booksandstories.com

May 2003 Review

Web Page Progress

Three years seem to have passed so quickly. Lots of things have happened on a personal front but through it all I have managed to keep on writing. Although the success of the site never reached my expectations, I am still here and the site is still running. As I mentioned in a recent review, all my subscriptions for the site have come up for renewal. Most of them have now been paid or are in progress of being paid. The costs aren't too high, and so once a year I can afford to spend some money on my hobby. The interest I receive has remained low but steady. I am listed in a few directories/search engines and my site pops up in searches depending on the choice of keywords. I tweak things from time to time as the fancy takes me, but I am not too concerned with my search position.

So has this site been a success?

The main purpose of the site was to make money and have my writing put before a wider audience. The making money goal quickly faded when reality set in. But the publishing of my stories on the net has been more gratifying. The original audience for my work was basically me and a few agents or publishers, so the knowledge that several of you out there have now read and enjoyed one or more of my stories is a small measure of success. So although I have not gained financially, I have gained in having my work seen and enjoyed by others.

So another year in the life of this website begins with little change. The internet is now a lot less exciting and new as it once was, and mobile phones and text messaging seem to be the latest new thing. For people in work with time to kill at lunch time, or for insomniacs with nothing to watch on TV at night, pop in and take a look. I'll still be here.

Writing Progress

“The Friendly Ambassador” has got to the stage where I can start thinking about converting it to HTML. With this in mind I have begun the task chapter by chapter. It takes hardly no time at all to do in Word, but the HTML file produced is far too heavy with codes that don't do that much. I think I have mentioned this before. Those of you who have read my stories will notice that the paragraphs aren't indented. When you convert a Word document to HTML in Word it does this for you automatically but the file is stuffed with extra codes. The added weight to the file in KBytes isn't worth the artistic gain (or so I think). So I take them all out. It takes a little while to do but I am happier with the cleaner look to the files. It cuts them down by about half, and as the first twenty chapters of “The Friendly Ambassador” comes to 756KBytes you can understand my reasoning. The problem I have is that the next ten chapters, from Chapter Twenty-One to Chapter Thirty, also comes to 622KBytes. And there's still a way to go yet.

I don't want to exceed a MByte per file, it's too big to load and play about with, both for you and for me. I have nearly done it twice with the pay chapters of “The Return Of The Sixpack” and “The Tale Of The Comet”. I already know that “The Friendly Ambassador” is going to be larger than both of these stories. At the moment you can get each of my larger stories onto a floppy disc, even both the free and pay chapters with a squeeze. But if I let things get out of hand you will end up waiting too long for the files to load, and you will have to resort to CDROMs to copy them. It's a bit inconvenient. Well, I think so anyway. So what has this all got to do with my writing? It means that I am going to split “The Friendly Ambassador” into three parts, two free chapter files and one pay file. So Chapters One to Twenty are now on the List Page as free chapters (1 to 20) and Chapters Twenty-One to Thirty are free chapters (21 to 30). So you get another big chunk of the story to get your teeth into. Bear in mind that I am still writing this story, and if I need to make a change, I will do. But I will let you know here.

Progress on “The Friendly Ambassador” is moving on well. I can see the end looming up in the distance and I am beginning to think of the final chapters and the events I want to take place. There are still a few gaps in my mind but they are less now. I also have to think of the next story in the series and what I need to lead in to it. It always seems that as soon as I finish one story I begin thinking of the next one. In some ways it feels like I never finish, because the previous stories I wrote that come later in the series (“The Lost Girls”, “The Return Of The Sixpack”, etc) may also need a little tweaking once I have finished “The Friendly Ambassador”. These little changes are already in my mind. But all in all, the outcome is always an improvement.

I am still getting the same lack of interest from publishers and agents following my latest attempts to get noticed. It still hurts a little although I am well used to it. Finishing a story is somehow made hollow by the knowledge that nobody will read it. That's why I make the effort to publish them here. It's not so much vanity as the need to know that the writing process hasn't been futile. I think this is the main disadvantage of being a writer, the fact that you can work so hard with no return. The other disadvantage is that you can't enjoy your own work -you already know the end.

