The first story in Alt Hist Issue 9 is “The Lords of Pontefract”. In the penultimate story from Jonathan’s Doering’s “Battalion 202” series the focus turns to one of the people tasked with providing government and leadership to the town. In “The Lords of Pontefract”, Jonathan Doering imagines the activities of “the other side”, a shadowy network of officials who would have acted as saboteurs and spies within the occupation administration.
Battalion 202: The Lords of Pontefract
by Jonathan Doering
Author’s note: previously, Battalion 202 has recounted the experiences of various residents of the West Yorkshire town of Pontefract, following a successful German invasion of Britain. “The Lords of Pontefract” now focuses on one of the people tasked with providing government and leadership to the town, and imagines the activities of “the other side”, a shadowy network of officials who would have acted as saboteurs and spies within the occupation administration.
Pontefract, 7th December, 1941
Mindvoice: Ebeneezer Lewis
Not a long walk from the Town Hall. Trying to snow. People all the way down the market place, watching. Two soldiers with me. Hanging platform, sickly yellow against the snow, down by the Butter Cross, where the Market Place turns right towards the Cenotaph.
Pontefract, 1st November, 1941
“You’re going, then?”
Ebeneezer Lewis looked at his wife standing in the doorway of his bedroom. Raising the ties he was comparing, he replied, “Which do you think, Queenie love, light or dark?”
When she didn’t reply, he affected to study first the navy-blue and then his grammar school tie with stripes of light blue, black and gold. Queenie shifted forwards, taking both ties in her hands.
“You don’t have to go in today, Eb.”
Lewis smiled. “Dreaming again, Queenie?”
She did not smile back. Her hands twisted the ties, turning them into silk nooses. “Yes I did. Stay home today. For me. Please, Ebeneezer.”
He sighed. “What would people think, love?”
The nooses tightened. “Let them think what they like. I’m afraid.”
He watched her. She was persistent in her anxieties to the point that he was becoming afraid as well. When he spoke he was as honest as possible: “But everyone’s afraid, Queenie.”
Her face contorted and she threw the strips of material against him.
“Yes, well, I’m not responsible for ‘everyone’, am I? I’m just responsible for you and me.”
She went on, the words bubbling out of her, like milk out of a hot pan.
“Haven’t I always been there for you? Haven’t I always wanted the best for you?”
“Yes, Queenie. I know that you have. Lord Mayor of Wakefield’s daughter, eh?” He smiled. “How could we not have succeeded?”
She didn’t smile back. Fixing her gaze on the carpet, she murmured, “I did have another dream. You were in it.”
He went to her then, taking her in his arms; whether this was to comfort or silence her, he wasn’t sure. “There, there, dear.” He felt her hands come up to his back, her fingers dig through his shirt like talons.
“Stay home today, Ebeneezer. Blame me. Say I’m not well.”
He replied through another sigh. “Very well. I’ll send a message. You shouldn’t really be left today, I suppose.”
The question as to what would happen tomorrow, and the next day, and after that, hung over their bowed heads. Her fingers relaxed slightly. “Thank you, Ebeneezer.”
He took another breath, resigning himself. Certainly things could run acceptably for one day. He felt a surge of warmth push the cold hand off his chest, and realised that he still felt affection for this woman.
“I’ve been spoiled,” she whispered into his chest. “You’ve hardly been away from me, ever.”
She looked up at him through bleary eyes, searching his. “You didn’t even leave me in the Great War.”
He shrugged. “I was already getting old …”
“You might have gone if it hadn’t been for me.”
“I might not be standing here then, if it hadn’t been for you.”
In that silence, there was a rap at the front door. They both started, Lewis glancing at his watch. “Who could that possibly be? It’s half past seven in the morning.”
Through the opaque glass in the front door, he could make out field grey. A clean-shaven NCO clicked his heels as the door opened.
“Guten Morgen, Herr Lewis. I have been ordered to escort you to the Rathaus.”
“Town Hall. Captain Kürten would very much like to discuss important matters.”
Lewis gestured feebly. “My wife isn’t well. There isn’t anyone else to stay with her.”
Despite his ability in English, the NCO appeared not to hear him, but continued staring expectantly. Then a floorboard creaked behind him. Queenie was standing in the hallway, navy-blue tie hanging from outstretched hand.
