23rd April 2017

Fear abounds. Not just the recent terrorist shootings in Paris either. None of the French I've spoken to know in which direction France is heading. They want to be proud of their heritage but fear what will happen should Marine Le Pen become President. The educated, business-types seem to prefer M. Fillon, but his chances were scuppered when the press printed accusatory libel re personal misdealings. Thinks...rather like what happened to Hillary Clinton...could global hackers be changing the face of French politics too? The young, of course, admire M. Macron but does he have the essential experience and world knowledge to cope with what lies ahead?  Thinks...look what happened to Philippe Petain in WW2...too weak and untested to deal with a rampant Hitler. Then there's a burgeoning M. Melanchon. If he and Le Pen get through to round 2 in a few weeks it'll be Far Right v Far Left. Quel choix! So rather like the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the first round today is just for thorougbreds and largely just a 4 horse race. Who will win? The answer could destroy the EU in its tracks and change the face of French politics forever.  Ah well, there's always the UK elections coming soon....now there's a Grand National event. Maybe the favourite will fall at Becher's Brook and a total outsider come through on the rails? Madame Guillotine, are you ready?

16th April 2017

Are you old enough to remember Cool for Cats on UK TV from '56 - '67, presented by Canadian Kent Walton? Watching the Rolling Stones as teenagers, or even Cat Stevens, we laughed hysterically at the notion that such cool bands would still be performing at the crazy age of 74. But everything's changed today. We all have to stay young. As a writer, the internet's changed everything. Back in the '50s, once you had a publishing contract, you sat back and left all that advertising stuff to your publisher. But today? Rather belatedly I've realised that writing books and getting a publisher is not enough. You need an advertising budget, so I asked Him indoors (he of the old DIY market stall).  He said budget for marketing at 1% of my turnover. Turnover? All this came into sharp focus this weekend as my publisher crookedcatbooks.com has a major Easter sale running. What to do? As many of my characters are US-driven, I picked at random some US book promo sites and scratched together an advertising budget. Any success so far?  Yes!  Lamplight authl.it/4q0 and Vichyssoise authl.it/52l have leapt up the US charts particularly, with 3rd Degree Murder authl.it/4ia to be promoted tomorrow.  Am I still a Cool Cat as I was in the '50s?  Well I'm certainly trying, as Him indoors would say!

9th April 2017

De Gaulle once said 'Every man of action has a strong dose of egoism, pride, hardness and cunning...high qualities...the means to great ends.'
My all-time heroes are De Gaulle and Churchill, men who put into practice brave action when it was desperately needed. So all the more surprising that the man the whole world (including the US) loved to hate has turned the tide. Yes, Trump has confounded us all. Par contre I was left disappointed in Obama. Never was there such a fine orator, such a great actor on the world stage. Ultimately that was the problem - all fine words but absolutely no action. As Churchill might have said: sometimes autocratic, evil dictators rise up, against whom diplomacy and sitting on the fence are useless. Just ask Chamberlain! If you'd have asked me a few weeks ago what kind of global action Trump might take, I'd have imagined a scattergun, incoherent, all-guns-firing explosion of uncontrolled aggression. And yet, the action in Syria when it came was careful, proportionate, exactly targetted and controlled.  Both Hollande and Merkel were full of praise, despite their own worries at home. As usual in the EU, it's the constant struggle of right v left. For each, the favourite successor wants a full United States of Europe - but where's the democracy in that?
,,,,What would De Gaulle have said?  'Politics - too serious a matter to be left to politicians!'

2nd April 2017

Mad dogs and Englishmen....
So the Brexit button was finally pushed. Could have been worse - better than the nuclear button. But still the US and EU inwardly implode, the UK starts to fragment and next week Mme Le Pen comes to the fore. Meanwhile, we went to our local French vet to get our two rescue dogs microchipped in time for the customs inspection at Calais.  The UK government site is clear: microchip then rabies vaccine. The French vet said Non, vous n'avez pas compris. The procedure order doesn't matter, it's the 21 days after the vaccine before travel that matters. I knew I was right, but let him go ahead with both procedures the same day. Only then did he discover that Tina, our 2nd rescue dog, was never registered to us, nor even to the alcoholic who originally left her at the rescue kennel. Tina's a pedigree dog and still registered with the breeder!  This means that the Customs may not let her travel with us. Disaster! Well to cut a long story short, finally we've managed to change ownership to us via the French I-CAD system (similar to the Kennel Club in the UK). But still I worry because they could interpret this new chip change as being performed after the vaccine and leave us fuming in Calais.
..go out in the midday sun.

