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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Print Excerpt

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 you’ve brought our feature presentation.”

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. “You’ve eaten already?” he asked brusquely, but Rotheram shook his head. There’d been only a meager ploughman’s at a sullen pub outside Cirencester. The doctor looked disconcerted. “Well, look, not to be inhospitable, but could you possibly wait? Unless you’re ravenous, I mean. Only, he’s an early riser, so if you want to show it this evening, best start soon.” He smiled apologetically. “Can’t promise he won’t nod off, otherwise.”

“It’s 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 sprockets.

“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 didn’t 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 room.

“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 censor’s office — they’d impounded half a dozen copies at the start of the war — and he’d 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 Mifflin Company.

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