Poor Roper found a woman in Elmshorn. Or rather she found him. She married him. She needed the leisure of marriage to enforce a lesson diametrically opposite to the one I'd been trying to teach. Though Roper and I were both in the British Zone of Germany we never met, and it wasn't till the marriage was a couple of years old and the lessons well under way – back in England, in fact, with both of us civilians – that I was able to indulge my not very-strong masochistic propensities (vicarious, anyway) and see the Ehepaar (these lovely German words!) in cosy domestic bliss.
I remember the occasion well, sir. Roper said shyly, 'This is Brigitte,' having got the introductions arse-back-wards. He realised it and then said, in confusion, 'Darf ich vorstellen – What I mean is, this is my oldest friend. Denis Hillier, that is.'
Roper had been released from the army no earlier than anyone else, despite the scholarship that was awaiting him at Manchester University (not Oxford, after all) and his obvious potential usefulness in the great age of technological reconstruction that was, we were told, coming up. He was now in his third year. He and this Brigitte had had a twelve-month engagement, she waiting in Elmshorn with the ring on her finger, he getting his allowances and a flat sorted out in that grey city which, when you come to think of it, has always had some of the quality of a pre-Hitler Stadt – rich musical Jews, chophouses, beeriness, bourgeois solidity. I understand that that picture has now, since the immigration of former subject peoples longing to be back with their colonial oppressors, been much modified. It is now, so I gather, much more like a temperate Singapore. Perhaps the German image only came out fully for me when I saw Brigitte, almost indecently blonde, opulently busted, as full of sex as an egg of meat, and a good deal younger than Roper (we were both now twenty-eight; she couldn't have been more than twenty). She'd contrived to stuff the Didsbury flat with cosy Teutonic rubbish – fretwork clocks, an elaborate weatherhouse, a set of beer-mugs embossed with leather-breeched huntsmen and their simpering dirndl-clad girl-friends. Lying on the sideboard was a viola, which Roper, perhaps never having met one in England, insisted on calling a Bratsche, her dead father's, and she could play it well, said proud Roper – nothing classical, just old German songs. There seemed to be only one thing of Roper's in the stuffy Brigitte-smelling living-room, and that was something hanging on the wall, framed in passe-partout. It was the Roper family-tree. 'Well,' I said, going to look at it. 'I never realised you were so – is Rassenstolz the word?'
'Not race,' said Brigitte, whose eye on me had been, since my entry, a somewhat cold one. 'Family-proud.' For that matter, I hadn't taken to her at all.
'Brigitte's family goes back a long way,' said Roper. 'The Nazis did some people a sort of service in a manner of speaking, digging out their genealogical tables. Looking for Jewish blood, you know.' I said, still looking at past Ropers: 'No Jewish blood here, anyway. A bit of French and Irish, some evident Lancashire.' (Marchand, O'Shaugh-nessy, Bamber.) 'A long-lived family.' (1785-1862; 1830-1912; 1920 – This last was our Roper, Edwin.)
'Good healthy blood,' smirked Roper.
'And in my family no Jewish,' said Brigitte aggressively.
'Of course not,' I said, grinning. And then, 'This Roper died pretty young, didn't he?' There was a Tudor Roper called Edward-1530-1558. 'Still, the expectation wasn't all that long in those days.'
He was executed,' said this Roper. 'He died for his beliefs. It was my grandfather who dug up all this, you know. A hobby for his retirement. See, there he is – John Edwin Roper. Died at eighty-three.'
'One of the first Elizabethan martyrs,' I said. 'So you have a martyr in the family.'
He was a fool,' pronounced Roper, sneering. 'He could have shut up about it.'
'Like the Germans who saw it through,' I suggested.
'My father died,' said Brigitte. Then she marched out to the kitchen.
While she was clattering the supper things I had to congratulate Roper and say what a handsome, intelligent, pleasant girl she seemed to me to be. Roper said eagerly: 'Oh, there's no doubt about the intelligence' (as though there might be some doubt about the other qualities). 'She speaks remarkably good English, doesn't she? She's had a rough time, you know, what with the war. And her father was a very early casualty. In Poland it was, '39. But she's not a bit reproachful. Towards me, I mean, or towards the British generally.'
