Friday, 12 August 2022

Other Ways of Being: Water

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 Carl turned on the tap that would allow water into the levies running through the cabbage fields. It shouldn’t be a problem. There’d been plenty of rain earlier in the year and anyway, they were still connected to the main grid. Ever since everything had settled down after the Changes, there had never been any problem with the water supply. Someone was still managing the big reservoirs, so it seemed, and the climate, despite the predictions of the previous century, was behaving well. The cycles of winter and summer, cold and heat, rain and sunshine, and all that they brought, had carried on just as before.  

It was hot, now, though and it had been pretty dry for the last six weeks. All the crops had to be watered, clearly, but the cabbage was now particularly important. Deprive it of water now and they might lose all of it.

Carl pushed back his base-ball cap and wiped the sweat form his forehead. Any second now he would hear the gurgle that told him the water had arrived in the pipe, and the woosh-woosh as the levy filled. He could imagine himself putting his hand into the cool water, cupping it, and taking a welcome drink. So, what if irrigation water wasn’t recommended? He’d been drinking it for years and had never had any ill effect. What usually took seconds seemed to be taking hours, though, today. Carl shut his eyes and waited.

There was suddenly a loud clunk and the pipe leading up to the tap began to hum.

“What the blazes…?” said Carl to no one in particular.

 

Carl sat in the Great Hall fanning his face with his hat. The air con units still worked but they were used sparingly: since the Changes energy as well as water was precious.

“So you tested the whole network?” said the senior Proctor. “And there was no sign of a leak anywhere?” 

“Nope!” said Carl. He had checked. Absolutely thoroughly. Not that he’s needed to. He and Barnaby always kept the pipes in excellent order. “The leak must be before it gets to us,” he said. “Or else it’s a problem with the reservoir.”  

“Very well,” said the Proctor. “I’ll send a team to investigate. I’d like you or Barnaby Jackson to head the team. Not both of you.”   

It would be the first time anyone had left the Compound in over five years. The last time had been when they’d buried those that had died of the mystery illness. They’d gone as far away from the survivors as they could without putting their lives at risk in other ways. The reservoir was at least a week’s journey away, if they kept stopping to listen for leaks. 

Carl nodded and left the Hall. The coolness of the dark corridors outside was welcome. It didn’t make him feel any more comfortable, though. Now he had to go and have a difficult conversation with Barnaby Jackson. Yet, he felt strangely excited.

 

Carl stared at the great expanse of water that stretched in front of him. He hadn’t realised the reservoir would be so big. It looked still and calm but the breeze was enough to make small waves ripple at its edges. It matched the turquoise of the sky. Where the sides weren’t built-up there were sandy beaches. He suddenly had a longing for the days when people took leisure trips to places such as this. Families having picnics by the side of the water. Kids swimming and young men diving off the rocks. Older guys like him fishing or perhaps taking a boat across.

There was no time for that sort of thing these days. They only survived if they worked.

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Patrick O’Leary. He was pointing to the high water mark. It was only about a foot above where the water was now. “There must be something blocking it up right here,” he said. All of the pipes they’d listened to had been totally empty.  

Carl nodded and got down from his horse. He was saddle-sore but otherwise glad he’d come instead of Barnaby. There’d been no straw pole in the end. Banrnaby had a wife and three daughters. Carl was single. It had been a no-brainer. And it had all been worth it. They’d seen plenty of water on the way. There were lots of other supplies they could use if there was something wrong with the reservoir, though it would mean piping them. He’d been overwhelmed, too, by the richness of the scenery; the lakes and streams, obviously, but the pine forests with the deep blue sky setting off their dark green needles, and the mountains in the distance, terracotta fingers, nails lacquered with snow. He knew he would have to find other excuses for leaving the Compound. Now he had seen all of this, though, he could not be without it.

“So what’s the plan?” said Bradley Spenser, the one who’d been mainly responsible for finding the way here.

“Try to find out who’s been looking after this place,” said Carl. “And see what’s wrong. Maybe we can help.”    

 

Two hours later they had found out very little. There was a cottage where it looked as if someone had lived for a while. It was untidy and abandoned and whoever had lived there had left in a hurry. There were the maggot-infected remains of what looked like a half-eaten meal on the kitchen table. And it whiffed.

“I’m going to barf if we don’t get out of here soon,” said Wilf Atkins.

Yes, Carl knew what he meant. It stank. But it still didn’t help them to work out why the water supply had failed though the water was plentiful.

“Why don’t we go for a swim and look again later?” suggested Bradley. “It’ll give us a bit more energy.”

Well it wouldn’t hurt,

It was quite good in the end, even if it hadn’t been the type of family holiday leisure day out Carl had thought about earlier. It just wasn’t the same with a group of ugly middle-aged men skinny-dipping and telling dirty jokes. Still it was good to feel clean from the water and then sleepy from the sun on your back as you stretched out to dry. 

Until Patrick shouted out just after he’d gone into the water for the third time. “Cripes, mate, will you look at this? Holy shit, I can’t move it.”

The others rushed back into the water. Patrick kept taking a deep breath and diving down. “It’s a body,” he said. “And it seems to be blocking up the main channel out of the reservoir. There’s some sort of door down there, and it’s half shut. Mates, I think we’ve found the problem.”

It took them another hour to get the body out of the water. They were as hot and thirsty after they’d finished that as they were before they’d had their swim. They got him out at last and even managed to open the door so that the water could flow freely again.

“There must be some sort of system to that,” said Bradley. “And I bet he’s the only geyser who knew how it worked.”

They found a set of keys in his pocket. Carl guessed they would be for the cottage and perhaps something to do with some engine room that worked on the gates of the reservoir. 

Carl stared at the body. It was bloated and grey. Half of its face was missing. Eaten by fish, he supposed. Poor guy. “How long do you think he’s been there?” he said.

“About a week before we lost our water supply?” suggested Bradley. “That’s how long it would take the pipes to empty, I’m thinking.”

That made sense, he supposed. He didn’t have time to think about it for long, though. Suddenly they could hear motor-bike engines. 

“Where’ve the bastards get their fuel from?” murmured Wilf, grabbing his clothes and picking up the rifle that never left his side.  It looked good but it would be useless if the visitors posed any real danger: ammunition other than blanks for it had run out more than ten years ago.

“We’d better hide,” said Bradley. 

Carl and Spenser picked up their clothes and followed Wilf into the bushes.

Carl watched the two riders get off their Triumphs. For a few seconds he envied them. Before the Changes he used to own a small Triumph. One of the classier ones like one of those had been next on his shopping list.  

The riders took off their helmets. One of them shook out long straight hair. It looked just like the hair in one of the old shampoo ads. How did they mange to stay so well-groomed?

The strangers walked towards the water’s edge and stood right in front of the bushes where the men were hiding.

“Plenty of water here,” one of them said.  Cripes, it was a girl.

“Shall we set up camp here, then?” the other rider replied. Another female.  

The first girl turned towards where they were hiding. My god, she was gorgeous. Carl wished he could touch her. He’d not come across a woman who’d made him feel like that in a long, long time. He mouth was dry and his heart was pounding. And for the first time in months he was getting an erection that he hadn’t induced himself. She was so close now. It was unbearable. He turned so the others couldn’t see; there had been no time to dress. 

Atkins fired his rifle into the air. The plainer of the two girls shrieked. Then both of them ran towards their bikes. Seconds later they were riding back towards the road. Carl’s erection collapsed.

What did you want to do that for? thought Carl. We could have got to know them, maybe invited them back to the Compound.  They’d surely make good breeding stock? It was getting a bit critical back there. A shadow of the erection returned. He wouldn’t mind being involved in that particular programme. Not of that girl was one of the females.   

