You never really get out of debt to your past, even if you don’t owe money you’re bound all the same. To someone or something, and sometime you don’t even remember to whom and how much you owe. Which is why I’m back here on a dead end street in a dead-end town, paying back to everyone, and no one in particular.
The only rule in war is to stay alive and stay free - but survival is not enough, not anymore. Not for me. I was supposed to be dead, and being still alive is a gift I feel like I need to pay back for.
The room is packed with people – all women, different ages and different faces, but what connects us is our mission. The founders of the Association of Social Workers of the Republic probably never imagined someone like us would ever represent it. But these times call for measures that are less noble and more effective.
What we do is essentially the work common social workers would do, but there’s more to that. We are tasked with visiting the families of soldiers killed in war and doing the necessary paperwork. But among the usual questions, there are other, cleverly interwoven with them to find out whether the family isn’t somehow involved in the activities of the Underground, or whether they don’t know anyone involved with the Underground. Why we do it this way? Because according to the secret services, it’s easier to get information out of grieving people. Immoral? Sure. But effective.
What I am supposed to do is not what bothers me. It’s the fact that I rarely get to do anything. Although I have a new name and a whole new identity, the woman in charge of our group, Ms. Thompson, is reluctant to assign me to the tasks very often. I haven’t even had the opportunity to become depressed like the rest of the women. So far I’ve visited four families – one was a woman with four children, another was a young pregnant girl, and the other two were the parents of the soldiers. None of them was involved in anything suspicious, or at least I didn’t find out about anything. The mother of four was strangely resigned, she wasn’t crying nor accusing me of being responsible for her loss; all she cared about was whether the Republic would feed her four children now that her husband gave his life for it. The pregnant girl was sobbing hysterically, telling me I had no idea how she felt. I thought I had a pretty good idea of it, but I didn’t say anything. And the parents were not interested in anything I had to say, they only wanted to show me the pictures of their sons – handsome young men in uniforms, so similar to the one of my brother that I kept in my room for a long time, and to the one of Saul that Senator Wintercourt, as the right pretentiously proud father, had in a frame on his desk. None of these people were dangerous. And I was mildly disappointed by it.
The other workers get up and start to leave, new assignments written in their agendas while mine stays ostentatiously blank. I stay behind, waiting for Ms. Thompson and I to be alone.
“Are you ever going to assign me to anything important?” I ask.
“It’s a little bit complicated,” she sighs. “People know you.”
I know that she is right, but it’s not like anyone would recognize me on the street. With my new haircut and without make-up, my body shape disguised by the formless brown suit the social workers’ uniforms consist of, and with my eyes hidden behind large glasses, nobody would think me the former scandalous Mrs. Wintercourt.
I run a hand through my hair. I cut it after I left London, it now barely reaches my shoulders. It in itself was enough to change my appearance. The shorter it is, the wilder it looks. Now that the weight of it doesn’t hold the curls down, it’s impossible to tame it. “They think that they know me,” I say. “I have a new name and nobody is going to recognize me on the street. If you see a criminal on TV, there’s a high chance you wouldn’t recognize him even if he was buying eggs just next to you.”
Ms. Thompson sighs again. “Well, then... come back tomorrow. If there is a free assignment, I’ll give it to you.”
I nod. There is a slim chance that she really will, but I’m determined to come back and bother her until she grows tired of me. I wouldn’t have to, given that the organization feeds me and generally keeps me alive even though I don’t do as much as the others. But I’m tired of living off someone else’s money just like that. I want to earn it.
Living in a block of flats is a new experience. I’m used to large mansions, gardens and light. The old house with dark corridors and narrow staircase is far from it. The walls are always a little damp to the touch and the air smells musty. But it at least means freedom.
The caretaker is an old man who spends the days in the makeshift reception consisting of an old writing desk and a few shelves, surrounded by keys and other people’s post. He mostly minds his own business, which is always appreciated by someone like me.
“Good evening, Mr. Williams,” I greet him when I walk in. “Any post for me?”
“No. But you have a visitor,” the old man mumbles.
Blood freezes in my veins. I don’t get visitors. I have no friends and nobody knows me here. I want it that way. I need it that way. The last thing I’d need would be for one of my brother’s men to find me.
“A visitor?” I repeat.
“Miss Fiona Summerfield?” a voice asks behind my back and I know who it belongs to. “May I speak with you?”
I turn around and I stand face to face with Catherine Wintercourt.
