by Andrew Lee-Hart
(For Celestine, in apology)
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13:2
I would have recognised Celestine anywhere; despite the passages of time, the broken hearts and the blood on her hands, she still seemed the same the young woman who had walked into our lives and betrayed us all.
She was listening with intense concentration to the pianist, some barely known Russian émigré Tatiana something or other, who was peddling her talents in the supposedly free West, playing a Nocturne by Chopin, in a large concert hall in central Paris, in early Autumn. I had been told that Celestine would be there, and so was waiting a couple of rows behind, with a loaded pistol in my jacket pocket, and hatred in my heart.
I had seen her straight away as I walked into the hall; her hair was still light blonde as I remembered it, although perhaps closer examination would have revealed some grey in there, and she carried herself with the same confidence she always had, as if she knew something that the rest of us didnt. And, as always, she was so well-dressed, but then she had always looked a class above the rest of us revolutionaries, something that had made us all fall in love with her and made us easy to betray.
There was a young man with her; a lover or could it be her son? Celestine married? With a child? I had first met her twenty years ago in 1937, so she was in her mid-forties now. There was nothing on her file to say she was married or had had children; that would complicate things. For some reason I had imagined her alone, when you are in the business of betrayal it helps to have no dependents, but she was an attractive and charismatic woman presumably with her needs, why on earth would she be solitary? Would the fact that she occasionally had to kill people and betray those who trusted her, stop her having a lover or even a husband?
The concert finished with a sprinkling of notes, and I dutifully clapped keeping my eye on Celestine as I did so. As she stood up out of her seat she winced slightly, age was catching up with her after all, and I glanced at her rounded bosom and noticed that her blouse seemed a little shabby. For a moment I looked at her afresh as if I did not know her, had not been thinking about her on and off for years. A striking woman, but no different from other Parisian women in their forties dealing with life after the war, and no better dressed.
I had changed a great deal since I met Celestine; I was greyer and fatter and thus doubted that she would recognise me without prompting so I did not bother to hide from her as I followed her out of the Élysée Montmarte. I have learned to blend in with my surroundings, only becoming noticeable when necessary. She held the young man briefly in her arms, kissed him on the cheek and walked off slowly, a cigarette in her hand, not looking behind her. I smelt the tobacco along with her perfume as I hurried over to her.
Celestine I cried as I hurried purposely towards her, remember me?
Subject; Celestine Smythe,
Parents; Peter Smythe and Helene Sagan both members of the party
Celestine was recruited by a friend of her parents and worked for us first in London and then during the patriotic war and afterwards in Paris. There have been questions regarding her loyalty and in an incident in Berlin before the war (see appendix 7b), but her handler has spoken well of her dedication and her ruthlessness and she has carried out her various missions with success (appendices 8a-g).
Report August, 1952
We were a cabaret group, performing songs and sketches both serious and comic along with a healthy lump of left-wing political agitation, in the days when being a communist was a sign of optimism about the future and of having a purpose in life and a heart. We worried about our own country, as well as Italy, Spain and Portugal and the atrocities happening in Germany. We tried to avoid street fights and other violence, concentrating on educating the populace, by mocking fascism in its different forms and those who stood by and tacitly approved of it or at least did not bother doing anything about it.
In those early days we were based in London, where we had met, although on occasion we ventured out into the provinces to spread the word. London was and is a decadent city but there was a tolerance of our ideas and with the chaos around the rest of Europe we felt safe to plan its destruction. Our group had gone under different names, but eventually settled on Guernica after the infamous bombing raid during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso painted a picture to express his horror at what was going on around him, whilst we sang songs and made jokes.
There were only three of us when Celestine joined, all men; Ernst, Bernard and me, Max. Members had come and gone since we formed; some to fight in Spain others to get proper jobs whilst others just disappeared finding something else to do, eventually we had become a tight knit group, professional and hard-working, each contributing to the whole, and with total trust in our fellow comrades.
If we had a leader it was Ernst; a German who had fled his country after being beaten up and left for dead by some Nazi thugs. He had decided to settle in London and became a member of various left-wing groups which is how both Bernard and I had met him. He had brought us together along with many others, and then whittled us down to just three. A passionate man who believed in what he was doing; often members had left Guernica after rowing with Ernst and walking out in disgust or being forced to leave.
