Long Way to Thunder Bay – excerpt from novel by SRB Johnston

This is the draft first chapter of my novel, Long Way to Thunder Bay, the story of a Canadian pilot shot down over France.  The finished novel will be available in electronic format later this year.

 

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April 28th 1943

“Brace positions for belly flop.” The voice on the intercom was mine.  I wrestled the Whitley level at 200 feet.  Trees, fields, hedges flashed past.  I glided her towards a pasture.  The white blurs of scattering sheep.  I gripped the control; hoped it didn’t shear off.  Guess we hit at 110mph.  The port wing bludgeoned rock and sheared off.  An engine ricocheted back through the fuselage, a cannonball through newspaper.  We spun and jolted.  My head butted the control panel.  I imagined Pam’s voice telling me get out. I came round fast.  We juddered to a stop.  Bird wasn’t burning.  Not yet anyways.

I looked at Busby beside me.  He was crumpled forward.  Side of his head looked like sliced blackberry pie.  I retched and pushed him back in his seat.  Someone was kicking a hatch.  I unbuckled and scrambled outside.  Still no flames.  Drizzle and low cloud.  Visibility three hundred yards.  I jerked my Mae West off and looked around.  Donaldson crouched on the grass fingering his arm real soft.

“Harrison and Caruthers didn’t make it, skip.”  He said.

“Busby neither.  Tracer shell.  Musta been dead twenty minutes. I never even noticed.  What about the package?”

“Wasn’t moving.  He’s at the stern.”

“Can you walk?”

“Yes.  But I’ve broken my arm I think.  Bloody hurts.”

“Sit tight. I‘ll get ready to torch her.  Shout if anyone approaches.  And don’t light no smokes.”

I climbed back through the hatch.  The package slumped over the tail fin cables.   Blood ran from his ears mouth.  No pulse.  Wing and engine debris strewn throughout the fuselage.  Must have killed Harrison too.  Caruthers sprawled further forward, skull sliced open by one of the props.  I vomited and wiped my mouth.   I grabbed the package’s chute harness and pulled him towards the cockpit.  I took off my flying jacket and overalls.  I removed his suit and rolled him into my uniform.  His pants, shirt and jacket felt real tight but they’d do.  His wristwatch was French.  We traded.  He didn’t complain.  I shuffled him into the pilot’s seat.  I never even knew his real name, though I guess he was French.  His valise was inside webbing by the hatch.  I slung it outside.  I primed two phosphorus flares and climbed out.

“Good grief.  Didn’t take you long to go native.  You’ve only been in France five minutes and you look like a bloody Frog already.  With respect, sir.” Donaldson said.

“That’s the whole idea.  We’re getting through this. So, on your feet Flight Sergeant.  Head for that copse and keep moving south.  I’ll catch you up.  Germans may not have heard us yet, but they’ll come when she blows alright.”

Back aboard I took the axe to the supply canisters.  I snatched a Browning pistol, a Lee Enfield rifle and two hand grenades.  I stuffed ammunition into my jacket.  A final glance and I jumped out.  I threw one flare in the cockpit and one in the hold.  I jammed a slice of chute silk in the fuel nozzle.  I lit it and sprinted towards the trees.  The world turned orange.

Donaldson was leaning against a birch, arm dangling.  “What now, sir?  The Germans must hear that.”  In the guts of the inferno, bullets cracked and grenades exploded.

I grinned.  “You don’t say.” I handed him the Browning.  “Okay, let’s go.”

A stream ran downhill from the pasture.  We followed it.  I listened for vehicles.  Only noise came from the burning plane half a mile behind.

I pulled up. “Damn. I ain’t thinking. Too obvious.”

“What is sir?”

“Following the stream downhill.  First place they’ll send the dogs.”  The trees thickened and climbed to the left. I turned that way.  Drizzle seeped through the spring canopy.  I followed my compass south until we reached a stone wall.  We crouched.  Over the wall a farm track ran north.

I turned to the navigator.  “How’s the arm?”

“Hurts like hell.”