All at once, though, he couldn’t move. Cripes, this hadn’t happened since before the Changes. It was a rare form of epilepsy, the doctors had said. They’d given him some medication that kept it under control. Of course that ran out shortly after the troubles started. But he’d never had another attack, and he guessed it was because life was actually even less  stressful once everything had settled down than it had been before it all kicked off. He felt himself topple to the ground.

“God almighty, Carl,” he heard Wilf say. “What’s up?”

Bradley felt his pulse and then put his ear to his chest. “Nothing,” he said. “I think he’s gone.”

Get a mirror, you bastards, Will thought. He was still breathing and he did still have a pulse, though both would be very hard to track without a stethoscope. He could hear and see but he couldn’t move a muscle.

“Poor bugger,” said Wilf.

“Quite a nice way to go, though,” said Bradley.

I’m not dead, you clots, thought Carl. Don’t you dare try to put me six foot under.

“Hey,” laughed Wilf, “you don’t think it was because he got a bit too excited about that one with the blond hair, do you? I’d swear he’s still got a bit of a stiffy.”

“Oh, come on mate,” said Bradley. “You shouldn’t joke about the dead. We’d better do something about these two.”

Fortunately, it was too hot for the men to do more than just dig two very shallow graves, put the two bodies in and cover them with leaves. Carl could still breathe. It was just a matter of waiting.  

 

Six hours had gone by, Carl reckoned, by the time he could move again. It was dark but at least there was a bright moon. The others had taken his clothes and his horse. His first priority was to find something to wear.

When he raided the reservoir keeper’s cottage, he found that the stench that had almost made Wilf barf came not from the leftover meal but from the bodies of the woman and the baby he found upstairs.

“At least you had a woman, you lucky sod,” he whispered to the reservoir-keeper as he laid the woman and child to rest in what had been his own grave, “and she must have been okay  to shag if you managed to impregnate her. Well, you’re lying together again now. Enjoy.”      

He soon got the place tided up and found out how to work the doors and gates on the reservoir. All of the machinery still worked beautifully. He smiled to himself when he thought of the folk back at the Compound amazed at how lucky they were that the reservoir was still holding out. He wondered whether they’d held a memorial service for him.

But he didn’t want to try and get back. There would be too much explaining to do. Besides, it was glorious here. He could enjoy the trees against the sky and the snow-capped mountains all of the time now. The cottage was cosy and there were plenty of fish in the reservoir. If he got a bit lonely, he would go and talk to the graves of the reservoir-keeper and his wife.

And who knows, one day he might hear the sound of a Triumph motorbike again. And it might even deliver a beautiful blond woman.     

Sunday, 31 July 2022

Other Ways of Being: The Truth about Old Fuzzy Locks


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Oh no. It looked as if they were on the move again he thought. 

The edges of the Grotto were beginning to blur. There had been cornfields and orchards around them yesterday. And for several weeks before that. Proper English countryside. Now there were the all too familiar rainbow streaks, which mean that they were once more hurtling through time and space to a new destination.

Perhaps that's why it was hot. Perhaps they were going somewhere warmer.

A pity. Martin liked it here. He knew that his Ma and Pa  liked it there as well.

The rainbow swirls at the edge of the grotto gradually disappeared.

He didn't know whether he should go and look or whether he ought to get the back first. 

Why did he always get so scared? He ought to be used to it by now.

No, Well I'm going anyway, thought Martin. He pushed a rock under the barrel he’d been moving to stop it rolling away. And he set off towards the edge of the Grotto.

He found himself standing on a narrow ledge. He could see for miles - over what looked like snow-covered mountains. And curiously it was just as warm here as in the Grotto. Down below was a lake, filled with milky blue water, not like any other water he had seen before.

This was a new one. Well, you' got to give him that. Still finding new places to send us, even after five hundred years

Suddenly, he thought he heard somebody coming. His eyes grew as wide as pizza.

He ought not to be scared, really. If it' was  a Homeling and it got into the Grotto, it might take a year off our time - especially if we can help it to get out.

Martin could not believe his eyes. It was only Old Fuzzy Locks, the apology for a wizard. How could he be scared of him? But there was someone- or something else with him.

He watched the figure that was making its way with the tatty wizard into the Grotto. It was smaller even than him. Martin couldn't help but envy its smooth skin. He may be still a child himself, and still have to do what his parents said, but five hundred years in the Grotto had made his skin as hard as leather. He put a hand up to his face and felt the crinkles.

Don't come here, he thought. You might never get back home. You might become one of us.

The creature had long, droopy ears and fine pointed fingers. Its eyes were as blue and as milky as the lake down below. Its arms and legs were bare and it was wearing a gold coloured tunic. He couldn’t tell whether it was a boy or girl.

But he didn't really care all that much. He was torn between wanting the creature to stay, fulfil a quest and shorten their time in the Grotto, and wanting him to go safely back to its own world. Because Fuzzy Locks had told them time and time again that something horrible happened to the unsuccessful Homelings.

There was a sudden bang and a flash. A cloud of smoke hovered in the air and next to it, not in it, like he was supposed to arrive, Old Fuzzy Locks appeared. He looked worse than ever to-day. There were great tears in his robes. His hat drooped carelessly from his head. His magic wand was broken, and Martin had the distinct impression that the rather nasty smell he had suddenly become aware of was in fact coming from the old wizard.

Suddenly he wanted to get out of there. He wanted to go home and tell them all that a new Homeling had arrived. But he just had to watch what was happening. He had never been there before when a Homeling arrived and had its first meeting with the wizard. He just might learn something. 

He was a little too far away from the wizard and the strange creature to hear what they were saying. But he watched anyway. The wizard turned round and started to make his way out of the Grotto. The Homeling followed.

Should he follow them and see what they did? But what if the Grotto moved on while he was out there? He'd never get back home then.

Martin shrugged. Perhaps if they ever did get back or settled down in one time or place, one of the first things he might do was find a few new friends. Oh, he liked all his friends in the Grotto, especially his best friend Piet. But he did get bored sometimes.

Suddenly the strange creature and the smelly old wizard disappeared from in front of him. All he could see now was the edge of the Grotto and the beginning of the new land.

That decided it. He was going.

Soon he was walking along the narrow ledge. He didn't want to look down. There was nothing between them and the odd looking liquid except a few bits of jagged rock and lots and lots of space. He had no idea what the pale blue stuff was and the mountain looked as if it was made out of sharp glass.

The wizard stopped suddenly, just in front of him. He said something to the Homeling who suddenly jumped off the side of the mountain.

Martin gasped and put his hand in front of his mouth. But instead of falling and being smashed to pieces by the sharp rocks, or drowning in the lake, the Homeling flew up into the air and sped out of sight. He could fly.  Martin wished he could do that.

He heard a door slam. He turned to see where the noise had come from.  

That must be where he lived.  It was a scruffy-looking little cottage. Scruff Locks had brought them to his own world. But why?

Could it be a trick? Oh, he just didn't' care. He was along the ledge in seconds not daring to think of what would happen if his foot slipped.

He stared at the front door. The windows were covered in thick dust and the bottom frame of the door had broken away.

"Home of Alphanosa Omegatoris," he read out aloud. "Illustrious Member of the League Wizards. Knock once if you are of the magic order. Twice if not."

Should he knock? Who the heck is Alphanosa Omegatoris in any case? It certainly wasn't Fuzzy Locks. He couldn't be an illustrious member of anything. He must be just visiting.

 He heard someone cough.

Should he make a move now, while he still could? 

There was another cough.

Martin wanted to move but he couldn't. 

There was another loud cough, followed by a sneeze.

Yes, he'd better go. He started to run. But then he didn't know what was the scariest - meeting this Aloha .. Omy .. whatever or falling from the ledge which seem even narrower now. He could fall at any second.

