Prague Spring

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Brunette

Prague for Christmas, Milly had said. I had a view on it, but as usual, didn’t want to press the matter. Milly had the most decided views on most things, and it made for a quieter life to agree with her. In any event, how could I even begin to outline what, for me, were still more like inchoate phantoms than logical objections? Milly would have demolished the latter, but the former she would have brushed aside with contempt. My friend Angie asked me why I put up with it, and I could not, if I was honest, quite explain it. It had been a gradual process. I daresay if I’d pressed my point of view something would have happened; but maybe it was better nothing did?

That was how I had ended up in Prague. It was as beautiful as everyone had said, and our hotel was comfortable, as it should have been given what Milly was shelling out. Did I not mention that the Honourable Millicent Montague was the youngest daughter of an earl, and one of those who still had money? Well I should have. That is how I came to be standing here, on the hills outside the city, looking over at the old Palace. With the aid of the map I could see it, the old town, and suddenly I knew with a certainty I should not have come. The chill that passed down my spine was nothing to do with the cold.

Milly had needed to see someone “important,” and had insisted I come too. I could see the famous Christmas Market or otherwise entertain myself, she had said. I knew I should have spoken up, but as usual I never did. I simply sat there, seething at her casual treatment of me. Frustrated, with myself as much as anything else, I decided I wanted to get out of the city.

The doorman hailed a cab, and I asked him to take me up the Petrin Hill. My German came back to me easily. When I had lived at home Daddy spoke it to me every day, emphasising the need to embrace my German-Jewish heritage; what had happened after 1938 should not, he told me, make me forget our ancestral home. At university I had not practised much, and since Daddy’s death had not had a companion with whom to speak it. I had thought it rusty beyond the rescue, but it came back so easily.

With the aid of the map I could see it, the Josefstadt, the old Jewish Quarter, named after the Habsburg Emperor Josef, who had been enlightened enough to tolerate the Jews when others were persecuting us. Taking my binoculars, I could see the Magen Star, the Star of David on a red background, hanging rather limply in the chilly air. I shivered.

There, there it was. That was where my Großvater and Großmutter had been born, and whence generations of my family had lived. None had lived there since 1939. My grandparents had been lucky, they got out on one of the kindertransport trains, and were settled with British foster families. But they never saw their parents again; nor most of their family. All lost. All gone, as Daddy used to say, “into the dark hell of Nazi Germany.”

But not quite all. There was my beloved aunt, Katerina. She was my Great-Aunt in reality, my grandmother’s older sister. She alone came back from the camps. My grandmother had been delighted to see her again, but something happened, no one knew what, and Katerina and her never spoke again. At my grandmother’s funeral Katerina had stood at the back. As we left, I had reached out to her and given her a hug. That simple act of human kindness brought her into my life.

It turned out she lived in Pinner, just down the line from us in Amersham. She loved my interest in art history, and she encouraged me to come to see her at work – which turned out to be the National Gallery. Through her I got access to all sorts of events and shows that I might otherwise have missed. As her mind began to go, I had sat for hours with her, looking at pictures. She seemed to come to her old self when we looked at the works of Degas. She obsessed over the portrait of Mlle. Gabrielle Diot, saying over and over again: “It was not me, not me, they made me, not me.” Then I would hug her, and she would go all child-like and quiet and calm.

I asked an Art History colleague at the university where I worked about the painting. He told me it was one of many looted from Prague by the Nazis. Its whereabouts were unknown he told me, asking why I had mentioned it. I told him about Aunt Katerina, but she was in no fit state to talk with him. It was clear, he said, that she knew “something,” but her mind had wandered, and it was as lost as the painting. I had thought no more about it. On one of my visits she had asked me to look after a small notebook, which I duly did. There was nothing there except some numbers.

These thoughts crowded into my head as I watched the sun begin to set across the city. I felt a tug. I should not have come, I thought, I did not want to see my ancestral city. I should have told Milly. Yes, that, again. But notwithstanding, I felt a tug. I wanted to go to the old Jewish Quarter.

Hiking down the hill was easier than walking up it, so I was happy to take my time, stopping to take on board the sights. It was approaching six o’clock casino oyna when I reached the Charles Bridge. My phone pinged:

“Where the fuck are you, bitch? At the CottoCrudo, get your arse here.”

