By the time we reached glasgow it was obvious that there was no chance of travelling any further that day. We sat down to spuds with mince and onions, followed by whisky and a game of poker in front of a coal ﬁre. If I’m not careful, I thought, as the cards slapped onto the table, I could lose the whole afternoon. I resolved not to—but within minutes the whisky and the warmth had drained all the willpower out of me.
Over the card play, as coals glowed in the hearth and a waitress in an apron and bonnet supplied us with ice for the Scotch, I listened as Krick told me his remarkable life story. I had taken an unlikely route into meteorology, but his was far stranger. After taking a physics degree at the University of California he worked as a disc jockey, then as a runner for a company of stockbrokers.
“Chapman de Wolfe and Company,”he said,pronouncing it “Volf ” in the German way. “As you can imagine, my services were dispensed with pretty rapidly after the Crash in ’twenty-nine. Though I missed the worst of it on my own account.”
“How?” I asked, leaning forward.
He grinned, slicking his hair back. “I devised a system calibrating ﬁnancial ﬂuctuations against background randomness, according to certain physical principles. Things have changed a bit since then, but I still use the same basic idea.”
Krick’s theory of stock-market cycles had begun as an innocent intellectual recreation, or so he said, but in years to come he successfully played the markets using his system. The Wall Street Crash was no accident, he maintained. It was a necessary piece of information within a larger story. Ryman, who had none of Krick’s hucksterism, would have agreed. There are no accidents. Every so-called “accident,” every piece of turbulence, is part of a sequence, bigger or smaller, whose scale you cannot see. At least, you don’t see it until it’s too late, and then you start to panic, because you realise how foolish was your original fantasy of understanding.
During the Depression Krick sold pianos and worked as a jobbing concert pianist for the NBC Orchestra. He was also a radio disc jockey for a while. Eventually he found his way back to university, studying meteorology under Theodore von Kármán and Robert Millikan at Caltech in Los Angeles. It was uncanny to hear about these giants of meteorology in a Glasgow hotel—stranger still to do so with a glass of whisky in one hand and a busted ﬂush in the other.
As the talk ﬂowed, I drank more and more. I won a couple of pots. So did Krick, leaning his big face forward as he collected. The other Americans won one apiece. As the cards were dealt and shufﬂed and stacked, the smoke from our cigarettes and cigars swirled up the oak panelling, with its pictures of sporting scenes and moody Highland cattle. How well I would come to know their glowering stares.
Krick told more anecdotes as we played. “Goering tried to lure back von Kármán to Europe to head up the Luftwaffe’s weather forecasting,” he said. “Von Kármán refused, simply sending Goering a drawing of his Jewish proﬁle.” We all laughed. It was a meteorologists’ joke, a “proﬁle” being a technical term in weather forecasting.
As Krick talked I slowly began to realise the anecdotes were diversion tactics. The tales were intended to distract his opponents from their game—and it was working. All the time he was recounting his experiences, or expounding pet theories, he was taking money off us.
The diverting stories continued. The duo had met at Caltech. Then Krick had joined an airline, as had Holzman, who became chief meteorologist for American Airlines. They began swapping tales about the aviation industry.
“I used to get in trouble in that ﬁrst job,” Krick drawled, showing another hand. A pair of deuces—plus another pair of deuces. Four of a kind against my full house, and there he was scooping up our money again.“They hadn’t heard of weather fronts then,and hated me drawing them on the charts. But obviously it was more useful for the pilots. Then they could see where the action was coming from. Predictable as a corny movie.”
“Irv worked in Hollywood,” chipped in Holzman. “He was weather prophet for Gone with the Wind.”
Krick grinned as he added our money to his stack. “I picked the night they burnt Atlanta. It had to be a clear one.”
“Another time, he advised Bogart on the weather for the Ensenada yacht race,” said Holzman.
“I ﬂubbed that. Bogie never got to Mexico. He stayed in U.S. waters. A dead calm.”
Holzman laughed. “Will you go back to it, Irv, when the war’s over?”
“I doubt it. I was forecasting for the citrus industry before I got called up. Reckon I’ll get back into it. That’s where the money is.”
“Commercial forecasting,” nodded Holzman.
