Miranda lets herself into the kitchen quietly. In the darkened room, the oil lamp casts a ring of light on the long wooden kitchen table where Doro sits with some knitting in her hands. She raises her head as Miranda clicks the latch closed on the back door. “Anna! I boiled the kettle not long ago so it won’t take me long to make you a hot drink.” She looks past Miranda’s shoulder. “Where’s Max?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t meet him.” Miranda pulls off her jacket and sits heavily in a kitchen chair while Doro bustles around preparing coffee and bread twists. “My contact was late, and then she kept me talking. By the time she let me go, it was much too late to meet Max at the place we’d agreed. I knew he would have gone on without me, and I didn’t know exactly where he was going with the others. So I thought I’d better just come back here.”
“Oh well, it can’t be helped.” Doro takes bread twists out of a tin and puts them on a plate.
“I know – but I feel bad about letting him down – about letting all of them down. I couldn’t let him know that I wasn’t coming. I hope he didn’t wait too long for me.”
“He will understand when he knows what happened. It’s important for you to meet your contact.” Doro sits down opposite Miranda while she waits for the water to boil again.
“Yes.” Miranda takes a bite from a bread twist, but without much appetite. She looks across the table at Doro. Doro can be trusted with any information. She knows most of it already. “I’m leaving. In a few days. That’s what my contact wanted to tell me tonight. They’re sending me home.”
“Really?” Doro looks genuinely regretful. “I’m sorry, Anna. We’ll miss you. You’ve become part of the family.” She hesitates, as if she wants to say something else but cannot find the words. Then she says, “Max will be sorry when he hears.”
Miranda finds herself unable to meet Doro’s direct gaze. She hurries to change the subject. “My contact has been looking for ways to help Clara and Jürgen. They’ve given me the address of a safe house just over the Swiss border – if we can get the children there, someone will look after them.”
Relief, mixed with more regret, spreads over Doro’s face. “I will be glad to get them away – but how I will miss them! They’ve made the house as lively as it was when Max and his friends were children here.”
Doro gets to her feet and finishes making the coffee. There is little conversation as she and Miranda sit together, eating and drinking. Miranda is still feeling strangely empty at the idea that she will be gone from this place within a few days. There is a sense of disappointment – of things unfinished, some of which she hardly dares to put a name to.
“I wish I wasn’t leaving,” she says suddenly. “I wish I could do more to help. You’re all so – so brave, living like this, Doro, and I feel like I’m abandoning you, that I could be doing more –“
Doro smiles into her face. “You’ve done so much to help us already, Anna. And you must follow orders – that’s important, too. Perhaps they will send you to help others in the future. And we will be all right. Don’t worry about us.”
Miranda tries to return Doro’s smile, but it is an effort. Silence falls between them again as they sit there, the kitchen clock ticking steadily. Eventually a wave of fatigue comes over her and she begins to yawn.
“We should go to bed,” Doro says, patting Miranda’s arm affectionately across the table. “You look tired. There is no point waiting up for Max. Goodness knows what time he will get back. I will leave some food and coffee ready for him, and the lamp burning low. Come, my dear.”
Miranda does not need any more persuasion, and within a few minutes they are both climbing the stairs, stopping to look in on the sleeping children before seeking their own beds. Despite her confused feelings, Miranda is tired enough tonight to fall asleep quickly once her head touches the pillow.
Max does not come home that night.
It is still early when Miranda arrives in the kitchen. Doro is preparing the children’s breakfast and looking worried. She turns quickly at the sound of Miranda’s footsteps. “Max isn’t home yet. When I came down, everything was just as I left it, and the oil in the lamp had burned out. His bed hasn’t been slept in. What do you think can have happened?”
A dozen possibilities run through Miranda’s mind – a complication or delay with the supply drop, a late-night drinking session with Christian, an unexpected extra mission, the catastrophic discovery of the Resistance’s activities by the Nazis – and she resolutely pushes the worst of these imaginings from her mind. “I expect there was a delay of some sort. Perhaps he decided to spend the night at Christian’s, or with one of the others? He’s sure to be home soon – he wouldn’t want to worry you.”
Doro looks far from reassured. “It happened once before – last year - they almost got caught by the Germans, and he and Rico had to hide in a cowshed all night until the coast was clear. But he knows how worried I was then. It’s not like him to leave me wondering where he is.”
“Well, he’ll probably be back soon,” Miranda says, trying to convince herself as much as Doro that Max’s non-appearance is not the consequence of some disaster. “Shall I get the eggs?”
