[Somewhere on the East Coast of England... 23:45 BST... Saturday, 13th July... 1940]
The flames rose stark and liquid and filthy into the night.
The heat and the eye-watering fumes, and the suddenness of it, of cold salt air and silence turned to a raging pandemonium, stripped Werner of his senses along with his breath. For a moment he could have been anywhere - half expected to see through his tears the parade, and find himself twelve years old again, flinching and crying and hiding in his father's greatcoat; half expected the pain of his father's clips at his ear, the man berating and scolding and shoving him towards that which he ought to be emulating. To fire and hate and glory.
For all Werner had seen many such parades, every year since, that first time stayed etched in nightmare, so much so that now, nineteen and a man, confronted with an inferno, he looked around him expecting flags. For what were pain and fury and fire in the night, if not a National Socialist celebration of something?
Suffocated, deafened, petrified - all this that boy had been, stumbling against his father, and all this he was now, scrambling to find purchase on the sloping ground beneath his feet, only to have it shift and fall away.
Stones. Pebbles. Shingle. That was where he really was, the beach. A beach. Some beach, somewhere. But how could that be so? There were people screaming and shouting nearby - he moved away from them, from the heat and stench and the horrible crackling; people were terrifying too, especially with fire in the night, yelling crowds in a seething sea, hysterical with delight in destruction.
The sea, wide and dark; only minutes earlier it had seemed endless, and as though he had spent his whole life believing that he would never finish crossing it. A few hundred miles on the charts, a distance of nothing in the modern world, but how long the crossing had taken, Werner’s every nerve straining as if by will he could get them all further away. They'd dosed the baby with morphia to keep her from crying, or so they'd promised him, but the constant fear of a sound's betrayal had sat on his shoulders far longer than it could possibly have taken to clear the guards on the harbour at Rotterdam.
All those years ago, at the first Parade of the Führer’s Birthday, Werner had cried with some of the last foolishness of his youth. Cried and seen his father's displeasure; his disgust for a son who was not becoming the right sort of man at all. Werner’s father wore the black shirt and death’s head insignia of the Schutzstaffel, proud in iron and steel, but Werner had turned away from the flames and covered his ears during the fireworks and did not want to get an inch closer to the massed ranks of men marching past. He'd seen a man's world and been afraid, or so his father had said, spitting out the words, depositing him back with his mother, who frowned and sighed and dosed him hopefully with a fortified tonic.
Werner knew he was afraid now, knew somehow that all fear that had gone before, even with his father, even in France, was not this fear, this sudden presentiment of the very gates of hell yawning before him. Hades, perhaps, after the crossing, yes, the crossing of the River Styx, only then at least you got a ferryman, and something a little grander than a flat-bottomed, mass-produced barge, poorly suited to a sea voyage, surging and bucking sickeningly in the slightest swell, the compass and the poorly-sketched chart no help as the night enveloped you and the water threatened to do the same. The old man who'd sworn he could navigate for them had been taciturn throughout, either sure they were on course or perhaps only sure that saying otherwise would not save them. Where was that man, now? Where was the woman with the sleeping baby? Had Werner brought them all to Tartarus, in the end? All the betrayals - of his post, of his unit, of his country, of his Führer, of his father - and now the devil had him and would emerge soon between the flames and the smoke and the steam rolling off the water.
With his thoughts in every direction, still he tried instinctively to get away, to place one foot after the other. The fumes which blurred his vision swam into his mind as well, intensifying the hallucinations. He began to truly believe he was in Berlin, then at the next moment at camp - at the Hitler Youth camp the summer they’d had the bonfires, the night all the boys had been made to strip naked and dance round the flames, and to wrestle till most were bloodied, growing stronger and crueller and forging the iron inside them. Or perhaps it was France, still France, houses burning and the screams of children, girls, women, horses... The pain from his skin, in all this, scarcely registered as a separate sensation. He knew, though, that he was hurt, that he might soon be overwhelmed, and that alone seemed to offer relief. That finally, finally it had been too much to bear, and could be over.
The fire still crackled like the laughter of demons, though fainter now, had he been in any condition to assess it. In the act of trying to take another step away, Werner fell, and at last saw nothing.
- - -
[Iken Village... 18.10 BST...Saturday, 13th July...1940]
Hugh Wakefield lay on his back in the graveyard, eyes closed against the radiant glow of the July sun.
He was completely alone.
St Botolph’s Church at Iken had lost both congregation and caretaker some weeks earlier, at the issuing of the compulsory evacuation order for the coastal village. Since then, the grass which now surrounded him had grown long and matted, and was full of the chitinous hum of insects. Most of the cut flowers placed on the graves had become brown and parched, and were now as brittle as their intended recipients.
But the grave on which Hugh was lying – carefully, not sprawled, his head at the headstone, his legs together - was tidy. A fresh bunch of wild dog roses and sprigs of lilac sat in a jar of clean water nearby, and Hugh had just finished stripping from the stone another incursion of the thick, grey, papery lichen which encrusted so much of the surroundings. The inscription thus kept clear was a simple one:
HUGH PETER WAKEFIELD
1898 - 1917
HE DIED IN THE SERVICE OF KING AND COUNTRY
Hugh tore up some of the larger wild grasses near his hand, and idly stripped the grains from the heads. As graves went, his wasn't bad, he supposed. Near the edge of the plot, almost at the river wall, with a nice view of the Alde as it curved away towards the coast. Well, if you could stand up and look at it, at any rate, which the grave occupant couldn’t – the thought counted, though.
It was a rare privilege, to assess one's own grave, and to see the death notices and read over the order of service of your funeral, able to find fault with the selected readings. It had certainly made for an unusual sort of homecoming, all those years ago, when he had returned to his family, very much alive, after finally being demobbed in the weeks following the November Armistice.
No doubting that his parents had been glad he’d survived, but they'd found themselves in an acutely embarrassing situation all the same. Some of the parish had been unequivocally and loudly appalled at the impropriety of the whole thing. Who was buried in the churchyard, if not Hugh? A German? A Catholic? But what could they do? Disinterring the Wrong Hugh - with no idea at all where else to send him - was a distasteful option. And there was no prospect of gaining any more information; the hospital from which the sorry remains had been received – a hospital where, it transpired, Hugh had indeed been sent in 1917 after a gassing, an episode he’d never wanted to inform his family of – had suffered a serious fire soon after, and had lost most of its records. All that could now be certain was that in 1917 the hospital had sent forth a death certificate and a disfigured, much injured body labelled 'Hugh Wakefield' to Iken parish, and now that body lay six feet under the Suffolk clay, whilst Hugh himself lay above him, feeling, as always, a strange sense of companionship.
It was an anecdote, at least, that had got Hugh a few drinks bought for him, and more besides, sometimes, in the twenty-two years since.
He had often wondered if perhaps he had known Wrong Hugh. They might, after all, have shared a ward in that hospital, passed in a corridor, played at cards or even chatted. Wrong Hugh might have been the young man with so many bandages on his face as to make speech difficult, but who had been - it was clear whenever he changed his clothes - at one point sculpturally beautiful. That young man had been visited often by another, a chap whose club foot explained his freedom from khaki, but of whom the injured young man had clearly been fond. The two of them had talked in low voices, and sometimes held hands. Without facial evidence to the contrary, people had referred to them as brothers. Hugh had found it very hard to watch them, and very hard not to.
No, he didn’t want that young man to have been Wrong Hugh. But who, then? How old had Wrong Hugh been? Probably eighteen or twenty, probably less than twenty-five, like most of the soldiers. This made the next question what Wrong Hugh’s plans for his life had been, before the war came. And what Wrong Hugh might have gone on to do, if he’d been granted his life and Hugh been indeed the one to die.
If Wrong Hugh had survived, would he, now, feel that he understood quite what had made life so much worth clinging onto, all those years ago in battle?
The sound of an aeroplane overheard broke into the mire of Hugh's thoughts, and once more he squinted at the sky. It was a Spitfire, and there was no evidence that it had an opponent; Hugh lay back again. There'd been daylight raids now for a while, and people killed out shopping on the streets of Norwich and Ipswich. What military relevance could that have? His war had been a bloody, foul thing but at least they'd been soldiers killing soldiers, by and large.
All the while Hugh had been at the graveyard, the pigeons had been billing and cooing frantically in the trees overhanging it, competing with the cries of the seagulls and other birds on the river. Come peace or war, air raids or blackouts, invasions or evacuations, it didn't seem to affect them. Now, one piebald bird detached itself from the others, made a short flight and landed on the war memorial near the church door. Here it posed thoughtfully for a moment, head cocked to one side, and then flew away again, in the process depositing a long streak of white excrement on the stone beneath it. The mess had not, Hugh reckoned, sitting half up to see, hit his own name. No one had wanted to take that off either - a gap in the midst would look, many said, worrying somehow, disturb the pattern - and so there he was, ranked with the Glorious Dead, the toll taken from the village swelled by one Wrong Hugh.
Hugh might so easily have died, in the war. Several men of his platoon had, when the gas had hit them that day in Flanders. He himself had been left with burns to his skin and his lungs half-dissolved and coming up from his mouth in wet, clotting chunks, but he'd survived the transfer across the Channel, and then survived the first week of pain and infection - new drugs, his doctor had told him, wonderful things for keeping burns clean. He’d recovered, in fact, to the point of walking out of that ill-starred hospital, fit to return to administrative, if not active, duties. As a matter of course he’d been offered an honourable discharge but had petitioned his superiors for continuing employment and had been granted it with much admiration of his 'sense of duty'. This was unwarranted. He'd not done it for honour or patriotism, or any reason other than not knowing how he could possibly go home and live in the world again.
By that point he’d failed to write to his mother for nearly seven months, ever since an event he’d never been able to commit to paper. No wonder they’d all thought he was dead.
Then the peace had come. And he'd had no choice but to try and figure it out. Figure out how a twenty year old man, frail and limited with the ongoing troubles in his lungs, inclined to nightmares and furies and deep, bleak depressions, well versed and educated in nothing but war, could slip back into his life like a puzzle piece only temporarily forgotten behind a sofa.
“You could do anything you set your mind to, Hugh, anything at all,” Patrick had always told him. “My father was a doctor and he’ll see to it I’m a doctor too, but you could take your pick.”
Setting his mind to something – to anything – had been the problem. Following the war he’d been lost, and more to the point legally dead. Perhaps it had been an urge to pin himself down that had lead him to rapidly court and then marry the young woman at the War Office who’d assisted him in trying to achieve legal resurrection to the world of the living. And, had he not married her, he might not then have had to become rootless by choice, travelling alone, far from Britain, to make another legal process easier, as they sought to secure an annulment.
Hugh’s father had died in the early 1920s, leaving him independently wealthy. The travels had widened again. He saw Paris in the spring and Rome in the winter. He tried the air of the Swiss mountains and the sulphurous springs of Scandinavia for the benefit of his lungs. He saw antiques and novelties, and met a great many people he was never likely to see again. Mostly, he had been moving simply to move, to turn away from the fact that there was still nothing really to return to.
He was well able to provide for Madeleine too, which had been some sort of relief. She’d been about as agreeable about the whole messy business between them as anyone could be expected to be. At least they’d never had children; they’d hurt no one but each other.
No one else had sought to hold him. And avoiding all connections had for a long time seemed the only safe path to take.
But now there was another war, and Europe had closed its gates, and kicked him back into the bosom of his family, and the reminder that, for all his travels, he’d never managed to get away from himself.
He was almost as pinned down as Wrong Hugh, now.
It was getting too hot, lying stretched out under the sun. Hugh sat up and then got laboriously to his feet, brushing leaves and insects from his corduroys, and went to lean on the wall overlooking the river. The tide was low, and falling, exposing great slick tranches of dull brown mud, peppered with the white shapes of birds pecking for insects and crabs. As a child, he'd studied stranded jellyfish at the low tides, glistening blisters on the mud, too alien to be kind to as you investigated with a spade.
He tried to fill the scene with the invaders, to picture the jackboots trampling over the marshes. He recoiled, shivering, from the idea, yet with it came also something like weary relief. He'd never really been able to believe he'd escaped from war – that there’d been any reason he should have done, when others had not.
It was one reason he’d not given the idea of going to America or Australia – somewhere as yet untouched – more than brief thought. He wasn’t at all sure he had any right to escape anything.
"Hugh? Hugh! For goodness sakes it's past six already! What on earth are you doing?"
Hugh turned around, and spotted the car which had drawn up outside the churchyard wall. He let out a deep sigh.
There were times when the next boat over the Atlantic could have taken his money easily.
"Keep your hair on!" he shouted back, making his way without haste along the path.
"Must you be so coarse?"
"That was scarcely coarse, Jennifer, as you bloody well know."
"If you're going to be disgusting, you can walk home."
"Who said I wanted to do anything else?"
"Oh! But you're so late!" from the driver's seat, Jennifer pushed open the passenger side door and made a beckoning gesture. "Come on, do."
"You needn't..." he began to protest, but lost the sentence in a fit of coughing which wracked him, holding him still and trembling for a while.
"If you will go out in all this dust and pollen, I don't know what you expect." Jennifer sighed heavily. "You know you're supposed to be very careful of your chest. Now do get in, hurry!"
She was dressed in neat grey tweed jacket and matching skirt and hat, the latter adorned with some small red feathers, accenting her blonde hair. The ensemble was hot-looking for the summer, but she seemed not to have lost a drop of sweat and her skin remained pale.
"Jennifer, my darling sister," Hugh said, an edge of menace in his tone. "Either drive me in complete silence or I shall turn around and spend my evening swimming in the river. And emerge home in time for coffee and cigars, dripping wet and quite possibly nude."
The retort was rising on her tongue, he could see, but she pinched it back and only sneered instead. She was nothing if not a fine strategist. Hugh climbed into the car, and they proceeded along the winding roads in perfect quiet, for the short distance to the place that he was once more, perforce, calling his home.
Jennifer was nearly twenty years his junior, born of the latter years of their parents' marriage, a consolation to them when they'd believed Hugh dead and buried. She'd been not quite one year old when he'd first returned from France, and at that time he'd taken some delight in helping with her, in the uncomplicated joys and sorrows of an infant. But as she grew, and he spent more time away, the gap between them had widened; it embarrassed her, he knew, to have a brother so much older than she was, not to mention a sickly one, and besides, no one ever wanted to talk or think about his war. It was unpleasant and unfashionable.
The friends she'd assembled around herself from school and their general social circle had been the final straw. A more vapid collection of individuals, Hugh could scarcely imagine. When he and his friends had been their age - he couldn’t help but think - they had been collecting each other’s death notices.
But then, this generation's chance for that would come, and soon. And he could scarcely claim never to have been blind to reality.
The car gained the gravel drive of Iken Court, a large, stately manor, parts of which dated back over four centuries. Hugh’s grandfather had bought it in 1878, riding high on shares inflated by the second Anglo-Afghan conflict, when the fortunes of war had been all Britain’s to reap.
Jennifer stopped the engine, engaged the handbrake and with this apparently felt no longer bound to the terms of silence. She spoke carefully, as one pushed to the very extremes of patience.
"Now Hugh, Mark Fletcher is coming tonight and..."
"Mark?" Hugh groaned. "I thought he'd got business in London?"
"No, I managed to persuade him to put it off and join us instead. It is Kathy and Charles' last night, after all, before they go off to Canada. And for goodness’ sake, it seems you got on with his brother well enough. So would it be so very hard to be more polite than last time?”
"Not state my mind, you mean? Not tell a man to his face when he's being a bigoted little idiot?"
"Mark is a modern thinker! He's very well respected in the city and if he knows more about the European situation than you do, you should listen to him."
"You mean like his opinion that if the Nazis 'rid the Balkans of Jews and Bolshevists' then that'll be 'some good at least from Hitler'? Patrick would have disowned the weasel, brother or no brother."
Two high points of colour had formed on Jennifer's cheeks. "Mark Fletcher is..."
“Mark Fletcher is handsome, and you want him to be likeable to go with it, is what you mean, Jennifer. Well, if your young men are scared away by me simply attempting a political argument with them, it doesn’t speak highly for their potential as protector and defender, does it?”
"It's bad enough your being... divorced," Jennifer observed, apparently determined to ignore his previous statement, hissing the last word as though speaking it too loud might summon a demon incarnate. "Without all the rest of it. Why can't you just be... be like other people?"
"Other people?" Hugh snorted. "You, Jennifer, at the great age of twenty-two, propose to tell me what 'other people' are like? Well, let me tell you, people aren't polite, aren't rose-tinted and genteel and careful to tip-toe. Other people aren't clean and acceptable and neat. People are angry, fearful, lustful, bloody, hateful things, struggling to deceive themselves otherwise and periodically, as we see now, failing desperately."
For a moment she blinked at him, eyes wide, frozen with alarm, and he felt a pang of conscience. She was only young, after all. Young and probably quite afraid; they'd all seen the invasion warning posters, heard the increasingly apprehensive wireless news, seen the beaches of childhood summer days wreathed in barbed wire and riddled with mines, ready for the enemy's arrival. She could have been one of the women out shopping in town, when the bombers had last come.
And Mark Fletcher was, as his brother had been, quite uncommonly attractive.
"Listen, Jennifer," Hugh began.
But Dennis Cherwell, one of Jennifer's more devoted friends, had come through from the back garden and was jogging across the gravel to the car, shouting a hearty greeting. He opened the door for Hugh with self-conscious solicitousness, and smiled at Jennifer in what he probably felt to be an ingratiating manner.
"I can manage perfectly well, if you don't mind," Hugh said, icily, springing out as nimbly as he could. The eternal scratching at the back of his throat threatened to break into a cough and belie his words, but he stifled it with careful breathing.
"Oh, but it is so kind of you, Dennis," Jennifer gushed, shooting a narrow-eyed glance at Hugh before smiling brightly again. Dennis looked pitifully grateful. Hugh wondered if Dennis was too dense to have detected Jennifer’s interest in Mark, or simply too infatuated to let sense guide him.
"I'm sorry I had to leave the croquet," Jennifer continued. "It was kind of you to take up my mallet. Who won?"
"They're still playing," Dennis confessed, blushing. "I... I'd just had my go, so I thought I'd come and... you can still join in again if you like, I think I've kept you in a fairly decent position. Not that you wouldn't have done better, of course."
Rolling his eyes, Hugh left them to it, making his way to the front door and into the house, which was pleasantly cool within, the wide, flag-stoned hall dim after the bright sunshine. He mounted the stairs and climbed as rapidly as he could tolerate, becoming breathless but relieved to reach the relative security of the third floor, where his bedroom, flanked by attics and deserted servant quarters, made a reasonable sort of ersatz dug-out.
He’d not expected to have to face Mark again so soon. To have to endure once more being near a man so like and yet so completely unlike Patrick had been.
