MacKenzie and Marks' American Tour

MacKenzie and Marks' American Tour

by Gillian B

Chapter 4: Keflavik Cabaret

12.15 pm Thursday 10 October 1940
The Cockle Strand, Isle of Barra, Scotland

Still disquieted at the way our movements seemed to be known to our enemies, we made our farewells to the elderly Squadron Leader who was the base commander and to Sergeant Shona MacNeil who seemed to have got over her ordeal and was rather pleased to have a real war story to tell her friends.

As we stepped outside into the still biting wind, I asked Shona, "So what do you call the Cockle Strand in Gaelic?"

"An Traigh Mhor," she replied with a grin, waiting for me to request a translation.

"Meaning?" I asked obediently.

"The Big Beach," she explained with a laugh.

12.20 am Airborne

Diane had already volunteered to pilot the next leg of the journey. I knew from past experience that Mick was quite content for other pilots to fly an aeroplane straight and level for a few hours, even ones like me with only a private licence, when necessity dictated. He was less convinced at allowing Diane to take off.

"I know you ATS pilots deliver Hurricanes to all and sundry but this is a big plane and we're loaded right up to the limit. What's the biggest aircraft you've flown so far then?"

"Well, the last flying job I had was delivering Halifaxes," she replied, referring to the RAF's biggest four-engined bombers. She had a disarming grin on her face but the twinkle in her eye said, "Checkmate."

Diane and Mick studied a Mercator chart of the North Atlantic to choose a good bearing to follow to reach Iceland without missing the island, despite unknown wind-speeds and the differing variations between true north and compass north on the way.

At last, we were ready, the checklist was read, the engines started and Diane taxied the Oxford out into the middle of the beach and turned into the wind. At Mick's suggestion, she didn't bother with the wheel brakes as she brought the engines up to full power. The sandy surface was hard but could still allow the wheels to slip and there was plenty of beach for a long take-off run.

Once we were in the air, I watched the white beaches of the Uists, Harris and Lewis slip past. I turned back to my card exercises again. I wasn't completely useless but the lack of practice over the last year or so was showing. There is no royal road to conjuring; you just have to practice. Fan, flip one out, palm it, re-form the deck, cut and pass. Repeat until I stop dropping them and palming is clean, sweet and invisible. And repeat again. And again.

4.45 pm Landfall Iceland

Iceland had become apparent first by the semi-permanent cloud cover that sits on top of the huge central glacier. As we drew closer, we could see a group of islands and the rugged coast of Iceland beyond.

"Vestmann Islands," announced Mick. "Just head for the leftmost bit of coast you can see. It must be part of the Reykjanes Peninsula."

Diane nodded and banked the plane gently left until the most distant coast was dead ahead.

After another 15 minutes flying, Mick used the radio for the first time, "Good afternoon, Reykjavik, this is George Baker Oboe Able Charlie."

"Good afternoon, Able Charlie," came the reply in very carefully pronounced lilting English, "You are expected, but please divert to Keflavik." Instructions on radio frequencies followed. Keflavik, about 30 miles west of Reykjavik, was marked on our chart, but no airfield shown. The daylight was good, so we decided to reconnoitre visually.

We crossed the Reykjanes peninsula just south of Reykjavik and swung west to follow the coast. The huge scar of a runway apparently still under construction was visible from ten miles away. Our radio contact was answered by a reassuringly cheery cockney voice. His response to our request to land was a little disconcerting, "I'll just make sure the bulldozers are all off the runway."

The controller assured us that the bulldozers were indeed all off the runway and we made our final approach. The runway was wide and very long but it had been built simply by bulldozing an area of sand and lava flat and then pinning down big sheets of steel mesh. Diane put us down very cautiously on the runway. The landing felt as smooth as many more conventional surfaces but the banshee shriek of rubber tyres on steel mesh was alarming.

5.15/3.15 pm Keflavik

As we halted on the runway, it wasn't obvious what to do next. There were no taxiways and no visible buildings other than nissen huts and tents. We paused, awaiting developments. After a few minutes, a small convoy or vehicles was visible approaching us, a bowser among them. Accordingly, Diane cut the engines.