26 March 2017

This week marks a number of events: 84 years since Hitler assumed full dictator pouvoir powers via Reichstag decree; 60 years since the Treaty of Rome, the founding of the EU; on Friday Trump lost his chance to improve on Obamacare; yet another brainwashed terrorist ran amok in London killing and maiming innocent civilians, and this Wednesday is the day the UK PM presses the Brexit button. So, where to start with all that mess?  For Americans reading this, I can only direct you to read my blog of 19 Feb 2017 and tell the President what he should have done. In France the health system works, so why not copy a winning system? Re Hitler and Europe, I know what my late father would have said:  keep away! Today's EU is moving too far towards an all-consuming federal state. The problem with the Muslim terrorists, unlike murderers of the past, is that they are doing what they do in the name of a widespread and burgeoning religion: Islam. That is what innocent Muslims around the world must deal with. What do I think? Life is never simply black or white, but a melange of things. The world must learn from the past and pick and mix the things that work, like the French health system, and the overarching goodwill of so many good and kind people around the world.    

Tuesday 21 March 2017

My publisher, Crooked Cat Books, is branching into non-fiction and my professionally-produced and revised book, Pensioners in Paradis, will be one of the first two published under the True Cats non-fiction line. (The other will be Life with Arfur by David Robinson.) Pensioners in Paradis is expected to appear in paperback and e-book later this year.  A contract for the book was signed yesterday afternoon and the formal announcement was made on Facebook and Twitter later in the evening. Here's the preliminary announcement. New artwork will be displayed soon.

Crooked Cat Books 2017

A few weeks ago I discussed with fellow authors on FB about the various genres they enjoyed reading in these worrying times.  Certainly humour came high on the list. In my experience anything that shows ordinary people finding themselves in ridiculous situations with which others can empathise, is always good for a laugh. Add to that the folly of trying and failing to mimic the lifestyles of other cultures whilst continuing a lifetime habit of self-deprecation and depression and you see what I mean.  I can already feel a FB event party coming on.....

19 March 2017

There's a new word in the dictionary. Cyberia....
I'm reminded of an early episode of Star Trek in the '60s where two warring peoples had stopped conventional war for centuries by peacefully choosing random people to voluntarily eliminate themselves. In today's real world the horrors of WW2 and subsequent fighting remind us every day of the horrors of war and the killing of millions - usually initiated by the pride of a single dictator or brain-washed, deranged groups constantly seeking more land to aggrandise personal motives. One reason why many Remainers voted to stay in the EU was to avoid such wars. But now we also have cyber warfare where warmongers are much more subtle, using the silent web to further their aims. Deterrence? You'd need to stop everyone using a computer - impossible. If we can't stop the proliferation of conventional wars, how on earth can we stop Cyberia?
....No point calling on Scottie to put up his defence shields. There are none yet for Cyberia. Come on Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on the anniversary of your invention: we need you. Otherwise we're all out in the cold.

12th March 2017

Oh to see ourselves as others see us, as Robbie Burns said so eloquently in 1786...
After near-hurricane winds we lost all our English TV programmes. So, on channel TF1 we've been watching Bienvenue chez-nous, the French version of the crassly-named 'Four-in-a-Bed' whereby fellow B&B owners score points off each other's establishment and facilities. One couple were English expats. First, the wife painted their volets her favourite colour purple. No! Then they served the other owners a full English breakfast of eggs/tomatoes/mushrooms. No! I recognised the wife's introversion when she greeted each new arrival far too affectionately by throwing her arms around each of them, rather than the standard French polite peck on each cheek. Then the host's French accent.  He spoke fluently, but his pronunciation!  Eventually, despite offering their guests a fab musical jam session in their barn, the English hosts couldn't undo the harm already done, scoring only 4s and 5s.
...Rule no.1 in France: Paint volets according to the commune colour in which you live. 2. Practise your French accent every day. 3. Serve food as the French do. 4. Cultivate French mannerisms.  So, quoting St. Ambrose, a mediaeval Latin poet: if you want to gain favour in France, when in Rome do as the Romans do!

5th March 2017

In the Foreword to Vichyssoise I note that "People in democracies all over the world, when casting their vote for leader, should choose the person who is the most educated of the selection." Of course in that book I was referring to the populist French choice of Philippe Petain in WW2 - a man far too-weak and politically-inexperienced. The problem is that no-one at the time of voting could possibly have known what their newly-elected leader would be forced to face. This week a French historian, ironically a specialist in WW2, was detained for 10 hours by armed US customs officials whilst on his way to an academic conference in Texas. Other innocent new arrivals have reported similarly that if you get called out of the arrivals line, you are screamed at and treated as a potential terrorist. What then can the world do about Donald Trump? He's certainly not weak as Petain was and may actually deliver some populist constitutional changes, but his political inexperience and gung-ho bravura, combined with a team bristling with 'mad dog' Generals, bodes just as much ill for the world as did the mild Petain when collaborating with Hitler. I wonder if on his Oval Office wall Trump's got a sign, emulating Petain, saying 'L'histoire me jugera'!

