[re-post from my Short Fiction pages]
Jane delved into the box she had dragged from her parents’ attic, along with other bits salvaged from the halflit dust. Her widowed father, Fred, not long deceased, had never told his children much of his past, and Jane remembered little of her grandparents, except a vague sense of exoticism and gentility. Belatedly she wished she had asked more when she could. But it was too late now – all the people she might ask were gone. All that was left were mute things, fragments without a guide to help her reassemble them, things she needed to sort through and dispose of, now that her parents’ house was emptied and waiting to be sold.
In the large cardboard box there were other, older boxes: shoe boxes full of photos from Jane’s own childhood and letters from before the age of ubiquitous phones, a small wooden box containing an opal ring and some other old jewelry, and a tattered brown envelope fat with official documents, birth, wedding and death certificates. At the bottom of the box there was a small cardboard chest of drawers which held older photographs and some unexpected and illegible papers written in old German fraktur, including two tattered passports – all she could read of them were the dates. There was a faded picture of three people sitting in the sun under a tree, Edwardian, she thought, judging by the woman’s long dress and the men’s moustaches. Like everyone in photos of that period they looked a bit stiff and formal, but she thought they were quite young and there was a hint of a smile on the woman’s face as she looked across at the taller of the two young men. Jane began to try to sort things into chronological order, but then wondered if that was the best way – perhaps she should sort them by the people they related to instead. There were several names she didn’t recognise. She would have to start by making a list, she decided:
Birth certificates: Jane 1960, Phil 1963, mum 1939, George Brown 1934 (?), Charles Beresford 1892 (granddad)
Wedding certificates: Charles Beresford and Clara Muller 1946, Frederick Beresford and Sybil Clarke 1959, Joe Brown and Sally Dennis 1932 (?)
Death certificates: mum 2006, granddad 1964, grandma 1967, Friedrich Muller 1944 (?) – She added her father’s death certificate to that pile. It looked like the box came from his side of the family as her mother’s parents weren’t evident. Maybe they were somewhere else in the attic. She’d have another look later. Back to the list:
Passports: Charles and Clara Beresford, Frederick and Sybil Beresford + 2 German passports??
Internment documents??? Clara Muller, Friedrich Muller 1942 – this was very intriguing. And it got stranger. Among all this officialdom, there was a letter in a child’s handwriting: ‘Dear Mum, Please can I come home? I don’t like it here. There ent any kids and I think the man and lady who live here with doctor B are spies. They talk funny and sometimes it sounds like there talkin forin. Love from Georgie’
Jane was didn’t know what to make of these things. She would pass them on to her daughter, she thought. She might be interested. She sent an email: ‘Hi hon. I’m sorting out your granddad’s stuff and I’ve found some old papers, letters and whatnot. I think you should have a look – there might be a story there. xx’
The clean, clear light of an early spring day shines through trees on to two young men walking, and talking as they walk, through rolling parkland. They are intent on their conversation, oblivious of their surroundings, the considered landscape with its specimen trees and well-proportioned vistas. What are they so engrossed by? What inspires these vehement gestures and excited interruptions? It is ideas that possess them, for they are Philosophers. Cocooned in all the privileges of gender, intellect, class and age, they are free to devote their energies to the creation and demolition of concepts, theories, ideologies. What luxury! And they walk through this park on their way to a university in a place and time in which deep thinking is of greatest value, when physicists and mathematicians stand on the heights, looking out over new landscapes of alternative geometries, when logicians are finding the limits of provability. It seems to them this is the best of all possible worlds, though they may debate at length the meaning of possibility.
Elsewhere though, other people are enthused by darker kinds of possibility. Ambition, power, empire, hatred. These are the ideas that will turn our young philosophers out of their little Eden. Green spaces will be destroyed by wheels and trenches, explosions and graves. Thinkers will be forced into action, chosen or otherwise, and their dreams of an ideal world will be tested by fear, anger and loss.
What else should be said of these men? That they were friends, that they meant well. That they would lose their youthful clarities in war and mud, at the behest of grimier men. They would be required to replace high abstractions with arbitrary divisions of rank and nationality, which would determine obedience and violent ends.
But before all that comes to pass, they are still students, of geology and mathematics, meeting at a lecture given by a ‘great thinker’, swept into a new realm of fundamental principles and crystalline axiology. It seems to open a space of infinite perspectives, sharply drawn, converging on a vanishing point of truth. The great man shows them a future that they lust for, of logic and rationality, of knowledge, orderly and beautiful. Careful exegesis, argument and analysis – these are the worthiest of vocations, both in themselves and for their yield of good judgement and wise action. Our young men have fallen in love with thought.
