Welcome to the newest slot on my blog, the Sunday night Novel Nights In, where I bring you guests’ novels in their entirety over a maximum of ten weeks.
And now I’ve added Saturday nights with the serialisation of my chick lit novel The Serial Dater’s Shopping List!
For shorter pieces I would run the story then talk more about it afterwards but because this is a longer post (10,006 words), here is an introduction to Rose then a little about her novel before it begins…
A German-born UK national, Rose Mary Boehm now lives and works in Lima, Peru. Two novels (‘Coming Up For Air’ and the follow-up ‘The Telling’) have been published in the UK, as well as a poetry collection (‘Tangents’).
Her latest poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in US poetry reviews. Among others: Toe Good Poetry, Poetry Breakfast, Burning Word, Muddy River Review, Pale Horse Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Other Rooms, Requiem Magazine, Full of Crow, Poetry Quarterly, Punchnel’s, Verse Wisconsin, Naugatuck Poetry Review (contest semi-finalist), Avatar…
Her poem ‘Miss Worthington’ won third price in the coveted Margaret Reid Poetry Contest: http://winningwriters.com/contests/margaret/2009/ma09_epaminondas.php. You can find out more about Rose and her writing at her blog: http://houseboathouse.blogspot.com.
Coming Up For Air
A young girl’s struggle to take control of her life
What did readers have to say about it? In Amazon most gave it five (5) stars – these reviews can be read online in their entirety: http://www.amazon.com/Coming-Air-Rose-Mary-Boehm/product-reviews/1907407073
- “A wonderful surprise. Looking forward to reading it again.”
- “Rose Mary Boehm is an exquisite writer […] Take a look at life through the eyes of young Annemarie Becker, […] gain access to a piece of history unknown for some, distant for many and enlightening for all.”
- “This is the story of Anne Marie Becker who grew up during World War II. She was only two-years-old when the bombs started falling. As the author states, part of this novel is fiction, part fact and part autobiographical. In any case, Coming Up For Air is a hard book to put down.”
- “This tale took me to a place in history I had never seen before, with eyes of a child. I had a hard time putting it down. It was fast moving […]”
You can read other reviews at Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7957702-coming-up-for-air.
You can also view her book trailer on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cg7zN8kNaO4.
If you don’t want to wait the 10 weeks for the whole story, you can purchase Coming Up for Air at Amazon.com (just $2.95) Amazon.co.uk (only £1.87). The rest of the ‘adventures of Annie’ can be read in THE TELLING.
When, in the 70s, in London, young friends of mine asked me about ‘my side of the story’, I wasn’t sure where to start, whether I had one (a story to tell), or whether I actually wanted to talk about it. When I began the dig, I found memory fragments rather than a story, and I found a small voice. I decided to ‘start at the very beginning’. The novel you are about to read is the result. I wrote it in three parts:
- Book I (Another Kind of Childhood) is unashamedly autobiographical
- Book II (The Unbearable Burden of Sex) consists of my tales and tales from friends
- Book III (Spitting against the Wind) is pure invention.
Some characters in the novel are based on real people, others are blends of people I’ve known; events, places, dates and time I shifted at will, and all names of the protagonists are fictitious.
I have tried to convey a time of love, fear, solidarity, bewilderment, pain, hypocrisy, fun, hope, friendship, optimism, promises and expectations. But, more than that, I intended to show today’s young adults that there is nothing new under the sun, and that we can free ourselves from repeating errors (quite a few of which are born from the many confusing messages life imparts) in our reactions to our world.
Be patient, gentle reader, the voice of the small child who understands very little grows up during the story into someone who begins to understand even less.
Book I: Another Kind of Childhood
Mother carries me down to the shelter and I feel safe. I sit on her arm, and she holds me close. I clutch her neck with my arms and know everything is alright.
Father carries me down. He doesn’t sit me on his arm: he wraps me into a blanket and presses me tightly to his chest. I slowly slip down through the blanket.
Already in World War I, the Rhine-Ruhr area was a prime target for Britain and France, who even then planned air attacks on its industrial cities.
In World War II, the Rhine-Ruhr power stations and coking plants topped the list of targets for the British strategic air war against Germany. The Rhine-Ruhr industrial region was the ‘Armory of the Third Reich’, where the industrial giants of their time manufactured the components for Hitler’s tanks, aircrafts, submarines, cannons, etc.
In May 1940, British Bomber Command opened the strategic air war against Germany, and night after night British bombers took off in the direction of the industries of the Ruhr.
Following the German air attacks on British cities in the autumn of 1940 and the spring of 1941 which had caused around 40,000 deaths in London alone, the British Air Ministry and the War Cabinet decided in favour of air attacks on important German industrial cities such as Cologne, Düsseldorf, Duisburg, Essen and Hamburg. The Unison plan envisaged strategic air raids on the populated areas in various industrial cities.
I must have been about two-and-a-half or three years old when the bombers began to come with ever increasing frequency.
For me, there existed no history, no guilt, no hate, no understanding. All I knew was my life between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’, and the sound of the district siren screaming from the schoolhouse opposite our house, paralysing me with fear. I knew that night meant danger and that this piercing sound, accompanied by the staccato of the anti-aircraft guns, would inevitably be followed by the low hum of overhead bombers and then the ear-splitting explosions which shattered windows and doors, shook walls and made me want to curl up into a ball.
The ‘shelters’ were the cellars of the buildings in which we lived. As soon as the air-raid siren started its deafening warning, Mother, Father, my brother and I would hurry downstairs to the shelter. But not without my dolls. I was the ‘mother’ of a collection of motley down-and-outs. One had a hole in its celluloid head and its hand was mangled. I used to chew the celluloid fingers.
In November 1944, the US Secretary of War ordered the US Strategic Bombing Survey, one of the last directives coming from the late President Roosevelt who had always believed that an impartial and expert study of the effects of American aerial attacks on Germany would allow the Americans not only to evaluate the potential of air power as an instrument of military strategy, but also help plan the future development of the United States armed forces, while determining future economic policies with respect to the cost of national defence and, as expected, the report’s major conclusion was that strategic bombing, particularly the destruction of the German oil industry and truck manufacturing, contributed tremendously to Allied successes in World War II.
