Welcome to the newest slot on this 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!
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, and you can also read one of Rose’s short stories on http://shortstorywritinggroup.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/short-story-for-critique-003-mrs-boffa-by-rose-mary-boehm.
Coming Up For Air
A young girl’s struggle to take control of her life – click here to read Book I, Part 1. 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.
As part of the blackout effort, there was no longer any light in our hallway. On each half landing between one flat and the next one were two lavatories, separated from each other by a wooden partition. When we first arrived at the village, Adelheid and Ulla showed me their ‘secret lavatory telephone system’: the holes in the wooden seats had wooden lids which one could pick up by a handle and put on the side of the box seat. Enormous pipes ran from either lavatory to one even bigger main pipe which then ran all the way down into the cesspool. An outside lavatory in the yard served the workers and us children when we played out there. When we played ‘telephone’, one of us would be in the yard loo, one of us somewhere half-way upstairs, and another one all the way up in one of the lavatories on the top landing. We’d lift up the lids, first let the flies escape and then shout to each other through the pipes until the grownups told us to stop it. So much for ‘secret’!
It’s bed time and Mother finishes the story… I have been holding my wee for some time now because there’s no way I can leave our flat, walk alone up the dark staircase to go to the lavatory. Out there is everything I fear. I need Mother to accompany me but she is busy and impatient with me. But I know that something will get me in the dark. My heart is beating fast. I wobble on my stool. I try to pretend I don’t need to go any more. Mother’s face promises storms, and – not for the first time – I can’t hold it any longer. It’s inevitable, wet and warm and totally embarrassing. Every morning in the light of day I promise myself that tonight I’ll face the dark. After several weeks of this I cannot hold my wee at all. I hurt. The doctor diagnoses a severe bladder infection.
It’s harvest time. I watch the horses pull empty carts out into the fields. They trot, the farmhand holding the reins. They are the same horses that pulled the plough in the spring but then they take turns. Now, late summer, they go out together. Soon all the corn will be cut, it’ll be tied into bales and five of them will be stacked against each other to form something resembling an Indian tepee. This way the corn can dry, and we can play hide and seek inside the stacked-up bales. Inside each ‘tepee’ is just enough room for one of us.
I have learned to run across the dry stubble without hurting my feet. Even though I tread on a thistle from time to time, it’s not much of an event because the soles of my feet are now as tough as leather.
The sun stays with us. The summer never ends. Soon the corn is dry and can be taken to the barns. The rhythmic sound of the flails echoes through the village.
When the harvests begin, we pick up empty sacks and bags and go to those fields where the farmers have nearly finished and where the last bundles of wheat, corn or barley, or the last sacks of potatoes, are being lobbed onto the carts. As soon as the farmer gives us the go-ahead, we begin to walk slowly across the field. Taking a sack each, we pick up whatever the machines have left, and the field is picked clean in no time.
The whole village is here, well, everyone who does not live on a farm. Old women, young women, children, some old men. Each gatherer follows his ‘own’ track. Some are gathering faster than others and take from the tracks of the slower ones. Some old people who can’t move very fast or bend very easily have very little to take home, and then there are some mean farmers who rake the fields until there is nothing left anyway.
We also gather sugar beets. Mother boils the sugar beets in the washhouse. It takes many pestilential hours of boiling the beets until a bowl of brown, sticky mush is left which Mother keeps for the winter. I can’t stand the taste of sugar-beet syrup because it reminds me of the smell when she boiled it in the washhouse.
I am by myself. The evening sun is still warm. It paints golden specks on the world. I feel lonely and like it. I can hear Armand’s voice from afar. Armand is one of the French prisoners of war who help the farmers. Armand is the nicest. He always has a smile for us children. He sings beautiful and sad songs. His voice makes me shiver. I can see him now. He sits high up on the wagon, the reins left lose, the horses walking very slowly. When he comes over the hill, down the hill, towards me, he sings the most beautiful and sad song of all – the song of the Normandy. I recognise it because Father often used to sing this song to me and, even though I don’t understand the words, I remember Father’s translation and feel sad – Armand must be lonely for his home. Now he sees me. He waves his beret at me. This is how pirates must have looked – proud, strong, beautiful. I hope that he can go home soon, home to his Normandy. Everybody seems to be in the wrong place.
I have learned French:
“Bonjour, mademoiselle, ma belle!”
An estimated 2,000 thunderstorms are in progress at any one moment anywhere in the world, with lightning striking around 100 times each second. Daily, there are about 45,000 thunderstorms and yearly around 16 million all over the world.
And still it is hot. It’s already autumn, but the midday sun burns. The horizon behind the church steeple is now covered by a threatening dark metallic grey. The sparrows on the telephone wires are quiet; there is no wind. The horizon is blackening and slowly takes over most of the sky. The sun is still free, but its light has grown weaker. Everything made from polished metal takes on an eerie shine. And still there is no wind. The black spreads like a disease. The sun slowly expires, and the air grows heavier. Soon the wild riders will fill the sky. We wait. Nature waits. The trees await their punishment. My friends and I are holding hands and look up into the trees, waiting for the first sign. There… the leaves begin to whisper – quietly at first, then more urgently.