26th February 2017

The excitement began last Tuesday.  All seemed a bit vague. Our notaire didn't contact us but the buyer casually mentioned that we should be at the notaire's on the 21st. No paperwork. Just his casual mention.  Oh, OK then. I made some cinnamon and ginger biscuits in an attempt to sweeten everyone up. Tuesday arrived and, from past experience, had to assume that the venue would be the buyer's notaire in Lisle sur Tarn. Arrived early comme d'habitude and bit our nails.  Would the buyer arrive? Walked in and stared sightlessly out of the window. Voices were heard in the car park. Buyer had turned up!  All were ushered into an office, I placed my biscuits centre table, and the spiel began. Questions were asked. Did we know of any reason that neighbours might object??
 No, not to our knowledge, we said....I know, I know. Papers were passed to and fro, signatures were requested on innumerable pieces of paper. Everyone ate a biscuit.  So, is that it? I asked our notaire.  Oui! she said. Finally, the house is sold and all monies would be sent immediately to our French bank!!! Meantime, we've agreed with the buyer to remain as tenants whilst we await completion of our new-build English house.  Perfect.  A new stage in our lives. Here's a pic of work in progress. Support all around...just what I need myself!

19th February 2017

As I and the NHS approach our 70th birthday, we both need a full body scan! No more standing on the scales myopically ignoring the obvious. The problem is nostalgia. No-one likes change, even when it's so obvious. Using the French health system shows up strikingly all that is wrong with the UK and the US systems. Here's a plan: 1. UK: raise your annual GDP from the current 9.1% to at least the French 11.5%. 2. US: introduce a national, fair system based on the French model. 3. Each government to pay 70% of all health costs; individuals 30% - the latter paid for via Government-approved, cheap health insurance. 4. Built-in safeguards for free access to the low-paid and the terminally ill. 5. Introduce French-style carte vitales, with built-in health history microchips to use at all pharmacies/hospitals/surgeries for instant, free access to care.  Why? UK: this will cut at a stroke the excessive queues for urgent care, no longer 'not enough beds', whilst providing free taxis from home to hospital for those with long-duration conditions. No need for so many highly-paid administrators as the system won't need them. US: no longer can you say you can't afford to go to the doctor.  Nostalgia? Forget it. It's a thing of the past.

12th February 2017

This comic opera called global politics continues... Have you seen the new Mr. President book by Steve Bannon (http://www.thepoke.co.uk/2017/02/08/donald-trump-mr-men-cartoon-just-superb/). Says it all really. Here in France it's not much better. Since the Conservative Fillon's fall from grace, who's left in the imminent race for the new French President?  Yes, you've guessed it: the current 'It girl francaise': Marine Le Pen.  And for other expats reading this, have you heard the latest from her lips?  She will stop all dual citizenship!  Does she realise, I wonder, that following Brexit there were only 2 options for British expats here: to take dual citizenship or go back to the UK?  Yet more booking their passage home then. Of course, there's always the new young garcon on the block, Emmanuel Macron, who plans to stand in the election under the banner of En Marche!, a centrist movement he founded in April. But already there's a closet gay suspicion about him. Shouldn't make a difference but in the world of anonymous voting, who knows? So, the right-wing bandwagon morphs on.
...Bacharach's comic song springs to mind: One wheel on my wagon and I'm still rolling along.....

5th February 2017

Back in France after a whirlwind tour of all the 'scenic routes' of Birmingham. I know, I know...but so much has changed in 12 years. There were the familiar Burlington and Piccadilly arcades; turn a corner and Mars has landed. And don't even mention the University I worked at for 30 years. What's happened to the old Gun Barrels Pub on the corner? Now a sports centre it seems.
So, what's happened whilst I've been away? A terrorist attack by a machete-wielding Egyptian in the Louvre, and PenelopeGate in French politics. Seems the Conservative frontrunner, Fillon, has been paying his wife and family loads of government money. Still prefer him, though, to the alternative...And that man over the pond is still grabbing all the headlines. Despite Theresa May's charm offensive (she's the charm, he's the offensive!), to the rest of the world he clearly didn't go to presidential school nor to diplomacy college, preferring to use the old streetcred tactics he learnt on the backstreets of downtown Bronx. I picture him as the worst kind of nightclub bouncer:  no, this is my place and if I say you can't come in, you can't come in. Has much changed, then, in the week I've been away?  No. The world's still just as mad as ever.

29th January 2017.

We're in the U.K.  Should we go ahead and progress the purchase of a house or not? There lies the rub. What does Him indoors say? So we went to the site with son Jon who thinks we're mad anyway. Why would anyone move from the south of France to grey, rainy England?  Take a look at what Clarkson said in last week's ST. Pretty clear. He says Nice is his fave place of all time. But - and here's the punchline- only to visit on holiday. Never to live there permanently. There's only so many boule games you can play and what's the rest of the family gonna do there?
Decided then. Follow Clarkson and Branson's advice: screw it. Let's do it!  House reg signed. And Him indoors? Can't go wrong following Clarkson's advic

