The apples are not yet ripe, but each tree in the orchard already has a heavy crop starting to weigh down the branches. Miranda ushers the chickens out of their coop and encourages them into the long grass between the apple trees. She takes a deep sniff of the morning air and the vaguely apple-y scent of the orchard and imagines what it will smell like in a few months when the fruit is ripe and falling into the grass. She wonders if she will be there to see and smell it.
Opening the roof of the coop, Miranda counts nearly a dozen new brown eggs snuggled in the straw of the nesting boxes. She collects them carefully, warm in her hands as she packs them into the small basket she has brought. Picking up the basket, she heads for the house. Although it is still so early in the day, the sun is already warm on her face.
The smell of coffee and the hubbub of talk meet Miranda as she opens the door from the farmyard into the kitchen. Doro is bustling around setting cups and plates on the table as the children assail her with chatter about their plans for the day. Max, who has the day off work, is wearing one of his old blue shirts instead of his police uniform. He is slicing up yesterday’s left-over bread, and looks up quickly to smile at Miranda as she comes through the door.
“Plenty of eggs this morning,” Miranda says cheerfully, as she places them in the earthenware bowl on the table.
Doro sets down a clinking handful of cutlery and inspects the eggs with approval. “Max, if you have time today, could you see if you can fix those wobbly shelves in the cellar? It won’t be long now until I am making this year’s jam and pickles, and I want to know I can rely on those shelves to store my jars!”
“Ja, of course.” Max’s eyes dance with amusement as he meets his mother’s gaze. “I remember the jars I had to save last year when that shelf started to tip!”
When breakfast is finished, he arms himself with wood and tools and disappears down to the cellar. The sound of various bangs and crashes drifts up, interspersed with muffled cursing. Jürgen decides that this carpentry activity has the potential to be entertaining and goes down to offer his assistance. Miranda suspects that Jürgen will be more of a help than a hindrance but she decides to leave them to it and continues with her own tasks around the house and garden. Doro and Clara are baking in the kitchen and delicious smells of bread and biscuits are soon wafting through the house.
At eleven o’clock, Doro makes coffee and hands Miranda a cup of coffee and a freshly-baked, still-warm jam thumbprint biscuit. “Will you take these down to Max, Anna? I thought he would be finished by now, but he must be rebuilding the shelves from scratch!”
Miranda laughs, takes the coffee and biscuit and makes her way carefully down the wooden steps into the stone-flagged cellar. It is obvious that Max’s task is still far from finished. The three old, rickety shelves lie in pieces on the cellar floor and one sturdy new shelf has been firmly attached to the wall. Max seems to be measuring up a second shelf and Jürgen is playing in the mess of wood and tools around Max’s feet. The small boy’s eyes light up as he sees what Miranda is carrying.
“Jam biscuits!” He scrambles to his feet and comes close to Miranda, peering down at the cargo she carries. “Oh, lecker!”
“Not for you!” Miranda bats away Jürgen’s eager and grubby hand. “These are for Max. But there is a whole plateful in the kitchen. I think Clara’s had about three already!”
“That’s not fair!” Indignation kindles in Jürgen’s eyes, and seconds later his feet are pounding up the wooden steps as he heads for the kitchen, intent on making up for lost biscuit-eating time.
“Thank you.” Max takes the coffee and cookie carefully out of Miranda’s hands and steps out of the tangle of wood on the floor. He jerks his head towards the pile of empty potato sacks by the tiny window. “I’m going to take a break. Are you available to keep me company?”
“Of course. I’ve already had my coffee, though.” Miranda makes herself comfortable on the potato sacks next to Max and watches as he lifts the cup to his lips. “The new shelf looks good,” she observes.
“But I have two more to make. It is taking longer than I thought.” He sips and sighs, then smiles. “Still, it is nice to have a day with nothing more serious to worry about than whether shelves are straight. The atmosphere at the police station has been terrible lately. Everyone’s afraid to say anything in case it gets back to Cornelius Schneider.” Taking another sip, he continues, “After the supply drop tonight, I think we must cease operations for a while, until the Nazis relax their vigilance. Will you tell your contact that’s what we’ve decided?”
