Rumours fly around Palburg as the sunny days of July 1944 pass by. The German-controlled radio networks never report on events which are considered unfavourable to the Nazi Party, but somehow word always gets around when something significant happens. It is not just the active members of the Resistance who have access to secret radios. Everyone in town seems to have heard that the Allied forces are pushing their way across France now, getting closer and closer to Paris. They also suspect that the injuries Rommel suffers when his car is strafed by Allied aircraft are more serious than the Party radio will admit.
Later in July, the German radio networks do acknowledge a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, trumpeting that the Führer is unharmed and that the conspirators have been quickly arrested. They do not publicise the arrival of the Soviet army in Poland, and yet the whispers and rumours are everywhere.
As Europe reels from one seismic act of war to another, daily life goes on in Palburg. Miranda keeps her appointments with her contacts, passes on messages and packages, sees more equipment dropped from the skies and goes on sabotage missions. She does humdrum housework too – helping to prepare meals, shopping for food, washing clothes, making beds, scrubbing floors, feeding the chickens and bathing the children. Doro tells Frau Schmidt that she doesn’t know how she managed without the help of her niece.
No one has come knocking on the door, asking about Jürgen and Clara. Their presence at the Winter farmhouse is still a secret. Nothing has been heard from August and Hana, their parents, since the day they were taken away. Max has made some covert enquiries through his Resistance contacts about possible ways of sending the children to a safer place, perhaps to Switzerland, but no one has yet responded with an offer or a plan.
Miranda is washing dishes after lunch one sunny afternoon while Doro bustles around the kitchen assembling ingredients for a cake. The following day will be Clara’s sixth birthday, so Doro insists that there must be a cake, even if she has to make do with limited ingredients.
Through the window above the sink, Miranda can see Max playing with the children in the farmyard. Jürgen has a wooden toy plane which he is swooping through the air as he runs around on the cobbles, chased by Max and Clara. Some sort of imaginary dogfight is clearly in progress. The children rarely get to play outside during the day, due to the danger of being seen. However, the Schmidts have gone to Linz for a family funeral today, staying overnight, and most of the local people are at the Saturday market in town. It is very unlikely that anyone will come near the Winter farmhouse for several hours until another neighbour comes by later to give the Schmidts’ cows their evening milking, so Max has deemed it safe to take the children out to play for a while.
Jürgen tackles Max around the knees and they both collapse to the ground, laughing. Clara is giggling too. Miranda is glad to see the children happy for once. At night, they often cry for their missing parents. It is hard to try to reassure a small and sorrowful child if one cannot, with any honesty, tell them that things are going to be all right or that Mama and Papa will be home soon.
Max’s curly hair is dishevelled as he tickles Jürgen into submission before returning the wooden toy plane to its owner. A few moments later Max bends down to Clara, who is obviously begging him for a piggyback ride, and lifts her to his shoulders. He would be a good father, Miranda thinks, if he ever had the chance.
“He used to laugh like that before the war,” Doro says suddenly next to Miranda’s shoulder, making her jump. “He was such a light-hearted boy. He and Christian used to run in and out of the house, always joking and teasing each other.” She sighs as she stirs the cake mixture in the bowl she is holding. “Perhaps one day he – but war changes people forever, I fear.”
“There’s not much to laugh about these days,” Miranda agrees, wiping a plate with her tea-towel.
“No.” Doro is still staring out of the window, her hands now still on the spoon and bowl. “I wish for him to be happy again one day – if there ever is a time after the war –“
After the war. It has been going on for so long now – nearly five years – that Miranda can no longer imagine a time when there is no war. She cannot remember when she last let herself dream about what a life after the war might look like - for her, for anyone.
“Max’s father fought in the Great War,” Doro says, beginning to stir her cake mixture again. Outside the window, Max and the children have disappeared in the direction of the orchard.
“So did mine,” Miranda says, wondering, in that tiny part of her mind which keeps Miranda Blake’s own life alive, what her father is doing at this moment in Aberystwyth.
“I try to think about what Max might do after the war, but honestly, Anna, I think he will die fighting the Germans,” Doro says, in a flat voice which makes Miranda glance quickly at her.
Doro finishes making Clara’s birthday cake and Miranda finishes washing the dishes.
They do not talk any more.
Looking in the small, spotted bathroom mirror, Miranda notices blonde roots beginning to appear in her dyed mousy-brown hair. Maria tells her the best place to buy hair dye in Palburg. Walking back from the chemist’s shop the next day, with the packet of dye buried underneath the other shopping in her basket, Miranda sees a shining black car parked outside one of the small restaurants in the square. A young uniformed officer waits in the driver’s seat. As Miranda approaches, a slight man in civilian clothes is respectfully bowed out of the restaurant by the proprietor. The young officer jumps out of his seat, hurries to open the rear door of the vehicle and snaps to attention, his hand at the salute.
