Amy Wood is a British writer whose stories feature in Opening Line Literary ‘Zine (Sept. & Dec. 2014), Flashdogs: An Anthology (Dec. 2014), Spelk Fiction (22 Jan. 2015), Flashdogs Solstice: Light & Dark (June 2015), Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal (December 2015), Magnolia Review (January 2016) and Flashdogs: Time (2016).
Her blog amywoodfiction.wordpress.com showcases more of her short stories and flash fiction.
Mrs Whitman’s War
By Amy Wood
“Mum, there’s one coming down! Come quick!” Billy’s shouts echoed into the kitchen.
Muriel wiped her hands on her apron and walked out into the hallway. What was the lad up to this time?
“Keep it down, Bill, you’ll have the village in uproar. What’s all the shouting about?”
Billy pointed upwards. The summer had been unpredictable so far, June 1940 had brought baking heat but July and August were cooler. Now September’s warmth was fading and nights were chilly. Today, however, the sky was the absolute blue of late summer, beautiful.
Muriel saw thin lines criss-crossing the blue, curving white trails swooping from one side of the sky to the other. Aircraft contrails. The newspapers were full of reports of dogfights up and down the coast and far inland too. They said the RAF was doing well, holding off the Luftwaffe but there were so many of the German planes. London had copped it again two nights before.
“Mum,” Billy tugged her arm, pointing just above the horizon. “Look.”
Muriel blinked, the sun’s glare dazzling her.
“See?” Billy’s voice was almost reverent. “There’s one coming down.”
Yes, she could see it. A line of dirty black smoke staining the pristine blue. At the end of it was an aircraft, spinning almost lazily. As she watched, one of its engines burst into flames. Like a wounded horse, the aircraft bucked and writhed, its nose tilting up before plunging to earth with a crash which shook the ground beneath Muriel’s feet.
Moments later an RAF plane screamed overhead, low enough for Muriel to see every detail.
Billy waved and cheered, dancing round in circles. “Mum, see that? He got him!”
She nodded, eyes on the pall of smoke now rising from the field in which the other plane had crashed. It wasn’t more than half a mile away but the village was hushed, quieter than usual. Apart from herself and Billy, the main street was deserted. Had nobody else noticed? Or were they all staying indoors, not wanting to get involved with a downed German bomber?
Biting her lip, she turned to her son. “Get your Grandad. Tell him I’ll be in Palmer’s field and that he’s to come straight away. And bring his first aid kit.”
Billy tore off before she’d finished. She smiled, he was so full of life, so unlike his dad. Sam would sleep for twenty hours a day given half a chance. He probably wasn’t enjoying Army life much. Rules and regulations weren’t his cup of tea.
Thrusting away thoughts of Sam, Muriel pulled her front door shut and hurried down the street toward the ruined potato fields.
Up close, the aircraft was bigger than she’d expected. Half the field was churned up, potato plants scattered and destroyed. A heavy stench of burning and something sweeter hung in the air, sticking at the back of Muriel’s throat. She pressed a hand to her mouth and went on.
The ugly black crosses on the aircraft’s body made her pause. What on earth was she doing on her own, poking round a Nazi bomber?
Flames flickered inside the see-through nose and one engine burned and spat. The stink of petrol reached her nose. The thing could blow up at any minute. What was she thinking? She had Billy to look after, she had no right to be taking risks like these.
Apart from the hissing of the flames, there was no noise. Even the birds had deserted the hedgerows. Muriel’s head shouted at her to turn round and run, but her feet refused to move. The crosses on the aircraft’s body and wings mesmerised her. So these were the people who’d blitzed their way across Europe? Strange, for a bomber it didn’t seem so frightening now it was broken and burning.
Holes peppered the fuselage and a great jagged one gaped just behind the cockpit. The RAF pilot had done a good job.
All was still and Muriel quite forgot that aircraft didn’t fly themselves. A sudden clattering from inside sent her scurrying back, searching for somewhere to hide. Oh God, there were Germans inside, of course.
The open field offered nothing in the way of cover so she stood, hands clasped in front of her, shaking. As though in a nightmare she saw movement in the shattered cockpit. A moment later a figure dragged itself out of the ragged hole.
Muriel turned and fled but harsh, sobbing breaths behind her halted her flight. With her heart pounding, she looked back over her shoulder.
A man slumped against the bomber’s wing, choking and retching. He didn’t seem to realise or care that the opposite engine was on fire. He held on to the wing as he coughed, deep wracking coughs of lungs painful with smoke.
After a few moments though, he straightened up, looked wildly around then dived back into the broken aircraft with a hoarse cry. Bits of frantic German floated to Muriel’s ears.
“Get out,” she called, forgetting her fear for a moment. “There’s petrol, can’t you smell it? Get out!”
The man reappeared, dragging something limp and lifeless out of the wrecked fuselage. He lost his balance and fell onto the ruined potato stalks. If she’d been at the pictures, watching a German fall on his face, she might’ve laughed. Somehow seeing it in person wasn’t funny. The airman scrambled up and pulled at the limp thing again. Muriel saw a hand flop and shivered.
