Authors: Alex Gerlis
She shook her head. Two years ago, it had seemed such a good idea. She had continued to feel committed and enthusiastic until just a few weeks ago. Then the reality of what it could mean started to hit her. Perhaps, in her heart of hearts, she had never expected anything to come of it. Maybe, like a teenage crush it had been just a passing fancy. But war had brought with it a fear that she never imagined could cut so deep. So no, things had not gone according to plan. She shrugged as if the matter was not that important and spoke in a soft voice.
‘I’ve told him already. I was frightened. I thought the police were after me. I didn’t want to get caught. That’s why I left the city. Look, you know that the French authorities evacuated most of the population of the city last September. I’d only been allowed to remain because of my job. I felt isolated. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I was afraid.’
‘And you have not been having any second thoughts ... any doubts about your mission?’
‘Of course not, absolutely.’ She was aware that she had replied perhaps too fast. But she could hardly tell the truth.
Of course I’ve had my doubts. Every night for the past few months I’ve gone to sleep with them and woken up to them.
‘You must not worry. It is perfectly natural to have doubts, even to be afraid. Everyone experiences that fear, they would probably not be taking their role seriously if they did not feel like that. What matters is that you overcome this fear and that you realise that doubt is a luxury you simply cannot afford.’
He leaned closer to her, his soft voice dropping slightly. He reminded her of the young priest in the porch of the church the previous day. He was so close that she could smell a strong tobacco on his breath and his hands, held together as if in prayer, lightly touched her wrist.
‘Because you know, Ginette, you passed the point where you could change your mind a long time ago. The day you first came to see me, from then on, you were on our side. In our world, indecision is a luxury not open to us. Remember, you did not apply to become a waitress in a bistro. This is not the same as working in a shop. It is a vocation that you have taken on — for life.’
‘I understand that, I ...’
He was leaning even closer now, speaking so quietly that she had to lean towards him to hear anything. She picked up the scent of cologne on his face. He was almost whispering directly into her ear.
‘And let me warn you. You have no alternative but to do everything we ask. We will always have people watching you. We will know everything that you are doing. They are there to protect you, but also to protect our interests. You know how important you are to us because we had you on that list, didn’t we? The minute you arrive there you will be implicated so your only option is to do what we say. I think that you understand the consequences if you don’t.’
She nodded that she understood and with an enormous effort, she managed a smile that she hoped did not look forced.
‘Of course. I was frightened, I was not acting rationally.’
He pulled away from her, leaning back in his chair.
‘So you keep saying.’ He straightened his suit, flicking a speck of dirt from the sleeve.
‘I cannot pretend that this has not been an ... inconvenience. When we tried to contact you last week, we were most angry to find you had gone. You know that your instructions were to stay put and we would find you. I know that I said it might be months before we would contact you, but I also said it could be any time. You should have stayed where you were. We have no evidence that the police were after you. I must say, when we put your name on the list of people who were to be detained, I did not expect that we would actually find you. I thought you would have changed your identity. If you were truly attempting to escape from us you would have at least travelled under a different name, so I am inclined to believe you.
‘So, you must not worry. In fact, things have actually worked out rather well. You have headed in the right direction, without realising it. We will be able to take good advantage of the situation.’
She felt a slight sense of relief. She was trapped, of course, but the truth was that she could have ended up in worse traps. At least now she was in the hands of the Abwehr rather than the Gestapo.
‘And your mother. How is your mother?’
The slight sense of relief disappeared. She started to speak, but he interrupted before she could begin.
‘She was very worried when we visited her the other week. Out of her mind with worrying about you, so I am told. But don’t worry. We will keep an eye on her.’
I have no doubt you will, she thought.
Her fear must have shown, because he patted her knee, speaking almost reassuringly. His hand stayed on her knee longer than it needed to.
‘What you must realise is that in the world you are now in... which
are in,’ his hand moved between the two of them, so as to emphasise their common endeavour ‘in this world you can never be quite sure of where you belong or of who you belong to. You will move from shadow to shadow and you will soon understand that you can never be sure of who you really are. The only advice I can give you is that once you start out on this journey, as you have, keep going in the same direction. Do not hesitate, do not waver. Keep going. Do you understand?’
Without waiting for her reply he went round the chair behind the desk and picked up his briefcase. He deposited it on top of the desk and pulled out a sheaf of papers, placing them in a neat pile.
‘Here,’ he patted the pile of papers, ‘we have your new life. Your new identity, everything. We had, of course, been hoping to have longer to prepare you, but as we are learning — in war, things happen in such an unpredictable way.’
He removed his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He was ready to start work.
‘We need to move fast. We will remain here for another twenty-four hours and then we will head east along the coast. I need time to brief you and you have to learn your new identity. Ideally we would have more than twenty-four hours in which to do this but an unexpected opportunity has presented itself and we would be foolish not to take advantage of it.’
She felt sick. Although Lange was as charming as when she first met him, this did not compensate for the fact that the plan he had outlined two years ago and which had been refined and worked on since then was actually going to be put into action. She was not sure that she had ever believed that would happen. There was nothing she could do now. She could not run any more.
‘You say we head east. Where are we going?’
Lange reached into his briefcase and pulled out a map, which he proceeded to unfold. He spread it out on the floor in front of her and pointed to a port to the north east of Abbeville.
Tucked away in a small road south of Wandsworth Bridge, to the west of Clapham Common and close enough to Lavender Hill and Trinity Road to catch the hum of wartime traffic, lay the Royal Victoria Patriotic School. It was two years since its pupils had been evacuated to Wales and the handsome greenstone building now served an entirely different purpose. It was now the home of the London Reception Centre, its hospitable name belying its true role. Following the fall of France and after Dunkirk, 150,000 refugees from Europe had escaped to the United Kingdom. They were screened at reception centres around London and the very small minority whose stories did not quite match up, became the guests of the London Reception Centre to face the MI5 interrogators.