Not that it is very important to those who are at the receiving end, but there is a distinction to be made between tactical and strategic bombing: strategic bombing missions seek to destroy a country’s industrial infrastructure, throwing in a few cities for good measure, while tactical bombing missions go for military targets such as airfields, ammunition dumps, command facilities, troop concentrations etc. Never before had the world seen strategic bombing as used in World War II. In some cases thousands of aircraft dropped tens of thousands of tonnes of munitions on a single city.
Between them, the Allies were able to bomb around the clock. During the day, the US Air Forces made precision raids against specific targets with their well-defended aircraft, while the less protected British bombers crossed into Germany under the cover of night and massed over the cities by the hundreds.
I am small. Everyone else is very tall. The big ones take care of me. They smile at me, hold me. Sometimes they sound angry and sometimes they sound frightened. Sometimes they make me laugh and I love them very much. One of the big people is Father, one is Mother, then there is my big brother. Father is the most beautiful and the strongest. He is not with us very often. On some evenings he comes into the room where I sleep.
The wallpaper by my bed is covered with little pink flowers that are connected by thin whirly lines. I always look at them before I sleep, and I have found out where one pattern ends and the same pattern begins. It has a rhythm. It never changes, it never ends. I like it. There is a secret spot where I can peel the thick paper off the wall. That feels almost as nice as peeling off a scab. But when Father stands by my bed and smiles at me, I forget about the pattern.
He makes me feel warm all over. Like my blanket. Soft and cosy. His eyes shine when he looks at me. I drown in that blue, blue, moist warm shine. I want to get close to him, smell him, touch him, feel the roughness of his suit, creep into his arms. I want to stay like this forever.
I lie again in my bed. Father moves to the window. His voice is deep and strong.
He can make funny faces.
Standing by the window, his face is dark. Like some of the black cut-outs in my book. The sun touches his hair and shoulders. Maybe fathers are people who only come from time to time to make one sigh and feel so good that everything else fades and one can live in a rainbow.
What do children remember? Experts have said that a small child will not remember anything much from before two years of age. Knowing these findings, and remembering as much as I do, I talked with other people of my generation and we came to the conclusion that small children normally don’t remember the first two or even three years of their lives because nothing much is happening. They feed and sleep, sleep and feed. We slept very little, we were forced into awareness by fear, noise, irregular hours, frightened parents, moving from cosy cot to cold shelter at odd times of day or night. Even today, I can draw the pattern of the sofa on which I usually spent those hours in the shelter examining my immediate surroundings and creating a well-known and safe square meter for myself.
Of course I didn’t understand what my parents argued about until much later, remembering the words, recognition came like a gentle hiccup.
Seen from the safe distance of today, I realise that my father just couldn’t believe what many Germans where whispering behind their hands. He was the kind of man who’d give his last shirt to the fellow traveller who didn’t have one. Infamy was anathema to him. When I began to travel through Europe, people often said to me that we should all have known. I have absolutely no idea what we all could have or should have known – or done for that matter. But when my parents later talked about their lives to satisfy my curiosity, it became clear that life in Germany between the wars was a hard one. Inflation, hunger, sheer survival… people didn’t have much time to do more than make it through yet another day with at least their children fed, and then, suddenly, before they had time to think, they lived in Hitler’s version of Germany.
I believe my mother needed the knowledge that her husband was at least as aware as she was – to talk, to agree, to trust, just to have a little wimple of truth somewhere in her life – and it frustrated her no end to find that he and she looked at the same things only to differ so profoundly in their interpretation.
My brother is a member of the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth). He has a beige-brown shirt and shorts, a leather belt with a big buckle as well as a black tie which he feeds through a complicated-looking round ball shape made from hard strips of beige leather that twist around each other, leaving a hole in the centre which holds the tie. He tells me sometimes that they play guitar and sing around campfires and go on long walks or, rather, ‘marches’. My brother is happy with his friends, and I want to be like him when I grow up.
Sometimes he plays ‘marching soldiers’ with me. There is a special jacket I put on and I follow my brother, who is the sergeant. We march through the flat, round and round, from the hall through the dining room to the living room and back again, and we sing.
I sit in my chair. Mother either makes it into what she calls a ‘high chair’, and when I sit high up in it I am almost as tall as her. I like that. Often she folds it down. When it’s folded down it has wheels and a table in front of me. The table has coloured balls on metal rods fixed to its sides. I can move the balls along the rods and count, or make patterns.
I am in my folded-down chair in the kitchen. Mother is busy. The radio is on, and I listen to the familiar sounds Mother makes and to the music. The music stops. There is a voice. Deep like Father’s, but different. I don’t understand what it says. It sounds like the things grown-ups say to each other. The voice sounds serious but it doesn’t scare.
Suddenly, there is another voice. It is a hard one, loud and excited. It rises, rises… My stomach cramps. I feel just like I do when I hear those whizzing sounds before the bangs.
Mother stops whatever she is doing and moves toward the radio. She turns a button and the voice is silenced. Her face is dark and angry. It feels as though joylessness has come into the house. Similar to those bad things I dream of at night. They are often invisible, but I know they are there. Now Mother looks at me. Her eyes become big and wet. ‘Mummy…?’ She bends down and holds me close. It doesn’t feel safe this time. It feels as though we are both going to drown. I can smell her hair and all her mother-smell.
By that time the Germans had been told that there was a ‘home front’, and that they must make a greater sacrifice than ever before. We were told that the heroic men and women not actively engaged in the war will contribute to win the most decisive battle in German history. According to our radio broadcasts, this war had been forced on the German people because England and France had attacked the civilian population by bombing its villages and cities. In his various hyperboles, Hitler repeated time and again that Churchill was the evil power that would not destroy Germany, but England itself.
Mother says, “Hitler, unser Führer indeed! Sheep they are. Blind and deaf. A nation of sheep!”
