‘Good Call’ by Ken Cumberlidge

Had one of those moments today.  They don’t happen often, but they happen.

I was in a big branch of Boots the Chemist, killing time while my prescriptions were being made up – loitering in the cosmetic aisles, idly scanning the nail polish shelves on the unlikely offchance of a stone cold bargain or, failing that, something sufficiently jaw-dropping to justify full list price. It wasn’t looking promising.

For the purposes of this account I should perhaps give a description of my appearance:

Black baker-boy cap

Denim jacket (seen better days. One more machine wash and it’ll fall apart.)

Woollen check scarf.

Dark red shirt.

Gloves (black, thermal. It was a cold day, despite the sunshine.)

Black corduroy trousers (second best pair – I was only shopping.)

Black faux-Converse plimmies (very convincing! – £3.99 from ALDI.)

This being the spring of 2021 and thus the time of Covid, I was wearing a standard-issue pale blue disposable mask, which I was having to re-seat repeatedly every few minutes as it kept getting caught on my 3-day beard growth and creeping incrementally off my face.  

Doing this for the umpteenth time, I became aware of a figure hovering – no, looming – a few yards away from me at the end of the aisle: a tall, wide, ungainly-looking man in over-heavy shoes. The store security guard – and it was plain he was watching me. From behind his dark blue “I got it to match my uniform so it would look kind of official” face-mask, he addressed me.

“Bit out of place!”

There was nothing confrontational in his tone.  It was good-natured – matey even – but, mentally ticking off the checklist of lazy assumptions that had clearly given rise to the remark, I rankled.  Inside my chest a tiny, very angry drag queen straightened her wig, bristling for a scrap. I quashed her, opting instead for my default weapon of response in such situations: Mr. Spock.

Specifically, the 1960s Spock, as portrayed by Leonard Nimoy in the original series. You know that slightly cocked-head expression of mild puzzlement he gets when faced with some new evidence of the aberrant illogicality of humans?  That one.  I adopted it.

“Sorry?” I replied. “How do you mean?” My tone was questioning but unprovocative.

He coughed nervously. “You must be feeling a bit out of place,” he said, “…in the make-up aisles.”

Wishing there really was such a thing as a Vulcan Death Grip, I dialled Spock up another notch.  “No.  Not at all.  I’m looking at nail polishes.”  As I spoke, I emphasised the point by removing my gloves, revealing two fistfuls of freshly-applied iridescent turquoise (£2.99 – bargain bin, TK Maxx).

I swear that in that moment the entire shop could hear the cog-wheels clonking into position in his head as he took on board the reality of me and my shopping preferences.

“Ah… right,” he said, and – to my relief – took himself off, out of my field of view.  Victory secured, I stood Spock down and resumed my browsing.

Within 30 seconds, he was back.

“Er… just so’s you know. Next aisle? There’s a 3-for-2 offer.  Rimmel.  Only you might easily miss it.  Cos of the label.  The writing’s very …er… small.”

“Oh lord!” I thought, “He’s gone into cis-het over-compensation mode now. His diversity training’s kicked in.  He’ll be stuck to me like a limpet.”

In an effort to shut down any further avenues for engagement, I shot him a polite, non committal nod and feigned deep fascination with a Revlon 3-in-1 Gel kit.  It didn’t work.  Even after I had turned away, such that I could no longer see him on the periphery of vision, he remained: I could sense him.  Looming.  He loomed.  Then he did something I wasn’t expecting.

He approached me, arriving at my side, somewhat more closely than permitted by the strict letter of social distancing I thought, and – in a voice several degrees softer, yet oddly more urgent – said:

“I wear nail polish. Just at home, like.  Buy it online. Couldn’t do it here. Difficult.  You know…the job.”

I turned, for the first time looked directly into his eyes and saw the sincerity burning there – saw also that in this drama, this petty slice of everyday tragicomedy, I was the idiot.  I spooled back to that initial exchange, re-ran his opening remark, and heard what I had missed – or perhaps had refused to let myself understand.

He’d thought I was a newbie: an older man, navigating the make-up displays for the first time and floundering, drunk on the sheer importance of it, scarce able to focus on any single item from the bewildering kaleidoscope before me, all the while feeling exposed and conspicuous, as if there was a giant neon sign over my head flashing the word FREAK, and – above all – completely unequal to the herculean trial of choosing a shade and taking it to the lady at the checkout. He knew what that felt like, just as I had once, and not so very long ago.  Far from challenging my right to be there, he had – in his gauche, clumsy way – been trying to show support: reach out to a fellow nailie.

From behind our respective face-masks we swapped acknowledging smiles and, in an act of gauche clumsiness all my own, I proffered a cheesy thumbs-up. 

“Whatever works, mate,” I said. “… and yeah, I’ll check out that 3-for-2. Cheers, man. Good call.”

About the Author

Ken Cumberlidge was born in Birkenhead and cut his performance teeth on the Liverpool pub poetry scene of the 1970s.  His work has appeared variously in print and in numerous online journals. Since 2011, Ken has been based in Norwich, but can be lured out of cover by good company and an open mic. This has led him to become an habitué of the slam poetry/spoken word scene. He likes it. A lot. 

Escape by Bronislava Volkova

From: Witness, Autobiography, Detroit, Michigan, March 1992, pp. 68-96.

The following story was told to me by my mother, a well-known violin virtuoso of Jewish descent.  It is the story of her escape from Hitler-occupied Czechoslovakia shortly after the War broke out.  The dramatic events reflected in her story have had, without my noticing it, far-reaching effects on my life, even though I myself was born after the war was over.  The aftermath of the World War II Holocaust in Europe has affected many others of my generation.

Already as a child, I suffered from frequent nightmares in which I was being chased by the Germans, being drowned by them in a well, being hung by them, being chopped to pieces, being imprisoned, jumping out of the window in an attempt to save myself, etc.  All the important “subconscious decisions” of my adult life had to do with this unconscious trauma, trying to “set it right” and I still have live and varied fantasies of torture suffered by the former generations.  These fantasies are not merely a “head talk”:  they are connected with involuntary physical movements and sensations.  It makes me realize how we literally carry in ourselves the experience of generations, rather than just our own; how the air we breathe is filled with each act we perform consciously or unconsciously; and how we and several generations after us have to bear the consequences of our thoughts and decisions.  This realization prompts me to share my mother’s story.

***

On March 15, 1939, the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia.  Already before that, the atmosphere was filled with great tension because all kinds of frightening and unsettling news was coming.  All kinds of people from German and Austria were coming – refugees.  For example, a brother of a famous socialist leader in Spain, Ernst Toller (a Berlin banker) came to us in evening tails when he ran away from some banquet.  He was looking for a place of refuge in Czechoslovakia.  I was, for example, on a visit to Mladá Boleslav at my grandmother’s and we read that in Mariánské Lázně [Marienbad] some famous scholar was murdered by the Nazis – the Henlein Party.  [The Nazi Party in the Sudetenland or border area of Czechoslovakia.  This area was traditionally settled by Sudeten Germans.]

My sister, who lived in Teplice and was married, moved from Teplice to Prague in 1938 because the atmosphere in the Henlein area was unbearable.  She even wrote a letter to the Department of the Interior or Foreign Affairs to try to make people aware of the fact that the Henlein Party was ostentatiously flexing its muscles and that the Czech police were not doing anything about it.  They were under orders not to provoke them in order to avoid any conflict.  Almost every day one could hear Hitler or one of his ministers – Goering or Goebbels – shouting on the radio how the great empire was being “threatened” by Czechoslovakia.  It all seemed very ridiculous to us.  At the same time, still a lot of people were coming to Czechoslovakia looking for refuge – Thomas Mann for example – so we were thinking that nothing nonsensical could happen here.  However, the Army was mobilized and was ready to resist.

But let’s return to March 15.

In the morning the telephone rang.  One of my friends told me that the Germans had crossed the border.  This was very early in the morning, perhaps 6 or 7 a.m.  So we were – how could one describe it – in English one would say dumbfounded.  Totally paralyzed.  But I told my friend that I had to go to the center of Prague to see what was happening.  We lived in Santoška in Smíchov [a Prague quarter] and your dad and I had a lovely three-room apartment.  It was just two years after our wedding.  And so we went to Wenceslas Square.

The first thing that caught my eye was that on the Můstek (lower part of Wenceslas Square) there was a big store owned by Loebl, that sold silk and sported a huge sign.  Not far away was another store, Schiller’s, a very fashionable store where my mother used to shop.  Workmen were already busy dismantling the signs of these two stores as well as all the other Jewish-owned stores.  So we went further, watching the terror that was grasping the city.  

Later on that day, around noon, I went to Národní Třída [one of the main streets] and there was a large gathering of people watching as the German tanks passed through.  In spite of their fear, the people were whistling at the Germans to demonstrate their outrage at the occupation.  But the Germans were passing through and they didn’t look either right or left as if they didn’t hear the whistling.  Later when we went on to some restaurant, the SS people in their black uniforms were already there, and the whole picture of the city changed in one moment.

Everybody knew that it was necessary for the Jews and for the opponents of the Nazis to leave – not simply to leave but to escape as fast as possible.  The first thing we did was to hurry to the police department which was already occupied by the Gestapo.  There was a terrible, seemingly endless line of people waiting to request permission or license to leave which amounted to a paper document inserted in the passport.  For twenty-four hours we took turns waiting in line with my brother-in-law.  Oddly enough, only your daddy got permission to leave, while the rest of us were denied it.  It was very peculiar.  Because the Germans had been extremely interested in your daddy’s automobile prototype and military vehicle and had invited him to Germany, offering him a lot of money to work for them.  As an automobile designer, he was a genius, very much ahead of his time.  His prototype tested in several international competitions ahead of Packard and his military vehicle was commissioned by the Czechoslovak Department of Defense [both prototypes were later stolen by the Germans].  He had, however, turned them down and yet now he had permission to leave.  It was very odd.

Back home, but still feeling great tension, we were wondering what we should do.  My sister who had moved from Teplice to Prague, was learning the trade from our former hairdresser, Mr. Topinka, whom you also know.  She was doing this because we thought that there were plenty of intellectuals escaping, but not enough skilled tradesmen.  Her apprenticeship was costing her 1000 crowns a month which, of course, was an unheard-of price, but she continued paying until one day Mr. Topinka said that he was sorry but his shop on Wenceslas Square drew lots of Germans and he didn’t dare do this anymore.  With her apprenticeship in the hairdressing business interrupted, she started to learn to be a pastry chef, studying with a chef in Nerudová Street.  She was very skillful and very intelligent and very anxious to secure her future because she knew that otherwise she would be without money.

Her husband, who was an engineer, was hustling about saying that he had to buy some machines and had to arrange something for his future life in exile.  So shortly I realized that my sister who loved me very much and who wanted us to emigrate together was held back by her husband’s frenetic attempts to secure their life in exile.

In the meantime, I was working nearby.  I had started teaching violin in a gymnasium (a secondary school), which was a very innovative idea in Czechoslovakia at that time.  I started teaching both violin and piano and it was quite a success because with the director’s support, they organized musical evenings and concerts.  Only a five-minute walk from where I lived, I taught every day for four hours.  At the same time, I was also giving concerts on the radio and other places.  One day, however, the director of the school, although enthusiastic about my teaching, wrote me a very nice letter thanking me but apologizing for having to fire me.

By that time, your daddy and I left the three-room apartment where we lived because it seemed too big under the circumstances.  We stayed in Smíchov but moved to Bezděchova Street, to a smaller apartment.  We also had to give up our maid.  Twenty-four hours after we moved, your daddy, who was offered a job in France, left the country.  I had managed to get him a French visa and since he was one of the lucky ones and already had permission to leave, he did, for a second chance might not present itself. 

I stayed in the apartment still hammering nails into the walls to hang pictures and constantly thinking about how it would continue and how I could possibly get out of here.

I was trying also to convince a good friend of mine to emigrate.  He had been a friend of my deceased mother and had taught me in my childhood.  He was a Germanist and a colleague of Prof. Siebenschein with whom he produced a large German dictionary on which he worked for several years.  However, it was not published under his name.  An exceptionally educated man, he spoke perfectly several languages and I tried to persuade him that with such a command of English, German, and French he should be able to make a living anywhere.  But he said I was wrong and that any maid in France could speak French and in England every sales clerk could speak English and that his abilities were nothing special.  He also said that he was a pure Czech (even though a Jew) and, moreover, a Germanist, who had done so much work for German scholarship that what was happening just couldn’t affect him and so I didn’t succeed in convincing him.  He and his very beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter were shot during the death march that followed the assassination of Heydrich (Hitler’s chief in Bohemia).  His wife and other daughter were taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. 

My brother-in-law, a handsome, charismatic and self-confident man, was walking around before the Germans came in a black coat so you couldn’t tell him from a Gestapo officer.  In fact, he managed to strike an acquaintance with a real Gestapo officer.  At the same time, your daddy had a friend from his youth who was from Moravia where his family owned a big factory.  This man now possessed great wealth.  He promised my brother-in-law that he would give him a million crowns and that he would take him with him if my brother-in-law could convince the Gestapo officer to grant them permission to leave.  My brother-in-law, of course, did everything he could to secure the necessary documents.  When the arrangements were almost finalized, with only the exchange of money for the saving of the life to be transacted, the wealthy Moravian suddenly backed off, saying that he had a better connection which would enable him to get out immediately and that he didn’t need my brother-in-law’s mediation anymore.  And he did get out, thus eliminating the way for my sister and brother-in-law to escape.  They were then both taken first to Theresienstadt and then put on the first transport to Minsk where they were gassed in the train.  This I learned from the Department of Welfare where I was shown documents after the war.

As far as my situation was concerned, one day I heard from the banker who financed your daddy’s prototype that the situation was as hot as it could get.  He told me that, since I still had some designs of daddy’s inventions which were very interesting to the Germans, that I was in danger of being taken.  This was a serious warning and I realized that I had to disappear and that I had to disappear immediately.  In the meantime the war had broken out and it was already September 1939.  I left my apartment that same night taking only a small suitcase and a winter coat.  On the winter coat there was a little Persian lamb collar which I took off because I decided that the Nazis might get interested in the coat to get the little bit of fur.  With my passport, I decided I could get at least to Bratislava (the capital then of the so-called Free Slovak State established by Hitler).  Some of your daddy’s relatives, who still lived in Slovakia, where he was born, could provide at least a place to stay while I made arrangements to try to get out.  And so I took that little suitcase and the winter coat.

