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For The Record
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Brian Williams

Historical Fiction

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“He wasn’t a traitor, you know,” said the old lady. She was seated on the other side of the table from me, wreathed in blue cigarette smoke, illuminated by shafts of pale winter sunlight that came in almost horizontally through the window. “No matter what they say, he wasn’t a traitor. That’s what he told me himself. But I’m the only one left now, the only one who remembers what happened. Lotty’s gone, so are the owners, and that poor family, of course.”

The old lady crossed herself when she mentioned the “poor family” and then lit another cigarette.

“Well, why don’t you tell me about him,” I said. That, after all, was the whole point of the oral history project. That was why the old lady had come to the University on a cold, clear winter’s afternoon. To put the record straight and record events as those who had lived at the time saw them. To record them before it was too late.

“Well, of course, you know I grew up with him. He was a few years younger than me and lived at the end of our street. His father was a policeman too and we all knew he was going to be one when he grew up. It was what he always wanted. All of us children used to play together, so I knew him quite well when he was young. When I started working, I still lived with my parents, so I used to see him then and when he became a policeman, he was always coming home to see his mother. So, you see, I’ve known him all his life.

“He was the one that led the raid when they took that poor family away”, she continued, crossing herself again. “Such a shame, with the liberation so close. Not that we knew it at the time, although we could all tell that the end was coming. They rounded us all up and took us down to the police station where he interrogated me. Just him, on his own.

“I thought I was done for, you know. After all, we had been sheltering them since the beginning. Of course, I told him that I knew nothing about it. I just worked there, I said. I didn’t know what went on. I pleaded ignorance. How could I know there was a family there?

“But of course, he was no fool and I knew that. And he knew that I was no fool too. And you’d have had to have been a fool not to know something was going on, not know that a family was living in hiding. Even if I had had nothing to do with it, I must have known and knowing and not telling was just as much a crime during the occupation.

“When the end of the interview came, well, I just couldn’t take it any more. I thought I was a dead woman. A firing squad if I was lucky, or worse still, off to the camps with the family. We all knew what went on in those camps, even if most people pretended they didn’t. Anyone who lived through that time and says they didn’t know is a lair. So I thought a firing squad would at least be quicker.

“Anyway, I let him have it – told him what I thought of him. I stood up and thumped the table. ‘Shame on you!’ I said. ‘You’re nothing but a traitor!’ After all, I didn’t think I had anything to lose by it.”

“He didn’t like that. He stood up too, fists on the table, leaning over at me. I thought he was going to hit me.

“‘Sit down!’ he shouted and I sat down, I can tell you. He was still a young man then, and could be very frightening when he wanted to be. But then it seemed to pass and suddenly I thought he looked like an old man; tired, drawn, but no longer angry.

“‘A traitor, am I?’ he said with half a smile, sitting down too. ‘Perhaps, but then where would we be without traitors? Someone had to keep order at the start of the occupation. Maybe the government had capitulated, but a city like this doesn’t just run itself. You remember what it was like. It was chaos! What were we supposed to do? Run away like the politicians? You know me. I’m a policeman. I had a job to do and I did it. Do you think I had a choice? It was that or be a coward.

“‘And besides, would the alternative have been any better? If we hadn’t been here, then they would have taken over things, I mean, the day-to-day things. Do you think that would have been better? You know what they’re like. You know how little they think of us. At least we never shot anyone on the street just because we could.’

“That stopped me in my tracks. I’d never thought of it like that before, but I knew he was right. Living through the occupation wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be and looking back, I’m sure our police played no small part in insulating us from the worst of it. I can just imagine it: ‘We’ll look after our own – you don’t have to worry about us’ and they didn’t. Generally we didn’t make trouble and were content to get on with our lives. Maybe he was a traitor, but if he was, then so were the vast majority of us in those days. We just wanted a quiet life, but at least he and his fellow policemen did their duty and they had to put up with the scorn of the rest of us for their troubles.

“But that wasn’t enough for me. I wasn’t angry any more, not at him, anyway. ‘But what about the family,’ I demanded of him. ‘How could you do that, knowing what will happen to them?’

“He looked even older and more tired than before.

“‘Did I have a choice? They knew, you know. I did what I had to do. If I hadn’t organised the raid, they would have and we all know where that would have led. You wouldn’t be sitting here now, would you? You’d be dead, your friend would be dead, the owners too. They wouldn’t have bothered you with questions; they’d have shot you there and then.’

“‘Does it matter?’ I asked. ‘I’m going to die anyway!’

“‘No you’re not. You’re free to go. It’s clear you knew nothing.’

“I looked at him stupidly, slowly taking in what he had said.

“‘Go on,’ he said. ‘Go. Please, before I change my mind.’

“I quickly got up to go, but when I reached the door, I had to ask him one more question. There was something I had to know.

“‘Who told you they were there?’

“‘Does it matter?’

“‘Yes it does. Someone betrayed us!’

“‘No they didn’t,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘No-one betrayed you. You just weren’t as clever as you thought at hiding your tracks. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve known for over a year.’

“‘So why now?’

“‘I told you. They found out. And no, don’t ask me how, I don’t know. Probably found the same clues I did. They always were a bit slow,’ he said with half a smile. ‘Don’t you see? I didn’t have a choice. Look, I’ve done what I can for them and for the rest of you. You’re all free to go and I’ve put them in the processing centre. I know it will only buy them a week and then it will be the camps for them, but I can’t do any more than that. Please, go now.’

“And so I went, without another word. And you know what? I never even bothered to thank him. Not then, not since. So, don’t call him a traitor.”

And then the old lady started crying.

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The following day, after I’d typed up the interview, I checked the archives. The policeman had been arrested shortly after the liberation and tried for war crimes. He was found guilty and executed by firing squad.

© Brian Williams, 2005



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