Jonathan’s train journey takes a horrendously long time. It makes him think longingly of the King’s Roads, now sealed off in England as a defence against invasion. Instead, he navigates a baffling series of starts and stops and changes of train in stations with blacked out names. At one point they are delayed for over two hours because of a possible unexploded bomb on the line, which thankfully turns out to be nothing of the kind.
He stops for watery tea and sandwiches made with thin, grey bread when he reaches London. The bomb damage here is shocking, even to a magician who has been conjuring visions of the capital for months. It is a very different matter to walk the streets and see it with his own eyes. The other surprise is how matter of fact the people are, walking around the rubble and getting on with their day. It makes his experience of the war so seem rather abstract.
Navigating across London he finds the train heading east to the secret airfield he has been told is waiting for him. In fact there are two airfields, one a professional looking outfit full of large aircraft, brick buildings and what looks like hundreds of men busy at work. This is not the airfield he is reporting to.
The SOE airfield is the one adjoining the RAF base, a rather dismal set up consisting of hastily erected wooden buildings, a handful of elderly brick built structures and a motley collection of aircraft hidden beneath the trees.
He reports to the wooden hut that is the current operational headquarters of the Magical Intelligence Auxiliary Unit, colloquially known by SOE staff as ‘Arthur’s Ungentlemanly Magicians’. The hut doesn’t look like the headquarters of anything in particular and as there was nothing to distinguish it from any of the other buildings it had taken him quite some time to find. When he asked for directions a smirking man with a northern accent had told him that the first test of a member of the Auxiliary Unit was finding the Auxiliary Unit. Consequently when he arrives he is flustered, out of breath and late.
He knocks at the door supposedly leading to the office belonging to the Unit Commander and hears a voice bellow, “Come!” On entering the office he find a man in Army uniform, looking like he hasn’t slept for several days and is considering committing murder for a decent cup of coffee. It’s not a promising start.
Not having any way to identify who he is talking to and not expecting an army officer, Jonathan tries saluting. Unfortunately saluting has never come naturally to him. The man looks as though he has noticed.
“Strange” he says, “where the devil have you been? I was expecting you six hours ago.”
“I’m sorry, sir. It was the trains. We were delayed at…”
The man waves him to silence with a frown. “Well you are here now. I am Grant. I’ll get De Lancey to show you around. De Lancey!”
“Excuse me, I thought I was to report to Wellesley, sir.” As soon as he has said it he wishes he hadn’t because Grant gives him a look that makes Jonathan certain he thinks he is the biggest fool in existence.
“You might well have been told that, but Wellesley isn’t here. He goes wherever he is needed, which is, at present, everywhere. De Lancey!” Grant hammers hard on the wall of his office, which seems to have an effect because a ridiculously young looking man in RAF uniform sticks his head around the door.
“Sorry Grant, did you want me?”
“This is Strange, take him away and find him something useful to do.” He returns his attention to the paperwork in the desk.
“Right-oh,” the young man says, shepherding Jonathan into the corridor, “I’m Flight Lieutenant De Lancey, William if you’d rather.” He offers a hand to shake. Jonathan takes it, glancing back over his shoulder at Grant’s closed office door.
“I couldn’t help noticing that Unit Commander was a little… a little…”
“A little terrifying? Don’t worry; he’s just having a bad morning. Day. Week. I’m sure he’ll get over it, just don’t take it personally. Don’t call him Unit Commander though. That’s Wellesley’s job. Grant’s acting commander while Wellesley is… otherwise engaged.” The man frowns and Jonathan wonders what he has missed. He doesn’t like feeling so ignorant. He wants to ask what’s happening but before he can, De Lancey herds him through another door into what must be the main workroom. It’s a confusion of men in different uniforms and civilian dress. There are maps and silver dishes for conjouring visions muddled up with radio sets, telephones and machines looking like overgrown typewriters. Paper, people and equipment fight for any remaining space.
“Winespill!” shouts De Lancey, loud enough to be heard over the racket. “Winespill!” If Grant’s bellow was impressive, it’s nothing to De Lancey’s.
“He’s out back,” says a very Yorkshire voice. A human figure unfolds itself from a crumpled heap of khaki in the corner. He has a pale, rather cadaverous face covered with rough stubble that threatens to turn his moustache into a beard. A cigarette hovers precariously at the corner of his mouth. He extends a hand in Jonathan’s direction. “Mr Strange? I’m John Childermass, I remember you from when you were visiting Mr Norrell.”
“Ah… yes.” Jonathan shakes the offered hand, wracking his brains until the man in front of him resembles someone familiar, “You were Mr Norrell’s gardener, weren’t you?”
“His estate manager, but I suppose that’s close enough,” answers Childermass with a heavy dose of Yorkshire sarcasm. “Shall I take you to find Winespill?”
“Yes please, Childermass,” says De Lancey, “ask him to find something for Mr Strange to do.”
Jonathan is starting to feel annoyed at being passed on yet again, like a parcel nobody wants. He starts to say something but Childermass cuts in with “Come along, Sir” before he gets the chance. To add insult to injury, when they find the missing Winespill, he turns out to be sitting with the smirking man Jonathan asked for directions in the first place.
