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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So he had gone to see the film the next week, to prove something. He arrived early and slipped into a seat towards the rear, hoping it would be a small crowd, but by the time the main feature began the theater was full. He sat through the first half hour, his shoulders hunched, his arms crossed tightly to avoid any contact with the fellows sitting on either side of him. They were with their girlfriends — it had been a mistake to sit near the back — and when, after about ten minutes, the boy to his left started to kiss his girl, Rotheram didn’t know what was making him more uncomfortable, the film or the couple. He was actually grateful when someone behind them harrumphed loudly, “Show some respect.” When twenty minutes later the boy on his right tried something, Rotheram distinctly heard the girl slap the fellow’s hand away.

By then, though, he was caught up in the film, its ecstatic pageantry. The fervent masses on the screen seemed to merge with the crowd around him in the theater. It might have been the two couples flanking him, but by the time the film was over he felt violently lonely. He wanted to have even a bit part in this great drama, and for a brief while in the darkened cinema, invisible in his seat, he felt as if he did. But then the lights came up and he hurried out, panicked by the sudden piercing thought that, if he could, he would want nothing more than to join the Nazis. In his haste, he trod on the toes of one of the girls, fleeing before he could apologize, fleeing from her little hiss of anger, her pointing finger. Outside, he must have run half a mile, feeling as if the crowd were at his back, ready to kill him for stepping on some girl’s toes.

That was the day he realized he and his mother would have to leave.

It was her old Canadian connections that made it possible for them to come to England. Rotheram wondered what his father, killed at Verdun, would have made of that. Conceived in 1915 during his father’s last leave, Rotheram had never met the man, although he still kept his frayed campaign ribbons pressed in his wallet, as proud of them as he was ashamed of having run from Germany.

He’d shown them, with a kind of shy defiance, to Colonel Hawkins one night in 1941, shortly after he ’d been seconded to the Political Intelligence Division as a document translator.

“Ypres?” The old man had whistled in admiration, pointing to one decoration. “Lord, we might have traded potshots. Staunch soldiers, those fellows. Took everything we threw at them.”

Rotheram’s mother had been killed in the Blitz months earlier, and it was the first time he ’d talked about his father to anyone since.

“Neither fish nor fowl, eh?” Hawkins said when he told him his background, and Rotheram nodded. He still wasn’t sure what he could call himself — not German, not Jewish — but serving under the CO, he ’d felt for the first time as if he weren’t running from something, but being led somewhere.

Back in 1941, the war had seemed as good as lost, the papers filled with defeats, yet Hawkins was winning small victories every few days across the interrogation table. The first story Rotheram heard about him was how he once questioned a suspected spy for thirteen hours straight, cracking him in the end only when he told the man he was free to go — told him in German, that is — and saw the fellow’s shoulders sag in relief. Hawkins made winning the war seem a matter of wit and will, and Rotheram had been thrilled when the CO personally selected him from the translation pool to sit in on interrogations. Hawkins spoke excellent German himself, of course — he made Rotheram self-conscious of his own accented English — but he didn’t always want to let on to the prisoners. “Helps sometimes to let them think they know more than me.” It was a tactic he ’d learned from his days as a journalist between the wars. Springing his German on them when they weren’t expecting it was one of his simpler tricks.

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

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