I pulled up Donaldson’s sleeve.  He gasped and looked away.  The arm was broken, with a deep gash for extras.  I bound it with his scarf and sloshed iodine from his evader’s kit.

“What direction do you reckon we’re headed sir?”

“South.  I made our position 30 miles south of Reims.  Agreed?”

“Give or take sir.  I became a bit distracted during the last few minutes….”

“Yeah. Then it’s about 170 miles to the Swiss border.  Two week’s walk east.  I know I can make it.  But without stitches and proper care your wound will turn septic, maybe gangrenous.   And without a proper cast you ain’t gonna be playing much more tennis.  It’s your choice.”

“What choice, Skipper?”

“Look, time is against us. I’m gonna spell it out.  Either you lose your freedom or your arm.  If you get medical help, chances are you’ll become a POW.  It’s Tommy Dykes, my friend.”

“What?  Who’s that?”

“Never mind. I’ll tell you when we meet up after it’s over.”

“Oh, okay.  Sir, is it true most of the Frogs are on our side; that they’ll help?”

“A friendly farmer might take you to a doctor and pass you to the Resistance.  It ain’t a cert.  But it might work out.  It’s your call.”

“And my other choice is to walk 170 miles with a broken arm while a life-threatening infection sets in?”  He stared at his wound.  He grimaced when he moved the arm. “With my luck I’ll probably lose my arm and get captured.”

I nodded and peeked over the wall.  “Look, I ain’t ordering you what to do. But you need to decide.  Here, have a smoke and think it over.  There’s gotta be a farmhouse up the track where you can find help.  Maybe the local resistance chief himself lives there.”

Donaldson drew on his cigarette.  “I don’t think I can make a 14 day hike Skipper.  I feel like shit as it is.  Besides, I was thinking of taking up tennis after the war.” He tried to smile, but a tear ran through the grime on his face.  I patted him on the shoulder.

“Okay Flight Sergeant.  I think you made the right decision.  Remind the damn Krauts they have to treat you according to the Geneva Convention.  When I get out I’ll get the Red Cross to check on you.  If you’re captured I mean.  Your family’s in Colchister?  I’ll get word to them.”

“Colchester, sir.” Donaldson wiped his face.  “Permission to ask you something?”

“Make it quick.  And give me your kit for a minute.”

“Why did you change clothes with that agent?  Won’t the Germans shoot you as a spy if they capture you?”

“I ain’t going to be captured. I got other plans.”  I opened his evader’s kit and pocketed his fishing hook, catgut and a needle.

“What makes you so sure sir?”

“Because Captain John McKinley, Royal Canadian Air Force just died in that plane wreck.  I ain’t wearing this suit to go to a wedding.  See, I put my dog tags and uniform on the package.  So nobody is going to be looking for me.”  I pointed at him. “Unless you tell them different.”

He looked aggrieved. “You can rely on me to keep mum, skipper.”

“Good man.  You get these wounds tended, you hear?”

We stood up and shook hands.  I watched as he lurched up the track.  He grew blurred then the drizzle swallowed him.  He was an okay kid.  I felt a little bad for nudging him towards captivity.  But without him my chances of escape were double, maybe more.

I set a course south.  Low cloud and mist closed in.  Good escape weather.  Pasture dotted with woods.  I ran from one tree clump to the next.  I crawled along ditches and stooped beside low walls across open ground.  My knees got cut, thistles pricked my hands.  Only creatures that saw me had four legs and udders.  This was supposed to be champagne country, but I saw no vines.  Near midday I reached a stone shelter and slipped inside.  An empty wine bottle and greaseproof paper sat on a bench. The paper still smelled cheesy.  My stomach rumbled.  I took a biscuit from my escape kit and ate it.  Last proper meal I had was in the officers’ mess in Norfolk eighteen hours ago.  Ham, eggs, and toast, heavy on the lard.  Anyways, I sicked that up back on the Whitley.  I deserved a biscuit or two.

