Short STory

Labelled

Fortunately, she spotted it when she went to put on the blouse, a tiny label with the word Crowthers in an ornate cursive script and Manchester printed below it. So tiny, but enough to get her hanged. Almost all of her clothes were German, and she had carefully unpicked the labels from any items of English clothing, including the one beneath the collar of this blouse, but had somehow missed this secondary one tucked into a side seam. She had to get rid of it before Horst arrived. If, as seemed likely, he were to remove her blouse when they returned after the theatre, he might see it. And if he did, he would as a loyal officer of the Wehrmacht find himself obliged to report it.

She took the pair of small, very sharp nail scissors she kept by her bed and attacked the label, a little too anxiously so that she cut a small hole in the fabric of the blouse. Before she could dispose of it there was a knock at the door, so she quickly thrust it in the little dress pocket of her skirt. Opening to admit Horst, she gave him her most beaming smile, hoping that it hid her panic.

He stood for a minute, admiring her in just her skirt and slip, but then urged her to dress quickly, as he had difficulty booking a table at Horchers and they would not hold it for him if they were late. Within five minutes they were out the door and fifteen minutes later were contemplating the menu. There was little to choose from, even at a restaurant so favoured by the Nazi hierarchy, as the blockade by the encircling Allies was certainly biting, but he insisted in their ordering from amongst the most expensive items on the menu, and good champagne, of which the restaurant had a sufficient supply plundered following the victories of 1941.

She knew that he could scarcely afford such a meal, and inferred that this was a farewell gesture, although he would certainly not tell her that, but she had grown clever at reading small clues. On the sleeve of his Major’s uniform was a new small black and gold colour patch, the sign she presumed of a newly formed expeditionary force. Going to where? Italy, she guessed, to attempt to stem the allied thrust up from Sicily, and wondered how far she dared go in attempting to find out.

He asked her about her day, and she gave a light-hearted account of her work at the Registrar of Births and Deaths, focusing on a silly quarrel between one of the more outspoken Party members and a garrulous farm girl from Schwabia, but alluding as well to the deaths of the parents of a girl from Hamburg in the previous night’s bombing. Talk of civilian casualties angered him, and he beat his fist against the table.

She studied his creased brow with affectionate amusement. Even after these years of war, he seemed so naïve – was it possible that he did not know what his colleagues had been doing in Poland and Russia? Or was he simply, like so many Germans, closing his mind to it? The affection she felt for him disturbed her. When she had volunteered in London to be returned to Germany, she had liked to think of herself as outwitting Nazi thugs like the Brownshirts who had beaten her father to death back in ’28 or at least military automatons, as she chose to imagine had been those who caught up with her English husband as the B.E.F. retreated towards Dunkirk. But this thoroughly decent man from an old military family did not fit those preconceptions.

She had tried to build up a dossier in her mind against her fondness for him. He had taken part in the battle for France and then had been part of the occupying force in Holland. And she knew unspeakable things had happened there. Certainly too, he was a Party Member, though probably like many officers purely for career purposes. He was a deceiver – after all he was deceiving his wife with her. More than likely he was deceiving her too, playing romantic games with her – and at the front would put a bullet in the head of a hostage without a qualm. But she could never fully believe it.

As it was prone to when she was tense, her nose itched, and she quickly withdrew her handkerchief from her pocket to wipe it, and when she replaced it saw to her horror that the shirt label had come with it and now rested on her lap. She motioned to retrieve it, but as she did Horst clasped her hands, and looked unhappily in her eyes. He told her she was beautiful, which she knew to be a gross exaggeration and took to be a piece of sentimentality provoked by his immanent departure, so smiled at him, saying, “And you are the most dashing officer in the Wehrmacht.”

To her surprise his face clouded at this, and he let her hands drop and studied his fingers as he said, “In this war there are no dashing officers. They all died in the last one, and we are mere superintendents of slaughterhouses.” And she felt a gush of love for him.

The label! She had to conceal the label. Was it possible to simply brush it off her lap and let it fall under the table? But what if an officious waiter saw it fall and handed back to her – or perhaps read it or handed it to Horst? Pretending to scratch her thigh, she surreptitiously picked it up and rolled it before easing it to the bottom of her pocket, ensuring that her handkerchief was wedged on top of it. Just in time. They had finished eating and another booking was waiting for the table, two officers, both from different regiments from Horst but also wearing that same new black and gold colour patch. As she stepped out a little ahead of him, he turned back to say something to them, and one of them remarked, “Last fling, eh!”, then adding, “She looks like she’ll give you a good ride.” She was pleased to hear Horst bridle at the comment. She did not like to be thought of like that, but then pondered its justice. Later she would take her trusting enemy to bed, and would enjoy him, and deceive him, and then relay any information she gained from him back to her controllers in London. What did that make her?

Still listening carefully, she heard one of them say, “Never mind, you are bound to find some hot-blooded signorina down south.” So it was Italy!

