Letters from Elsewhere

It seems special abilities are as much a handicap as good fortune. Just as well I don’t have any! I’m fascinated by the history of today’s visitor, especially as it relates to the novel I’m currently working on.

Tana Standish operated as a British secret agent for Interprises, a secret adjunct of MI6, through the 1960s to the 1980s. She had a photographic memory and possessed psychic abilities, not all of them capable of being called upon at will. After four missions (Singapore, Naples, Izmir and Odessa), and prior to her next mission to Pilsen (1968), she was evaluated by the new psychologist, Dr James Fisk. In an effort at catharsis, he asked her to write a number of letters to him about her early memories. This is one of those letters:

Dear James

 I ‘celebrated’ my fifth birthday [in 1942] stumbling through the sewers of Warsaw, my hand in twelve-year-old brother Ishmael’s. We’d survived hunger and disease and managed to avoid the deportation of the children to Treblinka in July but everyone knew they would not live through the oncoming German onslaught.

Our elder brother Mordechai had told us we must escape, promising, “Jews will live to settle scores. Jews have lived and will endure for all eternity.” He would continue the Jewish resistance. As we slunk through the subterranean tunnels, I looked back, and Mordechai was singing a popular song of the starved ghetto: “When we had nothing to eat, they gave us a turnip, or a beet, here, take food, take fleas, have some typhus, die of disease!”

Ishmael, with hollow cheeks, pallid skin and all the signs of starvation, constantly deprived himself of our meagre contraband food in order to keep my strength up. Ishmael limped; he’d fractured his heel escaping a German raider whilst stealing outside the wall in the Aryan section of the city.

For two days, we munched sparingly on the scraps of coarse bread and stale cheese and stolen sugar.

On the third day when the food ran out, we surfaced from the rank sewers in the Christian part of the city. The outskirts of Warsaw were a great deal more repellent than below. We’d long-since grown accustomed to the dark and the vermin; even the smell had lost its pungency. But here, above ground, we were easy prey to demented thieves and homicidal Nazis.

Our most treasured possessions, however, were forged papers, created by a small commune of talented men and women: a travel-pass each, testifying that we were young Poles of pure race.

Constantly hiding, we followed the river Wkra north for most of the way, towards the Baltic, and our forged papers helped. When we could, we prayed. Ishmael told me about our eternal souls and how good people went to Olam Haba. “People who have done good but need to be purified, they go to Gehenom.”

“What about the Nazis?” I asked.

“Oh, they are too evil for Gehenom. They will be punished for all eternity.”

“Good,” I said.

We subsisted on vegetable refuse in farms and on the occasional rabbit.

The nights were still very cold and there were few haystacks to insulate us. The sky was filled with stars and my young mind wondered if there was any truth in the fable that when people died a star came into existence. A lot of people had died, I thought, gazing aloft, trying not to think of Mordechai.

Fortunately, I remembered a map from school in Karmelicka Street; it showed the area up to the Baltic; it hadn’t been up-to-date, but it proved invaluable. With an effort, I projected a mental image of it before my eyes and picked out salient landmarks as we travelled. All my family members took my memory gift for granted, hoping I would make use of it at university – but that was before the war, when hopes for a sane future flickered briefly.

Mere scarecrows, we often robbed farms. With my feet blistered and rib cage visible through translucent skin, I weakly, stubbornly clung to Ishmael’s bony hand.

Our journey took almost three months, and on numerous occasions, it was my sixth sense that saved us from capture. I seemed able to see through other people’s eyes sometimes – usually at moments of heightened tension. Ishmael didn’t even pretend to understand what powers I possessed, but was grateful for them.

As we approached the port of Gdynia, Ishmael explained in a faint whisper what we must do. “We’ll stow away on a ship. Wherever it docks, we can hide. It may even go across to Norway. Just think, Tana – Norway!”

Sneaking through the seaport wasn’t easy. The field-grey-clad sentries, gasmask canisters clinking, were there in force and on the alert for saboteurs. But our small size helped us melt into the shadows of warehouses and railway wagons. Miraculously, we avoided detection.