- - -
(iii) In Love
“Well, you’re the champion letter-writer, Hugh – give me a suggestion at least! At school you’d write simply reams of the things until they had to give you extra paper. How did you fill ‘em up then?”
Hugh twisted in his chair, looking up from the writing desk to where his Second Lieutenant, Patrick Fletcher, sat in the hotel room’s luxurious armchair, his writing pad balanced on the biscuit tin and his pen twirling in his fingers.
“I used to say all the things I’d been doing,” Hugh told him, smiling. “I really do mean every last thing - every meal, every mark, all the thoughts I’d had as I walked to and from prayers, all the books I’d read or meant to read...” He laughed. “Must have been excruciatingly dull reading for them, but they persevered and wrote back too. That approach used to fill paper alright, though I never meant to, but now...”
Patrick sighed heavily, leaning back. “But now...” he agreed.
“They just want to hear you’re alive, that’s the main thing,” Hugh told him, hugging the back of the chair over which he leaned. It was antique, smoothly and beautifully carved of mahogany, and delicious to him after months in a world where all wood splintered. “Write it brief, and just say you’ve got paperwork to do or medals to give out, or that you’re just too busy eating the biscuits they sent us. Tell Mark we loved his decorative icing attempts. Yes, you can add thanks from me and fill space that way, if you like.”
Patrick raised his eyebrow. “Have you used that in yours?”
“Not yet.” Hugh held up a piece of paper, entirely blank but for the date on the top right hand corner. “In her last letter, Mother wrote a lot about my cousin’s baby, and I’m trying to concoct some reaction that doesn’t show how little I give a damn.”
Patrick laughed. “We make a pretty pair! Listen, I refuse to give up one more moment of my weekend leave to worrying about writing letters to people who get the luxury of sleeping in real beds every night of the month! We’ve got food and wine, and mattresses, and a bath-tub, and Sergeant Maitland isn’t going to pop up and require our assistance reinforcing anything, and above all I’ve got my boots off. I want to think about that!”
Hugh grinned, and went over to the elegant side-table to get the wine they’d purchased in the town on the way to the hotel. The room had its own supply of hand-cut glassware, and he poured generously, carrying the drinks to the overstuffed sofa. He held one out in the direction of the armchair, and once Patrick had finished depositing writing pad and biscuit tin behind a cushion, he took it gratefully.
“To not having boots on,” Hugh said, standing, mock-serious.
“Not having boots on,” Patrick echoed, and stood in his turn. Then his face cracked into a grin. “You know, Hugh, it’s damn lucky for me that you’re here. No one at home is ever going to understand all this, are they? Afterwards, I mean, after the war. But you’ve been here, and not just in the war but with me, at my side, all the way. You’ll always understand me.”
And Patrick closed the few feet between them, and threw one arm round Hugh’s shoulders in a casual but firm hug.
Hugh felt the closeness like the sudden bliss that getting into the hot bath had been an hour earlier. They had known each other since being thrown into the same class at school, aged twelve, and he was by now used to feeling this way around Patrick. At this moment, though, he realised that he had never before experienced it with such freedom of space and time. Here, in a hotel room which seemed suspiciously well-appointed for liaisons, in a backwater town on the edge of a continent-wide field of mud where nothing looked like anything anymore, they might themselves be anything. Do anything.
And it was in that same moment that he realised he feared Patrick’s reaction more than society’s. Held himself back as much behind closed doors as he might have done in full view. They had spent a rare, peaceful, lovely day together, and it was shaping to be a soothing and pleasant weekend, and he was too afraid to gamble that on uncertain wishes.
Patrick was handsome and charming, and easily-liked. Easily loved. And Hugh did not feel he could say the same of himself.
So Hugh did nothing more, then, than he had done a thousand times before; answered Patrick’s hug with a pat on the shoulder and a mumble that Patrick was soft old loon, and stayed back and did not look at Patrick’s mouth, nor let himself breathe more deeply and catch the scent of him, not cling to the heat of his body as he wanted to.
“How about some more of those biscuits?” Hugh suggested instead, promising himself that there was still plenty of time. That all would be well. That he would one day know what to do.
He had been young, then.
- - -
[Iken...18.35 BST...Saturday, 13th July...1940]
With his bedroom door closed behind him, Hugh fell into a fit of coughing, grabbing a handkerchief from his dresser in time to bury his face in it. Lying about in long grass had probably not been the best thing to do, but who was to know if he’d ever get another chance at an afternoon like that. In times of war, worlds ended suddenly.
Breathing heavily, feeling the flushed heat of exertion passing over his skin and leaving a cold sweat in its wake, he lay back on his bed and looked around the room. It had been the bedroom of his childhood, and his childhood had been another world; coming back to this room always had the sense of entering a separate realm, one in which he was now an alien. There on the walls were pasted the pictures of aircraft which had seemed novel and exciting in 1910, and which now looked too flimsy for firewood. There was his framed world map, a prize from Sunday school, full of expired borders and long-dissolved empires. His bookshelves had brightly-bound tales of derring-do, in which boys were heroes and most enemies were foolish, desperately under-armed and easily routed with roundhouse punches and British Spirit.
And there, on the chest of drawers, the photographs. Himself, sepia, small, clutching a toy boat. Himself, in army uniform, a self-conscious pose from the week before he'd first been deployed. And then, from his schooldays, himself and Patrick, both smart and shining in their Officer Training Corps outfits, arm in arm, fairly glowing with glee. That had been 1913. The Hugh in that photograph might as well have been Wrong Hugh, for all the recognition Hugh felt for him.
It might have all been different if Patrick had lived... But Patrick had been killed, in the winter of 1916. Had been caught in their dugout when a shell made a direct hit on a box of grenades. Hugh had been on an expedition back to the support trenches at the time, in literal pursuit of promised supplies. It had been a reasonable sort of December day, a misty morning, and then there had been the sound and then the smoke, and then the screaming. It was a combination Hugh had already been quite used to, nothing at first to make him flinch unduly. After bad days like that, Patrick had used to make them both a sweetened tea with brandy in, but Patrick had been gone.
Although the bedroom was Hugh’s only private space at Iken Court, he tried not to spend too much time in it. Now he kept his eyes closed as his breathing levelled, stumbled to his washstand to splash his face, and made his way out again.
In the months since he’d mostly recently been back in Britain, Hugh had been torn between feeling he must find a place of his own, and considering that the most foolish and selfish of ideas. Hitler’s army were poised at the sea’s edge ready to come over and race through Britain as surely as they had overcome every other country they’d set foot in. Now was not the time to invest in property. And if he was in the country, he might as well be with his mother. A strange collection they’d make – him and her and Jennifer, fighting for their lives, but it might yet come to that.
It was so very odd to think that way, to walk downstairs and discover that, in his absence, tea had already been served on the lawn, and think again that the house might go on for another four hundred years undisturbed, or might be an ammunition dump or boarding house, or flattened to the ground, in weeks.
Hugh made his way to the kitchen and located a piece of fruitcake and a slice of cheese, and refreshed the tea pot where it still sat on tray. The kitchen was generally the domain of their Cook, Mrs Matthews, and a rotating array of downtrodden maidservants, but both women had been allowed a few hours off to bid farewell to various relations evacuating inland. Some of the local farmers, caught in one of the recent waves of evacuation, had sold for cash the products of the last year's dairying they'd otherwise have eaten themselves, and the Iken Court larder was well stocked as a result. It was the recent rationing of tea which had hit Hugh hardest. He'd thought his days of scrupulously re-using over-brewed leaves were behind him. In a strange way, it offended him more than any sense of personal and immediate danger.
Food consumed, Hugh poured more weak tea, and carried it into the library, realising too late that his mother was already in the room, absorbed in P.G. Wodehouse.
"Hugh! Darling!" She set the book down. "Jenny found you, then?"
"I wasn't aware that I was lost," he muttered, and took the other armchair.
"I'm glad you came in," his mother continued, "because I've been meaning to speak with you." She took a deep breath and sat forwards a little. She was, at sixty-one, still a handsome woman, and perhaps having so young a daughter had kept her younger than she might otherwise have been. Certainly, she knew and cared about fashion and the fashionable quite as much as Jennifer did, and as Hugh did not.
"Now, Hugh, I've been thinking. Well, with the war on and everything, you know... What I mean to say is, these are the sort of times when silly, trifling things can be put aside and people recall what is really important."
Hugh waited, frowning.
"I'm sure that if you were to come with me and Jenny to London next week and just try calling on Madeleine, then..."
"As I have already told you, Mother," Hugh interrupted her, "Madeleine and I are not on the kind of terms where that is possible."
"But if she has a scrap of feminine feeling as a wife, she must want to be able to look after you and for you to look after her, that is to say..." She trailed off.
"That is say, as best as I can, given my health? Is that what you meant to say?" Hugh sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. "But the thing is, she's not my wife, and damn it if she's not far better off not being so, and I hope to God she's found a man who can do more for her than I can or could."
"Your language, Hugh!" His mother gave a pained frown. "Well if not Madeleine, perhaps someone else? A nice, straightforward, traditional sort of girl. Not confusing herself with careers and all of that nonsense. I don't like to think of you on your own, you know. Even this week, with Jenny and I called to your Great Aunt, I worry about leaving you here alone.”
“Mother, I’m quite capable of fending for myself for five days.”
“But it will happen again, Hugh, it must do. What if Aunt Florence needs me again? And Jenny might be invited to any number of places, or,” she cleared her throat delicately, “may have her own changes in life.”
“I've been alone often enough to get used to it, I assure you. Didn't I live in Berlin for nearly three years, on my own cooking to boot? Didn't I..?" He was running out of breath, and he made himself slow down and breathe deeply. He didn't want to argue, still less to shake through a coughing fit as she watched. "Listen, I promise you, Mother, if I ever meet a girl I want to marry, I won't hang about, I'll ask her there and then."
"Thank you, Hugh," and his mother smiled, clearly feeling she had scored a victory. She picked up her book again. Not wanting to exert himself at once by leaving the room or even his chair, he reached for the nearest thing to hand, which turned out to be a bound volume of the Punch magazine from the 1890s; it occupied him well enough till the dinner gong.
As the house party and their evening guests settled down to dinner, Hugh felt again the strange atmosphere he’d sensed all day, as if each scene were layered twice, once looking normal, once full of fear of what might be. The mood was a not altogether comfortable mixture of reverential solemnity for the situation they found themselves in and a certain fixed gaiety and determination to ignore the situation altogether.
In addition to those of Jennifer's friends staying at the house, the Wakefields were joined for that evening’s dinner by the vicar and his wife and some other married couples from the nearby area, and also Captain Banks of the newly-formed LDV, a Miss Perry and, as threatened, Mark Fletcher. Hugh had at least been placed at table well away from the latter, and was pleased to find himself opposite Captain Banks, with whom, as a former soldier and much Hugh’s own age, he felt confident of reasonable conversation. Captain Banks, who with his iron-grey hair and neat moustache still kept the fashions of their youth, was far from a bad-looking dinner companion either. Though Hugh had long trained himself not to let his natural feelings have much rein at home, to receive attention from the Captain was far from unpleasant.
At first, Hugh was still conscious of Mark’s presence, and having to stifle an urge to see with what expression he looked at him. Hugh had, in the past, visited Patrick’s home on several occasions. Mark had been very small, and keen to pursue them and be included in everything. There were a few times when Hugh had not been quite sure when the boy had first entered a room, and what he might have seen. Hugh and Patrick had never really done anything, but that was different from doing nothing. There had been a game they had – the product of a master at school with an enthusiasm for phrenology – where they attempted to improve each other’s mental powers by gently massaging those parts of the brain responsible for creativity and construction. Such areas, so their copied diagrams said, were located on the temples and slightly behind the ear. They would not have persisted, had it not been so pleasant, and the fact that they only undertook it in private spoke, Hugh saw now, of more understanding than they’d known themselves to have.
Captain Banks’ genial company, however, proved enough to call his attention away from everything else, and the meal passed with relative ease. The rest of the table, when Hugh heard them, were talking about rationing, then foreign food. Someone told an involved story about Rio de Janeiro. Mark Fletcher and Jennifer had a separate conversation mostly to themselves, and Dennis looked as pained as anyone could whilst eating blancmange. Then the ladies rose to depart, following Mrs Wakefield out to the drawing room, and Mark turned his attention to the rest of the table whilst Hugh turned his own to Captain Banks’ tales of sailing exploits on the river.
"We should never, of course, have given up the Channel Islands," was the loud opinion of Mark’s which Hugh finally could no longer ignore hearing. "Should have held them at all costs, down to the last man. Totally the wrong impression otherwise. I mean, make no mistake, Hitler can do as he pleases at this point, but we need to come to the bargaining table from a position of honour."
Hugh might have tried to pick up his own conversation about the best tidal conditions under which to navigate a small boat upriver from Orford to Iken, but Captain Banks' interest was clearly piqued and he had turned away to look at Mark.
"The islands are of no strategic importance to warrant the outlay you are suggesting," Banks said, firmly. "And what bargaining table do you imagine we'll be sitting at any time soon?"
Mark sneered. "You can’t believe all this nonsense is going to be allowed to carry on? We've no purpose fighting Hitler - for who? For what? And he doesn't seek a war with Britain - if he did he'd be marching through Whitehall now. No, Hitler needs the British as an ally, or at least a friend, in the struggle eastwards. He'll offer us some terms soon enough and anyone valuing the independence of this country, and our future safety from Marxism-Bolshevism, will pay attention. It's your generation, with your dogged, irrational hatred of Germany, which has fomented this ridiculous situation. Modern men look forwards. No one wants war."
"I dare say not." Hugh had grasped his napkin so tightly in his hand his fingers were going numb. "I dare say they didn't want war in Czechoslovakia, nor in Poland. Or France, or Belgium, or Holland. Or Norway, come to that. But, oh, of course, as long as we're safe, to hell with the rest of them, is that what you're saying?"
He'd half-risen from the table in his anger, and only realised it as he looked down and saw the faces of the other men looking up in alarm or away in acute embarrassment. Banks, though, smiled across at him, and gave a brief, approving nod.
"I've been meaning to ask you, Hugh," piped up a voice across the table, a little shaky but determined. It was Dennis. "To ask you what house you were in at Upchester. I was there myself, you know."
It was as clumsy a way to change the subject as might be imagined, and Hugh would have ignored him entirely, but Mark seized on the moment.
“Upchester, eh, Cherwell?" he said, turning to Dennis with a carnivorous grin. "I should have guessed - you have that look about you." He laughed loudly, smacking his hand against his thigh, readying the table for his wit. "The look, that is to say, of one who's been taken aback unawares one time too many! Or should that be, taken behind!"
The Vicar hissed air in quickly through his teeth, and looked away. Most of the others just laughed, but Dennis went a deep and painful red, and dropped his head.
"Find yourself in a corner and attack someone else, eh Mark?" Hugh curled his lip in disgust. "You and Hitler make excellent comrades indeed."
Captain Banks smiled, and gave him a pat on the arm.
"I'd watch yourself, Banks," Mark countered. "Remember, Hugh here was at Upchester too, and sometimes, you know, they get a taste for it. And then the people around them are the ones who suffer."
Hugh couldn’t breathe. Mark was staring at him, more than casual anger making a metallic glint in his eyes, teeth bared in a parody of a smile.
“Mark, if you...” Hugh began, not even sure what he intended to say, and never to find out, because the volume at which he'd spoken, the indrawn breath in preparation and the rush of movement were his downfall, and he began to cough, to cough in wretched wheezes and spasms that forced him to collapse back down to his chair and grab hold of the table edge for balance. The younger men looked on with mingled horror and disgust, and Captain Banks, Hugh thought wretchedly, with dreadful pity.
"That was the worst of the last war," Hugh heard someone observe to his neighbour, in what they clearly imagined to be a whisper. "All the best of that generation were taken in the first few years, and all that was left..."
The dining room door opened.
"We heard your cough, darling," said Mrs Wakefield, anxiously. "Hadn't you better go and lie down for a while?"
Through the rasp of his own struggle to breathe, Hugh heard Mark Fletcher laughing.
Hugh lay on his bed, feeling likely to choke again on his own anger and disappointment.
The maid, tearfully returned from her leave-taking, had brought him a mint and honey tisane on a tray, and he tried to drink it steadily and let it calm his chest. It could do little for his mind.
It was like Patrick’s concoction, the hot-toddy cure-all. That thought was soothing and desperately upsetting all at once.
Patrick, who had died, who was two decades dead. Who had died with Wrong Hugh, and nearly two million others, in a war so ineffectual they had now commenced a rematch. All of them taken and leaving behind Hugh for this, this measly, difficult existence. He had no more idea what piece of fate or luck had saved him than he did how he would answer the question, should it ever be posed, of what product of his continuing years on the Earth justified his presence on it.
When Hugh did drift off, exhausted, he slept badly. In his dreams, Patrick appeared. Patrick, smiling. Hugging and waiting, only to pull back, unanswered. Patrick, saying ‘Good morning!’ and smiling softly, and turning away, back into the dugout, Hugh heading off down the line. Patrick, in the flames, burning, the roar and the shouts and Hugh’s realisation he'd never see Patrick again, never tell and never know. Never Patrick, never again.
Hugh startled awake sitting bolt upright in bed, in a cold sweat, coughing horribly. He grabbed his handkerchief and tried to re-breathe his own warm air, a technique Madeleine had taught him. She'd bought bottles of essence of wintergreen and dropped it on his handkerchiefs, hoping to ease his chest. She'd made him mustard plasters and thrown away all his tobacco. She as much as anyone had kept him tethered to life, in those first post-war years when nothing seemed worth anything anymore. He still couldn’t quite sort out in his mind whether he loved or resented her more for that. She’d needed very desperately to be needed, for reasons she’d not wanted to illuminate to him, and he had had so little, and needed so much. They’d done each other perhaps some good, and then fallen apart with a sort of mutual embarrassment at their own misjudgement.
Hugh had spent the night before his wedding in this very room, staring sleeplessly at the ceiling, feeling trapped. He felt trapped now. Oppressed, stifled, suffocated in this house, buried in regret.
He had to get outside.
Dressing as swiftly as he could, Hugh padded softly down the back stairs to the servants' door before putting his boots on. Jennifer's car was still on the drive, and, as always, her keys left in the glove compartment, making it easier for the gardener if he needed to get to the station or the market without waking her. It was a generosity she resented, but since the onset of petrol rationing a year earlier, keeping more than one car had been impossible.
Hugh disengaged the brake, and started up the engine carefully. Fortunately, it rumbled into a low hum without needing to be encouraged by the accelerator, and he turned on the headlights, then remembered himself and turned them off again. Still feeling half as if he dreamt, he drove out into the night.
He could have driven north and east to Aldeburgh, or even as far as the crumbling cliffs at half-sunken Dunwich, where the town ever continued its slow descent into the sea. He could have gone inland to Ipswich, found a late-opening dive and drunk himself quiet, or set forth for London and lights and the promise of some smiling, silly young man lurking with Eros at Piccadilly.
