This is the third part of a fiction serial, in 1270 words.
Mummy sat me down one night when Inge was already asleep. “Do you remember Great Uncle Otto, Manfred?” In my mind, I saw an elderly man with a lidded pipe always in his mouth. He lived in a house, not an apartment, and had lots of books. And he wore colourful braces that held up his too-loose trousers. I nodded. “Yes, Mummy, I remember him”. She smiled, pleased at my recollection of an old man I hadn’t seen in years.
“Well, Manfred, he lived in Kreuzberg, and that was hit hard by the bombing. I haven’t been able to find out if he is alright. But if he is, I have an idea that he would let us go and live with him, if we can find a way. That area is in the American sector now, and we are not officially allowed to go there. But I am sure you could slip through, and try to find him. Do you think you could?”
I was a little confused. “Why don’t we just pack up and go to see him, Mummy?” She stroked my face. “We are in the Russian Sector, and the city is divided. People are not allowed to cross between sectors without authorisation, and the Russians will not allow us to just go and live there. Besides, I don’t even know if old Otto is alive.”
She took out some crumpled paper, and the stub of an old eyebrow pencil. It was part of a street map, torn from a bigger book. “I have written down his name and address, and I will mark on here where the street should be, if it is still standing. Most of the tram lines have been destroyed, so you will have to walk. I think it will take you more than an hour, perhaps two, with all the road closures. You will have to find a way through the guards too, and not allow yourself to be stopped by either the Russians or the Americans. Do you think you can do this for us? You are the man of the house now”.
I had never had occasion to use a map, but Mummy saying I was the man of the house overcame my fears, and imbued me with a new sense of responsibility. As well as that, I wanted to get my family out of the clutches of the Russian, Grigiry. Mummy still insisted on calling him Gregory, giving him the respect of using his name properly. But me and little Inge liked to say his name as he pronounced it, ‘Gri-gear-ree’. It was our small way of letting Mummy know we didn’t really want him around.
“I will go and find Uncle Otto, Mummy. I will leave tomorrow, at first light”.
She kissed my cheek. “You are a good boy”.
It was still dark when I got up and got dressed. I put the map page into my jacket pocket with my new knife, and started out in a south-easterly direction, toward an area I didn’t now at all. Some patrols were still around, and I hid from the soldiers behind the stacked rubble that was waiting to be removed by the work parties later. Once the sun was up, I became more confident, and was soon approaching the boundary of the district where we lived. I heard my name called from behind, and turned to see who it was.
I knew the two boys standing across the street. Rolf and Dieter were brothers, close in age, and both older than me. Rolf was rather slow. Backward, Mummy called him. Their mother had hidden them away during the last two years of the war, as she was afraid they would be taken into the army, despite their youth. I guessed that she had let them out of hiding, now it was all over. They sauntered over to talk to me. Well at least Dieter did, Rolf rarely said anything.
“Where you off to at this time of day, Kraus?” I could see no reason to lie. “I have to go through to the American sector, to visit my uncle”. Dieter looked at his brother, who shrugged. “Well then, we will come with you. Those Americans have chocolate, and cigarettes too. They might give us some”. I turned and continued walking, feeling rather glad to have the company. They were both well-built lads, and having them along made me feel protected. I took my hand away from the flick knife in my pocket, and let it swing at my side. If they knew I had such a nice knife on me, they would surely take it.
I was hot and bothered by the time we got to the sector border. Signs in many languages warned us not to leave the Russian sector. The main road was guarded by some soldiers standing around inside a wall of sandbags, but other than that we could see no physical barriers. Dieter asked to see my map again. Pointing to a road on the left, he said, “Down there, then turn right. Those Russkies won’t see us”.
Inside the American sector it seemed no different to where we had been before. If anything, the damage and desolation here was worse than where we had come from, and most of Kreuzberg appeared to have been flattened completely. Dieter spotted an old woman walking out of a shattered, roofless building. She had a bent back, and a thick scarf around her head, despite the sunshine. He ran across and spoke to her, showing her the paper.
“She couldn’t read it, bad eyes. But she told me where the street is. Follow me”.
They were on the lookout for American soldiers, bitterly disappointed that they hadn’t seen any. We almost missed the junction we needed, but the sight that greeted us was far from encouraging. I tried to remember the house I had been to when I was younger. To picture it standing on that street, next to rows of other identical well-kept houses leading to a factory at the end. But there was nothing there at all. Just an empty city block, the rubble cleared away already. And not a soul in sight to ask about Uncle Otto.
I decided to turn for home, but the brothers were not about to abandon their mission of searching for chocolate and cigarettes. They headed west, and waved as they walked off. Dieter called out to me through cupped hands. “Thanks for the wild goose-chase, Manfred”.
I retraced my steps, and all I could think about was how thirsty I was. But there were no people around to ask for a drink of water, and no house that looked as if anyone was living in it. I went through a broken door into the room beyond, nervously calling out “Hello, is anyone there? I just want a drink please”. At the back of the house, I found the remains of the kitchen, the heavy stone sink broken in pieces on the floor. Despite turning on the single tap to its full extent. all I could get was a slow drip.
I held my hands under it for a long time until I had enough to wet my mouth.
Tired and hungry when I got back to our room, I was upset to see the expectant smile on Mummy’s face. “Well, did you find him? Is the house still standing? Did you speak to him?” Inge was holding onto my leg. My little sister was also waiting to hear encouraging news. I shook my head, and mummy’s face fell.
“It was all gone, Mummy. Nothing there. Not a brick”.