By Barbara Ridley
For months, the map of Europe tacked to the wall above the sofa had been largely ignored. The colors had faded, the top edge sagged in the center, and the right lower corner flapped in the breeze. It was like the ugly wallpaper Otto remembered from family holidays in his grandfather’s house in Bavaria; after a while you didn’t notice it even though you walked past it every day.
But now, everything changed. The map became the center of attention.
At the clink of the letter box announcing the arrival of the morning’s Times, Otto jumped up, wanting to be the first to scan the headlines.
“What did I tell you?” he said. “Hitler was just waiting for warmer weather.”
He knew he shouldn’t sound smug. But really – so much for all that nonsense about a quick truce, or the blockade forcing Hitler to his knees.
“Let’s see,” Tomas said, grabbing the newspaper and holding it up close. He walked over to the map. Armed with a fresh supply of grey pins from the village shop, Tomas had assumed responsibility for meticulously documenting the advance of the Wehrmacht.
“What’s the latest?” Lena came down the stairs.
“Doesn’t look good. A German division has broken through deeper into France. I’m trying to find St. Quentin.” Tomas peered through his thick spectacles, scouring the north-eastern corner of France, a pin poised in his right hand.
“How can this be happening so quickly?” Lena stared at the lines and arrows Tomas had sketched. “Norway, Belgium, Holland overrun. Now the French border breached.”
“There it is.” Tomas inserted the pin and wrote today’s date in black ink. He took two steps back to survey the whole picture and shook his head.
“They’ll be in Paris in no time,” Otto said.
“My God,” Lena said turning sharply towards him. “There’s no need to sound so gleeful about it. What about all those friends of ours in Paris? They must be terrified.”
“They should have got out while they could.”
“I can’t believe you’re saying that. You know how hard it was for me to get a visa.”
Otto looked again at the map. It was hard to shake off the image of a rising tide and a shrinking piece of dry land on which they were stranded. He’d fled Berlin, then Prague and Paris. Now this.
“What are we going to do if they cross the Channel?” Lena said, her voice rising. “Will we be able to hide out here in this little village?”
Peter descended the creaky stairs and jumped into the fray. “I don’t want to run anymore,” he said. “I want to stay and fight. Let’s find out if we can sign up for this new Local Defense Volunteers force.”
“That’s just for the English,” Otto said. “They’re not going to let us join.”
“We’ve got to do something,” Peter said. “I can’t stand listening to the news, feeling useless, just waiting for the Nazis to arrive.”
* * * * *
The following day, Peter went up to London to see if the Refugee Council had any update on a Czech regiment forming in England. He had not returned by late afternoon.
“Let’s go down to The Hollow,” Lena said. “Churchill is giving a big speech tonight. Muriel said we should all listen together.”
Muriel was their sponsor, the wealthy Lady of the Manor – eccentric in her behavior and radical in her political beliefs – and now living in one of her smaller properties at the edge of the village; the Army had requisitioned the Manor House. Muriel was the same age as Lena’s mother but could hardly be more different. She was divorced, for one thing, and openly living with her lover Alistair.
They made their way down the village street, the air filled with the sweet smell of freshly mowed grass. Spring was marching forward with unyielding gaiety, having received no notification to do otherwise; the gardens were being tended in spite of the dismal war news. Lena hadn’t expected to fall in love with this village; she’d followed Otto here three months ago knowing nothing about the place. But now, walking past the hedgerows adorned with ringlets of bluebells, she smiled with joy.
They found Muriel and Alastair sitting on their back terrace, enjoying a cocktail. The new Prime Minister’s speech was not due for another hour, so they relaxed in the evening warmth with the view of the South Downs. Alistair brought out the gramophone and placed a record on the turntable. The melodic notes of the Pastoral Symphony filled the air, as he served sherry and port.
“Oh lovely,” said Lena, closing her eyes for a moment to take in the music. She inhaled the sweet smell of the surrounding honeysuckle. “I love this piece, especially the last movement; it’s one of my favorites.”
“I suppose it’s still all right to play Beethoven!” Alistair chuckled, handing her a very large glass of sherry. “I hope no one will accuse me of treason.”
“So what’s Churchill going to say?” Otto said.
“Stirring words for the masses, I suppose,” Alistair replied. “Stiff upper lip, all that sort of thing.”
“I can’t believe we’re hanging on that man’s every word.” Muriel sneered. “Has everyone forgotten how reactionary he is?”
“I don’t know much about him,” Lena said.
“He threatened to shoot the miners who went on strike in ’26. He said: Send those rats back down their holes. Dreadful fellow.”
“But we’re a lot better off with him replacing that idiot Chamberlain,” Alistair said. “If they’d listened to Churchill five years ago, we wouldn’t be in the frightful pickle we’re in now.”
“This whole thing is simply beastly,” Muriel said. “Some days I wake up and I just cannot believe we’re going through this again, sending our young men off to fight. We lost so many last time. Those long lists of the dead that came out every week, it was just awful. Three quarters of the men I danced with at my coming-out ball were killed in the trenches in France. One after the other. And that was supposed to be the war to end all wars.”
