The American Reporter Pt. 01

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This particular series is inspired by the movie, The English Patient although without giving away too much this one has a happier ending. It’s set in Cairo in 1939, several months before Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

*****

AN ACCIDENTAL MEETING

The first time Helga met Harriet it was in a Cairo souk where she was haggling over the price of an ornament that was apparently discovered at an archaeological dig in Palestine. The woman was determined to beat the price down and the stall owner kept pleading that he had to feed his entire family.

“How many children?” Harriet asked him in an accent that sounded almost American.

“Twelve,” he replied.

“You don’t look old enough to be the father of twelve children,” she flicked a lock of auburn hair back under her hat, “are you sure they’re all your children?”

“I am insulted,” his face flushed, “you insult my family and my wife’s name.”

“Just asking,” she showed her palms, “okay, how about ten shillings, take it or leave it,” she held out the money and the man wavered and then finally nodded.

“Ten shillings.”

As Harriet placed the ornament into her bag she stepped to one side to let someone else browse the items on the table and promptly trod on Helga’s foot. Her driver, Mohammed promptly moved forward to see to her welfare and then the woman turned suddenly.

“So sorry,” she stopped as she took in her white face beneath the white hat, “I didn’t see you there.”

Helga tried to look away but the woman was still staring at her a moment later as she held out her hand and smiled.

“I’m Harriet Michaels and you are?”

“Helga,” she slid her hand into Harriet’s hand, “Helga Bornhoffen.”

“German?”

“Yes,” she looked down and then up again as Harriet addressed her in perfect German.

“How long have you been in Cairo?”

“Nine months,” she replied in English and then switched to German, “your German is very good.”

“Languages are one of my passions,” she released her hand and looked at her driver and switched to Arabic as she asked his name. That impressed Helga for two reasons, the first being her disregard for the protocols of polite society and the second because she knew the language. Mohammed replied in Arabic and then took a step back to put distance between himself and the women. This gave Helga a brief moment to take stock of this multi-lingual woman. She was wearing a white blouse tucked into a brown trousers, the wide collar was folded over a matching brown jacket and the wide-brimmed, white hat complemented her blouse perfectly.

“What brings an English woman to Cairo?” Helga asked, “you are American or English?”

“Born in Sussex but moved to New York eighteen years ago when my mother married an American, I’m a foreign correspondent for the New York Times,” she touched her elbow and nodded past her, “and this is part of my story.”

“I do not understand,” Helga fell into step beside her as she moved away from the stall.

“Antiques or more to the point, fake antiques,” she slipped a hand into the crook of her arm as they kept walking, “our friend back there claims this little idol was from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom but chances are it was made locally from a copy.”

“That is illegal.”

“In America and Germany perhaps, but here?” Harriet looked around, “it’s a sound business venture to sell fake antiques. Western tourists hate haggling and the stall owners know this, so why not take advantage of gullible Europeans? I know I would,” she said this with a conspiratorial wink.

“But you didn’t tell me why you’re in Cairo?” Harriet went on.

“My husband works at the embassy,” she replied.

“A responsible job indeed,” Harriet glanced at her belly, “do you have children?”

Helga hesitated before replying.

“No, not so far, I lost the first at three months,” she fumbled with the clasp at her throat.

Harriet’s next question however took her completely by surprise.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she paused, “what was the child’s name?”

Helga came to a complete standstill and stared blankly at her as she tried to process the question and then finally swallowed and looked past her at a line of stalls of fruit.

“Nobody asks that question.”

“Why not?” Harriet’s smile remained fixed, “you must have chosen a name.”

“Hans,” she finally replied, “I would have called him Hans, after my grandfather.”

“Hans,” Harriet nodded, “a fine name.”

“Thank you,” her eyes shifted, “I am sorry, I did not expect you to ask me that.”

“Well I never was one for protocol,” Harriet smiled crookedly, “now my mother was raised on protocol and ethics, how the hell she and my stepfather get along is proof that opposites attract. My stepfather can make friends with street urchins and diplomats, and treat them both with equality, but my mother is a slave to the class system.”

