My short story ‘Skin’, described as ‘imaginative and thematically holistic’ won a recent competition by Chapter Checkers. You can read it on their website
One year after my short story The Audience was published in the Lancashire Evening Post, I have been working on the subsequent chapters for this historical fiction novel, my second book. So, for a limited time, I am publishing the first three chapters of the first part of The Kurt and Ida Trilogy: Escape on this blog.
About The Kurt and Ida Trilogy
Children are empty vessels. You can fill them up with good, or you can fill them up with evil ~ Alfons Heck
The Fault in Our Stars meets The Book Thief.
Kurt Sander and Ida Sommer are two teenagers on the run from pre-war Nazi Germany who meet on the doomed St Louis voyage. Hiding their true identities from each other, the two fall in love. But when the truth about who they are and the real nature of the voyage emerges, they must overcome deep-rooted prejudices from within themselves and all around them in order to survive.
Book One: Escape
THE GIRL AND THE GLASS
9 November 1938
A bodiless arm pulled her from the bed. Through the mesh of white flesh and brown cotton, fingers pressed painfully around her wrist.
‘Get up!’ A blurred mouth, nose and eyes appeared in place of the arm. As she struggled to escape the bed covers, the fingers grasped at her night gown, ripping it as they pulled her up. He smiled. She trembled. His hand moved towards her.
The slap was hard. It made her face turn to one side, threw her back onto the bed.
‘I would not touch a dirty rat.’ He leaned over and spat in her face. It dripped down from her cheek to her chin. She didn’t dare to wipe it away as his eyes locked onto hers. She was supposed to look down. It was important to remember that. There was another slap for that insolence.
‘Now, get out!’ He moved to the next bed.
Clutching the nightgown at its torn seam, she saw one of the nurses being punched until she fell against the opposite bed. Her lip burst and blood seeped out; first with great urgency and then slowing to a steadier rate. The ward was filling with men in brown shirts. The sounds of cries, screams and blows building up louder.
‘Here, Ida, quickly!’ Nurse Bauer handed her a pair of shoes which she put on with shaking hands. They both hurried towards the door to the ward with everyone else, stumbling along the dark corridors to the main exit. Some of the younger ones cried openly, but Ida was old enough to know that tears were simply a waste of salt.
Outside it was not the November night which made their teeth chatter. It was the sight of the mob, people coming to watch, lining the exit to the hospital, holding bricks, stones and pieces of rubble.
Many of the others coming into the freezing outdoors had to use crutches or be helped along by doctors and nurses who fended off blow after blow from the wall of violence which flanked them. Ida was glad of the shoes as they crunched against the broken glass on the floor. Specks of blood dotted across the torn skin of a boy in front.
‘Hurry up!’ The angry cries of a brown shirt rang through the air. Some of the mob broke into the huddle with intent to reinforce these instructions. A woman grabbed Ida’s arm and yanked her forward. She looked her straight in the eye, despite being sure she would wet herself with fear. The woman’s face changed and she backed off into the crowd, her grip leaving a mark on Ida’s bare arm.
A wild cheer rose up from the crowd, who had now gathered in a semi-circle, as the patients and Ida were positioned in front of a building. She copied the others who were kneeling down with their hands above their head. Stones dug into her skin. An old man next to her was pushed to his knees. The cold whipped around them, collective breath showed in the air.
‘Please,’ a woman kept saying over and over as flames began to rise in front of them, drawing another wild cheer from the surging crowd. A boy of about fifteen was kicked in the head and fell face first to the ground. Boots continued to rain down on him until a girl in a white nightgown threw herself over his limp body, crying and screaming, in an act of surrender which went unacknowledged.
People were coughing with the smoke, flames licking at their faces. Ida dared to look up and saw a fireman standing, holding a pipe, no water coming from it. He caught her eye and turned away. Next to him a woman in a feathered hat held a young boy above the crowd. His face lit up with delight at the fire. He clapped his hands together.
Objects were thrown to feed the flames. Ida felt a sharp crack in her skull and then a wetness spread across her head. She looked up again at the fireman, noticed a gap to the side of him where no one stood baying for blood. She made a run for it. He pretended not to notice. A boy standing behind him had a different idea.
The boy stood in front of her, jumping in her way with his thick boots landing in deep puddles as she tried to get past. He must have been around her age, thin and scruffy but with the angular face and blond hair of the German ideal. The crowd seemed to melt away. It was just the two of them in a dangerous dance.
When she picked the rock up and smashed it over his head, she felt the anger that she’d seen in his eyes. He stumbled back like a weak baby. It was the only blood that she didn’t mind seeing that night.
Ida ran until her head was bursting, her legs were like jelly and her chest was splintering with sharp pains. All the time shouts came from all round her. A choking, burning stench gridlocked the usual senses of the street.
She stopped by some granite blocks which had been heaped into piles. Then she heard them. Youths, men and women, howling deliriously as they ran towards her. She climbed over a gate, tearing open the skin on her knee and dropped herself into a small park.
Through the gaps in the gate, she watched as the crowd hurled the blocks through the windows and at the closed doors of shops. In a few minutes the doors of one store gave way and the mob, shouting and fighting, moved inside and came out clutching boxes and bottles. It was hard to see anyone’s face; many had their coat or jacket collars turned up. And then one of them caught sight of her.
‘Look, there’s one hiding!’ He shouted in excitement. Ida sprinted to the exit at the other end of the park, shoes slipping in the wet soil. Behind her, the gates rattled and voices called for her to come back.
‘Face what your people have done to this country!’ A voice carried over the burning air, hitting her lungs harder than anything else she was breathing in.
She didn’t look back. The other gate was harder to scale and she fell into a puddle on the other side, her nightdress spotted black with dirty water, drenched at the bottom. It was becoming harder to breathe. She could not imagine what it would be like for those who were really meant to be in the hospital, those who were actually ill.
This side street was darker than most. She kept her body pressed against the wall, creeping slowly along it, rain dripping off her skin, hair stuck to her face like rats tails with blood seeping from her head, knees and hands. A rattling sound and a shout made her run.
She slammed into a body. It was a man. He turned and grabbed her. Ida’s insides turned to liquid. He spoke in a foreign language, fast snatches of words. Then he took a deep breath and removed his brown coat, putting it around her shoulders. Without it, he looked smaller.
‘How old are you?’ he asked slowly, choosing words she could grasp, with a flat, solemn tone.
‘Sixteen,’ she replied.
The sudden sounds of steps coming towards them made her prepare to flee. But the man pushed her into the wall and held her there, his eyes on her, saying things she couldn’t understand.
Another man appeared behind him, short and stumpy, wearing a hat like an extended shadow of his head and shivering in a shirt and tie. Beside him was an old woman, also in a suit jacket with night clothes underneath, white hair tumbling down her face and past her shoulders.
‘Please, come with us – we will help you.’ The new man spoke clearly in Ida’s language.
The old woman took her hand. ‘They are journalists.’ This was the most important information she had, spoken in her crackly voice. She didn’t offer her name.
Ida let herself be pulled through the streets, limbs heavy, heart beating fast, occasionally pausing to hide from a passing group until they reached an apartment and the men let them in. She paused, wondering why these men were helping them and what they could gain from it. A rough hand on her back pushed her in with a muffled ‘hurry,’ hissed as a warning for the hesitation.
It was a small room. Ida could make out a chair and tables, a bed and a sink in the corner. They didn’t put the light on.
‘You will stay here,’ the short and stumpy man said. ‘We are going back out there. Stay away from the windows.’
They men left, locking the door behind them. Ida and the old woman remained there and kept silent.
At short intervals they could hear the crunching of glass or the hammering against wood as windows and doors were broken in streets nearby.
‘A great performance from the Nazi party tonight. Now the world will turn against them,’ the old woman spoke suddenly and confidently. ‘They cannot stage something like this and get away with it. Yes, 1938 will be their final year in power.’
Ida looked away, taking a quick upwards glance through the net curtains from her position on the floor. The city was set with flickers of fire and the dark sky itself was punctuated by heavy clouds of billowing smoke, shooting up like warning signals.
THE BOY ON THE BALCONY
9th NOVEMBER 1938
Alfons shouted and cheered everyone on as they threw missiles, stones, rocks, bits of gravel, anything they could find. Kurt threw only one brick.
He watched as the jagged piece of glass fell from the window pane and split Alfons’ head open. He saw the silent scream swallowed by the incoherent chanting of the crowd, before his friend fell to the floor, behind a wall of brown shirts.
The balcony seemed to shift under Kurt’s feet. He leaned on a side railing, and vomited onto the street below. The smoky air filled his lungs as he gulped it in and tried to steady himself.
He stormed back inside the apartment with a rage that made his heavy boots kick at a chest of drawers which hit a long mirror, smashing it into pieces. He no longer cared about the intricate carvings in the wood or the craftsmanship as he had on the way to the balcony.
As he reached the front door, a whimpering sound came from the bathroom. He was about to leave it but then something made him charge across the room and kick the door open. A small figure ran past, quick as a cat, knocking him against the wall and getting out of the apartment before he could react.
Clenching his fists tightly, he ran down the stairs after the figure but when he got to the street a gust of wind carrying the stench of burning, blinded him. When it cleared, his mind focused on the need to find his friend and he forgot about the cat-like figure.