At Doro’s nod, Miranda pulls on outdoor shoes, opens the kitchen door and sets off through the pale-pink early light of the farmyard towards the orchard and the chicken coop. She can hear the chickens crooning to each other and small birds twittering overhead in the trees. Kneeling to open up the coop and shoo the chickens out into the orchard, she is about to reach into the straw for the warm brown eggs when she hears the squeak of the gate into the farmyard, and the scrape of boots on the cobbles. Miranda looks up and sees Max with his hand on the gate, staring straight across the farmyard towards her. There is a split second of warm relief at the sight of him before her stomach drops as she realises something is terribly, terribly wrong.
She forgets about the eggs and stands up slowly, staring back at him as he walks steadily towards her. He looks as though he hasn’t slept at all, a fuzz of stubble on his jaw and his curly hair unkempt. But it is the expression on his face which disturbs her more. The only word she can think of is - anguish.
“Has something happened?” she asks stupidly. Stupidly, because she already knows that something dreadful has happened, but she can’t think of anything else to say.
“Yes.” His voice doesn’t sound like Max any more than his face looks like Max. “They’re dead.”
Miranda has walked back across the farmyard until she is only a few paces from him. Now she puts out a hand to the wall of the shabby outbuilding beside her, trying to ground herself with the rough touch of the stone. “Who’s – who’s dead?”
A bitter sound escapes Max’s throat. “Everyone. All of them. Christian. Rico. Heinrich. Maria. Yvonne. All of them.” His voice cracks on the last few words. His bright blue eyes are full of pain and red-rimmed, as if he has been weeping.
Miranda feels as though she has been punched in the stomach. She sucks in a breath and manages to whisper, “What happened?”
“The Germans knew we were coming. They were waiting at the drop site. They shot them all.” His voice is rising as anger replaces the flat grief in his tone. “You didn’t come. Where were you?” He comes much closer and Miranda finds herself retreating, driven back by his growing fury.
“I’m sorry – I couldn’t come. I was too late –“
He reaches out a long arm and grips her shoulder painfully, slamming her back into the stone wall behind her and pinning her there. “Was it you? Someone betrayed us – someone told the Germans where we would be – was it you?” He is hissing the words right into her face now, his eyes full of pain and despair. Miranda can feel his hot, sobbing breath on her cheek and sharp discomfort where his fingers are digging into her shoulder.
“No –“ she gasps out, but he doesn’t seem to hear her. She has learned self-defence – she could easily wriggle out of his grasp – but she is transfixed by his anger.
“Did you betray us, Anna? And then take care not to be there? Are you disappointed that I didn’t die too? I would have – would have died with them, but I was late. I was waiting for you – like a fool – so I was too late to warn them –“
Miranda manages to take a breath.
“No!” she gasps again. “No, I was late because I had to go and meet my contact. She sent me a message to meet and I couldn’t get away. By the time I got back here it was too late to go and meet you, so I stayed here. I would never betray you, Max – Max, I’m so sorry!”
“You’re lying. I was a fool to trust you.”
Miranda is not sure he has really heard anything she has said. He lets go of her shoulder abruptly, backs away from her and fumbles in the pocket of his jacket, his face still wild with grief and anger. He pulls out a small pistol and levels it at her heart. “Was it you?” he repeats. “Did you kill them, Anna?”
There is a long and terrible pause. Miranda stands very still and looks from the small black hole at the end of the gun to Max’s eyes and back again. None of her training has prepared her for this moment because this is not the enemy, this is Max, and, while part of her is frightened, another part of her longs to comfort him.
The pause lengthens. Max’s hand shakes slightly as he holds the gun.
Doro’s voice shatters the tension of the moment. “Max, stop that! Put the gun down!”
Max slowly lowers the pistol, but his tortured gaze does not leave Miranda’s face.
Doro hurries across the farmyard towards them.
“She was supposed to meet me last night,” he says, his voice flat again rather than furious. “She didn’t come. I waited for her like a fool, and by the time I got to the drop site the Germans were there, surrounding the others. They killed them all. Perhaps – perhaps it was Anna who told the Germans where to find us. She didn’t come –“
“Max, I told you, I had to meet my contact,” Miranda says pleadingly.
“She’s telling the truth.” Doro pushes herself between them. “She was called away. I was there when the note arrived. She wouldn’t betray you – she’s not like that. Give me the gun, my son.”
