Authors: James MacManus
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Dedicated to the memory of Colonel Noel Mason MacFarlane British military attachÃ©, Berlin, 1938â39
She reached across the table and placed a hand on his arm. Frown lines creased her forehead. The dark eyes looked at him imploringly. She was breathing heavily â hyperventilating, thought Macrae. He saw the swell of her breast against the red dress. She's going to faint, he thought. He looked around for a waitress.
“Look at me,” she whispered.
He looked at her properly for the first time, swirling the dregs of brandy in the tulip-shaped glass, badly wanting another one. Her eyes were dark and deep beneath long lashes heavy with mascara. Her small oval face, pale and powdered, looked fragile and pretty, like a fine china doll. Claret-red lipstick traced a perfect bow over her mouth. There was a beauty spot on one cheek and faint beads of perspiration along her upper lip.
She would have looked childish but for the long ringlets of dark hair that dropped to her shoulders. Her sleeveless dress rose from ankle to neck. It was tight, designed to emphasise her figure, and he could see the faint rise in the fabric made by her nipples. The image of a china doll dissolved, to be replaced by that of an actress. That's what she was, he
thought, a beautiful actress, with the powdered face and imploring eyes of a silent-movie heroine.
“I'm not asking much, just news of my brother.”
“Joseph Sternschein?” he said.
“Yes. I'd give anything to know that he is at least alive.” She shifted slightly in her chair, taking her hand from his arm, sitting up, her shoulders back. “Anything,” she said again.
He shook his head, finished his brandy and got to his feet.
“If I asked, they would want to know why. The Gestapo would be curious. I am a diplomat, after all.”
“And he's just a kid in one of their camps, right? Just another number on a file?”
He sighed and looked across the room at the door. “We have to deal with these people every day; it's not nice and it's not easy.”
“And you don't want to upset them â is that it?”
Her eyes had lost their soft appeal. She was angry. “You know, I hear things back there â¦ She jerked her head towards the fanlight door.
“What sort of things?”
“You'd be surprised what some very important people tell me. It's all part of the power thing, isn't it? Men want to impress me with their little secrets.”
“I must go,” he said. “I don't know what you're doing here, but â¦”
She reached across and took his arm, this time gripping it tightly. She stabbed her forefinger at the table, the varnished nail beating out an urgent tattoo. “I've told you what I'm doing here. I'm doing it with some of the most powerful men in this country. I'm good at it. They like me. And I don't have any choice â do you understand?”
She got up and walked back to the bar. Almost immediately, a man sat beside her.
The train arrived at Berlin's Anhalter Station shortly before noon, hissing a cloud of steam into the freezing air. They had left Vienna only a few hours earlier on a sunlit winter morning. Looking back, they could see from their carriage window the tower of St Stephen's Cathedral receding over the rooftops of a city that had lost, but not forgotten, the imperial splendour of an empire that had once ruled eastern Europe.
Berlin that Sunday morning was cold and empty, a monochrome city whose spires and steeples were lost in low cloud that vented occasional flurries of snow onto silent streets. Windows were shuttered as if those inside could not bear to look on such a desolate scene. Even the swastika bunting strung from lampposts along the route of a recent parade seemed about to wither and fall.
The embassy car crossed the River Spree before driving through the Brandenburg Gate and west along Charlottenburger Chaussee. They passed the gilded Victory Column that celebrated the Prussian triumph over France in 1871 and minutes later reached their destination â a four-storey house on a side street just off the avenue.
The driver opened the front door and began to unload the luggage. Colonel Macrae got out and held the door of the car for his wife. She did not acknowledge the courtesy and walked into the house, her pale, powdered face set in a frown. She had accepted the sudden upheaval as the lot of a diplomat's wife. This was to be their new home, and he watched as she marched up the stairs to begin a tour of inspection. He had told her only six days ago that he had been posted to Berlin and was expected to be at his desk in the embassy the following week. Surely she could follow on later, she had asked, say goodbye properly to their friends in Austria, have one last dinner party at the old house?
