The German Messenger by David Malcolm – EXCERPT
Chapter 1 – In London
It was a cold, wet December afternoon when my train pulled into Victoria. Clouds of steam billowed up in the damp air, up into the blackened arches of the station roof. Pigeons flapped aimlessly from one to the other. A tired, bleary-eyed, bad-tempered crowd pushed and lugged its bags, porters shouted hoarsely, soldiers stood in small huddles, smoking, drinking tea at steaming, makeshift canteens. As always when I came back to London, I was struck by the amount of khaki everywhere. The city, or at least its stations, its parks, its squares, all its public places were on a war footing. Soldiers everywhere, waiting, gathering, reading, larking, dashing purposefully or looking lost and confused. One came up to me, a scrap of official paper clutched in one hand, a huge kit bag weighing down his shoulder. In a broad Belfast accent he asked me, without saluting, where platform five might be, for God’s sake. His eyes were glazed with tiredness and worry. I turned him round and pointed him in the right direction. He didn’t even manage to stammer a thanks.
The motor cab jolted me through the wet, windswept streets. Evening was coming on, and they were lighting the lamps. The matinee shows at the music halls were finishing, and crowds milled on the streets along the Strand. Again I noticed the uniforms everywhere. London used to be such a civilian town, I thought to myself. Now suddenly, so many soldiers. And then I realized it was already the second year of the War, and, as I glanced down at my own Army greatcoat, that I was one of them too.
I let myself into my service flat. I had wired ahead so they had cleaned and aired the place, and a fire was burning in the sitting room grate. For a moment, my mood of depression vanished. Here I was safe, here I was at home, surrounded by my books and chairs, my pictures, my letters, my civilian clothes, by all the bric-a-brac of a life of sorts. And then as I unstrapped my boots and took off my greatcoat, I caught a glimpse of my face in the hallway mirror, and a wave of sadness and bile swept up from my guts to my throat.
I stared at the face in the mirror. The neck rose out of the khaki and brown thinner, more gaunt than I’d ever seen it. The face above was grey and stretched. The eyes stared out of bony hollows. The hair was going grey at the temples. The neat brush of a moustache that we all affected in those years was flecked with grey. I suppose the look was distinguished in its way, but for a moment I had seen myself without any protective layers of pretence or habit, without the company of others. I looked awful, I thought, like a walking dead man. I was wearing a grey mask, and only my eyes seemed half alive. No wonder the little Belgian had almost died of fright when I had stuck my face next to his (we were completely alone by then for I had sent young Morrisey out of the room; Lefranc of course stayed, cleaning his nails in a way even I found unnerving) and told him very quietly, and in very passable French, what it was in my power, my personal power, to do to him if he didn’t tell us exactly what he thought the Panamanian registered tramp due into Santander on Thursday was really carrying. He broke down at that point and seemed grateful rather than anything else when we told him that he would probably get four years in a French military prison for not letting us know earlier.
The face was not my father’s, not my father’s at all.
The face was not that of a happy man, nor of a kind one. By late 1916, I was neither of those things. Although I was alive, and that might have been cause enough for a brief smile or two. Sometimes I felt I knew more of the dead, than I did of the living. On bad days, I felt that I belonged among them myself.
Later, after I had bathed and changed into comfortable civilian clothes, and the lights glowed liquid in the jet black night outside, I reviewed the past few years of my life. I poured myself a whisky and sat by the fire. I was afraid to lose the heat of the bath, and I let the warmth from the flames play on my face. I was thirty-one years old, a major in the British Army, seconded to the War Office for special duties. The special duties had been no choice of mine. In 1914 I had tried to join up like thousands of other young men. It seemed only right, the logical continuation of my work for the past decade. At last, the final battle was coming. I was still young enough to believe that. They plucked me out within three days, put a captain’s uniform on me, and sent me to France to interrogate German POWs. Bullivant came to see me in the big house north of Paris. We could hear the German guns on the Marne and all our papers were in boxes and all the trucks were manned round the clock in case we had to leave at a moment’s notice. Bulllivant looked like a man who’d placed a bet on an unknown horse at the races and won a fortune. His bald head gleamed in the autumn sun and he glanced towards the east and the sound of the guns with a kind of grim satisfaction. “This is your war,” he said to me, waving his hand round the grand dining room we used for preliminary interrogations. “Not out there. A stray bullet and a decade of experience is wiped out. We can’t afford that. This war will be longer than most of the generals or politicians think, let alone the general public. Longer than any of them can begin to guess, either here or in Berlin. We need you to do the kind of work only you can do. We can always find brave young men to die. We need your knowledge and your brains.” And then he added with a smile, “And don’t think for a moment it won’t be dangerous. It will, I assure you, it will.”