“I will – although I don’t know when I’ll see her again. I’m surprised she hasn’t called me to a meeting – usually I see her at least once a week.”
“Perhaps she is being forced to lie low too.” Max finishes savouring the jam biscuit. “So good. You should see the cookies Mama bakes at Christmas – or she will if she can still get the ingredients. Pfeffernuesse, Vanillekipferl – they are so delicious.”
But I won’t be here at Christmas, Miranda thinks instinctively, with a small pang in her heart. She looks away from Max. “They sound lovely.”
Max’s thoughts seem to be running along the same lines as her own. He reaches out and touches her shoulder, causing Miranda to turn back towards him. “One day there will be Christmases in Austria again without Nazi oppression hanging over us. Families will be able to bake together, go to church, sing carols without being separated and afraid.”
“I hope there are peacetime Christmases everywhere one day,” Miranda says quietly. “And I hope they come soon.”
Max leans a little closer to her, and somehow Miranda seems to be breathing more quickly at his nearness. He puts down the empty coffee cup on the stone floor and uses his free hand to brush the hair away at the side of her face, smiling at her. She doesn’t move as he strokes a finger down her cheek. “I’m glad you are here, Anna,” he says. He leans still closer towards her, and Miranda is suddenly sure that he is thinking about kissing her, and that she wants him to. She can feel his breath on her face. Their lips are only a few inches apart.
“Max!” There is a crash as Jürgen jumps the last few steps and lands heavily on the cellar floor. He clutches two more biscuits in one hand. “You should see how many biscuits Oma Doro has baked! They’re so good – look, I brought you another!”
Max and Miranda pull apart hastily at the sound of Jürgen’s impetuous footsteps. Miranda feels the colour rushing to her face as she scrambles to her feet, brushing dust from her clothes. “Don’t eat them all, Jürgen, or you’ll have no appetite for your lunch,” she says lightly, heading towards the steps.
Max’s tone is light too, but Miranda thinks she can see from his eyes that he shares her frustration. “I will have to help you out, Jürgen,” he says, rising from the floor. “We’d better check that all the biscuits are just as good. And then we must get these shelves finished.”
As evening approaches and the time of the supply drop becomes nearer, Max becomes increasingly tense and restless. After supper he announces that he is going to walk across to the other side of the farm to check on some damage to a fence. Jens has told him that one of the boundaries between the Winters’ property and the Schmidts’ is in danger of collapse. “I won’t come back here afterwards,” he tells Miranda, as he puts on his jacket. “I’ll meet you at nine o’clock at the old chapel, and we can walk over to the barn together to meet the others before the drop, all right?”
“Yes, fine. I’ll be there.” Miranda watches him close the kitchen door behind him and returns to helping Doro to clear the supper table. Clara and Jürgen are playing upstairs in their bedroom. About twenty minutes later there is a quiet tap on the door which makes both women look up in surprise.
“Who can that be, at this time of night?” Doro asks.
“No idea.” Miranda opens the door and finds herself facing a shabby boy of about twelve or thirteen years old. He is holding a folded note out towards her.
“For you, Fräulein,” he says huskily. As soon as Miranda has taken the note from his hand, he tips his cap to her and vanishes towards his bicycle, which is propped up by the farmyard gate.
Miranda closes the door and unfolds the crumpled paper. The message is very short, and to most people, incomprehensible.
Tonight. 8.30. P.
Miranda’s first thought is Finally, news from Palmer, but her second thought is Tonight?
“Is all well?” Doro asks.
“Yes – I have to go and meet my contact,” Miranda says. She frowns. “I’ll have to go right now – but I’ll have to be very quick, or I won’t get back in time to meet Max.”
“Will you be able to make it in time, if you take my bicycle?” Doro asks. Doro knows that Miranda has an English contact, but nothing else about her – not even the name Palmer uses, or where she and Miranda have their meeting place.
“Yes – I should just be able to do it.” Miranda frowns again. “I wish I could let Max know that I might be late – but I can’t, he’s not coming back here first. I’ll just have to hurry. I don’t want to keep him waiting.”
