In the dead of night, a Czech farm girl and a British soldier travel through the countryside. Izabela and prisoner of war Bill have secretly married and are on the run, with Izzy dressed as a man. The young husband and wife evade capture for as long as possible—until they are cornered by Nazi soldiers with tracking dogs.
Izzy's disguise works. The couple are assumed to be escaped British soldiers and transported to a POW camp. However, their ordeal has just begun, as they face appalling living conditions and the constant fear of Izzy's exposure. But in the midst of danger and deprivation comes hope, for the young couple are befriended by a small group of fellow prisoners. These men become their new family, willing to jeopardize their lives to save Izzy from being discovered and shot.
The Prisoner's Wife tells of an incredible risk, and of how our deepest bonds are tested in desperate times. Bill and Izzy's story is one of love and survival against the darkest odds.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
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War had ripped across Europe for five years-a great tornado, scattering families, tearing millions of people from their loved ones forever. But sometimes, just sometimes, it threw them together. Like with me and Bill. A Czech farm girl and a London boy who would never have met, hurled into each other's path. And we reached out, caught hold and gripped each other tight.
We had the Oily Captain to thank for bringing us together. I always thought of him as the Oily Captain because there was something too eager to please in his manner that made me despise him. Although he was a Nazi officer, he was nothing like the bands of SS who descended without warning to search the farm and interrogate us about my father and my older brother, Jan.
We knew at once that he was different, because the first day he turned up at the farm, he even knocked at the back door before he pushed it open. He stood silhouetted in the doorframe, stocky and well-fed on "requisitioned" farm produce.
My mother was by the sink, cutting potatoes. She dropped a potato in the water and turned, keeping the knife in her right hand.
In one glance he took in the kitchen-the knife, my mother in her apron, me with my books spread out on the table and Marek playing on the floor.
"Do you speak German?" he asked her politely, although most people in our region spoke nothing else.
"Of course," my mother replied in her impeccable High German accent, brushing a wisp of hair from her eyes with the back of her left hand. I nodded too, imperceptibly.
His face brightened. "May I come in?"
My mother made a small flick of her fingers, which meant "Can I stop you?" and he took a step forward.
She rested her knife hand on the edge of the sink and frowned at the mud he'd walked onto her clean floor. My little brother, Marek, stood up. He was only eight, but took his position as man of the house very seriously.
The captain removed his hat. Beneath it his hair was short and peppered with gray. He had the open face of a countryman used to looking at the sky. His lips were thin and maybe mean, but the wrinkles around his eyes spoke of someone who liked to laugh. He seemed older with his hat off.
"I've been looking over your farm. . . ." My mother's face darkened, and he waved his innocence. "I want to offer you some help to bring in the crops."
Only so you can confiscate them, I thought, and knew my mother was thinking the same. They requisitioned every turnip, every bushel of oats, every ham we produced.
"I've got a working party of prisoners of war from the sawmill at Mankendorf. They're improving the road for the timber lorries, but I could spare a man or two to help you at the busiest times. My orders are to improve forestry and agriculture in the region. It's a big farm for the two of you."
"Three," said my brother, and my mother put a warning hand on his shoulder.
The captain nodded seriously. "Three."
He was right, of course. Even if we worked from sunup to sundown, there was no way that my mother and I could do the work of my father, my brother Jan and the two hired men we'd lost.
"What's your name?" the captain asked my brother in a friendly way.
He hesitated and then said, "Marek," the name he had from his Czech grandfather. Outside the house and at school, he normally used his other name, Heinrich, from our mother's father. My mother and I glanced at each other but didn't speak.
"It's a very nice farm," the captain continued. "I grew up on a farm, and I know how much work it can be."
I was thinking that I preferred the real Nazis, who didn't bother to make conversation but searched in every room and turned over the contents of every cupboard without asking, as if it were their right. You could hate them with white-hot venom. We kept our eyes fixed on the floor when they were in the house, knowing our faces would betray our loathing.
But with the Oily Captain, even the first time, when I stared at him, he was the first to look away.
"What's most urgent?" he asked.
"First the hay must be cut, before we have a thunderstorm," my mother said, and he nodded. It was odd to hear her speaking German in the house. We'd spoken only Czech here for five years, ever since the Nazis had marched into Prague.
"Tomorrow morning, then," he said, and replaced his hat and raised his arm in a salute, which looked more like he was trying to keep the sun out of his eyes. "Heil Hitler."
We muttered unintelligibly, and he turned and left. Marek sat down again.