The storm springs upon us and takes our breath away. The branches of the trees are lashing the air, the trunks sigh as they try to give in to the tempest. We hear the first pears from the trees by the road spluttering onto the asphalt and into the ditches which run parallel to the road. The ditches are there to drain the road surface and the fields and will soon be running rivers. No rain yet, and the lightning cuts the horizon.
Here are the first heavy drops. We count the seconds between lightning and thunder. Soon there is no between. Hiding under the rabbit shed we watch the spectacle unfold. This is no longer rain but sheets of water, the sky is one flash, one thunder. We watch he wild riders, the war of the demons – we know all about that. Dream and reality are melting into each other. I am soaked through, and my skin contracts in fear and excitement.
The storm eases. The horizon’s colour gently changes to a luminous pale green. It’s already a little lighter and the earth smells of summer gone and wonderful secrets to come. A huge greenish-golden sphere hovers over the telephone wires. We stare in fascination as it floats majestically down; at first undecided, it suddenly and very quietly melts into the wall of our house.
Documented sightings of ball lightning date back to the Middle Ages. A Russian databank has collected around 10,000 reports from the past decades. Science to date has not been able to come up with an explanation for this phenomenon. Even though eye-witness accounts differ, usually ball lightning appears as a glowing, hovering ball of light moving slowly and not at a great height before it disappears (or explodes). It’s usually about as big as a beach ball, although much larger ones have been reported.
We take baskets from the shed and collect as many of the fallen pears as we can carry.
Our village nestled in a valley and was bordered on two sides by rivers and on another by low mountains. Electric storms were frequent in summer and autumn and couldn’t ‘escape’. They bounced back from the rivers, moved towards the mountains, bounced back from the mountains towards the rivers, and all the while unleashing their force over our valley. Not one building was without a lightning conductor, and all of us, even the smallest child, knew what not to do during a thunder storm.
“Don’t stay under trees, don’t stand up on a bare field, don’t touch metal, switch off the radio, don’t touch the taps…”
More often than not we’d sit out the storms in our living room, in a corner, close to Mother, well away from the windows and the cast-iron stove. In houses with more than one storey, each apartment was equipped with one of these beautifully worked yet very functional stoves, and in each flat they were in the same place – usually in the living area – one ‘on top of the other’, all very practically connecting to the same chimney built into every house beginning in the basement and taking the coal or wood smoke from each apartment through the roof into the air.
During one of these never-ending thunderstorms – I was clinging to Mother, sitting on her lap in a corner of the room – the stove lit up suddenly with moving rods of blue light that flickered furiously, seemingly in all directions, making a sound that was somewhere between a sharp whisper and the burning of newly cut, wet wood. At the same time a thunder clap shook the house almost to its foundations and a strange smell pervaded the room. The lightning hadn’t touched us, the room hadn’t caught fire, the stove hadn’t cracked – but it took us a few hours to get over the shock.
Someone screams and screams and screams. Mother and I run into the hallway. The screams come from one of the upstairs lavatories where a door is ajar. Mother rushes in while I hide behind her, peeping around her legs. Old Fräulein Klemmer sits there. White, wrinkled old flesh. Grey hair loose. Toothless mouth open.
“I have a tapeworm! I have a tapeworm!”
She’s pulling hard at something behind her back. In her bony fingers she holds her corset strings.
One day, Fräulein Klemmer is dead. Yellow, hollow, as though she’d been made of wax. How can it be her? Fräulein Klemmer must be missing what Mother calls ‘the soul’. Perhaps, when the soul left, Fräulein Klemmer left? Perhaps bodies are just disguises?
Moles are about the size of chipmunks and can weigh three to six ounces. A mole can have one litter of two to six per year. Moles are insectivores and, living mainly below ground, dig tunnels and can cause considerable damage to fields and lawns.
By the side of the road I watch two molehills. Perhaps, if I am very, very quiet, I will see at least one little pink nose. My patience pays off. The earth on the side of the molehill begins to move. Suddenly, a man on a bike stops by my side. We look at each other. He jumps off his bike, and before I can see how, he has two little black bodies in his hands and smashes them against the stone wall. He turns to me for a moment, hatred in his eyes.
“Got the little buggers…”
Even though I cried a lot, when Mother finally tucks me in, I fall asleep quickly and have a good dream. I am in a large, lush, green meadow. There are flowers of all possible colours everywhere. The sun trickles through the branches of a silver birch.
Two moles sleep in my lap. My hands protect them, keep them warm. I can think in mole and all animal languages. In my dream I understand their songs, their dreams and their gossip. First the flowers join in with tiny voices and then the trees. They rumble on a bit. I sleep on the warm, soft belly of a sheep.
