Chapter 1 An interrupted breakfast
Dr Paul Braun looked at the newspaper and sighed. He felt deeply troubled. It was September 1914 and England had been at war with Germany for just over a month. Yet the domestic scene around him was reassuringly normal. He was sitting in the dining room of their home in the small Somerset town of Frome, finishing his breakfast. At the far end sat his wife, Marjorie. Her face was partly in profile as she fed eight-month old David, their youngest, in his highchair. For a moment, he let his eyes rest on her beauty; the high classical cheekbones, the healthy flush of her skin, the arched eyebrows and the brown hair pinned up. She had the same freshness now that eight years ago had won the love of the young medical practitioner, trying to make a career for himself in his adopted country. Between them were their other two children: Eliza six and Anne four. Both girls sat silent and solemn, their breakfast finished, waiting to be released from the polite constraints of the adult world into the freedom of childhood.
This domestic tranquillity only intensified Paul’s anguish. The black print told a starkly different story. For days, the papers had been full of increasingly lurid details of the German advance through Belgium. Today, the story was about the destruction of Leuven and the burning of its university. That was terrible, but it was the treatment of civilians that sickened him. A governess had been stripped, raped and mutilated, and one of her charges, a small baby, bayoneted before her eyes. The room seemed to dissolve into a chaos. Burning buildings, screams, figures in field grey advancing remorselessly through the black smoke with fixed bayonets. The picture was vivid. In his mind it was this house alight, his wife screaming and little David... Fear gripped him. His head was spinning. The paper slipped from his hand. He held the edge of the table and stared at Marjorie. She had just persuaded David to swallow another mouthful. He needed to tell her, to warn her.
“This war is terrible!” He heard his own voice disturb the comfortable atmosphere. “Such mistreatment of women and children. It says here that a baby was…”
“Paul!” The spoon stopped on its progress towards David. That one word and the look of shocked disapproval silenced him. Marjorie rang a small hand bell beside her. The door opened. Their maid, a plump girl of about twenty, stood waiting for instructions. “Jane,” Marjorie said. “Take the children to the nursery. They need to wash their hands. Make sure Eliza is ready for school. Mrs Taylor should be here to collect her at half past.”
“Yes, madam.” Jane unstrapped David and put him over her shoulder. Eliza and Anne slid off their chairs and stood patiently beside their mother.
“David ate well this morning so he might sleep for a little.” Marjorie turned to the two girls. She gave each of them a hug and told them to be good. They responded with a dutiful, “Yes, mama,” and began to follow Jane out of the room. Suddenly, Paul couldn’t bear to see them leave.
“Eliza, Anne...” he called.
They turned to face him, saying together, “Yes, papa?”
Paul rushed across and embraced them. “My two little angels. You’re so precious to me. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you.”
Eliza looked up at him, her face a puzzled frown. “But what could possibly happen to us here, papa?”
Paul stared her. Then abruptly straightened up and pretended to laugh. “Why nothing, nothing at all. Your papa’s just being silly. Off you go.” He shooed them out of the room. Marjorie was staring at her husband. She saw his slim, dapper build, the black hair, the pale boyish face, now full of anguish. As soon as the door closed, she spoke the clear, almost musical voice, heavy with disapproval,
“Why did you upset the girls? You mustn’t talk about things like that in front of them. It will give them nightmares. They may be only little, but they have vivid imaginations. Eliza especially.”
“I’m sorry. Reading about what’s happened in Belgium. It makes my stomach churn. Girls as young as Eliza being abused. Babies being bayoneted. If we lived there, it would be happening to us.” Paul walked to the window. He looked out at the garden; the neatly cut lawn, its glass glistening with dew in the morning sun; the apple trees heavy with fruit; the wooden seat where he loved to sit in the afternoon and read stories to his children. It was so precious and yet so vulnerable. “I’ve spent my whole life healing people. Now the world’s gone mad. Soldiers killing each other in battle is terrible enough. This mistreatment of innocent people. People like us. It scares me. I don’t know what’s happening.”
Marjorie stood behind him, clasping his shoulders. When she spoke her voice was gentler. “I know it’s terrible, but it won’t last. In the town they say the war will be over by Christmas. You’ll see, in a few months it’ll all be forgotten.”
Paul continued to stare out of the window. “I hope you’re right. I’m just not sure. You don’t know how formidable the German army is. They seem invincible.”
He faced her. “What’s worse is that it’s Germans doing this. Not some ignorant African tribe. My countrymen, raping women and killing babies. I’m one of them. I feel so guilty.”
Marjorie hugged him tightly. “But you’re not one of them. Your mother was English, and you spent all your holidays here. You hated military service and came here to work as soon as you could. You don’t even sound German and you’ve lived here for over ten years. Sometimes I think you’re more English than I am.” She kissed him on the lips and held him even tighter. They stood together in each other’s arms.
The silence was broken by a loud banging on the front door followed by the sound of voices. There was a knock at the dining room door. Marjorie and Paul separated quickly as Jane entered.