“It’s alright, Ebeneezer. You’re needed.”
Captain Kürten, newly-promoted, was standing in Lewis’s office, surveying the street with scientific interest. As Lewis stepped in, he turned, feigning surprise.
“Herr Lewis, good morning! I am delighted that you were able to come in so early.”
“Good morning, Captain Kürten. Would you like tea perhaps?”
“A weak black tea would be most welcome, with a little sugar … I suppose that you do not have lemon?”
Lewis merely looked at the officer who raised a hand to dismiss his own query. “Of course, I will try to arrange for some special foodstuffs to be sent from the garrison. Our friends at the Town Hall deserve what we can spare.”
“Most kind, Captain.”
Turning back towards the door, he saw his secretary’s eager face. He understood that the Captain had already told her what he desired to drink, but also that he would wait for the Mayor’s arrival.
“Did you hear all of that, Audrey? Good. Please fetch what the Captain requested, and I’d like my usual tea, thank you.”
“Yes, Mr Lewis.” She was staring at the charismatic man behind him with hot intensity.
“As quickly as you can.”
“Yes, Mr Lewis.” She stifled a giggle. Kürten searched his gaze out as he turned back, smiling apologetically.
“How young women adore a uniform, no?”
Kürten’s eyes focused more closely. “Of course, I suppose this is difficult for you to imagine? You did not serve in uniform?”
The raised intonation almost led Lewis into explaining about having been too old, even in 1914, his responsibilities as an alderman. He caught himself just in time.
“No, Captain, unfortunately. May I ask to what I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
Kürten inclined his upper torso in a slight bow. “I come to ask for a favour, Herr Lewis. We have need of accommodation for special purposes and–”
There was a tap at the door, and there was Audrey, her face electric bright, mouth slightly open, wet, looking full whilst only holding its own tongue, tea things on a tray.
Kürten spoke first, assuming authority.
“Perfect, thank you my dear. Herr Lewis, shall I pour and explain my situation? I very much hope you can assist us.”
It had been completely simple, completely breath-taking. Owing to expanding administrative responsibilities, Captain Kürten was obliged to request a central building for German use. Lewis had, in his heart, been expecting such a demand. In that sense it came as no shock whatsoever. Still, he was troubled at how the invaders so calmly and inexorably tightened their grip on power.
He nodded slowly, pouring another cup of tea, dropping a sugar cube in, feeling Kürten’s eyes following his hand from bowl to cup. As he stirred the tea he asked, “Have you located a suitable site, Captain?”
Kürten shrugged. “I would not presume, Mayor Lewis.”
Of course he had. Again, a torrent of anger flared in Lewis’ chest, followed almost instantly by a sense of his own age, leaving him cold and empty. He sighed and sipped the tea, savouring the warmth on his lips. Let him take what he wanted. He would have it, whether Lewis co-operated or not. They had already helped themselves to Nostell Priory, the local estate just beyond Featherstone.
“Perhaps you could give me some indication of what the building will be used for? If I have more detail about your requirements, I might be able to judge which property would be most suitable.”
Kürten’s eyes flickered and Lewis wondered what he was hiding. The German made a sweeping gesture with one hand and his mouth smiled. “Administration, Mayor Lewis. We need a point of contact between ourselves and the local population. There are also some … policing responsibilities. We have witnessed unfortunate civil disturbances since our arrival. We obviously need to organise as harmonious an Occupation as possible, so require further offices in order to do this.”
Lewis drained his cup and fought back the desire to pour a third. Clasping his hands before him, he was about to reply, when there was a tapping on the door. “Audrey, the Captain and myself–”
Turning, however, he saw that it was not Audrey standing there. In fact, he was hard put to know who it was. A teenage boy, scrawny, with a pale moon face and unkempt hair, was twisting a cloth cap in his hands.
“Yes, lad, what is it?”
The boy knew that he now had to speak, but that did not lend him enough courage to do so. He twisted the cap more violently, turning it so tightly that Lewis wondered if it might tear. Kürten shifted in his chair on the other side of his desk, and that movement brought Lewis back to himself. Now the cold sensation sitting inside of his body froze, burning. Perhaps this boy was a neighbour’s son? That was it. He was some sort of a simple boy. His parents kept him out of sight most of the time, but he ran occasional errands.