After my feast I couldn’t stop yawning.  I wanted to stretch out on the floor, sheltered from the drizzle.  But the Germans would be searching barns, huts and cow herd cabins.  I had to get further from the plane wreck.  I gathered up my equipment.  I was humping too much: a rifle, a sub-machine gun and a damn suitcase.  I cracked the lock on the valise.  Undergarments, toiletries, shirts, a bible, a pair of pants.  Beneath them, a pistol, ammunition and a silencer.  And more cash than I’d ever seen in my 28 years.

I checked I left nothing in the cabin and set off.  After twenty minutes I came to an outcrop of boulders.  The rifle and Sten fit into a crack in the rocks.  Dumping them felt bad, but hell, I couldn’t fight off the whole German Army anyways.  I dumped the ammo but kept the grenades.  In the valise I stashed the cash and the silenced Baretta. I added the agent’s identity papers, some clothes, pistol ammo and my evader’s kit.  I leafed the bible.  I heard my father’s voice yelling.  A memory of John Senior taking off his belt after I once dropped my bible.  Must have been when we lived at Dannemora.  He was a tough guy alright-real good at hitting kids.  One thing though- Senior had never been stuck hundreds of miles behind enemy lines.  I opened the bible.  I didn’t read French that good anyhow.  I stowed the bible with the guns.  I crammed some sticks and dirt in the hole.  I felt a whole lot better.  Who needed God’s word when he had a loaded pistol and more cash than the Bank of Canada?

My wants were not spiritual anyways; I needed food and shelter.  The clouds were lifting and I could see further.  Course, that meant I could also be seen easier.  A mile ahead, limestone cliffs jutted above the treetops.  Looked like the top of a salad sandwich, like Pam used to pack me for lunch.  There had to be a cave, or better, an overhang.  I reached the edge of the trees.  The cliffs leaned inwards at the foot and left a sheltered mossy bank long enough to lie on.  The moss was dry enough.  Problem was, someone could approach through the trees.  Boxed in by the cliffs behind, I’d only sense them last moment.  But I needed rest.  I looked round a final time.  I took the safety off, clutched the pistol, lay down and closed my eyes.

I woke shivering at 4am.  I’d slept near ten hours.  Apart from a rumbling stomach I felt pretty good.  I jumped around to get the blood flowing.  A small animal – a fox or deer I guess- bounded away through the trees.  My evader’s kit contained 24 tablets of Horlick’s chocolate drink.  The Limeys were crazy about the damn stuff.  Time I found out what the hoopla was about.  I collected some kindling and found a concealed spot behind some rocks.  I boiled up my canteen.  Had to wait 20 minutes before I could pick the damn thing up.  Even then I had to wrap it in dock leaves.  Guess I had a lot to learn.  Where was a Boy Scout when you needed one?  I threw in three tablets, shook it round and downed a pint of the malty drink in four gulps.  These Limeys weren’t so dumb after all.  When the sky lightened at 5, I was ready.  Then I remembered the old military motto- ‘time spent planning is rarely wasted’.  Damn right.  I sat down on the moss, lit a cigarette and started thinking.

That’s when it kinda hit me.  I was on my own.  Yesterday I was having breakfast in an officer’s mess in England, yards from a warm bed.  Few hours later, a night fighter came out of nowhere and strafed us.  Now I faced death, incarceration, starvation, desperation and a whole lot of other bad words ending in –ion.  I laughed.   I could easily have died in the plane crash; four out of the six aboard had.  After that I wasn’t about to surrender to the enemy or the elements.  I’d been given a second chance.  Maybe it was God, maybe it was dumb luck.  Maybe it was for the kids Pam and I were planning to have some day.  Whatever, I didn’t feel scared.  I had money and I spoke some French.  I could fight off a few Germans with my pistol and grenades.  If a truck load came I’d surrender and spend the rest of the war in a POW camp.  Big deal- Red Cross parcels, sports and sing songs.  As long as they didn’t send me to a Frog prison, course.  Now, that would change things.