Greedy flames licked over the perspex nose. Smoke poured from the burning engine and the heat grew worse. The German tugged at his comrade. The limp man’s face flashed into view. Muriel was no nurse but even she could see that he was dead. The surviving man seemed to be unaware that he was trying to save a corpse.
Muriel pressed a hand to her mouth, feeling sick but unable to look away.
Deafening crackles and bangs split the air, louder than the roaring flames. The German staggered back, hands shielding his face. He reached for his dead crewmate but more angry reports sent him reeling in Muriel’s direction. He ducked as he ran, arms over his head. In a flash, Muriel understood that the noise was that of exploding ammunition. The heat must be setting it off.
Before she could cry out a warning the German crashed into her, apparently unaware she was there. They rolled together across the sun-baked earth, smashing potato plants as they went. Muriel shrieked and kicked the man’s legs away as they tangled with hers. He grunted something in German and got to his feet.
Muriel stared at him, then stood up herself, brushing the dirt off her skirt. God, he was just a kid. Blue eyes — red rimmed and fearful — met hers. Blood ran down the lad’s face from a gash on his cheek and there were great rips in his flying suit. He moved from one foot to the other, staring around the field, eyes growing wider and more panicked by the second.
Where was the crisply uniformed, arrogant braggart all the newspapers warned of? Was this one of the fanatical Nazi supermen everyone feared? It was hard to believe, he looked like any other young man. Were the Germans so very different after all?
“You!” A yell behind Muriel made her jump. “Stay there, you Nazi bastard.”
She turned and glared at Ben, her father. Billy trotted behind him, the first aid kit clutched to his chest. The ancient shotgun from her dad’s fireplace hung over Ben’s arm.
“Dad, language.” She jerked her head at Billy, frowning.
Ben shrugged, his eyes on the German. “Lad’s heard it afore. Won’t hurt him. You all right, lass?”
“Of course I’m all right,” Muriel snapped. “What did you—”
More exploding ammunition drowned her words. As one, they all flinched and ran from the now blazing bomber. Fire crept down the fuselage and merrily ate at the wings, the black crosses vanishing behind sheets of flame. The German covered his face with his hands.
“Shouldn’t have come here if you didn’t want to be shot down,” Ben sneered. “Now get your hands up.”
The young German looked from Muriel to Ben and back again, frowning and confused.
“I don’t think he speaks English, Dad,” Muriel muttered.
“Bloody typical,” Ben growled. “Jerry bastards.”
“Mum,” Billy said, voice faint with excitement. “Mum, he’s real. A real Jerry.”
“Well, what did you expect?” Muriel retorted, her patience running low. “He’s only young. Put that gun down, Dad, before you shoot somebody by accident. He’s not going to hurt us. Look at him, the poor thing’s shaking.”
The pilot was indeed shaking like a leaf, his hands trembled and Muriel fancied she could hear his teeth chattering.
“What do we do with him?” Ben asked, not lowering the shotgun. “Can’t let him go, can we?”
No, they couldn’t allow that. But neither could they march him straight through the village to the police station. Perhaps the RAF might turn up at some point, they usually did when a plane came down, but that might not be for hours. Until then, Muriel seemed to be in charge of the young German’s fate.
“Billy,” she said, a decision suddenly clear in her mind. “Put that first aid kit down and nip and get Sergeant Bains from the police station. Do it quiet like, no running round shouting about Jerries, all right? Just go straight to the station and say you need to see the Sergeant. Tell him what’s going on and ask him if he’ll come and escort our Jerry to jail, nice and sharpish.”
She was tempted to add that if Sergeant Bains was any kind of policeman, he’d already be out at the crash, taking control of things instead of leaving them to somebody as unprepared as her. But that might make matters worse, so she didn’t say it out loud.
“Got all that?” she smiled at her son, who looked far younger than his eight years. “Straight there and only talk to the Sergeant, all right? No nipping to see your mates on the way, I don’t want anybody else knowing about our Jerry.” Making up her mind, she added, “And tell Bains to come to our house, that’s where the Jerry will be.”
Billy nodded, his little face flushed with excited self-importance. He grinned at Ben, then turned and ran off through the potato stalks.
The German wrapped his arms around himself, still shaking.
“What’re you doing?” her father muttered. “Your house? You off your rocker?”
Muriel ignored him and beckoned to the pilot, “Come on. Come with me.”
“No,” Ben growled. “You’re not taking that bastard anywhere till you tell me what you’re up to.”
Muriel threw her hands up in despair. “All right.” She glanced at the German, who was looking faint. “Give him the rum you keep in that first aid kit.”
“I’ll do no such bloody thing,” Ben retorted. “That ain’t for Jerries, it’s for me.”
“The lad’s out on his feet,” she hissed, “look at him. He’s younger than Sam, just a kid. He’s probably scared you’re going to shoot him. Give him the rum.”