I feel very, very small. And I do not understand. But, surely, Father will keep us safe. Why is Mother so angry with Father? Now Father sounds angry, too. It is always about this ‘Führer‘, ‘sheep’, ‘insanity’, ‘war’, ‘death’, ‘destruction’, ‘the children’… I hear her cry.
“Why are you so blind? Can’t you see what’s happening in Germany today? Have you no ears, no eyes, no brain?”
My father’s gentle voice is not gentle now when he replies something about ‘foreign propaganda’ : “No-one would do these things, not even the Turks. Certainly not the Germans. Lies, all lies! Foreign propaganda, that’s what it is!”
I know that lies are bad. But Mother does not lie. Maybe the Führer has lied? But why is Mother so angry with Father? Perhaps the Führer has told lies about Father? Father is the best man in the world. He does not lie. He is good and strong, and I am going to be sick. And Father is not blind. He can see. He can always see me.
Parachute flares tend to be used where large areas need to be illuminated at night. In World War II, clusters of coloured flares were deployed by reconnaissance aircraft to mark targets for bomber missions.
Mother calls them ‘Christmas trees’. My brother calls them flares. I am wrapped in a blanket, in my favourite position on Mother’s arm, one of my arms around her neck. We are on the balcony. It is night time. Danger time. We Mother calls them ‘Christmas trees’. They drop into the night sky, hang there for a while like coloured stars which have lost their way. There are more, oh, and – over there – and – Mother, look, some more over there! Now she runs with me down to the shelter. Moments later there is the whizz, the rumble. I press my hands to my ears.
In the shelter, I always lie on the sofa. I trace the pattern of the velvet. It’s dark brown, with odd little shapes in lighter brown and a soft, ‘dirty’ pink.
Our neighbours have brought their china rabbit and the chicken for me. I have to make sure that rabbit and chicken aren’t killed upstairs. I am not sure what happens upstairs when we are down here. Maybe that man with the hoarse, loud voice comes in these explosions and sweeps through the house, killing everything with his breath.
Black. He is black and he has a cape, like on the posters. There are these posters everywhere with a black, shadowy figure. He wears a hat and a cape and one can’t see his eyes.
My dolls are all right. They sit in their pram.
“Mother, the broom is looking.”
She gets up and turns it so that the brush part is now on the floor. We are in the centre of the shelter. On either side are wooden enclosures. Each one belongs to a family. We have potatoes and coal in ours – and the broom. When his hairy top sticks out over the partition I feel bad inside. I don’t like it ‘looking at me’.
The siren won’t sound the all-clear tonight – that long, long howl which tells us it’s alright to go back upstairs. Perhaps we will be down here forever.
Just as during a thunderstorm, the bangs come closer. My brother looks white like a ghost. He holds me tight. Now my mother comes to my other side and holds us both. Suddenly the candles die. Something seems to explode inside of me.
My mother’s voice: “Frau Hagmann, Herr Hagmann, are you there?”
“We are alright.”
“Thank God for that!”
Confusion. Everyone speaks at once.
“Where are the matches – Oh mein Gott, the house is gone – we are trapped – must have been next door. The Brandt’s… Must have been the Brandt’s house!”
My brother feels rigid. Mother has let go of us. I can see her now, near the wall that separates us from the neighbour’s shelter. There is a huge hole in the wall which was not there before. Mother walks towards it. It is a mouth, a dark, black mouth. The man with the cape is on the other side. He is going to breathe on Mother. Mother, don’t… don’t… A light appears on the other side and a figure in white. It is Herr Brandt in his long underpants, holding a candle.
“We are alright. Are you? It was next to us.”
I can’t help thinking that Herr Brandt looks quite silly in his underpants.
Most paralyses caused by nervous-system damage are constant in nature; however, there are forms of periodic paralysis, including sleep paralysis, which are caused by other factors.
We can only play in one part of the road. The other half is hot. The asphalt over there bubbles. The houses have collapsed. Men in helmets and boots are pulling out half-burned bodies which look strange. Perhaps the black man does breathe fire. Like dragons.
Next to Brandt’s house there is now a huge crater. It’s slowly filling with water. The boys climb into it. I cannot understand how there can be a playground yesterday and a big hole today. I ask my brother.
“It was the bomb, stupid!”
I wish I were as big as he is. He knows everything. He tells me to stay out. Only the boys are supposed to climb into the hole. My brother doesn’t look back, he expects to be obeyed. The boys have sticks in their hands which they use to turn the earth, the stones, pretending to look for bodies. They climb up and out again on the other side.
That’s my chance. I manage to get to the bottom and suddenly slip into the water. It reaches up to my knees. It is cold and I am very frightened. The earth is whispering to me with many voices. Cold voices. Maybe there are bodies trapped inside the earth. Invisible arms are reaching for me. Something is hiding in the water under my feet. It slowly curls itself around my legs. I want to climb out. I take one step and… the siren starts. I am paralysed, I cannot move. I can never move when the siren sounds. It’s like in dreams when you want to run away from monsters and you can’t move. The siren drowns my screams. Now I can see Mother on top of the crater. She talks to my brother.
Then both move closer to the crater’s edge and look down. They come and lift me out and carry me into the shelter. My mother changes my stockings. She puts my slippers on. I begin to feel movement within me. I hear myself whimper. The all-clear sounds. We go upstairs and eat.
Incendiary bombs, also known as fire bombs, were used extensively in World War II. The large shells of the bombs were filled with an initial explosive and white phosphorous. These bombs started raging fires, burning at such extreme temperatures that most buildings were destroyed completely.
There are paper bags full of sand everywhere. “In case one of those phosphorous bomb drips,” explains my brother. “They burn everything they touch,” he says, “but if you catch it in time, you can cover it with sand and make it safe until the air-raid men come to take care of it.”
I can’t imagine how anyone can catch a burning bomb and stick a sandbag over it.
We are in the cellar. The door opens. My father stands in the entrance. His face is black but his eyes shine, his teeth shine, he is smiling.
“Got it,” he says.
“What? Who? How?” we ask.
“That bastard bomb upstairs.”
