The Snowglobe

When Laura and Pete were taken up to the room on the second floor of the hotel, they noticed how light and airy it was with a grand view over the village and the resort and the snow-covered mountains close behind with the ski runs leading down almost into the local streets. It felt lovely and warm.

“Here you can actually anticipate the ski-ing from your view when you wake up.” the manager announced before he left them, “The room faces east so you will get the morning light.”

They were putting clothes away in drawers when Laura discovered the snowglobe in a bottom draw within the wardrobe along with the spare pillows. She took it gleefully,

“Look at this….. I wonder why it was stuffed away in the drawer. It’s so pretty…….”

And, Pete had to agree, although it was larger than most examples they’d seen, and required two hands to shake it, which Laura did stirring up a whirl of snowflakes which settled to reveal a mountain, a tiny village at its foot and some miniature people bustling around. Laura blew the dust off it and set it on what was obviously a former mantelpiece opposite the foot of the bed.

“It’s lovely,” she commented. “I wonder why it was hidden away.”

She looked curiously at it and then they left to go for a walk and drinks and dinner downstairs.

They spent the next two days ski-ing and enjoying themselves and paid little attention to the new addition to the mantelpiece. Then, coming back on the second day, the snowglobe was missing only for Laura to re-discover it in its original hiding place and restore it to the mantelpiece. This rigmarole was repeated over the next two days after which Laura declared,

“The chambermaids must be moving it, but I don’t understand why they can’t leave it alone. It’s so lovely and it looks just like the village here. I think I’ll ask the manager.”

And so she did when they went down for dinner. Herr Altmeier looked at Laura with what Pete thought was an evasive look before he answered, rather abruptly, Pete thought,

“Do you mean one of those models of a winter scene in a plastic covering? The toys that you shake and they create fake snow that settles? Ja, we had one but I do not know where it went – perhaps it was put in the drawers in your room. We are a modern progressive hotel and we don’t want old-fashioned children’s toys on display. I will speak to the room staff about it.”

Later, over a drink in the bar, Pete commented to Laura,
“If Herr Altmeier is so dead against “children’s toys” as he puts it, why is the globe being put away so regularly in the same old place? Why not just sell it off or give it to a children’s home.…”

On the Friday, the weather turned grey and overcast with flurries of snow and the couple decided not to go ski-ing but to explore the village and its shops. Before they went out, Laura realised she’d forgotten her sunglasses and went back to fetch them from the room where she encountered the maid.

“Gruss Gott,” the maid nodded and Laura went to fetch her sunglasses then realised the snowdome had been moved again.

“Excuse me, but where is the snowglobe?” Laura enquired.

“Entschuldigung?” the maid enquired.

“The model of the village, with the artificial snow…. Sorry, I don’t speak German,” Laura replied rather embarrassed.

“Ah, the model….” the maid answered in passable English looking rather embarrassed. “We are ordered to remove it from sight as it does not fit with image of hotel. Herr Altmeier’s orders….. He would get rid of it but it has been here for many, many years so I and the other staff keep it hidden as we do not think it proper to remove it. It belonged to the family that owned the original inn here back in the olden times.”

And with that she scurried off into the bathroom and Laura retreated to the lobby to rejoin Pete from whence they essayed forth for a day’s shopping and a nice lunch. All the while the sky turned darker and the snow continued to fall, although mainly over the higher peaks of the mountain.

“The weather isn’t so good?” Pete had questioned the waiter at lunch.

“Nein….. Is abnormal….. very abnormal….. Snow on the mountain tops but not here in village.” He seemed to shiver and moved on.

Later that afternoon, when the couple came back to the hotel, Laura took the snowglobe out of the drawer in the wardrobe and noticed a change in the globe itself. It had become very dark and when Laura shook it, the snow hardly stirred settling to one side of the globe on what appeared to be the representation of the mountain overlooking the village. The whole scene had become foreboding as, indeed, had the weather in the locality which seemed eerily to be be following the changes in the globe. By the time the couple went down to dinner the night outside seemed inky black and less activity than usual to be seen through the windows.The main street, usually thronged with locals and holiday makers was virtually deserted

“It seems very quiet in the village out there tonight,” Pete observed to the maitre d’hote.

“Ja. Unfortunately, the weather is not so good tonight. I think we may have a very heavy snowfall and people are a bit nervous.”

“Nervous of what?” Pete replied. “You need snow, after all, for the ski-ing.”

“Ja, but could be a little bit too heavy, perhaps.” The maitre d’h looked nervous. “Would you like your table? We have fewer than expected guests tonight and it would be good to close the kitchen a bit early. A reward for our loyal staff…..”

Dinner was served much quicker than usual with the staff scurrying around seemingly anxious to finish the dinner service and to tidy up the restaurant and lay up for breakfast as quickly as possible. By ten o’clock everything was quiet. Laura and Pete looked out of the front of the hotel and everything seemed so deathly quiet in the village which was unusual, so they retired for an early night.

On getting back to their room, Laura looked at the snowdome and realised it had changed again with the whole village scene in darkness but with the “snow” roiling away up on the mountain.

“You know, I think the village is frightened of something,” Laura said nervously. “The scenes in the dome have been getting more and more unusual today, just as the village has gone unusually quiet.”

Pete peered at the dome curiously and, after thinking, he said quietly,

“Just a rather spooky thought….. Is the dome is predicting something and the villagers know it. I think this snowdome is more than just a toy….. And maybe Herr Altmeier knows that and that’s why he tries to hide it.”

“What do you mean, more than just a toy?” Laura looked concerned.

“Maybe, it’s predictive….. Magical somehow. Let’s face it, pretty though it is, it’s very old and it’s a bit bigger than most snowdomes. And it seems to represent the village pretty accurately in a funny sort of way.”