“But surely you wouldn’t argue that we just lie down and let Hitler walk all over us? We have to fight.” Alistair said. He passed around cheese and crackers and the last of a jar of olives that Muriel had brought back from the South of France before the outbreak of war.
Lena began to feel tipsy from the sherry. “These olives are a treat.” She bit into the firm, salty flesh. “M?l bys to zkusit,” she said, turning to Tomas. “You ought to try one.”
He puckered his lips and shook his head. “Ne, díky.”
Lena laughed. She basked contentedly in the ebb and flow of the dialogue, and the mingling of languages as the conversation glided from English to German to Czech and back to English again. It moved like a symphony, with the wind instruments coming in over there, the violins here; there was debate, there were differences of opinion, but it seemed neither acrimonious nor discordant, just intelligent discourse among friends. She wanted to hold on tight to this moment, feel soothed by the cozy warmth, cling to it as if she were on the edge of a precipice. Churchill came on the radio promising nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat – but Lena was here with Otto in this green and pleasant land, and she felt oddly happy.
* * * * *
Peter returned late at night, when the village residents were sequestered away behind their blackout curtains. The residents of Oak Tree Cottage stayed awake, waiting. Lena cuddled next to Otto on the sofa, relaxing with a book. Tomas sat at the table, working on flag badges for the Czech Refugee Trust Fund. They were all occupied, yet keeping one ear out for the creak of the door that would herald Peter’s return. The foray of any one of their number out into the wider world was a source of vicarious pleasure for all. They were like eager parents wanting to know every detail of the first day of kindergarten.
But when the door eventually swung open, it was obvious that something was wrong. Peter looked pale and exhausted, his face drained. He sank onto the sofa, leaned back against the threadbare cushions and closed his eyes.
“What happened?” Lena said. “Peter, what’s the matter?”
“It’s getting nasty out there,” he replied after a moment or two. “Look at this.”
He pulled himself forward and drew from his pocket a rolled up copy of the Daily Mail. He spread it open and smoothed out the wrinkles. The headline with its menacing, bold black calligraphy screamed: INTERN THE LOT.
“What does this mean?” she said.
“Internieren, gefangen nehmen. Intern, imprison.”
“All enemy aliens. In case they’re acting as spies for the invaders, ready to welcome parachute troops with open arms. Everyone’s in a panic about a so-called ‘Fifth Column’. As soon as they hear your accent, they think you might be German. A well-dressed elderly woman screamed at me on the train. I had to move to another carriage.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Lena said. “Why would we want to….?”
“This doesn’t apply to us,” Tomas said, trying to read the entire article. “It’s just enemy aliens. Germans and Austrians.”
“But Otto….” Peter said.
“That’s absurd. He’s been wanted by the Gestapo for years.”
“I’m afraid that’s a subtlety that’s likely to be totally lost on the Daily Mail and its readers,” Peter said.
* * * * *
There was a noticeable shift in the village. Everyone seemed on edge, nervous. In the shop, two women made a point of walking out when Lena entered, as if they were afraid of contamination. Mrs. Horn remained cordial while collecting the ration coupons, but it was hard to ignore the anti-alien crusade conducted by the tabloids displayed on the shelf behind her.
“It’s hard to believe,” Lena said when she returned. “They used to be so friendly.”
And on Saturday evening, Peter and Tomas set off for The Fox and Hounds for a pint of beer, but returned five minutes later.
“What happened?” Lena said.
“The barman refused to serve us.”
The news from France continued to flood in, terrifying. Tomas traced the Maginot Line onto the map from a diagram in The Times, but it turned out to be more like a sieve than a barricade; Panzer divisions poured through, charging deep into the heart of the country. Lena, Otto and Peter took the bus to Haywards Heath to watch the same ridiculous Charlie Chan picture three times, just to see the Newsreel shown with it. There was something compelling about seeing the images on the screen, always the irrational hope that perhaps the news would be better there than in the newspaper. Instead there was the astounding ability of the announcer, with his upbeat baritone eloquence, to make the evacuation of Dunkirk sound like a military victory. Yes, it was impressive to see the flotilla of small fishing vessels coming to the aid of the British Navy, navigating without lights through the minefields, plucking three hundred thousand soldiers out from Rommel’s reach within three days.
“Bloody Marvelous!” declared the tabloids.
“But it’s a full-scale retreat, for Heaven’s sake,” Peter said. “And they’ve left behind all their tanks and artillery and guns.”
Now there was nothing between England and the Wehrmacht except a thin blue line of sea.
* * * * *
Constable Bilson pushed down harder on the pedals and bent forward over the handlebars to get more leverage. Large droplets of perspiration poured down his cheeks and his heart pounded in his chest. The hill seemed steeper than ever in this heat. He should have waited for the cooler part of the day, or better yet put this whole thing off until tomorrow morning.