As we climbed out, the Icelandic weather made its presence felt. The sky was blue and largely clear and the afternoon sunshine was lovely but the air temperature was only marginally above freezing and with a sharp wind blowing.

A tall man strode towards us from the small Morris truck that had stopped first. He was a Royal Engineers captain, oddly attired in a sheepskin jerkin over battledress with only blue eyes, a beak-like nose and a bristling moustache visible through the opening in the balaclava covering his head. "Welcome to my private airfield," he announced heartily with an expansive and proprietorial sweep of his hand. "We're not strictly open for business yet but we make an exception for friends." He went on to explain that the 'local brass' (he didn't specify who) felt that the plane would be more secure here for an overnight stay. He nodded towards the group of military police in one of the other trucks that had accompanied the bowser.

The overnight stay was news to me and apparently also to Mick. However, with more than half the journey still to go, our pilots probably needed the break. It seemed that we were to stay with one John Donaldson, who was a local businessman, British by birth with an Icelandic wife and who acted as British Chargé d'Affaires and Vice-Consul on a part-time basis. As all this was being explained to us, Mr Donaldson himself turned up in a battered old Mercedes. He was a rugged-looking man in his mid 40s dressed in a tweed suit over a fisherman's sweater. He had an enormous pipe clamped between his teeth, fortunately unlit in the miasma of petroleum vapour as the Oxford was refuelled.

Mick elected to stay behind and supervise the disposal of the aeroplane while we were driven the 25 miles or so to the Vice-Consul's house on the edge of Reykjavik. The road was little more than compacted dirt with sections washed away and occasional alarming potholes, which we swerved round or bounced through. The rule of the road seemed to be to drive as fast as possible right up the middle but to dodge to the left to avoid oncoming traffic after waiting until you were close enough to see the whites of the oncoming driver's eyes.

I noted, from the clock on the dashboard, that the local time was two hours behind London time, owing to differences in both time-zone and daylight saving. After an exhilarating 45-minute drive we entered the outskirts of Reykjavik.

Most houses were built of dark grey concrete blocks, presumably containing a lot of black volcanic ash. Without exception, the roofs were corrugated iron, mostly painted dark red. Other than a small plaque with a Union Jack on it, there was nothing to distinguish the Vice-Consul's house from the rest.

Mr Donaldson deposited us at the door with our luggage and apologised that he had other business to attend to. He told us not to stand on ceremony but to go straight in where it would be warmer.

4.15 pm Damsels in Distress

We stepped into the house and closed the door behind us. It was indeed deliciously warm compared to outside. There was no immediate response to our calling out to announce our presence so we decided to explore and see if we could find someone in.

We made our way along a dim hallway distinctly but not unpleasantly scented by pipe tobacco and with the friendly tick of a grandfather clock to welcome us.

The last door we came to evidently led to a spacious family room. I led the way in and then stopped dead at the now disturbingly familiar sight of a woman bound to a chair.

A second glance reassured me that there were no ruthless professionals on our trail here. The woman, whom I took to be Mrs Donaldson, was sitting on padded armchair with her wrists loosely roped together in her lap and her ankles also loosely tied. A single strand of rope went round her and the chair just above elbow level. She was gagged with a handkerchief between her teeth.

"Miff MacKenvie?" she asked. "Forry abou' thif bu' I'm a hoftish juf' now," she added displaying her bound wrists.

The hostage takers joined us, a boy aged about 10 and a girl a little younger, maybe 8. Both had cowboy hats on and were armed with cap guns. The boy had a bandanna tied over his face in true desperado style while his sister wore an incongruously floral silk scarf in the same way. This explained the elastic hairband their mother was wearing around her forehead with a seagull feather stuck into it at the back.

The boy pointed his gun at me and addressed me with a long stream of Icelandic out of which the only words I could pick out were "squaw" and "hands up". I got the general message and raised my hands as did Diane and Sarah.

"'oo mush cow'oy filmf," their mother commented philosophically.

Keeping his gun trained unwaveringly on me, the boy gave his sister some urgent instructions and she ran off to appear a few minutes later with a supply of odd lengths and gauges of rope and some more handkerchiefs.

I spread my hands theatrically, removed my greatcoat and offered my hands for tying.