Posters were appearing all over the village – wherever there was a wall, there was a poster. A travelling theatre troupe was passing through and, next Saturday afternoon, at 15.00 hours precisely, would perform ‘Hänsel and Gretel’ in the village hall, the opera for children by the German composer Engelbert Humperdinck. Tickets could be bought Saturday at the entrance. The village buzzed. We even got glimpses of strangers in the roads; they had to be artistes from the troupe. Somebody said that they had been put up in farmer Rothauer’s barn, so we soon had that place surrounded at all times, trying to look as inconspicuous as we could, which meant that we were as obvious as elephants amongst the pygmies.
We had no idea what to expect, but we were ready for the most wonderful, magical things and were not disappointed. Every one of the chairs which hastily had been organised were soon taken, but people continued to arrive and found standing places by the walls or sat on the stairs at the back of what temporarily had become the stalls.
Someone had switched off the lights. Just a few weak spotlights were aimed at the dark-blue velvet curtain. In front of the stage there sat people with instruments while one man stood with his back to the audience (wearing a black coat with two pieces of cloth hanging over his bum), his head bent down to study what seemed to be a book in front of him on some kind of little table.
The musicians make a holy racket, especially the fiddlers. It’s a sound of anticipation. The man lifts his arms holding a long thin stick in his right hand. The two bits of fabric that finish his coat start to develop a life of their own. From the musicians we can no longer hear a sound, some chairs squeak, someone is coughing. It becomes clear that nothing will happen if we don’t obey the man with the stick and become quiet.
Now you could hear a pin drop. That’s when the man lifts his arms a little higher still and suddenly moves them down and outwards. The musicians begin to play and, after a while, the curtain opens and a sigh goes through the audience. There is a house where there was nothing before. A woman is knitting, then puts down what she is knitting and sings. A man complains about being hungry. It becomes clear that these two people are supposed to be Hänsel and Gretel, whom we all know from the fairy tale. Only these are not children, they are grown ups, and nobody ever said anything about Hänsel and Gretel singing and dancing.
There is more singing and more talking and there is the mother who is cross with Hänsel and Gretel, and then comes the father, and the children have gone into the forest and now the parents are sorry, as always, and rush off to find them.
The stage has changed again and is now the forest. Gretel makes a wreath with wild flowers, just as we do when we play in the meadow, and Hänsel picks some berries. Then it slowly gets darker and they become very scared and start to see things in the dark, just as I do when I have to go to the loo by myself in the night or across the yard. They begin to see something horrible behind every tree. But they do kneel down and sing their evening prayer before lying down to sleep.
Out of the shadows, their figures picked out with just a little bit of mysterious light, come angels. We know they are angels because they wear white long gowns and white big wings. They surround the children. In the morning, a fairy wakes them up holding a huge blue bell flower on a long stem in her hand, dancing around them and touching them with the flower.
We all know that the wicked witch catches them in her house and is preparing to eat them. But in the end Gretel pushes the wicked witch into her own oven and they release other children the witch had trapped. Then the parents come and find them and they are all happy again.
There is no way I’ll ever be able to judge that performance, the quality of the singing, the music. It’s possible that a real opera troupe travelled from town to village to town in order to earn some money or just to get fed. It’s equally possible that these were third- or fourth-class performers, doing their bit for the same reason. For me it was a moment of pure magic, a performance that would forever open my mind to the glorious world of the theatre and the opera, something I hadn’t even known existed.
Another theatre event followed a short while after, but what in this case fascinated us more than any performance were the performers: a group of lilliputians, dwarves, midgets… we had no real words for them, we had never seen such small adults and were simply gob-smacked. When we bought our entry tickets, we saw them close up. The majority didn’t even come to our shoulders, and we were kids! They had old faces, old hands, were dressed in weird costumes, were bad tempered, had odd, flat voices and the women wore loads of make-up.
Some of these little women wore tiny shoes with high heels. Nothing they could do on a stage would be as fascinating as the mere fact that they existed, that we could touch them, that we had seen something so strange and wonderful. We’d talk about them for months to come and also wondered what it would be like to be so small and travel in colourful wagons drawn by horses.
A crystal set radio receiver has no apparent power supply. The crystal set was the first radio for broadcast reception. Back then, these radios used a galena crystal (a piece of rock that acted as a semiconductor to recover the audio from radio frequency waves). You needed head phones.
In the evenings my brother plays around with the radio he built himself. It fits into an old cigar box. He listens with what he calls ‘head phones’ while he twiddles some buttons. With these huge black things covering his ears and two metal bits sticking up like antennae, he looks like a strange being from another world. Feeling friendly tonight, he takes the head phones off and puts them over my ears. I hear whistling and scratchy noises, sometimes a voice but I can’t make out what it says. While my brother keeps twiddling the buttons I examine the many wires, silver joints and wonderfulness in the cigar box. It looks complicated and quite beautiful.
