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Authors: Robert Wilson

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The Company of Strangers

BOOK: The Company of Strangers
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The Company of Strangers
Robert Wilson

For Jane
in memory of my father


Author’s Note

Extract from ‘An Arundel Tomb’ from
Collected Poems
by Philip Larkin reproduced by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! For the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold

Chapter 1

30th October 1940, London. Night 54 of the Blitz.

She was running, running as she had done before in her dreams, except this wasn’t a dream, even though with the flares dropping, as slowly as petals, and the yellow light, and the dark streets with the orange glow on the skyline it could easily be a dream, a horror dream.

She flinched at a tremendous explosion in a nearby street, staggered at the shudder in the ground, nearly ploughed into the paving stones face-first, legs kicking back wildly. She pushed up off a low wall at the front of a house and her feet were slapping against the pavement again. She ran faster as she saw the Auxiliary Fire Service outside the house. New hoses uncoiled from the engines and joined the spaghetti in the black glass street as they trained more water on the back of the house, which was no longer a house but half a house. The whole of one side blown away and the grand piano with two legs over the startling new precipice, its lid hanging open like a tongue lapping up the flames, which set off a terrible twanging as the fire plucked at the piano strings and snapped them, peeled them back.

She stood there with her hands over her ears to the unbearable sound of destruction. Her eyes and mouth were wide open as the back of the house collapsed into the neighbour’s garden, leaving the kitchen in full view and oddly intact. A hissing noise of escaping gas from the ruptured mains suddenly thumped into flame and burst across
the street, pushing the firemen back. There was a figure lying in the kitchen, not moving and with clothes alight.

She jumped up on to the low wall at the side of the house and screamed into the blistering heat of the burning house.

‘Daddy! Daddy!’

A fireman grabbed her and hauled her roughly back, almost threw her at a warden, who tried to hold her but she wrenched herself free just as the piano, the piano that she’d been playing to him only two hours before, fell from its precipice with a loud crack and a discord that reached into her chest and squeezed her lungs. Now she saw all the sheet music going up in flames and he was lying on the floor at the foot of the wall of fire, which the AFS where hosing down so that it hissed and sputtered, but didn’t go out.

Another crack and this time the roof dropped, spitting whole window frames into the street like broken teeth, and crashed down on to the floor below, shedding great sledges of tiles which shattered on the pavement. There was a momentary pause, then the roof smashed through to the next floor and, like a giant candle snuff, suffocated the flaming music, crushed his supine body and dropped him amongst shafts of flaming timber into the bay window of the ground floor.

The warden lunged at her again, got a hold of her collar, and she wheeled round and bit his wrist so that he flinched back his hand. She’s a wild one, this black-haired, gypsy-looking girl, thought the warden, but he had to get her away, poor thing, get her away from her daddy burning in the bay window in front of her. He went for her again, got her in a bear hug, her legs flailing, lashing out and then she went limp as a rag doll, bent in the middle over his arms.

A woman, white-faced, ran up to the warden and said that the girl was her daughter, which confused him because he’d seen the man who she’d been calling Daddy and the warden knew that the man’s wife was dead in the kitchen.

‘She’s been calling for her daddy in the house there.’

‘That’s not her daddy,’ said the woman. ‘Her father’s dead. That’s her piano teacher.’

‘What’s she doing out here, anyway?’ he asked, getting official. ‘The All Clear hasn’t sounded…’

The girl wrestled away from her mother and ran down the side of another house and into the garden, lit by the still falling flares. She ran across the yellow lawn and threw herself into the bushes growing against the back wall. Her mother followed. Bombs were still falling, the ack-ack was still pumping away on the Common, the searchlights swarming over the black velvet sky. Her mother was screaming at her, roaring over the noise, screeching with fright, savagely begging her to come out.

The girl sat with her hands over her ears, eyes closed. Only two hours before he’d held her hands, told her she was as nervous as a cat, stroked each of her fingers, squared her shoulders to that same piano and she’d played for him, played like a dream for him, so that he’d told her afterwards he’d closed his eyes and left London and the war and found a green meadow in the sunshine, somewhere where the trees were flashing with red and gold in the autumn wind.

The first wave of bombers moved off. The ack-ack fell silent. All that was left in the cold autumn air was the roar of the conflagration and the hiss of water on burning wood. She crawled out of the bushes. Her mother grabbed her by the shoulders, shook her backwards and forwards. The girl was calm, but her face was set, her teeth gritted and her eyes black and unseeing.

