“Simon, Fred needs extra ersatz coffee and turnip jam. If Fred isn't fed soon, I don't want to think about what could happen,” said Dick, urgently.
In the empty dormitory, Simon had been reading a book, on his bunk, until Dick broke the peace. Unlike Simon, who as well as wearing his RAF uniform had a blanket wrapped around him to keep warm, Dick was sweating in his shirt sleeves and had a streak of mud across his cheekbone.
“Fred, who’s Fred?” said Simon. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. “If he wants extra portions of Colditz cuisine he needs help.”
“Fred’s the tentacle monster of Colditz.”
“Is he now? Threatening him with god-awful food is a novel way of getting a man to keep his hands to himself. I would report him to the SBO or the padre, not me. I handle escapes, not perverts.”
“No, Fred’s a real tentacle monster. George and I named him Fred, because it’s less silly than saying tentacle monster.”
Simon looked over at the table opposite. He'd had some coffee ten minutes ago. Had Mohn drugged his drink? He wouldn't have put it past him. Anything to make the POWs compliant to the Nazis. He'd like to beat the bastard with his stick. He reckoned Mohn would too. Simon wasn't sure how he felt about being in a situation they'd both enjoy. Simon pushed his disquieting thoughts to one side.
Worried by Simon’s silence, Dick tried again, “I’m not pulling your leg. Fred is real. It's in a cavern our tunnel crosses. When I first saw it, I thought it was the end. The thing's huge, and its tentacles were heading straight for us. George was with me and chucked his rations at it in the hope of scalding its eye. If Fred has one. The mixture stopped it in its tracks and it retreated to the back of its lair. We've been flinging our breakfast at it every time we go past to keep it at bay.”
He’s deadly serious, thought Simon. “Hang on, I’m the head of the escape committee and you didn't see fit to tell me there is a great, big ... something blocking the escape route? What if you're successful and we want to use the tunnel again? Did you think of that?” Simon was getting cross.
“It sounded too ridiculous to tell you. We would have left instructions on how to deal with Fred, before we attempted a breakout," said Dick, apologetically.
Simon rose off his bed. “I want to see this monster. Is it safe to visit?”
“The guards are distracted by betting on who’s going to win the Colditz Winter Olympics. It's clog figure skating today.”
“Nobody will win if the icy puddle they’re skating on melts.” Simon picked up his cane.
Dick put his lamp, made out of a Klim tin, on the floor of a low natural cavern. Simon struggled through the tunnel into the cave and stood up. The ceiling was just high enough to allow him to stand. The next section of the tunnel could be reached by a gap wide enough for three men abreast to walk down it comfortably. The rest of the space was filled by a mass of glowing, yellow tentacles that waved back and forth.
Simon’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “You weren’t joking. It looks like a cross between an octopus, a saxophone and a ball of string.”
“Hello, Fred,” said Dick.
The tentacles rippled quicker in response and a hum emanated from deep inside the creature.
“Is that wise?” asked Simon. The tentacles undulations didn’t appear threatening, but then again, how did monsters behave when preparing to consume careless humans?
“Fred'll calm down when I get the coffee and jam out.” Dick retraced his steps. He had lost his fear of Fred and passed closer to it than he should. He didn't see the danger until it was too late. Suddenly, several tentacles shot out and wound around him. The creature’s limbs muffled his cries and dragged him into its seething mass of tentacles. The humming rose in intensity and Simon could feel the reverberations through his whole body.
Simon was in a quandary: the creature was too massive for a solo attack, but it could be too late for Dick if he sought help, if it wasn't too late already. He could not see where Dick had gone; for all he knew the thing had eaten him. There was nothing he could do, but Dick was a mate. He held his stick in a two handed grip and swung it back with a cry of, “Die, thing!” and rushed forward. He didn't get far when a clump of tentacles ripped the cane out of his grasp, while dozens more knocked him down and wrapped around his arms and legs. He tried to thrash himself free of the tentacles' iron grip. The tentacles tightened and started to haul him along the rough, stony ground towards its centre.
