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It is nearly a week since Helga saw Harriet but the Anglo-American woman has not been far from her thoughts but so far she has not tried to contact her, preferring to content herself with memories of their visit to the opium den and play out fantasies for the future. All that changes however when a package and letter from Harriet are delivered.
TIPPING THE VELVET
The leather-bound book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets lay on the small table beside the divan in her sewing room. It had been delivered by an Arab boy with instructions it was to be handed to Mrs Helga Bornhoffen in person. A short note served as a bookmark and Helga felt a slight quickening of her pulse as she read it.
My Dearest Helga,
I am sorry I have not been able to contact you lately, I have been busy with work but finally it seems I have some free time ahead of me. Remember when I told you I had to help out my friend from the Guardian? It turned out he merely wanted to catch up and return my copy of the Sonnets that he borrowed from me eighteen months ago. I thought you might like to read it in the original English. I have underlined certain parts that move me. I will be delighted if we could catch up again and discuss the sonnets. It seems I am now at your disposal.
The passages she’d underlined were from different sonnets and Helga had copied them out on a sheet of paper late that night and when she read the seven lines she blushed and felt the pull of desire becoming stronger.
‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Look in the glass and tell the face thou viewest,
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time,
When most I wink, then do mine eyes see,
My life in this line hath some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.’
The words had stayed with her the following day but even so it seemed as if the looming war between the Anglo-French Alliance and Germany might break out sooner rather than later. The news dominating the headlines that day was the expulsion of the German ambassador, Otto Abetz from France for reputedly bribing the editors of two French newspapers to publish pro-German stories. Fuel had been poured onto that fire when it was revealed that the French Foreign Minister’s wife, Odette Pelletan had close ties to the editors. The first Helga knew about it was when Helmut came home from work that night and promptly threw the paper down in front of her as she sat reading the Sonnets.
“The French cannot be trusted, see how they conspire against us? We talk peace and they expel our ambassador,” his eyes flickered to the book in her hands, “and you read the Sonnets, in English?”
“I want to perfect my English.”
“For what reason?” Helmut’s eyes narrowed, “they are siding with the French against us. Soon you shall have to choose a side.”
Helga’s eyes watered up as she looked away.
“Peace is always better than war,” was her only reply and thankfully Helmut didn’t push her on the matter but it played on her mind. Was she really choosing sides? Was war really inevitable or would cooler heads prevail?
It was with that topic uppermost in her mind that she finally vacated the house the next morning and headed for Harriet’s hotel. Her outfit that day was a little more modern, a white blouse matched with a trouser suit, a far more practical option in the dust-filled streets. The suit however was of a thicker material to suit northern climates and by the time she reached the hotel, she was already regretting wearing the jacket. The day was definitely getting warmer and she was relieved to find Harriet’s ceiling fan was doing a good job at dissipating the heat. Her new friend was still in her nightgown and a dressing gown, and Helga apologised for dropping in at such short notice.
“Why?” Harriet raised the teacup to her lips, “it is not an awkward moment for me.”
“You have not dressed yet,” Helga looked away suddenly, conscious she’d been staring at her cleavage that was plainly visible.
“I will be dressed soon but first I must bathe.”
“I will come back later?”
“Wait here,” she drained the cup, “or if you are brave you can scrub my back.”
Helga’s eyes widened and Harriet leaned forward and slapped her leg.
“I am sorry, it was a joke in poor taste,” she studied her, “you look tense.”
“I am worried, have you read the news?”
“I read the news every day,” she replied.
“You have read about Herr Abetz?”
“It is the nature of countries to spy on each other, even allies do it. Humans are naturally curious but I agree that at this point in time it was a stupid move by Ribbentrop’s department,” she leaned over and arched her back as she rolled her head from side to side.
“But enough of politics, it is all I talk about most days. How did you find the Sonnets?”
“I loved your poem.”
“You mean you loved my blatant plagiarism,” Harriet smiled crookedly, “if I had been bostancı escort up to it I might have composed a poem but that might have been a little too daring.”
“It was beautiful,” she unbuttoned her jacket, “it is the first time anyone has written a poem to me.”
