Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a First Novel - Judge: Kerry Young
1ST PRIZE - (please click the title to read the opening chapters from this novel)
RUNNER-UP - (please click the title to read the opening chapters from this novel)
SHORTLIST (alphabetical order)
Starfish - Melanie Gilbert, Abingdon, Oxfordshire
Bellevue - Richard Holmes, Bristol
Half of you - Carolyn Kirby, Wallingford, Oxfordshire
LONGLIST (alphabetical order)
Out of the forest - Michael Apichella
Still - Rue Baldry
How to save a brain - Carol Barnes-Burrell
Lights out at the Electric - Luke Bramley
If Hamlet was a girl - Namita Chakrabarty
SUPERficial - Ian Dawes
Far beyond those woods - Paul Gentle
The Sydney harbour suicides - Ryan Heeger
44 Stones - Nada Holland
Mirror Mirror - Georgia Kaufmann
The Commune by the Park - Maunagh Kelly
I wanna be your dog - Philip Makatrewicz
Zazou and Rebecca - David Pearson
Transgressions - Matthew Scully
The Letters of Junius - Caroline Summerfield
Chapter 1, The Leave-Taking. India, September 1932
In his mind’s eye, Taksheel saw himself performing his evening ablutions one last time: first outside beneath the stars in the tin bath with the imported Palmolive and then, for powdering and moustache trimming, in the bedroom he shared with Jalbala. The day would be, ultimately, as all February days were, relentlessly hot. Water-starved ground had cracked and effloresced months before and the red dust that was the remnant of solid earth clung to everything like damp turmeric. But, before the day broke into the symphony of heat that, after two months, had made everyone ill-tempered and lethargic, there would be a heavenly early morning, the meagre dew having tamped down the prickly dryness and the sun a gentle forerunner to its furious noontime self.
In the perfect leave-taking of his imagination, Taksheel would take breakfast for the final time with his immediate family. He would sit, as was their custom, flanked by his daughter, Dina, and Jalbala. The two older boys would sit facing him. He intended this seating arrangement to curb the rambunctiousness of the boys, aged six and four who, when not under his eye, were alternately pinching one another, tormenting the dogs, or taunting the servants. The youngest child, a baby boy, would rest on his wife’s lap, suckling or contentedly gazing up at the faces surrounding him. Taksheel had already instructed the servants not to enter the room after laying out the food. He would let Dina and Jalbala serve him, which would be a novel and intimate way to enjoy his final breakfast.
After this scene of familial harmony, Taksheel imagined crossing his threshold wearing a pristine white shirt, western-style suit and polished leather shoes. He would stroll the short distance to the waiting Wolseley surrounded by family, acquaintances, servants, neighbours, local children and hawkers: in short, the whole Chaturvedi entourage. At the beginning of the line would be the lesser servants, the ones whose tasks were so menial Taksheel did not know their names. He would smile and raise his hand, his first and last acknowledgement of their existence. They would place palms together, index fingers on upper lips in mute reverence. Some would likely stoop to touch his feet. Next in the line would be the third or fourth generation of their family to serve the Chaturvedi’s: Rambuti the cook, Hari the gardener. These retainers would be favoured with a few well-chosen words of thanks, in Hindi of course, and an exhortation to continue in their duties faithfully whilst he was away. Next would be the many children of his many brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbours and associates. They would receive a ruffle of the hair, a pinch of the cheek.
Next would be neighbours and friends. The men would slap him on the back and force themselves to wish him the very best of good fortune. He would accept their insincere blessings amicably, serene in his crisp white shirt. He would smile over the shoulders of these men to the women in the second row, the wives wearing their second or third best saris, who would smile back before lowering their eyes and resuming sham conversations to ease their bashfulness.
Next would be his brothers and their wives. As the eldest son, he would hold their hands in both of his and look them square in the face. He would ask Baldev to ensure the orderly running of the household and in particular to supervise the education of his three sons until he could send for them to join him in England. He would ask his sisters-in-law to console Jalbala through the sadness his absence would cause and to assist her in being watchful over Dina who was, he knew, a strong-willed child. There was no use wasting time importuning Kailesh although he would miss his dear, useless, younger brother.
He anticipated that by this juncture the proceedings would have lasted an hour. He would almost be at the Wolseley. The driver would emerge and stand by the open rear door. His luggage had already been sent to the port to be loaded onto the boat. Now he would speak with his children. First Dina. He would instruct her to be a help and support to her mother, to be obedient to her uncles and grandfather and to love her brothers. Then the two boys. Their attention span was short and they had thus far failed to comprehend that their father was travelling on a large boat to a far away country where they spoke a different language. The only solid fact that their skittering minds could grasp from the repeated explanations was that of the boat and upon this, they had become jointly fixated. How big would it be? What colour would it be? Would it have enormous sails like the ship trapped in the bottle in grandfather’s study? Would there be pirates? Their inability to apprehend the momentousness of what was happening was irksome to Taksheel, and Jalbala had kept the boys away from their father these past few weeks in an effort to save them from his chiding. But it was important, Taksheel felt, that he leave them with some words that they would remember - some rule to live by that even their immature brains could process and make something useful of. He felt it should be something to do with duty and with discipline for this latter they seemed to be completely without. But Taksheel had not framed the exact sentences in his mind. He decided to trust to the inspiration of the moment hoping that when faced with these two small replicas of himself, unable to comprehend anything that was not physical and immediate, he would know, as a father, what was the right thing to say.
Next his father. It was impossible for Taksheel to script this exchange because his father and not he would be the author of it. He hoped to receive a blessing: an indication that his father had full faith in him and believed that he would be successful in his ventures. However, it was always difficult to know what the old man would say.
That would leave Jalbala and the baby, Jawahar. Jalbala and Jawahar. Jawahar and Jalbala. They always formed a single unit in Taksheel’s mind. From the moment he had been born Jawahar had rarely been off his mother’s hip. Jalbala seemed to have become so accustomed to this new appendage that she moved and spoke as if they were one being. Taksheel had often had it in mind to tell Jalbala to leave the baby with his ayah once in a while, to let the boy learn some self-sufficiency. But for some unexamined reason, whenever it was on his lips to say something of the sort, he felt the wrongness of doing so: like trying to rend apart something holy. He was not used to feeling things viscerally and it unnerved him. Doubtless if he had not been about to leave for England he would be compelled to take a firmer hand because it was not right to molly-coddle a baby in this way. She would make the boy feeble; womanish. Taksheel’s sisters-in-law, who had also noted the unusual strength of this mother-child bond, had suggested that Jalbala was clinging to her baby to comfort her in the difficult days leading up to Taksheel’s departure. Although he wanted to believe this was the case, Taksheel knew that it was not. It was unfair on the other children of course. The boys barely noticed; carelessly happy as long as they could bait squirrels or dress the dog up in their sister’s clothes or find new and ingenious methods to separate a lizard from its tail. But Dina, intelligent and thoughtful Dina, did notice. Others in the extended family noticed too and felt sorry for Dina but, because she was intelligent and canny rather than winning and pretty, no one tried to make things up to her in any way: to take her under their wing until Jalbala’s obsession with the boy waned.
What would he say to his wife of ten years as they stood beside the Wolseley? The woman to whom he had been betrothed when she was younger than Dina was now. The beautiful, red sari clad girl of sixteen who, on their wedding day, had walked the Saptapadi with him around the sacred fire seven times, invoking the Gods together to grant them and the universe plenitude, love, unity and happiness. The same woman who had stood beside him as the pyre beneath the diminutive and lifeless body of his mother was lit and had wept as he had wept. The woman who had sacrificed the firmness of her body, the radiance of her skin and the slenderness of her ankles to give birth to his seven children and who had found it within herself to continue despite the loss of three of them.
Contemplating his imminent leave-taking these past months never failed to leave Taksheel feeling optimistic, almost heroic, until the daydream got to its final stages where he stood facing his wife and youngest child by the Wolseley. The mental image would break up like a reflection in a puddle when it starts to rain and he would be left with the sound of his own voice as a younger man reciting the mantra that he had chanted after each of the seven prayers he and Jalbala had said to one another on their wedding day,
"Now let us make a vow together. We shall share love, share the same food, share our strengths, share the same tastes. We shall be of one mind, we shall observe the vows together. I shall be the Samaveda, you the Rigveda, I shall be the Upper World, you the Earth; I shall be the Sukhilam, you the Holder - together we shall live and beget children, and other riches; come thou, O sweet-worded girl”.
“Who would ever have thought it could rain like this in February, bhaia?” Baldev asked Taksheel the morning of his departure. “Your suit will get ruined, yaar. Better to wear a salwaar kameez and change into your fine clothes when you are arriving into Liverpool.” Baldev failed to keep the mirth from his voice.
Taksheel jerked back the grass matting, which the servants had hurriedly suspended in front of the windows in the middle of the night to prevent the unexpected flood dampening the Kashmiri rugs, and looked up at the sky.
“It is not a long way from the house to the car, Baldev, and the rain is stopping.”
“Just as you say, brother.” Baldev replied, “shall I go into the main house and tell everyone that you are ready to leave and that they should come and bid you a, how do you say, fond-farewell?”
Taksheel suppressed his irritation at his brother’s aping of English small talk. It demeaned them all somehow but whenever he tried to convey this to Baldev he was met with indifferent jocularity.
“Yes, Baldev, please do that. I will be leaving in five minutes. The boys were taken ill in the night and their mother says they must stay out of the rain. I have already said goodbye to them. Jalbala will be outside with Dina and Jawahar. You and Kailesh and your families will be outside, I assume? And father?”
“Yes of course brother. All the family will be there. The servants too wanted to come and give their regards to the sahib but this rain has caused so many problems on the estate.” Baldev was helpless to prevent the tone of the cringing underling from creeping into his voice as he gave his elder brother news he knew would displease. “All the men are busy trying to unblock the wells and tend to the fields where the vegetables are apparently being washed away.” Baldev chuckled, amused at the thought of dhoti-clad gardeners chasing after the muli, bhindi, and corilla that were taking advantage of the flood to make their escape from the vegetable plots.
“The women are mainly clearing up in the big house and Kailesh’s house. Dirty water has flooded very many rooms there,” Baldev said wobbling his head from side to side (a habitual gesture of his that Taksheel had told him made him look like a cooli).
“Are we expecting anyone else?” Taksheel asked.
“Well, bhai-ya, of course the Misras would have come and the Colonel and his children and for absolutely certain Dr Sarathwathi and his wife would not have missed it for all the tea in China, but the rain has washed away the road. It is verily im-passable so I do not think we should wait for them. They have all sent their servants to pass on their best wishes. Some even sent burfis and some lovely mangoes but I do not think many will brave this rain. Also, it is very early and you know how lazy these Indians are, yaar.” Baldev laughed like a naughty child at his own remark and Taksheel was too agitated to point out the irony.
Baldev’s wife, a smudgy-featured woman, whose years of child bearing had made no appreciable difference to her face or her figure, both having been mediocre even at the height of her bloom, entered the main room of Taksheel’s house.
“Well, brother, I cannot find that naughty Dina girl,” she announced in her busy voice. “No one has seen the little memsahib since the sun rose this morning and no one has time for these naughty-girl hide and seek games on such an auspicious day.” She turned to smile at her brother-in-law in what was intended to be a coquettish way. Taksheel regarded both his sisters-in-law as unattractive, female versions of their foolish husbands, and did not bother to acknowledge her statement.
“Brother, we will go and gather Kailesh and father and we will be outside in approximately two minutes.” Baldev steered his wife out of his brother’s quarters as Taksheel wondered how it was that everything he said managed to be so exquisitely ridiculous.
Taksheel had his tickets in his briefcase along with his passport, bank books, and letters of introduction from his father. His tie had been tied, loosed, tied again, straightened and re-straightened. His shoes were so shiny he was afraid to let the servants at them any more in case they rubbed a hole in the leather. He stood for a moment alone in the middle of the main room of his house listening to the rain that was, in fact, showing no signs of ceasing. He should be elated to leave this country full of imbeciles and laggards. A people so stupidly lazy that they had ceded control of themselves and all their resources to a tiny island miles away. He did not expect to miss his two younger brothers or any of the indistinguishable and undistinguished members of their respective broods with the exception, perhaps, of Kailesh. He was bored of The Gymkhana Club and bridge nights and the horse races and the weddings and funerals that went on for weeks, bored of the fasting and the hypocrisy. He had been anaesthetised by this communal, ritualised living for too many years and before he went under completely, he had to break free. He could not stand the thought of turning into one of the whiskey swilling, know-it-all anglophiles that he called his friends or to become like his own father, an erudite and thoughtful man who had had the misfortune to live long enough to be disappointed by each of his children.
Jalbala emerged from their sleeping quarters. For once, the baby was not attached to her. She was bedecked in her wedding jewellery and chimed as she walked across the rug-covered stone floor to where her husband stood. He caught her eye but quickly looked away to straighten his tie again.
“I fear it is almost time for you to leave,” she spoke softly in Hindi and moved toward him. He had always admired the quiet way she had not adopted English as the language of conversation. She spoke to him in the same language and with the same voice that she used with the children, with her sisters, with the servants. It was honest and he regretted he had never commended her for it.
“You know that I will send for you and the children as soon as I have made my way in England?” he said. “I cannot know how long that will be but Baldev and Kailesh and my father will make sure that you are taken care of and I will send money of course as soon as that is…” he trailed off, the right word eluding him somehow, “feasible”.
“I know that, Taksheel,” and she reached up and placed a folded silk handkerchief into his breast pocket. It was a cornflower yellow and the finest silk. He realised she had cut it from the lengths of material that made up the sari she was wearing.
“Look at all this rain,” he shrugged resignedly and started for the doorway adding under his breath, “What to do?” He could see his brothers heading out into the courtyard with their children. They were not forming an aisle as in his imagination but were clumped together near the main house in an effort to shield themselves from the rain which had reached monsoon proportions. He could hear the mothers hushing their complaining children. There were no neighbours or friends amongst the group. He stepped to the threshold of his home and looked up, disbelieving, at the rain. He feared for his suit and, more than anything, for his shoes. They had not been made to withstand this weather or the pernicious red sludge that was the ground between the house and the Wolseley.
Whilst Taksheel was eyeing the rain, Jalbala had been back to their bedroom to retrieve the sleeping baby and without waking him had fastened him around her middle with a sling of cotton. She walked to her husband, ankle chains rattling and the voluminous sari sweeping the floor in her wake. She quietly bent down in front of him, loosened his shoelaces and pulled the tongues of each shoe gently forward being careful not to crease the soft leather. She then held each shoe in place one at a time so that he could step out of them which he did, wordlessly. Her hennaed hands removed the argyle wool socks one at a time. She stuffed each sock in its corresponding shoe and held them both in one hand. With the other she held the handle of an umbrella that, like an illusionist, she seemed to have produced from nowhere.
“I think it is time to walk to the car, husband,” she said quietly.
“Yes.” He took the first step outside and his toes recoiled as cold stone became warm muddy paste. He adjusted his stride to match the short steps that Jalbala’s sari forced her to take and they walked in time toward the car. She held the umbrella aloft and to one side of her like a tightrope walker, arm extended fully to accommodate the difference in their height. Her gold bangles slid down her arm and stuck fast round the soft flesh just above her elbow. The rain fell on her and on her baby.
He was not after all required to speak wise words to his children and a few minutes after leaving his house, without spectacle or fanfare, he found himself standing before his father. A tall man with skin the colour and texture of aged parchment, Taksheel’s father wore a white kurta spotted with rain and, refusing to make any concession to the weather, stood, sandaled on the mud, hair plastered to his patrician skull.
Taksheel unbuttoned his jacket and bent at the waist and knees simultaneously giving the impression he was toppling over under the weight of his suit. Jalbala moved the umbrella to shield her husband’s head. He reached down to touch his father’s feet. His feet and those of his father squared off, each daubed in the same mud, each with the same bone structure, elongated second toe and high arches.
“Goodbye, my eldest son,” Taksheel’s father said to him in Hindi. “Make your way as best you can. We will be praying for your success while you are away. Look straight in front of you as you move forward through the world, son, but never forget what you have left behind you.”
“Thank you, father. I will do my best to honour you.”
The two men looked one another in the eye each trying to recognise himself in the man who stood before him. Taksheel’s father swiftly turned on his heels like a General inspecting his troops and finding them wanting and set back toward the main house. The rest of the family, damp and uninterested, took this as their cue to leave, and filed away with a few carelessly shouted farewells.
Unexpectedly, there was just the three of them. The baby was awake, confused but not displeased by the drops of rain falling on his face and tickling his cheeks. Taksheel put his hand inside the makeshift cocoon in which his son lay and splayed his fingers wide over the baby’s face as if trying to measure it. His fingertips felt his son’s skull through downy black hair and his thumb tip nestled between the creases of the boy’s several chins. The three of them stood connected like this in the rain. Taksheel closed his eyes as if this were an act of consecration. At last, the baby reached his own tiny fist up and towards his father’s hand, breaking the spell. He gripped Taksheel’s little finger in the surprisingly firm way of very young babies yet to be fully convinced they will not be dropped.
“Look. He does not want me to go.”
“He is not alone,” Jalbala said looking directly up at Taksheel, as she continued to shield him from the driving rain leaving herself unprotected. This was a step in their lives, intertwined from such an early age, without precedent; there was no mandated ritual. She started to weep.
“Why do you cry, Jalbala?” Taksheel asked.
“Because I am nothing here without you.” He was surprised by the vehemence in her voice as she stood squarely in front of him, one arm raised to hold the umbrella and one hand still clasping his shoes, rain-diluted tears running down her cheeks. He did not know how to respond to the accusation in her voice.
“Wherever I am, you are my wife,” he said in what he hoped was a reassuring way and, with his little finger still held firm by their son, he spread his fingers wider still, reached his thumb up to Jalbala’s forehead and placed it on the bindi, painted there with care early that morning; now just a smear.
“I have not understood why it is that you must leave us,” Jalbala said.
He sighed remembering that evening a month ago when he had told her of his plans. He had tried to explain then. He would try again now. “I think I can make a life that is more my own away from this place. I am sick and tired of the squalor and the filth.” He cast his arm about as if to indicate the horror and poverty just beyond the walls of Sanik Farms. “There is something wrong with the mentality of Indian people – it is in my brothers just as it is in the lowliest chaprassi. I do not know what it is but I cannot change it and I can no longer tolerate it. But most of all, Jalbala, I am not like it and I do not want to become like it.”
“I do not understand, Taksheel. But I am not an educated woman.” Jalbala closed her eyes and lent forward so that Taksheel’s thumb, which he had not moved during their exchange, pressed hard into her forehead.
“There are other reasons, Jalbala. The life we are all enjoying here – it cannot be sustained. You see how my brothers live, how their wives spend and there are so many children between us all. My father is an old man. Not all of our investments have been…have been… as…as… successful as we might have hoped. I must secure all of our futures. Things are changing in India, Jalbala, and we cannot go on living like heedless children.” There was no time to explain further. He had to leave now.
“England is a tiny, small island country where it rains all the time. That is why the British come here.”
Taksheel smiled weakly, saddened rather than amused that she would fall upon child-like arguments. He knew that what he was saying to her now, in one of the few unobserved, unscripted conversations that had ever taken place between them, was ultimately confusing to her. He pitied her that she had no grasp of politics and that the only argument she could marshal was to criticise the geography and climate of his destination. Almost better to be a dhobi walla and a man than to be a woman in this topsy-turvy country, Taksheel thought. He looked at her from head to toe and, more than her tear and rain-streaked face and more than the beaten slope to her shoulders and the too-tight wedding bangles cuffing her forearms, it was the sight of her yellow sari sullied and heavy with mud that made him want to beat his fist to his breast like a Shia devotee to make himself feel something there. The sari clung like a wet shroud around her legs giving her the appearance of a deplumed bird.
The baby’s lower jaw was starting to shudder with the cold. He must get in the car and leave. If he stayed to talk to her much longer he would not be able to do it and if he did not do it today he likely never would and if that happened he would be a joke to all who knew him for the rest of his life and that would break him.
He trawled his thoughts for something to say to his wife that would be a comfort to her in the long, solitary hours she would spend in his family’s compound. Solitary because she did not fit in with the women of the house now that his mother was dead and the tone of female relations was set by his sisters-in-law who formed a cabal that Jalbala had neither the desire nor the ambition to be admitted to. Conscious of the preciousness of this, their first exchange, not as equals but at least without the pretence with which his other familial exchanges were doused, he did not want to hold out any false promises. He was disappointed that all he could manage was,
“Well, if I am wrong about England then I can buy another ticket, get back on the boat and come back here can I not?” He forced a smile and with his free hand gently prised open his son’s reluctant fingers.
There was nothing else to say and the baby was shivering. She handed him his shoes and socks. He leaned over and put his lips to his son’s damp forehead and lingered there a while. For a moment, he could understand why Jalbala cleaved to him, the most placid and amenable of their four living children.
“Goodbye my son. When we meet again, you will not recognise me. But I will always know you.” Taksheel was gratified by the contented gurgling sounds the baby made in response to his caresses.
He bent down and folded his long limbs into the back of the Wolseley. The springs beneath the leather bench seat caused him to bounce up and down involuntarily like a holiday maker excited to be going on a jaunt. He placed his clean shoes beside him on the shiny leather and wound the window down.
The baby had started to cry and Jalbala swung her body gently from side to side to comfort them both. She held the umbrella up over the empty space beside her.
The engine jolted to life with a rheumatic splutter and the car started to roll forward, struggling for purchase on the slippery earth. Taksheel poked his head out of the window as if he had forgotten something. Jalbala stepped forward expectantly.
“I shall be the Samaveda, you the Rigveda?” The Sanskrit prayer issuing from his mouth was a surprise to him for he had not formed the words first in his mind before uttering them as was his habit. Although he intended it as a statement, it had come out as a question. The words hung in the moisture-laden air like fragile raindrops. She stepped forward and put her palm against the half-open window of the Wolseley, her fingers curling over the top of the window as if to prise it open. His eyes took in the manic swirls of brown hieroglyphs on her palms: another small way she had honoured him that day. The baby’s cries had grown loud and so she had to raise her voice to answer, “I shall be the Upper World, you the Earth.”
He instinctively lent forward and clumsily kissed her fingertips succeeding only in part, the rest of his kiss bestowed on the glass. He felt his lower abdomen tighten and recognised this unaccustomed sensation as his body threatening to unleash sobs. Afraid he might start to weep in front of his wife and son, Taksheel reached forward and gave the back of the driver’s car an imperative thump. He kept his eyes averted from her face and his lips against her fingertips as the wheels of the Wolseley spun in the mud. Grudgingly they caught hold and the car lurched forward.
