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A Very Good Year

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'Allo 'allo London, this is Nighthawk writing!

You may be wondering why I have decided to record the latest events in Nouvion on paper, instead of my usual friendly and conversational manner. Soon, you will hear, or rather, not hear, the reason.

It has been very quiet around here lately. This is not because the Germans have decided to withdraw, or the Resistance have ceased operation. Both of those would be a relief, and I would be very happy. Instead, it because almost everybody has lost their voice. Worse, it is all the fault of my wife, Edith. I shall explain what happened.

It started with the Gestapo, of course.

#

It was pitch black.

"Herr Flick," Helga asked, "why am I wearing a blindfold?"

"You are wearing a Gestapo Blindfold," Herr Flick replied, from somewhere in front of her - perhaps he was seated at his desk, "because I do not wish you to see."

"Very good, Herr Flick."

Helga knew that Herr Flick liked to keep her in the dark. It was part of his Gestapo skill set, a skill set that kept her continually enthralled. She wasn't quite sure, however, why a session that was intended for testing the latest intake of Gestapo equipment required her to be dressed only in her underwear.

"Bend over," Herr Flick's voice was suddenly in her ear. "I wish to test the Gestapo paddle."

The first strike sent a spasm through Helga's body, the sound - like a gunshot ricocheting around the vaulted room – as big a part of the effect as the spike of pain that ran through her body from the actual impact.

"I have decided," Flick said, pausing before testing the paddle again, "that you will infiltrate the French Resistance."

"But I am not French, Herr Flick! And I am not resisting at all!"

"Silence! Or do you wish to test the Gestapo gag again?"

Helga considered this carefully. On balance, perhaps the gag did need further testing. "No, Herr Flick," she said.

Some moments later, the gag was fastened securely in her mouth. "That is much better," Flick said. "Now you will be able to receive the details of your mission without unnecessary interruption."

From the far corner of the room came a deafening crash, as if a huge vase had toppled over and smashed into a thousand pieces. Into the silence that followed, a pained voice spoke. "I have broken the Gestapo stealth vase that I was hiding in," von Smallhausen moaned.

"You are an idiot," Herr Flick spat. Helga liked it when Herr Flick chastised others. She didn't mind it when he chastised her, of course, but he always appeared so powerful when it was targeted at someone else. "You will spend the rest of the day gluing it back together, with the Gestapo glue."

"Yes, Herr Flick," von Smallhausen said, sadly.

"Now, Helga. Gestapo intelligence has allowed us to contact the Resistance and set up a meeting. You will go to this meeting, and claim that you wish to work as an informant on the plans of General von Klinkerhoffen."

Helga tried to exclaim "GENERAL VON KLINKERHOFFEN!", but the Gestapo gag was surprisingly effective, and it came out as more of a mumble.

"Yes, General von Klinkerhoffen. We have obviously had no contact with the Resistance so far, so they will not know that you are a member of the military, but just in case you will claim that your name is Olga, and we will provide you with a Gestapo disguise. You will pretend to be a singer brought from Germany by the General for his personal entertainment. You will ask that the Resistance hide you in return for the information on the massive troop movement . . ."

Helga felt her underpants being pulled down, presumably as a precursor to a movement of at least one not inconsiderably-sized soldier, and shivered. ". . . The massive troop movement that is about to occur." He tugged on the back of her gag, lifting her head, his voice rising in fervour as his fervour rose to penetrate her. "You will observe all of the members of the Resistance, and then . . . And then you will come back and report to me. I will arrest every . . ." Each word was punctuated with a thrust ". . . Person . . . In . . . The . . . Resistance." This last word was more a cry than a shout.

She felt him twitch inside her. Even his orgasms were effected with ruthless Gestapo efficiency. She enjoyed the ruthlessness, but she could wish that the act was carried out with less efficiency.

#

René was polishing glasses, again. It probably didn't need to be done, but at least it allowed him to look busy without actually putting any effort in. "It has been very quiet here," he observed, to nobody in particular. "Which is always worrying."

"Rrrrrreeeennnnééééééé." From the entry to the back room came a familiar growl. He really hoped that he never had to write down the exact way Yvette pronounced his name - he wasn't sure he could fit all of the necessary "r"s on one line of paper. Still, it never failed to get his heart pounding. Whether it was in anticipation of ardour or fear of exertion, he was not quite sure.

"Yvette!" he replied, opening his arms wide for a hug, while checking the staircase over his shoulder, just in case.

"Rrrrrrrrreeeennnnnééééé." She leapt into his arms. He did, occasionally, wonder if they would have got more kissing in, over the years, if they hadn't spent so long saying each other's name. "Oh. Michelle is in the backroom."