I stood up. Any internal injury would have shown up by now.  I was in good shape, used to walking.  This was the strangest damn thing.  RAF warned us we might feel afraid, isolated, hopeless, lonely and defeated.  We were supposed to fight it.  But I had nothing to fight.  Maybe all that would come later.  I kinda felt relieved I got shot down, like a weight was lifted.  Felt like I could think straight again.  I felt free.  I cleared my mind.  Course, could be I had a kind of delusional euphoria from the shock of everything.  Maybes I was just plain confused.  Delusional euphoria-I was proud of that one.  Yeah, that had to be it.  Caruthers had his head near cleaved off.  Busby took a tracer bullet in the kisser, three feet from me.  But I walked away untouched.  Didn’t seem fair, but that’s how it was.

I was looking for a path up the bluff when I heard a faint droning.  I stamped on the embers of the fire then pissed on them for good measure.  I pressed against a tree trunk and looked up.  A Fieseler Storch spotter plane was flying at 1,000 feet.  I’d never seen one but recognised it from our ID manual.  Maybe they saw my damn smoke.  I glanced at the fire but could hardly see any smoke from twenty feet.  If the plane circled, I’d know better.  I held my breath as it banked to turn.  It drifted east and soon became hidden by the trees.  My trembling hand told me my damn delusional euphoria was wearing off fast.  I needed to get moving.

As I scrambled up the bluff I thought about Donaldson.  We’d parted 24 hours ago.  He could have been captured and interrogated already.  He could have let something slip about me.  I’d only flown three ops with him; not really enough to know him. But he didn’t strike me as the Gary Cooper type. The Krauts weren’t known for their warm welcome to Allied fliers neither.  Plus he had given up pretty easy back at that wall.  Maybe I was being mean.  He was wounded, in shock and only a kid.  Hell, there was no way of knowing.  Maybe he’d keep quiet about me.  I looked up.  Aside of a buzzard, the sky was empty again. That spotter plane was maybe flying a routine op or looking for something else.  But somehow I doubted it.

Crouched under a larch tree, I scoped the land.  About 10 miles south I saw spires and larger buildings.  The map on my silk scarf made it Vitry-Le-Francois or Troyes.  But like Donaldson, I’d kinda lost interest in our position when we were coming down.  Speed, height, plain and terrain were all that mattered.  Plenty of time to worry about position after you walked away.  We could have crashed fifteen miles off course in any direction.  But I was in champagne country-I now saw vineyards stretching to town.  I could even make out the black dots of workers bent over the vines.  Beyond them, the telegraph poles of a main road or a railway line.  The countryside was pretty open with few houses.  I looked at the map on my scarf again.  I sure hoped Donaldson bought my line about Switzerland.  Because that little lie was my insurance policy.  Germans had the Swiss frontier tied up tight. And I’d heard talk that the Swiss treated our fliers pretty bad.  Smiled at them then marched them straight to the nearest camp.  Guy talked to us that made it back went through Spain.  And if he could do it, so could I.

The RAF evader’s kit contained enough food and basics for 48 hours, maybe 72.  It was supposed to last until you found help.  But I wasn’t looking for help.  Not that I didn’t need it.  Only I was used to going it alone.  Being a Yank living in a small goddamn Canadian town taught me that.   Plus, if I met a farmer and told him who I was, my life would be in his hands.  If he took me to someone else, my life would pass to their hands.  And so it would go until someone in that chain made a bad call.  Maybe get tempted by the reward money for a fugitive.  The more folks knew who I really was, the more tongues could give me away.  Back in Canada I didn’t know many folks from the French community.  Never even went to Quebec.  But I’d heard plenty about them.  Of course I know all about gossip, bar talk and how stories get exaggerated.  But the plain fact was that the French Canadians had a reputation.  They blabbed too much.  They looked after one another, kept to themselves.  They were none too friendly with outsiders.  In business they were untrustworthy.  You went drinking with one to discuss a deal, he’d turn on you.  Now I didn’t really know if all of this was true.  But if the French in France were like their Canadian cousins then they were best avoided.  That’s how I saw it and that’s how I’d play it.