'The British were never in Poland.'
'Oh, well, you know what I mean, the Allies. It was all one war, wasn't it? All the Allies were responsible, really.'
'Look,' I said, giving him the hard eye, 'I don't get all this. You mean that your wife, as a representative of the German nation, very kindly forgives us for Hitler and the Nazis and the bloody awful things they did? Including the war they started?'
'He didn't start it, did he?' said Roper brightly. 'It was we who declared war on him.'
'Yes, to stop him taking the whole bloody world over. Damn it, man, you seem to have forgotten what you did six years' fighting for.'
'Oh, I didn't actually fight, did I?' said literalist Roper. 'I was there to help save lives.'
'Allied lives,' I said. 'That was a kind of fighting.'
'It was worth it, whatever it was,' said Roper. 'It led me to her. It led me straight to Brigitte.' And he looked for a moment as though he were listening to Beethoven.
I didn't like this one little bit, but I didn't dare say any- thing for the moment because Brigitte herself came in with the supper, or with the first instalments of it. It looked as though it was going to be a big cold help-your-self spread. She brought serially to the table smoked salmon (the salty canned kind), cold chicken, a big jellied ham (coffin-shaped from its tin), dishes of gherkins, pumpernickel, butter-a whole slab, not a rationed wisp-and four kinds of cheese. Roper opened bottled beer and made as to pour some for me into a stein. 'A glass, please,' I said. 'I much prefer a glass.'
'From a stein,' said Brigitte, 'it smacks better.'
'I prefer a glass,' I smiled. So Roper got me a glass with the name and coat-of-arms of a lager firm gilded on it. 'Well,' I said, doing the conventional yum-yum hand-rubbing before falling to, 'this looks a bit of all right. You're doing very nicely for yourselves, nicht wahr}' At that time British rations were smaller than they'd been even at the worst point of the war. We now had all the irksome appurtenances of war without any of its glamour. Roper said: 'It's from Brigitte's Uncle Otto. In America. He sends a food parcel every month.'
'God bless Uncle Otto,' I said, and, after this grace, I piled smoked salmon on to thickly buttered black bread.
'And you,' said Brigitte, with a governess directness, 'what is it that you do?' The tones of one who sees a slack lounging youth who has evaded call-up.
'I'm on a course,' I said. 'Slavonic languages and other things. I say no more.'
'It's for a department of the Foreign Office,' smiled Roper, looking, with his red round face and short-cropped hair and severely functional spectacles, as German as his wife. It was suddenly like being inside a German primer: Lesson III -Abendessen. After food Roper would probably light up a meerschaum.
'Is it for the Secret Police?' asked Brigitte, tucking in and already lightly dewed with fierce eater's sweat. 'My husband is soon to be a Doktor.' I didn't see the connection.
Roper explained that only in Germany was a doctorate the first degree. And then: 'We don't have secret police in England, at least I don't think so.'
'We don't,' I said. 'Take it from me.'
'My husband,' said Brigitte, 'studies the sciences.'
'Your husband,' I said, 'will be a very important man.' Roper was eating too hard to blush with pleasure. 'Science is going to be very important. The new and terrible weapons that science is capable of making are a great priority in the peaceful work of reconstruction. Rockets, not butter.'
'There is much butter on the table,' said Brigitte, stone-facedly chewing. And then: 'What you say I do not understand.'
'There's an Iron Curtain,' I told her. 'We're not too sure of Russia's intentions. To keep the peace we must watch out for war. We've learned a great deal since 1938.'
'Before you should have learned,' said Brigitte, now on the cheese course. 'Before England should this have known.' Roper kindly unscrambled that for her. 'It was Russia,' said Brigitte, 'that was the fiend.'
'Ja, ja, Feind. Enemy.' She tore at a piece of pumpernickel as though it were a transubstantiation of Stalin. 'This Germany did know. This England did know not.'
'And that's why Germany persecuted the Jews?'
'International Bolschevismus,' said Brigitte with satisfaction. Then Roper started, eloquently, going on at length. Brigitte, his teacher, listened, nodded approval, cued him sometimes, rarely corrected. Roper said: 'We, that is to say the British, must admit we have nearly everything to blame ourselves for. We were blind to it all.