“I shall be the Sukhilam, you the Holder - together we shall live and beget children.” His voice rose and broke as the driver, unaware of what was taking place behind him and reluctant to cede momentum, drove quickly away.
Taksheel looked out of the back windscreen through garish tassels and past a Ganesh idol until his wife and child were an indistinguishable yellow blob at the end of a molten red road.
Taksheel took the yellow handkerchief out of his breast pocket, opened it fully and pulled it tight across his face. Silk covered his nose and mouth and caressed his eyelids. He inhaled deeply through the fabric square which smelt of coriander and jasmine oil like Jalbala’s fingers. The high, sweet smell seemed to catch the back of his throat. He pulled the handkerchief down from his face quickly. As he did so his eye caught the driver’s in the cracked glass of the rear view mirror. He set his jaw and bunched the yellow silk handkerchief in his fist. He saw that his shaking hands were covered with mud from his father’s feet. He rubbed his hands briskly with the handkerchief. The dried mud flaked off easily and turned to dust, which eddied around his head causing him to cough. He could feel sweat rising through his shirt.
The car’s wheels sank into potholes and ditches, bunny-hopped over rutted surfaces, swerved around skeletal cows languishing in the middle of the road and jostled with rickshaws and cyclists and cart-luggers of every description, its feeble suspension amplifying the shortcomings of what passed for roads in Jaipur. Taksheel clung to his image of himself: the opposite of this jittery, sweat-soiled man being flung left and right against his will. He forced thoughts of the fumbled, rain-soaked leave taking from his mind. In some way he had yet to fathom, it was the fault of this godforsaken country.
He took a deep breath and sat back in the seat, unclenched his jaw and dropped his shoulders. He stopped resisting the pummelling the car and road were conspiring to inflict upon him. He kept his eyes closed and pictured the landscape outside the Wolseley’s windows. The jolts and turns, the noises from outside and the muted imprecations of the driver, told him where along the route they were. After half an hour of bone-shuddering driving Taksheel calculated the next left turn would be the one that would take him out of Jaipur. As the driver slowed, made the turn and accelerated once more, Taksheel opened his eyes and looked about him.
He took in the ragged collection of farms that, over the course of his life, had made the transition from homely to run down to unapologetically decrepit. The battered sign in Hindi and English indicating they were leaving Jaipur sailed passed his window.
“Aray!” he barked in Hindi, “hurry up there, man, I have a train to catch. I do not have all day.”
He reached forward and put on his argyle wool socks and his new leather shoes.
Chapter 2, Letters. India, 1933
Dina could hardly believe that the first letter penned by her father from England was addressed to her. Her cousins peered over her shoulders and tried to grab at the pale blue oblong when the post-walla handed it to her. She held it aloft and ran with it to her family’s dwelling where she knew she would find her mother and brothers passing time inside during the hottest part of the day.
Dina had asked her father on the day he left to write to her and he had kept his promise. Better than that - he had entrusted to her his very first words from that other country. It contained news for the ears of everyone in the clan and that evening after their meal she would read it aloud to aunts and uncles, neighbours and cousins. But first, certain that it would be her father’s wish, she would read it to her mother and brothers. She ran into their living room to find her mother seated on the floor playing a game of cards with Ashok and Ankush, Jawahar asleep in her lap amidst folds of silk.
She cleared her voice to attract their attention and held the letter in front of her at arm’s length for dramatic effect. All except the sleeping baby, turned to face her. She read the letter slowly beginning with the date and place of writing, determined to extract the maximum delight.
1st September 1932,
I am sending my first letter to you, my first child. I know you will read it to everyone in your loudest and clearest voice. So through you, I say to everyone in Sanik Farms, Namastey.
Let me tell you of the voyage to Liverpool. During the six long weeks many were sick. I was not one. When I felt my stomach turning, I would go up to the highest deck, look at the horizon and meditate. The body can in that way be controlled by thought processes.
Without the diversions of Sanik Farms I had to find other ways to pass the hours. I had some books for improvement with me but these were exhausted after the first week. I wrote down many ideas to discuss with Rabindra Sethi - my old friend from the University of Madras. He lives in Birmingham now and has a very successful business to do with the making of car parts. I also played some chess and rummy with a Panjabi – a musalmaan - but quite a sensible one.
The greatest difficulty I met with was securing food that was śākāhārī. The English must have meat in all their food, even breakfast, and it was almost impossible to find a clean dish. So, I ate like a poor man. I took a lot of vegetable soup – a thin dhal with no lentils – and potato and hard, white bread.
Ashok, Ankush – look in Dada-ji’s Atlas to follow the route. From Bombay we sailed across the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Aden. We docked at Port Sudan – I left the boat here for half of one day. It is a filthy place. India will have her independence long before these low class Africans. Then we traversed the Suez Canal from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea stopping at the northern terminus of the Canal, which is Port Said. I got off the boat again. In this place I saw Jews, Egyptian, Greeks and Italians, Swiss and British. You can hear French and Italian spoken as much as Arabic. It is an organised, clean place and the mix of the different races seems not to have caused too many problems. We made one final stop at Gibraltar before arriving in Liverpool.
The first you see of England is the Royal Liver Building rising three hundred feet from the shores into the sky. When I saw it I knew I was approaching a proper country where magnificent things can be achieved. One of the ship’s stewards - a light skinned Parsee from Sindh who had made the voyage many times, told me of the mythical birds that perch on the two towers of the building. They are called Liver Birds. One bird looks out to sea at the boats coming into port and the other looks over the City to protect its people. If one of these stone birds flies away, it is said, the city will crumble. So it is not just Indians who like their myths.
I took the train from Liverpool to London. Here the train does not idle along as if its passengers are in no hurry to reach their destination. The train goes very fast – of course it does not have to put up with people clinging on to its carriages like monkeys or sitting on its roof.
I disembarked at Euston Station. This station has a magnificent Great Hall at the centre of which is a statue of George Stephenson – the Father of Railways. The station is vast and, but for the soot blackened ceilings, clean. The porters do not chase after you so that you must beat them away. They stand to one side waiting for passengers to engage their services. You do not need to step over beggars and the old and sick. Is it that England has no old, no sick, no poor? Of course not. It is just that she has proper places for them. Government institutions, charitable societies, hospitals and almshouses. So the streets are not littered with the unwanted, the broken and the unclean.
From the station, I took a ride of five minutes in a taxi to the house of father’s friend, The Right Honourable, Mr Humphrey Wyndham-Smith, from where I write this letter to you.
The house of father’s friend is located in Bloomsbury. I am among fashionable people. Mrs Wyndham-Smith, who, at her insistence, is known to me by her first name of Edith, gives many parties and they are attended by diplomats, poets, politicians and explorers. To be polite and for the chance of meeting interesting people, I attend. When I am there, I hear conversations in Swahili, Hindi, French and sometimes even in English!
If there is prejudice against the foreigner here then I have yet to encounter it. I live amongst cultured people who have travelled the world but even in the street or at Rabindra’s factory where most of the workers have not been schooled beyond the age of twelve, I have not seen any sign of it. It is different I am sure for the low-class Indian who cannot speak English and for the black man.
Edith and Sir Humphrey have three children. The eldest is Celia who lives at home. Then there is Mary. She lives in the countryside with her husband and her two children. There is only one son, Frederick, who is called Freddie. He studies at Oxford but seems to spend most of his time in London at parties or sporting matches. There are very often other houseguests coming and going; nephews, nieces, old aunts and school friends. I am never short of company. But company of strangers is not companionship of family. I see you seated at the Rosewood Table, sipping lime sherbets, and I wish I was with you.
I will write again, when I have more of interest to relate.
Dina-Beti – give a kiss to Jawahar from his father. And your Amma too.
Dina raised her eyes to gauge her audience’s reaction. The baby had remained asleep throughout; Ashok and Ankush, respectfully attentive as she read, quickly returned to the card game. Her mother looked uncertain.
“What do you think, Amma? Father has arrived and he has written his very first letter to me.”
“And you read it beautifully.” Jalbala placed her hands underneath the sleeping infant and, from her cross legged position on the floor, slowly raised herself careful not to wake the baby. She drifted silently into her bedroom and laid the baby on her mattress smiling as, in his sleep, he closed his tiny fist around the muslin cloth and brought it to his face for comfort. She returned to the living room.
“What did you think of all that he had to tell us, Amma?” Dina wanted to talk about her letter, to discuss its details and analyse her father’s impressions.
“What is ‘Bloomsbury’ and what is ‘houseguest’?” Her mother’s tongue curled around these English words with difficulty. Dina had not heard these words before but she could tell that her mother was not pronouncing them correctly.
“I think Bloomsbury is the name of a place that is in London – like Chandi Chowk is the name of a place that is in Delhi.” Dina was not entirely sure that her explanation was correct but nonetheless she delivered her answer with confidence and believed in it herself a little more for doing so.
“Why has he written these words in English?” Jalbala asked her daughter.
Dina was irked that instead of experiencing the pure enjoyment she had from her father’s letter, her mother’s attention was snagged on the five or six English words that her father had cast adrift in the sea of Hindi.
“I think it is because there is no word in Hindi for ‘wrought iron’ or ‘houseguest’ or ‘Bloomsbury’ so he uses the English words and knows that Grandfather will be able to explain their meaning to us.”
“I see.” Jalbala spoke quietly and, touching the heads of her two seated boys as she passed them, engrossed in their card game, she returned to the bedroom to lie down next to her baby in the heat.
Months passed without the post-walla coming again to Sanik Farms bearing the feather-light blue sheaf with a London postmark.
Dina imagined a laughing Goddess of the postal system. A fickle and forgetful deity with many stomachs and the head of a cow; an air of bovine indifference to her task. She could picture this corpulent being, reclining on sacks of golden hay, acolytes offering milk and honey in golden pitchers to appreciative lowing. This would explain these interminable months of silence only for two or three or four letters to arrive all at once as if that forgetful goddess had woken from her slumbers one day, beheld vast mountains of undelivered epistles and, with a wave of her hoof, bid her followers to fulfil their duties.
Dina knew that subsequent letters would not be addressed to her. The first was her father’s way of paying her a compliment, but the others would surely be addressed to her grandfather. She had gone on several occasions during these past weeks to his bungalow ostensibly to offer to rub his feet or pull his rheumatic fingers until they clicked. But he was not to be fooled;
“Come, come, Dina-jaan. What kindnesses have you come to bestow on your old grandfather today?” And she would timidly make her offer to rub his temples or to read from the Vedas or the Bhagavad Gita and he would say, “Well that is most solicitous. What a good granddaughter you are, Dina-beti”. And she would half-heartedly begin her ministrations wondering how to make yet another enquiry as to whether a letter had been received. She was not a gentle masseuse and her distractedness made her carelessly forceful. When her grandfather’s bones could tolerate no more he would say, “Aray, Dina. Thank you. That will do.” He would wait a moment, watching the girl’s features register her struggle to reconcile the desire to ask her question and her reluctance to engender his irritation. Always a little lenient towards this wilful, clever girl who resembled her Dadi, he would say casually, “and, in case you are at all interested, I can report that I have not received a letter from your father.” She would make her excuses and retreat.
But on this day, four months after she had stood proudly before the whole Chaturvedi clan and read her father’s first words from London, her grandfather, most unusually stood and watched her as she approached his quarters. She was unnerved. Usually she silently approached his seated figure and waited for him to open his eyes and address her before speaking. She wondered if she should walk faster; run even. That would surely be unseemly. Now the very act of walking felt strange as if it was a skill she had only recently acquired. She became acutely conscious of the way her arm was swinging by her side and the feel of the moist grass on her bare feet. Should she cast her eyes downward or hold his gaze as she approached? She decided on the former, not wanting to appear insolent. To avoid stumbling she occasionally had to look up and a snatched glance revealed that her grandfather was holding one hand aloft. His white salwaar formed a wing as it hung down from his thin arm. Was he hailing her? This was unheard of. She grew closer and saw that he was holding up four fingers. She broke into a run and arrived at the veranda breathless. Her grandfather brought the other hand from behind his back. He was holding a bundle of pale blue letters. Her hands were clasped together under her chin in anticipation.
“Dina-beti. I received them this morning. I have not yet read them. Let us read them together and then, after the meal this evening, I will read them to all the family.” He took his seat in his cane chair and Dina dropped to a seated position on the floor at his feet looking up at him like a devotee. In her excitement she had placed her hand on her grandfather’s knee. He used a silver letter opener to carefully make a slit along one of the long edges. As her grandfather unfurled the pages she saw her father’s tidy hand, the same as she remembered only made smaller to fit the curtailed space of an airmail letter. Her grandfather read the first one.
15 December 1932,
My blessings to you all from London.
When I left Sanik Farms the rakhi were still on the wrists of Ashok, Ankush and even Jawahar – put there by their devoted sister to celebrate Raksha Bandhan. Now the year is coming to an end which means I have been here for three months. It has passed in the blink of an eye.
I still write to you from the Wyndham-Smiths. They entreated me to stay with them as a permanent houseguest. Sir Humphrey is very busy and often away from the home. So the large house is empty much of the time except for Edith and Celia. I am travelling to Birmingham each week where I stay with Rabindra for two or sometimes three days. So I will stay here in Bloomsbury. It is better not to expend money on rent when it is not necessary to do so.
I am invited by Celia to go to the Winter Proms. “Proms” means “promenade concerts”. I do not understand this because walking has nothing to do with sitting in a grand hall and listening to music. I will ask Celia for an explanation. The BBC Symphony Orchestra will be performing. They are a new orchestra and the performance we will attend at the Queen’s Hall at the end of this month will be broadcast on the World Service. By the time this letter arrives, the concert will be over. I wonder, did you hear it?
I am up early tomorrow to travel with Freddie to the town of Twickenham where I am to witness a Rugger match. Wales and England will compete. Freddie tells me it will be one of the most exciting episodes of my life. Happily I need not fear the cold as Freddie took me to his tailors some weeks ago to be measured for an overcoat, none of my garments being a match for the English winter. The coat was delivered this morning. It is made of lambs’ wool and comes halfway down my shin. It has a high collar to protect the neck from the freezing air and the colour is a dark blue; navy blue as it is called. The lining is silk and the whole is a thing of quite some beauty. I had imagined that the superlatives Freddie used to describe the tailoring of Saville Row were exaggerations. But this is not so. The coat is put together with a skill the like of which I do not think you could find in the whole of India. I will be glad of it tomorrow as I sit exposed to the wind and cold watching a sport I cannot pretend to understand.
But I am not simply amusing myself at concerts and sports matches. I have been attending to the matters that brought me to this country with energy and my efforts are beginning to bear fruits. Rabindra is engaged in plans to expand his business in Birmingham and we are planning to acquire some premises – a factory – jointly.
Pita-ji, I touch your feet and to everyone I send my fondest regards.
Dina had closed her eyes and, as her father’s voice was not unlike her grandfather’s, for some magical moments, it was as if her father sat before her recounting his experiences. Her grandfather folded the first letter neatly and laid it on the table. He picked up the second and reached for the letter opener with the same careful movements that he had once used to wield surgical implements.
“No, please, grandfather.” Dina stood abruptly. “Please do not read the next letters to me now. I would rather wait until this evening and hear them with the rest of the family.” She was backing away from her grandfather as if he was infectious.
“Dina-bhai, you have been waiting these last months for your father’s words and now that I have them I my hand you do not wish to hear them?”
“Grandfather, with your permission, I would prefer to spend my day thinking of all that you have just read to me and in looking forward to hearing what else is to follow. We do not know how long it will be before more letters will come and I wish to make the pleasure last.”
The old man nodded and Dina ran back to her family’s home on the estate to tell her mother about the Winter Proms and Rugger and coats made from the wool of sheep.
Ashok and Ankush had been present in the house when Dina had rushed in full of talk of the Queen’s Hall and English people with peculiar sounding names. They listened to her stories as they listened when she read to them from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights; with wonder and interest but without belief in the reality of the tale being told. In the afternoon, before the heat chased them back indoors, they ran out to find cousins and uncles with whom to play cricket. And so word had spread that news of Taksheel had been received.
After the meal, as the children slurped the milky juice of the ras malai from their wooden bowls and the men picked husks of the aniseed and cardamom they chewed to aid digestion out of their teeth, an air of expectation and excitement began to build in the big house.
“Are we expecting the Lord Krishna himself to come down from the heavens and join us this evening to hear what it is my brother has to tell the world?” Baldev said loud enough for his wife and Kailesh to hear but careful that his words did not reach his father’s ears.
“Perhaps he is already among us,” said Baldev’s wife, Sita playfully. “He could have taken the form of the dog you can hear barking just beyond the perimeter or one of the monkeys Rajiv was chasing this afternoon.”
Baldev laughed and in a voice of faux seriousness replied, “You are right, my wife. That monkey looked most regal. I hope Lord Krishna is not angry with Rajiv for his insolence in daring to chase a God.” Kailesh joined in the laughter that followed but with one eye on his father.
Dina had secured herself a seat close to her grandfather so that her father’s words would reach her ears first. When her grandfather stood she loudly shushed her younger cousins. The room fell silent and Janardan Kavi Chaturvedi’s voice resounded round the stone walls, reaching up to the vaulted ceiling, rolling down the walls over tapestries and silks and caressing the rugs that warmed the floor. He read the letter the contents of which had kept Dina, her mother and her brothers, entertained for the whole day and then, after a short break in which the servant cleared away the desolation of plates and cups and brought platters of burfi and an urn of chai with copper beakers, he read the second letter.
28 December 1932,
My dear family,
I have much to report that I struggle to know where to begin this letter. First, of course, let me say that I hope it finds you all well.
I will begin with the item that takes up most of my thoughts. We have found our factory. It is in the area of Edgbaston (Ashok, Ankush, you will know of this name from your cricketing magazines). It is a dishevelled place at present. The owner, an old man, makes pieces for the inside of wireless radios. He is tired now and much of the factory is closed up and the machines lie quiet. He is an unfortunate because he lacks a son to hand his business too. There are not so many people interested in buying this worn out place. Therefore we will make a good price. We will refit the factory for its new purpose - the production of parts for motor cars. Rabindra’s two other factories are also related to the automotive industry; one makes tyres and the other carburettors. His factories supply the Austin car plant also in Birmingham. I am sure Ashok can find for you amongst his collection of replica cars an Austin Seven: the most produced car of 1930! Europe is heading towards a time of mass car ownership and Birmingham is one of the biggest centres of production. I am very confident that this venture will be a successful one.
My present feeling is of great optimism and an excitement to face the challenges that lie ahead. It is difficult to express it in a letter. I will move on to other things now so as not to bore you with talk of production lines and machine cutters and transmission boxes.
The house is celebrating the holy festival of Christmas. There is a tree standing at a height of ten feet in the drawing room. Its branches are decorated with angels and kings and even a donkey. The figures are made of newspaper but you would never guess that. First, the newspaper is torn into strips and soaked in a mixture of glue and water. Then the wet paper is moulded by the hands into the desired shape. When they are dry these little figures are robust and can be painted to resemble the singers of Christmas songs or wise men or the child Jesus. You would be surprised to learn that I have engaged in this activity myself. Edith, her daughters and her grandchildren insisted I join them for an evening of singing and making decorations. It was strange to be in the company of women who are not my kin without their men present. It is, I suppose, what makes this country modern and not backward like our own country where there are so many segregations to be observed.
When we woke on the day of Christmas London looked like one of the illustrations in Dina’s book, A Christmas Carol. The family had left gifts for one another wrapped in coloured paper underneath the tree. There was even a gift for me: some gloves. I think it was Celia who arranged this. Many neighbours came to the house to give and receive blessings. Some came with special sweets, as we would do at Diwali. At lunchtime, the table was laid for a sumptuous meal. The table is not made of unfinished wood like ours but of shiny mahogany and so smooth that it is hard to imagine its life as a tree. The custom in England is that around the dinner table man must be seated next to woman – but not husband and wife. They must be separated. Celia explained the intention is to make conversation lively – to prevent men from talking about politics and to encourage women to talk about something other than their husbands. So Celia and Mary sat either side of their father. I sat to Celia’s other side and next to me sat Edith’s unmarried sister. Frederick sat the other side of her and other cousins, friends and neighbours were seated such that we numbered twenty five people.
There were very many dishes served. The family know well that I can only eat vegetables and they had made provision for me but it was interesting to see the other dishes served. At the end of the savoury courses a great ball of dried fruits soaked in brandy is carried in, in flames. This is the Christmas pudding. At Frederick’s insistence, I bore the weight of the tray and I would guess that this pudding was the weight of a child of half a year. There were many other desserts; a pudding of plums, sliced fruit that has been preserved in sugar, nuts and figs and dates and so many different kinds of cheese eaten with dry biscuits. It was a feast worthy of a wedding.
When I write to you again it will be 1933. I am full of confidence that it will be a good year for all.
With all good wishes.
With the conclusion of the letter, excitement vibrated the room. People turned to their neighbour to repeat that part of the letter that had caught their attention. Then they turned towards Jalbala and gave her a nod or a smile. They had no way to congratulate Taksheel or to ingratiate themselves to him and she was the next best thing. She returned their smiles. She had missed the feel of the warmth from the reflected glow of her husband’s success on her skin. She was reminded of who she was – Jalbala Sushila Chaturvedi; wife of Taksheel, eldest and most favoured son of Janardan Kavi Chaturvedi and mother to his three sons. She felt substantiated.
The children asked each other questions about puddings made of fire; the men were keen to reveal their fragments of knowledge relating to the car industry and the women speculated on the appearance of Celia, Mary and Edith. Did they wear trousers in the modern American style? They surely wore dresses that revealed their arms and a good portion of their legs at these dinner parties, but then how did they keep warm if there was snow?
Janardan Kavi Chaturvedi allowed the room to absorb this new information. He remained standing and after a few minutes, realising he was to address them again, the room fell silent.
“I have another two letters here from my eldest son. I was planning to read them all to you this night but my granddaughter sitting here so attentively taught me a lesson today about the virtue of patience and the beauty of expectation. Let us think about all that Taksheel has told us in these two letters. Let us offer up some prayers of thanks this night for his successes and when tomorrow night’s meal is concluded I will read to you the other two letters.”
When the clan left the large room in the big house to return to their own dwellings, a space seemed to form around Jalbala. Neighbours and sisters-in-law nodded to her, afforded her room, allowed her to step over the threshold first. She smiled, eyes lowered, at this small homage.
Baldev was irked that the evening meal at which his brother’s next two letters were to be read had taken on the atmosphere of a festival. He was bad tempered with his wife when he saw her deliberate over her choice of sari.
“It is an evening meal of dhal and paratha and raita, woman. You are not going to meet a Maharaja. Why are you wearing your ankle bracelets?”