My Italian Amati violin, which today would be worth several hundred thousand together with all other valuable belongings which your daddy and I had, had already been sent away through the mediation of your daddy’s banker who was not exactly very far-sighted.  I say this because he had shipped them to Belgium without even thinking that so far, in every war with the Germans, they had run over Belgium.  Why he did it, I do not know, but it was very dumb and not surprisingly everything was confiscated by the Nazis who soon after occupied Belgium and I never received a penny of compensation.  The banker himself with his wife, a well-known pianist, Aranyi, also perished.  I, however, turned up in Bratislava.  

In Bratislava, I lived with relatives of your daddy in a villa.  They also talked about the need to emigrate.  But they didn’t somehow take it seriously, perhaps because they just couldn’t grasp the scope of the tragedy that had befallen us.  I told them that I didn’t understand them.  Only Ďuri, the youngest one, an exceptionally handsome man of about twenty-four, understood the situation and agreed it was necessary to get out.  When I said that I had to leave, to get out, he was totally on my side.  Perhaps from tension and the excitement, I fell ill with a painful urinary tract infection that was so acute there was blood in my urine.  I called Prague to order a medication I knew would help my condition.  Sent by express mail, the medicine soon put me back on my feet and I was capable of doing all that was necessary to get out of Bratislava and to endure the traveling.

First I went to the French consulate to get a visa to France where your daddy was.  I spoke with the consul who was packing when I came in.  Things were being packed – the carpets – everything – was being packed in preparation for a move the following day.  I begged the consul to take me with him because I had to escape.  Finally he said, “Well, you know what, I would take you with me, but only under the condition that you can drive a car.  Because I can only take you in a diplomatic car, and I have to justify it.  I can take a secretary, and I could say that I need a person to help with the driving.”  But I was only just learning how to drive from daddy and didn’t yet have a driver’s license.  And even though I knew quite a bit, I wasn’t sure enough of myself to assume responsibility for the lives of other people.  Besides, it would mean traveling through foreign countries where I wouldn’t even know the signs.  Even at home in peacetime, I wasn’t sure of myself and so I couldn’t guarantee that I would be a good enough driver under such stressful and alien conditions.

So I declined and left.  Outside Ďuri was waiting for me.  He said, “Well if you can’t handle it, then for God’s sake please ask him if he would take me with him because I can drive.  I have a driver’s license.”  So I went back and said that I had a relative outside who could drive a car and who could easily do what he was asking.  But the French consul said that he was sorry, but he couldn’t possibly take a young man with him who was of the age of military duty and then he advised me personally to go to Budapest.

And so I took leave of Bratislava and the family who had hosted me in their beautiful villa.  As I was allowed to have only 100 DM with me upon leaving Prague, I borrowed money from them and went to Budapest.  Sometime later the whole family, including Ďuri, died in the gas chamber of a concentration camp.

In Budapest I wanted a ticket to Bordighera, a small Italian town near the border with France.  I was hoping to get to France from there and join daddy.  In order to reach Bordighera, I had to pass through the Yugoslav-Italian border.  When I asked for the ticket, the Hungarian railway clerk said, “All right, we will sell you a return ticket, but only a return ticket because you will not get through the Yugoslav-Italian border with your passport (I had two passports, a Czech one and a Slovak one).  You have to understand that it’s war, and that your journey is totally in vain.  This is a hard journey – the train goes all night – and so you will only be tired and you will have to take the next train back.  We guarantee you that.”  So I bought a return ticket.  The only reason they even sold me a ticket was that I spoke Hungarian, as I was born in Budapest.  The other refugees who tried to escape this way were taken to camps.

And so I went to Yugoslavia on that night train.  It was an express train and the conductor came to advise me or to warn me, “You want to go to Italy.  That’s impossible.  You see this train that is coming toward us right now?  That’s the train you will take back tomorrow.  Nobody has made it over that border yet.  Don’t you think there have been beautiful women and I don’t know what all they were offering?  Themselves, or jewelry, or what do I know?  Nobody has made it over that border yet.”

To be sure this was not very encouraging and I was already upset for having left a home where I spent only a few months.  But I was driven by the certainty that it was impossible to return to Prague, even though I had a large number of relatives who had stayed there.  For example, my cousin Marta (who was a doctor) and her husband.  On the day of the 15th of March he had a plane ticket and was supposed to leave the country.  He was a journalist who wrote against Fascism and had a ticket precisely for the 15th of March, the day of the occupation and on that day they took him, right from the airport.  They took him to Pankrác [a well-known prison in Prague] and they shot him.  And my cousin with her child stayed in Prague as did all my relatives and all perished in various concentration camps.  

Nobody else thought to do such an apparently absurd thing – to run away without having any money or any permission.  But I was driven as if by an inner force.  And then this one in the train was telling me that I would have to go back.  I said to him, “Well, so I will go back.  There’s nothing to be done.  I will go there anyway.  Don’t tell me anything.  It doesn’t help any and you only upset me here.  I will go.”  Shortly afterward on the border, the train stopped.  Nobody left the train, and the local police came directly to me and asked me to get off the train.  I got off the train and was taken to one Italian and one young Gestapo officer.  And they said, “Well, what is this about?  With this passport you can’t get any further.  There is written in this passport that you can’t go any further.  This is nonsense.”  I was tired, and it was hot, and I had this winter coat on that I had for times when it would be cold, because I had said to myself that that was important.  I didn’t have any money and I didn’t want to be cold.  All of this armed me with a certain indifference.  The young Gestapo officer said, “Madam, what are you going to do there?”  And nothing more clever occurred to me than to say that I was sick and that I would be taking a cure for TB in Italy.  Nothing better occurred to me at that moment.  He studied me and of course I was very pale from tiredness and fear and, moreover, I had this heavy winter coat on.  Well, whatever it was, we stood there at least an hour, and I was talking all the time with this Gestapo officer in German, because I knew German and then he said suddenly (I don’t know what got into him), “Well then, go.”

With that, I returned to the train and only when the doors of all the neighboring compartments started to open and people began to congratulate me – only then did I realize what actually had happened.  And so, in a miraculous way, I got permission to go to Italy.

My goal was Milano and of course in Milano I had to report at the police station.  And there were again lots of people.  I wanted to get to the French border and to get to France, but the war made every movement so difficult.  It was September 1939.  Then I met a clerk who took a liking to me and invited me to a bar for that evening.  He said that if I went to the bar with him, then we would see.  So I went to the bar with him and I stayed with him until very late, and then he gave me permission to go further.  I had only one address that I had gotten from my sister-in-law because she once took a vacation in Bordighera and it was there that I started to live with my little suitcase.

It was a boarding house, not a hotel, and the owner was very kind.  She would ask me what I wanted for breakfast in the morning and when I realized that I had very little money, and that I couldn’t afford all this, I said that I got up late and that I wouldn’t take breakfast or lunch with them.  She took notice of that and gave me a very nice room with a balcony with mosquito netting.  And so there I was in this very nice room.  When I came downstairs to the lounge, to my great surprise, I heard only the names of German aristocrats.  So I said to myself, well now I’ve gone from one wasp’s nest to another.  But miraculously, these Germans, these aristocrats, behaved in a very friendly way, even though they probably knew what was going on with me.  One of the barons whose name I don’t remember had an English wife and the two of them always argued fiercely.  She often called him a Fascist swine.  And so I thought that perhaps, if she could do this with impunity, it was perhaps not so dangerous here.  Then there was the Countess von Pappen, the sister of the German ambassador, or perhaps consul, I don’t know, who seemed to enjoy conversations with me and always asked me to accompany her on her walks.  And then there were some Swiss people living there.  And so the time passed.

Because I couldn’t eat there for want of money, I went to eat in a workers’ tavern which I found to be very clean.  There I got to know some emigrés who had somehow succeeded in escaping from a German concentration camp.  Now they, like me, were waiting for the possibility of escape.  And so we were all waiting and waiting.  One of them had been a soloist at the Munich opera, a tenor.  He showed me all his photographs from when he had sung Radamez in Aida, and in La Bohème, etc.  He taught me to sing arias so that we could distract ourselves and we also went together to the beach.  But still we were waiting and hoping that somehow we would be able to get out.

Every week I went to the French consulate in Ventimiglia and there I would beg the consul to let me go.  And he would say that he couldn’t let me go on the basis of my passports; that it was impossible; that I had to realize that I had two passports from two enemy countries; that I could easily be a spy; that if he let me go, he would lose his job; and that I should just wait.  In the meantime, your daddy had enlisted in the Allied Army and I argued that I was entitled to a visa on that basis.  The consul, however, said that I needed proof which I didn’t have and so I continued my weekly trips to the French consul in Ventimiglia where I was always told to come back next week.

I went there every week for nine months by which time I had no money and couldn’t pay the rent although I must say that the owner of the boarding house was extremely friendly.  I can show this even more clearly by relating the following:  One day a regular guest, a baroness, arrived, and I heard the conversation that took place in front of the door of my room.  The baroness insisted, “Well, I always had this room, so please give it to me again.  I have been coming here for years and I would like to stay here.”  To which the owner said, “You know, baroness, I’m awfully sorry, but I cannot throw this lady from her room.”  One could see that she was a very sympathetic person because otherwise she wouldn’t have let me stay there in light of the baroness’s insistence.  If I hadn’t heard this conversation, I would not have believed it, but I heard it with my own ears.

The situation, however, was becoming more and more unbearable, as I was totally out of money.  Once the baron asked me to play and because he wanted me to play and I didn’t have a violin, he got me one and I played for them.  I remember, it was really quite fantastic.  I played Beethoven’s concerto, even though I hadn’t been able to practice for months.  It was sometime around Christmas.  They then insisted that I at least spend Christmas evening with them and I agreed although I avoided their company as much as possible because, after all, they were all Germans.  The baron’s wife, the very influential English lady, when she realized my situation, gave me a recommendation.  If I succeeded in getting to France, she said that I should go to Schneider Creuzot, the famous arms factory, whose owner was a friend of hers.  She said that I would have great support there.  I accepted the recommendation even though, so far, there seemed to be no hope of getting to France.  

The situation was quite tense.  A man came to the boarding house who was known to take people illegally over the border by boat from Genoa.  I suspected that he had been sent there by some emigrés from Bordighera.  But it was very dangerous because on the French side there were Senegalian soldiers shooting fiercely at the people who tried to cross this way.  The man offered to take me for, I think it was 400 francs, which I was able to get through my sister-in-law, who had friends in San Remo.  I gave him the money for the trip from Genoa, even though I was warned against it by the owner of the boarding house who said that the man had been expelled from the area because he does this.  I understood that he had been expelled for helping emigrés to get over the border, but that was just fine with me as that was precisely my goal and I decided to try it.

So I set out on the journey.  When I got to Genoa, the man said that we had to go to the harbor and that then he would take us over in boat.  It was to look like a tourist outing and so people had to go without luggage.  There were about five travelers and just at the moment when I was about to get in the boat, the Italian police came and everybody was taken away.  As I was not yet in the boat because I was taking longer, or because I had just hesitated to enter, I’m not sure which, I saw the police and pretended that I didn’t belong with them and I returned to Bordighera.  

The owner accepted me with great enthusiasm and said, “See, I told you it would be bad.  Be glad that nothing happened to you.  You will have to stay here.”  And so I stayed.  Nothing could be done and so every week again I went to Ventimiglia.  Not having any money for food, I ate only spaghetti all year.  Every day, spaghetti and fruit, because that was the cheapest food available.  And I didn’t spend any money for the boarding house.  The baron – actually his wife – gave me some money for playing the violin and that made it possible for me to stay.

The consul to whom I went for nine months finally said, “You know, I just can’t look any longer at your suffering.  So whether I lose my job or not, I will give you the French visa.” 

Finally I could leave and I got to Nice.  In Nice were your daddy’s parents, who had emigrated there, at a time when it was possible to leave the country by paying the so-called Reichsfluchtsteuer which meant paying for every item they took with them.  I moved in with them and there I stayed.

Of course, your daddy was in the Army, in the Czechoslovak Brigade, and he was stationed in Agde, which is on the Spanish border where I wanted very much to visit him.  After I recovered somewhat in the house of his parents, I visited him in the military camp.

In Agde, it was impossible to find a place to stay, even if you broke an ankle.  Nowhere was there a place because it was so overcrowded with soldiers and their families.  There was one single hotel that had a water closet, and of course I tried to get into that hotel because of the water closet.  But this lady said, “My dear lady, the only thing I can do for you is put you up in the attic and even though these rooms are separate rooms, they are all full of officers of the French Army.  So if it doesn’t bother you to live in such close quarters, then I can let you stay there in that attic.  Well, at least for a night or two, so that you can stay somewhere.”  It turned out, however, that there was no room and I would have to stay in the dark attic hallway.

I moved in there anyway, because I had no choice.  The first night I woke up, because one French officer was trying to – I couldn’t say rape me – but he was trying to get me for whatever price.  I appealed to his honor as a French officer, intoning that he could not ask this from somebody who was in such a situation and, I must say that I convinced him to the point that he said, “All right.  Here are the keys.  I won’t be able to stand it.  You can lock me up.”  So I locked him up in his room.

I stayed in that attic hallway.  It was sort of tragicomical because in the morning the officer’s servant came and knocked on the door of his room, but the officer could not open the door because I had the keys.  So I gave him the keys.  And he returned the keys to me in the evening.  But of course, I couldn’t stay there indefinitely under the circumstances of having to lock Mr. Officer in his room.  Also I didn’t like it too much in the attic – it was a very strange arrangement there and so we were looking for something else.

Your daddy was granted a time for this purpose and a doctor who accompanied me on my walks – Dr. Kraus – was also looking for a place.  Finally we found a room in a Navy bordello.  Everything else was occupied making it impossible to find anything.  And so, I lived in this bordello, upstairs.  Downstairs there was a Navy tavern, and upstairs it was a bordello.  It had a brick floor, and the first thing I did was to wash the floor because god knows who lived there before and besides I like cleanliness.  So I simply washed it and put it in order.  And it is interesting that in spite of the fact that it was so primitive there, they had a bidet, which they say is not missing in any hotel or hostel, unlike in our hotels.  I liked it, because at least one could wash.

Your daddy got permission to visit me every evening for a few hours.  He had to protect me when I had to use the Turkish toilet downstairs in the bordello (during the day I went to the only hotel in town).  He watched the door with a bayonet because those sailors would have thrown themselves at me when I left the toilet.  Don’t forget at that time I was young and pretty.  So of course I was a welcome prey for them.  So he had to watch me with an upraised bayonet in the evening which was very comical.  He also brought me canned food from the military kitchen, but I didn’t like it and frequently gave it to the dog downstairs.

