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Death in Berlin
By M. M. Kaye
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1983 M. M. Kaye
All rights reserved.
Miranda Brand knelt on the floor of a bedroom in the Families' Hostel at Bad Oeynhausen in the British Zone of Germany, searching her suitcase for a cake of soap, and regretting that she had ever accepted her cousin Robert Melville's invitation to spend a month with him and his family in Berlin.
There was something about this gaunt building, about the dimly familiar, guttural voices and the wet, grey miles that had streamed past the train windows all that afternoon, that had acted unpleasantly upon her nerves. Yet it could not be Germany, and the fact that she was back there once more for the first time since childhood, that was responsible for this curious feeling of apprehension and unease that possessed her, because she had been aware of it before she had even set foot in the country.
It had begun ... When had it begun? Was it on the boat to the Hook of Holland? ... Or even earlier, on the boat-train to Harwich? She could not be sure. She only knew that for some inexplicable reason she felt tense and uneasy, and ... And afraid!
Yes, that was it: afraid. 'Well then what are you afraid of?' Miranda demanded of herself. 'Nothing! But you can't be afraid of nothing!'
I'm getting as bad as Aunt Hetty, thought Miranda ruefully, and was smiling at the recollection of that neurotic and highly strung spinster when the door burst open and Stella Melville rushed in and slammed it noisily behind her, causing Miranda to start violently and drop the lid of the suitcase on the fingers of one hand.
'Ow! What on earth is the matter, Stel'? I wishyou wouldn't make me jump like that. It puts years on my life.' Miranda blew on her injured fingers and regarded her cousin's wife with affectionate indignation.
Mrs Melville drew a quivering breath and her hands clenched into fists: 'I hate the Army! I hate it! Oh, why did Robert have to be a soldier? Why couldn't he have been a farmer, or a pig-breeder, or a stockbroker or — or — oh, anything but a soldier?'
Stella flung herself face down upon the bed and burst into tears.
'Good heavens!' said Miranda blankly.
She stood up hurriedly and perching on the edge of the bed threw a comforting arm about Stella's shoulders: 'What's up, darling? — that tiresome Leslie woman been sharpening her claws on you again? Forget it! I expect all those seasick pills have upset her liver. Come on, sweetie, brace up!'
'Oh go away!' sobbed Stella furiously, attempting to burrow further into the unyielding hostel pillow: 'You don't understand. No one understands!'
'Well tell me about it then,' said Miranda reasonably. 'Come on, Stel', it can't be as bad as that. Tell your Aunt 'Randa!'
Stella gave a watery chuckle and sat up, pushing away a wet strand of blond hair with the back of her hand. 'Aunt 'Randa! I like that, when I'm old enough to be your mother.'
'Give yourself a chance, darling. I shall be twenty-one next month.' Miranda hunted through her coat pockets, and producing a passably clean handkerchief handed it over.
'Twenty-one,' said Stella desolately. 'Dear God! and I shall be forty!' She blew her nose and sat looking at Miranda; her pretty pink and white face blotched with tears, and the ruin of her carefully applied make-up suddenly revealing the truth of that last statement.
Miranda looked momentarily taken aback. 'Will you? Well I suppose if you'd been married at eighteen I could just — — Look, how did we come to be discussing our ages anyway? What has your age got to do with hating the Army?'
'Perhaps more than you think,' said Stella bitterly. She saw that Miranda was looking bewildered, and laughed a little shakily. 'Oh, it isn't that! It's — well Robert has just met a man he knows, and — and oh 'Randa isn't it awful? He told Robert that the regiment is going to be sent to Malaya next year!' Stella's blue eyes brimmed over with tears that coursed slowly down her wet cheeks and dripped off her chin, making ugly dark spots on her smart grey dress.
'Malaya? But good heavens, Stella, why on earth should that upset you? If I were in your shoes I'd be thrilled to bits! Sunshine, palm trees, temple bells — not to mention masses of servants in lovely eastern clothes to do all the dirty work for you. Just think of it! No more washing up dishes or fuel economy: heaven! What are you worrying about? You don't have to worry about Robert, because he told me once that Malaya was a "Company Commander's war" — whatever that means. And anyway the papers all seem to think that this Templer man has got the bandits buttoned.'
'You don't understand,' repeated Stella impatiently. 'I know you think it would be lovely to go there, but I'm not you. People like you think of the East as exotic and exciting, but to me it's only uncivilized and frightening. Perhaps that's because I'm not an exotic or exciting person. I don't like strange places. I love my own bit of England and I don't want to live anywhere else.'
'But you can have it both ways,' urged Miranda. 'You can live in England and in between you can go off and see romantic foreign places.'
'It isn't like that,' said Stella drearily. 'When I married Johnnie — you never knew Johnnie, did you — I thought what fun it would be. Being married, I mean. I thought we'd live at Mallow, or somewhere near it in Sussex or Kent, and that everything would be lovely. I actually thought that I should "live happily ever after" just like they do in fairy stories!'
