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Big Ben's chime echoed in the distance as the air raid siren's mournful wail sounding the "All Clear" broke over London's smouldering ruins.
In the BBC studio, Julien Fourcade cleared his throat, took a sip of water and leaning towards the microphone, fixed his eyes on the green light above the plate glass window separating him from the control cubicle. The signature tune slowly faded and the green light turned to red.
'Ici. ... Londres,' he announced, introducing the first news bulletin of the day from London to German occupied France.
Twenty nine minutes later, Julien glanced towards the Studio Manager, still fiddling with the controls on the other side of the glass panel, and raised his eyebrows enquiringly. The "S.M." smiled, gave the thumbs up sign and, as the red light turned back to green he pressed the intercom. button. 'Everything went smoothly,' he announced, 'no fluffs.'
Julien put down his bulletin, tilted backwards in his chair, stretched and gave a cavernous yawn. 'God, I'm tired,' he groaned, as another yawn rose to the surface.
'Don't,' pleaded Fleur de Rosny his co-announcer, sitting opposite him at the microphone, 'you're starting me off.' Shuffling her papers together, she rose wearily to her feet. 'What a night! I'm going straight home to bed.'
'No breakfast?' Julien enquired, rocking his chair back into an upright position.
'Can't face the canteen.'
Rounding the table to join her, Julien threw an arm around her shoulder. 'Neither can I,' he confided. 'How about splurging and going over to the Waldorf?'
Fleur hesitated, hunger and fatigue fighting for supremacy.
Julien pushed open the door separating them from the Studio Manager's cubicle. 'Thanks Brian,' he called as they went through. 'Your night over?'
'Almost. Got to put the Dutch on the air in ten minutes, then Nan arrives and I'm off to bed, hopefully to sleep. The Luftwaffe certainly had a good innings last night. At one point I thought the building was going to collapse about our ears.'
Julien grimaced. 'So did we. Sweet dreams,' he called, as he and Fleur walked into the deserted basement corridor and headed for the lift. The smell of frying floated towards them from the canteen. 'Definitely the Waldorf,' Julien declared.
The lift doors slid open and two immensely tall Dutchmen clutching sheafs of paper nodded as they stepped out and made for the studio.
The early morning team were already hard at work when Fleur entered the newsroom and handed in her bulletin. The news editor popped his head round the door. 'Everything went well I hear. Glad you managed to squeeze in that last minute flash I sent down.'
'Five of our aircraft failed to return from last night's bombing raid over Berlin,' Julien intoned, putting on his announcer's voice. He sighed, and reached for his coat. 'Just another cheery bit of news to add to the rest.' Knotting his scarf around his neck he turned towards the door. 'Fleur and I are going across to the Waldorf for breakfast, Edward. Why don't you join us?'
The news editor's eyes swam round the room; everyone was typing furiously. 'I think I might. They've got enough to keep them busy for another hour, and if there's a crisis they know where to find me.'
Julien and Fleur walked down the steps of Bush House into a changed city. As they crossed the street dust from the raid mingled with flecks of soot hovered in the air over the Aldwych like an enormous mushroom cloud.
'A lot of the newspaper offices in Fleet Street seem to be down,' Fleur remarked, seeing firefighters still battling to direct hoses onto the flames rising high into the sky. She glanced across the road. 'But the Waldorf's still there.'
'For the time being.' Julien added grimly.
They entered the hotel and walked across the hall to the dining room. It was deserted, except for a young airman sitting alone in a far corner.
'He's wearing pilot's wings,' Julien noted, pulling out a chair for Fleur, 'I wonder if he's one of those who got away last night? Let's ask him to join us, he looks lonely.' He strode over to where the young man was studying the menu. The pilot looked up in surprise when Julien approached him, then putting down the menu, followed him back to his table.
'Hugh Cunningham,' he smiled, when Julien introduced Fleur.
'And this,' Julien announced, as Edward joined them, 'is our news editor, Edward Adams. Though whether there'll be any news to-night is anyone's guess: Fleet Street's practically destroyed.'
The airman looked enquiringly from one to the other. 'Are you journalists?'
Julien laughed. 'No, Edward is the only real journalist, he was the Times correspondent in Paris before the war. Fleur and I are only playing at it. We work across the road at Bush House, BBC World Service, French Section. Fleur and I have just come off the night shift, broadcasting the first news bulletin of the day to occupied France.'
'A voice of hope in the darkness,' Edward put in. 'Listened to by several million patriots, all of them risking arrest and probably worse for tuning into the BBC.'
Hugh nodded. He appeared to understand. 'So you two are French? he queried.
'We're mongrels. French fathers and English mothers.' Julien lifted his cup of coffee and pointed it in Hugh's direction. 'Your very good health'
Hugh laughed and returned the salute.
'I should be getting back,' Edward announced, when Fleur shook the last drops of coffee into his cup. 'I'd like you to come with me Julien, there's one or two matters I want to discuss.'
Julien groaned. 'Can't they wait till to-night? I'm all in'.