During the day I looked around this little town, or better said, a village.  I also went to buy the French croissants, which were filled with chocolate which I liked very much and certainly definitely better than the canned food.  And the days went by.  I watched the horse-pulled carts, when people took their painted pee pots which looked grotesque.  The village didn’t have any sewers and so they disposed of their excrement this way.  While it left a totally absurd effect on a civilized person, there it seemed to be something normal.  During the day I went to the only hotel that existed and in the evening I met with your daddy, and had the help of the upraised bayonet also.  

And so the time passed, but it was, I would say, sort of difficult.  The whole day I was alone and had to walk around because it was, after all, impossible to stay in the tavern with all the sailors going in and out and the noise of the drunken ones filtering all the way upstairs.  Yet walking all day in such a village wasn’t too interesting.  Sometimes Dr. Kraus, who probably didn’t know what to do either, accompanied me.  After some time I decided to return to my in-laws in Nice and I left Agde very early one morning, around four o’clock when the sun was rising.  It was an unforgettable sight.  The sky was a dark blue color, and it threw shadows on this quiet little village, giving it such a bizarre and even painterly look.  It was an unforgettable sight and were I a painter I would definitely want it on a canvas.

I told my in-laws how their son was doing and, of course, he was quite depressed having to serve as a lowly private when he was an academically well-educated person.  But when he was studying in Berlin, he managed to avoid the military compulsory service and that put him in this position, while all the educated men in the army who went through it were officers.  Moreover, he wasn’t used to military discipline at all and, with the tension in the air about the possibility of having to report to the front at any moment, it was very stressful for him.  Well, the situation after all was very tense all over.

It was now the summer of 1940.  I got to know some emigrés who had formed a sort of community.  They exchanged opinions about what was going to happen and what was not going to happen.  At about that time, I was at a court hearing of the emigrés who were with me in Bordighera, and who had later succeeded in escaping.  (I did not, however, have a chance either to meet or talk to them.  I only saw them at the court hearing.)  It was a court hearing for illegal trespassing and the emigrés were taken to some camp.  Later on, the French government actually turned them over to the Germans so these poor people who, after so much suffering, escaped from German concentration camps, were again returned there. Without a doubt they perished in a most terrible way.  So I decided that I would leave Nice even though my in-laws were very much against it.

I told my parents-in-law that I believed that the Germans would occupy the as yet unoccupied part of France sooner or later and that I wanted to leave.  “Without money, and without knowing where your husband is?” was their response.  “Where is it that you want to go?” “Well,” I said, “I have to get out of here.  I don’t trust this, even though this part of France is not occupied yet.  I absolutely don’t feel safe here.  After all, I know this from Prague.  There too, everybody thought that it would be impossible for the Germans to pass the Czech borders, and yet I was a witness to that.  And again in Bratislava, when their vehicles were passing through day and night to the Polish border.  One could hear at night the trains passing each other – those that went to the front and the others that brought back the wounded.”  These pictures I held vividly in my memory were ones which your daddy’s parents did not have and so they could believe that they were somehow safe where they were.

Their feeling of safety was reinforced all the more since they had relatives who were refugees from Vienna and who were living there in luxurious apartments.  There was the cousin of your daddy, Kitty, whom you also know and her sister-in-law, Lilly, whom I liked much better and whose husband was militarily interned there and who died at the age of thirty-five from typhus, leaving Lilly widowed.  And then Uncle Baumwald, the brother of your grandmother, the uncle also of Annie Feilendorf, whom you also know.  He was a former procurist of Rothchild, very educated, of excellent manners, and very smart.  It was a pleasure to talk to him.  And all these people stayed there.

And so my in-laws kept pointing these things out to me, saying, “Look, all these people are here and it doesn’t even occur to them to pick up and leave – and you without money want to set off on such a journey.”  But in spite of all their arguments, I was determined to go; however, before I made the final decision, an order came that prohibited civilians form leaving Nice.  

Now there was this new obstacle and so I decided to go to the commander of the town for permission to leave.  After many hours of waiting, he told me that only military persons could leave the town.  I then decided that I simply had to get a certificate stating that I was a military person from someone.  I was informed that there was a Czech consul in Nice and he was a brother of Baxa, the former mayor of Prague.  I went to his office and asked him to give me a certificate showing that I was a military person, a nurse in military service, because there was this prohibition against civilians leaving the city.  He didn’t want to do it because he said that he did not hold an office anymore and he failed to see why I didn’t understand that.  I became quite angry in turn and said, “For God’s sake, you are after all still sitting here in this office.  So you definitely still have the stamp.  It doesn’t cost you any special effort to put a different date – a date when you were still an acting consul.  You could give me that certificate.  I have already stood several hours at the office of the commander of the city – a French general – where crowds of people were waiting, almost as at the Gestapo to get the permission to leave.  It’s your duty to help people save themselves.

And so after a big discussion, he finally gave me the certificate after which I traveled again to the French general, the commander of the city, to ask again for the permission.  I put in front of him the certificate as evidence that I was not a civilian.  And on the basis of the untruth, he gave me permission to leave town.

And of course, I saw heartbreaking scenes here as well.  There was, for example, a woman who had three children, whose husband was in Palestine.  She was facing the possibility of being caught here and it was truly heartbreaking to watch her being refused permission to leave.  However, in my worst dreams I wouldn’t have imagined at the time that all these people would be turned over by the French to the Germans, who would then transport them to the concentration camps.

All in all, I hated my stay in Nice in part because it upset me so much to have to report every two weeks at the police station as though I were some sort of a criminal.  That was definitely contre coeur to me as was the attitude of the local people.  In Nice there is a beautiful beach and Nice is a beautiful town and there are these fantastic hotels and these people were sitting there in the morning drinking pernod.  They didn’t have anything else to do and I resented this vast difference between the suffering of those whose lives were threatened and those who were sitting in the morning in those restaurants drinking their pernod and it served to strengthen my decision that I had to get out of Nice.

So shortly I packed my things and my in-laws accompanied me to the railroad station.  At the station, just before I left, your grandfather said, “You know that I wish I could go with you?” That surprised me very much, because they were all against it.  But suddenly he must have felt that it wasn’t completely nonsensical.  Then my mother-in-law, who was very educated and spoke several languages said, “Look, here is a group of Englishmen who are also going away.  Join these Englishmen.  That’s probably the best thing to do.  Stay with this group.”  So I joined the group of Englishmen who didn’t seem to mind. But then, I couldn’t talk to them very much, because I only knew a few words in English so I guess they didn’t even notice me much.  And we boarded the train to Marseilles, arriving there at midnight.

Just as we arrived, the conductor said, “All of you have to exit the train.  There is a heavy air raid at the railroad station and you have to move quickly into a shelter.  The train can go no further now.”  The Englishmen decided there was nothing to do but to stay there overnight in a hotel.  I, who was kind of with them, suddenly, with some sort of miraculous intuition – like when you get a message from God – said to myself, “I won’t stay with the Englishmen.”  We were on the railroad platform and I stopped a passing conductor, and with my broken French asked him, “Is there any train that goes to the Spanish border?”  I wanted to get to Agde, thinking that the Brigade must also want to escape and in that I wasn’t alone.  Everybody will go away, I thought, and he said, “Right now the train is leaving.  You have it right in front of you.”  So I said, “Please help me to that train!” I never was in good enough shape to board a moving train, but I jumped onto it and the official of the station threw my suitcase after me and so there I was in a compartment of a moving train, in total darkness.

There was a blackout but I sensed that there was nobody in that compartment.  Moreover, the compartment was not connected with other compartments because it was some old-style French train.  If you opened the door, you were exposed right away to the tracks – totally out of the train and so, of course, I was seized by fear.  I was saying to myself, “Jesus Christ, where am I now?  God knows where this train is going.  Maybe you didn’t even understand him, this man.  You don’t know French very well.  Maybe he said something quite different.  You might even end up at the German front.  And you can’t even see your own watch – what time is it?”  It was dark as though in a bag.  I continued talking to myself, “Well, gather your wits.  Try to calm down.  Otherwise you will go mad.  That will not help any.  If you want to save yourself, then you have to keep calm.”

So I talked to myself as to a small child.  I was saying to myself all the time, “Well, calm down.  Don’t be crazy, calm down, it will end somehow.”  And so on, and I was sitting in this moving train in the darkness, and I actually didn’t know where it was going.  I said to myself, “Well, let’s hope that he said it correctly…that I understood him correctly.”

Toward five o’clock in the morning when it dawned, a conductor came and asked me what was doing there in this military train for God’s sake.  And so I said, “Well, I’m a military person.  Look here.  I have a certificate.  I am a nurse in military service.” And he said, “Well, fine.  You can go with us.  But, mind you, this train will stop in an hour or so in Montpelier or in Carcasson or somewhere.  And you will have to stay in the train that will be at the station for at least thirty-six hours, or possibly even longer because it is not possible to go any further.  Definitely you must know that all of Paris is running away.”  This mass exodus of which the conductor spoke is beautifully described by Ilja Erenburg in his book, The Fall of Paris.  He definitely describes it much better than I, but I can confirm every word of it.  It is true that all the cars and all the taxis were occupied because hundreds of thousands of people were on the run.  Well, I was aware of that, but I said to myself I couldn’t stand to sit here in the train for thirty-six hours.  I had to get out of the train.

A year later, my father-in-law has informed me that I could congratulate myself for not staying with the Englishmen I joined in Nice, as he read in the newspapers that they were all taken prisoners and interned in a German prison camp.

So I go out of the train hoping that perhaps I would find somebody who would take me to Agde – or at least in that direction.  I was lucky enough, after several attempts, to run into a young man who was going on a motorcycle, and he said he was passing by Agde, so he would take me with him.  So I jumped on the motorcycle, which was not exactly pleasant for me because I don’t like to ride motorcycles.  I didn’t even want to ride motorcycles with your daddy who passionately liked to ride them.  For many years he drove a motorcycle to the factory even in the bitterest cold.  I on the other hand wasn’t physically that fit to be able to do this.  But now I simply got on the motorcycle and we went to Agde.  It was now July or maybe September of 1940, I don’t remember exactly, but then it was forty-five years ago.  When we arrived, I set about the task of finding the Brigade.  They had to be here somewhere I thought.  But all I found were Belgians and Spaniards and French, and whomever I asked responded with “Czechoslovak Brigade? We don’t know anything about it.  It isn’t here at all.  There is French Army, Belgian Army, Spanish Army, and I don’t know who else.”  Finally I said, “For God’s sake, somebody must know something,” and then I met somebody who really knew.  He said, “Well, they are long gone. But the headquarters of the commander is not very far from here in some monastery.  The Brigade itself is at the front.”

Although much discouraged by this news, I decided to go to the headquarters of the Brigade which was now gone.  If everybody is running away, I thought, I want to take part in it.  But I again was not feeling well, was terribly hot in that coat and was exhausted by that night and by that tension and by that fear.  I sought respite in some house where there was at least shade.  The heavy stones of the old-fashioned houses provided a moist shade and I decided to rest there for a while to recover a little bit.  I stood and took deep breaths and began to calm down.  It was cool there, a coolness provided by the arcades (porticos) in the old-fashioned houses and I knew that with rest I could then set off on the journey again and look for someone who would take me to the headquarters which I understood was not far away in some monastery.  And when I found somebody – again it was a motorcycle – he took me there.

When I got to the headquarters, I asked to meet with the commander, a colonel to whom I presented my request.  I said that I wanted urgently to leave the country because the Germans were already in Paris and the whole population was on the run and that I heard that the Army was also ready to go.  He said, “Of course, we won’t stay here, because as you have said, the Germans already occupy Paris.  It is quite obvious that we have to retreat.”  But he did not advise me to go with them because my husband was on the front and I didn’t know whether he was alive or among the fallen.  In short, he said that I didn’t know anything nor did I have money.  On top of that the destination of the ship which was supposed to take them away was unknown even to them and would most probably be attacked.  So he advised me that I return to my husband’s parents.  That was the wisest that I could do according to him.  

I told him that although he was of that opinion, I had a different one and that I would not return there.  I argued that as the wife of a soldier of the Brigade, they had an obligation to take me with them, and NOT to leave me, and that how I would make my living was my problem.  I was not afraid of not being able to make a living even though I didn’t have my violin and I didn’t have money.  I was convinced that all those things were somehow attainable, but that one only has one life.  To make a long story short, after this quite unpleasant and sharp confrontation, he said, “All right, we will take you with us.  You are lucky you got here in the last minute.  Be prepared to leave this very evening.”  So I said, “Well, excellent.”

Outside there was a garden and in this garden there were strangers gathered.  There was a father there who had a son in the military.  He begged me practically on his knees to get him the same kind of privilege that I had.  It was embarrassing for me to tell him I didn’t have the least sort of privilege; that I had practically to “wring the commander’s neck” to get him to take me with him; that he was terribly against it and that I didn’t have any power to help; that I was terribly sorry, but I simply didn’t have it.  Scenes such as these took place everywhere, and it was more than embarrassing; it weighed heavily on my heart and conscience, but I couldn’t do anything. 

Thus we embarked on the military vehicles but because they were bombing the harbor Sète, which was our first destination, we had to stay overnight in the trenches, which, of course, was not very pleasant.  However, after about two or three nights we got into the harbor.  The bombing had stopped again and there was an Egyptian ship docked – El Kebir – which was supposed to take us on board.

We boarded the ship and, of course, before boarding, similar or perhaps even worse scenes happened than those in the camp because so many, many people again wanted to escape.  The captain could not take more people than were allowed.  And with three thousand soldiers on board and a few officers from the commandership and their wives, an Australian woman, and I, the wife of a “private” – the very lowest that could even appear on that ship – the quota was already met.  I was put into a cabin with the Australian woman who was very nice.

And so we sailed and sailed.  The captain said that he didn’t know where we would land as he got his commands from elsewhere.  Nor could he guarantee where and when he would be able to get us off the ship.  Life on the ship is, I would say, very monotonous, but also curiously different and interesting, especially as long as the sea is calm which it usually is in the summer.  There are beautiful evenings and the sunsets are magnificent and they last a long time, until about nine o’clock at night.  The sight was truly unique only, of course, as long as the sea was calm.  The captain had assured us that we had a convoy of submarines accompanying us so that we didn’t have to travel in fear.

