INTERROGATING ELLIE By Julian Gray
Dashwood had fed well on the soft green farmland of Carinthia. His cheeks had broadened and flesh hung beneath his chin. He ground his teeth as he completed the cover sheet. What was her bloody name? He should have got her to write it down.
Subject: Vetting: BAUER Elise
To: District Security Office, Carinthia
From: 428 Field Security Section
Ref: your 101/DSO/RR dated 31st July ’46., herewith vetting in
quadruplicate, of BAUER Elise.
Name: BAUER Elise. Name at birth: PICOT Elise.
Date of birth: 22.1.1915.
Place of Birth: St. HELIER, JERSEY, CHANNEL ISLANDS.
Nationality at Birth: British.
Present Nationality: Austrian.
Present address: JERGITSCH Strasse 4, KLAGENFURT
Present occupation: Translator and Interpreter at M.C. KLAGENFURT.
Languages spoken: English, German, French.
Language used for Interrogation: English.
Description of Subject
Height approx.. 5ft 6ins.
Dark complexion, uses make up.
Weight approx. 9 stns.
Gait: Short & hurried.
Generally of smart appearance.
This was the routine he had done a hundred times in his Field Security Service career, since Naples back in ’43. All the way up Italy his unit had set up shop in abandoned or requisitioned palazzos, hotels, barracks, town halls. He had grilled the accused and those who had denounced them, given the third degree to black marketeers filching from army stores, screened local women planning marriage to British soldiers, tricked the guilty into confessions, interrogated undernourished prostitutes, the poor, the desperate, the defeated citizens of ruined nations left in the wake of fighting armies.
He ploughed on, writing up the account of his most recent cross-examination. The problem of her first name was irritating. ‘Elloweez’ it had sounded like when she said it, or was it ‘Elleez?’ One of those French spellings. Bloody French tart basically, faking it. How could she claim she was British with a name like that? Well, she counts as Austrian now. So he gave it an Austrian look: ‘Elise’.
He wrote on as the light faded, summarising her answers. He knew how to make it look objective; record the facts separately from interpretations – like the report of a science experiment in school, the way they’d taught them at the Corps Depot. But then there was the concluding section where he could express himself. He always looked forward to that. In this case it would be a particular pleasure. He continued writing:
She is a woman full of ambitions and schemes, often ruthless in the way they are realised.
That’ll put a stop to her.
There were visitors to the house who could have told me more about Ellie. If only I had known to ask. Once she came into the house with a man whose face was strained and pale, clothes hanging loosely off his thin frame. She made him sit down, which he did slowly with a grunt of pain, as if he had some injury deep inside his body. As Ellie lit a cigarette for him he looked over at me and managed a laboured smile. Then Ellie said something to him and I knew enough to realise that I was hearing German.
They spoke in low voices in that language, which I had never heard my mother speak before, with the man mumbling a lot and putting his head in his hands. Ellie sat sideways to him and he seemed so miserable it looked like she might put her arms round his shoulders, but she didn’t. I went next door. They didn’t say anything to me as I left, just went on talking.
Then Richard came in and went into the kitchen. After that I heard shouting so I went upstairs and shut the bedroom door, like I always did when my mother and father yelled at each other.
They never told me who this was, but I found out much later: it was her first husband, Michael Bauer. He had come back to see her for one last time because he knew he was dying. He had lung cancer. Richard must have found this visit too much to take and he just wanted the man out of the house.
There was a lot of stuff that Richard and Ellie didn’t want their children to know. And it turns out that Ellie knew a lot more than Richard ever did. That was what she did, you see: she covered things up. She thought she had to.
As a mother she was pretty crazy. Her skin was brown, her hair was black, she wore scarlet lipstick and painted her nails and toenails. On long car journeys, with kids jammed in the back, her frustration with our bickering would boil over. A jangly purple-stoned bracelet around her wrist, she would flail her hand and blood red nails about, seeking angry contact, like a dragon’s claw, shouting ‘Christ all bloody mighty will you brats stop belly aching and shut up!’
And she poured her passion into an extravagant and hardly believable love for us. She enfolded each of us in her arms, crushed us against her when the mood took her. Each one of us was told we were her favourite. And although we all thrilled at this attention when we could get it, we also knew enough to fear her and, in the end, never to trust her.
Who could trust her really? Apparently Richard’s father tried to buy her off when he found out she was going to marry his son. And Richard himself eventually came to feel she had hoodwinked him, although he stayed with her all the same.