A few minutes later, I was sitting in the middle of the Donaldsons' sofa with Sarah on my left and Diane on our right. All three of us had our hands tied in front of us and our ankles bound. We were also gagged in the same manner as Mrs Donaldson, who seemed to be enjoying our fate as much as the children. None of our bonds were remotely tight and Diane was having to grip her gag between her teeth to stop it falling out.

I decided to engage in a game of my own. As soon as the children's line of sight strayed away from me, I pulled my hands out of the rope around my wrists and flipped it up over my head so it landed behind the sofa.

A few moments later, the little girl spotted my unbound wrists, still crossed demurely on my lap. She pointed it out to he brother and they came across to investigate. I shrugged and smiled innocently. Very carefully and deliberately, they re-tied my wrists, somewhat tighter this time.

The children were apparently not sure what to do with their prisoners and were engaged in a complicated discussion. It was only a matter of time before I had another escape opportunity. I repeated the trick.

Once again, it was the girl who noticed my unbound hands and once again I feigned innocence and ignorance. The boy regarded me over the top of his bandanna with narrowed eyes. The children then re-tied my hands once again, much tighter this time and using a longer length of rope.

The boy stood back and watched me with a fixed basilisk-like stare. He kept it up for nearly three minutes at which point I thought he might have weakened enough to outmanoeuvre him. I made eye contact with him for about 15 seconds then allowed my eyes to flick away to his mother and back again. I repeated the glance away and I could see his resolve weakening. The third time, his eyes followed mine for an instant and I was ready for him. I pulled my hands free and threw the coil of rope over his head, all before his eyes were back on me.

The boy's astonishment was a picture to behold. He was unaware that his gaze had strayed, so to him it appeared that my ropes had simply vanished. He looked at me, at Sarah and Diane and at his mother, completely baffled. His sister had not really followed what was happening, so was even more baffled.

I put him out of his misery by pulling my gag down and telling him to look behind him. He looked at his mother and she repeated it in Icelandic, mumbling it slightly round her gag. The rope, now an untidy tangle, was a revelation to him.

Mrs Donaldson declared the game over and demanded that the children free their prisoners. We had clearly capped anything they could have asked for from adult participation, so they were happy to comply.

With her gag removed, Mrs Donaldson introduced herself to us as Ingrid and the two desperadoes as Magnus and Frida.

7.00 pm Impromptu Cabaret

With our long journey and the two hours time difference between Britain and Iceland, we eagerly accepted the offer of an early meal at 6 pm, when the children would eat normally and by which time Mick had joined us. We learned that there is little ostentation to go with a diplomatic position like John Donaldson's in an outpost like Reykjavik. Mrs Donaldson served us a simple but excellent meal of pan-fried herring with crisp sauté potatoes and well-buttered crunchy white cabbage.

Despite earlier impressions, the children appeared to be completely bilingual. They tended to speak to their mother in Icelandic and their father in English, but occasionally it was the other way around and abrupt changes of language in mid sentence were not unusual.

Diane, Sarah and I felt that it would be appropriate to sing for our supper, or at least to do some magic. We had a brief conference and agreed that I was on first, while Sarah and Diane did some preparation.

In the time-honoured manner of magicians everywhere since the art began, I removed my jacket and pushed the sleeves of my sweater and blouse up above my elbows to reassure the audience that everything was fair and above board. A reassurance every bit as trustworthy as the crocodile's tears or the cobra's grin.

Despite my clumsiness as I practised earlier in the day, the cards worked smoothly for me. Keeping my mind on my patter and my eye on the audience while leaving the manipulation to my reflexes and instincts seemed to work far better and I relaxed as my confidence grew. Cards vanished and were found. Cards clutched in audience members' hands mysteriously changed in value and thoroughly shuffled decks turned out to be stacked in order. The Donaldson's were mystified and enthralled and it gave me real pleasure to entertain them. Mick had seen most of my repertoire before and sat back totally relaxed and enjoying the evening.

I enjoy close-up magic enormously, but it was all too finely detailed for the stage performances I did in those days and I had to wait another decade before television enabled me to bring it to a wider audience.

7.20 pm Second Act

Diane was on next with a version of a bogus medium at work. Sarah and I had used this in our act ever since we started working together and Diane had adopted it as her speciality since joining us.