“That is a shame,” Harriet replied, “for one so beautiful.”
“I am not so beautiful.”
“So you say,” Harriet made to get up, “but I have not seen you naked. I am taking a bath, but it is a big tub and you are welcome to join me.”
“You can scrub my back if you like or just sit and talk,” she rose, “you have a voice, Helga. It is time you used your voice.”
Helga swallowed her fear as Harriet wandered through to the bathroom, the woman paused at the door as if to close it and then undid the dressing gown tie and let it slide down her back. She tossed it aside and in one swift movement, pulled the nightgown over her buttocks. Helga stared as the silk garment rose higher and higher, showing off her perfect hourglass figure. Harriet glanced over her shoulder but didn’t make eye contact as she pulled it over her head and tossed it aside.
“Bring your tea in if you like,” Harriet stepped into the bath, “I will have another as well.”
Helga felt a definite sense of unease mixed with desire as she brought in two cups of tea. Harriet’s body was clearly visible and the other woman smiled as she parted her legs slightly.
“See, I have the same as you.”
“I can see that,” she set the cups down on the small table beside the bath and to distract herself, she hung the nightgown and dressing gown on a nearby hook.
“So, tell me something you have told no one before,” Harriet spoke again.
“What do you want me to tell you?” Helga took a seat against the wall and regarded her, “I am a simple woman from the country, my life before I met Helmut was, what is that English word?” Helga closed her eyes.
“That is the word,” Helga opened her eyes, “boring. My father owns a cabinet making factory, I was helping in the office but I became tired of fighting off the attentions of his workers. There was this one boy who was quite persistent.”
“What was his name?”
“Hans,” she replied, “he had a German first name but he was Jewish.”
“And did you become intimate with Hans?”
Helga closed her eyes and finally nodded.
“I did but it was brief, his family were sent to a work camp a couple of years ago. I kept it secret from Helmut because he hates the Jews.”
“But his wife does not,” Harriet began rubbing soap over her breasts, “you helped out a Jewish watchmaker and were intimate with a Jewish boy.”
“Helmut and I do not agree on Hitler. He sees him as the saviour of Germany and while I thought he might bring some good I am worried. It is like they are trying to construct a mythology. This pure Aryan myth once belonged to the Völkisch movement but now it is mainstream. We used to see them camping out in the woods during the warmer months but they were always a little odd. Some were nice boys but I always felt as if they were lazy,” she touched her hair nervously and a moment later continued, “the Völkisch movement is…”
“A yearning to return to the old religion of Europe, it sounds romantic until you take human sacrifice into account but I’ll wager they never advocated that extreme practice.”
“They were simple folk, but you are right. They were idealists, now the Nazis have outlawed them along with many other groups.”
“Herr Hitler does not countenance rivalry,” Harriet leaned forward, “but tell me more about Hans while you scrub my back.”
Helga rose and taking the soap and cloth, perched on the edge of the bath. Harriet pushed her hair over her shoulder and Helga proceeded to rub the soap into her back.
“Hans was my first love. At first I thought him annoying and just like the others but after a few weeks I noticed he was being taunted by the other men because his family went to the synagogue. One day I saw them rubbing sawdust in his hair and laughing. He just stood there and took it like a man, it made me angry and yet curious,” she paused to pull the sleeves of her jacket and blouse up her wrists.
“I came out of the office and told them to get back to work. Because my father was the manager they did what I ordered, it felt,” she smiled, “good. I had never dared issue orders against any man but these men, most of them were older, all did as I told them. Afterwards, I had Hans come to the office and told him I would tell my father when he returned and he told me it was all right.”
“So you were the heroine who saved the day.”
“I was not so much the heroine,” she splashed water over her back, “it was impulse.”
“The definition of a heroine is an ordinary woman who does something heroic,” Harriet replied, “so what you did was heroic. You should accept the label even if it seems vain. Our own perceptions of ourselves are different to the way others see us.”
“How do büyükçekmece escort you see me?” Helga straightened up and reached for a bar of shampoo soap.
“Caring, compassionate, curious,” Harriet glanced over her shoulder, “all words that start with C, I can go through the alphabet if you like.”
