- Published: 12 April 2022
- ISBN: 9781760145019
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $19.99
The Spy’s Wife
27 February, 1933
Max looked at his watch, and a sinking realisation that he was late plunged through him. His heavily pregnant wife was surely expressing her disappointment at this moment to her family. It was past nine and the time had got away from him. In his defence, slim as it was, he’d warned her that he had a meeting after work. Despite this, she’d insisted on calling together her parents and sisters for Jonas’s birthday celebration.
‘You don’t have to be home for all of it. Just be back in time to see everyone,’ Rachel had pleaded softly. ‘Jonas will be asleep within an hour of them all arriving anyway.’
She rarely made demands on him. Theirs was a gentle, peaceful relationship. Two inherently quiet people had found each other; her laughter was a balm to his remoteness, and they always found plenty of amusement and love to share . . . especially for their son, turning three.
‘So the celebration is really for you,’ he’d teased.
‘Of course. Any excuse to celebrate his life. Consider yourself lucky I’m not that religious or we’d be cutting his hair for the first time and having quite the ritual gathering.’
He pulled a face at the thought. ‘I will be late, but I’ll get home as fast as I can.’
‘Thank you.’ She kissed him and then stroked his face, lingering. ‘I love you, Max.’
‘Mmm. Well, if that’s on tonight’s menu, I’ll definitely try to cut the meeting short.’
She laughed. ‘Is that meeting really so important?’
He sighed. ‘It is, I’m sorry. The expansion of our rail network waits for no one.’ He planted a peck on her cheek. ‘Be good for your mother, Jonas,’ he said, crouching to kiss his son’s head. Jonas managed a chubby wave and a beaming smile that showed off his glimmering infant teeth, now a complete set.
He remembered to get out of the office for some chocolate for his son, as well as a shiny silver Märklin model of the rail zeppelin. The original, built by the German Imperial Railway Company two years before, had been the first train to exceed 200 kilometres per hour.
Max also hoped the box of deep-fried cruller pastries would take the edge off his wife’s frustration when he finally arrived home so much later than she’d hoped. He’d chosen her favourite, with the sweet lemon icing. He had anticipated flagging a taxi by now but the roads were thinly populated and it was such an icy night that he wasn’t surprised to still be on foot, nose threatening to stream, his woollen scarf pulled up high around his mouth as he strode down Unter den Linden in the loping style of a tall man. It seemed only he and one other, presumably an impoverished student who had emerged from the State Library, were walking, so he doubted there would be any contest for a taxi should he spot one. Their footsteps helplessly synchronised, with Max a good twenty yards or so behind on the same side of the grand boulevard that connected the Stadtschloss royal palace to the Brandenburg Gate. Once a bridle path of the sixteenth century, it had been replaced by a broad avenue flanked by linden trees, most of which had now disappeared. Max loved this boulevard for its history and grandeur. He had been born in a tiny hamlet in Sussex – England was his spiritual home – but his father had pined for his homeland and brought his family to Bavaria when Max was six, to raise him as German. On a childhood visit to Berlin, Max had fallen for the avant-garde atmosphere of this most lively of cities.
He liked the melting pot of people, and though he knew his manner presented as conservative, his notions were all about liberalism. He considered himself part of that melting pot, being a mix of British and German, and his wife was a Hungarian Jew plus German and even a bit of French. What a pairing they were. Their son was unlikely to speak Hebrew, however, for his mother flouted many traditions in favour of modernity.
Jonas. That’s what life was about now: making life the best it could be for their son and the child growing in Rachel’s belly. What sort of a Germany, though, were his children to grow up in? There was so much poverty, and parts of Berlin could only be described as slums. The gamble on winning the war of 1914 and funding the four years of its misery on borrowings had failed. Reparations from the war had beggared the once proud nation as hyperinflation imposed its grip and the Reichsmark had less value than the paper it was printed on. Ten years earlier, Max had been appalled to learn that there were poor people in Munich throwing money into their hearths to burn, because it was cheaper than buying wood. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had made it impossible for Germany to meet its debts as loans were no longer available.
But perhaps he could ensure Jonas’s childhood would be happier than his. At nine, Max had watched his proud German father go off to die, among the two million other brave men who gave their lives. War was not something he’d wish on his son. Or being bounced around between family members as he had been, spending his middle teens in England again, before returning to Germany at seventeen. His mother died not long after, which allowed him to leave Bavaria for good and make Berlin his home.
And now it felt like a new Germany was rising from the ashes of the shamed Weimar Republic – but was it one to take pride in, or to fear? He didn’t entirely share everyone’s new optimism, although there had been no sign that the freedoms Berlin enjoyed would be curtailed by the small, pursed-lipped conservative leader who was known to be an antisemite and rabble-rouser.
