The Matter of Britain
- The Timeline
- Background Notes
- British Fascist Movements
- Special Agent Smedley
- Sample Chapters
The first two chapters of
THE MATTER OF BRITAIN
by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman
He didn't realise his boot had burst until muddy water swamped his tin foot, soaking the sock pulled tight around his stump. He occasionally experienced the symptom doctors called phantom pain, but there was no such thing as phantom damp. He cursed softly: if this wasn't dealt with, the shoe-shaped prosthesis would chafe the soaked woollen sock against his stump and rub open weeping sores.
Though most of his left foot was gone, sheared off in the glider accident seven years ago, three two-inch lengths of meat-clad bone stuck out from his heel like clumsy webbed fingers. Often, the useless spikes literally tripped him up, a reminder that Doktor Paul Oskar Fischer of Berlin was merely an adult disguise adopted by Hitlerjunge Paul Fischer of Bremen.
Hitlerjunge Fischer had imagined himself soaring through the skies in a fighter, battling the enemies of the Reich, but, thanks to the clumsiness of that cretin Fatty Schrader, Doktor Fischer was reduced to poring through the dirt.
Nevertheless, his downfall was provident. Fatty Schrader was merely the instrument of Clio (muse of history, and presumably of archaeology, too). He was here, under the earth in Alder Mump, because it was where he was meant to be.
The Reich needed moles as well as eagles. Or so he liked to think.
Squirming around in the tunnel he had been digging, on and off, for a couple of months, he directed the beam of his Siemens electric torch back at his legs. It was an awkward physical manoeuvre.
The tunnel was 70cm across, a metre high and three times the length of a tall man lying flat, and it ran downwards at a 15 degree angle from the excavated Neolithic chamber in the side of the hill. Rivulets trickled down the earth walls, forming a puddle by his feet. He touched his chest with bare fingers and realised he'd been lying in mud. His oilskin overalls had kept him dry.
No, not mud. Clay.
Clay so high up? That was odd. He would still be a metre, perhaps two, about the level of the surrounding land.
A steady stream of rainwater poured into the Mump. He'd noticed a ploughed run-off carved in a zig-zag down the side of the pudding-bowl-shaped hill, but only now realised what Mrs Starkey - whose sheep grazed the Mump - must have known all along. With the first heavy rain of autumn, his tunnel, bored towards the heart of the artificial hill, replaced the furrow as a drainage device. Hannah Starkey probably hoped the trespassing German would drown. There was little danger of that, but being laid up with an infected stump would be more of a humiliation.
Everyone thought he must be a lunatic, wanting to dig on the Somerset Levels. The only person who shared his enthusiasm was the man whose permission he'd had to get; SS Standartenführer Professor Doktor Franz Six. Though primarily responsible for the security of the occupation forces, he was an academic too. Like SS Reichsführer Heirich Himmler, his ultimate boss, Dr Six was fascinated by what they called 'Pagan history'.
Dr Six had listened attentively to his reasons for wanting to delve in such soggy parts, issued all necessary permissions (on SS notepaper) and asked for regular reports on his findings. He even offered labourers to help with examination of Alder Mump. Paul politely turned the offer down. 'This is unlikely,' he said, 'to yield anything along the lines of Schliemann's discovery of Troy.' The doktor laughed and invited Paul to take coffee with him.
The memory of the interview in Dr Six's London office remained vivid. Coffee was accompanied by the clatter of a firing-squad executing men and women in the courtyard below. Dr Six irritably closed the window on the racket as if distracted by children playing Indians, and returned to his point that archaeology should be used to prove certain theories on the origins of the Nordic races. It was at that moment Paul realised how terrifying the circles he had sought entrance to could be.
'Does this upset you, Doktor Fischer?' Dr Six asked, smiling, eager. He noticed Paul flinch with each crack! of gunfire. 'It should upset you. These measures are despicable, brutish, tragic necessities. They say we Germans are soldiers so our sons might be poets. I am an executioner so you may be an archaeologist. This you understand, yes?'
If Mrs Starkey, and the rest of the village, disapproved of Paul's violation of their historic pimple, then they'd be aghast at the combination of strip-mining and rape the SS could inflict on the site if they thought there was anything of real interest -- material or intellectual -- buried here.
