This is the second part of a fiction serial, in 1190 words.
I had spent most of the morning taking my life in my hands by trying to rip out some old floorboards from the shell of a bombed house. Every time I got one free, it felt as if the walls were trembling, and might well collapse in on me at any moment. Further down the street, a working party was loading rubble and bricks into carts, trying to clear the street. I had seen all sorts there, from elderly ladies, to small children. They were covered in dust, passing the individual bricks to each other in long lines. People said you got paid in food for such work, but I didn’t trust the Russians to give you enough for a whole day of labouring.
Around the back of the building, I snapped the four floorboards in half, propping them on what was left of a garden wall, then jumping on them to break them. When I had the eight fairly large pieces of wood balanced on my shoulder, I set off for home.
As I turned into our street, I saw a Russian Armoured Car parked outside the house. Frau Winter was standing at the top of the front steps, arms folded. She was glaring at the driver. When I got close, I could see he was one of those Mongolian-looking men. He gave me a big smile, and saluted me as if I was a soldier.
Frau Winter called them ‘Siberian Devils’. Her oldest son had been captured at Stalingrad, and taken to a prison camp. She had heard nothing of him since, so blamed every Russian for what had happened. She hated the Americans too, as her youngest son had been killed last year, fighting with the Hitler Jugend, in the 12th SS Panzer Division. She blamed the Americans, though he might just have well been against British or Canadian troops in Normandy. She called them ‘Yankee Child Killers’.
I guessed that meant Grigiry was in our room, and I was right. I dropped the wood onto the floor, and Mummy started to tell me off about the state of my clothes. There was a terrible smell in the room, and I asked her, “Mummy, what’s that stink?”. She looked embarrassed, and said, “Don’t be rude now, Manfred”. The soldier was sitting on our bed, and he had removed his jacket and boots. The smell was coming from his feet, and was bad enough to make me catch my breath. His long collarless shirt was filthy too, with dark yellow sweat stains under the arms. He spoke to me in his usual too-loud voice, and it seemed he had been practicing his German.
“Boy. Here. For you. From Grigiry”. He reached into his trouser pocket and removed a flick-knife, pushing the catch to make the blade spring open smoothly. It did look wonderful, with a smart wooden handle. It appeared to be brand new too. But I hesitated. “Good knife. Boy take. For you. Knife for Manfred”. I hated to hear him say my name, but then I spotted Mummy nodding at something on a cloth on the floor behind her. It was two loaves of bread, the black kind. On top of them was a big half-round of cheese, and next to them a jar of pickles. Then I followed her eyes to Inge. who was sitting on the floor playing with a toy horse.
I reached forward and took the knife, recoiling from being even closer to the smell of his feet. I stood up formally, and nodded. “Thank you, sir”. Clapping his hands against his thighs, he nodded in the direction of the food. “Now eat. We eat”. In case we didn’t understand his German, he raised a hand to his mouth and mimicked eating, then rubbed his belly. “Food. Good.”
I didn’t wait to be told to sit on the steps this time. With the tangy flavour of the pickles still on my taste-buds, I picked up Inge’s horse. “Come on, Inge, let’s go outside. I will make some jumps for your horse to jump over, with my new knife. How about that?”
In the alley by the side of the house, I placed flat stones in a circle, then cut tiny slivers of wood from a piece of floorboard with the flick knife. I laid them across each pair of stones, and turned to Inge. “Your horse has to jump each one, but must not knock the wooden bar off. Got that? Let’s see how you do”. As my sister began to make the toy horse jump, a shadow appeared from behind. Frau Winter, arms still folded, looming over me as I sat on the ground.
“So you have a new Papa now, a filthy Russian? What is your Mother thinking of, to take such a pig into her bed? Wait until my Mikkel comes home from Stalingrad. Then there will be trouble, I tell you. He will throw you out of my house, and give that Russian a good thrashing too, I have no doubt boy”. I didn’t know much at that age, but I knew enough to know that her son was unlikely to ever return from captivity in Russia. I chose to ignore her nasty remarks, and turned to Inge, encouraging her to play. But she carried on talking. “Your poor father would turn in his grave, I bet. I didn’t know him, but he was a brave man I’m sure, killed fighting with the boys of The Afrika Corps. What would he think of this? I ask you, what would he say, boy?”
When I still refused to answer, she turned and walked back to the steps, still muttering. As she drew level with the Armoured Car, the driver smiled at her, and saluted. It seemed that was all he knew how to do. She stopped and turned on him. “As for you, you yellow monkey, you Siberian hound. Get back to the shit-hole you crawled out of, you slant-eyed excuse for a human being.” He must have known she was insulting him, even though he didn’t understand a word of it. But he just carried on smiling at her, and she gave up, with a final “Bah!”
Inge had knocked off all the wooden slivers in her excitement, but when she triumphantly cried out, “All done, I jumped them all, Manfred”, I didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise.
I picked up her horse, and took her hand. “Let’s go to the end of the street by the main road, see if anything is happening”. I would have walked anywhere to get away from the shame of what was happening in our room. For a change, something was happening. A big convoy of Russian trucks was slowly moving down the street, the back of each one covered in hooped canvas.
I asked Inge what she thought was inside them. She pondered for a moment.
“Christmas Cakes, and new dolls for me”. I smiled. “Exactly right, dear Inge”.
When we got back, the Armoured Car was gone.
At least Grigiry had been quick this time.