We usually listen to our records on a huge gramophone. The records are getting a bit scratchy now because we are using the same needles over and over again. There are no new ones to be had. It’s also becoming a rather dangerous machine. When I wind it up, the handle wants to unwind itself unless I hold it with all my strength and tie it down with one of the rubber rings Mother uses to make preserves. I am not really strong enough yet. When I can’t hold the handle it swings back so fast and powerfully that I can no longer catch it. I tried to the other day. It knocked my fingers so badly that Mother thought they were all broken, and she won’t allow me to use it any more.
The phonograph recorded sound on a cylinder and was patented in 1877 by Thomas Alva Edison, but a few years later, Emile Berliner, a German who had settled in Washington DC, filed and patented a talking machine which also recorded and played back sound and called it a gramophone. Instead of using a cylinder, the gramophone had a flat recording disc and a stylus.
The first discs were pressed in a button factory using shellac with optimal results and was the material used for 78 rpm records until their final days. It took a while for the gramophone to become popular, but after the first 10 records capturing the voice of Enrico Caruso had been sold in Europe in 1902, many artists all over the world felt courageous enough to allow their voices to be recorded.
My brother has found a station on his radio. He puts his finger to his mouth and looks at me. He listens, then puts the headphones over my ears again. The voice is coming through very clearly tonight. I don’t understand the words. Afterwards my brother says the man spoke English, that it was a station called The American Forces Network, and that Germany is losing the war. We both sit very quietly and just look at each other. We are not allowed to listen to foreign stations.
The voice is followed by music. It’s not like any other music I have heard before, either on the radio or on the gramophone. The sound makes my skin crawl with pleasure. It makes me feel like running, skipping and dancing. Sometimes the instruments just play together/apart – it’s more like soldiers skipping along the road, all with the same aim, but not all moving in the same direction – meandering, taking side and byways. One instrument after another gets a chance to break loose from the rest of the group and show off. The music rises, falls, winds itself around itself, gets back into the pattern and climbs away again, then all the other instruments meet it somewhere as though in their silence they followed the one rebellious tune, jealous of its flight, wanting to join, happy to find its path and share it again… I panic a bit thinking that the other instruments might never meet up again with the runaway – but they always do. My brother calls this music ‘swing’, ‘jazz’ and then says something like ‘big bands’.
There is one song that sticks. It sounds like our steam train. The words are something like ‘tschatanuuga tschuh tschuh…’ I sing it to myself, especially those words. I don’t understand them, but they sit lovely on my tongue. “When you’re out there with your friends, never – but never! – sing or whistle these tunes, little Hen. You must promise, or you’ll get us into really deep-shit trouble! Promise?”
In the yard opposite the house, there is a very long shed where the long ladders which are used for mending the roofs are being kept. There are also some barrels of dry tar with shiny, smooth surfaces into which lines can be scratched with your fingernails.
Sometimes we walk all the way to the end of the shed where it gets really dark and scary. Turning my head I can see the entrance getting much smaller… and smaller. It’s like walking into a tunnel that has only one opening. At the very back of the shed are always some rats doing things. I don’t like rats very much, I like mice. But we don’t come here to play with the rats. We are after the hedgehogs, and as soon as they hear us coming, they curl up into little prickly balls. When we find them we each pick up one of these balls and carry them out of the shed, put them on the grass outside, sit on the fence, remain very quiet and wait. When the hedgehogs feel safe again, they uncurl slowly. We wait for this moment and delight in their funny noses and black button eyes. First they sniff around and make sure that there is nothing to eat and no immediate danger, then they run on their tiny feet as fast as they can back into the shed. How do they know which way to run?
I go with Mother to collect firewood – dry twigs and small branches. The village is surrounded by woods. Today we go to the lower forest, past the school. I sit in our little hand-cart while Mother pulls it. Now we reach the brook. I ask Mother to stop, climb out of the cart and skip down to the brook. The dam I built last time has been swept away, or perhaps some other children have been here in the meantime. I wade into the clear water and bend down to look under the bridge. There – on a big stone – sits a green frog, panting. Very, very carefully I extend my hand, then my finger, and very, very carefully I touch its head. It doesn’t jump away! It sits there, panting, suffering my finger stroking its hard-soft little body. As I straighten up the frog looks up at me, then dives into the water and is gone.
The air-raid siren is sounding more often now. I ask Mother whether we ought to leave again. Perhaps we could find a place where war doesn’t find us. But Mother shakes her head. There will be no more running away. Sitting in the shelter, wrapped up in my big blanket, I can look around and study the people without feeling embarrassed. All I need to do is pull one corner of the blanket over my mouth and nose and I feel invisible.
I used to like sitting with our neighbours in our old home. They made us all feel like a big family. Here I do not belong. Mother does not belong and neither does my brother.
Has war always been? Is that what they mean by eternity? But Mother tells us about the time before. Perhaps there will be a time after. Sometimes I feel as though I had seen it all before. Perhaps we do see things again and again. Maybe souls use up many disguises and live again and again, and when bodies die, they are taken away and mended, like my dolls when Mother takes them before Christmas to the ‘dolls’ hospital’. They come back with new heads, new arms – looking different. They are still the same dolls, though. I know them all.