They started walking again and by the time they exited the souk she’d learned a great deal more about Harriet Michaels. She was the second oldest child from her mother’s first bostancı escort marriage to a retired sergeant major who succumbed to shell shock when he swallowed a bullet twenty two years ago. Harriet’s mother, Emily had met her second husband, Paul at a theatrical performance put on by the local Shakespeare players and according to Harriet it was love at first sight. They had waited for six months before announcing it to the three children, who had been referring to Paul as Uncle Paul. Harriet was a flower girl and candidly admitted she loved her new father much more than her real father.

“Father was a drunk, and the only times he ever told mother that he loved her was when he’d had a couple of lagers, but after a few more lagers he turned mean. Paul was the opposite of my father, kind, respectful and attentive. We moved back to America eighteen years ago when he finished his teaching placement at university.”

Emily gave birth to two more children, both girls and although she’d long said she wanted to give him a boy, Paul always said he was perfectly happy with two girls.

“He loves us all equally,” Harriet added with a smile.

“It sounds perfect,” Helga looked past her as Mohammed made his way to the car, “and yet you are not married?”

“I am,” she smirked, “my husband is back in New York.”

“He lets you travel alone?”

“Daniel and I have an arrangement,” she replied, “he doesn’t ask and I don’t tell, the door swings both ways in our home.”

Helga felt the hairs tingling at the back of her head as she mentally translated the arrangement, such things happened all the time but people rarely admitted to them, especially to people they’d only just met. She fumbled with the latch of her handbag and took out a packet of cigarettes and offered the packet to Harriet.

“Danke,” she took one, “so, now you know all about me but I know very little about you.”

“You were doing all the talking,” Helga reminded her.

“I know, my father always says I could the leg off an iron pot.”

“Maybe we could have lunch together sometime?”

“Perhaps,” she lit their cigarettes, “I would invite you to dinner but my husband can be a little loud after a few drinks.”

“Loud is all right with me,” she blew out a cloud of smoke, “but I’ll leave it up to you to decide,” she took out a notepad and wrote her address on a sheet of paper.

“Room 401, Shepheard’s Hotel,” she handed the paper over, “I’ll be busy the rest of this week but next week my diary is clear.”

And then she was gone, ambling along Suliman Pasha Street with not a care in the world, but Helga could have sworn she left a hint of French perfume behind along with a lingering desire to be free of her marital bonds.

However, as much as she desired to meet Harriet at the hotel, protocol and necessity dictated she have her new friend around for dinner. Protocol because of the rising tensions between Germany and Britain, Helmut never told her much of his business at the embassy but she assumed it had something to do with spying. The other part of the equation however was a need to show him that she could make new friends in Cairo. Ever since the miscarriage Helga had been carrying a world of hurt, she blamed herself for the miscarriage and while her family and friends were sympathetic, Helga had begun isolating herself. That isolation became very real when Helmut was posted out to Egypt and while she certainly liked the warmer weather she didn’t speak a word of Arabic. There had been some attempt to socialise with the embassy wives but she found very quickly she detested their inane talk of children and men. The only time she saw them was when she and her husband attended functions.

Thus when it came to her outfit that night, Helga opted for a plain white dress that covered her knees in wide flares, the sweeping neckline stopped just above her cleavage and at the back the halter straps hung down her back, which was also exposed. It caused her husband to raise a rather thoughtful eye as she stepped into the kitchen.

“You have not worn that dress since,” he stopped and Helga fiddled with her necklace.

“Since before my miscarriage,” she replied.

“The tragedy,” he replied and his eyes flickered to their maid but they were speaking German and she couldn’t understand German and so he went on.

“What do you know about this British woman, this reporter?”

“She’s lived in America for years now,” she moved to the doorway and peered out at the sitting room, “she is a reporter for the New York Times, she is doing a story on fake antiques.”

Helmut stepped up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder, Helga closed her eyes as he traced his fingers down her bare arm.

“What does she know about me?”

“That you work at the embassy,” she opened her eyes, “I do not know what you do at the embassy, so how can she know more?”

“She would if she was a spy, an American Mata Hari.”

“You are being paranoid,” she stepped forward, “she is coming here for dinner and we will entertain her, büyükçekmece escort I will not have politics discussed tonight.”

