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.
This happened around the time when we discovered Radio Luxembourg, ‘the station of the stars’, transmitting on Medium Wave 208 – in German during the day and in English at night. There were people called Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis. There was rock ‘n’ roll. No more slow waltzes or Schlager (pop songs) or Operettenmelodien (melodies from operettas) in the afternoon. Our parents were horrified. We were delighted. The true generation gap at the time was expressed through music, and on stuffy old German radio there was nothing at all that could possibly interest young people who had just woken up to a different world.
One night there was a voice like no other voice. Who was that Voice? It belonged to one Elvis Presley. We were soon to see pictures of this sinner, this menace, this singer who can’t even sing, this ‘animal’ that had to be kept at bay, the heathen who moved his hips and made love to the microphone. Our vicar thundered against this ‘foreign menace’ from the pulpit and our parents seemed to be convinced we’d be going straight to hell.
Since ‘East of Eden’ the boys dressed like James Dean, while we wanted to be Natalie Wood. Elvis Presley gave us more danger still and we went ‘underground’. First we just had listen-to-our-music parties. Someone always had a portable ‘pick-up’ (a record player for singles). Radio Luxembourg gave us the cues and some of us bought the records. Whenever and wherever parents were out for the day, we’d gather and plug in the pick-up.
Soon this wasn’t enough. We wanted to dance, and since my friends’ parents were just a little younger and also just a little more on the ‘liberal’ side, dance parties we had. Mother and Father allowed me to go as long as I was home by 11.00 pm. This was harsh timing because even in those days a party got only really going after about two hours of its start, and by 11.00 the best was yet to be. Our parties never interfered with home work, we wouldn’t have been allowed to have one on a weekday; they were few and far between, and usually parents stayed at home to supervise.
Not only did I become the ‘party pooper’, but I also knew when I left on my lonely walks home at around quarter to eleven that I’d be missing the best. If I forgot the time, latest by 11.15 Mother was outside the house ringing the doorbell and ordering me to come ‘at once – or else’. Sometimes she pulled me out physically. My friends were either upset for me or snickered, and I, again, felt profoundly humiliated.
One particular party in my neighbourhood would be the last of those for me. It was an almost grown-up affair thrown by my friend Evelyne. She didn’t go to my school, she had remained in the Volksschule (the German school system at the time worked in two tiers: the Volksschule was for those who didn’t go on to higher education and mandatory until the children were 14, when most would begin an apprenticeship in their chosen trade) and already worked in her father’s company. An only child, she was supposed to take over the business when she was a little older. Evelyne was a plain girl and had not much to offer in terms of charm or fun, but she always had enough money to buy in the new boutiques, go to the Friseur (hairdresser) once a week and was allowed to paint her nails. In other words, Evelyne was a girl envied by all, and no-one would have refused the invitation.
The party was lavish. There were drinks – even alcoholic ones – (after all, by now we had reached the ripe old age of 15, some of us where even 16) a buffet with the most delicious finger food, silver boxes full of American and German cigarettes on small tables, and the music came not from a tinny little pick-up, but from a ‘proper’ record player and huge loudspeakers.
We danced, drank and smoked … smooching was done in the dark where others couldn’t see because it was still not quite acceptable – even amongst ourselves – and anyone caught necking felt deeply uncomfortable. Girls were quickly branded ‘easy’, ‘cheap’.
Paul Fels, the new manager employed by Evelynhe’s father, an ‘older man’ of around 25 or 26 years, had also been invited. Of course we soon forgot that there was a reality beyond, and my pumpkin time came and went. For that particular event I had been given permission to stay out until 12.00, ‘just this once’. When I realised what was about to happen and got my coat, more girls were suddenly nervous and wanted to go home.
Evelyne’s mother asked Paul to take us home by car. He bundled us all in and started to take everyone to their respective houses. First those that lived farther away and then the close neighbours. It made giggling sense to us that night. I was the last to be dropped. Evelyne had come with us; she sat next to Paul, flirting outrageously. As we approached my house I became suddenly very sober indeed. Both Mother and Father were standing in the open doorway, the hall light giving them yellow halos. As the car stopped and I got out, Father approached the open driver’s window and slammed his fist into Paul’s face.
After he had finally listened to our hysterical explanations and calmed down, he visibly shrunk and became an old man. The following day, my proud Father, his head bent with shame, went to Evelyne’s house to apologise.
I am almost seventeen and have bought myself the most adorable red high-heeled shoes, just like the ones I saw in the latest fashion magazine. The toes peep out from small triangles. Mother is alarmed but gives up the struggle with thunder in her eyes. Now she won’t talk to me – again.
She did buy me a light trench coat, though, – all the rage – and I strap the belt very tightly to show my waist. My blond hair swings in a ponytail and the fringe nearly drops down to my eyebrows. My happiness is almost complete, except that I am not allowed to ‘paint my face’. Everyone does, except Anne Becker. I can’t wait to be 21 and ‘come of age’. Then I can do what I want and not what Mother deems acceptable. Still, for the moment I have found the answer to the problem: after closing the door to our flat behind me, I walk down the stairs to the cellar door, sit down on the last stone step, get out my secret ‘make-up kit’ and, with the help of my little mirror and coloured crayons, improve my appearance. Then I bounce out onto the pavement. Very soon I slow down to a crawl. My feet are killing me.