Getting into the tunnel was far easier than getting out. Fifteen degrees was a gentle slope on the surface, even for someone with his slight limp. Here, underground, it was steep enough to put weight behind him when he was humping downwards head-first. He had the trick of inching along, using his fingers, elbows, chest, hips and knees like the undulating belly-scales of a python. But with no way of turning around to crawl upwards, it was a trial and a torment to squirm backwards, using his good foot as a climber's axe, mindful that his arse might knock out a shoring-pole and bring down the roof.
With luck, his instincts would be correct and a little more tunnelling would bring him to a burial-chamber. If he was really fortunate, this would be big enough to stand up in and filled with fabulous grave-goods. More likely, it would contain little or nothing of interest, and would have caved in thousands of years ago.
He wished he could trust Margery or Albie to be careful enough of potential finds to let them do some of the digging. Even in the most confined spaces, the children were as agile and able as squirrels. But they were also clumsy, and prone to fits of enthusiasm or boredom that were a peril to proper archaeology. They were eager to help, as much for something to do as the dubious protection earned by associating with him, but he could only really rely on them for carrying messages or disposing of dirt.
There was an audible gush. Some natural dam gave way and what felt like a bucketful of water ran down the tunnel, swamping more than his tin foot. A torrent must be pouring down. Maybe Mrs Starkey was a Wiccan survival, leading the villagers in a rain dance to invoke the wrath of the gods on the invader. He chuckled at the thought: a witch culture in Somerset would invent rituals to keep away rain rather than call it down.
The dirt was soft enough to absorb most of the water, but puddles were gathering. If this kept up, the Mump would be a sodden pudding plumped down in a swamp.
Mump Field was low-lying; almost everywhere around here lay lower than the surface of the sea which was only a few miles away. The only raised features in the landscape were the Mump itself, Alder Hill, along the lower slopes of which most of the village houses were built, and the raised river-bank that marked the edge of Cottongrass Farm. The River Pollett, outlet for all the ditches that marked off all the fields in the vicinity, was high at the moment. Paul worried that he could hear its sluggish creep turning to a roaring torrent. It must be just the rain. Wet seeped through his pullover and trousers, soaking the fleece lining of his leather flying jacket, extending cold tendrils under his underwear. He would write a strong note to the proud German manufacturer.
Alder Mump was also known locally as Vivian's Teat or, to more polite folklorists, Lady Hill. The most impressive aspect of the hundred-foot bump was the chapel built in 1312 by Sir Thomas Fear, so that masses for his soul might be said for all eternity. Sir Thomas bequeathed a generous portion of his worldly holdings to the Church for this purpose, but the masses were discontinued when the Dissolution of the Monasteries turned the chapel into a source of free lead and building-stone for the local peasantry. Nowadays its only function, albeit an important one, was as a retreat of convenience for courting couples. Paul wondered if Sir Thomas was expelled from Heaven on the day the prayers stopped coming in.
During the English Civil War, the ruined chapel served as fallback position for a group of Royalist soldiers fleeing defeat at the Battle of Langzoy. The exhausted, cornered, wounded cavaliers were righteously massacred and stripped by the ancestors of villagers who still looked with surly, bovine disfavour upon outsiders. Only the chapel tower remained, which made the Mump look like a slightly off-centre miniature of the more impressive Glastonbury Tor, which was visible several miles away on days when it wasn't raining.
Paul looped the leather thong of his torch round his neck and let the beam play towards away from his eyes. The far end of the tunnel was a dark hole, impenetrable by the light though it was only two or three metres distant. He lay flat on his face and hooked his good foot into the earth, pushing hard with his hands. He backed up a yard or so before the dirt-floor became too muddy to get a purchase on. He put his hands beneath his shoulders and pushed the floor, careful not to lift his body up to the roof rather than ease himself backwards towards the tunnel mouth. He was in no real danger, but he wished to avoid the embarrassment of calling for help. He felt back with the toes of his good foot, feeling blindly for a hold. Using his good foot and tin foot, he pulled.
Alder Mump was centuries older than the chapel. The Somerset Archaeological Register identified it as Neolithic in origin. It had certainly been used for burial and ceremonial purposes later on, from the Iron Age to the Saxon period.
Over the centuries, the Mump had grown bigger. From its shadowy origins as a man-made island in prehistoric times, succeeding generations had recognised it as a special place. The bodies of Iron Age chieftains and the ashes of Saxon lords had been buried here, under renewed layers of rock, rubble and the peaty soil and clay of Somerset. Canon Greenwell, the Victorian authority on ancient burial places, had pronounced the Mump 'a fabulous enigma'.
