Willie’s War Ch. 06


In 1941 Russia comprised a fifth of the worlds land surface, but its main cities and industrial centres all lay to the west of the Volga, and it was this portion of the world Hitler hungered to take during the summer. During a ferocious German invasion the mass of the Red Army was quickly knocked to pieces in a series of colossal annihilation battles which cost it a million casualties, and by September four million more Soviet troops were slowly starving to death in miserable captivity. In the wake of the triumphant German Panzer Divisions followed the SS extermination battalions, clearing away vast numbers of unwanted peasantry and slaughtering Jews.

Hitler relaxed into dreams of having a colonial Eastern empire – a million square miles of Slavic helots, ruled by a handful of Herrenvolk – German viceroys. In a jubilant mood he declared in a speech to his Party faithful, “The maxims to follow are: conquer and cleanse… then rule and EXPLOIT.”

Willie Froehlich was aware of none of this. It was early morning and a keen breeze from the North Sea was cutting across the narrow coast road as he walked its route. The people who had arranged things for him had thought it quite a clever ruse for him to remain in the guise of a woman, and he was wearing a simple top and skirt beneath a crumpled trench coat. His head was adorned with an unspectacular cloche style hat, his legs with woollen stockings and his feet with and dark brown side-buttoned shoes. In his hand he carried a small, cheap suitcase containing the few items he had been able to bring with him. All in all his appearance hadn’t changed much at all since departing from Ravenskopf eight months previously.

He was in England in a place called Essex, but he had only a vague idea of where that was. Before he had set out someone had shown him a map of the area, but the names on it had gone through his head like the words of a Bavarian music hall song.

As he stared at the wide river estuary on one side and the rising ground and trees on the other, he realised he needed to be on his guard. He knew he was entering, what was for him, a hostile unchartered terrain, where people played by different rules, where different skills and knowledge were necessary for survival and where cosy assumptions could be fatal.

To remain alive he’d had to accept banishment from his own country, but as he followed the road he saw it as a worthy path. He’d been charged with helping to make peace between Hitler’s Germany and the British.

Despite his hatred of violence and his ultimate rejection of Nazism he was now an agent for Hitler codenamed ‘Harmony’. How had he, a not unintelligent person in the mid-twentieth century, come to this? It was ludicrous, but his part was clear and he was committed. He would manage it somehow; there was no sense in which he would be found wanting. He would do it in the memory of Felix Haushofer, the old man who had forfeited his life in the name of peace.

Perhaps it was an impossible task, but whenever the immensity of it weighed on his mind he recalled the English expression Felix had once mentioned to him. ‘From little acorns mighty oaks do grow’. He was determined that his little acorn was going to flourish. He would reduce the killing and score out at least some of the senseless massacre of the innocents. And not just because some Nazi Party official had told him he must, but because he himself wanted to do it.

A noise interrupted the still of the early morning, and he watched as a car, a compact Austin 10, came up the road behind him. For a moment he hesitated, wondering if he should flag it down and ask for a lift or stand aside and let it drive on. In the event the car drew to a halt beside him without him making any kind of signal.

Three men sat inside, and the driver, an elderly clean shaven man, pushed his head out from the open side window. On the shoulder of his brown jacket was sewn a patch bearing the words HOME GUARD. “You’ve got a long walk in front of you if you’re heading for Colchester, Miss.” he said.

Willie nervously gripped the handle of his suitcase. “I’m not going to that place; I’m going to Brascombe Manor. Maybe that’s not so far.”

“Far enough. We had a report that a submarine was seen in the bay earlier. Could have been Jerry putting ashore a spy, so we thought we’d take a look.”

The passenger in the back of the car climbed out and stood staring at him. He was wearing a brown blouse and brown trousers and he held a rifle in his hand. The man was holding it by the stock and he wasn’t pointing or threatening with it, but just the near proximity of a gun felt intimidating enough.

Willie’s heart thumped, but he had a pouty mouth and a beautiful face and he used them to conjure up a disarming smile. “You don’t think that I’m a spy, surely.”

The man seated in the car gazed up and beamed. “Course not; you’re too little and pretty for that kind of thing.” Then his smile turned down slightly at the corners. “But you do have a foreign accent and you are in the middle istanbul travesti of nowhere, so I’d better have a look at your identity papers.”

