Friday, 3 November 2017

Wild Geese over Radcliffe

Location: Chapeltown Road, Radcliffe
‘I saw some geese today,’ says Joe. ‘Flying across over the hills there. Beautiful they were. They fly in a V, you know.’

It’s worked then, giving Joe the big room with the en suite and making his armchair face the window. From his chair he can see the Pennines in the distance, with the wind turbines, and a vast expanse of sky. And if he stands up – he can stand for a short while – he can see the comings and goings on the street.

We’ve been here just over six weeks. Joe can get around the house quite well now. The first two weeks were great. He must have been tired out from the respite week in the care home while we moved. Perhaps his nights were disturbed there. The journey up here from Southampton took it out of him a bit as well. So, he went to bed just before eight and slept through until just after eight the next morning. It was like having a baby in the house all over again.

Recent weeks have been a bit more fraught. I’m a light sleeper and his en suite backs on to our bedroom. Plus he’s been taking something to counteract the constipation the iron tablets he’s on cause. It always seems to work in the middle of the night. Fortunately, I don’t hear the details, but I do hear the clop shuffle of a man who walks with a stick (stroke three years ago) and I can’t settle again until I hear the toilet flush and evidence that he has safely returned to bed.

Then one evening something really peculiar happens. Mark and I are just getting ready for bed. We’re just about to put our lights off and we hear Joe make his way down the stairs. Clop shuffle. Clop shuffle. Click, click as the lights go on one by one.

‘You’d better go and see what he’s up to,’ I whisper to Mark. I don’t know why I whisper. Joe can’t hear a thing. We have to write everything down for him.

Joe makes his way through our Tudor-style house – one room leads to another. He goes down the stairs, across the hall, into the lounge, through the dining area and then the kitchen and finally into the utility room. He rattles the back door. Then he shakes his head.

He turns, and shuffle clops his way back – through the kitchen, the dining area, the lounge, the hallway and up the stairs. The landing light snaps off.

‘What was he doing?’ I ask Mark.

‘No idea,’ he replies. ‘Just staring.’

The next morning Joe and Mark are down for breakfast before me. Joe is mashing his habitual Weetabix into its usual pulp. The walking stick again rests over a drawer handle, threatening to be forgotten.

‘He said he thought he heard burglars,’ says Mark.

‘But he doesn’t hear anything,’ I say.

Joe starts making a cup of tea. Naturally, he has no idea we are talking about him.
The cat bounds in suddenly, moaning and squawking about something. The there’s another noise. At first I don’t recognise it but then I’d swear I can hear voices. Human voices. Joe’s probably left his television on again. But they seem to be getting louder and clearer. Someone coming along the street, then?

The noise gets much louder. The cat goes berserk.

Joe suddenly looks up.

Then we see them. The flock of beautiful wild geese, flying in a V formation made up of three other V formations, cutting a pattern into the plain blue sky, making it all look effortless. They’re chattering away.

‘There they go,’ said Joe. ‘That must have been what I heard last night.’
He shuffles towards the lounge.

‘Do they fly at night?’ I ask, guessing that they probably don’t and knowing that I didn’t hear them anyway.

‘What did you say?’ asks Joe, handing me the pad and the pen. ‘You know I can’t hear a bloody thing.’


Monday, 23 October 2017

The House on Schellberg Street The Smith Family 29 January 1939

“Well, at least it meant that they didn’t hold you up for too long at customs,” said Uncle Ernst, looking with slight disgust at the stained coat. “I don’t know what that woman was thinking of, letting you go off on your own.”
“She was really kind, actually, said Renate.
Uncle Ernst sighed. “Yes, indeed. And the poor young lady has had to go back to that awful regime. You’re right. We should be grateful. We’ll get you to the Smith family as quickly as we can. They’ll soon get you sorted out and cleaned up.”
“What are they like, the Smiths?” asked Renate.
“Very kind,” replied Uncle Ernst. “They have a son John, who is in the sixth form at grammar school and an older daughter who is a nurse and works away from home.”
“So... you think it will be all right?” asked Renate.
“Of course it will,” replied Uncle Ernst. “Now, let’s go and find a taxi.” He marched her towards the taxi rank.
Uncle Ernst did not offer to carry anything so she had to struggle with her case all by herself.
There was something about the way that Uncle Ernst stood that made the other people waiting for taxis get out of his way, and they were able to pile into the first one that arrived.
 Renate thought she heard him say something like Eely. A place named after a sea creature, then. She wondered how far that was going to be.    
Renate noticed the big red busses and square black taxis that she’d always been told were everywhere in London. They were just as she had imagined. They didn’t see Big Ben though, nor Nelson’s Column, and before long all she could see was row upon row of houses. They weren’t like the ones at home. They all looked the same and they seemed to be built of red or black bricks, with their chimneypots lined up like soldiers on parade. Most of them didn’t have gardens or only very tiny ones. 
 “I’ll see you settled in with the Smiths,” said Uncle Ernst. “I won’t stay long though. I want to get back to my hotel as your uncle Rudi and I have a meeting there early this evening.”  
Why were her uncles living in a hotel? Were they going to go back to Germany and leave her here?
“Aren’t you going to live in England too?” she asked. Was she really going to be all alone in this strange country?
Uncle Ernst turned and smiled at her. “I shall stay in England until you mother is safely here and settled in,” he said. “Then I intend to go to America. I think we can do more from there to stop this utter nonsense.” He turned once more to the driver and said something else she didn’t understand. “Not long now,” he said turning back to her.  

