Authors: Gordon Ferris
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
I walked for a long time, finally seeing the point of the cilice. Eventually I took my guilt home. At four in the afternoon a police sergeant appeared at the door.
‘Sir, Inspector Todd sends his compliments, sir. He says to tell you that the prints match. He says you’d understand.’
‘Oh, I do, Sergeant. I do.’
‘And this is for you, sir.’ He drew out an envelope and handed it to me.’
I parked the packet on the mantelpiece unopened. I didn’t want to see the death mask of a killer. Not on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas morning I woke in a blaze of determination. I was going to be Mr Positive personified. I brought Sam tea in her room, stoked the boiler and had a bath. I turned the wireless up and sang along to carols until Sam pleaded for respite.
I left her determinedly stuffing a flat-chested chicken with chestnuts and sausage meat while I drove down to Kilmarnock in her Riley. Nearing the town limits I took the Western Road and then down Bonnyton Road to the square. I saw the curtain twitch and by the time I’d stopped the car and walked to the entry, my mother was locking her front door. Her face was scrubbed and shining, her hair newly permed and glowing soft white. She had her Sunday coat and hat on, a parcel under her arm and a big pot at her feet. We hugged as best we could given the obstacles.
‘Happy Christmas, Mum.’
‘And you, son. This is such a treat, Douglas. Such a treat. Are you sure Samantha disnae mind? She’s only just back from Germany.’
‘She’s looking forward to it. You know she likes you.’
‘She’s lovely, Douglas. Don’t you let her get away.’
‘Chance of getting her would be a fine thing.’
‘Just be patient, son. You’re not the easiest lad to get to know.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Don’t be obtuse, Douglas. Take this pot. It weighs a ton.’
She beamed. ‘Now then, see that bag over there?’ She pointed at the hessian sack half full and bulging at the front door.
‘The coal bag?’
‘Get it into the car boot. That’ll pay for my Christmas dinner.’
‘Mum, there’s no need. You’ll have better use of this.’
‘Douglas, this is a mining community. We’ve got more coal than we know what to do with. I’m on a miner’s pension. This is a bonus, if you like.’
‘Och, Mum . . .’
‘You’re not ashamed that your old mither is showing up at Samantha’s nice hoose wi’ a bag o’ coal, are you?’
‘Of course not. Let’s think of it as an early first foot. OK?’
I noted she was still insisting on using Sam’s full name. She just liked saying it. It sounded posher to her gossipy pals than Jeannie, Jessie or Annie.
I placed the pot on the back seat and manhandled the coal sack into the boot. I got Mum on board and we set off back up the Glasgow Road.
‘Thanks, Mum. The coal’s a generous thought.’
‘Wheesht. Is this as fast as we can go?’
Sam had been busy. She’d dug out the painted balls and figures from her own long-ago Christmases and festooned the hall and tiny tree she’d set up in the lounge. She cooed over the dumpling and the coal. Mum settled in as though she’d been born to the grand life.
The smell of cooking blessed the house. We stripped the chicken to the bone and set upon the dumpling. We washed them down with tea and port, as the taste suited. We turned on the wireless and listened to more carols.
Mum had knitted a cardigan for Sam and socks for me. I’d blown some of my detective bonus on a silk scarf for Sam and a blouse for my mother. The last present was a small parcel from Sam to me.
‘Go on, Douglas, open it.’
I undid the brown paper to reveal the small box within. I opened it and took out the card. In her fine hand she’d written: ‘To Douglas, on our first Christmas. Love Samantha xxx’.
First? That sounded hopeful. I unwrapped the tissue paper and found a pair of silver cufflinks bearing lustrous blue opals the size of my fingernail.
‘Sam! They’re magnificent! Far too much, just lovely. I . . .’
‘Secondhand, Douglas. Sort of. The stones were my dad’s. I had them reset.’
I walked over, leaned down and kissed her. My mother’s eyes glowed.
It was a day for building memories to draw on when hope’s on the wane. It ended in style, with my mother safely tucked up in a bed under Sam’s warm roof, and Sam tucked up in mine.
‘Merry Christmas, Sam.’
‘Shhh . . .’ She pointed at the ceiling where my mother lay in the room above.