The whole country was sliding towards disaster, towards immolation. On the eastern horizon, one might even be able to see it coming.
When he did come to the fork in the road at Tunstall he turned south and then east, seawards, and he found himself at last passing through Hollesley village, and on the lonely road to the beach at Shingle Street.
If, as in the Medieval mind, you could travel to the edge of world, it might well look like Shingle Street. The tiny hamlet – a strip of houses, a pub, a postbox – straddled the border of beach and desolate marshland. The largest structure on the flat plain was the crumbling Martello tower which had once stood watch against Napoleon, and now merely echoed hollow in gales. Hugh had often come to the beach to swim as a child, and from one summer to the next it had never been the same, the heavy, dangerous currents shifting tonnes of shingle to create new ridges and valleys. To visit the place, in its empty, expansive, grey-washed quiet, had always been calming, and he hoped it might prove so now.
You could not see the sea from the road – the shingle formed a hillock across the view and then descended. Hugh saw the glow first, as he walked away from the parked car. Then he began to wonder if he was still in bed, still dreaming, because there on beach, as if from his dream, was the fire, fire spreading over the sea, and the screams and the stink of it, and there, stumbling towards him, was Patrick, burning.
- - -
(v) Vests of Plaster
[Near Shingle Street...Monday, 15th July... 1940]
Werner came awake in a skin that was too tight for him, and tried to fall back into sleep. But even slight movements were sending blasts of fiery agony along the left side of his body. Suddenly, a noise, raucous and harsh, pierced the air, and he startled, eyes opening.
It was hard at first to see; his eyelids crusted together, the pain causing tears to form, but he thought he saw a person standing across the room in a strange, hunched posture. After another moment, Werner realised the man was coughing. And that he had never seen him before in his life.
It was warm in the bed – he was in a bed, he realised, a decent one with cotton sheets and a pillow – but he found himself shivering anyway, fear chilling him through. Events since leaving Rotterdam were blurry in his mind, but it had always seemed likely the plan would fail.
“Was passiert?” he tried to ask, and had to cough a little himself, which set the left side of his torso into a red-raw scream.
The answer to his question came, as he had dreaded, in German, but the words were oddly accented and somewhat hesitant. "Bitte schweigen," the man repeated. His voice was hoarse, the original accent hard to place. "Sie krank sind."
The man did not sound like a Dutchman speaking German; they had been, in Werner’s small experience, far better at pronunciation. But then the barge might have drifted to France.
"Was?" Werner repeated, feeling his hands trembling and hiding them under the covers, trying to soak away the sweat on his palms.
The man came over to the bed and leaned towards him. He was middle-aged, lean, dark-haired and unshaven. Werner froze, his heart thumping in his throat, but the man was rather gently pushing him back down to lie flat again, and furthermore was talking, seemingly to himself, in English.
“Yes, that one needs reapplying. Horrible stuff. Horrible stuff to burn. Petrol. Like bloody anarchist agents. Now, wait a minute, er... Moment mal.”
English. An Englishman. Too caught up in his relief to disobey or question further, Werner watched as the man took a small white tube from a nearby table and sat on Werner’s bed, fiddling with the cap. Werner, reeling, registered that the room was quite small, white-walled and filled with natural, bright daylight from a window through which, in his current position, he could see only sky. After restless dreams of darkness - endless darkness and then a simmering red glow - this fresh light was a relief in itself.
Oh yes, the memories were coming now. Mixed with nightmares, horrible and uncertain, hard to believe.
A touch at Werner’s side caused him to flinch, shocked from his thoughts. The man was reaching out to him, something sticky on his fingers; he'd peeled off a bandage from Werner's side and Werner could see how red and angry the skin beneath was.
"It’s tannic acid ointment," the man said. "What's ointment? Creme? Sahne? No, salbe, isn't it?" He reached out again, and the touch was painful, but the ointment undoubtedly soothing, and Werner, breathing carefully through his teeth, did not further protest. The pain and the soothing twisted in his head with the exhausted confusion, the half-remembered hell, the anxious fear; he closed his eyes, feeling the world receding.
"Yes, you sleep, for now," he thought he heard someone saying, just as he drifted off. "Maybe then we'll both wake up."
Eventually, Werner regained consciousness more clearly. His throat was dry, his tongue foully coated and his bladder full and urgent. When he shifted and tried to move about in the bed, he found his skin still sore and tense but the pain muted, not the flare of fire it had been.
Fire – fire was all he saw whenever his eyes closed, flames shimmering like satin. The memory caught at him, made him wince and hiss. He took a breath and then another, sniffing through his nose, certain he could smell smoke and yet seeing no source for it around him – he was still in the airy room, its slanted roof and rough-hewn beams suggesting the upper floor, or attic, of an old building.
He had survived, then. Survived, at least, so far. Survived, not necessarily escaped. And of the others who’d been in the barge there was no sign. Perhaps they’d got clean away. He gritted his teeth and hoped. He’d done it all for them - he’d had no plan for himself.
But hoping didn’t achieve very much. Werner had learned that long ago.
With some wincing as his skin caught, he pushed back the covers, got himself upright and put his feet on the floor, which was made up of unadorned bare boards, worn smooth with use. When he tried standing, the boards warped and creaked under him, and as the door of the room opened he was struggling against both alarm and a surge of dizziness to stay upright.
"Awake, are we?" observed the man who had come in.
Werner stared at him.
“Sie wach sind,” the man said now. He looked less sure of himself than the little Werner remembered of him from before. He seemed too well dressed – neatly pressed blue trousers and a vivid Fair Isle sweater over shirtsleeves – to occupy what seemed likely to be a small house. He was, Werner reckoned, in his early forties, rather thin and perhaps a little shorter than average. His dark hair was in a widow’s peak only just starting to show signs of receding. There was nothing to give much away to Werner’s nervous study.
“Hello," Werner said, carefully. And then, deciding to risk it and use his English: "Where am I, please?" He had time to see the surprise cross the man's face before another wave of dizziness swept over him, more intense than before, and he half-stumbled backwards.
"Whoa there." The man was swiftly at his side, supporting him to a controlled descent to the bed. "So, you speak English, then?"
Werner’s mouth was dry. He was sure the man could hear it in his voice."Should I not?"
"Why not, indeed? Good preparation for your line of work, I dare say. Efficient." The man frowned.
"Then, please, where am I?"
The man was still looking troubled. "I'm not at all sure I should be telling you where you are. But then if we're going to start talking about things I should and shouldn't have done, well... It's getting a tad late for that, now."
Werner could feel the nervous sweat under his arms. He wondered when the man would hit him, when the inevitable shift in tone would come. He tried again to place this man in the sequence of events since leaving Rotterdam. That night he recalled well enough – Michael approaching him, the discussion, the entreaties, the people, the barge. Fear, silence, creeping out of the port and praying for any other sound to mask their oars. Then the sea, the cold, long night of crossing, and then...
He shuddered reflexively, and looked down at his arms, noticing that the left was wrapped in neat, clean bandages, feeling again the pain in his left side and the outer side of his left leg. He was wearing only underwear.
“Your other clothes were badly burned,” the man told him. “There were sheets here, in the house, but no shirts or anything. I think they took all they could carry, and they couldn’t carry it all.”
“You have helped me?” Werner frowned. “From the beach? You, I think you catched me?” He looked again at his bandages. “Thank you,” he added, as calmly as he could.
The man stared back at him for a long moment, then looked away, frowning again. Perhaps the sight of Werner repelled him. Enough of his youth leaders had told him that, despite his athletic body and blond hair, he was a poor specimen, with shiftiness in his eyes and a weak mouth. This made his next question even more shaming, but it was necessary.
"Please," Werner tried. "There is a bathroom?"
"Look under the bed."
Werner, confused, wondering if he'd misunderstood, bent down awkwardly and caught sight of a chipped pottery bowl.
"Yes, there's no indoor plumbing round here, Fritz. And you can hardly get out to the privy in the back, so that's your throne, for now."
Werner, whose apartment block in Berlin had boasted every modern convenience, where people would have given up eating rather than do their business in their bedrooms, blanched but accepted it. He waited a moment, then darted a glance at his host.
The man stood. "I'll leave you to it." He retreated across the room and pulled the door shut behind him, allowing Werner the privacy to bite back his objections and make use of the bowl. Afterwards, Werner cast about for something to cover it, and was pleased to find a stack of old and much mouse-damaged papers in the corner of the room - they looked to be dress patterns, but could scarcely be of use in that capacity, and made a decent modesty shield.
The presence of the patterns was also somewhat comforting. No one would be making dresses in a room generally used for interrogations.
Besides the bed and the papers, Werner saw that the room contained a washstand with jug and bowl, a small table which had some tubes and jars on it alongside some bandages and packets, and a low rocking chair with a high back. Werner had a vague, unsettling sense of knowing the rocking chair's sound, though it stood motionless.
There was a knock at the bedroom door, and then the man came back through, now carrying a tray with a bowl and plate on.
"Mind the soup’s hot, don’t go burning yourself again," was his greeting, and he placed the tray on Werner's lap.
Werner had heard a lot of stories about interrogation techniques, about some of the more subtle methods used by the Gestapo, and how they made you feel safe first, broke down your defences so cunningly that you didn't see yourself getting vulnerable. After all, he had no way of knowing - simply from being in a room with a man speaking English - that he had reached England. And if he had ended up back where he started, what of Michael and the others? Was that what this person wanted to discover from him? What if the food, quite apart from being a softening measure, had some sort of drug in it?
But he had to eat something, and his stomach was starting to cramp and rumble loudly.
The man laughed, not unkindly, before suddenly checking himself and turning to leave once more.
Werner licked his lips, and made himself try again. "Excuse me, please, but what is your name?" Let it be a lie if it had to be, but surely the man would give him something in reply, and Werner needed anything to grab hold of to orientate himself in this place.
There was a pause before the answer, suggesting a matching calculation.
"My name is Wakefield, Hugh Wakefield." The man bit his lip. "That good enough for you, Fritz?"
"My name is Werner, Werner Schultheiss." So much the man must have been able to gather from his dogtags anyway, wherever they'd got to. Werner’s record was not stellar, but it had no blemishes; his name couldn’t hurt him.
"An ancient German name," was the man's - Hugh's - reply, in a tone not quite indicating either approval or dislike. He turned away again, and bent to retrieve the covered chamber pot. It began to dawn on Werner that if he'd been here, and helpless, for some time, then this man had probably done as much and more for him over the past days. He felt himself flushing, shamed and overwhelmed, and forced his attention onto the soup before him. It did smell good, and tasted of carrot with a velvety texture of potato, well-seasoned with pepper and with some fresh green herbs dotting the surface. A small, slightly stale bread roll accompanied it, and Werner tucked in eagerly; there was nothing he could do, in the end, to avoid being drugged if drugging was his fate, and really if anyone had wanted to do that to him they might as well have done so when he was unconscious.
He thought he heard something like a grunt of approval from Hugh, but kept his eyes down, and then heard the sound of the bedroom door closing as Hugh exited.
It did not take long, hungry as he was, to finish the meal. He poured some of the water from the washstand jug into the now-empty bowl and drained it down with a sigh. Already feeling somewhat stronger, he gingerly moved further around the room, going to the window to take a look outside. The view was a wide, flat plain, dotted only occasionally with trees, divided into a patchwork of differently planted fields, with a line of what might be forest in the far distant horizon. As he watched, he saw a gaudy pheasant emerge from some wheat, and a few ambling rabbits, but no other signs of life. There was a building in the distance which might be a house, but could just as easily have been a barn.
Having grown up in the centre of Berlin, and having had his only experiences of the countryside be the Hitler Youth camps (where he'd had things to occupy him besides landscape) and the march through France the previous month (which he longed only to forget), he was ill-equipped to identify a nation by its rural appearance. This was probably England, he supposed, but he was still by no means sure.
In England, he was an alien, an enemy. But he was away from Them.
But he might be in England and yet not be safe. He might have fallen into the hands of an English Fifth Column - he had heard on a recent radio address to the army that many Englishmen understood the brilliance of the Führer and were preparing at all times to overthrow their current government and join their Aryan brothers. If so, he might have been brought here to be interrogated on the whereabouts of the others from the barge, and their Rotterdam contacts, with all the information to be relayed back across the channel in due course. Werner bit his lip hard, and wondered which story to tell; what to emphasise and what to conceal. Besides, naturally, that which he always concealed. Back at home, and at school, at the camps and in the army, he'd learned which lies to tell to stay safe, but he’d never run a risk like this before.
The sound of the door opening again made him jump. Hugh looked to be stifling another laugh.
"I dare say you're used to coffee, Fritz, but it's tea here, and little enough of it, thanks to your merry little submarine chums." Hugh was carrying two steaming mugs. He placed one on the small table near the bed and sat down in the rocking chair with the other cradled in his hands. The chair creaked and moved beneath him, and it was a sound Werner found he did know. Moving back towards the bed to take a seat, Werner picked up the enamel mug he'd been offered and held it for a moment, enjoying the warming heat of the metal against hands still cold and slick from fear.
He could dash the hot liquid in the eyes of his captor. It might well be enough to injure, or at least to incapacitate him and let Werner make a dash for the door. But what then? Where could he go? He had no clothes to hand, his burns still pained him and he was weak and weary despite the sleep and the food.
He ought to be despairing, was close to it in fact. But for some reason that steady squeak as the man called Hugh rocked in the chair comforted him. Someone had sat, rocking in that way, as Werner had battled through the worst of pain and fever. Someone who had brought water and cool cloths, someone who hadn’t shouted.
But to treat this man as anything but dangerous was to be stupidly vulnerable. People didn’t just give other people things for no reason. Everyone and everything had a price in the end.
"Will you now please tell to me where I am?" Werner asked, after they'd sipped their tea in silence for a while. The tea was weak, and served in the British fashion with milk, but warm and stimulating nonetheless.
Hugh raised an eyebrow. "Where do you think you are?"
"England. I do not know the coast well, but from The Netherlands I set out, and I believe I should have reached Suffolk."
"Your target destination was just 'somewhere in Suffolk'? So much for the fable of German efficiency."
"No, I only wanted to go to England." Werner took a sip of his tea and allowed himself a bitter laugh. "I did not know the coast was now with fire defended."
"Well, that I will believe." Hugh stared at him for a moment, as if taking inventory, cradling his mug in his hands the while. Not a working man's hands, Werner thought. Not used to physical effort, this man who was overall somewhat slight, and who had seemed to grow breathless just from ascending the stairs to Werner's room, which he knew now from the window view was not very high off the ground.
Likely then, that Werner could best him in a fight.
It was not a conscious effort, on Werner's behalf, to make this assessment. It was simply how he had been taught to scrutinise any man he met.
He did not like fighting, but he had grown to expect fighting to be inevitable. At one point, not so long ago, he had longed to hear news of a peace settlement between Germany and the British-French Alliance; anything to stop him from being sent out to kill. And then he had seen that if no one went to war with Them, nothing would change and nothing would be stopped. They would never be stopped. And that was more terrifying still.
"And what," Hugh said, eventually, "Was your intended purpose, 'somewhere in England'?"
Werner chewed at the sore part of his lip, and debated again within himself which way to jump.
He had such a distinct sense that this man had been kind to him.
"I was running away," he said, truthfully. "I am a coward."
He waited for disgust to cross the other man's features, but Hugh looked confused. Again, the moment stretched out between them.
"There would seem to be easier places to run to," Hugh said slowly, "than into the arms of your enemy."
Werner shrugged. "There are reasons..." he began, trying to think how not to mention the others, but he was stopped by Hugh suddenly holding up a hand for silence. There was a sound coming through the window, a sound of several marching feet stamping along the road. Not a large group, but enough to take some time to pass out of hearing. Hugh, listening, looked distressed, and Werner suddenly perceived that the man was fighting hard not to cough. Automatically, Werner held out his mug, still with some inches of tea in. Hugh, eyes watering, took the cup with a nod and sipped slowly. No drugs in the tea, at least, then.
When all had been quiet some minutes, Hugh stood up. "I have to go for now," he said. "I won't be very long, only a few hours, here..." He pulled a brown paper bag from his pocket and put it on the table. "There's a roll with dripping in there, and there's water in the jug. I'll come back to give you some dinner, but you mustn't leave this house, right? They'll arrest you, or worse."
Werner, accustomed to fearing the police as a matter of course, nodded easily enough and sat quietly as Hugh left.
Only after did it occur to him that here, now, he had committed a specific crime for which the police and army might target him. He was an enemy alien, a solider of an enemy army, his own, individual, very tiny invasion force. He might be seen as some sort of crack-troop forward offensive, specifically honoured by selection. He wasn't sure if that thought made him want to laugh or to cry.
And that meant that Hugh, if he was indeed keeping Werner here without orders to do so or supervision in so doing, was committing a crime himself, and had placed himself in danger. And all for a man whose name he didn’t know, and didn’t seem to want to.
Werner lay back on his pillow, dizzy again.
- - -
Werner regarded his childhood, looking back, as having had two distinct parts, so different as to be almost two separate existences.
He learnt, later on, that he had been born into a country still reeling from defeat and humiliation, a country that had expected to be powerful and had suddenly become powerless, forced to agree to whatever others wanted of it. He knew, later on, that the things adults had been muttering about were Versailles and Weimar and the Ruhr and Alsace-Lorraine and reparations.
But, as a child, he’d been innocent of it all, and about as contented as he could be. In 1923, at the age of two, he’d come with his mother and elder brother to live in the house of his Uncle Tristan, with his uncle’s family. These were his first memories. It was a spacious, pleasant house and he’d had toys and plenty of food, and he was never cold and never hurt. These were not qualities he’d appreciated fully at the time.
In 1933, when Werner was twelve, Werner’s father had been released from prison, and had regained or been given some money, both processes never fully explained to Werner, other than that they all now owed much gratitude to the National Socialists, who – whatever exactly they were – were now also the government.
He was told he was pleased that he and Friedrich and their mother could now live with Werner’s father again, in a brand new apartment in central Berlin, and leave behind the snug simplicity and familiar sights and smells of Uncle Tristan’s modest suburban villa.
It was little consolation to him to realise that the whole world was changing, not just his own corner of it. Small wonder that the National Socialists had rearranged his life – they were present everywhere, commanding all sorts of things. He was more aware of the gossip of adults, now, and they were all bursting to the brim with excitement about the new government and what they would do, how Germany would finally recover and stand proud again.
Werner had thought that when he grew up he might become a veterinarian. He liked the idea of working in a quiet, peaceful sort of way to help creatures who couldn’t help themselves. He liked animals – had loved his uncle’s dog and two cats, liked the pony that lived in a field near his Uncle’s house, which the owner had sometimes let him ride. Animals trusted you, or they didn’t. They were not complicated.
