Authors: Tim Binding
Tags: #1939-1945, #Guernsey (Channel Islands), #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #World War
“I wanted to do so many things with my life,” the Major said one night, nursing one of the beer bottles that Ned had brought up from the Britannia, “to study, to learn about living things, to create some knowledge. And now I do this.”
He looked at his watch. “You have a radio?”
Ned tried to keep his face expressionless.
“It is time for one of our broadcasts to England,” he continued. “You listen, I suppose?” Ned hesitated. “Go on, bring it out from its hiding place. I do not care.”
Ned leant into the fireplace. Small pieces of piaster feil as he pulled the wireless free.
“Plug it in, plug it in!”
“It takes a bit of time to warm up,” Ned said. “But it’s got a nice tone.”
The Major pushed Ned aside and starled to fiddle with the knobs, skipping babbling voices and snatches of blurred tunes until he found the station he wanted.
“Bremen,” he announced.
The man with the long drawl came on. Though it was accepted wisdom that no one could believe a word he said, there was a certain elegance in his contempt that had an unsettling ring of truth about it. Not the military claims, which were written for him by the German High Command, but more in the depiction of the Allied command, their venality, their disdain for the common man. It was something that struck an uneasy chord on this island. He was back on his old track tonight, pouring scorn on the bloated figure of Churchill, ‘the most sordid figure in British history’, who had shocked his subordinates by talking to Roosevelt in his dressing gown while the President lay in bed.
“It is a clever picture to paint,” Lentsch pointed out, “whether you believe it or not. He is suggesting a deep-seated depravity, a willingness of the British leader to debase himself before the corrupting power of America. An intellectual if not physical buggery.”
Ned said nothing. He had never liked Churchill much anyway. He wasn’t alone in that either. Then the music starled. It was pleasant bul didn’l warranl the eagerness with which Lentsch bent his head.
“Very catchy,” Ned said.
The Major shook his head vigorously, holding his hand up to indicate silence. Then the voice came, singing in soft English.
I’m—playing with fire
I’m—going to get burnt
I know it but what can I do
I know my heart must be content
To go where it is sent,
Although I’ll repent when I’m through
But what can I do
I’m—playing with fire
I’m—going to get burnt
But I’ll merry go round it with you
When I go for my ride
With my eyes open wide
I’m playing with fire
I know it but what can I do
“I prefer Anne Shelton myself,” Ned said.
Lentsch hushed him again. Then the voice returned, this time speaking rather than singing. There was a cautionary insistence previously absent, articulating every warning vowel with great care, less anyone should miss the message.
England—is playing with fire
She’s—going to get burnt
She knows it, but what can she do,
She says her people must be content
That for Churchill’s sins they may repent
When they’re through
They’ll be plenty of praying to do
England—is playing with fire
She’s—already been burnt
And Egypt is troubling her too
Sure she’s losing her pride
With her eyes open wide
England is playing with fire
She knows it
Does America too?
“Charlie’s Orchestra,” Lentsch told him. “Some of the best musicians in the country. But the message! Always Churchill. Always America. For them America is Russia’s cousin, the two great enemies of European civilization. The war is not simply about territory. It is about culture, with Germany alone defending Europe from the barbarism of the East and the decadence of the West. Hitler always said he would get no help from England. England likes money too much. That is why we followed him. We had faith. We had vision.”
“And we don’t?”
“You have resilience, courage and stubbornness. But not vision. Your vision was made a hundred years ago. Now you simply want to live off its fruits, to be left in peace. If we had won quickly, as we knew we could, if Churchill had been defeated, if he had been captured or exiled to Canada, if your old King had returned to the throne, accepted peace, do you think anyone would have minded very much? A few maybe. This was a reluctant war. You did not wish it.”
“Not with England. France there were some old scores to settle. The East, Communism, was our first enemy and later it would have been America. America wants to rule the world. It wants us to sing American songs and dance American dances. It wants us to watch American films and eat American food. We don’t want these things. We have our own food, our own language, our own songs!”
“So do we.”
“Not for much longer. The momentum of all these things, your language, your music, has passed into their hands. We are German and we wish to remain so. In a way we want to stand still. America does not. America believes in movement, in the mixing of cultures; art, music, even procreation: different bodies locked in an embrace, from which is produced—what? Bastard children. Wild, beautiful children maybe, but still bastards all. America is the only nation in the world which wishes this. The only one! It wants to churn and mix, to see what happens. That is why my government detests jazz. It is just such a mixture. And in the nightclubs of Berlin, no, not just Berlin, but Paris and Rome and London, jazz is taking over. That is why they try to ban it.”
“But you listen to it.”
“Of course! I love jazz! But it is partly true what they fear. There is an American writer, Ned, called Scott Fitzgerald. You have read him?” Ned shook his head. “No matter. He once said that jazz is sex first, and then music. And it is true. That is why the young love it. It is full of energy. It is like sex: addictive, exciting, experimental. When they cannot have sex they feast on jazz and after they have had their fill of jazz they are ready for more sex. American jazz and American sex, everything mixed up. Hitler does not want this. He does not want our youth to be seduced by foreign cultures, to breed on such undisciplined beds. He wants them to love things German. He believes in the immobility of culture. That is his misfortune, his great weakness, his misunderstanding of the modern age. He wants the roads and the cars and radio, but cannot bear the thing that comes with it, the mixing of other cultures. A nation of horses and carts, a nation with no telephones and no radios cannot mix. Their culture will stay the same. That is why our galleries are filled with paintings of old peasants and farmers’ families gathered round the fire. But a nation which has aeroplanes and telephones and gramo-phones can never stay still. Whether it is good or bad is another matter. But it is something that cannot be stopped. Look at this island, with its concrete walls and its fortifications, trying to keep out the rest of the world. How can it? The future will not only land on the beaches or drop down from the sky. It will float through the air. We will breathe it in through our lungs, it will infect our blood. Walls keep out nothing. Now put the wireless back, other-wise I will have to report you.”
