Willie's War Ch. 07

bySnurge©

To give them privacy he retreated up the stairs and sat on his bed. He skimmed through the pictures in a copy of Country Life and read a little bit of Max Havelaar. He then heard Mortimer and Debbie come up the stairs. They both passed his door and went into Sir Mortimer's bedroom, and he heard a snatch of Deborah's soft laughter before the door closed.

***

At breakfast Deborah told Willie they were due for a trip out. "No arguments," she said, "we're going into Nuttsford."

They caught a bus at the end of the drive and went into town. Nuttsford was a market town just a few miles distant from the manor that stood beside a small sinuous river in which a line of ducks paddled up and down in convoy. They peered down into the cold grey water from a small humpbacked bridge as they crossed it, then Debbie turned into a narrow street which led to a square lined with old red brick shops and houses.

Everything seemed quite normal until one saw the sandbag barricade outside the police station and noticed, not withstanding that the town had never had a bomb dropped near it, that every windowpane in sight was criss-crossed with black tape.

In front of one shop Deborah stopped to squint at a hat in a window, a divine creation topped with flowers and silk pom poms. "Gee whiz, I gotta have that." she almost panted.

Clothing was rationed. Make-do-and-mend was a cliché of government policy in those austere times, and the scarcity of material and the number of clothing coupons needed to acquire new garments of any kind almost made them a luxury. But that hat was something Debbie had set her heart on, and she had to have it.

While she was in the shop Willie watched the passers-by on the pavements, the women wrapped with scarves pulling against the wind, the children in woollen pullovers and small coats, their cute faces, blue eyed and pink cheeked. The older men looked solid in topcoats and hats, while all the younger ones seemed to be wearing some version of a uniform.

They had a lovely time window shopping afterwards, and made some more modest purchases. He discovered that fruit and vegetables were not rationed, but the trick was to know what was in season and where to find a shop that had a supply of what you wanted. Deborah happily left the cook and Mrs Whippet to figure out those kinds of things.

Willie wondered if they had any time to sit down, but then they went into a tearoom that had frilly curtains and doilies on the tables and where everything was too small, and they settled among a clatter of dishes and quiet café chatter.

The room was richly carpeted in red, nicely furnished too, garnished with flowers and warmed by a coal fire burning economically low, and the chairs were comfortable, dignified and upholstered in pleasing damask in various shades of blue.

Willie was only half finished with a cup of weak tea when he gasped inwardly. It was impossible. It was against every chance and all the odds, but there was Tom Soames, sitting at the little table opposite. It was not something he was prepared for, not something to which he had given a thought, that on a large island with fifty million other people he could meet up with someone he had known in Heidelberg three years previously.

He stared at him. He could help it. Tom looked younger than he thought he should, but not as lean, so perhaps leanness had been an illusion in his mind, but the bone-structure of his face he remembered, and he still had the dark, intriguing eyebrows of an Old Testament prophet. He was one of those ruffle-haired men with a quick, witty way of talking that girls...and boys, were drawn to despite of their better judgement.

Tom Soames had been one of his lovers during his wild time at university, and the sudden recollection of those times was like a benison... summer evenings, long and cool, and winter ones dark and cosy, with the mist rising off the river.

He had been flattered by the attention he had received at that time. The unexpected arms that would encircle his waist, the impulsive kisses against his neck, the breathless invitations to share in forbidden, erotic behaviour. Nothing had been sacred in those days. The fly on a young man's trousers was never spared, the vulnerability of a youthful backside always pillaged.

Tom was wearing the blue-grey uniform of a British air force officer now instead of the crumpled slacks and jumpers he'd favoured before, but there was no doubt it was him. Willie froze his own face to prevent it revealing his surprise, and he shuffled his chair sideways slightly to disguise his profile. Sweet as all his memories were he realised that meeting Tom Soames now would be a fatal mistake.

Out of the corner of one eye he noticed Tom was gazing steadily at him and showing an element of puzzlement, but he was obviously unsure of what he was seeing. He couldn't possibly recognise him, decided Willie; Wilhelm Froehlich hadn't been a girl when they had known each other. Not one in lipstick and skirts anyway. And three years had passed since they had last seen each other. Nevertheless when he and Debbie got up to leave, Tom got up too.

