This short story forms part of our Six Tales of Christmas series. Learn about the authors and find more exclusive fiction here.
In 1945, in good time before Christmas (when that sort of thing tended to stick in the craw), they hanged Josef Kramer, Peter Weingärtner and Fritz Klein. Margaret Joyce was sure of the day: the wireless in her cell announced the Belsen executions just as she opened ‘13’ on the advent calendar her mother had sent. And she jumped, because she knew Fritz Klein.
Well, she corrected herself: knew of him. Well, in fact: who knew? Yes, this was the line she must take now, and it had the merit of some truthfulness: that there had been a great many men in Berlin, and a quantity of opium too. She would say that the drug had been forced on her. Obfuscating memory. And so it was hardly her fault – Merry Christmas, by the way – if she did not remember making 626 propaganda broadcasts on behalf of National Socialism.
Behind door 13 was a little Belgian chocolate. She let it dissolve in her mouth, hardly tasting it until the brandy centre burst. She supposed, as soon as they freed her, that she would get drunk. To live with grace was only to inhabit each mood that circumstance suggested. She would telephone an old boyfriend, the kind with money and a dullish wife, and take the rest from there. One learned how to volunteer for the involuntary.
It was snowing. Chin in her hands, she stared out across Holloway’s courtyard. The prisoners had cut snowflakes and stars from crepe paper, and pasted them to their cell windows. She’d joined in, for the form. One made radial folds, cut salients as desired, then unfolded the shape sector by sector. Berlin looked the same way now.
Really, she had never felt anything for the season. The snowflakes, the advent calendar, a nativity scene she had made herself from card: these were wise precautions for a woman in her straits. But in honesty, Christmas was for children. William, it now struck her, had never grown out of it. Her husband wasn’t someone whose heart had developed sectors. William, she realised, would certainly love her to death.
She remembered his outrage, in full hearing of whatever devices the spies used to bug them, at how they had treated Klein. They had made the poor man bury the mountains of corpses at Bergen-Belsen. Then paraded his photo in The Times, stranded on a beach of dead Jews as though the tide had gone out. “Is this how a civilised society treats men of belief?” That was what William had asked – had practically yelled – when she was taken to visit him where he was being held, in Wandsworth.
Margaret had murmured: “If you say so, darling.” (In The Times photo the dead tangled bodies, thin beyond empathy, sent her into a trance.) When she finally understood that her unchangeable husband really did mean Klein, and not the Jews, she supposed that she had still given the satisfactory answer. She kept her eyes on the floor. They had agreed on this before they were captured: he was to act the instigator, the bully, and she the dominated woman. There was no sense in them both taking the drop.
The guards had taken her back to her cell in Holloway. That had been a week ago. She had opened door six: an egg timer, a mere inch high. She had turned it end-over-end. Exquisite, really. This capsule from a Christmas where neither eggs nor time were rationed.
William would get her acquitted. He made a point, during their visits, of saying things loudly enough for the listeners to hear, even had there been no hidden microphones. “You were only ever an object to me, Margaret, an adjunct to my will. I even despise you now.”
Poor William, he loved her so desperately. He was not at all like the others. Having only one side to him, she realised now that he must have struggled quite heroically to fit into Berlin. While for Margaret, the place had been a beacon. A calculated submissiveness had always struck her as the most satisfactory aspect of fascism. There was freedom in the slipstream of confident men. There was licence within the hierarchy of angels and archangels, of seraphim arrayed concentrically around the crib according to status. If one had a tendency to lose oneself, then one could claim merely to have been following the star. William had forgiven her many wanderings and so too, no doubt, would England.
Now, after a programme of carols, the wireless gave an updated bulletin. It seemed they had also hanged Irma Grese, Elisabeth Volkenrath and Juana Bormann. Margaret’s bowels loosened and she had to rush to the corner and close the curtain around her. As light faded in the courtyard, the Salvation Army band struck up Silent Night while she squatted over the enamel bucket, shivering.
She understood, for the first time, that no-one else would ever love her. She wept, then, for William. But what could one do? One denied it three times and moved on. One folded oneself up, making sharp creases that would never really disappear, even when one was opened out again and displayed with one’s new crenulations.
That evening, the governor came to her cell.
“Your husband’s appeal has failed, Mrs Joyce. He is to be hanged. Sentence will be carried out on January the third. Have you any questions?”
She met his eye. She kept her voice steady and quiet.
“Questions?” she said. “Yes, just one, in the case of such a monster. Might the sentence, perhaps, be carried out a little sooner?”
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (£7.99, Sceptre) is out in paperback on 12 January 2017
Illustration: Clym Evernden