Salt crystals danced gleefully over a glistening playground of gravy-logged food, like beguiled and care-free children, then finally came to rest, slowly dissolving on the steaming plate of slow-cooked lamb, roast potatoes and local winter vegetables.
“A thing of pure beauty...” thought platoon commander Captain Peter Clifford, as he meticulously placed the tin salt dispenser back in its box. He had worked hard for this moment, as was evident in the new lines appearing on his burdened brow; the first hour of total privacy and seclusion he had allowed himself since promotion one month ago.
Having finally crossed the mighty Rhine two days hence, along with the 51st Highland Infantry Division, he felt as if his bones had shed a weight almost too heavy to bear. Yet, a desperate and demoralised German army fought on. There was a hard battle to come. For now, at least, his eyes that slowly opened sparkled with delight, betraying his authority.
Having given the strictest instructions not to be disturbed, all the pretence and composure of his commanding role, something that had never come naturally to him, had been shed like a cumbersome yoke, forgotten and dejected as if in a pile on the floor of his small but immaculate quarters.
A juvenile chuckle bubbling up from his aching belly, he pulled his knife and fork towards himself, greedy eyes focussing on the fatty slices of soft lamb. It was at precisely the moment saliva began pooling in his mouth in anticipation that he heard the sharp sound of knuckles tap his door.
The effect on his countenance was immediate; eyebrows snapping together as a fist thumped the table.
“Blithering tits! I specifically instructed there to be no disturbance for at least an hour!” The moment evaporated.
“My apologies, Sir,” came the sheepish reply from Sergeant Wilkins, Clifford’s second in command. “I would never usually, it’s just, there’s something... a delicate matter...”
“Wilkins, say it now, or so help me...”
“A Nazi girl, a nurse Sir... A defector has been found!”
The girl sat with downcast eyes and limp hands, dirty palms upward on the arm-rests of the only chair in Clifford’s quarters. She remained motionless for some time before sighing deeply. Clifford shuffled his feet.
“Bist du verletzt?” No reply. “Sprichst du Englisch?” Still nothing. Clifford looked yearningly at his meal, the golden potatoes still just about steaming. How long would this take?
“She’s in shock,” offered Wilkins. “I’ll fetch some brandy...”
“Wasser,” came the girl’s voice, barely audible. “Just water, please.” She had now lifted her gaze revealing an exhausted demeanour, the deepest blue eyes, and dry, cracked lips. Clifford poured the water and passed her the tin mug, which she promptly dispatched and held out for more. Clifford, giving Wilkins a quick glance, refilled the mug once more. She drank, this time slower, taking in her surroundings. The sounds of a bustling army encampment could be heard outside; her eyes drifted to the window, tracking the passing of Allied soldiers.
“So, you speak English?” Clifford asked, leaning on the wall opposite the chair.
“Yes,” she nodded.
“Then you understand that you are now a prisoner of war, and that by giving yourself up as you did, given your attire,” his eyes flicked to the red armband on her left arm. “As a Nazi you will not be afforded any pardons on behalf of...”
“No,” she interjected, “I am not one of them. Please, I came here at great cost...” Wilkins crossed his arms.
“Good luck explaining that one! Don’t think that just because you’re a pretty young thing-”
“Sergeant Wilkins, dispose of yourself,” snapped Clifford. Looking stunned, Wilkins nodded and made his way to the door, his gait that of a scolded dog.
“Sir, just so you’re aware, the girl was found with this bag in her possession.” He pointed to a muddy canvas rucksack in the corner near the door. “She was unarmed.”
“Thank you Sergeant.” The door clicked shut. Clifford felt his stomach gurgle, and he stole a look at his meal — hunger was usually accompanied by an unreasonably angry disposition. He considered eating while interrogating the girl. No — that would entirely break his façade of authority. Looking back at the girl he saw that she also was scrutinising the plate with great interest.
“At great cost to whom?” enquired Clifford. “What is your name?”
“My name is Anna. I was born on a farm not far from here,” she replied as she returned her gaze to Clifford — her face seemed earnest. “We are a simple and peaceful family, for generations we have worked the land, and given where we can to those who need." Her brow wrinkled as she thought of how to express herself. "Stoic and hard working. That's us. You must believe me, we have no interest in the Reich.”
Disdainfully she removed the armband and dropped it to the floor. In doing so her forlorn frame appeared to slump slightly. “Nurses don’t even wear armbands.” she muttered. Clifford looked at the cotton band beside her chair, the insignia of hatred making his gut even more uncomfortable. It occurred to him that she might also be hungry.
