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...”