Authors: Alex Gerlis
The Best of Our Spies
Published by CB Creative Books
Copyright ©Alex Gerlis 2012
Born in Lincolnshire,
was a BBC journalist for more than twenty five years. He left in 2011 to concentrate on writing and freelance journalism.
‘The Best of Our Spies’
is his first novel and he is represented by the Curtis Brown literary agency. He is a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Bedfordshire. Alex Gerlis lives in west London with his wife and two daughters.
‘The Best of Our Spies’
is published as part of an initiative between Curtis Brown Creative and Amazon.
The first time they saw German troops was around eight hours after they had left Amiens.
Fear had swept through the twenty of them, mostly strangers who had silently come together by happening to be on the same road at the same time and moving in the same direction. ‘
Don’t head north
,’ they had been warned in Amiens. ‘
You’re walking into a battle
Some of the original group had heeded that advice and stayed in the town. A dozen of them had carried on. They were refugees now, so they kept moving. It had quickly become a habit, they couldn’t stop themselves.
A tall, stooped man called Marcel had assumed the role of leader and guide. He was a dentist, from Chartres, he told them. The rest of the group nodded and were happy to follow him.
Marcel decided that the main road would be too dangerous, so they dropped down to follow the path of the Somme, passing through the small villages that hugged the river as it twisted through Picardy. The villages were unnaturally silent, apart from the angry barking of dogs taking turns to escort them through their territory. Anxious villagers peered from behind partially drawn curtains or half-closed shutters.
Occasionally, a child would venture out to stare at them, but would quickly be called home by an urgent shout. Some villagers would come out and offer them water and a little food, but were relieved to see them move on. Refugees meant war and no one wanted the war to linger in their village. In a couple of the places, one or two more refugees joined them. No one asked to join, no one was refused. They just tagged along, swelling their numbers.
On the outskirts of the village of Ailly-sur-Somme a middle-aged couple came out from their cottage and offered the group water and fruit. They sat on the grass verge while the couple appeared to be arguing quietly in their doorway. And that is when they called her out.
‘Madame, please can we have a word with you?’
She was sitting nearest to the house, but was not sure that they meant her. She looked around in case they were addressing someone else.
‘Please, could we speak with you?’ the man asked again.
She walked slowly over to the doorway. Maybe they had taken pity on her and were going to offer a meal. Or a bed. She smiled at the couple. Behind them, in the gloom of the hallway, she could make out a pair of piercing eyes.
‘Madame. You seem to be a very decent lady. Please help us.’ The man sounded desperate. ‘A lady passed through the village last week.’
There was a pause.
‘From Paris,’ his wife added.
‘Yes, she was from Paris. She said that she had to find somewhere in the area to hide and she asked us to look after her daughter. She promised she would be back for her in a day or two. She said she would pay us then. She promised to be generous. But that was a week ago. We cannot look after the girl any longer. The Germans could arrive any day now. You must take her!’
She looked around. The group were getting up now, preparing to move on.
‘Why me?’ she asked.
‘Because you look decent and maybe if you are from a city you’ll understand her ways. Are you from a city?’
She nodded, which they took as some kind of assent. The woman ushered the girl from inside the cottage. She looked no more than six years old, with dark eyes and long curly hair. She was dressed in a well-made blue coat and her shoes were smart and polished. A pale brown leather satchel hung across her shoulders.
‘Her name is Sylvie,’ the man said. His wife took Sylvie’s hand and placed it in the woman’s.
‘But what about when her mother returns?’
The wife was already retreating into the dark interior of the cottage.
‘Are you coming?’ It was Marcel, calling out to her as he started to lead the group off. His voice sounded almost jolly as if they were on a weekend ramble.
The man leaned towards her, speaking directly into her ear so that the little girl could not hear. ‘She won’t be back,’ he said. He glanced round at the girl and lowered his voice. ‘They’re Jews. You must take her.’
With that, he quickly followed his wife into the cottage and slammed the door behind them.
She hesitated on the doorstep, still holding the little girl’s hand. She could hear the door being bolted. She knocked on the door two or three times, but there was no response.
She thought of trying to go round the rear of the cottage, but she was losing sight of her group now. Sylvie was still holding her hand, glancing up at her anxiously. She knelt down to speak to the little girl.
‘Are you all right?’ She tried to sound reassuring. Sylvie nodded.
‘Do you want to come with me?’
The little girl nodded again and muttered ‘Yes.’
This is the last thing I need
. She thought of leaving her there, on the doorstep. They’ll have to take her back in. She paused. I need to decide quickly. Maybe as far as the town, there’ll be somewhere she can go there.
By the time they had walked down the path and started to follow the group, the shutters in the cottage had been closed.
It was as they left the next village that they came across the Germans. They emerged from behind the trees one by one, with their grey uniforms, black boots and oddly shaped helmets, not saying a word. Slowly, they circled the group, which had come to a halt, too frightened to move. The German soldiers moved into position like pieces on a chessboard. They waved their machine guns to herd the group into the middle of the road.
She was terrified.
They are going to shoot us
. The little girl clutched her hand.
She breathed in and out deeply. Remember the training they gave you, she told herself:
When you are in a potentially dangerous situation, do not try to be anonymous.
Never look away, or at the ground. Do not avoid eye contact.
If you are in a group or a crowd, avoid standing in the middle, which is where they would expect you to hide.
