Authors: Alex Gerlis
Outside she could hear the sound of the shop doors being wrenched open and then slammed shut, followed by shouting in German. ‘They’ve gone, they’re not around here,’ one of the soldiers was saying.
‘Are they after you?’
The younger boy nodded. He looked terrified. ‘We took some food. A patrol spotted us so we ran away. They didn’t see us come in here. I promise you.’
‘You can stay,’ she said, ‘but let me see what food you’ve got.’
They laid it out on the filthy table in the middle of the room. The two baguettes, a large round cheese with a thick yellow rind and not much of an aroma and a long, thick smoked sausage.
‘Do you have anything to drink?’
The younger boy glanced nervously at the older one who nodded. He pulled a flask from an inside coat pocket and handed it to her.
‘It’s water,’ he said, ‘it’s all we have left’, grudgingly handing the flask over to her.
She drank all of the water in the flask in one go and then looked at the two boys.
‘I’ll take a baguette and half of the cheese and sausage. Then you can stay. It’s your rent. Keep quiet and stay away from the windows. Understand?’
The boys nodded. They had risked their lives for this food and now had given half of it away, but they had no alternative. Crouched on the floor, shoulder to shoulder, they sat in silence, eating while sunlight swept into the room, picking out the dust and the cobwebs. The boys were exhausted and by noon had fallen asleep.
She stayed on the sofa, the remains of the bread and her share of the cheese and the sausage carefully stashed in her bag, which she clutched to her chest. By early afternoon, she had a plan. She would head for the hospital. It was the natural place for her to go. They would probably welcome her and, apart from anything else, there she would have a good chance of finding a new identity.
She left the boys asleep. She thought about taking the remains of the sausage that was poking out of the older boy’s side pocket, but he was stirring and she thought better of it.
There were plenty of grey uniformed Germans in the streets, but they weren’t stopping anyone, as far as she could tell. In the distance, there was the muffled sound of artillery fire and the occasional roar of aircraft. Outside a bombed church she noticed a queue forming, which she instinctively joined. She still had some cash and if this was a chance to buy something while her money was worth anything she did not want to let it pass. The people in the queue were talking quietly. The Allies were trying to retake the town, she heard someone say. An attack was imminent. God would save them. It was only when she reached the front of the queue that she realised she had been wasting her time. A young priest was sitting on a chair in the porch of the church taking confession, his cassock gently blowing around his shoulders in the wind. She turned to leave, but thought that would only bring unwanted attention, so she allowed him to bless her and mutter a prayer she didn’t bother to listen to.
As she moved away there was a roar of artillery, much nearer now. Two old men were discussing it: ‘it’s coming in this direction,’ said one. The other shook his head: ‘No, it’s being fired from the town.’ It hardly seemed to matter as far as she was concerned. She had no idea of which side she was meant to be on anyway.
She headed towards the centre of the town. The first bridge that she came to was intact and she joined the throng of people hurrying across the Somme. It was only when she was halfway over the bridge that she found she had been sucked into a queue with German soldiers marshalling people into rows. This was nothing like the checkpoint outside the town, manned by just one or two easily distracted soldiers. This was a proper checkpoint. The civilians were being funnelled into one of four rows, each row guarded by half a dozen soldiers with their machine guns drawn. At the end of each row was a trestle table, with a black-uniformed SS officer sat alongside a Wehrmacht officer. Behind the trestle tables was another row of tables, laden with paper work and manned by anxious officials. The officers at the first table were passing the identity cards they were checking to the men at the second row of tables.
There was nothing she could do. She had walked into a trap and there was simply no prospect of her being able to slip away from it. She edged along the queue, taking care to breathe slowly and look calm and, above all, avoid drawing attention to herself.
After all, why would they be interested in her, she tried to reassure herself. She had a good cover story:
a nurse, heading for the hospital, ready to volunteer my services.
Why was she in this part of the country, so far from home? She would smile, she would always smile. Her best smile.
I was frightened. Isn’t everyone? I joined other people escaping the fighting and thought I would head for somewhere quiet. I made a mistake.
Then she would smile again.
She realised she was being ridiculous anyway. She was worrying far too much. It was hard to imagine that with everything they had on their minds, the Germans would remember anything about her. A foolish promise she had made in a rash and impetuous moment. It had been an exciting proposal they had made two years ago in Paris and one that was not hard to agree to after the wine, the flattery and the charm. The training in Bavaria. ‘Go home and wait there,’ they had told her. ‘
We’ll come and find you when we need you. Lead a normal life. Go to work, go home, and don’t talk about politics to anyone. Just make sure you are where we know you are.
She was not important. In the great scheme of things, she was barely even a pawn. Surely it would be weeks, months even before they remembered about her and by then she would be beyond their grasp.
The soldier next to the SS man behind the trestle table was shouting at her and a sentry was pushing her roughly in the side. She had reached the front of the queue.
She fumbled in her bag and found her identity card, only just remembering to smile as she placed it carefully on the rough wooden surface. The SS man looked at the card and handed it to the soldier next to him, who spoke to her in hesitant French.
‘Where are you heading?’
‘The hospital. You can see that I’m a nurse. I’m going to volunteer to ...’
He cut her short. ‘Why are you in this town? You have travelled a long way.’
She shrugged and smiled again. ‘I used to come to this area for my holidays when I was a child. I thought it would be safe. I didn’t realise ...’
The SS officer looked carefully at her and then at her identity card. He was turning it slowly. She noticed that his fingers were immaculately manicured, his nails quite perfect. He looked once more at the card and passed it to the table behind him.
It was then that she noticed that the men in civilian clothes behind that table were checking the cards against lists. What if her name was on one of the lists? She was being ridiculous again, but it did make her realise that getting a new identity was an absolute priority. By whatever means, she would make sure ...
