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. Tonight’s is the sixth instalment of the first novel in this series and features the third and concluding section of Book 2 (of three) of a novel by literary author, poet and interviewee Rose Mary Boehm.
For shorter pieces I would run the story then talk more about it afterwards but because this is a longer post (11,015 words), here is an introduction to Rose then the sixth part of her novel…
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 to read Book I: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Book 2: Part 1 and Part 2. 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.
Mother once told me that she was convinced she’d become pregnant the moment she’d sit on a chair on which a man had been sitting just before.
Looking back at my parents from today’s perspective, I feel almost ashamed of not having been able to see them, measure them against their own contexts. Still, I suppose it would be an odd child able to do that at the time of its own struggle with life.
I had been a latecomer, unexpected and scary. My mother, Ilse, was already 38 and my father, Julius, was 47 when I arrived. Clearly, abortion in those days was not even thought about, even though my mother – by normal standards of those days – was ‘too old’ to give birth, and she and her child were considered ‘at risk’. My brother was already eight and no further child had been planned or expected to happen. In other words, between me and my parents, especially in post-War Germany, there was an almost insurmountable abyss – a generation gap of cosmic proportions.
Julius Becker was born in 1892 into a seriously rich family; there were seven living siblings – Grossmama Becker had given birth to a total of 12 children over the years of which seven survived. Several servants saw to the children’s daily needs, while their father and mother did what they were supposed to do: their father ran the mines and the shipping company with an iron fist, and their mother managed the household, gave occasional soirées, travelled and painted. Julius’ father was a despot, while Julius was a sensitive, gifted child with yearnings for adventure and freedom from the straightjacket of tradition. Just like his brothers, Julius was expected to earn a doctorate in whatever academic discipline he cared to choose. His two sisters were supposed to be bright, beautiful and virtuous until they married into other upper-crust families – either rich or aristocratic, if at all possible, both.
Ilse Ernestine Hartefeld was the illegitimate daughter of Ernestine Wilhelmine Bergdorfer, the worst that could have happened to mother and daughter in a Germany around the turn of the last century. Ilse was a gangly child, exceptionally intelligent and hungry for learning. Her stepfather, August Hartefeld, married her mother when Ilse was already four years old. He’d always loved ‘his Erna’, and she finally gave in. Two quite extraordinarily courageous and honest people who much later meant so much to me as my Opa and Oma, my grandfather and grandmother Hartefeld.
While Julius grew up in the heart of industrial Germany in the Ruhr Area, Ilse, nine years younger, looked after her two younger brothers when she wasn’t eagerly learning everything she could in the one-class school of her little village near Dresden in Saxony.
Julius completed his Abitur (the German equivalent of A-levels or a graduation diploma), after which he did his military service – first as a tall, blond, dashing young test pilot, and then getting himself involved in the Turkish-Arabian conflict (aka the Arabian Revolt of Laurence of Arabia fame) on the Turkish side, then finished World War I as a fighter pilot in the Normandy.
Ilse slowly turned into a tall, striking young girl with chestnut hair, high cheekbones and a generous mouth.
The post-WW I Treaty of Versailles and the French annexation of the Ruhr devastated Germany’s economy. The Becker family suffered losses, but were financially sustained by the sheer size of their business and their holdings, as well as business interests outside of Germany. After getting back from the war, young Julius, already 27, began to study engineering in a town near Ilse’s little village, famed throughout Europe at the time as one of the Technical Universities, sure of his father’s cheque arriving punctually every month.
Ilse had had to leave school at 14 to feed herself and help her family. She walked three kilometres every day (six days a week) to the train that would take her to the factory where she’d sew gloves for 12 hours before taking the train back and then walking another three kilometres to get home.
Yes, of course… they met one night at the train station. As far as Julius was concerned this was not only love at first sight, but deepest and most committed one. And Ilse? Ilse probably was dazzled at first and later learned to care for him deeply. It was difficult not to care for this charming young man with the brightest blue eyes which always contained a twinkle, not to be seduced by his devastating smile, impeccable manners and, at that time and for that time, considerable means.
He showed the extent of his irresistible devotion when Ilse was ill and they couldn’t meet for a few days: Julius walked for over three hours from his university (there were no cross-connecting trains, busses, trams, taxis, and most students didn’t have cars) to Ilse’s house where he would just stand for a few minutes, gaze up at her, greet her and then leave again; of course he couldn’t ‘come in’, Ilse’s was a respectable family.