22nd January 2017

"The man on the podium raised his right arm in salute. The crowd were in a frenzy, screaming themselves hoarse 'ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer.' There was even a band playing nationalistic music...The crowd whispered that in front of them stood their saviour - the man who promised to give them at long last their prosperity and a better life..."  Extract from Lamplight (authl.it/4q0) by Olga Swan
Yesterday Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the USA, bringing with him a new era of nationalism, alongside Putin of Russia, Modi of India, Xi of China and Erdogan of Turkey et al. Their talk of international relations takes us back to the 19C world of sovereign powers following their own national interests. Here in France, the V-P of France's Front Nationale declared 'French independence soon'. Reminded me of my own words in Vichyssoise (amzn.to/2bg3kkG) after the French - like the current US voters - voted in the 'wrong' man, Petain, who then went on to 'collaborate' with Hitler: "Gentlemen, I propose armistice with Hitler..." Will Trump soon 'collaborate' with Putin? This world of mutually-congratulatory nationalism is ruining all the post-war endeavours of so many presidents and other global leaders, and threatening the very existence of Nato's guarantee to Europe. This nationalism we've seen before. Always starts with high hopes and crowd fervour and always ends in tears.  I'm old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis. Are we heading for another similar nationalistic leader clash against maybe Xi? Let's hope Trump doesn't end up like Petain: tried and condemned by his own countrymen!

15th January 2017

A great big tree grows near our house; it's been there quite some time
Woodman, woodman, spare that tree; touch not a single bough
This tree's a slipp'ry elm and very hard to climb, the only tree my wife can't climb..
For years it has protected me and I'll protect it now.
Phil Harris 1947
Since the storm in November I've awaited a local woodman to call and take away 3 trees that fell in our garden. But, as usual, nothing moves fast in France. At last, a lorry arrived and 3 Frenchmen scratched their heads whilst contemplating the work. At last they came to a decision: they would need to chop up the giant lime into smaller chunks before carting away. Now, before you tell me we should have kept them: it was a living tree, so therefore usable as firewood only after we've left. But they agreed to chop up the other two (dead) trees which are now safely logged and providing warmth in our salon poelle each night. Success.
Yesterday on France24 news, the Donald was spouting his own peculiar brand of 'wisdom' re building his own barrier between him and his neighbour Mexico, and with typical chutzpah, sending the bill to them! What's next: an even bigger wall along the length of Canada or between Alaska and Canada?? No, Donald. The aim of a world leader is to tear down barriers, not erect them. Whilst shaving this morning he must have been singing his own version of the Phil Harris song: 'Congress, congress, spare that wall..it's very hard to climb; for years it will protect me and I'll protect it now...'