“Transporting airplanes is another good one,” added Krick. “Forty planes going from A to B, you don’t wanna get that wrong. One of my ﬁrst duties in the air force in this war was to pick the days when our guys could ﬂy safely across the Atlantic.”
“Days with minimum turbulence?” I asked.
“Oh no,” said Krick. “Pick those days and our friends in the Luftwaffe would be waiting. It was more a case of just enough turbulence.” He produced a cigar from under the table and, as prelude to another tale, blew a near-perfect smoke ring over my head . . .
It has always struck me as fate that I met those two at the beginning of my working life. From my Cambridge ivory tower I have followed their careers with interest since the war, now and then bumping into one or the other of them on trips to America. They became sort of alter egos for me, standing for all the possibilities I shut off when I chose withdrawal into academic life.
Later in the war Holzman would work on the weather forecast for the atom bomb at Los Alamos. He stayed in the U.S. Air Force for his entire career, becoming a general and commander of the USAAF Research Laboratory. He was involved in virtually every major phase of research into missile and space systems, all through the Cold War. His security clearance was cosmic, so I didn’t get to see him much.
Krick, as he indicated during that poker session, would pretty much found the new industry of selling the weather. Cotton growers wanting to know what the harvest will be like. The Edison Company having difﬁculties with storms knocking out power lines. The California Division of Highways worrying about snow in the mountains. The Brooklyn Dodgers wanting advice on whether they should buy rain insurance for an important game. Loggers, fruit growers, the managers of hydroelectric schemes...
Krick pursued all this and more. He was weather forecaster for the 1960 Winter Olympics and, the following year, for the inauguration of President Kennedy. But his biggest thing was cloud-seeding, which involved modifying weather by dispersing chemicals, usually silver iodide, or dry ice, into clouds to induce precipitation.
Krick got into this still-controversial practice in a major way, selling thousands of ground-based generators to farmers all over the U.S. These machines, rocketing crystals into the reluctant sky, were all controlled by radio from a complex in Palm Springs, California, where Krick himself still lives in a Moorish-style mansion in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto.
I went to visit him there once—the place had marble ﬂoors—and he was extremely hospitable, serving up frozen margaritas. But to the U.S. Weather Bureau he became a kind of bête noire. There were accusations of quackery and exploitation. He was always very charming to me, and I never brought up something which troubled my colleagues: that he may have been the source of the rumours, still current to this day in the U.S., that the British teams “failed” in their predictions for Overlord— and that D-Day was saved by Krick himself. He even maintained, somewhat astonishingly, that it would have been better to have gone a day earlier after all. I let it pass.
This was the extravagant future which lay ahead of my poker opponents. I drank far more than I should have done and lost more money than I could afford. Some time in the early hours I staggered up to bed, wallet half emptied, shoelaces trailing, mounting unsteadily a staircase, the steps of which seemed to have been frustratingly rearranged, before losing myself in a warren of interconnecting, treacherously carpeted corridors and the hiding-places of mops and buckets and boiler-room pipes. I suppose I must have booked a room in the course of that long afternoon which had stretched into evening, and eventually found my way to it, but I can’t remember either.
EARLY ON THE THIRD DAY I SET OFF set off on the motorcycle to Dunoon, in order to report to Whybrow. I had left it rather late, telling myself the important thing was to ready myself for the encounter with Ryman. Presumably Sir Peter had given Whybrow some indication that I was also doing work other than local observations.
Feeling the wind-chill on my face and hands, I rode alongside the water, past the row of large loch-front houses which constituted Kilmun itself, passing an old church with a tower in its graveyard. I then turned left under bumpy green hills, travelling for several miles (and at one point falling off) until I reached Dunoon.
It was a busy place. As well as local residents there were an awful lot of people in one sort of uniform or another. Colonial troops and Americans as well as British servicemen. On asking where I might ﬁnd HMS Osprey, where Sir Peter had said Whybrow was based, I found it to be one of the shore-based establishments—in this case a former convalescent home—which the navy insists on calling a ship. The ﬂoor is referred to as the deck, right starboard and left port. Even to leave by the front door is to take a liberty boat.
As I arrived, a ﬂag-raising ceremony was taking place outside the building, complete with buglers and ratings in blue and white uniforms. The event was unpopular with the townsfolk as it brought the main road to a standstill.
