Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Lock Watching - Short Story

This story does not follow on chronologically from the previous one, but I put it here, because it is set in the Second World War and now reflecting on it, I feel some regret in writing it. When I read it out in 2005 at the time of the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, I was criticised for using the name 'Petronella' in full and was told that people would use the contraction 'Petra' instead. They did not seem to understand it had been written to be read silently, not aloud and I was irriated by the comment.

This story like quite a lot of what I write, was stimulated by me wanting a different outcome to a story that I have read or seen. The Beckmann story, 'The Lost Princess' was stimulated by my irritation at a scene in the television series 'The Jewel in the Crown' (1984) in which a very arrogant man (I think an officer) is trying to get Sarah Layton (played by Geraldine James) to go into the Indian part of a city and to have sex with him. He patronises her about losing her virginity and I simply wanted her to turn round and slap him in the face and tell him to grow up and look beyond the end of his penis. Of course she does not, she allows herself to be bullied and later we find out she has had two abortions as a result of such encounters. Thus, I was determined to write a story in which a woman responded vigorously to such male behaviour and ended up with 'The Lost Princess', which as you can tell is quite a way from the original tale.

On that basis this story was stimulated by watching the movie 'The Heroes of Telemark' (1965) about the Norwegian Resistance during the Second World War and is based on true events. There is a man in that who betrays those trying to stop the Germans developing nuclear facilities because his wife is being held by the Gestapo. I felt so sorry for that man and pondered how I would have behaved in those circumstances. What Cornelis does in this story is how I imagine I would have behaved. What added to this was reading about Vera Wollenberger (nee Lengsfeld), an East German environmentalist and civil liberties activist whose husband, Knud, later turned out to have been an agent for the Stasi, the East German secret police force. I wondered about other consequences of married couples being involved in organisations that their partner does not know about.

I have never been to Norway, but I travelled in the Netherlands a lot in my youth and later in Belgium. I find the landscape sometimes beautiful and sometimes incredibly bleak and it was that ambivalence which established a landscape view in my mind which rooted this story. At the time I was pleased I wrote this story and about the issues I raised in it. However, now, as with 'Stari Most' I feel surprisingly uncomfortable about it. In turn that makes me angry because I thoroughly dislike people that say any topic is off limits to writing. Perhaps that is not the problem, perhaps it is the unease I feel about the issues I raise and the characters I use, perhaps because now I am personally different, older and living in different circumstances than when I wrote these stories.

Lock Watching

The key turning in the lock woke her. Petronella glanced up and saw the metal cell door open. It was a Dutch policeman who came in, Hoofdagent Melker. She never knew his first name, but he did all the fetching and carrying for Brigadier de Rijke and that included the prisoners.

“Mevrouw van Delden, time to leave.” Melker said tersely.

Petronella did not stir; she did not know how to respond. Her day was shaped by the arrival of meals or the light going out. It had been weeks, or was it months since she had done anything else. Hauer and his Gestapo colleagues had soon tired of her. For a moment she wondered whether the interrogation was going to be resumed, but the fact that Melker had come alone suggested something different.

“Come on, you can’t lie here.” Melker walked over to her and tugged at the grey sleeve of her prison issue dress.

Petronella want to snap back at him, wanted to scratch his hand, but she lacked the energy. Deep within her mind something began to tell her that this was real, that things were changing and she had to respond.

Petronella sprung from the bed. Melker stepped back sharply as if fearing she would lunge at him. Petronella wobbled a little and realised how weak she must be. Without a mirror she could only guess from her ribs and her bony fingers how much she had changed.

Pleased that he had got a response and not an attack Melker turned and walked from the room. Petronella shuffled behind him along the corridor. For an instant she was again uncertain whether they were heading to interrogation room, but then she realised they were going the opposite way. The corridor was quiet and dimly lit. Petronella had never known if she was alone down here, or whether the police cells held other long-term prisoners. She had always expected a transfer to a proper prison or to a camp, but it had never happened. Instead she had been stuck here in the middle of the town she had known all her life, but oblivious to what was going on in the streets, oblivious as the town’s residents were to her fate.

De Rijke was at his desk and only looked up once Petronella stood to attention before him. He looked her over as if checking Melker had brought him the correct woman. De Rijke seemed to be losing weight himself. His collar no longer strained at his neck and the skin of his face was dull, without the rosy shine it had once habitually had.

De Rijke picked up a bulky parcel wrapped in brown paper from the floor. He tore it open and dumped it in front of him. “Check it.” He said.

Petronella rifled through the clothes she had not worn in months, the handbag with the odd banknotes, the expired ration cards and the stale black market lipstick.

“Yes.” She said. “Yes.” She repeated, surprised at how faint her voice sounded.