The dockside was swarming with threat and shadows. I was fearful of unfamiliar shapes and seemed to be trembling all the time. Framed in a narrow alleyway, the crosstree and derrick of a freighter’s mainmast were outlined against the night skyline. Then the black hull loomed and Ishmael whispered, “This one. We’ll get aboard this one.” He’d chosen well; whoever docked the ship hadn’t bothered to fit rat-guards on the cables.

Weak as we were, we managed to shin painstakingly slowly up the hawser. My hands were almost raw with the roughness of the cable. Tense minutes later, we squeezed through the gap and quietly lowered ourselves onto the dew-damp forecastle.

I cautiously followed Ishmael and scaled down a ladder onto the well deck. He partially lifted the cargo hatch tarpaulin cover and we both slid into the for’ard hold, where it was pitch-black at first. But after a while, our eyes became accustomed to the darkness; it was not unlike the sewers, I supposed, though smelled less rank.

The hold was stacked with crates but no food. Rats scurried to the forepeak, in deep shadow, but neither of us was particularly alarmed. Even the prospect of eating these vermin as a last resort held no horrors.

My stomach rumbled emptily at the memory of the last food scraps to pass my lips two days ago.

Ishmael chuckled and I imagined that he was smiling; he told me I was to make myself comfortable, while he went ‘up top’ to steal some food.

Fearful for his safety, I pleaded with him not to go. He kissed my forehead. “We’ll starve here if I don’t find something, little Tana. I promised Mordechai I’d look after you. I keep my promises.”

He was gone for ages. I had no way of knowing how long. It could have been an hour, perhaps much longer. The waiting seemed endless.

Deep in the creaking, dank-smelling hold, I was a little afraid. I would much rather have stayed in the sewers of Warsaw. Known terrors seemed preferable to those unknown. Besides, I had too much imagination.

Then my heart lightened, as I recognised Ishmael’s limping stride across the deck above. He sounded in a hurry. Intuitively, I knew something was wrong.

Anxiously, I scrambled up, knees grazing on the metal ladder. I peeked over the coaming.

Silhouetted in the searchlight beam that lanced down from the ship’s bridge, Ishmael attempted to run for cover, heading towards me, dodging around winches and the cowls of ventilators. Under his arm was a brown paper parcel that was spewing apples and he left a trail of broken eggs behind him.

A German voice shrieked: “Halt!”

Ishmael faltered. He turned to face the bridge.

Running out of the wheelhouse, a black-clad sailor leaned over the Navigation Bridge. In his arms was a sub-machine gun. I recognised the weapon and my heart froze.

Ishmael’s face was unnaturally pale in the pinioning light. He seemed resigned. His youthful cracked mouth twisted in a breathless agonised grimace. Suddenly, he jack-knifed backwards, six inches in the air to the staccato sound of the Schmeisser MP40 weapon. His out-flung arms violently discarded the stolen food; most of it splashed overboard as he crumpled almost on top of me, inches away from my face. A solitary apple rolled past his staring eyes and unthinkingly I snatched the fruit.

Ishmael’s head was on one side, his right cheek squashed against the metal deck and his eyes stared at me. His lips trembled but he was unable to speak. Yet I caught his words, faintly echoing in my mind. “I hope Mordechai won’t be too annoyed with me when I see him…” What little light there was went out of him and a thin gasp of air passed his lips and I felt it, like a kiss, on my cheek.

In shock, I slid back into the shadows under the tarpaulin. I knelt in the dark. My mind was completely numb, but I gripped onto the apple – my brother’s last gift to me.

It seemed an age. The agony of waiting, fearing discovery, was almost too much. At one low point, I even wanted to declare myself – anything to be rid of the heart-stopping suspense.

Then I heard voices talking overhead. And laughter.

My hearing was finely tuned now. But my mind was still numb – unable to snatch any thoughts from the nearby sailors or soldiers. Then they dragged the body of my brother away, laughing as they did so.

I heard a heavy splash and more hilarity.

But no tears came.

Alone now, I hunched tighter into the hold, amidst the bulky crates, and held the apple till it was bruised.