Diane apologised that her WAAF uniform was a little improbable for a medium but would have to serve. She explained that her spirit guide was Erik the Green, Erik the Red's little-known brother who had failed to discover the New World on account of his seasickness. The adults laughed and the baffled children had to have the joke explained to them. Diane explained that in that very room Erik, the long-dead Viking, would return and make his presence felt.

While Diane had been explaining what would happen, Sarah and I had been scouring the room for things that Erik could manifest with. We came up with a toy drum, a very English nine-inch brass hunting horn and a small bell.

Diane went on to explain that they could be sure it was Erik and not her doing the manifesting because she would be tied up and everyone, including the Donaldsons, would help to tie her.

In their preparations, Diane and Sarah had already identified a ladder-backed wooden chair as suitable for the trick. Diane sat down demurely and Sarah produced the thin cotton rope she had in her personal luggage. (We had much more rope stowed with the rest of our props in the back of the plane, of course.)

We adopted a floor-up approach and started by tying Diane's ankles back to the chair legs. The children were fascinated as I demonstrated how to pull coils of rope snug with a few turns to cinch them and how to tie firm reef knots. We repeated the operation just below Diane's knees and this time I let the children do the tying; they seemed to have caught on quickly.

The best way to bamboozle an audience is to let them think they are seeing every detail of what is going on and then to lie and cheat right under their collective noses.

The tying continued with Diane's waist and chest. Ropes went over both her shoulders and crossed between her breasts, eliciting a giggle from Mrs Donaldson, which she hastily suppressed in case the children demanded an explanation. All the while, Sarah and I kept up a running commentary of how the ropes were positioned for maximum security.

We finished off with Diane's wrists. We attached a rope to each wrist, with several turns of rope and a knot securely tied well out of the reach of her fingers. We explained that keeping the wrists separate would make it harder for her to escape because she would not be able to use the strength in her arms to pull her wrists free from a single binding. We crossed Diane's arms in front of her and pulled the ends of the ropes round to the back of the chair. The rope from her left wrist, which was tucked under her right arm, was tied off where the left side and top of the chair back were jointed together. The rope from her right wrist followed the mirror image of that path.

Finally, I suggested that we should deny her the use of her mouth and applied a gag, using a thin silk scarf between her teeth and knotted behind her head.

Sarah placed the drum, horn and bell on Diane's lap and the two of us withdrew to a discreet distance from the chair. The Donaldson children were given charge of a large electric torch belonging to their father and the oil lamp lighting the room was doused. The children were under instruction only to turn the torch on when I said to do so.

We all waited in silence and darkness. A minute passed, then another, then there was a sudden startling rat-tat-tat. "Torch!" I yelled and the children switched it on and then swept the beam round to Diane, who was sitting just as we had tied her, blinking in the sudden light.

Darkness was restored and again we waited. This time there was the tinkle of the bell. Again I yelled "Torch!" and again Diane was revealed apparently securely tied. The torch was heavy enough and had a stiff enough switch that there was a pause of a valuable few seconds between my yell and it being trained on Diane.

A third time, we waited in darkness. The drum started beating and then the bell joined in. I told the children to wait a moment. The honk of the hunting horn came next, startlingly loud in a relatively small room. "Now! Torch!" I urged. Silence fell and the torch revealed Diane still securely trussed and grinning round her gag.

Mr Donaldson relit the oil lamp and we all inspected Diane's bonds. She was still securely tied. I pointed out that she couldn't possibly reach the things on her lap and even if she could, she wouldn't be able to blow the horn gagged like that. "So," I concluded with a big grin, "it must have been Erik the Green." The baffled laughter that followed was the perfect response.

Diane's bonds were not as inescapable as they looked. The arrangement we tied her in is a Jacobi tie which looks impressively secure but allows one arm to be worked up and the rope brought over the victim's head almost instantly without untying any knots. It can be returned just as quickly. We have used that tie many times (and I have described its use in previous accounts of my adventures) and it never fails to mystify. Although Diane was apparently gagged, the thin silk scarf used would not have impeded her talking in the least but her incoherent mumbling once gagged convinced the audience otherwise. It also didn't prevent her pursing her lips to form an embouchure for sounding the hunting horn.