Germany was trying to save Europe, no more. Mussolini had tried once, but with no help from those who should have helped. We had no conception of the power and ambition of the Soviet Union. We're learning now, but very late. Three men knew it well, but they were all reviled. Now only one of them is living. I refer,' he said, to enlighten my ignorance, 'to General Franco in Spain.'
'I know all about General bloody Franco,' I said coarsely. 'I did a year in Gibraltar, remember. Given the chance, he would have whipped through and taken the Rock. You're talking a lot of balls,' I added.
'It is you who talk the balls,' said Brigitte. She picked up words quickly, that girl. 'To my husband please listen.'
Roper talked on, growing more shiny as he talked. There was one thing, I thought in my innocence: here was a man who, when he got down to research, as he would very shortly, would be quite above suspicion – a man who would be susceptible to no blandishments of the one true fiend. What I didn't like was this business of England's guilt and need to expiate great wrong done to bloody Deutschland. I took as much as I could stand and then broke in with: 'Ah God, man, how can you justify all the atrocities, all the suppression of free thought and speech, the great men sent into exile when not clubbed to death – Thomas Mann, Freud-'
'Only the smutty writers,' said Brigitte, meaning schmutzig.
'If you're going to wage war,' said Roper, 'it's got to be total war. War means fighting an enemy, and the enemy isn't necessarily somewhere out there. He can be at home, you know, and he's at his most insidious then. But,' he conceded, 'do you think that anybody really enjoyed having to send great brains into exile? They wouldn't be argued with, many of them. Impossible, a lot of them, to convince. And time was very short.'
I was going to say something about ends not justifying means, but I remembered that it was right for prisoners-of-war to drop razor-blades into the enemy's pigswill and that, if they'd bombed Coventry, we'd bombed Dresden. That if they'd been wrong we'd been wrong too. That killing babies was no way to kill Hitler, who'd had to kill himself anyway at the end. That history was a mess. That Fascism had been the inevitable answer to Communism. That the Jews could sometimes be as Father Byrne had portrayed them. I shuddered. Was somebody brainwashing me? I looked at Brigitte, but she, replete, glowed only with sex. I clenched my teeth, wanting her on the floor then and there, Roper looking on. But I merely said: 'You've joined Father Byrne in condemning the warmongering English. And, of course, the money-grubbing Jews. You two would get on well together now.'
'That horrible Church,' said Roper passionately. 'Jewish meekness, turning the other cheek, draining the blood from the race. Nietzsche was right.' Brigitte nodded.
'What the hell do either of you know about Nietzsche?' I asked. 'I bet neither of you's ever read a word of Nietzsche.'
Brigitte began: 'My father-' Roper said, mumbling a bit: 'There was a very good summary of his philosophy in the Reader's Digest.' He was always honest. '-at school,' ended Brigitte. I said: 'Oh, my God. What do you want – blood and iron and black magic?'
'No,' he said. 'I want to get on with my work. The first thing is to get my degree. And then research. No,' he repeated, somewhat dispirited now (perhaps that was overeating, though: he'd tucked away half a chicken and a slab of ham and a bit each of the four kinds of cheese, all with bread in proportion). 'I don't want anything that causes war or could be used to make war more terrible than it's been already. All the dead, all the innocent children.'
'My father,' said Brigitte.
'Your father,' agreed Roper. It was as though they were toasting him. And for a moment it was as if the Second World War had been conjured expressly to kill off Herr Whoever-he-was.
'Yes,' I said. 'And my Uncle Jim, and the two children evacuated to my Aunt Florrie's house who found a bomb in a field, and all the poor bloody Jews and dissident intellectuals.'
'You say right,' said Brigitte. 'Bloody Jews.'
'We must never be allowed to start another war like that one,' said Roper. 'A great nation in ruins.'
'Not starving, though,' I said. 'Plenty of Danish butter and fat ham. The best-nourished bastards in Europe.'
'Please,' said Roper, 'do not call my wife's people bastards.'
'What is that word?' asked Brigitte. 'Many strange words he knows, your fiend.'