Two minutes later Miranda has burned the note and is flying towards Palburg on Doro’s rattly old bicycle. Although the evening is drawing in, it is still surprisingly light. There is going to be a full moon and not many clouds in the night sky later. Good for helping the RAF plane to spot their drop zone, Miranda thinks, but not so good for avoiding unwanted attention.
Miranda makes such good time through the quiet evening streets that she reaches the secluded lane and stone bridge with ten minutes to spare before her appointment with Palmer. As she conceals the bicycle in the bushes and walks down the stone steps to the bank of the little stream, she hears the first owl of the evening hooting as it skims through the trees above her. With a bit of luck, she thinks, Palmer will be early too. If I only spend a few minutes talking with her, I should be able to get to the chapel in plenty of time to meet Max by nine.
But Palmer is not early. Palmer is late.
With twilight falling, it becomes more difficult for Miranda to read the hands of Anna Riegler’s elderly Viennese watch, but she knows that eight-thirty has come and gone. Impatience and anxiety rise within her as she paces backwards and forwards along the river bank and under the bridge, but there is still no sign of the older woman.
Has something gone wrong? Is she coming? Perhaps she’s been arrested? What will Max think if I’m not there by nine o’clock?
It is not until a quarter to nine, when Miranda is thinking about abandoning the meeting, that her impatient ears catch the sound of stones scrunching under the tyres of a bicycle in the lane above her. There are other sounds as the bicycle is dismounted and hidden, before Miranda finally hears the noise of footsteps on the stone steps and sees Palmer’s tall silhouette dark against the twilight sky.
“Riegler?” she hears, in Palmer’s deep voice.
“I’m here. But I can’t stay long – I’m supposed to be meeting another contact – I thought we were supposed to meet at eight-thirty?” Miranda can hear the frustration in her voice.
“Calm down.” Palmer seems to be completely unhurried as she takes a seat on the bottom step. “This won’t take long. Cigarette?” She pulls a packet out of her pocket and lights up.
“No, thank you.” Miranda feels like stamping her foot with impatience. “What’s the message? I really need to go.”
“You’ll have to give me a moment. I have more than one message for you. Firstly, I have some news about those children you wanted to send away.”
These words distract Miranda from peering at her watch. “Really? That’s wonderful – if it’s good news.”
“It could be. Here’s the details of an address just over the Swiss border. If you and your friends can arrange to get the children over the border, this is a safe place for them to go. The people there will look after them.” She passes a slip of paper to Miranda. “Obviously you’ll destroy that note when you’ve memorised the details.”
Miranda nods, wondering to herself how the children’s escape is to be achieved. Perhaps Max or one of the other Resistance members knows someone with a vehicle who could be persuaded to help them get close to the border? They are going to have to discuss this and make a plan.
She remembers again that the time is ticking on. “Thank you. You said you had other messages?”
“Yes. London doesn’t like the interest the Germans are showing in this part of Austria at the moment. Palburg isn’t the only town where they’ve sent in reinforcements. The Gestapo is all over the Tyrol. They’re determined to stamp out resistance. I think they see the trouble-makers of Austria as an unwanted distraction at a time when they’re desperately trying to stop the Allies advancing north through Italy.”
“I know. We’ve been talking about that too.”
“Well. The word from London is for everyone to keep their heads down. They’re not going to send in any further agents or supplies after this week for a while, until the Germans have calmed down a little, or found some other region to concern themselves with.”
Miranda nods. “So...we should all just keep quiet, and not carry out any operations until we hear otherwise?”
Palmer makes a noise of agreement. There is something a little odd in her tone tonight, but Miranda cannot quite identify it. “Yes. Well. Your friends in the Resistance will need to keep quiet. It won’t affect you, though. That brings me to my last message for you tonight.”
“I don’t understand – why won’t it affect me?”
“You’ll be out of here in a few days. They’re bringing you home. I’ll give you the exact time and place of the pick-up as soon as I can. That will be our last meeting.” Palmer, her news delivered, begins to rise to her feet, flicking the butt of her cigarette into the stream.
Miranda stands with her mouth open, feeling as though she has just been hit over the head. Suddenly it’s all over. They’re bringing her back. She’ll be leaving the Resistance members – leaving Doro, Clara and Jürgen – leaving Max – leaving her life in Palburg. A few days.