A firebomb had landed in the attic. Father had caught it, put a sandbag over it and made it safe. He is one of the air-raid men when he is not at work. Oh, my wonderful father. I bet he is the only one who has ever caught one of those. There is no one stronger than him, or cleverer, or faster. I run to him. He lifts me up. I can see his face, it looks so tired. But there is something in his eyes which makes me strong, too.
I stand on the balcony. On tiptoes. I know I’ll see him any minute now. The tram has already turned the corner, and it’s the tram on which he usually comes. It’s a sunny afternoon. I feel expectant and happy. There he is! I can see his trench-coated figure, recognise the way he walks, the way he wears his hat. He carries his leather case and something wrapped in paper. He probably bought two of those flat fish with yellow spots because it’s Friday. We always eat fish on Friday.
I am never quite sure whether it’s Friday because he brings the fish, or whether he brings the fish because it’s Friday.
Mother usually takes the packet from Father and lets the fish slide out of the paper into the flat-bottomed kitchen sink, and I pull up a foot stool so that I can reach. I let water run over the fish and stroke their flat bodies. Stroking them in one direction they feel lovely and soft, the other way they hurt my hand.
I keep watching my father’s approach. He lifts his hat a little as he greets a woman walking past. I don’t know her. He bows a little. I know he smiles at her. He smiles a lot. People seem to melt when he smiles at them. Now he vanishes behind our block where I can’t see him any longer. That’s the moment! I run to the door, down the stairs, out of the front door.
He has turned the corner. That’s when I run like the wind. I get nearer and nearer. I can see him walking faster and faster. Now he puts down his case and his parcel, he squats, opens his arms. I fly and crash to his chest. His arms cover me. Now I feel his hands under my armpits. He lifts me up. He spins me round and round. Then he puts me down. I take his hand. We walk home.
After taking our napkins out of the napkin rings, I used to put all the rings on my chair and sit on them, expecting to find more rings after lunch. Ever since my mother explained to me that hens sit on their eggs until their chicks hatch, I had high hopes for our napkin rings. This effort prompted my father to call me Henne (hen).
Sometimes we have an orange for desert. Father peels it and then gives each one of us a couple of juicy, squishy orange pieces. Then comes the best part: Father takes one of the bits of orange skin he peeled off and starts to carve it with his sharp pocket knife. He does the same with another bit of skin. When he’s put the bits he carved into his mouth – one he sticks behind his upper and one behind his lower lip – he smiles at us with big, scary orange teeth. I laugh with the others, but I have goose pimples too. I want a go, and Father makes me a couple of smaller ‘teeth’. My brother is scared of me and runs away. I follow him around the flat, laughing more and more, until my orange teeth fall out of my mouth and Mother takes them away.
Many children were evacuated in groups, and most were sent to farms. Some were afraid of the farm animals and others were surprised to see that apples grew on trees. Some children stayed in danger zones because parents couldn’t bear the separation and the uncertainty.
Something is wrong. I know it. Mother and Father are talking in the kitchen. They always talk in the kitchen. They think I sleep and can’t hear them. Mother has sat by my bed and told me the story of ‘Rose Red and Rose White’ yet again. My thoughts are big and fearless. Mother has left. A little sunlight forces itself through a hole in the curtains. I trace the beam and blow because it makes the little bits of dust dance. Then I hear them talk. Mother says, “We have to go. They are after the Ruhr. They’ll bomb everything.”
I can’t hear what my father says.
Mother: “Your precious Führer…”
The voices are getting quieter now. I strain to hear. Suddenly my father’s voice: “Don’t talk like that, Mother. They’ll lock you up or send you away. Think it. Don’t ever say it!”
I hear my mother cry. Then her voice again: “Anyway, it will be best for the children. We have to go.”
Somehow I know that my father is not part of our going. My heart nearly jumps out of my body. My throat tightens. I clench my fists. I cry. I sleep. The dreams come again. Black dreams. I run. Flames leap at me from everywhere. I run. Something is after me. In front of me the ground opens. I fall… fall… fall… Suddenly I float. The sun is shining. I am whirling around and around. I feel two hands under my armpits. I look down and see my father’s face. He smiles at me with such tenderness, but his eyes are sad this time.
We are in the train. Mother wears her green hat. My father stands on the platform. Mother cries. My brother looks pale again. His mouth is tight. I know his face when it looks like this. He doesn’t want to cry. He stares into the distance. I stand by the window. My father’s voice sounds choked.
“I’ll come and see you soon, little one.”
I feel empty inside. A tear rolls down his cheek. I have never seen him cry before. I want to hold him and comfort him. He looks so lonely and I love him so. What will he do without me? He won’t come. It’s too far away. He might not know where to find us. The train moves, the steam engine snorts, steam wafts past us. Father runs alongside the carriage for a while:
“Look after your mother. Look after my children. May God be with you!” He waves his white handkerchief. This time, Mother doesn’t tell me to sit down. The wind blows into my face and past me. I smell that train smell. I strain my neck, standing on tiptoes, until Father becomes smaller and smaller and then disappears behind a bend. I sit down. We don’t talk.
The journey seems to take forever. I sleep, I wake. I look out of the window. The chimneys of the steelworks have long vanished. The land is green and lush. I can see cows, little houses. I like what I see. I sleep. I wake. We arrive at a huge station which is called Leipzig. The loudspeakers echo “Leipzig Hauptbahnhof! Leipzig Hauptbahnhof!” Mother looks down at me. I sit on one of the suitcases. She calls me her ‘little evacuee’. I don’t know what that means.
My mother was born in the heart of Sachsen (Saxony), and we were received by members of her family: her aunts, brothers, cousins, nieces and nephews. Today I believe that we left home not only because the amount of Allied bombing raids were increasing dangerously, but also because my mother was homesick, tired of my father’s stubborn refusal to see things her way, and because Mother’s family was mainly a collection of unafraid, irreverent old women who said what they thought – and what they thought tended to be to the point. They would later comment, “I said it when we had Hitler, and I say it now with the Bolsheviks… what’s the difference anyway…”
When we settled in a small village in the Dresden area, we thought we’d sit out the War in relative peace. Everyone seemed to think (‘hoped’ may be the better word) it would be over soon, and in the meantime I was living in a kind of no-man’s land between ‘before the war’ and ‘once the war is over’.