“Fletcher, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Martin Fletcher, sir.”
“Well, boy? Spit it out, I’m in a meeting here.” He didn’t dare look back, but he could feel Kürten’s cobra stare, shooting over his shoulder. Fletcher gave his cap a final twist, turned his waist one way, shoulders the other, then finally spoke.
“I’m sorry, sir, but Mrs Lewis gave me a penny to come to ask if you were alright.”
There was a stifled snigger from behind him, and the heat rushed back within him. He wasn’t a dead volcano quite yet. Standing, he walked towards the boy who had returned to twisting his cap, unsure as to whether he would shout, speak, or knock him backwards into the corridor. Delving into his pocket, he fished out a tuppenny piece.
“My wife gave you a penny, did she?”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now go home and don’t you come here again if you don’t want your head knocking against a wall.”
The boy’s eyes clouded. “But what should I say to Mrs Lewis?”
“You’ve come here, haven’t you? Have you seen me?”
“Do I look ill?”
“So you know what to tell my wife, don’t you? Don’t you dare come again, boy. Do you understand?”
He closed the door with a thump. What the hell was she thinking? How would that make him look in front of this brute? What did she think she was playing at, putting a boy like that in the way of a German? Turning back, he was gratified to note that the German was looking at him with something approaching approval. As he sat, Kürten spoke again.
“What a … conscientious young man. Does he visit often?”
“A neighbour’s child. I’ve never spoken more than three words to him. Now, Captain—your office accommodation.”
“Quite so, Herr Lewis. I was wondering if we might request the use of your fine Library?”
When he had finished arranging for the books to be removed from the Library to alternative accommodation provided by church halls and school libraries, Lewis had met with his Cabinet to discuss the day’s business. New identity cards. The roads around the town weren’t too badly damaged during the Invasion, but still needed maintenance, with so many military vehicles using them. Bread was running low and ingredients were hard to come by; supplies were sluggish following the previous hard fighting. Lewis kept his news until the end of the meeting.
There was a silence and then someone asked, “You mean everything?”
“No, not everything. They’ve said that the archives and records can be left there. But all the books need to be moved.”
“What the bloody hell do they want with our archives?” Gerald Hopkirk, who held the Education portfolio, asked the question but his voice died away. They all understood why local records might be of use, and Lewis didn’t bother to answer.
“Isn’t it about time that someone said something, Ebeneezer?” Brian Lofthouse, who handled Health, turned in his seat to stare at Lewis, holding his pen like a gavel. “If we don’t say anything—”
“If we don’t say anything they’ll suit themselves, and if we do say something they’ll suit themselves just the same,” cut in Hopkirk.
“Still, that’s one of the mayor’s roles, isn’t it?” Lofthouse persisted. “To speak up about things? That’s where the title comes from, doesn’t it? ‘Maior’ in Latin. ‘Bigger’. We need you to be bigger, Eb.”
Lewis stared at the table. He didn’t hear anyone else speak, either to challenge or support Lofthouse. He replied, “I’m doing my best, Brian.”
Lofthouse chuckled gently. “Well, we need you to do the best, Eb.” This time there were some murmurs of assent. Lewis’s next words fell hot and sharp.
“In that case, perhaps you’d like to take over and show us what ‘the best’ looks like, Brian?” Lofthouse froze, then began flicking his pen up and down once more. “You’re the mayor, Eb, not me.”
“Quite. So until you’re willing to take over from me, you’ll have to accept my best efforts.”
Lofthouse said no more, but Lewis could see his eyes slide about, seeking contact with other cabinet members around the table. The irony of the situation was that Lewis would have gladly handed the mayor’s chains over to him, if he thought that Lofthouse would accept them.
Shortly after that the meeting was adjourned and each official returned to his office. Lewis could hear Lofthouse commenting in an undertone (“Only got it because he’s a safe pair of hands … Not even from round here …”) but could see no way to answer, so returned to his office and began reviewing coal production figures. Requests were coming from “Down South” for increasing amounts to be sent on trains. Exactly where to was not stated but still understood. Much of the extra requisitioned coal would be transported to docks on the south coast, shipped across to the continent, and thence to Germany itself. The stripping of the outlying territories was beginning, and Lewis felt like a helpless observer.