She gave a short laugh, startling in its bitterness, and getting up from the bed walked over to the window and stood with her forehead pressed against a pane, looking down at the narrow, darkening street and speaking in an undertone, almost as if she had forgotten Miranda's presence and was talking to herself.
'It didn't work out that way. Perhaps it never does. We had to go to India. He ... I hated it! The dirt, the dust, the flies, the dark, secret faces. The horrible heat and that awful club life. And I was ill; always ill.' She shivered so violently that her teeth chattered.
'It was heaven to come home again. To see green fields and cool grey skiesOh, the awfulness of that brassy sunlight! But then the war came and he had to go back there without me. And I never saw him again. When he — when the telegram came I thought I should never be happy again. But you can't go on being unhappy for ever. That's the merciful thing about it. And after the war I met Robert.'
Her voice rose again suddenly, and she turned to face Miranda, her pretty mouth working and her slim fingers clenching and unclenching against the suave lines of the grey travelling dress.
'But it was only the same thing all over again. They sent him to Egypt, and they wouldn't let me go with him. They said I hadn't enough "points". Points! As if love and marriage were things on a ration card! Later the families were all sent away anyway, but that didn't make it any better for me. And when he did get back, the regiment was in Germany so we get sent to Berlin! This, believe it or not, is a "Home posting". Home! And now to be told that it will be Malaya next. I can't bear it!'
Stella turned away to stare desperately down into the street once more.
'Stella, darling,' Miranda spoke soothingly as though addressing a fractious child, 'you're feeling tired and nervy, and I don't blame you. It's all this wretched packing and moving. But it isn't as bad as all that, you know. There won't be flies and heat and oriental faces in Berlin, and Robert says your house is one of the nicest ones. And you are sure to be allowed to go to Malaya with him.'
'You don't understand,' repeated Stella tonelessly. 'No one really understands. I don't want to live in Germany. I've dreaded the idea. When I was six I had a German governess and I loathed her. And mother insisted on sending me to a finishing school in Brussels, and I hated that too: every minute of it. I don't want to go to Malaya. I'm like that girl in one of Nancy Mitford's books who hated "abroad". I hate "abroad" too. I want to live in England. In my own home, with my own things around me. Not this awful endless packing and moving and separation, and living in soulless army-furnished quarters.'
'In that case,' said Miranda briskly, 'I can't see why you don't stay home.'
'And be separated from Robert? I couldn't bear it! That's the awful part of it. I swore I'd never marry another soldier. But I couldn't help it. You don't mean to fall in love with people. You just do, and then it's too late and you find yourself being pulled in two between loving someone and hating the untidy, nomadic life you will have to live if you want to be with them. Oh well — —! I suppose I shall just go on living the sort of life I don't like, in places I loathe, until I'm an old hag and Robert retires with a tummy and a pension! Never marry a soldier, Miranda.'
'Moral, never marry anyone,' said Miranda, hugging her. 'It sounds much safer and far more comfortable to remain a resolute spinster — like me!'
Stella gave a dreary little laugh and turned away from the window: 'What a mess I must look! I'm sorry, 'Randa. I've been behaving like a hysterical lunatic. I suppose it's seeing it all start again; and being older this time, and — oh forget it darling! I'm tired and I feel as if we'd been travelling for weeks instead of less than two days.' She turned on both washbasin taps and peered disconsolately at herself in the inadequate square of looking-glass above them. 'Do you suppose if I slosh my face with cold water it will do any good? I can't go down to the dining-room looking like this.'
'Would you like to have your supper sent up here?' suggested Miranda.
'No. I must go down. Robert has asked that Control Commission man to have dinner with us. You know — the elderly man we met on the train. Brigadier something or other.'
'Brindley,' supplied Miranda.
'That's it. I don't think the poor man realized that he'd have to eat his meal with Lottie and Mademoiselle as well, or he'd probably have refused. He doesn't look the type who likes children. Those gossipy old bachelors seldom do. What time is this train supposed to leave for Berlin?'
'Well there's an extremely military notice downstairs which says it "departs 22.55 hrs", but I haven't taken time off to work that one out yet. You'd think they'd run a through-train from the Hook, wouldn't you? — instead of throwing us all off and dumping us in a hostel for hours on end.'
'Russians,' said Stella splashing her face with cold water.
'What do you mean, "Russians"?'
'Apparently they won't let us run trains through their zone except by night. I suppose they're afraid we'd hang out of the carriage windows clicking our Kodaks. Do I look any better?'
'You look marvellous,' said Miranda lightly, and turned quickly away, thinking, with a sudden sense of shock, that Stella looked more than middle-aged; she looked old.
