The steam train puffs through the countryside. Trees and fields flash past the windows, which are criss-crossed with tape to protect them from bomb damage. Miranda has had a long and tiring journey that day, starting with an early-morning departure from Aberystwyth and having to change trains at Shrewsbury and Birmingham, but this is the last leg on the return to London. As usual these days, the train is crowded with servicemen, but she and Carmen have been lucky to find a window and middle seat in this compartment. The other seats are filled by a harassed-looking mother with two children, an elderly clergyman, a thin young man in civilian clothes reading a book about mathematics and a plump woman with a lot of luggage.
“Not far now,” Carmen says, as the view from the window starts to feature fewer fields and more towns and villages. “This journey seems to have taken about a thousand years.” She sees Miranda’s expression and adds hastily, “Not that I haven’t enjoyed seeing Wales. It’s beautiful, especially the coast. And all those daffodils!”
“Even more beautiful in peace time,” Miranda says. “You’ll have to come back one day when the war’s over.”
“I’d like that.” The train starts to slow as they approach a small station and steam into the platform. This train seems to have stopped at every single place between Birmingham and London Euston. All station name signs were removed at the start of the war to avoid aiding spies, but Miranda knows from previous journeys that this is a place called Bletchley. The thin young man with the book about mathematics gets up and leaves the train. A middle-aged man in a suit, with a briefcase, enters the compartment and takes his seat. As the train gathers speed again, he smiles at Miranda and Carmen and asks the compartment in general if anyone objects to him smoking his pipe. No one does.
“Only about another thirty-five minutes to Euston,” Carmen says. “It was nice of your father’s housekeeper to pack so much food up for us. I’m planning to live on those delicious Austrian biscuits for at least a week.”
“My mother taught her that recipe, years ago,” Miranda explains. “She still makes lots of the recipes from my mother’s Austrian cookbook because Father likes them. I’m afraid I haven’t inherited any of her talents for cookery.”
“That’s true,” Carmen agrees. “You can’t cook for toffee! But you do have other talents. Just think, if there were German spies on this train you’d be able to understand what they were talking about!”
“Yes, but when most people find out I speak German they look at me like I must be a spy,” Miranda returns.
The pipe-smoking man opposite them clears his throat. “Do excuse me,” he says, “but would you care for a boiled sweet?” He is holding out a tin. Sweets are a rare treat, so Carmen is quick to take one and give him a warm smile of thanks for sharing his ration. Miranda, always more reticent than her extrovert friend, takes one and thanks him politely.
“Richard Cannerley,” he introduces himself.
“I’m Carmen Laurence,” says Carmen. “I know, Carmen’s a bit unusual but my father is obsessed with opera. Gave us all names of characters from operas. My poor sister’s called Isolde. This is Miranda Blake.”
Mr. Cannerley seems ready to chat to them. “Are you visiting London, or do you live there?” he asks.
“We’re both working there,” Carmen says. “We’ve just been to stay with Miranda’s father in Wales. It was lovely there, but now it’s back to the grindstone, I suppose.”
“Brave of you to work in London, in these times,” Mr. Cannerley observes.
“It’s our duty to help win the war,” Miranda says, rather sharply.
“Of course, of course. Quite right. I’m a publisher. Got a gammy leg – old rugger injury – so I wasn’t any use to the armed forces, I’m afraid.”
“We just have boring secretarial jobs in Government offices,” Carmen tells him. “I expect my boss has got all his files mixed up while I’ve been away.”
“Sorry for listening in, but did I hear you say you speak German?” Mr. Cannerley asks Miranda. “I would have thought the War Office would have found some use for you.”
Miranda smiles politely, but thinks Careless talk costs lives…and avoids talking about her work. It is true that she is sometimes asked to translate a few documents here and there, but it is only low-level work and most of the time she is just typing and filing, which is very dull. “My mother was Austrian,” she explains. “She met my father when he was visiting Wien - Vienna - to lecture at the university. We lived in Austria when I was a child, but we moved back to Wales a long time before the war. She never wanted me to forget her language, though.”
“You must be glad you’re not in Austria now,” says Mr. Cannerley. “Of course, Austria doesn’t exist any more as such, does it? It’s just part of Germany now, since the Anschluss. Full of Nazis.”