Pete strode to the back window and looked up towards the mountain top – but nothing. Just inky blackness. He went back to the snowglobe and picked it up, looking curiously at it. He turned it over revealing a brass plate with indecipherable writing on it which he showed to Laura. When he turned it back over, nothing had changed.

“You know, Pete,” I’m scared she said. “Something’s going to happen.”

“Let’s go to bed,” Pete said, “we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

About four o’clock in the morning, they were aroused from their fitful sleep by a huge roaring sound and the building shaking as if an earthquake were in progress. After a few minutes the roaring and shaking stopped, to be replaced by icy stillness punctuated by the sounds of odd crying or wailing outside. Pete leapt out of bed and peered into the darkness as there were no lights to be seen anywhere. He felt his way back to their bedside table and located his torch before going to look out of the window.

“OMG,” he exclaimed, ”I think there’s been an avalanche. Can’t see much except masses of snow up to the first floor, I think….. Some people emerging but really too dark…. But I think best to get dressed perhaps in ski gear as I think it could get cold. Let’s see if we can help……”

They quickly discovered there was no electricity so they dressed as best they could and then made their way gingerly down the stairs in – along with other guests – to the lower floors to find the hotel mostly safe – although the force of the avalanche had stoved in some windows and doors to let icy snow in. Herr Altmeier was surveying the scene using a lantern with some live-in staff, including the maid Laura had met.

“Can we helpl?” Pete asked.

“Nein…. Danke…. We have to wait to be dug out but it could be a while. The emergency services will be busy soon lower down the village. The smaller dwellings will suffer most. Let us have some coffee whilst we wait. I think the butane cookers still work. We cannot go out at this moment.”

After a while drinking coffee, making small talk and warming themselves round a fire they managed to light, Laura asked,

“Herr Altmeier….. Tell me honestly about the snowglobe.”

Altmeier regarded her with horror.

“Please, tell me…. Or you,” she glanced at the maid. “There’s something about it…..”

After a silence he looked at the maid and when she nodded, he began the story.

“Many years ago this hotel was an inn for the locals and the odd rare traveller. Up here I don’t suppose they got many of those before ski-ing took off. In the seventeenth century, the inn was owned by the Schwarzer family – yes the name has significance – as they all were reputed to be of the devil’s kind. They were known as sorcerers, as well as innkeepers, but one – Hugo Schwarzer – was reputed to make objects that could foretell the future, although they were almost all lost in the twentieth century.”

“Almost all…..?” Laura cut in, perhaps sensing where the conversation was going.

“Ja, there was a snowglobe that could predict the near future. It has predicted several disasters to befall the village – rock falls, harvest failures and avalanches….. But never ever good things. We have tried to put it away but somehow it could not leave the site of the inn. We have given it away several times but it has always managed to return.”

“So what is the strange writing on the brass plate on the back?” Pete asked.

“No-one knows,” Altmeier replied. “We believe it is probably some cursed magicians’ script.”

“Right, that’s it. Enough…..” Pete announced determinedly and marched upstairs taking an ice-pick from the hall with him.

Once in the room, he seized the globe, opened the window and attacked it with the pick. The glass covering was thick but as soon as he began his assault the globe started to whirl with a dark malignant presence, but Pete kept up the assault until the glass cracked and finally broke. With that a black apparition with evil yellow eyes mushroomed in front of Pete until Pete drove the icepick into the shadowy figure which gave out a bone-chilling, ear-piercing shriek then vanished into the cold crisp air of the valley.

“What was that terrible shriek? It frightened the life out of us,” Laura asked when Pete returned downstairs.

“The ghost of Hugo Schwarzer going to meet his doom,” Pete replied. “Herr Altmeier, a large brandy please.”

A Tale of Forgiveness

Ed and Sarah sat in the fading Sunday afternoon sunshine in the drawing room at Budleigh Park playing cards with Fred and Rosie, their estate manager and his wife, when they heard the doorbell ring in the distance. After a few minutes Harris the butler appeared and announced that there were two gentlemen, apparently from the Ministry of Defence, who wished to talk to Captain Edward.

“Well, if they’re from the Government, I suppose needs must but it’s a damned odd time to call. Have they any papers.”

Harris nodded, “Yes, sir. First thing that crossed my mind. Everything looks in order but you might wish to check.”

“Very well. Show them in.” Ed replied, then nodding to the others. “Do excuse this but I’d better see what these chaps are about.”

The visitors were shown in, dressed in three piece suits with hats and overcoats against the winter chill.

“My name’s Carruthers, Colonel John Carruthers” the obviously senior of the two announced, “and this is Mr. Rutherford. We’re from the Ministry of Defence…..”

Then, looking around the room, Carruthers continued, “And who….?”

“Oh, this Fred and Rosie Lowe. Fred is my estate manager – has been for a couple of years.”

“I think we’d rather continue this discussion in private, if you don’t mind,” Carruthers replied. “No offence, but we have some personal questions to ask.” He shot a glance at the Lowes.

“Certainly, we’ll leave,” said Fred getting up rather stiffly and looking uneasy. “Come, my dear.”

After they’d left the room and Harris had withdrawn, Carruthers plainly explained the purpose of his visit. The Ministry was concerned about potential German spies posing as alien immigrants and posing a threat to to the UK. They therefore needed to check…….

“On Fred and Rosie,” Ed cut in. “You think they may be German spies?”

“Well, we have to check, Major Jennings. I’m sure you understand. Two people of German origin, so we understand, living under your roof….” Rutherford asked.

“Not under our roof, they have a cottage on the Estate,” Sarah said indignantly.

“Yes, but you see what we mean,” Rutherford countered.