“Sign.” De Rijke turned a wide book around to face her and Petronella signed where his stubby finger pointed.

“You can change in here.” Melker gestured through the short corridor to the staff ladies toilet.

Petronella walked slowly, trying to make herself accept that she was going to be back in her old clothes, out of this place, returning to her old life, well almost. There remained the issue of Cornelis’s death. For the first time, she began to ponder if that was what had brought her release.

Petronella moved like a machine. She removed the coarse dress and prison underwear. Slipping into her own, felt like the embrace of her mother, she had never expected to feel so comfortable. She pulled on her own dress and buttoned it. She left off her stockings, her legs had been unshaven for far too long for them. Petronella eased on her coat and for the first time tried to think what season it was. She had come here in spring, still with a chill wind but the days lengthening and becoming brighter. She had seen the sharp sunlight through the small window as the year had moved into the summer, but what time of year was it now? October? She told herself to look for a calendar when she returned to De Rijke’s desk.

Petronella walked to the small mirror over the sink. She held the burgundy hat close to her but needed a mirror to position it just right. Her mother, a year before her death, looked back out at her. Her skin looked fresh, but the flesh that had filled it was gone. Her eyes seemed to have faded and were small in a face that appeared unnaturally long. There were many more streaks of grey in her hair, far too many for a thirty-eight year old. She pinned her hat and pushed the grey strands of her lank hair under it. She picked up her handbag and bundled her prison clothes under her arm.

Petronella walked back, hearing the sound of conversation and a typewriter from behind the doors she passed. They were noises of normality, but they seemed to be too loud, too intrusive. The sergeant was gone when she reached De Rijke’s desk, but Melker was waiting, looking surprisingly eager and appearing younger than he was. Petronella thrust her prison clothes onto the desk.

“You’ll need these.” Melker said handing her new ration cards. “I knew you had no-one at home to sort out things.”

“Thank you.” Petronella tried to smile, but her face felt stiff, unaccustomed to the gesture.

She followed him from the office. As she walked out into the small courtyard, she stopped for a moment, blinking and shielding her eyes. The natural light was strange, at once both a comfort and an irritant.

“Are you alright?” Melker asked.

Petronella nodded, wiping her watering eyes.

They quickly crossed the courtyard. Melker watched her as the door in the large gates was opened and she stepped through it. In moments the door was closed behind her, showing the bare black gates that for decades had been all she had known of that side of the large police station.

Petronella quickly crossed the road, to get on to the opposite pavement furthest. She was nervous and glanced around, surprised that she felt guilty. She kept to the backstreets, away from the busier roads that led to the marketplace. She knew she had nothing to be ashamed of, in the eyes of any sane laws she was innocent, almost better than innocent. Only the distorted evil view of the Germans could see her as anything else.

Petronella stopped when she reached the canal. Her body felt tired, she was panting. She headed for a small cafĂ©, not caring now if anyone saw her. She walked in, realising that she had shaken off the shadow of her prison and now looked like any of the other malnourished women out collecting their rations. She could not face going into Veldhoen’s yet, but knew she had to at least have some bread and meat before she got home.

Petronella sat in a chair and cautiously looked around. There were only a handful of customers, all men most from the canal, one an inspector. Petronella knew the uniform but was glad when she realised he was a stranger and not someone Cornelis had known. The coffee, ersatz of course, was strong and Petronella felt it running through her, shaking off the apathy. She fumbled in her handbag for one of her remaining cigarettes. Puffing away with her coffee cup in her other hand, she felt she had returned to humanity, that she was a woman, a housewife, not a nameless prisoner. “Petronella van Delden.” She muttered to herself, but it sounded too much like the opening of an interrogation so she began to hum.

Petronella stood gazing into the dark, still water. She shifted the loaf beneath her arm. The water above and below the lock seemed completely motionless, though she knew that it flowed constantly through the overflow. Odd leaves were flat on the surface barely moving. There was no indication that this was the site of her husband’s death. She was glad that it was on this branch, not too far away that she could not visit it, but not on her normal route home.
A wet breeze suddenly whipped her face and clouds blotted the fading rich sunlight. Petronella realised how long she had been standing there. She turned away quickly and started walking purposefully towards her house. She crossed over the lever bridge and as she turned on to the dyke she could see its shape silhouetted. A water warden’s house was always hard by a canal. It was exposed, but not too isolated, there were farm houses in both directions that she could reach in fifteen minutes’ walk, less on her bicycle. Yet, now it looked truly deserted and unwelcoming. There was no light in the windows, no smoke spiralling from the chimney, no sound of their, her, chickens.