A couple of times, he felt himself stumble but was relieved when his feet landed back on the path But he couldn't help feeling curious about this Alphy… Omy -whatever.

He was still cursing himself two days later. Why had he chickened out like that? He’d had a real chance to find out more about that old plonker and he’d blown it.

That Alpha …Omy … whatsity, though. He might be a thousand times cleverer than Old Fuzzy Locks. And he might get stuck outside the Grotto, if he went poking around there again.

He decided then. He'd rather that happened than never know, and live on for goodness knows how much longer, knowing that he had had the chance to find out something more and never took it. And he knew Fuzzy Locks wasn't there. Because he was in the Grotto having tea with Ma and Pa.

Martin placed his cap firmly on his head. And he was off. Striding out of the Grotto, feeling really pleased with himself.

It was strange, this place. He was high up in the mountains. And it looked cold out there, everywhere blue and white as if covered I snow. But it wasn't cold at all. It was so hot he needed a sun hat.

It was so good to get out of the Grotto. The ledge didn't scare him so much this time. And gradually it even became fun. In fact, it was quite an adventure. And in no time at all, he was standing outside the little cottage again.

He would ring twice. Whoever lived here might be able to tell him something about Old Fuzzy Locks. He might even be able to help them.

He hesitated for a second and then pulled the handle on the bell twice. He waited. His heart was thumping against his rib cage. But nothing happened. No illustrious wizard came rushing to the door. No-one cast a spell on him.

This was no good. He couldn't just go back and tell Piet he hadn’t found a thing. He pushed at the door. It wasn't locked and it opened easily. Martin walked in as quietly as he could.

It was really gloomy inside. No matter how bright the sun was, it just could not get in through the dust on the windows.

But his eyes did gradually get used to the dark. Enough for him to see just how untidy the cottage was. There were papers all over the floor and more papers and books piled high on a heavy wooden desk. There was a nasty smell coming from somewhere. It became stronger as Martin moved round the room towards the fireplace. Then he saw it. On a small table next to the big arm chair near the fire was a mouldy piece of cheese. It smelt so horrible he thought he was going to be sick.

 But he wasn't. Seconds later a scrabbling noise was coming from under the armchair. Then came some squeaking. And finally growling.

Suddenly a blob of black fur flew through the air and thudded on the ground.

"Tabatha!" cried Martin. He would recognise those evil eyes anywhere. She must be the biggest, ugliest cat that ever existed. There couldn't be more than one like her.  So, Fuzzy Locks must be here after all. Tabatha was his cat.

The animal darted towards the door, the mouse now dead, hanging from its mouth. It glowered at Martin, as if to say 'You keep away. This is all mine.'

"Yes, you take that outside then," said Martin to the big cat, as he opened the door. "Don't you dare start crunching it in front of me."

The cat seemed to scowl at him, and then it pushed past him and rushed out.  A breeze came in and blew some of the papers off the table on to the floor. Martin went to pick them up. Light was now coming into the room He couldn't help noticing that the two pieces of paper were really thick and the print was really elegant. They looked really important. He should put them back carefully, really. But he couldn't resist taking a look. 'Head Office, League of Wizards, Missive to Alphanosa Omegatoris' read Martin. This was something else. He carried on reading.

'Dear Mr Omegatoris,

Whilst the conjuring trick of sending the Lombardy Grotto and the inhabitants thereof to alternative places and times would be admirable in a junior or trainee wizard, it is hardly impressive in one of your experience and standing. Apart from how cruel it is to the inhabitants of the Grotto. We therefore regret to inform you that not only can we not admit you to the Guild of Master Wizards, but also that your membership of the League of Wizards is suspended.

Yours faithfully,

Olando Bericha

So this was where Old Fuzzy Locks lived. Fuzzy Locks was Alpha whatsity.

The second piece of paper had the same heading.

'Dear Mr Omegatoris,' read Martin.

'We are still not satisfied with your performance as a wizard. So, we have decided to issue you with a Direct Challenge. Any of the so-called Homelings who fail in the quests you set them will be suspended in polycubes. They will not suffer, and neither will the Lombarders any more than they do already. You will need to use the three rules of magic to the utmost of their power.

Your suspension from the League of Wizards will remain in force until such time as all Homelings are freed. However, if you succeed in freeing all Homelings at a stroke, you will be reinstated and promoted to Master Wizard.

A word of caution. This will not be easy. The more you fail, the harder it will get, and the less faith you will have in yourself. But remember, we would not have set you this challenge, unless we thought you could do it. Good luck.

Yours sincerely,

The Wizard Master.

So, Old Fuzzy Locks was more than just a scruffy old idiot, after all. But what on earth was a polycube?

Martin didn't have time to wonder for long. He suddenly heard footsteps outside. He stuffed the letters in his pocket and hid behind the armchair. 

The footsteps got nearer. The door cracked open a little more. Martin watched a dark shape move into the room.

Well, it didn't look or smell like Old Fuzzy Locks.

The shape moved slowly towards him. Martin held his breath. Whoever it was stopped and looked around, and then started treading carefully between the piles of paper.

“Martin, are you there?" whispered a voice. It was Piet. Martin came out from behind the armchair.

"Well, I'm glad you're all right," said Piet. "I really couldn't work out what you were up to. I just had to follow you. You’re a prize idiot. The Grotto could move again, at any minute. Then where would you be? You're too daft by half, you are. That's your trouble."

Martin decided to ignore him.

"It's a good job I did come here,” said Martin. "You should see what I've found out."

Martin showed his friend the two letters. They sat outside. They knew that Fuzzy Locks wouldn't be back for at least another two hours.

It was a change for them, looking at a different view. In the Grotto, they had to look at the same old things all the time.

"So I wonder where these polycube things are?" said Piet.

"Who knows?" said Martin. "But one thing's for sure; he ain't such an idiot as we thought. He just acts that way."

"He certainly does that," said Piet.

"I suppose we'd better stop calling him Old Fuzzy Locks," said Martin. "His real name's Alpha… " He looked down at the letter.

Piet looked over his shoulder.

"Why don't we call him Alpha Omy for short?" suggested Piet.

It seemed a good idea. But Martin didn't have chance to think about it much. Piet was suddenly shaking his arm and screaming.

"Oh no, look at that will you?"  He was pointing towards the Grotto. The edges were beginning to blur and the rainbow colours were beginning to form. "It's going," he said. "It's off again already."

They ran. They ran as fast as they could. They hardly worried about the narrowness of the ledge along which Marin had walked so carefully just a few days before. Their sides were aching and they were out of breath. But still they ran.

The Grotto was beginning to spin and the rainbow colours were getting brighter and brighter.

"We're not going to make it," panted Piet.

"We will," answered Martin. "Step on it."

They stepped on it. 

Martin actually had his foot on the pathway of the Grotto when suddenly it wasn't there anymore.

"Now look!" moaned Piet. "I told you we shouldn't have come. I told you this would happen."

But something didn't quite make sense to Martin. If the Grotto had moved on, it had done so with Fuzzy Locks, or Alpha Omy even, in it. And Alpha Omy was often in the Grotto. So there must be a direct link between the Grotto and here.

"But I don't get it," said Martin. "We know Fuzzy Locks is in the Grotto."

"Well, it's magic, isn't it?" said Piet.

"Yeah, but why bother with magic, when he could have just walked home?" replied Martin.

"So, who cares?" asked Piet. "What are we going to do now?"

"We could go and explore," said Martin.

"And get into even more trouble?" asked Piet

"Well, just for a couple of hours," answered Martin. "We know he's leaving the Grotto then. Perhaps he'll come back home and perhaps he'll be able to help us get back."

"Him? Be helpful?" asked Piet. "That's not very likely, is it?"

"Well, what do you suggest?" asked Martin. He couldn’t keep the sharp tone out of his voice. Piet was being such a misery again.