“Fred and Rosie are no threat if that’s what you’re thinking. The story is complicated in one sense, but simple in others,” Ed replied. “Forgive me, I’ll get some tea and then I’m going to tell you two a story. It may take a while but you need to hear it.”

The tea was duly delivered and Ed began his story.

*************

I am the second son of the Jennings family so, as my late elder brother was to inherit the bulk of the Estate, I was sent to Sandhurst after school – that being the accepted thing – and thence to to the Army to be commissioned in the Devon Light Infantry. That was 1914 and pretty soon we were involved in the War. I served for a time in Mesopotamia against the Ottomans and at Gallipoli before transferring with a battalion of our men to the Western Front in 1917 – bit late for the real show on the Somme – but pretty damn soon we were well and truly stuck into the battles around Ypres.

Anyhow, come November 1917 my troop were in a forward position against the Germans and we were given notice of an attack planned the next morning at first light – not too early given the date and the light – but I will say the strategic planning was madness. But you follow orders – or at least, I used to then. We went over the top as ordered and we quickly got involved in a complete debacle as we’d totally underestimated the German defences. Utter shambles, if you ask me. We got involved in a firefight in No Man’s Land and my men got scattered. About 3.30 pm, I guess, I ended up with my men all over the place if they were still alive, the light fading and no help. I got to a crater for shelter hoping I could make it out at first light or maybe during the night if there were flares.

Then, a short while later, I heard a scrabbling and in the half-light a figure dropped into the hole dragging what looked to be a casualty. I realised straight away the one was a German officer so I cocked my revolver. The German must have heard the click because he said, in pretty good English,

“Mein Herr, please put your gun away because, first, I have one too and we will just end up killing each other which will be pointless and, second, I have here one of your Tommies. He’s badly injured but I thought I should try to help him – he may well die in here but he would certainly die left out there.”

I swallowed hard and put my revolver away. For a minute or so we just sat there in the dwindling light. Then I asked if I could look at the wounded soldier. He was a Corporal and clearly was in very bad shape with shrapnel wounds to his body and part of his face torn away but I managed to make out Tomkins, one of my men. When I addressed him he groaned painfully, gasped, then asked me to tell his family he’d tried to be a good soldier and then whispered,

“And thank the German. Don’t think I’ll make it but he tried. But not what I thought Germans were like.”

The German and I kept Tomkins supplied with sips of water and tried makeshift bandages for his wounds, though he was bleeding badly. To be quite honest, the German was much better at first aid than me and did his best to try and patch Tomkins up. Tomkins died an hour later. In the meantime, I thanked the German for his kindness.

“Why not? It’s the least I could do. You will think of me as strange but I think this War pointless. I was never convinced – but you obey orders. Why get involved because of some stupid argument in the Balkans? Now I see the slaughter and it sickens me….. By the way, I am Loewe, Friedrich von Loewe, Kapitan in the First Pomeranian Infantry Regiment.”

“Captain Edward Jennings, 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment.”

Loewe had a cigarette case and lighter and offered me one – he explained that, until now, he hadn’t time to sit and reflect so we sat and smoked and talked. Loewe and his men had been ordered to counter the British advance and had gone over the top in the early afternoon when the British attack seemed to be faltering but had been dragged into a fierce firefight with a group of British soldiers, which had obviously been my men, and he commended us British for our spirit. The situation had degenerated – to which I readily testified – into chaos such that he and a group of his men had been separated from the rest of his troop. I replied that it was a similar story to mine and so, here we were, sharing a shell hole and smoking a cigarette in the middle of No Man’s Land.

We smoked some more and I asked about Loewe’s upbringing, as his English was so good. He explained he came from a family of prosperous Prussian Junkers who owned large estates in Pomerania to the east of Berlin. Like me his elder brother, Ernst, was to take over the running of the Estate when their father stepped back – he mentioned casually that their father had served as a General in the Prussian army in the 1870 war against France and was what we would called “a big cheese” in their part of the world.

So whilst Ernst had gone off after military service to learn about estate management, he, Friedrich had gone to Potsdam to become an officer in the Prussian Army. But he had been allowed as part of his education to spend time in Lancashire working for his aunt’s brother who owned a cotton mill, hence his good English.

“I think it is good to learn about other cultures and a different language. It broadens the mind and makes you question certain things you take for granted. I think every educated person should travel. And it is enjoyable….” his voice trailed off, “I met a delightful English girl and that’s when my father ordered me home. Pity, but perhaps my father and brother should have travelled; it would have done them so much good.”

Well, I explained that I’d never travelled in the proper sense until the War, though my father had visited South Africa twice when younger. We had enjoyed family holidays in the South of France staying mainly around Nice, although we had ventured off to Avignon and into the hinterland of Provence.

“Aah, so you must have learned some French?” Friedrich asked.

‘Not so much. Learnt a bit at school and on holiday but it’s not much use in the British Army or in the Middle East. It’s the top brass that converse mainly with the French over here.’

“Ja, well perhaps I should have joined the Imperial Navy then I might have served in Tsingtao and seen some of the East. I have this urge to travel but the families of Junckers serve in the Imperial Army, particularly those from our part of Pomerania or as I prefer to say Brandenburg, so here I am, here we are. So much I would like to have done. So many dreams….”

‘Well, what do you suggest we do? I asked.’

“I think we have to wait until morning and see who comes out looking. If we have a choice, I am happy to be picked up by a British detachment as I think you will treat me well and perhaps you will say a good word for me. If a German regiment, you may not be treated as well, depending….. If you run into some Bavarians then they will likely treat you better than if they are Prussians.”

‘I sense you are not happy with your situation,’ I questioned Friedrich.

“No, in truth, I am not. My eyes were opened from the time I spent in Britain. I would hope we meet British troops tomorrow.”