The captain's footsteps clicked away from the house. He held one leg stiff, and I could hear it in the irregular clack of his boots. I supposed that was why he wasn't away slaughtering Russians or hunting down partisans like my father and Jan. Perhaps he had a false leg.
When he was out of earshot, my mother exhaled and reverted to Czech. "Well," she said, "I can't say it won't help. As long as he isn't around poking his nose in all the time."
At five thirty the next morning, my mother and I were still having breakfast when there came a loud thumping on the wagon doors that opened from the road into the courtyard of our farm.
My mother drank the last of her coffee and pulled a light shawl around her shoulders.
She held herself very erect, and her jaw was set firm, as if she expected to have to prove to them that she was the farmer and not just the farmer's wife. She'd pulled her curly hair back under a black head scarf, which made her look severe and almost frightening. We slipped on our clogs as the Oily Captain knocked at the back door and politely asked if we were ready for them. He looked so pleased with himself that I could have smacked him.
"I'm afraid I have to leave a guard as well, because of your husband and your older son." He shrugged apologetically.
My mother didn't speak, but closed the door in his face, crossed the kitchen and swished out into the courtyard to lift the great beam behind the wagon doors. Outside was a small truck with about twenty men on it. Five prisoners and an elderly guard were climbing down. My mother held one of the huge doors open enough for them to pass through single file, and scrutinized each man as he passed. Behind them came the Oily Captain, who fussily and quite unnecessarily helped her to lower the beam back into place.
The five prisoners of war marched into our courtyard, and the guard gave a loud, stamping order to halt. I yawned as I leaned against the kitchen doorway, looking on. Marek peeped out past me.
The men lined up, and that was the first time I saw Bill. He stood out from the others because of his blond hair, slate blue eyes and baby face, almost too pretty for a man. I thought he might be Polish; I didn't know that Englishmen could have that kind of coloring. All the prisoners, including him, were gaping at my mother, who stood in front of them beside the Oily Captain. For a moment I saw her as they did: her womanly shape, her dark eyes and head held high. Despite her worn work skirts, she looked somehow regal, a queen disguised as a peasant.
"They'll do," she said, and clacked across the yard in her clogs to fetch tools from the stable. The prisoners were looking around them, taking everything in: the house, stables, barn and hay barn, which formed a tight, enclosed square around our courtyard. Perhaps they were looking for ways they might escape. Their gazes locked on me as I approached. When I stared back at them, their eyes dropped to the ground or skittered onto something neutral in the yard-the water pump, the old tin bath, our bright red roof tiles. They knew the guard was watching them closely. But Bill continued to regard me in a clear, appraising way, and I raised my chin and looked back. It wasn't love at first sight, or even lust, but there was a something, a metallic frisson in the air, a kind of challenge thrown out and returned. Maybe a kind of recognition.
The Oily Captain made small talk with my mother as she handed out the scythes, rakes and pitchforks, but the guard kept his rifle trained on the young men, who had just been issued tools they could use as weapons. He cleared his throat and spoke to the prisoners in English. "Don't any of you boys try anything stupid. Don't forget I was in the trenches, and I have many scores to settle."
They nodded, and I filed away the information that the old guard spoke excellent English.
My mother opened the hay barn door and led the way through it and out into the fields. I brought up the rear. For a few steps, the Oily Captain was lolloping beside her in his stiff-legged way, trying to finish the conversation as she strode off. I couldn't help smiling, and again I caught Bill's eye and saw both amusement and approval of my mother. His face seemed to light up when he smiled. The Oily Captain must have realized he was being made a fool of, because he suddenly stopped, clicked his heels and wished her a very good day. She turned and politely thanked him for providing her with help on the farm. He looked very pleased with himself as he marched away to his car.
At the edge of the first field, my mother demonstrated the correct use of a scythe. Two men hardly watched her at all, but Bill showed keen interest, mirroring the movements she made. I guessed he was a city boy, and this was new to him. She made them practice until she was satisfied that they would do a good job. The two who hadn't been watching had obviously harvested plenty of fields before, but Bill and his friend made several blundering strokes before either managed to cut anything. I felt hot with embarrassment for them, but my mother was patient and stood behind Bill, lowering his right elbow to the correct position until he swished cleanly through the stalks and looked up to me in delight and triumph. I couldn't help smiling back.