Forcing back a fresh wave of vomit, he pushed his way through the crowd who were cloaking Alfons, shoving identical brown uniforms out of the way.
‘Please be ok; please be ok,’ he begged as though some higher force would hear his muttering. It could have just looked worse from the balcony. Alfons was always getting into these scrapes, even the small group standing near him now didn’t seem that concerned. One of the elder members, Georg, who Kurt had never liked, was attempting to offer some sort of first aid with what looked like a dirty piece of cloth, but with his attention still fixed on the increasing activity at the shop door.
‘Ah the rescuer, what took you so long?’ Georg stood up, using a full military style standing so he could just about tower over Kurt, who ignored him and crouched down to see to his friend.
Alfons’ blonde, carefully parted hair was matted with blood and his face, so like Kurt’s own that they had often been called brothers, was stark white against streaks of red. His uniform, a brown shirt that had not yet earned the Jungvolk insignia and leather shoulder strap, was sticky with dark cherry blood on the collar and chest. He was conscious and reached forward for Kurt.
‘Get him cleaned up,’ Georg said, looking at the two of them with disgust.
‘He’s losing a lot of blood,’ Kurt replied. It oozed from the wound and over his fingers. ‘We need to get him to a hospital.’
‘Stop being so dramatic and look after him like you always do. Let the rest of us get on with some real work.’
Kurt grabbed at Georg’s legs, pulling him down to the ground. ‘He needs a doctor,’ he hissed.
‘You idiot!’ Georg said, getting back up and dusting off his uniform. ‘I’m trying to warn you. Peter is watching you both or have you forgotten that? And did he need a doctor last week when you begged for it then?’
Last week had been the most recent camping trip for their division. They’d been playing a game of Trapper and Indian when it happened. Kurt had been put on a different team from Alfons, as instructed by Peter Fischer, the head of their Hitler Youth Division.
These vicious games on the camping weekends, usually ended in fist fights and Kurt and Alfons had both been pummelled by the older boys, until they’d got stronger, well Kurt had got stronger, which had led to him defending them both. Ripped shirts, scraped knees and elbows along with bruises, were intended to toughen them up. But Kurt had sensed that something was different about that day even before he’d heard the blood-curdling crunch of bones and Alfons’ scream.
‘Leave him alone!’ Kurt rushed onto the scene, pushing the other boys out of the way, until he came upon Alfons holding his nose, already a mass of blood and bent out of shape flesh and bone, still pinned against the tree in terror.
‘He needs a doctor,’ Kurt hissed at his ‘comrades’. ‘Where’s Peter?’
As if on cue, Peter stepped out of the shadows of the trees. Ignoring Alfons and the others, he fixed his stare on Kurt. Peter was pale with a bird-like face and a pointy nose, a mouth that was almost too small to manage a full smile and dark eyes that no one could read. Sometimes he could be a saviour to someone struggling, other times he ‘let things carry their course’, as he put it.
‘Kurt ‘The Rescuer’ has arrived boys,’ Peter said, prompting forced laughter from the others. The term had been used last week after Alfons had been plunged into a strong current in a nearby river by some of the others and with choking shouts had called for Kurt to ‘rescue’ him. He had. He always did. Weren’t they meant to look after their own after all? ‘But not the weak ones,’ Peter had shaken his head. ‘Not the ones whose cowardice gets them into trouble’.
The other boys ambushed Kurt later, cutting off a small piece of his left ear with a pen-knife as revenge for interrupting the toughening up of Alfons.
‘What happened?’ Alfons asked, eyes rolling back into his head.
‘It’s those Jews.’ Georg spat on the ground and then he looked up and his eyes brightened. ‘Look, they’ve got some.’ The others followed Georg.
Kurt turned around, his hand still grasping Alfons’, to see a man being driven out of the shop and forced to the ground under a tunnel of fists.
‘Please, take whatever you want, but let my husband go!’ A woman was following them, screaming, crying and holding up glittering pieces of jewellery that hit the street lights and the attention of some of the crowd. It wasn’t enough. They turned their fury onto her too.
The cat-like figure, which dashed from the darkness near the flats, turned into a little boy and slipped into the middle of the frenzy, another piece of flesh to attack. Kurt saw the boy’s lips form the word “mama”.
‘Alfons needs help!’ Kurt shouted at Georg and the others but they were lost to the frenzied sound of thuds, punches and cries of pain and his words fell on deaf ears. He ripped off one of his uniform sleeves to wrap around his friend’s head. But the material wouldn’t stay in place.
A low groan shuddered from Alfons’ body as Kurt picked him up as carefully as possible and they headed back in the direction of the hospital.
As they reached the next section of cobbled streets, Kurt stopped to take a breath, the ground battering his skin as he fell roughly onto his knees.
‘I don’t want to die,’ Alfons managed to say.
‘It’ll be ok,’ Kurt lied. But he could see that the life was draining from Alfons and onto the street as though the head injury was a puncture that had set off more wounds inside his body. He couldn’t help but think of all the times they both said they’d die for the Fuhrer, without really knowing what it meant. He also knew that this was his fault.
That morning he had goaded Alfons, tried to gear him up after he’d failed another Mutprobe, even though it was one of the easiest courage tests by Peter’s standards.
Tonight was meant to be Alfons’ chance to rectify this. Sitting in the lorries after the call for a night of vengeance, Kurt had told him as much.
‘You have to prove yourself,’ he said, holding out the recently earned Hitler Youth dagger bearing the inscription, ‘Blut und Ehre’. But Alfons only saw the blood and not the honour in that slogan.
‘Who says I want one?’ he’d hissed back, before putting his head back down and avoiding eye contact with anyone, a position Kurt had got used to seeing him in.
‘What about the glider competition? You still want to go?’ Kurt pushed. Their joint plan due to their mutual love of aviation was to join the Flieger-HJ. Alfons was just a few weeks off eighteen and Kurt, only a month after him. So far they had participated in annual glider flying competitions, visited Luftwaffe facilities and went for rides in fighters and bombers. It was the only time Alfons’ face lit up.
But at that point Alfons only shrugged. He had always been interested in flying planes. He just wasn’t interested in war. The Mutprobe he’d refused to do had involved jumping from a second story ledge into a large canvass held by older members, who kept moving positions just as the person was about to jump. There were rumours that an older boy had broken a leg when they moved too far away to catch him.
‘It’s stupid,’ Alfons had said. ‘Why are we made to do these things? They want to kill us before there’s even a war?’ Unfortunately Alfons had complained a little too loudly. Kurt had tried to quieten him, aware of what happened when people said too much.
Peter had called them all together at the last meeting.
‘Certain members who have yet to show their value as a soldier will be sent back to the Blood and Soil programme for an undetermined time,’ he said, resting his beady eyes on Alfons as he spoke. ‘Once again you can experience life on a German farm and help with the necessary work to feed and fuel the Fatherland!’
But everyone, including Alfons, knew what it really was, backbreaking work with the stigma that you couldn’t make any of the other divisions that would be ready to fight in a war. Despite his hatred for Peter and his tasks, Alfons face had fallen.
As Kurt carried Alfons again, his legs wobbled, worse than in any of the military training they did with bayonets and hours of marching. He had to sit down and catch his breath and then he heard the footsteps. They were careful clicks on the cracks of road and then a woman appeared and remained frozen at the edge of the alleyway. She was carrying a bundle, hugging it like a small child.
‘Bitte, kann sie hilfe mich?’ he shouted to her.
The woman edged over slowly. In the streetlight, Kurt could see that she wore a nurse’s uniform and had a pretty, oval face with curls of dark hair under her hat. She must have been in her late twenties.
‘Can you help me get him to the hospital?’
She glanced nervously at their uniforms. ‘There isn’t one around here.’
‘There’s one around the corner!’
‘There was,’ she replied steadily, a harshness creeping into her tone, until she looked at Alfons again. Something broke in her face, which Kurt could see was bruised on one side, a slow purpling of a recent hit. She put down the bundle, which rattled on the ground and put her hand over Alfons, cupping his face gently and wiping away blood and tears. Next, she took something out of the bundle, a bottle of pills, and shook two out of it and gave them to Kurt. ‘For his pain. She produced a white bandage and wrapped it around the wound carefully until it was secured. She stood up and gathered the bundle close to her chest again.
‘You aren’t going to help us?’ he asked.
She hesitated. There was a loud scream from a nearby street, accompanied by the sound of something crashing. Of course those noises had been around them the whole time but this nearness shook the nurse back to reality.
‘I can’t,’ she said. He saw tears on her face before she turned and ran in the opposite direction to the noise.
It was then he realised that she must have come from that hospital. Without even thinking he had just headed for the nearest one he knew about. This was the same one that only a few hours earlier they had entered as a brute force, shaking everyone out of their beds, and rightfully so, he’d tried to tell himself at the time, they were a drain on the state, a poison sucking at the German people. But when the nurse had knelt down to look at Alfons, she had smelt like softness, that light flower scent that his neighbour Anna had which sent urges up and down his spine and other places.
He cursed himself. He should never have asked for her help. You were supposed to be able to tell what they looked like.
Outside that hospital Kurt had danced around a girl in a nightdress. She was the same age as him, pretty and blonde but she was only one of them. Alfons had walked away disgusted until even Kurt felt an uneasiness in his stomach when he remembered the fear in her eyes.