At last, Max transfers his gaze from Miranda to his mother, and he puts the gun into her waiting hand. Doro drops it into the pocket of her apron. Without warning, Max’s body is shaken by uncontrollable sobs and he crumples. Doro gathers him into her arms as if he is still her little boy, even though he towers over her and has to bend to lay his head on her shoulder.
Miranda stands and watches the two of them, her hands clenching and unclenching uselessly at her sides. She longs to offer comfort herself, but knows it is not her place to do it.
A sound from the back door into the kitchen catches her ear, and she glances across to see Jürgen standing uncertainly in the doorway. Miranda hopes devoutly that he did not see the scene with the gun. His eyes are wide as she crosses the farmyard towards him, trying to block the sight of Doro and Max from him.
“Is everything all right?” the little boy asks. “I heard someone shouting. Is Onkel Max upset?”
“Yes,” Miranda says, shooing him back into the kitchen, “yes, he’s had some bad news. Oma Doro is trying to cheer him up. Look, are you hungry? Shall I get you some breakfast?”
As always, Jürgen is easily distracted by the mention of food. “I’m starving,” he announces. “Can I have some of that lovely blackberry jam on my bread today?”
“Yes, of course,” Miranda says, trying to make her voice sound normal. “Does Clara want some too?”
As she busies herself slicing bread, she glances out of the kitchen window and sees Max still wrapped in Doro’s arms.
Miranda’s breaths are quick and short as she wheels Doro’s bicycle down the steep path to the lane. Beside her, the little stream rushes and gurgles down the hillside and the old brown horse grazes in the field, hock-deep in the long grass and wildflowers.
At the bottom of the path she mounts the bicycle and cycles swiftly towards the town. It is late afternoon now, and on a normal day the streets of Palburg would be relaxed and sleepy, with small knots of people socialising, finishing work for the day or heading towards the bars to meet up for a drink and a chat. Today is far from normal. Even as she reaches the first streets with their straggling houses, Miranda can feel the tension in the air. There are German soldiers on every corner, most of them standing to watchful attention and observing the passers-by closely. There are uneasy groups of people muttering to each other in shop doorways. Miranda catches a few words here and there as she pedals past, weaving in and out between the pedestrians and the occasional motor car.
“The Commandant at the Schloss posted the announcement and the names…”
“Yes, the butcher’s son was one of them, I heard…”
“I can hardly believe it…”
“The bookseller, Heinrich Müller…”
Miranda keeps her head down and cycles onwards, reaching the town square where, even on a day like today, a few people are gathering for the evening at the tables outside the cafés. She glances across and sees a group of soldiers clustered outside Heinrich’s bookshop, where the door stands wide open. Presumably they are searching the premises. Miranda thinks of Maria smiling at her among the bookshelves, of Heinrich nursing his injured arm as he comes down the bookshop stairs to join them. She pushes the memories away because they hurt too much.
Leaving the town square behind her, Miranda turns off from the main street and slows as she rides into a maze of smaller streets and alleys. She is on a mission – to find Palmer. She is not supposed to know anything about her mysterious, abrasive English contact, or to see her anywhere except during their planned assignations beneath the remote stone bridge, but she needs to speak to her now – and she might know where to find her. A week or two earlier, Miranda had been shopping for Doro in Palburg and she had taken a new route through the back alleys, hoping to find a short cut back to the town square. It had not proved to be a shorter route because she had got slightly lost, despite the map of Palburg she had tried to memorise during her training, and it had taken her at least twenty minutes to pick her way back to a familiar-looking street. But, while she had been wandering, Miranda had passed a small tobacconist’s shop and her steps had stuttered as she recognised a familiar dark head behind the counter. It was the only time she had glimpsed Palmer beyond their secret meetings, and she was sure Palmer had not noticed her because she had gone past so quickly and the other woman had been talking to a customer at the time.
Palmer might not be in that tobacconist’s shop today – but she might be.
Miranda cycles slowly down several wrong alleys until she finds the one with the tobacconist’s shop sign visible at the far end. There are very few people about. Above Miranda’s head, a woman comes out on to her balcony to smoke, calling over her shoulder to someone in the room behind her. A black cat slinks along the wall of a house and disappears around a corner. Somewhere in another upstairs apartment a baby is crying.