"Michelle? Of the French Resistance?"

"Oui."

"But how did she get there? I have been polishing my glasses out here for the last hour and she has not come past."

"You have been polishing your glasses yourself? I could have polished your glasses for you. I am very good at polishing. It is all in the wrist." She demonstrated the polishing motion with obvious relish.

René sighed. "And if someone had come in then we would have all been in trouble. How did Michelle get in?"

"She climbed through the window, of course."

"Of course. Why can the French Resistance not use the door like normal people? It takes forever to get the footprints off the windowsill."

René broke away from the embrace, reluctantly, and headed in to the back room. In his experience it was easier to take the path of least resistance, and do whatever the Resistance wanted.

#

Michelle was leaning over the table, a bottle of wine standing between her arms. That was confusing.

"Are we having dinner?" René asked.

"Listen very carefully," Michelle said.

"Yes, yes, yes, you will say this only once."

Michelle looked affronted. "It is important that you understand that this is a bottle of vintage Chateau Nouvion."

"Chateau Nouvion? But there hasn't been any wine since the Germans came. And before that . . ."

"This is a bottle of the 1936."

"The 1936? The vintage that we poured down the well because it was poisonous? And then we couldn't use the well for two years, because the well was poisoned by the Chateau Nouvion."

"It was not poisonous. Not fatally, anyway. It just makes anyone who drinks it lose their voice."

"So why do you have a bottle of it?"

"We, of the French Resistance, have more than a bottle. We have a case."

"With a case like that you should go to the Doctor.” He sighed. “What do you want to do with it?"

Before Michelle could answer, the door opened again to admit Edith, René's wife.

"René! What are you doing with Michelle and a bottle of red wine?"

René felt a genuine exasperation. Could she not tell the difference between when she caught him doing something naughty and when he wasn't? "Can you not see," he said, "that this is a bottle of the Chateau Nouvion 1936?"

"The Chateau Nouvion 1936? The worst vintage in the history of the worst wine in France? The one we poured in the well?"

"That is the one. I did not know you were such a connoisseur," René said.

"The one that makes everyone who drinks it have a sore throat and not be able to speak? Michelle, I would not drink this - not even only once."

"Listen very carefully," Michelle said, apparently needing to rewind the whole conversation. "The Germans are bringing two brigades of their army to Nouvion. We will serve the Chateau Nouvion to the General. He will be unable to speak, and so he will be unable to order the army to move. They will be stuck here, and unable to get to the front to fight."

"This is not a good plan!" René said. "We do not want two brigades of the German army stuck in Nouvion. Not when we still have the British Airmen hidden in the dresser."

One drawer of the dresser flew open, and two heads poked out.

"Hello!" said Carstairs.

"Hello!" said Fairfax.

"No no no," Edith said, bustling over and pushing the drawer. "It is not time!"

"What's she saying, Fairfax?" Carstairs asked.

"Something about her temper, I think. Perhaps we should go back into the dresser."

"Toodle-pip!"

"Toodle-pip!"

René sighed. "I wish I could understand what they're saying. I'm sure it's very interesting. How are we going to get the wine to the officers?"

"René!" Edith said. "He will come here, of course. It will be a blow struck for the Resistance, from our very own cafe."

"I do not want to poison anyone!” He paused for a moment, and then clarified. “Not intentionally, anyway. The bouillabaisse was an accident. You know it has been difficult to get ingredients with the war on and . . ."

"Do not be silly. We shall do it, Michelle," Edith said.

Michelle nodded, curtly. "Good. Now, I must go, like a leaf on the breeze, like a shadow in the dark. I have to meet a contact in the General's own staff, who will tell me exactly when the soldiers will arrive."

#

The owl hooted twice.

The other owl hooted three times.

The first owl, dressed in beige trenchcoat, walked backwards through the copse of trees.

The second owl, dressed in the Gestapo disguise black trenchcoat, with the Gestapo disguise black wig, walked backwards from the other direction.

"The general wants a painting," Michelle said.

"The fallen madonna has big boobies." Helga gave the countersign curtly.

"You are Olga?"

"Ja . . . Yes. You are the Resistance?"

"I know the Resistance, yes." Michelle kept her face concealed in the lapel of her coat. "You are working for the General?"

"I am his entertainer. I sing for GENERAL VON . . ." Helga hastily remembered she was supposed to be being surreptitious and finished in a whisper. ". . . Klinkerhoffen."

"And you have the details of the plans for the massive troop movement?"

"Yes," Helga said. "But the general has become suspicious of me. I think I am no longer safe."