“My father is old. When the war started he refused to support the Party. Men came to our home many times. There were arguments, but they would not take no for an answer. Soon we received threats. My brother, little Elias - he is so young - they said he must join the Hitler-Jugend or they would take him.” Her moistening eyes pleaded with the Captain.
“He does not belong in a work camp! I agreed to volunteer as an army nurse in return that they leave my family in peace. But to them,” her chin crumpled as her hand wiped her eyes. “We are Verräter. Traitors. They have continued to harass us... it’s only a matter of time before... please, I have nowhere else to go!” Clifford was ill-equipped to respond to the complexity of this predicament, but remained attentive. He could not help but be moved, after all he was the eldest brother to four younger siblings.
“I see,” said Clifford thoughtfully, his eyes straying to the bag. Retrieving it from the floor, he brushed his hand over the dirty canvas. It was light, almost empty. Beneath the mud he could make out a red medic’s cross. She would have had to negotiate her way through some dangerous territory in order to get here. Clifford held up the bag. “What is in here?” he asked. Anna appeared unsettled at the question, her hands gripping the armrests.
“I don’t... I don’t know,” she replied.
Clifford’s brow creased slightly. “That’s fairly suspicious. How can you not know?” Heavens — had he been completely naive? Surely the bag had been checked when Anna was found.
“Documents, important papers. I heard them talking about plans — I stole them from the hospital where I have been stationed, only I don’t know what they are about. The man who had them was a general, there was no time —” Anna’s voice matched her eyebrows in anxiety and pitch.
“You open it,” barked Clifford, holding the bag out to her. She did not hesitate, and with admirable dexterity Anna swiftly unbuckled the bag and withdrew a leather-bound document wallet. As if all warmth had been sucked from the small room, a distinct and uncomfortable chill came upon the Captain. Branded into the leather was the crisp and angular Parteiadler; an eagle atop a wreathed swastika. As Clifford reached for the wallet, a sharp screech of metal on wood gripped his guts further as Anna jolted the chair away, now standing with her back to the wall.
“You must promise me that you will help my family,” she implored, the ugly treasure clasped against her torso.
“I promise you nothing, Anna — for all I know those documents are fake. Surrender them, they are now the property of the Allies. Do as I say!” It was as if Clifford’s words bled Anna of any hope left in her soul, manifesting as thin lines of tears that quickly channel led glistening white down her dusty cheeks. Slowly, her knees bending, the weight of her burden overcame her remaining strength and she crumpled to the floor in a forlorn heap.
The documents surrendered, Clifford knelt on one knee to inspect the contents. Untethering the leather binding cords, he removed a small collection of typed and had- annotated papers.
“Dash my useless German,” he muttered. The documents certainly seemed legitimate, but he could not trust his grasp of the language, never mind that it all may have been codified. Thumbing through the pages he noticed that each page had been initialed ‘G.B’ — who the blazes...
“Your meal,” Anna’s hand weakly gripped his wrist; Clifford froze. “It’s getting cold.” Eyes locked, at such close proximity the Captain could not help but perceive a depth of despair unlike any he had witnessed. Anna’s face was smeared and tired, but beautifully strong — it resonated profoundly with his disdain for injustice, and a deep compulsion to protect.
As if out of nowhere, Clifford recollected a moment from his childhood; half bloodied grass, half sky, hazy through one mud-gritty eye. The feeling of a foot on his head, and sniggering jeers: complete helplessness distilled in a memory. He closed his gaping mouth, and swallowed against the dryness in his throat. What was he going to do? What could he do?
“I am sorry, Anna. I cannot imagine how difficult this must be for you.” Clifford’s voice now offered an empathetic tone, as he placed his own hand over hers, “Please, sit down and eat, I insist — you must be starving”.
For the hundredth time that day, Elias deftly scaled the wooden stile over a dry-stone wall that snaked its way up a large hill. He was feeling the fatigue in his thighs, but nobody would know that. He liked that other older farm hands would laugh, call him a cheeky- nipper, or say, “Chuff me, ar’kid! You’re a racing hound, you are!” Most of all, however, he loved the mock-reproving smile Anna’s gave him when he bounded up to her at full-pelt and wrapped his arms around her usually surprised legs.
The wall separated large grazing pastures for the many sheep, and sometimes cattle, that farmer Copley rotated throughout the year. Yorkshire weather was bitter and relentless, but no dissimilar to that of the German mountains where he used to live. It was something that came as part of a farming life. Anna was where he expected her to be, on the small wooden bench half way up the hill, where the view of the valley farmlands was most favourable. She would enjoy the apple he had earned for helping clean the hooves of the sheep all that day. He could not wait to see her surprise.