Louis Nicholson and his wife Ruth visited too. They were a friendly, laughing couple who made a fuss of us so we liked it when they came. But I could see from the little glances they gave each other and Ellie that they had some kind of secret going on, which my dad wasn’t allowed to share.
Much later the two Austrian girls came over for a visit. I learned a lot more once I got to know them.
And just recently I found the records of her interrogation. I know now that she had always had to look after herself because no-one else could be trusted to do that. By the time she met Richard it was a chronic problem for her. The war had seen to that.
When Ellie first met Michael Bauer he’d gone outside the hotel kitchen to have a smoke. She knew straight away she liked the look of him, tall, fair-haired, elegant in his formal waiter’s suit. He wanted a light and she made sure she was there, ready to oblige.
‘It’s going all right in there,’ she said, holding a match up.
He cupped her hand in his to get the flame in the right place. His hand felt warm on hers.
‘Yes, it goes really well,’ he said, ‘I am tired – it is a long day. But Mr Maurer will be happy.’
He had a funny accent, she thought, sort of a lisp even, something a bit exact in the way he said his words, like he was trying out each one, one word at a time.
‘Oh yes, he’s happy all right,’ said Ellie. Just at that moment he turned sideways and she got a good look at his face in the beam of light coming out of the kitchen door, the smoke from his cigarette curling across the illuminated space. He was pretty nice, she could see. Well very nice in fact.
‘Mr Maurer told me it’s a much better turn out than last year,’ she said.
‘Oh really? How many last year?’ he said, looking straight back at Ellie, right into her eyes, even though she knew he couldn’t have seen them too well in the dark. So she laughed.
‘Well, his brother owns the café where I work and he told me it was a disaster last year. They only sold half the tables. You’re in his good books.’
He looked puzzled.
‘I mean, he’s pleased with you. Good books – it’s an English saying’
He nodded. Michael had suggested to Mr Maurer that the hotel could celebrate Christmas Eve 1934 with an Austrian-themed Weihnachten celebration. With a couple of young Austrian women who had come to Jersey like him to work in the hotel trade, he had set it up and it had been a complete success. Every table was sold and the guests inside were cheerfully singing along to a French accordionist, brought in to play German sounding tunes to put them in the mood.
He seemed so easy about chatting with her, she thought. He didn’t stumble over his words or anything. She knew he must be clever to learn another language so well. And she could see he was interested in her, which pleased her.
She took his cigarette from his fingers, put the tip against her own, her fingers brushing over his as she gave it back.
‘You’re one of the Germans aren’t you?’ she said.
‘Austrian, you mean. It’s not the same as Germany.’
Ellie had never paid much attention to maps at school.
‘But you sound German,’ she said.
‘Yes, of course I do to you,’ said Michael, who seemed offended then. ‘We speak German in Austria you know. It is most complicated you know.’
‘Oh, I see. Well what are you doing here then?’
‘Working,’ he replied. She could see he was going to have a bit of fun with her now.
‘I know that. But I mean what are you doing here? You know what I mean!’
‘Working I said, I am of course working here. Is that not enough for you?’ and then he had a little laugh at her expense.
She grinned at him and shoved his shoulder, mucking about.
‘I know, I know. Well, if you won’t tell me, I don’t care.’ She finished her cigarette. ‘I’ve got to be back in the reception. I’m filling in for Margot.’
‘Oh do not say this,’ he said, now sounding disappointed. ‘I will tell you about myself if you like.’
So then it was her chance. ‘No, I really must get back,’ she said, trying to sound serious. ‘They’ll miss me soon and what if someone rings? I’m the only one at the desk.’
So then she flounced off, leaving him hanging there she supposed.
After that, Michael made sure he often passed by the café on the front where she worked, calling in for a coffee. He asked her out to a dance, introduced her to his sister. He was a good-looking, popular lad, enjoyed a drink when he could afford it and she liked how he made such a fuss over her. Every now and again she saw him strolling along the front with his sister, enjoying the sea air or whatever. Eva was like him, fair haired and slender, a pale face. Once, seeing the winter sun shining on them and the sea whipped up by the wind behind, she had the idea they were like a pair of angels.
At that time they told each other a lot of things that were untrue. She figured it out much later that he had wanted to impress her with his story about why he’d come to Jersey. He said he’d been caught up in the fighting after some Nazis had tried to overthrow the Austrian government. They managed to kill the prime minister, Dollfuss, but then it hadn’t gone so well for them and they’d had to get out.
Ellie eventually found out who told him that story– a friend of his to whom it had really happened. It must have sounded exciting to Michael, a bit of derring-do, and she was duly impressed, thinking he was some kind of fugitive hero. She wasn’t sure which side he’d been on in the fighting. She hadn’t got any idea about politics in those days, and not much more about men.
