Chapter 1: Recruitment
The steam train puffs through the countryside. Trees and fields flash past the windows, which are criss-crossed with tape to protect them from bomb damage. Miranda has had a long and tiring journey that day, starting with an early-morning departure from Aberystwyth and having to change trains at Shrewsbury and Birmingham, but this is the last leg on the return to London. As usual these days, the train is crowded with servicemen, but she and Carmen have been lucky to find a window and middle seat in this compartment. The other seats are filled by a harassed-looking mother with two children, an elderly clergyman, a thin young man in civilian clothes reading a book about mathematics and a plump woman with a lot of luggage.
“Not far now,” Carmen says, as the view from the window starts to feature fewer fields and more towns and villages. “This journey seems to have taken about a thousand years.” She sees Miranda’s expression and adds hastily, “Not that I haven’t enjoyed seeing Wales. It’s beautiful, especially the coast. And all those daffodils!”
“Even more beautiful in peace time,” Miranda says. “You’ll have to come back one day when the war’s over.”
“I’d like that.” The train starts to slow as they approach a small station and steam into the platform. This train seems to have stopped at every single place between Birmingham and London Euston. All station name signs were removed at the start of the war to avoid aiding spies, but Miranda knows from previous journeys that this is a place called Bletchley. The thin young man with the book about mathematics gets up and leaves the train. A middle-aged man in a suit, with a briefcase, enters the compartment and takes his seat. As the train gathers speed again, he smiles at Miranda and Carmen and asks the compartment in general if anyone objects to him smoking his pipe. No one does.
“Only about another thirty-five minutes to Euston,” Carmen says. “It was nice of your father’s housekeeper to pack so much food up for us. I’m planning to live on those delicious Austrian biscuits for at least a week.”
“My mother taught her that recipe, years ago,” Miranda explains. “She still makes lots of the recipes from my mother’s Austrian cookbook because Father likes them. I’m afraid I haven’t inherited any of her talents for cookery.”
“That’s true,” Carmen agrees. “You can’t cook for toffee! But you do have other talents. Just think, if there were German spies on this train you’d be able to understand what they were talking about!”
“Yes, but when most people find out I speak German they look at me like I must be a spy,” Miranda returns.
The pipe-smoking man opposite them clears his throat. “Do excuse me,” he says, “but would you care for a boiled sweet?” He is holding out a tin. Sweets are a rare treat, so Carmen is quick to take one and give him a warm smile of thanks for sharing his ration. Miranda, always more reticent than her extrovert friend, takes one and thanks him politely.
“Richard Cannerley,” he introduces himself.
“I’m Carmen Laurence,” says Carmen. “I know, Carmen’s a bit unusual but my father is obsessed with opera. Gave us all names of characters from operas. My poor sister’s called Isolde. This is Miranda Blake.”
Mr. Cannerley seems ready to chat to them. “Are you visiting London, or do you live there?” he asks.
“We’re both working there,” Carmen says. “We’ve just been to stay with Miranda’s father in Wales. It was lovely there, but now it’s back to the grindstone, I suppose.”
“Brave of you to work in London, in these times,” Mr. Cannerley observes.
“It’s our duty to help win the war,” Miranda says, rather sharply.
“Of course, of course. Quite right. I’m a publisher. Got a gammy leg – old rugger injury – so I wasn’t any use to the armed forces, I’m afraid.”
“We just have boring secretarial jobs in Government offices,” Carmen tells him. “I expect my boss has got all his files mixed up while I’ve been away.”
“Sorry for listening in, but did I hear you say you speak German?” Mr. Cannerley asks Miranda. “I would have thought the War Office would have found some use for you.”
Miranda smiles politely, but thinks Careless talk costs lives…and avoids talking about her work. It is true that she is sometimes asked to translate a few documents here and there, but it is only low-level work and most of the time she is just typing and filing, which is very dull. “My mother was Austrian,” she explains. “She met my father when he was visiting Wien - Vienna - to lecture at the university. We lived in Austria when I was a child, but we moved back to Wales a long time before the war. She never wanted me to forget her language, though.”
“You must be glad you’re not in Austria now,” says Mr. Cannerley. “Of course, Austria doesn’t exist any more as such, does it? It’s just part of Germany now, since the Anschluss. Full of Nazis.”
“Austria is a beautiful country,” Miranda says fiercely, “and the Nazis have taken away the freedom of the people of Austria. I’m glad my mother isn’t alive to see what they have done to her country.”
“Of course. Sorry,” he apologises, seeing he has struck a nerve. Carmen looks quickly at Miranda, hoping she isn’t going to lose her temper. Cannerley gets a card out of his wallet. “Look,” he says, passing the card to Carmen, “my publishing company’s having a bit of a party on Friday night. Book launch for Nicholas Mountford’s new book. Do come if you can, I think you’d enjoy it.”
Carmen thanks him warmly. Miranda says nothing. The train rattles on towards Euston.
Miranda is dragged to the party by Carmen, who points out that it will be a free evening’s relaxation and will possibly feature dancing and young men. The rooms are crowded and cheerful, with music and a buzz of chatter. The grumpy-looking author is sitting in a corner signing copies of his book, but most people seem to just be looking for an excuse to enjoy themselves. Carmen quickly accepts an invitation from a young man in RAF uniform, who sweeps her on to the dance floor to join in an energetic jive. Miranda finds it much too noisy and seeks refuge in a small side room lined with bookshelves. It is quiet and peaceful here. She is just about to take a book from the shelves when she hears a footstep and Mr. Cannerley comes in, accompanied by a younger man who is lean and bearded.
“Ah, Miss Blake,” he says, sounding delighted to see her. “I’m so glad you came. I’d like to introduce you to my friend, Charles King. Charles, this is Miss Blake, whose mother was Austrian. She speaks German and she is very concerned about the fate of Austria.”
Mr. King shakes Miranda’s hand. “Delighted to meet you, Miss Blake. I must confess I’ve been in touch with your boss, Mr. Webb, about you. He had nothing but praise for your work, and he tells me your German is very fluent.”
“You’ve spoken to Mr. Webb?” Miranda looks from one man to the other in astonishment. “Why?”
“Do take a seat, Miss Blake.” Mr. King gestures her to a chair while Mr. Cannerley closes the door, shutting out the distant noise from the party. “We were wondering if you might be prepared to consider changing your work. We think you have qualities and talents which might be a good fit for a role in our organisation.”
Miranda looks at Mr. Cannerley. “Something tells me you’re not really a publisher.”
“Oh, I do work for this publishing house,” Mr. Cannerley smiles. “But I am employed in another role too. Let me tell you a little about our organisation, Miss Blake, and then you can decide if you are interested in training to work for us.”
Miranda is fastening the final buttons on her new khaki uniform while Carmen looks at her critically. “You look very smart, Miranda,” she says, “but I can’t understand why you’ve suddenly decided to change jobs. What did you say this unit was called, anyway?”
“F.A.N.Y.,” says Miranda, brushing off her new peaked cap. “First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.”
“And you have to go away for training?”
“Yes, I’ll be out of London for a while. I’m not sure how long. But I’ll keep my room here, of course.”
Carmen still looks suspicious. “Nursing Yeomanry? You? And you’re going to be a…driver? I just can’t – there’s something else going on, isn’t there?”
Miranda looks at her friend. She has never made many friends, being a solitary, introverted person since her childhood, but sharing this flat with the lively Carmen since her arrival in London has been an unexpectedly enjoyable experience for her. “I’d tell you if I could,” she says. “But I can’t, I’m afraid. I’m doing the right thing for me, though. Don’t worry about me.”
“I won’t be able to help worrying,” says Carmen. “But if you really feel that you have to do this – well, stay safe, won’t you?”
Pretending to be in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry is a regular cover for women who have been recruited by the Special Operations Executive. Arriving in Hampshire, Miranda is impressed to find that this particular outpost of the SOE is based in a historic stately home, requisitioned for the duration of the war. The lofty rooms are filled with antique furniture and the beautiful gardens stretch down towards a river. On the first evening, the new recruits, both male and female, sit around on antique chairs in a gracious drawing-room while Mr. King and the other staff explain what their training will consist of.
“It takes a very special kind of person to train to be an agent abroad,” he says, patting the head of the Westie terrier which is always by his side. “Many of our candidates do not complete the training course successfully. We’ll be putting you through a tough programme. As well as working on your physical fitness, you’ll be learning everything from map-reading to marksmanship, Morse code and self-defence. We’ll also be doing plenty of psychological testing to make sure that you’re someone who can cope with what we’ll be asking of you.”
Miranda looks around the room at her fellow trainees and makes a determined vow to herself that, whoever else fails, she will pass the training course.
The following weeks are intensive and exhausting. There is early rising, and daily PT to improve their fitness. Miranda runs, climbs walls, crawls under nets and splashes through mud while an Army PT instructor bellows at her and the other recruits. Gritting her teeth, she pushes herself towards the front of the field, challenging herself to overtake as many of the others as she can and to keep up with some of the men.
There is marksmanship training. They are given heavy pistols and trained to load and unload them, to clean them and to aim them. They stand in a row facing the targets and fire shot after shot, until the red-faced Army sergeant grudgingly admits their performances are beginning to improve. Miranda has never fired a gun before, but she finds it unexpectedly easy. She tries to imagine firing a bullet into the body of a fellow human being instead of a wooden target. Some of her fellow trainees struggle with this, but Miranda knows she can do it unblinkingly if she needs to.
They have frequent psychological assessments with different instructors. Some of these involve playing word association games, or answering seemingly endless questions about their lives and their reasons for joining the SOE. There is a terrifying Spanish woman called Inés Villegas who is rumoured to have made most of the male recruits cry during her practice interrogations. Miranda does not cry, although she does not enjoy being closely questioned about her personal life.
“How did you feel when your mother died, Miss Blake?”
“Would you say you were popular at school?”
“Not really. I liked to study and keep myself to myself.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
“Your father fought in the Great War, didn’t he?”
“You already know that he did.”
“Would you say that you were trying to impress him with your war work?”
“No. I’m doing what I believe to be my duty to my country – both my countries.”
Miranda stubbornly refuses to let Inés get inside her head.
There is training in Morse code and other cyphers. They sit in a row at a long wooden table, their fingers on metal buzzers, buzzing messages to each other and trying to improve the speed at which they can decode the replies. “There’s no need to add please and thank you!” the irritable Irish instructor snaps at them. “Every second you stay on the line is an extra second when you can be caught. So cut out the social bloody chit-chat and just send the bloody message!”
There are lectures about the places they will be sent to, if they pass the course. Miranda takes endless notes about the current situation in Austria, what is happening there regarding military and police laws, the regulations about travel and rationing, the items which are and are not available in shops – everything she needs to know about daily life in 1944 under German rule. She thinks back to her childhood in Vienna with her parents – the walks around the parks, the slices of Sachertorte in the cafés, the holidays by the lakes and mountains – and wonders how she will feel when she sees Austria as it is now, part of the Third Reich.
She studies maps of the North Tyrol area where she will be sent if she is selected. She learns by heart the maps of several small towns and villages. She learns about the existence of the small pockets of the Austrian Resistance movement who work with the SOE couriers.
There are self-defence classes. They learn how to fight off an attacker with and without weapons. They learn how to kill if they need to. It is a very satisfying day when for the first time Miranda manages to take down one of the bigger male recruits and leave him lying speechless on the floor, nursing his sore throat and aching groin. Some of her fellow trainees applaud, and even the instructor gives her some grudging words of praise. By the end of the course, most of the men are reluctant to take her on for fear of embarrassing themselves.
“Would you say you were good at working alone, Miss Blake?” Inés is firing questions at her again.
“Would you say that you lacked team skills?”
“I hope I could do a good job as part of a team, if I needed to.”
“But you find it difficult to trust people, don’t you?”
“I would need to be sure that someone could be trusted.”
“Which would you say was the most important thing – faith, hope or love?”
Miranda pauses. “Hope.”
It is a much smaller group of recruits who gather in the drawing-room on the night when Mr. King tells them they have passed the training course. “From now on you’ll be receiving individual training about your specific missions,” he tells them, while passing a biscuit to the Westie by his knee. “You’ll learn about your contacts, where to meet them and the details of your first jobs as couriers. You’ll complete your basic parachute training and continue to practice all the other skills you’ve been learning. And remember –if you do have the misfortune to be captured and questioned by the Nazis, we sincerely hope that the only name they learn is your cover identity. You will tell them nothing about your mission or any of your contacts – even if your own life depends on it.”
“D-Day” has happened while Miranda has been doing her SOE training. Thousands of Allied troops have stormed the beaches of Normandy. The German army are retreating across France and people are beginning to talk hopefully about victory after listening to the bulletins on the wireless. Mr. King reminds the trainees that the Allied armies are still a long way from Berlin. He quotes the words of Churchill from 1942 – “This is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.” There is still a lot to be done before the occupied countries of Europe will be free of Nazi rule.
Miranda agrees with Mr. King’s words and concentrates on learning the file of information about Anna Riegler, the woman she is about to become.
The late afternoon sunlight is fading into dusk, and there is a sense of tension in the air. After all these weeks of training, the time for action is close at hand. Out on the nearby airstrip, an RAF Lysander is waiting to fly the latest batch of recruits out of England and drop them over Europe.
Everything Miranda is wearing, down to her shoes and underwear, and everything in her backpack (including her backpack) is either homemade or comes from shops in Austria. Her ash-blonde hair, which looks Aryan enough to please Hitler but is far too memorable, has been dyed to an uninteresting muddy brown. A few painful sessions with the unit dentist have ensured that her English-style fillings have been replaced with convincingly Austrian dentistry. Nothing is left to chance. She has even been asked to write a farewell letter to her father, which Mr. King is to keep and will only post to Wales in the event of her death being confirmed. Of course it does not give away any details about her work.
In a hangar, a brisk woman Miranda has never seen before is standing in front of a table where items are laid out, ready to be added to Miranda’s pockets or backpack.
“Identity card. Ration card. Certificate of non-belonging to the Jewish race. Photograph of Anna Riegler’s mother – your mother. Purse with money. Watch. Lipstick. Toiletries – Austrian. Perfume.” The woman hands Miranda a pen. “Sign here to show you’ve received everything. Good luck.”
Over her Austrian clothes, she is fitted with a loose flying suit, a leather cap and a metal helmet. She has worn these before, while doing her parachute jump training over Hampshire.
A black car is waiting outside the hangar to drive them out to the airstrip. There is a driver in the front. Mr. King and his dog get into the back of the car with Miranda.
“It should be a nice simple mission for your first,” he says. “The Resistance chaps will pick you up and take you to your billet. The next day, you go to the café we discussed and meet your first Austrian contact. She will be wearing a blue coat and will ask you what the weather is like in Wien. You tell her that it’s very warm for June. I know, I know, it seems such a cliché talking about the weather! You give her the radio valves, then you leave. The next day you meet your English contact at the place you know. If everything goes smoothly, you’ll be back here before you know it.”
Miranda looks out of the car window; the twilight is getting darker. Next to her, Mr. King pats his dog and coughs. “You’ve done awfully well, you know, Miss Blake.”
The car draws up alongside the black-painted aircraft. The plane’s propellers are already turning. Mr. King shakes Miranda’s hand and she climbs up the ladder into the belly of the plane, where three other agents are already buckled into the hard metal bench-seats, watched over by two airmen. One of the airmen helps Miranda to fasten her parachute bag on to her back. She is still buckling herself into her seat when the plane starts to taxi bumpily along the ground. As the engines roar and the plane hauls itself into the air, Miranda hears Mr. King’s last words in her head.
“Remember. From the moment you leave the ground until the moment you return, you are Anna Riegler. Miranda Blake is dead.”
Miranda is the last agent to be dropped that night. She is numb and cold from hours sitting on the metal seat by the time the airman signals that they are approaching her drop zone. He slides back the door and the black freezing air comes rushing in at them. She crawls to the doorway and crouches there, the wind buffeting at her face. The roar of the wind is so loud that she can no longer hear what the young airman is saying to her, but he holds up his fingers so that she can see his countdown from ten. Five…four…three…two…one…go! He waves her away urgently. She pushes with both hands against the metal edges of the doorway and launches herself out into the darkness. The cold air whistles past her as she falls, down, down, down. Just as she has been trained to do, she reaches for the cord of her parachute and jerks it sharply. The straps around her shoulders cut into her painfully as the silk parachute billows out above her in a white cloud, stopping her freefall. Letting out a relieved breath, Miranda – no, Anna - grips the straps and lets the parachute glide her down towards her fate and the Austrian soil beneath her.
Chapter 2: Contacts
There are flickering torch lights in the darkness below, marking her landing site, and Miranda tries to steer herself towards them. The ground comes up to meet her with a rush, and she barely has time to remember what she has been taught about landing, to bend her knees and roll as her feet hit the grass. She is winded by the impact but unhurt, and she lies on the damp grass for a few moments, getting her breath back. The plane which dropped her has also dropped several small packages of supplies for the Resistance, and she can hear soft thuds as these land in the distance, each carried by its own tiny parachute. Finally the sound of the aircraft engine recedes into the distance, becoming fainter and fainter until she can no longer hear it. In just a few hours the plane will be landing back in England. The crew will be breathing safe English air and probably going off to drink strong tea from RAF enamel mugs. But Miranda will be here, far away from safety.
She struggles to her feet and she is just beginning to try to wriggle out of her harness when she hears quick, soft footsteps thudding across the grass towards her. Four – no, five – figures come out of the darkness. She tenses for a moment before she realises they are not German soldiers, but the promised members of the Austrian Resistance meeting her.
“Sind Sie Anna?” one of them hisses in a whisper. It is too dark for her to see his face, but he is a short, stocky figure against the gloom.
“Ja, Anna Riegler,” she replies. Several pairs of hands hurry to prise her out of her harness, flight suit and helmet. They hustle her across the grass towards a place where a stile crosses a rough stone wall. Having scrambled over this, Miranda finds herself standing in a dark lane. The short man is still holding one of her arms and a woman – Miranda can smell her perfume – is holding her other arm. Another man is following behind them, laden with some of the packages dropped by the plane. Two other men have gathered up the other packages, plus her parachute and other accessories. They disappear into the darkness carrying these things bundled up between them. Miranda presumes that they are going to hide or dispose of her parachute and flying gear somewhere.
It is very quiet in the darkness of the sunken lane. Tall trees on either side of them make blacker shapes against the black night. The only sounds are the quick scraping noises of their feet on the earth and stones as she is hurried down the lane. There is a squeak nearby as some rodent is caught by a hunting owl. A few times Miranda stumbles over ruts or stones she cannot see. She takes a big lungful of the countryside smells. I’m finally here. Back in Austria.
Eventually, her guides lead her through a rickety wooden gate which takes them away from the lane and down a steep, narrow path through a woodland. Below them, Miranda can just make out the black outline of a building. When they reach it, she can see it is not a house but a small barn or outbuilding – rather tumbledown, but with a stout-looking wooden door. The woman next to Miranda taps lightly on the door, making a pattern of knocks. The door is opened to them by another woman, and they enter.
Inside the barn, it is lighter. A hurricane lantern glows softly from the top of a wooden crate. Bales of straw are piled up on one side. There is a strong, pungent mixture of farming smells. Miranda is directed to sit on a bale of straw, and she looks around at the people who have brought her here, able to see their faces for the first time.
The woman who let them into the barn is stirring a pan over a very small camping stove. Miranda can smell coffee, and the methylated spirits which have been used to light the stove. This woman is in her forties with a thin, careworn face and straight hair pulled back into a knot.
The woman who came in with Miranda is quite different. She is tall and young, with a mass of wild black hair tied up in a red headscarf, from which curls are constantly escaping. She has a lively face and bright eyes. Even in this dangerous and secretive situation, she is chatting in whispers and laughing with the short, stocky man while they sort through some boxes on the far side of the barn. Miranda can now see that this man has a cheerful round face and prominent front teeth, untidy longish hair and a brown beard.
The other man who had followed them is busy stacking the packages he had been carrying and pulling off their parachutes. He has a thin, serious, clean-shaven face, greying hair and round metal-rimmed glasses.
The woman stirring the pan takes it off the stove and turns off the heat. She pours coffee into the seven tin mugs which are on the floor beside her and offers one to Miranda. “It’s cold out at night, even in June,” she says. Miranda is just taking her first cautious sip of the hot, bitter brew – she has always hated strong coffee – when there is another soft pattern of knocks at the door. The curly-haired girl unbolts it and two more men enter, carrying more packages. Miranda presumes these are the two who went off to dispose of her parachute. They nod to the others and take their mugs of coffee, then lean against the barn wall and discuss something in low voices.