She’s not ready to hear this news.
“Do they really need me to go back now?” she blurts out, as Palmer turns away from her and places one foot on the first step, ready to leave.
Palmer turns, and although it is too dark to see her expression Miranda is sure that she is raising a mocking eyebrow. “I thought you’d be happy with the news. You get to leave the Nazis behind you for a while. Get back to dear old Blighty. There are plenty of people who’d like to be in your shoes.” She does not give Miranda time to reply, but begins to climb the steps. “I’ll be in touch,” Palmer says over her shoulder as she disappears into the darkness. “Wait here for twenty minutes after I’ve gone.”
She leaves Miranda torn between dismay at the news of her approaching departure and despair at the realisation that it is already past nine o’clock. Max will be waiting at the ruined chapel over a mile away, wondering where on earth she is. Even if she does not follow Palmer’s instruction and wait at the bridge for twenty more minutes, there is no way now that she will be able to get to the chapel before half past nine. Max won’t be able to wait that long for her. He doesn’t know that Palmer sent for her. He is bound to give up on her and leave, knowing that the rest of his friends will be waiting at the barn and that the supply drop is due. What will he think of her, not showing up as she had promised?
Miranda’s heart is very heavy as she retrieves Doro’s bicycle from the bushes and pedals carefully down the darkened lane. She is not using any lights on the bicycle, but as she reaches the main road back towards the railway station and Palburg, the full moon sails out from between the clouds and casts a silvery gleam over her route. She meets no other traffic on her way back to the quiet town. There doesn’t seem to be any point in trying to get to the chapel or the barn now, and, without Max, she does not know the exact location of tonight’s supply drop. She may as well go back to the farm.
It is not yet dark when Max reaches the ruined chapel. He has found the walk from the farm quite pleasant on this warm summer evening, with bats and owls beginning to flit overhead as he crosses fields and footpaths with long, brisk strides. The moon has already risen and, although it is currently hidden behind some wispy clouds, Max thinks that the moonlight will be bright later, by the time the RAF plane flies over the drop zone to send the white parachutes and their attached canisters twirling down through the night sky.
Max wonders whether Anna will be at the ruined chapel before him, but she is not yet there when he arrives. As he makes himself comfortable on the short dry grass, the stone wall of the chapel behind his back, Max realises that he is spending more time thinking about his pretend cousin than he should. He should be concerning himself with the likelihood that someone will tell the Germans that it was Heinrich who had railed against them on the day the troop reinforcements had marched through town. The chances are that Heinrich – and probably Maria too – will come under suspicion, and if that happens it will only be a matter of time before all Heinrich’s known friends and associates are under suspicion too. Max is going to have to tell Heinrich and Maria tonight that this has to be their last operation for the Resistance for the foreseeable future. He needs to keep well away from them, unless he wants to endanger his mother – and the children – and Anna.
There he is again, back to thinking about Anna. When he had agreed to provide a cover for a British agent and to pass her off as his cousin from Wien, he had never expected her to become such an important part of his life. He hadn’t expected her lovely, serious face or her slim figure to start haunting his dreams, either. To their neighbours she probably seems nothing more than her cover persona – a pretty girl from Wien, helping Doro in the house and helping around the farm, getting to know her way around the town – a pleasant new member of the community. Max wonders what they would think if they knew the truth. Anna is no ordinary woman. She has undertaken a gruelling training course, had the courage to be parachuted into enemy territory and now works undercover as a courier to pass on messages and aid the Resistance against the Nazis. There is a steely determination in her beautiful eyes and she seems not to be afraid that if she is ever caught and revealed as a British agent, she will face torture and almost certain execution. If she does feel fear, she hardly ever lets it show. He remembers how shaken she had been on the night when they had blown up the armaments train. That had been an exception. Most of the time she carries out her tasks quietly and efficiently, whether she is carrying a secret message from London or helping Doro to look after the children. She fits into their household so smoothly that Max is beginning to realise what a gap would be left by her absence if she were suddenly called back to England, and how much he would miss her.