‘The way they still expect medical care, feeding off us like they do,’ Georg had said as they walked away from the hospital, dark eyes glimmering like all their eyes did at rallies. The firefighters stood by, their hoses dry. They had left a pack of them, the poison people, kneeling on glass and watching their synagogue burn.
Alfons had stood and watched the others harass and attack everyone who came out of the hospital, his expression unreadable. That was until Peter went over and whispered something into his ear. Alfons’ fists had clenched and then he’d stormed over to Kurt.
‘They think they can threaten my family,’ he hissed. But whatever Peter had said seemed to awaken an anger in Alfons that Kurt hadn’t thought him capable of. But he directed this rage at inanimate objects; buildings, windows, ornaments.
Kurt also knew Alfons was masking this by shouting louder and driving everyone on to destroy anything that couldn’t feel pain. He even encouraged a couple of the boys kicking at a tangle of limbs covered by white material like a surrender flag, to go and smash the side windows of the Synagogue instead. Then Alfons had screamed at them all to go into the next street where more stores could be found and, Kurt observed when they got there, no visible people.
As everyone worked away at the shop, Kurt had gone up to the balcony because there was a tightness in his chest that wouldn’t let up. He’d navigated through empty corridors and doors smashed in or hanging on their hinges, carrying the mini bundle of missiles. He wasn’t sure whether to throw any of them until Alfons had caught his eye from below and with a mad, violent, frenzied shout, called for him to throw that brick.
‘I’ll get you a doctor,’ he told Alfons, ‘don’t worry.’ He found the strength to get up once again and start heading towards the hospital. Someone had to be there, he didn’t care who they were any more, or there would be supplies, even just a phone to call for help. Tears stung his eyes.
‘Bitte!’ he shouted out into the night, to the doors of houses that had been closed and bolted hours before.
‘I’m scared.’ Alfons’ voice had become small, childlike and quiet.
‘Nothing will happen to you,’ Kurt replied. There was only one other time he’d lied to Alfons. Both times he saw as necessary, although the first one still ate into him, a secret that made even his own mother, look upon him with hatred. But he had to protect his brother.
The louder noises became background screams and crashes again. A patter of feet could be heard gaining ground on them. A small figure appeared, silhouetted in the streetlamp. It paused and then ran towards Kurt and Alfons revealing a boy of around seven or eight.
‘I have to get help for Papa and Mamma but I can’t find anyone,’ he said and then looked at their uniforms and started to back off, stumbling against the cobbles. But on hearing loud shouts from behind him, he staggered forward again, unsure which way was safer.
‘I’ll help you,’ Kurt said, after all it was only a child, ‘if you can help me carry my friend to the hospital.’
The boy looked uncertain. Tears stained his face and blood and mud scratched across his knees.
‘And then we will go and help your parents,’ Kurt suggested, knowing that he needed an extra, albeit smaller pair of hands, to get Alfons to the hospital. ‘What is your name?’ Kurt asked the boy as he took Alfons’ legs.
‘Asher,’ he replied.
Kurt carefully lifted Alfons’ upper half, the white bandage was already soaked red, and together they carried him through the deserted streets, the places that attackers had got bored of and the victims had fled from.
Thick, black smoke was still billowing from the synagogue as they got to the hospital. It made them cough and splutter.
‘Oh.’ Asher stopped and stared with wonder at the building, until Kurt prompted him to move towards the hospital entrance.
Inside was cold and dark, apart from the nearby fire spitting light into the room at intervals. Beds were overturned and bottles were smashed on to the floor. There was no one around. Glass crunched under their feet.
‘Stay with him,’ Kurt instructed the boy, who nodded mutely. Alfons had closed his eyes at some point on the journey and not reopened them but he was still breathing, shallow, laboured breaths.
Kurt scaled the rooms for a phone, a nurse, equipment that could somehow help. He was at the other end of the building, trying the last door, when he heard the explosion.
A violent gust of wind blew him against the wall at the end of the corridor. He got up, choked and dizzy and made his way back to the room where he’d left Alfons and Asher. A sharp, chemical fog covered the air of the building, stinging his eyes and scratching at his throat as he grappled past wreckage.
The wall outside the room was blown to pieces and then he saw them, lying side by side, twisted debris around them, both motionless. Small groups of flames licked around them; otherwise it was a calming scene, like two friends who had fallen asleep together. That was until another mini explosion set off a chain of blasts, that engulfed the room in fire and smoke.
The heat threatened his skin and tugged at his torn clothes. He tried to fight his way in but there was nothing he could do. He ran.
The whole journey home, Kurt felt like he trying to outrun the fire which clung to him although the flames were long gone. The crowds, the screams, the smoke, all of it filled the pockets of air around him.
As he climbed the stairs to the fifth floor apartment where he lived, he paused for a moment, leaning over the rail, considering the drop below. His brother’s voice interrupted him and he let himself into the flat.
His mother was dishing out soup. She gave Kurt a dull look and moved past where his father used to sit.
‘Mutter, I-’ he started but she put the soup dish and ladle down on the table and left the room. She’d stopped really looking at him like a mother the night that the two men in suits had called and led his father away.
‘Heil Hitler!’ His brother Amon shouted, throwing his right arm up in the air as a greeting before he went back to greedily gulping his soup. As usual Amon didn’t notice the tension between his mother and brother and he didn’t care about the empty place. Their mother gave Kurt a look, as though he was to blame for the twelve year old’s dinner-table fanaticism. All Kurt could do now was try to protect her, to make her think that her younger son was not capable of such loyalty to the Fuhrer and disloyalty to his family. He knew that their mother passed off her younger son’s behaviour as something he would grow out of. It would be dangerous for her too if she knew what had really happened.
‘Why has your father been taken away?’ Alfons had asked.
‘Someone in work betrayed him,’ Kurt answered to which Alfons paused but kept whatever he wanted to say within his bitten lower lip and deep frown.
‘How was it?’ Amon asked. ‘Your uniform is burnt.’
Kurt ignored him and sat down. Something jabbed at the burnt flesh through his pocket. He removed a small document; Alfons name stared back at him, small letters headed by a swastika.
He stood up and left the kitchen, turning the key carefully and letting himself outside before closing the door behind him.
The balcony seemed to shift under Kurt’s feet before he leaned over a side railing and disappeared into the darkness to the sound of distant shouting and cheering.
THE GIRL AND THE BOY ON THE TRAIN
12 May 1939
The shout came through the carriages and Ida, alone in a compartment, scrambled to locate hers, dropping them with fumbling fingers, thankful that no one had witnessed her panic. She’d walked through the connecting corridors of the train until an empty cabin was in sight. The jammed window trapped the heat and damp into the contained area so when other passengers opened the door, they turned around after one sniff or a muttered complaint about the temperature. Ida smiled back at them and fanned herself. She would have sat in a cabin full of livestock if it meant avoiding people.
The inspector came in and held out his hand. She kept her face registered in a bemused smile, like this was a waste of time. These checks were becoming more frequent but at least this wasn’t an SS man; the inspector wasn’t even wearing the Party badge. He was a stout man with a twisted moustache that hid his lips, filtering the stench of tobacco and whiskey. The compartment door opened and a boy slipped in.
He wore the brown shirt that sent shivers down her spine. He was pale and thin, with dark blonde dishevelled hair but had some of the structure of the idealised German, which Ida also shared. Along with her blonde hair teased into curls with old rags and blue eyes, this had proved a life-saver, making it easier to be Anna and not Ida.
The boy started rummaging through his pockets. His panic was a mild pleasure to her. He took out a piece of paper which the inspector barely glanced at before leaving the cabin. The boy put a single brown leather case on the luggage rack.
Ida almost stopped breathing as he sat down facing her. She had seen him somewhere before. But he looked back at her impassively, and if there was a hint of recognition, he didn’t show it. Instead she watched his shoulders slacken, colour return to his cheeks and his body sink into the seat as he let out a deep breath.
Instinct told her to run. But there was nowhere to go. She had to be brave, to think of all those who’d helped her to get this train so that she was no longer in danger. If this boy was going to cause a threat to her, it could come back on them too if she did anything stupid. It was important that Germany didn’t lose any more people who were willing to oppose the Nazis.
She tried to concentrate on her book, an Agnes Miegel, which she could stomach due to its focus on places and not people, but stole glances in his direction, trying to determine why his face was familiar. He looked out of the window and occasionally at the cabin door. When he ran his hand across his hair, she noticed that a small section at the top of his left ear was missing as though it had been cut off roughly. He caught her looking and shuffled his hair again to hide it.
The train rocked them gently across the countryside towards Hamburg. When it rolled into the next station, a succession of brown shirts ran past the window. The train screeched its way to a complete standstill. Ida put her head back in the book and tried to stop her hands trembling as the trampling of the heavy boots and the shouts and screams from the other cabins got closer. Ida caught the boy’s eyes which were wide with fear and for a split second, a mutual panic passed between them.
He leaned across suddenly and grabbed her, pulling her across the cabin. Silently, she squirmed and kicked out; drawing attention to them by screaming like she wanted to was out of the question. Her father had warned her about lashing out after the first time they were raided.
‘Shhh, or this will be worse for you,’ the boy said. His face brushed against hers, until his lips almost touched her skin. His breath was warm coffee. ‘What is your name?’
