Thursday 20 October 2011

The War – 3 September 1939

Renate was astonished at how busy it was that Sunday. It was normally so quiet. The newspaper shop seemed to be full of people who were stopping to talk. More normally this early on a Sunday they would just grunt the name of the paper they wanted and rush back home. She’d leave the paper until later. She would go and buy the flowers first. 
The flower shop, in contrast to the paper shop, was almost deserted.
“What have you got that’s nice and not too expensive?” asked Renate.   
“Not all that much. It hardly seems worth keeping much stock in. No-one seems to want flowers, these days,” said Mrs Chapman, the florist. “I suppose there’s nothing much to celebrate at the moment.”
“Well, I’m buying flowers for my friend’s mother,” said Renate.
“You’re always so kind,” replied the florist.
  “I’m going to lunch,” replied Renate. “We always take flowers when we’re invited for lunch in Germany.”
“I’d keep quiet about Germany if I were you,” mumbled Mrs Chapman.
“We’re having roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, followed by apple pie,” replied Renate.
“Oh, very English” asked Mrs Chapman. “Do you like English food?”
“I’m getting used to it,” said Renate. “And Christine’s mother makes the most delicious puddings. Now, I really like them.”
“Good,” said Mrs Chapman. “So, let’s see. I do have a few cultivated Michelmas daisies, actually. They would look good in a big bunch with some attractive leaves.”
“That would be nice,” said Renate. She watched as Mrs Chapman arranged them into a huge bouquet.
“You may as well have the lot,” she said. “You seem to be my only customer these days. People seem to have their mind on other things at the moment.”
“There now, what about that?” asked Mrs Capman, handing the flowers to Renate.
“How much?” asked Renate.
“Oh, you can have them for nothing,” said Mrs Chapman. “A gift, because you’re always so kind.”
“I can’t take them if you don’t let me pay,” said Renate.
“Well, look, give me your money,” said Mrs Chapman. “And take this to your mother.” She handed Renate one of the pretty pot plants that were sitting on the counter.
“That’s really kind,” said Renate.
“Hmm,” said Mrs Chapman. “And you keep quiet about Germany.”
Renate left the shop struggling to balance the flowers and the plant. They weren’t really heavy, but they were rather awkward. The sun was shining brightly and it was quite warm even for June. Everything seemed so bright and cheerful. Why was Mrs Chapman so gloomy?
The queue was still long in the paper shop. Besides, she really couldn’t manage to carry a newspaper as well as all these flowers. Mutti would just have to go without her Sunday Times or she could come back later.      
The flowers and the plant actually did become quite heavy as she made her way up the hill. She’s going to curse because I haven’t bought her paper. I hope  there’ll be some left when I go back, she thought. It became more and more of a struggle to keep going, but then suddenly she was there. The front door was wide open. At least that meant she didn’t have to fumble for her key. She climbed slowly up the stairs. Her arms were really aching now and she was relieved when she could drop the bouquet on to the kitchen table.
She could hear Mutti and Eva talking in the lounge. Their voices sounded very agitated, but they stopped all of a sudden.
“Is that you Renate?” Frau Edler called.
“Yes, I’m just putting the flowers in some water,” Renate answered.
“Did you get my paper?” asked Frau Edler, coming into the kitchen.
“No,” said Renate. “The shop was full and then my hands were full. Mrs Chapman has given you a plant, look, Mutti.”
“Very nice,” said Mutti, hardly looking at it. “Now when you’ve finished with those, run back to the paper shop. I really do want to look at the news today. “  
Renate pounded down the street back to the paper shop. It was empty this time. She picked up her mother’s paper and handed over the money almost in silence. The pictures and the headlines were depressing. They all seemed to be arguing about whether or not there would be a war and whether it was a good thing or not. There couldn’t be a war. Not if it meant that she and her mother would be fighting her father.
When she got back to the flat again, Eva and her mother were busy making the breakfast. She handed her mother the newspaper.
 “Huh!” said Frau Edler, looking crossly at the front page. “I think I could have managed without this week, for once.” She scooped up the paper and put it in the bin with the potato peelings.
As they ate, Renate could not think what to say.
“What will you do today, while I’m out?” she asked, eventually finding something to say and trying to sound as bright as she could.
Eva and her mother exchanged a glance.
 “We thought we’d come as far as Christine’s’ with you,” said Eva “and then carry on to Kew gardens. Enjoy some of the sunshine. Take a picnic.”
“I can go on my own. I’m fourteen now,” protested Renate.
“It’s better if we come with you,” said Frau Edler quietly. “Now, go and get ready. And be careful how you handle those lovely flowers.”   
Two hours later, by the time she was at Christine’s’ and Anne and Joyce had arrived as well, Renate had forgotten all about her mother’s and Eva’s strange mood.
Christine had decided they were going to put on a small performance for the adults. It was to be a set of tableaux of the Greek and Roman legends. Christine’s aunt had brought along a trunk of old curtains and Christine had had the idea that they would make wonderful costumes. They could use the raised area of lawn as a stage, and the audience could sit on the garden furniture. They would perform just after lunch. They were up in the attic of Christine’s house looking through the trunk and rummaging for some other bits and pieces. 
“So,” said Christine. “Which one of us is going to take the part of Helen of Troy?”
“Well, you’re the tallest,” said Anne.
“But you’re prettier,” said Joyce to Christine.
“Helen of Troy wasn’t pretty,” said Christine. “She was beautiful.”
“Tall and elegant like you,” said Renate.
“No, I want to be the narrator,” said Christine. “I worked out all the lines yesterday and I almost know them by heart now.”
“Well, what about Renate?” asked Joyce. “She has the right dark skin and dark, mysterious eyes.
“But what about my nose?” asked Renate. “It’s too big.”
“It’s a fine nose,” said Christine. “It’s a fine Roman nose.”
“Was Helen of Troy this thin?” said Renate, holding up her arms for the other girls to see.
“Athletic, rather,” said Christine. “Yes, you shall definitely be Helen of Troy. It’s the one part without any speaking at all. That will be easier for you. And this…” She pulled out a pale green curtain form the box, “will suit you rather well.” She draped it Greek-style over Renate. “Look in the mirror.”
