Behind the Fence

‘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.’Outfit a German soldier during the Second World War

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?’

‘Ja.’

‘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.

He paused.

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.

***

St Werburgh's Church, HanburyAt 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.  christmas turkey

‘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. Snow on the frosty steel fence in winter after blizzard. Background.

‘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!

Blue Christmas Bckg 4 - christmas illustration

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On meeting old friends and how it isn’t always good to go back!

I’m trying to commit to writing a post a fortnight. This one is now a day overdue but hey! Life happens I guess. On the plus side I have been making good progress with my latest WIP. (‘Work in progress’ for those who aren’t blessed with automatic understanding of writerly shortcuts)

Anyway to get to the point I was in York the other day and had time to kill so I dropped into Oxfam book shop to browse.

York minster, England, UK

York minster, England, UK

The very first bookcase I looked at held ‘vintage’ books. Aside from feeling a bit put out that books from my childhood should now be vintage those packed shelves brought back the memory of my own collection with the intensity of a gut punch. I was instantly full of excitement and anticipation at seeing those rows of brightly coloured, hardback spines but also a feeling of sadness.

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There’s something about rows of hardbacks like this that really presses my buttons. What about you?

 

I’ve always collected books and I started when I was four when my mum took me to buy my first ‘grown-up’ book which was The Wishing Chair, by Enid Blyton.

My books were kept on a bookcase in my bedroom (which I shared) and I used to regularly take them all off the shelves to count them, like a miser counting his hoard. I wrote the number of each book in the top right hand corner of the front page and declared my ownership by writing my name in each one too. Sacrilege I know but at the time they were my property and I wanted that ownership marked so that it was beyond contention.

I loved that collection. In a constantly growing family those books were some of the rare things that were solely mine  and, as none of my siblings liked to read as much as I did, I had no competition when it came to books and I didn’t have to share them.

Shortly after I turned eleven and when my collection was about 18 books short of reaching 200, we were forced to emigrate and I had to leave most of them behind. As any bibliophile can understand, it broke my heart. I loved those books. They weren’t just my possessions, and my escape but they were part of me. Part of who I was.

So when I saw the bookshelf in Oxfam I experienced a kaleidoscope of feelings: coming home, finding a part of myself, being reunited with old friends.

I bought two books, Mr Pinkwhistle by E. Blyton and Adventure Stories also by Ms Blyton.

 

And I sat down and skim read them.

Adventure stories was still a great book. Cousins uncovering spies and doing their heroic bit was wonderful. Sadly though Mr Pinkwhistle was no longer the same seen through the eyes of the adult me. Society has moved on so much, I have moved on20160810_134210 and I have to say I found it downright sinister. Totally icky in fact.

The only things that brought back some of the childish joy for me were the wonderful illustrations. So simple and gentle and full of movement, there’s a wonderful freshness and innocence to them that still resonates with me. I remember what a temptation they were for us and how many of them were coloured in with crayons.

So those books were rather like being at a party and bumping into old, old friends. Some you still have much in common with and you pick up where you left off but others…it can only be a joy when you can say goodbye.

Nowadays I have a new bookcase, several in fact, choc full of books that give me just as much joy and that are mine, all mine but I’ll still go into that Oxfam and browse those ‘vintage’ books. You never know, among those old, old friends I might  chance on the odd, consistent diamond.

What about you? Do you have memories of old books? What did your childhood books mean to you? Did you have favourites?