Piet shrugged his shoulders.

"Just think," he said. "We could have been sitting at home, getting ready for our dinner, if we hadn't gone chasing Old Fuzzy Locks."

But they weren’t at home. They were here. Didn’t Piet get that?

Martin looked around him. Now that the Grotto had gone, there was nothing but the blue white of the mountains and the milky lake below. There was no sound at all. Certainly no more sign of the Homeling they had seen or of any of the others who lived here.

"I wonder where he went," said Martin.

Piet shrugged his shoulders again. "I hope he hasn't gone into one of those polycubes." .

"Well, I'm going to have a look down there, anyway," said Martin. He set off down the path which would have lead him into the Grotto if it had still been there. Piet followed him. Martin could tell he was unhappy. He was always a pace or two behind, and he seemed to be dragging his feet along the ground.

In the end, there was nothing much to see. It was all so empty. It was funny how they spent all that time wanting to get out of the Grotto, and when they were out, it was  boring.

"Alright," he said.  "Let's go back to his place."

They walked back up. Martin kicked at the ground. This was such a good opportunity to find out more about the wizard, and yes, the letters had been a good find, but there had been nothing more since.

Piet stopped suddenly.

"What if he won't help us though?" he said. "Or can't"

It was Martin's turn to shrug. He really had no idea what they would do if the wizard wouldn't or couldn't help them.

They had almost got to the cottage when there was a sudden loud bang. A cloud of smoke hung in the air. Seconds later the wizard appeared. Next to the cloud, not in it. And then there was that strange smell that always came with Fuzzy Locks nowadays. 

"He's definitely still Fuzzy Locks to-day then," said ed Piet. "Just look at him will you?"

The wizard's beard looked greyer and untidier than ever. His robe was even more torn. His hat drooped so much now that it seemed to be actively looking for something on the ground.  

"I can't even get that right these days," he was muttering to himself. He opened the door and let himself in. Then he slammed the door hard.

"I think you're right," said Martin, and suddenly both boys were laughing helplessly.

"Come on," said Martin, when at last they had calmed down, "let's go and see what he's up to."

Piet did not complain this time, but just followed. Martin pushed open the door of the cottage. His eyes adjusted quickly to the dark. It seemed to be completely empty.   

"Where's he got to then?" asked Piet. "Are there any more rooms here or what?"

Martin didn't know. But it looked unlikely.

"I'm sure it's just this room. If you think about how big it seems from outside …."

He carried on looking round the untidy little room. There were no doors. Except the one to what he had assumed was a cupboard bed. Well, even wizards had to sleep somewhere didn't they?

"What's in here then?" asked Piet, looking at the same door.

"His bed?" suggested Martin.

"Perhaps he's having a snooze," said Piet.

"Open it and have a look then," said Martin.

"No, you," said Piet, standing there with his arms folded.

Martin went to open the door to the cupboard. But as his hand rested on the handle, the ground moved from beneath his feet. He was twirling round and round in the air. The same rainbows which swirled round the Grotto when it moved were spinning around him now, only brighter and faster. There was a faint smell of ripe peaches.

He was aware of a shadow turning round at his side. Was it Piet? He was moving much too fast to be able to tell for sure. But then the shadow spoke.

"What's going on then?" said Piet's voice. "What's he done now?"

Suddenly they landed roughly on the ground. They were no longer in Old Fuzzy Lock's cottage. Nor were they back in the Grotto. They were in a big hall with a high roof and a shiny wooden floor. And lined up in front of them were row upon row of large cubes. In each cube was a person or a creature, caught forever in the middle of an action.

"The polycubes," said Martin. "These must be the polycubes."   

"Oh heck," said Piet, "how has he managed that?"

The two boys started to wander along the lines of polycubes. There was such an odd collection of different people. There was even a bear in one of them. Martin bit his lip when they came across the little creature they had seen talking to the wizard two days ago. It seemed to be looking at something behind Martin and was pointing with his elegant finger towards the sky. So, that Homeling hadn't made it then.

"I wouldn’t mind getting to know them," said Piet. He was looking at two polycubes, one with a boy in and the other a girl. They looked about the same age as Martin and Piet. Without the leathery skin, of course. Their clothes were made out of shiny metal. The boy was jumping, almost flying, and the girl looked as if she was swimming upwards through the air. "I wonder where they come from?" he added.

But Martin was beginning to feel uncomfortable.

"This is really horrid," he said to Piet. "It's as if they're in an exhibition."

"Yeah," agreed Piet, "but it shows he's cleverer than we thought." 

Martin wanted to protest that it wasn't clever. That it would really be clever if the old fraud did something about it and let all those people out. He opened his mouth ready to speak, when they suddenly heard a loud cough.

"So, we have a couple of Lombarders escaped have we?" said a familiar voice. Old Fuzzy Locks was standing in front of them. He looked as tatty as ever, but he was standing up a bit taller. "You always read other people's mail do you, then?" he asked looking straight at Martin.

Martin felt himself blush. He went to say something.

"You think it's alright, do you," the wizard continued, "just to walk into somebody's home, without as much as knocking?"

Martin tried to think of a reply, but he couldn't. He blushed even deeper. 

"Anyway, it doesn't matter," said the Wizard. "You know, don't you, that I've got a big job on here?"

Martin nodded.

"You do see don't you, that there's more to all this than me just playing tricks on you and the other Lombarders?"

Martin nodded again.

"And you know I've got to use the three rules of magic?"  The wizard sat down suddenly on the little wooden bench at the side of the hall. He sighed. "The trouble is," he said, "I've lost the knack with the first one."

Martin noticed his that Piet was staring at the wizard. He was frowning slightly, but for once he was standing up straight and not trying to hide. 

"Well what's that?" asked Piet. There was a slight tremble in his voice, but at least he was speaking. 

The wizard sighed again.  "It's about having faith. About having the faith that you can do it. The trouble is, the more I can't do it, the harder it gets to have faith."

Martin remembered the letter form the Guild of Wizards.

"Look at me," said Alpha Omy. He held up his arms to show them just exactly how bad his robes had become. The whole of one sleeve had worn away underneath. "I'm not even allowed to go shopping any more. Nor go to the conferences to find out the latest new ideas. And how I used to think I knew it all when I was your age!"

"Oh get a grip!" said Piet. Martin couldn't quite take this in. His moany wimpy friend was telling the moany wimpy wizard what to do. Piet took hold of the wizard's arm and marched him over to the polycube with the long fingered creature in it. He was really walking tall now.

Martin's mouth dropped open. He was truly amazed.

"Just look at that will you?" shouted Piet. He was really getting into this now.  "How can you let that carry on? Do something."

"Oh but I can't. I've tried, but I can't," whimpered the wizard.

"Well you're going to have to," said Piet. Martin's mouth dropped open even further as he saw his friend push the wizard right up to the polycube. He had to smile though, when he noticed how pale Piet had gone and that he was shaking.

"How would you like if that happened to you?" he said.

"Well, something bad has happened to me. Look at me!"

"A few tatty clothes," said Piet, "kicked out of the League of Wizards for a bit. That's nothing!"

Martin wanted to join in. But he was so amazed at how bold his friend had suddenly become, that he couldn't think what to say.  

"Well, go on then," said Piet. "Do something." He sat down next to the wizard, who looked even paler now.

The old man hesitated for a moment. He frowned.

"I can't," he said.

"You can," said Piet. His little outburst seemed to be sapping away all of his strength.   

The wizard sighed again. Then he took a deep breath. He pulled himself up tall and pointed at the cube.

Martin felt a little light headed. The air around him was vibrating gently. He and Piet stared at the polycube. Nothing seemed to happen.

"It's no good," said the Wizard. "I've definitely lost the knack." He sat down on the bench again.

