Newkirk's birthday was marked by his mates in the appropriate manner, with a cake, a few small gifts (mostly chocolate and cigarettes from their Red Cross parcels) and the blowing up of a munitions dump.
"It was a nice touch, Carter, gift-wrapping the demolition pack," remarked Hogan, once they were safely back in the tunnel complex beneath Stalag 13.
"It didn't seem to cheer him up any," said Carter despondently.
"I'm sure he appreciated the thought," replied Kinch. "Only he's got a lot on his mind right now. You know how it gets, when you've been away from home for a while, and Newkirk's had longer than most of us."
"I guess so. But it doesn't seem natural, him being so...so...well, I mean, we were playing cards this afternoon, and he didn't cheat. Not even once." Carter looked from Kinch to Hogan, wide-eyed with concern.
"Okay, tell you what," said Hogan, clapping him on the shoulder. "I'll have a word with him, tell him you're upset about not being taken for everything you've got, and tell him to lift his game. I'm sure he'll be happy to oblige."
"You think so?" Carter brightened at once. "Boy, I hope so. Thanks, Colonel." He scampered off to change out of his black working clothes.
Newkirk had already done so, and gone up to the barracks. Quietly, so as not to wake his sleeping barracks mates, he hauled himself up onto his bunk, and by the time the rest of the team emerged from below, he was hidden under the thin blanket, apparently dead to the world. Carter peered up at him, hesitating on the brink of saying something, but a warning look from Hogan discouraged him. He sighed, and crawled into his own bunk, and within minutes was slumbering peacefully.
In fact, Newkirk was far from sleep. He wouldn't admit it, but in the last few days, almost without realising it, he'd built up hopes of getting a letter from home today. He knew, as they all did, how slow the mail from England could be, and how irregular. Mavis wouldn't forget his birthday, even if the younger members of the family - Noel, Lilly, Maggie, even the twins - had no particular reason to remember it. Anyway, he'd had a letter from Mam only last week, and the family picture as well. But knowing how idiotic his unspoken hope was didn't do anything to ease his disappointment.
Daybreak found him in no better frame of mind. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, vaguely aware of the subdued voices and stirrings around him; the soft patter of LeBeau's bare feet on the floor, heading for the stove, then a soft clatter as he put the kettle on to boil; and a muffled scrabbling sound from below, where Carter was apparently taking his bed to pieces. Then came a plaintive inquiry: "Did anyone take my watch? I can't find it."
Newkirk rolled over to peer down at him. "It's not fallen in one of your boots again?"
"I already checked. There's nothing in there but my socks."
"Where did you have it last, André?" asked LeBeau.
Carter gave an exaggerated sigh. "If I knew that, it wouldn't be lost, would it?"
"Maybe you left it in the tunnel last night," said Kinch. "No, don't go and look for it now, roll call is in..."
"Four minutes." Hogan's voice joined in, finishing the sentence. He had been standing in the doorway of his office, unnoticed by his men, listening. "So put your socks on, Carter. You can't turn out for assembly in bare feet. Or in your nightshirt, Newkirk."
They all knew the gleam of quizzical mockery in his eyes. It didn't encourage dawdling. By the time Sergeant Schultz arrived to summon them, even Newkirk was fully dressed, although his unshaven chin and scruffy appearance earned a vaguely maternal reproof: "Newkirk, you look terrible."
"Sorry, Schultz. I must have overdone the birthday festivities last night," said Newkirk. "It's hard work, playing Pass the Parcel at two in the morning."
Carter uttered a low snigger. "Yeah, that was one parcel nobody wanted."
"What do you mean - no, don't tell me." Schultz held up a hand to ward off any further admissions. "Just go and line up for roll call, and please, for once don't give me any trouble. Raus, everybody, raus."
With the customary grumbling, jostling and back-answering, the prisoners ambled out and took their places in the morning sunshine to be counted off.
"Nice day for it, Schultz," remarked Hogan, as the guard made his way along the front rank.
"Nice day for what?" asked Schultz, bristling with suspicion.
"Well, for anything, really. How about a trip to the seaside?"
"And maybe a short boat ride, across the Channel," added Newkirk. "One way, of course. We wouldn't want to overdo it."
"Jolly jokers," muttered Schultz, turning away.
Hogan's bored, indifferent gaze, apparently at random, drifted towards the main gate. The night patrol had just returned from their final sweep of the woods outside the camp. Most of them headed for the barracks; but the sergeant in charge split off from the group, marching straight across towards the Kommandant's office. As he approached, Colonel Klink came out to receive Schultz's morning report. Sergeant Meckler intercepted him at the foot of the stairs, saluted and began to talk rapidly.
"What's Meckler's problem?" asked Kinch.
"No idea...uh-oh," finished Hogan, as Meckler produced something from his pocket and tried to show it to the Kommandant.
"Hey, he's got my...ow!" Carter's exclamation broke off abruptly, owing to a sharp kick in the ankle from Kinch. His claim was superfluous, anyway; they all knew whose watch it was, dangling from Meckler's fingers.