She had such a way with her.

I was in a dilemma. If I went back to the Hotel to change, I should be even later, but if I went in my hiking gear I should be in trouble with Milly. At that point, miraculously, a cab stopped, the driver rolling the window down:

“Can I help Madam, you look distressed?”

I explained my dilemma.

“I think I can help. My sister lives close by, and I am sure can find something there. Let me phone her.” I was overwhelmed by his kindness. After a quick chat, he motioned me to get in.

“My sister has some clothing which would suit you, and I can drive you straight to your restaurant afterwards; I can get you there in twenty minutes.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. It would have taken me nearly an hour to walk to the restaurant, and then I’d have been hot and sweaty and dressed wrongly – and in trouble with Milly.

He drove us down a side street.

“In there my dear, her name is Annie.”

I dashed out and knocked on the door, which was opened by an attractive woman in her late twenties.

“My brother told me what you needed. Look, try this.”

She brought out a simple black dress with gold thread interleaved at the bosom and the skirt. She urged me to try it on. I looked round for a room to change in, but there did not seem to be one. There was nothing for it. Taking off my coat, I stripped to my knickers – bras not being a thing with me.

Annie, told me I should not be embarrassed, many women, she told me, liked women with small breasts. I should have wondered, I suppose, why she did not say “men,” but I was too busy preserving my modesty to think.

“You look lovely, mein kleines Mädchen, such a sweet thing.”

I blushed.

“But let me do your hair, it looks messy.”

Which was how I found myself sitting there letting her brush my hair and then redo the pigtails. She proceeded to do my make-up too.

“There, pretty as a picture.”

I smiled. She had, I saw in the mirror, done a remarkably good job on me. I threatened to look presentable.

“Now, off you go. I will take care of your clothes and knap-sack. I can have them delivered to your hotel tomorrow by my brother. Now off you go.”

‘Bless you Annie,” I said, hugging her.

“I have a nice Mulberry bag here that will go well with your outfit – and this coat you may borrow. But do you really think tights are the thing?”

Clearly there was only one correct answer, which was how I found myself with my dress up around my waist, as she fitted me with a suspender-belt and fine nylons.

“Now my dear, let’s touch up that lipstick.”

I dashed out to the cab. Her brother smiled.

“Let us get you there.”

It took less time than he had said, and I arrived within half an hour of Milly’s call. I could see her looking impatient, which was a bad sign.

I handed my coat to the waitress. I noticed a few eyes on me as I walked to the table.

Milly looked cross.

“Where the fuck have you been? Nice dress by the way, never seen it before, where’s it from?”

“Thanks, I think there may have been a compliment buried there.”

“It’s a nice dress, but I thought you’d been hiking. Do you always do that in Carolina Herrera dresses? Do you think I am a fucking idiot you tart? What have you really been up to?”

Oh God, I thought, she really is upset. But no sooner had my stomach knotted, than a smile crossed her face.

“Ah, Herr Doktor, so delighted you could join us, this is Pixie, my assistant.”

Towering above was a tall, well-muscled blonde man dressed in an elegant but understated suit. He bowed to me:

“It is nice to meet you, Miss Pixie.”

“Well, Helmut, it is so good of you to meet us here. I will let Pixie tell you about the Degas, but first, let us order food.”

He sat, and immediately recommended the Cinnamon Squab with chestnut puree for me. He ordered some wine, and then gave the waitress the order. Milly was clearly impressed with him, and was setting out to make it reciprocal.

“So, Miss Pixie,” he said, looking straight at me, “you have news of the Degas, the portrait of Mlle. Gabrielle Diot?”

I had mentioned it a few times to Milly, but had no idea who “Helmut” was or why he was interested. But, knowing Milly, I knew it would be pointless to ask any questions. I told him what little I knew.

“So, Miss Pixie, you have family connections here? That is most interesting, for my own family has some, but of those we do not speak, but I feel somehow you will not mind.”

Those blue eyes seemed to pierce me. Milly was bisexual, and I could see she wanted him, so why was he focusing on me? Milly was five foot ten with long brunette hair worn loose, and her red dress was low-cut enough to set her magnificent breasts off to fine advantage. But, despite casual canlı casino glances in their direction, he seemed intent on me.

