I had the most unusual encounter last night. A group of us girls working the switchboards often go to Bar du Bassett, a tavern frequented by both the French and British, for a drink to unwind after a long day. As it turned out, it was only me and Celine who braved the bad stormy weather that had rolled in, huddling under a shared umbrella as we approached the ancient stone building. The tavern always smelled of cigar smoke, body odor, and cheap ale, but it only took a few minutes before one’s sense of smell became unreliable and one stopped noticing.
Inside, a number of French and British soldiers in varied states of inebriation chatted loudly, glasses of frothy beer spilling over the rims of their steins. Certain pretty girls in frilly dresses sat provocatively on the bar. Though in France, but outside the German zone, so the absence of enemy soldiers made the illusion of merry-making possible.
Celine and I claimed an empty table.
“Those girls, laughing all the time, make our work feel like drudgery, don’t they?” Celine said. “I sometimes wonder if we’re in the right business.”
She said it in jest, I think, but after twelve hours of sitting in front of a switchboard, my back was frightfully sore.
We ordered our ale, and as we waited I briefly caught the eye of a British soldier, older than us by at least a decade, seated in the corner behind Celine. He looked away immediately, giving the impression that he hoped he hadn’t been caught staring. I preferred that to the type who refused to glance away believing a long look would arouse some kind of attraction. I was always careful to wear my wedding ring, and purposefully went without gloves to ensure no misunderstanding.
A dark-haired soldier with a thick moustache and round spectacles stumbled past our table, nearly knocking over my drink. He removed his cap and stared me in the eye. “Je suis, désolé, mademoiselle!”
I answered back in flawless French, “It’s Madame, and it’s quite all right.” Thankfully, the soldier continued on without further intrusion.
The interruption by the drunken soldier had caused the British soldier in the corner to glanced my way again. I realized with a shock that I recognized him. Though we’d never been formally introduced, I’d seen him about town and on occasion in the building where I worked. Why was he behaving so coy?
My attention was captured by the sudden eruption of a quarrel between two French soldiers.
“I was talking to her first, Pomeroy!”
Pomeroy turned out to be the bespectacled fellow who’d only moments ago, knocked into me.
The two men locked eyes, looking ready to smash bottles over each other’s heads. A young brunette who apparently was the object of the men’s desires, nervously backed away. The men’s voices grew louder, the veins in their necks bulging, and I knew the situation could turn ugly quickly.
Without thinking, I ran over and forced myself between them. “Arrête!”
They immediately stopped shouting and stared at me with puzzled looks. I smiled and batted my eyelashes determined to diffuse their alcohol infused rage with a dose of feminine charm. “Gentlemen, please, you are better than this.” Placing a hand on each of their arms, I cooed, “You’re heroes of the French army! You’re on the same side. Heroes!”
The word struck a chord, and soon their shoulders relaxed. I continued to placate with a soothing voice. “Thank you for your service Officer Pomeroy and Officer—“
“Travers,” the man offered.
“Officer Travers. Thank you both for your service to France, to Britain… to the whole world.”
War was liable to make a man feel worthless, worthless enough to fight over a call girl. All one needed was reminding that the opposite was true.
Officer Pomeroy’s lips twitched until they formed a crooked grin, and Officer Travers chuckled. Within minutes their feud was forgotten, backs were being patted, and Pomeroy called on the barkeep to refill their drinks.
As I started back to my table, feeling, I admit, rather proud of myself, I was intercepted by the British soldier from the corner.
“What you just did was impressive,” he said.
I shrugged off the praise. “It was nothing.”
“Not true, Madame, you may have prevented an out and out brawl.”
“I’m happy things turned out less exciting.”
He extended a palm, “I’m Captain Smithwick.”
I politely shook his hand all the while calculating how I could step away without being perceived as rude. As I diverted my gaze, I saw Officer Pomeroy staring, not a me, but at Officer Smithwick who caught his eye. Something transpired between them, subtle and quick. A communication of some kind. Before I could register the significance, Captain Smithwick posed a question.
“Could I buy you a drink, Mrs. Gold?”
I stilled. He knew my name.
“I’m with a friend.”
“Of course, then perhaps we could meet another time. I have a proposition to make you, on behalf of the crown.”
His voice was low and gravelly, war-hardened by a long career in command and perhaps a few too many cigars and cigarettes. “Skills like what you just displayed are what we need,” he said. “Someone who can read people well… and influence them. Will you meet with me?”
I now understood why I’d seen the captain about so frequently. He’d been watching me. Without his spelling it out, I knew what the captain was proposing. He wanted me to join the British Secret Service. My heart raced, pounding hard in my ears. What I said next could change everything, the whole direction of my life. My future, and Daniel’s, would be determined by my answer. It was a course, once started, that could never be reversed. A thread, once knotted, that could never be untied.
It was an opportunity for challenge and adventure, but most of all a way for me to do something more substantial for the cause of good, than simply manning a switchboard day in and day out.
I stared Captain Smithwick in the eyes and with the utmost assuredness said, “Yes. I’ll meet with you.”
As they have done for centuries, women were fighting alongside their male counterparts, not just as nurses but even spies. But at this time neither American women nor British women had the right to vote because even though we could spy for and risk our lives for our countries during the World War, God forbid we should help run it!