When Robin left for work, Emily remained at the breakfast table without a clue what she was to do with the rest of the day. She had completed unpacking the day before and all their things had been effortlessly swallowed by the large and elegant house. Their clothes were in the closets and dresser drawers. Their books had disappeared onto the floor-to-ceiling library shelves. Their photos had found spaces on desks and mantles and buffets. Yet when all was said in done, they had made no more impact than a handful of drops in a large lake. The character of the house had not changed.
Having seen Colonel Howley’s mansion and also Air Commodore Waite’s gracious residence, she knew that her housing assignment was “modest” by the standards of the Allied occupation. Generals Robertson and Clay lived in palaces with more than 150 rooms and employed a staff of twelve or more. Yet knowing that did not make her feel any more comfortable.
To be sure, Robin had been delighted. “Finally!” had been his commentary and Emily could readily see the resemblance — in ambience more than style — between this house and his grandfather’s on the Isle of Wight. Robin had been apologetic to Emily about wartime housing. To him, this was nothing less than what they deserved.
But Emily had grown up in the slums of Portsmouth, and after marrying Robin, she’d lived mostly in RAF married housing. Nothing compared to this twenty-two-room house set in three acres of lawn stretching down to the shores of Berlin’s great lake, the Wannsee. It had polished parquet floors and wood wainscotting painted in understated shades of greyish green or navy blue. It was elegantly furnished with a mixture of antique and early 20th-century furniture, accented by Persian carpets and works of art. A grand piano stood at the juncture between the grand salon and the winter garden, strategically placed to provide live background music to events in either location. Crystal and bronze chandeliers hung from ceilings with stucco mouldings. The mantlepieces were marble and the shelves and bookcases were custom-made to exactly occupy selected niches. Elaborate glazed-tile ovens stood ready to reinforce the central heating.
She considered the gleaming mahogany dining table at which she sat. It could comfortably seat twelve, and the place settings laid out for herself and Robin were made up with gold-trimmed, white porcelain flanked by heavy, silver cutlery. The matching neo-classical chairs standing at attention around the table had striped satin seats. Sliding glass doors opened onto a breakfast room at the far end, while the other three walls were hung with pairs of portraits going back to the 18th century. Looking through the breakfast room toward the lake, she could see swans waddling past the small boathouse that crouched at the far side of an expansive lawn.
But something wasn’t right. Emily supposed she might have felt uncomfortable in so much grandeur anywhere. Yet as she sat sipping her slowly cooling tea, she felt her skin creep. Everything here had been carefully collected and lovingly displayed to create a harmonious composition. That was no accident. The Allies had imperiously tossed out the residents of the houses they requisitioned, which meant, quite simply, she was living in someone else’s house. She couldn’t help wondering who the real owners were. A professor, perhaps, or an orchestra conductor? Or had it been a factory owner, happy to use slave labourers or even an SS officer? No, everything was too tasteful and elegant to have been purchased by some Nazi thug, she told herself. Surely the owners had been men of culture and education. Or had they stolen the art and the tasteful furnishings from others? David Goldman claimed that many Jewish homes had been taken over by the Nazis wholesale.
Emily turned to look at the married couples who looked down on her from their golden frames. They didn’t look particularly Jewish to her, but suddenly it seemed entirely plausible that the descendants of these elegant pairs of satin-bedecked ladies and gentlemen in gold-braided uniforms had been murdered in a death camp.
There was a soft clunk behind her, and she turned around to see one of the three maids, Frau Pabst, standing in the doorway leading from the kitchen. She wore a black dress trimmed with white collar, cuffs and bib-apron. Her grey-blond hair had been pulled back in a severe bun, and Emily estimated her age at anywhere between 40 and 60; it was hard to be more precise because hardship aged people prematurely. She wore two wedding rings, symbolic of widowhood, Emily had been told, but Emily hadn’t a clue when Herr Pabst had died or how. Had he died fighting for Hitler, perhaps? Or in the inferno of death rained down by Anglo-American bombers? She would not have been comfortable with either answer, so she didn’t ask.
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