This is a work of fiction. A short story of 1640 words.
He never really understood why his parents had named him Manfred. They were not German, and had no connections with that country. They had not even been there, and knew little about it. When he was old enough to know it was a very unusual name, at least in a West London suburb, he asked his father why. He told him, “Ask your mother.” So Manfred did. “I always liked the sound of it.” She smiled as she answered, and gave no further explanation.
He hated his name, and considered that parents should give more serious consideration to naming their children. After all, he was stuck with it for ever now, unless he changed it when he was older. But that was such a nuisance. He would probably have to change all his exam certificates later on, and probably his driving licence, and so many other documents he didn’t even know about at that young age. And even though he didn’t care too much for girls at primary school, it seemed unlikely to him that anyone would ever want to marry someone called Manfred. Unless they lived in Germany, of course.
Worse still, the other boys shortened it. They called him Manny. Some of the girls called him Freddy, which seemed even more horrible to him, though they insisted that it was affectionate. It became a constant source of irritation as he got older. At secondary school, nobody seemed to be able to pronounce it. They always said it as Man-Fred, as if there were two names, instead of one. When he tried to correct them, he realised that he had made a terrible mistake. Instead of saying it properly, they exaggerated their mispronunciation, lengthening the gap until it became Man—Fred. Then they would all burst out laughing at his obvious frustration.
Like anything at school, it didn’t last too long, and those boys soon found a fresh victim to tease. They went back to plain Manny, which he accepted with relief. Even the teachers drove him mad though. Despite his surname being Thompson, they would always ask him, “Are your family German then?” They acted like they were showing genuine interest of course, but he had to explain the same thing over and over, until he was sick of saying it. Whenever a new member of staff arrived, he dreaded the eventual explanation. He thought the teachers must be really stupid. Couldn’t they tell? After all, his name was Thompson.
Once he moved to secondary school, it got much worse. The same thing all over again, but with a lot more boys and extra teachers to deal with. Then one day, an older boy threw something in that he had never encountered before. Riley was a fifth year, so nearly five years older than Manfred. He came up to him in the playground one day, pushing his palm into the younger boy’s chest, to stop him walking. “What’s this Manny about then kid?” His tone was less than friendly, and he was backed up by his small clique of hangers-on too. “You a Jew then?” Riley continued. Manfred didn’t think he knew any Jews, and although he knew it was a religion, he didn’t know anything about it really. “No, I’m C of E actually.” Manfred considered this a polite reply in the circumstances. Although his family didn’t attend church, they had mentioned that they were Church of England now and again, particularly when it came to filling in forms. Riley grinned at his pals. “Don’t lie to me, you’re a bloody Jew Boy, a Yid. Go on admit it.”
Manfred was a good six inches shorter than the older boy. He was also carrying some weight, and didn’t see too well without his glasses. He took no chances, and decided to turn and run back into the safety of the school. Behind him, he heard the group of older boys chanting “Jew-boy, Jew-boy”, but he made it safely up to his class. Manfred decided to ignore the name-calling, and immersed himself in his studies. He liked languages, and excelled in both French and German. He had to do German in an after school club though, as they only allowed one language on the syllabus. The others expected him to do well in German of course, but he ignored their jibes. To try to get fitter, he joined a local tennis club in Isleworth. He had to start as a beginner, but soon developed a real talent for the game. A new racquet for his birthday replaced the old one that Dad had given him, and before too long he had trimmed down nicely.
By the time it came to exams, he was hardly recognisable as the old Manfred. Filled-out, muscular, and fully grown, he no longer attracted the attention of other boys wanting to tease him. The results were some of the best the school had ever seen. As well as the languages, he got top grades in History and English, and had the choice of two universities. He chose the one that was far away from home, in the north-east. He would live in for the first year, and study modern languages. Then his old granny died. He hadn’t seen her for years, as she had been living in a care home in Somerset. Mum told him that he had been left almost £10,000 in her will. “That’s enough to get a nice little car.” Manfred told her he didn’t need a car. Instead, he had laser eye surgery during the summer break. The glasses that had sat on his face for most of his life would no longer be needed. He felt a great sense of freedom. The rest he put away in a small savings account. That would pay for a trip to Germany the following Spring.
Manfred arrived at university armed with a new-found confidence, an athletic build, and some of the best exam results in the whole country. He settled in quickly, and tried out for the tennis club there as soon as he could. The coach had to admit that he was the best under-21 player he had seen for many years. Of course, there were the same old questions. But this time he was ready with different answers. Hours of studying German had made him more than proficient in the language. On top of that, he had studied the geography and customs of the country, pored over maps, and researched specific areas. When the questions came, he was ready for them.
She looked across the table in the cafeteria. Her hair was braided, and her long legs wrapped in thick blue tights under the too-short skirt. “Manfred. That’s German isn’t it? Are your family from Germany?”
He smiled at the girl. “Originally, yes. My grandfather escaped from the old East Germany before the wall came down. He used an escape tunnel, and managed to get all the way to England, before settling in West London, close to where my parents live now. It was in the papers at the time, but of course I don’t remember it. He was from East Berlin, and had to escape the secret police because he was a dissident novelist and protester. Naturally, he changed his surname later, to avoid being hunted down.” Too easy. Her eyes were wide open, and she had stopped slurping her drink through the bendy straw.
“Wow. That’s a coincidence because I went to Berlin last summer. What part was he from?” There was no hint of interrogation in her question, just interest. Manfred’s reply was slick, devoid of hesitation. “Pankow, in the north-east of the city. He lived in Krugerstrasse, near where the Holiday Inn is situated now.” Manfred knew his location to be completely accurate, even though he had never been to that country, let alone the city. “I loved it there, it’s a cool place.” Her accent was refined, probably from one of the nicer parts of the Home Counties. “I’m Ellie, by the way. We should meet for a drink sometime.” He nodded. “Sounds good. Put your number in here.” He proffered his mobile phone, and she entered her name and number like a speed typist.
As he walked away to go to his next class, he could hear her using her phone. “Hey, it’s me. I’ve just been chatting to that Manfred guy. You know, the fit one, the tennis guy. Yeh, that’s him. He’s German you know. Like his grandpa was a spy or something. Escaped from some spy thing in Berlin. Yeh, I’m going to meet him for a drink soon. He’s really cool.”
On the stairwell leading to the lecture hall, he felt someone touch his arm. He turned to see a stocky, large-breasted girl gazing up at him. Her long hair was as black as ink, and her eyes were the darkest brown he had ever seen. “You’re Manny, right? He nodded, and gave his best friendly grin. “Hi, I’m Rachel. I heard your name, and well I sort-of presumed you would be Jewish, like me.” He nodded, then felt he should elaborate. “Well my family were German Jews way back. I was told that they escaped from Berlin to avoid being sent to the camps. But we don’t go to synagogue or anything.” The girl gazed into his face, slowly shaking her head. “Oh no! What a coincidence. My own family were from Germany too. And they escaped before 1939. We should meet for coffee or something, see what else we have in common.”
“Put your number in here, Rachel.” He handed over his phone, giving her his best interested look.
As he ran up the remaining stairs, he smiled to himself.
Seemed like Manfred was turning out to be a pretty good name after all.