But they knew each other and had been lovers so there was no danger, was there? The tension inside Willie mounted rather than lessened. Tom knew he was German, and if identities were established he'd start asking awkward questions. A strange emotional turbulence persisted, as if a sense beyond consciousness was telling him that the necessity to run from the figure from his past was greater than ever.

The young man seemed a little uncomfortable making an approach, but he took a deep breath and stepped forward. He smiled: open and friendly. "Excuse me," he said, looking directly at Willie. "Your face is familiar. You remind me of someone. Could it be we have met before?"

Willie's eyes opened wide with alarm, he blushed, shook his head furiously and made straight for the door.

Deborah winked at the young man. "Nice try, sonny. But you'd do better thinking up a more original line next time before you stop a girl."

Sir Mortimer arrived home on the Friday evening, driving the big Daimler touring car that was used for the short journeys to and from the railway station in Nuttsford. Petrol was rationed, but anyway the journey into London was more easily done on the train.

As the car rounded the last curve of the lane and he saw the sweep of wooded lawns with the chimneys of the manor house rising behind he felt a nostalgic lump in his throat. He loved that place. Everything creaked and everything was crooked, but he loved its old brickwork and rambling corridors, he loved its weathered eaves and steps worn concave from years of use. Above all he loved the sense that it provided the timeless haven of stability and ease that was England.

He found himself beginning to smile in pleasant anticipation as he waited for Mrs Whippet to open the door. There was always something delightful in returning home. It was a fact, because Deborah would be there.

But not that night. It was Willie who greeted him has he shrugged off his topcoat and started across the hall towards the Gun Room, his briefcase in his hand.

"No luck with a Work Permit for you yet, civil servants are an impossible breed who refuse to be hurried. But come inside, I have some interesting news of a different kind."

When the door was closed firmly and Willie stood still and waited while Mortimer mustered up a confidential quiet tone.

"What we talked about at the weekend, you know, about how the war was a mistake and how this country needs to change direction... well, there is just a possibility something like that could happen soon."

He paused to rub his hands together. "There is no doubt that there is grave disquiet, both in the country and in Parliament at the moment. Some prominent people are being very critical of the way Churchill is handling things. The fiasco of the Norwegian campaign for instance, and then the debacle in Greece and the loss of Crete. And now there is the uncertain situation in North Africa.

"We made the mistake of allowing Churchill to combine the office of Prime Minister with that of Minister of Defence, and although he did some stout work in 1940 and throughout the blitz, the feeling is the old horse is blown and his judgement is faulty."

When he leaned forward there was a light of excitement in his eyes. "This could be the right time to make a move. I've been talking with friends, and there is some agreement that we should lay down a motion of No Confidence in the leadership."

"Would that bring peace?"

"Not right away. Not immediately. But it would get rid of Churchill and that alone would ease the way for negotiations. A complete end to hostilities would be a real possibility with him out of the way."

"If that is true you must proceed quickly," urged Willie, "Every moment you delay costs people their lives."

Mortimer nodded. "Is Deborah around?"

"No, a man called to take her out for tea. He was driving and American car, a Packard I think, dark green with wide running boards."

Sir Mortimer paused for a moment and his face took on a glum, stony expression, "That will be Bob Prescott. Works for the Ministry of Supply. Never short of petrol."

Willie immediately sensed his unhappiness. "I thought you knew. I'm sorry."

"It's quite alright." Mortimer managed to arrange his face into a parody of a smile. "Prescott is a decent fellow. A gentleman." He was lying and he knew Willie knew he was lying. Deborah had clearly gone off on an amorous escapade.

The man sighed. "Why is it I don't hate the girl for doing what she does?"

"It's the way she is. That's the way she's made, but I'm sure she really does love you." replied Willie with helpless solemnity.

Mortimer's neck blushed a deep pink. "She never made a secret of the kind of person she was, so one can't hate her now, can one? If all I sought were a reflection of myself – well, I could have made do with a wall mirror."