“Austria is a beautiful country,” Miranda says fiercely, “and the Nazis have taken away the freedom of the people of Austria. I’m glad my mother isn’t alive to see what they have done to her country.”
“Of course. Sorry,” he apologises, seeing he has struck a nerve. Carmen looks quickly at Miranda, hoping she isn’t going to lose her temper. Cannerley gets a card out of his wallet. “Look,” he says, passing the card to Carmen, “my publishing company’s having a bit of a party on Friday night. Book launch for Nicholas Mountford’s new book. Do come if you can, I think you’d enjoy it.”
Carmen thanks him warmly. Miranda says nothing. The train rattles on towards Euston.
Miranda is dragged to the party by Carmen, who points out that it will be a free evening’s relaxation and will possibly feature dancing and young men. The rooms are crowded and cheerful, with music and a buzz of chatter. The grumpy-looking author is sitting in a corner signing copies of his book, but most people seem to just be looking for an excuse to enjoy themselves. Carmen quickly accepts an invitation from a young man in RAF uniform, who sweeps her on to the dance floor to join in an energetic jive. Miranda finds it much too noisy and seeks refuge in a small side room lined with bookshelves. It is quiet and peaceful here. She is just about to take a book from the shelves when she hears a footstep and Mr. Cannerley comes in, accompanied by a younger man who is lean and bearded.
“Ah, Miss Blake,” he says, sounding delighted to see her. “I’m so glad you came. I’d like to introduce you to my friend, Charles King. Charles, this is Miss Blake, whose mother was Austrian. She speaks German and she is very concerned about the fate of Austria.”
Mr. King shakes Miranda’s hand. “Delighted to meet you, Miss Blake. I must confess I’ve been in touch with your boss, Mr. Webb, about you. He had nothing but praise for your work, and he tells me your German is very fluent.”
“You’ve spoken to Mr. Webb?” Miranda looks from one man to the other in astonishment. “Why?”
“Do take a seat, Miss Blake.” Mr. King gestures her to a chair while Mr. Cannerley closes the door, shutting out the distant noise from the party. “We were wondering if you might be prepared to consider changing your work. We think you have qualities and talents which might be a good fit for a role in our organisation.”
Miranda looks at Mr. Cannerley. “Something tells me you’re not really a publisher.”
“Oh, I do work for this publishing house,” Mr. Cannerley smiles. “But I am employed in another role too. Let me tell you a little about our organisation, Miss Blake, and then you can decide if you are interested in training to work for us.”
Miranda is fastening the final buttons on her new khaki uniform while Carmen looks at her critically. “You look very smart, Miranda,” she says, “but I can’t understand why you’ve suddenly decided to change jobs. What did you say this unit was called, anyway?”
“F.A.N.Y.,” says Miranda, brushing off her new peaked cap. “First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.”
“And you have to go away for training?”
“Yes, I’ll be out of London for a while. I’m not sure how long. But I’ll keep my room here, of course.”
Carmen still looks suspicious. “Nursing Yeomanry? You? And you’re going to be a…driver? I just can’t – there’s something else going on, isn’t there?”
Miranda looks at her friend. She has never made many friends, being a solitary, introverted person since her childhood, but sharing this flat with the lively Carmen since her arrival in London has been an unexpectedly enjoyable experience for her. “I’d tell you if I could,” she says. “But I can’t, I’m afraid. I’m doing the right thing for me, though. Don’t worry about me.”
“I won’t be able to help worrying,” says Carmen. “But if you really feel that you have to do this – well, stay safe, won’t you?”
Pretending to be in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry is a regular cover for women who have been recruited by the Special Operations Executive. Arriving in Hampshire, Miranda is impressed to find that this particular outpost of the SOE is based in a historic stately home, requisitioned for the duration of the war. The lofty rooms are filled with antique furniture and the beautiful gardens stretch down towards a river. On the first evening, the new recruits, both male and female, sit around on antique chairs in a gracious drawing-room while Mr. King and the other staff explain what their training will consist of.
“It takes a very special kind of person to train to be an agent abroad,” he says, patting the head of the Westie terrier which is always by his side. “Many of our candidates do not complete the training course successfully. We’ll be putting you through a tough programme. As well as working on your physical fitness, you’ll be learning everything from map-reading to marksmanship, Morse code and self-defence. We’ll also be doing plenty of psychological testing to make sure that you’re someone who can cope with what we’ll be asking of you.”