So I fought my war not in the trenches, but in chateaux behind the lines, in tiny French provincial police stations, by the customs desks in Boulogne and Rosslare. I interrogated, browbeat, bullied, terrified, trapped. I watched lines of people stepping off boats. I scrutinized Swiss permis de séjour and bills of lading out of Varna bound for Christiansand. I travelled to Boston to trace Irish money that was buying German guns. I tried to buy or trap German clerks in Lisbon, and to unmask the German who was trying to do the same to British clerks in Zürich. I was five times behind German lines. Exciting visits, but not for telling about here. I was in Berlin when Casement visited in 1915. Later they sent me to speak to hard-faced Polish legionnaires in the forests round Kraków. In early 1916, I was in Pommerania checking on exercises for an invasion of Britain which the German General Staff appeared to be holding on the Baltic. A few months later they sent me into Galicia to look for a lost agent, gone missing with Austrian Army codes. The Germans almost killed me later that year in an Armenian restaurant in Bucharest. Bullivant was right – it was dangerous. I carried a few more scars, my bones ached from the last mad tramp over the Tatras, I sweated when I thought of a certain forest glade in the Carpathians and a yeshiva in Romanian Transylvania. Oh, yes, dangerous enough. That salved my conscience a little, but not much when the casualty lists started to come out in August 1916. No, not much.
Andrzej had stayed with me when the War started. Bullivant payed him a salary for work he did for us. He helped me with interrogations, freelanced and trawled for information on his own among the Central European emigrés of London and Paris, came with me when I travelled to Kraków and Galicia. It was he who knocked out the German agent who wanted to kill me in Bucharest. All for a free Poland (but he was on the wrong side if that was what he wanted), or all for adventure? Or was it simply that he, like me, had become used to a certain way of life, and neither he, nor I, quite knew what we would do without it?
Along the way, too, I had picked up another assistant. Corporal Alan McLeish, tall, red-haired, very hard, very Glaswegian, had come to me as my driver and batman in the autumn of 1914. I had quickly learned to value his violent efficiency and exemplary skill with vehicle engines. He brought other qualifications with him too. He had lived for several years in South Africa and spoke very decent Afrikaans and passable Dutch. I took him with me on my first trip into Holland in late 1914 when we played the part of a pair of Swiss and South African representatives of a certain Swedish shipping company that was willing to transport certain items to certain neutral ports for a substantial fee. We flushed out a whole network of secret German suppliers that time. McLeish, like Andrzej, was a useful man to have around in a tight corner. I once saw him stop a particularly nasty pro-German, Dutch gendarme with one of the best placed head-butts I have ever witnessed. We ran fast that night, I can tell you. I remember breathing a deep sigh of relief when the little fishing smack we commandeered made it out of Dutch territorial waters.
But I lost McLeish in early 1916. He gave me an ultimatum (we were on that kind of terms by then). Either let him join up in a line regiment, or he would simply go AWOL and get himself thrown in a military prison. I told him he was mad, he’d be dead in three months. He said he didn’t care, he couldn’t bear watching good men go West while he sat safe in “some fucking fancy French chateau, drinking wine like a pimp.” When I pointed out that we got shot at too, he just laughed. “Nothing against you, sir,” he said, “I know they won’t let you join the regulars. But we have a right cushy number here most of the time. I canna look mysel’ in the mirror much longer if I stay here. Just sign the bloody paper, would you? Sir.” So I did, and he went back to the Cameron Highlanders. I missed him. I hadn’t seen him for almost a year. He was most likely dead. I really did miss him. Young Morrisey couldn’t get a car started on a damp February morning; no prisoner believed he’d break every finger in your left hand without a qualm (they did when McLeish looked at them); my paper work wasn’t half as good as when McLeish was managing it. And I missed the covert and overt insults. Morrisey was a mild mannered young man from Hardy’s Wessex, not a Glaswegian thug deeply imbued with a Scottish contempt for authority. Ach, McLeish was probably frozen dead in some trench by now. And good luck to him.