Soon as I made this decision, my stomach gurgled again. It would be tough to eat without dealing with the locals.  Spain was say 450 miles south.  Ten miles a day meant 6 weeks walking.  How could I avoid contact with the French?  It was dumb to make big decisions before I knew the situation.  There would be days of hiding up, others when I might be too weak to walk.  I’d need to detours round dangerous towns or bases, rivers and mountains.  I was going to need minimum two months-until the beginning of July.  Trains, buses even a bicycle could cut that time to a fraction.  But transportation meant German controls.  The identity card I took from the agent was useless.  He’d been short, dark and born in 1898.  No tall, fair 28 year old was ever going to pass for him.  At least I could use his name -Alphonse Robert.  Course I knew it wasn’t his real name, but it had a ring to it I kinda liked.  Anyways, I’d kinda changed my name once before.  There was nothing to it long as nobody knew you.  So, right there on a hill in the Champagne country on April 29, 1943 at 6.35am, RCAF Captain John McKinley became Monsieur Alphonse Robert, travelling salesman.  In England before we boarded I’d shaken hands with Alphonse.  I flashed him the smile I rehearsed for all the packages.  Figured if I had to jump into enemy territory I’d want a pilot who seemed confident, like he was just doing another mail run.  Alphonse didn’t smile back or say a word.  He gave no sign how he felt, what kind of man he was.  That wasn’t so unusual.  But  he already left me his clothes, equipment and wristwatch.  I guessed he wouldn’t mind if I borrowed his name too.  Wasn’t much use to him now anyways.

I followed a trail down from the escarpment and weaved south.  Something crunched below my boot.  Felt like a piece of gum from the sidewalk outside Penny’s.  On the stony ground I counted nine snails.  They had yellow and brown shells and seemed larger than the Canadian variety. I gathered them into my pocket.   I found a grassy spot in the trees just before the vines began and sat down in the shade.  The sun felt mighty warm for late April and I removed my jacket and fished out my brandy flask.  With my penknife I teased a snail from his shell.  I gave him a ten minute brandy bath in my flask cup.  He stopped wriggling pretty quick.  I popped him in my mouth.  My first ever snail was chewy, gooey and earthy.  l polished off the other eight in double time.  The French probably boiled them, but even raw they were alright.  I could eat these every day.  Hell, maybe I’d have to.

During lunch I kept an eye on the vineyard.  Two Frogs were tending the vines about half a mile distant.  They’d barely moved.  They must have been paid by the hour.  Anyways, they seemed not to be heading my way.  If they knocked off around 5pm, maybe I’d make a move.  I stretched out on the grass and closed my eyes.

 

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Pam would be beginning her shift at the Canadian Car and Foundry in a couple of hours.  Who’d have thought she’d ever become a riveter on the fighter plane assembly line?  I smiled.  It was kinda her fault I was here.  When she began work there in ’41 I was still a spray painter at Pete’s Automotive.  There ain’t that many stories in a place like Fort William, Ontario.  Guy catches a 10lb salmon in Thunder Bay and he’s front page.  When Pam started work at the CCF she was the first female on the shop floor.  Chronicle front page two days running. Pam in a headscarf, Pam holding a jackhammer.  Carole Lombard smile and a thumbs- up. My very own Rosie the Riveter, like the one in that poster.  Caused a stir with the old timers and the union, but management argued there was a war on.  They were right.  Anyway, turned out my wife was a story.  One day when I was off I went up there to check her out.  Wanted to let her co-workers know she had a husband looking out for her.  Seemed the fighter planes she helped assemble were wheeled straight to the flying school the Brits had just set up next door.  No disrespect to Pam, but that got my attention more than the fact she was the one hammering them together.