Renate looked. She had to admit the green did set her hair off. She looked rather mysterious, but beautiful? A face to launch a thousand ships? She hardly thought so.
“Look, this will do to make us into the Gorgons,” said Joyce. She picked up some tangled fringes and wound one round her head.
“We’ll all three of us be the snake-headed sisters,” said Christine. “And we can tell the story between us.”
The morning sped past. The three of them assembled costumes, practised lines and giggled at their attempts.
“You really have to stand still,” said Christine at one point when Anne and Joyce dissolved into giggles. “It has to be convincing. Just look at Renate.”
Renate smiled to herself. She was good at standing absolutely still. At least that was one of those things she had learnt at those rallies.
There was a sudden knock on the door.
“Ladies,” said Christine’s mother. “There’s going to be a really important broadcast on the radio in a minute. Father says you should come down and listen.”
“And we can perform the tableaux for everyone after lunch?” said Christine.
“Let’s wait and see,” said her mother. “Oh Renate, I must thank you again for those lovely flowers. You always pick such lovely bouquets.” She gave Renate a little hug. 
Renate felt herself blush. She just managed to stop herself saying something about always doing that in Germany. She really must try to stop thinking as herself as German.  She bit her lip and smiled.
The girls bounded down the stairs in to the sitting room. Christine’s father was looking very serious.
“I think we should all hear this,” he said.
The radio crackled and hissed a little and then the announcer said something about there being some very important news from the government.
 “I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street, “ said Mr Chamberlain. 
“This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we hear from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
“You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done and that would have been more successful.
“Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland, but Hitler would not have it. He had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland, whatever happened, and although he now says he put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement.
“The proposals were never shown to the Poles, nor to us, and though they were announced in a German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to hear comments on them but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier the next morning.
“His action shows convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.
“We and France are today, in fulfilment of our obligations, going to the aid of Poland, who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack upon her people. We have a clear conscience - we have done all that any country could do to establish peace.
“The situation in which no word given by Germany's ruler could be trusted, and no people or country could feel itself safe, has become intolerable. And now that we have resolved to finish it I know that you will play your part with calmness and courage.
“At such a moment as this the assurances of support which we have received from the empire are a source of profound encouragement to us.
“When I have finished speaking, certain detailed announcements will be made on behalf of the government. Give these your closest attention. The government have made plans under which it will be possible to carry on work of the nation in the days of stress and strain that may be ahead...
“Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. For it is evil things that we shall be fighting against - brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution - and against them I am certain that right will prevail.”
“This was followed by a lot of announcements by other people about what the government was going to do next. Renate found it hard to follow it all, but he could tell from voices that it was all very serious.  
“No one said a word afterwards for what seemed like a very long time. At last Mrs Brown got up and sighed.
“I’d better get the lunch finished,” she said. “I suppose more than ever we need to eat well. While we can.”
“In the end no-one ate much. The idea about performing the tableaux was forgotten. No one seemed to know what to say.
“I think I’d better take you home,” said Mr Brown to Renate. “I expect you and your mother and her friend will have a lot to talk about.” 
“They might not be home yet,” said Renate. “They were going to Kew,  for a picnic…”
“I think they’ve probably heard somehow now,” replied Mr Brown, “and I expect they’re at home, anxious to see you. Come on. I think we’d better go.” 
“Can I come?” asked Christine.
“Of course,” said Mr Brown. “As long as Anne and Joyce don’t mind being on their own.”
“Oh, we’ll be off as well now,” said Anne. “It won’t take us long to walk home.”
Renate could not think what to say to Mr Brown or Christine as they drove back to her home. Mr Brown didn’t attempt much conversation. He seemed to be thinking very hard about something. Christine just sang softly to herself. There were people everywhere on the streets. Some were whispering. Others were talking loudly. One or two seemed really excited though most looked very somber, frightened even.
“So many people,” remarked Christine.
Neither Mr Brown nor Renate replied.
They arrived outside Renate’s house.
“Are you all right?” asked Mr Brown.      
Renate nodded.
“You know it’s not your fault, don’t you?” he said as she got out of the car.
She nodded again.
“Well, take care,” said Mr Brown.
Christen waved awkwardly.
Renate watched the car go slowly down the street and then turn at the corner. Then she took a deep breath and walked into the house. She felt slightly sick and her legs were trembling.
Eva and Mutti were sitting at the kitchen table. Eva looked tired and Mutti’s face was pinched and white.
“You’ve heard?” asked Mutti.
Renate nodded.
“It was to be expected, I suppose,” said Frau Edler with a sigh.
“That it’s come to this,” said Eva, shaking her head. “Goodness knows what the Hanusiaks make of it all.”
Frau Edler looked straight at Renate. “They’ll never let your father join us now,” she said. She stood up, pursed her lips, shook her head and went to her room.
“It’s terrible,” said Eva and began to rock backwards and forwards. Renate had never seen a grown-up look so defeated. 
That was it then. It was war. And she and her mother were on a different side from her father.

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