“Well, at least it meant that they didn’t hold you up for too long at customs,” said Uncle Ernst, looking with slight disgust at the stained coat. “I don’t know what that woman was thinking of, letting you go off on your own.”
“She was really kind, actually, said Renate.
Uncle Ernst sighed. “Yes, indeed. And the poor young lady has had to go back to that awful regime. You’re right. We should be grateful. We’ll get you to the Smith family as quickly as we can. They’ll soon get you sorted out and cleaned up.”
“What are they like, the Smiths?” asked Renate.
“Very kind,” replied Uncle Ernst. “They have a son John, who is in the sixth form at grammar school and an older daughter who is a nurse and works away from home.”
“So... you think it will be all right?” asked Renate.
“Of course it will,” replied Uncle Ernst. “Now, let’s go and find a taxi.” He marched her towards the taxi rank.
Uncle Ernst did not offer to carry anything so she had to struggle with her case all by herself.
There was something about the way that Uncle Ernst stood that made the other people waiting for taxis get out of his way, and they were able to pile into the first one that arrived.
Renate thought she heard him say something like Eely. A place named after a sea creature, then. She wondered how far that was going to be.
Renate noticed the big red busses and square black taxis that she’d always been told were everywhere in London. They were just as she had imagined. They didn’t see Big Ben though, nor Nelson’s Column, and before long all she could see was row upon row of houses. They weren’t like the ones at home. They all looked the same and they seemed to be built of red or black bricks, with their chimneypots lined up like soldiers on parade. Most of them didn’t have gardens or only very tiny ones.
“I’ll see you settled in with the Smiths,” said Uncle Ernst. “I won’t stay long though. I want to get back to my hotel as your uncle Rudi and I have a meeting there early this evening.”
Why were her uncles living in a hotel? Were they going to go back to Germany and leave her here?
“Aren’t you going to live in England too?” she asked. Was she really going to be all alone in this strange country?
Uncle Ernst turned and smiled at her. “I shall stay in England until you mother is safely here and settled in,” he said. “Then I intend to go to America. I think we can do more from there to stop this utter nonsense.” He turned once more to the driver and said something else she didn’t understand. “Not long now,” he said turning back to her.
The taxi eventually stopped. The driver mumbled something to Uncle Ernst who took out his wallet and handed some of the strange notes and coins to him. The driver didn’t smile as he unloaded Renate’s case out of the taxi.
“Come on,” said Uncle Ernst as the taxi moved away. He put his arm around her shoulders and propelled her towards the house which looked just like the ones she had seen on the journey. As they moved towards the front door, Renate realized that the house was bigger than it had first looked. It did have a front garden, even though it was quite small and consisted mainly of a tiled path. A light suddenly went on in the porch.
“We’ve been spotted,” said Uncle Ernst. “The Smiths live in the first floor flat. And a nice Polish family live on the ground floor.”
The front door opened and the path flooded with light. Renate could see a small woman with slightly greying hair. She looked a little older than her mother. A faded flowered pinafore covered her skirt. She spoke in an animated whisper to Uncle Ernst.
Renate could not understand a word that was being said. Uncle Ernst answered the woman firmly and before Renate had a chance to try and work out what they were saying, she was shuffled inside and up the stairs. A man and a boy a few years older than her were sitting in the lounge. Renate noticed that they were both very smartly dressed in ties and jackets. They stood up as soon as she and her uncle came into the room and shook hands enthusiastically with Uncle Ernst. Her uncle said something to them and Renate heard her own name.
“Renate,” he said, turning now to her, “this is Mrs Smith and Mr Smith and their son, John. They will make you very welcome in their home. I’m sure you’re going to be very good for them.”
Renate held her hand out to shake theirs then pulled it back again quickly and looked down at the floor. She couldn’t expect them to touch her in that state. Then Mrs Smith seemed to explode and made noises that sounded like a hen clucking. She was bundled out of the room and down a corridor then into another room which she guessed was going to be her bedroom. Mrs Smith, who Renate now noticed had very kind eyes, indicated that she should get undressed. She then started rummaging in her suitcase and took out some clean clothes. She opened a cupboard and took out a thick blanket which she wrapped around Renate and marched her out of that room into the bathroom. She started running a bath. She left the room and came back a few minutes later with a smelly paraffin heater.
After Renate had finished her bath, Mrs Smith helped her to dry her hair. Soon she was dressed in clean clothes. Mrs Smith bundled the dirty ones up and made some gestures with her arms which Renate guessed meant she would wash the clothes.
“Well, you look a bit more respectable,” said Uncle Ernst as she came back into the lounge. “I guess I should make my way back now and see that younger brother of mine has not got up to any mischief.”
“Uncle, don’t go,” said Renate, suddenly panicking. “I can’t speak English.”
“You’ll soon learn,” he said. “And anyway, John speaks a little German. But you’re to use it for emergencies only. It’s really important that you learn to speak English as quickly as possible. ”
John said something to his mother. Renate guessed he was translating into English. Mrs Smith laughed and smiled at Renate. Perhaps Uncle Ernst had been right. The Smiths seemed all right.
Even so, Renate felt really odd as her uncle left the flat. John grinned at her whilst Mrs Smith went downstairs and showed him out. Mr Smith sat there, quietly puffing on his pipe. She heard the front door click shut. Mrs Smith was already talking as she came into the room. Renate couldn’t understand a word. But then she did understand that it must be something about her, because Mrs Smith smiled at her again. Then she pretended to be eating and drinking. Renate guessed she was offering her food. She shook her head. She really wasn’t hungry yet. Her stomach was still a bit sore, and everything was so strange here.
A little later, she did manage to eat and drink something but it tasted really odd. Not long after it got dark, she managed to indicate to Mrs Smith that she wanted to go to bed. Mrs Smith led her along to the big bedroom she’d shown her earlier.
Renate shivered as she got into her pyjamas, but once she was in bed it was quite cosy and warm, though the bed was funny: it didn’t have a normal featherbed roll. It had sheets and blankets and a puffed up thing which was a bit like a roll but which went over the blankets, and then there was another cover over that that had tufty ridges on it that made a pattern. And the pillows were oblong instead of the normal square. But never mind. It was comfortable in there.
Mrs Smith bustled out of the room again. She left the light on. Renate knew she ought to get up and switch it off. But she really was too sleepy. She was just beginning to have funny, dream-like thoughts, but she wasn’t really asleep yet and she certainly wasn’t actually dreaming, when the door opened. Mrs Smith came in carrying a tray. Renate could smell hot chocolate. She sat up in bed. Mrs Smith handed her the mug and a plate on which were two very thin, very brown biscuits.
Mrs Smith sat on the bed while Renate drank the chocolate and ate the biscuits. The chocolate was a little bitterer than she was used to, but it was still very nice and very comforting. She had never tasted anything like the biscuits. They were not all that sweet and tasted very much of wheat. They had a nice texture and just melted in her mouth. This was just right, after that long journey.
When she had finished, Mrs Smith took the plate and cup off her and tucked her into bed. Thank goodness she didn’t make her get up again and go and clean her teeth. Mrs Smith rubbed her cheek gently. She went over to the door, waved once more and switched off the light. She left the door open a little.
Renate snuggled down into the welcoming bed. Nothing mattered any more. She was safe here. Sleep was going to drift over her any minute now and then the whole world would go away. The Smith family would guard her from any harm while she slept. Maybe it would be all right. For the moment at least.
Nice English family, here Renate. They’re giving you a home. Are you grateful? Do you deserve them? Eh? A nobody like you?