“Begging your pardon, sir, madam. There are some soldiers asking to see the doctor.”
“Soldiers?” Paul looked at Marjorie in surprise. “Did they say what they wanted?”
“Only that they want you, sir.”
“Well I suppose I’d better see them. Give us a moment, then show them into the drawing rom.”
“Yes, sir.” Jane went out. The voices were now in the hall.
Paul hesitated. A sense of disorientation gripped him. He’d just been reading about atrocities. Now there were soldiers in his own house. But this was England, and they were English soldiers. Everything would be fine. He led Marjorie through the connecting door into the drawing room. They had just taken up positions with their backs to the window when the door opened. Two men came in, wearing khaki uniform. The first was thickset and wore three stripes on his arm. The second, taller, had a rifle slung over his shoulder. The sergeant took a step forward. Paul stared into a florid face, neatly trimmed moustache and two bloodshot eyes. The intensity of his gaze made Paul inwardly recoil. The man glanced down at a sheaf of papers he was carrying, and then up at Paul again.
“Are you the enemy alien Paul Braun?” The voice was heavy with aggression.
Paul recognised his name. The first part of the sentence meant nothing. “Yes, I am Paul Braun. But I’m not whatever it was you called me. I’m a doctor.”
The sergeant snorted. “You are the German Paul Braun?”
“Partly German, my mother was English.”
“You are the German Paul Braun. As such you are an enemy alien.” The sergeant looked down again at his papers. “By the order of His Majesty’s Government you are to be arrested and detained for the security of the realm. And,” he added, “You’re on my list.”
Paul’s head was spinning. He found it hard to focus. The horrors he’d just been reading about had invaded his home.
“This is absurd. There must be some mistake.” Marjorie’s voice cut across his thoughts. She moved forward, placing herself between him and the sergeant.
“There is no mistake. I told you, Paul Braun is on my list.” The sergeant took a step towards her.
“Then it’s a silly list. You can take it away and leave our house.” Marjorie stood her ground.
“Get out of my way. You are obstructing me in carrying out my duty.”
Marjorie did not move. The sergeant put his papers under his arm, took her by the shoulders and moved her out of the way.
“How dare you lay your hands on me?” Marjorie was shaking with rage.
The sergeant ignored her and glared at Paul. “Braun, you have five minutes to pack a bag.”
Paul tried to reassert himself. “But my patients need me.”
“To do what? Poison them?”
“I would never dream of such a thing. It’s against the Hippocratic oath.”
“I don’t have time for this. Are you resisting arrest?” He glanced at the soldier, who at once unslung his rifle and pointed it at Paul. “One less bloody Hun’s all the same to me.” The soldier raised the rifle to his shoulder. The click as he flicked off the safety catch seemed to reverberate in the sudden silence.
Marjorie opened her mouth to speak, but Paul raised his hand. His voice was calm, in contrast to the sickening panic that gripped his stomach. “Of course I’m not resisting arrest. I want no blood shed in my house.” He looked over the sergeant’s shoulder to the maid, who had been watching. “Jane, pack me a weekend bag: change of clothes, underwear, toiletries.” Then to the sergeant. “Please may I have time to say goodbye to my wife and children?”
“You say your goodbyes here and now. Private, go with the maid. Make sure no contraband goes in the bag. I’ll keep an eye on these two.”
Paul took Marjorie’s hand. Firmly but gently, he led her over to the window as far from the sergeant as possible. He embraced her, and said in a low voice he hoped the sergeant couldn’t hear. “Give us time to get away, then go to William Hollis, the solicitor. Tell him what’s happened. He’s a friend and he’ll know what to do. I’m sure this is all some ghastly error. Once it’s sorted out, I’ll be back with you.” Paul gave Marjorie, a long, lingering kiss. “Look after the children. Remember how much I love you.”
“Come on, that’s enough,” the sergeant barked. “Time to go.”
He grabbed Paul’s arm and pulled him roughly to the door. Paul turned again, his eyes met Marjorie’s and he saw the tears in them. Despite his brave words, he had no idea when he would see her again. He wanted to fix her image in his memory. Jane came downstairs carrying a small suitcase accompanied by the soldier.
“I’ve put in what I think you’ll need, Doctor,” she said, helping him on with his overcoat. “I’ll just get your hat. I think I saw it in the kitchen.”
“Thank you, Jane.” Paul saw his black doctor’s bag by the coat rack. “Sergeant, may I bring my medical bag? My skills may be needed. There is nothing in it that could be used as a weapon.”
“Check it,” the sergeant ordered.
The soldier opened the case and looked inside. “Seems okay, Sarge.”
“Alright, bring it. Now let’s be going.”
Jane returned and handed Paul his hat. It felt heavy. Looking inside, he saw a bundle wrapped in a tea towel.
“You need your hat, Doctor. You don’t want to get wet if it rains.” She gave him a meaningful look.