Simon screamed in pain and terror. He believed he was going to be ripped apart limb from limb. In response to his cry, the tentacles came to a standstill. He breathed a sign of relief. If Fred was sensitive to emotions, he could still be in with a chance, unlike poor Dick, who’d been unable to say anything with tentacles wound around his head. A tentacle loosed itself and snaked over to his face and stroked his cheek. It was surprisingly soft and smooth, not at all what he thought it would feel like.
“Yes, you're hurting me. Please, can you let me go? You're pulling my arms out of my sockets,” said Simon. He felt silly talking to the appendage, but he had to try.
“If you could release me, no, not my neck.” Simon began to panic, as a tentacle slipped around his neck. It did not strangle him, but traced his collarbone, as lightly as a fingertip, and worked its way down the inside of his shirt. Several tentacles remained securely coiled around his wrists and ankles to spread-eagle him on the floor, while others undid the buttons of his jacket and shirt. He lay there helpless, bound by these living constraints. One thin tentacle, with pits on its underside, rose up.
"What now?" asked Simon of the tentacle hovering over him. He was being toyed with, like a cat playing with a mouse, and that never ended well.
A fine mist sprayed out of the pits, which Simon inhaled. Any fear he had drifted away and a large, blissful smile spread across his face. The hum, that had alarmed him, became a soothing drone to his ears. Several tentacles then proceeded to stroke and massage him. The sensation was very pleasant, and might be even more so, he noted, as a stray tentacle wound its way up his trouser leg. He let out an exclamation of shock as the probing tentacle gave a sharp tug on his cock and let go. The tentacle curled back and pulled lightly, before tightening to work up to a series of rapid pumps, leaving him unable to make any useful sounds. The other tentacles continued with their caresses.
In spite of Fred's attentions, some part of Simon's mind needed to know what had happened to his friend. Before he became completely insensible, he managed to cry out, "Dick!"
The creature reacted immediately to Simon's shout. It drew its tentacles away and flung Dick at him. The hum reduced to its normal pitch. Later, Simon wondered if it had helped that he didn't call his friends by their surnames: 'Dick' came easily to his lips, 'Player' would have been a struggle in the circumstances.
Once Simon had got his breath back from being winded, he was embarrassed to find a tousle haired Dick lying across his lap.
“Don’t worry, Fred’s definitely friendly,” croaked Dick.
Oh God, what would Dick think? thought Simon. Dick had landed on the worst possible part of his body and would surely feel Simon pressing into him. He risked a glance downwards. Dick’s shirt and trouser buttons were undone. He looked away quickly and realised Dick would understand. His initial assessment of Fred was right.
“I think we should recover in the tunnel first, before going back up,” said Simon.
“Yes,” replied Dick.
“I’ll get you all the coffee and turnip jam you want, or the tunnel will never get finished.”
“And I thought it was bully beef that was the passion-killer,” said Dick. He sat up and did his shirt buttons up.
“I wish you’d tell us why you're spending so much lagergeld on turnip jam,” said Tim to Simon, two days later, as they loitered in the canteen, while rain poured down into the courtyard.
“I told you, it’s for the latest escape plan.”
“That’s a cock and bull story.”
Simon opened his mouth to comment that Tim wouldn’t believe him if he told the truth, but was interrupted by shouts from the guards and the sound of running feet pounding the ground.
“Look at those guards go,” said Tim “It must be something big. You don’t think they’ve finally worked out we use the space under the desks in the dorm as a hiding place, do you?”
Simon was stony faced as he went to join the others outside. There was only one thing that could cause this much hullabaloo amongst the Germans, and it was foiling an escape attempt. The best he could hope for was that Fred would turn nasty and eat some Jerries, starting and ending with Mohn.
Simon was proved correct, as Dick and George were frog-marched into the courtyard and off to solitary confinement. Ulmann and Mohn followed closely behind. Mohn came out an hour later and crossed the yard again, presumably to the tunnel's entrance.
Go on, eat him. I bet he tastes as bad as ersatz coffee, thought Simon.
It seemed Simon’s wish had been granted, when later, from a window in the British quarters, he saw a figure in Luftwaffe uniform, partly concealed by a blanket, being carried across the courtyard on a stretcher.
Simon was sitting in a deckchair, outside in the courtyard, trying to get some warmth from the weak, winter sun. On a small table in front of him, he laid out pieces on a chessboard. Mohn would be coming past soon.