As long as the sea was calm, time passed uneventfully although there was not much food on the ship because the ship wasn’t prepared for so many people and had not been supplied enough.  The civilians received only crackers or, at most, canned food because the soldiers had to have more proper diets.  But even though they hadn’t expected the civilians, we ate at nicely laid tables in a nice environment.  

We watched almost provocatively from a distance the table of the officers who ate with the captain as we were starved out at our tables and theirs was bending under the weight of gorgeous fruit and various delicacies.  We saw it only from a distance, because our table wasn’t right next to theirs, but the contrast was so enormous that, after all, everybody noticed it.  When there were thunderstorms, most of the people got seasick and one officer advised me that when such a thunderstorm came I should lie down so that the stomach would be at rest and if it’s not too full, he said that I wouldn’t get sick.  That was excellent advice and I would always lay down in the little lounge, and although most passengers did get sick, I did not.

I filled my time studying English with a very good-looking young Czech officer whose name was Holemář and who was later sent from London to the Russian front, where he was killed.  We studied every morning for two hours, and then we walked on the deck and watched the movement of the sea.  In the evening, of course, there was a blackout.  One wasn’t allowed even to light up a cigarette.  Everything was kept in darkness.

But this journey, too, held some strange adventures for me.  Once I mentioned to one of our officers that when I saw that beautiful fruit I craved it; that I would love to have sometimes an apple or another piece of fruit.  And I mentioned it with a big sigh that emphasised how starved I was for fruit.  He came a few days later and said, “You know what?  I will arrange it for you with the fruit.” I said, “How come?” He said, “You know the captain of the ship likes you very much, and he invited you for dinner.” And I said, “Well, that’s very nice, but how can I even make myself understood with him?  (He was an Egyptian.) And I will not go there alone, because I am after all not so dumb that when the captain invites me for dinner I do not know that he is thinking of something else, too.”  And I said, “Well, I will go to that dinner, but only with you.” And so he said, “All right, I will go with you if you won’t go otherwise.  I’ll go with you so you can be totally calm.  We won’t stay there long – at most until midnight.” I said, “All right, so you will go with me.”  And he did.

We were in the captain’s cabin.  The table was laid, and the servants – well, actually they were soldiers – brought one luxurious dish after another.  There was gorgeous Southern fruit of all kinds.  There was champagne.  It stood in an ice bucket that was covered in order to be chilled.  But one could see that it was champagne and that there was ice swimming in there.  And it was already pretty late when we started to eat.  

Then suddenly, the officer who accompanied me there said, “I have to go away for fifteen minutes to check whether the blackout is being kept, to be sure some burning cigarette somewhere won’t appear.  This I must do because I am on duty, but I will be back in fifteen minutes.”  I didn’t like that very much.  I told him in Czech (the captain couldn’t understand it, after all), “You can’t do that.  You can’t leave now.  We are just in the middle of dinner.” And he said, “I just looked at my watch and I have to go now, because otherwise they will lock me up.  I have to make my rounds. In twenty minutes I’m back.  So don’t be afraid.  I give you my word of honor that I’ll return.”

Soon the twenty minutes passed and the officer didn’t return.  In the meantime, Mr. Captain started to make advances to get me to bed.  He threw his wallet on the table.  It was so full that it could burst – with English or Egyptian – I don’t know which pounds, and he said, “Look, all this is yours.  You probably don’t have money and with this you could buy a house.  You are going to be rich.  And for me it doesn’t make any difference.  What am I going to do with the money?  I will earn more money anyway.  It only lasts a little while.  Don’t resist it.”  And he went on and on.

I became afraid, although of course to see such enormous sums of money when one is without money oneself is enticing. But it didn’t entice me at that moment because the fear that the man could have some venereal disease dominated me. As it was well-known that many Arabs had it.  But on principle, I didn’t like it, as after all, I am not a prostitute.  So I said,  “Well, sir, it’s really nice that you offer me your bursting wallet.” And he threw the banknotes on the table.  It was a huge pile. “And I believe you that I might well be able to buy with it I don’t know what…perhaps the house as you say, but I’m not for sale, and I have my head full of other thoughts than these.”

As I didn’t give in, even though he made all possible attempts, he finally saw that there was nothing to be done with me, and fortunately he wasn’t a beast like they show in the films.  Actually he behaved very decently.  He said, “All right, so I’ll take you back to your deck.”  Because it was pitch dark and my cabin was at the other end of the ship, I would never have gotten there alone. Moreover, it was necessary to climb some ladder in order to get to the other side and when he saw that I was afraid, he carried me over, which was very cavalier.  He in fact took me all the way to the side where my cabin was.

The next morning I met the officer who had escorted me and I told him that it was very low of him to have arranged such a thing and I threatened to tell daddy of the arrangement between them and that he had suddenly disappeared, even though he promised that he would come back.  He said that I was wrong; that because he patrolled late somebody had stopped him and he had been locked up that night for not having obeyed the command that he had to be on rounds by a certain time.  Under the circumstances I believed him but I told him that I had the Devil’s luck that it ended this way.

And so we sailed and sailed, south past Spain and then Gibraltar.  Sometimes the ship anchored, of course only for several hours, but we were able to see something.  And it sailed farther and farther, now heading north, until in twenty-two days it finally landed. It was at that point that I had another adventure.

We were approaching Liverpool.  After twenty-two days of sailing, everybody was eager and prepared to leave the ship.  We were all excited that we finally were going to land and that we were actually safe.  Then the tugboats came – these are boats that drag the big ship into the harbor – and it was very interesting to watch.  The British sailors had black coats with hoods, and next to me stood a Belgian who said to me, “Look! The British police.”  I said, “How come British police?  What are the police doing here?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s strange.  What would British police be looking for here?” I asked how he knew they were police and he said he knew British police when he saw them.  So whatever it may be, we all were standing and waiting, and the British police came directly to me.  

I must say that I didn’t even get scared, probably because I didn’t know at all what was going on and I had no idea why the British police would single me out.  They asked me if I spoke English or German and said they wanted to talk to me and I should show them the cabin in which I spent the nights on the ship, that I open my suitcase for them.  I went to the cabin and took the suitcase with me which I opened for them but they didn’t even look into it.

The incident shook me pretty badly and I asked them what it was all about.  They said that they had received an anonymous report that I was transmitting news into enemy territory.  They said that while on the one hand, they knew such activity would be totally impossible from this ship, they were obligated to check every such report and that I should give it no further thought.  I asked them if they in fact knew who had made such a report and if they did know, would they please tell me.  They responded that they were unable to give a name but that the person was one of my compatriots.  This was by far one of my greatest psychological shocks.

Later on, I learned from one of our captains’ wives with whom I was friends already from Agde that there was a Czech lady on the ship, a wife of an Ambassador who had an affair with the young officer Holemář with whom I was spending a lot of time on the ship.  So out of jealousy, she wanted to take this strange revenge on me.  I was told this under strict confidentiality.

I went over and over this in my head, wondering how it was possible that in the midst of war somebody, and moreover a woman in the situation of a refugee (after all she was saving her life), would report something that wasn’t even possible.  I could not understand it but I was very upset by it as I could well imagine what it would mean if the British had believed it, or had any kind of suspicion.  They could easily have interned me for five years.  I might have been suffering or dying for five years as a prisoner because some goose was jealous that I was studying with this guy, even though I didn’t have any other relations with him.  We had a book.  I don’t know, perhaps it was Eckersley, and according to this Eckersley book we studied English and that was all.

When we finally disembarked in Liverpool, we were put into an area surrounded by barbed wire for two nights.  Then they took us to London.  In London we were locked in a sort of gymnasium with no beds, only chairs to sit on.  Here we stayed for another two nights.  Outside, the soldiers were patrolling.  They were watching the camp or actually the gymnasium.  The police officers came and questioned everybody about their papers with unending “whys” and “hows” and “whats.”

It was there I got to know Mrs. Bondy, the writer, with whom I became friends.  She was pregnant at that time.  I knew her husband very well because he was a colleague of your daddy.  He also fought on the Spanish front.  He had married her in Paris, where he had gotten to know her and through marriage gave her a possibility to escape, as the wife of an officer.  And then their boy was born, whom you later got to know as a grownup in Budapest.  They remained together after the war.  

From the gymnasium, they took us into various homes where people offered to put us up.  That means that a whole number of British families offered their services; that they would take refugees into their apartments or houses.  Of course they were paid for that, but not by us.  I was put with a worker’s family which was very nice.  They were a married couple without children.  Their name was Flynn.  However, they lived immediately next to the Croyden airport where there were these ramps for launching antiaircraft rockets, so it wasn’t exactly safe in that sense, because just then it was September 1940 and the big Blitz on London started.  London was on fire.  The lady of the house where I lived ran out several times and called to me, “Look, the whole sky is red. Totally red.  All of London is on fire.”  Well, the fact is that not all of London was on fire, but many parts of London were.  And I lived with that, one can say, daily.  There were heavy bombings.  The house in front of ours was hit directly in the winter and for several weeks we had no windows.  

Once we went with one Czech woman to the movies at five o’clock in the afternoon to distract ourselves.  It wasn’t far from where we lived.  At seven we’d be home, seven-thirty at the latest.  But while we were in the movie, there was an announcement on the screen:  “Don’t leave the raid is on.”  I had a summer dress on and was shivering with cold.  And it was three o’clock in the morning, and the announcement was still repeated and repeated on the screen.  It was four o’clock in the morning and I couldn’t stand it.  The Czech woman who was with me said that she wouldn’t go out – it wouldn’t even occur to her.  And I said that I was trembling with cold and I couldn’t sit anymore.  We had been sitting since five o’clock.  It was twelve hours of sitting in one chair.  I decided to leave in spite of the warnings because I just couldn’t stand it anymore.

I left and of course I ran as fast as I could and, when I was approaching our house, the soldiers at the launching pad shouted at me, “Run away, run away, run away.”  So I ran away even faster and when I got home, the landlady said, “What happened to you?  You’re like a dying woman.”  I said, “Well, I had mortal fear when they shouted at me like that.  But thank God I’m here.”

There were also bomb shelters.  Of course they were not adequate against a direct hit.  We tried once what was called an Anderson shelter.  It was a tin-like place under the earth and one could stay overnight so that one would feel more secure.  These bombings lasted from September all the way to May uninterruptedly, to the point that one could set one’s watch according to it because it started exactly at seven o’clock at night and it lasted until seven in the morning.  Then there was a two-hour interruption, and at nine o’clock it started again.  

My income was negligible – as a wife of a private I had a ridiculous sum of money – how would I say it? – such a contribution wasn’t enough for anything.  Of course the wives of the officers had quite a different life.  They could live quite well.  So I started to seek connections in order to renew my profession.  I succeeded in contacting the London emigrés.  Among them were several very influential people who were interested and who also knew me by name.  And then I also found out, with the help of the Embassy, where your daddy was.  He had been rescued on another Egyptian ship, so we were perhaps sailing more or less at the same time.  It would be, however, a very long time before he would get any leave, but we at least knew about one another.  

I succeeded in getting a cheap violin after a year of having none and I started to practice.  Sometime later a famous Russian violinist, Stanislav Frydberg, lent me a very good one.  I formed the Allied String Quartet where I played first violin and we gave concerts at various official places.  One of these concerts was also attended by Jan Masaryk and President Beneš’s wife brought me flowers.  Another time we played in memory of Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk.

After a year, I moved to Kensington Gardens, because of the incidents while traveling to the rehearsals in the center of town.  For example, one would get into a bus and the bus in front of you was on fire.  I often admired the courage and discipline of the English who often had to spend a night in the subway because if you didn’t get on the bus by 6 p.m., you were not able to get home.  In spite of that, they never forced themselves into the buses when conductor said, “Full up.”

One time, I remember, I went to the cleaners at Oxford Street.  I intended to have my lunch afterwards in the nearby Lion’s Corner House.  When I left the cleaner’s, its roof flew into the air and Lion’s Corner House was no more.  Next to me was a young girl standing and crying, “My mom is there, my mom is there!”  Another time, I was invited to play at the house of a well-known painter from Vienna.  When I got there, I couldn’t find the house.  I asked the policeman, who told me, “Of course, you can’t find it, it has been hit.”  There was constant blackout and sometimes it was hard to find your way home. 

Later on, I was able to return the violin to Frydberg, with whom I also played, because the Government lent me an Italian violin from Hill, the world-famous violinmaker.  Before I returned to Czechoslovakia, I returned it.  I hoped I would get back my own one.

I played with ENSA (English Association for the Entertainment of the Allied Forces) in the classical section all over England and also in Dunkerque.  I went there on a battleship and on that occasion, I was lent the title of a British lieutenant for my protection.  On the way, I got an inflammation in my cheek bone, which was very painful and was accompanied by fever.  They took me from one military doctor to another.  I had a swollen face, but they assured me that they would put reflectors to one side so that it wouldn’t be seen.  I didn’t want to play under such circumstances, but they said that there were three thousand people looking forward to it, so I had to do it.  While I was playing, the shrapnel was cracking nearby, but I didn’t care.  I was more worried about losing my memory.  

After the concert, in order to humor me, the commander, General Liška, recently decorated by President Havel, took me in his military car at midnight to symbolically “open the fire”.  I pressed some button and the airfighters took off.

Your daddy’s technical ability made him soon indispensable to the unit and so he quickly advanced to a sergeant, and then to a captain.  His war story is quite different from mine, but equally full of life-threatening experiences.  After having been stationed for a long time in Scotland, he was part of the long expected British invasion into France and his tank got all the way to Pilsen in Czechoslovakia in 1945, where, as is well known, they were ordered to stop in accordance with the political agreement.

One of the side effects of the war for your daddy was that he became involved with Communist ideology.  It was this ideology that ruined all his plans and his future.  His enormous abilities were left unused, while he enthusiastically wanted to be involved in what he considered a patriotic effort of building socialism in his old country.  He never considered coming back to England and urged me to return to Czechoslovakia.  So I did. 

I came on a Belgian refugee train through Germany where only one track was left, and when passengers threw leftovers of food out of the window of the train, they were picked up by the starving Germans.  When I arrived in Prague, your daddy was waiting for me at the railway station with a truck and took me to Děčín (a border town in northern Bohemia), because even though our apartment in Prague was supposed to be returned to us by a decree, we didn’t get anything.  So we were forced to move to this town in the Sudeten area where your daddy got a job in a factory.  At this town we got a five-room apartment which we shared with another refugee family who were our friends.  These were apartments left open after the Germans were forced to leave the country.

