Paul Lange leaned against the brick wall of an old church, contemplating a journey to Liegnitz. He drew on the cheap cigarette dangling between his thumb and forefinger, and blew smoke rings as he exhaled. He had begun smoking after the battle in Trondheim. It helped pass the time while he recovered. Now, the habit helped pass time between missions.
The evening was cold and still. Crystals of ice floated to their death under the light of a full moon in a cloudless sky. His smoke rings dissipated into the crystal dark.
A young woman, coat collar up and hat pulled down, trotted towards him, boot heels clacking on the cobble stones.
He straightened, dropped the cigarette and ground it out with the ball of his boot. Damn things, he chastised himself, don’t know why I bother. They’re nasty. He released the last smoke from his lungs as she approached, aiming it away from her with a turn of his lips.
“Good evening, Captain,” she said, stopping directly in front of him. She wrung her gloved hands.
“Fraulein.” He touched the tip of his helmet. The chinstrap dangled carelessly. “You shouldn’t be out this late. If you have accommodation nearby, I can escort you.”
“Uh, yes. I live nearby. And I can find my own way home, thank you.” Her frosted reply morphed into crystals and hovered between them. She looked down at her hands, as if searching for words. “I’m wondering,” she said, “whether civilians are still safe here?” Her eyes rested on the moonlit glint at his throat.
“Let me walk you home. We can talk along the way.” He indicated for her to take the lead.
“Thank you,” she said. “I suppose I can feel safe with a soldier wearing a Knight’s Cross!”
Her name was Ilse-Renata Chemiker, she told him. The laboratory in which she worked was not far from the church. At the lab, she assisted with formula development, including special greases and oils for axles and wheels of military vehicles, and a formula for a unique detergent. Originally developed by a local soap manufacturer to remove grease spots from clothing, her colleagues had discovered that the formula could be adapted to eliminate grease trails that followed fired torpedoes.
“My employer is concerned that it may be time to leave the city. Rumours are circulating that the Red Russians were getting close. Not only is he concerned for his employees – especially me,” she said shyly, “He is also concerned for himself. His family lives in Dresden, but they are originally from Russia. His political views are at odds with the communists.”
The walk to her home took less than fifteen minutes. Paul knew the answer to her earlier question about civilian safety, but he selfishly contrived a distraction. He wanted to see Ilse-Renata again. “Let me make enquiries. I’ll let you know tomorrow. Do you often walk past the church on your way home?” he asked.
“Not always. I’m sure I would have seen you before, if I did. However, I can pass that way again tomorrow, if it will help.”
“No need,” he said. “I can find you at the laboratory tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps I might escort you home again?” She had ascended two steps toward the front door of her home and halted. The added height allowed her to look directly into his eyes. She smiled demurely.
“Unless…” The word hung while he contemplated what next to say. Searching for a way to delay her departure.
“Unless?” she asked, her eyes wide with curiosity.
Her voice rings like a church bell true and clear. I could listen to her speak forever. “I don’t suppose you’d be free to have dinner with me tomorrow evening? I know a great little restaurant,” he turned to point in its general direction.
“I really shouldn’t,” she said. “I don’t know you.” She twisted her gloved hands again.
“Hey! I’m the guy with the Knight’s Cross. Remember?” he teased. “It’s my job to protect the citizens of Deutschland. Especially the very pretty ones.” He flashed her a white, toothy grin.
Her laughter chimed like perfect notes of tiny bells. “Well. All right. Since you put it that way.”
“You will?” he asked, not expecting her to agree, and found himself at a loss for words. “Wonderful! Um, what time do you get off work?” he asked.
“Five o’clock. Is that too early for you?” Her words were rushed, anxious.
“N-no! Five o’clock is perfect!” He fought to contain his excitement. “I’ll meet you outside the laboratory at five o’clock tomorrow.”
“All right,” she said, her voice soft and sincere. “I’ll see you then.”
Paul waited for her to climb the remaining two steps and open the door. She switched on the light when she stepped inside and turned toward the stairway again. “Goodnight,” her silhouette said, as it slowly closed the door.
“Good night,” he said waiting for the thud of the closing door to sever the connection. I must be crazy. I don’t know her and I’m falling all over her like a fool! And we’re in the middle of a war, for God’s sake! He jammed his hands in his jacket pockets and set off toward the barracks, whistling a tuneless melody. If this war ever ends, I’m going to marry that girl!
Dinner the following evening was awkward, but friendly. Each felt drawn to the other, but neither had much experience socializing with the opposite sex.
She was born in Neisse, Ilse-Renata told him, but had completed her studies in Dresden at the beginning of the war. She was eighteen when she graduated, and considered herself lucky to find a position at the laboratory straight away. She also found accommodation in the home of the president of the technical institute. Since she had moved to Breslau two years previous, the president had driven her to and from the laboratory every day. “Last week, he and his family left for Heidelberg where they’ll stay until the conflict ends. Now I stay alone in that big house, but I’m not afraid!” she exclaimed. A tinge of defiance appeared in a flush on her cheeks.
In answer to her question the prior evening, Paul told her that the city was safe. “Herr Hitler has determined Breslau to be his fortress. It is well protected. You need not worry,” he assured her. Avoiding any further military discussion, he told her of his upcoming leave and that he had decided to visit his aunt and uncle in Liegnitz.
“How lucky you are,” Ilse-Renata said. “I wish I had someone to visit once in a while. I’m here alone now, except for my colleagues.”
“Why don’t you come with me,” he suggested, without forethought. “I mean…my aunt and uncle have a huge house, and I know you’d be welcome,” he blurted.
“Oh!” she said, blushing at the unexpected invitation.
“You don’t have to . . . ” he said, trying to recover his offer.
“Oh no! I mean . . .” she wrung her hands together under the table. “It’s just . . . W-well . . . I don’t really know you, and . . .”
“I understand,” he said feeling deflated, then brightened. “I know! Why don’t we have dinner tomorrow evening, and the evening after that. In fact, let’s have dinner every evening this week so you can get to know me better. Then you can say yes!” Pleased with his idea, he smacked the table to cement it, and gave her another toothy grin.
“Well . . . I suppose,” she said thoughtfully. “It couldn’t hurt. A-and, if I don’t feel comfortable by then. Well. I simply won’t go!” she said grinning back at him.
“Would you care for a sweet and coffee?” a waiter interrupted.
Ilse-Renata blushed, again, “Yes, please. That is. If you would,” she asked, deferring to Paul, peering at him through a dark fringe of lashes.
“Ah. Yes! Coffee and cake would be excellent!” he declared. “The evening is still young. We have time.”
“Ration books, please,” the waiter asked. He snipped stamps from the appropriate food groups and returned their books before serving their coffee and cake. “Just a reminder folks. This is artificial coffee. We’re out of the real stuff.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” Ilse-Renata said to the waiter. “I quite like the way it’s made with fruit. So long as the water is pure, it tastes wonderful. And I know this restaurant uses only the best!”
Each subsequent evening, they concluded their meal with coffee and cake, much to Ilse-Renata’s pleasure.
On the eve of his leave, as Paul walked Ilse-Renata to her door, he asked “Well, have you decided? Will you come with me tomorrow to visit my family?”
“I will,” she said confidently before trotting up the four stairs to the front door. “Good night.”
“Until tomorrow,” he replied.
He did not remember his return to the barracks, such was his joy.
Extract from The Crest by Jerena Tobiasen