In A Strange Land
Alison Carter’s powerful complete story, set in the 1950s, welcomes you to a brand-new Special.
MARY BILLINGS put her head round the door of the police station. “Any jobs, Dad?” Her father hurried in from the back of the station. “Mary, keep your voice down, will you? The sergeant will give me a ticking off.”
Mary grinned as she heard a great bass snore emanate from the office. “He’s out for the count.” “Well, you can call by Rawlish’s Farm if you’re cycling past to work. There’s a new worker there I’ve been checking on.” “Checking?” “He’s from Germany. Can’t think what he’s doing on a dairy farm in Cheshire. There seems no harm in the lad, but I don’t suppose he’s going down well in the village.”
“A German at Rawlish’s!” Mary was taken aback. “I thought we fought that war to stop them coming!”
“Mrs Rawlish says she doesn’t care if the lad’s from Venus, if he can do the milking. They’ve no help and no money to pay a fair wage since Rawlish did his back in.” “What does he say about it?” “He says the whole county will vilify him, having a Nazi on his land. Of course the lad’s no Nazi. He’s come to England wanting work through a scheme. People who want to come from Germany can work here as long as it’s a job no English person would want. At the end of five years they get leave to stay.” Mary sniffed. “We’ve had enough schemes trying to get the country back on its feet. I don’t blame Len Rawlish – their farm’s going to ruin. It’s just that it’ll cause upset.” Mary swung her bag over her shoulder.
“So you’ll check on him for me?” Constable Billings urged. “It’s my job to make sure he’s still there and hasn’t run off to start another war. I’ve been past the farm for five days in a row, and to be honest it’s a waste of police time. The German’s not going anywhere.”
“Well, I could check on him for you once a day as long as the sergeant doesn’t get wind of it.”
“Grand. I’ll sign the chit each evening once I know you’ve done it.”
Her father followed her out to where her sit-up-and-beg was propped against a wall.
“How’s young Martin Walsh?” he asked casually.
“No idea,” Mary said, her gabardine skirt ruffling up as she swung a long, slender leg over the crossbar. “I got bored with Martin. He’s not interesting.”
MARY cycled off at speed along the village high street, away from the modest pebble-dashed building that was Nestinham Police Station.
The village was only just large enough for a police station, and really didn’t need two officers, but Sergeant Quinn barely lifted a hand any more so Mary’s dad had plenty to do on his own.
She was happy to help. It had been months since Len Rawlish got hurt, and you could tell that the jobs were piling up. Ingrid Rawlish would be fretting, Mary knew – the farm was everything to her and Len.
Mary pushed open the gate and it half-toppled on a broken hinge. She strode towards the farmhouse door, but stopped short when she saw a man emerging from the barn, wiping dirt from his hands with a rag. “Good afternoon.” From his accent she knew immediately that this was the German. She took a step back. She’d never met a German and wasn’t sure she wanted to. Seven years wasn’t long enough, it seemed, since a war like the one they’d come through.
“Mr and Mrs Rawlish are away from home, at the doctor,” he said.
“That’s all right,” Mary said. “I just called in to . . . I just called.”
She hurried back to her bike and cycled on to Nantwich, where she worked in the back office of a gents’ shoemaker that had survived the war.
She forgot the German until she stopped for a cup of tea with her colleague, Di, and suddenly wondered where the man had learned to speak English, and also where he was sleeping. The Rawlish house was tiny for a farmhouse.
“I imagine he’s well behaved,” Di said, “since we’ve let him work here. But you never know, do you? I mean, why is he here, anyhow?” Mrs Sayers, their boss, overheard. “Would you like to be a young person making their way in Germany just now?” she pointed out. “You think it’s hard here! That young man just wants to make his way, and he has to work in some menial job for five years! We should take it as a compliment to Great Britain that he wanted to come at all.” Di shrugged. “But do we want him, Mrs Sayers? My dad served.”
