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I huddled in the damp bracken, the man so close I could hear his breathing. He had the flat cap, leather boots and tweed jacket of a gamekeeper.  It didn’t occur to me right then that most able bodied men were fighting at the front, only that in these days of rationing punishment would almost certainly be severe, even for mushrooming. My dress was muddied and bramble torn. I knew that Mother would be cross, but hoped to use my basket of chanterelles as a peace offering. They grow particularly well in this part of the woods, the soil so soft and spongy from undisturbed years of rotting pine needles. I’d felt like an explorer in uncharted territory until the gamekeeper had spoiled the illusion.

I watched him from my low golden canopy, scarcely daring to breathe for fear of disturbing the dead foliage into noise. He untangled a rabbit from a wire snare, it’s body so limp, so soft, with the most beautiful chestnut eyes that you ever did see. I almost wept for the poor creature, a small choke escaping my lips. The man looked around swiftly, and my heart near stopped as his eyes skimmed my sanctuary. Such striking blue eyes. I think I fell a little in love with him there and then. He couldn’t have been much older than I either, perhaps nineteen or so, three years my senior. My heart still pounded, was it because of this exciting man, or horror at my predicament? I wasn’t sure – perhaps both.

The next thing he did surprised me greatly. He dropped to his haunches and, pulling a hunting knife from his belt began to skin the rabbit. Surely a gamekeeper would have taken it home first? My curiosity so piqued I followed shortly after he had moved off, as silently as I was able. I lost him in the early morning mist for a time but chanced upon him again stooped over a fire, already lit, and concealed myself behind a tree. He must have heard something, as he approached my hiding spot. I felt sure my heart would punch right through my chest, and held my breath. To no avail, I had been spotted, yet strangely, it was he who now showed signs of panic. He seemed unsure, and his eyes, those beautiful blue eyes, welled up with tears as he backed away from me. I knew then who he was. The news of the escaped German POWs had been on the wireless all week long. This man didn’t seem the monster we had been told about, the man Father was risking his life in France to defend us from. He was merely a frightened boy, barely of shaving age. I lifted my basket of mushrooms to him, an olive branch, and smiled. He took them tentatively and gestured towards the rabbit which dripped globules of juice into the hungry flames.

I went back every day after that, with some farm fresh eggs, or some vegetables and herbs grown in the garden which he would prepare in silence for us to share along with whatever woodland creature he had managed to snare and between us grew the purest platonic love. They did catch him eventually of course, as I knew they must, but I have often wondered what became of my beautiful blue eyed German boy, my country’s enemy, my alien.

Dame Barbara

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