Mother sews and sews. She sighs sometimes and says, “For all the good this does – we can’t buy anything anyway.” Sometimes I get an extra ration of sugar from our grocer lady, Frau Krämer. She and I like each other. The nicest thing about Frau Krämer is her back room. In her back room she has a big trunk full of books.
I have read all our books, especially my brother’s books about adventures in Asia and North America. I want to meet the Mongols and the Red Indians.
Frau Krämer has different books. About girls who fall in love and blush, and handsome men who want to marry them. Very often they have to live through an awful lot of trouble before they can get married. Sometimes one of them dies. What I like most about these books, though, are their covers and their smell. Each cover is different. Some are dark red, some dark green or brown, some with gold or black. Almost carved into the covers are very complicated letters, letters that look as though they could be anything – winding plants, leaves or just letters that grow out of themselves and don’t quite know yet what they’ll become. The paper has golden or marbled edges. When I open a book and hold it close to my face, I can smell the musty smell of Frau Krämer’s old trunk. I wonder whether it’s the paper of the books which give the trunk its smell, or whether the trunk makes the books smell – perhaps it’s a bit of both and, together, they smell like hours of forgetting everything, even being hungry.
For lunch we usually have potatoes and carrots boiled in lots of water. Sometimes I can have a slice of bread, with mashed potatoes as spread. In Spring and Summer Mother makes delicious ‘spinach’ soups from young stinging nettles and uses the first shoots of dandelions and sorrel as salads.
One day Mother decided to bake apple crumble for my birthday. We had no apples and no butter, only some flower and water. When she hauled the hot baking tray out of the oven, the three of us looked at it in astonishment: it was beautiful, a perfect crumble; but after it had cooled down a bit we realised that there was no possibility of separating the tray from its hard-baked content – not even with a hammer and chisel – so Mother chucked out the lot. That was one of the few occasions when I saw Mother cry.
“The adult Colorado or potato beetle is about 10 mm long, and has 10 black and yellow stripes running down its back. Its shape resembles an overgrown ladybird. The larvae are between 3-10 mm long with black heads and a deep orange/brown to pinkish red bodies. They are mobile and feed on potato leaves and should not be confused with the similarly coloured pupae of ladybirds, which are similar in colour and shape but are immobile.” With these words our teacher sent us off to those farmers who grow potatoes on their fields.
We have just finished looking for Colorado beetles and their larvae on a potato field. We do this every year to protect the potato harvest. The whole class goes. The farmer’s wife calls me to the kitchen door. She takes a huge, round loaf of bread, cuts it in half, takes one half, presses it against the apron that covers her enormous breasts and cuts this amazing slice right out of the middle. It’s as big as three of my hands. She spreads goose-fat dripping on it and hands it to me. I sit on the grass and eat, hoping that this sandwich will never end. The next day my face and arms are covered in an itchy rash. Mother says it’s because I am not used to eating fat.
Mother sews bras. She says she has invented a pattern which she can adapt to all the women in the village. She cuts up our table cloths and old lace curtains turning them into beautiful bras which become an endless source of entertainment for my brother and me trying and guess who’ll be the recipient. Today’s is especially interesting. It is so big that my head fits into one cup. I can’t imagine anyone needing this, except for Auntie Marie who has a goose farm at the other end of the village and is an old friend of Mother’s.
Mother tells me that the two of them used to go to dances together – before meeting Father. I can imagine my mother dancing – but Auntie Marie? Aunt Marie has the shortest legs in the world, she is fat and has these enormous breasts. Everything else on her is also big, especially her behind. But those breasts are alarming. I felt them once when she embraced me; they were more like two hard pumpkins.
Grown-ups won’t tell you a lot of things. I asked Mother how a baby comes out. She just said that I would find out one day. Fräulein Metzger is getting ever so big. My friends say that she is pregnant. They say that she fucked with the caretaker of the school, and now she is getting a baby. I don’t dare to ask my friends what ‘fucking’ means because they’ll think me little and stupid. I get enough of that from my brother when he is not in the mood for little sisters. When Adelheid and I are alone together I ask her. She says: “The woman lies at the bottom, the man on top, silly.”
We sit on the fence by the pub. I still don’t see how that would contribute to baby making, or what the man has to do with all that. I just find it very funny. We make up all sorts of odd couples and can’t stop giggling. I nearly fall of the fence.
My brother’s friend Werner has come again. I like him. He doesn’t treat me as the others do – as just my brother’s little sister, he takes me seriously and plays with me. Werner wants to be an actor when the War is over. I think he is handsome. He is also very strong and he plays throwing me onto the sofa. One hand under my chest, the other between my legs, he can throw me very far. This is fun. On the third or fourth throw I can feel his fingers under my knickers. I pretend that nothing has happened. It was probably just an accident. But the next moment his fingers are again under my knickers and one finger almost tries to get into from where I wee. I feel embarrassed and strange and don’t want to play any longer, neither do I want to look at him. When my brother comes back I leave the room.