Anna…he remembers exactly how she had felt in his arms as they danced around the kitchen that evening not so long ago. Her hand had felt delicate and cool in his, and there had been colour in her face when she had pulled away from him at the end of the dance. And, only this morning, he had found himself longing to kiss her as they sat in the cellar. He had been sure from the look in her eyes that she had wanted that too, and that Jürgen’s interruption had been frustrating for both of them. Her brown hair had felt so soft between his fingers. He wonders what colour it really is. Her skin and eyes are pale, so he suspects that she is naturally blonder. He longs to touch her again…
Max is startled from his thoughts of Anna by the sudden screech of a hunting owl above his head. From far down the valley in the direction of Palburg comes the whistle of a train as the local evening train to Innsbruck pulls out of the station. Max looks at his watch. It is a few minutes past nine already, and there is no sign of Anna. It is very unlike her to be late. What can have happened to delay her? Surely nothing untoward has taken place at the farm?
Max climbs to his feet and begins to pace the grass, looking towards the woods from which the footpath emerged by which Anna would be most likely to appear. He cannot wait too long for her. The others are probably at the barn by now, retrieving the sacks and red-filtered torches ready to take to the site of the supply drop. He wonders what frame of mind Heinrich will be in tonight. They will have to talk after the supplies have been collected, and it will be a difficult conversation.
Ten past nine. A quarter past nine. Darkness has fallen and there is still no sign of Anna. Max paces up and down one more time, throws one more anxious glance in the direction of the farm, and abruptly sets off for the barn. Anna’s absence is troubling, but he cannot hesitate any longer. The others need him.
Hurrying through lanes and woods, Max realises as he draws near to the barn that there is little point going there. The others must have headed for the drop zone by now. He can meet them there. He changes his course, vaults over a gate into a walled tree plantation and begins to run. It is very dark in the woods. He tries to keep up his pace as he weaves between the trees, trying to be quiet but stumbling over tree roots and into holes, almost falling several times but still running down the wooded slopes which will eventually open up into the large field where tonight’s supply drop was to take place.
As he comes within a hundred feet of the place where the woodland ends and the field begins, the moon sails out from between the clouds and illuminates the scene with silvery beams. Every tree is sharply outlined now, dramatically black against the paler sky, and it is easier to see where he is going. Max catches a glimpse of figures moving below him in the field and a brief flash of red as someone tries out the beam of their torch.
He is not yet close enough to the edge of the field to call out quietly to his friends when he sees a stealthy movement in the trees over to his left. Max stops and stands, silent and still. Is one of his friends still carrying equipment through the woods on the way to join the others in the field? And then he sees more movement. Two, three, five – a dozen people – more! - are moving silently in the woods, keeping very low, hardly cracking a twig. As the moonlight shows him a dark figure perhaps fifty feet in front of him, their head is silhouetted against the sky and he sees the unmistakeable shape of a German helmet. The woods are full of German soldiers, undoubtedly preparing an ambush for his friends, and there is nothing he can do to warn them. If he shouts out, the soldiers will hear him and silence him before the Resistance members can discover who has shouted or what the warning means. Max’s blood runs cold at the thought.
He has frozen in place behind a large tree, and he is some way behind the soldiers as they pick their way through the woods and spread out. As his eyes grow accustomed to the dim light in the woods, Max can make out the shape of other soldiers already in place very close to the edge of the woodland, hunched over some sort of equipment. They are everywhere, and his friends are oblivious.
Max takes a few cautious paces backwards, trying not to disturb a single leaf or twig with his movements. He does not want to alert the soldiers to his presence. Perhaps if he can make his way silently to the right without being detected, he can get closer to the edge of the field and think of some way to warn the others – although, with dozens of German soldiers already setting their ambush and probably only moments away from striking, Max cannot think of anything helpful he can do.
Above him, there is the sudden drone of aircraft engines, quiet at first but quickly growing louder. The RAF plane is coming. It will circle the field once and then make a low pass, dropping the packages attached to parachutes. Max hopes the increasing sound of the plane engines will distract the German soldiers and help to cover any noise he makes as he changes his position. He can see several of the hidden soldiers looking upwards as the plane approaches.