But after 1933, after all the changes, he was at a new school, and half the usual lessons had become drill sessions, and whilst Uncle Tristan had talked to him occasionally, with interest, about university degrees, Werner’s father had informed him he was now to attend a group called Hitler Youth, and that it would train him well to be a soldier of the future.
Werner’s father was very keen on the idea of being a soldier. It was with some shock and surprise that Werner eventually realised that his father had not, in fact, served in the 1914-1918 war at all, having been just too young even to catch the tail end. Instead, when his father reminisced about 'battles' or 'my injuries' or 'leadership', he was referring to the street fights and running urban battles of Berlin since the Armistice. He had been in the Stormabteilung ‘since the start’ as he liked to state, proudly, and as a brownshirt who’d participated in the attempted National Socialist revolution at Munich in 1923 had been imprisoned, which was what had left the care of his family to his elder brother.
This brother, Uncle Tristan, had fought in the war. But that was also hard to discover, because he never spoke about it. The one time Werner could remember was also one of the last times his uncle had visited them in the new apartment. He'd overheard his father shouting and had crept carefully along the corridor from his bedroom, listening.
‘And you!’ His father had been crying out. ‘You, who felt the sting of the stab in the back, of the great betrayal of Weimar when you were on the front, and so close to the final victory! How can you, of all people, now...’ And at that point Werner’s mother had found him missing from his bed and snatched him back and away. He'd been able to just catch his uncle muttering some sort of reply, something low and cold, but not shouting. Uncle Tristan had not shouted as Werner's father did, and Uncle Tristan never became so angry as to hit things.
They'd last seen Uncle Tristan in 1935. Soon after, his father had said one evening at the dinner table that he regretted to announce that his brother had been arrested. He had apparently been aiding several Jews in concealing their racial identity by supplying them with forged and replacement papers. ‘Our father would have wept to see it,’ Werner's father had said. ‘But I know he would have wanted what was best for the Fatherland, and approved what I have done. There is, after all, no family more important than the family of National Socialism.’
Werner’s father had been so incredibly alive at that period, so vibrant with energy, going out many nights and coming back nearly shaking with exhilaration, sometimes with a black eye or split lip but never seeming to feel pain, grabbing at their mother, passing Werner and Friedrich a few coins and telling them to go out to the corner café for an hour or two. He was very smart in his black uniform – he had left the SA after the treachery of its leader Rohm to the Führer had been revealed, and was now a committed SS man.
Once he was fifteen, Werner’s brother Friedrich had been allowed to join the night excursions, and was awaiting merely age to get a black uniform of his own. Their father’s dream for both of them was the Waffen SS, the highest of the high, but he focussed his efforts on Friedrich as the far more likely candidate.
Then, in 1936, during a brawl over something or nothing, Fredrich had been struck on the head with a brick, and had died the following night. All their father’s attention had shifted, perforce, to Werner. He, who had previously spent his evenings reading or listening to the wireless, having rattled as fast as he dared through homework assignments to complete essays on the childhood heroics of Adolf Hitler or arithmetic on the cost of mentally deficient people to the state, was summoned out to the street life. That had been when they'd all learnt of his cowardice.
Werner could fight, when he had to, was quite good at it, even, but violence upset him somewhere internally, leaving him sleepless and barely able to eat. He could stand the sight of blood comfortably enough – he’d helped set a broken leg on a stray dog once, the stem of his veterinary ambitions - but the nightmares were not as easy to control. And he never just wanted to fight, never found any relish in it.
In the Hitler Youth, violence was a virtue. 'Athletics' was now a discipline encompassing war games. There were the films - always films - speaking of the warriors of the future and the glory of combat. It was inescapable, all-encompassing.
Perhaps did owe his father something. Because if he hadn’t seen, firsthand, what it was to be in the SS, he might have let himself be told to apply for it. He had the right sort of looks – broad-shouldered despite his youth, and tall and blond – and would probably have been successful. If all he’d known had been the power and smart-heeled marching of the parades, or the idealised, smiling heroes in the new children’s books, he might have been drawn in.
But he did know. Knew about what glinted under the smiles, knew what they did and who they did it to, and knew he couldn’t stand that much blood.
For Werner, the declaration of war from Great Britain and France came just in time – he’d hit the age where joining an organisation of some sort must occur. The Army needed soldiers, and he could scarcely be accused of anything other than patriotism for joining them. The Army was not what he wanted, but it was not the SS. In the Army, there were still some rules. And joining had at least got him out of Berlin and the small, shiny apartment, away from the sad-eyed sighs of his mother and his father’s fury.
He’d still been training during the advances in the east, but had been taken along on the assault through France and Holland. There was an immediacy in trying not to be killed, in firing and returning fire, and something detached and precise about it. They were soldiers and they killed other soldiers sent to kill them. If the other soldiers surrendered, they didn’t kill them. There was lethal force, but not very much hate.
Werner had tried to do what years with father and in the youth camps, had taught him was the way to stay sane; to hide deep inside himself and be aware of, and remember, nothing.
And yet, not everyone who died in every shell strike was a soldier, or even an adult. And the army left a swathe of burnt-out fields in their wake, and crying women asking for food, and some of his companions shot dogs because they could, and sometimes women bargained with their bodies for rations for their children, and perhaps they offered but also they’d been made to, really.
By Rotterdam, Werner had been wondering why he ever thought anything would let him escape. The fighting, the violence, was not something anyone could escape; he watched it engulfing people, over and over, and in his dreams he did remember.
You had to fight, had to hate. Consideration for enemies of the state was weakness, aiding and abetting them was treason of the highest order. No one escaped and no one could break free of those rules of this, this awful life.
When, at the Rotterdam docks, Michael had approached him and outlined his plan, Werner had never expected any of it would succeed. He’d agreed to help because he couldn’t stand one more day of doing nothing to stop anything. If that would mean his life ending, then so be it. They’d stop him, punish him, maybe even kill him, and then it would be over.
But here he was, alive, having run, having aided and abetted and with no justice yet discovering him. And here was Hugh, with no reason to help him either, but doing so all the same.
Hope can be very painful, and he had grown used to trying to stifle it. It tortured him now.
- - -
[Near Shingle Street...15-16th July... 1940]
Uncertain how long he had slept, Werner woke from troubled dreams to find the room dark and his stomach cramping with hunger. He located the package Hugh had left him; the rich, brown bread soaked with congealing fat, and forced himself to ignore his ferocious appetite and eat slowly. He sipped some water. He wanted to use the pot, but also wanted more light before doing so - there might perhaps be candles or a lamp down the stairs, he reckoned.
It did occur to him that he could leave the house despite Hugh’s warnings, and brave the outside world. If he left, he could no longer incriminate Hugh by association if Hugh did indeed have good intentions, nor be any longer vulnerable to him if the man had a darker agenda.
But the bedroom door, when Werner reached it, was locked from the outside.
This man Hugh didn't really trust him, then, and why would he? They were set out to be enemies by every normal rule of war, and beyond that, on the basic level between man and man, Werner knew his own failings. There were things broken inside him, feelings that were unnatural, unmanly. So the Hitler Youth leaders taught, so also the church he’d been used to attend with his uncle’s family. Some things damned you in all sights. So Josef had thought. He’d come to believe Werner had corrupted him, the worst kind of comrade.
Sighing, Werner did his best with the pot by feel, and then went to squint at the window, trying to make anything out in the night. There were no lights he could see at all, not besides the distant stars and a waxing moon.
He was startled out of his seat – he’d fallen back to the bed, half-dozing – by a terrible screeching sound from the outside. It was repeated, and he reckoned it to be a bird, though his heart was still racing. Once he’d have called the sound inhuman, but he knew so much more, now, of all the sounds a person could be made to make.
The rumbling which passed a little later overhead, he wanted to discount in a similar way – as thunder, or some sort of distant machine works. But the volume and movement could only be a bomber plane. On the way in to bomb the British, or on the way home from bombing Berlin? Impossible to tell. He wondered where his mother and father were, if at this very moment they cowered, frightened, in the cellar where he'd sometimes been sent to spend hours boxing at a bag to toughen him up and instil some kind of aggressive reflex. The last he'd heard of them had been an unusually congratulatory letter from his father shortly after the fall of Paris, an event his father seemed convinced had more to do with Werner's presence than had been the case.
Though he'd helped, he couldn't deny. Had fired his shots with the rest of them, had stopped other people's hearts.
He shivered. Climbing back into the bed was a depressing admission of defeat, but it was the warmest he could make himself. He closed his eyes, hoping for sleep to sweep the time away. But seemingly he'd had his surfeit of slumber, at least for now, and he lay awake in the dark, staring into nothing, seeing too much, hearing at intervals the agonies of the night creatures.
This was not how he'd pictured being in Britain, but then he'd never really pictured it at all. Perhaps on some level he'd honestly expected it to be like a propaganda film; that he, a low, contemptible, cowardly betrayer of the Reich, would be shot in the back at the last moment by a noble young hero. If he'd ever thought otherwise, it would certainly not have been of this, of being half-prisoner, half-patient of a strange, slight, nervous Englishman with so much darkness in his eyes, who seemed to neither hate nor like him.
The vital question was where on Earth to go next. To hide from the authorities, if successful, must on some level be a good thing, he thought. After all, if the rest of the German army he’d left behind him on the continent chose tomorrow to invade, a recorded traitor and defector from their ranks would be all too easy to track down and punish.
He shuddered, curling up into a ball under the covers.
And there was no likely way for him to keep evading capture without help of some kind. He needed Hugh to stick by him.
If, then, he could manage to get to London or another large city, he might slip between the cracks somehow and find some way to get false papers. He could keep running, go out to the farther reaches of the world where this European war was merely a distant speck on the horizon. Hugh might well help him to do just that - it would protect Hugh as much as himself if no one else ever knew what had happened here.
Of course, Hugh could try and silence Werner in other ways. That would be the sort of thing any SS man would chose, and Werner absolutely had to stop believing that Hugh was different in any way to any of the other men he’d known. No one was different, not in the end – that, by now, ought to have been branded through his brain.
No, to get what he needed, Werner knew he must have leverage. In his life up to this point, he'd learnt two ways to gain what one wanted from those in power – the Hitler Youth had been nothing if not a university in the niceties of power dynamics. Quite simply, you traded or you threatened. And if you had no physical superiority or damning secret with which to threaten, all that was left was trade. And even if you were poor, if you had nothing but yourself, well, then, there was still something to bargain with. A lot of boys in the youth camps had figured out how that worked, what to offer to the older boys in exchange for protection, maybe extra food or other treats if you played it exactly right.
Werner felt another chill, an echo of a cold, damp dormitory, being left alone and sore. Of turned backs, weak promises. Josef, walking away from him.
Of when he’d first truly understood that no one was any different from the rest of Them.
But he’d made it through all that. Grown up physically strong and able to defend himself, to the point where new, younger cadets tried to make up to him and buy his protection for themselves. He couldn’t stomach accepting what they’d offered, but had tried to help a little anyway; a half-kindness, really, because the sooner they learnt the truth about the world the better they’d be able to survive it.
There was no way to know if Hugh wanted that. But most men did, sooner or later, and there'd been no wedding ring on Hugh's finger to suggest his needs were being regularly sated. One of Werner's schoolteachers, one of the ones who'd appeared after the mass sackings in 1933, had told them that all Englishmen were homosexuals, but then that same teacher had said many Jews were born with tails...
How, then, to approach Hugh? Werner knew that he was the bigger and almost certainly the stronger of the two of them. That made threats a possibility, if he could screw his courage to hurt the man, but the thought was sickening. He never wanted to hurt anyone again, if he could avoid it. No, let his size simply be enough to let him know he could control the other kind of trading - that if he went on his knees for Hugh, he himself would determine what he did there.
In these thoughts, his night passed, until he realised he could see across the room to the washstand, and that the grey light of dawn was thickening.
- - -
(viii) State of Shock
[Near Iken...Tuesday, 16th July... 1940]
Seated at the Iken Court breakfast table, Hugh ate as fast as he thought he could get away with, and kept his eyes on the mantelpiece clock. Not having been able to think of a method to save or transport any of his breakfast porridge, he instead intended to fill up now, request a packed lunch from Cook and give that on to the burned German.
He was trying to make such plans in a straightforward and reasonable manner, but whenever the thought crossed his mind of what he’d done, he felt another wave of horrified amazement.
It was now over forty-eight hours since he’d made that mad drive to Shingle Street and fought through billowing smoke in the near-total darkness to drag a young man from the flames. And that had been all the boy had been to Hugh, at first, as he’d tried to help him. Just a person, suffering. The cottage on the Hollesley road had been the first dwelling they’d passed as - having got the barely conscious boy into his car - Hugh had driven blindly towards assistance. Finding the building abandoned, he’d gone inside anyway, knowing the burns must be cleaned and dressed as soon as possible. Hugh had existed for all that time in a sort of fugue state he remembered from his war; a place of quiet, easy decisions with no thought to anything but the moment.
Then he’d been tidying a mostly-ruined uniform away, and come back into himself, and seen the field-grey wool and the German insignia.
A German. A German soldier had arrived on British shores, at Hugh’s feet, and Hugh’s response had been to wrap him up and poor salve on his wounds.
And yet stopping, or doing anything else, had seemed unthinkable. Hugh had stayed with the boy through that first night, driving back to Iken Court in an egg-yolk dawn to present himself at table, make excuses and retrieve more food and first aid supplies. The boy had slept, restlessly, through another full day, and Hugh had told his family he had met a friend who’d invited him to stay in Bury St Edmunds, and had spent another long, anxious night in the cottage, watching the boy, and getting as much clean water into him as he could.
Then, yesterday, the boy – Werner – had woken, and Hugh had truly to face the situation in which he’d put himself.
He could scarcely contemplate it without a goose-pimpled surge of fear. He felt so very strange, this morning, heavy in his head, sometimes scarcely awake, floating away from this normal, dull scene in the breakfast room where no one knew anything was amiss.
All the conversation between his mother and sister was about the bombing raid that had passed over them night before; the planes had started coming across just after ten. Hugh would happily have braved it – the Luftwaffe, by and large, always headed for London, and though some targeted Suffolk’s inland airfields, none as yet had dropped much over the Alde peninsula, only very occasionally through malfunction or perhaps panic. He'd been trying all that afternoon and evening to get out of Iken Court and back to the cottage, but one issue after another had delayed him - his mother's pleas for him to look at the malfunctioning wireless valve, the cook's nephew's wish to discuss which regiment to join for the war, and Jennifer’s infuriating desire to have it all out again about Mark Fletcher. Were it not for the bombing raid, he would have got on his bicycle, late as it was, and gone out with some food supplies - his family were used to him behaving fairly oddly in search of 'fresh air' - but with the danger and his mother's all too visible fear that he was trying to go out because he downright wanted to be hit, he'd been unable to come up with a sufficient excuse.
Perhaps a week ago he might have wandered in the path of a bomb, from lack of motivation to do otherwise. He might casually have resigned himself to fate. But now, he had the German to look after.
Another ripple of tension ran over him; he felt his chest tighten and took a long sip of coffee. Horror at his own actions still warred against visceral sympathy, as he remembered Werner Schultheiss burning and crying and stumbling towards him. And although the boy had not slept peacefully, sometimes even weeping softly, he’d nevertheless remained so quiet – careful, even in sleep, not to make much noise, as if in fear of something worse than his demons. Which might be supposed to be quite substantial - the boy was a soldier after all, and Hugh knew how that went.
A soldier. A German soldier. A Nazi soldier.
And only a boy. Nineteen or twenty. Young enough that Hugh might have been his father, and that now that generation was at war, as their forebears had been, retracing their footsteps with depressing affinity.
What Hugh had managed to catch of the radio news broadcasts - both the BBC and the English-language programs transmitted from Germany - had reported nothing remotely like what he’d seen three nights ago. This would have made sense if Werner had been alone, and Hugh the only witness, but he distinctly remembered – at least as best he could through memories clouded with adrenaline and fumes – other people at the beach. There must have been some reason for the fire, apart from anything else. For weeks, anonymous army lorries had been undertaking various tasks on the local roads and fields, but Hugh had never had any idea they intended something like that. Setting the sea on fire; it was brilliant, and horrible, and even now hard to believe.
Were it not for the very real German soldier he had locked in a bedroom near Hollesley, Hugh would have started to suspect that all his memories were merely another too-vivid nightmare of his own.
The tension clawing at his throat triumphed, and he fumbled for his handkerchief to shield his coughing, trying to be as quiet as possible as the foul-tasting phlegm came out of him. He still received a disgusted side-glance from his sister, who put down her toast and shuddered. He fought the spasm, eyes watering with effort, and reached for his coffee.
"Actually, Hugh could help me with the arrivals at Woodbridge today, couldn't he, mother?" Jennifer then said, not with a huge amount of enthusiasm.
Hugh looked at her in alarm. "Today? When?"
"Well, seeing as I've just been saying the trains are scheduled all through today, I should have thought all day long, Hugh," Jennifer answered, wearily. "And don't say you can't - what on earth else do you ever do? Cycle around fields and mooch about marshes staring at the tide going out."
"Jenny!" Mrs Wakefield tutted, "There's no need to make personal observations, and what Hugh does is none of your business. Although I must say, I do agree, Hugh," she added, turning to him. "You may as well do something for the war effort, and dear Jennifer does need some assistance now that poor Mrs Rawlings has rheumatic fever. She and I must be on the six thirty-two train ourselves, if we’re to be in Cornwall for your Great Aunt tomorrow."
Hugh was gripped with an urge to break into hysterical laughter. To tell them precisely what he had been doing for the war effort so far.
And he could tell, he saw. Not that way, not now, but later today, calmly and as if he’d planned it all along. Could walk into the police station and claim he'd had to coax the German to the cottage and work slowly to gain enough trust to lock the man in so that Hugh could go and get the police, the Home Guard, the army and anyone else who cared to weigh in. Discounting the burns and exhaustion, which now in any case were improving, it would be quite obvious to anyone that the German, strapping as he was, could overpower Hugh; people would well believe that Hugh had had to exercise cunning and a long game to trap him.
And then what? The German would be safely under lock and key and the nation protected. Hugh would be praised. Maybe told to keep quiet about it, maybe have to sign something to that effect, but probably nothing worse than that. He'd be a local hero, though - word always got around. People would see him as something other than poor, invalid Hugh from the War No One Talks About.
And the boy. The German. No reason to think he’d be so badly off, in custody. Imprisoned, yes, of course, but not in conditions as bad as those his masters concocted for their enemies in Germany. He’d be interrogated, for sure, but not... it wouldn’t be... the British would not...
Hugh’s mind flicked back, without his meaning it to, and he saw again the broken, mindless men who’d been unable to bear being incessantly shelled, and had run only as animals will run from certain death, and been condemned as cowards and traitors and shot at dawn. That had been the British, once.
If only he felt less tired, less dizzy. Perhaps then it would all become clear to him, and proper priorities more apparent.