Muttering complaints, Ben complied, thrusting the bottle in the German’s direction. The young man stepped back, alarmed.
“Don’t worry,” Muriel said, wishing she knew some German. “It’s only rum, to warm you up a bit. Um—rum, drink, see?” She mimed drinking and understanding flashed across the blood-smeared face.
Nodding, the German took the bottle and drank deeply. Coughs and splutters followed, but he had another swig before handing it back to Ben with a quiet, “Danke.”
“Right,” Muriel said, gathering her courage. “Now, follow me.”
“Still ain’t told me what’s goin’ on,” Ben said, his shotgun trained on the German. “What’s the idea, taking him home?” His faded blue eyes turned suspicious. “You’re not a spy are you?”
“Dad,” Muriel said, rubbing her aching head. “No, I’m not a spy. I’m just worried this lad might not live to make it to a prison camp.”
The pilot was watching her closely, brow furrowed in bemused concentration.
Ben’s face mirrored the pilot’s. “Eh? What’re you on about?”
“Harry Kendrick was shot down four days ago,” she replied. “Crashed into the Channel, I think. His family are taking it bad. If they get wind of him being here,” she jerked her head at the German, “I wouldn’t give two figs for his chances of reaching the police station.”
The Kendricks were the talk of the village. Tall and broad in stature, their loyalty to one another was unswerving and their doling out of swift punishment for any slight — real or imagined — was well known. Harry had been the mercurial centre of the Kendrick clan, handsome and loud. His younger brothers were only fourteen and fifteen but as they were both already handy with their fists, their vengeance against any German they found would be brutal and bloody.
Ben nodded, sucking on his lower lip like a thoughtful cow at pasture. “Aye, could be you’re right.”
Muriel clenched her hands to stop their shaking. “So he’s coming home with me till the police come for him.”
“Don’t know what Sam’ll say to all this,” Ben muttered.
“He’ll say we did the right thing,” Muriel snapped. “The lad’s twenty if he’s a day, he needs a bit of help and we’re the only ones here to do it.”
“But he’s a Jerry,” Ben looked at Muriel, silver-whiskered face conflicted.
“Yes, he is,” Muriel replied. “And we’re English, we’re supposed to be the good ones in all this. So I’m going to take that lad home and give him a cup of tea until Sergeant Bains comes for him, all right?”
Ben’s frown didn’t clear but he nodded once and stood aside.
Muriel beckoned to the pilot, who’d been watching their argument with concerned eyes. “Come on, you. Follow me.”
Biting his lip, the German walked hesitantly after her. He probably thought he was going to his execution, as Ben followed closely behind, prodding him with the shotgun now and then.
Muriel took a few deep breaths, the warm country air cleared her head as it always did. They were doing the right thing, if the Kendricks got their hands on the Jerry, it’d be bloody and nasty. Not that she could blame them, Harry had been a good lad, he’d even flirted with her when he knew Sam wasn’t around to berate him for it. Now he was gone, another memory supported by nothing more than a photograph on his mother’s mantelpiece. What was it all for? Why did the world have to destroy itself every twenty-five years or so?
She shook herself, no time for that, she had to concentrate on getting the Jerry home without anyone seeing him and carrying word to the Kendricks.
Luck favoured them, the village was deserted. Perhaps people were staying well away from anything to do with the downed bomber, either way, it suited Muriel.
It seemed odd to usher a young man into her kitchen, the last man to be there had been Sam, stiff and strange in his new Army uniform. Tears threatened to spill over but she blinked them back. Sam was all right, he was in Dover, nowhere near the fighting yet. The German stood awkwardly to attention, clutching his leather flying gloves, the blood drying on his face.
“Sit yourself down,” Muriel said, pulling a chair out from the table. “I’ll get the tea.”
“Don’t I get a chair?” Ben muttered, slumping ungraciously into one. “Make it good an’ strong. Think your Jerry needs it.”
Muriel bustled around getting the kettle on to boil and finding teacups. When she turned back, the pilot was still standing, watching her. Beneath the blood, his face was pale and his trembling had increased.
“Sit down before you fall down, eh?” she said, pointing at the empty chair. “Um, sit — what’s ‘sit’ in German?”
Ben grunted, reading a newspaper he’d found on the table.
The pilot flinched as Muriel flapped a hand at him, “Sit down, it’s all right.”
He sank down onto the chair, looking no less uncomfortable than when he’d been standing.
“You Jerries are a funny lot,” Muriel sighed, pouring warm water into a basin and fetching a cloth. “Here, let me get rid of that blood.”
She moved slowly, deliberately. The young man watched her every move, perhaps expecting a gun to be the next thing she reached for. Maybe that was what he’d do if he was in her shoes. Perhaps he was a Nazi after all. Or perhaps he was just a soldier doing as he was told. It was nicer to think of him as being as helpless as Sam when it came to orders.