Another new Short Story Serial begins this month. This story is called “A Fine Woman”, and it is set in and just after World War II. I have tried to make it authentic, but remember it's all fictitious. I intend to alternate episodes of this story with those of “The Curfew”. So this month it's “A Fine Woman: Part I” and next month it's “The Curfew: Part III”. Part two of “A Fine Woman” will then follow in two months time. As usual the previous episode of each Short Story Serial will be added to the List Page as I have done this month with “The Curfew: Part II”. Everybody clear on that? Good. Enjoy.

May's Short Story: A Fine Woman: Part I

1948

“I'm looking for a woman.”

Sister Marie-Therese looked at the young man in uniform sitting before her with a certain amount of confusion and mirth in her eyes.

“I believe you may have come to the wrong establishment, Captain,” she said with a strong French accent. “This is after all a Convent, the home of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.”

Captain Taylor smiled. He spoke with an American accent. “And I believe it to be the perfect place to find this particular woman.”

Sister Marie-Therese sat back and joined her hands together in her lap. “And what kind of woman would this be?”

“One with a past. One who would wish to hide away from prying eyes. A woman filled with guilt, maybe. Not so much for the things she did, but possibly for the things she didn’t do.”

“And what would these things be that would gain the attention of a Captain in the American Army?”

Captain Taylor toyed with his hat for a moment before tossing it down onto the large wooden desk between them. “Look, I’m not the enemy of this woman. I met her. Once. And I know what she did, what she was involved in. I lost her soon after. Now I think I know where she is and I won’t give up until I’m proved wrong.”

“You sound very determined. Why?”

Taylor leaned forward and hesitated. It was a direct question and there was no point in avoiding it. “I love her.”

“Ahh!” Sister Marie-Therese smiled knowingly. “Love is a powerful lure, a powerful emotion. All of us within this house feel love for Our Lord as we do for our fellow man and woman. But The Lord comes first. If you are right and this woman you seek is here, is she not already lost to you?”

Captain Taylor nodded. “Yes, but in a way she was never mine in the first place. You see, I know her, but she doesn’t know me.”

The expression on Sister Marie-Therese’s face told Captain Taylor exactly what she was thinking and he quickly rushed on.

“I know! I know! I am a foolish man who should know better! But this is no ordinary woman! And I met her under unusual circumstances!” He calmed himself and went on more slowly. “Sister, I have to find her, even if it is to leave her again. I just need to know that she is alive and well. If she is here, I must see her. I must speak with her.”

Sister Marie-Therese stared at him for a moment. Here was an unusual man, an officer in the American Army, a man far from home searching for a woman in a convent while most of his countrymen had already returned to that distant home.

“The war,” she began, “has caused much suffering and damage. But it is over now. And France is slowly turning from anger and vengeance back to love, wine and food. For the French it is always those three and in that order. I am French and I understand these things. Do you have a family, Captain?”

“Yes. Parents and a sister.”

“Do you have a wife? Children?”

“No.”

“Is this what you seek here, from this missing woman?”

“No, not really. I don’t think so anyway.”

“Then what do you seek?”

“Peace. Peace of mind.”

She paused to stare at him again. “Peace.” She sighed. “Tell me about this woman, and I will tell you if she is here.”

1943

The stench was worse today. Even the dogs had noticed it. They barked incessantly and ran towards the valley on the far side of the hill where it was strongest.

Helga Burbeck tossed back her long blonde hair and gave chase, calling to her dogs in irritation.

“Tirpitz! Bismark! Heel! Come back here!”

She should have known better than to let them off their leads this close to the valley. But she had forgotten that damned camp for just an instant. She pulled her coat about her and ran through the trees at the top of the hill and down the other side into the valley, the dogs barking away in the distance before her. The wind blew her hair back in her face as she ran, and she didn’t see the man until it was too late. She ran into him, the dog-leads knocked from her hand.

The smell of leather broke through the stench as Helga found herself embraced in strong arms. The man was wearing a long and black leather coat, leather boots and a peaked cap. He was quite tall. The man released her, bowed and kissed her hand, clicking his heels at the same time.

“Obersturmführer Meir, at your service. I am sorry to startle you, Countess, but you know this area is off-limits. I must ask you to return to your estate at once.”

