August, 1945 – One year later.
“Which would you say was the most important thing – faith, hope or love?”
Many months ago in Hampshire a Spanish woman called Inés had asked Miranda that question and she had replied, “Hope.”
Perhaps that is why she is here now – hope - even though she knows the chances of finding the person she is looking for are vanishingly small.
It is late summer again in the Austrian Tyrol. From the slow-moving steam train, Miranda can see the wildflower-speckled meadows and the pale green river which winds through them. In the meadows the long-horned cattle are grazing, the clanking of their cowbells audible through the open window of the railway carriage. In the distance the mountains rise up as gloriously as she had remembered them, their summits up in the clouds. Even now, in late August, patches of white snow are visible on their peaks.
Looking at these beautiful views from a distance one would hardly know that there has been a long and gruelling war. Austria is still very much an occupied country now, in August 1945. It is no longer ruled by the Germans but has been divided into four different zones under the control of the victorious Allies – the British, the Americans, the French and the Russians. The North Tyrol is under French rule at the moment. Miranda has read in the newspapers of the tremendous bitterness felt by Austrians over the decision to hand South Tyrol over to the Italians.
All over Europe there are thousands of people who have lost their homes. Many are living in refugee camps, while others are making long journeys in the hope of finding lost loved ones or returning to their homelands. Miranda has only been able to travel to Austria, with great difficulty, through Switzerland. The task of rebuilding post-war Europe will be a long one, but it is hard to think about politics on a day as beautiful as this. Miranda feels as if she has left a bomb-damaged London which is painted only in shades of grey, and arrived in a place where there is colour.
At last, the engine puffs into the sleepy little station at Palburg, and Miranda steps off the train. The station looks almost unchanged, although the tricolore flag of the occupying French forces now flutters from the station flagpole in place of the Nazi swastika which she had seen there before.
Miranda stands motionless on the platform for several minutes after the train has pulled out, staring around her and thinking about all the times she had cycled past this station on her way to meet with Palmer, a year and a lifetime ago. She wonders if Palmer survived to the end of the war, if she ever returned to England and what she is doing now.
When she rouses from her trance, Miranda realises that she is the only passenger left on the platform and that the stationmaster is looking slightly impatient as he waits by the gate to take her ticket. She remembers the weedy little man, although he seems to have shaved off his Hitler moustache – perhaps unsurprisingly. He shows no flicker of recognition as she hands him her ticket and perhaps that, too, is not surprising. He had only seen her a few times while she was living in Palburg and she had looked very different then – her hair, her clothes…
She walks away from the station and crosses the bridge towards the centre of the small town, carrying her suitcase and shoulder bag. The streets seem fairly busy with people, motor cars and bicycles. There is a lightness to the bustle and chatter which probably comes with the knowledge that German troops and informers are not watching and listening around every corner. Women pass her carrying shopping baskets. Two girls hurry by, chattering cheerfully, their hair tied up in gaily-coloured scarves. The one with the dark curls reminds her of Maria.
Miranda passes the inn by the bridge which had belonged to Yvonne’s family. She wonders if the Schröder family are still there, and if the unreliable Rainer has found another woman willing to mother Yvonne’s little girl.
In the little café where the German soldiers arrested Miranda’s first contact, the same proprietor is serving customers. The tables, chairs, cups and plates look exactly the same.
There is a patient queue of people waiting outside the butcher’s shop which had belonged to Christian’s father, Klaus, although there is scarcely any meat on display – some things have not changed yet despite the official end of the war.
Miranda remembers the mad rejoicing of VE day in London, three months ago. Everyone had gone out into the streets, where soldiers, factory girls, bus conductors, Air Raid Wardens and countless others were dancing, embracing and celebrating. Her own father had sounded choked up when he had told her on the telephone about his feelings as he sat in Wales and listened to the voices of Mr. Churchill and the King on the wireless. The war in the Far East had finished less than a fortnight ago. VJ day had arrived soon after the Americans had dropped their atomic bombs on Japan. Miranda still finds it hard to believe that the conflict is really over, when so many people have yet to begin rebuilding their lives and thousands of Allied troops have yet to return from the Far East.