The blood ran in watery rivulets down his face, it wasn’t a deep cut but it stretched from his nose almost to his ear. It wasn’t hard to imagine bullets ripping through his aeroplane and the panic that must have followed.
“Shouldn’t have been here,” she murmured, holding his chin as she tilted his face up and dabbed at a persistent spot of dried blood. He didn’t argue, didn’t react at all.
With his face clear of blood, the pilot looked even younger. His blue eyes were scared and unfocused and too old for his youthful features. He’d seen his comrades killed in action not an hour before and was now alone in a strange land with which his country was at war. Muriel’s throat tightened again, bloody stupid war.
Pouring the tea was a good distraction, she lost herself for a minute in the familiar routine. Ben grunted his thanks as she passed him a cup and even the German managed a nod.
“You lot drink coffee, don’t you?” Muriel said, even though he wouldn’t understand a word. “No tea in Germany, eh?”
The pilot put down his cup, straightened in his chair and reeled off some swift German.
Muriel looked at her father. “What’d he say?”
Ben shrugged, returning to his newspaper.
Rolling her eyes at his indifference, Muriel smiled at the pilot. “Didn’t catch that. What did you say?”
He spoke again, the same rapid stream of words.
“Name, rank and serial, I reckon,” Ben muttered. “Thinks we’re going to interrogate him.”
“Nothing like that, love,” Muriel smiled again, then pointed to herself, “I’m Muriel. Mu-ri-el. And that’s my dad, Ben. Who are you? What’s your name?” She jabbed a finger at the pilot and raised her eyebrows. This sign language business was difficult.
“Muller,” the young man replied slowly. “Otto Muller.” He shot to his feet as Muriel held out a hand, startling her with a gallant little heel-click as they shook.
“Oi,” Ben growled from behind his paper. “She’s married. Less of that, mate.”
Muriel laughed, her dad could always be relied upon to lighten the mood. “You hungry, Otto?” she asked, then mimed eating. “Bread and jam?” Otto nodded and she set about finding it.
“I’ll have some if it’s going,” Ben said, putting down his paper and sitting up straight.
“You didn’t just crash a burning plane,” Muriel replied. “Otto gets fed first.”
“No, I wasn’t bombing the bloody country,” Billy snapped, suddenly angry. “Only Otto was. Nazi bastard.”
Otto shook his head. “Nazi — no. No Nazi.” He pointed to himself. “Flieger. Luftwaffe.”
“Oh, now he can talk,” Ben sneered. “Two-faced Jerries, you’re all the bloody same, can’t be trusted.” He reached for the shotgun that rested on the floor beside his chair, laying it across his knees.
Otto paled and gulped.
“Dad,” Muriel said, “stop it. You’re not going to shoot anybody. The police’ll be here soon.” Hopefully very soon. She prayed Sergeant Bains roused himself out of his usual slumber and moved swiftly for once.
As though in answer to her prayer, footsteps scurried up the garden path. Clever Billy, he’d brought Bains to the back door rather than the front. Muriel hurried to open the door, anxious to let someone else take over responsibility for the stranded German. As she passed the kitchen window, she stopped, her hand outstretched toward the doorknob.
Sergeant Bains wasn’t outside. Phillip Kendrick was, along with his two large sons and equally large daughter, Elsie.
With a sharp intake of breath, Muriel turned the key in the lock. Ben raised both eyebrows. Otto merely looked confused and uncomfortable. If only he knew the danger he was in.
“What?” Ben asked, his voice resigned, as though he knew what had made the colour drain from Muriel’s cheeks.
“The Kendricks,” she replied.
Ben swore at length. “Damn ‘em why couldn’t they stay at home for once?” He stared at the closed kitchen door. “Billy with ‘em?”
“Don’t know,” Muriel said, twisting her hands together. Where was he? Had he made it to the police station before the Kendricks wheedled his story out of him?
“He’ll be all right,” Ben said, rising and putting an arm round her shoulders. “He’s a good lad.”
Otto said something, the German harsh and guttural to Muriel’s ears.
“I haven’t got a clue what you’re on about, mate, so be quiet,” Ben said. “If it was up to me, I’d let Phillip Kendrick have you but my girl here seems to think you don’t deserve that. You’re lucky to have met her.”
“Muriel?” Phillip Kendrick called through the door. “Open up, will you? I need a chat for a minute.”
“Chat, my elbow,” Muriel muttered. “He won’t be talking if we let him in.”
The tension seemed to communicate itself to Otto, for he spoke rapidly, hands flying as he illustrated his points.
“If that was ‘open the door and let ‘em have me’,” Ben said, “it’s a good idea.”
“No,” Muriel shook her head and slipped out of her father’s embrace. “They’ll kill him and if we let it happen we’re no better than the damned Nazis.”
“The Nazis killed Harry,” Ben snarled. “You can’t blame Phillip for wanting to pay the bastards back.”