Well, Friedrich had his wish granted. After a few hours sleep we looked over the top of the crater at first light and saw some British troops approaching. We signalled discreetly and they saw us.

“Go easy on my friend here,” I commanded. “I think he’s actually a good fellow and, believe it or not, as sick of all this as we are. He could have shot me last night but didn’t and he tried to save Baxter there. He might be German but we’re all human beings. And can we get poor Baxter to a safe place of burial? By the way one of his last words was to ask me to thank Friedrich here for trying to rescue him.”

The troops nodded and we moved off quickly to the Allied trenches. Once there, I repeated my request that Friedrich be treated well and gave him a piece of paper with my name and address and bid him good luck.

I didn’t hear from Friedrich for a couple of years and then I received a letter – must have been about 1921 – telling me about his time as a prisoner of war and his subsequent removal back to Germany and the family estates. He had had a quarrel with his father when he had decided to leave the Army but had been given a position looking after some family farms in Brandenburg some distance away from the main estates but nominally under the control of Ernst. I replied cordially telling him of my impending marriage to Sarah, the not unexpected death of my father and totally unexpected death of my elder brother. I invited Friedrich to visit Budleigh House the following autumn after my marriage but I received no reply until just before Christmas 1922 when I received a very courteous apology from Friedrich explaining there had been some upheaval in his family but that he hoped he could visit the following year.

Over the following few years, we corresponded quite regularly – I reporting on the birth of my eldest son, James – Friedrich on his seemingly mundane life in Brandenburg, but interspersed with strong hints that all was not well at home. A failed betrothal to a young Prussian lady seemed to be at the root of the problem. Eventually, he wrote in 1926 to say that he had taken a position of some responsibility in the Federal Tax Office in Hamburg, saying that he found it more liberating to be away from the family in Pomerania. Then in 1928 Friedrich asked if he could visit for a few weeks with his new wife Rosa to which we readily agreed and in late August they arrived by carriage from Sidmouth station.

We greeted each other warmly although I had not seen Friedrich for twelve years and, although he looked older and somewhat worn, he seemed ecstatically happy with his new wife Rosa. Rosa herself was very friendly and attractive, somewhat younger than Friedrich, with dark hair and brown eyes and a slightly heavy accent. A day or so later, Friedrich confided in me over a cognac and cigar after dinner,

“Edward, I need to tell you a few things about the past few years – if you don’t mind….”

“I guessed as much as there seemed a number of things you were perhaps hiding in your letters,” I replied.

“I moved to Hamburg because I could no longer stand the way of life at home, even in Brandenburg, the formality, the deference to the army. The attempt to marry me to the daughter of a well-to-do Prussian family was a farce. I realised my views had become far too liberal. So then I moved to Hamburg to work and I met Rosa……” Friedrich hesitated. “I don’t know how to say this…..”

“She’s a Jew,” I said.

“Yes….. how do you know?

“Her looks – though I hand it to you she’s very beautiful and well-educated – the fact you’ve been defensive in your letters to me, what I read about Germany. But she’s a lovely lady and you two are obviously very much in love. I commend you on your choice of bride.”

Friedrich had blushed and nodded in appreciation.

“Edward, I meant to ask you, but if it ever came to it – and I think it will – could Rosa and I come here. There are growing clouds in Germany especially for Jews.” He looked beseechingly at me.

“Of course,” I replied. “Even if I can’t help with a job, I’ll ask around. Most of my friends and acquaintances are pretty tolerant – if they weren’t they wouldn’t be my friends for long….”

When Friedrich and Rosa left a few days’ later, Sarah and I felt sorry for them. There seemed real regret, particularly, in Friedrich’s eyes that he was leaving to go back to Germany. He wrote thanking us profusely but it was clear he wasn’t comfortable. Our correspondence continued until 1931 when, out of the blue, we received a telegram from Germany – well, I say “we”, but I was out at Exeter market so Sarah took the telegram and relayed the contents to me as soon as I got home.

“May we come to see you in England? Need to recover from illness. F & R”

Sensing a crisis building I replied straight away, I sent Harris straight off to the Post Office although it had gone five o’clock to send a reply, “Come at once. Telegram when when you land in UK.”

And so, three days later, Friedrich and Rosa arrived, the latter obviously pregnant, with one suitcase each. I asked them if that’s all they had to which Friedrich replied that’s all they had time for as they felt threatened on account of Rosa’s background. The door to their apartment had been daubed with red paint and insults and Friedrich and Rosa spat at in the street. They were terrified. They weren’t really ill, as such,although they looked worn and exhausted but they couldn’t say openly in a telegram what the problem was.

They stayed with us for several months until I found Friedrich a job with a local land agent where he did very well until I needed a manager for the estate here when Friedrich and Rosa moved into a cottage I own with their, by then, two children. I recommended they change their names a couple of years’ ago when, I hasten to add, they were naturalised as British citizens with backing from Sarah and me. And a first rate worker he is too.

“Let’s remember, Fred Lowe – let’s use his proper name now – could have killed me quite easily and he tried to rescue a British soldier” I addressed Rutherford and his colleague.

“I have utter confidence in Fred and his wife as loyal citizens. If it comes to it I know Fred would serve alongside me in any war and I would trust him implicitly. I think it’s entirely probable that many Germans do not share in their country’s policies, either past or present. I think we should careful before tarring everyone with the same brush. And I take it you or your colleagues are alert to Moseley’s little bunch. Do I need to say more?”

The two civil servants sat in their chairs silent before Carruthers stood up.

“I’m sorry we have disturbed you and I’m sorry for any distress. We were just following orders.”

“Like so many these days.” Ed replied.