8th January 2017

Love him or loathe him, will Trump's friendship with Putin mean fewer global wars? Here in France I was surprised to discover that quite a few local French read my blog regularly. I know, from when I was researching Vichyssoise, that an air of reticence still survives on what exactly happened here during WW2. And yet it's so important that we all learn from the past so as to avoid future conflict. Yes, even if it means going along with Trump!  So, especially for my French readers, here's an extract from Vichyssoise covering, uniquely, just this region. It concerns Karin, German-born spy for British Intelligence, seeking clues as to German whereabouts in this, as yet unoccupied, part of S.W. France. Want to read more?  amzn.to/2bg3kkG
March 1942
St Antonin
It was icy cold, a hard crunchy rime covering the slippery stones on the narrow alleyway which was the Rue de la Treille. Karin stood on the ground floor step of her apartment building, wrapping her warm black coat securely around her and pulling her black cloche hat down over her ears and new blonde curls.
Last night, she had used her last bottle of the precious peroxide. She had been eking out the solution as best she could, but it was no use; the inevitable brown roots could not be left any longer. The dark sections were already one and a half inches long and were becoming harder to hide. It was important that every section of hair was thoroughly soaked, so she made sure she did as good a job as she possibly could. She didn’t know when she might get another opportunity. God, the stink! She knew that the smell would linger for some time in her bathroom, so she made sure the door was closed securely, with the top sash of the window open. For once, it was useful having a poky room right under the eaves of the grenier. Not even the most determined burglar would be able to scale up to that height, and in any case the bathroom window overlooked only a dark and moss-covered yard below.
Now successfully re-blonded, she felt confident to continue with the rest of her mission. Her warm black coat was still doing its double duty as both raiment and security store for the remainder of her vital francs. As such, these days the coat was as much in ‘code’ as she was.
The morning mist was still hovering at upper-window level as she pulled the handlebars of her bicycle away from the wall and dropped a small overnight bag into the basket on the front. Her bicycle had proved invaluable during her stay, and had more than paid its way since she had exchanged some of her precious francs for it. She looked around, and was relieved to see that the early-morning streets were still deserted.
She turned right at the corner of the Rue de la Treille, past the church on the right and further up the steep, narrow alleyway towards the Place de la Halle at the top of the slippery hill. There she paused briefly, legs straddling either side of her bicycle, as she took in deep gulps of the crisp morning air. She looked up to the heavens, as if for divine inspiration, as she noted with pleasure the scene all around her. In pride of place stood the ancient covered market place which, in times of peace, was full of local produce. Today it was a mere shadow of its former glory, as its stone pillars stood unspeaking, unyielding to the current follies of man. Its very impassivity spoke volumes, as did the grimacing gargoyles high up on the ancient buildings opposite: Today may be grim, but tomorrow… Just wait and see… We will return as good and vibrant as ever… Just be patient… Be patient… Be patient...
She had a long journey ahead of her, so she’d better get on with it before she changed her mind. She had memorised by heart the words of Gwendoline’s short missive before destroying the crinkled slip of paper in the dying flames of last night’s fire. The words had been short but succinct.
Imperative we know date when Germans take over unoccupied zone. Take whatever means to find out, and report back soonest. Gwendoline.
After leaving the café last night, with the slip of paper still secreted in her coat pocket, she had nodded to the old women in their usual chairs in the Place du Bessarel, taking their daily airing in the dying rays of the sun. You could always tell when the weather was getting warmer, by their very presence. She had perched herself on the stone wall alongside them and adopted a relaxed, chatty air with them.
“It’s a terrible time, a terrible time,” she said soberly to them.
Oui, c’est terrible,” they agreed, nodding their heads sagely to each other, as if only the old like them could possibly appreciate all they suffered.
“At least there are no Germans here…” she remarked casually.
The old woman nearest to her shook her head.
“Ah, but my brother Frédéric says he has seen some not far away. It was last Tuesday, or…” she scratched her head, “maybe it was Wednesday… I know it couldn’t have been Monday because even now the shops are always closed on a Monday...”
The other women all nodded in agreement. Karin tried hard not to look impatient, as she waited for the old woman to continue.
“Anyway, he saw two soldiers in Laguépie, you know, the village twenty kilometres down the road. He was doing some business there – you know what Frédéric’s like…”
Her colleagues cackled, knowing all too well that Frédéric was probably up to no good – probably bartering something for nothing, as usual.
“Anyway, there, large as life, sat two German soldiers. Frédéric couldn’t believe it, but there was no doubt. He listened, but couldn’t understand a word they said. Such a barbarous language. But they seemed to have plenty of francs on them… Frédéric especially noticed that.”
Her colleagues laughed. In truth, these days there was not much to laugh about.
“Anyway,” she repeated, “they were sitting having coffee in the café in the square there.”
Karin assumed an air of unconcern as she chatted with them for several more minutes, agreeing with them about the difficulty of living these days. How could one live if the shops had nothing to sell? Eventually, after a while, she stood up and stretched her bones.
“I must be getting old,” she said to them.
One old woman replied, as Karin knew she would, “Ah, you young ones don’t know what it is to be old. Do you know how old I am?”
Karin suggested a ridiculously low number.
The woman looked pleased. “I’m seventy-five,” she said, preening herself.
“Never!” said Karin courteously as she waved goodbye to the ladies and wished them “Bonne Soirée”.
Back in her own flat, she worked out a plan of action based on this latest information. Maybe she could cycle to Laguépie and take a look. It was a long way, but it was just about manageable if she took some breaks along the way. Basically, it was one long cycle ride along the river and the old railway track, so she felt sure she couldn’t get lost.