We stood waiting and watching, our way barred by sentries with riﬂes. At the crucial moment, much to the amusement of civilian onlookers, an old fellow in a blue jersey, who was selling ﬁsh and oysters from a wheelbarrow, shouted out, “Loch Eck herrings, fresh Loch Eck herrings!”
Once the performance was over, it turned out my wait had been for nothing, as on gaining entrance I learned that the Met station at Dunoon was actually inland rather than on Osprey itself. Yet even this second site was still conceived as part of the “ship.”
I remounted my motorbike and eventually found, on the outskirts of the town, a group of Nissen huts dotted around an old white-painted farmhouse. There was a cookhouse and a washhouse and a hydrogen shed (formerly a grain barn), some dormitories and not much else. The conditions were quite primitive. There was mud everywhere. The sight of it made me shudder.
Gordon Whybrow was bald and short-sighted, with a pair of thick-lensed spectacles balanced on the end of his long, thin nose. I ﬁrst found him in the Ops Room, as the farmhouse drawing room had been rechristened. He was wearing RAF uniform, like all Met staff who have been conscripted, even if they’re actually working in another branch of the services, as he was on Osprey. I was still a civilian employee at this stage.
Bent over a desk bearing the large typewriter on which, I presumed, his letter to me had been written, he was studying another machine, or part of it. I recognised it as the switching mechanism on a new type of radiosonde.
Three inﬂated red balloons bumped on the ceiling of the room, their strings draping over Whybrow as he peered at the device. Behind him, on a large board on the wall, a Waaf was plotting combined readings. A slight brunette, she was reaching up for strings—held in place by brass “mice”—which showed the directional lines of balloons released from different stations.
Little red ﬂags marked the positions of weather ships in the Atlantic, the Channel and the North Sea, while lines of green ﬂags marked the tracks of the met recs, the meteorological reconnaissance ﬂights which took off from airﬁelds all over Britain each morning.
Another Waaf, plumpish with short fair hair, was kneeling on the ﬂoor, reading data to her colleague as the teleprinter roll spilled down. Her chubby face was dotted with freckles. She was the only person in the room to notice my entrance, smiling pleasantly and brushing a hand against her skirt as if doing so would compensate for the awkwardness of kneeling.
“You have to set the switch sequence before you put on the windmill,” I said to Whybrow’s bald head. He looked up with a face full of surprise, swiftly followed by irritation, whether at my remark, which I suppose was a bit know-it-all, or simply my arrival I could not tell.
“Henry Meadows. The director probably mentioned . . .”
“Ah,” said Whybrow, straightening. “There you are at last. Our man of mystery. I noticed you had hooked up the teleprinter yesterday. Why has it taken you so long to report in?” He seemed to speak through his long nose.
“I wanted to get myself established ﬁrst,” I replied. “Seeing as the equipment was all there ...And as I’m sure you know, Sir Peter has given me some other duties, too.”
He blinked through the spectacles. “Other duties, eh? How about that? Yes, the director did say you had a special project you were working on for him.” He turned to the two Waafs. “A special project. How about that, girls?”
“Allow me to introduce Gwen Liss and Joan Lamb,” said Whybrow, pointing at each in turn. “I say, he should have come here ﬁrst of all, shouldn’t he, girls?”
I ignored him. One of the women giggled. It was Gwen, the thin brown-haired one, whose cheeks were rather drawn in. This gave her a look of passionate austerity. Joan, meanwhile, was fair and broad, Germanic or Scandinavian in appearance if one had to put a label on it, but with dark eyes. With her blonde hair and freckles, the combination was also rather striking.
Whybrow waved a dismissive hand at the Waafs. “Give us a minute, will you.” He gestured peremptorily at the red balloons on the ceiling. “Send up one of those and get me a cloud height estimation.”
Without saying a word, Joan tugged on one of the strings, Gwen seizing the balloon as it came down. It more or less ﬁlled the doorway as she took it out, holding it before her as if she were a waitress with a tray. Joan followed.
Once they had left, Whybrow turned to me, folding his hands on his RAF tunic with the air of someone about to make a speech. “I don’t quite understand why a Type 3 outstation need be set up in Wallace Ryman’s garden, but who am I to reason why? Apparently you are a ‘bright young thing’ who needs careful handling. A real scientist, Sir Peter said, as if the rest of us aren’t. Well, young man, I’ll be expecting the very best from you, as from any other observer.”