Der Herbstmond

I am Fritz Backer and I am old now. I write this at my daughter’s house in Donau-Riess in Bavaria. I am 82 years old, a retired engineer, and I should be glad as it is 1976 and we have the Olympics here in Munich, our State capital, but my memories are only now sad. Until now, in the quiet of the lovely room my daughter, Maria, and her husband Franz, have made available to me following the death of my beloved Ada last year, I have been unable to write this.

I pray to God, for despite what I have experienced and witnessed, I still hope for forgiveness in the afterlife and to rejoin my beloved Ada. And no, I do not mean the horrendous sufferings we all so-called Germans experienced – along with millions of others – under the tyranny of that trumped-up backstreet  renegade from Austria. I say so-called Germans because my late father, and his father before him, were important advisers to the Bavarian court and to Princes Luitpold and Ludwig. I remember my father was always distrustful of the Prussian court and we always regarded ourselves as Bavarians, not “Germans”.

When I was 21 years old, and already courting Ada, quite the most beautiful girl in the world with her blonde hair, blue eyes and curvaceous figure, I was called up to serve in the Kaiser’s forces and, after initial training, I was sent to serve on the Western Front with the First Bavarian Infantry Regiment. After initial action in the southern sector opposite the French forces, in August 1916 we were sent to man the trenches near Thiepval where the Allied troops had launched a major offensive some months before and we were under pressure.

On 16th September – I remember it so vividly –  my platoon and several others were resting in a reserve trench as we’d been in action for a week previously when, at first light, the Allies launched a fierce attack and our commanders put us on notice to prepare to reinforce the front line. Sheltering in the trenches we could hear the sound of battle, feel the ground shake as artillery shells landed and exploded, smell the cordite, hear the cries of our commanders yelling orders. We also heard the intermittent scream of our soldiers and the Tommies as they were injured or worse and witnessed the procession through the reserve trenches of the wounded, their uniforms ripped and spattered with blood and bile mixing with the dark mud that stained all our uniforms in the trenches. The dead were left for another day when it would be quieter.

Around 2pm or just after, the battle quietened down and, after a while, the main bulk of the British had been forced to retreat although there was sporadic shooting, particularly from some craters halfway between our line and the British. Our commanders pondered whether to advance on the outlying British given the sky was beginning to darken in the west. So Major Reiss, one of our officers, was ordered to prepare two platoons to go forward and mop up opposition in the craters and to take prisoners – though we all knew Reiss would rather kill than be merciful.

I myself had sat in the trench drinking coffee with my colleagues but beginning to wonder at the futility of what we were fighting for. As I understood it, Germany had marched into this war all because of a squabble between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Now here we were in western France exhausted, bogged down in trenches and filthy mud fighting and killing in droves people with whom, as far as I could see, we had no quarrel with and who had no real quarrel with us. How I longed to go home to Bavaria to my Ada, my family and my apprenticeship as an engineer.

Just as we were preparing to go forward, we began to see a glow on the eastern horizon. Major Reiss had a glint in his eyes. I knew that look, having seen it many times before when the prospect of killing seemed imminent. Reiss was from an officer family, a Prussian from the east near Lubeck, therefore of a militaristic nature.

“I forgot,” he announced proudly, seeming to lick his lips, “tonight we have the Harvest Moon so it will be a bit lighter than usual and if we are careful and quiet about our business, we can harvest some Tommies, ja? Get ready and we will go Brit hunting across No Man’s Land. Fix your bayonets but cover them in mud to dull the shine. The Tommy blood will help us later as that won’t reflect the moon either.”

As the blood red moon arose in the east casting its soft baleful light across the deserted waste of No Man’s Land, we set off and we crawled through the mud and filth looking for bomb craters or shell holes. The first one was found by Major Reiss with three British in it, spent of ammunition and exhausted and rapidly despatched as they weren’t expecting our attack.

A bit later, we found a large crater with ten or so British in, most of whom were wounded and unable to defend themselves.

“Get in there and do your duty,” whispered Reiss. “Kill the enemy. Kill them now.”

Four of us scrambled into the crater to find the Tommies defenceless, weary and half-wounded.

My colleagues set about bayonetting two whilst I moved to another three who appeared to glance silently at me, realising their life was nearing its end. Whether their look was of fear or silent resignation I couldn’t tell in the half-light of  the crater but suddenly my sickness with the war returned. I realised I could not kill wounded and virtually defenceless men, whoever they were.

“Stille,” I hissed as I aimed my bayonet just to their sides, appearing to stab vigorously, “stay Stille….”

The British understood me and lay still, feigning death. We climbed out of the trench. Reiss was waiting in the light of the moon.

“Well done. Let’s see if we can find more good hunting.” He moved stealthily off and I followed until we reached another crater with three more badly wounded British hiding.

“Stay quiet,” Reiss commanded the British. “We mean to take you prisoner. Reiss, you come with me. The others look around for more.”

He climbed down into the crater with me following, knowing he was lying about his intentions. As I followed Reiss, my mind was made up. Before he could move for the first Tommy, I thrust my bayonet in his back and watched calmly as Reiss turned, a look of incredulity on his face in the light of the moon.

“So the reaper comes to get you, you bastard,” I spat at him under my breath and stabbed him once more through the heart as he collapsed with a last gurgle of breath from his lungs.

The Tommies looked on in seeming terror and amazement.

“Lie down, like dead. Go for help later.” I urged them in my broken English. They seemed to understand, nodded silently and lay down in the mud pretending to be dead. I climbed out of the hole and made out two colleagues about fifty metres away and scuttled over to join them.

“Where’s Reiss?” one asked.

“Dead,” I replied. “We killed several Tommies then found three more in a hole over there.” I gestured towards the British line. “We went to finish them but one managed to stick his bayonet in Reiss first before I finished him.”