Food was rationed and very poor.  The American (UNRA) help was very much appreciated.  Public transportation didn’t exist and as the apartment was on the periphery, I had to face long walks everywhere.  Your daddy’s job did not last very long because he couldn’t stand it in the factory.  He was constantly under attack and persecution, why, I don’t know exactly.  The fact is that he left for Prague with friends who were working with him.  So I was left alone in the large apartment and I was pregnant.  Because there was no telephone, your daddy, thanks to his inventive ability, made an arrangement of a sort of a ring that led to the second floor into an apartment of a German engineer who was very decent.  When the birth was due, as there was absolutely no transportation, I had to walk an hour to the hospital.  There you were born and your daddy came with all his friends from Prague to celebrate.

After a year, in 1947, we managed to move to Prague, to a small one-room apartment.  A year later, the Communist putsch came.  During all this time, your daddy was trying to get back his former workshop where he had a great number of valuable machines and instruments, some of which were his own inventions.  These were trusted to the head of his employees to keep through the war.  When he came back, this former employee refused to return anything and claimed that the machines were sold to him by your daddy before he left.  This was a lie, and even though your daddy took him to court, he didn’t get anything back.  I, myself, had inherited a large house and three hundred acres (1 214 056.93 square meters) of land in Mladá Boleslav from my grandmother.  This, of course, was taken by the Communists in 1948 and on top of that they demanded that I pay eight thousand crowns on the remaining mortgage.  The crown was devalued at that time 50 to 1, yet the mortgage was counted by them in the old currency.  I told them, “Isn’t it enough that you took my house?” After arguing for a long time, they agreed that I would pay only two thousand.  Any money that I had from before the war which I hid with my friends (fifty thousand crowns, which was a lot of money at the time) I lost to the devaluation. 

But all these financial matters seemed unimportant in light of so many losses of the nearest and dearest.  We had our hands full with finding work in our fields.

***

I heard most of this story for the first time by chance, when I was nine years old.  My mother was relating it to a close friend.  When I was growing up in Prague in the 1950s and 60s, my parents’ experience and Jewishness were kept more or less secret because the political atmosphere of the time made it undesirable “to come out.”  The Communists didn’t want to concern themselves with the fate of the Jews, and even within the other layers of the population, secret anti-Semitism was rampant.  Thus it was never talked about that twenty-six members of our family including my mother’s sister and my father’s parents were gassed in German concentration camps.  From that time on, my father, whose mother tongue was German (another thing that was better kept secret) and who had attended German schools, including the Technical University of Berlin where he got his Engineer’s degree, refused to speak German.  He preferred to speak hack Czech even at home where he didn’t have to.  I have never heard him speak about his parents, who were as a matter of fact Protestant by religion.  He seemed to have been too traumatized by the past.  I never had a sense of a broader family.  All of my relatives either perished before I was born or were dispersed all over the world and the distances and the Iron Curtain made it impossible to have more than a shadow feeling concerning their identity.  There was certainly no feeling of closeness or belonging.

Until 1989, the participation of the Western Army, including the Czechoslovak Brigade in which my father fought, was also silenced and many of its members, especially the plane pilots in the Blitz who played an extraordinary role, were even persecuted.  Only the Soviet Union was to be given credit for the liberation.

Paradoxically, I have been forced to repeat my mother’s escape after the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when even though my physical life was not in danger, my spiritual one was.  I was condemned to eighteen months in prison.  On my journey, I had an important two years’ stop in West Germany, which in the meantime became a blossoming country and one in which I met people who seemed not to want to feel responsible any more for what had happened a couple of generations ago.  It did not seem to have any real impact on them and they seemed only to pay lip service at best to the German “debt”; yet the absence of my family, their pain and the pain of my parents with which, I was totally identified, my nightmares, and the Communist desert that followed the German occupation in my country felt all too real to me.

It was very hard for me to find a true identity in myself separate from my mother’s, as the pain of my parents and those closest to them always seemed too overwhelming during my childhood.  Instead of taking care of myself as a child, I always felt I had to protect them no matter what since they had already been through so much.  I suffered enormous guilt feelings for “abandoning” them when I grew up, for I couldn’t stand the fact that they should go through one more loss.  “My case,“ my pain, was never really important in comparison with theirs.  When after many years the stored, private, “unimportant” pain became too much to bear, I ended up in turn hating my parents as that was the only way I knew how to claim my identity.  Trusting the outside world was always an enormous problem for me.  

In Germany in the early seventies I also met young students who were all for concentration camps, Russian-style, believing that this was necessary for the common good.  I met people who were very friendly and very helpful, but I also ran into animosity toward strangers and I even more into humiliating patriarchal attitudes.  After a long odyssey, I ended up in America, where I settled in Blooming, Indiana.  My father died before I ever could visit Czechoslovakia.  The Czechs did not even give me a visa so I could come to his funeral in time.  My mother is still alive and our relationship is finally healed enough that I feel free to put her story on paper.

About the Author

Bronislava Volková is a poet, collage artist, semiotics expert, essayist, translator and Professor Emerita at Indiana University, Bloomington, USA. There, she was Head of Czech studies at the Slavic Department for 30 years. She went into exile in 1974. She has taught at the Dale University in Cologne, University in Marburg, and at Harvard, as well as the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. From 1982, she taught in Bloomington. She is a member of both the Czech and American PEN Clubs. She has written thirty books, including the extensive bilingual Czech – English anthology of Czech Poetry Up The Devil’s Back: A Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Czech Poetry, 2008. Her poetry has been translated into 12 languages.

Aside from poetry, Volková has also written extensively on the semantics of emotive language, semiotics of implied values and gender in Czech literature, as well as about exile. Volková has been awarded several international prizes for literature and culture. More Information at www.bronislavavolkova.com.

Like an Old Movie by Mircea Dan Duta

Translated by Natalie Nera

I’m sitting at Ginger Mary’s, a railway station pub in Ostrava. The place feels as industrial as the rest of this North Moravian city. A beer to say goodbye. An empty pint on my table. A pretty young blonde is sitting at the table in front of me. The femininity of her existence – her unreal blue eyes, her angelic face, her firm round breasts, her beautiful sexy legs, her narrow waist, her delicate knees, her thin ankles and elegant pumps, paired with the incomprehensible city of Ostrava… I am staring knowingly, urgently, and in vain. She doesn’t notice me at all. In fact, she doesn’t move at all, as if she were dead. Yes, I know she’s not dead, because that’s what I understand about Ostrava, that there are no dead blondes sitting around with a beer at Ginger Mary’s. But that doesn’t matter anymore, does it?

But what did I get from Ostrava this year?

A month (just a crescent) of authors’ readings, in which I was originally supposed to moderate thirty events, but in the end there were only fourteen of them.

A well-known poet promised to attend all of them, though he ended up attending only four.

I was invited to another illustrious reading, where, as the – would-be – main guest, I was supposed to read five poems, and in the end I barely read one.

A beautiful Slovak photography student, with whom I fell incurably in love, and vanished from the Ginger Mary’s together with two bright young classmates, without paying their bill.

The pissed-off publican who didn’t want to understand that I wasn’t really the father of those students, so I didn’t have to cover their bill.  The police officer finally solved everything by making me pay for his dinner in addition to their beers, liquor shots and plates of stew.

Futile dreams of promoting my poetry, if not in the Czech Republic, Moravia, Silesia or Ostrava, then at least at the Ginger Mary’s and at the Absinthe Club, and if not at the club, then at least at Les.

No beer at Dvanáctka, which is a theatre space.

A bottle of local liquor – Becherovka – gifted by the festival director, which doesn’t fit in my luggage, so I have to sip it in secret here at the Ginger Mary’s, or on the fourth platform at the Ostrava’s Central Station before my train leaves.

Two bus rides in full sobriety, to Brno to attend some conferences, followed by three drunken train rides back to Ostrava.

(I have never found the unshaven conductors on Czech Railways prettier and more seductive).

Seventy-two draught Ostravar beers, which I paid for out of my own pocket, and another thirty-six, which I would have been entitled to for free had I learned in time that as a festival participant I also enjoyed certain benefits, not just obligations.

The hands of the long-broken wall clock in my room, still showing three hours and twenty minutes of in all likelihood our era, as still as my empty pint here at the Ginger Mary’s and as still as the pretty young blonde at the table in front of me. I down the Director’s bottle of Becherovka. This year, like the years before, Ostrava didn’t show me any panties. My train’s on time. I won’t make it anyway. I don’t give a damn about them. Or him. And everything. I’m slowly falling asleep. Here in Ostrava at the Ginger Mary’s.

… to magically wake up at the Dragon bar in Brno.

A pretty, unapproachable blonde is at the table in front of me. She’s typing on her phone and smiling stupidly at the screen.

Next to me, a fat guy in a business suit. His cell phone keeps ringing, but he doesn’t answer.

The waitress is chatting with the bartender, they haven’t taken an order in half an hour.

There’s an empty pint glass on my table. Loneliness in Brno. In the old movie with the same title, they were just dealing with boredom.

I don’t know how they managed to bring me the first beer and cutlery. I’d like to cut my veins with the knife, which would solve everything, of course, but I don’t know how the fork would fit into the equation, let alone a spoon and tea spoon. And so, I hesitate over whether to stab myself in the wrist, throat or liver with the knife, and whether this would be better achieved with the fork, spoon or tea spoon, or just feebly with my own bare hands.

I look around once more. Certainly no one will teach me. The blonde is typing on her cell phone, the fat guy’s cell phone is ringing constantly and unnecessarily, the glass in front of me is still empty, the waitress is still chatting with the bartender – it’s getting unbearable. Just take the knife in your hand and then there will be a solution.

All of a sudden, the blonde giggles charmingly – you know, I’ve never heard such a charming and seductive laugh before; she spreads her beautiful legs like wings – spontaneously, unexpectedly, abundantly and willingly, oh man, as I enjoy the sight of her modern, transparent and immaculate white miniature panties, the fat man at the next table finally takes the last of these urgent calls, oh man, what a pleasant and willing corporatist voice, the waitress and bartender appear at my table, what would you like, sir, oh, man, how nice and helpful they are, oh well, I know what to do, life is worth living, the void around me can be filled after all, so I’m ordering another beer.

About the Author

Mircea Dan Duta (b. 27 May 1967, Bucharest) is a poet, a film historian, critic,  researcher and academic (he holds a PhD in the subject), translator (Czech, Slovak, Polish, Romanian, French and English), and writer who has chosen to express himself in another language – Czech. He has also produced and organised many literary events in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania. As editor, he works for Levure Littéraire (France, USA, Germany), A Too Powerful World (Serbia), Alephi (India) and Quest (Montenegro).

His poetry collections include: Landscapes, Flights and Dictations, Tin quotes, inferiority complexes and human rights (2014/2015, Petr Štengl Editions, Prague), Plíz sujčov jor mobajl foun senťu / Pliiz suiciof ior mobail faun senchiu (Next Page Editions, Bucharest, 2020, bilingual Czech-Romanian anthology). Examples of his academic work are: Narrator, Author & God (Charles University Press, Prague, 2009), The Holocaust in Czech, Slovak and Polish Literature & Cinema (ibid., 2007), The Czech & Slovak Film New Wave in the Social, Political and Cultural Context of the 60s of the 20th Century (Jozef Škvorecký Literary Academy Press, Prague, 2008) – last two titles are collective works.

His literary works have been translated into many languages and published in many countries: Britain, France, the USA, Serbia, Poland, Spain, India, Montenegro, Albania, Egypt, Syria, Korea and Kosovo. His poems have appeared in numerous international anthologies of contemporary literature – in the USA, UK, Mongolia, Spain, Czech Republic, South-Africa, India, Indonesia, Romania, Moldova.

Broken Glasses by Tom Kelly

I am myopic. I had broken my glasses and needed to go for my first job-interview. Not a good start. I thought, at sixteen, going on seventeen, meant I definitely could not go. My mother went apoplectic when I suggested I miss the interview, ‘I had to!’ I looked for comfort from Grandmother. She would realise I would feel very uncomfortable because of my poor eyesight and could not find my way there. Grandmother was incredulous. How could I think of not going? The dye was cast.

After finding a compliant wall I made my way to the shipyard office where I had to be interviewed. Picture Blind Pew from ‘Treasure Island’. Now the interview, like my eyes, is not clear. The office, however, is printed strongly on my memory: I had slipped into a Dickens novel. Take away the harsh fluorescent lights on the ceiling and everything else was Bob Cratchit. I was surprised, initially, as to why the rest of the staff did not talk about Ebenezer Scrooge. Heavy jackets and the arses of trousers shining like a brand-new half-crown were the order of the day. Shirts and ties, not matching, completed the dress code. Ebenezer may not have approved.

Outside the office, boats were being repaired in the shipyard and the noise was unbelievable. Frightening. Caulker’s hammers attacked the air and echoed around the docks. No-one seemed to notice. This was my new normality. At dinner-time I walked round the shipyard. Can you see me? Black Donkey jacket and a brightly coloured shirt with a tab collar. I still sense my insecurity.

‘What did I do?’ I worked in the Time-Office. I checked and calculated workers’ time spent on their job. Have you noticed how people rarely ask what you do at work after you tell them you have an office job? Words like ‘Accounts’, and ‘Wage Department’ seem to suffice. Then you talk about getting to and from work.

This is what I did in the Time-Office. I wrote in huge ledgers. How ‘huge’ is ‘huge?’ Spread both your arms out as far as they will stretch and about half that span is the width of the black ledgers. They are made of metal and you attach ledger sheets into punch holes. I hope the picture is clear.

I soon learnt some men were not always happy about how much they were being paid. Nothing new in that. Men, generally smelling of beer, would come to our window in the Time-Office and tell us that they wanted their pay sorted or they would ‘sort us’ out.

I would dive to the office door and lock it quickly or if that failed hold my foot and the rest of my body against the bottom of the door. One man told me, several times, his wages were wrong. He refused to accept anything I said. I stood at a window where queries were dealt with. I eventually closed the window on this man as he had drunk so much it was difficult to understand anything he was trying to say.

I brought the window down. And fastened the bolt that locked it. The next moment I was covered in glass. He had put his fist through the window. The police were called. The man stood in the yard, outside our office, telling of his complaints to any-one who would listen while blood dripped from his hand. The policeman asked if he had broken the window. He said, ‘No’. The policeman asked how he cut his hand. He said, ‘Shaving this morning’.