“Maybe his did, too. Now, can you ladies get your heads down, please? Those invoices don’t put themselves into envelopes.”
THERE was general suspicion about the man, whose name, Mary learned, was Kaspar Hahn. She thought of handing the checking task back to her dad, so as to disassociate herself, but then Constable Billings got a bad cold.
So she kept on passing the farm and taking back the news that he was still there, still (as far as she could see) at work.
A fortnight passed. If she could spy Kaspar Hahn from the lane, all well and good. If not, she opened the gate and went to ask Len or Ingrid.
Often he’d come out of the barn and Mary realised that he was sleeping there. The barn had a traditional raised loft, and he had a bed up there. Fine for the summer, but she didn’t envy him in winter.
One day, she found the gate was mended, and asked Len if his back was improving.
“Does it look like it?” he said, shifting uncomfortably in his special chair. “No, the German did it. He came to us from another job near Chester. He was three years there and learned some farming.”
Mary brought Len a cup of tea and walked to her bike. She almost collided with the young man as he was hurrying across the yard.
“I am sorry,” he said, colouring. “I did not see. I am late.”
“That’s all right,” she said stiffly. He had dark hair, gleaming in the sun. “Late for what?” “To fetch for milking the cows.” Mary smiled. “To fetch the cows for milking. They can wait an extra minute.”
Kaspar had come here to better himself. But the locals weren’t making it easy . . .
“I do not know enough about cows yet,” he said. “It was sheep before.” Mary looked at him. “You weren’t in farming back . . . home?” She felt she was prying. “I took the job they gave me,” he said quietly. “I want to work hard and to stay.”
“You have plans for after the, er, five years?” Mary’s friends would want to know all about him. “Have you a trade back in Germany that you can restart?” He coloured again. “I was at the university in Tübingen. Philosophy, and thus I learned some English.” “I’ve got to get home,” she said. “Do you come to make sure I am here?” he asked suddenly. “Like the policeman?”
Mary was embarrassed. She shouldn’t care what he thought of her, but she didn’t like to think that he saw her as a spy.
“I’m just doing a favour for my dad.”
Mary told her parents that the German was OK, and was polite, and had been a university student.
“He’s confident where I’d expected him to be . . . I don’t know, humble? He’s not rude. He’s just . . .”
Constable Billings looked at Mary over his beer glass.
“I can always take over the job myself again.” “It’s OK, Dad. It’s on my way.” Her mother looked quizzically at her, but Mary got up and began clearing the supper things.
THE summer wore on. Martin Walsh kept asking Mary out until she was firm with him. Martin was nice, but he made her yawn.
Di couldn’t understand Mary’s reluctance. Martin Walsh earned more than any other local lad, and he had a car! “I’d not say no.” “You’re not me,” Mary replied. She wasn’t interested in any of them. Sometimes her parents quizzed her, but she said she was happy as she was. She liked her job. She liked to cycle along the lanes to work.
At Rawlish’s she would check on Kaspar Hahn, maybe exchange a few words. It was important to be accurate with government schemes such as this one.
Hahn said it was good to practise his English, too, and sometimes he asked her about countryside matters. The name of a flower, when the harvest should begin, English customs by season.
She reported to her mum that Kaspar seemed to be trying hard to integrate.
One day her dad waylaid Mary at breakfast.
“You don’t need to check on that fella any more, love,” he told her, his mouth half full of toast. Mary felt light-headed for a moment. “Why’s that?” “He’s gone up in the world – got a position with Margolds, the feed supplier south of Nantwich. He impressed the owner there. There will be talk – folk prefer a man like that kept in his proper place.”
“That’ll be George Bartlett,” Mrs Billings said, “who owns the feed place. His wife’s Austrian, so I suppose –”
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” her husband interrupted. “Your farm lad has a nicer job, Mary, now that he’s served his five years, and there’s an end on it.”
“He’s not my farm lad,” Mary said irritably.
She seized the lid of the jam pot and screwed it on hard.
