Excerpt of The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
(Page 5 of 10)
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It had been damp and overcast in London Rotheram needed to let out the
choke to get the car started but by Cheltenham it was warm enough to roll his
windows down, and motoring through the Marches into Wales, he found himself
lifted by the rippling emerald country, the bright broad skies, so different
from the narrow greyness of London.
Still, climbing into the Black Mountains felt like crossing into autumn. Fat
drops of rain splattered the windscreen, and by the time he arrived, the metal
of the film canisters was cold enough to sting his fingers as he carried them in
from the car. He walked up the gravel drive to the manor house, remembering
something Hawkins had once told him, that the gentry had put in gravel to
announce their visitors. He had a moment to take in the ivy-bearded brick, the
leaded windows crosshatched a second time with safety tape, and then he heard
the bolt draw back on the heavy oak door.
Ah, the pinch-faced lieutenant who met him declared, I see youve brought our
The lieutenant, a doctor in the RAMC who introduced himself only as Mills,
showed him into the parlor, where a projector had been set up. Youve eaten
already? he asked brusquely, but Rotheram shook his head. Thered been only a
meager ploughmans at a sullen pub outside Cirencester. The doctor looked
disconcerted. Well, look, not to be inhospitable, but could you possibly wait?
Unless youre ravenous, I mean. Only, hes an early riser, so if you want to
show it this evening, best start soon. He smiled apologetically. Cant promise
he wont nod off, otherwise.
Its fine. Rotheram began loading the film. His fingers were so chilled they
trembled, and it took him long minutes to thread the first reel through the
Nervous? Mills asked.
Cold, Rotheram said, rubbing his fingers. Those will have to be turned, he
added, indicating the neat row of chairs and making a circling gesture, so we
can watch him.
Right you are, the other replied agreeably enough, although Rotheram noticed
he didnt offer to light the fire in the grate.
Finally the film was ready, and Rotheram ran it forward for a few seconds,
watching the test numbers flicker and count down, and then the opening shots
from a plane descending over the city, the image ghostly in the still-bright
Action, Mills called jauntily.
Rotheram snapped the machine into reverse and the camera lifted back through the
wispy clouds, the medieval rooftops dwindling, the soundtrack discordant and
garbled. He d tracked down the print at the censors office theyd impounded
half a dozen copies at the start of the war and hed run it for himself the
night before in his office, to make sure it was whole and to refamiliarize
himself. He d waited until everyone had left for the evening, afraid of being
caught, as if it were pornography.
All right, he said, and Mills opened the door.
Someone must have been waiting for the signal, for less than a minute later
there were footsteps in the passage outside.
Rotheram expected a guard to come first, but it was Hess himself, stepping into
the drawing room as if it were his home. He was greying and more drawn than
Rotheram recalled from his pictures, his nose as sharp as a beak and his
cheekbones swept up like wings under his skin, as if his face were about to take
flight. Out of uniform, in a navy blue cardigan, darned at one elbow, he seemed
stooped, retired, more a shy uncle than the fiery deputy führer. His shirt was
pressed and buttoned to the throat, but he wore no tie, and Rotheram recalled he
d made two suicide attempts, according to the file: once opening his veins with
a butter knife he had stolen and sharpened on an iron bedstead; a second time
hurdling a third-story banister. He was limping from that fall still, as he
approached and held out his hand. Rotheram stared at it, slowly held out his
own, but to one side, gesturing to the armchair. Hess ignored the insult, taking
his place with only a wry Vielen Dank, to which Rotheram found himself
automatically mumbling, Bitte.
Copyright © 2007 by Peter Ho Davies. Reprinted by permission of Houghton