As he moves sideways, keeping to the shelter of the biggest trees and trying not to make a movement sudden enough to catch a soldier’s eye, Max finds himself with a clear view straight through the trees to the open space. He can see Rico, the leader in his absence, motioning the others into a straight line spread out across the field. They are all there – Rico, Christian, Yvonne, Heinrich and Maria – with torches held in their hands. As the plane circles overhead, they wave the red lights in the usual synchronised movement, backwards and forwards, creating a line for the pilot to aim at as he comes in to make the supply drop.
All the Resistance members are focused on watching the plane and keeping their line of light steady. Max knows that if he manages to reach the edge of the field now, he will not be able to attract their attention without making a noise. He stands still - agonised, helpless - looking from his friends to the dark shapes of the German soldiers huddled in the woods. What can he do?
The plane descends and flies low and straight over the field. As it finishes the pass, Max sees the familiar white shapes of the parachutes appearing through the darkness, floating down towards the field. His friends’ faces are turned upwards too, watching the canisters fall closer and closer. The seconds seem to be passing as slowly as the parachutes are falling.
At the edge of the field, a huge, blinding, shockingly bright light suddenly snaps on, followed by a second. The field is transformed from night to day. Max, shielding his own eyes from the glare, sees his friends spin around and freeze in surprise, dazzled. For a moment they all stand still, temporarily blinded by the brightness of the two huge spotlights the Nazis have turned on them, and unable to see the figures of the men behind the lights.
Max sees Rico, nearest to the spotlights, drop his torch on the ground and raise both his hands in the air. One by one, the other Resistance members copy him, raising their hands in surrender and facing the spotlights, and obviously waiting to be arrested by the soldiers they must know are waiting for them.
But there are to be no arrests tonight. A German officer shouts an order, and there is a deafening burst of noise as the machine guns next to the spotlights are turned on the Resistance members. There is a seemingly-endless and brutal rat-a-tat-tat as the bullets fly, cutting each person down where they stand. Max falls to his knees in the leaves, trying to bury his face in the ground so that he does not have to watch it any more, but he cannot avoid hearing the relentless rattle of the guns and the cries of his friends as they are mown down.
Eventually, silence falls. Max looks up again, towards the lighted field. The Germans have stopped firing because none of the Resistance members are standing any more. In the dazzling light, all Max can see is bodies littering the grass.
Then, one body moves. At the far side of the group, Max sees Christian dragging himself to his feet and making a desperate, stumbling attempt to limp towards the dark trees at the side of the field, trying to escape from the glare of the spotlights.
A single pistol shot rings out. Christian falls, and does not get up again.
Max lies very still in the woods for a long time, unable to control his shaking. As he lies there, he can hear the German soldiers talking, laughing and moving about below him, moving equipment and lighting cigarettes. His mind doesn’t seem to be working properly, his thoughts stuck in a disbelieving blackness like treacle. How did they know? Were they watching Heinrich? Did they follow him here? And where is Anna? She didn’t come tonight – did she know this was going to happen? His mind refuses to grasp the level of her possible treachery.
The Germans are collecting up the packages dropped by the plane. They are dismantling their lights and machine guns and carrying them back through the woods to the far left, where there is a path up to a lane. With the spotlights extinguished, the field is plunged into blackness once more, apart from the much dimmer light of the moon. Max hears the sound of brakes squealing in the lane as trucks arrive to collect the men and equipment. Eventually there is the noise of the men boarding the trucks, and finally there is the sound of the vehicles’ engines fading into the distance, heading back to Palburg. The soldiers have all gone, leaving only the smell of cigarette smoke and diesel fumes behind them. And the smell of warm blood.
When he is sure he is alone, Max finally manages to control his shaking enough to drag himself to his feet and walk haltingly down through the trees, using the small flickering light of his torch to help him. He reaches the open field and moves tentatively towards the centre.
The soldiers have dragged the bodies into a neat line and left them lying there, presumably as a warning to others. Max stumbles on the rough grass as he walks the length of the line, moving his flickering torch over each well-known face, each pair of unseeing eyes.
Heinrich. Maria. Yvonne. Rico. And, at the end of the line, Christian. His best friend since boyhood.
Max falls to his knees beside his friends’ bodies and drops his torch. The torch light goes out at the same moment as the moon disappears behind the clouds, leaving him with nothing but darkness and anguish.