She takes a leisurely route across the cobbled town square. The square is busy today, with people sitting gossiping on the benches around the fountain or eating and drinking at the outdoor restaurant tables. Two French soldiers are sitting together, smoking, laughing and drinking coffee with their hats on the table in front of them. There is a small farmers’ market in progress with several stalls, but the stallholders are beginning to pack up their goods after the day’s trading.
Miranda pauses outside the little bookshop at the back of the square – Heinrich’s bookshop. The building looks derelict, with the main shop window boarded up and a wooden plank nailed across the door. The windows of Heinrich’s apartment above the shop are grimy and one of the blue shutters is hanging loose and broken. There is a large FOR SALE sign in the middle upstairs window. Miranda wonders if this is what she will find when she reaches the Winters’ farmhouse – boarded up windows, deserted rooms, weeds and an air of abandonment. If so, it will be very hard to bear, but she has to know. This is why she has come all this way – to try to discover whatever she can, and to find out if any of the people she learned to love here have managed to survive. If they are alive, whether they are in Palburg, Switzerland or somewhere else, Miranda is determined to find them.
When she reaches the street corner where the police station is, she sees that the swastika flags she remembers there have disappeared. There is a French tricolore flying on one of the flagstaffs beside the door and the red-and-white flag of the Tyrol flying from the other. Through the window she can see a young uniformed officer standing at the desk, talking to a man in a loden jacket who looks like a farmer. She does not recognise the police officer.
Miranda does not see any faces she knows well as she walks through the streets, but several people turn to look at her curiously as she passes them in her best summer clothes – a young woman with a face which might seem vaguely familiar to some of them and a bright head of ash-blonde hair which no one recognises. It is uncomfortably hot now, walking in the late afternoon sunshine, and she takes off her hat and light coat and carries them with her suitcase.
When she has passed the last building of the town, Miranda continues down the lane until she turns and begins to climb the steep footpath up the side of the sloping field; the familiar shortcut from the town to the Winters’ farm. Beside the footpath, the little stream bubbles and splashes its way downhill, just as it always has. A new flock of white geese are browsing and honking in the field where the old brown horse used to graze. She pauses to look at the geese, and to gaze around her at the distant view of the mountains. It is so beautiful and so peaceful. For a stranger, it would be hard to believe all the ugly and heartbreaking things which happened here not so very long ago. Miranda, however, remembers everything all too vividly.
At the top of the field she notices that someone has mended the broken gate into the yard. It no longer leans at a drunken angle but swings sweetly on brand new hinges. She unfastens the shiny new metal hook, goes through the gate and fastens the hook behind her.
The cobbled farmyard looks tidier than she remembers. If the property has been abandoned, it is abandoned no longer. Someone has started to cut back the brambles and weeds at the sides of the yard, repaired some of the holes in the roofs of the outbuildings and patched some of the potholes with new cobbles. But the broken water pipe still drips into the stone trough, which is as thickly coated with green moss as ever.
Miranda does not see or hear anyone as she carries her suitcase and coat across the farmyard. When she turns the corner and reaches the orchard, she hears the first sound – the loud drone of thousands of bees buzzing loudly in the clover. The apple trees are groaning with ripe fruit, just as they had been at this time last year. She wonders what happened to last year’s apples after they had left the farmhouse empty. With food being so precious in wartime, she is sure the neighbours will not have let the fruit go to waste.
Last autumn would have been the first autumn when Doro had not been there to make the most of the harvest – to make apple pies and strudels. Miranda had tried to make a version of her mother’s strudel in her new bed-sitting room in Islington some months ago, using her precious butter ration and the apples she had brought back from a visit to her father in Wales, but it had not been very successful. The bed-sitting room in Islington is fairly grim and smells of damp, but it is a roof over her head. Thanks to all the bomb damage, there are terrible housing shortages in London now. Miranda’s friend Carmen is living in the flat she and Miranda used to share, with her new husband – a navigator in the RAF. She had met him, in fact, at that fateful publishers’ party when Richard Cannerley had suggested that Miranda might be interested in joining the SOE. Of course he is away on duty most of the time, but there is going to be a baby soon and they will need the space.