Mohn had become insufferable in the past month, not that he wasn’t before, but now he was even more so and in a different way. Unnatural, that’s what it was. Smiling didn’t suit him. Although, smiling like a boy who'd had his first smoke behind the bike sheds and thought he was all grown up was typical Mohn. And it was a smile he had been putting on with alarming regularity. Half the POWs had reacted by descending into paranoia, convinced he was about to unleash on them a foolproof method for preventing breakouts. The French took a different view and muttered ‘c'est l'amour'. They predicted Mohn’s mood wouldn’t last, because the person in question would come to their senses and then Mohn would take his rejection out on the prisoners.
Picking up a chess piece, Simon squinted at it. He wasn’t sure if its maker had meant it to be a bishop or a pawn. He didn’t fear Mohn’s heart breaking or new Nazi technology. It didn’t take a genius to work out what had affected Mohn, it was Fred, the over-friendly monster - the French were very nearly right. Trust his fellow repressed Englishmen to get it wrong.
Since the tunnel had been discovered, a guard was stationed at the entrance round the clock. A bodyguard for Mohn’s pleasure pit. According to the men Simon had sent to spy on the Germans, he went in but no-one else did. The guards remained as fed up as their prisoners at being in Colditz. They’d be even more fed up if they knew what they were missing, thought Simon. He wouldn’t put it past Mohn to extend Dick and George’s solitary in case they told anyone what lay beneath the castle. What Mohn didn’t know was that he knew, not that he knew what to do with the information, except snipe at the smug bastard. But how could he do that when Mohn barely spoke to him anymore? Not that Mohn ever spoke much to him, preferring to shower him with his undivided, studied uninterest. Everyone else was plain ignored, unless they did something to rile him.
Mohn came striding into the courtyard. He spied Simon with his board. “Ah, chess. Are you still trying to beat the grandmasters? Some of us have moved on.”
Simon glowered at him. “What’s caused your change in attitude, Mohn? You used to be so proud of your chess skills. Aren’t you going to tell us?”
“Major Mohn, Carter. You mustn’t take advantage.”
“That's Germany’s perogative, isn't it? But why have you gone off chess?” Hopeless as it was, Simon wanted Mohn to confess to everyone out here in the yard.
Mohn smirked. “Getting wound up over a silly game, like a Fräulein, is typical of you British. I have better games to play now.” He walked off.
Humiliated by Mohn’s dismissal of him, Simon hurled a chess piece to the ground. Some of the men in the yard turned round to look at him. His cheeks felt hot. To avoid making a bigger scene, he gripped the edge of the table, making his knuckles go white. He found it hard to control his anger, but he achieved it. The worst thing about being pursued by a chess-playing, Nazi nut case was not being pursued. He considered throwing himself to the floor and throwing in a few cries of pain for good measure. That would have brought the old Mohn rushing over to sneer. Or strolling over before the week was out, anyway. The new Mohn? His head was too full of tentacles to care. Simon remained in the deckchair - he wasn’t about to act desperate. He never would do. However, this state of affairs couldn’t go on any longer.
There was a knock at the door of the SBO's quarters.
“Come in,” called Colonel Preston.
Simon entered the room.
“Hello, Simon, what is it?”
“It’s Mohn, sir.”
“Mohn?” Preston put down the paper he was reading and slid off his desk. Simon’s expression was intense. He obviously had a serious matter to discuss.
“I want you to see the Kommandant about him.”
“Why? What’s he been doing?” said Preston, putting his hands on his hips.
Simon bit his lip. How could he explain Mohn going around in a state of post-tentacle bliss was rubbing him up the wrong way? “He's up to something – he's been far too cheerful of late.”
“It could be all for the good. A relaxed Mohn could be a kinder Mohn.”
“I doubt it. Not him. Dick confided to me he found something terrible in the tunnel he was digging.”
“Terrible?” Preston’s interest was piqued. “Did Dick say in what way?”
“He didn’t give any specifics, but you can bet Mohn wouldn’t hesitate to use it against us.” Simon crossed his fingers behind his back.
“I can’t ask for a meeting on the basis of your information: it’s all very vague.”
