The German in the Wood

Emma Tennant

I don’t think my father ever saw Bella. She was small, so small that her eyes and surprisingly large beaky nose came only just over the top of the kitchen table. Her chin – and a very slack mouth that muttered and dribbled in a kind of singsong language I could sometimes understand – were lost to view, below the rim of the thick, much-scoured, gargantuan table. Her hands, snapping at spinach, rolling a wooden pin in dough, fluttered about the sides of her head as she worked, like dancing ears.

Strong footsteps in the passage could mean my father. He might have a rabbit in his hand, and give it in through a half-window in the passage to Mrs Colne. It was like my Pollocks Toy Theatre – Mrs Colne might be whirling and skipping from the dresser to the iron pots on the old Aga, Sam Grieve the keeper might be back from the woods with birds’ tail feathers as bright as an actress’s plumed hat. Bella at those times was at the sink, invisible in the gloom of the far side of the old kitchen. Her head peered into the sink and her hands were high, shedding a rapid succession of soft fingernails, the oblong and glistening potato peelings that would then go out the back for the pig. Or she was in the scullery, climbing on a chair to cut down a wood pigeon or, very occasionally, a pheasant. In the scullery, with its trough-size stone sinks and dim light from a window that gave out on the cinder heap at the back, Bella looked particularly small. If my father came in, he would be bound to miss her in the uncertain light. But I didn’t think of her as being small then, of course; for Bella was the same height as me.

One day three things happened at the same time. The first was that summer came at last to our Northern valley. We’d been so long in snow and in skies as grey as the heron that kept flapping down by the side of the frozen burn, that it was hard to remember the green on the trees in the wood. We stood staring at it, Mrs Colne and Bella and I. What a lovely sight it was! And I immediately found I couldn’t remember at all what the winter had been like. I said I wanted to go up to the Fairy Ring. For I’d had the fairy stories of James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd read to me and he’d written of this wood, where it was dangerous to go most of the time, and especially to the Fairy Ring. The toadstools, a pale, hideous necklace of poison round the thick, mossy neck of the Ring, had been people once.

Mrs Colne said we couldn’t go. It was dangerous. And yet I knew she’d been up there with Sam Grieve and her own daughter, they’d been picking bilberries on the heathery hillside above the wood and their mouths and cheeks were as purple as if they’d been drinking wine up there, waiting for the fairies and witches the Ettrick Shepherd had seen. I said I knew it was dangerous. In one of Hogg’s stories there was a boy who’d been wandering harmlessly and he had turned to a three-legged stool. And he wasn’t even in the Ring at all. The silver birches of the Ettrick forest were said to be very ancient. I thought that with their branches and roots they might have lashed at the boy, until he cried out to be made, like them, into a piece of wood.

The next thing that happened – after the astonishing refusal of Mrs Colne to lie in the beautiful mossy circle with the new summer sun coming in through the birch leaves – was that my father came out onto the grass from another door and stood beside us. Bella, as always, had slipped into invisibility behind a wall where once, before the war and the disappearance of gardeners, there had been a peony garden. She knelt on an overgrown path, pulling at dandelion leaves. My father and Mrs Colne and I stood staring right in front of us, as if we were hoping for something to appear on the hillside opposite, out of the wood.

My father said he was going away to the war. He would be in a very hot place, sometimes it was over a hundred. I saw a tent, and men like Ali Baba coming in and standing with my father. He said the dried figs we ate sometimes had probably come from there.

My father and mother must have already left in the old Wolsey for the war when I decided to run away myself – and this was the third thing that happened that day.

Mrs Colne kept a small purse for me, in which pocket-money went. I found it easily, in the drawer that smelt of biscuits, in the table by her bed. I went to the scullery, which was empty except for birds hanging from the ceiling – and Bella. I told her we were going away.

Bella put down the half-plucked bird on the great stone ledge by the sink. She had a bootlace in her pocket and she tied it round her hair. We went out the back, and then joined the front drive – which was overgrown too, with bright green moss, like the moss in the Fairy Ring. Bella tried to kneel down and pull out the moss, but it would have taken too long to tidy up a mile of road, and I tugged at her arm. I wanted to walk to the small town and buy an ice cream, and then climb up to the wood, which also lay behind the small town, and walk along paths drying out their last year’s mulch, to the magic place. I didn’t want to be turned into anything, but I thought that day that I was bound to see someone who was a fox – or a kingfisher perhaps, flashing over the trees.

Nothing seemed to go right. The road was very hot, and I saw we really had forgotten about summer, because our feet itched with a sort of dry heat that made us almost decide to go back. But we wanted the ice cream, which would be served at St Ronan’s Cafe by Mr Gigli or his wife. St Ronan was the patron saint of this small, grey Scottish town. Mr and Mrs Gigli, perhaps because they were Italian, were thought to short-change people. But they poured reckless quantities of raspberry syrup on the ice cream and you could carry it over the patch of fusty lino to a table. It was thinking of this that kept me going – even when Bella began to lag behind.