Even at that early age, my hatred was under an iron control. I had learned quickly enough through listening to other Jews who’d escaped from Treblinka that I must be circumspect when dealing with the enemy. I had cause to grow up quickly..

Finally, the sirens sounded. The freighter cast its moorings; the propellers pulsed and the ship throbbed into life.

Bow-waves caressed the hull. The lapping of water and the heaving motion signified we were finally at sea.

If only I could stay hidden until the ship pulled into some port.

Hunger drove me reluctantly to bite into the apple. It was moist and sent my pulse racing. So delicious! Thinking of Ishmael, tears at last flowed. I ate every scrap, the dry-textured bruised bits, core and all.

Like my young friends, I’d had to scavenge in Warsaw, sneaking into the Aryan quarter. The German policy had been simple and brutally logical – better to starve the inhabitants of the ghetto and save the bullets for the Front.

So, many hours after eating the apple, as the hunger-pangs returned with redoubled force, twisting my stomach into knots, I decided I’d have to forage onboard. At worst, if no food could be found, I’d have to risk serious infection and kill and eat a rat. It presented the least physical risk, obviously – the less food-hunting trips I made, less chance of discovery. But as far as I was concerned it would have to be the last resort.

The freighter was edging out of the choppy Gulf of Danzig and steaming into the Baltic when I emerged into the starlit night. The well deck beneath my feet vibrated to the beat of the massive engines. My nostrils snatched the heady, salty cold air that made me want to retch.

A yellow halo surrounded the moon.

I reached the foremast.

“Halt!”

But this time no searchlight stabbed out. Allied submarines prowled out here, after all.

Praying for invisibility, I stood immobile, ears attuned, detecting feet on a ladder’s metal rungs. Any moment I expected the bullets to punch into me, to rip me open as they had so many of our neighbours; as they had poor Ishmael.

But in an instant I’d regained control and dived behind some winch machinery, hurting knees and shins. Here, the smell of grease and oil mingled with the salt-spray. My senses were at fever pitch. I seemed to hear my pursuer’s every step.

More shouting.

I heard the heavy thud of sea-boots getting closer.

The seaman was a couple of metres away. I glimpsed his black angular shape slinking between the lifeboat davits.

Frustration seethed inside me. It didn’t seem fair, to get so far only to fail!

A sudden deafening explosion rocked the vessel from stem to stern and the night instantly transformed into stark red-yellow daylight. I felt the force of it through the deck, vibrating through my body.

Amidst a raucous hissing and dozens of men’s screams, the ship canted sharply.

The drunken angle of the vessel worsened and I lost my footing on the slippery brine-covered deck.

I hit the metal guardrails and tried grabbing at anything I could get my hands on.

A falling lifeboat barely missed caving-in my skull; it splashed, floated.

Gasping with the shock of the cold sea, I snatched and held onto a rope that dangled from the lifeboat.

The strength in my arms was ebbing fast when I saw a shimmering dark dreamlike shape directly ahead, blocking out the myriad stars. I blinked frantically, distressed at not being able to see the Ishmael and Mordechai stars.

 

James, I’m sorry, but that will have to be enough for now. The curse of a photographic memory means that I don’t forget.  

Thanks, Tana.

Tana books1 and 2Nik Morton explains

Tana’s eleventh mission (but the first to be published) is The Prague Papers, which takes place in Czechoslovakia in 1975; it explains how she obtained the surname Standish. The details were given to me as a dog-eared manuscript in a Southsea hotel with the proviso that I should write it as fiction. Agent Swann was emphatic on that point. A follow-up mission, also based on information provided by certain contacts, has been published, The Tehran Text, relating events in Iran in 1978-1979. Both are e-books published by Crooked Cat.

Bio

NikMorton.

Nik Morton has been writing for over 50 years. He has sold over 120 short stories, even more articles, and had 21 books published in several genres. His latest books are the second and third novels in the ‘Avenging Cat’ series, Catacomb and Cataclysm from Crooked Cat. The third Tana Standish mission, The Khyber Chronicle should be released later this year.

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