Mother says they are my aunts. I have never met aunts before. They look old. I don’t like it here. The rooms are dark and rank. We eat. I sleep.
We are again at the station. It smells like going on holidays. The big steam engines fascinate and frighten me. Their wheels are huge; they are even bigger than my brother! I know they’ll suck me into their moving, pushing, crunching, steaming iron parts and I’ll be crushed, but my brother likes them. He wants to be an engine driver. He tries to show me the wheels closer up, but I won’t take his hand.
Everything is so confusing. Mother is laughing and crying. So are the aunts. They speak German, but it sounds funny. They use some words which I do not understand. Mother says we are now in Sachsen, her home. And when she was little she too spoke like that but she never liked her own dialect. She laughs.
“I guess I fell in love with your father because he spoke so beautifully.”
I can understand that. I love his voice. Thinking about him makes me feel sick again.
We are in another train. The compartment is small. The aunts are on the platform. They wave. I don’t want to wave to them.
Again we arrive at a station. This one is small. There are more aunts. But this time there is also an uncle. I like Uncle. He has a creased face and takes my hand. He shakes it earnestly and doesn’t try to kiss me.
They have brought a little cart. It has four wheels and a handle. It’s made of wood. The wheels have metal bands around them. Uncle explains that wooden wheels without metal bands would wear out too soon. They load our suitcases into the carriage. Uncle pulls it. I hold his hand. He says he is home on leave. He is a soldier. Has he met the black man with the cape and breath like a dragon?
“I guess I have.”
“Is he called the Führer?”
“Shsh, little frog, I guess we talk about two different things. See this tree over there? I used to climb in it when I was a boy.”
And we walk.
My feet hurt, my legs are heavy. The forest never ends. I think of wolves, of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, of fairies and elves, dwarves and wicked witches. I turn to find Mother. She walks, her head bent, answering questions which the aunts ask excitedly.
My brother looks straight ahead.
Now Uncle has put me on top of the cart. I ride into the village sitting on the familiar suitcases. My brother is helping Uncle to pull the cart uphill by pushing from behind. The road is paved with cobblestones. Everything that’s loose on my body wobbles. It makes me giggle. Uncle says, “Welcome to Kriebethal, little one.”
In the 19th century, many factories settled in the Zschopau valley, making industrial use of the river’s water power. But the railway had never been extended into the actual valley and therefore the transport of people and goods from and to the railway was cumbersome and often expensive. Even so, the then largest paper manufacturer in Germany had settled in the tiny village of Kriebethal near Waldheim and provided jobs for the surrounding area.
We stop on top of the hill, outside a little house. A crinkly, smiling face is leaning out of the window. The face wears a black beret pulled over hair and ears. In the doorway stands a lean old man, a pipe in his right hand, his head covered in white stubble instead of hair. It looks like a beard the wrong way up. He wears dark-framed round glasses. I know who these two are. I have seen them on little brown photographs. Oma and Opa, my grandmother and my grandfather. I like them. I know that Oma cannot walk. She had a stroke, Mother said. I imagine she was struck by something out of the air – like lightning.
Uncle takes me upstairs. There is the face I saw at the window. She sits in an armchair. All dressed in black. I feel shy, because she cannot walk. One arm lies limply in her lap. I curtsey and say, “Guten Tag, Oma.”
The suitcases are being lifted off the cart, brought in and stowed away on top of wardrobes. Everybody talks at once. There is nowhere to hide, so I sit in a corner and watch and listen.
Everyone tries to hug me, kiss me or talk to me. I just want to be left alone. My thoughts are whirling and I pull away. The only one who takes no interest in me is Opa.
We have eaten. He lies on the sofa, smoking his pipe. I furtively look at him. The white stubble on his head is the strangest thing I have ever seen. I look at Oma. Does she always wear the black beret, even in bed? It has something on top, like a tiny lightning rod. Perhaps it’s there so that she can’t be struck again. She looks at me and smiles. That makes me feel shy and I look away. I feel lost. They are talking about us staying for a while until we can move into our own flat. Mother says that the furniture must be coming soon. I would like to find out where we’ll live. Whether there are other children and whether they all speak in this funny way, but I don’t ask.
I have not heard a siren since Leipzig.
I wonder what Father is doing right now.
I look at Opa again. He has a big nose that bends down just where his glasses sit. I would very much like to touch the stubble on his head. Slowly I walk towards him, sure that he hasn’t seen me, and stretch out my hand. I touch the white stubble and stroke it gently. It feels soft. Opa doesn’t move. I walk back to my corner. He looks at me and winks and I know that I love him.
We are in a different village. Here is where we will live until the War is over. Our furniture is coming today. Mother says my bed will be in the truck. The furniture truck reaches into the sky and is as long as a house. Some men are unloading our things. My brother and I help carry everything upstairs. I can take the small boxes.
Immediately after everything had been unpacked and put away, I missed my favourite toy, my big stuffed elephant on wheels. I could ride on him and sometimes my brother would pull me along. But ‘Ele’ was not just for riding. Ele was for loving, and I used to cuddle him with passion and really, really squeeze hard. His fur was short and a bit bristly against my skin. Ele was my friend, my pet, my protector my victim, and I loved him above all others. Mother said he probably went back to Africa because he didn’t like the War.
Mother takes us to her old school friend, ‘Auntie’ Marie. Can’t imagine them ever having been school children. Auntie Marie is much shorter than Mother, she is enormously fat and has huge boobs. She sweats a lot. Little droplets are usually showing on her upper lip in between little hairs that grow there, almost like a man’s moustache, but not that big. I don’t like her kissing me because I don’t like her sweat on my skin. Auntie Marie has a goose farm. She sells feathers for eiderdowns. Geese make a lot of noise and are scary when they stretch their long necks and hiss.