Sita knew well the cause of her husband’s irritation but she was not about to be outshone by Muni and, bored by his increasing bellicosity, she thought to obtain some pleasure from provoking him,“Why, husband, are you not excited to hear of the latest triumphs of our dear brother?”
“I am happy to hear from my brother, wife. I simply find it hard to understand why the whole of Sanik Farms must prostrate itself before his words as if he were the creator of the universe. It is demeaning.”
“He writes most amusingly though would you not agree?”
“Yes indeed, Sita, I am sure the children and the weak of intellect are most amused at his descriptions. For those of us who have been to university and are well versed in the ways of the world, the tone of his letters is patronising. He writes as if we have never heard of Christmas before or snow; as if we are peasants he must enlighten as to the customs of the English.”
“I am sorry you are feeling disagreeable, husband. If you wish it, I will tell your father that you are feeling unwell so you do not have to suffer another of your brother’s letters.” She spoke in a simpering voice that she knew worked on her husband like hungry mosquitoes at dusk.
“Don’t be ridiculous woman.” Baldev’s voice was loud and she started involuntarily. She sat on the bed and with one ankle resting on the knee of the other leg she squinted at the clasp of her ankle chains.
“Get out of my way.” Baldev walked past her, knocking into her raised leg as he left their quarters. Her ankle chain, whose tiny clasp she had yet to secure fell to the floor. She retrieved it and smiled to herself.
The evening followed the same pattern as the one that preceded it. After the meal Janardan Kavi Chaturvedi rose and the room fell silent. He opened the third of the four letters and began to read.
1 March, 1933
My dear family,
Happy Holi to you. I hope you are enjoying the festival of colours and welcoming the coming of the Spring. I long to celebrate the end of Winter but She seems reluctant to release her grip on this cold island. I am glad of my overcoat, my gloves and, a new addition to my wardrobe, a muffler knitted for me by Celia.
I have important news to share with you. I have today lodged the deeds to the factory – to our factory - with my bank. It belongs to us and soon it will be operational. Rabindra has begun soliciting orders with Austin and I have been to the Morris car plant in the town of Cowley. Morris have begun to manufacture small cars for purchase by the ordinary family. They are of the view that Britain is about to enter an era of mass car ownership. I believe it is true. I am hopeful they will engage us to produce for them engine components. They will give us small orders to begin with. If we can give satisfaction then these will increase. We have come across this opportunity at quite the right moment.
Do you know that on this small, wet island there are more than one hundred companies whose business it is to manufacture cars? Do you know how many such places there are in the entire sub-continent of India? There are none. It is a different mentality here. There is a quiet respect for order and discipline and procedures carefully carried out. It is a philosophy that I find congenial. It means that the streets are clean. It means that if you post a letter, it will be delivered. It means that if you enter a shop and wish to purchase something, the price is clearly displayed and there is no need to haggle which demeans both customer and shop-walla. There are poor of course, but not multitudes of the starving. There are no lepers on the street, no limbless children begging. I will not go on. You all know well why our country languishes. I would just beseech Ashok and Ankush and, when he is old enough, Jawahar, to please look to Great Britain for an example in how a country should be run and how a people should have some pride in themselves to not adopt low, filthy habits. But, I am lecturing you and that was not my intention. This letter speaks of good news for the Chaturvedi family.
With all good wishes to everyone at Sanik Farms.
As before, Janardan Kavi Chaturvedi left some time for the details of this letter to percolate. He sat down and waited for the remnants of dinner to be removed and the plates of jaleebi and cups for the chai to be arranged on the table. He nodded at Jalbala who was seated at the farthest end of the table from him. Usually she sat with her children and not with her sisters-in-law but this evening they had formed a cabal around her and seemed determined that she join in their gossip; be one of them. He noticed that, like the other women, she had taken extra care in the application of henna and choice of jewellery although he understood her well enough to know that this was not a matter of vanity for her but rather a way of honouring the husband on whose success her future, more than all of the other people in the room, depended.
When everyone had been served tea, attention began to turn expectantly towards the head of the table. He duly rose and read the last of the four letters.
21 June, 1933
My dear family,
Greetings to you all. I am writing this letter on the evening of what has been the longest day. It is called the summer solstice and it is marked by a few with the lighting of fires and gathering around ancient stones. But these remembrances are nothing more than a nod to the superstitions of a pagan past. So different from India where even today idolatry and backward ideas dictate how people conduct their lives.
Baldev-bhai – I have been thinking of you today. This is because I have been to Lords cricket ground. I wish that you could have seen the pitch. Magnificent. All this rain is good for something because I have never seen grass so green and so perfectly prepared. It was like a Kashmiri rug but the colour of an unripe mango. I felt I could have lay down on that grass and made it my bed. I will be returning to Lords with Sir Humphrey and Freddie for the last day of the Ashes on the first of July. Sir Humphrey is a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club – so I will overlook the match from the members’ pavilion. I am sure you will have the radio on to listen to this match so in a way we will all be there together.
Thank you Dina for all your letters. You are my most reliable and frequent correspondent. I am grateful for the details of daily life you provide. It gives me a tremendous sense of Sanik Farms and all who live there. It sounds as if all are doing well. Ashok, Ankush – I thank you for your fascinating postcards with your most unusual illustrations.
Our business is doing very well. We have orders from Austin, from the Ford plant in Manchester and from Riley and Humber in Coventry. We have had to acquire machinery and plant very quickly to keep pace with our order book. We are operating at capacity. The factory runs all day and all night seven days of the week. There is no difficulty in finding men to work overtime because the common man here wishes to work hard to improve life for himself and his family. It is not like India where the low classes simply sit around in filth of their own making bemoaning the fates.
It does not seem possible that I have been in this country for almost one year. It is a most peculiar sensation, this speeding up of time. In India, time always seemed to move so slowly; the long, hot summer seemed to last years. I remember as a child helping Rhambuti make kulfi. She would have me sit on the floor of the kitchen and stir the mixture of milk and pistachio and cardamoms with a big wooden spoon. It felt to me then that months and months were slipping by while I just sat on a cold, hard floor stirring and stirring, my two arms aching, waiting for the mixture to thicken. That is how time used to pass for me. In England time moves like a steam locomotive – not the kind that winds through India like a sleepy snake, so slow that children run alongside - but like the train that I take to Birmingham. It gobbles up the countryside so quickly that no sooner have we left London behind than we are surrounded by the green hills of Oxfordshire and when I next look up from my newspaper, there are the factories and row upon row of little brick houses that tell me I will soon arrive at Birmingham New Street.
From some foolish superstitious feeling, I have not yet mentioned what, all being well, will soon come to pass. We have more orders than we can accommodate so we must expand our enterprise. We have found suitable premises to acquire. The owner of an old textile factory that is no longer profitable is seeking to sell his factory and his machines. The looms are old and the weavers’ unions make it difficult to modernise. We will buy the factory and its plant then sell the old wooden looms to India where they can be operated profitably and install brand new machinery for producing engine parts. My mind is full of the possibilities that seem to be everywhere laid out before me.
It is now finally dark outside. It is hard to believe that we are at midsummer and from tomorrow the days will get shorter and shorter. I hope that you are finding some respite from the summer’s fiercest days. I imagine you all drinking lime sherbets and pressing cold flannels to your wrists.
With fond regards to you all.
As the great patriarch concluded his reading with his son’s name a ripple of clapping sounded around the communal dining room. Not an Indian habit but the only way the assembled children, sisters, brothers, cousins, servants and neighbours (who had heard that a reading of Taksheel’s letters was to take place this evening) could express their collective pride. If Taksheel’s star was in the ascendant then so was theirs. He was their neighbour, brother, father; he was their blood. They congratulated themselves and, inwardly, felt some relief that, after all they had been told, Indians were just as good as the English after all.
Jalbala felt giddy, like a new bride, her face flushed as the women came to her and kissed her hand. She wanted to leave and return to her home as quickly as possible to perform a puja of thanks. She kept rice and maize in her drawer for just that purpose.
Baldev turned to his eldest son and muttered, “what is he talking of? Sleepy snake, I ask you?” but his tone was playful rather than belligerent as, with the mention of his name and the sport they both had a passion for, he felt his older brother’s friendly hand on his shoulder. For a moment too, he felt a little taller at the thought that a Chaturvedi would take his seat within the panelled walls of the Members’ Pavilion next to exactly the sort of men who gave orders to the Maharajas and Prime Ministers of all the States within British India.
Chapter 3, Illness. London, April 1934
At Birmingham New Street, Taksheel fell into the first compartment he reached. It was second class and he had a first class ticket. It did not matter. He had to sit down. He could walk through to first class later. Perhaps after he had taken a glass of water to ease his thudding head. This was the first time Taksheel felt relieved to be taking his leave of Birmingham and Rabindra.
Since their reunion over a year before, Taksheel and Rabindra had readily rekindled the easy friendship of their university years and Taksheel was wont to stay on in Birmingham after their business was concluded for the sake of his friend’s company. Sometimes they played chess or cards, other times they frequented a café that serviced the masses of Indians that had come to work in the old mills and the new car plants. The street food of Chandi Chowk was passed through a hatch in the side of a brick built, terraced back-to-back. A few men could fit inside but most ate their bhel puri and fried bhindi in the ginnel. In what was formerly the front room of the house, Rabindra and Taksheel would often sit, elbow to elbow with loom operators from Bengal, weavers from Kashmir and sheet metal workers from Maharashtra. Caste, religion, language; none of it mattered in a back street café in Hall Green. The freedom of it fired Taksheel’s blood and he and Rabindra talked about everything with the passion of their student days. They talked of the deficiencies of Western philosophy compared to Eastern, the tide of fascism rising just a few hundred miles away, the New Deal being offered to the Americans, the Japanese land grabbers in Manchuria. Taksheel savoured every mouthful of the dhal and rice and roti and subzi that, in Sanik Farms, he would have waved away as peasant food. He bit into raw green chillies for the joy of feeling his tongue burn and the sweat prickle beneath his collar. When his gums and nostrils flamed with heat he took gulps of sweet lassi, the froth from the curdled, whipped milk laced his moustache. Not until Rabindra had first led him through the maze of identical streets to this nameless café, had Taksheel realised how the bland, spice less, over-boiled offerings that he had subconsciously reconciled himself to since the moment he boarded The Empire Britannica in Bombay, had rendered food nothing more than fuel for his body and mealtimes a necessary interruption to his busy days. But at the little wooden table in the front room or outside standing on the rain soaked cobbles, he ate and drank with an enthusiasm that was akin to worship.
But today, Taksheel wanted nothing more than to sit down, close his eyes and let the rhythm of the train rock him to sleep while it carried him back to Bloomsbury – back home – as he had heard himself say to Rabindra. It had been a successful trip - Taksheel, increasingly the public face of their joint venture, had secured new orders from the Morris plant and Rabindra had overseen the installation of new plant at the factory – but he was too exhausted to even reflect on the success with satisfaction.
He made for the seat next to the window, flung his overnight bag and briefcase into the overhead rack and, with the speed of the practiced traveller, bundled his scarf into a ball – a makeshift pillow – and lent against the window. The cool glass was a comfort against his hot forehead. He drifted off almost at once only dimly aware of the guard’s whistle and the jolt as the engine fired to life and shunted them forwards.
Barely had the train emerged from beneath the vaulted glass roof of New Street Station, when Taksheel’s drowsing mind thrust him into the midst of what be hazily recognised as Bombay’s Victoria Terminus. Throngs of red dhoti-clad porters swarming around the station. He saw them, scurrying beneath precarious columns of trunks and hatboxes, valises and baskets, that grew out of oily coiled rags perched atop their heads. Relentless as insects they ran bow-legged, frantic, towards incoming trains or arriving rickshaws. These men were more vivid in his dream than they had ever been on the many occasions he had tossed them a few annas for their services. He saw for the first time how their eyes bulged as if the weight pressing downwards through their skulls and spinal columns might pop them out of their sockets. He noticed how, even when not bearing their burdens, they still wore this expression; a look of terror, as if they were staring into an abyss but could not look away.
Taksheel saw, as the dream unfurled, that there was no camaraderie amongst these slight men - the baggage-wallas - with their spindly legs that buckled outwards. When a train pulled in they would dig their bony elbows into their neighbours and push the older, slower men out of the way in order to be amongst the first to reach the wealthiest passengers at the front of the train; jumping on before it had stopped moving. In return for their efforts they were usually swatted away by the rich Indians and the few English like flies.
As the train steamed through the dark towards London, Taksheel slept fitfully. He was exhausted but his vivid dreams allowed him no rest. He was relieved when he felt the train round the last bend and slow down as it approached Paddington. He stood to reclaim his luggage but the rocking of the carriage made it impossible for him to maintain his balance. He had to wait for the train to stop and the other passengers to leave the carriage before he could collect his belongings. He stepped gingerly from the train down to the platform like an old man and walked slowly the familiar path to the line of waiting cabs. It was late and there was little traffic. He forced his eyes to remain open during the short ride lest the driver think him intoxicated. He felt a nausea rising from the depths of his stomach and opened a window. He carried his brief case and portmanteau as if they were the weight of the trunk that had sailed with him from India.
He turned his key in the front door quietly. The hour was late. He hoped not to encounter any of the Wyndham-Smiths in the hall or on the stairs. His leaden limbs and the metallic taste in his mouth urged him to bed.
He paused on the first landing and rested his baggage on the floor as he steeled himself for the final flight that would take him, mercifully, to his bed. He was panting from the effort of the first flight as if he had conquered a mountain and was breathing thin air. The blood was pounding in his ears so he did not hear Celia’s door open behind him.
“Taksheel?” She was attired for bed but the floor length kimono she wore over her nightdress would not have looked out of place at one of her mother’s cocktail parties. Her hair was pinned in a complicated way under a silk scarf so that in the morning it would fall in smooth curls to her shoulders.
“I hope I did not disturb,” Taksheel found it difficult to emit the words from his dry lips. He must lie down.
“Not at all. I was listening to the wireless.” She walked towards him and he saw her pale brow furrow as she grew close.
“Taksheel, are you quite well?” She placed a hand lightly on his sleeve as she spoke.
“Nothing, really. Tired. The train …you know.” He could hear that he was barely making sense but could not think what to do. He was not yet ready to face the second flight. He felt a slight breeze as she swept past. Where was she going? Had he given offence? He sat down on the second step to muster his energy for the final ascent. Perhaps he would leave his bags here until the morning. He held onto the banister to steady himself. At least he was alone again.
He felt himself being manhandled. Were these dacoits jostling him to a dark corner of the station where they would rob him? “Array, array… stop. Leave me.” He shouted in Hindi. Godforsaken country. Who did these people think they were? He called for a policeman. He would have them beaten with a lattee.
“Freddie, take him under that arm. I’ll take the other. We must get him to his room.”
Who were these people with their strange names?
“Go and wake father. We need to call Dr Carmichael. I’ll stay with him.” A woman’s voice. Not his mother’s. Not his wife’s. Whose?
“There. Help me lay him down, Freddie. Taksheel, listen to me. You are unwell. The doctor is on his way. Be still. I’m going to remove your shoes. Close your eyes now. Everything will be quite all right. That’s it. Lie back. No need for you to talk. Close your eyes.”
The woman’s voice faded away.
Dr Carmichael - alum of Gordonstoun and Caius; physician to The Lord Irwin during his Vice Regency; Knight of the Garter - was at the home of the Wyndham-Smiths within two hours of Taskheel’s collapse on the first floor landing. He made his diagnosis - severe malarial relapse - within moments of conducting an examination; administered quinine and provided detailed instructions for the care of the patient before sweeping out of the house and into his waiting Daimler promising to return the following day.
Celia had refused to leave Taksheel’s side since he had collapsed at her feet five hours previously.
“Freddie, have you sent down to the kitchen for some fresh ice and flannels?” She asked as she passed him on the staircase.
“Steady on, Cee. You’ve been up and down these stairs so many times tonight; you’ll wear the carpet out.”
“Freddie, really. Do you have the ice and flannels?” Her voice was high pitched in her anxiety but insistent. There were two growing patches of pink spreading from the centre of each cheek out towards her hair line from the exertion of running up and down the stairs from Taksheel’s room on the second floor to the scullery in the basement.
“Cee, you heard Carmichael. Taksheel will be fine. He needs rest, to be kept cool, to have his sheets changed twice nightly and to take his medicine.” Freddie handed her the flannels and ice that he had brought himself to speed up their delivery rather than bother one of the maids. She snatched it from him and turned to go up the stairs again.
“Ought, Freddie, ought. The Doctor said Taksheel ought to recover.”
Freddie turned to go to bed. The thud-thud-thud of his sister taking the stairs two at a time echoed above his head. Just as he was about to enter his bedroom, his mother emerged from hers, with a white face mask that leant her the look of a renaissance queen. She had stayed to hear Dr Carmichael’s advice and then returned to bed.
“How’s the patient?” she asked.
“He looks pretty miserable with the fever but Carmichael said this delirious phase is quite normal.”
“Absolutely.” She nodded and made to go back inside.
“Actually, ma, it’s Cee I’m rather more inclined to be concerned about.”
Edith stepped onto the landing and pulled her bedroom door shut quietly. She stood very close to her son.
“Whatever do you mean?” she whispered.
“She’s behaving in that way again. Can’t you see it? The way she fusses over Taksheel? That’s the way it started last time.”
Edith closed her eyes slowly and, inhaling audibly, tipped her head backwards so that, had her eyes been open, she would have been staring straight at the cornicing. The cold cream rendered her face expressionless. Her white visage and the high points of her plucked eyebrows pointing like arrows to her widow’s peak, gave her the look of pierrot; but beneath the theatrical crimson robe beat the heart of an eminently sensible woman. Edith had spent a privileged, nomadic girlhood in India before returning to London to be presented at Court. There had been a rumour during her debut season that her gaiety and wit had attracted royal attention. If she was aware of it, she gave no show of being perturbed and was in fact genuinely delighted when Humphrey asked her father for her hand. He was serious but drôle, clever but not arrogant and someone she correctly surmised would yield to her wishes regarding home and family. It was a very contented marriage. She had seen malaria before and her reaction to the doctor’s diagnosis was appropriate; concern without alarm.
“I’ll speak with her tomorrow. Please don’t trouble your father with this tonight, Freddie.” She opened her bedroom door just wide enough to slip soundlessly in.
Freddie went to bed and fell asleep to the sound of his sister’s footsteps going up and down the stairs.
On the few occasions that the whole family was in residence, Humphrey insisted that they take breakfast together. So it was that on the morning following Taksheel’s collapse, Edith, Humphrey, Freddie and Mary (who was visiting with her two children) sat around the large mahogany table in the dining room. The children ate in the nursery as Edith found their vigour trying first thing in the morning. The breakfast was laid out on the sideboard and they helped themselves to sausages, scrambled egg, kippers and toast. Humphrey typically read the newspapers and took pleasure in half listening to the small talk of the women and Freddie’s occasional remark pertaining to, as the season dictated, batting averages or the outcome of Rugby matches. This morning, everyone was tired, no one was hungry and Celia was absent.
“Where’s Celia?” Humphrey asked no one in particular from behind The Times.
The silence that followed caused him to lower his newspaper to see his wife, son and youngest daughter casting uneasy glances at one another. Freddie rose and went to the sideboard to heap his plate with food he did not want. Mary shrugged. Humphrey looked at his wife.
Edith fixed Humphrey with her gaze and spoke as if no one else was in the room. “She has been up all night and refuses to leave Taksheel. I had breakfast sent up to her. She didn’t touch it.”
She had hoped it would not come to this but after Celia’s last and most serious attack of nerves she knew that there was nothing to be gained from keeping the warning signs from her husband until complete collapse occurred. She had made that mistake before.
The spectre of Celia’s mental frailty, a condition they had all learned to accommodate in their own ways over the last twenty years, had been openly acknowledged. Freddie brought his empty plate back to the table and sat down. Mary set aside the copy of The Lady that she had been fingering. The tension drained from the room. They all looked at Humphrey. He folded the broadsheet by tugging it in a way that made the paper snap. He pushed his plate to one side and placed his hands palms down on the polished wood. These were mannerisms he typically displayed in the committee rooms of Westminster. He was all business now.
“Edith, when is Carmichael coming back to see Taksheel?”
“Eleven o clock.”
“When he comes invite him to stay for lunch. After we’ve eaten, you and Freddie and Mary will leave us alone here and I’ll speak to him about Celia.”
Edith nodded once and asked, “And in the meantime?”
“Leave her for now to do as she wishes. There’s nothing to be gained from trying to persuade her from a course of action she’s set her mind to when she’s like this. We all know that. If she refuses food we can’t make her eat. Carmichael is a good man. Let’s see what he has to say.”
“And if she refuses to see him?” asked Freddie.
“Let me speak to Carmichael.” Humphrey’s tone signalled the end of the conversation. Edith, Freddie and Mary took turns to make their excuses and left the dining room.
When he was alone, Humphrey rested his elbows on the table and rubbed his eyes with his soft fingertips.
Six hours following breakfast Humphrey Wyndham-Smith sat at the same table facing Edward Carmichael. The doctor cupped his brandy glass so the heat from his blood could warm the viscose liquid that he swilled around in a practised way. Humphrey uncharacteristically had taken his in one gulp as if it was an ordeal to be endured. Edward Carmichael looked at his friend and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Carmichael, it’s Celia.” Humphrey rose and went to the cabinet to refill his tumbler. He and Edith had both learnt to their cost that embarrassment as regards their eldest child’s condition only led to obfuscation, which did not serve Celia well and ultimately led to a great deal more embarrassment. He was braced to give a scrupulously full and complete account.
“She’s a very attentive nurse to our young friend up there. Seems to know what she’s doing.”
“Yes, indeed. She trained as a volunteer in the last year of the war. Never got the chance to put any of it to use though. Armistice came and then Hugo – her fiancé – died of his wounds in January nineteen. Do you recall? We’d had no word his wounds were serious. She was expecting to hear from him any day to say that he was being put on a boat home from France. She was being fitted for her wedding dress.” The second brandy was easing him into this conversation although his friend’s face was blurred as moisture filmed his eyes. He would stop at three.
“Dreadful days,” Carmichael said quietly.
“I’m sorry to bring it up, Carmichael. Robert was such a fine young man.” The two men sat in silence. Carmichael knew his old grief would have to yield to whatever it was his friend wanted to talk about.
“You’re concerned about Celia?” Carmichael spoke in a brisk tone to dissipate the fug of their combined losses.
“Carmichael, I think you know that there has always been somewhat of an issue with Celia’s nerves. You couldn’t know of the full extent of it because Edith and I, as you can imagine, have done our utmost to keep her difficulties private. But after the last time we agreed that, should the situation arise again, we would put aside our own … reticence … and seek help for her.”