Local legend said it was the burial place of the White Woman, or the White Priestess, or the White Princess -- always a female, in any event. Perhaps he would find her at the end of his tunnel. Not today though. Probably not even this year.
There had been a stone chamber at the foot of the Mump, a burial-place. Its original occupant was long gone: grave-robbers had fetched her (or him) away thousands of years ago, along with anything valuable. What they didn't get was probably filched by Sir Thomas's workmen when they laid the foundations for the chapel. As with every other pile of earth or patch of marsh in the West of England, the Mump had its King Arthur association.
It was also said King Alfred made a pilgrimage to Alder Mump before his complete conversion to Christianity and prayed for the return of the earlier, more legendary King. With the Danes advancing, this was one of many moments of history that might conceivably be classified 'the hour of England's Greatest need'. The story struck Paul as highly implausible: Arthur, mortal enemy of Alfred's Saxon forebears, wouldn't have felt like doing him any favours. Whether or not Arthur answered Alfred's prayers was not recorded, but Alfred -- 'a scholar and a Christian, the father of his people, the light of a benighted age' -- had indeed gone on to defeat the Danes and found the kingdom of England.
People round here cherished the memories both of Arthur and Alfred. In two thousand years' time, maybe another archaeologist would examine the Mump for remains of British civilisation from the period of the German conquest.
The more Paul looked at what little was known of Alfred -- an actual person, the only English king ever to earn the sobriquet 'the Great' -- the more interested he became. Most people were taken in by the magical glamour of Arthur. They were dazzled, like all boys who don't grow up, by swords and grails and the siege perilous, by Parsifal and Galahad and Tristan, the Round Table and rex quondam rexque futurus.
Paul himself was not immune to the craze. He might be succumbing, here in the dirt, to the seductions of history, the call of the genuine past, but he'd first turned to archaeology during those four months after the glider crack-up, when his father gave him a beautifully-illustrated edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Like many before him, his immediate reaction to the tales of King Arthur was that he wanted them to be real, and had set out to find the truths upon which Malory had built. He'd studied history in Berlin, then archaeology in Berlin and Copenhagen. Somewhere during this course of academic indulgence, made possible by Father's money and his destroyed foot (which exempted him from military service), he was side-tracked into the more mundane, but ultimately more profitable, business of investigating the stuff of history rather than legend.
He heard soft trickling all around. His face was wet. The blurry and greenish torchlight flickered, then gave up and faded, leaving him in utter darkness. Light-ghosts danced like water-boatmen on the surfaces of his eyes. The real danger was not from drowning, but collapse of the earthworks. The purpose of his tunnel was to work towards what might be in the centre, but also to analyse the different layers of materials which had been used to build up the Mump over the centuries, and to look at what remains there were. Perhaps in his enthusiasm to burrow deeper, he'd not paid enough attention to shoring up. He wasn't a miner, after all.
Clumps of mud sludged down the sides of the tunnel as he tried to get beyond his position. Mud oozed thick between his fingers as he pressed down. Like any mole, he was used to the plastering of dirt on his face and the taste of Somerset earth in his mouth.
Professor Posner, his great teacher at the Berlin Archaeological Institute, always told his students it was not enough not to be bothered by a little mess. A true archaeologist had to love dust and dirt, to breathe in the papery clouds raised by the opening of old books and swallow the soil displaced by a dig. But then Posner expected most who sat at his feet to work in drier and warmer climes of Egypt and the Middle East than the semi-swamp of Somerset.
The memory of Posner gave him a chill that was more than the cold. The old man was removed from his chair in 1937, reviled as un-German. Posner had refused his offer that the whole student body protest the dismissal, sadly suggesting Paul's fellows were not as unanimously opposed to the university's policy as he seemed to think.
Two months later, Paul had gone on to the University of Copenhagen to study for his doctorate. He told himself this was because the Danes knew more than anyone about northern European pre-history, about digging in peat and mud and rainwater. But the expertise of Professor Svengaard and Doctors Kielland and Van Helde hadn't been his sole reason for wanting to get out of Germany for a while.
Paul considered himself a National Socialist, but not a Nazi.