The guards had done well to rouse the prisoners early, because the heat was soon hammering down from a cloud-free sky. We were cutting hay, and it was tiring, thirsty work, trying to get it all into the barn before any rain came. There was always a danger of thunderstorms on these hot days. One by one the men asked permission to remove their battle dress jackets and the shirts beneath. I was shocked at how thin they looked, with ribs standing out like those of a neglected horse. Some, including Bill, wore tattered vests. Ignoring the guard who was shouting at him to hurry and get back to work, he carefully tied his shirt into a makeshift hat and cover for his neck and scrawny shoulders. Looking at the blue-whiteness of his skin, I thought, I bet he burns really easily. I would only turn brown in the sun, not burn.
My mother and I worked with them to make sure they did everything in the way she liked. Who knew in what strange ways such things were done in England?
Four of the men, including Bill, were working down the rows with scythes, cutting the sweet-smelling hay, while mother and I and the fifth man went along behind, bending to swish the hay into sheaves, tying them roughly with one stalk and standing them together to dry in the air. We worked slowly and steadily, not talking, and every now and then mother and I would straighten our backs and look around.
She was checking on the men with the scythes, whether they seemed to know what they were doing, whether they were missing anything, whether they needed the whetstone to sharpen their tools. I was looking at the gold of the field, the china blue of the sky, and-out of the corner of my eye-the easy swinging movements Bill was now making with the scythe. I could see how all the muscles in his back and shoulders worked together in the swing. There was something quick and fluid about his movements. Bright and mercurial.
As Bill worked, he whistled tune after tune, swinging the scythe in time with the music he made. I didn't recognize any of the songs, but sometimes the other men would join in and sing a chorus.
When it became apparent that the guard expected them to work all morning in the heat without anything to drink, mother sent me back to the farm for water, which I took around to each of them, pouring some into a tin cup and letting them drink. Bill smiled a wide, joyful smile. One of his top front teeth was chipped.
"I wish . . . beer," I said in my halting English, and he beamed even wider.
"I'll pretend it is." He grinned, smacking his lips appreciatively. I could see him trying to think of something to say to extend the conversation. "Do you make beer here?" he asked.
I nodded. "We grow . . ." I didn't know the word for "barley."
"You grow beer?" He playacted amazement. "I've died and gone to 'eaven."
A laugh escaped me, and the guard strode over to poke Bill hard in the ribs with the barrel of the rifle in a way I knew would bruise, and he shouted at him in English, "Get back to work. Lazy swine."
I learned quickly that I mustn't laugh out loud or draw the guard's attention to the prisoners.
The guard stood at the edge of the field in the thin shade of a straggly tree and watched us all work, fiddling with his rifle and his tight collar. Sweat poured down his face. He kept batting away a persistent horsefly or mosquito, and I willed it to bite him. He was a postern rather than regular army—perhaps happy to have work guarding POWs rather than being on the front lines again. I’m sure he knew how easily this bunch of young men could overcome him, if they chose. All that lay between them was his rifle and his sense of self-importance. And the fact that if they ever tried to escape, they were deep in the heart of Nazi Europe, more than a thousand kilometers from the neutral countries of Switzerland or Sweden. I felt Bill watching me watching the guard, but I didn’t look at him.
The prisoners were allowed to stop at noon for lunch, and pulled tiny squares of bread from their packs. Mother took one look at their rations and signaled to me to go back to the farmhouse for the loaf she’d baked yesterday, for farm butter and cheese. I brought beer too, for the guard, to keep him sweet and make sure he would continue to bring the men back to us. I was careful to take him lunch his first, and swallowed my dismay at how much of the cheese he took. I wished I’d hidden the total amount and just brought his separately.
I carried what remained to the prisoners, who were lying in the shade of a big oak tree. Some were asleep. Only Bill was sitting, with his back against the tree trunk, watching me as I went around to the others. They each looked as if I were giving them the best meal they’d ever tasted. I saved Bill’s till last.
He grinned at me as I leaned down to him with the tiny portion of food, and I smiled back. As he squinted up at me, his eyes were bluer than they’d seemed in the yard. His mouth was wide, as if it liked to smile. The other men were only interested in the food I gave them, but he held my gaze.
“Do you make the bread and cheese here too?” he said slowly and clearly.
I struggled to retrieve my poor English and wished I’d worked harder at it in school.
“Yes, we make.”
“Best I’ve ’ad for years.”
He smiled at me until I dropped my eyes. I wasn’t often lost for words, but I couldn’t think of the English vocabulary.
“I . . . hope . . . like,” I said slowly.
His eyes twinkled mischievously. “Oh, I like very much.”
My stomach tightened, knowing he didn’t mean the cheese, but I retorted in Czech, “You haven’t got many girls to compare me with,” kicking myself for not being able to say it in English.
I felt his gaze on me as I walked back to my mother.