The evenings were drawing in and even though it was only a little after three o’clock, the room was dim. Carmichael stood and put the two standing lamps on. He sat down but did not recline in the wing back chair as before but rather sat leaning forward. He took a notebook and pen from his bag and placed them on his knees. He and Humphrey would need to put their friendship to one side, if Humphrey was to be able to tell of his troubles.
“Tell me about Celia’s first nervous episode.”
Humphrey rose and walked to the chiffonier to refill his glass. He filled it almost to the brim with water and then added just a splash of brandy for the taste. He went to stand by the picture window that gave out onto a decorative Juliet balcony. He spoke to the perambulating couples and the nannies wheeling their charges around the square in the dusk.
“She went to Chelmsford Ladies’ College when she was thirteen to board. She was excited to go. We would have kept her at home with us to be a day girl somewhere if she had expressed that wish. She seemed to settle in well. Her letters home were full of lively descriptions of the masters and mistresses and the other girls.” Humphrey adjusted the curtains and peered out as if he had recognised an acquaintance in the Square. His tone was determinedly casual.
“She was always a thoughtful child and I suppose that one did get an inkling from those letters that she was rather on the outside looking in. We went up occasionally for weekends to take her out to tea. We always asked if she would like to bring a pal but she never wanted to.” Humphrey took a few steps to the hearth and poked the fire back to life. It gave a reluctant crackle and a piece of charred newspaper from the splint used to light it flew out glowing orange. It arced to the floor and Humphrey stooped to pick it up, careful not to cause it to disintegrate. He stood up and rested a hand on the mantelpiece looking into the fire as the flames licked the lumps of coal.
“And then, after she’d been there more than a year we got a letter from the headmistress. Celia’s behaviour was giving them cause for concern. Could we please make arrangements to come to the school to discuss whether Chelmsford was really the best place for her?” Humphrey shook his head in old disbelief. “It was 1914. War was looming. I was in my first term of office as a member of parliament. I was working all the hours. Edith went to Chelmsford. When she returned that evening she had Celia with her.” His voice started to rise as the anger he felt towards others who should have done more asserted itself. “They just cast her out. Said she didn’t fit in. Tried to make it appear that they were acting in her interests – that she would be happier at an institution that was less academic, where there wasn’t such a strong emphasis on team spirit. Celia was devastated of course. Felt like she had let everyone down.”
“Did you find another school?” Carmichael made some unnecessary scrawling to obviate the need for his friend to look at him.
“She was vehemently against going away to board anywhere else. Never got to the bottom of why. I didn’t want to send her to some crackpot experimental place. I was never here and Edith had Mary and Freddie and her committees to attend to. So Edith arranged for tutors to come to the house. It seemed the best thing. The war was in full swing so we couldn’t send her to the continent to finish. She seemed happy in the house. She did her Latin and her French, played the piano and some years passed without her giving us much cause for concern. When she was seventeen Hugo was on leave and he came to the house with his mother one afternoon. Celia and Hugo had known each other from childhood and they hit it off tremendously. For the first time in her life she seemed ... I don’t know quite how to put it … like a young person should be: lively and looking forward – like Freddie and Mary. Edith thought she was too young to begin a courtship but at the same time she was delighted to see her looking happy. All that nonsense about being presented at court and the season and so on had rather fallen by the wayside what with the war. So we let them correspond. She wrote to him daily. He seemed equally taken with her. He wasn’t a boisterous sort of chap. No interest in sport. He was quiet. Liked reading, classical music, that sort of thing. He wrote to me from France saying he wanted to marry her. Celia was delighted. I replied with my consent subject to them waiting until Celia was twenty one.”
“And when he died?”
Humphrey turned away from the fireplace. He sat back down opposite his friend and leaned forwards, forearms resting on his knees. He looked directly at the other man for the first time in the conversation.
“She stopped eating. She stopped bathing. She refused to participate in any kind of activity. She refused company. She would go days without sleeping and then take to her bed for a week.”
Carmichael made notes. He was not unfamiliar with the condition and had encountered behaviour of this type during his time in India. Carmichael had spent a decade in the service of the Viceroy, at the pinnacle of British-Indian society. One of the many skills he had developed was the ability to place the women he met, in the very instant that that their white gloved hands were extended in greeting, into one of two categories in which he found all women could be accommodated. There were the committee women. Physically strong they had enjoyed lacrosse, hiking and riding in their younger days. These women organised bridge clubs, polo matches and relief efforts for various types of afflicted Indians. They dealt firmly with natives and they gave birth to bouncing, contented babies. They enjoyed the excitement of their expatriate adventure. In the other camp were the fragile women; the neurasthenics who languished under parasols and wide brimmed hats. These women lived in fear of malaria and smallpox and mutiny. They could not tolerate the presence of any brown skinned personage and cleaved to their husbands who were invariably irritated at having been landed with a wife that, along with the heat and the bloody Indians, was just one more problem to be dealt with. These women had irritable, sickly children whom they sent back to England at the earliest opportunity. Their lives in India were a torment to them. Days felt like months and when they received a letter from home they wept with yearning.
“Well, Humphrey, that’s not wholly unexceptional behaviour for a young woman with a nervous disposition who has lost her fiancé.” Carmichael spoke with a determined lightness. He knew there was more to come and that Humphrey needed his help to speak of it.
“She … she… inflicted wounds on herself, Carmichael.” Humphrey heard his own voice crack and immediately leapt from his seat to pace the room as if the feeling of despair were somehow emanating from the armchair.
“What kind of wounds?”
“You see I was so terribly busy. And so was Edith. Freddie was just six and Mary was twelve. I think it had gone on for some time before anyone noticed. I saw old scars.” Carmichael nodded. “I came home one night after a late vote. It must have been nearly midnight. I didn’t want to trouble anyone so I thought I would help myself to a late supper from the kitchen. Celia came down. We surprised each other. I was struck by how tiny she was standing there in her nightdress. She was nineteen but looked the same age as Mary. Her collar bone jutted out and her feet looked blue. She looked so cold. Then I saw her arms. She tried to pull her nightdress down but it wasn’t long enough. I could see fresh cuts and feint pink marks of old ones. She looked like a frightened animal trembling on the cold stone floor of the kitchen. She was picking at her fingers without realising – a habit she’s had since she was a child – but I could see that there was barely any skin left around her fingernails. They were bleeding and raw.”
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t know what to say. What could I say, Edward? I walked up to her and picked her up in my arms the way I had done when she was a child and had fallen asleep in the corner at one of Edith’s parties and had to be carried to the nursery. I carried her up the stairs. She weighed nothing. I could tell she was weeping. I lay her down in her bed and pulled her blanket over her and kissed the top of her head. I had to leave early the next morning for a week in my constituency. When I returned I spoke with Edith. She had no more idea what to do than I had. We put it down to a rather excessive grief and decided that it would pass with time. After our encounter in the kitchen, she did seem to perk up. She had missed coming out and said she had no interest in entering society but she did occasionally accompany Edith on social engagements. We thought it had passed.”
“Her behaviour returned to normal after that?” asked Carmichael?
“For a time, yes.”
“But there were other, subsequent episodes?”
“Yes. But whenever it got to the point where Edith and I felt intervention from the medical profession was warranted, she would seem to throw off the yoke of her melancholy and be happy; I mean abundantly happy. She would join in with Edith’s parties; attend the races with Freddie and Mary; have new dresses made; read fashion magazines; talk of taking a tour of the Continent.”
“And these periods of wellbeing, they would typically last how long?
“Weeks, sometimes months. They would be preceded and followed by periods where her mood seemed to be normal – by which I mean not unduly elevated but not melancholic. But every few years something would occur to plunge her into a truly desperate state.”
“And when was the last of these desperate times?”
“When Mary got married three years ago.”
“And did her behaviour at that time follow the same pattern – not eating, harming herself?”
“Can you tell me how she behaved at that time?”
“Do you know, Carmichael, I’m not sure I can.”
“I do understand that this is most difficult, Humphrey. I have seen this kind of acute sensitivity in young women before. In fact, I have a number of colleagues who specialise in the treatment of hysterics – or nervous conditions as we now say. It is not without hope. There have been significant advances in treatments and I have seen women who display the same kind of behaviours as Celia, overcome, to a large extent, their difficulties. Do let me help you.”
It was fully dark outside and the lamp and firelight cast an orange glow on the room and the faces of the two men within it. Humphrey had stopped pacing and returned to his seat exhausted with the effort of his confession and the fear that they were all about to embark on the same journey as before with Celia. Each time it happened he and Edith managed to convince themselves it would be the last; that their eldest child had overcome her nerves permanently and would resume the life that had been planned for her.
“When Mary’s engagement was announced, Celia seemed overjoyed. She was to be the bridesmaid and she, Mary and Edith threw themselves into the wedding preparations. It was their full time occupation for months. As the wedding approached, Celia’s gaiety seemed to subside a little but she attended her dress fittings and helped her sister to choose hymns and readings. When the wedding was over and Mary had left and she returned to this house with Edith and me, she began to behave oddly. At first we put it down to exhaustion from the wedding preparations. We thought she was missing her sister. Although there are six years between them they are terribly close. One night a few months after Mary’s wedding there was a knock at the door in the middle of the night. It was a policeman. He had found Celia wandering the streets near Euston. She was improperly dressed, freezing and shoeless. She was babbling and incoherent. The things she was saying… it was completely unlike her… she was saying things… I can’t tell you Edward … lewd, disgusting things.”
“Humphrey, it is not unusual for patients who suffer in this way to display exactly the kind of behaviour you describe during these manic phases.”
Humphrey exhaled forcefully. “I am glad we have spoken of this, Carmichael. Edith and I are truly at our wits end. What do you suggest we do?”
“I can prescribe her some morphine sulphate today which will calm her emotional state. Looking after the young Indian chap seems to be providing her with an occupation and purpose and I would say let her continue. In my experience the quacks who insist on rest cures do more harm than good. A woman with this kind of temperament confined to her bed with no activity or stimulation of any kind rapidly deteriorates. No. As I say, let her make herself useful and keep busy. Once the morphia has put her on an even keel, you or Edith can suggest that she pay a visit to a friend of mine who has a practice on Wigmore Street dealing with just this kind of psychological disorder.”
“Thank you, Carmichael. I should have discussed this with you years ago. Silly to have kept it to ourselves.” Humphrey’s usual demeanour of genial efficacy settled over him once more. They had a plan of action. All would be well.
Celia was determined that hers would be the first face Taksheel saw when the fever broke and he had knowledge once again of where he was. She was engaged in stripping the bed and remaking it with fresh linen when Doctor Carmichael came in.
“Ah, Celia. How is the patient and his devoted nurse today?”
“His temperature has remained below forty for the last two days and I need only change the sheets every other day now. The heart rate is normal and the colour has returned to his face. I think the fever has broken, doctor. He is still confused when he wakes and has a tendency to speak in his mother tongue but he is not distressed.” Celia was not convinced that her father’s friend was not simply humouring her when he asked her to report on the patient but she had decided to behave as if he were not.
“He looks a great deal better this morning, Celia. I was certain from the outset that he would make a full recovery as I told you when I first examined him but the swiftness with which he is returning to health is due in no small part to your efforts, my dear.”
“Thank you Doctor Carmichael.”
“Seems your training all those years ago didn’t go to waste after all.” He held Taksheel’s wrist in his hand and felt the pulse in his index finger as he spoke. She was so unused to praise that, despite being thirty-three years old, she felt herself blush. She immediately felt awkward and silly and in her self-consciousness forgot the proper way to do corners.
“I am glad to do something useful. I was so sorry that the war ended before I had the chance to serve.” She shook her head as she realised how she must sound. “I mean of course I was delighted that the war had ended and all the suffering and the waste was over. What I meant to say was that I was sorry I could not have been useful. I would dearly have liked to go to France and to take care of our wounded men out there. Nursing has been the only thing in my life that I have shown the slightest aptitude for.” She gave a nervous little laugh with this admission.
“I’m sure you’re good at all sorts of things, Celia. I know for a fact that your father and mother are terribly proud of you.”
“You’re very kind, Doctor. But I have given them precious little to be proud of. Quite the contrary in fact.” The bed was remade and she busied herself refreshing Taksheel’s water glass. “Luckily, between Freddie and Mary and Mary’s children, my parents have been amply supplied with familial achievements of which to feel justly proud.” She smiled warmly as she spoke. There was no rancour in her voice. She felt a genuine gratitude that she had such accomplished siblings and nothing but fondness for her parents.
“Your father did mention to me that he was concerned that you were tiring yourself rather with your efforts for our friend here. I can see for myself how dutifully you’ve nursed him and I know how draining that can be. I thought I might suggest you take these tablets.” Celia took the jar being proffered to her. “Nothing terribly exciting I’m afraid but just take one every morning and night and you’ll get a decent night’s sleep and feel well rested.” She looked at the jar but there was no label offering a clue as to its contents. “Do take them to put your father’s mind at rest, would you Celia?”
“Thank you, doctor. Certainly. I am feeling rather tired at present and I don’t want father to worry. He’s so terribly busy at the Treasury.”
“Good girl,” said Doctor Carmichael as he gathered up the contents of his black bag. Celia took up her usual position on the chair at Taksheel’s bedside. When she was sure the Doctor had left and was not going to return she took Taksheel’s hand in her own and leaned in towards him sweeping away a lock of hair that had fallen across his brow. She resumed, in whispered tones, the story of her life that she had been recounting to him these past two weeks since he fell at her feet. He rarely stirred but she could feel that he heard and understood her confidences. She was so grateful that she had someone to share her hopes and fears with. Not since Hugo had she felt so close to another human being. Poor, sweet Hugo. He had died in a field hospital surrounded by strangers while she was waiting uselessly for him at home. How fortunate that she could be here for Taksheel. She had been given a second chance and she would not squander it.
“In that inner room of life sits Regret with her pale face, and Shame with dust on her forehead, and Memory with tears in her eyes. It is a pitiable thing … our coming in.”
From ‘The Threshold Grace’ by P.C. Ainsworth
“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”
From ‘Mere Christianity’ by C.S. Lewis
From Adolf Hitler’s Obersaltzberg Speech to Wehrmacht commanders on 22nd August, 1939.
“I put my Death’s Head units in readiness with the order to kill without pity or mercy all men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only thus will we gain the Lebensraum that we require.”
A Forest in Upper Silesia, Poland.
“Your first murder is like your first love. You never forget it.” His breath steams in the freezing air. It reeks of schnapps. Trummler is as maudlin as a lost dog.
The younger officer clenches his fists in frustration. Trummler’s ramblings have delayed the Aktion by an hour and still more prisoners are being offloaded from the lorries. Frick struggles to keep his voice calm. “We cannot fall behind, Hauptsturmführer. Our orders are to keep up with the Advance. We’ve still got another batch straight after this one. If we don’t hurry , sir, it will be too dark to process them.”
Trummler’s eyes are bulging more than usual. They look ready to burst. “Another batch? What do you mean, Frick? Are you talking about loaves of bread?”
Frick is at his wit’s end. The condemned are already being lined up at the pit’s edge. They are all shivering. Any moment one of them, especially a child, could topple in. That’s all it would take to start pandemonium. It is clear that the Hauptsturmführer is out of his mind and Frick is desperately trying to decide if he should take over command.
And now of all things, Trummler starts whimpering like an infant. His thick Swabian consonants slur into a passionate tirade. His voice rises.
“Frick, just listen. Listen.” His tears run freely down his cheeks. His frame begins to rock and Frick steps towards him in case the man needs support but Trummler steadies himself and wipes a gloved hand across his face. His voice is quieter.
“Can you explain to me, Frick, why Colonel Krüger has given orders that we are never to make eye contact with a prisoner?”
Frick stares at him. “I don’t know. I just don’t know, Herr Hauptsturmführer.”
“But surely it must be obvious to you, Frick. It’s because once you look him in the eye he actually becomes a human being and if you kill him … then God help you.” Trummler starts his blubbing again, then abruptly without taking Frick’s salute, he lumbers off bear-like to the Opel where his driver is waiting to take him back to Base HQ.
Frick assumes command. At the pit the SS Scharführer awaits his signal. The procedure has been finely drilled. Frick only has to give three nods. His eyes sweep down the line of prisoners who are spaced out at one arm intervals along the edge of the trench. At his first nod, eight Schützen rush forward with long planks which they raise horizontally behind the adults’ knees roughly level with the shoulders of toddlers. Again Frick nods and twenty four trained executioners step up with Lüger pistols. Frick nods again and the executioners shoot the victims in the back of the head. At once the eight Schützen tip their planks so the bodies drop in a straight line on top of the previous batch, what Krüger calls “Sardinenpackung”.
Frick needs to be vigilant. He recalls one of Heydrich’s remarks at the commencement of the Aktion campaign.
“Sub-humans do not give up their lives easily. They’re like polecats. Have you ever tried to kill a polecat?”
A few of the victims are still emitting signs of life but the moment the executioners hear a groan or spot a gasping mouth, their pistols are ready. Frick hears the wheezing of a baby girl abruptly cut short by two shots in close succession. An old man twists his face to the sky. His lips are moving. Another shot.
Finally all the bodies are still and a pale vapour rises above them in the frigid air. A woman’s arm juts skyward like a dead branch, her wedding ring gleaming in the low sun. One Schütze climbs down and wrenches it off her finger.
There is a terrifying calm. Along the edge of the trench the blood is freezing into little pulks like rubies. Frick wonders if, like himself, the other SS men are feeling a numbing detachment from the dead.
He winces in pain from an exposed nerve in a lower tooth. It’s a worry. At twenty four he still rigidly maintains the physical requirements of the SS when he firsrt enlisted in 1937. One of these is that he possesses a full set of teeth without fillings. Now the Reich is at war he supposes it doesn’t matter very much but he’ll still need to find a dentist in Uppeln.
The long shadows of the silver birches bridge the trench as the short winter day ebbs into dusk. There is just sufficient time for the last batch. The executioners stub out their cigarettes in the snow. A groaning bulldozer starts scooping up loose earth and gravel to cover the bodies before nightfall.
Frick’s boyish voice cuts through the icy wind. “Bring up the next group, Schärführer. Quickly now.” Why did he shout ‘group’ instead of ‘batch’? Damn Trummler and his loaves of bread.
The sergeant salutes him. “Yes, Herr Obersturmführer.” He stamps his feet to keep up the circulation, then hurries across to the edge of the woods and blows his whistle. Somewhere in the trees another whistle responds and heavy diesel engines start up. Frick hears the crunching of massive tyres over gravel and ice as three tarpaulin clad lorries rumble into the clearing and clunk to a halt. Six SS Schützen drag back the tarpaulins to reveal a gallery of pallid faces, their eyes squinting from the light.
The torpidity of the prisoners unnerves Frick. They assist each other out of the vehicles and form an apathetic line. One woman with a baby in her arms starts to sing. It sounds like a Polish hymn. Nobody joins in. A father clutches the hand of his small son and guides the boy’s eyes upward through the blinding snow to a blur of light. The wind grows stronger.
Goaded on by the shouts and blows of the Schützen, the column shuffles towards the edge of the pit. Most of the prisoners are well dressed. Trummler had given orders that they are to die in their winter coats and scarves. Some of the women are in furs. The N.C.O.s grumble that this is a criminal waste. The Reich could have confiscated them for its “Clothes for Victory” campaign.
Frick suspects that only a couple of days ago, these prisoners had been assembled in some civic square where they would be told by an immaculately uniformed Sturmbahnführer that they were to be resettled in the east.
“But what of our luggage, Captain?” one venerable figure might have politely asked him and then the officer would have given him a rare smile.
“Don’t worry, old man. Your suitcases are going on ahead. They’ll be returned to you later.”
Looking at the deteriorating weather, Frick is glad that the faltering Trummler was at least able to requisition the lorries. Previously the prisoners had to be force- marched forty kilometres from the railhead to their place of execution. He remembers how the temperature had been so low that the SS boots rang like metal on the wooden bridges. Sometimes the guards would throw children into the icy rivers and watch as the parents jumped in after them. It was a useful ploy because it quickened the march and saved ammunition.
The wind lashes the snow drifts to a fury and visibility drops to thirty metres when Frick hears shouting coming from the direction of the parked lorries. The sergeant halts the prisoners while two Schützen are yelling and rushing about in the trees. Frick takes long strides over to the sergeant. “What is going on, Scharführer?”
The man salutes. “A woman, Herr Obersturmführer – she was hiding under the lorry. She’s taken off into the woods.”
“I think so, sir. It’s not easy to tell in this weather.”
Frick is fuming. If she gets away, it will be he who will have to answer to Krüger, no-one else.
“Get the Schützen back here and you oversee the executions yourself.”
“Yes, Herr Obersturmführer.” The sergeant blows three long blasts on his whistle; the Schützen return and the column creeps forward to the trench.
Frick inspects the ground. The wind is fast obliterating the woman’s tracks but his trained eyes detect the lay of an ancient path which skirts a frozen swamp before leading into the forest. He sets off in haste, his boots squeaking in the soft drifts. He is certain that despite the driving snow, the slim columns of the birches will not offer the fugitive any concealment.
Frick is so convinced that the forest is uninhabited that he is startled when an old house looms into sight. Its upper floor leans forward giving the whole structure a weird lop-sided look. From its eaves, Slavic gargoyles thrust their open mouths forward, the icicles hanging from them like canine teeth.
The building is out of kilter with the soldierly trees and its slant is made all the worse by the ecclesiastical steepness of the high shingled roof with its precarious sickly green onion dome.
In the twilight the house evokes those terrifying illustrations in a book of fairy tales that Frick remembers as a child. The recollections are so vivid that for an instant he loses his sense of direction, and blindly stumbles into a disused sawpit. Unhurt, he leaps to his feet and slaps the snow off his uniform.
And there she is!
The woman is barely three metres away, standing in a corner of the pit, her stark white face framed in a wild tumble of red hair. She is as motionless as a church-yard statue. Her steaming breath is the only sign that she is a living being. Like the other prisoners she looks well heeled. She is wearing a long woollen coat with a fox fur stole draped around her shoulders. He thinks she would be in her early thirties. One can never tell with women. The two stare at each other. Her green eyes unnerve him but he swallows and pulls himself together.
It’s nearly dusk. Above the whirr of falling snow he can hear the drone of the bulldozer but the shooting has stopped. The executions are over for the day. It’s too late to drag the woman back. He’ll have to shoot her here and now - his first personal execution. Damn Trummler. What would the man have him do? He has to go through with it – or does he really want to be the first SS officer to tell Krüger that he has disobeyed an order from the Führer?
The woman hasn’t moved, not even as much as a shiver despite the deathly cold. Frick slips off his gloves and gropes for the Lüger, his hand trembling. Still the woman doesn’t move. She is the easiest of targets but it is because she is so defenceless that he finds it harder to squeeze the trigger.