One girl in my class has the most beautiful rubber and shows it to all of us. Her uncle gave it to her and it’s big, fat, white and soft, and has a black elephant printed on it. I hold it for a moment before she snatches it back. It feels smooth, bendy – unlike anything I’ve ever touched. I like touching things. After giving it back I can’t stop looking at it, lying there on her desk and teacher calls me a few times because I don’t pay much attention to the lesson. Finally the bell rings and everyone packs their schoolbags. Christel puts the rubber into her schoolbag, in a little pocket on the side. We all rush into the cloakroom to fetch our jackets and coats, and as always are very much in each other’s way because there is very little space and there are just too many of us. I get stuck just behind Christel and feel an irresistible force moving my hand, taking the rubber from her bag and putting it into my pocket. We have to stand in line to walk out together orderly, and when we reach the school gates, we run – as always.
I feel so very guilty. And yet, as I reach into my pocket, I can touch this marvellous object. My hand is wet and all of a sudden touching the rubber feels cold, slippery – evil.
I walk home by myself, my falling over themselves. I have to give it back. I cannot give it back. I cannot keep it. I cannot take it home. Mother would ask me about it. She always seems to know everything. She would make me give it back. I dare not think about it. I would be outcast forever. My friendships are precarious enough. The rubber burns in my hand. I sit down by the pond not knowing what to do, and the feeling of guilt overwhelms me. I am so ashamed, and in the back of my mind nags the fear of discovery. But there is also a feeling of deep regret at the thought of losing this object of delight and wonder. I begin to dig a hole with my hands into the soft, wet earth… at first slowly, absent-minded. But soon I know what to do and dig furiously, deeper and deeper until my hand hurts, and still I dig. The hole is now so deep that my arm almost disappears in it. I look around to see whether anyone is watching me, and after making sure that I am unobserved, I take the rubber out of my pocket, look at it once more and then drop it into the hole as if it were burning my fingers. I fill the hole, cover it carefully with grass, rinse my hands in the pond and walk home, sure that everyone can read the writing on my forehead: THIEF.
I am becoming very good at whipping my wooden top along the road. The secret of success is in the beginning. One must roll the string very carefully around the grooves and then, keeping it perfectly upright, pull sharply. One has to have a good top, of course, not too heavy, not too light. It has to have a good, solid metal tip, not too pointed, not too flat. It has to have perfect balance. I can already judge a good top when I hold it in my hands. Oh, the string is important too. It’s got to have some weight but shouldn’t be too thick. I can keep my top going as long as I like, even if it runs into the side of the road where it has to spin on earth and pebbles.
My mother never had time to be with her children; instead she did whatever was needed to allow us all to survive. She had to sew, cook, clean, wash, negotiate for a little food from the farmers (on a trade-in basis), fetch firewood from the woods or just fill endless buckets with water from the pump in the yard and haul them upstairs, get us ready for school and do a myriad of other things I probably can’t begin to imagine. My brother was eight years older than I and lived his life on a different bandwidth. However much he loved me, each one of us almost was an only child, and our life circles touched mainly when we were both at home, either in the evenings, after having done our homework or on weekends when there was no school.
I grew up wild and free by default; there was no-one to tell me what to think, what to do and what to leave well alone. School at that time taught only the basics, even though I enjoyed geography enormously, especially recreating maps. At home I read everything we had in the house (often twice and three times) and borrowed books from any source and on any subject. The woman who ran the grocer’s lent me her romantic novels; in my brother’s books I found the North American Indians, Mongols, Pygmies, medicine men, what boys do, and the latest inventions; Mother’s books were complex stories, many of which I didn’t quite understand, written by famous authors; she also had books of poetry. I had some incidental books of my own – more than likely inherited from someone – mostly on how to look after domestic animals, animal adventure stories and stories about what girls do. As long as it was printed, I’d read it.
I also delighted in the wonderful world of nature, especially discovering the small things, those one only sees when living close enough to the ground and really looking.
Caterpillars come in all shapes, sizes and colours and move by pulling their own bodies on lots of tiny feet. Some are naked and some are incredibly hairy. Caterpillars tickle when I put them on my hand to see them better. Sometimes they lift up the front part of their little bodies to have a look at me. At the edge of the wood I always find some beetles. There are many different ones and I am just a bit worried that they may bite me or pinch me with those nasty-looking things they have sticking out from their heads. Some are striped green and gold, others come in hues of brown, and there are very shiny black ones which make big balls from everything they find until those balls are bigger than they are themselves. Then they roll them away and let them drop into a hole somewhere. Little ladybirds bring luck, and I keep them on my finger until they lift their protective red shells with black dots, unfold their tiny wings from underneath and take off.
In May and early summer I have a glass jar full of cockchafers my brother has caught for me. The lid of the jar is made of sandwich paper with holes for air. My brother also dropped some green leaves in for food.