I drove my mother home to Bonnyton the next day.
‘You should just ask her, Douglas.’
‘We’ve talked. She says no.’
‘Why? I think she loves you.’
‘She’s got a career. She’s worked hard to get where she is. She’d have to give it up if she got married. It’s how it works in her business.’
‘I think you’d be worth it.’
‘You’re my mum.’
I picked up a
on the way home. In the world at large, the Clyde would get off to a jaunty start to ’47 with £73 million of new orders. This was offset by the parlous state of the national economy: coal rationing, booming black markets and grasping landladies putting the squeeze on poor tenants in slum accommodation. Out in Palestine our boys continued to be piggy-in-the-middle. One of our Arnhem heroes – a major – was kidnapped and flogged by the Jewish terror brigades in retaliation for a birching of one of their own. Biblical revenge.
When I got back to Sam’s we let the world crowd in again. I took out the six photos of the dead man from the envelope left by Duncan’s man. He looked less mean and explosive in death’s repose. I called Shimon Belsinger and Isaac and they came by in the afternoon to collect them. They would pass out the photos to see what their people might know.
Sam wasn’t due back to Hamburg for a couple of weeks. But she’d brought back enough paperwork to keep her busy. I didn’t ask to see any of it. She didn’t offer. But over the coming days we began to talk more about her trial. I told her about the similarities with the Belsen court and defendants last year. But there’s a limit to how much horror you can discuss without feeling you were trying to trump the revolting with the obscene.
Hanukkah was over, so was Christmas, and we were in no man’s land leading up to Ne’erday. The gentle, brief celebrations were over and preparations for the real thing – the four-day Scottish bacchanal – were commencing. Sam and I were simply waiting. The news from Shimon came back on Sunday. It was what I feared.
Inside the Statue of Liberty in Manhattan harbour is a bronze plaque bearing Emma Lazarus’s sonnet ‘The New Colossus’. It closes with the ringing appeal:
‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’
They could have nailed the words up on Glasgow Bridge at the entrance to the Gorbals, where they would have been equally relevant, and just as poignant. Or, as the self-aware Gorbals-dwellers themselves would have pointed out, at the exit.
The Gorbals straddles Wards 18, 19 and 20 for the purposes of electing councillors in Hutchesontown, Laurieston and Kingston. In reality the Gorbals is a nation state, operating and existing quasi-independently. Hardly redolent of Venice or Genoa, but certainly a law unto itself, a defined enclave within which its inhabitants blink into life, grow up, get into bother, reproduce and die, passing on the spluttering torch of ignorance and over-reproduction to the next luckless generation. Some of course get away and make it big in Canada or New Zealand, there to sing maudlin songs of home, nostalgic for a place that only existed in rose-tinted memory.
But from what I hear about New York, the Gorbals is no worse than the Lower East Side, a raucous anthill of new arrivals clambering over each other to survive and prosper in a strange land. For many of the huddled masses that fall to their knees on Ellis Island, an earlier staging post is Glasgow.
These days the Clyde is filled, nose to tail, with urgent steamships. They can’t get out of Scottish slums and Scottish weather quick enough. Some stay; they run out of money or fall in love or become too weary to take another step, climb another gangplank. Whether transients or stickers, they fill the Gorbals to bursting point.
I crossed the bridge into this teeming ghetto. Isaac Feldmann met me in front of his Great Synagogue and showed me through to a small back room. Four people were already clustered round a low table, in the centre of which lay the much-fingered photos of the thuggish knifeman. Shimon Belsinger rose to greet me. I also shook hands with Dr Tomas Meras, one of the men I’d met at Sam’s back in November. Another wore the raiment and bearing of a rabbi. Isaac introduced him as Maurice Silver. He took my offered hand in both of his and bobbed a shalom at me. We held each other’s gaze.
‘I’m sorry about Ellen Jacobs, Rabbi.’
‘Not as sorry as I am, Mr Brodie. Let us talk later.’
Two other men shifted in their seats and rose to greet me. I caught the names August and Konrad. Isaac asked Dr Tomas to talk first. As before, Tomas spoke in the clear deliberate English you’d expect from a lecturer in physics at Glasgow University. He pointed at the photos.