'Fraid not.' Edward caught Julien's eye and jerked his head towards Fleur and Hugh, deep in conversation. Julien frowned, then suddenly understood.
'No don't rush, Fleur,' Edward said, when she got up to leave as her two colleagues said goodbye to Hugh. 'I don't need you. Stay and keep our pilot friend company.' Fleur hesitated, uncertain what to do.
'I'd love you to stay if you have time,' Hugh said shyly.
'Sorry I was so slow on the uptake, Edward,' Julien grimaced as they walked out of the Waldorf and crossed the street. 'Do you really want to see me?
'No, of course I don't, it was merely an excuse to leave those two together. Didn't you see, he couldn't take his eyes off Fleur. The poor girl has had a tough time since France fell, she needs a break: a little romance in her life will do her a world of good.'
Julien glanced at his companion, a wry smile on his face. 'For a hardened old bachelor Edward, you're remarkably perceptive.'
Fleur stared at her plate, her fingers crumbling a roll.
'Would you like me to order more coffee?' Hugh ventured. The silence between them was becoming uncomfortable.
Fleur shook her head.
He smiled. 'I think you need to go home and get some sleep. Let me find you a taxi.'
'No, the coffee has revived me. I've been cooped up in Bush House since midnight, I need some fresh air. I'll walk along the Embankment and catch my 'bus in Parliament Square.'
'May I walk with you?
Fleur looked at him in surprise. 'Don't you have any plans?'
'None at all. I got back in the early hours of the morning and am free for two days. My squaddie was going to see his wife in Kent and offered me a lift; he's picking me up at 6.30 on Wednesday morning.'
'Julien announced on the dawn bulletin that five of our aircraft failed to return from a bombing raid over Berlin last night,' Fleur said hesitantly. She paused. 'Were you one of the lucky ones who did?'
'No,' he answered briefly, and rose from the table. He seemed disinclined to continue the conversation.
Fleur slung her gas mask over her shoulder and followed him through the swing doors into the Aldwych. The early morning rush had started. Crowds of office workers were scurrying past: others patiently queuing for the red buses which lumbered by, packed tight, a sea of heads jammed against the taped-up windows: less fortunate passengers swayed as they clung to the overhead strap hangers. The bus platform was crammed with people who had either squeezed themselves on at the last stop or were desperately trying to push their way through the crush in order to jump off at the next one.
'Glad I'm not in a hurry,' Fleur remarked, as they dodged through the traffic. 'Let's go down to the Embankment and walk along the river. I often do that when I come off duty.'
They cut across the Strand into Surrey Street. Weary mothers carrying blankets and the remains of last night's picnic were emerging from the Temple Tube Station dragging bleary-eyed children or attempting to soothe crying babies as they headed for the lengthening bus queues. Hugh steered Fleur round an enormous bomb crater.
'That must be the one we thought had our name on it last night,' Fleur remarked grimly.
The Embankment was littered with rubble from the night's raid. Further down the river fire barges bobbed in the water and ambulances, their bells ringing furiously screeched past them as they picked their way along the bank.
'Shall we sit down?' Hugh suggested when they entered the gardens below Charing Cross Station. A lone whistle split the air as they took their seats and above them a train rumbled past. The early morning mist veiling the river had evaporated leaving a silvery grey sheet of water brimming with reflections, and the sun now rising high left the sky awash with a clear green light giving promise of a fine Autumn day. It looked so peaceful. How could England be at war. Fleur brushed her hand across her eyes as painful memories crept into her mind, and she knew that the fatigue of a heavy night was beginning to overtake her. From a long way off, she heard Hugh's voice.
'Are you on duty to-night?'
'No, thank goodness,' Fleur replied, jerking herself back to consciousness. 'I'm free till midnight to-morrow.'
'So am I,' he smiled. 'I was thinking of going to a theatre. It would be wonderful if you could come with me.'
Fleur looked at him in surprise. 'Haven't you any friends you want to see in London?'
Hugh shook his head.
'But what about your family?' she probed.
'My home's in North Yorkshire. Rather a long way to go for two days.'
Fleur nodded thoughtfully. 'In that case I'd love to come.'
'Anything special you'd like to see?'
'Theatre tickets are like gold dust nowadays,' Fleur laughed. 'You'll have to take what you can get. But please, please nothing dramatic, daily life is dramatic enough.' She raised her hand to stifle a yawn and got to her feet. 'I must get some sleep, I'm dropping.'
'Pick you up at half past six,' Hugh confirmed, when the No. 11 bus trundled along the Strand and rumbled to a standstill.
'What are you going to do now?' Fleur enquired, dodging a large hole in the road and jumped on.
'Same as you,' he grinned. I've been up all night too!' And with a cheery wave he was gone.
Fleur thoughtfully climbed the stairs and sat down beside an elderly woman with a large basket balanced on her knees. Hugh's parting shot had puzzled her. 'He said he'd been up all night too,' she mused. 'But he wasn't part of the bombing mission over Germany, so what was he doing?' She yawned. 'It's none of my business,' she concluded. 'He's only a passing acquaintance, I'll probably never see him again after this evening.' But oddly enough that thought gave her a pang.