“Of course, sir,” I said, putting a deliberate meekness into my voice. Whybrow was more or less irrelevant so far as my true task was concerned, but there was no point in antagonising him for the sake of it. And there could, after all, I thought then, be some way in which I might need his help.
“Right, then. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Have you sent up any sondes yet?”
“I haven’t any hydrogen.”
“We sent over all the requisites.”
“I have never made it before. The tanks came ready supplied at Kew.”
He laughed abruptly, as if pleased to discover I wasn’t such a knowit-all after all. “Then you had better come with me.”
Leaving the farmhouse, we walked through the mud that divided the Nissen huts, all of which were of uniform height. The hydrogen shed was much bigger. From a kind of gable at one end of it, the tower of the cloud searchlight rose, giving the whole complex the air of a makeshift airﬁeld.
“Gwen! Joan!” shouted Whybrow.
He called again. A red balloon appeared from behind one of the huts. Eventually the balloon entered the cloud.
“Three hundred and ten feet, sir,” said Joan emerging from the hut, followed shortly afterwards by Gwen.
They both, I would later learn, came from landed families in Norfolk. The sort of stylish women to whom everything came easily, they seemed odd candidates to be stuck up in this backwater. But then, war did that to all of us, moving us around its chessboard in ways we never expected.
“Jolly good,” said Whybrow nasally. “Now, I’d like you, one or other of you, or both, to show our new arrival how to make hydrogen. Then send him to Mr. Pyke up at Loch Eck.”
He turned to me. “Sir Peter said I was to introduce you to someone from Combined Ops’ Experimental Section who is up here. Strange fellow, Pyke. Very hot to use science for war, and clever with it. Anyway, good luck!”
On this oddly cheery note, Whybrow made his way back to the Ops Room, his square back framed in the rectangle of light between two Nissen huts. Without saying anything to me, the two women began walking in the direction of the tall hydrogen shed.
Falling into pace behind them, I couldn’t help noticing their ﬁne shoes were covered in mud. They were court shoes, but ﬁne ones, not the standard, pump-like things that most of the Waafs wore, which looked like comical black frogs.
“Shame to cover such nice shoes in mud,” I said to their backs. “They look rather expensive. You ought to be in wellies, with this lot.”
“Not likely,” said Joan over her shoulder. “We wouldn’t be seen dead in wellies.” It struck me as odd that she should speak for them both.
“Hydrogen shed,” Gwen announced bluntly. They both spoke in this clipped, staccato manner. She pushed against the door and I followed them inside.
The lights ﬂickered on to reveal a large warehouse-like space. At one end were some stairs leading up to the gable, out of which a mezzanine ﬂoor projected. There was a balcony there with something vertical behind, just showing in the darkness above the lights: a suspended row of aluminium-shaded lamps, looking like soldiers’ helmets hanging from wires. The ﬂoor space below, empty in the centre, was lined with steel drums of caustic soda and piles of cylinders for storing hydrogen.
“This is the generator,” said Joan. She indicated another drum, smaller and thicker than those in which the caustic soda was stored. It was sealed with a screw-down lid, out of which projected a black rubber tube.
I stubbed my toe on something and swore. The women laughed maliciously. I peered down to see what had injured me: a lozenge of lead. “That’s the safety weight,” explained Gwen, her tone kinder than before. “We’re always doing that. We have a whale of a time doing that.”
She pulled on some rubber gloves and fetched a lump of caustic soda, holding it up to the light as she walked back towards me. It looked like a cake of salt. “You don’t want to get this horrid stuff on your skin.” She put it in the generator, along with some water. “Fill to two-thirds.”
“Add a cupful of iron ﬁlings,” said Joan, leaning over.
“Ferrosilicon, really,” said Gwen, watching Joan pour the catalyst into the cylinder. Then, as Gwen moved quickly to screw down the lid, Joan picked up the lead weight next to my foot. She placed it on the rubber tube where it emerged from the lid. Steadying herself by putting out a hand to Gwen’s shoulder, Joan stood on the weight, ﬁrst with one foot, then the other.
“You have to do this or the weight can come off,” she said, as the reaction began. Balancing, arms outstretched, she looked like an outsize Christmas fairy. Next to her, inside the cylinder, the recipe for hydrogen ﬁzzed and gurgled.