The twilight was gathering fast as they made their way to the theatre and she had to concentrate on walking, as the streets were blacked out, and here and there was debris from the bombing raids of the previous week, although it had now been five days since Berlin had been a target. However, once they were inside and they had settled into their seats and the music commenced, the thoughts which had troubled her for the previous weeks returned. The program was patriotically almost all German – some Schubert songs, several of Mozart’s smaller pieces, and culminating in Beethoven’s Pastoral. She had hoped to lose herself in the music, but her fears and doubts gnawed through the web of melody with which she had hoped to wrap herself. Nervously, she felt for the label. Surely, she could just drop it in the theatre and no-one would know. But no, she felt she had to dispose of it completely in a bin, somewhere.

Back in England she had imagined that she hated the country of her birth and its people. They had killed her kind and patriotic father for merely looking in on a Socialist Party rally. They had killed also the Englishman who had rescued her from the chaos in her native Bavaria and taken her to his home in Hampshire. They had joyfully, recklessly thrown themselves into the thrall of criminals and madmen. She would be a sword of justice. But once she returned she experienced an overpowering sense of homecoming as she stood under the blue skies and felt the sharper, drier air which she had missed more than she realised in England’s moist greyness. She liked the little formalities and courtesies of the people in streets and offices. It had pleased her on appropriate occasions to employ High German rather than colloquial speech, just as her father in his ambitions for his children had encouraged her. And she had truly liked most of the women with whom she worked at the Registrar’s office, even as she conspired at the downfall of the regime that employed them. She felt herself German, and attracted no suspicion. Her cover was almost completely factual: she had grown up in Bavaria, so her accent was almost identical with that of the Fuehrer himself, she was a widow whose husband was killed in the fighting in France, and she was working in Berlin because her family, being fatherless, could not assist her.

At least the work enabled her to sustain her resolve. With typical German thoroughness, all deaths were registered, and by this means she could discern where people were dying, and evaluate the strategic significance. More extraordinary still, death certificates of those in the camps were routinely processed, and there were thousands of them. All of the women noticed that, but refused to draw the obvious conclusion. “Everyone knows,” one of them had commented, “That Jews are full of diseases – almost all of them carry syphilis. Is it surprising that they should succumb when they are forced to live with each other, cut off from wholesome people.” Thus her anger and sense of the righteousness of her cause was maintained.

She rehearsed these things in her mind, letting the music flow over her, till she came to a resolution – or perhaps merely a fantasy. If she survived the war and if her cover was not blown, she would not go back to England where she would forever be regarded with suspicion as an enemy alien, but would remain here with her people. First in Berlin, but eventually she would go home to Augsburg, pretending that she had left her husband and returned to the Reich at the time hostilities had been immanent. It should be possible, she reasoned. After all she was not a Mata Hari consorting in public with those holding power, but an almost invisible functionary, quietly accumulating information. Horst was the only man she had allowed herself to become involved with, and he had stayed the night only that once.

He played no part in her dream of the future: he would, if he lived, no doubt go home to his Inge and his children. That night he had stayed with her, she had looked in his pockets while he was bathing, and seen her photo, and was surprised that his wife had resembled a more buxom version of herself – the same blond hair kept neat in a snood, and the same rather sharp nose and chin. Was it surprising that a lonely man far from home and facing the possibility of never retuning would take comfort in the arms of one so much like his wife!

And all that stood between her and her desired future was a small piece of cloth buried in her pocket.

When they returned to her cramped bed-sitting room, they undressed so eagerly that she did not notice the label fall from her pocket and catch itself in one of the epaulettes on his coat, and she did not discover it missing till after he had left in the morning.  At first she assumed it was on the floor somewhere or caught in her own clothing, but after stripping herself naked and crawling the length of the room desperately peering and feeling, she could not escape the conclusion that he had it. Had she aroused his suspicions by speaking English in her sleep? She thought not, as she was once more even thinking in German. But it was possible. Almost vomiting with fear, she forced herself to dress for work, carefully concealing in her petticoat the cyanide tablet she would need if they came for her.

 

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Major Horst Meidner approached the barracks, reflecting on the past few days with both affection and shame. It had been good during this fortnight’s enforced stay in Berlin to have the friendship of an intelligent and respectable widow whose husband had died for the Fatherland, so much better than getting drunk or consorting with whores as others had done. He had no intention of sleeping with her when they had struck up the conversation at the kaffeehaus, but merely to enjoy her company – a proper German woman, even though she did confess that her late father had voted for the Socialists and had actually admired the Jew, Eisner (she was so naively indiscreet!). Sleeping with her was wrong: he had wronged Inge who was waiting trustfully at home caring for the girls, and he had wronged this woman also. True, after a week of meetings for coffee and strolls in the park, she had welcomed him to her bed and taken joy in his body – after all, a woman deprived of a husband has her needs. But it was still wrong! She was not that sort of woman.  She was honest and open and trusting, and what expectations might he have aroused in her? The War – what it did to people!

In the corridor leading to his commander’s office, he automatically checked his appearance – seams straight, shoes adequately clean (if not to parade ground standard), uniform correctly buttoned. There was a bit of cloth caught on his shoulder! He picked it off and looked for where he might get rid of it, but the corridor was recently swept, so he slipped in his pocket to be disposed of later. It was found six weeks later by an officer of the 15th US Infantry Regiment, who had stripped his body searching for intelligence. At first, on seeing it so carefully rolled and buried in the pocket, he thought he might have been onto something, but discovering it to be merely a label, he replaced it and forgot about it.

 

GARY IRELAND

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