My next day off I spent the whole afternoon at the flying school.   Commanding officer was happy to have a ‘potential volunteer’ shown around.  I was transfixed by the Hurricanes and Spitfires.  Vapour trails scarred the blue Ontario sky, engine thunder shook the ground.  Planes would roar in from Lake Superior at 20 feet, pulling over the trees at the last second.  The flyboys were just trainees, but hell, they carried themselves like officers.  “Afternoon sir, enjoying the show sir, thinking of joining us sir,” they’d say as they marched past.  Half the kids didn’t even shave yet.  I’d seen some of them around town. Only left school a year past.  Snot nosed pimple faces that didn’t even smoke.  Hell, they couldn’t have kissed a girl right if their lives depended on it.  But now they were trainee fighter pilots in the Royal Canadian Air Force.  Now they were somebody.

Pam said no.  I had a steady job.  Why volunteer when I might be called up anyhow?  Besides, weren’t we planning a family?  She’d lose her job when she fell pregnant.  How would she fill her days if I was away?  And why would they allow an American in the Canadian Air Force?   If the worst happened, wouldn’t I be safer in the navy?  I pleaded.  Patching up tractors and pickup trucks was driving me crazy.  Fort William was driving me crazier.  I was bored reading about kids stealing empty coke bottles from outside Penny’s pharmacy.  If I didn’t like fishing and hockey I’d have been an alcoholic brawler by now.  Like her brothers.  She was doing her bit, why couldn’t I?   And my check would be better.  She could open a savings account.  I tried.  But Pam didn’t buy it.

So I took another approach. Hitler had to be stopped, man was a maniac.  I couldn’t leave that to the kids who were stealing coke bottles only last summer.  Pam just glared.  I played my ace.  I didn’t want to be considered a coward.  How would Pam feel if she heard whispers her husband was yellow?  Fort William folks were pretty quick to judge others I said, especially outsiders.  She already knew that better than me.

Pam called me a stubborn S.O.B. who could see no further than the end of his large nose.  I never heard her say S.O.B. before that night.  Maybe she picked up that kinda talk at the CCF.  She never before said I had a big nose either, for that matter.  She was pissed alright.  By the time I served notice to Pete I guess she’d accepted my decision.  But I still believe a part of her never forgave me.  I could have told her that if she hadn’t started work at the CCF, I’d never have spent the afternoon at the damn Number 2 Elementary Flying Training School.  Seen like that, it was kinda her fault I got the flying bug in the first place.  But Pam wouldn’t have bought it.  Tough she might be, but gullible she ain’t.  Anyways, I’d make it up to her when I got home.  Not apologise exactly, but treat her with a little more respect.  Maybe try to listen to her a little more.  Pam was a good woman.  Even if, like I say, this whole deal was kinda her fault in the first place.

When I woke up the vineyard was in shade and the air was crisp.  From the first row of vines a buck hare stared at me.  Damned if he wasn’t close enough to shoot with my pistol.  I reached for the valise to get the silencer.  Soon as I moved Bugs Bunny bolted faster than a squirrel up a pine tree.  I laughed and saluted him.  After only two hours on the pistol range in January, I was ten to one against hitting him anyways.  Hell, I didn’t know a whole lot about skinning rabbits or hares anyhow.  But they were surely good eating for a man living off the land.  I had to learn quick or I’d starve.  That’s how I saw it and that’s how I’d play it.

Cloud hid the moon as I walked through the vineyard.  The workers had gone home to hot meals, soft beds and warm wives.  Out here it was just the owls, mice, foxes and me.  The town was maybe 7 miles south west.  By skirting it to the south east I should cover ten miles by sunrise.  Soon as I finished my calculations, fat raindrops began plopping onto the chalky soil.  Ahead, a stone shelter stood among the vines.  I ran forward, my damp clothes heavy.  The cabin was windowless so I lit the candle jammed into a wine bottle.  Rain battered on the tiled roof and poured from the gutter into a barrel by the door.  I thought I heard a volley of distant gunshots.  Nah, just rain dripping.  A pile of logs and vine cuttings sat beside a fireplace.  Could I risk a fire?  Nobody would be out in this weather.  I turned on the tap above a stone sink.  I drank and filled my canteen.  From the doorway I checked the vicinity.  I could only see thirty yards now the moon was clouded out.  The rain fell even heavier and my breath came in plumes.  What the hell, I didn’t need to freeze to death.  I closed the door and began stacking a fire.