Then I started. I stared into the fire and thought of the dead. When I was out on a job, I rarely allowed myself the luxury. Here in my own flat, by my own fire, I could hardly stop. You see, it wasn’t all safety behind the lines. My work took me to the front too, and not to some cleaned-up version that the brass-hats saw. I knew the mud and the wire and the trees like burnt matchsticks. I smelled the stench of the unburied bodies in No Man’s Land; I heard the heavy guns. But after a day or two I could go home. That was the difference. But even there the front pursued me. I talked to men on furlough, on rest detail, British and French. The stories were the same. The same endless, concentrated imitation of hell. But what was unnerving was that the German soldiers I interrogated told the same stories. They all shared a landscape of hell and madness – the same mud, the same stench, the same rats. A young Bavarian Feldwebel would paint the same picture as a corporal from East Lancs or a French poilou from Dijon. Sometimes it seemed they weren’t fighting each other, but the war. That was their common enemy, the bloody war.
I remembered a spring day in 1915. McLeish and I were lounging against the wall of an old French farmhouse. We’d stopped for lunch on our way back from a line H.Q. where they’d just captured a sergeant from a Prussian regiment. He was a tough old Berliner (with Social-Democrat leanings, I’d wager) who told us nothing of any use, so we decided to take the long way home and enjoy ourselves a little en route. The cold chicken and the white wine that Mcleish had conjured out of a passing French officers’ supply truck were excellent. The sun was shining, heating the old limestone walls of the farm house. The trees had a haze of green on them.
And then down the road marched a column of Scottish soldiers. Their badges were that of one of the new Glasgow regiments, one of Kitchener‘s New Army creations. But they looked good lads, well-disciplined, marching in good order, their trench kilts swinging like loose aprons. We raised our glasses to them as they passed, about a hundred and fifty of them, and they smiled and waved back. “Awa’ ye go, lads,” called McLeish. “Awa’ the bhouys!” I even knew the captain from school, a grim, dark-faced lad two years my junior who’d wanted to be a doctor. “Aye Gavin,” I cried. “Did ye make it to the Medical Department?” “Harry, man, Harry Draffen,” he called in return. “Aye, I did. MBChB. I got married too. A bonny lass. We live near where your grandad had his parish.” “Good luck to you, Gavin. Tak’ care.” “An’ you too, Draffen.” They marched on and McLeish and I watched them. There was yellow blossom in the fields. The trees had that tinge of green they only have in early spring. We watched them march away, and then silently, without exchanging a single word, we packed the basket, loaded the car and set back for base. We didn’t say a thing to each other for more than an hour. What was there to say?
I was in Divisional H.Q. when the flimsy came in for that sector. The afternoon we had seen them they had been wiped out attacking German fortified machine-gun emplacements. Every one of them was dead. That night McLeish and I drank a great deal. I think it was then he decided to leave me altogether.
But I never hated the Germans. Well, with my background and experiences I wouldn’t, I suppose. But it went further than that. You’d think, after that story of the Scottish column being wiped out, I’d blame it all on them and hate them for it. But neither McLeish or I did. We hated the War, we hated the bloody brass-hats on both sides who sent kids in to die in the mud and on the wire. But hate the Germans? Christ, they were dying like flies too, in the same mud, on the same wire.
It was as if we were all characters in some mad novel, written by a lunatic whom we couldn’t control. So many of us knew the whole thing was bad, but we could never break away from it. How could we? If we did, we’d be betraying our mates, the men who suffered and died with us. We’d have to confess that the two years of hell had been for nothing and that the men we let give us orders were fools. And that we were fools for obeying them. So we kept on serving the War that consumed those very mates of ours.
And the funny thing was, the men from the Wilhelmstrasse felt the same as we did. Some did, anyway. I met one in Zürich in early ’16, I remember. We were exchanging agents (oh, we’d become sophisticated enough to do that by then, provided we could keep it out of the papers and away from the brass), one of ours for one of theirs, on neutral territory by a pretty little summer house on the Lake of Zürich. It was spring, I remember. The snow was still on the mountains, but the leaves were beginning to bud and the birds were singing. The waters of the lake lapped softly on a grassy shore. Goethe had rowed here 130 years before and written one of my favourite lyrics. “Und frische Nahrung, neues Blut . . .”. (“And fresh nourishment, new blood. . . ” – it doesn’t translate well, does it? But it is beautiful.)