Yet she knew she needed a man in her life by then, really needed one. She was only eighteen, but by that stage she felt she’d been mucked about so much, more than most people get in a lifetime. He felt like a breath of fresh air. More than that – she thought he’d magic her into a different life. And he did of course, but not one that she could ever have expected, or wanted.
She told Michael her own mother had died when she had her and that father had had been killed a year later in the war in France and she didn’t know anything about him. She said her Grandmère was too busy running her dressmaking shop to look after her and her brother Billy, so she’d put them with the Lebrocqs, who had looked after them.
As children every now and again she and Billy had been brought over to Grandmère Picot’s house, dressed in their best clothes. They sipped lemonade in the garden, keeping as quiet as mice, listening to the old lady, dressed in black crêpe, belching after a meal of rabbit braised in red wine, a phonograph playing Beethoven in the background. Then they were sent back to the LeBrocqs. That much was true anyway.
She wasn’t going to tell him her mother was alive and well and living in Birmingham, kicked off the island because she’d had two children out of wedlock, or about the other children at school who she and Billy had to fight because of what they said about their mum. She told him nothing that might put him off her. No fear, she thought, none of it.
She had no idea who her father had been. He teased her a couple of times about her father being a wandering tinker, which felt a bit close to home. But she told him flatly she didn’t see the joke and there had never been any on the island, so he shut up about it. She knew what he thought about gipsies. He used to go on about how there were a lot of them roving around where he came from, pinching things, cheating, the kids begging, the men who knocked their wives about. When she heard this she thought of how that bastard Scragg had done that to her own mother, and what a fool her mother had been to stick with him. Scragg had even tried to touch her up, so she’d run away.
But most of the time she managed not to think about the bad things. Michael was such a handsome man and she could see he was falling for her. She liked it that he was foreign too, and when he wasn’t with her she heard again and again in her mind his lovely soft accent when he spoke English. He really was like an angel. Not that he’d come down from heaven of course, but he might as well have done as far as she was concerned. He came from another world and it had nothing to do with the people on the island who had given her such a hard time growing up. That was a really big appeal for her.
His sister Eva had an English boyfriend called James and the four of them used to go round together a lot. They took the bus up to Grève de Lecq on the coast of the island on their days off. James was dark haired like Ellie and she thought they made a good match for the two pale blonde angels. Ellie thought it was very important to look right. She was too dark to copy Eva’s look but she plucked her eyebrows and used red lipstick which she thought was just nice against her hair, jet black in those days. It felt good to her when the four of them strolled down the sea front, arm in arm, laughing as the sea wind blew in. They had something special, young, full of beans, having fun. She could see the looks people gave them, dead curious and maybe a bit jealous.
But after a bit, Michael wanted to be alone with her and she felt the same way. Eva could see what was happening and had the good grace to back away. She had her own pals anyway, young ones mostly, chamber maids, kitchen staff, waiters, reception staff, all working in the big hotels in St Helier.
All that time she was sure he’d leave her if he found out too much. Luckily, though, things took a turn between them which gave him other things to think about. She gave him what he really wanted and it was what she wanted too, thinking bugger the consequences. At one point during their lovemaking she wondered if her own mother had been the same way with her father, before she had her and Billy. Sometimes, she thought, you’ve just got to have your heart’s desire.
He had such a smooth, slender body that felt so lovely against her, and then he was all over her. And he had this cool white skin, which felt gorgeous. She couldn’t think of anything else and just wanted it again and again. He was the first man she’d done it with. She didn’t know about him; she didn’t like to ask and figured that he would only have told her some story anyway. But after they got going on sex he didn’t seem too bothered about finding out more about her past, nor she about his, it was all now now now, lovely glorious now, so they shut up about those other things.
Then it was all just fine for a long while really. Anna came along, as babies do, she told him ruefully, if you get up to that kind of activity. But that was fine too, they would manage. They both had jobs didn’t they? They got married. Anna was a sweet little soul. They were a family.
After that it was just a matter of getting on with things, in blissful ignorance of what was round the corner.
There’s a battered, creased photograph I found after Ellie died, taken in 1934, Christmas Eve at the St Helier House hotel. It seems to have been organised by the hotel management, to commemorate the occasion. There are perhaps thirty people in the picture, most of them women, many of them young, in a ballroom festooned with Christmas decorations. The top of a Christmas tree covered in lights is behind them. Mr Maurer, dressed up as Charlie Chaplin is seated in the centre at the front, with young women arranged on the floor on either side of him, others in chairs. More staff stand behind the chairs. To the left, kneeling and holding a menu, with an arm on the shoulder of one of the women, is Michael Bauer. On the right stands a rather chunky looking woman in lederhosen, with her hand on her hip. Behind this figure, her face half-hidden, stands a slim young woman with dark hair in a long dress. Everyone is smiling.