That evening Jeremy de Vere arrived wearing his favourite expression of nonchalance, effortlessly charming and outwardly looking every inch the unconcerned debonair man about town. But apart from being very polite he showed no interest in Willie and spent the entire time talking with Sir Mortimer.

The following day Jimmy Hyde and his friend Toby came to lunch and when they had eaten everyone participated in the English Sunday ritual of taking a walk in the countryside. Once again Debbie helped out with the right clothes and put him in a tweed suit of a pleasing russet colour and a pair of brogue shoes. The shoes were rather too big, but he managed to solve the problem with some paper stuffing and by lacing them tight. He made up his pretty face with care, and did his hair in a neat, smooth coil on the back of his head before he joined everyone else outside.

It was a cold, raw day, but autumn was an exhilarating season for Willie Froehlich despite the bleakness of the winter it heralded. Wrapped in the trench coat that had been cleaned and pressed by someone, he felt more than adequately protected against a chilly day.

Once out from the environs of Brascombe they turned towards a wooded hillside, up a rutted track along the line of a hog's back between overgrown hedgerows of bramble and hawthorn. Birds were singing, and after a while the scudding clouds seemed to vanish, the blue of the sky shifted and deepened and the sun appeared long enough to lay mild warmth on their shoulders.

Gusts of wind blew the yellowed remains of elm leaves around Willie's feet as he walked along with Jimmy Hyde. Although the Captain maintained the outward appearance of a cool, detached officer Willie noticed something simmering beneath the surface, something sad, as if something had got broken. It was as if the exterior of him was screening a different inner man. The sadness lent him a tragic look that became a source of fascination. Perhaps he was concealing pain. Romantic images of a lost-love and a man betrayed drifted through his thoughts. He had attached a mystique to the man and then let his fantasies take over. It wasn't been the first time. Willie had a knack for stumbling on tortured souls.

Strengthened by the way he had succeeded in influencing Sir Mortimer, Willie broached the idea of a peace settlement again, only to find that Jimmy Hyde was a more resilient mark.

He at once pulled a dissatisfied face. "My opinion hasn't changed since the last time we spoke. After Dunkirk we were vulnerable, but Hitler will find it more difficult to invade this island now than it would have been last year. And we'll never surrender. Even if he succeeds with an invasion the Royal Family and the Government will go to Canada, and we'll continue the war from the Dominions."

Willie added nothing more to that discussion, but he couldn't help but sigh at such foolish bravado. One didn't need to visit Berchtesgaden to know Hitler's solution to such a problem, because he'd heard enough loose talk from senior German officers while he waited to come to England to know what it would be.

If this island was overpowered and the Dominions continued the fight, Hitler would hold the entire population of Britain hostage. He would cause the U-boat blockade to continue and was prepared to starve the people down to the last child. The British and their Dominions would seek terms rather than let that happen.

"It is hard for me to think of you as an Englishman, Captain Hyde. Your friend Toby is of the type usually portrayed as English in Hollywood movies."

Jimmy Hyde almost fell into the trap of snapping back at him. "Don't take Toby to be the archetypical English fop because of the way he speaks, Miss Naarden. That man has courage and compassion welded into his soul. We both belong to the same armoured brigade, and he pulled me out of a burning tank last year in France. He saved my life."

He thought for a moment, and then continued. "Toby is my friend, but he made a mistake when he saved me. I should have died there. I'm not afraid to die and it will happen before this war ends anyway. Now I have to keep going until the game is played out."

Willie frowned. "Now I understand your dark moods. You mustn't be so morbid. I suspect the only danger that ever confronts you is caused by your own valour. If you have bad feelings you should see a doctor. You have a medal for bravery, so no one could call you a coward."

That remark earned him a surprisingly fierce look. "I can't do that. They'd put me behind a desk somewhere while Toby and all the other fellows I know go on doing the stuff that matters. I die of shame there if of nothing else."

Sir Mortimer paused on the crest of the hill and called a halt. "This is as far as we need go. It's my favourite spot."

He indicated a broad swathe of woodland laced with silver birch and dominated by great elm trees. It would have seemed unremarkable to a person passing by. The trees were densely packed and crowded together, and it was dingy, almost dark beneath their boughs and branches. Such space as there was at ground level was almost entirely occupied with fallen, rotting timber, and nothing grew there but a few scant patches of forsaken looking ivy.

