She waited. She knew how to wait. Experience had taught her half the game was waiting. It wasn’t as cold as she had expected. Though there was the definite tinge of chill on the nose, the winter was nearly as mild as in London. She had been bothered about the coat. Circumstances required something drab, inconspicuous. Fur, naturally, would have been out of the question. She shouldn’t stand out, and the ratty overcoat they had sent her with was as unobtrusive as you could imagine. She looked nearly as beaten down as the rest of the populace. She turned up the collar to complete the image more than block the cold. She hunched her shoulders and quickened her pace just enough as she had walked to the rendezvous. The coat was more than adequate. In retrospect, however, she should’ve brought a better hat. But this was a quick mission. In and out. And the weather wasn’t what she was worried about.
Despite how long she’d been at this business, she felt ill-prepared and with good reason. She knew how to think on her feet, but she wasn’t used to the quick ones. It had to be quick, though, and circumstances seemed to indicate that it had to be her. So she waited. She took another walk around the block. To stretch her leg and because standing around would draw attention, especially with the SS patrolling after dark. They were cutting it close to curfew, but, again, quick. It had to be tonight.
The city was quiet, in that way Virginia had come to recognize. There was no peace to it. It was a muzzled, cowed kind of quiet. The sort that blanketed every city the Nazis had taken. She had seen it, too many times in too many places. Paris, Lyon, like Arnhem, streets that you knew once bustled with laughter, music, or even just noise, now smothered in fearful silence under the long, German shadow.
She’d barely had time to prepare. Almost none at all. One minute she’s headed to her flat, groceries in hand, thanking about a quiet evening to herself, so rare in a city like London, in days like this. Then she turns the corner and finds Atkins at her door, with that look Virginia knew all too well. It wasn’t her habit, short notice and all. It wasn’t anyone’s habit, but, then again, Vera hadn’t needed to ask. The answer was always yes.
If this were a normal operation, she would’ve had more on her. As it stood, it was the hat, coat, and some identification that would pass if she got stopped. And a bit of cash, though they really should have sent her with something more substantial. The Dutch Resistance were doing them a huge favor. Lord knows they could use whatever help they could get.
Everywhere the signs sat in the windows, right next to the hideous red banners with their white circles and hateful symbols. One would expect stores to advertise what they had, not what they didn’t. The rationing was no surprise. She had seen it in Lyon. The Bosch took whatever they could get their hands on, and everyone else could starve. So Arnhem sat, silent and hungry. A city that couldn’t even wave it’s own flag.
Virginia finished a loop of the block and made it back to the theater with time to spare. She caught a few strings of the finale as she passed casually in front of the doors to the concert hall. N Section had been clear. The Dutch had given the message to their best, and they’d meet after the show. Some SS colonel must be a fan, Virginia thought, how else could the company still afford to have performances like this? They sounded good, too. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard an orchestra and so let herself linger for a moment and listen.
The score ended, crescendo, silence, then uproarious applause. Virginia took up position to the side just as the doors opened and the audience poured into the night. She let the crowd spill a bit before stepping out and winding her way amongst them expertly, letting the press guide her down the street. Then, just as expertly, she slipped away into the alley that ran down the side of the concert hall.
The crowd continued to move down the street, talking, discussing the performance, laughing even. An almost alien amount of noise compared to the silence of the city. They were allowing themselves, perhaps, a moment to forget, to let the magic of the show linger on them just a bit longer, before they dispersed into the suffocating silence of the night.
Virginia turned her back to the noise and continued down the alley towards the far end, where it met the little lane that ran behind the theater. She spied the stage door, slowed, and halted in a shadow. A couple made their way down the back lane, hands held in each other’s but silent, buttoned up like the rest of the city. On their way home before curfew, no time to waste taking in the night. Virginia gave them a glance then focused on the back of the theater. She settled herself further into the shadow. She waited.
The couple passed on by. The noise of the crowd out front slowly died away. Silence once again swallowed the city. Some time passed, then the stage door opened, spilling light into the dark, noise into the silence. Virginia stood further back still and watched as people stepped out from the light, bundled up, some clutching cases cautiously, some not even lucky enough to have cases. They said little, a short acknowledgement here, a nod there, and most hurried off to make curfew. A few lingered, pacing slowly in the light of the doorway. Waiting. Virginia saw what for, as a few minutes later, a line of nearly identical girls emerged before the doors were shut again.
They buttoned coats and pulled on hats, but you could tell from their slender build, perfect posture, and the little buns atop their heads. The ballerinas mingled for a minute, naturally giddy from the energy of the performance. The girls stretched and twirled their flats in their hands as they exchanged smiles and congratulations. Another alien sound in the dark city: the delight of children. But even this didn’t last, and soon they began to split off into twos and threes, pairing with the few remaining adults who gathered them up and hastened them towards home. One, small and thin even for a ballerina, remained behind.
“Audrey?” another dancer called, motioning for her to join her group. The smaller one shook her head and pointed up the alley past Virginia, still unseen in the shadow. The little one seemed to indicate this was the shorter way home for her. Her fellow dancers nodded and waved to her, adding, “Tot ziens!”
“Goedenacht,” Audrey responded with a wave of her own. She waited until her friends were far enough down the lane, watching as they and their laughter disappeared into the night, then turned herself and seemed to start up the alley, but she only took a few steps before glancing behind her. Virginia hesitated, for a moment, wondering about emerging from the darkness. After a breath, she stepped out, slowly, so as not to startle the girl too much.