7.40 pm Final Act

As MacKenzie and Marks is known best for escapology, we finished with a straightforward old-fashioned rope escape. I asked the audience for suggestions how we might best secure Sarah. There was immediately an excited discussion in Icelandic between the children. Frida raced off and returned a few moments later clutching a somewhat dog-eared comic. She thumbed through it and thrust it into my hands, pointing at one of the pictures.

"Like that, Miss Flora," she demanded.

The comic appeared to be a Wild West story, presumably originating in America, which had been published in a Danish translation. Some of the speech bubbles were a little small to contain the more verbose Danish dialogue. The picture showed a young woman in typical cowgirl attire and securely tied up and gagged. She was lying down on her stomach with her hands tied behind her back, her knees bent and her ankles tied to her wrists.

"Ooh! I don't know if I could ever get out of that!" exclaimed Sarah, rolling her eyes and overacting outrageously. The children jumped up and down in joy at her mock consternation.

"Down!" I ordered sternly, pointing at the floor.

"It's chilly in here, so I'll just keep my jacket on," commented Sarah as she got down on the carpet.

"Won't that give you much more slack in the ropes?" Mick enquired innocently from his armchair. Sarah stuck her tongue out at him, but obediently shed her jacket and shoes.

"Now, who's going to help?" I mused.

"Me! Me! Me!" the children chorused and I raised my hands in surrender.

I started by explaining how we would tie Sarah's wrists. I placed her hands palm to palm then wound about seven or eight turns of rope round them. I twisted the ropes round so I could finish off by cinching everything together with a few turns between her wrists and knotted the ends off with a firm reef knot well out of the reach of her fingers. I explained, especially to the children, who were fascinated, that the finished binding was not so tight that Sarah's fingers would go black and fall off but nevertheless snug enough that she couldn't simply pull her hands free.

The children inspected the rope with interest and declared themselves satisfied.

"Now," I continued, "Sarah's hands are well tied but we need to make properly sure that she can't pull her hands free." I put my hands behind my back and pantomimed struggling. I showed the audience that any serious attempt to escape involved sticking my elbows out, so the next move was to prevent that.

I helped Sarah to kneel then enlisted the children's help to wind a long length of rope around Sarah, so it formed about six coils above her elbows and below her bust, pulling her arms close to her sides. I finished off this stage by using the ends of the rope to cinch between her arms and body and then knotted the rope off behind her back, so she wouldn't be lying on the knot.

I helped Sarah lie down again and we turned our attention to her legs. With the children's help, I bound her ankles in much the same way I had done her wrists, with a firm cinch between them. For good measure, I tied her legs together just above the knees, also cinching them.

I pointed to the picture in the comic book. "We are almost finished, but we must make sure Sarah can't hop her way to freedom."

I lifted Sarah's feet off the floor, so her knees were bent at right angles then had the children push them gently towards her bottom. When I judged they had pushed them far enough, I used a length of rope to form three or four turns passing between her wrists and her ankles, drawing them together, and knotted it off near the ankle end. I signalled to the children to let go and her feet sprang back, jerking the latest rope tight.

Sarah craned her head as far round as she could to try to see what we had done (as if she couldn't feel it). "Are you lot quite finished?" she asked.

"I think so," I said thoughtfully, looking at the children for confirmation. "But maybe we should gag her so she is just like the lady in the picture."

That met with the children's immediate approval and a chorus of, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" The children were clearly out for every scrap of indignity they could heap on an available grownup victim. I folded a cotton scarf from the props bag into a suitable band, eased it between Sarah's teeth and knotted it behind her head. It wasn't a proper cowgirl bandanna, but at least it was red. For good measure, I blindfolded her with another one.

I gave Sarah the signal to start with the time-honoured words, "Now get out of that!"

All four Donaldsons, but especially the children, watched with rapt attention. Mick sat back with detached amusement and Diane and I watched the proceedings with a professional eye. After all this was our very first performance for more than a year.

Sarah began with a certain amount of apparently desperate struggling. We always do this at the beginning of an escape. Partly, it's for effect but it's also to get a feel for which ropes are critical and to find any slack that there may be.