And so it was in the Royal Victoria Patriotic School, early on an unseasonably dull and chilly April morning, that two guards unlocked one of the windowless cells in the south courtyard and its inmate had a brief glimpse of light for the first time in nearly ten hours. Familiar now with the routine, he obligingly held out his hands to be handcuffed and waited while the blindfold was placed around his eyes.
And then the brisk walk. Hurried along by the guards’ hands on each elbow, he could anticipate when each turn was to be made, when steps were to be climbed or, more often, descended, carpeted corridors to be walked down and doorways to be entered. They came into the room that he assumed must be in the basement of the main building, though he could not be sure, in the same way that he could no longer be sure how long he had been there, or even which day it was.
He was guided into the room and placed in front of a chair. Only then was the blindfold removed, along with the handcuffs. He stood still, dazed and disoriented, blinking in the yellowish light that hung low just in front of him. Due to his slightly stooped posture, he appeared to be even shorter than he was. His most noticeable feature was his long arms, hanging limply by his sides, the fingers nervously playing with the cuffs of what appeared to be cardigan specially knitted for him, but without much affection. He could still not get out of his mind something he had overheard the guards saying on his first night here. One pair of guards was handing over to another pair and they were chatting, clearly assuming that the Belgian was asleep.
‘And what’s he like then, Bert, this Belgian?’
‘Pathetic-looking little chap, Alan. Rat-like without the cunning.’
That had really upset him. Now one of the guards was pushing him down into the chair and then both guards moved behind him, just beyond his line of sight. He blinked again to adjust his eyes to the dimly lit room, taking in the long table ahead of him, behind which sat two men.
So started the Belgian’s fourteenth interrogation in what he estimated could not be more than one week. As he had done throughout, he endeavoured to adopt the plausible manner to be expected of an innocent yet aggrieved man.
The older of the two men in front of him was the only one who ever addressed him directly. He was distinguished looking, possibly in his fifties. The Belgian assumed from the way he spoke Flemish that he was Dutch, although he could not be sure. He was also fluent in French and English, though he had only used the former on one occasion on the first day and then it had no hint of Walloon to it. The Dutchman only had an ashtray in front of him, no notes or even a pen. He chain-smoked and would occasionally offer him a cigarette, which the Belgian always declined. Most of the interrogation was carried out in English, not least for the benefit of the man who sat to the Dutchman’s right and who never directly addressed him. The Englishman appeared to be in his forties and had notebooks and files spread out in front of him which he constantly referred to in a manner which the Belgian found disconcerting, which he guessed was the idea. There were two things that the Belgian did notice about the Englishman: his height and a face that never betrayed any flicker of emotion. If you stared hard at the Englishman, with his haircut very marginally longer than the military regulation cut most people around him seemed to have, then you’d realise that he was a good looking man, the Belgian thought. But look away from him even for a second and you would be hard pressed to recall any detail about his face. The interrogation would be punctuated from time to time by the Englishman shaking his head, or sighing or stopping the questions to go into discussion with the Dutchman, with their heads turned away from the Belgian.
As the questioning started today, the Belgian noticed a different tone to the Dutchman’s voice. He assumed it was another ruse, but he certainly sounded more confident, even slightly jolly. The Belgian concentrated on his breathing. He concentrated on trying to remember what he had been taught:
Breathe in and out deeply, speak slowly and think before you answer any question, even the easy ones, so that they will never to be alerted by a change in your manner. Stick to your story. Believe in your story. That way, they will have to believe you.
If they haven’t got anything to hit you with after a week, then all they will have is what you tell them. The longer you hold out the safer you will be.
‘Good morning, Vermeulen,’ said the Dutchman. ‘Permit me to sum up where we have got to.’ The Englishman was staring at him without blinking.
‘You entered England in May 1940 following the fall of Dunkirk. You were initially screened at our reception centre in Crystal Palace, where you received security clearance. You then found accommodation at a bedsit in Acton in west London, where you have lived ever since. You have worked in a variety of semi-skilled occupations, although you are, of course, a qualified lawyer in your native Belgium.’
The Belgian nodded.
‘You have led a blameless life, Mr Vermeulen, is that not true?’
The Belgian nodded again, slowly, trying to gather his thoughts. He was sure that for the very first time, he could make out the trace of a smile on the Dutchman’s face. The Englishman leaned forward.
‘But Mr Vermeulen, I don’t need you to reassure us of that. We know it ourselves! And shall I tell you why?’
Vermeulen had no time to respond.
‘You see, we have been watching you very carefully ever since you left Crystal Palace. You never received a genuine security clearance there, as you thought you did. We had been, how do they say here, expecting the pleasure of your company even before you left Belgium. Shall I tell you why?’
The Belgian found himself nodding, although his instinct told him he should not respond to a question like that.
‘You are one of life’s pathetic creatures.’ He repeated that sentence in Flemish. The Belgian was shocked and feared he was showing it. Until now, the Dutchman had always been proper, even polite in his manner and his tone.
‘Look at you, Vermeulen. How old are you? Forty- three. You look ten years older. Your skin is so pale that it looks as if you have never been in the fresh air. And it appears that a decent meal is not a habit of yours. You’ve never married and as far as we can gather, you had no social life. Who would want to marry you, Vermeulen? Do you even like women, Vermeulen? Who would want to be your friend?’