I put my feet on a stool and gulped down some ‘Horlick’s’.  The cabin glowed in the firelight.  Through the crack in the door I watched the rain bouncing from the ground.  The door flew open.  A German soldier strode in.  His rifle pointed at my feet.  Three more crowded in.  Donaldson must have spilled the beans.  I thought about priming a grenade and bolting.  But they were in the damn suitcase.  I stood up and to raise my hands in surrender.  I made to reach into my pocket to hand over the pistol. Then I saw the hares, rabbits and duck hanging from the soldiers’ belts.  I waited.  One soldier nodded at me.  Then they unfastened their booty and laid them on the table.  They leaned their rifles against the walls and held out their hands to the fire. They started giggling as they jockeyed for the warmest spot in the cramped cabin.  I shuffled the bench over to make room.  I stared at them.  They removed their soft caps and smoothed down their hair. I began to wonder if they had noticed me at all.  Then the first one that entered, a Sergeant, turned to me.

“Bonsoir.  Excusez-nous.  Aber sehr kalt.  Treize …froid.”   He smiled and rubbed his arms with his hands.  I nodded.  He fished out cigarettes and held one to me.  I reached into my pocket for my lighter.  Dumb move.  It was a goddamn American Zippo.  I made a play of going through all my pockets.  The Sergeant shrugged and dipped into his tunic pocket.   He pulled out his own goddamn Zippo, lit up, and passed it to me.

“Amerikan briquet.  Sehr gut.”

“Oui” I turned the lighter over in my hand.  It was inscribed ‘Gott mit Uns’.

He said “Vous non a la maison?”

I guessed he was asking why I wasn’t at home.  “Non.”  I shrugged and gestured towards the rain streaming into the barrel.  When he looked away, I nudged my valise below the sink with my foot.

“Ja, ich verstehe.  Mais la police… probleme pour vous la nuit. ”   He pointed at his watch.  I guessed he meant it was past curfew and the police would bust my ass if they caught me out and about.

“Oui, grand probleme.”

He turned to his comrades and spoke German.  One Kraut finished plucking a duck then started singeing old Daffy in the fire.  I kept still and watched.  Before the Krauts butted in something had been worrying me.  Now I saw it.  My goddamn RAF flying boots.  Back on the Whitley I didn’t trade them because the package had smaller feet. I shot a look at them.  They were caked in mud and dirt, but I could make out the rubber soles.  I folded my feet under the bench.

The sergeant turned back to me “Vous devez… kommen mit uns.  La maison en ville?”  He pointed in the direction of the town.

“Oui.”  I said, confirming that my house was in town and agreeing to take a ride from them.  I didn’t know what else to say.  But I felt I was sinking in shit.

He stood up.  The hunting party shouldered their rifles, picked up their haul of game and filed out.  The sergeant signalled me to follow.  I thought about inventing some excuse, but my French wasn’t up to it.  We jogged through the vines to a road.  Parked beside a line of poplars, their truck loomed through the rain.  Two Krauts climbed under the rear canopy.  The Sergeant entered the passenger seat and I squeezed in beside him.  The truck trundled off, the wind shield wipers squeaking.

“Moi Kurt.” The NCO pointed to himself.  He was about five years my junior.  Reminded me of a Swedish kid who used to play goal minder for the Port Arthur Tomahawks.  That kid blocked out the whole damn net. I swear he had muscles to operate his muscles.  Fell through the ice and drowned in ‘41.  So much for muscles.  Kurt said “Vous nom?”

“Alphonse Robert.”

He nodded.  “Vous travail dans le vin?  Le champagne bon!”  He gulped an invisible bottle and rocked like a drunk.

“Oui.”  I forced a smile.  He had me pegged as a champagne worker.  Shit, I’d never even tasted any.