“I was searching for my dogs!” Helga countered. She bent to pick up the dropped dog-leads and held them out to him. “The smell attracts them! And now they’ve both ran off towards that camp of yours!”

“My men will retrieve your dogs, Countess, do not worry.”

Even as he spoke, Helga saw men with long coats and helmets walking back up the hill towards them. They all carried machine-guns slung over their shoulders. And they all wore the same SS uniforms as Obersturmführer Meir. Two of them were leading Tirpitz and Bismark by their collars.

Obersturmführer Meir took off his gloves and stuffed them in his pocket. He stood before Helga with his hands clasped before him as they waited for the soldiers to reach them with the two dogs.

“How is General Burbeck?” Meir asked in conversational tones.

“My father is well,” Helga replied with slightly more forced politeness in her voice.

“Do you get to see him often?”

“Not as often as I would like. Life in the Wehrmacht is harsh, Obersturmführer, as I am sure you know.”

It was a dig at his position in the SS, and he responded with a smile.

“My duities do have some advantages, Countess.” He looked around. “Being at home, yes, it is good. But I also yearn for the glories of victory at the front. Hopefully your father will be home soon.”

Helga went back on the offensive. “And when he does I hope that infernal smell will be gone. I have complained to Standartenführer Von Osler on numerous occasions but it only gets worse. It’s intolerable!”

“The people in the camp need the heating. It is winter, Countess, would you wish them to freeze?”

Helga looked down at the wooden buildings surrounded by fences and barbed wire. On the railway track she could see another train had arrived. Soldiers fussed around the ramshackle railway trucks. They were loading a convoy of military lorries. All the people seemed to have gone. She wondered how they fitted them all inside. There were few real buildings in the camp, and those that there were looked harsh and foreboding. They were made of grey concrete, like bunkers.

“No,” she said after a pause.

“Of course not, that would be unforgivable.”

The soldiers had returned with the two dogs and Meir bent to pat and stroke Bismark as he spoke.

“Now I suggest that you exercise these fine dogs of yours on the other side of your estate from now on.”

Helga put both dogs on their leads. “My dogs like this side of the estate. They are used to it.”

“None the less, it would be wiser to go elsewhere. And the smell would be better.”

Helga stood at her full height, which was considerably less than his, and spoke with nobility. “I will consider it. Thank you for your help, Obersturmführer Meir.”

She held out her hand to him and he bowed to kiss it as before, his heels clicking. She bowed in return and then turned and walked away. Meir watched her walk back through the trees with her two dogs in tow. All his men watched her too. One of them came to stand next to him.

“A fine woman, Obersturmführer,” he said as she finally disappeared through the trees.

“Yes, a fine woman.” He turned away and retrieved his gloves from his pocket, quickly slipping them back on. His expression instantly grew harsh. It was as if the donning of the gloves shrouded his conscience and drove away his gentility. He drew the Luger pistol from his belt and spoke with anger. “Now, Scharführer, organise your men! I want those animals found! They have already caused us enough trouble!”

The Scharführer clicked his heels. “Immediately, Obersturmführer!” He turned and shouted at the men who instantly jumped into action.

Obersturmführer Meir watched them resume their search. It had been fortunate that they had intercepted the Countess before she had gone too far. She had already complained many times about the smell, and if she found out what really went on in the camp her complaints would have reached Berlin. Her father was a powerful figure. Some would say too powerful. They would have to use more lime.

-o-

Helga pulled on the leads. She was walking along the side of the hill back towards her house. It was at the centre of a large estate. She knew the land around here very well. She had grown up here and played here. Some said she was spoilt, part of the old aristocracy. Maybe they were right. She didn’t care. They were just jealous, envious of her money, her father, and her position. Her father owned half the land in the area and the entire village. And when he was gone it would all be hers.

Why should she care?

Tirpitz pulled on his lead, Bismark going with him, and they caught her by surprise and the leads were wrenched from her hand. With a bark and a yap both Alsatians bounded away.

“Oh, Hell!” Helga exclaimed and gave chase.

The dogs led her to the old summerhouse. It was long abandoned and broken down. When she was younger she used to play there with some of the local children. That was until her mother died. It had been built for her. Helga never played in it again.

Bismark bounded through the broken door but Tirpitz got caught. Helga dived for his lead and fell head long on the ground. She landed in the mud. Tirpitz got away again.