More than once I had to go to the dentist without Mother. I suppose drilling and filling without local anaesthesia (there just wasn’t any) from today’s point of view is quite barbaric. It’s with some wonder I look back today, especially knowing that I am a coward when it comes to physical pain, and I imagine the little seven or eight-year-old me marching off without protest to be tortured. But I don’t think I was particularly brave – it’s just that our lives had certain ‘inevitables’, and that was just one of them.
My father was due to arrive. I had never stopped thinking about him. Letters had gone back and forth: ‘I love you, little one’ – ‘I love you, Father.’ His letters were always beautifully written in his distinct handwriting. When one of his envelopes lay in our letter box, my heart would beat a little faster. For some reason I can’t recall, Mother sent me to our little villager train station by myself. My brother would not be home from school until later.
I walked down the village road. It was already quite chilly, promising an early winter, and Mother had shortened one of her old coats for me because I had grown out of everything, and new clothes didn’t exist. I was lucky to have a brother from whom I could inherit boots. In the summer, shoes were not needed of course. But in the autumn and winter, some children’s plight was desperate. At least I did have boots – leather boots! They were too big for me, but with newspapers stuffed between my socks and the boots, they did not only fit reasonably well, but kept my feet warm.
The road was long and straight. I had walked it many times before, not thinking that one day I would walk to the station, by myself, picking up my father. I felt this sinking feeling somewhere just above my stomach. Would he recognise me? Would I recognise him? It had been so terribly long. My lips were dry. I clenched my hands in my pockets so tightly they started to hurt. What would I do, what would I say – would he hold me again as he used to do? Would he look different to what I imagined? Was he as tall as I believed him to be?
Thoughts of joy and doubt raced through my mind. I wanted to shout it to all the houses, all the people, so that everyone knew: I am going to meet my father! MY FATHER!
As I turned into the station yard, I found that some people were already there, sitting on the benches, waiting for the train. Mother had given me some Pfennige (pennies) for a platform ticket. I bought it and walked through the barrier. My mind was on my pending meeting, my knees were trembling, I felt weak. I faced the wind but hardly felt it. I had got there early. Officially the train was not due for another 10 minutes. But basically trains just came when they could.
I could see the steam before I could make out the train chuffing over the hill. As the train’s black, round face approached, I could hear the familiar chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff, chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff: the sound of the old steam engine.
The train rolled into the station. As always, there were people hanging from doors, sitting on the roof or on any available little platform or foot-plate. Everyone carried rucksacks, having most likely been to farms in other villages to swap their last precious possessions for even more precious grains or potatoes, carrots, beets, perhaps even the occasional meat. It was rumoured that some farmers now boasted five pianos.
As people streamed off the train and filled the tiny platform, I felt lost and near to tears. ‘Go away, all of you. I am meeting my father. If you stand there I won’t see him. We will miss each other.’ I strained my eyes. I had never scanned faces so thoroughly and quickly. My eyes were everywhere. Most people had by now trickled through the barrier; where was Father? One last old man walked out to the other side of the barrier. There was no one else.
He had to be on this train. He just had to! He said he would be. There was no other train for hours. I stood on that platform. I stood there for many long years. How would I survive and not break into tiny pieces? I searched deep inside of me, looking for strength and resources to keep me sane. This was the moment when a part of my child died. A very young adult of almost seven years emerged and said very loudly: ‘It does not matter. Nothing matters. It’s alright. I am here. I am alive. I shall go on being alive. Nothing will be able to hurt me this much again. Ever. I will not allow it to happen. It just does not matter.’
The train got ready to leave and then slowly huffed and puffed away, forcing all its weight and old iron parts to climb up into the hills. As I watched the carriages pass, I wanted to remember this moment forever, burning it into my awareness to have it accessible when I needed it. For the briefest time I existed in slow-motion, only gradually able to resume my life where it had just ended.
As the last carriage passed, I looked across the railway lines and saw him. His trench coat, his hat, suitcase in hand, smiling at me he walked across the rails. He jumped onto the platform and looked at me. I stared in shock – and then it was easy. It no longer mattered. What had happened, had happened and was irreversible.
I was very happy to see him, but there was no ecstasy. We hugged and kissed and walked out onto the station yard and I held his hand while he explained that he had to get out on the other side of the train because it had been too full to fight his way through. It had made sense to wait until the train had left, and he’d been expecting Mother and possibly me. He had been a little worried that we might have left thinking he hadn’t been able to come.
“And how you have grown, my little one. I nearly didn’t recognise you. How pale you are. How have you been? I missed you so.”
After two weeks Father left again. It was not easy to say goodbye, but it was bearable. I knew then that I would not see him again for a very, very long time and that, perhaps, I might never see him again.
