You said it was creepy. Men under water, short men, you said, snuggling up to missiles in the night—though I thought that would be just the sort of thing to appeal to you.

Today's Story



By John Saul

The blast drew Helène and I

who had met only minutes earlier

from our breakfast table to the sullen balustrade at the lakeside, interrupting her description of frostbite

there was a paddle-steamer

the sharp white bows, the line of hull like the shaft of a feather

waving a Swiss flag

there it goes again, the hooter

causing me to ask what was a boat like that doing, crossing from who knows where to who knows where on a Sunday morning, and whoever would be on board

Otto meanwhile

as the steady beat of the engines resumed, as the vessel turned, leaving an arc of wake behind a squat white rump

had remained at the table with his coffee and a Danish pastry, absorbed in rounding up the last of the flakes, dabbing at them with his fingertips

mysterious white vessel

from behind him Helène wrapped her arms round his neck, Otto chéri

to which Otto was unresponsive

Otto Wiener the journalist, concerned flakes of pastry could be caught on his thick moustache

Helène straightening up suddenly, saying brightly to us both

So what if it was frostbite, et alors. I’m still standing; only next time I won’t go without chloroform; I wouldn’t cut off any toes again without chloroform.


licking his fingers, giving the impression of waiting for the first drink of the day

asked how many toes she had now, as if he didn’t know

Otto Wiener, not to be confused with a baritone who sang Wagner, but a journalist in the tradition of the great German investigative researcher, Gunther

is that the spelling, check later

Wallraff, who regularly assumed new identities to get on the inside of situations, so successfully there is even a Swedish verb ‘wallraffa’, meaning ‘to expose misconduct from the inside by assuming a role’, whereas if Wikipedia is correct Otto Wiener is unheard of outside his native Austria

unheard of here in Konstanz

where weatherwise it was cool, where the sun gave daylight but that was all, as if harbouring a grudge for something, unknown to us, that had happened in the night

a young waitress in black set down iced water, mainly for Otto, who had been suffering bouts of coughing and was removing his shoulders from Helène’s arms saying

I can’t—

flicking at imaginary flakes at a corner of his lips

—compete. But I don’t want to go to the Arctic, the Antarctic, this or that desert. It isn’t fear darling, it’s lack of interest.

Oh really, chéri?

I can confess, I’ve fought with bravery, as they say about soldiers. I’ve struggled with it just as much as they have.

Les hommes—

said Helène sweeping half the world together into one pile

—you men have to prove yourselves. Whereas I just get on with things.

Just so.

turning to me

Did you jet in specially? Jack isn’t it, Jack?

Jack, yes—Helène. That would have been a fine thing. But no, stopping to see Otto was a matter of combining things. It’s usually the way.

Otto at the identical moment having said

Jet in, don’t be silly chérie. He—you, Jack—wants this story from me, a report he’d heard rumours of—it will haunt the Royal Navy.

Whose navy is that?

You know, the queens and kings of England. They have a navy to stop their crowns being shot away. I may cause a scandal. There was one already, a century ago and not forgotten, do you know of it, when those Bloomsbury people pretended to be Abyssinian princes and were received in state on the, what was that battleship, Jack?

HMS Dreadnought.

Now we shall have the modern version. And I was there.

Oh Otto, you again, at the centre of things. And so special?

Special, yes, would be a fair word. If you think David with Goliath was special. It was no polar trip but I was shaking. That isn’t the angle I’d use, mind you. I’d make a connection to the, the Dread, the D—


Helène moving her bag on the table to one side to make room to point a finger, pointing it, jabbing

You mean you and that monstrous ship, that Moby Dick, that sous-marin, you were lucky mon ami, you could have, comment dirais-je, landed in the shit.