Bernard was a quiet intellectual type who rarely gave much of anything away, he was from somewhere in the North and had come to London to make his name as a playwright and earned his money by writing pieces for various newspapers and magazines. He was secretive about even the most unimportant things; his age, where he was from. He appeared around the same time as I did and stayed. And then there was me, I was working intermittently on an M.A. on economics but this was a cover for my political activities.
And then Celestine walked in one day brought by Ernst, who introduced us all to her, although not saying what she was to him; friend, lover or comrade? Despite the French name she was English with a home counties accent that seemed slightly exaggerated particularly when compared to the rest of our circle who tended to emphasise our working-class roots, real or imaginary. She was dressed well, and had a lovely smell about her and seemed rather out of place, but clearly did not realise it herself. I later found out that Celestines mother was French, hence her name, and perhaps her sophistication.
We used a church hall in Walthamstow to practice in, the vicar was sympathetic to us and our ideas, and let us use the place for free. It was a dusty old building but it had a stage and a piano which Bernard could play some basic melodies on. We spent several evenings a week there, anytime the hall was not in use for church activities.
On occasion new people had come in with one of us and watched for a bit before becoming bored and leaving. At first Celestine seemed likely to be one of these, as she sat around watching us rehearse a sketch that Ernst had written, but when it had finished she unwound herself from the chair she had been slouched upon, got up onto the stage and walked towards the piano which was in the corner of the stage. She played a couple of scales and then launched into a folk song I vaguely recognised and started to sing, her voice getting stronger and stronger until it dominated the hall. It took us awhile to realise how good she was, even Ernst seemed surprised. Her voice was beautiful but she also had presence and charisma, soon we were all watching her intently; like all great performers she had us in the palm of her hand to do with as she would.
I have never heard a recording of her singing although I believe she made a couple of records later-on after everything went wrong and we went our separate ways, leaving Ernst to his fate. Therefore it is difficult to know how good a singer she was without her performance and her beauty to contribute to the effect, and it was all a long time ago. That morning she was wonderful as she went through some more songs, folk, classical and even musical hall. Once she had finished her impromptu concert all three of us applauded, realising that we had found the missing part to our troupe.
It soon became settled that she join us; the fourth member of our group. Only Bernard objected for some reason.
She will drop us he said crossly at a meeting we held to discuss this. She is a rich, daddys girl who will soon find something else to do. She will waltz off and leave us in the lurch.
I have no idea why Bernard was so opposed to her particularly as he obviously liked her, the way his eyes followed her about. He would be sat in a corner, looking as if he was writing, but acutely aware of where she was and what she was doing. He soon backed down from his objections when Ernst and I warmly supported her. It is unfortunate that we did not listen to Bernard - as Bernard would be living happily with a family back in Leeds, Ernst would still be alive and I would not be under orders to kill this beautiful woman.
She brought some glamour to proceedings; sure a group of three earnest young men would attract an audience, but with someone like Celestine who had real talent and beauty we had the potential to really achieve something. She was always well dressed and clearly had access to money as her clothes were many and well-made, even someone who despised the trappings of luxury could see that. We were lucky to have her and knew it, even if she was not going to stay with us for very long.
A few weeks later we began a tour around Britain, we had vaguely been planning this for a few months, but with Celestine with us now we had the impetus we needed and felt confident with what we were offering, it was also a gift for her, a bribe to make her stay. Alongside our sketches and jokes, Celestine sang political songs written by ourselves and British folksongs which she loved and which, perhaps sadly, went down best with our audiences. The Orcadian folksong The Silkie of Sule Skerry was particularly popular, a dark ballad about a man who is also a seal when at sea.
Alas, Alas, the maiden cried
This weary fate's been laid for me
And then she said
I'll bury me in Sule Skerry.
Sometimes between sketches Celestine would play pieces by Chopin or Mozart, caressing each note and making even the most ancient and tuneless piano sound a thing of beauty. She loved the piano and even when we had been travelling all day and were exhausted she would play all night, listening to our conversations and soaking up our admiration and love as she made music.