Miranda feels impatience rising in her, and wonders how long they will be here before she is taken to her billet. Mentally she reviews the list of tasks she needs to complete during her mission. These people, drinking coffee and chatting together, do not seem to feel her sense of urgency - although they are risking their necks conspiring against their Nazi occupiers, so they must have courage.
“Do you have your papers, Anna?”
The taller of the two men who is standing by the barn wall leans towards her and speaks to her for the first time. Miranda had noticed him when he came in, partly because of his height – he must be over six feet – and partly because of his piercing blue eyes. He has a short light-brown beard and is wearing a grey woollen sweater and old canvas trousers.
Miranda fumbles in her pockets and hands over her false identity papers. The tall man looks through them carefully and then nods, apparently satisfied with them. He passes the papers back to her. “Good. Well, we’re glad you got here safely. I’m Max.”
“He’s the boss,” puts in the dark-haired man next to him. He leans towards Miranda and holds out his hand to her with a wide grin, showing very white teeth. “Rico,” he introduces himself. “Well, Friedrich, really, but everyone calls me Rico. That’s Yvonne who made the coffee.”
Yvonne, who is packing away the camping stove, gives Miranda a kind, tired smile.
“This is Heinrich –“ Rico points to the thin, serious man in glasses “- and over there, that’s Maria and that’s Christian.” Maria, of course, is the curly-haired girl, and Christian is the short, stocky man with the brown beard.
“Rico always has a lot to say for himself,” says Maria. “He’s a terrible flirt so just ignore him.” Her smile is teasing. Rico looks wounded.
Heinrich has finished sorting the packages and has put some of them into two sacks. Miranda watches as he lifts a couple of hay bales and reveals a loose board behind them. Christian passes the other packages to him and these are concealed in a space behind the loose board. The hay bales are replaced over the hiding place.
Yvonne has finished packing the mugs, stove and pan in her backpack. “I must go,” she says. “Rainer will be wondering where I am.”
“We must all get out of here,” the tall man – Max – says. He looks at Miranda. “You’re coming with me, Anna. I’ll explain everything on the way.” He picks up her backpack, despite her protests that she can carry it herself very easily. Behind him, Heinrich and Rico are shouldering the two sacks containing packages.
Christian reaches forward to grip Max’s arm briefly. “Take care, my friend. I’ll see you soon.”
Miranda follows Max out of the barn into the darkness, which seems even darker now after the lantern-light of the barn. They do not go back up the steep woodland path to the lane, but follow the path further down in the other direction. Max has a torch but keeps the dim light pointed at the ground.
“You’re my cousin Anna from Wien,” he tells her, as she scrambles to keep up with his long stride. “That will explain your Wiener accent.”
“I lived in Wien as a child,” she explains rather breathlessly. He is setting a fast pace. “I thought the real Anna Riegler died in an air raid there?”
“She did, with her mother, in the American bombing raid in March, but no one in Palburg knows that. Her mother was my father’s sister, but they had hardly kept in touch with us since my father died. I don’t think they’d visited us here since Anna was about six.”
“We’re going to tell people that you didn’t want to stay in Wien in case of more air raids, so you decided to come here to stay with your uncle’s family and look for work.”
They walk for about twenty minutes to reach Max’s home, and they do not talk much, saving their breath for walking. Miranda follows him down lanes and footpaths, until she hears the sound of running water and realises they are climbing a steep path which runs alongside a stream. This path leads to a broken gate, hanging off its hinges. They cross a cobbled yard where a large house looms out of the darkness on their left. Then Max is stopping at a door and opening it to wave her into a dimly-lit kitchen, where it is clean, warm and smells of food. A lamp burns low in the middle of the scrubbed wooden table and a pan of soup waits on the old black kitchen range. Miranda suddenly realises that she is hungry.
In the kitchen, she sits at the table and watches as he moves around making coffee, reheating the soup and cutting bread. His curly hair falls in untidy strands over his forehead.
“This is a farm, or what’s left of one,” he explains, after he has placed coffee, bread and soup in front of Miranda and sat down facing her. “You’ll see, tomorrow. We used to have four or five men working here, but they’ve all been conscripted into the German army now. So it’s just me living here, and Mama – she’s in bed upstairs. There are a couple of young boys who come and help out, too.”
Miranda takes a moment to savour the thick, well-seasoned soup. “You and your friends haven’t been conscripted?”
“A lot of my friends have been. We – our group – all have some reason why we’ve escaped that. Heinrich is as blind as a bat without his glasses. Christian has a club foot. Rico works with his uncle in the undertakers. His uncle’s managed to get him out of conscription so far by claiming they can’t function without him. Got to have someone to deal with the bodies.” Max’s face twists in a rather mirthless smile. “But the Nazis are losing the war. They’ve started to call up everyone – by the time it’s over, they’ll be sending old men and kids in the Hitler Youth to the front lines.”
“How about you?” Miranda asks, wrapping her hands around the warm coffee cup.
“Oh, I’m exempt from the Army because I’m a police officer.”
“A police officer?” Miranda can’t hide her tone of surprise. If she had been asked to guess his profession, this is not what she would have guessed. “But aren’t the Austrian police - ?”
“Run by the Nazis now, yes. But it’s surprising how useful I can be, working on the inside. I can find out when people are going to be arrested, and try to get warning to them. My bosses have been quite frustrated these last few years by how many people seem to have disappeared when they go looking for them.” He smiles – a real smile, this time, which lights up his face. “I just hope they don’t catch up with my activities before the war’s over.”
When Miranda has finished her meal, Max takes two candlesticks from a shelf, lights both the candles and passes one to her. “No electricity in this house, I’m afraid.” He leads her out of the kitchen, along a stone-flagged passageway, through a door and up some steep, uncarpeted stairs. The room he shows her into is clean but sparsely-furnished. The metal bedstead is made up ready for her, the flowered curtains are drawn, there is a battered chest of drawers and a wooden chair. Miranda puts her candlestick down on top of the chest of drawers and places her rucksack on the chair.
“The bathroom is next door – that way.” Max points. “My mother will wake you. I am on duty early tomorrow.”
“Does your mother know - ?”
“She knows what I do, and she knows you are an agent. You can trust her completely. She will take you into Palburg tomorrow and she will tell anyone who asks that you are my father’s niece. You have a contact to make?”
“Yes, at four o’clock.”
He nods. As he turns towards the door, he looks back at her suddenly and gives her another of those smiles which light up his whole face and make his eyes crinkle at the edges. “Sleep well, Anna.”
The door closes behind him.
Miranda looks around the room again, and at the flickering flame of the candle which lights it. She sits down on the bed and lets out a long breath. For better or worse, her mission has begun.
Miranda thinks that she will be too full of adrenalin to sleep, but as soon as her head hits the feather pillow she falls into a deep slumber. She is roused by someone shaking her shoulder and the sound of an unfamiliar voice.
“Anna? Wake up, my dear.”
Miranda sits up, blinking, and sees a woman standing beside her bed. She is in her late fifties, perhaps, with bobbed dark brown hair streaked with grey and a kind, round face. Apart from her clear blue eyes, there is not much resemblance between her and Max.
“I’m Doro Winter. Welcome to our home. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you.” Miranda watches as the older woman pulls back the curtains and lets the morning sunlight flood into the room. “It’s very kind of you to let me stay here, Frau Winter.”
“Please – call me Doro. We all have to do what we can. Max says you have to be in the town this afternoon, so perhaps I can show you the farm this morning? There is breakfast in the kitchen when you are ready.”
The breakfast is delicious. Food is scarce these days in Austria, as it is everywhere, but there is fresh bread, and real eggs from Doro’s chickens. During rationing, Miranda has become accustomed to the taste of powdered eggs. “Our neighbour, Herr Schmidt, killed a pig recently, so we have some bacon and ham. We all try to share what we can.”
Doro takes Miranda outside after breakfast and shows her around the farm. “When my husband was alive, before all the men went away to fight for the Germans, this farm did well. But Max and I can’t manage it all, not with him at work all day, so Herr Schmidt has taken over half the land. Some boys come to help bring in the harvest each year. And we keep very few animals now.” Miranda can see that, though Doro keeps the inside of the house spotless, the outside of the house and the fields nearby are showing signs of neglect. The hedges are overgrown and there are holes in the roofs of several disused outbuildings. In the farmyard, there are potholes and missing cobbles, and ivy grows thickly on the stone walls of the farmhouse. A broken water pipe drips into a mossy trough. “Max does as much as he can. But he has so little time.” They walk past an orchard where many apples are ripening on the trees. “We still have plenty of fruit. In a couple of months I’ll be making pies and strudels out of these, if I can get the sugar and butter.”
Miranda remembers her own mother making strudel, in years gone by, but she does not share this with Doro. She is Anna Riegler now, and she is not free to share stories about the life of someone called Miranda Blake.
After lunch, they leave the farmyard through the broken gate and walk down the steep field beside the stream, the route by which Max had brought her here. There is an elderly brown horse in this field, who comes trotting over to Doro in the hope she has something for him.
At the bottom of the field they turn left, and walk down a lane which brings them eventually into the outskirts of the little town of Palburg. In daylight, Miranda can see the mountains which rise in the distance above the town, their heads capped with snow even though it is summer. On a hillside she can see a handsome Schloss or castle overlooking the houses. The town is busy with people walking, chatting, riding bicycles and queuing outside shops where rationed goods are on offer. Miranda takes a sniff of the fresh Tyrolean air and knows she is a world away from the bombsites of battered London.
There are German soldiers here and there on the streets, and she eyes them warily. The swastika flags hang from many buildings. Having learned the map of the town by heart, she recognises the square building at the corner of the next street as the police station. A Nazi flag hangs on each of the poles which flank the door. Further down the street, there is a long queue outside a butcher’s shop.
“That’s where Max’s friend Christian works,” Doro says. “His father is the butcher.” Through the window, Miranda glimpses Christian behind the counter, laughing and joking with a customer.
“Frau Winter!” A sharp female voice behind them stops Doro and Miranda in their tracks. Doro turns with a polite smile on her face for the plump middle-aged woman who is standing there, a shopping basket on her arm.
“Frau Schmidt, how nice to see you. I’m on my way to the grocer to see if he has any flour.”
“I believe he has had a delivery,” Frau Schmidt says. She looks Miranda up and down. Something about her curious stare puts Miranda on her guard. “I don’t know your friend?”
Doro smiles, and touches Miranda’s arm. “This is my niece, Anna Riegler. You remember that my husband had a sister, living in Wien? She died in the bombing in March, and Anna was lucky to escape with her life, so she has come to us, in the hope that Palburg will be safer.”
“Ah.” Frau Schmidt shakes Miranda’s hand. “You have never visited Palburg before, Fräulein Riegler? Never come to see your uncle?”
“Yes, I have, but not since I was a small child,” Miranda explains. “My aunt is very kind to allow me to stay with her.”
“Anna is looking for work,” Doro explains. “Do you know of anything?”
“She might find work in a shop,” Frau Schmidt says, “but there are many more important things a young woman could be doing to help the Reich. My own nieces are working in a factory in Linz, making munitions. It is vital work. And the Army always needs nurses, too.”
“I will consider that, Frau Schmidt. Thank you,” Miranda replies carefully. She is glad when Frau Schmidt leaves them and hurries off in the opposite direction.
“She and her husband have always been good neighbours and farmers,” Doro says in an undertone as they continue down the street, “but they are Nazis and still believe in the ideals of the Third Reich. Be very careful when you meet them.”
“I will leave you here. Do you know where to go?”
Miranda nods again. She knows exactly how to find the café where she is to meet her contact and complete her first handover. A small box of radio valves is tucked into the deep pocket of her coat.
“Goodbye, then,” says Doro. She looks at her watch. It is nearly four o’clock. “You can find your own way back to the farm? Good luck.”
Miranda finds the café easily. It is nearly empty, with only a few customers dotted around the tables. She asks for coffee, and takes it to a table with a good view of the door, getting out a paperback book and pretending to read it. She does not have to wait long before the door opens and a young woman in a blue coat enters, looking rather worried. She glances around and spots Miranda. Moving casually, she makes her way to the counter, gets a drink and sits down at the table next to Miranda’s, sitting sideways so that she can talk to her without being too obvious. She seems nervous, and her eyes keep darting back to the door.
“What is the weather like in Wien?” she asks quietly. She lights a cigarette with hands which shake a little.
“It’s very warm for June,” Miranda replies, not lifting her eyes from her book.
“The Germans are following me,” the woman breathes. “I tried to lose them, but I don’t think-“ As she speaks, a black car screeches to a halt outside the café door. All the customers look up uneasily as the door is thrown open and a group of soldiers enter.
“Papers, please!” says the officer in charge, and they begin to move among the tables checking the identity documents of the customers.
“Do you have the valves?” the woman whispers. When Miranda nods, she mutters urgently, “Give them to me – under the table – quickly!”
Miranda hesitates, watching the German soldiers get closer to them. But she slips the box out of her pocket and passes it under the table to the other woman.
Two soldiers stop by the woman in the blue coat. Miranda has a strong feeling that they were not really interested in any of the other customers. “Your papers, please.”
Miranda and the woman both pass their identity papers to the officer in charge. He glances quickly through Miranda’s documents and passes them back to her, but he keeps the other woman’s papers in his hand. “Empty your pockets, please,” he orders her.
The woman immediately empties her pockets on to the table in front of her. A handkerchief, a wrapped sweet, empty sweet wrappers, a pencil, a few coins, some cigarettes, a lighter – and the small cardboard box containing the radio valves.
The German officer points at the box. “What is this?”
“A present,” the woman replies, in a voice which hardly shakes at all.
“Open it.” She does so. He gazes at the radio valves, then looks towards Miranda. “Are you together?”
“No,” the woman says firmly, and Miranda shakes her head.
He nods, and makes a gesture to the soldiers behind him. “Take her away.” The woman is grasped by the arms and hustled out of the café towards the waiting car. She does not look at Miranda at all. Nor does the officer as he picks up the cardboard box and walks to the door.
When the Germans have driven away with their prisoner, Miranda forces herself to finish her coffee and spend another ten minutes in the café before she makes her escape. As she hurries back through the streets of the town, trying not to break into a run, she finds herself shaking. She knows, of course she knows, about the dangers of life in Austria under Nazi occupation. But this is the first time she has seen it with her own eyes.
She does not go straight back from the café to the farm, but takes several detours around the streets, even though she does not think anyone is watching her. At last she decides it is safe to head back. As she passes the police station, she hardly notices the two police officers who are talking in the doorway until she hears her name called.
“Anna!” She turns and sees that one of the two officers is Max, although it takes her a moment to recognise him in uniform. He looks tall and handsome. He beckons to her, and she walks towards him.
“Pfeiffer, this is my cousin I told you about.” He introduces her to the other officer, who clicks his heels and bows to her with a look of admiration on his face.
“You didn’t tell me your cousin was beautiful, Winter.”
“That’s because I know your reputation with women, Pfeiffer. Are you on your way home, Anna? I’ve just finished my shift so I can walk with you.”
“I will look forward to seeing you again, Fraulein Anna,” Pfeiffer says to Miranda with a smile. She manages a smile in return, although she is still so shaken by the café incident that it is a struggle. Max glances at her, and she can tell he knows something is wrong.
“Goodbye, Pfeiffer. See you tomorrow.” Max clicks his heels and returns the other officer’s Nazi salute smartly, before taking Miranda’s elbow and guiding her up the street. He waits until they are out of the town and walking along the lane before he asks, “Did something go wrong?”
“Yes.” Miranda wonders how he can read her expression so easily when he hardly knows her. “I made the handover, but my contact was arrested just afterwards and taken away by soldiers.”
“Schieße. Did they suspect you?”
“I don’t think so. They asked if we were together, but they believed her when she said we weren’t. I took the long way back from the café. I don’t think anyone followed me.”
“Let’s hope not.” He is frowning.
“I have to meet my English contact tomorrow,” Miranda tells him. “I will have to tell them about the arrest.”
They have reached the stream, and the start of the steep footpath uphill to the farm. “This isn’t good. The Gestapo unit based at the Schloss is getting too interested in what’s happening in this area, and we have some big operations planned. We can’t afford for them to go wrong. You’ll have to see if your English contact knows anything about why they might have suspected this woman. I’ll send out some messages too.”
Miranda nods as they pass through the broken gate into the farmyard. “I want to help. What else can I do, apart from waiting to meet my contact tomorrow?”
Max relaxes a little, and smiles at her. “Well, you can help me collect the eggs and shut up the chickens for the night. And I expect Mama could use our help in preparing dinner.”
It is not the answer Miranda had expected. But then, Max Winter is not really what she had expected from a Resistance leader either. She is not sure what to make of him.
Miranda, riding Doro’s old bicycle, crosses the wide stone bridge which carries the main road out of Palburg. Beneath the bridge, a river swirls lazily along, the water an unusual pale green colour. She passes the small railway station, which is bathed in the late afternoon sunshine and very quiet. No trains are in sight. A red flag bearing a swastika flies from the tall flagpole in the station flowerbed, where the station master is pulling up weeds to pass the time.
After cycling for another fifteen minutes, Miranda sees on her right the narrow entrance to the lane she is seeking. When she leaves the main road and turns along this lane, it quickly becomes too rough and stony for her to ride. She dismounts and pushes the bicycle along a path which becomes narrower and more overgrown until it reaches a small stone bridge over a wide stream. To her left, rough rocky steps go down towards the water. Miranda pushes the bicycle behind some bushes, checks that it is properly concealed, and goes cautiously down the steps. Beneath the bridge there is a stone ledge along the side of the stream. Miranda, who is barely five-feet-five, can just stand upright in this space. She sits down on the flat ledge, tries to get comfortable, checks her watch and prepares to wait.
After about ten minutes - which Miranda spends dropping bits of twig into the water and watching the stream whisk them away - she hears the sound of quiet feet approaching on the path above. Someone comes slowly and carefully down the rocky steps, muttering to themselves. Alert, Miranda moves into a crouched position and feels for the gun which weighs down her coat pocket.
“Put that away,” says the tall woman crossly, ducking her head under the stonework of the bridge. “I suppose you’re Riegler?” She flips up the lapel of her coat and points to the edelweiss badge pinned to the underside of it. Miranda relaxes a little.
“Yes. And you’re -?”
“You can call me Palmer. It’s not my name.” The woman bangs her head on the stones above her, swears, sits herself down beside Miranda on the ledge and pulls out a packet of cigarettes. “Smoke?”
Miranda shakes her head.
“Well, let’s get this over with.” She has a deep, deliberate voice. “Tell your friends in the local Resistance that the next armaments train is due on Sunday night. It’ll be going through the target zone – they know where – between eleven-thirty and midnight. Got that?”
Miranda nods. “Sunday night, between eleven-thirty and midnight.”
“Right.” Palmer makes as if to stand up, but Miranda stops her.
“Can you tell me – I met a contact yesterday – I was giving her radio valves – in a café in town. The Germans arrested her. Do you know what happened to her?”
“She’s dead,” Palmer says flatly. “Took her suicide pill rather than get tortured by the Gestapo at the Schloss. Pity. I liked her. She trusted the wrong person. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake.” She stands up carefully, ducks her head to get out from under the bridge, and starts to climb the stone steps. “Don’t leave for twenty minutes,” she calls back to Miranda. “And be here on Tuesday at the same time.”
Left alone under the bridge, Miranda stares into the water again and thinks about the woman in the blue coat, who was speaking to her in a café yesterday and is dead today.
“The Germans and Mussolini are fighting a rear-guard action in the north of Italy,” Max explains. “The Allies are all over the south of Italy now. Berlin keeps sending more equipment – tanks, troops, guns, ammunition – to northern Italy to try to help the Germans there hold out.”
“And the armament trains are crossing Austria on their way to Italy.” Miranda understands now. “And you’re going to blow this one up?”
“We’re going to blow this one up.”
Max, his shirt sleeves rolled up, is chopping wood in a small copse two fields away from the farmhouse. Miranda is gathering up the chopped wood and loading it into the elderly wheelbarrow. Doro has asked them to top up the supply of fuel for the kitchen stove.
Miranda frowns as she bends down to gather some stout sticks which may come in useful for kindling. “Won’t something like that put the Germans in a fury? They’ll be all over Palburg looking for revenge.”
Max shrugs, and swings the axe again. “They will. But if we’re careful, and lucky, they won’t catch up with us. It’s been a while since we carried out a big operation like this. It’s time to show them the Resistance is still active here.”