Of course. Miranda recognises the Gestapo officer as he takes his seat in the car. She remembers the ice-cold grey eyes and the aura of evil and power he seems to radiate. With a small shiver, she remembers that it was he who had ordered the arrest and deportation of Jürgen and Clara’s parents – and of a growing number of other people around the region in the last few weeks. Small wonder that the pedestrians around her now are keeping their heads down, quickening their steps and trying not to look at the occupant of the black car as the vehicle pulls away from the restaurant.
Miranda hopes that she will never be in a position to have a closer encounter with Cornelius Schneider. She does not frighten easily but she sincerely prays that the name of Anna Riegler will never come to his attention.
That evening, when the children are asleep in bed, Miranda dyes her hair in the tiny sink in the bathroom. It does not take her long to manage it, and as she rubs her hair dry on the shabby towel Doro has given her – “This one’s so old and full of holes, I don’t care if it gets stained” – she glances out of the window at the farmyard below. The yard is in darkness, as is the back of the house, apart from her oil lamp burning low on the cupboard beside the bathroom sink. Max and his mother are in the sitting room at the front of the house, reading and talking.
Miranda looks idly out of the window several more times as she towels her hair and makes sure she has rinsed any traces of the dye from the sink. She has almost finished in the bathroom when something catches her eye from below. It is hardly anything – just a tiny spark of red. She pauses and looks again, seeing the tiny red glow appear and disappear, until she realises it is the glow of a cigarette end. Someone is standing in the farmyard below, smoking, and perhaps looking up and watching her silhouette in the lighted window. It is too dark to make out any more of the figure holding the cigarette.
Not Max. He doesn’t smoke.
And definitely not Doro.
Miranda has been staring out of the window for no more than half a minute before the watcher below perhaps realises that they have attracted her attention. The red glow is extinguished. A black shadow moves against a black background as the mysterious watcher retreats.
A prickle of uneasiness creeps up the back of Miranda’s neck.
When she has finished drying and styling her hair, she goes downstairs to find Max, because if someone is watching the farm he needs to know about it. Are they watching her? Or do they somehow suspect Max of involvement in the Resistance? Or are they looking for Jürgen and Clara?
Miranda doesn’t like any of these possibilities and nor, when she tells him about the watcher in the farmyard, does Max. Jürgen and Clara are no longer allowed to play outside the farmhouse, and Max redoubles his efforts to find a way of moving them somewhere else. They all become even more vigilant than they were before.
“Pass me the bag,” Maria whispers, as Miranda looks up at her. Maria has already hoisted herself up the steep slope to the next terrace and Miranda is about to join her. Miranda hoists the bag above her head to Maria and, now that both her hands are free, pulls herself up easily.
The Schloss is mostly in darkness on this warm summer night, the bulk of the huge building looming above them. A few of the many windows still have lights in them. One lamp burns in the courtyard behind the high stone wall where, no doubt, a few sentries are on night duty.
There is plenty of cover in the terraced, tree-lined gardens as Maria and Miranda flit from the shelter of one shelter or wall to another. Miranda wonders if it is always so quiet here at night. Looking back down the hill towards the town, she sees that Palburg is also shrouded in silence and darkness, leaving no lights twinkling which might attract the attention of any Allied bomber who happened to fly over. Too cloudy tonight for bombing raids though, Miranda thinks, and if there were to be Allied raids they would focus on the big cities, or the munitions and aircraft factories in places like Linz.
Maria pauses in the shadow of a clump of small pine trees and Miranda joins her, looking up to assess how much further they have to go to reach their goal – the wall surrounding a block of outbuildings which were once stables and are now garages for the Gestapo cars. The main telephone line which serves the Schloss runs along the corner of that wall, and their task tonight is to sabotage the communications from this local Gestapo headquarters to the outside world, causing the Nazis frustration and inconvenience for however long it takes them to make a repair. There will be no explosions or gunshots tonight, hopefully – this is merely a minor act of sabotage.
From their hiding place in the pine trees, Miranda looks at the next part of the garden. Dark as it is, she can make out the outlines of graceful stone statues and the shape of a long rectangular pond. The sound of water splashing from a fountain breaks the silence of the night, and she can smell roses.
“This place must have been beautiful,” she breathes into Maria’s ear. “Before the Nazis arrived.”
“The gardens are lovely,” Maria whispers back. They are nowhere near close enough to the wall of the Schloss for a whisper to be heard by any guard. “I remember coming here as a little girl. The Caligharis used to have an autumn festival in the grounds. The whole town would go.”
“The Caligharis? The people who used to own the Schloss? What happened to them?”
“There was only Count Otto and his sister Valentina living here before the Anschluss. They left as soon as the Germans marched into Austria. They went to America. Maybe they’ll come back after the war, who knows?”
A few minutes later Maria and Miranda reach the outside of the garage walls and find the line of the main telephone wire. It does not take long to rummage through their bag and find the tools they need, part of the most recent drop of equipment from England. Miranda keeps watch while Maria severs the cable in three places, taking parts of the wire with them to make the repair more challenging.