Miranda can hear more noises now – not just the buzzing of the bees. Around the front of the house, somewhere still out of sight, she can hear metallic snipping sounds and the rustle of foliage. The farm is not deserted. Someone is here.
She finds that she is unconsciously holding her breath and has slowed her steps, almost afraid to walk around the corner and find out who is there. Her heart is beating a little faster. She has come here far more in hope than in expectation, and she is steeling herself for the crushing disappointment of finding a stranger here who does not know the answers to any of her questions.
She walks very quietly and slowly around the corner. She stops. She puts down her suitcase and coat.
The front of the house looks almost exactly as Miranda remembers it. Doro’s rose bushes by the steps are in full bloom again – yellow and red and white, their scent filling the summer air. There is less ivy on the front of the house, though. A huge mound of cut ivy lies on the cobbles directly in front of her. A tall wooden ladder is propped up against the front of the house.
Max is halfway up the ladder.
He is balancing himself on the rungs as he uses the sharp secateurs in his hand to cut through more of the ivy stems. He pulls a great swathe of the clinging plant away from the stone wall, throwing it down to join the huge rustling pile of greenery on the ground beneath him. Then he turns back to cut the next stem, steadying himself on a ladder with one hand against the wall, his expression one of concentration.
Having put down her suitcase, Miranda stands still and lets herself absorb the sight of him. Emotions she cannot even name flood through her – relief? Love? Joy?
His curly hair is untidy and his beard perhaps a little longer. The lines on his forehead are deeper. He is wearing an old white shirt and old trousers held up by braces – he has lost weight – and his sleeves are rolled up above his elbows, revealing tanned forearms.
At that moment, Max seems to sense that he is no longer alone. His hand, holding the secateurs, hesitates in mid-air. He puts his hand on the side of the ladder and gradually turns his head towards the place where Miranda is standing. His eyes widen in recognition and disbelief when he sees her. Miranda watches him taking in her appearance – registering the bright blonde hair, the red lipstick, the tidy pale blue blouse and the navy skirt.
“Hello, Max,” she says.
He seems to remain frozen in shock for a few seconds before he finally manages a reply.
He climbs down the ladder, drops the secateurs on the cobbles and walks slowly towards her. Miranda looks up at him. She remembers now how tall he is and how blue his eyes are.
He looks down at her uncertainly, and behind his hesitation she can see in his eyes a kind of incredulous joy, as though she is a miracle he was not expecting.
“I didn’t think –“ he says.
“I know,” she says.
Max reaches out one of his big, gardening-stained hands and runs a lock of her shining blonde hair through his fingers. “It’s really this colour?” he says at last.
Miranda gives a small laugh. “Yes.”
He moves his hand from her hair to her cheek, touching her gently with his fingertips as if to make sure she is real.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” she says, unable to tear her eyes away from his face.
His mouth begins to curve into a smile. “What?”
She says, “My name is Miranda Blake.”
She is never sure, afterwards, who moves first, but she is caught in a sudden, crushing embrace and pulled into a fierce kiss. She cups the back of his head with her hand and tries to tug him even closer, so that she can feel him, taste him, smell him, reclaim him. When their lips finally, reluctantly part, they gaze into each other’s eyes for a long moment before they hug again, this time cheek to cheek. Miranda knows there are tears spilling from her eyes and making Max’s face wet, but she does not care, because he is crying too, and laughing at the same time. They hold each other as tightly as they possibly can - as if they will never let each other go again.
And she knows that whatever comes next in this unpredictable after the war future they will face it together.
They are still clinging together, completely oblivious to anyone else, when Clara skips out of the front door of the house. She stops, takes one amazed look and runs back indoors, calling, “Oma Doro! Come and see! Tante Anna has come home!”