Why won’t she say something? Anything – scream at him, beg for her life!
Whatever she is, witch or half-demon, as an SS officer he has to do this. If he concentrates on the word “duty” the task will be easier. He even feels churlish for keeping her waiting. His finger steadies on the trigger. He grimaces then fires once, then twice into her chest. She goes limp but instead of falling to earth her body rests partially upright against the bank. Her head swings back but her eyes stay wide open.
He fires another two rounds direct into her face. An eye bursts, blood pumps over the red hair, spurting out with the final beat of her heart. Her jaw falls sideways and her mouth opens. From the rags of bloodied flesh, the remaining green eye returns his gaze. Her corpse still leans on its feet against the side of the pit but the bullets have set off a small avalanche from the bank and a splurge of snow bedecks her head and shoulders like a bridal veil. The one eye continues to stare into his. It is eerily possessive.
Frick bends over and throws up. After his stomach is empty he stoops to snatch a handful of snow to rinse his mouth not once but several times which sets off his toothache again. He grabs up more snow, not for his mouth this time but for his burning face.
At last he straightens up and keeping well clear of the corpse, he seizes a branch, drags himself out of the pit and staggers clear of it. He shuts and opens his eyes repeatedly as if trying to change the present world to the past, to never have to face the actuality of what he had just done and what he has now become.
He should have just let her go! Who would have been any the wiser?
The cold penetrates his overcoat; it penetrates his body right to the marrow. Before he puts on his gloves, he wraps both hands around the pistol and finds its heat comforting.
Again Frick shuts his eyes but no darkness can blot out the personal horror of what he has done. His body trembles.
Why didn’t he just let her go?
When he opens his eyes again he is shocked by his close proximity to the derelict house. He is actually standing in the porch. He hastily moves a dozen paces away but an unhealthy obsession with its appearance causes him to look back.
His second impression of the building is more chilling than the first. It seems to him that the onion cupola is slanting more than the rest of the roof. Now he notices that the front door of the house is slightly ajar. He is sure that it was firmly shut when he first saw it. Before he has time to take this in, he hears a rustle in the junipers behind him. Instinctively he spins around and draws his Lüger. Nothing, just snowflakes spinning in the capricious wind. His heart pumps violently and he stares about him. Still nothing. God knows what lurks in a place like this.
Rising panic overwhelms him and all he wants to do is to get back to his men at the double. He plunges through the drifts towards the whine of the bulldozer. A night bird shrieks over the frozen swamp. Behind him something howls. He quickens his pace but the howling continues, a doleful ululation carried to his ears through the sibilant air.
When he returns to the clearing he has the sensation of being diminished, an older, dwarfish, bent figure shielding his face from the chastening wind. The pungency of fresh human blood smarts his nostrils and he shields them with a gloved hand.
The sergeant steps up to meet him and salutes. Frick salutes too but because he must stink of vomit, steps well back from him. “The fugitive is dead, Scharführer,” he says. “She lies in a sawpit.” He points out the direction through the trees. “It’s in front of a derelict house. You can’t miss it.”
“Do we bring the body here, Herr Obersturmführer?”
“No, I’m already late enough as it is. Just drag her into the house and burn it down. Despite the snow it will go up in minutes. Hurry now.”
Frick rides back in the lead lorry. This carries a greater risk of ambush but for the sole officer to travel in one of the rear vehicles is unconscionable. As it is, the journey is anything but comfortable. The forest road is a slushy mire. The substantially lightened truck swerves and skids dangerously close to the soft verges. At times the centre hump scrapes the axle shield and as they drive over the hidden pot-holes the vehicle rises and crumps like a bronking horse and Frick wonders how Trummler fared in his low slung Opel. They are down to twenty kilometres an hour. The driver hunches forward trying to scan the way ahead as the wipers smear yellow mud and snow across the windscreen.
Frick’s mind dwells on the house in the forest. By now the wind will have whipped the fire to an inferno. In hours the whole ghastly structure and also the body of the woman will be razed to hot embers hissing in the snow. Several times he has looked through the back windscreen to see if the sky is blushed with reflected flames but the forest behind the convoy is a limitless wall of gloom at one with the driving snow.
At last they fork onto a tarred road devoid of traffic. It is strewn with the detritus of the Advance: broken hand carts, some richly carved, the heirlooms of generations of peasant farmers, others are coffin shaped with rubber tyres. The wheels of the lorry splodge muck over the blitzed Kapliczi shrines and tottering wayside crosses, all witnesses to a god in ruins. In the thickening air, the headlights start reflecting the headlights back and the driver eases up on the accelerator.
“The weather’s getting worse, Herr Obersturmführer. A blizzard.”
“Yes.” Frick’s mind is fixed on the image of the dead woman. He stares mindlessly as the impish snow-flakes pirouette over the bonnet. Beyond the roadside, the tree limbs are plumping into long pillows of virgin snow. He wishes the driver would speed up again. He imagines the forest creeping up behind them in vengeful pursuit.
He is relieved when they enter a more populated district but this region is still a conflict zone and the road is littered with crumpled cars and overturned Polish army vehicles. Tanks are blasted apart, their exposed interiors scorched black like garden incinerators and despite the closed windows in the lorry, Frick detects along with the smoke, another smell, sweet and sickly. Here are countless frozen dead, their twisted remains unburied after nearly three weeks. Despite the blanketing snow, he sees whole villages disfigured by razed cottages, ruined churches and bullet -pocked walls.
Behind one of these is SS Base HQ.
Frick arrives at the Mess freshly bathed and wearing his black uniform, its blackness made the more sinister by the peaked Tellemütze cap emblazoned with the SS eagle and the silver Death’s Head. His glistening boots have a steel band on each heel.
But he is late and the other officers have started on their soup. Frick hands his cap and gloves to an aide. He clenches his teeth. No one should be late at a dinner for SS Standartenführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger.
He approaches the table but remains standing. The officers put down their spoons and await his apologies.
There is a snap of steel against steel as Frick clicks his heels. “I wish to formally apologise to you Herr Standartenführer and to my brother officers. I was delayed at the Aktion.”
There is silence. No-one picks up his spoon. “I had to shoot a woman,” he adds.
More silence, then Krüger laughs in amazement. “Today your company executes eight hundred sub-humans and now you solemnly report to us that you had to shoot one woman?”
Some of the officers laugh. Most look vaguely curious. Frick glances around for Trummler but his chair is empty.
Krüger waves him to his seat. “Now tell us, Frick, why is this woman of yours so exceptional?”
Frick swallows. “She was an escapee, Herr Standartenführer.”
Frick looks at the officers’ expectant faces. “She had bright red hair,” he says stupidly.
At this there is general ribaldry among the officers. Frick’s cheeks burn.. He feels he should offer some explanation but in doing so he increases his embarrassment. “I’ve never seen a Pole with such red hair, sir.” More laughter from the officers but this time it is forced and uneasy.
Thank God at this moment the pedantic Brunner butts in. He is one of the older officers and used to be a lecturer of some sort. “She was probably a Khazar,” he says in his usual anodyne tone. “Frick, are you familiar with the legends about the Khazars?”
“I am sorry, sir. I have never heard of them.”
Brunner elaborates. “They were red haired warrior Jews from beyond the Caucasus. “
“Warriors, sir? How can Jews be warriors? They’re … Jews!”
“But my dear Frick, Jews can indeed be warriors. Have you never heard of the Jewish war with Rome and the siege of Masala? When you were at school don’t you remember how Samson and later David defeated the Philistines? We’re talking antiquity, you know.” Brunner starts coughing and pauses to take a sip of his claret. “The Khazars believe they’re one of the lost tribes of Israel and are destined to overrun Europe to avenge their persecuted brethren. There are many superstitions about …”
“Enough!” Krüger crashes his fist on the table. Brunner abruptly shuts up and gulps a whole mouthful of claret, some of which dribbles down the corners of his mouth. Frick feels his pulse quicken. Krüger is known for his outbursts and as the commanding SS Colonel, he would be paranoid about the morale of his officers. He will be aware that few of them can stomach the Aktion. Most, like Trummler, are drinking too much. Some are even starting to talk to themselves.
Again Krüger strikes the table. “Now hear this! There’ll be no more lying talk of warrior Jews or stupid tales about red haired Jewesses wielding battle-axes. Do you understand, gentlemen?”
“Yes, Standartenführer,” they mumble.
“I did not hear you.”
“Yes, Standartenführer,” they shout.
Krüger rises stiffly from his chair speedily followed by his officers who click their heels to attention. His anger abated, he raises an unwavering arm.
The officers return a drill-perfect salute.
When Frick returns to his quarters he finds that Stroop has been busy. The desk has been waxed, the bed is squarely made up and his shoes and spare boots have a varnish shine. On his camp locker is an envelope addressed in Brigitte’s handwriting. He slits it open with care, then sits down on the bed and reads it meticulously except for three sentences which he tries very hard to ignore.
I realise that I should be brave and confident but I do worry about the fighting. I know you protect your men but please, please protect yourself too, not only for my sake but also for Cordula’s. She will grow up to be so proud of you, as am I.
Despite Brigitte’s fears for him, Frick is deeply ashamed that he has never once confronted an armed enemy of the Reich. He loathes deceiving his wife. But Hans Frank, the Governor General of Occupied Poland, has ordered the Aktion to be kept a military secret. Frank’s edict does nothing to ease Frick’s mind about the events of today and his own ignominious part in them.
He wonders about the military necessity for the Aktion. He knows full well that Brigitte would not be proud of him if she really knew what he was doing in Poland. It is not enough to believe that she is simply naïve about strategic affairs. What would she say if she’d seen those children being slaughtered at the trench today?
He takes down her photograph in its brown leather frame and brings it closer to his reading lamp. He stares at it for some time and where he once saw a face full of love looking back at him, he now imagines a mocking, accusatory glare. His hands begin to shake. What’s wrong with his eyes? Brigitte’s features are beginning to blur into the face of the corpse in the saw pit. Seized with terror he snaps the frame shut.
It has to end. Tomorrow he’ll see Krüger and request an immediate transfer to the Wehrmacht. At the Front of the Advance his comrades will no longer be melancholic drunks like Trummler or pedants like Brunner. They’ll be proper fighting troops.
He hates the fact that Hans Frank’s wife is also called Brigitte. Dear God, what a comparison. He remembers when the Franks first arrived in Krakow to be crowned “King and Queen of Poland” at Wavel Castle overlooking the Vistula. Krakov was adorned with billowing swastikas. A Brownshirt Guard of Honour stood to attention at the castle entrance. Mass units of the Volksdeutsche militia and the Waffen SS lined the quadrangle, all bearing flame torches. The Silesian Philharmonic Orchestra started up and Frank and his wife processed through the gates behind the biggest Hakenkreuz that Frick had ever seen. On the podium Frank pointed to the overblown flag and told the multitude that the swastika would fly over Wavel Castle for a thousand years. He made it sound like a decree from Mount Sinaii.
Frick wonders now as he wondered then: Is the Führer so short of talent that he has to appoint a sycophant like Frank to run the General Government of Poland? Mind you, Hitler also appointed Himmler, - even Goebbels the garrulous cripple for God’s sake, and apart from Heydrich with his bull terrier face, there isn’t a full blooded Aryan among them and … when you come to think of it, even the Führer himself …
No, Ernst, never ever go there. Don’t even think of it.
But he has thought of it. Not just now but many times. He’d been scrupulous though. Not once did he broach the thought with anyone else, not even with Brigitte.
His wife is the epitome of how all Aryans should be – tall, blond and athletic. It had not begun as a love match. They had been selected for each other, coerced into a duty marriage by the SS. Himmler would have thought it all very scientific with Frick the pure bred stallion and Brigitte his matching filly.
Cordula cannot be his first child. Brigitte must know this. She never says anything but of course she knows, she’s not stupid. At the Academy, where he studied civil engineering, Frick was an elite above the other elites, one of the tallest and blondest of his peers, full-muscled and twice winner of the SS marathon. Brigitte would have taken it for granted that he would have been “volunteered” into the trendy Lebensborn Project for breeding pedigreed Aryans. He recalls those passionless couplings by the Baltic Sea in the arms of Nordic goddesses. Of course they became pregnant. In fact Brigitte would have been miffed if he had not been selected.
She has only given him one child. Soon the SS may start asking questions. The Third Reich demands more of its elite, four children at least.
Next month he will be twenty five, still young enough for high promotion in the Wehrmacht if his transfer is approved but he’ll have to put more effort into his fitness regime. He fears the Aktion campaign has been making him soft. There is no excuse for this. Physical fitness is a moral choice. Bodies matter, which means you have to stay young at all costs. True National Socialists must be the Ever-Young. He has seen those early photographs of the Führer and the first cabinet. They were all young men. Once you let yourself grow old, you’re finished. Why choose Hugo Boss to design uniforms for the Reich if they are not tailor made for virile youthful men? Yes, bodies matter because when you come to think of it, all we have is our biology. Darwin was a genius.
Damn! Damn! Damn! He clamps his eyes shut so tightly that his ears ring yet he cannot shut out the face of that woman he shot today. Brunner called her an avenging “Red Jew”. What did he mean by that? But she’s dead. She’ll never take her revenge on anyone - unless…no, that’s all superstition. But this is the ‘Wild East’ and, as he’s been told, superstition is not only rife out here, it is contagious. He has to keep a grip on himself. Tomorrow he must front up to Krüger about his transfer.
He undresses and gets into bed but his mind roils like hot bubbling Kartoffelsuppe. What possessed him to join the Aktion in the first place? He’s a qualified engineer for God’s sake! The SS had misled him. They said the Reich needed first class officers for its most essential priority: ‘relocating’ Untervolk from the new German colonies to unspecified regions further east. It was Eichmann who had encouraged him, even convincing him that he would play a senior part in resolving the Jewish Question. He said it was an essential arm of policy, especially here in Poland where for the first time Frick is encountering ‘real’ Jews, the ones caricatured in Die Stürmer, men with long beards, ringlets, side-curls, kaftans and little round caps trimmed with fox fur, villainous sub-humans, all of them.
And just as the Americans ousted the Indians and colonised the Wild West, so the German Aryans will do the same for the Wild East. But Frick has had enough. After today he will be happy for other men to take over while he serves at the Front.
He needs to sleep but all the same he dreads it. Lately he is being tormented by a recurring nightmare. The mass graves are being torn from the earth and rising in the air, the corpses unravelling themselves from the Sardinenpakung into a writhing of limbs, waxen faces and blood. So much blood. And tonight he is bound to dream of that woman in the pit. His eyes are tightly shut like clams on a rock. His jaws are clenching, his body shudders.
This won’t do. He recalls the voice of his old headmaster in Weimar.
Self-discipline, Frick. Show some self- discipline, boy.
There’s a hammering on the door. “Herr Obersturmführer. Wake up, sir.”
For Christ’s sake, now what? Frick rolls out of bed and reaches for his dressing gown. Stroop stands to attention in the corridor. He salutes.
“Come in, Stroop,”
Stroop salutes him once more. “Sir, I am sorry to disturb you, but Base HQ is on special alert”
“ Hauptsturmführer Trummler is missing, Herr Obersturmführer.”
Trummler’s body is discovered the next morning. He had evidently staggered through the blizzard to the shell of a burnt-out church three kilometres away so the discharge of his one bullet would not disturb Krüger’s formal dinner.
Frick’s request for transfer to the Wehrmacht is turned down and Krüger orders him to take command of one of the new SS Einsatzkommando execution units fifteen kilometres from the Soviet occupation zone.
May 4th, 1945
Headquarters of Obergruppenführer Friederich-Wilhem Krüger commanding the 5th
SS Mountain Infantry Corp. Styria. Upper Austria.
“I have bad news for you, Ernst. Please sit down.”
Frick perches himself on the edge of the canvas chair. “Herr General?”
“Your wife has died in Berlin…..Your daughter too. I am sorry.”
Frick swallows. If he were alone, he would weep. To openly grieve now would be taken as crass hypocrisy. He’s had no contact with Brigitte since 1943. Krüger would know the reason. Frick bends forward on his chair. His shoulders tremble.
Krüger waits until he composes himself.
“It was suicide, Ernst, cyanide. They would not have suffered.”
How would Krüger know that? Not have suffered? What, just the two of them alone in that miserable flat in the Grünwald with rubble all round, enemy bombers overhead, Red Army troops just blocks away, their shells shrieking down the streets and the building shaking on its foundations? And they would not have suffered?
Frick shuts his eyes for half a second and tries to numb his feelings by imagining the technical details.
How did she obtain the cyanide? Of course. Despite their separation her social standing was sufficiently high to receive the last gasp of Goebbel’s propaganda: she would be expected to attend the Berlin Philharmonic’s production of Der Götterdämmerung.
The Twilight of the Gods – what an exercise in cheap irony. He’d heard that after the final curtain call there was an announcement that cyanide would be offered to all members of the audience.
He imagines Brigitte waiting in a queue by one of the velvet- clad doors where a Hitler Youth hands out the little glass capsules.
“Please may I have two?” she would ask ever so politely and probably smile at the boy while one of Goebbels’s hacks on the microphone tells everyone that the end will be painless and quick. No doubt some of the vials are dropped and trampled underfoot and the whiff of prussic acid would not be unpleasant, rather like crushed almonds.
But how in God’s name would she get Cordula to take her capsule with the bombers overhead and the building shaking? Would she have held her hand? Of course she would. One weak hand holding another’s. She would have secretly broken the capsule beforehand and mixed the stuff in a fine china cup with the child’s hot chocolate. She would have told Cordula it was a special treat.
He needs to weep; to weep in the open air, to weep alone in the lime woods. He is weary. Not through the shock of the deaths – that has still to penetrate, nor the looming defeat of Germany. His ennui rises from a source that refuses to be defined. He staggers to his feet to salute and depart but Krüger waves him down.
“There is more, Ernst.” Frick perches back onto the edge of the chair. Krüger leans forward to offer him a cigarette. Frick gives him a vacant nod and Krüger lights it for him with a solid gold lighter embossed with the Totemkopf.
“Are you aware that you are on Roosevelt’s List?”
“Well I am afraid you are. I believe you are number one hundred and thirty seven. I am also on that list. There are nearly three thousand of us marked down to be arrested and tried as war criminals.”
Frick stares at him. In a dead voice he asks: “What number have the Americans bestowed on you, Herr General?”
“Nineteen -- but that is beside the point. In just days this war will be over. Our brave soldiers will surrender and return to their homes. You and I on the other hand will face victors’ justice. They will put on a show trial and we’ll be sentenced to death.
Frick’s heart beats faster. “How can that be, General? Surely we would be prisoners of war.”
“We’re hated, Ernst. You cannot believe how much we are hated. We will not be honourably shot. We shall hang. If we are lucky we’ll fall into the hands of the British and die in seconds, otherwise we’ll dangle on American cowboy nooses or worse, end up being pole - lynched by the Slavs.”
“So it has all come to this.”
“Of course we have the option of suicide.”
“Like my wife,” says Frick closing his eyes fiercely and shaking his head.
“Ernst, she had no alternative. The Russians were already in Berlin.” He pauses to light another cigarette, this one is small and black. “On the other hand you do have another choice, that is, if you follow my last order.”
“Yes, Herr General.” Frick will agree to anything if he can leave now and weep alone.
Ten minutes later he is accompanied out by a stiffly uniformed SS Gruppenführer carrying a swagger stick.
“They are calling us war criminals,” he says.
“So I believe,” says Frick.
“But how can we be criminals, Herr Brigadeführer? We performed our lawful duties. We defended the German people from humanoid vermin. We rid Europe of its Jewish pestilence and we fought bravely for the Great Victory of Truth.”
“Yes,” says Frick. He has heard all this before, many times, word for word. Was it Goebbels who said it? No it might have been Himmler … or Heydrich ….or Frank. Perhaps it was Göring.
It doesn’t matter.
Brigitte and Cordula are dead.
In just three days has a new passport. It’s in the name of Otto Brandt.
Krüger explains: “Our victors prefer certain German names over others. ‘Otto’ is one of their favourites. It has an amiable connotation, almost lovable: they give it to circus bears and Labrador dogs. And ‘Brandt’? – fresh and uncomplicated – like new bread. You’ll be Otto Brandt - a new name for the post-war era.”
The crusty Gruppenführer tells him that the Gestapo had selected a Soviet Prisoner of War roughly Frick’s age and physique, forced him to put on his black uniform, then tied him to a tree, strapped a live grenade under his jaw and blew his head to oblivion.
The Corps is duly informed that SS Brigadeführer Ernst Frick, unable to endure the loss of his wife and daughter, has committed suicide.
His parents will be told the same story. It is as well. How could they cope with their only child on trial for mass murder? It would finish them. It is best they think he is dead. He wonders if they will gather some of the old congregation from their church together and hold a service. Probably not.
Four Years Later
High in the Austrian Tyrol
Frick is on edge. The Austrian press has reported sightings of Adolf Eichmann and Martin Bormann. It seems the victors are suspicious of earlier accounts of the deaths of leading SS officers and he fears that the report of his own ‘suicide’ may be re-examined.
Since the war Frick has just about been able to suppress the up-welling of guilt for his part in the worst crimes in human history. When the memories overwhelm his thoughts, his response, as ever, is to close his eyes for a second or two, then throw himself into some practical task. Busyness is his one panacea.
Time is a fog. The post war years have scudded by but he has been oblivious to their passing, until today.
Originally it had been a wise move fleeing to the Tyrol. His willingness to learn fluent English secured him a job as a chauffeur and handy-man in an isolated retreat centre for British academics. His speedily acquired knowledge of the local countryside, his friendly assistance to the guests, even giving up his spare time to coach them with tennis and golf have earned him respect and even some affection from his former enemies.
Today however, when two Cambridge women try to pose with him in a photograph he is alerted to the lethal risk of someone recognising him in spite of his square clipped beard and darkened hair. So he smiles, glances at his watch, then shakes his head. “I am sorry, ladies. I have to assist the chef or you will not be dining tonight.”
The reported hunt for Eichmann and Bormann has helped him reach a decision. He cannot remain at the chalet any longer. In the drawer by his bed he has kept an article neatly cut out from a recent copy of the Manchester Guardian the women left behind in the breakfast room. He reads it for the third time.
The Great Australian Crisis: Populate or Perish.
To boost its white population the Commonwealth of Australia has abandoned its policy of not admitting former enemy aliens as immigrants. Providing they have not borne arms against Australian troops, have never been members of designated criminal organisations such as the SS and Gestapo and providing they possess technical or scientific training and that they can prove they are of pure European descent, their applications are now welcome.
Tonight he writes a letter of application to emigrate as a civil engineer. He furnishes the Australians with papers detailing his faked discharge from the Wehrmacht and outlining his modest but versatile service as an Unterfeldwebel in one of Rommel’s sapper units and later, as a bomb disposal expert in Hamburg.