'Friend,' I amended.
'A great nation's bones picked over by Yanks and Bolshevists,' said Roper, 'and the French, a rag of a nation, and the British.' Strangely, two cathedral choirs sang in my head, antiphonally: Babylon the Great is fallen -If I forget thee, O Jerusalem. I said: 'You always wanted a unified universe. Tautology and all. Remember that no science now can be wholly for peace. Rockets are for outer space but also for knocking hell out of enemies. Rocket fuel can speed man into the earth or off it.'
'How did you know about rocket fuel?' asked Roper, wide-eyed. 'I never mentioned-'
'just a guess. Look,' I said, 'I think I'd better be going.'
'Yes,' said Brigitte very promptly, 'be going.' I looked at her, wondering whether to be nasty back, but her body got in the way. Perhaps I'd said enough already. Perhaps I'd been discourteous. I still had fragments of Uncle Otto's ham in my back teeth. Perhaps I was ungrateful. I said to Roper: 'It's a messy sort of journey back where I'm going.'
'I thought you were in Preston.'
'No, a country house some way outside. A matter of a last bus.'
'Well,' he said unhappily, 'it's been nice having you. You must come again some time.' I looked at Brigitte to see if she would corroborate that in smile, nod, word, but she sat stony. So I said: 'Danke sch"on, gn"adige Frau. Ich habe sehr gut gegessen.' And then, like a fool, I added: 'Alles, alles "uber Deutschland.' Her eyes began to fill with angry tears. I got out without waiting to be shown out. Jolting on the bus into town, I kept seeing Brigitte's great Urmutter breasts wagging and jumping inside their white cotton blouse. Roper would undo a button, and then the catechism would start: 'Whose fault was it all?'-'England's, England's' (most breathily). It would continue, intensifying, to the point where she would lose interest in catechising. I turned myself into Roper. Oh yes, cupping a fine firm huge Teutonic breast I too would breathily revile England, would blame my own mother for the war, would say, preparing for the plunge, that not enough Jews had been plunged into gas-chambers. And afterwards I would take it all back, though not in any chill disgust of post coitum: rather I would call her an evil bitch, very hot, and strafe her. And then it would start again.
That was a significant event in Roper's life, sir. I mean his going into the death-camp and seeing evil for the first real time – not the pruriently reported evil of the Sunday rags, but stinking palpable evil. For the sake of scientific rationalism he'd jettisoned a whole system of thought capable of explaining it -1 mean Catholic Christianity; face to face with an irrational emptiness he'd made himself a sucker (ah, how literally) for the first coherent system of blame that had been presented to him. There's another letter I haven't mentioned, a letter in reply to that letter of mine advising him to get stuck into the German women: 'I've tried to do what you said. It's reminded me in a queer way of the old days of going to confession. Blasphemous, those still in the fold would think. I met this girl in a small beer-place, she was with a German man. I was a bit drunk and a bit more forward than I'd have normally been. The man sort of slunk off when I came to their table. I think it was her brother. Anyway, I bought her several beers and gave her three packets of Player's. To cut a long story short, before I properly knew what was happening I found we were lying on the grass in this sort of park place. It was a lovely evening -Mondschein, she kept saying. That was right for what they call LOVE. Then, when I saw part of her bared body under the moon, it all came over me – that camp and all that bare wasted flesh there, not at all like hers. I sort of grabbed hold of her in a kind of hate you could call it, and I even screamed at her while I was doing it. But she seemed to like it. "Wieder wieder wieder/' she seemed to keep on crying. And then it seemed to me that I'd done wrong to her, raped her even, but, worse than that, I was sort of corrupting her by all this, she took such pleasure in what was meant to be hate but became a great joy I was sharing with her. I loathe myself, I could kill myself, the guilt I feel is shocking.'
The day before I got this letter I received a telegram from Roper. It said: 'DESTROY LETTER WITHOUT READING PLEASE PLEASE WILL WRITE EXPLAINING.' He never did write explaining. What he did instead was to expiate his fancied wrong to the woman shrieking for more in the moonlight. Girl rather than woman. Brigitte must have been very young at that time.