I kick off the flat shoes and take off the brown jacket of the uniform. After showing Mrs. Wintercourt into the kitchen, which is probably the most decent part of the flat, I go to the bedroom and change. When I come back, without the uniform and the huge glasses, it’s again the Eleanor she used to know, or almost.
“So this is where you live now?” she asks and looks around.
“As you can see,” I shrug. “My friend Barbara helped me a lot, but of course she couldn’t pay for a fancy house with a garden and view on the sea for me.” I put the kettle on the gas stove and set two cups on the table. With the electricity out several times every week, the gas is a gift from heaven. “How did you find me?” I ask.
“With your new surname, it wasn’t hard to guess who you were,” she smiles. “Was it supposed to be a joke?”
I return the smile. Of course it was a joke. Changing my name from Wintercourt to Summerfield was probably the best joke I’ve ever made.
“Fiona, though... I don’t know how I feel about it,” she says.
“I like that name,” I say. “It gives the impression of someone independent and sophisticated.”
“I guess,” she nods. “I suppose that you are hiding from your brother.”
“Among other things,” I shrug. “Your husband said that he didn’t want to hear of me again. So I made sure that he wouldn’t. And it surprises me to see you here. I don’t think he would approve of your visit.”
“He certainly wouldn’t,” she says bluntly.
The kettle makes the familiar high-pitched sound, letting me know that the water is boiling. I get up to make the tea. “Why are you here?” I ask.
She waits for me to sit down, to give her all my attention. “Because of Saul.”
“What about him?”
“Saul went to the northern front,” she says. “Boarded a... how is it called, the ship that transports soldiers...”
“A warfare ship?” I suggest.
“Yes,” she nods. “It was headed to the Scandinavian Union, leaving from Portsmouth. An Irish ship bound for another port reported having communicated with them shortly before entering the Scandinavian waters. That’s when they last heard of the soldiers on that ship. The official statement says it was sunk. I can’t say that I believe it.”
“They’ve listed all the soldiers from that ship as MIA. If they were so sure that the ship was destroyed, they would just tell us they were dead.”
“That’s a poor argument, Catherine,” I say softly. “They simply don’t know what happened, but...”
“That’s right. They don’t. And I want to know.”
I marvel at the calmness I feel. Like this doesn’t concern me at all. “But then you have to ask someone who can give you the answer. I’m not that person.”
Mrs. Wintercourt lifts her eyes from the caramel brown surface of her tea and looks me in the eyes. “I want you to find him,” she says. “I want you to find my son.”
“Me?” I raise my brows. “I’m sure that Senator Wintercourt has access to more information than I could ever get.”
“He won’t look for him,” Mrs. Wintercourt shakes her head. “He says that he cannot put his own interests before those of the country, that if he looked for his son like that, he’d have to look for all the soldiers like that. But it’s just a poor excuse.”
“What is the true reason, then?” I ask and light a cigarette. I ignore the disapproving look she gives me.
“They fell out with Saul before Saul got his draft notice,” she sighs. “Because of you.”
“Because of me?”
“Saul defended you. He told Alfred that he shouldn’t have let you go like that, that he should have taken care of you, protected you. He told him that you were right all along. That you wanted to do the right thing for the country and that you cared more than the whole Senate ever did.”
I smile involuntarily. “Bless his poor, smitten heart.”
“Alfred would gladly disown him if he weren’t our only son,” Mrs. Wintercourt scowls. “But that is the reason. They didn’t have time to reconcile before Saul left, and I think neither of them wanted to.”
“I still don’t know why you came to me,” I say.
“You are the only one who can find him,” she says and her voice shakes at the edges. “You are the stubborn one. I beseech you in the name of God, Eleanor. Find my son.”
I shake my head in disbelief. “Even if I knew how... Why should I?”
“Because it’s because of you!” she yells at me and all that ostensible calmness suddenly crumbles like a castle made of sand. “It’s all because of you!”
“What do you mean?”
“Saul wouldn’t have had to go. At least not so soon. It wasn’t his turn. He asked to go. Three days after you left.”
I raise from the chair. “You can’t be serious.”
“Nobody knows, not even Alfred. But he told me. Said there was no better place to forget than the land where your heart would go cold.”
I stare at her for a while, then I fall back in the chair and light another cigarette. It takes me three attempts, so much my hands are shaking.
Mrs. Wintercourt gets up and walks to the door. She turns around one last time when she reaches for her coat on the hanger. “At least think about it,” she whispers. “Please.”
Then she closes the door behind her.