Shaving did not seem to feature with the Tank Cleaners. They took oil from the inside of tanks, going into the hold of ships on make-shift ladders, after a pump had taken as much oil out of the tank as it possibly could. The oil had to be removed before the ship could leave the dock on the tide.

These were mostly young men dressed in rags. No masks. No hard hats or breathing equipment. They had a portacabin where they kept haversacks with their sandwiches they would eat after the journey to the bowels of the hold. In the corner of the yard was a 45-gallon drum, filled with ‘Swarfega’, which helped clean the oil from their arms and faces.

It is winter. I am with the Tank Cleaners’ Foreman asking how many hours his men had worked during the night. The drum is covered with ice. A young lad, about the same age as me, picks up a metal bar and smashes the ice that is preventing him from getting at the ‘Swarfega’. The noise is of a skull being smashed. The ice shatters across the drum as I move my repaired broken glasses into my inside jacket pocket and the young lad becomes a blur that is with me today.  

About the Author

Tom Kelly is a Tyneside writer who has had a great deal of his stage work produced by the Customs House, South Shields. His ninth poetry collection This Small Patch has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press who also published his short story collection Behind the Wall. His stories have appeared in a number of UK magazines and on Radio Four. www.tomkelly.org.uk

Ellen, Maggie and I by Tom Kelly

 

I am looking at a photograph from 1933 of Palmers, the great Jarrow shipyard on Tyneside. It had just closed making most of the town unemployed. My Great Grandmother Maggie is trying to making ends meet and failing. The Thirties are hard and it’s going to get harder. Maggie knew that better than me. Here are the notes and letters Maggie wrote. My mother gave then to me years ago and I didn’t read them until recently.

She lost two children in child birth, the infant mortality rate in the town was 11% in the Thirties, today’s it’s less than half of one-percent. I’ve not had a child. I don’t know if I will. Do I want one? My partner says I should make up my mind. My M.A. is ‘taking over’, he says. My dissertation is on Jarrow in the 1930s and Ellen Wilkinson, the town’s MP from 1935.

Here is a photograph of her in Jarrow during the 1935 election. I have written how she must have felt, ‘My first time in Jarrow. I had just turned forty and thought I had seen poverty but not this defeat in people: it made me ill. My heart was wrung out. I saw knots of worn-out men hanging round corners, lined faces told their stories: hunger, cramped lives, hearts and heads held in a giant vice, locked in pain. I looked again at these old men and women and they were young and trapped in cramped life cages. The government had closed ranks on them. It had decided, in the words of the President of the Board of Trade, Lord Runciman, that Jarrow, ‘must work out its own salvation.’ I was hungry to change their lives. I held a meeting on the Pit Heap at Jarrow and saw men’s eyes glisten in the blue-black-gas-lamped night and was lifted. I was guided by their pain. I was carried. The government has closed its all-seeing eyes and decided not witness the devastation it was causing. An entire town does not deserve to live like this.
I could hear the emotion in my voice and held-in rage as I spoke, “I will do my utmost. You will be my witness, if I fail you must tell me. My failure must not happen. Let’s reach for the stars….”
After the meeting I talked to families and they revealed the harsh realities of their lives, these were not mere statistics. Their demands for the bare necessities were being denied. I had a burning hatred for all in power, but I knew I could not allow that to rule.’
I have read so much about the 1930’s and marching as a means of protest was not unusual. The blind marched from Edinburgh and miners from Wales, all saying the same thing: what is happening can only be wrong. Jarrow Council organised a march to London in October 1936. I could hardly believe when I read Maggie’s notes but she was at Ellen’s meeting. Here is what she wrote in pencil. I had to photocopy them to save them:
‘I was on the Pit Heap. There were hundreds there. When Ellen got up to speak, she was wearing red, that’s one of the reasons she’s called, ‘Red Ellen.’ Aa’ll never forget it. Aa was lifted.  Aa thought she can do something; we can escape this. You know we had nowt. TB in Jarrow was aa scourge. Aa lost aa sister through it; she was only thirteen. Aa was hungry all the time. The walls in our streets were filled with beetles we would squash and see blood splashing on the walls. We felt our blood was being taken and wasted.
Our lives were being wasted. Do you know hunger? You can think of nothing else. Nowt. Don’t talk to me of problems, until you’ve known real poverty. You can’t even look at me. On the night of Ellen’s meeting the stars seemed to be sitting on me head, the air had aa bite but was fresh, it smelt of hope. She gave me a sprig of hope and that’s something aa’ d never known. Never. I loved and breathed something new, it made me forget about me empty belly.’
I felt Maggie was writing directly to me. I have cried over her words more than anything else in my life. I suffer from asthma, so did Ellen. Medication’s more sophisticated now, I use a spray. At the time they thought it was psychosomatic. She used tablets. There were doubts about her cause of death. She was only fifty-six, and the Minister of Education. Some intimated she committed suicide. Do people die through a lack of love? Is it enough for life to just drift on? Is that enough? We must need more. Ellen was a passionate woman and has stayed in people’s hearts and minds eighty years later. But was she really loved? She had lovers but was she loved?
I love this photograph, of Ellen in full-flow. She was not some bloodless, passionless facsimile but the real bloody thing. My partner says I have become too engrossed in Ellen, to the detriment of everything else. What he means is that the flat is a mess and why has he got to come home to a darkened room with me on my lap top looking at, ‘Ellen bloody Wilkinson photos?’  
This is a Jarrow Crusade photograph. Do you know who has the copyright on the photos? The Getty Foundation. The irony is not lost on me. In this photo Ellen’s leading the march. She didn’t walk all the way from Jarrow to London. She joined the march when she could leave The House of Commons. Here she is having a break with the marchers. And it wasn’t just a photo opportunity. This was the crusade to save a town. And what happened?  Defeat’s a bitter pill and it’s hard to swallow?
Their petition was ‘presented’ to Parliament and that was it. No debate. Some of the marchers were all for going back into the House and causing a disturbance but that would have been undemocratic and Ellen spoke to them and persuaded them not to. What did the marchers achieve? What were they given?  A second-hand suit and a third-class rail ticket back to Jarrow.
Here is another note from Maggie. I will include it in my dissertation. This is her during the Second World War. She must have written it in the shipyard, the back is covered in grease.
‘Aa got aa job as aa Lady Driller during the war. It was bloody hard. When aa first started aa couldn’t lift the drill, men would stand around, watching me struggle, laughing their socks off. By the end aa could throw it over me shoulder as if it was aa bairn. They stopped laughing. Mind you’ve got to be careful when the drill bits snaps, they fly all over the place. One flew off and hit the foreman right up the arse! All the lasses screamed but he never said aa thing. Just walked slowly to the lavatory, where he screamed like aa stuffed pig.
I’m expecting an’ aa pray it’s a boy. That’s what me man wants. Not that he has ever said. It might make him happy and pigs would definitely fly.  He never spoke much about the march. Except when he had a drink. He said they had been sold down the river. He used to get really mad but he was never good with words and they would spill out and aa would end-up battered and bruised and aa’d go ti bed with the bairns.’
I picture Ellen alone, after the marchers have had their boat trip on the Thames, after they have picked-up their second-hand suits and after being been waved off from Kings Cross.  Do you know that feeling? Not just the way you feel when you have the kind of loneliness that lasts for days. It is corrosive, drags its heels for years through your heart so you settle for second best, for anything rather the emptiness that brings such pain. You endure anything after that.
Is that the way I feel about my partner? Ellen and Maggie’s lives have made me look at my own: I have to do more. Maggie, on one of her notes said, ‘Me father could neither read nor write.’
I am writing this for Ellen, Maggie and me.

 

 





Tom Kelly’s Grandmother

About the Author:

Tom Kelly is a Jarrow-born poet, short story writer and playwright. He has had eleven books of poetry, short stories and a play published in as many years. His new poetry collection THIS SMALL PATCH has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press. 

Grand Caverns by Robert Boucheron

In 1804, on a farm on the Shenandoah River a few miles from Harrisonburg, Virginia, a young man named Bernard Weyer thrust a spade into what he thought was a groundhog den. The earth collapsed into a much bigger hole, “a subterranean fairyland of unbelievable beauty,” according to Nancy B. Hess in The Heartland: Rockingham County. Two years later, “Weyers Cave” opened for tours, making it “the oldest continually operating show cave in the United States.”
Since 1806, the cave Weyer found has gone through several owners and changes of name, including “Grottoes of the Shenandoah.” Holly Stover bought the property in 1926 and changed the name to Grand Caverns. In 1973 the Department of the Interior declared the site a National Natural Landmark. The owner at the time was Gladys Kellow. In 1974 Miss Kellow gave the property to the Upper Valley Regional Park Authority, and in 2009 that body gave it to the Town of Grottoes. The land surface is laid out as a public park, where people can hike, bike, fish, play mini-golf, pitch horseshoes, run and stretch on an exercise trail, and swim in a concrete pool in the summer. The cave is open year-round.
The Shenandoah Valley has about ten such caves on private property. In the United States, the National Park Service owns and operates some big and spectacular caves, including Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Caverns exist in all but two states, and they number in the thousands. A few hundred are open to the public as small-scale business enterprises. Grand Caverns is uniquely municipal.
In December, the Grottoes Ruritan Club sponsors Caroling in the Caverns, where you can sing “Christmas carols in a venue like no other.” Grand Caverns is a Civil War historic site. Battles were fought nearby, and troops from both North and South camped in the cave. Many soldiers wrote their names and dates on the walls. They left things behind. These and other items such as lamps and a metal ladder, from over two hundred years of visits, are displayed in a large wooden building at the entrance to the cave. Here also are museum exhibits on the geological formation of the cave and its weird wildlife.
The Shenandoah Valley Railroad was completed in 1880. Trains increased traffic and boosted business. The railroad inspired a string of hotels along its route to welcome summer vacationers and invalids, for whom the valley air was touted as pure and restorative. These picturesque, rambling structures had porches, turrets, elaborate woodwork, and grand dining rooms. Built entirely of wood, most have burned to the ground, including one in the town of Grottoes, which had a brief boom in the 1880s. A few miles away, the Brandon Hotel was built in 1890 in Waynesboro, Virginia. Later equipped with sprinklers, it was known as Fairfax Hall, a secondary school for girls, and later still as a police training academy. The building was restored in 2000 as affordable apartments for senior citizens.
I visit Grand Caverns on a warm May afternoon. The Stone Lodge, built in 1926, is a large, two-story, rustic cottage of local gray limestone, half-timber, and stucco. The ground floor rooms, which may have been used for entertainment as they are rather grand, harbor a gift shop and ticket sales. Living quarters were upstairs, now unoccupied and used for storage.
The gift shop has no guide book, map, or pamphlet, and only one picture postcard. I buy a ticket for the guided tour. As I wait for it to start, I browse displays of T-shirts, stickers, children’s books on ecology, stuffed animals, and mineral samples from around the world. Outside again, I walk up a long ramp to the cave entrance, where I loiter in the museum. At last, about ten of us are summoned to a plain steel door painted white. Behind the door lies the geological marvel.
Our guide is B. J., a man about age sixty-five in a white polo shirt, hunting vest, and gray goatee. Like the rest of the staff of fifteen to twenty, he is a local resident. Like many hereabouts, he has an ancestor who fought in the Confederate Army. We walk single file through the cave on a path of crushed stone, or stand in a clump in an open gallery. B. J. rattles off scientific facts, historical data, and stories from memory. He comments on the veracity of the stories. He repeats comments made by previous visitors from around the world. He takes questions and parries smart remarks. You cannot get the better of B. J.
The tour of Grand Caverns takes up to ninety minutes. It follows a route that was widened in places with the help of dynamite. Steps are carved in the solid rock, and metal pipe handrails are attached to walls. In the nineteenth century, deposits of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) were mined for use in making gunpowder, as in other caves. Bat guano was mined for use as fertilizer, as it is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. To preserve the cave, visitors today are told to bring nothing in and take nothing out.
Strange shapes that took thousands of years to form can be broken easily. As in a museum, you must not touch. The oil from your fingers can stop the slow process of crystallization. And the ecosystem of a cave is delicate. Removing a single organism—a cricket, a ghostly fungus, a white crayfish—can alter the balance for years to come.
Electric lights are provided throughout, the bulbs hidden from view. Stapled to the stone wall, a bundle of electrical cables runs alongside the path. The lighting of the better stone formations is colorful and theatrical, more razzle-dazzle than strictly educational. In the 1800s, visitors carried candles, pine torches, magnesium flares, and lanterns. Permanent lighting was first installed in 1889. Photographs are allowed.
If the modern tour requires no awkward scrambling or dangerous open flames, the cave is cold and damp. It maintains a constant temperature of fifty-four degrees Fahrenheit, and water drips more or less everywhere. If it drips on you, B. J. says, call it a “cave kiss.” The metal handrails are wet to the touch, and the path is slick where it crosses bare rock. The wet stone glistens and sparkles. Pools of still water reflect like mirrors.
The stone formations are mainly white calcite (calcium carbonate, or limestone). The way they form is analogous to freezing. Calcite dissolves easily, flows underground through cracks and porous layers, and precipitates where it meets open air. Stalactites resemble icicles, then. The sheet flows, rippling draperies, and complex shapes recall coats of ice left by a winter storm near a lake or the sea. The calcite may be colored by minerals. Here, iron oxide is the most common, producing yellow to orange shades. Red and purple occur. Green and blue, from copper compounds, are found in other caves.
The white formations look ghostly in the general blackness, and the fluid shapes look like monsters in a dream. They inhabit narrow passages and great voids eroded over eons by the underground streams. Countless side passages lead to the unknown. Chasms yawn at your feet. Vaults overhead show signs of collapse. Millions of years ago, layers of sedimentary rock were forced upward in a “hairpin buckle.” What you see from inside are sheets of bedrock turned on edge. This combination of lightless voids and writhing masses, with no horizontal or vertical lines, cut off from the world of normal sight and sound, is genuinely spooky. At one point, when we are deep in the cave, B. J. flips a switch, and all the lights go out. Darkness is total, panic is imminent, and everyone holds their breath to hear . . . absolutely nothing.
In the course of our tour, B. J. uses a red laser pen to point to certain sculptural formations. He tells us what they are called, and he apologizes for the hokey names. There are organ pipes, angel wings, and underworld themes—the Devil, Hades, and the River Styx. Dante’s Inferno is off to the side and bathed in red electric light. Some of the names are on target. One gallery contains a graceful Flying Bridge. A group of diminutive pinnacles in an alcove does look like a city diorama, or Little Manhattan.
The largest gallery is Cathedral Hall, 280 feet long and 70 feet high. It has the look and sound reverberation of a large church. No church services are recorded, but balls have been danced here since 1836, with live music. A free-standing stalagmite in the middle of the floor recalls a white marble statue of George Washington, wrapped in a cloak and larger than life.
The most peculiar feature is the “shield,” a disc of limestone a few feet in diameter that projects from a wall or hangs in space. Grand Caverns has hundreds of shields, more than any other cave. The shields hang at all angles and from each other. Scientists do not know how they formed. Shields are double, like a pair of plates or cymbals, with a thin void in the middle. One theory is that water under pressure sprayed from a crack, and waterborne calcite solidified before it could drip.
Florid examples of Late Gothic architecture, sprouting crockets and dripping with carved limestone ornament, resemble caves. Or caves resemble Late Gothic architecture. But we are apt to see things that aren’t there. Pareidolia is the clinical name for this “tendency to perceive a meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.” Common examples are the shapes we assign to clouds, a face seen in a fogged window, and a message in tea leaves. In a vague stone flow, what you see depends on your cultural bias, as well as your angle of vision. An Irish harp? It helps to stand in the right spot.
When we emerge from Grand Caverns, B. J. tells us that in 2004 more cave galleries were discovered, greater in extent than those we had just visited. To preserve them, these undisturbed areas will remain “forever wild,” protected by federal law and closed to the public. A map of these galleries hangs near the exit, which returns you to the museum.
If you hanker for the good old days, Grand Caverns manages nearby Fountain Cave, which welcomes school groups and children at least twelve years old. The website calls Fountain Cave:
a former commercial cave that has not been open to the public for almost one hundred years! There are no lights inside the cavern . . . The tour lasts approximately two hours. You’ll get suited with helmets, headlights, knee pads and gloves. For a less adventurous experience, you can use the 1800s pathway. Or opt to have a true caving experience with opportunities for strenuous climbing & crawling.
If the true caving experience has no appeal, you can hear the Great Stalacpipe Organ at Luray Caverns, bask in the Grotto of the Gods at Shenandoah Caverns, or admire the anthodites (stone flowers) at Skyline Caverns. In the stifling heat of summer, what is more delicious than a cool cave? Water trickles through crystal gardens where flowers never wilt in the sun, and dreams endure, shielded from the pitiless light of day. Time slows to a stop. All is still, except for the beating of your own heart.