‘Alfons Brandt. That is what you’ll call me if they ask. Get on my knee.’ He spoke briskly, formally. He was used to being obeyed.
She didn’t answer. She couldn’t win.
‘Please, they are nearly here.’ His voice was softer and so was his touch as he gathered her gently onto his knee.
They entered the carriage, two of them, smart in the uniforms, sneering in their faces.
‘Gentlemen, a little privacy for me and my girl.’ Alfons’ voice had taken on a jovial tone. He lounged back on the seat but one of his hands was sticky with sweat against hers.
The uniforms hesitated. The sneers momentarily wiped off their faces as they noted the situation in front of them, two blue-eyed, blond haired creatures, and one dressed like them.
‘Comrades, we never get an empty carriage,’ Alfons said.
‘Papers!’ The taller one stepped closer. But Ida could see he was unsure of what action to take. He smoothed down his dark hair and fixed his attention on her. The other one lingered behind, shifting his weight from one foot to another.
Ida’s papers should have lived up to close inspection. But it would be too dangerous if she was hauled into Gestapo headquarters for being associated with this mad boy who obviously didn’t have papers forged well enough to go under scrutiny. She shifted the material away from her dress carefully to reveal more of her legs and breasts as she took out her papers. Their eyes turned to her body and both of them visibly reddened.
Alfons dug his hand into his pockets and held his papers up. He didn’t even have identity papers. It was a Hitler Youth membership with no photo.
The dark haired one continued to stare and Ida’s smile grew slimmer. He was about to speak when shouts started in the next carriage. They threw the papers back at them and stomped out.
Out of the window, a man and woman were being dragged and kicked along the tracks. The uniformed brutes surrounded them. The train started up again and left Büchen station and the poor victims behind in a cloud of steam.
Ida let out a deep sigh of relief and moved away into her own seat. The train clattered as it picked up speed.
‘We live another day,’ the boy said. He had a low voice, almost smoky, which moved through the carriage slowly and hit all her nerves.
She said nothing but stared at him to let him know she was angry.
‘Do I know you from somewhere?’ he asked, his brow furrowed in concentration. He was looking past her eyes, like he was seeing all the terrible things stored in her mind.
‘Why did you have to get me involved?’ she hissed. ‘Do you have a death wish acting like that?
‘You know some days I think I do, but apparently when it comes down to it, I don’t.’ He looked at her carefully again. ‘You could have denounced me.’
Her stomach flipped. This conversation wasn’t safe. No wonder her father always said she was her own worst enemy.
‘You shouldn’t worry,’ he said. ‘You look like a perfect little Bund Deutscher Mädel girl. Where are you off to a hike, a climb or a lesson on becoming a wife, a mother, a homemaker?’ There was a smile on his face but she wasn’t sure whether to trust it. Otherwise she would have told him about her experience with the League of German Girls, how they praised her sporting prowess and energy, until they found out who she was, or as they saw it, ‘what’ she was. Once she had been desperate to get into these groups, now she knew better.
‘Heard camping is banned though,’ he continued, ‘after, what was it, nearly a thousand girls came back from Nürnberg with the beginnings of an army for our Fuhrer inside their bellies?’
She smiled then despite herself. He said our Fuhrer with a certain inflection that indicated hatred. This could just be a trick yet even joking about something like that was dangerous. But how he had managed to get the uniform? They were almost impossible to steal.
‘I’ve never camped,’ she replied trying to keep the conversation neutral and then blushed realising it sounded like she was referring to something else which she hadn’t done yet either.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Is that right?’ He lowered his voice. It struck even more of her nerves but in a different way now. ‘Did you not volunteer for Faith and Beauty?’
Ida shook her head, not meeting his eye as she would flush even more.
‘My neighbour Ursula was a BDM girl,’ he said while Ida found herself inexplicably annoyed that he had mentioned a girl. But it pleased her. After all that had happened, she was still capable of frivolous emotion. In some ways she was still a normal seventeen year old.
‘What happened to her?’ she asked.
‘She’s still a BDM girl, a very devoted one,’ he said ‘devoted’ with such bitterness that it changed the soothing rhythm of his voice. ‘But let us not talk about bad people and bad things.’ He stood and moved his leather satchel from the shelf, taking out a small object and sitting back down again. It was a bar of milk chocolate. He broke a piece off.
‘Here,’ he said, leaning across and handing it to her. Their fingertips brushed. She popped a small section in her mouth and swallowed without really tasting it. He looked up at her, his clear blue eyes right on hers. She reddened.
‘Nice isn’t it?’ he asked softly as he sat back.
‘W-what?’ she stammered.
‘The chance for normal conversation,’ he replied. ‘So Anna-
‘So Alfons,’ she cut in equally sarcastically.
‘What should we discuss? The meaning of life?’
‘Most people who have the answers to that have been taken away,’ she said, without thinking. He raised his eyebrows and for a moment she panicked, thinking that this was a trap after all.
‘Now I don’t think that would be a normal conversation at all,’ he said shaking his head. ‘Can we be two young people going on a trip? But I won’t ask about your destination and you don’t ask about mine.’ He gave her a serious look. ‘Are you going to eat the rest of that?’
She followed his gaze to the remaining chocolate which was starting to melt in her palm and stuffed it into her mouth in one go, almost choking herself in the process. This time she appreciated some of the flavour, a forgotten pleasure.
‘Maybe you are not such a good BDM girl after all.’ He laughed. It was a nice sound, and if she hadn’t been grappling to establish a ladylike pose again, then she would have laughed too.
‘Don’t be sorry, you looked happy,’ he said, ‘even if you did nearly kill yourself eating it. Never be sorry for happiness.’
He was fidgeting in his seat. ‘We could pretend to be a couple.’
‘It would be fun, like living again, properly I mean.’
There was such sadness in his voice that she looked away from him. Fun belonged to before, when she was living rather than surviving each day. Ida had a lot of time to think about death because it was always following her. She felt like she understood it. Life was something she couldn’t quite grasp. It seemed like so much effort and caused her constant worry and anguish.
Every day had been a battle since the night she’d watched those books burn when the Nazis first came into power. Even at the age of eleven, she’d understood that this was only the start of all of the trouble. He father had been more optimistic, ‘Give them a few years and it’ll all blow over.’ But the years only brought on preparations for survival. Life was not about living, about enjoying yourself, making friends, being yourself, going where you wanted to eat or drink and laugh, as it was for other teenagers. It was all about avoiding death.
Ida had become so many things that she’d never realised she was or wanted to be; a half person or a ‘mischling’ as they like to call her because of her mother who was long dead and had never been near a synagogue. The other parts of her became the older sister of a girl posing as a Catholic in a convent school, a fake patient who was dragged out of the hospital on the night the country was covered in blood and glass, the daughter of a political enemy who became a political prisoner following this violence, and because of everything she was a girl who had become a liar and a thief of life, taking a chance away from others to cheat death herself. Her mother had escaped all of it, dying in a warm, bed at home and existing in photographers that were more real than the underground life the family left behind lived.
‘What does a normal couple in Germany talk about?’ she asked, wanting a way out from all these thoughts, however temporary this would be.
‘You like art?’
‘I like sport,’ she replied. It was nice to say the truth and not be in danger for a change.
‘You should wear this uniform,’ he pulled at it. She noticed the slight burn marks.
‘You run?’ he asked carefully, eyes directed out the window.
‘Yes.’ She nodded slowly.
‘How long have you been into this running?’
‘How do you…not give up when you feel…tired? How do you- ’ Her voice broke on the last word. He turned to face her, looking at her in a way so that she knew he understood everything, about leaving people, losing people, never really getting to know people, living in anonymity.
‘Easy, never look back.’ He was trying to sound casual about it but his face, dulled as he spoke.
Tears started to prick at her eyes and she pressed her fingers against them to stop the flow.
‘We are making each other sad,’ he said gently and then leaned across the carriage again and whispered. ‘You want to hear a joke?’
‘You’ll have to come here,’ he said, patting the seat next to him. ‘I don’t want to say it too loud.’
She got up cautiously and moved across. They were so close she could smell the worn-in scent of his uniform.
‘Hitler visits a lunatic asylum. The patients give the Hitler salute. As he passes down the line he comes across a man who isn’t saluting. ‘Why aren’t you saluting like the others?” Hitler barks. “Mein Führer, I’m the nurse,” comes the answer. “I’m not crazy!”’
She laughed. He didn’t even smile. In fact his face had turned into a hard, far-away stare.
‘Are you ok?’ she asked.
‘That is a beautiful laugh,’ he said, his eyes snapping back to her.
‘How can a laugh be beautiful, you fool?’ She gave him a playful shoulder punch. He was as surprised by this gesture as she was. A part of the old her had slipped back in, Ida had taken over Anna, the ‘ruffian’ as her father used to say.
‘You have a tough hit for a girl.’ He mockingly rubbed his arm but a patch of the sewn over material came away. She caught a glimpse of skin that was abnormally smooth and pink in colour, raised up over the ordinary pale of the rest of his arm.
‘Old war wound,’ he said, visibly uncomfortable. He got up as though he was about to leave. Instead of heading for the door, he took the brown leather case from the rack, pulled something out again and then took off his shirt revealing a lean, muscular body. He sat back down with a small sewing kit.
‘Do you have a rest from running soon? Maybe you will give it up?’ he asked while expertly looping the thread through his battered inform, securing it back into place. His voice started and ended, almost in rhythm with the needle as it went in and out repairing the cloth.