Once a week I take French at Berlitz in the evenings. What I learn in high school is not enough. The Berlitz School is in the town centre and I take the tram. One of the young men in my class has the use of his dad’s car and doesn’t live far from me. Each time he offers to take me home he argues that I shouldn’t be out in the street waiting for the tram in the dark when class finishes. Normally I take Bernd up on his offer unless he can’t make class for whatever reason – in which case I usually get a lift from one or another class mate who comes in a car – always their fathers’.
The neighbours are talking. “That little Becker girl … well, I don’t know what the world is coming to. Have you seen? She comes home in a different car each night! And such a respectable family!”
“I have invited Bernd to come for tea on Sunday. He’s been so kind, and I thought it would be nice.” I feel very daring and not at all sure this is a good idea. Father confirms this feeling immediately: “Does he come to get his reward?”
I know exactly what Father means and don’t like the sound of it. This time I can’t take it. I am hurt and angry.
“Oh my God, can’t you give it a rest? Can’t I invite a friend to my own house? What do you think he and I want to do here during tea? If we wanted to do anything we could do it in the car! You have no idea about anything…” I am now looking at my mother, “… more than likely you prayed to have me, what would you know?” I start crying in frustration and leave, slamming the doors to let off some steam. I sit in my room, sobbing and by now feeling very sorry for myself and not a little worried.
I can hear my father’s footsteps. The door handle moves. He enters, his face serious and thoughtful rather than wildly angry. He closes the door behind him. Oh boy, this is it…
Father, as always, is wearing one of his old three-piece suits, his watch in his waistcoat pocket, the chain hanging in a gentle arch from a button at the front of the waistcoat. He looks down, a frown on his forehead. Both his thumbs are pushed deeply into his waistcoat pockets, his jacket pulled back by his arms. By now almost totally grey, he still has a full head of hair and even now is a handsome man. Up and down, down and up he walks, saying nothing. I am beginning to shrink a bit more into my chair with every pass he makes.
He clears his throat. Still nothing. Then, with great effort, he says, “You shouldn’t talk to your mother like this.” He pauses again, doesn’t look at me. Continues his walk. Then, again with great effort, “Your mother was a passionate lover to me…”
This was perhaps the moment when I began, for the first time, to come to terms with my parents. Defending his woman against his own daughter, especially in what was for them the most intimate of areas and never, ever talked about, was probably one of the most difficult things my father had to do. It offered me a glimpse of Julius and Ilse, the lovers who became my parents, instead of two old farts who seemed to have lost it.
Much later still, when I was able to see my parents with adult eyes, I began to understand the tremendous leap of faith they had had to make in the post-War period, especially with a daughter that had appeared late in their lives, only to hop and skip to a new rhythm and a new tune into a different space-time on a planet they had not yet discovered and where they couldn’t follow.
When my father told me about his youth and childhood, he talked about his father who’d ride in the horse carriage, eight in hand, to inspect his brick factory in The Netherlands; about the excitement they felt when they bought one of the first telephones – a big wooden contraption with a separate mouth and ear piece and a handle – and it worked! They bought their first car. He showed me a photo where he leans against the rear of an old car, white suit, boater, hands in his pockets, and his mother and big sisters in long dresses and hats and, of course, parasols. He told me about the day he marched from the infantry barracks into the barracks next door to become a young pilot in the just newly created Luftwaffe (Air Force), and how they never found the ‘deserter’ because they didn’t think of looking for him in the army… How could he hope to cope with a young daughter in the post-war 50s.
Mother told stories of her village and the hardships of her youth, about how she hardly ever had shoes or a proper winter coat; how there was nothing worse than being ‘illegitimate’ – that it was almost worse for the child than for the mother; about her one-classroom village school where a disillusioned but passionate teacher found in the child Ilse a hungry mind which he filled with everything he knew; how her heart broke when she had to leave, and how much it cost her to get up at three every morning to walk those three kilometres to the train, take the train to be at work at six o’clock sharp and do the same thing in reverse every evening, getting home around nine at night. How could she possibly understand that I grew into a world where things were thrown away, not mended?
We did have moments of friendship and giggles. I was delighted when Mother tried to share her far-in-the-past world with me. I so desperately needed to identify with the girl, the woman Ilse, before she became the ‘old-woman-who-had-to-be-obeyed’, the bitter and unyielding face forged by a world of fear, pain and envy, a world to which I didn’t want to have access.
She had tears of laughter in her eyes and could barely tell me the story about the village ‘potties’ being upended on the wooden slats of the garden fences every morning to dry out after they had been washed. “Oh, stop laughing, tell me!” “Well,” she continued, “one day there were a few kids who wanted to play knights in battle. They had wooden swords but nothing else, when one of them had this bright idea…” She was off again. “Oh, Mother …” I was already laughing too, even though I had no idea what it was all about. “…when he saw the potties, he took one of the metal ones and put it on his head as a helmet. It was on the big side and slipped down over his ears so that he couldn’t see. He tried to pull it off, but it wouldn’t budge. The long and short of it was, that his mother, in panic, took him to the village doctor who looked at the kid and started laughing, and said to the woman ‘Frau Nolte, I’m so sorry, but you don’t need a doctor, you need a plumber…’ ”
Mother and Father were like a couple of chickens who’d been slipped a duck’s egg, and now that the duckling was swimming on the lake, they were running up and down the shore in desperation, not being able to understand a world in which little chicks walked on water.