Carefully he put it on his head, picked up his case and black bag, and followed the sergeant outside. Jane watched from the bottom of the stairs. Marjorie had come to the entrance to the drawing room. Paul looked back once more at the two women.
It was a sunny September morning with a slight chill in the air. They walked down the narrow lane outside the Braun’s house and turned right into the main street, where a large wagon was parked. It was market day, and the town was already busy. Heads turned in surprise at the strange sight of their doctor walking between two soldiers. Two portly women carrying wicker baskets, blocked the sergeant’s way. Paul recognised them at once as patients. He had been due to see one of them that morning.
“What’s happening?” one of them demanded.
“Where are you taking ‘im?” the other joined in.
The sergeant sighed at this further delay. “To Bristol.”
“Cos he’s an enemy alien.”
“A what?” they looked at each other in bewilderment.
“A German, a bloody Hun. He’s to be locked up. Keep you lot safe. Got it?”
“But ‘e’s my doctor. I’ve got an appointment with im.”
Paul stepped forward. “It’s alright Mrs…
“Shut it, you,” the sergeant interrupted. “Get yourself a proper doctor, an English one. Now out of my way.”
The women stepped back, alarmed by the sergeant’s aggression. They stood staring after the trio as they walked towards the wagon. Others gathered round, attracted by the raised voices.
” What’s the fuss?” asked a middle-aged man in a waistcoat with a rolled-up newspaper under his arm.
“It’s our doctor. They’re taking him away ‘cos he’s German,”
“I never knew he was a foreigner. Always sounded English to me.”
“That’s the way they do it.” The man tapped his nose knowingly.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Germans. They learn our language. Practice till they’re perfect. Come and live here among us, and we don’t know. See?”
“Why would they do that?”
“It’s all here in this paper.” He unrolled it and held it up. “They’re everywhere. Been here for years some of ‘em.”
“What do they do?”
“Watch and wait.”
“Watch, what for?”
“Important stuff to send back to Germany.”
“What important stuff are they going to find here?” The woman’s voice was disbelieving.
“Anything, everything.” The man was struggling for a convincing answer.
“Railway timetables,” another added helpfully.
“That’s it. Railway timetables. Where the troops are stationed, anything like that.”
“So what are they waiting for?” The other woman had been silent until now.
“Whatever the Kaiser orders. When the time’s right to rise up against us.”
“Goodness me. We’re not safe anywhere.”
The first woman had been thinking. “His wife’s English. Do you think she knows? That he’s German.”
“Are you sure she’s really English?”
They all turned to look at the entrance to the lane where the Brauns lived.
By this time Paul had reached the wagon. He climbed into the back and the soldier handed up his case and bag. In the interior gloom he made out two soldiers and two other men clutching cases.
“Sit there,” one of the soldiers ordered. “And no talking.” Paul sat where he was told. There was the crack of a whip, the neighing of a horse and the wagon lurched forward.
As soon as the front door closed Marjorie returned to the drawing room, avoiding Jane’s questioning look. Paul had told her to give them time to get away. She forced herself to sit in a chair and watched the hands of the clock as they moved with unbearable sloth. How long would be time enough? Five minutes? Ten minutes? After eight she could bear it no longer. Striding out of the room, she snatched up a shawl, called to Jane that she was going out and left the house. William Hollis’ office was at the far end of the town, so like Paul and the soldiers she turned right at the end of their lane.
Marjorie had walked along the High Street hundreds if not thousands of times before. The mellow stone fronts interspersed with half-timbered houses, the steep cobbled hill down to the market and the river. She enjoyed it. The slow amble from shop to shop, the exchange of greetings with friends and acquaintances. Paul was well-known in the town. He had many patients, and she was ‘the Doctor’s wife. The sense of being ‘someone’, of being ’known’ had always gratified her. It seemed a just reward for Paul’s long hours of labour, sometimes with the poorest in the community for little financial reward. This morning that had changed. She sensed she was being looked at in a different way. Heads turned, eyes followed her, voices lowered as she approached. They must all have seen the soldiers taking Paul away. What were they thinking? Her cheeks burned with embarrassment. Nobody approached her. No-one asked what had happened or offered their sympathies. It was as though she was suddenly unclean; an outcast to be shunned and avoided. As she walked quickly along the street, shame began to well up inside her. Marjorie bit her lip. To show her feelings to the people on the street would be weakness. She would not. But why should she feel ashamed? At last she reached William Hollis’ office, turned the big brass handle on the large oak door and went in. The clerk, a young man that Paul had treated once for pneumonia, was sitting writing behind his desk.
“Good morning, Mrs Braun,” he greeted her cheerily. The news of Paul’s arrest had obviously not yet reached here. “How may I be of service to you?”
Taking a deep breath and trying to achieve an outward show of normality, she said, “Good morning, Gilbert I wondered if it might be possible to see Mr Hollis.” She prayed that William was not in one of his long meetings.
Gilbert smiled. “You’re in luck, Mrs Braun. Mr Hollis has just finished with a client and the next isn’t due for half an hour. I’ll go and tell him you’re here.”