About the Author:

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Flash Nonfiction Food, Lowestoft Chronicle, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.

Nothing Left to Read by Mark Mayes

It was in a folk club just up from Kentish Town Tube. Ten minute walk. I was a lot younger and I bounded up that road, with a youthful spring, passing a jazz club that I would never visit. In my memory it was always either the middle of April or early autumn – times in the year that I feel most comfortable in.

A large old house, set back, and a place with a large collection of folk songs, and dances, and everything traditionally folk in nature, going back ages, into the mists of folk-lore, you would suppose. I never checked out the collection, but was glad it was there. I never looked at their library.

In a large room, which I think was in a basement, or possibly sub lower-ground, as not wholly beneath the ground, for there was a window, I remember, through which some greenery was visible – that’s where the folk club took place. Every Wednesday night, from 7pm until 11pm. And I went quite bit over a three years or so. Sometimes to the singers’ nights, mostly those, and other times when there were invited guests – semi, or actual pros on the folk circuit.

I preferred the singers’ nights for richness and variety – a singaround where anyone who wanted to offer a song or tune, or poem even, was more than welcome to. And sometimes I joined in, and gave a song, and sometimes I just listened. And I got on speaking terms with some folk there, and began to feel at home, and part of the scene.

I remember one man, in his late forties, slim, with a dodgy leg. He had a stick, but once he was sat, you wouldn’t know anything was up. He was somewhat northern, though where from exactly I have no idea – I don’t remember his name even. But he often sang a song, which on my first hearing, captivated me. It was Silver Coin – a song popular in the 70s, and by the folk group Hunter Muskett. I eventually would learn the song, and record a version of my own, and put it on Soundcloud. And that song has stayed with me, as a friend and comforter, ever since those folk club days, which were thirty years ago now – long before Soundcloud ever was a thing.

The job I wanted to do wasn’t going well, in fact it wasn’t going at all. And love was a foreign game to me then, and I was mired in dark regret and a sense of the permanently lovelorn. I thought I’d never get out of that hole. But the folk club was some consolation, and whenever this man played Silver Coin, some chip of ice in me melted, and I felt love might come again, if I was open and patient enough, and ready for it. And it did. It did.

The man sang this song with a kind of astounding ease, as though it were not singing but a necessary way of talking in melody. You didn’t think how well he was doing it because you were so inside the person’s experience in the song itself, how those lines yearned and found the object of their yearning.

It would be hard to choose a line that I love best, and the only thing to do is go listen to it, anywhere you can find it, but the line that haunts me and pulls me in afresh each time, and into the larger romance of it, is: But when I read what her eyes said, I knew there was nothing left to read.

And with the man singing this song, his guitar so plangent, on those April or September evenings, as I nursed a half a bitter, or orange juice and lemonade, there was a quality of listening as he played the melodic fills between the verses, ghosting the melody and tantalising us with gentleness, a quality of listening that I’ve rarely experienced in a group setting. The song was not being repeated merely (it being one of his go-to numbers), rather always growing in nuance, in heart, in memory. 

About the Author:

Mark writes mostly stories, poems, and songs. He enjoys reading a wide range of things, both fiction and non-fiction. He likes old sit-coms, old TV plays, and is trying to keep fit with the help of his trusty pedometer. 

Evening at Coffee Depot by Ronald Tobey

Evening at Coffee Depot, the Homeless Drunk Man

Dining car – “union-pacific-city-of-denver-streamliner-train”, blogs Denver Post (June 13, 2012), library/8643

 

Eight-thirty. The September sunset ends. A crowd of young people accumulate at the door to Sevilla. Under the club’s green neon sign, Southern California girls, black brown white, in short dancing dresses chatter like birds jiggling on a tree branch, young men in colored shoes stand mute next to them, accessories, shifting from foot to foot, observing, pointing to tricked-out autos.

Across the narrow parking lot, at Coffee Depot, it’s open-mic night. Eighty musicians, audience, and coffee patrons sit in the little theater, formerly the baggage storage room for the Union Pacific’s passenger station, on couches in the lounge, on wrought iron chairs at wrought iron tables outside, on car hoods and fenders, listening, nervous, talking. Several practice with acoustic guitars.

In the small covered patio, a half-dozen tables around a non-working fountain, we take seats. A lone guitarist plays with an amplifier. He sings without a microphone, we can hear his voice occasionally, when the strumming, riffs, picks, and thumping on the guitar box unexpectedly drop in volume.

My eighty-one-year-old mother-in-law is thrilled. She is always up for a party. She laughs, her eyes glisten, her face glows, “he must be professional.”   My wife returns from the order bar with three coffees. Mine, decaffeinated, sugarless, hot; Joan’s, mocha, with extra caffeine, iced; her’s, decaf something, hot. Liz smiles, puts her feet up on the yellow painted iron chair across from her mother. We can’t converse, the amplified guitar is too loud; but the music is enjoyable. We stay and listen.

Two hundred fifty feet away, trains roar on schedule over double tracks. The Amtrak Super Chief out of LA bound for Chicago speeds by, blowing its whistle as it passes through nearby sets of double-gated railroad street crossings. Passengers are already settled at tables in the dining car, ignore our festivities. Then freights, in both directions, on the Union Pacific tracks and the Burlington Santa Fe tracks. Each train with a four-engine locomotive pulls one hundred twenty-five freight and container cars. We feel the rhythmic rumbling of the heavy cars in our feet. The diesel engine noise, steel wheels clacking on breaks in the steel rails, and incessant warning horns punch the air around us.

In the corner of the patio sits a drunk old man with a stubbly, gray beard. A white guy. He is asleep. He slumps in his white wrought iron chair. His hair is long, down to his shoulders, stringy, glistening with grease and dirt in the parking lot lights, reflecting the green of the dance club’s neon sign. His clothes hang loose, crusted with filth, almost brittle. When the acoustic guitar revs up, he seems to hear the music, stirs himself, sits up. Without opening his eyes, he reaches for a large bottle of whiskey stationed next to him on the patio’s concrete floor. He brings the bottle to his lips, covering the label with his hand, as if he is enacting a movie scene and isn’t allowed to advertise the whiskey maker. He tilts his head back, draws in a large gulp, swallows silently, then gently sets the bottle down. By the chair, he has a black backpack, his world stuffed into canvas. Joan looks over at him, then turns toward me. She makes a sad face of sympathy for him. Her husband always gave money to the homeless beggars with “will work for food” signs at the city’s street intersections. “They’re people too.” The drunk man falls back asleep in his chair. He looks homeless. Uncared for.

I watch. The drunk man sleeps without peace. Couples line up at the club door. Cars, most small sedans, enter and depart the parking lot. By the end of the evening, automobiles belonging to dancers at Sevilla and patrons at the café will spread out into streets lined with warehouses along the railroads and Hispanic neighborhoods of small bungalows within walking distance of orange packing houses. In Coffee Depot, I watch community college students with laptops and textbooks confer with one another, drink their coffee, couples touch each other, flirting, laugh at their screens, scrutinize video games.

The black, moonless night is bright as day. Yellow from a shop across the tracks, white of car beams and streetlights, red from railroad crossing signals and backing cars. Blue lamps illuminate the underside of the decorative tent covering the dance floor on the Club Sevilla roof top. My wife is tired, she closes her eyes. I watch her. She briefly dozes off, then wakes. I watch my mother-in-law. An emotion floods me, intensity as unexpected as perfume in the air drenched with gasoline fumes and coffee aromas.

The performer, practicing for his slot on the open mic stage, plays Ray Charles tunes. My wife and Joan look knowledgeably toward each other in enjoyment. Joan says something to me, but I can’t hear her. In a brief break between songs, my wife shouts out a song title for him to sing. He says he’s sung that so often he’s sick of it. Then Joan asks him to “haul out some of those old blues.” My mother-in-law always has a way with strangers, even at 81, charismatic. He laughs, obliges. To a Ray Charles interpretation, he plays “Over the Rainbow” and sings the lyrics. Joan looks at me. “What’s he singing?” “Over-the-rainbow,” I shout, leaning close to her ear. She laughs.

The drunk lurches up. “My son does that,” he mumbles, not to anybody. He falls back asleep. The musician, sitting now astride a table, with the amplifier on a chair, begins to strum a Bob Dylan tune. The drunk wakes up again. He mutters inaudibly. We look over to him. He rouses himself out of his chair. He is short, perhaps five feet five inches. He wears brown leather dress shoes too large for his feet. They are untied. His dirty shirt hangs over his pants. He lifts his pack. He stumbles forward. We think he wants to approach the musician. He passes by our table and says something again. We can’t understand him. He shuffles up to the musician and stands there, weaving slightly out of rhythm. My wife leans forward. “He’s on meth,” she says. “And whiskey,” I add.

Standing next to the musician, the drunk turns slightly toward us. He wants our audience. Suddenly, he begins to sing. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The Dylan song. He sings clearly. He sings like Dylan, a passable imitation. We watch and listen. My mother-in-law’s face bursts with joy. As the drunk sings, a young college student with an acoustic guitar comes over and joins the performing duo.

Euphoria surges in me. It’s forgiveness. We’re all okay in this glowing evening. Club Sevilla, Coffee Depot, the Super Chief passing in the night. Knockin’ on heaven’s door.

 

About the Author:

Ronald Tobey grew up in north New Hampshire, USA, and attended the University of New Hampshire, Durham, where he published his first poem in an independent student journal. He has lived in Ithaca NY, Pittsburgh PA, Riverside CA, Berkley CA, and London UK. After professional careers in Southern California, he and his wife now live in West Virginia, where they raise cattle and keep goats and horses. Ron writes, reflecting personal experience, imagistic poetry of places, moods, and the worlds of work. His poems have appeared in Constellate (UK), Prometheus Dreaming (3 poems), Fishbowl Press Poetry (featured poet of the month), Truly U Review (7 poems), Nymphs, Line Rider Press (3 poems, twice featured poem of the week), Bonnie’s Crew (2 poems, UK), Broadkill Review (2 poems), The Cabinet of Heed (UK), The Failure Baler (UK), Pendemic (2 poems, one with 14 Haiku, Ireland), print anthology Prometheus Unbound (David van den Berg, editor, 2020), Detritus, 3 Moon (10 Haiku, Canada), Variant Literature,  The Write Launch (3 poems), Poetry Pea podcast S3E11 (3 Haiku, Switzerland), Neuro Logical Literary Magazine (Ireland), Better Than Starbucks (6 haiku), and Vaugh Street Doubles (Canada).

 


	

The Writerly Review of Black Polo-Necks by Frances Holland

 

Have you been doubting your writing identity lately? Feeling as if you’re on a par with other people when you know you’re actually so much better than them? Then you need a wardrobe game-changer, and Frances Mulholland* is here to help!

The ‘You look very French today!’ One
This black polo neck is actually more of a dark grey; made from incredibly thin material, it usually retails for around £6 in Asda, and is perfect for when you’ve just bought a new bra you kind of want to show off through the almost-opaque fabric.
Cheap and figure-hugging, team this with black trousers after seeing an advert on Facebook for ‘Les Quatres Cent Coup’ on BFI Player. This will fool people into thinking you possess Gallic insouciance without having to actually download BFI Player, because it’s shit and doesn’t work.
The Investment Piece
So-called because you could have laid down a deposit for a nice semi-detached with front and rear garden for what you’ve just forked out in Reiss or the Autograph section of M&S. It’s pure cashmere, which you have no idea how to wash, and you can’t ask your mam if you can stick it in the machine with some Woolite because then you’d have to admit that you just spent a month’s salary on a fucking JUMPER.
Avoid.
The Magneto
It’s blacker than Jeremy Hunt’s soul, it kind of feels like cashmere but won’t break the bank, and you don’t have to dry it on a flat surface. But it WILL transform you into a human Van De Graff generator, giving out static shocks like Boris Johnson gives out child support payments.
This little number also cannot be worn when smiling as it will transform your face into a grotesque blob of chin and cheeks, so you’ll have to make your peace with looking like a scowling comic book villain if you’re going to wear this. From Dorothy Perkins or somewhere sensible.
‘Just getting some new author photos taken, NBD.’
YEAH right. Such a small deal that you’re now 90% primer and your own parents wouldn’t recognise you. A black slash-neck is the avant-garde alternative to a polo-neck, and when paired with a bookcase background, will make you look astonishingly like Maeve Brennan of ‘The New Yorker’ in a candid shot round Truman Capote’s gaff.
JK, you still look like a butternut squash wearing a binbag.