When Miranda props her bicycle up against the wall and looks into the window of the tobacconist’s shop, Palmer is there behind the counter again and Miranda lets out a long sigh of relief. A paunchy, balding man is buying cigarettes, and Miranda hovers by her bicycle until he has finished, pretending to look for something in her basket. The shop bell jingles as the man makes his exit, glancing incuriously at Miranda as he passes her. Miranda draws a deep breath and pushes open the shop door. As the bell jingles again, Palmer looks up and her face freezes as she sees Miranda.
“What are you doing here?” she asks in a hiss, casting a quick look over Miranda’s shoulder to check whether anyone is following her.
“I need to talk to you.” Miranda says evenly. “Now.”
“I can’t talk to you here. You shouldn’t even be here. How did you – never mind. Just get out.”
Miranda stands her ground. “I need to talk to you,” she repeats.
Palmer’s eyes are furious, but she keeps her voice low. “All right. I’ll meet you in half an hour in our usual place. When I’ve shut the shop. But now just get out, will you? And make sure no one’s following you when you leave, if you don’t mind.”
“Half an hour. All right, I’ll wait for you. But if you don’t come, I’m coming back here to find you.”
“Yes, yes. Go. Out.” Palmer makes an urgent sweeping gesture with her hand, as if trying to sweep Miranda out of the shop. Miranda meets her eyes with another steady look, turns on her heel and leaves.
At least this time Palmer does not keep her waiting. It is almost exactly half an hour later when Miranda, pacing below the bridge, hears the sound of Palmer throwing her bicycle into the bushes and approaching the stone steps down to the stream.
Palmer begins speaking with no preamble. “What the fuck were you thinking, coming to speak to me in town? Do you actually want to get us both shot? Does your training mean nothing to you?”
Miranda feels her Welsh temper rising. “Did you know?” she hisses back. “Did you know the Germans were going to ambush them last night? Was that why you kept me here – so I wouldn’t be able to go and join them? Did you know?”
Palmer looks at her almost pityingly. “These things happen,” she says, in a tone which is no longer angry but curiously emotionless. She lights a cigarette and flicks the match into the stream. “I’m sorry about your friends, but they knew the risks. This war’s been going on a long time now, you know. Plenty of people have died. You knew when you signed up for this that it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Every time your friends carried out an operation, they knew the chances they were taking.”
Miranda’s hands are shaking as she runs them through her dyed hair. “But someone must have leaked the time and the place – how did the Germans know where they were going to be?”
Palmer shrugs. “To be honest, Anna, it could have been anyone. Walls have ears in these parts. It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been your friend Max – it could have been literally anyone. I can’t tell you often enough – trust no one.”
Miranda stares at Palmer. Frustration and helplessness swirl inside her.
After a pause, Palmer goes on, “But – if you want to know what I think – I think the Germans got on to that bookseller after he lost his head the day the Army reinforcements arrived in town. You know who I mean, don’t you – the one who started yelling at the soldiers?”
Miranda nods silently.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Schneider’s men were tracking him from that day onwards. They probably followed him, listened to him, followed him and his girlfriend to the supply drop –“ Palmer shrugs again. “It could have happened like that. Or they could have found out from someone else. We’ll probably never know.”
There is another pause. Palmer smokes with seeming unconcern and Miranda feels a wave of self-reproach wash over her as she remembers how she had persuaded Max to include Heinrich and Maria in that final supply drop, against his better judgement. Would the others have survived, if Heinrich and Maria had not been part of that operation? Like Palmer said, Miranda would probably never know.
After a few moments Palmer says, “Anyway, since you’re here, I can give you some information. London want you out of here quick-smart, especially after last night. They’ve lost a few agents in Austria recently. The Germans are getting too trigger-happy, knowing that the war isn’t going their way.”
Miranda nods. Inwardly, she wonders whether Max and Doro will be safer without her around.
“So, you’re being picked up on Sunday night. The same field where they dropped you – if you can’t remember where that is, I’m sure your friend Max can tell you. Two a.m. Be there half an hour early and stay well hidden.”
Palmer takes the remainder of her cigarette from between her lips and throws it into the water. Unexpectedly, she holds out a hand to Miranda. “I won’t see you again. Good luck.”
Startled by this abruptness – although she should expect it from Palmer by now – Miranda shakes the outstretched hand. “Thanks,” she manages to mumble. “Good luck to you too.”
After Palmer has climbed the stone steps beside the bridge and disappeared into the twilight, Miranda stands motionless, in no hurry to return to the farmhouse and the atmosphere of mourning which hangs over it. It is almost half an hour before she finally stirs herself, climbs the steps, retrieves the bicycle and rides away from the meeting place for the very last time.