“You have not known me that long,” Helga dipped the bar in the water and began sliding it through her hair.
“That is true but here you are, a married woman who knows that I love women washing my hair, most normal women would not come near me, let alone come to me in the bathroom.”
“But I am fully clothed and have no intention of getting into the bath with you.”
“And that makes the difference?” Harriet asked.
“It does,” she kept working the lather into her hair, “a more interesting task would be to lie down in the same bed together.”
“I dreamed of you last night,” Harriet murmured, “it was not so much a dream as a fantasy,” she went on, “I dreamed you and I were making love.”
“Making love?” Helga stopped lathering her hair.
“That is something I have never told anyone but that is because you are the first person I have spoken to this morning,” she paused, “have I said something to offend you?”
Logic dictated she say ‘yes,’ but instead she shook her head.
“No,” she pushed down on her shoulders and Harriet allowed herself to be pushed under the water. Helga kept her there for a few seconds and then released her. Harriet rose from the water, which ran from her back and she swept her hair back.
“You said no,” she wiped water from her eyes.
“You are the first person to write me a poem. That counts for something.”
“It was Shakespeare who wrote the words, I simply rearranged them.”
“Even so,” she began rubbing her scalp again, “it touched me.”
“Why?” Harriet asked her.
“Because you thought of me, now stop talking while I wash your hair.”
Helga lathered her hair a second time and Harriet let her push her under the water again. Her face was momentarily obscured by the shampoo and when it cleared, Helga’s hands still rested lightly on her and she felt an urge she usually felt only for men. If Harriet had reached for her in that moment then she would have joined her in the bath, clothes and all, but that passed and Harriet rose and wrung out her hair.
“What would you like to do today?”
“Pardon?” Helga rose slowly.
“I mean,” Harriet stood up, “what would you like to do?” She nodded at the towel and Helga moved to retrieve it for her, “I am a woman of leisure today and by the looks of things for the next few days, so what would you like to do today?”
“No one has asked me that before,” Helga handed her the towel and managed to avert her eyes from the patch of hair between her legs.
“Well this is an interesting proposition,” Harriet stepped out of the bath and pulled the plug, “you should think about what you want to do while I get dressed,” she started sliding the towel against her naked body.
“Or in the words of the great writers, I am at your disposal today.”
Helga’s mind was in a whirl as she sat in the lounge room while Harriet got dressed in the bedroom. She discarded a dozen ideas in as many seconds. The woman may as well have handed her a black cheque and asked her to write an amount on it without giving her any limit.
Nevertheless, by the time Harriet stepped into the room wearing a pale day dress with dark polka dots on it she finally settled on the only option that seemed logical.
“The souk, perhaps we could go shopping.”
“A sensible choice indeed,” she tightened the belt another notch.
“It is indeed,” she rose as Harriet drew nearer, “but it was a difficult choice.”
“Life is full of difficult choices,” Harriet tugged at her tie.
Helga’s eyes shifted slightly as the other woman loosened the knot and started undoing it.
“What are you doing?”
“Showing you some choices,” she finished undoing the tie, “this is nice for an office but for a stroll in the souks?”
Harriet undid the first two buttons of her blouse and the garment parted, her fingers slipped down to the third button and their eyes met. She pulled playfully at it and then let go.
“For the souk we want to look relaxed,” she raised the collar at the back to further emphasize the deep V in front, “and we will let your hair down,” she started pulling out the hairpins Helga had spent so much time putting into place that morning.
“Let your hair down,” she pulled out the hair combs, “although you do have a beautiful neck but in this heat perhaps we should cover it to prevent sunburn.”
Helga vaguely recalled one of the embassy wives mentioning that some while ago but said nothing as Harriet picked up the brush and began to brush her hair.
“That feels nice.”
“Ah, she finally speaks,” Harriet chuckled.
“I have been speaking.”
“That is not the type of speaking I mean,” she kept brushing, “you çatalca escort have been answering questions but this is the first time you have offered something up voluntarily. You have a voice, it is time to use your voice. Herr Hitler uses his voice all the time and it is nothing but hot air, but people listen and raise their hands in that silly salute. Sensible voices recede into the darkness and we are left listening to the voices of hatred and bitterness.”
“Do you think there will be war?”
“Between Britain and France, and Germany?” Harriet paused for a moment.
“It will happen. Germany has a score to settle and the French and Germans could argue on the colour of shit. It may not be this year but certainly next year. Bonnet and Chamberlain have lofty ambitions but so do Hitler and Stalin. The smaller powers are aligning themselves to the country they think will assure their survival.”
“And what of America?”
“There is no appetite for a European war in America,” she finished brushing her hair, “Roosevelt is not an isolationist but after the mid term primaries he is relying on a coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans with ties to big business. We will see what Roosevelt does, there is talk he might run for a third time but he will find resistance amongst his own party.”
“I should like to move to America.”
“Just like that?” Harriet stepped back, “I only brushed your hair.”
“It is something I suggested to Helmut after Kristallnacht, but he said I was being a fool.”
“It is not so foolish,” Harriet remarked, “Hitler is playing a dangerous game trying to play both sides while he increases Germany’s borders. The Sudeten was a bridge too far, the British and French will draw a line in the sand and sit and wait. Everything hinges on Poland, a country hated by Russia and Germany,” she winked at her and nodded at the door.
“But enough talk of politics, let us go shopping.”
Shopping in the souks was something Helga only did with their housekeeper due to the fact she couldn’t speak much Arabic, but her new companion was fluent in the language and in that there was no small degree of comfort. Another factor was Harriet’s easy confidence, something Helga put down to her ‘marital’ status. Harriet’s marriage was only a title, considering her husband had his male lovers, thus she was basically an independent, woman of the world. Helga felt very much in her shadow as they browsed the stalls, examining bolts of silk, rugs, ornaments and finally books, and it was in a bookstore where Harriet knew the owner that Harriet finally bought something. It was a book of Grimms’ Fairy stories in German.
“I have always loved fairy stories,” Harriet slipped a hand into the crook of her arm.
“Good, because it is yours now,” she handed it to her.
“For me?” Harriet’s eyes shifted, “it is an expensive gift?”
“So is the gift you have given me already this day.”
Harriet regarded her for a few moments and then smiled.
“It is very generous, but you should write something in the front,” her hand tightened on her arm, “we will have coffee and you can try your hand at poetry.”
Helga’s attempt at poetry felt odd, almost forced but Harriet’s eyes merely softened as she read them out loud but in a low voice.
“A warm summer breeze, a cool stream, your voice in my ear, such are the simple dreams of a simple woman. Your friend, Helga.”
“I almost wrote companion,” she spoke up, “but,” she trailed away.
“I have many female companions but I am not intimate with them all, some are just friends,” Harriet leaned over and brushed her lips over her cheek, “thank you.”
It was a bold move, despite the relaxed atmosphere of a city caught betwixt East and West, but Helga felt the weakness in her belly and the hairs on the back of her head tingled as those soft lips touched her cheek and then Harriet was turning the pages.
“I will treasure this book.”
“It is an old copy of the fairy tales.”
“But it was money you could have spent on yourself,” she glanced up, “it makes it worth so much more, almost priceless.”
She lit a cigarette and pushed the packet across to her.
“But what is this gift I have given you?”
“You listened to me,” Helga replied a moment later, “you are the first person to listen to me. You do not care that I lost my baby before he could take his first breath. The embassy wives either treat me as a disease or tell me to get over it.”
“People reserve the harshest criticism for the person in the mirror,” Harriet lit Helga’s cigarette.
“Helmut thinks I am betraying my own kind by reading the book you gave me.”
“Does he know about me?”
“Never,” she winced, “I would never tell him.”
“Helmut will think what he wants,” she replied, “I have no control over him or you for that matter, but it is comforting.”
That day was the first of two weeks in a row, sometimes they wandered through the souks or visited the older parts of the city. Other times they sat in the opium den to smoke hashish and solve the problems of the world or slip into a theatre and watch a film and gradually Helga began opening up to a woman whose world views were refreshingly liberal. Her views on the Jim Crow laws in the southern states almost sounded incendiary.
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