“That’s the marmalade,” her mother said. “Give it here.”
It was raining hard that morning. Mary cycled quickly, feeling the mud splash up her stockings. She flung her bike against the wall at the Rawlish farm.
She wasn’t sure why she was calling – she was late for work. Perhaps to see if Len was better. Kaspar always worried about Len, she knew, and he wasn’t there to worry any more. He was off to another place, wasn’t he? There, as her dad had said, was an end on it.
The farm looked smarter than it had since Mary could remember – the barn doors patched, the edging of the path renewed with fresh blocks of sandstone, the milking parlour trim and whitewashed.
Kaspar wasn’t there. Len and Ingrid said that he had already taken up a room in Nantwich that he’d found in the window of the stationer’s.
“I regret his going,” Len said. “He’s worked hard.”
“I wish we could have paid him more,” Ingrid added, wiping her hands on a dishcloth. “I’d have liked to keep him on. He made me laugh with his funny way of speaking English. But he came here to make his way, and I wouldn’t stop a son of mine from doing the same.”
Mr Rawlish shifted carefully,
painfully in his chair.
“I’ll say this much: he was no Englishman, but he was a good lad.”
“He’s not dead, Mr Rawlish,” Mary said, trying to sound chipper. But it did feel like it.
Eventually Mary agreed to go to a dance with Martin. He was a good dancer, but he looked like all the other young men there, and said the same things.
She cycled to and from work, and every time she passed the farm she tried not to think about Kaspar and his smile, his dark hair that curled at his neck, his way of sometimes getting the words of a sentence in the wrong order.
One cold day, her dad came in from work with a stony look. “I’m very disappointed.” “Why, love?” Mrs Billings asked.
“Kasper Hahn. He’s had his hands in the till at Margolds. Would you believe it?”
“No!” Mrs Billings sat down. “Well, you never know.”
“Why would he?” Mary asked, her hands shaking. “Why steal now, when he’s getting on in life?” Constable Billings shrugged. “Because there was nothing to take at Len Rawlish’s place, and now he saw a chance?”
“Does that seem logical?” Mary’s voice was shrill.
Mr Billings was plagued by Mary’s anxious questions about Hahn. She seemed unable to give the subject up, asking about proof and talking of injustice.
“There’s no doubt,” he told her. “There’s a hole in the accounts and Kaspar Hahn is the only person to join the firm lately. It’s only ten pounds, but that’s not the point.” “But –” “Mary, the law takes its course.”
Kaspar was ordered to return ten pounds, which he did. He was given a warning, reprimanded and summarily dismissed. Everyone reckoned that he’d have to go home to Germany.
TWO days after he was sacked, Mary bumped into Kaspar in Nantwich. He looked broken – angry and thin. He nodded and made to walk on, but she stopped him.
As they stood talking awkwardly about the weather, avoiding what had happened, a girl Mary knew walked by, looking disapproving.
Mary gave the girl a hard stare and then she boldly tucked her arm into Kaspar’s. She heard his intake of breath. He looked down at her in surprise.
“Shall I ask Mr and Mrs Rawlish?” Mary asked. “About work at the farm?” Kaspar frowned. “I don’t know. They are good people. If they have to refuse because of this, then . . .” His voice trailed off. “Then?” “Then I think I have just enough money, after having given Mr Bartlett ten pounds, to get back to Germany.” “To your family.” “I don’t have some family.” “Any family.” He smiled. “You didn’t take that money, did you?”
He said nothing, but she felt his body stiffen with anger. She sensed that he wouldn’t answer the question, that it was beneath him to deny a thing he could never have done.
“I think it best you do not put Mr and Mrs Rawlish in a diff icult position.”
Mary left him, feeling miserable. In the chemist’s she held a bottle of kaolin and morphine for a full minute, staring uncomprehendingly at the label, before banging it back on the counter and running out.
She jumped on her bike and headed to the Rawlish farm, her coat flying.