“But Otto didn’t kill Harry,” Muriel said, pointing at the young man, who stepped back in alarm. “So why should Phillip hurt him for something somebody else did?”
“Way the world works,” Ben said.
“Muriel?” Kendrick’s voice came again, impatient now. “Open up.”
Edging to the window, Muriel saw that all of the Kendricks were crowded close around the door. Simon — the youngest at fourteen — rubbed his knuckles and flexed his fingers. Elsie’s eyes were red and her expression grim. Phillip Kendrick himself was as tousled as ever, scruffy as a scarecrow.
Sudden tears threatened to overwhelm Muriel. What a waste this whole thing was, so many young men killed or hurt and for what? It was making them fight amongst themselves and surely that could only lead to eventual defeat, a possibility so foul it made her sick to think of it.
“Open the door!” Phillip roared, making them all jump. “I know who’s in there, your boy told me.”
“Where’s Billy?” Muriel called, worry sour in her throat.
“Damned if I know,” Phillip replied, “just send the Jerry out and this’ll all be finished and done.”
At least Billy wasn’t with them, perhaps he’d slipped off somewhere to hide, hopefully he’d have the sense to stay away until the trouble blew over.
Muriel glanced at Otto. His face was still pale but something new showed in his eyes. He pointed to himself and said, “Jerry?”
Otto caught his bottom lip between his teeth. “Jerry.” He tapped his chest, then pointed at the closed kitchen door.
“No,” Muriel shook her head. “You’re not giving yourself up just to be a hero. Those people out there’ll kill you and I’m not having that on my conscience. And I’m not cleaning the mess off my steps, either. So sit your German arse down and be quiet.”
Otto sank back onto his chair, eyes downcast.
“You tell him,” Ben said dryly. “You’d make a good officer.”
“Open the door, Muriel.” Kendrick sounded weary now, as though the world rested on his shoulders. “They killed him, killed Harry. You knew him, how can you let that scum in your house?”
Wiping a shaking hand over her face, Muriel said, “I’m sorry about Harry, I really am. He was a good lad.”
“Send the Jerry out,” it was Elsie who spoke this time, her normally cheery voice strained and broken. “Let him get what he deserves.”
“He didn’t kill Harry,” Muriel cried. “You can’t hurt him for somebody else’s crime.”
“He’s German,” Phillip Kendrick growled. “It’s as much his fault as everybody else in his bloody country.” The house shook as he slammed his fist against the door again. “I’ll come in and get him if I have to.”
Ben stood and started toward the door. Muriel threw out a hand. “What are you doing?”
“Giving him what he wants,” Ben replied. “They won’t go away till they get what they came for.”
“You make it sound like they’re in the grocers,” Muriel said. “You can’t just hand Otto over, they’ll kill him and you’ll make us part of it. What’ll the law say about people going round killing prisoners of war?”
“Probably thank Phillip for saving them the expense of feeding another Jerry,” Ben said, but his face was troubled.
Muriel looked at Otto, who was watching Ben’s every move. He knew he was in a bad situation, whether or not he understood what was being said. Probably best that he couldn’t comprehend the threats Kendrick was growling through the door. Where was the lad from? Did he have a family? Was his squadron even now mourning the loss of his aircraft and its crew?
Loud rapping on the front door jerked her out of her thoughts and back into the present. Sergeant Bains’ deep voice was muffled but understandable.
“Police here, Mrs Whitham. Be so good as to open up, eh?”
Muriel threw a glance out of the kitchen window. The hem of Elsie’s skirt whipped around the corner of the house as she followed her father and brothers, doubtless haring round to the front door to force their way in after Bains. Muriel wrung her hands in confused dismay. What did she do? Of course she needed to let Bains in but how did she do that without allowing the Kendricks in as well?
“Go on, lass,” Ben urged her forward with a surprisingly gentle hand at her back. “Let him in.”
Otto perched on the edge of his chair, eyes darting between her and her father. Probably wondering whether they were debating handing him over to be beaten to death. Bloody stupid war. And where the hell was Billy? If he had any sense he’d be hiding somewhere till all the trouble blew over.
The rapping came again. “Muriel? Open the door, will you?
There wasn’t any choice. Bains was the one she needed and if the Kendricks were there as well, Bains would have to earn his pay fending them off. With any luck, he’d have some of his constables with him. Perhaps they could keep the Kendricks away from Otto long enough for Bains to get him to the safety of the police station.
With an anxious heart, she went down the tiny hall, feeling Otto’s eyes on her the whole time.
“Sergeant?” she called out. “Is it just you?”
“Eh?” Bains said, “Of course it’s me, what’re you on about?”
Muriel rolled her eyes. “I mean are you alone? Is there anybody with you?”
“My lads and your boy,” Bains said. “Open up now and let us get that Jerry where he belongs.”
Relief shot through her. Billy was all right. He’d done his job and fetched Bains, good lad.
“Are the Kendricks there?” she asked, hand hovering on the latch.
“Kendricks?” Bains sounded confused. “No. Why?”