“Goedeavond,” Virginia said. Her Dutch was rusty, but she only needed enough to make a confirmation. The girl gave a little start at her emergence before composing herself.
“Goedeavond,” she answered with a dancer’s curtsy. She shook a little, from more than the cold, Virginia guessed.
“Dat was geweldig dansen,” Virginia went on, and illumination dawned in the girl’s eyes.
“We doen ons best,” the little ballerina replied with a knowing nod.
“Only wish I could have seen it,” Virginia added, in English this time. The girl gave another start at the change, then smiled. Her nervousness faded.
“Thank you,” Audrey said, in English, and curtsied again. With a quick glance up the alley, she reached into her flats, dangling from her fingers by their strings, and pulled out a slip of paper, neatly folded and stuffed beneath the insole. With another glance, she handed it to Virginia. The woman took it from the child and unfolded it. There wasn’t much to it, of course, but she gave it a quick scan, enough to memorize its contents in case she had to destroy it.
The woman had to admit, she hadn’t expected someone so young. They come in all shapes and sizes these days, she reminded herself, and she of all people shouldn’t be surprised. Still, it was hard not to consider the image of this littlest of girls standing against Hitler. There wasn’t much time, but even Virginia couldn’t contain her curiosity.
“Is this your first time?” she asked.
Audrey shook her head, and Virginia couldn’t help but marvel, again, at how this one could have found herself here. Then again, one could easily ask that of Virginia, as so many had. All shapes and sizes, she reminded herself once more.
“Are you ever afraid?” she asked the girl, uncharacteristically conversational for Virginia, as she folded the message up.
The girl smiled, weakly. “I’m too hungry to be afraid, madam.” Virginia had to smile back. For a moment, it was just them, too of the most unlikely standing against a world on fire.
A shiver passed through the woman, bringing her attention back to matters at hand. Virginia gave a glance to either end of the alley. The night suddenly felt colder. It was dark enough and with only the girl here, she figured she could risk it. Virginia reached down and hiked up her skirt. The girl’s eyes went wide when she saw it, when she realized. Yes, Cuthbert had that effect on people, though Virginia was hardly in the habit of introducing him to anyone. Still, the message was vital, or else Atkins wouldn’t have sent her, and there was one surefire way to get it out undetected.
Virginia’s skirt rose to reveal her left leg, or what stood in for it. Most people couldn’t tell, not from what one could normally see between shoe and skirt. But further up, where the prosthesis met her knee, it was hard not to stare. She tucked the folded message into the top, between the cup and her stump sock. When she looked up, Audrey’s eyes were saucers. Seeing that she had been caught gaping, the girl quickly looked away in embarrassment. Virginia gave her a reassuring smile.
“It takes all kinds, doesn’t it, Audrey?” she said. The girl nodded in wonderment. “Do me a favor,” Virginia added as she let the skirt drop back into place. “Get home safe. The patrols will be out at this hour.”
The girl beamed proudly. “Oh, don’t worry about me, madam,” she said with a shake of her head. “They never stop me.”
Virginia smiled again at the girl’s fortitude, which far outsized the girl herself. Defiant, even while starving. And a thought suddenly occurred to her.
“Wait,” Virginia added. She was pressed for time, but she couldn’t let her leave. Not without something to take home. Virginia reached into her pockets and fished out the stack of bank notes they’d sent her with. She took half; she’d save the rest for her transportation. Folding up the bills tightly, she placed them into Audrey’s hand. They said nothing, letting the act speak for itself. Virginia nodded. The girl nodded in turn and stuffed the bills into her flats.
“Goedenacht,” Virginia whispered.
“Goedenacht,” Audrey replied and walked away without another word.
Virginia gave the girl a head start before following her to the end of the alley. She stood in another shadow and watched the dancer go up the street, quickening her pace. Suddenly, Virginia spied a pair of SS patrolmen emerging from a side street. They turned and immediately spotted Audrey as she passed by on the opposite side. Virginia pulled back, her pulse quickening as she watched them approach the little ballerina.
They called out to her in German. The girl stopped, turning politely towards them, hands folded in front of her. They were too far away for Virginia to catch more than snippets of what they were saying, but they repeated their question in Dutch. Audrey nodded in understanding, replied, and pointed back to the theater as she innocently held up her flats. This seemed to impress the guards. They made a motion with their hands, and Audrey complied, giving a little twirl. The guards clapped for her. She gave a curtsy. And just like that, the two SS waved and sent her on her way, adding for her to get home quickly.
Virginia almost couldn’t believe it. She had feared the worst, of course. The Dutch Resistance really had sent their best. She watched the SS as they moved on before turning a corner, continuing their patrol. And up the street, she spied Audrey dashing off into the night.
Time for her to do the same. The boat was waiting. If all went according to the plan, quick as it had been put together, she’d be back to London before tomorrow evening. She reflexively rubbed her left knee. She got what she came for. Vera would be pleased. For the mission more than the message, Virginia realized as she remembered what it said. She allowed herself the briefest moment to ponder it’s meaning and implications before reminding herself it wasn’t in her purview. She had done her job, now on to the next one.
She gathered the coat about her and took on the hunch again. Then, with a quick adjustment to Cuthbert, Virginia Hall stepped out of the alley and disappeared into the night.