How do you propose to get us in there?
"Mira will take a tray of coffee. She will say that this man is staying down to help his comrades--one of the passengers has gone berserk, perhaps. Anyway, Mira will say that she was told to bring coffee. When she is in the cockpit, she will pour the coffee in the hijacker's lap and get quickly out of the way. You, Edith, will have this gun." Solange went to the first hijacker and removed a large nasty black gun from inside his jacket and released the clip. She handed it to her friend. "It's safer without any ammunition in it."
Edith held the gun at arm's length as if expecting it to do something all by itself. "And with this empty gun I'm going to do what?"
"Just look dangerous. We need to have a minute to assess the situation, and to do that , we must be in the cockpit. Such a silly name, I have always thought."
"It's asking a lot of Mira, don't you think?" Edith said.
"It has to be one of the attendants. Only one of them will know if the man in the cockpit is a legitimate pilot or one of the hijackers. And they will cause less suspicion, they are part of the furniture of an airplane." Solange said, then, realising what she had said, finished with "Pardon, mes petites."
"If the man in the cockpit isn't the real pilot, then he'll be somewhere else on the upper deck. What do you suggest, that we get him in a football tackle?" Edith thought Solange's plan had holes you could drive a truck through.
"Edith, we are now only half an hour from Rome. If even one hijacker is left up there, he will be able to carry out their plans. If these men are indeed Basque separatists, ask yourself why they might be wanting to go to Rome."
Edith looked blank for a moment. Then a wave of horror passed over her soft wrinkles. "The Pope's speech, last week, when he condemned terrorists and said he was going to place any Christian nation that harbored them under interdict. My God, you think we're headed for the Vatican, don't you!"
"I think the Holy Father put his life on the line with that speech, and I think these men intend to make him pay up. So you see, if we don't try my plan, however thin you may think it is, we will not have time to think of another one."
With a feeling of inevitability, Edith tucked the ugly gun into her armpit under the fuzzy blue sweater that had been a Christmas present, could it only have been a week ago? Cecile was left with the knife and told to use it freely if the prisoner looked like escaping his bonds.
While Mira was preparing the coffee tray, Solange thought of a few more embroideries for the thread-bare plot.
Following Mira, the two old ladies mounted the stairs to the upper deck. No hail of bullets greeted them. Mira went to the cockpit door and tapped. The peephole opened, and after a moment, the door. A large man in a Franco-Anglic uniform stood there, sweating profusely.
"Oh, Frank, I've brought coffee for you all," Mira said. "The man downstairs, the one from head office, told me to bring it up now the weather is smooth for a while. And these two ladies, they're guests of the Director. He promised they'd be able to have a look at the cockpit. Ladies, Frank is our engineer and communications officer, a very important person on the airplane."
Solange and Edith fluttered into the cockpit in Mira's wake, making appreciative twitterings and sounding for all the world like a couple of harmless old things who shouldn't be out without a keeper.
The pilot didn't look around, but Edith caught sight of a grim face in the reflection of a glass-fronted instrument. She was ready when Mira dumped the coffee and the pilot screamed and tore off his harness and leaped to his feet, crawling over his seat to reach a place where he could stand. Edith pulled out the gun and held it as she'd seen Diana Rigg do once in a film. She tried to look dangerous, but probably only succeeded in looking demented, she thought with a grim inner chuckle.
Mira stepped back, the phony pilot lunged towards Edith, and Solange stepped in faster than a ferret in a rabbit's nest. There was a tiny snicking sound and the pilot stopped, made a peculiar gagging noise, and fell in a heap.
Left to its own devices, the plane began obeying the laws of gravity. "Where's the real pilot? And the co-pilot?" Edith demanded of the communications officer, who had stood watching the recent events as if they were some sort of street theatre.
Not waiting for him to answer, she clambered over the fallen hijacker and into his seat. She put her hands on the yoke and drew it back with infinite care. The plane began to stop falling and eventually levelled out, although with one wing higher than the other.
Frank said," I don't know where they are, this guy's friend took them out."
"Probably locked in a toilet," Solange suggested. "Frank, go and look."
Looking bemused, Frank left the cockpit. Solange sat in his seat and said to Edith, "Can you keep this monstrous thing in the air for a while?"
"Well, it's not a C-47, but it must have some of the same controls. Let me see, what about I try this?" Edith did something with some switches and the plane's right wing dipped a bit. With a bit of fiddling around, she managed to keep it more or less level.
Frank came back leading a rather bedraggled man in a rumpled uniform. "Captain's alive but out cold, copilot's not much better. Any more of that coffee, Mira? It might help."
"Frank, you call someone and tell them what's been happening," Edith said over her shoulder. "Put that co-pilot in the other seat and get him some oxygen, I can keep this thing level and aloft, but I don't want to find out how to land it."
The rest of the hour Edith preferred not to think about. With a heroic effort, the copilot recovered enough to land the plane safely, if a bit raggedly, at a rural Italian airport.
Enough carabinieri to people an operetta turned up within a few minutes of the plane's landing, followed by the French Ambassador, the English Ambassador and any of the world's press who happened to be within a day's drive of Rome. . Somehow in all the confusion, the spring-loaded stiletto vanished, or so Solange insisted. It took three days of interviews and red tape before Edith and Solange were on their way again to their much-interrupted holiday
The media was overflowing with amazed reports about the two old ladies, one a heroine of the French Resistance, the other a former airplane ferry pilot, both from a war so old few were left who remembered it. But since the flight attendants were younger, better looking, and far more willing to talk, Mira and Cecile eventually got the lion's share of the publicity. This suited Solange and Edith, who couldn't wait to leave Rome.
Neither was that keen to fly again, but they were determined not to be cheated out of their once in a lifetime trip. Solange wanted to sleep, but Edith kept waking her by reading some of the more outrageous news stories of their adventures. "Listen to this, here's an interview with Cecile where she says she knew it would be all right when she learned the old ladies were DGSE agents. Where could she have got such an idea?" Solange pulled her lap robe over her head and refused comment.
Later, ensconced on the verandah of the best hotel in Mauritius, a pair of tall tropical drinks in their hands, the old friends were finally able to relax. For a long time they talked of trivia, then Edith said, "After all these years, I finally know what you did in the war, Solange. You killed people, with that stiletto thing."
The ghost of something hovered in the dark brown eyes. " All right, I was an assassin, are you now happy?"
Edith, faced with the truth she had often wondered about, was appalled. "It's not the sort of thing one can be happy about, is it? You needn't feel ashamed about it, there can't be anyone who would blame you for having killed Germans. It was war, they were the invaders."
"Germans? No, ma chere, not Germans. Anybody with a bit of courage could kill Germans. But it took a specialist to handle the other ones, the collaborators, with their sneaking and tale-bearing, undermining the Resistance. It was my own people I killed."
There seemed no possible response to this. Edith reached out and grasped the frail bird-bone hand with her own. They sat in silence as the sun hissed down into darkness.
© 2002 Karen Treanor