The taxi eventually stopped. The driver mumbled something to Uncle Ernst who took out his wallet and handed some of the strange notes and coins to him. The driver didn’t smile as he unloaded Renate’s case out of the taxi.
“Come on,” said Uncle Ernst as the taxi moved away. He put his arm around her shoulders and propelled her towards the house which looked just like the ones she had seen on the journey. As they moved towards the front door, Renate realized that the house was bigger than it had first looked. It did have a front garden, even though it was quite small and consisted mainly of a tiled path. A light suddenly went on in the porch.
“We’ve been spotted,” said Uncle Ernst. “The Smiths live in the first floor flat. And a nice Polish family live on the ground floor.”
The front door opened and the path flooded with light. Renate could see a small woman with slightly greying hair. She looked a little older than her mother. A faded flowered pinafore covered her skirt. She spoke in an animated whisper to Uncle Ernst.
Renate could not understand a word that was being said. Uncle Ernst answered the woman firmly and before Renate had a chance to try and work out what they were saying, she was shuffled inside and up the stairs. A man and a boy a few years older than her were sitting in the lounge. Renate noticed that they were both very smartly dressed in ties and jackets. They stood up as soon as she and her uncle came into the room and shook hands enthusiastically with Uncle Ernst. Her uncle said something to them and Renate heard her own name.
“Renate,” he said, turning now to her, “this is Mrs Smith and Mr Smith and their son, John. They will make you very welcome in their home. I’m sure you’re going to be very good for them.”
Renate held her hand out to shake theirs then pulled it back again quickly and looked down at the floor. She couldn’t expect them to touch her in that state. Then Mrs Smith seemed to explode and made noises that sounded like a hen clucking. She was bundled out of the room and down a corridor then into another room which she guessed was going to be her bedroom. Mrs Smith, who Renate now noticed had very kind eyes, indicated that she should get undressed. She then started rummaging in her suitcase and took out some clean clothes. She opened a cupboard and took out a thick blanket which she wrapped around Renate and marched her out of that room into the bathroom. She started running a bath. She left the room and came back a few minutes later with a smelly paraffin heater.
After Renate had finished her bath, Mrs Smith helped her to dry her hair. Soon she was dressed in clean clothes. Mrs Smith bundled the dirty ones up and made some gestures with her arms which Renate guessed meant she would wash the clothes.
“Well, you look a bit more respectable,” said Uncle Ernst as she came back into the lounge. “I guess I should make my way back now and see that younger brother of mine has not got up to any mischief.”
“Uncle, don’t go,” said Renate, suddenly panicking. “I can’t speak English.”
“You’ll soon learn,” he said. “And anyway, John speaks a little German. But you’re to use it for emergencies only. It’s really important that you learn to speak English as quickly as possible. ”
John said something to his mother. Renate guessed he was translating into English. Mrs Smith laughed and smiled at Renate. Perhaps Uncle Ernst had been right. The Smiths seemed all right.
Even so, Renate felt really odd as her uncle left the flat. John grinned at her whilst Mrs Smith went downstairs and showed him out. Mr Smith sat there, quietly puffing on his pipe. She heard the front door click shut. Mrs Smith was already talking as she came into the room. Renate couldn’t understand a word. But then she did understand that it must be something about her, because Mrs Smith smiled at her again. Then she pretended to be eating and drinking. Renate guessed she was offering her food. She shook her head. She really wasn’t hungry yet. Her stomach was still a bit sore, and everything was so strange here.
A little later, she did manage to eat and drink something but it tasted really odd. Not long after it got dark, she managed to indicate to Mrs Smith that she wanted to go to bed. Mrs Smith led her along to the big bedroom she’d shown her earlier.    
Renate shivered as she got into her pyjamas, but once she was in bed it was quite cosy and warm, though the bed was funny: it didn’t have a normal featherbed roll. It had sheets and blankets and a puffed up thing which was a bit like a roll but which went over the blankets, and then there was another cover over that that had tufty ridges on it that made a pattern. And the pillows were oblong instead of the normal square. But never mind. It was comfortable in there.
Mrs Smith bustled out of the room again. She left the light on. Renate knew she ought to get up and switch it off. But she really was too sleepy. She was just beginning to have  funny, dream-like thoughts, but she wasn’t really asleep yet and she certainly wasn’t actually  dreaming, when the door opened. Mrs Smith came in carrying a tray. Renate could smell hot chocolate. She sat up in bed. Mrs Smith handed her the mug and a plate on which were two very thin, very brown biscuits.
Mrs Smith sat on the bed while Renate drank the chocolate and ate the biscuits. The chocolate was a little bitterer than she was used to, but it was still very nice and very comforting. She had never tasted anything like the biscuits. They were not all that sweet and tasted very much of wheat. They had a nice texture and just melted in her mouth. This was just right, after that long journey.
When she had finished, Mrs Smith took the plate and cup off her and tucked her into bed. Thank goodness she didn’t make her get up again and go and clean her teeth. Mrs Smith rubbed her cheek gently. She went over to the door, waved once more and switched off the light. She left the door open a little.
Renate snuggled down into the welcoming bed. Nothing mattered any more. She was safe here. Sleep was going to drift over her any minute now and then the whole world would go away. The Smith family would guard her from any harm while she slept. Maybe it would be all right. For the moment at least.     