His attitude seems a little reckless to Miranda, but the operation does seem to have the approval of Palmer’s superiors in London. In addition, one of the orders Miranda has been given is to help the Resistance with any sabotage they carry out, so she says no more.
From some distance away, she hears the unexpected sound of tuneless singing. Someone is approaching them along the footpath which leads through these woods towards the farmhouse. Miranda does not need Max’s warning look to know that they need to stop talking about anything confidential.
The tuneless singing gets louder, and now Miranda can hear heavy footsteps crunching twigs on the footpath, although trees and bushes block her view.
“It’s Jens,” Max says in an undertone. “The son of the Schmidts who have the next farm.” He raises his voice. “Hey, Jens! Over here!”
The singing stops, and a voice says, “Max?” A few moments later, a man appears from behind the bushes. He is young and fair-haired, with a round, babyish face. The braces which hold up his trousers are struggling to restrain his bulging figure. He smiles broadly as he sees them, and looks admiringly at Miranda. “Hello! You must be Max’s cousin from Wien. My mother told me she’d met you in town.”
“Yes, I’m Anna.” She shakes Jen’s hand. “You live next door?”
“Yes. Jens Schmidt.” He puts down the covered basket he is carrying and seems ready to stay for a chat. “It’s nice to see a new face. Life’s so boring here these days.”
Max lays the axe down on top of the wood in the wheelbarrow. “I suppose you’ve come for eggs, Jens?”
“Oh – yes, but I’m in no hurry.” Jens beams again at Miranda, but something about his wide, childish smile sends prickles of uneasiness down her spine. She wonders he has managed to maintain such an ample figure in these days of food shortages and rationing.
“That’s fine, we’ve finished here. We can go with you to the house. I’m sure my mother has the eggs ready for you.”
“Thanks, Max. Mutti is cross that her own hens are laying so few eggs. She has sent your mother some butter in exchange, though. Our cows are milking well.”
Miranda has a strong impression that Max wants to get rid of Jens as soon as possible – not surprising, perhaps, if the Schmidt family are all dedicated Nazis. But Max chats amiably enough with Jens as they walk down the footpath together, pushing the barrow between them. Miranda, following the two men, looks up at the blue sky, feels the warmth of the sun on her face and wonders what Sunday night will bring.
This section of railway line, several miles from Palburg, runs through thick woodland. Miranda sits in the undergrowth of a small clearing between the trees and watches boxes of equipment being unpacked and assembled. She has already handed over the reel of fuse wire she had carried from their meeting point in the barn. The dim light of the torches shows her the busy hands of those who are checking detonators and counting sticks of explosives. Outside the clearing, the woods are very dark, with clouds obscuring the thin sliver of new moon most of the time.
Eventually the equipment is gathered up again and they make their way down through the trees towards the railway line. They spread out into a long line along the track, several feet apart, and kneel to fasten the explosives to the metals. Miranda makes a neat job of tying her bundle and waits for Rico, on one side of her, to unroll the fuse wire and thread it through his own bundle of explosives before passing it to her so that she can do the same. When she has finished, she carries the reel of wire onwards to Maria, steps back from the railway line and waits until the final bundle has been fastened to the track and connected to the fuse wire.
All this has been done in silence, but when the task is complete Max gives a quiet order. Heinrich, the last in line, picks up the reel of fuse wire and continues to unroll it as he heads back up through the trees to the clearing where Christian waits with the detonators, a safe distance away. Rico and Max follow Heinrich into the woods, but Maria and Miranda sit down beside the railway line, each with one hand on the metal rails. They are both fast runners, and as soon as they feel any vibration from the approaching train, they are to give the signal to the others and then flee to safety before the moment when the train will pass and the charges will be detonated.
Through the darkness, Miranda can just see Maria’s smile. “Not long to wait now,” Maria says.
“Yvonne’s not here tonight?” Miranda asks, realising that she has not seen the older woman at all.
Maria shrugs. “She couldn’t get away. It’s difficult for her. Do you know about her husband?”
“No.” Now that she has spent more time with Max, Miranda has realised that by nature – when he is not risking his life – he is an open, chatty person, but, probably out of caution, he does not tend to tell her much about his Resistance friends and their everyday lives.
“Have you seen the inn by the river bridge, in town? That’s where she lives. Her father owns it, really. Hans Weber. He’s a grumpy old man. Leads Yvonne a dog’s life, running round after him. Then there’s Rainer Schröder – her husband. He runs the inn now. He’s all friendly with the customers but he’s no good to Yvonne. Everyone knows he’s sleeping with Margareta, the barmaid in the other inn. He doesn’t even try to hide his cheating.”
“Why does she stay? It sounds miserable.”
Maria shrugs again. “It’s not so simple. Where would she go? What about her father? And she has a little girl. She adores her.”
They fall silent again, while Miranda thinks about this information and remembers the tired, kind expression she has seen on Yvonne’s face.
It seems like a long time before Miranda feels the beginning of a gentle vibration through the metal rail under her fingertips. She looks up at Maria, and knows the other woman has felt it too. They hurry upwards through the trees, flashing the torches they hold in the direction of the clearing where the men are waiting. By the time Miranda and Maria reach the others, they can all hear the sound of the train’s approach in the distance and everything is connected and prepared. Heinrich’s hands are poised over the trigger of the main detonator and his eyes are on Max beside him, waiting for the signal.
As the sound of the steam train grows louder, Miranda peers through the darkness and the trees until the huge black bulk of the German locomotive can be seen below, outlined against the night sky, thundering along with sparks rising from the boiler and funnel. She cannot see it clearly, but she knows it is a long train with many freight wagons attached, loaded with tanks, guns, crates of ammunition and troops – although she does not know how many men. She tries not to think too much about those soldiers, sitting close together on the wooden floors of the rattling troop-wagons, sleepy or bored or hungry after hours of travel from Germany – and with no idea what is about to befall them.
The roar of the locomotive grows louder. A long train whistle sounds. The first freight wagons begin to pass by beneath them.
Heinrich pushes down the trigger of the detonator with all his might.
There is a second’s pause, and then a huge explosion. The dark sky is suddenly illuminated by a massive orange flash and a wave of noise and pressure hits Miranda’s eardrums. The first explosion is followed by a series of others, and a ball of fire and smoke rolls upwards into the night sky. The ground shakes as large pieces of debris are flung upwards into the woods. There are bangs and crackling sounds followed by rising yellow flames as the trees catch fire, one after another. Even though they are some distance from the track, Miranda can feel the heat on her face.
As they flee from the clearing, Miranda looks behind her. Utter pandemonium has broken out. There are more massive explosions as the fire reaches more wagons filled with ammunition. Large metal objects are still raining into the trees. The sky is no longer dark, but red and orange and full of smoke. Men, their bodies wrapped in flames, are screaming as they fall or are blasted from the train. Tree after tree is burning or exploding like a firework. There are shouts of panic and fury, and the sound of men crashing through the woods in their direction. Gunshots are being fired now.
As they reach the top of the woods and pull each other over a stone wall into a lane, the Resistance members pause briefly to catch their breath. Heinrich is swearing quietly and clutching his upper left arm. In the flickering orange light from the fires Miranda can see the dark stain spreading as blood soaks through his sleeve. Maria is close beside him, examining his arm in concern.
“It’s nothing – something grazed me – I don’t know if it was a bullet or a bit of flying metal,” Heinrich mutters, through gritted teeth.
Max and Christian hesitate by the side of their injured friend, but Maria looks up and says quickly, “It’s all right, I’ll make sure he gets home. Go.”
The others nod, and they scatter to go their different ways in ones and twos. Max jerks his head to indicate to Miranda the direction in which she should follow him, and they run to the right down the lane, then through a gate and down a grassy slope, Miranda easily keeping pace with him. Behind them, they can still hear explosions, shouts, screams and gunshots, but these noises gradually fade into the distance as they run.
Max guides them back to the farmhouse by a very roundabout route, and it takes them the best part of an hour to get there. When they finally reach the warm, lamp-lit kitchen, they are both exhausted and fall into chairs to regain their breath.
After a few minutes, Max drags himself up from his chair and opens a nearby cupboard. He reaches for a bottle of schnapps and places it on the table with two small glasses. Pouring two measures, he pushes one glass across the table to Miranda and drains the other himself, immediately filling it again.
Miranda tips back her head and lets the fiery liquid burn her throat. She shuts her eyes and sees, seemingly printed on the inside of her eyelids, vivid images of the burning men falling from the train. She cannot suppress a shudder.
As she places her empty glass on the table, Max refills it. “Yes,” he insists, when she shakes her head slightly. “One more. It will help you to sleep.”
“I knew that people would die,” Miranda says in a low, intense voice, “and I know they’re the enemy – but it’s different when you see it.”
“It’s always a shock the first time,” Max says.
“You mean – you get used to it?”
“No, you don’t get used to it. And you shouldn’t get used to it. If we become hardened to death, we are no better than the Nazis. I don’t mean those who kill soldiers in battle. I mean those who send thousands of innocent people to their deaths in the work camps. The men who run those have lost their souls.”
His face is very serious and his eyes are very blue. They stare at each other for a long moment before he sighs and says, “Tomorrow the Gestapo will be swarming all over the district. I expect the police force will be called on to make searches, or provide an escort, or some such thing. We will be kept busy. I’d better try to get some sleep.”
“Me too,” Miranda says, and she pulls herself up from her chair, hoping that the schnapps will save her from dreams of burning bodies.
You'll notice that I spent most of the special effects budget on this chapter. :) :) :)
Hope those who are playing "spot the Mallorca Files characters" are having fun!
Chapter 4: Consequences
Just wanted to point out before we meet Cornelius Schneider that Schneider = Tailor and Cornelius was the nearest German name I could find to Neil/Niall. So Cornelius Schneider = Niall Taylor. Obviously he's a baddie!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Palburg is buzzing with hushed talk about the attack on the armaments train. When Miranda walks past the police station, there is a large cluster of German officers gathered outside it with others hurrying in and out. Two important-looking men in civilian clothes are deep in conversation by the front door, next to two large black cars. Junior soldiers stand patiently beside them, waiting for their orders. Miranda guesses that they have come from the Gestapo unit based in the Schloss on the hill.
There is a higher than usual police and army presence in the streets of the town. Every forty feet or so, Miranda walks past a soldier or a police officer standing on watch, holding a gun. The shoppers who usually pause in the streets to chat and greet their neighbours are scurrying past with their heads down this morning, averting their eyes. Inside the buildings, shopkeepers and customers are exchanging low-voiced but avid gossip about what has occurred. There is an uneasy feeling of tension in the air. Everyone knows that there will be some sort of retribution for last night’s events, but not where or when this will happen. Someone mutters that they have heard reinforcements of troops are to be sent to the area.
Miranda hurries on until she reaches the town square, a wide cobbled space with a fountain in the middle surrounded by stone benches. Fewer people than usual are sitting chatting on the benches or drinking morning coffee at the outdoor tables of the nearby restaurant, although there is still a patient queue beside the farmer who is selling vegetables from the back of his small truck. Several more soldiers are spaced out around the perimeter of the square, guns held across their chests, surveying the scene in front of them with wooden expressions.
Heinrich’s bookshop, as Max had told her it would be, is behind the fountain on the far side of the square – a small, rather dingy building with a blue sign above the door and blue shutters at the windows of the apartment above the shop. Miranda does not walk directly towards it, but strolls around the square in a leisurely manner, pausing to look in some other shop windows. She examines some of the greens in the farmer’s truck, buys a newspaper, studies a display of ladies’ shoes and eventually arrives outside the bookshop. Some books about natural history are laid out on view in the shop window. Miranda stops to look at these with apparent interest, before laying her hand on the latch of the door and entering.
A bell tinkles as the door opens. Miranda sniffs appreciatively at the smell of paper and books. The shop is narrow and not well-lit. Rows of shelves go up to the ceiling on both sides, with small hand-written cards pinned to each shelf, labelling each genre. The shelves turn several corners, a maze of books which Miranda navigates until she reaches the back of the shop, where there is a small desk in the corner on the left and a flight of wooden stairs going up on the right.
Maria is sitting at the desk, unpacking brown-paper parcels of new books, but she rises when Miranda enters and comes towards her. Although Miranda can see that there are no other customers in the shop, they both play it safe and pretend to be meeting for the first time, since it is certainly Miranda’s first visit to the bookshop since her arrival in town.
“Good morning. How can I help you?” Maria asks. Her smile is as wide as usual, although she looks tired.
“I’m looking for a cookery book. Perhaps you can help me?”
“Of course Fräulein, let me show you where the cookery section is.” The cookery section turns out to be very close to the desk, so they only have to move a few feet to reach it. Maria pulls out a volume and hands it to Miranda, before she says in an undertone, “We can talk safely. The bell will ring if someone comes in.”
“Max asked me to come and find out how Heinrich was doing,” Miranda murmurs, in the same low tone. “How is his arm?”
“He’s upstairs. He’s all right but the pain is bad. There was a lot of bleeding, but it did not hit the bone. I patched him up and got him some penicillin from the chemist this morning. I think it will heal well, as long as it does not get infected.”
There is the sound of footsteps on the wooden stairs, and Heinrich comes slowly down to join them. He nods at Miranda. “Anna.”
Heinrich’s thin face is very pale and there are lines of pain on his forehead and dark shadows under his eyes. He holds his arm protectively against his chest. Miranda can just detect the bulk of the bandage hidden under the sleeve of the loden jacket he is wearing, but she doubts that it would be noticeable to anyone who was not looking for it. “Max wanted to know how you were,” she says.
“Tell him I will be fine,” he says. “I just need to rest.”
“He ought to have seen a doctor,” Maria begins anxiously, “but –“
“But that’s impossible,” Heinrich finishes. “It will be better in a few days.”
Miranda looks from one of them to the other. All she knows about them is that they are both in the Resistance, that they are friends and that Maria works in Heinrich’s shop, but she does not know if there is anything more between them. The unguarded look of concern on Maria’s face suggests that at least on her side there is.
Out of sight, at the front of the shop, the bell jingles as someone enters. Heinrich mutters something and goes hastily back up the stairs to his flat. Maria pulls another cookery book from the shelf and says brightly, “This one is a good choice if you are hoping to preserve fruits or make jams, Fräulein.”
The customer who has entered is an elderly woman. By the time she reaches the desk in the back of the shop, Maria is advising Miranda on the best book to buy if she wishes to find recipes for economical meals with limited ingredients. “It’s so difficult with the food shortages,” the elderly woman sympathises, and there is a rather prolonged discussion before Miranda can make her escape, hoping that she has not given away her complete lack of talent in the kitchen.
The bustle of activity around the police station is continuing when Miranda reaches it on her way back to the farm. German officers are still going in and out, but this time there are a dozen Austrian police officers formed up in two neat lines outside the station, standing at attention. Like the others, Max is staring straight ahead with an impassive expression. As Miranda draws level with the police station she is forced to jump aside, with other pedestrians, as another shining black car sweeps straight towards them and brakes.
A soldier jumps out of the vehicle, opens the rear door and salutes as another man steps out. From the deference with which he is greeted he is clearly very important, although he wears civilian clothes and not uniform. Physically he is slightly-built, but there is an aura about him which radiates power. As he steps away from the car and turns to survey the lines of police officers who are waiting for him, he is quite close to Miranda. For a brief moment she finds herself looking straight into the coldest grey eyes she has ever seen, and she cannot suppress a shiver as his icy gaze passes over her without interest.
She puts her head down and keeps walking steadily past.
The stone-floored cellar beneath the farmhouse smells musty and there are cobwebs in the corners, but at least it is not damp. A tiny window at one side looks out at the level of the cobbles outside, and wooden steps go up to the passageway outside the kitchen.
There are a variety of things stored down here, but Miranda heads towards the corner where two sacks of potatoes lean against the wall, with a pile of empty hessian sacks next to them. Doro has despatched her to fetch supplies for their evening meal. It does not take long to collect sufficient potatoes from one of the sacks, and shortly afterwards Miranda finds herself seated on the steps at the front of the house, helping Doro to peel potatoes under the warm late afternoon sun.
The front of the house is as ivy-covered as the rear, but the small garden beyond the steps has been better maintained than the farmyard. Doro talks to Miranda about her love of gardening. Miranda admires the rose bushes which bloom on either side of the steps, covered in buds and fragrant flowers – red and yellow and white. “They are my pride and joy,” Doro says. “I tie sacks around them to protect them from the snow in winter, and every summer they seem to have more flowers.”
It is very peaceful, sitting there peeling potatoes and placing them in the bowl of water by Doro’s feet. The sunshine is warm, the bees are buzzing around the roses, and it seems to Miranda that the fragrance in the air is the smell of summer. If she closes her eyes she can almost imagine herself back in the garden of her father’s house in Wales, helping his housekeeper with the potatoes, although she misses the tangy, salty whiff of the sea which is always strong in her memories of Aberystwyth.
Max is very late home from work - so late that Doro has put his meal in the bottom of the stove to keep warm and Miranda is starting to wonder if his Resistance activities have been discovered. He is tired and very hungry. He throws his uniform jacket, cap and gun belt aside and sits straight down at the kitchen table to begin shovelling food into his mouth as Doro and Miranda watch him eat.
“Anna says the Germans are all over town today,” Doro says, when Max has satisfied his first hunger and begun to eat more slowly. She pours him another glass of beer.
Max nods. “They’ve been stirred up like a nest of bees. Berlin and Wien are furious. The Gestapo unit at the Schloss have been told to make more effort to infiltrate the local area and find informers so they can identify members of the Resistance.” He pauses to take another gulp of his beer. “They wanted to send in train loads of troops, but the railway line is unusable after last night, so they’re sending in men and equipment by road and working round the clock to clear the wreckage and make repairs.”
Doro looks troubled. “Perhaps you should stop your operations for a while – just for a while – if it’s too dangerous. Until they start to look elsewhere.”
Max’s face softens and he stretches out a hand across the table to pat hers reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Mama. I’ll be all right. You know we’ve stirred them up before, but they haven’t caught us yet. We will be careful.”
“I saw a man arriving this morning who looked important,” Miranda says. “You were lined up outside when he drove up. Who was he?”
Max’s face hardens again. “Cornelius Schneider. Very senior Gestapo. They flew him in from Berlin. I hadn’t heard of him but Huber says he is known as one of the most ruthless men outside of the Party leadership. There’s something about him – I don’t know how to describe it – but he gives me the creeps.”
“I felt that when I saw him, although I only saw him for a moment,” Miranda says. “Most of the Germans are just following orders but there was something – well, evil – about him.”
Max nods. “Yes, exactly. He’s one of those who enjoys inflicting pain. A man to be avoided.” After another pause and another sip of beer, he adds, “He was complaining that we haven’t been fulfilling our regional quotas for arrests and deportations. He intends to dig into the backgrounds of as many local families as possible, looking for Jewish blood, undesirable political views or any excuse to arrest them. I know of a few families who have managed to escape notice so far but who will need to be very careful. I will have to try to warn them. Perhaps you can help with that, Anna.”
Miranda nods. “Of course.” Inwardly she resolves to mention Schneider to Palmer at their next meeting, although Palmer probably knows about his arrival already. Palmer strikes her as one of those people who seems to know everything.
Later, Miranda sits next to Max on the steps in the garden, the fragrance of the rose bushes seeming very strong in the darkness of the summer night. A faint lamp light glimmers between the curtains of the nearest window of the house, making Miranda think of the London blackout and how showing a light there would have brought the air raid warden banging on their door. Max is pulling up blades of grass and shredding them between his fingers, betraying his inner tension with the constant nervous activity of his hands.
“I saw Heinrich and Maria this morning,” Miranda says. “Heinrich’s arm is giving him a lot of pain, but he insists he will be all right. It is bandaged up and he’s got some penicillin. Maria is looking after him.” She pauses, and then asks curiously, “Are they a couple? I can’t tell. Maria seems to be very fond of him.”
Max makes a small noise which is not really a laugh. “She loves him. I think she’s prepared to wait for a long time for him to decide what he wants her to be to him.”
Miranda is not sure she understands this. “He seems nice – but he’s always very serious, isn’t he? Quite different from Maria.”
She cannot see Max’s face clearly in the darkness, but when she hears his voice again she knows that her questions have stirred up painful memories. “Heinrich – is not the person he was before the war. Terrible things have happened to him. I can’t see any way he can ever get over them.”
“Oh.” Miranda waits to find out if he is going to tell her more and, eventually, he does.
