I’m currently writing my 4th book, codenamed ‘Berlin, 1946’, a dark thriller set in Germany’s defeated capital. The strapline I think I will use is; “A cold war starting, a vengeance burning”.
Sound interesting? Check out the rough, unedited, first chapter below…
The dingy basement smelt of death.
It was the same sickly-sweet aroma that still clung to the rest of the city and it’s traumatized populace a full nine months after the fighting had ended. How many corpses remained still to be discovered? And even then, when they eventually found the last of them, in however months or years or decades that god-awful task took, would the spoilt atmosphere ever recover? Could Berlin be cleansed of that much suffering?
‘Your full name is Jonathan Edward Sanders?’ said the man from London, his tone indicating that he wasn’t seeking new information, merely double-checking the information that was already at his disposal. There’s a difference. They teach you these things when you study law.
‘It is,’ I replied.
‘And you are a lieutenant in the Fifth Guards Brigade?’
‘Then you were stationed at the old Rathaus at Schleswig-Holstein before?’ His stare jerked from my identification papers to my face in an instant.
‘No,’ I replied, his question obviously designed to prompt a negative response, to establish a baseline for the interrogation that was to follow. ‘The brigade had already deployed to Berlin before I had received my commission. In November last year, I believe. I’ve only been in Berlin XXXXX days.’
XXXX days. The words replayed in my head, seemingly a lie. XXXX days, but it felt like an eternity already.
I eyed the man who sat before me in the dark grey, tailored suit. No uniform. No rank, but full of authority. He had returned to staring intently at my military ID while gripping a burning cigarette vertically between his fingers, parallel to his face. He’d removed his jacket upon entering the basement room under the Wilmersdorf town hall that now served as the British Military headquarters. They’d brought me here after the terrible events at the railyard in the early hours of that morning.
Were they terrible, those events? I felt numb. My emotions run through by a whole regiment of swords. Pummelled into the dust. Broken down under the heavy grinding wheels of what happened. Of course they were terrible, the things that had happened. My body might have been exhausted, saturated, eviscerated, but my ability to think hadn’t deserted me. Not yet. How could such moments be anything else but terrible?
‘You’re treating me as if I am a suspect,’ I said, forcing myself into the present.
He continued to stare at my ID, but said nothing. The inside of his jacket was visible, the lining a silky, lime. I recognised the tailor’s label – J F Silsby of Shaftsbury Avenue in London. I had one not unlike it, a gift from my father after I had graduated from Cambridge in the summer of ’44, before I had enlisted.
I lifted my eyes from his jacket. Had he taken it off because he was expecting to have to get rough with me? He looked the sort. That thuggish schoolboy pressed into a respectable suit. Pressed into duty. The same kind the Nazis had. Different attire, same capacities. Or was the act of removing his jacket simply his subtle way of signalling that he was willing to use violence if it came to it? That it was an option that was on the table, if I didn’t play the game. If I wasn’t entirely truthful.
The images flashed before my eyes once again. Like a newsreel but played at breakneck speed. Too fast to make sense of it. Nauseating.
Barely six hours had passed – I knew because there was a clock on the wall behind the man and the two rugged-looking military policemen that had arrived along with him. Six hours. It felt both as a distant memory and also as if it had happened barely seconds ago. Trauma does that to a person. Confuses people, muddles their thoughts. Makes them unreliable witnesses, their testimony debatable. They’d also taught me that at Cambridge.
The crack of the rifle shot a hundred yards behind me. Her leg, bleeding. Her face, desperate to make sense of the alien agony that her body had felt at that moment. The moment – a simultaneous sensation of past and present, interlocked, dancing around the inside of my skull. Unsettling me, tormenting me. Making me question what was real.
What was real?
I glanced at my hands, but the crimson had been scrubbed away by the nurse when the doctor had examined my injuries before he had released me to the military police. They had then stripped me of my bloodied uniform, dressed me in civilian attire, then manhandled me down to the basement. They’d taken my pistol, coat, uniform, wallet, military credentials, and my notebook. Was somebody else pouring over that right now in another room as I sat there on that wooden chair? They’d even taken the photograph of my Catherine that I kept in that small, paper envelope. Her image tightly-buttoned up in my tunic pocket, like a shameful secret. Would they look at my fiancée in the same way that I used to? Before I had come to this place? I realised that I hadn’t opened that envelope since the first day that I came to this city. Had that been to protect her from Berlin? Or to keep what happened in Berlin from her? She was my Catherine, but I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was no longer her Jonathan.
