Short Story

Ms Winslow wird von ihrer Nichte Lucy in der kleinen deutschen Stadt Herold­stein zu Be­such er­wartet. An dem Tag, an dem sie ankom­men soll, taucht ein geheimnisvoller Mann vor Lucys Haustür auf. Von JAMES SCHOFIELD


“Ms Winslow in­ves­ti­gated”: three chap­ters for you to en­joy

Lucy Tis­chler poured milk into her cof­fee and set­tled her­self in an arm­chair with her book, while Trot­sky, the dog, lay down at her feet. She had four hours be­fore she had to col­lect the twins, Roland and Fred­die, from kinder­garten, and she in­tended to spend them read­ing. The book had been a Christ­mas present from her aunt, Dorothy Winslow, and as she was ar­riv­ing in Herold­stein that evening, Lucy was keen to fin­ish it.

She was con­cen­trat­ing so hard that she didn’t hear the door­bell when it first rang, and it was only when Trot­sky started bark­ing that she re­al­ized there was some­body out­side. She opened the door and found, stand­ing on the doorstep, a tall, el­derly man with a mous­tache. He wore a well-cut suit and had a mil­i­tary air to him that was un­usual for Herold­stein.

“Mrs Tis­chler?” he asked, bow­ing slightly. “My name is Renno. I used to know your aunt Dorothy Winslow quite well. I un­der­stand she will be vis­it­ing soon and, as I was pass­ing this way, I thought I could drop off some­thing for her. Would you mind?” He held out a large en­ve­lope that seemed to con­tain a book. “It comes from an ac­quain­tance of hers who died re­cently. I was asked to pass it on to her.”

Lucy was more than sur­prised. “I’m ter­ri­bly sorry, could you give me your name again?” she asked in con­fu­sion.

“Renno, Colonel Lukas Renno. But don’t let me dis­turb you, Mrs Tis­chler. If I may just leave the pack­age with you...” He handed it over and was about to turn away when Lucy caught him by the arm.

“No, no, Mr... Colonel Renno, please. Ex­cuse me. It’s lovely to meet a friend of Aunt Dorothy’s. Come in and have a cup of tea or cof­fee.”

He hes­i­tated for a mo­ment. “Are you sure?” “Please,” begged Lucy. “Aunt Dorothy would never for­give me if I let you go.”

“Well, that would never do. Thank you.” He fol­lowed her into the kitchen, and as she made some more cof­fee, he com­pli­mented her on the house, ad­mired the pic­tures and was gen­er­ally very pleas­ant. His English was ex­cel­lent, but Lucy couldn’t quite place his ac­cent, so when they were fi­nally both sit­ting at the kitchen ta­ble, she asked him where he was from.

“Es­to­nia,” he said. “I knew Dorothy when she was work­ing at the Bri­tish con­sulate in Tallinn back in 1987.”

Lucy pricked up her ears. Her aunt was al­ways very vague about the work she had done while she was in the diplo­matic ser­vice. This was an op­por­tu­nity to learn a lit­tle bit more.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I re­mem­ber now. She said some­thing about or­ga­niz­ing cul­tural ex­changes there.”

The Colonel laughed. “Cul­tural ex­changes? In a way, that’s true, I sup­pose.”

“Yes, I think that’s what she said. What was your con­nec­tion to her?”

“I was chief of po­lice in Tallinn at the time, and your aunt was some­body I had to keep a very care­ful eye on.”

Lucy nearly spilt her cof­fee at that point. So she left her cup on the ta­ble as the Colonel con­tin­ued his story.

“Back then,” he be­gan, “Es­to­nia was still a Soviet repub­lic. But when Gor­bachev let the glas­nost ge­nie out of the bot­tle in the 1980s, the whole USSR be­gan to change. By the late 1980s, some peo­ple in Moscow were be­gin­ning to think it would be a good idea to try to put the ge­nie back, with tanks and guns if nec­es­sary. Be­cause of my po­si­tion in the po­lice, I knew of these dis­cus­sions. I wanted to make sure Moscow found no ex­cuse to send troops across the bor­der, be­cause there would have been ter­ri­ble blood­shed. So I tried to make sure that any Es­to­nian na­tion­al­ist trou­ble­mak­ers were safely locked up. My big fear was that some hot­head would get hold of a gun and shoot a Rus­sian sol­dier...”

