‘You’ve been crying,’ Johann said.
I struggled to get words past the iron fist in my chest. ‘My brother is missing in action.’
‘I am sorry.’
For once I found no pleasure in the German colour of his words. ‘Perhaps it was a brother of yours that killed him.’ I said.
‘I do not have a brother.’
I wanted a reason to hate him. To hurt him. ‘My father has forbidden me to talk to you anymore.’
It took him some time to respond. Finally he said, ‘Ja, I understand.’
I glanced at him and found him looking at me, a strange mix of compassion and resignation in his gaze. I knew I couldn’t follow my father’s edict. I didn’t want to. I would work alongside Johann until evening. There would be time enough another day to avoid him.
We paused to eat and he carefully unwrapped a thick slice of bread spread with margarine. I bit into my lunch and watched with curiosity to see what else he had. Nothing.
‘Is that all you have to eat? Again?’
‘Did you have a good breakfast, at least?’
He licked the margarine off his fingers and carefully gathered up the crumbs that had scattered across his chest.
‘This is breakfast –lunch, both.’
I shared my food with him then and found it easy to forget that he was the enemy.
We went back to work in a comfortable silence and I found the courage to ask him about his family.
By the time I glanced his way, he was concentrating on the swing of his pitchfork again.
‘They are all gone. My wife, my son and my parents.’
I fumbled with inadequacy. ‘I’m so sorry.’
He tossed another forkful of hay and, for the first time, I saw repressed violence in him. ‘My whole street gone. My family, my house, my neighbours, my neighbours’ homes. Perhaps it was your brother who dropped the bomb, ja?’
The magnitude of his pain silenced me. I pitched hay.
He pitched hay.
My cheeks grew wet and hot. I was shocked to find I was crying.
That night as I turned for home, he touched my arm. ‘I am sorry, you are sorry. We stay friends.’ He pointed down the valley to where the church steeple showed. ‘Do you go to church? I think it is good. You speak to God for me. I have no church for ten months.’
‘Why don’t the POWs go to church?’
My father put his spoon down to give my question consideration. ‘Might escape.’
‘They don’t try and escape when they work on the farms.’
Dad took a slurp of stew and chewed thoughtfully. Finally he said, ‘Church probably wouldn’t have them – if they even wanted to come.’
‘I’m going to ask the vicar if they can attend our services.’
‘I absolutely forbid it.’ My father’s moustache bristled like a living thing. ‘Do you know what the village will do to you? They’ll say you’re soft in the head over that German. They’ll call you a traitor.’ I’d never heard my father so eloquent.
‘Why?’ I demanded. ‘Widow Hardy is stepping out with an Italian POW. All I’m doing is asking if they can come to church.’
‘For pity’s sake, Irene. Use the brain God gave you. It’s one thing for a widow to choose an Eyetie who’s been released, another altogether for an unmarried lass to choose a bloody Nazi Hun.’
I asked the vicar anyway.
At Sunday service a few weeks later there was a disturbance at the back. It rippled through the congregation like a chilly breeze. The vicar didn’t pause in his sermon but I saw my neighbour’s son Tom get the back of his head slapped because he turned once too often to stare down the church. I wished I had his courage. I could feel them behind us, but I didn’t dare look.
Mrs Jones muttered, ‘Fancy bringing Nazis to church among God-fearing citizens. What is the world coming to? They’re sure to kill us.’
I couldn’t see how anyone could think that the men – thin, weaponless, patched and shabby could be a threat – yet her views were representative of most of the congregation. As soon as the service ended and the guard had marched the three POWs away, the villagers gathered by unspoken accord in the hall.
‘What was the vicar thinking?’
‘This is what comes of letting them out to work on the farms. Keep them locked up, I say, otherwise they’ll be getting all sorts of ideas.’
It turned personal. ‘You put the vicar up to this. What have you got to say for yourself, missie?
I had plenty to say. ‘Perhaps my brother’s imprisoned somewhere. I’d want him fairly treated.’
‘He’s dead girl, like my Matthew. Forget this folly. They don’t deserve it.’
A lone voice rose to my defence. ‘I know that if it was my Andy who was a POW I’d want someone to be kind to him.’
The voices rose, a clamour that outrang the bell.
‘Enough. This is God’s house, not yours!’ It was the first time I had ever seen the vicar angry. The silence was absolute. Even the bell stilled. ‘There will be no further discussion. The men will be allowed to come to church, to find succour and repent of their sins if they so wish.’
No-one liked being forced to accept it but accept it they did. The POWs became a fixture.
Life slipped into a pattern, one season into another. I no longer worked with Johann but we often saw each other. One day he approached me.
‘Bring me something, please.’
‘Yes, of course. What is it you want?’
‘I don’t have the words,’ he said. ‘I want this.’ He used a stick to draw a shape in the soil.
‘A shell? You want a shell?’
‘Not one. I want many. Many, many.’ He opened his arms to show how many.
I brought him shells. Handfuls and pockets of them, until he ordered me, laughing, to stop. He wouldn’t tell me what he wanted them for. I pushed and nagged but he refused to answer my questions.
Winter set in. Johann spent less time on the farm and more time behind the fence. I saw him only when it was his turn at church. Then one day they didn’t come.
When the service finished someone said spitefully. ‘There was an escape attempt last night. They’re not allowed to come any more. We’re not having them back in church no matter what.’
Nothing I said changed their minds.
The vicar visited the POW camp when he had time. That had to be enough for me. I hoped it was enough for Johann.
On Christmas morning the vicar came to the pulpit with a wrapped package. He stood in front of us all and slowly undid it. Nothing disturbed the silence but the crackle of paper. He unveiled a mosaic of the nativity, held it high so everyone could see it. Beautifully made of delicate pieces of shell, every detail lovingly rendered, it glowed in the soft light that fell through the windows.
‘This…’ the vicar’s voice cracked and he cleared it and began again. ‘This is a gift from one of the POWs. To say thank you for allowing him to attend our services.’
The hymns that followed were subdued, shamed.
I couldn’t bear it. I left.
By the time my mother came home I had prepared a hamper and filled it with most of our Christmas dinner.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m taking them Christmas. Don’t.’ I raised a hand. ‘Don’t. Do you know what they get to eat? One slice of bread and margarine to last until supper. And now it’s Christmas and they have nothing. You’ll have to lock me up to stop me.’
Instead she said, ‘There won’t be enough there.’
‘I don’t care. I’ll take what I can.’ I struggled towards the door with the heavy basket.
‘Here, wait a moment.’ My father this time. ‘I’ll get the cart. It’s too far to walk with that.’
‘Where are you going?’ Tom called as I rumbled past his house.
‘I’m taking a bit of Christmas dinner to the POWs’.
The guards wouldn’t let us in.
Through the chain link fence I could see the men exercising in the yard. They stopped to watch.
‘We can’t possibly accept that.’ The guard indicated my hamper with a scornful flick of his wrist. ‘It would cause a riot.’
Tears of frustration stung my eyes. ‘Please, it’s just a little bit of Christmas dinner.’
He softened a little. ‘There’s not enough to go round. How can I choose who is to receive something and who isn’t? I can’t allow it, I’m sorry.’
I gripped the links, pressed my face up against them, wished I could step through. ‘But it’s Christmas.’
His attention moved to a place over my right shoulder and I turned to see what he was looking at.
Coming up the road was the whole village. A parade of people, led by my parents and Tom and the vicar, and no-one was empty handed. They came with arms full of rations.
Warm fingers slid over mine where they gripped cold metal and I looked up into Johann’s blue eyes and laughed with the sheer joy of it.
Have a magical Christmas everyone!