Every night when I got home, I found Mother sitting in the kitchen – the first room in our flat after you entered the little entrance hall – with her hands in her lap, a book on the table, her face all crunched up from tiredness, unable to sleep until she knew I was safely back where I belonged.
And every time I saw her there was like receiving a slap in the face or a bucket of cold water turned out over me. The joy I brought with me from whatever I had been doing or where or with whom I’d been, would disappear immediately and leave me feeling desperately angry and helpless. And every time I saw her there waiting for me, I felt it was particularly unfair that she never waited for my big brother like that.
Since Mother bought the piano, I no longer visit the Richters very often. Also, I am very busy. There is school, homework, my friends, going shopping for Mother, piano classes and practice, painting … but I sometimes miss little Dieter who is no longer a baby.
One late afternoon I went upstairs to see whether Frau Richter and Dieter were home. Herr Richter opened the door and smiled when he saw me. He’d just come back from the office. “Come in, young lady, come in… how have you been? You are becoming prettier every day! How old are you now? No, don’t tell me – you must be all of 14! Agnes tells me you have your own piano now and she doesn’t see much of you any longer…” I went into the living room and sat in my usual place on the sofa. “What are you up to? I hear you are painting. When can I see something? You are such a talented young woman.” Not too sure whether I was just delighted at having been called a ‘young woman’ or flattered by the interest in my paintings, I eagerly offered to show him what I had collected downstairs.
“You’ve got to come down to see them. I can’t carry them all, especially since I don’t paint on canvass but on hardboard.”
When Mother opened the door and saw Achim Richter, she made one of her faces – she reserved a rather false smile for people she didn’t like. But even I felt uncomfortable when Herr Richter was exceptionally polite and charming to Mother and explained that he’d come to see my ‘art’.
I balk at people calling me an ‘artist’. Most artists I can think of are dead and famous and have produced some wonderful and inspiring ‘works of art’ – whatever it is: paintings, sculpture, music… For me the words art and artists describe something elusive, something that has bubbled up from deep inside the artist, something to which he or she was able to give form, creating something unique and satisfying. I can only aspire to becoming an artist. Right now I simply enjoy learning more and more techniques and, however much I try, I still can’t quite translate what I have in my heart and my head and make it real on canvas.
Herr Richter took his time and looked at each one with great attention. Then he turned to my mother: “Frau Becker, you have a very talented daughter, and I have a friend in Düsseldorf who owns an art gallery. With your permission I would like to take Anne and a number of her paintings to Düsseldorf and show him her work.” I was very surprised when Mother nodded.
“Fine, Frau Becker, I am glad. I call my friend to agree a date and a time. I let you know when that’ll be.” He turned back to what I considered my ‘drafts’, picked out five and set them to one side. “These are the ones I want you to take to Düsseldorf.”
It is early afternoon. The meeting in Düsseldorf is to be at five o’clock. Herr Richter and I are taking the five paintings down to his car. He also wants me to include a few drawings, and I take my small portfolio of sketches as well. Mother has insisted I should wear one of her old raw silk blouses, and she has shortened a dark-green georgette skirt she’d kept from before the war. My shabby black winter coat looks out of place on top of all this finery, my thick silk stockings and walking shoes are desperately inadequate and I generally feel awkward, gauche and apprehensive.
This is the first time I ride in a car. Herr Richter drives a big, heavy, black Mercedes-Benz with dark red cloth seats. The dash board is made from polished wood and the steering wheel has the Mercedes star in the middle. While we are driving he explains that the metal stick with the handle, also made from polished wood that’s at the side of the steering column, is the gear stick. “If you like you can try and drive it on our way back from Düsseldorf.” I can’t wait. Drive!
We got to Düsseldorf a little early. Herr Richter trundled along the ‘Kö’ … the Königsallee, Düsseldorf’s most expensive and elegant street in the heart of town, full of shops, hotels, restaurants and street cafés – for me a world of unimagined riches and refinement. Herr Richter invited me to have a hot chocolate not far from the Schadowstrasse where we had our appointment.
As in many other big cities in Germany, the people in Düsseldorf had celebrated the end of the Thousand-Year Reich and the War as soon as they knew they just may survive. A predominantly Catholic area, they had resurrected the traditional carnival as early as 1946, calling themselves tongue-in-cheek the Eingeborenen von Trizonesien, the ‘Natives of Trizonesia’, in reference to the situation of the three occupation zones, Germany shared between the Americans, the British and the French.
However, before they could celebrate their first carnival (as yet an unofficial and very small event), the tireless organisers first had to find survivors and bring them together. The first official cavalcade had to wait until 1949.
An eyewitness of this first event said, “I only had eyes for the people who expressed such happiness with tears in their eyes. They waved from burnt-out, empty windows of ruined buildings…” Entry tickets to humble, individual events could be paid for with a few coal briquets.
The wonder of survival and the new freedom of expression exploded into an orgy of the arts (fine arts, theatre, cabaret), and the desperate hunger for elegance and beauty was satisfied with fashion and design in general.