I was dreading my comrades going back to look for Reiss’ body and perhaps wondering why there was a stab mark in Reiss’ back but, just then, the British sent up some flares perhaps heralding a search party. Besides the moon was climbing higher as the evening wore on replacing the natural soft illumination with a harsher colder light.

“Time to get back,” Sergeant Muller snapped. “We’ve done our bit.”

Later, over coffee and rations, my colleagues asked me how the debrief with the senior officers about Reiss’ death had gone.

“OK, “ I explained. “The officers listened to my report but no-one was too concerned about Reiss. One of them merely commented that these things happen in war. They seemed pleased with our efforts.”

We fell silent eating our food until Muller, who was listening, broke the silence.

“You know, none of the officers liked Reiss as they thought he was an utter bastard. Nobody likes going hunting the other’s wounded. To me, it’s despicable. If the Tommies came looking for their casualties I wouldn’t shoot at them….. It’s a shit war if you ask me,” he paused. “In fact, if I’d been there with Reiss, I might just have finished him myself.”  

Deadly Sins

Peter Blake took his place in the first class carriage sweating and breathing heavily. He’d had to hurry for the train – indeed he’d nearly missed it – and he was cross. He’d told the local surgery’s receptionist in no uncertain terms that he had to catch the train in order to make an important appointment in London but the surgery had insisted on his regular follow-up with the Practice Nurse – a double appointment which, apparently, were difficult to fit in though Peter couldn’t understand the logic. Then, as usual, she was running late. Really, the NHS needed sorting out. Peter himself really couldn’t see why he should not have had a follow-up with that excellent doctor, or if needs be, a nurse at the Nuffield. After all, as he often self-righteously told his friends and business contacts, he paid enough for private medical cover, as well as large amounts of tax part of which went to feed the NHS. But then, he recalled, it was his expensive medical checks – albeit prompted by his wife – that had started all this fuss.

“Your weight and your blood pressure are still far too high,” the nurse had said to him. “Have you been following the exercise and diet plan we gave you?”

“With difficulty,” Peter had replied tetchily. “Do I have to keep reminding you and your colleagues that I am a busy man with a number of very important business positions for which I get paid a lot of money and the shareholders expect to see results – it’s called accountability. I don’t have that much time, to be honest. Being chairman of two listed companies and a non-executive of two more is very demanding, but I don’t suppose you here in the surgery would understand. I work long days, you know and I have functions and dinners to go to of an evening. I’m sure a bit of high blood pressure and extra weight are common to a lot of people in my position.”

“Well, the doctors and the nurses here are usually in work by 8am and we don’t finish until gone 7pm or later. I think we understand long hours. We have just as much paperwork, you know.” The nurse looked rather scornful. “Anyway, the next time you come in we’ll need to do blood test – check your liver function. But I don’t know what Dr. Jenkins will make of these results; he may call you back in earlier. We don’t actually do all this just for the good of own health.”

Peter had sighed and hurried off to the station.

The train departed and Peter felt slight feint and the intermittent chest pain he’d noticed some months ago hsad returned. He wished the staff would hurry up with the at-seat service so he could have a glass of water and coffee. He picked up his papers but found it difficult to concentrate on the work for the day ahead what with the doctor and his staff nagging him. Fortunately, he hadn’t told Pat the full story of his tests for fear of being nagged at home to boot. Something else for her to add to the list. She’d probably urge him to retire or ease up on his commitments, change his diet and spend more time with his family. But, for heaven’s sake, she didn’t complain about the lifestyle, the London flat – not that she often came to London – or the villa in Portugal, not that he found as much time as he would like to visit Quinta do Lago and it was sometimes difficult judging when those acquaintances with whom he liked to network over rounds of  golf or having supper at one of the more elegant restaurants would be there. That said, July and August would soon be here and no respectable company held AGMs or Board meetings then.

Then he remembered, he really must get a fresh supply of business cards before their next visit to Portugal. He’d speak to Carole about it on Friday when he went in to see the Chief Executive at Tusker plc. Charles Gladwyn ….  Inexperienced, and perhaps a tad too independent to Peter’s way of thinking, but making his way as a CEO, he mused. But with the right coaching and guidance he could do well, which the other non-executive directors agreed with – indeed they had asked Jim Collins to spend time with Charles, although Peter had indicated that as he lived reasonably locally he could more easily have helped. Still, he rationalised matters, probably better that someone other than the Chairman coach Charles. That said Peter found Charles’ vegetarian diet and abstemiousness a bit odd, even unhelpful, especially at formal business dinners. But Carole, his secretary, was so efficient, helpful and obliging as she fully understood Peter’s important role in the company and the business world in general.

He struggled as he sipped his coffee and downed a bottle of mineral water. He realised his trouser belt was too tight and he’d forgotten to loosen it to its usual position after his appointment with the nurse. Always dress to impress he’d been taught by his parents and look the part,  although secretly he did worry about his increasing waistline and his neckline too. He ordered another two coffees and mineral waters and it was only when he went to the toilet and was washing his hands not long before arriving at Paddington that he looked in the mirror. He saw himself looking flabby and rather grey which surprised him given how hot and flushed he’d felt earlier.

The queue for taxis was quite lengthy so, glancing anxiously at his watch, Peter decided reluctantly he’d have to go on the Tube, no doubt hot and sweaty. He then realised, since it was so long since he’d caught the Tube, he’d have to cross over to new platforms on the east side. He hurried as best he could, puffing away and beginning to feel hot again, with his briefcase and trusty little Burberry case dutifully following on its wheels. After half an hour sandwiched on the Tube he finally made it to Moorgate and the Conference Centre feeling hot and bothered and trying not to drip sweat onto his Armani tie.