“My grandparents escaped in 1939,” I told him, to Milly’s evident lack of interest.

“That, I fear would have been because of the activities of one of my grandfathers.”

He looked right at me, his gaze capturing mine.

“It may be that my ancestor did a wrong to yours.”

There was that look again.

“Well,” I stammered, “we are not responsible for the sins of our ancestors, and I am sure that you are a nicer man.”

Why I had I said that, I asked myself the moment the words were out of my mouth.

He smiled, but there was not much warmth in it.

“Well, I know that the Honourable Millicent and yourself are here on a winter holiday, but I wanted to see her, and thus you, on an item of business which concerns our ancestors. Did your aunt leave any papers at all?”

He was leaning forward, his gaze piercing me. I could see Milly looking very irritated out of the corner of my eye.

“Only a notebook with some numbers in, Sir,” I told him.

Where the fuck had that come from? I asked myself.

“Can you recall any of them?”

No, but I can let Milly have them for you when we get back to London.”

He seemed excited.

“Good girl, that is most satisfactory. The Honourable Millicent,” he said, turning at last to Milly, “you have done me a signal service and that I shall not forget. So, as the food is arriving, let us eat and drink, and who knows, be merry as you English say? And you will both be joining me and my friends on the morrow?”

Milly smiled for the first time since I had arrived.

“We shall, and I am sure my little assistant will be of great use in our games.”

I did not like the sound of that, and the smile which passed between Helmut and Milly provided nothing in the way of reassurance.

So, uneasy, I turned to my supper. Helmut had been right about the Squab, it was delicious. His own beef-cheek with juniper berries seemed somehow very him, and I noted that Milly had joined him in the choice. Two carnivores checking each other out, I thought. Or was it two predators? In which case who was the prey? That made me uneasy again.

His manners were exquisite, and while clearly chatting up Milly, he took care to include me in the conversations. He was a mine of information on anything, it seemed. He was, he revealed, a Merchant Banker, and he had a special interest in modern art, his own family having, he told us, a fine collection.

He and Milly ordered a brandy. Feeling a little drunk after two glasses of burgundy, I declined and ordered an espresso.

We were shown to the lounge, where we could relax. He sat next to Milly.

The bitch had called me her “assistant,” so I suppose he felt able to paw my girlfriend in my presence. I felt uncomfortable. He noticed.

“Do not worry, my little one,” he reassured me, “I shall take the Honourable Millicent back to my suite, I shall not disturb your rest. But I should like it if you met us for breakfast.”

And that was that. Feeling myself dismissed I went back to my, no, damn it, our room and cried my eyes out. I really, really had to do something about Milly. It was bad enough I let her treat me like shit, but now this, going off to fuck some random man? The phone in the room went, interrupting my recriminations.

“Pixie, Annie, we need to talk.”

My head cleared instantly.

The questions crowded in: how did she know I was here; why telephone so late; what the fuck was going on?

“Is Helmut with you?”

My brain short-circuited.

“No,” I stammered.

“Good. I take it Millicent is not with you either? We will be round in about half an hour.”

The phone went down.

It is amazing how swiftly one can sober up when necessary.

I sat on the bed going through the information I had.

We had come to Prague for the Christmas Market, that was what Milly had said; she had been most insistent on Prague. She had not mentioned Helmut until he turned up, and yet we were going to some event or other with him. She had introduced me as her “assistant.” He was interested in the missing Degas painting. Then there was Annie, who had appeared just when I needed her. She knew my lover was a woman and that I was going to dinner at the CottoCrudo. And she knew Helmut’s name. It seemed as though everyone knew everyone else. But what was going on?

There was a knock on the door. I looked through the peephole; it was Annie, accompanied by the taxi driver. I let them in.

“Look,” I began to protest, “it is gone midnight and I need to sleep; what is going on?”

Annie looked at me.

“You really don’t know?”

“Look, sorry, if I did I’d be able to help – or not – but as it is I don’t even know what it is I don’t know.”

“Pixie, this is my half-brother, David Goldfarb, I will let him explain.”

The tall bearded man leant forward as he spoke; there was an urgency and a passion kaçak casino in his manner.

