I shook this treacherous woman’s hand and said coolly, en français pour que l’Hauptsturmführer who doesn’t speak English puisse nous comprendre, ‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you my name.’
She glanced over at von Linden, who stood deferentially at her shoulder.
‘Pourquoi?’ she demanded of him. She is even taller than von Linden, and her French has got all the same broad, twangy American vowels as her English. ‘Why can’t I know her name?’
She looked back down at me from her colossal height. I adjusted my scarf and assumed the casual pose of a saint stuck full of arrows, hands linked loosely behind my back, one foot turned out before the other with the knee slightly bent, my head cocked to one side.
‘It’s for my own protection,’ I said. ‘I don’t want my name publicised.’
What TOSH. I suppose I could have said, ‘I am supposed to vanish into the Night and the Fog –’ Don’t know what she’d have made of that. I wasn’t even allowed to tell her what branch of the military I am serving with.
Von Linden gave me a chair as well, next to Miss Penn, away from the table where I’d been working. Engel hovered subordinately. Miss Penn offered a cigarette to von Linden, who waved it away in disdain.
‘May I?’ she said, and when he shrugged politely, she took one herself and offered another to me. Bet Engel wanted one.
I said, ‘Merci mille fois.’ He said nothing. O mein Hauptsturmführer! You coward!
She set about lighting the cigarettes and announced in her brisk, straightforward French, ‘I don’t want to waste my time listening to propaganda. It’s my job and I’m wise to it. I’ll be frank with you – I’m looking for truth. Je cherche la vérité.’
‘Your accent is frightful,’ I answered, also in French. ‘Would you repeat that in English?’
She did – taking no insult, very serious, through a pall of smoke.
‘I’m looking for verity.’
It’s a bloody good thing he let me have that cigarette because otherwise I don’t know how I’d have managed to conceal that every one of us was dealing out her own DAMNED PACK OF LIES.
‘Truth,’ I said at last, in English.
‘Truth,’ she agreed.
Engel came running to my aid with a saucer (there being no ashtrays). I’d sucked the whole cigarette down to the butt, in five or six long drags, composing myself to answer.
‘Verity,’ I said in English, and exhaled every last molecule of nicotine and oxygen I had inside me. Then gasped: ‘“Truth is the daughter of time, not authority.”’ And: ‘“This above all, to thine own self be true.”’ I gibbered a bit, I confess. ‘Verity! I am the soul of verity.’ I laughed so wildly then that the Hauptsturmführer had to clear his throat to remind me to control myself. ‘I am the soul of verity,’ I repeated. ‘Je suis l’ésprit de vérité.’
In amongst the tobacco fug, Georgia Penn very kindly handed me what was left of her own cigarette.
‘Well, thank goodness for that,’ she said in motherly tones. ‘So I can trust you to give me honest answers –’ She glanced up at von Linden. ‘You know what they call this place?’
I raised my eyebrows, shrugging.
‘Le Château des Bourreaux,’ she said.
I laughed rather too loudly again, crossed my legs and examined the inside of my wrist.
(It is a pun, you see – Château de Bordeaux, Château des Bourreaux – Bordeaux Castle, Castle of Butchers.)
‘No, I’d not heard that,’ I said. And I honestly haven’t – perhaps because I am so isolated most of the time. Shows you how distracted I am that I didn’t think of it myself. ‘Well, as you can see I am still in one piece.’
She really looked at me hard for a second – just one second. I smoothed my skirt down over my knee. Then she became businesslike and produced a notebook and pen while a pale Gestapo underling who looked about 12 years old poured cognac (COGNAC!) for the three of us (the THREE of us – v.L., G.P. and ME – not Engel) out of a crystal decanter into snifters as big as my head.
At this point I became so deeply suspicious of everyone in the room that I could not remember what I was supposed to say. Alibi, Alibi, is all I could think of. This is different, I don’t know what’s going on, he wants to catch me off guard, it’s a new trick. Is the room bugged, why have they lit the fire and not the chandelier, and what does the talking cockatoo have to do with it?
Wait, wait, wait! What else is there to get out of me? I’m GIVING THE GESTAPO EVERYTHING I KNOW. I’ve been doing it for weeks. Pull yourself together, lassie, you’re a Wallace and a Stuart!
At this point, I purposefully put out my cigarette against my own palm. Nobody noticed.
To hell with the truth, I told myself fiercely. I want another week. I want my week and I’m going to get it.
I asked if we could speak in English for the interview; it felt more natural to talk to the American in English, and with Engel there to translate, the Hauptsturmführer did not mind. So then it was up to me, really, to put on a good show.