He had met Dorothy at a re­cep­tion in the con­sulate at the be­gin­ning of her stay in Es­to­nia.

“I was sus­pi­cious of your aunt be­cause she was too good for the job that she was do­ing. Here was this clever, at­trac­tive woman in her for­ties, and ap­par­ently the best the Bri­tish could do with her was to send her to Tallinn to ar­range po­etry read­ings or help lo­cal the­atre groups put on per­for­mances of Shake­speare or Os­car Wilde. But al­though I had her fol­lowed and we lis­tened to her phone calls, noth­ing sug­gested she was a risk. So after about three months, I re­duced the surveil­lance and just kept an eye on her my­self. She was al­ways a very charm­ing and per­sua­sive com­pan­ion, and I have no idea how many tick­ets she got me to buy to see lo­cal am­a­teur the­atri­cal groups. It seemed to me that she could be a use­ful chan­nel to the Bri­tish For­eign Of­fice, so I told her my fears about the sit­u­a­tion. Nor­mally, I would never have done such a thing, but I must con­fess, Mrs Tis­chler, I had a soft spot for your aunt — maybe even more than that.”

He poured him­self an­other cup of cof­fee.

“So you can imag­ine my dis­ap­point­ment when Dorothy fell in love with a lo­cal poet.”

The poet — Vik­tor Laur — had been a pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics at the Univer­sity of Tartu un­til he was re­ported to the au­thor­i­ties for lis­ten­ing to Ra­dio Free Europe. “It was for­bid­den to lis­ten to Western broad­cast­ers at the time,” the Colonel ex­plained, “so Vik­tor was fired. I knew about him, but he was a paci­fist, not the kind of per­son who would shoot any­body, so I wasn’t very in­ter­ested. But then he started teach­ing Dorothy Es­to­nian.”

When she found out that he wrote po­ems as well as teach­ing, she sug­gested he should do pub­lic read­ings. At first, the events were very small and there wasn’t much in­ter­est. But one day some­thing hap­pened.

“Vik­tor was read­ing to an au­di­ence in a bar, when some Rus­sian sol­diers came in. They were drunk and caus­ing a nui­sance, so Vik­tor stopped read­ing, stood up and be­gan singing the old Es­to­nian na­tional an­them. Slowly ev­ery­body in the bar stood up and joined in, even though the song was sup­posed to be il­le­gal. The sol­diers had no idea what it was about, but they felt the hos­til­ity and quickly left.”

The next day, the whole of Tallinn was talk­ing about the poet who had made the Rus­sian sol­diers run away. From then on, it was stand­ing room only at his read­ings, and the Colonel started to pay closer at­ten­tion.

“His po­ems were very clever,” the Colonel con­tin­ued, “be­cause they never did any­thing ob­vi­ous like crit­i­ciz­ing the Rus­sians, oth­er­wise he’d have been ar­rested. He would take fa­mous 19th-cen­tury Es­to­nian na­tion­al­ist po­ems that peo­ple had learned at school and change the words slightly to give them a modern feel and rel­e­vance.”

There was not much the Colonel could do to stop him, but he de­cided one day to bring Vik­tor to the po­lice de­part­ment.

“Peo­ple in Moscow were start­ing to ask ques­tions, so I had a po­lice car pick him up and bring him to head­quar­ters. I sim­ply wanted to warn him to be care­ful, or else, with his back­ground, he’d be shipped off to a gu­lag. I was just let­ting him sit for a while in a prison cell, to get a feel­ing of what it might be like in Siberia, when your aunt ap­peared in my of­fice.” The Colonel paused. “Mrs Tis­chler,” he asked, “have you ever seen your aunt when she’s an­gry?”

Lucy nod­ded. “Last year, I went to visit her in Cam­bridge. She had a Nige­rian stu­dent from the univer­sity rent­ing a room in her house at the time. Any­way, he got a re­ally rude let­ter from the Home Of­fice about his stu­dent visa, say­ing it had ex­pired and he

was go­ing to be de­ported. They’d got ev­ery­thing com­pletely wrong, of course, but when poor Ba­batunde tried to ex­plain, they wouldn’t be­lieve him. He was in the mid­dle of his ex­ams and ter­ri­fied that he was about to be thrown out of the coun­try. When Aunt Dot found out, she tele­phoned the Home Of­fice, in­sisted on speak­ing to the per­son in charge of the stu­dent-visa sec­tion, told them what they’d done wrong and tore who­ever it was into lit­tle pieces. She be­came all an­a­lyt­i­cal and icy. It was ter­ri­fy­ing.”