No. The orders from the War Office were specific: the military attachÃ© and his wife were to be in their new residence within the week. The duties of both would start immediately, she to carry on the usual round of entertaining and he to continue the excellent work of his predecessor. Colonel Eveleigh Watson's heart attack had shocked the embassy and drawn unusual tributes from senior German officers.
Macrae went to the bottom of the stairs and raised his voice. “We have a lunch, dear â you remember, I told you?” He knew she would be somewhere on the upper floors pulling back bed covers, opening the curtains, turning on taps, running a finger over the furniture to check for dust. In fact, the house was spotless and the kitchen equipped with that most modern of conveniences, a refrigerator, which had been well stocked with perishable provisions.
There was no reply. He walked up the broad staircase to the second floor. A door on the landing gave onto a large L-shaped drawing room. Three sofas were placed around a fireplace. A large mirror stood above the mantel. The floor was polished wood. At one end, French windows and a small balcony overlooked the avenue.
He opened the windows and stepped out. Much of the Tiergarten park was heavily wooded, but on this stretch of the road the trees had been felled to make way for a row of houses, a police station and a kindergarten. To his right, he could see the SiegessÃ¤ule, the Victory Column they had passed, a grandiose martial memorial rising 220 feet into the air.
He had read in a guidebook that the Nazis had somehow added thirty feet to the column when they moved it, stone by stone, from its original position in front of the Reichstag parliament building half a mile away. They said it was done to create space for Albert Speer's plans for the new Berlin.
A voice floated down, saying something about lunch. He looked at his watch. It was twelve forty-five. They were due at the ambassador's residence in a neighbouring suburb at 1 p.m. for what had been described as a small welcome lunch. They would be late.
“I'll wait in the hall,” he said loudly, and walked downstairs.
By the front door he caught his reflection in the gilded hall mirror: a rakish hat pulled down over an angular face whose long nose pointed over thin lips to a jutting chin. At school they had called him Nosey, but he was tall for his age and a handy forward in the rugger first XV. Nobody had ever tried to bully him. He pulled the belt of his overcoat tight and looked at his watch. He had been told that the ambassador disapproved of guests arriving late, especially if they were on his staff.
Sir Nevile Henderson was well known on the diplomatic circuit in Berlin. He was always elegantly dressed in the old-fashioned style of an Edwardian gentleman: wing-tip collar, dark tie, waistcoat and watch chain. His one concession to
colour was the red carnation he invariably wore in his buttonhole. He was unmarried and often invited a middle-aged lady on his staff, Daisy Wellesley, to act as his hostess. This somewhat unusual arrangement was the subject of quite unfounded gossip. It was also said, quite truthfully as it happened, that Sir Nevile provided only fine German wines, whether at lunch or dinner, for fear that French vintages might upset his official guests.
On this Sunday, Noel and Primrose Macrae were offered a light white Bavarian wine while standing around a log fire at the far end of the dining room. The table had been laid for seven, Macrae noticed. There were three other guests: the political attachÃ©, David Buckland, and his wife Amanda, and a stout, middle-aged man with the veined nose of an habitual drinker, who clearly did not wish to be there.
He was introduced as Roger Halliday, “a senior member of the team”. He certainly did not dress like a diplomat. His clothes looked as if they had been acquired at a flea market and flung on in the dark. The shirt collar was frayed, the cuffs protruded from an old hunting jacket that had lost its buttons. The jacket had deep baggy pockets, presumably once used for stowing the odd game bird. His hair was a mop of uncombed white, curling in lank waves over his collar. He looked like a poacher, thought Macrae. He guessed he was a member of the Secret Intelligence Service.
Macrae watched as his wife thawed out under the charm of the ambassador and the effect of the wine. Her face, which had been set in a frosty mask since they left Vienna, had relaxed.