"We will hide you," Michelle said. "There is a cafe in town. We will hide you there. We will give you a disguise, and claim you are a singer. The owner's wife likes to sing, but she is not good."

This did not seem like a great plan to Helga, but she couldn't think of a reason why Olga would know about the cafe. Herr Flick would be interested to know that the resistance also visited the cafe.

#

Lieutenant Gruber was sitting at the counter, nursing a glass of wine.

"You seem a little down, Lieutenant," René said, drying a glass and putting it back in the rack.

"My little tank is broken."

"Oh," René said. "That is sad. You didn't come in it?"

"Not today," Gruber said, shaking his head. "Some days I do . . ." He waved his hand vaguely. "But not today."

"What is wrong with it?"

"There is something sticky in the engine."

The door opened, and a man with a bushy but uneven moustache entered, pulling a handcart.

"Veg-et-ables! I have veg-et-ables!" he called. There were, indeed, a couple of cabbages on top of the cart, but it was chiming and clanking with the sound of glass every time it stopped or started. Given the trouble the man was having steering it through the door, it was clanking a lot.

René hurried over. "What do you want?"

The man turned around, and peeled off the corner of his moustache. "It is I, Le Clerc!" he said, waiting expectantly for René to look shocked.

"What an amazing surprise. I did not recognise you with that hedge glued to your lip. What vegetables have you brought?"

Le Clerc leant in, and looked conspiratorial. "I have not brought vegetables. I have brought the case of Chateau Nouvion."

René sighed. "Of course you have. Let us have a look at it."

Le Clerc pulled aside one of the cabbages, and revealed the one of the bottles.

"This is no good at all," René said, lifting it up. "It has 'condemned' stamped all over the label. We will have to decant it immediately. If I am caught selling condemned wine they will close the café and I will not only have lost a business, but the Resistance will be angry." He raised his voice a little. "Take the vegetables into the back room, and we will agree a price."

As Le Clerc painfully dragged the cart through the room, Edith came down the stairs.

"René," she said. "Why is the vegetable salesman dragging a cart through the cafe?"

René hurried over. "It is Le Clerc," he whispered. "He has brought the special wine. But all the bottles have been condemned."

"That is because it is poisonous," Edith said.

"I know that! But we cannot be caught with those bottles. We will be condemned like the wine if someone finds it."

"What will we do?"

"I will decant it into the blue decanters."

"But will the Germans not ask why we are serving some wine from the bottle and some from decanters?"

René thought. "I shall put the normal wine into the green decanters. Make sure Yvette and Mimi know."

"I will do that," Edith promised.

#

Twenty minutes later, René had finished decanting the Chateau Nouvion 1936 into the blue decanters and the normal wine into the green ones. The window opened, and Michelle climbed through, followed by Helga, now wearing an unconvincing and over-large blonde wig over the black Gestapo disguise wig, over her own blonde hair.

"René!" Michelle said. "Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once. This is Olga. She will sing in your cafe until it is safe for her to return home."

"But . . ." René gestured helplessly.

"It should not be long. The General comes here tonight. I see you have a fresh supply of wine - make sure he gets the vintage we discussed."

"But . . ." René gestured helplessly, again, at Olga.

"I go, like a raindrop in a puddle."

René looked at Olga and sighed. "Oh dear."

#

"Yvette, Yvette!" René came out of the back room to the cafe, where now Yvette was soaking celery.

"Rrrrrr -"

"We don't have time for that. Michelle has brought someone to be a new singer."

Yvette looked confused. "That sounds like a good idea."

René whispered. "But it is Helga, wearing an unconvincing blonde wig."

"Why is she wearing an unconvincing blonde wig, when she has perfectly good unconvincing blonde hair of her own?"

"Because she is wearing an unconvincing black wig underneath the unconvincing blonde wig, of course. And tonight, the General is coming and we have to serve him the special wine."

Yvette frowned. "She must sing, tonight. Then the general and the other officers will be so distracted, or so relieved it is not your wife singing, that they will not notice that they cannot speak any more."

"But Helga will tell Flick of the Gestapo about us."

Yvette frowned. "You are right. We shall have to get the Resistance to deal with her, afterwards."

"That would be nice," René said dryly. "This is all their mess. Why should I have to clean it up?"

#

The other side of the kitchen door, Edith, carrying a tray of glasses, was straining to listen, an expression of confused horror on her face. "Someone else, singing in my cafe?" She set down the glasses and paced up and down. "I must stop this. My audience cannot be presented with an inferior performer."

An idea struck her. "I shall swap the wine in the green decanters for the wine in the blue decanters. Then I shall tell René to give her a glass of wine to settle her nerves. She will be unable to speak, let alone sing. I will step into the breach, and my audience shall welcome me with rapturous applause."