Ned unplugged the wireless and wedged it back up the chimney.
“And we did not find it there?” the Major asked incredulously. Ned shook his head. “Hopeless!” He put his hands behind his head and sighed. “So, tell me, Ned. Do you think we will ever find out who killed our Isobel?”
Ned took a swig from his bottle. “No one cares, Major. The islanders don’t, her father’s vanished into thin air, and those Kanoniers—well, they’re keeping their mouths shut, though I tell you, they’re scared of something.”
“They are scared of the Russian front.”
“What about her friends? Have you learnt nothing from them?”
“You know them better than me, what there are of them. They were all at the party. Perhaps it was a bunch of foreigns after all, or a couple of your soldiers.” He felt the letter in his pocket.
She could not tell Lentsch, she could not tell Lentsch, she wrote him the letter ‘cause she could not tell Lentsch
“Do you ever get the feeling, Major,” he said, “that something may be happening that we know nothing about?”
The Major leant forward. “How do you mean?”
“Well, what if Isobel had found out something, seen something?”
“I don’t understand. You mean sabotage?”
“Sabotage. Thieving. I don’t know.”
“There are many things that happen on this island after dark. It is an island of secrets now, don’t you think?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary going on?”
“A sudden rush of foreigns coming in to complete fortification work, that is all. The military are always in a state of anxiety. The only sabotage I know of is Ernst coming round every evening as Bohde’s guest and ruining my dinner. It is one of the reasons I am always here.” He checked himself. “I am sorry. That sounds so rude.”
Ned waved the apology away. “That must put a strain on the kitchen,” he said, remembering the man’s size.
Lentsch nodded. “Your uncle is furious. And do you know, the food has become much worse lately as a result, burnt or not cooked properly.” He laughed. “You should tell him such tactics are useless. Men like Ernst have no palates, no taste, only appetites!” He stopped suddenly. “Listen,” he said. “We are not the only ones playing music tonight.”
From out of the dark came a thin piping sound, played softly, as if no one was meant to hear.
“A curfew-breaker, it seems,” the Major said. “This is a bad neighbourhood you are living in.”
They tiptoed out. In the field at the back Veronica was standing behind a young boy, with her arms around his chest, hugging him close, his head against her breast. The boy held a tin flute to his lips and was pointing it to the ground. The two men watched as Veronica stroked the boy’s head to the sad rhythm. When he was finished the Major applauded softly.
“Bravo,” he called.
Veronica gave a start. The boy slipped out of her grasp and hid behind her skirt.
“He should be in bed,” the Major scolded. “There is school tomorrow. Lessons to learn.”
“We were just going in,” Veronica said.
“My nephew,” she replied, looking hard at Ned. He said not a word. “He stays overnight sometimes.”
“Good, good. You have sisters and brothers, then?”
“Not exactly.” She put her arms back, holding the boy steady. “It’s a complicated story.”
“Ah.” Lentsch had no intention of intruding further. “What is his name?”
“Peter,” she said quickly.
“That tune was so pretty,” Lentsch offered politely.
“One of our old folk songs.”
“Really? To me it sounds not English at all. Almost like the gypsies.”
“Well, we’re not English here, you know,” Veronica said. “You keep forgetting that.”
“Of course. It was very nice. Here.” He put his hand in his pocket and took out a coin. The boy retreated back further in the shadow.
“He’s very shy,” Veronica told him. “Soldiers give him night-mares.”
“We must not do that. Put it under his pillow later.”
“You’re very kind.”
“It is a small thing,” he said.
Veronica took the coin and shivered.
“We best be getting in, then.”
“Yes, all of us. We must all work tomorrow.”
He turned but she called him back.
“I’m very sorry about Isobel.”
“That night. I had a bit to drink. You must have thought me very…pushy.”
“Not at all. I too was drinking, I think. I must give you that record I promised.”
“Oh, that! I’d forgotten all about it.”
“If you learnt that song you would become a great favourite with the soldiers.”
Ned walked the Major to his car, then scurried back through his kitchen and hopped over the fence. Veronica was standing in her open doorway. The boy had gone.
“I thought you’d be back.”
She raised her hands up to the lintel and rested her weight on it. Once they had made love like that, with her legs wrapped round him, her arms holding her trembling weight in mid-air, her body taut with the strain, both of them feverish, trying to keep a desperate balance, both longing to cry out, to bite the silence, her parents but four feet away in the room above. Young, intoxicating times!
“Cousin Peter, eh? A foreign, is he?”
“From Russia, I think. I’m just trying to make sure he doesn’t starve to death. You going to report me?”
“Don’t be silly, V, but you shouldn’t parade him outside like that. No telling who might find out. I can’t weed out all the anonymous letters, you know. And you’d be in big trouble if they caught you.”
“Do you think he suspected?”
“I don’t think he cares either way.”
“What’s he like then, the Major?”
“I thought you knew him.”
“I mean man to man. What’s he like?”
“He’s living in another world, V—where everyone is polite and well meaning. He acts like a guest, but he’s not a guest and he knows it. So there’s an awkwardness to it all. At the end of the day he knows however well he behaves we all wish he wasn’t here. You going to the funeral?”
“Half the army’s turning out.”
“Come on, V, that’s not like you!”
Her arms sagged suddenly. “I don’t know what’s like me any more, Ned. Don’t know whether I’m coming or going, who’s friend, who’s foe.” She put her arms around him and started to cry. He closed his eyes and put his lips to her head and let her sobs subside.