He did not want me to tell her about the codes I’d given him – certainly not about the, ah, stressful circumstances under which I’d collapsed and coughed them up – nor that the eleven wireless sets in Maddie’s Lysander were all destroyed in the fire when she crashed. (They showed me those pictures during my interrogation. The enlargements from the pilot’s cockpit came later. I think I mentioned them here, but I am not going to describe them.) I don’t entirely follow the logic of what I could or couldn’t tell the American broadcaster, since if she cared to she could have easily found out from anyone in Ormaie about those destroyed radio sets, but perhaps no one has told British Intelligence yet and the Gestapo is still playing the radio game – das Funkspiel – trying to play back my compromised codes and frequencies on one of their previously captured wireless sets.
(I suppose I should have written about those pictures, only I couldn’t – literally couldn’t – it was during those days when I had run out of paper. But I won’t now either.)
I said I was a wireless operator, parachuted here in civilian clothes so I might not attract attention, and that I had been caught because I made a cultural blunder – we chatted a bit about the difficulty of being a foreigner and trying to assimilate yourself into French daily life. Engel nodded sagely in agreement, not while she was listening to me, but as she was repeating it to von Linden.
Oh, how strange this war is, mirabile dictu – the wee Scots wireless set, I mean operator, is still nursing small, hidden, nasty short circuits got during her savagely inhuman interrogation – yet she can keep a straight face as she sits beneath the Venetian chandelier with the American Penn and the Germans Engel and von Linden, sharing cognac and complaining about the French!
It made the right impression though – finding something we all agreed on.
Penn then remarked that Engel’s English must have been picked up in the American mid-west, which left the rest of us speechless for a longish moment. Then Engel confessed that she had been a student at the University of Chicago for a year (where she was training as a CHEMIST. I don’t think I’ve ever met ANYONE with so much wasted talent). Penn tried to make her play the Do-You-Know game, but the only person they had in common was Henry Ford, whom Engel had met at a charity dinner. Engel’s American contacts were all very respectably pro-Germany, Penn’s less so. They were not in Chicago at the same time – Penn has been based in Europe since early in the ’30s.
Fräulein Anna Engel, M d M – Mädchen des Mystères
We looked at my translated bus schedule and admired v.L.’s Montblanc fountain pen, which I had been using. Penn asked me if I was worried about my upcoming ‘trial’.
‘It’s a formality.’ I could not help being brutal about this. ‘I will be shot.’ She asked for honesty, after all. ‘I am a military emissary caught in enemy territory masquerading as a civilian. I count as a spy. The Geneva Convention doesn’t protect me.’
She was silent for a moment.
‘There’s a war on,’ I added, to remind her.
‘Yes.’ She scribbled some notes on her pad. ‘Well. You’re very brave.’
‘Can you speak on behalf of other prisoners here?’
‘We don’t see much of each other.’ Had to dodge that one. ‘Or, not to speak to.’ I do see them, too often. ‘Will you get a tour?’
She nodded. ‘It looks very nice. Clean linen in all the rooms. A bit spartan.’
‘Well-heated too,’ I said waspishly. ‘It used to be a hotel. No proper dungeon rooms, no damp, no one suffering arthritis at all.’
They must have taken her round the rooms they use for the orderlies – perhaps even planted a few as dummy prisoners. The Gestapo use the ground floor and 2 mezzanines for their own accommodation and offices, and it is all kept in beautiful condition. The real prisoners are kept on the uppermost 3 storeys. It is harder to escape when you are at least 40 feet above the ground.
Penn seemed satisfied. She heaved a tight smile in von Linden’s direction and said, ‘Ich danke Ihnen – I thank you,’ very grave and formal, then continued in French to tell him how grateful she was for this unique and unusual opportunity. I suppose she’ll interview him too, separate from me.
Then she leaned close to me and said in confidential tones, ‘Can I get you anything? Send you anything – little things? Towels?’
I told her I’d stopped.
Well – I have – and they wouldn’t let her anyway. Would they? I don’t know. According to the Geneva Convention you’re allowed to send useful things to prisoners of war – cigarettes, toothbrushes, fruit cakes with hacksaws in. But as I’d just pointed out, the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply to me. Nacht und Nebel, night and fog. Brrr. As far as Georgia Penn knows I have no name. Who would she address the package to?
She asked, ‘You’re not –?’
It was a rather extraordinary conversation if you think about it – both of us speaking in code. But not military code, not Intelligence or Resistance code – just feminine code.
‘You haven’t been –?’
I’m sure Engel was able to fill in the blanks:
– Can I send you (sanitary) towels?
– No thanks, I’ve stopped (bleeding).
– You’re not (pregnant)? You haven’t been (raped)?
Raped. What was she going to do about it if I had?
Anyway, technically speaking, I’ve not been raped.
No, I’ve just stopped.
I’ve not had a cycle since I left England. I think my body simply shut itself down during those first three weeks. It performs basic functions only now. It knows perfectly well it’s never going to be called on for reproductive purposes. I’m a wireless set.
Penn shrugged, nodding, with her mouth twisting sceptically and her eyebrows raised. Her mannerisms are what you’d imagine in a pioneering farmer’s wife. ‘Well, you don’t look so healthy,’ she said to me.