Willie quickly produced what was needed from the pocket of his coat and thrust the forged documents into the man’s hand. He studied them for a moment. “Dutch are you?” he said rhetorically. “How did you get here?

“I come from the Refugee Resettlement Centre at Ramsgate.”

“That’s quite a distance from here.”

“A man promised to take me to Brascombe Manor in his car, but he became what you call ‘fresh’, and when I protested he humped me.”

The man with the rifle gawped stupidly.

“I think you mean he dumped you, luv.” said the one examining his documents. “Some blokes just haven’t learnt how to act the gentlemen.”

“Everything here seems okay,” he said, handing the papers back, “And since you’re genuine we’ll be proper gentlemen and take you to where you’re going.” He gave the man at his side a nudge with his elbow. “Ere, Nobby, get in the back. I’ve just found someone prettier than you to sit next to me.”

A little over twenty minutes later Willie stood on the road again. At the end of a short gravelled drive bordered by grass paddocks stood a fine looking Edwardian house… grey stone mellowed by the years, with a battery of tall chimneys on its roof. There was a large oak door at its centre and so many windows showing that he didn’t bother counting them. It wasn’t as grand as Ravenskopf of course, but it was old, ogee and poignant.

For a moment he dithered. The door, under a handsome limestone tympanum and surrounded by a cinque-foil arch, looked big and formidable and he hated the idea of banging on it to attract attention. But he had to get inside the house to see the man whose name was etched on his mind.

“Watchcha’ sweetheart!” A voice rose up behind him and a youth swung past pedalling a red bicycle. Dressed in blue he was instantly recognisable as a post-boy. Willie watched him go to a smaller door at the side of the house and stuff mail through a letter-box. He then remounted and charged back wearing a wide hearty grin.

“Keep an ‘and on yu h’penny, darlin’.” he called as he went by.

Willie thought about what he’d said and interpreted it as ‘keep a hand on your half-penny’, an inexplicable expression and one Felix Haushofer had never mentioned.

Taking a deep breath he approached the place where the post-boy had gone and rapped the brass letterbox. A moment passed and then a woman’s face peered through the half-open door; it had sharp features, a slightly aquiline nose and hair that was tightly pulled back into a French knot. Her eyes looking him up and down with undisguised disapproval.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

Willie stared at her bravely. “I am Wilhelmina Naarden, and I have come from Holland to see Sir Mortimer Brascombe.”

The woman’s expression showed indignation in addition to outright disbelief. “Sir Mortimer always tells me if he’s expecting a visitor. He hasn’t said anything about you.”

“I am expected, that’s certain.” insisted Willie stubbornly.

She took him inside the house and sat him in a narrow passageway on a hard chair with a tobacco-coloured corduroy seat. He found it difficult to decide whether the house was peaceful or merely gloomy. The stillness of everything gave an empty feeling to the place.

“I’ll tell Sir Mortimer you’re here when he’s had his breakfast. He can decide if he wants to see you or not.” the woman told him.

Willie used the time alone to go over his cover story. He was anxious, because although it was reasonable plausible he had to use it to established himself as a resident in that house. Before long his eyes drooped. In the past two days he had endured a train journey, a long drive down an autobahn and an uncomfortable sea crossing amid a crew of curious sailors, and now he felt exhausted.

He didn’t notice the tall man come down the set of narrow stairs nearby, but the man saw him. He took note of the blond hair pulled back each side of the visitors face, noticed her white, even teeth chewing thoughtfully on the tip of a finger as he looked down at her. Her skin seemed rather pale, but her mouth was poppy red, full and tempting.

“Oh, hello!” he said cheerfully, “Are you waiting to see Mrs Whippet? Are you hoping to join the house staff here?”

Willie’s head snapped up. The question was posed by an individual who stood straight and tall, a dapper young man dressed casually in slacks and open necked shirt with a paisley cravat at his throat. His handsome countenance was authorative and his head well formed under a luxuriant frame of blond hair, but although he looked neat and professional his demeanour suggested a relaxed man.

He was expressing enough interest to set a girls heart afloat and Willie bristled uncomfortably. “No, I have come here to speak to Sir Mortimer. Who are you?”

The man’s eyes twinkled and his mouth bent into a flirtatious grin. “You’re kadıköy travesti right to be careful. I’m Jack the Ripper.”

Willie laughed, again flashing his teeth. “That’s ridiculous; Jack the Ripper is English folklore…isn’t he?”

