Authors: Tim Binding
Tags: #1939-1945, #Guernsey (Channel Islands), #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #World War
Lentsch had sat in the dark and rolled his thumbs together, waiting for this Peter Pan. He could not understand why he had to be played by a woman but when she swung through the bedroom window, clad in a tunic of brown and green, he knew the reason. It was a typically British affair, an erotic fantasy based on denial and repression, where the body’s natural beauty had been gagged and hidden from view. He studied the girl’s form intently as she began to stride about the stage aping the thrust of virility with what she took to be a male stance, hands on hips, legs apart, head up. She was a rider, he deduced, with rider’s muscle in her flanks and long hours in the saddle giving spread to her rear. After searching for something (he could not quite determine what), she feil asleep. Lentsch was just about to ask Mrs Hallivand to explain, when another figure thundered in after him waving a tinsel wand. There was no ambiguity as to her sex.
“That’s Tinkerbell.” Marjorie Hallivand whispered. “A fairy.”
Lentsch tried not to laugh.
“A little…” he gestured carefully with his hands, “…full for a fairy, don’t you think?”
Marjorie placed her hand on his arm. “According to the author, Tinkerbell is slightly inclined to embonpoint.”
“Generosity of the bosom. Veronica is simply made for the part.” She sniffed. “A little overenthusiastic, our Veronica. But she means well.”
“But we have some nicely brought up girls here as well,” she emphasized, like a guide describing a favoured resort, a claim she would not have made so lightly had she foreseen the change of circumstance the next two years would bring. “Most of the girls here are very
, very slim. It was a holiday resort you know, before…” Her voice trailed off.
And will be one day again, according to Bohde, Lentsch had felt like telling her. After England had fallen and the war in the East concluded, this would be where tired soldiers of the Reich could come and recoup their strength. Guernsey would become a giant holiday camp, with beaches to bathe in and horses and nice slim girls to ride on. It was all nonsense, of course. England was not going to fall. Not now. Guernsey was Germany’s island of dreams. Neverland.
Mrs Hallivand had turned and, lifting the coat from her lap, revealed a small box of chocolates.
“I’ve been saving them up for a special occasion,” she confessed. “I know it sounds silly, but I feel like I’m at a first night at the opera.”
She opened the lid and peeled back the crinkly black paper. Lentsch floated his hand across the three rows, pretending to choose one to his liking. There was an increasing air of intimacy about Marjorie which he found disturbing. Though he had taken all that was hers, her house, her furniture, the source of her family’s fortune, and though on clear evenings she would sit by her narrow stone window and hear her husband’s enemies drinking their way through his wine cellar, it was clear that for all that Marjorie Hallivand enjoyed his company. They were of the same class, after all, shared many of the same interests. He remembered her expression of relief mingled with admiration when he had first stepped into the Villa’s library and remarked on the three Russell Flints hanging on the walls, two portraits of gypsy women bathing and a landscape.
“Surely they suffer too much light here,” he had said, putting out his hand as if to protect them.
“That’s what I’ve been telling Maurice for years,” she admitted, standing next to him. “The middle one is Northumberland, you know. On the east coast.”
“Ah, the east coast. I sailed there once. Norfolk. With my father.”
“I have another nude of his upstairs,” she told him. “Smaller. I don’t suppose I could take it with me?”
Lentsch had carried it over that very afternoon, wrapped in sacking, and had spent an hour with her while they found the best place to hang it. Standing back they looked at the young woman’s body with detached frankness.
“He gets the texture of her skin so very well,” she ventured. “The fullness of her young flesh, almost aching to be touched. It is difficult, to get that feeling.”
The Major shifted in his shoes, determined not to be embarrassed.
“The breasts are a little too stylized, don’t you think? A little too perfect, a little too…”
“Young girls tend to be like that, though, especially the models he used. I knew her, you know. Quite a heartbreaker in her day. Lovers by the score. Of course, in those days, that was what Paris was for.”
“It’s where I learnt about life, Major, where I learnt how to live it. You know it?”
“Certainly I know it. After Berlin, Paris is my favourite city.”
Mrs Hallivand clasped her hands. “It’s so long since…You must tell me all about it,” she determined. “And in return I shall tell you all about…all about the House!”