Jeremy stares at Jonathan like he has never seen a magician before. “So,” he begins, “what is that you can do, sir?”
“A great many things, I suppose, but which do you want me to do?”
“Ah,” answers Jeremy with a sceptical air, “how’s your French, sir? Or German?”
“Well, I regret to say that I never really had the opportunity for learning much German. I do speak passable French however.”
“Passable. Yes, sir, and have you ever used a parachute?”
“A parachute! Why the devil would I have used a parachute?”
Jeremy sighs and decides that Winespill owes him a favour for taking on such a hopeless case. The whole conversation continues in the same fashion. Jonathan has never fired a gun in anger, he does not know Morse code to the correct speed, he was not taught anything about decryption nor how to blend in with civilians in an occupied country. He cannot fly a plane, steer a boat or create spells of concealment. Eventually Jeremy stops his long round of questioning and sighs.
“You’d best come along with me then, sir,” he says and he steers Strange to a room full of boxes overflowing with files. “Perhaps you could just help to tidy up a bit. Until we find what best to do with you.” He goes off smiling, his problem solved, leaving Jonathan with three women who are responsible for curating the files. They smile at him, but the smiles are not friendly ones and he thinks that he has found yet more people who think he is an incompetent idiot. If he’s not careful, he’ll start to think it himself.
You will be pleased to know that I have arrived safely in the location I may not disclose to you. The train journey was everything I feared it would be and led to me arriving rather later than planned. In fact, nothing has gone as I planned since arriving and I hope you will laugh at my situation for me, because I am finding it sadly difficult. “
Jonathan pauses with his pen over the paper. How is he ever to describe the situation here? Particularly when for all he knows, Grant himself will be reading everything he writes. He imagines Bell receiving a letter that has been censored in its entirety, leaving only her name and his. He has spent most of his day fetching and carrying for the three women in the file store. As a result he has also learnt very quickly that they are strict, exacting in their requirements, impervious to his charm and generally regard him as a nuisance. After the end of his shift he had been given a dinner consisting of unidentifiable stew, apparently containing whalemeat although given the way most of the unit regard him it could have been another ruse to torment him. Then he had been shown to a communal barracks with very little privacy or storage for his books and left to write his letter. It is, he admits to himself, not quite what he had envisaged when joining the Army.
Three days later nothing has improved. Grant, Jonathan has decided, is a sleep deprived maniac and De Lancey, who at first had seemed friendly, has been getting steadily more terse and disagreeable. The mysterious Wellesley has never appeared and Jonathan is beginning to wonder if the man even exists or if he is a figment of their collective imaginations.
He finally gets his proof of the man’s existence when there is a sudden flurry of activity among the WAAFs using the teleprinters connected to the SOE listening stations at Grendon Underwood and Poundon. “Grant,” someone shouts, “fetch Grant!”
He appears at a run, followed by De Lancey.
“What is it?”
“Transmission from France, sir, Pendragon’s signature.”
Grant grabs for the sheet of paper with the coded message and snaps his fingers until someone thrusts a codebook into it. He works quickly, leafing through to the correct cipher and scribbling the decoded message on a scrap of paper. De Lancey leans over his shoulder, reading it as Grant writes. Everyone in the room has stopped working, waiting to see what the message will contain.
“Right,” Grant announces to the room at large, “we need an extraction but he has the intel.”
“Am I flying it?” De Lancey asks.
Grant looks at him consideringly and Strange is aware that some silent conversation is taking place. De Lancey lifts an eyebrow. Grant shrugs minutely.
“Yes, we’ll have you fly. Childermass, I want you for ground crew. In my office please.”
The men disappear and the rest of the room slowly gets back to work, picking up where they left off.
Jonathan is left standing, his arms full of files. “Well that’ll cheer people up,” observes Cassandra, the friendliest of the WRENs.
“The news from Pendragon.” She looks at him, slightly pityingly, “Arthur Wellesley, our absent leader? That’s his call sign. He’s been missing in France for about a week and this is the first we’ve heard from him.”
“Oh.” Jonathan can’t think of anything else to say.
“He’s probably injured though. They don’t drop more people in France unless they have to. Get a move on with those files please, we haven’t got all day.”
Inside Grant’s office, the three men are hunched over the map.
“So, if Arthur is holed up here, the closest landing strip is here.” De Lancey points at the map. “We can land a Hudson or a Lysander, so the only question is if our priority is stealth or making sure he actually gets on the plane.”
Grant re-reads the message. “He says he has minor injuries but neglects to tell us what kind or how bad they are. Typical bloody Wellesley.”
“May I remind you, when you were captured by the Germans you sent no bloody message at all, you just walked onto one of our fishing boat in a stolen German uniform and collapsed?”
“Gentlemen,” Childermass’ low voice breaks in to the conversation, forcing the others to stop glaring at each other and turn to him. “The way I see it, what we most need in Wellesley and his information. There’s no point sending a Lysander and finding out he can’t get into it, besides the moon won’t be in the right phase for several days. I know you could do it anyway,” he raises a hand at William, who looks likely to protest, “but I think it would be easier to send the Hudson, and we’ll take a few men and collect him from the barn.”
From that moment, the plan is doomed to fail. Unfortunately, none of the men in the room know it.