‘Yes, very soon.’
‘You’re good at that,’ she remarked, watching him at work. ‘My father always said I had no patience for sewing.’
He stopped for a moment. ‘And what did your mother say?’
‘She never had the chance to see me sew.’
‘Did she get…taken?’ he asked, starting up again and not looking up from his work.
‘I was a child.’
‘Ah, so it was before.’
‘Yes, before, ten years ago. I was seven.’
‘I am sorry for your loss,’ he added, putting the sewing kit away and his shirt back on.
‘What about your family? Are they still…here?’
‘I think so, although some days I do not know. People can disappear and still be there, you know.’
She did. She had lost so many people by becoming Anna. Most of them still lived the same existence in her old neighbourhood; getting bread from the old Fraulein Herbert’s bakery at the end of the lane, going ice-skating, the cinema or walking in the park. Those like her, who had changed their names, it was better not to know their lives, yet she had lost them too. Those who stayed visible and waited to see what would happen, who barely left their houses, were slowly disappearing into an uncertain shadow. But there were others, like her old neighbour Franz, bringing the game of ‘chase’ they’d played in childhood to a perilous level.
‘Nearly there,’ Alfons said. Out of the window rich metal lines fell over themselves to form the archways of Hamburg station.
He brought down her small suitcase and his bag, handing it over with a smile. Inside her suitcase were a few neatly packed dresses, skirts and blouses, a toothbrush and some cosmetics. The cover given was a visit to a friend in Hamburg.
They left the carriage and he helped her down from the train step. Her heart thudded and her stomach lurched at the sight of all the people; the uniforms, the informers, the hidden trouble-makers who wanted to make money by finding the vanished. Perhaps there were some like her, whose insides were jittering so much that they never really stopped.
As he let go of her hand, she looked at his face and saw the same alert under its surface. It was so strong that she could almost reach out and touch the fear. She hoped his path would be safe. It was unlikely they would meet again.
She turned to him. ‘It has been-’ He cut her off with a hug that warmed her whole body. She hadn’t been hugged in so long that she buried her face in his mended sleeve and bit her lip so that she wouldn’t cry.
‘My name is Kurt,’ he whispered into her ear. She didn’t answer and he released her. To give out her real name would be too dangerous. He stepped back and gave her one last, ravishing smile. She would keep that with the good memories in her head that were constantly being pushed out.
‘Goodbye Anna, I wish you the best of luck,’ he said, emphasising her name but being careful not to speak too loud. He walked off into the darkness. He didn’t look back.
– No dogs, no Jews, no communists – The door rattled as she opened it, as though alerting the cafe that one of the banned people was attempting to enter.
The woman in the strawberry pink dress drank the last of her coffee and reached for her hat. She took her time, collecting her things together and counting out a tip. Ida walked towards the counter and surveyed the cakes, fat and bursting with fruits and cream. The door jangled again behind her. She ordered a coffee and walked towards the vacant table. It was quiet, just as they said it would be.
Checking to see that the one other customer wasn’t paying attention, she dropped her purse and picked it back up along with the scrunched up napkin under the table. She tucked it into the pocket of her dress and smoothed it down before sitting again.
‘Your coffee, Fraulein.’ The waiter smiled. He arranged the cup, saucer and milk jug on the table in a careful formation. ‘Bitte Schen,’ he said when the ritual was complete. She returned the smile and pretended to enjoy the harsh liquid hitting her lips. She thought about Kurt, his smile, unruly looks and soothing voice, even though she would never see him again. She would never see Germany again after tomorrow. She forced more coffee down her throat to warm this thought away and signalled for the bill.
In the bathroom, she took the napkin out of her dress. The little piece of paper folded up inside held an address and a small map from the cafe. She memorised it and then flushed it down the toilet. Back in the cafe, she counted out the money and called out a cheery ‘ich danke Ihnen sehr’ as she left to head back into the ‘party’ atmosphere of Hamburg.
Outside her stomach twisted as a crowd waving Nazi flags headed down the street in her direction. There was no way of avoiding them so she waved the Nazi salute in their direction. A Hitler Youth member raced ahead and put a torch up to her face. ‘Heil Hitler!’ he shouted releasing flecks of spit over Ida. He raised his own arm, clipping his heels together. He was a few years younger and bounced up and down with excitement. The others caught up, a mass of madness that carried her along with it, clutching her suitcase. Gradually she edged to the back of the group and turned around, preparing to walk in the opposite direction, to get where she needed to be.
The leader was pushing through the mob towards her.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked with suspicion.
‘Please, my friend is waiting for me.’
‘Why isn’t your friend celebrating with us?’
‘She has a touch of flu.’
He looked her up and down. ‘I must check your papers.’
‘There is really no need-’ she started, taking them out of her pocket and watching as he snatched them away. They were good papers, had come at a high price but every time someone looked at them, her heart stopped.
‘Visiting from Berlin, Anna?’ He smiled, satisfied. ‘Please, a dance before you go to find your friend?’ Holding out his hand, he dragged her into a folk dance as the audience below watched and cheered. Closing her eyes, she was back outside the hospital on that night in November as that other Hitler Youth boy had danced in front of her, trying to block her path as she stood humiliated and terrified in her nightdress.
‘Much better than those Swing pigs,’ he whispered in Ida’s ear and then turned to the waiting group. ‘To Cafe Heinze.’ He let go of her and she was instantly forgotten as his followers ran on with a new purpose. The air entered her lungs again and she almost collapsed with relief but she had to keep walking and quickly.
When she reached the address, she wanted to turn around and run back to the train station, take her chances in Berlin. This couldn’t be the right place.
The interior arch was carved with Unser Glaube ist der Sieg .
‘Our Faith is the Victory,’ she murmured. At the beginning of the words was a cross; at the end a swastika. As she read, a hand came out of the darkness and dragged her inside, still holding the suitcase tightly. She struggled and kicked but was too exhausted to fight properly. The hand let go and the room was lit up by a single flame, illuminating the face of a man, harsh and unsmiling.
‘What were you doing gawping outside the door like that?’ he hissed. She went to answer but he took hold of her arm again and led her through the room. The chalky smell of church surrounded them and his light would catch a pew, a statue or a painting. Jesus looked like he was melting on the cross. It made her shudder.
He guided her down a set of stairs, tutting impatiently when she stumbled and the suitcase hit against stone. She was bundled into a room with a mattress on the floor, a sliver of light coming in through a nailed down, grimy window. He blew out the candle and the smoke danced between them.
‘The crypt would be too obvious,’ he said by way of explanation. ‘Stay here, until the morning. I’ll come and get you. Do not talk, do not cry, do not make any noise at all.’ He left, shutting the heavy door behind him.
She started to walk across the room towards a dirty looking mattress, but her shoes clipped so she took them off and flinched as the cold chilled the bones of her feet. The floor was dirty and cobwebs claimed the room which was nothing but a collection of bricks that let in a cold draught through the thin window. But the mattress was a welcome softness and she would use her coat as a cover. Looking around there was no food or water. The suitcase stayed by her bed, the remaining money hidden in her underclothes.
She opened her handbag and took out the pieces of rags used to curl her hair and a little silver package fell out. Wrapped inside were a few squares of slightly melted chocolate. She smiled wondering how Kurt had managed to sneak it into the bag and popped a piece into her mouth, the sweetness rushing right through her senses this time. It tasted so good that her insides smiled.
She started to comb out her hair. The future was still an unknown entity; a new continent, a different way of avoiding the death shadow that followed her. But tomorrow things would be better. If everything had gone to plan, this would be her last night alone.
My short story The Audience was recently published in the Lancashire Evening Post. You can read it in full below.
I was pulled from the bed by a bodiless arm. Through the mesh of white flesh and brown cotton I could just focus on the fingers which pressed painfully around my wrist.
‘Get up!’ A blurred mouth, nose and eyes appeared in place of the arm. As I struggled to escape the bed covers, the fingers grasped at my night gown, ripping it as they pulled me up. He smiled. I trembled. His hand moved towards me.
The slap hit me hard, made my face turn to one side, threw me back onto the bed.
‘I would not touch a dirty rat.’ He leaned over and spat in my face. It dripped down from my cheek to my chin. I didn’t dare to wipe it away as his eyes locked onto mine. I was supposed to look down. It was important to remember that. We are not equal. I got another slap for that insolence.
‘Now, get out!’ He moved to the next bed.
Clutching my nightgown at its torn seam, I saw one of the nurses being punched until she fell against the opposite bed. Her lip burst and blood seeped out; first with great urgency and then slowing to a steadier rate. The ward was filling with men in brown shirts. The sounds of cries, screams and blows building up louder.
‘Here, Ida, quickly!’ A whisper in my ear. Nurse Bauer handed me a pair of shoes which I put on with shaking hands. We hurried towards the door to the ward with everyone else, stumbling along the dark corridors to the main exit. Some of the younger ones cried openly, but I was just old enough to know that tears were simply a waste of salt.
Outside it was not the November night which made our teeth chatter. It was the sight of the mob, people coming to watch, lining the exit to the hospital, holding bricks, stones and pieces of rubble.