She felt mildly guilty talking like that. Helmut could be stiff and formal but he was not cruel and vindictive and when Harriet arrived some twenty minutes later, his persona changed. That might have had something to do with her attire. Harriet was wearing an elegant red dress buttoned up the front to her cleavage, the neckline stopped short of her cleavage and the dress was cinched at the waist with a wide belt. Her hair was free and unbound, falling to just below her shoulderblades and her lips were a deep shade of red. She greeted Helmut and Helga in fluent German as she removed her long gloves.

“I am impressed you speak our language so well,” Helmut raised her hand to his lips, “not a hint of an accent.”

“My teacher was from Bavaria,” she replied, “I simply copied his accent.”

“Ah that was my next question,” he released her hand, “and you are working for the New York Times?”

“For the moment,” she replied, “and you work for the embassy.”

“My wife has told you too much about me already,” he smiled.

“Come,” he nodded, “please have a seat.”

Helga followed Harriet to the lounge suite and took a seat next to her husband but a conversation that started innocently soon turned political when Helmut started on his favourite subject Herr Hitler and his much talked about Third Reich. Harriet for her part, remained calm and in fact seemed almost bemused by his impassioned defence of Hitler. It was only at the end of that fifteen minute monologue that she finally spoke.

“We shall see what becomes of Herr Hitler, sometimes the brightest fires are quickly extinguished,” she raised her glass of schnapps, “a toast to cool heads and a long peace.”

It was a toast that not even Helmut could refuse and indeed the talk at the dinner table was quite civilised, although Helga was partially responsible for that as she probed their guest on life in New York and of course films. Helga so missed the cinemas in Germany, what passed for film releases here amounted to older films.

“They even have silent films,” she rolled her eyes.

“There is nothing wrong with silent films,” her husband replied, “the worst thing they did was make talking films,” he raised his glass, “Greta Garbo was a good actress until we heard her voice.”

Harriet raised her eyes at that.

“So, women should not talk?”

There was a momentary lull before Helmut replied.

“Of course but everything in balance, our Fuhrer encourages women to speak out.”

“As long as they are not Jewish women?” Harriet’s eyes widened noticeably and then she winked and broke out into laughter. It was a laugh that took Helmut by surprise and then not knowing what to do he also laughed.

“Well this has been an entertaining evening,” Harriet regarded the nearly empty bottle of brandy, “we should do this again soon,” her eyes flickered to Helga, “lunch perhaps? I have a table at a very nice French café. There are very few Englishmen there because the French manager insists his staff speak French but it has atmosphere.”

“Perhaps,” she glanced at her husband, “it would be a good idea.”

Helmut said nothing to that and shortly afterwards she escorted Harriet to the front door and then out into the front garden. The air was cooling and she hugged her arms close to her body as Harriet opened the door of her car.

“It looks as if it might actually rain tonight,” she stared up at the night sky.

“I am sorry about tonight,” Helga ventured.

“Sorry about what?” Harriet leaned on the car door.

“My husband, he is quite the Nazi.”

“So I noticed, it is why I kept my opinions to myself. I never trusted little men with moustaches, my first lover was a little man with a moustache and after he deflowered me he went on to the next lady in waiting, a detestable little toad of a man.”

She regarded her for a moment and then reached out and tugged at her hair gently.

“Do not apologise for another person, it is not your place. You can only apologise for your own actions and you did nothing to offend me tonight,” she released her hair and smiled.

“Come and see me soon,” and with that parting remark she was sliding behind the wheel and as she backed out of the driveway she blew her a kiss.

“Auf Wiedersehen.”

Helga felt a slight shiver as the black Bentley drove away but despite her promise it took another three weeks before she finally found the courage to turn up at the hotel only to find that Harriet Michaels was not there today.

“We have not seen her for a week,” the manager told her, “but she is still staying here. Perhaps you can leave her a message?”

“Of course,” she took the notepad from him and started writing. She was aware that he had turned away to greet someone and briefly glanced up but he turned back to her and then she caught a very familiar scent. Was she losing her mind? It was the same perfume Harriet had worn, twice. çatalca escort She wrote her name at the bottom of the short note and then straightened up and stepped back and came to a dead stop when she bumped into someone who must have moved stepped forward at the same time.