He squelched backwards on his elbows and knees, wriggling with something like desperation. Something stuck out of the wall of his tunnel and into his hip, like a footpad's dagger keeping him still while hands sought his wallet and watch. He was hooked like a fish, and twisting only made it worse. Wet earth got up his nose. He barked in frustration, then made himself calm. There was no point whining about it. He had a problem, and he was a man of intellect. If the last few years had taught Germans anything, it was that problems could be solved by the application of intellect, backed up by directed muscle-power and ruthless will-power.
Recognising the HJ priggishness of his thinking, Paul chuckled. If the glider had crashed on its other wing, Fatty Schrader would be down here in the tunnel while Slim Fischer flew a Stuka dive-bombing the Red hordes on the Russian front.
He relaxed and breathed in and out deeply. Panic was his enemy. He tried to reach backwards to find the obstacle, but the tunnel walls were too close. Though it must be a spar twisted out of true, it felt more like a metal bar than a wooden pole. He thought he might have stabbed himself on something, but water made it impossible to tell whether he was bleeding or not.
Forward motion was still barely possible. He would have to overcome instinct and crawl deeper into the tunnel, to detach himself from the impediment. He reached in front of his face, stubbing his fingers on the metal tube of his torch. Light rose briefly and died. There was a puddle in front of him; his bright-eyed face briefly leered back at him from the brown, wobbly mirror. He looked a desperate character, the sort who'd be tagged as an obvious criminal by the young hero of Emil and the Detectives. Emil had probably grown up to be a credit to the Gestapo, singling out undesirable elements after a swift look at their beetle-brows, stringy beards and hook noses.
In the brief moment of light, there was a shining. Something reflective, water or metal, shared the tunnel with him.
He heard a tumbling of earth. This was a serious situation now. He was in real danger.
The protrusion stabbing into his hip was gone, but there was no guarantee it wouldn't trap him again when he tried again to back out of the tunnel. He thumped his legs from side to side, hoping to flatten the barb -- whatever it was -- against the mud-wall.
The tunnel was like the throat of a pike, equipped with erectile spikes to keep down live food.
He tried again to use his feet as grapples. He was able to move again. The spar which had held him raked up his side, but did not extend, did not pin him fast. He laughed in relief.
As he passed the blocking spur, he took hold of the thing and felt a rough, cold surface. Not wood, not stone. Metal of some sort.
It might be a find. A forgotten mattock, perhaps.
He couldn't be far from the tunnel-mouth now. He was moving faster. Then, his left boot -- the burst one -- came loose and was wrenched off at the ankle, ripping away the tin half-foot. The boot was sunk into earthy mud, loose but not free of his ankle.
The old pain came now. He remembered the blood and the shock, of seeing his whole foot become a heeled hoof, the crumpling of the struts and planes, the sudden rush of the crash.
It was absurd, but he was unmanned again. Stuck.
He held fast to his find, and tried to use it as a lever, to push him backwards. Earth pressed on his back. Some of the tunnel-roof had fallen. Dirt and stone shifted, not collapsing suddenly but exerting a steady, growing pressure. Nearby, wood strained, creaking and groaning. Tiny cracks presaged louder noises. He was soaked through. Grit insinuated itself into his clothes. The whole tunnel was close to giving way.
This was an embarrassing way to die for the Reich.
'Doktor Fischer?' a child-angel asked. 'Are you all right?'
The stench of heating fruit made her eyes water like tragedy, but she had to stay in the kitchen. On the great ranges, tubs of plum, damson and apple mulch slowly cooked. The air was thick with fumes. She couldn't have the windows open because of the heavy rain. Wind drove water against the glass, rattling panes in their frames.
Grimly, Wendy hummed to herself, 'Whistle while you work, Hitler is a twerp. He's half barmy, like his army. Whistle while you work.' You couldn't exactly be shot for it, but the nonsense lyric was hardly calculated to make your life easier if you needed documents stamped by the provisional authorities. All songs had new lyrics, these days. Lord knew who made them up: she imagined Ivor Novello and Noel Coward hiding together in a cellar, coming up with rude rhymes for 'Nazi' or 'Goebbels'.
She moved between the ranges as Mrs Starkey had instructed, stirring long wooden spoons through thick, resistant semi-liquid. Like so much else in her new life, jam-making asked too much of her wasted muscles and too little of her active mind. Jerry Gammy-Leg said, smugly, that the story of King Alfred burning the cakes was probably apocryphal, but she understood on a deeper level than he the truth of it. Here she was, mind always wandering, struggling to concentrate on preserves.