For once, just as they were instructed, there are no explosions and there is no drama. The two women make a quick and unchallenged departure from the grounds of the Schloss, which remains silent and undisturbed. Their work will not be discovered until the following morning, when the Gestapo garrison there finds itself cut off from contact with the outside world.
“I have soap in my eyes, Tante Anna.” Clara wriggles and complains from her position on Miranda’s lap as Miranda briskly towels her wet hair. The kitchen stove casts a warm glow on both of them. Despite the heat of the summer days, the evenings are cooler, and the stone floor of the kitchen keeps the temperature down.
“I don’t think you do, I was very careful. Keep still, Clara, or this will take longer to finish.”
Clara wriggles again. “I want to go and play with Jürgen. And Oma Doro said she had Küchen for us.”
“She said you could have milk and Küchen before bedtime. That’s not for another hour,” Max says mildly, from the chair at the kitchen table where he is reading by lamp-light. “And if you don’t keep still, Clara, Tante Anna may decide you don’t deserve any Küchen.”
This threat is enough to keep Clara comparatively motionless for the next two minutes, until Miranda releases her. “Off you go.”
Clara scampers off to find Jürgen. Miranda swings out the metal rods above the stove and begins to hang the wet towels to dry upon the rods.
“You’re good with the children,” Max comments, closing his book and looking across the kitchen at Miranda. “Do you have any nieces or nephews?” He sees Miranda hesitate and adds, “Sorry, sorry, I know I shouldn’t ask about your – other life.”
Miranda shrugs. “No. I’ve never had much to do with children. I don’t really know how to play with them. You’re better at that than I am.”
“You must miss your family, though?” Max says, cautiously. They never talk about Miranda’s real identity. They are not supposed to talk about it, even when they are alone. “Perhaps you’ll be back with them soon, when all this is over.”
Miranda, on her hands and knees, occupies herself wiping the splashes of water left from Clara’s hair-washing off the stone flags of the kitchen floor. She happens to look up into Max’s face just as he says, still cautious, “Is there someone special waiting for you to come back – a sweetheart? A fiancé?”
Miranda has no idea why something in his look and his tone makes her throat constrict and her heart jump slightly. She looks away quickly and stands up to walk to the sink and rinse out her cloth. “No,” she says firmly, “no one like that. It’s not the best time to fall in love, in the middle of a war, is it?”
He doesn’t reply.
The light reflects and bounces off the underside of the bridge as the stream ripples past. Miranda sits on the stone ledge and tries to memorise everything Palmer is telling her.
“…so the next equipment drop will be on Wednesday night, about the same time as last time. Tell your Resistance friends to be even more careful than usual - the Gestapo are doing another sweep of the district. They’re still furious about the train being blown up – it won’t surprise me if they send in a load of extra troops soon just to make a point that they’re still in charge around here.”
“Did you get all that?” Palmer snaps at her, perhaps realising that Miranda’s mind is not wholly focused on their conversation.
“Yes – yes, of course. Wednesday night. I’ll tell them. I think you’re right about the Germans bringing in reinforcements. M – one of my Resistance contacts has picked up information about that too.”
“Good to be warned. Well, I’ve got nothing else to tell you, so I’ll be going now.”
Palmer begins to stand up, and Miranda puts out a hand to her. “Wait – I just wanted to ask – did you find anything out about how we could get two children away from here?”
“I passed on your enquiry. I haven’t had any reply yet. I’ll let you know when I do. See you Tuesday, same time.” Palmer starts to climb the steps up the side of the bridge. “Don’t leave for twenty minutes after me,” she calls back, as she always does, and then she is gone. Miranda hears the squeak of her bicycle wheels fading into the distance.
Miranda sits back against the stone wall to wait for the obligatory twenty minutes, and thinks about the problem of sending the Strobl children somewhere safer. Doro will miss them when they go, she thinks. Despite the short time the children have been with them, Doro already seems to think of them as surrogate grandchildren. She has begun to knit a jersey for Clara to wear when the autumn comes.
Miranda wonders how much longer she will be playing the part of Anna Riegler, the reliable niece of Doro, the part-carer for two children, the cousin – friend? – of Max. Clara, Jürgen, Doro, Max – they have all become surprisingly important to her in a relatively short time. She has begun to feel like a part of their lives, like she belongs in Palburg, which is ridiculous. One day soon, if she is lucky enough to survive her mission, she will be returning to London and Miranda Blake will come back to life.
And yet – Miranda Blake’s life is already beginning to feel like a dream. Her father, the old house in Aberystwyth, her tiny room in the London flat, Carmen, air raids, BBC news bulletins on the wireless – they all seem less and less real the longer she is Anna Riegler. But, Miranda reminds herself, as soon as her mission is over, Anna – the person Max, Doro and the children have accepted into their lives – will no longer exist.