We toured for about a year, up and down the country; starting in the north in Durham and then moving slowly south. We played in church halls, in peoples houses and sometimes impromptu shows out in the open with Celestine singing unaccompanied. We had friends all over, and the Communist Party often provided us with venues and places to stay. We didnt make any money, but we were fed and had somewhere to sleep and we believed in what we were doing, which was the point of it all.
Ernst told us of life in Germany, the persecution of the Jews and the communists. On occasion he hinted at things he had been involved in, and even in England he was always nervous, often anxiously scanning our audiences and avoiding the police. Once I found a passport in his bag when looking for cigarettes and whilst the photograph was his, the name wasnt. I wasnt the only one who had rummaged through Ernst bags, one evening in Walsall I hurried into our room and found Celestine going through Ernsts bags, I looked at her and she smiled slightly nervously.
I am just looking for cigarettes, Ernst always has some.
We stayed in Cambridge for a week, playing to various groups of students. Many were the rich and privileged who we were attacking, but they were kind and listened. As with everywhere we played they took Celestine to their hearts, applauding her, and offering her drinks. And yet she too seemed to be getting distracted; was she getting bored of this itinerant lifestyle? She kept disappearing before and after shows, leaving Ernst and I to practice on our own, or to smoke and think gloomy thoughts.
One night after a performance I walked alone along The Cam, it was November, and Cambridge smelt damp and cold, and there was a light fog so that I could not see far ahead of me. I was thinking of Celestine, she had seemed so beautiful when singing; an angel amongst mortals, and yet deep in my harsh communist soul I was disapproving of her obvious wealth and frivolity and could not but help think that she was playing at being a revolutionary. Ernst and Bernard I was sure of, they were dedicated workers for the future but at some point I could see Celestine being jettisoned or bailing out.
And as I continued to walk ahead I saw a young woman leaning on Clare Bridge in intense conversation with a man, I soon realised that it was Celestine, standing there, even amongst the wealthy of Cambridge she stood out. As I came closer I could tell that this was an intense conversation even if I could not hear a word, maybe a lovers meeting or something more sinister. I wondered at first if it was Bernard she was talking to, but whoever it was hurriedly disappeared through the fog as I approached.
Who was that I asked?
Oh just a friend of my brothers she shrugged with attempted nonchalance, he is studying at the university, I promised Ian that I would look him up.
I was going to ask her further questions but she took my arm and we walked back into town, students passing us in couples or alone. War was starting to be in the air, but there was no hint of that here; whatever happened elsewhere Cambridge would not change.
We stood in a shop doorway and looked at a rather expensive dress, and then she turned into my arms and kissed me. For a moment I felt her body pushing strongly against me, and I ran my hands down her sides, caressing her. She kissed me again, her tongue in my mouth, and then broke the embrace and we continued to walk. We got to our lodgings and she hugged me quickly before leaving me bemused, and the feeling that she was testing me, or did she realise that I was getting suspicious of her.
I had assumed that if she kissed anyone it would be Ernst or Bernard who both clearly liked her. For awhile I had noticed that there was tension between them and they were starting to row more and more. They would argue about lines in a sketch, the lyrics of the songs and they started to criticise each others performances. And yet was it all about Celestine. Twice, the ever-passionate Ernst walked out after an argument with Bernard, but both times he returned the following morning apologetic and tired presumably having spent the night walking the streets in his hard boots.
And then there was talk of going to Germany; somebody in the organisation had arranged some performances for us in Berlin. Ernst told us the news but clearly was unhappy; he sat puffing on a cigarette, his right leg twitching slightly, as we sat together in our lodgings in Hove, a small guest house, which you imagined sweet old ladies and retired civil servants living in during their declining years, rather than young people whose thoughts were of revolution and change.
I know some German, Celestine pointed out I am not saying we should go, but I know plenty of German songs. My German is quite good actually.
Bernard just shrugged.
It would be going into the heart of the beast he said, but I dont know whether that is a good or a bad thing.
I was excited to go and if the organisation wanted us to I felt that we should. If you are member of something you should do what they tell you no matter how frightening or dangerous it might be.