The bombers came all night. Wave, after wave, after wave. It seemed that out of the dark the world’s supply of planes approached; their droning filled the night. From far away we could hear continuous rumbling. This was no thunderstorm. These were planes unloading bombs. More, and more, and more bombs unloading. Mother said: “They are going for Dresden. Oh mein Gott, what do they want with Dresden? It has no strategic value. Why… why Dresden? And I wanted to show it to you one day… one of the most beautiful cities in the world!” When the bombers had stopped coming, we looked out of the window into the direction of Dresden. The sky was red, the horizon aflame, the world on fire. There is an upper limit to horror and fear, and when that limit has been reached, the mind numbs itself. I felt my Mother’s terror seeping into my body.
The following night the sky was still red.
The bombing of Dresden in February 1945 has remained one of the most controversial aspects of World War II. The Allied bombing created a firestorm. It is said that, while the Russians advanced towards Berlin from the east and the Allies from the west, and while it seemed that the war was about to end, Dresden was bombed by conventional bombs that together exceeded the destructive force of the atom bomb which obliterated Hiroshima.
Historically, Dresden had been Germany’s – one could even say one of Europe’s – cultural centres: the heart of what in art history is called ‘Dresden Baroque’. By February 1945, the city was filled with hundreds of thousands of refugees – people moving from east to west in an attempt to escape the advancing Red Army. No-one knows exactly how many people were in Dresden at the time. The official figure of Dresden’s population was 350,000, but adding to this the number of refugees, this figure may well have doubled. Historians still argue over the number of deaths and the estimates range anywhere from 35,000 to 135,000. However, due to the refugees in the city at the time, the real figure will almost certainly never be known.
About a week later, a woman came. Crazed eyes. Mother gave her shelter. She came from Dresden, and we understood from her disconnected speech that she was on her way to relatives in Chemnitz. She had walked all the way. Mother had ‘found’ her in the street. She ate a little, then talked and talked. She did not cry. Her eyes were far away, her voice monotonous.
“I pulled my daughter out. She was burning. Burning. My daughter. She was still alive and she was burning. Look at my hands. I burned my hands on a torch. The torch was my daughter. Look at my feet. I ran along the burning streets. I don’t know how I got out. They just kept coming. They just kept coming. I saw people jump in the river. They were boiled alive. Fleeing from the Russians, all boiled. And it’s burning. My daughter is burning. God is burning. I am burning…”
Mother bandaged the woman’s hands and feet, then put her to bed. The next morning she had disappeared.
Even I was aware that Germany was no longer winning a war. My brother kept listening to his dangerous little device and informed us of the advances of the Allied troops. There was a subtle change of mood in the air – people either seemed wary, resigned, hopeful or simply scared. We prepared the shelter for a long stay. In one part of the shelter the women stored old clothes. They had collected men’s suits, trousers, shirts, shoes…
More and more dirty and tired young men stumbled through our village at night. Deserters. All they wanted was life. They were tired of killing, tired of being shot at, tired of defending the Vaterland which was in shambles. And most women had sons, either not old enough, or at the front somewhere, or dead. So they did for them what they hoped other mothers would do for their sons, somewhere, some time. The women hid these defeated boys, fed them when it got dark and buried their dirty, torn uniforms in a deep hole that had been dug at the back of the cellar, exchanging them for the civilian clothes they had accumulated. Before morning, after a short sleep, they would leave. This was dangerous for all of us, and we all understood the possible consequences. However, what we really worried about was whether they’d make it. Those youngsters were caught between the famous rock and a very hard place – if the Allies didn’t get them, the Nazis would. Those mothers’ hearts were with them. If their concern could reach out into the dark, it would save them all.
The planes came every day now, strafing the railway, strafing the village. It almost seemed as though they did it for the hell of it: ‘Let’s have us some fun … just a few bullets at the houses, windows, chase some kids…’ Just like when we chased the chickens and watched them scatter. We knew what to do. We knew how and when to duck. We also used the spoils of war. One of the fun games was to catch long, metallic, silvery streamers which fell from the sky into the fields behind the house. My brother thought they were dropped to confuse the instruments which detected approaching planes. The metal would register on these instruments and make them temporarily useless.
I had a skirt made from parachute silk.
We played in a partly burned-out aeroplane which had come down by the upper woods. There was no body.
I had been quite ill and, still with a high temperature, I lay, listless, tucked away on the sofa in the kitchen. The fighter planes came again. We could hear their approach and knew that we didn’t have much time. I was too ill to walk; my mother could no longer carry me and, in panic, she stuffed me under the sofa and tried to get under it herself. The kitchen was rather longer than wide and had three windows, two of which faced the side of the house where the planes tended to pass, making almost the entire length of our kitchen an easy target. Mother’s bottom was sticking out towards those two windows because in the confusion of the moment she forgot to stretch out her legs. The planes made for the railway, giving our wall the familiar burst with their machine guns but, thankfully, no bullet came through the window. After recovering from the scare we laughed hysterically, with Mother saying over and over again, “The sofa would have burned anyway.”
Book I concludes next Sunday, 20th January. Book 2 starts the following Sunday, 27th January. The rest of the ‘adventures of Annie’ can be read in THE TELLING.
Thank you, Rose. Another powerful piece.
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