The first cabaret had opened its doors in May 1947 in a tiny theatre between the ruins of Düsseldorf. The founders had managed to swap a Leica camera against 36 bars of Pall Mall which, in turn, they swapped against bricks, curtain material and two lamps. Their motto: “Never again can we permit ourselves to fritter away democracy.”
As early as 1946, during the ‘winter of need’, began the now famous Ruhrfestspiele (Festival in the Ruhr), in the coal-mining town of Recklinghausen. It started from a simple need: theatre people from Hamburg came begging for coal. Miners ‘appropriated’ as much as they could get away with, and as much as the artists could smuggle to Hamburg under the watchful eyes of the British occupying forces. Thus was born a tradition. The artists from Hamburg never forgot the miner’s kindness and returned to perform for them each year. The Ruhrfestspiele – a happy mix of theatre, ballet, readings, cabaret etc – continues to this day.
In January 1947, still in the grip of one of the worst winters in European memory, NOWEA (Nordwestdeutsche Ausstellungs Gesellschaft) was founded in order to play its part in the economic recovery of the young Federal Republic in the post-war era (and today is one of the largest trade fair organisers in the world). That year also saw the birth of the internationally famous and important Düsseldorf Fashion Fair, started in makeshift wooden premises in the city centre. NOWEA was one of a series of attempts to get the city (and the country) back on its feet. As a rather dark future was predicted for heavy industry, many voices called for the establishment of new companies and – in addition to the electrical, mechanical engineering, chemicals and clothing industries – the service sector began to take its first tentative steps. In other words, Düsseldorf re-made itself in its own image as early as 1946, and by the time Achim Richter took me there, it was already a self-assured, visibly wealthy and stylish town, full of sparkle, art, wit and frivolity.
I am in a magic wonderland. There are mirrors reflecting a myriad of people, plants, tables and chairs and of course the enormous glass cabinet that contains the most incredible assortment of flans, gateaux, cream cakes, fancy cakes… I had no idea so many wonderful things existed. I look at the other customers – mostly women, many of whom remind me of Aunt Lieselotte. Theirs is an easy elegance, and again I feel such a country bumpkin. But there are also some rather fat, older women. Most of these wear felt hats and their behinds spill over the small, elegant chairs as they gorge themselves on cakes and tarts, fresh cream smeared around their mouths that open and close and chew and open and close and chew. Fat hands take thin porcelain cups and bring them to those mouths that open and close and chew. Some stick their little finger into the air or bend it at a silly angle. They lean towards each other and talk, their mouths still opening and closing and chewing.
Herr Richter has asked me to go and chose a piece of cake from the glass showcase. I stand and look and look and give up… how can people possibly make a choice from this overwhelming offer of wonders? I first need to find out what each one taste like if I want to choose one. Where do I start? I go back to the table where Herr Richter waits for me so that he can order. I shake my head. “Just a hot chocolate please, Herr Richter, I don’t want anything else.”
The friend who owns the gallery shows enough interest to flip through the pictures I brought. When he has seen them all he turns to me: “Young lady, you have great potential and some fine moments. But, you’ll see that talent isn’t enough. Right now you are copying what others have done. You need to study and work, and study and work some more, and then free yourself from everything you’ve seen and then start again from your own point zero until you are able to show something that’s new, fresh and interesting. Let’s meet again in five years’ time, shall we?”
On the way back we didn’t talk much. I was far more disappointed by that meeting than I cared to admit. Clearly I had begun to believe everyone’s opinion of my superior talent, even though I’d always felt uncomfortable when people praised me. However, deep down I probably had started to feel that unconditional praise ‘was my due’. Herr Richter must have felt somewhat chastened, too. He patted my knee: “Never mind, you do as he says and before five years are out, you’ll see, you’ll have an exhibition there. Know what we’ll do? I can’t let you drive now that it’s dark, but I know a place where we’ll sit down for a moment and relax before we get back.”
We’d been driving through a dark, wooded area and not one car had been passing us. Suddenly Herr Richter veered to the right and stopped the car. He got out of his side, slowly walked around to mine and opened the door. Just as I was about to get up and step out, he held my hand and pulled it towards him. “Stay there … feel this…” and just as I closed my hand around something soft and unpleasant, something that was obviously a part of his body and came out of his open trousers, I felt a sticky, hot substance trickle all over my hand and Herr Richter made strange noises.
“Sorry about this, my dear, here, take the handkerchief and clean yourself, then throw it away.”
Very slowly it dawned on me: I had just felt a penis, and the penis had ejaculated over my hand. There was absolutely no excitement in that fact, just an empty, lonely disgust. I had been truly used or, rather, abused, and I felt dirty. Herr Richter adjusted his trousers, took his place at the driver’s side, and we were off again. “I trust that this little incident remains between the two of us!” I didn’t know what to say, so I remained sullenly silent for the rest of the way, thinking that I wouldn’t tell anyone about it, ever, because I’d die of shame. Herr Richter: “Hey, kid, you gave me the feeling you had experience, but you just have a big mouth, don’t you?”
“Wait”… whispers Ruth. Over her truly spectacular tits she is today wearing a wrap-around top which she opens a bit wider with her hands, pushing her boobs up. I wish I had such a cleavage. She grins and elbows me, “… you’ll see this’ll works a treat. It’s the only way I’ll pass the history exam! After all, I’ll be sitting here, and he’ll be standing right there.” Push. Grin. “Men are just soooo predictable!”