“He had a younger sister. Alba. They lost their parents when they were young, and Heinrich took care of her. That’s how he knew Maria first – she was Alba’s friend. Just after the war started, Alba went to work as a secretary in Innsbruck. Apparently, one night she was walking home and she met some German soldiers. She was very pretty. They didn’t want to take no for an answer.”
Miranda gives a small gasp of horror.
“She killed herself, afterwards. She left a note for Heinrich telling him that she couldn’t live with what had happened to her, and she walked in front of a tram.” Max’s tone is flat.
“Oh, no! Poor Heinrich.” Miranda realises, now, why there is always a sadness in Heinrich’s eyes.
“As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was Kurt, too.”
“Kurt Sommer. Heinrich’s best friend. Mama says they were inseparable when they were boys, although they were a little older than me so I didn’t know Kurt so well. Kurt was a musician. He played the violin – brilliantly. He won a scholarship to study in Wien and left Palburg when he was about eighteen. He only came back for visits after that. By the time the Anschluss happened, he was playing with the Wiener Philharmoniker.”
“He must have been very talented.” Miranda remembers being taken to concerts as a child and hearing the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra play. She knows what a high standard is required from their musicians.
“He was. Unfortunately, he was also Jewish. He was one of the first to be sent to the camps. No one’s heard from him since. Although his family here did manage to leave for Switzerland before they could be taken away.” Max pauses. “So you see, Heinrich lost Alba and Kurt in just a couple of years. Probably the two people he loved most in the world. Like I said, I don’t think he will ever get over it.”
Miranda feels cold with sympathy. “No wonder Maria wants to look after him.” And no wonder Heinrich is quite willing to ambush German soldiers and kill them, she thinks.
“Yes. And maybe one day – when the war’s over –“ Max does not finish the sentence. Instead, he stands up abruptly, offering Miranda a hand to help her up from the steps. “Anyway. I didn’t sleep much last night and tomorrow will be another long day. I’m going to bed.”
When Miranda meets Palmer on Tuesday afternoon, she is given a message to pass on to the Resistance - the details of another equipment drop which will be made on Friday night. “And tell them to be careful,” Palmer adds. “The Germans are hunting the Resistance all over the district. But we have someone in the Schloss who we hope may be able to keep us up to date with whatever Schneider and his men find out.”
On the side of a grassy hill, halfway between Palburg and the barn where the Resistance members meet, there is a ruined chapel. Following the directions which Max has given her, Miranda finds this place easily as she makes her way through the darkened countryside on Friday night. After the evening meal she had gone out to deliver a message and some radio components to another of Palmer’s network, and Max had told her to meet him at the chapel afterwards rather than going all the way back to the farm.
Max is already there when she reaches the chapel – a tall dark shadow moving against the black outline of the derelict stone building. “Anna! You’re here in good time. We’d better get to the barn.”
“Have you been waiting long?”
“No, not long.”
They meet the others at the barn and find Rico handing out torches and sacks from the secret hiding place behind the hay bales. The torches have a red filter placed over their bulbs. Yvonne is with them tonight, giving Miranda one of her kind smiles as she passes her a torch. Miranda notices that there is a fresh bruise on the side of Yvonne’s careworn face, and hopes that Rainer is not a wife-beater in addition to being an unfaithful husband.
Heinrich is there too, although he still looks pale and is holding his injured arm close to his side, not moving it freely. It is clear from the disapproving expression on Maria’s face that she has advised him against coming tonight and has been overruled.
Wearing dark clothing, they make their way through the footpaths and woods, avoiding any lanes where there may be vehicles although the night seems very quiet. Once in the field where the drop is to take place, they wait in the shadow of the hedges until the drone of an aircraft engine can be heard very faintly in the distance. Max gives a signal and they walk into the middle of the field, stringing themselves out into a long line and waiting until the plane is much closer. When it is almost overhead they switch on their torches and wave the red lights backwards and forwards in unison, each person keeping time with the person in front of them. The pilot flashes his lights to show that he has seen their signal. Moments later little dots of white start to appear, floating down towards them, and Miranda sees that these are parachutes attached to packages of equipment, just like those which had been dropped on the night when she had landed.
The sound of aircraft engines recedes into the distance and the packages are gathered up and stuffed into the sacks to make carrying easier. They set off to the barn, where Yvonne has stayed to keep watch. Once there, the parachutes are removed, the packages are sorted and some are hidden there while others are repacked in the sacks to take away.
There is a worrying moment while Max and Miranda are on their way back from the barn to the Winter family farm. They have stayed away from the roads and lanes again and are hurrying along a footpath which runs parallel to a road, but is divided from it by a high stone wall, when they hear the loud noise of several engines approaching at speed. Max, walking in front of Miranda, stops and signals her to wait where she is. They stand and listen behind the wall, and seconds later three vehicles roar past them in convoy, heading in the direction where the parachute drop took place.
When the sound of the engines has died away, Max releases a breath. “German army vehicles. Kübelwagens. I recognise the sound of the engines.”
“Do you think someone reported hearing the plane?”
“Yes, probably, and they’ve gone to check it out. Luckily, all of us should be well out of the way by now. But it shows they are on the alert.”
There are no further alarms on the way back to the farm that night.
Several days later, Miranda wakes early and comes down to the kitchen before the normal breakfast hour. The kitchen is empty of people, but the coffee pot has already been put on the stove to heat and there are other signs that someone has made a beginning on meal preparation. Miranda is just getting the remains of the previous day’s bread out of the larder when the back door into the farmyard opens and Doro comes in with a few eggs held in her apron. Miranda presumes that she has been out releasing the chickens from their night-time coop and shooing them into the orchard.
“Good morning,” Miranda says cheerfully. “It’s another lovely sunny day.”
Doro replies to her greeting, but looks worried. “Anna, have you seen Max this morning?”
“Max? No. I’ve just got up.”
“He must have got up and gone out very early, because I can’t find him anywhere. It’s his day off today, so he can’t have gone to work. I wonder where he can have gone to?”
Miranda shrugs slightly. “I have no idea. He didn’t say anything to me. Perhaps he just felt like going for a walk, as it’s such a beautiful morning?”
“Perhaps.” They work together to lay the table and prepare the breakfast, but Miranda finds Doro’s slight unease beginning to transmit itself to her.
They have not yet finished getting the food ready when there is the sound of someone lifting the latch of the back door. Doro looks round quickly and an expression of relief crosses her face when she sees Max, followed by an expression of astonishment when she sees that he is ushering two small children hurriedly into the kitchen. There is a bulging rucksack over his shoulder, which he sets down on the floor. “Take your coats off,” he tells the children, “and sit down.”
The two brown-haired children obey him silently, looking bewildered. One is a boy of about seven, the other a girl who looks about five years old. They look as though they were dressed in a hurry. Miranda notices that the little girl’s shoes are on the wrong feet.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Max says, as he bends to take off his boots. “I had to bring them here.”
Doro is still looking astonished and rather dismayed, but her expression becomes kind as she turns to the children. “You’re the Strobl children, aren’t you?”
The boy nods and whispers, “I’m Jürgen and this is Clara.”
Clara is staring big-eyed around the kitchen.
“Max?” Doro is waiting for an explanation.
Max sighs and sits down at the table next to Jürgen. “I found out yesterday that August and Hana might be on Schneider’s target list.”
“Really? But why? They’re not Jewish, and I’ve never heard of them being involved in politics.”
“Schneider is digging deep. Someone found out that one of August’s grandparents was Jewish. Apparently being one-quarter Jewish is enough to get you sent to a camp now.”
Doro’s face is horrified, and she seems to have forgotten the tipping coffee pot in her hand, so Miranda rescues it. “They’ve been arrested?”
Max looks frustrated. “I should have gone to warn them last night, but I was so late back from work - I thought it could wait until this morning. I was too late. When I got there, there was a car outside already. I kept away and watched August and Hana being brought out. Then I wondered where the children were, so I went in and searched for them. They were hiding in a cupboard in the cellar, with wood stacked in front of it. Luckily the soldiers missed them.” He jerks his head towards the rucksack on the floor. “I stuffed some of their clothes and things in there.”
“Mama woke us up and told us to hide in the cupboard,” Jürgen says suddenly. “She told us to be very quiet and not make a sound and we didn’t. Even when we heard those men being loud everywhere.”
Doro pats him on the shoulder. “You must have been very brave, Jürgen.”
The boy looks at the bread on the table and his lip wobbles. “I’m hungry.”
Clara bursts into sudden sobs. “I want Mama and Papa! Why did those men take them away?”
Doro becomes practical. “You poor children! Let’s get you some breakfast. You’ll feel better when you’ve had some food. Anna, can you fetch the butter? Clara, do you like eggs?”
There is a burst of activity as all the adults help to finish the preparation of the meal. As she passes Max at the sink, Miranda asks in a low voice, “What are you going to do with them?”
He shrugs. “What can I do? They’ll have to stay here until I can get them away somewhere.”
“Is that safe?”
“No, not at all, but it’s the only choice. We have plenty of space. We just have to make sure none of the neighbours – especially the Schmidts – see or hear them. Hopefully it won’t be for too long. I don’t like bringing danger to Mama’s house. Will you help her look after them?”
“Of course.” Miranda wants to help, although she knows absolutely nothing about looking after children, other than what had been included in Home Economics classes when she was at school. It was certainly not included in SOE training.
“Thanks, Anna.” He looks over his shoulder quickly, but the children are too busy stuffing food into their mouths to listen to what he is saying. “Perhaps your English contact might have an idea about getting them away?”
“Yes. I’ll ask.” They join the others at the table and continue with breakfast. Doro is telling Clara that she will show her the chickens later. Miranda looks from Doro to Max, from Jürgen to Clara, and wonders exactly what the consequences of this new development will be for all of them.
So, no explosions in this chapter but lots of developments, which is why it's quite long. Chapter 5 will be a shorter one.
I needed to introduce some characters and places which will be important later. Look out for the potato cellar and the ruined chapel, they'll be back.
Poor Heinrich, eh?
And that Cornelius Schneider, we've only just met him but he is EVIL!
And the horror of chapter 7 draws ever closer...
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.
I am so sorry! (to anyone who's still out there reading...) When I published chapter 4 in May I had no idea that three months would pass before I got round to updating this. The second half of the summer term was really busy and stressful at the school where I work, in the weird new version of school we were running, and then once the holidays started I was just exhausted and couldn't find my writing mojo. And got distracted by reading a couple of hundred stories in another fandom. But the rest of this story is mostly written now so I am going to try to upload the remaining chapters in a much shorter time. I'll try for one a week.
Not much action happens in this chapter, as it's mainly a "time passing" chapter, but lots of action coming up in chapters 6 and 7!
Max’s suspicions and Palmer’s information are both accurate. The army of the Third Reich is sending reinforcements to the Palburg area, determined to wipe out the local insurrection which had seen the German armaments train and the railway line blown up.
Miranda does not plan to go out of her way to watch the arrival of the German troops, but she finds herself accidentally in the middle of it. It seems like a normal morning when she sets off into the town to do some shopping for Doro, who is keeping Clara and Jürgen occupied with some baking. Carrying an empty basket, she passes through the farmyard gate and starts down the sloping path beside the stream. The old brown horse is busily occupied grazing amongst the long grass and wildflowers in the meadow, and barely lifts his head to watch her go by.
At the foot of the path, she turns left and walks along the lane towards the buildings of the town. She has just passed the next gateway when she hears an eager voice calling to her.
“Anna! Anna! Wait!”
Miranda turns to see Jens Schmidt opening the gate beyond which a track leads up to the Schmidts’ farm. She has not seen him often since their first meeting, but she recognises his plump, childish face, now shining with drops of sweat after the exertion of walking on a hot summer’s morning. There are wet patches at the armpits of his blue shirt and his ample stomach is bulging over the top of his trousers, barely restrained by his braces. He beams widely as he falls into step beside her.
“You are going to see the arrival of the troops, ja?”
“No – I’m just going shopping,” Miranda tells him. “There are troops arriving today?”
“Yes. It shows that the Reich realises the importance of our little town,” Jens says proudly. “We should be happy that the Führer is sending more troops to keep us safe. These people who blew up the railway line need to be rounded up and made an example of. They are a disgrace to all good citizens of the Reich.”
Miranda makes a noise of agreement and they walk on, Jens still chatting away about the arrival of the new soldiers and seemingly happy that Miranda does not take much part in the conversation. Glancing sideways at his face, Miranda notices that Jens’s wide, baby-blue eyes shine with a fanatical gleam as he speaks.
As they enter the streets of the town, it is obvious that today is not an ordinary day. There is a tension in the air and people are hastening in all directions, many seemingly heading towards the railway station or the town square. Several shopkeepers are standing in their doorways, looking uneasily around them, as though wondering whether their customers will be too distracted today to carry out their routine errands. The entrance to the police station appears to be busy, although Miranda cannot see Max amongst the officers hurrying in and out.
Miranda glances towards a baker’s shop, thinking about the list of things she needs to purchase for Doro, but Jens puts his hand on her arm and urges her onwards. “Come on! Don’t you want to get a good view when they arrive?”
Not really, Miranda thinks, but she does not want to arouse his suspicions, so she continues to hurry at his side as he makes his way towards the bridge. He does not release the clasp of his pudgy fingers around her arm.
They reach the bridge, where there is a small crowd gathered outside the old white-walled inn run by Yvonne Schröder’s unsatisfactory husband Rainer. Miranda catches a glimpse of Yvonne through the window. Yvonne looks harassed and is carrying an overloaded tray of glasses. Miranda averts her gaze firmly.
A train whistle sounds, and from the edge of the bridge Miranda can see a huge black German locomotive already disgorging its cargo – both human and mechanical - on to the station platform. Steam rises from the noisy engine’s funnel, and the normally quiet station is now a hive of activity. Grey-uniformed troops pour from the passenger wagons of the train, and military trucks are being driven down ramps onto the platform. Beside Miranda, Jens lets out a hiss of excitement as they watch the newly-arrived regiments forming up into lines and preparing to march through the town.
“Some of them will be billeted at the Schloss, and they are taking over the Town Hall and the customs buildings too,” a man behind Miranda explains to his companion. Jens turns eagerly at the sound of the man’s voice.
“Hans! Torsten!” he greets his friends. “This is a great day for Palburg, isn’t it? Now we shall be safe from those traitors who work against the Reich. Have you met Anna Riegler? She is Max Winter’s cousin from Wien.”
Miranda gets the impression, from the lukewarm way in which Jens’s accquaintances return his greetings, that they are less interested in his friendship than he is in theirs.
“Have you seen Lena anywhere?” Jens asks Hans and Torsten. Hans is short, bearded and stocky while Torsten is tall and well-muscled. They exchange glances. Miranda wonders why neither of them appear to have been enlisted for military service.
“No, I haven’t seen her,” Torsten says. “I think she is working today.”
Jens’s smooth childish forehead creases in a frown. “I have not seen her for days. I write her letters, I send her chocolates and flowers, but she never seems to be at home when I call.” He turns to Miranda and explains proudly, “Lena is my girlfriend.”
Miranda catches Hans’s eye and understands from his expression and the humorous quirk of his eyebrow that the absent Lena may be trying to avoid Jens’s attentions. Miranda cannot blame her. “Lena’s been very busy,” Hans tells Jens in a soothing voice.
“Perhaps I will catch up with her today,” Jens says determinedly. “I will go and call on her again after we have watched the soldiers arrive.” He turns again to look towards the station, and exclaims, “Look! They’re coming now!”
A wide column of German soldiers has begun to march across the bridge which links the station to the town. Trucks filled with more troops are joining the procession. Miranda realises that this is a deliberate show of strength, designed to intimidate the local population and proclaim that, although the Allies might be sweeping across France towards Paris and the Axis forces might be in retreat towards Berlin, here in occupied Austria the might of the Third Reich was still strong. What would Jens say, she wonders, if he knew that I helped to tie explosives on to the railway line and watched that armament train being blown into pieces?
The first ranks of marching soldiers pass smartly by the little crowd of watchers by the inn. More people have come to swell the ranks of the audience now, lining the streets as the troops march past. Looking back towards the station, the lines of soldiers and vehicles seem never-ending.
Jens is eager to keep up with the procession and see as much of it as he can. He tugs Miranda away from the inn and they hurry along in the same direction as the marching troops, trying to keep up with the soldiers’ pace. “Herr Schneider of the Gestapo is going to address the men in the town square,” Jens informs Miranda over his shoulder as he pulls her along.
As they near the town square, the soldiers seem to slow their pace. Shopkeepers and townspeople are still lining the route. Miranda looks down at the soldiers’ feet and sees row after row of polished black boots moving smartly over the cobbles. The sound of the marching feet, the noise of the truck engines and the murmured talk of the townspeople fill the air.
Abruptly, a lone voice cuts over the mingled noises, its tone full of hatred.
“Go back to Germany, Nazi pigs!”
Everyone, including Miranda and Jens, looks around for the source of the unexpected shout.
“What are you doing here? Don’t you know that you’re losing the war?”
Miranda cannot help thinking that she knows that voice. Her gaze pans over the people in the street and into the town square, which they have just reached. As the man raises his voice a third time to shout at the soldiers, Miranda sees him through the crowds – and dread runs down her spine like ice. It is Heinrich. He is standing at one side of the town square – fortunately, perhaps, not directly in front of his own bookshop. His thin face is twisted in hatred, and his glasses are askew. Miranda cannot believe that he is doing this in front of hundreds of German soldiers. Maria is standing by his side, obviously pleading with him to stop shouting. She looks desperate.
“You killed my sister, Nazi murderers!”
Right in front of Miranda, a truck full of soldiers stops and a young German aboard it swings his rifle from his shoulder, his gaze fixed on Heinrich. He points the rifle in Heinrich’s direction, and Miranda feels panic rising in her stomach. The German soldier with the rifle is almost close enough for her to touch, yet there is nothing she can do without bringing retribution on herself and, almost certainly, the Winter family.
Maria must have seen the soldier with the rifle too. As Heinrich opens his mouth to shout for a fourth time, Maria grabs hold of him, pulls his face down towards her and silences him with a fierce kiss. As Heinrich freezes, clearly completely taken aback, Maria drags him behind a knot of people, pulling him further into the crowds until they disappear from sight. There is no further shouting.
The German soldier who has been aiming his rifle towards Heinrich pauses and straightens up, frowning. The truck starts to move forward again, following the procession into the town square, and there is a sudden hubbub of noise again – a mixture of people discussing Heinrich’s outburst and others trying to pretend it did not happen. Miranda hopes that Maria and Heinrich have taken cover in the bookshop by now.
“Did you hear that?” Jens asks Miranda. “That idiot shouting? I didn’t see who it was, did you?”
“No,” Miranda lies. “No idea. Very strange.”
“More than strange,” Jens says, his good humour restored as he admires the next regiment of soldiers marching past them. “I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes when they catch up with him.”
Half the town must know who Heinrich is, and where his shop is, Miranda muses. Many locals must know what happened to his sister Alba, too, at the hands of German soldiers. How many people in this crowd will be prepared to identify him to the Germans, and how many will keep loyally silent? And what will this mean to the Resistance network of which Heinrich is a member? If the Gestapo identify Heinrich and start investigating his associates – Miranda shivers. This is not good. Not good at all.
Beyond the troops, and the trucks, and the heads of the crowd, she can see a shining black car parked by the fountain in the town square, and a raised dais on which Cornelius Schneider and a group of German officers wait to address the arriving troops.
“Come on, let’s get a good place to hear the speeches!” Jens urges Miranda, but this time she makes her excuses.
“I’m sorry Jens, but I really need to get on with the shopping now. Doro will be wondering where I am if I take too long. I hope you enjoy watching. Good luck with finding your girlfriend later, too.”
“Thank you, Anna. I hope we will see each other again soon,” Jens beams at her, and Miranda is unable to return his hopes as she backs away from him and melts into the crowds.
Miranda does not see Max until much later that day, when he returns to the farm at the end of his day’s work. It is impossible to talk about Heinrich during dinner, while the children are there listening. Therefore, although there is some discussion about the arrival of the German reinforcements during the meal – Doro asking questions and Max and Miranda contributing what each of them knew and had seen – it is not until later, when Doro is putting the children to bed, that Miranda is able to talk freely to Max. They are in the kitchen, where he is washing dishes while she dries them and puts them away.
“I know you were mainly in the police station today, but did you hear anything about someone shouting insults at the German troops?” Miranda asks.
Max looks up from the sink in surprise. “Yes – someone did mention something. That some idiot was heckling them, but he disappeared before they could identify him. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone turns him in, though. Why? Did you hear it?”