* * *
Hugh was smiling broadly when Fleur opened the door to him that evening.
'You'll never guess what I've got tickets for,' he teased, walking into the hall and throwing his cap onto a chair.
'Jack and the Beanstalk?
He shook his head, his eyes dancing with mirth.
'Puss in Boots?'
'Not quite. A Ralph Lynn-Robertson-Hare farce.'
Fleur gasped in amazement. 'How on earth did you do it? It's one of the most popular shows in town. People are fighting for tickets.'
'I fought,' he replied, following Fleur into the sitting room. 'What a charming room,' he murmured, looking round.
'The flat belongs to Claudine, my godmother who has remarkably good taste,' Fleur explained. 'She's living in the country for the duration and has lent it to me.' She held up a decanter. 'A glass of sherry? 'A quick one. We're booked for the early performance.' He hesitated. 'I took the liberty of reserving a table at the Hungaria for after the show. I hope you don't mind'.
Fleur looked at him quizzically. 'For a North country boy all alone in London you seem to know your way around extremely well.'
Hugh grinned and raised his glass.
* * *
They laughed themselves silly.
'What a tonic,' Fleur spluttered as they left the theatre, laughter still bubbling up inside her. 'I didn't realise how grim life has been these last months, and how rarely I've actually laughed'. She took a small gold powder compact from her handbag and peered in the mirror. 'But it does play havoc with one's make-up.'
'You look wonderful,' Hugh whispered. Taking her arm, he hailed a taxi.
The Hungaria was crowded, but Hugh's wings got them a floorside table. It was when they sat down that Fleur noticed his Distinguished Flying Cross ribbon. She raised her eyebrows enquiringly.
'They were giving them away,' he shrugged. 'I just happened to be passing.'
A young man stepped from the band and clutching the microphone cradled it to his lips.
Shall we dance?' Hugh smiled.
They rose simultaneously and wriggled their way through the couples on the crowded floor. Hugh folded her in his arms, her head nestling itself naturally against his shoulder. 'You'd be so nice to come home to,' crooned the singer, his voice wobbling between a sigh and a moan.
'He's so right,' Hugh whispered, his lips brushing lightly across her hair.
Fleur felt a blush creep across her cheeks. She pressed her face into his jacket, afraid that her feelings would betray her. She had felt a strange sensation zig-zag through her body when he took her in his arms: it had been intoxicating and terrifying at the same time and Fleur knew she was teetering on the edge of a precipice. It would be so easy to fall in love with this handsome stranger. She could not deny the erotic emotions he aroused in her: emotions to which she longed to surrender. Yet she was afraid. The war had brought her nothing but pain. All she wanted was to remain safely cocooned in the web she had spun around herself: she couldn't face being hurt again. She stiffened and drew away.
Hugh looked down at her, puzzled by her abrupt change of mood.
The crooner broke into "The nearness of you" as they returned to their table, and an awkward silence fell between them.
Hugh put down his knife and fork. 'Fleur have I done or said something to upset you?'
Fleur shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. 'I'm sorry,' she blurted out at last. 'It's this blasted war.'
He nodded sympathetically. Reaching across the table, he took her hand. 'Tell me about yourself, 'he coaxed. 'All I know is that you're a mongrel working for the BBC.'
Hugh noticed that her eyes were an unusual colour, tawny with flecks of green dancing in them. They were almond shaped and turned up at the corner like a gull's wing. His gaze travelled down to her lips which were soft and shining and he caught his breath. He had been bewitched by her beauty that morning at breakfast, but now in the half-light wearing a simple emerald green dress which emphasized the unusual flecks in her eyes, she was breathtaking. He smiled encouragingly.
Fleur shrugged. 'There's very little to know.' 'But I know nothing' he pleaded.
'I could say the same about you.'
'You could. But you're much more interesting.' His blue eyes twinkled. 'I'm not a beautiful mongrel, only a boring old Brit.'
But Fleur seemed disinclined to talk.
Hugh glanced at his watch. 'Almost midnight. Fritz seems to be giving himself a night off.'
Fleur looked up at him slyly. 'I imagine that's what the Germans say about you when you fail to appear over Berlin with your bombs.'
Hugh gave her a strange look. 'I don't fly bombers,' he said curtly, and rose to his feet.
Fleur resisted the temptation to ask him what he did fly, realising that as far as Hugh was concerned the subject was closed. He smiled and held out his hand. 'I'm going to take you home, you look all in.'
When they entered the vestibule the night porter stumbled sleepily out of his cubby-hole and crossed the hall to summon the lift.
'Thank you Sydney,' Fleur smiled when the lift ground to a halt. 'Hope you manage to get some sleep.'
'Hope we all do,' Sydney replied gloomily. 'If those blasted Jerries will give 'emselves a night off.' He gave an approving look at Hugh as the lift door closed on him and Fleur. When it stopped at the third floor Hugh held out his hand for her keys.