We were just in the last stretch of road, the straight stretch between the old manse and Traquair village, where James Hogg knew witches still lived in his own time, when I stopped and looked back and saw how far away Bella now was. She was certainly small now, on the road with the stern face of the old quarries to one side of her, overgrown with heather, and the forest, thick and white-barked with mottled patches on the trunks, looming on the other side of the road. She was as small as a three-legged stool. I felt as frightened as if we were already in the wood. But I walked on, and soon I crossed the Tweed and I was in the outskirts of the small town. I looked round once and Bella was completely out of sight. But before I’d got that far I’d seen a group of men coming along the road. They looked as if they’d been pulled through a hedge backwards, these men, and some of them carried picks or spades. I ran faster, past Traquair, the old white house on the edge of the Tweed, and then by the Traquair Arms where there was a stuffed salmon in a glass case in the hall. Now I was in the lonely main street where St Ronan’s Cafe stood.

Mr Gigli was talking about these men when I came in. He wanted to show he had nothing to do with them although they, like he, weren’t English. ‘The enemy,’ Mr Gigli said. He was short and fat and his hair was black and shiny with brilliantine. ‘B-risoners of Wuh.’

I didn’t know what Mr Gigli meant. He was directing his remarks to a man who looked like a shepherd, who had come in for a bottle of St Ronan’s Ginger Beer. The shepherd was absolutely dour and silent, and so Mr Gigli had to talk to me. He pushed down a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which was made of whale fat really, or so said Mrs Colne. ‘Bloody Germans,’ Mr Gigli said. ‘Why they no just shoot them, I say.’

In his excitement Mr Gigli added another scoop to the existing one in the ribbed glass dish. I kept as quiet as the shepherd, hoping Mr Gigli wouldn’t see his mistake. The bottle of raspberry syrup came off the shelf and there was the usual rush of sticky red juice on the ice cream, but this time, of course, with more of it to cover. I gave Mr Gigli half a crown from my purse and went to the table and sat down.

Bella never turned up in the cafe. But the shepherd had recognised me and he went out and waved down a man in a car who worked on the next farm and I was told quite severely that I would be given a lift home. I had to finish the ice cream in a rush. When I went out in the street and got into the unfamiliar car, the man said he’d seen Bella on the road and we’d stop and pick her up on the way back. He seemed very angry. And when we found Bella, who’d hardly moved at all since I last looked back and saw her so small, she climbed into the car like a dog. She was giggling a bit, though, and dribbling too from her big, slack lips. I held her hand, because it was dancing so fast on my knee. ‘POWs,’ the farming man said.

Mrs Colne was no kinder when we were dropped at the back door and went in. First, she slapped Bella. She said Bella was old enough to know better. Then she said I had no right to take the purse without asking her. She demanded it back. And when she forced me to say how much I had paid for the ice cream and she looked inside the purse, she said Mr Gigli had short-changed me. Mrs Colne was in no mood to hear that Mr Gigli had given me a double portion of ice cream, in his agitation over the men.

‘Germans,’ Mrs Colne said. I was made to go to bed early. I was lonely in the room in the basement, with the sound of Mrs Colne bustling in the kitchen and the wireless going on and off. ‘What would I say to your father and mother?’ Mrs Colne said at the door, before turning off the light. A tormenting line of light of the Northern summer evening still showed under the door when she had gone.

My father had been sent to be head of SOE in Cairo. The SOE organised resistance in the war, and this was the summer of 1943. He had agreed to receive a delegation of Greek guerrillas from a landing-strip in the mountains of Thessaly, at his headquarters in Cairo. These resistance fighters made up what was known as ‘the andarte delegation’. Their bravery and cunning in ambushing the Germans who occupied their villages was well-known. But Churchill considered them to be little better than bandits. It was my father’s hope, along with Brigadier Myers who brought the six guerrillas from the tiny airstrip at Neraida, that these men would be allowed a say in the running of their country and of the military. They set off with Myers on the 9th of August in a small plane: the usual method, of going by caique to Turkey, was considered too risky. They arrived on August 10th. But their hopes were soon dashed. The Foreign Office was very much against the SOE in this matter. Churchill wanted the King restored in Greece. He didn’t want the ‘bandits’ to have anything at all.

The Germans were strung out in the stone villages of Greece. My father had told me ‘we’ were at war with the Germans. I saw the German prisoners on the road between Traquair manse and the small town, and I saw them run round the town and shoot and shoot, like in the Pathé newsreels Mrs Colne sometimes took me to see. The small town went up in a cloud of grey smoke. Up above the Ettrick forest, which was untouched by the war, a line of faint red showed for a red-sky-at-night-shepherd’s-delight sunset. Beyond the red was desert, where my father sat in his tent. He had a desk like the desk in his library upstairs and his fingers drummed on the leather top the colour of dried figs. He wore a white sheet, because it was so hot.