‘There are now over twelve thousand Jews in Glasgow. Most arrived in the past decade. We come from all over Europe. We know our own. I am from Vilnius in Lithuania.’ He leaned over and stabbed the photo with his finger. ‘This man is not Lithuanian. I talked to Lithuanians who saw him, who talked to him at his stall. He is Polish.’
‘Nor is he Victor Galdakis, Mr Brodie. We have independent corroboration from two sources. Both are here today.’ He indicated the two men sitting at the table. ‘August is one of my own countrymen. He
Victor Galdakis. The
Victor Galdakis. They were in the same camp at Treblinka.’
The news hit me like a waterfall. Yet a part of me wasn’t surprised. I turned to August. He was nodding vigorously and making sign language. Rabbi Silver leaned forward and picked up the thread.
‘August had his vocal cords crushed in the camp. A guard dog. I will translate. He tells me the real Victor was a small man, always smiling. He was an optician by day and a violinist in his spare time. He did not survive. He says he thinks this man killed him.’ He pointed at the photo. ‘He thinks he saw him once, but did not learn his name. And then this man was moved to another camp.’
‘Is Victor Galdakis a common name in Lithuania? Is it like John Brown here?’
Tomas shook his head. ‘It’s not uncommon, but not as common as all that. More importantly, we
who this is, and where he went after Treblinka.’ He again stabbed the photo, as though he could hurt it. ‘Konrad, please tell Mr Brodie what you know.’
I turned to Konrad. In his drawn face were huge staring eyes, unblinking, as though he was gazing through me into another world.
‘I saw this man.’ He pointed at the photo with clear distaste. ‘Ivan Draganski.
. He was not a Jew. He was a
at Ravensbrück.’ He spat the word. It hit me like a bayonet to the belly.
‘A camp marshal,’ I said. Mix four deaths with Nazi gold and what do you get? Havoc. Only the details would be news.
Konrad nodded his head with certainty. ‘He came from Treblinka where he was a
, we heard. He was sent to us on promotion. He had two pips and a bar on his uniform collar.’ He touched his thin shoulder.
I nodded. ‘Roughly the same as our sergeant. His earlier rank equates to a corporal.’
The others were inspecting Konrad quizzically. But for me the words were a key to a secret door. A tunnel back into the nightmares of last year in north Germany.
We set up camp in Bergen, a couple of miles from the concentration camp at Belsen. They brought in the Nazi prisoners in chains and under guard. Most were men. Most were senior SS officers who’d been running the camps. A few women came through and some doctors. My job was to sift the testimonies and decide who should be sent to trial for war crimes, just fifty miles north of Bergen, at Lüneburg.
In the first analysis it didn’t take much interrogation. Unless they’d managed to discard their uniforms, anyone with the double lighting flash and the
– death’s head – insignia on their collars was sent for trial. Anyone who’d removed their collar tabs or sleeve markers were also assumed to be SS until they could prove otherwise. The same went for any officer sporting one or more oak leaves. A full colonel and above was deemed to have been sufficiently steeped in the blood of innocents, one way or the other, to be culpable of war crimes.
This steady fashion show emphasised how much the Nazis loved their uniforms, and how they were always fussing about with it. From field grey to black, from SS rank to Wehrmacht, from shoulder-boards to collar patches and sleeve diamonds, it suggested an army more taken with appearance than combat. Which was far from the truth. On reflection, thinking of our kilted warriors, maybe pretty uniforms made for better soldiers?
But my job went further than separating the sheep and goats. We wanted information. We were tracking down the top men, the ones who unleashed hell, and we were following every lead. In exchange for useful information, we were prepared to write on their notes that they’d been cooperative. It might be enough to save them from a hanging.
I realised the rabbi was talking to me. I broke out of my reverie. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘I was saying that justice has been done to this man, Mr Brodie.’
‘I doubt that, Rabbi. If he was anything like his pals, he got off lightly.’
The rabbi inspected me carefully. He turned to the others. ‘I have some words to say to Mr Brodie. May I beg your indulgence?’
The other men murmured and nodded and took their leave. The rabbi and I were left sitting together. We knew the subject matter. He began.