Look who’s talking. You, crossing that ice shelf, half the size of Belgium, alone, leaving me in Vienna in a sweat, night after night—

Don’t change the subject.

all three of us looking away, to the lacklustre sun above the lake, it was millions and millions of miles away and looking the part, a teenager slouching on a sofa, bolshie teenager, emitting its bolshie rays, not caring if things showed their sullen sides

the sullen last geraniums, the unsmiling waitress, a jogger on the path with sweat that wouldn’t gleam, the white cups and saucers hardly brought to life

Suit yourself, Otto said.

the paddle-steamer was the obvious sight, shrunk from its earlier size

the smudge of a wake, the promontory with cloud dropping among the buildings, which were Konstanz

So what is it you did? I asked.

his hand shook, rattling the cup on its saucer

I boarded a submarine, the HMS Spearhead—as I propose calling it.

Otto sighed, leaning back and looking to and fro between us, as if presiding over something, listen he said, sitting forward

only to be interrupted by the waitress (at a place like this, said Otto, she’s hoping to be noticed by a film director, even in winter), checking if we would like anything else I had the strangest identity, he said looking straight at her. The English Abyssinians wore turbans and Virginia Woolf a beard.


Zwei Kopenhagener noch.

the coughing again, causing him to stand and apologise, entschuldigen Sie, and disappear at a hobble inside the empty restaurant

The strangest identity?

Helène smiling towards the paddle-steamer before supplying her own understanding of this phrase, saying yes, indeed, a strange man


with bewildering haste

her attraction to Otto, in the beginning, on account of his ‘scintillating’ conversation, only, she said, for her to alter the description later to cantankerous, later to shallow; even stupid, yes she had equated (altered later to mistaken) his now-grey wild locks with passion, whereas … Otto had in the beginning been exotica and gourmet food … she thought he would be great fun … he would reveal bazaars in the east and in Vienna lavish parties, great mirrors and chandeliers

I struggled with embarrassment at such intimate revelations, as the steamer hooted at dark shapes, most likely kayaks, and ducks flew up

as another hoot fatly sounded


Helène shrugged

He turned out to be simply Otto.

who was walking back, his tie re-tied but loosely, the restaurant behind looking more deserted than ever, the waitress standing staring at a window, and as he came closer I realised how much he did look like a certain type of journalist, and realised what Otto was referring to by identity: in journalism of his kind a disguise is the norm (for his report on low-paid workers, Ganz Unten, Gunther Wallraff used make-up and grew a moustache to pass as Turkish)

To board the Spearhead, said Otto explaining this very point, to see if anyone could break through the security—

I took out my pad

—for the reception, to which a number of reporters had been officially invited, I had to pretend to be a freelance journalist. Which—you’re an editor Jack, I hardly need tell you—basically means to be anyone.

Helène moving her bag from a chair to the table

Eh bien, I’ve heard this before. I’ve plenty to do.

Yes I’m sure you have a bobsleigh run to speed down or something? A plane to catch. A rocket. You could be in the Himalayas this time tomorrow.

Don’t be like that Otto, I like you today.

I know, you don’t want to hear. You said it was creepy. Men under water, short men, you said, snuggling up to missiles in the night—though I thought that would be just the sort of thing to appeal to you, you like a good danger.

That’s just stupid.

My wife, the serial masochist.

Oh stop that, Otto. You and your stupid world, either a coward or a hero. Sadist or masochist.

grabbing her bag

Well I’m off. I’ll leave you boys to play.

she backed her chair

its metal legs rasping on the ground

and strode away (very easily for someone with frostbite, toes missing, but how does a person with frostbite walk)—probably to climb the Matterhorn, said Otto uncharitably, as he flicked at his hair, much the way he had flicked at his moustache earlier

I read to him from my pad: to get on board

clearing his throat, several times over, pushing things up and out to make way for the scene, a summer day in Holland

again clearing it, out of his mouth

came the submarine, a black whale, sidling up to the docking point, creating lapping waves

came the crowd held back by metal barriers, the string of clouds the far side of the river, the brass ensemble playing a sea shanty, Union Jacks, Otto described how

the submarine was being hindered from docking by protesters afloat in the water, clinging to buoys with a message about nuclear power, bobbing messages ending in exclamation marks, described how

that summer day—in Rotterdam, at a call made by the nuclear-powered ‘Spearhead‘ on its tour of European ports—he deliberately left his press passes at his hotel so as to become anyone, anyone out to prove military security powerless, and then

on his way towards the throng, he overheard a man speaking English; a consular official, apparently part of the official welcoming party; so he seized the opportunity to talk to him, and then