Now he wished he had not eaten quite so much porridge. He wasn't really hungry, had been fighting nausea since waking from his own bad night. And since it seemed he’d be kept from the cottage all day, he’d soon face his lunch in any case.
"Hugh? I asked if you would drive," his mother was repeating. "It would be nice to give Jenny a rest."
"Oh, but I'm not used to..."
"You use that car all the time," Jennifer retorted. "Only the other evening you had it out. If you want to cover your tracks you might clean the mud from the foot-well next time - where on earth where you anyway? Knee-deep in Butley creek?"
Hugh was saved from trying to construct an answer by the sound of the doorbell, followed by the maid ushering in and announcing Captain Banks.
The man looked tired, Hugh thought, though he wondered if anyone would look that way to him just now, through the prism of his own exhaustion.
"Good morning Mrs Wakefield, Miss Wakefield," Captain Banks gave them a half bow and nodded informally at Hugh. "Sorry to disturb you so early, and at your breakfast, but I need to get round a lot of the district this morning."
"Of course, it's no trouble, but can you sit and have a cup of tea with us at least?" Mrs Wakefield gestured at an empty chair amicably. Hugh wondered suddenly if she had her eye on Captain Banks. He was, after all, only just over ten years younger than her, far less than the difference between, say, Hugh and the German.
He closed his eyes and reached for his water-glass. He wasn’t thinking at all clearly.
"No time Mrs Wakefield, but thank you," Captain Banks cleared his throat. "News is, another boatload of refugees arrived from the Continent at one of the beaches a few days ago."
"More?" Jennifer gave a short laugh. "Anyone would think it was quite easy to get over here, the way these people seem to do it. I'm surprised Hitler doesn't just jump in with them and pop across."
"This lot are from Rotterdam, it would seem," Captain Banks continued. "And they got here in rather a state - bad weather, exposure and so on - and we think a few have landed apart from the others and got themselves lost. So we're asking people to be on the look-out for strangers wandering about, especially if they're a bit run-down and don't have good English."
To Hugh, every word of the explanation seemed laced with lies, and the Captain's expression was almost sheepish. But that might again be simply him seeing his own state of mind in others.
On the other hand, he knew Werner was a soldier, not a civilian refugee. He'd seen the man's uniform. Not even a replica could be that accurate. So either the whole group had been soldiers, and the Home Guard were calling them refugees to prevent a general panic at the news, or some had been refugees, camouflaging fighting men in their midst, and others like Werner were now spreading over the country, ready to commit sabotage or worse. Hugh might be the only one who knew, might be endangering national security to a degree he could scarcely comprehend.
Werner had said he was running away. But then he'd hardly announce himself as a trained saboteur, would he?
"Heavy night, eh, Hugh?" Captain Banks was asking him now, not unsympathetically, coming a little closer to him.
“We were rather disturbed with the bombing,” Mrs Wakefield said, apologetically, as if it were indelicate to mention that Captain Banks’ ARP efforts alone couldn’t entirely protect the east coast of England.
“Ah, yes, long one wasn’t it? The blighters,” Captain Banks gave Hugh a swift pat on the shoulder. “And I do know how it is with the sound of planes, well, it doesn’t do one any good, not after the trouble we had with them in the last lot.”
He was being so sympathetic, allowing a vulnerability to show in himself, offering his comfort out. Hugh’s heart could have seized on it a week ago, but now he could feel a thick, sick distance between them, all filled with secretly burning Germans.
“You’ll keep a lookout then, eh?” Captain Banks said, standing – so hard to tell through that hearty grin and the moustache if he was hurt or disappointed or simply bored. “Anyone wandering, looking lost, you know?”
“Oh, I know,” Hugh said, and could see how strange they all found his laugh.
“We’d better set off at once,” Jennifer prompted, once the Captain was gone. Hugh tried to think of anything that might buy him an hour’s delay in which to cycle to Hollesley, but came up blank.
He couldn’t carry on like this. He was going to have to hand the man in.
Woodbridge railway station had a small, single platform and as the evacuee trains deposited their cargos through the day, half the battle was herding the children safely off the narrow platform and out to the open space in front of the station house, whilst preventing them wandering any further. There were other Women’s Institute members besides Jennifer in the fray, but it still fell to Hugh to do much of the rounding up, especially of the boys, for whom he was somehow supposed to have an intuitive understanding. How Patrick would have laughed at that, he thought. Patrick, who had known Hugh at school as a difficult, solitary, arrogant boy, torn from being spoilt as an only child and more homesick than he liked to admit. They had become friends because Patrick, for some reason, had taken it into his head to insist on it – And you’re much nicer now you let me like you, had been Patrick’s final word on the matter.
With Patrick no longer around to like him, he didn’t doubt he’d regressed out of niceness, but couldn’t really care. And Patrick wasn’t there to, either.
Quite suddenly, he had to break into a short dash to save one child from skipping merrily into the path of a lorry, and this triggered a bad fit of coughing. Usually, on a clear, warm day such as this was, Hugh could walk about as much as he liked without trouble, but today his chest felt heavy, and after having run, his breathing became even more laboured. The children reacted with a mixture of fear and amusement, and certainly made the most of his weakness to do all the things they’d been instructed not to.
And all the time, seeing them playing and laughing, watching them queue for slices of bread and jam and apples and weak tea, which the WI were dispensing from a mobile canteen, he thought of Werner, stuck locked in a room with nothing to eat and really only just enough water. He’d been an idiot not leave more supplies. The man was a burns patient, hydration was vital.
Better all round to hand him over to the authorities. Better for them both. Hugh couldn’t look after a dog, not in the state he was in.
Noon passed, then two o’clock, and still the children were arriving, in dribs and drabs, numbers never falling quite low enough at the collection point to be easy to manage. Hugh realised he might well be stuck at the station into the evening, and then – if there was another raid – even forced to stay the night here, in a town public shelter.
“There’s no need to look quite as worried as all that. They’ve nearly all been collected now.”
It was Jennifer, coming up to him holding an oat biscuit and a cup of tea. Hugh looked at his watch; half past four. The tea was the tepid, over-brewed stuff from the bottom of the urn, but he sipped it gratefully.
Werner had handed him a cup of tea, of course. Without prompting. Like he simply wanted to be helpful. As an advert for the brutality of Hitler’s army, the man couldn’t really be said to cut it.
“I’ve got to go now, Great Aunt Florence and all that.” Jennifer was still hovering at his side, the worried look on her face a clue to just how wretched he must appear. “I was going to get a lift with Paula, actually, because she’s got a dress pattern to lend me, and I thought you could take my car and get away now so you can rest. But I can drive you straight back if you’re not feeling well.”
“And keep you from your dress pattern?” He had to be rude. He had to seize the chance of the car.
She flushed a bit and frowned. “You may not like being driven by your little sister, Hugh, but don’t be a damn fool about it.”
He couldn’t help smiling then. For a moment he wanted to tell her everything, to accept her offer and let her make the gesture. He had a very strong sense that she would do well in a crisis.
But the confession dried in his throat. Jennifer would go to the police at once. And the German must be arrested, that was certain, but if he wasn’t yet fully recovered from the burns, and put in a cell, it could go the worse for him.
“We could even wait and go to Cornwall tomorrow in one trip, rather than over-night in London,” Jennifer continued. “I’m not sure you’re at all well.”
“I’m perfectly fine, Jennifer. Nothing a good drink won’t cure.” He made himself stand up, closing his eyes for a moment as blood rushed to his head and the world wobbled. “And if I drive myself I can spend all the time I like at the Queen’s Head. Now get along, there’s a girl.”
She sighed heavily, rolled her eyes, and moved away. He made for the car.
He drove as fast as he dared, finding his hands sweating and slipping on the wheel. It was getting hard to keep his eyes open, especially as the air in the car had been stewing in the sun all day. Luckily, though, the road carried little traffic and he made his way without accident towards Hollesley. He did stop at the first pub he passed, in order to get a sandwich made up and wrapped for him, as big as possible.
When he finally stumbled into the small bedroom, he intended to be forthright, and to share his plans for the boy’s eventual surrender at once, but Werner’s alarmed, anxious face stalled him, and he sank into the rocking chair in another fit of coughing, not able to prevent Werner pouring them both some water and starting to set out the sandwich – in two equal halves – neatly on the table between them.
- - -
"I was a soldier, actually," Hugh heard himself saying. He'd been sitting with Werner, eating the cheese sandwich slowly and carefully, worried what they might do when it, as a topic, had been consumed, but Werner had set to asking questions again, in a nervous but clearly sincere curiosity. In the peace and cool of the room Hugh felt a little better than he had at the station, but still sufficiently odd and feverish that he could half believe the whole experience was just a dream.
Looking uncertain, as well he might at Hugh’s revelation, Werner nodded. "And why did you be a solider?" he asked.
Hugh couldn't think that he'd ever been asked that question before. That he'd ever even asked it of himself.
"I joined at the beginning of the last war,” he began, trying to remember beliefs so long overlaid with experience. “It was what you did. They called it duty - I don't know what duty is, or why one has it, when I think about it. I was in something called the Officer Training Corps at school. We used to go hiking and learn how to salute and do drills with wooden rifles. We joined the army, I suppose, in the way if you have a flock of sheep, and the front ones go through a gate, the rest follow, just because that's what they do. I enlisted as soon as I could, set foot in France for the first time in December of 1915. I never questioned why I was going till I was there. It didn't seem real."
He realised Werner was staring at him, as if he were saying something meaningful rather than simply rambling. Hugh closed his eyes briefly and tried to focus his mind. He ought not just to be chatting with an enemy solider this way. He ought not to be so confused about it. If only he didn't feel so ill.
Werner licked his lips, and spoke again. "And, after the war, did you find... How does it go away?" He was leaning forward, earnest and wide-eyed. "How do you make it to go?"
"You mean forget?" Hugh took a deep breath. "You don't. I don't. I haven't. But I always..." This he really didn't want to speak of, but Werner looked so fascinated by his words, so desperate somehow. "There are things that happened in the war that I don't want to forget. My friend, my best friend, was in the army with me. It was the last time I ever saw him. He was killed. The Germans killed him," he specified, and saw the flinch on Werner's face with a mixture of bitter pleasure and self-disgust. "He was killed. I don't want to forget him."
"I am sorry," Werner said, voice soft and tentative. He moved off the bed where he'd been perched and, to Hugh's amazement, dropped gracefully to his knees on the bare floorboards. "I am sorry," Werner said again, and reached out, the tips of his fingers just grazing Hugh's legs.
It was so unexpected that it took Hugh a moment to understand what was happening, that the careful, warming touch to his inner thigh was entirely intentional. Werner must have taken silence for assent, because he was shuffling closer, head bowed, leaning forward, entire body tense and his hands slid up further and further, to touch... to do for Hugh what a piece of trade would, what he was used to paying for.
"What the..?" Hugh began. His head was spinning as his blood pounded through him. He was flushed all over, sweat from his brow running down into his eyes and hurting them. Heat and shame and unwilling, startled arousal warred with nausea and bone-deep weariness.
"I am sorry," Werner repeated. "Please, do not hurt me. Please... I know... I know how this can be done. It is good."
Hugh tried to bat his hands away. "But I don't understand, I don't... I'm not going to..." Hugh frowned, squinted and closed his eyes to stop the room spinning. It was getting darker, or his vision was clouding. It was so damnably hot.
"I'm not," Hugh tried again, slurring, and then collapsed backwards, fainting.
- - -
(ix) For Years
Across the blue, smoky haze of the nightclub, which he knew he could not stay breathing in for long, past the writhing bodies gyrating to the jazz music, Hugh saw the man who was watching him.
This froze Hugh for a moment, and he felt bewildered as much as anything. He looked behind and around himself, far from certain that he was the one the gaze was truly directed at.
The young man, whose dark hair shone like an instrument much-polished, was powerfully built, and wore a pale blue scarf which set off the tanned skin at his throat. His full lips pursed around a cigarette and, as Hugh watched, he raised his eyebrow slightly and grinned, beckoning Hugh towards him with a tilt of his head.
It was a chill, December evening in Berlin, for all that inside the Club Moderne one could have been anywhere. Hugh had not been in the city yet twenty-four hours. He was not supposed to be there at all. The next day – that day, if midnight had passed – was the tenth anniversary of Patrick’s death, and he had been invited to a small memorial service the Fletchers were hosting in England. Hugh had been for two months in Italy, and had set off diligently enough on the way back to Britain, only to find that he couldn’t bear to continue. There was no grave for Patrick, only a stone with some dates on. It was so very like nothing, and he couldn’t see that and keep countenance.
He’d caught a train away from Calais at random, and now he was in Berlin, the very place which he and Patrick had for so many years fought to march into.
By this point he’d had several sticky, venomous cocktails, one horribly flavoured with cinnamon in honour of the season, and had coughed more than a little, and had watched the dancing. And had now realised that he in turn was being watched.
In answer to the young man’s summons, Hugh inclined his own head instead, reckoning that if he’d read the situation incorrectly, he’d be safer out at his table on the dance-floor then in the shadows by the bar, where there was so much glass to be broken.
Grinning more widely, the young man stood up and came over to the table, greeting him in broken English, having tried German and left Hugh shrugging and apologetic.
They talked a little, laughing at their own difficulties in communicating. The young man was called Max, he worked at the railway yards, but work was hard to find – or so Hugh thought he made out. He let Hugh buy him a drink, and offered him one of his cigarettes, which Hugh regretted having to turn down.
Since Patrick’s death, since the war, since his marriage, Hugh had experienced a sort of numbness, an indifference to his own body. Madeleine had at times had to remind and coax him just to eat. He was well past that, but now, in the first moment in years where he felt sure he was being approached with intent, new parts of him were returning to life, with all the pain of blood to a cold limb. Hugh half wanted Max to go away and leave him in peace, but felt a deep, primal thrill when, rising to go to the bathroom, he saw Max rising also and making to accompany him. In the poky club corridor, all sticky velvet carpet and faint, sour-sweet smells, Max grabbed his hand and led him away to a back exit and out to an alleyway, then pushed him against a wall and knelt before him. Hugh was drunk and enraptured and despairing and lost, all together, and breathless, quite, quite breathless. And then it was over.
“A hundred marks,” Max told him, not unkindly, doing Hugh’s trousers back up for him, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
Paying, Hugh had felt a wave of loss. Loss of innocence, of pride, perhaps, but also more. Of loss of ideals. He had known, from anecdote, from literature, from scandal and from judicious guesswork, that they were men who wanted each other and also made a sort of partnership. That a kind of marriage might be achieved. He had hoped to be one such. But perfect, dear friends could not be expected to be easily found. Certainly not twice in a lifetime. And this, then, was reality, for him and those like him; sordid short struggles in shadows, tender as gutting fish.
Hugh stayed on in Berlin for three years, and met many Maxes, even saw Max himself again once or twice.
Eventually, he left. Eventually, he came back to Britain. He never visited Patrick’s memorial. Only his own, where Wrong Hugh slept so peacefully, needing nothing and no-one.
- - -
(x) Turn of Key
[Near Shingle Street...Wednesday, 17th July...1940]
Crouching low behind the flint wall, Werner waited for the woman hanging her washing to turn her back to him. When she did so, he made a rapid dash behind the huge ash trees in the corner of her garden, clutching the eggs he'd stolen to his chest.
The first house Werner had come to, having followed the road vaguely westwards from the cottage Hugh had kept him in, had been almost completely empty. That had made entering it far easier, but although a large wooden dresser remained in one room and a bare bed-frame in another, no food had been left behind by the erstwhile residents. Eventually, with persistence, he'd found some early onions in the back garden and an overgrown bit of hedge where he'd been able to eat blackberries for some minutes. The onions and more berries now rested in one of the pockets of Hugh's overcoat, which Werner had taken to cover himself, still lacking his own clothing.
Continuing along the road, he'd passed an apple tree and picked the best-looking of some small, hard specimens. There'd been fungi, too, at the roadside, but his memories of wilderness survival classes were not distinct enough for him to trust, and species might in any case be different in England.
He was in England, he knew for certain now. He'd passed the church and seen the gravestones, and the small village’s bulletin board, where notices of goods for sale and a poster about jam production were surmounted by a carefully lettered ‘Bible verse for the Week’.
Now, courtesy of an unguarded hen coop, he had some protein. He wondered whether pressing on and exploring further was worth the risk of being discovered. He looked utterly disreputable, he knew, in this coat which was not quite big enough for him, barefoot (Hugh's boots having been simply too small to even get on his feet) and with three or four days of stubble on his chin. Anyone spotting him would be bound to be suspicious and make some sort of report.
On the other hand, there were more things he needed. He bit his lip and sighed. If only he had a clearer idea of what he was trying to do. Since the fire, or even before that, he'd let himself move from one immediate moment to the next, no plan beyond reaction, and when Hugh had collapsed his only source of information had been taken.
Scanning the horizon, Werner thought he saw another roof and decided to head for it, hoping his luck would hold.
"No, you must this have, taste is not matter." Werner drew the other man more closely against him as he held the cup up to Hugh’s mouth. Hugh struggled a little, but his thirst betrayed him and he gradually swallowed the cup of diluted aspirin, the taste very slightly offset with blackberry juice.
Werner didn't recall as much as he would have wished to about the treatment of pneumonia from his very brief field medicine course in the army, or from when his cousin had had it when he'd been little, but he did remember the supremacy of getting the patient to keep drinking, and the importance of helping them cough out the corruption. It troubled Hugh’s breathing to be laid flat, so Werner kept him propped up with pillows and folded blankets and sometimes sat, as now, behind his patient, Hugh's back against Werner's chest, supporting Hugh’s body for him so he could use his strength to clear his lungs.
Hugh had been bringing up brown and green mess, and not a little blood, frightening to see. Werner had seen men similarly afflicted, war veterans who’d been the victims of British gas attacks. The thought made him shudder. What foul cowardice such a weapon was, and how fast both sides had seemed to rush to it. No wonder they were all at war again.
"I can't, I can't, I've got to get back," Hugh was saying, restless now and hallucinating again. "I've got to get the food."
"Stille, alles ist gut," Werner rocked him in his arms, trying to keep his voice soothing even as he mumbled in German and English together. The contact brought a painful friction to Werner's own still-healing burns, but he scarcely noticed it. The ointment Hugh had had for him still helped, and there'd been more bandages in the medicine box Werner had managed - at last - to find and steal from a house in the nearby area. He felt guilty, taking from people, but they would have friends and neighbours to apply to if they needed aspirin or gauze, whilst Hugh had only Werner to rely on.
If Werner had had any idea where a doctor might be found, he might, especially when Hugh’s fever had been at its worst, have tried to obtain one. But the risk was so very great. How could he explain his own presence without incriminating Hugh also? Besides, in the Germany Werner had grown up in, people with Hugh’s infirmities did not like to draw the attention of the medical establishment, and this wariness stayed with him along with all the others.