Miranda looks around the room at her fellow trainees and makes a determined vow to herself that, whoever else fails, she will pass the training course.
The following weeks are intensive and exhausting. There is early rising, and daily PT to improve their fitness. Miranda runs, climbs walls, crawls under nets and splashes through mud while an Army PT instructor bellows at her and the other recruits. Gritting her teeth, she pushes herself towards the front of the field, challenging herself to overtake as many of the others as she can and to keep up with some of the men.
There is marksmanship training. They are given heavy pistols and trained to load and unload them, to clean them and to aim them. They stand in a row facing the targets and fire shot after shot, until the red-faced Army sergeant grudgingly admits their performances are beginning to improve. Miranda has never fired a gun before, but she finds it unexpectedly easy. She tries to imagine firing a bullet into the body of a fellow human being instead of a wooden target. Some of her fellow trainees struggle with this, but Miranda knows she can do it unblinkingly if she needs to.
They have frequent psychological assessments with different instructors. Some of these involve playing word association games, or answering seemingly endless questions about their lives and their reasons for joining the SOE. There is a terrifying Spanish woman called Inés Villegas who is rumoured to have made most of the male recruits cry during her practice interrogations. Miranda does not cry, although she does not enjoy being closely questioned about her personal life.
“How did you feel when your mother died, Miss Blake?”
“Would you say you were popular at school?”
“Not really. I liked to study and keep myself to myself.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
“Your father fought in the Great War, didn’t he?”
“You already know that he did.”
“Would you say that you were trying to impress him with your war work?”
“No. I’m doing what I believe to be my duty to my country – both my countries.”
Miranda stubbornly refuses to let Inés get inside her head.
There is training in Morse code and other cyphers. They sit in a row at a long wooden table, their fingers on metal buzzers, buzzing messages to each other and trying to improve the speed at which they can decode the replies. “There’s no need to add please and thank you!” the irritable Irish instructor snaps at them. “Every second you stay on the line is an extra second when you can be caught. So cut out the social bloody chit-chat and just send the bloody message!”
There are lectures about the places they will be sent to, if they pass the course. Miranda takes endless notes about the current situation in Austria, what is happening there regarding military and police laws, the regulations about travel and rationing, the items which are and are not available in shops – everything she needs to know about daily life in 1944 under German rule. She thinks back to her childhood in Vienna with her parents – the walks around the parks, the slices of Sachertorte in the cafés, the holidays by the lakes and mountains – and wonders how she will feel when she sees Austria as it is now, part of the Third Reich.
She studies maps of the North Tyrol area where she will be sent if she is selected. She learns by heart the maps of several small towns and villages. She learns about the existence of the small pockets of the Austrian Resistance movement who work with the SOE couriers.
There are self-defence classes. They learn how to fight off an attacker with and without weapons. They learn how to kill if they need to. It is a very satisfying day when for the first time Miranda manages to take down one of the bigger male recruits and leave him lying speechless on the floor, nursing his sore throat and aching groin. Some of her fellow trainees applaud, and even the instructor gives her some grudging words of praise. By the end of the course, most of the men are reluctant to take her on for fear of embarrassing themselves.
“Would you say you were good at working alone, Miss Blake?” Inés is firing questions at her again.
“Would you say that you lacked team skills?”
“I hope I could do a good job as part of a team, if I needed to.”
“But you find it difficult to trust people, don’t you?”
“I would need to be sure that someone could be trusted.”
“Which would you say was the most important thing – faith, hope or love?”
Miranda pauses. “Hope.”
It is a much smaller group of recruits who gather in the drawing-room on the night when Mr. King tells them they have passed the training course. “From now on you’ll be receiving individual training about your specific missions,” he tells them, while passing a biscuit to the Westie by his knee. “You’ll learn about your contacts, where to meet them and the details of your first jobs as couriers. You’ll complete your basic parachute training and continue to practice all the other skills you’ve been learning. And remember –if you do have the misfortune to be captured and questioned by the Nazis, we sincerely hope that the only name they learn is your cover identity. You will tell them nothing about your mission or any of your contacts – even if your own life depends on it.”