Many of the others coming into the freezing outdoors had to use crutches or be helped along by doctors and nurses who fended off blow after blow from the wall of violence which flanked us. I was glad of the shoes as I felt them crunch against the broken glass on the floor. Keeping my head low and holding my position in the middle, where it was relatively safe, I saw specks of blood dotted across the torn skin of those in front of me.
‘Hurry up!’ The angry cries of a brown shirt ahead of us. Some of the mob broke into our huddle with intent to reinforce his instructions. A woman grabbed my arm and yanked me forward. I looked her straight in the eye, despite being sure I would wet myself with fear. Her face changed and she backed off into the crowd, her grip leaving a mark on my bare arm. A street lamp lit us up, ensuring everyone got a good view as we continued on our way.
A wild cheer rose up from the crowd, who had now gathered in a semi-circle around us, as we were positioned in front of a building. I copied the others who were kneeling down with their hands above their head. Stones dug into my skin. An old man next to me was pushed to his knees. The cold whipped around us, our collective breath showed in the air.
‘Please,’ a woman kept saying over and over as flames began to rise in front of us, drawing another wild cheer from the surging crowd. A boy of about fifteen was kicked in the head and fell face first to the ground. Boots continued to rain down on him until a girl in a white nightgown threw herself over his limp body, crying and screaming, in an act of surrender which went unacknowledged.
We were coughing with the smoke, flames licking at our face. I dared to look up and saw a fireman standing, holding a pipe, no water coming from it. He caught my eye and turned away. Next to him a woman in a feathered hat held a young boy above the crowd. His face lit up with delight at the fire. He clapped his hands together.
Objects were thrown to feed the flames. I felt a sharp crack in my skull and then wetness spread across my head. I looked up again at the fireman, noticed a gap to the side of him where no one stood baying for our blood. I made a run for it. He pretended not to notice me. A boy standing behind him did.
The boy stood in front of me, jumping in my way with his thick boots landing in deep puddles when I tried to get past. He must have been around my age but didn’t uphold the ideal model as his height was small, his skin dark and his body thin. But he acted the way they did. The crowd seemed to melt away. It was just the two of us in this dangerous dance.
When I picked that rock up and smashed it over his head, I felt the anger that I’d seen in his eyes. He stumbled back like a weak baby. It was the only blood that I didn’t mind seeing that night.
I ran until my head was bursting, my legs were jelly and my chest was splintering with sharp pains. All the time shouts behind me, in front of me, at the sides of me. A choking, burning stench gridlocked the usual senses of the street.
I stopped by some granite blocks which had been heaped into piles. Then I heard them. Youths, men and women, howling deliriously as they ran towards me. I climbed over a gate, tearing open the skin on my knee and dropped myself into a small park.
Through the gaps in the gate I watched as the crowd hurled the blocks through the windows and at the closed doors of shops. In a few minutes the doors of one store gave way and the mob, shouting and fighting, moved inside and came out clutching boxes and bottles. It was hard to see anyone’s face; many had their coat or jacket collars turned up. And then one of them caught sight of me.
‘Look, there’s one hiding!’ He shouted in excitement. I sprinted to the exit at the other end of the park, my shoes slipping in the wet soil. Behind me, the gates rattled and voices called for me to come back.
‘Face what your people have done to this country!’ A voice carried over the burning air, hitting my lungs harder than anything else I was breathing in.
I didn’t look back. The other gate was harder to scale and I fell into a puddle on the other side, my nightdress spotted black with dirty water, drenched at the bottom. It was becoming harder to breathe. I could not imagine what it would be like for those who had been a lot sicker than me in the hospital. I had been due to go home any day.
This side street was darker than most. I kept my body pressed against the wall, creeping slowly along it, rain dripping off me, hair stuck to my face like rats tails with blood seeping from my head, knees and hands. A rattling sound and a shout made me run.
I slammed into a body. It was a man. He turned and grabbed me. My insides turned to liquid. He spoke in a foreign language, fast snatches of words. Then he took a deep breath and removed his brown coat, putting it around my shoulders. Without it, he looked smaller.
‘How old are you?’ he asked me slowly, choosing words I could grasp, with a flat, solemn tone.
‘Sixteen,’ I replied.
I heard the sounds of steps coming towards us and prepared to flee. But he pushed me into the wall and held me there, his eyes on me, saying things I couldn’t understand.
Another man appeared behind him, short and stumpy, wearing a hat like an extended shadow of his head and shivering in a shirt and tie. Beside him was an old woman, also in a suit jacket with night clothes underneath, white hair tumbling down her face and past her shoulders.
‘Please, come with us – we will help you.’ The new man spoke clearly in my language.
The old woman took my hand. ‘They are journalists.’ This was the most important information she had, spoken in her crackly voice. She didn’t offer her name when I asked.
I let myself be pulled through the streets, limbs heavy, heart beating fast, occasionally pausing to hide from a passing group until we reached an apartment and the men let us in. I paused, wondering why these men were helping us and what they could gain from it. A rough hand on my back pushed me in with a muffled ‘hurry,’ hissed as a warning for my hesitation.
It was a small room. I could make out a chair and tables, a bed and a sink in the corner. They didn’t put the light on.
‘You will stay here,’ the short and stumpy man said. ‘We are going back out there. Stay away from the windows.’
They both left us then, locking the door. We stayed there and stayed silent.
At short intervals we could hear the crunching of glass or the hammering against wood as windows and doors were broken in streets nearby.
‘A great performance from the Nazi party tonight. Now the world will turn against them,’ the old woman spoke suddenly and confidently. ‘They cannot stage something like this and get away with it. Yes, 1938 will be their final year in power.’
I looked away, taking a quick upwards glance through the net curtains from my position on the floor. The city was set with flickers of fire and the dark sky itself was punctuated by heavy clouds of billowing smoke, shooting up like warning signals.
I recently came 2nd in Know Magazine‘s inaugural short story competition 2013 ‘Strangers in the Night’. You can read the story below.
Strangers in the Night
They were familiar strangers, the three of them, ready for their Sunday lamb roast, proving that some things never change.
It was like a shop window advertising the right furniture for the perfect family. There was the male role model, his bald, shiny head like an oversized light bulb, his big-boned body somehow skirting around the solid oak table to carve at the meat which fell easily into succulent, pink slices. His face had peaked years ago, too young, and was now knackered, thin little red veins showing up in protest at points on his forehead. The mother figure was next, putting down a steaming dish of roast potatoes and moving a free hand over her bare neck which led into cropped, black hair. She sat down on solid oak, sinking into a red cushion which clashed with her swishing purple skirt. The dutiful daughter brushed feathered blonde hair away from her long face and with see-through grey-blue eyes, poured red wine into crystal glasses.
It was hard not to smell bullshit along with the rosemary tangled with red wine seeping out of the house through various vents. They left windows open, but only the smaller ones. They locked all the doors. But they weren’t always careful.
I clasped the cold key between my frozen fingers. The harsh green spikes of the tree pulled at me but I carried on. I could hear their muffled chatter, the scraping of knives and forks on oversized plates as I quietly entered through the kitchen door. The money was in the emergency drawer as usual, scraps of food were on the counter. I stuffed both into my pockets. It was enough to clear my debts but not my sins. I could always count on them, these strangers of mine.
My post for Write a story with Neil Gaiman at Guardian Books
Neil Gaiman has provided the opening line of a new story and below is how I finished it:
It wasn’t just the murder, he decided. Everything else seemed to have conspired to ruin his day as well. Even the cat.
Jamie blamed the British summer, or lack of it. He had counted on it to help him, not conspire against him. The three to five day window of sun each year made people stupid. It gave them the confidence to bring out white winter legs that weren’t used to warmth. It made them blind themselves with bright clothes and sunglasses. It made them sprint down pavements and skip down streets. It certainly made them less cautious when crossing roads. But he hadn’t counted on the cat.
Sarah stepped out into the street in her ‘sunnies’ with her legs in a short orange summer dress and a smile as bright and as stupid as the sky. His knuckles went white against the steering wheel. Five years they’d shared together so he knew her routine. But he hadn’t counted on the cat.
Also made stupid by the sun, blind and giddy, it ran out from between two cars. The thud surprised him and automatically he stopped the car. Sarah paused, turned to the ball of ginger fluff lying on the floor and then looked up at him. Jamie lowered the cap covering his head which shielded part of his face and reversed the car down the street, knowing that she wouldn’t recognise the old, battered Ford he had purchased but hoping that she hadn’t recognised him.
He would come back. This was a murder for another season.
The following Flash Fiction story was shorted in the 2013 Writing on the Wall ‘Flash: In the Dark’ competition.
The mirror crashed to the floor, splintering into sections.
‘Shit!’ Ella said. ‘That’s seven years bad luck you know Mel.’ She sounded happy about this and she probably was. Ella loved to revel in things going wrong for people or even the possibility of it.
‘I’ll just clean it up.’ I replied, annoyed. ‘Can you make us a coffee please?’
She shrugged and headed for the kitchen.
I started to pick up the larger fragments of glass, and then I made my first mistake. I looked into the piece I held. My hand started tightening around the ragged edges. I couldn’t stop it. The pain seared through me. My teeth clenched and my face closed up as the skin lost its brief resistance and let the blood flow out. But in front of me the reflection was impassive, unemotional.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ Ella shouted from the door. At these words, the glass lost its grip on me and fell to the floor.
‘Just get the first aid box!’ I called back, needing to check again.