"So what do you have to do?" asked Piet. He had gone quite pale. His voice was definitely back to normal now. Frightened and squeaky.

"You just have to have faith that you can do it," said the old man. "Only I haven't got any left."

Martin stared at the creature in the polycube. It was just a matter of believing that you could free him? Make all that funny solid see-though stuff go away? Suddenly he felt as if he was filling up with some sort energy. There was a real warm glow inside him. He felt as if he was growing taller and taller. The air was really humming now, and he could hear a thousand or more voices whispering. "Have faith. You can do it."

He carried on staring at the trapped creature. I really can get you out of there, he thought. It's down to me. I've got to do it and I can do it.  

Martin' s hand floated up. No matter what he did, he couldn't make it come back down to his side. A hot rush of pins and needles came down from his shoulder and a flash came from the end of his finger. It went towards the creature. This was it. He knew he was going to make a difference.

The heat drained out of Martin and he felt himself go back to his normal size. For a few seconds, there was a sharp pain in his head and he thought he was going to be sick. Then it passed.      

 Suddenly the creature's arm which was pointing upwards floated down to its side. There were bubbles inside the cube.

"It's turned into liquid," said Piet, who seemed not to have noticed the strange things which had been happening to Martin.

"Yes," said Alpha Omy. There seemed to be no strength in him. "I remembered how I used to be when I was your age. Dead cocky and nothing could go wrong. Well done, young man," he continued, looking at Martin now. "You've discovered - and used rather successfully - the first rule of magic."

"So what will happen next?" asked Martin.

"I guess I'll have to use the second rule of magic to turn the cube into air and then the third to break open the cube," he answered. "But it will take some time. And then there's all the others. Perhaps you'll come back and help me sometime?"

"How many are there?" asked Martin.

"Two thousand exactly," replied the wizard.

"Ooh," moaned Piet.

"But at least we've made a start," said the wizard.

"So what are the other two rules of magic?" asked Martin. Could he learn to be a wizard as well? He'd like to be a really good one and join the guild of Master Wizards.

Alpha Omy stood up.

"Anything is possible," he said, as if he could read Martin's thoughts.

"But I'm not giving all of my secrets away in one go," he said. "And you boys must get back to the Grotto. Not a word about this to any-one mind, or," he leant over and looked straight into Martin's eyes, “or I'll turn you both into frogs. And I can, you know."

Alpha Omy laughed until his laugh became a roar. He waved the tatty bent stick he called his magic wand at them. Soon came the rainbow colours again and they were whirling faster and faster through space. Seconds later they were standing outside the cave where Piet lived.

"Not bad for someone who's been chucked out of the League of Wizards," commented Piet. 

"And where do you think you two have been?" screeched an angry voice. Piet's ma was standing at the entrance to her cave with one hand on her hip. "Your dinner's getting cold."

"We've been talking to Alpha Omy," stammered Piet.

"Who?" boomed Mrs Lintern.

"Alpha Omy," repeated Piet. "You know, Old Fuzzy Locks."

"Oh, him," said Mrs Lintern, calming down a little. "He ought to know better than to keep you talking at dinner time."

"Well, he's cleverer than what you think, Ma," said Piet. "And he's got to get the Homelings out of the polycubes."

“Oh for goodness sake,” muttered Martin. “Keep your mouth shut.”

“Are you all right boy?” asked Mrs Lintern, suddenly looking worried. She put her hand out to feel Piet’s forehead. “Well, you don't seem to have a temperature. But maybe I'd better give you a dose of feverfew anyway. Get yourself inside!"

"But Ma," protested Piet. "His name's really Alpha Omy and he's such an idiot as you think.!”

"Come on, son," said Mrs Lintern, more gently now "the feverfew will help." She turned to Martin. "You'd better get home, as well, my dear. Your parents will be worried, what with the Grotto moving and all."

Martin nodded at Mrs Lintern. Piet scowled at him. Martin had to move quickly before he started to giggle. Feverfew! Gross. But it served him right for opening his big mouth.

Martin stared out past the edge of the Grotto. They were by the sea now. The light of the setting sun was catching the heads of the waves.

They were pink ponies , not white horses. That looked like another good place to explore. Maybe he'd actually miss going to different places if the Grotto did settle down one day.

       

 

Thursday, 21 July 2022

Other Ways of Being: Dancing to the Moon


  The first time I set eyes on Patrick O’Leary what I had left of a heart almost jumped out of my chest. All I could see to start with were his soft blond curls I wanted to touch and his smiling blue eyes I wanted to have looking into mine forever. Then I saw him dance and I knew that I wanted to be his only dancing partner. For eternity.

I shouldn’t have even been there. I’m only sixteen. They’re very strict at the Clerkenwell Arms, especially when the Irish dance trials are on. But it was a new moon that night so I guess I was at my best. Talbot had warned me that I would still have a monthly cycle of sorts though it would be very different from before. And spot on, it follows the moon. This is always my shining day, the day of the new moon.

I’ve been like this for over a year now and I’m getting used to it. I can never remember the details of the moonless nights, but the next day I’m always full of energy, and confident and look much older and very glamorous. So, what with the lipstick, and the short skirt and that bitchy glow inside, I got in without them even asking for ID. I even bought a glass of wine for form’s sake. No sweat.

It was the music that made me go in. The music and a need for some warmth. Some human warmth that is - I don’t notice the winter’s cold any more. And I guess it was because I was just in that sort of mood. New moon day. Daredevil day.

I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he danced. Back and neck straight. Gaze fixed. Arms rigid by his sides. His feet never missed a beat and always came down in exactly the right place. My own feet started tapping to the music.

I used to dance when I was a little girl. Lots of us do. I never got all that far with it, though I was not at all bad. I just got into other things. Like you do. But I can still remember all of the steps.

He started dancing around the room. He paused at each table where any good looking female sat. His feet still worked, of course. I had to exercise so much self-control not to go over to those hussies and scratch their eyes out or tear out their hair. He was sweating slightly and his manly, slightly musky smell was getting to me. There were others in the room, other good-looking young men, some of whom were also dancers, but I only had eyes – and a nose for him.

At last he paused by my table and fixed me with his eyes. Tap, tap, tap tap, tappity tap, went his feet, as if they were asking a question. A faint smile opened his lips, his eye-brows rose slightly. His pupils grew large. He was taking me in, was he? The bitch inside smirked but I tried to keep my gaze neutral. Tapity, tap. Tap tap. He nodded. 

I got up from the table. My feet began to work.  Yes, I remembered the steps. It was easy, especially with all this energy. In fact I had to keep it in check a little, or somebody would have noticed something. I didn’t even break a sweat or get out of breath. He was breathing hard by now yet he still kept exact time and rhythm. I loved him for that. I loved him because he was finding it tiring now and was still being perfect. The smell of him made my head light.

We were close at times. The place was so full there was barely a dance floor. We almost touched but not quite. As our shoulders and hands came within inches of each other I felt an exchange of energy. Tingles crackled through my body and I had the feeling that he gained some energy from me. We moved lightly around one another, our eyes and our feet in conversation. This was ecstasy. This I wanted forever. Tap tap tappity tap.

The music stopped. It had to eventually. It felt as though a thread between us was broken. The crowd in the pub started clapping and cheering. He was a little out of breath.

“Patrick O’Leary,” he whispered.

“Fyonah McBride,” I whispered back.

He nodded and held up his hand to shush the crowd. “Ladies, and gentlemen,” he cried. “Fyonah McBride.”

The crowd cheered and hooted.

He turned to me and grinned. “Fyonah McBride,” he said, “will you dance with me again?”

I nodded. “Of course,” I said. Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I dance with this man forever? 

He kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you,” he said.

Now I was breathless.