“Yes. It happened just as Jens and I got to the town square. Max – it was Heinrich.”
Max’s hands go still on the plate he was scrubbing. “What?”
“It was Heinrich,” Miranda repeats, watching incredulity spread across Max’s face. “He was in the town square with Maria, and he started shouting at the soldiers – calling them pigs, and saying they murdered his sister. He was beside himself. One of the soldiers pointed a gun towards him, but Maria – well, she kissed him to shut him up, and then she pulled him into the crowds, and they managed to disappear.”
“What the fuck?” Max has dropped the plate into the sink now. Speaking through his teeth, he hisses, “Is he insane? Does he want to get us all arrested – or shot?”
“I think it was just the sight of all those Germans marching through the town – and don’t forget all he’s been through – perhaps it sent him over the edge?” Miranda suggests.
Max paces the kitchen – twitchy, restless and angry. “Half the town must have recognised him. How long will it be before someone gives his name to the Gestapo – and then what? They start nosing around – who are his friends? Where has he been lately? They start searching properties – and then!” He breaks off, clearly unable to find words for his feelings.
“Perhaps they won’t find out – perhaps the Germans will decide to forget about it –“ Miranda is aware that her tone is hopeful but unconvincing.
Max gives her a very direct look from his blue eyes. “The Germans forget nothing. No, if Heinrich can’t be relied on any more, if he’s cracking up, perhaps it’s time to drop him from our unit. Better to cut the connections, distance ourselves from him. Although it may already be too late to do any good. You’ve already seen someone watching this house, haven’t you?”
During the next week, Miranda wakes each morning with a feeling of doom hanging over her head. There is no news of Heinrich or anyone else being arrested. There is no message of hope from any of their contacts offering help to get the children away from Palburg. There are no meetings with Palmer, although Miranda decides that at their next assignation she needs to tell Palmer about the issue with Heinrich. It was possible that SOE might decide that the Palburg Resistance cell was too close to being discovered. They might decide it is time to bring Anna Riegler home. Although, Miranda thinks, there must be SOE agents all over Europe who daily face much greater perils and put themselves at far more risk. Here, in this sleepy little Tyrolean town, the SOE must consider that she is safer than most.
It feels as though a sword of Damocles is hanging over their heads. Both Max and Miranda are jumpy, their ears straining unconsciously as if expecting at any moment to hear the roar of military truck engines in the farmyard, and fists hammering at the kitchen door. And yet they carry on with everyday life. Max puts on his police uniform and goes to work each day. Miranda continues to help with the children, to do the shopping and help on the farm and clean the house and do the hundred daily chores as they present themselves. But Miranda has lost the enjoyment she had managed to find at the warmth of the summer sunshine, at the beauty of the mountains and countryside, at the companionship of the Winters and the children. It feels as though a clock has started ticking down on her life here, and that the days of her existence as Anna Riegler may be over sooner rather than later.
One evening Max returns from a stroll through the darkness to a contact’s house with long-awaited news of Clara and Jürgen’s parents. They have been sent to a work camp in Poland, but the contact knows nothing else about them. There is also news of another drop of supplies from the RAF, which will take place in two nights’ time at one of their regular locations.
“I’ll go round tomorrow night, after dark, and leave the signal to meet for the drop,” Max says. “I’ll notify Yvonne, Rico and Christian.”
“And…Heinrich and Maria?” Miranda asks questioningly.
Max frowns. “Can I trust Heinrich any longer? I said I would cut him off from the unit.”
“Perhaps you need to speak to him first, though,” Miranda suggests. “Tell him to come on Thursday night for the drop, and then you can tell him that you don’t want to work with him any more.”
Max looks doubtful. “It will be difficult moving all the supplies without him and Maria, but – I don’t know.” He thinks for a few moments, then says, “Perhaps you’re right. I need to see exactly what state he is in. And if someone was going to turn him in for shouting abuse at the Germans, you’d think he’d have been arrested by now. I’ll get him and Maria to come on Thursday night for the drop, and I’ll talk to him then.”
Later, Miranda is to wish – to wish very desperately - that she had not persuaded him into including Heinrich and Maria in the mission.
Although she still has a feeling of impending doom, Miranda feels slightly better the following evening, which is Wednesday. Heinrich still hasn’t been arrested, they know where the children’s parents are, though the news is far from good, and by taking part in the drop on Thursday night Miranda will feel that she is doing something useful to justify her role here. She wonders why it is so long since Palmer has contacted her to arrange a meeting. Usually she is summoned to see the older woman at least once a week.
Max seems to be feeling more upbeat tonight, too. During dinner he fiddles with the radio and finds some music for them to listen to – a pleasant change from the speeches of Hitler which are sometimes all they can find being broadcast. As Miranda helps Doro to clear the table, and the children help Max to begin doing the dishes, the wireless begins to play a cheerful dance tune. A woman with a high, clear voice is singing while a band plays. Clara starts to jig about to the music, which puts her in danger of dropping the cup she is holding.
“Careful – you’ll drop that!” Miranda takes the wavering cup out of Clara’s hands.
“Dance, Onkel Max! Dance with me!” Clara grabs Max’s hand and makes his arm sway in time to the music. He laughs and leaves the sink to come and dance with her. In the limited space around the big kitchen table, they hold hands and swing each other from side to side. Max twirls Clara under his arm and Doro claps.
“You’re such a good dancer, little Clara!” Max laughs.
“Do you want to dance too, Jürgen?” Miranda asks.
Doro moves out of the way to the side of the room and turns up the volume of the music as Miranda and Jürgen join the dancers. They spin and turn energetically, bumping into each other frequently, and Miranda tries to remember the last time she danced. Probably one of the evenings at the SOE training centre in Hampshire, when they had listened to the Light Programme on the wireless after dinner.
The music changes to a slower tempo and a different tune as a male crooner starts to sing a mournful song about love and loss. Jürgen loses interest in dancing and returns to his seat at the table to finish off the last leftover piece of cake before his sister notices it. Miranda watches Clara and Max still swinging each other around the floor until Clara sees her watching them and pulls her hand abruptly out of Max’s.
“Dance with Tante Anna now – she hasn’t got a partner!”
“Are you tired of me already, Clara?” Max is laughing as he holds out his hand obediently towards Miranda. She hesitates before placing her fingers in his clasp and stepping towards him, putting her other hand lightly on his shoulder. It feels like so long since she has danced with a man. She feels Max’s hand on her lower back as they revolve around the table, more slowly now in keeping with the gentle tempo of the crooner’s lament. Miranda glances at their clasped fingers. His hand, so much larger than hers, is warm and firm and a little callused from the farm work. She fixes her eyes on the neck of his shirt, reluctant to look up and meet his gaze. When she does so, she suddenly realises how close their faces now are, and that he is looking at her in a way he has not done so openly before.
Unexpectedly, the air between them feels very warm and charged.
As the crooner’s voice trails away, there is a sudden crash of cymbals and the fanfare of a trumpet as the band on the wireless sweeps into another lively dance tune.
Miranda escapes to her bedroom a short time later, pleading fatigue and saying that she would like to get an early night. But she lies awake for a long time, staring into the darkness and feeling the heat in Max’s eyes burn her face.
It’s not the best time to fall in love, in the middle of a war, is it? she had once asked him.
She is still awake much later, when she hears the sound of the kitchen door closing very gently. Max is back from his night-time mission to leave the secret signs which will notify each Resistance member of tomorrow night’s supply drop.
Miranda rolls over in bed, and tries once more to get to sleep.
You may have noticed a feeling of doom creeping up on our heroes in this chapter. Advance warning: Very Bad Things happen in Chapter 7. Prepare yourselves!
Chapter 7: Ambush
I'm sorry about what happens in this chapter, but you knew that something terrible was going to happen eventually, right? *ducks and hides* Bring tissues.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
I'm sorry! I felt terrible about killing off some of those characters. But this is a Charlotte Gray crossover, and although I've changed quite a lot of things about the film's plot, I felt that I couldn't avoid this moment of disaster. I'm afraid it's all peril and panic and angst from here until the end of chapter 11, really.
I think one of the most poignant moments in Charlotte Gray is the bit just preceding the ambush, where you see each member of the Resistance leaving their home to go and meet the supply plane, saying goodbye to loved ones and setting off quite cheerfully, and you watch it thinking, NONE OF THEM ARE COMING BACK! *sob*
Hoping to get chapter 8 up pretty soon. The aftermath won't be pretty...
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.
Three more chapters and the epilogue to go. I am hoping to get the next couple of chapters out pretty quickly as I am still on Christmas break. Not sure how many people are actually out there still reading this!
Is this a good time to mention that the next chapter is called "Treachery"?
Chapter 9: Treachery
Trigger warning: this chapter includes Miranda enduring some serious sexual harrassment in the line of duty.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As Miranda cycles back to the Winters’ farmhouse after her final meeting with Palmer, she has little attention to spare for the beauty of the summer evening. A mellow golden light bathes the cobbled streets of the little Tyrolean town and the glorious mountains provide a spectacular distant view. Appetising smells drift out from the windows of houses and cafés as the Friday evening meals are prepared. Friday evening. And she is leaving on Sunday night. Two more days – that is all the time she has left in this place where she has begun to feel a sense of belonging.
The inn owned by Yvonne’s father is closed up this evening, its doors bolted against cheerful evening drinkers. Miranda wonders what is passing between the family within its walls – Yvonne’s curmudgeonly father – her unsatisfactory husband – her small daughter. How are they coping with the sudden shocking loss of a daughter, a wife, a mother? Will the discovery of Yvonne’s involvement in Resistance activities lead to interrogations for the rest of the family?
The butcher’s shop owned by Christian’s father is also shuttered and dark as Miranda rides past it. She has never exchanged more than a few words with Christian’s plump, grey-haired, widowed father whilst shopping for the scant meat rations, but she can only imagine what he is feeling tonight – perhaps sitting alone in his darkened rooms above the shop or even being questioned by the Gestapo about his son’s activities.
There are fewer people on the streets now, and fewer German sentries patrolling the town. A small group of soldiers are chatting and smoking in front of the police station. Miranda wonders if any suspicions were aroused when Doro brought a message to the station that morning to say that Max was ill and unable to come to work. He will have to report to work the next day, or his police colleagues are highly likely to start making enquiries about his whereabouts. Has someone already started to put two and two together and remember that several of the executed Resistance members had been childhood friends of Officer Max Winter? The potential for more discovery and disaster seems to be increasing by the hour.
Leaving the buildings of the town behind her, Miranda rides slowly down the lane which leads in the direction of the farm. She still feels strangely reluctant to return to the house where she had last seen Jürgen and Clara playing quietly in the cellar, seemingly subdued by the atmosphere around them. There had been a worried crease in Doro’s brow as she made pastry, and Max had been closeted silently in his bedroom, sent by Doro with orders to get some sleep after his outburst of grief and anger. Miranda doubts that he has managed to do much sleeping that day.
Her thoughts are so full of the people in the farmhouse that she is taken completely by surprise when a large figure steps out suddenly in front of her bicycle, causing her to skid to a halt and almost fall off. Managing to keep her balance, she looks up and sees Jens Schmidt outlined against the low evening sun. His wide, pudgy face lacks its usual foolish grin and his whole demeanour is uncharacteristically edgy. A premonition of danger prickles down Miranda’s spine as she gazes up at him.
“Hello, Anna,” he says, in a voice which manages to sound both smug and disturbing. She really does not like the way his eyes are roaming up and down her body.
“Hello, Jens,” she replies, keeping her voice light. “How are you?”
Jens grips the left handlebar of the bicycle firmly in his meaty hand, as if to make it clear that Miranda is not going anywhere.
“Well, I’m a little upset, Anna,” he says, still in that slightly edgy tone she has not heard from him before. “I’m a little upset by some things I’ve found out.”
“Oh? I’m – I’m sorry to hear that.”
Miranda is not afraid of Jens as he looms over her, even though he is twice her size, but she is wary. Something has happened to cause this change in his manner towards her. Committed Nazi though she knows Jens to be, he has always been effusively friendly towards her during their previous meetings. But there is no warmth now in the pale blue eyes which are looking her up and down.
“I’ve found out that women are liars, Anna,” he says conversationally. “Women are liars, did you know that? Well, of course you did – you’re a woman.”
“Jens, I –“
He does not let her speak before he goes on, “Lena, for instance – my girlfriend, Lena, you remember I told you about her – she’s a liar. She let me think that she loved me, she let me send her flowers and chocolates, and all the time she was seeing someone else –“
“Oh, I’m sorry, Jens –“
He cuts through Miranda’s words again, the pitch of his voice now rising further in that edgy, slightly hysterical way. “She’s been sleeping with Torsten, and I thought he was my friend, but now I find they’ve both been laughing at me behind my back – she laughed in my face, Anna – she called me fat and useless – she said I was a joke –“
Miranda tries to cut off the flow of words by placing her hand reassuringly on his forearm. “Jens, that’s awful, I’m so sorry – but you’ll find someone better, you’ll see –“
“No!” He spits out the words, and Miranda feels flecks of saliva hitting her face. “No, I won’t, because all women are liars!” The rather manic look in his eyes intensifies and he suddenly grabs Miranda’s arm, pulling her closer to him. He lets go of the bicycle and it clatters to the dusty ground, knocking painfully against Miranda’s shin as it falls. “Even you, Anna! I thought you were my friend, but you’re just a liar too!”
“What? No, I’m not! Jens, calm down, I can see why you’re upset –“
Miranda’s attempt to speak soothingly fails. Jens maintains his painful grip on her arm.
“Yes! My mother said you were no good, that you were up to something, but I didn’t believe her. But she was right! I know now – you’ve come here to plot against the Reich, haven’t you? You’ve got children hidden away at the farm - I heard them - I came at night and watched you! What else are you doing? Who are the children you are hiding? Are you and Max lovers? Are you laughing at me too – poor, stupid Jens, who can’t even see what’s going on next door, right under his nose?”
Miranda’s head whirls as he pours out his accusations. She thinks quickly, trying to work out what she can possibly say to refute his words or defuse his anger.
“But I’m not so stupid!” he continues, still aiming his words right into her face. “Oh no, I was clever enough to find out what you are doing, and I know you’ve got Max and Doro involved in your schemes now. You’ll all be arrested for this, when I report you to Herr Schneider –“
“No!” Miranda decides that the only possible way to placate him is to try to flatter his ego. She strokes his sweaty shirtfront with her free hand. “Jens, don’t be angry with me. I’ve never thought you were stupid – you’re very clever and I am your friend. I would never be able to fool you. Max isn’t my lover – he’s just my cousin. He’s not as clever as you. I’m not trying to cause any harm to the Reich, but yes, I have been looking after some children. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
His chest is still heaving after his outburst, but he calms a little at her words. “It’s true, I am very clever. Everyone thinks I’m stupid, but I’m not.”
“No, you’re not at all.” Miranda hastens to agree with him.
“But you shouldn’t be hiding anyone, Anna,” Jens says, still looking edgy and suspicious. “I should report you for that – no one should be going against the orders of the Reich.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. Please – please don’t tell anyone, Jens. They’ll be gone soon. I promise I won’t hide anyone else.” Miranda tries to make her outward manner girlish and appealing, her eyes wide and pleading. Inwardly, she knows that the situation is now desperate and that the children must be out of the farmhouse this very day, if possible. What little safety they have enjoyed there is gone.
The anger fades from his pale blue eyes, but a look of cunning replaces it. Still holding Miranda tightly by one arm, he leers down the neck of her blouse and puts his free hand on her waist, squeezing enthusiastically. Miranda forces herself not to flinch at his unwelcome touch. His fingers leave her waist and stroke down her hip in a lingering way.
“I should report you,” he repeats, his breath quickening again, “but perhaps – perhaps I won’t, if you’ll be my friend, Anna.” He presses himself against her, a wave of body odour meeting her nose as her face is forced against his damp shirt. The hand on her leg moves upwards again as his fat fingers tug her blouse out of her skirt and begin to explore under her blouse. “You know what I mean, don’t you?” She can hear the excitement building in his voice. “I might not report that you’re taking care of children if you take – very – good – care – of - me.” Each of his last words is accompanied by a squeeze of her breast. Her skin crawls at his touch.
Miranda is perfectly capable of getting herself out of his clutches, of throwing him to the ground – even of rendering him unconscious or dead – but she simply cannot afford to do it. Knocking Jens out might allow her to escape, but it will bring the Gestapo hammering at the farmhouse door before she can plan anyone’s escape. What she needs to do now is to try to buy a little more time, even if it is only a few hours.
So she represses her physical revulsion, lifts her head, smiles into his face and puts her free hand around his sweaty neck, pulling him down to her. “Oh, I could take very good care of you, Jens,” she murmurs into his ear. “Please – please don’t report me. I’ll get rid of the children, and then we can spend more time together.”
She is not sure that he is completely convinced, but he kisses her wetly and eagerly, sticking his tongue in her mouth. Miranda wonders if he has ever kissed a woman before. How far had he actually got with the faithless Lena?
She tries to pull back slightly in a way which will not make him feel rejected. “Not – not here, Jens,” she says, winding her fingers in the neck of his shirt coquettishly. “Someone might see us. And Doro will be wondering where I am. But can I come to your house later? Is there somewhere we can meet there?”
Jens is reluctant to let go of her. “Tonight?” he asks, squeezing her waist under her blouse again.
“Not tonight – I don’t think I can get away tonight. But tomorrow night – I promise.”
There is a moment when he wavers, and Miranda is not sure if his excited lust is going to overcome his desire to get someone arrested, to punish someone after his crushing rejection by Lena. She strokes his chest again. “I’ll make you feel better, you’ll see,” she murmurs in his ear. “We’ll have some fun together.”
Jens actually pants with excitement at these words. “Tomorrow, then,” he says, finally releasing her from his hold. “Come to the gate of our orchard, and I’ll show you where we can be together. We have a hayloft –“
“Sounds perfect.” Miranda says, reaching up to kiss him on the cheek. She picks up the fallen bicycle. “Will you walk me up the field, Jens?”
Jens is eager to do so, and he wheels the bicycle for her as they climb the steep footpath beside the stream together. At the broken gate into the Winters’ farmyard they say goodbye and he gives Miranda another wet kiss. She waits until he is out of sight before she wipes her mouth vigorously with her hand.
Miranda hurries across the farmyard to the kitchen door, trying to clear her thoughts and think of a plan. She has staved off the immediate danger, but the threat is still very real. She is almost sure that she has convinced Jens that she will turn up for their assignation tomorrow but she is not completely sure. Even he has enough brains to begin to doubt her sincerity when his feelings of lust start to subside. He may get home, have second thoughts and decide to tell the Germans to search the Winters’ home within a few hours.
The children are not in the kitchen when Miranda enters, but Max and Doro are sitting opposite each other at the wooden table, clearly in the middle of a heart-to-heart. Max still looks haggard, but slightly better than when Miranda had last seen him. They both look up as Miranda pushes open the door, and there is clearly something in her face which immediately alerts them to further disaster.
“What’s happened?” Max asks, pushing his chair back and standing up quickly. Miranda waves him back to his seat, drops into another chair and begins to tell the story of her encounter with Jens as quickly as she can. She does not describe much about how Jens touched her, but she sees Doro and Max exchange a look and she knows they are both reading between the lines.
“Are you all right, Anna?” Doro asks, reaching out a hand to her as she finishes her story.
“I’m fine,” Miranda says quickly. “But we need to act fast. If Jens knows the children are here, it’s not going to be long before someone comes looking for them. I’m afraid your involvement with the Resistance is going to be exposed pretty soon too, Max.”
He nods. “We have to get them out tonight – but where?”
“We have some outbuildings at the far edge of the farm…” Doro is thinking aloud, but Max shakes his head at once.
“No good. If they come here to search, they’ll search the whole farm. And probably every place nearby.”
“I have the address my contact gave me – the safe house in Switzerland,” Miranda says. “If only we could get them there – or at least to somewhere on the way.”
“If one of us takes them, the Nazis will know we’re guilty,” Max says. “But I think you’re right, Anna – the game’s up. Maybe we all need to disappear.”
“I’m leaving on Sunday night,” Miranda says. “I wish I could take you all with me.” There is a long pause as her eyes meet Max’s eyes. She wishes she could read what is in his gaze. Doro is looking from one of them to the other with interest. Miranda looks away first.