There definitely seemed to be a shift in allegiance amongst the locals around her. Although they still revered their beloved Maréchal, hero of Verdun, they hated this armistice with the Nazi regime. Most ordinary people didn’t know which way to turn in search of a better life. There was still a deep strain of anti-communism running through the country, and that had been the reason for many at first to say “Better Hitler than Stalin.” But now those same voices seemed to be increasing all around her in favour of an alliance with the British and the Americans.
 If I go over to the occupied zone now, she thought, I would almost certainly be arrested. Well then, there’s only one thing to do – cycle to that village which the old woman mentioned, and try to find out something from those German soldiers.
A small voice resonated deep in her brain. Are you crazy? The Germans will know you from what you did in ’38 and ’39. You’d be throwing yourself into the lion’s den.
But then she thought: Ah, but I’ve changed my appearance and name since then. I am no longer Karin Schmidt, the brunette singer and dancer who worked as a Kabarettartistin at the Schweizerei at Scheitnig Park. I am now the blonde Monique LeGrand with an important job to undertake for the Nazis… Yes, she thought, more to reassure herself than anything else, that’s the only plan I’ve got. And it had better be good; otherwise I’m well and truly sunk.
The following dawn strengthened her resolve, so now having caught her breath in the Place de la Halle, with a resolute straightening of her shoulders she turned her bicycle round the right-hand corner and cycled along the country lanes in the general direction of Laguépie. Eventually she came to the main road outside the small village of Lexos.
At last she saw a sign welcoming her to Laguépie – at least, the lettering said Bienvenue, but the peeling paint and chipped woodwork told another story. Alongside ran the railway track, iron rails rusting from the combined effects of southern heat, winter rain and all-too-infrequent trains. Around the corner, spanning this section of the Aveyron, was the bridge which acted as the gateway to the town. She saw that there was a general square to her right, so she gratefully stepped down from her bicycle and wheeled it around the corner and down the hill to the square.
She looked up at the sky. A sudden glimmer of a returning sun told her that spring was well on its way. She took it thankfully as a good omen for what lay ahead. She certainly needed it.
The waiter from the café facing the square was wiping over the few scattered tables and chairs outside, drying his damp hands on the front of his long white apron before preparing to return inside. Karin approached him hopefully.
Pardon, Monsieur. Est-ce que vous avez une chambre pour la nuit?
The man looked surprised, but, evidently pleased at this unexpected source of income, said, “Oui, Mademoiselle, bien sûr,” before waving his arm airily up above the café premises.
Like most of the buildings in the town, the residence was old and crumbling, but with several storeys always available these days for accommodation. Karin wheeled her bicycle round to the back of the building and parked it in what she hoped would be a safe place, securing it temporarily to an old tree. Lugging her bag from the front basket she retraced her steps back round to the front and went inside to the gloomy interior. The man was nowhere to be seen, so she followed a sign to some stairs at the back and began to climb up. On the second floor, a door stood ajar. She poked her head around and saw a woman making up a single bed. The woman looked up, stretching her aching back muscles, with both hands on the back of her hips, in a grimace of pain.
Bonjour, Mademoiselle,” she said politely. “Entrez, entrez.” She indicated a pink wicker chair by the only window in the room. Karin entered, depositing her bag on the floor. The woman finished making up the bed and showed her where the bathroom was situated, across the corridor behind a none-too-private curtain hanging from a rail above. But there was also a small washstand in the room, so that would have to do. Once the woman had finished, Karin dropped a few coins into her hand and she departed, smiling.
Karin walked over to the window and glanced out. The window looked right over the main square, giving her a bird’s-eye view of all the comings and goings. It was perfect.
She looked at her watch. Six o’clock. Time for a rest before moving on to the next stage in her plan. She threw her bag on to the chair and extracted a few things that should suit her purpose, before flopping down on the too-soft bed. There was a hollow in the middle where the springs had obviously given up the ghost, creaking in annoyance at this unwelcome weight on their rapidly failing inner tension. She didn’t care. Arms behind her head, she closed her eyes and thought through what she must do.
Her mind went back to Fritz Jürgens and the Schweizerei back home in Breslau. How long ago all that seemed now. But for now, as Karin lay back on her uncomfortable bed in Laguépie, she hummed La Vie en Rose whilst working out her next plan of action. If she was to find out what she needed to know, it would be necessary to bring all her stage talents to the fore to succeed. Madame from the café had told her earlier that dinner was served from 19.30. Karin had difficulty getting used to the twenty-four hour clock that the French used, preferring the English style, but she was getting there, petit à petit. She pulled on the clothes she had set out on the chair: silk stockings, a skirt that was a little too tight, and a low-necked blouse that showed a little too much cleavage. She peered at herself in the cracked mirror, manoeuvring her face either side of the rusty brown fissure which ran diagonally through the glass. She leaned forward, rouging her mouth a little more, pressing her lips tightly together to seal the imprint. Yes, she thought, turning first one way then the other. Just tarty enough for my purpose. All that remained to complete the ensemble was to pull on some high-heeled shoes. Parfait.
At 19.45 she click-clacked down the stairs and wandered outside to a table facing the square. She sat down as elegantly as she could on the wobbly metal folding chair, crossing one silken leg over the other. She pretended to study the menu for a long time, whilst surreptitiously sizing up the passers-by.
The waiter came over, notebook in hand. He apologised for the paucity of the fare.
C’est le blocus, Mademoiselle. Qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire?
Karin smiled sympathetically. “Un petit pichet de vin rouge, s’il vous plaît, Monsieur, et une salade verte.”