Other Writerly Accoutrements…
Jewellery: keep to a MINIMUM, or you risk tipping over into “Art Teacher” category. Unless you want to spend six hours talking about Mondrian and Hummus, in which case, knock yourself out with your giant earrings.
Satchel: These are great for carrying notebooks around in. They are, unfortunately, rubbish for carrying anything else in, and don’t even think about putting your keys in it unless you fancy taking up leather-stitching.
Nom de Plume: *See above. Mostly so the kids from work don’t find me.
Freezing cold flat: Perfect for that “impoverished artist” vibe. You already have this, as you’ve spent all your money on fancy coffee, Moleskin notebooks, and black polo necks.

 

About the Author:

Frances Holland has been writing ever since she was five years old, when she realised that putting an amusing caption on a drawing of her dad could get cheap laughs. Her inspirations include folklore and mythology, as well as the everyday lives of the people around her. She lives in Northumberland. This creative non-fiction piece has been inspired by her writer’s residency at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle.

The Baffling Case of Burgundy Lake by Mandira Pattnaik

Zeny
Women by Victoria Holt, 2017

It is unlikely that you’d have missed the baffling case of the Burgundy Lake that hit headlines in the eastern part of the globe. The case was curious. It was the evidence of three pairs of eyes, who happened to present their account to me, against the School of Ichthyology, and the might of documented work and exhaustive taxonomy. That was—well, at best, extremely insufficient.  Yet it did generate a storm as all good controversies do, and in the light of the subsequent events, deserves to be further investigated.

Truth, however well reported, can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

When a hundred and ten girls, some as young as eleven years old, disappeared from their school in Dapchi, Nigeria, the narrative was worse than a poor fiction. The school was only 275 kilometers from Chibok, where Boko Haram militants had kidnapped nearly three hundred girls from their school just four years earlier. The evidence of the kidnapping was, at best, glaring. It was broad daylight, pupils and their teachers milled about, life was usual. Yet it happened. The world shook in outrage and disbelief. You wouldn’t have missed it either.

Living in disbelief in a dysfunctional world is a true commonality. When a loved one goes missing, entwined lives gasp for answers. The world, of family and friends, crumble. Is it not baffling? According to reports, each year more than 25,000 people disappear in the United Kingdom alone. Somebody I knew was one of them. Somewhere in the squirming ocean of humans, another person fell off the grid of relationships he was lovingly weaved in. There was no evidence.

Missing people are lost people—lost to the world and in lost to themselves. Authorities, often handicapped by resources and practicality, act as if it is a loss wished under the carpet.

When he or she chooses to disappear, all that are left behind, people like Sandra Flintoff, mother of Craig who went missing fifteen years ago, become bodies without souls—it means nothing to live or die.

***

When the trio set foot on Quattor Island on a shiftless evening, a steady twilight brooded over the jetty. Quattor means four-sided in Latin. It was never inhabited by any permanent residents; only six square kilometers of flat white sandy beaches, wild forests within which nestles the Burgundy Lake, and infinite serenity.

The regular holidayers religiously avoid it. One takes a forty-five minute ride in the lone steamer from Fraserganz, which pulls ashore first at Alpha Island— the larger one, then takes the scant remainder of passengers, to Quattor Island.

Most enthusiasts rent shacks on the beach where the sea recedes during tides. The rest move inland towards the Burgundy Lake and wait for its enchanting lore.

Is lore a true account? Or was it falsehood disbursed by unsuspecting people down the ages? By the mere repetition of that lore, the fiction transforms into an engrossing truth.

But what happens to evidence? And when there are none? What of the account of the owners of those three pairs of eyes?

Boko Haram, roughly translated from the Hausa language, means ‘Western Education is forbidden’. Dapchi residents like Ba’ana Musa live in the wilderness of anonymity. In the midst of a punitive land, the essence of a better life lies in education. Musa wouldn’t want to send his daughters to school again. The merchants of terror have succeeded.

Over the skies of Yobe State, Nigeria, Air Force planes had flown for over two hundred hours searching for the missing girls. It is not easy to reconcile with disappearances, where the fist of a recalcitrant tiny band is mightier than the collective strength of a nation.

The Nigerian government had released the names of all girls, reconfirmed from registers by the School authorities. Their identities—-contrary to all ethics relating to victim identities and conventions—weren’t kept anonymous.

Missing people are statistics on registers. Not all of them willed to be anonymous. Not the Nepali girls who ended up in brothels in Mumbai.

When a devastating earthquake hit the Himalayan kingdom, they were herded across the border into India with promises of a livelihood. The starving girls were made to disappear, silently, by design. The outrage of their families never shook the world.

***

Let’s keep the three Ichthyology students anonymous as they have requested; and call them by names of fishes they would have liked to be called by— Anchovy, Pilchard and Menhaden, given their deep love for all things fishy!

On the left was the broad stretch of the ocean bathed in ephemeral light and half invisible fishing trawlers in the distant grayness. To the right, between the dark mass of the low dunes and the white sands, dominating the whole view, were colossal trees, which stood heavy and dense, full of the brutal force of Nature left to itself, swaying to the irregular bursts of squalid air.

A dull golden dust hung over the calm bay. Leaving the rest of the group at the beach, the three carefully tread the mud path between the trees towards Burgundy Lake.

A monotonous hollow whisper of the crashing waves sounded feebler as they walked inland. And then— Burgundy Lake was in front of them.

Pitching their puny tents in the clearing, the friends worked towards making a meal on the tiny stove they had remembered to carry along. Beyond them, on the short patch of soft mud, were dirt footmarks of unknown people just visible in the fading dimness. Menhaden lit the portable light, which began to burn condescendingly. Near at hand were ghostly, stunted wild bushes, huddled together in ignominy.

It would be hard to convey the stillness of the place. The wind had stopped, the leaves did not move, not a living soul stirred, like the world had fallen silent, lifeless. Trees were frozen, the waters dense in anticipation, like holding the weight of an enormous secret in their bosom….it was the quiet that struck the trio, calmness—not of peace but of death!

Five girls from the Dapchi School were reported to have met death. Khadija Grema, one of the girls released later, revealed a secret burdening her soul—the thin line between life and death was demarcated by belongingness to a certain faith. It is intriguing how erroneous interpretation of religion can be.

Serenity in death, I believe, is a rare blessing—the finality of death in the contentment of a life well lived. But what of the families that live in limbo for decades in search of closure? About one per cent of missing people never return. The Police files remain open, the families are stranded in a morass of uncertainty, where the news of death would, against the grain of attachments, be hoped for, even welcomed.

The families of persons missing do not cry, instead they question—what went wrong? Through a thousand doors they rummage, through the postcards, flipping through images, through the snippets of memories…they seek answers.

I tried to reason too. I studied philosophy, read the cycle of inevitable repetitions, and prayed for the spell to be broken.

***

A blue haze, half-sand, half-mist, began to shroud the Lake, like the curtain had been drawn to begin the enchanting lore of the Burgundy Lake. The friends were under its spell.

In the pallid light, the Lake seemed to come to life, its banks outlined thinly by intriguing rare dots of burgundy light, bunched together in twos and threes, and then melting away, holding the friends in a mesmerizing trance. This was it! The dots sharpened into lasers streaming through the inky black darkness until the strange rays hovered over the entire lake in a halo of fantastical burgundy.

Next day, a gap in the dense circle of green marked the expanse of the slowly enlivening skies. The eastern corner burst into majestic carmine, in the faint light of which, the friends found, to their perturbation, that the waters were no longer of the vibrant shade of last night; it was in fact an intriguing grey-green, like frozen algae!

Humid air blew in from the sea side, creating alluring ripples on the surface of water; the feeling of mystery lurking, of a story not yet unraveled, hung over the discussions like an apparition.

One mother of a missing child I met, says, would she not know by instinct if her child was dead, taken away to the Heavens? It must have been terrifying to even imagine that, but she believes it is better than living like an apparition, dying a thousand deaths every day. But then, she also hoped her child would perhaps be spotted at a park in another country, perhaps forgetting all about her and happy, living with a kind family in another continent….

Oscillating every waking minute between hope and hopelessness, she said, she might be staring at insanity.

For the parents of the Nigerian girls, hope itself is luxury. So perhaps is insanity. In a world oscillating between starvation and jihadist militancy, life is resigned to destiny.

***

Menhaden suggested a dip in the Lake. They descended the shallow waters, knee deep in the opaque grey-green fluid, almost like mucus in texture but stone-cold like the depths of the deep sea. The smooth pebbles weathered by immeasurable time felt smooth.

In the other-worldly silence, the little aperture of azure sky was stoic, and the wind from the bay stunned into silence.

Something stirred, black against the weltering waters; then the shriek of a man— deafening— like a life on the edge. All happened in a matter of seconds—lesser than the time it would take to read about it. There was a rattling sound as the snout of a Strange being peeped above the waters for less than a second, flashing a red light from its organ at the end of the long barbel that hang down from its chin revealing its teeth-filled mouth. In a moment it brought the six-foot tall Pilchard below the opaque surface of water with its long swaying tail and pinned him down. As the other two panicked, its stalked eyes gleamed, measuring the adversaries. Its back was corrugated, the rough scales standing on ends in the excitement of the battle. Pilchard got up and the managed a punch at its wavering mouth causing it to duck; but it raised again and the two wrestled once more. It was about two meters, an uneasy grey-blue on its skin, the lines of which were shiny in the mucus that it exuded. For once, it opened its mouth on the hinge at the back of its skull. It could easily swallow the man whole within that deep opening. In a swift giant stride Pilchard withdrew to the shoal dragging himself, but the fish hit the man with its diphycercal tail a second time, making him fall. Its barbel wagged languidly through the water, flickering on and off, to set off a trail of luminescent burgundy dots on the surface. In a frightful qualm, Pilchard turned. The evil eyes of the aquatic monster were wriggling on their stalks; its mouth was alive with the algal slime. Presently it descended on the man and sunk its fangs on his right leg as it tried to pull him deeper. Pilchard tried pushing its corrugated back with his free leg but it exuded such oil that it merely slid over its body. The anterior portion of its cranium swung upwards; the gape of its mouth was now large enough to pull a prey inside worth twice its size!

At this juncture, the other two returned to their senses. The man felt a massive surge upwards; his free foot being dragged over the cold pebbles and no sensation of the other foot. At the instant he fainted, one of his saviors hit the fish’s eyes with a dry log, repeating the effort countless times….

When the fish retired from the battlefield, an abominable desolation hung over the place. The injured man lay about on the sand; his mangled leg displaying a gashing wound with the ruthless imprints of the fish’s fangs.

It was, quite unambiguously, related to the Indiana Chalumnae, with its hinged skull and slippery body; a fish thought to have lived only in the deep seas where light cannot penetrate, and which last existed, back in the Cretaceous Period some sixty million years ago!

A year after he had gone missing, someone I thought I knew, returned.

None in the family, none of his friends asked any questions. He offered no explanations. We asked ourselves—who had let him down? Could things have been mended before they broke? The feelings rose, a gathering storm threatening to blow us all. We found ourselves breaking down often. It made us distraught. The fact that he offered no answers and remained in an impregnable bubble, made us wonder why he did not think it worthwhile to love us back? Why he did not care?

***

On the eighth day after the encounter, Pilchard called up his friend, Agatha, curator at the Museum of Natural History, to see if she had any answer to the description they could provide. For one, they now had a solution to the baffling lore of the Lake, and its curious burgundy color. The Chalumnae was known to have emitted a strange laser-like burgundy light from under its eyes to locate its prey in the dimness of the Deep Seas.

Agatha sounded convinced; whether as a friend or as a professional is another matter. But the problem began when Agatha, failing to find reasonable evidence from similar fossils collected from around the world, contacted the Professor Emeritus at the very School of Ichthyology where the three were students. The enormous anomalies—the fact that a creature of very Deep Seas was found in a Lake, whose burgundy color may, after all, be part of some spectacular imagination; the fact that it preyed on human when it was known to have survived in residual organic detritus; and finally, it was thought to have been dead millions of years ago— dismissed the case.

The International Journal of Fish Sciences published the finding, seeming to endorse the students’ views. The School of Ichthyology accused the Journal of ignoring the lack of any scientific evidence. Caught in the middle, the students themselves had to go undercover and have been nameless since.

Months later, buoyed by pressures created as a result of all the public debating, the School of Ichthyology decided to send a team for exploration. The team, a fairly competent one in my view, did not find anything amiss.

Do we publicly debate the growing statistics of people who go missing? Is it not a notion that somehow the family itself was responsible?

Between cursory references and total denial, we all live in limbo.

We are not used to uncomfortable truths.

Most of the Nigerian schoolgirls have been released. Some, it is said, have refused to reunite with the families that brought them up; instead, bearing children for their abductors.

Sometimes the extremes of truth are hard to believe.

Suffice it to say that the case of the Burgundy Lake was buried. At the peril of sounding alarmist, I shall only unfold the series of events occurring subsequently, ones that I have already alluded to. Three people disappeared at the Burgundy Lake— a young boy camping with his parents; another man, roughly the age and height of Pilchard, caught in a mysterious whirlpool and never surfaced. One British biologist, Jeremy Wade, who volunteered to capture the perpetrator after learning of the news, discounted the possibility of turbulence as the Burgundy Lake waters were infinitely dull. Instead, he theorized that a creature matching the description of the three friends, a coelacanth, could be responsible. With a hollow oil-filled notochord and hinged skull, one that had developed a taste for human flesh….

The final attack happened when a Nepalese man was swallowed whole by something his girlfriend described as an “aquatic giraffe”.

In each case, not even their bones were ever found.

Truth meanders; sometimes is trapped forever, gasping for a last breath.

 

About the Author:

Mandira Pattnaik is an Indian writer who lets her Economics degree gather dust while she word-weaves. Her writings have made their way into places like The Times of India, Bombay Literary Magazine, Gasher Journal, Commuterlit, Cabinet of Heed, Spelk, Star82, Lunate and (Mac)ro(mic), among others. She tweets @MandiraPattnaik