I was to meet one of theirs first, to settle details, to arrange terms. He stood by the lake, a tall, slim figure in a dark coat, smoking a cigarette. The smoke from his right hand curled against the sparkling blue of the water. We bowed ceremoniously and exchanged credentials. He spoke with a clear North German accent, and after we had finished our business, he smiled and offered me one of his cigarettes. I took it and we stared out over the water and its little choppy waves to the other side of the lake. Zürich was a cluster of medieval towers and steeples off to our left. The hills that surrounded the city were brown and their trees still leafless. The air was sharp, the light clear and thin.
I could think of nothing to say. I stole a closer look at my counterpart. The face was like a reflection of my own, thin, with shadowed eyes, the obligatory small moustache drawing out his face. The same age. I saw him making his way through the streets of Lübeck or Rostock or Hamburg to his university. I saw the friends he drank with, the girls he talked to. I knew the trips he had made to the Schwarzwald or Bavaria, to Hiddensee or Rügen. A Doppelgänger, I thought, how appropriate for this gothic, necromancer’s city.
“Goethe rowed a boat out there in the lake,” I said. It was all I could think of.
The German turned to me, his eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Ah, yes? You know that?”
“Yes. One of my favourite poems comes from that experience.” I quoted the first two lines. “Und frische Nahrung, neues Blut, saug’ ich aus freier Welt. . .”.
“Wie ist Natur so hold und gut, die mich am Busen hält,” he completed the sentence. “You are a German scholar, I see, sir.”
“A little. I was a student in Germany many years ago.” This was more than I should have breathed to him.
“Ah, yes,” he replied gently. “I too was a student for a time in your country. A year in Oxford. It was very charming. I remember it with great pleasure. So many people were . . . very kind. I studied Anglo-Saxon literature with your Professor Sweetman. I still remember how he would recite Beowulf. It was quite wonderful. I disagreed with his reading. It ignores the German tribal elements. But he was a great man, nonetheless. A great scholar. I think he is dead now.”
“I believe so. In 1913, I think.”
“Quite so. A sad loss.”
“There are many sad losses nowadays.”
“I hate this war. I loathe it with all my heart.”
“I hate it too, my friend. I too, with all my heart.”
And then we both cleared our throats together, and like men caught in some guilty act looked quickly around us. He gave a wry smile and I responded in kind. I shrugged my shoulders. We bowed briefly, shook hands and went our different ways back to our waiting cars. I turned as I opened the door of mine, and saw him sitting hunched in his, a brown gloved hand covering his face. Gulls were wheeling above the bright blue of the lake, crying sharply.
That night I went drinking in a small bar in a Niederdorf backstreet. The streetlight glanced off the black cobbles, damp from a spring rain shower. I walked down by the river and watched the black waters lap slowly against the stone embankment. I felt completely lost and empty, a living ghost in the night.
This night, too, in London, I downed my whisky and went to bed. The whisky killed the dreams and helped me sleep.
THE GERMAN MESSENGER by David Malcolm
Published by Crime Wave Press/2016
Late 1916. Europe is tearing itself apart in the Great War. Harry Draffen, part Greek, part Scottish, British secret agent, cosmopolitan, polyglot, man of violence, is having a bad war. Now he is instructed to uncover a plot by the Central Powers against England. From the slums of East London to an Oxford college, from the trenches on the Western Front to an isolated house on the Scottish coast, on to a bloody showdown in the North of England, he chases a phantom and elusive German messenger. Betrayed, deceived, under attack from many enemies, bringing death to those he does not hate and even to those he loves, he tries to reach the heart of the mystery. In a final reckoning in a London tenement, he at last understands the full scope of the plots centered on the German messenger.
David Malcolm was born in Scotland. He was educated in Aberdeen, Zürich, and London.
For over thirty years he has lived and worked in Japan, the USA, and Poland. He currently resides in Sopot, Poland.
His collection of short fiction, Radio Moscow and Other Stories was published by Blackwitch Press in 2015.