We continued sitting in the small back bedroom in Hove, Bernard and Ernst were sat on the single bed that Ernst had been sleeping in. They might have been lovers they were so close, but the tension and unhappiness between them was palpable, and I guessed that once the tour of Germany was over that would be it for us. As I sat opposite them, with Celestine sprawled next to me, so close that I could smell vanilla from the perfume that she always wore, I realised neither wanted to lose face in front of her, even though both did not want it. As we sat in silence I could still remember Celestine pushing herself against me, and her tongue hard in my mouth. Had the others had similar experiences with our diva? Was she tearing us apart using her body, the best weapon that she had?
Why are we going? Ernst asked me as we walked along the sands at Hove, the evening was growing dim and his face looked older, lit slightly by his cigarette; we were all smoking continually by then. I shrugged.
We dont have to go. You are our leader. If you say no, it wont happen.
I dont think we have a leader, and I suspect we will go with or without me. And I am sure nothing will happen to us, perhaps the National Socialists will collapse after all. Everything happens so fast in Germany nowadays.
We walked along; he started to sing Early One Morning another song that Celestine used to perform. I harmonised with him and for a few moments we were young and happy and enjoying being on the south coast and doing something that we both enjoyed.
Remember the vows that you made to your Mary,
Remember the bow'r where you vow'd to be true.
Oh, don't deceive me, oh, never leave me.
How could you use a poor maiden so!"
But then Ernst murmured, we should get back. Was he worrying about what Bernard and Celestine might be getting up to. It was becoming that bad between us. And why was Celestine so keen to go to Germany? I was not worried about Bernard and Celestine, could not care less and doubted that anything was going on between them, but I did not trust Celestine and was watching her carefully.
I read her file before setting off. She had lived in France since the incident in Berlin but on several occasions had been ordered abroad for assignments. A Mossad agent found dead in a hotel in Egypt, a well-known German M.P. successfully blackmailed with comprising photographs of a mysterious woman and most impressive of all three dead Hungarian students, found at the bottom of a ravine all three bodies showing copious amounts of alcohol, so that nobody guessed the truth.
One of our best spies, as merciless as the best of us, but I knew that she had betrayed us so many years ago, and now it was clear that the organisation realised that they had been harbouring a cuckoo and I was the one to do something about it.
Was that nervousness I saw; even the fact that she had recognised me straightaway made me inclined to be suspicious.
I thought it was you. You were sat in front of me at the concert.
I never miss Chopin. He is my favourite composer.
Yes I remember.
She did not look that different even now that I was close to her; although it was quite a dark evening, despite being early September which perhaps hid some of the signs of her age. She smelt of vanilla as she had in the past although the perfume was slightly more sophisticated and less strong. We then hugged, her coat feeling soft against my neck, briefly reminding me of our embrace in Cambridge so many years ago.
So what are you doing here? she asked me. We were walking through the streets of the city, I assumed she knew where she was going, and for an instant I became scared; was she taking me somewhere to kill me, I had my gun but there was a good chance she was also armed and she knew the territory.
Oh I have an assignment, I told her, something for work. I shouldnt be here long. What about you?
I live here. After Berlin I was so frightened, but I had friends and relatives of my mother in Paris so I came here, got a job teaching music and stayed.
How was it during the war?
I kept my head down, like the rest of us. Just prayed that it would be over as it soon was. I feel more French now; I visit my family sometimes over in England.
Are you married?
Oh no, marriage is not for me. My life is pretty quiet now, but I dont mind.
We talked, but both perhaps knew more about the other than we let on, we worked for the same organisation after all. It was a game, a test to find out what the other knew and what they were prepared to reveal.
We walked closely together and I realised we were heading towards the Seine. She sat down on a bench overlooking the river, and I joined her. The river looked black with flecks of lights reflecting in it. Celestine seemed nervous and fiddled with her hands. Couples walked past us, most speaking in hushed voices not wishing to be overheard. I loved the smell of the river, and it was easy to forget the past with this beautiful woman by my side.
Do you ever think about the past? she asked.
No, my concerns are with the future.
Spoken like a true communist. Did you not wonder what happened to the rest of the troupe?
I was surprised at the question, or did she think I was so innocent?
You all just disappeared. I assume Ernst is long dead by now. Presumably he was the reason for it all.