"That's my grave," Hugh was telling him now, trying to lift his hand, perhaps to point. "That's my gravestone, so why not me? Why aren't I dead?"
Werner sighed and stroked a hand over Hugh's brow, frowning as he felt the sweat beading there. He'd moved Hugh through to the small cottage's other bedroom - the two rooms were the entire upper floor - and here there was a double bed, making it easier to move Hugh and nurse him. At night, Werner slept alongside Hugh, keeping a watch on him, always ready to bring him water. It had been, now, nearly three days since Hugh had first collapsed.
Trying to help heal one man didn't excuse what Werner had done before, he knew that. But still it made him feel better than he could remember in many years.
"Patrick!" Hugh called. "Patrick! You have to come over here, I have to tell you!"
Hugh had thought this Patrick was in the room with them more than once. Sometimes he addressed Werner by that name, and would try and hold him, hug him, before getting distressed and talking about fires and explosions and things burning down. Werner guessed that this man was the friend Hugh had lost in the war, and that made a horrible and strange depression in his heart.
Werner had never had anyone need him - cling to him - as Hugh now did in the belief that he was someone else.
Werner wondered if he'd ever called out for Josef in such a way. But he hoped it was unlikely; apart from anything else, Josef was, at least as far as he knew, still alive, and you didn't need to dream about those people in the same way. And Josef did not deserve to be called upon, not by him.
Not, of course, that Hugh and his friend would have been like Werner and Josef. They would have been purer-minded, not driven by dark circumstances around them into seeking comfort in each other in ways they should not.
Or at least, that had been how Josef had put it.
Werner shook his head and tried to think of something else, but all he could come up with was the reflection that in the future he thought he might well miss Hugh Wakefield, for all their association had been brief and must soon end. They couldn't stay undetected forever, and there was no point at all in Hugh being treated as a criminal when all he’d been was kind. He’d told Werner no secrets, and probably had few to tell even if he’d wanted to. As soon as Hugh could safely be left, Werner promised himself, he would leave him. Leave the man who had been more than Werner had begun to believe anyone could be; generous from a wish to be generous alone. Werner was always going to remember that. He thought it might keep him sane.
Hugh broke into another fit of coughing. Werner propped him up a little higher, and reached again for the water.
"Four days?" Hugh, sitting up in the bed, clear-eyed for the first time since his return, though slightly wild in aspect from his growing beard, looked amazed.
Werner twisted the cloth he was holding - he'd torn up a sheet from the single bed to make extra handkerchiefs, and for cold compresses - and nodded.
"But, you..." Hugh was looking round the bedroom. Werner had not thought to conceal any of the signs showing that they were occupying the place together. "But you're still here."
Werner shrugged. "Where other would I go to?"
"To London, perhaps? Back to Germany? Off into god-knows-where to sabotage something or to hide and wait? Somewhere safe?"
"I must to help you."
"Why did you have to?" Hugh sounded almost angry, frowning at him. "Why was that what you chose?"
"Why did you help me when I burned?" Werner challenged in turn, making himself meet Hugh's gaze and hold steady despite the trembling in his limbs. It was such a relief to see Hugh's eyes clear and focussed, without the glassy distance of fever, that he could almost forget the fear of antagonism, the expectation of punishment for argument, which had been so long instilled in him.
It was Hugh who looked away first. "Honestly? I don't know why I helped you. I wasn't thinking at all clearly. Be under no sort of illusion that I'm a good man."
Werner shook his head solemnly. "I have known evil men. I have. You are a good man, to me if not to yourself. And I think being at the fire with me, by the smoke, in the night, it is why your lungs were sick now."
"Well now you sound like my sister. Oh Lord, my sister. Four days?" Hugh frowned. "Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday... And they're not back till Monday, thank heavens. The servants won’t have cared. They’ll have though I drifted off to London again without telling them. I've got form in that department."
Werner didn't entirely understand the statement Hugh had made, but latched onto one element with hope he was sure he could not disguise. "You have friends, then, in London? Work in London?" He still reckoned London to be his best bet for disappearing safely.
To his surprise, Hugh met the question with a dark laugh, which set him coughing again for a while. Werner passed over the makeshift handkerchief but stayed back.
"You could say," Hugh managed, at length, "that I go to London to provide work for friends." Then, perhaps reading the confusion in Werner's face, he continued, his expression and his voice equally cold and blank: "I go to London to buy sex from people. From men. Men who can put up with my looks and the way I breathe."
Werner digested this information. He had the impression that this revelation was intended and expected to shock him. He wondered if he had the words, in any language, to explain instead the sudden happiness he was feeling.
Hugh had said the words so easily. Not with pride, but not with shame.
"You are... homosexual, then? Yes?" Werner asked, whilst the force of the news still made him daring enough to say it. It felt wonderful to do so, to be able to speak that so-carefully hidden thought aloud. To affirm that this existed. That there were other men, perhaps many other men, good men, men to admire, who felt such desires.
Hugh was frowning at him. "Yes. I am. Does that make you wish you hadn't..?" Hugh waved his arm round the room, the evidence of their co-habitation of it.
Werner laughed a little, partly the tension releasing. "I have lain with men. Many not so good men as you."
For a while there was silence between them, as Hugh sat there in the bed and Werner stood by it, the dent of his own head in the pillow neighbouring Hugh’s still obvious from the night before. Werner became aware of the sound of a pigeon cooing in the nearby line of trees, a soothing, domestic sort of rumble. There was a question hanging in the air, a possibility, teetering as if on the edge of a cliff.
He was too afraid to push.
"Time for lunch," Werner said, into the quiet. He turned to go to the door. "There is cheese and still apples, and I catched a rabbit. That is for dinner, but blood does thicken our lunch soup.”
"German cooking - a fate worse than death," Hugh muttered darkly, but he was smiling now.
- - -
(xi) Out of Your Shell
[Near Shingle Street...Sunday, 21st July...1940]
The lower floor of the small cottage on the Shingle Street-Hollesley road was, like the upper, roughly split into two rooms by a thin beam and plaster wall. One walked through the front door directly into the kitchen, where the large coal-fired range set into the chimney breast was of little use without any coal supplies. The kitchen also boasted a large, ceramic sink, plumbed in to allow drainage but without taps; the water supply came from a single, free-standing tap in the back garden. There was an outline of dust on the cheap linoleum floor-covering, suggestive of where something large, most likely a dresser, had stood. The owners having taken something that size partially explained why other, cheaper furniture had been left behind.
Hugh had insisted, on the second day of his recovery, on coming downstairs to help Werner with the chores. He could see now that Werner was doing as he had, and using the fireplace in the second downstairs room – a former parlour, by the looks of things - for what cooking could be managed. The only item of furniture left in the parlour was an armchair so ancient that its seat collapsed slowly and with much popping of loose springs once one had sat in it, releasing a cloud of dust. Werner had therefore brought down the rocking chair from the bedroom for Hugh to sit in, and he rested there now, chopping onions on a piece of well-scrubbed board using his penknife. Werner was kneeling at the hearth, stirring a carefully-balance stew-pot, which was in truth a metal bucket which Hugh suspected had latterly been used to feed a pig, and was probably none the worse for it.
Hugh did worry over the smoke they were producing. But then not every dwelling in the district was evacuated, and the line between the compulsory and voluntary zones was shapeless and ill-defined. One cottage's puffing chimney was unlikely to attract much notice in anything other than a cautious mind. Or so he must hope.
Hugh felt as well as he had in some time. He’d been in the habit for months of staying up late simply to have some peace and the run of Iken Court to himself, and hadn’t realised how much he was in need of rest. The days sleeping had left him feeling fresher than any amount of medicine might have, and although his cough still troubled him, it was only its usual self, and easier to bear now he was relaxed.
It felt safe, being in a house. But they were vulnerable. He still struggled to comprehend that Werner, at his collapse, had not only failed to hurt or exploit him in any way, but had missed his chance to run unobserved and had stayed instead, nursing him. Hugh had been fairly sure in himself, before all this, that the boy really was part of a small, scouting pre-invasion force - perhaps a reluctant, recalcitrant member, but still acting under orders. Now the story of having run away seemed more plausible. That would have taken determination and bravery, and he could see those qualities in Werner. Part of Hugh wanted to press for more details, to better know and understand his companion. Part of him wanted never to speak of war again.
None of that, though, changed who Werner fundamentally was. Being here in the cottage was pleasant, even idyllic in some ways, but it was a fool's paradise. Hugh had to go back home when his family returned, and frankly he and Werner had been fortunate not to have been discovered thus far.
"You do understand why we have to surrender you to the authorities?" he said now, gently. They’d spoken about it the evening before, and Werner had agreed to Hugh’s take on the matter readily enough, but Hugh wanted to be very clear why he proposed what he did; God damn him for a gullible fool, but he trusted Werner now, and was far from wanting to hurt him. "The longer the delay,” Hugh continued, “the less they'll believe that you're giving yourself up voluntarily, and the harsher they'll be to you. But I will vouch for you, of course, tell them all you've done for me. How you've helped me - saved me, probably. If I'd gone home alone, I might have..."
Werner shot him a pained look. Hugh was gathering his thoughts to outline once more why the surrender and arrest were the only plausible course, when Werner said. "You think too much about dying."
"When you were sick, you said it. Why am I not dead? Over and over you ask. You wanted to be, I think, to have the answer."
Hugh stared at him.
"You are not dead. Be alive." Werner told him, and stood up from his stirring, going out of the room to the kitchen.
Hugh carried the chopped onions carefully over to the fire, slid them into the simmering melee of ingredients and paused, giving another stir and enjoying the warm, damp steam entering into his lungs. Werner had that day found a wild plum tree down the lane, and the fruit were going to be stewed for dessert. That was Hugh’s next pile to chop.
He thought about what Werner had said.
"Part of me did die," Hugh told him, when Werner came back from the kitchen, wiping his hands on his trousers - his uniform grey trousers, retrieved from their hiding place by Hugh the day before so that now they both could be dressed at once.
Werner tilted his head to side, looking curious. And more than curious - there was the same desperate hunger in his eyes that had appeared when Hugh had talked about being queer. Then, as now, Werner looked as eager for information as a sponge for water.
It was not that as one grew older one became more confident, Hugh thought, merely that one stopped believing that those answers could be found.
"Part of me," Hugh repeated. "I think I said, before, that I never thought about becoming a soldier, because that was just what you did. I didn't question. I didn't worry. That part of me is gone. I don't accept things, now. I don't trust easily. I don't believe a good outcome will happen when a bad is just as likely."
Werner nodded slowly. "And your friend," he said, very softly. "Was he...?" He drew back into himself suddenly, blinking as if surprised by his own words, crossing his arms over his chest and shaking his head. "I am sorry, I should not..."
Hugh was ready to deny it, or to let the moment pass. Then he thought of Patrick again, Patrick hugging him, waiting, and getting no answer.
"I don't know about him," Hugh said. "I don't know if he was that way. But I did love him, and he was a great loss to me." He blinked rapidly, having to look away. He couldn't think why he cried now, after so long. He never cried.
But then he'd never thought to be able to say any of that aloud, to hear the words anywhere but in his own head. Oh yes, he might have told it all safely enough to a casual trade or the dainty doyens of a London bar and not feared the law, but he’d never have trusted them with the story all the same. He rubbed the back of his hand over his face angrily. "Sorry."
"Onions," Werner offered as an excuse. He was biting his lip.
"Onions," Hugh repeated, nodding and trying to smile. "Your wretched onions. Why couldn't you have dug up something else?"
He was surprised to see Werner flinch as if the criticism was anything but a joke. He should have expected that by now, and been more careful. The boy seemed to expect harshness, never praise.
"Alles ist gut," Hugh said now, insistently. "Danke. Danke, Ich bin... grateful? Onions sind sehr gut." Hugh shrugged and smiled over the gaps in his vocabulary.
Werner picked up the top of the pile of onionskins. "Zwiebeln" he said, clearly. "Onions. Zwiebeln."
"Zwiebeln," Hugh repeated. "And 'grateful'?"
Werner frowned. "I do not know this one. Grate?" he asked, pointing at the fire.
"No!" Hugh concentrated and tried again. "Thankful to you,' is what it means. "Thankful. Oh, what is...? Dankbar! That’s it, Dankbar."
Werner looked away, blushing. "Bitte."
Hugh, getting a whiff of the fire's smoke, broke into a fit of coughing, though one far easier than the wretched times he'd passed a few days ago. Nevertheless, Werner hurried to bring him a drink of water. Hugh had never liked being looked after or reminded of his permanent position as an invalid, but then he had done as much for Werner - could see the red, raw areas still, on Werner's hand - and that made it so much easier to bear. That, and the way pleasure radiated from Werner with each time Hugh let himself be looked after.
He had settled in the rocking chair again with Werner's help, and now he had a sudden vision of the how the room's usual inhabitants might sit so, with perhaps an aged parent on grandparent in a chair like this, drawn up to the fire, tended by the young.
The thought did not please him.
"When did you learn so much English?" Hugh asked, seeking to distract his own thoughts as much as anything.
"When I lived in the house of my uncle," Werner told him, settling back to his position stirring the stew. "He is - he was - a very learned man. He thought English will be useful."
"You said ‘was’ - he is dead now, then?"
Werner sighed. "I think yes. They sent him to a Konzentrationslager. A concentrated camp."
"I know the word,” Hugh said, grimly. He’d had a board game on the topic as a child, celebrating the Boer War. Humanity could be easy to hate, at times. “But why arrest your uncle?"
Werner frowned, staring into the fire a long while before he spoke. "He helped people. Jews. He... My father..." Werner took a deep, shuddering breath.
"You don't approve of that? You don't... like that he did that?" Hugh asked, trying to make the question as comprehensible as possible even he as feared the answer, a chill running up his spine.
But Werner shook his head vigorously, clearly horrified by such a suggestion.
"Nein! No! My uncle, he was...” Werner looked about him, as if the word might appear. “I wish that my uncle was my father. My uncle was a good man. And my uncle, he never said to me I am worthless, I am bad. But so," he added quickly, before Hugh could quite unravel his statement, "when did you also learn German?"
"I lived in Berlin for a while," Hugh told him slowly, still puzzling over what he’d just heard.
"Ach yes? When?" Werner clearly wanted to move the topic forward.
"1926 until 1929. You must have been a child then."
Werner nodded, not apparently surprised or unsettled by the postscript. Perhaps the gap between them didn't bother him, or perhaps he'd never found it remarkable. "Those were in the good years. Well, not so good, but better than today. Before the National-Sozialists." He stirred the pot again. "I am glad you saw my country then, not now."
Before eating their evening meal, Hugh and Werner went on a short walk out from the back of the cottage, where a neat vegetable patch lead first to wild ferns and bracken, and then on to the edges of some woodland. Werner was collecting some more firewood and after a brief argument Hugh succeeded in being allowed to carry another basket for fir-cones and twigs. "I'm quite capable of telling you when I'm tired," he'd argued to Werner, who had rolled his eyes and appeared unconvinced.
It was early evening, the light just starting to change from rich and thick to pale and fiery, golden in the treetops. Hugh thought back to his last leisurely day out, that trip to the graveyard at St. Botolph's. It didn't seem to have rained since. The Wrong Hugh's grave's flowers would be dried out by now. For the first time in a very long while, he'd not had time for the dead.
He picked a few blackberries from some low-running brambles, eating several and passing the others on to Werner. The juice burst easily from the soft fruit and made their fingers purple. Werner cursed and licked his, and Hugh looked away.
"If you want to run," Hugh said suddenly, "I don't know where you could go to, but you could try."
Werner blinked at him, and slowly shook his head. "I said before, I also think I should be arrested. I did not change my thought."
“I’m sure you didn’t join your army with a moment’s more enthusiasm than when I joined mine. Much less, I dare say. You aren't any kind of Nazi. You’re just caught up in it all, you and thousands of others, like as not, who didn't choose it either.”
Werner looked away, grimacing. "I did what I did," he said. "And when I am arrested I can tell things. I can help. I can tell about my army in Holland and the barges, and perhaps help. Perhaps help you to be ready."
“Do you think it will come soon then? The invasion?”
"I do not know. Maybe no. Maybe if your RAF can keep fighting, but.." Werner gave a helpless shrug, and looked around him, out at the fields and towards the sea, and what lay beyond.
Hugh knew what he meant. It seemed unthinkable and inescapable at the same time. He too looked over the landscape. He’d imagined war here, war like the battles he’d known, the horror of thundering shells and blood and mud. But Werner’s stories had reminded him that besides visceral, immediate horror, there was evil more insidious, that could make an ordinary quiet day full of terror and hate. If the Nazis crossed the channel successfully, the fighting might be swift, but the real war domestic and prolonged, played out in the guise of the everyday, of policemen and arrests, activities banned and activities enforced, certain people allowed to carry on much as they wanted to, at the expense of others to be broken down. Some would collaborate – faced with the safety of their families and loved ones they’d feel they had no choice. His war had had edges behind which one could hide; this one would not.
Werner had started fiddling with a twig, breaking its branches off. Now, he threw it away into the brambles, hissing with frustration. “I never had a happiness life, not since many years. But this is,” and he waved his arm round at the woods, the garden, the cottage, sweeping past Hugh in the arc. “And now I will lose it and be in prison. British prison, or German prison. And to prison I must go, but I wish there were many good times for to remember there.”
Before Hugh could respond, Werner had turned away with an easy swing of his athletic frame and started back towards the house. From somewhere in the distance, the climbing whine of an aircraft's engine could be heard, and it was growing dark.
Hugh followed Werner along the path.
“None of them gave you a good time, then?” Hugh heard himself asking. “None of those men who... who lay with you, were good to you?”
He could ask, he told himself. It was a general question. If they had been two men discussing women, it would be the most normal thing to talk about.
And after all, Werner would lose his freedom tomorrow, Hugh too if it went badly for him. So why not take some liberties of conversation now? They would probably never meet again.
Werner slowed his step, and Hugh felt icy-cold again, wondering if he’d misunderstood, earlier, if Werner had referred to lying with men to mean – after all, the man spoke English imperfectly – literally sleeping alongside them, as in the army one does.
Or perhaps Werner didn’t want to discuss the subject, or at least not with Hugh. It was hard to tell, in the now rosy sunset light, if the boy was blushing.
Werner spoke in a very low voice. He was holding his armful of wood tight across his chest. “None of those men, no,” he said. “Or perhaps... it is not easy to say.”
Hugh would have left the point there, would have cleared his dry throat and said something instead about the cooling temperature of the day, or the quality of the light on the fields, or the patch of dandelions he'd spotted that would make a reasonable salad with their meat.
But Werner, after pausing for a moment, turned slowly towards him. He looked hesitant, even frightened, but what he said was, "I can tell you?" Alongside the fear in his face was hope, brilliant and fragile. Hugh wasn't sure he could manage much more of being looked at like that.
