Excerpt from The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Welsh Girl

by Peter Ho Davies

The Welsh Girl
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2007, 352 pages
    Jan 2008, 352 pages

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Over the months they came up with other stunts. A couple of times, Hawkins had Rotheram translate so sloppily that the infuriated prisoners lost patience and broke into English themselves. Later, he began leaving Rotheram alone with a prisoner, stepping out to the WC while Rotheram offered the man a cigarette, warned him what Hawkins was capable of, advised him to talk: “It’s nothing to be ashamed of; anyone would.” He posed as a British student of German literature, professed an affinity for things German. “You’ve a talent for sympathy,” Hawkins told him.

In truth Rotheram despised the prisoners, loved to see Hawkins break them. Once, they’d reversed the roles — boredom, as much as anything, dictating their tactics — and Hawkins had played the sympathetic one, hamming it up so much Rotheram thought he was being mocked. He listened from behind the door as Hawkins offered the prisoner a smoke, warned him that Rotheram was a German Jew, implacable in his desire for revenge. The man had talked even before Rotheram returned to the room. He’d felt a stark thrill, but afterwards, in Hawkins’s office, he told him, again, that he wasn’t a Jew, and Hawkins eyed him carefully and said, “I know, old boy, I know. It was just a ruse. No offense intended.”

“None taken,” Rotheram told him. “Why do you think he believed it though?”

And Hawkins said, “The reason most men believe anything. He was scared it was true.”

Rotheram had laughed. He couldn’t say if loyalty to one man could grow into patriotism, but the harder he worked for Hawkins, the more suspects he questioned, the more British he felt.

Still, by the late summer of 1944, there were fewer and fewer prisoners at the London Cage, and Rotheram was missing the interrogations, missing the war, really. He’d been agitating for a transfer for a month. Quayle and his gang had moved across the Channel in late July; most of the questioning was being done in Cherbourg or by roving teams at the front. According to Hawkins, it was a miserable detail, France or no. So many men surrendering, hundreds a day — it was nothing but paperwork. “Besides, I need you here, dear boy, to help put the jigsaw together.” They were beginning to identify defendants and witnesses for the prospective war crimes trials. The pieces of the puzzle. Rotheram had nodded and gone back to the dry work of processing the boxloads of interrogation reports coming in from Normandy.

There wasn’t even much doing at Dover by then. In June and July, in the wake of D-day, he ’d been used to heading down there two or three times a week, to the old racetrack where the POWs were processed, for a “chat,” as they called it, with the more interesting and recalcitrant cases. Once or twice he persuaded the local MPs to give him a captured uniform and put him in with the unprocessed men to eavesdrop. He’d been shocked by the thrill of it — playing with fire, he ’d thought — delighted in calling himself “Steiner.” He’d gotten results, too, bagged a handful of officers posing as noncoms. By mid- August, the Allies closing in on Paris, he ’d begged permission to make another visit to Dover, and tried the stunt again, but he must have seemed overeager. He’d been rumbled, had a rib broken before the guards could get to him.

Hawkins was furious when he heard about it. “Why would you take such an idiotic risk? Seriously, what do you think you were playing at?”

Rotheram shrugged. “I was going round the bend, sir. And now with Paris liberated . . .” The news had broken two days earlier. “Sometimes it feels like I’m the bloody prisoner here.”

Hawkins smiled thinly.

Copyright © 2007 by Peter Ho Davies. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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