“Damn you, Tirpitz!” she shouted as she got to her feet. Her expensive coat was all muddy, as was her face and hair. “I’ll have you neutered for this!”

She kicked the broken door in and stormed through. There were three children and an older boy inside. They all looked terribly scared as Tirpitz and Bismark jumped up and down at them wagging their tails and trying to lick them. They were dressed in what looked like old clothing that should have been thrown away a long time before. They were dirty and bedraggled. And they smelt. The older boy had a large piece of wood in his hand. He held it up as if he was going to hit one of the dogs. When he saw Helga he raised it even higher and turned to face her.

Helga reacted instantly. She stepped forward and knocked the piece of wood from the boy’s hand and pulled him by the hair, smacking him on the back. He hardly gave any resistance.

“How dare you! What are you doing in my house? How did you get here? Where have you come from?”

All the children started crying and they fell to the floor in a huddle as the dogs jumped all over them barking their heads off. The older boy lost his jacket; it just seemed to fall apart as Helga wrenched him about with it. He dropped to the floor with the others. He just cowered with his hands over his head.

Helga stared down at them and finally realised what she was doing. Her dogs were still barking and she suddenly shouted to them in her anger.

“Bismark! Tirpitz! Down boys! Heel!” she smacked her thigh. “Here!”

The dogs stopped barking and became subdued. They walked up to Helga with their tails wagging feebly.

“Sit!”

They sat on either side of her. She patted and stroked them both. “Good boys! Good boys!”

Calm descended in the broken down summerhouse. The four children still lay huddled together on the floor. They were still crying. Helga decided to use the same forceful approach she had used on her dogs.

“Stand up! Stand up I said!” She stamped her foot. “Now! On your feet! All of you!”

They were slow to respond, but Tirpitz and Bismark got to their feet and barked again and they moved faster.

Helga pulled on the dogs’ leads. “Quiet, my boys! Sit!”

The children were now standing up and crying.

“Stop crying!”

Silence apart from snivelling now filled the summerhouse.

“That’s better.” Helga adjusted her muddy coat and brushed back her muddy hair. “Now, who are you? And why are you here? Answer me!”

She was like an angry schoolteacher scolding naughty children, her two dogs standing by to deliver punishment. The older boy rubbed the dirt and tears from his face.

“I am Jacob,” he said in a timid voice. “This is Antoinette, Peter and Klaus. We are Jewish.”

It was as if the statement settled all questions. Helga didn’t think so.

“Are you from the same family?”

Jacob shook his head. “They separated us after we came off the train. Some of our mothers and fathers were upset. They argued and fought with the soldiers. There was confusion. We ran away.”

Helga nodded. “You are from the camp,” she said. “You have to go back there.”

The three younger children burst into tears but Jacob stepped forward. “We won’t go!” he said with determination. “You can kill us, feed us to your dogs even, but we won’t go back there!”

Helga looked at him in surprise. It wasn’t his outburst but what he had said. “I’m not going to feed you to my dogs! Don’t be ridiculous! But you have to go back! You don’t belong here!”

Jacob now shouted at her. “We won’t go back! And you can’t make us!”

Bismark and Tirpitz stood up and started to growl. Helga tightened her grip on their leads. “You are being selfish!” she shouted back at him. “Think about your parents! They’ll be worried about you!”

“They’re dead! They’re all dead! They shot them! They shot them all!”

Bismark and Tirpitz began to bark. Helga quietened them in a dazed state.

“Shh, my boys! Quiet!”

They sat again and Helga looked up at Jacob. “Tell me what happened.”

Jacob was breathing deeply, his fists clenched. She spoke to him again, but more kindly this time.

“Do not worry, child, I will not send you back there. But if what you say is true- ”

“It is true!” Jacob burst out.

Helga nodded. “Alright, its true. But then if I keep you they may hurt me, too. So tell me the truth. Tell me what happened. I deserve to know.”

Jacob glanced back at the others. They were huddled together in fear. He got no answer from them so he turned back to Helga again. He decided to trust her.