“Perhaps we could take them to –“ Doro begins, but she is interrupted by the sound of three quiet knocks on the back door. All three of them jerk their heads towards it, startled. Miranda sees Max stand and take his gun from the uniform holster which hangs on a peg behind him. He clicks off the safety catch and holds the pistol down by his side, concealed from whoever is at the door. Doro rises and goes to lift the latch.
The door opens to reveal a very unexpected visitor standing nervously on the step. It is not Jens or a German soldier but Christian’s father, the butcher. His face, normally jovial, is drawn and nervous, but he manages a small smile for Doro.
“Doro! May I – may I come in? I need to speak with you and Max.”
“Of course, Klaus.” Doro holds the door open for the butcher to enter as Max replaces the safety catch on his pistol and puts it down. Klaus pulls his hat off to reveal dishevelled grey hair as he sits down beside Miranda. There are stains on his loden jacket and bags below his eyes.
“Klaus – I’m so sorry – about Christian,” Doro begins, but he holds up a hand to stop her.
“I know. But my son knew the risks – and he believed he was doing the right thing. I believed it too, but I always feared that this would happen, and now it has.” He sighs heavily. “They came to question me this morning. I thought they would take me away, to the Schloss, but they didn’t. But they will return - and they will come for you, too, Max.” He looks across the table at Max. “You have to get away. You too, Doro. And you –“ He glances at Miranda, “Anna, isn’t it?”
“Yes, we know. We were just trying to make a plan,” Max says. “Are they watching your shop, Klaus? Could they have followed you here?”
Klaus shakes his head. “I don’t think so. I hope not. I was very careful. I didn’t see anyone. But I don’t think I can go back. I may not get away twice. I left my van behind the shop, but I went to my brother’s house and took his old car, the one he left behind when he went to Innsbruck. I hid it in a copse near here. I have a few cans of fuel which were meant to be used for my deliveries.”
“You have a car?” Max stands up again and begins to pace around, thinking. He turns to Klaus. “Klaus – if you’re leaving now, could you take my mother with you? And two children?”
Doro looks startled and stares at Max, but his eyes are fixed on Christian’s father.
“Two children?” Klaus asks in surprise. “What children?”
“Hana and August Strobl’s children. They’ve been with us since Hana and August got taken away. But Jens Schmidt knows they are here now, so the Germans are going to come looking for them.”
“The Strobl children – here?” Klaus looks astonished. “I had no idea. Yes, of course I’ll take them, but – where can we go?”
“If you can get to the Swiss border, I’ve got the address of a safe house,” Miranda says, speaking for the first time since Klaus’s arrival. “We’ll pack their things now – they barely have anything to take.”
“You pack too, Mama,” Max says. “You’re going with them.”
“But Max – I can’t leave you here –“ Doro protests.
“Yes, you can,” Max says firmly. “Go now, while you have the chance, and I’ll follow you soon. If the car is that little old rust-bucket Christian’s uncle used to drive around town, you’ll be lucky if it gets four of you to the border, never mind five.”
When Max had rescued Clara and Jürgen from their parents’ house he had only been able to bring one bag of clothes and toys with them. They have accumulated a few more possessions since then – Doro has knitted them socks and made Clara a frock for her birthday, while Max has gifted them some of the books and toys kept from his own childhood. Now, while the confused children collect up the last of their treasures from around the house and put on their shoes, Doro has already packed the rest of their things into a shabby suitcase and is sorting rapidly through her own wardrobe to choose what she can fit in her own case.
Acting on Doro’s instructions, Miranda empties drawers of underwear and folds blouses and skirts. Doro’s hands are trembling as she rolls stockings and tucks them neatly into the side of the suitcase. “This is all so sudden - I still don’t know if this is the right thing to do –“
“It is,” Miranda assures her. “Think how much better it will be for Clara and Jürgen to have you with them, instead of just going off with a stranger. They won’t be nearly so scared.”
“Well, I will do my best to keep them safe, the poor little dears.” Doro sighs as she picks up the china box which contains her few trinkets and items of jewellery. “I’ll take my husband’s gold watch…we might need some things to sell if we run out of money.” She rolls the box safely in a woollen cardigan and adds it to the suitcase before turning to place a hand on Miranda’s arm. “Anna – I know you are leaving soon, but while you’re still here – you will look after Max, won’t you? I’m so afraid for him.”
Miranda finds herself unable to swallow down the lump in her throat as she sees the tears in the older woman’s eyes. “Of course – we’ll look out for each other – but Max will be all right, you’ll see. He’s promised to follow you to Switzerland as soon as he can.”
“If we can get there without being stopped, it will be a miracle.”
Since Miranda suspects this statement to be true, she does not reply. When Doro has finished packing her case and gone downstairs to hurry the children, Miranda goes into her own room and looks around. On the night of her arrival it had seemed bare and unfamiliar, but now it feels both familiar and safe. The small rucksack she had arrived with is under the bed. Miranda sighs. She may not be leaving immediately with Klaus, Doro and the children, but she will be gone so soon that she may as well pack up her possessions now. She brought so little with her that it takes only a few minutes to fill the rucksack. She adds a blue headscarf embroidered with Alpine flowers which Doro had gifted her – “This will suit you far better than it does me” – and a little home-made book which contains a picture story Clara drew for her days ago. Clara had coloured the pictures in crayon and added captions in her rather wobbly writing. Max had made holes and tied the pages together with ribbon to make the story into a book. Miranda tucks the book deep down at the bottom of the rucksack, which she leaves on the chair in her bedroom. All she will have to do is to pick it up when she departs and there will be no signs left that she ever occupied this room.
The packing has taken very little time, but they wait until darkness comes before the escapees leave the house. Doro insists on cooking a meal while they wait, saying that it will be as well for everyone to fill their stomachs while they can. “Who knows where we’ll be by the time of our next meal?” she says, slicing bread. “I’ve packed enough food to keep us going for a few days, though.”
“And when we get to Switzerland you’ll still make cakes for us, won’t you, Oma Doro?” Jürgen asks hopefully. “Do they have nice food in Switzerland?”
“They make a lot of cheese in Switzerland,” Klaus tells him, unable to help smiling at the boy despite the obvious tension and sense of urgency in the room. “They make chocolate, too.”
“Mmm!” It is clear that Jürgen is oblivious to the dangers of the journey and thinking only of hoped-for culinary delights of the future. Clara’s little face is more solemn. She eats obediently when Doro urges her to, but under the table she squeezes Max’s hand for reassurance.
“Onkel Max, why aren’t you coming with us?” Clara asks.
“There wouldn’t be room for a giant like me in Klaus’s little car, Clara. And I have some important things to do here. But don’t worry, I’ll come and find you as soon as I can.” Miranda is impressed by the cheerful tone Max manages to use as he speaks to the child. Clara’s face brightens a little.
As soon as the sky outside the kitchen windows darkens into nightfall, Max goes out and patrols around the nearer parts of the farm and up and down the lane. He comes back and reports that there do not seem to be any signs that the house is being watched. Doro buttons the children into their coats and takes a last look round her home of many years to check for any other precious items she cannot bear to leave behind which can be squeezed into her suitcase or pockets.
Max is going to accompany his mother, Klaus and the children to the copse of trees where the car is hidden. Miranda has agreed to stay behind at the house, where she can attempt to stall Jens or any other unexpected visitors who may appear. She kisses the children. “Be good, and always do what Oma Doro tells you, all right?”
Clara flings her arms around Miranda’s neck. “I wish you were coming with us, Tante Anna. Will we see you soon?”
“Perhaps,” Miranda replies, not wanting to upset the child with the truth. No, you won’t see me, because in a few days’ time I’ll be in England, and I’ll be Miranda again. Your Tante Anna doesn’t really exist. “Goodbye, Jürgen. Don’t eat all the food too soon. Goodbye, Klaus. Thank you so much for what you’re doing.”
Doro envelops Miranda in a tight hug. Miranda can feel the other woman’s tears against her cheek. “You’re a good person, Anna,” she whispers. “Be safe, always, and take care of him while you can.”
“I will,” Miranda promises. A moment later the door clicks shut behind Max and the travellers and Miranda is left alone in the kitchen, where the oil lamp is the only light. She hears the creak of the main farmyard gate into the yard as it opens and closes, and then it is very quiet.
Max returns about forty minutes later, letting himself quietly into the kitchen to find Miranda sitting at the table. She is looking unseeingly at the browned pages of one of Doro’s favourite cookbooks. Faded and well-read, the printed recipes are annotated with scribbled comments and amendments.
“They’ve gone,” Max says, putting a foot on a chair to begin unlacing his boots. “We got to the car without any difficulty. There doesn’t seem to be anyone about at all. Klaus knows all the back roads in this district, so with any luck he should be able to keep out of sight on the first part of the journey, anyway. After that – well, they’ll have to be clever. And lucky.”
“At least no one will be looking for them yet. As far as anyone else knows except us, Doro is here in the house and the Strobl children disappeared weeks ago. Well – of course Jens knows there are children here, but he may not tell anyone – not yet, anyway.”
“If he keeps his mouth shut until tomorrow night, what are you going to do? Surely you’re not going to go over there and let him put his hands on you again?” There is a spark of anger in Max’s blue eyes as he speaks, and inexplicably Miranda’s heart leaps to see this.
“I haven’t worked out what I’m going to do yet. But whatever happens tomorrow, we haven’t got much time. I think he will report us, probably sooner rather than later. He would do anything to please the Nazis at the Schloss.”
Max frowns, and then yawns. “At least my mother and the children have a chance to get away now. I’m going to bed. If I have to show up at work tomorrow and convince everyone that I don’t care about some Resistance fighters being killed, I’d better get some sleep first.” His voice flattens on the word killed despite his efforts to control it. About to leave the room, he turns and looks at Miranda. “Anna – I’m sorry about this morning. I know you didn’t betray us. I shouldn’t have accused you, but I – I wasn’t thinking straight.”
Miranda reaches out and takes his hand in hers. “It’s all right. I can’t imagine how you were feeling. I’m so sorry it happened.”
For an instant the air becomes charged between them and she thinks he is going to pull her towards him, but he hesitates and the moment is lost. “Goodnight, Anna,” is all he says, as he leaves the kitchen.
It takes Miranda a long time to fall asleep that night, but eventually she sleeps soundly. She wakes early to the sound of knives and plates clattering downstairs. When she arrives in the kitchen the fresh eggs are already in a bowl on the table. Max is heating coffee, dressed in the old clothes he wears for farm chores. He usually puts on his police uniform after breakfast.
“I wonder how far they have got now?” Miranda says, fetching the last of the butter from the cold safe in the larder. She does not need to explain who they are.
Max shrugs. “Who knows? I just hope they are staying safe, and keeping away from anywhere that may be busy – or where soldiers are.”
They talk very little during breakfast. It feels strange to be alone together in the house, without the sounds of the children’s chattering or Doro’s kind voice.
Miranda is just pouring the last of the hot coffee into Max’s cup when she hears a noise which makes both their heads snap to attention. Outside, in the lane, there is the sound of several vehicle engines and the loud squealing of brakes. There is a thud, as the big gate is pushed open forcefully, and the clatter of more than one pair of boots on the cobbles. A moment later someone hammers on the kitchen door, so hard that it bounces on its hinges. A harsh voice calls, “Max Winter! Open this door at once, or we shall force an entry! You’re wanted for questioning!”
Has Jens betrayed us?
Have they caught Klaus and the others?
These questions race through Miranda’s mind in the few seconds before the person outside grows impatient. The next sound is a splintering crash as a heavy boot bursts open the door.
Oooh, cliffhanger!!! The Nazis are at the door!!!
I made myself feel nauseated writing about creepy Jens and his groping - I do apologise if I made my readers feel sick too! However, there will be some extremely *consensual* groping in the next chapter, NOT featuring Jens!
We're on the home straight here - I'm hoping to finish chapter 10 over the weekend, and I've already written half of chapter 11 and all of the epilogue, so the end is in sight!
Chapter 10: Confrontation
A lot happens in this chapter...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Max and Miranda both jump to their feet as a burly German soldier kicks aside the broken door and enters the kitchen, followed by several others. Miranda’s heart rate rockets as adrenalin pumps through her body. Max steps sideways around the table to stand closer to her.
The first soldier unholsters his pistol and points it at them. “Don’t move. Put your hands up.”
Max and Miranda both raise their hands. Out of the corner of her eye, Miranda sees Max glance sideways to the place where his own gun hangs from his police belt on the wall hook, hidden by his uniform jacket. She guesses that he is thinking about making a grab for the weapon and deciding against it. Four soldiers, their pistols at the ready, are standing a few feet away; the only thing Max will achieve by trying to reach his gun is to get himself shot.
“Get back, and stand against the wall,” the first soldier instructs them. They back slowly away from the table. Through the kitchen window, Miranda can see another group of uniformed men separating to search the farmyard and outbuildings, with an officer issuing orders.
The soldiers in the kitchen move aside to let another figure pass between them. He is a slight figure in a long leather coat, hatless and with iron-grey hair, who strolls into the house in a leisurely fashion and halts a few feet in front of Max and Miranda, regarding them with an almost amused gaze.
He is Cornelius Schneider, the Gestapo man from Berlin.
“Officer Winter, I presume,” he says, looking up at Max, who is at least a foot taller than he is. “Yes, I remember your face from my visits to the police station. Not the cleverest move for an officer of the law - to involve himself in activities against the Reich.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir,” Max says, feigning a tone of confusion. “Has something happened? Why are you here?”
Schneider shakes his head in amusement, tutting. “Really, Officer Winter, you’re more intelligent than that. You know exactly why I’m here.” He turns his attention to Miranda. She tries not to look alarmed, but a shudder goes down her spine as she looks directly into his grey and icy eyes. “And you must be the Winters’ niece from Vienna, if my sources are correct.”
“Yes, I’m Anna Riegler, Max’s cousin,” Miranda says. Trying to keep her face from betraying her thoughts, she wonders how thoroughly the Gestapo have checked up on Anna Riegler. Have they bothered to contact Vienna yet? Have they traced the death certificate of the real Anna?
Schneider, however, makes no accusation about her identity. Instead, he turns back to look at Max again.
“I’ve learned some interesting things about you lately, Officer Winter. According to your police record, you’re a conscientious officer – son of a Palburg farmer – well-known in the community - well-regarded by your superiors in the police force. All very respectable and commendable. And yet – when I look closely at the lives of certain plotters against the Reich – several of whom we succeeded in terminating this week – I’m told that you just happen to be a close childhood friend of several of them. I investigate the friends of one traitor, and the acquaintances of another, and again and again I hear the name of Max Winter mentioned. And I ask myself, can this really be a coincidence?”
He pauses, waiting for Max to say something, but Max remains silent.
“Naturally, I feel it my duty to examine the private life of a police officer who has such dubious acquaintances. Of course, you may have been in complete ignorance of your friends’ activities, but I find that quite unlikely. So you see, Officer Winter, I have been thinking about you – and then, last night, a concerned citizen made a report which interested me greatly. He seems convinced that you are hiding children in this house - and my officers tell me that they would very much like to find certain children who are unaccounted for in this district.”
Jens, Miranda thinks. So he did report us.
“There are no children here, sir,” Max says, in a calm, level voice. “Your informant is mistaken.”
Schneider smiles. Not a pleasant smile, but one which makes a creeping shudder run down Miranda’s spine. “We will see. Search the house!” he snaps out in an aside to one of the soldiers. There are a few moments of bustle and reorganisation amongst the troops. Two men remain by Schneider’s side, while others are beckoned indoors from the farmyard and directed to search upstairs and downstairs. Soon Miranda can hear heavy boots clattering on the floorboards above their heads and the sounds of furniture crashing to the floor. She feels Max flinch slightly beside her as the sound of breaking glass reaches their ears. From where she is standing against the kitchen wall, Miranda can see men descending the wooden steps into the cellar and then swiftly returning upwards, having obviously discovered that the small, stone-floored room contains no possible hiding places.
While the search of the house is going on, Miranda and Max remain motionless in the kitchen, watching the pistols which are pointed at them and the expressionless face of Schneider as he listens to the sounds of destruction. After about ten minutes, the soldier who is leading the search returns to make his initial report to the Gestapo man.
“There’s no one else in the house, sir. No hiding places that we can find. No one in the attics or the cellar.”
Schneider barely nods. “Any evidence of children having been here recently?”
“None that we have found yet, sir.” Miranda breathes a sigh of relief that she had taken the time last night, after Max had gone to bed, to strip the children’s beds. She had piled dusty junk from the attic in their bedrooms to make them look long-disused.
“Hmm. Search again.”
“Yes, sir.” The soldier clicks his heels, salutes smartly and turns to issue orders to the other men. Schneider turns his chilling focus back to Max.
“Where is your mother, Winter? I understand she lives with you.”
“She has gone to visit a friend in Linz,” Max answers, still in that neutral tone. Miranda admires his control over his face and voice.
“And what is the address of this friend in Linz?”
“Hauptplatz 53,” Max replies promptly.
Schneider regards Max for a long considering moment, before saying, “Do you know, Officer Winter, convincing though you are, I find it very hard to believe in your mother’s friend in Linz.” He turns to Miranda. “Fräulein Riegler, are you also going to tell me that Frau Winter has suddenly decided to take a trip to Linz?”
“Yes, sir. I helped her to pack.” Miranda is quite proud of the steadiness of her own voice.
“Hmm.” Without warning, Schneider unleashes a bony hand and slaps Miranda hard across the cheekbone. Her head jerks back as pain radiates across her face, but she refuses to cry out.
“Don’t touch her!” The words spill out of Max’s mouth before he can bite them back.
Judging by his expression, Schneider seems to be pleased at having goaded Max into this outburst. He nods sideways to the burly soldier at his side who, without warning, punches Max in the face. The unexpected blow rocks him back on his heels and he gives a startled grunt, but he does not try to retaliate. Miranda watches in dismay as blood starts to trickle down his chin from a split lip.
“Perhaps you’d like to reconsider your answer to this question,” Schneider says, his eyes following the trickle of blood with apparent satisfaction. “Where is your mother, Officer Winter?”
“I told you. She’s visiting a friend in Linz.”
A second blow from the burly soldier’s fist lands on Max’s right eye, which quickly begins to swell. At another nod from Schneider, a third punch catches Max in the stomach and this time he doubles up, winded.
“Please, stop!” Miranda begs, knowing that her pleading is unlikely to do any good.
“Perhaps you need a little time to think about your situation, Officer Winter. It may help to jog your memory.” Schneider turns to his men. “Put them in the cellar. And tell Ziegler to make sure every inch of this place is properly searched, inside and out. Rip it apart.”
“Sir!” The men salute and hasten to carry out his bidding. Max and Miranda are hustled down the steps to the cellar, a soldier behind them holding a pistol to Max’s back.
“Sit there!” their thin-faced guard orders them curtly, nodding to the dusty pile of empty potato sacks in the far corner. “And don’t move.”
Miranda hears Max let out a small hiss of pain as he lowers himself to the ground. His rapidly-swelling eye and bloody lip make his face look ghastly, and his bruised stomach is clearly sore. She does not dare to speak in the presence of the scowling soldier, but she squeezes Max’s arm briefly in sympathy as she sits down on the sacks, hunching herself up with her knees under her chin. She can feel the tension radiating from him as he sits beside her, their shoulders not quite touching.
They wait in silence as the minutes go by. Above them, they can hear the search of the house continuing and, on the opposite side of the cellar, they can just see out of the tiny cobwebbed window at ground level. Now and then a pair of military boots can be glimpsed passing outside the window.
Sporadically there is another crash of glass, or another thud as a cupboard or table is overturned. Outside, there is a sudden furious outburst of squawking as the chickens are disturbed by whatever havoc the soldiers are wreaking in the orchard. Another crash sounds like one of Doro’s big earthenware plant pots being tipped over. Do they think we’re hiding someone under a plant pot? Miranda wonders. Or are they looking for secret Resistance messages, or a hidden radio?
The distant crack of a gunshot makes both Max and Miranda sit up straight and exchange startled, questioning glances. What are they shooting at?
Eventually the sounds begin to lessen as the indoor search is completed, and they hear the noise of the soldiers’ boots clattering down the stairs and back into the kitchen. They hear Schneider’s voice giving orders in the distance. He seems to have moved outside from the kitchen into the farmyard and they cannot make out the words.
Shortly afterwards, feet vibrate on the wooden cellar steps and a fair-haired soldier with a very young, boyish face appears. He speaks to his thin-faced comrade. “Herr Schneider is returning to the Schloss for his meeting with General Schwartz. He wants you and me to stay here and guard them.” He waves his hand to indicate Max and Miranda. “Then Herr Schneider is taking the General on a tour of the district this afternoon, and he is going to collect these two for questioning at the Schloss.”