The jam would be tart this year. They had apples and damsons and blackberries and plums in mixtures carefully calculated by Mrs Starkey to come out as sweetly as possible. To these blends was added the last of the sizeable hoard of sugar the old woman had bought at the War's outbreak. Each pan also boasted a fair amount of finely-chopped turnip to add a little extra sweetness and body.
It wouldn't be very appetising, but it'd be better than letting all that fruit go to rot.
Wendy thought Mrs Starkey rather approved of shortages: to her mind, times had gone soft when bought-in sugar was needed to make Cottongrass Farm jam. Now there was precious little buying-in, she quietly enjoyed the opportunity to demonstrate her self-sufficiency. Whatever else, the Invasion had made Hannah Starkey Queen round here.
If only Guy hadn't disappeared to fight the Jerries after the first landings, things might have been better. Her husband would be master of Cottongrass, not his bloody aunt, and Wendy wouldn't be skivvying and scrubbing like some jolly milkmaid. If only she hadn't lost the baby, she might be better thought-of and be in a position to tell her aunt-in-law what to do. Mrs Starkey said often enough that it was hard to feed the mouths they had, but Wendy sensed the reproach. Not only was she useless in the kitchen and the fields, but her feeble, city-bred womb couldn't carry a child to term.
She might only be a worthless townie, but she could see the hole they were all in at Cottongrass Farm. For a start, the house needed thorough redecoration: the curtains hadn't been changed since the First War, the upstairs rooms were in desperate need of papering and the icy cold of the uncarpeted flagstone floors through shoe-soles and numbed toes. Wendy's father, the architect John Calder, had impressed on her that no one could live happily in a home that assaulted the soul, and that an ugly room was as dangerous to health as a draughty one.
Her father was dead, killed at Dunkirk when the Jerries bombed the beaches, slaughtering and capturing the BEF before it could be withdrawn and cutting the would-be rescue parties to pieces. He was one of the many who had hopped into their weekend boats and sailed off to do their bit.
If only there hadn't been a War, an Invasion, a Capitulation, an Occupation ...
If only, if only, if only ...
The plum was the worst of the preserves. From under the lid of the great pan came a stink that would clear a pillbox. When she started working in the kitchen at seven this morning, she'd fetched out her gas mask -- unworn except in practices that had turned out to be blow-all preparation -- and slipped it on. Mrs Starkey told her not to be a silly girl, and took it away.
Wendy Sorel was twenty-two. She was a wife, very probably a widow. She had conceived and lost a baby. She had studied fine art for a year before dropping out. She had been an assistant to a talks producer at the BBC, before giving up work to get married. She'd met H.G. Wells, Evelyn Waugh, Ben Lyon and J.B. Priestley. In her parents' home, she'd been treated as a grown-up. Here, she was a child. Men and women who could barely read and write made indulgent fun of her because she had not been born on a farm and learned from infancy how to bundle straw or milk a cow.
Under one of the innumerable Occupation Directives, everyone was forced to hand in their wireless sets. Now, the only source of entertainment in Alder seemed to be making fun of the fumbling townie girl.
Something was definitely burning. Deep in the congealing depths of the plum/sugar/turnip mess vat, a hideous mass writhed like an angry squid. She stirred deep, feeling the strain in her upper arms as she wrestled the lumpy preserve. She couldn't imagine putting anything as foul as this into her mouth, but her former fussiness about food was long gone.
At first, when everyone was talking of sacrifice and rationing, she'd bitterly resented eating the muck of stewed vegetables she was given in her husband's home. After the Invasion, and weeks of near-starvation imposed by Mrs Starkey's emergency regime, she knew what hunger would force her to.
Among her wedding presents was a heavy orange tablecloth with a tasselled fringe. Every day, during the worst of it, when she was in bed feeling as if her insides had been scooped out with the lost baby, she'd snipped off a tassel with her nail-scissors and popped it into her mouth, chewing it constantly to keep her tongue wet, swallowing strands to fool her stomach. She could make a tassel last into the evening. Now, by counting the stubs, she could tell how many days -- forty-five -- had passed between Invasion and Capitulation. Eleven more days and the tablecloth would have been sheared completely.
She took the spoon-handle in a two-handed grip and probed, scraping the bottom. If a thick, burned crust was melded with the vat, Mrs Starkey would force her to scrape away the goo and shine the metal clean. Her cheeks were wet with tears, and her eyes stung. Her nose threatened to stream.