When he wrote home that he had met the girl of his life and wanted to marry, the shock was total. ‘Gold digger’ was perhaps the mildest expression used in connection with Ilse. His father threatened to withhold the monthly cheques unless the ‘affair’ was immediately terminated. He even wrote a letter to the Dean explaining he would no longer pay for tuition because he had discovered his son’s ‘misalliance’
There were hard years ahead. Julius tried to show his father that he could fend for himself, that he didn’t need his money and went off to Berlin to find a job. Both Julius as well as Ilse – in their respective places – had to survive the worst year in Germany’s history: the hyperinflation of 1923. Mother once told me that one week’s wages from one day to the next wouldn’t buy a loaf of bread, that at the worst time they would go to the shops with a washing basket full of money to buy whatever was on offer now because an hour later the same items would require two washing baskets full of useless paper money. The value of the Papiermark (literally translated the Paper Mark), was worth 4.2 per US dollar at the outbreak of World War I and stood at one million per US dollar by August 1923.
In Berlin, Julius was not very successful. He got caught up in the German revolution that almost happened, was nearly lynched in the street by the Communists and finally fell extremely ill. When Julius had been brought home, near death, and nobody held out much hope, his older sister, Emma, was determined: “Why don’t we at least look at the girl?” since Julius, in his fevered dreams, only ever called Ilse’s name.
Emma brought her to meet the parents Becker, after which the story had a relatively happy ending. Julius and Ilse married, but Julius had no idea how to fight for survival, and Ilse had only ever sewn gloves in a factory, and when Julius’ father suddenly died they were left without financial help, while the oldest son (mis)managed the businesses. Corrupt managers and the total ineptitude of brother Jochen and his stock-market speculations of African proportions brought about such huge losses that even such a large fortune couldn’t quite survive it.
Father remembered vaguely how his sisters, ‘nice’ girls from a good family, had been brought up and what was expected of them. Mother imagined how ‘nice’ girls from good families ought to be brought up and behave, while never managing to live in the style to which Father was accustomed and Mother had aspired to. Father didn’t care. Mother did.
It’s Sunday. Gisela and I ask whether we are allowed to take off for a summer recreation area on the way to Düsseldorf, where the river Rhine feeds a large, artificially created pool, cordoned off to provide a supervised zone for swimming. We take our swim suits, towels and something to eat and drink, put the bags on the backs of our bikes and pedal off. It’s a good hour and a half either way. We leave early to have several hours to enjoy the sun, have a swim, get tanned…
We carefully put our bikes down on the grass, one on top of the other. Then we help each other to change into the swimsuits – while one holds the towel, the other struggles discreetly. We are hot and exhausted, put our clothes into the bags, the towels on the grass, and start this beautiful summer day by rushing into the water and swimming towards the chain that marks the limits. As we approach, we see two boys swimming towards the chain from the outside, dive under it and come up just next to us, grinning at us and putting their fingers to their lips in the ‘don’t tell’ gesture. We giggle and splash them and turn towards the ‘beach’ where we left our towels. The boys come too.
We spent that day with our new friends, sharing our sandwiches and drinks. Nobody had any money. We never did, and they obviously had none in their swimming trunks. We laughed at their antics, were happy, entertained, flattered and forgot the time. The sun was already sinking when we realised that we had to be on our way. The boys left for wherever they’d come from, and we struggled out of our wet swimsuits, hopped on the bikes and kicked off. We both knew we’d have to be back on time or we wouldn’t be allowed to go again, and to our total horror, only half-way, we had to get off the bikes because Gisela’s had a flat tyre. There was no way to communicate with our respective parents – mine didn’t even have a telephone. It was getting dark and we were in a wooded area, the shortcut we normally only took when it was still light; we’d never been out that late.
We push our bikes and speculate what’ll happen to us when we get home. “I’ll be ticked off something rotten,” says Gisela, and I add cheerlessly, “You know my mother… she’ll kill me, and I probably won’t be allowed to go again this summer.”
We were late. Gisela’s mother stood outside our door, on the pavement – we could see her by the light coming from the hall – and we knew we were in deep trouble. Gisela’s mother started a long, angry monologue, pulling Gisela away with her, and when I stepped through the door, both Father and Mother moved towards me and Mother, before I could explain, slapped me more than once hard in the face until I couldn’t see for tears or speak for sobs.