“Oh, we’d employ him again,” Ingrid said. “Isn’t he free to work where he pleases now that his five years are up?” She frowned. “But he won’t want to come back here again, Mary.”
“The cows are unhappy; just not themselves.” Len shook his head. “I didn’t know about the missing money – we don’t get a newspaper too often. I can’t believe it of Kaspar.” “Me, neither,” Ingrid said. Early next morning Mary found Kaspar in his dingy bedsit in town.
When she told him that the Rawlishes would hire him, he flung his arms around her and then stepped back hurriedly. They were both blushing.
At the end of that day Mary was getting a lift back with her father from Nantwich, as Constable Billings had had work to do in the “proper” police station.
They took the route by the Rawlish farm as dusk fell. “Stop, Dad!” Mary had spotted three figures outside the cowshed – Mr and Mrs Rawlish, and Kaspar. “Something’s up,” she said. As she and her father walked through the gate, Kaspar ushered them over.
“I knew the three older cows were too thin when I left,” he said.
Len tugged at his thinning hair.
“I don’t check them enough,” he said anxiously. “I haven’t the strength.”
“Another cow had a slight fever that wouldn’t shift,” Ingrid said. “We didn’t make the connection.”
“Look!” Kaspar pulled Mary and her dad into the shed. “Feel here.”
He forced the surprised policeman to press one cow’s neck.
“It’s swollen,” Billings announced.
“If they’d been coughing, I’d have worked it out.” Len’s voice behind them was high with frustration.
“I will fetch the vet,” Kaspar said. Mary’s father frowned. “Calm down, lad,” he said. “This herd is all Mr and Mrs Rawlish have, sir!” Kaspar said loudly. “I do not want to be rude, but I must go now.” He took a deep breath. “This is tuberculosis. I have learned enough to know this. I have learned from all the farmers here and now I must use this learning and save this herd. It is possible that it can be saved.” Mr Billings nodded. “I’ve got the car outside. Come with us.”
As they hurried out to the lane, her father suddenly stopped.
“Lad, that money at Margold’s. What about that?”
Kaspar looked at her father as though he were mad. “Do we talk about this now?” Mary shoved her father towards the car.
“Of course he didn’t take any money, Dad. Why is everyone so stupid? Why would he, when it would be discovered immediately? Go!”
Constable Billings looked at Mary, then at Kaspar, and flung open the car door.
Mary sat beside Kaspar, who tapped his fingers impatiently on the seat until she laid a hand over his to calm him.
She felt suddenly happy, and then just as guilty because, even as the future of the Rawlish’s herd hung in the balance, she knew exactly what her own future ought to be.
THEY lost one cow at the farm, but the vet was swift and skilled and it wasn’t long before the herd was doing very well.
Kaspar Hahn had not taken the money from the Margold works. After Constable Billings urged them to take another look, an error on the part of the clerk emerged. The clerk admitted that maybe he had been overeager to mistrust a foreigner.
Margolds asked if Kaspar wanted his job back, but in the end he opted to stay in farming. Mr and Mrs Rawlish made it clear that their farm would be passed to the saviour of their herd in time, if he chose to work with them.
There was a tea party to celebrate, and as the cake crumbs were swept up Kaspar led Mary out of the back door of the farmhouse.
“Two years ago you avoided getting too close to me,” he reminded her, twirling a piece of straw between his strong f ingers.
Mary took a step towards him and pushed him against the wall of the milking shed.
“Is that better?” she asked boldly.
“That is not bad,” he said. “But you can be better.”
“Do better. I think you mean do better,” she said.
He laughed and threw away the straw.
“I’m sure I can do better,” Mary said, and kissed him.
“Marry me,” he pleaded. “Will you marry a foreigner, Mary?”
“I may consider marrying the cleverest, handsomest, most interesting man in Cheshire,” she said.
“That has to be me,” Kaspar said. “Or it has to be I? Which is correct?”
“Let’s not worry about the pronouns,” Mary said, and kissed him again.