“D-Day” has happened while Miranda has been doing her SOE training. Thousands of Allied troops have stormed the beaches of Normandy. The German army are retreating across France and people are beginning to talk hopefully about victory after listening to the bulletins on the wireless. Mr. King reminds the trainees that the Allied armies are still a long way from Berlin. He quotes the words of Churchill from 1942 – “This is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.” There is still a lot to be done before the occupied countries of Europe will be free of Nazi rule.
Miranda agrees with Mr. King’s words and concentrates on learning the file of information about Anna Riegler, the woman she is about to become.
The late afternoon sunlight is fading into dusk, and there is a sense of tension in the air. After all these weeks of training, the time for action is close at hand. Out on the nearby airstrip, an RAF Lysander is waiting to fly the latest batch of recruits out of England and drop them over Europe.
Everything Miranda is wearing, down to her shoes and underwear, and everything in her backpack (including her backpack) is either homemade or comes from shops in Austria. Her ash-blonde hair, which looks Aryan enough to please Hitler but is far too memorable, has been dyed to an uninteresting muddy brown. A few painful sessions with the unit dentist have ensured that her English-style fillings have been replaced with convincingly Austrian dentistry. Nothing is left to chance. She has even been asked to write a farewell letter to her father, which Mr. King is to keep and will only post to Wales in the event of her death being confirmed. Of course it does not give away any details about her work.
In a hangar, a brisk woman Miranda has never seen before is standing in front of a table where items are laid out, ready to be added to Miranda’s pockets or backpack.
“Identity card. Ration card. Certificate of non-belonging to the Jewish race. Photograph of Anna Riegler’s mother – your mother. Purse with money. Watch. Lipstick. Toiletries – Austrian. Perfume.” The woman hands Miranda a pen. “Sign here to show you’ve received everything. Good luck.”
Over her Austrian clothes, she is fitted with a loose flying suit, a leather cap and a metal helmet. She has worn these before, while doing her parachute jump training over Hampshire.
A black car is waiting outside the hangar to drive them out to the airstrip. There is a driver in the front. Mr. King and his dog get into the back of the car with Miranda.
“It should be a nice simple mission for your first,” he says. “The Resistance chaps will pick you up and take you to your billet. The next day, you go to the café we discussed and meet your first Austrian contact. She will be wearing a blue coat and will ask you what the weather is like in Wien. You tell her that it’s very warm for June. I know, I know, it seems such a cliché talking about the weather! You give her the radio valves, then you leave. The next day you meet your English contact at the place you know. If everything goes smoothly, you’ll be back here before you know it.”
Miranda looks out of the car window; the twilight is getting darker. Next to her, Mr. King pats his dog and coughs. “You’ve done awfully well, you know, Miss Blake.”
The car draws up alongside the black-painted aircraft. The plane’s propellers are already turning. Mr. King shakes Miranda’s hand and she climbs up the ladder into the belly of the plane, where three other agents are already buckled into the hard metal bench-seats, watched over by two airmen. One of the airmen helps Miranda to fasten her parachute bag on to her back. She is still buckling herself into her seat when the plane starts to taxi bumpily along the ground. As the engines roar and the plane hauls itself into the air, Miranda hears Mr. King’s last words in her head.
“Remember. From the moment you leave the ground until the moment you return, you are Anna Riegler. Miranda Blake is dead.”
Miranda is the last agent to be dropped that night. She is numb and cold from hours sitting on the metal seat by the time the airman signals that they are approaching her drop zone. He slides back the door and the black freezing air comes rushing in at them. She crawls to the doorway and crouches there, the wind buffeting at her face. The roar of the wind is so loud that she can no longer hear what the young airman is saying to her, but he holds up his fingers so that she can see his countdown from ten. Five…four…three…two…one…go! He waves her away urgently. She pushes with both hands against the metal edges of the doorway and launches herself out into the darkness. The cold air whistles past her as she falls, down, down, down. Just as she has been trained to do, she reaches for the cord of her parachute and jerks it sharply. The straps around her shoulders cut into her painfully as the silk parachute billows out above her in a white cloud, stopping her freefall. Letting out a relieved breath, Miranda – no, Anna - grips the straps and lets the parachute glide her down towards her fate and the Austrian soil beneath her.