For months they have been drawn deeper and deeper into this place of pure reason, discovering an ancient polis of men (almost all men) whose conversations cross centuries and languages, exploring the ignored underpinnings of our daily lives, competing to find ways to interrogate the most innocent-seeming of assumptions. They are among the newest citizens of this exclusive community, but its vaunted egalitarianism encourages their intellectual ambitions, and they engage eagerly with the debates of Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Kant. Evenings in public houses resound with discussions of truth and meaning, essence and substance, appearances and things in themselves. It is a shining time, of civilised combat fought with the subtle weapons of syllogism and Occam’s razor, transcendental arguments and reductio ad absurdum. While fighting these verbal battles they are forging an alliance, the two of them against the dull worlds of their parents, and the expectations they imposed. The future is theirs and they will build it better than before. We can forgive their arrogance and hubris; they are young and it comes naturally. It will not last, but while it does, let them enjoy it, for they are doing no one harm.
Perhaps, dear (imagined) reader, you would like a few more specifics, names and dates. Let’s see… Our ex-geologist (call him Charles) is a tall and solid young man; he looks more like a sportsman than an academic. Raised in comfortable, though not overly wealthy circumstances, he is the scion of a line of clerics, rebellious in his pursuit of an earthy Darwinian science. Perhaps his philosophical turn is a relapse into family tradition – also Darwinian in its way. He is the foreigner here, a temporary émigré to exotic continental climes.
His friend is Friedrich, much closer to the type of ‘scholar’, thin, bearded, dark-eyed. He is not far from home, another place of religious roots, with rabbis some generations back in the family tree, though its latest branch bears Lutherans. The two men visit sometimes with Friedrich’s family – solemn father, reserved mother, and a sister. A sister with whom, of course, Charles is entranced. Clara is as tall as her brother and stronger, a fierce suffragist, full of passion and intention. But she is also quick to laugh and to find the world joyful, and seems quite unaware of the spell she has cast over Charles. Friedrich is very aware of it, however, and a little jealous, though he loves his sister too. The three of them share summer afternoons and imaginings of new worlds to come. People passing by on sunny promenades smile as these three, unwitting, fill the air with their intense enthusiasms and their youthful beauty, speaking a private language of shared hopes and jokes and teasing glances.
Clara pulls the men away from their high abstractions and forces them to think about the lives of people, and how they should be better. She is an evangelist without a god, preaching for equality and self-determination, reminding Charles and Friedrich that their freedoms are not universal. Friedrich, always happier in the dry, clean world of numbers and Platonic Forms, tends to make scornful fun of her flights of fury (he is her brother after all). But Charles is converted, at least for the duration of their conversation, and for a while metaphysics seems to him vacuous and self-indulgent, when there is so much to be done.
What will become of these idealists, when their world is shaken, turned upside down, like a snowglobe in the bloody hands of careless gods?
There will be a day when Charles, awful newspaper in hand, will announce he must go back to England. They of course agree with this necessity, with tears and solemn promises that they will not let war destroy friendship. There is no choice. Charles must return to his familiar and now fragile home, taking with him the silver and opal ring he had planned to give to Clara one day, when the time was right.
There will be a day when Clara runs shrieking after Friedrich, in a vain attempt to stop him from joining up. He does not know why he ignores her, but feels somehow that he cannot refuse the call to defend his country. It is her fault in a way. She has persuaded him of the duty of solidarity with the oppressed and, because of his position of relative privilege, he cannot stand aside while others are called to risk themselves on his behalf. His fellow soldiers call him ‘the boffin’ and though amused by his practical ineptitude, they tolerate him for his honesty and good will.
Charles instead will refuse to fight against the ‘enemy’ he knows as a home from home, where he found his better self, remembering Clara’s sermons on humanity and peace in a fairer world. In spite of white feathers and disdain he will hold to his decision, becoming a stretcher bearer or some other such noble, pacific figure. He will learn to avoid words, or to utter empty lies, will learn how not to look dying men in the face, to protect them from knowledge of the truth. Perhaps he and Friedrich will meet on a battlefield … but no. That is preposterous – they are tiny motes in a vast swarm floating in the current. Even if they should pass nearby no meeting is possible there.
Clara herself will struggle to find a role that makes sense to her. Much of her first war will be spent with her aging parents, who cannot comprehend this fractured time and the wreck of all their hopes for their children. Clara will, of course, become a volunteer nurse, and the men she tends will gaze at her, amazed at this gently smiling vision of an unbroken world. But they cannot tell that she is broken too; her smiles are only a faint echo of the laughter that used to come so easily.