But the Chief Inspector from Lewes had insisted: he needed a report today. Something about the bigwigs from London, they’d been on to him. Wasn’t right, in Fred Bilson’s opinion. They should come and do their own dirty work. This was way over his head. Constable Bilson was patriotic enough, and wanted to do his bit to help, of course he did. He had served in the Royal Navy last time, and had been right in the thick of things in the Battle of Jutland, so he knew about fighting a war, knew how to do his part. But they shouldn’t be asking him to do this.
“Just go and look them over,” the Chief Inspector had said. “See if you can find anything suspicious. Check their papers, that sort of thing.”
It wasn’t that simple. These weren’t just any aliens. They belonged to Mrs. Muriel Calder, and Constable Bilson wasn’t about to pick a quarrel with Mrs. Calder. She had her peculiar ways, mind; there was no getting away from that. There were those who didn’t approve of her at all, what with her getting divorced and all her – ahem – her gentlemen visitors. All sorts of peculiar visitors, now you mention it, strange London types, odd lot. And yes, a fair share of foreigners. You never really knew who was coming and going, especially now she was down at The Hollow. But she was the Lady of the Manor, and she’d always been good to the villagers. It was Mrs. Calder who built the Nurse’s Cottage opposite the school, and got all the other gentry to chip in, paid for everything, they did; all the Bilson children had received their inoculations there, free of charge. You couldn’t argue with that. No, Mrs. Calder was a good woman; Constable Bilson didn’t want to get into any sort of bother with her.
He finally made it to the top of the hill. There was Oak Tree Cottage a few hundred yards ahead of him. As he was passing the village shop, however, a loud booming greeting startled him.
“Constable Bilson! Just the fellow I want to see!” Colonel Knowles from Romley Place emerged from the shop. He strode right into the path of the policeman’s bicycle with the confidence of one who knows his orders will always be followed. His portly frame was encased in a tight white suit that had obviously fitted him better when it was originally purchased; the single button of the jacket was straining to cover the protruding belly.
“I say, Constable, what are you fellows going to do about those aliens living right here in our midst?”
“Don’t be evasive with me, Constable. You know who I’m talking about. Those damn Bolsheviks staying somewhere in this village, in one of the Calder woman’s cottages. I don’t know which of these wretched hovels it is, but I know you do.”
“We’re following all the correct procedures, sir. I can assure you of that.”
“Procedures, my foot! Intern the lot, that’s what they’ve been saying, and I couldn’t agree more. Can’t be too careful about this sort of thing, you know. We’re on our own, now Constable. Just us and the Empire against Jerry. Mind you, we’re better off this way, if you ask me. We know where we stand. No more damn Allies to pamper. But we have to weed out the Fifth Column, Constable, or they’ll be shooting us in the back when the Germans attack. Haven’t you received instructions to round them up?”
“As matter of fact, sir, I’m on my way there right now. The Chief Inspector has asked for a report this afternoon, so if you will excuse me…”
“Chief Inspector Montgomery? From Lewes? Oh, splendid, splendid. I’ll give him a ring on the telephone. Good day, Constable.”
Bilson now had a sour taste in his mouth and a heavy weight sitting somewhere between his shoulder blades. He approached Oak Tree Cottage and dismounted. He propped his bicycle against the hedge next to the dilapidated wooden gate which was half open. In three short steps he traversed the path to the front door, and knocked loudly, boldly. Just get this over with, he thought. Check their papers and get out of here, tell Montgomery everything is in order. Then finish his paperwork down at the station, and call it a day.
The door was opened by a young woman, not beautiful but quite pretty with bright blue eyes and a fresh complexion. He was taken aback. Of course, there was a girl here too, he had somehow forgotten that, imagined he would be dealing just with men.
“Afternoon, miss.” He gave a little bow. “Constable Bilson. I need to check your passports and immigration papers, if you don’t mind. Shouldn’t take long. May I come in?”
She opened the door wider and he crossed the threshold, delving into his uniform pocket to retrieve his notebook. “You must be…?”
“Ah, yes. Right you are. All your friends here today are they?”
“Yes, we are in the garden. A moment, please.”
She had a soft lilting accent. She turned to walk through the tiny house to the kitchen and the back door beyond. Constable Bilson looked around the living room. He approached the small table by the window; there was a typewriter, a pile of books. He picked up one from the top of the pile. Hmmm…. It was in foreign. No telling what it was about, of course, but it stood to reason they would have foreign books. Couldn’t be too much harm in that. He turned as he heard voices from the garden.
And that was when he saw it. Tacked up on the wall above the sofa, there in broad daylight. A large map of Europe, with pins and black lines and arrows drawn all over it, numbers and dates, with the 7’s with that funny line through the stem, and other strange names he could not decipher. Code words, no doubt. A stone-cold chill ran right through him.
Barbara Ridley was born in England but has lived in California for over 30 years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, she is now focused on creative writing. She has completed a novel set in Europe during WWII. Her creative non-fiction work has appeared in The Clockhouse Review, The East Bay Monthly, the Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy and Ars Medica. She can be followed at www.barbararidley.com