The doctor contracted by the Australian Consulate gives him a first class medical report and he is able to produce a testimonial from the chalet’s manager, so glowing that it reads like a eulogy.
His interview in Vienna is as amiable as it is successful. He is listed as a demolition and explosives engineer under the Employment of Scientific Aliens Scheme and recruited to work on the new Snowy River Project in New South Wales. He is given The Blue Guide for New Settlers, a book full of photographs and articles about Australia.
Three weeks’ later Otto Brandt embarks from Bremerhaven on the British Steamship Syrenia bound for Sydney.
In the Straits of Dover
Only two hundred emigrants embark at Bremerhaven so until the ship reaches Southampton, Brandt has a cabin to himself. He hoists his case on a top bunk with a porthole barely a hand’s breadth from his pillow.
Because of the temporary high ratio of crew to passengers, Brandt finds himself running into members of the crew every time he goes on deck. But he is wary of them. He decides that they are a detached breed of misanthropes. The officers look smart in their white uniforms but he has never once seen them salute their superiors or even the captain. Despite their solitary natures they occasionally saunter up to passengers, breaking into their private conversations and then wander off leaving them to ponder some enigmatic tale about a jinxed ship in the Sargasso Sea or a floating island off Honiara . Brandt wonders if spending one’s life encircled by an ocean moat breeds an insular man, self- reliant to a fault, prone to moods and, when it suits him, to play at being a Captain Ahab or the Flying Dutchman.
He’s heard most of the crew had originally been recruited straight off the war convoys. “Some of them are ‘deep’,” says his steward. “You don’t know what they’re on about half the time. They remind me of those old prophets in the Bible. Even the younger ones.”
But Brandt suspects that church religion is a foolishness to men once constantly at risk of attack from the Luftwaffe or U-Boats, liable to meet their God beneath the black combers off Iceland or in the growling pack- ice from Arctic Russia. As a German, he finds these men quite alarming but it is even worse when they appear to know more about the state of his soul than they should.
Tregowan, the grizzled First Mate is a case in point. His gruff voice snaps Brandt to alertness.
‘A long voyage stirs up the demons in a man. This one’s six and a half weeks. Longer still if we run into heavy seas and start rolling. A lot of time to be idling about. ’
Brandt doesn’t reply. Instead, his eyes are on the narrows of the English Channel. From the after-deck he can clearly make out both the French coast and the opposing chalk cliffs of southern England.
‘Hell Fire Corner,’ says Tregowan struggling to light his pipe in the wind. ‘God alone knows how many good ships are lying below us here.’ His tobacco smells of glazed cherries, like a Black Forest gateau. He stares at one coast and then the other and takes another puff. “ I suppose if you wanted to, you could swim out to either of ’em from here. I bet I could when I was your age.” He pauses and looks down at the water. “Mind you, the Channel never really warms up. The exposure would kill you.”
Brandt does some mental calculations. The distance between the opposing shores is laughable. How could it be that despite Goering’s much vaunted Luftwaffe, Doenitz’s fleet, the Wehrmacht’s eight million battle trained troops and eighty thousand paratroopers, the Führer was denied his invasion because of a mere strait hardly more than thirty kilometres across.
Brandt finds the sea mesmeric. Its colours change by the minute: cobalt blue, Payne’s grey, ultramarine, raw sienna and a blend of indigo and dark umber. Like the gradations of the human subconscious, it has its deeps, its shallows and its capricious sands.
At Southampton no-one is allowed ashore. It is rumoured that the British are suspicious of the migrants who boarded at Bremerhaven but in any case there are only two gangways and the crew have enough to do managing the embarkation of nine hundred new passengers. On every deck the languages of continental Europe are drowning in the torrent of English voices. Over-excited children with their bustling parents, young women: secretaries, shop assistants, teachers, nurses? Most of the men look like artisans but he can see in their bearing the unmistakeable stamp of military service. They form up smartly at the hatches, their shoes have an ingrained shine. With all these British people on board Brandt must keep his guard. He is not among friends.
By the wireless mast he notices a formidable looking Catholic priest in his seventies and two Brothers lining up twenty small boys in three rows for a photograph. Another Brother stands guard over their identical brown suitcases. All the boys are in jackets and ties and the oldest, probably no older than eleven are wearing English flat caps.
‘They must be those orphan lads from Liverpool,’ he hears a woman murmur to her husband. ‘Poor little tykes.’
“I wonder if they were given any choice to leave Blighty,” says her husband.
‘I doubt it but what an adventure anyway. Just look at that one with glasses; he looks barely six years old. Look at their suitcases. So small. Lord knows what they can bring with them.”
Brandt wonders what the Führer would have thought of banishing Aryan boys to the furthest end of the world. Yes but Britain is a crowded country, more crowded than Germany. This must be the British version of Lebensraum and Australia is part of the British Reich. So too is Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. But of course! If Germany had possessed colonies like these, the Führer would have done the same. Now he understands.
Over the coming days Brandt finds the British emigrants puzzling. They are polite and self-effacing, not one of them has been hostile to him. If they are proud of their possession of a vast Reich, they show no signs of it. When they talk about Australia they imagine a land of sunshine and oranges, a glowing paradise with spacious bungalows, no post-war rationing and everyone swimming in a warm sea; a young nation with a larrikin disdain for the old world of snobbery and privilege. “It’s a country where, Jack is every bit as good as his master,” they like to add.
However in Brandt’s Blue Guide, the Australian Government makes it clear that all new settlers must be of “pure European descent” and that British migrants are preferred. It is true that there are some photographs of Dutch and Scandinavians but people with olive skins are rare. To Brandt the message could not be plainer: only Aryans are welcome.
But for now it doesn’t matter. They are on the sea, which is not really a place at all; it is a restlessness.
Five of the new passengers now share his cabin. In the bunk directly below him is an Irish horse breaker. The rest are English tradesmen, two travelling with wives and children in the women’s part of the ship.
The sedulous Brandt makes a point of keeping his bunk trimmer than the other men. He squares off his pillows and folds the blanket and sheets at sharp right angles in strict alignment with the bulkheads. Each morning he wipes the mist off his porthole then pauses a moment to watch the higher crests whipped to stern by the kinetic bulk of the Syrenia as it steams onward to Gibraltar.
The sleeping quarters are cramped but they could be worse. It is a mercy that his cabin is a safe distance from the Poles, Ukrainians and Yugoslavs. Some of these may be more than ready to settle old scores with a German travelling on his own, although Brandt, superbly trained in unarmed combat, would be a deadly adversary.
He also feels it wise to avoid fellow Germans, especially the four young men who were the last passengers to embark at Bremerhaven. He remembers at the docks how they carried identical grey rucksacks on their shoulders and stormed up the gangway like invading pirates. He recalls the arrogant tone of their voices, all speaking the Slavic- German of the East and making a point of telling everyone they were mechanics. These men were too young to have served in the Wehrmacht so they must have been with the Hitler Youth Auxiliaries. In the last year of the war this was an organisation more merciless than his own Einsatzgrüppen. God help any partisans, Jews or Soviet P.O.W.s who fell into the hands of the Auxiliaries.
But Brandt is much more concerned by the nagging inquisitiveness of Mieszko Kowalski, a Polish journalist who with his long hair looks like Jesus except for his bitter cobalt eyes. . Kowalski won’t leave him alone. He tells Brandt he’s been offered a position on the Melbourne Age. It’s suspicious. Why would a Polish journalist want to talk to a German?
It’s a warm evening and the bar is filling up with married couples and singles in their twenties.
“It must be hard for you,” says Kowalski who has twisted his way through the crowd over to Brandt who is extricating unwanted ice cubes from a glass of neat vodka.
Brandt abandons the ice cubes and stares at him. “I do not see why anything should be especially hard for me,” he says.
But true to form, Kowalski slices to the jugular of Brandt’s sensibilities. “Well, what I mean is, how old are you?”
“Thirty four. Oh my! And all the single women on board are much too young for you – and of course most of them are English while you are…”
“Yes,” and now the Pole is smiling. He stares Brandt up and down like a tailor about to measure him up for a suit. “With your physique and looks, I am surprised you were not recruited for the SS.”
Brandt’s deflection is too quick. “I could not prove my ancestry.”
Kowalski jumps on the indiscretion. “Ah, but then of course you would certainly have enlisted. Yes? ” He smiles once more.
“That doesn’t follow in the least.” Brandt’s mind is a boiling pot. He focuses his eyes over Kowalski’s shoulder onto an art deco figurine of the crystal mermaid on a shelf above the bar.
“So you joined the Wehrmacht? Then you do have a war history.”
“We all have war histories.” The mermaid shines like a fixed star.
“Well perhaps. But not like you. And anyway being a German must be…”
“A liability? A handicap? Say what you damn well mean!” Brandt grasps his vodka so tightly that he nearly breaks the glass. He slaps two heavy British coins on the bar and goes out on deck.
Three Days Later
Brandt is self-conscious about his enviable physique. After ten years of rationing most of the British passengers look half-starved but he’d eaten well at the Tyrolean chalet and the weight had gone into hard muscle. The women passengers stare at him often. He knows he is worth a woman’s glance. They think they can hide behind their sun glasses but he can feel their scrutiny. Nothing will come of it, of course. The war, or rather his actions in it, have made him a psychological eunuch.
So Brandt ignores them and leans into the arch of his deckchair and listens in on a one-sided conversation between Kowalski and a home - bound official from Australia House in London. The Pole is a reckless fool. Doesn’t he realise how his voice carries?
“All four of them are Nazis,” Kowalski insists. “Why do you Australians allow Nazis into your country?” Brandt guesses the Pole must be targeting the four brash young mechanics who embarked at Bremerhaven.
The official responds in a tone that should leave Kowalski in no doubt that he wants to be left alone.
“Nazis? I ‘spose you’re entitled to your opinion, mate.” He pulls the brim of his sun- hat down over his eyes.
The Pole’s voice rises. “Of course they’re Nazis. I can tell. Murderous ex-Hitler Youth from the Eastern Front. You wait. As soon as I get to Port Said, I’m going to see your Consul. Nazis should not be aboard this ship.”
The Australian sits up, tips back his sun-hat and stares at Kowalski. “You better watch what you’re saying, mate. These boys got through their interviews, right? All of them are skilled mechanics for heavy machines. They can fix trucks, cranes and bulldozers and come to think of it, they can fix tanks too. Australia needs ‘em - more I daresay, than it needs you. If they once fought for Hitler, so what? That’s all past now. At least they’ve learnt some discipline and know something about hard work. I’d much rather have this lot coming over than a mob of commos like you. You are a commo, aren’t you, mate? ”
Kowalski ignores the jibe and presses his attack. “Then what about the SS?”
The Australian whistles softly. “No mate we don’t touch that mob. They’re screened out right from the start.”
Kowalski becomes more earnest. “Listen to me. I think there is a former SS officer on board this very ship. If you know what to look for, even the way they …”
“If you say so, mate. We’ll leave it at that, eh? ” The Australian re-adjusts his hat, slumps back into his deck chair and closes his eyes.
Brandt feels a dryness in his throat. The Syrenia has become a prison. One formal accusation made to the Australian Consulate and he’ll be arrested in Port Said, interrogated by the British in Cairo. Thereafter …
Barely ten feet away he notices a man lying face down on a bath towel. When he turns over on his back to tan his chest, Brandt recognises one of the young mechanics. Like Brandt, he must have caught every word the annoying little Pole had said.
Three days later:
Still no sign of Kowalski. The captain probably thinks that either he fell overboard while drunk or that he committed suicide.
Brandt is certain that Kowalski has been murdered - probably on deck late one night after they closed the saloon. It is all so obvious. As soon as the intoxicated Pole was aware of the three figures blocking his way, he would have been struck from behind by a fourth probably wielding one of the deck cricket bats. In seconds they would have heaved his body overboard. He remembers a morning when the mechanics ate their entire breakfast together without saying a word to each other. Their silence was uncharacteristic. It reminded him of the Einsatzgrüppen executioners immediately after an Aktion; that same silence, worse than any spoken condemnation: the terrifying silence of truth.
Brandt doesn’t need his sun glasses because the sun is too high for the sea to dazzle. Still dripping water from the pool, he stares over the rails to starboard. He is striving to remember from his schooldays what he learnt about the Barbary Coast.
“Mister, please can you teach us to swim like you?”
Brandt swings around sharply and recognises Bert, a lad of about eleven. Bert is known to all the passengers because he was chosen by the Brothers to be Head Boy. When the priest announced it at table, Bert was given an impromptu round of applause. Today he is wearing old man’s braces over a shirt miles too big for him.
Bert is not alone. Brandt was so engrossed in the distant shoreline that he didn’t noticed that the whole group of Liverpool boys had made a loose semi-circle behind him. Quite a crowd. Brandt finds himself facing them like an officer inspecting raw recruits.
There’s already a difference in their appearance from when he first saw them in Southampton. It’s the ship’s meals. These boys have never been so well fed in their lives , all their faces have lost that cavernous look.
He recognises the apprehensive boy wearing his cheap wire spectacles, singled out by the couple in Southampton, the one whom the others call Alan. The child gives Brandt an unwavering stare which makes him feel uncomfortable.
A swimming teacher? They have no idea what they are asking of him but Brandt sees the glint of something to clasp onto or, like everything else in his life, to let slip into the bleak past. They are silent, hanging on his reply. Under his bare feet even the deck planks feel as though they wait on what he will say next. The ship hangs in timelessness.
Brandt’s habitual anonymity cannot hold under the burning scrutiny of twenty small boys. “Can any of you swim at all?”
Bert shakes his head. “None of us can swim, Mister. But we want to learn how. They told us in Liverpool that when we get to Sydney, we’ll be surfing on Bondi Beach.”
The request is as disarming as it is understandable. Off the North African coast, the temperature is over eighty degrees. The English boys are desperate to cool off but being non swimmers, they are barred from the pool.
“What about the Brothers?” he asks. “Don’t they teach you swimming?” At this the older boys laugh in derision. “They’d go down like stones. Mister, have you seen any of ‘em get into the water?” Now all of them are laughing, even the nervous Alan.
Acting on a half-forgotten solicitude Brandt’s voice is almost fatherly. “Very well, Bert. You go and fetch me one of the Brothers. If he says it is all right, I’ll teach you. But if I do, there will be no, what do you English call it, playing silly buggers? So if you do play silly buggers, you’ll need to be tough, a lot tougher than me, and boy, that’s tough.” He tries to look stern but they all start laughing and Brandt realises they’ve already decided that their prospective swimming coach is quite capable of playing silly buggers himself.
The man who comes back with Bert isn’t a Brother at all; it’s their priest, Father Brendan Coffey. He is delighted that Brandt has agreed to teach the boys to swim. He shakes his hand warmly but he lists two conditions: at least two of the Brothers must be present at every lesson and the boys must never be late for morning Mass.
For his part, Brandt voices a few conditions of his own. The boys have to have new swimming trunks and towels purchased from the ship’s own shop and after every lesson each must have his progress written up by the supervising Brothers. By a special arrangement with the Purser, the pool is reserved for swimming lessons an hour each morning before breakfast.
Decked out in identical navy blue swimming trunks and matching towels, the boys carry themselves with a new confidence. All are eager to impress Brandt. They call him “Jerry” and he takes it in good part. Their progress is excellent. By the end of the first week more than half the boys can swim or dog-paddle at least the length of the pool. Brandt has even taught backstroke to the more capable. Even the uncoordinated Alan Gilbert who is nervous about the depth of the water, manages to swim a few feet, his head twisting from side to side, and without his spectacles squinting like an owl in the sun.
“I’ll never be a good swimmer, Jerry,” he says after he pulls himself out of the water and a Brother passes him his towel.
“It will come,” says Brandt. “You just need practice. At least if you fall overboard you’ll be able to stay afloat.”
“Did you shoot any of our soldiers in the war, Jerry?” asks Bert. There is no accusation in his voice. He might just as well be asking Brandt what he’d had for breakfast. The older boys gather around.
“Jerry can only give us his name, rank and service number,” declares a dripping youth rubbing his head with a towel. “That’s in the Rules of War, what it says about interrogating the enemy.”
“Yes, it’s in the Geneva Convention,” adds another in a helpful voice. He is pulling on his oversized flat cap which is comically unsuitable for the Mediterranean.
Brandt smiles, the first genuine smile he has given anyone in years.
“The war is over, boys,” he says, “It’s been over since some of you were babies,” and then, after a pause, he adds quietly, “and I am not your prisoner, gentlemen. I am not your enemy either.”
“Where did you serve, Jerry?” asks Bert. “On the Eastern Front?”
Brandt’s heart starts hammering but of course he has the answer. Krüger not only issued him with a new identity; he also documented his false war record. He points seaward towards the baking shores of Tripolitania just visible to starboard.
“Do you see that coast? I was over there,” he says, “in the Afrika Korps.” He feels as if he has just stabbed his own chest with a shard of ice,. For a second he clamps his eyes shut.
“You served under Rommel?”
“That’s right,” he says through his teeth. Dear God, if only it were true.
“Yes, we thought so.” Says a tall boy. Approving looks spread around the group.
Brandt snaps to alertness. “Keep this to yourselves. Real men don’t gossip.”
But there is no place on earth more prone to gossip than a migrant ship. One boy probably says something to one of the Brothers who mentions it to a married couple during dinner. Within days the embellished version of the best raconteur on board becomes an orthodox belief. It eventually reaches Brandt himself as he overhears two women talking during a concert interval.
‘But of course the man was never a true supporter of Hitler. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht, but he never rose beyond the rank of corporal. That’s because he refused to join the Nazi party. But he did do his bit for Rommel. He was fighting for his country after all, you cannot blame him for that.
‘Then do you know what happened? Towards the end of the war the poor soul lost his wife and children in an air raid. No wonder he’s leaving Europe, he needs to heal his broken life. And isn’t it simply wonderful that he’s been teaching those poor orphans how to swim? The Brothers must be so grateful to him’
Brandt doesn’t think much of the Brothers. He wonders what they actually do for the boys. Probably they see themselves as disciplinarians. Alan tells him the Brothers flog the boys with something called the tawse. Boys are “tawsed” if they are late for Mass, or fail to leave the meat on the side of their plates on Fridays. The thrashing is more intense if they are caught speaking to girls. Every night the Brothers terrify their young charges with lurid details of the tortures meted out to sinners in Hell.
No, Brandt concludes, despite his murderous history, these boys are better off spending a few hours with him learning to swim and afterwards playing silly buggers in the pool than mooching about with the Brothers. And come to think of it, he really doesn’t mind being called Jerry at all. American youths would have labelled him ‘the Kraut’.
It is inevitable that the boys look up to him as a father-figure, especially Alan. Father figure? God forbid. Any War Crimes Tribunal and all the world’s press would portray him as the anti –father, a slaughterer of mothers and infants, a war criminal fit only for the gallows at Landsberg Prison.
A young English couple say hello to him as they start their daily perambulation of the deck. He returns the greeting with a smiling nod. They saunter off, linked arm in arm in a completeness denied to men like him. It is in moments like these when he should be missing Brigitte, yet even if she were at his side, he would be in a moral isolation. Human normality is passing him by. On the sun deck the women are wearing diaphanous tops over their two piece swimming suits. He hardly notices. It’s as if, with the murder of the woman in the sawpit, he has murdered womanhood itself.
Brandt feels he has aged before his time. He wonders if the other passengers see him as an older figure who spends his days staring out to sea. Resolute in his belief that he is unfit for any company except his own, he even has moments when he would actually welcome the clapping of handcuffs on his wrist and swift deportation to the Nuremburg courtroom, even the ascent to the scaffold and the hangman’s noose.
As Brandt showers before dinner he rubs the itch under his left arm-pit. He must be careful not to scratch it and leave a tell-tale scar. For nearly three years he had been applying lye and hydrogen peroxide to remove his SS blood group tattoo. It was gone by the time he had his medical inspection for Australia but there is still an irritation from the chlorine in the pool.
He brushes back his hair. More strands than usual are being caught among the bristles. He rubs Brylcreem over his scalp though it thins down the hair mass and reveals his underlining pink skin. There was a time when the thought of going bald would have alarmed him. but it doesn’t seem to matter much to him anymore.
Having showered early, Brandt has some free time before dinner. In Bremerhaven the Purser decided to put him on Second Sitting. First Sitting is for families and fractious toddlers. He is happy to avoid them. The sight and sounds of small children bring back the horrors. He shudders as he recalls one big SS woman who used to swing Jewish children by their feet and beat their brains out against a wall. And then there was that hellish secretary in Lödzt who would hurl Polish babies out of third floor windows. He shuts his eyes. The memories are unbearable.
What is happening to him? He grinds his back teeth and shakes his head but the images return and they are getting worse. The past is thundering around his ears. Even today his swimming was spoilt by the sight of all those sunbathing bodies by the pool.
Bodies. Nothing brings back the Aktion more than seeing prostrate bodies. Winter was not so bad. Victims of the Aktion were mostly frozen before the bulldozers covered them. He had seen the thawing River Memel choked with frosted corpses while at the same time, its banks sparkled with daffodils and jonquils.
Summer was intolerable in the East, especially during the direct heat of June when the blue- bottle flies buzzed around the hundreds of putrid nostrils and open mouths brimming with maggots. In his mind he sees again the tumid bellies and once more breathes the noisome air. He would never have believed it possible that human bodies could make such a stench.
His recollections always end with killing the woman in the saw-pit. It has become the hellish parody of a bridal consummation for deep in his subconscious she remains with him in almost a wifely constancy, while he on his part is a faithful husband, for whom other women are forbidden.
Each night at dinner he is confronted at table by the delightful Michaela Haas, a widowed pharmacist from Linz. Throughout the voyage she has offered him a generous unaffected friendship and he knows that she cannot understand his aloofness.
“Oh Otto, don’t you realise that to be properly alive, you have to react with other people,” she once told him. “We have a choice. Life is to be grasped with both hands or we can just let it atrophy.”
He looks at her soft cheeks and kindly brown eyes then something takes over and he sees her face shredded to jam by a volley of bullets. When he makes his apologies before dessert and leaves the table, he feels her bewilderment.
The Red Sea
No one came to arrest him in Aden and he feels safer. He has read that east of Suez the authority of the British Reich has waned since the war, especially with the loss of India.
But he remembers one incident which unnerved him. It was when the ship had to wait with a small flotilla in the Bitter Lakes to give way to western bound vessels in the Suez Canal. Alone on the top deck Brandt probably witnessed more of what happened than any of the other passengers.
The setting sun was just touching the horizon when a single crease on the surface of the lake marked the silent arrival of a tiny dhow which he had noticed earlier loitering off the port bow. Something else was moving through the water, a lone swimmer. He watched the bobbing head and pale arms of someone braving the sharks to swim out toward the little boat. That was all Brandt had time to observe before a yellow sand mist descended to merge with the yellow sea.
