'I doubt it. But...' Her voice trailed away... 'So what did you think of Mildred Pierce?'
'I liked it, I think.'
'I was never bored. It looked good. Though the daughter did seem a bit over the top - would any mother be that blind?'
'Of course. I've known mothers who've put up with much worse. No, it wasn't that...' She paused. They had reached the bus stop on College Street, and a trolleybus was already looming out of the fog. It was crowded with over-exuberant West End revellers, and continuing their conversation in German seemed ill-advised. Effi spent the five-minute bus journey trying to sort out her reaction to the film. The dominant emotion, she decided, was anger, but she wasn't at all sure why. After alighting on Highgate Road she said as much to Russell.
'The portrayal of women,' he guessed. 'Though the men were just as appalling. The only sympathetic character was the younger sister, and they killed her off.'
'There was also the friend, but she was too smart to attract a good man.'
The fog seemed thicker than ever, but perhaps it was the added smoke from the nearby engine sheds.
'But you're right,' Effi went on, as they turned into Lady Somerset Road, 'it was the way the women were written. When the Nazis were portraying them as submissive idiots, it was so wonderful to see someone like Katherine Hepburn show how happy and sexy independent women could be. And now the Nazis are gone, and Hollywood gives us Mildred, who can only have a successful career if she fails as a mother and husband. Goebbels would have loved it.'
'A bit harsh,' Russell murmured.
'Not at all,' she rounded on him. 'You just...'
Two figures suddenly emerged in front of them, silhouettes in the mist. 'Stick 'em up,' one of the two said, in a tone that seemed borrowed from an American gangster movie.
'What?' was Russell's first reaction. The voice sounded young, and both potential robbers seemed unusually short. But it did look like a real gun pointing at them. A Luger, if Russell was not mistaken.
'Stick 'em up,' the voice repeated petulantly. The faces were becoming clearer now - and they belonged to boys, not men. Fourteen perhaps, maybe even younger. The one on the left was wearing trousers too long for his legs. A relation who hadn't come home.
'What do you want?' Russell asked, with what felt like remarkable good humour, given the situation. Only that morning he'd read about two thirteen year-olds holding up a woman in Highgate. Far too many boys had lost their fathers.
'Your money of course,' the second boy said, almost apologetically.
'We only have a couple of shillings.'
'You Germans are all liars,' the first boy said angrily.
'I'm English,' Russell patiently explained, as he reached inside his coat pocket for the coins in question. He doubted the gun was even loaded, but it didn't seem worth the risk to find out. Effi had other ideas. 'This is ridiculous,' she muttered in German, as she stepped forward and twisted the gun out of the surprised youth's hand. 'Now go home,' she told them in English.
They glanced at each other, and bolted off into the fog.
Effi just stood there, amazed at what she'd done. She was, she realised, shaking like a leaf. What mad instinct had made her do such a thing?
'Christ almighty,' Russell exclaimed, reaching out for her. 'For a moment there...'
'I didn't think,' she said stupidly. She started to laugh, but there was no humour in the sound, and Russell cradled her head against his shoulder. They stood there for a while, until Effi disentangled herself and offered him the gun.
He put it in his coat pocket. 'I'll hand it in at the police station tomorrow morning.'
They walked the short distance home, and let themselves in to the ground floor flat that Russell had rented. It had two large rooms, a small kitchen and an outside toilet. Russell, Effi and Rosa shared the back room, Paul, Lothar and Zarah the curtain-divided room at the front. Other families of four and five lived above and below them. Paul was reading a book on architecture in the kitchen, his English dictionary propped up beside him. 'They're all asleep,' he told them quietly.
Excerpted from Lehrter Station by David Downing. Copyright © 2012 by David Downing. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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