The moment broke as they both jumped in alarm and turned at a sudden burst of movement which had occurred beyond the trees. It was a small muntjac deer, and her smaller fawn, emerging from behind a gorse bush and springing away, light-footed, over the fields.
"Yes," Hugh said. His heart was racing. "Yes, you can tell me whatever you'd like to."
"Did you hear of the Hitler Jugend? The young people of Hitler?" Werner asked him, in a very low voice, as if afraid to invoke the name.
"I was in this," Werner continued. "It is not allowed not to be, and my father wanted it for me also. Usually, it is every day, after school. It is not good, but it is not so bad, because you can go home. We did gymnastic, wrestling, boxing, and also marching and parade, like the army. There are also lectures about important men, and always war, how good it is to be in war." He shuddered as he said this last, Hugh noticed, with a stomach-turning sympathy of his own.
There was a pause. Werner was chewing at his lip and looking around him, perhaps trying to compose his next sentences, or work out what to say, or whether to say it at all.
"Listen, you don't have to..." Hugh began, but Werner stepped forward, startled as the deer, his eyes wide and imploring. It was very important to him to say this, Hugh realised, and excruciatingly difficult.
"In the summer time, when it is the holidays of school," Werner said, "there is Hitler Jugend camp, and you go and stay in the country. You sleep in tents. I hated this camp. All the time, fighting, sporting. At the start books were allowed, but in 1937 books were not allowed because it is not allowed to be alone. And the boys are bored, very bored, and at night they... with each other, in bed with each other. Not loving, but the body. The sex. With hands, usually."
Hugh had lost all frame of reference to guide his response. He had only ever encountered frankness from men confident in themselves, juggling words like so many bright batons. Werner was flushing, pink right to the roots of his golden hair and down under his shirt collar. He was so classically handsome that awkwardness sat even more badly on him than it might have done on another.
"Boarding schools in England can have a bit of that," Hugh remarked at last. “Boys round the world aren’t so very different.”
This seemed to give Werner courage to press on.
"When I was small, it was not so good. To be safe there must be... bargains. But I became bigger, taller, and I did not do with other people, I said I did not want to and they left me alone." Werner's gaze had moved away again, and Hugh did not miss the way he rushed through the words, and felt a bolt of nausea for him and a surge of anger alongside it.
"But then," Werner continued, "arrived Josef. His family were coming from Bavaria, and were arriving into Berlin that summer, the 1937 summer. I was sixteen years old, he was near eighteen. He was for the SS, everyone said, and then I thought I did not like him, because..." Werner heaved a sigh, shrugged. "I hate the SS," he stated finally, with a bitterly firm conviction.
"Josef was the best for everything. He won everything, the fighting too, but he was not... unkind. Fighting was sport, for Josef. With rules, you see? He told me, another time, that because of the Third Reich, the world is saved and everyone will be happy. He was always happy. I thought always that to be the best in Hitler Jugend, you had to hate, but he loved. And he was nice with me. I was nobody, nothing. But he would at food sit with me, and walk with me on marches, and he moved and was in my tent. I thought he wanted my body. I thought that was not a bad thing. I liked him."
Werner was speaking softly, and more so at the end, tailing off into a wistful breath.
Hugh could already imagine how this went. "So, you tried something and he hit you?"
Werner blinked. "No. Not that. There was a night we sat near, both carving wood, and I looked to him, and... I think I kissed him first. But we kissed. He was different, not just hands and Spucke and go away, but with softly, careful. It was good. I had beautiful nights, I thought. It was a week, seven or eight or nine days. It was near the time to go home, and I said to him to meet me in Berlin. And then he was crying. He had been not so much happy, but I had not seen because I was happy, then. He told me he was reading the books of the Führer and of the Party, he had hidden them with him because he needed them always. The books said it was wrong, bad, two men. He could not go against the books. He was for being a Youth Leader being taught, and they had given writings to say that homosexuals were part of the under races and the racial impurities and must be gone from the new world. So he said we had been a false to ourselves. We had not wanted it, really, because we could not. We were confused, he said. And now it must stop.
"I said to him I loved him, love the same as the love for the country and the blood, the good thing. I said to him, the book is wrong. We are not wrong. You are the best in the camp, I told him, and do I make you less than it with touching you?
"He pushed me back, and I fell over. He cried. He told me I am the corruption and the filthy. He went away to another tent. I did not see him smile, after. I did not see him happy. He was wrong! And he hurt me, and he hurt because of his fault, and but I was hurt to see him hurt! Why so?"
Werner took another deep, shaking breath. His eyes were damp, Hugh saw, welling up even as the blush spread again over his face.
"I know I did not love him," Werner said now, and his voice was empty, husky, threatening to catch in his throat. He'd been holding all the while his bundle of firewood, and his grip was so deathly-tight that his hands were quite white, and trembled somewhat. "I did not love him. I knew also then, but I wanted... I was nothing, there was nothing. My father..." Werner was breathing more quickly, eyes darting about, fearful. "And Josef liked me. He saw in me good things. And I liked... And since I wanted."
Seeing the boy's growing incoherence, Hugh risked taking a step towards him, feeling a desperate instinct to console, so intense as to unsettle him even though his sympathetic grief. But luckily, Werner's bundle of sticks formed a most effective barrier to being embraced, and Hugh merely patted at his arm, letting his thumb smooth over the folds of cloth in Werner's sleeves. The fabric was slightly damp from the flushed skin beneath.
"Did he tell anyone?" Hugh asked, gently. "Did you see him again?"
Werner nodded. "He was in Berlin, near my house. I saw him at Hitler Jugend, every day. But just for two months. Then he was eighteen and to the SS he went. And since that I do not know. I do not want to know." Werner hid it well, but Hugh still caught his shudder. "I wish I had a one like you," Werner added, sighing again, voice low. Then he squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, shook his head as if to clear it and turned away towards the cottage.
Hugh gave a sympathetic grunt. He assumed that Werner meant to say he wished that, like Hugh, he'd had a friend like Patrick.
It was only a little later, thinking the whole conversation over, that it occurred to him that Werner might have meant something else.
They had not appreciated the problems which having no sugar with which to sweeten the plums would occasion.
“Puddings are not my culinary strong point, I fear,” said Hugh, trying to eat another mouthful of the incredibly tart pink mush and giving it up as a bad job, his teeth fizzing. Trying to laugh through pursed lips was hard, and made the impulse to laugh only more bedevilling, and he was pleased to see Werner breaking into mirth too at the sight of him. The atmosphere since their walk had been not precisely awkward - they had become very used to each other, able to co-exist in peaceful silence - but definitely heavy. It was good to smile easily.
They were sitting in front of the fire in the cottage parlour, the curtains of the room already drawn for the blackout, their lighting coming from the fire’s low red glow and two candle stubs, discovered tenaciously fixed into battered tin holders which Hugh suspected the erstwhile owners of the cottage had set aside for dirty night-time work and not considered worth taking.
Hugh was back in the rocking chair, a blanket over his legs. It was one of the new items that had materialised in the cottage since he'd been taken ill, and Werner had pointed out in his own defence that it was a horse blanket, which Hugh could easily have guessed from the smell and the residue of straw and oats. But it was warm. He hoped the horse didn’t miss it; in this summer weather, he thought probably not.
Werner sat on the floor, cross-legged like a school-boy, which he said he was perfectly used to doing. Hugh could well believe it.
These relative positions created a patriarchal atmosphere which Hugh disliked, but also thought might well be for the best. He couldn’t believe what had got into him, earlier, outside, to ask the boy the questions he had. Clearly, Werner had wanted to talk, had welcomed the opportunity, but it was dangerous ground. In his short life, Werner had been manipulated and pushed and lied to and let down. Hugh must not, on any account, risk a misunderstanding. Or, his conscience prodded him to specify, an understanding.
The way Werner was looking up at him now, his face soft in the firelight, made his heart clench. Not for his beauty, but the cosy ease of that look, the trust of relaxation. They both looked somewhat odd, no doubt, the worse for several days without razors, and the coming beard made Werner look older, even as his hair was growing out of its close-shaved regimental style and starting to form curls at his neck. Not that Werner was a child. Hugh remembered being nineteen; that had been the year he was gassed. They were both of generations forced to be adults at the most break-neck speed possible.
“Tea, now?” Werner asked, and half got up, going to his knees and sliding on them towards Hugh, reaching out to take away Hugh’s enamel plate of half-eaten plum mush. Some long-lost picnic things, excavated from Jennifer’s car, had assisted the meal’s service; this plate Hugh remembered beating as a drum, playing at being a soldier boy.
“If there’s any left. Is there?”
Werner shrugged. “I do not drink it when you were ill. I am not used to it, as you have said.”
Hugh closed his eyes, hearing his own words of days earlier echoing in his head. “I shouldn’t have spoken to you as I did, then. I apologise.”
Werner, still kneeling, scraping the failed fruit from Hugh's plate to join the residue on his own, made a scorning grunt. "Do not have to apologise."
"I tried to make myself feel that I could be cruel to you, by calling you names and being rude. And you of all people know what sort of people do that, and what sort of road it leads them down."
"But you are not cruel to me," Werner was looking up at him, eyes wide. "You have helped me."
It was Hugh's turn to scoff. "Patched you up? They'd have done that for you anyway. No, I just trapped you here for a bloody week, when you'd probably have been better off handed in in the first place, and left you looking after my sorry bag of bones, and..." He could see Werner making ready to protest again, and held up a hand to forestall him; almost the worst of it, that he could see, was that quite probably he had been the kindest to Werner that anyone had been in a long while.
"I just wish," Hugh said, "that there was anything I could do for you. Any way to make this better. I can give you some money, at least. A good lawyer, if they'll let you have one, I don't actually know if the army..."
He stopped. Werner had put a hand over his, where it rested on the chair.
"To help me? Please?" Werner said, his brow furrowed with determination. "Then give to me a happiness. So it is not all the bad, now. A one I can remember after all is gone? So that I know it may be good?"
The sight of him on his knees, looking up at Hugh, anxious and imploring, was far too much like what had gone before, when Werner had sought to placate him with favours, and Hugh drew back in reflexive alarm and disbelief. He was shocked by the sudden wave of sensation which had spread through his own body as Werner touched him.
Werner's face fell, and with such immediate bleakness that Hugh could not begin to convince himself it was faked. "You do not want to?"
"But..." Hugh's mouth was dry. "With me? You want to... with me?"
The parlour was small and warm and over the day had grown to smell of onions and gamey stew and sweat and wood-smoke, accented with the dried lavender on the mantelpiece, which someone at some time had tied into a bundle in a pink ribbon, a careful act now forgotten. This was a room for politeness, a refuge in a rough, practical house where gentility might be practiced, and here were Werner and himself, smearing it, outraging it.
But, "Yes, you!" Werner was saying, picking up Hugh's hand now, holding it so carefully in his own, and it seemed that there had never being anything more elegant. "Du. You," Werner repeated, and bent his head down and kissed at Hugh's knuckles, his lips dry, his whole body trembling.
"You really can't want..." Hugh tried, one last time, because he knew he was the one who was available, he knew he was all Werner had on offer, and he needed to be told that, quite firmly and bluntly, before he lost his senses altogether.
Werner knelt up, reached to cradle Hugh's head down, and kissed him, on the mouth, rough and eager. They both tasted sharply of plums, so tart it almost hurt.
Hugh found his hands going into Werner's hair. The kiss was too fast for his taste, too hard and with too much pressure, all against his lips, and he attempted to slow the pace and ease things back to something slower and longer. The taste changed, becoming more of each other, and Hugh felt sweat sliding down his back, heat building in his core.
This wasn’t – couldn’t be – wrong or bad or evil. But by Christ it was terrifying.
Werner was gasping when they parted, his eyes so very dark. "Please," he said. His hand had slid back to Hugh's wrist, gripping tight, but more as a falling man holds on, not as a guard keeps a captive. "Please. Tomorrow I am gone. Anything tonight we can do. Please. I can be good, you would like it."
"God damn it!" Hugh half-shouted, shaking him by the shoulders and leaning in fast and hard to snatch another kiss. "What do you want? Tell me what fond fantasy maddens your brain. What are you thinking of, dreaming about?" The flurry of words shook a cough from him, but there was his water to hand, and he waved Werner's concern away. "Come on, what do you want? Tell me. I'll... I'll do anything I can."
Werner bit his lip, and Hugh began to run through his mental catalogue of sexual practices, trying to think what, under these circumstances, he really ought not to do.
"In the bed?" Werner asked, hesitantly. "And then together to sleep?"
Hugh, having waited a while, abruptly realised that Werner had in fact outlined his desires.
Heaven help him, but Hugh couldn't care anymore that Werner had only chosen him for this because he was the only choice available. He was available, that was the point, he was here, now, all Werner had and he was going to give him all he could.
- - -
Ascending the stairs to the bedroom, where that very morning they’d woken side by side – neither having raised the topic of someone returning to the ex-cell – was nothing so very novel, but it felt different all the same, every moment imbued with terrible importance. Hugh could remember no journey like it, no time when such breathless excitement had captured him with all still to occur.
Werner was such a mixture of eagerness and hesitation, carefully setting down the candle he'd brought up and then stumbling through removing his clothes, shy of himself, holding his arms over his body, even as he watched Hugh closely, with that hungry, burning gaze once more on his face. To be so very entranced by the prospect simply of sharing a bed after intimacy - Hugh could scarcely imagine it. Not that he'd done so often himself, had turned down opportunities more than once in fact, aware he was only being invited through the tiredness of the inviter and their lack of interest in further conversation; he never brought men to his own rooms, had never wanted to. It had never seemed much to the purpose.
But such an effect it was having on Werner that he was starting to look more anxious than anything.
"I've seen it all before," Hugh told him, gently, walking towards him and smoothing the very tips of his fingers over the damaged skin on Werner's left shoulder that was still faintly red. Dressing those wounds, though his mind had been entirely on his task, had certainly shown him that Werner was the sort of physical specimen beloved of the 'after' images in patent exercise machine adverts. He'd thought later that the boy must make a highly approved product of Nazi manhood. And that had made him think his German must be a Nazi indeed. How terrifyingly easy it was to leap to conclusions.
"Here," Hugh said, and reached for the burns ointment on a nearby shelf, putting a little on his fingers. He sat on the edge of the bed and beckoned Werner to him, to stand between his legs as Hugh applied the stuff to Werner’s injured flank, which might as well be tended again before he was left to the gentle care of the British army.
But Hugh was not going to think about tomorrow just now.
As he had hoped, the familiarity of the touch seemed to calm Werner a little, make him look more as if he were doing something he liked and less like he was being lead out blindfolded to a mine field. Hugh met his eyes, and smiled, and, keeping rubbing lightly at his side, leant in and kissed him softly at the junction of his neck and shoulder. He tasted mostly of wood smoke. Werner, trembling, took a shaking step to the side. He still had on his underwear, and Hugh was still mostly dressed, but that seemed very well for how Hugh intended to take things.
Hugh had idly thought - at times when he was unable to resisting castle-building - about what he might do with someone who wanted to take their time. It was strange how much it harder it was, in person, to be slow, how, even when you could, the instinct to race on to the finish burned so fiercely. And he'd not had a lover since December, his last long trip to London. That had been a bored, beautiful young man he'd met in a pub near Seven Dials, who said he didn't like to kiss, and who had become quite irritated when Hugh's breathing problems had precluded his preferred position.
"Hugh..." Werner whispered to him, as Hugh drew him down to sit on the bed beside him. Hugh looked and found Werner leaning in towards him, seeking a kiss. Hugh obliged, and ran his hand down the back of Werner's neck, feeling under his fingers the slight change in the skin where the healing burn began. Werner made a happy humming sound, and pulled back from him, only to move in and explore the soft hollow under Hugh's throat, between his collarbones. It was an area, Hugh had long known, that if warmed made his chest feel soothed, and the heat and careful attention of Werner's mouth radiated a pleasure that seemed to set loose an iron band from round about him, a constriction he hadn't known until it was lifted.
Other parts of him heated too, grew tense and steel-hard, but he was determined to be slow.
Hugh lay back over the bed slowly, taking Werner with him. They got Hugh's shirt off, and kissed again, pressing together. Werner seemed aware of his own weight, supporting himself on his hand where it braced against the bed and avoiding putting too much weight on Hugh, but when Hugh's fingers found Werner's nipples he startled and gasped, wobbling and nearly falling down to squash him. Hugh laughed in delight and rolled over to move above, putting his mouth to Werner's chest and exploring, seeing how many more sounds he could induce.
At some point in the past week, Werner's scent had become completely familiar to him. Hugh nosed along Werner's neck and found himself thinking of the evenings of the week just past, of silent companionship in the parlour and then the wide, warm bed. Of the times Werner had held him up, or helped him to drink. The faintly acrid tang of the tannic acid ointment worked into the memory too, bringing back the first nights after the beach, that early reeling horror and confusion as he'd reckoned himself to have gone mad, and wished to hell he'd never left his house.
Werner groaned, and Hugh realised they had become aligned completely, their groins pressing together, which even through layers of clothing was, for Werner, apparently close to overwhelming. He eased back and kissed Werner’s mouth again, encouraging him to open his eyes. Werner let out another cry, and Hugh thought of how, even injured, Werner had kept so silent, so afraid. It was wonderful to hear him now, freely moaning, pained and petulant and then sitting up, surging towards Hugh, trying to get his trousers off. They paused, removing the last of the clothes, and Hugh had to take a breath at the sight of how roused Werner had become already, his member wet with eagerness.
Hugh had never been able to do the tricks with his mouth and throat that some he'd met could; his breathing was not so easy to control. He'd never much regretted it. Now, though, he found himself experiencing an urge to taste such as he'd never known. Although naturally he enjoyed receiving the attention, he'd always thought giving it to be slightly unpleasant. But he had loved kissing Werner everywhere else, and it felt obvious to kiss him there also.
Werner cried out, as Hugh obeyed his urge. Hugh noticed after a while that Werner's hands were clenched at his sides, and that Werner was shaking with the effort of not moving. Hugh reached out, taking Werner's hand into his one of his own, the other being occupied. Werner clasped hard, tightening with each new wave of feeling, groaning and squirming whenever Hugh did something especially pleasing. Finally, Hugh had to break off and kiss Werner's mouth once more, muttering things he couldn't suppress. Werner gave another broken cry, trying to get closer to him, hips moving frantically now.
Hugh reached down for him, meaning to let him get there.
Werner tugged at his hand sharply. "Please, no..." he was saying. "Ich kann nicht... wartern, wait, please... Hugh, I do not want to..."
"It's alright, it's alright," Hugh paused, and let his other hand smooth over Werner's brow, watching him pant and grimace, struggling to control himself.
"Es war... It was never..." Werner was struggling to catch his breath. "I did not know this... Oh, Hugh. Please. Not to stop, but stop, to wait..."