The reaction came to a peak. Gwen produced an empty balloon from her tunic, knelt down beside the canister and began rolling the nozzle over the stubby tube. “You have to thread it on quite carefully,” she said.
“Or it can all go wrong,” added Joan from her pedestal.
I watched the balloon begin to inﬂate.
“Hydrogen,” said Gwen, holding the sides of the balloon with her palms as it ﬁlled up. “Lightest element in the universe, ta-ra ta-ra.”
“And the most abundant,” said Joan, stepping down from the lozenge as the reaction came to equilibrium. “Fifteen pounds of it in every human body.” They sounded like music-hall comedians, limbering up for a punchline.
Gwen unrolled the nozzle of the balloon from its umbilical tube, knotted it and let go. It danced up past the row of lights, rising to the apex of the ceiling.
“How will you get it down?” I wondered aloud, watching.
“We’ll show you,” said Joan. “Come on.”
I stood in the centre of the shed. “Isn’t it highly explosive? It could burn on those lights.”
“Only if there’s a spark,” said Gwen. “Come along.”
I followed them across the cavernous shed and up some narrow stairs that led to the gable end and the balcony. Climbing up through an open trapdoor, I saw there were several steel sheets bolted to the wooden ﬂoor as foundations for some kind of structure. It was quite dark up there, but I made out the base of the cloud searchlight tower. Beneath it were two thin mattresses side by side, with pillows and blankets. I was surprised, my mind raced . . . they surely hadn’t brought me into a bedroom?
“We sometimes take turns to have a nap up here while on duty,” Gwen said, by way of explanation. She turned on a little lamp: just a bare bulb ﬁxed to one of the wooden rafters.
In the new light I saw two little bowls of make-up on the ﬂoor and a full-length mirror draped with clothing. Under the mirror was a small pile of shoes. There was also an easel and a stack of canvases, together with a palette covered with hardened oil paint of various hues, jam jars full of paintbrushes, and a wooden tray of half-squeezed tubes of paint.
“We paint up here too,” said Gwen. “We’re artists, you see.”
Even more surprised, I looked at the picture on the easel. It showed a long yellow beach with rolling breakers curved along a bay. Among puddles of seawater in the sand, a couple of black dogs jumped about, chasing salt-wet tails. The dogs’ tails and the curling breakers mirrored each other, as if the intention was to convey a relationship between them. Behind the dogs, blues and yellows and greens of varying relationships blended into the glow of the horizon.
“That’s pretty good,” I said, aware of them looking at me in expectation of an opinion.
“Not good enough,” said thin Gwen, and I wondered for a second if she was referring to my response rather than the painting itself.
“Never is,” said Joan. “Would you like some tea?”
“Oh, yes please,” I replied. “Which of you did it?”
“We do them together,” Gwen said proudly.
“Maybe. It’s our thing. We hope to apply to the Slade, if this horrid war ever ends.”
“What do you think we should call it?” Joan asked me.
I looked again at the painting. “Dogs in Foam?”I ventured,and they both laughed, hooting loudly.
On a low table next to the mirror was everything needed for brewing tea. Joan put a small kettle on. The three of us stood slightly awkwardly, waiting for it to boil.
“What does Whybrow think?” I asked.
“What about?” said Gwen.
“You two having this little den.”
“Oh, he doesn’t mind,” said Joan, pouring hot water into a teapot.
“He daren’t,” Gwen said. “We think he’s scared of us.”
“He says we make him anxious,” said Joan, pouring, then handing me a mug.
Neither replied. As we drank our tea, I studied the metal-grid pylon-like tower which rose out of the ﬂoor towards the roof, where—bolted on either side of the pitch—there were two more trapdoors. The glass of the searchlight and some meteorological gauges were suspended on a trackway in the middle of the grid, which was raised by a geared winding system.
“Can I see it work?” I asked.
“It’s not worth turning on in the day,” said Gwen. “And at night it attracts bombers, but basically we undo these...” She climbed onto the grid of the tower and unbolted one of the trapdoors, which fell down with a bang. Cold air rushed down. I could see the sky—and Gwen’s calves.