“I dare say you’re right. I was lying, I’m rather respectable really. My name is Jeremy de Vere, and my father is a Court of Sessions judge. I can give you his telephone number if you like. You can phone and confirm…”

“That’s silly.”

Before the man could respond again the scowling woman returned, and he waved a good natured hand. “If you’re still here at lunchtime we’ll talk again.”

“Sir Mortimer will see you now.” the woman told Willie, “He’s in the Gun Room.”

Willie gulped. “Gun Room!” It sounded like the casement in a fortress.

“It’s his study.” the woman explained impatiently, “Follow me. I’ll show you the way.”

Willie trailed behind her down the passageway. The woman knocked at a mahogany door at the end and opened it, stepping aside to let him through.

As soon as he was through the door, Willie felt he were in another world. The floor was furnished with comfortable leather chairs, deep pile carpets and an antique desk. On the wall behind the desk hung a glass-fronted cabinet containing shot-guns and hunting rifles.

Sir Mortimer was sprawled in a chair behind the desk, a middle-aged man sporting a tweed bow-tie, not tall, rather rotund and with a podgy boyish face and thinning hair. He looked very English and dressed like what he was; a long-term Conservative MP. On receiving an indication to sit down Willie perched on the edge of a chair. The furniture looked as if it were standing to attention; and the cushions looked so bosomy he thought they would probably resent being disturbed.

“Mrs Whippet tells me that I should be expecting you, but I don’t recollect making any such arrangement.” the man began.

Willie pushed out his cover story. “The Administer at the Refugee Relief Centre telephoned and was told I should come here.” he said.

The man frowned. “One of my house staff took the call I expect, and never told me. Can’t hang on to reliable people with the war on. Mrs Whippet said your name is Naarden. Are you a relation to Oscar Naarden?”

“I’m a niece.”

“Oscar has been a dear friend of mine for years. How is he weathering life in Nazi occupied Holland?”

“I don’t know, I’ve not seen him. But we spoke on the telephone briefly, and he told me that if I reached England I should try to find you. He said you would help me.”

“Of course I’ll help. Any relation of Oscar’s deserves that. What kind of help do you need?”

“I have to find lodgings and employment.”

The man pursed his lips thoughtfully. “You’d be better off in a town for that sort of thing. There’s nothing much around here except farm work, and you look a little too delicate for that. What was your last job?”

“I helped in a bookshop. There were no books there printed in English of course, but I have attended university and I know quite a lot about art.”

“Art!” Sir Mortimer rolled the word forlornly around in his mouth. “What else? Can you use a typewriter?”

“Yes, I’m very good with typing.”

“Well, that’s a start at least. You do have a Work Permit of course.”

Willie looked genuinely mystified. “No one gave me such a thing.”

The man tutted. “Dash those refugee relief people. I know they’re busy, but to forget to provide you with a basic vital document is unforgivable. I shall have to have a word with someone at the Ministry of Labour to lay one on, and until we have something arranged you will stay here as a house guest. Show Mrs Whippet your Ration Book, she’ll expect to have some of your food coupons.”

At that moment a woman entered the room without knocking, moving across the floor with the grace of a dancer. Her thick brown hair was swept back from her forehead and layered along the side into a heavy mane. Her makeup was generously but expertly applied, and her eyes shone bright to betray an easy nature. She smiled at Sir Mortimer who was obviously someone very special to her.

Sir Mortimer greeted her with obvious delight. “May I introduce you to Deborah Findlay, my… er… lady companion. Deborah came over from New York with me before all the disagreeable stuff began here.”

The woman grinned warmly. “Call me Debbie, honey. I’ll only put up with being Deborah if Mortimer takes me to Buckingham Palace, which ain’t likely.”

The woman…Sir Mortimer’s paramour… looked about twenty-five and had a wide mouth which puckered at the corners, hinting at a smile even when her expression was serious. But there was something about the angle of her cheeks and the line of her throat that Willie recognised as not belonging to a woman.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Debbie. And you must call me Willie. Everyone calls me Willie.”

Debbie put a pensive fingertip to her chin. “This kid needs sorting anadolu yakası travesti out, Mortimer. Look at those woollen stockings and scuffed shoes,” She then gazed down at Willy with an expression of slight pity, “And if you don’t mind me saying so honey, the rest of you looks like it’s been done over with a garden rake.”

Willie plucked at the collar of his coat. “I’ve been travelling a lot lately, but I have other things.”