The Colonel smiled. “Yes, well I ex­pe­ri­enced that face-to-face. In ten min­utes, she pointed out three ways I had vi­o­lated the Es­to­nian le­gal code, threat­ened to use her con­tacts to the Western me­dia to de­nounce me per­son­ally for the sup­pres­sion of free speech in Es­to­nia and hinted that she had ac­cess to ma­te­rial about me that would lead to my ar­rest by the KGB.”

Lucy gig­gled. “Good­ness! What did you do?”

“Let Vik­tor go, of course, as I had al­ways in­tended to do. But the in­ci­dent taught me two things. Firstly, that your aunt was more than just a cul­tural at­taché. Her threat to re­veal in­for­ma­tion about me to the KGB was based on some­thing con­crete.”

“You mean Aunt Dot was a spy?” Lucy asked in amaze­ment. The Colonel shrugged his shoul­ders.

“Cer­tainly con­nected to such peo­ple. She knew stuff she shouldn’t have known. But se­condly, it was clear that Vik­tor wasn’t just some poor Es­to­nian dis­si­dent she was try­ing to pro­tect from a wicked po­lice­man. There was too much pas­sion in her eyes and voice. She was in love with Vik­tor. They were hav­ing an af­fair.”

De­spite her­self, Lucy blushed. Aunt Dot hav­ing an af­fair? To hide her em­bar­rass­ment, she picked up her cof­fee again. It was hor­ri­bly cold, but she pre­tended to sip it.

“As I said be­fore, I was dis­ap­pointed,” con­tin­ued the Colonel, pre­tend­ing not to no­tice Lucy’s pink cheeks. “Your aunt is a very at­trac­tive woman. But there was noth­ing I could do, so I just kept my eye on her and her poet and col­lected ev­i­dence of their re­la­tion­ship. It is al­ways use­ful to have such things. But be­fore I could de­cide what to do with the in­for­ma­tion, some­thing hap­pened...”

Ev­ery five years, Tallinn hosted a huge song fes­ti­val. The Colonel was re­spon­si­ble for the se­cu­rity ar­range­ments.

“The vis­i­tors don’t just lis­ten to the mu­sic. They’re also in­volved. They sing these tra­di­tional songs to­gether. It’s a choir with a hun­dred thou­sand voices.”

That year, the au­thor­i­ties in Moscow were keep­ing a care­ful eye on what was hap­pen­ing. They thought that protests from small groups of dis­si­dents would lead to ri­ots and give them an ex­cuse to march in and take con­trol, claim­ing they were pro­tect­ing the peo­ple from a vi­o­lent mi­nor­ity.

“They were right to be wor­ried about a revo­lu­tion,” said the Colonel, “but what no­body was ex­pect­ing was a singing revo­lu­tion.”

The Colonel’s men rounded up a few of the usual dis­si­dent sus­pects in ad­vance, so the open­ing cer­e­mony of the fes­ti­val went very smoothly. It wasn’t un­til the evening that any­thing un­usual hap­pened. “I no­ticed lots of small chil­dren walk­ing through the crowd, hand­ing out pieces of pa­per. I got one of my men to bring me a copy, and at first I was puz­zled. It was just one of Vik­tor’s po­ems about free­dom and in­de­pen­dence. But then, sud­denly, the lead choir be­gan to sing on the stage. The tune was an old Es­to­nian song that ev­ery­body knew, but the words were those of the poem, which had been writ­ten to fit the mu­sic. And sud­denly, as more and more peo­ple joined in and the sound grew and grew, I un­der­stood what Vik­tor was do­ing. His po­ems could reach only a few peo­ple at his po­etry read­ings, but when they were trans­formed into songs, they could quickly reach thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple.”

It was an ex­traor­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence, the Colonel said. The crowd sang the poem three times all the way through, and louder and louder each time, as they be­came more and more fa­mil­iar with the words. The ap­plause was deaf­en­ing.