All in a pickle, I quickly looked down again, trying not to catch the eye of Joan, who was standing next to me. I didn’t quite succeed. I was sure she was smirking. The suspicion began to grow in me that the whole thing had been done for my beneﬁt. Or theirs. Had I been had? I was beginning to see how Whybrow might ﬁnd them perturbing. They seemed to be the kind of women who could turn men round their little ﬁngers, and enjoy the sport of doing it.
There was another bang as Gwen let down the second trapdoor.
Joan grasped a metal handle and began winding the worm gear which raised the tower. It ascended like a theatrical device. I watched as Gwen rose further with the tower until her head poked out of the roof. Her silk-stockinged ankles were now level with my face. I felt overcome by simple lust.
“Jeepers, it’s nippy up here,” she called.
I stared. There was something hypnotic about the way—like a graph curve, like a continuous function—the material followed the ﬂow of skin and bone.
Things were made worse by Joan’s hand brushing my back as she reached for the handle of the worm gear. “You could help,” she said, starting to wind. “This thing hurts my wrist.”
So I wound the tower—and Gwen—down again. Joan was right. It was quite hard, in spite of the gear.
“In summer,” said Joan, “we can smell jasmine up there on the wind.”
“Very romantic,” I said.
“Whereas in winter we get chilblains,” said Gwen crisply, climbing down beside us. “Joany, we’d better get that balloon.”
I looked over the balcony to the balloon on the ceiling. The suspended lights shone a peculiar red through the rubber, like torchlight through ﬁngers. Gwen appeared, holding a pole with a hook on the end—like a boat gaffe—and Joan leaned out over the balcony to deftly hook the balloon.
“Yes,” said Gwen, as she and I descended to the ground ﬂoor. “No, hand it down. I’ll do it.”
She took the other end of the pole from Joan, who then climbed down herself.
Gwen opened the door of the shed to let the gas out of the balloon, sounding a long, slow exhalation. I imagined the molecules of hydrogen spreading out into the atmosphere and combining with other elements.
“Whybrow mentioned seeing Pyke from Combined Ops at Loch ...Loch...” I said, frowning and moving my weight from one foot to another as I tried to remember the name.
“Eck. I’ll show you where to drive,” said Joan. “It’s not far. Pyke is usually on the loch at this time. If he’s not there he’ll be at the Argyll Hotel in town.”
I was pleased it was her. For I have to admit, it was Joan who (in the midst of my ignorance) was stirring my pot then, more than Gwen, despite the business with the stockings. How they will laugh if they ever read this!
We walked through the mud and the old farmyard towards the gate.
“How will I recognise Pyke?” I asked.
I swung my leg over the motorcycle.
“There’s no mistaking him,” she said. “He has a messy little beard, wears specs. Looks a bit peculiar. Holes in his suit jacket.” She giggled. “You better watch out or that’s what you will become.”
“Why?” I asked, affronted.
“All you scientists end up that way.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have no style. All you think about are your equations.”
“Ah,” I said, rising to the challenge. “But that is just it, don’t you see? The style is in the equations. Some people write ugly proofs, others do it with panache. I like to think mine are as beautiful as, as—well, anything!”
I watched her face become aghast. “Anything? Anything is not beautiful. Only special things are beautiful.”
I felt embarrassed at my inability to express myself. “All right, Miss, if you say so. But one day I’ll show you some of those equations and you will see what I mean.”
“I look forward to it.”
After giving directions to the quay at Loch Eck, she said goodbye to me, then turned and headed back to the station.
I managed to stall the motorbike after just a few yards.As I was sitting in the middle of the road, kicking the starter, I became aware of a detachment of troops marching towards me. American infantry. It was too late for me to move. They separated on either side of me before rejoining; exercise-hardened faces giving no acknowledgement of my presence.
I sat frozen to the seat. I have never seen a statue of a man on a motorbike but that’s what I was, a monument around which they ﬂowed with the molecules of the air. After the rupture, when the men re-formed, it was as if there had been no disturbance. Turning on the saddle to watch the soldiers grow smaller down the road, I thought again about the invasion of which they might become a part, for which I was supposed to help predict the weather by unwrapping the mysteries of the Ryman number.
I kicked the pedal. Under gunﬁre on a beach...I did not envy them that. I kicked the pedal again.
Starting the engine, ﬁnally, I was shaken by a grave doubt as to whether anything I could do as a meteorologist could match what would be asked of those soldiers.