The bottom half of the outside door was unlatched and pulled open. Margery ducked under the still-latched upper half and shook off water like a collie.
Wendy wanted to shout at the girl for making a mess.
'It's Dr Fischer,' Margery said. 'Trapped under the hill. There's been a cave-in.'
Margery was a dark little thing, about twelve years old. She and Albie, the boy she said was her brother, had showed up at the farm a few weeks after the Invasion. They'd been put off a train at Taunton to make room for troops, and straggled out into the country. They said they were evacuees from London, but no one could agree where they were from exactly or where they were supposed to go. They had lost their papers, Margery said. The previous week Mrs Starkey had made rooms ready for two children off an evacuee train which had never arrived at nearby Langzoy, and now she decreed they should be taken in. Wendy sometimes wondered about the waifs, about their almost-olive complexions and midnight-black hair, their near-Eastern eyes and noble noses. Did Mrs Starkey ever think who their people might be, whether they might not be considered unsuitable in some quarters?
The child was upset, but then again she often was. If Wendy was a townie, then Margery and Albie were from another planet. Having grown up somewhere with constant street-lighting and pavement underfoot, they were seriously spooked by the darkness of the country nights and the softness of the ground. They often had dreadful dreams.
For a moment, Wendy thought Margery was mixed up. At some point in their foggy past, they had been bombed out. The girl was thinking of some neighbour buried under wreckage in a far-off city and far-off time. Then she remembered. 'Dr Fisher' was Jerry Gammy-Leg. Herr Doktor Paul Fischer.
The invader could easily have put up at The White Woman in the village, but Mrs Starkey insisted on having him at the farm. Wendy was worried what Guy would think if he came back and found a Jerry with his boots under the table, but Mrs Starkey said that if you had to have a German around then he should at least be where you could keep a good eye on him. Besides, she had to face up to the fact that Guy wasn't coming back. He'd gone off to do his bit -- in the Home Guard, she assumed -- and the word was that he'd probably been killed in the fighting when the Jerries broke through the GHQ Line at Highbridge.
Paul Fischer was an archaeologist, Wendy understood. He had all sorts of official papers and requisition forms, in German and English, which entitled him to dig up just about anywhere he wanted. George Dunphy, who looked after Mrs Starkey's sheep, said the Jerry was definitely a spy, ferreting around in search of the local Resistance. Wendy knew there were plenty of English folk around who'd be a lot less conspicuous and a lot more efficient as spies. But it seemed a strange set of priorities to follow up a first wave of military invaders and the establishment of British collaborationist government by sending in half-crippled grave-robbers.
'Albie's underground with Dr Fischer,' Margery continued. 'He's still alive. Dr Fischer is. So's Albie. But Albie isn't trapped. Under the hill.'
'Which hill?' Wendy asked, bewildered.
'The funny hill. With the tower.'
'The Mump? Lady Hill?'
Margery inflated her cheeks. Whenever anyone mentioned Alder Mump, this was her reaction. It was more a reflex than a joke.
The inner door was opened, and Mrs Starkey strode into the kitchen with George at her heels. Hannah Starkey was a small, slim, forceful woman -- a little past forty, but completely grey -- with eyes like holes in the snow. A generous mouth gave the impression of sweetness but concealed a tongue like a razor.
Mrs Starkey cuffed Margery, not softly.
'Why are you bothering Wendy, child?'
Margery began to cry. Mrs Starkey looked at Wendy, as if it were her fault.
'The heat is too high under the plum,' she said, grabbing a wooden spoon and pushing the pan over to one side. 'You'll burn the preserves away.'
Hannah Starkey had a harsh Somerset accent, but didn't use dialect words the way George or Dan'l Widdoes did. She'd had some education once. Her brother, Guy's father, had become the local doctor, and it was said she married Noah Starkey at sixteen in order to get out of being trained up as a nurse. Noah, dead in the first War, left no issue, but Mrs Starkey still managed to gather a household about her.
George patted Margery's wet hair fondly, which only set her off again. He was one of the men who had not run off to fight. He was fifty-two and had sons in the army, but plenty of older men had fetched out their shotguns and taken to the Quantocks or Exmoor to play Robin Hood. Most of them had drifted back before the Jerries had had the time to start counting heads, sick of living outdoors and playing at silly buggers.