Three years later, on an afternoon in October 1938 Ellie sat opposite Michael and her brother Billy at a café table on the front at Havre des Pas, with Eva at her side. The sun umbrellas had been taken down at the summer’s end but the weather was warm for the time of year so they were outside.
‘What do you mean Ellie?’ asked Eva. She wore a light green dress and her hair was fashionably bleached and shaped into waves. She leaned forward on her elbows as she held a cup of hot coffee that threatened to spill onto the table as her shoulders shook with suppressed giggles, ‘He said what?’
It was good to see Eva looking so cheerful, thought Ellie. She knew Eva was upset to be losing her brother. Michael was laughing too, through the smoke of his cigarette.
‘The man in the passport office told me ‘You have not made a very good swap’ when he gave me this. Those were his very words. I can’t believe it! What a cheek! He’s a pompous idiot dishing out his opinions like that. Not a good swap, he said. I’ll give him a good swap, I’ll swat him on the face if I ever see him again I can tell you.’
Ellie held up a brown passport document and waved it about. Then she opened it and they all looked at the photograph inside, passing it around, making comments.
‘You’re not looking your best there you know Ellie.’
‘Oh I don’t know, she’s got her serious look on.’
‘It’s a passport after all Michael, you don’t expect her to…’
‘Reminds me of the time she stood on a clam shell on the beach, you should have seen her face then, all screwed up,’ and Billy, the joker, scrunched up his face and squealed, the rest of them laughing.
‘Oops, don’t spill,’ said Eva as the document was put down on the shaky outdoor table next to the cups of hot drink, ‘you’re going to need that tomorrow Mrs Bauer’
The brown booklet lay with cover upwards, showing an eagle with wings widespread, a swastika below in a wreathed circle.
‘It’s not as nice as the good old British one,’ said Ellie, suddenly contemplative. ‘I once saw one: a proper little book with a hard cover and all that gold, royal stuff on the front. I never had one of those, never needed to, so that little man was wrong – it’s not really a swap. What have I got to swap?’
Michael picked up the new passport. ‘Deutsches Reich, Reisepasse,’ it said on the front. A number was punched with holes, running all through the pages, even the front and back covers. Eva turned to her brother.
‘Deutsches Reich, what is that supposed to mean Michael?’ said Eva, suddenly irritable. ‘What was the matter with the old Austrian eagle? The Germans have taken over in our country. What have we got to do with them? We can’t even call ourselves Austrians any more.’ Michael gave her a concerned look but before he could answer Ellie butted in.
‘It looks as if it’s made of paper’ she said, snatching it from Michael’s hand. ‘It’s not built to last is it? It’ll fall apart if you’re not careful.’
‘Well you’d better take good care of it then Ellie, else you’ll be in trouble. Keep it somewhere safe,’ said Michael seriously.
Ellie’s eyes glittered. ‘Oh I know where I’ll keep it! I’ll keep it somewhere safe all right. Somewhere no-one will be able to get it!’ and she tucked it down the front of her blouse. There was more laughter when Billy jumped up, pretending to be about to reach in to retrieve the passport.
‘I’ll have that out of there in a German jiffy,’ he shouted.
‘Hey Billy, that’s enough of that,’ said Michael, standing up quickly in turn and putting his arm out to bar the way. ‘That’s my wife you’re molesting there,’ he added with a laugh as he saw the wounded look on Billy’s face.
‘Come on,’ said Eva, ‘It’s time I got back,’ and turning to Ellie she said ‘and remember Ellie, you’re picking up Anna at four o’ clock today. Don’t be late. I want to get James to the shops before they shut.’
The party split up. Ellie shouted to Alfred, the café owner, ‘Hey Alfred, can we owe this one to you? I’ll pay up before we leave,’ to which Alfred, glasses in hand, gave a pleasant nod.
Michael and his young wife nodded goodbye to Billy who headed off towards the boys fishing on the rocks and the couple walked the other way together, along the short promenade. Ellie turned her head to the familiar shore, a stretch of seaweed-strewn sand below, with the autumn waves whipped up by the breeze. She tried to fix the image in her mind.
James had agreed to look after their little daughter Anna that afternoon, while Ellie went to get her new passport from the consulate office in Ingouville House, after which they had met up on the front for what would probably be a last get-together with Eva and Billy.