Klink's voice echoed across the yard. "And I'm responsible for lost-and-found now, am I? Oh, all right, put it on my desk. I'll keep it until we see if anyone claims it."
"Well, that's just dandy," muttered Kinch. "One of the patrol must have picked it up in the woods."
"I guess it must have fallen off," said Carter. "The strap was getting kind of worn out, maybe it just snapped. But it's not so bad. At least it doesn't have my name on it."
"No, it's just got US Army engraved on the back," replied Hogan grimly. "The last thing we need is Klink asking questions about how one of our watches ended up on the wrong side of the fence, on the same night that a local munitions dump just happened to go up. We have to get it back before he has a chance to look at it."
"And just how are we going to do that?" asked Newkirk.
"Report!" Klink, having disposed of Meckler, came striding across the yard. Schultz hurried to meet him.
"Who's on cleaning duty this morning?" murmured Hogan. "Newkirk? Okay, grab one of the spare watches out of the supply, and switch it for Carter's while you're dusting Klink's desk. I'll keep him out of the way." He paused for a moment, considering how best to do this, then sighed. "Sorry, guys. Looks like I'll have to sacrifice the art gallery."
"Prisoners, dismissed!" bellowed Schultz. Hogan nodded to Newkirk, and strolled off after Klink, while the men returned to the barracks. Newkirk went straight to the footlocker where, behind a false lining, a selection of wristwatches were stored, ready for outfitting escaping Allied flyers. Without hesitation he picked out the plainest of them and slipped it into his pocket. Then he snatched up a broom and duster, and left the barracks.
Klink was still on the steps of the Kommandantur, arguing with Hogan. "...if the prisoners have, as you claim, been writing insults about me on the walls of the delousing station..."
"And drawing pictures, as well," Hogan put in.
"...then I have two questions for you. Why hasn't Schultz reported them, and why are you telling me?"
"Schultz didn't say anything because he didn't want his own men to get into trouble," explained Hogan. "A couple of the guards are pretty handy with a pencil, you know. And I'm reporting it because - well, because you know how the Gestapo like to poke around the place, and if Hochstetter should see what the guys wrote about him..."
A sudden gleam of interest lit up Klink's monocle. "They've been writing about Hochstetter?"
"Oh, boy, have they ever!" Hogan gave a wicked chuckle. "And some of it's pretty...I mean, it's disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful. You want to see it?"
"It's not a question of what I want, Hogan. It's a question of discipline." By an almost superhuman effort, Klink managed to dismiss his gleeful smirk. "Regardless of my own feelings, I have a duty to inspect this - this vandalism, and see exactly how good - I mean, how bad it is...Yes, Newkirk, what do you want?"
"Just here to clean your office, sir," replied Newkirk.
"Very well." Klink turned to the guard standing at the door. "Langenscheidt, keep an eye on him. Hogan, show me this art gallery of yours." He swung round and stalked off in the direction of the delousing station, while Newkirk proceeded into the office.
He paused in the doorway. "Blimey, what a mess this place gets in," he remarked. "What is it about officers, eh? If they didn't have us enlisted blokes to pick up after 'em, I don't know how they'd survive. Just hold that for me, will you?"
He thrust the broom into Langenscheidt's hands, and started dusting the bookshelf. "Ours is just as bad, you know," he went on, with deliberate mendacity. "Doesn't know one end of a mop from the other. I think it's something to do with the training they get at those bleedin' military academies."
The watch was in plain sight, in the middle of the blotter on Klink's desk. Swapping it for the one in his pocket would be easy enough. Nor was there any need to rush the job, as it would take Klink some time to finish his perusal of the delousing station walls. The lively sketches of Hochstetter's supposed amatory adventures, while lacking in artistic merit, were nevertheless worthy of careful study. When the Kommandant finished with those, Hogan would direct his attention to the lengthy poem contributed by the reprobates in Barracks 9, detailing General Burkhalter's various conquests. In dactylic hexameter, naturally; nothing else would do justice to such an epic subject.
Finishing the bookcase, Newkirk moved on to the safe, and from there to the filing cabinet in the corner. Finally, he approached the desk, and ran the duster over the spiked helmet which occupied pride of place, right next to the humidor, the framed photographs of Klink's parents, and the ornate but completely impractical inkwell. How Klink managed to work amid so much clutter was one of the great mysteries of the war.
Not that he had much work on at the moment. The only items awaiting his attention this morning were Carter's watch and a pile of letters. Newkirk's eye passed over them, then flickered back, as his mind belatedly recognised the censor's stamp which embellished the envelope at the top of the heap. It took only a moment longer to register that it was addressed, in the carefully joined-up writing of a very young hand, to him.
It was too early in the morning for any mail to have arrived today. These letters - the prisoners' incoming mail - had been sitting here since at least yesterday. He'd spent the whole day wondering whether any of his family remembered his birthday, and all the while a letter from one of them - he still didn't know which one - had been right here on Klink's desk.
Newkirk glanced surreptitiously at Langenscheidt. He would have to distract the guard anyway, so he could grab Carter's watch. It would take barely a second longer to filch the letter as well. It was his, anyway; why should that bald-headed git Klink get to read it first?