Debbie Findlay looked doubtful. “That suitcase of yours in the passage outside is hardly big enough for a toothbrush. But don’t worry; I brought a whole mess of excess baggage with me when I moved over here and I can afford to share some with you.”

“Are you hungry after your journey, Willie?” asked the man.

“Hungry? Yes, I am a little. But more than anything I’m very tired. Is there somewhere I can sleep?”

The man’s female companion took control at once. “Come with me. I’ll show you what we’ve got.”

Outside in the hall Willie handed his slim brown, immaculately counterfeited Ration Book – everyone’s passport to eating – to Mrs Whippet, and then followed Debbie up a flight of creaking stairs.

“It ain’t much,” Debbie said, “I came here expecting a palace, and what I got was a big old dog kennel full of draughts and spooky housekeepers.”

Willie smiled, for despite Debbie’s clowning talk and loud American manner he judged her to be a rather warm kind of person, and the house had a sense of permanence and stability perfectly kept, the air thick with the smell of polishing wax.

The room he was shown to was quite small and included a fireplace in one wall, although no fire was lit. The furniture was unremarkable too, just a mirror, chest of drawers, a small closet and a bed. But what impressed Willie was how the bed linen was fastidiously tucked and squared, and just how clean the sheets were. It was a world to which he had been denied access for a long time; cosy, comfortable, respectable. Safe.

He took in the woman at his side called Deborah, to be called Debbie whenever possible. His eyes became riveted on her, almost to the point of rudeness. Her abundant, carefully dressed hair was dark with reddish lights; her face with a good straight nose was set above a large beautifully modelled mouth and a firm jawline. Her cheekbones were high, the outer ends of her eyebrows slanted slightly upwards and her flawless skin was a pale gold.

And now he was sure. Everything had been well thought through. Those Secret Service people in Germany who had planned where he should go had cleverly selected the house of a man who enjoyed the company of world-class transvestites.

“You’ll find Brascombe Manor operates like a second-class hotel.” said Debbie, “All the necessaries are outside, down at the end of the landing.”

Willie nodded. “I understand. I have lived in large houses such as this before.”

“You have, huh! Are you a strayed Russian princess, or something?”

Willie sat on the bed and gave a weak smile. “Sometimes I don’t know what I am.”

Debbie paused, looking the newcomer up and down to appreciate what she saw, and patting him on the arm with cherry-red talons. “I know what you are. Your hands are slight, your fingers are graceful and your legs are demure, but you can’t fool me, kid. Us kind of girls can pick each other out in a crowd, can’t we?”

She went to the door, and winked. “Don’t worry, I can keep a secret. Grab some shuteye. I’ll make sure you don’t miss out on dinner.”

Later that day, following a long sleep, Willie returned from the bathroom with his torso covered by a dressing gown and his hair wrapped in a white bath towel. He found his bedroom door opened and Debbie Findlay standing inside. She was smelling of scent and was wearing an evening dress of purple-patterned silk and a mass of barbaric golden jewellery, while in her arms she was holding a pile of other items.

Willie stood in the doorway, his face freshly scrubbed and rosy pink, feathery lashes sweeping his cheeks. “Oh, I couldn’t imagine who would be in here.”

Debbie grinned pleasantly. “Obviously. Did you manage to get a little rest?”

“I think so. Quite a long one.”

“The room is okay?”

“Everything is fine.”

The wardrobe in the corner now contained a range of women’s clothes, and as Debbie gestured towards them, she regarded Willie inquisitively. “I’ve brought some things for you to wear. Some may not be the right fit, but you look Size 10, and I’m way past that now. I should have thrown ’em out ages ago.”

“You are very kind.”

“Think nothing of it. Can’t have you going down the stairs looking like Pocahontas just out of the woods. Bombs may be falling and cities may be burning, but a girl still as to look her best. It’s Saturday, and Mortimer has dinner-guests to night.”

“Dinner! Oh, yes, I’m very hungry now.”

“Good. You’re in the right place. Mortimer holds the tenancies on most of the farms around here, so he can usually scrape up three courses for a meal, despite the food rationing. Sit down and I’ll fix your hair.”

“I must first put on some clothes.” he flustered.

“No hurry on my account. You’ve got nothing to hide and plenty to look at.” She grinned at him. “Anyway, you look perfectly decent. That dressing gown covers more of you than most people would wish.”