A boy called Lutz lives in Auntie Marie’s house and takes me by the hand to go exploring. He takes me into a big shed. It’s very dark at first, but I soon get used to the dim light and can see all sorts of things I can’t begin to know what they are for. In a far-away corner I see a familiar shape – it can’t be – it is! – it’s Ele! I run to Ele and, as I put my arms around him, I see that he has lost his trunk. When I look around and find his trunk stuffed in a box.
Ele is so, so sad. I take the string that’s tied around his neck and pull him out of the shed, his trunk wedged under my arm. Lutz doesn’t know what to do. Hhe says that Ele is theirs, that Mother has given it to them. He also doesn’t want me to leave all by myself. But I don’t want to see anyone, especially not Mother. She lied to me. She gave my Ele to Lutz, and she can’t do that. I pull Ele out of the yard. When I reach the road I straddle him and move forward as though I was on a scooter, his trunk under my arm, sobbing big sobs. I am not quite sure whether Ele and I go in the right direction, but I don’t think I ever want to go home again.
Soon I hear Mother running behind us. I move Ele faster, but she catches up with us. I can’t look at her because I don’t want to see the lie.
My brother has his own room. I have a cot next to Mother’s bed. Before I fall asleep I study the ceiling. I miss my wallpaper. Along the four sides of the ceiling wreaths of red roses and green leaves have been painted. I try to find a pattern. Mother thinks they are painted by hand and that makes each rose and each wreath different.
Although night terrors are most common in children between the ages of two and six, they can occur at almost any age. Typical night terrors last about five to 30 minutes after which children usually return to regular sleep.
I dream the worst dream I have ever had. Monsters are all around me, pulling and probing and threatening me inside of me and outside. They crawl over me and inside of me and I know I have to wake up. I have to wake up! They must go away! They are a dream! They are only a dream! I want to call Mother, but I cannot open my mouth. I cannot move. I cannot open my eyes. Yet I see all of them. Hideous figures, grinning at me and giggling behind hairy hands, whispering to each other. Hissing. I have to wake up! Slowly I open my eyes. The sun shines already into our room. We don’t have curtains yet. I can see Mother asleep in her bed. Her face is turned to the wall. And all around my bed they sit… in the broad morning light! They won’t go away. So they are real. Now I scream. My mother wakes and comes to my bed and holds me tight. The monsters fly out of the window. They fly away, and I watch them getting smaller, smaller and then disappear. I try to tell Mother but I don’t have a voice.
I meet Adelheid and Ulla. Ulla is very old. She is 12. Adelheid is only one year older than I am. She is almost five. They call me a refugee. They laugh at the way I speak and call me ‘posh’. They say my mother shouldn’t think that she is better than any of the folks here, just because she speaks posh. They make fun of some of the words I use. But they show me around.
There are pigs in the pen. They have silly noses and make funny noises when they eat. There are some geese behind the barn. Adelheid warns me – they bite, especially the ganders. Adelheid’s father owns the house. He is a roof mender, and Ulla’s father is a builder, but he is a soldier now. I don’t like Adelheid’s father. He says ‘Heil Hitler’ a lot. He has a scar on one side of his mouth which makes his mouth crooked and mean. He says we shouldn’t have bothered coming, the war would be over soon. The Führer would knock the stuffing out of all of them.
I was small and in a big railway station, with my mother and brother. Mother had told me that she sent certain parcels by rail instead of entrusting them to the removal people, and we were there, waiting for the train.
Just before we left, my parents had bought me a small baby doll, something I had not only wanted, but had desperately longed for. I suppose the last thing my mother needed was to worry about her little daughter’s highly prized possession while she had to get us and a mass of luggage to our destination in one piece. So ‘Ulrike’, as I had already called the doll, was sent separately by train, together with other fragile items.
I waited with breathless anticipation, while not quite understanding how my doll would travel by train. We were waiting at the end of the platform on which the train was supposed to arrive. Small cargo sent by passenger train was usually in the last carriage, often together with the mail. All I recall is a seemingly endless wait and loudspeaker messages no-one could possibly understand. Then my mother picked me up and held me close and said that the train wouldn’t be coming, that it had been bombed somewhere on its way and that I would never see my baby doll again.
Adelheid has the most beautiful doll. It’s a real baby and can wet its nappy. It looks cuddly and has dimples in its elbows and knees. I feel such terrible envy. I love my dolls, but they are not beautiful. They don’t have nice clothes. The girls laugh at my collection and call them ‘refugee dolls’.
They show me the strutting turkeys – black and grey with something like a red-bluish ‘horn’ on their beak and the same colour stuff dangling from their beaks down to their pushed-out breasts. Then we visit the baby goats. Their horns are just growing, there are only little knuckles under the soft pink skin that’s covered in white hair, and they try them out on us, butting us with their little heads. I put my arms around one of them and kiss the top of its nose.
Chickens look stupid. When they run and the wind blows into the fluffy bums just under their stand-up tail feathers, one can see a little hole. Ulla says that is where the eggs drop out. I don’t believe her. The hole is too small.
The rooster waits for us in the mornings. We put him into the dolls’ pram and pull a doll’s hat over his red comb. He drops a skin over his eyes and just lies there. His head rests on the little pillow and all that red stuff which hangs under his beak drops sloppily to one side. He loves to be taken for walks in the dolls’ pram. People stop and look and laugh. They say that he won’t be much good at his job. I have never seen him work. I ask Ulla what his job is. She laughs and calls me stupid.
Adelheid’s mother had planned for her daughter’s birthday for months. She’d saved flower, butter, sugar, eggs, fruit, cream … everything that was needed to cook and bake and transform a bleak day of rations and war into a feast for eight children who’d never seen a real cake before. On the day, Mother sent me downstairs at three in the afternoon in my finest – which wasn’t much. I had no present and don’t think that one was expected.
There is probably no word to describe the wonder: a table full almost bending under the weight of cakes and tarts, candles, ribbons and glasses filled with a poison-green, sweet drink concocted with unimaginable magical ingredients.
Perhaps we dived in quietly, or noisily, or talked while we munched our way through pounds of cholesterol and starch, certain is that one of our friends, his face smeared with icing sugar and something red and something green, suddenly crunched up his face and burst into tears.
