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.”
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.
“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.