In our last year Ruth and I had been sitting together in the front of the class. Our friendship had consolidated over time and, getting older, we were becoming a nuisance. We’d often be the ‘bad ones’ now, giggling and talking in class. Putting us in the first bench gave us less possibilities to hide behind the others. For me this was a new and sometimes scary experience, but it was impossible to stop Ruth. “Oh, don’t be such a goody-goody…” would often be her reprimand, and I didn’t want to fall short of her expectation.
“Let me have a look at that!” Our history teacher, Herr Wieland, is suddenly by my side and takes a photo out of my hands. It’s the photo of Wolf, my new boyfriend. I am very much in love and keep his picture in the pockets of my jacket, pulling it out from time to time. Looking at his smile and the dimple in his chin I get butterflies in my tummy.
“That your young man?”
“Yes”, I almost whisper.
“Very nice. Now put it away and concentrate on Argentina and Peron’s Third Way. Lovelorn stargazing doesn’t get you through the exams, my dear, and remember, you still owe me an essay on the UN. Get on with it.”
I was 17, graduation was almost upon us, and I had just met the man of my dreams. From time to time I still went to the artists’ group’s monthly meetings. I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the lot of them and felt as though I was growing up and out, especially now that I’d discovered ‘Bill Haley And His Comets’.
In the painters group I met Magnus, the son of the ambitiously called ‘group president’ who came along from time to time, ostensibly to drive his parents to the place where the meetings were held, but I realised soon that his presence had a lot to do with me, and he often offered to drive me home. I felt I shouldn’t be impolite but so far had managed, with for me unusual diplomacy, not to get too close to him, even though we almost became friends. Magnus was 21, stocky like his parents, with short, dark and rather unruly hair and a terribly plain and easily forgettable face. He was a nice boy, the sort of boy Ruth had decided a girl can’t possibly be interested in, and Ruth was still my compass.
One evening Magnus invited me to a Coca Cola after the meeting; he was getting together with a friend and thought it would be fun for the three of us to hang out for a while.
Wolfgang couldn’t be more different than Magnus, even though they are the same age. Wolfgang is slim, blond and very good-looking. He is a bit taller than me and has a dimpled smile, danger dancing in his twinkling blue eyes. When Magnus introduces Wolfgang to me, I notice that the two of them look at each other strangely, almost as though they were locked in some sort of battle. Wolfgang orders me a Rum and Coke and waves away my protests. I am very conscious of his presence and every time he smiles this smile at me or touches my arm lightly as we speak, I feel breathless and excited. He asks me to call him Wolf for short and makes a funny face: “… better to eat you with…” I know I am expected to laugh and manage a giggle, even though this line gives me the shivers for some silly reason.
Wolfgang Föhr-Waldeck soon took over my life, but Magnus made a last-ditch attempt at establishing something like ‘first seen – first rights’, and one night, in the loft at Magnus’ parents’ place, both Magnus and Wolf engaged in a ‘duel’ with their épées – they knew each other from attending the local fencing club – getting quite obviously really mad at each other and lunging and stabbing and evading each other in wild and improvised moves between sheets, shirts and underpants hanging in the loft to dry. I sat on the stairs watching and wondering whether I should laugh or cry, but became rather concerned when the two warriors poked holes in the washing, pulled some of it down in the heat of the battle and just continued to pursue each other – Magnus’ mother would be so mad at us.
Suddenly Magnus cries out and holds his hand to his left ear, blood trickling between his fingers. Wolf lifts his épée to his face and kisses the blade, turns around, takes my hand and pulls me behind him as he jumps down the stairs, taking two steps at once. He doesn’t stop. Through the hall, out through the front door, slamming the door shut behind us, he pulls me, still running, to a parked car and pushes me into it and down onto the seat, locking the door from the outside with the key. Out of breath he opens door on the driver’s side, throws his épée onto the back seats and slides behind the steering wheel. Tyres squeal as he takes off at great speed. I feel excited, flattered as well as somewhat alarmed. “Mine!” is the only thing Wolf says. He smiles without looking at me.
The car, a dark-red Opel Kapitän, was his father’s, of course. I soon met his parents, and my parents soon met Wolfgang. My father had given up on his daughter the day he hit Paul Fels. Mother accepted the ‘steady boyfriend’ on the face of it, but I knew that she wasn’t happy. Still, Dr Föhr-Waldeck, Wolf’s father, was the technical director of a renowned steel-manufacturing company in the area. That helped, as well as the fact that Wolf never forgot to bring flowers and bend over Mother’s hand whenever he came to pick me up.
Yes, I found Wolf fascinating and scary, a time-honoured combination to get young women interested. I soon met all his friends, and we spend many Saturdays listening to the latest hits and golden oldies. Elvis, Jerry Lee Louis, the Platters, Bill Haley and the Comets, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Ella and Louis and, of course, Nat ‘King’ Cole … the complete list would be pages long and I can’t help thinking that it was a glorious time for music, fecund and revolutionary. We went to the cinema. There, too, the offer was bountiful: first and foremost there were the American movies, and, with a couple of cinemas re-running successful films from previous years, we had more than enough to choose from, but there was also the nouvelle vague, the new-wave films from France and some interesting ideas from Italy.