But perhaps not. He rose and walked to his window, and looked down at the traffic in the street below. Aside from the odd grey uniform and the propaganda posters, illegible at this distance, little seemed to have truly changed. His mind melted back to a meeting just a few months ago, shortly after his election.
Superintendent Frederickson had come to speak with him, and then arranged an appointment between Lewis and another man. A man dressed in a tweed suit with mutton chop whiskers had sat in Lewis’s office, filling his pipe and talking in drawling tones about something called “the other side”.
“As you will no doubt know, or will have guessed, we are making provisions should the Nazis successfully invade Britain.” He had offered a name, but Lewis had suspected it to be false and had not bothered to remember it. “The insurgency will take multifarious forms.” He tamped down the tobacco and clamped the pipe between his teeth whilst he sought a match. “Military and political. Officials will form the political resistance.” He gestured with the stem of his pipe at Lewis. “That’s where you come in, Mr Lewis. You’ll be in a key position to glean intelligence for our men in the combat units, and to frustrate Nazi plans. You must take any and every opportunity to foil their strategies.”
Lewis had scoffed. The man had looked at him.
“But I’m no soldier. Never have been.”
“I’ve read your report, I understand. Actually, that could be an advantage, if I’m honest. Gerry might not expect you to be capable of active resistance.” He winced involuntarily on ‘capable’, and Lewis understood that he doubted his capacity to resist every bit as much as the hypothetical invaders did. As Lewis himself did.
They had discussed dead letter boxes, rice paper, the kinds of information that should be noted down before dropping messages. Lewis was presented with sheets of paper with insignia and names relating to ranks and regiments. He had done his best to memorise them but knew he hadn’t managed it perfectly. Still the man in the tweed suit smiled encouragingly.
“Not bad at all. Good start. And anyway, you’ll be in a position of responsibility; you’ll be able to ask for information more openly than most.”
“Might they suspect something?”
The man in the tweed suit looked at him. In that moment, Lewis understood that he was not expected to last very long, should the Germans arrive. Frederickson had admitted as much during their first meeting, and Lewis saw this man’s eyes flicker slightly as he replied.
“Obviously we would expect you to be sensible and discreet, Mr Lewis.”
Perhaps now was the time to begin using that dead letter box. He reflected idly that he had no way of knowing if it was actually functioning. The Nazis had been in the country for a month. What was that statistic about resistance fighters Frederickson had muttered? That they had been expected to survive for a maximum of fourteen days? He looked down again into the street, watching the people wrapped up against the November chill. It looked to be a cold Winter. He had not allowed himself to dwell on the thought of the fighters, out there, preparing. Many of them now would have been wounded, captured, killed.
He glanced down and watched the citizens, in threadbare coats and knitted hats. My place is here, serving the town, doing what I can for them …. He laughed drily. “Come on, Eb. You’ve been saying that kind of thing since 1914.”
As he was shrugging himself into his coat that evening, the same NCO again presented himself at his office door. Again Lewis felt an icy hand on his chest. Would this now be the way? A pet mayor rolled out to explain away this requirement and that? Over time he would come to rely on such an escort. Finally he would become a collaborator.
“I can find my own way home, thank you.”
The words were out before he could stop them. The NCO appeared slightly perplexed by Lewis’ words.
“I said that I do not require an escort, thank you. I would like to walk home alone.”
The NCO frowned. “But I have not been sent to escort you home, mein Herr. The Captain would like your company at the Windmill Inn.”
END OF FREE EXTRACT
You can read the rest of this story by purchasing a copy Alt Hist Issue 9.
About the Author
After eight years living in West Yorkshire, Jonathan Doering now lives in Oxford with his wife and son, where he teaches English. His work has also appeared in: Cascando, Sheaf, Silver Carrier, Circus, LitSpeak, Contemporary Review, Alt Hist, Brittle Star, Gold Dust (for which he won a Best Prose Award), The Guardian and The Wolfian; his SF serial “Earworms”, which has recently been running in this last magazine, is forthcoming as an e-novella.