Lentsch did not understand.
“Hauteville,” Mrs Hallivand explained. “Victor Hugo’s old house. I am a trustee.”
She had taken him there straight away. The interior had been maintained exactly as it had been left it in ‘78—dark and heavy like a museum, with an echoing silence embedded in the walls that only long-stilled buildings can maintain. Threading their way through, Lentsch felt as if he had landed upon a treasure island and been led to a hidden chest which, when opened, revealed jewel upon jewel. She showed him the Gobelin tapestries, the table belonging to Charles II, the fire screen made by Madame de Pompadour. She led him before the great bed built for Garibaldi, but never used, and invited him to lie on its untouched length. Together they climbed up to the small glass house at the top where in each of the two corners facing the sea stood a little table where the author had written, always standing. Lentsch could hardly bring himself to speak.
“This is wonderrul,” he exclaimed.
“Wonderful. You could do anything here. Write books, paint, rule the world.”
“Oh, we don’t want any rulers of the world here,” Mrs Hallivand had chided him. “We’ve got enough of those already, haven’t we?” She caught her breath, startled by her own indiscretion. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, no,” he assured her. “You can say anything you like to me. But there are others, though, to whom you should be more circumspect.”
“Circumspect.” She repeated the word. “Are you as good with your own language as you are with ours?”
Lentsch would not let the compliment deflect him from his warning.
“My fellow officers, Captain Zepernick for instance.”
“But he seems such a charming fellow,” she said. “So polite.”
Lentsch shook his head.
“He is not?” she questioned.
“Oh, yes, he is,” Lentsch assured her. “But don’t let that deceive you. The Captain is from the new ruling class. He belongs to a different party than you or I. He is good company, but everything that takes place must do so on his own terms. If you are in his circle you are safe. If not…”
“I never ask to be admitted into circles,” Mrs Hallivand told him, regaining the dignity of her class. “I accept or I do not. Now,” she said, waving her hand around the room, “what are we going to do about all this?”
The Major had hesitated. There were favours to be gained here to be sure, ones that could carry him far beyond these waters. He could have the place stripped within the hour, packed and crated and shipped offto Karinhall with his compliments. He would finish the war under the protection of the crown prince, drinking and hunting, taking his pleasure while others died. He closed his mind to the suggestion almost in the instant it was made. There would be no collection made from this plate. No visitors either. He would keep it hidden, locked away for as long as it proved possible. Only Mrs Hallivand would be allowed in, once a week, to clean and dust and to ensure that the building stood in good repair. Otherwise an imposition of quarantine. It would become a symbol of the Occu-pation’s benign intent.
A week later he had presented her with an inventory of the whole place and invited her to the first of their Sunday lunches, where they would sit opposite each other, in a strange parody of host and guest, both amused by Albert’s uncertainty which to serve first, and talk of the worlds they had left behind; she, of life as an embassy child, her wild years in Paris, the world war death of her first husband: he of his father’s estate outside the old town of Geile, the cold turret high up in one corner, where he would stand motionless, waiting for the calling geese to fly past, and later, of his life as a German officer. Books, music, tales of adventure and indiscretions, she revelled both in the telling and the listening. As a diplomat’s daughter she understood the laws by which he was governed, the nature of the oaths he had taken, the unforgiving principle of duty. She moved in the same knowing circles, had witnessed the same peccadilloes, the same falls from grace. She could outmatch him in tales of ambassadors and heads of state. And when the brandy had taken hold and Albert had retired, he could confide in her, talk of his home in Hamburg and the fear he held for his mother and sister, the fear he held for Germany.