“I could be more specific if Dick and George weren’t in solitary. If you ask me, Mohn’s keeping them in there to hide his dirty little secret.”
Preston raised an eyebrow at the vehemence in Simon's voice. Considering the matter, he rested one leg on a chair. "I could arrange to see the Kommandant to discuss Dick and George’s punishment and go from there.”
In his office, the Kommandant was sitting behind his desk with Preston sitting facing him. It was very convivial; the only thing that was missing was a couple of glasses of brandy, but there wasn't any real brandy to drink anymore.
“It’s against the Geneva Convention. I will have to send a message to the protecting powers in Switzerland,” argued Preston.
“Just because your men are upset by Major Mohn doesn’t mean the Convention is being broken,” said the Kommandant, although he found it hard to resist the Colonel’s wishes when he invoked the Convention.
"I must consider the welfare of my men." Preston gave the Kommadant a meaningful look.
The Kommandant gave in. “I do not wish Mohn to upset the delicate relationship between the prisoners and us. I will investigate to make certain there is nothing out of the ordinary going on that could lead to Colditz being taken from under the control of the Wehrmacht.”
“Thank you, Kommandant.” Preston stood up.
“If you find Ulmann outside send him in.”
Preston left the room and Ulmann came in.
“Ah, Hauptmann Ulmann, I believe we have a serious situation on our hands. As the head of security, I must ask, have you, or anyone except Major Mohn, investigated the British's latest tunnel?”
“No, the Major is the only one who has been down the tunnel. When he first came out, he collapsed. I was, therefore, surprised when he said he was going to keep the tunnel open and he alone would be studying it. The guards and I did not object; he is our superior officer. They did not care to be the next one stretchered out either. They are not as brave as our war hero,” said Ulmann, wryly.
“And his attitude lately has been a little out of character, do you not think?”
“I want you to investigate. If Mohn tries to prevent you from finding why the tunnel has not been sealed up, I give you the authority to override his orders. I want this situation resolved.”
“What is the meaning of this?” said Mohn. He had come into the Kommandant's office unannounced and slammed the door behind him.
The Kommandant and Ulmann were standing by the window.
“Major Mohn, what are you referring to?” said the Kommandant.
Mohn pursed his lips and his eyes blazed. “The tunnel, it has been walled up. I instructed the workmen to take the wall down. They informed me this was done on your orders.”
“This is so,” confirmed the Kommandant, who kept perfectly calm. “I was informed the tunnel had not been blocked off. I regarded this being as most strange. I thought you would be the first to address any weakness, so I sent Hauptmann Ulmann to examine why this tunnel had been left undisturbed.”
Ulmann took up the story. “I went into the tunnel, initially, I found it to be a typical construction, but I am a thorough man. So to assess the chances of the prisoners digging into the groundworks from another angle, I ventured deeper into the shaft. Then I came into a chamber. What I found there I cannot describe, but it was alive. It was advancing towards me and I fired my pistol repeatedly at it until it stopped moving. Whatever it was, it is now dead.”
“No!” cried Mohn, in grief stricken anguish.
The two men looked at him in alarm. They were not used to Mohn displaying these emotions.
Mohn composed himself. “That creature was of great use to Germany and now you have destroyed it, you are a blind fool,” he said, tonelessly. He turned and walked out of the office, this time he did not slam the door.
“Did you kill the creature? You did not tell me this earlier,” said the Kommandant.
“I lied. It was enormous and I calculated a few gunshots would not have affected it. I would have been sorry to kill it,” said Ulmann.
“It – though it sounds strange to say it – was waving at me.”
“Waving at you?” The Kommandant looked down at his report. He was not putting that information in it. It was not going to be a very long report, he reflected, considering all the details he felt obliged to omit.
Ulmann's cheeks coloured. “I did not find it menacing. I could not fire in response to a friendly gesture.”
The Kommandant had long ago accepted anything could happen in Colditz. “That may be so, but if Major Mohn was interested in it you can be sure he would have harnessed it for some unsavoury use, possibly to threaten the prisoners. Tentacle monsters are, as of yet, not boycotted by the Geneva Convention.”