He held out some francs and flapped them to and fro.  “Moi payer bon pour le champagne.  Vous organiser?”  Kurt and the soldier driving both stared at me. I got pay, champagne and organise.  Damn Kraut wanted to put Alphonse straight to work in the black market selling stolen champagne.

“Oui, c’est possible.”

“Gut Alphonse, gut.”  Kurt patted my shoulder then said something to the driver who laughed.  He passed cigarettes and we fell quiet.  I tried to tuck my boots below my pants to hide the goddamn fur lining.

Few minutes later I glimpsed a sign saying ‘Vitry- le-Francois 3km’.   On account of the curfew, I figured my new friends were planning to drop me at my house.  Anyways, they’d want to know my address for the champagne deal.  I had to find a house with a long driveway and hope they’d leave before I reached the door.  But as we entered town the houses all pressed into the road, front doors on the damn sidewalk.  Wait though, would a vineyard worker own a house with a driveway?  Heck, Pam and I brought home two good pay checks but we didn’t have a goddamn driveway.  My stomach started fluttering.  My brain stopped working.  It felt like the dream where I was falling from my plane without a parachute.

Kurt looked at me.  “La maison?”

A blue sign saying ‘la gare’ flashed past.  It pictured a train track. “La gare.” I said.

Kurt said something to the driver and we pulled up.  I saw nothing that looked like a train station.

“Alphonse, la gare dangereuse pour vous.  Kontrol Geheimstatzpolizei. Beaucoup soldaten.  Nicht ami wie uns.  Vous kaput.”  He made the neck slit sign with his finger.

“Oui.  Probleme. ”  I nodded.  The station had a Kraut police control and plenty of soldiers.  Like Kurt said, they were likely to be less friendly than him.

Kurt and the driver were now looking at me kinda funny, like they thought I was simple in the head. Seeing as how I seemed to know nothing about curfews and Kraut controls, I couldn’t blame them.

I peered through the rain outside the window.  We were parked beside a baker’s. I made a ‘let me take my chances here’ kinda gesture and pointed outside.

He stared at me a second and shrugged.  “Also, gut.  Morgen le champagne?  Douze bouteilles possible?  Boulangerie huit heures?”  He showed me his watch and pointed at the eight.  I was supposed to meet him at the baker’s with two cases of champagne in the morning.  Fat chance.

I said, “Oui.  Merci.”

Kurt leaned over me to open the door.  His elbow brushed against the goddamn pistol in my jacket pocket.  I jumped down onto the sidewalk.  Rain streamed along the kerb and gurgled into a drain.  The driver put the truck in gear and it lumbered away.  One of the soldiers in the back gave me the thumbs up.  He threw me a duck.  I grabbed it from the road.  I stepped into a doorway beside the bakery and scanned the street.  Nobody in sight, no vehicles.  I wondered if Donaldson was somewhere nearby.  I bet he was drier than me.  I crossed the road and ran back the way we’d come.  I turned into a courtyard to piss and spotted some allotments.   Vegetable chutes poked above the soil.  I dug up baby leeks and carrots, brushed off the dirt and stuffed them in my pockets.  I backed under a blossoming fruit tree and unfolded my map.  I sparked my Zippo.  It was maybe 5 miles to the cabin in the vineyard.  I looked at my watch- 9.47pm.  I had to collect my valise and get away from that cabin.  I broke into a run.

Rain started running down my neck and into my jacket.  The map on my silk scarf was coloured ink that ran in water.  Geniuses in the RAF never heard of rain.  I folded it and pushed it into the rear of my underwear.  I turned up my collars and jogged off, keeping the road 200 yards to my right.  I wasn’t so far from the cabin; that truck was pretty damn slow.   As I ran, I started to laugh so much I started coughing.  My new best friend was a Kraut, I had a fortune in francs unguarded in some hut, snails were my new favourite food, I had a singed duck hanging from my belt and a goddamn silk scarf stuck up my ass.  I wondered what Pam would say.  I stopped laughing after a while. Whatever way I looked at it, I sure was a long way from Thunder Bay.

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