“What’s wrong? What happened? Do you feel ill?”
“I … I … can’t eat any more and I wanted to eat at least one bit of every cake. That one … over there … I haven’t tried it yet … and I am too full …!”
Our weekly day for doing the washing is Saturday. Mother carries the big basket and I carry the soap. We walk across the yard to the wash house. Mother has already lit a wood fire under the huge copper kettle. She gently drops all the white dirty washing and some soap into the hot water and lets it get even hotter, stirring it from time to time with an enormous wooden stick.
After it’s boiled for a while, Mother lifts out every item of washing with the wooden stick and places it, splashing scalding water all over the place, in the washing machine; then she adds some of the soapy water from the kettle and some more soap. The washing machine is round. The outside is made from wood and the inside is made from what Mother calls aluminium. That’s a difficult word. In the middle of the washing machine it a contraption with two wooden ‘paddles’. When Mother turns a handle, those ‘paddles’ move back and forth, back and forth, and Mother closes the lid.
A while later, Mother lets out the dirty water – there is a little tap at the bottom – and fills it with clean cold water she fetches from the pump in the yard. She does that several times. In the meantime she is washing the coloured stuff by hand, first rubbing it on a washboard and then rinsing it in clean water.
Now we move an enormous aluminium tub with handles closer to the washing machine, and Mother removes all the wet, heavy washing from the machine and drops it into the tub. We push and pull the heavy tub towards the big stone sink on which a mangle is mounted. Mother starts feeding a small corner of each piece of washing between the two white rubber rolls and starts to turn the handle. I must make sure that especially the big sheets don’t bunch up too much. If they do, Mother won’t be able to turn the handle.
Mother’s hands are red and wounded.
When the water has been squeezed out of everything, we hang the smaller pieces on the washing line. In the summer we spread the white cotton sheets and table cloths out over the grass that’s kept fenced in just for the purpose. The fence makes sure that no animal makes a mess on that grass. We can’t control the birds that fly over. Every half hour or so I water the sheets with the watering can, barefoot and careful not to step on the clean washing. Mother explains that the sun is bleaching the sheets and makes them white again. In the winter we hang everything up in the attic and often, when we go up to take the washing down, everything is frozen stiff. And that’s what Mother calls them jokingly: ‘stiffs’. “Come, Annie, let’s go and get the stiffs…”
When the sheets are dry, Adelheid and I take them in a big basket to the place in the lower village where huge revolving cylinders iron sheets, duvet covers, pillow cases, table cloths etc. The heat in there is suffocating. Two big women with red faces stand behind those enormous cylinders and, while we feed the sheets as evenly as we can from the front, they take them out from behind the rollers, fold them and put them in a basket.
My cousin Harald was the only son of Mother’s brother Rudi. Even though Harald was a little older than I, we played a lot together, and Opa would often take both of us to his allotment or to the nearby woods to go mushroom picking. One rainy afternoon, at grandfather’s house, Harald and I brave the big, old, dirty attic. Cobwebs make us shiver with delicious horror, and we pretend to be pirates looking for the treasure chest.
Harald has tied one of grandfather’s ties around his left eye and is the captain. I am just a girl but I’m allowed because the other pirates just killed all the crew. We are slowly moving towards the darkest corner of grandfather’s loft. All of a sudden I see something… can that be my wooden dog that ran away because I didn’t love it? That’s what Mother said. As I get closer I recognise it with certainty. It’s my dog ‘Wackelschwanz’ (wobbletail). I use my skirt to clean the dust off it and hold it close. Harald says, “That’s mine! Your mum sent it to me! That’s mine!” I make a beeline for the trapdoor and nearly tumble down the steps, Wackelschwanz in my arms, to confront my mother. How could she do this? She took my Wackelschwanz and gave it away, so she lied to me – again!
“You had so many toys and Harald had hardly any, and this one you always forgot to take back home when we went to the park. I thought you didn’t want it anymore.”
Now she lies again. She knows how much I missed it when it disappeared. How can she now say she thought I didn’t want it anymore?
It used to be a German custom to present children on their first day of school with a cone full of sweets and other goodies, the theory being that the first day of school can be very stressful for a small child, and the Zuckertüte (sugarbag or sweetbag, in the shape of a huge cone) helped to ‘sweeten’ the experience. The cones varied greatly in size and decoration. Some of the more extravagant cones were nearly as large as the child.
My first school day. I am grown-up at last. I get a Zuckertüte full of biscuits. My brother tells me about the times before the war and all the sweets he had in his. Still, I am happy and hold on tight to mine. Mother takes a photograph.
We live in Upper Street and the village school is on Lower Village Road. I have been looking forward to going to school. I can read, but I cannot write. I am a bit worried about that but Mother tells me that children go to school to learn to read and write. That’s what schools are for. Soon I will be able to write to Father.
The classroom is dark, and the teacher’s desk is on a raised platform from where he can see us all better. With me are about 20 other children, boys and girls. Most of them I have never seen before. I wonder whether the other children will play with me. My dialect is almost perfect. Mother doesn’t know this because we are not allowed to speak like that at home. The teacher is old, he has grey hair and a dark moustache. He raises his right arm:
We stand and answer. “Heil Hitler!” Then we all sit down behind our desks. On either side of the desks – there is room for two children at each one – are hooks. We are told to hang our schoolbags on these hooks. The schoolbags have metal rings at the back. We look at each other’s schoolbags. Some children have really splendid ones. Usually inherited from older brothers and sisters, they are made from leather. Most of us have poor imitations. Some have wooden ones. The teacher tells us something about the Führer, the Reich, the Vaterland, achievement and many more and difficult words. Then we are told to open our schoolbags and take out our small blackboards. The first lesson begins.
After school I walk home. Up the dusty drive from the schoolhouse, past the playground, over the bridge that crosses the brook. Left and along Lower Village Road passing the church. Past the horses in farmer Körner’s field. Uphill until I reach Upper Street. Turn right past the pond and then along Upper Street stretching endlessly amongst the fields. Now left and into the yard. Upstairs.