“Oui, madamemoiselle.”
Just as he finished noting down her order, she asked him conversationally, “Monsieur, est-ce qu’il y a des allemands en ville?
His expression changed at the mention of Germans, indicating even as she spoke two soldiers who had just come into view. There was no doubting that they were German. Even if they had not been wearing the hated dark uniform, she could have identified them from the way they walked, and the fact that they laughed and looked so happy. She thanked the waiter and poured herself a glass of water whilst she waited for her order.
Outside in the square, a few drops of squally rain had started to fall, splattering onto the striped awning of the café before squeezing off the ends onto the cracked, sunken cobbles beneath. The two Germans looked up at the heavens, as if disbelieving the inclemency of the weather here in the southern zone, before rushing under the awning and slouching down at a table alongside hers.
One of the soldiers noticed Karin and raised his cap.
Guten Abend, gnädiges Fräulein,” then, evidently realising his mistake, “Ach… Bonsoir, Mademoiselle.”
His colleague guffawed at his gaffe, saying something particularly crude against the female sex. After all, this young French woman couldn’t possibly understand what they were saying. What did it matter now anyway? The Third Reich had overcome their country, and it was about time all these peasants learned how to speak a proper language.
Karin looked sideways at them, nodded coolly, then glanced back at her menu, suddenly very interested in every word it contained. The waiter returned, setting a small brown jug of red wine onto her table, followed by a plate of green salad. He apologised again for the lack of olive oil and vinegar dressing. She smiled up at him. “Pas grave.” It was of no consequence.
She poured herself a glass of wine, then started to pick at her salad with the fork. She knew she wouldn’t have to wait long. Suddenly, there was the scraping of chairs on the slippery cobbles. Karin ignored the noise and continued to pick at her food.
“May we join you, Mademoiselle?” one of the Germans asked, in excruciating French.
She lifted an arched eyebrow.
“May I introduce myself. I am Kurt, and this,” he pointed to his colleague, “is Hans.”
 “Si vous voulez.” She nodded towards the two vacant chairs at her table with a disinterested shrug.
That was all the introduction they needed. They walked over and plonked themselves down, spreading their legs wide around the small spindly table legs.
“And you, Madamemoiselle?” they asked.
Quoi? Alors, je m’appelle Monique. Monique LeGrand.”
Enchanté, Mademoiselle. We are very pleased to make your acquaintance, Monique.” They called the waiter over.
“Two beers, please. And make it snappy.”
The waiter grunted and turned on his heel, his feelings very evident by the sullen expression on his face.
“Well, Monique. What are you doing in this rundown part of the world? I’ve never seen such a place so lacking in modern facilities,” said the presumptuous one. His colleague merely looked at her sardonically, his feelings about her already apparent from his heavily-lidded gaze.
“Oh, it’s not so bad. I don’t live here, but am merely visiting. I have a grandmother who lives over there.” Karin pointed airily across the square in the direction of the Mairie, just across from the old church.
“And what do you do with yourself, Monique?” said the loquacious one, eyeing her up and down in an insolent way, and looking for all the world as if he had already made up his own mind.
Karin was saved from answering this difficult question by the sudden arrival of a group of local men, for whom this place evidently was their local bar. They pushed past the outstretched legs of the two tall Germans, provoking a grunt from the silent one. It was clear that the locals weren’t going to let the presence of two Nazis stop them from enjoying a glass or two. They had little enough to cheer them as it was. The waiter came over, sullenly banging down two beers in front of the Germans, the froth slopping over onto the table.
“Here, watch it, can’t you?” said the vocal one, starting to rise with annoyance. He was stopped by his colleague, who restrained him by pulling on his sleeve.
“Calm down, Kurt,” he said in German. “It’s not worth it. They’re only ignorant peasants, after all.”
Kurt calmed down, sitting back down again with a “Hmmpf.” They slurped at their beer.
Karin calmly continued with her salad, and finished the last dregs of her wine. That done, she pushed her now empty plate and glass away from her, wiping her rouged lips carefully with her napkin.
“Well, it’s been nice meeting you two gentlemen,” she said, scraping back her spindly chair, as she called the waiter over to pay her bill. But Kurt stayed her arm.
“We’ll pay for that, won’t we, Hans?” He winked at his friend, before throwing a few coins down on the table for the waiter to scrabble together.
“That’s most kind of you both,” simpered Karin, patting her blonde coiffure into place. “I don’t know how to thank you. It’s so difficult to live nowadays…”
“Perhaps you would like to join us at a club we know in Montauban?” said Hans, lifting an enquiring eyebrow.
“Oh, I don’t know. Is it very far? I’m afraid I don’t know the area very well…” breaking off in apparent hesitation.
“No,” they both said together, and Hans added, “Not very far at all. We have our vehicle right over there. We could get there in no time.” They both laughed at their apparent luck.
Karin excused herself, pleading a need to go to the ladies’ room at the back. Once there, she looked at herself in the mirror, steeling herself for what might transpire. She opened her bag, rummaged for her lipstick, and applied another layer of bright red. Satisfied that she looked right for the part she had forced herself to play, she shrugged her shoulders and thought, What the hell. In for a penny, in for a pound. The end would jolly well have to justify the means, however sordid. I’ve done it before and I can do it again… As she returned from the ladies’ room, she passed the counter where the bartender was wiping up some beer spillages. He glanced up as she passed.
“Is everything all right, Mademoiselle? Do you need any help?”
“No. Thank you, Monsieur. I know what I’m doing…”
He shrugged and returned to his cleaning-up operation, as she click-clacked outside onto the cobbles again and forced herself to smile brightly to the two soldiers. The local men inside the bar looked at her briefly in evident disgust, before they too shrugged their shoulders and stared again into their mugs. They didn’t know what the world was coming to.