I gradually grew into a relaxed world of young people who had no conscious memory of a time of want and who were convinced that a glorious life was waiting just for them, that it wouldn’t happen without them, and that they were the chosen ones. I got hooked on this heady mixture of intelligence, arrogance and stupidity and felt fortunate to be ‘where it was at’ at such a time of change and opportunity.
Sometimes bitterly opposed, we often discussed events, the economy and politics in general – most of our opinions a re-hash of comments made in the papers, by parents, or following the lines of our schools or universities. Very few had come to well thought-out conclusions of their own. We sat, smoked, drank mostly white wine and felt not only very intellectual but extremely important. It was clear to us that everyone ‘out there’ just didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t know what they were missing (us). Especially Wolf could be sneeringly dismissive of anything anybody said of felt. He was intelligent, widely read, had a sharp tongue, and it pleased him to attack and destroy.
While we were all together, mostly in couples, we kissed and smooched in front of each other. With Wolf, I soon forgot my shyness. His possessiveness fed my vanity. Wolf was quite clearly the leader and I was his girlfriend. I am not sure whether I was actually in love with him or with this newly-found status. In the car I’d light his cigarettes for him, some oval affairs called ‘Nil’ filled with sweet oriental tobacco which he carried in a silver cigarette case that had his initials engraved on the lid, and he’d normally drive with one hand while his other arm held me close.
I was often at his parents’ where Wolf had a big room of his own. We’d talk and listen to records. He had introduced me to his favourite German intellectual: Gottfried Benn, an ex medical doctor, now Wolf’s poet of sickness and death. That’s exactly what made him so special to Wolf. I don’t think I actually liked Wolf, even though I was madly in love with him, his smile was something I found irresistible. But Wolf exuded something that I couldn’t name, something dark, dangerous. He represented perhaps the ‘vampire’, the man who’ll do anything, free of the vulgar burden of morality, guilt or conscience, the man in whose arms you are helpless, guiltless, shameless.
Maybe what captivated him was my utter naiveté. At first he was very patient and stepped lightly, willing to seduce and ‘open’ me with words – his own and words of those he admired, giving the messages weight by picking out the works of philosophers, novelists, essayists and poets. We’d read Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra’ and dip into Schopenhauer; we’d explore erotica and pornography. Wolf would always carefully hint at the fact that the boring ‘bourgeoisie’ (our parents and their generation, obviously) were too scared and limited to live life to the full – as he was prepared to do – and he invited me to come along for the ride.
Wolf’s kisses made me forget my experience with Hans Wüstenroth. His tongue inside my mouth awakened something that had lain asleep deep inside of me, and I was happy in his arms. When he started to touch my breasts those feelings at first retreated slightly, like a tentacle rapidly pulled in when touched, but very quickly ready to try again. When he explored my vagina and clitoris I froze and was very aware of his long fingernails hurting me. Every time this happened Wolf became angry and frustrated, and I didn’t understand why this was. All I knew was that I wanted him to be my boyfriend, I wanted to please him if I could – even though I had no idea what I had to do to achieve it. The relationship with him filled my days and my nights, I was conscious of Wolf whatever I did. I also experienced a sweet sense of danger, more intoxicating than anything I had known so far.
Wolf’s face is crunched up with anger. Again he rubs me down there and it hurts. I pull up my pants and straighten out my skirt. He sits up and looks at me with a mixture of tenderness and fury, his dark eyebrows contrasting against his blond hair which falls into his eyes. He gets up and reaches for the doorknob.
“When I get back I want those knickers off, you hear? You are so uptight. Probably too young for me. This is it… no knickers, alright? Or it’s over!”
What on earth do I do? I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t want him touching me. I love him, don’t I? Is this what happens when people love each other? Is every woman in this situation and do they feel like I do? Why can’t I respond? What is ‘respond’? Perhaps women don’t. What’s going to happen? I slowly pull off my panties and, not quite knowing what to do with them, I shove them under a cushion. I am so ashamed. I sit up and wait for Wolf to return. My heart is beating in my throat.
The door opens, Wolf enters smiling. He is wearing a dressing gown. “Are those panties off?” I can only nod, deeply embarrassed. With one quick movement he pushes me onto the sofa, pulls up my skirt, pushes himself between my legs and something hard is entering me. The shock and the pain are too much. I don’t think but react instinctively and just want him off me. I bite, scratch, kick, use my fists, scream … Wolf is protecting himself with his arms and, after what seem hours, rolls off me, stands up and leans against the wall, blood dripping from scratches and bite wounds, one eye closing from my punch. I see this through a haze of tears while getting up and trying to walk. I look down and see blood dripping along the insides of my legs and onto the carpet.
I strangely had enough presence of mind to pull my panties out from underneath the cushion and putting them on after clumsily trying to wipe the blood off with a handkerchief. He stood there, bloodied too, while I left the room, the house, then started to walk into the night, numb with the overwhelming feeling of betrayal and humiliation and the sudden end of whatever emotion I had tied up in Wolf, already dreading the void … I almost welcomed the physical pain that spread out from between my legs – it showed me that I lived and I accepted it as part of the punishment. Of course I was being punished, but for what? The sense of guilt I felt was paramount to almost everything else. I walked and walked and walked almost hoping I could walk forever, not having to face anyone, not having to talk, not ever having to account for what had happened tonight. I must have walked for close to three hours. A moon was out.