“I can tell you, Mrs Tis­chler,” said the Colonel, “when I think of that evening, it still gives me goose­flesh. And it made a dif­fer­ence to me as well. For the first time, I re­al­ized that maybe Es­to­nia could be­come free and in­de­pen­dent and this was worth try­ing for. It was the mo­ment I joined the cause.”

The next morn­ing, the Colonel had a num­ber of prob­lems on his hands. The lo­cal politi­cians were pan­ick­ing, and Moscow was on the phone de­mand­ing to know what was go­ing on.

“It was clear to me that the per­son be­hind this idea was Dorothy,” said the Colonel. “Vik­tor was in­spir­ing, but not very prac­ti­cal. Sim­ply or­ga­niz­ing the pho­to­copies of the text was some­thing that only a per­son like Dorothy could have done, us­ing copiers in the con­sulate. In Tallinn at the time, such ma­chines were very care­fully con­trolled. But the more I thought about it, the clearer it be­came to me that, if this revo­lu­tion was to have any chance of suc­cess, Dorothy had to go. She had to leave Vik­tor.”

Lucy’s face was hor­ror-struck. “But why?” she asked. “Why?”

“Be­cause the KGB would quickly find out that your aunt and Vik­tor were lovers. She would be ex­pelled as a spy, and he would be tried as an agent of the cor­rupt Western pow­ers and pos­si­bly shot. The whole move­ment would be seen as a plan to un­der­mine the Soviet Union, not as a de­sire for change by the peo­ple of Es­to­nia. She had to go, and I knew I would have to tell her.”

He con­tacted Dorothy and they ar­ranged to meet. He drove her to a nearby beauty spot, Cather­ine’s Quay.

“The quay goes out into the Bay of Tallinn. Dur­ing the week, there may be a cou­ple of fish­er­men, but it’s quiet. I wanted to be sure no­body could over­hear us.”

They sat on the wall, look­ing out to sea as the Colonel told Dorothy what he knew about her and Vik­tor, and why she had to leave Tallinn.

“What did she say?” asked Lucy in a whis­per.

“For a long time, noth­ing. She just stared into the dis­tance. After a while, I no­ticed a tear on her cheek. I of­fered a hand­ker­chief, she pat­ted her face dry, thanked me and said some­thing about the wind mak­ing her eyes wa­ter. ‘Oh, you English and your stiff up­per lip,’ I thought to my­self. ‘Is that all you can say?’ I asked. I’ve never for­got­ten her an­swer: ‘The hopes of two lit­tle peo­ple don’t count for very much com­pared to the hopes of a whole peo­ple, do they, Colonel?’”

He stopped. Lucy had tears stream­ing down her cheeks. She wiped her face and blew her nose.

“Go on!” she said fi­nally be­tween sobs.

“That’s it. She left. She wrote and told Vik­tor why she had to go, and he ac­cepted it. After we gained in­de­pen­dence in 1991, he mar­ried an Es­to­nian woman and, when he died, his wife brought this book round to me. She said it con­tained po­ems that Vik­tor had writ­ten for Dorothy, and I should give it to her.”

“But why didn’t you just post it?”

“Old habits, Mrs Tis­chler. I was at­tend­ing a se­cu­rity con­fer­ence in Speyer, and I thought I would leave it with some­body I could trust to look after it.”

The phone rang. It was the kinder­garten ask­ing why Lucy hadn’t col­lected the twins. She asked the Colonel to wait a mo­ment, ran down the road and re­ceived a ten-minute lec­ture on the im­por­tance of punc­tu­al­ity from the teacher. When she got home again, the Colonel had gone, hav­ing left the pack­age on the kitchen ta­ble.

After Dorothy ar­rived that evening, Lucy waited un­til the chil­dren were in bed and Klaus was watch­ing the news on tele­vi­sion be­fore giv­ing her aunt the pack­age. She said some­one called Mr Renno had dropped it off for her that morn­ing.

Dorothy opened it and stood read­ing for a mo­ment, be­fore look­ing up at Lucy, who had found some­thing very in­ter­est­ing out of the win­dow to stare at.

“Per­haps to­mor­row I will tell you a story,” Dorothy said, “when the chil­dren are in kinder­garten and we have our cof­fee...”

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