She laughed. Oh Max, you are an idiot. Not everything is political you know. So what happened to you?
Oh I was helped back to England. Nobody there heard anything about any of you, so I just carried on working with the party.
She got up from the bench and I followed her, wondering where she was taking me.
We arrived in Berlin just after Christmas. Ernst seemed nervous whilst the rest of us were in various stages of exhilaration, not having been there before and it was a city that we had heard so much about. The city was cold with snow on the ground. We could hear the trams with their bells and the sound they made upon the metal tracks. For the first few days we just walked around the city, exploring. Hostility and jealousy over Celestine seemed to have been suspended.
We had been offered spots at various night clubs in Berlin over the next few weeks, and had a cheap hotel to stay in. We were going to perform a mixture of English and German songs, and as well as some sketches in English, Ernst had written some German pieces, and he had coached Bernard and me so that we would sound intelligible in a foreign language. We also had Celestines voice and piano playing, whilst Ernst once on stage was charismatic and funny in any language.
The first club we were due to play in, Der Nachtvogel, was in the centre of Berlin, albeit hidden away. The stage was larger than we were used to, but we soon adapted. Ernst still seemed nervous, pacing around and looking about him, even whilst we were practicing during the day. Did he sense his time was up? I often found him on the telephone whispering hurriedly, and then putting down the receiver when he realised that he was being observed.
We sat smoking together in one corner before the first night.
Are you nervous? I asked.
He shrugged; he looked pale and very blonde. Sometimes you have to do what your conscience tells you. Sometimes you have to do things .. He broke off and then walked over towards the telephone, but then he looked over and saw Celestine and Bernard talking together and he changed his mind and went outside to watch the dying of the sun.
The first performance went well. You could tell Ernst was on edge, but he performed with his usual aplomb. But of course it was Celestine who was the star of the show; whatever she sang she dominated. The club was full of people drinking and talking; many of the people appeared to be regulars but there were also politically active young people who were communists and had come to support their comrades. Once Celestine stood on stage and started to sing Silkie the whole place went quiet and the words just hung in the air, despite the fact that very few of the audience would have known what the hell she was singing about, even if they knew English. I was at the edge of the stage and for a few moments I forgot about everything; the party, the audience and my future. It was all now, and nothing else mattered.
Fortunately we ended the show with Celestine singing, as nothing else we were capable of could top that. And there were rounds of applause, and we knew that we had done okay. Ernst disappeared afterwards, presumably to keep out of harms way, whilst the rest of us drank beer to celebrate and then went to bed.
We were scheduled to perform there for the week, before moving on. Each performance we became a little better and more confident; adding things that we wanted to try and taking things out that were not working. Occasionally we saw young men in uniform watching, but whether they were there to spy on us or just after an evenings entertainment none of us knew, and they left us alone. Nobody interfered with us during the week, and we began to feel happier and start to enjoy ourselves, only Ernst still seemed nervous and conflicted, but then he was in fear of his life.
And then on the Saturday evening Ernst and Bernard were performing their German comic sketch. There had been a different atmosphere that night; there were far more people watching us than during the week so that the place was crowded with some of the audience forced to sit on the edge of the stage, and there was a lot of shouting and loud conversations going on. Even Celestines first lot of songs had not stilled the crowd as they usually did.
We performed, all aware that there was hostility out there, just needing an excuse for it to break out. We knew that our friends were there, and hoped they would protect us. I was frightened for Ernst; it would just take a knife or a stray bullet to finish him off and with the throng of people about us that would not be difficult. I wished we could call it off, but we were trapped, virtually surrounded by hostile faces.
As Bernard made a cutting comment about National Socialism, out of nowhere a beer glass was thrown hard and fast and hit him on the head, he made a gulping noise and was on the floor in an instant. For a moment there was silence, as if a sharp intake of breath and then there was chaos. Stools were picked up, things were thrown, and the four of us were submerged by a mass of people and shouting, Celestine stood over Bernard to protect him as a group of uniformed thugs converged on him, and then a rival group intervened and the two of them were hurried out the back by a young man I had not seen before. Ernst was in a corner and to my horror I saw him being taken away by two men in uniform, never to be seen again. Our eyes met briefly, he gave me a look of desolation and sadness.