“Hello, and you are….?” the receptionist enquired, wondering who Peter was as most of the guests for the event would be arriving by taxi.

“Peter Blake, one of the hosts of the Corporate Governance event,” Peter gasped, trying to sound important whilst mopping his brow. “I’m a bit later than I’d hoped, but prior appointments and travel issues – busy start to the day.”

“Oh, Mr. Blake, of course,” crooned the receptionist. “I am so sorry…. Please let us take your luggage. Here’s your badge and you should be in time for a coffee before the event starts.” She ushered Peter into a side room.

“Peter, hello…. How are you? You look hot and bothered.” Sir Michael Freer greeted him.

Now Sir Michael was an important contact – chair of an FT100 – and could open lucrative doors so Peter was suitably unctuous in his reply explaining his delay due to the trains. Best not to mention the surgery appointment, he thought. Michael asked after Peter’s family and well being – all fine, Peter assured him – and then complimented him on Tusker’s recent half-year results which prompted a brief response to the effect the new CEO was settling in well with guidance. In return, Peter asked the usual questions as to how the family and business were receiving stock answers in reply.

“Anyway,” Michael confided, “we must go in soon but I need to talk to you about Parsifal plc…. Perhaps over dinner if you’re free?”

“Of course,” Peter replied. Parsifal – an FT100 – what an opportunity to enhance his earnings and profile.

Peter thought the seminar went well except for feeling uncomfortable and quite hot despite the air conditioning. He felt slightly nervous when one young delegate from an investment company asked what Peter felt was an unnecessary question of the panel about non-executive directors’ remuneration. Well, the recent increase in his fee from Trodos was quite deserved. Surely a fee of £120,000 pa for what Peter calculated was nearly a day and a half per week was about right considering the responsibility he shouldered for chairing the Nominations Committee, although it seems the Employee Council at Trodos had questioned it after the Annual Report had been published last week. Did any of the employees have any idea how much work and effort was involved in finding suitable candidates to be directors of public companies? And on top of that the general work of being a non-executive director. Probably more like two days a week in total. And how much did this spotty young man earn as an investment manager, Peter wondered.

The seminar wound up with drinks and canapes, though Peter tried to be restrained with the wine as he was looking forward to dinner with Sir Michael and the discussion about Parsifal as the chance to become a non-executive at a company like that would be a real feather in his cap. Maybe lead to a Chair at an FT100 – now that would be the pinnacle. Of course, he’d have to give up one or two of directorships at Tailors, Trodos, Tusker or Marlike but they were only smaller companies, FT250 or, in the case of Marlike, FT350. Yes, the latter would probably have to go.

In the meantime, filing his dreams in the back of his mind, he schmoozed the guests, chatted amiably and felt flattered if one or two knew about Trodos’ increase in profit last year, though Peter preferred to talk about the increase in earnings per share which had sent the share price surging. Peter had worked out that was an increase in value of £80,000 in his shareholding. He idly wondered if he should sell some to fund the planned extension to the villa in Portugal. That should keep Pat happy as he knew she fretted about the time he spent away in London, although she would never join him.

“Sir Ian… and Mr Blake. How nice to see you both again,” the maitre d’h at “Torro” intoned unctuously, showing them to Sir Ian’s favoured table in the corner, one that Peter had tried to reserve a number of times, but without success. “An aperitif for you perhaps…..”

Sir Ian ordered a mineral water. Peter thought about a sherry then decided to follow Sir Ian’s example. The menus were produced, dinner ordered, a bottle of good claret selected and they got down to business.

“Peter…. Parsifal – of which, of course, you know I am the Chairman are looking for an additional NED. In particular we are looking for someone with good all-round business skills and also the ability to step up in due course to lead our Nomination Committee. Given your experience in this area we wondered if you could suggest some candidates. In view of the general board director responsibilities, we would consider paying a fee of around £300,000 pa plus expenses in view of the fact that the right candidate might have to give up some existing commitments. The role at Parsifal would require quite a bit of commitment plus there would probably be three or four trips overseas in view of the international nature of our business.”

The two of them discussed some potential candidates at length, although Peter began to think that Parsifal were aiming too low. Why with his experience he surely would be a good fit for the role? So, as the dessert and coffee arrived, Peter suggested he himself might be a candidate with his experience.

“Peter,” Sir Michael looked at him. “It’s very flattering of you to put yourself forward. And, of course, I greatly respect your achievements to date. But I think we need someone with a little bit more experience as I would think you need more time with your smaller companies.” Peter didn’t like the slight emphasis on the smaller …….To be honest, I would suggest a few more years in your current roles and continue to network and pick up valuable knowledge and experience…..”

“Also,” Sir Michael continued, “if I may say so – and please don’t be offended – you don’t look that well. Have you had a medical recently? I find regular check-ups so useful.”

“Er yes, quite recently, as a matter of fact,” Peter spluttered into his dessert. “I’m actually following a diet plan as I do need to lose a bit of weight.”

Sir Ian looked at him slightly askance and Peter realised that his companion had eschewed dessert. No wonder he looked so thin and angular.

Peter returned to his flat in the Barbican feeling quite humiliated. In addition he now had a constant pain in his chest. He rang Pat for a perfunctory conversation about his day although she seemed more interested in his medical appointment rather than the networking which was, of course, far more important. Feeling rather ill and tired he retired to bed with a couple of ibruprofen, the chest pain getting worse. About 2am he felt so uncomfortable he rang for an ambulance.

WPC Yvonne Arnold was very experienced and professional. She rang the doorbell at The Old Manor and patiently waited until a rather attractive lady with greying hair answered.

“Yes?” Pat answered. “Can I help you?”