After a few minutes, Sarah relaxed then took a deep breath and strained her legs to get her feet as close to her bound hands as she could. She relaxed again when they never came within reach. After a pause, she started rhythmically bouncing her feet towards her hands, grunting round her gag as she did so, in the hope of being able to reach something.

Suddenly, Sarah grabbed wildly with one hand and was able to grasp the rope connecting her wrists and ankles. She pulled steadily, with one hand, making little gasping noises with the strain, until the fingers of her other hand could find the knot on the rope. It took just a moment to untie it, then she stretched out full length with a sigh.

It took a moment before the children spotted what was happening. Sarah was making small circling motions with her hands and, quite visibly, the ropes on one wrist were digging into her skin, while on the other wrist, the same ropes were slackening. The loosened ropes seemed to slide up onto the back of her hand of their own volition until they passed the base of her thumb, when a few hard jerks freed Sarah's right hand completely. She fiddled with the rope for a few seconds then pulled it clear of her left wrist and threw it too the floor beside her. She really deserved some applause at that point, but the Donaldsons were all riveted watching her.

Sarah reached around behind her to work on the rope securing her arms. She could reach the rope but the knot was too close to her elbows to be able to reach it with either hand. She tried instead to reach her gag, but with her arms slightly behind her, that too was out of reach. Sarah shrugged, as best she could, and mumbled something incomprehensible through her gag. She patiently set to work with one hand, pushing the ropes on the opposite arm down towards her elbow. She switched hands and did the same on the other arm then switched back again. Finally, gripping the ropes on her left arm with her right hand, she was able to get them below elbow level and with draw the arm.

After that, it was just a matter of time. Her right arm came free next, then she removed her gag and blindfold. She dragged the knot on the bundle of rope, which was now round her waist, to the front and untied it. Finally, she leaned down to her legs and freed her knees and ankles.

Seven people don't make much noise as rounds of applause go, but Sarah deserved all we could give.

'Make it look difficult' is a motto appropriate to many of the performing arts. Often, of course, it really is difficult, and the product of years of dedicated practice, but there is no harm in laying it on thick from time to time. Sarah's escape was a case in point, Diane and I were applauding her simulation of extreme difficulty as much as anything. We both knew that Sarah was lithe enough to rest her heels on her bottom with no strain whatever, so her apparent struggle against the tension in the rope linking her wrists and ankles was a masterpiece of deception.

8.10pm Bed Time

As Diane and I packed away our various props and Sarah relaxed, Ingrid Donaldson chased the children off to bed, still chattering excitedly about the evening's performance.

Later on, conversation over coffee ranged over many subjects, mainly to do with our peacetime lives than the progress of the War.

At 10.00pm, John Donaldson announced that he had to go out to meet a freighter that was expected to dock before midnight. I was not sure whether this was diplomatic business or just business but his manner did not invite questions. We thanked him and bade him farewell then I announced that it was time for me to go to bed in view of our long day and the long day ahead of us the next day.

2.00 am Night Call

I was wakened from a deep sleep by a small hand shaking my shoulder and an anxious voice saying, "Miss Flora, you've got to help!" As I came to my senses, I realised that the Donalsdons' son, Magnus, was standing by my bedside.

The fear in his voice made me react cautiously. "What's wrong?" I whispered.

He was barely coherent with panic, but I understood that someone seemed to have come into the house and his mother was in danger. His father still seemed to be out and he couldn't find his sister, so he had come to me.

I climbed out of bed and shivered in the chilly night air. I didn't pause for a dressing gown but padded along as silently as I could in my sock-clad feet. The boy guided me along the darkened landing to the top of the stairs then we crept down carefully and stopped about half way. He pointed and I followed his gaze, peering through the banisters.

We could see into the sitting room, in which at least one oil lamp had been lit. I could see Mrs Donaldson, roped to a chair and gagged. She was drooping against her bonds and had the beginnings of a black eye swelling up but did appear to be conscious. I could see two other people in the room and at least one of them had a gun.

Our whereabouts had been betrayed again; I was certain of that. The immediate problem was to save Mrs Donaldson. As far as I could tell, although we might have surprise on our side, we had precious little else to work with.

Copyright © 2001 Gillian B

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