At some point, in a trench somewhere, Friedrich will contemplate the particularity of a broken plank, splintered and sodden, and watch the rain trickle down into the ditchwater at his feet, while the distant sound of bombardments and nearer mumbled speech buzz, meaningless, in his ears. He can no longer remember why he is there. He only knows that at this moment he is sitting in the mud in the rain, holding a rifle for which he has no ammunition left, and that a rain drop is shining in a moment of sun. Then the planks erupt, and ditchwater rises to join the falling rain and he is half buried in the liquid earth. When he returns home (which he does, dear reader – no suspense here), he will be quiet and thin and short of breath, and Clara’s welcome will be hollow. They are neither of them the same and she cannot be sure this faded man is her brother any more.
History will move on and the three will endure somehow. Clara will find it hard to care when women’s suffrage comes to pass, and will not use her vote to choose between indistinguishable alternatives. She and Friedrich will become teachers, as was always expected. While, in England, Charles … what will Charles do? Marry a nice, uncomprehending girl? Join the church (well – perhaps not). Become a pillar of the community in a provincial town, taking over the family business? Retreat to a reclusive life in some wild, isolated place? Or wander, never settling, watching the bright young things and learning to drink cocktails in London nightclubs, matter for facetious gossip columns. All these things are possible. But what he will not do is return to the ivory tower. There is no room for grand abstractions when so many grainy memories fill his head. When the real is endless mud and a dying boy’s hand grasping his, the concepts of number or ontology lose their weight.
All three, though they have lived through war, feel that this survival means little – the life before is entirely lost, and who they were in it. So those promises they made on parting, that friendship could withstand whatever came, are invalidated, the friends who made them gone.
And more years pass; the terrible consequences of war and peace unfold. Friedrich and Clara, orphans now, come to realise they will have to leave their home at last. They pack up the few things they can take, discarding the relics of youth with brief regret, and take a train to a gull-grey coastal town. A ferry ploughs through winter sea to deposit them in another country, strange to them but more hospitable now than their fatherland.
Charles meanwhile has been reminded, by ominous reports from overseas, of the time before the war, and wondered vaguely what might have become of Friedrich and Clara, though now they seem to him like characters in a novel, partial, figments of someone else’s imagination. But he is not totally surprised when one day he receives a letter, written on flimsy hotel notepaper, apologetic and hesitant, wondering if old acquaintances might meet again, for old times’ sake? The continental handwriting carries him back, and he wonders if perhaps they have not changed as much as he. Images spring to mind of Clara running towards him in sunlight, of Friedrich frowning in thought … but he shakes them out of his head, and writes a brief reply, suggesting they meet on neutral ground.
When brother and sister come into the tea room, he almost fails to recognise them, except for the foreign look of their clothes and the uncertainty of their searching gaze as they scan the room. They have become middle-aged and self-consciousness has grown in them – the desire for invisibility in a threatening world is deep-rooted now. They too find it hard to pick out Charles, one polite Englishman among others, reserved and worldly-wise (world weary?).
Cautious greetings are exchanged, like strangers introduced by a mutual friend. Charles quickly understands that it was not old times’ sake that led them to seek him out, but pressing need. With no contacts and the wrong accent, finding a means to earn a living is proving even harder than they had expected. These refugees have little left now, of resources or hope. It is another hard thing to ask for charity from this unfamiliar man, to shed another layer of pride. But Charles’ memories of his former self and theirs are vivid enough to make his answer automatic and redeeming. ‘Please come and stay with me. It would be …’ with a remembered smile ‘…like old times.’ And as a grateful, exhausted tear escapes, Clara comes alive to him again. Friedrich sees his friend shift and breathe, like a kaleidoscope turned, changing dark to brightness, garnet and ebony to topaz and leaf-green. And people around them suddenly notice these three, as if a spotlight has been turned on, to reveal three glamorous creatures who demand attention, as their shining eyes meet across the empty teacups, across years.
Is there more to this story? Well surely, there must be. Their lives will go on…long lives and history does not stop. Let us see…
It transpires that Charles had gone from stretcher bearer to orderly to medical student to doctor. So when his foreign friends arrive they are absorbed into his established life. His status is high enough and secure enough to forgive his reserve and eccentricity and even to spill over on to these unusual newcomers.
When war comes again, this time they find themselves held closer together by its disturbing forces, at least for a while. Their various skills are of use – Charles will care for the jetsam thrown back by conflict. Friedrich and Clara will become translators of propaganda and of coded messages, working for an obscure branch of government, official traitors to their homeland. But they will cling to their friendship for strength and anchorage, firmer than family or nation.