Nice English family, here Renate. They’re giving you a home. Are you grateful? Do you deserve them? Eh? A nobody like you?  

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Renate 29 January 1939

They made their way into one of the already crowded lounges. People were sitting on top of suitcases, on the floor, or squashed three to a seat on the uncomfortable wooden benches.
“You could go and have a look around the boat if you want,” said Fräulein Gottlieb. “Put your things in your cabin first. But I want you in bed within an hour.”
Renate was sharing a cabin with Adelinde, Christa and Irmgard. Jakob and Erich were sharing with two other boys.  
“I’m tired,” wailed Christa.
“Me too,” said Adelinde. “Shall we go straight to bed, girls?”
Christa nodded. Irmgard didn’t say anything. She placed her hand into Adelinde’s and stuck her thumb in her mouth.
Renate felt wide awake, now though. “I’d like to have a look around,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Give me your things, then,” said Adelinde. “I’ll put them in the cabin.” 
Renate waved to the three other girls and then she set off across the crowded inner deck. She didn’t think she had ever seen so many people crammed into one space. Warm body odour and sea air made for a strange mixture of smells. She had never been on a boat as big as this – should she call it a ship?  This ferry that was going to take her to England. People were still getting on. Would this - ferry - be able to hold them all?
It was hard to breathe in here. A slight breeze drifted from above her head. She noticed a staircase – well it was almost more of a ladder, the steps were so steep and only had air between them - which led to an opening in the roof above her. She made her way up the rungs.
Outside it was cold. The shore looked close. She shivered. It wasn’t just the cold, though. She would not see her own country for a long time and now she was going somewhere she didn’t understand. She still didn’t really understand either why she was going there or what being Jewish meant.  
The boat started to judder. There was a loud creaking and groaning, the sound of chains clanking and shouts from the men working at the side of the harbour. The town began to move backwards away from them. The breeze now became proper wind. Renate could hardly keep her balance. The boat rolled from side to side and then as it turned out of the harbour, it started to go up and down like a seesaw. One moment the line where the sea and the sky met seemed to be up above her head, the next minute she was looking down at it. She couldn’t work out where she was. She began to feel dizzy. Perhaps it would be better if she went and sat down.
She made her way carefully down the steep staircase. The steps kept falling away from her and then rushing up to meet her feet. Once she slipped and banged her hip into the rail at the side.
The warmth flooded over her as she arrived on the lower deck. For just a few seconds it felt good. Then the smell of the closely packed passengers made her feel slightly sick. Yes, she should go to the cabin now. Perhaps if she lay down she would feel better.
She tried to push her way through the crowds. It was even more difficult now, as the boat was now moving up and down and from side to side at the same time. She struggled to keep her balance.
“Watch what you’re doing,” shouted one man angrily as she accidentally trod on his foot.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to mutter as she then almost fell on woman who was trying to feed a baby.
The boat lurched to one side and then rose up in the air, crashing down suddenly, and then juddering for a few seconds before once more springing up. She saw a small door in front of her. She hoped that that was what it looked like. And even if it wasn’t, at least she might be on her own in there so no-one could see what she was about to do. The boat lurched to the other side. She pushed the door open and just made it in time into one of the toilet cubicles. She vomited straight into the pan. Perhaps that would make it better now.
It didn’t. Time and time again, the acid yellow fluid came out of her mouth. Still the boat moved around in every direction. Then it got worse. And finally there was no more yellow fluid to come out of her stomach into her mouth but still her whole body went into spasm and she retched with every movement of the boat. This journey was going to take forever. Twelve hours, Fräulein Gottlieb had said. Twelve hours of this.  The boat rocked. Her stomach retched. Over and over again. She wasn’t alone, she could hear. Then she could smell other people’s vomit. That made her feel even worse. Finally not able to hold herself up straight, she sank to the floor, hardly able to move.  She propped her chin over the side of the toilet basin. Even as the retching continued, she felt her eyelids close.                
She must have fallen asleep. There was a different sort of rocking. Somebody was shaking her.
“Renate! Renate!” she heard a voice cry. “Oh, you poor child. Why didn’t you come and find me?”
Renate looked up to see Fräulein Gottlieb’s bright eyes looking into hers.
“Too sick,” murmured Renate. “Had to stay by the toilet.”
“My dear, I’m so sorry,” said Fräulein Gottlieb, helping Renate to her feet. “My poor, poor girl.  Just look at you. Let me help you get cleaned up.”  She tried to tug the creases out of Renate’s crumpled dress and coat. “When Adelinde wished me goodnight from the cabin, I’d assumed you were all there. Then I was busy with one or two others who were also feeling sick. On my break I only meant to close my eyes for a moment … then the rocking motion of the boat, you know … it always sends me to sleep. Adelinde came to find me because you hadn’t got back to the cabin. She was worried.”
Renate noticed the boat was not moving so violently now. It was just rocking gently, like a cradle. That would be soothing. And she felt so tired, oh so tired. She would love to curl up now and be in a soft, cosy bed. But Fräulein Gottlieb was now working at a vomit stain on the skirt of her dress. And actually, the smell of other people’s vomit would have put her off sleeping.
“You should have come to get me,” said Fräulein Gottlieb, “if you felt so poorly. I’m supposed to be looking after you.”
The boat was moving really slowly now.
“Come on, let’s go and get some fresh air,” said Fräulein Gottlieb. “We ought to be able to see some land now.”    
Renate had stopped feeling sick at least. But she was so weak, and her legs were wobbly. The ferry was going really slowly now, and the rocking from side to side had almost gone completely. Just a gentle seesaw pushed them up and down. Even so, she had to lean on Fräulein Gottlieb as they made their way across the deck. Other white faces looked at her and she was at least glad that she wasn’t the only one who had felt so bad. But even the faces which didn’t look white looked strained. Were they all dreading arriving in England as much as she was?
“You go up first,” said Fräulein Gottlieb, when they arrived at the staircase. “Then I can catch you if you fall.”
It took Renate all of her strength to haul herself up to the last step of the steep stairway. The cool wind took her breath away at first, but then she realized that it also made her feel better. The sun was shining now and there were no clouds at all in the sky. Perhaps this would be all right, after all. It was hard to believe it had been so grey and cold when they’d set out.
They really were not far from land now. The first bit of the harbour wall was just in front of them. Renate could see some big cargo ships moored there. Cranes were loading huge crates on to their big decks. Beyond that, black shiny roofs and white buildings were gleaming in the sun. She had to shade her eyes to stop the glare.
“Well,” said Fräulein Gottlieb. “Here we are. Your new home. England.”
“Home?” said Renate. That sounded a bit final.
“Your uncles will be there to meet you,” whispered Fräulein Gottlieb, “once we’re in London. They’ll know how to keep you safe.”
Renate looked again at the town. It seemed to offer her no welcome.

You’re welcome to them, the filth. Haven’t even got sea-legs. A proper German would know how to sail. A proper Englishman would know how to sail. Not you.