Perhaps he imagined it. It is possible that in these torrid places the smell off the ocean is hallucinogenic. Perhaps in his gradual withdrawal from the human world he is slouching back to his Darwinian roots in the warm primordial seas.
When the sand cleared, the dhow had disappeared but there was still no horizon, no definitive boundary between the kingdoms of the sky and the sea. The motionless ships levitated in a limbo of stillness.
The next morning at breakfast, Brandt learnt that a member of the crew, a Jewish youth, had jumped ship to migrate to the new State of Israel. There was another and darker rumour that the boy had been on deck the night Kowalski disappeared, that he had witnessed some figures lurking in the shadows and afterwards he had feared for his life.
South Arabian Sea
The porthole is Brandt’s welcome respite from the proximity of the other men in his cabin. Each daybreak it brings the sea so close to his pillow that when a wave breaks on the hull of the Syrenia, the sea smoke mists the glass.
But this night at two a.m. he is perched up in bed sweating and trembling all over. He is staring at the porthole. Someone had been screaming. It was him.
“You’re in a bad way, boyo,” says the horse breaker grabbing Brandt’s shoulder and offering him a silver hip flask. Brandt gulps a mouthful of potcheen and tries to swallow another.
“Steady on there, man,” says the breaker. Brandt takes back the flask, wipes his mouth on his sleeve, screws back the top then shakes his head at the other wakened men. He must have bellowed so loudly that he’d disturbed the whole cabin.
“You can turn off the light again, lads,” says the breaker. “Holy Jesus and a terrible fright you gave us,” he says to Brandt, “but for sure it was a nightmare. Back to sleep now, boy.”
Brandt waits to hear the springs of the lower bunk take the weight of the trainer’s body then he turns his face away from the porthole.
For the first time he comes to dread the abyss beneath the ship; all that darkness, the unimaginable weight of water, the tentacles and needle teeth – but most of all the darkness.
It was only a nightmare but the worst he’d ever known. What must he make of it? Even if he is stupid enough to try?
For he had dreamt he was gazing through the porthole in the night when his own reflection was swept aside by the corpse of the red haired woman in a wedding gown rising from the ocean depths, her one green eye glaring at him. In terror he’d watched her finger nails desperately trying to claw onto the hull of the ship.
His bride was coming for him.
Mid Indian Ocean
Brandt has finally managed the art of dressing himself properly as a civilian. For sixteen years he has been in some sort of uniform or other. Even at the chalet he had worn a uniform. Admittedly it was more like a set of overalls but a uniform it certainly was. He’d made sure of it – washing it
once a week and ironing it every night.
On the ship he wears light cotton trousers and short sleeved shirts, a white dress shirt for evenings plus a black tie to go with the tuxedo he bought in Bremen. Swimming trunks, shorts, slacks and tropical shirts complete his wardrobe, courtesy of the Purser’s shop.
Father Coffey tells Brandt that the other passengers describe him as “serious”. The old priest says that only lonely people are serious. He adds that in his experience lonely souls are more truthful. But Brandt has not that privilege. It seems to him that these people would lose little by telling the truth, whereas he would forfeit life itself.
Or would he? If he had the guts, a confession to the Tribunal, though it would result in a shameful death, might be more life affirming than his present state. At times he feels he is already dead. He breathes, he eats, he even trains boys how to swim but he no longer lives in the human world; he only haunts it. Whenever other people appear on deck at night, he thinks “humans”, as though they are a different and dangerous species who could be shut out of his life by merely closing his eyes.
Humans. Must keep clear of humans.
It had been so much easier in the Tyrol. Despite the affable exchanges between himself and the paying guests, his regular duties had been solitary. There were always potatoes to be dug, meat and fish to be smoked, windows to be cleaned and the bus to be driven to the railway station.
But now it is different. He is at close quarters with other people on the ship and he is finding them not only a threat but also repulsive: their bodies, their smell, their personal habits, their couplings but above all, their little pretences, their snobberies and their pathetic self- importance.
But he is beginning to understand why they repel him. He had been scientifically conditioned to hate. First the Untervolk, then by extension the species in general, including himself.
He discovers that self-hatred has a perverse advantage. It means he will never have a chip on his shoulder. Each adversity will be so well deserved that he should never have cause to take offense. Whatever ills befall him now, a fall down one of the ship’s companionways, a fatal illness, an assault, -- he deserves them all. No retribution is too severe. Yes, it is clear now.
Or is it ? He certainly doesn’t hate the boys.
It has to be said that something has changed since he started teaching the boys to swim. It continues and it is slow. Like the thawing of frozen fingers and toes, the pain is intense. It is self- knowledge. Here on the whispering ocean he learns the truth and he asks himself: am I really that bad? And the answer of course is yes, much worse than you can possibly imagine, infinitely worse – diabolical.
Haven’t you realised it until now?
And he reminds himself that those on Truman’s list who were executed in Warsaw or Kracow were not buried there. That is because the ashes would have polluted the holy soil of Poland. Instead they are weighted down in steel ammunition cases and lie at the bottom of the Baltic sea.
The Southern Hemisphere
Tonight he haunts an empty deck and projects his fears onto a dark ocean which extends not to the invisible horizon but towards the fringe of the eternal. He fears the claustrophobic silence of ghosts; ghosts, writhing out of the void and clambering on board. The ghosts of Treblinka, Lödz, ghosts from Sobibor and Büchenwald the striped wraiths stand in their thousands, arms outstretched towards him.
Before the voyage his ghosts had lay dormant. But it seems that all along they had been massing to accompany him even to the farthest corner of the earth.
He looks up. Unfamiliar constellations hang bright in the dustless sky and apart from the low throbbing from the bowels of the ship, the human world is silent. In the saloon the dance band must be taking a break.
`He takes stock of his position. The voyage has three weeks still to run, time enough to make a rudimentary plan for when he disembarks. At all costs in Australia he must minimise close contact with other migrants where he might be recognised. Living in a camp on the Snowy Mountains Project will pose a daily risk. He will deal with it. That is enough planning for the moment.
The purity of the sea wind fills his lungs. Far below him the swell rolls back to draw the long wake of the Syrenia.
In the saloon the dance band starts up again with Sunrise Serenade. Through the glass door he watches the flamboyant photographer from Copenhagen swanning around the floor by himself in a white tuxedo. At one table half a dozen women are clapping and cheering him on as he spins across to them and scoops up Michaela Haas. The music changes to Some Enchanted Evening in waltz time. It is two o’clock in the morning.
Ten Days Later.
They are in the cooler southern latitudes and the final swimming lesson is over. Brandt is the last to leave the pool. He heaves himself out, grabs up his towel and strolls over to Father Coffey. “All your boys can now swim, Father,” he says. “None of them has much of a style but most can all do at least twenty lengths, even young Alan.” He wraps the towel around his dripping body.
“The credit is due to you, Otto. They’ll be thanking you when they’re on Bondi Beach. You’ve heard of it? That place in Sydney. ”
“So they will be living there.”
“No, not exactly. They won’t live in Sydney – but we’ll see they get to the beach from time to time.”
Brandt has caught the hesitancy in the priest’s voice. “So, if not in Sydney, where will these boys be living?”
“At a mission, St Edmund’s Mission. It’s out in the country. That’s it, some place with an odd name. That’s it, it’s called ‘Wait-a-Minute’ somewhere in northern New South Wales.”
“Ah, a boarding school.”
“Yes. It’s a boarding establishment, a farm school for orphaned boys. I’ve never been there myself, though. My work ends when the boys are passed over to St Edmund’s staff at Sydney Central Station. That’s the last I shall see of them. The Brothers and I will be staying with our Order in Sydney for two weeks then we’ll be returning to Liverpool to fetch the next lot.”
Brandt is still confused about the fate of the boys. He remembers quite distinctly that when he was teaching them to swim they were forever talking about Sydney, especially the big surf beaches. He had imagined they were to be adopted by Sydney families. From what the boys had told him they themselves were in no doubt of it.
“So St Edmunds Mission is really an orphanage, Father.”
“A special orphanage. As I said, it’s a farm school. Of course, they could still be adopted but that’s unlikely. Couples prefer to adopt babies.”
“So, please explain to me, Father. Are all the parents of these boys dead?”
“No Otto, it’s only that they have no fathers.”
“So the fathers are dead yet their mothers are still alive. Surely they cannot then be orphans. I do not understand.”
“Are you familiar with the English word ‘waif’? It is old fashioned and rarely used but it has no modern synonym.”
“No, Father, I don’t know this word.”
“These boys are mostly what I would call waifs. They’re like flotsam washing up on the beach. They have no family roots, their mothers are unsuitable; some are whores. Quite rightly their sons are taken away from them. Believe me, they’ll be much better off in Australia. Take Alan Gilbert, for instance. His mother scarpered off to Chicago with her American G.I. and left Alan with us in Liverpool. That was in 1946. We had to tell Gilbert she was dead.”
Brandt doesn’t reply and goes to change out of his swimming togs.
After dinner he goes up on deck and begins a circuit. The ocean is sullen dark and furrowed by long combers spoiling for a fight. He smells the rich aroma of cigar smoke and finds Tregowan off duty and staring at the lights of a passing ship on the Western horizon. “She’s the Fairchild,” he says. “She’s going home.”
Brandt watches the ship already hull down and about to dip below the horizon. In just seconds she’s gone and he feels a new isolation, that of the common exile. For there is no home for him. There never will be. He had heard that Hitler had never had a home. Berchtesgarten, as it turned out, was only a gross perversion of one. Like his wandering Führer, Brandt can only play at having a home.
He takes Tregowan’s cigarette and both men look seaward. There’s a change in the light. Crepuscular rays stream through brazen clouds that darken by the minute.
“There’s a storm coming,” says Tregowan, “You can feel it in the humidity. Look! Sheet lightning over the Australian shoreline.”
The swells are angrier now. Occasionally they break against the hull of the Syrenia but most surge on towards an endless coast of desolate beaches.
He hears a hymn. They must be having a late evensong and he remembers that on Sundays the A Deck saloon is now a chapel. The believers, still in their formal evening wear are singing Nearer My God to Thee. Brandt immediately thinks of his parents. They had christened him Ernst and made some sort of baptismal vow on his behalf.
“Listen to that singing,” says Tregowan. “I think we should be in there with them.”
“Why is that?”
“Because those people are beyond the dominion of time.”
“How can that that be?”
“They know that everything can be redeemed.” Tregowan points out to sea. “A religious faith is like the ocean,” he says. “It is the repository of our best and worst intentions. Even the foulest river finds its redemption in the sea. As the Chinese say: The sea is king. All rivers run down to it – the sea embraces them. It absolves them all.”
He shambles off but before he has gone a dozen steps, he turns around for a few seconds. “All can be redeemed, brother,” he says.
Brand wishes Tregowan had stayed longer. The ship is rolling more than usual and pitching deeply in the dark wash. Overhead the clouds are dark and bristling . Lightning breaks over the sea, then the crack of thunder. When the storm breaks, it is like the Final Judgement. A wild deluge lashes his head and cheeks and drenches his tuxedo. It lambastes the deck in rioting rain drops which dance around his feet and flood his shoes.
Remaining like a stoic in the teeming rain, it occurs to Brandt what a vulnerable thing is a ship – even a steel liner like the Syrenia. Tregowan once told him that it needs to be constantly painted. The chalk white hull is especially subject to the corrosion of the sea but layers of thick paint perpetuate the façade of permanence. Everything about the ship is a work of faith, even the passengers have faith, whether praying at the Sunday service, meeting the loves of their life on the dance floor or promenading the decks of their little vessel which is steaming over a chasm seventy five thousand fathoms deep.
Brandt still doesn’t move. He has travelled half way around the globe yet the greater voyage has been through the ocean of his own consciousness, plumbing unbearable depths and finding only deeper levels of futility and darkness.
The sun pierces the harbour fret and dazzles his senses. Brandt casts his eyes down to where the propeller of the Syrenia is churning up yellow silt. The water roils like frothing yeast.
He is queuing with the other non-British immigrants at the lower gangway on to Woolloomolloo Docks. He sees Michaela Haas escorted by the Danish photographer. As Brandt catches her eye and nods an awkward farewell, she turns away. His spirit curls like a leaf on a severed branch.
“Jerry!” Squirming through the melee of disembarking passengers Alan Gilbert rushes up to him, his eyes full of anxiety.
Brandt looks around him for the other orphans but the boy is alone. “Hello, Alan. Glad you came down to say goodbye – but you’d better be getting back. They’ll be looking for you.”
“I need your address. Please print it.” The boy thrusts a piece of cardboard at him and a blunt pencil.
“I don’t know it yet, Alan – but I suppose you might reach me at..” In his passport is his letter of appointment. He prints in large letters: The Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation – Cooma, NSW. “That should find me, “ he says “Remember I’m called Otto – no more Jerry eh? So where will you be?”
“I don’t know, Jerry, I mean Otto. The Brothers have been telling us about some place called St Edmund’s Mission – it’s in New South Wales too but one of the Brothers says it’s nowhere near Bondi Beach.”
Brandt takes back the pencil and writes St Edmund’s Mission down on the other side of his letter. He shakes the boy’s hand. “Goodbye, Alan Gilbert,” Perhaps we shall meet up again.”
“You’re a good bloke, Jer..Otto,” he says and rushes off. If Brandt is to retain just one positive memory of his arrival in Sydney, it will be the preposterously misguided comment made by a young English boy that he was a “good bloke”.
Brandt closes his eyes and they remain shut until he feels the pressure of someone’s suitcase against his leg. The queue is shuffling forward once more.
A new country. A new city. He hears the whine of trams and catches the smells of motor engines, food frying, and stinking drains. He descends the gangway to a paved jetty and the stability of bricks and concrete.
Brandt is not long in Sydney. After passing through Customs and Immigration without hindrance, he boards a green bus waiting to take him and the other Snowy recruits to Central Station for the train to Cooma.
He had never fraternised with any of them on the voyage. He doesn’t know a single name.
“We are all New Australians. This is an honourable title which is not to be abused. The nonsense of Europe has no business here.”
Senior Engineer Walter Hartwig speaking to Polish and German workers on the Snowy Mountains Scheme in 1949.
Island Bend Migrant Workers’ Camp. Snowy Mountains Authority.
Two icy winters and a blistering Summer in between have hardened Brandt’s features giving him the bronzed photogenic look so appealing to the overseas film crews making documentaries on the Snowy Scheme. He avoids them. The last thing he needs is for someone in a Munich cinema to note that the heroic engineer blasting a tunnel through a granite mountain in Australia bears a remarkable likeness to the late SS Brigadeführer, Ernst Frick.
Like the other migrant workers he benefits from free food and accommodation at the Island Bend Camp. This means living in close proximity with Poles. Violence is rare but animosities are still raw. To retain his anonymity he keeps himself to himself and rarely takes the Authority’s green bus into Cooma with its bars, prostitutes and unfettered gambling.
Instead, Brandt works every overtime shift he can get as though he alone will force the Snowy River through the vertebrae of this ancient southland and rotate the great turbines to spin electricity for Sydney and Melbourne and later let the waters flow gently westward to turn the dry plains of the interior into orchards.
Brandt is taking more physical risks in this peaceful country than he did throughout the entire Second World War. He and the team he now leads are not deterred by the crates of gelignite precariously stacked next to the arc welder deep in sludge, or by the rock falls, the cave-ins and avalanches. Without complaint they take into their lungs the acrid vapours of newly- poured concrete and wet steel. Their ears are numb with the whine of diamond drills, the groaning of cranes, the rumble of heavy winches and the exploding onrushes of air thundering towards them through the tunnel like steam locomotives.
Some of the other engineers accuse Brandt of having a death-wish. They have no idea how close they are to the truth. No man, other than a prospective suicide, could be as careless about his life, although it must be said that although he risks personal oblivion a dozen times a week, he is scrupulous not to expose his men to the risks he takes himself. Brandt is the only one who stays behind at the rock face to set the final charges before sprinting for cover just seconds before the blast.
He is told that the bosses call him a ‘Maverick’ but when his team earns more bonuses than all the rest in the race to excavate the tunnels these same bosses are compelled to recognise his leadership, raw courage and attention to detail. His promotion to Engineer Level 2 is popular among the men. He is given a fifty percent increase in his salary and his own cabin at Island Bend.
The presence of female employees, especially at meal times, is not the hazard they would be in most other working environments. This is mainly because there are so few of them. However the women know his name and single him out. He overhears a young waitress in the canteen say to one of the new nurses: “Otto is wonderfully handsome, just like a film star but he always looks sad and keeps to himself. None of us scan cheer him up. I sometimes wonder what he’s got against women. ”
His new cabin gives him privacy but it cannot free him from his nightly dread that the spectre at the porthole will appear at the window. It is little wonder that he lives only for his work, volunteering for every hour of overtime that comes his way. He never bothers to look at his finances and is unaware of the burgeoning funds in his Commonwealth Bank account until the manager, Tom Henty, writes to him with an offer to transfer a thousand pounds to an investment account. Even after agreeing to do this, it astounds him that he still has another four thousand left over.
Every Spring in Cooma the Snowy Mountains Authority holds its annual vehicle “change-over” when the old work vehicles are auctioned off . Brandt meanders through the rows of cars, jeeps and lorries running his practised eye over engines, tyres, manifolds and bodywork. Eventually he successfully bids for a short-based Land Rover, a sturdy little ute with its spare wheel bolted onto the front bonnet. The vehicle has a canvas hood and just enough room for the driver and two passengers at the front.
As he drives it into Island Bend the men give him a cheer. An hour later the site supervisor comes around to his cabin and orders him to take twenty four hours compulsory leave. “For your own good, Otto,” he says. “Now you’ve got a bonzer little ute to drive around in, there’s no excuse for you. So bugger off, mate, and see the bush. The Kosciusko State Park is worth a decko.”
Brandt enjoys driving in this part of the world. The empty road winds between granite boulders which rise from the plateau into a stainless breadth of sky. At one point gleams of bright blue mark a line of narrow lakes. He drives with the hood down, letting the iced wind toss his hair and smart his cheek. Sunlight off the snow makes him squint and he slows down.
He parks by a sparkling creek. Snowdrifts overlap its banks and curtains of needle thin icicles are weeping with the Spring thaw. Spider webs listing with their burden of frost are like the shrouds of glass galleons. Brandt climbs out of the ute and compulsively opens a fresh packet of Capstan Blue. He finds Australian cigarettes superior to the European varieties yet he doesn’t light up. There is a purity in these high places. The air is too sweet for tobacco.
The Führer would have approved. It was well known that Hitler loathed smoking and Brandt is tempted to screw up the packet. He doesn’t. It is only a momentary whim. As he slips it back into his pocket, he is struck by his lingering obeisance. Was it only twenty years ago when he first glimpsed and heard Hitler far away on a Nuremburg podium, a strident gesticulating figure reminding him of an angry hornet trapped in a jar.
But by then Brandt had already taken the SS Oath, abused his intellect and chosen to serve what? No, not a normal man, definitely not a normal man. Even after the Führer ruled most of Europe, his closest aides could never converse with him as one human to another. Hitler was just a void; in reality there was no one there; he was just a mouth echoing their own hatred.
No, Brandt may well be reduced to a living desolation but he will never again hearken to that mouth. As soon as Hitler comes to mind, he must remember the Insect.
He gets back into the Land Rover and starts the engine. The road skirts the mountains with their bright flanks of snow and descends into tangles of snow gums, which give way to a dappled bushland of lofty iron barks and native pines. There is no gothic darkness in these Australian forests. Here the slender leaves of the gums hang vertically and let in the light and the warmer air is redolent with eucalyptus and soft resin.
Just beyond a bend in the road, he is waved down by a ranger who, despite the official badge on his slouch hat, looks like a boy. An apprehensive Brandt brings the ute to a halt.
At close quarters the ranger now seems a little less like a boy. He wears a long Dri-Za-Bone coat over a slim grey jacket , white shirt and brown tie. His boots have an ox-blood shine.
“Sorry about this, mate,” he says. “Could you spare us a moment?”
Brandt pulls the Land Rover over to one side and gets out.
“You see,” says the ranger. “My fiancée, that’s Jill, well we’ve just got the Methodist minister up from Tumut to marry us in the National Park but now he tells us he needs an extra witness. I wonder if you could oblige us. I’m Bob McColl.’
‘Otto Brandt.” They shake hands.“ It would be a pleasure, Bob.” Brandt disguises the relief in his voice at being stopped by a uniformed man on a remote mountain road just to witness a wedding!
“You beauty,” says the young bridegroom. “We’re just up the track there.” He looks at Brandt’s Land Rover. “ Start her up and I’ll show you where to go.” He leaps onto the bonnet, perches on the spare wheel and points to an opening through the trees.
Brandt starts the engine and the ranger points with his arm to guide him along a rough track to a government bungalow with the blue Australian flag straining in the wind against a stark white pole. The dwelling is set in a wide fire-break clearing where three grey wallabies are cropping the fresh grass under a water sprinkler.
Still following the ranger’s directions, Brandt parks the ute at the side of the house and gets out. Here at the lower altitude the air is almost balmy. A white sheet partly disguises the trestle table on the veranda. Brandt notes the plain government cutlery and a small cake with white icing. A trap designed for electrocuting bugs and mosquitoes is housed in blue glass and suspended from the veranda ceiling like a miniature chandelier.
On the close cropped lawn in front of the house there is a tiny altar table with a free standing silver cross. Two Wedding Certificates, a silver ink well, a blotter and two pens with new J nibs have been neatly set out. The certificates are held down from the wind by a leather bound Register of Weddings.
By the rock garden two oiled plough discs rest on flat stones to make a barbecue and nearby, resting on a stump is an ice bucket with the necks of four bottles of sparkling wine poking up like the funnels of the Titanic.
Another uniformed ranger has run out an extension cord from the veranda and is attaching it to a gramophone. ‘That’s Dave Rushworth,’ says Bob, “my best man – and my boss.” Dave turns out to be their only guest. He is a tanned fit-looking man in his forties.
Brandt hears someone breaking up branches for firewood and turns to see an elderly cleric wearing a dog’s collar and a shabby grey suit. He comes over slapping the bark dust from his trousers. “You’re going to be our witness?” he asks.
“Yes, I have that honour,” says Brandt. The minister fixes him with a long stare and Brandt has to restrain himself from looking away.
“You must be on the Snowy Scheme,” he says slowly.
“I’m a blasting engineer.”
“That’d be right. I could tell straight away you’d be on the Scheme. There’s something about you blokes. You walk like heroes and you’re all a zac short of a quid.”