Mrs Starkey made it clear she was grateful not everyone was foolish enough to rush off to be pointlessly killed, but George clearly felt he hadn't done the right thing and rumbled on to whoever would listen about the Resistance. He was given to petty acts of sabotage, like going up the Mump at night and peeing into the tunnels where Dr Fischer would be working the next day.
'Margery says Jerry Gammy-Leg is trapped under the Mump,' Wendy explained. 'There has been some sort of accident.'
George laughed, nastily. 'Best place fur 'en, gurt Jerry baa-stard!'
Mrs Starkey hit George's head with the back of her hand. 'I won't have that language in my house, George.'
My house ...
'And Albie!' Margery insisted. 'He went in after Dr Fischer.'
'We'm'll fetch yer brother out, my lover,' George said, delighted. 'Then, we'm gonna block up the Mump, show they Jerries not to mess round with we. It be like a sign, a Resistance sign.'
Though she didn't like to say so, Wendy agreed with George. If Jerry Gammy-Leg got himself buried alive, it served him right. Nobody asked him to come and dig holes in English countryside. It wasn't as if his tunnel was sabotaged -- though it hit her that George might not have been averse to kicking a few boards loose -- and they couldn't be blamed for accidents. It wasn't exactly a heroic blow against the invader, but it was something.
Margery's distress reached boiling-point.
'Aren't you going to do anything?' she pleaded.
Wendy thought of the German, under the earth like a miner, tons of dirt and rock pressed down on his chest. She ought to feel righteous triumph, as George did. He was the enemy, and a patronising one too. He had picked up Mrs Starkey's habit of lecturing her at mealtimes.
If only it wasn't for his funny foot, for his accented but perfect English.
Since Guy went away, since the pain of the stillbirth, she had found it harder to remember him. She had one photograph. But they'd been together for only a short time, had only known each other a few weeks before the marriage. She'd had a lover before Guy, an older officer later killed in the savage fighting for Brighton, and remembered him better. She had to think hard to recall whether Guy had a moustache or not: he hadn't, not the last time she saw him, but Frank, her first lover, had.
God help her, but she thought about the Jerry sometimes at night. Paul Fischer. If not for the 'c', it might be an English name. It wasn't that Paul was especially good-looking, but he was a man, nearer her age than anyone else in the house. Patronising or not, he was an educated, intelligent, sensitive man, and ... well, she felt an ache often that was more than loneliness, that was something close to need.
It was best that Jerry Gammy-Leg die. Then she wouldn't be tormented by his presence.
'George may be right,' she said, timidly.
Mrs Starkey swivelled, her coldly sparking eyes on her.
'Don't be stupid, child,' she said, as if addressing Margery. 'If Fischer dies, others will too.'
'But it's an accident,' Wendy protested.
'Germans don't believe in accidents,' Mrs Starkey replied. 'And neither do I.'
In the nearby market town of Sedgwater, the 60-year-old commissionaire of the Palace Picture House, in full uniform, had climbed up on the roof of the cinema with an army rifle purloined from somewhere and sniped at the inauguration of the new council. Henry Hembrow, the British fascist who was appointing himself mayor, was killed, along with two of his cronies. This would not have bothered anyone much, but a German officer at the ceremony was wounded. The following day, so the story went, several lorry-loads of German soldiers arrived to execute not only the doorman, but also, alleging conspiracy, the cinema manager and projectionist. Even the usherettes were blamed, deported to work camps and, it was rumoured, forced to serve as prostitutes for German soldiers in Bristol.
'George,' Mrs Starkey said, 'get Dan'l and whoever else you can find, and bring spades and wheelbarrows. Then meet me at the Mump. And don't drag your heels about it, or you may never have a chance to Resist again. Do you understand?'
'Yes'm,' George said. He clumped off.
Wendy took down her coat from a peg on the wall by the door.
'What do you think you're doing?' Mrs Starkey said. 'You can't leave this.' She indicated the simmering vats. 'You'd scarcely be any use on the Mump anyway. It'll be men's work. Keep to the kitchen, where you're needed.'
She took her own waterproofs -- yellow oilskins and sou'-wester, like something a lighthouse keeper would wear -- and wrapped herself up, tying cords at her throat and across her chest.
'Child,' Mrs Starkey said to Margery, taking her hand, 'you are to show me where this thing has happened. Do you understand?'
Mrs Starkey and Margery left the kitchen, latching both halves of the door behind them. Wendy, burning with frustration, struggled to return her attention to the bloody jam.
© Kim Newman & Eugene Byrne 1999.