When I got to my house, I rang the bell, Mother opened the door, I pushed past her and went into my room, tears continuing to fall, my body convulsed. I couldn’t undress, couldn’t think, I just wanted to lie there like a wounded animal, hidden, curled up, dying perhaps or healing – but the latter I couldn’t imagine. At one moment during the night, Mother came into my room. Without saying a word she sat at the side of the bed, just stroked my hair with one hand, holding my hand with the other. The moon touched her face, the cool light reflected in wet pools around her eyes.
“Ruth, I don’t want to be here. I have graduated, isn’t that enough? I am miserable and scared. Could I be pregnant?”
“No, silly. From what you told me he didn’t even get a chance to come. The pig. I am so glad he couldn’t show his face for weeks. All you lost was your virginity. Who needs it. But you could have got rid of it and have fun.”
“God, Ruthie, can you believe that I didn’t even know what ‘virginity’ is and that I had one?”
“Jeeez, what a twit you are …!”
“Go to sleep, we’ll have this boring long day tomorrow and everybody’s going to make speeches.”
“’course you can. Good night.”
As a ‘reward’ for graduating, we have been bussed to an old moated castle somewhere in Westphalia to celebrate our success. It’s the school ritual. All the teachers are here and most of us – even most of those who haven’t quite made it – and tomorrow we are supposed to have a long day of good-bye speeches, fun, games, quizzes, lunch and dinner. Ruth and I share a room and I find it difficult to relax. I am still haunted by what happened with Wolf; I am hurt, insecure and sad and feel as though I had aged 100 years.
We arrived early afternoon, with time to hang out, have a look around, time for dinner. There was a buffet and a fruit juice bar. Ruth was out for a smoke, and I tried to eat a somewhat lifeless salad in a corner hoping I’d be overlooked. I watched old Fräulein Wittgenstein fill her plate, spy me sitting by myself and waddling over to fall into the seat next to me.
Fräulein Wittgenstein was geography, astronomy and cosmology. Miss Wittgenstein had us draw complex maps, rehearse the export and import figures of Outer Mongolia and was hot on discipline. We were all scared of her. Fräulein Wittgenstein, she of the “… Hudson Bay, the Hudson Bay… you knuckle heads, pay attENSHION!” encircling it with the large wooden pointer she sometimes didn’t hesitate to drop on us. Or, “Betelgeuse … not Andromeda. Do pay attENSHION!” We nudged and winked when she put one of her legs in wool stockings and sensible shoes on an empty bench in a rather manly way, revealing her knee-length beige woollen bloomers under a dark-beige woollen skirt. Come to think of it, we probably never saw her in anything but brown and beige. Her prune-like face was held up by a rather large hooked nose on which perched gold-rimmed, oval spectacles, enlarging her eyes rather worryingly. She wore her greying hair in a bun in her neck; some dark facial hair grew out of her nose, she had large moles, and she definitely had the beginnings of a moustache.
We probably learned more with old Fräulein Wittgenstein than with all the other teachers combined. Now she sat next to me. I still felt her presence as a bit of a threat.
Between bites: “Anne, what on earth happened to you? You were our best student… and you are lucky you graduated at all. I am so disappointed. It’s such a waste!”
There isn’t much I can say. I may have muttered something but was basically speechless.
“Oh, I know… graduation and hormones rising usually go hand-in-hand. Are you alright?”
“I am fine.”
“What are you going to do with your life now? You are not going to university I hear…”
“Well, my dear, I wish you luck and a good life. It’s not easy, life… right now you all think you are immortal and that you know best.” She sighs and gets up. “We did what we could for you all, and we cared. You won’t believe this, but I, too, was young once and know what I am talking about.” She actually strokes my cheek very gently with the back of her fingers, the very briefest sign of affection, startling and moving. I watch her walk off with some difficulty to join the others, her brown skirt hanging from wide hips to mid-calf, her legs in sturdy shoes almost making a V from her hips to position of her feet.
I suddenly feel tears streaming down my cheeks. No, I am not crying. I am not sobbing, I am not…
Ruth is looking for me. She sees me and rapidly comes over and sits in the chair Fräulein Wittgenstein just vacated. She looks at me, then at the crowd. “Yeah, shit, it’s a bitch.”
Looking around I became more and more detached. It came to me that most of the people here I’d never see again. The teachers would just quietly fade away as would be my class mates because I, for one, would disappear and never look back.
There was Fräulein Kästner, for example, who had never taken much interest in us. She taught only those who wanted to be taught. Those who participated found her a gentle soul who was just too tired to offer more, almost too tired to raise her voice, too tired to go on living. Her gait was stooped, her somewhat wild grey hair always hastily bunched together at the back of her head, her clothes were sombre – usually dark grey or blue – she hardly ever looked at us. Old Werther was the Latin master and seemed to hate us from the bottom of his heart. He’d throw a piece of chalk at anyone who made a mistake. We were sure he regretted it bitterly that in our new Germany physical punishment in schools was no longer an option. Herr Giessen was small, much shorter than most of us; he used platform shoes and big shoulder pads in his jackets to make up for his lack of height. The few hairs he had left were died a dark brown and combed over his bold pate from left ear to right. He was 65 and about to retire. He told us more than once that we were the last class he would ever take through to graduation. Herr Giessen taught mathematics. All of mathematics. Badly. He cared about us in an absent-minded sort of way.