“Mrs Blake….. Patricia Blake?” Yvonne asked. Then producing her warrant card, she continued, “I’m WPC Arnold from Gloucestershire Police. You may call me Yvonne. May I come in?”

Pat realised immediately something was wrong.

“It’s Peter, isn’t it? What’s happened?” she enquired.

Yvonne steadied herself as this wasn’t easy. Peter had rung for an ambulance from his London flat but when the medics had arrived there was no answer. The police had been called and the door broken down. Peter was, sadly, dead of a heart attack – the medics were very clear on the cause of death, although there’d need to be a formal autopsy, of course. Yvonne paused…. Pat offered tea which was accepted….. Then Pat went into the kitchen and burst into tears. She returned with the tea on a tray, her eyes red.

“I’m sorry,” Yvonne said quietly. “There’s no easy way to deliver this news. Would you like some more support? That can be arranged.”

Pat sniffed. “No thank you. I’ll manage. To be honest, over the last fifteen years, Peter had become so embroiled in his work and, I’m sorry to say, so obsessed with his position, or as I increasingly saw it his own self-image, so totally self-absorbed in the business world, that he became distant. Totally different from the young happy student I met at university; totally different from the young husband I had in my early twenties and thirties. Obsessed with money and status – he’d become so self-important – expected local people to know who he was and treat him like minor royalty.”

“And he put on large amounts of weight with all the entertaining – I know the local doctors were concerned although he wouldn’t discuss it or change his behaviour or take exercise. He never stopped to think about how I felt and I ended up not caring about the money or status. I just wanted the handsome young Peter back or just a normal Peter with whom I could share a conversation, a nice meal, real intimacy. I  grew to hate business dinners and the like so I stopped going. I hated the ridiculous tittle-tattle with the other wives or partners. I’ve been a business widow for years. Now I am a widow.”

After a pause, Pat blew her nose, wiped her eyes, straightened her back and confided in Yvonne,

“To be totally honest, I had made up my mind to leave Peter. But at least he’s saved me the both and the expense – which would have irked Peter greatly as much as the loss of standing. I know you’ll think me cruel and heartless but I’ve just been so fed up these past years.”

Setember 2016 CTWG Story

This is the first draft of the last chapter of the novella I thought might one day spring out of my very first story for the Group. I wrote it at the beginning of the month and I’m not sure I like it now as I’m thinking of wrenching the whole longer story around – been mulling the story over. But here goes…..

A Funeral

It was a grey autumn day with violent blustery rain showers, matching Marion’s mood. People said funerals were supposed to be a celebration and, yes, she wanted to celebrate Mike’s life – or, selfishly, those bits of it she’d spent with him – but she felt overwhelming sadness and loss at his departure. Out in the churchyard she listened to the mournful toll of the bells and tried not to shed a tear.

She had arrived at the Church in Leckhampton in good time but hung back, put off by the funeral directors with their cards at the door, reluctant to give her name or to appear too publicly. She lurked in the background noticing the back door through the church tower was open. Then when the undertakers arrived with the coffin and family, she darted through the tower door, apologising to a churchwarden.

“Sorry, I’m a bit late. Please excuse me, I don’t want to disrupt the funeral procession.”

The churchwarden nodded courteously and showed her to a seat at the back and procured her an Order of Service.

As the procession passed, the Vicar intoning the customary prayers, Marion held back the tears and looked at Ginnie, who she’d never seen in the flesh before, and the two boys, standing strong with their wives. And there was Dave, ever loyal but looking older, with his wife following dutifully in the procession. But most of all she gazed at the coffin and thought of Mike, now decomposing flesh and bone, but once vigorous and, at the same time, gentle and considerate. She thought of how, less than six months ago they’d been making love – passionate yet utterly tender – and now he was suddenly gone. He’d been so attentive to her needs, whether as a young student or later on as an older man.

Mike’s brother Jim gave an address praising his brother’s dedication to the medical profession and his work in retirement as an adviser to GP practices around the Midlands as well as increasing “devotion” – as Jim put it rather sarcastically, Marion thought – to art. She detected a hint of Ginnie in the voice as she had never come to understand Mike’s love of drawing and painting – although Ginnie would probably never know that quite a bit of Mike’s activities had not involved architecture or art. But that said, Mike had really become quite an accomplished water colourist, as some of her own clients would readily testify.

At the end of the service, as the family filed out behind the coffin, Marion had her first real look at Ginnie’s face in the flesh – as opposed to the odd photograph Mike had shown her – and saw her face, undoubtedly pretty once, but seemingly grown harsh she thought and her dark hair flecked with grey. It fitted with what Mike had said about her.

Outside in the churchyard, the family and congregation gathered around the grave for the committal though Marion hung back observing from a distance. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, the vicar intoning the words of commendation and handfuls of earth being thrown in by the family, Marion felt a surge of emotion at the realisation Mike was now gone for ever, and tears welled up and her shoulders shook with sheer desolation and loneliness. She stood rooted until the mourners turned away when she too turned to go but not before she happened to catch the attention of Dave who recognized her. He whispered to Ginny who hesitated for a minute as if paralysed by shock. Then Marion felt the full burning gaze of someone searching for an answer to questions perhaps lurking in the back of their mind but now suddenly thrust to the foreground. Ginnie started to move towards her, but Marion turned swiftly and fled.

It was later, back at home, the mourners departed, that Ginnie remembered the pictures the family had unearthed in the past week. There in the old family album was a yellowing picture of Mike with his friends, including Dave, at Medical School and next to Mike was Marion the nurse she knew to have been his old girlfriend; and then, from eighteen months ago, the press cutting from the Shropshire Chronicle of Mike with two of his watercolours and his upmarket client, easily recognisable as the mysterious woman in the churchyard. And as she pondered numbly, she finally began to understand.