If you fear that you are about to be found out, resist the temptation to own up. It is a fair assumption that the person questioning you or searching you will miss the obvious.
She heard some shouting from behind the trees and over the shoulder of the soldier nearest to her she spotted two officers emerging. One of them was speaking loudly in bad French.
‘We are going to search you and then you can move on. Are any of you carrying weapons?’
Everyone around her was shaking their head. She noticed that Sylvie shook hers too.
He waited a while in case anyone might change their minds.
‘Are there any Jews in this group?’
There was silence. People glanced suspiciously at those stood around them. At the word ‘
’ the little girl’s hand had tightened its grip on hers with a strength she could not have imagined. She looked down and saw that Sylvie had her head bowed and appeared to be sobbing. She realised the extent of her predicament. If they caught her looking after a Jewish child, she would have no excuses.
‘My men will come and search you now. I am sure that you will all co-operate.’
The soldiers spread the group out along the road and began searching people. Marcel was close to her and was searched before her. The soldier searching him gestured to him to remove his wristwatch. Marcel started to protest, until one of the officers walked over. He smiled, looked at the watch that had been passed to him, nodded approvingly and slipped it into his jacket pocket. Along the line, members of the group were being relieved of possessions: watches, pieces of jewellery and even a bottle of cognac.
The soldier who came to search her appeared to be in his teens. His hands shook as he took her identity card. She noticed that his lips moved silently as he tried to read what it said. One of the officers appeared behind him and took the identity card.
‘You’ve come a long way.’ He handed her identity card back to her.
‘Is this your sister?’ He was staring intently at the little girl.
She gave the faintest of nods.
‘She is your sister, then?’
She hesitated. She had not said anything yet. She could do so now. They wouldn’t harm a child. The little girl now placed her other hand round her wrist, stroking her forearm as she did so.
‘Yes. She is my sister.’ She had replied in German, speaking quietly and hoping that no one else in the group heard her. Trying to appear as relaxed as possible, she smiled sweetly at the officer who was probably in his mid-twenties, the same age as her. She threw her head back, allowing her long hair to settle over her shoulders.
If you are an attractive woman
at that point the instructor had been looking directly at her, along with the rest of them –
do not hesitate to use your charms on men.
The officer raised his eyebrows approvingly and nodded.
‘And where did you learn to speak German?’
‘A good school then. And does your sister have an identity card?’
It was too late. She should have realised this would happen.
Does he suspect something? She doesn’t look anything like me. Her complexion is so much darker.
She had lost the chance to tell them the truth.
‘She lost it.’
‘In Amiens. A Gypsy stole it from her.’
The officer nodded knowingly. He understood. What do you expect? Gypsies. Don’t we warn people about them? Thieves. Almost as bad as the Jews. Almost.
He lowered himself down on his haunches so that he was at eye level with the little girl.
‘And what is your name?’
There was a pause. The little girl peered up at her for approval. She nodded and smiled.
‘Sylvie is a nice name. Sylvie what?’
‘What is your surname – your full name?’
‘So, your name is ‘Sylvie Sylvie’?’ The officer was beginning to sound exasperated. Sylvie was whimpering.
‘I’m sorry, sir. She is frightened. It’s the guns. She’s never seen any before.’
‘Well, she’d better get used to them, hadn’t she?’ The officer was standing up now. Not satisfied.
From the east there was a series of explosions followed by an exchange of rifle fire.
The officer hesitated. He wanted to continue with the interrogation, but the other officer was shouting out urgent instructions to the soldiers.
‘All right, move on,’ he said to her.
It was only when the soldiers disappeared back into the woods and the group moved on that she realised how petrified she was. Her heart was ramming against her ribs and cold sweat was running down her back. The little girl walked on obediently beside her, but she could feel and see her body trembling.
As the group walked slowly along the road, she realised that she was stroking Sylvie’s hair, her trembling hand cupping the child’s cheeks, wiping away the tears with her thumb.
Not for the first time and certainly not for the last, she had surprised herself.
They had walked for another hour. Marcel had dropped back at one stage and sidled up to her.
‘And where did she come from?’ He gestured at Sylvie, who was still clutching her hand.
‘The couple who gave us water and fruit outside their cottage. The last village but one. They made me take her.’
‘You realise ...?’
‘Of course I do!’
‘Aren’t you taking a bit of a risk?’
‘Aren’t we all?’
Marcel had spotted a forest ahead of them and said that the deeper they got into it, the safer they’d be. But as she was beginning to realise was the case in the countryside, distances were hard to judge and the forest was not quite as near as it seemed and by the time they found a clearing, everyone was exhausted.
That night she found herself with Sylvie on the edge of the group, resting next to an old man and his wife. As the rest of the group slept the old man had given her his blanket, assuring her he was not cold. Sylvie was curled up alongside her under the blanket, fast asleep.
The old man had also given her the last of his water. He was not thirsty, he assured her. The moonlight poked through the canopy of the forest, the tops of some of the trees swaying very gently despite the apparent absence of any breeze. The old man moved closer to her and spoke quietly: he and his wife had lost both their sons at Verdun and had prayed they would never see another war. He had tried to lead a decent life. He went to church, he paid his taxes, he had never voted for the communists. He worked on the railways, but was now retired. They could not stand the thought of being in Paris when it was occupied, so now they were heading to the town where his wife’s sister lived, he explained. It was bound to be peaceful there.