Muriel sighed, they might be out of sight but they’d be nearby, ready to cause trouble. Jerking the door open, she looked into Bains’ florid face. Before the sergeant could speak, Billy pushed past him and flung his arms around Muriel’s waist, hugging her with all the fierce protectiveness and desperate need of a frightened eight-year-old. She clung to him in return, glad beyond words to have him safely home. Sam might be away but at least she could safeguard this tiny piece of him.
“Sorry,” Billy mumbled. “Mr Kendrick saw me, I couldn’t—I had to tell him, I was scared—”
“Don’t worry,” Muriel smoothed the thick hair back from his forehead. “It’s not your fault.”
“You all right?” Bains asked.
Muriel nodded, her arms still around Billy.
“What do you think you’re up to?” Bains’ face folded into a frown. “Bringing Jerries home, what’d your Sam say? I’ve a mind to write and tell him.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Muriel snapped. “He’s got enough to worry about and anyway, he’d say I did the right thing. That lad in there’s had a hell of a day and needed a cup of tea. If I’m the only one decent enough to give it to him, it doesn’t say much about us, does it?”
“Let us in, then,” Bains said, still frowning. “I’ve called the RAF, there’ll be somebody along to pick him up but until then he’s better off at the station.”
Peering over the policeman’s shoulder, Muriel scanned the street. It was as empty, but she knew noses would be pressed to every window with a view of her door. “Phillip Kendrick was here,” she murmured. “Wanted me to let ‘em have Otto, I said no. Soon as they heard you they ran, no idea where they are now.”
Bains pursed his lips. “That family’s lost a lot, can’t blame them for wanting revenge. But I won’t have people murdered in my village—not even Germans—so stop worrying and let us in.”
Nodding, Muriel stood aside, pulling Billy along with her. Bains and his two young constables crowded into the little hall.
“Kitchen,” Muriel said.
Bains walked through, muttering a greeting to Ben when he reached the kitchen door.
“The lad’s called Otto,” Muriel said, standing on tiptoe behind the constables. “Otto Muller.”
As the men moved into the kitchen, Muriel could see that Otto was on his feet, standing stiffly to attention, his gaze on Bains.
“Well, let’s get on with it,” Bains said. “No point in disturbing these good people any longer.”
“Don’t speak a word of English,” Ben put in. “D’you speak German?”
Bains flushed a deeper red. “No.” He beckoned to Otto then pointed at the door and mimed walking out of it. It would’ve been funny if the situation wasn’t so serious.
“Police,” Bains all but shouted at Otto, adopting the ‘say it louder and they’ll understand’ method. “Come with me.”
Looking like a man walking to the gallows, the young German nodded and followed Bains out of the kitchen. He caught Muriel’s eye as he passed, paused, then came to attention again with the same little bow and heel-click he’d used before.
“Danke,” he said softly. “Vielen danke, gnädige Frau.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Muriel said, flustered. “But take care of yourself, eh?” She patted his singed sleeve, then drew her hand away, clenching her fists.
“Don’t bother to write,” Ben called.
With one more tiny nod, Otto left the kitchen.
The men clattered down the hall and weariness washed over Muriel. Thank God that was over. She needed another cup of tea. The front door gave its usual gentle creak as it was opened and responsibility slipped away from her shoulders. Otto was Bains’ problem now.
Billy looked up at her, “Will he be shot?”
“No!” Muriel cried. “Of course not, we don’t do things like that.”
Half a minute of silence followed. Lord, Muriel was tired. A quiet sit down was what she really wanted.
Shouts outside the front door sent her heart plummeting. Phillip Kendrick’s voice was all too recognisable. Oh no. It was the work of moments to run down the hall and wrench the door open. The scene that met her was like something out of a film. Bains and Kendrick were glaring at each other, hurling furious words. One of the constables had an uncertain hand on Otto’s shoulder while the other nursed a split lip. Otto himself had the haunted look Muriel had previously associated with wounded animals. As she watched he rubbed his eyes and stared around the quiet street, doubtless looking for an escape route.
Kendrick spat, “For God’s sake, he’s a Jerry. What trouble’s it going to cause if we give him what he bloody well deserves? Nobody knows he’s here, eh?”
Bains sighed before answering. “I’m sorry about your lad, Phillip. We all are, but I can’t let you take this bloke. I called the RAF before I left the station, they’re coming for him.”
Kendrick’s face twisted. “His lot killed my Harry and you expect me to let you waltz off with him and not do a thing?”
Muriel looked away. It was one thing to hear of shattered, grief-stricken families, of boys lost to war, but seeing it was something else entirely. She felt sick and weak, cold sweat prickling inside her elbows.
Bernie Kendrick; fifteen and a promising rugby forward, shoved the constable’s hand away from Otto before landing a solid punch to the German’s stomach. Otto gasped and sank to his knees, wheezing.
“That’s for my brother, you bastard,” Bernie grunted, kicking Otto in the chest and making him cry out in pain.