‘You’re a stupid girl, Andrea. A stupid, stupid girl,’ said her mother.

The girl took in her mother’s white raving face in the dark and yellow garden, her face hard and determined.

‘I hate Germans,’ she said. ‘And I hate you.’

Her mother slapped her hard across the face.

Chapter 2

7th February 1942, Wolfsschanze, Hitler’s East Front HQ, Rastenburg, East Prussia.

The aircraft, a Heinkel III bomber refitted for passenger use, began its descent over the vast blackness of the pine forests of East Prussia. The low moan of its two engines brought with it the bleakness of the vast, snow-covered Russian steppes, the emptiness of the gutted, burnt-out railway station at Dnepropetrovsk and the endlessness of the frozen Pripet marshes between Kiev and the start of Polish pine.

The plane landed and taxied in a miasma of snow thrashed up into the darkness by its propellers. A coated figure, huddled against the icy blast, slipped into this chill world from a neat hole which had opened up in the belly of the aircraft. A car from the Führer’s personal pool waited just off the wing tip and the chauffeur, collar up to his hat, held the door open. Fifteen minutes later the guard at the gate of Restricted Area I admitted Albert Speer, architect, into the military compound of Hitler’s Rastenburg headquarters for the first time. Speer went straight to the officers’ canteen and ate a large meal with appropriate wolfishness, which would have reminded his fellow diners, if they’d had room for empathy, just how difficult it was to keep the latest far-flung corner of the Third Reich supplied.

Two captains, Karl Voss and Hans Weber, intelligence officers in their mid twenties attached to the Army Chief of
Staff, General Zeitzler, had been standing outside stamping their feet and smoking cigarettes when Speer arrived.

‘Who’s that?’ asked Voss.

‘I knew you’d ask that.’

‘You don’t think that’s a normal question when somebody you don’t know walks past?’

‘You forgot the word “important”. When somebody important walks past.’

‘Piss off, Weber.’

‘I’ve seen you.’


‘Let’s get back,’ said Weber, chucking his cigarette.

‘No, tell me.’

‘Your problem, Voss…is that you’re too intelligent. Heidelberg University and your fucking physics degree, you’re…’

‘Too intelligent to be an intelligence officer?’

‘You’re new, you don’t understand yet – the thing about intelligence is that it doesn’t do to be too inquisitive.’

this rubbish come from, Weber?’ asked Voss, incredulous.

‘I tell you one thing,’ he said, ‘I know what powerful people see when they look at you and me…and it’s not two individuals with lives and families and all the rest.’

‘What then?’

‘They see opportunities,’ he said, and barged Voss through the door.

They went back to work in the situation room, up the silent corridor towards Hitler’s apartment where the Führer was still entertaining the Armaments Minister, Fritz Todt, whose arrival had terminated the situation meeting of that afternoon. As the young captains resumed their seats the two older men were still just about talking. Food had been served to them earlier by an orderly grown accustomed
to glacial silences, split only by the odd cracking of a wooden chair.

Voss and Weber worked, or rather Voss did. Weber’s head started toppling again almost as soon as they sat down in the airless room. Only the snap of his neck muscles jerked him awake and prevented him from flattening his face on the desk. Voss told him to go to bed. Weber’s eyes ground in their sockets.

‘Go on,’ said Voss. ‘This is nearly finished anyway.’

‘Those,’ said Weber, standing and pointing at four boxes of files, ‘have to go out on the first flight in the morning…to Berlin.’

‘You mean unless the Moscow flight is open by then.’

Weber grunted. ‘You’ll learn,’ he said. ‘Back to the monk’s cell for me. It’s going to be hard tomorrow. He’s always bad after Todt’s given his report.’

‘Why’s that?’ asked Voss, still keen, still capable of doing an all-nighter for the East Front.

‘The first place you lose a battle is up here,’ said Weber, leaning over Voss and tapping his head, ‘and Todt lost that one last June. He’s a good man and he’s a genius and that’s a bad combination for this war. Good night.’

Voss knew Fritz Todt, as everyone knew him, as the inventor of the
, but he was much more than that now. Not only was he running all arms and munitions production for the Third Reich, but he and his Organization Todt were the builders of the West Wall and the U-boat pens that would protect Europe from invasion. He was also in charge of building and repairing all roads and railways in the Occupied Territories. Todt was the greatest construction engineer in German history and this was the greatest programme of all time.