But on the other hand, Klink might realise it was gone. He had a kind of sixth sense where the inmates of Barracks 2 were concerned, so a letter addressed to one of them, and clearly written by a child, wouldn't escape his notice. In any case, all letters to the prisoners were logged on delivery. If one went missing, questions would be asked.
Newkirk looked out of the window, his jaw tightening as he argued it out with himself. Then he turned around. "I'll have that broom now - blimey, did you see that?"
"What?" Langenscheidt swung round, his eyes following the line of Newkirk's gaze.
"Bloody great rat just ran behind the filing cabinet," said Newkirk.
Langenscheidt gave voice to a squeak of alarm, and dropped the broom. "A rat? Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. I grew up in London, I know a rat when I see one."
"Then you must get rid of it before the Kommandant finds out."
"Me? You're the one with a gun." Newkirk edged around the desk. "Besides, prisoners of war aren't supposed to do dangerous work. Article 32, Geneva Prisoner of War Convention. You'll have to do it yourself. Off you go."
For a moment, Langenscheidt seemed to be frozen to the spot, but he braced, raised his rifle, and advanced on the cabinet. Almost on tiptoe, he peered behind it. "I can't see anything," he announced.
"It must have escaped out the other side," said Newkirk. "They're cunning little devils, and this one's a German as well, so...well, never mind. Maybe it'd be best if we didn't tell the Kommandant. Least said, soonest mended, right?"
"But what if it comes back?" stammered Langenscheidt, still craning to look behind the cabinet.
"Well, it'll be someone else's problem by then, won't it?" replied Newkirk, with a dismissive flick of his fingers.
He picked up the broom and began to rearrange the dust on the floor, a process which ceased abruptly when the Kommandant burst through the door.
"...and what's more, Hogan, your men will paint the entire delousing station, inside and out, as well as - Haven't you finished yet?"
This last was directed at Newkirk, who hastily shouldered his broom. "Just done, sir."
"Then take yourself off. Langenscheidt, go back to your duties."
Juggling the broom and duster from one hand to the other, and almost dropping both, Newkirk saluted, nodded quickly to Hogan, and departed.
He sauntered across the yard with a carefree swagger, which vanished as soon as he was inside the barracks. "Here, take the bloody thing," he said tersely, dropping the watch into Carter's hand. Then he went to the window, and turned his back on his mates.
"Thanks," murmured Carter, but there was no response.
A few minutes later, Hogan returned to the barracks. "Good job, Newkirk," he said, "but what did you say to Langenscheidt? He nearly jumped out of his skin when I came out of the office."
Newkirk shrugged. "Told him I saw a rat."
"Well, that should keep him on his toes," Hogan chuckled. "Got your watch back, Carter?"
"Yes, sir. And I won't lose it again, you bet I won't," replied Carter.
"Make sure you don't." Hogan leaned on the upright post at the end of the bunk next to the window. "Newkirk, I don't suppose you noticed that Klink had some letters on his desk - letters not addressed to him?"
In spite of himself, Newkirk flushed. "I might have just spotted them, Colonel."
"Funny thing, how clumsy I get sometimes when I'm in his office," Hogan went on. "Of course, he really shouldn't have left them so close to the edge of the desk. So it wasn't really my fault they got knocked onto the floor, and I can't imagine how this one ended up in my pocket. But seeing as it did, you might as well get a look at it before Klink does." He held out an envelope; the same one which had so sorely tested Newkirk's self-control. "Call it a reward for not helping yourself. But read fast. I have to get it back on his desk before he finds out it's gone."
He turned away to speak to Kinch, allowing Newkirk the nearest to privacy that was possible in the barracks.
For a few seconds, Newkirk just stared at the envelope. Then he flipped it over, and drew out a single sheet of paper, creased and speckled with ink blots. But the faulty penmanship couldn't spoil his pleasure at this late, unexpected birthday present.
How are you? I am well. Sory I didnt rite before. I hope you have a good birtday birthday, sory my speling isnt very good yet. I am in class 4b now. My techer is Miss Jennings. She is nice. I play football at school. We played against Watton Street school last week and won 3-2. I nearly got a goal in the first half and then in the second half I did what you showed me when we went to Margate and I got a goal and we won. Next week we are going to play at Wanstead. I will rite and tell you how we get on. We are haveing woolton pie for dinner. I cant think of anything else to rite today. Mam sends her best luve. Me too. From Noel.
Newkirk read it twice through. Every word of it was precious, but one small remark shone like gold. His little brother hadn't forgotten him; one summer's day in Margate, playing football on the beach, would keep them close even though years might pass. He lingered over it briefly, then carefully folded the letter, put it into the envelope, and gave it back to Hogan. "Thanks, Colonel," he said. 'You'd better put it back now."
"You look pretty cheerful about it," observed Kinch, smiling. "Good news?"
"Very good news, actually." Newkirk's own grin might have lit up the whole of London. "My little brother's going to be a star footballer. Gets it from me, you know. I taught him everything he knows."