“We are from Antwerp,” he began slowly. “They chased us out of our homes and moved us all together in one place. I don’t know where it was. I only know there was no food for us and our parents were scared. My mother said that we mustn’t worry, that it was for our own protection. People had begun to do bad things to us because we were Jewish, and so it was better if we were all kept together. My father didn’t think the same. He knew the Germans were up to something bad.

“They put us on a train and took us to a camp. The train was horrible. It was just trucks and they squeezed us all in. The journey took hours and hours. Some of the older people died in our truck. And one baby too. The camp was just as bad. They took everything we had and gave us these uniforms. They made my father work. They kept him apart from me and my mother. My mother worked too. I don’t know how long we stayed there, maybe a year? Then they put all the women and children into another train and brought us here.

“The journey was worse than the first one. It took longer and more people died. It didn’t seem to matter any more. When we arrived and were being taken off the trucks I saw my father again. The men had been brought on the same train, you see, but kept together in different trucks at the back. Now they were all walking passed us as we waited by the train. He was very thin, I almost didn’t recognise him. But when my mother called to him he looked at us and recognised us straight away. I called to him too, and more of the others began to call out. He shouted back. He ran towards us with more of the men doing the same. Some of the women and their children ran to them in greeting. I ran with my mother. Then they soldiers shot at us. They shot my father. My mother pushed me away and they shot her too. I ran under the train. Everyone was running around. The Germans were shooting everyone, even people on the ground on their knees. I ran off. Some of the children ran with me. They shot them too. We were the only ones who got away.”

Jacob just dropped his head and looked down when he had finished.

Helga was stunned. She didn’t want to believe it; she couldn’t believe it. But the state and appearance of Jacob and the other children was far too convincing. And she suddenly realised that her accidental meeting with the soldiers on the hill had not been so accidental after all. They had been there for a purpose. They had been looking for these children.

All of a sudden a feeling of fear crept into her bones. This was a discovery that the Reichmacht would not want to become public knowledge. It was too bad, too evil, and too dangerous.

Helga held out her hand to Jacob. “Come with me. I will help you.”

-o-

The next day the smell was just as bad as usual. It had a particular odour that Helga now found to be extremely distasteful. The reason was simple. It was familiar in some way. It had something to do with hunting with her father. She knew why now.

She hurried over the hill with Bismark and Tirpitz. It was early morning and she was taking the dogs on their usual long romp. Or that was how it would look. At first she had thought about leaving them behind. There would have been less noise and less risk of being found out. But there would also have been no excuse for her presence. Obersturmführer Meir may have been polite, but he was SS. All the soldiers at the camp were SS. Meir was no fool.

She kept a tight hold on Bismark and Tirpitz’s leads and gave them their head. She ran behind them as they bounded and pulled her along. They ran in a direct line, unwavering. It was the direction they always took. No matter where she was if she released them they always ran this way. Now they took her with them. Now she would find out where the smell came from and why the dogs were attracted to it.

Helga was surprised when the dogs led her away from the camp. She was sure they would take her straight to it. But instead they ran along the side of the hill and down towards the far side of the limits of the camp. There was nothing here but derelict land. Why did they come here? There was nothing here.

Then she heard the noises. It was surprising how the hillside and the tree line kept the sounds in the valley. From the house she could hear nothing; she had heard nothing. Now she could hear machinery. Was that a tractor? And suddenly there was a shot, like the crack of a whip.

Bismark and Tirpitz were very eager now. With their tails wagging and their tongues hanging out the sides of their mouths they pulled her forward at a trot. Then at last she saw them.

Helga quickly pulled her dogs to a halt and collapsed to the soft ground in a heap between them. Bismark and Tirpitz fussed about her, licking her face and nuzzling her. She ignored them. All she could do was sit there in the grass and stare at the vast pit.

It was a long wide trench that the soldiers stood around. At one end a large mechanical digger was pushing the soil back, filling it in. In the middle, men in funny looking outfits, their faces covered, were shovelling a white powder over the bottom of the trench. There were soldiers in the trench, too. They were closer to her, at this end. They walked around with their guns in their hands. One of the soldiers that lined the edge of the trench called out and pointed. Was that Obersturmführer Meir? One of the other soldiers down in the trench moved to the place he had indicated. The soldier pointed his gun at the ground and fired.

The ground jerked.