"I know," Hugh told him. "But don't worry. I've plenty more plans for you tonight." He wondered if Werner could hear the tremble in his own voice. If Werner would ever understand that for Hugh this was every bit as extraordinary. Fairly plentiful experience Hugh might have, but that did not translate to being used to feeling like this. It was almost never like this. And might never be again, at least for Hugh.
In wartime, worlds end suddenly.
"I don't want to stop, either," Hugh murmured, so softly and with so much distraction provided alongside it that he thought he might get away with it.
Hugh woke, as he often did, having to struggle to get upright and find his handkerchief to catch his cough. For a moment this so occupied him that he thought of nothing else, vaguely aware that it was morning from the light creeping round the edges of the curtains.
First realising he was alone in the bed, he assumed Werner had gone to the other room or outside to use the privy, or perhaps downstairs to prepare breakfast. He might be intending to bring up a cup of tea, Hugh thought, and smiled fondly, stretching out under the covers and enjoying the sweet ache in his limbs. The bed, in truth, was a little the worse for wear, and Hugh wondered if he ought to try and wash the sheets before leaving, or simply burn them; the occupants would not want to return to this.
This thought of cold circumstance brought down his mood. Today, it all ended. He and Werner must go to the police. Must under every possible circumstance, unless of course the invasion had come. And if he were to weigh his own little troubles against that sort of a prospect, he had no right to feel himself suffering.
It would be fine. He would visit Werner, wherever he was taken. That had to be allowed. Visit him and make sure everyone understood what good he'd done. The war wouldn't last forever. Werner wouldn't ever again want to be with Hugh like he had last night, of course, not once he'd seen the other people in the world, but they could be friends, and perhaps...
"Trouble with the water?" Hugh shouted. He'd been pleased the house hadn't had it's water supply cut off - it might well run from its own spring - but ever conscious it might happen.
Not hearing a reply, he made himself get out from the warmth under the covers, and go to the bedroom doorway. He was still naked, and shivered slightly in the morning cool, coughing again a little.
"Werner?" he called again.
It was only now that suspicion grabbed him. He looked about. Werner's clothes were not lying about, but that only meant he'd got dressed. Pulling on his own shirt and getting into his trousers, Hugh made his way barefoot down the stairs. There was no one in the parlour or the kitchen, no fire laid, no breakfast, no signs of any other inhabitant at all. Except, there, on the parlour mantel, the tannic acid ointment tube, squeezed thin, left with its cap off.
Hugh went back upstairs, put his head into the small bedroom. He came down and looked in the kitchen and the parlour again, as if anything might have changed. He went out to the privy, walked to the woods, getting out of breath and having to pause and bend in half, coughing desperately.
But Werner was gone.
- - -
(xiii) Private Hell
[Woodbridge, Suffolk... Monday, 22nd July... 1940]
Werner sat in a cell at Woodbridge Police Station, and found he was running his right hand idly over the burns on his left. He'd put more ointment on before leaving the cottage. It had become more sore again, from holding Hugh's hand in the night.
Werner put his face in his hands, and took a deep breath, trying to control himself.
It would have been worse, for both of them, if he'd stayed. He'd long known he wouldn't let Hugh come to the police with him. The full story of what had happened would only bring Hugh under suspicion and censure, and not help the authorities in any way.
No, when Werner had handed himself in he’d claimed he'd made his way ashore from the barge without help, passed out, found himself coming around without his companions, and had wandered to a deserted cottage where he'd found food and bandages, and holed up for a few days until he felt well enough to move on. He'd told, quite truthfully, how that morning he'd set out on the road, heading vaguely inland by setting his course west and with the sunrise to his back, and had been offered a lift into the nearest town by a baker's wagon.
It had in fact taken a little while to convince the policeman he'd first spoken to that he wasn't some kind of time-waster, but seemingly a telephone call to some more senior person had set the man right, and Werner had been handcuffed and escorted to the cells with some ceremony. The policeman had then offered him a cup of tea, and apologised for the lack of biscuits.
Werner had declined politely, and asked for water. He wasn’t sure he could drink tea again, not without losing the composure he now had to maintain.
He’d become so accomplished, over the years, at keeping his feelings inside himself. Always, around other people, even Josef – especially Josef, in some ways – he’d been on his guard.
It had not been like that last night. But then he had lied, all the same. Lied, or at least allowed Hugh to believe that they would come here together, with a chance to say farewell.
Maybe it mattered less to Hugh. Maybe for Hugh, with his wide experience, their time together hadn’t mattered so much at all.
Biting his lip, he shoved his head back against the cool stone of the cell wall and squeezed his eyes shut till it made his head ache, not wanting to think of it.
But then perhaps if he didn’t think of it now, he’d never be able to remember, and that was far worse, the prospect of losing it altogether.
The recollection of Hugh touching him, reaching for him. Hugh’s smile, and how calm he’d been, as if there was nothing to fear. Werner had known he wouldn’t be pushed about and belittled and commanded, as before, but had never expected Hugh to minister to him first, or imagined that smile greeting him in his pleasure. Hugh’s mouth, so unexpectedly wonderful - Werner could see now why men demanded that, if that was how good it felt to have it done to you – and then Hugh’s patience, letting Werner recover, cradling him in his arm and keeping close, stroking his hair and still smiling, so beautiful.
And so unlike Josef, in that afterwards, not hesitating or sighing, not mournful, unhappy, as one who has just transgressed. Hugh believed – Hugh knew, wholeheartedly, that for men to be with each other was no evil, not set against all the deeds of the world. And for that alone Werner could have adored him.
Werner only hoped he’d been able to make Hugh feel half as good. He’d tried to think of everything he’d ever learnt to please a man, but none of that had fitted with them, there, tangling under the covers slow and easy. He’d always wanted mostly to know how to make it quick, and with Hugh he had been desperate for it to be slow, for it never to end.
It had been so very, very hard to leave the bed. To creep away. To resist the temptation to lean in once more and kiss Hugh’s cheek, or scurry back upstairs with a cup of water for him for when he woke.
So painfully difficult to steal away from the cottage like a thief, a coward, a traitor. But all those things he was, and had been before.
Never, though, had he betrayed, or taken from, or quailed before, anyone whose good opinion of him really mattered.
He’d run at least in part to save them the pain of parting. Now he wished he’d had to suffer it, for it could not be worse than this, this realisation that he’d cast aside a last few minutes and hours they might have shared, and lost forever the opportunity to know what Hugh might think of him, now.
That he was protecting Hugh, by shielding him from involvement in his case in the sight of the authorities, was his sole consolation.
There was the scraping of metal against his cell door, and Werner stood up, wiping his face with his hands. The door opened, the policeman coming in with a smile on his face.
"How about a spot of lunch? I've cold chicken sandwiches what my Missus does in a nice jelly with salad, or there's a pie been in the cupboard a while, but none the worse for it."
Two nights passed, and the novelty of Werner's presence did not seem to have worn off for his gaolers, at least not to the extent of reducing his generous rations. Werner, with nothing to do but stare at the variegated water stains on the white-washed walls and run over the past weeks in his head, began to feel a greater and greater sense that, had Hugh come with him, he'd have had nothing to fear from this incarnation of policing force.
But that was not the worst of it.
Werner had heard the Sergeant talking in the cell corridor to an associate, reminding him firmly that their German captive was not to be discussed beyond station walls.
No one else, then, would know Werner was here. Hugh would not know he was here. Hugh might suspect, might believe, that Werner had run away indeed; broken his promise and fled for safety or even for sabotage, a spy all along. It would be a perfectly logical conclusion to draw, Werner reasoned agonisingly to himself as he chewed the thought over and over. He paced his cell, trying to work out the shaking in his limbs and work up a sweat that was from exertion rather than horror. His heart raced, distressed, in his chest.
His skin was peeling, now, where the burn had been. He wished he had more ointment to use. He had, however, been able to bathe and shave in his cell and had been half-way through this process when he'd realised that he was taking the last of Hugh's touch from his body. He'd had to bite at the inside of his cheek and breathe deeply then, certain that if once distress overwhelmed him, he might not surface again.
It was as he sat contemplating another of the Sergeant's missus' sandwiches - grated carrots and mock mayonnaise - for his Wednesday lunch that his cell door was opened to admit a new man he'd not seen before, not in uniform but quite formally dressed, carrying a briefcase. Werner's Sergeant followed behind him with a folding chair, which the man sat in, proceeding to open his case, draw out some papers and a pen and rest them against the case on his knee, all before speaking.
"So, you're the Hun we set on fire, eh?" the man said, grinning.
Werner held out his left hand to show him. "Yes, sir. My name is Werner, Werner Schultheiss."
The man wrote this down, double-checking the spelling. "Well, Private Schultheiss, were you trying to invade us?"
"No, sir. I ran away from the docks at Rotterdam. I was on guard at the docks and there were there the flat boats and I take one."
"All on your own?"
Refugees might be unwelcome. Werner decided not to risk it. "On my own, yes sir."
The man raised his eyebrow. "What day was this?"
"The thirteenth of July, sir."
"Know boats well, do you?"
"I don't know sir, perhaps."
"What means of navigation did you employ?"
"I... the tides... With the stars, one can..." Werner tried and trailed off.
"You might as well tell me," the man said, folding his arms. "I've got a matter of eighteen Dutch Jewish refugees at Ipswich who've all sung the same tune about the German soldier guarding the barges at the docks at Rotterdam, who agreed to smuggle them over the channel without payment."
"Eighteen?" Werner asked at once, sitting up. "There were twenty-four, did the baby..?" Then, wincing, he sat back, biting his lip.
The man tilted his head. "Which baby would that be?"
Werner sighed and slumped back. "Ruth's baby, the little girl. They had her in a yellow blanket, crochet. In the crossing, Ruth spoke of her to me some times, passing the hours. Ruth is thirty-three, and she had not babies before, so this child..." He had to stop, a lump in his throat. If some of them had got across, the baby should have done. He should have thought more, been more ready to protect it during the landing. He'd been so stupid that night, drowsy with his own sorrows.
But the man was smiling. "Ruth Wasserbach is getting on quite well now," he said. "And Baby Sara is perfectly fine. The mother curled round her as they landed, and got some pretty stonking injuries to her own back, but you'd never know the baby had been anywhere near a burning sea." He shook his head. "Of all our lengthy and, if I may say, magnificent coastline, it was a damnable piece of luck for you all to fetch up at the one place we'd chosen to test that particular bit of kit. But then I dare say none of you would have been so very fortunate to have stuck it out in Occupied Holland. Except yourself, Private Schultheiss, but here you are. They tell me you made your own way from the beach and turned yourself in?"
"Where else I go? What to do?" Werner almost laughed the words now, for relief.
"But you didn't speak a word about the refugees? Not when it might have saved your skin? You could have been shot on sight, you know, it would only have taken one enthusiastic LDV chap - perfectly legal and only their orders. They were your proof you'd actually defected from the German army."
Werner looked at his feet, hoping he would not give too much offence. "All my life, where I have lived, people do not want Jews in their country. I think, if the people from the boat have hidden, better not to betray them. And..." He took a deep breath. "And if the invasion comes..."
"We'll talk about all that in a minute." The man scribbled something on his papers, and shuffled them together. "Just now, if you don't mind.” And he held out his hand. It took Werner a moment to realise he was asking for a handshake.
"I'd call you a credit to something, Private Schultheiss, if I thought you came from anywhere creditable," the man said. "I suppose you're a credit to yourself. Well done. And now," he sighed, "I have the unpleasant task, despite our conviction that you are indeed a defector and political refugee, to organise your transport to alien internment. I have managed to convince them, at least, that you're to be in one of the civilian internments rather than the prisoner of war facilities, for your own safety as much as anything. But since both establishments consist of slightly different streets of houses on the Isle of Man, it's not all that much difference, I'm afraid."
Werner nodded slowly. Something like this had had to come, he supposed. "Where is it?"
"Out in the Irish Sea, between us and the Emerald Isle. Not a bad place, I'm told. They have a special kind of cat, I believe."
"I see," Werner tried to remember his studies of Britain. After the fall of Paris, maps had been distributed among the troops, but he'd never paid his much attention, and he certainly couldn't recall any offshore islands now. He wondered if the place was very harsh, if the guards very brutal. He was fit for any kind of labour, which must stand him in good stead, but he'd heard stories of diseases ravaging camps, things that burned through a man.
Not as important or relevant, perhaps, but still it troubled him more than anything: if he were to be taken away and across the country, he would never see Hugh again.
"We need to debrief you first, of course," the man was saying, shuffling papers again. "And there's one favour I'd like to ask of you. I won't say you'll get any benefit or special treatment for it, for you won't, but it'll look good for you, and more to the point it might hurt Hitler and keep that invasion away."
Werner blinked, surprised, but nodded at once.
- - -
(xiv) A Cork in the Ocean
[Extract from a broadcast contained in 'News from Britain', a German-language radio service to the continent run via the Ministry of Defence... Saturday, 27th July... 1940... English Translation]
"My name is Werner Schultheiss. As you can hear from my accent, I am from Berlin. I am in the German Army. I was born in 1921 and I joined up in 1939, aged 18. I thought the German Army might have no difficulties getting all across Europe and to Britain, but then I was young and I was foolish.
"The leaders have not told you about how I crossed the English Channel. I and others, weeks ago, in the barges they had prepared for us. I should say first that the barges are no good, unless you like being sick and getting wet. I'm surprised we didn't capsize and drown within a mile of the harbour. But if that had been the worst of it, I would have welcomed it.
"You've heard the stories about the fire weapons in Britain. Well, the stories are true. And worse than true.
"We climbed out of our boats and over the rocks, we paved the beach with our footfalls. We thought we were silent and clever. And then it came, the shock, the hell, the fire. All around us, like a cloudburst, like a rainfall of flame and death. We tried to run, tried to escape, but there is no escaping it. My boots were like concrete, so heavy in all my gear, and I could not get away. The British flicked the switch and we were caught, mindless, sent headlong into hell by those leaders who pretend they know so much. Do not listen to them! Do not make the mistake I did! Do not end like me, burnt on the beaches! Do not be left wishing you could return home, and find yourself instead an injured, disfigured captive, interned by the British, buried for the rest of the war, one way or another. We will never be able to invade this island."
- - -
(xv) Only You
[Hutchinson Alien Internment Camp, Douglas, Isle of Man... 25th September.... 1940]
Werner put his pencil down, and leaned back against the window seat.
The Victorian terraces - formerly boarding-houses for visitors to the island wishing a sea-view -which, by judicious encirclement with barbed wire, made the Hutchinson Camp, all had deep, tall bay windows and were a challenge to keep properly blacked out at night, when all fabric was much needed for blankets. Someone, probably one of the more modern artists, had come up with the idea of painting the window glass blue to save time, and whilst this was effective, it gave the bedrooms an aquatic atmosphere and left them depressingly dim. Many of the men had realised that one could chip away the paint in small areas to create a sort of reverse silhouette of one image or another - the female nude was much favoured - and Werner with his blunt pencil-end had been engaged in trying to depict a horse in motion. He loved the idea of running, of racing forward, free and wind-whipped.
The accommodation at the camp was basic, but there was no typhus and only an occasional outbreak of colds, which in many cases could be traced to the artists who had decided to take themselves to the seashore for prolonged sketching even in the rain. The food was monotonous and dull, but fairly plentiful, and several of the internees had started a vegetable patch with a view to introducing something fresh to their diet over the coming months. There was a scheme to keep chickens, one elderly German Jew claiming he knew a secret feed recipe to produce a flavour quite superior to any other.
So many of the internees were university graduates, or even professors of something or other, that a Camp University had been created, with an eccentric timetable of lectures and a pooling of books, embellished frequently by new volumes sent from mainland relatives. Werner was taking lessons in comparative biology; after the war he would have to do something, and he still liked the idea of veterinary medicine.
Werner had been sharing until recently a room and a bed - sharing only in the sense of sleeping side by side, as they all had to, over a thousand men crammed into such a short row of houses - with a middle-aged man who had been twice sent to prison in Germany for his Jewish ancestry and escaped at great expense to Britain only to be rounded up and sent to a prison again, suspected for his German passport of being a potential Nazi sympathiser. The effect on his psyche had been profound, and most damaging, and two days earlier he had been allowed to be released to a sponsor family of British Jews in London, who had undertaken to vouch for him. It was said that soon more people, in low risk categories, would be encouraged to apply to leave.
Werner had explained himself to men like that shamefacedly and with much trepidation, but he'd been accepted into the camp quite warmly, and been made to feel ashamed again at the easy good will he'd received from peoples he'd been told to hate. If he sat to count his regrets, he could easily be transfixed for hours, so he tried to keep his mind on his studies and his duties on the cooking and cleaning rota, and let the amateur dramatics and the charms of the growing library distract, and fill his mind with subjects new and better.
Sometimes, though, as now, leaning back in the bay window and staring at the blue strip of sparkling sea, he could not help drifting.
He thought of himself, struggling over the shingle, fighting to the beach as a child fights to be born. The life it had given him, the brief, happy life, the week of peace and contentment which had shown him such things were possible.
What Hugh had given him. And what Werner had taken from Hugh in return.
Angrily, he scrubbed the back of his hand over his eyes. His vision was blurring, and, squinting as he was through the small piece of clear glass he'd rubbed clean, he'd thought he'd seen Hugh himself, on the road outside.
He blinked. Hugh was still there.
Hugh, as thin as ever, dressed in a tweed suit Werner had not seen before, squashed felt hat on his head, a khaki pack on his back which might have been a relic of the last war, standing outside the house and looking up searchingly, pausing to draw a handkerchief from his coat pocket and cough.
Werner shot down the stairs, drawing cries of irritation from those attempting the rehearsal of a string quintet. He barrelled along the tiled hallway and to the heavy front door, pulling it open and stepping out into the sunshine in the street, blinking in the light after the dim interior.
"Hugh!" he called out.
Hugh turned, startling, and smiled at him.
"You can forgive me?" Werner heard himself asking, before anything else. "I did not want.... Oh, Hugh, I did not... I gave myself up, I did, I hope you did not..."
Hugh took a step toward him, holding out his hand for a moment before drawing it back, uncertain. "It's alright," he said, softly. "I heard your broadcast. Took me a while to figure out where you'd be, and a much longer while to convince myself you might want to see me, but I thought boredom at least might make me interesting to you and... and life's too short not to take risks in. I want considerably more on my real gravestone."
"I want to see you!" Werner exclaimed, so loudly that two men walking by in the road turn their heads, and then laughed. Werner didn't care. He was staring at Hugh, at every inch of him.
"Hello, then," Hugh said, smiling shyly.
"Come in," Werner told him, reaching forward and taking his arm. After a moment, Hugh relaxed and let their elbows link together. It would have been hard to say who was grinning more. "Come in and have some tea."
- - - ~ - - -