Voss surveyed the situation map. The front line stretched from Lake Onega, 500 kilometres south-west of Archangel on the White Sea, through Leningrad, the Moscow suburbs
and down to Taganrog on the Sea of Azov, off the Black Sea. From Arctic to Caucasus was under German control.

‘And he thinks we’re
this war?’ asked Voss out loud, shaking his head.

He worked for another hour or more and then went out for another cigarette and to wake himself up in the freezing air. On his way back he saw the good-looking man who’d arrived earlier, sitting on his own in the dining room and then, coming towards him outside the situation room, another figure, shuffling along with sagging shoulders as if they were under some penitential weight. The face was grey, soft and slack, falling away from its substructure. The eyes saw nothing beyond the immense calculation in his mind. Voss moved to avoid the man but at the last moment they seemed to veer into each other and their shoulders clashed. The man’s face was reanimated in shock and Voss recognized him now.

‘Forgive me, Herr Reichsminister.’

‘No, no, my fault,’ said Todt. ‘I wasn’t looking.’

‘Thinking too hard, sir,’ said Voss, dog-like.

Todt studied the slim, blond young man more carefully now.

‘Working late, Captain?’

‘Just finishing the orders, sir,’ said Voss, nodding at the open door of the situation room.

Todt lingered on the threshold of the room, his eyes roved the map and the flags of the armies and their divisions.

‘Nearly there, sir,’ said Voss.

‘Russia,’ said Todt, his eye swivelling on to Voss, ‘is a very large place.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Voss, after a long pause in which nothing more was forthcoming.

‘Maps of Russia should be room-sized,’ said Todt. ‘So that army generals have to
to move their divisions,
with the knowledge that each step they take is 500 kilometres of snow and ice, or rain and mud, and in the few months of the year when it’s neither of those things they should know that the steppe is shimmering in silent, brutal, dust-choked heat.’

Voss shut up, mesmerized by the thunderous roll of the older man’s voice. Todt backed out of the room. Voss wanted him to stay, to continue, but no questions came to mind other than the banal.

‘Are you on the first flight out tomorrow, sir?’

‘Yes, why?’

‘To Berlin?’

‘We’ll stop in Berlin on the way to Munich.’

‘These files need to go to Berlin.’

‘In that case they’d better be on my plane before seven thirty. Talk to the flight captain. Good night, er…Captain…’

‘Captain Voss, sir.’

‘Have you seen Speer, Captain Voss? I was told he’d arrived.’

‘There’s someone in the dining room. He arrived earlier.’

Todt moved away, shuffling again down the corridor. Before he turned left to the dining room he turned on Voss.

‘Don’t imagine for one second, Captain, that the Russians are doing nothing about…about
situation in there,’ he said, and disappeared.

No wonder the Führer was bad after Todt’s visits.

Another half-hour passed and Voss went to fetch coffee from the dining room. Speer and Todt sat on either side of a single glass of wine, which the older man sipped. The structural differences between the two men were marked. The one slumped with definite subsidence under the right foundation, the nineteenth century, Wilhelmine façade lined and cracked, the paint and masonry crumbling to
scurf. The other cantilevered over at an impossible angle, his lines clean and defined, the modern Bauhaus front, dark, handsome, uncluttered and bright.

‘Captain Voss,’ said Todt, turning to him, ‘did you speak to the flight captain yet?’

‘No, sir.’

‘When you do, tell him that Herr Speer will be joining me. He came in from Dnepropetrovsk tonight.’

Voss drank his coffee and on the way back to his work he had the strange and uncomfortable sense of silent machinery at work, out of his sight and beyond his knowledge. He turned into the situation room, just as SS Colonel Bruno Weiss came out of Hitler’s apartment. Weiss was head of the SS company at Rastenburg in charge of Hitler’s security and the only thing Voss knew about him was that he didn’t like anybody except Hitler, and he had a particular dislike of intelligence officers.

‘What are you doing, Captain?’ he shouted down the corridor.

‘Just finishing these orders, sir.’

Weiss bore down on him and inspected the situation room, the scar running from his left eye to below his cheekbone livid against his pale skin.

‘What are these?’

‘Army Chief of Staff files, sir, to go back to Berlin on the Reichsminister Todt’s flight this morning. I’m about to inform the flight captain.’

Weiss nodded at the phone. Voss called the flight captain and booked Speer on to the plane as well. Weiss wrote things down in his notebook and went back to Hitler’s apartment. Minutes later he was back.

‘These files…when are they going?’ he asked.