Brandt looks at him with incomprehension. “Short of a quid?” he says. One thing you could not say about the Snowy men was that they lacked spare cash.
‘By that I mean you’re all off yer rocker,” explains the minister. “You take maniacal risks.” And I should know. I’ve buried too many of your cobbers over the past couple of years. But good on you, mate. I suppose the human ceiling is raised a bit higher for men like you. I dips my lid to you. You’re doing bloody great work for Australia. You’ve found something bigger to do in the world beyond the petty concerns of most people’s lives.”
The minister goes off to get more wood. Feeling redundant, Brandt follows after him and starts cracking branches over his knees.
The service is short. “Look into each other’s eyes when you say your vows,” says the minister. “Come on, Bob – you too, Jill, Don’t look at me, just repeat to each other what I say.”
Brandt swallows and closes his eyes. An inner anguish is seizing him; a feeling of vertigo. He has a vision of the porthole and the ghastly bride clinging to the hull and staring all the while at him.
And then there’s the subject of vows. His marriage to Brigitte brings its usual pain but it reminds him of another vow he made on a Spring Day in 1938 in the Felderhermhalle.
I vow to you, Adolf Hitler, as Führer and Chancellor of the German Reich, loyalty and bravery. I vow to you and to the leaders you set for me, absolute allegiance until death. So help me, God.
After the war he learnt that Obengruppenführer Krüger had committed suicide. Was that “absolute allegiance until death”? And if it were, why did he not recommend it for Ernst Frick?
Bob and Jill’s tiny reception is held under the silky oak which overspreads the lawn. Bob turns to Brandt. “What about your future, Otto? I ‘spose you’ll shoot through when you’ve done yer two years.”
“Shoot through?” The term conveys nothing to Brandt, except that it makes him feels slightly uneasy.
“What I mean is you’ll be going back to Germany.”
“I am not sure,” lies Brand. He knows full well that returning to Europe is not an option for him. He crushes a gum leaf in his hand and catches the scent of eucalyptus oil. “I suppose I have an ethical problem. About remaining in Australia, I mean. Germany is in ruins. I think I should return to help rebuild it.” The words are hypocritical but their sentiment is not.
“That’s where you’re wrong mate,” says Dave. “We need you more right here in Australia. Don’t you worry about Germany. She’ll recover. The Yanks will get behind her with their big money. They have to. Germany’s backyard fence is the Iron Curtain. Uncle Sam wants a buffer zone and she’s prepared to pay for it. But over here it’s different. We have to do everything ourselves. There’s only seven million of us in this country and we need as many good white migrants as we can get. There’s the Yellow Peril to our North and most of them are Commos. Too right they are. No, Otto, we need you to stay right here. By the way, do you live in one of the Snowy camps? What sort of quarters have you got?”
“I live at Island Bend. I’m lucky. I’ve been promoted so I’ve my own cabin and ..”.
Dave interrupts. “ No, mate. Not good enough. Get yourself a place of your own. Buy a few thousand acres.”
“You mean here?” The idea never occurred to him.
“Well maybe not in the State Park, you can’t do that. But nearby. Strewth Otto this is one humdinger of a place to live. And farming properties are cheap, very cheap. During the Depression there were a lot of foreclosures around here. A lot of these places haven’t been lived in since the late thirties. It’s a golden opportunity, mate. ”
“It won’t be plain sailing,” says Jill trying not to spill champagne on her wedding dress . “You’ll miss the greenness of Europe – and the old world animals – but not the rabbits.” They laugh. ”But seriously, Otto, you’ll love the wild life. Everyone from overseas tells me how everything over here is so different. You only have to kick over a stone – even the bugs are different!”
“It’s a bonzer new country, mate,” says Bob. “A young country.”
Brandt picks another leaf and folds it carefully between his fingers. “So you’re telling me Australia is a chance for humanity to make a fresh start. Is that how you see it?”
“Exactly, mate. Too right I do. I think…”
Jill interrupts him. “Are you married, Otto?”
“Perhaps not such a good thing over here,” says Bob. “People talk. Get yerself a sheila, Otto. Have kids. Put down some roots.” He reaches across to grasp Jill’s hand.
From the forest there’s a crack - like a pistol shot. Brandt swings around, one hand shaking.
“Only a whip bird,” says Jill. She looks at his startled face and smiles.
“Anyway, as I was saying, Otto,” says Dave. “Get yourself a stake in the land. Be part of us. We’re called the lucky country. It’s the best place in the world to live.”
“But how would you know, Dave? You’ve never been outside Australia?” Jill’s eyes are mischievous.
“Well it just is. What say you, Reverend?”
The minister nods. “Yes, I reckon it’s the best country in the world.”
“I might make a go of it after all,” says Brandt.
“Righto!” says Dave. He shakes Brandt’s hand.
“Thought you might say that,” says the Minister. “Good on you.” Otto. He shakes his hand and so does Bob.
“Make sure you become an Australian citizen,” says the minister.
Brandt looks across to the east where a wash of late afternoon sun has given the mountains an orange glow.
Yes, it is a good country, he thinks to himself. And owning a farm around here a man could hide from the world for the rest of his life. Alone, that is. Having a wife is out of the question.
He hears a crackle and blue sparks as something is electrocuted in the bug trap.
` Brandt follows the road climbing back to the Alpine Zone. As the solemn shadowy twilight descends into night the headlights pick out flashes of snowdrifts. The brittle arc of the sickle moon throws up grotesques of lone mountain trees, their tops brushed to flatness by centuries of high winds.
He halts the vehicle on a ridge. Despite the cold he gets out and looks up at the Southern Cross poised low over Mount Kosciusko. Overhead the far galaxies are making their timeless circuit. He drops his gaze across the valley to another ridge where a string of yellow light bulbs mark the perimeter of Island Bend Camp.
Camp! The word turns his stomach. For Brandt the sight of Island Bend evokes the horror of one particular afternoon in 1943 when a newly promoted, Ernst Frick had been overlooking another camp.
How easily colour fades from the past. More and more the memories smudge into black white and grey like newsreels. He is at a concentration camp in Southern Poland, stationed here for a week to take part in one of Himmler’s “training” courses”.
Kommandant Huber’s villa has a broad balcony separated from the noisy reception room by high French windows. Standing, deep in thought Frick is startled when Huber himself taps his shoulder. He spins around, clicks his heels, springs to attention and salutes. Huber carries a glass of Schnapps which is shaking in his pale hand. His face is orange and puffy like an oversized clementine. Huber is not alone; a paunchy colonel has followed him onto the balcony.
“Ernst, I want you to meet SS Standartenführer Köhler.”
Köhler returns a tired salute, then addresses the Kommandant. “A pretty villa you have, Huber. I see the balcony is new.”
“Yes, Ilse designed it to give us a view of the garden .. and, oh yes, to provide an observation deck for me to overlook the camp.”
“And what of you, Sturmbannführer Frick? Are you on leave?” The man knows full well that he’d be on leave if he hadn’t been ordered to attend this damned Course.
“Yes, Herr Standartenführer.”
“Is not your beautiful wife with you today?”
“No, sir but I have stolen Brigitte away from Berlin for a week”. He doesn’t like Köhler talking about his wife. “She has never been to Poland. We have a room in the Chopin Hotel in Lvov.” Frick changes the subject. “Will you be doing the Course yourself, Herr Standartenführer?”
“Heavens no, Frick. I’m actually running it!” Köhler laughs. So does Huber but in his case it sounds sounds forced. When Köhler stops laughing, Huber stops too and nearly chokes himself. He gulps down some more Schnapps which sets off a coughing fit. This brings Ilse Huber hurrying out dragging their little daughter by the hand.
Köhler takes Ilse’s arm. “Don’t you worry about your husband, my dear. He’ll survive us all. And whom do we have here?” He stoops and lifts up the child. “What is your name, Fräulein?”
From her scowl it is obvious that she detests being suspended in the air by this fat old man who reeks of cigar smoke and Polish vodka. Perhaps Köhler realises this too or it might have been the child was becoming too heavy for him because he lowers her down again and then of all things he starts to interrogate her.
“How old are you, Karina?”
“She’s three, nearly four, Standartenführer,” says Frau Huber.
“Please allow the child to speak for herself. I asked you how old you are, Fräulein.”
“You have a beautiful house, Karina, Do you like your house?”
“You have a beautiful garden to play in. Do you like playing in the garden?”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Because we have the Jews here.”
Köhler shoots an amused glance at the parents, then he turns to the child again. “I don’t understand, Karina. Why do you have Jews in your garden?”
“They have to work.”
Köhler looked out over the garden to where four men in striped overalls are digging out spring weeds. Suddenly brightening up, Karina rushes over to the railing and waves to the prisoners. Two of them give single waves back then go back to working furiously on the weeds.
“Mummy shoots them,” says Karina swinging around to look for her mother, but Frau Huber has disappeared inside..
Brandt hears the Island Bend generator start up and he draws heavily on his cigarette. The cabin lights begin to glow in the camp but they are not bright enough to diminish the light of Venus over the western crags or the reddish moon to the south. He closes his eyes tightly but fails to block out the images of what happened next at the Hubers’ villa.
Several more of the SS drift out onto the balcony. There is not a single rank below Sturmscharführer. What for God’s sake is the High Command thinking of? Are they all mad? Why, when the Third Reich is fighting for its very existence, have these senior officers been ordered to attend a training course on incinerating dead bodies?
“Mummy!” Karina squirms through the coppice of crisply ironed trousers and black polished boots to the smirking Ilse who’s arrived on the balcony cradling a small Flobert parlour rifle.
“Time for the shooting gallery,” mutters Huber, as Ilse kneels down and steadies the rifle barrel on the railing. She closes one eye. All eyes turn to the garden below.
One of the Jews is an elderly man raking weeds along the path.
The Jew buckles over.
Frick can hardly believe it. Dear God help us. In front of the child! He stares down and sees that the old man’s neck is a gaping ruin.
“Mummy! The other Jews are running away! The dreadful girl is leaping up and down in exasperation.
A second Jew falls over. Grasping his upper leg he attempts to crawl towards the open tool shed. Another Jew, just a lad, runs across to help him.
He too falls down clutching his abdomen and vomiting blood.
The fourth Jew rushes towards the shed.
The bullet splits a thigh bone and he crashes down. All four Jews are now squirming in agony on the ground.
Frick grinds his teeth. He stares at his feet and holds his breath to avoid being sick.
“Good shooting, Mummy!” screams Karina, clapping her cherubic hands. A few of the guests raggedly join in until they are stunned silent by four loud cracks from a Lüger. The gardeners lay still. Huber clips the pistol back into its holster, then grabs the railing with clenched hands. His cheeks are rigid and greyish-yellow.
Standartenführer Köhler raises his glass. “Your Good Health, Kommandant,” he says in a loud but controlled voice.
“Good Health, Herr Kommandant,” rumbles the sycophantic echo.
“Good shooting, Daddy,” says Karina running to give her father a hug.
Frick escapes inside and goes over to the drinks table where an SS Hauptmann pours him another schnapps. He loathes Frau Huber. He loathes her cow-like eyes which never sit well with her perpetual smirk. But worse, so much worse, she has annihilated the innocence of her own small daughter and continues to revel in doing so.
Yes, he detests Frau Huber with a fury. How can he, an officer of the Third Reich who has taken an oath to eliminate its enemies have anything in common with a fiend like Ilse Huber, a warped civilian who kills prisoners for no other reason than she enjoys it.
“Ernst?” Huber has snared him like a rabbit. The last thing he needs at the moment is a chummy exchange with her husband. Under the artificial light Huber’s cheeks have turned a bilious olive green .“God, Ernst. What have we been doing? That is my wife out there. And our child!” Huber flinches at another ‘twou’ followed by two more. “Don’t you know what she’s doing now? She’s shooting prisoners in the camp itself.”
‘Then why the hell don’t you stop her?’ thinks Frick. ‘ You’re the Kommandant. Are you so totally blind to your own cowardice?’ But of course Frick knows he is also a coward for not saying it aloud.
“What is the range of that weapon, Herr Kommandant?”
Forty metres? A hundred? Not always enough to kill but then she wounds them, so of course one of ours has to go and finish them off. That’s the woman I married, Ernst. What’s happening to us?” There was a moment of calm, then he asked: And you, Ernst. You have a daughter too. How old is she?”
“Cordula is four.”
Huber stares out to the balcony in horror. “Get out of all this, Ernst. Transfer to some Wehrmacht unit. They’re so desperate for more troops in Russia they’ll let you go now. Learn to sleep again.”
“I sleep very well, Herr Kommandant.”
“Do you? Really? I don’t believe you, Ernst. You’re not one of them. In our game only automatons like Eichmann can do what we do and still sleep at nights. I’m going to Russia.”
Frick glances at Huber’s flaccid paunch and hears the tremor in his voice. “With great respect, Herr Kommandant, you won’t last the first month of the Russian Winter.”
Huber smiles revealing rows of tobacco stained teeth. “Do you know something, Frick? I don’t really want to. I’m morally ruined. I’m damned. History will remember me for allowing Jewish babies to be chucked into the air as target practice for the Hitler Youth.”
Huber gulps his schnapps like a man dying of thirst. “You don’t know half of it,” he went on. “Back in February we had a Gestapo Commissar in the camp who sliced a ten year old boy in half. One stroke with an axe! Can you guess why he did it? For a bet, Ernst! He did it for a bet! Then afterwards he blames the Führer. He said our Führer once remarked that because nature is cruel, we can be cruel too.
“ Of course I don’t know if he said it or not,” continues Huber, “ but it’s all over for me. I’m a lost cause but there might still be a chance for you. Join me and let’s be real soldiers.”
He shakes his head. “Something else you should know, Ernst. The madness deepens. This so-called ‘Course’ we are on is supposed to teach us how to dispose of corpses by the hundred and yet we have an industrial plant at Auschwitz-Birkenau already processing five thousand a day! I’ve seen it in operation, Ernst. They extract eighty kilograms of gold teeth in a week. All from Jews. They stick hooks into their mouths to rip them out. Can you imagine how heavy the wooden crates are? This week they’re going to show us a film on how to make phosphate fertilizer from human ashes. Think about it, Ernst. The precious human form revered by Leonardo and Michelangelo converted into road ash and fertiliser! It’s all madness, Ernst. Madness! Dear blessed God. We first rob them of their humanity then what we do to them afterwards becomes an assembly line rolling with the ease of an elegant nightmare.”
On the second evening of the course he returns to the Chopin Hotel to find Brigitte’s suitcase and hat boxes packed by the door. His wife is sitting on the bed, her arms around a weeping Cordula.
“What is going on?”
“Poland is a very big colony,” said Brigitte slowly. “And there are so very few German colonists. We Germans are trying so hard to be like the English in India that we form evil little clubs where no one has a private life.”
His voice had trembled with apprehension. “Brigitte, what is it …?”
“Be silent!” As she raises her voice, their child jumps with alarm but Brigitte holds her closer. “Today in one of our ‘clubs, ’ I met your Ilsa Huber.”
“My Ilsa Huber? Frau Huber? That woman is ..”
“Will you not listen to me? What a fool I was to actually believe that my husband was an honourable army officer. I must be the only SS wife who never guessed the truth.” She fumbles with a cigarette. He offers to light it for her but she swings away from him and with trembling fingers strikes a match herself.
She inhales rapidly and when she speaks again her voice is low, the words sound flat. “Ilsa Huber told me what men like you are really doing to the Jewish men, women and children and their old people. Hans Frank tells us they are just being resettled. Resettled? Oh yes, Frau Huber got so much pleasure from telling me what’s really happening. She went into all the details.” Brigitte’s voice falters and he moves towards her and Cordula.
“Don’t you dare touch either of us. Do you hear me? You are the monster in every child’s worst dream. You even stink of death. It sticks to you like paint. You will never scrape it off. And what are they teaching on your course. Isn’t it all about ashes? Ashes! For Christ sake. Ashes! How appropriate in your case, when everything in your life, everything you touch, Ernst Frick, turns to ashes!”
Like a fool he still tries to approach them.
Keep away. Don’t you understand? We don’t want to see you ever again.” At this Cordula covers her face with her hands and cries.
Now there is a rap on the door. “Enter,” says Brigitte, her voice like steel. The porter comes over to grab the luggage and she steps back to let him leave the room.
“Monster!” hisses Brigitte as she grasps Cordula’s hand and drags the sobbing child out of his life forever.
Her words hang in the air like the dying chimes of a single bell. “Everything you touch, Ernst Frick, turns to ashes.”
The resonance is there still. For a moment he finds himself disoriented between past and present but now he finds himself hunched over the steering wheel of a British Land Rover, his cheeks wet and his eyes smarting. At last he straightens up and turns the ignition.
He drives a few hundred yards then abandons the vehicle on the shoulder of the road and tramps off in the snow towards a broken knoll with frost-split boulders and stunted trees. His back is bowed as though it can no longer bear the burden of his body, The wind moans about him like an unhallowed spirit and exacerbates the blinding torment of remorse without redemption.
To what end has he wasted the gift of his youth? To an insanity worse than any tyranny in history. Even the Russian Communists have their grand capital works, their railways, dams, bridges and altruistic ideals – perverted yes to ideology but just still able to harness the yearnings of the good. What had the Nazis left the world? Desecration. Where was their art, their medicine, their architecture? The “industrial complex” of Treblinka epitomised it all – it was nothing but a factory of death designed to extract the chemical remains of nine hundred thousand bodies.
At the top of the ridge the wind howls like an angry dog. Rising between two boulders the size of whales, an ancient snow gum has trained its growth to the lee of the freezing southerly winds. Between the granite and the tree there is just enough space for him to find a shelter. Self loathing pounds his brain like ocean waves on a beach. Across the valley the pendulous lights of Island Bend shed auras of dirty yellow over the cabins and tents.
But here among the rocks is a purer world where the air is crisp and without the slightest hint of anything not native to the high country. In its solitude Brandt bellows his anguish, and guilt, beating his head on the tree trunk, beating it so hard and so repeatedly that the hot blood seeps through his hair and runs down into his eyes until, nearly senseless, he collapses in the snow.
How long has he been lying here ? The wind has eased, he can hear the putt putt of the camp generator which brings him back to the present. Frantically he gathers up the soft wet snow and smothers his face in it. It reminds him of the first time when he did this by a sawpit in Poland. The anguish engulfs him twice over.
As soon Brandt returns to Island Bend, he takes a shower to cleanse the abrasions on his head, then changes his clothes and goes across to the mess hall. A kind of normalcy returns and as always he is obsessed with news from Europe. On the German language pages of the bulletin board there is a brief story about a double suicide near Soviet Occupied Weimar.
This morning the bodies of Weimar residents Helmut and Christa Frick were discovered hanging in the Thuringian Forest. It is believed that Herr and Frau Frick had been suffering from depression since 1946 after their son’s posthumous indictment for crimes against humanity.
So his parents are dead. He cannot grieve for them; he is already too emotionally drained. Before the war he remembered when their church had just affirmed its allegiance to the National Socialist German Christian League. They were both tense, caught like terrified fish in a glass tank neither moving forwards nor backwards merely quivering their gills. But had they put up the slightest resistance to the assault on their Christian faith? Two kingdoms reigned in Germany: the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Hitler. However unintentionally, his parents had sided with the Kingdom of Hitler. In the narthex of their church was one of Himmler’s favourite dictums. Brandt remembered that it was carved in yellow beech wood and heavy Gothic script. It read:
‘The swastika in our breasts, the cross in our hearts.’
Like all adult residents of Weimar his parents would have been forced by the Americans to witness Buchenwald after its liberation. The mayor and his wife hanged themselves and now, seven years later, his parents have followed their example.
The newspaper had referred to them as simply Helmut and Christa Frick. How strange the Christian names sound when they are chained together like that. Despite a sepia wedding photograph on a shelf above the hearth, he had never once pictured them as a couple.
He feels an immediate yearning to find an umbilical connection to innocence, to flee backwards to childhood, to the beech woods and the running brooks and to his story books, the fairy-tales his mother used to read to him. No perhaps not the books. Definitely not the books. Their stories always include a forest with a crooked house in it, an evil crooked house. God protect all children from the horrors that lurk in every fairy tale. There is always horror. If there is no horror, how can it be a fairy tale?
On his free Saturday morning Brandt tries not to think of his parents and goes out to his Land Rover housed in one of the government sheds. Maintaining the vehicle is a diversion which can suspend the relentless passage of time. If he were another Snowy man he might occupy himself with gambling or visiting the prostitutes up from Sydney or adding his pennyworth to the pooled ignorance of the pub.
The Land Rover has becomes his one hobby. Today he rotates the wheels before setting off for Cooma to buy some new elastic-sided boots, a wide leather belt and some imported American blue jeans. He parks outside the nineteenth century gaol and walks down to Sharp Street.
He returns with his purchases which include a wrapped ham salad roll. As he fumbles for his keys, he gazes up at the prison and sees the barred windows above the high granite wall. The sight makes him feel light-headed and he reaches out to a lamp post for support. Someone touches his shoulder. “Are you all right, mate?”
Brandt opens his eyes on the blue uniform of a prison warder. “I celebrated a bit last night. Overdid it.”
“Okey, doke, mate. Take care of yourself. Too roo.”
The warder goes on duty through a side gate.
Brandt slumps into the driver’s seat of the Land Rover. For a few minutes he watches the residents of Cooma going about their lives. Women form the majority, with string bags full of newspaper-wrapped parcels from the butchers and delicatessens, bright orbs of fruit bulging out as if intent on escaping and rolling down the road to Cooma Creek and on to a fruit nirvana. There are so many children, the youngest peering out from their strollers, the toddlers on tricycles or tin scooters. ‘The Post-War Baby Boom’ is on the lips of every politician, manufacturer and school head. There is music in the walk of most adults and those in the teen years. He can identify their moods by the swing of their arms and the thrust of their chins and whether their mouths lift or droop at the corners.
His mind turns to the ‘waifs’ from the Syrenia and in particular, Alan Gilbert. How is Australia treating a boy like him? He imagines Alan somewhere out in the back of beyond stuck in some religious institution. Alan is bright. Will they be giving the boy a decent education? But Alan’s fate should not concern him. He of all men, should not be occupying his mind with an innocent like Alan Gilbert.
He drives out of Cooma, parks under a pepper tree on the Kosciusko Road, and sits on a stump in the shade to eat his salad roll. This is a mistake. Mosquitoes sting his ankles and the stump is infested with angry red ants.
Five dark birds with strong beaks are perched on a single branch above him in the pepper tree. Kra-ro- lon! sings one. Kra-ro-lon ! Kra-ro-lon! The others are joining in, a dissonant clanging like empty glass bottles being carted along a pot-holed road. He tosses his salad roll into the grass and the birds swoop down on it and tear at each other, shrieking like harpies.