Helga stared with round eyes at the trench and what lay filling it from side to side. Until that distant and slight jerk it had been just a white mass. Now it all came into sharp focus, now she could see clearly what she was looking at. She could see each limb, each form, each body piled on the next. All of them naked. All of them dead. No, not all of them, not yet.

There was another shot and another body jerked.

Helga scrambled to her feet and tugged on the leads of her dogs, hurrying away as fast as she could go, her head held high.

If anyone saw her, they must not see her cowering in fright.

1948

Captain Taylor had shifted his position on the chair and crossed his legs first one way and then the other on numerous occasions during his story. It was a manoeuvre he repeated again now as he continued.

“And that’s how it started. Helga was twenty-four. She was rich, beautiful, spoilt, and yes, arrogant. She was also German, from good stock and with fine traditions. What she found out broke her faith and belief in everything she had known. I don’t know if it was guilt or anger that drove her, I only know what she did.”

Sister Marie-Therese hadn’t uttered a word during his story. And unlike him she also hadn’t moved. She had sat back in her chair with her hands clasped in her lap and listened attentively. Now she reached out and shook a little bell. “I think we need refreshment.”

Captain Taylor waited patiently as another nun entered the sparse and rather functionally decorated room. Only the statues of the Virgin Mary stood out as bright spots.

Sister Marie-Therese beckoned to the nun. “Sister Anna-Maria, kindly bring tea for our guest.” She paused a moment and glanced at Captain Taylor. “I am sorry, Captain. You are American, would you prefer coffee?”

He waved his hand dismissively. “No, tea would be fine. Thank you.”

Sister Marie-Therese nodded to Sister Anna-Maria and the nun left to fetch the tea. Sister Marie-Therese sat back in her chair once more and fixed her soft eyes on Captain Taylor.

“So what exactly was it that she did?”

“She became a smuggler.”

Sister Marie-Therese raised her eyebrows.

Captain Taylor smiled. “I mean a smuggler of people. It started with those four children. She brought them back to her house for the first night, but some of the servants and people who worked for her were not as trustworthy as others. So she kept them in the old summerhouse, cleaning it up a little and making it more pleasant. But she couldn’t keep them there indefinitely, and she couldn’t turn them over to the authorities either. She had to do something herself. So she went on holiday.”

“On holiday?”

“She was German, well connected, and she had money. She went on holiday to the South of France. And she took the children with her. And when she was there she made contact with the underground.”

“That would have been dangerous for a German.”

Captain Taylor nodded. “It was. But Jacob helped. He must have been twelve or thirteen when they first met. He stayed with her until the end.”

“So you aren't her only admirer?”

“No. A woman such as this gathers as many admirers as she gathers enemies.”

“True. And if this woman should indeed be within the walls of our Convent, is she here to seek sanctuary from her admirers or her enemies?”

There was a tap on the door and Sister Anna-Maria returned with the tea on a large tray. She put the tray down on the desk and placed a cup and saucer before the Captain and Sister Marie-Therese. Then she poured the tea from the large pot and added milk. At the end she placed the sugar bowl in reach of the Captain, smiled and left. It was all done so quietly that Captain Taylor didn’t even hear her walking on the floor. It was as if she were mounted on wheels under her habit. He added sugar to his tea, stirred it and picked up his cup. Sister Marie-Therese did the same. Captain Taylor drank his tea and waited patiently. Finally she put down her cup and spoke.

“Your story is very interesting, Captain, but it has yet to identify the woman you seek. Nor has it clarified the reason for her presence. All I will tell you at this stage is that there is no-one by the name of Helga in this Convent.”

Captain Taylor took another sip of his tea. “I never thought she would use the same name. But I noticed that you didn’t say there wasn’t a German woman in your Convent.”

“Neither did I say that there was. Please continue.”

Captain Taylor smiled and put down his cup. “Alright. But it’s a long story.”

“If it truly is peace of mind that you seek it would be churlish not to listen. And I am blessed with the time.”

Captain Taylor nodded and then shifted position on his chair once more. “Could we move somewhere more comfortable?” he suggested hopefully.

Sister Marie-Therese sat back in her chair and clasped her hands in her lap. “One must suffer on the journey to peace, Captain, or the goal of its realisation would be without worth. Continue with your story.”

End of Part I. Part II in two months time.

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2003

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