But then he was surrounded by all the trial officials, and people who were obviously his friends and fans. The moon was rising. A tiny slither of common sense crept back in. This wouldn’t work. I was an underage school girl, with a strange monthly cycle, who had school tomorrow. Better just to go home and dream about him.   

The second time I saw Patrick O’Leary I was on the bus two days later coming home from school. He got on at the corner of O’Malley Row and took one look at us all and went back downstairs. He looked straight at me actually, but I thank God that all he seemed to see was just another St Catherine’s girl in green. Green’s not my colour. Red and purple suit me now. And thank the lord all of us girls in this boring little Irish town decided that we wanted ankle length skirts for our uniform or he might have recognised my legs. But there was still enough time for those clear blue eyes of his to send a shockwave through my body.  

I saw him the third time in the village chip shop the next day. I walked straight into him. He was coming in as I was going out. I almost dropped my chips my hands were shaking so much.

“Fyonah McBride,” he said. “I’m glad to see you’re keeping your strength up. But have you been hiding from me? I need you to dance with me again. So when’s it to be then? Hmm?”  He lifted my chin up and made me look at him.

I almost forgot to breath. He was so lovely. Lovelier in real life than he’d been in all the dreams I’d made up about him. That look was what I wanted. That face.

He smiled.

“Go eat your chips,” he said. “But come tonight. Half past six. The Arcadia Rooms. Above O Brien’s. Don’t be late.” He touched my cheek and then carried on in into the chip shop.

I didn’t eat the chips, of course. What would somebody with a body like mine want with fat, greasy chips? As usual, I served them to all the stray cats and dogs I could find between the chippy and our house, preserving just a few as evidence.

“Fyonah, are you going to have your tea?” Daddy called as I went in through the back. 

“I’ve had chips, Daddy, look,” I replied, showing him the almost empty packet.

“Well, you know what your mummy said, if you don’t start eating properly…”

“Yes, and he’ll only say the same as before,” I said.

“You’re sure those chips were enough?” he went on.

“Sure, Daddy.”

Last time, four months ago, I’d refused to see anybody but Talbot when they’d insisted I saw a doctor.

“He’s a strange man,” said Mummy. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather see that nice new lady doctor.”

“Talbot or nobody,” I’d replied.

 They just put that down in the end to more of my teenage quirkiness. 

“She’s not eating properly,” Mummy had said to the doctor. “She doesn’t sit down at the table with us anymore.”                                            

That was true. I usually took my food up to my room, disposed of it somehow and then brought the empty plate down later.

“That doesn’t matter so much,” said Talbot. “As long as she is getting enough nutrition, and she looks bonny enough to me.”

He weighed and measured me and mumbled “Fine,” several times.

Then he looked meaningfully at me. “And the – er – monthly cycle is going all right? There may be changes … as you grow … “

I nodded.

“You know what Dr Talbot said last time,” I said to Daddy and escaped to my room.

I spent the rest of the afternoon working through my wardrobe trying to decide what to wear for Patrick.      

Six evenings in a row we danced and hardly spoke. Tap, tap, tappity tap. It was as though our feet did the talking.  My energy was holding up. And he was fit – both ways – and strong. We grew to know each other well even though we didn’t talk. We communicated through our feet. And every evening he walked me home and kissed me before I went in. Just lightly. That daredevil in me wanted more from him.

“What about your school work?” said Mummy. 

“Not a problem,” I said. It wasn’t. I just did it at night while they slept. 

“Fyonah…,” warned Daddy.

Butt out!

The seventh evening was the end of the trials.

“The couple we want to go forward,” announced the judge, “are Fyonah McBride and Patrick O’Leary.”

He hugged me and kissed my hair. “My good girl,” he whispered.

As we walked to my home that night he talked more than he had the rest of the time we’d been together. He held my hand and squeezed it tight. We were just like any other couple. When we got to my house, he pulled me into the shadows. And kissed me really hard this time. And though, as we got to the middle of the month, the daredevil was calming a little I still wanted more.

“Oh Fyonah McBride,” he said as he pulled away from me. “I think I’m falling in love with you.”

Well, good. Then, panic. If there was no dancing tomorrow, would I see him? All day and all night was already too long to be away from him. Could I bear even one evening alone?

“Can I see you tomorrow?” he asked. “Even though there’s no dancing?” 

 

We walked through the woods. Odd, he didn’t seem to mind the cold. Naturally, I didn’t. It was a fine evening otherwise, with the moon one night off full and shining brightly. A romantic dream. But common sense was kicking in fast. I couldn’t do this anymore.

I stopped walking and held back. “I’m only sixteen and I’m still at school,” I said as quickly as I could.

His face did not move at first. Then his eyes crinkled into a smile and I had the sensation of my heart leaping.  

“I know,” he said. “I saw you that day on the bus. That’s why I’ve been careful.”

“But I am sixteen,” I said.

He pulled me back towards him and kissed me properly.

“Fyonah, oh my Fyonah,” he whispered. “Dance with me forever.”

Oh, I would, I would. I ran my fingers through his hair. That musky smell about him was even stronger tonight and I loved him all the more for it. He pulled me gently to the ground. I could not get enough of him and he seemed just as eager. 

Afterwards, as we were walking home, he sighed. He stopped walking and turned to face me.

“Oh, Fyonah,” he said. “I cannot see you tomorrow. Just the one time.”

“Can’t I come with you?” I asked. “Where do you have to be?”

“No, you really can’t, my love. You really can’t.” He touched my cheek and turned my face so that I was looking into those lovely blue eyes. “But the day after, there’ll be the dancing again. And after that….”

I had to be content. His eyes told me that he really meant it, that I couldn’t go with him. But they also told me that he would be back and that it wasn’t just that he’d got what he wanted and was ready to move on.  And I loved him all the more for it.  

I didn’t know what to do with myself the next evening. I was no longer content to dream of my man-boy. I wanted him with me now and always. Despite the full moon which should have brought some sanity and smothered the daredevil, she was still there, hanging on.

 I decided to try to run off my frustration and made for the woods where Patrick had loved me the night before. I was trying to relive those sweet moments. The memory was so strong that I could smell him but the lack of him as so great that I could feel tears stinging my eyes though I know I can no longer cry.

Then I saw a flash of green. A man’s jumper. Someone in the woods in front of me. That way of walking unmistakable.  So it wasn’t a memory causing to me to smell him. He was there and his scent was stronger than ever. What did it remind me of? Man? Dog? Fox? Animal-like anyway.  His smell but more of it. It made my ghost heart beat so strongly that it became a physical pain. Why was he here in the woods again? Did he have another lover?          

If he did and I found her, I’d kill her for sure.  

“Your emotions will calm mid-cycle,” Talbot had said. “This is the best time to kill for vengeance rather than food. You’re calm enough to calculate, to use good judgement, yet still strong enough to kill swiftly and cleanly. Avoid leaving evidence at all costs.”

My mid-cycle always coincided with the full moon. So, yes, I would kill but I wasn’t calm. Talbot was only half right.

Patrick suddenly dropped to the ground. He howled. If my heart could actually beat it would have stopped now. I realised now why he had to avoid me tonight. He too has a pesky  cycle. A moon-determined cycle.

This was dangerous for me, more dangerous than if I were a normal girl but the daredevil and the girl who loves Patrick were both too fascinated to move away. I watched the change.

You know, it isn’t how they show it in the movies or tell it in the books. Well, not in Patrick’s case anyway. He danced into it. He swirled and turned. Gracefully and lightly. Like when he’s at the trials. Like when he’s with me. With each turn he became hairier, more animal-like, more wolf than boy. 

His clothes and his flesh both turned into fur. Gently. Subtly. His eyes glazed over, lost their humanness. He began to drool, spittle streaking his fur silver. And that wonderful musky smell just got stronger and stronger. It made me want him so much – Patrick, that is, not the wolf. Then he turned and howled at the moon.

