The little girl limped down the bomb-ruined road, past the hollow houses and stepped carefully around the rubble. She was as thin as the rain that fell and the soles of her shoes were thinner. She clutched a small loaf of black bread to her thin chest.
It was growing dark and she wanted to get home before night fell and the rats came out. Even if they’d been working the twisted lampposts would not be lit. She stopped. There was a soft, regular click coming from a side alley to her right. She froze and turned her head slowly towards the noise.
A man in a heavy army greatcoat and carrying a white stick made his way towards her. She stepped back and nearly fell over a stone at her feet. The stone clattered and the man stopped, raising his white face to reveal eyes covered by discs of dark glass. He spoke. “Is someone there?”
The girl’s mouth was dry. She licked her lips and spoke in a small voice. “Yes, sir.”
The man’s worn face gave a small smile. “A young lady. What’s your name?”
“Gerda – a lovely name. Gerda, would you like to do something for the Fatherland? Something to help us win this war? Stop the bombs falling each night and set us free?”
Gerda stepped forward. “Oh, yes, sir!”
“Are you a true German?”
“Then I can trust you with my secret,” the man said. “I have a very secret message. It must be delivered now. But I am blind and weak. I need a nimble young person to run like the wind. Do you know Linden Street?”
“There is a shoe shop at number 27. Go in and tell the old cobbler that Hans sent you,” the soldier said. He reached into a pocket of the great grey overcoat and pulled out a crumpled envelope. “And give him this. Whatever you do, you must not look in the envelope.”
“Good girl. Stop for no one, tell no one, trust no one. Now run along before it gets dark!”
Gerda took the envelope, turned and ran through the empty streets past the shattered ruin of her old school and the splintered stumps of the trees in the park. The grass was mostly mud and her thin soles slipped as she sprinted across the park lawns. At the far side was the police station, an officer pulling the blackout curtains across the windows watching her.
“Getting dark,” she panted. “Must deliver the letter and get home before it gets dark.”
Then she stopped so suddenly her feet skidded on the cracked paving. She calmed herself, turned and walked into the police station. The weary old man behind the counter looked at her through red-rimmed eyes. “Can I help?” he asked, and though his thick grey moustache bristled fiercely his voice was kind.
Gerda told her story. The policeman nodded. “I see,” he said. “Suspicious.”
“That’s what I thought!” cried the girl. “I suddenly realised it as I ran past here! How did he know if it was getting dark if he was blind?”
The policeman picked up a cloak and threw it over his shoulders. “I think I will take that note to number 27.”
It was later that night. Gerda lay beneath a thin blanket and listened to the distant rumble of bombs. There was another rumble. Someone knocking at the door. Gerda heard the policeman’s voice and sat up, wide-eyed. Her mother showed the man into the house. He told her what had happened.
“There is a cobbler shop at 27 Linden Street, run by an old man and his wife. When I went in they looked very nervous. Now all cobbler shops smell of sour old leather, but...the smell in that shop was worse. The man made an excuse and went into the back of the shop. I heard the back door open and close, and I realised he had run away. He must have had a reason, so I looked around the shop, but found nothing suspicious. Until I went down into the cellar.”
“Gerda clutched at her mother’s shawl. “What was there?” she asked.
“More horrors than I’ve seen in the whole of this terrible war,” the policeman groaned. “There were bodies. Dead bodies. Cut up and wrapped like joints of meat to be sold to hungry customers.”
Gerda’s mother gasped. “I’ve heard of people eating human flesh. I never thought it could actually happen!”
But Gerda had just one question. “What was in the letter?”
The policeman looked at her mother but passed the girl the letter. She unfolded the paper and read it.
This is the last one I shall be sending you today.
Gerda felt faint and giddy.
The policeman nodded.
“You were next.”