Inside the inevitable Volkswagen, parked in the Place du Foirail opposite the café, Hans took the wheel whilst Kurt struggled, grumblingly, into the back. Karin had pleaded mal de mer, insisting that she must sit in the front where she could look right ahead. She had no intention of being pawed all the way to Montauban, thank you very much. Before they left, she asked if she could please take her bicycle with her. “You never know who might steal it,” she said to them knowingly, all the while aware that it might be the only way of getting back to her lodgings again. That’s if I’m still in one piece, she thought wryly.
Grumbling, Hans agreed, the two men cursing as they struggled to tie the bike onto the roof using an old rope. But Hans evidently thought it was worth it, not wanting to miss this chance of getting a woman for the night.
“Thank you,” she simpered. “That’s so good of you.”
Hans took the wheel again and they skidded out of the Place, and up to the bridge spanning the confluence of the Aveyron and Vaour rivers. It was now dark, the sky black velvet with a few twinkling stars shining down from the abyss to give her what little comfort there was. Precious little, she thought, but I must go slowly. I can’t give the game away too soon or I’ll be well and truly sunk. Petit à petit, pas à pas Little by little, step by step…
The car motored its long way from Laguépie, past the picturesque bastide villages of Varen, St Antonin, Penne and Bruniquel, before reaching the long, straight roads leading to Montauban. There seemed to be an endless succession of tunnels, one after the other, bored deep through limestone rocks. At each tunnel, the wind outside seemed to change its tune, whistling high then low as the outside conditions reverberated against suddenly damp, mildewed walls, then outside to dry air again. Up above, either side of the road which snaked through the river valley, were the tremendous rocks and caves of the Gorges du Aveyron.
Then, at last, they were in Montauban. She asked the time. It had only taken them an hour, but it seemed like a lifetime. Hans grumbled that they would soon be out of fuel, so he parked the car in front of the first likely place. It was a bistro, which was advertising a cabaret that evening.
There must be more Germans who’ve arrived down here, Karin thought. They surely wouldn’t get many locals able to afford either the money or the time for such frivolity…
They stretched their legs, glad to be out of the confinement of the Volkswagen, before making their way to the bistro.
“I used to do an act in a place like this in Paris,” she ventured, trying to continue the part she had set up for herself.
Ach, I thought you looked like a showgirl, didn’t I, Hans?” said Kurt, taking her arm possessively.
They went inside. The foyer was dark, lit here and there by soft red lamps. Karin thought wryly that it looked like a bordello. She hoped it wasn’t.
They walked through into the main auditorium at the back. There were a few tables and chairs, and some accordion music was filtering through to lighten the atmosphere. A few men were sitting about, cigarette smoke billowing and hanging in a heavy cloud around the bar. They ordered sparkling wine from the local Gaillac region, Kurt laughing loudly as the cork finally burst out of the bottle and nearly knocked senseless the unfortunate man sitting near the entrance.
Karin looked at them both from underneath her lashes, thick with mascara. Yes, she thought. Now that they are both relaxed, this is as good a time as any.
She plucked up courage.
“So, Kurt?”
Jawohl, my dear?” He leaned his head towards hers. He was already fairly intoxicated.
“I don’t really understand what is happening. I’m only a woman and it all seems too much for me. What I mean is… Why exactly are you here?” She hoped that she sounded suitably ditzy.
Kurt smiled at her, cupping her chin in his.
“My poor baby. All too much for you, is it?” He patted her head as if she were some kind of puppy.
She smiled up at him adoringly.
“Well, you see… How shall I explain it for you? Your country has signed an agreement with ours because you needed our help. There are some terrible people across the water in England who will stop at nothing to fight us. If we didn’t help you, they would be here already, taking over every bit of Europe. So, you see, sweetling, we are here to protect you. Yes, that’s it. We are here as your protectors. You don’t have to worry about a thing now we are here. And, soon, there will be a lot more of us.”
Here was Karin’s opportunity, and she seized it with both hands.
“But, Kurt dearest, we will need many more of you down here. When will all your friends be arriving? I so much want to see them all.” She pulled his head down onto her shoulder.
“Oh, shouldn’t be long now,” he replied sleepily. “By mid-November at the latest, I would have thought.”
Hans shook his colleague sharply. “That’s enough, Kurt,” he snapped in German. “You talk too much!”
“Oh, you worry too much,” replied Kurt, also in German. “She’s only a silly Kabarettmädchen, after all. What would she know?”
“Walls have ears, you fool.” Hans drained his glass and stormed off to get replacements.
Suddenly there was a drum-roll and the curtains fronting the stage opened to sporadic applause from the auditorium. A troop of girls ran onto the stage and started a dance routine, swirling their skirts about to the immense enjoyment of those gentlemen sitting immediately below them.
Much the same routine as the girls back home in the Schweizerei, thought Karin, as she planned her exit route.
She leaned over to Kurt, whispering that she needed the ladies’ room. She picked up her bag, kissing him lightly on his balding head.
“Won’t be long,” she said, blowing a kiss from the heel of her hand as she wandered drunkenly towards the back of the auditorium.
Near the door she looked back briefly. Kurt and Hans had their backs to her, and were waving their glasses in time to the music as the girls swung into their raucous finale.
Auf Wiedersehen, meine Freunde!” she whispered, as she unlatched the exit door and fled out into the night. Outside, a light rain was drizzling down onto the greasy pavements. She quickly kicked off her awful tarty shoes and ran over to where they had parked the car. Reaching up, she desperately scrabbled to untie the knots in the rope surrounding her bicycle. Just as they appeared to be loosening, two men suddenly appeared and asked if they could help.
“No,” she replied breathlessly. “It’s alright. I can manage.”
A voice, suddenly awfully familiar, shouted out in surprise:
“Karin? It can’t be you? Karin Schmidt!”
Her worst nightmare. There was no doubt. She was looking up into the suddenly murderous eyes of Fritz Jürgens, her ex-boyfriend, the Nazi soldier she had jilted and betrayed back home in Breslau in 1939.
Oh my God.
The game was up – right at the final hurdle.