When he looked back at me his eyes were all wolf.  And then a flash of Patrick.  Was he looking at me, his lover, or at his greatest enemy?  I should have gone by now but I could still only stare.  

“Werewolves are our greatest threat,” Talbot told me just after the change. “The best time to fight them is at the middle of the cycle. You can also outrun them then – though why you would try to when you can kill no one of our kind would know.”  

Where could I run to? This island is not big enough.

“You can’t outswim them,” Talbot had said. ”If the water’s too wide for one stride, jump from boat to boat but don’t be seen.”              

He’s was still looking at me, the wolf. He should have jumped by now. Those could not be Patrick’s eyes. Talbot said the wolves never remember their human existence until the sun comes up.  But he knew something. This wolf did. 

I needed to run.

If I was to be Patrick O Leary’s dancing partner again I must run and run until the sun came up.

He snarled, then howled and bore his teeth. He nodded his head, almost pointing the way I should go. Still he didn’t spring like Talbot told me he would. 

“I’ll see you tomorrow, my Patrick,” I whispered.

I turned and set the daredevil and the energy that’s left into running my fastest, over fields, though woods, jumping from hilltop to hilltop and then from boat to boat, ignoring the howls and growls and snapping teeth behind me.

“I will outrun you, Wolf O’Leary,” became my mantra. “For tomorrow I need to dance with my lover.”

I ran and ran. The first rays of the sun appeared over the horizon. The moon began to sink. But the howls were just as frequent and the musky smell seemed stronger than ever even though he was behind me.  

“He should be getting human again by now,” I thought. Even my extraordinary energy was going. I could have turned and faced him…. But I might have killed my lover or he might have killed me. 

I was getting weaker. Was it possible? Could one of my kind die of exhaustion? Never!

A pain shot up my back. How could this be? We are not supposed to feel pain. Something was gripping me and I could no longer hear him behind me. Wolf teeth in my side. 

This would not do. I felt the blood charging round my body, preparing me for the attack. The monster in me wanted to tear off the wolf’s head.

“Remember he’s your Patrick, your lover,” the girl in me whispered. I held back for a split second but then felt a snarl rising in my throat. I had his head in my hands now and I bent towards his neck, ready to bite. His musky smell was driving me into a different sort of frenzy this time.

The sun suddenly dazzled me as it slipped finally over the horizon. The moon had gone. A human hand was holding mine.

“Fyonah MacBride, will you dance with me forever now?” said my Patrick as he smiled at me out of his twinkling blue eyes. “Only don’t run so fast and so far the next time I try to ask you.”

I bit my lip and frowned. I’d almost killed him, my precious Patrick.

He touched me lightly on the cheek.

“Hey Fyonah MacBride,” he said softly. “Don’t you worry now. We’ll get this cycle under control. We’ll dance to the moon.”

  Then I knew that Patrick O’Leary would be my dancing partner for eternity. 

Friday, 8 July 2022

11 May 1933: German lessons, Girl in a Smart Uniform

 I couldn’t help staring at Herr Lindemann’s scar. It went all the way across his right cheek, from just under his eye to just above his chin. It was quite deep. He told us once he got it from fencing. “All young German men should learn to fence,” he said. “It’s elegant. It teaches self-discipline. It prepares you to fight. And an injury is a badge of honour.” He’d touched his scar then. I wondered whether it had hurt very much when it happened. Now, though, I was having the chance to have a good look at it. It still looked very red at the edges. I wondered just how long ago it was that he’d got it. 

It always fascinated me though. Today it felt extra special. There was something really exciting about it. There was something about the way he was looking at us, too. His eyes seemed to be on fire. I held my breath, waiting for him to tell us what we were going to do.    

He must have known I was thinking about his scar. He touched it and winced. Then he stood up and made his way over to the board.

“So, ladies and gentleman, you will now write your essay.” He took a chalk stick and started writing. “Our title is ‘Why Germany deserves better’.” He wrote the words on the board. He turned to face us. “You might start out with the argument that we were cheated by the Treaty of Versailles. Then you might go on to argue that we have a lot of assets – not least of all our great German people. You could also point out what is holding us back.”

Thomas put his hand up at this point. Herr Lindemann indicated that he should speak.

“Is it the scum that’s holding us back, sir?”

Herr Lindemann nodded. “Depending of course by what you mean by ‘scum’. Maybe defining that will enhance your essay. If I remember rightly, your essays could do with enhancing.”  

Everyone giggled. Thomas blushed bright red. I did think Herr Lindemann could be quite cruel sometimes.

“And finally,” he said, smirking at Thomas, “you can all add a paragraph about what your role is in helping Germany to take up its rightful position in the world. What must young people of today do?” He looked at his watch. “I’m giving you one hour from now.”

Only one hour. To say all of that? Hmm.

I just had to get on with it. I rolled up my sleeves and sat daydreaming for a few minutes.

“Problem, Gisela?” said Herr Lindemann.

I shook my head.  “Just thinking.”

He nodded. “But don’t spend too much time on that. You’ll think up new ideas as you go along. Remember to get on with it.”

I dipped my pen into the ink pot and then started dashing down the words. Yes, Germany was a beautiful country with her rivers and mountains and good climate. Her people were Christian and hard-working. They were God’s own people. There were enemies of the state who tried to steal what was hers. The rest of the world did not appreciate us and we most certainly had not been treated fairly after the Great War.

This was so easy. I had so much to say.

Soon, my wrist was aching. The skin on my middle finger was getting very hard. My fingers were covered in ink. Still, though, I kept on dipping my pen in the inkpot and then I’d scratch away on the paper. 

I was just writing my last sentence as Herr Lindemann cleared his throat. “That’s it then. Time’s up. Put your pens down.” Gosh. That hour had gone quickly.  

He stopped by my desk. He picked up my essay and started reading it through. “Hmm. Some good ideas here, Gisela. Yes, God’s own people indeed.” He looked up from the paper. “How do we know that, though? How do we know that we are God’s own people? You mention the scum. How do we recognise them? How do we get rid of them? Well? Any ideas anyone?”

Bettina Joseph put her hand up. “They look different from us.”

“That’s right. They do. We have our own particular features. So many of you in class today. Beautiful blond hair and clear blue eyes. That’s the way we want it.”

Well, my hair isn’t all that blond. It’s more light brown. My eyes are blue, though.  Was it all enough to make me look German? I hoped so. I really wanted to serve the new Germany.

“Well, well, well. Yes, good German girls indeed. Good. Now, everyone, you may pack away and make your way home. Talk to your parents about the essay you’ve just written.”     

I started to put my books into my satchel. Herr Lindemann put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Gisela. I know you are German through and through. Beautiful clear blue eyes. You hair is almost blond. When you’re older you can get some help from a bottle. It will be fine.”

I felt my cheeks go red.

“Really. Don’t worry. Just show what a perfect German girl you are.”

I finished gathering my things as quickly as I could and ran out of the classroom. I ran all the way home. I would show them. I would show them all that I was a fine German citizen.   


Wednesday, 22 June 2022

20 April 1933: great expectations, Girl in a Smart Uniform

 

It really made me squirm sometimes. In the early days when Herr Silber used to stay over I didn’t understand what was happening. Strange noises would come from Mutti’s room. Groans and screams and the bed sounded as if someone was using it as a trampoline. It used to scare me and I thought he was murdering Mutti. I used to hold my breath and hope it would end soon. I sometimes wondered whether I should go in there and try and stop them but I was worried that Herr Silber might try and hurt me as well. Besides I didn’t like the way he looked at me sometimes or the way he touched me.

I asked Bear about it one day. He laughed. “You don’t need to worry,” he said. “You’ll understand one day. Honest, you will. They’re not hurting each other.”