I got up when it was properly dark. I dressed and went down the tile passage to Bella’s room. This was up a small stone spiral staircase, over the scullery. There was a very old bathroom next to Bella’s room, and there was a grille in the floor where you could look down and see the pigeons or game hanging, through frosted glass. The door of Bella’s room wouldn’t open, so I went into the bathroom. The light was on in the scullery below, because I saw something hanging – and it was so big and bulky that I thought it was Bella there. But when I knelt down and looked closer I saw it was only a pair of hares, pushed up together so that their faces were kissing. One of them had a trickle of blood running down from the mouth to its white shirtfront.

I went down the spiral stairs and let myself out the back door. I knew where Bella must be, by now. Mrs Colne always kept the back door locked with a big rusty key, but now it opened without difficulty. It was so late that even her wireless was quiet. A big moon had come up over the wood. I had a torch, all the same. Bella must have forgotten it, although it hung inside the kitchen door, on a dog-chewed piece of string. I set off, over a cold dew, for the wood.

The six representatives of Greek resistance movements in Cairo were told they must return to Greece empty-handed. The Foreign Office would do nothing to help them. There would be frustration and disappointment, and fighters would turn against one another. They pleaded to be allowed to stay in Cairo, and try to have some effect on Churchill’s policy. Still, they were told to go. They were told to take the bumpy ride in the tiny plane to the mountains of Thessaly. And to the Germans, lurking in the woods and under the grey stone walls that built up in a series of terraces of olive and other trees to the village base. The guerrillas asked my father if they could visit the Greek ambassador in Cairo, on their way to the airport and the flight back to Greece. My father said they could.

I reached the wood by a gap in the fence: the wrought-iron gate that had been there had been taken for the war. Cowpats shone as white as big mushrooms in the moonlight. I walked up the path, and I was among the old trees. The first thing I saw was that the mottled patches on the white trunks of the trees had turned into faces. They looked as if they had been inked there. When there was a gust of wind, and the leaves moved higher up in the trees, the faces winked and grinned like a comic strip.

I walked on, because I knew that although Mrs Colne had said it was too dangerous to go up into the Ettrick forest, she was wrong. I always went there. This was the first time at night, but I had a torch. I shone it on the mulch of old leaves I’d been looking forward to walking in all day. Once, a hedgehog appeared in the leaves and then vanished again. I was pleased to see this, because hedgehogs only too often fell in the trap in our drive, metal bars in a grid to keep rabbits from eating the garden. The hedgehogs sat in the old leaves, and had to be rescued. I used to wonder if they got back to the wood again, or whether they had to make do with the ragged clumps of trees in the field.

The next thing that appeared was Bella. She was right up ahead of me, in the Fairy Ring. She seemed to be dancing round and round, but her shadow was too big.

The Greek resistance leaders were able to stay in the embassy in Cairo. They didn’t have to go straight back to the airstrip at Neraida. They were very grateful to my father for his understanding, and they composed a letter to him: ‘La Délégation de l’EAM est très sensible à l’honneur d’être reçu si cordialement par Lord Glenconner chez qui elle a senti fort la sympathie de la Grande Bretagne envers le peuple Grec en lutte contre l’ennemi commun. Le Caire le 10. 8. 1943’

Bella and the German danced in the wood. I stood outside the Ring and watched them. Once they fell, and they turned together into a wooden stool with four legs. Bella was singing, but it was a new song and I couldn’t understand it. They lay in the shadow, away from the moon, under a clump of trees that were not silver birches. I turned down the path and went home.

The Greek guerrillas had to go home, in the end. The FO would still grant them nothing, because they were Communists. The FO was set on the King.

All that summer, Bella went up to the wood and danced with the German. Mrs Colne never knew. I only went once again, in the bright daylight, to see if anything had come up in the wood. Apart from red mushrooms with a row of white bead spots on the rim, there was nothing. By now I knew the Germans couldn’t hurt us, so I wondered why the war was keeping my father away so long.

In October 1943 my father was recalled from Cairo. He, with two others who had agreed on the necessity of helping the Greek resistance fighters, had been forced to resign. I can’t remember any particular moment when he and my mother were back in the house again. The story of my running away to the small town was told, but it may have sounded quite unimportant. Bella stopped going out at night – at least I think she did, for with the return of my parents, I left my room in the basement and moved back upstairs, to rooms where light came in. The next time I went down to the kitchen, it was to find a hand of bananas lying on the ledge of the half-window in the passage. Mrs Colne was making a terrific fuss of them.

My father had brought back this spreading hand of pale green fingers from Cairo. And they seemed to personify to everyone a world without war. Mrs Colne told me again and again that I’d never seen such a thing before in my life. But the bananas didn’t ripen properly, and in the end Mrs Colne had to cook them with brown sugar and raisins found in a tin left over from before the beginning of the war.