Mother brought her sewing machine. Her hands feed white, shiny fabric through the thing that goes up and down and her feet are moving a big pedal at the bottom. Piet, my new little blue budgerigar, sits on Mother’s shoulder and watches her face. Sometimes she talks to him. The feathers on his little head rise in astonishment, he stretches his neck, cocks his head to one side and looks into her mouth. He hates his cage and only goes there to eat and sleep. We leave his cage door open and keep the windows shut. Mother says he would fly away and not find his way back and he’d either die of hunger or be eaten by a cat.
When I do my homework, he usually sits on top of my head, clawing into the hair roll which my mother fixes for me several times a day. He flies onto my hand whenever I call him. Sometimes he walks his funny walk across the table, his ‘toes’ turned inwards. He picks up one of my pencils and balances it in his beak until he can carry it to the edge of the table where he drops it, cocking his head in an effort to pretend it happened by accident and soon getting very cross when one of us doesn’t pick it up immediately to start the game all over.
I have to pack my exercise books away very carefully. Now that I write on paper, Piet has already ‘eaten’ some of my pages. When I have to show my homework and it’s just one big, messy hole I am very upset and I say honestly, “I am sorry, Sir, the budgie has eaten it.”
It’s summer. We walk to school barefoot. The tar on the road is soft and hot. One can leave one’s footprints behind on the side of the road. The wheat and the corn are golden, and the barley bends gently under its load. Let the weather hold and there will be a harvest soon. Here and there red poppies and cornflowers peak through. I would like to pick some, but I’ve already learned that the fields are sacred. Everyone who steps into a field, from the time it is freshly sown until the end of the harvest, steps on food.
The corn is higher than I am. It feels good to walk safely between these vast, swaying ripeness. Sometimes I step onto one of the milestones lining the road and balance there. This way I can overlook the fields. It is quiet. I can only hear the lark high up in the light-blue sky. Somewhere a cricket sends out messages. The air moves in the heat, making itself visible, distorting images that aren’t there. I take a deep breath of contentment and feel a part of something very big and magical.
Mother bends over her sewing machine while I sit at the kitchen table doing my homework. Later I’ll write to Father. We have had many letters from him full of the War which here seems far away. His letters bring back the dreams.
I often dream about my old home. I walk in familiar streets, meet my friends, see Father. These dreams are so vivid that – on waking – it’s sometimes difficult to know where I am. But more often I dream about monsters, wolves, witches, bombs, fire and fear. Some dreams come back and back again.
One of these dreams is a good dream: I am picking flowers by the barn at the back of the house. A friend is with me. It’s one of those gentle, golden summer days.
We wear light cotton dresses and eat the wild blackberries that grow on one side of the old barn. I look at my friend and laugh because her face is stained from blackberry juice. A lark has risen and sings high up above us. It’s only a tiny speck in the shimmering blue. As we watch it, it becomes slowly larger and we hear an engine. An aeroplane approaches us. It doesn’t look like any plane we’ve ever seen. Its body is fat and white and its wings are short, stubby and bright red. We want to run but can’t move. Now the plane is almost above us and stops in mid-air. The pilot opens the door and lets down a ladder. He climbs down the ladder and picks a flower, offering it to us. We keep his flower and give him the ones we picked in fair exchange. With our flowers in one hand, he climbs back into his plane. The ladder vanishes and the door closes. Very, very slowly and very, very silently the plane rises like a lark and disappears.
During World War II, conventional aerial bombardment claimed more than 60,500 British and between 305,000 and 600,000 German civilian lives. Half-way through the War, the United States Army Air Forces arrived to begin their own strategic bombing campaign, with their leaders firmly maintaining the claim that they were conducting ‘precision’ bombing of military targets while, in reality, ‘precision bombing’ meant simply that most bombs fell somewhere near a specific, designated target, and at night the bombing raids targeted cities. Nevertheless, the sheer tonnage of explosive delivered day and night was eventually sufficient to cause widespread damage.
The first air-raid alarm finds us all in school. We are told to run home as quickly as we can. The way home is endless. I thought I wouldn’t be able to move but I can walk. I can even run. My schoolbag over my shoulders I seem to run forever. At last, I’m home. Trying to catch my breath.
So, here we sit again in the dark of a shelter, waiting. Now they come. Soon we can hear the deep hum I know so well, but the sharp tak-tak-tak of the anti-aircraft guns is missing. This is a different rhythm of war. After only one piercing whizz there follows a thud, then comes the all-clear. We go to see the crater just behind the pub. My friends have never felt this kind of fear before.
The bomb didn’t explode. My brother takes my hand into his when we get to the rim of the crater it had made. We look down to contemplate the enemy. How disappointing – it’s just a huge, dark metal ‘thing’.
My father writes that he will come soon. If I didn’t hold on very tightly to my joy I’d explode. So I pretend to myself he’ll change his mind, or the War will change it for him. Mother says that the trains are not running frequently any longer because many have been bombed, and the majority of railway lines have been damaged. His journey may take weeks.
Allied attacks on German transportation, especially the railway system, damaged the German economy decisively. War production had to be considerably reduced and what could be produced rarely reached the front. The damage to the railway system naturally also limited the German army’s tactical mobility.
My budgie has flown away. I remember Piet’s little body in my hands, warm and trusting, his heart beating hard. I look for him everywhere and refuse to accept his loss for many weeks.
Since that first alarm, we now have blackouts at night. One old man patrols the village each evening at dusk and checks that no light is escaping through any of the windows. We usually sit around the kitchen stove and Mother reads stories from the fairy-tale books. My favourite one is ‘Jorinde and Joringel’ from the Brothers Grimm collection and I can’t help wishing that I’ll meet a prince one day who’ll rescue me.
Thank you, Rose. It was so realistic, and moving. Book I: Another Kind of Childhood continues next Sunday evening (UK time) followed over the next few weeks by Book II: The Unbearable Burden of Sex then Book III: Spitting against the Wind.
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The blog interviews will return as normal tomorrow with novelist and screenwriter Mark Adam Kaplan – the six hundred and eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, biographers, agents, publishers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.
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