When she was gone, I looked into another fragment, this time without touching it. I tried a smile, felt the edges of my lips curl up. The mouth in the mirror did nothing.
Ella came back with antiseptic wipes and bandages.
‘Will you look into this mirror with me?’ I asked. She looked at me like I was nuts.
‘Now smile.’ I demanded, my voice shaking slightly.
Her beam set against my immobile expression although my cheeks hurt from grinning.
‘I’m smiling.’ I insisted to the mirror.
‘Ok,’ Ella said slowly as though dealing with an idiot.
‘I’m smiling in the mirror?’ I said trying to keep my voice steady.
‘Is this some kind of weird game?’ Ella sniffed and stood up. ‘I have work to do and you need to clean up that hand.’
‘I think I’ll go home early,’ I managed. It was probably lack of sleep and the stress of an office move. I didn’t look in the mirror again but on the way out I ducked into the toilets. This time, I smiled back but there was something wrong, a slight delay as though my mirror self had been caught off guard and had just about managed to keep up.
I went back into the office. Ella wasn’t around but she’d swept up the glass and left the mirror propped against the wall. A large fragment was still attached to the side. It was then that I made my second mistake. I touched the part that was left and watched as my reflection moved closer to the edge. Splinters spread across my skin and a rush of blinding light burned off my body. When it faded, I was on the other side of the mirror surrounded in darkness, looking back at myself in the office. I beat against the glass, trapped.
‘My turn,’ the unsmiling me said and then I watched myself leave.
My article about the misconceptions of chick lit has appeared in Know Magazine, an independent online literary magazine which is devoted to artistic expression through art and writing.
NEW! Feature: “The phrase ‘chick lit’ first appeared during the 1980’s. The term took off after the 1995 anthology titled ‘Chick lit: Post-feminist Fiction’. More recently everyone refers to (or blames) Bridget Jones instead. Defined as ‘sex,shoes and shopping’ by some media, this often overlooked and disparaged genre actually contains some of the best, deepest and most well-written literature beneath the often frivolous covers and sleeves,” writes Clare Doran.
Read the article at:
To find out more or to submit to KNOW Magazine email firstname.lastname@example.org.
My short story Drought has been published in an ebook. The Subtext Anthology is now available on amazon for kindle. This Anthology is a collection of works including short fiction, poetry and essays about the process of writing, written by a new generation of writers.
Overview of Drought:
Dealing with the theme of loss, I take this to the apocalyptic extreme through the journey of two boys who have lost everything and who are trying to find safety. But one of them has a dangerous secret and not everyone will work together for survival in this new world.
This is a behind the scenes story about Lydia, one of my tropical fish in ‘The Dictionary of Departures’. This will start to give you a taster of who she is before you meet her. Writing mini stories revealing life snippets is an exercise I’ve been playing about with to get to know my characters. If you’re a writer, does this process work for you?
Like the main character Gina, you probably won’t like her, until you see where she is coming from and also where she has been.
Here is one example of what led Lydia to become who she is…
Screaming without Noise – a back story for Lydia
I heard the screaming outside from the bathroom. It was really clear as the window was open. A sound that cracked the air, not human. I fell down the stairs, a pain on my side that I wouldn’t feel until much later. I opened the door and his body was swinging from side to side, blood on the pavement, some splashed on the wall of the house, on the car. Jimmy’s strong shoulders hunched over, set wide. The tips of his teeth showed, but the rest sunk into white fur. The white fur was still moving, in and out, trying to get enough air in to survive this. He was screaming without noise now, all the fear in his eyes instead pleading for help, seeing me and seeing some hope. But then they flashed past too fast, when his body was thrown from side to side again.
I grabbed the nearest thing I could and threw it at Jimmy. He just looked at the splattered Yellow Pages, all broken pages on the floor next to him. A second later they were dotted with blood.
‘Please, please, let him go.’ I could still see something like life in the white ball despite the lines of blood from the neck down to the legs, pouring faster. It didn’t look real – like Halloween blood or raspberry sauce. Maybe this wasn’t real. I would wake up. The eyes were closing now, falling silent.
And then he dropped Oscar at my feet and sat back on his hind legs, waiting for a treat. I clenched my fists up, watched Jimmy’s stupid, slobbering face as he licked the blood off his lips. It looked like he was smiling.
He lost interest and stood panting and smiling as I tried to lift Oscar, wanted to bring him in and clean him up, but the broken bits of him were leaking out everywhere. His eyes were closed and everything about him stopped, his body warm but he was gone. It felt like the street was just the three of us. When people hear trouble around here they stay inside. Mum came out then. I could tell she felt bad as she thought it was just kids arguing again, me shouting at them to break it up. She got angry at me for doing that but I could never just leave a fight.
Then a whistle from the field and Jimmy was gone. I knew that whistle. Jay brings Jimmy out as part of our gang and lets him hang his thick jaws around the swing poles. ‘training him up’ He lifts him up, makes him lock those lips and teeth over the poles and then leaves him dangling. The grunting and the growling and his look of pain gets hard to listen to and then finally Jay lets him down.
Mum disappeared and then came back and picked Oscar up in our checked tea towels and moved back in without looking at me. I sat down on the step. She came back out for a second and I took the bucket of water and rough brush.
‘Those horrible bastards…’ she was muttering to herself but she looked at me. We wouldn’t talk about it yet but we both knew who it was. A brick through the window, a firework through your door for calling the police at least. So we didn’t call them.
I put the bucket down and traced the marks on the ground with my finger. I noticed the claws then. There were three of them spread out at different scratches, clutching across the pavement. I put my face on the concrete slabs between the claws and scratched along until it felt like my skin was being pulled off and I imagined the claws sticking into my forehead, my cheeks, my chin. I wanted to feel it, a panic so big that I would scratch my nails deep into the ground trying to get away from it, a fear so massive that it would take little parts of me with it.
All around the annoying sounds of kids playing together, shouting in the distance continued and when I entered the house, the shouty sounds were replaced by the noise of ground being shovelled to make a hole in the little bit of earth we had in the back garden. It was so gentle. Mum lifted Oscar in the box with the blood in just as gentle a way, like the cardboard was made of the same easy break material as the ornaments Nanna left us, one with her in it, like a pile of black dust. I opened it once and felt this once, warm woman, dry on my fingers. By accident I breathed some in and felt it choke down my throat. For days I thought I was walking around with Nanna’s arm regrown from the black dust in my stomach, but the pokey outerdness was probably just my worries.
Death smelt like metal and mud today. Oscar hanging in the jaws, limp, like a toy. The image stayed in my head like the start of a DVD when you don’t press play and the intro just keeps rolling and rolling.
After we’d buried Oscar I went upstairs.
I looked out the window and could see the round buildings trying to pinch the clouds right out in town. Jay was on the field, waiting. There was a screaming in my head in the quiet bedroom, building up louder. I knew and he knew what was coming, except he didn’t this time. I was going to recreate enough fear so that he would need to grip the ground until parts of him fell off.
This short story was highly commended by the Writers’ Forum in November 2012 and recently made the Longlist for the Fish Short Memoir Prize 2013. Although I entered it into a memoir competition, this is fact mixed with fiction as the competition states:
A memoir gives licence – to interpret, to create, to fabricate, to make sense of a life, or part of that life.
A revised version will also form Chapter H of my novel, ‘The Dictionary of Departures’.
Hug1 v (hugged, hugging) 1. to hold or embrace tightly in one’s arms 2. to move parallel and in close proximity to. >>huggable adj.
Hug2 n a tight clasp or embrace.
Hug3 an ornament that looks like a piece of shit >>shit-hug
Hug4 the type that kills, a love you to death. >>death-hug
Hug1 and Hug2 (official definitions from The Penguin English Dictionary)
Hug3 and Hug4 (additions from Gina Ellis)
I didn’t get the bus the night it happened. Dad drove. There was no rain, no melodramatic weather. It was just cold.
We were in the hospital earlier that week when I said, ‘That ornament looks like a piece of shit.’
Mum laughed but it hurt her. I could tell. We were starting to get each other’s humour, but it was already too late. The ornament, a get-well gift from a friend, sat on the hospital bedside table, a brown goblin-type-thing that someone had stuck the word ‘hug’ under and framed in a small cardboard gift box. As though you could stick hug on anything to hand and sell it. A shit-hug. That ward would have provided other marketing inspirations that day of dried-up vomit on the sheets of the next bed, blood-phlegm in a paper bucket opposite us or malignant tumours hidden in the bodies of the patients.
The smokers-with-the-drips came back into the ward, slippered feet lugging their failing bodies and trailing medical equipment feeding their last days. They brought the smoke from outside the hospital back in with them. I could almost taste it, feel those last desperate ‘fuck it’ drags on my tongue. All the women-smokers mainly looked the same to me; thin, fat, whatever, but they were all raspy and craggy in some form. But I remember one with shoulder length; fudge coloured hair in a hospital bed-head style. I can’t remember her name though. She’s certainly dead now. None expected to live. Surrounded by the dying and I was still being class-conscious.