They headed for town where the two of them, along with Eva and James, still shared a place, though she knew that was coming to an end tomorrow. They were cramped in that flat of theirs, she thought. At night they didn’t dare move for fear of waking the baby next to them. The partition wall that made one bedroom into two was as thin as paper and Eva and James were on the other side. Each couple could hear every movement the other two made in the night, and although in the morning there was a mutual, tactful agreement to stay silent about the night time sounds, it was pretty embarrassing. It was also frustrating. They were still young after all, they were married now, and it was only natural….
Tomorrow they would be packing their bags and taking the afternoon ferry to St Malo where they would stay the night. The next day, a train to Paris, retracing the steps Michael had taken four and a half years before.
Michael had come to Jersey not because he was fleeing from political persecution, but because he had been sacked from his job as a hotel bell boy after Hitler introduced his tax on German tourists, designed to bring the Austrian economy to its knees. He had met a wealthy English guest, holidaying in the mountains, who had advised him to come over to Jersey where there were jobs.
He told Ellie that at that time he had never seen the sea before or been in any vessel larger than a rowing boat. All he had known was the lake at Zell am See, with the little craft that took tourists and the occasional fisherman out, surrounded by high mountains.
Ellie hadn’t wanted to go when Michael had got the letter from his parents urging him to return with his new bride and child. He had been away for four years, they wrote, and they had not seen him all that time. Letters were not enough, his mother said.
Michael pointed out to Ellie that he was his mother’s only son, born bang in the middle of four sisters. That made him special in her eyes. But up to now, he had resisted her pleas for him to come home, whose intensity had increased after the baby was born. Anna was nearly a year and half old now, running around and getting into everything. His mother wanted to see this new granddaughter, she said. And they knew, too, that there was another baby on the way, though they hadn’t yet told his mother about it.
But that wasn’t what had made him take them seriously this time. The more pressing issue was to work out where the money was going to come from to support this new family he had acquired. That should always come first, he explained to Ellie, whatever they might feel.
‘We’ve got to provide for Anna and this new little one,’ he said, patting her stomach as he spoke. ‘My mother says things are looking up at home. The Germans are pouring money into the country now that they’ve taken over. There’s a good job for me at the hydro-electric works up at Kaprun that pays well if I want it. I could earn a lot more there than in the hotel and we could find a place to live that would fit us all in. We could really live well for a change!’
His words had an ominous truth for her. Their life together in St Helier had been good at first, but now…..
It was getting harder for her to find regular work that gave enough to make it worth paying for someone to look after the child. Everyone else either had their own work to do, or they looked after other children. She couldn’t call on anyone for free favours any more. And now there was this other one on the way.
So she had agreed. They would try it. Look on the bright side, he said to her, it would be great fun to see a new place. He could show her where he grew up, introduce her to his parents. They would love her like a daughter, he said. Yes, like a daughter. And if they decided they didn’t like it, or for whatever reason, then why, they could just come back! That’s the beauty of a mixed marriage across the waters, he told her, you’ve always got the option of moving to the other place. They were lucky really. And they were so young.
Now that they were about to go to Austria, Ellie remembered Michael’s story of political conflict and flight, although she still wasn’t too clear about whose side Michael had been on, or what the Nazis had stood for. Were they the socialists she thought? After all, they were called National Socialists by some people weren’t they? Michael’s story seemed to come from a world completely removed from the one she knew in Jersey. And that was part of his attraction for her after all.
‘Do you think we should be worried?’ she asked him. ‘It doesn’t seem like a very safe country. Are there any of these Nazis where your parents live? Eva told me to steer clear of them. Are you sure we’re doing the right thing?’
But Michael told her not to worry, that his parents would look after them and they’d be delighted with their new granddaughter and the prospect of a second on the way. She realised he’d say anything to persuade her, whether he believed it to be true or not. With the money he could earn, they could live well, he said. They had to take this opportunity.
On 10th October 1938 they visited a photographer’s studio where they had a picture of themselves taken, with Anna on Ellie’s lap. A separate one of Anna, then just 18 months old, was taken, standing next to a teddy bear with a large bow around its neck. On the back Ellie wrote the date and her daughter’s name: ‘Anni 1 ½ years.’ She gave a copy of the photographs to Eva.
And two days later they took the ferry over to St Malo on the French coast, the first leg of their long journey. As they waved goodbye to Billy, Eva and James standing on the dockside, Ellie saw a figure dressed in black standing some way behind them. It was Grandmère Picot whose white unsmiling face stared out at the boat drawing away from the shore.
End of extract
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