The soldier with the gun nods to acknowledge this information. “All right. I will stay here with them for now. You must patrol the perimeter of the house when the others have gone, in case these two have friends who decide to try a rescue. We can swap over later.”
The fair-haired boy – who cannot be more than eighteen – nods in agreement. “Very well.” He goes quickly up the steps again and is gone. Moments after his departure Miranda hears the sound of vehicle engines starting up in the lane, and shouts from the other soldiers as they prepare to leave the farm. After the military vehicles have roared off into the distance, silence falls over the farmhouse again. Max, Miranda and the thin-faced soldier are left in the musty quiet of the cellar. Miranda feels some relief that Schneider is no longer on the premises, but it is not much of a consolation.
The rest of the morning passes slowly. Every hour, the two soldiers guarding them change places, one patrolling around the outside of the house and the other sitting in the cellar with a pistol or an automatic rifle at the ready. At the end of the second hour, when the second soldier comes to change guard, Miranda asks if she can go to the toilet. One of the guards remains in the cellar with Max while the other marches Miranda to the bathroom, holding her at gunpoint all the way there and all the way back to the cellar.
More time passes until, looking out of the tiny cellar window, Miranda guesses from the light that it is now around midday. The thin-faced soldier looks up as his young blond comrade clatters down the cellar steps again. “Go and find some food, Krause.”
The younger man nods and disappears upstairs towards the kitchen. Shortly afterwards he reappears with a plate of bread, meat and cheese. “It’s my turn to guard them. I’ll eat down here. Yours is in the kitchen.”
They trade duties and the young fair-haired soldier – Krause - seats himself on the lowest step, holding his rifle aimed at Max and Miranda in one hand while he eats with the other. He does not offer his prisoners any of the food. They can hear the faint clatter of knife, plate and cup from the kitchen where the older guard is eating. Eventually they hear the sound of the kitchen door closing as the man goes outside to begin another patrol of the farmhouse’s perimeter.
Krause takes his time over his meal, chewing bread and watching his prisoners without much interest. Miranda wonders how many more hours will drag past like this as she and Max sit, cramped and hungry, left here by Schneider to consider their fate. From what the other soldier had said, it seems that Schneider is entertaining some high-up Nazi at the Schloss today. This General Schwartz must be of some importance for Schneider to entertain him with a tour of the district. No doubt he would boast of the recent massacre of a group of foolish Resistance operatives. We succeeded in terminating them, Schneider had said, as if he spoke of unwanted insects and not of the lives of Heinrich, Maria, Rico, Christian and Yvonne.
Heinrich, with his thin serious face and love of books.
Maria, with her untidy black curls and the soft look in her eyes when they rested on Heinrich.
Rico, with his flashing white smile and easy laugh.
Christian, with his round, amiable face and gap teeth.
Yvonne, with her careworn look and kind eyes, making coffee in the barn.
Miranda sighs, shakes her head and looks at her watch. It is now half past one. She suspects they will have to endure this captivity for hours more before Schneider finishes entertaining the General and returns here to deal with them. He will probably take them to the Schloss, where they will be subjected to the Gestapo torture techniques Schneider is famed for. Perhaps he will give the General a final treat by allowing him to watch the torture and execution of two more foolish Austrians who are suspected of daring to work against the Third Reich. At least he will never learn from me that he has captured a British agent, Miranda resolves, no matter what tortures he uses.
Glancing sideways at Max, Miranda notices that his bruised eye has now swollen almost shut and that the blood has dried on his split lip. She looks quickly across the cellar towards Krause, but he seems less interested in them than in the scraps of food remaining on his plate. He has begun to hum tunelessly. Miranda leans towards Max and breathes into his ear, just loud enough for him to hear it, “We need to get out of here.”
Max throws her a sceptical look. “What do you suggest?” he whispers back. “Getting ourselves shot?”
“We have to distract him. I’ve got an idea. But wait.”
Max raises a quizzical eyebrow but does not reply. He watches Miranda as she stares towards the cellar window. She knows that for her plan to succeed they must wait until the older guard is as far as possible from the cellar, which will be when he is patrolling past the orchard at the other side of the house. When she next sees his boots passing the little window, she waits a few more minutes for him to head away from the house towards the orchard. Then she turns her head back towards Max and whispers into his ear again, “Now kiss me.”
His jaw drops. Clearly this is not what he had been expecting to hear. “What?”
Miranda almost smiles at his confused expression. “To distract the guard. To make him wonder what we’re doing.”
Max is still gaping at her in surprise, so Miranda takes matters into her own hands. She leans sideways and touches her lips to his, hoping that he will go along with her idea. At first he remains frozen, taken aback, but after a moment she feels him begin to respond. As their lips part, their eyes meet and she nods at him encouragingly, with a sideways glance at Krause. The guard has not yet noticed their actions.
Halfway through their second kiss, Max begins to seem more enthusiastic. He shifts closer, cups Miranda’s face between his hands and claims her mouth with a gentle determination which makes her heart beat faster and her breath quicken. She loops her arm around his neck and pulls him closer. The situation is serious and this is only intended as part of an escape ploy, but suddenly being in such an intimate position with this man is causing a surge of the feelings Miranda has been trying hard to repress for the past few weeks. And it may well be her only chance to experience kissing Max Winter. His fingers are stroking through her hair and his beard is soft against her cheek. Her hand slips inside the neck of his shirt and she catches her breath as she feels his warm skin beneath her fingertips.
Max seems to be having difficulty controlling his breathing too. “Anna!” he murmurs, as their lips part for a moment, and there is a look in his eyes which makes her blood heat up. The need to distract the guard is almost forgotten in their sudden preoccupation with each other.
Max pushes Miranda gently down until she is lying on the potato sacks. He continues to run his fingers through her hair and caresses the sensitive nape of her neck. She pulls him closer, kissing his sun-browned throat and feeling his pulse racing beneath her lips.
Krause finally notices what they are doing. “Hey!” he says, putting down his plate. “Stop that!”
Max and Miranda ignore him. With time against them, Miranda feels a sudden desperation creeping into their kisses. She can taste blood from Max’s split lip, but she doesn’t care. She merely yearns to get even closer to him and, from the way he is holding her tightly against him, he feels the same.
“Hey! I said stop! Get off her!” Krause protests, staring at them in consternation. He really is very young. He scrambles to his feet, waving his rifle in one hand as he lunges towards them. “What are you doing?”
“What do you think we’re doing?” Miranda asks, smiling into Max’s mouth.
Still waving his rifle at them rather than aiming it, Krause reaches out his free hand to grab hold of the back of Max’s shirt and pull him away from Miranda. Before his hand can make contact, Max kicks out viciously at his leg and sends him staggering, off-balance. In an instant, Max is on his feet and launching himself at Krause before the young soldier can recover. The rifle clatters away across the stone floor as Max pins Krause to the floor, using his full weight to keep the German down.
Miranda leaps up and runs for the cellar steps as Max bangs Krause’s head against the floor, stunning him. She knows that the older guard has probably heard the shouts from the cellar and she wants to take him by surprise if she can. At any moment he may come charging back into the house to help his comrade. Skidding into the kitchen, she looks around and sees Max’s police belt still hanging from its hook beneath his uniform jacket. She sends up a quick prayer that the Nazis, by some miracle, did not bother to remove the pistol from its holster after she and Max were marched down to the cellar.
Her hands close around the cold metal butt of the gun and she breathes a relieved sigh. She presses herself against the wall behind the kitchen door, where she cannot be seen through the window. Within seconds she hears boots running across the farmyard and the door is thrown open. The thin-faced guard hurries into the kitchen, heading towards the passage and the cellar steps. He is only halfway across the room when Miranda steps out behind him and fires a single shot into his back.
For a desperate shot at a moving target, with no time to take careful aim, it is superbly accurate. The soldier cries out as he pitches forward, knocking over one of the kitchen chairs as he falls. He sprawls face-down on the floor, blood flowing freely from the gaping wound, his arms and legs moving jerkily. Out of nowhere, Miranda has a sudden vivid memory of the straw dummies she had practised shooting at the SOE training base.
She is still standing over the twitching man when Max bursts into the kitchen, Krause’s automatic rifle in his hand. He takes in the scene with one quick look, but his only comment is “Schieße!” Then he says, “The guard downstairs won’t raise the alarm. He’s out for the count, and I’ve tied him up well.”
“This one won’t raise the alarm either,” Miranda says, her voice sounding odd to her own ears. She looks again at the dying man on the floor and wonders how she should feel about having shot him, but when she remembers how Christian and the others were gunned down she cannot regret her actions.
There is a moment, as she and Max stare at each other across the soldier’s twitching body, when she is sure they are both remembering vividly the searing kisses and the rush of feelings they have just shared. He clears his throat and says, “So, we have a few hours, probably, before Schneider or his men come back to get us. Anna – there’s something I need to do before we get the hell out of this district. And there’s something I need you to do, too, if you can.”
“Of course, anything. What is it?”
“Go to the barn where we kept our equipment – where we took you the night you arrived. Can you find it?”
“Here’s a key for the padlock. Stay off the roads and stick to the footpaths as much as you can. I wouldn’t send you there in broad daylight unless I had to. Behind the loose board, where we kept the torches and stuff, there’s a box with radio parts and ammunition. We won’t use them, so we’d better pass them on to the Unterbach cell. From the barn, you can go uphill through the woods to meet the Unterbach road.”
“I can find it,” Miranda says. The village of Unterbach, higher up towards the hills than Palburg, had been on the maps she had studied during her SOE training. Max has never previously mentioned to her anything he knows about another Resistance cell in Unterbach, but then she has never told him any details about Palmer or her real life in England. With the possibility of betrayal everywhere, they all operate on a need-to-know basis.
“When you get to the beginning of the village, there’s a house on the left with a green-painted balcony. It’s the priest’s house. At the back of the house is an old stable with a well in front of it. One of the flat stones on the top of the well lifts up. Put the box in the space underneath. You don’t need to meet anyone there – it’s better if you don’t. Just leave the box, and they’ll find it.”
Miranda nods. “Where are you going?”
There is a strange, evasive expression on Max’s face. “I can’t tell you. I just need to do a few things – if I can. And I have an idea to help us get away. Meet me at the ruined chapel at sunset – if we both make it there – and we’ll decide what to do next.”
Max looks at his police pistol, still in Miranda’s hand. “You’d better keep that. There are some more bullets for it in that drawer.”
Miranda lays the pistol on the table and opens the drawer. Glancing down, her face flushes as she realises that several buttons on the front of her blouse are still open after her heated embrace with Max. She refastens them quickly and, looking at the box of bullets, decides that it would make sense to get her rucksack and add the box to its contents.
She has to step over the now unmoving body of the German soldier to get to the passageway and the foot of the stairs. Upstairs, she realises how much damage has been done during the soldiers’ unsuccessful but ruthless search of the house. There is hardly a piece of furniture which has not been overturned or broken. Vases, ornaments and mirrors have been smashed and piles of jumbled clothes lie in front of empty wardrobes. Drawers have been pulled out and their contents thrown on the floor. Miranda, looking at the devastation in Doro’s bedroom, is glad that Max’s mother has taken her most precious trinkets with her. In her own bedroom, the small rucksack is no longer on the chair where she left it. The searchers appear to have pulled out a few items of clothing from it, lost interest and tossed it on to the floor. The pages of the picture book Clara made are crumpled and torn. Miranda replaces her possessions in the rucksack and carries it downstairs. There is plenty of room in it to add the box of bullets.
Max passes her a small slip of paper. Low tide in Palburg, it reads. No fishing. He smiles slightly at the expression on Miranda’s face when she reads it. “Leave that in Unterbach with the box. They’ll get the message.”
Miranda nods. She looks between Max and the back door, hesitating. “We’d better go, then.”
“Yes. The sooner we get out of here, the better.” Max pulls on a jacket and picks up the automatic rifle he took from their guard. As they step out into the farmyard and Max closes the door to his childhood home behind them, Miranda wonders what Schneider’s men will think when they return to find one of their comrades dead, another trussed up in the cellar and their prisoners gone.
From the farmyard, they can see down the sloping field which leads towards the Palburg road, and it is then that they find out the reason for the gunshot they heard earlier. At some time during the soldiers’ ransacking of the farm, one of the Germans must have amused himself by putting a bullet in the head of the old brown horse. A motionless brown shape lies in the long grass and wildflowers where the horse used to graze. Max’s lips tighten at the sight, but he says nothing. Instead, he turns to Miranda and holds out his hand. “Good luck, Anna.”
Miranda hesitates for a second or two. She can still taste their kisses and part of her wants nothing more than to throw herself into his arms again. But this is not the time. She takes his hand and squeezes it briefly. “Good luck. I’ll see you at sunset.” I hope, she thinks, knowing that the odds are stacked against them. From this moment on, they are fugitives.
Max nods, turns and disappears around the corner of the farmhouse, heading in the direction of the farm fields and woods. Miranda leaves the farmyard through the main gate into the lane. The tyremarks of the German vehicles are printed plainly on the dry, dusty road surface. Rucksack on her back, pistol weighing down her pocket, she crosses the lane, climbs over a low wall and walks swiftly in the direction of the nearest trees which will give her cover.
It takes her twenty minutes to reach the barn she first saw on the night she arrived in Austria. Miranda has never seen it in daylight before. She has seen no one during her hurried journey through woods and footpaths, and heard no sounds apart from birds and animals and one distant vehicle engine. The old, overgrown building is deserted – the padlock hanging undisturbed from the stout wooden door. Miranda pulls out the key Max had given her and quickly lets herself into the barn. She breathes in the smell of the piled-up hay bales and tries not to be overwhelmed by the vivid memories of the lost friends she had met here. Here, Yvonne had brewed coffee and Rico had sorted the packages dropped with Miranda from the British plane. Here, she had met Max for the very first time, never imagining how important he would become to her.
Miranda pushes the memories away and shoves aside the hay bales which hide the loose planks in the barn’s wall. The box is there, just as Max had said. She does not open it, but pushes it into the top of her rucksack, replaces the planks and the hay bales and leaves the barn as she found it. Outside, the world is still quiet, except for the twittering of birds, but Miranda’s skin prickles with awareness. Nowhere is safe now. A sense of urgency drives her on as she returns to the shelter of the woods and climbs upwards through the trees in the direction of Unterbach.
When she comes within sight of the first rooftops of Unterbach, Miranda stops and waits behind a wall, hidden from the winding road which leads up towards the village. She hears the sound of hooves and a moment later a farmer comes into view, leading a horse which pulls a cart laden with hay. He passes her without any idea that he is being watched from behind the wall. There is no one else in sight as Miranda hurries through the fields beside the road, using walls and trees as cover. She passes grazing cattle which lift their heads and stare at her incuriously. The cowbells around their necks tinkle as they move.
The priest’s house looks very old, the thick wooden walls discoloured by age. Like all the buildings in this area, it has a steeply-pitched roof on which rocks are roped to hold the snows which lie heavy here in the winters. A green-painted balcony, the paint old and blistered, runs across the front of the building.
A scrawny tabby cat slinks across Miranda’s path as she skirts the side of the house and creeps towards the dilapidated stable building just visible at the rear of the property. The yard behind the house is paved with old stones and weeds flourish between them. The old stable is empty, the door hanging crookedly from broken hinges, and the stones of the ancient well in the centre of the yard are thick with moss. There is a circle of flat stones around the top of the well. The well-handle is rusty but there is a stout-looking rope hanging down into the well’s depths, so perhaps it is still in use.
Standing beside the well, Miranda looks uneasily up at the windows at the back of the priest’s house, which stare blankly back at her. She has no idea whether there is anyone in the house but all she can do is to try to complete her mission as quickly as possible. It takes a few tries before she finds the right stone which lifts to reveal an empty space beneath it. Miranda pulls the box from her rucksack, opens it and adds Max’s coded note to the small packages within it. She places the box in the secret hiding-place and sets the heavy stone firmly down on top of it.
Looking up at the windows of the house once more, Miranda cannot shake off a strong feeling that someone is watching her – someone who is waiting until she has gone before they will investigate what she has left under the stone.
She is about to turn and hurry away when she pauses and bends to pick up a pebble from the ground. She leans over the edge of the well, feeling the chill from the cold water below rising up to meet her face.
Miranda drops the little pebble into the well and counts the seconds before she hears a faint splash as it strikes the water. She knows it is silly, but she cannot resist the temptation to make a wish at the well. Please protect them all, she thinks. Max, and Doro, and the children. And please let this beautiful country be free again one day. And please, please let me come back.
Is it greedy to make three wishes, she wonders?
Leaving the well and any unknown watchers behind her, Miranda hurries from the yard and heads back the way she came. She will have to find somewhere to hide herself before she goes to the ruined chapel to meet Max at sunset. She wonders where he has gone with the rifle and what he is planning to do with it. She wonders if he will still be alive to meet her at sunset.
Just one chapter and the epilogue to go...will our heroes survive? And what IS Max doing while Miranda is in Unterbach???
Chapter 11: Endgame
One of the good guys does some bad things. But in a good cause.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Hurrying away from the farmhouse and heading for the track which leads across farm fields, Max wipes at the blood which is drying beneath his split lip. His half-closed eye is blurring his vision slightly and he is sore from the punch to his stomach and the hours of sitting cramped in the cellar but he keeps moving steadily forwards, almost breaking into a jog. His brain is a whirl of thoughts as he heads purposefully towards his destination.
His whole carefully-managed double life has crumbled into ruins during the last twenty-four hours. He cannot return to his career in the police force and nor is it safe for him to return to his childhood home. His time as the leader of a Resistance cell has ended with most of his friends dead and himself as a fugitive. His mother is God-knows-where between Palburg and Switzerland on a journey which is more likely than not to end with capture and arrest. There is no security any more, no certainty about the future – only the hope that escape may be possible. The other even more fragile hope – that one day his country will be free from occupation and that he may be able to build a future there – seems so remote that he hardly dares even to consider it.
Max has several tasks he wants to carry out before getting away from Palburg, and he is far from positive that he will be able to accomplish any of them. He is fairly sure that Anna will be efficient and successful at carrying out her task, but whether he will be able to reach their meeting point at the chapel later is less certain.
Even with all the worries and fears which weigh him down, Max cannot help feeling a rush of exhilaration when he remembers the feel of her arms around his neck, the softness of her lips against his and the look in her eyes as they held each other close. Yes, she had initiated their embrace as a means of distracting the guard, but Max cannot deny to himself that he has been wondering for days whether she shares his feelings and now - now he is sure that she does. His elation at knowing she cares about him is mingled with the pain of knowing that within hours she is due to return to England – to her own identity - and that their first embrace may very well be their last. He wonders what chance he has of persuading her to remain here and join him in his journey of escape. To do that, though, he would have to overcome the sense of duty to her mission which runs through her character like a silver thread.
Max is glad that Anna is not with him now. He has not told her about his plans for these last few hours he will spend in the district of his birth, perhaps for ever.
The rough track he is following runs along the side of a wall until it disappears into the copse. This is the place where Max has come to chop wood ever since he was a young boy helping his father. He heads through the trees, hardly noticing the birds singing loudly on all sides.
At the point where the woodland begins to peter out, there is a gate leading into another track which leads down to the Schmidts’ farmhouse. From where he is standing Max can only see the top of the roof of the house but there is an outbuilding quite close to him - an old wooden cowshed used for bringing the cows in for milking each morning and evening. The breeze carries the sound of clanking from the cowbells around the necks of the dairy herd who, since it is too early for the evening milking, are peacefully grazing in the next field. Behind the outbuilding there is the sound of human activity – a metallic clattering as someone moves milk churns or other equipment around.
Max stands still and silent for a few moments, considering the situation. The only people likely to be around the Schmidts’ farm at this hour are Herr and Frau Schmidt, Jens and perhaps Otto – the teenage boy with learning difficulties rejected by the Army of the Third Reich and paid a pittance for farm labour by the Schmidts. Frau Schmidt is much more likely to be working in or near the house, so whoever is out here must be one of the others. Max has come here hoping to catch Jens alone, but has he really had the good luck to find him so quickly, and with no one else around to witness their meeting?
A new sound comes to Max’s ears and lifts his spirits. The person moving equipment behind the cowshed has begun to sing cheerfully and tunelessly. Only one person Max knows has that particularly discordant singing voice – Jens. Max moves silently down the track and through an opening in the wall which takes him behind the cowshed. He reaches a place where he can just see out from behind the building without being seen himself. Only a few feet away from him, he can see the side of Jens’s fair head and sweat-stained shirt as the plump farmer’s son takes clean milk churns off a handcart and lines them up ready for use at one side of the cowshed. Fresh straw waits in the stalls where the cows will be brought in to be milked. Jens’s tuneless wail grows louder as he turns his back on Max to pull one of the last churns from the handcart.