"The little pocket of trees here is still wildwood and probably hasn't altered much in appearance for thousands of years." He beamed. "In the spring the forest floor is swathed with primroses and buttercups. Long ago there would have been of mile upon mile of such virgin forest, and if one uses one's imagination one can almost visualise sabre-toothed cats and cave-bears stalking through it, instead of just a few badgers and foxes."

Willie responded to his obvious delight. "You are a fine romancer, Sir Mortimer."

With a wry grin Deborah leaned against him and muttered in his ear. "The old dear's got plenty of romance. I can vouch for that."

After a few minutes they returned the way they had come. Everyone else was talking about the only subject that interested them – which at that time was the war. He fell behind the others, walking slowly along the beaten path, and without him being aware of it Jeremy de Vere appeared like a genie and fell into step beside him.

"How are you settling in at Brascombe, Miss Naarden?" he asked.

Willie was a little wary of him at first despite of, or perhaps because of their previous contact. He was a remarkably fine looking man, probably just short of six foot, lean and fit and in his late twenties, which to Willie still seemed quite old. And while he himself was impulsive Jeremy seemed to weigh words carefully before he spoke, and with the skill of his profession he was adept at changing his conversation according to who he was with.

He could be snappy and authoritive at times, but he was obviously eager to please at that moment, so perfectly did he behave that Willie thought he must have rehearsed what he said and did. His time as a diplomat would account for that, and he'd probably broken lots of hearts in the past.

Willie looked at him intently, wide blue eyes in an angel face. "Ask me in six months, Mr de Vere. My time here so far as been very short."

"You're being too formal. You must call me Jeremy."

"Very well. But only if you call me Willie."

"Your family are still in Holland, do you worry about them?"

"In Holland, my Uncle Oscar and my family? I can only hope they will survive the occupation. I can't contact them."

"Can't?"

"Mustn't. The Germans read everything. They don't like people receiving letters through neutral countries. They can be vengeful; they take in people for questioning, reduce their food ration or force them to move their homes. It's better not to keep in touch."

"Hmmm..." Jeremy frowned slightly. "It's a tragedy. The Dutch are decent people."

"Most, not all. They have their Nazi party. Its symbol is a wolf trap."

The man thought for a moment. "How horrible! But I don't suppose there's a country anywhere in the world without its fascists these days."

Willie nodded. "Your name...de Vere, is not an English name."

Jeremy chuckled. "It's been English since about the year 1240 when my family came to settle here. Willie is a sweet name, but not over feminine. If you were my girl I would call you Clytie."

"Clytie? What kind of a name is that? That's not English for certain."

"Greek mythology." explained Jeremy with a winsome grin. "Clytie was a water nymph and Apollo fell in love with her. He turned her into a sunflower so that she would always be turned towards him on his daily journey across the heavens."

"What nonsense you talk." Willie scolded mildly. But even as he rebuffed the flattery he felt his skin glow with pleasure. "I'm nothing special." he insisted.

"Oh, I think you are." the man murmured, studying him with cool amusement. In fact he had thought this recent house-guest at Brascombe very average looking at first, but he was wrong, she was blessed with a perfect complexion which required little or no make-up, as well as a slim but rounded figure. She was in fact, in appearance and manner the very opposite to Deborah who, whatever she wore, always managed to look like something on the front cover of Vogue and who spoke like someone out of American Vaudeville.

In spite of trying to look severe and assertive, the girl's soft, full mouth and anxious eyes spoke of the real person behind a sedate image, and he was attracted to her. How long was her hair he wondered? His eyes moved to the tightly restrained, thick coil at the back of her head. No way of knowing. But the colour was wonderful.

Willie, confident that he looked enticing, allowed himself a slight smile. He was attracted to him too. He couldn't help it. From the moment he'd seen him he had felt an undeniable tiny current drawing him in his direction. His svelte image had drifted in and out of his thoughts constantly since that time and he found himself fantasizing about what his hands would feel like on his own, and the touch of his finely sculptured lips.

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