* * *
Stella Carrell, who had then been Stella Radley and was now Stella Melville, had been a grown woman of twenty-seven when Miranda, a leggy and frightened six-year-old, had first seen her. Then, and for many years afterwards, she had seemed old to Miranda. It was only during the last two or three years that Miranda had begun to think of Stella as an attractive woman in her thirties, and to admire her looks and copy her taste in clothes and hats. Stella had seemed to grow younger as Miranda grew older, for there was a curious touch of immaturity about her character and outlook that somehow made Miranda feel protective and as though she were the elder of the two. Yet now, in the space of a few minutes, although the spoilt child had been apparent in her recent outburst, she had suddenly seemed to age ten years in appearance.
Looking back, Miranda could not remember ever having seen Stella look anything but immaculately neat and beautifully dressed. There was a term for Stella that the glossier women's magazines were inordinately fond of, although Miranda had always considered it more suitable for horses: Stella was 'well-groomed'. Now, however, her blond hair hung about her face in damp disorder and Miranda noticed for the first time that its yellow fairness was touched with silver and that without benefit of powder and rouge her skin appeared faded and almost sallow, with a network of fine lines and spreading crowsfeet marking it about the eyes and mouth.
Miranda was suddenly reminded of the roses in the garden at Mallow: one day so beautiful in their velvety perfection, and the next, overblown and fading. Stella was like the roses, she thought; and like them, she would fade quickly. Her looks were not of the kind that will outlast youth, and soon there would be nothing left of that bright prettiness, and little to show that it had ever existed.
Seized by a disturbing thought Miranda turned quickly to stare at her own face in the looking-glass. It gazed reassuringly back at her with eyes the colour of a winter sky: wide of cheekbone, pointed of chin, framed in curling dark hair and set on a long slender throat the colour of warm ivory. A face startlingly like Thompson's portrait of Charlotte Brontë, that in Charlotte's day had been dismissed as 'plain' but which, allied to a slimmer-than-slim figure, had earned Miranda Brand a very comfortable income during the past two years as a fashion model.
I shall wear well, decided Miranda dispassionately. When I am seventy, people will say: 'Who is that distinguished-looking old lady?'
She laughed suddenly: being young enough to enjoy picturing herself in old age without believing in its possibility.
'What are you giggling about?' demanded Stella, completing her make-up with an expert hand before the mirror above the wash-basin. She looked, once more, serene and poised, and as completely out of place in the dull setting of the hostel bedroom as an expensive orchid worn on the ample bosom of an elderly German hausfrau.
'Nothing,' said Miranda hastily. 'If you're ready let's go down and see if this caravanserai can produce some drinkable sherry.'CHAPTER 2
The dining-room of the Families' Hostel was large, long and high-ceilinged, and smelt strongly of past meals, floor polish and overheated radiators. Miranda, seated at one of the larger tables between her cousin Robert Melville and a retired brigadier in the Control Commission, looked about it with interest.
The room was overfull of empty tables, but either the travellers who had been on the boat-train tended to huddle together, or else the German waiters, anxious to economize in time and labour, had shepherded them to conveniently adjacent ones.
The Melvilles' table was between one occupied by a Colonel and Mrs Leslie, and another shared by two of Robert's brother officers and their wives — Major and Mrs Marson and Lieutenant and Mrs Page.
Beyond the Leslies sat Mrs Wilkin and her five children. Mrs Wilkin, a small and sparrow-like woman on her way out to join her husband, a sergeant whose unit was stationed in Berlin, looked anxious and exhausted: and with good reason, since her offspring, who had been noisy and unmanageable for the past twenty-four hours, were now completely out of hand. The eldest Wilkin, addressed by his mother as 'Wally', was throwing bread. A demon-child, thought Miranda with a grin. Wally, intercepting the grin, paused in his bread-throwing and returned it. It split his plain, freckled face in an engaging though gap-toothed manner, and temporarily dispelled his striking resemblance to the Don Camillo imp. Conscious of an audience he threw an even larger piece of bread, and Miranda's gaze moved hurriedly on.
None of the other tables was occupied, and noting the fact, she felt childishly disappointed. And unreasonably annoyed with herself for feeling so. She had hoped to see someone else in that dining-room. Someone she had seen for the first time only the day before. But he was not there.
Miranda turned her attention to the soup, but as the meal progressed she became aware once more of that odd, indefinable prickling of apprehension. She wondered if perhaps she, like Stella, was overtired? Perhaps everyone in that echoing, ugly room with its depressing sea of empty tables was equally tired, and it was the accumulative effect of their weariness and taut nerves that created this inexplicable feeling of unease? Could tiredness, too, be the explanation of Mrs Leslie's odd behaviour? Miranda crumbled her bread and looked thoughtfully at the occupants of the table on her immediate left.
Excerpted from Death in Berlin by M. M. Kaye. Copyright © 1983 M. M. Kaye. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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