“Atchoo!” Simon had a stinking cold and he was happy. The happiest he’d been in ages. He felt guilty, of course. A home run was cause for celebration, Mohn being an utter bastard was not. Nor was an extra week alone in a cell, but it was worth it to see Mohn's reaction to his gleeful response at being told he was going to be punished with a stint in solitary.
Oddly, Mohn's lack of interest in monitoring for signs of a potential breakout had made it harder for the escape committees. Fred's guards' occupation of a previously quiet corner of the castle shrunk the area where the POWs could take midnight strolls in peace and Mohn's regular trips into the depths of the castle had ruled out any tunnelling.
Things were back to boring, bleak normality. The French congratulated themselves on being right and the men from other nations breathed a sign of relief. Then Mohn came back with a vengeance. Suspecting the French of some -- most probably made-up -- outrage, he ordered a snap appell. In the courtyard, Mohn read out a long list of privileges the POWs would have to forfeit. Naturally, the senior officers demanded to speak to the Kommandant, while the other prisoners became rowdy and sang songs that were disparaging to parts of Hitler's anatomy. Shots were fired to calm down the angry POWs and Simon chucked an enamel dish at a guard to earn his punishment.
The door to Simon’s cell swung open, Mohn came in with a chessboard and box under one arm.
“I haven’t anything to tell you. I don’t know what the French were up to, if they were up to anything.”
Mohn didn’t speak, but favoured him with his basilisk stare.
Yes, everything was back to normal. “Another game of chess to prove Jerry is the best?”
“You have had time to improve your game. One day you might be a fair match for me.”
“For all you know, I’ve outclassed you already.”
“Ever insolent. Have you ever thought how far you could go if you weren’t?” Mohn picked up a chair and carried it over to where Simon was sitting. He set the chair down and put a hand to his side. The movement had aggravated his war wounds.
“Do you want a hand?" Simon didn’t ask to be helpful. It didn't hurt to remind Mohn he wasn't perfect.
“I am quite capable. I wouldn't want you to cause further injury to your ankle.”
“Touché.” Simon knew his ankle would heal eventually. Mohn’s injuries wouldn't – why else would a Nazi poster boy be sent to this backwater? Mohn sat stiffly down. Simon wondered if Fred had relieved Mohn of pain; its arms would make it a great physiotherapist. He felt some shame over his selfish actions to wall Fred off.
“Did your Cathy teach you that? She is sophisticated with words, isn’t she?”
On the other hand, Mohn deserved to suffer, his wife was none of Mohn's business. How many of their letters had Mohn read? Or was it another clever mind game? It was a pity the Russians hadn’t finished Mohn off.
A couple of months later, leaves were beginning to sprout on the trees surrounding the castle. Simon was in the British quarters, lying on his bunk, reading the latest letter from his wife. A cloud moved across the sky revealing the sun. A sunbeam shone on Simon’s face. He shifted on his bunk to get the sun out of his eyes. The golden light reminded him of the colour of Fred's soft tentacles and the way they felt on his skin as one sought its way to … Simon slapped the picture of Cathy he was holding face down onto the pillow. He couldn't believe he was thinking of a disgusting, horrible creature touching him when he had a beautiful wife. Back home. Hundreds of miles away. And who knew when he would see her again?
Simon rubbed his face in his hands. Once again, he couldn't help thinking of the irony that of all the prisoners, the one who wanted most to get out couldn't. But who could he turn to? Dick and George were as thick as thieves, the SBO found any old excuse to have a word with the Kommandant, Tim had his luxurious moustache to stroke and he had … a lot of frustration, which wouldn't be so bad if more of their chaps could get past the Jerries to Switzerland.
Bloody Mohn, he had to ruin everything, taking both a tunnel and Fred from them. Simon suddenly perked up, Fred's cavern was wide and it couldn't be that hard to dig another shaft to it. Escaping was out of the question, but it didn't mean he was prevented from supervising. Fred was obviously a friendly ball of string with terrible taste, if its diet and Mohn were anything to go by. If the route past Fred was a success, they'd need someone to handle it. Timing was everything, and an unexpected fondle from Fred could ruin a breakout. He would have to make a thorough study of the creature's ways, perhaps even take a turn as a ghost down there.
Smiling, Simon turned over the photo of Cathy. At last, he had something better than a Red Cross parcel at Christmas to look forward to.