‘They have to be at the airstrip by 07.30 hours this morning, sir.’

‘Answer the question fully, Captain.’

‘I will be taking them personally, leaving here at 07.15 hours, sir.’

‘Good,’ said Weiss. ‘I have some security files to go back to the Reichsführer’s office. They will be delivered here. I will inform the flight captain.’

Weiss left. An adjutant strode past. Minutes later he came back followed by Speer.

Voss, like Hitler (not an unconscious imitation), enjoyed working at night. He worked with the door open to hear the voices, see the men, to gain a sense of the magnetic flow – those drawn to and favoured by the Führer and those he rejected and disgraced. In the short time he’d been in Rastenburg, Voss had seen men striding down the centre of that corridor, medals, pips and epaulets flashing, to return fifteen minutes later hugging the wall, shunned even by the carpet strip in the middle. There were others, of course, who came back evangelized, something in their eyes higher than the stars, greater than love. These were the men who had ‘gone’, left the decrepit shell of their own bodies to walk an Elysium with other demigods, their ambitions fulfilled, their greatness confirmed.

Weber saw it differently, and said it with a cruder voice: ‘These guys, they’re all married with wives and families of lovely children and yet they go up there and take it up the arse every night. It’s a disgrace.’ Weber had accused Voss of it, too. Of sitting with his tongue out in the corridor, waiting for a tummy rub. It needled Voss only because it was true. In his first week, as Voss had laid maps down in a situation meeting while Zeitzler said his piece, the Führer had suddenly gripped Voss by the bicep and the touch had shot something fast and pure into his veins like morphine, strong, addictive but weakening, too.

stilled into the early hours. Corridor traffic halted. Voss filed the orders and prepared the maps and
positions for the morning conference, taking his time because he liked the feeling of working while the world was asleep. At 3.00 a.m. there was a flurry of activity from Hitler’s apartment and moments later Speer appeared at the door looking like a matinée idol. He asked Voss if he wouldn’t mind cancelling him from the Reichsminister’s flight in the morning, he was too tired after his earlier flight and his meeting with the Führer. Voss assured him of his efficiency in the matter and Speer stepped into the room. He stood over the map and brushed a hand in a great swathe over Russia, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and France. He became conscious of Voss studying him and put his hand in his pocket. He nodded, said good night and reminded him to tell the flight captain. He didn’t want to be disturbed in the morning.

Voss made the call and went to bed for three hours. He got up just before 7.00 a.m., called a car and he and the chauffeur loaded the box files, along with a black metal trunk which had appeared in the situation room addressed in white paint through a stencil to the SS Personalhauptamt, 98–9 Wilmersdorferstrasse, Berlin-Charlottenburg. They drove to the airstrip where, to their surprise, they found Todt’s Heinkel charging down the runway. Voss could already feel the lash of Weiss’s fury. He went to the flight captain who told him they were just testing the plane under orders from Hitler’s adjutant. The plane circled twice and relanded. A sergeant with a manifest cleared the files on to the aircraft and they loaded them. Voss and the chauffeur drank a coffee in the canteen and ate bread and eggs. At 7.50 a.m. the Reichsminister’s car pulled alongside and Fritz Todt boarded the Heinkel alone.

The plane immediately taxied to the end of the runway, paused, throttled up and set off down the snow-scabbed airstrip towards the black trees and low grey cloud of another grainy military morning. It should still have been
dark at this hour but the Führer insisted on keeping Berlin time at his Rastenburg headquarters.

As he left the canteen Voss was arrested by the rare sight of SS Colonel Weiss outside the Restricted Area I compound. He was in the control tower, looking green through the glass, his thick arms folded across his chest, his pale face lit by some unseen light below him.

The continuous roar of the plane’s engines changed tone and the wings tipped as it banked over the pine forest. This was unusual, too. The plane should have continued west, piercing the soft gut of the grey cloud to break through into the brilliant, uncomplicated sunshine above, instead of which it had rolled north and appeared to be coming back in to re-land.

The pilot straightened the wings of the plane and settled the aircraft into its descent. It was just reaching the beginning of the runway, no more than a hundred feet off the ground, when a spear of flame shot up from the fuselage behind the cockpit. Voss, already gaping, flinched as the roar of the explosion reached him. His driver ducked as the plane tilted and a wing clipped the ground, shearing away from the body of the plane, which thundered into the snow-covered ground and exploded with hideous violence, twice, a fraction of a second between each full fuel tank igniting.

BOOK: The Company of Strangers
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