“Your family came from Prague, and your Great Aunt worked as an assistant to the man who owned the portrait of Mlle. Gabrielle Dio. She survived the Camps because her knowledge of the Prague Art Market was useful to the Nazis, not least to Helmut’s father who was assistant to the Governor of Prague. As the Allies closed in, Helmut Senior was in charge of getting the plundered art back to Berlin, but the American army intercepted the train and took back most of the art; but the Degas, and ten other high-value works were not there. We do not know where they are.”

“Thanks, that makes sense of Aunt Katerina’s obsession with that painting, but I still don’t see what this has to do with me?”

“Helmut’s father escaped prosecution after the war because he was able to provide the Americans with good leads to other plundered art, but we know that he was deeply involved in the sale of some of that work; it is where the family’s wealth came from.”

I nodded.

“I see, but I still don’t see, not really, at least where I fit in? Who is ‘we,’ by the way?”

“I am part of a specialist Israeli team devoted to tracking down stolen art work and restoring it to its rightful owners. We have reason to believe your Great Aunt knew where some of the lost paintings went, but we have never been able to locate any hard evidence. But I gather you recently told your lover about a notebook you found, one with numbers in?”

I asked how he knew, but he dismissed that as “not important.”

“Could you get me the book?”

“I can yes. Helmut seemed interested and wants me to give them to him.”

They looked at each other.

“No, for God’s sake do not do that. We think that the numbers are the key to where some of the lost art work ended up. We know Helmut Senior got someone to hide the “hotter” items, and the obvious candidate was your Aunt.”

“Now I am puzzled. Why should a victim of the Camps have cooperated with her tormentors?”

Annie looked at David.

“She has the right to know.”

“Hello cousin Pixie.”

My mouth fell open.

“But only Aunt Katerina escaped I thought.”

“You are right, only my mother escaped. I was born in an internment camp just after the end of the War and given up for adoption. My father was Helmut’s father – we are step-brothers, though he does not know it.”

I was stunned.

“But?” I could not get the words out.

“In the camps women did what they could to survive. My mother provided the Nazis with more than information.”

It was becoming horribly clear to me.

“But Aunt Katerina never mentioned any son,” I protested.

“Why would she? And frankly I had no desire to meet a woman who whored herself out to a Nazi brute. But when I discovered that she had been involved with the paintings, I set out to find out all I could. The Honourable Millicent’s father is heavily involved in illegal art dealings, and I suspect her involvement with you has much to so with the desire to find the Degas. She and Helmut have been fucking for the last year or so.”

I exhaled. It all, alas, made sense. That was why the glamorous Milly was involved with a plain Jane like me. And that was why my mother had quarrelled with Aunt Katerina.

“How much is the Degas worth?” I asked.

“At a conservative estimate, $120 million – and with the others, about a billion. So whatever you do, do not give Helmut the numbers just yet. If you let us have them, we can make use of them. But we want you to do us a favour.”

I looked at my new “cousin.”

“If I can,” I said.

“The Degas were, we think, hidden by my mother, but we know that Helmut Senior had a cache of other stolen objets d’arts which we think were kept here in Prague. It seems probable that Milly is the conduit for their transport to the London Art Market, so if you get the slightest hint of anything to do with this, let me know. Here’s the number, type it into your phone.”

Annie looked at me.

“Don’t worry little one. David, can you leave us for a while. I’ll get a cab back later. I think Pixie needs some reassurance.”

He nodded, and bowing, left the room.

Annie motioned me to sit with her on the sofa. I complied.

“Don’t judge David too harshly. Imagine how you’d feel if your father was a Nazi. And don’t judge Katerina either. She did what many women did – whatever it took to survive. But I am worried about you. David is a reliable friend – as I am. But where is Milly? You are on your own?”

As she said the last words she put her arm on mine. She put her other hand on my cheek, turning my face to hers.

“Kiss me.”

I kissed her.

“I think you need loving, little one, not just being used.”

How could I not respond to that?

As her lips met mine, and I responded, I felt her hands on my shoulder, felt myself pulled towards her, the kissing becoming more intense. It felt like a dam bursting. Milly loved it when I ate her out, and I adored giving her pleasure, but somewhere along the line I had forgotten I had needs, wants, desires, and now it was like they all rose to the surface.

Annie pulled back and looked into my eyes:

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