“No more o’that!” Bains shouted, wrestling the boy away and pushing him back towards his family. “Or the Jerry’ll have company at the station, so help me, Bernie.”
Phillip sneered. “You’d arrest a lad for giving a Jerry the hiding he deserves? Bet that wouldn’t go down too well with your superiors.”
Muriel thrust Billy out of the way, pushing him into Ben’s arms as she flew down the steps and into the middle of the two groups. Otto was still grey-faced and wisely staying where he was on the ground.
“Stop it!” she shrieked. “All of you.”
Elsie Kendrick glared daggers at her. Elsie was the barmaid at the pub so it didn’t bode well for the next time Muriel went there. “Nazi-lover.”
“You shut your trap, Elsie,” Muriel snapped. “I know Harry’s missed, he was a good lad and it’s a crime that he’s gone. But will killing this Jerry bring him back?” She gestured at Otto, still on the ground and avoiding everyone’s eyes. “If you hurt him now you’ll be as bad as the people who killed Harry.”
Phillip Kendrick glared at her. “One less German in the world’s a good thing.”
“You don’t kill people, Phillip,” Muriel said, her voice very soft. “You’re not one of them. You’re on our side. Harry was on our side. You think he’d want this on his conscience?”
Phillip’s face crumbled and tears touched his stubbled cheeks. “How do I know what he’d want? He’s dead, isn’t he?” A sob shook his large body. “Can’t even have a proper funeral. Nothing to bury. He’s in the Channel somewhere. My boy’s all alone in the sea—” he broke off and screwed up his face, turning all his grief inwards. When he spoke again, his voice was calm and controlled. “I can’t bring him back. But I can send as many German bastards as I can to join him.”
“There’ll be no killing in my village,” Bains growled. “Take your family home, Phillip. This is a police matter. You as well, Muriel. Get your lad home and let me deal with this mess.”
Phillip Kendrick didn’t move and his boys were solid and stationary behind him. Elsie sniffed and wiped away tears. Muriel too stayed where she was, in between the men and hoping any more punches thrown wouldn’t land on her.
Bains pursed his lips. “This is going to look bad, Phillip. Don’t know what folk are going to say at the next village meeting.”
“They’ll say you stopped me from doing my duty,” Kendrick snarled. “Jerry-lovers, the lot of you.”
Otto silently stood behind Muriel, still rubbing his chest. The Kendricks glared at him with pure malice. Until they moved, nobody was going anywhere. The constables were fit enough but the Kendrick boys had been raised on gutter brawls and didn’t mind fighting dirty. How did they get Otto to the jail without more blood being shed?
“Everything all right?” a cheerful voice called.
Muriel sagged in relief. An RAF officer stood at the head of a small party of men.
“Things are a bit tense, aren’t they?” the officer said, grinning. “Reminds me of a Western I saw at the pictures.”
Kendrick’s lips tightened into a thin line.
Bains seized the opportunity to get help. “You’ll be from the airfield, sir?”
“Yes,” the officer nodded, his gaze sweeping over the scene. “Name’s Wright. Pal of mine shot down a Heinkel earlier and asked me to come and take a look-see at the wreck. These chaps will keep an eye on it till a salvage party can come and get rid of the thing.” He gestured to the men, their blue ranks reassuring and solid, then pointed to Otto. “I take it that bod is one of the crew?”
“Yes,” Muriel said before Phillip Kendrick could speak. “He’s got cuts and bruises but he seems all right. Sergeant Bains was taking him to the police station.”
“Don’t worry, Sergeant,” Wright said. “We’ll take care of him. My squadron’ll probably lay on a tea for him, rather a tradition of ours, been doing it since we were in France last year.”
He was barely into his twenties, Muriel realised. Just like Otto, Wright was a young man fighting a war caused by older, power-hungry men. What was the world going to be like once all the fighting was done? Would it be full of exhausted old men yet to reach their thirtieth birthdays, all with those same haunted eyes?
“Tea.” Bernie Kendrick snorted in disgust before turning and stalking away.
“Something I said?” Wright raised an eyebrow. “Things are a bit on the nervy side around here, aren’t they?”
Phillip Kendrick seemed to be having difficulty holding back his emotions, his jaw worked convulsively.
Elsie laid a hand on his arm. “Can’t do anything now, Dad. Ain’t going to fight the RAF, are we? Harry wouldn’t like that. Come on, let’s go home.”
Biting his lip and blinking back tears, Phillip squared his shoulders and looked at Wright. “He’ll be taken to one o’them prisoner of war camps?”
“Couldn’t say, sir,” Wright shrugged. “I’m just a pilot, they don’t tell me anything important.”
“My Harry was a pilot,” Phillip said, deep voice breaking. “Good one, from what I heard.”
Nodding slowly, Wright said, “Was? Is he —?”
“In the Channel,” Elsie whispered. “Four days ago.”