Of course I did understand eventually but I still didn’t like it. It seemed so repulsive to me. A man sticking his –well, you know what – into a woman’s private parts. What on earth had that got to do with romantic love?

Kissing was all right, I supposed. I’d never tried it. I’d never met a boy I’d want to kiss, in fact. I couldn’t understand some of the girls at school who go on about this boy or that one. They all seem a bit idiotic to me. 

Anyway, there hadn’t been so much of that type of activity going on recently though Herr Silber had been making quite a fuss of Mutti. And we all knew why. It happened again that morning.  

Yes, she was being sick in the bathroom. I’d heard her every day that week. It always seemed to happen between six o’clock and eight o’clock in the morning. Then she wouldn’t eat any breakfast.

“You must eat, Tilde,” said Herr Silber. She just shook her head and said “I just can’t Poldi.” That stupid name again.

I’d noticed as well that she seemed to have gone off coffee. And that her dresses and blouses were bursting open at the front. I bumped into her one day and brushed against her chest. “Be careful,” she said. “I’m a bit tender there.”

Then in the afternoons she got her appetite – and often for the most peculiar things. She would eat pickled herring and chocolate.

I know what that means now. I didn’t back then. The BDM girls told me when I said I thought she must be very ill.

“Don’t be daft, Gisela. She’s going to have a baby. Funny things like that happen to a woman when she’s expecting a baby.”

Of course, they all worked out easily enough that it was Herr Silber’s baby. They weren’t unkind. In fact, one or two of them were quite flattering about it.

“With a father like that it’s going to be a really beautiful child,” said one.

“You Mutti’s really doing her bit, isn’t she? Good for her!” said another.         

Herr Silber kept looking at her meaningfully and saying “Isn’t it about time you went to the doctor’s, Tilde, and got it confirmed?”

She just laughed and said “There’s nothing wrong with me. We can wait a while.” It seemed to me almost as if she didn’t want this baby after all. She should have gone to the doctor’s though. It wasn't as if Herr Silber couldn’t afford it. I guess it just might have been because she knew having a baby would spoil her looks.

Then that morning she fell over. It was silly really. She’d been cleaning the kitchen floor. She walked across it in her stockinged feet. That was asking for trouble. She slipped and landed awkwardly. It really frightened me and she started crying.

“Oh no, the baby. I daren’t lose the baby. He’ll kill me. It’s taken so long for this to happen.”

“Well we’d better go to the doctor’s then. Can you walk?” 

“I don’t know. I don’t think so!”

“Shall I get an ambulance, then?”

She shook her head. “Poldi’ll go mad. The expense.” 

“But you’ve got to be looked at.”

She somehow managed to stagger to her feet. I helped her on with her hat and coat and we hobbled to the doctor’s. Fortunately his surgery was just in the next street.

She cried all the way and kept mumbling, “I hope the baby’s all right. He’d better be all right.” He. As if we could be certain about that. I’d already got two brothers. Didn’t she like girls or something?

The doctor saw us straight away and I was allowed to go in with her. He made her lie down on the bed there and he examined her belly. She hadn’t got a bump yet really.

“No pains or contractions?”

She shook her head.

“No bleeding or cramps?”

She shook her head again.

“And when was the last time you had a period?”

“I’ve missed two. I would have another one in two weeks.”

He mumbled a little to himself. “Well,” he said at last, “this all looks very good.  No harm done. I’d just like to listen to the baby’s heartbeat.” He put his stethoscope to her belly and moved it around a little. Then he grinned.

“Would you like to hear?” he said to me. He put the ear pieces into my ears. It was amazing. I could hear this thump, thump thump. “That’s your little brother or sister. Babies’ hearts beat much faster than our own.”

He turned to Mutti. “Now then, Frau Schmidt. Everything is in good order. In just over six months you should give birth to fine new German citizen. I expect your husband will be pleased.”

Mutti blushed. “He’s not at home at the moment.”

The doctor frowned.  “Oh?”

“But I expect he’ll be pleased. It’s what we wanted.” She looked at me and shook her head very slightly. Why was she telling lies? I had to look away. 

“Good. Now, do come and see me once a month.”

I helped her off the bed and she grinned at me.

She wouldn’t stop talking on the way home. “Isn’t it great, Gisela? Another brother for you. Or a sister? Won’t Poldi be pleased? Oh aren’t we clever? Bringing another good German into the world? You will help around the house a bit more, won’t you. Gisela? When I get too big to move? And you will help after the baby’s born? You know a woman of my age having a baby? It’s so exciting, isn’t it?”

Even if I’d wanted to say something I wouldn’t have been able to. I wasn’t really sure that I was all that keen on having a baby brother or sister. Especially with Poldi Silber being the father. I’d been so used to being the baby in the family for so long. What about if Bear liked him or her better than he liked me? Or if Kurt was cruel to him or her?

It carried on when we got home.

“I think I need to rest a little. I’ll just put my feet up. Be a good girl and make me a cup of tea.”

So, that’s what I had to do. Thankfully she fell asleep. At least I got a bit of peace and quiet then.

She didn’t wake up until Herr Silber let himself in with his key. That irritated me as well. Why did he have his own key?

Mutti’s eyes grew round when she saw him and she blushed. “So Poldi, we went to the doctor’s and he’s confirmed everything. We certainly are going to be parents.” She looked at me. “And Gisela is going to become a fine big sister.” She shook her head at me and frowned. I guessed that meant I shouldn’t say anything about the fall and the visit to the doctor’s.

Herr Silber smiled though I noticed his eyes seemed cold. “Well, well. So you have your wish, Tilde.”

He moved over to Mutti and put his hand on her belly. “So, you are going to produce for me a fine Aryan German. You are so clever.”

He turned to me and smiled in the same cold way. “Gisela, your mother and I need to talk. Take yourself for a little walk.” He put his hand in his pocket and took out a few coins. “Here, buy yourself an ice cream or a glass of lemonade.”

What did he think? That I was a little kid or something? He looked at me in such a way, though, that I knew I had to go.   

I wasn’t sure how much time to leave them. I walked for a while and then I stopped at the pub and bought myself a glass of lemonade. I sat in the beer garden and drank it. Thomas was there with some of his friends. I don’t know whether he saw me or not. If he did, he pretended not to. He was such an idiot sometimes.

By the time I’d finished my drink it was getting dark. I guessed I could go back now. They’d had enough time to talk. Even so, I walked slowly and went the long way back.

Herr Silber was sitting alone in the kitchen when I got back. He had his coat on.

“Ah, there you are Gisela. I was beginning to worry.”

Idiot! He’d told me to get out of the way. “I thought you didn’t want me here.”

“Oh, Gisela, of course I want you. I just needed a quick private word with your mother. She’s gone to bed now. She needs all the rest she can get because of the baby.”

“Why have you got your coat on?”

“I’m not staying tonight. I want to leave your mother in peace.” He sighed. “I don’t want to hurt the baby and I’m afraid I cannot resist the charms of the beautiful Tilde.”

I almost felt like giggling at this point. Mutti, the beautiful Tilde. Well yes, she was always looking at herself in the mirror and fixing her hair or lipstick. But if she was having to fix it, it meant that it wasn’t right, surely.

Then, though, his eyes grew round, he licked his lips and stared at me. “Unless, of course, you…” Then he frowned. “No, no, of course not. You’re much too young.” He stood up. “Well, I must get going now.” He stood up, fastened the buttons on his coat. “Take good care of your mother.” Then he went.

 

When Mutti woke up the next day it was clear that she’d been crying. There was a big black bruise over her right eye and she couldn’t see properly. I worried about the baby. I asked if she had any pain or bleeding.

“No, no. I think he’s fine.” Then she started crying again. “He made me tell, him Gisela. About the fall,” she mumbled between sobs. “He said I was clumsy.”