Max did wonder about the Nazi Party, which was gaining in popularity. He was thinking about it now and how it was beginning to affect his colleagues’ plans for the future. At work today the discussion had reached familiar territory: join the party or risk being on the outer, perhaps losing their jobs. No one really knew, Max realised, and so fear made most people compliant, but there was also Adolf Hitler’s adroit way of touching a nerve among the masses. He was voicing what they wanted to hear; his speeches simmered with resentment at how the great German people were regarded in Europe, cunningly balanced with promises of how Germany would rise again.
Max appreciated Germany’s precision in all things, especially in his meticulous line of work. He had so much opportunity sprawling ahead that he could look forward to a very handsome lifestyle for his family in years to come.
He was lost in these thoughts of the Republic while calculating that if he sped up, he could be home in under fifteen minutes. His home was in the privileged Mitte borough, the oldest section of the city in that eastern end, and any moment he should glimpse the glorious building of the Reichstag. So . . . home in ten, maybe, he thought, adjusting his estimate and widening in his mind the smile that Rachel would give him.
It was then that he heard what sounded like glass breaking. It had caught the student’s attention too. They both heard it again. Definitely glass, Max thought with a frown, watching the young man ahead of him break into a trot.
He did the same and his long legs soon brought him abreast of the youngster. They rounded the corner of Wilhelmstrasse together as more glass tinkled, this time seeming to blow outwards, and Max saw a strange orange glow above the grand building. His companion, unburdened by cakes or a precious toy train to keep safe, broke into a full run.
‘It’s on fire!’ he yelled. ‘The Reichstag is burning!’
Max halted, astonished, then heard another explosion and watched bright flames erupt and lick around the gilded glass cupola that sat over the Reichstag’s plenary chamber. Black smoke had begun to billow through a hole in the glass roof, easing like a dark shadow above Berlin.
He heard the shot of a revolver and flinched. Now men were shouting. Max headed to where other curious pedestrians had gathered, including a police officer walking his beat. Apparently, through first-floor windows, they had seen someone acting suspiciously inside the building.
Max held back. There was nothing he could do. The screaming siren of a fire engine could now be heard, and he suspected pandemonium would soon break out.
He remained still, standing beneath a tree near the fountain in the formal gardens in front of the grand building, now properly aflame and lit from behind by the spreading fire that danced and licked around the edges of blown-out windows. Max watched the firefighters drawing water from the nearby River Spree as other spectators crouched at the sudden explosion as the cupola finally gave up all resistance.
Black cars began to arrive, spewing leaders. Max blinked in the shadows, noting Hermann Göring, interior minister, and not long afterwards a limousine brought the new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, together with his sidekick, Joseph Goebbels, whom Max had instinctively disliked on the day they were introduced. Goebbels had hardly noticed him, with barely more than a glance and a limp handshake . . . and Max was glad of that. He didn’t want to be noticed by these shadowy men. Now he picked out the chief of the secret police and the aristocratic vice-chancellor, Franz von Papen, with ease.
Nevertheless, Max couldn’t take his gaze from Chancellor Hitler, whose small, scrunched features reflected the glow of the flames; he managed to look demonic as he shook his fist and raged at his minions nearby. He was clearly enraged about the fire and the potential loss of the historic building. And yet something here felt contrived. Max couldn’t pinpoint it but he trusted his gut; this situation felt bad in a dangerous way that he wanted no part of.
Max hunched deeper into his scarf, pulled his hat further down and eased away, moving through the cover of trees and buildings. He took the longer way home, less concerned about his wife’s frustration and more worried about what the repercussions of this terrible night might mean for the people of Berlin.
At home, glued to the wireless and birthday celebrations forgotten, Max had watched the fire dissipate from his commanding vantage. As the flames eased, a vague and private sense of alarm intensified.
‘So we’re all safe,’ Rachel said, her tension releasing as she lowered herself into his lap and curled up in his arms. ‘Hold me close,’ she whispered. ‘And then I’ll devour some cruller pastries.’
Max kissed the top of her head and they closed their eyes just before midnight in the armchair, in that embrace. Early-morning reports said that the fire had been started deliberately. The new chancellor blamed the arson attack on the Communist putsch.
Max had watched a new dawn break over Berlin and the smouldering ruin of the Reichstag. Somehow it felt symbolic. And the sense that it represented some sort of watershed was not easily shaken. He suspected this was because he, like every other politically aware German, had begun to pay even closer attention to wider reports later that morning – coming first out of Austria – that the fire was not the work of Communists or radicals but arsonists hired by the Hitler government.