Petronella was soon unlocking the kitchen door and walking in. Dust covered everything. She had not thought of that, somehow imaging it would all be seen to, rather than left to age. At least everything seemed intact. There was a good stock of coal by the range. She laid out her shopping on the kitchen table and set to work getting a fire going. It was not cold, but she wanted a focus, something to breathe life back into the house. Soon the kindling was burning and she began to scoop coal into the fire. Then she saw something in the scuttle. It was an envelope, sooty but visible. She lifted it out. Her first name was written on it. She hurried back to the table and fumbled with her matches to light the oil lamp. Once the glow had started she tore the envelope open. It held a single sheet of closely spaced handwritten text. She knew the writing to be Cornelis’s. It looked erratic, almost frantic and as she read she could tell why.

‘My dearest Petronella. I love you. I know how much my going will leave emptiness in your life, but I know I have to go to enable you to live. You are not strong, I know that time in prison will take its toll from you. I have to act quickly before it kills you. Every day I come to the prison but never get an answer, only Plokhaar on the gate will even admit you are still there. I have to act before they move you somewhere else. One of the Germans Hauer sent said you could be free if I co-operated. He wanted to know about the resistance and the groups that get shot-down pilots home. I told him I knew nothing, but he did not believe it, he said a water warden sees everything. He told me your welfare depended on my information, but I have nothing, I know no-one in the resistance. If I did I would tell him, just to see you again. It became clear you had only been arrested to put pressure on me. My life is nothing compared to yours, so you will understand I could not continue living knowing every day was making you weaker. I will always love you, if you wish to join me, look in the hallway clock. It will be your decision, when you want, not when the Germans decide. We will be together again. Always yours, Cornelis.’

“Idiot!” Petronella bellowed. “Always a damned idiot.” She threw the letter into the corner. She had been suspicious when they told her he had drowned, but she had made up explanations, that he had been working too much, the poor diet had weakened him, something on a lock had struck him, knocking him unconscious into the water, not that he had taken his own life, leaving her here on a warden’s widow’s pension, no doubt with some stranger billeted in her house. Would she even be entitled to it, now the warden himself was dead? Had he not had an inkling of what he had done? She spat at the note and cursed the man she had married.

Lethargically Petronella walked into the hallway. The silly English long clock stood there, silent. No-one had been there to wind it. She opened the case and reached into it. Her fingers touched two metal cylinders and she pulled out a shotgun, the two barrels filed down. She broke it open to reveal a single cartridge.

There was a knock at the front door. Petronella snapped the gun closed, startled. Then a ruddy woman’s face appeared at the narrow window which ran beside the door. Petronella relaxed: it was Johanna.

“Johanna! Come in, come in.” She said as she ran forward and quickly unbolted the front door.

“Well, that’s a welcome.” Johanna joked, pointing to the shotgun in her friend’s hand.

Petronella put it on the hall table and turned to kiss her Johanna three times on the cheeks.

“I heard you’d been released.” Johanna handed her a small paper bag taped around a jar to make it a present.

Petronella tore off the wrappings to reveal a pot of jam.

“Thank you.” She said. “Come through to the kitchen, I have fresh bread and some butter.”

The kitchen was warm and bright with the oil lamp lit. Soon she had the coffee pot bubbling as she spread jam on the slices of bread.

“It’s only ersatz.” Petronella said as she poured out the coffee. “But better than I’ve been getting.”

The two women sat munching on bread.

“Cornelis took his own life.” Petronella said at length.

“I guessed as much. He was devoted to you. I saw him outside the police station, just standing looking at it, more than once.”

“He was a fool, they had tired of me.”

“He thought that he was the reason you were in there.”

“What an idiot.”

“Well, maybe you should have told him about your work.”

“What benefit would it have brought him? He would only have worried about it. You know him.”

“Well, them taking you away just worried him anyway.”

“Yes, so what could I have done? Maybe he is better out of this world. Look at the state it’s in, it’s not the place for him any longer.” Petronella said simply. She sipped her coffee. “So what about the two we had in hiding when I was taken?”

“Well, I got them out of the old warden’s house when you went inside, just in case they suspected that as a location. We had to get that Polish pilot away, if they got him it would have been a death camp. A trawler got him to the Danish coast and then another over to Sweden. The British navigator went down the Rhine; they never suspect we ship them through the Reich to Switzerland. We’re handling three at the moment. One’s pretty injured.”

“Take him to the old warden’s house for now. I’ll look after him. I’ll probably have to move, or they may billet a new water warden with me as his housekeeper.”

“I’m sure I can talk to Adrianus and get him to appoint someone sympathetic. There’s Tjamke Goekoop for starters, he’s probably due a transfer. You’d like him; he’s done work for the Resistance.”

“That’s good.” Petronella said, almost sounding contented. “Now, what I can I do with that shotgun Cornelis wrecked?”

“Have no worries, I know people who can use that.” Johanna replied practically and smiled.

No comments: