Late April 1964
I lifted my head from the Maths problem I had been struggling with and stifled a sigh. “Yes, Miss?” She never called me Schmidt, another individual still fighting the Second World War.
She had a note in her hand. “Please go to the headmaster’s office.”
My stomach flipped: such a call always presaged trouble. I glanced at Lili who raised an eyebrow in query. I gave her a minimal shrug and weaved my way through the desks and out into the corridor. Every eye followed me, imagining with some Schadenfreude what I had done and what punishment I would receive.
The headmaster’s secretary pointed me to a chair and I sat in fidgeting discomfort due to my period and the worry; I couldn’t recall doing anything that required the headmaster’s involvement.
The worry and my period bloat became intolerable. “Please Miss, may I go to the toilet?”
I received a lingering, disapproving look.
“Please, Miss.” My voice reflected my increasing urgency.
She pursed her lips, glancing at the headmaster’s closed office door before waving me out. “Be quick.”
I slipped into a cubicle, muttering a curse at the continuing need to masquerade as a boy. I wanted to change my tampon, but they were hidden in the bottom of my bag in class. I did my business and folded some sheets of toilet paper inside my panties as insurance against leaks, washed my hands and returned to the office.
The headmaster was talking to his secretary but turned into his office when he saw me. “Come with me please Schmidt.” He sat behind his desk, pointing me to a chair. “I’ve had a message that your mother has been taken ill.”
I leant forward, anxiety adding to my physical discomfort. “What’s happened, sir?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know – but a taxi’s coming to pick you up.” His patronising tone failed to prevent rising panic.
“Has she been taken to the hospital.”
“I’m sorry Schmidt, that’s all I know.” He stood, guiding me out of his office, his hand pushing on my shoulder. “Come along, the taxi will be here soon.” He wanted this interruption to his day gone.
Mutti…what’s happened to you? Are you hurt? Is this about father?
Terrible thoughts battered around inside my skull, each wave reflecting and reinforcing the others.
“Miss Price, please take Schmidt to the front entrance and see him safely into the taxi when it arrives.”
“Yes, sir.” She gave me a sympathetic look. “I’ve got your bag here.”
I blinked at her – she must have sent for my bag. “Thank you.”
“Come along, I’ll see you into the taxi.” I’d been wrong about her disapproval; she was showing only sympathy for me now.
When the taxi arrived, Miss Price handed in my bag. “Thank you.”
She smiled and gave me a wave.
I sat, lost in a world of worry. Mutti had been healthy this morning when I left home. What had happened? An accident? Father? I roused as the taxi turned off the main road.
“Where are we going?”
“I have to drop you off up here.”
We’d all had the warnings about getting into strange cars … but this was a taxi. We passed fields and orchards. Why would the taxi drop me off here?
The car swung into a grassy area where a large black car was parked near the foot of a water tower. Two people got out.
I gasped with combined confusion and relief, racing into my mother’s arms. “Mutti. Mutti. Are you all right?”
“Shh, Col. Yes, I am perfectly fine.”
But I heard anxiety in her voice.
“Please get in the car and I will explain everything to you.”
She shooed me towards the car. I scrambled in and Mutti went round to the other side.
“Don’t forget this.” The taxi driver dropped my abandoned school bag on my lap and closed the door.
The front seat passenger slammed his door and the car accelerated away. The driver pushed the car hard on the narrow country lanes. Mutti and I grabbed the armrests to steady ourselves against the sways and bounces.
“What’s going on, Mutti?”
“Your father is close on our tracks. Something or someone has betrayed us.”
My stomach lurched: my English friend Willi had met him ten days ago in Leipzig.
Not Willi? Surely, not Willi…
The swaying of the car made conversation difficult as we hurtled through the lanes of rural Kent. I started to feel nauseous from the car’s motion, augmented by my anxiety and period. After an uncomfortable ten minutes or so, we turned on to a main road. As we accelerated away, there were signs for London. We were headed away from Herne Bay. At least the swaying had stopped and my stomach began to settle.
I turned to Mutti. “What’s happened?”
Mutti shook her head. “All I know is Mr Watling left a message at the shop to meet this car off the High Street at ten o’clock. We drove to where we met you and … well … that’s all I know.”
Mr Watling is her MI6 contact. He must know what’s happening.
Mutti’s eyes held mine, full of worry. “I think your father found us and we need to move.”
I slid across to hug her. We stayed huddled in mutual comfort until I sensed something different in the road: signs for the new motorway to London flashed past. But after a while we branched off that to the north and entered the Dartford tunnel under the Thames.
Mutti leant forward, holding the passenger seat in front of her. “Where are we going?”
The man half-turned. “Somewhere safe. It’s best you don’t know.”
We kept on driving as the afternoon passed and I dozed. When I woke up, I was feeling both hungry and uncomfortable, though the nausea had passed. Outside, afternoon shadows were lengthening.
“Mutti, I need to go to the loo.”
“Mmm … I do as well.” She leant forward. “How long before we get to wherever we are going?”
The man in the passenger seat nudged the driver, who replied, “Several hours.”
“Well, we need to find a toilet and get something to eat.”
There was no reply.
Mutti’s voice rose. “We need a toilet. Now, please.”
The driver glanced at the man in the passenger seat, who shrugged.
“OK – at the next petrol station.”
About five minutes later we stopped. I scrabbled a tampon out of my school bag and headed for the toilet. I came out feeling physically better. But as I sat on the toilet, the situation became clear. Our life in Herne Bay was over – and with that realisation came the crashing need to get a message to Willi.
How would he take our sudden and unexplained disappearance?
What he might do terrified me; it might be enough to tip him over the edge.
Mutti and the front seat passenger were waiting for me when I reappeared. I grabbed Mutti’s hand. “We must get a message to Willi. He will be frantic at our disappearance and might do something...”
The passenger interrupted me. “In the car. Now.”
I tried to hush him, talking to Mutti about Willi was important.
“Now.” He grabbed my hand and firmly moved me towards the car. “We’re not safe here. Get in the car.” His voice was low, but I could hear the tension. He opened the door and half-gestured, half-pushed me in. I saw Mutti opening her door to join me. As soon as the passenger closed his door, the car moved off, not spinning its wheels as that would draw attention, but swiftly.
On the road, the passenger passed us two paper bags containing cheese and tomato sandwiches and packets of potato crisps.
Mutti took them, giving one to me.
“Thank you...we don’t know your names...”
The passenger grunted, without turning round. “No names.”
Mutti shrugged and pursed her lips.
“Mutti...” I started, but she shook her head and started eating her sandwich. After a while, she turned to me and asked me, in Polish, what I thought of the sandwiches.
Why would she decide to continue our language lessons at this moment?
I gave her a puzzled look.
She frowned at me, repeating herself in Polish. “Is your sandwich tasty?” Her eyes flicked towards the front of the car, lifting an eyebrow in question.
Oh – of the languages we shared, Polish was the least likely to be understood by our driver and passenger. They might speak German as they’d been sent to pick up two Germans and I supposed they might speak Russian – but Mutti knew my Russian was rusty from lack of recent practice.
We talked about the sandwiches and crisps, our descriptions becoming increasingly bizarre testing the understanding of the people in the front seats … for no reaction. Mutti smiled a wicked smile and in the same conversational tone, called the driver and passenger rude names: they remained oblivious.
She continued in Polish. “They may not understand us. But we must still be careful not to place our friends in difficult situations with the security services” She gave me a serious look. “Now, what did you want to say about...your friend?” she asked, the pause deliberate.
Ah – no names, no mention of my father … or Willi. “We need to get a message to him that my … that he … has not found us. Remember how he was when he told us about meeting … him?”
Mutti pulled me into a cuddle.
“I’m worried if he thinks ... he ... has kidnapped us, he will blame himself.”
“At the petrol station, you said that he might do ... something.” Mutti’s tone was caring but requiring answers. “What did you mean?” Her eyes searched my face.
I took a deep breath. When did keeping Willi’s suicide attempts secret become dangerous to him? Should I … could I break my promise about this?
Mutti watched me run this through my head and gave me a comforting squeeze. “He has always had an undercurrent of instability, which is understandable given the abuse he suffered.” She stroked my hair. “Has he tried to ... harm himself?” Her voice shone with the love she had for both Willi and me.
I swallowed, my mouth dry. Mutti’s eyes held mine ... and I managed a fearful nod.
Mutti drew in a deep breath and gave me another squeeze. “We must let him know we have not been kidnapped by … him.” She paused again, thinking. “You will need to phrase the message with care. He must know it is truly from you and not forced from you under duress by ... someone.”
I hadn’t thought of that complication – and I need to get that message to Willi – and Lili – without delay. I started thinking.
Mutti told me to stretch out and I went to sleep, my head in her lap. At some point we stopped again and I roused slightly, drifting into an uneasy sleep once the car started moving again.
I woke in confusion as the car slammed to a stop. I hit the seat in front of me and ended on the floor with Mutti on top of me. As we struggled to sort ourselves out, there were loud pairs of bangs.
Mutti pressed me down as low as possible. “Stay down, Col.”
For what felt like a minute but was probably only seconds, we lay motionless. I heard moaning from the front seat and muffled voices outside. The rear doors both opened. In the glare from the headlights of a vehicle behind us I saw a man pointing a pistol at us.
“They’re here,” he called out, in English.
A hand reached in and dragged Mutti out, handing her on to someone else. The hand returned, reaching for me. I decided my father wouldn’t win without a fight. I grabbed the hand and bit, hard.
The man jerked in surprise and pain. “Shit. The kid bit me!”
I used the distraction to slide across the seat and scramble out. As I turned to run, a set of arms grabbed me, holding me tightly from behind despite my struggles.
“Settle down kid. If you bite me, I’ll give you a thrashing,” a gravelly voice warned. The man gave me a strong squeeze that threatened to crack my ribs and did push the breath from my body.
“Bring them over here and get them in the car.” A woman’s voice called out, commanding and cold.
My captor dragged me, gasping, round our car, half-blinded by the glare of headlights from the car behind us. I saw our driver slumped forward unmoving and another person on the road beside the car, with a man holding a pistol to his head. I struggled again and my captor lifted me off my feet. I kicked hard into his shins, the heels of my school shoes making solid contact.
The bearhug tightened further. “Bloody hell, kid. I’m warning you...”
“Get her in the car.” That cold, commanding voice again – and she knew I was a girl.
My captor threw me into the car in front of ours, slamming the door as I sprawled on the seat. As I sorted myself out Mutti was pushed in holding my school bag. I tried the handle of my door – it didn’t work.
A figure wearing a fedora slipped into the front passenger seat. “Drive.”
The car started up with a jerk, throwing us into our seats. Once we were underway, the woman in the passenger seat reached up and switched on the dome light. She turned and gave Mutti a hard look for several seconds.
“You know me as Mrs Henderson and you know I work for British Intelligence.”
Mutti stared at her. After a moment she leant forward. “What’s going on.”
“Your husband,” You-know-me-as-Mrs-Henderson turned to each of us in turn. “Your father … he’s lost two agents in England – and the Eastern Bloc network here and elsewhere is undergoing severe pruning.” Her voice glowed with satisfaction.
I managed to switch to Polish before I spat out. “Does she work for British Intelligence?”
You-know-me-as-Mrs-Henderson gave a dry laugh and spoke in Polish. “I heard you were learning Polish.” She paused, her eyes lingering on me. “That’s quick thinking,” she added, in English, but her face was devoid of approval.
Mutti engaged in a staring match with the woman before answering me. “I met Mrs Henderson when I was being … interrogated.” From Mutti’s voice and stare, it seemed there was some bad feeling on her side of the relationship.
Mrs Henderson sniffed. “You think your interrogation was hard? How did you expect us to treat someone who could well be a foreign agent trying to slip into our society?”
Their eyes locked.
Mrs Henderson turned to me. “What’s going on is that we have rescued you from ending up in an East German gaol at the mercy of the Stasi.”
A shiver ran through me, prickling my skin. “They were working for my father?”
“Not directly, but they were East German agents.” She was cold and impersonal.
Mutti leant forward. “Now what?”
Mrs Henderson’s face remained expressionless. “Now we take you somewhere safe.” I had the distinct impression that our presence was a nuisance to her.
“Go to sleep. We have a long way to go.” Mrs Henderson turned off the dome light, dismissing both Mutti and me.
I awoke in the grey light of dawn, cold, cramped and needing to pee. I sat up, trying not to wake Mutti, but she stirred and gave me a grim smile. We were entering a town. Wherever we were headed, I would need a toilet soon. After a minute I saw a signpost for “Lancaster city centre”.
Mrs Henderson heard us moving and gave us a glance.
I leant forward. “I need a toilet.”
She turned to the driver. “How long?”
Shortly after, the car turned off the main road and we entered suburban streets. Some minutes later we pulled into the driveway of a large house surrounded by tall trees looming against the dawn sky. I tried to open my door, but the handle still wouldn’t move.
Mrs Henderson leant across to the driver. “Go and ring the bell.”
The driver stretched as he got out and climbed the steps to the front door. He was about to press the bell when the door opened and a middle-aged woman appeared in the doorway. They exchanged some indistinct words and the woman looked over at Mrs Henderson, who got out and opened my door.
The woman came down the steps and opened Mutti’s door. “Come along. I expect you need to freshen up after your journey.”
My need for a pee returned with urgency.
“Yes, please.” I walked rapidly up the steps, my school bag bumping my legs, with Mutti following.
The woman sensed my problem. “Down the corridor, third door on the left.”
I passed an impressive polished wooden staircase and counted doors down the half-lit corridor: number three revealed the haven of a toilet. Despite the sleep in the car, I fell into a doze as I sat there. Giving myself a shake, I finished my business and washed my hands, looking in the mirror. My hands flew to my throat.
As I couldn’t wear it to school, I’d left it in its box on my bedside table. I sank down on the toilet seat, tears blurring my vision.
How was I going to find it?
A gusting breath later, I stood and washed my face again.
Not now, Col …
There were voices deeper in the house. Following the sound, I ended up in a large kitchen. The talking stopped as I entered. Mutti was sitting at the scrubbed pine table with Mrs Henderson and the woman who had greeted us. I sat in the vacant upright chair opposite Mutti, silenced by their silence.