“Ruth, do you remember when we went to Helgoland?”
“Do I remember? Will I ever forget!”
“I saw the sea for the first time, and we were already 13! When we waited for the ferry in Cuxhaven, I couldn’t believe that I was actually there, and that this vastness was the sea, and that it went on, and on, and that perhaps the ships do fall off when they work their way over the horizon.” Even I had to giggle at the thought. And I remembered the rude cries of the seagulls, their elegance and their very wet, big and unexpected droppings…
“I was so sick on the ferry, I would have preferred to die.”
“It was Giessen who made the effort to take us,” I remember in his favour. “During the crossing I stood outside, facing the wind and getting a high dose of sea and endlessness. I saw you lot coming up, one after the other, white, nay green, and feeding the seagulls copiously. I didn’t really know you then, but I did feel for you.”
“When we finally hit land, I couldn’t walk on it. It moved.”
“And then they told us that Helgoland wasn’t supposed to have survived. Such a beautiful place… You remember that silly nursery rhyme we adapted when we found out what happened? ‘Maikäfer flieg, Dein Vater ist im Krieg, Deine Mutter ist auf Helgoland, Helgoland ist abgebrannt, Maikäufer flieg…’ (Cockchafer fly, your father’s in the war, your mother is on Helgoland, and Helgoland has burnt down …) Isn’t that a cruel song?”
“That was when Bernd Minden tried to get into my knickers.”
“Is that all you ever think about? Ruthie, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole of class 3B would have aimed for your knickers…”
“Thanks. I know you’re my fan. Apart from old Wieland who so loves looking at my tits, you are the only one. But let’s not knock Wieland’s interest in my knockers (pun, pun)… without that I wouldn’t have graduated…” she adds thoughtfully.
Helgoland, or Heligoland as it’s called in English, had just withstood 6,700 tons of explosives, the biggest non-nuclear explosion of all times. The British occupying forces had decided that Helgoland should never again be used as a strategic power point in the Northsea – too close to home – and opted for total destruction. When we visited this persistent little island in the Northern high seas, its inhabitants were just a few months from returning permanently to their home.
An eyewitness told us, “There was a ship at about 10 km distance. From there they detonated the explosives at 13.00 o’clock. There was a huge bang, but when the dust settled, they couldn’t believe their eyes: Helgoland stood as always.”
“Ruth, are you still awake?”
“I feel like Helgoland.”
“Shaken but not destroyed.”
“I should hope so. Night-night.”
I can’t get away from feeling restless. Tomorrow is the big day of the big goodbyes. Ruth will soon be shipped off to her first term of finishing school in Switzerland. She is not looking forward to it and is already preparing her strategy for creating chaos and disruption. She’s promised to keep me up to date by writing daily.
I have decided to start as a cup reporter with the local paper. They already sent a letter addressed to Father offering me a place. Pay is virtually non-existent, it’s laboriously called “a contribution to cover the apprentice’s expenses” – but this job will eventually make me a journalist, and that’s what I want to be with all my heart.
Wolf is a non-person. I can’t understand how I could be so dumb and actually think I was in love. Is it the same weakness that’s bedevilled me for so long? Do I so want to please and be patted on the head, ‘nice dog, good, good dog’ that I can’t protect myself? Can’t say no? How difficult life is. But once I go to work, I’m sure to grow up and then I’ll be able to handle myself. Grown-ups do, don’t they? There is no way I continue as a student just to have more of the same. I can read, can’t I? Besides, I have met so many academics, especially my own uncles, who are experts in their field but otherwise exceedingly boring and limited. Do I have to turn out like the lot of them? No way. Oh, I wish Wolf hadn’t happened. I still feel humiliated, degraded, used … and sad about having lost that ‘being in love’ euphoria. Never again.
“…we have achieved much together, and you are going into the world to continue what we began – in freedom and democracy. In time you’ll understand the importance of this. For our generation – for most of us – this is the last class we have accompanied to graduation ; the last 20 years have not been easy years, and some of us have suffered wounds that’ll never heal. You, however, start from point zero. Be glad. Be brave. Think for yourselves. Don’t do anything just because everybody else does it. Do only what you are convinced is right. Don’t worry, we all know what’s right and wrong, all we have to do is listen to our inner voice…”
This part of our director’s speech touches me deeply. Didn’t it confirm just what I had to do? Would I be able to ‘do what’s right’ or would I be a coward? Would I hear my inner voice and, once I did, would I listen?
Hannah is about to take Ruth to Switzerland in the car. I stand helplessly next to the now so familiar black Mercedes, while Max forces the many suitcases into the big boot. There are more bags all over the seats. Hannah kisses me good bye. Ruth and I cling to each other, almost unable to speak, tears rolling down our cheeks. The embrace works like the trailer of a film, a fast collection of our last years together racing by like the thoughts of the drowning.
Ruth sticks her head out of the car, the wind tearing at her white scarf… I wave until they turn at the crossing. I vaguely remember that I have been here before.
*** End of Book II of Coming up for Air ***
The final three-part book (Book 3) starts next Sunday. Thank you, Rose. The rest of the ‘adventures of Annie’ can be read in THE TELLING.
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