“I am sorry,” she half turned and then her eyes widened as she found herself at eye level with Harriet and now she understood why the hotel clerk had turned back to her so suddenly. Harriet had a sly smile on her face as she took a half step backwards.

“And now we are even,” her eyes softened, “this is a pleasant coincidence indeed.”

She leaned past her and picked up the notepad to read the note.

“I would love to see you again,” Harriet put a hand on the small of her back and glanced at the hotel clerk, “could you have someone bring my bags up and a pitcher of iced water and two glasses, please?”

“Of course, madam,” he dipped his head, “I will get your key and your messages.”

Harriet was wearing a tan skirt and jacket, the white shirt was fastened with a tie and Helga managed a smile.

“You have been working?”

“I’ve been away for the last eight days,” she adjusted the strap of her shoulder bag, “they wanted me to go into British Palestine for a story on the Arab Revolt.”

“It is dangerous there,” Helga murmured.

“I know, they had one man stationed there but he was killed in an explosion and so they sent me to finish his story,” she led her towards the staircase.

“There is an open offer to return and stay on. They say that lightning never strikes twice in the same place but bombs on the other hand,” she offered her a smile, “they are different.”

Little more was said until they got up to her room and she nodded at the divan against the wall as her bags were brought in. She tipped the bellboy and then shut the door and eyed the pitcher of water next to a pile of letters.

“Help yourself,” she took of her hat and started unbuttoning her jacket, “it’s free and cold, I’ll have one too please.”

Helga tried not to look as Harriet slid the jacket off her shoulders and slung it over a nearby chair and for a couple of minutes no words were spoken as she sorted through her mail, placing them into two piles and then picked up her glass of water.

“Thank you, I feel almost human now,” she took a sip, “almost human,” she smirked, “but once I’ve had a bath I think the transition will be complete,” she took another sip and studied Helga for a few moments over the rim of her glass.

How is your husband?”

“The same,” she replied, “and I nearly did come around but changed my mind.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you change your mind?”

“I thought it,” she closed her eyes as she searched for the English word, “presumptuous?”

“Your husband did not send you?”

“Helmut?” Helga stared at her, “no, why would he send me here?”

“I will be straight with you,” Harriet reached down and undid the clasp on her bag, “your people had me photographed while I was in Jerusalem.”

She took out an envelope and opening it, pulled the photographs out and put them on the table for Helga to see.

“Perhaps they think I am a spy for the British or the Americans, or the French, maybe even the Russians, in this city everyone spies on everyone else. These were passed onto me by someone from the British embassy. They have been trying to tempt me into spying for them ever since I arrived here but I tell them what I tell the Americans and the French, I am a reporter not a spy.”

Helga felt sick as she stared at the photographs, she also felt anger and then she felt fear as she looked into Harriet’s eyes. The woman hadn’t taken her eyes off her as she rested a hand on the top button of her waistcoat.

“I will speak to my husband at once.”

“Don’t bother,” she undid the button, “I half expected it anyway,” she undid another button, “he most likely wonders why I befriended his wife and in all likelihood I am not sure who issued the order to have me followed.”

“Perhaps,” Helga conceded, “although he does not mention you at all, he seemed quite entertained by you that night. I do not know what he does at the embassy, he does not tell me and I never ask questions.”

“He was probing for information,” she undid the next button, “but I must confess that I had ulterior motives for befriending you at the souk that day.”

“Ulterior motives,” Helga repeated, “what are your motives?”

“Curiosity,” she replied, “I am married but out here I may as well be single. The married women have little to do with me and watch me like a hawk when I am talking to their husbands,” she undid another button.

“But you invited me around for dinner to meet your husband, which tells me one of two things,” she stopped at the next button.

“One you might indeed be trying to get information out of me, perhaps your husband pointed me out to you and our meeting was arranged,” she undid the button and Helga swallowed and shook her head as she pinched her nose.

“Or perhaps you are lonely and needing company,” she undid the final button.

“It is the second one,” she looked up as Harriet parted the waistcoat, “I am lonely, I cannot stand being with the embassy wives because of what happened to me. They either avoid me or they want to mother me but you do neither of these.”

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