Something was wrong.
She sensed it before she saw it.
She could not tell which of the officials had been looking at her card, but one of them had called over a man in a long raincoat who was standing behind the table and together they were looking at an identity card and checking it against the list. Another man dressed in a long raincoat was called over and he too looked at the card and then at the list. The three men nodded and she was sure that at least one of them had glanced in her direction. She tried to look as relaxed as possible, but her heart was crashing against her chest. She turned round, but it was impossible. There were soldiers every side of her. Maybe if she pretended to faint, or to ...
‘Please ...’ One of the men in long raincoats had appeared at her side and was holding her firmly by the elbow.
‘We need to do some more checks. Please come with me.’
‘You are sure that you have told me everything?’
The Gestapo officer who had brought her to the Hôtel de Ville from the checkpoint had stopped circling her chair and was now stood directly in front of her, his arms folded tight against his chest and looking genuinely confused. He had removed his raincoat and his hat and looked no more than thirty. His French was excellent, so she abandoned her attempts at speaking in her much less fluent German.
‘I told you. I was recruited in Paris two years ago. I have been trained. My instructions were to stay where I was, but I left a week ago when the police became suspicious of me.’
‘In what way?’
‘What do you mean?’
He was beginning to look exasperated now. This was the third time they had been through the same set of questions. She sensed that he was primed for resistance, that he was only really at ease when interrogating people who refused to co-operate. That was what he was trained for, not someone apparently going out of their way to co-operate. He seemed uncomfortable in the face of such co-operation. She drew a deep breath, trying hard not to look put out at having to repeat herself.
‘What I mean is that I was worried that the police were interested in me. I told you, one of the nurses at the hospital said that someone had been asking her about me, whether I was ever involved in politics, that kind of thing.’
‘And the name of this nurse?’ He was sitting at the desk now, his pencil poised.
He looked at her, saying nothing but raising his eyebrows, the very faintest hint of a smile appearing on his face. She knew what he was after.
‘I cannot remember her surname. We weren’t in the same department. I just knew her as Thérèse. In any case, that was not the only thing. I was followed home from work on more than one occasion and there always seemed to be a gendarme in our road. They never used to be there all the time. The day before I left, there was a car parked opposite with three men in it. I am certain they were police. That is why I decided to go. I couldn’t risk staying.’
He looked unconvinced, but said nothing, tapping his pencil on the pad in front of him. They were on the top floor of the Hôtel de Ville, in a small room with the noise seeping in along with the sunlight through the closed shutters.
There was a knock on the door and a soldier came in, handing over a small envelope. The Gestapo officer opened it, read it quickly and put the note back inside the envelope. He nodded at her.
‘I know that my orders had been to stay at home and act normally and I would be contacted, but I panicked. Maybe I was wrong, I don’t know, but I was convinced they were after me. What use would I have been then? So that is why I escaped. I was not running away. I used my own identity, didn’t I? If I was running away, surely I would have changed that?’
He nodded. Against his better judgement, it was hard to disbelieve her. Of course, he would have liked nothing better than for her to say nothing. He could cope with defiance, but he was unsure how to deal with her.
‘And tell me about your recruitment in Paris.’
‘I met Herr Lange at the German Embassy there in February 1938. He arranged for my training in Germany. He gave me my instructions. The last I heard from him was that I was to wait for him.’
‘Where was the Embassy?’
‘Pardon?’ It was the first time that he had asked this question.
‘I cannot remember the exact address.’
He looked pleased, as if he had discovered a chink in her defence.
‘You cannot remember the address. I see. Where was it near?’
He snorted and got up from behind the desk and came to stand in front of her. He placed his hands on his hips and leaned over her.
in Paris is near the river. You will have to do better than that.’
‘It was near a station, the Gare d’Orsay — I remember that. And the National Assembly was nearby, of course.’
‘Of course.’ He was beginning to look disappointed. He had quite perked up at the prospect of having an excuse to hit her.
‘I remember now. It was in the Rue de Lille. That’s where it was!’
He nodded and returned to his desk, gathering up his papers and kicking the chair back under the desk.
‘Well, you won’t have to wait very long now. Herr Lange is on his way.’
He arrived in the middle of the following afternoon. He was shorter than she remembered, but with the same broad shoulders and thick, swept back hair. He removed a beige raincoat to reveal a well-cut suit. He had walked smartly into the room, accompanied by the Gestapo officer and, ignoring her, neatly folded his raincoat, looked around for a coat-hook which he couldn’t find and draped his coat over the back of the chair behind the desk.
The Gestapo officer was hovering in the doorway, keen to remain part of the proceedings. Lange continued to ignore both of them while he checked that the window was locked and the shutters closed.
‘Thank you,’ he said to the officer, who was still showing no signs of leaving.
After a moment he took the hint and turned sharply out of the door.
Lange waited until the echo of the officer’s footsteps had long disappeared before going to the door, glancing up and down the corridor and then locking the door.
Only then did he acknowledge her, with a courteous nod of his head that was almost a bow, as he pulled a chair over and carefully positioned it directly in front of her. He sat very still, saying nothing. During the silence that followed, she realised that she could no longer hear any artillery fire. He carefully arranged his shirt cuffs so that just an inch of them emerged from his jacket sleeves. His cufflinks appeared to have a green jewel in them. He gestured at the door.
‘He’s angry that he never had to lay a finger on you. The Gestapo feel they have failed unless they have managed to hurt someone.’
‘I never gave him cause to.’
‘Apparently not.’ There was a pause as he looked carefully through a typed document. ‘Things have not gone exactly according to plan, have they?’