At the end of each evening he would escort her back to the lodge and stand in the porch while they wound down the last conversation of the night, their spirits freshened by the night air. She was drawn to him, he knew it, and these occasions, as she hovered by the studded door, turning back for one last word, or stretching up for that final quick peck on his cheek, he sensed that it only needed one stay of his hand, one murmur from his lips, for her to fall into his arms. He found the idea both absurd and disquieting. She was attractive, there was no doubt about that; bright, vivacious, determined never to be shocked or outwitted, slim and fit, slightly given to bone, with those quick bright movements that are the hallmark of the petite, but as far as he was concerned she was attractive only as a youngish aunt might be -untouchable—bearing scars of a sexual history fashioned in a different age, and her insistence on this coquettish intimacy he found increasingly discomforting. To embrace Mrs Hallivand, feel her lonely lips seeking his, to undress her, to be present when that repressed passion had died back once more, would only cause them both intense embarrassment and regret later on, even though there were times, at the end of a particularly enjoyable evening, when he half desired it himself. So he flirted with her politely, always perfectly groomed, always exaggeratedly correct, and she, sitting at the end of the table, matching him drink for drink, tale for tale, argument for argument, followed his movements, his eyes, the corner of his mouth, the dance of his hands, with undisguised pleasure.
“I am so glad about the war!” she had once confided. “It’s the best thing that has happened to me on this island, and I don’t mind who knows it.”
“Marjorie, this is treasonable talk,” he warned her, amused and flattered by her outburst. “You mustn’t let Bohde hear you. He’ll make you put it in writing, splash it all over the
Mrs Hallivand waved him away. “I wouldn’t mind! You’ve no idea what it was like beforehand, the company I had to keep. Men who wouldn’t know Stendhal from Stalin, wives whose idea of a social gathering was some dreadrul little drinks do with cheap punch, meat-paste sandwiches and pineapple chunks stuck on cocktail sticks.”
“But surely your husband…”
“A seducer in a stuffed shirt.”
“Don’t be. It took him off my hands. It wasn’t the seductions that really grated, rather his choice. If I’d done the same at least it would have been for someone worthwhile. Not that there was much chance of that happening here. More life in one of our tomatoes. God, I was half asleep before you came. You’ve woken me up, Gerhard. I’ll not be able to go back to sleep again.”
That first Christmas pantomime, Mrs Hallivand’s face had been lit up with barely contained excitement, her lips following every line, her hands clasped together whenever a joke or special effect hit its target. She held on to his arm, laughed behind her handker-chief, patted herself under her breasts, as if the thrill of it all were enough to make her faint. She stuck another chocolate into her mouth and without looking, reached over and popped one into his mouth. He was astonished at her boldness. Was that why he had been invited? Outside he could hear the sound of soldiers marching past and boats hooting in the harbour, but for the audience it was as if that world had ceased to exist. Yet Lentsch was not slow to see that for this production Neverland had taken on a very Guernsey-like aspect, with its pretty painted backdrop of an old castle overlooking a tree-lined coast. The pirates, clearly the villains of the piece, judging by the boos and hisses that greeted their every appearance, were of an uncharacteristically military bent. There was something peculiarly British about the crocodile too, not simply in the bowler hat it had tied on its head, but in the manner in which it managed to devour large numbers of these unwanted brigands at regular and increasingly popular intervals. Trust Marjorie to use her self-assured arrogance to orchestrate this display of theatrical defi-ance. He was glad he had seen it before Bohde, though. Bohde would have closed the show and slapped her down with a hefty fine.
It was only after the play had been going for a half-hour, as Peter Pan swung out across a paper lagoon, that he realized who the young woman was. Lentsch leant over to Marjorie and whis-pered: “That girl. Who is she?”
“That?” She turned and faced him full on. “Just my niece Isobel. Quite the silliest girl in the island. Doesn’t know one end of a book from the other.”
“Your niece? I am sure I met her, last winter, while on leave. In Switzerland.”
He had been jumping off a ski lift and had slipped badly, swearing loudly as he feil. Sprawled on the ground, he had looked up to see a hand reaching out.
“Keep your knees bent,” she had told him slowly, shaking her head, taking him for the novice he was not. “Glide,” and with that she had turned and pushed off down the slope. He would have liked to have followed her, but he was with a party of his own. It didn’t matter. That night, in the hotel, he had walked into the lounge bar and spotted her sitting in the corner with a group of other young women, gazing out of the huge window which looked out upon the Jungfrau. He had gone over and introduced himself and asked, by way of thanks, if he might be allowed to buy her dinner. Though her eyes told him that she would have liked to accept, her face travelled in disappointed explanation to where an older woman sat, watching her every move.