I escaped, for some reason having not been a target and made my way to a safe house I had been told about. I stayed there for a couple of days before being told that I had to leave Germany, that it was all over. Soon I was soon back in London fighting other battles and working for the party, and then I was called over to Russia to carry on my work there, but over the years I have never forgotten the sight of Ernst being dragged away, nor Celestine, especially not Celestine.
We walked to her apartment, it was a quiet part of the city, the traffic making only a distant hum. She unlocked the door and placed her jacket on a hook behind it whilst I kept mine on. The apartment was full of books; on shelves, in piles on the floor and on chairs. I was just looking at them when I heard a noise and a large man came through. I had forgotten that Bernard was so tall.
Bernard, you remember Max dont you. Bernard walked towards me and held out his hand and we shook rather formally.
I didnt know you were together.
They sat down on a settee like two scared children whilst I chose a big chair opposite.
Oh we got together soon after I joined your group, but we had to keep it quiet, the whole group would have fallen apart. We fell in love, but you know what Ernst was like.
Were you in it together then? I asked. Betraying Ernst? Both undermining our group?
What are you talking about?
I sighed and sat down. You worked for the Nazis and you betrayed Ernst. Cleverly got us to go back to Germany and then Ernst was captured.
Oh you idiot, we both worked for the party, same as you. Who do you think that young man was at the concert? My lover? Celestine laughed.
But you betrayed Ernst. I saw him being dragged away.
It was nothing to do with politics. None of it was. Ernst was jealous, he loved me, and he sensed that Bernard and I were in love. He wasnt being dragged away, he was being rescued by his old friends
No it isnt nonsense. Ernst called his friends, probably told them that Bernard was someone important and those thugs tried to get him. It was not political, there were no spies. Ernst liked to exaggerate his importance but he was genuine, he is probably living with a fraulein somewhere, feeling guilty about what he did.
We sat in their apartment. It was getting dark, and it was quiet. For a moment I felt sorry for them; a harmless couple who had been through a lot, but orders are orders. I believed Celestine, they had not betrayed anyone, not then. But when you work for Moscow you learn to do as you are told, and presumably they had betrayed people in their turn, and if they hadnt actually had a finger on a gun they might as well as have.
I am tired Celestine said, we will have to throw you out.
In a moment I told her decisively, I havent done what I am supposed to do and I drew my pistol from out of my pocket.
You always were an idiot she told me, but her tone could not hide her fear.
I looked at her. My orders had been clear, to kill the traitor Celestine. And I was sure that they would have done similarly if so ordered, for all of us the decisions that we made were not our own, we were part of something larger and more ruthless. I fired once, and the gun made a loud bang, even after so many killings the sound that a gun makes always surprises me. She fell back into the embrace of her sofa with barely a sound. I could have left Bernard; my orders hadnt concerned him, but you were not supposed to leave witnesses and I had learned the hard way that it if you are not sure it is better to kill. Bernard sat there, his expression almost curious, and I realised he had said nothing since I walked in.
Say something. I commanded.
You are next he replied and I pressed the trigger.
I walked over to the sofa and shot them both once more just to make sure, even though they were both already dead, and by the time that the following morning dawned I was heading out of Paris back to the east where I felt more at home.
Sometimes I remember the past, as I sit in small and rather damp flat and look out at the building site opposite my building and past it to a few grey-looking trees. I remember what I have achieved and I cannot help but feel glad that I have been part of something that is bigger than myself. Yes I mourn Celestine and the others that had to fall by the wayside, but revolution is a serious business, not for the weak-minded or the dilettante, or even the unlucky.
And then I remember a history book I read as a young man, it was about the Aztecs in central America. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice to their God, to ensure that all was well with the world, to keep a balance between man and nature. And then the weather got worse, there was no rain and the crops died. The priests turned to the only way they knew how and killed more and more of the people they captured in battle, and when that didnt work, they started to kill their own population; their own brothers and sisters, their own children, perhaps knowing that in the end they too might be executed.
I can see the endless column of Aztecs; young and old, men and women, walking up the steps of the temple to the altar where they are to be decapitated. A futile industrial process that will go on forever, as the heavens refuse to produce rain and the crops continue to wither and die.
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