I watched him, the man in the suit. His stare was as before, unmoved. His stance as a statue, like a Rodan fashioned from the hardest stone, hidden from public view in a dark cellar. The cigarette still at the side of his cheek, an inch of ash now threatening to topple off onto the damp tiled floor. His face, a hybrid of curiosity, suspicion and impatience. Something else, also. Malice. I stared back at him, at each eye in turn trying to determine if that threat he signaled was real or affected – a warning or an intention.
A voice outside the room. It had come from the other side of the solid wood door, behind which I had earlier noted a guard standing, his hand gripping his Lee Enfield, its wooden stock resting on the floor. I wondered who else they might have sent to deal with this incident. This situation. Would they let the Americans in on it? I was tired. My mind drifted for a moment, back to the railyard. To the wreckage of the dozens of bombed trains that sat there like hulking iron carcasses of monsters lurking in the blackness.
Could I have done something? Had it been in my power to do so?
I was still trying hard to process it. How could I explain it him, to this man – an agent of the corridors of power in Whitehall – if I did not understand it myself?
He moved his hand that held the cigarette away, blew the ash off then lifted the filter to his mouth and gently inhaled before turning to one side to release the smoke. It was all done in the manner of one of those ‘ladies’ from one of the cabaret shows on the Kurfürstendamm. So very deliberate, so effeminate, and so very incongruous to his physical stature, and to the situation in which we found ourselves.
He flicked the cigarette, still lit, across the cellar and it exploded in a small maelstrom of sparks as it hit the brick wall. An overly masculine action. Had he read my thoughts?
The man from London twisted to face one of his uniformed colleagues, snapped his fingers. ‘The notepad.’
The MP strode to a cardboard box that sat on a metal table behind him. I hadn’t noticed it before, and as he ferreted through the contents I saw him lift up my wallet and my identity card before then taking my pocket notepad from the box.
‘You didn’t answer my question?’ I said.
The man in the suit ignored me again.
Had they already decided to blame me for what had happened? I failed to suppress an involuntary shiver.
He snapped back to look at me, my notebook in his hand, as if he had sensed my unease. My guilt. I held his stare, but he must have seen a reaction in my eyes, and leaned forward to examine my face. I could smell his aftershave. I recognized the brand. It was one that I used frequently myself not so long ago before they’d posted me to this dark place of ruined buildings and ruined souls. I still had a bottle of it in my billet somewhere, I remembered. The thought of using it had struck me as beyond redundant once I had been exposed to the reality of this place. There was no fragrance on earth that could mask the stench of the cement dust, decay, and open sewers. Or the decomposing souls still trapped under the thousands of piles of rubble.
‘I asked you if you are treating me as a suspect.’
He huffed and looked past me, as if something or someone far more deserving of his attention were at the back of the dark room. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘You said, “You’re treating me as if I am a suspect”,’ he snapped, no longer attempting to disguise his impatience. ‘That’s a statement, not a question.’
Under different circumstances, I would have told him that the emphasis I had placed at the end of the ‘statement’ had made it into a question. Under different circumstances.
I took a deep breath, then offered him the least contrived smile that I could muster. ‘Alright, then. So…am I a suspect?’
He ignored me yet again, directing his interest upon the pages of my notebook which he thumbed through at a pace that surely made it impossible to digest any of its contents, but then stopped halfway on one page and paused. I peered at the notebook. What could he have found that was of any relevance? His eyes lifted from the open pages. He closed the book and lifted it over his shoulder. The military policeman behind him stepped forward to take it from him.
The man from London stared into space again, his tongue making a curious clucking sound as it tapped on the underside of his hard palate. He took a deep breath as if attempting to cleanse his lungs of Berlin’s ghastly atmosphere. As if one could do that. He leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs, his fingers interlocked, his thumbs caressing each other. The strange clucking sound stopped and he cleared his throat. ‘You know, Saunders. You know that we’re going to get to the truth of this matter.’
I held his stare and nodded. I wanted to appear compliant. Like the good, dutiful lieutenant I had once been, not so long ago. But the reality was that I had no godly idea what the truth was. Not anymore.
Berlin had done that to me. It had sucked me in, chewed on me, then spat me out.
And she had done the rest.