“Oh,” Wright murmured. “I’m terribly sorry. A lot of my friends have gone into the drink. I hate the sea.” He shuddered, then turned to the Flight Sergeant behind him, “Escort the Jerry away, Briarley. As long as that’s all right with you, Sergeant.”
He glanced at Bains who nodded and said formally, “Of course.”
Briarley stepped forward and spoke to Otto in German. Muriel turned and watched Otto’s face. His shoulders sagged in weary defeat. His war was over. Lucky Otto. He waved an arm in the direction of his crashed bomber which was still sending up plumes of oily smoke.
“He says his mates are in the Heinkel, sir,” Briarley called over his shoulder to Wright. “Dead.”
There was so much death in the air. Muriel shivered, ice cold despite the sun’s best efforts. How many more would die before the world could find some kind of peace? How many more families would be shattered like the Kendricks? Would another generation die in the pursuit of peace as one had already done in the mud and slime of the Somme and Ypres?
Wright nodded, a muscle in his cheek jumping. “All right, look after ‘em. Sods deserve a decent funeral, I suppose. I’ll be along in a bit. Sinclair was desperate that I bring him something from his first confirmed kill.”
It was all so indifferent and callous. Referring to downed planes as ‘kills’ as though they were dragons and the RAF the brave knights hunting them. Scared boys feigning disregard for the scythe sweeping through them. The world had gone mad.
Wright straightened his smart blue tunic with its bright pilot’s wings as his men split up and moved away. He was a boy, really, given the job of defending his homeland against a terrible enemy. But then, Otto was the enemy and he didn’t seem so terrible. It was all very confusing and made Muriel’s head ache. She needed to sit down and forget today had ever happened.
Otto stepped out from behind her. Briarley rattled off some more rapid German and Otto nodded, all bravado gone. He paused and said something to Muriel, holding out his hand. She shook it, then asked Briarley, “What did he say?”
“That he’s grateful to you, miss,” Briarley replied. “And thanks you for the tea.”
Otto spoke again and Briarley’s brow furrowed as he translated. “He’s sorry he’s caused trouble, he never intended it. He hopes it doesn’t cause any lasting upset for you.”
Muriel patted Otto’s arm. “Don’t worry. We’ll be all right.” She wasn’t certain that things would ever be all right again but there was no need to concern the lad.
Otto bowed his head and moved away to join Briarley and the little column of troops. They marched off, one light brown flying suit standing out among the dark blue.
With a disgusted sound, Phillip Kendrick swung round and made off down the street. Elsie and Simon followed him, Elsie’s arm around Simon’s shoulders. Curtains twitched as they passed, nosey neighbours eager to see what was going on. Revulsion filled Muriel, people were cowardly. They wanted to see the excitement but had no stomach to join it themselves. She wrinkled her nose and was glad when Billy came to stand by her.
Wright watched the blue column go, his face serious. “Queer birds, the Luftwaffe. Most of the chaps I’ve met haven’t been the raging Nazis we all expect.” He frowned, “Might be easier if they were. Damned confusing.”
It was confusing. The Germans were the enemy, the monster crouched across the Channel, eager for invasion and destruction. But Otto Muller didn’t seem like an enemy. He didn’t seem like anything more than a scared kid. What was the world coming to?
“I’d best be off,” Wright flashed another smile. “Things to do and all that. Thank you for looking after the Jerry.”
Bains grunted and ambled off, his constables at his heels.
“Have you ever flown a Spitfire?” Billy asked Wright, breathless with hero-worship.
“No, I’m on Hurricanes,” Wright replied. “But never say never.” With a final nod at Muriel and Ben, he walked away toward the oily smoke.
They were all silent for a minute. There was nothing to say. Ben was the first to move, heading back into the house, muttering to himself. Billy followed a moment later, wherever his grandad went, he’d never be far behind. Muriel gazed down the street, picking at her nails. What a day!
The village was quiet, returned to its usual sleepy silence. The sun grew red and sank beneath the horizon. Everything was the same again. And yet — she glanced at the smoke. No, things weren’t the same. Otto had stirred things up and created doubt where there used to be blind acceptance. Perhaps not all Germans were bad. But they still allowed that insane little man to do as he wanted and send their young men to war. Maybe they liked it, maybe they all agreed with him, perhaps Otto was the exception.
She needed a drink.
Angry at her own confusion, Muriel whirled around and went indoors, shutting the door behind her. The world could stay outside. She’d write to Sam and tell him all about the day’s events, best to do it before anyone else did. Not that he’d do anything but smile his slow smile and tell her she was soft for feeling sorry for a Jerry. Maybe he’d have words with Kendrick when he came back on leave, but she doubted it. Sam wasn’t the type to look for trouble.
The kitchen was dim and welcoming. Ben and Billy were there, both bent over the newspaper again.
Muriel made more tea and put thoughts of dead airmen, decent Germans and too-young pilots in blue out of her mind. That could wait for another day. There was knitting to do and then bedtime for Billy. Life went on.