Max turned this stunning notion over in his mind as more arrests were made and their details broadcast. He gathered it had been a busy night of rounding-up; not even clergymen or artists were spared. A whiff of left-wing economic thought, a mere sympathy expressed for the ideology, meant these people were judged as potentially hostile to the new Germany.
Less than a month later, Max was seated cross-legged on the floor of their elegant apartment, distractedly explaining the might of the flying Hamburger engine to Jonas, who was choof-choofing a model train locomotive along some imaginary tracks, watched over by Rachel as she darned socks on the crest of her huge belly. Max knew in this moment he should feel as full as she looked, swollen with optimism and joy at his comfortable financial situation and his beautiful family. However, he had never felt more hollow. He did his best to shield Rachel from the rumblings of discontent that were beginning to sound through this most tolerant of cities.
With Adolf Hitler at the helm, Germany no longer felt responsible for Europe’s pain. Its people were no more the miserable of Europe – Germany wanted its military returned, it demanded equality and all of its power back . . . and he suspected it would trample anything that got in its way.
As the notion clicked neatly into place like a jigsaw piece, Max reached the decision that had been nagging for weeks.
Time to leave.
As he felt his resolve harden, the telephone rang.
Max cut Rachel a grin and loped to the phone in the hallway.
‘Max, it’s Oskar.’
‘She’s darning socks. I’ll fetch—’
‘No, Max. Don’t disturb her. I actually wanted to speak with you, er . . . discreetly.’
He frowned. ‘All right. Is something wrong?’
‘I’m not sure. It could be . . .’ Oskar trailed off as if confused. This wasn’t like him; Rachel’s father was an ebullient professor of philosophy at Humboldt University, adored by his students for his wit as much as his brilliant lectures. He was never lost for words.
‘Could be?’ he echoed. ‘What seems to be the problem?’
‘There are rumours.’
He waited. ‘About what, Oskar?’
‘Government restrictions . . . which I can’t quite believe, but it’s not just me who is baffled. Others, more connected, are of the belief that it is true.’
‘Oskar . . .’ he began, sounding weary. ‘You need to explain.’
‘What I’m hearing is that our new government is planning to revoke the doctorates of all Jewish professors.’
Max gave a derisive snort. ‘What nonsense. You know that’s illegal.’
‘I do, and still the rumours persist. One of my closest colleagues, who is connected into the highest levels of government, is telling me to protect myself and my family. He’s suggesting we should leave Germany immediately, perhaps return to Hungary, as though it’s still my home.’ Max heard his elder groan. ‘Max, we left there when I was half Jonas’s age. Germany is my home. I fought for it. I bled—’
‘Be calm,’ he said, peeking at his wife and son, who were now reading a bedtime story. He couldn’t have Rachel being frightened by this.
‘Revoking our qualifications is the beginning. I’m hearing that the Nazi Party has decided that people of Jewish descent are first on their list to lose rights.’
‘I can’t give this credence, but I promise you I will look into it.’
Hitler had made no secret of his antisemitic tendencies, but Max believed that was surely just talk when Hitler was a young hoodlum trying to work up other rebels. He tried to reassure his father-in-law. ‘Oskar, you’re about to be a grandfather again in a fortnight. I don’t want anything getting in the way of Rachel having a smooth, untroubled delivery.’
‘I promise to look into these rumours. I too have contacts that stretch into the higher echelons of our government.’
‘Thank you, Max. I’m sorry for the late call.’
‘Go to bed, Oskar. Tomorrow will be brighter – spring is around the corner.’
Fateful words. He wished he could take them back, go back in time and act on Oskar’s warnings. It was the very spring he spoke about that brought death and the emergence of real trouble to come. Hitler celebrated his birthday month of April with new laws regarding the boycott of Jewish businesses, while stripping Jewish civil servants of their employment. Oskar had been right.
There was a new dawn indeed. But it was already too late for Max and Rachel.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
York – 1915 The argument had been tame, polite even, but there was no doubt in her mind that if she didn’t make a decision, it would be made for her.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
The air sagged beneath the burden of the day’s heat and the African sun felt as pitiless as her mother’s gaze upon meeting the man Louisa had chosen to marry.
The two men frowned at the map. It made little sense and one referred to the detailed instructions he’d taken good care to note down.
Jean Farmer took the call, and regretted instantly that she’d been the one to pick up the phone.
I didn’t dare look at the palm of my hand for fear of seeing the bruising arc pattern of fingernails from the clenching of my fist moments earlier.
‘I don’t remember.’ Or rather, she didn’t want to remember, which was not the same thing.