#

René had nearly finished setting up the tables for the evening, when the door to the Cafe opened. "Oh, wonderful," he said. "It is that English police officer who thinks he can speak French."

[NOTE TO BETA. CRABTREE REALLY SPEAKS LIKE THIS. DO NOT SUGGEST CORRECTIONS]

"Good die," Crabtree said. "I have some bad nose. The vegetable seller is very suck. He has drank bed won."

"Bed won?"

"Bed rod won. He may do."

"Do?"

"Yes. Do. He is doing! He might be did!"

"Oh, no. He must have sampled the Chateau Nouvion 1936. I cannot serve that to the Germans! If I kill them, then they will definitely have me shot."

"But what of the ploon?"

"I will throw the Chateau Nouvion away, and use the good wine instead." René thought for a moment, then corrected himself. "The bearable wine. There is no good wine these days. I will put it in both sets of decanters, so that Michelle and the Resistance will still think that I have carried out the plan, and it is the wine that is faulty."

#

The energy in the cafe that night was tangible. There was a buzz about the place, an excitement - and for once, not one involving a flying helmet. René and Yvette were busily pouring wine into glasses.

"Even though it was a dodgy cabbage that made Le Clerc sick, after all, I am glad I got rid of that wine," René said. "There have been no signs of a massive troop movement at all."

"Are you eating enough vegetables?" Yvette said.

"It seems I am eating nothing but vegetables these days."

"Then I do not understand . . ."

"I mean that we have not seen any sign of the two brigades of soldiers. So there is no need to poison the General."

"René!" Colonel von Strohm called over from his usual table, where he was sitting with Captain Geering and the General. "Some wine, please?"

"Of course, Colonel."

"And I hear you have a new singer? We are all looking forward to hearing her."

"We are all looking forward to not having to stuff cheese into our ears," Geering said, in an aside that carried throughout the entire room.

"Oh, dear," René said. "I should check on 'Olga'." He headed to the back room.

#

Helga was pacing up and down, muttering to herself.

"Some nerves?" René asked, surprising her, causing her to whirl on the spot and then wobble.

"NOT AT . . . Not at all."

René smiled. "Do not worry. You could not be worse than my wife." He walked to the dresser and opening one of the doors that did not contain a British airman. "I have a little bottle of something that will calm you." He poured the green liquor into a glass.

Helga swigged it gratefully, then gasped. "Aniseed!"

"No, absinthe. There is not much of it about and it is very old and not good, but so little is these days. Are you ready?"

"Ja. Uh, yes."

#

Helga and René entered the main cafe. Sitting by himself, as usual, at a corner table, Flick sat up with a jolt. "Why is Helga not in her Gestapo disguise? And what is she doing with René at the cafe? Surely ..."

Edith poured a glass of wine from one of the blue decanters, and brought it over to Helga. "Here you go, my dear. It helps, I know." Helga, her head a little woolly after the absinthe, tried to refuse. "No no, I insist," Edith said.

"To our new singer!" Edith cried, turning to the room, lifting her own glass - carefully poured from the green decanter.

Everyone in the room raised their glass of wine, and drank from it. "The new ..." A fit of coughing broke out across, some grabbing their throats. Helga stepped forward, nervously - and still rather foggily - but expectantly, and opened her mouth.

Nothing came out. Nothing at all. No sound. She stood there for a moment, opening and closing her mouth, expecting the rousing marching song she thought she was singing, but hearing nothing. She stamped her foot, the noise echoing through the aghast silence, and stalked out, bumping into a chair and then Herr Flick, who had stood himself.

Flick opened his own mouth to scold her, only to discover that he, too, had no voice.

Edith knew her moment had come. Her chance at glory. An emergency, that only she could resolve. She strode into the spotlight - or at least the middle of the room. Only to discover, of course, that her voice was gone as well. All around, people were discovering they had no voice, glaring at René, and stalking out.

#

Later that day, Helga was sitting in the Gestapo den, looking contrite, but also confused. Flick was standing near the Gestapo blackboard, hastily requisitioned from the school in Nouvion.

"What are the names of the Resistance?" Flick wrote with sharp, staccato strokes, the chalk nearly snapping.

Helga had a piece of paper in front of her. "I do not remember, Herr Flick," she wrote.

"Why not?" Flick wrote.

Helga shrugged. Somewhere in the mixture of absinthe and Chateau Nouvion 1936, she had lost all memory of the last two days.

Flick glared at her, and she looked down again at the paper. He wrote, fiercely.

"You will write 300 times. 'I must remember what happens on Gestapo missions'."

Helga inscribed her reply, forlornly. "Yes, Herr Flick."