Otto cursing behind his moustache, saying it was Helène who drove him to risk being listed as an undesirable journalist

She drove me to it.

getting loud, so loud the waitress stepped back from the window, loud and becoming more and more irrelevant, so that my pen was noting only the gist of it, Helène made a career out of intrepid ventures and

the male in him urged him to emulate her in some way

on he went

no more about the submarine

as if he cared about the submarine

not that emulating her was truly possible, after all she had amputated several of her own toes, not something that would be required in trying to pierce the security shielding the Spearhead

the police cordon, the ring of soldiers, the machine guns, the security agents, one a sinister loner in trainers and sunglasses

Even there, Jack—leaving aside guns being fired—the risks to me were not great. If I had masqueraded as a journalist—without accreditation—and was unmasked, as being an actual journalist—my crime would be difficult to name.

I proposed another coffee and tried to catch up with my notes. Otto would relish his Spearhead story appearing in the English press, he said, while there still is such a thing. Helène says I—

leaning forward again

—Please disguise personal details so no one can be pointed at. Lay some false trail. Say my wife, I don’t know, is friends with children of the Rolling Stones. Our friends are well aware she is nothing of the sort, they’ll see it’s just a caper but my message—the security thing—will get across where it matters.

But I’ll need corroboration, Otto. Or what you tell me will be seen as just some fiction.


fiction a word outside the usual journalists’ vocabulary

there was Helène, striding back towards us from the restaurant building

She’s plotting, Jack, plotting something, I can tell. But as I said, don’t implicate me, change the names. I could have ended Britain’s entire nuclear programme.

Otto, said Helène resettling in her chair, your dramatic sense is so de trop.

I thought you’d gone.

Well I haven’t. I thought I’d get to know—


—yes, Jack here.

I haven’t finished my tale.

Oh well. Carry on sweet Ottolein, tell your tale of bravery.

Everyone is afraid of something.

this remark quietening us all

what to make of Helène and Otto

Otto and Helène

note to self: it feels like they live in another world

Anyhow, fighting with bravery, shaking as I had been, I talked my way through. In no time I was, how do you say, milling with the journalists.

The real journalists.

Well yes, I explained all that. Then we were asked to get our names checked off on a list. I walked away. So: the one in trainers and sunglasses comes up to me and asks who I am. ‘I am—

surely not David

—the press’, I say.

Like with a capital letter.

Exactly. The Press. And what happens? The sunglasses walks off, goes back to pacing up and down. I go to the hatch and down the ladder with the others.


Down the hatch.

Jack, I could have taken explosive out of my pocket and blown the whole thing sky high.

we two men looking up, to where we imagined the pieces from such an explosion might go

Mon cher. That’ll be the day.

the sky empty

But it’s quite an exploit, Otto.

Exploit, Jack, that is a word I’d been looking for. Exploit.

I believe you of course, but if I go ahead I could be courting big trouble. Commenting on national security. Without supportive evidence. Claiming the Navy—

So will you? Osez-vous, monsieur Jack?

Yes Jack, do you dare?

Helène looking gratefully at her husband for the translation

Otto chéri, for some reason I’m feeling well disposed to you today.

I am to you too, chérie.



Do you know what? Do you have your scarf with you? There it is on this chair. Jack, put your notebook away. Otto can work away at you later. As my dear father used to say, There is nothing, rien, that can’t be straightened with a little more time. Otto has all day and all night. Et alors. It’s time we had some fun. You’ll like this, chéri. I’ve arranged for us to go for a trip about the lake. So let’s pack up and be gone.

That’s very fine.

Yes, Otto darling. Isn’t it fine?


John Saul has had three collections of short fiction published by Salt Publishing (Cambridge, UK). The first, Call It Tender, was well received in The Times.  He lives in Suffolk in England.  His website is

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