Max sets down his rifle behind him and, in the next moment, acts so quickly that Jens is taken completely by surprise. He barely has time to register the sound of Max’s running feet before the taller man is upon him. The impact of Max’s full weight on his back leaves Jens flat on the ground, struggling to escape from his assailant. Max holds him down, twisting Jens’s arms behind his back and keeping them there in a merciless grip.
Jens twists his head sideways and quails as he sees the look on Max’s face. His pale blue eyes bulge with alarm. “Max! What – what the hell are you doing? Let go of me!”
“I’ve come to teach you a lesson, Jens,” Max hisses in his ear, “and it’s a shame I didn’t teach it to you years ago, before you turned into a traitorous little boot-licker for the Nazis.”
“I – I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Jens moans as Max jerks his arm back, causing pain to shoot through his shoulder. “Ow! Please – please stop that!”
“Oh, you don’t know what I’m talking about?” Max asks grimly. “I’m talking about you telling the Gestapo that they should search our house. Maybe you’ll remember if I do this…?” Another unmerciful jerk to Jens’s shoulder forces a scream from the plump man’s mouth.
“Argh! No! Did – did they search your house? If they did – can only have been with – good reason,” Jens pants, trying again unsuccessfully to heave Max’s weight off him. “You shouldn’t have been hiding anyone, Max – Anna told me – she confessed – that you were hiding children – she asked me not to tell – but I’m a good citizen of the Reich – I know – my duty!” His words end in another yelp of pain as Max bangs his head on the cobbled floor.
“And I know my duty as an Austrian!” Max hisses at him. “And it’s to deal with scum like you!” He drives his fist into the bridge of Jens’s nose and hears the satisfying crunch of bone breaking. Jens screams again and begins to sob.
“No! No – Max – please!”
Max ignores this pleading and lands more blows on the face and body of the man beneath him. “That’s for setting the Gestapo on me – and my mother! You didn’t give a fuck about what they might do to her, did you? And that’s for putting your greasy hands on Anna – you won’t ever get a chance to touch her again!” He pauses, panting, and Jens stares up at him in terror, his round face streaked with blood and tears, his nose a swollen mess.
“Please – p-please – don’t kill me!”
Max releases his hold on the other man and gets to his feet. He looks down at Jens in utter contempt. “I’m not going to kill you, though you hardly deserve to live. You’ll get what’s coming to you when the war’s over – when people go looking for collaborators and Nazi-lovers. I just hope I never have to set eyes on you again.”
He turns to leave and then, almost as an afterthought, turns back and aims a sharp kick into the crotch of Jens’s trousers. The plump man’s moans escalate into a shrill shriek as he curls himself into a defensive ball, blubbering and rocking in agony.
Max takes a last look at him – a look which contains no pity. Then he turns, picks up the rifle and begins to run, heading back through the woods and down the steep slopes in the direction of the town which lies beneath him. From this distance the clusters of houses and the winding green bends of the river present a picture of tranquillity, but Max knows that there is no peace to be found there, but only danger.
Twenty minutes later Max is concealed in a thicket at the side of the steep road which winds down from the Schloss to the town centre. He is hoping that Schneider and his guest, General Schwartz, have not yet left the Gestapo headquarters after enjoying their leisurely lunch together. If they have already begun their afternoon tour of the district, there will be no likelihood of Max succeeding in his next objective. He hopes that they have taken their time over the meal – perhaps enjoying a few drinks and a round of self-congratulation.
He waits for another half-hour, constantly checking his surroundings for any sign of anyone approaching him or searching the area. From his position on the hillside he can see some of the activity of the distant town below. A train pulls out of the station with a loud whistle. The smell of smoke from the engine drifts back on the breeze towards Max’s hiding place. Two cars rattle across the river bridge and disappear from sight behind the buildings. There are distant noises of voices, of engines and other everyday sounds of the place Max knows better than anywhere. He is hopeful that, if he is able to carry out the next part of his plan, his intimate knowledge of this countryside will help him to evade any pursuers.
At last he hears the sound he has been straining his ears to hear – the sound of powerful engines descending the steep, winding road from the Schloss. Max creeps forwards through the trees until he reaches a position where he is right next to a bend in the roadside, but still concealed by the undergrowth. The rifle feels warm and sweaty in his hand. Once more, he checks that it is loaded and that the trigger is ready.
Two military motorcycles come into view, leading a shining black Mercedes. On this warm summer’s day, the roof of the car is rolled down. All three vehicles slow to take a sharp corner, and Max catches his first glimpse of the back-seat passengers in the Mercedes. Schneider, still wearing his leather coat despite the hot weather, is talking and gesticulating to the heavily-built, balding man in the General’s uniform who sits beside him. Max leans forwards in his hiding place, trying to get a good sight on the car despite being hampered by his swollen eye. His finger rests on the rifle’s trigger.
The motorcade rolls down the road towards him and, as he expects, slows again to navigate the bend where Max lies hidden. He knows that he will only get one chance. He lets the two motorcycles roar past him, takes aim at the car and squeezes the trigger.
The sharp crack of the shot is followed by a cry, a startled shout and the squeal of brakes, but the big Mercedes continues to roll some way down the hill before the driver manages to bring it to a halt. Max drops the rifle and takes one quick look towards the car below him. Schneider seems to have slumped over to one side. The General is standing up in his seat, shouting and waving his arms. The driver is getting out of the car and running round to check on his passengers and, even further down the hill, Max can hear the sounds of the motorcycle escorts braking too.
I did it, Max thinks, I actually hit him.
He does not stay to see any more, but flees back into the thicket and keeps running as fast as he can, staying in the cover of trees and hedges and never looking back towards the sounds of confusion and panic behind him. Keeping moving may be the only way to stay alive. For a fleeting moment, as he runs, Max wonders what the Germans will think when they discover the rifle by the roadside and realise that it is one of their own.
After taking a fast, circuitous route through the fields, he reaches a little-used lane which is another route into the town. If he is very quick, and keeps only to the back alleys, he may be able to get to his next destination and complete his final task before all hell breaks loose and the streets of Palburg are thronged with German soldiers hunting for an assassin. After that, if he manages to avoid capture, he will need to find somewhere outside the town to hide until sunset. Somewhere he can stay undetected until he goes to the ruined chapel to meet Anna. Before that, though, there are several long hours through which he must survive.
Miranda lies concealed in the centre of a dense clump of trees, using her rucksack as a makeshift pillow. Since leaving Unterbach in the early afternoon, she has made her way gradually across country towards the meeting place – the ruined chapel halfway between the Resistance barn and Palburg. She has stopped to wait out the dragging hours in different places, and she has already eaten the bread and cheese she had, as an afterthought, stuffed into her rucksack during her last moments in the farmhouse. Twice, during her hike through the forests and down the hillsides, she has stopped to drink thirstily from the clear streams which bring water down from the mountains.
The shady trees have protected her from the heat of the summer afternoon, and now at last the temperature is dropping as the light begins to fade into twilight.
From her current hiding place she does not have a view down towards Palburg, but she can hear the distant sounds of vehicles and the occasional train passing below. It may be her imagination but there seems to be more noise than usual rising from the town this afternoon. Several times she has heard groups of revving vehicle engines racing along the nearest roads, going both to and from Palburg. She presumes they are German military vehicles. Are they all looking for us? she wonders. Or has something else happened to set the Germans swarming around the district like a hive of disturbed bees? Surely someone has reached the farmhouse by now and discovered one German guard dead in the kitchen, another guard beaten and bound in the cellar and two prisoners missing. Whatever the reason for all the activity, she feels safer staying hidden in the trees and does not even contemplate anything riskier, like finding a remote farmhouse and trying to steal more food.
Eventually Miranda judges that it is close enough to sunset for her to risk the final part of her journey to the ruined chapel. She stays in the cover of trees and walls where possible, and jogs the last few yards over the more exposed grassy hillside above Palburg where the grey stones of the chapel stand. She has a much better view of the countryside below now, and she keeps scanning her surroundings, constantly vigilant for any movements which might signal that she has unwanted company. The area around the chapel appears to be deserted, however, apart from a few cattle and some goats grazing several fields below her.
Shielding her eyes, Miranda looks to the west and sees the thin red line of the setting sun shrinking as it sets behind the distant mountains. Many of those mountains she can see to the west are in Switzerland, and she gazes at them longingly, wondering where Doro, Klaus and the children are now and whether the citizens in the safety of that neutral country realise how lucky they are not to be living under occupation. Despite her current worries and fears, the sheer beauty of the rolling hills and the towering rocky peaks around her does not fail, as always, to lift her spirits. It is the country where her mother was born – the country where her Welsh father met her Austrian mother – the country where she spent that brief happy period of childhood in Vienna, with those glorious holidays in the mountains. She is proud to be British, but she will always love Austria just as dearly.
Miranda finds a place to sit with her back against one of the ruined chapel walls, but she does not sit for long. She is too anxious, so she keeps pacing around, checking in all directions as the dazzling red line of sunset finally slips behind those western mountains and darkness begins to gather in earnest.
Just as the light finally becomes too dim for her to see further than a few hundred yards away, a faint sound makes her senses prickle with alertness. As it gets louder and closer, she identifies it as the chugging sound of a motorcycle engine – probably a fairly low-powered one. Her first instinct is to dive through a gap in the ruins and find a wall to conceal herself behind, rucksack at her feet and head down. She tries not to breathe too loudly and to calm her quickening heartbeat.
The noise of the motorcycle engine, as it draws very close to the chapel, is disturbingly loud in the quiet countryside. Then the sound cuts out completely and Miranda hears the quieter noise of footsteps swishing through the grass towards her. She remains silent and still behind the mossy stones of the tumbledown wall.
The sound of Max’s quiet call sends a rush of relief through Miranda, and she straightens up. “I’m here,” she says, in an equally low tone.
When she emerges from the chapel, there is just enough grey twilight remaining to see Max as a dark shadow coming towards her. He opens his arms to her and she walks straight into them, her cheek against his chest. “You made it,” she says, as his arms tighten around her.
When he speaks again, his voice is ragged and uneven, and she does not have to be able to see his face clearly to tell that he is buzzing with tension. “I killed Schneider. Well, I think I did. I hit him, anyway.”
Miranda takes a step back, startled. “You managed to shoot him? What - with the rifle?”
“Yes, I managed to ambush him in his car. I expect every German in the district is out looking for me now – well, looking for whoever shot him.”
“Max! I thought something else had happened – I could hear them driving all over the place. You need to get out of here quickly then.”
“I’m going to – as soon as we leave here.” He turns and points through the darkness to the place where he has left the motorcycle. “I broke into the back yard of Rico’s uncle, the undertaker. Rico’s motorcycle was still in the shed where he always kept it. I doubt anyone will miss it for a while. I took a few cans of fuel, too. If we run out of fuel, we can walk to Switzerland. I know enough ways through the mountains to get clear of this district, I hope. Christian and Rico and I – we used to climb and hike on these mountains. I know them a lot better than the Germans do. We’ve got a good chance.”
Miranda reaches out in the dim light and puts her hand on his wrist. “Max – I can’t come with you.”
“Anna, you must! I can’t leave you here by yourself, with the Germans out for blood!”
“I’ll be all right. They’re sending a plane for me tomorrow night. I only have to hide out for another day.”
“Anna – I know you think you owe it to them to go back to England, but – don’t you want to come with me? To find Mama and the others?”
“Of course I do, Max, but – I have to go back. It’s my duty. They’ve trained me, and I feel like I haven’t done enough for them here. There might be more I can do to help win the war if I go back -”
“Anna, you’ve already done your best –“
Miranda can’t explain why, but there is something about his words which make her temper rise. “How do you know I’ve done my best? You don’t know everything I’m capable of! You don’t – you don’t - you don’t even know my real name!” She stops, catching her breath and regretting her harshness almost as soon as the words are out of her mouth. She is about to say goodbye, perhaps forever, to this man she has come to care for, and here she is shouting at him.
There is a long pause. Miranda cannot see his face well enough in the semi-darkness to read his expression.
“I don’t know your real name, Anna,” he says, in a tone so sad and sincere that it brings startled tears to her eyes, “but I know that I love you, and that’s enough for me.”
“Max,” she says, feeling as guilty as if she has stabbed him, “I’m sorry, but I can’t go with you. I promise I’ll be careful. They’ll pick me up tomorrow – I’ll be all right, but I just need you to get away. If they find out it was you who shot Schneider – you need to go right now – please!”
He reaches for her, catching hold of her shoulder and pulling her into a fierce kiss, his hand cupping her face. From the faint taste of blood she suspects his cut lip has reopened again, but she doesn’t care. For a few moments she forgets the desperate situation around them and thinks only of him – trying to commit his touch, his taste, his smell to memory as he kisses her, murmuring words of love, stroking her dyed hair. Her arms go round his neck and she holds him close.
Miranda has no idea how long the embrace lasts before Max drags his lips reluctantly from hers. They cling together for another long moment before they slowly release each other.
“Auf wiedersehen, Anna,” he whispers, with a break in his voice.
It is too dark for her to see the yearning in the last look he gives her before he walks away towards the motorcycle. Moments later she hears the sound of the engine sputtering into life. The noise grows louder as he presses the throttle, before growing fainter again as the motorcycle moves off down the hillside, away from the direction of Palburg. Soon she cannot hear it at all.
Miranda lifts her fingers to her lips, where she can still taste Max’s kiss. But he is gone.
The following night, after a tense, hungry day spent hiding in the woods, Miranda waits at the edge of a field several miles from the town, obeying her final instructions from Palmer. This – the same field where she had been dropped by parachute on her arrival – is the only grassy area for several miles around which is long, level and treeless enough for a landing and take-off.
It is very dark, and Miranda can hear the trees rustling in the slight breeze and the owls softly hooting, just as they had done on the night when she arrived in Austria weeks ago. All her senses are alert for an ambush, remembering what had happened to the Resistance members in that other field only a few days ago. The Palburg district is still buzzing with German patrols searching for any sign of the audacious assassin who had shot dead Cornelius Schneider. The chances of enemies spotting a foreign plane in the skies are higher than ever. At the back of Miranda’s mind, she has a niggling worry that Palmer may have warned London that this is not a safe time to send a plane. If she has done so, Miranda knows that she will be waiting in vain tonight.
However, after what seems a long, long wait in the dark she does hear the sound she is hoping for – at first faintly, then increasing in volume. The steady drone of aircraft engines. Miranda runs out into the centre of the field and waves both the torches she had included in her scanty packing of essentials. She thinks back to the line of red lights the Resistance had used to signal to planes, and hopes that her two little lights will be sufficient.
The plane circles overhead once, checking out the location. Miranda feels a rush of relief as it comes in for a landing. She can feel the wind of the aircraft’s approach as it descends towards her. The wheels bounce on the rough grass a few times before the plane touches down and taxis across the field. Almost before it has stopped moving, a dark hatch opens in the aircraft’s belly and a metal ladder is lowered to the grass. A figure climbs down the ladder and looks around cautiously.
“Here! Anna Riegler!” she calls as she runs across the field towards him, her rucksack bouncing on her back.
“Anna Riegler? Good!” the crewman confirms. It seems very strange to hear an English voice after all this time.
The plane’s engines are still running. No British pilot wants to spend longer here than they can help. Who knows how many people have heard the plane in the dark, or when someone may arrive to investigate?
The crewman hauls Miranda and her bag up the ladder and on board the aircraft. Almost before the ladder is pulled up and the door is shut the plane is in motion again, taxiing to the far end of the field to turn as the pilot allows himself enough room for his take-off run. As on her previous flight, Miranda is still buckling herself into her seat harness when she feels the plane gathering speed across the grass. There are a few bumps before her stomach lurches as the plane hauls itself from the ground and climbs above the dark trees, gathering height rapidly and preparing for its journey over the mountains.
In the dim light inside the plane she can see the face of the crewman who hauled her on board. He wears RAF uniform, has a bushy blond moustache and seems ridiculously young. He reaches across to shake her hand, grinning at her.
“Good show,” he says. “Were you there long?”
“Nearly three months,” she says, knowing that she can’t tell him any other details about her mission. The English words feel odd on her tongue after all these weeks of speaking only German.
“Three months, eh? Expect you’ll be glad to get back to Blighty then. I’m Harker, by the way – Simon Harker. That’s old Townsend up there flying this kite, and Spud Simmons, our navigator. I say – I suppose your name’s not really Anna, is it?”
“No - it’s Miranda,” she says. The name sounds strange and almost unfamiliar now.
“You don’t even know my real name!” she had shouted at Max yesterday.
Anna Riegler is dead. The real Anna died in Vienna, months ago, and now the false Anna has died too, her identity discarded. She wonders what the townspeople of Palburg will think when they hear that she, Max, Doro and Klaus have all disappeared. What will happen to the empty farmhouse? Who will help themselves to the chickens? For how long will the Nazis continue to ransack the district in search of them? Will Max manage to cross the mountains and the Swiss border without being captured? What has happened to Doro, Klaus and the children?
“Nice to meet you, Miranda,” Harker says. “With any luck we’ll have a smooth ride home tonight – we’ve just got to pick up a chap in France on the way. I expect you’re looking forward to getting a proper cup of tea at debriefing, aren’t you?” He continues to chatter brightly, despite getting little response from Miranda. “I say – you look all in. No tea up here, but I’ve got a bit of chocolate in my pocket – want some?”
The plane climbs higher and higher and banks steeply to the left as the pilot begins steering a course towards Western France.
Miranda, as she accepts a square of chocolate from Harker, does not know whether she is heading for home, or leaving it behind.
Just the epilogue to go...
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!”
To anyone who has stuck with this to the end, thank you so much for reading! I can’t believe it has taken so long to write – eight months! – but, you know – pandemics and stuff happened. I hope you enjoyed the ending.
Anyone who has seen the film of Charlotte Gray will know that some of the scenes in this story are taken very faithfully from the film, but there are lots of other things I have changed completely, like the fate of the children. (To be true to the film, I should have killed off Doro and the children, but after feeling so guilty about killing Heinrich and Maria I couldn’t do it!) When I introduced all the minor Mallorca Files characters, I tried to keep them in character, but I don’t think Miranda and Max ended up being very like their TMF characters – but they ended up being how they needed to be to fit this particular story.
I didn’t tie up all the loose ends in this story, but if anyone would like to know my personal head-canons about what happened next, here’s what I decided:
- Clara and Jürgen’s parents did not survive the concentration camps but Clara and Jürgen remained with the Winters. They eventually traced a few surviving relatives.
- Heinrich’s friend, the Jewish violinist Kurt Sommer who was sent to a concentration camp early in the war, did survive because he was picked out for his musical talents and made to play to entertain the Nazis (this really happened to quite a few musicians in the camps). After the war he found out that Heinrich had been killed, but Kurt’s Jewish family had got safely to Switzerland and he was reunited with them. Miranda bought and renovated Heinrich’s bookshop.
- Christian’s father, Klaus, proposed marriage to Doro after their adventures getting to Switzerland and living there for the rest of the war. Doro turned him down as she did not want to remarry, but he accepted an invitation to live with the Winters as he did not want to return to the butcher’s shop. By that time Clara and Jürgen were both treating him as an honorary grandfather.
- Miranda’s father was not thrilled by her decision to stay in Austria with Max, because he would not see her very often, but he still retained a love of Austria from his years living in Vienna, so he was persuaded to travel there every summer to spend time with his daughter and her family.
- Jens and the other members of the Schmidt family were forced to leave Palburg at the end of the war after their farm was attacked by locals looking for vengeance against Nazi collaborators. Later, Max took over the Schmidts’ farm and amalgamated it with his, since he had decided to take up a peaceful farming life rather than trying to re-enter the police force. When Jürgen grew up he became very enthusiastic about farming.
So, there you go. I am trying to decide what to write next, in between working in a school “keyworker children bubble”. I have a few bits of stories I may go back to – some are The Mallorca Files ideas and some are in other fandoms. I am sure, with the second series of TMF starting in a few weeks, I may get inspired by other ideas for Miranda and Max.
Finally, if anyone still hasn’t seen the film of Charlotte Gray and wants to do some visualising of that end scene, please watch this! <3 <3 <3 Who wouldn’t return just for Billy Crudup’s cheekbones alone??? *happy sigh*