The nurses walked the ward, ‘angels’ with stern faces. They brought the tea-time trolleys behind the smokers. We slipped in and out all the time, us relatives of the dying. The nurses rattled the plates and one brought over a mass of Spaghetti Bolognese that looked and smelt as though it had suffered during the cooking. She put it onto the tray that stretched across the bed in front of where Mum lay and cleared away a dirty cup. Another nurse moved to the side of one of the end beds and pulled the blinds closed. The view of the city of Liverpool, that glimpse of Paddy’s wigwam, closed into white blinds. This daily routine was like a version of the game show Bullseye, when they reel the main prize out to the losers and then take it away again. Patients, there’s a life out there you could have had, watch it leave.
‘Ye alright Marie.’ The smokers said as they moved back to their beds. Mum just nodded. I don’t know if she was jealous they could still walk. Her legs were the size of balloons. So was her stomach.
‘You look pregnant.’
Why did I say that? She just smiled and said. ‘I wish I was.’
Sometime I can’t even think about it.
I was in hospital ten years before what happened to Mum. I must have about seven, and I should have learned something from what she said and did, always comforting and reassuring me. Mum had nursed me through a two-week hospital stay, a stint in a wheelchair and a long course of antibiotics that turned my teeth yellow like the smokers. When it was her turn in a hospital bed I made accidental insults like the shit-hug comment or over-polite conversation.
‘You got your place in the hospice then?’
‘Yes. I’ve got a place in the hospice.’
Dad observed every traffic light rule, every roundabout pause, although the roads were quiet. We pulled into the car park and Dad parked between the lines. I ran ahead, across the car park. Everything except me went into slow motion. The wind was cold and whipped against my cheek but there was fire beneath my feet. I heard a couple more cars parking up and somebody shouted me. ‘Gina.’ I didn’t stop.
I don’t know what I expected. But it wasn’t what I saw. Mum drowning. Her eyes were closed and she was struggling to breathe. Her head moving from side to side as she lay in the bed. Her eyes were closed.
Nobody knew what to do. Dad came in behind me. I remember him standing there in his Liverpool shirt as I turned around. You’ll never walk alone. He certainly didn’t in the years that followed with his new wife Janet as they hiked the hills, watched views of towns and cities, gazed out of hotel windows. And nobody shut the blinds.
‘She insisted I went,’ he says, ‘I should have spent all day and night with her. But she insisted I went.’ It was the match. Mum had told him to go, said we all needed a break and to come back the next morning. But at that moment when more people came into the room, we all felt that we shouldn’t have left. Mum’s best friend Anna Harrison came and moved me forward with a gentle nudge, towards the bed. In the blank-wash of faces behind I saw Dad start to take steps forward too, letting me lead. Anna and her husband Tim stepped back. The room smelt of the lilies crawling out over the vase on the table.
I remembered being told that the last thing that goes is the hearing.
That night with Mum seemed like a series of badly edited film scenes. One minute some of us were the hospice. Then without warning, we all appeared a pub car park watching a limousine pull up.
It hadn’t been able to fit into the hospice parking area. A few people were leaving the pub, eyes drinking us in with drunken confusion. A girl in a miniskirt fell on the pavement. A pink thong. Taxis hailed. Smells of beer and burgers, grilled gammon, chunky chips, cheap two-for-one meals blasted out hours earlier and still lingering.
Charlie and Frankie got out of the limousine, picked up from a neighbour’s with young, confused faces. Aunty Lesley and Uncle Malcolm always travelled in one for their scaffolding company’s annual charity dinner.
Charlie and Frankie in pyjamas and coats. Uncle Malcolm dressed in a full dinner suit. Aunty Lesley in a glittering dress with matching bag, and a fur coat over her arm.
‘Why did you make me go to that dinner you shit? We should have been there!’
That fur coat. She’d had it for years. When I was a child I thought she had slaughtered a hundred and one Dalmatians for it. She never reassured me, in fact the opposite.
‘Where did you get that?’ I would ask.
‘There was a litter of puppies no one wanted.’ She would reply. There was a cruel bastard quality to her and there still is. I was so good when she babysat us.
We sat in the children’s play area for a bit. The three monkeys of grief together. Charlie with her hands over her eyes crying; Frankie with his hands over his mouth in-between being sick and me, might as well have had my hands over my ears, not hearing anything properly and understanding little. I remember sweets being offered around, chewy fruit bursts that seemed too cheery in our mouths.
Frankie has never been interested in food anyway. He prefers structured activities to eating. When he was little he created concentration camp for worms and ants in the garden. He tried to make them concentrate and work together to find a way out, not yet realising that he had got the notion of those camps wrong. Frankie is concentrating himself now, within four walls. He has grown into a scruffy, duffel coat-wearing, shaggy-haired and pale socialist, constantly fighting causes. Dad said he was just going where the fights were. But even Frankie doesn’t know why he left Comet with a plasma TV during the riots last summer.
These days Charlie is unshakeable. She’s built a lot better than me, mentally and physically. Her brown hair with copper streaks is shaped well around her pale face, splashes of freckles soften her. After university she came back here like a homing pigeon that felt obliged to an owner who had looked after it. But I never really looked after Charlie, even after Mum. None of us could. I don’t know why she came back. She’ll fly off again soon when her job in retail management gets boring and she remembers that she’s a tortured artist. She’s not scared to ask when she wants something.
It was Charlie who asked if they could go in and see Mum.
The priest who turned up asked if mum was a pensioner. Aunty Lesley hit him with her jewel bag. A piece of glitter went in his eye and the nurses had to come over and help him. And all the time there was a dead body in the bed surrounded by people dressed for a dinner party, some kids in pyjamas accidentally posing like monkeys and a priest everyone wanted to kill. At least she’d gone before all that arguing kicked off. I thought about what to do next, who to tell about what had happened, what I had done. Others had been there, but it was only me who was close enough to know.
There was no Facebook back then and I’d like to think that I wouldn’t leave a status. But who knows? I could have joined the countless ‘There’s a star in heaven shining for new angels’ ‘RIPs to Mums and Dads, Nans and Grandads’. Bereavement shout-outs.
I would have posted something like that (but not that night). What I wouldn’t have done was update everyone on the whole process. One girl, Debbie Matthews, took Facebook through her Granddad’s first night in hospital (she checked in at the Royal on every visit). The finale was the uploading of a photo album featuring all the flowers at the grave. Shout-out for my popular dead Granddad.
I did call Jennifer. When you’ve lived through so much with an old friend, you think they should also be there for all your deaths in some way.
She text me a few hours later.
me and me mum have been so upset for you.
She never thought about her choice of words. But I was wrong to expect her to. Of course other people still had Mums.
Before all this, I did what I did.
Afterwards I went straight outside and found it was still Saturday night. No one came after me. It was freezing. There were people sitting on a bench, one of those for people who have paid to be remembered. The light from the children’s room reflected off the plating. Matthew Hunter reduced to a gold brass plate on a hospice courtyard bench since 1997. I’ve been back and sat on the bench since.
Two men and a woman stood by that bench. The woman looked exactly the same as one of the hospital smokers. Her face was worn down, with a mouth sunken back and pocket holes for eyes. She spoke like she was only allowed a limited number of words a day, wheezy, cracked and harsh tones that seemed forced out. It was like being back on the ward. I had to wonder if they produced these women like Stepford Wives for council estates.
The craggy woman was in my face.
‘Here love, have a drop of whiskey,’ she said then turned to the first man. ‘She’s still shaking. Give her your coat.’ I stood for a moment shivering.
‘She’s blue. Give her your coat too Kelvin. I said now!’ she said to the second man.
‘Here love have mine, I’ve got a cardie underneath.’ When we’d finished It felt like one of those attempts to get on a Ryanair flight when your baggage is too heavy.
I woke up the next day back at home with them all on the floor by my bed. There must have been some people who left that hospice, tainted by grief but also freezing and furious at giving their coat to me. Even back at home I could smell lilies as though the stems had crept in through my nostrils in the night and were growing from my stomach, each breath from me a victory for them. The smell of death on a Sunday morning. My hospice hangover.
I’d never taken on the word death before. I was seventeen years old. Great aunties and uncles who died were hard to feel anything about as a child. Once upon a time death had nothing to do with me and then it was personified, became a person I knew, and then became people I knew.
I don’t even know what the word ‘Mum’ means anymore. I’ve lived a third of my life without it, feeling like a fraud if I say it. I can’t have that word. It isn’t mine.
Anna Harrison’s gentle nudge. That was when I moved forward to Mum and did what I did. I hugged her. Told her nice things, that I’d want to hear if I was scared and dying and nobody could do anything about it. I told her she could go.
It could have been the words but it was like the hug I gave made her colder, stopped her breath, made her leave. I felt the last ten seconds of life in that hug, stilled her weak but thrashing movements. The scent of bed baths and final cleansings mixed with the lilies in my lungs. Then those last few breaths, against my face. When she finally stopped, I moved with her, placing her head back onto the pillows that had held her up for the eight days of her hospice stay. My arms fell to their sides. A one-way hug. I took everything. A death-hug.
I stepped back onto the shit-hug which had survived the journey from hospital to hospice and it shattered across the carpet next to Mum’s rosary beads.
Ten years later the heaviness, that ball and chain from my throat to the stomach which started with the hug was still with me. It went up and down like a see-saw in my stomach.
I watched someone die from cancer sitting in a pub on Coronation Street once like it was nothing. In reality it takes time to heave out the last signs of life, a gurgling from the lungs building into a sound like a soul being ripped from a body, which can be helped with a hug, a Love you to death.