One day a new member will be squeezed into their little circle, a child, evacuated, lonely. This boy is homesick and scared, at first, of these three, who appear to him strange and forbidding with their dry, academic style, and fierce-sounding foreign conversations (for they revert to the language of their youth from time to time, and sometimes indulge in bursts of philosophy – even that old love seems to be renewed). The boy writes home to his abandoned mother, left alone while her sailor husband endures Atlantic storms, and begs to come back to her in spite of the air raids. She receives his letter (long-delayed) and in turn writes to some wartime bureaucrat to demand that her boy be removed from this house of spies. Though by now the boy is happy in his adopted home and Clara’s long-abandoned capacity for maternal love is revived. The wheels of official paranoia start to turn, slow but inexorable.
One day a sombre person will knock on their door to demand their papers and to label them; ‘enemy aliens’ they are now, a threat to the war effort, to be contained on a remote island in the Irish Sea, windswept and rain-washed. Charles pleads for them, but he fails to convince. A suspicion has been raised and that is enough in such times. ‘What suspicion?’ Charles asks, outraged. And the boy looks on, half hidden behind a door, drowning in his guilt. Friedrich and Clara, true to the official secrets act, do not use their war work as a defence. In a last attempt, Charles asserts, with a commanding look at Clara, that she is his fiancée and should be allowed to stay with him, or if not that, that he should be allowed to accompany his wife-to-be to the internment camp. But Clara would not allow this, even had it been possible, even had it been true; she must stay with her brother and Charles must let them go.
What of the boy? Officialdom demands that he return to his mother, though now he begs to stay. Charles takes on the task of delivering him and they travel together to the capital, by train, bemused by the destruction they can see as they near their destination. They walk hand in hand down the terraced street looking for the right house, but there is no one there to greet them. A neighbour appears, and cries out in sympathy. ‘I’m so sorry, Georgie. Your mum’s gone, lad. She was caught out by the sirens. It was a doodlebug. I’m so sorry.’ A silence – like the silence Sally must have heard before it fell. When they enter the house, the boy is given a box of letters and a few bits and pieces – fragments to remember her by. So he will stay with Charles after all – orphaned entirely when his father’s ship is sunk out there in the dark sea.
And when war ends once more, after enduring internment and the grief of Friedrich’s death, Clara will return to Charles and George, who have made a kind of family. Charles and Clara will marry at last, quietly, in acknowledgement of his long love and her fond gratitude, which is hard to distinguish from love. Together they will still recall those distant days, and in spite of so much change and loss, their lives, their selves, will stretch to hold all this and more: sunlit youth, two wars, a lost brother, and a found, forgiven boy, George Frederick Brown, who will become Frederick Beresford, their only child.
So there are the bare bones of a story – or, not bones, rather, threadbare coats hanging on a few hooks of old papers and scant facts. It may seem to be a sad story. The lives that began an age ago did not run as hoped and planned. History forced them into awkward shapes. Is that why it seems sad? (Shall we indulge in a little philosophy for the sake of Charles and Friedrich and Clara and their youth?) Or is it just that our story followed them to their ends, and we see an end, of any life we have paid attention to, as sad, whatever happened in it?
We need warm flesh to fill out these musty clothes, to remind us of the rest, to remind us that the end of a life is only a fraction of the whole. So look again in the chest of photographs, dog-eared and faded. Here’s one: Clara, silhouetted against a sunny window, seated at a baby grand in her parents’ house, Friedrich beside her with his violin. They are playing something exquisite. It must be exquisite or how could you explain the exalted look that passes between them, of concentration and of shared intention? And here’s another, from a different time: a day trip to a place that might have been theirs, two figures seated in a punt, amused but regal, looking back at Charles, who poles them past mediaeval walls with pretend solemnity. And here’s another: white-haired Charles and Clara with a blurry baby, the proud grandparents…
‘Oh, that’s me!’ And Jane looks round at the pile of refugees from the attic. It includes a violin case, so light she had thought it empty. But she opens it now, and there, resting in dark blue velvet is Friedrich’s violin and in the little compartment for resin there’s a piece of paper, folded small. She opens it out carefully; its creases are worn and fragile. On one side there’s a concert programme, typed on an old machine (an Underwood?), for a performance by and for the internees. In between a tenor (Danny Boy, of course) and a pennywhistle, there they are: ‘Clara and Friedrich Muller – violin and piano, Fauré – Berceuse Op. 16’ (the accent added by some precise hand). On the back of the programme, in spidery black ink:
Man sagt, dass die Toten nicht wirklich tot sind, solange wir an sie erinnern…
People say that the dead are not truly dead, as long as we remember them. But how could that be? Something may be preserved, some trace, some effect of a life, but nothing remains of the self that lived it. For a conscious being, to be is not to be remembered, or to be perceived; to be is to perceive, to act, to feel, to remember. When such a being ends, their world ends, and all the things kept alive by their remembering (if such a thing were possible) end with it. But still we will remember, and do our best to keep the dead alive.
Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts