Charlie stared at the ceiling. He turned away again to sip cold coffee. He ordered his brushes, fixed his tie. Anything to avoid the blank canvas in front of him. It was 3pm. At 3.15 Frau Riefenstahl would arrive, probably with soldiers. She would demand to see his progress and he would show her the blank canvas. Charlie reached into his sketches, pulling up crosses and pentacles, all useless. He doodled a perfect circle in the margins of one, then crumpled it and threw it away. He put his hands over his eyes and recoiled as his fingers came away with greasepaint. He’d dressed up this morning and Nguyen had laughed.
“You’re not even going out!” she said, rolling on the bed.
“If I have to do this, I’m doing it my way.” Charlie checked his profile in the mirror. He’d found it thrown out, with a crack running down one side. The jagged edges reflected a handsome older man in a suit slightly too small for him. He turned and checked the part in his hair.
“You’re really taking this seriously,” She’d crept up behind him, now she slipped her arms around his waist.
Charlie closed his eyes, relaxing for but a moment “I have to. They will.”
“We could leave. Take the sampan downriver,” She poked him “Maybe even find my parents.”
He turned in her arms and hugged her briefly. He could feel the tension in her touch. He was trembling too “If you want to go I won’t stop you but I’m tired of running.”
She looked up, jaw set “I’m staying too.”
“Not today you’re not. I need room to create a masterpiece!” He gestured to the blank canvas, leaned casually against a wall.
Nguyen was hardly fooled “You can barely function without me.”
He took her by the shoulders and looked deep into her eyes “Please. Just for today. I must have no distractions. Go to Felicity’s, sing in her cafe. Her customers love you.”
“I’d rather sing for you,” she said looking back at him. They held each others’ gaze for a while until Nguyen lowered her head “I’ll expect you to have breakfast ready.”
Her feet made no sound upon the wooden floor. Charlie bit his lip, thoughts elsewhere as he watched her dress. She in turn took her time, budging him aside to take the mirror. Only when she slipped out the door blowing him a kiss did his mind return. He turned to the canvas with a sigh.
The car pulled up outside the old studio building, just as promised. It was perhaps the only one of its type in the district. Steel grey and with a motor that purred rather than the usual roar. As a crowd of children gathered to watch, two soldiers got out, their uniforms as grey as the motor. they must have been sweating in the afternoon humidity but they showed no discomfort. One opened the door for the Frau as the other scanned the apartment buildings. People closed their windows and pulled curtains. This area was quiet enough, there would be no trouble. Frau Riefenstahl was dressed like a secretary but held her pen like a gun. She marched right up to the studio’s door, her escort in tow. One of the soldiers holstered his weapon and hammered on the door.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
They were like gunshots going off. The gang of children scattered. A dog began barking. The Frau’s eyes narrowed. Then the door swung open. Charlie was there in his ridiculous stage get-up. He bowed so low she was sure he was mocking them
“My honoured guests! Please make yourselves welcome in my home!”
One of the soldiers pushed Charlie aside and stepped inside. His big military boots thudded on the floor. Charlie himself wore no shoes and his footsteps were muted by the noise of the soldiers and Frau Riefenstahl’s own sensible shoes. He led them into the studio, past old posters and scavenged rubbish
“I am most excited by your arrival since I have just finished the first and final draft of what is surely to be the Reich’s most glorious hour!”
He hopped around them like a frog and the manic expression rankled with Riefenstahl’s orderly mind
“I will be the judge of your quality, Herr Chaplin. And should I find the slightest fault Kommandant will hear only that you failed to live up to expectation.”
One of her guards smirked.
“Ah but that is the passion I look for in my critics, dear Frau!” Charlie led them to the studio where in the center sat a canvas covered over by a sheet. Riefenstahl stood there tapping a pen impatiently as he fell to one knee before it.
“Mein Frau und Krieger, I give you the evolution of the Ubermensch and the emblem of his victory! A triumph of the will over frail emotion! I give you Why we Fight!”
At that moment he pulled away the sheet. The audience stood transfixed. Frau Riefenstahl’s pen clattered to the floor and rolled away. It was a long time before she found words “I will… inform the Kommandant.”